How to Become a Zero Waste Gardener

Learn how to move beyond recycling to have an even bigger impact.

woman shovels compost into a wheelbarrow

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When we talk about zero waste, many people zero straight in on recycling. But recycling alone is not enough. In fact, recycling is the last of the zero waste steps that we can take to reduce waste and become more sustainable in our homes and gardens. Before recycling, we should think about the four other "Rs": refuse, reduce, reuse, and repair.

Here are some tips to help you move beyond the basics and get as close to zero waste in your garden as possible.

Refuse to Contribute to Damaging Systems

Each and every thing we buy and consume comes at a cost. But we can significantly reduce our personal impact by thinking carefully about what we buy and bring into our homes and gardens.

As gardeners, we may inadvertently contribute to damaging systems. This happens, for example, when we choose items which come in single-use plastic, and when we use plastic as a temporary solution where other, more eco-friendly materials would work.

But we can refuse to buy seeds in plastic or plants in plastic pots—instead collecting our own seeds, propagating our own plants from divisions or cuttings, or choosing to buy from suppliers who package in a more sustainable way. And we can find different solutions for a range of plastic gardening products.

There's a chance that you use peat in your garden, which contributes to the destruction of peat bogs. Laying waste to these precious carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots leads to a different but equally problematic type of waste. But we can refuse peat composts and peat-based potting mixes, and instead choose a peat-free alternative for containers. Alternatively, we can make our own composts at home. 

As gardeners, we should also all refuse to use any synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Instead, we can take an entirely organic and natural integrated approach.

Knowing what to say "no" to is one of the first steps in becoming a truly zero waste gardener

Reduce Consumption by Growing Your Own

Becoming a zero waste gardener is certainly not just about what you buy. It is also about buying and consuming less in general.

Fortunately, as a gardener, you have a range of incredibly useful "resources" at your disposal and can work with nature to obtain the gifts it bestows. Though we should not think of nature only in terms of the resources it can provide, it is important to recognize how nature plus our own effort and time can provide us with many of the basic things we need.

We can reduce our need to buy food from elsewhere by growing it ourselves. But we should look beyond this at the other things we can grow in our gardens, from medicinal herbs to materials for construction and craft to natural cleaning materials, just to name a few examples.

The more we can do ourselves in our gardens, the more we grow and use, and the less we have to rely on systems in a wasteful world.

lettuce growing in a garden bed

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Reuse Household Items and Reclaim Materials

The next "R" on the list is reuse. Even when we cannot source natural materials to use in the creation and maintenance of our gardens, we still should not rush out and buy something new. We can embrace second-hand items and reclaimed materials and make use of household waste (such as toilet roll tubes or food packaging, for example).

Options for reuse, upcycling, and innovation in a garden are almost endless. We just have to look around at what is available and use our imaginations to keep items out of the waste stream. Avoid the cycle of excessive consumption by keeping the items we already have in use for as long as possible.

Repair People, Items, and Ecosystems

We are often too hasty to give up on an item and believe it is no longer fit for purpose. Learning how to repair things like tools or equipment can be a good way to move closer to zero waste in your garden.

But in a garden, repair is not just about items. And waste does not just apply to trash. Waste can also apply to people, who are wasting their time, energy, or talents. A garden can help people make the most of all three. When people need "repair", a garden can be a place of solace and healing—and help people live up to their potential.

Gardens can also be places where we repair damage to the natural world around us. By gardening in eco-friendly and sustainable ways, we can halt biodiversity losses, and perhaps even contribute to restoring ecosystems which once flourished in our areas. There is tremendous waste in ecosystem degradation, and we can help to combat these issues through efforts in our own gardens. 

Recycle Nutrients and Other Resources Within the Garden System

Recycling is important, too—at home, as well as through municipal schemes. We should all be composting food waste and other biodegradable materials in our gardens, mulching, chopping and dropping, making organic liquid plant feeds, etc., to recycle nutrients and create a closed loop system in our spaces.

We should also think about recycling in terms of the water cycle—replenishing groundwater sources and taking a long view by using water in our gardens wisely and well.

Just remember, plastic and food waste are key issues, but they are not the only ones. And being a truly zero waste gardener goes far beyond recycling.