In the face of climate change and the invasion of more exotic insects and pests, sustainable gardening is more important than ever.
We can all do our part to help by changing our practices — often just by a little bit, depending on the methods you’ve already put in place. And if it all seems too overwhelming, take it one step at a time. You’ll help the environment and at the same time save money and join a community of like-minded gardeners who love to share their experiences.
To get you started or to increase your repertoire of sustainable practices, consider these suggestions by Oregon State University Extension Service experts.
Check your property for invasive weeds
An invasive species is an introduced organism that negatively alters its new environment. In the Pacific Northwest, there are many invasive plants that meet this definition. Blackberry, tree-of-heaven, invasive knotweeds, garlic mustard, lesser celandine, Italian arum and horsetail are some examples that are difficult to control. Keep these and other invasive weeds from establishing on your property. Monitor for invasive plants and take action before they become a bigger problem. Visit King County’s noxious weed list (or check with your local Soil and Water Conservation District) to learn which invasive plants are a problem locally. Use cultural methods of control before turning to pesticides.
— Weston Miller, OSU Extension horticulturist
Home orchard care
The sustainable home orchard starts with the selection of right-sized rootstocks. Tree size can be maintained between 6-9 feet tall when using dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstocks. Smaller trees make it easier to develop an open form that will dry quickly after it rains, reducing the incidence of disease. Small trees are also easier to work with when pruning, thinning, spraying and picking, saving you time throughout the year. They also require less spray and allow easy access to the upper tree canopy, helping to keep sprays on target.
Look through catalogs and publications (such as OSU’s Growing Tree Fruits and Nuts in the Home Orchard) for tree fruit varieties that do well in the Pacific Northwest and resist common diseases. For example, when planting a Liberty or Chehalis apple you will never need to spray fungicides to control apple scab because they are highly resistant.
— Steve Renquist, OSU Extension horticulturist
Plant a cover crop
Good soil is the basis of any garden, especially a sustainable one in which you don’t want to use a lot of chemical fertilizer. Cover crops provide many benefits to the soil by reducing erosion and runoff, increasing water infiltration and increasing organic matter. Legume cover crops act as a fertilizer and fix nitrogen into the soil.
— Erica Chernoh, OSU Extension horticulturist
Share tools and ammendments
You may not need to purchase your own specialty tools or small equipment (think long-handled branch pruners, lawn edgers or rototillers). See if there is a community tool sharing program in your area or reach out to your neighbors to share. If you need your own, check for used items at estate sales or a home improvement donation store.
Also, join forces with neighbors to order soil, compost, mulch or other amendments in bulk instead of purchasing plastic-bagged products.
— Brooke Edmunds, OSU Extension horticulturist
Reduce single-use plastic pots in the garden by:
• Starting seeds at home in cardboard egg cartons, toilet paper tubes or homemade newspaper pots.
• If you want to start seed in larger containers, repurpose plastic tubs or containers from home (repurposed yogurt containers work well).
• Buy bare-root plants.
• At the nursery, look for pots made from compostable materials like coir, paper or cow manure.
— Gail Langellotto, OSE Extension master gardener statewide coordinator and professor of horticulture
Reduce pesticide use
• Replace pest-prone plants with ones that don’t require frequent pesticide use.
• Learn more about the particular pests in your garden, and seek alternative methods of control.
• Recognize that some pest problems might be an issue of perspective and tolerance. Is there any space or room for you to tolerate light aesthetic damage on particular plants if it will not cause long-term harm to plant health?
• If you have a lawn or landscape maintenance service and they spray pesticides as a regular part of that service, make sure you know the pests that they are spraying for. Educate yourself to find alternatives, or to see if pesticide applications are even needed. Some services will spray at a regular interval (every two weeks or every month), whether it is needed or not.
— Gail Langellotto
Reduce water use through plant selection
One way to be sustainable in the garden is to reduce water use. Special irrigation systems are often installed as a way to decrease the amount of water applied or wasted. An even better way is to use plants in the garden that are drought-tolerant and do not require any applied irrigation. Our climate is Mediterranean with a summer dry period, therefore establishing plants that can tolerate these conditions is a good way to have a low-maintenance and sustainable garden.
Plants that are native to our region will accomplish this goal, but there are also a number of plants that are native to other Mediterranean regions that will tolerate a summer drought. A trial is currently underway at OSU’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center evaluating drought-tolerant groundcover plants as part of the Northwest Plant Evaluation Program. The program has also evaluated other landscape plants grown without irrigation, including manzanita, grevillea, rockrose and California lilac. Some of these plant selections, as well as many other drought-tolerant plants, can be found at local nurseries and can be planted in unirrigated areas of the landscape as a way to decrease water use in gardens.
— Healther Stoven, OSU Extension horticulturist