Earth Day festivities are set for this week throughout the county and the country.
But you can celebrate the occasion year-round in the garden by following a few simple techniques.
The following ideas are easy on the natural world. Some require a little effort. Others might be considered downright lazy.
What they all share is the goal of conserving resources while creating a healthy environment for your plants and the creatures that inhabit your garden.
You can call it ecological, environmental, sustainable or green gardening. But by whatever measure, also please call it common sense.
Fix Those Drips
Sooner or later, it seems that most outdoor faucets leak. Aside from the wasted water, a mucky wet spot right up against your house is not good.
Depending on your skills, you can fix the leak yourself or call a plumber.
If the faucet handle spurts only when you turn on the water, the lazy way out is to place a bucket beneath and use the water to irrigate potted plants.
Sometimes it’s not the faucet, but the hose connector. Rather than tossing the hose, replace the connector.
If repairs aren’t in the offing, plant a bog plant under the faucet so that the leak isn’t a complete waste.
Depending on the size of the seep, pretty California native perennials to consider include western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea), scarlet monkeyflower (Mimulus cardinalis) and Point Reyes checkerbloom (Sidalcea calycosa ssp. rhizomata).
Watering by hand, hauling hoses and moving portable lawn sprinklers gets old quickly. It’s tedious, inefficient and has the potential to waste an incredible amount of water.
Instead, install drip irrigation in your flower beds and around shrubs and trees; and pop-up sprinklers for your ground covers and lawn.
Then install an irrigation controller to automate the system. If you have water-conserving plants that need water every two to three weeks, make sure your timer can accommodate that long of an interval. Some inexpensive controllers only allow intervals of up to a week.
Just because you have a controller doesn’t mean you can ignore it. For instance, if May and June are damp and foggy, your plants won’t need much water. But if clear, windy days persist, they’ll want more.
Regardless of whether you automate or stay manual, water early in the morning, before the wind kicks up. This minimizes evaporation, gives your plants a fresh start and helps reduce fungal diseases that can take hold if the foliage is wet at night.
Fight Bugs Naturally
Avoid using bug spray as your first line of defense.
If aphids are a problem, hose them off with a blast from your hose. Or release lady bugs or green lacewings to gobble them up. If aphids are infiltrating your late-season broccoli, plant green onions nearby.
Marigolds, calendulas and nasturtiums are also excellent companions. In the vegetable garden, they’ll help to deter bean beetles, cabbage pests, nematodes, tomato hornworms, asparagus beetles and squash bugs.
If giant white fly is a problem, try mulching with cocoa hulls and spraying the undersides of the affected plants with horticultural oil or a mild dilution of powdered dish soap.
Cliff swallows will make a mess as they build their mud nests in your eaves. But they eat mosquitoes by the thousands.
Gopher snakes may appear alarming. But leave them alone. They’ll help keep underground rodents from tearing up your garden. And unlike gopher gas and other poisons, they won’t hurt the environment.
Start a Compost Bin
Compost does wonderful things in the garden. It provides nutrients in an easily accessible form to plants and promotes the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the soil.
You can buy bags of compost or create your own.
Three things go into my compost bins: kitchen scraps, yard waste and leftover potting soil.
Kitchen scraps are fruit and vegetable waste — apple cores, onion peels, celery stalks, leafy greens and the like. Don’t use meat and dairy scraps. They’ll go rancid. I collect the scraps in a stainless pot with a tight-fitting lid, then mix the contents into my outdoor compost bins once or twice a week.
Yard waste is a combination of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) material. The green is mostly grass clippings, while the brown is crumpled leaves, plus debris swept off the driveway and patio.
I occasionally add water, which seems to help speed the decomposition. Be sure your bins are in a sunny spot. The pile needs to build up heat to break down the various materials. Relegated to the shade, the process can literally take years.
Don’t throw away your lawn clippings. They contain valuable nutrients. Instead, put them to work in your garden.
You can use a mulching mower, which chops the grass blades even finer than a regular mower, then deposits the cuttings back on the lawn.
If your lawn is purely for show, that’s great. But if you have kids or animals romping across with wet feet, they’ll track those little blades everywhere.
Instead, mulch your flower beds with a thin layer. if the clippings are too thick, the blades will mat together and begin to smell.
Or dump the clippings in your compost pile. Mix them well with the other contents, so that they don’t bind together and form an impenetrable block.
Two to 3 inches of grass clippings can make a slimy mess. But several inches thick of loose, organic material, such as walk-on bark, will conserve moisture, moderate the soil temperature and help reduce weeds.
Plus, it looks nice, smells good and provides a consistent look to the landscape.
I’ve had a few clients complain that mulch is a waste, because it disappears. But that’s actually a good thing. That “disappearance” means the mulch is breaking down, releasing nutrients to the plants and improving the texture of the soil.
Weed By Hand
A bulky layer of mulch will inhibit weed seeds that need light to germinate. But other opportunistic weeds will still come through.
Rather than killing the weeds with chemical sprays, set aside time to pull the weeds by hand. Try to get the weeds before they set seed. If I see flowers forming and am short on time, I’ll use kitchen scissors to snip off the heads, then go back later to dig out the leafy parts and their roots.
Use caution if you resort to using a “weed and feed” product on your lawn. The “weed” portion of the equation contains chemicals that may be harmful to kids or animals that play too soon in the area.
Whether it’s in liquid or granular form, or slowly released from fluffy compost or humus, use natural or organic fertilizer as much as possible.
It’s much kinder to the soil, as well as to earthworms, birds, butterflies and other wildlife.
Look for products that contain beneficial soil bacteria such as mycorrhizae, compost, guano, humic acid or humus (compost that has broken down past the fibrous state).
With increasing interest in “green” products, mainstream lawn and garden chemical companies are now offering natural products, too.
Also look for organics that are OMRI listed. The Organic Materials Review Institute tests products intended for use in certified organic production, handling and processing. The OMRI seal means that what you’re buying complies with USDA organic standards.
Choose Your Battles
Sometimes a few defoliated plants are worth the effort to attract wildlife.
In my garden, I willingly sacrifice butterflyweed (Asclepias curassavica) in order to fortify the fat, yellow-striped monarch butterfly caterpillars that somehow know to appear just when the yellow, orange and red flowers are beginning to bloom.
A few years back, little cottontail bunnies nibbled away all my seedling melons. Rather than fighting the gray fluffballs, I planted another round in a raised bed that they couldn’t reach.
But even I have my limits. When slugs and snails begin to defoliate my roses, I draw my line in the sand with Sluggo, a natural granular product containing iron phosphate, which is safe to use around pets and wildlife. This year I’m also planning to try a new foliar spray from Gro-Power called Snail & Slug Away. It’s nontoxic, organic and lists cinnamon oil as its active ingredient. Maybe it even smells good.
Seeds of Wisdom
If you’re encouraging birds, butterflies and other wildlife to visit your garden, go pesticide free. Otherwise you risk administering a dose of toxic chemicals when the critters forage among your flowers.
Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.