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How to create an eco-friendly garden at home

Joe Lamp'l shares green conscience products and methods to help you create a beautiful and environmentally-safe oasis.

Kermit the Frog is fond of saying “It’s not easy being green.”  But thanks to concerned companies and people all over the world, going green has risen from obscurity to the mainstream in recent years.

Gardeners and weekend warriors, along with the products they use, can be some of the biggest offenders in perpetuating a not-so-eco-friendly world. But today, more and more green-conscious products and tools are making their way into yards and gardens across America, leaving behind a smaller environmental footprint than ever before!

Traditional views
Typically, the first things people think about in an eco-friendly garden are compost and organic solutions to dealing with soil amendments and pest and disease control.

There’s no denying, compost is king when it comes to an easy, natural way to creating a nutrient-rich soil amendment for your lawn and garden.  Making compost is eco-friendly for several reasons. It:

  • takes common yard and kitchen waste and recycles it into healthy soil
  • reduces or eliminates the need for additional chemicals
  • conditions the soil to become less water dependent
  • improves soil percolation, reducing the chances of runoff
  • keeps waste out of landfills and reduces trips there by collection vehicles

Organic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers
These continue to be the most traditional way to reduce environmental footprints. They are also a highly effective way to produce a healthy, abundant, beautiful garden that’s not only safe for the Earth, but for people, too.

Beyond compost, natural products such as blood meal, bone meal, cottonseed meal, fish emulsion, greensand and rock phosphate are common ways to add organic nutrients to your garden. 

Responding to more environmentally responsible options, Scotts Miracle-Gro recently introduced a line of products called Organic Choice, and long-time player the Espoma Company has been offering natural and organic fertilizer solutions since 1929. 

Pest control
Natural products are available to fight off pests and diseases and kill weeds, too.

Traditional synthetic pesticides (a.k.a insecticides) are very effective.  In fact, that is the problem: Only about 3% of all bugs found in our gardens are actually even considered pests.  The others are either neutral or beneficial. Most pesticides are non-selective. meaning they will kill any bug. That includes not just the pests but the good bugs too, such as lady beetles and honey bees. 

A more responsible approach is to select products that are either very specific to the particular pest you are trying to control and/or ones that break down very quickly when exposed to the elements.

One synthetic pest control that does a good job at selectivity is an active ingredient called imidacloprid. What makes this product an acceptable compromise in the eco-friendly arena is that it is applied as a drench to the soil, not to the surface area of the plant.  As a drench the chemical is taken into the vascular system of the plant and is contained within the plant tissue, making it a non-threat to non-pests.  The only way for this product to reach a pest is when an insect actually chews plant tissue or ingests plant fluid.

These products are effective for up to one year, so an annual application is all that is needed to control most sucking or chewing pests. Bayer Advanced owns the patent on imidacloprid so look for that brand if seeking this product.

Examples of biological pest controls that target specific pests (selective) include:

B.t (Bacillus Thuringiensis): effective on many larval pests such as worms and caterpillars and mosquito larvae

Milky Spore (Bacillus popillae): A bacterial that resides in the soil and is fatal to the white grubs that become Japanese beetles.

Spinosad (spinosyn A and spinosyn D): This is a new chemical class of insecticides that are registered by the EPA to control a variety of insects. Spinosad must be ingested by the insect; therefore it has little effect on sucking insects and non-target predatory insects.

One of the greatest advantages to using organic products for insect control is not that they are less lethal or more selective.  Rather, it’s the fact that natural products typically break down very quickly when exposed to ultraviolet light, making the residual impact minimal.  However, because these products have little long-term effect, they must make contact with the pest in order to be most effective. 

Active ingredients in natural insect controls often include Neem oil, pyrethrins, canola oil, mild soaps and highly refined oils among others.

Disease control
Just as certain man-made insecticides have been engineered to be long-lasting and highly effective (not eco-friendly), disease control products can also leave a heavy footprint on the environment. 

Kinder, gentler products found to be just as effective for fighting plant disease include solutions made with milk, baking soda and some cooking oils. One of the newest and most effective products on the scene is called GreenCure.  The active ingredient is Potassium Bicarbonate, the same stuff that goes into food processing.  It’s been found to be effective at treating and curing over 25 plant diseases including black spot and powdery mildew and it’s a safe, organic product. 

Weed control
Herbicides are the generic term applied to chemicals that kill vegetation, either selectively, such as broad-leaf weeds only, or non-selectively, as in everything growing!

Although there are many herbicide products available to the homeowner, few are natural or considered eco-friendly. For serious vegetative control naturally, acetic acid (vinegar) at 20% concentration is an effective, non-selective control. Common household vinegar (5% concentration) lacks the necessary punch.

Other products used for this purpose include clove and citric oils to burn out the grass and weeds. Keep in mind these products will kill all vegetation, so use with caution around plants you are trying to keep.

Another non-chemical approach to weed control includes portable propane-fueled flame devices. These products are effective and easy to use — that is, if you don’t mind a jet-like flame by your toes! 

When using a flame device, it is not necessary to burn the offending plants to a blackened state. The damage is done when the heat of the flame destroys the cells within the plant. A few seconds per plant is usually all it takes. 

One of the more interesting discoveries has been the use of corn gluten as an organic pre-emergent herbicide. Today, corn gluten is the only organic, readily available consumer product used for pre-emergent weed control. A bonus to using corn gluten is that it has a 10% nitrogen component so natural nutrients are applied as well.

Of course the most eco-friendly option to controlling weeds is to promote the growth of a healthy lawn and garden.  A lush lawn or full beds will go a long way to out-competing fledgling weeds.

Using chemicals responsibly
For some, the thought of giving up their tried-and-true, traditional, non-organic chemicals is inconceivable, and they’re just not ready or willing to take that step. To these weekend warriors I say look for safer ways to apply them, or at least please use them responsibly.

Responsible use of any lawn or garden chemical, be it synthetic or organic, requires that applications follow the guidelines listed by the manufacturer.  It’s right there on the label.  So, step one; Be sure to read it. 

For example, if the instructions say to mix one teaspoon per gallon of water, then it’s one teaspoon. Not two or ten. More is NOT better and often can actually be less effective! The mixing rates are highly tested and are engineered to be fully effective at the rates given.

Next, avoid applying insecticides in the morning or even well into the day. Otherwise, neutral and beneficial insects including any pollinators can be killed as well. They are very active throughout the day, starting in early morning.  It is crucial to avoid exposing them to insecticides intended only for true pests.  Unfortunately, non-selective controls can’t tell the difference, but you can.

If you can’t bring yourself to use more-selective options, then reserve your chemical use for as late in the day or evening as possible, when most pollinators have retired for the day.

What about mulch?
Speaking of chemicals, did you ever stop to think that those bags of mulch you just put down on your organic vegetable garden just might be made up of ground pallets and pressure-treated wood?  Chances are you’re at least familiar with the risk associated with using treated woods and the leaching of potentially hazardous chemicals. 

Thanks to years’ of work by the Mulch and Soil Council, industry standards have been adopted and are now in use by many retailers that purchase bagged mulch and soil products for sale to consumers. The goal of the Product Certification Program was developed in part to assist consumers in determining what products conform to the Voluntary Uniform Product Guidelines for Horticultural Mulches, Growing Media and Landscape Soils.

Now, consumers have a way of knowing which mulch and soil products are free of potentially hazardous materials by looking for the associated MSC Certified product label on products that meet these standards.

Tools that make a difference
Assuming you’re one of the diehards who just can’t seem to pull yourself away from the lawn products you’ve been using for years, at least now there’s a better way to make sure chemicals are applied only where intended.

Scotts-Miracle-Gro  offers a new lawn spreader called the Deluxe Edgeguard. The patented system provides an on/off control lever. When activated, a shield below the hopper prevents fertilizer or other lawn products from being thrown into landscaping or onto impervious hard surfaces such as streets and driveways and keeps chemicals out of creeks and lakes.

Once you get that lawn looking good, it’s time to mow. However, that standard gas engine mower you have pollutes as much as 40 late model cars when you use it for just one hour, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  A popular alternative today is to use a new version of that old reliable, the push-powered reel mower.   

Other gas-powered lawn and landscaping equipment, such as weed eaters and leaf blowers, are even bigger environmental polluters than lawn mowers!  Electric models of both are available as well as for lawn mowers.  Even untethered options exist today, thanks to rechargeable products that can do everything from till your garden to cutting down smaller trees!

Recycle and conserve
An important part to creating and having an eco-friendly garden is to practice sound environmental stewardship of our precious natural resources. One that is becoming scarcer by the day, it seems, is water —at least in many parts of the country.

Rain barrels are an effective and easy way to collect gallons of rain from downspouts. In times of watering restrictions, having an irrigation source on constant standby is a welcome resource!  Barrels can now be found at many garden centers as well as in gardening catalogues and online mail-order sources.

One clever innovation and recent contribution to the eco-friendly garden is the invention of CowPots™.  This is a clever idea of taking cow manure and converting it into plantable pots.  The pots last for moths when stored but once planted in the ground, break down within weeks and provide valuable organic nutrients along the way.

Similarly, decorative pots are now being made from recyclable, renewable, remarkable bamboo!  The containers come in many different styles and colors, are very decorative, yet decompose into organic waste once discarded.  This is yet another Earth-friendly way bamboo is being utilized today.

If you ever wondered where all those plastic milk jugs go that you’ve been dutifully recycling now for years, landscaping timbers are now being made of recycled plastic. They come with a 50-year warranty and will never rot or decay, nor will they ever leach potentially dangerous chemicals into the environment. 

Joe Lamp'l is the founder of, a Web site and company dedicated to providing smart resources to gardeners of all levels. In addition, Joe is the host of two national television shows, “GardenSMART” on PBS and “Fresh from the Garden” on the DIY Network, an author, Master Gardener and a Certified Landscape Professional.  For more information, visit .