How green is my garden

While there's no instant fix, there are a few simple things you can do now to start making your garden more sustainable.

While there’s no instant fix, there are a few simple things you can do now to start making your garden more sustainable

A lot has changed in the gardening world over the past two decades. When Laurie Anderson, a certified horticulturalist and principal of Anderson Garden Services Inc., entered the field almost 20 years ago, the term “sustainable gardens” hadn’t even been coined yet. Back then, most home gardeners and even professionals were still regularly spraying gardens with chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, not to mention watering at will. But things have changed.

The sharpened focus on creating more sustainable gardens among home gardeners and industry professionals, says Anderson, has really happened within about the last five years. Further, she believes that the surge in interest in sustainable gardening has something to do with economics, not just the more obvious goal of preserving the environment.

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Anderson says that many of her clients have been experiencing a lot more assaults on their plants and trees from things like insect infestations, plant diseases and blights. Many have tried to treat these problems the conventional way, by repeatedly applying synthetic sprays, only to wind up losing the battle, along with a significant amount of money.

“I think people are now asking themselves, ‘Why am I spraying and spending all this money when I could simply let nature run its course and replace whatever I’ve lost with a more resilient plant?’” says Anderson. “I believe that reducing cost is a factor when it comes to sustainable gardens, together with the growing awareness of the importance of supporting a healthy environment.”

Anderson says environmental concerns, such as the potential dangers and cumulative environmental impacts of garden chemicals, continue to play a leading role in driving the sustainability movement. “The bottom line is that people don’t want their children and pets exposed to chemicals, so naturally we look for healthy, sustainable alternatives.”

When asked if she thinks people are looking to sustainable gardens because they may require less maintenance, Anderson laughs, quickly pointing out that “garden” and “low-maintenance” are contradictions in terms.

“It [a low-maintenance garden] doesn’t exist. A garden is about esthetics and curb appeal, and for many it’s a labour of love, all of which means work,” says Anderson. “Every garden needs some level of maintenance, but I agree that a garden with some sustainability built into it will be less work.”

Creating a sustainable garden is relatively easy if you are creating a garden from scratch, but what about bringing more sustainability into an existing, mature landscape where everything is already in place? As chair of the BC Landscape & Nursery Association’s landscape committee, Anderson has more than just a passing interest in the subject of “green” garden renovations. She agrees that retrofitting a garden to be more sustainable is the challenge facing a lot of homeowners and offers her own top-three tips on what can be done now to deliver sustainable results.

1. Watering wisely

Anderson’s number-one recommendation to help enhance the sustainability of your garden is installing a quality irrigation system to ensure water is delivered quickly and efficiently to exactly where it’s actually needed.

“One of the biggest problems I’ve found among homeowners is that they overwater their gardens,” says Anderson, who adds that in addition to being bad for plants, it’s a significant waste of water – water a lot of people are going to be paying for as municipal water metering becomes the norm.

“The advantage of a proper [and professionally installed] irrigation system is that it delivers better coverage without having to move the hose a million times, and it applies water in controlled amounts, which means less water usage and healthier plants.”

Anderson adds that even people who already own an irrigation system often overwater their gardens because they don’t know how to operate it properly. That’s why it’s extremely important to take time with the system installer to ensure you know how to use the system and that the settings are right for your particular garden.

Unfortunately, many homeowners shy away from installing an irrigation system because of the cost, but Anderson urges them not to discount the potential savings in using less water and retaining more plants. For her money, a quality irrigation system is the best thing you can do to create a more sustainable garden, coupled with planting more hardy, drought-tolerant plants that naturally require less water.

Also, don’t forget to harvest rainwater. Collecting water from roofing down pipes in a reservoir or barrel not only reduces the run-off from your property, it’s a great way to capture water for use in your garden.

2. The magic of mulch

It’s often the simplest things in life that make the biggest difference, and that’s certainly true in the garden. In that vein, Anderson’s number-two pick for creating a more sustainable garden is applying a healthy layer of mulch to garden beds.

Mulching has become very popular in recent years, and when you list the many benefits it’s easy to see why. Mulches insulate the ground and help garden soil retain valuable moisture. They also help aerate the soil, deliver organic nutrients directly to plants and help control weeds (a big advantage when looking for ways to cut back on maintenance).

“You can use all kinds of organic materials for mulch,” observes Anderson, “but my personal preference is well composted bark.”

Anderson says that for many years it was believed that fresh wood chips (another mulch option) robbed the soil of nitrogen, so they weren’t widely used in home gardens, but it’s since been discovered that this is not the case. She adds that large wood chips are often applied as mulch on commercial site plantings, but for home use, she still prefers the esthetic of composted bark, which looks more like soil. Fallen leaves are another good option.

“Unfortunately, we live in a culture where we like things neat and tidy, so people don’t like to use leaves for mulch,” says Anderson, “but leaves are a fantastic, natural mulch and definitely should be used more.”

3. Waste not, want not

If you put all of the organic waste (primarily vegetable and plant matter as well as grass clippings, leaves and waste paper) generated by your family into a compost bin, your garden will never be wanting for nutrients. In fact, composting is easily one of the simplest and best ways not only to reduce your family’s impact on the local landfill but also to create a black gold of nutrient-rich organic material for your garden. Composting is number three on Anderson’s list of the best things you can do now to create a more sustainable garden.

“The amount of food waste we create is unbelievable, and that can all be used to create compost,” says Anderson.

“It’s really too bad that more people don’t compost,” adds Anderson, who has found that far too many people reject composting because they believe it will attract rodents.

“The fact is that if you compost correctly you won’t get rodents, and it’s also the one thing that all of us can do to minimize our impact on the environment while also having a healthier garden.”