January is the time when we revisit our practices, set intentions for the new year, and resolve to improve. If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to be more mindful of your impact on the earth, sustainable gardening is the perfect place to start.
While eco-friendly landscaping is ideal, the volume of changes involved can seem overwhelming to the average gardener. Keep in mind that being a more sustainable gardener is an ongoing process, not a final destination. Small changes throughout all facets of your landscape can help improve the biodiversity, carbon storage, sustainability, and overall health of your environment.
For those new to sustainable gardening methods, or for folks looking for ways to be more green, we’ve compiled a list of best practices for the landscape and why they are important.
Water Management in the Landscape
Smart practices around water use in the garden, especially during the hot summer months, can help reduce the need for water and allow the water you do use to go further.
Less is more, but timing matters!
- Plant as soon as possible and as late as possible. Planting in the Spring and Fall allows plant roots more time to get established during the rainy season. While getting out in the garden in the rain might not seem like your idea of fun, it is worth the extra effort to reduce water usage later.
- During the Summer, water in the morning or evening to reduce the amount of water lost through evaporation during the day.
- Spot water new or needy plants when necessary, and stretch out watering of more established plants to encourage deeper roots for lower maintenance long-term.
- Reduce the amount of water on your lawn. By cutting back on the amount of water you give your lawn, you’ll encourage deeper roots and ultimately healthier grass.
- Consider adding a water feature instead of a planting bed or lawn area. Especially in shady places, water features provide habitat for wildlife while minimizing the amount of landscape that needs irrigation.
- Experiment! Most plants are more likely to suffer from overwatering versus underwatering, so see how long you can let your plants go between waterings. Often most shrubs and established perennials need significantly less water than you’ve been giving them.
Minimize bare, exposed soil
- Mulch your garden beds! Mulch is a generic term that can apply to bark, compost, wood chips, straw, or green manure. By adding a layer of organic matter to bare soil, evaporation is reduced and any water given will go down into the soil rather than up into the atmosphere.
- Interplant and add groundcovers. It may seem counterintuitive to add more plants to reduce water consumption, but by adding more low-growing plants between shrubs, you’ll reduce bare soil and increase humidity levels by creating a microclimate. The benefits to layered plantings are vast—more texture, more diversity, fewer weeds, and less potential root competition.
- Remember to mulch and interplant vegetable beds too! In raised beds and vegetable gardens, more really is more. More mulch means healthier plants, and more interplanting means more food for you.
Xeriscape with drought-tolerant plants
- Xeriscaping is a style of landscaping that improves water conservation and sustainability in Pacific Northwest gardens.
- Adding in drought-tolerant plants to your landscape will help reduce the need for long-term watering and care.
- Keep in mind that some drought-tolerant plants dry out more quickly in small pots because of their large root volume, so make sure you choose the right plant for the right place.
Sustainable Soil Management in the Garden
Soil is the foundation of a healthy garden and intentional soil management is critical to the sustainability of your landscape. By taking time to properly care for your soil, you can reduce the need for supplemental water, weed removal, and insect and disease control.
Feed the soil, not just the plant
- Instead of focusing only on the needs of individual plants, think of soil as a supportive organism responsible for the wellbeing of your precious plants, and treat it with just as much care.
- Use organic fertilizers in Spring to support new growth and again in Summer after extensive periods of growth and watering. Organic fertilizers not only add macronotrients (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium) to the root zone of plants, they are also full of beneficial mycorrhizae, probiotics, and micronutrients.
- Give special plants extra support with Compost Tea. Compost tea provides a quick injection of nutrients and goodness to the leaves and roots of plants, and can be used on highly prized plants as well as struggling plants that need extra support.
Mulch with compost
- Adding mulch is important for water conservation, but the type of mulch chosen can also positively impact soil health.
- Compost is the best mulch to improve the quality of your soil in the short and long term—it is made from decomposed organic matter and is full of beneficial living microorganisms.
- Compost can be purchased (bagged or bulk) or made at home from yard and kitchen debris. Oregon Metro has great resources for making your own compost and sells home compost bins.
- Add compost in the Spring to support new plant growth and reinvigorate soil, and in the Fall to help insulate the soil over the Winter.
Leave the leaves in beds
- Your landscape makes a lot of high-quality, free mulch naturally each Fall when deciduous leaves drop.
- Rake leaves off the lawn, where it can suffocate grass, and into your garden beds where it will provide added protection to herbaceous perennials and shrubs.
- In the Spring, leaves can either be carefully collected and added to the compost, or left in the beds to finish decomposing—be careful not to disturb overwintering insects if you decide to remove your leaves after Winter has ended.
Focus on erosion control
- Soil is precious! Loss of soil on slopes or from watering should be prevented as much as possible.
- Mulch, jute netting, and groundcover all provide great ways to reduce erosion, with groundcovers topping the list because of the habitat value and aesthetic beauty they provide.
Planting to Increase Biodiversity
Plants are what hook most gardeners in the first place, and by expanding your plant selections to include more diverse types of flowers and foliage, you’ll create a more productive and more diverse ecosystem right in your own backyard.
Seek out blooms in every season
- By providing flowers in every month, you’ll make your garden a place for pollinators like bees and hummingbirds to seek refuge and get through the leanest months.
- Some of our favorite flowers that guarantee visits from pollinators:
- Winter & Early Spring: Camellia, Crocus, Hellebore
- Spring: Foxglove, Fava Bean (flowers), Heather, Apple Tree, Pear Tree
- Summer: Lavender, Shasta Daisy, Bee Balm, Zinnia, Milkweed
- Late Summer & Autumn: Agastache, Aster, single-flowering Dahlia
Different shapes of flowers support different insects
- One of the best ways to gauge whether a plant will be visited by pollinators like bees is if the pollen covered-anthers are visible.
- Generally, hummingbirds prefer tubular shaped flowers—while red might be their favorite color, they will visit yellows, pinks, and oranges with equal enjoyment!
- Expand your palettes to include flat, umbel-shaped flowers from herbs like Fennel, which are the preferred flower for hover flies—the perfect predators for aphids.
- Don’t fear the bee sting! It’s incredibly rare to be stung by a bee in the garden—they prefer flowers to people 10 out of 10 times.
Remember the birds
- Let your plants go to seed in the fall to provide food to visiting birds. Not only are the seed heads beautiful against a grey sky, some surprising plants, like Hidcote Lavender, are a favorite food source for Bushtits in November.
- Plant berries, edible and otherwise! It’s often worth the loss of a few prized raspberries to ensure that visiting birds are properly fed. Or if you want to save the best flavors for yourself, plant other fruit-bearing shrubs like Snowberry and Salmonberry for the birds.
Layer, layer, layer!
- Layering plants not only helps provide long-term seasonal interest, it also creates habitat for birds, insects, and other creatures to take shelter.
- Think big—columnar trees are a perfect choice for small landscapes that you might not think could accommodate a tree. We particularly love columnar Maples like Acer rubrum ‘Armstrong’ and Davidia (Dove Tree) ‘Kylee’s Columnar’.
- Think small—planting bulbs in the fall can help add color and drama when the garden is just waking up, and they’ll provide excitement for people and pollinators alike.
Garden with native plants
- Native plants are ideally suited to our region, having adapted to Pacific Northwest conditions over hundreds of years, and often require less water and inputs than other garden plants.
- The flowers and fruits on native plants support a huge range of native, and even non-native, insect pollinators, birds, and wildlife.
- There are truly countless reasons why native plants could be a great fit for your garden.
Eco-Friendly Pest Management
The best way to address pests and diseases in the garden is to create the right balance so that issues are kept in check and never get out of hand. By placing plants thoughtfully, and by working to keep plants and soils healthy, you can preempt most garden issues before they happen.
Create habitat for beneficial insects
- Add a water feature to your garden to insect predators like birds, dragonflies, and frogs, all of which will happily eat insect pests.
- Layers of diverse vegetation that remain in the landscape all season long provide coverage for overwintering beneficial insects and will help support beneficial bugs during summer months.
Be specific in your treatments
- If you find that you have a particular pest or disease, be as specific as possible in your treatment approach and avoid the use of broad-spectrum insecticides or herbicides.
- For slugs, use Sluggo—it is pet and people safe! Use it around plants that need it most like Hostas and Tulips when they first emerge.
Use the power of water
- When you’re spot watering your garden by hand, take a moment to turn on the jet or fan setting of your hose end sprayer and give a quick blast to aphid-prone favorites like Roses.
- Spider mites thrive in hot, dry conditions, so washing off the leaves of Rosemary and Boxwood during the dryer months can go a long way to reduce spider mite populations.
- Some fungal disorders are symptoms of over or underwatering—when in doubt, consult our green industry experts and bring in a bagged leaf or photo to your local garden center.
Right plant, right place, right care
- Some plants develop diseases like powdery mildew when they are overcrowded or grown in shady conditions. Treat during the growing season, and then transplant to a place with better light or air circulation during the rainy season.
- Proper pruning can help reduce fungal disorders in roses in addition to providing you with the best floral display.
Sustainable Lawn Care & Lawn Alternatives
Acres of tightly mowed, bright green grass might not be the most eco-friendly landscaping choice, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up your lawn entirely. A few smart strategies can help make your lawn more environmentally friendly, while still meeting the needs of your family.
Establish your preferred level of lawn maintenance
- Whether you prefer a low, medium, or high-maintenance lawn, Oregon State University and their Master Gardeners have some great recommendations about how best to manage your lawn: What’s Your Lawn Style?
Overseed to reinvigorate your lawn
- Spring is the perfect time to get lawn seed established, whether you’re starting a new lawn or overseeding an existing lawn.
- Water Warden Lawn Seed is our favorite straight grass seed blend, created to reduce the amount of water needed for a lush, green lawn.
- Envirolawn is a type of ecolawn with an attractive mix of short grasses and small flowering plants. If mown, it will look like a traditional lawn with a few extra leaf types like Clover and English Daisies. If left longer, beautiful flowers will bloom through the layers of green.
Reduce area of mown lawn
- Let your lawn grow long around the edges or away from the house, especially if you’re using an eco lawn seed blend that has flowering plants.
- Add sitting spaces, water features, or new beds in areas of your lawn with poor drainage or lots of shade. Not only will you stop fighting an uphill battle against thin turf, you also get a gorgeous new landscape area. And who knows, you might just find that lawn-free landscaping is for you!
Switch to organic lawn care
- Organic lawn fertilizers, like G&B Organics, are a fantastic alternative to synthetic chemicals. Not only do they need less frequent application, organic fertilizers also have a host of micronutrients and probiotics to promote healthy grass and soil.
- Stop spraying weeds. Clover might not be included in your vision of a perfect lawn, but rather than manage Clover with chemical sprays, learn to embrace its appearance as a sign of a healthy ecosystem and maybe even luck to come!