Sustainable practices can extend to gardens, lawns

Published 10:04 am Wednesday, February 21, 2024

By Susan Collins-Smith
MSU Extension Service

Many of the practices associated with sustainability, such as recycling, can be extended into the garden.

Composting is a way to help reduce organic waste that goes to the landfill and helps feed gardens. These organic materials, which include grass clippings, leaves and other yard wastes, account for about 30% of trash that goes to the landfill.

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“By composting these organic waste materials, homeowners can produce beneficial material that can be used in the garden, lawn and landscape,” said Jeff Wilson, horticulture specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “Returning these organic waste materials to the land maintains natural biological cycles. It is an ecologically sensible and environmentally safe way to use organic waste materials.”

Compost creates the perfect conditioner to help soil maintain proper moisture content. It also reduces soil compaction, increases the presence of earthworms and beneficial microorganisms, and provides a slow release of nutrients into the soil.

Creating a compost pile is simple, but it does require some patience and know-how. Usable compost can take from 6 months to 2 years to generate depending on several factors. Pile placement and size is important to properly break down the contents. For more information about starting a compost pile, consult MSU Extension Publication 1782, “Composting for the Mississippi Gardener.”

Whether gardeners use compost or not, soil testing is an important step before planting. Soil test results provide recommendations for fertilizer and lime. Lime helps increase soil pH.

While samples can be taken any time, it is best to send in soil samples 2 to 3 months before planting.

“Lime can take 2 to 3 months to neutralize soil acidity, so getting your soil testing results well ahead of time allows for purchase, application and activation of the liming material,” said Keri Jones, MSU Soil Testing Laboratory manager. “Soil pH should be in an optimal zone for the plants you are trying to grow well before any application of fertilizer.”

Soil test results help gardeners apply accurate fertilizer amounts only when needed. The results are customized to specific plants and give gardeners target dates for application.

“Without an optimized application rate, growers are left to guess the amount the plant needs. If the guessed application rate is too low, the plants won’t reach full growth and/or yield potential,” Jones explained. “If the guessed application is too high, fertilizer is wasted because there is no advantage to the plant when you apply additional amounts. Excess fertilizer can also end up in waterways, which is bad for the environment.

“Commercial fertilizers are sold as salts,” she added. “If we overapply fertilizer salt to the soil, eventually the plants will have a difficult time accessing water from the soil.”

Sherry Surrette, associate Extension professor of sustainable living, said gardeners can also incorporate products into their gardening chores that help protect natural resources. She recommends gardeners consider:

•       Installing rain barrels. These vessels capture rainwater that can be used to water garden plants instead of using groundwater. They can be made from recycled materials or purchased. When choosing or making a rain barrel be sure to follow certain guidelines to ensure the water is clean. Learn more about rain barrels in MSU Extension Publication 3146, “Water Conservation in Your Landscape.”
•       Using biodegradable peat pots. These pots can be planted directly into the ground when it is time to transfer seedlings to the garden.
•       Installing nonplastic, biodegradable landscape fabric. This is available commercially. Newspapers can also be used as a weed barrier.
•       Purchasing electric-powered lawn care equipment. Tools, such as mowers, weed eaters and leaf blowers, are more energy efficient, require less maintenance and produce less greenhouse gas emissions compared to gas-powered equipment.