Organic Growing

How Green are your Gardening Habits?

Adopting a “greener” lifestyle to decrease our “carbon footprint” has morphed from a good idea to almost a cult movement within some circles. Though “greening” our lives may seem like overkill at times or even a religion, it is a concept each person should carefully consider. As gardeners, we all love the fruit of our labor and the elements that make bountiful crops and flowers possible. It is exciting to consider how we also can make changes in the way we garden and care for our plants to reduce the damage we do while occupying our portion of the planet.

One of the simplest ways to “stretch your green thumb” into greening your gardening techniques is by considering each of your gardening actions to determine if you can somehow “green” it. For example, last fall as we watched many neighbors bagging pecan tree leaves for the garbage trucks to remove, we decided to construct an enclosure by our compost bin to store the leaves. They have been breaking down nicely and we use them as mulch and as the brown layer on top of vegetable, fruit, and coffee grounds in our compost bin. As we analyze our growing methods and techniques, we see more and more ways of improving.


Composting is one of the easiest ways to reap benefits from incorporating “greener” gardening methods. A wide variety of composters are available in stores and on the web. Be sure to consider several points when shopping for a compost bin:

  • The temperature of the compost will need to reach a range of 104-140 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures above 104 degrees will kill fly larvae and weed seeds, while temperatures above 140 degrees will begin killing the beneficial microbes that break down the compost material. Achieving a desired compost temperature may influence where you place your compost bin as sun exposure will quickly make the temperatures rise.
  • You will need to be able to turn the contents regularly to improve aeration and mix the compost, so a barrel-style unit with a hand crank is the best choice ergonomically. A bin-style unit also works well if you don’t mind using a hoe or a compost turning tool. Turning the compost will lower the compost temperature and provide needed aeration since oxygen is essential for the microbes who are working so diligently on breaking down your compost.
  • The compost will need adequate moisture (50-60% is ideal), so if you are constructing your own composting unit, ensure it is not made of rust-prone materials. Your compost needs to be damp, but not overly wet. By layering wet and dry components, you should achieve the proper moisture level. Wet components consist of fruits, vegetables, and damp coffee grounds. Dry components may be shredded paper or dry tree leaves. We often add crushed eggshells and stale bread to our compost, too.

By utilizing composting, you will have nutritive fertilizer to add to your plants and garden regularly and you will also reduce your contribution to the local landfill. If you want to take composting a step further, consider a worm farm and you will also have compost tea to use as fertilizer for your plants.

As you reflect upon your gardening routine, energy and water use as well as gardening space and the environmental impact of fertilizers and pesticides, provide additional opportunities for improvement.

Conserving Energy

For indoor and hydroponic growers, energy use is a costly concern. While conventional grow lights are very hot, sometimes reaching 400-1,400 degrees Fahrenheit at the bulb’s surface, some conventional lights can also use 600-1,000 watts of power. Also, the bulbs degrade and must be replaced annually for optimal growing results. LED grow lights that are specifically designed for growing plants, only use two to nine watts of power, have a lifespan of 20,000-100,000 hours and are cool to the touch. In addition to energy savings, the plants grow more efficiently and require less water and fertilizer when they grow under LED lights.

Conserving Water

Depending on where you live, water conservation may or may not be a major concern. Drip irrigation, Treegators, and misting are all ways to minimize water usage while giving plants and trees the water they need. Drip irrigation allows growers to set a watering schedule for the plants and trees. Watering in the early morning is optimal to minimize evaporation and to discourage powdery mildew and other fungi. A Treegator is a portable drip irrigation bag that can be placed around a tree’s base for a slow, steady release of 20 gallons of water throughout a week. Additional bags can be zipped together for trees larger than 8 inches in diameter. For orchids, greenhouses and high-humidity plants, misting is ideal and uses very little water. Fogg-It Nozzles release a fog-like mist at rates of ½, 1, 2, or 4 gallons per minute and fit standard garden hoses. Many growers use Fogg-It Nozzles on a timer or construct a misting system of PVC with Fogg-It Nozzles since they are so versatile.

Fertilizers and Pest Control

Though fertilizers are important for plant growth, maintenance, and improving crop and flower results, the overuse or misuse of fertilizers results in energy waste (in the manufacturing of fertilizers) and degradation of water quality. Organic not only provide nutrients to the plants, but also improve the activity of beneficial soil microbes while enhancing the plants reaction to stress and pathogens. With fish and seaweed fertilizers, plants have improved root development and better chlorophyll production.

Another organic fertilizer is Neem seed meal which can be incorporated into soil. It is the milled byproduct from Neem oil production and has NPK values of 4-1-1 with slow-release properties. Of course, cow manure, llama manure and bat guano are excellent organic fertilizers for almost any plant. Llama manure and bat guano are gaining in popularity among orchid growers, too. An inorganic fertilizer used by many commercial nurseries to minimize fertilizer waste is Nutricote, a controlled-release fertilizer that can be used as a top-dressing or it can be incorporated into soil. Nutricote has a patented coating that allows fertilizer to gradually release in conjunction with the plant’s natural growth cycle.

Not only is fertilizer important for plant growth, but growers certainly do not want their plants being destroyed by insects, either. Horticultural oil works by suffocating aphids, mealy bugs, mites, scale, and insects’ eggs. Neem oil impairs an insect’s hormonal system, resulting in an insect’s inability to molt or reproduce, thereby disrupting the insect’s lifecycle.

Depending on what type of gardening or growing you do, there might be “greener” ways of doing it. As you go about your typical gardening routines, consider simple ways to “green” the process. When you develop new, “greener” ways of gardening, spread the word to fellow gardeners who may be able to incorporate the new process into their gardening routine, too.

Amanda Sylvie is an avid orchid grower and greenhouse gardener.

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