Back to Nature
Sustainable gardening is easier than you might think
By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor
Over the past few years, “sustainable” has become quite the buzzword. But what does sustainable gardening really mean? Experts generally agree sustainable gardens employ practices that conserve resources like water and soil, reduce the carbon footprint, promote biodiversity and aim to not harm the environment. As Rachel Carson said, “But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” In other words, work with nature instead of against it.
But we need beautiful outdoor spaces that lift our spirits. By rethinking the way we use natural resources and attending to problems responsibly, we can have attractive landscapes in harmony with nature.
Start Where You Are
Shifting from conventional to sustainable gardening might seem overwhelming, but it’s OK to just start where you are and think about incremental, not monumental, changes. Choose to focus on a few of the suggestions below and when you get those down, add others.
Here’s an easy one to begin with. Compost kitchen scraps. Not only will you create a byproduct that will enhance your soil, but you will also keep food waste out of landfills. According to a recent Wake County Waste Characterization Study, 30 percent of waste sent to landfills is compostable. Food waste in landfills contributes to methane, and methane contributes to global warming.
2. Water Wisely
A 2,000-square-foot ranch home could potentially collect 1,248 gallons of water for every inch of rain, so install rain barrels at downspouts to save runoff. Large garden urns set out in the landscape are also efficient rainwater reservoirs. Water some plants the old-fashioned way with watering cans. A soaker hose is another good choice for flower gardens. If you choose to stay with an automatic system, make sure your sprinklers are placed correctly in the landscape. Better yet, choose drought-tolerant gardening methods like xeriscaping and limit watering altogether.
3. Improve Soil Naturally
Before adding amendments to the garden, consider getting a soil test to determine exactly what’s missing, if anything. Then, with results in hand, you are better equipped to add only what the soil requires. There are numerous organic soil amendments and conditioners available, but you may already have what you need if you have started composting and have added leaves, twigs and plant clippings, leave the leaves when they fall as they are nature’s perfect fertilizer. Leaf cover also helps retain moisture.
4. Encourage Pollinators
One out of every three bites of food we eat is available because of the work of pollinators. European honeybees are the primary pollinators in North Carolina, but birds, bats, butterflies, and other insects also do their fair share. Homeowners can welcome pollinators by filling their landscapes with shrubs and flowers, preferably native species, which also require less maintenance and water. John Higdon, owner of City Garden Design in Cary, is noticing a growing trend of mixed-use gardens where ornamentals are planted alongside edibles, such as blueberry and raspberry bushes. “That way you are getting more than just a shrub, you are actually providing food for yourself or the birds,” he says.
5. Reconsider Weeds
Avoid using chemical means; instead opt for weeding by hand or homemade solutions containing vinegar, salt, and dish soap. Mulching also inhibits weed growth. Emulate English cottage gardens by placing plants close together so weeds cannot compete with flowers for sunlight. Some weeds, like the cheery dandelion, have been unfairly maligned. The writer Robert Fulghum surmises, “If dandelions were rare and fragile, people would knock themselves out to pay $14.95 a plant, raise them by hand in greenhouses, and form dandelion societies and all that.”
6. Control Pests Naturally
The first steps in pest control are detecting and identifying the culprit early. Always think control not elimination because, as gardeners know, complete elimination is usually futile. If you have a significant pest problem, treat it by choosing the least toxic method. Remember, indiscriminate spraying of pesticides (including organic and homemade) kills all insects — even the beneficial ones that keep your garden in balance.
7. Consider the Bats and Birds
Instead of treating, encourage beneficial predators like birds or bats that naturally keep the population of unwanted insects in check. Kim Brand, network senior manager for Audubon North Carolina, says birds provide a crucial role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Birds eat a variety of insects, from mosquitos to caterpillars, keeping the insect population in balance. One bat can eat upwards of 500 insects every hour. Other beneficial predators include wasps, ladybeetles, frogs, and spiders.
8. Rethink Your Lawn
Shrinking those lush carpets of lawns is becoming more popular. “People want to start using their land for more than just grass,” says Higdon. “They’re getting more bed space, using less fertilizer, and creating less runoff. That’s a good thing for the environment.” And could you stop using chemicals and allow for imperfections — maybe let those dandelions grow? Reduce your carbon footprint by ditching mowers, leaf blowers and other power tools.
9. Stay Informed
Change requires effort, so do your research and keep up-to-date on ways to garden sustainably. Visit local gardens and arboretums for inspiration. Ask reputable landscape companies and garden centers for advice on creating environmentally friendly spaces. Join plant associations, such as North Carolina Native Plant Society (www.ncwildflower.org), and garden clubs to learn how others practice sustainability in their gardens. h
Cheryl Capaldo Traylor is a writer, gardener, reader and hiker. She blogs at Giving Voice to My Astonishment (www.cherylcapaldotraylor.com).