Tips for creating your 'green' garden

R. Wayne Mezitt

As a result of decades of attention by environmental experts and activists, "environmental sustainability" has finally reached its tipping point to become an important consideration for our everyday lives.

People everywhere are beginning to understand that their actions can affect the health of the entire planet. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System is now becoming mainstream among building designers and contractors.

Many homeowners have now become aware that the way they manage their households -- and landscapes -- can have a major effect on conserving precious resources.

It is gratifying to those of us who make our careers in horticulture that our products constitute a fundamental basis for this "green" movement. While there is as yet no LEED rating system for landscapes, it's clear that plants, shrubs and trees are primary elements responsible for creating sustainable living environments. Proper use of these living, growing horticultural components takes advantage of their ability to help manage water flow, sunlight and air movement around our homes and workplaces.

And inherent in this principle, best benefits result when we pay attention to where and how these living elements are placed, cultivated and maintained. A landscape properly planned, installed and maintained conserves natural resources, produces less waste and promotes our personal and environmental well-being.

It's important to understand your site, soils and weather to make the right decisions. Locating the wrong plant in the wrong place serves no beneficial purpose, can be very expensive and may even cause environmental harm. Planting a garden without proper soil and site preparation nearly always results in disappointments as the plants mature. Improper maintenance practices are costly and tend to increase future problems.

While all this may sound daunting, the principles for doing it right are logical, economical and really quite simple, especially when you use readily available resources, including consulting with the experts at your local garden center.

Develop a plan for your landscape. This can be simply a series of sketches or a comprehensive professionally prepared overall plan. Consider elements like light and sun exposure, wind direction, existing trees, minimizing disturbance of the site, erosion control during and after construction, locations of outdoor activity areas and any factors that will affect your use of the area.

Take advantage of the capabilities of trees and shrubs to reduce expenses for air conditioning, heat, electricity and light management in and around your home.

Consider discussing and coordinating your plans with neighbors for mutual benefit. Be sure to update your plan as it evolves and situations change.

Test your soil for pH and fertility. Your local garden center or state university can analyze and recommend enhancements. Make sure you have sufficient topsoil to support the garden, supplementing with compost and organic products to adjust where needed. Properly prepared soils generally need minimal supplemental fertilization and water.

Choose your woody trees and shrubs thoughtfully. Always space your plantings with consideration for ultimate sizes. Use pest-resistant plants that tolerate drought or site-specific moisture extremes. Avoid plants that become invasive.

Color and texture of foliage should be complementary. Consider year-round appearance and features other than simply flower color. Use annuals and perennials as less permanent enhancements to the woody plants. Limit turf areas -- they tend to use the most resources. Make sure all plants are properly installed.

The way your garden is maintained can conserve precious resources. Mulch with organic products to conserve moisture and discourage weeds.

Resist installing automatic irrigation systems, or monitor them vigilantly to avoid waste -- using proper planting techniques limits the need for frequent watering. Use recycled grey water or rain barrels. Fertilize only when necessary, using organic fertilizers.

Prune and shape plants properly, chipping or shredding branches to reuse as mulch. Compost wastes to reuse in your gardens and reduce offsite disposal of leaves, weeds and prunings.

It's truly enjoyable to use your garden to enhance your creative urges, exercise physically and increase the value of your home.

In addition to improving the environment, gardening is a continuing process that evolves as your landscape grows. Make sure you take the time to enjoy your gardening activities and appreciate with your family all the benefits of the gardens you're developing.

R. Wayne Mezitt is the chairman of Weston Nurseries of Hopkinton and a Massachusetts certified horticulturist. He has served as president of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association, the New England Nursery Association and the American Nursery and Landscape Association, based in Washington, D.C.