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Yesterday was officially Earth Day, but in reality, it should be an everyday event.
Sustainability is a key practice in maintaining an earth-friendly garden, and really, it means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. So, as gardeners, we must be very creative and thoughtful in our use of all materials and plants. Here is a reminder of things we can all do to improve the sustainability of our gardens.
Water consumption is one of the most critical issues. For those of us living in cities where water usage is restricted during hot summers, we need to be very resourceful, not only in our homes, but also in our gardens. Proper soil preparation and incorporating good moisture-retaining materials is step one. To ensure deep-rooting and to conserve moisture, mulching with compost or ‘non-herbicided’ grass clippings is a great way to go, particularly around shallow-rooted plants, like rhododendrons, azaleas and many cedars.
How we water is also very important. Where practical, drip systems are, by far, the most efficient way to water containers, baskets and planters. Soaker hoses are useful because they put water only at the root zones of plants and don’t waste it through evaporation. Hand watering with a hose that has a soft rain nozzle is also very effective.
Unless you have in-ground irrigation, lawns will require sprinklers, but here again, there are many efficient models that can be set to prevent overlapping onto driveways and sidewalks. Even during the warmest summer weather, a deep watering of our lawns, just once a week, should suffice.
Lawns can be allowed to turn brown without any use of water over the summer, but with recent heat domes, a weekly, deep watering is recommended as many lawns didn’t recover last year. It’s important to understand that lawns help cool our homes and gardens, as well as sequester carbon.
Water collection is also becoming more popular than ever before. Rain barrels, placed under the downspouts of eave troughs, are, perhaps, the most efficient means of collecting clean water. If you keep the barrels closed, there is little danger of them becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes. There are lots of other techniques to collect water, but the important thing is to conserve as much water as we can for our gardens.
Composting is an invaluable activity. Fully composted materials can be useful in so many ways. Small twigs, recyclable cardboard and newspaper can be composed along with grass clippings and other ‘green’ kitchen and garden waste. Make sure no animal waste or rotted meats contaminate your compost.
To keep the decomposing material loose, with good air pockets throughout, be sure to build a ‘layer cake’ of compost, adding soil to help separate potentially gooey, dense materials like wet grass and kitchen scraps. It will probably take about six months to break down your raw materials, so it’s a good idea to keep a few composters going at the same time. Composting is the ultimate form of recycling, and the resulting decomposed materials can be used beneficially almost anywhere in our gardens.
In the long run, organic nutrients from compost are the best way to feed your plants, because, if the right materials are used, the soil will ultimately replenish itself. Composting is a learned process. It doesn’t work quickly, but it provides great results, both for short-term crops, like vegetables and annuals, as well as long-term benefits for perennials, trees, shrubs and lawns. Fortunately, today, there is a large selection of organic alternatives for both indoor and outdoor plants. They are a little more expensive and work more slowly, but over time, they greatly enrich our soils, and benefit both our plants and all of us.
Today, the word pesticide is treated like some evil alien, when in fact it really means something used to control pests that do serious damage to our plants. We are finding more environmentally friendly alternatives for pest control, but keen observation and intelligent growing techniques are the very best controls.
It’s true that healthy, well-cared-for plants are the least susceptible to both insects and diseases, but it also comes down to choosing plants wisely. The philosophy of ‘right plant, right place’ should be a guiding principle because this concept, more than anything else, will minimize pest damage.
A key factor today is the many new plants being bred to have a high tolerance to both insect and disease problems. From rust fly-resistant carrots and blight-resistant tomatoes to blackspot, mildew-resistant roses and scab-free apples, there is a huge opportunity now to enjoy plants that have great pest tolerance.
The correct use of predatory insects and floating row covers make insect control far easier and more effective. Organic acetic acid (vinegar) concentrates are becoming more effective at weed control, and fatty acid soaps are proving more successful at controlling insects. We’re also getting better at attracting birds and other wildlife, like ‘good’ bugs, to our gardens, and they help us control mosquitoes and many other annoying insects.
Planting the right type of tree around our homes is still one of the most earth-friendly things we can do. By the right type, I mean a tree that is both more heat- and drought-tolerant and insect- and disease-resistant. Trees help cool our homes and neighbourhoods, as well as collect pollution and sequester carbon. They provide habitat for beneficial insects and birds, and open the soil to absorb heavy rainfalls.
It takes surprisingly little effort to change the way we garden, but truthfully, it’s time to become more sustainable and to make it a regular practice. We’ve taken so much from Mother Earth, it’s time to give back.