Sunday, 22 May 2016

6 Ways To Sustainable Gardening

Hey everyone,

For me gardening is about more than just having pretty flowers and a few tasty tomatoes; gardening is about sustainability, it is about actually creating a net positive benefit to my environment, to my community and to my soul. So it is important to know if I am doing it right and to always try to find new ways to improve. There are 6 ways that I have identified my garden is sustainable and I would like to share them with you.

But first what is sustainability? Here is a common definition that I have heard:

Sustainability is the ability to meet our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

I have also heard it defined like this:

Sustainability is the ability of a system to continue to function in balance with other systems. 

So with that said here are 6 ways that my garden is sustainable. 

1) Composting. 

Sustainability in this context would mean that the inputs into my garden equal the outputs. So there is a conversation to be had here. But the general concept is that since I compost my household organics and then use that material to build up and enrich my garden soil I am putting back what I take out by harvesting my produce. It's not a closed loop but it is a move in the right direction. 

I always used to wonder why it is so important to compost. Why is it so bad to put a banana peel into the landfill vs into a compost pile? The answer is what is produced. When organics become buried deep in a landfill they break down in an oxygen deprived environment and turn into methane which is many times more potent of a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide that is produced in a compost heap. Also by composting, nutrients are recycled back into the soil and act as a natural fertilizer.

2) Seed saving. 

I am getting better at saving seeds and am constantly learning about how different plants work. By saving seeds I am ensuring that I will have a supply of cost effective, high quality seeds to grow my garden again next year. Thus my garden as a system can continue without the need to buy seeds every year!

This year I plan to save potatoes, peas, carrots, beans, sunflowers, radishes, tomatoes, cucumber, squash and peppers. I also plan to use these seeds to trade with other local gardeners so I will be a benefit to my community!

3) Not using fertilizers and chemicals.

This one should be obvious but it doesn't seem to be. There are countless YouTube videos and garden blogs that direct the use of fertilizers to get good results and while it definitely works to do so it is not sustainable to rely on chemicals to grow a garden. 

There are no chemicals leaching out of my soil and into the nearby river. That's what happens to most of the fertilizers and other chemicals that we put onto our gardens and lawns, some of them get absorbed but most of them run off into the sewer and into the river causing algae blooms that choke out fish and cause problems downstream. 

A good example is the dead zone at the Mississippi delta where the river enters the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizers and chemicals run off of farms and cities across the USA and collect there causing a massive dead zone that is 6-7000 sq. miles large. But you don't need to go that far for an example of this sort of environmental damage as many lakes in Alberta experience dangerous algae blooms caused by fertilizer runoff. 

Obviously my little garden is a negligible variable in the grand equation but by not using chemicals I am part of the solution not part of the problem. By not using fertilizers my garden is a system that is not compromising the ability of other systems to function. By working with nature and using compost and mulch my garden soil gets healthier each year.

4) Using free and local resources.

As much as possible I get the materials I need for my garden from local sources and as cheaply as possible. For example; I get bags and bags of free coffee grounds from Starbucks and I get lots of leaves from my neighbours and a local church. I used the leaves and coffee grounds as mulch and for making compost. Another example are the decorative rocks that I found in a nearby field. Compare them to the granite landscape rocks that I bought a few years ago that were hauled on diesel trucks from really far away. 

It takes a bit of luck but if you're patient and creative there are many free and local materials to recycle or up-cycle into your garden. It's fun to do! Also try to trade with other people. This summer I traded raspberry suckers that I wanted to get rid of for some nasturtiums!

The motto in my garden is: "Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can." I don't know where I heard that saying but I find it very profound. Being sustainable isn't just something for the rich to do, it is something that everyone must do. Use the resources that you have and get creative!

5) Mulching.

It always baffles me when I read a garden blog that lists off tips to grow a better garden and MULCHING ISN'T LISTED! Why are we so obsessed in the modern garden world with having bare soil around our plants? The benefits of mulching seem so obvious yet many people don't do it! 


- Holds moisture in the soil.
- Keeps the soil temperature more consistent. 
- Increases worm activity.
- Controls weeds.
- Adds biological material to the soil.
- Prevents erosion.
- Provides a protective disease barrier for plants.
- & more! 

Materials suitable for mulch are often cheap and readily available. I use my neighbours grass clippings. Once grass clippings dry they won't blow away and after the growing season they quickly break down into the soil.

If you're gardening on a large scale it may not be practical to mulch but there are other things you can do, like spreading manure or growing a chop and drop cover crop. For gardens like mine that are small and easily manageable mulching makes a lot of sense!

6) No tilling and minimal soil disturbance. 

This ties in closely with the concept in number 5 that bare soils is bad. Bare soil easily erodes away and becomes easily depleted, the organic material is not held in the soil but will break down and evaporate. Bare soil also frees up space for weeds to come in.

People till their soil to kill weeds but there are other ways. When I first started my garden I used the lasagna method; I buried newspaper and cardboard under compost and built raised beds. Weeds have never had a chance to take over because I use a lot of mulch. For larger scale gardens you may need to till to get things started but over time the need to till can be reduced or eliminated

I found this series of videos by USDANRCS to be very helpful. There is a lot of science that shows that tilling causes more problems than it solves and that we should move away from the practice. 

Here are some areas that I need to improve on.

1) Using rain water.

Currently I do not have a rain collection system setup for my garden. I use city water. Some argue that this is bad because of the water treatment chemicals and some say it is fine, I don't know. But I do know that it would be better to use free rain water that doesn't rely on energy intensive processing and pumping. 

The reason I haven't started collecting rain water yet is because I just haven't gotten around to it... yet! The garden hose is too convenient. But I hope to fix this soon! What do you think?

2) Better companion planting.

There are many claims about companion planting. Some are backed up by science and some by folk wisdom. I want to learn designs that actually work to make my plants grow better and more sustainably. What do you recommend?

3) More perennials. 

It is amazing how year after year a well taken care of apple tree will keep on producing an abundance of apples or how asparagus will become more and more abundant! This year I planted both of those things. I am always looking for more perennials. They make gardening easier and can be really cost effective. What perennials do you grow?

What else do you think I should do? What did I miss?

Please fee free to comment and share this post. Also if you’d like to contact me I am on TwitterFacebook and IRL (In Real Life - Let's go for coffee)!

Use the hashtag #16Paces on Twitter and Instagram to follow and interact with me as well. 


P.S. After writing this blog but shortly before publishing it, I put a garbage can under my rain spout. So now I am collecting rainwater!

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