Sustainable gardening is definitely ‘in’ right now. It’s a term that is used frequently but many people don’t fully grasp what the term actually means. Let’s talk about what sustainable gardening is, why it matters and what you can do to make your gardening more sustainable.
What is sustainable gardening?
Sustainable is a broad term that is used to describe gardening methods that are more environmentally friendly. People have been gardening and growing food for thousands of years. Until recently, farming methods included working the plants into the environment. People didn’t rely on unnatural methods, like chemical fertilizers or pesticides until very recently.
The short window of time that these harmful gardening methods have been used have shown us that doing things the natural way is much less harmful to the environment. Using natural methods of gardening also exposes us to less harmful chemicals.
There are many methods of sustainable gardening. This term is similar to the word ‘homesteading’. There are many ways of going about it, but the overall goal is similar. With sustainable gardening, the end goal is to make your gardening efforts more symbiotic with the environment around you.
Don’t try to alter the environment so much that you create negative impacts. If you go about sustainable gardening the right way, you can actually enhance a space in the ecosystem rather than diminish it.
Sustainable gardening isn’t just a trend either. As more and more people look to reduce their environmental impact, home gardens are becoming more popular. To even further reduce their environmental impact, gardeners are searching for ways to make their gardens work with nature rather than against one another.
Why is sustainable gardening important?
Sustainable gardening is the future of gardening. The amount of consumers that report being interested in organic produce increases yearly. It’s no surprise that home gardeners, therefore, are also interested in organic gardening. The impacts of chemicals and pesticides that are frequently used on food crops and in gardens are just now starting to be uncovered.
Many chemicals that are frequently used in the garden are not that old. Some of the oldest chemicals out there are only 40-50 years old. This means that scientists don’t fully understand the lasting effects of these chemicals. Let’s look at one of the most common pesticide out there- Round-Up. This is a garden chemical that could be found in nearly every homeowner’s garden shed and had been for years. It wasn’t until recently that a connection between the chemical and certain types of cancer was made.
The impacts of chemicals and pesticides go beyond us humans. Another example can be seen by looking at pollinators. Globally, the number of insects has decreased dramatically. At first, this may seem like a good problem to have. (No more mosquitoes and flies, right?) This is actually a devastating issue.
Most species of insects don’t harm people and actually don’t come into contact with humans under normal circumstances. These insects have specific roles that they play in their respective environments. Insects help to pollinate our plants, increase the soil value, break down waste and create nutrients for our plants.
When we treat our gardens with chemical pesticides, we aren’t just treating the plant for the ‘bad’ insects. Chemical pesticides won’t attack certain species of insects but will instead attack numerous types of insects. This can cause good insect populations to plummet. Unfortunately, the bad insects are usually the insects that seem to stick around, so we treat with chemicals again and again.
Using chemicals and harmful farming methods is often a slippery slope. Once we start these harsh gardening methods, it quickly snowballs into always using these methods to get the results that we are looking for.
Another overlooked aspect of using chemicals in the garden is the impact that is has on larger animals in the ecosystem. When insects ingest chemical pesticides, the pesticide remains in the insect’s body. If the insect is consumed by a larger animal, like a bird, then the bird will also ingest the chemical. If a bird eats too many chemical-filled insects, the toxins in the pesticide will have the same effect on the bird, even though the bird wasn’t the intended target.
Sustainable gardening methods aim to keep our insect and animal populations alive and healthy. Gardeners rely on these populations to keep their plants healthy, even if they aren’t aware of it. You can’t have a healthy garden without pollinators, beneficial insects and healthy animals around the garden.
Tips to Make Your Garden More Sustainable
Thankfully, we aren’t so far removed from sustainable gardening methods that we can’t easily implement them. Here are a few tips to make your garden more sustainable:
1 – Use integrated pest management
One of the most common reasons that gardens are not sustainable is the fact that gardeners rely heavily on chemicals to keep plants pest-free. There is a better method!
Integrated pest management, or IPM for short, is a method of pest control that uses a variety of resources to keep pests off of your plants, with chemicals as a last resort. Remember, chemical pesticides will keep bad bugs off of your plants, but it will also keep the good bugs off of your plants, too.
Integrated pest management has several levels of pest control. The first step involves removing the pests by hand. This may seem icky, but it’s a really effective way to keep pest populations down. Many garden pests reproduce multiple times over the gardening season, so if you remove the initial insects at the beginning of the growing season, the pest load can be greatly reduced or even eliminated.
If removing insects by hand doesn’t work, try having nature work for you. Remember the old physics saying “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”? Turns out that principle applies to gardening as well. Each pest insect that you’ll find in your garden has an enemy that can be used against them. Many predator insects are native in the U.S. and will only attack the bad guys. It’s a safe way to remove only the harmful insects while keeping the beneficial insects active.
There are numerous natural compounds that have been found to be effective against pest insects. These aren’t usually species-specific, so you’ll have to use them with caution to prevent causing harm to beneficial insects also. Neem oil, horticultural soap, cayenne pepper, hot pepper wax, diatomaceous earth and similar compounds are useful to have on hand. These products have much less of a negative impact than synthetic chemicals.
2 – Start composting
Your grandmother kept a compost pile and now it seems like everyone you know has a compost pile. I’m not sure why they ever went out of style to begin with, but I’m glad that more people are hopping on the composting train!
You may be aware that the earth is limited in space and unfortunately, we are quickly filling up that space with a lot of trash. Much of the trash that is thrown out on a daily basis can be put to good use in a compost pile.
Food and garden waste, old leaves, cardboard boxes and newspaper can all be recycled in a compost pile. Not only will these materials save space in a landfill, but they will add nutrients to your garden. Remember those bags of humus or manure that you bought last year for your garden? A compost pile can make those same materials for you with the waste that you have.
You don’t need a fancy composter to do this for you, either. A three-sided bin, trash can or large Tupperware container with air holes will do the trick. Bonus points if you add worms to your compost pile.
3 – Be picky when choosing plants
There are so many plant varieties available that it would be silly NOT to look deeper into the plants that you’re actually buying. Some places are prone to drought or certain pests or diseases. Were you aware that you can buy varieties of crops that are resistant to drought, pests, diseases and more?
If you’re having trouble with blight each year, look for tomatoes that are resistant to blight. Having trouble with Colorado potato beetles? There’s a variety for that!
Many heirloom plants are also resistant to environmental conditions. Heirloom plants were developed over many generations and are suited for particular climates and growing conditions. There’s probably an heirloom that’s just right for your growing location.
4 – Recycle water
In December of 2020, water was official put on the New York Stock Exchange as a tradeable commodity. What does that have to do with gardening?
A lot. Fresh, clean drinkable water is a limited resource that is in high demand. Many major cities have experienced water scarcity problems in the past few years.
You can help alleviate water problems by recycling water and being more mindful of how you use water. Setting up a rain collection barrel to collect rainwater from your roof is an easy solution that will ensure that your garden has water for years to come.
How are you being more sustainable with your garden?