Sustainable Gardening

glorious sunset tree

Sustainable Gardening

Sustainability is the concept that man can achieve his social and economic goals without damaging the environment or endangering either biodiversity or natural ecosystems. Sustainability seeks a long-term balance between the needs of man and nature, to the ultimate benefit of both.

To many people, the “perfect” garden is one completely free of all weeds and pests. This ideal garden may be realized through the heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but only for a short period of time due to the risk of environmental damage. The environmental costs associated with heavy garden chemical use can include the destruction of beneficial insects, the potential emergence of chemical-resistant pests, the contamination of the soil and ground water, and other significant problems.

Sustainable gardening seeks to reduce harmful gardening practices, either chemical or cultural, resulting in a safer and healthier garden over the long-term. The gardener may need to change his or her concept of what a “perfect” garden is, recognizing that a healthy garden with a few weeds or chewed leaves can still be a source of great personal pleasure and pride. Sustainable gardens thrive with minimal inputs of labor, water, fertilizers, and pesticides, and are far friendlier to the environment than a garden relying on heavy chemical use or unsound garden practices.

Here are a few initial steps towards sustainable gardening that you can take:

  • Improve your soil. Have it tested so you know that it has the correct pH, nutrient levels, and organic content. Utilize natural fertilizers and soil amendments whenever possible. Correct any physical problems such as poor drainage or tilth. Healthy and vigorous plants require fertile soil.
  • Select the proper plants. Plants that are appropriate for your site require less care and maintenance than more fragile species. To reduce the need for pesticides, whenever possible, select plants and plant varieties that are resistant to the diseases and pests found in your area.
  • Conserve resources. Compost your yard waste to create mulch, return nutrients to the soil, and reduce the extra burden yard waste makes on our landfills. Return your grass clippings to the lawn. Conserve water by proper application frequencies, rates, and techniques. Encourage and protect the beneficial insects which are in your garden.
  • Protect your soil. Use mulches and ground covers to prevent soil erosion and weed growth, preserve soil moisture, and control soil temperatures. The mechanical removal of weeds when they are small is not only easier, but also reduces the need for herbicides later on. Use all pesticides and herbicides carefully, only in accordance with their labels, and only after other corrective measures have been tried.


“Integrated Pest Management”

“Organic Gardening”

What do these terms mean, and what is the relationship between them?

Earth from Apollo 17

Sustainability is one of the governing concepts of the Master Gardener program. In essence, it is the belief that man may achieve his personal, social and economic goals without causing undue environmental harm. Sustainability may be a goal in almost any human endeavor, from engineering to manufacturing to gardening.

Sustainable Gardening allows us to have beautiful and productive gardens while we protect and preserve our soil, water, air, biodiversity, and other resources. This may be accomplished by the cautious use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, by preserving our limited natural resources, by recycling our waste as much as possible, by the use of appropriate cultural practices, and by protecting the diversity of life around us.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a sustainable gardening approach for controlling garden pests that does not rely exclusively on pesticides. IPM asks the gardener to first consider the entire gardening environment before deciding on a course of action: identify the pest, learn about the plants involved, look at cultural issues that may be playing a part in the situation, and consider using non-chemical solutions first. IPM does not suggest that pesticides are never to be used, only that the gardener evaluate the situation fully and consider other control options – cultural, sanitary, biologic, and mechanical – before turning to chemical control. The goal of IPM is effective pest control without the unnecessary use of pesticides.

Organic Gardening is another approach to sustainable gardening. In this case, the gardener avoids the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, relying instead on natural forms of fertilizers and the non-chemical control of pests. The focus is on soil fertility, which is enhanced by the use of natural materials such as green manures, compost, and raw minerals. Pests and weeds are controlled by mechanical means, biological controls, interplanting and rotation, and physical barriers. The environmental “footprint” of the organic gardener is very light when compared to those who use garden chemicals heavily.


WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources. Develops and fosters agriculture and natural resource management that is economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially acceptable.

Organic Farming Systems and Nutrient Management. WSU  Organic Farming Systems and Nutrient Management..  Contains information about  Organic farming systems, organic agriculture, including nutrient management.

WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources – Compost. Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources containing links to sites about composting.

Cover Crops. WSU Extension describes the benefits of cover crops, different types of cover crops and their suitability for different situations, and how to grow and manage cover crops in your garden.

Lake-Friendly Gardening. Lake Whatcom Management Program site includes how to protect water resources while gardening.

Using Integrated Pest Management in the Landscape. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) article adapted from a WSU Puyallup Research Center publication. An excellent introduction to IPM.