9 Easy Ways to Be More Sustainable in the Garden

Are you looking for more ways to incorporate sustainability practices into your gardening routine? In this article, we share some easy ways that you can reduce your carbon footprint and make gardening an even more earth-friendly practice.

Sustainable garden. Close-up of a blue barrel with collected rainwater in a garden against a background of green foliage. The barrel is large, tall, with a round hole, completely filled with water.

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The word sustainability pops up just about everywhere these days. Some of the more talked about ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle include things like avoiding single-use plastics and avoiding certain ingredients. And, let’s not forget about reusable straws! But what does sustainable actually mean, and what does it look like in your garden?

According to the United Nations Brundtland Commission in 1987, sustainability is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This relates to how our actions impact the economy, the environment, society, and other humans. 

Gardening is, in itself, a great way to incorporate sustainability into your everyday life. Planting a garden can support pollinator populations, help reduce erosion, and provide food for ourselves as well as animal members of the ecosystem.

Let’s explore 9 ways that we can incorporate even more sustainable habits in our gardening endeavors to avoid depleting resources for future generations and contribute to a healthier future for our planet and its inhabitants. 

Conserve Water

Water conservation is one of the most important and varied ways to be more sustainable in your landscape and garden. It is also a great way to save money because, for many of us, water isn’t free. Many cities restrict water usage during drought, which can be tragic for your garden, depending on what you have planted. There are many ways to conserve water, including:

Collect Rainwater

Close-up of a turquoise barrel half-filled with rainwater in the garden. A metal drain pipe extends from the roof into a barrel collecting raindrops.
Collect rainwater with barrels or simple systems for water conservation.

Using a rain barrel or other rain collection system, you can collect all the free water that falls from the sky, and use it when there is no rain in the forecast. Rather than running a hose from your city water supply, you can redirect water from your collection system. Your method of collecting rainwater can be as easy or as complex as you choose. 

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Placing five-gallon buckets beneath each gutter downspout is a quick and economical way to do the job. Rain barrels work great as long as gravity works in your favor. More complex systems of rain collection and storage systems can also be constructed for large-scale water conservation.

Redirect Graywater 

Close-up of a gardener girl watering pitunia from a white bowl with Graywater. Petunias feature oval to lance-shaped leaves arranged alternately along the stems. The flowers come in a wide range of vibrant hues, including shades of purple, pink, red, white, and bi-colors.
Reuse gray water from showers and washing machines to irrigate your plants.

Sustainable gardening aims to create more closed-loop systems. This means that waste is reduced or recycled back into the ecosystem. Another way to conserve water is by reusing your gray water. Graywater is all of the water that would ordinarily go down the drain, including water from your shower, sinks, toilets, and washing machine.

Consider all the water that runs down the shower drain as you wait for it to heat up. If your water heater is on the opposite side of the house, this can equate to more than a gallon of water every time someone takes a shower! Collecting that water in a bucket and using it to water your plants not only conserves water, but also lowers your sewer bill.

Using the grey water from your washing machine to water the garden is one of the best ways to conserve water. You can redirect the water that would drain into your septic tank or city sewer lines directly into the garden. This means that every time you do a load of laundry, you water your plants: win-win! Remember to switch to biodegradable soap.

Compost Food Scraps

Close-up of a gardener emptying a bowl of kitchen scraps into a large wooden compost bin. The bowl contains various scraps of fruit peels and skins, coffee grounds, egg peels and others.
Drop kitchen and garden waste in a compost pile for sustainable gardening benefits.

Composting is something that every household can do to be more sustainable and benefit the environment. From a waste perspective, less food waste in the trash can means less trash in the landfill. While those food scraps are biodegradable, the bags we put them in rarely are (although biodegradable trash bags are gaining popularity, which is great!).

Consider their value for soil rather than throwing your cast-offs from dinner into the garbage can. Composting is a great way to create a natural, sustainable fertilizer at no cost. You can compost kitchen scraps as well as garden waste and put it back to use to grow new plants. Not only should your food waste go into the composter, but any time you prune your plants, the green matter can be added to the compost. When you rake leaves in the fall, your carbon materials are taken care of!

As all of this cast-off plant matter breaks down and decays, it creates a wonderful humus material that is full of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These three nutrients are the foundation of most commercial fertilizers. 

Working your well-rotted compost into the soil where are planting new plants not only adds nutrients to the soil, it also loosens and improves the composition of the soil, promoting healthy root growth. Composting can be done in many ways, but we love the Bokashi Kitchen Compost Bin for its convenience and fast turnaround time. 

Plant Native Species

Close-up of blooming Rudbeckia hirta in a sunny garden. Rudbeckia hirta, commonly known as black-eyed Susan, is a cheerful and robust herbaceous perennial prized for its abundant and showy flowers. It forms clumps of upright stems adorned with coarse, hairy leaves that are lance-shaped and serrated along the edges. The plant produces striking daisy-like flowers with golden-yellow petals surrounding a dark brown or black central cone.
Grow native species for sustainable, low-maintenance gardening that benefits local ecosystems.

One of the easiest ways to be more sustainable in the garden is to focus on planting native plants. I’m not suggesting that you should tear out all of your beloved non-native plants because digging them up would actually be wasteful as long as they are not invasive. But moving forward, you can prioritize native plants to save time, money, and water.

Native plants are already adapted to your climate. These are plants that naturally grow in the area with no assistance or human intervention. That means that once they are established in your garden, you won’t have to do much other than the occasional pruning to maintain appearances if you choose.

Planting natives saves money in several ways. Once established, these plants rarely need supplemental watering. They are not likely to need the same amount of fertilizer as non-native plants, and they commonly self-seed or are hardy in your climate zone. Native plants won’t die off in winter, and if they do, they are almost certain to come back the following season by way of re-seeding themselves. 

Another benefit of planting native is that these plants best support your region’s ecosystem. While some pollinators, like honey bees, are non-native and don’t require native plants to thrive, others, like most species of bees, butterflies, and moths, need access to specific plants common to their native environments. 

Every moth and butterfly species has a host plant, which serves as food for their larvae; without them, these pollinators cannot complete their lifecycles and reproduce. Planting native host plants in sustainable native plant gardens will help to sustain the population of important local pollinators.

Use Mulch

Close-up of a gardener's hands adding a layer of bark mulch under Cypress in the garden. The gardener is wearing a denim shirt. In the background there is a white bag full of mulch.
Adding mulch conserves water, suppresses weeds, and prevents erosion.

Mulching offers incredible benefits to your garden and makes your landscape more environmentally sustainable. Many gardeners use mulch for its aesthetic value, but it serves other important functions as well. 

Mulch helps to conserve water by holding moisture in the soil, making it possible to water less frequently. As your mulch breaks down, it adds organic material back into the soil, acting as a fertilizer and soil conditioner for future or existing plants. 

Mulch helps to suppress weeds, which conserves your personal energy. Who wouldn’t like to weed a little less? It also helps to maintain the soil temperature, so it protects your plants from extreme weather, preserving their root systems so they won’t die in extreme heat or cold. 

Last, but certainly not least, mulching helps to control erosion of the soil. It filters out some of the chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides from runoff, which keeps our groundwater cleaner. 

Reuse and Recycle

Close-up of several used cardboard paper planting pots filled with potting mix. These pots are made from cardboard paper as a recyclable and degradable material.
Recycle and reuse materials to reduce waste.

This is a multi-faceted way to add sustainable practices to your garden. There are nearly endless possibilities when it comes to reusing materials and using recycled materials for gardening. Think of all the items that we would ordinarily throw away; many can be repurposed.

Rather than throwing away used glass jars, clean them out and use them for storing seeds. Used plastic bags work great for seeds that need cold stratification. I save glass containers for gifting flowers from my cutting garden because, really, who needs to find a spot to store another vase?

Paper without a plastic coating can be tossed into the composter for future use, as can used coffee grounds and compostable paper coffee filters. When you do purchase paper products, choose those made with recycled materials that decompose, like these recycled paper pots.

Rather than buying new, flimsy, disposable seed starting containers every year, consider investing in seed starting trays that are strong and reusable. Our Epic seed starting trays are incredibly strong and made from recycled, food-grade plastic. They come in several colors, including pink!

Choose Organic Fertilizers

Close-up of a gardener's hands in green gloves holding a pile of manure compost as fertilizer. There are long, pinkish-red worms in this moist, lumpy, wet soil-like mound.
Inorganic (synthetic) fertilizers can have a negative environmental impact.

There are two basic types of fertilizers: organic, and inorganic. Inorganic fertilizers, or chemical fertilizers as they are commonly called, are made from synthetic materials. Things like petroleum, anhydrous ammonia, various phosphates, and sulfates are all ingredients commonly found in these formulas. 

Organic fertilizers come from animal or plant origins. These fertilizers contain things like manure, bone and blood residues, and compost. While chemical fertilizers work faster, they are the inferior choice for a few reasons.

The most obvious and important reason is that runoff containing these chemicals pollutes water sources and decreases beneficial organisms in the soil. They are often contaminated with heavy metals, which accumulate in the soil and can increase the severity of certain diseases that affect plants. The buildup of inorganic fertilizer on plant roots can lead to fertilizer burnout, too. 

Organic fertilizers are natural substances that come from animals that eat plants and insects. They are non-toxic and less likely to contribute to water pollution, so they are generally safer to use. 

While organic fertilizers taking longer to break down may seem like a disadvantage, it’s quite the opposite. These products last longer and release nutrients into the soil slowly, making them available as the plants need them. Organic fertilizers improve the soil in the long term, while chemical fertilizers offer a short-term solution to nutrient deficiency. 

Save Your Seeds

Close-up of collecting foxglove seeds in a sunny garden against a blurred background. The gardener's hand is about to trim the seed head with pruning shears. The foxglove seed head is a distinctive structure that develops after the flowers have finished blooming. It consists of a tall, slender spike adorned with numerous small, round seed capsules. Each capsule contains many tiny seeds arranged in a circular pattern.
Allow flower heads to dry for seed collection.

A great way to save money and be more sustainable in the garden is to save seeds for the following year. Most plants produce viable seeds, and if you’re patient, you can harvest these seeds to plant again in the next season. In fruits and vegetables, these seeds are contained within the fruit of the plant.

Hybrid vs. Open-Pollinated Seeds

For vegetable crops, only save seeds from plants that are heirloom or open-pollinated. Open-pollinated means that the plant was pollinated by bees or wind. Some plants are self-pollinating, and for these, we prefer to choose heirloom seeds, which are seeds that have been selected over time from plants with ideal traits.

The other type of vegetables, referred to as F1 or hybrid, are not great for saving because the offspring won’t match up with the parent plant. Rather, you will grow plants that match the traits of a parent plant used to make the hybrid.

Hybrid seeds are not bad, and there is no reason not to grow them. They just don’t breed true, so you never know what you’re going to get from their offspring. Often, these seeds are the product of selective breeding for specific traits like faster or more uniform growth or disease resistance. 

How to Save Seeds

To save your vegetable seeds, you simply need to pay more attention in the kitchen. Rather than disposing of the seeds when you prepare the vegetables, collect them and allow them to dry completely before storing them. Those repurposed glass jars will be useful for storing your seeds and keeping moisture out so they don’t sprout before it’s the right time. 

Saving seeds from your flowering plants is a slightly different process. If you want to save seeds from your flowering plants, stop deadheading them as blooming begins to taper off. This allows the pollinated flowers to go to seed. Allow the seed heads to dry on the plant, and then harvest them and save the seeds in a cool, dry spot as you would with vegetable seeds. 

Lose the Lawn

Close-up of a flowering Chrysogonum virginianum plant in a sunny garden. Chrysogonum virginianum, commonly known as green and gold, is a charming perennial ground cover appreciated for its delicate appearance and cheerful blooms. It forms dense mats of rounded, scallop-edged leaves that are glossy green with prominent veins. The plant produces clusters of small, bright yellow, daisy-like flowers with contrasting golden centers.
Replace non-native grass lawns with native ground covers for eco-friendliness and low maintenance.

Non-native grass lawns are not eco-friendly, although they may look attractive. In the same way that non-native plants require more water, fertilizer, and attention, your non-native grass lawn requires much of the same to maintain. Not to mention, mowing is a major time and energy waste.

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By replacing your lawn with a native ground cover, you do several things for yourself and the environment. For one thing, you save time and money on water, fertilizer, weed control, and maintenance. Grass lawns require fertilizer and weed control to keep them looking their best. These chemicals are bad for the environment and groundwater supply. 

Native ground covers require very little additional watering once they are established, and they support the local ecosystem in several ways. These plants are often flowering plants that provide a significant food source for local pollinators. They typically have better pest resistance, and many do not require any mowing. 

Practice Safe Pest Control

Close-up of a ladybug on a plant infested by a swarm of aphids. Ladybug is a small, round beetle that has a convex, dome-shaped body of red color, adorned with black spots. Aphids are small, soft-bodied insects that come in yellow-green color. They have a distinctive pear-shaped body with long, slender legs and a pair of antennae.
Choose natural insect control over harmful chemical pesticides for safer gardening.

There are safe ways to deal with unwanted insects, and then there are chemical pesticides. While chemical pesticides do tend to get the job done faster and more thoroughly, they also pose many risks. By replacing chemical pesticides with more natural insect control measures, you are doing a service to yourself, other humans, and especially the beneficial insect populations

No one likes to have their garden invaded by nuisance insects. Aphids, scales, whiteflies, and spider mites are major perpetrators of garden damage. However, the pesticides that are often used to control these pests cause harm as well. 

Why Pesticides Aren’t Sustainable

Pesticides can remain in the soil for a long time, pollute the groundwater supply, and affect the foods that we eat. Many of these chemicals are known hormone disruptors that cause a host of health problems such as cancer, diabetes, thyroid, and metabolism issues and are even linked to obesity. 

Chemical pesticides also affect pollinator populations, and without pollinators, we may as well stop gardening altogether. Beneficial insects have an important role in the local ecosystem, and I’m not just talking about pollinators. Attracting predatory insects to the garden is a great way to naturally manage nuisance pests. 

Beneficial Predatory Insects

Ladybugs and their larvae are voracious predators, and aphids are their favorite food. Other beneficial insects that help control pest infestations are praying mantis, green lacewing larvae, spiders, several types of beetles, and parasitic wasps.

To attract beneficial insects to your garden, plant a wide variety of native plants, and provide them with a water source. You can also order some of these insects online to release in the garden or greenhouse. A bug hotel is another fun project that will give insects habitat in your garden.

Creating a barrier is another great way to save your flowers and vegetables from pests. You can use small, organza or burlap drawstring bags to cover fruits and vegetables and keep insects out. I do this with my dahlias, and it works like a charm. 

Natural Pest Control Methods

Other ways to reduce the effects of garden pests are by keeping your plants strong so that they can bounce back after an infestation. As a last resort, us a more natural and gentle pesticide to eradicate pests. 

Spraying your plants with a mixture of castile soap and water is a gentle and non-toxic way to knock out an infestation. Neem oil typically works very well, but it does harm the beneficial insects, too, so it’s best to apply it in the late afternoon or outside the peak insect times of day. Most pollinators are gone by this time and won’t return until morning.

Once the neem oil is dry, it’s no longer harmful so a light mist will protect nocturnal pollinators too. Avoid spraying it on flowers altogether, if possible. 

Final Thoughts

Taking small steps to be more sustainable and eco-conscious in your garden takes some forethought and may seem like a burden. However, the long-term outcome of taking these steps will save time and money, as well as contributing to a better environment for future generations.

You don’t have to do everything all at once. Your efforts can start with something as simple as tossing your food scraps in a compost bin. Every little bit helps, and we are all in this together!

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too much fertilizer. Close-up of a gardener's hand with granular fertilizer over a growing cabbage plant in the garden. A young cabbage plant consists of a compact rosette of large, broad, and lobed leaves that emerge from a central stem close to the ground. The leaves are blue-green in color with a waxy texture and slightly jagged edges. Granular fertilizers come in the form of many small, round, orange granules.

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