Gardening With an Eye to Helping the Environment

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, October 18, 2008

There are many gardening practices you may not have thought about that can make a big difference in the health of the environment. Here are a dozen:

· There are some beautiful plants that thrive in this area because they are indigenous here and are used in appropriate conditions, meaning they require less involvement from gardeners. There are native plants for all mid-Atlantic locations, whether coastal dunes or brackish marshes, bog gardens or dry meadows or woodlands, or for use as ground covers. The University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service has a booklet, "Native Plants of Maryland: What, When, Where," that can be found on the Web at Click on the link "Publications" and then "Publications for Sale" to order the booklet for $5. Another very helpful guide for soils, plants and general landscaping resources is Envirothon References at

· Using native plants is a start, but smart water management is crucial, too. Use drip irrigation instead of sprinklers where possible. Sprinklers are notorious water wasters, but they are the best way to irrigate some plants and turf. Use them wisely. Place them so they don't water the sidewalk and don't water during the heat of the day. Be sure to control the amount of water so you don't lose it to runoff. Spot irrigation is a good alternative -- use a watering can or garden hose when you can.

· Set up a rain barrel to collect rainwater for use in the garden. Each barrel can hold 50 gallons or more. These can fill in minutes in an average rainstorm. You can buy them in a variety of styles and finishes for under $30 or you can spend hundreds depending on your requirements. Check out Rain Barrels and More at for a selection. It's a fairly easy weekend do-it-yourself project to make one. Use the Internet to learn how. There is an excellent how-to video produced by HGTV at

· Have your soil tested. If you know the analysis of your soil, you'll know what to do to improve it. This can greatly reduce the amount of fertilizer required for healthy plants, and it can help you regulate your water use. There are some soil characteristics you must determine on your own. For example, if the soil is light and sandy, it needs more organic matter. However, if it's thick and sticks together, it needs lightening with compost. If it's hard to even get a sample when it's damp, the soil is probably compacted and needs more compost. You can use a core sampler, knife or trowel to cut out a slice to send a sample for analysis to a soil-testing laboratory for a more complete evaluation. Call your local Cooperative Extension office or garden center to get this information.

· Keep the garden clean, but not too clean. Lightly shredded debris in your planting beds can stay, eventually becoming compost and conditioning the soil. Don't rake grass clippings. Break down leaves with a mower and leave them on the lawn. Only rake large accumulations and take them to your compost pile. Keeping your garden clean in this manner will reduce bacteria and fungi and discourage harmful insects, encouraging those that are beneficial. Buy seeds and plant material only from reliable sources. Determine which are reliable by talking with gardeners in your neighborhood who have beautiful gardens, getting recommendations from botanical gardens in your area and visiting garden centers and talking with staff about their quality control.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company