By Jane Milliman
Gardeners naturally care about the earth and our environment, but sometimes we feel small and helpless in the face of a big issue. Take heart! There are lots of little things each of us can do to make a difference.
Fertilizer runoff is a big problem. Excess nutrients leach from the soil and eventually reach— and pollute—our rivers, lakes, and oceans. How to reduce your output? You can start by making your lawn smaller.
No one is saying you shouldn’t have a grassy area where kids and dogs can play—and a gorgeous lawn is a beautiful thing. But depending on where you live and what your needs are, you can replace some of that turf with shrubs and trees, or even let it grow wild around the edges. When I last visited England, meadows were all the rage within the structures—and just outside the walls—of formal gardens such as Great Dixter and Sissinghurst.
Want to save water? It’s thrifty … and good for the planet. You can hook a rain barrel right up to a gutter and attach a spigot at the bottom. Your orchids will thank you—they absolutely thrive on rainwater.
When using a sprinkler, attach a timer. Make sure it’s set to go off in the morning, when more water reaches the roots and less evaporates in the hot sun. A good practice is to water about an inch a week when rain is scarce. Measure how long that takes by marking an inch on a small container and placing that within the sprinkler’s range. In planting beds, a couple of inches of mulch can make a big difference in soil moisture retention.
Putting the right plant in the right place reduces the need for fertilizer and water. That could mean using natives, or perhaps plants that thrive in your particular microclimate. Notice what looks effortlessly good in your neighbors’ gardens.
For instance there’s no point in my trying to grow mophead hydrangeas in upstate New York, while they’re practically weeds where my mother lives in coastal Maine (one zone colder). Here, at the height of summer, they need water every single day or they melt, and there’s no keeping them blue without chemical intervention. But give me some Annabelle, oakleaf, or PeeGee hydrangeas, and I’ll just plop ’em in and walk away.
Composting keeps waste out of landfills, and nutrients in your garden, where they belong. You can compost even if you only have a small yard. One of my favorite tricks is to bury weeds and plant trimmings right in the garden, so they can decompose. And there’s no better compost starter (or winter mulch) than autumn leaves that have been run over by a lawn mower a few times.
Feed the bees. Our gardens and farms need bees and other pollinators to thrive, and you can use plenty of plants to attract them. In the Northeast, think crocuses, hyacinths, bee balm, borage, foxgloves, cosmos, zinnias, hostas—all common, readily available plants. For trees and shrubs try basswood (also known as linden), cherry, quince, black locust, crabapple, and my favorite, the seven-son flower tree (Heptacodium).
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