How much do you know about sustainable gardening? It’s certainly a big issue in the gardening world right now, with high-profile gardeners and TV shows championing the benefits of eco-friendly gardening.
What is sustainable gardening?
Sustainable gardening is all about minimising human interference, and using natural resources and processes. This doesn’t mean you have to allow your garden to become a wilderness, rather that you should aim to reduce waste, use non-polluting materials, and take advantage of natural methods of controlling pests and weeds. The aim is to help your garden sustain itself wherever possible.
In addition to the obvious environmental benefits, gardening sustainably will also save you money. What’s not to love?!
I hesitate to use the word ‘trend’ with regards to sustainable gardening, because that suggests it’s a concept which will fade away over time. On the contrary, I believe that gardening with protecting the planet in mind is only going to become more popular, and that we will gradually move towards sustainable gardening being the ‘norm’.
How to be a greener gardener
As gardeners, we are caretakers of outdoor spaces, which means we can all play a vital role in taking care of our environment. We have the opportunity to influence plastic and chemical use, local wildlife and air quality – and that’s in addition to the enormous physical and mental benefits that gardening and gardens can deliver.
If you’d like to be a greener gardener and make the move towards sustainable gardening, there are lots of easy ways to do it. If you’re short on time here’s a quick checklist.
Easy sustainable gardening checklist
- Don’t buy plastic plant pots; choose biodegradable or recyclable alternatives instead, or make your own.
- Re-use any plastic pots and trays you have for as long as possible.
- Buy tools, plant labels and string that are made from natural materials rather than plastic.
- Compost your garden waste to create less waste and also a free soil enricher.
- If you buy compost, make sure it is peat-free.
- Turn fallen leaves into leaf mould for a natural mulch.
- Make your own plant feed using natural materials.
- Consider buying garden tools, equipment and furniture secondhand.
- Introduce trees and hedges to your garden to help air quality.
- Collect rainwater in a water butt to minimise hosepipe use.
- Encourage insects that feed on pests (such as greenfly) by providing them with a natural habitat.
- Leave an area of grass unmown to provide a habitat for local wildlife.
- Provide a food and water source for wild birds.
- Create a log pile or bug hotel.
- Grow plants that are attractive to pollinating insects.
- Keep on top of weeds using natural methods such as hand-digging, hoeing and smothering.
- If you use commercial pesticides or herbicides, choose products that only contain naturally occurring active ingredients.
Easy ways to reduce plastic use in the garden
Reducing plastic use is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think about eco-friendly gardening. It’s not just plant pots that you need to consider; tools, plant labels, string, compost bags, netting, plant supports, flower bulb packets and garden ornaments have all traditionally been plastic-hungry products.
When you next need to buy gardening supplies, choose natural, biodegradable or recyclable options. This applies to packaging too. Consider also whether you could make your own supplies; for example, paper plant pots.
If you can’t find a plastic-free alternative, make sure you really need that product before you buy it. And re-use the plastic where you can; for example, compost bags can be used to make leaf mould.
Finally, please don’t rush to throw away all your existing plastic garden supplies! Instead, use them as much as possible so you don’t have to buy yet more ‘stuff’ which took resources to make. When your plastic products reach the end of their life, dispose of them carefully; check your local refuse collector for details on how to do this. Some garden centres will recycle them too.
Sustainable gardening supplies: don’t buy, make your own
There are lots of things that we use regularly in the garden which are ideal candidates for a homemade alternative. Making the switch will help with sustainable gardening, but can also save you a small fortune.
Compost is a great place to start. You literally turn your garden waste into fertiliser for zero cost – so you cut down on waste, reduce the amount of chemicals in your soil, and avoid single-use plastic bags. You will need to dedicate a small area of the garden to a compost heap, and it helps to contain the waste as it breaks down – but don’t buy a plastic compost bin! I made mine from secondhand wooden pallets. There’s a good guide to making your own compost here.
Leaf mould is another soil enricher that’s free and super-easy to make: here’s how.
It’s also really easy to make your own plant feed. To do this, you will need to grow comfrey, or acquire it from a fellow gardener who grows it. Once you’ve got your leaves, it’s literally a matter of shoving them into a bucket, covering them with water and a lid, and putting the whole thing out of the way for a few weeks. There’s a step-by-step guide to the job over at Gardener’s World.
Other great candidates for the homemade approach are newspaper plant pots, birch twig plant supports and eggshell slug deterrent.
Choose peat free compost
If you do need to buy compost, make sure it is a peat-free variety such as *Westland New Horizon Bio3. Peat mining has a terrible negative effect on the environment, and with peat-free alternatives readily available there really is no excuse for continuing to use peat-based compost.
Consider secondhand for sustainable garden equipment and furniture
If you’re planning to purchase larger items for the garden such as furniture and power tools, why not consider secondhand? Local selling sites such as Gumtree and facebook marketplace are good for larger, hard-to-transport items, and of course ebay is an aladdin’s cave. You may even find just what you’re looking for at zero cost on sites such as Freecycle.
You can also use all of these sites to re-purpose garden items that you no longer need. Or perhaps your local community garden could put them to good use?
Some garden jobs only need doing every now and then – for example, tree or hedge trimming – and you may want to avoid the environmental impact of buying tools that will get used infrequently. Consider using a gardening service such as gardenerslondon.org.uk for this type of garden task, or try to borrow tools from friends or neighbours.
Green up your outdoor space with trees and hedges
Consider replacing fences with living hedges, these will help to improve air quality and also provide a habitat for wildlife. If you need to keep your fences, you can create a small hole at the bottom to allow hedgehogs and small mammals to visit your garden easily.
And of course, trees are the most amazing air-cleaning machines, so if you can introduce even one to your garden you’ll be making a big difference to your local environment. It’s important to choose the right tree for your garden conditions and size, this article has some good advice on how to do it.
Ways to save water in the garden
Collecting rainwater is the easiest way to cut down on the amount of tap water you use in the garden. Water butts are available in a wide range of sizes, and they’re simple to install on downpipes or guttering.
Watering more efficiently will also save water. Don’t water little and often; instead give plants a good soak more infrequently. And only water plants that really need it; grass, for example, is very good at recovering from a dry spell. Focus your attention on plants in containers and those that you’ve recently planted which are still getting established.
See my post on effective garden watering for more tips on saving water in the garden.
Environmentally-friendly pest control
Every garden is affected by pests at some point, but gardening sustainably means you need to avoid reaching for the chemicals.
The best approach to controlling plant pests is to try and stop them becoming a problem in the first place. Keep a close eye on your plants, and take action at the first signs of infestation. Aim to keep your plants healthy and strong too, this will help them cope with pest damage much more effectively.
Your biggest weapon in the battle against plant pests is the insects that feed on the pests. Ladybirds, ants, lacewings and spiders will all keep aphids (greenfly and blackfly) under control, and ground beetles will help deal with caterpillars and slugs. Encourage these beneficial insects to take up residence in your garden by providing a natural habitat such as a log pile or *bug hotel.
You can also stop pests getting to your plants by creating physical barriers, such as crushed eggshells and *copper tape around plant pots to deter slugs.
Sustainable gardening for wildlife
As gardeners we can play a vital role in supporting our local wildlife, and doing so will also help to create a sustainable garden. Encouraging local wildlife to visit your garden will provide you with a natural method of pest control and lots of year-round interest too.
Wildlife gardening can be as simple as leaving a patch of grass to grow long, building a log pile, installing a bug hotel, or providing *food and water for wild birds. All of these are fantastic projects for getting kids involved with.
You can support wildlife with the plants you grow too. Choose plants that are attractive to bees, butterflies, moths and other pollinating insects; the RHS plants for pollinators is a good resource.
Eco-friendly weed control
There are lots of ways to keep weeds in control in the garden without using chemicals.
The simplest way to do this is to stay on top of the weeds, removing them regularly before they have a chance to become established. This little and often approach is also ideal if you’re short on time for gardening. You can do this job by hand, which is the best way to remove all roots, or use a hoe for larger areas. For a really hands-off method, simply smother weeds with a layer of compost, leaf mould or thick cardboard and leave them to die.
If you do decide to use commercial weedkiller, make sure you choose products that contain only naturally occurring active ingredients.
A full garden is also by it’s very nature a natural weed deterrent. Weeds find it much harder to become established when they are competing with other plants, so fill up those borders!
In addition to my blog posts already mentioned in this article, you might like to take a look at the following:
Are you practising sustainable gardening? What environmentally-friendly gardening tips can you add to help us all be greener gardeners?