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Please Farm Responsibly. Because What Grows On The Farm Doesn’t Stay On The Farm

Keeping the family in Family Farming

Recently, I was able to stream the GreenBiz’17 Conference in Phoenix without leaving the comfort of my office. I was surprised and delighted to hear the same refrain repeated again and again by heavy hitters from the multi-national companies whose sustainability officers comprised both presenters and audience:
“It’s too late to turn back now.”

Sustainability Tipping Point Reached 
As one speaker pointed out early on, a direct consequence of doing business on a global scale is that corporations must abide by the international agreements on sustainable development if they want to do business in any of the signatory countries. That includes selling farm products, sourcing raw materials, as well as manufacturing; regardless of whether or not the U.S. government ever signs any of those conventions or treaties. This should be big news, but it’s yet to make big headlines.

In addition, so many American consumers and investors are demanding that corporations pay more attention to their impact on the environment and human health, that we’ve already passed the tipping point. Decision-makers are finally listening. In many cases, the changes made (for example, investing in alternative energy systems) have already resulted in savings going directly to the company’s bottom line. These changes are starting to make waves in agriculture, too.

Keeping the Family in Family Farming
Farming is a risky business, with no guarantees. Farmers are faced with making huge investments in land, equipment, and time that may never pay out. Yet, young families, many of whom would like to grow healthier food using fewer chemicals, continue to make the commitment. Farmers I've spoken with enjoy the lifestyle, sense of community, and want to raise their kids with easy access to the great outdoors.

Because the Sustainable Gardening Library focuses on gardening and farming, I was primarily interested in those GreenBiz sessions that dealt with environmental impact, land conservation, water use, and agriculture. Of special interest to farmers, was Kashi Foods CEO David Denholm’s discussion on Scaling Organic Agriculture. Kashi has implemented a “Certified Transitional” program to help farmers bridge the three-year, economically difficult period it takes for their farms to become certified organic by the USDA.

Denholm says that less than 1% of U.S. farmland is organically managed, but that, according to the USDA, consumer demand for organic foods has grown by double-digits every year since the 1990s. Kashi’s goal is to create a movement towards increasing the number of organic farms in the U.S. and that’s good news for family farms seeking a viable niche.

Learn more: Kashi’s Certified Transitional Program

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Please Garden Responsibly. Because What You Spray in Your Garden Doesn’t Stay in Your Garden

American Lady caterpillar on licorice plant. Photo: Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden
Scores of their silky tents covered the licorice plant in the container on my porch. Inside the tents, something was gobbling up the leaves faster than I could pick them off. The plant must have been infested when I bought it.

As I reached for my organic insecticide, I thought, “Wait, you don’t know what kind of caterpillars these are!” I recalled an article on pest management by a friend who cautioned:
“Sometimes, the best treatment is no treatment at all.”

It took the better part of the afternoon for me to identify the miniature mowing machines. In the meantime, half of them had started dropping from their perches and wriggling off into the underbrush. I hoped I had made the right decision.

The licorice plant was devastated. But then I noticed that the caterpillars had not eaten the leaves all the way down to the stem. Possibly, secondary buds could sprout and still provide a silvery foil beneath my ‘Calypso’ geranium for the rest of the season.

It was an ugly few weeks, but eventually I saw tiny leaves emerging. With a little judicious pruning, no one would ever know what had happened.

There's a happy ending.
American Painted Lady butterfly. Photo: Courtesy of Floridata
I’m not a butterfly expert, so it’s hard to say whether they were American Lady or Painted Lady caterpillars, but I suspect the latter, since we have a huge stand of ironweed, as well as many other native asters on our property. I’m sure many of those caterpillars ended up as food for nestlings. But eventually, some emerged from their hiding places to morph into glorious butterflies that fluttered around our garden for a week or so before heading off to parts unknown.

The moral to this story is that the long term rewards of sustainable gardening far outweigh any short term deviations from some imagined ideal: I didn’t have to kill anything, songbirds feasted on nutritious food, and the surviving butterflies went off to lay eggs to continue the circle of life. Caterpillars may represent the “ugly ducklings” of our gardens, but their butterflies delight us with their beauty and they both play a vital role in maintaining a healthy environment.

To Read More about beneficial insects and integrated pest management, browse the Sustainable Gardening Library Topics app:
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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

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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 

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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