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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Xeriscaping, companion planting and recycling for an eco-friendly home and garden

The perennial border in front of garden columnist

The perennial border in front of garden columnist Jessica Damiano's house thrives throughout summer without any supplemental water. Pictured, Knockout roses, black-eyed Susans, anise hyssop, purple coneflowers, daylilies and lavender.  Photo Credit: Newsday/Jessica Damiano

From plastic straw bans to reusable shopping bags and increasing concerns about climate change, toxic chemicals in common household products and the shifting of local and national policies, the environment looks to be having a moment.

I’ve been trying to avoid single-use plastics for quite awhile. It’s harder than I thought, and I can’t do it completely. In the kitchen I’m transitioning from plastic wrap and storage bags to reusable ones. In the garden, I’ve had a compost tumbler for more than a decade, but if I’m being honest, I’ve fallen a bit off that wagon (I’ll get back on). In the bathroom, I've replaced liquid hand soap with old-school bars, and I've switched from plastic strips to bamboo bandages.

Although I’m always here to answer your questions with both traditional, time-tested garden advice as well as the latest scientific findings, my own plants have never seen a synthetic pesticide or herbicide. When they decline beyond the point where cultural or biological means can save them, they meet the executioner. Common sense always prevails, however, and I assure you that if my 14-year-old stand of a dozen, 30-foot-tall evergreens falls prey to a life-threatening insect, I will spray it faster than you can say, “parasites with piercing-sucking mouthparts.”

Integrated pest management, or IPM, is the practice of using the most-benign control methods possible as a first defense against weeds and insect pests, beginning with those that cause the least harm to people, property and the environment. These might include crop rotation instead of an ongoing fungicide regimen to address diseases such as anthracnose, or pulling out young weeds by their roots instead of spraying them with chemicals.

Escalating to bigger guns should be carefully considered, weighing risks and benefits, and if deemed necessary, undertaken only incrementally. If there are too many tomato hornworms to remove manually, for instance, the next attempt to eradicate them should be an application of bT, a natural bacteria that kills them soon after they eat treated leaves. Chemical measures shouldn't be considered unless all other methods have failed and, even then, only if truly necessary. That's usually when my plants learn the hard lesson that their mother's loyalty is fleeting.

Plants also have ways of taking care of one another. Companion planting is a great way to protect them from pests and diseases. The Iroquois knew this when they planted corn, pole beans and squash together. The result was a healthy, abundant crop of each: The corn served as a support on which the beans climbed; the beans soaked up nitrogen from the air and distributed it to the soil, where it fertilized all three plants; and the squash's large, prickly leaves kept the soil covered, cool and free of weeds while providing a physical barrier that discouraged hungry critters. They called this trio "the three sisters."

Plants that produce insect poisons, deterrents or natural fungicides can be used to protect more susceptible plants from infestation and disease. French and African varieties of marigolds (Tagetes spp.) produce a chemical that is toxic to nematodes, nonsegmented parasitic eelworms that live in the soil and can damage roots, especially those of vegetable and fruit crops, until they can't deliver water and nutrients to leaves and stems. Interplanting marigolds with tomatoes is an effective way to ward off nematode damage as well as guard against pests repelled by their strong scent. I’ve done this, and it works.

Similarly, basil repels tomato hornworms and has fungicidal properties; chives protect roses and lettuce from aphids; lavender repels slugs; nasturtiums discourage spider mites and whiteflies, and are said to improve the flavor of tomatoes and squash planted nearby; and onions planted around roses will help protect against black spot.

Have you ever noticed how weeds fill in every bare spot of soil if allowed to sprawl unchecked? If you plant your garden abundantly with perennials, annuals and ground covers, allowing for mature sizes that will form a dense carpet, leaving no soil exposed, you’ll eliminate any opportunity for weeds to move in. If you try this, you’ll have to select plants carefully to avoid water-, nutrient- and sunlight-hogs, but that isn’t difficult to do. Use plants of different sizes, textures and habits, and be sure to include tall, low-growing and ground-hugging, creeping plants to create a planned garden that mimics nature.

Xeriscaping, the practice of gardening with drought-resistant plants, is a great way to save water — benefiting both the environment and your utility bill. In most cases, plants suitable for xeriscaping also are native to the region. The more local the plant's origin, the better it behaves and more easily it can survive in the climate without outside help — including supplemental watering. That’s why native sneezeweed will thrive just fine without a caretaker, while bamboo can't seem to mind its manners and Gerbera daisy is a flat-out diva.

My favorite low-water-use plants include Knockout roses, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, day lilies and catmint. They're a recurring theme throughout my garden, thriving on benign neglect.

All plants, even those that are native and drought-tolerant, need to be watered during their first growing season, while developing and establishing a mature root system. But after that, with proper garden practices, most of these need only a supplemental drink during extended heat and drought.

Consider using a covered rain barrel to catch water from downspouts. Just one inch of rain collected from a 1,000-square-foot roof will provide 625 gallons of water. Multiply the square footage of your roof by 625 and divide the product by 1,000 to determine how many gallons you could recycle. To illustrate how far that water will go, an 8-by-4-foot vegetable garden requires roughly 20 gallons of water per week, and a 10-by-10 lawn should get about 62.

Buying guide

Bee's Wrap is washable and reusable cotton muslin cloth infused with beeswax and jojoba oil that make it waterproof, yet breathable, and allow it to conform and “stick” to containers (and itself) just like plastic wrap; $6 and up; beeswrap.com.

Patch strips are compostable, organic bamboo bandages available in varieties customized for cuts and scratches, abrasions and grazes (infused with coconut oil), burns and blisters (aloe vera), and bites and splinters (activated charcoal); $6.99 for a tube of 25; us.patchstrips.com.

Any natural soap bar will do, but mine's attached to a SoapStandle (that's a portmanteau for "stand" and "handle"). The small recyclable plastic stand with rounded teeth permanently grips soap and keeps it elevated to eliminate the mushy bar mess that got us onto plastic pump bottles in the first place. It also prolongs the life of the bar and serves as a handle so it doesn't slip out of your hand; $8.99 for a 2-pack; soapstandle.com.

Learn more about companion planting at newsday.com/companionplants

Get tips for gardening with little or no supplemental watering at newsday.com/xeriscape

Jennifer Stolz says she’s “getting ready for the challenge!” — and boy, is she! Stolz is growing Dr. Wyche’s yellow tomatoes, classic beefsteaks,  Paul Robeson heirlooms and steakhouse hybrids in her Smithtown garden. 

Are you in?

There is no need to register; just bring your biggest (or smallest or ugliest) tomato on Friday, Aug. 23, at 7 p.m. I’ll weigh (or otherwise judge) your entry, and you could be named Tomato King or Queen of 2019. While awaiting the big day, send a photo of yourself and your tomatoes to Jessica.damiano@newsday.com, and you could be featured next! Visit newsday.com/tomato for rules and more information. 

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