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11 Ways to Make Your Garden More Eco-Friendly This Year

Of course growing your own food is in itself environmentally friendly. Food from a backyard garden uses significantly less fossil fuels than produce from the grocery store. It’s not kept refrigerated for days or shipped halfway around the world.

Backyard gardens still have there own impact though. Through growing food humans are impacting the environment. It doesn’t have to be a bad impact though. You can make your garden a benefit for the environment and species around you.

Install a rain barrel.

If you live somewhere that they’re legal a rain barrel can be a great addition to your garden. You can use water that would otherwise run into the ground.

Grow a pollinator garden.

Pollinator’s numbers are dwindling. They’re losing habitat and being killed by pesticides. You can help make life a little easier on them and encourage them to pollinate your plants by planting a pollinator garden with our handy guide.

Make compost.

Composting is easy and not as smelly as you’d think. You also don’t have to purchase a fancy bin. You can do something simple like a bin made of pallets or even no bin at all. Mother Earth News has a great article on composting here.

Use natural garden amendments.

Even certified organic chemical fertilizers and amendments are far from perfect. Using them can lead to excessive nutrient run-off causing algae blooms in nearby creeks.  Natural fertilizers like compost, plant materials, and wood ash are better alternatives. Check out more options here.

Use grey water.

Grey water is water thats been used in your sink or shower. In some places it’s legal to route this water to your garden rather than your septic tank and use this water to water fruit trees and bushes.

Grow cover crops.

Cover crops add nutrients to the soil without the risk of over fertilizing. They also add habitat for beneficial insects and microbes and prevent soil erosion.

Make your garden water efficient.

There’s a variety of methods to do this including adding swales, berms, and terraces to hold water. It’s also good to use drip irrigation rather than overhead which can evaporate.

Go no-till.

Gardens don’t actually need to be tilled if they’re managed properly. No-till gardening is actually better for soil health and uses no fuel like running a rototiller would!

Add mulch.

I talk about mulch all the time but it’s super important. As far as keeping your garden as eco-friendly as possible, mulch helps to hold in moisture, lessening the need for watering and helps prevent soil erosion. It also adds habitat for beneficial insects.

 

Add habitats for pollinators and beneficial insects.

The addition of pollinator and beneficial insect habitats can be great for your garden and them. You can find a lot of free plans on the internet for houses for beneficial creatures like birds, bats, toads, and insects. Many birds also appreciate a variety of different height plants to land on in the garden while birds and beneficial insects will utilize plant material left standing through the winter.

Utilize permaculture principles.

An entire book would be needed to explain permaculture but many of its principles can be used to help design a garden that works with nature to produce harvests without the need for large water or nutrient inputs. If you want an eco-friendly garden researching permaculture can help get you there.

 

All of our actions impact the world around us. Backyard gardens minimize some of the negative impacts that are found in our current food system but as growers we can choose to take that a step further and make our gardens as eco-friendly as possible.

Sustainable Agriculture Research Stations

Continuing our summer road trip adventures! Besides seed growers, we also visited with many vegetable breeders and researchers on our trip.  Here we’ll profile four organic and sustainable agriculture research stations.

North Carolina State University’s Mountain Research Station in Waynesville, NC (near Asheville) is up in the hills, and cooler and wetter than most of NC – a great place for tomato disease trials! Here, Luping Qu, Reuben Travis, and Jeanine Davis discuss how to measure the effects of diseases for their trial notes.

There’s a lot going at the Mountain Research Station. Besides tomato trials, we got to see melon and squash trials, stevia trials, hops trials, organic broccoli variety trials, and much more – here’s an overview of this year’s research projects. And that’s just the Alternative Crops and Organics part of the farm – elsewhere on the farm, there’s a big broccoli varieties trial that’s part of a multi-state project that aims, among other things, to find broccoli varieties that hold up well in the heat of the Southeast.

A great practice at the Mountain Research Station farm (and at many other farms we visited) is to plant strips of flowers and herbs — usually on the edges of fields, but sometimes in the middle as well. These flowers and herbs help attract pollinators and bug predators.

Jeanine is the co-author of Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals. Her blog about the work at the Mountain Research Station is a great read. She’s a dedicated outreach person, and besides giving talks at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference, she regularly speaks at many conferences, including this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, September 11-12.

A quick stop was the University of Tennessee’s East Tennessee Research and Education Center in Knoxville. We were already visiting three different Tennessee farms that day, but there it was, only a couple miles away from Jonathan Buchanan’s Crooked Road Farm, so we dropped in for a quick look. Much of the farm’s work is giving young beginning farmers experience growing market crops, but we also got to see pepper trials, stevia trials, and – a great new vocabulary word – ratooning trials for kale and other crops in the brassica family. Ratooning is the practice of severely cutting back plants to stimulate new growth for later production. Okra growers in the Deep South often do it, so as to keep okra plants from getting 10 feet tall or more! Here’s a ratooned kale crop at the East TN Research and Education Center.


Next was the USDA’s U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, with Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center (CREC) nearby. Mark Farnham and Richard Fery with the USVL, and Brian Ward (at left below) with the CREC, showed us around. Here Mark talks about his work with breeding summer broccoli that holds up in July heat. Vegetable breeding is patient work – it can take planting out big fields of dozens of different breeding lines to find the best traits. This was July, swelteringly hot in Charleston, but there was some great looking broccoli out there – Mark’s hoping to release some of the breeding lines in the next few years!

Mark (at right below) is a brassicas guy; another recent project of his and Pat Wechter’s, Carolina Broadleaf mustard, is a leafy green bred for resistance to a bacterial leaf blight that’s become a problem in the Deep South. The USVL makes small amounts of breeding stock available to seed producers, so we’re hoping to line up some of our own seed growers for this one and have it in the SESE catalog in the next few years.

Richard Fery is emeritus plant geneticist at the USVL. He’s worked on many different seed crops over the years, mostly peppers and southern peas. He and his colleagues bred the nematode-resistant Carolina Wonder sweet pepper, Charleston Hot hot pepper, and many others, and he’s shared seedstock with us of southern peas releases that we’re hoping to be able to offer in the next few years.  He’s in the picture below at right, with colleague Floyd P. Maguire at left.

Across the street, Brian Ward gave us a fast tour of the organics section of Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center. Interesting projects included watermelon seedlings grafted onto gourd rootstock for greater disease resistance and vigor, a study of alternative pollinators for watermelons, rice trials, and seed increases for heirloom varieties of peanuts, southern peas, and corn. Alas, so much to see, but so little time!

Our final stop in the research portion of this trip was the Cherry Farm facility in Goldsboro, NC, for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), a collaboration between several NC ag departments. With 2,245 acres available, CEFS has a huge area to do all kinds of big studies, with long term studies of soil nutrition, tree alley crops, forest succession, animal husbandry, and many others. Research Operations Manager Andy Meier generously took time on a Sunday afternoon to show us around. CEFS helps provide the space and support for many NC ag folks and groups to do trials.  Their variety trials this year include wheat, barley, soybeans, and this southern peas trial with four repetitions. Again, so much to see, and so little time!

Next week we’ll spotlight two individuals who we visited who breed exciting new varieties.