Green isn’t necessarily always better for the environment when it involves invasive, non-native plants and the classic American lawn. However, gardeners can enhance their personal havens by focusing on gardening techniques that align with sustainability practices.
Vegetation serves a very important role in environmental processes, acting as storage tanks for carbon sequestration, as nitrogen fixation converters, as storm water capturers and greenhouse gas absorbers. An understanding of habitat, climate and soil type is necessary when choosing plants and designing gardens. Vegetation optimally grows under certain conditions, and when gardeners become in tune with these characteristics, the more their gardens will flourish.
Using native plants will increase natural habitat in the specified area and will provide native fauna with more options to communicate, mate, reproduce and live. Also, native plants are adapted to the region’s climate and will require fewer resources, such as water and fertilizers, to mature.
Eliminating and reducing dependence on synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, such as RoundUp and Miracle-Gro, will improve the environmental health of the garden. While these chemicals contributed to the green revolution in the 1950s, mass production of agriculture and the transition into the popular practice of monoculture farming, the constant application of these chemicals has many repercussions, especially for watershed health. After sprayed, excess chemicals filter through the soil and ultimately make their way into neighboring waterways, altering water chemistry as fertilizers and herbicides contain high levels of nutrients, such as phosphates and nitrates. High levels of nutrients can lead to algal blooms, which can lead to hypoxic or dead zones. Furthermore, sensitive aquatic life can determinately be affected. Thus, gardeners should consider the external costs of fertilizers and herbicides not just for their own garden but also for the specific habitat, communal ecosystem and regional biome connected to their garden.
For centuries, even before the manufacturing of chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides, farmers and gardeners have been using natural fertilizers, such as manure and composted biomass, to increase productivity and growth for their gardens and farms. Often local animal farms sell excess manure to the public at discounted rates. Also, for a very minimal amount and effort, backyard compost systems can be installed and maintained.
In addition to compost systems, installing rain gardens and cisterns as well as gray water systems can help increase environmental benefits of a garden. Before conducting any projects, check with county rules and regulations to understand the potential permitting process needed for storm water infrastructure. Often referred to as Low Impact Developments (LIDs), gardeners can easily purchase a cistern to capture rainwater and with some effort, plant a rain garden that uses drought- and flood-tolerant native plants. Depending on the region, different rain gardens can be designed to accommodate the climate and average annual rainfall. There are many books, various online sources and local nurseries that can help gardeners achieve a functioning rain garden. Even more ambitious, environmentally conscious gardeners can have a gray water system installed. Essentially, a gray water system captures wastewater from the dishwasher, cooking, laundry and shower and distributes excess for irrigation purposes. While this process decreases water demand, precautions should be taken for potential hazardous chemicals and toxins.
Planting legumes helps facilitate and even expedite the nitrogen cycle. Within the roots of the legumes, Rhizobia bacteria breaks down atmospheric nitrogen (N2) into usable nitrates, essential for cell growth and development. In addition to sustaining the nitrogen cycle, vegetation also helps absorb greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide.
Observing current garden practices alongside shifting towards more sustainable land management practices provides gardeners with the ability to further reduce their ecological footprint and increase their garden’s benefits for the planet.
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Isabel Sepkowitz is a freelance writer. She is an environmentalist who values sustainability, education, and innovation for the emerging green economy. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.