Want an eco-friendly backyard? Here’s 4 ways to make your garden more sustainable

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

I think I’m like most people in that when it comes right down to it, I think I eat healthier than I actually do eat. As evidence, I just returned from a great trip to uber-hip city of Seattle. But after 4 days of eating nothing but lentils, Lima beans, quinoa and organic, fair-trade coffee in compostable cups (that don’t have the common decency to last long enough for one to savor its contents) I feel a bit like I need a Red Bull and a package of Twinkies to balance everything out. 

And eating habits have a lot in common with gardening habits. 

The word sustainability gets bandied about everywhere you look these days among garden glitterati. And to be quite honest, I’ve never been a fan of the term. As a species, we don’t have all that positive a track record when it comes to playing nice with our surroundings. And for our goal in gardening to be to sustain what we have not yet destroyed . . . that seems like a pretty low bar. 

Of course, some people have now gone beyond the sustainability thing and use regenerative as their term of art. Whatever term you prefer, I think we’d all agree that planning gardens as a net positive in terms of environmental points, is a good direction for all of us. So here are a few easy steps to move your garden in that direction.

Soil Improvement

One of the simplest improvements we can make in the garden is to make sure the garden’s foundation is in the best possible condition. And in almost all cases, this means adding organic matter. In most soils, and certainly in our heavy clay soils, ongoing addition of well composted organic matter has a mountain sized positive impact on both the garden and its surroundings. 

Improved water absorption means that less of that thunderstorm washes across the surface, carrying soil and everything else down the sidewalk, into the street gutter, down the storm drain and into the local creek. Increased water retention also reduces how often you have to irrigate your garden. Composts offer organic matter that make excellent slow-release nutrient sources so reduce both the amount of manufactured mineral fertilizers you will purchase and greatly reduce leaching of those unused nutrients into ground or surface water. 

Of course, you can go out and purchase bagged compost, but that brings with it all the complications of plastic bag production and the over the road shipping involved with bringing it to market. A simple compost pile in the back yard eliminates the bags, the shipping and the cost of bagged compost. But there is a bit of elbow grease that needs to be added to the equation.

Plant Selection

This seems so obvious that sometimes we overlook this as an important part of creating and maintaining an environment-friendly garden. And probably the best poster child for right-plant-right-place is the bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla). Long a favorite for its brilliant blue to pink blooms, it is one of the biggest water hogs known to the garden world. In fact, even mentioning the word “dry” in too loud a voice will set even a well-watered specimen to serious wilting. If you’re trying to reduce irrigation in the garden, the smooth hydrangea (H. arborescens) is a much better choice. It is native to Kentucky (and most of eastern North America), it can survive tremendously dry conditions once established in the garden, and it offers flowers ranging from white to pale green to rich pink. 

Irrigation

While we’d all love to have an inch of rain per week, all through the year (especially if it all falls between midnight and 5am!) the truth of gardening is that no matter where you live, irrigation is likely to be a topic to be planned. 

Probably the single most impactful way to reduce the environmental impact of garden irrigation is to use drip irrigation whenever possible. Drip or trickle irrigation delivers water through small openings or a series of tiny drip tubes rather than spraying it under high pressure. Drip systems get far more of your irrigation water to the precise location your plants need it. Spray or sprinkler irrigation can see much of your water lost to evaporation and is more prone to runoff compared to drip irrigation. 

There are many types of drip irrigation hoses and systems, so they are worth a little research. But combined with a simple in-line timer, you can be quite precise in the timing and amount of water delivered to get your plants the water they need without wasting it to evaporation or runoff. 

Pest Control

Even the most experienced gardener can have plants hit by a few of the many nasties out there – diseases, insect pests and the like. But rather than reaching for skull and cross bones, think about some preventive measures that can save you time and money and aggravation. 

Step one to minimizing insect and disease attack is to limit your fertilizing. Fertilizer companies are there to sell you more fertilizer. And sure, you can make gigantic plants with tons of nitrogen, but do you really need to? Using slow-release nutrient sources such as composts, encourages reasonable growth and tends not to push the tremendously vigorous and soft growth that is more susceptible to attack from . . . well . . . just about everything. And if you are using commercial, granular fertilizers, in most cases you don’t need anything close to the application rate printed on the bag. A soil test from your local cooperative extension office can help you plan what’s needed in your soil.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get back to my Twinkie lunch.

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on August 8, 2023.

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