Is There Really Such a Thing as a Sustainable Backyard Garden?


The issue of sustainable agricultural practices is something most commercial growers find themselves grappling with. Preserving the land while preserving the bottom line is becoming increasingly important as more and more consumers are making purchasing choices based on the soundness of a company’s environmental practices.

But minimizing environmental impact when growing plants isn’t just a concern for commercial agriculture. Backyard gardeners are also being encouraged to use sustainable practices when creating their garden. Andrew Bunting, the curator of the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, says that the gardening hobbyist can create a sustainable garden by reducing the amount of resources, such as mulches, plants, water, and fossil fuel they use, as well as eliminating the use of herbicides and pesticides.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the sustainability of your garden, the first of which is maintaining the proper chemical balance in the soil so it continues to be fit for planting. Andrew says that active composting is the key to healthy soil:

“Throughout the year, all the waste from the garden can be put into a compost pile. I like to have three separate bins. Two bins can be used to move and mix the material that is being composted and the third can be used to hold the finished compost. The finished compost can be spread on garden beds in the spring, used to supplement plantings throughout the season, or used as a soil for container or window box plantings.”

Composting is also the solution to the problem of weeds, according to Andrew. He says that if you add leaf compost as mulch in addition to applying your other compost, this will help suppress the weeds. Also keep in mind that weeds that are removed from the garden, as long as they don’t have seed heads on them, should be composted too: “I compost everything removed from the garden including weeds, old annuals, and leaves in the fall. A successful compost bin just needs to be turned regularly. In about 6 months, your composted materials will turn into nice rich, dark compost. This can be added to the garden in any quantity.”

What about the types of plants you choose? Do they also contribute to sustainability? Definitely, says Andrew, and that is why the plants added to a garden should be ones that require as little water as possible. That’s because a sustainable garden shouldn’t have an irrigation system. Watering should be done on an as-needed basis. He added, “Many native plants are good, but there are also a lot of non-native plants which are equally good. A lot of local horticultural societies have a scheme to recommend good local plants. For example, The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has The Gold Medal Program for outstanding plants. In the northwest the Elizabeth Carey Miller Botanic Garden has the Great Plant Picks program.”

In addition to these practices, Andrew added some others you might like to incorporate into your plan for creating a sustainable garden:

1. Keep compost bins and recycle all garden and kitchen waste.
2. Install rain barrels and some sort of harvesting system to re-use grey water from showers, sinks, etc.
3. Plant water-wise plantings, such as drought tolerant trees, shrubs, and annuals.
4. Reduce the amount of lawn so that it requires less mowing and less fossil fuels to maintain. You can also use a reel mower, which requires no fossil fuels.
5. Use non-toxic chemicals such as insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils for pest and disease control.
6. Include plants in your landscape that attract wildlife, such as native trees and shrubs with berries and seeds.
7. Reuse the compost as a water saving and weed suppression mechanism.

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