A Beginners Guide to Sustainable Gardening

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According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and wellbeing depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.” Sustainable farming or gardening makes efficient use of all materials being used including land, water, seeds, and products grown. By practicing sustainable behaviors in your gardens at home or local community gardens, you can start to make a difference in the amount of money you spend, your community’s health, and the world that we all live in. James Gagliardi, a gardener with the American Horticulturalist Society says: “Vegetable gardening really starts out and can end up being a cost-saving initiative for people who are going to grow their own produce.” Not only will sustainable gardening directly help your health and your wallet, but it can also provide a space for community activity and learning.


Macro-level Sustainable Farming Micro-level Sustainable Gardening
  • Larger farms
  • Labor intensive
  • Expensive, but farmers make lager income than traditional farmers
  • Entire career or lifestyle
  • Produces more products, often to sell in stores or farm markets


  • Backyard, community, or school garden
  • Simple DIY project
  • Feasible
  • Produces enough for a family or town to share
  • Provides space for community building and learning


One type of sustainable farming is called biointensive farming. This method is used in small scale farming to reduce the waste of water, land, and other resources. To set up your garden or farm this way, you have to focus on what plants best fertilize other plants and all other aspects of sustainable farming, such as seed saving, planting in raised beds, and water conservation. For example, a major study in biointensive farming shows that for optimum growing, you should place your tomato plants and basil plants nearby each other, but you should never put tomato plants and Brussels sprouts plants together. While the technicality of sustainable gardening is important, it also has a very important social aspect to it, as well.

In government and supermarkets, sustainability is often solely about the policies and the money involved, but in reality, it a major part of it also includes the sociological benefits for the farmers and gardeners themselves. There have been many studies in the past decade on the social effects of sustainable gardening a more macro level, dealing with family- owned farms and businesses, and on a micro level, dealing with smaller community, school, or home gardens. Ryanne Pilgeram, who studies the social aspects of sustainable farming, took an ethnographic tour of several sustainable farms in the west and says that if we only focus on the money and not the social benefits of sustainable farming, then we will start to revert back to old ways of farming that are less healthy for the environment.

Looking at social benefits an individual level, sustainable farmers often are more educated than those farmers who stick to a traditional means of farming, and also tend to make a larger income. There are also more gender equal practices and more progressive movements in sustainable farming than there are in traditional practices.

Image by: http://www.austintexas.gov/sustainability/food

Why You Should Start a Sustainable Garden:

On a micro-level, the importance of sustainable gardening includes the health benefits to the planet, as well as the social benefits to your community and family. A backyard sustainable garden can provide your household with fresh fruits and veggies that are cheaper than the ones in the grocery store and are not covered in unknown chemicals, insecticides, and pesticides. It gives you a reason to be outside in the fresh air and provides exercise. At garden at home will provide a bonding experience for you and your loved ones, or give you a time and space to get away by yourself. A community garden will bring your community together and help to teach teamwork and build relationships. Creating a sustainable garden, or participating in a local community garden, will provide several benefits to yourself and those around you.

Image by: The Nature Conservancy (http://www.conserveca.org/blog_multimedia/what-to-plant-for-an-easy-healthy-garden.xml)


In one year, six families in California managed to produce more than 3,000 pounds of food, composted more than 4,000 pounds of waste, and installed five rainwater and greywater systems that saved thousands of gallons of water. If they could do it, you can too.



Where to Plant Your Garden:

If you live in a more suburban area or have yards space, your optimum growing space would be raised boxes. These allow for easy water drainage, the soil to quickly warm up if frozen or cold, the soil can be easily mixed or supplemented with compost or organic fertilizer, and the box acts as an edging to keep weeds out. To build a 4×8’ raised box:

  • Three 2-by-12 boards, 8 feet long
    • One 2-by-4 board, 8 feet long
    • 2 1/2-inch galvanized deck screws (approximately 28 screws)
  •    Make sure boards are straight
  •   Cut the 2-by-4 board into one 4-foot length, to serve as a center brace, and four 1-foot lengths for corner supports. The two uncut boards will become the sides of the raised bed.
  •   After drilling pilot holes, attach one of the side boards to an end board with three evenly spaced screws.
  •   Place one of the corner supports in the angle between the boards and attach it to the side board with three screws. Repeat for the remaining three corners.
  •   Attach the center brace to join the two sides at their midpoints. Use a square to position the brace at a right angle to the sides. The brace prevents the sides from bowing outward when the bed is filled with soil (Hall, 2012).


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If you do not have yard space to plant, you can still easily garden. There are plenty of vegetables that can grow in pots, such as lettuce, artichokes, chives, and herbs. If you have wall space, you can create a vertical garden. Wherever you put your garden, just make sure that it has good water drainage and that it gets six hours of good sunlight per day.

Image from: http://gardening.knoji.com/the-upside-down-patio-tomato-garden/
Image from: http://gardening.knoji.com/the-upside-down-patio-tomato-garden/
Image by: http://www.styleofdesign.com/uncategorized/easy-being-green-10-great-vertical-gardens/


Water Conservation:

You can conserve water using rainwater or greywater methods. Greywater is water from sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines that has not come into contact with feces. This water may have dirt, food waste, or grease in it, and that is okay. With greywater conservation, you must make sure that you use natural, organic, or biodegradable soaps and products. The best way to use this method is to install a pipe that goes directly from a shower or washing machine to outside. For more information please see: http://greywateraction.org/faqs/greywater-recycling

There are also several rainwater methods that can be used to help conserve water. You can purchase a water catchment system or a rain barrel, or you can build your own. Look here for an easy way to build your own rain barrel!

Image by: http://www.ci.pickerington.oh.us/Pages/Departments/Engineering/Rain_Barrel_Information/

To help conserve water further, if you have a garden in the ground or in a garden box, you can dig small ditches between plants to funnel water to them or water plants in the morning or evening, rather than midday. Also, planting plants that are naturally local to your area will save 20- 50% of the water that you use.


Plant Choice:

In creating a vegetable garden, a major think to consider is what types of plants to plant. You could focus on fruits, vegetables, edible flowers, or a mix of all of the above. Some crops that are easy to grow and result in high yields include: peas, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, and squash. 111 more ideas of what to grow!

In considering what to grow, you also have to keep in mind where you live and how much space you have. For example, if you are planting in a larger yard, you will not have many restrictions, but if you are planting in pots or vertically, you will want to choose plants such as tomatoes or strawberries. In a small yard, you can grow columnar apple trees that grow about 10’ high, but only 2’ wide.

Image by: http://www.starkbros.com/tags/columnar-apple-trees
Image by: http://www.starkbros.com/tags/columnar-apple-trees


You will also want to know the average temperatures of each season where you live and where you fall on the hardiness map. Here in Pittsburgh, we are a level 6 or 7 on the hardiness map.


Image by: http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/#
Image by: http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/#


In using the numbers on the hardiness map, you will find that these fruits and vegetables grow best in our region.

If you live outside of Pennsylvania and want to find out more about the temperature and hardiness levels your area click here!

Another option you have when it comes to plants is choosing to buy already potted plants or to purchase seeds to grow your own. More advice from James Gagliardi of the American Horticulturist Society is to buy plants small, even if you are tempted to buy bigger, prettier ones. Small plants tend to be cheaper and do not have fully grown roots, so they will transplant easier from one pot to another or from a pot into a garden.

Image from: http://montclairdigs.org/2013/02/
Image from: http://montclairdigs.org/2013/02/


About the Seeds:

If you choose to plant your garden from seeds, rather than from plants, you will want to make sure that you get sustainable seeds. These types of seeds can be taken from the fruit or vegetables and can easily be replanted and grow into new plants the next season. When purchasing seeds, you will want to look on the package for seeds labeled “heirloom organic” or “heirloom”. Heirloom seeds are not hybrids or genetically modified in anyway.

If you would like to get just a few seeds for a certain type of plant, rather than buying a whole pack of them at a store, or share seeds that you have with others, you might want to check out Seed Savers. This is an organization that focuses on the sustainability of seeds and helping to connect people to do so. To participate, you need to purchase a membership that comes in many varieties from $30 to $1,500.

More information on finding seeds in the local Pittsburgh area: http://www.growpittsburgh.org/start-a-garden/growers-resources/seeds-seedlings/



Compost consists of household waste and organic matter. Compost can be used as a soil or to add additional nutrients to your soil. Benefits of compost are that it is full of hearty nutrients to help your garden grow, and that is serves as an orgaic herbicide and pesticide. When composting, you will want to layer your green and brown matter, trying to keep it one part green matter to three parts brown matter. Leaves are the most common item used as brown matter.

Image from: http://www.carrottopsallotment.com/get-composting-with-surrey-waste-partnership-episode-2/
Image from: http://www.carrottopsallotment.com/get-composting-with-surrey-waste-partnership-episode-2/


There are many ways to compost. The easiest way might be open air composting, which would be just to create an uncovered pile. This way allows a lot of water flow and insects in and out of your pile, which will leach your compost of the nutrients needed to benefit your garden. Better, and still easy ways of composting are to use a bin or container system. All information needed can be found here!

A guide of what and how to compost: http://eartheasy.com/grow_compost.html

Image from: http://ecocycleecobuzz.blogspot.com/2011/04/maintaining-your-backyard-compost-in.html
Image from: http://ecocycleecobuzz.blogspot.com/2011/04/maintaining-your-backyard-compost-in.html


To be totally sustainable, you will want to try your best to create a zero-waste garden. Composting will be a big help with this, but you can also use scraps from your vegetables, such as tops to carrots and celery leaves, to make a vegetable stock. Other ways to make sure that you do not let any food go bad is to freeze, can, dry, and preserve vegetables and fruits so that you do not waste them when they are in season, and can still enjoy them when they are out of season.

Canning is a simple and relatively quick way to preserve your fruits and vegetables in a variety of ways including pickling, salsas, apples sauce, pie fillings, stuffed peppers, and many more. This website will give you all of the steps that you need in order to create your own canned goods at home.

Image by:http://www.buzzle.com/articles/home-canning-equipment.html
Image by:http://www.buzzle.com/articles/home-canning-equipment.html

If you have herbs you can dry them by hanging them, stems in the air, as you would hang flowers. You can also dry them in the microwave between paper towels for one to two minutes, or in the oven at a very low temperature until leaves are dry.

A dehydrator is another wonderful tool that can be used to try herbs, fruits, and vegetables. These are appliances that suck the moisture out of an item, but leave all of the vitamins and nutrients behind. Further information about dehydrators.



If you do not have the space or time to create your own garden, you might want to look for local community or school gardens that you can volunteer to help in.


Image by:http://organiconthegreen.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/4-notable-campus-community-gardens-and-farms/


Community Gardens


One of the first major movements for community gardens began in Seattle in the 1980’s with their P-Patches trust that provides financial assistance and land to community gardens. Since then, the city has added “Lettuce Links”, which is a program where extra or abandoned plots in the city go towards food for local food banks and an initiative to create rooftop gardens to conserve as much space as possible. In 2000, the “P-Patches” trust came up with a goal of adding four new community gardens in the city every year. With a little bit of help from everyone in the community, every city could have a program such as this one.

Community gardens are called this because they bring everyone together in one way or another. There are many social benefits to this sustainable practice. Volunteers do most of the work in community gardens, getting adults, children, families, churches, and schools involved in the work. Schools can benefit very much from a community garden because children can learn everything from teamwork to chemistry and biology. Local government gets involved to help distribute land and donate funds, and police and fire safety get involved to secure the area, make sure it is safe and free of vandalism, and volunteer time, as well.

Just because you live in an urban environment, does not mean that you cannot be involved in agriculture. This link will help you to find several community gardens in the Pittsburgh area: http://batchgeo.com/map/pghcommunityfoodgardens



When will you start your sustainable practices?

As you learned above, starting or participating in a sustainable garden is not too much of a hard task. While many of us may not be able to run a full sustainable farm and completely life a lifestyle that way, we can all make small changes to make our lives a little better for our planet and ourselves. Whether you have a garden and want to make it a little more sustainable, or are starting from scratch, there is plenty more information to help you out. There are many workshops, classes, and organizations local to Pittsburgh that will teach you and help you through the sustainable gardening process.


Phipps Conservatory:

In Schenely Park, Phipps Conservatory has many classes for adults and children on all types of gardening and plant studies. Phipps even has a community garden to increase local awareness of how to garden, eating locally, and eating the right kinds of fruits and vegetables.



Other Pittsburgh sustainable gardening programs and organizations:


Pittsburgh Permaculture 

Grow Pittsburgh! 

Engage Pittsburgh 

One Comment Add yours

  1. adamleone01 says:

    Lots of good advice here! Thanks for the link! Keep it green 🙂

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