Smart gardening: A new initiative helping gardeners become environmentally savvy and smart

Smart Gardening from MSU Extension is a campaign to help novice and experienced gardeners adopt and implement real-life techniques in their yards and gardens to save time, money and the environment.

Smart GardeningIntegrated pest management (IPM) has long been a hallmark of Michigan State University Extension programs, but gardeners often cannot unravel the volume of information that comes their way. Bombarded with tips from commercial producers, garden writers and the Internet, knowing which information to trust can lead a gardener to be wary. Smart gardening helps people adopt simple, proven, university-researched tactics in their own backyards.

MSU Extension educators employ many methods to help folks learn about being a smart gardener. A quick look at the Gardening in Michigan website tells the “smart” story. Three overarching themes guide the smart gardening initiative:

  1. Smart soils
  2. Smart lawns
  3. Smart plants

Smart soils

Soil testBeing a smart gardener starts from the ground up. The first step towards smart soil is to take a soil test. Determining nutrient needs and pH can help you reduce the amount and type of fertilizer you use by accurately matching the fertilizer to the plant’s needs. This might be a fertilizer specifically designed to provide nutrients to your soil over time (slow-release) or one that is formulated without an element such as phosphorous. Either way, a soil test helps you make very intentional choices for a healthy soil and environment.

MSU Extension now provides a self-mailer soil test kit that can be obtained online. Simply go to to order. Then follow the simple directions on the package. Information from the sample you mail from your mailbox will be returned to your e-mail with customized recommendations for the type of plants you wish to grow.

Other ways you can encourage a smart soil is by avoiding compaction and not “over-tilling,” a practice that is detrimental to the living component of your soil. Employing the benefits of organic matter and organic mulches will help nurture the soil’s natural ability to provide nutrients over the course of the season.

For more information on smart soils, see our tips sheets on:

Smart lawns

Smart lawnSo, how can we help our lawns be “smart?” Research has shown that the practice of raising your mowing height and returning clippings benefits the turf in a variety of ways that can reduce both pesticide and water use. Longer grass blades allow the turf plant to produce a substantially deeper root system, making it thriftier and more resilient. Reduced need for pesticides such as grub control and weed control and reduced need for water are lasting benefits.

Another technique is to think about having a low maintenance lawn. Grass varieties uniquely suited for the site can enable lawn owners to back off of practices that are common to a high maintenance lawn. In shady sites, perhaps removing turf altogether is the best solution. Turf alternatives for both sun and shade can be massed together to make a nice grown cover or even colorful perennial border.

For more information on smart lawns, see our tip sheets on:

Smart plants

Native plantsPlants that need little or no intervention from us are pretty darn smart! In practical terms, this might mean using plants that don’t require as much water such as a succulent groundcovers or simply a plant that is naturally adapted to Michigan’s “feast or famine” growing conditions. Plants native to Michigan or the surrounding Midwest region are particularly adapted to our climate and soils, making them a “smart choice” for the garden. Native plants are also supportive of healthy ecosystems where pollinators will thrive.

For more information on smart plants, see our tip sheets on:

From the buzz of pollinators to the roar of the mower, smart gardening will help you save time, money and the environment!

For more information on a wide variety of smart gardening articles, or to find out about smart gardening classes and events, visit

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