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Sustainable Gardening: Home

Liastris aspera in the NYBG Native Plant Garden meadow; photo by Ivo M. Vermeulen
Liastris aspera in the NYBG Native Plant Garden meadow; photo by Ivo M. Vermeulen
 

Even "beautiful" landscapes may threaten our health through the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers.

Synthetic fertilizer salts remove water from microbes, the very core of the soil food web balance. Although these chemicals are partially absorbed by the roots, most continue to drain down into the water table. Excess nutrients leach into rainwater runoff, further causing algae bloom in our lakes, ponds and streams.

Sustainable actions suggest a way to limit the degree of human impact on the environment. In this way, the natural capacity of the earth's ecosystem will be less compromised.

The sustainable gardener accepts responsibility for actions and chooses to reconnect with the physical world in relevant and authentic ways. Here are some methods you can use to work with nature rather than against it:

Conserve Water in the Landscape

  • Water trees first, then shrubs, then herbaceous plants.
  • Plant more drought-resistant and drought-tolerant plants. See the 'Drought Survival for Your Garden' guide for more information.
  • Re-configure landscape plantings into "hydro zones".
  • Water garden plants with drip irrigation or soaker hoses to target roots.
  • If lawns do not get 1-1 1/2" of rainfall per week, apply supplemental water with a sprinkler to reduce waste.
  • Use a rain gauge for accurate measurements.
  • Allow grass to go dormant; it will green up again when rainfall returns.
  • Apply mulch to moderate soil temperature and retain moisture.
  • Collect rainwater from roof runoff in barrels under downspouts and use in the garden.
  • Consider planting a rain garden. See the 'Rain Gardens' guide for more information.
Plant more drought tolerant plants, such as Geranium sanguineum; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Plant more drought tolerant plants, such as Geranium sanguineum; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

Soil Improvement

  • Mulch to retain moisture and keep weeds under control.
  • Fertilize lawns only if soil testing indicates necessity and use only organic fertilizer.
  • Save garden waste (stems, leaves, spent flowers) and vegetable kitchen scraps to make a compost pile. (Note: Infested and diseased garden waste cannot be composted.)
  • Use the rich, black humus result of composting (black gold), compost tea, and mulch to build up microbial activity. 
  • Leave grass clippings to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
  • Use a mulching lawn mower to discourage thatch build-up.
  • Plant trees and shrubs to help avoid erosion and increase water infiltration.

Design and Plant Selection

  • Analyze site characteristics including soil, sun, wind paths and drainage patterns.
  • Preserve existing trees and shrubs whenever possible to prevent erosion.
  • Design to save energy through appropriate tree placement to provide shade in summer.
  • Grade land away from your house at a minimum of 1.5-2% slope.
  • Reduce impervious paved areas and replace with plantings, wood decks, bricks and other porous surfaces to increase water percolation.
  • Create plantings in zones of low water use, moderate water use and high water use.
  • Include native garden plants that have evolved in your area along side their pollinators and dispersers; they conserve soil and water and provide food sources for birds and wildlife.
  • Choose to downsize existing lawns.
  • Leave a portion of your yard wild to provide habitat for wildlife.
  • Consider green roofs for newly constructed buildings; they reduce both storm water runoff and heat from the urban heat island effect.
  • Use sustainably grown wood for structures or recycled wood and other recycled materials.

Additional information about design and plant selection can be found in our guides 'Site Inventory and Analysis for Landscape Design' and' Downsizing Lawns'.

Green roof installed on building; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Padraic
Consider green roofs for newly constructed buildings; they reduce both storm water runoff and heat from the urban heat island effect; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Padraic

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to Minimize Pesticide Use

IPM is a method for controlling harmful pests using a minimum of herbicides and pesticides. IPM does not mean the elimination of chemicals; rather it promotes their use only when needed after other management options have been exhausted. 

  • Growing healthy plants is the best tactic. Allow for a tolerable level of insect damage.
  • Check plants for infestations and spot treat immediately; consider manual pest removal first.
  • Use only natural insecticides such as insecticidal soap.
  • Employ beneficials such as ladybugs, nematodes and praying mantis.
  • Plants of the daisy family (Asteraceae) and the carrot family (Apiaceae) are particularly effective in attracting beneficial insects. 
  • Utilize deterrents such as diatomaceous earth, sticky traps and tree tanglefoot.
  • Use disease-resistant plant varieties and cultivars.
  • Corn gluten meal acts as a natural herbicide and suppresses weed seeds in the lawn.
  • Vinegar can be applied to kill weeds and ants and attack fungi.
  • Sulfur fungicides control certain fungal diseases such as mildew.
  • Bordeaux mixture can control certain fungi, blights and mildews.
  • Bacillus thuringiensis, can be used in a diverse range of settings to control damaging insect larvae.
  • Remove and burn severely infected plants and plant material
Bee on native plantsin NYBG Native Plant Garden; photo by Marlon Co
Include native garden plants that have evolved in your area; photo by Marlon Co

Power Down Landscape Tools

  • If you must use them, maintain gas powered mowers and avoid gas/oil spills.
  • Replace gasoline-powered mowers with manual and/or electric mowers.
  • Utilize electric leaf blowers and electric or manual hedge clippers.
  • Consider switching to a "mulching mower" or an electric chipper-shredder.

Maintenance and Tips

  • Practice IPM (Integrated Pest Management).
  • Weed, deadhead and prune.
  • Aerate and moisten compost pile.
  • Apply fertilizers at proper seasons to avoid weed growth.
  • Minimize high-maintenance grass areas.
  • Bring empty pots and flats back to the local farmer's market for re-use.
  • Grow your own plants from cuttings and divisions to reduce the number you buy.
  • Save seeds and grow your own plants.
Save garden waste (stems, leaves, spent flowers) and vegetable kitchen scraps to make a compost pile
Save garden waste (stems, leaves, spent flowers) and vegetable kitchen scraps to make a compost pile

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Noteworthy Books on Sustainable Gardening