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A Greener Thumb

Martha Stewart Living, March 2011

"In many ways, gardening is an unnatural act," says garden expert Stephen Orr. "Consider how we've traditionally made gardens: importing plants, sloshing them with precious water, moving earth, building walls, amending the soil -- it all can seem a little artificial."

But as the 60 gardeners and designers he interviewed for "Tomorrow's Garden" prove, it doesn't have to be that way. By keeping one eye on aesthetics and the other on sustainability, these experts taught him that great gardens are not only beautiful environments but also environmentally beautiful. Here are some of the eco-friendly ideas they've put into practice.

10 Principles to Grow By

1. Allow a Little Imperfection
Growing organically (simply put, without man-made chemicals) is priority No. 1 for environmentally conscious gardeners. Yet forgoing synthetic pesticides and fertilizers often means living with a few blemishes, such as bug-eaten leaves or a less-than-pristine lawn. It's best to be a little Zen about these foibles. Think of ceding control as part of what draws us to gardening in the first place.

2. Recycle and Repurpose
Many gardeners are giving their yards structure with materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. It takes a creative eye to see aesthetic possibilities in construction debris and a strong sense of design to transform it into something beautiful. Broken-up concrete can make a new wall, and pieces of wood or metal can be painted and used as a fence.

3. Shrink Your Lawn
If you want a patch of grass -- for the kids, or just because you like the look of it -- then reduce it to a small area that requires less water and fewer resources. Too often we use sod as a default, as if we were coloring in the empty spaces between our flower beds with a green Magic Marker.

4. Select Plants That Thrive Where You Live
To be sustainable, a garden doesn't have to be reduced to a few native plants marooned in bare plots of stone or sand. If you like to grow flowers, do so! But it's best to make peace with your climate and investigate which species will flourish there, whether they are indigenous or not.

5. Keep Your Water
Any garden, no matter how small, is part of a bigger ecosystem. Porous materials, such as gravel or open stonework, keep precious rainwater on site by letting it seep into the earth -- unlike asphalt or concrete, which waste it down gutters and storm drains.

6. Build Local
Just as foodies have discovered the pleasure and promise of local ingredients, gardeners are learning that regional pavers and gravel -- rather than exotic stones that have been shipped from afar -- are often more suitable because they match the color and texture of the surrounding geology.

7. Pick a Purpose
New gardeners usually launch into the fun part of gardening (planting flowers) before giving much thought to the overall layout of their yard. It's better to start by thinking about how you plan to use the whole space. Will you be eating outdoors? Is privacy a priority? Do you have kids or pets? Make sure to match your lifestyle with your garden's design so that valuable outdoor space will not be wasted.

8. Grow to Eat
Growing, cooking, and eating what you've planted -- no matter how tiny the yield -- is one of the most important day-to-day human art forms. This nearly lost tradition binds us to nature in an immediate way that ought to be passed on to future generations.

9. Share a Space
In a practice called "yard sharing," a group of neighbors turn their front lawns over to growing a different type of vegetable or fruit. The harvest (all that zucchini!) is divided up among the participants.

10. Create a Place of Beauty
Pleasure is essential to any garden. Whether you have a flower plot in a rainy area or a garden in the desert, seek beauty in what your climate offers and plant accordingly. Your gardening life will be much easier.

Adapted from "Tomorrow's Garden" by Stephen Orr. Garden photographs and text by Stephen Orr. Reprinted by permission of Rodale, Inc.

Comments (1)

  • MrDrake 15 Apr, 2012

    I could not agree more about the importance of sustainable gardening. I try to reflect this philosophy in my own work growing the rare bitternshade for use in herbal teas.
    Michael, if you're reading this, I've made some progress. Contact me at thedoctorchris (at) gmail.
    - Christopher Drake