Be a responsible gardener and homeowner


The onslaught of seed and garden catalogs has begun; it must soon be spring. During the annual season of renewal, we are often tempted to invest a fair amount of time and money getting our yards and gardens ready for another growing season.

If this sounds familiar, you have taken the bait proffered by agri-chemical companies and garden centers.

“Better living through chemistry” is how I remember one company putting it. This philosophy appeals to homeowners who strive for the perfect backyard.

A verdant carpet of grass, well-manicured shrubs, and majestic shade trees are components of the backyard holy grail. It all began shortly after World War II, when returning GIs married, bought homes, and succumbed to advertising in print, on the radio and ultimately on TV.

Every backyard should look like the golf course at Augusta National, home to the upcoming Master’s Tournament. My dad certainly bought into this.

For decades, he worked tirelessly to enhance his 2 acres of heaven. And we always had a great looking yard. But if we can accept slightly less than perfection, we can save time and money.


The costs associated with applying fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides (all according to the instructions on the label, of course) add up quickly. And then there are the personal costs of handling these chemicals.

Why risk exposure to toxic and even carcinogenic chemicals just to have a beautiful back yard? “But I’m always careful when applying these chemicals,” you say.

But do you take off all your clothes before entering the house? Do you prewash them before putting them in the washing machine so future dirty loads won’t be contaminated? And what of dogs and cats that bring chemicals into the house on their feet and the medical issues these chemicals can cause to beloved pets?

And then there are the children and grandchildren who play in treated yards. Kids like to run barefoot and play in the grass. Do you really want your children and pets playing in a toxic playground just so you can have a perfect yard? I don’t.

And what is the perfect yard? Isn’t beauty in the eyes of the beholder?

For more than 30 years my wife and I have only used a poison ivy killer occasionally. Otherwise, we sufficed with weeding by hand, using mulch, and watering as needed.

Our yard may not be a showplace, but it’s home, and the only thing to avoid is the occasional dog poop.

Buy plants

With the money we saved each year, we invested in native wildflowers and shrubs. Shop at local native plant nurseries experienced in raising natives. And local nature centers often have spring sales of native plants.

Shop early when you find a reputable source for native plants because they often sell out quickly.

For milkweeds to help migrating monarch butterflies, see Another online source I recommend for native plants is in Meadville, Pennsylvania.

When shopping for native plants, look for any mention of neonicotinoids. These are nicotine-like chemicals that have been implicated in the decline of wild honeybee colonies. Never buy plants with a neonicotinoid label.

Native species do much better than horticultural varieties because they are adapted to local conditions.

That’s why it’s so important to buy locally grown plants. Not only are these plants adapted to local soils and climate, they are also naturally resistant to the native insect pests that eat them.

Native species also attract native pollinators, which in turn help native plants reproduce successfully. And a healthy population of native pollinators is great for nearby farm crops and provides food for songbirds, bats, frogs, toads and other insectivores.

Native annuals can be planted each spring from seeds. Native perennials, however, can take several years to mature and bloom, so it’s worth paying a little more for young plants that have gotten a head start in a nursery.

Enjoy a safe and productive gardening season this year.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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