Creating a Green Yard the Sustainable Way

creating-a-green-yard-the-sustainable-way-image-1Nearly everyone strives to be sustainable, but avoiding chemical cleaners in your home and recycling plastic bottles isn’t nearly enough to call yourself green. In particular, you should look to how you treat your outdoor spaces: If you are pouring oceans-worth of water on your lawn every day, and if you must replace the dead greenery in your garden every few weeks regardless of how well you maintain it, you can’t conscionably call yourself eco-friendly.
Fortunately, it is possible to have a beautiful yard that is as green as you are ― you just have to be more careful with your methods and materials. Ecoscaping is a relatively new style of landscaping that works to create a beautiful outdoor space that doesn’t tax the environment and waste precious resources. Here are a few ways you can ecoscape your backyard so your yard is as sustainable as you are.

Limit the Size of Your Lawn
Lawn grass is rarely a native plant. If you take a stroll in the untouched natural spaces near your home, you are unlikely to find lush, naturally growing lawns in the woods or even in the fields. This is because the species of grass planted in backyards of residential spaces are incredibly resource-hungry: They require abundant water, food, and attention to survive.

However, there are plenty of good reasons to want to preserve some lawn space around your home. For one, grass is a safe, comfortable place to play and entertain guests. For another, green, healthy lawns are quite beautiful. Fortunately, tearing up your lawn and replacing it with wood chips or rock isn’t the only solution; instead, you can opt to maintain a smaller lawn so you reap the benefits while cutting down your use of resources. By confining the grass in your yard to a particular space ― perhaps attractively shaped to balance the look of your home and yard ― you can save money, save the environment, and save the charm of your outdoor space.

Commit to Consistent Lawn Maintenance
Plenty of homeowners sink ridiculous amounts of time and energy into maintaining their lawns, but such an approach is not only untenable for most people, it is also unsustainable. In fact, with consistent and concentrated maintenance, you can ensure your lawn is healthy without wasting abundant resources. If you don’t have the time to commit to regular maintenance, you might hire lawn care professionals to provide safe, sustainable service.

By choosing the correct grass seed for your region, preventing dangerous weeds and fungus with pre-emergent weed control, and mowing and watering properly for the season, you can sustainably maintain a lawn in your yard year-round.

However, if you do nothing else, you should keep an eye on the soil beneath your grass. Annual testing for nutrient levels, acidity, oxygen content, and more will prevent expensive and exhausting dead patches that are definitely not green.

creating-a-green-yard-the-sustainable-way-image-2Choose Native Flora
Even in the Sahara, indigenous plants grow, which means you can definitely find plants native to your area to use around your yard. Native plants naturally thrive in your climate, which means they shouldn’t require excess resources that can be unsustainable. Perennials are some of the best options because you can often plant them once and rarely worry about them.

Contrary to popular belief, every region has indigenous flora that can be attractively landscaped, or “naturescaped” as some environmental activists call it. A visit to a local nursery should provide you with inspiration. Plus, if you naturescape properly, you might be able to register your yard as a wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation.

Build a Water Feature
Unlike decorative fountains, environmentally friendly water features can do much to increase the greenness of a yard. You might consider building any of the following into your eco-scape:

  • Rain garden. In rainy regions, homeowners can dig depressions into the soil that collect rainwater and facilitate its addition to natural groundwater systems. You can cover the depression with stones and water-loving plants.
  • Water barrels or cisterns. Collecting roof run-off or rainwater and using that water for yard irrigation is another sustainable option. The barrels are both cute and functional additions to any yard.
  • Ponds. Building a pond into your yard can create a healthy space for native flora and fauna to grow naturally. You can even add indigenous fish species to create an entire ecosystem in your ecoscape.

Springtime Garden Soil Prep

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

We’ve come to believe that the oh-so-common planting directive “as soon as the soil can be worked” is almost meaningless. Workable soil is important to planting but other conditions—including amendment additions, pH conditions and soil temperature—have to be considered as well. Your friendly and eager Planet Natural blogger has often advised patience when it comes to spring planting. On the other hand, there’s plenty to be done before the point of workable soil—in other words, when it’s safe to stick seeds in the ground—is reached. And that work can help make your soil workable sooner.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Sure some of our friends in warmer climes have already “got their gardens in,” as my grandfather used to say. But many of us are still waiting (forecast for Saturday night here in our hometown of Bozeman, MT is for snow). Maybe we’ve put in a row of peas along the northern border (with its southern exposure) knowing that the peas we’ll plant in a week or two will probably catch up. Still, planting time is right around the corner, even here in the norther tier states and when that hits we want to be ready. And there’s plenty to do around the garden ahead of spring planting that will facilitate garden sowing and (maybe, weather depending) even help bring that time on sooner.

First, we’ll take a sunny day—or maybe one when it isn’t raining or spewing what the weatherman call a “wintery mix”–and pull back the protective mulch we spread last fall. This of course helps the garden soil give up the moisture its collected and gets it to workable condition. Our mulch is usually a mix of fall leaves we chopped with the mower after raking and whatever else was available: left-over straw that we’d used to mulch between rows, grass collected after fall mowings, goat pen cleanings, chicken coop cleanings (seems everybody’s raising chickens these days) that wonderful mix of trampled straw and manure that we get from our friends’ goat operation.

If the forecast calls for rain or snow, we leave the mulch right where it is.

It’s easy to suggest that any straw or hay you use in the garden be seed-free to prevent weeds. It’s another thing to actually obtain it; in our experience it just doesn’t exist. But leaving your ground uncovered for a few nice days gives the seed a chance to germinate. When you actually do start to work your garden soil, the weed seedlings get turned into the ground.

Often, we’ve already pulled mulch away from some of the vegetables we hoped would over-winter in the garden. Chard is one of our favorites for this, spinach also works. Beets will overwinter well and put up greens at the first chance they get. But as they do, their roots soften. Unless you get them early, stick to the greens. Carrots? You won’t eat their tops (though we know people who use carrot tops to make broths and soups) and once the roots start putting out those little threads, they’re not much worth eating. But those second year carrot tops that do grow up, if left in place, will eventually give you a chance to collect your own carrot seed.

What we pull off the garden bed usually goes right into our still slumbering compost heaps. This is a good time to turn those heaps, though they’re often heavy with spring moisture and difficult to fork up. Do the best you can (or get a compost tumbler). Those dried leaves and straw qualify as brown material. To give your compost the right balance you’ll want to add green material, something that’s often in short supply this time of year. Kitchen scraps are a good idea although most kitchens don’t generate enough scraps to get a proper balance. We like to add alfalfa pellets and, just to kick start the process, a bucket of  unfinished manure in the form of pig muck we dug up  from another friend’s organic, heritage hog operation. Not lucky enough to live by a pig farm? (Can’t believe I just wrote that.) A bag of organic steer or chicken manure will also do the trick.

The longer the spring season stays wet and cool, the more likely we are to solarize our garden bed. Solarizing soil by covering it with plastic tarps, is often employed during the heat of summer to kill unwanted pests, disease and fungi in the earth. Doing it in the spring probably won’t accomplish this. It just doesn’t get warm enough. But it will protect your soil  from rains—make sure you set it up to allow for drainage—and increase soil temperatures that will speed germination once your seeds go in.

So how do you know your soil is ready to be worked? The tried-and-true method is the squeeze test. Grab a fistful of garden dirt and squeeze. If it easily forms a ball that doesn’t crumble, it’s not ready. But if it breaks down into granules as you squeeze (because there isn’t enough moisture to allow it to clump) then it’s ready. Of course, there’s some variations to this. If your soil is heavy in clay, it will clump more easily. Don’t be afraid to get in there and do what needs to be done to improve it.

If you plan on spreading manure in your garden ahead of planting, now’s the time to do it. Getting it on the ground ahead of planting will give it time to decompose, making it more available to your plants. Be careful how much you use and where. Lettuce and other greens won’t germinate well in soil that’s high in nitrogen. We always prefer composting any manure that might come our way before putting it into the garden.

Of course, the most important rule is not to get into your garden before the soil is friable. Bringing in the rototiller or walking around as you turn soil over with a spading fork will just compact the soil even if it’s not apparent at the surface. Trying to break up compacted garden soil can be a frustrating task. What your fork turns over comes up as clods that will harden and be even more difficult to break up. Wait, wait, wait until your soil is ready to be worked. While you’re waiting is a good time to test your soil for its pH and nutrient readings. Then, when its ready for you, it’s time to make adjustments.

When it’s ready to be worked amend your soil with as much finished compost as you’ve got (see When is Compost Finished?). Now you’re really ready to grow.

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How to Use Cold Frames As a Year-Round Gardening Tool

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Springtime sees your friendly, think-ahead Planet Natural blogger putting his cold frame to heavy use. Now, in a time of year where frosts are still possible, many of our indoor vegetable starts are almost ready to go into the garden. They need to get use to being outdoors. Many of them can’t survive the night-time cold but can when protected inside a cold frame, maybe draped with a blanket on the coldest nights.

It’s also the time of year we’ve also run out of room under our indoor grow light and need a place to keep vegetable starts where they’ll get more sunshine than they would on a window sill. And we also want to get a head start on some of our long-season plants, like tomatoes, peppers or winter squash.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Can you see why we’re thinking a second, and maybe a third, cold frame might be a good—make that great—idea?

And don’t forget flowering plants. You can get a big jump growing pansies by starting them in pots inside a cold frame.

But cold frames aren’t just an amazing accessory to your spring-time gardening. They’re good for a number of uses all year ’round:

Cold frames are a good place to store potted plants and cold-sensitive bulbs and root-cuttings (buried in sawdust or straw) during winters in areas where night-time temperatures aren’t consistently extreme (near and below zero).
Cold frames are a good place to make late fall plantings of such cold hardy plants as broccoli, kale and spinach, which can be over winters in a cold frame—plant them right in the ground–and can even provide early spring and mid-winter harvests during warm spells. Fresh greens in February? Yeah!
Cold frames are a great place to start vegetable seeds in pots ahead of gardening season.
Cold frames are great for hardening off your vegetable starts as they provide warmth (even with the tops up), protect against excess wind, and offer warmer over-night temperatures.
Cold frames are an ideal place to sow squash seed or set out tomato plants once there’s room. They’ll give these long season vegetables a warm, jump start. By the time they’re pushing up against the cold frame’s top, just leave the tops off.
Cold frames are great places to plant greens in late summer and hold them well past the first frosts of fall … and maybe longer.

When locating a permanently-placed cold frame, make sure the soil drainage is good. This might require digging up the soil to a depth of two or three feet and putting in a six-inch layer of pea-gravel or small river rock to facilitate water conduction before laying down compost and soil. If you’re only using your cold frame for potted plants and starts, you can just dig up six inches of soil and add a gravel surface. The gravel or tile or stone will serve as a heat sink, carrying the day’s accumulated warmth into the night. We’ve seen a cold frame in which the gardener set concrete block in sideways, then filled the spaces with gravel to provide a heat-retaining surface.

Placing your permanent cold frame against the south or west-facing side of a building will also help it gather and retain heat. The building will also shelter your cold frame from the wind. Here are examples of permanent cold frames (brick!) incorporated into the sides of buildings. Our cold frame was against a white garage wall which gave the tomatoes we grew there an extra warm and sunny boost throughout the summer, just what they needed in short-season Montana.

Covering your raised garden bed with plastic or some other type of light-conducting shelter can turn it into a wonderful cold frame.

Cold frames that sit on top of the soil and are moveable can travel from place to place as you plant different, heat-loving vegetables. You can build a cold frame that’s transportable or construct a make-shift one of hay bales, which are especially good insulators, by placing them in a square or rectangle just big enough to support old window frames with glass or a shower door. They’re also available as kits and can even be made of convenient materials that make them lightweight and functional as tents.

You can turn your cold frame into a hot box by adding rotting manure or a layer of leaves or straw seasoned with microbe-rich compost beneath your soil layer. The heat generated by the decaying organic material will help hold plants over winter as well as give soil temperatures a boost in time for spring germination. One gardener we know reported great result using a layer of alfalfa pellets and some compost instead of straw or leaves (which tend to compact … chop them first).

Here’s a comprehensive guide to using cold frames—with building plans—from the University of Missouri. We’d really like to hear about your cold frame—how it’s built, where it’s located, how you use it.

One warning about cold frames … they can get hot when the sun’s shining! Be sure to ventilate your cold frames by lifting the lids and propping them open—or removing them all together—on sunny days. It’s an unpleasant surprise to come home from work at the end of the day and find your lettuce starts baked beneath the glass or plastic of your cold frame.

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7 Tips to Prep for Gardening Season

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

By Monica Bologna

If you’ve got a green thumb, you can start getting excited about winter ending and spring finally approaching. It is a good idea to start preparing your garden so you aren’t scrambling at the last minute. Here are 7 tips to prepare for gardening season!

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

1. Use an empty pill container to organize your seeds. Use a label maker in different colors to label what seeds are what.

2. Clear out flower beds. Dig out all weeds, dead leaves and debris of last year’s garden. You want to start fresh.

3. Clean out your shed. If you have a garden shed, you may want to go through it and organize things so it is easier to find your tools, gloves, etc.

4. Organize your tools. Check to see what you have and organize your garden equipment using old milk crates or other wooden crates. Also be sure to clean your garden tools so they are ready to handle anything.

5. Fix fences. It is a good idea to prepare little things like fences, boxes and gates now that the weather is still a bit chilly, so that when the warm weather does come you will be able to enjoy the garden and not be doing anything too strenuous.

6. Make use of things around the house. Old pantyhose can be your friends when holding up tomato plants and tying random things together. Also large hooks can be of use when hanging up your garden hose.

7. Make a plan. Organize when you will start planting what and mark it on your calendar so you can have an idea and not be overwhelmed.

Gardening is a fun, healthy, enjoyable hobby so if you can’t wait to get started, get out there now and prepare!

This article is reposted with permission from Eco News Network.

Visit EcoWatch’s TIPS and page for more related news on this topic.

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