Have you ever thought about how your little piece of Earth measures up, especially in light of Earth Day on Tuesday? Your world seems minuscule in the big scheme of things, so how can a pound of chemical fertilizer here and a bottle of synthetic pest killer there have any real impact?
It's difficult to comprehend, let alone measure, our personal contribution to upsetting Earth's ecosystem. But this can be your epiphany year. This Earth Day, if you begin more eco-friendly gardening practices in your yard, your little piece of Earth will undergo a huge transformation. Along the way, your plants will be healthier, you'll see more wildlife, such as birds and butterflies, your yard will require less water and care, you'll enjoy gardening more — and you'll save money. Considering the state of the economy, cutting back on expensive chemicals, reducing water use and working toward sustainability seem like good ideas, even if it weren't Earth Day.
"There are millions of gardening and landscape enthusiasts around the world. The powerful impact we can have on the environment through just a handful of simple acts is astonishing," says Joe Lamp'l, author of The Green Gardener's Guide: Simple, Significant Actions to Protect & Preserve Our Planet (Cool Springs Press, $16.95).
If you're finding your thumb less than green this Earth Day, there are plenty of ways you can be kinder to Earth, and most won't cost you a dime. In fact, the greener your thumb, the more green you'll keep in your wallet. Here's how.
"You have to stand back and say, 'I need to change my thinking,' " says Howard Garrett, also known as "Dr. Dirt," author of The Organic Manual: Natural Organic Gardening and Living for Your Family, Plants and Pets (Tapestry Press, $18.95). If you switched your focus from how your garden plants look and perform and concentrated on the health of your soil, you would change the world (at least your little slice of it).
Soil (don't call it dirt) is a rich, living entity that's one of the basic building blocks of life. "The whole philosophy is about building healthy soil so it will feed the plants the natural way," says Garrett.
Feed your soil with organic matter (leaves, good mulch, grass clippings and compost) to improve its health. Good soil produces healthy plants that naturally resist pests and disease, and require less water. If you're throwing away raked leaves and other natural yard debris, you're wasting money.
"Stop sending your natural fertilizer to the trash heap. You are throwing money away. It's costing all of us money because it's going to the landfill," Garrett says.
If you do buy mulch, Garrett recommends eco-friendly kinds such as melaleuca or eucalyptus — never cypress or pine bark, which don't decompose to feed the soil and which contribute to the destruction of natural forests. Avoid expensive rubber and other synthetic mulches that don't feed the soil either, he adds.
Don't use toxic chemicals
Force-feeding your plants chemical fertilizers and spraying synthetic pesticides and herbicides treat only symptoms, not the real problem, Garrett says. Besides polluting the environment and damaging the soil, you're wasting time and money. Furthermore, you're turning your plants into addicts that are hooked on costly fertilizers to perk them up and sprays to treat problems they're too weak to tackle. Feed the soil and your naturally charged plants will reap the benefits, Garrett says.
Change how you use water
According to Lamp'l, if gardeners collectively watered early in the morning (when there's less evaporation) instead of in the midday sun, the United States would save at least 700-billion gallons of water annually. Even more could be saved if people stopped overwatering.
"You have to stop watering so much. Let the soil breathe properly and let the roots get oxygenated and develop," Garrett says. Plants need about one inch of water per week.
If you have an irrigation system, use an automatic rain sensor to prevent overwatering. Switch traditional sprinkler heads to drip systems that conserve water. Don't forget rain water. Six-hundred gallons of water fall onto a typical 1,000-square-foot roof during a rainstorm, Lamp'l says; an inexpensive rain barrel can be set up to catch some of the runoff.
Rethink turf grass
If you can't remove or reduce turf grass, the highest-maintenance and most expensive plant you'll ever grow, at least lower its environmental impact. Garrett recommends watering deeply but infrequently, fertilizing with natural organics, mowing at a higher setting, removing weeds by hand and leaving grass clippings on the lawn to nourish the soil. You can reduce air and noise pollution by using an old-fashioned reel mower or an electric or battery-powered mower.
Make wise plant choices
What you grow has an enormous impact on the environment. Choose Florida-friendly and native plants that require less water and are typically pest- and disease-resistant. Many plants that produce berries or flowers attract desirable wildlife, such as birds, butterflies and bees. Don't forget fruit trees, vegetables and herbs, which can be grown with other plants or in patio containers.
Take baby steps
Even seemingly minor actions can help improve the environment. Toss your morning coffee grounds on planting beds or in containers for a good organic feeding. Instead of chemical sprays, use an outdoor-rated electric fan outside to deter mosquitoes (they can't fly in the wind). Shop at garden centers that stock organic products and request them at stores that don't. If enough customers speak up, more products may become available.
Even if your outdoor space is small, you can still honor Earth. All it takes is a single potted plant on a balcony or patio to help reduce harmful chemicals in the air, produce oxygen, cool the environment and, if you ask any gardener, bring more happiness into the world.
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.