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Garden Guru: Sustainable practices enhance environment

By John Porter
John Porter
A kitchen compost pail allows you collect kitchen scraps until you are ready to take them to the compost bin.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the best recent trends in the gardening world is the increased interest and inclusion of sustainable gardening practices. For those who don't know what "sustainability" is, it's a balance among enhancing the environment, economic viability and improved quality of life.

In short, sustainable practices should make efficient use of natural resources in a way that is cost effective and does not cause the gardener excess work or harm to neighbors.

It's not that sustainable practices, such as composting, don't have added labor. These practices, however, can be kept in balance. Added labor in making your own compost is balanced by the efficient use of natural resources, serves as a low-cost (or free) soil amendment, and reduces the burden on waste collection. In essence, a little elbow grease helps reduce your reliance on fertilizers (and their cost) and has environmental benefits.

Composting: Recycling trash to treasure

One practice on a steady rise in popularity is composting. Whether you are a vegetable gardener, a flower gardener, a farmer or an apartment dweller, composting is an efficient way to turn your kitchen and garden waste into valuable soil amendments for your garden and containers. You can compost outdoors in bins or tumblers or even indoors in small indoor setups that compost through fermentation or worm bins for vermicomposting. Composting is even becoming popular among those who don't garden as a way to cut down waste and carbon footprints -- they give the compost to gardening friends or donate it to community gardens.

The secret to compost is having all the right ingredients in the right proportions. First and foremost are the composting materials -- a combination of green stuff (grass clippings, green leaves and vegetable scraps from the kitchen) and brown stuff (dried leaves, straw, sawdust and shredded paper). While the exact proportions depend on the materials, it is usually a ratio of two to three times more brown than green.

Next, you'll need to make sure that there is enough airflow and water. Air is incorporated by turning compost in bins and tumblers. The indoor fermentation method is anaerobic, meaning that it does not require air, but it has to be processed outside when it's done indoors.

Rain barrels: Harvesting water for the future

Another sustainable garden trend is the use of rain barrels to collect water as it drains down downspouts from the roof. Not only are you using "free" water instead of what comes out of the tap, you are reducing the amount of excess water draining into storm sewers or into streams during periods of rain.

You can use your rain barrel water to fill watering cans, or, if you have it high enough above the garden, you can even use it to supply a low-pressure irrigation system.

You can buy a rain barrel in a variety of designs and colors, or you can make your own, if you can find a food-grade barrel. I found a pamphlet from Washington State University outlining what tools and supplies you'll need to build one from scratch at http://whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/compost/pdfs/rainbarrels.pdf.

I would suggest using a diverter that goes on your downspout and allows the first flush of water to pass down the drain to wash out any debris. It also stops collecting when the barrel is full.

Gardening for the birds (and the bees)

As troubles continue with honeybees and colony collapse disorder, many sustainability-minded gardeners are gardening with native pollinators, such as bees, beetles, birds and bats in mind.

Pollinators are important since they are responsible for well over 30 percent of the food that we eat, mainly fruits and vegetables. Gardeners are giving these critters a hand by planting food for them to eat, both as adults and juveniles.

The website for the Pollinator Partnership (www.pollinator.org) has some great guides on what to plant for each region of the country. Now they even have a smartphone app called "BeeSmart" that you can download from Google Play or Apple.

Pollinators also need some creature comforts, such as a water source and shelter. Bee boxes are becoming popular garden items for solitary bees, and beekeeping as a hobby is also on the increase. One thing all gardeners can do is reduce dependence on chemical pesticides that can harm bees and use pesticides in the evening, when bees are not active.

Reducing inputs all around

There are many more practices you can adopt to become a more sustainable gardener (but they only allow me so much space here). Here's a quick list:

  • Have lawn mowers and power equipment regularly serviced to reduce fuel waste.
  • Test your soil to reduce the amount of fertilizer waste.
  • Reduce the size of your lawn to use less fertilizer, water and fuel.
  • Learn to tolerate small amounts of insect and disease damage to reduce pesticide use.
  • Use native plants to reduce water needs and feed pollinators/wildlife.
  • Use drip irrigation to reduce water usage.
  • Grow perennials instead of annuals to reduce waste (plus it is cheaper and less work in the long run).
  • Grow more food to eat healthier and reduce food transportation and storage.
  • John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.


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