Happy Earth Day! Whoops, make that a belated Happy Earth Day. Yet come to think of it, shouldn’t every day be Earth Day, given the litany of problems facing Mother Earth? That is, if we’re serious about cleaning up the mess we’ve made of it.
In honor of Earth Day, this month’s blog features 10 straightforward ways you can be a better steward of our world. Let’s dig in:
1. Don't let it go to waste. In the U.S. we throw away nearly 40 million tons of food each year—more than any other country in the world. That’s estimated to be 30-40 percent of our entire food supply equating to 219 pounds of waste per person per year. When that food gets dumped in the landfill, it generates oodles of greenhouse gas emissions.
Composting your fruit and vegetable scraps is a simple way to be part of the solution to helping stop this wastefulness. When you compost your food scraps and yard waste, it magically breaks down into rich organic material you can use to feed your plants. Here’s a beginner’s guide to composting.
2. Reuse and repurpose. Have a variety of wood leftover from previous projects? Make a raised vegetable garden bed. I had enough wood scraps (and pieces of Trex from building my deck) to make two beds. Then I turned a pile of bricks into a permeable base for our fire pit. Maybe a neighbor is getting rid of river rock that covered her beds. That could be used to make a path or a base for things you tuck away in the corner of the yard. Take an old wooden chair, paint it and then cut a hole in the seat. Put a container in it and place your ’new’ planter in one of your beds. Get creative--the possibilities are endless.
3. Catch some rain. Why keep your plants hydrated with expensive water from your tap when you can collect rainwater for free? Well, virtually free. You will need to make an upfront investment in a rain barrel, which can cost $60-80 for one made from a reused plastic barrel to well over $100 or more for a fancy one purchased online or at a garden center. Rain barrels typically hold between 50 to 60 gallons of water.
Personally, I say go with a reused one. Many municipalities sell them. A good rain barrel source for Chicago area residents is The Conservation Foundation. The Foundation also partners with a number of municipalities on rain barrel sales.
Rain barrels are a triple win. You save money, energy isn’t used to create and ship water to your tap, and rainwater is better for your plants. This article explains why.
4. Share the wealth. Already growing native plants? Why not divide and share them with your neighbors and friends? Natives that can be divided include purple coneflower, garden phlox, bee balm and black-eyed susan. Periodic division of these plants is good for their health. And you’ll feel good knowing that a little more of the earth has been reclaimed by natives. Here’s a handy chart with information on dividing perennials.
5. Go electric. Ah, Saturday morning. There’s nothing like being jolted from a restful sleep to the roar of neighbors’ gas-powered lawn mowers. My battery-powered mower? Sounds like a large quiet fan when I run it. And I can cut the entire lawn on our quarter acre lot. What’s more, there’s no need to mess with buying gas and changing the oil.
Those gas-powered mowers, by the way, spew carbon and other pollutants at an alarming rate. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a new gas lawn mower will generate more harmful emissions in one hour than 11 new cars driving for the same hour. If that’s not bad enough, the EPA calculates that 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled a year when people refuel their lawn equipment.
Do yourself, your neighbors and the environment a favor—go electric.
6. Borrow don’t buy. Okay, I may have convinced you to buy an electric mower. But there’s a lot of garden equipment (fuel and muscle powered) you use less frequently. For example, you might have a large branch that fell during a storm and you decide you really need to buy a chainsaw to cut it up. Hold on. Maybe one of your neighbors, friends or family members has one you can borrow (hopefully, a battery-powered one). Another alternative is to rent one for the day—Big Box and tool rental equipment stores offer a wide-range of equipment.
7. Stop the invasion. Unfortunately, some ornamental plants people unwittingly purchase end up invading and taking over natural areas. For example, one of my favorite nearby forest preserves has been overrun by Callery (Bradford) pear trees. Many nurseries and garden centers have stopped selling invasive species, but the practice still exists. If you are purchasing non-native ornamental plants, check out this guide from the University of Illinois Extension. Other states offer similar information on invasives.
8. Lose some lawn. Few things give me as much satisfaction as removing another chunk of lawn from our yard. Less time spent mowing, more room to plant an array of beautiful plants that support local wildlife. For the most part, our lawns are literally ‘food deserts’ to insects and other critters. (That is, except for whatever animal is digging up the Japanese beetle larvae in our backyard. The upside: free aeration!)
Besides making your yard a more beautiful and richly diverse place, think about the other benefits of removing lawn. Less mowing, watering and fertilizing. Go ahead, remove a patch and establish a bed of natives. You’ll be glad you did.
9. Take local pride. That means buying your natives from plant sales held by worthy local groups and organizations. It’s a win-win: You get great plants and help support the mission and programs they provide. Take a look at this excellent list of native plant sales by Chicago area county.
10. Tell the world. Well, okay, at least the neighbors on your street. When you plant a native garden on your property, there are several organizations that will recognize your work including The Conservation Foundation (Conservation@Home), Monarch Watch (Monarch Waystation) and the National Wildlife Federation (Certified Wildlife Habitat).
For a nominal cost, you can purchase a sign from these organizations recognizing your hard work on behalf of nature. This also provides another opportunity to spread the word about the benefits of native plants to curious neighbors passing by.
In future blog posts, I will be going into more depth on many of these topics. For now, I hope you act on one, two or more! And maybe through your good deeds, you’ll convince a neighbor or two to follow suit.