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  • Writer's pictureBette Allen, MD

Sustainable Gardening Starts with a Strong Foundation

As the owner of a therapeutic gardening company, I know first hand how gardening teaches us important life lessons. As just one example, gardening has taught me that sustainability is about more than enduring. It is about surviving and thriving to produce something to share with family, friends, community, and future generations. It demands adaptation to changing conditions.

A sustainable system is more than long lasting. It is productive, interactive, and allows its components to flourish. Instead of considering a single cause and effect for an outcome, consider the web of interactions among all components, contributing to the outcome. It is this web of interactions that gives flexibility in the face of adversity. If one component is overwhelmed, another can step into that role.

For instance, you might notice a tomato plant that is wilting and dying in the summer heat in your garden. The well-tended tomato plant had been planted in full sun, watered and fertilized regularly. Yet there is evidence of some kind of pest damage. The leaves are discolored, shriveled, and full of holes. It is easy to conclude that pests are causing the death of this plant. It seems like a pesticide or organic deterrent will correct this problem. Before relying on that solution, however, there are many questions to ask yourself about the living situation of the doomed tomato plant, like:

  • What is the sun exposure? Full sun in Albuquerque is too intense for many plants. Is there another planting area that offers some shade? Mulch and interplanting between crops helps to cool the soil, as well

  • What is the condition of the soil? Is it heavy clay, porous sand, or store bought garden soil? All soils benefit from the use of compost and mulch. These gradually release nutrients into the soil and support necessary microorganisms. Chemical fertilizers may create imbalances and poison ground water. Mulch is cooling as well.

  • What is the watering schedule? Whether you use drip irrigation, hand watering, rain water harvesting or traditional methods through ollas and waffle gardens, it is important to give only the amount of water necessary to get to the root system. Compost adds organic matter which can hold water and improve drainage. Mulch also helps to decrease evaporation and saves water. Too much or too little water stresses the plants.

  • What else is growing nearby? A large area with only one species may look easy to harvest, however monocultures allow infections and infestations to spread easily. Interplanting with other flowers and vegetables or using companion plants allows them to balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Pollinator plants attract beneficial insects to pollinate food crops and to deter pests.

  • What may be stressing the system? Extremes of temperature, moisture, soil health may all put the plants under a stress they cannot recover from. This weakness makes them vulnerable to various pests and infections. The application of a pesticide or an organic deterrent will not relieve the underlying stress. However, relieving the underlying stresses and providing the supportive components may help the plant recover and thrive.

  • What does this system produce? A stressed unhealthy system does not produce anything. A healthy, balanced system may produce many things - edible plants and fruits, flowers for pollinators, honey, wildlife, shade and cooling, a beautiful and restful view.

As Aldo Leopold said, "Land is not merely soil, it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals.” The larger truth here is that the tomato plant is part of a larger, interactive system. The foundations of the system are the soil and water. Whatever makes best use of the essential soil and water supports the whole system. The addition of compost and mulch provides organic matter and stimulates decomposition, providing micronutrients. A thick layer of mulch impedes weed growth, decreases evaporation, as well as runoff after a heavy rain. Optimal water management keeps water on the property. Rain barrels, cisterns and rain gardens all capture rainwater which can be directed to planted areas. Using gray water and redirecting water runoff from the street are other ways of replenishing groundwater. Thoughtful irrigation uses only the water necessary.

With the foundation established, it’s easier to observe microclimates. What areas are shady, moist, high or low elevation, rocky or sandy? Where does water flow on your property? After observing these factors it is easier to place a plant in the most ideal and supportive environment. Explore what other plants can grow in that environment. It turns out that diverse environments support more diversity in flora and fauna, so that with any challenge some species are likely to survive.

The important thing to remember is that a sustainable system depends on a strong foundation, on making best use of your resources. Every shift in one component leads to other changes in the system. It is fine to start with small changes and observe the results. Sudden shifts may cause dramatic problems. While a woodland can recover from a brush fire, a roaring forest fire that scorches the earth leaves the area vulnerable to mudslides.

Think of “tree time.” Trees survive decades, centuries, and even millennia through heat and cold, drought, fire and flood, and some of the interference of humans. They stay in one place, rooted with a strong foundation, and gradually learn to adjust and interact with their surroundings in order to keep growing, year after year.

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