Now is the time to formulate your spring garden plans. Before you choose the plants you will install this year— or design the entire landscape—consider the ways you could make your gardens more productive and environmentally friendly. Here are some suggestions:
l Enhance your garden with self-sustaining native plants. Sustainable landscapes are practical. They save energy, money and labor. Creating a landscape design that takes care of itself might require a little more thought and effort in the beginning, but as you learn how plants perform, the results are better for the environment. Ecologists have determined that installing native plants in soil high in organic material reduces maintenance and increases rainwater retention. Once natives are established and growing, they can endure most conditions without synthetic chemicals, fertilizer or irrigation. In addition, insects that depend on native plants are important food for wildlife. Each of these points is just a part of the larger picture called sustainable living. Search for native plants that are already adapted to local growing conditions.
lInstall a wide variety of flora to encourage biodiversity for a balanced environment where wildlife will want to live because it offers food, shelter and nesting opportunities. One common request I receive is for plants that attract birds. They like blueberry, dogwood, hawthorn, holly, beautyberry, blackgum, serviceberry and viburnum. Mammals such as deer, fox, raccoon, squirrel and groundhog are attracted to brush piles where they can see you but they can hide, nest and feed without danger of detection by owls, hawks, foxes, raccoons and other predators.
Squirrels and chipmunks love nuts and seeds from beech, cherry, hickory, oak and walnut trees. Don’t forget our helpful insectivores —bats and frogs. They eat massive numbers of insects and must have good nesting areas, which require specialized conditions. Bat habitats are excellent high in trees or urban forests, but they need a protected location. This is why caves or bat boxes on tall trees are so desirable. Frogs feed on moth larvae, grubs mealworms and crickets. Tree frogs are kept as pets, but they should be free to create natural habitats. And, let’s not forget some of our best mousers — snakes and birds of prey.
lRestore the soil to a healthy condition. Amending the soil with homemade compost, other organic material or leaf mold does this. Using your own composted organic material is best. This saves energy because you are not using a truck that requires gas and oil to haul it to you. Another benefit is the exercise you get from incorporating it into the soil. Organic material mixed into the earth’s minerals forms the substance called topsoil. It takes nature 100 to 1,000 years to make an inch of properly mixed topsoil. It is this medium that causes flora to root deeply and thrive.
lCollect rainwater to clean tools, decks, a patio and cars, as well as to irrigate plants. Rain barrels are excellent receptacles for collecting rainwater. Low-lying areas or spaces near downspouts are good places to install plants with high water needs. Collect water from the condensate line of your air conditioner and from dehumidifiers. Irrigate your plants with “gray water,” such as bath and dish water and water used for cooking pasta or vegetables. It can be poured around the roots of plants. Do not collect water that contains bleach, automatic dishwashing detergent or fabric softener.