What Is Sustainable Gardening? Eco-Friendly Tips To Grow A Greener Garden
The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and you’ve just plucked a ripe cherry tomato from the vine.
As idyllic as this sounds, it tastes even better—especially when produced through practices rooted in sustainable gardening.
Whether you live on acres of land or in a high-rise condo with pots of peppers, anyone is capable of adopting sustainable planting habits and natural garden care methods.
During the industrialization of agriculture beginning in the 1950s, it was encouraged to “get big or get out”.
This short-sighted piece of advice would deplete the planet of natural resources for years to come as more and more farmers transitioned from diverse, regularly rotated crops to huge swaths of land growing the same mono-crops year after year.
While these processes initially produced higher yields, they strip the land of soil nutrients using synthetic fertilizers and unsustainable farming methods.
It’s time to make like a seedling and reach for the light.
Following key sustainable gardening principles, we can achieve backyard, homegrown, carbon-sequestering, and sustainable food systems that nourish our families and the planet.
But what does sustainable gardening mean, and why is it so important to garden for the environment as well as ourselves?
Pull up your eco-friendly gardening gloves and let’s find out.
1. What Is Sustainable Gardening?
At its core, gardening is sustainable, right?
It should be, but digging a little deeper, one can unearth all kinds of unsustainable practices in growing, seed collecting, transporting foods, planting regulations, and so on.
So what is meant by ‘sustainable’ gardening?
Let’s first consider the Merriam-Webster definition of ‘sustainable’:
“Of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”
Funnily enough, it needs no tweaking to become a basic sustainable gardening definition.
Following that logic, sustainable gardening methods are those that cultivate plant live capable of nourishing us, fauna, and beneficial insects without depleting the planet, adding pollution to our air, or poisoning our waterways.
It’s often indiscriminately referred to as self-sustainable gardening because, when done right, it should improve the land and create a more-or-less self-sustaining environment for years to come.
What are the principles of sustainable gardening?
When it comes to what makes a garden sustainable, practical application methods can vary, but most boil down to a few core tenants:
- Nature knows best: No chemicals that might have a lasting impact on biodiversity or GMOs crops that strip the soil of its nutrients.
- Symbiotic with nature: In other words, it works with nature rather than against it. Companion planting and compost fertilizing are two sustainable garden methods under this umbrella.
- Ecosystem over aesthetics: Those ivy plants might look gorgeous crawling over your stone facade, but you’re likely introducing a devastating invasive plant species that will choke out natural plant life.
- Future-minded intention: Sustainable planting considers not only the success of the current growing season, but ones to follow. For this reason, soil health (far more than individual plant health) is a core consideration.
2. Why Is Sustainable Gardening Important?
If we want healthy, chemical-free food and flowers to be a part of our year, every year, we need to mind our P(ea)s and Qs.
That’s because sustainable home gardening is beneficial on multiple fronts:
If you’re wondering, “How is gardening sustainable?”, this is the big one.
Biodiversity loss is one of the foremost threats to our planet—right up there with climate change. It’s so severe that we are teetering on the edge of the planet’s 6th mass extinction with the possibility of losing ¾ of the planet’s species within 300 years.
Insects are currently facing the brunt of this, which is especially concerning because insects are the basis of life. Balanced insect populations feed other native species higher up the chain, like birds, snakes, frogs, and fish—eventually working all the way up to humans.
In a sustainable garden, insects are not foes but friends (most of them, anyway). Invasive species are typically introduced accidentally and decimate native ecosystems.
By following sustainable gardening tips like not using chemical insecticides, you can increase the population of beneficial native insects (which keep the bad bugs in check) and increase biodiversity at the same time.
Carbon sequestration is a hot tamale of a buzzword in the climate change world, but what is it?
It’s what plants do naturally! The same way we breathe oxygen and convert it into carbon dioxide, plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen.
Considering humanity produces over 35 billion metric tons of CO2 annually (by 2014 metrics, and no doubt this number has risen since then), this is more necessary than ever.
Eco-friendly gardening and farming practices help reduce our impact by capturing carbon from the atmosphere and fixing it within the soil.
Sustainable Food Systems
Food security and, worse, food availability is becoming less guaranteed with issues like droughts, transportation upsets, price hikes, and crop devastation.
Supporting local, homegrown food and flowers builds a sustainable food web that doesn’t lean on unreliable sources and practices like massive GMO monocropping that is slowly stripping our soil from the ability to grow anything at all.
A backyard garden also requires far fewer “food miles” than the goods delivered by freight to your local grocer—which travel an average of 1,500 miles in the US.
With transportation accounting for over 10% of annual GHG emissions (and agriculture-specific transportation for 11% of those), even replacing a few of your daily veggies with sustainable container gardening efforts can reduce the impact of overall food networks.
Food Waste Prevention
133 billion pounds of food waste (including household and restaurant waste) is thought to enter landfills yearly, much of which is a byproduct of current unsustainable food systems.
Labor shortages, inefficient transportation, and weather change all delay deliveries, and food often spoils before it even reaches its destination.
By taking up sustainable vegetable gardening in our own backyards—or supporting other local growers who do so in our stead—we can grow our own food and directly produce or demand only that which we need in the time frame we need it in.
Many factors contribute to our overall health: the environment, chemical levels in our homes, and of course, what we eat.
Sustainably grown food is better for your overall health by refusing the added antibiotics and pesticides used in industrial farming systems.
Clearly, the benefits of sustainable gardening far outweigh those of the industrial model, but the question remains: how can I make my garden self sustainable?
Let’s get our hands dirty!
3. How To Start Sustainable Gardening For Beginners
Sustainable gardening at home is surprisingly easy to get into and the practices and principles are the same regardless of container gardening, sustainable vegetable gardening in beds, growing kits, range crop farming, or simply re-wilding parts of your lawn.
1. Choose a sustainable spot for your sprouts.
Some plants (looking at you, dandelions!) require very little coddling to grow, while others require certain light requirements, watering, staking, trimming, etc.
By selecting a place in your yard that gets adequate sun, and has good drainage and bonus points if there is a water source nearby (or a place for a water catchment system), you’re setting your seedlings up for greater success with natural, self-sustaining measures.
Be sure to consider how you can use natural shade, windbreaks, and rain cover.
The best principle of sustainable gardening design (and sustainable living in general) is using what’s already in place. Observing your entire garden space and planning accordingly prevents store-bought solutions.
For example, plant lettuce beds beneath a tree that throws partial shade midday when the sun threatens to wilt your romaine.
2. Plant native species and protect native habitats.
One of the best ways to make your whole garden sustainable is by planting native species.
Native plants are sustainable plants because they thrive without human interference, usually return yearly, attract pollinators, have natural checks and balances, and will require little input from you once established.
Your sustainable milk-shake might bring all the boys to the yard, but we’d personally rather have some sustainable milkweed bring all the bees to the yard.
If you’re unsure of native plant species in your area, check Native Plant Finder to discover which plants will thrive in your zone.
While turning these plants into a Pinterest-worthy self-sustainable garden, don’t forget the tiny creatures that make it possible. Remain aware of the habitats around you when building beds, placing pots, or setting seeds.
3. Source local, organic, non-GMO seeds.
As important as native plants are, non-natives can be planted and thrive—and they’ll need to be if you want to plant a diverse sustainable vegetable garden.
In these cases, opt for organic, heirloom seed varieties naturally grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
Heirloom vs. GMO seeds
Genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds are those that have been modified and chosen for specific traits, whether growth or pest resistance. GMO seeds are likely subject to fertilizers, harsh chemicals, and pesticides to grow bulk quantities.
However, because they’re unnatural, they pose a huge risk of contaminating ecosystems and further damaging biodiversity.
Heirloom seeds, on the other hand, can be traced back generations (of plants), meaning the plant you seed save from one year will produce the same plant as its parent. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated without any modification except for their natural ability to combat pests.
However, they’re not necessarily organic, so be sure to verify the seed has both designations.
Select a reputable and (if possible) local seed company to source your seeds. Local seed companies are most likely to have varieties that thrive in your environment—and will hopefully not sell seeds considered invasive plant species in your area.
4. Choose eco-friendly gardening products.
When designing your garden, choosing sustainably sourced, reused, or recycled materials diverts excess waste from the landfill.
Old headboards make a trellis, a fallen tree from the last storm makes a garden box, or old tires become a sustainable container garden. Garden recycling ideas and opportunities abound!
If you can’t upcycle something you have, try to source eco-friendly planters made from recycled or biodegradable materials.
5. Re-wild your yard space.
No problem! A lavish environmentally friendly garden may be the end goal, but it need not be the starting point.
Many urban farmers are starting their journey with a small apartment garden or by transitioning overly manicured lawns into diverse, bustling wildlife sanctuaries with some eco-friendly landscaping tricks.
Green space is wonderful for tossing a ball with the family or hosting summer BBQs, which is why many seed companies are coming out with lawn solutions and cover crops that are a party for you and all the creatures underfoot.
Consider switching the border of your lawn into a wildlife oasis by sprinkling wildflowers, left to grow unmaintained and with abandon. This means very little work and maintenance for busy, on-the-go households.
Not only a beautiful, colorful addition to your yard, but rewilding supports bee, bird, and insect populations.
4. What Plants Are Best For A Sustainable Garden?
When choosing our sustainable plants, we want to choose those with long-lasting qualities, restorative environmental impact, and ones that build ecosystems.
In addition to native plants, prioritize the following for your eco garden:
- Perennials: Consider planting perennials that return annually, continue to grow, and support your native ecosystem. Flowers like Black-Eyed Susan, purple coneflower, day lilies, and hellebore benefit the bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies.
- Medicinal plants: Archaeological findings date using plants as medicine approximately 5000 years ago, preserved on Sumerian clay tablets that indicate the importance of plants’ roles in healing our bodies. Medicinal plants are often pollinator friendly and increase yields of your sustainable garden beds.
You also want to choose sustainable plants that suit your natural environment, though this requires a certain level of sustainable horticulture expertise.
For example, if you live in a dry, arid area, planting rows of ferns and lilies isn’t making the most of your space.
If not native, selecting plants originating in an area with similar conditions will save on water consumption (and heartbreak as your crispy cattails bake in the sun).
Some hardy plants suitable to most eco gardening environments include:
- Butterfly Bush
- Bee Balm
- Lamb’s Ear
- Russian Sage
Don’t forget the sustainable berries and trees, if you live in the right hardiness zone to grow them:
5. Maintaining A Self-Sustainable Garden
Once the organic seeds are sewn, and the first few seedlings emerge, it’s easy to believe the hard part is over. Garden pests, droughts, and unexpected weather would say otherwise.
Even self-sustainable gardening is not without its headaches and occasional needed intervention to solve problems like insects (the bad kind), mold, disease, and nutrient deficiency.
Fortunately, there are plenty of sustainable gardening ideas to solve these problems without sacrificing the purity of your outdoor sanctuary. There are tons of ecological gardening solutions, but here are some common ones:
A nearly full head of cabbage suddenly infested with aphids rots my rutabaga.
Companion planting is the practice of interplanting different plants with known benefits to each other (and avoiding those with adverse interactions).
Companion planting is sustainable gardening 101 because it allows your garden (and beneficial bugs like ladybugs) to thrive without harsh chemicals or industrial practices. If a plant cannot deter the bad bug, it may attract its nemesis.
Pop a border of marigolds around your garden beds as a deer-deterrent and beneficial insect landing pad.
If an overzealous aphid family is intent on ruining your prize-winning cabbage, a trap crop of nasturtiums will keep them safe.
Fertilizers are used to provide needed macronutrients to the plant, especially during its fruiting stage.
The problem with synthetic fertilizer is that it possesses the required nutrients in excess, mixed with a laundry list of harmful chemicals.
These chemicals slowly leek (get it?) into your garden and water supply.
The persistent algae bloom in Lake Erie, for example, is believed to be caused by runoff of local farms at a huge detriment to wildlife in the area.
Instead, try natural fertilizers that rely purely on plant, animal, and mineral sources for their nutrients. Get your pitchforks ready; it’s time to work some compost magic—AKA the single most effective of all eco-friendly gardening tools.
Peat-free compost or homemade compost—using your own indoor compost pin or outdoor compost pile—allows food waste to be recycled into the food system by breaking down animal manure, kitchen scrap, yard waste, and even weeds (if hot enough) to create humus: a deep, rich soil blend full of nutrients that it feeds plants and maintains healthy soil.
Other natural fertilizers are bone meal, alfalfa meal, kelp, fishmeal, and feather meal. While the large selection may be confusing, knowing which groups of plants require higher concentrations of certain nutrients help narrow down which is best.
Natural Pest Control
Synthetic pesticides are used to kill garden pests, most notably in large mono-crop operations, as a single species of bug could decimate a farmer’s entire crop (and bank account) in one season.
The four main classes of synthetic pesticides are organochlorines, organophosphates, carbamates, and pyrethroids—all of which have been linked to adverse effects on wildlife, bee, bird, and insect populations.
Even at the top of the food chain, the dangers of synthetic pesticides don’t stop, with numerous linked human health problems within the reproductive, immune, endocrine, and central nervous systems.
To garden sustainably, stay away from synthetic pesticides. If companion planting doesn’t tackle all your bad bug problems, opt for more natural solutions, like diatomaceous earth, garlic, eucalyptus oil, cayenne pepper, and citrus oil, to name a few.
For non-creepy-crawly pests—like birds and deer—using netting to keep them from stealing your soils instead of chemical sprays and soaps.
Mulching & Sustainable Garden Weeding
Mulching is used primarily to retain water and reduce weeds. Using natural mulch (like lawn clippings) that breaks down and feeds the soil is best.
Even with heavy mulch, an obnoxious weed will still be attempting to take over. Hand weeding frequently can reduce overwhelm of the space (and you.).
Harvesting & Resowing Techniques
A sustainable living garden is just that: alive. From the tip of the flower to the root base, the garden is teaming with life.
With more microbes in a spoonful of soil than people on Earth, it’s easier to understand why each plot of land or patio pot’s soil makeup should be carefully considered.
Eco gardening techniques and regenerative practices prevent as much soil disturbance as possible.
Did you know there are several cut-and-come-again lettuce varieties?
This means one seed can produce several cuttings. When you finish the lettuce, cut at the base (taking care not to disturb the roots) and interplant radish or onions. As the lettuce base and roots break down, it feeds the soil microbiome.
As you harvest, be sure to save seeds, too. Saving seeds is sustainable horticulture at its core, as it guarantees organic, heirloom seeds for next year without needing to purchase.
At the end of a busy gardening season when plants begin to die, the best sustainable gardening practices are… do nothing.
Yep, you heard it here first. Cover your compost-filled beds with a heavy mulch and allow them to rest, break down, and prepare for next year’s plans.
When next spring rolls around, don’t get the jump on tilling your garden too early, as insect larvae are still sleeping there after wintering over in your soil and should remain undisturbed until the soil is warm enough to plant in.
6. Dig Deeper Into Sustainable Gardening Practices
If you’re looking to up your eco-friendly gardening efforts, here are a few extra ideas to turn create a more self-sufficient homestead:
- Worms: Whether you grow them in a worm farm to make quick work of food scraps (worms eat almost anything) or add them directly to your garden for some fertilization and aeration, worms are hugely beneficial for plants.
- Chickens: If you’re outside city limits (or inside certain cities—be sure to check what’s legally allowed), chickens may be an option for your backyard homestead. Chickens clean up food waste and turn it into nitrogen-rich manure, which is a compost pile dream.
- Bees: What good are the birds without the bees? Okay, so you don’t actually need bees to raise chickens. Depending on your area’s size, contact a local beekeeper and ask if they’d be interested in allowing you to host their bees for free in exchange for some free-pollinating labor.
- Water capture: Setting up rainwater catchment is the epitome of utilizing natural resources and helps preserve groundwater reserves and uses less energy in the garden. Once captured, drip irrigation systems slowly release moisture into your soil.
- Rain gardens: You can also build a rain garden (a depressed area around native plant species) that make more efficient use of rainwater by holding it around your plants instead of allowing it to wash downstream.
- Bug hotels: Support beneficial insect populations by creating special sanctuaries for them within your yard or garden. There are tons of DIY bug hotels you can create, usually using recycled materials you likely already have.
If these aren’t an option—for example, with sustainable indoor gardening—consider observing a nearby native habitat for clues on better supporting your local insect populations and local wildlife.
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Final Thoughts On Eco-Friendly Gardening Tips
The only way forward is in a world where sustainability is the focus, at both residential and industrial levels.
Sustainable horticulture guarantees a sustainable food source for us and low environmental harm.
Let it begin in your own garden. Getting started is the best way to discover which sustainable practices work for you, but don’t be afraid to reach out and ask other sustainable gardeners for advice.
And don’t forget to share this article with your gardening pals, so you can all bug out on traditional unsustainable gardening practices together.