“WHEN YOU GARDEN, you’re immersed in the colors, fragrances, and sounds of nature,” says Joe Lamp’l, author of The Green Gardener’s Guide: Simple, Significant Actions to Protect & Preserve Our Planet (Cool Springs Press). “It’s such a satisfying way to connect to the earth.” As you begin to plan (and plant) this season’s flower garden, follow Lamp’l’s advice for a healthy plot that needs less water and fertilizer— and fewer pesticides.
Layer with compost. “I use compost instead of fertilizer,” says Lamp’l. “It’s chemical-free and has all the nutrients your plants need.” To use, spread a thin layer (about an inch) across the surface of your flower bed. Learn how to make your own from kitchen scraps and yard debris at or buy ready-made compost from a gardening center.
Spread mulch. Made of ground wood or leaves, mulch protects soil from weeds, locks in moisture, prevents water runoff, and thwarts plant disease. After adding compost, spread a three-inch layer of mulch on top. Buy mulch that has been certified free of contaminants and unsafe material (like arsenic from pressure-treated wood); you can find it at mulchandsoilcouncil.org.
Buy local. “Plants indigenous to your area thrive without extra care or watering,” says Lamp’l. They also attract songbirds and support local wildlife. For an encyclopedic list of plants native to your state, go to wildflower.org.
Plant strategically. “Species that love shade don’t do as well in the sun and vice versa,” explains Lamp’l. “By putting plants in the right place in your yard, you help them resist pests and disease.”
Avoid invasive species. Plants like Japanese Honeysuckle spread quickly and choke out native plants. A Cornell University study estimated that invasive species have cost the U.S. more than $138 billion in damage, due in part to the loss of crops, forests, and growing use of pesticides to combat these predatory species.
Blast bugs with water. Rid your garden of pests like aphids with a targeted squirt of water. “It knocks them off plants and makes them available for birds,” says Lamp’l.
Make your own spray. Mix a teaspoon of liquid castile soap, a teaspoon or two of cooking oil like canola, and a quart of water in a spray bottle, Lamp’l says. Then spray directly on bugs like bean beetles to desiccate them.
Buy natural pesticides. Control more stubborn pests like slugs and snails with products like Escar-Go! Supreme ($15; gardensalive.com); they use natural ingredients that are safe for people and pets.
Harvest rainwater. Keep your garden irrigated by gathering rainwater in a rain barrel ($120 and up; gardeners.com) under your downspout.
Collect sink water. Save running water from your sink or shower as you wait for it to get hot—and add it to your rain barrel.
Water wisely. To encourage plants to grow longer roots, water less often but more deeply. “Soak the roots early in the morning when plants have their natural dew cycle,” says Lamp’l.