It's a myth that living a more eco-friendly lifestyle requires sacrifice. All it requires is a shift in how we make day-to-day decisions. And although it may seem like our efforts don't much matter in the grand scheme of things, consider this: There are 93 million households in the U.S. that do some sort of gardening. Our cumulative efforts can have quite an impact on the environment. So join me in taking some small steps right now:
1. Maximize biodiversity in your landscape. Invite beneficial creatures like birds, bats, and toads into your yard by choosing plants that will provide food and shelter for a variety of wildlife. Encourage beneficial insects to take up residence by leaving a section of your yard wild. Create mixed plantings instead of single-species hedges. By creating a diverse ecosystem, you'll not only provide much-needed habitat for wild creatures, you may also find yourself with fewer pest problems because these creatures provide natural controls.
2. Conserve water. Depending on location and climate, landscaping accounts for 20 to 50 percent or more of all residential water use. There are many simple ways to conserve this precious resource. Begin by repairing leaky faucets and hoses. Whenever possible, use soaker hoses and drip irrigation that apply water right to plant roots, rather than overhead sprinklers that lose water to runoff and evaporation. Group plants according to their water needs so you can water efficiently, and select drought-tolerant plants if your region experiences dry spells.
3. Minimize air and noise pollution. Choose hand tools whenever possible. Remember that electric- and battery-powered equipment still pollute the air Ñ just not in your backyard. The electricity has to be generated somewhere, and that invariably causes pollution. Think rake or broom, not leaf blower. You'll get some exercise and be able to listen to the birds, too.
4. Consider other forms of pollution and waste. Unnecessary landscape and safety lighting wastes electricity. Excess light from these fixtures obscures the night sky and can confuse birds and other wildlife. Heat can be a pollutant, too. Black asphalt absorbs and radiates heat, generally making parking lots and treeless urban areas hotter than nearby wooded areas. Trees, on the other hand, cool the air as they transpire (moving water from roots to leaves, where it evaporates from leaf surfaces). Even soil is a pollutant when it erodes from bare hillsides and enters a waterway, where it can harm aquatic life.
5. Buy durable goods and recyclable goods with minimal packaging. In the last generation or two we've become a throwaway society. We've grown accustomed to disposable food containers, plastic cutlery, styrofoam cups, and plastic grocery bags ("urban tumbleweeds"), and we flock to stores that sell cheap products that often break after a few uses. It's tempting to look for the best deal, but I find that more often than not, I regret not buying a better-quality product. When making a purchase, consider what will happen to the product after its useful life is over. Can it be recycled or used for another purpose? Also, avoid products with excess packaging. Concerns about safety and shoplifting, as well as convenience and ease of display, have resulted in an unprecedented degree of over-packaging. If you can, choose the product with less packaging or packaging that is reusable or recyclable.
6. Grow some of your own food. Even if it's just a few containers on the front stoop, growing your own food connects you with the environment and reduces your reliance on food that's been shipped from far-off farms. You can grow a surprising amount of food in containers or in a small garden bed, including greens like lettuce, spinach, and chard; herbs like basil and dill; tomatoes; peppers; and beans. You'll save money on groceries and you'll have the freshest, tastiest, and most nutrient-rich produce. If you don't have garden space (or even if you do) consider renting a plot at a local community garden.
7. Support local merchants, farmers, and producers. Consider it another form of recycling. One study showed that of $100 spent at a chain store, just $14 stayed in the local economy. Of $100 spent at a locally owned store, $45 remained.* Money spent at locally owned businesses feeds the economic engine of your community. Recent soaring gas prices underscore the need for abundant neighborhood stores, rather than a few mega-stores a long drive away. Produce prices have shot up, in part because of the cost of trucking fruits and vegetables thousands of miles. Supporting local farmers ensures that the farms and the food they produce will always be available and may be less subject to wildly fluctuating prices based on the cost of a barrel of crude oil.
8. Create a low-maintenance landscape. Replace some of your lawn with easy-care, water-thrifty ground covers. You'll save time and gasoline and reduce air pollution by not having to mow. In dry regions, choose native or drought-tolerant plants that need little if any supplemental water. Look for disease-resistant varieties to minimize or eliminate your pesticide usage.
9. Consider the source of a product and how it got to your doorstep. Read labels or ask where a product is from. Chilean nitrate, for example, is an organic fertilizer that is mined from a desert in Northern Chile. Rock dusts, such as granite dust and greensand, are good sources of trace minerals but are heavy and bulky and therefore resource-intensive to ship long distances. If possible, look for local sources of fertilizer and organic matter. Does it make sense to buy bagged compost that has been shipped across the country when you can make your own or buy composted manure from a nearby farm?
10. Spread the word. Teach children to respect nature and discourage wastefulness. Share your interest in the environment and all the wonders it offers, and explain to them why you want to protect it. When you make an eco-friendly decision, tell them why. Of all the steps we take to protect the environment, this is perhaps the most important.
Remember that every small, eco-friendly step you take is multiplied by thousands or even millions when gardeners across the nation join forces. Together we gardeners really can make a difference!
* The Economic Impact of Locally Owned Businesses vs. Chains: A Case Study in Midcoast Maine (Institute for Local Self-Reliance, September 2003) www.newrules.org/retail/midcoaststudy.pdf