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Growing Green: Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Gardening

Sustainable gardening is a combination of organic gardening practices and resource conservation that aim to cause no harm to the planet. By practicing sustainable gardening, you're doing your part to help the environment.
Father and son practicing sustainable gardening

What’s the latest must-have accessory for the modern home? While teacup poodles and the Internet of Things (IoT) may be good guesses, neither is as beneficial to the environment as a sustainable garden.

You don’t have to own acres and acres of land to create one, either. Eco-friendly gardening is do-able in both large and small spaces, as long as you have the components and know-how to set the proper foundation.

This guide to sustainable gardening walks you through the components you need to establish a strong foundation, along with handy tips that’ll make it easier than you might think to enjoy an eco-friendly garden all your own.

An introduction to eco-friendly gardening

First things first. What, exactly, is eco-friendly or sustainable gardening? Sustainable gardening is a mingling of organic gardening practices and resource conservation, resulting in a natural way of gardening that aims to do more good than harm to the planet.

Eco-friendly gardening:

  • Takes the current and future impact of your garden into consideration
  • Pays more attention to supporting the ecosystem than looking good (although all plants look good, if you ask us)
  • Works with nature rather than against it

Those last two points are key for another important aspect of sustainable gardening. It’s best to use plants that are native to your area. They’ll not only grow better because they’re in the right climate, but it also reduces the risk of inviting some invasive species into your (and your neighbor’s) yard.

The right mindset is another factor for success. Instead of envisioning the garden as your territory over which you rule with an iron trowel, think of it as a collaborative project between yourself and Mother Nature. You’ll both be doing the work. And you’ll both be reaping the benefits.


How your sustainable garden can make a difference

Sustainable gardening comes with gads of benefits.

For you and your family, gardening gets you outside in a shared activity. This helps boost physical as well as mental health. All that active fun in the sun (with proper sunscreen, of course) may also help decrease the risk of health issues down the line.

For the earth, sustainable gardening is a total boon. It makes a difference by:

  • Providing a healthier environment, reducing carbon emissions, bacteria and chemicals floating around the air as well as chemicals and heavy metals in the groundwater and soil
  • Shading your home and yard, keeping them cooler and reducing your energy bills
  • Preventing soil erosion, with ground cover and root systems helping to keep soil in place
  • Replenishing soil nutrients, with organic material falling from plants to deliver nutrients back into the ground
  • Absorbing sound to turn the volume down on overall noise pollution
  • Supporting beneficial insects, birds and other wildlife
  • Enjoying the ultimate treat; nothing on earth beats the taste of a scrumptious fruit or veggie you grew yourself (except maybe pizza)

How eco-friendly gardens reduce CO2

Reducing carbon emissions is one of the biggest bonuses of eco-friendly gardening. When you think of all the plants you’re going to install, you may automatically think of all the carbon dioxide they’ll merrily suck out of the atmosphere to produce oxygen. But that’s just one of the ways they help.

Gardening also reduces CO2 because you’re:

  • Replacing lawns with garden plants; lawn maintenance equipment and synthetic fertilizers produce loads of carbon emissions
  • Growing your own fruits and veggies instead of purchasing them from the grocery store, which cuts down on your own driving, delivery van-to-store driving, and farm-to-packaging facility driving
  • Using greywater to irrigate your garden instead of sending the water to treatment facilities
  • Reducing the amount of organic waste your household sends off to landfills, as the waste is now an integral component in your compost heap

While some of these points are spoilers for the tips coming up below, proper maintenance of your home garden is a must if you want to make a difference.

If you end up simply planting and then totally forgetting about your garden, it could end up emitting more carbon dioxide than not having a garden in the first place. And you wouldn’t want to make Mother Nature angry now, would you?

How to garden sustainably

Now that you’re well-versed on the why of sustainable gardening, it’s time to plunge into the how. Remember, you don’t need tons of space. Eco-gardening works on larger plots, in smaller areas, and even in raised garden beds and containers.

The most important thing is to embrace the practices that ensure your garden will be doing lots of good for the earth.

Use natural methods for controlling pests

Skip the groundwater-polluting synthetic weed killers and pesticides. Instead opt for an organic approach to fending off pests.

Cultural control: Cultural control is a massive category that covers everything from crop rotation to soil fertility management. It focuses on natural methods designed to prevent or reduce weeds, insects and disease throughout the entire lifecycle of your plants.

Physical and mechanical controls: Mulches, fences, screens, barriers, traps and physical barriers or devices can help protect your garden from unwanted pests.

Biological controls: Certain plants are known for their ability to attract predatory insects, and those predators can help keep the insects that eat your plants at bay by eating or laying eggs in them. Kind of gross, but absolutely brilliant.

Botanical poisons: Synthetic chemicals are out, but botanical poisons may be considered. Two popular ones are neem oil and food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE), both of which can be found at garden shops and nurseries.

Plant a low-maintenance garden

If you’re spending more time maintaining your garden than you do eating, sleeping and playing with your dogs combined, take it as a hint your garden is not all that sustainable. It’s probably not even all that fun anymore.

The best sustainable gardens are low-maintenance, using a number of practices that help keep them that way. These include:

  • Native plants: Aim to have at least 70% native plants in your garden, as they tend to need less water, fertilizer and special care than non-native species. They also providing readymade shelter and food for local wildlife.
  • Diversity: Mixing up the variety of plants in your garden makes the entire garden more resilient when it comes to fending off pests, disease, extreme heat and drought. Arrange plants in groups that share the same water, soil and nutrient requirements. It’s much easier and faster to care for a batch of plants as a group than it is to tend to individual plants scattered across the yard.
  • Low-maintenance characteristics: Some plants need more attention and care than others. Look for those with characteristics that include: 1) Moderate growth rate so you’re not constantly shaping and pruning, 2) Few pest problems, with a natural resiliency to pests and disease, and 3)No messy pods, fruits or shedding branches that you’ll need to pick up 200 times a day during growing season.

Take advantage of composting

Composting comes with a mound of advantages. Since you’re using organic materials in your compost pile or bin, you’re sending less waste to landfills. And that’s just the start. Additional benefits include:

  • Enhancing the soil, boosting its ability to retain moisture and fend off pests and disease
  • Acting as a natural fertilizer
  • Promoting the growth of beneficial fungi and bacteria that break down organic materials to create nutrient-rich humus

Before you just start throwing all organic waste into a big heap, take a minute to review composting basics. You’ll want to situate your compost pile or bin in a shady area. And you’ll want to include the three key compost ingredients:

  • Browns: Branches, twigs, dead leaves and other brown organic matter
  • Greens: Fruit and vegetable waste, coffee grounds, grass clippings and other green organic matter
  • Water: Keeping the compost moist is a must to help break down organic matter

Note there are several things, although organic, you don’t want to include in your compost heap. These include meat, bones, paper, pet waste and anything else that may attract vermin or make your yard stink.

Composting and sorting of biowaste from household

Conserve water as much as possible

Sustainable gardening conserves resources whenever possible, and one of those resources is water. While you do want to give your plants enough water to thrive, you can go about it in a way that uses water in the most efficient way.

Options include:

  • Collecting rainwater in a barrel or buckets you can then use to water your plants
  • Using greywater for irrigation
  • Opting for soaker hoses or drip irrigation, which use water more efficiently than traditional sprinklers or spraying with a hose
  • Spreading organic mulch over moist soil to help retain moisture (and reduce weeds)
  • Watering in early morning or at night to reduce evaporation
  • Not watering in the middle of the day when evaporation rates are sky high
  • Not watering when it’s particularly windy; high winds can make you lose up to 50% of the water intended for your plants

Correctly water your plants

Standing in the middle of your garden and freely spraying everything lightly with the hose might be fun. But it’s also the absolute worst way to water plants. Once you learn the correct way to water plants, you’ll immediately see why.

The correct way to water your sustainable garden involves soaking the soil, generally to a depth of 6 to 8 inches. This way the roots are encouraged to burrow down to seek moisture, developing a stronger and deeper root system that can better withstand drier periods.

Soaking the soil also keeps the plant foliage dry, which decreases the risk of disease. Don’t soak too often, however, as over-watering can kill. It stops the roots from getting air. And think of all that water you’re wasting.

How frequently you water your garden depends on a variety of factors, such as the type of plants you have, the type of soil you have, the season, the garden location, and your overall climate.

Just to give you an idea of how much watering your plants may need in the absence of rain, you can keep a general rule of (green) thumb for watering vegetables in mind:

  • Light sandy soils: Soak soil every four to five days
  • Heavy clay soils: Soak soil every seven to 10 days

Plant trees

Trees go with sustainable gardening the same way garden clogs go with mud. They’re simply meant to be together. Trees are the biggest plants around, which means they have even more power when it comes to reducing CO2.

Plant a row of trees around your property to act as a windbreak. You may be amazed to see how much this can help reduce your heating costs in winter.

Planting trees in strategic areas to shade your home in the summer can likewise reduce cooling costs. Choose deciduous trees that lose their leaves in fall and you can still enjoy the warming winter sun.


Remove unnecessary concrete and increase your garden space

If one tree or plant is good, a dozen are even better! But it’s tough to make the most of your space if you have unnecessary concrete in the way. Maybe the home’s last owner decided to pave the backyard. Or perhaps an old shed left its concrete base.

Even if you can’t altogether remove concrete, you can still place plants on top of it. No, you don’t want to bury the concrete slab with topsoil. But you can opt for container gardening, which lets you create an eco-friendly garden in pots, old bathtubs and other containers.

Use sustainable plant pots

Keep the eco-friendly vibe going by selecting sustainable plant pots. That means looking for planters made of wood, cork, bamboo, recycled plastic or other sustainable materials. It also means selecting pots that are large enough to accommodate your plants so you can use and re-use them for years to come.

Grow bags are another option. These non-woven fabric bags are specifically designed for gardening, providing adequate drainage and ventilation for your plants. They are also inexpensive, reusable, and can be folded flat for easy storage when not in use.

Go peat-free

Lightweight, inexpensive and good for both moisture retention and aeration, peat moss had been a soil amendment darling for years. Until it was discovered that freely harvesting and using peat moss in the garden may be doing more harm than good.

Peat moss grows in peatlands, which store massive amounts of soil carbon. If you take the peat moss out of the peatlands, you end up releasing loads of carbon back into the environment. You’re also disrupting a unique ecosystem that supports a variety of plants, insects and birds.

Although peat moss does grow back, it takes hundreds of years to do so. It’s being harvested at a more rapid rate than it could ever regrow. This technically makes it non-renewable.

Compost works as a sustainable soil amendment in place of peat moss, as do things like coconut coir, rice hulls and manure.

Support pollinators, insects, birds and local wildlife

Who doesn’t love seeing a butterfly flit through their garden, especially when you knew it back when it was a caterpillar? Including a variety of plants that attract caterpillars, bees and other pollinators can provide them with the nectar, pollen and protection they need to survive.

And why stop with pollinators? Transform your sustainable garden into a wondrous wildlife habitat by choosing plants that are welcoming to birds, beneficial insects and other wildlife. You can even get your garden certified as a pollinator, butterfly or wildlife habitat. Talk about bragging rights!

A person holding soil in their hands

The many benefits of sustainable gardening

While we mention bragging rights as a reason to create a sustainable garden, we’re really only kidding. Sort of. The real reason is the beautiful benefits it brings. Time in nature. Personal green space. Physical activity. Mental tranquility. Fresh air. Fresh fruits and veggies! Reduction of carbon. Enhancement of soil. A place for people and critters to unwind, thrive and play.

These benefits extend to your family, your neighborhood, your local pollinator and wildlife population, and the planet as a whole. And as cool as a teacup poodle or Internet of Things may be, neither one can compete with all that.

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