ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY GARDEN BOOKLET
Healthy plants are a direct result of a healthy soil. It is that simple; feed the soil and it will feed the plant. Soil is alive. One cup of healthy soil contains more microbes than there are people on Earth. The microorganisms in the soil are an essential component of the web of life because plants depend on them for their survival, and we and other living creatures depend on plants.
Without plants we would have no food or oxygen; terrestrial life would cease. Plant roots release nutrients to the soil to nourish the billions of microorganisms that in turn will convert mineral and organic material into a form that the plant can absorb. These organisms also protect the plant from pathogens and pests.
Through the process of digesting and assimilating the remains of dead plants and animals, soil microbes release carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide that plants need to conduct photosynthesis. This is an integral part of the life cycle. Synthetic chemicals, improper watering and compaction destroy microbes and macro organisms like earthworms, arthropods and mammals that all live in the soil, breaking the soil food web cycle. Read more to learn about the structure of soil, the organisms it contains, and the practices that can help or harm it.
Select the right plants for the location. For example, plants that thrive in dry, sunny conditions will not thrive in a damp, shady location. Plants native or adapted to your area are disease and pest resistant, drought tolerant, generally cold hardy and attract beneficial insects. Plant diversity attracts diverse wildlife and creates a healthier ecosystem. What steps should you take to plant trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables and grasses?
Maintenance of your Garden
Visit this website for a wealth of information on gardening without toxic chemicals. Short “How To” videos will educate you about numerous subjects ranging from how to make compost tea, to soil testing, to controlling weeds. http://www.safelawns.org
Once your garden is up and growing, it’s not so much digging in the dirt that’s going to keep you busy as much as the daily maintenance. Here are some helpful hints for maintaining your garden.
Irrigation: Over-watering weakens plants, increasing chances of disease and promoting runoff that pollutes our waterways. Conserve water whenever possible. Earth is 70% water with only 2.5% fit for human consumption. Much of that is threatened. When soil contains 4â€“5% organic matter, it holds more than 4 times the amount of water than soil with only 1Â½â€“2% organic matter, conserving water, thereby reducing erosion and runoff.
Fertilization: Remember healthy soil feeds the plant. Avoid artificial, high-nitrogen, water-soluble fertilizers because they can harm the soil and the ground water with the salts that they leave behind. Large doses of soluble Nitrogen create succulent growth. The abnormally thin plant cell walls are easily penetrated by pathogens and become a magnet for insects. Root development is diminished and forced shoot growth raises water requirements. As Howard Garrett says,
“Feeding your plants nothing but nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K)â€¦is like feeding your kids nothing but white bread.” Plants need at least 18â€“20 elements, not just three. Apply high quality compost, seaweed extracts, alfalfa meal, organic fertilizers like Microlife, rock powders and more. Sending your bags of leaves to the dump is equivalent to throwing fertilizer away. Leave grass clippings on your lawn. Deep feeding your trees does not make sense because the top 4″ of the soil contains the microbes that feed the tree.
Disease, Pest and Weed Control: Stressed plants are disease prone and attract insects. Stress can be the result of poor plant selection, compaction, nutrient-deprived soil, poor irrigation practices, poor pruning, and poor mulching. The so-called bad bugs account for only 1â€“2% of all insects; the rest are the beneficial insects that will keep the bad bugs in balance. Artificial chemical pesticides don’t discriminate. They harm the good guys along with the bad and also kill other forms of wildlife that are essential to a balanced eco-system, such as lizards, frogs, turtles, birds. Often they are very unhealthy for humans as well. Controlling diseases and pests organically is not difficult or expensive. An application of high quality compost will solve many of your problems. Cornmeal is an excellent fungicide for diseases like brown patch. Weeds are messengers telling you that something is wrong with your soil. Vinegar is an effective herbicide.
Mowing, Trimming, Pruning: Raise the cut of the grass to allow more root mass and deeper roots that consume less energy. Higher cutting creates a denser canopy that shades the soil and reduces soil temperature and moisture evaporation. Removing more than 1/3 of the grass blades during mowing can arrest root growth for more than a month. Prune trees in the winter while they are dormant. Pruning should preserve the natural character of a tree or shrub. Heavy thinning should be avoided because it will weaken the root system. Removal of lower limbs will stress the tree by making it less stable in high winds. When removing branches, avoid flush cuts and long stubs that slow healing. Preserve the small stub called the “branch collar.”
Mulch and Compost: All mulches and composts are not alike and names can be misleading. They should smell sweet, reminding you of the smell of a damp forest floor. Beware of mulches and composts that contain pieces of shredded pallets and chemicals that are often added to give them a black color. Composting turns the material into a dark chocolate brown; no dyes or chemical are required to achieve this color. When selecting a mulch, steer clear of those that contain bark, but be aware that almost any mulch is better than bare soil. Bark robs plants of nitrogen and creates nutrient tie-up problems. Consider adding an inch of finished compost before you add mulch because it contains a huge number of beneficial microbes.
An excellent choice of mulch for gardens, flower beds and potting mix is “Aged Native Hardwood Mulch” (Aged means composted – this is key). The feedstock for this wonderful mulch is “Native Hardwood Mulch” which consists of ground fresh green tree and brush material, not bark. Composting kills pathogens and weed seeds and allows the beneficial microbes to multiply. Native Hardwood Mulch that is not aged is used as a special purpose mulch to break up gumbo clay. It works well over a layer of compost and its lighter color is beneficial for some plants and can brighten shady areas. While Pine Bark is cheap, it is a poor choice because it contains turpentine that kills microbes, floats out of beds, attracts fire ants, and depletes nitrogen. “Hardwood Mulch” is made primarily from the bark of any hardwood tree like hickory, elm, pecan, mesquite, oak, etc. In the Houston area, Hardwood Mulch is usually oak bark. Hardwood barks contain tannic acid that kill microbes and attract termites.
John Ferguson, owner of Nature’s Way Resources in Conroe, Texas, offers this ranking of different mulches: aged native mulch (excellent); pine straw (very good); aged leaves (good), but they should be shredded and partially composted and they can blow away; cedar flakes (good), but should be composted to break down growth suppressing oils; cypress bark (medium to good); shredded hardwood mulch (fair to good), but it can form a tight mat which is resistant to water; shredded pine bark (poor). Living mulches are low growing plants such as grasses, groundcovers and shrubs that keep the soil covered, shading and cooling it in summer and keeping it warm in winter. To mulch your trees correctly, extend the mulch to the drip line. Do not allow the mulch to touch to trunk of the tree. You should be able to see the root flare. When you apply mulch to other plants, leave a gap of 1â€“2″ from the trunks or crowns.
Further Reading on Mulch and Compost
- Compost or “Black Gold”
- Earthworms – The Benefits
- Common Questions and Answers About Composting
- Sources for Mulch and Compost in the Houston Area
A satisfactory plan is a realistic plan. Gardens don’t stand still as there are always shrubs to prune, grass to mow and leaves to rake. First, consider the purpose of your garden and the type of garden you want. Then study the these principles of landscaping:
- Balance of shape, size and colors
- Proportion and unity
- Contrast of textures
- Focus of views
- Safety and convenience
- Ease of maintenance
Be sure to group your plants according to similar water needs.