For many people, gardening is a quiet, relaxing hobby that helps them feel closer to nature. However, many gardening practices don’t positively affect nature to the extent we may believe. For example, Americans use nearly 7 billion gallons of water per day on landscape irrigation, which is about one-third of all the water Americans use each day. Using that much water puts a strain on water supplies and impacts natural resources in other areas. Gardeners also impact the environment in unintended ways by planting non-native plant species, which can affect populations of local plants and even wildlife.
Eco-friendly gardening is becoming more popular as people across the country look to enjoy the benefits of gardening while reducing the harmful effects it may have on the local ecosystem. Through careful planning and good habits, backyard gardens can be a boon to the environment as well as their owners’ mood and well-being. A rain barrel can be kept close by to collect rainwater for watering a garden without depending on outside water supplies, for example. Planting certain types of wildflowers also can help attract birds and helpful insects that can eat harmful pests, which reduces the need for chemical pesticides.
Environment-friendly gardening is easy and just as much fun, while having the added benefits of helping preserve the ecosystem. The tips in the accompanying checklist can help you practice eco-friendly gardening in your backyard. Take a look and see what you can do to make your garden more of a help to the environment.
In order to conserve water in our garden, it is recommended to encourage mycorrhizal growth.
But, first off, what is mycorrhiza?
Mycorrhiza is a type of fungus that has developed a symbiotic relationship with plants, in which it increases the absorption of phosphorus and other nutrients. The plant allows the fungus to attach itself to its root system. Because the amount of water and nutrients a plant can absorb is directly dependent on the surface area of the root system, this relationship increases the ability of plants to absorb what they need. Mycorrhizal networks are able to absorb all 15 essential nutrients for plants, and absorb the nutrients through intricate webs. It also makes certain enzymes that can aid in breaking down hard to claim nutrients such as phosphorus in order to make them easier for a plant to uptake and digest.
This is what it looks like close up:
“Ericoid mycorrhizal fungus” by MidgleyDJ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ericoid_mycorrhizal_fungus.jpg#/media/File:Ericoid_mycorrhizal_fungus.jpg
These organisms can help plants thrive naturally and without fertilizer. They are also great at increasing the ability of soil to hold water because the water holding capacity increases as the amount of organic matter does. This means that less water will be lost by evaporation or runoff so that more water is available to the plants and you do not have to irrigate as much. Loss of water to the environment is a major source of water waste. Mycorrhizae produce humus and other organic glues that can hold the soil together and therefore increase water holding capacity.
Conventional gardening, unfortunately, can make it difficult for plants to interact with mycorrhizae. Compaction, top soil loss, and less organic matter discourages mycorrhizae from growing. Often, the effects of conventional gardening on this relationship are dually terrible because it both isolates plants and discourages fungal growth as well as increasing the nutrient needs. This increases the needs for fertilizers and other water-consuming products in the garden.
So how is it possible to encourage mycorrhizal growth?
Add compost, rather than fertilizer, to soil. While fertilizer gives plants nutrients, it is chemical-heavy and strips plants of the need to develop this relationship with mycorrhizae. The chemicals are detrimental to existing fungi and, although providing plants with nutrients, discourage the development of natural nutrition uptake strategies. Adding compost will increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, and develop a more fertile topsoil, thus making an ideal environment for mycorrhizal growth.
Use minimal tillage. When you till the soil, it can disrupt and harm the fungal growth on the roots of plants. It takes a while for mychorrhizae to grow, so tilling every season can be detrimental to colonies.
Plant cover crops. While establishing different kinds of environments for the mycorrhizae, cover crops increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, thus increasing microbial activity and encouraging mycorrhizae to grow.
Mycorrhizae can be a natural defense against what could devastate a garden: drought and nutrient deficiency. It is in many ways essential to healthy, natural garden that does not deplete nutrients in the soil. Who knew such a little organism could make such a big difference?
While winter storms provided a unique set of challenges, they often bring with them a blessing: water.
The past few weeks have been exceptionally moist here in New Mexico. Rainfall and snow have decorated our landscape with saturated vistas and winter blankets. While the heat of summer and scarcity of water may be far from our minds, this winter moisture is key to ensuring the health of plants and animals throughout the year.
However, it’s not just how much moisture we get that’s important. It’s how long we get to keep it.
Snowfall provides an excellent opportunity of this concept in action. Following snow fall, take a look outside. Observe each day where the snow has melted and where it remains. Notice micro-climates.
While we’re weeks out from our last big snow storm, snow remains on the ground in some places. These cooler, protected patches of ground are able to hold onto the snow for longer periods of time and release snow melt at a slower rate. Why does this matter? Slowing down the pace of water moving through a system means the plants and animals in the system can use the water over longer periods of time.
While snow provides an excellent visual for this process, we can treat any form of precipitation the same way. How? Mulch. Build organic matter in the soil. Keep plants in the ground year round. Create shade. Dig soil sponges. Utilize swales. Above all, be creative! Observe patterns of success in nature and explore possibilities in your own space.
The Desert Oasis Teaching Garden has teamed up with the Albuquerque Water Utility Authority to offer a series of WaterSmart Gardening classes. Covering everything from waster wise irrigation and catchment techniques to planning a fall garden, this course is a great way to share agricultural knowledge while helping Albuquerque residents earn a water rebate at the same time!
In addition to a thoughtful discussion, we’ve had the opportunity to tour participants around the DOT Garden, highlighting our water saving techniques in action – drip irrigation for raised beds and in-ground gardening, soil sponges for maintaining tree health, sponge & swale systems for flower gardens, and cisterns for rainwater collection.
If you’re interested in attending, please register at: http://www.abcwua.org/water-wise-gardening.aspx
See the PDF below for all the information from our presentation, including a great list of resources for your gardening and water catchment questions.
Our soil analysis proved that our garden had little organic matter, was virtually impermeable to rain and we suspected sparsely populated with living organisms. To breathe life back into the soil, we needed to take some pretty drastic measures. After consulting with Gordon Tooley (a wholistic orchardist) and Minor Morgan (an organic Farmer) , we decided to doctor our earth with mechanical treatments, massive amounts of compost, (https://www.thedotgarden.org/our-black-gold/) and planting with annual cover crops, (see https://www.thedotgarden.org/improve-the-soil-plant-a-meadow/).
First, we needed to break up the hard pan with a process called sub-soiling. We hooked up a large, knife-like device to a tractor and slowly pulled the “knife” back and forth along the land, digging about 6 to 8 inches down.
Next, 67 yd3 yards of home-made compost were dumped by truck onto the site.
Two weeks of student labor spread and raked this almost overwhelming amount of compost across the land. Students from the 8th grade earth systems classes, the 10-12 Bio E class, the 10-12 community service students and the 6-12 environmental clubs contributed their muscle and smiles to the operation.
While students labored, the students even thought up math curriculum to share with their peers. How many student work-hours are needed to move 67 yd3 of compost across a ¼ acre of land?
For a while, I wondered if the mammoth pile of compost would ever be leveled. I needed to finish soon, as the students’ enthusiasm for the task began to wane and the school year end was coming on fast.
But like all things good and bad, the end comes and on to the next thing. Karen Bentrup attached the tiller to the tractor, and tilled the compost into the native soil. The ground was irrigated each morning for three days to prepare for the seeds to create the cover crop. Seeding began and the meadow began to grow.
The soil underneath our new DOT garden has suffered thirty years of abuse; compaction, a monoculture of Kentucky blue grass, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and irrigated with highly mineralized water. This abuse is rampant the world over.
Before we began the restoration of the soil that was to become the DOT garden’s meadow, we needed to take the pulse of our soil, to know what signs of life might still be present.
We called our local extension office and set up an appointment to teach our students how to collect and analyze our soil. Cheryl Kent, an NMSU extension soil scientist brought her soil auger, test kits and expertise.
After a short introduction by Cheryl, the students used the augers and applied their elbow grease to drilling down into the cement-like ground to collect 6 to 8 inches of soil. They labeled and packaged the soil and we sent it off to a lab at Colorado State University www.ext.colostate.edu for chemical and physical analysis. While we waited for the results, the students performed their own analyzes in the classroom. Using a colorometric procedure, test kits available from La Motte, the students tested the soil for nitrate, phosphate, potassium, and pH. In addition, the students analyzed the soil for water-holding capacity, percolation rate and soil texture, see this lab procedure.
Both the CSU report and our own analyzes confirmed that almost no organic matter remained in the soil. Our soil pH is basic, consistent with the limestone, parent rock capstone of the Sandia Mountains, and our soil nutrients are all low. Below the surface layer of the nearly impenetrable hard-pan, the texture is a sandy clay loam, which means that the soil will drain at “low to very low rate”.
Though our soil has a high lime content, it does not suffer from the most serious affliction, soil salinization.
The creation of soil in a natural system takes thousands of years, as living things grow, die and decompose, recycling and adding nutrients, providing structure, increasing the soil’s ability to hold water and nutrients in place. A heavily degraded soil will recover on its own in time, lots of time. However, with a small amount of skill and a little knowledge and patience, humans can restore the earth’s fertility quickly and easily. The Land Institute in Kansas can teach us to repair the great prairies of the world. In our own desert Southwest, Gary Nabhan, Bill DeBuyes, Brad Lancaster and Jack Loffler pioneers land restoration techniques that can help show us the way back to an earth noisy with the bustle of worms and percolation of water.