Getting Started with Sustainable Gardening
Green thumbs are good for your health: Studies show that not only does gardening reduce stress, but nurturing your own veggie or flower patch may also cut heart attack risk. And it’s good for the environment’s health. Gardening improves air and soil quality, reduces the carbon footprint and helps with biodiversity.
Millennials, or people born between 1981 and 1996, are investing in gardening, too. They are more likely to spend their money on gardening than other age groups, despite having lower household incomes, and want to spend more time outside doing it, according to the 2019 National Gardening Survey.
But not everyone has the space to grow.
Millennials are having trouble affording homes, and the demand for apartments, which typically don’t include access to individual green space, is rising. Gardening in small spaces can be difficult, especially for beginners. How can people with limited space contribute to the collective benefits of sustainable gardening?
What Is Sustainable Gardening?
Horticulture is “the area of agriculture involving the science of growing and caring for plants,” including includes fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers, according to the 4-H Learning Network. Gardening is a component of horticulture. But what makes gardening sustainable?
Jon Traunfeld, director of the Home and Garden Information Center, said that sustainable gardening and horticulture can be explained fairly simply: “It’s climate change gardening; we’re very keen on getting that message across to people,” he said.
That means taking into consideration all the factors that influence climate change when planting.
What to Consider in Sustainable Horticulture
“It’s like a circle: You need the plants to go with the right soil with the right climate,” said Cindy Brown, Education and Collections Manager at the Smithsonian Gardens. “And if you do it right, then it does the best thing for the plants and just keeps on going around. It’s self-supporting.”
Here are four variables to think about when starting sustainable gardening.
Healthy soil is great for a garden: It absorbs rainfall, provides air and water to plants and supports a healthy soil food web (the living system within soil). Over-compacted soil and a lack of organic materials hurt soil, exposing it to the elements and inhibiting plant growth. Sustainable practices can restore soil.
Composting is a great source of organic matter to add essential nutrients back into your soil. Learn how to compost by referring to a guide, such as Composting Basics for Beginners from SodGod.
Don’t use chemicals.
Not only are chemicals like pesticides potentially toxic to humans, but they can also contribute to pollution, have adverse health effects and can linger in soil for years after their use.
Use mulch or cover crops to protect soil from harsh elements like the sun, wind and rain. Bare soil leaves nutrient-rich matter exposed (PDF, 2.1 MB) and at risk of washing away. Covered soil also helps moderate the temperature and conserve water.
Conserving water is important — outdoor water use accounts for more than one-third of total household water use in the United States — but managing what happens to water is just as vital. Surface runoff is excess water that flows from backyards, streets and fields into rivers and oceans. As the water moves, it picks up contaminants from everything it touches and carries them along, eventually adding them to the water’s final destination. Sustainable gardening practices can help manage runoff and use less water overall.
Some methods for water conservation include getting rid of sprinklers, only watering plants when needed and using a watering can to achieve more precise direction and quantity of water used.
Create natural barriers.
Add permeable surfaces to allow water to enter the soil instead of contributing to runoff and use plants as additional barriers where water collects.
More than one-third of the world’s food crops rely on pollinators to survive, according to the USDA. But natural pollinators are dying because of pesticides, nutritional stress and disease. Sustainable horticulture protects, attracts and provides habitats for vital pollinators such as bees, butterflies and bats.
Be a smart consumer.
Use the Pollinator Partnership’s Pollinator Friendly Planting Guides to select plants suitable for your area.
Include a birdbath or shallow basin in your garden, or let the hose create a small puddle for pollinators to hydrate.
What you plant can be just as important as how you plant. Invasive species are “nonnative organism[s] whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm, or harm to human, animal or plant health,” according to the National Park Service. Nonnative species are any species that occurs outside their natural range, but they are not necessarily harmful. There are also weeds, noxious (particularly harmful) weeds and naturalized plants.
Learn about invasive species.
The National Park Service has a helpful explainer on the differences between native and nonnative species, as well as the harm they can pose to an ecosystem.
Research your state.
The USDA compiles lists of invasive and noxious plants by state. Check out what plants are considered to your area using their State Noxious Weed Lists.
Four Questions to Ask When Starting a Sustainable Garden
Brown said that a big part of sustainable horticulture is understanding the limitations. She loves lilacs and has wanted to plant one in every place she’s gone, but she knows it isn’t always the right choice.
“I’ve learned through the years that we don’t go in with the idea that we’re going to manipulate the environment totally ourselves,” she said. “We’ve got to work with it. We’ve got to be able to see what the landscape can support rather than just going in with a list of plants that we want to put in.”
How can gardeners start making those choices? Use these four questions to evaluate your space, options and needs when starting a sustainable garden.
What do I have?
Take a look around — what kind of space are you working with? Survey the immediate environment and take stock of the light, water and soil. These factors will determine the outcome of any decisions to follow.
- Test your soil for workability, compaction, plant vigor and more using Good Housekeeping’s 10 Easy Soil Tests That Pinpoint Your Garden's Problems.
- Purchase a testing kit to measure the soil’s pH level, an indicator of its nutrients. Check out this Better Homes and Gardens resource on How To Test Your Soil to learn more.
What do I need from this space?
Next, define your goals for the space. What do you need to accommodate your lifestyle? Whether it’s space for children to play or food for the table, your gardening choices should reflect those needs. Consider the availability of other resources like time and money.
What will work here?
Understand the limitations not just of your time and soil but also of the greater ecosystem of which you are a part. Regional differences and growing seasons can make or break your garden’s success.
- Learn more about your region’s climate and which plants will thrive there using the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map.
- Use the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder to learn more about what grows naturally in your area.
- Get a custom garden plant calendar based on your zip code using The National Gardening Association’s When to Plant Vegetables tool.
Who can help me?
Figure out where you can go for some hands-on training, answers and inspiration when you’re feeling stuck. Activating your local gardening community can be as simple as checking out some online resources — or it can be an opportunity to start your own local garden.
- Find a community garden in your area with the American Community Gardening Association’s Find-A-Garden tool.
- Extension programs are university departments that offer external resources and education for community members. Look for one near you for classes and programs specific to your area. For example, College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability, and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES) is the D.C. extension program.
- Master Gardeners complete about 40 hours of training, depending on the program, and then share their knowledge with the community in a variety of ways. Find a Master Gardeners program near you.
Sustainable Garden Ideas for Small Spaces
Traunfeld said a common question he gets is how to start, especially for people with limited outdoor space. “I always try to help people think about starting small,” he said. “And for most people in [cities], that’s a given because of population growth and the size of most people’s available land.”
For gardeners wondering how to start a small indoor garden, try these simple, beginner-friendly layouts.
A version of a container garden, this only requires a bucket filled with organic potting mix. The bucket should be large enough to accommodate the plant once fully grown, and the potting mix should always be moist.
Peppers, tomatoes or basil.
Suitable for someone:
- With no outdoor space.
- Who relocates frequently.
- With limited gardening experience or supplies.
- Getting supplemental lighting that can move with the bucket, if needed.
- Adding mulch over the potting mix to help retain moisture.
- Having an alternative to the bucket (e.g., use one- or two-liter soda bottles as planters instead).
Like the five-gallon bucket garden, an herb box is a micro-garden that uses containers to make up for a lack of earth. A window box or pot can become a tiny ecosystem with this method.
Oregano, mint and rosemary.
Suitable for someone:
- With a large windowsill in full sun.
- Who wants to use what they grow.
- Who will use herbs enough to control their growth.
- Combining like-minded herbs into the same box so they can all survive on the same amount of light and water.
- Using a container with adequate drainage set inside a plastic tray lined with gravel.
DIY vertical gardens are easy to create and maintain. A ladder, spice rack, and chicken wire can all be used by gardeners trying to grow up instead of out.
Beginner-friendly house plants like succulents, ZZ (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) plants or snake plants (Sansevieria trifasciata).
Suitable for someone:
- With no square footage to devote to a garden.
- Who wants their garden to serve an aesthetic purpose.
- The drainage needs of different plants and pots. You don’t want excess water to drip from the higher plants onto lower ones.
- The space you’re using. Is this garden at risk of being knocked over? Can the wall support it?
- Moving your garden outdoors against the side of your building or using a fence as a trellis.
Raised garden beds provide a compact area to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables. Some have shelves underneath to save even more space. Use potting soil that will drain properly in the container.
Vegetables that do well in compact environments such as eggplant, leaf lettuce and tomatoes.
Suitable for someone:
- Who wants to grow a vegetable garden.
- With a little more experience gardening.
- With some outdoor space and lots of sunlight.
- Vegetables need about eight hours of sunlight a day.
- Waiting until the worst of winter is over to start planting.
Citation for this content: MPH@GW, the George Washington University online Master of Public Health program