Summer will soon be here, which means plants and gardens are approaching full bloom. While most gardeners focus on aesthetics, it’s equally important to consider the impact our horticulture has on our land’s health. Some common gardening and irrigation practices can have surprisingly harmful side effects, so those of us who tend to the earth should know how to do so in productive and sustainable ways.
With that in mind, here are some simple tips for more sustainable gardening and plant care practices.
Recycle Your Plastic Pots
Unless you’re growing from seed, your plants probably came in classic plastic nursery pots. Whether destined for the indoors or outdoors, proper plant care calls for them to eventually come out of their current pot and go into the ground (or a bigger, more appropriate pot).
That leaves you with all those nursery pots. As always, reuse is ideal: they’re great vehicles for seedlings, propagations, transportation, and gifting. If you have the storage space, hold onto them. But are they recyclable? That depends on their chemical makeup and color.
There are different varieties of plastic used for plant pots: high-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), high-impact polystyrene (HIPS), and polypropylene (PP). The first three are potentially recyclable; polypropylene is not. Even so, plastics recycling is logistically and economically complex and requires the careful sorting of different resins.
Sorting is where color becomes a factor. Recycling facilities sort plastics by bouncing a beam of light off them. Black absorbs that light, which means that dark plastics are often unable to be sorted. Instead, they pass through the recycling system and ultimately end up in a landfill or incinerator.
Choose Bative and/or Drought-Resistant Plants
It takes a great deal of energy and resources to maintain picture-perfect lawns and gardens in outdoor environments totally unlike those in which they evolved. In the United States, landscaping irrigation accounts for nearly nine billion gallons of water each day, approaching one-third of all residential water use. In dryer climates such as the Southwest, outdoor water usage approaches 60 percent for the average household. As much as 50 percent of that is lost to evaporation, wind, or runoff due to inefficient irrigation methods.
Fortunately, you do not have to choose between a barren landscape or wasted water: there are beautiful and beneficial alternatives to the classic grass lawn. Consider xeriscaping, a landscaping strategy focused on plants needing little to no irrigation. You can also stick to plants native to your region, naturally adapted to thrive with little more than what nature already provides.
Reddit’s r/NoLawns community is over 160,000 members strong, and offers a helpful beginner’s guide. Depending on your state, there may even be tax benefits or other formal incentives to grow native.
Plants for Pollinators
Switching to native plants saves more than water, money, and stress—it also helps save native species of birds and insects. Plants, birds, and insects often co-evolve together. When native flora is replaced by exotic species chosen for purely aesthetic reasons, it contributes to collapsing ecosystems. For example, as the Audobon Society explains, “research by entomologist Doug Tallamy has shown that native oaks support more than 550 different species of butterflies and moths alone. The non-native ginkgo tree supports just five.”
An easy, attractive solution is to choose plants that benefit pollinators. Different regions have different pollinators, so the optimal flora will vary by your location. There are many helpful resources to find the best pollinator plants for your neck of the woods.
Pumice, Not Perlite
For both in-ground and (especially) potted plants, special care is needed to provide ideal growing environments. Few factors matter more than ensuring each plant has proper drainage and aeration. To achieve this, most plant lovers and soil manufacturers turn to two materials: perlite and pumice.
Perlite is derived from hydrated volcanic glass. The white, airy perlite in your soil does not come out of the ground that way, though. Obtained via blast mining, it is superheated to around 1,600 degrees, at which point it pops (like popcorn) to around 13 times its original size.
Perlite is great for drainage, but it’s very light—a potential issue for larger, top-heavy plants—and tends to rise to the top of soil, diminishing drainage at the bottom of the pot, where drainage is needed most. Once it’s risen to the top, it’s easily blown or washed away.
Pumice, unlike perlite, occurs naturally: the porous rock forms when gas is trapped within rapidly cooling and depressurizing volcanic emissions. No further processing or fuel expenditure is needed. Because it is formed during volcanic eruptions that naturally deposit it on the surface of the earth, blasting and other destructive mining methods are not necessary to obtain it.
It’s also heavier, has more diverse uses—for example, as an attractive top dressing—and is a useful addition to compost. Its only disadvantage is a slightly higher price tag.
Mulch and Mulch Bags
If you’re replacing or disposing of last year’s mulch, don’t just put it in the trash. Most mulch—typically composed of natural, biodegradable materials like wood chips, straw, hay, and bark—qualifies as yard waste and should be composted. When landfilled, decomposing organic waste emits methane, which contributes to climate change at a rate 25 times greater than carbon dioxide. Your municipality may have a curbside pickup program for such compostable materials.
Mulch often comes in massive plastic bags, which are rarely recyclable. Rather than sending them to the landfill, reuse them! They work well as garbage can liners, kindling bags, frost covers for plants and vegetables, slings to aid in transplanting, and covers for surfaces to pot plants without making a mess.
Disposing of Old Soil
In many places—New York State, for example—used soil is categorized as construction and demolition material and prohibited from disposal in standard landfills, so you shouldn’t just throw it in the trash. Contact your local municipality to see what should be done with it.
Of course, you could always…
Composting is an ideal way to reduce and reuse. Last year’s plants become this year’s compost, which helps grow this year’s plants, which in turn become next year’s compost, to help grow next year’s plants. Composting exemplifies the benefits of a circular economy of resources. To help get you started, check out our Composting 101 guide.