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Is your eco- friendly garden also sustainable?

August 14, 2015
Marie Narlock

Recently I learned about Dancing Rabbit EcoVillage. In this Midwestern enclave, you cannot use or store a vehicle, no fossil fuels are allowed, all gardening must be organic, all power must come from renewable resources, no lumber is allowed from outside the local area unless it’s recycled or salvaged and every speck of organic waste must be composted. Ecologically speaking, it makes Fairfax look like Los Angeles in terms of environmental footprints.

When it comes to green living these days, it’s way too easy to compare and despair. Let’s face it: the grass is greener at Dancing Rabbit, and it’s because they captured rainwater in a barrel to water it.

If living like the Amish works for you and your family, then thank you for making our world sustainable. I mean eco-friendly. No, actually I meant green. Or is the correct term environmentally correct? Renewable? Upcycled? Honestly, I’ve grown a little weary of all these buzzwords, and do wonder if many of us have been “greenwashed” into buying unnecessary gear to allay our guilt.

I’m working hard to overcome my environmental guilt, especially in my garden, where I refuse to close up shop — drought or no drought. Perhaps I’m just rationalizing my behavior, but let’s dig a little deeper and look at some facts.

Take the word sustainable. In a perfect world, we could turn our backs entirely on our gardens for a year or more and it would look similar to how we left it. No water, no pruning, nothing. The seasons would come and go, and our gardens would sustain themselves. I don’t know about you, but I’d return to a crunchy, weedy, overgrown mess. So on a sustainability scale of 1 to 10, do I get a 1? Here comes the guilt!

But wait. What if we tried this experiment on Mount Tamalpais? Is our beloved mountain sustainable? She must be, right? I mean, those are native plants, which need no supplemental water or soil amendments. Surely, Mt. Tam can sustain herself, right?

Well, sure — sort of. Today, invasive broom is spreading at an alarming rate on Mt. Tam — to the tune of 30 to 60 acres a year. These weeds can certainly sustain themselves. In the process, broom chokes out native flora, which in turn changes the balance of insects, which alters the bird population, and the changes to the food web continue to spiral until even the furry inhabitant population changes. So if you don’t mind a mountain that looks entirely different — and is as flammable as a matchstick — then I guess you can say it’s sustainable.

Bottom line? Growing a healthy, satisfying garden requires planning and management, and there are varying levels of sustainability. Do I consider my garden — a collection of edibles, natives and low-water use plants — sustainable? Maybe. Do I consider it appropriate for my microclimate and the broader needs and concerns of Marin County? Yes

Here’s a quick checklist to assess if you’re on the right track. Answer yes or no to each of the following questions:

• The plants in your garden look healthy, require little or no water, and attract beneficial insects.

• You have a drip system, and water as little as possible.

• You amend your soil with compost every year or so.

• You keep a thick layer of mulch around your plants.

• You remove invasive weeds like ivy, especially if you live near open space.

• You avoid herbicides and pesticides.

If you answered yes to most of these questions, congratulations. You and your garden have just become unofficial members of the Practically Sustainable Club. If not, then seek out advice on the UC Marin Master Gardener website at marinmg.org, where you’ll find plenty of tips to increase the health and beauty of your garden.

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