10 ways to make your garden more green

community garden in Dorset
© Elizabeth Johnson (used with permission)

Hey green fingers, how green does your garden really grow? If you suspect that your pastoral idyll is breeding more toxic chemicals than prize hybrid-tea-rose bushes, then read on, my earth-moving friend. We'll have you footloose and pesticide-free yet, whether you're an intrepid landscape designer earnestly shaping topiaries to reenact the Fall of Troy or an apartment dweller content with a couple of potted begonias. The only question you need to ask yourself: Can you dig it?

Top Green Gardening Tips


  1. Keep it real
    You know what they say about Mother knowing best? Well, Mother Nature never needed to steal sips from a chemical cocktail of pesticides, weed killers, and chemical fertilizers to keep her act together. Nix the poisons and layer on some all-natural compost, instead. Call in beneficial insect reinforcements to wrestle pesky garden pests to the ground. Who needs to play Command & Conquer when you have battlefield drama unfolding before you in real time?

  2. Make compost from kitchen scraps
    Compost like a champ by throwing in your vegetable waste, instead of allowing it to be trucked off to the landfill. Known as "gardener's gold," compost enriches soil fertility by giving it a shot of high-powered, plant-loving nutrients. Aside from stimulating healthy root development, the addition of rich and earthy compost also improves soil texture, aeration, and water retention. Why waste your hard-earned cash on commercial products when the real deal is free for the taking? Speed up the process with the help of earthworms or go wriggle-free (if you're the squeamish sort).

  3. Buy recycled
    If your delicate aesthetic sensibilities balk at the idea of reusing yogurt or takeout containers to house your hydrangeas, check out the myriad environmentally friendly planters and raised-garden kits now available. It takes less energy to recycle something than to mine virgin materials, so whether you choose recycled copper, plastic, or even rubber to anchor your tender shoots, it's all copacetic. Admire your handiwork and eco-smarts while lounging on recycled lawn furniture.

  4. Grow your own food
    Buying organic produce can admittedly get pricey, so how about growing your own food instead of painstakingly manicuring that lawn for the umpteenth time? An estimated 40 million acres of the 48 contiguous American states are covered in lawns, making turf grass the United States' largest irrigated crop. American homeowners apply a cringe-worthy tens of millions of pounds of fertilizers and pesticides to their lawns, often at many times the recommended levels. All that for little more than ornamentation. It's time to return to the use of gardens as food sources--you won't find fresher (or cheaper) eating anywhere else.

  5. Join a community garden
    Urban dwellers bereft of a yard shouldn't fret: You can still get in on the hoeing and growing action by signing up for a plot at your local community garden. Community gardens typically have a communal composting area, as well, so if you don't have room for one of those triple-duty rotating barrel composters in your home, here's your hookup.

  6. Go native
    Now that you've learned some of the merits of "de-lawning" your home, consider replacing the ol' putting green with native and indigenous plants, whether they're cactus gardens in Arizona or bottlebrush grasses in Northern Michigan. Already adapted to local conditions, native plants are easy to grow and maintain, generally requiring less fertilizer and water, as well as less effort to rein in pests.

  7. Harvest rainwater
    Adding a rain barrel is an inexpensive and effortless way to capture mineral- and chlorine-free water for watering lawns, yards, and gardens, as well as washing cars or rinsing windows. By harnessing what's literally raining from the sky, you'll not only notice a marked dip in water costs, but also a reduction in stormwater runoff, which in turn helps prevent erosion and flooding. Pop a screen on top of your barrel to keep out insects, debris, and bird missiles, and make frequent use of your water supply to keep it moving and aerated.

  8. Water with care
    While we're on the subject of water, adopting a few smart-watering habits will do much to stretch out your supply, especially during dry, hot spells in the summer. Adding mulch and compost to your soil will retain water and cut down evaporation. Plus, soaker hoses or drip irrigation only use 50 percent of the water used by sprinklers. Water early in the day so you can avoid evaporation and winds. And the best place to drench your plants? Directly on those thirsty roots.

  9. Bring on the butterflies and bees
    Provide a pesticide-free sanctuary for our pollinator pals, such as butterflies and bees, by growing a diverse variety of native flowers they're particularly drawn to, such as wild lilac, goldenrod, and lemon balm. (Gardens with 10 or more species of attractive plants have been found to entice the most bees.) If you haven't already heard, we're in the throes of a major bee-loss epidemic, which is causing beekeepers in North America and Europe much hand-wringing. Because pollinators affect 35 percent of the world's crop production--and increase the output of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide--extending a little hometown hospitality could go a long way.

  10. The power of 4
    Get hip to four "R"s of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's GreenScapes program: Reduce, recycle, reuse and rebuy. You want to reduce your output of waste to ensure you're using materials efficiently. Reusing compost and tree clippings for mulch, or rainwater for watering take up little time and energy, but offer plenty of environmental bang for your buck. Recycling saves resources, while rebuying means seeking products that meet your needs, but are more environmentally friendly than your usual purchases--take, for instance, solar outdoor lighting versus electric-powered fixtures.

Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

Green Gardening: By The Numbers


  • 1500 lbs: the amount of garbage the average person throws out each year, according to Mark Harris, the author of Embracing the Earth (Noble Press, 1990). Expect to haul only 375 pounds of trash to the curb annually if you compost.

  • 400 percent: the percentage of total vegetables consumed, that were produced in 'victory gardens' planted in homes, schools, and farms during World War II.

  • 19lbs/person: the amount of tomatoes consumed per person in the US each year - not counting the tomatoes used to whip up sauce and ketchup. In fact, the United States is second only to Italy in its consumption of tomatoes per capita.

  • One third: of all garden plants sold in the United States are tomatoes, according to the Seed Savers Exchange.

  • 40 million: acres of lawn exist in the United States, and are the single most irrigated crop, according to NASA. Don't forget to weigh in the fact that it takes 238 gallons of fresh, usually drinking-quality water per person, per day, to keep our lawns pert and verdant.

With reporting by Manon Verchot

Tags: Ecology | Gardening | Milwaukee | Permaculture

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