I recently went to a two-day conference presented by OEFFA, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. The attendees were folks who range from backyard growers selling herbs at the farmer’s market, all the way up to small farmers making $100K/year selling directly to grocery stores and restaurants. What they have in common is an interest in food production that is sustainable, local, and often (but not always) organic. The issue we all agree on is that we want to grow food that is safe to eat, and that doesn’t poison the environment or the grower in the process.
What does “sustainability” mean in this context? To me, it suggests growing plants in a balanced way, where inputs (such as fertilizer, water, or mulch) are equal to outputs (like vegetables, shade trees, or green lawns) in a given situation. This could refer to a 500-acre farm as easily as to a suburban backyard. When the system is in balance -- when it doesn’t require an unusual quantity of outside inputs to achieve our goals – then we are closer to creating a sustainable garden.
I think February – a month filled with planning and preparation for many gardeners – is a perfect time think about sustainability. Think back to your garden last summer, and ask yourself if there are things you’d like to do differently. Do your gardening practices reflect your values when you spend time outside? Can you adopt some new strategies that a) make your life easier, b) are inexpensive, and c) make it look like you have a fantastic green thumb? The answer is yes!
One of the simplest and most sustainable actions you can take as a gardener is to make your own COMPOST. In other words, collect all the extra plant material you generate between the kitchen and your landscape during the year, and use it to build a rich, nutritious soil amendment. Use everything from table scraps to lawn clippings, egg shells to oak leaves to coffee grounds and instead of throwing it into the garbage (or stuffing it into bags destined for the curb), simply add it to a pile in the corner of the yard. Add some water and flip it over occasionally. Every fall or spring, sprinkle that compost throughout the yard and watch your plants thrive. If you grow vegetables, it won’t completely replace fertilizer but it will reduce the quantity you use, and your plants will have improved pest and disease resistance.
Now, composting makes some people nervous. They’re afraid they’re doing it wrong, or it’s going to be smelly or attract insects or rodents. To this I say: PANCAKES. Yes, pancakes. I’m guessing the very first pancake you made as a kid was less than perfect. Maybe the batter was thin or you tried to flip it too soon. Or maybe you forgot to add an egg or you burnt it. Did you give up on flapjacks, or did you try again? Did practice make each new pancake better than the last one? Of course it did, and the same is true of compost! It takes tenacity and careful observation to make great compost (and great pancakes), but once you figure it out, you’ll get it right 99% of the time.
There are many environmental benefits to making your own compost: Less plant material goes to the landfill but instead it stays right where it started, in your own yard. You’re not paying a company to stuff compost into a petroleum-based bag and then truck it across the country. And your garden will reward you with happier flowers, vegetables, trees, and shrubs. I’d call that a sustainability triple-win!