Sustainable (Eco-friendly) Gardening
One of the ideas that pops up over and over again when you talk about sustainability is the idea of ‘growing your own’ vegetables.
Producing your own fruit and vegetables must surely be one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly activities in the world—or is it? Like so many other aspects of sustainability, not everything is simple. There are shades of grey involved.
In recent years, gardeners have started to grapple with a range of difficult issues connected to sustainability in its broadest sense. These include whether to water in times of drought, how best to encourage pollinators and what sort of growing medium is most eco-friendly and sustainable.
This page discusses some of these issues to help you make up your own mind.
Gardening and Sustainability
Agriculture is not one of the obvious heroes of sustainability.
Commentators and scientists have been making the point for many years about the problems of particular farming practices.
These include, for example:
- The stripping-out of hedges to made bigger fields, which removes habitats for wildlife, and also contributes to soil erosion;
- The over-use of fertilisers, which means that they become less effective, and also risk polluting water courses;
- The use of insecticides, which has devastated insect populations around the world, resulting in fewer pollinators as well as a knock-on effect on birds and animals; and
- The use of antibiotics in farming, and the potential for creating antibiotic resistance on a large scale.
Unfortunately, despite all the evidence, it has taken a long time to change farming practice. It is likely to take even longer to repair the damage—if repair is even possible.
Gardeners, therefore, need to take care about the methods that they use to avoid some of these problems.
However, done right, gardening has the potential to be an important element in making your lifestyle more sustainable. It can help you to reduce your food miles, increase your awareness of seasonality in produce, and even support local wildlife, as well as being generally good for your physical and mental health.
There are a number of ways that you can ensure that your gardening is (more) sustainable.
Using ‘grey’ and rainwater to water plants
There is no way round it: vegetables require water to grow. In the summer, this often means watering your garden, especially during dry periods.
Rather than use tap water, think ahead, and harvest rainwater from your roof and gutters over the winter and spring, storing it in a water butt until you need it. You can even divert your bathwater or shower water into a water butt.
It’s best NOT to use washing-up water, or the waste water from a dishwasher or washing machine, because the detergent isn’t very good for plants. However, this will depend on your choice of detergent.
Shifting to more drought-tolerant plants
It is hard to grow drought-tolerant vegetables, although there may be some. However, if your taste runs to ornamentals, it is much easier. Look for plants with grey, furry leaves: these are usually mechanisms to retain water so these plants are more tolerant of long, dry periods. You therefore won’t need to water them.
Drought-tolerant plants may need protection against winter wet and cold.
Freeze–thaw is a particular problem for many drought-tolerant plants, because they are just not adapted to these conditions. They can often manage quite severe cold, but only if it’s also dry. Consider wrapping them in horticultural fleece, or protecting them with a cloche or other cover to minimise cold and wet.
Avoiding use of pesticides
Spraying insecticides that can harm the pollinators that you want to encourage.
It is possible to buy organic alternatives to most common pesticides, or even biological controls (for example, there are nematodes that are effective against slugs and vine weevil). These are often much more specific than the inorganic alternatives.
It is tedious, but it is also possible to pick off slugs and snails by hand, or wipe off aphids, whitefly and blackfly manually.
Using native plants
Native pollinators and native plants have evolved alongside each other for thousands of years. It makes sense that they are uniquely adapted to each other. To provide food for native insects, it is therefore best to use native plants. Native plants are also more likely to be resistant to native pests such as slugs and snails.
If you do want exotics—and in fairness, most gardeners do—then choose ones with single flowers rather than double, because they are better for insects.
Choosing your growing medium and fertilisers with care
Traditionally, gardeners planted in peat-based growing media. This applied both to growing on young plants and planting displays in pots. However, this is potentially damaging to peat bogs around the world. There has therefore been a move towards non-peat-based composts.
Some of these are soil-based—for example, those labelled ‘John Innes’, which are based on standard formulations. Others are based on alternatives such as coir. Many of these are now as good as peat-based media, and far more sustainable.
It is also worth considering the alternatives if you wish to add organic matter to your garden. The traditional option is horse manure or farmyard manure. If you can get hold of a good source of these, they are well worth using, because they are fully sustainable. Some sources will even supply them in larger bags, or even as a load from the back of a lorry, to reduce plastic waste.
Setting up a ‘wildlife area’ in your garden
This is easy to do: don’t mow the lawn, sow seed from native wildflower mixes, and encourage nettles and brambles.
Your local wildlife will thank you for it, and you won’t have to mow and weed an area of your garden: it’s a win–win situation. If possible, include a small pond or other source of water such as a bird bath in your wildlife area, because this is vital for most wildlife.
A Range of Benefits
Gardening, and particularly sustainable gardening, has a number of benefits.
Gardening is good for your health, because it’s regular exercise and time spent outside. Having access to fresh vegetables and fruit will also probably mean that you eat more of them. You can therefore improve your fitness and general health while also feeling good about saving the planet, one bit at a time. Gardening is also very good for combating stress (and for more about this, read our guest post How to Combat Stress with Gardening).
What’s more, by sharing your love of gardening with others, including your children, you can also ensure that lessons about sustainability are passed on to future generations. For more about how you can do this, read our page on Gardening with Children.