Eco-Gardening: For the Sake of the Environment and Your Health

Eco-Gardening: For the Sake of the Environment and Your Health

By Steve Steiner

Benefitting you, your family, and the environment.


Eco-gardening. Sounds like a simple concept, right? But exactly what does it mean to garden in an eco-friendly manner?

Of course, the first thought that probably springs to mind is summed up in a single word: organic. And yes, that is the key element. While crucial, it is not the only aspect of what composes eco-gardening.

According to the British publication of House Beautiful, in an article by Olivia Heath published in April of this year, there has been a rise in the number of eco-conscious gardeners seeking sustainable, environmentally-friendly ways to garden. She cites experts at Wyevale Garden Centres and its Garden Trends Report that eco-gardening is more than just “...greening up outdoor spaces, but the impact it has on the environment and our lifestyle too.”

Heath writes that “[A]s a nation we’re becoming more environmentally aware, so much so that 67 percent of people consider themselves to be eco-conscious when it comes to gardening.” She goes on to write that eco-gardeners show a greater consideration for wildlife and the dangers wildlife face.

One of those people in Polk County happens to be Marla Rippey, of Lakeland, who grows not only vegetables and flowers, she also has a butterfly garden.

Of the latter, it began as a matter of happenstance. She had planted some flowers, among them tropical milkweed, which she said has a beautiful flower. A short while after planting, she saw that the plants had, in her words, “been reduced to sticks.” On close inspection, she saw a number of “things” crawling on the plants.

“My first inclination was to squash them, but then I said to myself to hold off, do some research,” said Rippey. With that she went online and learned what she could. What she discovered was those “things” were monarch caterpillarsand that Milkweed is the only plant Monarch caterpillars can eat. Butterflies lay eggs on the milkweed, and within a few days tiny caterpillars emerge. They grow quickly as they hungrily consume the leaves and within a few days form their chrysalis. Butterflies form chrysalises. Moths form cocoons.

Excited at the prospect of seeing a butterfly hatch, she then took a few snippings, moved the caterpillars inside to a screened cage where they soon formed their chrysalis. About a week later,  Monarch butterflies emerged. Thus began Rippey’s butterfly garden, an endeavor of love and learning.

“Butterflies can eat nectar from any flower,” she said. However, she added, they can only lay their eggs on what is the host plant indigenous to each particular species. Rippey plants six different host plants, and she does so through eco-gardening. She will not use manmade pesticides.

“For one thing, it leaches into the soil,” she said. “The last thing I want to do is contaminate their food.” Her concern, she said, is that whatever the caterpillar ingests will possibly kill it, make it sterile, or lead to deformities.

Rippey also employs eco-gardening tactics to her flower and vegetable gardens. It’s not as simple as simply not using manmade pesticides, especially when it comes to her vegetable garden.

“When you grow vegetables, you’re going to have pests,” she said. That’s not just insects, but creatures such as squirrels, rabbits and other wildlife. Growing other plants, such as marigolds, alongside vegetables is one deterrent. But there are other methods. “I also use bone meal around the edges of my garden. Animals don’t like the smell.”

She and her husband Dave also found other approaches that are friendly to the environment.

“You take fresh garlic, fresh mint and cayenne pepper and you boil it in water, just like you’re steeping tea. Then you pour the liquid into a spray container.”

The overall challenge, she added, is that the mixture has to constantly be re-applied, especially following a rain. It’s why organic fruits and vegetables have higher costs than the standard method of growing said produce.

Another approach Rippey is looking into is the use of a rain barrel. She’s seen a number of them at recent plant and garden shows she has attended.

“It’s amazing how much water gets collected,” she said. For anyone not familiar, rain barrels capture water from a roof and hold it for later use such as on lawns, gardens or indoor plants.

Yet there are precautions, according to the EPA (epa.gov). Rain water can pick up pollutants such as bacteria from birds and other animals, as well as chemicals from roof materials. The website says to take into consideration these factors if/when thinking about using rainwater on edible plants.

One also needs to take into consideration whether use of a rain barrel is legal. Issues may arise from the rules of a homeowners association, or laws of a county or other local entity. Regulations regarding water use can be complex should be researched before going to the expense of acquiring and installing one.

So where does one start?

“You are starting from the ground up,” Betty Harrison, master gardener with the Bartow-based office of the University of Florida/IFAS Extension said somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “The first thing you need to do is start with good soil.”

It’s not as simple as it sounds. The process as she explained it is known at IPM (Integrated Soil Management). Soil has to be sterilized. One way to do that is to cover the existing ground with plastic and then place fresh dirt atop it.

Another is to attract beneficial nematodes, which are “good insects” that naturally occur in soil. They are used to control larvae or grubs. Also, these good insects do not expose humans or animals to health or environmental risks.

The site Nematodes.com states that beneficial nematodes enter into the larva and start to feed. This causes a certain bacteria to emerge from the intestine of the nematode. In turn, this bacteria converts the host tissue into products it can be taken up by the nematode. In the process the bad soil dwelling insect dies from within in a matter of days. All told, more than 200 species of pest insects from 100 insect families are susceptible to beneficial nematodes.

Beneficial nematodes are so safe that the EPA has waived registration requirements for application.

Just as there may be pitfalls using water collected from a rain barrel, so too are there potential pitfalls regarding eco-gardening, even among those being “organic.” Just because something is labeled organic does not necessarily imply the product is approved for use in organic farming, but rather that the product contains organic material, or material high in carbon. (source: UF/IFAS Extension article, “Organic Vegetable Gardening in Florida.” The article --- Document HS1215 --- is authored by Danielle D. Treadwell, Sydney Park Brown, James Stephens and Susan Webb. The article was authored June 2013 and revised November 2016.)

Although the extension service supports eco-gardening, it does not rule out non eco-gardening methods. However, Harrison was neither for or against either method. Each has their applications.

Even so, eco-gardening is the method Marla Rippey and her husband Dave prefer. Rippey said that up until recently she and her husband did use RoundUp, for use controlling weeds that were growing between the cracks and alongside the walkway to her home and the driveway. However, even there they have made a switch. Nowadays, they use a cleaning-strength vinegar that could be considered what some might call industrial strength. Vinegar has long been known for that ability, but Rippey said the stronger version works best.

To Learn More

There are many sites on the internet regarding a variety of eco-gardening concepts and approaches, such as EPA.gov and Nematodes.com. However, locally, perhaps the best source is the UF/IFAS Extension Polk County, where the master gardener program is operated from. Located at 1702 U.S. 17/98 South, Bartow, the Extension’s offices can be reached at 863-519-1068. The website is: PolkGardening.com. It is also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.