For many who garden, the concept of gardening naturally, holistically or organically is one of our greatest challenges. Each new generation approaches the issues of the modern world from a unique viewpoint. While some longtime gardeners feel intimidated by the idea of eliminating all nonorganic techniques, those who are just beginning to garden in today's world will likely feel that the use of sustainable gardening practices is the best choice they can make.
Sustainable gardening is based on an understanding of how nature creates healthy plants. Whatever we grow — vegetables, flowers, grass or trees — we can use sustainable methods. The ultimate goal of sustainable gardening is to have a healthy living plant and soil ecosystem that survives heartily on its own resources. Sustainable gardening uses natural biological methods to build soil fertility and healthy, insect-resisting plants. The raw materials used in the garden are taken from local plant and mineral sources.
When I was a kid and the topic of organic gardening came up, it was often dismissed as if it was no more than a harebrained scheme thought up by a bunch of hippies high on plant life. While some of those details may have been true, time has shown us that over the long term, organic gardening was never a foolish concept. There is no longer any doubt that many of those original organic gardeners had the right idea by gardening in conjunction with nature. Two of them remain my mentors and friends to this day.
Many longtime gardeners who grew up using chemical lawn and garden practices fear that altering their methods will make gardening more difficult. Another fear is that they will lose control over the pests that may invade their gardens. In reality, sustainable gardening relieves us of many time-consuming tasks, the most obvious being chemical spray and fertilizing schedules. Rather than causing us to lose control, sustainable gardening puts pest control back in the hands of nature and the beneficial insect population.
In the natural world, virtually everything is sought out and eaten by something else. In many American gardens, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides often take the place of healthy soil and mechanical and natural controls. Pesticides are meant to kill and that includes all the beneficial insects that would naturally inhabit our gardens. If there is a safe pesticide, it would kill only the target organism and leaves no trace in the environment. Few pesticides meet these very selective criteria.
Most commercial fertilizers boost plant growth rapidly. Too commonly, these high-potency fertilizers are used in excess, and end up as phosphorus and nitrate pollution of groundwater and small streams. In the real world, you can reduce fertilizer potency and application rates and still improve plant health. Natural fertilizers, such as composts and pasteurized manures, are preferable, as they release a much greater variety of nutrients more slowly. If commercial fertilizers are used, choose a slow-releasing fertilizer. Make and use compost in the landscape and help save landfill space.
Work with nature
If you are considering natural gardening, the best advice I can give is to begin working with nature whenever possible. A few suggestions from garden experts in our community suggest the following tactics:
• Fit your garden to your environment. Select plants that are suited to your site, including natives.
• Select plants that are resistant to pests and diseases common in your region.
• Compost yard and kitchen waste and use the compost in your garden.
• Recycle grass clippings by using a mulching lawn mower.
• Encourage natural predators of problematic pests. Learn to recognize and care for natural pest controls, such as ladybird beetles, beneficial wasps of many sizes, birds, toads, parasitic and predatory flies, and many others.
• Practice sanitation; dispose of plant parts that may harbor disease and/or insects.
• Use organic gardening techniques such as healthy soil building techniques, companion planting, herbal pest sprays, and crop rotation.
• Intervene if you must. Try hand removal or spraying pest insects with water.
Those who already garden in a sustainable manner recognize the multitude of reasons to plan and maintain an ecological landscape. Reducing pollution, conserving resources and creating wildlife habitat are just a few of the end benefits to taking a sustainable approach to gardening. From personal experience, I can assure you that your efforts will be rewarded. While the environment reaps the benefit of these sustainable practices, the gardener will find that a more naturalistic landscape cuts down on garden maintenance. The way I see it, we might all end up spending less time working and more time enjoying our gardens.
Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at Write2Robb@aol.com.