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A Beginner's Guide to Sustainable Gardening

Blog0415_gardenguideThere’s nothing like a beautiful, working garden to get you in touch with the earth. If you’ve never gardened before, it can be a bit intimidating, especially if your goal is to preserve and protect natural resources. But that’s only because we’ve been taught to fight against nature instead of working in harmony with nature. Organic gardening is not as difficult as it may appear, and the experience can be richly rewarding.

If you’re a beginning gardener, the key is to keep it simple so you’re not overwhelmed in your first growing season. A small garden will allow you to enjoy while learning, without the responsibility of a huge garden. After you get through one growing season, you’ll have a better handle on it and can expand next season.

Before you turn over a single shovelful of dirt, make a plan, even if you have modest goals. It may sound like a chore, but your plan will keep you from wasting energy and resources, not to mention money.

6 Tips for Sustainable Gardening Newbies

1. Choose your space carefully

If you have a generous backyard, choose a space that gets plenty of sunlight and natural moisture. If you don’t have much in the way of land, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Gardens can thrive on the rooftop, balcony, or deck. You might be surprised at how many pots you can fit into a small space. Container gardeners can produce everything from herbs and vegetables to fruits and flowers.

You can also check to see if your area has a community garden where you can tend your own section. Measure your space so you can draw up a plan of action.

Learn more: Community and Urban Gardening

2. Decide what you want to grow and where you want to grow it

Blog0415_gardenguide_toolsThink about what you’d like to grow. Trust nature – it’s easier to grow plants that are native to your area. These plants will take to the local soil and weather conditions, and they’ll be more resistant to pests. Native plants require less work and fewer resources than non-native plants.

Research the amount of sunlight or shade each type of plant requires. Design your garden so that plants work together. Taller, sun-worshipping plants can help shelter shade-loving plants. Plants that need more water should be placed where water tends to run. The more you learn about your plants in advance, the more you can take advantage of nature’s wisdom.

If you plan to garden every year, crop rotation will help keep your soil healthy. The Old Farmer's Almanac provides sample garden plans and videos to help you in this task.  

Purchase organic seeds or seedlings and harvest seeds for next year’s garden. Make a list of the tools and gardening supplies you’ll need for each step to cut down on trips to the gardening center.

Learn more: Plants and Planet Make Friends with Companion Gardening

3. Go organic every step of the way

It all begins with the soil. If you’re buying soil for a container garden, make sure it’s organic.

If you’re gardening in the backyard, you’ll need to assess your soil for organic matter content. Oregon State University provides these tips to checking your soil:

  • Soil should be dark in color.
  • Check for puddling and standing water. Properly cultivated soil allows water to percolate below the surface.
  • When you rub the soil between your fingers, it should feel like crumbs (organic particles).
  • Organic soil should have the “rich smell of earth.” Poor soil may lack smell or smell sour.

If your soil is inadequate, enrich it with organic manure and compost.

Everything you do in your garden can affect the surrounding soil and water. Instead of chemical pesticides, the Natural Wildlife Federation offers these tips for insect control:

  • Reduce egg-laying insects by using netting over vegetables.
  • For vegetable gardens, weed and turn the soil often to expose soil insects to predators and weather.
  • Prune and destroy infested wood.

Research which bugs may be beneficial to your plants and take care not to destroy them.

Learn more: Outdoor Pest Control

4. Conserve water

Water is our most precious natural resource, and it’s in short supply in many parts of the country. Even if your community doesn’t have a watering ban, sustainable gardening means using water wisely. Here are a few water conservation tips:

  • Use mulch in planter beds. Mulch can make water evaporate more slowly and keep soil moist.
  • Get a few rain barrels so you can use rainwater on dry days.
  • If you have a sizable garden, try a drip irrigation system, which will divert water to the base of your plants, so there’s less evaporation. Colorado State University provides details on how to set up and operate a drip irrigation system.
  • If you use a sprinkler system, minimize waste by making sure it’s aimed properly. Don’t run it longer than is necessary.

Learn more: Harvesting Rainwater in the Garden

5. Compost

Composting reduces the need for buying expensive fertilizers. Rather than discarding vegetable scraps and backyard waste, use them to create your own fertilizer. Composted materials can enrich the soil and nourish your plants.

The Environmental Protection Agency provides helpful information about composting at home – even if you don’t have a big backyard.

Learn more: Composting and Waste Reduction

6. The end game is nice, but embrace the process

By the end of the season, you’ll be rewarded with a fine crop of fresh, organic vegetables, fruits, or beautiful flowers. You’ll also be getting some fresh air and exercise. But that’s only part of the reward.

Gardening has spiritual benefits. Sustainable gardening means tending with mindfulness. Awareness of each action and its ripple effects can generate feelings of positivity and improve your sense of well-being.

Learn more: Gardening for Mind, Body and Spirit

Photo: furtwangl via flickr under CC License 2.0; Peggy's Gardening Tools by Abby Lanes

Ann Pietrangelo is a freelance writer and the author of "No More Secs!" and “Catch That Look.”

Find out more about related services in the Washington area:

Gardening Supplies & Nurseries
Landscape Design & Landscaping

Related Reading:

Growing Organic Garden Made Easy
4 Easy Landscaping Practices That Conserve Water
Spring Pruning Tips
Release the Slugs
Winterize Your Garden
Companion Gardening
Permaculture
Gardening for Body, Mind and Spirit

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Spring Gardening; Community & Urban Gardening; Hydroponics;