It has been more than three years since I last wrote about My Neighbor Bea, a person who has persuaded her family (including her husband, Scott, her two sons and a tiny dog) to live with less stuff than the average monk—and to produce no garbage. She tried to train me, too, for awhile, and I have made minor progress by giving up paper napkins. But this is not worth mentioning next to the feats of Bea, a high priestess of garbage-free living who owns a single pair of jeans, takes meat jars to the butcher to prevent him from wrapping her order in paper, and avoids dental floss waste by using a brass gum stimulator with a metal tip.
Bea has written a book called Zero Waste Home, and it is full of useful suggestions for learning to live with less indoors. It turns out she follows the same five-step philosophy—refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot—in her garden. The other day when I visited her, Bea shared her top ten tips for mindful gardening:
Photographs by Michelle Slatalla.
Above: On Bea Johnson's deck, a thriving potted lemon tree fertilized with pee.
Tip No. 1: Fertilize your potted lemon trees with urine. "All you have to do is pee in the pot two or three times a year," says Bea. "I didn't realize how much of a difference it made until one of my sons stopped doing it in his tree and the leaves turned yellow. Scott peed in it, and boom, it's back."
Tip No. 2: Don't try to grow natives just because you think you should. While natives sound good in theory, your garden has a particular climate all its own—and not all natives will thrive. "We spent hundreds of dollars on edible, native vegetables, and it was a nightmare, because they all got eaten or died," says Bea. "I had to accept my limitations. Natives are very sensitive to their environment, and for example, it turns out the native thimbleberry raspberries I planted do well where it is quite moist in areas where there are redwoods. But our soil is 'oaky,' so they died."
Above: A potted aloe plant in Bea's kitchen; she cuts off a leaf and rubs it against burns or bites to sooth the sting.
Tip No. 3: Get expert help if you're planning a garden overhaul. It will save money in the long run. "After the natives died, I got a planting plan, for a garden that does not need much water or maintenance, and then Scott and I planted everything ourselves," says Bea, who worked with Sausalito-based Shades of Green Landscape Architecture to come up with a list of plants suited to her dry, sunny hillside garden.
The low-water plants in Bea's garden include fruitless blackberries, Berkeley sedge, New Zealand flax ("we got it because we wanted something really tall to cover the retaining wall behind where it was planted"), and asparagus ferns ("I love the way they look," says Bea).
Above: A bottle of Castile soap, for washing dishes, laundering clothes, and cleaning the house.
Tip No. 4: To repel garden pests, use a homemade solution of Castile soap and water on plants. (For Bea's recipe, see DIY: The World's Best Insecticide And No Harmful Chemicals).
Tip No. 5: Get plants for free. "Often the same plants you are looking for are plants that other people want to get rid of," says Bea. "Our oak tree fell and we wanted to replace it. So one day I asked the friends I walk with on Wednesday mornings, 'Anybody have a sapling?' Not longer after, I was having a party and one of my friends brought a sapling to me as a hostess gift."
Tip No. 6: Give plants away for free. If you dig up something, post a notice on Craigslist—"Free Plants"—and leave it at the curb in a pot. "Someone will always come by," says Bea.
Above: A vertical wall of plants in Bea's living room.
Tip No. 7: If you are installing or adding to your drip irrigation system, buy pieces individually. Local stores will sell individual unpackaged irrigation pieces without packaging.
Tip No. 8: Keep your garden shears handy. "If they're right there, in a drawer next to where you stand when you contemplate your garden, you are more likely to use them on a whim."
Above: A closeup view of Bea's indoor vertical garden.
Tip No. 9: Nurseries will take back pots. After you bring home plants, return the plastic containers.
Above: A pail to rinse dishes in Bea's kitchen sink.
Tip No. 10: Rinse dishes in a pail. Then use the gray water to water plants.
Bonus Tips: If you need to buy mulch, soil, or rocks, take reusable sand bags to the store and fill them with what you need to avoid plastic or paper bags or other packaging. Also, if you have a pine tree, sweep up fallen needles and use them as a mulch; sprinkle needles over exposed soil to control weeds.
Above: Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson is $13.85 from Amazon.
For more of Bea's zero waste tips, see 10 Ways to Live With Less From Zero Waste Home.