Lessen your footprint through sustainable gardening

Posted by on March 8, 2010

Lessen Your Footprint

through Sustainable Gardening



The term “Sustainable” gardening seems to have become the buzz word in the gardening community encompassing “green”, “organic”, and “waterwise” gardening practices. Simply put, sustainable gardening is the gardening practice of conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.

Gardening sustainably is not and does not need to be an all or nothing proposition.  You can begin with one practice and build form there.  What’s key is to be aware of what practices you perform and think about them before continuing on with business as usual.  It is also good to understand the available options and grow from there.

Most sustainable gardening practices can be delved into deeper, but a good place to begin is with these lessons:  growing the right plant in the right place, practicing water conservation, bed preparation and maintenance, and Integrated Pest Management (IPM.)

Right Plant, Right Place

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Putting the right plant in the right place will save you and your resources.  Many plants can be grown outside their recommend growing range with regards to sunlight and water requirements.  In doing so, however, more time and energy is wasted – water, human energy, time.

Planting a moisture loving plant in dry bed is counter-productive.  Study and know your site.  Plant moisture loving plants in a moist area or be prepared to provide.  Plant drought tolerant plants in a dry area, and so on.  Many gardeners like to push hardiness zones, but it is not advisable to push plant needs.  While you can nurse a shade loving plant planted in the sun with water, it’s not sustainable.

Planting native plants and trees is the ultimate example of the right plant in the right place dictum.  Planting these helps to re-establish the local ecosystem. Native plantings have already adapted to this climate, and the native wildlife have adapted to these plants.


What not to do!

What not to do!

Water conservation can be achieved from many aspects of garden design and harvesting.  The goal for water conservation is to keep as much of the water on your property as possible.  This can be done so by reducing impervious surfaces, slowing falling rainwater enough so as it doesn’t go to the storm drains, building rain gardens, and to water less and smartly.


Most of us don’t want to be denied a plant based on watering needs. But be prudent. Garden water wisely. Understand your garden’s watering zones.  Dragging a hose past 10 drought tolerant plants to water a thirsty one is neither sustainable nor practical.

A waterwise garden design is comprised of three gardening zones:  oasis, transitional, and xeric.

The “oasis zone” is still the area closest to the water source. Traditionally, this was the spigot or the hose at the end of it.  But now these sources can be drain spouts, rain barrels, the outlet of a French drain, and the area around the front door to easily water your container plants with say, the “wasted” water used indoors.

The “transitional zone” is the area away from the house about midway from the home and the end of the property. Plantings here should be sustainable requiring only occasional supplemental water. Typically, these areas are island beds, driveway beds, or raised beds.

The “xeric zone” is at the property’s perimeter. These plants should be tough requiring no supplemental water. This area can be filled with dependable drought-resistant plants.

The key is to select plants that don’t require supplemental watering or if they do, they can be watered with water collected from nature or clean water from inside the home that would otherwise be wasted.

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Water Smart

Water plants directly to the root zone by hand or using soaker or drip irrigation.  Overhead sprinklers are not sustainable due to the water lost through evaporation and wind. Water according to plant needs, not a rigid schedule. Water infrequently, but deeply.



We need to accept the soil we’re dealt or be prepared to amend.  In our area of the Piedmont region of North Carolina, there is clay and sand. In the heart of Raleigh, it’s all clay. As you move outside of Raleigh, you’ll find sandy soil. It is important to read plant labels.  If the label recommends planting in well drained soils, and you have clay, just know some amending will need to occur.  In any garden soil type, you cannot go wrong adding more organic matter.


Reduce or eliminate fertilizer use. If you must use chemical fertilizers, be sure to closely follow the directions on the bag.  Using more fertilizer than directed will not help your plants grow any more.  Over fertilizing also increases the risk of not working its way into the ground becoming available as runoff to pollute local waterways.  Begin a compost pile to create your own organic fertilizer.


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Covering garden beds with mulch is one of the best things you can do for your garden. Used generously, mulch breaks down to add nutrients to the soil, helps retain moisture, moderates the soil temperature, improves soil texture, suppresses weeds, and looks great; and it really makes the garden look tidy.  Mulch all uncovered soil for water retention, weed control, and to improve the soil’s structure.


Weeds compete for water with your desirable plants.  Even if the sight of weeds is acceptable in your garden, removing them will help stop the spread of environmental weeds. Find out what plants have become weeds in your area and, if you have them, weed them out or safely kill or contain them.


Compost garden and kitchen waste. In Raleigh, we have separate yard waste pick up.  If yard waste is rid properly, it won’t end up in the landfill.  But if you have the room to compost, then you don’t have to buy it back to use in your own garden.  If more fertilizer is needed, using organic sources only, like aged manure, compost tea, and those that are fish- or seaweed-based can be used.

There a few approaches to building a compost.  Choose whatever type suits your garden — a three-bay heap for a large property, a classic upside-down-bin style to place in an average garden, a tumble-type bin that neatly sits on a paved area or a bucket to keep in your kitchen.

Compost systems can be either hot or cold.  Hot requires regular a turning maintenance.  Cold takes longer to break down, but if you have the room, it is the easiest way to compost.  In cold composting, the kitchen and yard waste only needs to be piled.  After it reaches a certain height, start another.  When that one is full, go back to the other.  Hopefully it will be ready to use when you are.

Mature compost ends up as a delightful humus to use as a soil conditioner in your sustainable garden.


Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective approach to pest management using the most economical means with the least possible hazard to people, property and the environment.

IPM is not a single pest control method, but rather, a series of pest management evaluations, decisions and controls. It’s the judicious use of pesticides.

IPM follows a four-tiered approach:

Dwarf Loblolly larvae

  1. Determine action threshold.  Sighting a single pest doesn’t necessarily mean control is needed.
  2. Monitor and Identify Pests. Not all insects, weeds, and other living organisms require control. Many organisms are innocuous and even beneficial. IPM programs work to monitor for pests and identify them accurately, so that appropriate control decisions can be made in conjunction with action thresholds.
  3. Prevention.  Rotating between different crops, selecting pest-resistant varieties, and planting pest-free rootstock. Also planting in areas to provide good air circulation prevents problems with pests.

  1. Control.  Effective, less risky pest controls are chosen first, including highly targeted chemicals, such as pheromones to disrupt pest mating, or mechanical control, such as trapping or weeding. If further monitoring, identifications and action thresholds indicate that less risky controls are not working, then additional pest control methods would and could be used, such as targeted spraying of pesticides. Broadcast spraying of non-specific pesticides is a last resort.

As individual gardeners, we can each use these lessons to do a small part to help lessen our footprint on the environment with our gardening practices.  We gardeners make up large numbers including more than 7 million new gardeners each year.  Each of us can make a difference by avoiding the depletion of our natural resources.

Helen Yoest is a garden writer and coach through her business Gardening with Confidence™

Follow Helen on Twitter @HelenYoest and her facebook friend’s page, Helen Yoest or Gardening With Confidence™ Face Book Fan Page.

Helen also serves on the board of advisors for the JC Raulston Arboretum

8 responses to “Lessen your footprint through sustainable gardening”

  1. Alison Kerr says:

    Helen, I couldn’t agree more. You’ve given a great round-up of the elements of designing and maintaining a garden sustainably.

    These are the same things I’m teaching through my writing and training courses and implementing in my garden. Truth be told, I’m a lazy gardener when it comes to maintenance. I don’t like caring for plants that are fussy, getting out the lawn sprinklers to keep the grass green, or figuring out how to treat garden problems. I much prefer to spend time designing wisely then let the garden mostly take care of itself once it’s planted.

  2. HelenYoest says:

    Thanks Alison, you are so right, gardening sustainably is less work and money, with the highest returns!

  3. You know I eat, sleep, and breathe this. Love it! Keep up the good work!


  4. HelenYoest says:

    I know you do, friend and you are an inspiration! H.

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