Photo courtesy Penn State Live
One of my goals is to garden in a way that causes no harm to our planet and its inhabitants. To this end, I use sustainable methods that 'add to' the earth rather than 'taking away' from it. These practices include using compost, applying fewer chemicals, conserving water, removing invasive plant species, and growing native plants. If you follow some of the earth-friendly gardening procedures that I describe, you will reap (pardon the pun) numerous benefits.
Compost enriches the quality of soil in your garden and lawn, increases water retention, and adds nutrients. It is simple to make from organic materials such as plants, weeds, prunings, lawn clippings, leaves, vegetable and fruit scraps, and paper items. A good mix consists of two parts 'browns', for example dead leaves, and one part 'greens', such as fresh grass clippings.
Do not compost diseased plants, plants that have gone to seed, meat and dairy products, vegetables cooked with animal fats, or human or pet feces.
The process can be as simple as making a heap of yard waste and allowing it to decay or you can use a compost bin. A circle of wire fencing works well -- for leaves especially. You can wire old wooden pallets together, or purchase a plastic bin with holes in the sides to allow air transfer.
Compost is formed when microbes such as bacteria and fungi 'feed' on the carbon and nitrogen in organic matter. The microbes need water and oxygen so it is important to keep your pile as damp as a wrung-out sponge and to break up large pieces, turning it frequently to ensure air reaches the center. One of my compost bins is a rotating barrel that facilitates the turning process. Locate your pile or bin on a level spot near the garden and a water source, in sun or shade.
Your compost is ready for use when it looks dark and crumbly and none of the starting materials are visible. Use your 'black gold' as a mulch or top dressing, as a soil amendment before planting, or as a potting soil additive.
Use Fewer Chemical Fertilizers, Pesticides, and Herbicides
I use an integrated pest management approach (IPM) that includes the following non-chemical control strategies for pests and diseases:
- Learn to tolerate some damage. This can be difficult if, like me, you want your garden to look perfect, but most plants can tolerate 20-30% leaf defoliation.
- Wait for the predators to arrive. Don't be alarmed by aphids feeding in the spring; ladybugs and other natural predators usually clean up the infestation in a month or so.
- Spray with water. Try spraying with a strong water stream to dislodge aphids and mites.
- Remove and dispose of badly damaged plants. Removal may minimize the problem on adjacent plants and prevent recurrence.
- Till in late fall or early spring. Tilling disrupts the habitats of pests in plant debris.
- Hand pick. Pick off insects such as Japanese beetles and drop them into a jar of soapy water. Do this for egg masses, also.
- Choose pest resistant plants. Check the label on new plant purchases for resistance or tolerance to pests and diseases.
- Rotate crops. Move your vegetables around your garden beds so they are not planted in the same spot each year.
- Use barriers. Exclude pests with floating row covers, paper collars (for cut worms), and diatomaceous earth (for slugs.)
- Do not over fertilize. Aphids and spider mites create more offspring on over-fertilized plants.
- Hand-pull weeds. Hand pull or hoe weeds while they are seedlings.
- Monitor your plants. Check your plants weekly for problems, being sure to flip leaves over and examine the undersides. With regular monitoring you can catch most problems before they get out of hand. To sum up, IPM means managing problems by using physical and cultural methods first and applying a least-toxic pesticide as a last resort.
You may be surprised to learn that nearly 30% of our daily water use goes on our lawns and gardens. There are several ways to save water:
- Add water barrels. Place a barrel under a downspout to collect water from the roof when it rains; save the collected rainwater for the plants in your yard during the hot summer months. Since rain barrels reduce the amount of water that runs off your property, less pollutants (such as motor oil residue, road salt, and fertilizers and pesticides from lawns) are carried to our local streams and rivers.
- Reduce lawn areas. You can cut down on maintenance and the use of chemicals and water by reducing the amount of lawn that covers your property. Some turf is desirable for children, pets and other activities but you can make a difference by replacing some of your lawn with native plants, groundcovers, ornamental grasses, or by creating a wildflower meadow.
- Use mulches. A two to three inch layer of mulch helps the soil retain water while suppressing weeds, and protecting against temperature extremes. In addition, mulch reduces soil erosion and crusting while increasing water penetration into the soil. Mulch enhances your garden's appearance. Gardeners cultivate mulched soil less frequently, this is important as we now know that less cultivation of the soil is better. You can mulch with shredded leaves, pine needles, or small rocks. Ground covers such as sedums make great mulches. There are several bark mulches available -- I use cedar because it contains a chemical that limits bacterial and fungal growth. Straw is suitable for the vegetable garden. Apply mulch for winter protection in late fall, once the soil has cooled but before it has frozen. Then reapply in mid-spring once the soil has warmed.
Remove Invasive Species and Restore Native Plant Communities.
Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), and bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) are some invasive species of plants that abound in the Poconos. They compete with and outgrow surrounding plants. Invasive species can upset the delicate balance of a local ecosystem and even make some native plants extinct, therefore it is important to remove the invasive species and restore native plant communities.
Native plants generally require less fertilizer and other additives. They encourage native wildlife such as pollinators. Some native plants that thrive in our area are columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), butterfly weed (Asclepias tubero), turtlehead (Chelone 'Hot lips'), Joe pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata), liatris (Liatris spicata), and beebalm (Monarda didyma.)
Your garden is your private space but it is also part of the world. Practicing sustainability is the right thing to do.