John Smelser, A Personal View on Sustainable Gardening and Going Green

Excerpts from John Smelser’s post on the Missouri Botanical Garden website, A Personal View on Sustainable Gardening and Going Green:

Compost or mulch-mow lawn clippings

Americans toss approximately 32-36 million TONS of lawn clippings into landfills during the course of a single growing season. We do this even though lawn clippings are a terrific source of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium; fertilizer elements essential to the maintenance of a healthy lawn… You can save a great deal of money and a great deal of space in your landfill by throwing all those lawn clippings into a compost pile instead of the garbage. If you don’t want to manage a compost pile, you can use a mulching mower to shred the material finely enough to leave in the lawn itself… Using a mulching mower would amount to applying hundreds of pounds of fertilizer-rich material to your lawn each growing season… Contrary to all those myths you have heard, the immediate recycling of lawn clippings into the lawn itself does not contribute to thatch. Lawn clippings consist of 75% water content. They decompose readily and add nothing more than nutrients to the soil. Thatch is a build-up of shoots and stems and, in some cases, roots; not grass clippings.

Americans throw about 8 million TONS of leaves into landfills every fall. And yet composted leaves, mixed into planting beds, help loose soil retain moisture and help compacted soils drain better.  Composted oak leaves… help acidify soils that have been subjected to constant liming by alkaline water supplies. This helps bring the pH of the soil closer to neutral; a pH value that is much more conducive to healthy plant growth.

I’m sure you are aware that plants absorb nutrients from the soil. But are you aware that fallen leaves contain 50% of the nutrients pulled from the soil during the growing season? If you compost these leaves, or use them for mulch as I suggest below, you are returning to the soil 50% of all the nutrients the soil lost that year…

As an alternative to composting leaves, set your mower to its tallest mowing height, and mow up your leaves using a grass-catcher. As you mow, dump the mown leaves on your driveway. When you finish mowing up the leaves on the lawn, readjust your mower to a lower setting and mow up the leaves on the driveway.

Then dump the twice-mown leaves in your garden beds to a depth of 2-3 inches. Over the winter these leaves will serve as very effective mulch. They will decompose further and will easily be incorporated into your garden soil when planting the following spring. Try to remember, decomposing leaves were the only way plants were mulched and fertilized… before man came along and invented non-organic alternatives.

Plant trees

Aside from their obvious beauty, and the contribution they make to the real estate value of your home, the “sustainable” benefits of planting trees include the following:

• Trees remove carbon dioxide from the air. One study suggests a mature shade tree removes as much CO2 from the air as two single-family homes generate.

• Trees remove more than CO2 from the air. They also absorb contributors to smog such as sulfur dioxide & nitrogen oxides.

• Well-chosen varieties of trees, placed in strategic locations, can reduce temperatures inside your home by as much as 20 degrees; significantly reducing the need for electrically generated cooling; and significantly reducing your cooling bill.

Buy locally grown plants

Every plant you purchase for your garden or the inside of your home contains a hidden cost. That cost adds substantially to the price you are paying. That cost adds substantially to the damage we are doing the air we breathe and the land we cultivate. That cost adds substantially to the price of maintaining an infrastructure upon which the American economy depends. That hidden cost is freight.

If you want an overwhelmingly convincing image of that hidden cost visit a home & garden conglomerate garden center every day beginning in early spring. Watch & count the number of interstate freight trucks that pull in for unloading. Then walk through the garden center and note the origins of plants & plant related products. Plants from California, Florida, & south Texas. Peat Moss from Canada. Fertilizers from Ohio & Wisconsin. Try to imagine the number of gallons of fuel it takes to haul in the amount of plants, soil amendments, & fertilizers a single conglomerate stocks each spring. Try to imagine the impact trucks hauling 40,000 pounds of freight have on the interstate highway system, as well as local streets. Try to imagine the labor costs involved in loading and unloading these trucks. All of these elements factor into the ultimate cost of a plant or bag of cow manure.

Then consider the cost of those same plants & bags of manure if they were only shipped from across town, or across a couple of counties. Think about all the times you have complained about the negative impact these conglomerates have on local, small businesses. Then consider the positive impact buying locally grown or manufactured products has on the local or closely regional economies.

And while you’re at it, try to remember this. A local nurseryman depends on you for his living. He will bust his tail to give you sound advice and sell you healthy plants because he wants your return business and he wants you to recommend him to your friends and neighbors. His products may cost a bit more but, after all, he cannot buy hundreds of truckloads of plants at a time. Those enormous home & garden stores may charge you less per plant. But, in my opinion, they are using their garden center as a loss-leader in the hopes that while shopping there, you will also buy a kitchen remodel, or enough wood to build a small building. Their plants are not chosen because they perform best in your garden, they are chosen because they are cute in their store and attract your eye on the way to their more lucrative departments. Their garden center DOES NOT depend on you for a living. Their garden center depends on 20-30 million of you for a living. Who is going to care about your needs more; a giant corporation or a local expert who works with a few hundred of you each season? Don’t be impulse plant buyers; buy plants from a hard-working local expert who cares about what he tells you and sells you.

Buying locally grown & made garden products saves lots of cents for you and generates lots of cents for your local economy. That makes sense.