10 Sustainable Gardening Techniques That Let Nature Do The Work For You
Anyone lucky enough to have outdoor space knows the wonder that gardens can bring: fragrant plants, curious wildlife, and maybe some fresh herbs, fruits, and veggies. Beyond that, our yards can also be managed in ways that benefit surrounding ecosystems and the world at large.
"If we look at our home plots as this refuge for nature and wildlife, and we can start connecting those dots, then we can create these living greenways that act and behave like a natural system that sequesters carbon and supports biodiversity," Emily Murphy, an organic gardener and the author of Grow What You Love, tells mbg.
Consider this an endorsement for lazy gardening: By stepping aside and letting nature take its course, working with its cycles and not against them, we can cultivate sustainable outdoor spaces where wildlife of all kinds can thrive. In return, these visitors will do what they do best: keep our air, soil, and water clean, healthy, and buzzing with activity.
Here, experienced gardeners weigh in on how to maintain a low-impact, high-reward garden this summer:
Choose a variety of native and pollinator-friendly plants.
While a yard full of roses will look lovely, it won't do much in the way of drawing in biodiversity. Murphy always recommends adding some natives to the mix, too. "I try and encourage people to swap out some low-functioning ornamentals for 50% native plants because they're adapted to native wildlife; they've co-evolved," she says.
The Audubon's Native Plant Database and Lady Bird Johnson's Wildflower Finder are good resources for finding plants that are native to your area. Choose a few different varieties to keep things visually interesting and help prevent pest issues.
"If you have a lot of plants for all the animals, then it takes the pressure off any one particular food source," says Nancy Lawson, naturalist and author of The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife.
Adding some edible plants to the mix can also help deter pests. "My garden is one-third flowers, one-third herbs, and one-third veggies," says organic gardener Allison Vallin Kostovick of Finch & Folly farm. "I still have all the bad bugs that everybody else has, but I have an army of beneficial insects too."
Keep your lawn small.
Wildlife seeks out habitats where they can eat and not be eaten. Protection from predators and sources of food are the name of the game, and large swaths of manicured lawn or turf provide neither.
In addition to being less appealing to wildlife, lawns are also a resource suck; homeowners tend to use 10 times more pesticide and fertilizers per acre on their lawn than farmers do on their crops, in addition to plenty of water and gas-powered mowers and leaf blowers.
Instead of plain-ol' grass, the more variation by way of wildflowers, trees, and shrubs you can add to your space, the better. "You could start really small, replacing one patch at a time—you don't have to do it all at once," Lawson adds.
Embrace the no-mow movement.
You might be surprised by what comes up when you resist the urge to mow the lawn you do have left. The popular "no-mow" movement in Europe is a testament to the fact that hundreds of species of dynamic plants and animals—including some endangered ones—can find their way to wild patches.
"Plants have been growing for hundreds of millions of years—most of that time without us," says Lawson. "If you have a space like mine, which is a couple of acres, you could even just let some patches go and see what comes up."
She's found that some of the most life-sustaining plants in her garden have been those that just volunteer themselves. "Weeds" included! "Question these societal constructs that label more than half the natural world in our backyards as pests and weeds," she adds, "because everybody has a role, and every plant and animal has a place."
For potted plants, look for peat-free soil.
Most potting soils owe their acidity and moisture retention to peat—an organic matter that builds up in wetlands over centuries. There are some environmental concerns with the material since it's slow to grow and its extraction process disrupts a productive but fragile ecosystem. (Wetlands provide important eco-services1 like water filtration, carbon storage, and erosion protection.)
For these reasons, Murphy recommends looking for an organic potting mix that uses coconut coir, a byproduct of the coconut industry, instead of peat. Organic Mechanics premium blend potting soil is one of her favorites.
Start composting at home.
By diverting food and garden scraps, composting helps prevent greenhouse gas emissions that occur when organic matter decays in oxygen-starved landfills. And it leaves you with a nutrient-rich fertilizer to boot.
New to composting? Read through these beginner primers on starting a backyard bin and filling it with the right scraps. If your yard isn't big enough to support a compost heap, check in with your local community composting sites to see if they have any finished soil to give away. Compared to synthetic fertilizers, it'll be better for your plants and the planet.
Lose the leaf blower.
If Lawson could choose one unnecessary garden tool to do away with, it would be the leaf blower: "It not only pollutes the air, but it also produces a deafening noise," she says. Research shows that excess noise pollution can disrupt the natural life cycle of insects2 and songbirds3 (not to mention, harm human health4), so rake or mulch up your leaves instead. Better yet, leave them be...
Let life form in the decay.
While the gardening purist in us might be tempted to disperse the first inkling of a leaf blanket, Lawson says that letting leaves decay naturally is ultimately better for yard critters. "We wouldn't have a lot of our butterflies if we didn't have leaves and places for the caterpillars to overwinter," she says.
When fallen leaves are left alone, they also return beneficial nutrients to the ground, leading to more fertile soil. Using a mulcher to break up the leaves will speed up the decomposition process.
Opt for natural pest protection.
While pesticides can be effective at preventing unwelcome visitors, they tend to deter all types of pests—even the beneficial ones. Their chemicals can also end up contaminating soil, leading to a garden that's less productive (and potentially an environment that's more polluted).
Before you reach for synthetics, try to work with nature's natural pesticides first: companion plants. These specialized plant pairings can help provide what the other lacks. When growing edible plants, look into the best companion plants to place next to them to deter pests, discourage weeds, and balance out soil nutrients.
The wonderful world of beneficial companion planting is also a reminder that, as North Carolina–based organic grower Ashlie Thomas, puts it, "We're all playing catch-up with nature."
"That's the beauty of being a gardener," she adds. "You learn to work with nature and then nature, in return, works with you. It's a really beautiful, symbiotic relationship."
If you do use pesticides or herbicides, go for biologicals.
The budding field of biopesticides5 emulates these natural processes in nature but gives them a little extra oomph in the lab.
"Biological technology involves going out into nature and finding active compounds and ingredients and bacteria and microbes, and discovering how Mother Nature is creating disease protection and pest protection," says Vanessa Dawson, founder and CEO of the new organic biologicals company Arber. They sell fertilizers made from grocery store food waste scraps and fungicides, insecticides, and biocides that use bacteria to protect indoor and outdoor plants.
If you do have issues with pests after trying the above options, products like this, which are designed to protect against insects the natural way, can be your next line of defense.
Plant something new next season.
Crop rotation is a principle of regenerative agriculture that can easily be scaled down to the home yard. Different plants need different things from their soil, and their nutrient uptake is unique. To ensure that you're not draining your yard of one particular element, Thomas recommends switching up your annuals every year—either by moving them around or planting new varieties. "Not growing the same thing in the same spot helps with pest management, weed management, and it just shakes things up," she says.
The bottom line.
In pursuit of the "perfect" yard, many of us lose touch with the way Mother Nature handles things on her own. By swapping out chemicals and machines with native plants and a little patience, you'll help your outdoor space live up to its full, wild potential.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.