You can grow a little greener next spring by making a few simple changes in how you tend your grass and your garden.
Although we try, it's not as easy as you might think for gardeners to be green. Carbon dioxide emissions from our lawn mowers and tillers pollute the air, which in turn, makes our world warmer. And pesticides and fertilizers that we use on our lawns, vegetables and trees can run off and pollute waterways. Now that most of us are laying plans for how we'll improve our lawns and gardens next spring, we also need to be thinking about how we'll reduce our negative impact on the environment. Here are three ways to grow greener:
One way to reduce your carbon footprint is to reduce the time you spend behind your gas-powered lawn mower or tiller. Consider switching to an electric mower or even an old-fashioned reel mower.
No matter which kind of mower you use, it would be wise to cut down on how often you mow the lawn. Grass will develop stronger roots and grow more slowly if you let it get to 3 inches tall. When you mow it, remove only an inch at a time.
Many garden experts are rethinking regular garden tilling. Over time, tilling can destroy the complex structure of the soil, making it harder to for air to infiltrate the ground where it's needed -- at the roots of plants. Consider creating a no-till garden. Instead of digging up a large area, with no-till gardening you dig only a small hole for each plant, leaving the rest of the soil undisturbed under a thick layer of organic mulch, which blocks weeds and fertilizes the soil as it breaks down. To learn more about no-till gardening, check out Lee Reich's book "Weedless Gardening" (Workman Publishing, $8.95).
Too many of us use too much fertilizer and apply it incorrectly, especially on our lawns. To grow a healthy lawn, you need only about 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn per year. Applying fertilizer in late summer or early fall is best for the grass because that's when grass naturally stores nutrients.
Fertilizers applied to lawns need to stay on the lawn. Most fertilizers should be watered in after they're applied to help them stay put. Fertilizer -- even organic fertilizer such as corn gluten meal -- that gets onto roads or sidewalks will disappear down the storm drain and pollute lakes and streams. So be sure to apply fertilizer carefully, sweeping up any granules that end up on your sidewalks or driveways.
Until the 1950s, when we started using fertilizers on our lawns, clover was often planted with grass. Clover collects nitrogen from the air and, when it is cut, it provides this nitrogen to the grass. If you want a naturally healthy lawn, consider adding some clover seed to your grass. You probably won't find clover seed in your local garden center, but you can find it on the Web. If you do plant some clover, be aware that most herbicides designed to control dandelions, creeping Charlie and other weeds also will kill clover.
Pare back on herbicides
There's simply no need to apply weedkillers four or five times a year, as some lawn-care companies recommend. That's too much, too often and the risk of runoff from these chemicals -- and the fertilizers that often are applied with them -- far exceeds the aesthetic benefit from having a weed-free lawn.
If you do apply an herbicide to kill dandelions, creeping Charlie and other weeds, the time to do so is in the early fall. A safer way to deal with weeds is to pull them by hand. Weeding is effective -- and it's great exercise, to boot.
Jeff Gillman is an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Minnesota and author of "The Truth About Garden Remedies" and "The Truth About Organic Gardening" (Timber Press, $12.95).