5 Sustainable Ways Your Garden Can Help the Earth

Creating a Certified Wildlife Garden is one of many ways to garden sustainably.

By default, gardens help the Earth by providing vital green space, but there are smart ways to boost a garden’s overall value—environmentally, socially, and economically. Some steps are small. For example, growing your own food organically takes little effort and offers big rewards with fresh, low-cost produce. Composting your own food scraps and fallen leaves reduces landfill waste and results in rich compost for your garden. Similarly, choosing the right garden plants will feed wildlife and make your yard more ecologically sound.

Though often overused and misunderstood, the word “sustainable” is essential in describing Earth-friendly approaches to gardening. As an ecological and social term, the word “sustainable” refers to “the long-term ability to maintain an ecosystem or human society” (Ecology Campus Network, John C. Ayers). In more practical terms, a sustainable home or garden is in a state of balance, consuming no more resources than it produces. A healthy garden that’s in balance ultimately gives back with good food and attractive green space that fuels local flora and fauna.

Here are five easy, important ways to bring sustainability to your yard or garden, no matter what the size.

(1) Create a Certified Wildlife Garden

Good wildlife gardens are diverse and offer food, shelter, and water to visiting wildlife.

The National Wildlife Federation has made it easy to create a Certified Wildlife Garden in your own yard by providing a list of the steps needed to naturally feed wildlife. Several factors need to be considered if you want to certify your garden.

The first step is to ensure there are several types of natural, native food types in your garden, to include pollen/nectar, berries, nuts, and seeds. Next, you need a freshwater source for wildlife in your yard; this could mean a birdbath, fountain, or any natural water source near the house. Some form of natural cover is required, which could include shrubby areas, thickets, or wooded areas. The creation of spaces for animals to raise their young, via cover plants, larval food plants, or nesting boxes, are also required. Those with little space may choose to plant milkweed (the food plants of monarch caterpillars) or install a nesting box for songbirds. Finally, those with Certified Wildlife Gardens must commit to gardening sustainably. That means gardening organically, managing invasive exotic weeds, and helping to manage natural rainwater.

(2) Garden Organically

Nothing tastes better than your own organic produce straight from the garden.

It is far easier to garden organically than most think. The key is to naturally feed your soil and plants, and choose resistant plants able to grow in your yard without the need for chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. (Read more about resistance gardening and smart plant choices here.) Good plant care and management are also needed to safely stop unwanted pests and diseases from taking over your garden beds.

Feeding your soil with OMRI Listed amendments and fertilizers approved for organic gardening is essential. (Learn more about OMRI standards by clicking here.) Black Gold offers a wide array of OMRI Listed Amendments and Potting Mixes ideal for organic gardening. Just adding enriching compost and earthworm castings into your soil can make the difference between a mediocre gardening experience and a great one. Supplemental organic fertilizer will encourage your plants to grow and product to their fullest. Feeding plants with mixes enriched with the RESiLIENCE® additive has also been shown to boost their natural defenses.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the long-term approach taken to safely managing pests, and organic growers achieve it without the need of unapproved chemical pesticides. (Click here to view the list of green pesticides approved for organic gardening.) Techniques include pest monitoring, biological controls, preventative garden cleanup, and the use of approved natural chemical controls. (Click here to download the full Organic IPM Field Guide.)

Finally, smart, chemical-free weed management will ensure your plants will have space and resources to really shine. Choose great weeding tools, such as the sturdy Rogue Prohoe or efficient Korean ho-mi (hoe-mee) hand tool, to make weeding easy. Manage weeds when they are still small, and apply lots of organic mulch to keep them from emerging. We recommend placing a 2″ layer of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend around your vegetables and garden flowers to keep weeds down. Other recommended natural mulches include seed-free hay, pine straw, and composted leaf mulch.

(3) Grow Your Own Food, & Share Your Harvest!

GWA_PAR_final2016_highIf you garden using organic methods, then any food crops you grow will be pesticide free. What’s essential is choosing garden plants that are tough, resilient, and worry-free. Lots of fruits and veggies are easy-to-grow choices great for new gardeners. Carefree tree fruits for the garden include disease-resistant strains, such as crisp, sweet ‘Liberty’ and spicy golden PRISTINE® apples, fireblight-resistant ‘Moonglow’ pear, and darkest red. Easy spring vegetable crops include fast-growing lettuces, carrots, radishes, snap peas, and beets. The best non-stop summer crops for novice gardeners include tomatoes (Click here for tomato growing tips!), peppers, basil, and summer squash/zucchini. Finally, easy fall veggies include broccoli rabe, turnips, beets, and Swiss chard.

If you have a healthy harvest, share it with your friends or the local food bank. Most communities have avenues for crop sharing. One of the best is Plant a Row for the Hungry (PAR), an effort sponsored by the Garden Writers of America and promoted by Sun Gro Horticulture. To find a local PAR representative and make a donation, click here. Local food banks are always willing to take extra produce from overly successful gardeners. Feeding America also has a Food Bank Finder that will make finding your nearest food bank easy.

(4) Choose Regional Native Plants

Monarda punctata and Bombus
North American natives, such as this Monarda punctata, are bee-friendly and well adapted to many US gardens.

Regional natives and adapted landscape plants grow best in local landscapes and have the added bonus of feeding local wildlife. There are many good resources gardeners can turn to to find the right ornamental plant choices for their landscapes. One such resource is Landscape for Life, a national effort dedicated to helping gardeners garden sustainably. The principals of the program are based on the  Sustainable Sites Initiative™ program (SITES™), a comprehensive program used by industry professionals to maintain sustainability standards. Landscape for Life offers guidelines for choosing the best natives for your landscape. The partnering organization, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, has a comprehensive Native Plants Database that allows gardeners to search for desirable regional natives for their area.

(5) Compost Green Scraps & Yard Waste

Kids love to help compost yard waste. It also provides a great teaching tool.

Composting takes less effort than most gardeners think. It’s a fast, easy way to get rid of organic kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and autumn leaves, and the end result is a great natural amendment for the yard and garden. Start by choosing a composter—whether purchased or made. Spacious, self-made composters are great if you have the space for them (Click here for plans).

There are three things required to make good compost fast: small organic waste, water, oxygen, and nitrogen. Add vegetable scraps, grass, and leaves, but refrain from adding large sticks, bones, or meat products (unless you want a smelly pile that attracts raccoons and rats.) The pile needs to be at least 4 feet high and wide to generate enough internal heat to properly compost. Refrain from BG_EARTHWORM_8QT-FRONTpacking pre-composted scraps tightly; good aeration helps the composting process.

For fast breakdown, piles must be kept moist, occasionally turned for aeration, and intermittently treated with supplemental nitrogen to help the process. An occasional sprinkling of Black Gold Earthworm Castings, which is rich in nitrogen, can aid the composting process.

After a month or so, the pile should be hot in the center and start breaking down into compost. Properly decomposing piles will shrink. Well-tended compost takes 4 to 8 months to mature. The final product should be dark, soil-like, and crumbly.

Make a Resolution!

Embrace the New Year by upping your garden’s value through sustainable practices. Taking one or two of these steps to increase your garden’s “green” value may seem small, but imagine the impact if all gardeners took a similar approach. As gardeners, we truly can help the Earth one step at a time!


Plants are the lens Jessie views the world through because they’re all-sustaining. (“They feed, clothe, house and heal us. They produce the air we breathe and even make us smell pretty.”) She’s a garden writer and photographer with degrees in both horticulture and plant biology from Purdue and Michigan State Universities. Her degrees were bolstered by internships at Longwood Gardens and the American Horticultural Society. She has since worked for many horticultural institutions and companies and now manages communications for Sun Gro Horticulture, the parent company of Black Gold. Her joy is sharing all things green and lovely with her two daughters.

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