Sustainable gardening is a huge topic, so the best place to start is with what you really want to grow. Do you want to grow your own fruit trees? A vegetable garden? Herbs or flowers? Don’t worry. There is a process you can use to figure out basic sustainable gardening, and you can learn that process by the types of plant you want to grow. Here is how to grow different types of plants in a sustainable way at home.
Evaluate your growing space
The first thing to do if you want to grow a sustainable garden is to evaluate the growing space you have to use. If you live in a warmer climate, you can grow a lot of plants year round and your biggest challenge might be mold or bacteria or pests that never get killed off by cold.
If you live in a city apartment, you can look into a balcony planter garden or indoor houseplants.
If you have a lot of land in the country or your front and back yard, look at how much sunlight you have during the day as the shadows move around your house and property. You will need at least eight hours of direct sun for plants that like full sun. Shade-loving plants like tulips, irises and cilantro might prefer to be planted up against the house if the soil stays more shaded and moist by your house.
Know your (new) growing zone
Look for plants at your local nursery or online that suit your growing zone. In the U.S., zone seven to 10 is sub-tropical to tropical that you will see, for example, in the American South. Meanwhile, zones four to six are common in the northern U.S. into Canada, where you might need to replant sensitive perennials like annuals or use heavy mulch. Your property will do better with cold-resistant varieties of plants, such as roses that are hardy up to -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Just make sure that you pay attention to how climate change is changing the precipitation and temperature ranges of your growing zone.
Growing zones vary by micro-climate and are just a general guide. You should look at your own property and test different starts purchased locally to see what you can grow, because most local nurseries stock plants that prefer the local climate. Just research what you plant before it goes in to make sure your cane palm from Lowes won’t freeze over winter, or you’re not planting something invasive.
Sustainable gardening techniques
Sustainable gardening can mean any of the following techniques that help you garden without depleting or damaging the environment.
1. Organic compost: make your own with a pile you turn over every week or two of one-half dry leaves and one-half kitchen scraps, or order compost by the yard from local landscape supply.
2. No-till gardening: a method of covering a weedy landscape with cardboard or biodegradable plastic with vent holes that can absorb water but won’t let weeds through. This way you can layer compost on top. It makes tilling/planting easy, but you should know that weeds will grow on top of the cardboard so you might have to repeat this process a few times to keep the weeds down.
3. No-spray organic gardening: use neem oil or dish soap as a compromise on organic gardening to get rid of the worst pests, and instead of pesticides, use natural deterrents to pests like essential oils or plants that drive away bugs.
4. Bio-intensive gardening: if you have a small space, check out bio-intensive gardening to learn how to make a small pot very productive.
5. Permaculture: build a garden over time layered with perennials that can easily adapt to your weather conditions, and you can slowly build a food forest.
Growing sustainable fruits
So you want to build a fruit garden. This can take trial and error, because plants can arrive damaged or diseased or not take root in your hard soil if you have a sudden drought. The best way to plant a fruit tree garden is to test a variety of plants, such as pears, apples and cherries. See what naturally thrives, which part of your property they prefer and if something dies replace it with something else before scaling up on what works best.
Ground fruits like strawberries and blueberries often prefer more acidic soil, which you can amend with organic fertilizers or lime.
Be careful about netting to protect your fruits. Use organza fruit bags to protect individual tree fruits instead of large hole netting that can trap birds. Look up how to deal with common diseases and pests like peach borer and the rust that can move from your native junipers to your apple trees. Then look up natural remedies or talk to your local agriculture department or landscaping store to get tips on how much to water or fertilize or mulch each species of fruit tree.
Strawberries love acidic pine needles as mulch, but it won’t sink into the soil much so it’s not worth sourcing if you don’t have any pine trees locally. Wood chip mulch can be bought cheaply or free by signing up for a local Chip Drop service where local arborists will drop off chip loads from nearby tree trimming jobs. Voila! Mulch for a year that encourages mycelium and leaf mold to nourish your plants and will break down after a few years into rich new compost.
Growing a sustainable vegetable garden
Vegetables can make a gardener go wild planting everything they’ve ever wanted to try. We heartily endorse you going nuts in your garden, but before you go crazy spending too much on plants, check out your local farmers market to see what grows locally. In middle growing zones, you can usually grow a variety of vegetables from tomatoes and peppers to lettuce and pumpkins. Colder zones will require you to replant by seed every year. Warmer climates you will need to focus more on your irrigation system than what you can grow, and you might want to skip delicate greens if you live in a desert or super hot humid region.
Hot weather makes greens go to seed and get bitter and tough. If you want to grow greens, start these earliest in the spring under a cold frame or tunnel to shade them from the sun and protect them from frost.
Every type of vegetable has its own needs for watering, spacing and sun exposure. Plant your vegetable garden with trellises on the north side in the northern hemisphere so they don’t block sun from shorter plants. Make sure to check your seed packets or start from the hardware store to see what kind of sun and spacing they need. We have our vegetable and flower garden split into zones according to spacing and watering needs as well as sun exposure. This makes weeding between rows easier with more automated tools, and saves us from having some plants go moldy from too much water that the plant next to them requires to thrive.
Growing a sustainable herb garden
Herbs are in the greens category for sensitivity to bolting, so be careful to plant your herbs according to sun exposure needs. If you want to grow sensitive herbs like cilantro, keep them near your lettuce.
Want to grow herbs indoors? This is one of the easiest ways to start a kitchen garden. You can buy an aquaponics or traditional planter set with holes in the bottom of pots for drainage and a tray to catch extra water. This is better than a solid bottom to your planter because it prevents water from standing in the pot and rotting the roots of your herbs. If you get mold or bugs on your indoor herb garden, you might be watering too much. If leaves are wilting or turning brown, you might need to water them more or put them in a brighter window.
Try to take any established herb plants from the garden store into your home in a way that slowly adapts them to new temperatures and sun exposure. A good rule of thumb is to water your indoor herb garden every other day, or when your finger pushed into the soil comes up dry an inch down.
If you’re growing outside, herbs are great hedge plants for the edges of other flower or veggie garden beds. You can stick them anywhere. Also look for flowering herb varieties you can eat or use for bouquet fillers for cut flower arrangements. Flowering basil, dill and wild mint are great choices. But you will never eradicate the wild mint so be sure you want it for life before planting.
Growing a sustainable flower garden
Flower gardens can be grown around walkways near your house or in their own fenced garden for cutting flowers. We like to mix up marigolds with our veggie garden to keep pests away, and it really works. Edge your garden with lavender or peppermint to drive away pests. And did you know that deer are less likely to eat flowers that have a strong scent? Go for cut flower varieties that have scents by picking heirloom varieties of roses and peonies that haven’t had the scent bred out of them. Or pick “hybrid tea rose” varieties or “cutting garden” flowers for extra long stems that are good for arrangements.
Flower gardens also have pests, so you’ll want to test what works in your area. In some places like the Pacific Northwest, slugs can eat your entire dahlia patch. In Michigan, roses struggle to survive extreme temperature swings from summer to winter, so be sure to pick flower varieties that are labeled for your growing zone and sun exposure.
This is just a starting point, but we hope we’ve given you some rabbit trails to follow as you start your sustainable garden. The cool thing is, sustainable gardening is easier than farming with pesticides if you learn to manage your land properly. You can skip the weed killer, the chemical fertilizers and the pest control chores if you just keep an eye on your plants and intervene quickly with natural sprays like neem (good for white flies on your beans and potatoes or brassica-loving moth larvae) or cutting off diseased stems to prevent rot or mold from spreading.
One final note: drip irrigation is very popular in warmer climates for saving on water waste, but these systems can clog with dirt and be a pain to set up. You could try running a hose from your spigot and splitting it with a timer into zones with wobbler sprinklers (we like the ones from Neversink Tools). Set up the timer to run each sprinkler zone for about half an hour every morning in succession, and never water right before sunset if you’re in a mold-prone climate. If you remove mold from roses and canker rot from stems and never plant a diseased dahlia to avoid spreading problems to other plants, you’ll be a pro sustainable gardener in no time.
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