Today is Earth Day! How green is your garden? Get down to earth with these easy eco-friendly tips.
These days there’s new meaning to the words “green thumb”. Here, some ways to make your outdoor spaces a little greener this year.
1. Sow specialty seeds
Not all seeds are created equal. To start your plants off right, watch for heirloom, heritage and organic seeds. Organic seeds are untreated, come from organic sources, are open-pollinated and they don’t originate from genetically modified strains.
Heirloom and heritage seeds (most of which are organic too) preserve unpolluted varieties of plants and protect the “genetic gene pool” of native plant species. There are thousands of vegetables, herbs, flowers and ornamental plants in Canada. Companies that sell these types of seeds often encourage you to collect your own seeds at the end of the season and exchange them with other like-minded gardeners.
If you’re wondering what cultivars will work best in your garden, the Seeds of Diversity Heritage plant database has information on over 19,000 heritage plants in Canada.
2. Go organic
This label doesn’t just apply to food or seeds. Organic gardening is taking off as many gardeners want to get away from chemicals and dangerous pesticides for their own health as well as for environment. The goal is to help nature take care of itself with sustainable practices, whether you’re growing food, flowers or other greenery. In addition to using organic seeds, other techniques include:
– Improving soil quality using natural materials like manure and organic fertilizers (and skipping the peat too).
– Choosing disease-resistant plants and using seeds that come from disease-free parents.
– Rotating the types of plants grown in a particular area to prevent a build-up of disease organisms.
– Using mulch to prevent disease and retain moisture in the soil.
– Spacing plants to ensure good air circulation and cut down on disease spread.
– Using organic pesticides or herbicides and introducing natural predators to eliminate weeds and pests.
Organic gardening isn’t a one-season trend. It’s essential to look at the big picture in order to implement many of these techniques because it will take years to see the full effect. For more information, see the University of Missouri Extension’s Organic Gardening Techniques.
3. Compost it
Here’s another way we’re throwing away our money: According to the Composting Council of Canada, as much as 50 per cent of our waste is organic matter. These nutrient-rich materials go to waste in landfills — costing our communities money while we pay for commercial chemical fertilizers. In addition to food, yard waste and some materials like wood and tissue can also be “recycled”.
There are many good reasons to set up a composter in your yard. When the organic matter breaks down, it provides essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in forms that plants can easily use. The compost slowly releases these nutrients so they’re available when the plants need them, not in a one-time flush. In sandier soils, the organic matter will help retain precious moisture. It can also help suppress certain types of plant disease and weeds (and the earthworms like it too).
You can also make a “compost” tea using an old pillow case as the “bag” and spray it around plants for an extra boost.
For full details on the benefits and how to get started, see the Composting Council of Canada website.
4. Collect the rain
It’s more than just a water- and money-saving measure: plants love that warm, soft, oxygen-rich water that comes from the barrel instead of the cold, chemically-treated water that comes from your hose.
If you don’t already have one, now is the time to start looking because many municipalities are rolling out their annual rain barrel distribution programs. Watch for programs that coincide with Earth Day (late April) or environmental awareness events throughout the spring. If you’re willing to wait in line (and pay cash, if necessary) you can get a barrel for a lot less than heading to the local hardware store.
This year the trend is getting even bigger: Some cities are even offering the much larger rainwater tanks (complete with pumps) to a number of residents as part of pilot projects examining water conservation. To see if this option is available in your area or to find out when to get your rain barrel, visit your municipality’s website.
5. Resist the drought
Here are a couple of words to add to your garden vocabulary: Xeriscaping and xerogardening. Both terms refer to drought-tolerant or drought-resistant landscaping. The concept isn’t new, but there seems to be a renewed interest in plants and practices that use water more efficiently — even if it means impeding on the traditional grassy lawn. Opt for alternative gardens using stones and gravel or fuss-free ground cover to replace always-thirsty and weed-prone grass.
Even if rock gardens or unusual plants aren’t your thing, a sure-fire way to keep your garden looking great is to choose hardy plants that will survive and even thrive in dry and sunny conditions. The choice of plant will depend on what part of the country you live in, so it’s a good idea to talk to experts in your area to find out that’s a good fit. The best plant for any given area is one that won’t create a lot of fuss or extra work.
6. Invite pest-eating guests
While we’re attending to the flora in our backyard mini eco-systems, it’s important to not forget the fauna. Bird feeders and birdhouses are not only pretty to look at, but they encourage avian guests to come and feast on insects that can attack plants and trees.
And while they may not be as pretty, bats are quite effective at getting rid of unwelcome pests like mosquitoes. According to Bat Conservation International, bats feed on the insects that come out at night — and some species can eat hundreds of mosquitoes in just an hour. They’re also at risk because of the large amounts of pesticides in our environment and a lack of places to roost.
While experts note that bats won’t completely solve pest problems, they can be one component of pest management. It may sound creepy, but bat houses are one way you can encourage these natural allies to settle into your property.
For more information on bats and bat houses, see Bat Conservation International.
When it comes to eco-gardening, the main principles to remember are to conserve water and energy, choose plants and materials wisely and take a pass on chemicals and materials that are harmful or can’t be replaced.