Beginner’s guide to sustainable gardening

Wed Apr 20 2022

Black woman picking lettuce in her garden

Gardening may be one of the healthiest hobbies a homeowner can pick up. Not only does gardening get you outside in the sunshine and fresh air, but it can boost your mood and give you a dose of exercise to boot!

But for all of these pluses, gardening can hurt the environment. That’s why more people are looking for sustainable gardening practices that let them reap the benefits while still protecting the earth.

What is sustainable gardening?

Sustainable gardening is a set of practices where you grow plants, fruits, and vegetables while avoiding actions that can damage the environment. This might mean:

  • Avoiding pesticides.
  • Selecting a variety of native plants, or plants that occur naturally in your area.
  • Encouraging pollinators, like birds, butterflies and bees.
  • Conserving water.
  • Composting.

The ultimate goal is to be a good steward of the earth and all of its flora and fauna.

With Earth Day just around the corner, the time is ripe to start your first sustainable garden. Here are some steps to get your garden blooming.

1. Choose the right site

Picking a location is the first step no matter what kind of gardening you plan to do. If you’re looking to start a vegetable garden, then you want to find a level spot that has six to eight hours of direct sunlight. Level ground is preferable for flower gardens, too. However, some flowers grow better in partial shade. Either way, you also want to avoid areas near a tree’s root system. The tree’s roots may compete with your garden for water and nutrients.

If your yard is small, or you don’t have a yard at all, you could opt for a container garden and still practice sustainable gardening. Select pots or small plant boxes that are durable or made out of renewable materials, such as clay or bamboo.

2. Know (and test!) your soil

Soil is where your plants get their nutrients, so it’s clearly an important part of your garden. However, many new gardeners don’t realize there’s more than one kind of soil, and for sustainable gardening, you have to match what you have with what you plant. Some common types of soil include:

  • Loam. Loam is equal parts sand, clay, and silt so it drains well and is good for most plants.
  • Sandy. When soil has a lot of sand, it becomes dry and not very nutritious, but you may be able to use it with root vegetable or flower bulbs if you add in organic fertilizer.
  • Chalky. You might not know if your soil is chalky by looking at it, but it will bubble when you pour white vinegar on it.
  • Peat. Peat contains decomposed organic matter and feels sort of spongy. The acid in it can make it less nutritious.
  • Clay. Clay soil is often wet and sticky. Certain types of shrubs can grow in clay soil.

Another important detail about soil? Many types of flowers and vegetables grow best in soil that’s somewhat acidic. You can usually get your soil tested for free at your county’s extension services office or a nearby university. Once you have your results, you can follow the recommendations to help avoid over fertilizing your garden.

3. Pick native plants

Most gardeners have a favorite flower or vegetable, but selecting plants that grow naturally in your area is a better way to go. This helps ensure that your plants thrive without needing additional watering or fertilizers that may have a negative effect on the environment. The goal is to make your garden approximately 70 percent native plants.

Take some time to explore your options at a home and garden show or ask the experts at your local garden center. While you’re at it, try to take home several varieties. The more diverse your sustainable garden is, the more pollinators it will attract.

4. Conserve water

Watering a garden can be tricky. Too little water and your flowers wilt, but too much can flood roots and cause rot. And from a sustainable gardening point of view, overwatering is just wasteful. Many sustainable gardeners choose drip irrigation systems because it saves water while making sure that the soil stays nice and moist all the time without watering the leaves.

You can also conserve water by:

  • Gathering rainwater in barrels or buckets.
  • Allowing swales to collect and redistribute rainwater.
  • Adding mulch beds to retain moisture.

The number one rule for conserving water, however, is to only water your garden when you need to. Check the soil with your fingers, and skip watering when it’s moist.

5. Feed your garden organically

Over fertilizing is a no-no for sustainable gardening, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ever fertilize your garden. Organic fertilizer can be part of the process, especially if your soil needs it or you have plants that require a lot of nutrients, like sunflowers and broccoli. Moreover, your plants may need food more frequently in the middle of their growing season. If plants start to look weak, it might be time to fertilize them.

6. Start composting

Composting is a great way to feed and improve your garden’s soil while reducing the amount of waste you and your family produce. The most basic steps to creating a compost pile are:

  • Creating a pile of both brown (e.g. fallen leaves, cardboard, newspaper) and green (manure, kitchen scraps) materials.
  • Lightly watering that pile.
  • Giving the pile oxygen over once per week.

Depending on the size of your pile, the elements being broken down, and how often you turn it, this can take anywhere from two weeks to two years. You’ll know it’s ready when it has a rich brown color and the consistency and texture that you’d expect from soil. Sprinkle a six-inch layer of compost on your plants to give them the healthiest environment possible.