Home Garden Basics A More Sustainable Garden: It’s Easy!

A More Sustainable Garden: It’s Easy!

by Dawn
caterpillar on leaf

There are so many ways to garden sustainably.

Is gardening more sustainably for you? Well, would you like to attract more pollinators, help the environment and grow more beautiful flowers and healthy vegetables and fruits at the same time? Then sustainable gardening is just what the doctor ordered!

Before we get into the nitty gritty, have you checked out my previous post on making your home more sustainable? If not, check it out here.

No Pesticides/Herbicides

I think this goes without saying since you’re reading an organic gardening blog, but just in case, here goes: PLEASE, please, PLEASE don’t use pesticides or herbicides in your garden! In particular, don’t let one of those lawn companies (who shall remain nameless!) come and convince you your lawn is going to succumb to grubs and voles and who knows what else if you don’t regularly spread poison all over your property.

We’ve lived in our current house for 10 years. We have a very large lawn (over an acre of open space) that I’ve never treated with anything other than a lawn mower! It’s still lush, green, and growing much too fast for my liking! Do I have mole hills? Yes. Does it make a bit of difference to the lawn? Nope!

Really, having lots and lots of grass isn’t ideal from a sustainability standpoint. Grass does nothing for anyone, except humans who like to look at it. It doesn’t attract or support pollinators, or anything else for that matter.

I’ve been trying for 10 years to convert my lawn to gardens. I’m not there yet (it’s a lot of space!), but I’m getting there. If I had the money (which I don’t!), I would have the entire lawn dug up and reseeded with clover and wildflowers. Now, those attract and support pollinators!

I had a patch of clover in one part of the yard a couple of years ago and if you stood and listened, you could hear the bees buzzing through it. This might not be the best idea if you have kids or dogs running around your yard, but I don’t, so would love to do it.

wildflower meadow
Wildflowers are an awesome choice to help pollinators

Another great thing about clover and wildflowers is that they don’t need to be mowed, which brings me to my next point.

Use of Power Tools

Lawn Mowers

Again, I get it, you need to mow your lawn, assuming you have one. Yeah, you can buy one of those hand mowers and do it that way, but if you have a lawn the size of mine, that ain’t happenin’, sweetheart!

However, you may be able to mow a little less frequently or, as I’m attempting, convert some of your lawn to gardens or clover/wildflowers.

Power Tillers

You also shouldn’t be using a power tiller in your garden (more details on this one below and in my No-Till Gardening post). They damage the soil in innumerable ways, and if you’ve done the right things to build your soil, you don’t need or want a tiller.

Sod cutters

The one power tool I do use in my garden is a sod cutter. We don’t have one, we rent when needed, but when I’m preparing a new garden, it’s just too labor-intensive to dig several hundred square feet of sod by hand, especially since you then have to move that (extraordinarily heavy) sod to another location on your property!

When we dug for our veggie garden several years ago, we posted on Facebook that we had free sod available, and people came and took it off our hands, which was wonderful. If that’s not a possibility, and you have a pile somewhere on your property where you already put sticks and leaves, placing the sod on top of the pile really speeds up decomposition, and also gives the little critters in your yard a lovely place to hide in the winter.

Water Conservation in the Garden

If you read my last post on sustainability, you know I’m passionate about water conservation. Water conservation in the garden, however, is going to look a bit different than it does in the home.

For one thing, you don’t necessarily NEED to wash your car, but your vegetable plants are going to need water if Mother Nature isn’t cooperating. And the thing is, they need a certain amount of water, so it’s not like you can give them a shorter shower. So what to do?

Mulch = No Bare Soil in your Garden ~ EVER!

Well, first and foremost, there should NEVER be bare soil in your garden. You’re going to hear this again as we go along today, but let me repeat this so you remember: There should NEVER BE BARE SOIL IN YOUR GARDEN! Got it? Ok. Now what to do?

Mulch, mulch and more mulch. I don’t care what you use, although of course, something natural is preferable to plastic. In my flower gardens, I mulch with cedar chips because I like the look and smell of them. In my food gardens, I mulch with straw, newspaper and paper bags.

robin looking for bugs in mulch
Birds like the mulch too, because it attracts all those yummy bugs and worms!

Why use Straw Mulch?

I use straw for a couple of reasons. It’s easy to spread, relatively inexpensive, and at the end of the season or in early spring, it can be dug into your garden for next year. Or, if you’d rather not do that, rake it into your pathways and mulch with fresh straw for the new season. Either way, it’s great stuff!

TIP: Please don’t use hay! Hay is an entirely different animal than straw. You see, hay still has live seeds in it, so if you use hay, you’re going to be hating life for several months.

Newspaper and Paper Bags Make Great Mulch too!

The newspaper and paper bags are for the paths in and around my veggies. I do also put straw over the paper just so I don’t slip when it’s wet, but I find newspaper and paper bags seriously cut the weeds.

When Should You Use Plastic to Mulch?

The one thing I do mulch with plastic is my sweet potatoes. Living in the North, I’m really pushing it to grow them because they need such a long, warm season and warm soil. When I plant my slips, I lay black (never clear!) plastic down and just make slits in it and plant.

I actually use black contractor bags (the kind you can get in 50 or 100 bag rolls) and cut them up the seam so they’re single layer. One bag will do a good-sized row of sweet potatoes and is heavy enough to last through the season. You’ll need to weight the edges with stones or soil so they don’t blow away though.

TIP: Don’t use clear plastic in your garden. It will concentrate the heat from the sun so intensely that it will kill anything under it. This is called solarization and is a technique used to sterilize diseased soil. Although it works in instances of serious disease, it’s not ideal, as it kills everything in the soil, both good and bad. You obviously don’t want to do this in your garden!

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Rain Water Collection

UPDATE: It was just pointed out to me by one of my commenters that rainwater collection is illegal in some areas (who knew??), so you may want to check with your town or municipality before starting collection efforts.

If you don’t already harvest rain water, why not? It’s really easy and doesn’t have to cost much at all. You absolutely don’t need to go out and buy one of those expensive rain barrel systems to do it. If you do want a pretty rain barrel, here’s a nice one to check out.

I just line empty buckets up under the roof drip line behind my shed, then pour the water into a big, clean, covered garbage bin. (You do want to empty the buckets after every rain storm because small furry creatures like chipmunks will try to get water from the buckets and they occasionally fall in and drown. Ick!)

I have to confess I don’t use this to water the veggie garden as carrying all that water is just too labor-intensive. I do, however, use this water for containers and for any non-vegetable plants (like new transplants) that need extra help. It’s also a good backup in case it gets so dry that I truly can’t use well water for the veggies, although thankfully, I haven’t gotten to that point yet.

Proper Watering Technique & Drip Irrigation

Another way to cut water usage in the garden is to be sure to water right at the roots of your plants. In other words, no overhead sprinklers. Drip hoses are absolutely amazing. I don’t have a permanent drip system because I rotate my crops year to year and it’s just easier to lay them where I need them (it really only takes a few minutes), but drip hoses ROCK! You can pick them up at any garden center or order them here.

I have several set up in series so when I turn on one valve, they all work at once. I have the garden on 3 different series, so when we go through a dry spell, I set up a schedule and run one series each day for 3 days, then start over. This way, I’m not overtaxing our well, but all the plants are getting water often enough to keep them healthy.

Just another note: I don’t water my flower beds. If I have a new plant or bush, I will give that a drink, but my established plants do not get supplemental water. Being on a well, I just don’t have the water supply to water them too.

The thing is, if you don’t water perennials, they will grow deeper roots and find their own water. I understand this may not work somewhere like Arizona where it gets incredibly hot and dry, but hopefully if you live there, you’re planting varieties that can handle it. Oh, what a nice segue to the next topic…..

bumblebee in flower

Plant Native Varieties

Planting native varieties in your garden is beneficial for a number of reasons. For one, natives are well-adapted to your climate already, so will flourish with less care (and water!) than nonnatives. Secondly, natives are more likely to support local beneficial insects. And last, natives are not going to become invasive in your garden, and choke out other plants.

Although I know there are some bloggers out there who say you ABSOLUTELY CANNOT PLANT NON-NATIVES, I’m not one of them! I have varieties in my garden that aren’t native, and the bees and butterflies still enjoy them.

However, I’m very careful to make sure the varieties I plant are not listed as invasive in my area, and I have a nice selection of native flowers to balance them out as well. Each state should have its own invasive plant list that you can easily Google. If you live in Connecticut, you can find yours here.

Mimic Nature

Also important when you’re planting, try to mimic nature. How in the world will you do that? It’s actually not as hard as it sounds.

Plant Layering

First, layer your plants. By this I mean, if you have the room, plant some trees, then maybe some vining plants that can scramble up the trees. Then plant some bushes, perennials, ground cover, and even some “underground” plants (Daikon radishes, Jerusalem sunchokes, that type of thing). What you’re trying to do is mimic a forest as much as possible.

Now, clearly, you can’t plant trees right over your veggie garden, or you’re not going to get any veggies! However, you can do this elsewhere on your property, assuming you have room.

Pear tree-top layer in a permaculture garden
Pear trees make a great top layer in a permaculture-type garden

Maybe you don’t have room for trees. That’s ok. How about a couple of dwarf fruit trees (bonus: You get fruit!), then some blueberry or raspberry bushes? Add some coneflowers and milkweed, and finish it off with thyme and clover for groundcover.

What you’ve just done is ensured that your fruit trees and bushes will be pollinated by the bees and other beneficial insects that are attracted to the coneflowers, milkweed, clover and thyme. You’ve also attracted predator insects that will take care of a lot of the pests you would normally have a problem with when growing fruit. Additionally, there is no bare ground so watering becomes less of an issue.

See how simple that is? Things don’t have to be complicated or crazy to work. If your space is even more limited, just omit the trees entirely.

Layered Container Gardens

You can even put these same ideas to work in containers. What about a nice tall flowering plant in the middle, then some leaf lettuce or spinach around that, and some trailing strawberries or mint (or both!) at the edges? Same principles, smaller scale.

I’ve just given you a crash course in one small aspect of permaculture. There is so much more to it than this, much more than I can cover here, so if you’d like more information, you can read about it here.

No-till agriculture

Yup, just what it sounds like, get rid of that tiller! Tilling is not a good idea for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, it destroys the structure of the soil, essentially crushing it.

Soil Organic Matter

When you increase the soil’s organic matter (and if you aren’t sure how to go about that, you can check out my post on Increasing Soil Organic Matter here), you increase the microorganisms in the soil. They, in turn, start to decompose the material. As they do this, they produce compounds that bind soil particles together.

These soil particles are called aggregates. In healthy soil, the aggregrates then bind together to form larger aggregates. This helps the soil retain water and nutrients, nourishing your plants and the microorganisms and larger critters (like earthworms) that contribute to the continued and increased health of the soil.

Tilling (particularly with a power tiller) breaks up these aggregates and destroys the soil’s water and nutrient-holding capability, not to mention killing or driving away the beneficial organisms.

Hand Tilling (Hoeing)

A better option in established beds is hand tilling with a hoe, if needed. However, if you’ve kept your soil covered with either mulch or the residues of crops you’ve cut down and left there (yes, you can do this, it doesn’t hurt things as long as the plants weren’t diseased), you’ll have minimal tilling to do.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with planting new plants right into the residue of the old, although you’ll want to pay particular attention to crop rotation (another blog post coming soon!), so as not to encourage pests and disease.

If you prefer to turn your soil under before planting, doing it by hand is still superior to mechanized tilling, and much less damaging.

Another quick note: It’s best not to step on the soil you’ll be planting into. That’s why I always leave enough room between my rows or blocks of plants to walk, so I never walk on the areas that will be planted.

Perennial Food Plants

There are so many perennial food plants out there, but sometimes I think they get overlooked because of our obsession with tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, I grow plenty of them too!

But there are so many perennial food plants, why not try your hand at a few? They tend to need less care and water than annuals, and as a bonus, you don’t have to plant them every year.

Of course, fruit trees and berry bushes are perennial, but what about grape vines? How about rhubarb and asparagus, kale, garlic and artichokes?

perennial food crops
Just some of the multitude of perennial crops available to the home gardener

Have you ever heard of Egyptian walking onions? I just planted some this past fall. They differ from the “regular” variety in that they grow bulbs at the top of their stalks. If left alone, these bulbs get big enough to make the stalks fall over. They then root wherever they’ve landed and create new plants, thus “walking” around the garden! If you’d like more details about this unusual perennial, you can read this interesting and thorough article.

Many herbs are also perennial, depending on where you live. Here, thyme, mint, lavender and yarrow are perennial. Rosemary is perennial in climates just a bit south of us.

Of course, you can always grow nonhardy herbs in containers in your garden (where they function just as well to attract pollinators as the in-ground ones do) and bring the containers into the house for the winter (bonus ~ fresh herbs all winter!)

Oh, funny thing, I have a post about that too. You can read my Growing Indoor Herbs post here, if you’d like.

Plant an Insectary

I got this last idea from the Sustainable Gardening for Dummies Cheat Sheet (yup, it exists, you can read it here if you want). This goes along with the idea of mimicking nature, but is a little more specific so figured I would give it its very own section.

You can do this in your garden or in pots. What you want to do is plant at least 7 different species of plants and make sure they’re not all the same height. So, for instance, the Cheat Sheet suggests amaranthus, coriander, cosmos, dill, lemon balm, parsley, tansy and yarrow. These will attract pollinators like CRAZY and help your entire garden.

I love this idea, with one reservation. I have tansy in my garden (not in a pot). This may not happen in a pot, but in my garden, it gets HUGE every year. As in, way taller than me, AND I cut the plant back either in the fall or spring and save the stalks to use as plant stakes.

It really is like a multi-stemmed tree by the time it dies back in the fall. That said, the bees go NUTS for it, so it’s a really great herb to have. Just be aware that it is LARGE and IN CHARGE so you’ll want to give it ample room to do its thing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my foray into sustainable gardening. Of necessity, I’ve just touched on so many of these subjects. Truly, each one could be its own series of blog posts (and might be in the future!), but I wanted to give you a taste of what’s possible with just a bit of knowledge.

Have you signed up for my email list yet so you can be the first to find out when new blog posts come out? You’ll also get loads of freebies and access to my subscribers only resource library with all the freebies in one place for instant access. What are you waiting for? Head over here and sign up. No spam, just goodies, I promise!

As always, any questions or comments are welcome. I’ve included some pinnable images below if you feel so inclined. Smile and have a crazy organic day!

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Bee in wildflower
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There are so many ways to garden sustainably.

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6 comments

Sarita 02/17/2019 - 12:35 am

Rainwater harvesting against the law?!? Crazy! So much good info here – thanks for the tip about the contractor bags – that might be just what we need to get our potatoes to grow out here!

Reply
Dawn 02/17/2019 - 6:23 am

The black bags definitely will increase the temperature of the soil. I was going to say it works for sweet potatoes too, but then I remembered where you are, and you’re not growing sweet potatoes no matter what you do, unless you get a greenhouse!

Reply
Nikki Gwin 02/12/2019 - 8:46 am

Great article. You make me want to be outside so bad! It’s in my blood.
I love growing herbs and at one time I had tansy, but when we moved I didn’t get it moved with me. I have a hard time finding the more unique herbs. One day I hope to get a seed starter area set up in my house and then I’ll have every odd plant that I want.
🙂 gwingal

Reply
Dawn 02/12/2019 - 4:17 pm

Having a whole seed starting room is awesome (although it is also my sewing room, at least until my daughter moves out, LOL!) I still need more room but it definitely gives me room to play!

Reply
Marc 02/09/2019 - 11:44 am

Great post Dawn! We switched years ago to a hand reel mower and manual grass shears and never looked back. Our backyard anyways doesn’t have any lawn anymore and the patch in front is small, so easy to mow. I’m going to be removing more lawn there to plant more rhododendrons and azaleas.

You might be able to get away with not removing sod if you do sheet mulching with thick cardboard and then do lasagna gardening over top.

Also rainwater harvesting is actually illegal in some areas so you should always check if you are allowed to collect rainwater in your area. I know, it sounds illogical but water rights seem to trump any rainwater conservation efforts!

Reply
Dawn 02/09/2019 - 12:12 pm

Wow! I didn’t realize rainwater harvesting could be illegal. That’s really strange actually. I was alot closer to getting rid of all my lawn in our old house, but this one has so much more property, I’m still working at it. Life goals, you know! LOL. Sheet mulching is a great thing.
My problem is that I usually decide TODAY that I want a new garden TOMORROW, and sheet mulching takes more patience than I have! I did do it on one garden I had the foresight to plan in the fall for the following spring and it worked well.

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