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Make your garden greener

January 31, 2009

By JOE LAMP'L

Scripps Howard News Service

In referring to my book title, "The Green Gardener's Guide," someone asked me recently, "Aren't all gardens green?" That simple yet serious question stopped me in my tracks. Little did he realize how well he summarized the incorrect assumption of millions of gardeners out there today.

Allow me to state for the record: All gardens are not green. In fact, according to a recent National Gardening Association survey, only about 5 percent of gardeners adhere strictly to organic-gardening methods. The vast majority falls far short of creating a truly eco-friendly garden and landscape.

Unfortunately, as we gardeners and weekend warriors create so much beauty, the environmental price we pay can be quite costly.

Take water consumption. About 30 percent of all consumption goes to outdoor use and about half of that is wasted, mostly due to evaporation and runoff. In this time of critical water shortages, conserving water is more important than ever.

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If we could learn to water during the dew cycle (from late at night until the early morning) and use automatic timers, soaker hoses and drip irrigation, we would save significant water in the process and keep our plants healthier by reducing the amount of time foliage stays wet.

Over-watering also contributes greatly to runoff. When water moves across our property, it takes with it topsoil and a plethora of chemicals, from fertilizers to pesticides and herbicides. Many of these chemicals end up in storm drains and waterways, ultimately harming aquatic life and disrupting ecosystems, not to mention the health risks to humans.

On another note, maintaining our landscapes with equipment powered by gasoline engines pollutes the air at a rate far greater than you might have imagined. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a standard gasoline-powered lawn mower used for an hour pollutes as much as 40 cars on the road for the same amount of time.

Today, engineless reel mowers, similar to what our grandparents used, are lighter and stronger than ever.

Ball-bearing wheels and stainless-steel blades make cutting the lawn almost fun again. Alternately, rechargeable and electric mowers and landscaping equipment now rival gasoline-powered models yet offer greener choices while eliminating the need to ever reach for a gasoline can.

Even simple things like using certified mulch in your flower and vegetable beds can make a big difference in greening your garden. It's possible that the mulch you are using could contain dangerous material, such as arsenic from pressure-treated wood. To know that the mulch and soil you are buying is free of this and other chemical risks, look for the Mulch and Soil Council's Certification seal. Any bagged product bearing that seal is certified to be free of unacceptable material. In my eco-friendly garden, there's no other option.

And speaking of unacceptable, random spraying with synthetic or even organic, non-selective insect controls when only 3 percent of insects in our gardens are actually considered pests is anything but green.

In the process, we put the other 97 percent neutral and beneficial insects at risk. Similarly, about 7 million birds die each year from the residual effects of consuming insects poisoned by our backyard pesticides, according to Dr. Stephen Kress of the National Audubon Society. The better option is a more proactive approach. By connecting with and visiting your garden on a regular basis, we can prevent a majority of problems before they get out of hand. When control is necessary, more benign solutions are often just as effective when caught early.

Finally, one of the easiest steps we can take for a greener garden is to simply put the right plant in the right place. It sounds simple, and it is. When a plant is placed in its proper growing environment, it is more robust and vigorous without the need for supplemental fertilizer. A healthy plant is also naturally more pest- and disease-resistant. The result is a garden that thrives without the need for extra chemical controls.

So, are all gardens really green? Not yet, but the more we know about how to make them so, the sooner we can get there.

Joe Lamp'l, host of "GardenSMART" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.

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