Roots and Shoots: Eco-Friendly Tips for Gardeners

By Pamela Doan

We do our part, right? Recycling, check. Take the train into Manhattan instead of driving. Buy organic produce most of the time; shop at the farmers market and join a CSA to support local growers. Participate in Meatless Monday. Take reusable bags for shopping. Replace old light bulbs with CFLs or LEDs. Switch to wind power for electricity. Turn the thermostat down in winter and up in summer, and add insulation to the house. Check, check, check. If we’re really committed (and/or possibly wealthy), there’s a high-mileage hybrid car in the driveway and solar panels on the roof. What else could we possibly do to be more eco-friendly and reduce our carbon footprint? With Earth Day approaching on April 22 and the news full of “green” tips, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the demands of conscience.

Gardening, by virtue, seems green enough. Since most supermarket produce travels 1,500 miles, eating as locally as your backyard certainly reduces the carbon emissions — that’s true. If you do care about your carbon footprint, though, examining your habits and approach to the landscape can yield room for improvement.

Watering flowersEco-friendly gardening practices start with creating sustainable landscapes that reuse and conserve natural resources, sustain wildlife and reduce the use of pesticides. It may or may not be organic, meaning that no pesticides or herbicides or synthetic fertilizers are employed, but it definitely follows the principles of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as a way of handling nuisance wildlife and insect damage. IPM starts with identifying the specific problem, then using the least harmful and systemic means to control it, recognizing that some level of damage is tolerable. IPM escalates the control method as needed with the most organic methods used initially.

Practically, your carbon footprint in the garden can be measured by the amount of carbon you produce and release in the course of planting and maintaining the landscape, but reusing and conserving natural resources should be considered, too. Gas-powered machines like a lawn mower, leaf blower and rototiller obviously stand out as major carbon producers. One hour of mowing is the equivalent of driving your car 20 miles in terms of emissions. Setting the cutting level at 3 inches on the mower makes for a healthier lawn and mowing every two weeks instead of weekly should be sufficient for a great-looking yard. Fertilize grass only after testing the soil to make sure that any fertilizer that’s applied doesn’t douse the grass with unneeded nutrients that will only run off and leach into water sources.

Conserving natural resources in the landscape means capturing rainfall and composting leaves, grass clippings and plant material. Rain barrels attach to the downspouts on the gutters of a house and collect rainwater that can be used as needed for flowers and non-edible plants. Since rainwater runs off the shingles on the roof, it shouldn’t be used to water vegetables.

Also make sure that watering is done frugally. The landscape needs one inch of water a week. Dianne Olsen, senior extension educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Putnam County, has an easy solution. “Use a tuna fish can to measure how much you’re watering your garden. Stick it in the ground, turn on the sprinkler, and when the can is full, your watering is done for the week.” She also advises watering deeply, rather than daily. Plants grown in containers have different watering needs, of course, and may need daily watering. Mulching helps soil hold water and protects the roots of plants, too, reducing the need for watering.

Composting reduces the waste that goes into a landfill. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, yard trimmings and food waste account for as much as 30 percent of our solid waste in landfills. In a landfill, those maple leaves and apple cores become methane, a gas that is 21 times more potent than carbon in terms of warming the atmosphere. A nice mix of veggie and fruit scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, shredded leaves and garden waste makes a wonderful layer of organic matter for your flowerbeds and garden, though.

Last but not least, here’s another reason to leave the rototiller in the shed. Soil contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere, and one third of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from releasing carbon in soil due to agriculture and clearing forests, among other things. Tilling isn’t necessary, and the harm isn’t worth it. Low impact is the key. For the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020, it would be nice to look back at some progress, instead of more damage.

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