How-To

4 Rules of (Green) Thumb for Eco-Gardens

Talia Vicars
How to be a more sustainable city dweller

Ahhh, springtime is finally here. We’re dusting off the cobwebs, switching out our wardrobes, soaking up the sunshine, and getting our garden beds ready for planting. Us plant lovers celebrated National Gardening Day last week and thought we’d share our top tips for eco-gardening! 

First things first, what is an eco-garden? Unlike terms like eco-friendly, eco-gardening is a real thing that involves working with nature and not against it by putting the right plants in the right places at the right times. According to the Native Plant Trust, eco-gardens, short for “ecological gardens,” support local wildlife, absorb and filter rainwater, and improve air quality year-round. 

Here’s what we need to know before beautifying our lawns and getting that drool-worthy curb appeal. Pick up your gardening gloves and your favorite trowel, and get ready to dig in. 

Here are our 4 rules of (green) thumb:

#1 Say no to green lawns. 

#2 Conserve water where you can.

#3 Pick the “right” plants.

#4 Be lazy

#1 Say no to green lawns

Green lawns? Yawn. They’re so 2002. All jokes aside, green lawns can have some harmful impacts on the environment. 

It’s actually not a surprise that many think a well-manicured lawn meets our cultural scripts of landscaping beauty standards. This came to be because of the status symbol that a lawn once reflected – a piece of land devoid of crops meant the owner had enough capital to just have grass. Now that many of us are not growing foods and vegetables on our front lawns (not that we shouldn’t – we absolutely could!), lawns are representative of antiquated cultural conventions of a “beautiful landscape,” which we associate with care. The lawn owner has either enough time to take care of their grass or enough money to pay someone else to do so.   

Unfortunately, lawns don’t offer much more to the planet than a pretty facade. Conventional turfgrass (which many use for that consistent, smooth look) is a non-native monocrop, which requires pesticides, gas-powered mowing that creates harmful emissions, and a lot of water…but more on that in just a second. Even worse, the introduction of exotic flora, or alien species, can result in serious biodiversity consequences. Native plants create the foundation for local food webs and provide wildlife with food and shelter, including pollinators like bees and butterflies

Still obsessed with the monocrop turf landscape aesthetic? Synthetic lawns are an option. They don’t need mowing (meaning fewer emissions) or watering (meaning less water use). On average, the typical home would save roughly 234,000 gallons of water over ten years by installing a synthetic lawn. That’s almost half the water in an Olympic swimming pool. Even better, you can take your synthetic lawn with you or purchase an already used one for reuse. Synthetic lawns still don’t create those lush living habitats we just mentioned, however, and have environmental costs associated with making them – especially if they’re made of plastic. Food for thought!

#2 Conserve water where you can

Speaking of lawns, lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the country. When you stop to consider all the crops in the country, that’s a heck of a lot of water. So, why does this matter? Sure, water is a renewable resource…but we can’t just go using it willy-nilly because of water scarcity.

While renewable resources replenish themselves, human use can outpace the rate at which they’re replenished. Enter: water scarcity. Water scarcity means there is a shortage of water due to a variety of possible factors, like a physical shortage or a shortage due to inadequate infrastructure to regularly supply water to a specific region.

An understanding of water scarcity helps to illustrate the relationship between water use and water availability. It’s also the reason why some municipalities have implemented sprinkler bans, lawn bans, and other practices to reduce the use of freshwater spent on lawn care. 

Running out of water is a very scary thought, but the good news is that with our gardening practices we can conserve the water we’re using to grow our plants!

One way you can conserve water is by collecting rainwater for watering your garden. Depending on where you live, there are some very exciting organizations making this an easy process. In New Orleans, Green Light, an organization focused on developing more accessible and sustainable practices for residents of the city, has created a rain barrel collection program. They offer hand-painted rain barrels for folks to collect rain and add a beautiful art piece to their garden. If you don’t happen to live in New Orleans (how sad), you can DIY your own rain barrel.  

Another option is to consider using greywater to water your garden. Greywater is a form of wastewater. We most commonly experience greywater as the water we wash away from our sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines, which may contain traces of dirt, food, grease, hair, and cleaning products. If you decide to “recycle” this water, make sure to use detergents, cleaners, and personal care products that aren’t harmful to plants, animals, and ecosystems. Check out our handy wise guides on how to choose these products and/or download our extension

#3 Pick the “right” plants

When it comes to our gardens, we’re happy to be Goldilocks and pick what’s just right. Doing so can mean more vibrant lawn ecosystems, pollinator protection, and even a grocery store in your backyard. 

Remember how we said green monocrop lawns can be harmful to pollinators? Pollinators are integral to growing our food and supporting the ever-growing population – almost 80% of the world's crop plants require animal pollination. And, pollinators are integral to flowering plants, which sequester carbon, purify water, and help prevent erosion. Fortunately, native plants help to support biodiversity and protect pollinators.

So, choose plants that are native to your area. A native plant is a plant that has been part of an ecosystem or region that has cultivated ecological balance over hundreds or thousands of years. This native plant finder tool can help you discover plants that are native to your area and even ranks them on the number of butterfly and moth species that use them as hosts for their offspring. 

Now, let’s talk about productive landscapes! Remember our point about minimizing water use? Sometimes that means tradeoffs. For example, growing vegetables is a comparatively water-intensive gardening activity (in comparison to some other plants)... but it also provides low-cost, homegrown food with a low carbon footprint. It can also bolster food safety, reduce food insecurity and food apartheid, and minimize our reliance on heavily processed foods, or foods from thousands of miles away.  

#4 Be lazy

Our favorite eco-gardening rule of all? Be a lazy garden owner. Monocrop lawns are like deserts to pollinators, so let them grow tall and let native weeds flourish. This is a practice around the world. For example, in Italy, many lawns host clover, dandelions, and lots of other weeds that require little water, grooming, or attention. So yes, you heard us right. Be lazy and let that wild garden grow!