September signals transition, which makes it an excellent time to make some adjustments in the garden. Most of us like to start on our cool-weather crops, and tidy up after a summer harvest, but September is also a perfect month to make your garden greener, and not necessarily in color. c
Here are a few projects for an eco-friendly garden just in time for “Sustainable September.”
Periods of drought are becoming more severe across all of the United States, and not just in areas that expect little rainfall. Almost 50% of the US (42% when including Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico) has experienced moderate to exceptional drought as of June this year, according to the weekly US Drought Monitor.
The drier your region is, the more your garden will benefit from ways to catch rain, and with climate change impacts on the rise, the sooner you tackle this project, the better.
Install Rain Barrels and Cisterns
Rain barrels are an efficient and easy way to catch rainfall from the rooftops of homes, garages, and sheds. A whopping 600 gallons of water will run off a roof every hour during a regular rainfall, equaling around 4,800 bottles of water.
If you put a bucket underneath a downspout while it’s raining, it will fill up in minutes, as opposed to setting a bucket out in the open which may not fill up at all. Rain barrels utilize this simple tactic and are set up directly under downspouts so that all water runoff is captured and ready to use during periods of drought.
Most rain barrels hold around 50 gallons of water, but larger cisterns and rainwater catch systems can hold an even larger amount, some containing thousands of gallons.
These larger containers are more common for off-grid living sites, but residential homes are beginning to utilize the practice of using more grey water systems, not just for gardening but for the home in general.
Build a Rain Garden
Rain gardens are another easy way to harvest rainfall. Simply dig a deep enough depression in the ground so that water collects far enough away from the foundation of your home. Plant a variety of native, water-loving, and drought-tolerant species in this space so they can soak up excess water when it rains.
This process utilizes approximately 30 percent of rainfall while leaving the rest to soak back into local aquifers and groundwater systems. Rain gardens are much more efficient at harvesting water than a regular lawn and 100% more efficient than non-permeable hardscapes.
Install Permeable Spaces
Like rain gardens, permeable driveways and living roofs are great ways to remove chemical and sediment run-off from non-permeable spaces like traditional driveways and rooftops.
While the cost can be higher than creating a rain garden or purchasing a few rain barrels, both projects can be considered if you are already planning on replacing an aging roof, or wanted to update your driveway.
Permeable pavement and concrete, or grid systems with gravel or grass in the gaps, will soak up rain runoff, keeping it from going down the gutter. This helps to prevent floods, instead allowing ground systems and plant life to soak up rainwater naturally.
Avoid Pesticide Use
Pesticides have been marketed as essential ways for gardeners to fend off unwanted bugs and pests. However, there are many ways to combat problems in the garden without harming the environment with harsh chemicals that end up killing the beneficial bugs you do want.
First off, start learning how to live with bugs. For the majority of residential gardens, pests are merely a nuisance, or the amount of damage to crops is minimal. Mosquitaway, lemongrass, and citronella are excellent plants to grow as natural mosquito repellents. Even DIY insecticidal sprays can do more harm than good.
For example, a common complaint in the garden is damage from aphids. Insecticidal sprays have been promoted as the best ways to deter these plant-sucking bugs, but this spray will also harm bees, butterflies, and any beneficial aphid-predators like ladybugs, wasps, lacewings, and beetles.
A hard blast from a hose can sometimes be all you need, as aphids are soft-bodied and often won’t survive the fall. If they do, they tend to stay in the ground and won’t consider moving back onto the plant.
Aphids also know when a predator is around and will drop off the plant, never to return. Sometimes, letting nature do its job may be easier, cheaper, and more environmentally sound than meddling.
For larger farms and gardens, sitting back may not be an option, as loss in crops can be financially devastating. A more scientific method for avoiding pesticide use is to plant certain species together, known as companion planting.
This method can be beneficial in a number of ways as a variety of plants will naturally balance nutrients in the soil, keep it moist and free from weeds, lure more pollinators, reduce the need for trellises and supports, and protect against disease and pests.
It can be as simple as growing garlic and onions between carrots to fend off the root fly, wormwood to keep moths off brassicas, and marigolds to prevent unwanted beetles and aphids.
Nasturtiums will also lure aphids and other pests over to them. Many crop-destroying bugs don’t like the smell of herbs like thyme, lavender, mint, sage, and lemongrass.
Lure Pollinators with Native Plants
Any plants are good plants (for the most part), but native species can help make your garden more sustainable and, therefore, easier to maintain and more cost-effective for you. Native plants are meant to grow in the particular climate they are from, meaning they thrive in the conditions that are already in place.
Average sunlight, rainfall, and temperature for your area will be in tune with native plants, meaning you won’t have to do as much supplemental watering, fertilizing, or fussing in general with these plants.
The most important benefit of native plants is that many of them will be natural pollinator plants, serving as food and housing for bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects, which is important for biodiversity.
Garden centers, nurseries, and municipal garden associations are excellent resources for learning more about native plants in your growing region. You may not have to remove non-native plants, as there are many non-natives that can co-exist just fine in certain areas.
However, many can also become invasive and are best eradicated.
Save the Butterflies
More specific than adding native plants to your garden, planting milkweed is especially important right now to help save monarch butterfly populations. Milkweed provides shelter and food for Monarch butterflies during their natural migration patterns.
Sadly, these essential pollinators have recently been put on the endangered species list, and the call has been put out to help save them. There are many sources where you can find free milkweed seeds, but make sure you are planting a species that is native to your area and that the seeds are high quality.
Live Monarch will send you free milkweed seeds specific to your area as long as you send a pre-stamped envelope with a return address on it. Find them at: livemonarch.com.
Another really cool project to help butterfly populations is to create Monarch waystations and register them at monarchwatch.org where they keep a tally.
These stations are effectively stopping points for Monarchs where they can find milkweed and other nectar sources while they make their migration between Mexico and North America.
These stations can easily be added to home gardens by merely planting native milkweed and other nectar sources. They can also be great projects for schools, nurseries, garden centers, community gardens, and parks. Spaces should be at least 100 square feet but can be divided into sections.
Sources of nectar should be available consistently throughout the season. Once certified, your waystation will be added to the registry, which lists all of the waystations worldwide. You can also get a certificate and ID number to display and help spread the word. As of August, there are over 40,000 waystations registered.
Let the Lawn Go
One of the best ways to create a natural wildflower garden to benefit pollinators like butterflies and bees is to let your lawn go. There isn’t much good that comes out of turfgrass lawns, as they suck up water and provide little habitat for biodiversity.
You may worry that letting a lawn become overgrown can be unsightly or create a habitat for pests and unwanted animals, but what actually happens is an abundance of native plants begin to crop up. This includes so-called weeds like dandelions, which are actually quite beautiful and beneficial plants in and of themselves.
You can trim and tailor as you go, adding a few native plants along the way, or spreading wildflower seeds to see what takes.
Any tall grass can be left in patches, as well. These long blades provide shelter for beneficial insects and help cool the ground. Just like “No Mow May” became a popular trend in the spring to help insects coming out of hibernation, try “Quit Cutting September” and see the magical transformation that can take place.
Improve Soil Health
Good soil is essential for healthy plants, and thus is the foundation for a healthy garden. You can enrich your soil by simply adding quality compost.
This organic material helps to feed the plants and beneficial microorganisms, improving the structure so it can retain nutrients and moisture, and allow for good drainage by reducing compaction.
Properly rotating crops along with companion planting will keep soil N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) ratios in check. Growing cover crops is another great way to resolve issues with soil compaction while also adding organic material for extra nutrients.
Cover crops can be chopped and dropped for use as a natural mulch, which helps protect soil and helps retain moisture. A soil test can help you resolve any pH issues, though by doing these things, pH will usually resolve itself.
Start a Compost Pile
As mentioned, compost adds essential organic material to garden soil, which is the foundation of a healthy garden. Buying bags from garden centers isn’t the most environmentally friendly or cost-effective way to bring this organic material into your soil.
September is a great time to set up a compost pile as temperatures are pleasant, and summer garden cleanup provides many sources of nitrogen and carbon, which are the two key ingredients for a successful heap.
Leftover food scraps and organic waste left to rot in plastic bags create methane, which is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.
Setting up your own compost pile utilizes your kitchen scraps, as well as garden and yard waste, and instead turns it into decomposed, highly nutrient-rich organic material that can go right back into your garden beds instead of landfills.
Good garden planning can be one of the best ways to create a more sustainable garden practice. September is a good time to take stock of what is doing well, and what could be removed or replanted.
To help reduce the need for supplemental watering, move drought-tolerant or resistant plants to areas that are hotter. Sides of the home where the sun is strongest means that part of the garden will do better with lavender, stonecrops, sedums, and cacti.
Change your layout to start specifically meeting the needs of your perennial plants and evergreens. This may require changing varieties of things you have planted in the past.
As climate change impacts every region, even the slightest temperature shifts can make apples less sweet or tomatoes less juicy. Choose varieties that have proven resilience, and consider only planting heirloom varieties.
Try to ensure there are successive blooms throughout the year. Having different plants flowering at different times will keep a steady stream of crucial pollinators flocking to your garden, working their helpful magic throughout the seasons.
Harvest More than Crops
Your fruit, vegetable, perennial, and annual plants provide a number of sources of nutrition, both for humans as well as the other creatures that live in your garden.
Collecting seeds from plants like coneflowers, tomatoes, beans, amaranth, and pumpkins are just a few examples of seeds to be used in your pantry, added to bird feeders, or saved for next year's planting. Get to know which seeds to leave on plants as they overwinter, which will provide necessary food for animals.
Learning how to can fruit, and vegetable crops is another excellent way to make the most out of your garden by not letting anything go to waste.
Drying herbs is a relatively easy task that not only provides flavor and nutrients during the winter months but can also be added to salves, balms, and oils for a multitude of holistic and natural remedies.
Add a Water Feature
A well-placed water feature like a pond or fountain can greatly increase the biodiversity in your garden space. Fresh water sources are also important for birds, pollinators, and other wildlife, especially in times of drought
Like native plants, ponds promote natural biodiversity and support a variety of native species, including fish, frogs, dragonflies, and birds that you wouldn't normally attract.
Water features that have indigenous species in mind are one of the best ways to create a sustainable garden while also giving the gardener a serene place to relax.
Sustainable gardens are something that any gardener can achieve in time. It's also more economical as it focuses on using recycled materials, reducing the use of natural resources, and overall less maintenance and interference with nature.
Anyone who has a garden, whatever its size, can take steps to transform their space into an eco-friendly haven buzzing with life. Get inspired for "Sustainable September" with any (or all!) of these eco-friendly garden projects.