Growing a garden is an excellent way to produce some of our own food, get exercise and spend time in nature. But with water, fertilizers, tools and more, gardens can become a major consumer of resources. With a few smart techniques, you can reduce the amount of input your garden requires, making your garden and yard cheaper, healthier and lighter on the planet.
Water is one of the biggest investments we make into our gardens and yards. In many areas, more than 50 percent of municipal drinking water is used on landscapes, says Andrea DeLong-Amaya, horticulture director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas.
Growing plants that are native to your microclimate is one of the most efficient ways to conserve water. “Regionally native plants are adapted to local temperature and rainfall, minimizing the need to supplement with municipal water,” DeLong-Amaya says. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center offers a slew of resources to locate the best native plants for your area, with specific listings of plants by state at wildflower.org/collections.
Choosing native plants will help reduce your reliance on irrigation, but food crops will likely still need watering. You can provide free, recycled rainwater to your plants by installing a rain barrel—essentially a large, covered container installed directly below the gutter downspout—to capture storm runoff (make sure it’s legally permissible in your area first). Simply connect your barrel to hoses or use it to fill watering cans. Rain barrels are easy to make, or you can purchase one from a garden supply store such as Clean Air Gardening or Gardener’s Supply Company.
You might also consider installing a graywater system, which can divert household wastewater from your home’s bathroom sinks, tubs, showers and clothes washing machines (but not kitchen sinks, dishwashers or toilets) to storage tanks for outdoor watering. Check state and local laws for applicable restrictions. To learn more, search “graywater” or “greywater” and your state or city name, or read our article about the basics of graywater systems.
No matter where you source your garden water, make sure you’re using it efficiently. Drip irrigation or soaker hoses deliver irrigation directly to plant roots slowly over time. Make sure to inspect your irrigation system monthly for clogs, leaks or breaks in the lines. “Look for puddles, moist spots that don’t drain, algae stains on stones or pathways, plants that may be rotting due to excess water from a leak, or plants that are dry if the irrigation isn’t hitting them,” DeLong-Amaya says. “As seasons change, reevaluate your plants’ watering needs. It may be that you can back off on water after the driest part of summer or turn off the system completely during spells of high rainfall.”
Finally, water in the early morning to avoid evaporation and plant fungal problems, which can develop if plants sit with wet leaves for long periods. Watering in the morning allows foliage to dry as soon as the sun comes up rather than encouraging fungal spores that thrive in the humidity of the night. Group plants according to watering needs. “This allows you to target smaller sections that need more water,” DeLong-Amaya says. “In any irrigation zone, the lowest common denominator sets the standard for watering. You may have a grouping that needs water once a week, another that may not ever need irrigation, and others that prefer to stay moist.”
Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are bad for our health and the health of the environment, in addition to costing money. In a 2012 statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised parents to reduce or eliminate prenatal and early childhood exposure to pesticides because of their association with pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive functioning and behavioral problems. Choosing native plants will go a long way toward eliminating your need for chemical fertilizers or pesticides. “Native plants evolved to deal with pathogens, particularly with native pathogens,” DeLong-Amaya says. “They are also better adapted to the local climate and soil conditions, reducing their level of stress, which makes them generally healthier and more resistant to pathogens.” Native plants also generally don’t need extra fertilization. “For example, our Texas bluebonnets prefer to grow on ‘poor’ soils that are low in nitrogen and become floppy and susceptible to mildew when grown in rich soils,” she says.
Many food crops, however, do prefer additional nutrition. Rather than using chemical fertilizers, use what you might otherwise toss out by composting kitchen scraps, leaves and landscape trimmings. Composting kitchen and garden trimmings helps eliminate your addition to the waste stream and simultaneously provides you with free, high-quality soil amendments for the garden. To find stainless steel, ceramic or bamboo compost bins, visit our shopping site. To find large outdoor compost bins and tumblers made from recycled plastic, visit Hayneedle. You can often purchase or get free compost from your municipality. But use caution: There is a risk of contamination from pesticides and other chemicals in some municipal compost. For compost and soil testing, contact the University of Massachusetts Soil and Plant Testing lab at soiltest.umass.edu, which tests samples from around the country. Or to be completely safe, make your own.
Along with water and fertilizer, our gardens generally require tools, row covers, landscaping materials and more. Danielle Pieranunzi, director of the Sustainable Sites Initiative, recommends reusing existing materials or using recycled and salvaged materials. “For example, reclaim bricks or stone for landscape edging or for raised garden beds,” she says.
Always keep reuse in mind as you work on your landscape. “If a tree must be felled, instead of hauling it off, chip it and layer into a compost pile or use it as coarse mulch in pathways or around large trees,” DeLong-Amaya says.
When it comes to garden tools, you may find success seeking out secondhand supplies via garage sales, Craigslist or thrift stores, or you can find eco-friendly gardening tools online or at local garden centers. Most important: Always buy with durability in mind. “These tools may be more expensive in the short term, but if they are of better quality, it extends the tool’s life span,” DeLong-Amaya says. To find garden tools made from recycled materials online, visit Garant Enviro tools and Burpee.
Reduce the amount of electricity you use in your garden and yard by reducing or eliminating outdoor lighting. Light pollution—the excessive use of artificial light, often needlessly directed into outer space—threatens ecosystems by disrupting wildlife’s nocturnal behaviors such as nighttime bird migration. Light pollution is also potentially harmful to humans: In 2012, the American Medical Association reported that too much nighttime artificial light can disrupt human circadian rhythms and suppress melatonin release.
We waste $2.2 billion in the United States annually on human-produced light pollution, according to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a nonprofit working to protect wildlife, cut energy waste and stop light pollution. The IDA recommends only illuminating outdoor spaces when you are outdoors, directing light properly, and using timers, dimmers and sensors.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
find native plants for your area
Chicago Botanic Garden
read about reducing waste in your garden
EPA’s Water-Efficient Landscaping Guide
discover how to use water-efficient landscaping
offers least-toxic control recommendations for a range of pests and weeds
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