How to grow a sustainable garden

How to grow a sustainable garden

Sebastian, self-taught DIY-er, Exeter

Guide written by:

Sebastian, self-taught DIY-er, Exeter

Growing a sustainable garden is all about respecting the environment and protecting wildlife and biodiversity. But how do you go about it? Of course it's best to use natural products around the garden, but it's also important to save water, recycle materials and adopt sustainable habits. Read on to find out more.
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The ABCs of good gardening

The ABCs of good gardening

There's no such thing as a bad gardener in our books, but we can sometimes stick to bad practices out of sheer habit. Gardening, like any other discipline, has evolved over the years and we're learning more about its effects on wildlife all the time.

This guide is not intended to be an encyclopaedia of gardening. However, it will provide an overview of some of the most effective ways to make your garden more environmentally friendly and more respectful of ecosystems and biodiversity. We'll take you through the main principles of permaculture as well as the best methods for preparing a seed bed and growing vegetables without depleting the soil of nutrients. You'll also find some recipes for natural fertilisers as well as tips for saving water and storing your harvests.

Taking inspiration from permaculture

Taking inspiration from permaculture

The principles of permaculture

Permaculture is based around three main principles: earth care, people care and fair shares. In the garden, it's all about observing ecosystems, respecting natural cycles and taking inspiration from natural processes to grow in a sustainable way with respect to both nature and people.

Permaculture also means recycling whatever you have at hand and always choosing the least environmentally damaging option possible.

Making the most of your garden

When it comes to gardening, there's no such thing as winging it. If it's your first year in a garden, you will have to start by observing the land and working out its potential in order to get the best out of it in practice. In reality, this means:

  • Considering your garden topography, wind exposure and sun exposure as well as any shady or cool spots;

  • Planning your water source: whether you're lucky enough to have a pond, stream, well or you need to add a watering system;

  • Identifying the types of plants growing to find out more about the soil composition. Carry out a touch test, sedimentation test or even the sausage test following our instructions.

A healthy garden is one filled with birds, insects and small animals like hedgehogs, mice and squirrels…

Preparing seedbeds

Preparing the soil in a vegetable garden involves three key steps: weeding, working the soil and fertilising.

Weeding in springtime

In early spring, weeds start to grow vigorously. The only effective and environmentally friendly way to remove weeds is by hand. To do so, you can use a tool like a hoe or if you're feeling brave, you can go at it by hand.

Working the soil

Working the soil 

Cultivating the soil is key to aerating and loosening the soil. A good way to do so is to use a broadfork (also known as a biofork) which works to loosen the soil without mixing up the different layers. In turn, this helps to protect microbial life in the soil. Next, you can break down any large clumps of soil using a fork hoe before spreading out the soil in a fine tilth to level out the surface.

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Broadforks

Fertilise the soil

If you did not already do so in autumn, spring is a good time to fertilise the soil. This step should be carried out at the end of the cultivating process just before you break up any big clumps in the soil. You can dress the top of the soil with a 10cm layer of mature garden compost, well-rotted manure or even shop-bought compost. Natural fertilisers can also be incorporated into the soil depending on the needs of your soil and future crops, but be sure to only dig in well-rotted materials.

Avoid using machinery like cultivators or tillers in small gardens. These machines mix up all the different layers of soil which is harmful to microbial life. They also reduce earthworm populations.

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Organic fertiliser

Sowing and planting spring vegetables

Companion planting

Companion planting

Using the right plant combinations in the garden encourages plants to support each other and helps to save space in the garden. Did you know that some plants can be used to attract pests away from your vegetables? For example, black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) is often planted next to potatoes to draw the Colorado potato beetle away from potato crops. Planting French marigolds next to tomatoes can help to protect crops from aphids, nematodes and whiteflies. Pot marigolds are used to keep whiteflies at bay, borage helps to keep slugs and caterpillars off plants while yarrow can be used to attract butterflies and ladybirds.

Crop rotation

Alternating the position of your crops from one year to the next helps to break the life cycle of pests and keep disease at bay. It also ensures that your plants are able to get the nutrients they need as different plants require different nutrients. Crop rotation therefore also helps to retain nutrient levels in the soil.

If you grow the same crops on the same piece of land year after year, you will be taking the same nutrients from the earth which will eventually deplete the soil of nutrients.

Beneficial insects

Beneficial insects

Not all insects cause damage in the garden — far from it, in fact. Everyone knows how important pollinators are, but did you know that lots of other animals and insects are also pretty handy in the garden? Birds, for example, feed on larvae, caterpillars and aphids. Hedgehogs love to eat snails and slugs. Earthworms inject air into the soil, and ladybirds and hoverflies keep down aphid populations.

To attract beneficial insects and animals to the garden, leave some spots to grow wild, do not use any chemicals and create little habitats like birdhouses, insect hotels or even piles of stones or old branches. And don't forget to leave out some food.

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Insect hotels

Sowing and planting

Sowing and planting

It's always best to use organic seeds rather than F1 or other hybrid seeds. Organic seeds have not been treated with plant protection products unlike ordinary seeds which may have been treated. Hybrid seeds, while easy to grow and resistant to disease, won't reproduce which means you'll be more reliant on seed companies. The same goes for picking plants: always buy organic wherever possible.

Organic seeds can be saved from plants and will maintain their characteristics from one generation to the next, unlike hybrid seeds.

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Vegetable and fruit seeds

Making compost and plant teas

Composting waste

Composting waste 

Making your own compost is a great way to make your garden more sustainable. Compost is a natural fertiliser made using food and plant waste. Most people choose to make their compost in a composter but you can also simply create a compost pile or even add waste directly over the soil of your vegetable garden in autumn.

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Composters

Making vermicompost

Vermicompost is a type of compost made using earthworms. Particularly rich in microorganisms this type of compost can be spread over the soil in a layer measuring just a few millimetres thick. Vermicompost, or worm, tea is a concentrated nutrient-rich liquid that can be collected from the bottom of a vermicomposter. It can be diluted in water and used to water vegetables.

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Worm composters

Making nettle tea

Making nettle tea

Fermented nettle tea or liquid fertiliser is created by pulverising nettles. Nettle fertiliser helps to stimulate plant growth and improve plants' defences. It also acts as a fungicide and a pest-repellent. It can be diluted and used to water plants or sprayed onto foliage.

Plant teas and slurries can be great alternatives to chemical plant protection products. For example, comfrey tea is an excellent fertiliser while fermented horsetail tea is a great growth booster.

Saving water in the garden

Water is a natural, renewable resource, but it is becoming increasingly scarce year on year. Saving water is therefore absolutely key. There are three main ways to do so: by harvesting rainwater, using a drip irrigation system and optimising the way you water the garden.

Water butts

Water butts

Installing a water butt is easy, cost-effective and sustainable. The most basic set-up is a water butt connected to a downpipe with can have a volume of up to a few hundred litres. These water butts may or may not be equipped with a tap. More elaborate designs include underground rainwater tanks which can have a capacity of several thousand litres and are generally fitted with a surface pump. No matter what type of rainwater harvesting system you choose, you need to evaluate your water needs before buying a water butt.

Rainwater is best for plants as it does not contain any additives like fluoride or chlorine.

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Water butts

Irrigation systems

An irrigation system can help to save a significant amount of water as it reduces the amount of water run-off and is more precise than traditional watering systems. Drip irrigation is just as economical as it allows you to cater to the individual water needs of each plant and cuts down on surface evaporation. The most straightforward watering system to install is a soaker hose which delivers water straight to the soil through its microporous surface.

It is important to weed vegetable gardens since weeds will take nutrients and water from the soil that could otherwise be taken up by fruits and vegetables.

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Underground irrigation kits

Improving watering habits

Improving watering habits

You can optimise the way you water the garden by adopting a few simple habits. You can mulch the soil, loosen soil before planting or even dig trenches around your plants to prevent run-off. Always water the base of the plant rather than the leaves and try to do so in the evening to prevent evaporation.

Remember that you can feed an irrigation system with harvested rainwater.

Enjoying your harvest

Enjoying your harvest

Most fruit and vegetables from the garden will be enjoyed fresh. However, some varieties can be frozen, made into jams or chutneys, or even preserved in jars. Vegetables should be stored in a dry, dark space such as a basement, garage or attic. Some vegetables can be stored in the earth where they grow, such as leeks, carrots and turnips. Simply mulch the soil to protect your crops from the cold.Root vegetables can be stored in a hole in the ground covered with a sheet or tarp.

The best vegetables are the ones you share with others! Connect with your neighbours or local gardening clubs to share your harvests with other gardeners.

More information

 
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Guide written by:

Sebastian, self-taught DIY-er, Exeter

Sebastian, self-taught DIY-er, Exeter

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