Sustainable gardening

Jan, at Thanks for Today, initiated an Earth Day project for garden bloggers on sustainability, which I'm glad to take part in. Earth Day is on April 22, but is often celebrated on days surrounding that date.

I find gardening an act of stewardship and restoration. My gardening companion and I have created a garden that supports wildlife, mimics nature, and supports our spirit. The trajectory that we've had of converting our roughly 1 1/2 acres of lawn to woodland, meadow (borders), shrub borders and understory along with two intensively maintained vegetable garden areas has been deeply satisfying to us.

In our small mountain house, the mulched areas, with minimal planting, have quickly yielded to adding more native trees and shrubs below the house, ripping out invasives (English ivy, honeysuckle, etc.) in the ravine below, and adding shrubs, bog, sedums, and meadow garden in front, with part of the driveway scheduled for raised bed vegetables this spring.

But I know as an ecologist that we need to create sustainable systems on a community and regional scale, not just on a home scale. To be sustainable, we need to include not only home gardens, but neighborhoods and city landscapes, and regional food distribution networks, and include watersheds and foodsheds in the overall picture. Ecological systems aren't balanced on an acre or 1 and 1/2 acres, but multiples of thousands of acres. Our food system is literally global.

It's fundamental for the earth's stability and the long-term survival of humans as a species that we, as part of the world community, commit our hearts, minds, and actions to living as lightly as we can on Earth. When there were many fewer of us (humans), resource exploitation and extraction was manageable. Now that there are 6 billion plus of us, and we all want stuff, electricity, water on demand, and bigger houses, we've got a big problem.

When I was a graduate student, I read Limits to Growth, a visionary book about how we'd run out of essential resources if the world population kept growing, and everyone kept consuming (like Americans). Unfortunately, their predications were delayed by technological innovation, and folks who don't understand the limits of the ecological capacities of our planet started to talk about how we'd be able to invent our way out of the negative impacts of population growth, energy consumption, etc.

Today we're at a critical point. I was teaching a course called People and the Environment in 1990, when PBS aired an excellent series about 'Race to Save the Planet.' We were hopeful then, but now we’re definitely needing to face the end of cheap energy (peak oil) and a throwaway society. Each one of us in the developed world (and the affluent folks in the developing world, too) needs to reduce our consumption of stuff, from electricity to water to goods and services. We need to help people in the developing world to raise their standard of living without making the same mistakes we made in the U.S. - this means cutting dependence on fossil fuels in favor of sustainable energy sources such as solar and non-habitat-degrading biomass fuel production.

As a vegetable gardener, I know about the work it takes to grow even a part of one's own food, not to mention the calorie-dense grains or tubers that provide the sustenance for most diets world-wide. And I'm in awe of folks who are growing all of their vegetables, much less raising urban chickens for eggs and meat. In ‘my’ environmental generation, we had Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and countless other wake-up calls about the impact of human-created pollutants on humans and the rest of the natural world.

My husband (aka my gardening companion) and I heard Al Gore many years ago at a Georgia Conservancy meeting talking about how many signs did we did to have until the (environmental) message was clear. He was powerful in his message then, and thank goodness he's continued along that road. His book, Earth in the Balance, was one that more of us should have paid attention to.

I'm always trying, not always successfully, to reduce our impacts and use of resources -- recycling everything that we use, choosing products that are recyclable or biodegradable, and produced from renewal sources, conserving energy, composting, etc, and gardening naturally and restoring habitat in our garden -- it's a positive step that provides me with hope that we can turn things around, starting with our homes, actions, yards, and communities.

We’re total recyclers, buy things to keep, compost everything, never waste food, turn off the lights, yada, yada, but still rely on nuclear power for electricity, drive to work (even though it’s only a mile), travel widely (offset, of course), and still buy apples grown in Washington, bananas from Ecuador and Costa Rica. But I don’t buy fruits out of season in the northern hemisphere, or tomatoes and peppers grown in hothouses, and try to avoid anything that seems to have too much of a ecological footprint in its production. And, I’m planning to freeze even more vegetables in the coming season for use in the winter.

The looming impact of climate change and the disappearance of cheap energy is daunting, to be sure. But I derive sustenance from trying to be a good steward to the gardens that I’ve created and fostered, and the many children and adults that I’ve touched as an educator.


  1. Hi Lisa, I didn't realize I hadn't left a comment here for you...and I apologize! I appreciated your participation in my project and thank you for doing so. I didn't realize you are an ecologist--at Clemson. You know all the 'stuff' that many of us need to pay more attention to. I enjoyed your post...and wish you a Happy Earth Day today, and every day!


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