Starting a garden: ideas from a zero waste perspective

Starting a garden: ideas from a zero waste perspective - Green Indy Blog

The weather is slowly turning towards spring and it’s time to start thinking about your garden. A big part of a zero waste life is reducing your impact on the planet; what better way to do that than by planting and growing some of your food?

Even if you only have a small space and limited time, you have options. Grow something and cultivate your connection toward nature in whatever way works for you!

consider the impact of store-bought

No matter how much we garden, we’re pretty much all stuck with shopping at the store. Still, here are some ideas to think about when deciding whether to plant a garden:

  • your food travels really far. Some estimates peg an average meal’s travel miles to be around 1,500. Even if you buy all local, your average distance is still 45 miles. Think of all the the fossils fuels burning into the atmosphere to get that apple onto your plate. Surveys have shown that a typical meal-some meat, grain, fruits, and vegetables-using local ingredients entails four to 17 times less petroleum consumption in transport than the same meal bought from the conventional food chain.  (source)
  • packaging runs rampant: I can think of at least three pieces of produce (cauliflower, carrots, and celery) that are almost impossible to source packageless. By growing it yourself, you can avoid the struggle of going without vs buying plastic.
  • the high cost of organic: let’s be real, most people can’t afford to buy 100% organic. I don’t, especially when you factor in packaging into the equation. Everyone has different priorities, but avoiding pesticides is always good practice if possible. For a relatively low cost, you can grow your own foods that you can be sure are pesticide free.
  • having a lawn is just not good land management: moving your lawn makes up five percent of the total greenhouse gases produced in the United States (source). I could go into a long diatribe about why lawns are useless, but maintaining a space simply for aesthetic purposes is something we need to move past.
should I actually start a garden?

While lots of people want to start a garden, there’s some compelling reasons why it may not be worth it – or it may not be worth creating the gigantic garden of your dreams. Weigh some factors in your mind (and maybe temper your passion with reality) by considering these questions:

What kind of time commitment can I make? While a backyard garden sounds idyllic, many fail to account for how much time and energy it’ll take to create something beautiful and functional. An established garden may take only an hour or two per week, but think about the time it’ll take to mulch, plant, water, and weed a new garden. Plus, once harvest time comes around, you may be wishing you planted a whole lot less!

Do I actually enjoy being outside? This might sound like a stupid question, but I’ve known people who don’t even like to be outside decide to start a garden. Why?! They love the idea of a garden and want that hyper-local produce, but don’t actually enjoy any part of the process. Why bother?

Do I have access to low-cost local goods already? If you already have a vibrant, reasonably-priced farmers market nearby, you can probably scale back your garden dreams a good deal. I live in the Midwest and therefore have access to some pretty cheap, great produce, so there’s a lot I’m happy to buy. But there are some things that I can’t get reliably or still tend to be a bit pricey. Those things, I’ll do myself (plus, I just like gardening).

Starting a garden: ideas from a zero waste perspective - Green Indy Blog

What kind of garden should I create?

Ideally, your garden would be both edible and beautiful, but I think a zero waste garden should be more focused toward functionality versus aesthetics.

Aside from books about how to lay out a garden, I also like to reference books that are specifically geared toward creating an edible garden. I’d recommend The Kitchen Gardener’s Handbook by Jennifer R. Bartley for a book that focuses on edible plants as well as how to plant them by season. She’s also heavily focused on the aesthetics of gardening, so that’s a plus.

While the specifics will vary based on your location, weather, soil conditions, etc., I’d suggest growing:

  • leafy greens for salads
  • some sort of root vegetables
  • location-appropriate berries or fruit
  • herbs for flavor and medicinal purposes (lots of great information at The Herbal Academy site)

As well as whatever vegetables will grow easily and happily in your location!

resources to get started
If you live in an apartment…

I’ve been here, friends, and it’s a tricky spot to be in. But if I could grow herbs and tomatoes in a north-facing balcony, I have faith you could do it too!

Small-Space Container Gardens by Fern Richardson: container gardens are a great options for those who either live in an apartment or aren’t able to tear up their property, a rental for example. This book was so helpful to me as it covers all the stuff you never think of, like how to deal with wind on high-up balconies or which plants are actually happy to be stuffed into a container!

The Edible Balcony: Growing Fresh Produce in Small Spaces by Alex Mitchell: another key book I dove into when trying to figure out WTF I could do with a small balcony. I like that this book has a focus on food because, especially if you live far from fresh produce in an urban area, growing your own food is key. As an added bonus, the book is also heavily focused on sustainability.

If you have a little bit of outdoor space…

So you have some free space for a garden but not much? Perfect – that’s absolutely not an issue if you’re keen to grow for even three or four people!

Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work by Mel Bartholomew: this book sat in my house growing up and I recently came back to it. This is what I’ll be basing my garden plans on. Instead of focusing on long rows of produce, this book promotes gardening in 4×4 foot squares, which reduces the effort and resources of caring for a garden as well as being able to more effectively gauge how much you really need to grow!

Your Farm in the City by Lisa Taylor: I paged through this book and got a lot of really cool ideas! This book operates on the premise that you’re in an urban space and have at least a little bit of land to work on. This book is practical for someone growing an individual garden or even scaling all the way up into a community garden. (It even includes a section on growing livestock if you’re feeling exceptionally brave.)

If you have a lot of outdoor space…

It can be tempting to tear up your whole lawn and create a massive garden (yeah, not speaking from personal experience or anything), but be very realistic about what you can maintain. Still, growing a large garden for you or your community is pretty tempting…

Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre by Brett L. Markham: I haven’t gone through this book much, but it has a ton of excellent reviews on Amazon and I’ll be diving into it as the season progresses. This book is interesting because it not only shows you how to garden for yourself, but also delves into the way self-sufficiency can earn you money as well.

Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work by Mel Bartholomew: this book sat in my house growing up and I recently came back to it. This is what I’ll be basing my garden plans on. Instead of focusing on long rows of produce, this book promotes gardening in 4×4 foot squares, which reduces the effort and resources of caring for a garden as well as being able to more effectively gauge how much you really need to grow!

The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan: while this book goes beyond what I’d be capable of (goats, chickens, bees, etc.), this book is full of great information on what to do with your excess goods. Preserving, canning, fermenting, freezing – you name it, this books talks about how to enjoy all your hard-fought goods beyond just those warm summer months!

creating a sustainable, low-waste garden

If you’re interested in diving deeper into creating a garden that uses minimal resources, I’d suggest the book Grow More With Less: Sustainable Garden Methods by Vincent A. Simeone which I’ll reference here several times. It covers eco-friendly strategic planning for your garden as well as plenty of other ongoing conservation methods.

choose the right plants for your space

Essentially, the most sustainable thing you can do is choose plants that belong where you’re planting them. Don’t spend excess energy and resources trying to grow sun-loving plants in the shade or water-loving plants in a relatively dry area.

As Simeone writes, “many times gardeners make the mistake of selecting plants based solely on their aesthetic qualities, with the main consideration being: where will the plant look best? The answer to that question is that they plant will look best in the growing conditions it is most suited to grow in.”

Don’t waste your time, resources, and a perfectly lovely plant trying to force something to grow where it won’t flourish. Garden strategically, not emotionally.

seed management

I love the concept of square foot gardening simply because he advocates for a much more careful use of our most important gardening resources, the seeds themselves. Bartholomew writes “the old practice of tearing open a packed of seed, sprinkling them… until the packet is empty… has been with us for so long it’s hard to know how it originated.” Instead, he urges single-seed sowing so you don’t have to thin out a ton of seedlings and waste the seeds that could be used for the next season.

I think that fits in so nicely with zero waste tenets.

water usage

While I’m interested in irrigation systems, I have neither the money nor inclination to invest in a system while I’m still experimenting with the final form my garden will take.

Instead I’m looking toward rainwater harvesting options. Ideas include:

  • creating a rain garden: basically, a garden that benefits from some soaking. I think this is ideal for those who have uneven yards with natural dips (just be careful the water doesn’t stand for days on end – nobody likes that). See chapter 5 of Grow More With Less for more information.
  • rain barrels: super simple, collect rainwater for later usage in whatever containers you have available. Some areas have restrictions on this, so be sure to check out local resources to see if this is an option for you.

Composting is not only a great way to feed your garden on the cheap, it’s also a critically important way to divert organic matter from the landfill where it often doesn’t decompose. (If you’re curious to learn more about the US’s food waste issues, be sure to check out the Wasted documentary.)

Introducing compost into your garden is a great way to create a more circular garden. At the end of the year, pull up old plants and have them become food for next year’s growth – win-win!

I also cover composting – the best methods for your space as well as a comprehensive overview and list of resources – in week 3 of Zero Waste 101. Check it out!

In upcoming posts I’ll be talking about my garden plans (which include a traditional garden along with some permaculture aspects). What plans do you have going forward? Do you have any good growing resources to recommend?

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