Don't buy it

My crocuses should be up in no time now. I know this not because the days are subtly lengthening and I've noticed an extra bird or two singing in the mornings, but, rather, because all of the stores in town are clearing space for potting soil, vegetable and flower seed, rakes, hoes, gardening gloves, bird baths, and those ubiquitous gazing balls. Clearly, our retailers are the true harbingers of spring, no?

Anyway, over the years I've gotten increasingly adept at distinguishing between the must-have and must-miss gardening accoutrements, so, if you're after a more earth-friendly garden, here are a couple of points to ponder before you lay in this year's supplies. . .

Even though there was a time when I swore by the stuff, those seemingly endless, shrink-wrapped rolls of typically oil-derived weed barrier fabric now top my must-miss list. Yes, the idea of never having to weed again is certainly alluring, but installing a permanent layer over the surface of your soil has long-term consequences. For instance, although many of its manufacturers claim that landscaping fabrics allow loads of water to penetrate to plant roots, I have yet to find a weed barrier fabric that doesn't greatly restrict the flow of moisture -- and much-needed air -- to the root zone. Soil lacking in one or both of those often shows markedly reduced microbial activity. Without adequate numbers of microbes working to make soil nutrients available, the quality of your soil is diminished and your plants' growth can be stunted.

A better -- and much cheaper -- alternative? Newsprint. Simply spread thick newspaper sections over garden paths and between plants in your flower and vegetable beds and then top with a good organic mulch such as fresh compost or worm castings. Unlike those rolls of weed barrier fabric, the newspaper sections will allow your soil to "breathe," and they'll eventually break down. (By the way, newsprint's also the way to go for potting up your seedlings, because most plastic pots are likely to end up in the landfill, and those peat pot alternatives have their own pitfalls.)