Green Buzzwords

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener Coordinator

(4/3) In the gardening world there are some words becoming overused, like "native", and "sustainable", even "organic". These words are thrown around without really knowing what they mean. These buzz words are misrepresented and misunderstood.

I think most of us want to be able to eat safe produce, grow beautiful plants without maintaining them and have an opportunity to reduce our costs as a result of our gardening practices. But understanding the words or phrases that we all use and representing good gardening practices becomes important when trying to succeed at these goals and not be misled by marketing.

By definition, according to the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), "native plants are one which occurred within the state before settlement by Europeans". As we become more global, our native species of plants are becoming less present in our landscapes, and unfortunately in our natural habitat. As plants from other parts of the world come into our landscapes, things happen. For instance, barberry and burning bush Ė now found in our forests Ė are reducing the herbaceous material that typically grows in forested areas. No natural predators, no natural controls.

Our concern about native plants has come about for a few reasons. Research shows that native plants attract native species. Not a difficult concept to grasp. The decline in honeybees (a European species) has brought the pollinator issue to the forefront in agriculture. Without insects to pollinate our crops, seeds are not formed, therefore no fruit and vegetables, hence limited food sources for our tables.

Another concern is our water resources. As we became landscapes of non-native species, so did our insects. These insects have become a problem because we do not have predators that control these non-native problems. So we spray, to get rid of the insects and diseases that make our plants look bad, or even die. Many of us use sprays without understanding the implications of those sprays, better known as pesticides. Many people may incorrectly apply pesticides, thinking that if the label calls for 1 tsp per gal, why not try two? That should get rid of the little bugger!

When misused, pesticides can wash into our water sources. This is a concern because we drink water and Iím pretty sure we donít want to drink water that is contaminated. Proper use of pesticides and fertilizers is so very important. Companies invest lots of money and time to be sure that the labels reflect proper use of their product so water contamination does not occur. So as a person using pesticides, we must be sure to follow label instructions. Pesticides include insect sprays, disease sprays, weed kiilers, foggers, mice poisons, and others.

So Ė native plants like our soils. They naturally grow here. They tolerate native insects and attract native predators for those insects. This has a direct impact on our wallets because with less insect and disease damage, hardier, tougher plants that like our environment, we will be spraying less pesticides, protecting our water, and replacing plants less frequently. Watering will be reduced, thus conserving what we have.

"Sustainable" is a word often used in the agriculture industry. Websterís definition is: able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed. Thatís it. If we use this term, we should remember that weíre talking about not using up our natural resources, like soil and water, two of the most important things for plants and human existence. Sustainable landscaping indicates the use of native plants: plants which attract native insects, plants that donít require added fertilizers, plants that use less water, plants that are adapted to our area, plants that can be used without completely using up or destroying our environment.

Sustainable vegetable growing is the same idea. Using less pesticides, more compost for enriching the soil, and irrigating smartly are all reasons we use the word sustainable. It doesnít mean "organic", it doesnít mean "natural", just simply growing food so that our natural resources are not used up completely or destroyed.

Letís define "organic". For an organic farmer, it means certification that follows rules as to what is applied to the crops and how they must be managed. Organic farming does not mean that pesticides are not used. Organic farmers use pesticides but they are natural products and not synthetic. We donít want to be misled to think that organic gardening is pesticide free. I try to garden organically Ė most of the time - but use pesticides like horticultural oil and insecticidal soap, both of which are organic pesticides. Although on occasion, products like glyphosate are used to manage weeds, but used according to label instruction.

Heirloom is a term often used, whether it is describing vegetables or ornamentals, like shrubs and perennials. This term is used rather loosely in the trade. If referring to vegetables, like tomatoes, these are typically thought to taste better. Which, in my opinion, is true. However, the heirloom tomatoes often donít produce as much, or may have some disease issues, which is what brought about hybrid varieties. Heirloom doesnít mean organic, as we can spray synthetic pesticides on these plants and they would still be heirloom.

Heirloom has many connotations, depending on who you ask. Things that may come to mind may be old, hardy or passed down. In my research, I have not found a clear definition of this term. In the vegetable world, itís typically thought of as seed prior to World War II because after WWII industry starting hybridizing plants to produce higher yield and better disease resistance. In the flower and shrub world? Not so sure. There is no real definition to the term heirloom.

Once we understand the words used in the industry, we can make better choices when it comes to selection of plants and the purpose of those plants. Understanding "native", may help you to choose a larger variety of native plants in your landscape, which may result in less pesticide usage, better success with growing the plants, and less water usage, and attracting more pollinators to your garden, which then makes for a sustainable landscape.

Because you are growing a sustainable landscape, your vegetable garden will prosper. It should make it much easier to grow organically, since you are attracting pollinators and good bugs into your yard. Choosing heirloom seeds and plants will not contribute to the organic or sustainability of the space, since heirloom simply has to do with the variety of the plant, not how it is managed and grown.

Composting will be a step you may take to reach sustainability. This simply requires a space where you can dump garden debris and green kitchen scraps into a pile and letting it break down into compost that can be used on the garden (vegetable or ornamental) as a mulch or soil additive. Compost can either replace mulch and peat moss, or certainly enhance other soil additives. Compost is free, raised on your property and applied to your plants and crops.

Rain barrels are a sustainable practice. Gathering rain water from our downspouts allows us to use what nature provides without that water washing into the creeks and streams, gathering pollutants on its way.

As you can see, there are many ways we can live a sustainable, organic, and native existence. When the marketing world latches on to a word or phrase, be sure you take the time to really understand what it means. This will allow us to be better gardeners and stewards of our environment.

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