How to design a 100% sustainable garden

From plants and saving resources to furniture and technology

Inspirations / How to


Estimated reading time 7 minutes

Sustainability informs every aspect of life, but what is it? It’s a state that ensures well-being in the present without compromising future well-being, by safeguarding natural resources and more. The concept may sound abstract, but in reality it’s very real because it also has a bearing on our everyday routine behaviours: what we eat and buy, how we get around, how we choose to dress, and so on. It even affects how we do gardening, because a sustainable garden is a green space with no (or minimal) waste and pollution.

A garden is certainly no forest but in its own small way, as part of the urban environment, it contributes to providing a series of ecosystem services together with other gardens, allotments, roadside trees, public green spaces and so on. We benefit from all these things, often without realising it: from the photosynthesis that absorbs carbon dioxide and releases the oxygen we breathe, to the food we eat, the pollination needed to produce it, and the pleasant views that surround us. So let's check out some practical tips for sustainable gardening and gardens.

Designing a sustainable garden

The first step in designing a sustainable garden is choosing trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. It’s not just a question of what looks nice, it actually depends on the role you want the vegetation to perform, whether it be partitioning, screening, shading, dampening traffic noise...

It is important to know about the plants you want to plant. Each has its own peculiarities and needs, which must be reconciled with the characteristics of your location, such as climate, exposure, available space and type of soil. Plants have needs too, including the need to be tended, which takes time, some basic knowledge and a minimum amount of equipment.

In your sustainable garden you can plan to have fruit trees and a vegetable patch, which you cultivate according to sustainability criteria. Growing your own produce allows you to reduce or even eliminate your expenditure on fruit and vegetables, even if you don't have a large space to grow them in. If you grow more than you can consume, don't waste anything—swap produce with friends and neighbours, make conserves with it, freeze it...

Aim for a wide variety of garden plants: biodiversity is the prerequisite underpinning the ecosystem services we mentioned earlier, because these services are the result of interaction between living organisms and their environment. For example, flowering plants and hedges with flowering shrubs attract useful insects such as pollinators (bees and the like). You can also provide these pollinators with food and shelter by leaving a small part of the garden "fallow", i.e. uncultivated, through practising crop rotation. In this article on vines, you can learn more about the many benefits of biodiversity.

In addition to plants, the biodiversity of a sustainable garden depends on the presence of insects, birds, toads, small mammals such as hedgehogs, and other small animals. Evergreen hedges provide microhabitats for insects and fauna, as do water features (by the way, here’s how to create your own biopool). You can shelter insectivorous birds by putting out bird boxes and attract useful insects, such as ladybirds, by creating improvised shelters. This is another practical example of ecosystem services: insect-eating birds help to combat the spread of mosquitoes, while ladybirds help to control ants.

A sustainable garden reduces waste and pollution

For your sustainable garden you should select low-maintenance plants that don’t require too much care, especially in terms of water and fertiliser. Likewise, it is advisable to opt for vegetation that is resistant to parasites and disease, so it doesn't require treating as often. In addition to being in harmony with the environment, these solutions help to reduce the cost of maintaining the garden.

Water is too precious to be wasted, so it should be used carefully. This applies even more to drinking water, which you can reuse to water your sustainable garden (including the water you wash fruit and vegetables with). When it rains you can collect runoff from the roof with a suitable rainwater harvesting system. You can use a pump to distribute water to your plants, whether it is harvested from precipitation or drawn from a ditch or other source (provided that it’s clean and safe).

You can optimise your water usage by designing an efficient drip irrigation or other watering system. Take advantage of all possible solutions to preserve soil moisture and reduce evaporation: till the soil and simultaneously add organic substances to it using a rotary tiller or hoe; in summer, protect the beds of your sustainable garden and vegetable plots by mulching or weeding, and water in the evening or early morning.

There is no such thing as waste in a sustainable garden, and that applies not just to water. Organic waste can be converted into excellent compost for fertilising plants, enriching the soil with nutrients and making it softer and better able to retain moisture. All you need is a compost bin that you can fill with kitchen waste, grass cuttings, dead flowers and dry leaves, pruning debris, sawdust and so on: here we provide some instructions on building a DIY compost bin.

Even sustainable gardening generates waste, but this can be composted or made useful in other ways. You can spread leaf litter and grass cuttings as mulch. If your lawnmower (or garden tractor) is equipped with a mulch cutting system, in the warmest months you can deposit freshly mown grass on the ground, where it will decompose and fertilise the lawn. By contrast, pruning debris can be seasoned and used as firewood for a stove (see the link for suggestions on when and how to cut it with a chainsaw). You can also use waste wood for heating in the form of wood chips and pellets, by making your own pellets at home.

If you have no way to recycle or reuse green waste, dispose of it in accordance with local government guidelines for waste management. Burning green waste and pruning debris emits pollution and is only permitted in specific cases, otherwise you risk being fined.

As regards pesticides, in a sustainable garden you should aim to use natural rather than man-made products. Some of the most widespread pesticides of natural origin, such as pyrethrum and copper, have broad-spectrum effects, which means that they don’t just target particular animals or species, and can therefore compromise the biodiversity you are trying so hard to achieve. Here you will find a list of natural fungicides and insecticides for vegetable patches and gardens, which can also be applied using a mistblower.

In a garden, promoting biodiversity inherently means encouraging the presence of natural enemies of harmful insects. Preventing parasites and disease with limited use of treatments—including natural products—starts right from the stage of designing your sustainable garden, by ensuring that plants aren’t too close together and are well exposed to sunlight and air. In addition, pruning and trimming foliage so that it doesn’t get excessively dense is good practice if you want to avoid using pesticides where possible. For this purpose you can use a pruner and a hedgetrimmer, together with a chainsaw and pruning hand tools.

Likewise, it’s better not to interfere with the soil if possible, by avoiding man-made products and resorting to organic fertilisers only when needed. Compost, which you can produce yourself, makes the soil fertile and promotes its biodiversity by attracting a myriad of organisms: bacteria, fungi, earthworms, insects, spiders... The same goes for manure.

A sustainable garden can be both beautiful and technologically advanced

A sustainable garden design shouldn't overlook furniture and finishes (such as flowerbed borders, paths, etc.). Consideration should be given both to their function—is the furniture for resting, having lunch on or playing?—and to the style that you want to infuse your outdoor spaces with.

You can purchase items made from recycled materials. If you are good with your hands, you can opt to build your own furnishings, perhaps using locally sourced recycled materials (wood, stone, bricks...). You can also furnish and decorate your garden using waste wood left over from gardening, or try your hand at creatively reusing pallets. The DIY possibilities are endless if you have the time and manual skills, from building a trellis for climbing plants to making a tree house.

From an energy point of view, a sustainable garden minimises energy usage, exploits renewable sources and, as we already mentioned, provides fuel for heating your home without gas. Technology offers various solutions to help you: with solar panels, you can power an energy-efficient outdoor lighting system equipped with motion sensors. Renewable energy from the sun can also power an irrigation system, connected to moisture sensors that detect when the soil actually needs watering.

The criterion of making best use of available resources also applies to gardening equipment, which should be as environmentally friendly as possible: here you can learn more about the run times of battery-powered tools. This not only means choosing the most eco-friendly products, but also keeping the machines running efficiently through regular maintenance, the payoffs of which are less power usage and effort, greater safety, better results and healthier plants.

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