Not only are sustainable gardening methods better for your wallet, but they are gentler on the planet as well.
What is a sustainable Garden?
Sustainable gardening refers to a garden that can be used productively over and over without the need for excessive restarting costs or additional materials.
Some argue that a true sustainable garden should use only organic materials, but that’s really up to you. Using the occasional commercial pesticide or other non-organic product doesn’t mean your entire garden isn’t sustainable.
For health and safety reasons, we suggest sticking to primarily organic gardening, but the main keys to sustainability are reuse of materials, reduction of waste and increased efficiency.
The basic life-cycle of a sustainable garden looks like this:
- High quality compost goes into your garden’s topsoil, rejuvenating it from last year
- Seedlings grown from seed or taken from cuttings are planted
- Mulch generated from raked leaves or local mulching services covers the compost and protects and conditions the soil
- Water from sustainable sources, like a rain barrel or other rainwater capture system provides water
- More compost throughout the season to feed your plants
- Soil treatments, non-chemical pest prevention, sympathetic planting and predatory insects protect your plants from slugs, mites and other pests
- You harvest your food, saving enough seeds for next year’s plants and putting all the waste matter back in a compost bin where it will turn into compost ready to use next year
Of course there’s considerable leeway in this scenario, and you don’t have to follow every step. Even something as simple as starting a compost bin can be huge time and money saver when it comes time to plant your garden next year.
Let’s break this cycle down and take a look at each part and see what you can do to make your garden more productive and more sustainable from year to year.
When organic material like plant matter decays, tiny microorganisms feed on it. The organisms take in carbon and give off all sorts of nutrients that plants need to thrive.
For those with an allergy to all things hippie, keep in mind that composting isn’t derived from some 1960’s feel-good movement — it’s how the entire ecosystem of the Earth functions. Composting is happening all around you. Why not tap into it and stop spending your hard earned money on ridiculous things like enriched soil?
Contrary to popular belief, composting isn’t difficult, nor is it smelly. Proper compost piles should have a deep earthy scent, a bit like the woodland soil after a rain.
For more details on how to set up a productive compost bin, check out our article on how to Compost.
Once you’ve generated some “black gold,” as compost aficionados call it, work it into your topsoil before you plant. Most plants’ roots stay in the first six inches of soil, so concentrate on working your compost into that area.
By doing so, you’ll be returning nutrients to the soil — minerals like phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, zinc, manganese and iron all help your plants grow.
Compost also improves the texture or “tilth” of the soil. This has a dual benefit; if your soil is naturally loose or sandy, compost will help it retain water better. Conversely, if you have very heavy clay soil, the compost will improve drainage.
In either case the end result is healthier, easy to maintain plants that need far less fertilizer and are more productive.
While composting is an essential element of sustainable gardening, another important factor in soil preparation is minerals. Soils the world over tend to be low in minerals. This can be more easily remedied than many people realize, with the simple action of adding rock dust to the soil. Here’s a great article about a thriving, productive garden in Scotland—in a region mostly known for growing rocks and not much else: http://organicconnectmag.com/wp/2009/10/seer-centre-scotlands-remineralized-oasis/
Mulch refers to putting an additional layer of organic material on top of your soil.
There are several reasons mulching is smart — it suppresses weeds, keeps soil moist, prevents soil runoff, keeps your soil from being compacted by rain, keeps soil temperatures down, increases the number of beneficial earthworms and microorganisms in the soil and keeps mud from splattering on your plants.
In fact, most gardeners regard mulch as then most important part of sustainable, low-maintenance gardens.
OK, so it’s good stuff, this mulch. What sort should I use?
Just about every gardener you ask is going to have a different opinion on this, and there are no right answers.
It depends on what you’re growing (for example pine needles are cheap option that work well for plants that need highly acidic soil, but a terrible idea for plants that want a more neutral soil).
How much mulch you should you use? A good rule of thumb is to use two inches of mulch on top of your well composted soil. You can add more mulch if it starts to break down over the course of the season.
Also, make sure that you never put mulch on top of plants or have mulch touching their stems. A sadly very common, but very bad idea, is piling much against tree trunks. Not only do these “volcanos” of mulch look ridiculous, they’re horrible for the health of your trees.
Simply scatter a two inch layer of mulch over your compost and top soil, making sure to keep it a few inches back from the stems and trunks of your plants.
As for what to use, that’s up to you, but avoid commercial mulches with dyes. Not only do they look ugly, the wood chips used often come from sources that may have harmful chemicals. Stick to organic materials like shredded wood chips and bark, leaf mold, “pine fines” (very fine-textured pieces of pine bark) or husks. Some gardeners even use recycled rubber from old tires.
Our favorite is leaf mold, which is rarely sold at commercial shops, but can easily be made — just run your mower over a pile leaves several times, catching the chopped up results in the grass bag. Don’t have an excess of leaves to chop in your area? Try asking your local government if they have any. Many local governments provide it for free or very cheaply. Check your local government website to see if its available in your area.
Unless you happen to live in the tropics, chances are you’re going to need to water your garden.
The sustainable way to do that is using a rain barrel to catch excess water whenever it rains. You can buy rain barrels complete with hose attachments and then just place them below your gutter’s exit spout. That way you capture run off and can use it to water your garden between rains.
But even with a rain barrel there are still plenty of ways you can cut down on watering. If you’re planting an ornamental garden choose local, drought-resistant plants that are well adapted to your zone (check with your local gardening store to find out which drought-resistant and local plants do the best in your area).
Hit Your Target
Another way to cut down on watering is to only water where it’s needed — the plants’ root zone. Anything beyond the root zone is simply going to feed weeds and be a waste of water. This why switching from a typical sprinkler system to a targeted drip system is probably the single most water saving move most gardeners can make.
Drip systems range from the very complex professionally installed sort (expensive, but potentially money saving in the long run) to the simpler variety you can build yourself. Ask your local garden shop to point you to the flexible hosing and check out this illustrated tutorial on Flickr. Even something as simple as a plastic bottle can create a basic drip system — see this tutorial from You Grow Girl.
Another tip: plant intelligently. That is, plant plants that have similar water needs next to each other. One way to do this is to Build a Square Foot Garden.
Dealing with pests and disease
Once your garden is up and running with quality, well-enriched soil and a nice layer of mulch, it’s time to deal with nature’s pests and diseases. If your soil is good and you plant things native to your area you shouldn’t have too many diseases to worry about, but pests are another matter.
It might be tempting to simply spray on one of the nearly infinite number of commercial pesticides, but not only is that expensive, possibly hazardous to your health and terrible for the environment, it generally isn’t necessary.
Human beings have been cultivating plants for over 10,000 years; commercial pesticides on the other hand didn’t come about until roughly the 1940s. So yes, for every pesticide there is nearly always an organic, less-hazardous solution.
One popular sustainable solution is planting sympathetic plants. For example, many of the pests and diseases that affect tomatoes can be prevented by planting marigolds nearby your tomatoes. There’s also some evidence that tomatoes grow better and bear more fruit with marigolds growing around them.
Similar sympathetic solutions exist for other plants, try searching the web to find out what works well with the plants you’ve chosen for your garden.
Another solution is predatory insects, for example lady bugs (often sold at gardening centers) eat aphids, a common source of problems for rose bushes.
Processing your seeds
So you’ve successfully grown your garden, harvested your fruit, vegetables and flowers. Now winter is coming, so what about next year?
There’s no need to buy new seeds every year; you can use seeds from this year’s fruit and vegetables to grow next year’s plants.
In most cases, you’ll need to process the seeds slightly, usually by fermenting and drying them, but the process generally isn’t too difficult. Just select some fruit from the very healthiest looking plants and then remove the seeds from the fruit.
In the case of tomatoes, it’s simply a matter of washing the seeds and then placing them in water and leaving them somewhere warm for a few days. Once the fermentation process is complete, there will be a fine film of “scum” on the top of the water. Just scoop that off and then spread the seeds out to dry. This can take a while, up to a week in the case of some big tomatoes. Once the seeds have dried just package them up in something airtight and you’re ready to go for next year.
Most common vegetable plants can be harvested for seeds in a similar manner. Just consult your local garden center experts or do a bit of internet searching to find out the details for each plant.
Another thing to remember is that bulbs like irises or tulips can be dug up and over-wintered somewhere indoors, then replanted again next year.
If you’re feeling really ambitious and have a greenhouse of some sort, you can take cuttings of your more successful plants and grow them indoors over the winter. Cuttings work primarily with woodier plants like tree and shrubs though there are exceptions.
Gardening can be a very expensive proposition, but fortunately it doesn’t need to be that way. In fact, if you follow all the suggestion above and are willing to put a bit of effort into it, sustainable gardening is just about free.
Rain gardens (see Save Water, Save the Environment with a Rain Garden & Rain Garden Design Tips) and gray water garden irrigation (see Why Use Grey Water for Irrigation) will make your garden even more sustainable. We recommend that gray water irrigation only be used for non-edible plants. Rain water has a highly beneficial effect on plant growth compared to chlorine-laden municipal water. Truly organic produce cannot be grown using chlorinated municipal water.
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