How to be more eco-friendly in your garden – The Washington Post

By their very nature, people who garden are some of the most environmentally conscious. Studies have found a connection between spending more time outside and wanting to help mitigate climate change and protect the environment. For those who are so inclined, making a real difference can start right in your own backyard.
To become a more conscious member of your local ecosystem, you don’t need to totally change the way you garden. According to experts, small shifts can go a long way, and they don’t all have to happen at once. Make your home a haven for flora and fauna by adding these new habits throughout the year.
Though it may feel like your garden is on pause during the colder months, there’s plenty you can be doing to help it thrive. Mary Phillips, head of Garden for Wildlife programs at the National Wildlife Federation, says winter is a great time to start composting. Turning your kitchen scraps into compost not only means sending less to the landfill; it can also have a significant benefit for the nutrient profile of your garden.
“Composting is super purposeful, and you will eventually get some really good soil,” Phillips says. You can choose to compost directly in your garden (an important facet of the “no-till” gardening approach), or in a designated pile or composter. It’s fairly simple to make your own bin by drilling holes in a garbage can — just be sure to do a little research on what you should and shouldn’t compost, and mix the contents every now and then.
If you want to support native wildlife populations, Phillips says, “the really important thing, which is especially challenging in the winter months, is water.” Birds, small mammals and other wildlife that remain active through the winter all need access to water, but many sources freeze.
“You can help by installing a heated bird bath,” Phillips says. “Or, if you have a regular bird bath, just change the water regularly and try adding some hot water when temperatures drop below freezing.”
The easiest way to have a positive impact, says Uli Lorimer, director of horticulture for the Native Plant Trust, is to “stop using fertilizers and pesticides.” These chemicals harm beneficial insects and soil microbes, and eventually make their way into local waterways, hurting fish and other aquatic species. If you adopt no other habit on this list, Lorimer says, just stay away from the spray.
But that’s not the only way you can do more by doing less. “A lot of folks hear about ‘No Mow May,’” Lorimer says, “and that’s fine but one month is not enough. Instead, we want to move away from the putting green idea — that your lawn has to be a perfect green carpet.”
It’s still okay to use your lawn mower, but look for places where you can let things get a little more wild. “If there are weird little corners or narrow strips that are hard to mow,” Lorimer suggests, “consider transitioning those to a no-mow alternative ground cover like a native sedge.”
While every gardener should be using as many ecosystem-appropriate plants as possible, Lorimer says it’s not necessary to tear out everything that’s nonnative. He points to research that suggests a “crucial threshold” of 70 percent native plants “will support the greatest insect diversity and therefore also the greatest bird diversity.” That 70 percent can be a longer-term goal, Lorimer adds. “It’s something to work toward, whether you do it over five years or 10 years,” he says. “Welcoming any native or regionally appropriate plant is a step in the right direction.”
To help you find those plants, Phillips suggests the National Wildlife Federation’s online native plant finder tool. “You just put your Zip code in and get lists of native plants that support high numbers of wildlife,” she says.
Lorimer offers one more tip for those who want to go native: “When you go to the nursery, it’s important to ask the right questions,” he says. Try to find out whether a plant was grown locally, and whether its grower used pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids. “It’s one of the cruelest ironies,” he says, “when you’ve made the decision to seek out pollinator-friendly plants, but they’re grown with a chemical that will poison the creatures you’d like to support.”
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In many homes, the least environmentally friendly appliance is the dryer. Generating enough heat to dry your clothes requires a lot of energy, and multiple loads a week can quickly increase a family’s carbon footprint. Plus, when dryer lint makes its way into the environment, it releases microfibers into ecosystems like marine habitats, where they can damage the tissues of some species.
Luckily, there’s a simple, old-fashioned solution, especially in the sunny summer months: a clothesline. Line-drying might take longer, but it’s a simple fix with a big impact. And you can’t beat that fresh scent (which is scientifically proven to be a thing).
Another simple backyard change involves your lighting: Phillips says we all need much less of it. “Light pollution is a really big thing,” she says. Too much artificial light can confuse birds, disrupting their migration paths and leading them to fly into buildings. “I recommend not having as much light outside, or only having lights on during designated hours. And if you must have lights on, switch to very yellow bulbs, which are not as distracting to birds.”
In the fall, many gardeners clear old growth and cut down plants that have finished producing. To really help the local wildlife, consider leaving a bit of mess.
“Creating little areas in your yard with some brush, and maybe some stumps and dead trees offers amazing shelter for a variety of wildlife,” Phillips says.
You may have heard advice to “leave the leaves.” Lorimer clarifies that you can provide benefits to all the small creatures who depend on leaf litter while still cleaning up your landscaping. “It’s okay to use a rake to move the leaves off the lawn,” he says. “But then, use them to mulch your shrubs and trees; don’t bag them up and haul them away. You’ll be missing a lot of wonderful creatures from your garden next year if you’ve blown them all away into a bag or put them through a shredder.”
And when it comes to those native plants, their ecosystem services continue year-round. Leaving some stalks standing provides valuable hibernation habitat for many insect species.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t give things a trim. “I think not cutting anything is just too wild for most people,” Lorimer says. “So compromise: You can still make it look neat and more manicured. Just be intentional about what you leave behind.”
Kate Morgan is a freelance writer in Richland, Pa.


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