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MAILE ARNOLD'S TIPS FOR A NATURAL GARDEN

- Feed your soil generous amounts of compost. Yard waste such as autumn leaves, pruned rose branches (which should be run through a chipper) work well, or you can buy compost. The idea is to keep cycling nutrients back into the soil.

- Plant a mixed garden to attract beneficial insects. When you have a mixed landscape of flowers, fruits and vegetables, said Arnold, there’s less of a chance of pests taking over your garden.

- Pay attention to your garden and the health of your plants. If you buy a rose bush and it doesn’t do well, remove it.

- Don’t stir the soil with a shovel or rototill. Stirring kills the bacteria and fungi that make the nutrients in your compost available to plants.

If you’re a local gardener, chances are you’ve heard about landscape designer Maile Arnold and her magnificent, ever-evolving garden.

Hers is one of six Sebastopol gardens that will be featured May 15-16 by the Sonoma County Medical Association Alliance & Foundation’s (SCMAAF) 24th Annual Garden Tour. The theme is Gardens of Sebastopol: Natural Beauties.

“This year, every gardener on the tour is seasoned and most gardens are drought-tolerant and in harmony with nature,” said Gail Dubinsky, M.D., who’s chairing the tour.

The modern garden is sustainable and in harmony with nature, and Arnold is passionate about sustainable, organic gardening practices. She keeps her garden watered with an all-drip irrigation system, or “gray water,” which is recycled from her kitchen sink and washing machine. And you’ll never find Arnold using sprays in her garden.

“This lushness is not a result of fertilizer,” said 77-year old Arnold, who’s been gardening for 50 years. “I put back everything that grows.” When Arnold prunes her rose bushes, for example, the branches are run through a wood chipper and spread among her rose bushes. Feed the soil, she said, not the plants.

Arnold’s garden is like walking on the forest floor; her soil is loose and friable.

“You can garden here with your hands,” she said.

A fifth-generation gardener, Arnold learned from her grandmother, Una Walker, as a young girl in Hawaii and walked the garden with her every day.

“She had a huge garden with many different kinds of fruit. Everywhere you went picking and eating,” said Arnold. The University of Hawaii used her garden as a laboratory.

Arnold started her own garden in Sebastopol 38 years ago when she and her husband, Warren Arnold, a sculptor, moved from Berkeley into an 1870s vintage farmhouse. A portion of it was once a parking lot.

“The ground was depleted,” she recalled. “We hauled 100 cubic yards of horse manure to get the soil back to support healthy plants.”

Today, what was once a parking lot is now a rich combination of trees, flowering shrubs and perennials. Her garden covers two acres and, like her grandmother, Arnold’s garden serves as a laboratory for her work as a landscape designer to test plants for her clients. But it also produces an abundance of food and serves as a gallery to showcase Warren’s sculptures.

Arnold’s focus these days is attracting beneficial insects, particularly various wasps and tachinid flies (a specific family of flies) to control pests. Case in point: Arnold grows nearly 200 varieties of roses, which she plants with other perennials and thus, doesn’t need to spray to keep her roses healthy.

“Roses often have problems with aphids and rose chafers (a type of beetle), but thanks to the hungry beneficial insects, my rosebuds and foliage are clean,” she said. A pool on the property was filled in to make a home for a striking mass of flowers to attract beneficial insects, butterflies and hummingbirds.

While the ladybug is a common friend to gardeners, since they feed on aphids and soft-bodied insects, Arnold prefers wasps and tachinid flies. Ladybugs are good, but wasps and flies are most amazing, she explained. They’re predatory, and the small wasps are not interested in stinging people.

Arnold’s garden is a lovely paradise of flowering trees and shrubs, such as the crabapple tree and flowering quince. You’ll also find a variety of fruits and vegetables. In the winter, Arnold grows kale, parsley, beets, lettuce, cabbage, and kiwi. One of her favorite vegetables these days is a small, delicate Italian purple artichoke, which she likes to sauté in garlic and olive oil. In the summer, she grows green beans and black pear tomatoes (her favorite). Arnold uses concrete-block raised beds, rather than wood, because they last longer in the elements and contain calcium that permeates the soil.

You’ll find numerous unexpected touches in Arnold’s garden. There are lovely arches of roses, for example, because Arnold uses a British technique called “pegging,” which involves taking a long rose branch and pegging it to the ground, creating a hoop of flowers.

Then there are the espaliered apple trees. Espalier is an ancient agricultural practice that involves training the branches to grow into flat, two-dimensional forms.

“In Europe and New Zealand, all apples are grown this way,” she said. The technique produces more apples per acre, and they’re easier to pick.

And finally, you may see a Pipeline Swallowtail flutter by, since Arnold grows Dutchman’s Pipe, a deciduous, woody, climbing vine that typically occurs in the wild and is food for this endangered butterfly.

For more information about the tour or to buy tickets, visit scmaa.org. Proceeds from the tour will benefit West County Health Center’s Forestville Wellness Center and other programs serving local youth such as Health Careers Scholarships and Safe Schools.

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