More organic approaches to gardening and lawn care
By Colleen Cordes and Gresham Lowe
Takoma Park should have a front row seat to fireflies’ annual summer light show, thanks to the City’s Safe Grow Act of 2013 and to Takoma Park’s many residents who are practicing ever more organic approaches to gardening and lawn care.
The recent law restricts the use of certain pesticides for cosmetic lawn care that the U.S. and other governments have classified as posing particular health risks or that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated for restricted use. Takoma Park was the first community in the nation of our size to enact such broad restrictions for private property. Following our lead, Montgomery County recently passed similar restrictions, and Maryland lawmakers just passed legislation restricting the sale and use of neonicotinoid pesticides to protect pollinators.
This is all welcome news for local fireflies – also known as lightning bugs. Because they spend so much time in their larval phase under or on the ground and their diet is mainly other small grounddwelling insects, fireflies are considered especially susceptible to pesticides and other lawn chemicals. Exploring more organic ways to take care of lawns and gardens is also worth considering to protect a wide range of other species as well, including butterflies, other pollinators and bats and birds that eat the insects. On up the food chain, organic lawn and garden care helps protect pets and our own families, especially children, who often play on lawns and are developmentally more vulnerable to toxins.
Here are three introductory tips to begin exploring more organic approaches to lawn care and gardening:
Start from the ground up by evaluating and enriching your soil. Healthy soil contributes to plant health, including a deep, rich network of roots. Healthy roots make grass and garden plants more resilient from drought, disease and insect infestations. So begin by evaluating your soil quality. You can have it analyzed by an expert, or if that seems too complicated, examine it closely yourself. For advice on whether you should have your soil chemically analyzed to test for specific nutrient deficiencies, take a sample to a free Master Gardener Plant Clinic in the county. (See extension. umd.edu/mg/locations/plant-clinics for more information.)
For a do-it-yourself evaluation, observe a handful up close. Good soil will smell slightly sweet, be a rich dark brown or almost black and have a crumbly texture when dry but hold together well when moistened and formed in a ball. If the color is red and can only be dug up in thick, sticky clumps, as is the case in much of Takoma Park, your soil is heavy in clay and would especially benefit from applications of mature compost. The City’s leaf mulch, which you can pick up for free at the Public Works Department on Oswego Avenue or order and schedule a delivery, is an affordable option. For more information, call 301-891-7633.
Let nature be your guide. Healthy ecosystems thrive in diversity. Native plants have evolved to thrive in each other’s company, and each plant has its own preference for hours of sun exposure. Working within these natural limits makes for less frustrating landscaping. A monoculture, like grass, will be more susceptible to serious invasions of insects or weeds than a yard planted with a variety of species that are both native to our area and wellsuited to the micro-environment of your own yard.
The shade from Takoma Park’s lush forest canopy, for example, makes growing grass a particular challenge in many yards. Our white oaks and other native trees are much more compatible with shade-tolerant shrubs and plants. Lovely native ferns often do well on our many shady hills. (Before digging under trees, check the Tree Ordinance.) Consider reducing the area of yard planted in grass. In fact, establishing a large area of mulch around big trees – the most valuable part of the home landscape – is an excellent way to help them resist the stresses of urban life, such as pollution, soil compaction, and root disturbance. No mulch volcanoes, please! You need just two to three inches of mulch coverage, starting no closer than half a foot from the trunk but extending as far out as you like. The further you go, the greater the boon to trees. Refresh the mulch when it gets thin, incorporating the tree’s own fallen leaves if you can, which will continue to improve the fertility and structure of your soil.
Start with safest, least toxic solutions first. Weed your garden by hand before weeds get out of hand. As for lawns, if dandelions or other uninvited wildflowers become too invasive, hand weeding a fair percentage of them will help bring their numbers back under control. For gardens, include plants like marigolds and certain onions that naturally repel pests. A little nibbling of garden plants by insects is natural. If you’re losing more than, say, 30 per cent of your planting to an infestation, you can try a fairly high pressure blast of hose water to wash bugs away. Non-toxic, plant-based horticultural oils can be used to suffocate pests, and horticultural soaps – or even soapy dishwater – can also be sprayed. For help identifying a serious insect infestation and advice about other non-toxic steps, such as purchasing beneficial insects like hungry ladybugs to help bring a bad infestation under control, visit the Master Gardener clinics mentioned above.
Participating in such interspecies sharing is the real spirit behind organic lawn and garden care, much like grateful fireflies contributing their fair share by lighting up the night in Takoma Park!
Colleen Cordes and Gresham Lowe are members of the Takoma Park Tree Commission. They thank Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener Magazine and past president of the Takoma Horticultural Club, and local resident Nichelle Harriott, science and regulatory director of Beyond Pesticides, for the tips they shared for this article. For more information, visit Beyond Pesticides’ website, www.beyondpesticides.org.
This article appeared in the July 2016 edition of the Takoma Park Newsletter. The Takoma Park Newsletter is available for download here.