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Southern California Gardening: Tread Lightly on the Earth

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Treading lightly on the Earth means being a good steward of the land—protecting soil, air, and water—while also caring for plants and wildlife.

Earth, soil, and water

By Evelyn Alemanni

Footprints in mud

We have only one earth, so we need to take care of the land, air, and water (hopefully doing a good enough job to avoid the brushfires typical of Southern California). It also means minimizing our environmental footprint. Ideas for taking care of all the elements are often interconnected. Take care of one and you may be making a difference in two or more.

As a practical matter, “Tread on the earth lightly” is great advice to take right after a good, soaking rain. You really don’t want to tread on the earth then, because you can easily compact the soil and prevent good plant growth later.

Homemade compost

When we think about soil, ideas such as composting come to mind. Composting offers a number of benefits. For one thing, we save landfill space and cut down on emissions because garbage trucks don’t need to make as many trips.

From a gardener’s standpoint, composting garden and vegetative kitchen waste improves soil and adds beneficial microbes, so plants grow better. Amended soil is better at holding precious moisture too.

When we think about air quality, even landscape lighting makes a difference. Consider using solar-power LEDs to avoid using commercially generated power that may burn fossil fuels.

Lawn converted to meadow

Good to Know: Lawn care equipment can contribute to air pollution. Reducing our lawn areas can result in less mowing (which cuts down on air pollution), and also less need to fertilize and irrigate.

Use a broom instead of a blower to clean sidewalks and patios. It’s quieter and more environmentally friendly. Never use a hose to wash down sidewalks. It’s a water waster—and illegal in some areas.

Another way to reduce energy use is to plant trees. They can shade our homes in summer, reducing the need for air-conditioning. They also stabilize soil, soak up rainwater, and remove and store carbon from the air.

Honeybee on a rose

Consider replacing part of your lawn with wide pathways, which enable more rainwater to percolate into the soil. Also, consider replacing some or all of your lawn with a meadow that includes wildflowers to satisfy pollinators such as bees and butterflies. If your city permits, you can even install beehives.

Good to Know: Read the labels on pesticides to be sure you don’t spray anything harmful to bees. Apply according to label directions and only on calm days, preferably early in the morning, when bees are less active.

Rain barrel as a planter.

Evaluate the amount of concrete and asphalt around your home. Can you remove some of it to create planting areas and allow more water to enter the soil rather than run off into a storm sewer? Remember, you can fill planting areas with drought-tolerant cacti, succulents, and stone mulch.

Rain barrels play an important role in conserving our precious water. Be sure to connect several to your downspouts, so when those infrequent Southern California rains occur, you can capture as much water as you can.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a creek, stream, lake, or other water source, minimize fertilizer use within 200 feet of the water to prevent fertilizer from entering the watershed during rain. This can cause algae growth, and potentially harm fish and other aquatic life.

Native ceanothus.

When adding plants to your garden, consider those native or well-suited to our climate. For example, moisture-loving tropical plants require more water than we can typically provide; so avoid them, if possible. Once established, many natives, such as ceanothus, right, need no summer water and no fertilizer, saving time and money. They also provide food for pollinators and birds.

When we tread lightly on the earth, every day is Earth Day.