First of all, it’s worth providing anyone growing a garden with some kudos. Let’s acknowledge that local food production—and it doesn’t get more local than home—is perhaps the most important practice for eating and living sustainably.
With that in mind, we can also say that all gardens are not created equally. Some are wrought with biocides, which pollute the environment with all sorts of unsavory chemicals. Some are built with all sorts of inputs—bagged compost, bagged topsoil, bagged mulch, etc.—that are derived from distant sources, and unfortunately, these gardens are at least partly relying on the same “food miles” genre as buying food grown afar.
But, there are ways of gardening more sustainably. We can grow healthy, full gardens that enhance the environment, improve the planet, support local wildlife, and make the most of organic waste streams. With a handful of constructive habits, our gardens can be green in more ways than one.
Though we can buy compost, even organic compost, at the big box garden centers, it usually comes in plastic bags and who knows where it was created. Bagged compost is often created from one ingredient, likely some sort of animal manure, and it will have been shipped hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles to get to the store.
We can make compost at home using weeds and waste from the garden, as well as kitchen scraps, shredded paper products, and other organic materials.
Perennial plants and native plants are fantastic for wildlife and garden stability. They use fewer resources for the soil and provide more resources for the soil’s life. Plus, local pollinators, birds, and other wildlife appreciate perennial and native plants because they provide food and habitat outside of the growing season.
Perennials and natives don’t need to be planted year in and year out but if chosen wisely, they can provide food every year.
Piling leaves and grass clippings on garden beds reinvigorate the soil with nutrients while also protecting it from wind and rain erosion, drying out in the sun, or compacting by the downpours. During the growing season, put two to four inches around the plants and cover any bare soil in the garden bed. After the growing season, the pile can be even deeper, breaking down over the winter.
Normally, trees drop leaves in the fall, and grass dies back, slowly building soil year after year. Pile it all on garden beds, and the soil naturally builds (and rebuilds) faster.
Conventional garden practice dictates that we till the soil a new every spring and possibly fall to keep it from compacting. However, if we never walk on the garden soil—compacting it—and continually add new organic material to build loose tilth, gardens don’t need to be tilled. After all, forests and prairies aren’t tilled, yet they grow in abundance far beyond most gardens. Tilling and turning the soil destroys much of the soil life, including those valuable earthworms.
If we separate our garden beds and garden paths, never stepping where we plant, then we can prevent our garden beds from compacting.
Gardens that are mulched well and designed to utilize rain and/or gray water very rarely need to be watered with sprinklers or a hosepipe. Mulch will stop the sun and wind from sucking the moisture from the soil, and directing rainwater to useful places rather than draining it away will mean less rain is necessary to keep the plants hydrated. In really dry climates, gray water irrigation can fill in the gaps.
Mulched gardens can go a week or more with no rain, and the soil will still be moist below it. Using micro-swales and other water-harvesting techniques adds even more resilience.
While a few seeds, such as carrots, can be quite complicated to save successfully, others—beans and squash and corn and cucumbers and peppers and okra and lettuce and so on—are ridiculously easy to collect for next year’s garden. The more we do that, the more the plants become acclimatized to their growing environment, evolving a little bit year after year. Plus, we are minimizing packaging, shipping, and much more.
Saving every seed might not be realistic for every gardener, but for most of us, saving seeds for over half of what we plant each year is not a stretch.
Chemicals used in gardens not only foul our food but also wrecks the natural order of things. Herbicides and pesticides kill things that keep the ecosystem in balance, even if sometimes these things are inconvenient for gardeners. Instead, we can use natural means, to enhance the ecosystem, to combat weeds and pests. It won’t eradicate them, but it will allow us to harvest plenty to eat.
Mulch will subdue weeds in a major way, a habitat for beneficial animals will reduce pest problems, and visiting the garden often will help ensure nothing gets out of hand.
Gardening sustainably is crazy rewarding. Of course, there is a lot of healthy food to enjoy, but it’s also amazing to know you’ve done it with care and consideration for the planet.
Easy Ways to Help the Planet: