Backyard Conservation: Bringing the Countryside to Your Backyard


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Backyard Conservation: Bringing the Countryside to Your Backyard

  1. 1. Backyard ConservationBringingConservationFrom theCountryside toYour BackyardA cooperative project ofUSDA Natural Resources Conservation ServiceNational Association of Conservation DistrictsWildlife Habitat Council
  2. 2. I N T R O D U C T I O NFrom the countryside to your backyardA tradition of caring for our natural resources F armers and ranchers, and many Most of that land, 1.4 billion acres, is man- homeowners, are making progress in aged by farmers and ranchers. More than 92 natural resource protection.You can million acres of land—an area the size of join their conservation tradition, right in your California—is privately developed and much own backyard. of it is tended by homeowners. There are nearly 2 billion acres of land in the Farmers and ranchers use conservation plans Jim Archambeault United States. About 70 percent of that land to help them apply practices that meet their is privately owned, and care of that land is in production objectives and protect soil, water, the hands of those who live and work on it. air, plant, and animal resources.You may want to develop a plan for your own backyard to help you apply conservation measures that fit your needs. Or maybe, for now, you’d like to try just a few of the activities in this book. We hope you’ll enjoy these activities that bring beauty and diversity to your yard— whether your “yard” is measured in acres, feet, or flower pots.We know you’ll feel good about improving the environment and joining the conservation tradition of America’s farm- ers and ranchers. Richard Day, Daybreak Imagery Jim Archambeault2
  3. 3. Lynn Betts, USDA Lynn Betts, USDA Alana EdwardsPREVIOUS PAGE(top) Contour stripcropping; (bot-tom right) Northern cardinal,female; (bottom left) Water andplants to attract butterflies; (topleft) Water lily.THIS PAGE(top) Constructed wetland withlandscaping; (right) Purpleprairie coneflowers; (bottom left)Finished compost; (center left) Lynn Betts, USDAAtala hairstreak butterfly. Lynn Betts, USDA 3
  4. 4. C O N T E N T SWhat’s in this bookI n this publication, or for help in developing you’ll see practices your backyard plan, you used to conserve and may want to consult aimprove natural local landscaper, gardenresources on agricultural club, or any of the organi-land across the country. zations listed in the backYou’ll see how you can of this book.use similar practices inyour own backyard tohelp improve the envi-ronment, help wildlife,and in many cases, makethe area more attractiveand enjoyable. Richard Day, Daybreak ImageryMost backyard conserva-tion practices are easy toput in place.Tips andhighlights are given here,but for more information,This bookhighlights 10conservationactivities,adaptedfrom farms 1 2 3and ranches, Tree planting Wildlife habitat Backyard pondthat can be Page 6 Page 8 Page 14used in yourbackyard. PLUS… “Quick Tips” 7 8 9 Nutrient Terracing Water management Page 22 conservation Page 21 Page 234
  5. 5. PREVIOUS PAGE (top left) Mockingbird eating chokecherry; (top center) Backyard pond and water- loving plants. THIS PAGE (right) Contour stripcropping. On the farm Tim McCabe, USDA Jim Archambeault Conservation efforts by many farmers and ranchers help keep the air clean; maintain good-quality water for drinking, recreation, and fish and wildlife; provide homes for wildlife; ensure healthy soil; and sus- tain a diversity of plants. These benefits help people, wildlife,4 5 6 and the environment.Backyard Composting Mulchingwetland Page 18 Page 20 Numerous FederalPage 16 and State conserva- tion programs are aimed at natural resource protection E VERYBODY and sustainability. HAS A Many provide educa- BACKYARD tional, technical, and Page 26 financial assistance to help farmers consider and implement con-10 servation practices.PestmanagementPage 24 5
  6. 6. 1 T R E E P L A N T I N G Trees add beauty and so much more. In your backyard T rees in your backyard can be home to many different types of Lynn Betts, USDA wildlife.Trees also can reduce your heating and cooling costs, help clean the air, add beauty and color, provide shelter from the wind and the sun, and add value to your home. Choosing a tree Choose a tree that will pro- vide enjoyment for you and that fits your landscape. Take advantage of the abun- dant references on gardening in local libraries, at universities, arboretums, and parks where trees are identified, and from native plant and gardening clubs, and nurseries. Before you buy, you can find out if a tree is appropriate for your area, how big it will get, how long it will live, its leaf color in the fall, any nuts or fruit it may bear, and the proper planting instructions and care for that species. Make a conscious effort to select trees native to your area. They will live longer, be more tolerant of local weather and soil condi- tions, enhance natural biodi- versity in your neighbor- hood, and be more beneficial to wildlife than non-native trees. Avoid exotic trees that can invade other areas, crowd out native plants, and harm natural ecosystems. Plant a variety of tree species. For wildlife, choose Jim Archambeault trees and shrubs that bloom and bear fruit or nuts at dif- ferent times of the year. 6
  7. 7. PREVIOUS PAGE (top) Farmstead windbreak; (bottom left) A restful, soothing place among the trees; (top left) Enjoying the backyard. THIS PAGELynn Betts, USDA (top left) Chipping sparrow nest; (top right) Twine will be removed before planting; Richard Day, Daybreak Imagery (bottom left) Field windbreak. Planting a tree A properly planted and maintained tree will grow much faster and live much longer than one that is incorrectly planted. Trees can be planted almost any time of the year as long as the soil is not frozen. However, early fall is the optimum time to plant trees.The roots grow some during the first fall and winter and when spring arrives the tree is ready to grow. Your second choice for planting is late winter or early spring. Hot summer weather is hard on newly planted trees and planting in frozen soil during the winter is difficult and tough on tree roots. Lynn Betts, USDA Be sure to carefully follow the planting instructions that come with your tree. If specific instructions are not available, follow Early maintenance these tips: For the first year or two, espe- s Dig a hole twice as wide the root crown. Remove the not to cover it unless roots cially after a week or so of as, and slightly shallower wrapping if it is plastic; are exposed. As you add soil especially hot or dry weather, than, the root ball. Roughen burlap may be left in place. to fill in around the tree, watch your trees the sides and bottom of the s Gently separate circling lightly tamp the soil to closely for signs of hole with a pick or shovel roots on the root ball. collapse air pockets, or add moisture stress. If you so that roots can penetrate Shorten exceptionally water to help settle the soil. see leaf wilting or hard, caked the soil. long roots, and guide the s Form a temporary water soil, water the trees s With a potted tree, gently shortened roots downward basin around the base of the well and slowly enough so remove the tree from the and outward. Root tips die tree to encourage water the water soaks in rather than container. Lay the tree on its quickly when exposed penetration, and water runs off. This will encour- side with the container end to light and air, so don’t thoroughly after planting. age deep root growth. near the planting hole. Hit waste time. A tree with a dry root ball Keep the area under the trees the bottom and sides of the s Place the root ball in the cannot absorb water; if the mulched and free of other container until the root ball hole. Leave the top of the root ball is extremely dry, plants. Until the trees are is loosened.With trees root ball (where the roots allow water to trickle into deeply rooted, grasses and wrapped in plastic or burlap, end and the trunk begins) the soil by placing the hose other plants may take up remove the string or wire 1/2 to 1 inch above the at the trunk of the tree. moisture before the trees can that holds the wrapping to surrounding soil, making sure s Mulch around the tree. get their share. On the farm Windbreaks and tree plantings slow the wind and provide shelter and food for wildlife. Trees can shelter livestock and crops; they are used as barriers to slow winds that blow across large cropped fields and through farmsteads. An established windbreak slows wind on its downwind side for a distance of 10 times the height of the trees. Farmstead and field windbreaks and tree plantings are key components of a conserva- Lynn Betts, USDA tion system. They also improve air quality by capturing dust. Planting a mix of tree species helps prevent total losses to disease and severe weather; it also provides food, nesting areas, and cover for a variety of wildlife. 7
  8. 8. 2 W I L D L I F E H A B I T A T Trees, shrubs, and other plants can provide homes and food for wildlife. In your backyard Y our backyard can be home for many different types that flower and bear fruit at different times of of birds, butterflies, beneficial insects, bats, and other the year. Shrubs that produce berries can provide food wildlife.Trees, shrubs, and other plants provide both throughout the year. Trees with nuts and fruit can also food and shelter for wildlife.The types of plants you use for provide seasonal foods. Flowers and fruits of some plants food and cover will help determine the wildlife species attract hummingbirds and butterflies to your backyard.You attracted to your backyard. Consider native plant also can construct bird houses and other shelter and put species first. Plant a variety of species. Select plants out commercial bird foods. Spicebush Sumacs Viburnums Wax myrtle Trees for birds and other wildlife American beech Lynn Betts, USDA American holly Apple Balsam fir Black cherry Black gum Attracting birds to Cottonwood your yard Crabapple These are examples of Flowering dogwood plants that you can grow to Hawthorns attract birds and other Hickories species. Be sure to check Live oak with your nursery on what Oaks grows best in your area. Red mullberry Shrubs for birds Vines for birds Common juniper American bittersweet Richard Day, Daybreak Imagery Highbush blueberry Native honeysuckle Hollies Strawberry Pyracantha Trumpet creeper Red-osier dogwood Virginia creeper Serviceberry Wild grape 8
  9. 9. PREVIOUS PAGE (top) Northern cardinal, male; (bottom right) Supplemental food for birds; (bottom left) Interspersed native plants. Richard Day, Daybreak Imagery THIS PAGE (top right) Anna’s hummingbird; Virgil Ketner (bottom right) Eastern bluebird, male, at nest box.Flowers for birds are most common and Bird housesAster which are rare or in special Choose a location that birds will find appealingConeflower need of food and shelter. and secure, usually away from the bustle of humanCoreopsis Many species of birds can be activity. Make or buy a bird house specificallySunflower attracted by a variety of designed for the species of bird you want to attract.The feed in different styles of size of the hole is most critical to prevent the eggs and youngNectar plants for feeders. Be sure to put feed- from being destroyed by larger birds; always check a list ofhummingbirds ers out of reach of appropriate hole sizes.Hummingbirds are typically predators.attracted to red and yellowtubular flowers, although Common foodthey frequently visit others for birdsas well. Hummingbird:Bee balm Sugar water (1 part sugar toColumbine 4 parts water) in a feeder.Delphinium Every 3-4 days, wash feederFuchsia with soap and water, rinseHoneysuckle thoroughly, and add newJewel weed sugar water.Lobelia Oriole:Penstemon Citrus fruit on a nailPhlox Titmouse, nuthatch, chick-Salvia adee, and many others:Trumpet creeper Black oil sunflower seeds Goldfinch, pine siskin:Additional food and Thistle seedshelter for birds Woodpecker, wren:You can provide additional Plain suet in a suet feederfood and shelter for birdsand other wildlife by build-ing or purchasing feedersand houses and by setting NOTE: Use of feeders couldout certain foods.Watching attract some wildlife speciesbirds feeding can be an that you may not want toenjoyable pastime. Find out feed, such as starlings, crows,which birds spend the and squirrels.Type andwinter in or migrate placement of feeders and thethrough your area, and type of food can help deterprovide food for them. unwanted species.Check to see which birds Susan Day, Daybreak Imagery 9
  10. 10. W I L D L I F E H A B I T A TAttracting butterflies to your yardColorful butterflies add beauty and interest to your backyard.There are hundreds of differentspecies of butterflies in North America. Butterflies require food in liquid form, such as nectarproduced by plants.They get some of it from flowers and from juices of extra-ripe fruits.Thetypes of flowering plants you grow will determine the kinds of butterflies you will attractto your backyard. Observe species nearby, and use plants that attract them. Provide nectar-rich flowers for adult butterflies and foliage for caterpillars. Do not use insecticides nearplants for butterflies. Nectar plants for butterflies Aster Azalea Butterfly bush Butterfly weed and other milkweeds Coneflower Lantana Lupine Milkweed Stephen L. Buchmann Phlox Zinnia Plants for caterpillars Caterpillars, the larval stage of butterflies, need nourish- Attracting bees to ment as well. Native your yard plants are the choice of many species. Plants for In the United States, there caterpillars include: are nearly 5,000 different Aspen species of native bees— Birch almost all of them solitary, friendly bees that nest in Butterfly weed and other milkweeds holes in the ground or bur- Dill rows in twigs and dead tree Hollyhock limbs.These bees don’t have Stephen L. Buchmann Senna hives to protect so they are Sorrel not aggressive and rarely Spicebrush sting. Bumblebees, carpenter Willow bees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees, digger bees, and others pollinate many differ- ent kinds of plants, andDead, dying, and hollow trees and logs play a critical role in healthy Many people are not aware of the value of dead, dying, and hollow trees, as well as logs wild plant communities and on the ground, for wildlife. Dead trees provide homes to over 400 species of birds, gardens. Some 30 percent of mammals, and amphibians. Fish, plants, and fungi also benefit from dead and dying our diet is the direct resulttrees. Consider leaving standing dead and dying trees in your yard unless they pose a human of a pollinating visit by asafety or property hazard, and use downed woody materials in gardens and landscaping. bee to a flowering fruit tree10
  11. 11. PREVIOUS PAGE (top) Monarch butterfly on coneflower; (bottom right) Digger bee; (left) Giant swallowtail after emerging from chrysalis. THIS PAGE (top right) Canada goose; (bottom) Egret over wetland; (left) Pallid bat with insect. Lynn Betts, USDA On corporate landsor vegetable plant. Providing 1/8-inch to 5/16-inch in diam-bee habitat in your yard can eter) about 90 percent of theincrease the quality and way into the thick woodenquantity of your fruit and block. Space the holes aboutvegetable harvests. 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch apart. The 5/16-inch holes workNectar plants for bees best as homes for orchardBees are attracted to most bees, which are excellent pol- Bill Welker, USDAflowering plants, and are linators of fruit trees. Hang Some corporate landsespecially fond of blue and your bee blocks under the are set aside andyellow flowers.Try planting eaves of your house or gar- managed just for wildlifeyour garden so you have den shed, protected from habitat. The Wildlifedifferent species direct sun and rain. Habitat Council hasblooming in the spring, implemented wildlifesummer, and fall. Plantsfor bees include: enhancement programs Merlin D. Tuttle, Bat ConservationBee balm on more than 550,000Black-eyed Susan acres in the United StatesCardinal flower and eight other countries.Clover and other legumes InternationalCosmos Habitat projects onCrape myrtle corporate lands areGoldenrods corporate-drivenLupine Attracting bats to cooperativeMallows your yard efforts amongMilkweeds Bats can be beneficial and management,Mints interesting mammalian employees, theSunflowers species in your neighborhood. Bats are community, localBee houses among the most important conservation A good use for consumers of night-flying groups, and scrap lumber (at insects, including local, State, and least 3-5 inches mosquitoes, moths, and Federalthick) is to drill holes (from beetles. For example, a agencies. Lynn Betts, USDA 11
  12. 12. W I L D L I F E H A B I T A Tsingle little brown bat can for bat boxes. Some species,catch more than 600 such as red bats and hoarymosquitoes in an hour. bats, will use foliage ofWatching bats fly around shrubs and trees, while oth-light posts catching bugs ers, such as evening andcan be an interesting Indiana bats, will roost undernighttime activity. loose bark or in cavities.To help attract bats and pro- As with all wildlife, batsvide them with much-need- should be watched buted roosting habitat, you may not handled or chased.want to consider putting a Bats are generally shy ofbat house in your yard.The humans, and rarely “attack”houses should be placed on or fly after a person, but ifpoles or buildings at caught or picked up fromleast 15 feet high in a the ground, a bat may bitespot that receives 6 or more in self-defense. Bats shouldhours of sun per day. Tree not be handled.trunks are usually too shady Water for wildlife Clean, fresh water is as important to birds, bats, and other wildlife as it is for people.Water in a saucer, bird bath, or backyard pond gives wildlife the water they need. Remember to change the water every few days to keep it fresh. In hot weather, it may be necessary to refill the con- tainer every day. Logs, rocks, and other in-water structures provide drinking and basking habitat for turtles, butterflies, and songbirds. Stones with depressions that collect water will help attract butterflies. Hint Butterflies, birds, bees, and all wildlife are very vulnerable to many pesticides and other chemicals. Probably the best single thing a gardener can do for wildlife is to minimize chemi- cal use. If you use chemicals, always follow label instructions. Jesse Grantham Lynn Betts, USDA12
  13. 13. PREVIOUS PAGE (top) Backyard pond with lily pads and frogs; (bottom) Cleaning birdbath; (left) Thistle feeder with pine siskin and American goldfinches. THIS PAGE (top right) Rose-breasted grosbeak, male; (bottom right) Streamside buffer of trees and other plants; (bottom left) Red-eared and painted turtles; (top left) Eastern bluebirds. Ron Nichols, USDA Richard Day, Daybreak Imagery Richard Day, Daybreak ImageryOn the farm Farmers are installing grass, tree, and shrub plantings, ponds, and other wildlife habitat at record rates. Buffer strips along waterways, grass areas, and Lynn Betts, USDA native prairie plantings are some of the practices used on farms. Nesting structures such as bird and bat houses are sometimes frogs, diamond-back terrapin, provided for wildlife. Some farm- red bats, and other wildlife, ers plant or leave food plots of benefit from habitat that farmers corn, millet, or other grains and ranchers establish on their specifically for wildlife. land. Farmers appreciate and enjoy wildlife supported by good Pheasants, grouse, quail, prairie habitat and also benefit from chickens, mourning doves, and pollination and pest control by songbirds, as well as leopard beneficial insects. Lynn Betts, USDA 13
  14. 14. 3 B A C K Y A R D P O N D A backyard pond will likely become the focal point for all your backyard conservation. In your backyard Where to put a backyard pond B ackyard ponds are for birds, butterflies, frogs, fish, and you and your family. These ponds are typically small, Consider locating your backyard pond in view of a deck or sometimes no larger than 3 to 4 feet in diameter. patio where everyone can enjoy it. Have it blend in with its nat- Water is very effective in drawing wildlife to your back- ural surroundings. Plan to landscape around the pond yard. It is also a natural, relaxing, and scenic addition that can to provide habitat for frogs and birds that need land and water. provide interest and enjoyment. Be sure electrical service is available for a pump, filter system to keep water fresh, or for lighting.There will be less maintenance and cleanup and most aquatic plants will grow better if your pond is not under trees. When to install a backyard pond You can put in a backyard pond any time the ground isn’t frozen or overly wet. Plan on taking at least a weekend to install and landscape. Backyard pond supplies Most sites will require lining with an impervious material to hold a constant water level. A flexible liner made of sheets of strong plastic is generally the easiest way to line your pond. Flexible liners may make it easier for the pond to fit into the natural surroundings of your yard. Pre-formed rigid liners also are available, but generally are more expensive and more difficult to install. A wooden half barrel with a liner makes a nice small, above-ground pond.You’ll also need a pump and filter to maintain clean water and healthy fish.You can add plants, landscaping, heaters, or special effects like fountains and waterfalls. Size and depth Common regrets of backyard pond owners are that the pond was too small or too shallow. Minimum depth for fish is 18 inches; a deep end of 2 or 3 feet is recommended. Size and shape of ponds with rigid liners are dictated by the liners.A pond with a flexible liner may be any shape or size. Establishing plants Jim Archambeault Free-floating plants, such as duckweed, are an integral part of keeping the water in your pond clear. Use native plants that are recommended for your area. 14
  15. 15. PREVIOUS PAGE Recirculating water in backyard pond. THIS PAGE (top) Landscaped backyard pond; (right) Fishing in farm pond; (left) Your “pond” may be as simple as a birdbath. On the farm Jim Archambeault A properly located and maintained farm pond can help stop gully erosion and may cause unwanted algae blooms which can rob the water of oxygen. improve water quality. Ponds provide water Add fish and scavengers for livestock, Consider stocking your backyard pond with waterfowl, and fish; fish.They are fun to watch, and help keep store water for the pond free of unwanted insects.You’ll emergencies; and also need scavengers, such as aquatic snails add beauty to the and tadpoles, to help control algae. In cold landscape. climates, a heater may be necessary for fish to survive the winter. Be aware that heaters Wildlife use ponds for can use large amounts of electricity. water and habitat. As Lynn Betts, USDA one Iowa farmer says Hint Fill a small area with sand or gravel to cre- about his pond, “I ate a shallow area where bees and butter- was always taught flies can drink. that one generationAlso use submerged pots of water lilies, does for the next,iris, spikerush, arrow-arum, duck potato, Safety and we thoughtmarsh marigold, and other native wetland Locate the backyard pond where it is unlike- leaving the land andplants. Natives are hardy, and typically ly that unattended children may be attracted water in bettersurvive over winter in the backyard pond, to it. Check local safety ordinances to deter- condition would beunlike most non-native, tropical species. mine if a fence is required for the specific something good to depth and size of your pond. Check local leave to our childrenPlants should cover 50 to 70 percent of the building ordinances for depth and safety and grandchildren.”water surface. Set the plants 1 to 2 inches restrictions and permits. Equip outdoor out-under water; the pots may need to be sup- lets with a ground-fault circuit interrupter.ported by submerged rocks or bricks. If youare using native plants, there is usually no More helpneed to fertilize them. For some exotic Your local nursery, landscaper, or other sup-water lilies, limited fertilizing—once yearly— plier can give you more information on the Tim McCabe, USDAmay be required. Check with your nursery step-by-step process of building a backyardon care of plants and how deep to place pond, selecting and establishing suitablepotted plants. Be aware that overfertilizing plants in and around it, and landscaping. 15
  16. 16. 4 B A C K Y A R D W E T L A N D Wetlands filter excess nutrients, chemicals, and sediment, and provide habitat for a host of interesting creatures. In your backyard M any yards can support a backyard wetland that benefits you and your community. Letting runoff from your roof, parking area, and lot slowly filter through a mini-wetland helps prevent pollution of neighbor- ing creeks and may help prevent flooding. Where to put a wetland Low areas that remain wet or damp much of the year are the easiest places to establish wetlands. Any depression that collects rainwater or runoff from downspouts, or serves as the path of drainwater leaving your yard, is an excellent spot to plant wetland plants.You’ll create a backyard wetland area that will be very low maintenance. There will be no more “bogged down” lawn mowers because no mowing will be needed! The area will attract wildlife and filter the water draining off your property. If you do not have an appropriate natural site, you can create a wetland the same way you would a backyard pond. Do not put excess fertilizer or pesticides on your lawn or other areas feeding your wetland. How to build a wetland Partially blocking an existing drainage way or digging a shal- low basin may be all you need to do if you have clay soil that naturally holds water. In better drained soil or where you want your wetland to stay wet most of the time, you can dig a shal- low depression and bury a plastic liner as you would to create a backyard pond. How long the area stays flooded or wet dur- ing the growing season is key to the types of plants to use. If Gene Whitaker runoff will not naturally keep the area wet enough, you will need to have a supply of water available for occasional use. 16
  17. 17. PREVIOUS PAGE Wetland plants in low area between buildings. THIS PAGE (top) Colorful mix of wetland plants; (right) Goldfinch on coneflower; (bottom) Restored prairie pothole wetland. Lynn Betts, USDA Richard Day, Daybreak ImageryImportant! Because of the variety of potential conditions grow well in wooded wetlands that are damp and shaded. Ifthat you can create, and the potential side-effects of blocking you create bog conditions of permanently damp organic soil,drainage ways, you should always consult an expert before you can grow native orchids,Venus flytrap, and sundew.starting a wetland project. Wildlife in your wetlandWhat to plant Many birds and small animals will quickly start using yourA wide variety of attractive plants can grow in wet areas. wetland. Usually frogs, toads, salamanders, and aquatic insectsCattails and many varieties of reeds thrive in the open sun will find your wetland during the first spring. A deep, perma-and are easy to care for. Many species are not harmed by long nent pool in the wetland can support native frogs, toads, anddry periods during the summer. Cardinal flowers, sweet flag, possibly fish that will eat mosquito larva and other insects.and pickerel weed thrive in wet areas. Trees and shrubs like Most frogs and toads need spring pools in which to breed;black gum, water oak, red-osier dogwood, button bush, and their tadpoles need shallow water for several weeks whilesweet pepper bush add texture, color, and beauty to they mature.Wetlands that dry out in the summer can sup-any landscape, and are adapted to poorly drained soil. A vari- port a variety of plants and wildlife and will not produceety of attractive ferns, skunk cabbage, and Jack-in-the-pulpit mosquitoes.On the farmWetlands filter excess nutrients, chemicals, and sediment from runoff,keep ground water pure, hold back flood waters, provide habitat formigratory birds and local wildlife, and add beauty to the landscape. Tim McCabe, USDAAcross the country, many farmers are restoring wet areas in croplandand pasture to fully functioning wetlands that benefit their land andthe environment. 17
  18. 18. 5 C O M P O S T I N G Composting turns household wastes into valuable fertilizer. In your backyard A ll organic matter eventually decomposes. Composting speeds the process by providing an ideal environment for bacteria and other decompos- ing micro-organisms. The final product, humus or compost, looks and feels like fertile garden soil. This dark, crumbly, earthy-smelling stuff works wonders on all kinds of soil and provides vital nutrients to help plants grow and look better. Decomposing micro-organisms need four key elements to thrive: nitrogen, carbon, moisture, and oxygen. For best results, mix materials high in nitrogen (such as clover and fresh grass clippings) and those high in carbon (such as dried leaves and twigs). If there is not a good supply of nitrogen-rich material, a handful of general lawn fertilizer will help the nitro- gen-carbon ratio. Moisture is provided by rain, but you may need to water or cover the pile to keep it damp. Be careful not to saturate the pile. Oxygen is supplied by turning or mixing the pile. More turning yields faster decomposition. Getting started Many materials can be added to a compost pile, including leaves, grass clippings, straw, woody brush, vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, livestock manure, sawdust, and shredded paper. Avoid using diseased plants, meat scraps that may attract animals, and dog or cat manure which can carry disease. Composting can be as simple or as involved as you would like, and depends on how much yard waste you have, how fast you want results, and the effort you’re willing to invest. Cold composting With cold composting, you can just pile grass clip- pings and dry leaves on the ground or in a bin.This method requires no maintenance, but you’ll have to wait several months to a year for the pile to decompose. Cold composting works well if you’re short on time or have little Lynn Betts, USDA yard waste. Keep weeds and diseased plants out of the mix. Add yard waste as it accumulates. 18
  19. 19. PREVIOUS PAGE Richard Day, Daybreak Imagery Nutrient-rich compost THIS PAGE (top) American cranberrybush Viburnum; (top right) Compost bin made of fencing wire; (bottom right) Wooden compost bins; (bottom) Manure storage tank.Hot compostingHot composting requires more work, but with a few minutesa day and the right ingredients you can have finished compostin a few weeks. Hot piles must be built all at once in a4- to 5-foot cube and turned regularly. As decompositionoccurs, the pile will shrink. A 3-foot cube is needed to main-tain necessary heat. Hot piles can reach 110 to 160 degreesFarenheit, killing most weed seeds and plant diseases.s On a level site, lay down bricks or prunings to promote air circulation.s Spread several inches of the high-carbon material, then mix high-carbon and high-nitrogen material together. Water Christi Carter from Grant Heilman periodically.s Punch holes in the sides of the pile for aeration.s The pile will heat up and then begin to cool. Start turning when the pile’s temperature begins to drop.Move materials from the center to the outside and vice versa.Turn every day or two and you should get compost in lessthan 4 weeks.Turning every other week will give compost in1 to 3 months. Finished compost will smell sweet and be cooland crumbly to the touch. Christi Carter from Grant Heilman On the farm Like composting, waste safely applied to the land management on the farm turns without the risk of polluting a potential waste into a water. resource that saves money and helps the environment. Composting is also practiced in some poultry operations. The Lynn Betts, USDA Producers use livestock manure compost is used as fertilizer on to fertilize crops. When manure the farms and for lawns and is properly handled, it can be gardens. 19
  20. 20. 6 M U L C H I N G Mulching cools, protects, and enriches the soil. In your backyard M ulching involves placing a layer of organic materi- al around plants.As mulch decomposes, it adds organic matter to the soil.This provides important nutrients for plants and an ideal environment for earthworms and other organisms that help enrich the soil. Mulching can recycle yard wastes and improve your soil. June Davidek, USDA Mulch protects soil from erosion, prevents weed growth, conserves soil moisture, stabilizes soil temperature, You will help insulate the root zone and lower evaporation reduces compaction, and keeps clean and dry any fruit or rates if you liberally apply mulch. Be careful not to smother vegetable that touches the ground. the plants. As the mulch breaks down, add more material to the top throughout the growing season. After harvest, work Mulch materials the mulch into the soil to integrate the organic matter, or The best place to look for mulch materials is in your own leave it on the surface to decay naturally and be carried yard. Grass clippings and leaves work well for into the soil by earthworms. mulching if they are dry and weed free. Avoid adding clip- pings to your vegetable garden from lawns that have been treated with weed killer within the last two mowings. If you On the farm live near farming areas, you may be able to get old hay from a farmer or feed store. Compost makes an excellent organic mulch material. It adds nutrients to the soil and has a natural appearance.Wood chips and bark work well around trees and shrubs and make attrac- Leaving the previous tive walkways through gardens. year’s crop stubble on the soil surface is Applying mulch called conservation Apply mulch when plants are established and soil tillage. This practice Gene Alexander, USDA is warm. First, water your garden well.Then place a layer of helps keep wind mulch around the plants.Thickness of the mulch layer varies from blowing soil particles and helps stop rain from for each material: washing soil away. Also, research is showing that leaving crop residues helps hold carbon in the soil Dry grass clippings 2 inches and aids in reducing greenhouse gases. This Shredded hardwood mulch, straw, or wood chips 2 to 4 inches practice is often used in combination with other Compost 3 to 4 inches conservation measures such as wind strips or Dry leaves 6 inches contour farming. 20
  21. 21. N U T R I E N T M A N A G E M E N T 7 Apply only those nutrients the plants can use. In your backyard N utrients are essential for good plant growth, but overapplying nutrients is not good for plants or for the environment. Excess nutrients leach through the soil and end up in ground water, or run off into storm sewers and end up choking a lake or stream. Lynn Betts, USDA The three primary plant nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Generally, nitrogen promotes top growth, phosphorus helps develop stronger roots and more flower and On the farm fruit production, and potassium builds durability Agricultural producers PREVIOUS PAGE and disease resistance. (top) Applying shredded sample soils for nutri-Amy Janssen Smith, USDA mulch; (bottom) Soybeans ent needs. As tech- Remember to consider native plants or others with low growing through corn residue. nology becomes fertilizer needs. available and afford- THIS PAGE able, more producers Soil test is key (top right) Using soil test The key to good nutrient management on the farm and in your kit in yard; (bottom) are varying fertilizer Testing soil on the farm; rates within each backyard is a reliable soil test.Without a soil test, you could be (top left) Curbside runoff applying too much, too little, or the wrong nutrients.You’ll want field, depending on drains to lake. a separate soil test for your lawn and for your garden. soil test results. This precision farming Commercial soil test kits are available at nurseries and lawn and method places the garden suppliers. Ask for information on how to take your soil correct amount of samples. Apply only the nutrients needed according to fertilizer where it is the soil test, and at the right time. Never exceed the recom- needed. Applying only mended rate. those nutrients plants can use improves the Fertilizing lawns farm economically s Use slow-release nitrogen fertilizers. and environmentally. s Mow often, and leave grass clippings on the lawn for fertilizer. s Be careful not to spread fertilizer on sidewalks and driveways. s Be sure to calibrate your spreader correctly. Fertilizing gardens s Use compost to enhance or replace fertilizers. s Choose a level site, or terrace the garden, to avoid runoff and erosion. s Place fertilizer near plants rather than broadcast it over the Lynn Betts, USDA entire garden. s Add organic matter to the soil by using manures and organic fertilizers at a conservative rate. 21
  22. 22. 8 T E R R A C I N G Terracing makes flower and vegetable gardening possible on steep slopes. In your backyard T erraces can break your backyard into several mini- gardens. On steep slopes, terracing can make planting a garden feasible. Terraces prevent erosion by shortening the long slope into a series of shorter, more level Ron Nichols, USDA steps.This allows heavy rains to soak in rather than run off and cause soil erosion. Materials for terraces Building terraces is like building a staircase.The material you On the farm use to make the face of the stair may be treated lumber—such as railroad ties, poles, or posts—or bricks, rocks, concrete blocks, or similar materials. Terraces catch runoff Height of walls water, let the water The steepness of the slope often dictates wall height. Make soak into the ground, the terraces in your yard high enough so the land area and deliver the excess Gene Alexander, USDA between them is fairly level. Be sure the terrace material is safely to the bottom of Some terraces are strong enough and anchored well enough to stay in a hillside — much like seeded to grass, which place through freezing and thawing, rainstorms, and so forth. eavespouts on a provides erosion Large projects, such as retaining walls, may require a profes- house. The earthen control and a nesting sional design and specialized assistance and equipment. Be ridges built around a area for birds. Terraces sure to check local building codes regarding the instal- hillside on the contour are often used in lation of high walls, and work safely. cut a long slope into combination with other shorter slopes, conservation practices Erosion control is a consideration Heavy rains can cause erosion between terraces, and create preventing water from to provide more small gullies if water concentrates as it goes over a terrace. To building to a highly complete soil help prevent erosion, add mulch or other good erosive force. protection. ground cover on land between terraces. 22
  23. 23. W A T E R C O N S E R V A T I O N 9Drip irrigationand other waterconservationpractices cansave water andmoney. Ron Nichols, USDA PREVIOUS PAGE (top) Terraced flowerbeds; (bottom) Farming grassed terraces on the contour. THIS PAGE (top) Drip irrigation in vegetable garden; (bottom) Efficient drip irrigation on the farm.In your backyardI f you rely on watering to make your lawn grow and your Drip irrigation ranges from inexpensive soaker hoses to garden productive, consider a more efficient system. elaborate computerized systems.There may be an up-front There are several ways to improve the use of water. investment, but you’ll use less water and have better water distribution.Use water againWhen it rains, if no water recycling system has been planned, Garden or hardware stores will have the supplies you need.the water that runs off your house keeps on going to the You may even want to engineer your own system from a gar-storm sewer. By saving that water, and reusing it on your gar- den hose. Be sure not to overapply fertilizer when using aden or lawn later, you save energy and water. drip system.A simple recycling system directs water from eavespouts to astorage barrel.You fill a bucket with water from the storage On the farmbarrel and carry the water to your garden.This is a simple andeffective system. However, you may want a more elaboratemethod of capturing and distributing rain water. Drip irrigation,Watering to save energy commonly used on Whenever practical, water in the early morning. fruits and vegetables, In arid climates, it’s okay to water in the evenings and minimizes the amount Ron Nichols, USDA at night.You’ll lose less water to evaporation than if of water that use less energy toyou watered in the middle of the day, and the plants are less evaporates, and it pump water and, sincestressed and can take up the water more efficiently. maximizes the amount they spray water that is used by plants. downward, less waterMulch or fiber cloth preserves soil moisture.You can find sup- By placing the water evaporates before itplies and information at a nursery or hardware store. directly on the plant, or reaches the crop. next to it, less water Farmers implementConsider planting native species.They usually use little or no evaporates and less is other waterwater beyond normal rainfall. wasted on bare soil. management practicesDrip irrigation benefits to reduce the amountA drip irrigation system will provide water directly to the High-efficiency irrigation of water used toplant.You can control the flow to each plant. systems for row crops produce a crop. 23