Source: Sherman Publications

Sustainable gardening

May 18, 2011

Have you noticed the adjective ‘sustainable’ being used to describe agriculture, development, and communities? Basically, something is sustainable it uses methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources and it is able to last or continue for a long time.

So what does this mean to home gardeners? I think we should strive to grow a variety of plants that are tolerant of existing soil and site conditions using organic soil, water, and nutrient management.

There really isn’t anything new here. If your gardening knowledge was passed down from your grandparents and parents, who grew up on a family farm, then these gardening methods are common practice. Those of us a generation or two removed from the ‘family farm’ can easily apply these practices to our piece of land.

Your soil should be your first priority. Healthy soil means healthy plants. A great way to add nutrients to your soil and improve soil structure is to regularly incorporate organic matter, such as compost and/or well-aged manure. Soil with lots of organic matter holds moisture and nutrients; attracts earthworms and other soil organisms that are responsible for decomposition and soil formation; and promotes healthy root development.

Chemical fertilizers, on the other hand, make a garden look good faster. However, the nutrients from chemical fertilizers are released so quickly that plants create a lot of top growth before their roots can support the nutrient and structural needs of the plant, leading to weaker plants. Chemical fertilizers do not improve the structure of the soil and can damage the health of the soil since synthetic fertilizers contain high concentrations of mineral salts that can kill off many of the organisms necessary for healthy, productive soil.

Right now, lack of water is not an issue. But come July, the lack of rainfall may be an issue. Here are some ways to conserve water:

Place a rain barrel under your gutter to capture rainwater for later use.

Incorporate native plants in your perennial borders. Native plants have learned how to thrive in our environment so you will have healthy plants in your garden all season long.

Add mulch to your flower beds in the spring, once the ground has thawed, to conserve water and reduce the need for weeding.

Plant wind breaks to help reduce soil erosion. The next time you drive by a farmer’s field, notice the row of trees planted on the edges of the fields.

In your vegetable garden, use square foot gardening methods and succession planting to help reduce water loss.

So adding compost and manure to your gardens, avoiding chemical fertilizers, conserving water, and using native plants will enable you to create a sustainable a garden for your enjoyment now and in the years to come. I think your grandparents would be proud.

Mary Pellerito is a garden writer living in Brandon Township, Michigan. She is a Master Gardener and a member of Wild Ones.