The Ultimate Guide to Eco Gardening

The Ultimate Guide to Eco Gardening
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The Ultimate Guide to Eco Gardening

Tips for a Sustainable and Eco Friendly Garden

Eco gardening is gardening with the health of the planet as one of the primary goals. It is caring for the land and gardens with mindfulness that includes protecting the soil, preserving resources and protecting all the lifeforms that share the land. With the effects of climate change becoming more apparent, it is important for everyone to participate in improving the ecosystem. 

As gardeners with a relatively small ecosystem that we have control over, it may seem that it won’t matter what we do. But if you consider the cumulative effect of a whole neighborhood of healthy ecosystems, it will make a difference. Even if the only outdoor space you have is your apartment balcony, you can have an impact on the environment. You could plant a small tree or a shrub in a container, and your balcony rail can be covered in a vine. You can plant vegetable seeds or flower seeds in a vertical garden. Think of the impact if just 50 percent of apartment dwellers would start their own small ecosystem.

Remember that a healthy ecosystem is a process and even a lifestyle change. It won’t happen overnight. Make changes over time and maintain them. Soon, your ecosystem will be contributing to the health of the planet — as well as you personally. Here are some ideas on how to make your yard and garden a healthy and thriving ecosystem. 

Soil for Eco Gardening

How good is your soil health? The goal is a rich loam that will support the garden, lawn, trees and shrubs. Take a handful of soil and squeeze it. If it feels greasy and sticks together, you probably have a clay soil. Your soil will have trouble absorbing water and the plant roots will have trouble penetrating the soil and getting the nutrients they need.

Conversely, if it feels gritty and won’t hold together, you probably have sandy soil. This soil won’t hold on to the water and dries out quickly. The nutrients in the soil will wash away with the water and your plants will not be able to get the nutrients they need from the soil.

A loam soil, soil composed of sand, silt and clay, will hold together when you squeeze it, but crumbles apart when you open your hand. This soil will be able to absorb water and retain nutrients. Plant roots can easily penetrate the soil and will be able to absorb the water and nutrients the plants need.

Before you plant any seeds for the garden, test your soil for nutritional content and also the pH of the soil. Your test will give you the ability to amend the soil efficiently. If your soil is either sandy or clay, the solution is the same: add organic matter. The very best amendment is compost. Compost is organic matter that has already broken down from recognizable matter (leaves, stems, grasses, kitchen waste) and looks like rich soil. Another good addition is animal manure (horse or cow, not dog) that has aged, usually for a year. The aging will prevent your plants from being burned as would happen with fresh manure. By testing your soil first, you will know what the best amendment is to use in your garden. 

Protect your soil over the winter by using a good layer of mulch or planting a cover crop. A cover crop can be clover, an annual grass like rye or many others. They are usually planted after the edible garden is harvested. They are not usually harvested as a food crop. Cover crops are important as a protection against erosion from rain or wind in the winter months. The long roots of some cover crops will help to aerate the soil. It also is useful for weed suppression. Cover crops will add organic material as well as nutrients to the soil. In the spring before planting the seeds for the garden, mow the cover crop with a mulching mower and incorporate the chopped material into the soil. The smaller the pieces, the quicker the material will break down in the soil. If you have a large amount of plant material above ground, an alternative option is to cut the plants at ground level and add the material to your compost. Then, you only have to dig the remaining roots into the soil.

Lastly, your soil health and your garden crops can be negatively impacted by the use of chemical products. Whether it is an herbicide (weed killer) or insecticide (bug killer), it can affect the plants you want to grow and eventually consume. Most of these chemicals have been developed to work over a period of time. This means they will be in your soil for weeks, months or even years in some cases. Many of these chemicals can be absorbed by the plants you want to eat or, in the case of the insecticides, ingested by the pollinators and other good insects. Use chemicals only as a last resort. In some cases, you can hand pick the bugs or caterpillars that are causing damage and simply drop them into a cup of soapy water to kill them. Use physical barriers like fabric netting to keep the bugs from getting to your plants. Another method is to use companion planting. For instance, many bugs are repelled by the smell of marigolds. If you plant them around the plants that bugs love, they may look for a different garden to infest. When it comes to weeds, try mulch to minimize the weeds. If a few manage to get through, hand pull or dig them out.

Using Compost Bins for Eco Gardening

Everyone should have a compost bin. All your garden and yard organic waste can become a valuable asset if it is composted. You can make a compost bin with only a few basic tools and some recycled wood. If you don’t have the DIY skills to take on this project, there are bins or there are compost barrels for sale. Both work well for making compost. 

Compost is made by alternatively layering green material like grass clippings, kitchen waste like potato peels and apple cores and dry brown material like dried fall leaves and straw or paper. Add a shovel full of soil to introduce the microbes necessary to break down the organic material into compost. Keep your pile moist and mix it to introduce oxygen. This is done with the barrel composter by rotating the barrel. If you have a bin style composter, use a garden fork to turn over the pile. The more frequently you turn your pile, the quicker the material will break down into usable compost.

Compost has several benefits to the eco garden. First is the enrichment of the soil and nutrients for the plants. Add compost around the transplants in your garden to give them a great boost or add compost to the soil before you plant flower seeds or sow seeds for garden vegetables. 

Another huge benefit is minimizing the amount of waste that goes to the landfills. By using organic waste to make compost that is then returned to the soil, we are following the same course as nature. We must minimize the amount of landfill we each produce by repurposing our waste as much as possible. Aim for a zero-waste lifestyle through composting, recycling and repurposing as much as possible.

Water Considerations for Sustainable Gardening

Water is essential for anything to grow. While some areas have more water than they need, many areas are facing increasing water shortages due to increased demand, growing population and climate change. It is important for all of us to conserve water whenever possible.

The first step is to use mulch (sound familiar?). Covering the soil with two to three inches of mulch will help the soil to retain moisture and prevent evaporation. It helps to stabilize the temperature of the soil as well. In addition, mulch will prevent erosion and suppress weeds. Mulching your garden beds is an effective way to minimize the amount of additional water your garden will need.

When you do need to water, avoid the hottest part of the day. Early morning is a good time to water. Use a watering can to add water only where necessary. Another method is to use a soaker hose right next to the plants that need water. Avoid using a sprinkler that waters a large area at one time. While it is fast and easy, it also won’t discriminate between plants that need the water and those that are doing okay without the additional water. There is also much more evaporation of water when using a sprinkler system.

soaker hose watering tomato plantsoaker hose watering tomato plant

Collect and save water for your plants by adding a rain barrel to your home gutter system. Instead of directing the water away from your home, collect it in the rain barrel and you will have all the water you need to water your plants. Rainwater is better for your plants, and it takes the pressure off the municipal water system.

Eco Gardening and Lawn Care

Though some people are eliminating the lawn from their yards, for others, that is not an option. This is especially true if you have young children who love to play outside. So how can you achieve an eco-friendly garden and still have a lawn? Start by limiting the size of your lawn. If you only use the large expanse of lawn a couple of times a year, replace some of the lawn with garden beds.

Overseed your lawn area to suppress weeds and retain moisture. Avoid watering your lawn as much as possible. Plant the type of grass that is hardy and will survive a temporary water shortage. Keep the length of the grass a little longer than you usually prefer. The grass will be able to tolerate the dry spell better and you may be able to mow less often.

Use a manual mower or an electric mower. A manual mower requires no fossil fuel and relies on only the energy of the person pushing the mower. An electric mower runs on rechargeable batteries and eliminates the need for fossil fuel.

Plant Native Plants in Your Eco Friendly Garden

When you are planting your flower seeds or vegetable seeds for the garden, try to maximize the plants that are native to your area. It is always fun to plant things that typically only grew in a different area of the country. The uniqueness is interesting and brings a new look to your garden. In the case of an eco garden, the emphasis should be on the flowers and plants that are native to your area. There are several reasons for this. First, these plants have successfully survived and thrived in the weather and climate conditions of your area. Whether they have to make it through sub-zero temperatures in the winter or over 100 degrees in summer, drought or tropical rains, it is likely they will continue to survive in your climate and grow zone. This assures you of a healthy, thriving garden without having to expend energy and resources to maintain a non-native. Also remember that native flowers and plants attract native birds, insects and animals. If we change anything on that chain, it can have disastrous results. One of the greatest recent examples is the Monarch butterfly. This beloved butterfly was quickly approaching extinction because we were eliminating its food supply when we eliminated the milkweed plant. 

hummingbird and yellow flowerhummingbird and yellow flower

Many birds migrate each year to specific areas because these areas provide the habitat they need and also the food supply they require. If we eliminate or even diminish certain native plants, we may also impact the insects or animals on that particular food chain. A great garden ecosystem is mindful of the needs of the native plants and animals as well as insects and birds.

If we all decide to be more mindful when we design and grow our gardens and also apply the same principles to reuse, repurpose and recycle to our lifestyle, we can contribute to the ecosystem in a positive way. The cumulative result will be a healthier earth for ourselves as well as future generations.

Image Credits
Anna Hoychuk/
photofort 77/
Sean Xu/
Gina Lee Rodgers/