Master Tips from a Master Gardener (1/18/18)

Bill Koellner · Tuesday, January 16, 2018
During the winter period, many who garden begin to plan for improving their flower and vegetable gardens and their landscapes.

We never know when we are going to face environmental issues associated with climate. We should focus on using environmentally friendly management practices to produce landscapes that are beautiful, low-maintenance, and sustainable. Our goals for our landscapes are to conserve water and energy, reduce pesticide and fertilizer use, and to recycle landscape wastes.

Unfortunately, these principles can be difficult to implement in an established landscape, especially if you don’t wish to make drastic changes to the existing design and plantings.

I want to share some Master Gardener principles that are practices that can easily be implemented to transform an existing landscape into one that is environmentally friendly.

1. Mulch. Adding and maintaining a minimum three-inch layer of plant-derived mulch, such as native hardwood, will significantly reduce the amount of water required in the landscape.

This is especially true when drip irrigation is placed underneath it. Mulch also helps prevent weeds and erosion, modifies the soil temperature, and serves as continuous supply of organic matter for the soil beneath. Mulch will help keep the roots cool when temperatures are high. Mulch can easily be added to an existing landscape and may be available free from municipal or utility sites.

2. Low-volume irrigation. Micro and drip irrigation is typically at least 90 percent efficient compared to traditional sprinkler irrigation (50 to 70 percent) because it applies water only where it is needed and slowly enough to minimize runoff and evaporation loss.

It also reduces damage and disease on foliage by keeping the water and soil splash off the plants' leaves. A wide variety of products and kits are available. If possible place this installation below the mulch, and use a time to turn the system on and off.

3. Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This balanced approach to pest control focuses on using cultural, biological, and mechanical control measures. Under IPM, chemical control is used only as a last resort.

Strategies include using pest and disease tolerant plants, preserving pest's natural enemies, and excluding or physically removing pests. Chemical treatments are selected carefully and used only when pest populations warrant such measures. In the case of chemical control, select the product that is least toxic, but yet still effective, and avoid using broad-spectrum insecticides that also kill beneficials.

4. Composting. You can convert yard waste such as leaves, grass clippings, and pruning waste into compost, rather than paying to have it removed and added to a landfill.

A properly managed compost pile can produce a valuable soil amendment in one to three months - and often without disagreeable odors. Compost is derived from once-living material so it contains most of the nutrients that plants need in a slow-release form, it improves soil structure, and it is free.

5. Fertilizing based on soil tests. Sampling the soil in your lawn or landscape properly and having it analyzed can help the environment and your wallet. A soil test will reveal the specific nutrients that your soil may be lacking and will help you choose an appropriate fertilizer.

This will allow you to save money and avoid excess nutrient levels in the soil by applying only the type and amount of nutrient needed. You will also reduce pollution in the form of runoff or groundwater contamination. If you use ISU lab, the results of your tests will recommend amounts of nutrients to add to your lawn, flower or vegetable garden.

6. Rainwater harvesting. Collecting and storing rainwater can reduce your water bill. It is also pure, and in areas where tap water is high in salts or chlorine, irrigating with it can allow you to grow sensitive plants such as azalea and camellia where they otherwise could not.

Capturing rainwater is easy if gutters are already in place, but if not, they can easily be installed. Capture and storage can be as simple as placing a barrel under a downspout. You will be amazed at how well house plants will thrive on rainwater.

7. Preparing planting areas. Preparing the soil properly can drastically reduce the need for fertilizers in both new and existing beds. It can also reduce disease problems and the amount of water required. Incorporating at least 3 inches of finished, plant-derived compost into the soil will improve the nutrient and water holding capacity in sandy soils and improve drainage in clay.

Compost supplies nutrients slowly, encourages beneficial soil microorganisms, and allows roots to penetrate deeper for greater water uptake. Raised beds approximately 12 inches high and crowned in the center will greatly improve plant performance where soils drain poorly.

8. Lawn maintenance. Sound lawn management can greatly reduce your lawn's labor, water, and fertilizer requirements. Keeping your lawn mowed to a reasonably greater height promotes a deeper root system, reduces plant stress, and provides more shade for the soil surface.

All these factors reduce the lawn's water needs. Grass clippings generally contain approximately 2 to 3 percent nitrogen. Leaving them on the lawn will significantly reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers. Mulching grass clippings (rather than bagging them) also returns organic matter to the soil.

Summary. Environmentally friendly lawn and garden management is a great way to collectively help and improve your landscape's current effect on the environment. Remember in managing your lawn and gardens, they are like us, they need OXYGEN TO BREATHE, WATER TO DRINK AND FOOD TO EAT.
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