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Greener pastures
5 tips for more environmentally friendly gardening

By DAVID LEWELLEN

August 2007

"Greener gardens" is not a redundancy. Planting your little corner of the world in grass or flowers or vegetables is great, but there are better or worse ways to benefit the air, the soil and your own health. For a more ecologically healthy garden, consider the following:

ē Recycle your plants. Putting out leaves or grass clippings with the garbage, and then buying mulch and fertilizer, may be the silliest practice in the world. Instead, develop your own little ecosystem, where todayís plant waste becomes tomorrowís plant food.

With a mulching mower, grass clippings wonít hurt anything if theyíre left on the lawn. But if you use the bag attachment, it will fill up with excellent mulch material. Lay clippings down 2 or 3 inches thick, leaving holes for your garden plants, and weed problems will be minimized for the summer. And come fall or next spring, youíve added organic matter and nutrients to your soil.

The same goes for leaves. Mow over them twice, the second time with the bag attachment, and youíve collected a protective winter blanket for your garden beds.

ē Compost. Itís another way to use plants efficiently. Donít use any animal products or waste, but toss in kitchen vegetable scraps and yard waste. You can buy or make a bin, or just start a heap in a place where the neighbors wonít notice it. A healthy heap wonít smell bad. Compost is a fine top dressing for perennial beds, and annuals (including vegetables) appreciate a trowelful in the bottom of the hole where theyíre planted.

Over time, compost and appropriate plants will improve soil, slowly turning the local clay into black, crumbly plant nirvana.

If composting isnít for you, garden stores offer organic alternatives. Or take a look in your fishpond: Rob Green of Stano Landscaping in Milwaukee recycles the gunk that collects in his filter. "Itís a nasty, repulsive mixture, but itís great for fertilizer."

ē Pick the right plants. "Keeping plants healthy is one of the best defenses," says Pat Williams of Johnsonís Nursery. "If youíre trying to grow your sun plant in the shade, itís never going to be healthy." Like any other predators, insects will go for the sick or weak plants first, and gardeners can head them off by choosing the right location and giving the right care.

"We all want to experiment," says Herb Rasmussen of Sandy Bottom Nature Center in Delafield, but some plants donít grow here naturally for a reason. Ask horticulturists at garden centers for good options, and watch how your plants respond.

ē Use natural weed control. "Weeds are the messengers of poor soil," says Darrell Smith of Earthcare Natural Lawn and Landscape. But a simple technique to crowd them out, he says, is to set your mower higher, perhaps at 3 inches. Longer grass (which has deeper roots) means less sun and soil for weeds.

Similarly, in flowerbeds, Greenís favorite weed control strategy is "overcrowd your plants." A bed full of flowers will have no room for weeds.

ē Minimize chemicals. Identify your specific problem and seek a specific solution, rather than randomly dumping the inventory of a New Jersey refinery onto your property. "Itís sad to see people carry away bags and bags of chemicals to fix a situation that isnít a situation," Green says.

Much insect damage is superficial and temporary. "Wait and take a deep breath, and many times the bugs are gone," says Rasmussen.

Williams says people make the same mistake with pesticide as with medication: "If a little bit is good, then a lot is better. Thatís when you get into environmentally unsafe situations."