pink peonies

Creating a Sustainable Garden

How to transform your yard into an eco-friendly sanctuary

On this page I’ll be discussing the landscape itself, and how you can make yours eco-friendly by creating a sustainable garden. If you want to discover sustainable tools and equipment to help you accomplish this, head over to the Eco-Friendly Garden Tools & Supplies page.

My sustainability journey has often left me feeling overwhelmed and helpless. I wonder if what I am doing even makes any difference. My garden is my happy place, my very own tiny corner of the world where I have (almost) complete control that I can transform into a lovely haven to both humans and small creatures. Creating a sustainable garden is one of my most vital therapeutic outlets. I experience enjoyment and satisfaction from cultivating beauty, supporting wildlife, and working to conserve precious resources.

small Buddha garden statue

How do you make an eco-friendly landscape?

A sustainable garden conserves resources and has several characteristics:

  • Plants appropriate for the region, especially native species
  • Habitat friendly environment that promotes biodiversity
  • Low water needs
  • Uses little to no fertilizer or pesticides

Achieving all of these goals starts with a single thing: plant selection.

Choose environmentally friendly plants for a sustainable garden

Native plants

Why natives are important.

Native plants are the most sustainable choice to create an eco-friendly garden for a variety of reasons. They are naturally adapted to the climate, soil, and moisture level in your region. For those of us who live in dry areas, this is especially key as we look to conserve water.

Most native species in dry areas are naturally drought tolerant plants, therefore requiring little to no supplemental irrigation, nor do they need to be fertilized. They are less likely to suffer from pest problems, eliminating the need for pesticides. These plants are generally low maintenance.

These sustainable garden plants are also an important food source for native wildlife and provide cover and protection. They help preserve biodiversity and are not invasive, as some non-natives have become, outcompeting native species and degrading habitat. Their deep root system helps control water runoff and keeps soil from becoming compacted.

Try the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder to discover native options in your area, or use the resources provided by your state’s extension office. Visit local gardens to see these plants up close and get inspired for planting design ideas.

There are many nurseries that specialize in native plants, and I have noticed more nurseries are creating designated sections for these plants, so make sure you search for one of these in your neighborhood.

Minimize annual use

You can of course elect to plant anything you want, knowing it will be an annual. I think this is an expensive way to go, and not particularly sustainable to replace each year, and not being suited to local climate, they generally require more water. Plus I’m personally not a huge fan of traditional annual plants. It’s true they are great for long season color, but that can be achieved with many perennials, and I find most annuals boring and generic. I’d rather not replace everything every growing season. Having said that, I do have a few annual favorites, but I plant them sparingly.

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, if 30 million gardeners pulled up a paver and planted 1m² of perennial plants (either herbaceous, shrubs or trees) in their community, school, workplace or garden and allowed it to develop to maturity, depending on the plants grown this would be equivalent to heating between 86,000 to more than one million homes for a year.

Utilize your state’s extension service for comprehensive local plant and gardening information, as well as services like soil testing and plant disease diagnosis.

Right place, right plant

While native plants certainly have their benefits, that’s not to say you can’t mix in some ornamental perennials. I certainly have my fair share in my yard. However, please be aware of what planting zone you live in before you buy plants—it will save you time, money, and resources. These zones are divided to help you know what trees, shrubs, and perennial plants will survive in your climate. If you don’t know yours, check the USDA plant hardiness zones. Plant tags will have the acceptable zones listed.

It might be hard, but accept the climate that you live in. For example, in Utah, our soil is very alkaline and so acid-loving plants such as blueberries and rhododendrons don’t do well. As much as I’d like to have them, to keep them alive requires a lot of additional resources. We also don’t have long, warm growing seasons like southern California or Florida, so it’s not best to try growing citrus.

And by the way, many garden centers offer these plants just the same and if you don’t know any better, you will be throwing your money away. Once my mom and I were leaving a local nursery when we saw a couple taking a large number of expensive jasmine plants to their car. With that many, it was clear they intended to plant them. Jasmine do not overwinter in our climate, and come spring they will be dead unless planted in a pot and brought indoors during the cold months.

After debating whether to mind our own business, my mom decided to ask if they knew this about jasmine, which of course they did not. They gratefully turned around to return the plants. I found it pretty disappointing that whoever sold them the plants said nothing.

Explore my favorite drought-tolerant plants here.

Importance of plant placement

Conditions

Our yards contain numerous microclimates—some spots are hotter than others, some have wetter soil, and others have better wind protection. Knowing this about your landscape can help you have more success in what plants you grow in each area.

There is a little leeway on plant placement: for example, a plant labeled full sun might tolerate some shade. But overall, plants placed in inappropriate growing conditions (lighting, moisture, temperature, etc.) become stressed and are more prone to pest problems and don’t thrive. Plants that require full sun that are placed in the shade will become leggy and unattractive; conversely, shade-loving plants planted in full-sun exposure will burn.

In addition to light, place plants with similar water needs together. This practice can help you water different areas of your yard more efficiently while creating the best conditions for your plants.

Size

Consider the mature size of plants before planting. You may be tempted to place plants close together to fill a garden bed, but don’t. Allow them appropriate space to grow. This becomes even more important with larger plants like trees and shrubs. It’s not uncommon to see tree limbs draped over or even resting on a roof, or a shrub smashed up against the facade of a house, evidence of someone’s lack of foresight. At worst these situations cause major damage, like trees planted too close to a house, causing foundation, utility, or plumbing damage. At best, they are are an annoyance that requires frequent pruning as to not outgrow its designated spot.

Energy saving

Contrary to planting in the wrong place, strategically placed plants can have significant benefits when it comes to energy conservation in your home.

In summer, trees directly cool the air through transpiration, where water evaporates from leaf surfaces, similar to how our skin is cooled when we sweat. And of course, they provide shade. Planting deciduous trees on the sides of a house where there is the most sun exposure helps to cool the home. Conversely, in winter, the lack of leaves allows the penetration of the sun’s heat.

Providing shade for an air conditioner unit can also save energy, increasing its efficiency by 10%.

Trees and shrubs can also provide wind protection during the cold months. Wind can force cold air in through cracks and holes in walls and around windows and doors. A well-designed windbreak can reduce heating costs by 10% to 25%. Evergreens, especially those that have crowns that extend to the ground, are the most effective windbreak choices since they keep their foliage in winter. Examples are junipers, spruces, firs, and evergreen shrubs. Consider what direction the winter winds come from where you live to determine planting site.

According to the U.S. Forestry service, the average reduction in national residential energy use due to trees is 7.2%.

For more guidelines and instructions on how to place trees for energy conservation, visit the Arbor Day Foundation.

Turf management

Lawns are the most resource-intensive areas of the landscape. Sustainable turf management works toward decreasing dependence on those resources, namely water, fertilizer, and herbicides.

In addition to heavy user of resources, large exapanses of turfgrass are barren in terms of biodiversity. They do not provide significant food or shelter for animals in comparison to areas planted with a variety of vegetation.

As aesthetically pleasing as a perfect, green expanse of grass is, that shouldn’t be the goal. The misuse and overconsumption people display in their watering practices drives me absolutely crazy. In general, turfgrass only needs 1 to 1.5 inches of water per week to survive.

Lawn care tips

Aside from watering practices, (which is briefly outlined below and is covered more in depth here) there are several green practices that will help the health of your lawn.

  • First, choosing the right turfgrass species with low water requirements for your climate is key.
  • Mow higher, allowing grass heigh to remain 3-4 inches during summer months to keep roots cool and encourage deeper root growth.
  • Leave grass clippings on the lawn, also known as grasscycling. Mulching grass preserves moisture, adds nitrogen back to the soil, and helps the grass maintain a healthy root structure. This will reduce water and fertilizer needs as well as green waste generation.
  • Allow the lawn to go dormant during the summer; only fertilize in spring and fall.
  • Compost is an alternative to synthetic fertilizer. It can also be spread in a thin layer over the turf in a similar manner as synthetic fertilizer. Learn more about this method here.
  • It is recommended to have the lawn aerated prior to applying fertilizer or compost to allow for better nutrient penetration. Aerating also increases water infiltration and decreases thatch and compaction.

Create habitat friendly spaces

Wildlife is imperative for eco-friendly landscape. Increasing habitat loss, pollution, and climate change make creating havens for wildlife more important than ever. This is best achieved by adding an assortment of flora that attracts and protects a variety of fauna.

Why is biodiversity important?

A wide range of plants and creatures, animals and microorganisms alike, are necessary to promote a healthy ecological environment. Species that are part of a diverse environment are more likely to have the ability to withstand stressors like drought, disease, or a changing climate. This is very important to maintain predator-prey balance as well as the codependent relationships between species.

Plant diversity in a yard can discourage plant pests. A diverse plant population often increases beneficial organism populations. Beneficial organisms include birds, insects, and microorganisms. Multiple plantings of a single species are less sustainable.

In addition, biodiversity is important for water filtration, flood protection, food security, and development of medicines. There are economic implications of biodiversity loss: the World Economic Forum listed biodiversity loss as a top economic threat in its Global Risks Report of 2022. 

Three elements need to be present to adequately help local wildlife: food, water, and protection.

Food sources

Wildlife obviously needs food to survive, and growing the right plants can help them out, especially during the winter months. Again, native plants are the best options here, but there are many other ornamental plants that can do the job.

Probably the most important plants are those that provide pollen and nectar for pollinators. My favorite plants will attract bees and butterflies alike. And they’re drought tolerant.

  • Milkweed – of particular importance since the monarch population has declined by 90% since 1997
  • Agastache
  • Coneflower
  • Coreopsis
  • Russian sage
  • Catmint
  • Bee balm
  • Joe Pye weed
  • Butterfly bush
  • Lavender
  • Penstemon
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Gaura
  • Bluebeard
  • Alyssum
  • Yarrow
  • Herbs

Hummingbirds will also enjoy many of these flowers, particularly the agastache, aka hummingbird mint, and penstemon, as well as milkweed and bee balm. They also like honeysuckle. Look for tubular flowers, especially red and orange, to attract them; however, in my experience they will feed on whatever is available. Learn more about hummingbirds from the Audubon Society.

Grow plants with seeds or berries to feed birds. Some great options include blackberry, serviceberry, elderberry, native grasses, sunflowers, oaks, sumac, birches, and pine. Visit the Audubon Society for everything you need to know about plants for birds.

In the fall, don’t deadhead flower heads with seeds. Allow them to remain through the winter so birds can snack on the seeds of sunflowers, coneflower, liatris, Joe Pye weed, asters, and goldenrod during the cold months. Then cut back in early spring.

Supplemental feeding

Bird feeders and hummingbird feeders can help provide food during colder months are when nearby flowers are not currently in bloom.

Sunflower seeds attract the widest variety of birds. Other varieties of seed can help attract different types of birds. These include:

  • Safflower
  • Nyjer or thistle
  • White proso millet
  • Shelled and cracked corn
  • Peanuts
  • Milo or sorghum
  • Rapeseed and canary seed

Check the ingredients of seed mixes for fillers like red or golden millet, flax, or oats. These are not attractive to most birds and can lead to a lot of waste as the birds sort through the mix.

For another bird snack, try making seed balls.

How to make sugar water for hummingbirds

Making your own nectar for hummingbird feeders is easy, quick, and inexpensive. It is also more eco-friendly as it decreases the need for packaging and transportation. All you need is water and sugar. Mix one part sugar to four parts water. Warm or hot water helps the sugar to dissolve quicker. Do NOT add red dye: it is unnecessary to attract hummingbirds and not proven to be safe. Make sure you wash the feeder at least weekly to prevent the growth of potentially fatal pathogens.

Access to water

bubbling rock

Water sources can range from very simple like a dish of water to complex, like a water feature or pond. Birds actually prefer water sources at ground level. Check out this very informative article on how to best set up a birdbath.

Insects need water, too. However, they are more prone to drown in birdbaths. So for water sources in the garden, add a layer of pebbles or glass marbles for them to walk on.

birdbath with stones

Providing cover

Animals need cover from the elements, a refuge to hide from predators, as well as places to raise their young—especially near food and water sources. Having a variety of plants and other elements in the garden can offer many kinds of cover for wildlife as each species has its own needs.

Shelter for insects

Most insects, including pollinators, overwinter in dead plant stems, branches of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers, undisturbed ground, rock piles, brush piles, and dead wood. Numerous insects survive the winter in leaf litter. This includes butterflies, moths, ladybugs, fireflies, beetles, queen bumblebees, and many more. The Xerces Society actually recommends leaving the leaves for this purpose. I do often use them to mulch garden beds for the winter but they also say to leave a thin layer covering the lawn. As they break down they add nutrients to the soil. Then it is recommended to wait until late spring to clean them up if needed to ensure the overwintering insects have time to emerge.

Many native bees are solitary and ground-nesting, and cannot penetrate turf, thick mulch, or weed barrier fabric. Allow some areas of bare ground free of mulch for nesting.

If you like a tidy yard like me, leaving these things in the yard might be a stretch. If you can find just a corner of the yard to do this, that’s great. I am going to incorporate this into my fall cleanup this year. Having a safe place to spend the cold months is one of the most important factors in conserving pollinators and other insects. For more in depth information on providing nesting and overwintering habitat for insects, check out the Xerces Society website.

If it’s not possible for you to leave some natural litter, try adding a bee hotel or bug hotel.

Refuge for small animals

For other animals, the National Wildlife Federation recommends at least two of the following:

  • Wooded Area
  • Bramble Patch
  • Ground Cover
  • Rock Pile or Wall
  • Cave
  • Roosting Box

There are many different types of man-made shelters you can place in your yard to attract/house specific critters.

  • Bat house
  • Roosting or nesting box
  • Raptor or owl box
  • Squirrel house
  • Toad abode

My brother built a raptor box at his house and a pair of kestrels moved in and had a family. These are a great natural method for keeping the rodent population in check, just as bats are helpful in controlling insects, especially mosquitos. Bats can eat 1,000 mosquitos in a single hour, and consume thousands of bugs each night!

Best water conservation & management practices

There is a lot to cover here, so I have created a separate page dedicated to Conserving Water in Your Landscape. There you will find everything you need to know about saving this precious resource in your outdoor space.

Decrease your contributions to stormwater pollution

  • Don’t dump waste into storm drains.
  • Keep yard clippings out of the street.
  • Dispose of household chemicals properly by following the directions on the package or by calling the local public works department for proper disposal guidelines.
  • Clean up oil spills and fix leaking automobiles.
  • Use drip pans to catch engine oil and other pollutants while repairing cars.
  • Recycle used motor oil.
  • Sweep driveways clean instead of hosing them down.
  • Water your lawn by hand, or adjusted sprinklers to avoid over-watering. If any water flows off your lawn, you’re using too much water.
  • Wash your car at a commercial car wash, or at least wash your car on an unpaved surface so the excess water can be absorbed by the ground.
  • Drain swimming pools and spas into a sanitary sewer outlet, never into a street. Check first with your local wastewater treatment plant before disposing of anything in the sewer.

Fertilizers

Before you fertilize, have your soil tested. The results will help guide you on what product you need, if any.

Fertilizers can be divided into two categories: inorganic and organic.

Inorganic (synthetic) fertilizer

Inorganic fertilizer is manufactured by extraction or industrial processes. It is very nutrient dense. Packages are labeled with three numbers, which is known as the N-P-K system: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The numbers represent the percentage of each element. For example, if a 100 pound bag of fertilizer is labeled 8-32-16, it contains 8 pounds of nitrogen, 32 pounds of phosphorus, and 16 pounds of potassium. From there you can calculate how much fertilizer is needed.

Pros of inorganic fertilizer

  • Nutrients are readily available to plants, leading to quick results.
  • Clearly defined nutrient levels.
  • Relatively inexpensive.
  • Overall quick and easy to apply.

Cons of inorganic fertilizer

  • Nutrients are lost from the soil quickly, so this type of fertilizer requires frequent applications, unless using a slow-release formula. On average, crops take up take up only half of the fertilizer’s nitrogen.
  • A significant portion of applied fertilizer runs off and into waterways, creating algae blooms that are harmful to aquatic life. Other portions get broken down by microbes in the soil, releasing nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide holds 300 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
  • Manufacture of synthetic fertilizer requires a lot of energy, which largely come from burning fossil fuels. Ammonia manufacturing today contributes 1-2% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions.
  • University of Cambridge researchers have calculated the carbon footprint for the full life cycle of fertilizers, which are responsible for approximately 5% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Can contain additional chemicals and toxins which can build up in soil.

Basics of using inorganic fertilizer

  • Apply fertilizer to lawns only in fall and spring. Allow the grass to go dormant during the summer months. A quick-release fertilizer applied in fall—not spring—is the most important because it helps grass build reserves for spring growth.
  • Use the minimum amount of fertilizer you need to avoid overfertilizing, which can run off into groundwater sources, adding to water pollution. Apply only the smallest amount of nitrogen-base fertilizer you need; excess nitrogen can burn lawns.
  • Click here to learn how to select and appropriately use inorganic fertilizers in your landscape.

Organic fertilizer

Organic fertilizer originates from plants or animals. These include things like bone or blood meal, compost, manure, leaves, or grass clippings. Compost is the most sustainable and effective natural method to provide nutrients to your plants. When creating a new bed, mix in a few inches of compost, and about one inch each season thereafter. Learn more about organic fertilizers here.

Another strategy to naturally add nutrients to garden soil is to plant cover crops, also referred to as green manures. This process entails growing plants in fallow (unused) areas of the garden, later incorporating them into the soil. These plants offer numerous benefits beyond increasing organic matter in the soil. They help control erosion and weeds, prevent soil compaction, provide habitat for beneficial insects, and improve soil fertility. Additionally, cover crops stimulate soil biological activity and absorb and recycle plant nutrients, particularly nitrogen, during periods between main crop growing seasons.

Examples of commonly used cover crops include legumes, clover, hairy vetch, and winter wheat. Learn more about cover cropping here.

Pros of organic fertilizer

  • Naturally occurring, no chemicals added.
  • Can make organic fertilizer on your own.
  • Don’t create a crust on the soil as inorganics sometimes do.
  • Improves soil structure and tilth, thereby supporting plant growth and water penetration.
  • Application frequency is less than synthetic fertilizer
  • Provides plants with nutrients throughout their growth cycle
  • Minimal loss of nutrients to the environment

Cons of organic fertilizer

  • Unfinished compost can contain weed seeds.
  • Fresh manure contains high amounts of salts, which can damage plants. Make sure it is fully composted before applying.
  • Contains lower concentrations of nutrients than synthetic; uptake is slow.
  • May cost more as a larger amount may be needed since concentration is lower, unless you DIY.
  • Slow to produce results because it has to be first broken down by microorganisms to release nutrients; most effective when soil is moist and temperatures are warm enough to promote microbial activity.

Compost is the best overall amendment for any soil, and can be enough to completely eliminate the need for additional fertilizers. Between compost and mulch, my flowers and veggies stay happy. Click here to learn the basics of composting.

I fully understand the frustration of working hard to grow a garden only to battle invaders like pests and weeds. It can be maddening and disheartening.

Having said that, I think we should all take a step back and remember that our gardens are part of a bigger ecosystem that doesn’t care about fences or borders. As much as we try to control nature, it usually wins. So maybe we could let up just a bit? Give it some thought.

I’m not saying let your yard become a free for all—I’m much too perfectionist for that. And I’ll never stop wanting to take a blowtorch to every wasp nest or bindweed plant I encounter. But maybe leave a dandelion or two for the bees, or grow plants in your garden to be the sacrificial lamb and keep pests away from the ones you care about.

Prevention is key to both pest and weed control, and many strategies can be utilized without dependence on chemicals.

Sign that reads: "If something is not eating your plants, then your garden is not part of the ecosystem."

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

IPM is defined as “a sustainable approach to managing pests by combining biological, cultural, physical, and chemical tools in a way that minimizes economic, health, and environmental risks.” This applies to both animal pests as well as plant pests. The goal of this multifaceted strategy is not to completely eradicate or eliminate pests, rather it is to get them to tolerable levels.

There are four main steps to this system.

  1. Know your pest and plant health problems.
  2. Decide what is unacceptable pest damage for your situation.
  3. Consider all available pest management practices.
  4. Time pest control with windows of opportunity, i.e. the points in a pest’s life cycle where they are most vulnerable to control, which is usually the immature stage.

Cultural

Physical

  • Hand removal
  • Mowing
  • Physical barrier
  • Traps

Biological

  • Natural predators
  • Parasites
  • Pathogens
  • Herbivorous insects

As you can see, there are many methods to utilize before reaching for chemical assistance. IPM is largely regionally-based, so check with your local extension for the most accurate information for pest control in your area.

To learn more general information about IPM, read Alternative Pest Control Methods for Homeowners and watch this video made by USU.

There are a couple of biological methods I want to briefly expand on because I feel like they have helped my vegetable garden go relatively unscathed by pets (knock on wood).

Deterring insect pests naturally

Sacrificial planting, or trap cropping, involves placing plants that attract garden pests in order to deter them from prized plants. These plants can be placed in a perimeter around the plants needing protection, or mixed among them. Know what pest you are targeting in order to select the most effective sacrificial companion plants. The most commonly used include:

  • Marigolds
  • Lavender
  • Chervil
  • Sunflowers
  • Nasturtium
  • Nettles
  • Radishes
  • Blue Hubbard squash

Attracting pest predators

Plant selection can also help attract beneficial insects that prey upon pests. These insect friends include ladybugs, praying mantis, green lacewings, spiders, ground beetles, soldier beetles, assassin bugs, and parasitic wasps.

I have found that a good way to remember the flowers that attract these predators is that many of them have tiny blossoms. Queen Anne’s lace, alyssum, yarrow, and herbs like dill, fennel, coriander, and parsley left to flower are some of the most effective plants to grow. Others include lavender, coneflower, blanket flower, sunflower, cosmos, coreopsis, and goldenrod.

Responsible chemical use

Unfortunately, there are situations where synthetic pesticides or herbicides are the best option. In these cases, choose one that has the host and the pest on the label. In most cases, a selective pesticide is better than a broad-spectrum pesticide because it tends to have less impact on non-target organisms. Broad-spectrum can not only kill the beneficial insects as well as the pests, they can also harm other animals that feed on insects such as birds and bats.

Other pearls include:

  • Always, read and follow pesticide and herbicide label directions. This is the number one rule when handling chemicals of any kind. Mix chemicals outdoors.
  • Avoid herbicide products with glyphosate, 2,4-D, or organophosphates. These have been associated with a number of harmful health effects.
  • Avoid insecticides that contain neonics, or neonicotinoids, especially imidacloprid.
  • Choose ready-mixed products to minimize chemical exposure.
  • Timing matters: apply pesticides in the early morning or the evening when bees and other pollinators are not active. Herbicides vaporize and drift at temperatures above 85 degrees, so unless you want to kill other plants in your yard or a neighbor’s, save spraying for cooler days.

Mulch: a universal solution

We’ve discussed many gardening concerns, and a solution to many of them is mulch. Specifically organic mulch. Plant-based mulch options include materials like wood chips, shredded bark, straw or hay, grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, and nut hulls. Many of these are great, inexpensive options that you may already have in your yard.

  • Plant health – insulates roots from extreme temperature variations, which reduces winter injury and keeps temps cooler in summer; reduce rot by eliminating contact between fruit/veggies and soil
  • Habitat creation – leaving an undisturbed layer of pine needles in a wooded area is an option to create a natural overwintering spot for insects
  • Water conservation – reduces water loss from evaporation, maintains even soil moisture and improves retention
  • Soil health – as mulch biodegrades, it adds organic matter and nutrients, improving soil structure; reduces soil compaction and erosion
  • Pest control – acts as a barrier to weeds, reduces soilborne diseases by protecting plant from pathogens splashing up from the soil

The main type of non-organic mulch used are rocks or gravel, but use should be limited. As mentioned above, large areas of stone trap heat, increasing soil and surface temperatures, which can scorch plants. Additionally, the soil under stones becomes compacted. Compacted soil won’t be healthy, as nutrients, water, and air will not reach plant roots as effectively. Rocks and stones should accent and complement the landscape, not be the primary feature.

Stay away from shredded rubber, as it is not biodegradeable and leaches toxins and microplastics as it degrades. It is also a fire hazard, and gets very hot and smelly.

How to apply mulch

Spread mulch uniformly, making sure to leave a gap of a few inches around each plant’s stem or trunk. This open area promotes air circulation at the base of the plant and helps prevent diseases. The depth of the mulch depends on the type of mulch, but in general a two to four inch layer will work for most. Applying mulch to thinly will decrease the benefits and require replenishing more frequently. Layers that are too thick decrease soil oxygen and may discourage water from reaching plant roots.

I like to use grass clippings in my vegetable garden, which I collect from the bag on my lawn mower. Note that with this type of mulch, you want to keep the layer thinner than other types of mulches, around 3⁄4- to 1-inch deep. A deep layer of grass clippings can get matted down, preventing air from reaching the soil. It also becomes slimy and malodorous when layers are too deep. Don’t use grass with lots of weeds, which may spread seeds into your garden, or grass that has been treated with chemicals.

For my flower beds, I prefer shredded bark. I like its appearance and it is long lasting, only requiring replenishment every several years.

If you’d like a more depth look at mulch, check out Mulching the Landscape, from the University of Nebraska Extension.

Chip Drop is a free wood chip option that might be worth a try. This company works with arborists and tree companies that want to get rid of their wood chips and Chip Drop will make arrangements for delivery.

Should you use landscape fabric?

Some people swear by landscape fabric, aka weed fabric, but I am not a fan for numerous reasons. First of all, from an eco-friendly standpoint, it doesn’t have a place in a sustainable garden. Most weed barrier fabrics are made from synthetic, fossil fuel-based plastic material like polyester or polypropylene. It will eventually break down, but does not biodegrade, leaving behind little plastic particles and most likely some chemicals as well, especially undesirable near edibles. If that’s not enough to deter you, there’s more.

  • Effectiveness of the main purpose—to discourage weeds—is mediocre at best. Weed seeds can still establish themselves on top of the fabric, and many persistent roots will penetrate through the fabric, making it a royal pain to dig up. Weeds are better deterred by mulch alone, ground cover, or dense plantings.
  • Constricts plant growth and spread.
  • Cutting holes to dig holes for new plants while keeping mulch from sliding in isn’t fun.
  • Depending on the permeability of the fabric, water may not be able to get through it sufficiently.
  • Fabric is impenetrable for ground-nesting bees and other burrowing invertebrates, notably earthworms.
  • The soil underneath becomes more compacted, leading to poor soil health.
  • Soil health won’t improve over time since organic matter cannot be incorporated into the soil below by earthworms and other soil life when landscape fabric is in place.
  • Slope placement, or strong wind or rain will make mulch slide right off the fabric, out of your garden beds, and into the gutter, sidewalk, or grass.

Bottom line, landscape fabric does more harm than good. If you want a base layer under mulch, use cardboard or a thick layer of newspaper. Otherwise, I think the only application should be to stabilize and contain the soil under hardscapes like pavers or gravel, but even then they are not absolutely necessary.

And there you have it. Begin to incorporate these principles into your landscape, and you’ll have a beautiful, sustainable garden in no time. Happy gardening!

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