Many people are familiar with the term “organic” and know that it is often applied to gardening or agriculture. We know that organic means that no chemicals are used in the process of growing the produce. Only some of us have heard of “sustainable” gardening. It sounds fairly vague, doesn’t it? However, this is not the case as sustainable gardening means that the garden and practices that are used are enough within themselves to sustain the growing cycle so that outside inputs are not needed, or at least in small amounts.
“Outside inputs” include things like fertilizers, chemical insecticides or herbicides. While some of these things are not bad, the idea of sustainable gardening is to create your own healthy ecosystem. Often sustainability in the garden becomes sustainability as a life cycle. It is simply infectious to have a naturally based, wholesome life! Here are some ways to start moving towards this balance in your own garden:
The Design of the Garden
Starting with the basic building blocks of making a garden, think of the design. The design of the garden can really play into other methods of sustainable practices later in the process, so this is an important one to think about. If you already have a garden and you want to look towards going sustainable, simply tweaking some things will help. The design mostly has to do with where the plants are planted in accordance with others in the garden and where they like to live. One of the biggest tools to consider is companion planting. Companion planting can greatly reduce weeds while also acting as a good pest control. This generally involves planting things like tall, sun-loving corn, together with a climber, like pole beans, and then a ground cover, like squash. They all have their space and needs met, space is greatly conserved, and weeds are practically choked out of existence. There are many resources online to help pair more specific plants together that you might already be interested in growing.
Other design practices will include things like terracing, and crop rotation, important when building your soil back up to health, as well as picking appropriate plants for your area. If you live in an area that is very arid, trying to grow something that requires a large amount of water is not going to be sustainable. However, picking plants that may even be native to the area will greatly reduce the difficulty in finding sustainable ways to manage soil and water usage as the season progresses because the plant will already be right at home!
One key practice carried out by sustainable gardeners is water conservation. The goal is often to try and use only the water that is provided by nature. This way, areas that are experiencing man-made drought are not being further damaged by growers trying to be natural and healthy. The most common way to do this is to get multiple rain barrels to catch any runoff from a house or shed. Some people have even designed their garden so that runoff that rain that doesn’t soak right into the soil will flow down slight declines, or trenches, and drain into troughs set into the ground. This, they store for later use and reduce the amount that they are taking from local reservoirs and rivers.
Another concept is to design a “rain garden”. Rain gardens involve terracing, creating holding pools, and setting your garden into raised beds so that water slowly soaks into the soil and stays for as long as possible in the desired garden area. In some places, even evaporation loss needs to be accounted for so using drip irrigation or a watering-can can be helpful, depending on the size of the garden and labor involved.
Finally, there is composting. Composting is a useful skill to cultivate since getting the desired yield will require fertilizers. Using this natural method, the cost of fertilizers and culmination of waste products of a garden are reduced. Starting off simple, composting can be taking the time to rake the autumn leaves back over the garden before winter and then tilling it into the soil come spring. Taking an extra step may involve composting leftover food scraps in a bucket or a worm bin or even starting a compost pile for all food and garden waste. With each step, sustainability increases and waste and chemical runoff decreases.
These are just a scratch at the surface of all the ways that sustainability can be practiced in a garden and in life. All-in-all, from big steps to small ones, becoming more sustainable as a gardener has positive effects for both family, garden and the environment. Who wouldn’t want to get in on that?
Photo: By Ella Olsson