Grow an Earth-friendly garden

April 18, 2011|By ANNETTE IPSAN

In honor of Earth Day, I thought I'd share my top tips for environmentally friendly gardens.

Gardeners can have a tremendous, positive impact on the environment by adopting a few simple practices that nourish, rather than harm, the world in which we live.

Compost is the best thing you can add to your soil. It lightens the heavy clay soil, holds moisture, feeds beneficial soil creatures like earthworms and grows healthier plants. Making compost is as easy as layering food scraps, chopped leaves, grass clippings and other natural materials in a 3-foot pile and turning it occasionally. You'll have gardener's gold in three to six months.

Chemicals should be your last resort when battling bad bugs since there are so many effective organic controls. Floating row covers, handpicking and time-honored techniques like crop rotation work well as do products such as insecticidal soap, horticultural oil and Bt. Using fewer chemicals also encourages good bugs that eat bad bugs. Go to and type in the name of an insect under plant diagnostics for organic control options.

Wise water practices make gardening easier and keep plants healthy. Water in the morning to avoid evaporation and disease problems. Use soaker hoses or drip irrigation to lessen your water use. Add a rain barrel to capture free water from your roof. And water deeply and less often to encourage roots to grow deep and strong.

Add some native plants to your garden. The tough broads of the plant kingdom, native plants are lovely, low-maintenance plants that grow here naturally and support local wildlife. Bluebells, black-eyed Susan, Joe Pye weed, coral honeysuckle, winterberry and river birch are just a few of the native options. Go to to learn more from the Maryland Native Plant Society.

Avoid automatic applications of fertilizer. Instead, get a soil test, which will tell you what your soil needs to grow healthy plants. A soil test costs less than $10 and can save you big bucks. Excess fertilizer is a primary pollutant to local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. So, know what you need and apply it according to the labeled directions.

Don't give your lawn a crew cut. Instead, set your mower to 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches to build a healthier lawn. Higher, denser grass is more resistant to weeds, pests and drought. For more lawn care tips, go to and click on publications, online and lawn. Select HG-102, Lawn Establishment, Renovation and Overseeding.  

Mulch holds moisture, prevents weeds, feeds the soil and moderates soil temperature. But you can have too much of a good thing. Avoid piling mulch high into a towering mulch volcano. Two to three inches of mulch is ideal. More creates an ideal environment for pests, disease and rot. So, go easy.

I hope you'll try some of my Earth Day tips and enjoy your beautiful, environmentally smart, naturally healthy landscape.  

I also hope you will visit the master gardeners' annual plant sale on Saturday, April 30, from 8 a.m. to noon. We'll have hundreds of plants grown by master gardeners and a garden market brimming with values. Come early. The plants go quickly.    

Annette Ipsan is the Extension educator for horticulture and the Master Gardener program in Washington County for the University of Maryland Extension. She can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1604 or by e-mail at

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