How to take care of your garden properly

1. Reduce Lawn Size

Many years ago, we decided that we would rather spend our free time enjoying the little backyard sanctuary that we had created instead of toiling at the weekly ritual of cutting and maintaining a lawn. We began whittling away the lawn by replacing the grass with islands of multi-purpose trees, shrubs, ground cover and mulch. We were always careful to make gentle curves, so that the grass could be cut without having to back up the mower. We also used hardy ground covers and ferns in areas under trees. Pretty soon instead of taking hours, mowing time was reduced to an hour or so and we did not have to water or fertilize, because the grass that we left was in the "right" place for it to grow.

2. Catch, Conserve and Use Water On-Site

The old folks used to say that rainwater did magic on the plants and I agree. There is nothing like rain water to really get your garden growing. So why do we let it run off of our property before it has a chance to soak in?

Rain gardens, swales, French drains and rain barrels or cisterns are inexpensive ways to harness and control rain water. For areas of your rain gutters where a spout won't work, try attractive and decorative rain chains, combined with other control methods. You can even make your own rain chain from easy-to-find materials. By keeping storm water on-site, you not only benefit from the precious rain, but you help to alleviate flooding down stream and help to keep harmful contaminants out of the aquatic food chain.

3. Make a Compost Pile

Using non-meat kitchen scraps and other excess plant materials to make rich black soil is something that all gardeners should do. Instead of putting leaves and grass clippings on the curb to go in the landfill, it makes so much more sense to put them into a compost pile or do sheet composting in the garden. Compost piles are easy to make or you can buy ready made ones.

If you don't have many trees, then just go through your neighborhood the day before the trash is picked up and collect the nicely bagged bounty that the neighbors put out.

Another good composting option is worm composting. By adding red wiggler worms to your compost pile or setting up a separate worm bin, you will have even richer soil than with regular composting methods.

4. Mulch With Available Materials

Mulching with leaves, pine needles or wood chips (or other materials that you have on hand) helps to keep the soil moist, enriches it and keeps the weeds down. Cypress mulch is not recommended because in most cases, it is not made from the by products of cypress lumber, but from harvesting and grinding whole young trees.

It is much better for you and for the environment if you use mulch from your own yard. In fact, when we lived in the city, we used to pick up the neighbors' bags of leaves to use in our yard and compost pile.

5. Use Native Plants

Sneezeweed, stiff-leaved verbena and coreopsis attract honeybees, native bees and butterflies to the garden.

Plants that are native to your area are already accustomed to the seasonal changes and the periods of drought and/or flooding. They are hardier and require much less maintenance time than the imported exotic plants. They will also save money, because they won't have to be replaced ( they can usually with stand fluctuations in the weather).

Many native plants have edible fruit, berries, nuts or roots. Examples include pecans, blackberries, wild blueberries, plums, crabapples, red mulberry, ground nut and many others.

6. Plant Perennial, Multi-purpose Flowers

Old-fashioned double orange daylilies are a favorite perennial in the South.

Perennials and especially native perennials are the sustainable gardener's friend. They come back every year and multiply. They are low maintenance and cost less because they don't have to be replanted each season like annual bedding plants.

Many perennial flowers are edible, too. Examples include daylilies (shown above), roses, violets, monarda (bee balm) and many more.

7. Intersperse Fruits and Vegetables Among Ornamentals

In sustainable gardening, vegetables and other edible plants are not planted in masses as with traditional gardening. By mixing edibles in with ornamental plants, pest and disease damage is reduced because the pests are attracted to the large mass plantings of the traditional garden.

Planting good companion plants near vegetables can also aid in growth, taste and help repel harmful insects. Plants that have clusters of tiny flowers, like parsley, will also draw predatory wasps as well as small pollinators to the garden. My favorite combinations are basil with tomatoes, savory with beans, oregano with peppers and French marigolds sprinkled throughout the garden.

8. Don't Use Chemical Pesticides, Encourage Natural Predators

This green anole hunts for insect prey among native goldenrod flowers in fall. Goldenrod is an important plant for honeybees, native bees and butterflies.

Organic pest control techniques go well with sustainable gardening and are beneficial to the environment. By not using chemical pesticides, the predator and prey cycle remains unbroken. The natural predators are able to do their job and rid the garden of pests.

9. Make a Lasagna Garden

When we first got our hens they lived in a chicken tractor, which we move around the garden. We also let them out each day to forage. In front you see the giant pumpkin and squash vines growing where the chicken tractor was parked last fall.

Lasagna gardening is a fabulous way to garden. It is a "no dig" method. If you have a chicken tractor or movable coop, you can park the chickens there, first and they will help till the soil, get rid of the grass and fertilize, too. If you let them out, for a few hours each day, they will remove weed seeds and insects like grasshoppers from your yard.

Even if you don't, in early fall, you can layer newspapers, Starbuck's coffee grounds, grass clippings, leaves, hay, manure, kitchen scraps and other compostable materials over the grass where you want your garden to be. Then by spring, you'll have a nice planting bed for your garden.

10. Get Some Chickens

A few hens in a movable coop are great additions to the sustainable garden. In addition to the fresh, organic eggs, the chickens can help you till the soil and weed in areas where you'd like to have a patch of fruit trees or vegetables. You just park the "chicken tractor" there for a while and the hens will clear the area and fertilize it for you. Then you move the coop to another location.

We also let them out for a few hours each day. The chickens eat many insects and weed seeds. This makes both the chickens and the garden and yard healthier.