Sustaining the resolution to garden

A cover crop of oats in a raised bed garden.Submitted photo

Dear Aggie: As a gardening New Year’s resolution, I’d like to be more sustainable in my garden. What steps can I take?

This is a great idea! There are three major things you can do to increase sustainability in your landscape. First of all, avoid pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Insecticides just don’t zero in on insect pests, they kill all insects, even the beneficial ones. Several common insecticides are toxic to bees. A class of insecticides called neonicotinoids have been implicated in bee colony collapse disorder. Also, fungicides and herbicides can upset the delicate web of microbial balance in soils. Once this web is disturbed it is very difficult to restore.

Chemical fertilizers are great for instant results, but they do nothing to enhance the soil. If the nutrients are not taken up immediately by plants, they often leach into waterways. On a large scale this can lead to algal blooms. The addition of organic fertilizers like compost and manure will help the soil hold onto water and nutrients, improve microbial activity, and decrease erosion and soil compaction.

A second strategy is to plant native species. Native plants play a critical role in the environment by supporting native birds and insects, especially pollinators. Over thousands of years of evolution all of these organisms have developed ways to work together, and they all play important roles. Non-native plants contribute less to ecosystems. Plus, native plants have fewer management issues since they are better adapted to the local climate and soils.

In relation to this you should avoid planting flower hybrids, cultivars, and varieties. Plant breeders are always developing novel flowers, but often the pollen and nectar is bred out of these flowers. An insect wastes precious energy by visiting flowers that offer no reward. In addition, insects may not recognize flowers that have been changed through breeding. In the case of flowers that are bred for the newly popular ‘double blooms’, the petals are so dense that insects cannot reach the pollen or nectar. ‘Straight’ native species have not been altered and offer the most support to native pollinators.

Finally, keep your soil covered. If you have a garden area that lies bare outside of the growing season, plant a cover crop. Inexpensive and easy to find cover crops for home gardeners include annual rye and oats. Both can be planted at the end of the growing season. They will ‘winter kill’ when temperatures get too cold. The dead vegetation serves as a natural mulch, blocking early spring weeds. You can leave the mulch in place and plant through it, or till the spent plant matter into the soil. Either way, the cover crop stops erosion, loosens soil, preserves microbial activity, adds nutrients, and sequesters carbon.

Written by Sue Gwiwse, horticulture educator

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