A Primer on Sustainable Gardening

Revolutionising Home Gardening

Sustainable gardening has become a buzzword within the environmental community in recent years. But what does the term actually mean? Essentially, sustainable gardening is a concept which revolves around the creation of physical, psychological and visual sustenance and nourishment using natural resources without disrupting existing ecosystems or increasing carbon footprints.The resources can come in the form of land, water supply, seeds, fertiliser and much more. The guiding principle behind sustainable gardening is sustainable production and respect for the environment. Whether you’re a wannabe sustainable gardener, or just contemplating joining the movement, we’ve compiled several tips and environmental hacks below that would help you get started on the right path.

Grow your own

Grow Your Own Produce

You don’t have to put on a dungaree, adopt a Southern American accent or chew tobacco to grow vegetable, fruits or berries in your own backyard. Heck, depending on where you live, you might not even need a backyard – you could create a thriving ‘farm’ with just some pots. Regardless of whether you’re planning to grow produce in the garden, kitchen or even balcony, the key lies in having good soil and a conducive species-specific climate. As such, before commencing on any planting project, perform an inspection of the soil to determine its pH level. While most resources would suggest balancing acidic soil down to 7, there are some plants, such as parsley and blueberries, which thrive in acidic soil. Next, investigate the existing gardens and farms in your area to determine the most successful crop for the climate. Don’t simply rely on written literature when choosing your plants, because not only can climate change, microclimates are very real – the area you’re living in could have its own unique climate where only certain plant species can grow bountifully. You should also focus on enhancing the nutritional level of the soil. An effective shortcut to increase the nutrient and nitrogen content of the soil is by spreading livestock manure on it. Bonus points if the ground has been tilled in advance to ensure the manure goes deeper. A slower, equally effective and less smelly approach is by using organic fertilisers or compost and mulch. The latter two are actually preferable since they will be able to mimic the role that leaves and branches play in the forest – they provide protection and insulation for the soil. Otherwise, the soil is exposed to the risk of wind and water erosion. Once you’ve completed these basic preparations, your sustainable garden’s chance of success will grow exponentially.

Compost

Producing Compost

Compost is a generic term used to describe decomposed organic garden waste such as leaves, flowers, fruits, twigs, branches, bark, dead insects, etc. It is extremely beneficial for cultivation soil as it improves the nutrient content of soil. In addition, its presence improves the water retention and internal irrigation of soil. In other words, compost makes for healthier and more productive soil. Due to its characteristics, compost is an essential component of sustainable gardening. It helps to recycle natural waste from the garden and reduce the time, effort and costs involved in disposing of garden residue. While composts can be purchased from farms and farmer’s markets, any self-respecting sustainable gardener should really try making their own. It’s really not that hard! The first step entails collecting all the residues from the garden floor. If your garden is on the balcony or in the kitchen, the same principles applies – just make necessary, logical adjustments. Thereafter, compile all the waste inside a container (or containers). The collection is not a one-off process, since gardens and the animals that live inside them create wastes daily. Be sure to include grass clippings and sheared or trimmed branches in the compost pile. To stimulate the decomposition process, introduce a little water into the pile. Put your hands in and mix everything around. If you want to speed up the process, you can mix in 10-10-10 fertiliser, which is a type of fertiliser containing 10% concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. To ensure there is sufficient amount of oxygen for bacteria and other microorganisms during the decomposing process, mix up the pile every two weeks. If you feel it is getting dry, splash some water into the pile. The decomposition of your compost will be completed in about three to four months during the summer and spring months – it might take as long as five to eight months during fall and winter, though. When spreading your fresh compost, please don’t do it during the rainy season. Compost needs several days to settle in, and the presence of rainwater means the material may just get swept away and accumulate at one location in your garden (usually the lowest elevated spot).

Mulching

It’s All About Mulching

Healthy soil is the key to a healthy sustainable garden. However, soil is exposed to a variety of risks daily, particularly the climate. Exposure to rain, frost, extreme heat, and wind can drastically impact the health of soil. Mother Nature found a great natural way to protect soil, in the form of leaves dropping on the ground. In many virgin forests, dead leaves provide a thick blanket of protection on the soil. We can, and have learned to emulate the mechanics of nature using mulch. What is mulch? Mulch is essentially an organic, manmade blanket used to protect the fertility and nutrient content of soil. There are numerous materials which can be used as mulch. This includes compost, leaves, grass clippings, tree bark and even newspapers! How is mulch made? Technically, you don’t have to make mulch – you simply apply your chosen materials and they will turn into mulch! However, choosing the right material is important. The decision is heavily reliant on the type of plants you want to protect, the climate, and existing soil conditions. The three most popular mulch materials include:

• Grass clippings: This is perfect for large, unused plots. Grass clippings absorb large quantities of water and block sunlight, so they are great at suppressing weed growth. As they decompose, they will enhance the nutrient content of the soil. Be wary of the smell though – it’s quite strong. So, the next time you’ve mowed your lawn, you know what to do with the clippings.

• Leaves: This is the favoured choice for small gardens. Spread them around during the fall season, and they will protect the soil against the harsh cold of winter. By summer, the leaves will have completely decomposed and the ground will be much healthier. Leaves are also the favourite snack of earthworms, so there will be plenty of them around to irrigate the garden in spring.

• Barks: Shredded or chipped barks, which can usually be purchased in garden supply stores, are a great way to protect soils around shrubs, hedges and large trees. They won’t be easily blown away by the wind, and insects will have a hard time moving them around, so they will provide great long-term security for hardy plants and perennials. As a bonus, they don’t smell!

For maximum protection and utility, mulch should ideally be applied towards the middle or end of autumn, in layers of at least three inches in height.

Trees

Plant Trees

At first glance, the notion of planting trees in your sustainable garden might seem a little excessive. However, the benefits are numerous, and tangible – often on a personalised level. The two greatest benefits, though, are:

Combat Climate Change

Yes, a single tree won’t make much of a difference. However, a single tree in a million homes will. Play a part in combating global climate change and reducing greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. A single tree will also help to reduce you and your family’s environmental footprint. Moreover, trees are excellent carbon sinks. Dangerous pollutants such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) are siphoned from the air during the photosynthesis process and converted into solid forms of sugar (such as glucose and starch). These are then stored inside leaves, branches and roots. Be part of the solution, inspire change in your family and community, and lead by example.

Save on the Electricity Bill

Trees provide great shade from the sun during the day, especially in the spring and summer. So much so that even 17% shade over your home translates into an £8 monthly reduction in electricity bills. Two or three strategically placed trees around your home might even bring the figure down by £15! Aside from shade, trees also lower the temperature of the area surrounding them owing to the dissipation of water vapour. According to one study, the net cooling effect of a single healthy mature tree is equivalent to that of ten standard air-conditioners! But that’s not all! During winter, deciduous trees will shed their leaves, which will allow sunlight to reach homes and increase the interior temperature. So, there are no added winter energy costs to owning a tree! Planting trees doesn’t seem all that excessive now, does it?

Hands planting plant

Avoid Chemical Herbicides

Chemical herbicides are like cheat codes for computer games – they seemingly remove pests and insects from targeted areas at no cost. However, if you look a little closer, the negative side effects will make you very afraid. The toxicity of chemical herbicides can manifest themselves in humans over the medium and long term. The side effects include, but are not limited to, developmental neurotoxic effects, cancer, impaired fertility and dermatitis. Even the plants themselves are not spared from the harmful effects. Many plants demonstrate stunted growth, chronic defoliation, malformation and desiccated tissues after prolonged exposure to herbicides. Some of these effects are manifested in their offspring! Faced with this knowledge, are you prepared to continue using chemical herbicides for your sustainable garden, or would you be willing to use organic methods to help manage and protect your garden against weeds, pests and insects? Here are some options for you to try out.

• Mulching: Mulch is arguably the best form of weed control. Simply spread a three-inch layer of grass clippings on targeted areas and watch them keep the weeds at bay.

• Biological control: Predatory animals and plants can be used to target pests and weeds. Biofungicides such as trichoderma provide excellent defence against pathogenic fungi and bacteria by inducing metabolic changes in host plants. A comparatively larger example is the citrus ant (Oecophylla smaragdina), which attack pests on orange trees. Search online for the best biological control agent for the pests in your garden.

• Acetic acid: Better known as vinegar, acetic acid is a powerful herbicide and pesticide which cannot only kill pests, but also be used to create invisible barriers and boundaries in gardens.

Obviously, even organic herbicides have negative side effects if used incorrectly or excessively. However, the risk level is infinitely lower when used correctly and in moderation.

Organic Fences

A lush garden is a magnet for animals, especially in the countryside. Rather than spend thousands of pounds constructing wooden or metal fences to keep deer, rabbits or squirrels away from your vegetables and fruits, why not try building organic fences? The most obvious solution is edible hedges. Asparagus, bay trees and rosemary are great choices of edible hedges. Not only are they edible (obviously), animals are not that keen on the fruits or leaves. Plus, the smell also drives away some insects. They might take time to grow, but you could effectively prevent large animals from encroaching on your garden with these hedges. Plant the hedge saplings a couple of seasons earlier to give them time to mature before you start planting the real treasures of your garden. But what about rabbits, moles and woodchucks? They can sneak through the hedges, or even burrow a tunnel underneath. Many expert gardeners and even professional farmers advocate the use of electrified fences to keep such animals and rodents away. There is an easier method though – pick up some dog hair from your local pet shop, and sprinkle it liberally around your garden. The smell of a dog will keep the most intrepid rabbits away. Or better yet, if you own a dog, let it wander around the garden daily. But it’s not all about animals and pests, though. Organic fences can also serve as windbreakers for the more delicate plants in your garden and even your home. Evergreens such as the dense and twiggy hawthorns, leafy Italian alders, and lush cherry laurels are excellent choices for windbreaker hedges.

Battery Powered Tools

Sustainable gardeners are some of the most environmentally-conscious people around. They make every effort to reduce, or even completely remove their footprint from nature. They will go above and beyond when it comes to the environment. However, sometimes even the most well-intentioned are forced to set their ideals aside out of necessity. If you’ve been racked with guilt about using a petrol-powered lawnmower to mow your lawn, or diesel-powered shears to trim the branches of the trees in the garden, perhaps it’s time to look into battery-powered tools. As the name implies, battery-powered tools do not use fossil fuels. As such, they do not produce any gaseous pollutants and carbon emissions when used. Since these devices do not rely on carburettors or generators, they also emit significantly less noise pollution. Users also do not need to drive down to gas stations to periodically buy fuel for their machines. Almost all operational pollution is eliminated simply by using battery-powered devices. You could argue that manufacturing such devices also create carbon footprints. However, since they are powered by electricity, the number of parts drastically drop in the absence of internal combustion engines or motors. Consequently, the volume of repairs and part replacements also became significantly lower over the lifespan of the machine. As far as battery-powered lawnmower or trimmers being less powerful than their fossil fuel counterparts, that is nothing more than an urban myth. Rapid technological advancements have negated any horsepower advantage that fuel-powered devices may once have had. In addition, battery-powered devices are inherently safer to use owing to the fewer number of parts. Even the cumbersome throttling mechanism and starter cords have been replaced with the easier and safer to use start button. So start using sustainable battery-powered tools for your sustainable garden today. You know it makes sense.

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