If you’re looking for expert yard care advice, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more qualified than Laura Matter.
Since her earliest years, Matter has been surrounded by gardeners: Her father loved flowering shrubs, her mom grew roses and vegetables, and she has fond memories of picking blackberries with her grandmother. She says her biggest influence was probably her Girl Scout troop leader, who was an avid gardener.
As a teenager, Matter started tending to people’s gardens while studying botany at a Seattle-area alternative high school. She continued honing her green thumb in college, where she studied landscape horticulture, botany, ecology, and plant physiology. Later she was employed as a gardener for Seattle City Light, then she ran her own landscaping business for years.
For the past 16 years, Matter has worked as a program manager for the Tilth Alliance. Her work includes overseeing the Garden Hotline, a collaborative effort supported by a coalition of local agencies, including the Haz Waste Program, Seattle Public Utilities, the Saving Water Partnership, the Cascade Water Alliance, and RainWise.
Guided by Matter’s expertise and years of hands-on experience, the Garden Hotline offers education, information, and resources to greenskeepers of all interests and skill levels. The program organizes gardening classes and events across King County, partnering with community organizations like Mother Africa, World Relief, Casa Latina, and others to spread their knowledge of natural yard care practices across different neighborhoods, cultures, and languages.
Additionally, Matter estimates the Garden Hotline gets anywhere from 5,000 to 11,000 queries from local yard-minders each year by phone and email. The questions vary widely, and they change from season to season. Matter says a lot of questions boil down to a desire to cultivate a flawless lawn.
But after decades of designing and fostering countless yards – including her own – this seasoned natural gardening pro wants everyone to know that a perfect plot isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“A lot of our answers have to do with, you know, accepting some damage,” she says. “Keeping a monoculture lawn is very difficult to do. There are so many weeds blown around, and there are some important pollinators, like leaf cutter bees, that cause damage to your plants. So we try to talk to people about having a little bit of leeway to have some things in your lawn.”
Matter also promotes the value of using environmentally friendly methods to nurture more resilient yards.
“The way we teach people to garden is to use nature and make it work to your benefit. Find places that have microclimates in your yard and grow the right things for the habitat. Water at the right time of day. Understand what the lifecycles of your pests are, whether they're an insect, a weed, or a disease, so that you can interrupt the lifecycle somewhere – that’s what a pesticide does, and we're just trying to do that naturally.”
Of course, some gardening questions are asked more often than others. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions to the Garden Hotline according to Matter, along with her answers.
What do I do with moss?
There are a few things that moss needs to grow, and if you change conditions, you'll have less of it. Moss needs compaction, shade, poor nutrition and high acidity in the soil, and lots of moisture. So if you have those conditions, you're most likely going to have moss. Sometimes that means reducing your lawn space or not trying to grow grass where it doesn't belong – in the shade, for instance. If it’s in a shrub bed, it doesn't matter. Be tolerant and just grow with the climate.
Moss is ubiquitous in the Northwest, and it’s important for the ecosystem. For example, it’s a really important component of bird nests. A hummingbird nest is built of moss, lichen and spider silk. Chickadees and lots of lots of little cavity nesters will use moss as part of their nesting, too. So it's important to have if you like to have birds in your yard. You want to have things they can use and harvest and eat and make nests with.
How do I keep moles away?
There are things you can do to sort of discourage them, but most mammals are really difficult to control. The Garden Hotline often redirects people to the Living with Wildlife page on the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife website. There are rules and regulations about how you can manage animals, whether you can trap them or not.
Moles are actually not hurting your plants, per se. They are going to cause some cosmetic damage to your lawn and disrupt it. But in a shrub bed, they don't do a lot of damage. When it gets hotter they go deeper, because they get into cooler soil to find insects. That's why you see them so much more in the spring.
How do I get rid of bugs?
We get a lot of questions about pests and insect damage. Aphids in particular are everywhere, on everything. But there are lots of ways to manage them. They’re soft-bodied; you don't need to spray them with chemicals at all, and there's lots of predators that eat them. So focus on how to attract beneficial insects to your yard, like lady beetles, parasitoid wasps, some hoverflies, and lacewings. It's important to know what those insects and their eggs look like so you're not killing them. If you spray a pesticide, you're killing your good bugs, so avoid doing that.
How much should I water?
That's an impossible question to give an exact answer. It depends what kind of soil you have, what kind of exposure it's getting, what kind of plants are growing. All of those factors make a difference as to how often you need to water.
You have to feel the soil to know if it's time to water. That means digging down a couple inches, and if it’s cool and moist down there, you’re good. And when it’s time to water, water deeply to encourage deeper roots, which will be more beneficial to the plants. They can withstand drought better if their roots are deeper because then they can get to some groundwater.
If you’re ever out in the yard and need a sprig of advice, all you have to do is pick up a phone. The Garden Hotline’s team of five experts (including Matter) answer questions Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can get in touch at 206-633-0224 or via email. They also share helpful tips and updates on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and X (formerly known as Twitter).