Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Growing Green

Zucchini, beans and turtle in my garden

Tips for an environmentally friendly garden.

Here’s the first of my two-part radio story on eco-minded gardening, as it aired on 89.3, KPCC last month.

More and more people are shopping at farmers markets, as they seek out food that’s fresher and more environmentally friendly. Others have taken what they see as the next step in the green revolution: growing their own. But is home gardening really good for the Earth? It depends on how you go about it.

: The Bronson family’s patio, in a neighborhood near LA’s Highland Park, used to be an unrelenting stretch of concrete. Earlier this year, they ripped out some of it, then put in a trio of three-by-five containers. Now they’re bursting with fruits and vegetables: A five-foot tall heirloom tomato displays fruits bigger than your fist, wispy chives shelter under it. Beneath a pyramid of leaves, melons are protected in cradles made from pantyhose. Two-year-old Maris is eager to show off the garden.

MARIS: Potatoes!
SETZIOL: What do you like?
MARIS: Salad

Maris’s mom Jessica says the garden is part of a larger effort to make their lives more environmentally sensitive.

BRONSON: Our idea for it began with an increasing interest in trying to be more self-sustaining, and also to be more aware of where things come from, and producing a local economy.

Jessica Bronson says their small garden has attracted a lot of birds and bees. And it’s kept their patio cool. They practice organic gardening, so they don’t use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.

But with the state in a drought, should we be pouring water on gardens? Most of our water is imported. And pumping it long distances uses a lot of energy. Indeed, state officials estimate nearly 20 percent of all the power used in the state goes to transport and treat water.

PETER GLEICK: So if water for gardens means a lot of new water has to be moved from one place to another that’s not a great idea.

SETZIOL: Peter Gleick heads the Pacific Institute, a research group.

GLEICK: But instead if we could figure out how to reduce other uses of water and use some of it to grow food that’s not a bad idea.

Gleick says, to find wasted water, you don’t have to look farther than the end of your garden hose.

GLEICK: The largest irrigated crop in the US is lawn. And that lawn uses a huge amount of water. It’s ornamental, not necessary.

Horticulturalist Lili Singer says ripping out lawn is a good place to start.

SINGER: If you’re taking out grass, or azalea, or another water needy thing, and put in a vegetable garden you may be using the same amount of water, but you’re getting more out of it.

SETZIOL: I asked Singer to visit my backyard garden. Wearing a broad-brimmed staw hat, she crouches down to watch a bee tunnel into a large, yellow zucchini flower.

SINGER: A lot of plants…need a lot less water than people give them. So really thick mulch—we’re talking at least 4 inches around the plants—…will hold water in so you’re not using as much.
SETZIOL: Are there certain plants that are good choices that aren’t especially water hungry?
SINGER: A lot of the herbs, rosemary, thyme, sage, are all very drought tolerant. …In terms of annuals like pumpkin, beans, squash, they’re doing so much production in so short a time, … they’re going to need more water. …Zucchinis can take water almost everyday because they’re growing so fast…but the amount you get

SETZIOL: Andy Lipkis, president of the environmental group TreePeople, suggests other ways to be water smart in the garden.

LIPKIS: You can water with drip irrigation, so you cut down in that case sometimes 60-80% of your water use, because you’re putting drippers right where your roots are.

SETZIOL: Lipkis sits next to a miniature creek—part of a TreePeople model that demonstrates more sustainable water use.

LIPKIS: You can move to the next step which is harvesting your gray water….You can take the hose from your washer and extend it right to your garden. If you can’t get it there you can have it fill some buckets.

SETZIOL: If you go this route, you should learn about local gray-water ordinances, such as requirements to put the water into the ground, instead of spraying it. And, Lipkis says, your plants will be happier if you use environmentally friendly detergents.

There are many other ways to be green in the garden. To reduce the need for pesticides, grow a variety of flowering plants, including natives such as ceonothus. They attract ladybugs and other insects that eat pests. Also, let your flowers go to seed, so birds will move in and eat both seeds and insects.

Tomorrow, we’ll examine another tool for environmentally friendly gardens: composting.

Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC

In part two of this story, I discuss the virtues of home composting. Listen Now.

Recommended reading: Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner (Peguin) First published in 1986, this book is a classic and still relevant

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