Sustainable Gardening

Five Steps to a Sustainable Garden


What is a favorite memory from last year’s garden? A garden view that finally matched your dreams? The new flower that performed well? Harvesting from the kitchen garden and watching your family enjoy fresh, nutritious produce?

Those favorites are really the point of all the sustainability talk you hear these days. How do we preserve these gifts from the garden for our children and their children?

A few simple steps can help you become a steward of the future and a more sustainable gardener.

This begins with a simple fact: The water system is closed. We will not be importing water from a distant planet. The water on the planet now is the same water that existed when the dinosaurs roamed. Water just shifts from frozen to ocean, to cloud, to lake, around and around in a cycle. So water, and its cleanliness, is worthy of our attention.

Today, significant water waste comes from our yards. Rather than letting it drain downstream, think about ways to harvest and use that water. The dividends you receive will go well beyond water bill savings. Rain barrels catch water from downspouts, offsetting a considerable amount of water use. Here at Duke Gardens, the water cisterns in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden take care of our water needs for all but two months of the year.

Consider reducing the amount of lawn in your home landscape. It sheds water almost as much as pavement, so minimizing lawn helps conserve water. Lawns also require more resources than any other garden element.

In thinking about reducing grass try to think about lawn as a linking element or the path that allows you to move through garden areas. Try not to use lawn as simply the fill-in plant for all open areas.

Treat the lawn you do have more sustainably. Begin with organic fertilizer, which feeds the entire system of grass, plants and soil biology without doing any harm to the natural systems. Synthetic fertilizer feeds the plants only and damages the soil biology making it a net loss in sustainability.

Allow the lawn to go dormant in summer. Grass is designed to respond to the environment by going dormant. Unless a drought is very severe it will green up again after regular moisture is available through rain.

Each inch of topsoil may take more than 500 years to form. Protect your portion of this amazing resource by mulching your landscape with organic, locally produced mulch and composting your vegetable scraps.

Support your local growers and native plants
The expense of shipping plants and materials around the globe impacts both our wallets and our environment. Place a priority on using locally grown plants. This idea also begins to recognize that the environment is essential to our economy. Protect the eco-services provided by the land and plants and you will also promote a vibrant, gardening community.

Learn More
There are many resources for home gardeners. The U.S. Botanic Garden has developed a national curriculum titled “Landscapes for Life” for homeowners interested in becoming more sustainable. There are local programs and classes in sustainability offered by the North Carolina Extension Service, our local public botanic gardens and the Duke Campus Farm. We even have a local gardening show on WCOM community radio, “Getting Dirty with Durham County Master Gardeners,” which includes many sustainable strategies.

Enjoy your garden and pass it forward!

Jan Little is the director of education and public programs for Duke Gardens. For information about Duke Gardens’ classes and events, visit

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