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How to Start a Sustainable Garden Without a Lot of Back-breaking Work

In the Texas Hill Country, just step outside or drive down any road in April and you’ll see a profusion of native wildflowers, thanks to former First Lady, Ladybird Johnson’s America the Beautiful campaign.
Facing the four fundamentals
When Alice asks the Cheshire Cat,
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
He replies, 
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

In a similar vein, in thinking about how to create a more sustainable garden, you need to first determine where you want to go.

1. Set a clear objective. Where are you along the road to a more sustainable garden? Do you want to completely revamp how your garden functions? Or tackle just a few small changes that can be done quickly? Perhaps you’ve scoped out a single project that would make a big difference, but it needs to be done in stages. Make sure your choice(s) align with your deepest convictions and abilities; you want this to be a labor of love so that it feels rewarding and fulfilling at the end.
Set a realistic budget based on real-world, written price quotes if contractors are involved; establish milestones to keep everything on schedule; prepare for the unexpected and budget 10 – 15% extra time and money to deal with it.

2. Meet the garden where you live. To build your sustainable garden, start from the ground up: Acid-loving plants in acid soil, bog plants in humic soils, lime-loving plants in alkaline soils, salt-tolerant plants by the seashore, drought-tolerant plants in hot, dry climates, mold- and mildew-resistant plants in humid regions, etc., This is what professional garden designers refer to as “the genius of place”  and “right plant in the right place.” It seems obvious, but failure to respect the genius of place is why we continue to see water-hogging grass lawns in locations such as Phoenix, Albuquerque, the suburbs around Los Angeles, and the high desert regions of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Idaho. Plants that don’t thrive in your native soil become high-maintenance divas. You can find soil maps on the internet from the US Department of Agriculture ( ), and state environmental protection agencies. County agencies and land grant colleges may also supply this information.

3. Work with natural land forms. Start creating your sustainable garden with an eye towards using existing features and minimizing maintenance. It’s not only easier on the back, but also on the pocketbook.

Many of the great gardens and parks of former eras, both here and abroad, depended upon huge earthmoving projects to create “naturalistic” vistas and landscapes (Central Park, Longwood Gardens). It also took an army of gardeners to maintain them.

An opposite school of thought is represented by Andrew Jackson Downing (1815 – 1852) and Capability Brown (1715 - 1783) who took the view that the best garden designs were those that made the most of the existing terrain and natural vegetation. Critics of their designs bemoaned the fact that their gardens were indistinguishable from “looking at Nature” and offered nothing more than a sense of peace and calm – things we perhaps place a higher value on in today’s frenetic society.

4. Use what grows naturally in your area. Exercise some caution, here. These days, many of our wild spaces harbor invasive plants that have escaped from residential yards (English ivy, periwinkle, barberry, burning bush) or are the unintended consequence of erosion control (kudzu, crown vetch, Japanese honeysuckle, ice plant).

If you are unfamiliar with native plants in your area, there are innumerable lists available in books and on the internet. Visit a local public garden, arboretum, or university that maintains a native plant demonstration garden. Or, ask a staff botanist or biologist at federal and state parks, or wildlife management areas, for information.

If you prefer more excitement than an all-native garden provides, think about installing some large garden ornaments, colorful containers, or artistic structures, such as arbors, twig fences, etc. Near-natives (nativars) may supply more color and larger blooms than the native species, but will likely require more care and may not be as pollinator-friendly.

By considering these four foundational elements early on, you’ll avoid heartaches – as well as backaches – as you continue your journey towards creating a more sustainable garden.

Top Tip
Many plants that thrive in shade or partial shade can also be grown in moist sunny areas, such as these Four Ferns to Foil Deer in the Garden .

Can A Garden Ever Really Be Sustainable?

Touring Leaning Pine Arboretum with Hunter Francis and Chris Wassenberg
Well, that depends on our definition of sustainable gardening, doesn’t it?
The short answers are no, and no. Why? When we say a system is “sustainable,” we imply that it will stay the same without additional inputs of whatever keeps that system running. Look out the window. If you took a two-month vacation in high summer, how would your garden look when you came home? Without someone to take care of it while you’re away…..

If it would be a disaster, with brown grass, shrubs dropping their leaves, and perennials fried to a crisp, plants defoliated by insect pests, or decimated by disease, then your garden is not very sustainable. If, instead, it would look pretty much the same as when you left, except that it would be less tidy and everything would seem to have grown six inches, then it’s more sustainable.

Despite what you may have heard, there’s no such thing as a sustainable garden, only one that is more sustainable or less sustainable. Here’s why:

Gardens are artificial environments
Gardens are human-manipulated collections of plants (designed landscapes).We haul in soil amendments, build up earth where there is none, construct retaining walls, terraces, and steps so that we can plant on steep slopes, lump together plants that originated on separate continents or in distinctly different ecosystems, alter the flow of ground and surface waters, and more. 

Gardeners (and garden designers) who have a refined eye for composition and color can produce stunning results on even the most modest and unpromising of city lots. But at what cost to the ecosystem, and for how long?

All land (as well as the Earth) has a limited carrying capacity
The carrying capacity of any piece of land is determined primarily by the type of underlying bedrock and soils, the availability of surface and underground water, climate, and whether it has been previously disturbed (such as by mining, clear-cutting, periodic flooding, etc.). This is the foundation that underlies the very thin surface layer of the Earth, that we occupy. 

But other, complex elements, such as environmental sensitivity, size and type of the natural biotic community, etc., play an important role, as well. The more closely a garden approaches the carrying capacity of its specific site, the less sustainable it becomes and the more inputs (soil enhancers, water, pesticides, etc.) it requires to maintain.

Time is a factor
A garden dies when its gardener dies – or moves away. Left on its own, it will revert to its regional environment, which is determined by those foundational components. They, in turn, determine what plant, insect, bird, herptile, and mammalian communities can thrive there, including both native and exotic species. There is a natural succession of these biotic communities that takes place over time. That’s why, for example, unmaintained natural ponds become swamps or marshes, then shrub-scrub swamps, then forested swamps or grasslands, and ultimately, dry forests. Nature doesn’t stand still.

Even within well-maintained gardens, some version of natural succession occurs. A dogwood sapling planted a decade ago begins to shade out the adjacent lavender garden. The combination is not sustainable over the long term. Either the dogwood will need to be continually pruned or the lavender will need to be replaced with something more shade-tolerant. Similarly, tree canopies eventually close, creating full shade where once there was abundant sunshine; severe weather may destroy a closed canopy, exposing shade plants to blistering solar glare.

To be 100% sustainable, a garden would have to be a closed system. Plants, fertilizer, soil amendments, water, insect and disease control, etc., would all need to be managed from inside the garden. For example, composting plant waste to provide soil amendments; applying properly aged manure as fertilizer; raising chickens or guinea hens to hold down the insect population; building cisterns to store rainwater for irrigation, etc. If you think that’s starting to sound like a miniature farm, you’re right. And rare is the homeowner who is willing to do what it takes to create and maintain this type of garden.

But wait! There’s a better way. Stay tuned to find out how you can garden more sustainably without a lot of back-breaking work.

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Got Sustainable Gardening Information? We want to work with you.

The Sustainable Gardening Library Home Page

The Sustainable Gardening Library makes it easy for homeowners to find the information they need to create their own environmentally friendly gardens, for professionals to find information on sustainable landscape practice, and for those who want to grow wholesome food to find information on alternative farming methods.

Our founders care deeply about the future of our planet, the other species with whom we share it, wise and respectful use of the land, and how our food is produced.

You can help by becoming a Sustainable Gardening Library collaborator. 

We’re looking for public gardens and arboreta, colleges and universities, government agencies, and other nonprofit horticultural or agricultural education organizations that want to share their content on sustainable gardening and farming research, demonstration gardens and projects, and sustainable landscape practices.

It’s Easy to Work with Us  


•    Supply the content
•    Retain copyright to your own information
•    Incorporate the Library’s knowledge base into your curriculum, research, or demonstration project


•    Organize the information
•    Administer the Library
•    Host the website
•    Share and publicize your data via traditional and social media

Who Can Contribute Material?

•    Public Gardens & Arboreta
•    Universities and Colleges
•    Government Agencies
•    Non-profit Organizations

What Kind of Data?

•    Agriculture
•    Horticulture
•    Landscape Architecture
•    Environmental Sciences
•    Conservation
•    Preservation
•    Education

What Type of Data?

•    Permalinks to pages on your institution’s website
•    Word documents or PDFs
•    Photos (and links to photos)
•    Videos (or video links)

To learn more, contact: L.devries(at)

The Sustainable Gardening Institute is a New Jersey 501 (c)(3) Corporation – all donations are tax-deductible

Visit the Sustainable Gardening Library
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Because 62% of Consumers Want More Sustainable Gardening Information

Americans are interested

We’ve built the Sustainable Gardening Library
Our goal is to ferret out those techniques that provide the best potential for helping people garden and farm more sustainably. We’re doing it by curating and organizing resources from expert sources and delivering them through an interactive web application.

We’re breaking down barriers by promoting the exchange of sustainable gardening information between and among public gardens, arboreta, and other educational non-profits, colleges and universities, and government agencies, taking a new, cross-disciplinary approach. If your organization has relevant content, let’s talk. Contact

The Sustainable Gardening Library is comprehensive, but not overwhelming
Too much information is the bane of everyone’s existence these days, but particularly for those who would rather be planting than searching though millions of web pages for answers to simple questions. That’s why the Sustainable Gardening Library is specialized, curated, and limited to 50 topics identified by more than 900 gardeners and homeowners, selected by a committee of 10 garden journalists, and evaluated by 30 potential collaborators.

Let’s start helping that 62% find the sustainable gardening and farming information they need!

The Sustainable Gardening Institute is a New Jersey 501 (c)(3) Corporation – all donations are tax-deductible 

Visit the Sustainable Gardening Library
Like us on Facebook
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Make Every Day Earth Day!

Give the Earth a hug on Earth Day (credit: SoulPancake)

How do you love the Earth through gardening?

Soul Pancake’s video Props to the Planet is my go-to inspiration for Earth Day and every day. It asks people to pause a moment to reflect on how, why, and what they love about our planet. It brings a complex subject down to earth. It shows, in a spontaneous way, how loving the Earth is fun and makes both people and the planet happy.

On Earth Day, it seems appropriate for those of us who enjoy gardening, or simply experiencing gardens, to pause and think about how we can love the Earth through our favorite pastime. I’ll kick us off:

How do you love the Earth through gardening?
I act as a steward of my small corner of the world and am mindful of protecting its natural ecosystems and providing wildlife habitat. I enjoy the beauty of exotic and ornamental flowers as much as anyone, but have learned over time that some of them are not very well-behaved in our region, so I respect the “genius of place” by designing my garden and selecting plants so that I make the lightest impact on nature that I can.

Why do you choose to love the Earth through gardening?
I feel a personal responsibility to repair some of the damage that’s been done. I live in an area that has very specialized and unusual habitats (some unique in the world), so I’m extremely conscious of how important it is to provide for the non-human residents, for example by protecting natural corridors through developments that separate wild spaces. But I also love beautiful flowers, shrubs, flowering trees, garden art and sculpture, and I collect flower pots, so there has to be a place for those things, too.

What do you love about the Earth when you garden?
I take great pleasure in planting things, watching them grow, observing the change of seasons through the changes in plants and animal activity. It’s a form of play for me, an excuse to sit on the ground and watch what the smaller life forms are doing, to walk around and see what’s blooming, or needs attention. It’s exciting to watch the great variety of birds feeding their young, see the nestlings fledge, chase butterflies around with a camera, listen to the spring peepers, wait for the lightning bugs to show up ….. I could go on and on. The root of it is feeling the sense of my place in the web of life, enjoying and appreciating the rich variety of planet Earth.

So, how do you love the Earth through gardening? Leave a comment.

Happy Earth Day! You can view the Soul Pancake video at

Easter Chicks: Bald Eagle Babies Hatch at Duke Farms

Feeding time at the Duke Farms Eagles' Nest
Over the Easter weekend, two Bald Eagle chicks hatched at Duke Farms. Their heritage is a long and complex one that includes many unsung heroes – folks who dedicated their lives to ensuring that the single mating pair that remained in New Jersey in 1976 was not the last.

In New Jersey, Bald Eagles are still considered state-endangered for the breeding season and state-threatened for the non-breeding season. State regulatory protection remains unchanged even though they have been removed from the federal Endangered Species list.

The story of the near-extinction of these majestic birds throughout the lower 48 states is just one example of why sustainable farming practices are so important. Bald Eagle population decline is directly tied to the pesticide DDT, which caused severe thinning of the eggs’ shells and resulting nest failures. DDT was widely used in U.S. agriculture from 1945 through the 1950s. The alarm sounded by Rachel Carson in her seminal book, Silent Spring, brought DDT under closer scrutiny, but the chemical wasn’t banned here until 1972. It can still be used in some very limited public health emergencies and in countries where insect-borne diseases such as malaria are prevalent.

You can watch the Duke Farms eagle chicks grow and fledge via their EagleCam at or at Conserve Wildlife NJ’s feed .

Author Jim Wright’s real life adventure tale of wildlife biologists Pete McLain and Jo Ann Frier‘s search to find the last breeding pair of bald eagles in New Jersey, The Last Nest, appeared in the January 2016 issue of NJ Monthly .

Duke Farms has published Duke Farms’ Bald Eagles, also penned by Wright, as an e-book

Teachers can find lesson plans and other resources at

A series of reports from 1997 – 2015 on the Bald Eagle’s status, as well as publications on other NJ endangered species, including Peregrine Falcons, American Kestrels, and Ospreys, are on NJ Fish & Wildlife’s raptor webpage

EZ Stow Hauler™ Garden Cart Review

This cart does a great job of hauling firewood. Load capacity: 800lbs.

A tractor cart that converts to a wheelbarrow
The EZ-Stow Hauler™ is a big hit at our house. The Undergardener says: “This is really well-made and sturdy.” I use it to move leaves around the yard, to mulch my roses and perennials, to haul away pruned branches and trimmings from perennials and shrubs, and to move tools and containers around our property. But it can also handle heavy loads. Whether you’re using it as a wheelbarrow or pulling it behind a tractor, the cart is easy to maneuver and the center of gravity keeps it well-balanced.

Ease of Use
Once you’ve decided whether you want to use the EZ-Stow Hauler™ as a wheelbarrow or tractor cart, there isn’t much to do. Just assemble it, and off you go.

You can check out the full review of the EZ-Stow Hauler™ at and see why I gave it a 5-shovel rating.