Eco-Friendly Gardening Advice

Eco-friendly gardening is a rewarding and sustainable way to grow your own organic food, and it can lead to great garden savings.
By Deborah Niemann
March 2013
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Eco-friendly gardening means making the most of the space and resources available to you, and trying innovative designs such as vertical gardening or yard sharing.
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Ecothifty (New Society Publishers, 2012) tells us that consumer binge — where we can get everything for next to nothing, and then throw it out when we're done — is beginning to take its toll on our society. Our environment is littered with plastics and other unrecycled trash, and prices of all goods are skyrocketing along with the price of oil. We're not doomed though, reassures author Deborah Niemann, and she lays out simple, practical ideas to help turn the tide. The excerpt comes from chapter 7, and offers eco-friendly gardening advice.

You can purchase this book from the Capper’s Farmer store: Ecothrifty

There are few things you can do in this world that offer as much reward, financially and personally, as gardening. A tomato seed, which costs only pennies, can grow into a plant that can produce twenty or more pounds of fresh, organic food. In addition to the financial benefits, gardening provides you with a reason to go outside, breathe fresh air, and get some exercise. And once you’ve tasted a garden fresh tomato, you will understand why it is the number one vegetable grown in backyard gardens. But the benefits don’t stop with tomatoes. Practically every vegetable tastes better when it’s fresh and ripens on the vine, and it is more nutritious. From the time produce is picked, it starts to lose nutrition, and if it is picked green, it has lower nutritional value than if it is vine ripened.

Sometimes articles or books make eco-friendly gardening sound like a terribly expensive hobby, requiring high-priced tools, raised beds, and gravel-lined pathways. In reality, you can start growing some of your own foods for less than $10 by purchasing a few inexpensive bedding plants at your local garden center. If you have never had a garden, start small with your favorite, most-often purchased vegetable. Nothing is more disappointing than seeing a garden consumed by weeds because it was too big for you to be able to tend through the growing season.

Garden savings: How much money you save will depend on what vegetables you grow. If you plant easy-to-grow, prolific and expensive vegetables like bell peppers, you will save a lot more than if you plant inexpensive vegetables like carrots, which yield one carrot per seed and can be a challenge to germinate. Assuming half a pound of fresh produce per square foot of garden space, you can expect about 300 pounds of produce from the average 600-square-foot garden. At $2 per pound, that adds up to $600 of fresh produce. The average investment for a food garden is $70, providing you with a savings of about $530 annually.

Small spaces

You may think that you need a big yard to have a garden, but you can grow vegetables in almost any space that you have, provided it gets sun. Even if you have no yard at all, you can grow plants in pots on a balcony or in front of a sunny window.

A backyard vegetable garden does not need to be large to produce an abundant harvest. The key is in planning designs for eco-friendly gardening. You can plant more in a small space by creating wide rows or by growing vertically.

Vertical gardening
Just as the name implies, vertical gardening means growing plants upwards on trellises, arbors, fences, teepees, and whatever you can imagine. Although pole beans may immediately come to mind when you think of climbing vegetables, cucumbers and vining winter squash are also good candidates. Even though I have plenty of space in my garden, I like growing cucumbers on old fencing panels because they are easier to harvest when they are not growing all over the ground. If you grow especially large winter squash vertically, they may need a little extra support as they grow. Old nylon hosiery can be used to make a sling to cradle the squash and attach it to whatever the squash is climbing so that gravity doesn’t pull the squash from the vine before it’s ready.

Cold frames and low tunnels
It is possible to harvest vegetables year-round, even if you live in colder climates, such as Michigan or Maine, by using a cold frame or low tunnel, both of which are unheated by anything other than the sun. A cold frame is a box with a glass top, and a low tunnel is a short hoop house that is covered with greenhouse plastic. During the day when the sun is shining, heat is trapped in the structure, so during the night, the warmth of the ground keeps the plants inside from freezing even though temperatures may fall well below freezing. By adding a row cover, you will trap even more heat in the soil, which will protect your plants to even lower temperatures. The plants in our low tunnels have survived overnight temperatures as low as -15 degrees Fahrenheit.

Container gardening

Even if you don’t have a yard, you have a variety of options available to you for growing at least some of your own food.

Try container gardening. If you have a south-facing porch, deck, or window, you can create a beautiful and delicious pot of vegetables, strawberries, or herbs. There are even varieties of some vegetables that are made specifically for pots, such as “patio tomatoes.” If you don’t have a place to sit a pot, you can use hanging planters. Pots come in all sizes and shapes. I have one that is long and narrow and made specifically for growing on a windowsill. You don’t even have to buy a pot. You can repurpose a bucket or other container by drilling a few holes in the bottom for drainage. I’ve seen all sorts of things used as pots, including coffee cans, milk cartons, and frozen orange juice containers. You will need to use a good organic potting soil and fertilizer and remember to water frequently.

Greens Pot
Even a pot as small as 12 inches across can be productive. Divide the surface into thirds, and plant seeds in each section. For a colorful display, put several Swiss chard seeds in one third; plant red romaine lettuce in another third; and plant kale in the last section. When the plants are a couple inches tall, add more seeds between them so that you can have a second harvest after cutting the first plants.

Containers planted with edibles can be just as attractive as those planted with non-edible plants. Okra planted in a pot will grow five feet tall and produce blossoms that look a lot like Rose of Sharon.

Sprouts
A lack of outdoor space is not a barrier to growing some food. You can grow sprouts in a jar in your kitchen for a fraction of the cost of buying them in the store. Sprouting seeds are sold at health food stores and through online vendors. To grow alfalfa sprouts, put two tablespoons of seeds in a quart jar, add a couple of ounces of water, and close the jar with a sprouting lid or tie a piece cheesecloth over the opening. After soaking overnight or for ten to twelve hours, pour off the water. Two or three times a day rinse the sprouts. You don’t want to leave them standing in water between rinsing, but you also don’t want them to dry out completely. Sprouts that haven’t been rinsed for a couple of days will probably need to be tossed into the compost. The seeds sitting in water in the bottom of the jar will have started to rot, and if they have started to sprout, the seeds on top will have dried out completely and died. I leave my sprouting jar on the kitchen counter next to the sink so I am unlikely to forget about it.

Edible landscapes

Why spend time and money feeding and watering a lawn only to spend more money cutting it every week when you could replace it with fruits and vegetables? Before you skip to the next section, swearing that you will never have rows of corn in your front yard, let me say that I am not suggesting anything of the sort. I immediately thought of the Garden of Eden the first time I saw a yard that fully employed the concept of permaculture. Eggplant, tomatoes, and onions grew under a young plum tree. A variety of herbs and salad greens grew along the side of a pond. Vegetables and herbs were interplanted with each other, and anyone driving past would have assumed this was a traditional flower garden. Get creative and think beyond rows and rectangles when planning an edible landscape.

Community gardens

Many years ago when we first moved to the Chicago suburbs, we lived in an apartment and rented a plot at the local community garden so that we could grow at least a few vegetables. Community gardens are available in many communities, usually at a very reasonable price. In fact, the plots tend to be very popular, so there is a waiting list in some cities. It can be a challenge to remember to tend a rented plot because it is not conveniently located just out the door. This can be overcome, however, if the plot is located in an area that is between your home and place you travel to frequently, such as work, school, or the grocery store.


Yard Sharing

We co-coordinate a summer leadership training for young adults called Summer of Solutions, which is part of a larger program called Grand Aspirations and runs in different formats in nineteen locations across the US. In the summer of 2011, we got the idea to develop a land-sharing model where neighbors in our community could offer their land for others to grow food on in exchange for some of the food themselves. We piloted the program with one yard this past summer and converted roughly 700 square feet of urban lawn into a cornucopia of fresh, organic vegetables. The food helped feed our summer staff while providing an excess for us to share at public events we held in a demonstration garden down the street from our growing site.

Throughout the process, we developed a small set of tools for working with landowners. One of the most important of these has been a template for a land use agreement between the owner and the gardener. We also created liability release forms for any person the gardener brings on the property. Some of these documents are overkill, but in an age of civil lawsuits, we wanted to make sure we could allay the concerns of every potential landowner we may come into contact with.

This next year, we plan to expand our program, bringing in up to ten more landowners and connecting them with families who have a desire to grow but do not have access to land. Our methodology will be to canvass blocks of single-family homes and adjacent multiunit apartment buildings to find people willing to make this connection. Our program team will also be developing the skills and resources to assist with the garden build from start to finish.

This solution is something that really grows organically out of the structural nature of our community. Rogers Park, where we live, is a mixed-income neighborhood with a wide variety in housing stock. We offer a free garden education program for low-income children in the area and would really like to develop the land-sharing as a means for connecting their families with an opportunity to engage in growing their own food. Since many of the kids live near blocks with single-family homes, we hope to plan this year's growth around their particular areas. —Peter Hoy and Molly Costello, Chicago, Illinois.


Saving seeds

Although seeds are not very expensive, you can make your garden even more economical by saving seeds from one year to the next if you grow heirloom varieties rather than hybrids. The easiest seeds to save are those from plants that are self-pollinated. You can easily save seeds from beans, peas, eggplant, greens, lettuce, peppers, and tomatoes. Some plants, such as mustard greens, will even reseed themselves year after year. So although they are annuals, you plant them once, and they renew themselves every year. Squash plants cross-pollinate easily, so if you had more than one type of squash plant in your garden, seeds saved from them will not necessarily reproduce the parent plant.

Keep in mind that genetically modified (GM) plants are patented, which means you are prohibited from saving their seeds. You will know if you buy GM seeds because you are required to sign an affidavit swearing that you will not save the seeds or give them to anyone else This inability to harvest seeds for the next season is reason enough to avoid purchasing them, let alone the health concerns related to GM plants.

Composting

You can provide your plants with all the nourishment they need by using compost, also known as black gold, instead of expensive and possibly harmful chemical fertilizers. There are two basic things you need to know to create compost: first, stuff rots, and second, the bigger the pile, the faster it rots. I know there is a lot of information written about carbon-to-nitrogen ratios and things like that, but if you pile up any organic matter (stuff that used to be alive) three feet high and three feet wide, it will rot. Even if you have the perfect carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, the pile will take years to rot if it is not big enough. A pile that is at least three feet in all directions will heat up to 130 degrees F to 150 degrees F on the inside, and the plant matter in the middle of the pile will decompose rapidly, killing harmful bacteria and weed seeds in the process. Compost will be ready to use in a few weeks if the pile is turned or fluffed up regularly, making sure the material on the outside winds up on the inside.

Garden savings: Compost is free, whereas enough fish emulsion to cover 300 square feet costs about $11.50 at my local garden center. Compost will also help you save whatever amount you previously spent on mulch because it can do double duty.

Lawns

The lawn has been a part of the European landscape since the 1700s, and North Americans were quick to emulate them. Initially it was only the very wealthy who could afford the maintenance required for a lawn because it was all done by hand, but with the invention of machinery and chemicals in the twentieth century, a pristine lawn became the norm for virtually everyone with a yard. However, it comes with a high price ecologically, financially, as well as time spent on maintenance and the risks associated with the chemicals used.

Deciding not to maintain a lawn is simply not possible for many people because of homeowner association rules, municipal codes, and the wrath of neighbors. So, what can an ecothrifty person do? Avoiding chemicals is usually the easiest way to save money because there are usually no rules or ordinances mandating their use. You will only have to deal with the raised eyebrows of neighbors when the dandelions are blooming in the yard.

An old-fashioned reel mower is the most ecothrifty option for maintaining a lawn. We used a reel mower when we lived in the suburbs. It works well on city- and suburban-sized lots, and there is not the deafening drone of a power mower. The caveat, however, is that you must mow the lawn regularly because a reel mower cannot handle the grass if it gets too tall. This may mean cutting it more often than once a week during seasons when it is growing especially fast.

If your lawn is too large for a reel mower, an electric mower is a more environmentally friendly option than one powered by gasoline. Although an electric mower initially costs more to purchase, it costs less to operate because the cost of electricity is far less than the cost of gasoline, and this difference will continue to increase as the cost of gas is increasing faster than the cost of electricity.

If you have a riding lawn mower, you probably know that it is a gas hog. And it is the worst when it comes to creating air pollution from emissions. When we first moved to the country, we bought a riding mower and mowed about two acres every week. It didn’t take long for us to realize how bad it was for our budget and the environment. Most of our yard is now garden or pasture.

Lawns can be converted to attractive and productive garden space. Instead of converting the lawn to an edible landscape by planting fruits and vegetables, another option is to replace grass with plants native to your area, such as succulents and cacti in the desert Southwest or prairie plants in the Midwest to create a hardy and low maintenance garden.

Garden savings: Our electric mower costs only 3 cents to charge, meaning we pay less than a dollar a year to mow our lawn, which is now less than half an acre. By canceling the service of a company that sprays chemicals on your lawn, you can save several hundred dollars a year. If you are able to eliminate your lawn and replace it with native plants, you will be able to save everything you previously spent on fertilizer, herbicides, mowing, and other maintenance. And if you replace it with an edible landscape, you will save even more in food costs.

Read more: Continue to learn about living an ecothrifty lifestyle in Ecothrifty Food Choices: Meal Planning, Water Canning and More.

Reprinted with permission from Ecothrifty: Cheaper, Greener Choices for a Happier, Healthier Life by Deborah Niemann and published by New Society Publishers, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Ecothrifty.


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