Sustainability 101: 8 Tips for Sustainable Gardening

In a society hell-bent on making everything convenient, it’s easy to forget how convenient it actually is to simplify. That’s the beauty of sustainability: simplification. It may look like more work but in reality, there are usually fewer future detriments to deal with.

We’ve already talked about composting and harvesting rainwater, so here a few more tips to make your garden/backyard/etc a happier, healthier place to be.

1. Plant for pollinators. Giving pollinators like bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other insects choice plant species in your garden not only helps those species, but helps us humans too. About 1/3 of our food supply depends solely on pollinators, especially bees, and bees are in some serious trouble due to chemicals and mites.

2. Use more native species. The way that plants are hybridized now, it often seems almost boring to stick with native species. However, ecosystems are easily devastated by runaway garden varieties because people just can’t live without that special whatever blossoming in their gardens. Native species are beautiful, hardy, and have evolved for your climate, so it makes sense to use them. They typically require only what water comes out of the sky and need little soil amending. They also provide food and shelter for invertebrates and other critters, increasing habitat in a time when habitat is in peril. Nurseries are getting behind more native plantings now and even some awesome hybrids of native plants can be found, like the crazy Columbines below. Definitely avoid any non-native plant labeled as “vigorous” or “aggressive,” and know which species are suspicious for your area.

3. Get rid of the chemicals. I know, Monsanto has been telling the American public for the last 50 years that agriculture can only be better with chemicals, but that’s a load of bullshit and those people are evil anyway. (They’re the makers of Roundup, that potent weed killer, and also the “makers” of Roundup-resistant corn. Which means you can spray pesticide on your corn all day and it won’t kill the corn. More importantly, they’re in the business of patenting living species, which is a dangerous road to walk.) The fact is you don’t need them. There are natural alternatives and if you do your garden right, you’ll hardly even need those. There’s a great section in Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire where Pollan describes a visit to a conventional potato farm and then a smaller, organic potato farm. By far, the organic farmer’s potatoes were healthier and more diverse, while the conventional farmer admitted to Pollan that he wouldn’t eat his own potatoes or feed them to his family because of all the chemicals put on them. This may be old news, but there’s still an awfully high demand for garden chemicals out there. Buy some books on organic gardening and stop supporting pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides. Learn how to live with the insects and the weeds, they’re never going away, unless you want cancer.

4. Utilize biodiversity. Using a variety of species and hybrids in your garden increases habitat and food for local species, and helps to redirect pests away from the plants you’re trying to protect. You can also plant “companion species,” (like planting basil with your tomatoes) which encourages plant health.

5. Reduce your lawn. It’s not 1950 anymore. We don’t need 3000 gallons of water per week being directed on to your beautiful Kentucky bluegrass. I know this is heresy, but how much of your lawn do you actually use? Planting low-maintenance gardens instead, rock gardens, installing a water feature, putting down wildflower seed, or just covering the area with woodchips are all better solutions than a big, water-sucking lawn. Yes, fields of green are pretty to the eye, but they’re wasted space and water vampires. Also, you know that every time you see a dandelion it makes your eyelid twitch, so who needs that kind of aggravation? If you need to keep your lawn, consider utilizing compost tea on it, which makes the roots of the grass species grow deeper. Lawns get compacted, meaning they need more water. Longer roots reduces the amount of water you have to use. (Check out this cool article about Harvard U doing the same thing on campus.) Also, consider switching to a manual mower. If you have a smaller area to mow, it’s good exercise, it’s quiet, and there’s zero emissions.

6. Avoid using non-renewable resources. Compost for nutrition, find a good source of sand for permeability of the soil, harvest rainwater, and stop using peat moss (which we’ll eventually run out of).

7. Woodchips. Where can you use them? A friend of mine has a completely woodchipped backyard, and while that’s not for me, I can appreciate that there’s virtually zero maintenance she has to do. But how about instead of a sidewalk, or a driveway? How about for just part of your lawn? How about instead of a cement patio? Using untreated woodchips helps water permeate rather than runoff of hard services into sewers, which often leads to open water. Woodchips are easy to replenish and require little weeding and certainly no mowing.

8. Install a xeriscape garden. Xeriscape gardens are drought tolerant: they utilize species adapted for your climate’s lowest temperatures and have an extremely low water need. I’m sure you’re thinking of cactus, and how exciting can a garden full of cactus probably be, but you’re wrong. There are TONS of beautiful drought-tolerant plants out there and they’re not all spiny or succulent. Xeriscaped gardens often feature rock gardens but don’t have to. I promise you’ll get addicted to this kind of gardening if you take a chance on it, and if you live in a area with a fair amount of precipitation, you can still make one; just be sure that it drains very well. (Also, cactus are AWESOME.)

What can YOU add to this list? Leave it in the comments! Thanks for reading. :)


Posted on December 17, 2010, in Connected Living, Flora. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’ve lived in my home for six years and have been battling my yard the entire time. I’ve taken out grass and put in wood bark gardens, added a small veggie garden that I plan on expanding this next spring. About half of my back yard is really just a weed field (creeping bindweed, oh joy), so this spring that area will be reduced and replaced with wood chips. I’m looking forward to less lawn, and more variety.

    I’m loving all the ideas you have been putting out there.

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