What is sustainable gardening, anyway?

by Caroline Brown

It seems like everything these days is labeled sustainable — energy, architecture, agriculture, gardening. Is “sustainable” just the buzzword du jour, or does it actually mean something? What’s the difference and sustainable gardening and organic gardening, and oh yeah, exactly what the heck is “permaculture?”

My URI Master Gardeners manual defines it somewhat vaguely as a “thoughtful balance between resources used and results gained.” Sustainable agriculture is better defined, but the principles of sustainable gardening are the same: it’s a way of gardening that is has the least impact on the environment, people, animals, and insects. Washington State University quite cleverly calls it stewardship gardening, and notes that it’s also been called green gardening, eco-gardening, and environmental gardening. Permaculture, from what I understand, is similar but with a more of an emphasis on community and farm design.

Clear as mud, right? Not if you keep in mind a few core elements of sustainable gardening. I’ll cover all of these in more detail in later posts.

1. Use organic soil amendments and fertilizers. Conventional chemically processed fertilizers make your lawn look like a golf course, but the excess chemicals in fertilizers leach into the soil, pollute our groundwater, drain into streams and eventually end up in the ocean where they do all kinds of damage. Composting is a great way to amend your soil naturally and it cuts down on waste in the landfill. And consider organic or slow-release fertilizers, because they release smaller amounts of chemicals into the soil.

2. Control weeds naturally. Chemically-processed herbicides can be harmful to good plants and insects, wild animals and pets, and children. It’s a little more work than whipping the Weed B Gone out of your holster like that dumb TV commercial, but it’s worth it.

3. Practice integrated pest management (IPM). IPM is a pest control strategy that focuses on planting techniques that don’t harm the environment. Pesticides kill the insects eating your roses, but they can also kill butterflies, other useful bugs, birds, and anything else that might come in contact with the pesticide or eat a poisoned bug.

4. Go native. Work with what’s natural in your ecosystem. Plant native trees, shrubs, and plants–they’ll have an easier time surviving in your environment/growing zone than exotics. Natives are better for wildlife, easier to take care of, and easier to grow. Also, learn about invasive plants in your area, avoid planting them, and eliminate the ones that you already have (if you can and it makes sense).

5. Conserve. This probably goes without saying, but good sustainable gardening methods focus on conserving water, energy, and other natural resources as much as possible.

6. Be mindful of garden economics. Huh? Translation: help sustain your local (and regional) economies by buying local plants and supplies from local or regional growers whenever possible. Big-box garden center are cheaper, but only in the long run. They hurt grower-owned businesses that actually provide higher-quality products.

Other gardeners might suggest additional principles, but to me these are the biggies. Let me know if there are others you’d like me to add, and I’ll probably create a a page with this list in a right-hand sidebar.But back to sustainable gardening for just another minute. I know that this all sounds painful and difficult, and it doesn’t guarantee you a perfect garden or lawn. But it’s actually not as difficult as it sounds–you just have to know what to do. Besides, what’s so bad about having a weed here and there, or a lawn that’s not perfect? Garden perfection often comes with a very high environmental price tag!


5 Comments to “What is sustainable gardening, anyway?”

  1. Sustainable may not be a catchy term but its sensible, and thats what we need to be in this day and age, this planet will not support us forever if we cannot carry out what we do in a way that just eats resources, pollutes the planets and generally takes away without giving anything back, thats what its all about, working with nature and giving a little back, permaculture is agriculture which functions to benefit life in all its forms.

  2. David thank you for your comment. You’re correct of course…..people have to live in in a way that can be continued on forever or people will go the way of the dinosaurs. Your business seems fantastic, you’re certainly doing your part to create beautiful sustainable environments.

  3. I thought you may be interested in this article about sustainable golfing…looks like the some folks in the golf industry are looking to get rid of toxins etc.


  4. Golf courses in the US are some of the biggest culprits of turf chemical abuse. Glad to see that some are finally making some changes, let’s hope it spreads as a new generation of turf managers that are educated about sustainable practices comes on board.

    Thanks for letting me know about Lime, looks like an interesting website.

  5. Yeah I found the site not long ago…it’s pretty cool, you can set up a profile…here’s mine


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