How Green Is Your Garden?

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How Green Is Your Garden?

It’s easier than you think to create a healthier yard.

Homeowners are realizing the cost of expansive lawns in terms of water usage as well as expensive and environmentally unfriendly chemical fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. Plus the human time expenditure and fuel for lawn mowers, weed whackers, and leaf blowers.  People are also becoming more aware about the potential bad health effects of these chemicals on children and pets playing in their yards.

The answer lies in “beneficial landscaping,” that is, planning a yard to suit your environment while saving time and money, too. For instance, maintaining a wildflower patch costs less than 10 percent of the same area of lawn so the slightly higher installation cost of soil preparation and buying the flowers is quickly recovered.

A very effective first step to limiting chemicals is to downsize your lawn. If you are landscaping from scratch, minimize the lawn area by developing vegetable, herb, and flower gardens to provide fresh blossoms for your table and the freshest food possible for your kitchen.

Other attractive strategies include the use of groundcovers, wooded glens, or rock gardens. If you already have a lawn, leave parts of it un-mown to grow naturally into a meadow where wildflowers will eventually appear. Consider converting a section of lawn each year to groundcover or natural areas to save time and money in the long run. Use native plants as much as possible. They generally require less maintenance because they can basically fend for themselves. Already adapted to our climate, they are usually less susceptible to pests and require less water and fertilizer than purchased annuals.
Non-native plants require fertilizer and quick-acting fertilizers often result in weak plants, which are susceptible to pest attacks. Even worse, some fertilizers can build pest resistance in plants, destroy useful microbes in the soil, and run off into waterways.

Composting is an excellent alternative. Compost loosens soil, improves its water-holding capacity, and stabilizes nutrients so they feed your plants instead of being washed away. Compost is simply the end result of a mixture of organic materials—such as grass clippings and kitchen waste—put in a pile or box, kept moist, and mixed periodically. Natural decomposition heats the mixture up to 130-140 degrees, which kills pathogens and weed seeds, leaving behind nutrient-rich matter.

It’s easy to find an out-of-the-way corner for a compost pile on a large lot, but in a small yard, it can be a challenge. The compost boxes sold at garden stores may not have enough room to provide the requisite heating, and if you use material that hasn’t gone through the pathogen- and seed-destroying process, you might introduce pests to your garden. Compost can be purchased in solid or liquid form at a local gardening supply store.

Here are some nontoxic tactics to take in place of harsh pesticides:
- Rotate plants. Insects tend to favor specific plants, and their life cycles mean larvae or eggs are often in the ground waiting to attack. Thwart them by changing plants location annually.
- Set insect traps. Pests can’t build up a resistance to them. Traps usually use pheromones or food to attract the pests they target, so keep traps away from the gardens they are protecting.
- Handpick and dispose of larger pests.
- Use feeders and a water source to attract pest-snacking birds as your allies.
- Plant marigolds, garlic, and horseradish, which are known to repel pests.
- Apply sticky barriers (like Tanglefoot), insecticidal soaps, or horticultural oils that suffocate pests.
- Use an insect field guide to get acquainted with beneficial insect predators such as ladybugs and praying mantises and protect them.
- Employ biological agents such as nematodes, milky spore, or a bacillus. Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) attacks the digestive systems of certain insects, but it is harmless to humans, pets, and beneficial insects. BT can control mosquito larvae in a backyard pond without harming the tadpoles that will become bug-munching frogs. In addition, BT can be used on vegetables up to within one day of harvest because there are no residuals.

With a little study and effort, homeowners can cut back on chemicals and still enjoy a healthy, vibrant yard.

Marilyn Pribus and her husband live near Charlottesville where they rely on birds and “good bugs” to control plant pests.

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