Garden smarter with Michigan State University Extension programs

If you haven’t heard of Michigan State University Extension’s Smart Gardening initiative, its goal is to promote earth friendly and sustainable practices that will save gardeners time, effort and money.

Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSU
Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSU

If you haven’t heard of Michigan State University Extension’s Smart Gardening initiative, its goal is to promote earth friendly and sustainable practices that will save gardeners time, effort and money. While integrated pest management (IPM) and sustainability have been the hallmark of MSU Extension education programs for years, whittling information down into consumer-friendly tips based on genuine research is centric to MSU Extension’s Smart Gardening initiative.

Farmers are familiar with IPM practices, soil health, sustainable agriculture and the scientific jargon that goes along with those practices but the average consumer’s eyes glaze over when discussions become too technical. In order to prevent unfortunate effects on our environment and Michigan’s natural resources by uneducated consumers, a small team of Consumer Horticulture educators with MSU Extension set out to find new ways to get these important messages out to the public.

“We decided to harness every means possible to communicate consistent repetitive messages through the effort,” said Rebecca Finneran, lead educator for the Smart Gardening initiative.

Consumer research has shown that they will seldom act on something unless they have had seven impulses to do so. Using a “centric” model that emphasizes technology ­­– such as websites, videos and tip sheets – along with face-to-face outreach at public events, seminars and conferences, the Smart Gardening messages are reaching consumers when and where they want to receive the information.

Through the Smart Gardening program, gardeners learn simple educational messages that include smart soils, smart lawns, smart plants, smart vegetables, and smart gardening for pollinators. The ultimate goal is to increase soil testing and soil health, decrease use of pesticides and fertilizer and teach individuals to use water wisely.

Smart gardening means making smart choices for plants in the garden such as selecting well-adapted or native plants, trees and shrubs to simplify meeting the plant’s needs. Information provided by the Smart Gardening program helps anyone with a lawn, garden or small farm adopt these “Smart” practices which positively impact Michigan’s natural resources.

Master Gardeners are helping to get the Smart Gardening word out. In 2016 over 170 Extension Master Gardeners were trained as Smart Gardening volunteers to be strong public ambassadors of MSU Extension Smart Gardening messages. More than 10,000 questions from residents representing every Michigan county were answered in 2015 through the MSU Extension toll-free Lawn and Garden Hotline (1-888-678-3463) and Ask an Expert ( Eighty-seven percent of hotline callers with pesticide use questions were directed away from or reduced their pesticide use.

  • Through Smart Gardening, MSU Extension helps consumers make positive environmental impacts in their backyards
  • Since inception, the Smart Gardening initiative has impacted tens of thousands of people. This is how the Smart Gardening initiative has made a difference in Michigan:
    • 93% raised the mowing height
    • 82% took a soil test
    • 91% mulched leaves into turf
    • 81% chose fertilizer w/o phosphorous
    • 87% made fertilizer choices based upon plant needs
    • 92% purchased native or well-adapted plants
    • 87% consciously gardened to enhance pollinators
    • 63% reported they shared this info with others

 This article was originally published in the July issue of the Michigan Farmer Magazine. 

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