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In the News

Being a Small Gardener in a Big World

Ashley Frye

Gardening might be described as an attempt to modify the natural world in ways that make your life and the lives of those around you better. But making good use of water and fertilizer, two basic tools in a gardener’s kit, is increasingly problematic. How can we know when our modifications actually do make things better? And let’s not even get into the complicated question of pesticides, which kill not just plant-destroying pests, but pollinators we all depend on and the good bugs that eat the bad bugs.

Runoff from the Mississippi River Valley containing synthetic and natural fertilizers has led to the development of the planet’s largest “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico - a space the size of New Jersey where, according to Popular Science, “... coastal water becomes choked with heavily fertilized algae which then dies and decomposes, consuming the oxygen in the water and asphyxiating animal life.” Home gardeners are responsible for only a tiny part of this problem when compared to industrial agriculture, but does that free us from trying to find better ways?

Same with water. Newsweek says, “The World Will Soon be at War Over Water” and then goes on to cite seven places where such war is ongoing or is on the verge of happening. America’s market basket, California, is trying to pump its way out of record drought by depleting groundwater at a record rate. Depletion is happening with 13 of the world’s largest 37 aquifers, including the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains Aquifer which supplies most of Mississippi. In short, water is being used faster than it can be replaced by normal rainfall; drought exacerbates this problem.

Keeping California lawns lush has a minor impact compared to irrigating the Central Valley, where irrigation helps make it possible for California to produce more than half of all fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the US. Given the situation, is it sensible for a California homeowner to insist on a green lawn of non-native grasses? Mid-South gardeners use only a trickle compared to big rice, corn, or soybean growers, but shouldn’t we still try to reduce our consumption?

Enough doom and gloom. Here are a few things you might try in your yard to improve your own life and, who knows, perhaps the lives of others.

Where possible, use drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation in your garden and flowers beds. This targets water to individual plants and helps avoid spraying vegetation, which leads to less disease-prone plants, a smaller water bill, and at least a little less strain on the water supply. Systems are relatively simple and inexpensive to install.

Finish watering early in the day (before 10 AM) to decrease water loss through evaporation and to give plants a chance to dry out quickly.

To encourage deeper root growth and healthier plants, don’t overwater. Watering systems set to turn on at certain times disregard the weather and can often waste water.

A well-tended lawn is a wonderful accent in a yard, but maintaining a large area of single-species grass requires lots of water, fertilizer, weed-killer, and labor, much of it powered by petroleum. Consider reducing lawn size by adding low-maintenance beds of grasses and native plants. Once established, they require less time and money to maintain than most other plants and can help you increase your bird and beneficial insect population.

Finally, take Felder Rushings’ advice: when you fertilize use half the amount the manufacturer recommends. Just like the shampoo makers who suggest you “rinse and repeat”, fertilizer manufacturers are trying to sell as much product as possible.