Guide to Eco-friendly Gardening

As summers get warmer, many companies, communities, and individuals are stepping up to help combat climate change. One of the most recent movements homeowners and gardeners have adopted is eco-gardening. This landscaping method aims to create a sustainable, functional, and aesthetically pleasing outdoor space while minimizing CO2 emissions.

In this guide, we’ll explain what eco-friendly gardening is, go over some of its key practices and techniques, and outline some handy gardening tips.

What Is Eco-friendly Gardening?

Eco-friendly gardening is a philosophy and series of loose methods and practices that aim to help combat climate change. Generally speaking, eco-friendly gardening tries to create outdoor spaces that:

  • Are sustainable, pleasing, and functional
  • Preserve ecosystems
  • Reduce the carbon footprint of the outdoor space, home, and homeowner
  • Preserve and promote local wildlife
  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle household products and waste

How Does Eco-Friendly Gardening Reduce Your Carbon Footprint?

One of the hallmarks of eco-friendly gardening is reducing your carbon footprint. The most impactful way gardeners can do this is by producing their own food and avoiding high-impact purchases. Between 10% to 30% of each American’s carbon footprint comes from food, with about 5% of that coming from the transportation of that food. Furthermore, food waste makes up an estimated 24.1% of landfills, with over 35,277,543 tons of food waste going into landfills in 2018 alone. Using eco-gardening, you reduce the food waste you produce by growing what you need and composting the rest.

What Are the Non-eco-friendly Aspects of Normal Gardening?

Many homeowners assume that standard gardening is already eco-friendly, as it produces plants that absorb CO2 and reduces their reliance on commercial produce. While this assumption has some truth, standard gardening has many problems that are harmful to the environment and produce more carbon than it offsets.

Synthetic Fertilizer

One of the biggest culprits in the at-home gardening and farming industry is synthetic fertilizer (sometimes spelled fertiliser). These are the bags of potting soil filled with synthetic nitrogen capsules you see lining the walls of big-box stores. The technique used to create the fertilizers inside these products is called the Haber-Bosch process, and it functions by synthesizing ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen. The process produces about 1.2% of the world’s CO2, which does not include the CO2 impact of synthetic fertilizer itself, which accounts for another 2.4% of global emissions.

Some gardeners avoid these harmful products by switching to manure. While this is a better option, it isn’t perfect. Manure does have benefits, such as reducing atmospheric carbon by increasing soil carbon, but it also releases large amounts of methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas and one of the main contributors to ground-level ozone.

The best and most eco-friendly answer to this fertilizer problem is to make your own by composting and recycling.

Plants That Negatively Impact Local Ecosystems

Another common issue standard gardening and landscape design presents is the prominent use of harmful and invasive plants. Many big-box stores, garden centers, and online retailers sell garden plants that can seriously plague local ecosystems. Popular species like bamboo, trumpet vine, English ivy, Chinese wisteria, and butterfly bush are all considered invasive and should be avoided.

Eco-friendly gardening tries to solve this problem by prioritizing local plants and noninvasive species. It also aids plants that encourage pollinators, such as wildflowers, to help grow and improve the surrounding ecosystem.

Pesticides or Other Chemicals That Negatively Impact the Environment

The most obvious and detrimental aspect of standard gardening is the use and reliance on pesticide and herbicide sprays. These products contain harsh chemicals that seep into the soil and surrounding groundwater, killing beneficial microorganisms. Furthermore, many pesticides are indiscriminate, killing beneficial garden insects. Eco-conscious gardeners should avoid pesticides and herbicides, opting instead for natural pest control solutions like companion planting, organic mulch, and encouraging natural predators of pest species.

What Are the Best Techniques and Practices for Eco-friendly Gardening?

Eco-friendly gardening uses a set of loose rules, techniques, and guidelines for creating a sustainable backyard landscape. Each method can be practiced individually or in concert, depending on homeowner preference and capabilities. What follows are some of the most common and beneficial eco-friendly gardening practices to create a greener outdoor space.

Encourage Wildlife

One of the most popular aspects of eco-friendly gardening is creating an inclusive space for native critters. Adding plants and features that welcome wildlife can add a natural and rustic look to your backyard while helping the ecosystem at the same time. A good place to start is to begin adding bright annual flowers that encourage pollinators. This simple practice will add pest preventing predator species while also boosting biodiversity. If you’re looking to attract larger animals, like squirrels, rabbits, and birds, add native plants that mirror your preferred critters’ habitats. Here are some more specific tips on attracting different kinds of animals to your garden:

  • Birds: To attract birds, install water features, nesting boxes, and small brush piles. You can also encourage birds by growing native plants and trees with large canopies. Bird feeders are particularly effective in attracting avian guests.
  • Beneficial insects: There are a large variety of beneficial insects you can attract. Most gardeners will target specific species based on what pests they want to eliminate. For example, if you’re trying to kill aphids, you’ll want to attract ladybugs and should plant cilantro, caraway, and chives.
  • Small mammals: Certain small mammals like chipmunks, hedgehogs, and squirrels can make wonderful guests in your garden. Others like mice, rats, and gophers can cause serious problems. Therefore, you should create an environment that attracts one but doesn’t draw in the others. Chipmunks like any plant that produces nuts or seeds, so sunflowers, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and any nut tree will do. Furthermore, brush shelters, hedgehog holes, and hollowed-out trees work well to attract squirrels, chipmunks, and hedgehogs.

Companion Planting

While eco-friendly and organic gardening encourages helpful members of the environment to come in, it also tries to keep troublesome pests out. Companion planting is one of the best ways to accomplish this while steering clear of pesticides. This technique is when you grow two plant species together that benefit each other. There are dozens of different plant combinations you can choose from, but here are some of our favorites:

  • Tomatoes and chives: Two great garden staples, tomatoes and chives work well when planted side by side. The strong scent of the chives will deter aphids and other troublesome pests from infecting your tomatoes. Also, the flavor of the chives won’t cross over and affect the tomatoes.
  • Garlic and potatoes: Another set of perennial kitchen powerhouses, garlic and potatoes make a companion planting pair. Garlic repels many troublesome pests that bother potatoes and other tubers. Planting garlic between your potato rows will help deter Japanese beetles, onion flies, and certain moth species.
  • Carrots and leeks: The scent of these two vegetables help confuse each other’s corresponding predators. Leeks will repel carrot flies, and carrots will repel onion flies and leek moths.
  • Peppers and basil: Basil is a powerful protective plant that keeps aphids, spider mites, and various fly species at bay. It’s also said that basil will naturally improve the flavor of peppers.

Growing Your Own Food

Growing your own food is one of the most simple yet impactful eco-gardening practices you can take up. The CO2 emissions created to supply grocery stores with vegetables, fruits, and other agricultural products are considerable. From seeding to transportation and placement on grocery store shelves, the agricultural industry is an emissions nightmare:

  1. Farmers use massive amounts of synthetic fertilizers and large-scale harvesting equipment. These practices, when combined, make the growing of most crops less than environmentally friendly.
  2. On average, the produce must be shipped 1,500 miles to a supermarket in massive transport trucks, further adding emissions.
  3. You then directly contribute by driving to the store to purchase said produce.

By growing food at home, you bypass this entire wasteful process, reducing your impact and involvement. As a bonus, you also get organic, fresh, homegrown food right at home.

Smart Watering Systems

To keep your garden and other plants healthy and vibrant, you’ll need to supply them with clean, fresh water. However, plants can consume massive amounts of water each year, and with water supplies becoming scarce in many states, you’ll need to get creative. Thankfully, eco-friendly gardening has some handy water conservation techniques that can reduce your water usage and save you money at the same time.

Rainwater Collectors

If you’re located in a state with high rainfall, like Oregon, Washington, or just about anywhere in the Northeast, you can capitalize on rainwater harvesting. By purchasing a rainwater collector (also called a water butt), such as an eco-friendly plastic barrel, rain barrel, or recycled metal drum, you can begin storing and utilizing rainwater. To do this, you can attach the water receptacle to your gutter’s downspout, and if your gutter is clean and devoid of debris, you’ll get a sizable amount of water every time it rains.

Reusing Greywater

While this system is more complex to install and maintain, reusing greywater is one of the best ways to conserve and reuse wastewater. Greywater is used water from kitchen sinks, bathroom sinks, and bathtubs. You can store and filter greywater into your garden by purchasing and installing a greywater diverter. Greywater, as long as it’s devoid of harsh chemicals like ammonia and bleach, is completely safe and usable on plants, even some vegetables. You can use greywater on any fruit or veggie whose edible portion does not make contact with the ground. Unfortunately, that means produce like carrots, lettuce, potatoes, or leeks are out of the question. However, berry bushes, tomatoes, and corn can all benefit from greywater and still be safe to eat.

Proper Watering Technique

Even if you do not practice eco-gardening, anyone who grows plants can benefit from proper watering techniques. You’ll waste less water, have healthier plants, and save more money in the long run by ensuring that not a single drop is wasted. Here are some basic watering techniques that will help you conserve every ounce:

  • Water at the right time: When watering your plants, always try to water as early or as late as possible. Dodging the hot noonday sun will reduce water loss through evaporation. We recommend watering at either 6:00 a.m. or 6:00 p.m.
  • Don’t overwater: Applying too much water is both wasteful and bad for the plants, as overwatering can lead to moldy soil and attract pests. To avoid overwatering, check the moisture by sticking your finger into the soil. If the soil is damp, you can skip watering. You can also use a moisture meter if you’d rather keep your hands clean.
  • Water more carefully: If you’re watering with your hose, it may be tempting to walk down your line of plants while watering away. This method, while quick and easy, is wasteful. Try to only water your plants and avoid the soil between and surrounding them.
  • Be mindful of sprinkler timers: Automatic irrigation systems like sprinklers can be useful in gardening. However, sprinkler systems can waste water as the seasons cool and potentially underwater if you experience a heat wave. If you use sprinklers, it’s always best to check their timer every month.

Use Drought-resistant Plants

One of the best and most low-maintenance ways to reduce water usage is to grow plants requiring little watering. Drought resistant plants, typically grasses, shrubs, cacti, or low-lying flowers, are becoming a popular trend for their ease of care and water conserving properties. Some popular drought-resistant plants are lavender, rosemary, yarrow, and sage. Always check to ensure that any plant you introduce to your garden is not considered an invasive species in your area, and try to prioritize local plans before importing species.

What Is Composting, and Why Is It Important?

Earlier in the article, we mentioned that you should avoid store-bought soil and manure when creating an eco-friendly garden. While these products can be more convenient, they ultimately harm the environment and increase your carbon footprint. Instead, you can make your own substitute by composting. This method allows you to recycle your old lawn clippings, branches, and other waste while creating an effective, soil-enriching fertilizer at home.

Composting Overview

Composting is the process of recycling organic matter into highly nutritious soil. To start, you’ll need a composting bin and a place to store it. You can either purchase a bin or recycle an old plastic trash can by drilling holes along the bottom and sides. These holes will allow for drainage and airflow, two important elements of a good composting bin. You’ll want to put the composter near your garden, as it will eventually become heavy and difficult to move. You should place the bin at least 30 feet from your home and any doors because many of the flies and insects it attracts will be more than happy to migrate inside. These natural waste management specialists are important for composting, but you don’t want them sneaking into your home. Many bins have flaps or a small trap door at the bottom for depositing the compost once it’s ready; your converted bin won’t have this, but you can mix and shovel out the compost with a spade.

To compost materials, all you need to do is add organic waste into the bin. Over time, heat, moisture, and insects will begin to break down this matter into fertilizer. Compost materials fall into one of two categories, green or brown. Green materials are anything that contains moisture, such as lawn clippings, spoiled fruits or vegetables, and still green leaves. Brown materials are anything that does not contain moisture, mostly tree branches, bark, and dead leaves. On average, you’ll want a compost bin filled with 50% green and 50% brown materials. When placing these items in your composter, always layer them for proper drainage with brown or dry materials under green materials.

What Is and Is Not Safe to Compost?

Not all waste and trash can go into a compost bin. When composted, some materials can make the fertilizer dangerous to handle or outright kill your plants. Generally, when making compost, only use plant matter and never add any meat or dairy products. Here is a quick list of composting material do’s and don’ts:

  • Do compost:
    • Lawn clippings
    • Vegetables
    • Fruit
    • Coffee grounds
    • Leaves
    • Pine needles
    • Newspaper
    • Eggshells
    • Egg cartons
    • Sawdust
    • Vegetable and fruit tops and bottoms
    • Flowers
    • Tea bags (as long as you remove the bag first)
    • Paper towels
    • Prunings
  • Materials you do not ever want to compost are:
    • Meat and fish
    • Milk, butter, cream, or any other dairy products
    • Bones
    • Oils (even organic products like olive oil or corn oil)
    • Fried food
    • Oily food
    • Any form of baked goods
    • Pet or human waste
    • Coal or fire ash
    • Sawdust from treated wood
    • Plants, lawn clippings, fruits, or vegetables that have been exposed to pesticides or herbicides
    • Highly acidic foodstuff like citrus peels or hot peppers
    • Wheat, rice, and grains — while these products can be composted, we do not recommend it as they attract insects and are prone to molding

What Are the Top Mistakes To Avoid When Eco-friendly Gardening?

While relatively straightforward, sustainable gardening has some pitfalls you’ll need to avoid. These common mistakes typically take the form of products, services, or practices that, while environmentally friendly on the surface, actually create more problems than they solve. The first and most important are the misconceptions regarding peat and its use in the gardening industry.

Peat, for many, is a wonderfully effective addition to soil that adds moisture retention, beneficial organic compounds, and aids in drainage. While all of these things are true, the widespread use of peat has led to the large-scale destruction of bogs, a vitally valuable natural resource. Peat bogs are one of the most effective ecosystems at absorbing CO2, as they make up only 3% of the Earth’s landmass but collectively store 30% of the entire planet’s land-based carbon. Instead of peat, we recommend using coir, or coconut fiber, products. Coir possesses many of the same beneficial properties as peat but with more sustainability and no ecological damage.

The next largest mistake many homeowners make when planning out their eco-gardens is what they feed their critters. Allowing animals in can be done to great effect if approached correctly. However, you can accidentally invite a host of other, more damaging pests if you’re not careful. Homeowners often attempt to use food or animal feed to attract the critters they want in their gardens. Typically birdseed is the most common go-to and is an excellent choice, but some homeowners also use corn mixes or “critter feed,” as it’s called in big-box stores. While many adorable animals love this critter feed, such as squirrels and chipmunks, it attracts nuisance animals, like mice, raccoons, and cockroaches. We recommend sticking to birdseed, and if you want to attract chipmunks and squirrels, try planting sunflowers, coneflowers, and coreopsis.

Final Thoughts

Eco-gardening can be an enjoyable and environmentally responsible way to rejuvenate your outdoor space. By composting, practicing sustainable landscaping, using smart watering systems, planting native plants, and welcoming local critters, you can create a backyard oasis that helps revitalize your local ecosystem. By avoiding harmful products like synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, manure, and peat, you can further reduce your garden’s carbon footprint, creating a renewable source of food and satisfaction.

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