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How to create a sustainable garden

  • Marybeth Kampman

    You hear the word sustainability bantered about quite a bit these days. Everything from automobile ads to cleaning products to the president's inaugural speech touts the importance of sustainability. But what exactly does being sustainable mean?
    According to the Brundtland Commission Report of 1987, it's "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
    This simple eloquent definition is the most clear to me. However, its application is not always as straightforward. It is often suggested that we work towards sustainability by applying the 3 R's: Recycle, reuse, reduce; by buying locally; and by being aware of our carbon footprint. What are the implications for the home gardener? Here are a few suggestions to help you to approach your own garden with a view toward making it sustainable.
    - A sustainable garden starts with a good plan that is appropriate for you and your space. Plan a garden that will give you pleasure and matches your lifestyle. Think about who will use and maintain it, the costs involved and the benefits you will reap. Will you plan an agri-garden intermixing edibles with your flowers so that you can eat from your garden? Will your garden be a retreat, a gathering place for family and friends, an extension of your living space?
    -Make sure your garden has good "bones." Install a viable, efficient watering system. Understand the type of soil you have, amend it with organic ingredients to make it rich and alive. Be aware of light and wind conditions. Work with the natural conditions that present themselves and plan a garden that will flourish accordingly. Start small if necessary. Allow time for growth. Remember a garden is not a product - it is a living ecosystem that is in a state of constant change and renewal.
    - Buy local. Purchase your plants from local nurseries that support local growers. Not only will you be reducing the carbon footprint of transporting your plants, you most probably will be purchasing plants that are adapted and appropriate for your growing zone. Better yet, learn to propagate the plants that you have and share them with friends and neighbors. Attend a seed sharing fair or support a local garden club or organizations' plant sales. Marin Master Gardeners' tomato market on April 18 and 19 is an excellent resource.
    - In this time of drought think about xeriscaping with natives or drought-tolerant plants. Native plants will invite local birds and beneficial insects, including the all-important pollinators, into your garden. Many local nurseries feature native plants. The Marin Municipal Water District also includes a very helpful garden guide on its Web site that highlights native and waterwise plants.
    -Be aware of cycles and systems. Nothing disappears in nature. The most obvious way to observe the food-waste cycle is composting. If having a compost pile is too daunting consider vermiculture. A worm bin tidily takes care of your kitchen vegetable wastes while creating some of the very best compost, rich in nutrients for your garden.
    - Collect water by using rain barrels. Learn about options for recycling household gray water. Use mulch to retain water, as well as to improve and to build your soil structure. Group plants that have similar water needs. Replace lawns with waterwise plantings. Weed regularly thus eliminating unwanted plants that compete for water.
    - Refrain from using pesticides. Instead, learn about IPM (integrated pest management) by going to the UC IPM Web site at www.ipm.ucdavis.edu. Take a walk in your garden daily. Not only will you benefit from the break in your routine, your garden will be healthier. Often a simple washing off, selective pruning or dead heading will ward off problems before they have a chance to become established.
    - Your presence in the garden is an integral part of the whole ecosystem. Plan your garden so that it is easy to work in. Walk softly and let nature take its course. Don't insist on a pristine garden. Keep the garden neat, but not too neat. Let some plants go to seed, providing food for birds and insects. Allow some leaf droppings to provide natural mulch and habitats for helpful critters.
    - Keep your tools clean and orderly and in good repair. Well-maintained garden tools last a very long time. Avoid using plastics in the garden. Gather garden waste in reusable containers. Stop using plastic bags for leaf and waste containers. Instead use a tarp to gather the waste and then recycle the waste in your green can or compost heap.
    - Use a broom. Don't use water to clean pathways. Refrain from using gasoline-powered blowers. Instead enjoy the peace and quiet of your garden as you sweep or rake the old-fashioned way. You will be amazed at how much you will observe in your garden when you take the time to actually be in your garden.
    Above all enjoy your garden - whatever that means to you. Be an example for your neighbors of best gardening principles. If you create a beautiful sustainable garden your friends and neighbors will want to emulate you, thus ensuring beautiful healthy gardens for future generations.
    The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 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.Ê