Embracing a green lifestyle often involves growing a garden, whether it’s cultivating large plots of vegetables or a collection of potted herbs and flowers. The word “sustainable” pops up among ecologically minded gardeners, but what does it mean? Gardening manuals tend to define it as “a thoughtful balance between resources used and results gained.” You also could call this “stewardship gardening” or “eco-gardening,” but the idea is the same: Use nature’s resources, rather than chemicals, to produce a bountiful garden.
Sustainable gardening is both a process and a goal, and it can be a supremely satisfying journey.
1. Align with Nature’s Plan
What kind of ecosystem does your property want to be? A forest, a prairie, a desert? Mother Nature constantly nudges things back to their natural state, and you have much to gain by following her plan. To find out what plants thrive in your region, visit a nearby natural area and look for patterns you can copy in your landscape. For inspiration, read Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards by Sara B. Stein (Houghton Mifflin, 1995).
Woodland Gardening 101
Think layers, with tall trees as the upper canopy, small trees and shrubs below, and ferns and shade-tolerant woodland wildflowers on the forest floor. Use mulches to help maintain soil moisture, and prune low tree branches to admit more light to lower plants.
• Trees: Red maple (Acer rubrum) grows quickly and provides excellent autumn color; ‘Autumn Flame’ features smallish leaves that turn bright red in early fall. Dogwoods (Cornus spp.) have it all: beautiful form, spring flowers and good fall color.
• Shrubs: Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) bears early spring blossoms followed by blueberry-like fruits. Native azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) provide color and fragrance.
• Groundcovers: The glossy leaves of wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) release a bracing mint fragrance when crushed; red berries persist into winter. Trilliums (Trillium spp.) gradually form dense colonies.
Prairie Gardening 101
Mix native grasses with long-lived perennials that match the site’s available moisture, which might be dry, mesic (moderately moist) or wet. Plant in colonies and remove weeds by hand until plants are well established. Mow mature prairie gardens once a year, in early spring. Below are three good partnerships between flowers and grasses.
• Dry Prairie Plants: The bright yellow-orange flowers of black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) look great with a backdrop of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), a tall, vigorous grass that’s kept in check by dry conditions.
• Moist Prairie Plants: Team up the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), an adaptable native grass that provides food and habitat for birds.
• Wet Prairie Plants: Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) bears clusters of white to pink flowers and serves as a nursery plant for monarch butterflies. Grasslike sedges (Carex spp.) make good companion plants.
Desert Gardening 101
Soil improvement is mandatory and you’ll need an efficient drip irrigation system if you want to grow vegetables and flowers. Cacti and succulents thrive with little care, as will many drought-tolerant native plants. Master Gardeners in Yavapai County, Arizona, offer an excellent list of undemanding plants sorted by elevation.
• Trees: Sweet acacia (Acacia farnesiana) or its many cousins fit easily into small low-desert landscapes. Oneseed juniper (Juniperus monosperma) is among the most carefree high-desert evergreens. Dozens of species of mountain lilac (Ceanothus spp.) make great dry-climate shrubs.
• Shrubs: Spiny agaves (Agave spp.) come in a huge range of colors and sizes for low-desert gardens. High-desert yuccas (Yucca spp.) have a similar form.
• Perenials: Perennial penstemons (Penstemon spp.), primroses (Oenothera spp.) and hyssops (Agastache spp. and hybrids) often adapt to a broad range of elevations.
2. Go Native
Native plants have evolution on their side, so they need little help to prosper when grown in their home territory. Native plants also are of tremendous benefit to bees, butterflies and native insects, many of whom have difficulty harvesting and using pollen and nectar from non-native plants.
Wild Ones is a nonprofit organization that seeks to restore landscape diversity through the conservation and establishment of native plant communities.
The North American Native Plant Society re-establishes healthy ecosystems with native plants. The website includes an extensive list of native plant nurseries.
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center is a 279-acre public garden dedicated to preserving native plants and restoring landscapes.
3. Recycle Your Waste
Every landscape generates waste in the form of grass clippings, fallen leaves, shrub prunings and expired plants. In a sustainable landscape, these materials, combined with vegetable and fruit trimmings from the kitchen, can be used to create compost, which will improve soil fertility. You can make compost in an open pile or use an enclosed barrel or bin. In most states, yard waste is no longer allowed in landfills, which has given rise to numerous community-sponsored compost education programs. Contact your local extension service office or solid-waste agency to learn about composting resources in your area.
The Best Bins
Many stores sell compact composting bins made of recycled plastic, but you may be able to buy one for less than half-price through a local composting program. The following models, available at Composters.com, are most widely used by community-sponsored programs. All are made from recycled materials.
• Earth Machine: $69.95, capacity of 10 cubic feet
• Brave New Composter: $85.50, capacity of 11 cubic feet
• Garden Gourmet: $75.50, capacity of 11 cubic feet
• The Home Composter: $89.50, capacity of 13 cubic feet
4. Strive for Super Soil
All plants grow best in rich, fertile soil that allows roots to penetrate at least 15 inches deep. Creating great soil may take a few years but is relatively easy. Begin by growing short-lived annuals in new beds. Dig in four inches of compost or other organic matter in spring and fall. The soil will show huge improvements in texture by its third season, making it worthy of more long-lived perennial plants. In addition, look for locally produced soil amendments at your nursery.
What’s in the bag?
Unless you have a truck—or hire a landscaping service—you’ll probably buy soil amendments in bags at the garden center. Here’s what’s inside bags labeled as compost, humus, soil conditioner or planting mix—and the best ways to use each type of product.
• What is it? Organic matter that’s been mixed and piled to promote natural decay while minimizing pathogens, weed seeds and odors. Often a good source of minor nutrients.
• Best use: Dig a two-inch layer into soil between plantings or use more to improve the fertility of very poor soil.
• What is it? Often a combination of compost and humus, but ingredients vary. Low in plant nutrients but provides a fast infusion of organic matter.
• Best use: Dig in a four-inch layer when creating new garden beds or mix into planting holes for trees and shrubs.
• What is it? Decomposed vegetable matter, most commonly leaves and chipped bark. Low in plant nutrients but high in cellulose, which improves soil texture.
• Best use: Dig in a four-inch layer when creating new garden beds.
• What is it? Typically a mixture of compost, humus and topsoil. Low in plant nutrients. Some mixes include supplemental fertilizer. (Make sure products do not include synthetic chemical fertilizer.)
• Best use: Fill planting holes or dig into new garden beds. Follow label directions for how much to use, especially if the product includes fertilizer.
5. Read labels
Whether you’re looking for a fertilizer or a solution to a persistent pest problem, you can guard your garden’s natural integrity—and support large-scale sustainable agriculture—by looking for the OMRI seal when shopping for garden-care products. OMRI stands for Organic Materials Review Institute, a nonprofit alliance of farmers, scientists, environmentalists and businesspeople that determines whether products are acceptable for use by certified organic growers. The OMRI website includes a database you can search using brand name, active ingredients or type of product.
How Does a Garden Grow?
Organic gardeners attribute their success to healthy soil, respect for beneficial insects’ work and the use of naturally pest-resistant plants. They use only natural pesticides and organic fertilizers derived from natural materials.
Biointensive gardening focuses on deeply dug raised beds to coax maximum productivity from every square inch of soil. Grains are grown for use as food, mulch and soil improvement. The use of high-quality compost and plants that grow well together round out the system.
Biodynamic gardening is based on sound organic methods enhanced by special liquid preparations made from minerals, manure and plants, such as chamomile and stinging nettle. These preparations improve the soil’s self-healing properties and promote superior nutrition in crops. Biodynamic gardening also works to align with the forces of nature, including phases of the moon and planets.
Permaculture seeks to create functional, interactive systems in which both nature and people are well served. Permaculture practitioners gently enhance ecosystems by creating niches for useful plants that can perpetuate themselves without constant attention.