A Personal View on Sustainable Gardening and Going Green

by John Smelser 


The need to be sustainable

Climate change, rising sea levels, carbon footprints, the negative impact of mankind on the biosphere. The consequences are beginning to sound ominous and foreboding; for our generation to a moderate to dangerous degree and for our children’s & their children’s generation to a cataclysmic degree.

What can one person possibly do now to make a real difference? More than you have been told, & much more than you might believe.

Automotive changes have been discussed, energy savings in the home have been discussed, & alternative forms of energy have been discussed. But what about changes in the ways each of us garden? Can gardening more conscientiously positively offset the negative impact humans have on the planet? Absolutely! Very Significantly!

Compost or mulch-mow lawn clippings

Americans toss approximately 32-36 million TONS of lawn clippings into landfills during the course of a single growing season. We do this even though lawn clippings are a terrific source of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium; fertilizer elements essential to the maintenance of a healthy lawn. How much money would you pay for the fertilizer equivalent of all the grass clippings you throw in the trash?

You can save a great deal of money and a great deal of space in your landfill by throwing all those lawn clippings into a compost pile instead of the garbage. If you don’t want to manage a compost pile, you can use a mulching mower to shred the material finely enough to leave in the lawn itself. Composting all those lawn clippings would provide you with an enormous amount of nutrient-rich compost for use in your flower or vegetable beds. Using a mulching mower would amount to applying hundreds of pounds of fertilizer-rich material to your lawn each growing season. It would also reduce the chance of straining your back while repeatedly lifting a grass-catcher to the top of your garbage can.

Contrary to all those myths you have heard, the immediate recycling of lawn clippings into the lawn itself does not contribute to thatch. Lawn clippings consist of 75% water content. They decompose readily and add nothing more than nutrients to the soil. Thatch is a build-up of shoots and stems and, in some cases, roots; not grass clippings.


Compost or mulch leaves

Americans throw about 8 million TONS of leaves into landfills every fall. And yet composted leaves, mixed into planting beds, help loose soil retain moisture and help compacted soils drain better.

Composted oak leaves, leaves very prevalent in both St. Louis & Oklahoma City gardens, help acidify soils that have been subjected to constant liming by alkaline water supplies. This helps bring the pH of the soil closer to neutral; a pH value that is much more conducive to healthy plant growth.

I’m sure you are aware that plants absorb nutrients from the soil. But are you aware that fallen leaves contain 50% of the nutrients pulled from the soil during the growing season? If you compost these leaves, or use them for mulch as I suggest below, you are returning to the soil 50% of all the nutrients the soil lost that year. That is a more than fair return on the investment of time and energy you expend on composting or mulching.

As an alternative to composting leaves, set your mower to its tallest mowing height, and mow up your leaves using a grass-catcher. As you mow, dump the mown leaves on your driveway. When you finish mowing up the leaves on the lawn, readjust your mower to a lower setting and mow up the leaves on the driveway.

Then dump the twice-mown leaves in your garden beds to a depth of 2-3 inches. Over the winter these leaves will serve as very effective mulch. They will decompose further and will easily be incorporated into your garden soil when planting the following spring. Try to remember, decomposing leaves were the only way plants were mulched and fertilized… before man came along and invented non-organic alternatives.

Garden beds vs. lawns or concrete

• Every square foot of land devoted to planting vegetables, annuals, perennials, and shrubbery is one less square foot of land you have to mow.

• Every square foot of garden beds on your land is one less square foot of concrete you have to clear of snow on bitterly cold winter days.

• Every square foot of land you devote to gardening is one more square foot of plant diversity on our planet; one more square foot of land that provides nectar & pollen & fruit for butterflies & bees & birds.

• Every square foot of garden beds on your land is one more square foot of flowering & fruiting beauty for you and your loved ones to behold throughout all the seasons of the year.

• Every square foot of well-maintained garden beds on your land contributes to the real estate value of your home. Realtors have estimated that a well-landscaped home can sell for as much as 15% more than a home that is poorly landscaped or not landscaped at all. Keep in mind this estimate is based on “landscaping,” not lawn.

Respect your plants - eliminate unnecessary work

In mid-spring, after the season’s first flush of growth, gardeners grab their trusty electric or gas powered clippers and spend hours turning plants into cute little boxes and balls and hedges. In mid-summer, after a secondary flush of growth, this arcane ritual is repeated. In early fall, the overly zealous and controlling among us repeat this procedure once again to get their plants “in shape” for winter.

Be prepared with measurements when you talk with your local nurserymen. Tell them you want a plant that will not exceed X number of feet in height or width. A good nurseryman can steer you toward compact, or even dwarf, plants that will meet your size constraints. And you will have the pleasure of seeing a plant develop to its full potential; without any need for pruning on your part.

By allowing your plants to assume and maintain their “natural” shape, you avoid 2-3 periods of intense labor in your garden. You also use less electricity and/or gas in your gardening activities. You also reduce the amount of leaves and stems in landfills. In the case of broadleaf evergreens, you also increase the chance for viewing fall and winter berries that are sheared off during the boxing or balling process. This increases the food supply for over-wintering birds; which in turn reduces the amount of bird-food you have to buy to attract birds to your winter garden.

“The only symmetry in nature is the symmetry man imposes on it.” Sen no Rikyu

Plant trees

Aside from their obvious beauty, and the contribution they make to the real estate value of your home, the “sustainable” benefits of planting trees include the following:

• Trees remove carbon dioxide from the air. One study suggests a mature shade tree removes as much CO2 from the air as two single-family homes generate.

• Trees remove more than C02 from the air. They also absorb contributors to smog such as sulfur dioxide & nitrogen oxides.

• Well-chosen varieties of trees, placed in strategic locations, can reduce temperatures inside your home by as much as 20 degrees; significantly reducing the need for electrically generated cooling; and significantly reducing your cooling bill.

One last thought about planting trees is a bit more idealistic & hopeful, but I like it anyway. Planting trees as a celebration of life’s important moments can encourage succeeding generations to love gardening. As an example, my father planted a 6-foot tree in our front lawn on my 6th birthday. Today that tree stands better than 70 feet tall and shades the street as well as the front lawn. I will revere this tree as mine no matter who owns the home… and I will continue the tradition father taught me as a valuable part of the sustainable “cycle of life.”

“A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants a shade tree under which he knows full well he will never sit.” D. Elton Trueblood

Buy locally grown plants

Every plant you purchase for your garden or the inside of your home contains a hidden cost. That cost adds substantially to the price you are paying. That cost adds substantially to the damage we are doing the air we breathe and the land we cultivate. That cost adds substantially to the price of maintaining an infrastructure upon which the American economy depends. That hidden cost is freight.

If you want an overwhelmingly convincing image of that hidden cost visit a home & garden conglomerate garden center every day beginning in early spring. Watch & count the number of interstate freight trucks that pull in for unloading. Then walk through the garden center and note the origins of plants & plant related products. Plants from California, Florida, & south Texas. Peat Moss from Canada. Fertilizers from Ohio & Wisconsin. Try to imagine the number of gallons of fuel it takes to haul in the amount of plants, soil amendments, & fertilizers a single conglomerate stocks each spring. Try to imagine the impact trucks hauling 40,000 pounds of freight have on the interstate highway system, as well as local streets. Try to imagine the labor costs involved in loading and unloading these trucks. All of these elements factor into the ultimate cost of a plant or bag of cow manure.

Then consider the cost of those same plants & bags of manure if they were only shipped from across town, or across a couple of counties. Think about all the times you have complained about the negative impact these conglomerates have on local, small businesses. Then consider the positive impact buying locally grown or manufactured products has on the local or closely regional economies.

And while you’re at it, try to remember this. A local nurseryman depends on you for his living. He will bust his tail to give you sound advice and sell you healthy plants because he wants your return business and he wants you to recommend him to your friends and neighbors. His products may cost a bit more but, after all, he cannot buy hundreds of truckloads of plants at a time. Those enormous home & garden stores may charge you less per plant. But, in my opinion, they are using their garden center as a loss-leader in the hopes that while shopping there, you will also buy a kitchen remodel, or enough wood to build a small building. Their plants are not chosen because they perform best in your garden, they are chosen because they are cute in their store and attract your eye on the way to their more lucrative departments. Their garden center DOES NOT depend on you for a living. Their garden center depends on 20-30 million of you for a living. Who is going to care about your needs more; a giant corporation or a local expert who works with a few hundred of you each season? Don’t be impulse plant buyers; buy plants from a hard-working local expert who cares about what he tells you and sells you.

Buying locally grown & made garden products saves lots of cents for you and generates lots of cents for your local economy. That makes sense.

Recycle all the construction debris you can

Have you ever watched a construction project closely enough to see the monumental amount of wood that is wasted? You should give it a try. Because construction debris is the third largest constituent of landfills in America. Americans throw 29.5 million TONS of wood & other construction debris in landfills annually.

I have been living next to an old apartment building that is being converted and upgraded to office space. From my windows I watched an enormous 10-15 cubic yard dumpster be parked next to the structure. As the renovation progressed, the dumpster was filled with wood that was removed from the old building. I watched this project closely enough to know that the new wood used in the renovation was treated Pine. The wood in the dumpster, used when the building was first built, was Oak. And all that Oak was destined for a final resting place in a landfill. What a monumental waste!

In another example, my brother-in-law and I were driving down a street in our neighborhood one day and saw a man stacking 10 & 12 foot boards of 2x12 lumber on the curb. We stopped and talked with him long enough to discover he had rebuilt a deck in his backyard; and that the old decks lumber, being placed on the curb, would be picked up on “big trash” day & dumped in a landfill. We asked if we could remove it; he readily agreed. We stacked the lumber on the driveway and took a good look at it. It was Redwood! I measured the total length of those boards, called Home Depot, and found that buying a comparable amount of 2x12 Redwood boards would cost me $ 1,275.00! We donated this lumber to their local church and he built several attractive benches with these boards.

Salvaging construction debris is a very viable alternative to throwing it in the garbage. It recycles sometimes excellent wood. It has the potential to save millions of trees from being harvested to build what we could build with debris lumber. Salvaging construction debris could potentially reduce the amount of material that ends up in a landfill by a whopping 13%!


Turn your city’s sludge into gold

Years ago, when I was studying to become a Landscape Architect, my father very occasionally told stories about his experiences in China-Burma-India during World War II.

One of those stories really caught my attention. It was about the Chinese villagers who would come into camp each night and empty the latrines. [Try to bear with me, folks.] These villagers would take all that human waste and pour it on their vegetable beds. Dad had a very hard time with the odors that accompanied this activity. But he also said the villagers grew awesome vegetables. I was fascinated by this story in those days because it sounded so “organic,” an approach to gardening that made a lot of sense to me even then.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that an American city was involved in the same practice to a very sanitary & technologically sound degree. I was also surprised to learn that this same city was making some serious money for its coffers by marketing and selling this recycled waste-into-fertilizer on a national basis. That city is Milwaukee, and its sewage-sludge fertilizer is called Milorganite. In 2006 the production and sale of Milorganite celebrated its 80th year anniversary.

In the intervening years I have often wondered why more cities in our country had not or would not utilize their sewage sludge in much the same manner. The process developed by Milwaukee can be an excellent way for American cities to generate large amounts of sanitary organic fertilizer for local & state-wide use in gardens and on lawns and golf courses. This process could also go a long way toward offsetting the costs of waste water management in these cities. And these days, when cities are increasingly faced with budget short-falls, to ignore practical solutions like this one seems civically irresponsible.

Consider the possibility of becoming an advocate for more responsible approaches to local government management of waste water. Eighty years of successful practice in Milwaukee certainly tells us there is an economically sound model to study and adapt for use in our own hometowns.

Recycle all the paper you can

Paper & paper-board constitute by far the largest volume of landfills. Americans throw 71.8 million TONS of these products into landfills every year. It is estimated that it takes from 12 to 24 trees to make one ton of paper. This range is based on the quality of the paper being discussed. Based on these figures, it takes from 86,160,000 to 172,320,000 trees to create the paper Americans throw in the trash EACH YEAR. What a terrible & tragic waste!

How much effort can it take, really take, to throw your paper trash into that blue recycle container instead of into the garbage can? Compared to the amount of effort it would take to plant, and grow to maturity, that many trees the act of recycling paper is no effort whatsoever.

Please extend your love of gardening to a sustained effort to recycle paper & paper-board. If this makes any sense whatsoever to you, try to go one step further.

• Resist printing anything on your computer printer you don’t absolutely, unequivocally need in permanent hard-copy form.

• Data & text, even images, can be communicated to others via Word documents, PDF’s, and E-mail more easily than they can be printed and mailed.

• Tell your lawyers & doctors & accountants & government entities, surely four of the GREAT users of paper in our society, you want their documents on CD’s & DVD’s instead of paper.

• Tell your newspaper you would rather pay for an on-line version than receive a big glop of paper on the front stoop every morning.

• Tell your postman you do not want to receive mass-mailings of cheap ads anymore.

• Tell your utility companies you want on-line bills from now on.

Do we really want our grandchildren to be required by law to plant 12 to 24 trees for every ton of paper they use because we were too lazy to recycle and conserve? Do we really want to set a mindlessly selfish example for the generations to follow? Are we really that indifferent to future generations of mankind? Are we really that self-absorbed and short-sighted?

A personal post-script

“I do not believe we are. I believe we are simply the children of two generations of Americans who dared to hope that resources were limitless and that we, as Americans, could do no wrong. I believe we are gradually learning that our parents and grandparents dream was wonderful; yet unrealistic.

I believe we are rapidly learning that we must live in balance with all the other forms of life on our planet; because to do otherwise dooms many of us as well as many of them. I also believe that beyond our daily needs and concerns we deeply love the beauty and the majesty of the world on which we live. We want that beauty and majesty to continue to live & prosper just as we want ourselves to continue to live & prosper.

In the past one hundred years Americans have had an almost unbelievable impact on the lives of all human beings. National Parks, automobiles, airplanes, hydroelectric power, electric power, television, nuclear power, interstate highways, computers, the internet, wind power. All of this and much more is our legacy & our contribution to mankind.

A line in an old movie I very much like goes something like this: “Act as though you have faith and faith will be given to you.” We can begin acting with a faith in our ability to positively change our impact on the planet, and that ability will be given to us.

We can dedicate the energy we devoted to those past accomplishments toward the creation of a society that lives in harmony with the natural world. In doing so we can make remarkable contributions toward improving the impact our entire species has on this planet and all its forms of life.” js


“…beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Annie Dillard

Time to act.

Make sure your New Year's resolutions include being "green" in 2009!