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Nature-Friendly Spring Gardening

April 8, 2021

Spring has sprung and for many people, it’s time to refresh their gardens. The green spaces near our homes, whether they are simply raised beds or fully landscaped yards, can provide a place of joy and wonder right out our own back doors. But these spaces can also help support our waterways and nature.  

For our most recent River Talks podcast episode, we spoke with three experts about best practices for our spring gardens. We’ve included some of their tips here. Listen to the episode for the full details.

Check your Garden for the Essentials

Sunlight: Sunlight is very important because some plants only take a certain amount of sun, others take more. Consider walking your garden at different times of the day to understand how much sun it gets.

Space: Consider spacing when you look at plants at the nursery. Take a look at the tag and you’ll see an approximate size of what the plant is fully supposed to grow to. Make sure the plants have enough room to grow.

Soil: Soil is a huge one around your home. Most conventionally constructed homes have heavily compacted soil. Also, the topsoil is usually scraped up and sold off when the site is prepared. So you’re looking at a nutrient-depleted environment that you’re going to be planting into. So consider soils that are rich in nutrients as well as adding mulch. (more details on soils below!)

Climate: Nashville is zone 7A, so it’s kind of on the edge of what some of the warmer plants prefer. So make sure that on the labels and when you look up plants, that Zone seven is at least included in the range.

Plant Native Plants

Nature has already given native plants the “stamp of approval” for growing in this area. They are easier to grow, support native pollinators and biodiversity, and help water infiltrate into the ground. Check out full lists of native plants online or visit your local native plant nursery.

Bates Nursery offers a Botanical Bootcamp on a variety of topics that can help you select the right plants for your garden. Learn more and watch past webinars on their website. 

Support Healthy Soils

Soil health includes the physical, chemical, and biological components of the soil.

The physical aspects focus on things like soil texture, whether it’s sand or clay.  Those are all important because they help with water infiltration: the ability of water, instead of running off your lawn or garden into the stormwater system, to go into your soil. Physical properties also affect water retention, so it will hold on to more water.

The chemical aspects include nutrient concentrations and maybe in an urban environment, metals. The chemical aspects are important just to make sure your plants have either enough of the nutrient that they need or not too much of a toxic nutrient. The soil pH is very important because it’s the main driver for nutrient availability for many elements.

And finally, the biological component. The soil acts as a house for microbes, fungi, earthworms, nematodes, small insects, small animals, and whether you like those or not. It’s kind of an ecological balance between you and the biological components of the soil and how much you’re willing to take in and give ways to help the biological components to return organic matter to the soil, whether it’s yard clippings or compost. These things will help feed the microbes. As the microbes digest the food they will mineralize the organic matter and release nutrients back into the soil. The organic matter will help with nutrient and water retention.

Cultivate Soil Health…and Help our Waterways!

Start by returning the organic matter to the yard. It’ll help the physical and chemical properties and feed the microbes. When you do have organic matter or clippings like when you cut your grass, keep it off your driveway and off the street. So if it does get on the street, kind of break it up or blow it back into your yard so it doesn’t go down into the stream. Also, keep fertilizer off the street and fertilizer off your driveway and sidewalk because it will make its way to streams.

Keeping the soil covered is is a huge component of soil health. Soil erosion is bad because you’re losing soil, but also that that sediment makes it all the way to a stream, it can cause turbidity in that stream and can impair that stream quality.  So by keeping your soil in place, it helps you and it also helps keep fish happy.

Get your soil tested!

The Soil Lab can test your soil to help you plan your garden! The process starts with the homeowner taking the soil sample. You can go out to your lawn and take several samples throughout the lawn to get a good average. Mix all those subsamples up well in a bucket, and then just send in one or two cups worth of soil for testing.

The lab can test your soil for nutrient concentrations and make specific fertilizer recommendations. Precise fertilizer application helps you save money and prevents excess fertilizer from entering our waterways, a leading cause of nutrient pollution.

Full details of sampling procedures and processes available online.

Get to Know Invasive Plants

Invasive plants are non-native plants that establish quickly on many different sites and can grow very quickly out-competing native plants. They spread to the point of disrupting native plant communities in nature, disrupt entire ecosystems, and can cause economic and environmental harm. They’re a problem because they are so disruptive to the ecosystem and not just other plants growing, but wildlife as well.

Manage Invasive Plants in Your Yard

There are a number of ways, both mechanical and chemical, that you can use. It just depends on the degree of the problem. If you’ve got a large yard, you might want to go the chemical route and use an herbicide. If you decide to do that, do a little bit of research on which ones work the best and follow the label instructions to the letter. They will tell you exactly the percentage to use and how to use it.

If you want to use mechanical methods, pulling up or smothering plants, depending on what it is. There are tools available like weed wrenches that can grasp the base of a shrub or a small tree and you use the lever, then it will uproot the plant. Smothering some of the ground covers can be done with black plastic.

There are a lot of different methods for removing invasive plants,  but you really have to keep at it!

Many people think that it’s fine to have invasive plants in their yard and don’t realize that a lot of the transport of the seeds is through wildlife. Birds eat a lot of the berries that come up on the different shrubs. Wildlife coming through an area can pick up burrs that could stick to their fur and transport them into natural areas or agricultural areas. It’s really causing a lot of spread that way. If you wear certain pair of hiking shoes or something out into your yard and pick up speed on your shoes or on bicycle tires, then go riding out and out along Greenway’s, you’re spreading seeds that way as well.

So you may think you’re safe having it in your yard, but they’re very, very easy to spread with wildlife or even your shoes.

Learn to identify and replace invasive plants.

The Tennessee Invasive Plant Council website has detailed lists of invasive plants that can help you identify what you may have in your yard. They also offer guides to what to replant when you remove an invasive species. For example, if you remove honeysuckle in your yard, but miss the privacy of the hedgerow, they provide replacement options for you.

Most importantly…have fun!

It might seem like there a lot of “rules” with gardening, but it’s really about creating and cultivating joy in your green spaces. You are encouraged to change and experiment to see what works and makes you happy! And know that you have many people ready to help and cheer you on!