How to Make Your Garden More Sustainable

Posted on Thursday, 12 May 2022 under Stories

Gardening is an exciting opportunity to participate in positive change and contribute to climate solutions. By helping build a closer relationship with the earth, reduce the food miles of your diet, become more aware of what is in season, and preserve local seed varieties, growing food is a powerful way to reduce your environmental footprint.

There are numerous gardening practices that can be used to make gardens more sustainable. By making small changes in how you garden, you can contribute to climate change mitigation and support ecosystem health. In many cases, these techniques also lead to more productive and healthy gardens.

Here are a few ideas for making your garden more healthy and sustainable this season.

Focus on Soil Health

Tending to and caring for the soil is crucial to gardening sustainably and growing an abundance of food. The better care you take of the soil, the more it will nourish healthy and resilient plants. Dan Hayden and Miche Warwick from Happy Hills Farm describe how the most crucial aspect of growing food is taking care of your soil.

Warwick explains, “Every time you grow something, it takes nutrients out of the soil.” If those nutrients are not returned to the soil, whether through compost, cover crops, or another way, the soil becomes increasingly depleted.

Lucretia Schanfarber, a passionate and active gardener who has been involved in her local gardening community for years and hosts the Gabbing About Gardening Radio Show, echoes Hayden and Warwick’s emphasis on soil health. Schanfarber says, “Building soil fertility needs to be top of mind in everything we do.”

Solara Goldwynn and Tayler Krawczyk from Hatchet & Seed, an edible landscaping company in Victoria, BC, also describe how crucial focusing on soil health is. Goldwynn explains how healthier soil has an increased ability to retain water. The more we add to our soil organic matter, the more drought-resistant and flood-tolerant our soils are. Goldwynn says, “When you create better soil structure, you have a more resilient system.”

There are several relatively simple ways to take care of your soil.

Dig Less

To improve soil health, Goldwynn and Krawczyk encourage gardeners to reduce digging in garden beds or move to no-dig methods. By digging less, your garden mimics natural ecosystems where organic matter composts on the surface, and the soil ecosystem organizes itself. While soil microbiology is complex, Krawczyk says, “You don’t even really have to understand it, just understand that it’ll find its equilibrium.” There is no need to flip it and dig it up every year.

Use Cover Crops

Cover cropping is a helpful way to bring minerals to your garden and protect soil from heavy rain. “Winter Peas are something I encourage everyone to grow,” Krawczyk describes, planting them in late September and into October means that your soil will be covered for the winter. Keep your soil covered and harvest pea shoots all winter long!

Test Your Soil

Make sure you have the right ratio of nutrients by testing your soil. Micronutrients are important for plant growth, photosynthesis, and root development. Krawczyk describes that while this is more of an advanced technique, “If your region is low on a particular mineral, sometimes you need to make sure it gets in the system, at least to begin with so that it can start cycling.” Testing your soil can also reduce unnecessary inputs that you might be adding to your soil by showing what nutrients are already plentiful.

Hayden and Warwick also encourage gardeners who want to take the next step in understanding and taking care of their soil health to do a soil test. Warwick says, “A lot of gardeners will really focus on the nitrogen content, which is great, that’s important. But there are so many other components to healthy, fertile soil that need to be considered and replenished.” Hayden explains that even a small amount of a micronutrient can make a significant difference in how well a plant can thrive.

Use the Resources Closest to You

Claire McGillivray from the Edible Garden Project, a community-based non-profit that works to inspire and empower their community on the North Shore to grow food, emphasizes the value of being conscious of where inputs are coming from when adding nutrients back into the soil. She encourages working with what you already have close at hand. “Collecting leaves or using your own veggie scraps to turn that into compost that you can put on your soil,” are accessible ways to build soil health with resources close to you.

Instead of using heavily processed material that has often been transported long distances, make use of soil-building organic matter in your immediate environment. Collecting leaves, hay, grass clippings, seaweed, cardboard, and using your own vegetable scraps are all ways to use resources close to you to create your own nutrient-rich compost for your garden.

Hayden and Warwick describe how when they were backyard gardeners, they collected coffee grounds from local coffee shops and leaves from their neighbourhood to add to their compost. They say, “We had leaf bins that we would fill with leaves that compost down into beautiful, rich, black organic matter that you then put into your garden. It’s an easy way to come up with good organic matter to continue to feed your garden.”

Pay Attention to What You Grow

The sustainability of your garden is not only about how you grow, but also what you grow.

Focus on Perennials

Perennials help build soil, are often more resilient to events like heat domes and floods, and tend to be higher in nutrient value than annuals.

Experiment with Fungi

Grow mushrooms to increase the biodiversity in your garden and fungal life in your soil.

Hayden describes that fungi are crucial for healthy soil. He says, “You get bugs coming to the mushrooms and birds that come to the bugs and you just have a more full ecosystem.” If you have wood chips in your garden pathways, Hayden suggests growing mushrooms in those wood chips. You can also harvest edible mushrooms as a bonus!

Buy Locally Grown Seeds

Seed farmers play a vital role in climate change mitigation and the resilience of our local food systems. Local seeds are more adapted to local growing conditions, and by buying seeds from BC seed suppliers, you can also reduce emissions from transporting seeds long distances.