'Sustainable gardening." That sounds about as drab as a gray school uniform or an old beige sofa. But that isn't it at all.
Sustainable gardening is about choosing to create a beautiful garden — edible, ornamental or both — that is in harmony with our natural ecosystem. It is a matter of bringing a mindfulness and care to design choices that will create not only healthy vegetables and beautiful flowers in the small bit of Earth in our backyards, but will also help to promote the diversity and health of our region and even our planet. This is truly a case of "Think Globally, Act Locally." How often do you actually get to have such a profound effect with very little effort?
There are several basic principles of sustainable gardening. We need to build soil, conserve water, invite wildlife, make smart plant choices and contribute to the health of our community by saving energy, reducing waste and eliminating chemicals, pesticides and pollutants from our gardens. Here are a few of the ways this can be done.
- Building soil. Every Master Gardener's mantra: Compost, compost, compost! Adding compost to your soil will enrich it with organic nutrients, improve the texture, and provide a welcome use for kitchen scraps. Keeping a layer of mulch on top of the soil around plants with improve water retention and encourage growth of earthworms, particularly if you resist tilling the soil. Over time, your backyard dirt will improve to a rich, loamy-textured soil where it will be a pleasure to plant.
- Conserving water. With the looming drought, this point is more important than ever. Water can be conserved by careful irrigation methods, such as a drip system with a timer. Plants can be hydrozoned, with the thirstier plants placed together so they can get more water without overwatering the plants with lower water requirements. And thoughtful plant choice, including choosing native plants that evolved for our climate, will help conserve water.
- Inviting wildlife. Wildlife needs food, water, shelter and places to raise their young. Letting your garden go a little "wild," with a diversity of plant material and a little overgrowth, can be a big aid to wildlife. A benefit of choosing native plant species is that you are providing a home for native birds and insects, particularly native bees. The native wildlife has evolved to coexist with the bloom cycle of native plants so that the proper nourishment is provided in the appropriate season. A shallow ceramic platter or jar filled with fresh water, will be a popular stop for your local wildlife. It is a great delight to have a garden filled with cheerful birds, floating butterflies and noisy bees. Keeping a field guide handy is a great way to increase your pleasure as you learn the names of your garden visitors.
- Making smart plant choices. You can design a beautiful garden using plants that have low water requirements. Every category of plant — trees, shrubs, vines, ground covers, perennials — offers choices you can enjoy in your garden. Publications such as "Plants and Landscapes for Summer — Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region" produced by the East Bay Municipal Utility District and "California Native Plants for the Garden" by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O'Brien provide inspiring pictures and plant lists. You also can be careful when choosing the variety of plant to opt for one that is disease- and pest-resistant to reduce the need for chemical applications.
Saving energy, reducing waste, eliminating chemicals. If you do the things outlined here, you will already be a long way to achieving this goal. Your rich soil will not require synthetic fertilizers and your thoughtful planting choices, as well as willingness to live with less than perfection, will eliminate pesticides. You also can reduce your contribution to greenhouse gasses by choosing hand-powered tools whenever possible, by using solar-powered outdoor lighting or water features, and by growing your own organic food.
Don't worry! You will not be left to muddle through this by yourself. The Bay-Friendly Landscaping and Garden Coalition has produced an excellent online publication, "The Bay Friendly Gardening Guide," a 70 page how-to guide that can be found at www.bayfriendlycoalition.org/bfguidedetail.shtml. This information-packed guide is not just a technical manual, but covers such topics as gardening for a sense of place and gardening through the seasons.
Another helpful resource is the free public seminar to be given by Marin Master Gardener Betsy McGee from 11 a.m. to noon Feb. 8 at the San Anselmo Public Library. She will be highlighting some of the major points in the guide and explaining how to implement the ideas.
The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 473-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.