The second week of each month, we feature a column on environmental issues submitted by IGov, an intergovernmental body composed of two representatives each from the village, public library, park district, township, and school districts 97 and 200.
The gardening season offers opportunities to work sustainably with plants, lawns and woodies. Even as we finish putting in the annuals and perennials we’ve started from seed or purchased from local nurseries, we need to garden smart.
The right plant in the right place treated in the right way is a time-honored garden dictum. You wouldn’t plant a banana or a coconut because they are native to tropical climes. We all have our favorite decorative ornamentals and backyard veggies, and when selecting additions to the garden, it helps to add plants, shrubs and trees that are native to the Midwest.
Native plants host a plenitude of insects, and while we may cast a wary eye toward anything that crawls, flies or buzzes, most birds feed their newly hatched babies on a rich diet of bugs and insects. That’s why gardeners are encouraged to leave things messy in the fall because many of them overwinter in the dried stems and leaf litter, emerging when temperatures rise in spring.
There is no one right way to garden, although some ways are better than others. Take watering. Even though we’re surrounded by rivers and next to one of the Great Lakes, water is a limited resource that plants need a fair amount of, typically about 1 inch per week, more if they are actively growing, more if it’s hot and windy. The best time to water is forenoon because wetting a garden late in the day encourages fungal growth on damp plants and soil overnight.
Mulch assists in keeping moisture in the soil by reducing evaporation. Putting down a 1- to 2-inch layer of organic matter within several inches of plant stems also keeps weeds under control while it slowly breaks down into nutrients the plants need. Undyed, shredded tree bark is one of the best mulches. Shrubs and trees benefit from a 2- to 4-inch mulch arrayed in a donut and definitely not a volcano because that can lead to rot at the base of the tree or shrub.
Compost favors the prepared. Really, the old saying is “fortune does the favoring,” but compost comes in a close second. Decayed plant material that has reached a stable form called humus is an excellent soil amendment because it feeds the life in the soil, helps structures in the soil hold air and water that plant roots need, buffers fertilizer imbalance and suppresses disease. You can make your own compost by filling a container of some sort with garden and lawn clippings, kitchen scraps and all manner of organic material with a few sensible exceptions like bones or grease. Adding a layer of compost to growing areas in the spring, and also midseason, favors the biological life in the soil that feeds up through plant roots to the blooms and fruits you’re growing the plant for.
We cut our lawns about 20 times a growing season, and it makes sense to practice smart lawn care. The best time to fertilize is in the early spring and then again in fall. Cut the grass no shorter than 3 inches because that keeps the roots cool and weed seeds from sprouting. Do not pick up the clippings. Leave them and they will break down and feed the grass. If you choose to water a lawn, water deeply, not frequently; do it in the morning; and make sure water falls on the grass and not surrounding walks and driveways.
Sustainability means using wisely the resources we need to do our work, as well as ensuring that the next generations will have at least as many resources going forward.
In addition to smart gardening practices, you can sustain your own self by learning more about plants, best practices and new techniques. Visit the 635 section of Oak Park’s main library, check out the University of Illinois Extension website, and talk with your neighbor gardeners. How you treat the soil, the plants you grow, providing habitat for bugs and insects and birds and all the living creatures in the garden, and working smart with an eye to preserving the environment, ensures the future availability of natural resources.