Tips, principles and practices for the organic vegetable gardener.
Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural
Sustainability is a movement that embraces all facets of human endeavor. “Sustainable” means to perpetuate existence as well as to provide sustenance and nourishment. Today, the word is attached to everything from forestry to ceiling tile.
Sustainability is most often associated with the environment and specifically to our landscapes and gardens. What is a sustainable garden? It is an organic garden taken a step further.
Following organic gardening practices will sustain soils and plants while it nourishes and sustains your family, both physically and aesthetically. Organic gardening also points us towards other gardening practices that pursue the goal of sustainability by conserving resources.
Sustainability isn’t a commodity as much as it is a lifestyle. It has immediate as well as long-term rewards. Generally, sustainability is forward-thinking, looking ahead to secure a future for you and yours, getting things to last, making things better than you’ve found them. When one chooses to preserve and protect resources, to make as little negative impact on the earth as possible, to nurture the planet as well as those around us, one has chosen the path of sustainability
Sustainable gardening is one of the most important and effective sustainability practices that we can follow. Its practice and benefits include respecting, and improving the soils, using native plants, shrubs and trees to create beautiful landscapes, feeding one’s family fresh, organically-grown fruits, berries and vegetables and utilizing every renewable resource that nature provides, from rain water to gravel.
Look to the American Sustainable Sites Initiative, a collaborative effort of the U.S. Botanic Garden, American Society of Landscape Architects and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, to define sustainability in terms of gardening. The organization says sustainability seeks to… “protect, restore and enhance the ability of landscapes to provide ecosystem services that benefit humans and other organisms.” Substitute the word “gardening” for “landscape” — they mean much the same thing — and you have the perfect understanding of what it means to be a sustainable gardener.
Practicing sustainability is a reach for perfection, an act of protecting the environment through actions that benefit it or do it least harm. The closer we come to a goal of complete gardening sustainability, the more reward to our gardens, our families and the planet as a whole. Sustainability not only embraces organic gardening methods but conservation of resources as well. Sustainability often mimics natural process, utilizing what nature gives us with as little supplement as we can manage.
When supplementing natural process is called for, it’s done with as little impact as possible; substituting beneficial insects for pesticides or drip irrigation for sprinkler watering. In short, sustainable gardening is a low maintenance, eco-friendly method of growing, harvesting and using a resource — in this case our very earth — so that the resource is minimally depleted, easily restored and not permanently damaged.
Here is a list of broad sustainable gardening principles and practices that will, together or individually, move us closer to the goal of gardening sustainability. Note that the practices are interrelated, that one influences the other; that any two practices result in benefits to a third or more. Not only will the practices here reward future generations, they’ll make our gardens healthier and produce bigger yields right now.
Composting has the most impact of any sustainable gardening practice. Composting recycles and enriches. It benefits the health of your soil and benefits your family at the same time. Composting yard and garden wastes means less material going to the landfill and more organic material for your soil. Composting can be as simple as raking leaves over your garden when you put it to winter bed or as specific as indoor food composting with a Bokashi bucket or worm bins. Whether you’re growing vegetables, lawns, flowers and shrubs or fruit trees, composting will bring about vibrant, fortifying change to your gardens while it reduces waste. Composting practices which make soils more friable also help to conserve water. The planting of green manures — cover crops like rye, oats and hairy vetch that are composted directly into soils — add nitrogen and other nutrients and also help prevent erosion during spring and fall runoff.
How you care for your garden goes a long way towards attaining sustainability. Age-old practices like cultivating between plants with a long hoe not only suppresses weeds but aerates your soil. Avoid using chemical herbicides and toxic pesticides that extract a toll on the environment and you. Instead follow organic weed and pest control methods. There’s both health and knowledge benefits to getting down on your knees and pulling weeds. Using beneficial insects to control pests not only benefits your garden, it can become a valuable lesson in natural science for your children.
Grow Native, Climate-Appropriate Plants
Nature has designed the perfect plant for your micro-climate: the one that is native to your area. Check natural areas and local garden experts for plants that thrive in your conditions. Find plants that, depending on your conditions, tolerate drought, or high rainfall and seasonal flooding. Exposed environments may need plants that tolerate high winds. When growing vegetables, you already choose plants that mature during your area’s growing season. Making sure vegetables are hardy and high-yielding inside all your area’s climatic, prevailing soil and elevation conditions means you use less soil additives and supplements, less water and less overall effort to see them succeed.
Seed saving brings you more in-tune with your plants and assures that the seed you’ll plant next season has done well this season. Start with the easiest seeds to save: peas, beans, peppers, tomatoes and work from there. Harvest flower seed taken from dried flowers. Scout fields and woodlands for harvest-able native plants and grasses. Learn to identify weeds and invasive plants to prevent accidentally importing them to your landscape. Few experiences are as gratifying as watching seed you grew, harvested and cured, sprout the following season.
When sustainable gardeners design their gardens and landscapes, they consider all resource-conserving principles to protect their soil and plants. Just as American farmers worked to end the Dust Bowl by planting shelter belts and by practicing contour farming, the sustainable gardener utilizes the same soil-protective, crop-rotating, water-conserving practices to achieve minimal impact. When building walks, walls or decks, the sustainable gardener looks for recycled, environmentally-friendly building materials; likewise when building soils. And there’s a ripple effect when you buy sustainable, organic products from businesses that support sustainable gardening. Their success — and yours — encourages more gardeners to follow the path of sustainability even as it immediately rewards the environment.
Sustainable design considers where plants are placed. Shade-loving plants are placed in the shadow of tall sun-loving plants, sun-loving plants are planted in places with the best exposure to light. Water-loving plants are grown where moisture collects, trailing plants are grown over terraces. Companion planting is an easy way to control pests and encourage growth. The more knowledge one has about plants and gardening, the better one’s landscape design.
Conserving Water Resources
Water is precious. It needs to be protected for quality as well as preserved. The sustainable gardener will utilize rain barrels and collection systems to provide water not taken from the draw-down of dwindling municipal or private sources. The sustainable gardener protects water quality by not using herbicides or pesticides that might contaminate it as it percolates through the soil and heads back to the water supply. Water that drains away or ends up in a storm sewer is wasted. Sustainable gardeners control runoff with permeable soils. They use mulch and ground covers to enable soils to hold water, so it does not evaporate or drain away quickly. They design “rain gardens,” utilizing terraces, holding pools and raised beds to collect rainwater, allowing it to soak slowly back into the soil.
The goal is to use only the water nature provides, in the form of rain and runoff, achieved by harvesting it and storing it until needed. This is easier in some locations than others. Where rainwater collection is difficult or impossible, the sustainable gardener uses direct water methods — a watering can — or some form of drip or direct irrigation to cut down on evaporation loss. Sprinkling systems are wasteful (through evaporation) and most plants, excluding ferns and other humidity lovers, don’t do as well watered with sprinklers.
Last, Not Least
These principles, taken together, encompass uncountable methods and techniques that move gardeners that much closer to sustainability. I encourage you to explore the links here and all other sources — including your local gardening experts — to increase what you know about plants, soil and resource conservation. The greatest tool you can use to pursue the goal of sustainability is knowledge. And the largest effect you can have on sustainability is to share that knowledge. That’s a big part of making gardens and landscapes sustainable: passing on what you know.