East Lansing at Home: Carla’s Garden

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Dylan Lees for ELi

A bouquet of lilies peek out from above the black-eyed Susan patch at Carla McWherter’s garden.

At first glance, Carla McWherter’s front yard looks like any ordinary front yard: flowers, trees, and bushes. But upon closer examination, you can see that it’s filled with other vegetation like berries, herbs, and vegetables.

McWherter’s garden is intended to strike a careful balance of aesthetics with eco-friendly practices that allow her to grow produce for her family and provide a pollinator-friendly environment.

Since tall trees block most sunlight from coming into McWherter’s backyard, her garden is located in the front yard. Given the limited size of her front yard, McWherter has faced obstacles and challenges with her gardening.

“Beyond figuring out what fits where, just keeping everything under control [is my biggest challenge],” McWherter said. “I have a picture in my mind that something is going to get a certain size, or the bag says it’s gonna be this big, but now it’s happy and suddenly twice as big, so just keeping all that under control [is hard].”

Because her garden is the front yard, she makes sure to keep it looking aesthetically pleasing by planting roses, daisies, peonies, black-eyed Susans, different clematis varieties, and hostas.

In order to keep her garden looking nice, McWherter pulls weeds, prunes, and puts down mulch. She also has a sprinkler system that waters the plants every few days.

Dylan Lees for ELi

Carla McWherter’s garden features easy-grow perennials with mulch that keeps down weeds. When weeds do grow in mulch, they are easier to pull out than in dirt or grass.

McWherter also composts to help sustain her garden. This means that kitchen scraps, fruits and vegetables that have over ripened, cut off ends, leaves, and grass all go into the two compost bins. After leaving it to decompose, she sprinkles the compost around the plants, putting extra around new plants. According to McWherter, the compost makes a difference in how well the plants do.

While she tends to her plants, she does everything she can to find the most environmentally friendly ways to care for her garden. When she has pest issues, she tries to use the least-toxic remedies that won’t disturb the pollinators. In the past, this has meant picking off bugs, washing plants off with soapy water or a hose, and using bacteria that is only harmful to the insects she’s targeting.

She also has a bee house attached to her house, and she makes sure that her garden is pollinator-friendly by having something blooming, usually fruit flowers, for as much of the season as possible.

Her approach stems from not only her understanding of pollinators and wildlife but also her desire to use the garden to harvest produce for her family.

Dylan Lees for ELi

Carla McWherter’s garden features a variety of pollinator-friendly perennials, including roses and coneflowers.

“Because we’re eating so much of this, and the kids are running in and out, I don’t want things to be off limits or be wondering about what’s in the food that we’re eating,” McWherter said.

After all the work of tending to the garden, she reaps the rewards. Her family eats strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blueberries, kiwi berries, elderberries, gooseberries, rhubarb, asparagus, honey berries, currants, and bergamot. She also uses herbs such as anise, mountain mint, chamomile, akinesia, oregano, lavender, lemon balm, and chives in her cooking and for teas. Additionally, she uses rose hips to make jelly and sometimes freezes or preserves the other fruits she grows.

But for McWherter, the gardening process itself is enough to make her happy. She likes when plants are successful, but what she really looks forward to is being able to confront a problem and finding a safe way to fix it.

“I research online and look through catalogs in the winter dreaming about what I’m going to do in the garden the next [summer],” McWherter said. “I’ve always really enjoyed gardening. I learned through trial and error throughout the years. It’s certainly been interesting.”

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