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Ask the Experts: What Changes Can Home Gardeners Make to Help the Planet?

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Ask the Experts: What Changes Can Home Gardeners Make to Help the Planet?

January 18, 2024

Gardeners are acutely attuned to the crises our planet faces: We see the impacts of drought and intense storms firsthand. We notice when fewer monarchs or woodpeckers visit our yards. So it is no surprise that gardeners everywhere are looking for ways to garden more sustainably. We asked five landscape designers and professional gardeners who prioritize the environment to tell us what changes they’d like to see home gardeners make. Wherever you live, the experts all recommend planting native plants and ditching pesticides and other harmful chemicals—two practices we hope you’re already embracing. “Instead of viewing yards as isolated patches of cultivated land, we need to treat them as ecosystems, because biodiversity loss is unprecedented and we are living in an increasingly residential world,” notes Diana Nicole, founder of the ecologically-focused garden design and management firm It Takes a Garden in Los Angeles.

Read on for the rest of the ways you can tweak your gardening routine to reduce waste, improve biodiversity, conserve water, and more. 

1. Plant more “super plants.”

“ grows wild all over the United States, but having a patch in your garden is great for pollinators, and the late summer flowers give a deep gold dye,” says Amanda de Beaufort. Here, she harvests goldenrod from her friend’s re-wilded garden for a natural dye. Photograph by Claire Weiss of Day\19, from 5 Flowers to Grow for a Starter Natural Dyes Garden.
Above: “[Goldenrod] grows wild all over the United States, but having a patch in your garden is great for pollinators, and the late summer flowers give a deep gold dye,” says Amanda de Beaufort. Here, she harvests goldenrod from her friend’s re-wilded garden for a natural dye. Photograph by Claire Weiss of Day19, from 5 Flowers to Grow for a Starter Natural Dyes Garden.
Thomas Rainer, principal at Phyto Studio in Arlington, Virginia, encourages gardeners to include ecological “super plants” (aka plant species that support the broadest range of fauna possible). To find the best super plants for your garden, Rainier suggests you can search university entomology sites like Rutger’s“Finding Pollinator Attractive Plants or Penn State’s Center for Pollinator Research. Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke’s book The Living Landscape also has a section devoted to the ecological benefits of various plants organized by region. Rainier notes that high performing plants on the east coast include mountain mints (Pycnanthemum sp), native asters (Symphiotrichum/Eurybia sp), goldenrods (Solidago sp), and spotted geranium (Geranium maculatum). 

2. Get to know your growers.

The Berkeley Horticultural Nursery is Gardenista contributor Kier Holmes&#8\2\17; favorite place to browse for plants and inspiration.
Above: The Berkeley Horticultural Nursery is Gardenista contributor Kier Holmes’ favorite place to browse for plants and inspiration.

“Take a page from the local food movement and form relationships with the people who grow and sell plants,” suggests ecological horticulturalist Rebecca McMackin. Supporting local growers is environmentally sound and keeps money and jobs in your local community. “Conversations and even friendships with growers and local sellers can shape their inventory to consumers’ desires: prioritizing local ecotype plants, those grown without systemic insecticides, or even certain sizes and cultivars of your favorites,” she adds.

3. Avoid neonics.

Photograph by Sara Morris, courtesy of Xerces Society, from Ask the Expert: Conservationist Matthew Shepherd on Protecting Beneficial Insects.
Above: Photograph by Sara Morris, courtesy of Xerces Society, from Ask the Expert: Conservationist Matthew Shepherd on Protecting Beneficial Insects.

If you care about the environment, you’ve likely already banned the use of insecticides in your garden. Take it a step further: McMackin and other experts we spoke to say that gardeners should purchase only plants grown without insecticides, too. “Pesticides like neonicotinoids work inside a plant, making the plant’s own tissue toxic for insects. Growers use them to keep plants pest-free in the nursery, but they can persist for years in plants and soils,” says McMackin. The best way to avoid these toxins is to ask growers and retailers if the plants were grown without pesticides. “If they can’t say for sure that the plants are safe, you’ve got to do the hardest thing imaginable, and leave those plants on the shelf,” McMackin says.

4. Become your own nursery.

Above: Photograph by Erin Boyle, from DIY: Grow Your Own Wheat Grass Eggs.

This year, grow it yourself. In addition to propagating plants from cuttings or divisions, get into the habit of collecting seed from plants you’ve grown, says Marissa Angell, a landscape architect based in Brewster, New York. “These practices are doubly beneficial,” she says. “You can replenish your stock for free and it will help you avoid the plastic pots that are standard fare in retail garden centers.” (See Gardening 101: How to Sprout a Seed.)

5. Opt for green mulch.

A border of geraniums edges a garden bed. Photograph by Amanda Slater via Flickr, from The Garden Decoder: What Is Green Mulch?.
Above: A border of geraniums edges a garden bed. Photograph by Amanda Slater via Flickr, from The Garden Decoder: What Is Green Mulch?.

Ditch the bark mulch: Both Rainer and Angell want you to replace traditional mulch with “green mulch” (aka “living mulch”), such as clonal spreading native groundcovers. “Using ‘green mulch’ to cover bare ground around the base of your taller plants enriches the soil and suppresses weeds,” says Angell. “Plus, traditional shredded bark mulch doesn’t retain moisture as well and can remove nutrients from your soil as it decomposes.” Rainier points to native clonal spreading ground covers like groundsel (Packera sp.), Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus var. pulchellus ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’), and green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum var. australe), which are all spring-flowering, shade-tolerant species that grow under other bigger plants.

6. Put down the leaf blower.

Photograph by Joy Yagid, from Ask the Expert: Doug Tallamy Explains Why (and How to) Leave the Leaves.
Above: Photograph by Joy Yagid, from Ask the Expert: Doug Tallamy Explains Why (and How to) Leave the Leaves.

“We’re encouraging our clients to leave leaves on the ground because they function as a temperature buffer, moisture regulator, and food and habitat for wildlife and soil organisms,” says Nicole. “The weekly practice of removing leaves from the garden with high powered blowers literally blows away biodiversity and interferes with the natural processes necessary for a native garden to be ecological or biodiverse.” (See The Rake vs the Leaf Blower: Which Is Better?

7. Add a water source.

Ample watering holes for birds and other creatures in the home garden of Todd Carr and Carter Harrington. Photograph by Todd Carr, courtesy of Hort & Pott, from Garden Visit: A Couple’s Lush and Romantic Sanctuary in the Catskills.
Above: Ample watering holes for birds and other creatures in the home garden of Todd Carr and Carter Harrington. Photograph by Todd Carr, courtesy of Hort & Pott, from Garden Visit: A Couple’s Lush and Romantic Sanctuary in the Catskills.

“Wildlife habitat is increasingly disappearing and fragmented,” cautions Derek Brandt, principal and founder of Habitat Guild, Inc. in Fort Collins, CO. Plants alone can’t create a complete habitat in your yard, you also need a water source. A shallow bird bath not only gives birds a place to drink but it can also be used by pollinators, including bees and butterflies.

8. Plant some weeds.

Self-sowing Plains coreopsis (the yellow flowers with maroon centers) joins other plants native to the Midwest in this Iowa garden designed by Kelly Norris. Photography courtesy of Kelly D. Norris, from Ask the Expert: Horticulturist Kelly D. Norris on the ‘New Naturalism’.
Above: Self-sowing Plains coreopsis (the yellow flowers with maroon centers) joins other plants native to the Midwest in this Iowa garden designed by Kelly Norris. Photography courtesy of Kelly D. Norris, from Ask the Expert: Horticulturist Kelly D. Norris on the ‘New Naturalism’.

Embrace native self-sowers often labeled as “weeds,” to fill empty gaps in your garden, suggests Rainer. “The idea is that if you include native short-lived species that seed freely, then you will be more likely to have these plants pop up in your garden rather than a noxious exotic species.” You can build populations of desirable “weeds;” for example, native petunia (Ruellia humilis), pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa), wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Blue mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum), or Plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) are all ecologically valuable self-sowers that will move around in a garden and fill gaps.

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