Have you ever wondered what the impact of the acid-blue fertilizer you’ve been using could be on plants and the groundwater below? Commercial fertilizers mostly contain the three main ingredients needed to nurture plants: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. However, most also include other chemicals such as ammonia that can damage soil, the microorganisms that live within it, and leech into groundwater, which is the source of your drinking water. These fertilizers are also more expensive and need to be applied more frequently than many organic alternatives, like grass clippings, that can be added once per season.
Eliminating inorganic fertilizers is just one of the many tactics you can use to make your garden more fertile, sustainable, and cost-effective. Below are 5 big ideas for cultivating a sustainable and healthy garden.
- Use natural fertilizers
Given the significant amount of food waste generated by the average household, using food and other plant scraps to fertilize your plants is a no-brainer. Be sure to check and see if neighbors have had problems with rodents attracted by the food and offer to compost together if they are interested.
How’s this for money and time-saving hack: the next time you are weeding your yard or garden, save yourself the task of bagging them up, and instead sweep them up—we like to use a dustpan and handheld brush for this—and add to a 5-gallon bucket filling with clippings up to a quarter of the way full, adding water to the top. Let the weed “tea” soak for a week or two and then pour on to plants to fertilize them.
Another hack that will save you money is to use ½” of grass clippings from the lawnmower as fertilizer. As the grass decomposes, it will improve your soil’s texture and stimulate good microbes that protect plants, all while releasing plenty of nutrients to feed your plants for weeks, if not the whole season. You can also gather your clippings in a bucket, filling to 2/3 full and adding water. This fertilizer tea can steep for 3 days and be added to any plant for a high nitrogen and potassium boost.
Other easy fertilizers include coffee grounds and banana peels, which can be added directly to plants’ base, depending on the plants’ needs and soil pH. In fact, a testing kit for your soil can help you figure out which fertilizers are needed if you are looking for more accuracy or you notice your garden is really struggling. Of course, using organic coffee grounds will give you the confidence that no chemicals are being added to your plants when you re-purpose the waste. If you use compostable coffee filters, you can avoid the trash can altogether. If your soil is too acidic for your plants, eggshells are a cheap and all-natural way to cut the soil’s acidity and can be used in place of lime. Fall is a great time to add eggshells to your vegetable garden, for example. They can be rinsed off, crushed, and added to the soil. These compost fertilizers are healthy for the garden and very convenient, as they release nutrients slowly.
Finally, manure is a nutrient-rich fertilizer. As the animal droppings dry out, they become increasingly odorless. In fact, the artisanal paper is made by hand in Thailand, using elephant waste, which dries and leaves behind plant matter that can be easily cleaned and pressed. Now that’s upcycling!
Elephants aside, less rare herbivores like horses and cows can often be found at nearby farms, many of which will sell manure as fertilizer. Like other organic fertilizers, manure does not need to be applied frequently during the season instead of releasing nutrients over time. Of course, be aware of your neighbors if you detect a lot of odor from the manure, and either opt for another organic option or get them to agree to your plan.
- Conserve freshwater resources
Conserving water in a garden can be accomplished in many ways. One of our favorite ways is to empty half-drunk glasses of water or water bottles onto our plants instead of down the drain. To make it even easier to remember, keep potted plants close to your door, if you can. Every time you walk past these plants, you’ll remember to water them, and making them accessible means you’ve got no excuses. You can also choose to water your outdoor plants when the sun goes down, which reduces evaporation and means you can use less water.
Other money and freshwater saving options include designing a terraced garden where rainwater can be stored and used to water plants or using a rain barrel to store rainwater for gardening. The goal is to limit water from our faucets in home gardening, given the energy used to process, clean, and transport our water and the relative scarcity of fresh water on the planet. In fact, out of the 70% of the available water on earth, only 0.03% is made up of freshwater.
- Research and use native and high-tolerance plants
Have you ever noticed the same plant popping up in neighbor after neighbor’s yards? Or wondered how a neighbor manages to have the most beautiful garden when your garden looks like it needs watering?
Native plants may be what you’re seeing or missing from your front yard. Native plants grow “naturally” and well in your region. They tend to thrive in the local climate and are favorites among gardeners, hobbyists, and landscape designers in your area.
There are great resource books that can help you identify and choose the right native plants or check out local nurseries to point you in the right direction. You can also ask your neighbors about that purple Sea Lattice you keep spotting in the neighborhood or the drought-tolerant Oleanders that are so prevalent. They probably have great tips for you on what works.
Cultivating native plants often reduces the amount of time you spend doing things like fertilizing or even watering your plants. And for the reasons we’ve already outlined above, conserving time, money, and water are great sustainable practices.
You can also look for low-water plants that will do well in many different environments like Monterey Cypress, Boxwoods, and Honey Bush.
- Use mulch
Mulching not only creates a clean, modern look in many gardens and yards, it also helps to keep soil healthy and hydrated. It does so by adding nutrients, protecting from erosion, preventing evapotranspiration and soil compacting while moderating soil temperature and suppressing weed growth.
For a vegetable garden, good old-fashioned hay is a great mulch. You can even buy old hay at a great price from a local farmer to use. Fall leaves can also be used as mulch, with the added benefit of leaves giving off trace minerals that are good for the soil and attracting earthworms who improve soil quality. Leaves can also be tilled into the soil or crushed and used for potted plants.
Hardwood and other wood mulch are also common. Wood mulches decompose nicely, add rich color to the soil, and promote drainage while keeping soil hydrated. Buying mulch from an “organic” brand can help assure you that the product was processed sustainably and that it has few or no additives and fillers.
- Plant for Pollinators
You may already know that pollinators, in particular bees, are at risk. They are also vital to the health of the planet and promote plants’ growth in your garden. The easiest thing you can do to support bee populations is to buy organic honey. You can follow the lead of more and more people who create pollinator gardens with sustainability in mind.
The specifics of how to design and cultivate a pollinator garden should be determined based on where you live and what types of bees are native to your area. Some bees do well with large flowering plants. Others need small flowers for foraging. Plants are also habitats for bees, so your pollinator garden should include nesting places. If you are really concerned about being stung, you can plant the garden on the periphery of your property, away from the house, and plant non-attracting plants in front of the attractors to create a buffer zone.
These are just 5 big ideas for introducing sustainability into your gardening practices. The time and money you save will motivate you to keep going on this path, and spending time in nature is always a worthwhile pursuit.