By Jessica Short, CTAI Program Assistant
Memorial Day weekend is go time for planting in mid-Michigan! Here are some tips to keep your home lawn and garden environmentally friendly.
We love our gardens, whether it’s a vegetable patch, herb bed, flowering annuals, dramatic perennials, or structural landscaping. One of the challenges of a northern climate is getting annuals, vegetables, and tender perennials into the ground at the right time. Even though most years we start getting beautiful weather long before the end of May, there’s still a danger of frost long after the calendar says spring! The last frost date in Clinton County varies a bit by place, but it’s generally between May 20th to June 3rd.
Combine those dates with a long holiday weekend, and pretty much everyone with a shovel will be putting in their backyard gardens and flowerbeds around Memorial Day! Listed below are some guidelines to help make sure your backyard oasis is also a healthy habitat.
If you’ve been composting your garden scraps and lawn clippings, now is the time to take the finished product out of the bin and put that black gold to use! It should aged to perfection after breaking down over the winter. Mix in with potting soil, rake into garden beds, and spread in a top-dress layer around trees and shrubs. Free food for your plants, loaded with healthy soil microbes and bio-available nutrients – what’s not to love?
Quite possibly the most important multi-tasker in the garden! Mulch is any type of material that forms a barrier layer on top of the prepared soil in a garden bed. Mulch can be wood chips, straw, grass clippings, compost, newspapers, cardboard, dead leaves – you name it. (If you buy bagged mulch, it’s almost always wood chips.) A good layer of mulch over the soil in garden beds provides many benefits. It helps insulate plants from extreme temperatures, providing warmth on cool spring nights, and keeping roots cool on hot summer days. It slows evaporation from the soil, providing more consistent and long-lasting moisture to plants. It’s a barrier to weed seeds. As mulch decomposes, it provides organic material that improve soil structure. And as a physical barrier between the soil, wind, and rain, it prevents erosion. Choose a plant-based mulch rather than a layer of stone, gravel, or rubber chips – inorganic material doesn’t provide the same benefits to the soil.
Select Native Plants
Plants that are native to your area support the greatest volume and variety of wildlife! Besides being wonderful garden visitors in their own right, the beneficial bugs and birds in your garden supported by ornamental natives also provide spillover benefits to non-native plants, like increasing pollination for your vegetables, and sustaining the bird predators that snack on garden pests. The wild type plants provide the most benefits to your garden ecosystem, but plant breeders are also doing a lot of exciting work right now creating new cultivars of native plants, and these nursery-available varieties still provide benefits over exotics. Remember to check out our Clinton Conservation District fall plant sales for many native ornamentals!
Ten North American Native Perennials That Are So Hot Right Now:
- Heucheras (Coral Bells)
- Aquilegia (Columbine)
- Red Osier Dogwood
- Hydrangea (arborescens like “Annabelle” and oakleaf like “Gatsby Moon” are native)
- Echinacea (coneflowers)
- Rudbeckias (Black-Eyed Susan and related plants)
- Coreopsis (tickseeds)
- Milkweed and Butterfly Weed
Beware Ornamental Invasives
Exotic ornamental plants are ecologically barren in the garden, providing little to no benefits to wildlife. Some are also invasive, meaning they spread aggressively and can crowd out more beneficial plants. But some nurseries still sell plants that are both invasive and exotic – and these plants can spread to nearby woodlands. Avoid these top offenders!
- Bradford or Callery Pear Trees (plant a serviceberry or redbud instead)
- Vinca Minor or periwinkle, often called creeping myrtle (swap for creeping phlox or wild ginger)
- Autumn Olive (plant an American Plum, or American Hazelnut)
- Lilly of the Valley (plant solomon’s seal or spiderwort)
- Japanese Honeysuckle (native Trumpet Honeysuckle is an easy swap)
- Privets (consider a hedge of winterberry, or highbush cranberry viburnum)
- English Ivy (plant creeping phlox or pachysandra)
- Japanese Barberry (substitute a ninebark or new jersey tea bush)
- Burning Bush (try an oakleaf hydrangea or Virginia sweetspire)
Don’t Over-do The Fertilizer
There’s no such thing as a chubby petunia. Plants that are overfed will suffer fertilizer burn, weak stems and uneven growth, and increased sensitivity to drought. Worse, the excess nutrients from any fertilizer over and above what your plants can absorb will wash into storm drains or local watersheds. There it can feed algae blooms that deplete oxygen from the water, harming fish and other river life. Your best bet is always a soil test to see what your starting soil conditions are! That way you can add only what is needed. If you don’t want to do a soil test, plan a conservative fertilization schedule, especially if you don’t see any signs of nutrient deficiencies in your plants. You can always contact MSU Extension (link: https://www.canr.msu.edu/clinton/office_services) for local, expert guidance on fertilizer questions.
Reuse and Recycle
A good gardener never pays for anything they might be able to scrounge up from another source. Plant pots can be saved and re-used to start seeds and tubers next spring. Cardboard from delivery boxes (because we all went a little overboard with the online shopping over the long winter) can be broken down to make an effective weed barrier. Layered under mulch, cardboard is much healthier, and cheaper, than buying landscaping fabric. Long branches pruned from shrubs and small trees make great support stakes for tomatoes or heavy flowers. And keep an eye out for used landscaping materials. As people re-do their gardens this time of year, there are often bricks, stones, edging, benches, pots, and other secondhand items available from neighbors. Be creative, and happy gardening!