How to Make Your Garden Greener

How to Make Your Garden Greener

Best practices in the garden include sustainable choices.

Making eco-conscious landscaping choices such as planting appropriately can eliminate potential negative effects of gardening. Besides selecting the right plants, other sustainable practices include conserving water and limiting the use of plastics and chemicals.

Plant with Intentionality

An important place to start is to consider your ecological region and sun exposure, then choose the right plants for your landscaping.

“It’s very important to your gardening success to select plants, native and non-native alike, that will do well in your growing conditions, instead of trying to grow wet-soil loving plants in dry locations or sun-loving plants in shady conditions, for example,” says Mary Fortmann, a landscape ecologist at Openlands, a Chicago-based nonprofit conservation organization and accredited land trust that works to preserve open space, develop walking and biking trails, restore natural areas, and connect people to the outdoors. “Native plants do not need to be fertilized, nor wrapped or covered in winter.”

Switchgrass from Proven Winners

Switchgrass from Proven Winners

Plant choices can also provide a habitat that protects other species.

“Consider using plants that promote biodiversity so that birds and insects can live in harmony with the plant material,” says Heather Wheatley, a marketing specialist based in Davidsonville, Md. with the Proven Winners plant brand. “This is an excellent method to increase pollinators while reducing the predatory insects that traditional homeowners would use pesticides to reduce. The native population will take care of those predatory insects on their own.”

Native varieties are hardier and more resistant to deer and rabbits, Wheatley says.

“Native plants also demand fewer resources from the soil, often prevent soil erosion, require less watering and fertilizer, and are highly resilient,” she says.

Prioritize Water Conservation

Drought-tolerant native plants are a good option to conserve water, Fortmann says, but it can take up to three years of regular watering to get them established.

“It’s important to note that all plants need regular watering as their roots become established after transplanting, even those drought tolerant plants,” she says.

Examples of drought tolerant native plants include nodding onion, common milkweed, rattlesnake master, Indian grass, bee balm, lead plant, New Jersey tea, dwarf honeysuckle and hackberry, Fortmann says, but every gardener needs to consider their climate before making plant choices.

No matter what plants you choose, you can take steps to reduce your garden’s water consumption.

“Water in the morning, before the sun gets hot, to conserve water and use it most effectively,” Fortmann says. “This also helps prevent fungal issues.”

To conserve water, Fortmann also suggests:

  • Use mulch - leaf mulch or compost is best - around trees and in gardens to help conserve soil moisture.
  • Water only the soil around a plant’s dripline, which is the area from the base of the plant, extending out to the edge of its leaves.
  • Use a soaker hose to get water to the roots and keep water off the foliage.
  • Water deeply instead of frequently, to help get water down to the plant’s roots and not just at the surface of the soil.
  • Skip watering your lawn, instead letting the lawn go dormant in the hot dry days of summer – although this does not apply to newly planted lawns.

Collecting rainwater for your garden can be as simple as setting up a barrel under a downspout , but you’ll want to take precautions and keep the water covered for the safety of children, pets and other wildlife. In addition, many states regulate water collection and in some places it is illegal. Before setting up a rainwater collection system, find out if you need a permit, a filtration system or if there are use restrictions.

Eliminate Chemicals

Once you’ve invested time and money in your garden, it can be frustrating to see the would-be fruits of your labor nibbled away by pests. While many gardeners turn to chemicals to eliminate these issues, Fortmann recommends practicing Integrated Pest Management (IPM) first.

“IPM is the process of combining biological, cultural and chemical practices to control weeds and other pests,” Fortmann says. “This works by first correctly identifying what species the pest or weed is and if the species or its population needs controlling. Some pests are harmless and do not need any control, while some pests can only be controlled during certain times in their life cycles. Knowing what the pests do, as well as their life cycle, will help determine if and when control is necessary.”

Preventative measures such as keeping standing water away from the house and gutters well-drained can keep mosquitoes and other insects from breeding, she says. Chemical control should be the last resort, but if you do need to use chemicals, Fortmann recommends:

  • Use the correct chemical for the intended goal, in the correct amount, under the correct weather conditions.
  • Always following the label directions for safe and effective usage, which will result in a lower amount of chemicals used.
  • Be wary of homemade pesticides. Do not use salt and vinegar as pesticides. These types of substitutes can easily harm the living organisms in soil needed for a healthy soil biome. 

Limit Plastics

Garden centers frequently stock tables full of plants in plastic containers and often provide plastic boxes to carry the containers to your car. Try to avoid buying plants in these containers, if possible, to reduce the prevalence of single-use plastics and use recyclable cardboard boxes for transporting plants.

If you must buy plastic containers, check with your garden center to see if they recycle or can reuse plastic pots, Fortmann recommends.

Look for compostable and recyclable plant containers such as Proven Winners’ Eco+Quart container and Eco+Grande container. Both containers are industrial compostable garden pots made from PLA (polylactic acid), derived from natural sugars sourced from U.S.-grown corn.

Avoid using plastic landscaping fabric to control weeds and grass, Fortmann suggests.

“Instead, opt to reuse cardboard boxes, overlapping the edges of the boxes, and then covering them with a couple inches of mulch,” Fortmann says. “If planting in the area is desired, wait one month for grassy areas to have died back, then plant through the cardboard. The cardboard will typically completely dissolve within a year.”

Go Natural

The traditional water-and-chemical intensive grass lawn is far from the only option for landscaping. Low maintenance ground cover can be a good alternative that requires less water, prevents weeds and deters erosion. Another option is a Zen garden with stones, pebbles, paving stones and a few drought-resistant native plants.

If you live in an area where autumn leaves fall, Fortmann recommends leaving them in your garden beds as free mulch that also creates a beneficial habitat for many pollinators.

“Leaves that fall on your lawn can be mulched and added to existing beds or used to mulch around the trees themselves,” Fortmann says. “Leaf mulch recycles important nutrients back to the trees, providing a healthier growing environment for the trees.”

Keeping the leaves on your site also reduces emissions from trucks that take them off-site, she says.

“Also, don’t burn your leaves – this will reduce air pollution and protect the critters that use the leaves as an overwintering home,” Fortmann says.

Before you plunge into the dirt that surrounds your home, take the time to learn about soil, sunlight, pollinators and pests to make more sustainable choices.

Publisher’s Note: This content is made possible by our Today’s Homeowner Campaign Sponsors: Whirlpool Corporation. Whirlpool Corporation takes sustainability seriously, in both their products and their operations. Learn more about building and buying homes that are more affordable and less resource intensive.