Many gardeners love their plants and landscapes, and they also like to be nice to Mother Earth. That’s the basis of Earth-Kind landscaping, an approach that promotes environmentally friendly practices that still allow for lovely gardens and outdoor areas.
The main purpose is “to promote the establishment and management of outstanding landscapes, vegetable gardens, and fruit plantings that provide maximum enjoyment while being environmentally responsible and requiring minimal maintenance,” says Tim Hartmann, who helps to oversee the program at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
“To me, it’s trying to use both traditional and organic strategies to have an environmentally friendly garden,” says Marilyn Love, a Hays County master gardener with advanced training in Earth-Kind landscaping.
Earth-Kind landscaping is based on research and focuses on four overall goals:
• Landscape water conservation
• Reduction of fertilizer and pesticide use
• Landscaping for energy conservation
• Reduction of landscape wastes entering landfills
The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension website, aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkind offers numerous suggestions to work toward each goal, including suggestions on these areas:
• Planning and design
• Soil analysis and preparation
• Practical turf areas
• Appropriate plant selection
• Efficient irrigation and rainwater harvesting
• Effective use of mulches and appropriate maintenance.
Of the four goals, “I think probably in this part of Texas, we consider the most important is the conservation of water and water-quality protection,” Love says. “We all know water is a problem. … A lot of the time there isn’t enough of it.” However, she adds, “There’s a lot of things we can do.”
Among the many recommendations are to harvest rainwater for plants and to use mulch.
“You’d be surprised at how many people don’t use mulch,” she says, and by adding this protective ground covering, “You don’t have to water as much because it holds the water and it helps nourish the soil.”
In addition, the use of low-volume irrigation (for example, drip irrigation) helps conserve water. That’s effective “at getting the water where you need it,” she says, without producing a lot of runoff. “The water comes off slow enough that it soaks in.”
Also helpful is to opt for native and adapted plants for the yard and garden. “They just simply won’t need as much water,” she says.
Many tactics can be used for gardeners to rely less on fertilizer and pesticides.
Again, the use of native and adapted plants is suggested. “They don’t need pesticides. They’ve survived because they like the soil that they are in,” she says.
Gardeners can also turn to a very basic way to get rid of pests: simply “pull them off,” Love says. “I just throw them on the ground and step on them. Some people just squish them with their fingers.” However, this approach might not be feasible for large gardens and other situations.
In general, it’s recommended that chemicals be used “as a last resort,” Love says.
Gardeners who are applying pesticides should use the least toxic available, she says: “What you don’t want to do is kill your beneficial insects.” Also, it’s good to read the label to make sure it’s meant for the specific pest a gardener is trying to eliminate.
To avoid or limit the use of fertilizer, soil preparation is important, Love says. Put down 3 inches of finished compost and on top of that add 3 inches of plant-derived mulch and replenish the mulch annually, she says. Also, gardeners can get a soil test to find out what their soil needs.
While fertilizer might be called for in order to grow lush turfgrass, it’s best to avoid synthetic fertilizers that can cause damage from runoff, she says. Gardeners should also pay attention to the recommended amount to use listed on the label; she cautioned, “Don’t overuse.”
Gardeners can use numerous techniques to landscape intentionally to help decrease the energy consumption in their homes, such as having large trees to shade a home’s roof from the afternoon sun.
Gardeners can use leaves and other yard waste to make compost to limit the waste going into the landfills. They should leave their lawn clippings on the lawn when they mow.
As another element of the Earth-Kind program, about 23 cultivars of roses have been designated as Earth-Kind roses because they have shown outstanding landscape performance, as well as have strong tolerance for pest, disease, drought and heat, Hartmann says.
“We basically put them through a torture test,” he says.
The Earth-Kind site has a plant selector to help gardeners choose plants that have been rated for heat tolerance, drought tolerance, pest tolerance, soil requirements and fertility requirement based on the region. It’s best to pick plants with a rating of eight or above, Love says. “It’s a real nice tool.”
For the Earth-Kind Challenge, people submit answers to a few questions about their landscapes to get a score and then will receive suggestions on things they can do to create a healthier and more sustainable yard.
The site also offers 10 suggestions for people with existing landscapes to try to make them more in line with Earth-Kind goals.
The program, which began in the 1980s, has been a success, Hartmann says. Volunteers who have been trained as Texas Master Gardeners by AgriLife Extension help disseminate information about it.
Earth-Kind landscaping involves fairly simple solutions. “We want the typical homeowner or resident to be able to implement it,” Hartmann says.