So what the hell IS sustainable gardening?


SUSTAINABLE GARDENING (title ideas, anyone?)

"Sustainable" is a word we’re seeing everywhere lately – high time.
Broadly speaking it applies to activities that can be continued
indefinitely – be it energy practices, logging, or agriculture. But
let’s look specifically at sustainable gardening because A, it’s the
right way to garden, and B, the National Wildlife Federation requires
the backyard habitats they certify to be gardened that way and I hope
lots of you will be getting certified.  And kudos to the NWF for adding
it to the traditional requirements of food, water and shelter for
wildlife.  It’s a great opportunity to educate the public, especially
nongardeners, about gardening practices that are better for the
environment and not coincidentally, easier on the homeowner.

WHAT IS IT?  Most sources define sustainable gardening as the
creation of a healthy plant-and-soil system that doesn’t need added
resources like supplemental watering or toxic inputs like pesticides
and herbicides.  Beyond these basic principles there’s disagreement
among the various sources, so I’ll start with the areas of agreement.

Use of Organic Methods:   
    -Mulching all uncovered soil for
water retention, weed control, and to improve the soil’s structure.
(Best are leaf compost, pine bark chips or cocoa hulls.)
-Composting garden and kitchen waste. If more fertilizer is necessary,
using organic sources only (e.g., compost tea or fish- or
    -Choosing pest- and disease-resistant plants.

  -For pests, using preventive practices first (like ensuring good air
circulation) and taking action only when a plant is endangered.  Then
using the least invasive or toxic methods first, like horticultural oil
for scale and mites, Bt for caterpillars, beetles and mosquitoes,
baking soda for black spot and powdery mildew, and SAFER brand soap for
many problem insects.
    -For pests, using biological and physical
barrier controls like bait traps, hard sprays of water to remove
aphids, removal by hand, and diatomaceous earth for slugs.
Avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizer.
If pesticides are used, starting with the least toxic, like
insecticidal soap, and steering clear of broad spectrum insecticides
like Sevin and Diazinon.
    -Weeding by hand or using a 10 percent
vinegar solution.  In lawns, by using a high mower setting, applying an
organic fertilizer in the fall, and applying lime, as needed..
    -Always testing the soil before adding amendments like lime.

Water Quality and Conservation
    -Using deciduous trees south of your home to create shade, evergreens on the north to stop winter winds.

  – Watering smart – directly to the root zone by hand or using soaker
or drip irrigation, and preferably in the morning.  Avoiding
sprinklers. Watering according to plant needs, not a rigid schedule.
Watering infrequently but deeply – no fine mists.
    -Grouping plants with similar water needs

  -Keeping rain on your property using rain garden techniques and rain
barrels.  (Rain gardens are depressions in the soil that are planted
with water-loving plants.  For more how-to help Google "rain garden".)
    -Stabilizing stream banks with the use water-loving plants that reduce soil erosion, like liriope.
    -Minimizing bare soil and stabilizing slopes by planting ground covers.
    -Replacing or eliminating lawns (see last month’s column).
    -Minimizing the use of impervious surfaces so rainwater can be filtered before reaching the stormwater system.
    -Keeping trash, yard waste, fertilizers and de-icers off paved surfaces.
    -Growing drought-tolerant plants.
    -Weeding regularly (because they compete for water with the plants you want).
    – Letting lawns go dormant in the summer.

When gardening
authorities or gardeners themselves talk about sustainable gardening
they usually add that often-forgotten element, the human being, the
species responsible for the care of this most unnatural of spots – the
suburban lot.  That means considering the amount of labor the homeowner
is willing to undertake to care for the site. Fortunately, the
techniques outlined above go hand in hand with reducing the maintenance
burden on the homeowner, especially mulching and choosing
easy-to-care-for plants.  Further reductions in required maintenance
are achieved by relying primarily on trees and shrubs (rather than
perennials, annuals, vines), by planting in sweeps and masses (which
looks better, too), and using simple curves around lawn or mowing

Sustaining the gardener also means growing what you like and enjoy
so that you’ll continue to garden (because today’s eco-friendly
gardening means more and a better diversity of plants on your property,
a win/win for the environment).  Finally, it means growing
economically, or at least within your budget, again so you’ll keep
doing it!

Next month I’ll tackle the area of real disagreement between
ecological and horticultural sources – over plant choice – and provide
plenty of examples of good plants for our area from a variety of local
gardening experts.  Coming later, a column about the highs and lows of
garden maintenance.


  1. Thank you for posting this — I’m going to look into the certification program, because I’m almost there now (I need to add some shelter for wildlife).

    I noticed three things I wanted to mention:

    1. Cocoa hulls are attractive to dogs (at least until the smell of chocolate diminishes) and poisonous to them.

    2. Grow drought-tolerant plants — does the NWF program actually say this, or is it more like ‘grow plants that are appropriate for your rainfall zone’? Anything really drought-tolerant would drown here — we got 17″ of rain in a period of weeks last spring.

    3. Plant in masses and drifts — I’ve been reading ‘Noah’s Garden’ by Sara Stein, and ‘Insects and Gardens’ by Eric Grissell, and both say that interplantings are less likely to inspire major insect attacks, which in turn would mean less likelihood of the need for intervention. (I wish I’d heard this advice before I planted this year — maybe the heliotrope wouldn’t look so beat up.)

    Is this one of those recommendations that is meant to make it easier on the gardener — same plants, same culture, easier to tend?

    And, last but not least, what is that lovely flowering vine spreading across the fence in the photo?

  2. Firefly, the vine in my photo is ‘Tangerine Beauty’ crossvine (Bignonia capreolata). It’s a spring-blooming, evergreen vine here in Austin, with very low water needs. My plant book also says it is deer-resistant, although my garden does not put it to the test in that regard.

  3. I like some of what you are saying especially about keeping plants with similar care characteristics together. Sustainable gardening also recommends (as you said) the wise use of minimally impactful insecticides. The problem I have is the Organic/Synthetic issue. Clearly all pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides etc.) require care when applying and should not be used if your tolerance for insects and weeds allows. However, organic does not mean safe and synthetic does not mean dangerous if label directions are followed. As for diazinon, it has been off the market for about 3 years. New technology including organic and chemical controls are far better and less invasive to the environment than their predecessors.


  4. Not all insect damage is bad. Some of my first year swamp milkweeds were eaten almost to the ground by monarch caterpillars, and are now larger and fuller than the ones that weren’t munched on.

    When something (other than a mammal) is eating plants in the garden, I try to let it go for a little while before deciding whether or not to halt the infestation. The milkweeds evolved along with the monarchs; killing off their only food source would be bad, so maybe the plants receive some benefit from the insects other than just pollination.

    I can’t find any benefits from the rabbits, though.

  5. Title Ideas:

    The Healthy Garden

    The Healthy Garden for the Laid Back Gardener.

    Clean Water Gardens

    Economical Gardening

    This ties right back in to the thread about being a “Purist” or not. All of the things you mentioned largely reduce the input reguired of the gardener. The less input required, the less likely suburbia as a whole is going to pollute the environment as things move off and downstream.

    One of the key elements to having a movement like this spread through suburbia is getting people to realize that bugs belong in the garden and that a certain level of tolerance for their needs and the damage they cause is part of life. The “kill all bugs” mentality needs to be challenged.

    The question people need to ask themselves isn’t “Is there a bug?”, it is “Is the plant in danger of death or major damage?” If the answer to the second question is no, then just move on along and forget about it.

    I am not a purist, but largely follow the items you mentioned for a sustainable garden. There are just times when Roundup makes more sense and the slugs need to be hurt in a big way. I am sorry but the rats have just got to be killed in the absence of any predators.

    The native flora and fauna of Hawaii below 3000 feet in elevation were annililated to a large extent and the native flora have only recently begun to be introduced into the landscape trade.

    I may not qualify for the NWF backyard habitat approval but my garden is a sanctuary for all the non native birds, insects and reptiles that now makeup what constitutes wildlife on these islands. From my garden they can go forth and multiply.

  6. Interestingly, I just received my certificate in the mail today!

    Always a work in progress and as I know better I do better –

    Thanks for covering the topic!

  7. Thank you, Pam, for letting me know what the vine is!

    To answer one of my other questions (since I know Susan is having monitor problems and I don’t want her to hurt her neck), the NWF site recommends lowering water use, but doesn’t specifically mention drought-tolerant plants (I always think of cactus when I hear that term, since here in Maine a ‘drought’ is when we don’t have rain for 2 weeks).

    Their application process is very easy, and thanks to the mature trees and thick hedges in the neighborhood I already have shelter in the yard, so it qualifies as certified backyard habitat.


  8. Thanks to you all for your great comments, which I’m researching a bit more and incorporating into the article. On the question of drought-tolerance, I’ve added the caveat “except in wet spots”. And the term drought-tolerant is indeed my own; I use it instead of the NWF’s “xeriscape,” which they don’t define but I’m assuming that’s what they mean by it.

  9. I’m looking for these books. Can anyone help?

    by D. Hunter Beyer and
    Dr. Franklin Martin
    D. Hunter Buyer/
    3 volumes: $20/$25/$25
    The latest edition of Volcano resident D. Hunter Beyer’s labor of love: a definitive reference source on sustainable gardening in Hawai’i. Book I covers endemic, indigenous and “canoe” plants. Book II is an encyclopedia of non-native plants for sustainable cultivation. Book III covers weed species and what to do about them.

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