GREEN THUMBS UP
by
Danielle Leonard
Apr 20
Sustainable Gardening Ideas for Your Outdoor Space

For Canadians eager to enjoy backyard living again, the arrival of spring signals the start of gardening season. It’s also time to take the climate change fight outside with easy sustainable gardening ideas for anyone with a green thumb.

Collectively, Canadians own a lot of green space–about 14 million dwellings, of which more than seven million are detached homes. All that outdoor space offers tremendous potential to sow positive change. From the plants we select to the size of our lawn, how we design and care for our outdoor space can improve biodiversity, increase pollinators, and reduce harmful emissions. 

Read on for simple tips on how to make an eco-friendly garden and get the green thumbs up on your outdoor space.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Choose native plants for an eco-friendly garden

When it comes to biodiversity, not all plants are created equal and what you choose to grow can determine how eco-friendly your garden is. Native plants are familiar to pollinators and essential to the health of a region’s natural habitat

While exotic plants add beauty and structure to a garden, too many of them may erode the ecosystem. 

What are native plants?

Native plants are indigenous to the region in which they’re planted. They’ve evolved naturally in that region and, therefore, provide the best habitat for pollinators and local species. Providing for our pollinators should be part of every gardener’s job description. After all, three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 per cent of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators like bees. Because native plants thrive in their natural surroundings, they require less water or fertilizer than their counterparts.

What are pollinators?

Pollinators transfer pollen from one flowering plant to another to fertilize them to reproduce. In Canada, the most common pollinators are bees, helped by a variety of species including butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and bats. 

Photo by Naomi Irons on Unsplash

Unfortunately, as their habitats decrease, so do the ecosystems in which they operate. Over the past 50 years, bird populations have declined by about 25 per cent and some bee populations continue to decrease. We can help rebuild their homes in our gardens and containers one backyard and balcony at a time.

How to create a pollinator-friendly garden

There’s no need to remove every non-native plant and start anew. Start small by adding a few native plants to containers or garden beds, integrating them into your green space. The native plants you select will depend on where you live, so it’s best to consult your local garden centre for guidance on what to grow. 

As you plan your pollinator-friendly garden, consider these tips: 

1. Plant in clusters

Plant several native species together in one or more clusters. This creates a target for pollinators to easily find what they’re looking for.

2. Plan a continuous bloom of flowers

Select native plants that bloom at different times through the growing season from spring to summer to fall. This continuous bloom helps pollinators keep busy and the ecosystem healthy.

3. Grow a variety of plants

Variety helps create biodiversity in your garden, attracting more insects, birds and other wildlife that make up the natural habitat. When choosing plants, make sure to include vibrant colours to attract pollinators. 

Photo by David Thielen on Unsplash

The eco-friendly benefits of a vegetable garden 

If you’ve bitten into a tomato straight from the vine or plucked a raspberry from your backyard bush, you know how tasty homegrown produce can be. Growing your own fruits and vegetables is also good for the environment.

They reduce your carbon footprint

Making a salad with veggies transported from your yard to the kitchen by foot is an easy way to reduce your carbon footprint compared to conventional produce delivered by air or truck to your grocery store. 

Learn more about what a carbon footprint is and how to measure yours.

They minimize plastic and food waste

When you harvest your own produce, you reduce your reliance on single-use plastics used to package store-bought goods, particularly those pre-washed and pre-cut packs. While you’ll have to wash and chop your own pickings, you don’t have to take more than you need from your garden, cutting back on prep time and food waste.

They provide organic produce from your backyard

When you grow your own produce, you can say no to pesticides which can impede biodiversity and harm ecosystems. Organic fruits and vegetables are good for both you and the environment.  

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Make your garden sustainable with companion planting

Companion planting offers an eco-friendly way to keep pests and pesticides away by situating certain plants near each other to benefit one or both. This practice can also increase the yield of your produce and the population of insects that benefit the plants’ health. 

An example of this is the Indigenous People’s traditional practice of growing corn, beans, and winter squash together. Known as the Three Sisters, the tall corn supports climbing beans, low growing squash shades ground to discourage weeds and pests, while the beans provide nitrogen to plants. Today, there are many options for companion planting, from a simple pairing of tomatoes and basil to more complex groupings. All combinations provide a helping hand in growing produce organically. Find out more through your local garden centre or seed companies

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Plant a tree to reduce emissions

Trees play an important role in capturing and storing CO2 from the atmosphere. From carbon offsets to formal carbon offset programs like Canada’s 2 Billion Trees, planting trees is clearly integral to tackling climate change.

As individuals, we too can play a role by planting trees on our own green space.  

Trees support biodiversity alongside native plants and can help reduce your household emissions. A well-situated tree can help heat or cool your home by offering shade in summer and insulation in winter. Did you know trees contribute to the ecosystem even after they die? Dead wood provides nesting for pollinators and critters. So don’t be in a rush to remove old stumps and branches from your yard. You can plant on or around them to add structure to your garden and provide a home that buzzes with action. 

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

How to turn your lawn into an eco-friendly haven

One of the first duties come springtime is mowing the lawn and dealing with pesky dandelions that sprout despite our best efforts. Growing green grass takes a lot of work, which is part of the reason our lawns don’t make the most eco sense. The plethora of duties include cutting, watering, fertilizing and, sometimes, using pesticides. In the U.S., lawn care consumes three trillion gallons of water in a year along with three billion gallons of gasoline.

Ironically, those dandelions that push through our green carpets are trying to tell us something: native plants belong here. And their absence makes it tough for an ecosystem and its pollinators to take root. While giving up grass completely isn’t realistic for most of us, there are ways to make your lawn care more eco-friendly. 

Reduce the size of your lawn

There are simple ways to reduce your grassy area such as adding a path, expanding a garden, or covering a section of your lawn with mulch. 

When your mower dies, replace with electric

If your ancient gas-powered lawn mower refuses to rev up, consider replacing it with an electric mower. For small areas of grass, a manual reel mower is also a great eco-friendly option.

Use a timer with your sprinkler

Ration your water use by setting up a timer to schedule when your lawn gets a soaking. Most lawns benefit from a deep watering before 10 a.m. less than once per week.

Use rain barrels for gardens

Rain barrels collect rainwater at the end of downspouts that you can later extract from with a soaker hose or watering can. While it may not be practical to use on your lawn, using rainwater for gardens and containers helps offset the water used to sprinkle your lawn and limits the strain on your region’s water supply.

Create an outdoor space that benefits you and the Earth

Whether you have a balcony or a yard, there are plenty of ways to bring your love of the Earth to your outdoor space. With a well-planned garden, your blooms have the potential to support pollinators, increase biodiversity, and reduce emissions. Using these tips, you can create an outdoor space that feels like home to you, the birds, and the bees.

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This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

Danielle Leonard
Written By
Danielle Leonard

Danielle Leonard is a lifestyle writer and editor based in the GTA whose favourite earth-loving pastimes are tending to her vegetable gardens, riding her bike and advocating against urban sprawl.

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