CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the best recent trends in the gardening world is the increased interest and inclusion of sustainable gardening practices. For those who don't know what "sustainability" is, it's a balance among enhancing the environment, economic viability and improved quality of life.
In short, sustainable practices should make efficient use of natural resources in a way that is cost effective and does not cause the gardener excess work or harm to neighbors.
It's not that sustainable practices, such as composting, don't have added labor. These practices, however, can be kept in balance. Added labor in making your own compost is balanced by the efficient use of natural resources, serves as a low-cost (or free) soil amendment, and reduces the burden on waste collection. In essence, a little elbow grease helps reduce your reliance on fertilizers (and their cost) and has environmental benefits.
Composting: Recycling trash to treasure
One practice on a steady rise in popularity is composting. Whether you are a vegetable gardener, a flower gardener, a farmer or an apartment dweller, composting is an efficient way to turn your kitchen and garden waste into valuable soil amendments for your garden and containers. You can compost outdoors in bins or tumblers or even indoors in small indoor setups that compost through fermentation or worm bins for vermicomposting. Composting is even becoming popular among those who don't garden as a way to cut down waste and carbon footprints -- they give the compost to gardening friends or donate it to community gardens.
The secret to compost is having all the right ingredients in the right proportions. First and foremost are the composting materials -- a combination of green stuff (grass clippings, green leaves and vegetable scraps from the kitchen) and brown stuff (dried leaves, straw, sawdust and shredded paper). While the exact proportions depend on the materials, it is usually a ratio of two to three times more brown than green.
Next, you'll need to make sure that there is enough airflow and water. Air is incorporated by turning compost in bins and tumblers. The indoor fermentation method is anaerobic, meaning that it does not require air, but it has to be processed outside when it's done indoors.
Rain barrels: Harvesting water for the future
Another sustainable garden trend is the use of rain barrels to collect water as it drains down downspouts from the roof. Not only are you using "free" water instead of what comes out of the tap, you are reducing the amount of excess water draining into storm sewers or into streams during periods of rain.
You can use your rain barrel water to fill watering cans, or, if you have it high enough above the garden, you can even use it to supply a low-pressure irrigation system.
You can buy a rain barrel in a variety of designs and colors, or you can make your own, if you can find a food-grade barrel. I found a pamphlet from Washington State University outlining what tools and supplies you'll need to build one from scratch at http://whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/compost/pdfs/rainbarrels.pdf.
I would suggest using a diverter that goes on your downspout and allows the first flush of water to pass down the drain to wash out any debris. It also stops collecting when the barrel is full.
Gardening for the birds (and the bees)
As troubles continue with honeybees and colony collapse disorder, many sustainability-minded gardeners are gardening with native pollinators, such as bees, beetles, birds and bats in mind.