Sustainability in the Garden
As we open the file on a new year, it’s important to be aware that, while gardening is one of the most relaxing, stress-relieving and rewarding of activities, we all need to move toward the realities of sustainability. It also means being very creative and thoughtful in our use of resources and plants.
Water use is, perhaps, the greatest issue. Now, most cities in our regions issue water restrictions during hot summers, so we need to be very resourceful. Proper soil preparation with good moisture-retaining materials is step one. To ensure deep rooting, create well-draining soil incorporating fine fir or hemlock bark mulch, and work it in deeply. During summer, mulching with compost or ‘non herbicided’ grass clippings is a great way to conserve moisture, particularly around shallow-rooted plants like rhododendrons, azaleas, and many cedars.
The type of watering we do is also very important. Where practical, drip systems are, by far, the most efficient way to water containers, baskets, and planters. Soaker hoses are also key because they put water only at the root zones of plants, and don’t waste it through evaporation. Hand-watering with a hose end soft rain nozzle is also very efficient and effective. Unless you have in-ground irrigation, lawns will require sprinklers, but here again, there are more efficient models that help prevent overlapping onto driveways and sidewalks. Even during the warmest summer weather, a deep lawn watering once a week will suffice. It’s also important to understand that lawns can be allowed to turn brown without any use of water over summer; they will bounce back after a bit of rain.
Water collection is also becoming more popular than ever before, and rain barrels placed at the downspouts of eave troughs are perhaps the most efficient means of collecting clean water. If you keep the barrels closed, there is little danger of them becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes. There are lots of other techniques to collect water, but the important thing is to recycle as much water as we can for our gardens.
Composting is an invaluable activity that can be used in so many ways. Small twigs, recyclable cardboard, and newspaper can be composed along with grass clippings and other kitchen and garden waste. To keep the decomposing material loose, with good air pockets throughout, be sure to build a ‘layer cake’ of compost, adding soil to help separate potentially gooey, dense materials like wet grass and kitchen waste. It will probably take about six months to break down your raw materials, so it’s a good idea to keep a few composters going at the same time. Composting is the ultimate form of recycling, and the results can be used beneficially almost anywhere in our gardens. Though many towns now have curbside composting available, consider keeping a few things out to create your own backyard supply!
Other items in your garden can be recycled or upcycled too. Many pots and bags are recyclable, so please look for the recycling symbols on the packaging and, if it has one, give the item a quick wipe and put it in the recycling (soft plastic wraps may have to go to a depot; please check your local guidelines). Save your bits and bobs too! Those branches you cut back in winter could turn into a cool arbour, and those chipped teacups in the kitchen might make a fabulous rain chain. Feel free to be creative!
In the long run, having organic nutrients in the soil is the best way to go because if the right materials are used, the soil will ultimately replenish itself. It’s a learned process that does not work quickly, but it provides great results both for short term crops, like vegetables and annuals, as well as providing long term benefits for perennials, trees, shrubs, and lawns. Fortunately, a large selection of organic alternatives, for use both indoors and out, is available. They are a little more expensive and work more slowly, but the long term results are beneficial for our soils and plants and for all of us.
Worms are our allies! Healthy soil is living soil, and if you’ve got worms working away in yours, consider yourself lucky! Their castings lighten soil, improve moisture retention, increase microbial activity, and more! While you can purchase worm castings by the bag at many garden stores, you could also search for local worm breeders in your area to source the worms themselves. In the Chilliwack area, you can try Terra Flora organics.
We are finding more environmentally friendly alternatives for pest control, but keen observation and intelligent growing techniques are the very best controls. It is true that healthy, well-cared for plants are the least susceptible, but it also comes down to choosing plants wisely. The philosophy of ‘right plant, right place’ should be a guiding principle because this, more than anything else, will minimize pest damage. A key factor today is the many new plants with a high tolerance to both insect and disease problems. From rust fly-resistant carrots and blight-resistant tomatoes to blackspot and mildew-resistant roses and scab-free apples, there is a huge opportunity now to enjoy plants that have great pest tolerance. The correct use of predatory insects and floating row covers make insect control far easier and more effective. Organic acetic acid (vinegar) concentrates are becoming more effective at weed control, and fatty acid soaps are becoming more successful at controlling insects. We’re also getting better at feeding birds and attracting other wildlife, like ‘good’ bugs, that help us out with mosquitoes and many other annoying insects.
Speaking of critters, we should be adding to our gardens in such a way as to support our local wildlife and pollinators year round. We regularly hear of struggling bee populations, so help our regional bees out by growing a diverse mix of their favourite flowering plants and strategize your planting so that something is blooming 12 months of the year. Try to incorporate as many native plants as you can, too. Hanging bird feeders, and keeping them clean and topped up, during the cooler months will support year round and migrating birds, and they’ll help keep your ‘pest’ population under control year round too. Keep your garden practices organic so that chemicals aren’t introduced into their systems, and be sure to keep feeders away from your cats if you have them!
Pulling failed or unwanted plants isn’t the most sustainable practice. Most folks understand the importance of putting sun tolerant plants in sunny spots and shade tolerant plants in shady locations, but we need to look deeper… into the soil that is. With summer temperatures rising and dry spells getting longer, consider selecting more drought-tolerant plants to lessen the need for irrigation. Likewise, if there is a spot in your garden that is consistently moist, even with amending, choose plants that will appreciate the location. Be sure to put ‘like with like’ when creating container gardens. Keep those that like dry feet in different pots than those who like more damp conditions, otherwise you might be replacing unhappy plants in a few weeks.
Another aspect of plant selection is the mature look and size of it, as well as its maintenance level. We waste our resources when we plant something we decide we don’t care for in a year or two, or it has gotten too cumbersome for us to look after. Determine how much space in your garden you can allow for your new shrub, how much time you have to look after it, and then consider your options. Trees, shrubs, and perennials are the ultimate in sustainable plant selection as they grow strongly year after year, so you’re making a long-term commitment when you choose one. Make sure you really like it, and that it’s really going to like where you put it!
‘Shopping local’ has gone from trendy to a new way of life for folks, and in gardening, we can go as local as our own backyards! Supporting farmers’ markets, local growers, and greenhouses (and thank you so much to our customers for supporting us!) has a positive economic impact on the region, and it also helps build a strong community… you do get to know the people in your neighbourhood! Sowing your own veggies and edibles at home is a wonderful thing, but why not go a step further by growing your own cutting garden? If you like having fresh flowers in your home, grow a selection of plants that do double duty as cuts, and plan them to bloom throughout the year, and you’ll have a continual supply right outside your door! Selecting locally-grown flowers (in the Greater Vancouver/Fraser Valley area, we are quite fortunate to have many suppliers of gorgeous fresh cut flowers) helps a lot too!
According to the Royal Horticultural Society* “If 30 million gardeners pulled up a paver and planted 1m² of perennial plants (either herbaceous, shrubs, or trees) in their community, school, workplace, or garden, and allowed it to develop to maturity, depending on the plants grown this would be equivalent to heating between 86,000 to more than one million homes for a year!” Now, it might not be feasible for every Canadian to do this, but it paints a pretty significant picture. Even if we can only plant one new plant in our yards or a large container, we’re still helping to make things better.
Sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. We can practice this in many ways in our day-to-day lives, but in the garden, our actions create stronger, healthier, and more beautiful gardens for the current season and years to come!