What is Sustainable Gardening?

Bee Better Naturally with Helen Yoest


Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

The term “sustainable gardening” seems to have become the buzzword in the gardening community, encompassing green, organic, and waterwise gardening practices. Simply put, sustainable gardening is the gardening practice of conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.

Gardening sustainably isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. You can begin with one practice and build from there. What’s important is to be aware of what practices you perform and think about them before you continue with business as usual. It is also good to understand the available options and gradually add more.

Here’s a good place to start: grow the right plant in the right place, and practice water conservation, bed preparation and maintenance, and Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Proper plant placement will save your time, energy, and resources. Planting moisture-loving plants in a dry bed is counter-productive. Study and know your site; then plant accordingly. While you can often nurse a shade-loving plant in sun with extra water, it’s just not sustainable.

Water conservation can be achieved in many aspects of garden design and harvesting. The goal for water conservation is to keep as much of the water on your property as possible. This can be done by following these practices:

  • Reduce impervious surfaces (hard surfaces that water cannot penetrate).
  • Slow falling rainwater enough so it doesn’t go straight into the storm drains.
  • Build rain gardens in areas where water collects.
  • Use less water, and use it intelligently.

Also water plants directly at the root zone by hand or using soaker or drip irrigation. Overhead sprinklers are not sustainable, due to the water lost through evaporation and wind. Water according to plant needs, not a rigid schedule, and water infrequently but deeply.

Everyone’s soil is different. It’s not uncommon for the soil to change a few feet away, let alone a few miles away. In my area of the Carolinas, soils range from clay to sand. We can accept our soil and grow plants suitable for that soil type, or we can amend the soil. For any garden soil type, you cannot go wrong in adding more organic matter. In clay soil, organic matter will break up the clay, improving drainage. In sandy soil, organic matter will help retain water.

Covering garden beds with mulch is one of the best things you can do. Used generously, mulch breaks down to add nutrients to the soil, helps retain moisture, moderates the soil temperature, improves soil texture, and suppresses weeds.

Composting garden and kitchen waste is a good sustainable practice. Even if you live in an area with a separate waste pickup that takes yard waste to a composting facility, it’s still more sustainable to do your own compost. The less often a yard waste truck has to stop, the more sustainable your efforts will be.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective approach to pest management that uses the most economical means with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment. IPM is not a single pest control method, but rather a series of pest management evaluations, decisions, and controls. It involves the judicious use of pesticides.

IPM follows a four-tiered approach. Seeing a single pest doesn’t necessarily mean control is needed. Evaluate each sighting to determine what to do next.

  1. Monitor and Identify Pests - Not all insects, weeds, and other organisms require control. Many organisms are innocuous and even beneficial. Look for pests and identify them accurately so that you’ll make good decisions.
  2. Prevent – The maxim that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is one of the best gardening practices. Good prevention strategies include rotating between different crops, selecting pest-resistant varieties, and planting pest-free rootstock. Also, if you plant in areas to provide good air circulation, you can prevent some pest problems.
  3. Control - Effective, less risky pest controls should be chosen first, such has hand-picking pests off the plant or spraying with a hose. If less risky controls are not working, then additional pest control methods could be used, such as targeted spraying of pesticides. For more information, see the Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Pest Management Principles fact sheet

A few well-thought-out practices will easily make your garden more sustainable. Why not start today?


Even compost piles can be stylish. In my home garden, I compost in a way referred to as a “cold process.” That simply means compostable materials are piled up. There is no turning involved. The temperature doesn’t rise as high as high as it would if turned, which slows the process. It works for me, though, because I have two places in my garden where I can compost. While I am using one, the other area is covered. I cover the compost pile with pine straw. Then I let nature do her thing.

Here’s another tip: if my garden is on a tour or if I have a big group stopping by for a visit, I’ll top-dress my compost pile just to make things tidy. Otherwise, I see my compost pile as a part of my garden—something to be proud of, not hidden away. And as an added bonus, having a compost pile makes gardening easier during maintenance and deadheading times.

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Pollinator-friendly, sustainable, good design

Raleigh, NC

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