SUSTAINABLE GARDENING (title ideas, anyone?)
"Sustainable" is a word we’re seeing everywhere lately – high time.
Broadly speaking it applies to activities that can be continued
indefinitely – be it energy practices, logging, or agriculture. But
let’s look specifically at sustainable gardening because A, it’s the
right way to garden, and B, the National Wildlife Federation requires
the backyard habitats they certify to be gardened that way and I hope
lots of you will be getting certified. And kudos to the NWF for adding
it to the traditional requirements of food, water and shelter for
wildlife. It’s a great opportunity to educate the public, especially
nongardeners, about gardening practices that are better for the
environment and not coincidentally, easier on the homeowner.
WHAT IS IT? Most sources define sustainable gardening as the
creation of a healthy plant-and-soil system that doesn’t need added
resources like supplemental watering or toxic inputs like pesticides
and herbicides. Beyond these basic principles there’s disagreement
among the various sources, so I’ll start with the areas of agreement.
Use of Organic Methods:
-Mulching all uncovered soil for
water retention, weed control, and to improve the soil’s structure.
(Best are leaf compost, pine bark chips or cocoa hulls.)
-Composting garden and kitchen waste. If more fertilizer is necessary,
using organic sources only (e.g., compost tea or fish- or
-Choosing pest- and disease-resistant plants.
-For pests, using preventive practices first (like ensuring good air
circulation) and taking action only when a plant is endangered. Then
using the least invasive or toxic methods first, like horticultural oil
for scale and mites, Bt for caterpillars, beetles and mosquitoes,
baking soda for black spot and powdery mildew, and SAFER brand soap for
many problem insects.
-For pests, using biological and physical
barrier controls like bait traps, hard sprays of water to remove
aphids, removal by hand, and diatomaceous earth for slugs.
Avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizer.
If pesticides are used, starting with the least toxic, like
insecticidal soap, and steering clear of broad spectrum insecticides
like Sevin and Diazinon.
-Weeding by hand or using a 10 percent
vinegar solution. In lawns, by using a high mower setting, applying an
organic fertilizer in the fall, and applying lime, as needed..
-Always testing the soil before adding amendments like lime.
Water Quality and Conservation
-Using deciduous trees south of your home to create shade, evergreens on the north to stop winter winds.
– Watering smart – directly to the root zone by hand or using soaker
or drip irrigation, and preferably in the morning. Avoiding
sprinklers. Watering according to plant needs, not a rigid schedule.
Watering infrequently but deeply – no fine mists.
-Grouping plants with similar water needs
-Keeping rain on your property using rain garden techniques and rain
barrels. (Rain gardens are depressions in the soil that are planted
with water-loving plants. For more how-to help Google "rain garden".)
-Stabilizing stream banks with the use water-loving plants that reduce soil erosion, like liriope.
-Minimizing bare soil and stabilizing slopes by planting ground covers.
-Replacing or eliminating lawns (see last month’s column).
-Minimizing the use of impervious surfaces so rainwater can be filtered before reaching the stormwater system.
-Keeping trash, yard waste, fertilizers and de-icers off paved surfaces.
-Growing drought-tolerant plants.
-Weeding regularly (because they compete for water with the plants you want).
– Letting lawns go dormant in the summer.
LET’S NOT FORGET TO SUSTAIN THE GARDENER
authorities or gardeners themselves talk about sustainable gardening
they usually add that often-forgotten element, the human being, the
species responsible for the care of this most unnatural of spots – the
suburban lot. That means considering the amount of labor the homeowner
is willing to undertake to care for the site. Fortunately, the
techniques outlined above go hand in hand with reducing the maintenance
burden on the homeowner, especially mulching and choosing
easy-to-care-for plants. Further reductions in required maintenance
are achieved by relying primarily on trees and shrubs (rather than
perennials, annuals, vines), by planting in sweeps and masses (which
looks better, too), and using simple curves around lawn or mowing
Sustaining the gardener also means growing what you like and enjoy
so that you’ll continue to garden (because today’s eco-friendly
gardening means more and a better diversity of plants on your property,
a win/win for the environment). Finally, it means growing
economically, or at least within your budget, again so you’ll keep
Next month I’ll tackle the area of real disagreement between
ecological and horticultural sources – over plant choice – and provide
plenty of examples of good plants for our area from a variety of local
gardening experts. Coming later, a column about the highs and lows of