As the season approaches for cleaning up flowerbeds and planting vegetable gardens, you may love the idea of all the blooms or produce you’ll create but dread the annual fight for control over weeds. There’s no need to go wild on chemicals to reduce all that pulling and hoeing.
“The healthier your soil is, the fewer weeds you will have,” says Suha Kaidbey, owner of Le Printemps in Washington, D.C. “Buy a kit from your local hardware or gardening store to test your soil’s minerals and pH.” Then once you know your soil’s composition, you can talk to your local nursery or Master Gardener about how to increase its health, or plant flowers and vegetables that will thrive in what you have.
Once you’ve got that garden going, however, here are some Earth-friendly and money-saving tips for keeping it beautiful.
1. Try natural weed control.
There are plenty of do-it-yourself ways to control weeds in your gardens without resorting to chemical-laden weed killers. Use corn gluten meal, a nontoxic weed control that is safe to use around children and pets and 98 percent effective after the third application. Mulching oak leaves over garden beds in the fall can control weeds the following year, and for spot treatments (if you’re not up for hand-pulling), try a spray bottle of white vinegar, which will kill everything from dandelions to crab grass.
Time investment: If you’re consistent in fighting weeds and don’t let them get out of hand, two or three rounds of one of the above methods will greatly reduce the weeding you need to do in flower gardens, as will mulching your gardens every season, according to John Toepfer, vice president of content for BloomingSecrets.com. He says when mulch is applied to the top of the soil, it can prevent weeds from germinating.
Why to do it: It will easily save you a couple hundred dollars a year. A 20-pound bag of corn gluten meal costs about $30, and a gallon jug of white vinegar is only $2. Depending on your location, you may be able to get a pickup truckload of mulch for $20 to $40 per scoop.
2. Water less frequently but more deeply.
While it might seem counterintuitive, watering plants less frequently makes them stronger. Instead, water deeply starting early in the season. Roots will grow deeper and reach for water as the hot summer weather dries out the surface, according to Kaidbey. Water early in the morning or in the evening so the soil can soak up the moisture before the sun does. Kaidbey also says you’ll know you have the right balance of water when your soil is fluffy but moist — that makes weed-pulling easier and discourages weeds, which tend to favor dry, compacted soil.
Time investment: If you’re watering less, you’ll obviously be spending less time setting up your sprinklers.
Why to do it: You can probably cut your water bill in half, if not more, particularly if you establish deeply rooted plants that don’t require watering even in the driest summer conditions.
3. Try composting.
Most homeowners have a tendency to overfertilize, whether that’s with lawns or gardens. To get your gardens off to a healthy start each spring, begin by adding a quarter-inch layer of compost to garden beds early in the season when the ground is soft. Kaidbey says if you have small gardens, it’s easy to compost right from your kitchen by putting all your food scraps in the soil. As they decompose, they’ll fill the soil with minerals and attract worms, which keep the soil aerated. Just avoid strong, odorous foods like onion, garlic and broccoli.
Time investment: A weekend day in early spring to spread and rake compost into beds.
Why to do it: Depending on the size and number of your flower and vegetable gardens, you can save anywhere from a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars (if your habit is to use a professional landscaping service) by skipping the chemical overload; plus, you’ll be doing a big favor for Mother Earth and making your gardens safe for kids and pets who wander through them.
4. Skip the fertilizer.
Annette Pelleccio, founder and CEO of The Happy Gardener Inc., in Ashland, Va., says it’s best to get your soil tested to see whether you really need fertilizer in the first place. If your soil’s pH is 5.5 or higher, you don’t. If you do feel your gardens needs some extra support, try organic fertilizer like animal manure, or add a quarter-inch layer of compost to your garden early in the season when the ground is soft. “Compost is one of the best soil conditioners for lawns,” Pelleccio notes.
Time investment: A weekend day to spread it if you choose to do it yourself.
Why to do it: Manure offers safe and natural fertilization at substantially less cost than chemical fertilizers, and you should need to do it only once a season, according to The Farmer’s Almanac.
5. Go native.
It’s important to buy locally adapted plants, meaning plants that will thrive in this region’s climate and soil conditions, whenever you can. That doesn’t mean you can only sow native plants if you want a healthy flowerbed. But you need to pay attention to the conditions required by plants and make sure those conditions match the environment of your home. The rules are really common sense: Don’t plant shade plants in full sunlight, for example. Stressed plants are the most vulnerable to pest infestation and drought.
Time investment: Minimal. Ask your local Cooperative Extension agent for advice, or go online and so some research on plants native to the region or plants that can thrive in your soil and climate conditions.
Why to do it: Native plants are more resistant to local pests and less vulnerable to being overtaken by weeds. Plus, you’ll be encouraging the regeneration of plants native to the Chesapeake Bay region.
Cooperative Extension: For gardening advice specific to this region and your individual needs, seek out the expertise of your local Cooperative Extension office. This national network of the U.S. Department of Agriculture will generally provide guidance for free. Many extension offices maintain their own websites with loads of downloadable information on lawn care, gardening and pest control. Find a Cooperative Extension office near you at csrees.usda.gov/Extension.
Master Gardeners: You also can use the expertise of your local Master Gardeners, a program run through the Extension Service of the land-grant university in every state. Find a Master Gardener Program near you at ahs.org/master_gardeners.
Products for Greener Garden Care
Bradfield Organics Corn Gluten Organic Fertilizer: Applied in early spring, this nontoxic weed suppressant controls most broadleaf weeds by preventing weed seeds from sprouting. $30 for a 20-pound bag. eartheasy.com.
EarthMinded Rain Barrel Kit: Reduce municipal water usage by building your own rain barrel to collect rainwater to irrigate your lawn and garden. All you need to supply yourself is a barrel — even a large trash barrel will do. $30. aquabarrel.com.
Bio-Orb Composter Value Kit: Save money and grow a healthier lawn by making your own lawn and garden compost. This kit comes with detailed instructions on how to get started as well as all the tools you’ll need. $179. woodlanddirect.com.