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Gardening Columns

Earth Day, Every Day

First published on on April 23, 2009, by Suzanne DeJohn

In a recent poll, Vermont was ranked the "greenest" state in the country. The purpose of the Eco-Insights poll, conducted by Pitney Bowes Business Insight and Earthsense, was to determine whether consumer behavior matched attitudes. In other words, do people who say they believe in protecting the environment actually act on their beliefs? It appears that in Vermont the answer is yes -- at least moreso than in other states.

While I'm proud of Vermont's new #1 status, I think environmental awareness tends to run high among gardeners no matter where they live. Nurturing and observing plants are wonderful ways for both children and adults to become more sensitive to the natural world, and this, in turn, encourages feelings of stewardship. Earth Day is an especially good time to reflect on our gardening activities and evaluate just how "green" we're growing. 

Evaluate the Impacts
By its very nature, gardening affects the natural environment. If you've ever watched a garden or yard revert to its natural state, you've seen how weeds, shrubs, and eventually sapling trees take over. A large part of gardening is simply keeping nature at bay by weeding, mowing, and mulching! 

We can, however, minimize the environmental impacts of our landscapes. Perhaps the most important step is minimizing pesticide use. I believe in the principles of organic gardening, and use organic pest control methods in my garden -- which includes using organic pesticides as a last resort. One of the chief benefits of organic pesticides is that they don't persist in the environment -- that is, they break down quickly into harmless substances. (In contrast, synthetic pesticides may persist for weeks or years. DDT was such a pernicious pesticide because it didn't break down, but rather accumulated in the food chain.) However, overdoing it with any pesticide, organic or not, poses risks to the environment. For example, Bt, an organic biological control for caterpillars, will kill butterfly larvae as well as pest caterpillars, so it should be used judiciously. 

Ironically, we can minimize pest problems by minimizing pesticide use! Without pesticides, our landscapes will become more inviting to a diversity of insects and animals, from mosquito-eating bats to slug-eating toads to caterpillar-eating birds. In nature, most pests are kept in check by natural predators and it's rare to find one pest species decimating large areas. (Most large-scale pest problems, such as Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, and gypsy moths, have been caused by non-native species that have no natural enemies.)

Look at the Source
With the growing concern about where and how our food is grown, our first step is to look in our own backyards. For example, the best resource for our gardens is right in our compost piles. Many of our landscape's nutrient requirements can be filled by composting vegetable scraps and garden wastes. For supplemental nutrients, look locally first. Does your community have a municipal composting facility from which you can purchase bulk compost? Can you get composted manure from a local farm? 

How about mulch? Can you buy shredded bark from a local sawmill, rather than purchasing bagged (and often dyed) mulch trucked in from who knows where? How about using compost as mulch, or shredded leaves?

Buying locally supports our communities, reduces the amount of petroleum needed to ship materials over long distances, and minimizes the likelihood of importing exotic pests. 

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
To help minimize the impact of our purchases, we should consider the recyclability of products we buy, or, better yet, look for products containing recycled materials. Choose plastic planters and lawn furniture made from recycled materials, for example. As a culture, we've become obsessed with convenience, often at the expense of the environment. Witness the proliferation of noisy leaf blowers. What happened to raking leaves and sweeping walkways -- quieter, less expensive, gasoline-free alternatives that provide some exercise to boot!

Even with all the talk of minimizing this and avoiding that, don't let ecologically minded gardening become an exercise in deprivation. Rather, look at it as a way to make your own landscape part of a larger global landscape. Enjoy your Eden knowing that you are contributing to the overall health and well-being of the Earth. That's what Earth Day is all about, isn't it?


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