The Loma Prietan - November/December 2008

Gardening Green

How Green is Your Garden?

A checklist for an environmentally friendly garden

story and photo by Arvind Kumar

The permeable path and stacked stone wall in this native garden are made of reused concrete.
The permeable path and stacked stone wall in this native garden are made of reused concrete.

You've been told to "garden with nature, not against her." Do you ever wonder, as I once did, what that means? I used to think that all gardening is natural by definition. Soil, dirt, water, seeds, plants — what could be more natural?

Obviously, I wasn't thinking about watering systems, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and power tools like lawn mowers and chainsaws. There isn't a garden around that hasn't been touched by one or more of these. Such artifacts of modern horticulture are ubiquitous, but do they fit into the big scheme of nature? How do they affect the environment?

Here is a checklist you can use to evaluate how environmentally friendly your garden is.

1. Does your garden have a vegetable patch or fruit trees? By devoting a part of your garden to edibles, you will find out firsthand how good home-grown produce tastes.

2. Do you choose plants to match your site rather than modify your site to suit the plants? Consider California native plants, especially local natives, or plants from other Mediterranean climates. (See sidebar for books on native and Mediterranean plant gardening.)

3. Do you have plants that flower and fruit at different times of the year? Does your garden attract birds, butterflies, and insects?

4. Have you eliminated invasive plants from the garden? Garden escapees like ivy, vinca, cotoneaster, pampas grass, and privet have invaded California wildlands and done tremendous damage to native ecosystems and habitats. Educate yourself by visiting the California Invasive Plant Council website at

5. Does the garden have water features (birdbaths, fountains) to attract birds through the summer?

6. Do you let annual wildflowers drop seed in place before removing the dry stalks? The seeds provide food to birds all summer long.

7. Can the garden get by on natural rainfall? If not, do you minimize summer water use? In the average California home, over 50% of the water used goes towards irrigating the yard. An environmentally friendly garden relies primarily on rainfall. By conserving water, we leave more of it in rivers and streams and aquifers, where it belongs.

8. Do you use organic compost? Overuse of chemicals leads to runoff pollution in our creeks, rivers, and oceans.

9. Do you have a compost bin to convert kitchen scraps and yard trimmings into "black gold" — natural organic fertilizer for your garden beds?

10. Do you use woodchips or organic mulch to conserve water, control weeds, and slowly enrich the soil?

11. Have you reduced or eliminated the use of toxic herbicides such as Roundup?

12. Do you tolerate minor amounts of plant damage to encourage beneficial insects such as ladybugs and leafcutter bees?

13. To control slugs and snails, do you use safe methods like nontoxic bait (Sluggo), copper tape, or hand picking?

14. To control ants, do you use safe alternatives such as boric acid?

15. Are the paths and patios in your garden permeable so that rain water can percolate through the soil instead of running off into storm drains?

16. Have you reduced the size of your lawn by widening planting beds and creating paths or patios, benches, and swings?

17. Do you use a hand-powered lawn mower instead of a gaspowered one? Do you leave the clippings in place to return nutrients to the soil?

18. Do you leave leaf litter in place to decompose or provide habitat for small critters?

19. Do you minimize yard waste by composting, chipping, or otherwise reusing it in the garden?

20. Does your garden have a clothesline? You can reduce your electricity bill significantly by using solar power to dry your clothes.

In an increasingly crowded world, we need to evaluate each garden activity. What we do in our gardens does affect the environment and the planet. Our gardening choices must be thoughtful, deliberate, and wise.

Sierra Club life member and California Native Plant Society director Arvind Kumar grows native plants in his Evergreen garden. He can be reached at