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.
lKeep storm water on your land. This helps control runoff of chemicals and sediment into streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. Rain gardens are popular and practical methods of keeping water on your property. They are installed by creating a 10- to 24-inch depression toward the bottom of slopes. Dig an area about eight to 10 feet long and wide to collect rain. If the depression holds water for more than four hours, dig 10 to 15 inches deeper and provide an underdrain of gravel. Plant with native trees, shrubs and perennials that thrive in wet areas. A few choices for trees are sweetbay magnolia, river birch and red maple. Some appropriate shrubs are summersweet, Virginia sweetspire, southern bayberry and winterberry holly.
lControl the use of pesticides. Pesticide is a generic term for materials designed to kill insects, mites, weeds, fungi or algae. Employ natural remedies such as soap sprays and weed-pulling. Weed-Aside Herbicidal Soap, one of the fatty acid-based herbicides available, kills weeds and biodegrades in the soil. It is a nonselective weed killer that affects only the foliage. Always follow instructions on the label. Weed-Aside is labeled to control broadleaf weeds, annual grassy weeds, mosses, algae and lichens. Always use the least-toxic pesticide and encourage beneficial insects such as ladybugs and parasitic wasps. And only use pesticides when problems are beyond a tolerable level. Learn about pests to control them more safely.
lRecycle whatever you can. With proper drainage, some teapots and pans are perfect containers for plants. Save purchasing a scoop for potting soil and fertilizer by using carryout containers. Punch holes in the bottom of gallon jugs to water plants during droughts. Compost plant materials; reuse masonry for paths, patios, walls and drainage to keep the landfills from getting larger. Recycle scrap lumber to use for a fence. But do not reuse or burn lumber from old decks, fences, playground equipment or any pressure-treated wood structures from before 2008, because the wood was probably treated with chromated copper arsenate, which is poisonous.
lIncrease your food production. The local food movement has garnered much attention and is burgeoning daily. Plant more fruits, berries and vegetables locally and seasonally, decreasing the need for food importation to your area. Edible plants and herbs can be beautiful as flower beds or trained on trellises, arbors or other structures. Combine beneficial flowers such as marigolds, a natural insect repellent. Two resources are “Homegrown Harvest: A season-by-season guide to a sustainable kitchen garden,” Rita Pelczar, editor in chief (American Horticultural Society, 2009), and the 480-page New Encyclopedia of Gardening Techniques, edited by David J. Ellis, Fiona Gilsenan, Rita Pelczar and Graham Rice (Octopus Publishing, 2009).
lUse less energy and cut noise pollution. Disturb the land as little as possible with heavy machinery that uses fuel and compacts the soil. Build solid soil berms to reduce the din of highway sounds. Employ plants to provide shade and reduce cooling costs and windbreaks to reduce heating costs. Expend muscle power— not horsepower —whenever possible. Even small devices, such as hedge trimmers use nonrenewable energy.
lAssess plants before installing them by asking several questions. How much water is required? How much fertilizer and pesticide? How much electricity? How much gasoline or other fossil fuel? Consider altering your plan, if necessary, to reduce your garden’s carbon footprint and create a landscape design that offers a more-renewable and energy- efficient property.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md.