The Basics of Environmentally Sound Gardening

by BrendaReeves

Spring is almost here and avid gardeners can't wait to start digging in the dirt. If you haven't gardened for a healthy environment before, this is the year to start.

Practicing environmentally sound gardening is not only good for the earth, it's good for the plants. You can beautify your landscape, reduce maintenance and enhance your plant's health while protecting the earth's water supply. It starts with proper planning, design, plant selection and landscape features. Adhering to those points can reduce water runoff and reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizer.

Best Gardening Practices

The Easiest Way to Garden

Following some gardening and landscape basics insures success for you while treating the environment kindly:

  • Purchase plants native to your region. They are adapted to the environmental conditions of sun, moisture, soil and temperature. This means less maintenance for you and overall good health for your plants.
  • Pull out the turf in areas such as dense shade; steep slopes; narrow, hard to irrigate areas and heavy-traffic areas with compacted soil. Replace it with plant mulches or paving materials. These materials require less water, fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Redirect roof runoff over well-drained soil. Better yet, redirect it into a water barrel.
  • Build gravel trenches along walkways and driveways to catch runoff.
  • For excessively soggy areas, build a rain garden.

Fertile Soil and Proper Drainage

Essential Foundation of a Garden

Maintaining fertile soil in your garden reduces the chance for water contamination from erosion, fertilizers and pesticides. Most landscape plants require good drainage to a depth of at least 2 feet. Poor drainage affects the potential for water contamination. Sand drains rapidly but allows dissolved chemicals to leach into the groundwater. Clay soil binds chemicals and slows their movement through the soil, reducing the likelihood of groundwater contamination, but it drains slowly which increases surface runoff.

Minerals are essential for plant life, but most garden soils are lacking in many minerals. Gardeners make up for it by adding either synthetic or natural fertilizers. Over application can result in the nutrients running off into lakes and streams or leaching into groundwater. Over-fertilization wastes money, damages plants and encourages weeds.

When it rains, soil particles, organic matter, plant nutrients and soil contaminants are carried away with runoff, thereby clouding natural waters, stimulating unnatural and ecologically disastrous algal blooms and contaminating fish. To prevent this, it's essential to minimize erosion and runoff.

Use Fertilizers Wisely

Take Care of the Earth's Resources

Garden responsibly by reducing the chances of fertilizers contaminating groundwater and surface water. Follow these tips:

  • Call your county extension office to have your soil tested. Testing soil can detect pH problems that affect nutrient availability to plants. It also reveals any deficiencies of nutrients such as phosphorous, potassium and calcium. Most extension offices will submit soil samples to a lab for a minimal fee or provide you with the names of soil testing labs so you can do it yourself.
  • Use only the amount of fertilizer recommended for your soil. Trees and shrubs do not need annual fertilization if they are well established and putting on adequate growth, and their leaf color is healthy.
  • Use slow-release fertilizers to reduce the loss of excess nitrogen into groundwater or surface water.  
  • When using quick-release synthetic fertilizers, make small applications spread out over a period of time. This reduces the chances of nitrogen leaching into the groundwater.
  • Fertilize trees and shrubs just before the start of new growth. Fertilize herbaceous perennials at the beginning of the growing season. Fertilize annuals when they are actively growing.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Amending the Soil

Reduces Erosion

Organic matter such as compost, ground bark or sawdust helps the soil to retain moisture and nutrients. Organic matter reduces the effect of pesticides in the soil and prevents rapid leaching of chemicals into the groundwater. It also improves moisture retention in sandy soils and improves water infiltration in clayey soils. There are many ways to reduce erosion:

  • Slow down runoff by terracing slopes; creating grassy swales; building earth, wood or masonry diversions.
  • Use straw, grass clippings, wood chips, ground bark, or landscape fabric for mulching bare areas of soil.
  • Use erosion control plants such as buttonbush, rough-leaf dogwood, silky dogwood or deciduous holly.
  • Use a concrete splash block at your rain gutter outlet, or place large, rough-edged stones at drainpipe outlets.
  • Grow cover crops in your vegetable garden during winter to reduce erosion, trap nutrients, and add organic matter to the soil.

Garden Waste

A Valuable Resource

If you're throwing grass clippings, prunings and leaves into the trash, you're not only wasting a valuable resource; You aren't acting in an ecologically responsible way. Landfills can contaminate groundwater, and they take up valuable space. Decaying vegetable matter competes with marine animals for limited oxygen supply. Use that waste in your garden. It contributes to healthy soil and plants. Here's what you can do with your yard waste:

  • Use leaves and grass clippings as a mulch to reduce erosion, irrigation requirements and weed problems.
  • Run prunings and woody brush through a wood chipper. The chips make a good mulch, or you can use them as pathways.
  • Compost leaves, needles, grass clippings and annual weeds to create a valuable organic soil amendment. Make sure you use weeds before they flower, or you'll be planting weeds in your garden.
  • Cover compost piles with a tarp during the rainy season to help prevent leaching of nutrients.
  • Locate the compost piles away from bodies of water or places where runoff might occur.
  • Keep herbicide-treated grass clippings in a separate pile from other compost material. Compost them for at least a year.
  • Compost diseased plant materials and annual weeds only if your compost pile is hot.

Do You practice Ecologically Sound Gardening

Water Wisely

Earth's Most Valuable Resource

As an environmentally conscious person, your goals are to maximize water infiltration and minimize runoff. Overwatering washes away soil, pesticides and nutrients and find their way into surface water or groundwater. Water efficiently, and to reduce your water bill while protecting water quality.

Hand water container plants and small beds only with a hose or a watering can. Hand watering lawns and large beds wets the surface soil only. Sprinklers that apply water too fast or water the paved areas, create considerable runoff. Soaker hoses water slowly and reduce runoff and evaporation. Trickle or drip irrigation reduces water use by 50 to 90 percent compared to overhead irrigation.

A plant's watering requirement varies due to the influence of weather, soil, species, age and size of the plant. Never allow seedlings to dry out. Newly established plants need frequent watering until the roots are well established. You can soak established trees and shrubs once or twice a month during the hot summer or drought periods.

Does your lawn need watering? It does if it's a gray-green color; it doesn't spring back when walked on; and the blades of grass roll lengthwise. In order to stay green, most lawns need watering at least once a week in dry summers. You can also let your lawn go dormant. It will turn green again when fall rains begin.  Water the lawn no more than 1/2-inch per hour. Lay out some small cans to measure the amount of water the sprinklers apply. At the first sign of saturation or runoff, turn off the water.


Updated: 05/22/2013, BrendaReeves
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BrendaReeves on 04/12/2013

It was freezing here today. Day before yesterday it was int he 80s.

katiem2 on 04/12/2013

I can't wait to get out in the garden and landscape I intend t make a few changes, it's time for a change, love the idea of adding a new island or bed...

BrendaReeves on 04/10/2013

Thank you 2uesday. It rains here a lot, and I keep thinking of that water going to waste. I want to set up some rain barrels this summer to capture it.

BrendaReeves on 04/10/2013

Oh my gosh, Lana! Some of my neighbors have the most beautiful lawns. Last summer I decided to declare war on weeds and started spraying the weeds with chemicals for the first time in my life. I used Roundup. That stuff is nasty! I would get a headache from it every time I sprayed. My yard slopes downward toward the street, and the storm drain is at my front curb. I'm not touching that garbage this year. I'm already cultivating some of the best dandelions in the neighborhood. I consider them beautiful!

Ragtimelil on 04/09/2013

Excellent article. My landlord is a master gardener too but you should see all the chemicals he uses - yet he raises worms! No one down here thinks it's a problem - and we're right on the lake!

BrendaReeves on 03/19/2013

Thank you, Katie. I'm going through a Master gardening program right now through the University of Kentucky. I figure writing articles about the course is a good way to study. I'm jumping at the bit to get into the garden too.

katiem2 on 03/19/2013

Being an environmentally sound gardener is really important to me. Great article I'm looking forward to getting out in my landscape beds and veggie garden. :)K

BrendaReeves on 03/17/2013

You are so right. Last year I tried desperately to rid my lawn of weeds, with chemicals. It's the first time I've ever done that. This year I'm going to appreciate my weeds as part of the lawn. Thanks for the comment.

Tolovaj on 03/17/2013

'Green' gardening should be part of our lifestyles. But sometimes it is very hard to switch the thinking patterns from 'I want' or 'I deserve' to 'I really need'. I have read several articles about lawns and it is very scary to find out how much poisonous substances is used to keep the grass greener than the neighbor's.

BrendaReeves on 03/16/2013

Thank you for the comment. I think we're all getting excited about summer after the winter we've had. This is the first day it's been over 60 all winter where I live.

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