Natural gardening: healthier planet, healthier you
From vinegar for bug control to rotating your crops, an avid gardener shares tips to grow an even “greener” garden.
Whether you’re new to gardening or a horticulture hero, you might be wondering how to plant a garden that’s better for the Earth — and healthier for you.
As a Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine medical student and gardening enthusiast, I serve as president of the school’s student garden club. There, I help maintain the community garden, which has provided our community members with vegetables and flowers to enjoy for the past 5 years.
If you’re considering growing plants at home or in a community garden, here are some ways to get started with a natural garden.
Caring for your crops — naturally
Chemical fertilizers and pesticides may keep pests away, but they can also contain harmful ingredients. Instead, consider these natural alternatives for enhancing your garden, and making sure it’s as safe and healthy as possible for you, your family and your pets. Best of all, some of these hints don’t require a trip to the hardware store — or cost anything at all.
- Bees are the buzz. When planting your garden, choose plants that attract natural pollinators, like bees and butterflies. Think wildflowers, melons, squash and cucumbers. Bees will buzz around your garden, collecting pollen, which they’ll carry to other plants — a process called cross-pollination. This helps plants produce more seeds, which in turn produces more flowers. Our honey-making friends work hard to keep your garden beautiful.
- Rotate crops for healthier soil. You might think crop rotation is only for big farms. But “needy” plants, like tomatoes or corn, can strip nutrients from even a small patch of healthy soil. Consider the location of your greenery and change it yearly for optimal land health.
- Add companion plants. Companion plants are placed close together that mutually benefit each other. They’re often used to ward off pests, control weeds and regulate sunlight. For example, consider planting carrots with your tomatoes. Tomatoes offer shade and repel pests, while carrots aerate the soil. Placing certain plants next to each other can help maximize your garden’s overall health.
- Ward off insects with vinegar. Want to prevent pests from invading your plants? Try white vinegar. Combine 3 parts water and 1 part white vinegar in a spray bottle. Spray around the base of your plants weekly to keep bugs away. (Don’t forget to check for pests regularly.)
- Enrich soil with coffee. Have used coffee grounds lying around? These spent grounds are good for more than just the trash bin — they release nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and magnesium into the soil, helping plants not just grow but thrive. Spread them around the earth to naturally fertilize your garden.
- Start composting. Think those kitchen scraps need to go in the trash? Think again. Everyday food scraps, like banana peels and eggshells, can nourish your plants. Instead of tossing them, place them into a container or bag and store in the fridge for later. Tip: Avoid using greasy food, scraps of meat or dairy products. These can smell bad and attract pests.
When your container is full, dump it into a compost pile and let it aerate. Before too long, your compost will be ready to add to your garden.
Not sure where to begin? Check your local garden supply store or browse the web for kits to help you build a composting setup.
- Banish weeds. Instead of spraying herbicides to stop weeds from invading your plants, try these chemical-free weed control methods:
- Add mulch. Consider using grass clippings or wood chips around your garden beds to keep weeds at bay.
- Dump boiling water on the soil. For persistent weeds, use a splash of hot water. Your unwanted guests will disappear. A word of caution: This method will impact your healthy plants, so be careful when you’re pouring.
- Sprinkle cornmeal. To stop weeds before they start, sprinkle a little cornmeal on your plants. This simple method prevents weeds from growing. Bonus: It may even repel ants.
Benefits of natural gardening
Besides being better for you, natural gardening is better for the planet. Here are just a few reasons:
- Decreased burden on the soil. Commercial-grade fertilizers can change pH levels, which may make soil more acidic and less hospitable for plants. Because fertilizers can strip dirt of key nutrients, it may cause stress on insects and microbes who call soil their home.
- Less impact on local waterways. Pesticide runoff often contains high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. When fertilizers move through the soil and into local water sources, they can damage ecosystems. This runoff depletes oxygen supplies, which can hurt fish populations. Reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers can help maintain a healthy balance in local waters.
- Knowing where your food comes from. If you’ve ever eaten a pea pod off the vine or nibbled a radish plucked fresh from the dirt, you understand how good it feels (and tastes!) to know where your food comes from. Without pesticides and herbicides, you won’t have to wonder about how it was grown. When your harvest is ready, pick some to use in an upcoming meal. Or, if you find yourself with too much, pass extras along to a neighbor or friend.
Grow with your community
If you’d like to try your hand at gardening but lack space or time, consider joining a community garden. Public gardens offer different options, like being able to plant and tend to your own produce. Some allow you to harvest veggies at your convenience without having to perform maintenance. Browse the web to find one in your community.
By creating a diverse and healthy garden, you can help bees, soil insects and animals that feed off them. Reducing the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers creates a happy environment for our fellow creatures.
— Paul Bastian, Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, class of 2023 and president of the Student Gardening Club
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