Seven Steps to Sustainable Gardening

Over the past year, COVID-19 has forced us all to spend much more time at home. For most of us, it has been a stressful year, but many people have used this time to learn how to slow down and focus on the world around them. With the pandemic’s onset in early spring, many non-gardeners turned to flowerpots, raised beds and backyard patches, both due to worries about food shortages and for something to do. As we collectively turned to gardening, many found that time spent interacting with nature provided much-needed respite.

Entomologist Isa Betancourt took this photo of her mother tending their garden early in the pandemic.

Gardening, whether in your yard, in pots on your windowsill or in a square foot of space between your house and your sidewalk, is a wonderful way to enjoy nature while still adhering to social distancing recommendations. Whether you’re approaching this year’s planting season as an experienced gardener, or you are trying it out for the first time, consider how you can take steps to create a garden that is kind to the environment and does not over-rely on natural resources. Below we provide seven tips on planning, planting and caring for a sustainable garden.

1. Think about your gardening goals.

Are you hoping to grow flowers, food or both? Do you want to cultivate unique plants? Have you considered ways to use your garden to increase biodiversity or sustain local wildlife? Are you exploring a mix of the above?

Bee on mint plant
Staff Scientist Tanya Dapkey plants mint to attract beneficial pollinators like bees and wasps. She also plants parsley to rear black swallowtail butterflies.

It’s important to think critically about what purposes you want your garden to serve. Many people grow gardens not only for the plants, but also for the cool native wildlife that the garden will attract, such as bees, birds and butterflies. You can, for example, grow coneflowers to attract the American goldfinch, or you can cultivate certain morning glory species to attract the golden tortoise beetle, which is the fastest color-changing arthropod in the world! If you focus on planting native plants and on worrying less about holes in leaves or petals, your garden may provide a nourishing space for local wildlife. Learn more about how to plant a pollinator garden.

2. Purchase supplies from local businesses.

Even before you start your garden plan, you can consider ways to make your garden greener. Ask yourself the following questions. Do you know where your garden veggies and flowers really come from? Will you plant from seeds, starts or plants? Will you purchase your veggie plants at a local farmers’ market or a big box store? Under what conditions will your plants be grown?

Seedlings starting in upcycled containers
ANS Biogeochemist Michelle Gannon started seedlings in upcycled containers

Purchasing plants or seeds grown nearby, which you can do at many farmers’ markets and local garden centers, is one way to support your local growers. Just make sure to ask questions about where the plants and seeds came from! If you’re buying seeds, consider asking your local supplier if they collect and save seed at the end of each growing season. Plants grown in your area also may be under less stress and better adapted to the type of soil and climate you have, so they may fare better when you transplant them into your own garden. In addition, locally grown plants have not been shipped across the country or the world, so they have lower fuel and transportation costs, including lower emissions of greenhouse gases, than some options available in big box stores. Now is also a good time to hunt through the previous years’ supplies and use up old seeds or other materials that may otherwise have gone to waste.

3. Start a compost pile.

Composting enables you to turn your organic waste — items such as fruit peels, food scraps, coffee grounds, leaves and more — into a resource that can help nourish your soil and spruce up your yard. When thrown into an oxygen-deprived landfill, the very same items break down slowly and produce methane, contributing directly to global warming.

Composting requires aeration, which supplies oxygen for the decomposition process. As it decomposes, your waste heats up, breaks down and develops beneficial bacteria and fungi, excellent byproducts for growing healthy plants. Compost is great for your garden because it helps improve the structure of the soil so that it can better retain water. It also releases nutrients that are available to the roots, so it supports plant health when mixed with garden soil, added to potted flowers or incorporated into raised beds. Check out our how-to guide for creating compost.

If you don’t have outdoor space to create your own compost, your township or county may have a drop-off location that accepts compostable items you’ve collected inside your home. For shared spaces such as offices or apartment complexes, consider working with management to gather information on composting, pricing and logistics. Or search for a community garden that accepts donations to its compost pile.

4. Find ways to conserve water.

It seems like water is all around us — but did you know that only one percent of the water on our planet is available for drinking? Everything we buy, the energy we use and the food we eat requires water to produce. In fact, Americans’ actual water “footprint” – the amount of water it takes to produce our food, energy, clothes and more – is about 2,000 gallons of water each day. We consume about 95 percent of the water we use without ever seeing it. Purchasing recycled goods, carpooling with friends and eating locally grown veggies all will help to reduce our water footprint.

Woman and toddler water a garden bed
Senior Director of Digital Strategy and Content Marketing Mary Alice Hartsock and her son water seeds planted in garden beds early in the day.

If you have a lawn or landscape and you must water it or you need to water a garden, learn the best times to water and find out how much water your plants need. Watering first thing in the morning can prevent too much water from evaporating. Mulching helps regulate soil temperatures and can help retain moisture in the soil.

You can also use a rain barrel on non-edible plantings to save water. Rain barrels are used to collect water that runs off your roof, and they help reduce the amount of runoff from your property. Through Philadelphia’s Rain Check Program, qualifying Philadelphians can receive a free rain barrel from the Philadelphia Water Department.

5. Manage garden visitors using natural methods.

Are insects eating your garden vegetables? Take a moment to learn about whether the insects may be beneficial to your garden or the surrounding ecosystem. Then think about the longer-term effects of methods you might use to discourage these visitors. What you put on your plants can mix with rainwater and runoff, running into soil and groundwater. Certain substances can affect birds, pets and other mammals that ingest insects, produce or water near your garden.

Cherry tomatoes
You can use native ladybugs to limit aphids that like to sample garden lettuce, tomatoes and other crops.

Studying the life cycles and behaviors of garden visitors can reveal unexpected (and sometimes positive) ways they interact with your plants — and you’ll learn more about local ecology. But if they’re truly a problem, limiting conditions such as food, water, shelter and space may encourage certain pests to seek other habitats.

Find out which brightly colored flowers attract your garden visitors, and plant them near your garden to draw your visitors away from your vegetables. Be sure to inspect your yard for small amounts of standing water, which may attract mosquitoes. If aphids are bothering your lettuce crop, invite in some native ladybugs for a delicious aphid snack. Consider neem oil for ants, aphids, locusts, leafminers, caterpillars and many other critters if they are compromising your vegetables. Sand barriers can help keep out slugs. A small fence can block the way of your friendly neighborhood bunnies.

6. Protect your soil.

Last year you spotted it right away — the mighty weed that was coming up next to your prized flowers or veggies. This year, you are planning to be more proactive by preventing weed growth in your garden. There are several ways to prevent weeds sustainably.

Every three years, staff scientist Tanya Dapkey applies an organic, dye-free mulch such as cedar, which has great anti-pest components, and she tills in locally purchased cow manure or mushroom compost each year.

One option is to provide natural barriers to weed formation with mulch early in the season, before most weeds have a chance to grow. Pull up existing weeds before applying mulch, as many weeds are strong enough to grow right through the mulch. Dye-free, organic, weed-free options are best and can be layered on an inch to three inches thick every couple of years. You could use leaves, compost, grass clippings (as long as the grass was not treated), untreated wood chips or straw. Cardboard is also a great weed barrier. Pull off any tape and put it down in the bottom of a garden bed or between and around veggie plants before mulching. It will eventually break down, but weeds won’t grow through it!

By planting tall plants next to shorter ones, you can organize your plants to block sunlight and create shade where weeds tend to germinate. If you can’t actually dig out existing weeds, you can make sure to cut off their flowers or seeds before they have a chance to spread. You can also use boiling water or a mixture of lemon juice and vinegar to kill weeds, especially those growing up between sidewalk cracks or on garden pathways.

7. Use (or share!) what you grow.

You’ve taken steps to plant the most sustainable garden around. Now you have an overabundance of lettuce, tomatoes for days or more peppers than you’ll ever need. First things first — great job on your awesome harvest! Now it’s time to consider how you will make the most of it.

bunch of radishes fresh from garden

Academy staff share excess veggies with colleagues throughout the gardening season.

Many of us have gotten to know our neighbors a little better during the pandemic. Now, you can share your harvest with them! Try using Next Door or a Facebook neighborhood group to let people know you have extra veggies. Plus, you can let them know about the care you’ve taken to plant sustainably and perhaps influence their planting decisions. You can also consider donating food to families in need, either directly or through a local shelter. Another option is to look into methods for canning and freezing vegetables or drying fresh herbs for later use.

We need your support now more than ever. If you believe that science matters, please consider a donation to support the Academy’s efforts to ensure a healthy, sustainable and equitable planet.

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By Mary Alice Hartsock, with contributions from Carolyn Belardo, Isa Betancourt, Tanya Dapkey, Jason Farris, David Velinsky and Lisa Willis

One comment

  1. Wonderful ideas. Always a great feeling to grow something and see it and
    feel it in your own hands. Thank you.
    Hazel Pelletreau

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