Building Sustainable Gardens

Four Basic Principles

 

Bee on a Borage flower (Borago officinalis) in one of 11 Lotusland insectaries

It is 7:00 in the morning, and one of Lotusland’s gardeners has opened a bag of organic fertilizer containing alfalfa, kelp, fish and soybean meals that he will apply to the soil in his garden area. The label reads of crude protein, fat and other food measures. It sounds like health food and that’s exactly what it is—health food for soil organisms. Garden soil is not inert. It teems with life, and nurturing a rich soil biodiversity through the application of organic compounds is the cornerstone to building a sustainable garden. The list of organic products needed or a sustainable garden isn’t long. Compost, mulches, organic fertilizers and some insect attracting plants will do the job. However, there are several key principles to successful sustainable gardening.

 

 


 

PRINCIPLE #1:  FEED THE SOIL ORGANISMS AND
THE SOIL ORGANISMS WILL FEED THE PLANTS

Lotusland Organic Landscape Mix
Organic Perennial Landscape Mix from Island Seed & Feed in Goleta

Soil organisms feed on organic compounds in the soil, breaking down and releasing nutrients the plants need but cannot extract from the soil themselves. A healthy soil food web of organisms breaking down organic matter into a form available for nutrient uptake by plants’ roots improves the fertility of the soil and the vigor of the plants. Chemical (inorganic) fertilizers can feed a plant temporarily, but only organic compounds can build soil biodiversity and maintain nutrient levels evenly throughout the growing season, while also suppressing plant diseases. Applied generously once or twice a year, organic products build soil biology in a way no chemical fertilizer can. In fact, chemical fertilizers can sterilize your soil by killing the soil organisms.

 


 PRINCIPLE #2: BUILD A ROBUST INSECT ECOLOGY FOR BIOLOGICAL CONTROL OF PESTS

Insectary with borage, calendula, wild mustard and poppies.

Increasing the number and variety of insects in the landscape may seem counterintuitive, but providing a habitat for beneficial insects will help control invasions of plant pests. Native plants are especially good at attracting beneficial insects and providing them with habitat and the quality and quantity of pollen and nectar the beneficial insects need for part of their life cycle. A diverse planting of natives will attract predatory insects to help protect the garden, as well as provide a food source for other garden protectors (like birds, lizards and spiders) and pollinators (like bees, butterflies and birds).

 

 

 


 PRINCIPLE #3: GIVE UP THE CHEMICALS

Jason prepares a mixture of compost tea for the fern garden.

Chemical pesticides kill both pest and beneficial insects indiscriminately, so even a small dose of pesticides will ruin a sustainable garden’s biological balance and biodiversity advantage. Even the drip from pesticides sprayed on plants will contaminate the soil and kill soil organisms. Compost teas applied as foliar sprays help suppress fungal diseases and increase plant vigor, so if the plants are attacked by pests, they can outgrow the infestation.

 

 

 

 

 


PRINCIPLE #4: USE COMPOST AND MULCHES IN THE LANDSCAPE

Lotusland-mulch
Corey Welles working a rich organic compost into the soil.

Compost worked into the soil is an excellent natural amendment that improves soil conditions by feeding and increasing soil organisms and increasing soil moisture retention. Organic mulches applied as a top dressing suppress weeds, prolong soil moisture, help control erosion and improve soil conditions as they break down over time.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 A sustainable garden with complex ecological relationships among the various characters in the biological system is more robust and less vulnerable to the stresses we may place on it. Garden maintenance practices like shearing plants, raking soil, blowing leaves and walking through garden beds and on lawns can suppress the natural processes functioning in a healthy garden. Any negative input can echo throughout a sustainable system and require time to repair. All landscapes, no matter how they are used or maintained, can be improved over time by following sustainable principles.