Roots and Shoots: Five Years of Plants and Friends

By Pamela Doan

My word count exceeds my gardening successes, and that’s OK.

Happy fifth anniversary, readers! Here are some highlights of my favorite subjects, things I’ve learned, and people I’ve been able to meet since this column debuted on March 22, 2013.


You could dig a hole, drop in a seed or plant and wait. Results will vary. Results always vary when it comes to growing things, but understanding how soil feeds plants and how most soils have been degraded gives your plant better odds. Start gardening by learning how to feed the soil and the rest is much easier. My first column was about soil and in the past five years I’ve come to see the work and science around soil with a new appreciation. Do your plants a favor and add a couple inches of compost this season.

Climate change

On the same subject, soil is also one of the most important tools we have in our yards to be more conscious of our carbon footprint. Soil holds carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. The healthier the soil, the better it sequesters carbon. Want to lower your carbon footprint? Grow better plants.

Our landscapes aren’t just yards and lawns, they’re part of an ecosystem and our choices decide what lives and what dies.

A favorite garden photo from last summer shows butterflies visiting Asclepias tuberosa (a native milkweed). (Photo by P. Doan)

I recently saw a statistic that suburban lawns are doused in more pesticides than farmers use in agriculture. This year’s alarm from the ecology researchers is about significant losses of all insect populations and it’s easy to see the connection. Pollinators like bees and butterflies have been making headlines for more than a decade now because of drastic population drops.

The list of threats and challenges for many of the species we may barely notice in the landscape is too numerous to list here. Plant choices can create sterile environments that don’t have any value for birds, insects and wildlife or can be rich with sources of food, water and shelter. Native plants are always a good bet since they evolved in our landscapes with the other creatures that depend on them.

Japanese barberry

My wooded acres are overrun with this thorny, demon shrub. Since it’s also a haven for ticks, it’s a health issue as well. My view will go green soon as it leafs out before anything, blocking sunlight that will prevent anything else from sprouting around it. Goats may be the answer. Stay tuned.


I still have to look up a woody plant’s growth habits to know when and how to prune and always will.

Community gardens

I’d always wanted to join a community garden when I lived in Brooklyn and there was a waiting list. When Miriam Wagner reached out to me about the community garden on Elizabeth Healy’s property, I signed up for it as I was interviewing her. I met lovely people, got to see lovely plants, and appreciated seeing the diverse approaches and styles of all the gardeners.

Always learning

It’s my job to ask people questions and learn. That’s my favorite part of garden writing.

I’ve met incredibly interesting people who inspire me constantly. There’s so much to know about plants and it’s imperative that we understand what’s happening with climate change. The intelligence of the questions that are being explored by researchers and through citizen science efforts gives me hope in this staggeringly complicated time of rapid change in the natural world.

We’re fortunate to have innovative projects and organizations locally such as Scenic Hudson, Constitution Marsh, the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Lower Hudson Partnership for Invasive Species Management, the Cary Institute and Riverkeeper, to name a few.

Sharing stories

Writing a column about gardening brings your interests front and center and it’s a pleasure to share stories.

I’ve met so many great people who I instantly have a connection with through gardening. Thank you to current and future friends for the questions, suggestions and curiosity. You can always reach me at [email protected].

To browse past columns, click here.

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