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Sustainable Gardening

Imagine a yard filled with multiple lush gardens of plants growing closely together. They are happy, independent plants because they are growing in the right spot, mulched-in and fed compost. Perennial flowers give you big smiles of bloom drawing in butterflies to dance about them. The gardens don’t need that much water. And, double triple bonus, the gardens do not need to be mowed.

That is what a sustainable yard looks like. It’s that simple and can really be summed up with the old saying, “waste not want not.” If we step fully into the mindset of conserving and protecting our natural resources, so we have adequate resources in the future, we become sustainable gardeners. To get there, reduce lawn size by adding tightly planted garden beds, conserve water, reuse what you can, and nurture soil and wildlife by using natural products.

While lawn is iconic in our American culture, it is wasteful of resources on multiple levels.
To maintain lawns in the pristine nature that we are accustom to, they require heavy fertilization and sometimes, herbicides. These products waste scarce resources and money. Not to mention the damage they do to water resources and wildlife. Lawns waste water because they require water during dry spells. Mowing burns fossil fuel and is wasteful of our time.

Take a minute and ask yourself how you use your yard. If you can reduce the amount of grass you need by adding gardens, consider that a positive step toward sustainability.
“Reduce the size of your lawn. You'll be rewarded with a spring show of awakening plants,” said Penn State Master Gardener Lori Hegedus of the benefits of sustainable gardening, “Visits of birds and butterflies will be entertainment instead of the invasion of a loud lawn mower. The silence will allow you to hear the buzz of a bumble bee.”

Another key component of sustainable gardening is conservation of water. Proper mulching, watering and good plant selection make this easy. Mulching between plants holds moisture in the soil by protecting soil from sun and wind.

Water use can be reduced by understanding the type of plants you need for each specific place in your garden. If you have an elevated area with rocky soil, to garden sustainably, you’ll need to search out plants that grow well in dry soil. If you have a shady area at the base of tree roots, you need to do your homework and find plants that grow well in dry shade.

“Sustainable gardening is all about keeping it simple,” said Hegedus. “Spending the time upfront and selecting the proper plant for a given location will reduce the amount of maintenance required. When planning your gardening, think about the amount of time you want to spend on maintenance.”

Understanding how much rainfall your garden actually gets, helps with conservation and can prevent overwatering. Find out how much rainfall is expected annually in your region and measure your actual rainfall. A rain gauge makes that possible. If your garden in your zone should get an inch of water per month, and it has, let it go. Don’t water. The exception to this might be newly planted gardens, containers, and some water loving crops like blueberries.

If watering is a must, try using water from a rain barrel or dehumidifiers, and water sensibly.

“Water in the morning and use the most direct method. A sprinkler on a hot day can lose almost half the water to evaporation,” said Hegedus, “With sprinklers, the water doesn’t get to where it’s needed. Using a drip hose or hand watering ensures the most water is delivered directly to where it is needed.”

Sustainable gardening does not mean giving up on a few battles we all wage in our gardens. Gardeners encounter pesky pests that make lace of your prized foliage plants. We dig into soil with complete lack of nutrient and organic matter. Drought hits us and our poor plants bend from lack of water.

Benevolently, the tools you use to protect and nurture your plants also are those that wage the war against the obstacles that plants fight. Mulch holds in water while fighting weeds. Planting your flowers and vegetables close together prevents weeds while conserving space and water.

“Crowd weeds out! Let a few coneflowers become a patch of coneflowers, and watch the finches flock to your yard as the seeds ripen,” said Hegedus.

Composting is the penultimate of “waste not, want not.” Composting is so cool that you can even come to see weeding as something beneficial. Weeding becomes harvesting green matter for your compost pile. How circular is that?

“Composting is the ultimate example of sustainable gardening. All the would-be waste is sent to the compost pile and with time, transforms into a free source of food for the garden,” said Hegedus.
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Gardening Tip of the Day

  • When planting spring-blooming bulbs in the fall, make sure not to plant them too shallow. If not planted at the depth stated on instructions, bulbs may freeze or emerge too soon in the spring before the roots have fully developed. Blooms will be stunted or too low to the ground. In areas with colder winters, cover bulb beds with pine needles, straw, leaf humus, or other mulch for winter protection. Remove mulch in the spring as bulbs begin to emerge.