Winter Garden Do’s and Don’ts
Bad news: Your green thumb may not be so green. Perhaps, surprisingly, gardens can pose major environmental hazards. No matter how beautiful your landscape, if it’s not grown with care, attention and sustainable practices, you could be causing more harm than good to your local ecosystems. The winter season can be especially problematic, because – especially in colder regions – growers often adopt wasteful practices to accommodate the chilly weather.
Per acre, homeowners use 10 times more chemical pesticides and fertilizers than farmers use on commercial farmland. When it rains, chemical runoff affects surrounding lakes and streams. It can also seep into local groundwater and drinking wells.
In addition to harming local wildlife habitats and waterways, contaminated drinking water can cause significant health problems in young children, seniors and other people with compromised immune systems.
Homeowners are also notorious for wasting water, often using automatic sprinklers to water their lawns and gardens. Many people also pollute the air with gasoline-powered lawnmowers and other devices. In one hour, a two-cycle engine lawnmower emits the same amount of exhaust as a car driven 350 miles.
While this may not seem like a lot of damage on an individual level, multiply it by the number of households in your neighborhood, and then by the households in your town. The problem adds up pretty quickly.
What Is Sustainability?
In popular culture, environmentalist buzzwords have almost become interchangeable – but in practical terms, they are actually completely different. Here’s a breakdown of some words you may have heard.
- Organic. Organic fruits and vegetables are grown without the use of GMOs or any artificial pesticides or fertilizers. It is not a synonym for sustainable. Organic standards as designated by the USDA are complex, and some large-scale organic agricultural operations have garnered criticism for lack of sustainability.
- Local. Local foods are foods grown within a given radius, but the definition changes according to institution and individual. Anywhere from a few miles to a few hundred miles can be considered local, depending on whom you ask.
- Seasonal. Seasonal foods are grown and harvested on a relatively natural timeline, and then eaten when they are ripe. They are not usually preserved or transported long distances.
- Sustainable. Perhaps the most nebulous of these definitions, sustainability refers to some combination of all of the above. In its essence, sustainable gardening means that the nutrients removed from the soil are replenished without artificial input, like synthetic fertilizer.
Best Practices for Sustainable Wintertime Gardening
Here are some ways to lessen your impact on the environment, and even contribute positively to your local ecosystem.
- Prevent Soil Contamination
When it snows, melted water can carry contaminants like pesticides and fertilizers that are in your soil. Even if you don’t use these additives, soil alone can pollute lakes and streams. You can combat soil contamination by storing your soil properly. If you keep extra soil it in your garage, make sure that you have a door with a steel frame that won’t bend or crack in the bad weather. As a bonus, if you heat your garage, insulation can help cut costs over the winter months.
While garages are great for inside control, what about soil that’s outside? When considering your outdoor garden, sloped land is especially prone to runoff. Build small terraces or retaining walls to prevent soil contamination. Shrubs and ground covers at the perimeter of your garden can also help your soil from getting into water sources.
Composting is a great and inexpensive way to handle natural refuse that would otherwise be sent to landfill, and it’s also a major boon to gardens. Install a homemade or store-bought bin in your garden to contain material like leaves, grass clippings and other yard wastes. Autumn leaves are a wonderful carbon-rich additive and can help offset high levels of nitrogen. Make sure you remove invasive weeds or weeds that have gone to seed, or you’ll risk introducing these problem plants into your garden later on.
Food wastes are also compostable, but you’ll need to be choosy about what you include. To avoid attracting animals or bad odors, don’t compost fatty wastes, cheese, meat products, cat litter or diseased plants. Fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells and tea bags are all good contenders for healthy backyard compost.
Turn and aerate your compost regularly. Finished compost is a natural part of the Earth’s recycling system, and it can be mixed into your soil or spread over your beds as a slow-release fertilizer.
In winter, keep your compost warm and well insulated to make sure it stays active. Additionally, keep your compost piles well covered to prevent rain or snow from falling directly on them, as too much moisture can smother the active agents. If you live in an area that gets a lot of precipitation, a compost tumbler is a great way to help your piles stay dry.
- Incorporate Native Plants
Plants that are local to your area are hardy and, once established, will not require fertilizer. Most native plants are perennials. With a little help, they are self-maintaining, because they reseed onsite. Exotic perennials can be adapted for your local environment, but they don’t support beneficial wildlife. Native plants house and feed predator insects, which prey on pests and mitigate the need for insecticides. They also help pollinators and butterflies to thrive.
Some invasive plants, like purple loose-strife, buck-thorn and autumn olive, are illegal in certain areas. Whether or not your area allows the cultivation of these plants, it is best avoided, as the spread of these plants is extraordinarily problematic across the country.
As you consider your gardening plans for the winter, take a look at the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to determine the average minimum temperature for your area. This will help you choose plants that are more likely to thrive.
- Water Wisely
You’ll still need to keep to a watering schedule in winter, because failing to do so may cause roots to weaken underground. When plants develop in spring and summer, they may begin growing normally, but their underdeveloped roots can cause them to fail in the long run.
However, over-watering will drown your plants and is also tremendously wasteful. The average American uses around 200 gallons of water every day – and roughly half of that amount goes toward landscaping and gardening. Only a very small portion is actually taken up by plants, and the rest is wasted as runoff.
Native plants are already adapted to your region and climate, so they don’t require much – if any – supplemental watering. Perennial flowers have deeper-growing roots than annuals, so they do a better job of conserving water. A shallow layer of wood chip mulch can help all your plants reduce storm runoff and prevent evaporation.
Final Thoughts: Sustainability Matters
Sustainable gardening does more than mitigate the negative environmental effects of a poorly managed landscape. It also has some amazing positive effects, like improving biodiversity. By growing local shrubs and trees, you’ll help the landscape provide shelter to birds, small animals and beneficial insects – all of which help reduce pest outbreaks.
Megan Wild writes about home gardening, and is slowly, but surely turning her “brown thumb” more green with each passing day. You can find more of her work at Your Wild Home.
This article first appeared on American Preppers Network and may be copied under the following creative commons license. All links and images including the CC logo must remain intact.