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Eco-Friendly Gardening

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Native Plants

“Plant native” is an oft-repeated phrase in the world of ecologically friendly gardening, but not without reason.  Greenhouses, catalogs, and the internet give gardeners the ability to find plants from all over the world to put in their landscape, provided they can survive the climate.  There are hybrid and hardy varieties of warmer weather plants that are able to withstand the cooler temperatures of other regions.  On the one hand, this means that people are able to enjoy plants from places that they might not ever visit personally, as well as a greater variety in the garden; on the other, it can disrupt ecosystems that aren’t prepared to support non-native plants, especially if they prove invasive.

Before kudzu ruled the southeast, it was living happily in Japan and China where it was discovered to be useful source of food and medicine.  It was introduced to Pennsylvania in the late 1800s, and used to control erosion and feed livestock.  It has now trampled seven million acres of grass, trees, vehicles, and buildings underfoot.  To put it into perspective, that is roughly 10, 938 square miles (our home state of Maryland is about 12,407 square miles).  Sadly, this is just one unfortunate example of what an invasive plant can do.  There are scores of exotic plants choking out native wildlife across the US, and in countries around the world.  Wildlife and plant life in an ecosystem work hand-in-hand, so when one is suffering, so is the other.  An invader could kill off food and shelter for valuable pollinators, or for a particular insect or animal that is itself a food source for larger creatures.   Planting non-native species doesn’t always result in this kind of havoc, but you can stop the risk altogether by opting to stick to native gardening.

Native plants are naturally suited to your growing region, meaning that you will receive immediate benefits in the time and money department when they’ve established themselves.  These plants will not require much in the way of soil amendments, watering, and maintenance since they are adapted to survive in your soil and rainfall already.  Wildlife will rejoice in your adding so many of their favorite foods, homes, and hiding spots to your yard, and you can expect to see a few new residents after you’ve planted.  Best of all, your plants will maintain the natural balance of your region, and will never grow and reproduce so rapidly or aggressively that they could hurt other plants.  Planting native may create competition for wild plants, but it creates fair competition.

Rain Garden

Runoff from flat manmade structures puts a lot of pressure on the environment.  Stormwater runoff can drag pollutants and nutrients into natural water that damage wildlife and cause massive algae blooms.  In areas where there are many roads or other impervious surfaces, there might be flooding in creeks and streams, resulting in serious erosion over time.  Conversely, you could also expect to see periods of drought since rain can’t drain into the soil to keep it moist.  Managing stormwater runoff is essential to the health of our soil and water, and subsequently every living thing on the planet. 

In an effort to curb damage done to the environment from runoff, many are choosing to install rain gardens on their property.  A rain garden is a shallow bed in a depression in the landscape.  It is typically dug in a low point, following a natural slope, or in an area were runoff can collect from a downspout, driveway, or roof.  The bed is filled with native plants that can form deep and healthy roots in a region’s particular soil, and in an area of soil that is suited for quick and easy drainage.  When runoff drains into a rain bed, it is absorbed into the roots and soil quickly, and filtered of nutrients and pollutants.  A rain garden can filter your rain water, help to retain moisture in the soil, prevent pooling or flooding, and can make your yard more attractive.  Who knew your flowerbed could do so much?

Rain Barrels

If you have a downspout and even a single blade of grass that needs watering, you should have a rain barrel.  Rain barrels are incredibly easy to install, and can put a serious dent in your water bill during the growing season.  Rain barrels are large watertight and covered containers that collect water runoff from roofs for use on the landscape, reducing the amount of rainwater getting into storm drains, and allowing you to conserve water by using the rain to maintain your plants. 

Rain barrels can be purchased at almost any gardening or landscape supply store.  If you have a large drum already, you can make a rain barrel cheaply by purchasing a small conversion kit to transform it.  If you do some research, it may be possible in your area to obtain a rain barrel free or at a reduced or rebated price from local conservation organizations. 

Green Roofing

Green roofing has been around for centuries, but has gotten particularly popular in modern cities where one might have to bus or walk several blocks before seeing much greenery.  Green roofs are both a method to introduce vegetation in crowded urban areas and a means of alleviating stress put on the environment, buildings, and infrastructure caused by heat spikes and runoff.  A green roof is a planting area installed directly on top of a drainage layer and an impervious membrane on the roof of a building.  These can be either extensive, like a shallow layer of soil planted with grasses or moss, or intensive, featuring a deeper growing medium and a variety of plants, including trees!  On the surface, green roofs provide a welcome splash of life and color in cities filled with tall buildings and asphalt, but those that have them know that they serve a much more serious purpose.

Walking through a large parking lot or amusement park during the middle of summer can make you feel like you’re walking on the surface of the sun—this is because when temperatures are hot, pavement, roofs, and other manmade structures can rocket to 50-90 degrees higher than the air (EPA.gov).  In urban areas, this means the temperature overall can be 22 degrees higher than in surrounding neighborhoods (EPA.gov).  This is called urban heat island effect.  Heat waves raise the risk of heat stroke, dehydration, and other serious heat-related health problems.  The consumption of energy for air conditioning and indoor activities to combat this increases, along with the amount of associated pollutants dumped into the environment.  Rain water runoff in urban areas is high, and when it flows from hot roofs and hot pavement, it can raise the temperature in surrounding water sources and damage the water ecosystem.  Luckily, green roofs can help.

Installing a green roof can extend the life of roofing materials by protecting them from the elements.  It can also help to regulate temperatures within the building on which it is installed, particularly in hot weather.  The soil and plants act as an insulator, keeping the temperatures inside of a building cool and reducing the demand for electricity.  As we’ve learned, storm water runoff can have a terrible impact on water ecosystems, and green roofs can reduce the amount of rain water getting to them.  Plants and soil will absorb much of the water that hits the roof, and what does make it to the street hasn’t been boiled on a hot surface.  The plants are also able to filter pollutants in the water and the air.  Green roofs can save you money on your electric bill, protect your health, and reduce damage done to the environment.

Composting

Composting harnesses the natural process of decomposition to produce highly nutritious growing material for your landscape or garden.  Every household produces organic kitchen, yard, and household waste every day that typically ends up in the trashcan.  By starting a compost bin, you are able to transform garbage into gold (or brown to dark brown) by taking scraps you’ve paid for and are unable to use and making them go to work to improve your soil, plants, and increase your yields. 

Aside from saving you money and making your landscape healthier, composting has an essential role in helping us protect our planet.  Compost replenishes nutrients in soil and improves water retention in dry areas.  The water retaining capacities of compost also make it an extremely useful tool in combating the erosion that saps soil of nutrients and damages water ecosystems.  Composting also makes an impact on greenhouse gases.  Much of the methane that humans produce comes from the anaerobic decomposition of organic waste cut off from oxygen in landfills.  When organic waste has ample oxygen to decompose, aerobic microorganisms successfully break down the material without producing methane.  Eliminating compostable material from landfills would eliminate a significant source of greenhouse gas. 

For more information about composting, read Composting Basics.

Wildlife Refuge

In trying to protect and improve the environment, you can’t forget about the residents living in it.  Making a safe place for wildlife to live will not only improve your garden, but it will improve the ecosystem in which you take part.  Many beneficial insects and animals are facing health problems and habitat loss, and providing food, water, and shelter for them will help to improve their populations. 

Design the plants featured in your landscape around attracting, feeding, and the reproduction of local wildlife.   Begin with protecting old trees and vegetation that you might have noticed attracts high traffic already.  When it comes to new plantings, research the native species to your area and include a wide variety in your landscape—these plants will thrive, and local wildlife is already accustomed to them.  Try to avoid using chemical fertilizers and pesticides that might make the animals sick.  Provide plants that will specifically target the needs of native animals, like local butterflies, which can be very fussy about what they will eat and where they will lay their eggs.  Lastly, arrange your plantings in such a way as to encourage wildlife to make a home—different types of birds like to perch or nest at different heights, and combinations of turf areas and bushy grass and flower areas will give different animals places to hide and make safe homes.  With planting, the key is definitely diversity.

Including some way for wildlife to access water, especially if you don’t have natural water around you, is very important if you’d like permanent and healthy residents.  This can involve putting out one or more small dishes or birdbaths or installing a water feature like a fountain or pond.  Animals and even insects will happily dive down for a drink from a garden pond.  For some residents, you may want to put out some snacks.  Consider adding hummingbird, butterfly, bird, or squirrel feeders strategically throughout your landscape (especially squirrel feeders—they are always good for a laugh). 

While your plants will provide shelter for most of your wildlife, you can also put up bird and insect houses to protect them from harsh weather, predators, and provide a place for them to breed.  There are many different styles of bee, butterfly, lacewing, bat, and ladybug houses, and you can mount them near the plants that they like so they won’t have to travel far. 

Pervious Paving Surfaces

Another method of dealing with storm water runoff is installing pervious or water permeable pavements and pavers.  You can distinguish pervious paving material from impervious material by looking at the texture; pervious pavements are typically coarse and rocky or allow for gaps of rocky aggregate material or places where water can drain into the soil.  This coarse material is very porous and full of voids where water can escape, putting the water into the soil where it can drain properly and replenish groundwater.  Paths, driveways, and patios can all be made permeable to make sure that your lawn and garden aren’t missing out on rainwater, and that runoff isn’t making it to the local stream or pond. 

Xeriscaping

Xeriscaping is a landscaping technique that strives to create a beautiful garden while using the least amount of water possible.  Everything, including the grouping of plants, the location of beds, method of irrigation, and the limiting of open lawn space, is taken into account, and every aspect of a garden is designed to conserve water.   Where the land may slope or curve naturally, a rain garden could be added to collect runoff to keep the ground moist.  Beds might be stacked or terraced to direct water to different plants.  Soil could be amended with compost to improve water retention, while still allowing water to drain.  Areas with exposed soil can be mulched to retain water, and turf areas can be kept at a minimal (or replaced entirely) since they can require so much water to keep thriving. 

Xeriscaping may take quite a bit of thought and just as much work to install, but the benefits of saving so much water will be apparent.  Once established, a xeriscape won’t require very much maintenance.  The garden will get most of what it needs from the sky, and will be well fed in a soil amended with compost.  Water consumption during the growing season and warmer months can be reduced by as much as 50-75%.