Think, be green in the garden

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Do you want to be a better environmental steward? If so, the first step is to become a gardener: grow some of your own vegetables, plant native trees, shrubs and flowers without using chemicals. But there is even more to think about than what type of tomatoes to plant and how many.

First of all, what to do with all those black plastic pots that come with the plants? Most recycling facilities will not accept black plastic pots, but some pots are numbered two or five and can be recycled. A few don’t have a number. Plastic jars are made from petroleum in factories around the world. I imagine that these factories spit and dump a certain amount of chemicals, and create waste and by-products that are bad for the environment.

My mantra for plastic is: refuse, reuse, recycle. So how can you refuse to buy plants in plastic pots? Start your own plants. If you save plastic jars and rinse them, you can reuse them. Some for years. You can also buy peat pots and coir (palm fiber) pots. Some companies like Gardeners Supply sell sturdy flats to use in place of those flimsy six-packs, but strong enough to be used multiple times.

Trees and shrubs are most often sold in large black plastic pots. But they are also sold “in a ball and in burlap”. These are usually larger trees that are dug up and wrapped in burlap after years of growing in the ground. Some local nurseries still dig their own plants, and I recommend supporting them. When planting, be sure to remove any burlap and strings that may be holding the root ball together. And beware of any “fake” plastic burlap. Don’t buy it.

For years we have offered sturdy plastic pots at our local family garden centres. Most just want them cleaned before you put them down. I find it easier to do this right after planting, before the soil cooks. Reusing pots saves garden centers money, provided they have time to sort and store them. Tell those who do how happy you are with them.

Recycling is definitely not the solution: many loads of plastic at the recycling center are contaminated and end up in landfill or incinerator. Too much dirt, food, or the wrong number items can doom an entire plastic dumpster.

I was thrilled to learn that most Home Depot stores now accept all kinds of plastic jars. I went to the one near me in West Lebanon, NH, and there was a rack outside with the plants just for the turned pots. Pots don’t even have to come from them.

Although we have owned an electric trimmer and chainsaw for a few years, we have recently taken a big step towards being “green”. We bought an electric lawn mower. I read that the EPA estimates that using a lawnmower is 11 times more polluting than driving a new car. One hour of mowing, apparently, equals 93 miles. Of course, these stats aren’t perfect, as they don’t tell what type of mower or car is being compared. Older, larger mowers are worse.

We picked up a 21-inch battery-powered self-propelled lawn mower on sale for $500 at our local True Value Hardware store. It has a quick-charge battery charger that takes an hour or less to recharge the 54-volt battery, which is good for an hour of mowing. The mower has plenty of power and is so much quieter than our old gas mower. Our lawn takes over an hour to mow, so what? I have lots of other gardening chores to do while the battery is charging. Battery electric mower technology has really improved over the past few years.

Being green also means not using any chemicals in the garden. It’s easy. I do not use herbicides, insecticides or chemical fertilizers. I don’t want anything killing the dandelions or the moss, neither of which I consider a problem.

There are perfectly wonderful organic fertilizers that offer so much more than chemicals. Instead of just offering three plant nutrients (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium), they offer Calcium, Magnesium and many other nutrients used by plants. They do this because they are made from natural ingredients like seaweed, cottonseed meal, ground oyster shells, and ground peanut shells.

Organic fertilizers are also slow release fertilizers. Pro-Gro, made in Vermont, contains approximately 25% soluble nitrogen which is ready immediately. The rest is slowly released as microorganisms break it down and make it usable by plants. And it won’t damage root hairs like some chemical fertilizers can if too much is applied.

Compost is one of the best things you can add to your soil. It helps sandy soils retain moisture and loosens heavy clay-based soils. You can buy it by bag or, even better, by truck. Even though my soil is great, I add compost every year. It is not a fertilizer, but it feeds the microorganisms that work with our plants. And if you get good quality compost, it will improve the texture of your soil, whatever it is.

Finally, express yourself. If your suppliers are trying to reduce plastic use or reuse it for reuse, tell them that’s why you’re buying from them. If they are not? Ask them! Every voice counts. We gardeners should be at the forefront of reducing plastic and chemical use.

Henry is a UNH Master Gardener and the author of four gardening books. Contact him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net. He is available for gardening consultations in the Upper Valley.

Henry Homeyer writes a weekly gardening column. The author is not a staff member of Le Moniteur.

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