Monthly Archives: May 2023

Creating a Backyard Ecosystem

A complete ecosystem can nourish and shelter plants and wildlife alike, and you don’t need extensive acreage or a large lot to create a thriving, healthy habitat. Creating a backyard ecosystem is an easy way to enjoy and support nature right at home.

What Is an Ecosystem?
By definition, an ecosystem is a “bubble of life” – a complete biological community interacting with its physical environment. All the components of that community and environment, from soil, rocks, and water to insects, plants, and wildlife are all part of the ecosystem. An ecosystem doesn’t have to be large, and even in one yard there can be several ecosystems, such as a pond, a flowerbed, a thicket, or a vegetable garden.

Components of a Healthy Backyard Ecosystem
A healthy, balanced ecosystem requires several components to thrive. The key features of a backyard ecosystem include…

  • Soil
    Healthy soil is a key for all the plants, insects, and microbes necessary in a thriving ecosystem. Using compost can enrich soil for a healthy ecosystem, and compost is easy to manage in a bin or tumbler system. Testing soil can also help you know how to improve its pH or nutrient composition with the proper amendments or fertilizers as needed.
  • Water
    All ecosystems require water, and a properly managed ecosystem may include built-in irrigation, a drip system, rain barrels, or other ways to manage water. A pond can be a rich part of an ecosystem, while a rain garden with native water-loving plants can use water well. In a drier habitat, xeriscaping with drought-resistant plants is ideal to use water wisely.
  • Plants
    Plants are one of the most visible components of a backyard ecosystem, and native varieties are best because they are already adapted to the local climate and weather conditions. Cutting down on lawn space helps promote a more natural ecosystem, and choosing native, non-invasive plants is key to create a thriving and diverse backyard ecosystem.
  • Wildlife
    All types of wildlife are part of the ecosystem, including birds, bees, butterflies, toads, salamanders, snakes, turtles, squirrels, and more. Welcome wildlife with easy shelter and simple feeding stations. Choose organic fertilizers and soil amendments and opt for native plants that wildlife will more easily recognize and use.
  • Layers
    A thickly layered ecosystem will be more diverse and hardier, with different tiers of plants and wildlife. From groundcover plants to shrubbery of different heights to taller trees, climbing vines, and flowers of all sizes and shapes, tiered ecosystems provide better shelter and more feeding opportunities for insects and wildlife.
  • Shelter
    All wildlife needs safe shelter from storms, extreme temperatures, and predators. Adding a birdhouse, toad house, bee shelter, bat house, owl nesting box, and other wildlife shelters to the yard or garden will encourage these amazing guests to take up residence and add their help and diversity to a backyard ecosystem.
  • Food
    A wide variety of natural foods is essential for a healthy, diverse ecosystem. Plants that produce berries, nuts, grain, and seeds are all great choices, and many other visitors will feed on the insects that live in the ecosystem as well. A supplemental bird feeding station, butterfly feeder, hummingbird feeder, or squirrel feeding station can invite diverse wildlife to the buffet.
  • Death
    Death is necessary to nourish life in a healthy backyard ecosystem. Dead trees, snags, and logs should be left intact if possible, so they can be broken down by insects and help return nutrients to the soil. Fungi, moss, and lichens will thrive on dead wood, and many birds and other animals will turn hollow spots into safe nesting sites or protected shelter.

Finding a Balance
It can take time to find a balance for each ecosystem in the yard to encourage a healthy life cycle. Starting with one corner of the yard or garden and gradually expanding throughout the yard can create a diverse, engaging ecosystem that will ebb and flow with each season, bringing great joy and engagement to the entire yard for both the gardener and every living plant and creature the garden supports.




Watering: How Much?

Water is critical for a healthy garden and landscape, but how much water is too much, how much isn’t enough and how much is just right? Unfortunately, there isn’t a specific answer that suits every gardener’s needs. All plants have different water requirements, which change depending on the type of soil, amount of sun, temperature, humidity, season, maturity of the plant and overall growing environment.

Initial Watering

All plants, including specimens described as drought tolerant, will require water when first planted. This is because many of the smaller roots responsible for water uptake are usually damaged during shipment and planting. Build a small circular soil wall around the plant to contain water while it percolates into the soil. Watch new plants carefully and keep them well-watered as their roots settle in and they adapt to their new or transplanted location.

Groups Are Good

It’s a good idea to have some knowledge of the plant’s water requirements when determining the location in the garden. It will keep watering simple if you plant a new specimen near other plants with similar water requirements. In this way, there is no need to readjust an irrigation system or watering schedule, since all the plants in the group have similar needs.

Need a Drink?

Because plants’ watering needs can change through the season, how can you tell if a plant needs more water? Most plants will wilt as the soil becomes too dry. The leaves may droop, and if it’s an upright plant, the top ends may become soft and bend over. Glossy plants may begin to look dull, while thick leaves will shrivel. If you notice these signs, it is time to water! Most plants will revive if watered quickly enough, but be sure to water deeply rather than allowing moisture to run off the surface.

How can you tell if you should water? Push your finger into the soil an inch or two from the base of a plant. Perfect soil should feel cool and slightly moist. Some soil should stick to your finger. If none does, it’s too dry. If it’s muddy, don’t water. Overwatering kills plants by depriving the roots of oxygen. Some gardeners use water meters to see the precise amount of moisture. If you’re unsure, this tool can be helpful.

Adjusting Your Watering Schedule

The amount you have to water your plants or landscape can change from day to day. A cool morning will allow more dew to form and drain to the soil, or a sudden afternoon thunderstorm can be enough water to keep your plants hydrated for a few days. An overly hot day, however, can rapidly deplete water resources and extra watering may be required. Check your plants and landscape regularly to be sure they are getting adequate water, and make adjustments as needed to keep them suitably moist without either too much or too little water.

Need help monitoring water? Stop by to see our collection of water gauges, meters and monitors that can help you be sure you are watering your landscape correctly.



Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental grasses can reduce your watering costs, lessen your mowing time and increase the interest level of your garden. No matter what your garden’s needs, there’s a grass to solve it.

About Ornamental Grasses

Generally defined as “a plant with narrow upright leaves growing from the base,” ornamental grasses come in different sizes, shapes, colors and with differing growing requirements. While they may be cut to the ground each year, they are not mowed regularly, and work well as borders, specimen plants or part of coordinated beds. When choosing an ornamental grass for your site, consider the following:

  • Size
    Some beautiful grasses are just inches tall. Others can grow several feet high. A shorter grass is a perfect edge for a walkway or to border a flowerbed, while a taller grass provides screening or background height.
  • Deciduous or Evergreen
    The winter form of a grass can be very different from its summer form. Evergreen grasses do not die back in the winter, their form remains the same. Winter colors may change and provide interest. Deciduous grasses die back or lean over. Consider the plant’s use when choosing between deciduous and evergreen. If using a grass as a screen, deciduous may not be a good idea.
  • Running or Clumping
    Clumping grasses stay where they planted, and as they grow, the overall plant width increases. However, a running grass sends runners through the ground to grow another grass plant. Sometimes this can be up to 6 feet away. This is advantageous when using the grass as a groundcover or trying to fill in a larger area. Clumping grasses can be divided if they become too large for the site.
  • Color
    Ornamental grasses are available in many colors, including variegated shades with contrasting edges. Additionally, many grass colors change throughout the year. Blues, reds, greens, yellow and variegated shades work well in different situations. A gold or white-hued grass can brighten a dark corner, whereas a dark green grass may be a perfect backdrop for smaller colorful plants.
  • Growing Requirements
    Sun, water, wind and soil requirements vary among grasses. Some require full sun; others grow best in the shade. Some grasses are ideal in rain gardens or wet soils, while others thrive best in drought conditions. Some don’t mind a breezy location, while others need to be more protected. Some prefer a rich, organic soil, while others will look great even in poor soils. And, of course, there are grasses for every range in between.

Before going to the garden center to purchase an ornamental grass, make a list of your requirements. You may want a short grass to line a walkway in full sun with sandy soil. Alternatively, you may need a grass to fill a dry and shady corner. Perhaps you would like to watch a grass clump emerge in the spring, grow to 6′ tall, change colors through the summer and harvest dry seed heads for an autumn arrangement. Choosing the correct grass ensures the beauty of your garden for years to come.



Growing Veggies in Containers

Do you dream of a delicious, homegrown harvest but don’t have the land to use? No longer should a shortage of garden space prevent you from growing your own fresh vegetables. As long as you have a sunny location you can have your own mini-farm on your porch, patio, deck, balcony, roof-top or doorstep!

Why Use Containers?

The benefits of growing containerized vegetables go beyond the issue of space. There are plenty of other compelling reasons to plant your veggies in pots, including…

  1. Vegetables are amazingly ornamental and can be just as decorative as any other container plants or flowers.
  2. There are fewer problems with pests such as groundhogs, deer and rabbits and soil borne diseases.
  3. The soil in pots warms up more quickly in the spring allowing for earlier planting and an extended growing season.
  4. Less bending, squatting and kneeling is required for gardeners with limited mobility.

Vegetables can be grown in any vessel that can hold soil, has adequate drainage and is large enough to hold a plant. There are endless options available on the market or you may recycle items that you already have as long as they meet these requirements. Use your imagination – try a wheelbarrow, wine barrel or just a plastic bin, and you’re ready to plant!

Best Vegetables for Containers

While all veggies can be grown in containers, some are better suited than others. Plants that grow particularly large, that sprawl or that must be grown in large numbers to ensure an adequate yield may take more effort and careful site planning with an adequate container. Similarly, vining plants need not be avoided. Trellis these plants up against a wall or fence or allow them to cascade down from a taller pot or a container placed up high like on a stone wall. For smaller selections, a hanging basket or window box may be used. Many sprawling and vining vegetables are now available by seed in dwarf, compact or bush varieties. These are bred specifically for small spaces and containers and are worth seeking out.

Tips for Container Vegetable Gardens

Growing vegetables in containers does take some unique thought and isn’t quite the same as planting in a traditional garden. When planning your delicious container garden, consider…

  • Containers: Size matters when planting in containers. The bigger the container, the more soil it can hold. More soil more and more moisture means less watering. Take note that porous containers like terra cotta dry out more quickly and will therefore require more frequent watering.
  • Soil: When planting, choose a good quality potting mix. Soil from the ground may contain insects or disease or may be too heavy. Add an all-purpose balanced fertilizer at time of planting. It is also good idea to mix water absorbing polymers into the soil. These granules can hold up to 400 times their weight in water and help reduce watering from 30-50 percent.
  • Plants: Some of the vegetables that you select may be directly seeded into your container; these would include peas, beans, radishes and corn. With most vegetables you may wish to transplant seedlings into your container, either home-grown or garden center purchased. You will generally find a wider selection of vegetable varieties and unique options available in seed as opposed to purchased seedlings, if you want to use your containers experimentally.
  • Supports: Supports should be placed at time of planting for large or vining plants. This will ensure the young plants are not disturbed or damaged with supports added at a later time. If the supports are outside the container, however, they can be added only when they are needed.
  • Location: Your vegetables will require at least 6 hours of direct sun a day. If this is not possible you may try placing your pots on dollies or carts and moving them to a sunnier location as the sun moves throughout the day. Note that good air circulation is important for disease control.
  • Watering: Test soil frequently for water to make sure that you keep it evenly moist. Water the soil, not the plants, to avoid the spread of disease. Check soil moisture more frequently during the summer months when evaporation is faster. Mulching your containers with salt hay or grass clippings will help keep soil cool during the summer months and reduce the frequency of watering. If possible, a drip system can be a great option for keeping containers watered.
  • Fertilization: Fertilizer leaches through pots quickly. Fertilize containerized vegetables at least once a week with a water soluble fertilizer. Always be careful to follow the directions on the fertilizer package and follow the recommended rate. Too much fertilizer may burn or kill your plants, but too little will result in undernourished, underperforming plants.

With appropriate care that caters to the needs of containers, your small-scale vegetable garden can be just as lush and productive as any larger, more intensive space, and you’ll soon have a bountiful harvest to enjoy.



The Urban Jungle

No matter what the size or style of your own personal urban habitat, you can add stunning nature with the right houseplants. Furthermore, when you grow your own urban jungle, you can realize and enjoy all the benefits houseplants bring to your home.

Benefits of Urban Houseplants

Houseplants bring a range of benefits into any home with every leaf and bloom. Not only do plants improve oxygen levels by drawing carbon dioxide from the air, they also remove other pollutants and odors, particularly in smaller urban homes where airborne toxins may be more concentrated. Houseplants also lower dust levels and improve humidity indoors, which can help alleviate allergies, respiratory conditions, dry skin, and other health problems. Larger houseplants help dampen unwanted sounds, creating a more tranquil atmosphere. Studies have also shown that houseplants improve mood and relaxation by providing a tangible connection to nature, which can help reduce depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder. With so many benefits, adding even one or two houseplants to your home can help create more positive, enjoyable surroundings, and a full urban jungle can become your sanctuary in the city.

Best Plants for an Urban Home

There are many types of houseplants to choose from, any of which will bring numerous benefits to your home. Before choosing, however, consider the levels of sunlight in your home, as well as changing light levels throughout the year, to be sure you can provide adequate light for a particular plant to flourish. Overall room temperatures can also affect plants, as some thrive in cooler climates while others prefer warmer rooms. Note the available space you have and choose a plant that won’t soon become crowded or cramped, which can inhibit growth. Also be aware of the ongoing care each plant will need and whether your schedule will permit you to maintain the plant well, or if you need a plant that is a bit more forgiving of neglect.

The top houseplants that thrive in urban households include:

  • African violets
  • Cacti
  • Cast iron plant
  • Dracaena species
  • Dumb cane
  • Ferns
  • Golden pothos
  • Lucky bamboo
  • Peace lily
  • Snake plants
  • Spider plants
  • Succulents

Depending on the size of your home and how green your thumb is, you may choose to start with just one or two houseplants, or you could opt for an entire jungle. Ideally, one medium-sized houseplant is best for every 100 square feet of living space to keep the air clean, but you can have as many or as few plants as you wish for your happiness.

Caring for an Urban Jungle

It is easy to keep houseplants lush, but they do need dedicated care to stay healthy.

  • Choose a Proper Pot – The pot should be the right size for your houseplant. A too-small pot will cramp the plant and inhibit growth, while a too-large pot will encourage overgrowth and legginess on different plants. The pot should also have suitable drainage to keep the root system healthy and avoid rot.
  • Use Good Quality Soil – Rather than outdoor soil that may not be as rich and could bring pests into your home, opt for a good quality potting mix formulated for houseplants. These mixes will often have moisture-retention beads or fertilizer pre-mixed into the soil, making houseplant care easier. You can also look for specialty blends for cacti, succulents, flowering plants, and other specific types of houseplants.
  • Water Appropriately – Overwatering or underwatering can be deadly for houseplants. Check your plant’s specific watering needs and adjust watering as needed for different seasons. Choosing self-watering pots or using globe watering stakes can also help keep a houseplant safely watered.
  • Feed Regularly – Houseplants need occasional fertilizer applications to supplement the nutrition they draw from their potting soil. Choose a liquid fertilizer formulated for your specific plants and follow application instructions on the product label. Most houseplants’ nutritional needs are reduced during the winter months.
  • Provide Sufficient Light – Different houseplants have different sunlight needs. Some will do very well in shadier spots, while others need filtered light or even a few hours of bright sunlight. Moving plants to different locations in different seasons can help them get adequate light and rotating the pots will help plants grow straight without stretching to reach the sun.
  • Position Safely – Place houseplants away from hazardous situations such as areas where they may be accidentally tripped or tipped over. Avoid creating your urban jungle near heating or cooling vents and cold winter drafts. Keep houseplants out of reach of pets that may nibble on leaves or dig in pots.
  • Prune as Needed – Keep your urban jungle looking tidy by pruning and trimming plants to maintain their shapes or remove dead leaves. Brown tips can also be trimmed for a neater appearance but avoid vigorous pruning that could stress the plant.
  • Watch for Pests – Fungus gnats, mealybugs, spider mites, and other pests can invade even the most well-protected urban jungle. Stay alert for any pests and take steps immediately if they do appear. Plant-friendly insecticidal soaps, top dressing treatments, neem oil, and other control options are available depending on which pests are present.
  • Clean Your Plants – Refresh houseplants and brighten your urban jungle with regular cleanings. Dust, dirt, and other debris can gather on plants’ foliage, clogging respiratory pores and dulling the plants’ color. A quick rinse in the shower or regular dusting with a moistened cloth and a gentle hand can keep plants looking their best.

Your urban jungle can bring you many benefits, whether you just have one or two houseplants, a simple plant collection, or an elaborate nature sanctuary in your home. By choosing the best plants for urban living and providing them with proper care, they will in turn nurture you and help you reconnect with nature, no matter where you live.