Learning to garden without harming our environment is a worthwhile pursuit.

There are lots of terms floating around, but my favorite is "sustainable gardening" — defined as a landscaping approach that emphasizes plant health and longevity. It doesn’t mean eliminating fertilizers, pesticides, labor or dollars but creating outdoor spaces that use fewer of them.

Thirty years ago, most homes had a lawn, foundation plantings, a few trees and maybe a flower or vegetable bed. Plants were chosen for color and easy availability. Maintenance meant mowing, fertilizing, spraying, pruning and watering. This is changing as we learn more about native plants, water-efficient landscaping and other environmentally sound gardening practices.

Consider this: Gasoline-powered landscape equipment use 200 million gallons of fuel per year and create 5 percent of our urban air pollution. Residences apply pesticides typically at a rate 20 times that of farmers — 70 million pounds on lawns alone. Thirty percent of the 26 billion gallons used in the U.S. is for outdoor use, mainly irrigation — a typical suburban lawn uses 10,000 gallons of water per year.

So what can we do to make a difference?

Here are some sustainable garden basics:

1. Limit lawn size and instead install woodland, meadow or other natural plantings. Or set mower height higher and use an organic zero phosphate fertilizer.

2. Protect existing natural areas.

3. Use native and appropriate non-native plants.

4. Build healthy soils by adding organic matter to support healthy plants that need less water and fertilizer and are more resistant to insect and disease.

5. Use mulch to insulate plant roots, reduce weeds, minimize water loss, control erosion and add nutrients.

6. Limit fertilization to slow-release, organic fertilizer in the recommended amounts to reduce the need for pruning and mowing.

7. Irrigate efficiently. Water lawns separately from other plantings. Hand or manual watering is the most efficient method. Infrequent, deep watering is better than frequent shallow sprinkling.

8. Give plants room to grow. Leave space for compost piles and brush clippings. Accept insects and diseases that are non life threatening.

9. Prune conservatively, only to maintain natural growth patterns and remove dead or damaged branches. Hedging, topping and shearing plants only encourages new growth. Choosing the right plant for the right place will save lots of time and frustration.

10. Reduce the use of power landscape equipment.

11. Practice soil and water conservation.

12. Use plants to reduce heating and cooling needs. Trees can reduce heating and air conditioning costs by up to 30 percent.

13. Create additional wildlife habitat. We have all read about the plight of pollinators and the destruction of habitat and food sources. Including pollinator friendly plants in the garden helps.

Jeanine Rubert is co-owner of Pine Hill Nursery and Pine Hill Village Gardens and has lived and gardened in northern Michigan for 38 years. Pine Hill is the proud recipient of the 2015 TC Chamber of Commerce, Hagerty Insurance Small Business of the Year Award. Reach her at jrubert@pinehill-nursery.com

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