Fran Sorin Defines “Sustainable Gardening” – and gets me thinking


Naturally I consulted Mr. Google and found this site,
which flips turns Fran’s notion upside down, viewing organic gardening
as a type of sustainable gardening, along
with permaculture and others.  On this site, sustainability is:
"Growing food you want to eat and flowers and trees that you like
so you are motivated to continue growing.  Growing
economically, making it worth your while. Taking care of environmental
issues, so that the ground will continue to support growing."  Again
the gardener is important in this definition, which must have been
taken from or written by the same person who wrote the exact same
definition on Food for Everyone.

But notice their link to "What is Organic Sustainable Gardening,"
conflating the two terms?  No wonder people are confused.  But I love
that they include another reason it’s important to please human beings – so they’ll continue growing.  Yeah, and keep acquiring more plants, all of them cleaning the air, filtering the water, and so on.

Moving on, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden defines "sustainable techniques" by linking to "how to
design a dazzling garden that conserves natural resources, eschews toxic chemicals, and
encourages a diversity of plant and animal life."  Good one.


Now I’m a huge fan of garden writer Ann Lovejoy, who has
many books to her credit and a column called "Sustainable Gardening" in
the Kitsap Sun.  The closest thing to a definition I found was this column,
in  which she says "Each season more clients ask for sustainable
gardens. They crave
gardens that are beautiful, peaceful retreats yet don’t need constant
care" and she refers to "sustainable landscapes and gardens that sit
lightly on the earth,
needing little intervention and recycling as many resources as
possible."  She recommends using "native plants and their relatives and
allies from similar climate zones around the world. Such plants often
proved to be naturally adapted to the conditions common to the maritime
Northwest, which made them easy to please."  So we’re starting to see a
consistent pattern here, and it’s a good one.

The County of San Mateo, CA
website tells us that sustainable gardening "includes" organic
gardening, native plants, double digging, vermicomposting, backyard
composting, mulch, drip irrigation, and IPM.  Well, you won’t catch any
gardener I know, sustainable or otherwise, double-digging.  And aren’t
organic and IPM almost mutually exclusive?  Seems they threw everything
but the proverbial kitchen sink into the concept.

But probably the closest thing to an official definition is to be found with the folks at the Sustainable Sites Initiative,
the people formulating landscape practices for LEED certification.
Here we see an even larger scope that includes hydrology, soils,
vegetation, materials and – NOTE! – human well-being.  Honing in on the
plants, it lists these "examples of sustainable vegetation practices":

Protect and conserve existing vegetation.  Incorporate
healthy native or non-invasive vegetation currently existing on the
site into the site design.  Encourage a tight disturbance zone to limit
construction damage to vegetation.

Eliminate the use of invasive plants.  An invasive species is
defined as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to
cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.”

Specify plants from local growers to reduce energy use and
other negative environmental impacts of shipping and ensure that plants
are adapted to local environmental conditions.

Minimize the amount of time that plants are stored on-site before planting.
If plants or on-site transplants must be stored on-site, store them in
ways that prevent stress and disease post-planting.  Provide adequate
water, heal-in root balls and apply nutrients, if needed.

Well, as I said at the beginning of my talk the other day on Sustainable Gardening, there IS no agreed-upon definition, but here’s my own and I welcome your comments.  And I wonder if my sustainable garden blogging counterpart in England wants to weigh in on this issue.

Photos from my presentation about Sustainable Gardening, first an
example of gardening in the bad old days and then gardening today.


  1. I wrestle with the sustainable question, too (as a fellow glyphosate user). I think ultimately the only sustainable yards are forest, prairie, or vegetable gardens – and even a vegetable garden might not be, depending on the pest control. At the same time, though, I really like that you all focus here on lots of different approaches, without getting too self-righteous about any of them.

  2. Not sure I understand how “organic” and “integrated pest management” are mutually exclusive. In “The Gardner’s Guid to Common Sense Pest Control,” the text used in the Organic Landscaping course at the USDA Graduate program, IPM is defined as:

    “an approach to pest control that utilizers regular monitoring to determine if and when treatements are needed and employs physical, mechanical, cultural, biological and educational tactics to keep pest numbers low enough to prevent intolerable damage or annyoance. Least-toxic chemical controls are used as a last resort.”

    Those “chemical controls” could include organic ones.

    The protocols established by the Northeast Organic Farming Association basically embrace the IPM approach. What’s prohibited dealing with pests are:

    “all synthetic insecticieds, including imidacloprid, pyrthroids, carbamates and organophosphates and piperony butoxide as an insecticide synergist”
    “all synthetic fungicides”
    “all soil fumigants”
    “all other long-term poisons, such as arsenic”
    “genetically engineered organisms, toxins or plants”
    “Any pesticide formulated with any inert ingredient on the EPA List 1: Inert Ingredient of Toxicological Concern”
    “Synthetic growth regulators”

  3. This is a great discussion of an important topic from many angles, well done! I adore Ann Lovejoy and she has been a beacon for me in deciding what to do with our place here, it’s really gardening from scratch! To save money I got lots of baby native plants from a local conservation district and that was a great move. Due to it’s being logged-over many times, this patch of land needs a diversity injection so that’s my starting point, using natives.

    A note about forest taking over – had the “honkies” not decimated the ranks of bear, moose and elk, we’d be seeing what great gardeners they are! They cleared and maintained meadows, paths and forest understory with amazing efficiency, fertilizing and seeding all the while. Unfortunately now that they are mostly gone in their great numbers, we are indeed on our own keeping the forest at bay.

    Thanks for the great rant on sustainability, I’ll be sharing this one a lot. Bonnie

  4. Susan-

    Thanks for referring to my article on organic gardening that was published a few weeks ago in USA Weekend Magazine.

    It is an incredibly complex subject, with a tremendous amount of overlapping between different approaches throughout recent history.

    You have done a great job of teasing out some of the issues and posing some really fine questions.

    What most impressed me as I researched the topic was the mindset of those who helped to develop different techniques. All of them included a sense of appreciation for the soil and our natural resources, an understanding of humans’ place on earth and within the galaxy: very much (only my opinion) a Buddhist way of being!

    I hope your post prompts a lot of discussion. It is a worthwhile subject! Fran

  5. I think as long as people are thinking more about what they put in and on the ground I don’t care what the “movement” is called. But then again, I’m a proud organic, biointensive, sustainable double digger.

  6. Ed, I’m glad to see sensible integration of “organic” with IPM and I hope that eventually stops IPM enthusiasts from being bashed for not being purely organic, as I heard a wonderful professional gardener in my town once denigrated as “anti-green.” The answer to my follow-up question was: “He supports IPM!” as though that’s just awful.

  7. In my book, “Sustainable Gardening for Florida,” I spent some time defining what I meant by the title’s promise. The problem is that without the continuing hand of the gardener, Mother Nature works to equalize any gardened space to its surroundings and starts the slow process of succession toward a wild state for that particular environment. By definition then, a garden is not sustainable by itself.

    I came up with nine strategies for sustainable gardening and then spent the rest of the book explaining how to accomplish them.
    1) Have minimal impact on the environment.
    2) Make the best use of available resources.
    3) Save time and money by gardening in a more natural manner.
    4) Provide diversity in the landscape.
    5) Reduce carbon dioxide and increase oxygen in the air by installing more large plants.
    6) Offset some of the heat absorbed and stored by urban/suburban buildings, roads, and other hard objects.
    7) Increase habitat for wildlife including birds, bees, butterflies, and other critters.
    8) Plan for adult sizes of plants to avoid damage to underground or overhead infrastructure.
    9) Prepare for disasters such as hurricanes, fires, and drought.

    A rice farmer in the hot dry dessert of Texas or California can be certified as an organic operation, but he certainly would not be running a sustainable operation because the water is scarce and the rice needs to be inundated. I do cover organic principles, permaculture, and other definitions of sustainable gardening to provide the background folks need to make educated decisions in their gardens.

    Thanks for starting this discussion. Ginny

  8. I am so excited to hear this conversation going on! I created out of a desire to aide people in coming to terms with how important it is to eat well, without chemicals and from healthy nutrient rich soil. From which springs forth raw, homegrown, community garden, farmer’s market, enzyme rich food. I wanted to offer ‘simple’ People will DO simple. (At least they will start. Then, hopefully, they get hooked!) The environment is almost the thing that comes in second. But which DID come first? The chicken or the egg?

    The page on my site, written years ago, probably reflects my ambivalence about it. And in ‘confating’ (good choice of words, BTW!) the terms, I’ve simply passed the confusion on. But if we take this definition… “Sustainability: To meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” originally coined by the Brundtland Commission, formally the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (convened by the United Nations back in the early 80’s) it definitely includes organic practices.

    Organic is ‘renewable’. THIS is the word I prefer. For instance, we need to develop ‘renewable energy’ so we are not using a finite resource. And in my non-literary, ‘simple’ mind, they are practically the same. (renewable-sustainable) IF we walk lightly, if we give more than we take, we can ‘sustain’ ourselves, and that, healthfully.

  9. What is sustainable gardening?

    Susan asks for a definition.

    “Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” Native American Indian saying.

    Sustainable gardening is about respect.

    It is respect shown for the environment by only using organic methods. No weed and feeds, no watering of the lawn, no roundup. So, no poisoning of hedgehogs or song thrushes. No residues washed through the soil into water courses.

    Respect for the environment too by reducing waste. Prunings and lawn clippings are not carted away, but used as mulches and sources of compost. Planting schemes are thought through to avoid large amounts of waste plant material that go to landfill or require plant, machinery and energy to convert into compost.

    Reduction too, in the environmental impact of landscaping schemes. Reclaimed materials mean that energy isn’t used to manufacture the latest garden craze. Natural, regenerating materials or reclaimed materials are chosen. Large areas of lawn requiring powered mowing are designed out, so that the area can be maintained by a renovated old push mower.

    Each of us can grow some of our own food, no matter how small our balcony, patio, yard or garden. Growing our own organic food reduces food miles, tastes better and does us more good. Our lives are better, our lifestyle more sustainable.

    And the wildlife that we have displaced by building our homes and gardens must not be ignored. Use of the locally-occurring flora in the garden will mean that your garden has a natural feel and that the plants are a ‘best-fit’ with your soil and local climate. These will benefit local insect, bird and animal life. In England, allowing garlic mustard to grow will provide food for orange tip butterflies. A buckthorn bush will provide food for brimstone butterfly caterpillars. A small garden pond will provide water and bathing for birds and a place for newts and frogs to breed. They will go on to eat the slugs that are spoiling your hostas!

    But it is also about respecting me. 21st century living has become toxic for many of us. Our working hours are too long, our budgets stretched, our families given insufficient priority. Sustainable gardening sustains the spirit. I feel better for being in my garden. I do feel a real sense of healing as I tend the garden or sit in it on my own or with family and friends..

    It is sustaining me.

    ‘… and the healing has begun’. Van Morrison

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