You’d need to have been hidden under a rock for the last ten years or so to not have heard the terms sustainable, green, natural, wild-crafted, etc. in addition to the old school organic type of gardening. While organic now has a legal definition, there is no standard definition for any of the other terms when it comes to your garden or landscape. Even when I used the term “sustainable” as part of my company name, I knew I could not give a set of rules to describe my use of the term. Part of this had to do with the folks I was working with all having different ideas of what the word meant, but more importantly, it was determined by the needs of each project I was involved with.
But even without firm rules there are a few guidelines that help me determine what is going to be the most efficient way to do the project:
- Be aware of the energy going into the project and where that energy comes from. The energy can be direct like the fuel that goes into a tiller or it can be indirect like the energy that went into making a pesticide. Don’t forget to account for human physical labor!
- Be able to evaluate the long-term effects of whatever energy is used.
- Evaluate the short-term damage as well as the long-term damage.
- Does the solution have effects desired or undesired beyond the target area?
- If you were to suddenly leave the property would it still be usable to the next resident?
I know this reads like an anti-pesticide list, but if you sit down and look at it you will see that these same points apply just as well to any action taken in gardening. Let’s look at tilling:
- Tilling requires a lot of fossil fuel energy for the building of the tiller as well as for yearly operation.
- Repeated long term tilling will cause the soil to collapse and form “hardpan” where the structure that allows roots and water to move through it disappears.
- Tilling will fluff up the soil for a few months, but eventually the soil will collapse to a more compact state than it had before.
- Tilled soil is much more likely to blow away in the wind or get washed away by water. The 1930s dust bowl and many of our modern day gullies are caused by over tilling.
- While you will have lost topsoil and have compaction issues from tilling, it is possible to leave the soil in good condition for the next person if you do not till regularly. If you do till often it will take years to rehabilitate the soil.
For each and every technique you use, these five steps will help you determine whether it is sustainable or not. But I have to warn you, it will not give the same answer for every person, nor is it intended to. I have a bad back so I have to use machines that may be causing more pollution than if I did the job myself. While I would like to avoid that pollution, I cannot be sustainable if my back gets worse. I will then have to rely on systems that are even less sustainable than me using a bit of machinery.
Remember, as long as you use these steps to evaluate yourself and improve yourself rather than tell others what to do, you will be on your way to a more sustainable life.