A More Sustainable Gardening Ethic

| Colorado Native Plants, Maintenance, Native Landscape Planning & Design

by Deb Lebow Aal

January 2020, a year ago, which, yes, seems like ten years ago, the feature article for the Wild Ones Front Range Chapter newsletter was “A Call to Action,” asking what we have done, or will do, to inspire and empower people to garden in an environmentally-sound way. 

This is a check-in, a year later, to find out how we are doing with this charge.  After all, the mission of Wild Ones is promoting sustainable landscaping practices, and changing landscaping practices, one yard at a time. I’ll reiterate some of the actions I mentioned a year ago, and add some more. But, first, I want to draw your attention to our immediate and dire water situation. 

As of this writing, the Front Range has received approximately 8.7 inches of precipitation in 2020. We know we are facing emergency drought conditions on the Front Range. For only the second time in history, the State of Colorado has activated the municipal portion of its emergency drought plan (Colorado had already activated the agricultural portion of the plan last summer). We know, already, that even with an average snowpack this winter, we will be operating under severe drought conditions. Much of the moisture we get this winter will be absorbed by the super dry soil we have, and will not end up in our reservoirs. Combined with 2020 being the hottest year on record, globally, and 2021 predicted to be extremely warm again, we are in a bit of a pickle.  

It behooves us to remember that we live in a high-altitude, semi-arid (trending more towards arid every year) steppe, and to start planning now for water restrictions.  For gardeners, we may want to think of this not as a drought, because that implies this is an anomaly, but as the conditions in which we will garden from now on. So, action number one for a more sustainable gardening ethic: let’s get cracking on using less water. 

My first request is that you look at your water bill from August 2020. We know that in Denver, 55% of our water use is for watering our outside landscape. I suggest that your goal should be to reduce whatever your water usage was in August, 2020, by one half, for 2021. I am guessing that for most of us, that can be done. That doesn’t mean not watering at all. It means cutting both your indoor and outdoor usage by half.

There are many ways to do that, but I will focus only on outdoor watering. First, make sure that any water coming from the heavens is actually draining onto your landscape, and not into the street, alley or driveway.  It’s truly amazing how much water I see going directly into the storm drains. That may mean a long-term goal of getting rid of some of your hardscape, and letting water percolate into the ground. Second, reduce your turf area, which most likely is the thirstiest portion of your landscape. Third, group plants by water needs, so that if you have an irrigation system, perhaps some areas can be turned off. Fourth, plant native plants that are water-thrifty. There are many, many lists out there of the best plants to plant, but it’s most likely high time to rid your landscape of plants that need lots of water. And finally, mulch. Whether it be with wood chips or pea gravel, the mulch helps retain moisture in your soil. I have heard that pea gravel actually retains moisture better than wood chips, and of course, many native plants prefer pea gravel, but do your research on that.

There are many more water-saving tips; one of the best resources for home-scale water harvesting is Brad Lancaster’s two-part book, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond. Brad also has many fantastic videos to watch.

Native plant in winter
Photo by Deb Lebow Aal

Swapping out alien plants for native plants is perhaps the best thing you can do because it doesn’t just solve your water issues. We need those native plants to activate a healthier ecosystem. So, we encourage you, and others, to grow native plants, native plants, and more native plants. Of course we do. We are Wild Ones.

Leaving aside water actions, here are a few more sustainable gardening tips mentioned last year:

Leave your leaves. All over the place. The insects need them.

Don’t use leaf blowers. Besides being deafening, and polluting, they are also bad for the insect world. In fact, don’t use power equipment at all. For a yard where I have a “lawn” (using that term loosely – it’s really whatever weeds will grow there), I use a push mower that works exceptionally well.

Give away plants. The best thing I think we gardeners do, is share our bounty generously. Depending on what you’re sharing, it’s probably the most ecologically sound way to add plants to your garden. Not transporting plants long distances, thus minimizing their carbon footprint, is the goal.

Plant native plants that rate high on the National Wildlife Federation Native Plant Finder for hosting moths and butterflies. So, in Denver, the perennial that supports the most species is Goldenrod (Solidago spp.). Goldenrod isn’t wind-pollinated; it won’t make you sneeze (that’s Ragweed (Ambrosia spp.), which is also native).

Learn more about which plants grow with which plants in the wild. Learn more about what happens in natural settings and try to mimic that.  Observe, observe, and observe some more, how the natural world works. A change in the gardening aesthetic here on the Front Range, to a more natural landscape, is long overdue. Brown is beautiful.

native plants in winter landscape
Photo by Deb Lebow Aal

 And, this year, I’m adding these sustainable gardening tips to the list:

Reduce inputs to your landscape. In other words, the more you truck in, the larger your impact on the environment. So, buy less mulch, compost, and soil. Use your leaves as mulch. I crunch mine up in the fall when they are dry (that would be always, here), and use them as mulch. Make your own compost, or buy compost in bulk, not in small plastic bags. For me, there is true satisfaction in making my own mulch and compost. Yes, it takes time and effort, but it feels darn good.

Reduce outputs from your landscape. Have as little going to a landfill as possible. Garden detritus can add up. You can either put it in your “back 40” (for me, that’s my back 4 inches) and leave it as a winter chore to cut up and use as mulch, or pony up for a city, county, or private company (Compost Colorado?) compost program.

And, finally, use no pesticides, herbicides, or man-made chemicals of any kind.  None. We need to learn to live with the bugs that make holes in our leaves, and dig the weeds out by hand. Even aphids have a role you may learn to “like.” It’s a tough change in viewing your garden, but worth it to see the plethora of life that unfolds when you leave the bugs. A garden with whole leaves – no holes – is a sterile garden. And a garden without weeds, well, doesn’t exist, really. A well-known local gardener I know said “make nice with the weeds. Eat them, know them, compost them, let them be.” Within reason, you might want to relax your standards a bit.

We’d love to hear from you on activities you have undertaken this past year to contribute to sustainable, or even regenerative, gardening; I certainly have not chronicled everything you can do. I am sure many of you have done quite a lot, but this is a call to action to do more. Tell us about any  changes you’ve made to your gardening that have led to changes in insect, bird or other critter activity in your yard. Do you have better ideas than those outlined here? We have a long way to go in changing landscaping practices on the Front Range. In fact, as I look around, we are just getting started. So, please tell us what you’ve done in 2020, here, when many of us spent lots more time in our gardens. I will augment this list, next year, with your good ideas.

And, thank you, for all you do, to make this a better world.

Curious to learn more about transforming your garden into a habitat with Colorado native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees? Check out our native gardening toolkit, register for an upcoming event, subscribe to our newsletter, and/or become a member – if you’re not one already!