During the second week of each month, we publish an environmental issues column submitted by IGov, an intergovernmental entity composed of two representatives each from the Village, Public Library, Park District, Township, and School Districts 97 and 200.
The garden season offers opportunities to work sustainably with plants, lawns and shrubs. Even when we’ve finished the annuals and perennials we started from seed or bought from local nurseries, we still need to be smart in the garden.
The right plant in the right place and treated correctly is a time-honored garden wisdom. You wouldn’t plant a banana or coconut because they are native to tropical climes. We all have our favorite decorative ornamental plants and garden vegetables, and when choosing additions for the garden, it helps to add plants, shrubs, and trees that are native to the Midwest.
Native plants are home to an abundance of insects and while we keep a close eye on anything that crawls, flies or buzzes, most birds feed their newly hatched babies a bountiful diet of bugs and insects. For this reason, gardeners are encouraged to leave things messy in the fall, as many of them overwinter in the dried stems and leaf litter that result when temperatures rise in spring.
There is no one right way to garden, although some ways are better than others. Pour. Although we are surrounded by rivers and are adjacent to one of the Great Lakes, water is a finite resource of which plants require quite a supply, typically about an inch per week, more when actively growing, more when hot and is windy . The best time to water is mid-morning, as watering a garden late in the day encourages fungal growth on damp plants and soil overnight.
Mulch helps retain moisture in the soil by reducing evaporation. Laying down a 1- to 2-inch layer of organic matter within several inches of plant stems also keeps weeds under control while slowly breaking it down into nutrients plants need. Uncolored, shredded tree bark is one of the best mulches. Shrubs and trees benefit from a 2- to 4-inch mulch placed in a donut and definitely not a volcano as it can cause rot at the base of the tree or shrub.
Compost prefers the prepared. Really, the old adage is “luck does the favor,” but compost comes a close second. Decayed plant matter that has reached a stable form called humus is an excellent soil amendment because it nourishes soil life, helps structures in the soil hold air and water that plant roots need, buffers fertilizer imbalances, and suppresses disease. You can make your own compost by filling some sort of bin with garden and lawn clippings, kitchen scraps, and all sorts of organic matter with a few sane exceptions like bones or fat. Adding a layer of compost to growing areas in the spring and mid-season also favors soil biological life that feeds through the plant roots to the flowers and fruit you are growing the plant for.
We cut our lawn about 20 times per growing season, and it makes sense to engage in intelligent lawn care. The best time to fertilize is in early spring and then again in the fall. Don’t cut the grass shorter than 3 inches as this will keep the roots cool and the weed seeds will not sprout. Do not pick up the clippings. Leave them and they will collapse and feed the grass. If you decide to water a lawn, water deeply, not frequently; do it in the morning; and make sure water falls on the grass and not around sidewalks and driveways.
Sustainability means using the resources we need for our work wisely and ensuring that the next generations will have at least as many resources.
In addition to smart gardening practices, you can empower yourself by learning about plants, best practices, and new techniques. Visit Section 635 at Oak Park Main Library, check out the University of Illinois Extension website, and talk to your neighbor gardeners. How you treat the soil, the plants you grow, provide a habitat for bugs and insects and birds and all living creatures in the garden and work intelligently with environmental conservation in mind ensures the future availability of natural resources.