How To Use Ecological Gardening To Protect Your Plantings & The Planet
There’s nothing quite like the peas and quiet of a garden—except for maybe the peace of mind that comes from knowing you created it using ecological gardening practices.
Instead of soiling our gardens and planet with chemicals and GMO plant varieties, we should be using our own backyards to return to our natural, holistic roots, in every sense.
Ecological planting not only encourages better garden yields, but a healthy plant ecology and biodiversity too.
But how do you make an ecological garden?
Through a little intentional planning, conscious plant selection, and regular maintenance; it’s probably much easier than you think.
1. What Is An Ecological Garden?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking any garden is ecological. Gardens = plants = nature = good, right?
Yes, growing plants—which sequester carbon from the atmosphere—is inherently an environmentally beneficial act, but many modern garden practices that rely heavily on GMOs and chemicals are doing more harm than the plants they produce can counteract.
Instead, sustainable gardening takes a natural, holistic approach and works symbiotically with the natural world, not against it.
For example, instead of killing all bugs, it uses natural tactics to encourage healthy insects while discouraging the propagation of destructive ones.
The goals of the ecological gardener are to best optimize and encourage the ecological functions of a garden: attracting pollinators, sequestering carbon, and producing (fruits/vegetables/flowers and oxygen) maximally.
The better plants grow, the more yield you get AND the more carbon they consume. That means that when it comes to your garden ecosystem, efficient = ecological.
That said, you don’t need a huge backyard or garden bed to join in, either.
Ecological gardening is defined by its principles, not its size or shape, and yours might take the form of:
1. Container Gardens:
Ideal for apartment gardening and for crops with minimal roots systems (like herbs and lettuce). You can even grow root vegetables like potatoes in something as simple as a 5-gallon bucket.
2. Raised Garden Beds:
These are a convenient way to garden in your backyard that won’t require any daunting eco-friendly landscaping efforts.
With a handful of 2×8” boards, some screws, some weed mat, and organic planting soil, you can build your very own DIY raised garden bed.
Once you have the dimensions of your bed, you can calculate how much soil you’ll need using a soil calculator.
3. Ground Garden Beds:
If you have existing garden beds, use those—but you might need to amend the soil first by adding a mixture of organic garden soil and compost.
4. Community Gardens:
If you really don’t have the means or space to garden at home, community gardens are a wonderful way to get all the benefits of growing a garden with none of the space requirements.
You’ll often receive benefits that make the annual membership fee well worth it, including free soil and compost, composting services, a free seed library, shared community crops, and of course, a wonderful support and knowledge-sharing network of experienced gardeners who are happy to mentor more inexperienced folks.
Some community gardens even allow for you to bypass the monetary fee in exchange for a set number of volunteer hours, making it more accessible to more people.
2. Ecological Planting & Eco-Friendly Plants
You’ve chosen what kind of garden to grow, now how do you plant an ecological garden?
Hopefully you started by choosing eco-friendly plants.
Wait, aren’t all plants eco-friendly?
Again, sort of. Sure, plants are all environmentally beneficial, but some more so than others.
If you’re planting vegetables, opt for heirloom varieties and organic seeds or starts instead of GMOs and hybrid plant species.
Heirloom eco plants—AKA ancient varieties of plants that have been open pollinated by wind, native bees, or human hands—not only yield a tastier, more nutrient dense crop, but they’re naturally resistant to pests and climate shifts (a criteria becoming increasing necessary for successful gardeners).
In addition to choosing heirloom varieties of vegetables, you can also choose more eco-friendly plants, period.
For example, the five most carbon consumptive veggies include onion, celery, potatoes, carrots, and zucchini.
If you’re planting herbs and perennial landscaping plants, always choose native plants to best compliment your area’s natural habitat (and prevent the spread of invasive plants). Native plants will obviously differ depending on where you live, so use a native plant database to familiarize yourself with the appropriate ones for you.
Something as simple as choosing native plants and aiming for plant diversity are major steps toward ecological sound, biodiverse gardening.
What Is Biodiversity Gardening?
Biodiversity gardening is, well, gardening for biodiversity, specifically with the intent to increase it through an abundance of different plant species (AKA “plant diversity”) that attract and nurture various forms of local wildlife—instead of invasive species
For example, a biodiverse ecological herb garden should contain not just annual culinary herbs like basil and cilantro, but perennial herbs such as lavender, calendula, echinacea, and bee balm that attract native insects, bees, and butterflies.
Plus, you can harvest the flowers (after giving ample time for bees to use them!) and dry them into your very own sustainable tea with calming, gut health, and immune boosting benefits.
Why is this so important?
Because biodiversity loss is one of the most imminent threats to our planet—right up there with climate change.
In just three decades, scientists have recorded a 2.5% decline in insect numbers across 40% of species, an extinction rate 8x faster than other animals.
If you think this isn’t a big deal because “they’re just bugs”, consider that insects are the foundation of life. Sure, some do more harm than good, but all living things are part of interconnected natural ecosystems. Remove one link and everything else eventually crumbles.
While there are many contributing reasons to biodiversity loss, various casual links have been established specifically to chemical use in agriculture.
But lettuce romaine calm… It’s not too late to combat this, but it is absolutely critical we refocus efforts to increase biodiversity in the ecosystem, garden, and world as a whole.
We just need to take off our rose(mary) tinted glasses and make some changes.
3. Ecological Garden Design & Planning
Ecological gardening starts with a plan.
What are you going to plant? Where are you going to plant them and when?
To maximize the efficiency of your plants, you need to consider three main things: spacing, placing, and timing.
Spacing: Place Plants With A Personal Bubble
In order to properly allocate enough space for your plants, look on the seed packet or starter tag for the recommended spacing between other plants.
If seeding, you’ll probably want to start by planting more than you think you need (to account for the fact that not all seeds sprout) and thinning as needed.
This is important because too few plants will make for a less efficient garden and leave plants more exposed to heat and pests.
Knowing the spacing, make a sketch of your garden based on the dimensions of it and the plants going inside.
Placing: Companion Planting Is Your Friend
In ecological gardening, plant roles and functions take center stage. As they say: right plant, right place.
As you mock up your garden layout, keep in mind that (just like people) not all plants get along.
Knowing what plants will help and hinder each other’s growth and productivity is key to cultivating a successful and high-producing crop.
This is known as “companion planting”. While there are many different combinations, here are some common rules of thumb for choosing the right plants and placements:
- Different varieties of peppers should never be planted near each other due to cross pollination potential. Spicy bell peppers might be a rude surprise!
- Scented herbs (like basil and oregano) can be planted around the edges of pest-prone plants (like corn and tomatoes) to prevent these pests.
- Garlic planted near lettuce and cabbage prevents insects.
Also, be sure you’re choosing plants appropriate for your climate zone, otherwise you may find yourself disappointed with lack of growth and ripening.
Timing: Beginning To Plant
Once you have a rough idea of what your garden will look like and what crops you intend to cultivate, you can start planting certain things.
The back of each seed packet will tell you the maturation period of that plant. Those with long maturity times are usually recommended to plant indoors in spring, or else risk not getting a harvest before fall frost.
Some examples of seeds to be planted indoors in early spring include: broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, and tomatoes.
Spoiler alert: you DO NOT need a greenhouse to plant seeds early. All you need is a heating pad (which can be bypassed in a warmer house) and either a sunny window or a grow light, both of which can be purchased inexpensively.
Otherwise, wait until after the last date of frost in your area and sow seeds with shorter maturation periods directly in your garden.
Seeds with shorter germination times that are usually planted directly in your beds or containers include: carrots, radishes, peas, spinach, Swiss chard, and beans.
4. Fertilizing In Ecological Gardening
It’s probably obvious that eco gardening is synonymous with organic gardening, which means we don’t want to feed our garden with any kind of synthetic fertilizer.
There are numerous hazards of synthetic fertilizer, both on human and plant health. Synthetic fertilizers are often too concentrated and lead to overly fertilized soil, in which living plants will grow deficient in iron, zinc, carotene, vitamin C, copper protein.
One of the benefits of composting is that adding organic garden compost, worm tea, and organic mulches is the single best thing you can do to solve any nutrient imbalances and deficiencies, and improve soil structure.
And if you have your own outdoor compost pile or indoor compost bin within which you dispose of kitchen and yard waste, that compost can come from within your own circular garden.
How do you know if you need to feed your garden?
Pay attention to your plants! They’ll tell you long before it’s too late. Look for:
- Discoloration: (i.e. yellow leaves, brown edges, purple or brown spots, yellow in between veins)
- Wilting leaves or dead or curling tips
- Fruits and vegetables not ripening
You should also get a pH reader—but why the pHeck is a pH reader useful to the ecological gardener?
Because nutrient deficiencies are often tied to problems of pH. When soil is too acidic (aka low pH) or too alkaline (aka high pH), it indicates a nutrient deficiency and will lead to yellow leaves. You can remedy this by adding organic lime.
Aside from adding organic garden compost, here are some other common plant nutrient deficiencies and organic matter solutions:
- Nitrogen (yellow leaves): Add ground eggshells to the garden.
- Phosphorus (stunted, dark green plants): Add bone meal, bat guano, or human urine (don’t worry, it’ll be totally safe to eat by harvest) and cover your plants during cold periods, as cold soil can hinder phosphorus absorption.
- Potassium (yellow leaves with spots): Steep banana peels in water for a few days, then pour at the base of your plants.
- Magnesium (yellow in between veins): Dissolve OMRI-tested Epsom salts in water and water your plants.
5. Pest Control In Ecological Gardening
Like fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides are linked to an overwhelming amount of human health effects and are a leading cause of chemical poisoning.
These chemical insecticides aren’t just hurting you, either; they’re hurting the quality of your soil by killing healthy soil microbes and beneficial insects alongside the pests.
What’s the biggest secret to natural pest prevention?
Maintaining soil health—that’s it!
Healthy soil rich in organic matter and microbes is the best defense against garden pests. Nutrient deficient plants are weak plants, and become especially susceptible to insects.
Otherwise, you can control pests in these eco-friendly and natural ways.
- Planning properly: Companion planting, yearly crop rotation, and proper plant spacing are all ways you can preemptively protect your plants while still in the design phase.
- Attract beneficial insects: Plants like calendula and marigolds attract ladybugs and wasps that will eed on harmful insects.
- Harvest regularly: Ripe vegetables attract pests, so don’t let them sit too long.
- Eggshells: Prevent pests of a more furry nature (like mice and cats).
- Essential oils: Diluted in water, boil, cinnamon oil, rosemary oil, peppermint oil, and lavender oil (does double duty because it also attracts native pollinators), can all be sprayed on leaves.
- If all else fails, kill pests with natural pesticides like Diatomaceous Earth and Dolomite lime.
6. Weeding In Ecological Gardening
Rounding out our mission to cut out the Big 3 chemicals of plant cultivation, toss out the herbicides in favor of good ol’ human-powered weed removal.
Stay on top of manual weeding, doing a little bit every day if you can, so it’s never a big chore. Plus, smaller weeds have less developed root systems that are easier to remove.
To get rid of bulk weeds at the beginning of the season before planting, cover your garden in glass or clear greenhouse plastic. The sun will naturally kill the early crop of weeds. For that reason, old windows are some of the most useful garden recycling ideas.
7. Harvesting In Ecological Gardening
Harvest throughout the season to keep your plants producing and operating efficiently. Certain early crops (like radishes and spinach) can even be harvested and replanted for a second harvest before winter.
Again, an ecological garden is an efficient garden. The more your plants produce, the more carbon they sequester from the atmosphere.
After your final harvest, “put your bed to bed” by completely pulling out all plants and roots and refreshing the soil with a top layer of compost before winter. This ensures healthy soil and minimal weeds next season.
Be sure to study up on how to preserve food at home as well, so none of your autumn abundance goes to waste.
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Final Thoughts On Becoming An Ecological Gardener
To recap: eco gardening is simply a more mindful way to grow your summer veggies or flower beds by opting to plant natives or eco-friendly plants (in perhaps eco-friendly planters or recycled plant pots to accentuate your greenery), intentional planning, and natural solutions to problems.
What are the benefits of an ecological garden?
For the environment, any form of ecological horticulture generally means healthier plants that can sequester more carbon and create a healthy biodiversity of necessary insects and pollinators among local ecosystems.
For you, it means eliminating exposure to agricultural chemicals, from both use and consumption of any fruits, vegetables, or herbs your garden yields.
That’s on top of the emotional and mental health benefits you’re already getting from the act of gardening!
Your garden may be pretty ecologically sound, but if you know anyone else who could stand to improve their ecological lawn and garden practices, please consider sharing this article—along with a list of native plants!
The thyme is now to grow a more mindful community of ecological gardeners.