The green living movement has been around for a long time, but Georgia Master Gardener Susan Varlamoff thinks it's missing something.
"We have fuel-efficient cars and homes with double-paned windows," said Varlamoff, who is the director of the Office of Environmental Sciences for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "But, no one's written a lot about how to be eco-friendly in your yard."
She decided to do something about that void. The result is her book, "Sustainable Gardening for the Southeast." The book is a practical resource guide to sustainable gardening and is written for gardeners in the Southeast to help them take advantage of the region's lengthy growing season and to give them tips for amending the heavy clay soil. But don't be put off by the "Southeast" in the title if you live in another part of the country. No matter where you live, you can apply Varlamoff's sound principles for sustainable gardening.
If you like the idea of adding eco-friendly gardening practices to your regimen, Varlamoff shared her five favorite tips for creating a lush, planet-friendly garden.
1. Improve the soil. Soil in the Southeast is typically clay or sand and requires generous amounts of compost to make it fertile and suitable to grow a lush garden.
2. Create a landscape that maximizes water. By grouping plants according to their water needs, gardeners will have much less watering to do beyond what falls from the sky. For example, you can plant drought-resistant plants like Autumn Joy sedums and purple coneflowers together because they have similar (and low) water needs. Unless there's a drought, Mother Nature will provide enough water to keep them healthy. The same concept applies in reverse to thirsty plants like hibiscus, which should be planted with similarly thirsty neighbors and probably near a rain barrel.
3. Plant a diversity of native plants. Native plants co-evolved with local insects, birds, mammals and other wildlife. With that in mind, using native plants in your landscape can create the thriving ecosystems on which all life depends.
4. Reduce lawn size. University of Georgia experts recommend having a lawn that is no more than 40 percent of the entire landscape. The expanse of green may be soothing, but it will require much more water and chemicals to stay that way then a festive patch of native plants will.
5. Mulch, mulch, mulch. Use organic mulch such as wood chips, pine straw and pine bark around plants to maintain spoil moisture and temperature, reduce weeds and restore organic matter to the soil.
Green garden crusading
Whereas many books that serve as resource manuals might tend to be dry and laborious reads, Varlamoff has written one for gardeners that's a page turner. The information is not only practical but also achievable — even for those who only have the time to be weekend warriors in the yard. In addition to being an easy read, there are numerous graphics, landscape design diagrams and pictures that make it easy to visualize Varlamoff's messages about the various aspects of sustainable gardening. The book is also filled with pleasant surprises in the form of "Did you know" factoids that are liberally sprinkled throughout the chapters. For instance, did you know that properly placed trees can reduce air conditioning needs by 30 percent?
Gardeners can also be confident that the information in the book is accurate. Varlamoff has gleaned much of her advice from research conducted at the nation's land grant universities. She has also relied on her many academic associates in various specialties to fact check each chapter.
She also wants those who seek to be eco-friendly in their yards to be aware that sustainable gardening can have positive impacts that extend well beyond creating a pollinator patch. Varlamoff believes strongly that one person can make a difference, and she has experienced this herself when neighbors see her working in her yard. They often stop to ask for advice that they can apply to their own gardens. It's possible, she believes, to transform America's residential landscapes — even if it's one sustainable sustainable yard at a time.
A personal story behind the advice
Varlamoff has long been passionate about gardening and protecting the environment. She inherited those interests, she writes in the foreword, from her father and the "paradise" he created in their yard and during walks he led in the woods to teach her and her siblings about nature. But Varlamoff's interest in the environment was born of tragedy.
Her father kept bags of pesticides such as DDT, a now-banned chemical, in the garage during her childhood years in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, in 1963 when she was 14, her 5-year-old sister, Karen, died of acute leukemia. A 1987 study by a team of doctors who surveyed homeowners who used DDT in their yards and others who didn't found a seven times greater rate of acute leukemia in families where DDT had been applied, Varlamoff said. "You never forget what it's like to walk behind a small, white coffin," she said.
That memory is one of the reasons the second printing of the book won't mention chemicals for controlling insects. After all, pest control, Varlamoff said, is something that will occur naturally if gardeners will avoid planting a monoculture — or "swaths of a single species," especially a monoculture containing an overabundance of non-native plants. "Planting a variety of native plants will attract birds and other predators that will keep the insects in check," she said. Besides, she added, the presence of insects is the sign of a healthy ecosystem.
Another positive impact is that sustainable gardening is an activity that can involve the whole family. "What child doesn't like to plant tomatoes or sunflowers and watch them grow into giant plants that are bigger than them?" she asked. In addition, she said, sustainable gardening is something that can appeal to people of all abilities across all economic levels.
If the idea of sustainable gardening appeals to you, Varlamoff has a bonus tip for making an earth-friendly landscape statement. Plant a native oak tree. According to research studies, she said, native oaks are nature's biggest biodiversity attractors. In addition, they sequester carbon dioxide and reduce climate change, hold the soil to prevent erosion, cool the air and collect and filter stormwater.
That's a lot of production from one plant. Imagine what could happen if you planted your yard as an ecosystem. After all, Varlamoff said, ecosystems are "Mother Nature's way of maintaining life on Earth."