As the changing climate begins to influence our daily lives, more and more of us are trying to reduce our individual impact on the climate. We recycle, turn off the lights, and generally try to minimize our waste – but somehow, our gardens end up forgotten. So, let’s talk about how we can directly influence our personal green spaces to make them healthier places for us, our local wildlife, and the planet.
Use Less Peat
This is one of the most important, so I’ll start here. In Canada, there has yet to be a push to stop the harvesting of sphagnum peat moss like there has been in other countries. If you look up peat harvesting in Canada, you’ll get a lot of positive results about sustainable harvesting, and how we’re damaging less that 1% of our peat bogs for the sake of horticultural use. On paper, that seems minimal. But the wild fact is that our few remaining untouched peat bogs worldwide hold “more than 600 gigatonnes of carbon which represents up to 44% of all soil carbon, and exceeds the carbon stored in all other vegetation types including the world's forests”, according to a study done by IUCN. In plain terms, peat bogs worldwide are storing twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined. The bogs are also rare and delicate ecosystems, and like all wetlands they are crucial for water filtration and exponentially decrease the risk of flooding.
So, what does avoiding peat mean for us functionally as gardeners? Peat is a popular soil amender as it gives soil a loose, airy texture and provides some nutrition as it breaks down. It can be difficult to find pre-mixed soils that don’t use at least a little peat. And unfortunately, until we as consumers start demanding more peat free options, this is unlikely to change. The best thing to do is make our own soil mixes, using locally sourced top soils, manure, and if possible, leaves and compost from our own home and garden.
Ditch or Downsize the Lawn
This one is difficult for a lot of folks. Lawns are traditional, and many of us take a lot of pride in having a pristine, immaculate patch of grass. But lawns are what’s known as a ‘monoculture’, and a fairly inhospitable one at that. There are no flowers, and no cover for wildlife as we keep the grass cut short. They are also often watered frequently, even in the heat of summer, and sprayed with chemical fertilizers and weed killers. But there is good news if you’re not willing to give up that beautiful green carpet – we just have to expand our idea of what a ‘lawn’ is. Clover is a wonderful substitute for grass, as it grows in most conditions, has flowers pollinators love, and rarely needs to be mown. For an obstinate, dry and sunny location, creeping thyme will grow unbothered where grass would need constant watering and feeding. Even by cutting grass less frequently, or leaving a strip along the fence to grow naturally, you will still be doing wildlife a favour. There are plenty of other options, including wildflower meadows, that I won’t list here – but if you’re interested, please look into all your options!
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a huge garden in order to do your own composting. Of course, if you have the space, the most ideal way to compost is with multiple composting bays that are turned and rotated throughout the year. But there are still options for those of us gardening in modest spaces. There are the black, barrel-like composters designed to sit in the corner of our gardens. And for any of us gardening on balconies or terraces, there’s vermiculture (worm bin composting), and the bokashi method, among others. The most important thing to remember when composting is that there has to be a balance between “green” and “brown”. If you’ve ever tried composting and ended up with rancid, fly-covered sludge, you’ll understand the importance of this. The “green” part of the composting is the waste from our kitchens and gardens – vegetable and fruit leftovers, egg shells, leaves from our houseplants, tea bags (if marked as biodegradable, many contain plastics), and coffee grinds. Please don’t put meat or dairy products in your compost, as these will smell as they break down and attract pests. The “brown” refers mostly to dried compostables, such as dead leaves, cardboard, paper towel, and any other unlaminated paper products. If it has a shiny finish, put it in the recycling. Having a good balance between these two will not only help your composting to break down faster, but it will also result in a looser end product that’s easier to work with. You will know your compost is ready to use when it has a pleasant, earthy smell. From there it can be mixed into soil, or put down on top of garden beds as a high-nutrient mulch.
This is a big one. We all know the feeling, when that dandelion keeps popping up between the paving stones, the ants are swarming our fruit bushes, or the rabbits keep eating our prized plants. Often, we wish there was something we could spray to make the problem go away – and there are plenty available. Chemical weed and insect killers are readily available. But before you spray, remind yourself that nature finds a way to balance these things eventually. If you keep pulling up that dandelion, the root will eventually run out of energy and die. Look more closely at the plant the ants are going after – are they actually harming the plant, or are they eating the tiny larvae hidden on the underside of the leaves? And as for the rabbits, if a simple fence or net doesn’t deter them, eventually a predator will.
Of course, avoiding chemicals also applies to fertilizers and soil mixes. Whenever possible, I would strongly advise the use of organic fertilizers solely for the long-term health of your plants. Chemical fertilizers often have immediate, impressive results. However, these fertilizers have a similar effect on plants as sugar has on us. We feel great for a while, have a burst of energy – and then crash. Many of you have probably seen this happen with your plants, especially those purchased from big-box stores; a huge flush of healthy growth, and then a month later, it’s dead. Avoid this by using natural fertilizers, such as liquid seaweed, manure, or bone and blood meal. Most of these types of fertilizers are also by-products of the food industry, so by using them we are helping to reduce waste. When choosing soil mixes, always check the back of the bag. If there are any ingredients listed that you don’t immediately recognize – or worse, the contents aren’t listed at all – don’t buy it. All soil bags have small holes to allow for air flow, so give it a sniff. If you smell anything chemical, put it back. This is especially important for any soils marketed as being for seed starting.
As our summers get hotter and longer, we find ourselves needing to water more often to keep our plants healthy. However, as drought become more frequent, water is becoming a more and more sacred resource. So how can we use less of it, and save ourselves a daily chore? The first option is to choose drought-tolerant plants. There are a lot of options, so it’s entirely possible to have a beautiful, flourishing garden that you never water at all. If you grow in pots, be sure to use the largest size you have room for and can afford. Smaller pots dry out frequently, so the bigger the better. In all gardens, but especially in container and vegetable gardens, mulch is a gardener’s best friend. Natural mulches, such as untreated wood chips, straw, and leaves, not only decompose to provide nutrition, but they help to prevent the evaporation of water and keep the weeds down. When you do reach for the watering can or hose, remember that infrequent, thorough watering is better for your plants than small daily waters. Not only will this save you time, but your plants will also develop deeper, healthier roots with good watering practices.
If possible, set up a water barrel. These can be quite pricey, so be creative – as long as it holds water, and there’s enough room to dunk your watering can, you’re golden. Just ensure that your container either has a lid, or a way for wildlife to get out if they fall in. If you’re in an apartment, or just don’t have a space that works for a rain barrel, consider creating a watering spot for wildlife. A large pot, a dish with rocks, or an old baby bath all work well, and attract different types of wildlife. Again, just be sure that there is an easy way for animals to get out. This escape route can be as simple as a few piled rocks, a leaning piece of wood, or a strategically angled aquatic plant.
Leave Your Leaves
Autumn leaves are free horticultural gold that we rake up and send away. Within a year, chopped up leaves decompose and become what’s known as “leaf mold”, which is an excellent mulch, soil amender, and seed-starting medium. Anyone interested in cutting their use of peat moss should look into making leaf mold, as it is an excellent peat substitute. Even when not decomposed, they can be put on garden beds as a mulch to help reduce watering in the summer. Leaves are also an excellent assistant when it comes to providing plants with winter protection when left in garden beds, and provide shelter and nesting material for many creatures.
To make leaf mold, even in a small space, all you need is a black garbage bag. After collecting your leaves, mulch them up as finely as possible. This can be done by going over them with a lawn mower, or sitting with your headphones on and chopping them up by hand. Then, pack them tightly in the black garbage bag. Loosely tied the top and flip it over. Poke a bunch of drainage holes in the bottom, the more the better! With that done, flip the bag right-side up, untie it, and thoroughly wet the leaves. Make sure the bag is draining well at this point – you don’t want to make leaf soup. Now, all you need to do is seal up the bag and store it out of the way for approximately a year. The end result should be a smooth, pleasant-smelling compost that is slightly crumbly.
Invest in Permanent Planting
Perennials, shrubs and trees are the backbone of garden design. They also take much more time and effort for nurseries to grow than annual plants, and are therefore priced much higher. This can scare a lot of gardeners away, especially those gardening in small spaces or on balconies. But as our gardens become smaller and more coveted, it’s my opinion that plants should work harder to “earn” their spot. Perennials, shrubs and trees are an investment, to be sure, but they are better for your wallet and your planet in the long-run. You will be amazed by how much wildlife a fruiting tree or shrub attracts to your garden. A well-chosen perennial is dynamic, changing throughout the seasons and providing food and protection for many birds and insects. Herbaceous perennials (the ones that die back into the soil in winter and start fresh every spring) are also very easy to divide once they are mature, so you can make several new plants for free. By choosing a more neutral scheme with your permanent plants, you can use annual flowers to enhance your garden, and play with new colour schemes every year. And then, when those short-lived plants fade, your perennials and shrubs will still be there to provide interest. Even the smallest garden or balcony has room for a potted shrub or perennial, so dream big!
Become CWF Certified
I’ll admit, this one is mostly for fun. The Canadian Wildlife Federation will certify your garden as a wildlife-friendly space if you go through the checklist on their website. If you have enough wildlife accommodations in your space, they’ll give you a certificate pdf and add your location to a map of all the wildlife gardens in the country. If you want to go the extra mile, you can register as a member of the CWF, and with a donation they’ll send you a beautiful, metal certification plaque for you to proudly display in your garden. Even if you go through the checklist and don’t have enough wildlife accommodations to become certified, it will give you some great ideas on things to can do to make your space more wildlife savvy. And hey, we’d love to know how many of you guys are creating greener spaces! Tag us in pictures of your certificates, or share budget-friendly tips with the Plante community on how to make your space more earth-friendly.
As a closing note, I’ll mention that this is literally just the tip of the iceberg. I could write a novel about all the ways we can be greener in our gardens. So, if you’re interested in anything I mentioned here, I would strongly suggest that you do some research of your own and look into the resources available to you. Books, videos, and local organic gardens are all excellent ways to learn more.
And remember, as the pressure mounts on us as individuals to save the planet, that this is a community effort. So, start by doing what you can, and educate those around you. Our gardens are valuable habitat for so much wildlife, and an invaluable resource for us as places to relax and restore our mental health. As long as you’re doing what you can, you’re doing enough.