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Happy Earth Day! 5 easy ways to celebrate

Helping the planet starts in our own space

It's always nice to see a lady beetle at work in the garden.
(Photo: Kathy Morrison)

I like to think that the readers of this blog are planet-aware enough to already be using earth-friendly practices with their plants and with their gardens.

So let's celebrate Earth Day today by encouraging family, neighbors or friends to try one of these easy ways to help battered old Mother Earth:

-- Compost. All those kitchen scraps and fallen leaves that end up in the green waste or (horrors!) the trash bin could be working right at home. It really doesn't take much to create the "garden gold" that enriches the soil, just organic matter, water and air. Share this composting guide .

And if someone doesn't have space for a compost bin, they can try worm composting. Worms just need a big plastic bin and some bedding material, and they'll happily transform those potato peelings and apple cores into worm castings, which are MAGIC in the garden. Here's my blog post from last fall about my worm bin. (Those red wigglers are still going strong, by the way). And here's the Sacramento County master gardeners' guide to setting up a worm bin.

-- Feed the soil. That compost? Best thing a gardener can add to problem soil. It will help lighten clay and provide structure to sand, in addition to improving the soil's water-holding capacity. That in turn helps plants send out better, stronger roots. Worm castings spread over the top of the soil will leach down and improve it, too. Helping the soil always is a win-win proposition.

-- Plant something for the beneficials. Urban life is tough on all the small but important insects that make the outdoor world work, such as hoverflies, lacewings, damsel bugs and parasitic mini-wasps.And the rock star of the group, lady beetles. Many of them dine voraciously on the "bad bugs" -- so much better than using insecticides. So add to the garden some plants that give these little insects food and resting spots.  Suggestions: Flowering herbs, cosmos, yarrow and goldenrod. See this list for more ideas.

-- Switch to natural fertilizers. Fertilizers are confusing to most people, so they grab whatever seems right, whatever the source. But one of the most important things I learned last year in master gardener classes is that while plants themselves don't care where their nutrients come from, the soil will care immensely . Chemical fertilizers boost the plants -- sometimes too much -- but do little to aid the soil or the microorganisms that live there. Look for fertilizers based on natural ingredients such as fish emulsion, alfalfa meal, chicken manure, blood meal and cottonseed meal. (I'm now one of those people who stands in the nursery aisle reading package ingredients.)

-- Plant a tree. It's an Earth Day cliché, but that's because it's true. Trees clean the air, anchor the soil, give shelter to birds and other wildlife, and provide shade to homes and gardens. Even a small one helps.  The Sacramento Tree Foundation would be happy to help anyone choose the right tree .

Bonus way to celebrate that anyone can do: Take 5 minutes to discover something new in your garden. Explore the shapes of the oak leaves or marvel at the color gradations in a flower petal. It's an astonishing world and we are so lucky to be its caretakers.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of Dec. 10:

Take advantage of these dry but crisp conditions. It’s time to get out the rake!

* Rake leaves away from storm drains and keep gutters clear.

* Fallen leaves can be used for mulch and compost. Chop up large leaves with a couple of passes with a lawn mower.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while they’re dormant. Without their foliage, trees are easier to prune.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Make sure to take frost precautions with new transplants and sensitive plants. Mulch, water and cover tender plants in the late afternoon to retain warmth.

* Succulent plants are at particular risk if temperatures drop below freezing. Don’t water succulents before frost; cover instead. Use cloth sheets, not plastic. Make sure to remove coverings during the day.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they'll bloom again next December.

* Just because it rained doesn't mean every plant got watered. Give a drink to plants that the rain didn't reach, such as under eaves or under evergreen trees. Also, well-watered plants hold up better to frost than thirsty plants.

* Plant garlic (December's the last chance -- the ground is getting cold!) and onions for harvest in summer.

* Bare-root season begins. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb. Beware of soggy soil. It can rot bare-root plants.

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