Growing your own produce and adding beauty to your yard with flowers and shrubs is incredibly satisfying. Gardening sustainably is great for your and your family’s health, and it’s a benefit for the insect, bird life and wildlife that live near you.
“Sustainable gardening” includes three main topic areas:
- Avoid polluting chemicals in fertilizers and pest control
- Preserve our natural resources
- Reduce waste as much as you can
This article from Homes and Gardens explains more:
“A sustainable garden is one that gives back rather than takes from its surroundings. Planted with nectar-rich native plants and other eco-friendly garden ideas means it will be more self-sustaining, requiring little energy or water to make it grow healthily—and certainly no chemicals…
“Add more shrubs with multi-seasonal interest, self-seeding annuals, and perennials that come back every year—learn how to divide plants to keep them healthy and increase their numbers.”
Let’s dig into some specifics:
Chemical fertilizers eventually leach into our creeks, rivers, lakes and wetlands. That’s a problem for everything living in these areas, plant and animal life. It can also be a problem for our drinking water, especially in areas with private wells.
Instead of using chemicals, sustainable gardening relies on organic compost to enrich the soil. And you probably have more than enough potential compost already, so you’ll save money at the same time. You can use items like leaves, grass (that doesn’t have chemical treatments on it) and plant trimmings. Other options are coffee grounds, eggshells, dead-headed blooms, veggie and fruit scraps, and weeds. (Just be sure not to include plants that look diseased or are insect-infected.)
So when you compost yourself, you also reduce waste. Instead of throwing away many of the above items, you can add them to your compost. The Dakota County Master Gardening (DCMG) website has a very helpful page on DIY composting.
Organic Pest Control
The other common chemicals used in gardens and yards are pest sprays. There are other ways to protect your flowers and veggies from unwanted visitors than through these sprays that are often toxic.
First, about unwanted insects:
“Remember, killing off all the insects in your garden is not the desired result here, as any healthy ecosystem requires an abundance of beneficial insects, microbes, and fungi, both in the soil and on the plants themselves, so introducing other predatory insects (ladybugs, praying mantis, etc.) or creating good habitat for them, as well as building soil fertility, can also be an effective pest management approach (TreeHugger.com)
One strategy in controlling pests is by using organic pesticides. You can either purchase these from your local garden center or make one or two yourself from ingredients you may already have at home. There are several online sources to find recipes, including this one.
Another strategy you can adopt is companion gardening: taking advantage of how plants interact with each other. “Companion planting has the potential to enhance your garden, reduce the need for pesticides, promote stronger plants and take maximum advantage of the space available,” says this page by DCMG.
A particular pest might be attracted by one type of plant but repelled by another. When you plant the two together, you may not have to worry about spraying at all. To start your journey in companion gardening, take a look at this Planting Guide from the Farmers’ Almanac website.
Conserving water is another aspect of sustainable gardening. The American Horticulture Society (AHS) has plenty of information on this topic, depending on the climate you live in. On their website, you’ll find articles on water use including:
- How to design a water-thrifty garden
- The hows and whys of drip irrigation
- How to work with over-saturated areas in your yard
- Rain barrels, cisterns and rain gardens
Welcome Pollinators & Choose Native Plants
To maintain a healthy environment for local pollinators is one excellent reason to keep your gardens as organic as possible. The same chemical treatments that kill unwanted pests can also harm pollinators.
What’s the big deal, you say? Here are some interesting facts from the National Park Service about pollinators (many species of bees, butterflies, some beetles, even birds and bats) you may not have known:
- “One out of every three bites of food you eat exists because of the efforts of pollinators…”
- “At least 75% of all the flowering plants on earth are pollinated by insects and animals…more than 1,200 food crops and 180,000 different types of plants—plants which help stabilize our soils, clean our air, supply oxygen and support wildlife…”
- In the US alone, pollination by insects contributes to many billions of dollars of crop production annually.
One of the best ways to welcome local pollinators to your gardens is to include plants native to your area. Native plants are already conditioned to your climate and environmental conditions, so they take less maintenance overall.
Find out which native plants in your area are favored by pollinators and include several of them. Don’t forget to choose plants that flower at different times of the season so all your local pollinators benefit. This includes flowering trees and shrubs, too!
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This is just an overview of what sustainable gardening looks like. You’ll want to look into more details for your geographical area for the best results. Start with local garden centers and organizations like Master Gardener programs near you.