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What is a 'sustainable' garden?

An outdoor room made of recycled materials
An outdoor room made of recycled materials
Photo by Jane Gates

Sometimes words or phrases are used over and over before they suddenly become popular – seemingly overnight. The term ‘sustainable’ has been used for decades and hardly ever lifted an eyebrow. These days it crops up frequently whenever gardening is discussed.

So what does sustainability really mean when used in connection with gardens and landscapes? There is always room for some interpretation with words or phrases. Still, despite official definitions, we are talking about a landscape that requires minimal maintenance – a landscape that works in synchronicity with its surroundings. Building a garden or landscape in harmony with the climate and soil will be easier to care for than trying to fight nature in order to support plants that will thrive only in different conditions. This kind of garden will 'sustain' itself best, but be aware that a landscape or garden is a human contrivance and will always need some care or it will return to the look of the surrounding land.

To build your own, look for materials that are locally available, recycled, or at least, likely to last over time. Continually having to replace materials creates waste and demands labor. Importing anything involves using transportation and fuel. Fussing over plants that evolved under totally different circumstances than those offered in your garden will demand constant intervention. And if you stop giving these plants extra help, they will not survive; they are not naturally sustainable.

Some guidelines to use when creating an Eco-friendly landscape are to plant native plants or choose those that are well-adapted to your soil, climate, water and the exposure where you want to grow them. Look for materials that are available in your own area like local rock, stone, wood from native trees or any specialties historically produced in your town or city. And check out what can be recycled. Broken concrete and curbing, pieces of construction wood or railroad ties (be cautious about any materials that may contain toxic chemicals – especially around edibles, children or pets), tumbled glass, old fence posts, flooring, columns or pieces of chain are only some of the possibilities. Put your imagination to work by finding practical and decorative uses for old windows, rusted machinery, car and truck tires or anything else that can be repurposed in your yard.

Sustainable gardens are becoming the latest fashion, and why not? They allow you to be good to the planet, save money, come up with creative ideas and save on maintenance labor. In the garden, the word can mean a less expensive, beautiful, easy care garden. How much more can you ask for when it comes to building a successful landscape?

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