At a time where the global climate crisis seems to grow worse with every passing news cycle, it’s more important now than ever that individuals consider taking on sustainable living on a personal level, like in their home garden. Getting out and into the dirt has seen an unprecedented rise in popularity owing to the quarantine measures brought on by COVID-19. Having fresh produce on-hand can cut down on trips to the grocery store, save money and support a sustainable lifestyle. A bit of patience and simple tools is all that’s needed to create a sustainable bed of flowers or vegetables in your home garden that will provide four-seasons’ worth of learning, while supporting nearby wildlife.
Gardens should be planted in an area of fertile ground with dark, rich soil that can be tilled with hand tools or by mechanical means. Too much sand or clay will cause drainage problems, and possibly not provide enough nutrients to growing plants. A pot or two, outside or on a windowsill, can work especially well in urban areas. Regardless of the growing medium selected, it’s important that plants be located in a sunny place, receiving at least eight hours of sunlight every day. Local garden centres, nurseries or reputable online resources can provide useful tips on growing fruits, vegetables, flowers and other plants that will thrive in the area.
Making use of native plantings wherever possible helps to promote healthy local wildlife and prevents invasive species from taking hold. Native plants have evolved symbiotic relationships with native wildlife, and therefore provide a critical path to sustainability. Per the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), a plant is considered native if it has occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem or habitat without human introduction. When planting a vegetable garden, add native plants and flowers nearby to attract pollinators, which will increase the garden’s yield naturally. Selecting native plants will also provide seeds, vegetation and other forms of food for wildlife.
One of the most critical components of cultivating a sustainable home garden is nutrition and pest management. There are many organic and natural options to promote healthy plant growth and flower/fruit production that are safe to use around adults, children and pets. Avoiding pesticides means that beneficial bacteria, worms and other soil inhabitants thrive. To ensure adequate plant hydration and preserve water resources, water in the morning when it’s cooler so that less water is lost to evaporation. Watering in the evening leaves the plants wet overnight, which may promote fungus or mould growth. For most efficient watering, use a soaker hose to aim water at the roots.
Growing a variety of plants will limit the offerings for any given garden pest, which will make the garden less attractive to them. Natural predators such as frogs, birds and bats should be encouraged to help keep pests at bay.
To increase the positive impact of a home garden, consider composting. Composting is an easy and earth-friendly way to recycle kitchen scraps, fallen leaves and annual plants, once the growing season is done. Keeping organic matter out of landfills returns essential nutrients to the soil, vital for promoting a sustainable environment. A successful compost pile will adhere to an even mix or 3-to-1 ratio of “greens” and “browns”: greens are fresh, moist materials such as weeds, kitchen scraps and grass clippings. Browns are typically leaves, shredded paper or other dried organic material. To jump-start a compost pile, add compost starter or worms. Remove any meat, fats, oils or other proteins from kitchen scraps before adding them to the compost pile as these will cause the compost pile to have a foul odour and are likely to attract vermin. A well-balanced compost pile or bin should not smell; if that happens, add more “brown” material and turn the pile more frequently.
It’s not necessary to commit large amounts of space to composting. There are many varieties of stand-alone compost drums and tumblers large enough to provide a season’s worth of compost for a typical garden plot, yet small enough to be unobtrusive in a suburban backyard. A rotating drum makes it easy to turn-over the pile and promote breakdown. The composter or compost pile should be located in a dry, shady spot. For faster breakdown, components should be chopped or shredded before being added. A successful compost pile will be damp but not wet, and will feel warmer than the ambient air temperature as materials break down. Plan to add 3 to 6 inches of compost to the existing soil at planting time, more or less depending on the soil quality. Additional compost can be added over the course of the growing season to boost plant nutrition. Many agricultural extension offices and universities with agriculture programmes offer soil testing for pH and essential nutrients at no cost; there are also home testing kits available for purchase online.
You might also like: Hidden Gems: What are Halophyte Plants?
Finally, it is worth looking at growing organic produce. Harmful chemical pesticides and herbicides, and synthetic fertilisers can pose major risks, not only to our own health but also to the health of the ecosystems around us. Organic growing is not just about avoiding harmful products. It is also about taking a holistic approach when it comes to fertility, weeds and pest management. To be a sustainable organic gardener, you need to take the whole ecosystem into account.
Once sustainable gardening practices are in place, consider having your home garden certified by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). On average, certified habitats can support two times the amount of wildlife as a typical suburban landscape. A recent four-year study by the National Science Foundation (NSF) found that, if wildlife gardening is adapted on a wider scale, it could help to boost biodiversity. To qualify for certification, the garden, yard, farm or other outdoor space needs to contain at least the following elements for wildlife, either natural or supplemental:
- Three food sources, such as a bird feeder, plants that produce seeds or berries or sources of pollen or suet
- One water source, like a birdbath, rain garden or stream
- Two sources of cover, such as a roosting box, evergreens or ground cover
- Two places where wildlife can raise their young, like burrows, mature trees or host plants for caterpillars
Plus two practices from the sustainable gardening categories of:
- Soil and water conservation, including mulching and using water responsibly
- Controlling invasive exotic species via integrated pest management and by using native plantings
- Organic practices, such as those described in this article
The self-certification process can be completed online from anywhere in the world. The certification fees support critical initiatives to inspire others to make a difference and address the issues leading to declining wildlife habitat in the US. For additional information or to start the certification process, visit the NWF certification page.
Even if a garden is not officially certified, pollinators and both local and migratory flora and fauna will benefit from adherence to these guidelines, as they can connect corridors of habitat between natural and larger protected areas. A home wildlife garden can become a focal point for an extended family, community or neighbourhood. It doesn’t get more “local” than the backyard. When it comes to doing good for the planet, no effort is too small.