It's Easy Being Green - Composting and Native Plants in the City

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For the first time since I was in college, I find myself living in a city.  It was a big change for me, and one of the very first things I had to figure out was how to best be “green” in my new home.  The first thing I did was put in a compost “bin,” and the second thing was planting native flowers and shrubs around my house.

Urban Composting: Boy, this one can be a challenge.  Living out in the country, I could just toss my food scraps out in the field, or into dedicated space where my food scraps could decompose before being transferred into my vegetable garden.  My current property is not suitable for a vegetable garden, but that did not mean I couldn’t still compost my food waste (and when one makes most of one’s own meals, there is a lot to compost).  I’m not the biggest fan of closed compost bins – you have to have the balance of green and brown waste just right, or you can quickly end up with a smelly, slimy mess. I prefer the lazy man’s compost pile, so I drove four fence stakes into the ground as the corners of my compost area, and then enclosed them with wire fencing.  My compost area measures about three feet on each side, and into it go all my food scraps…and used Kleenex, paper towels, and garden waste.

Now, I know what you’re thinking:  what about rats, raccoons, and other “varmints”?  The general rule of thumb is not to put meat or dairy into your compost bin – these smelly items are more likely to attract unwanted critters.  The only visitors I can verify are squirrels, but I suspect I’ve probably had opossums and raccoons as well (I’d be surprised if I didn’t). As far as I’m concerned, however, they are welcome to help themselves to any scraps that they like…I’d much rather they got them than to have my food waste go to the dump.

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Native Plants: Outback, along the side of the house, and out in front of the house, the previous owner had planted sedums, spirea, and hostas – your typical urban landscaping plants.  These may look nice, but they don’t contribute much to the ecosystem, so I promptly pulled them all out and have been systematically replacing them with native species. Illinois is “The Prairie State”, but over 90% of the prairie is gone, tilled under for agriculture and development.  This has led to the drastic decline of insects and birds. By planting/restoring native flowers, shrubs, and grasses on my tiny plot of land, I am not only helping keep the native plants from going extinct, but I’m also providing food (and shelter) for native insects, which in turn provide food for our native birds.  Plus, it makes the neighborhood attractive.

Creating beautiful habitat for wildlife.

Creating beautiful habitat for wildlife.

There are many little things each of us can do to help make our footprint on this planet a little greener.  Starting at home is the easiest way to make a visible difference. We can cut down on our water and electricity use, keep our homes cooler in winter and a bit warmer in summer, set out our recycling - all those things that should be automatic for every home everywhere.  But even in the city, we can do a little extra by composting our food and yard waste, and replacing our landscaping with native (and/or edible) plants. It doesn’t require much effort, and the payback is immense.