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Green Gardening: Better Results, Naturally

We all want a green garden, but the best way to get healthy plants is to use our resources efficiently, maintaining a balance between our efforts and the natural environment that dictates how our plants must grow.

Good soil is critical, and there are few better ways to energize your soil than by adding homemade compost to your garden on a regular basis, providing bacteria, fungi and nutrients that cannot be purchased in a bag at the store. Grouping plants with similar watering needs and planting groups of companion plants — varieties that naturally provide benefits to one another — can maximize water use. Both of these practices can provide natural pest management, minimizing the need for pesticides and fungicides. These are just a few of the ways you can spend less money and time taking care of your garden while improving the health of your entire landscape.


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A Greener Garden, Naturally

New shoots and tiny leaves are not the only green we need to focus on in spring. As the weather heats up, we’re all going to become more concerned with the drying soil and the lack of rain, as well as the increasing number of pests that seem to ruin so many of our gardening efforts. But if we spend a little time making our gardens more ecologically friendly, we can ameliorate many of these problems.


Dirt can be really beautiful. But if you don't compost, you may never fully understand how rich and fine good soil can be. Begin with grass clippings and other yard waste, then add vegetable scraps and coffee grounds. (Don’t use animal products or waste.) Let nature do the rest! Our warm climate enables these waste products – once headed for plastic bags and landfills – to be recycled in our own gardens, adding nutrients and beneficial bacteria where they’re needed most.

Composters are available from just about any home or garden center, and make it easy to get started. Many include baffles and cranks, which make it possible to stir the compost pile each time you add material, producing a better quality compost at a much faster rate. Some composters even collect compost leachate — runoff from the compost pile that is full of nutrients. Just dilute and spray for a super-nutritious fertilizer that contains the trace elements missing from synthetic varieties.

Water Efficiency

Water is becoming a gardener’s chief concern, as dry season after dry season contributes to significant drought problems throughout all of Texas. In our area, ecologically sound landscaping and gardening practices must take water usage into consideration. Both the design of the garden and the selection of plants are critical first steps. Those areas that are not going to serve as recreation spaces or vegetable gardens can easily be converted to xeriscape (landscaping that requires little water). By selecting drought-tolerant bushes and other ornamental plants, sections of your yard can be created that are virtually maintenance-free, leaving you the time and resources to pay more attention to growing vegetables, herbs and flowers in other sections of your yard. One great way to choose the right plants for your garden is to visit the Texas A&M AgriLife extension website, where you can find plants rated on their heat tolerance, drought tolerance, pest tolerance, and ability to do well in your particular soil. And, of course, no Central Texas gardener would be caught without a rain barrel!

Pest Control

Worries about the harmful effects of pesticides and fungicides have persuaded many people to choose ecologically friendly ways to keep critters and disease out of their gardens. The soil is the best place to start your work. Good soil creates healthy plants that are more resistant to pests and disease. Healthy bacteria, good soil fungi and earthworms all help build up natural defenses and keep pests from establishing a foothold in your garden. All these things are available in good compost, but are not found in synthetic fertilizers — another good reason to start your own composting operation.

The next step is to plan what you’re planting. Companion planting is the practice of establishing groups of plants that naturally attract beneficial insects, ward off pests, and even supply nutrients to one another. Tomatoes, for example, should be grown with basil and onions or chives. Not only will these companion plants promote healthier tomato plants, it also makes it easy to cook up a batch of marinara!

Spending time with your plants is a good way to keep pests away — you're more likely to notice a new infestation, and be able to nip it in the bud at an early stage. Introducing natural predators can also be a great way to curtail the spread of pests. Ladybugs eat aphids, so an aphid infestation can be “treated” by introducing ladybugs (available at some gardening centers) into your garden. When pesticides become necessary, there are several natural alternatives. Garlic concentrate, orange oil, and even a dilute solution of dishwashing liquid and water can solve your pest problem without introducing dangerous chemicals that could find their way into your food and your home.


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Green Gardens Require Knowledgeable Gardeners

Green thumbs are always experimenting, coming up with new ways to solve problems. And they all want to share their discoveries. We’ve assembled a few of the best places for you to find out what works for other folks in our area, and places you can share all your discoveries.

  • Central Texas Gardener, a weekly show by KLRU, provides information on everything from gardening in small spaces to landscaping that best suits our area and its requirements.
  • The Travis County Master Gardeners Association provides educational resources, including free seminars and publications on various aspects of Central Texas gardening. These volunteers are committed to helping all gardeners achieve better results.
  • The City of Austin publishes the Grow Green Information Guide, a compendium of trees, bushes, vines, grasses and many other plants that are well adapted to our unique climate. This guide is just one of the many publications and informational resources available on their web site.
  • Texas Gardener Magazine is focused on the unique needs of Texas gardeners. In addition to the bimonthly printed magazine, they have a team of experts that will answer questions submitted through the web site, and they send out a weekly email newsletter full of good advice.
  • The Natural Gardener is a gardener’s paradise, but it’s so much more than a store. The founder, John Dromgoole, hosts a segment on KXAN’s FirstCast Saturday, a segment on KLRU’s Central Texas Gardener, and — for 27 years — the Gardening Naturally radio show on KLBJ. They also provide classes for new and experienced gardeners, and some of the most knowledgeable staff you’ll find anywhere.