Spring is here, which means so many things: In Chicago, we know with all the certainty of death and taxes that it's the start of another losing Cubs season. But as I like to say, frustrated Cubs fans can always throw a tomato, while frustrated tomato growers can only throw a fit.
Yes, the growing season is upon us, which means that whether you're planting a garden or just making sure that lawn of yours is neat and trim, it's time to break out the hoes and weed whackers and get to work. But as I see it, how green your garden grows may have little or nothing to do with how "green" your behavior is.
Below is my list for eight green things you can do make sure that lawn or garden grows in direct proportion to your eco-consciousness. Read on, and get planted:
1) Heaping praise on compost.
Aside from being a great example of reuse and recycle in action, compost is as cheap as it gets. There's no greater free supply of garden fertilizer than homemade compost, where you recycle organic materials you would ordinarily discard. All you'll really need to buy is a compost bin, and you can find those at places like Home Depot for $30. Plants love compost, and you can also work it into potting soil to improve its structure. Check out the free advice at compostguide.com for getting your fertilizer pile going.
2) From coffee grounds to Mother Earth.
Spent coffee grounds also make excellent fertilizer. Ground coffee is high in nitrogen, making it a very good mulch for fast-growing vegetables. Many organic growers swear by coffee grounds as mulch for tomato plants, both for the nitrogen boost and coffee's ability to help suppress late blight. Starbucks' "Grounds for Your Garden" program is impressive in that the coffee grounds come neatly packaged with a list of helpful instructions; however, the popularity of the program means the free grounds might be hard to nab. Ask around at smaller, local coffee shops and bring a sturdy plastic bag; many baristas are happy to help. Smaller chains such as Peet's also give away their leftover grindings.
3) Free seeds from your fridge and pantry.
As you start planting, remember that you can gather the seeds you need from fruits and vegetables you eat. For a small-up front investment at the supermarket, you may never have to buy fruit again for the remainder of the growing season. Among the heirloom plants, you can harvest the seeds of your sunflowers, watermelon, beans and peas. But zucchinis, squash and pumpkins often cross-pollinate, meaning the seeds you scoop from the fruit will probably produce a strange hybrid. If you need to buy seeds, there are plenty of options online, especially for herbs, like Heirloom Lemon Basil from Seeds of Change for just $1.42.
4) Water saving measures.
Whether you are gardening or growing a lawn, experts agree that you'll need at least 1 inch of water per week. But most of us fail to rely on — or trust — nature's bounty of the wet stuff. Americans spend way too much in money and resources on lawn watering: 30% of water used on the East Coast goes to watering lawns; 60% on the West Coast, according to the U.S. National Wildlife Federation. One great way to conserve water and save money: Buy a rain barrel. Home Depot, for example, sells a 105-gallon rain barrel that collects rain fast, straight from your gutter spout. It will cost you about $110, and cheaper options exist: this 74-gallon model costs $60 and works in the same exact way.
5) Consider a push reel mower.
For those who love economy and the environment, consider a reel mower. Push mowers used to be heavy, clunky contraptions that required great effort to use. But a new generation of reel mowers operates much more effectively with a fraction of the effort. The added benefits include good, light exercise and quiet, pollution-free lawn care. The Deluxe Light Push Reel Mower ($119.99), available from a number of national retailers like Target and Ace Hardware, has an 18-inch cutting width, comparable to most electric and gas mowers. It weighs just 27 pounds. Compared to gas mowers (which can weigh 80 to 100 pounds), that's feather light to walk behind. Remember that manual reel mowers don't cut tall weeds well, but they do great on grass. Because of the design, the reel will roll over tall weeds and dandelions without cutting much. So they aren't a good choice to mow a vacant lot, though they'll do superbly with a grass lawn.
6) For lawn care, avoid chemical fertilizers.
It's true that organic fertilizers are slower to release nutrients — and less common — than the chemical variety. But chemical fertilizers draw grass roots to the shallow end, and also kill off valuable microbes your grass needs. And organic fertilizer will cost you 5 cents per square foot, pre season. Compare that to the cost of the most popular chemical fertilizer, known as 15-30-15, which costs 15 cents per square foot, or three times as much. National retailers also sell organic brands, like Bradford Organics from Sears.
7) Use organic herbicides.
I used to think that with my own veggie garden, I had to treat weeds with chemicals. No more. A new breed of organic herbicides treat weeds by burning off the waxy cuticle that protects the plants' cells from losing water, as this article from North Coast Gardening explains. For taproots that grow deep, you can use Weed Pharm, which contains 20% acetic acid (the same chemical in vinegar). And for more general uses, you can pick up a brand like Nature's Avenger, which has the psychological advantage of sounding like it can do the job as well as anything Monsanto produces.
8) Use human deterrents for animals.
I know, I know: Every time a squirrel eats one of my prize tomatoes, I get all sorts of squirrelly thoughts that involve sticking a fork in the varmint. But there are better ways to keep animals out of your garden that involve safe strategies such as mulch, building raised beds and using wire mesh barriers. For rabbits, you can also plant lots of clover on the opposite side of your garden; chances are good the rabbits will go for this and leave your veggies alone. If you're really desperate, it's off-season now so you can score a great deal on costumes, like a Wizard of Oz Scarecrow costume for $43.