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by Delisa White, instructor, MATC Landscape Horticulture Associate Degree Program

Here in the Landscape Horticulture Department at MATC, we focus on creating sustainable living spaces that are beautiful as well as environmentally friendly. We’re often asked about sustainable or “green” gardening practices that will benefit both our personal landscapes and our wider communities.  Here are some simple sustainable landscaping ideas that you can use to make your garden a truly “green” space.

It all starts below the ground.

Good soil conditions are the foundation – literally – of good plant health and garden success.  A simple standard soil test can reveal much about the make up of the soils in your landscape. The University of Wisconsin Soil Testing Laboratories provides information on the process of soil sampling and testing at http://uwlab.soils.wisc.edu.

The results from your soil test will help you know what adjustments should be made to the soil and which fertilizers are appropriate for your particular site. In most cases, a high quality compost can benefit soils and plants by adding important organic matter and beneficial microorganisms, as well as slow-release nutrients.  Be aware that not all composts are created equal, and the free compost available from many municipalities often contains weed seeds and disease pathogens that can create problems in your garden. When purchasing compost, look for a product that has the endorsement of the U.S. Composting Council. Visit http://compostingcouncil.org.

Evenly incorporate compost into the top 4 – 6” of soil, but do so gently, and preferably by hand rather than with a rototiller. Overuse of the rototiller can cause long-term damage to soil by destroying the building blocks that give the soil its structure. If you do choose to mechanically incorporate compost, use the tiller sparingly, making no more than one pass over the area. The Landscape Horticulture Department offers the course “Horticulture Soils,” which provides a wealth of information about creating sustainable soil environments in the lawn, garden and landscape.

Study those plants.

MATC horticulture students chant the mantra “right plant – right place!” Rarely can you successfully change your site’s conditions to suit a particular plant.  For instance, the amount of sun and shade or the exposure of the landscape can’t easily be changed. It’s much more successful to design your landscape by matching the cultural requirements of plants to the existing conditions of your site. When selecting plants for specific areas in the garden, read plant labels carefully, consult reliable university or extension websites or contact an expert for advice. A plant that is well adapted to its site will experience fewer pest problems and can thrive with fewer inputs and less effort on your part.

Designing a landscape using plants that are native to our area of Wisconsin will help ensure gardening success, as well as attract important native pollinating insects and birds. Whenever possible, select plants that are drought tolerant, group your plants according to their water needs and space plants appropriately.  Taking classes that focus on trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and landscape design help MATC horticulture students learn how to select appropriate plants for various locations.

Don’t waste the water!

Water may well be our most precious natural resource, and is the lifeblood of the garden. As “green” gardeners, we must be proactive in minimizing our water use and preventing water waste.  Adding compost to soils and selecting the correct plants are the first steps in efficient water use in the garden.  After planting, be sure to use a layer of organic mulch such as shredded leaves or shredded hardwood around the plants to conserve soil moisture. Keep in mind that inorganic mulches such as decorative rock will often heat the soil and promote water loss rather than water conservation.

When you do need to water your plants, do so in the early morning, and only water when plants and soils show signs of needing water, rather than on a set schedule or with an automatic timer. Whenever possible, apply the water directly to the soil surface rather than sprinkling or spraying water into the air where it will evaporate or land on plant foliage. Consider switching from watering with sprinklers to watering with soaker hoses, which are made of porous material that seep, sweat, or “leak” water along their entire length. By positioning soaker hoses around the base of garden plants, the water is slowly applied directly to the plant root zone, so water waste is minimized.

Many gardeners also use rain barrels attached to downspouts to collect and use the rainwater shed from roofs of buildings. Several styles of rain barrels are available, and all will come equipped with instructions for assembly and use. In the Milwaukee area, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is a great resource for rain barrel kits and information. Visit http://www.mmsd.com/rainbarrels/rain-barrels. MATC’s Landscape Horticulture students learn critical water conservation techniques in their landscape construction and landscape maintenance classes.

Reconsider chemical use.

Soil improvement, proper plant selection and appropriate water management will provide the framework for a healthy landscape. Healthy gardens and landscapes are a complex living web of interconnected organisms that are truly sustainable and “green.” The use of pesticides will disrupt the balance of this natural activity, and often causes environmental harm. At times, however, weed, disease or insect control may be necessary.  Keep in mind that not all bugs are pests. In fact, about 97% of the insects in our landscapes are harmless or beneficial, and pesticides can’t distinguish these “good guys” from the “bad guys.”

When our pests are weeds, we can re-think our visual expectations and perhaps tolerate weeds that aren’t directly impacting our desirable plants. If it does become necessary to use chemical pesticides for insect, weed, or disease control, select environmentally friendly products that carry the endorsement of the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). Visit http://www.omri.org. MATC courses on integrated pest management, landscape maintenance, and plant pest identification teach horticulture students how to identify and safely control garden and landscape pests.

Soil improvement, appropriate plant selection, water conservation and safe pest management are all integral facets of successful gardening.  By using some of these simple and practical ideas and techniques, you can transform your garden or landscape into a beautiful bountiful oasis that is healthy, sustainable and truly “green.”