A Beginners Guide to Planning and Growing a Sustainable Garden

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If you want to reduce your dependence on non-renewable resources and make your garden sustainable, this guide will help. It provides everything a beginner needs to know about sustainable gardening: what it is and why you should do it; how to plan and grow a sustainable garden from start to finish; tips for specific regions in the US, including the Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest, Northwest Coast, or the Mountain States.

This guide also includes advice on what plants are best suited for different types of sustainable gardens and common issues with sustainable gardening, such as pests or diseases. The final section covers best practices for maintaining a sustainable garden over time.

How much more sustainable could your home be?

What sustainable gardening is and why you should do it

Sustainable gardening is sustainable because it focuses on using renewable resources and minimizing the use of non-renewable resources. It allows you to grow your own food in a sustainable way, with limited outside input.

Many sustainable gardeners also like using native plants adapted to local climate and soil conditions and require less work to maintain.

Planting native plants ensure that your garden matches the surrounding environment and reduces the need for pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation.

A man planting a Sustainable Garden

How to plan and grow a sustainable garden

Before we start growing plants in our gardens, we need to decide what we want to plant and where we want to plant it.

There are several ways you can go about this process: create a design first, then plant or just pick plants as you go along. Either way is acceptable, but most sustainable gardeners prefer the former because it allows them to maximize their yields by placing plants of similar/related needs together (e.g., putting tomatoes with eggplants because both require plenty of sunlight).

Once you’ve decided what your sustainable garden will look like, the next step is to prepare the soil.

How do you make a vegetable garden sustainable?

For plants to grow well, they need nutrient-rich soil that retains water. To prepare the soil, gardeners generally till their vegetable gardens, removing old vegetation and weeds as they go. 

To make it easier to till the soil without compacting it, sustainable gardeners use a non-motorized tilling tool called a stirrup hoe or a power tiller. Power tillers are similar to traditional tillers but run on electricity or gasoline rather than fossil fuels.

After tilling comes planting your plants. You can hand plant them or use small tools such as a dibber (a pointed stick used when planting seedlings).

Using nutrient-rich compost, beneficial insects, the compost pile, and organic fertilizers to boost your sustainable gardening practices

It is important to give plants the nutrients they need when growing. Several sustainable fertilizers work well for gardening, including fish emulsion and compost tea. The latter can be made in various ways, but sustainable gardeners generally use an aerated compost tea bag for this purpose.

Sustainable gardeners continue to care for their gardens through pruning, weeding, pollinating by hand or with bees if needed, deadheading (removing dead flowers), mulching, and protecting against pests and diseases.

What plants should you plant?

Local gardening experts that use organic methods are a great resource to enhance your organic gardening efforts.

Just like sustainable gardeners vary in what they grow depending on their location, some plants work well in the different regions of the US.

If you live in the Northeast, sustainable gardeners recommend growing greens such as kale, mustard greens, and Swiss chards throughout winter. Other sustainable vegetables that grow here are peas, beans, onions, and carrots.

In the Midwest, sustainable gardeners recommend growing potatoes, garlic, tupelo trees (which produce fruit similar to peaches), daffodils (for their edible leaves), and ginseng.

Sustainable farmers in the Southeast recommend growing fruits, including grapes, pecans, and blueberries, alongside vegetables like okra and tomatoes.

The Southwest is known for its sustainable orchards, so sustainability focuses on growing sustainable fruit trees.

If you live in the Northwest, sustainable gardeners recommend growing sustainable fruits, including strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, alongside sustainable veggies like beans, potatoes, and kale.

An egg carton of starter sprouts

Use native plants to create beneficial friends for your vegetables whenever possible.

Sustainable gardeners recommend planting native plants to reduce the need for sustainable cooking herbs. Some sustainable herbs that grow well near vegetables include dill, thyme, and oregano.

Borage and sweet alyssum should be used as companion plants with vegetables like tomatoes and greens because they attract beneficial insects like ladybugs and hoverflies that eat garden pests.

If you live near a sustainable garden, gardeners recommend planting cut-and-come-again plants with your vegetables since they help to keep weeds at bay and provide veggies all season long. Some cut-and-come-again plants include basil, lettuce, radish greens, and spinach.

Taking care of your sustainable gardening endeavors

After you’ve grown your sustainable garden, it’s time to take care of it. Here are some useful tips to help your garden thrive:

  • Regularly weed your sustainable garden because weeds compete with your plants for nutrients, water, and sunlight. 
  • Mulch around your plants to keep them moist while simultaneously stopping weeds from growing. 
  • Use sustainable compost to help give plants their nutrients.
  • If you have a sustainable orchard, prune it when the tree is dormant in spring by cutting off all branches that bore fruit in autumn and shaping them for next year’s harvest. (Another tip: sustainable gardeners in the Northwest also recommend burying a bucket in your backyard with a lid so you can collect rainwater runoff).

Creating a sustainable compost pile from things you already have and use

Creating compost is easy when you have sustainable waste products to work with. Not only can sustainable compost help your garden grow well, but it is excellent for the environment in general. Organic matter like garden waste, grass clippings, food scraps, and organic mulch breaks down over time into sustainable soil that will continue to provide nutrients to your garden.

There are several ways that sustainable community members worldwide create sustainable compost piles.

Just like sustainable gardeners vary in how they create these compost piles, they also vary in how they use their compost. Some sustainable farmers only use the top layer of soil on their plots, whereas other gardeners grow all their veggies and herbs in this rich organic matter.

You can use grass clippings, garden waste, organic food waste, weed growth, and more to create this beneficial stuff that helps retain moisture and provide the natural resources your plants need as a sustainable gardener.

Sustainable gardening in large cities

For sustainable gardeners living near large cities, one of the biggest problems they face is not having enough space to create a sustainable outdoor garden. However, if you live in such an environment, there are solutions such as:

  • Starting an indoor garden (using hydroponics)
  • Becoming part of a local community garden
  • Joining community farms
  • Form a garden group in your communal green space
Inside a Sustainable Greenhouse Garden

Preserving your harvest and continuing to eat from your organic garden all year long

If you want to keep eating your sustainable fruits and veggies for longer periods, sustainable gardeners recommend drying them outside on a screen or rack. This drying method allows them to maintain good airflow around them. 

Another option is dehydrating them with a sustainable dehydrator which works well with most fruits and vegetables except for fruits like grapes, blueberries, and peaches which should be dried using indirect heat.

Of course, after the gardening comes harvest time. If you want to compost your sustainable vegetables and fruits, it is possible, but only if the food is cut into small pieces. If you don’t wish to eat all of your veggies and fruit right after harvesting them, this is fine as long as they’re cut up and put in perforated bags.

After you’ve grown your sustainable garden and harvested all of the sustainable fruits and veggies, it’s time to take care of them. 

Here are some valuable tips:

  • Store sustainable vegetables and fruit in a cool, dry place after cutting them up, so they don’t rot.
  • Make sure to cut up your sustainable fruits evenly to dehydrate or dry well (such as bananas) or can be stored (such as potatoes).
  • Refresh produce each day by rotating the crops to prevent spoiling. 

Clean your produce and store it properly to maintain freshness

Cleaning sustainable produce is also essential, especially if you want to eat it raw. It’s recommended that sustainable vegetables and fruit be rinsed in water and scrubbed with a scrub brush (such as bamboo) so no harsh chemicals or dirt remain on them. 

If you’re not planning on eating sustainable fruits and veggies right away, storing them in the refrigerator in plastic bags is fine. Still, it’s essential to cut them up first and change the bags regularly because they will deteriorate and rot faster when stored together in one bag.

When to transplant and sustainable gardening methods in different types of soil

Transplanting plants can be done during any time of the year when temperatures are above freezing. However, autumn transplanting is best for most plants, such as sustainable fruit trees and sustainable vegetables.

As sustainable gardeners know, plants need soil to grow. Not all plants require the same type of soil, though. 

Here is a list of the most popular plants and their preferred type of soil:

  • Tomatoes: clay loam
  • Potatoes: loam, sandy loam, or a clay loam
  • Asparagus: loam, sandy loam, or a clay loam
  • Carrots: deep sandy loams or light silty soils (which is why they’re often grown over in farming in old fields) (Another tip: sustainable gardeners warn against growing carrots at all because they deplete the soil of nutrients.)
  • Cucumbers: loam, sandy loam or a clay loam
  • Lettuce: deep silty soils
  • Raspberries: sandy loams or light clays
  • Eggplant: any kind of sustainable soil except for peat bogs

When gardeners are ready to plant their seeds, they need to follow some simple steps. First, they place the seed in water overnight.

Then, after planting it in soil, they make sure that there’s a little bit of topsoil covering the seed and space out the plants, so there is good air circulation. 

Finally, sustainable gardeners use mulch (such as straw) around their plants and anything touching them, such as lawns and trees.

Tips for sustainable gardening in every region of the US

A women kneeling down in a garden while harvesting

For a gardener in the North:

Wait for soils to warm up before transplanting and be careful not to over-water because sustainable plants need well-drained soil. (Another tip: gardeners recommend adding compost as early as possible so you can take advantage of the insulating effect it has on your plants.)

For gardeners in the South:

Start out with healthy, sustainable plants and choose quick-growing varieties such as radishes, snap beans, and cucumbers that do well in their hot climate.

For gardeners in the West:

Remember that most sustainable climates are dry, and if you’re not water-conserving, you might end up with a small garden (or none at all). (Another tip: gardeners recommend planting grapes because they have a shallow root system and are drought-resistant.)

For gardeners in the East:

Plant more shade-tolerant crops such as sustainable vegetables, flowers, and shrubs.

Share your sustainable lifestyle practices with your community and find new friends and local resources.

There’s nothing sustainable gardeners love more than sharing their practices with their friends, family, and community. Some great ways to do this include holding workshops (which you can host at your home), taking education classes, offering landscaping services, or becoming involved in local, sustainable volunteer groups.