Ask Linda Keyser how her garden grows, and silver bells and cockle shells are not part of her answer.

But then again, neither are fertilizers or pesticides.

Over several years, Keyser has established a bucolic backyard environment off Bethel Road in Somers Point. Her yard is home to all kinds of different plant and animal species, and no special treatment with chemicals was needed.

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Since the all-natural yard takes care of itself, all Keyser has to do to preserve her green garden is some weeding and occasional lawn trimming.

"It's nothing incredibly fancy," Keyser said. "It's just a little bit here and a little bit there."

Not everyone's yard is the natural habitat Keyser has worked hard to achieve, but with a few simple tricks and smart shopping skills, anyone with a yard can do their part to protect mother nature while making her look her best as well.

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Green garden

Flowers and plants get all the credit for making a garden look gorgeous, but without good-quality soil, those plants will wish they'd have stayed seeds.

And just as plants need good soil, water and sunlight to grow, the soil needs its own set of nutrients, according to Nicole Lamb, a horticulturist with McNaughton's Garden Center in Somers Point.

"The more you feed your soil, the more the soil will feed your plants," Lamb said.

Organic foods aren't just popular with people. Leftover items such as food and vegetable rinds, coffee grounds and egg shells can all be composted into a material rich in nitrogen. While nitrogen is needed to help plants grow, too much nitrogen can be a problem at the shore. Excess nitrogen has been linked to increased algae growth in Barnegat Bay.

Organic fertilizers are another way to go green in the garden. Inorganic fertilizers are made with ammonia, which contains high amounts of nitrogen.

By using organic fertilizer, the soil remains moist, allowing it to hold more nutrients. Organic fertilizers aren't as concentrated as their non-organic counterparts.

The Espoma brand of organic fertilizers is available for about $6.99 per 4-pound bag.

Mulching it over

Mulch is made from a variety of materials, everything from recycled rubber to plastic sheets. But it also can be made from organic materials already lingering in your yard, including grass clippings and leaves.

So after you rake or bag your fallen leaves and grass clippings, consider adding them to your garden.

If your yard doesn't have much in the way of grass or trees, peat moss is a natural way to mulch the yard, since it provides good insulation and weed control.

Unfortunately, it's also highly acidic. Lamb suggested coco mulch, which is made from coconut husks, as an alternative. The husks are also organic matter and pH neutral, meaning they're not going to make the soil any more acidic.

Carbon-neutral clippers

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates on any given weekend, 54 million people are mowing their lawns, using 800 million gallons of gasoline. That's about the same amount of gasoline being used by every driver in California on a given day. All of this adds up to about 5 percent of the total air pollution produced in the United States.

But just as hybrid cars are revolutionizing the automobile industry, electric lawn mowers are cutting through their gas-guzzling competitors.

Keyser bought an electric mower recently. At $400, it was an expensive mower, but she received a $200 rebate because it was electric. Electric mowers are ideal for lawns less than an acre in size, but the technology is rapidly improving. The prices are coming down and cordless models are becoming available.

Wasting water

The EPA estimates a family of four uses about 400 gallons of water per day, and 30 percent of that total goes toward water used outside for lawn care and gardening.

The key to reducing this is to water your lawn with more water fewer times a week, according to Brian Feldman, region technical manager for TruGreen Lawn Care and Landscaping.

"Water deeply and infrequently," Feldman said. "Allow the water to soak in."

Deep watering contributes to strong roots and a healthier lawn.

There's an easy way to measure the perfect amount of water. Feldman suggested putting empty tuna cans in each of the watering zones of your yard. When the cans are filled, it's time to stop watering.

Feldman also said dawn is the best time to water the lawn. On hot summer days, the water will dissolve more quickly the later it's applied to the lawn. If it's applied at night, the water can end up being detrimental to the health of the lawn.

Practical pesticides

Plants can't lather themselves up with pesticides, so they need help protecting themselves against bothersome bugs.

Or do they?

"Nature can take care of pests pretty well itself," said John Butler, regional pesticide expert for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Butler explained that by planting a garden filled with native flowers and plants - beach plum, marigolds and "Wildwood" bayberry are just a few examples - you can reduce your need to cover the garden with pesticides. That's because native plants have defenses against native bugs. Some keep away pests by releasing toxins that are part of the natural defenses they've developed over many, many years. Exotic plants don't carry the same types of defenses with them.

If you still want to avoid chemicals, consider washing your plants with soap. Insecticidal soap, which isn't the same as conventional kitchen soap, is a great way to keep bugs away from plants. It's also received more interest since it has very little impact on the environment, unlike other chemical pesticides.

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