While it’s probably wrong to assume that everyone who becomes a gardener, does so because of an overriding concern for the environment and a desire to reduce their carbon footprint. But, we’re pretty sure that, as time goes on, most avid gardeners—if you didn’t feel that way before—develop a profound respect and appreciation for the natural world, along with a desire to protect it.
Even if you simply start out planting a few annuals each year, you quickly start to notice things in the environment you probably never really paid close attention to before: weather, soil condition, insect life, the habits of plant-eating predators (!), and more. Along the way, you may start to appreciate, first hand, that there is a harmonious balance in nature that can go awry with heedless human interference.
While we are not interested in lecturing anyone (no soapbox in sight) about what you should and should not do in your own backyard, we would like to share some helpful information with those of you who are interested in simple, sustainable gardening practices. These practices will not only benefit the environment, they will increase your chances of gardening success.
The Big Picture: Reducing Your Carbon Footprint
Starting with a big picture perspective, implementing a sustainable gardening plan will help reduce your carbon footprint (i.e. reduce your carbon emissions into the atmosphere, otherwise known as greenhouse gas emissions). And, you don’t need a lot of space to do your part; you can help by growing environmentally-friendly plants in containers on a porch, patio or even a fire escape!
Whatever you decide to grow, the most important element of an eco-friendly gardening plan is composting as much food and yard waste as possible for use in your garden. This is far preferable to having it hauled—by a carbon-spewing conveyance—to rot in a landfill where it will end up emitting methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.
Composting is simply the process of mixing natural organic yard waste such as dead leaves or grass clippings with non-meat food waste in a designated area or container, and allowing for aerobic decomposition (vs. the anaerobic process that typically occurs in plastic bags relegated to landfills). Over time, this mixture develops into a nutrient-rich stew which can be used to amend your soil to help your plants thrive, in lieu of synthetic fertilizers. There are various ways to compost; we explore ‘lasagna composting’ in our Lasagna Gardening post.
For apartment dwellers, we admit that you would be hard-pressed to create your own compost. As an alternative, you can buy organic compost from your local garden center.
For some people, the term, organic gardening, suggests something complicated or time-consuming. This is not the case. It simply involves using natural substances and methods to grow your vegetables: natural compost instead of synthetic fertilizers, and natural pest and weed control instead of pesticides and herbicides. Organic gardening is more sustainable over the long run because it preserves—and, indeed, takes advantage of—the living world’s natural balance.
Even if you live in a part of the country not affected by drought, judicious use of water is important for your plants as well as the environment. Whether you’re connected to a municipal water supply or a well, transporting that water for use in your household taps requires carbon-producing energy. The less water you can use, the better. Here are some ways to optimize your use of water in the garden:
- Water your plants in the morning, before it gets really hot, in order to minimize waste through evaporation. Morning watering reduces the threat of plant disease as well.
- Most plants do best with a deep watering every few days vs. more frequent shallow watering.
- Use of a soaker hose or drip irrigation system is recommended in order to avoid wasting water and splashing potentially-damaging microbes from the soil onto the plant leaves.
- Use a rain barrel or other container to collect rainwater.
- Channel rainwater away from the house and toward the garden. Redirect it from areas where it might otherwise pool and run-off without being absorbed into the ground.
Growing Plants With a Purpose
Many people become gardeners because they like the way flowers look and smell and want to beautify their yards. Others have an interest in growing their own food. And, of course, many people do both, taking advantage of the natural symbioses between flowering and vegetable plants.
Create a Pollinator Garden
There are a number of flowering plants that are attractive not only to humans but to important pollinators as well. Planting for successive bloom through the growing season ensures a ready supply of sustenance. Please do your homework and learn which flowers provide the most nourishment for bees, hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators. Old-fashioned, native, heirloom varieties are a safe bet as they tend to produce more nectar than modern hybrids
Grow What you Eat
These days, many people are understandably interested in growing their own food—and it’s not hard to do if you start simply and choose vegetables and/or herbs that are relatively easy to grow (as outlined in our Growing Guides). And, again, you don’t need a lot of space, as most crops can be grown in containers.
An important tactic when growing vegetables is rotating crops every couple of years to try to keep pests and disease at bay. Another effective way to ward off pests is by planting pest-repelling flowers, such as french marigolds, among your vegetables.
Other Eco-Friendly Garden and Yard Ideas
- Plant Trees (to purify the air and provide a home for wildlife)
- Reduce your lawn area if possible. As alluring as a nice, green lawn is, it consumes an inordinate amount of water and fertilizer and isn’t particularly attractive to wildlife. You could plant ground cover or wildflowers instead.
- Try to avoid widespread tilling of your garden beds: it’s disruptive to the soil structure and doesn’t offer tangible benefits.
- And, as always, as much as possible: reduce, recycle and reuse.
In this fast-paced, ever-changing world, it sometimes feels like we have very little control over important issues that affect our daily lives. But you can do your own, small part to help the environment by planting some seeds and shepherding your plants naturally.