6 easy ways to make your garden environmentally friendly

Bicycle with plantsWith the Chesapeake Bay in our backyard, it's just common sense to be mindful of how we care for our gardens, since everything we put into our yard impacts the environment.

Making your yard more environmentally friendly doesn't necessarily mean you have to purchase organic soils, fertilizers or pesticides. There are a number of ways your family can aim for a green backyard that are both inexpensive and easy. From composting to up-cycling, check out these six ideas for a greener garden.

1. Go native

Many people make poor choices when it comes to choosing plants for the garden.

“They buy plants that require lots of fertilizer,” says Rick Buller, manager of Patuxent Nursery in Bowie. “A better choice are plants that aren’t so reliant on chemical fertilization, like natives.”

Instead of choosing knock-out roses, he recommends the Carolina or Virginia rose. While they might not bloom as ferociously as others, “they also don’t need as much care or fertilizing,” he says.

2. Compost

Your kitchen scraps can yield rich soil for the garden simply by composting. Keep a small container with a lid on your kitchen counter for saving food scraps. These can include egg shells, tea and coffee grounds, vegetable tops, fruit peels, nut shells, even shredded newspaper.

For outside, you can buy a sizable composting bin at a garden shop, but you don’t need anything more than a 5- or 10-gallon plastic container with a lid. Mix together your scraps with dead leaves, creating layers of material. Keep your bin in a dry, partially shaded spot, and stir each time you add new refuse. Within a matter of weeks, you’ll have black, nutrient-rich soil perfect for your planting needs.

Avoid composting animal products such as meat, bones, fish skins, butter, milk, pet droppings or fireplace ash. Fireplace ash, or wood ash, can be used as a fertilizer for trees. It is rich in potassium and, like lime, raises the pH of your soil. Just don't use it around evergreens or junipers as they prefer a more acidic environment.

Brian Celentano, the greenhouse manager at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, also recommends trying a natural soil amendment like Bloom, a byproduct of DC Water's Blue Plains water treatment facility in Washington, D.C.

“This can keep you from using chemical fertilizer and it works well in sandy soil,” he says.

3. Save tin cans for starting seeds

Once you’ve polished off your soup, recycle the can as a seedling starter. Simply remove the lid and drill a hole in the bottom of the can for water to escape. Then fill the bottom third of your can with pebbles, which help with drainage. Next, top off with soil and you’re ready to plant your seeds. Egg cartons work, too.

Plants in an old tennis shoe4. Up-cycle castoffs

Watching your budget? You’d be surprised what you can make by recycling home goods. With just a little creativity, castoffs can find new life in the garden. At the website DestinationNature.com, author and master gardener Stacy Tornio has a number of fun projects kids can do that will beautify the yard while teaching them the importance of up-cycling. A few projects include:

  • Spray-paint sneakers, poke holes in the bottoms and use as a planter.
  • Make garden art with an old wooden tennis racket by taking out the old strings and restringing with plastic cord decorated with colorful beads. Plant the finished product in the garden.
  • Spray-paint an old bicycle, add a wire egg or wicker basket to the handle bars, line with moss and plant flowers.
  • Create wind chimes by using an overturned colander. Attach forks and spoons with bright ribbon. Thread and fasten ribbon at the top of the colander, then enjoy the pleasant sound this chime makes when the wind blows.

5. Trade hardwood mulch for pine straw

Mulch does more than create a finished look for your yard, it keeps weeds out and moisture in for bedding plants and bushes. But hardwood mulch can also encourage termites and retain heat. Try pine straw or shore pine mulch instead, Buller says. It protects plants from the elements and adds acid to the soil.

“We’ve been pushed to believe hardwood is better mulch, but if you look into nature, it makes leaf compost and pine straw,” Buller says.

Pine is available in bags or bales and is easy to spread.

6. Attract butterflies and pollinators with nectar gardening

Patuxent Nursery and Homestead Gardens recommend creating a standard nectar garden, which includes a mix of annuals, perennials and shrubs. Spot-treat for pests when using insecticides rather than treating the entire plant, since some can be harmful to bees and butterflies.

Butterflies prefer flowering plants with colors like red and orange. Butterfly bushes, a woody shrub, truly do attract butterflies, as do salvia and cone flowers, Celentano says.

Fall is the perfect time to plant fruit trees, which honeybees prefer. In addition, be sure to keep a shallow container of standing water in your garden mixed with sand to provide bees some of the nutrients they need, Buller notes. Change weekly to discourage mosquitoes.

Finally, consider replacing a section of your yard with wildflowers. Patuxent Nursery sells wildflower and meadow mixes online with plants indigenous to specific regions of the state.

“If you turn one-quarter of your yard into a wildflower meadow, that’s what pollinators need,” Buller says.

By Jane Schneider