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What is sustainable gardening?

Sustainability is one of those words that gets thrown around in conversations about earth-friendly living. But what does “sustainability” mean, for a gardener?

In ecology, a sustainable process is one that’s able to maintain itself without outside inputs. In gardening terms, this means gardening with plants that can grow in and contribute to a given environment, without supplemental soil, water, or added nutrients. Clear as mud? Don’t worry, we spoke to an expert to get a little more clarity.

Sustainable gardening, explained

To get a better handle on all of this, we sat down with José Torcal and Mary Jenkins from RAINscapeTO. RAINscapeTO is an indigenous-led organization based in Toronto that designs and builds rain gardens and creates eco-friendly, sustainable landscapes for homeowners and businesses. They’re also working to transform various areas of the city into green spaces that contribute positively to the environment. In other words, they know sustainability, and we feel fortunate to have been given their time and expertise.

Sustainable gardening 101: how to get started

Jose and Mary give good advice about how to get started with sustainable gardening in the video. But, we took some time to break it down below as well, for the readers among us.

First, assess your garden

What plants do well without extra help? What plants need a lot of love and care? Keep the ones that are able to thrive without a lot of supplemental water, soil amendment, or extra feeding.

Next, consider planting native species.

Plants that are native to your region have co-evolved with their environment and will have built-in tolerances for your growing zone, climate and conditions. Native plant species also support local animals, insects, pollinators and other wildlife, by creating habitats that meet their needs.

Native plant nurseries and neighbours who are already gardening sustainably will be great sources of information about what to plant, so mine them for information. Google will also be your friend here, but be sure to browse with your gardening zone and particular geographic region in mind.

What’s your soil like?

Do you have clay-heavy, sandy or loamy soil? Do some research to find out what plants will thrive in the soil that already exists in your garden area, and resist the urge to replace it with imported soil. If you need to, amend your soil with compost or organic matter (leaves, grass clippings, etc.).

Explore water conservation

Can your yard accommodate a rain barrel to capture rainwater? Can you direct rainwater toward your garden or create a rain garden? Using rainwater on your garden as needed won’t just save you money (if you live in an urban area and pay for the water you use), it’s also very good for plants and the planet, too.

Reduce or eliminate lawn

We know, this is a tough one. But the truth is, lawns are high maintenance! They need frequent mowing, require all kinds of supplemental watering and feeding to thrive, and unfortunately offer nothing to biodiversity, pollinators, insects, or other wildlife (birds, frogs, toads, and small mammals).

Replacing even some of your lawn will give you the opportunity to give back to the environment by providing habitat for nature – and fight climate change while you’re at it.

If you really need to keep your lawn (we get it!) seed it with species that don’t require frequent watering, like: tall fescue, common yarrow, creeping thyme, creeping mint, low-growing chamomile or even moss. And, do a little research to explore other ways to be climate-friendly with your lawn.

Say no to chemical fertilizers

We’re going to go ahead and quote the experts here: “excessive use of chemical fertilizers has led to several issues such as serious soil degradation, nitrogen leaching, soil compaction, reduction in soil organic matter, and loss of soil carbon.” There’s also a fair bit of research that shows chemical fertilizers are bad for human health, too. We’ll stop now.

Why sustainability is so important

We’re focusing on sustainability as it applies to gardening here. But in a larger view, sustainability is important because when we adopt sustainable practices, we learn to use the earth’s resources at a manageable rate, in which they can be replenished as they’re used – for now and the future.

In 1987, The United Nations established the following: “[Sustainability is defined as] meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” And, we found earth.org’s page about sustainability to be particularly helpful, for those seeking more information on the subject.

Planting hope

Perhaps the single most motivating thing about using sustainable practices in the garden is that by doing so, we can take action for the planet.

By actively seeking ways to work with the soil we have, in the zone in which we live, and with the plants that thrive in our particular climate region, we have the opportunity to make positive change. We can create a small (or large!) environment in which all we’re doing is giving back to nature. We can plant hope! And that’s a powerful thing.

yellow petaled flower by elias sorey unsplash

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