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Editorial: Grow efficiently in yard, garden

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When the great outdoors is right outside the back door, it's possible to realize a beautiful landscape or reap a bountiful harvest without becoming extravagant.

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A yard can be maintained while being kind to the environment, even with a busy schedule and while staying within budget, according to Melinda Myers, gardening expert and author. Myers recommends five strategies to create an eco-friendly landscape this season.

--Be water-wise. Start by growing drought-tolerant plants suited to the area's growing environment. Once established, they will only need watering during extended dry spells. Mulch with shredded leaves, evergreen needles, woodchips or other organic matter to conserve moisture, reduce weeds and improve the soil as they decompose. Fertilize with a low nitrogen fertilizer promoting slow, steady growth instead of excessive greenery requiring more water. Put rainwater to work all season long by using rain barrels to capture rainwater off of the roof or directly from the sky.

--Recycle yard waste in the landscape. Start by leaving grass clippings on the lawn. The short clippings break down quickly, adding organic matter, nutrients and moisture to the soil. Grow trees suited to the growing conditions and available space. That means less pruning and fewer trimmings needing to be managed.

--Make compost at home. Put plant waste into a heap and let it rot. Don't add insect-infested or diseased plant material or perennial weeds like quack grass, annual weeds gone to seed or invasive plants. Most compost plants aren't hot enough to kill these plants. And don't add meat, dairy or bones that can attract rodents.

--Manage pests in harmony with nature. Select the most pest-resistant plants suited to the growing conditions and provide proper care. Check plants regularly throughout the growing season. When problems arise, look for the most eco-friendly control. Start by removing small infestations by hand. Consider traps, barriers and natural products if further control is needed. Always be sure to read and follow label directions carefully.

--Energy wise landscape design. Use landscape plantings to keep homes warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Plant trees on the east and west side of a house to shade windows in the summer, and let the sun shine in and warm it up through the south-facing windows in winter. Shade air conditioners so they run more efficiently, and be sure to collect and use any water they produce for container gardens.

Even the most space-challenged can do veggie and herb gardening efficiently and effectively. Plant breeders know home gardeners want a high yield in a small space, so they've developed varieties that can grow in a small area and flourish in containers, according to the website www.bonnieplants.com. Here are six steps to get started:

--Time-saving transplants. When ready to begin potting up vegetables or herbs, opt for transplants rather than starting from seed. Transplants will buy lots of time because they're six weeks or older when put in a pot and harvesting will begin much sooner, too.

--Use a premium quality potting mix. Don't skimp here. A quality mix holds moisture but drains well, giving plant roots the perfect balance of air, moisture and stability to grow a great harvest. Read bag labels to look for quality ingredients like aged (composted) bark, perlite, lime or dolomite, and sometimes moisture-holding crystals.

--Pick the right pot. It should be affordable to buy and fill, but large enough to accommodate plants as they mature. Almost anything can serve: flower pots, pails, buckets, wire baskets, washtubs, window planters, large food cans, etc. Larger veggies, like tomatoes and eggplants, will need a larger container, at least five gallons for each plant. Be sure the pot has a drainage hole in the bottom and remember dark-colored containers will absorb heat that could damage the plant roots.

--Feed the plants. Even if the potting mix came with fertilizer already mixed in, feeding the plants may be necessary. Some potting mixes include just enough fertilizer to give plants a charge when they're starting. Don't forget mixes designed to feed for several months run out sooner in hot weather with frequent watering.

--Put pots in a sunny spot. At least six-to-eight hours is best. Make sure pots on a deck or porch get enough sunlight and move them to a sunny spot if shade encroaches.

--Water regularly. Vegetables are at least 90 percent water. To produce well, they may need daily watering in hot weather because rain can't always be relied on. Water plants at soil level and be sure to water before the sun goes down, as leaves will need to dry before nightfall.

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