Far too late this spring for efficient planning, I got bitten by a gardening bug. You know the kind: a large beetle-like apparition that sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear about hydrangeas until you find yourself wandering, dazed, through what seems like acres of plant nurseries, credit card in hand.
Or perhaps that sort of thing just happens to me. At any rate, given my lack of actual information about growing things, after spending a penny or two on some fancy and not-so-fancy plants, I panicked and decided I’d better bone up on how not to kill them right away.
I’ll be first to admit I’m an inconsistent, mostly aspirational, green-to-black thumber. Indeed, it should be stipulated that I spent much of my wayward adolescence brattily refusing to assist my parents as they toiled about our yard. I was too busy
watching reruns of Three’s Company reading War and Peace. So I’ll forgive their incredulity now as I plumb the soil, or gad about with my trowel like a dowsing rod that could point the way to my misspent youth.
As a semi-grown-up, I first got interested in gardening during the all-too-brief period in which I lived — believe it — in Manhattan. We paid literally one million dollars per month for 600 square feet on the Upper West Side, at garden level, and had our own tiny patch of ground. It was such a luxury to have a patio “area” that I wanted to try at least to make it nicer than the patch of scrubby dirt that greeted us with appropriate NYC diffidence.
But I knew nothing, and knew I knew nothing. My folks — ever willing to assist in my flights of fancy on the cheap, bless’em — actually drove up from Virginia with patches of sod and spare hostas and other plants liberated from their own yard. And friends came by to help us dig and install (thanks, Steve!). A few days of work, and this:
Eventually became this:
It was bliss. And then, sadly, we moved. And then, happily, had a baby. Two years after being installed in a house with a postage stamp yard in Takoma Park, I had barely lifted a three-pronged diggy thing. Sometime this past April, I looked around in despair and decided change had to come, and that change was me.
But since my last short-lived pass at gardening, I had a green awakening and started this blog. So I resolved to look into what I was doing to the yard and why, rather than just purchasing some pretty flowers and plopping them in as before.
Here’s the upshot (get ready to be shocked, I tell you, shocked…): while it’s possible to do gardening with environmental concerns in mind, it’s not always as easy as it should be.
There’s actually a ton of greenwashing in gardening. As I discovered, the garden sections of stores are filled with poorly labeled plants — most do not say whether they are native or not (hint: most are not) — while the shelves are filled with (Monsanto‘s) chemical solutions to common gardening problems, lead- and PVC-laden garden hoses, “organic” potting soil that uses both chicken parts from who-knows-where and peat moss from our rapidly depleting carbon-sink bogs, and plastic, lots of plastic.
Although I’m a newbie gardener, below I offer some resources as I’ve discovered them to date. I also hope for your assistance as people who actually Know Things About Plants in sharpening the list and offering more tips.
Don’t Get Soiled
Soil is home for your plants. Just like your home, you’ll want it to be free of nasty chemicals. Most gardening store have an array of options, many of them proclaiming themselves to be organic in large fonts and bright colors.
It’d be nice if we could believe these eye-catching appeals to eco-sensitivity, but it’s just not that easy. There are actually no labeling rules that define “organic” with regard to soil, so that “organic” in this context can just mean, well, organic matter. Duh.
The upshot is that it takes some work to figure out what you’re feeding your plants. Be sure to eyeball the list of ingredients on the back of the bag. Of concern are the fertilizers, in particular something called “poultry litter.” The name is vague, but poultry litter, to put it simply, is everything that can be shoveled from the floor of a poultry farm, including excrement, bedding, feathers and feed.
Some manufactures purchase their litter from big factory farms like Perdue, and while the soil may be advertised as organic, Perdue doesn’t observe organic practices. It stands to reason that if the source of the litter isn’t organic, the litter isn’t organic either. The easiest way to know if your “organic” soil is actually organic is to look for a label from the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).
My personal faves are Organic Mechanic (which is a company with major ambitions to do this right) and Black Gold. There’s also the option of making your own soil at home, which requires a robust compost and likely some experimentation to get it right. We’ve just started composting at home, using lawn clippings and kitchen scraps, and I can’t wait to work it into the heavy clay soil around the house next spring.
Harry Potting (Mix)
Potting mix is the way to go if using containers for your plants inside or out or need to root seeds. But watch for vermiculite, a mineral that comes with a sordid past.
For decades, the primary source of vermiculite sold in the United States was a mine in Libby, Montana. The mine had a natural deposit of asbestos, and much of the vermiculite extracted from the mine was badly contaminated. Asbestos-tainted vermiculite is less of a concern now, because the mine closed in 1990, but vermiculite is still not risk-free, and even a tiny amount of asbestos can be harmful if it gets into your lungs. According to a piece on Eartheasy:
Today, most vermiculite is safe. However, that is not to say it cannot contain asbestos. Vermiculite which is accompanied by a great deal of dust likely has residual asbestos in its contents and should be used with caution. Current EPA regulations ban products which contain 1% or more asbestos. Unfortunately even products containing less that 1% asbestos are still extremely hazardous, particularly when in loose dust form as vermiculite often is manufactured.
Mulch is great for your garden. It helps soil retain water, suppresses weeds and prevents compaction. There are a variety of kinds available, each offering its own unique benefits. As you decide which one best suits the needs of your garden, keep a few things in mind.
Peat moss, which is made up of partially decomposed plants, has a great earthy aroma and supplies nutrients to plants as they need them. However, it accumulates in peat bogs, and to remove the peat, the bogs must be drained, contributing to wetland degradation. Additionally, peat bogs are one of Mother Nature’s most effective tools to combat climate change. The peat acts like a sponge, absorbing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When peat moss is removed, not only is a natural carbon sponge lost, but the harvested peat actually releases carbon dioxide back into the environment.
Cypress mulch is another popular mulch that comes at a high cost to the environment. To produce the mulch, manufacturers have destroyed vast swaths of cypress forests in Florida and Louisiana. The forests are home to all sorts of creatures but also act as natural buffers against storms and hurricanes. Once destroyed, the majority of them won’t grow back.
Be careful when buying wood mulches. It’s possible, though not likely today, that the wood was treated with Chromated Copper Arsenate and can leach arsenic. To make sure the mulch you’re buying is safe, look for a label indicating that it’s been certified by the Mulch and Soil Council, which tests products for the presence of treated wood.
Plastic mulch is made from polyethylene, which is considered one of the safer types of plastic out there, but why use it, given the many alternatives? Plastic mulch isn’t biodegradable and will eventually end up in a landfill or the ocean, where it harms sea life. It also blocks water from penetrating the soil and can cause runoff.
Cocoa hulls add nutrients to your soil and will make your garden smell like chocolate, but choose another mulch if you have a dog. Chocolate is toxic to dogs, and cocoa hulls can make your pooch very sick if ingested.
Many municipalities and counties now collect leaves and other garden waste for mulching, which can be less expensive than other mulches. Leaf mulch is excellent for soil development, but not as good at suppressing weeds as wood or other types of mulch. The drawback is that yard waste can contain pesticides and other chemicals used on lawns. As it’s impossible to tell what’s in it, locally-made mulch is not the best choice for organic food gardens, but it may be perfect for flower beds.
Keeping a garden watered over the hot summer months can be a demanding proposition, so there are a couple ways to reduce the impact your garden has on the water supply. To conserve, water at night and early in the morning, when the temperatures are cooler and the water is less likely to evaporate right away. Just be sure to keep an eye out for rot and fungus, and switch to early mornings if the water is sitting overnight.
You can also set up a rain barrel to collect water that runs off your roof. After the initial investment in the barrel, the water comes at no cost. Montgomery County, near where I live, has a substantial tax credit for “rainscaping,” including rain barrels, porous paving and rain gardens (the program unfortunately excludes Takoma Park. Grr…).
Rain barrels are easily found at most gardening stores, but you can also build them yourself. Be aware that unless you rig up a pump, the water will best be used in irrigation-style drip hoses dug into the ground.
Unfortunately, the common garden hose also has a problem, besides the ubiquitous kinks. Many are made of PVC, include harmful pthalates, and have lead in the fittings and other parts, as an environmental investigation by Healthy Stuff found. As I use ours to water our ostensibly organic garden and to fill various water play stations for Maya, as well as with the sprinkler she plays in, I searched high and low for a better option. I found this rubber hose, which does appear to be lead free. Once you learn to lay it out flat, it works just fine, and no lead or other issues of concern!
Non-native species are sold at many gardening stores, and the more aggressive among them out-compete their native counterparts and spread, so checking on pedigree a bit before you plant is a good idea for both planning your yard and the planet. Some plants, like the butterfly bush running wild in my yard in the picture above, have both more and less invasive versions, or are considered invasive in certain zones of the country, so be sure you know what you’re getting into.
I’ve found gardening stores to be, well, less than forthcoming on these grounds, and even the better ones tend to hide their less showy native plants in a back corner somewhere. But perseverance and research pay off, especially if you invest in perennials that return each year. Be sure to “amend” your soil generously if needed to assist a new planting, and to monitor how plants are doing to be sure that they are happy in their new homes.
To learn if you are unwittingly introducing a hostile species into your ecosystem, do a little research before buying. Here’s a list of problem plants and native alternatives in the Mid-Atlantic region and here’s another helpful source for native plants and garden design (pdf), as well as a list of resources from Montgomery County’s Rainscapes program. You can also find a list of solutions specific to your state here and a list of attractive native substitutes here (pdf). Native species are wonderful to mix in with other plants, as I have, or to plant exclusively as purists do, because they help to sustain the local ecosystem and nurture bumblebees, which are fighting a terrible battle with colony collapse, as well as butterflies and other species.
If you feel overwhelmed, you can always call in a professional, but be sure that they are on the same wavelength. Where I live has a small but very nice community of folks who are more eco-minded, including a specialist in local wild edibles and a local expert in creating kitchen gardens and children’s natural discovery areas. Another easy way to avoid invasive plants and learn about native options is to participate in a plant swap and solicit the advice of knowledgeable gardeners in your area. There are a ton of online exchange communities and list servs in which real gardeners swap plants and trade knowledge, all for free or for a low cost to join.
Plant swaps are another great way to expand your garden, pick up tips and connect with your community. The native plant swap school fundraiser I attended last spring was the beginning of my gardening obsession and a great way to give back to the community. Plants like bee balm, native ferns, and wildflowers (some of which are edible) are wonderful additions to gardens. If you discover that your area doesn’t have a swap, here’s how to organize one yourself….
You can also offer unwanted plants from your yard (and sometimes even get others to dig them up for you!), or ask for cuttings on neighborhood list servs, which is how I got several new hydrangeas and rose plants this year. Friendly folks actually allowed me to prowl their yard at will, and about a third of the plants actually survived my clumsy attempts to root them.
To deal with cuttings properly, just strip the bottom leaf nodes and plant. Be sure to grow more delicate plants like hydrangeas under old, large glass jars to protect them as they learn to root. A rooting mix works nicely for these, and you can even use disposable cups you have hanging around, as I did. You can also plant seeds and scraps from your kitchen, like avocado pits (but don’t expect fruit for years, if ever!) and even pineapple tops.
The same process worked with this rosemary from a friend’s large and healthy plant. I rooted it in water for three weeks or so, without any cover, and when it sprouted, I planted it. More rosemary for the garden!
Your Lawn, by Monsanto
Here’s the bottom line on pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Don’t use them. They contain neurotoxins, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. They kill insects and animals besides those you’re targeting, including honeybees, according to the current research and the European Union’s ban on a certain classes of pesticides. They also contaminate the watershed when they’re swept away in runoff. And children are exposed whenever they play outside.
Here’s just one write-up of a single product, in a Forbes article on “green-ish” efforts by the folks who brought us Miracle-Gro:
The active ingredient in Scotts Turf Builder with Plus 2 Weed Control is 2,4-d, which is made from dichlorophenol and acetic acid. It can kill dandelions, but it’s nasty stuff, capable of causing nervous system, kidney and liver damage in humans.
Need more evidence? Here’s the excellent Beyond Pesticides site:
Of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are possible and/or known carcinogens, 18 have the potential to disrupt the endocrine (hormonal) system, 19 are linked to reproductive effects and sexual dysfunction, 11 have been linked to birth defects, 14 are neurotoxic, 24 can cause kidney or liver damage, and 25 are sensitizers and/or irritants. Children are especially sensitive to pesticide exposure as they take in more pesticides relative to their body weight than adults and have developing organ systems that are more vulnerable and less able to detoxify toxic chemicals.
My own fair city of Takoma Park is one of the first larger local jurisdictions in the U.S. to ban lawn pesticides earlier this month, a fact about which I am unduly proud despite the fact that I was not at all involved. Yay us.
By taking steps to promote a healthy garden, you can minimize problems with pests and weeds. You can use mulch, edge your garden beds well, and use ground covers and competing plants to suppress weeds, and when buying plants, choose ones that are pest-resistant. There are also natural weed-killers you can mix up from dish-soap, vinegar, salt and related ordinary ingredients.
Of course, the most direct way is to get on your knees and pull them out. While you are cursing them, you can reflect on the fact that gardening — and actual contact with soil — is an effective way to replenish your microbial health. And if you feel like giving up or giving in, you could always eat your dandelions. Jo Robinson’s new book, Eat Wild, is my vacation reading for next week. I’m so excited to start nibbling what I find on the lawn!
Raised garden beds are one of the most common sources of toxins in a garden. The wood that’s used to retain the soil is sometimes treated with chromated copper arsenate, which prevents rot but also leaches arsenic, or copper azole, which includes a potent fungicide. If you’ve inherited one of these beds, remove the wood and transfer the soil to somewhere children and pets won’t contact it.
When building a new bed or replacing one, choose types of wood that are naturally rot-resistant like juniper or cedar. Some companies offer pre-made beds as well, though I don’t think the information on the sealant this company uses is very clear. For greater rot resistance, you can use milk paint, which is naturally non-toxic. Milk paint is available in stores but it requires only a few ingredients, and if you’re feeling particularly crafty, you can make it at home.
Last, as summer turns to fall, don’t forget the many indoor gardening options. If you’re feeling hip, you could always order up one of these new super cool miniature fish-tank-herb-gardens from Back to the Roots, which are a closed-loop waste cycle as well as a meditative design element for your living room.
If you have other tips, please let me know! And feel free to check out my Pinterest page on gardening, which has many, many more design ideas. Happy growing!