By Dr. Mercola
Three out of four Americans garden, according to the National Garden Association (NGA),1 and if you live in the US, spring has sprung. It's time to dust off your gardening gloves and head outdoors. New York gardener Michele Owens told USA Today:2
"The combination of light, a little bit of warmth from the exercise, and dirt — those are powerful things. Those are things that we've evolved to need, I think."
Whether your passion is planting a vegetable garden, flowers, trees, or everything in between, gardening offers seemingly limitless benefits, both for the gardener and the garden. Just a sampling of those benefits includes stress relief, improved brain health, relief from depression, better nutrition and, of course, exercise.
Planting a garden is also one of the best ways to connect with nature, and in so doing you'll attract a variety of wildlife into your environment. Bees, butterflies, deer and songbirds, earthworms, and other beneficial insects… all of these creatures benefit when you decide to add flowers, bushes, trees, fruits, and vegetables to your surroundings.
Not everyone is born with a green thumb, but virtually everyone can garden successfully with a bit of elbow grease and perseverance. TIME also compiled a list of the best gardening apps to help you every step of the way, from selecting seeds to knowing when to harvest.3
7 Best Apps for Your Garden
1. Eden Garden Designer ($1.99)
This app (available for iPhones only) lets you take a picture of your yard then experiment with the look of different plants and trees. You simply drag and drop plants from a choice of about 20 into different places, and the app even lets you see how your yard will appear in different seasons.
2. Essential Garden Guide ($1.99)
If you want to plant fruits and vegetables, sort through this database of more than 30 vegetables and 10 fruits. The app includes all the details you'll need to plant, tend to, and harvest your crops, including how deep to plant seeds and how much light each crop needs.
If you're not sure of which seeds to choose, check out my Heirloom Seed Kits for wonderful selections of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers that are non-hybrid, non-GMO, non-treated, and non-patented, in selections for both Northern and Southern climates.
3. Foolproof Plants for Small Gardens ($0.99)
This app has detailed information on more than 90 plants perfect for small spaces. You'll be able to pick the perfect plants for your climate zone and get step-by-step guides on planting and even much more (like how to lay down mulch).
4. Leafsnap (free)
Have you ever looked at a tree and wondered what kind it is? This "electronic field guide" includes high-resolution images of trees' leaves, fruit, flower, and bark so you can discern one from another. It currently only contains trees from the east coast of the US, but it's still growing.
5. Organic Gardening Magazine (free)
If you subscribe to Organic Gardening Magazine, you can download issues for free on your phone or tablet. Each issue includes gardening tips, photos, recipes, and more.
6. Perennial Match ($4.99)
Picking perennials to make your yard bloom with color throughout the year can be overwhelming, but this app makes it a cinch. You can sort plants by height, spacing, colors, and more, and even find out what types of animals and insects different perennials attract. The app also lets you create combinations of perennials and see side-by-side photos of what they'll look like in your garden.
7. Sprout It (free)
Sprout It has it all… plant guides to help you pick what to grow, step-by-step growing instructions, cooking and recipe ideas for your crops, and ideas for different types of garden projects. It even works with your local weather information and sends you reminders about planting and watering.
Adding Compost to Your Garden Will Help Your Plants Thrive
Choosing the right plants, and knowing when to plant and water, is only part of the equation to a flourishing backyard garden. Nurturing the health of your soil and backyard ecosystem is equally important (if not more so), and one way to do this is with compost.
Compost can be created with yard trimmings and vegetable food waste, manure from grazing animals, egg shells, brown paper bags, and more. As reported by the Press Democrat:4
"Research conducted in Marin County and in the Sierra foothills revealed that a single dusting of compost on rangeland can boost the soil's carbon storage for at least 30 years.
Typically, carbon is one of the nutrients that is far too low in the soil, so boosting carbon storage in soil, a process known as "carbon sequestration," is important for many reasons and will help:
Regenerate the soil Limit agricultural water usage with no till and crop covers Increase crop yields Reduce the need for agricultural chemicals and additives, if not eliminate such need entirely in time Reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels Reduce air and water pollution by lessening the need for herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers
In California, The Sonoma County Waste Management Agency operates a regional compost program in which they accept yard trimmings and vegetative food discards that are placed in curbside containers by local residents.
The organic material is then converted into premium quality organic compost and mulches, along with recycled lumber, firewood, and bio-fuel used to generate electricity. Since 1993, 1.6 million tons of yard and wood debris have been converted into these beneficial products.
Sonoma Compost, which operates the Organic Recycling Program on behalf of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, estimates that nearly 1.5 million tons of yard and wood trimmings have been diverted from landfills since 1993 as a result of the program.5
Woodchips Help Create Compost Where You Need It
Compost happens with or without the help of humankind—it's happening right now on forest floors, in farmers' fields, and in your yard. So while you can certainly create a devoted "compost pile," which requires attention to temperature, water, and oxygen levels, you can also encourage your yard to create compost right where you need it.
One of the best ways to do this is by applying a layer of woodchips to your garden. Woodchips are concentrated sources of carbon that serve to feed the complex soil ecology. When you use wood chips for ground cover, you're mimicking the type of environment that soil microbes are naturally adapted to. The key here is to create stable carbon complexes.
The chips and leaves gradually break down and are digested and redigested by a wide variety of bacteria, fungi, and nematodes in the soil. Once the carbon can't be digested anymore, it forms humates that last in the soil and provide a host of benefits.
Some gardeners till the wood chips into the ground, but this is your worst option. It's actually important to avoid tilling the earth, as it tends to destroy soil microbes, especially the complex and delicate mycorrhizal fungi. When you use wood chips as ground cover, tilling becomes completely unnecessary. By covering the soil around your plants and/or trees with mulch, you mimic what nature does naturally, and in so doing, you effortlessly maximize the health of the soil. As Paul Gautschi, who created the documentary Back to Eden, noted:
"My stance is that nature has been doing this [since] before human history. It's really intelligent... I need to pay attention to what nature does and copy it. This whole idea of creating compost piles and mixing and turning is a waste of time. You lose all the compost in a place don't want it. Put whatever you have where you want it. Get out of there. Leave it alone. It's well without you."
In addition, wood chips will radically reduce your weeding, probably by over 90 percent, and the weeds that do grow are easily pulled out by their roots so it becomes relatively effortless to keep the area clean. Many parts of the US are also challenged with droughts and may not get more than 10-20 inches of water a year. Wood chips are the ideal solution, as they will eliminate water evaporation from the soil. Better yet, at night they will grab moisture from the air and release it into the soil in the day when the soil needs it.
Why Garden? The Benefits Have No Bounds
For starters, if you plant vegetables and fruits, before you know it large portions of your meals could come straight from your own edible garden. Keeping a garden can improve your health by providing you with fresher, uncontaminated food, and cutting your grocery bill. NGA estimates that while the average US family spends $70 per year to plant a vegetable garden, they grow about $600 worth of produce – that's a $530 return on your investment.6
Beyond the food, researchers in the Netherlands found that gardening is one of the most potent stress-relieving activities there is.7 And, according to a survey by Gardeners' World magazine, 80 percent of gardeners reported being "happy" and satisfied with their lives, compared to 67 percent of non-gardeners.8
Gardening gets you outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine, helping your body produce much-needed vitamin D. It gets you moving, providing important exercise, and allows you to connect socially with other gardeners. It also gives you the inherent satisfaction of connecting with the earth, growing your own food, and adding beauty to your natural environment. Many gardeners start out gardening because they want to sample some homegrown food… but end up sticking with gardening because of how it feeds their mind and soul.