Sustainability Starts in Your Own Back Yard

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, September 13, 2008

As gardeners, we are at the forefront of the new Green Revolution.

Thirty years ago, most home landscaping consisted of lawn, foundation plantings, a few trees, and perhaps a bed for flowers or vegetables. Plants were chosen for their color when flowering and their availability at garden centers. Maintenance included mowing, fertilizing, spraying, pruning and watering.

But we now know that native plants can endure without synthetic chemicals or fertilizer, or much watering or labor, once established. And that insects that depend on native plants are important food for birds.

Knowing this, gardeners can take steps to promote sustainability in their landscapes. It involves how you use your property -- everything you own. Here are some key steps that will help you to create a sustainable gardening culture and promote renewable energy:

· Use plants, trees and shrubs that are native to your area. They are already adapted to local growing conditions.

· Keep the soil in good condition with homemade compost and mulch, saving energy by using on-site materials.

· Collect rainwater to irrigate plants and to clean your tools, deck, patio and car.

· Control your use of pesticides and herbicides. Employ natural remedies such as soap sprays and hand-removal of weeds. Use the least toxic methods of control. Encourage beneficial insects such as ladybugs and parasitic wasps. Research the techniques of integrated pest management, use them in your landscape.

· Recycle materials on your property, including compost and masonry. Pots, pans and teapots make great containers for planting. Scrap lumber can have another life as fencing material. Carryout containers are perfect scoops for potting soil and fertilizer and save you a trip to the garden center. Plastic jugs with holes punched in the bottom will water your plants during dry spells.

· Increase food production. Plant more fruits, berries and vegetables so you can eat locally and seasonally, decreasing the need for food to be transported from all over the world. Make your edible plantings as beautiful as flowerbeds by training them on trellises, arbors or other structures. Mix in beneficial flowers, such as marigolds, which are natural insect repellents. Don't forget herbs.

· Encourage diversity. Install a wide variety of flora that allows plants, birds and insects to cohabitate.

· Use all spaces to install greenery, including patios, porches, balconies and window boxes, to reduce your carbon footprint even further.

· Use less energy. Disturb the land as little as possible. For example, heavy machinery uses fuel. Create berms for sound protection and privacy. Plant swales to reduce rainwater runoff, which can cause water pollution. Use plants to provide shade to reduce cooling costs and windbreaks to reduce heating costs. Make use of muscle power and not horsepower as much as possible. Even small devices, such as hedge trimmers, waste nonrenewable energy.

· Make garden chores more efficient. Take time to compost, mulch, plant and harvest.

· Take responsibility. Educate yourself and others. Investigate community resources, such as community gardens. Evaluate practices used in your garden, and decide whether they are environmentally responsible.

· Evaluate any feature or plant before installing it on your property by asking if it will require a lot of water, fertilizer, pesticide, electricity, gasoline or other fossil fuel. If it does, alter the plan to make it more sustainable and energy-efficient.

Sustainable landscapes are practical. They save energy, money and labor. Creating them may take a little more thought and effort at the beginning, but the end results will better sustain all of us.

Sustainability Open House

Learn more about sustainable landscaping by visiting the Chesapeake Ecology Center's garden open house and native plant sale today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Guided tours of the 20 native-plant demonstration gardens and sites will be held at 11 a.m. and noon. Adams Park, 245 Clay St., Annapolis. Visit for more information.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site,

© 2008 The Washington Post Company