A Guide To Sustainable Gardening
Let nature make your gardening easier so it's better for your health, your community and the planet. Here's how.
Our editors and experts handpick every product we feature. We may earn a commission from your purchases.
Gardening is hip — so hip a recent poll in Great Britain revealed more than half of those between the ages 18 and 35 would rather hang out in a garden than a nightclub.
Stateside, millennials made up most of the nearly 20 million people who started gardening in the U.S. during the pandemic. With these two generations also leading the charge on global sustainability, it’s no surprise #sustainablegardening has been trending.
What is Sustainable Gardening?
Sustainable gardening, or regenerative or eco gardening, means growing plants in ways that don’t harm the environment and its biodiversity. Ideally, a sustainable garden will boost the health of the soil and contribute to a more vibrant backyard ecosystem.
Besides steering clear of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sustainable gardening stems from thinking about how our actions will affect future generations. They deserve fertile soil and clean water as much as we do. This makes for a gentle and holistic approach, working with nature instead of trying to force it to abide by our rules.
For many, this philosophy transcends the garden’s boundaries. “It’s a mind shift,” says Eva Monheim, an author and co-creator of Verdant Earth Educators. “It’s about understanding who and what resources you have in the community.”
Is Sustainable Gardening the Same as Organic Gardening?
Not really, but the phrases are often used interchangeably.
Technically, organic is a standard used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to certify commercial crops. Sustainable and regenerative gardening, on the other hand, are looser terms that apply to gardening practices in balance with nature.
Often, organic crops use sustainable practices. In sustainable home gardens, that often means choosing organic seeds and seedlings.
How Do Sustainable Gardening Practices Help the Environment?
Sustainable gardening is more environmentally friendly than conventional gardening because it:
- Doesn’t introduce harmful chemicals into the soil and water;
- Prevents depletion of nutrients in the soil;
- Increases beneficial microbes in the soil;
- Saves water because healthy soil retains more moisture;
- Prevents soil erosion;
- Supports greater biodiversity, including insects and birds;
- Helps reduce greenhouse gasses, because healthy soil stores more carbon;
- Helps us live more sustainably. “Our food is just steps away from our kitchen instead of traveling hundreds or thousands of miles away,” says Kim Roman, an author and owner of Square Foot Gardening 4 U.
What Are the Types of Sustainable Gardening?
Krit of Studio OMG/Getty Images
Sustainable gardens can be grown in-ground or in raised beds and containers. You can freestyle it or follow one of these popular methods:
Square foot gardening
An efficient form of container gardening, this type produces high yields in a minimal space, without fertilizer and with little weeding. “If the thought of a large in-ground garden or permaculture [see below] is intimidating, you can join me in my love of intensive, small-space raised-bed and container gardening,” says Roman.
Aka lasagna gardening or the back-to-Eden concept, this is a no-till method that lets you start a garden bed on top of an existing lawn or soil without digging anything up.
Instead of spreading soil, you make layers of compostable materials like grass clippings, wood chips, cardboard, leaves and newspaper. Those layers will break down into soil over time and suppress weeds. People usually start this process in the fall for spring planting.
Permaculture makes for the ultimate regenerative garden, but it’s more complex than other methods. An ideal permaculture garden combines plants, landscapes, climatic factors, animals, wastewater systems and even buildings in ways that make it ultimately self-sufficient, like a natural ecosystem.
“You begin by observing your land for a full year to judge the sun, water flow, microclimates and many other things before you start,” says Roman. “You learn how to work with nature instead of against it.”
Aka hill gardens, these are great for people with a lot of fallen trees on their property. “Basically, you lay logs on the ground and put soil in the spaces between, then medium branches, more soil, small branches, more soil until you have a long mound,” says Roman.
This technique should be started in the fall. Once established, it requires little supplemental water.
You can also look into hydroponic gardens — they’re a great space-saving and low-maintenance gardening solution.
Sustainable gardening practices
Before starting your sustainable garden, Roman recommends researching and learning as much as you can about the various techniques so you can determine what will work best with your situation. Then start small and go slowly. “Don’t be afraid to experiment and combine strategies,” she says.
Then, once you have a plan:
- Start a compost pile with your kitchen and yard scraps so all those soil nutrients don’t end up in the landfill.
- Compost also fixes soil composition and promotes plant growth. For ease, try a countertop composter. “These are great to provide small amounts of compost several times a week that you can walk out to your garden and spread around, even in containers,” says Monheim.
- Test your soil’s pH and nutrient levels and amend it accordingly. This will also increase the number of beneficial microbes and help it retain moisture.
- Plant companion plants and include native plants and perennial flowers, even in your vegetable garden. Intermingling species will naturally keep pests and blights at bay. “[Plant] tomatoes with marigolds, basil and herbs,” Monheim says. “[And put] the three sisters — corn, beans and squash — together for them each to provide resources to the other plant without depleting one nutrient or the other.”
- Spread mulch. It saves water, keeps weeds at bay, prevents erosion and protects roots by stabilizing temperatures.
- Avoid tilling, which damages the network of living entities in the soil. “You might need to use a rototiller the first time you make your in-ground garden to break up the soil,” Roman says, “but using it year after year breaks down the soil structure.”
- Use non-synthetic fertilizers like compost, mushroom compost, leaf mold, neem oil, fish emulsion and manure. If needed, add earth elements like sulfur and azomite.
- Avoid chemical insecticides and herbicides.
- Collect and use rainwater when possible to conserve that valuable resource.
- At the end of the season, plant an overwinter cover crop to add nutrients, bolster soil structure and prevent erosion.