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Plants

7 simple and eco-friendly things you can do to help protect our planet

Illustration of faces, entwined with plant-life, looking at a globe in unity.
(Lively Scout / For The Times)
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No matter how well intended, resolutions often have a big problem: follow-through. Each year we swear an oath to ourselves about whatever it is we plan to do and then promptly forget about it, ignore it or, worst of all, wallow in guilt and self-loathing as we carry on pretty much like before.

The problem isn’t our intentions. It’s our scope. We vow to make sweeping changes that are heavy on ambition but light on reality. For instance, losing 30 pounds in 30 days might be doable, sure, but it’s probably not sustainable unless you surgically remove a limb. Changing your eating habits and getting regular exercise are time-tested techniques that work, but they require slow and steady persistence and the belief that things will be different, eventually, if you just persevere.

The latter is the gardener’s perspective as well. When you plant something, you give it good soil and adequate water and you put your faith in the slow unfolding of miracles. (How else do you explain a seed no bigger than your pinkie nail sprouting and growing to a sunflower 8 feet tall, with a stalk thicker than your arm and a massive bloom bigger than your head?)

That’s why I’d like to propose something a little radical for 2022: apply this principle to saving the world. I know that’s a resolution so vast and overwhelming no one could seriously (or soberly) claim it for their own, but hear me out.

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Plant people have learned the power of taking small steps and waiting patiently for something to grow. They also understand that tending their own plot of land, whether it’s in pots on their balcony or a large swath of backyard, can not only make a difference in their personal happiness but also in the world.

Ron Finley, L.A.'s self-proclaimed Gangsta Gardener, sees gardening as a revolutionary act and calls himself an “ecolutionary — someone who gives a f— about this planet and is fighting for it.” He envisions a world where neighbors grow food to share with each other and those hardpan vacant lots and parkway strips between sidewalk and street are lush with birdsong, flowers and food-producing plants.

We all know L.A. is the land of reinvention, but the first step to a new you is getting rid of the old by decluttering your home, your closet and even your ride.

Here are seven ways to be a better partner to the Earth. Taking on a few of these suggestions can make an environmental difference, perhaps earn you appreciation from friends and neighbors, and maybe enhance your personal life with the satisfaction of bringing at least one world-saving resolution to fruition.

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Composting

Starting a compost pile can be a significant contribution to the health of your plants — and our world. Invest in a bin or a compact tumbler-type composter or a small worm bin (many municipalities such as L.A. County Public Works sell them at reduced prices) and a lidded pail for your kitchen to hold your vegetable scraps, tea bags, coffee grounds and filters, and shredded papers. Add newspapers, cardboard and nondiseased leaves and yard trimmings (except plants that have been treated with pesticides or herbicides, especially if you plan to use the compost to grow food). After a few months, you’ll have a sweet-smelling humus to enrich the soil in your pots and garden spaces.

Keep meats, bones, fats, dairy products, grains and diseased plant parts out of your compost pile. They tend to attract vermin and don’t properly decompose in home compost piles. Those items should go into the countertop food-waste buckets that many municipalities are providing this year to comply with the state’s new requirements to keep food waste out of landfills and thereby reduce methane emissions.

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Is reducing your carbon footprint or food waste a New Year’s resolution? Here’s an easy kitchen compost guide to help you get started.

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Create a habitat

If you haven’t read the memo about our diminishing water supply and increasing heat, now’s the time to pay attention. We just can’t do English manor landscaping anymore in Southern California, with plantings designed for far wetter climes. Our birds and insects need help more than ever to survive, and the best way to support them is by dedicating at least a portion of your garden space to native plants. The animals native to SoCal have evolved to feed on native plants, so when you put them in your garden space, even if it’s only on a balcony or patio, you’re creating a tiny habitat to help them thrive.

Native plants such as California fuchsia or hummingbird sage are magnets to hummingbirds and other pollinators and they are showy enough to decorate and perfume a balcony. Shrubs including Cleveland sage, toyon or California buckwheat prefer no irrigation after they’re established and they provide food and shelter for animals while adding beauty and fragrance to your yard. The California Native Plant Society’s Calscape website provides a wealth of information about which native plants grow best in your region.

Other resources include the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, Hahamongna Native Plant Nursery in Pasadena, California Botanic Garden’s Grow Native Nursery in Claremont and Moosa Creek Nursery in Valley Center, which sells to home gardeners online. This is the easiest and most beneficial change you can make this year.

Before taking your houseplants outdoors for a bath in the rain, consider these factors.

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Plant native milkweeds

If you can’t turn at least part of your yard into a habitat, at least plant native milkweednot the tropical variety — and some native nectar-producing flowers on your property to help our endangered Western monarch butterflies. The native plant nurseries mentioned above can help you find milkweed and the types of flowers that will be helpful for monarchs.

These plucky orange butterflies with the distinctive black- and cream-colored accents are struggling to survive. Their numbers dropped to below 2,000 in 2020. They rebounded a bit this year, to around 200,000, but that’s still dangerously low compared to the millions that used to overwinter along the California coastal areas in the 1980s and ‘90s.

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Feed your soil

Stop stuffing your plants with fertilizer and feed your soil. Much of the “soil” around SoCal homes is nutrient-starved dirt, says Yvonne Savio, creator of the Gardening in LA blog and the retired longtime coordinator of the UC Cooperative Extension’s master gardener program in Los Angeles. Feeding your plants fertilizer is like giving children candy, Savio says. It creates a sudden burst of energy but doesn’t help them grow big and strong. Instead of doing that, concentrate on enriching your soil with compost and other natural amendments to boost the beneficial bacteria, fungi and nutrients that plants need to grow strong and healthy. Organic amendments also improve the texture of the soil, Savio says, helping sandy soils retain moisture and nutrients and improving drainage in clay soils where the water pools instead of percolating into the ground.

Winter is the perfect time of year in Southern California to enrich your soil with bags of organic potting soil, compost, aged steer manure, coffee grounds and other organic amendments. Water it well, and then let it sit unplanted while the mixture “cooks” from the heat created by the organisms breaking down the organic matter. Be sure to give the soil a week or two to cool down because planting right away could “burn” or kill tender seedlings. If possible, cover the soil with a thick mulch of leaves, which will decompose over time, adding another layer of beneficial bacteria while helping the soil retain its moisture.

And, container gardeners, take note: The bagged soil you put in pots may start out full of nutrients, but after months of watering our plants, all that good stuff in the soil gets flushed away. Consider repotting in fresh soil or at least sprinkling a handful of nutrient-rich amendments such as compost and earthworm castings on top of the soil. If you need to add a lot more soil, pull the plant out of the pot and add new soil to the bottom.

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The designer and author is known for her bohemian decorating sense, with a strong emphasis on plants as a living and ever-changing part of the home environment.

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Make deep-watering stations

When you’re enriching your garden soil, take a few minutes to create deep-watering sites that will encourage your vegetables to send their roots deep into the ground for water this summer, making them healthier and less susceptible to the blistering heat. All you need is a shovel and several sturdy 5-gallon nursery pots — the type that have holes in the bottom for drainage. Bury them so only 4 inches are sticking up from the ground.

That’s enough room to add mulch to the soil after planting and keep scurrying lizards from falling inside. Be sure to space them far enough apart so that you can plant tomatoes or other vegetables around them this spring. Then as it gets hot outside, give your plants a good deep watering by filling the pots once or twice a week. That’s the only watering system Savio uses for her tomatoes, and they grow to be monsters in her Pasadena garden.

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Collect water

We’re so used to water flowing out of taps that it’s harder to realize how much water we waste in a day just by doing ordinary chores. Every day I add fresh water to the dogs’ dish and my tea kettle for coffee, which means tossing out the water left over from the day before. I began dumping that old water into a big 3-gallon watering can outside my kitchen door and I was astonished by how quickly it filled up. In a matter of days, I had enough to water most of my potted plants.

In the hottest part of summer, I rotate where I dump the water on the pots outside. In a perfect world, I’d have a grey water system so that all the water that got dumped in my sink would flow into a reservoir for use outside. That’s a future goal, but for now, collecting this leftover water is a small way to reduce consumption.

If you keep the watering can outside, just remember to cover the top or use a plant-safe product such as Mosquito Dunks to keep mosquitoes from breeding. If you have a yard, consider adding roof gutters and at least one rain barrel for those (unfortunately rare) occasions when we have rain. It doesn’t take much to fill a 50-gallon barrel — just a half-inch of rain falling on a 10-by-10-foot roof (with gutters leading to a downspout) will give you 30 gallons. Also, here’s an added incentive: SoCal WaterSmart offers $35 rebates for 50-gallon rain barrels.

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Rethink your lawn

I don’t mean pull out your lawn. Turf proponents say there are good environmental reasons for keeping our grass. The Environmental Protection Agency found that green spaces keep our communities up to 12 degrees cooler than dirt or concrete surfaces, says Jim Baird, a turf grass specialist at UC Riverside’s Turfgrass Research & Extension. “By removing turf,” he says, “we’re creating a situation that requires more energy to cool our environment and about two-thirds of energy production in the state requires water.”

In the end, he says, we’re not saving that much water by pulling out our lawns. Plus, grassy yards create a lot less dust than those without. Therefore, SoCal lawn owners need to rethink their maintenance and watering techniques, Baird says. Don’t water lawns from November to April, and in the hotter months, irrigate for 10 to 15 minutes in the early morning three to four times a week. Fertilize your lawn with nitrogen four times a year, and leave your grass clippings on it, Baird says. (As a result, they will decompose and feed your turf — free fertilizer!)

If you’re planning to plant a lawn, consider Bermuda grass over fescue. About 90% of SoCal lawns are planted with deep-green fescue grass, Baird says, but warm-season grasses such as Bermuda or buffalo grass need about 20% less water to stay green in hot, dry conditions. Better yet, consider planting a meadow-style lawn with native grasses that need little or no mowing and irrigation.

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