Gardening is the single most popular hobby in America, and many people get into it because it seems like an environmentally friendly pastime. Growing your own food should be a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and enjoy yourself at the same time, right?
Not so fast. Unfortunately, many common gardening habits can actually cause pollution. It turns out that things that seem healthy for your plants on the surface are actually harmful to the environment. Learn how you might be polluting the earth without even realizing it — and how to change your gardening habits for the better.
- Using Contaminated Soil
Though starting a garden in a vacant lot can seem like a great way to bring a community together and get neighbors growing their own healthy food, soil testing is a crucial first step. It’s impossible to tell if that lot was residential or was used for some industrial purposes — even an innocent-seeming lot can be contaminated if previous residents did some messy oil changes in their driveway. Even worse (as some unsuspecting Brooklyn gardeners recently found out), soil can be contaminated with heavy metals like lead and arsenic that will make your fruits and vegetables unhealthy to eat.
To avoid contaminating your food supply and tainted soils, have your soil tested before planning your garden. You can also minimize the risks by installing raised beds with clean, screened loam to be sure your fruits and veggies get the best — and safest — possible start.
- Using Chemical Fertilizers
It might seem like a no-brainer to fertilize your lawn and garden — after all, a green garden is a healthy garden, right? Unfortunately, overuse of man-made fertilizers has caused significant problems for waterways. Nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen are essential to plants, but too much fertilizer can wash away from your garden and run into local rivers and lakes, leading to problems like algae bloom and dead zones — places in aquatic environments where fish and other creatures can no longer survive.
You can keep fertilizer run-off in check by using organic fertilizers instead of man-made ones. Clean up your leaves and grass clippings to make your own compost, which is a nutrient-rich natural fertilizer for your lawn and garden. When you do fertilize, consider your timing: Don’t do it on a windy day or just before a rainstorm, as these conditions can cause excess fertilizer to leave your yard and either blow off or run off to places where its build-up can be harmful to wildlife.
- Landscaping or Hardscaping Incorrectly
As mentioned previously, runoff can be a huge issue when fertilizer gets into the local water system. When you consult a professional, such as someone in a greenhouse or in the landscaping or hardscaping business, they can give you smart recommendations about ways to design your land to limit any runoff issues.
Many people are wary to bring professionals into the equation, but they can bring in large-scale equipment like excavators to move land. The great part with this is that you are eliminating or reducing any pollution issues, not breaking your back, and the equipment is agile enough to not trample your flower beds. Which makes it a win-win for all involved.
- Using Pesticides
Watching cutworms mow down tomato seedlings or cabbage loopers eat holes in your leafy greens can be tough, but spraying your garden down with pesticides can have harmful lasting effects on the environment. Many chemicals used in agriculture aren’t biodegradable, meaning that they won’t break down and can instead last a long time in your soil. Many pesticides are also harmful to honeybees and other friendly insects that are crucial for the pollination of blossoms. Without these pollinators, fruits from tomatoes to apples won’t develop.
To reduce your garden’s dependence on harmful chemicals, try using natural pesticides first. Common household items like baking soda, detergent, tobacco and cayenne pepper can all be used to keep pests away from your plants. You can also go low-tech and pick insects off of your plants by hand — this is a great job for kids!
- Using Herbicides
Like chemical pesticides, herbicides are also harmful to the environment. These chemicals — Roundup is the most famous — are designed to kill weeds to make gardening and farming easier, but the results can be deadly. Because herbicides are usually sprayed, the wind can carry them to other, beneficial plants, killing or damaging them on contact. This can have a devastating effect on native plants and local eco-systems.
The best way to avoid adding harmful herbicides to your environment is to skip them entirely. Part of the joy of gardening is getting outside to get your hands in the dirt, and there’s no better way to do that then by pulling weeds the old-fashioned way! If you weed regularly and pull nuisance plants out by the roots while they’re still small, you won’t let them go to seed, and your weed problems will be minimal. Try weeding just a small section of garden each day to keep things manageable.
It’s safe to say that no one takes up gardening with the intention of polluting the local ecosystem. By following these tips, you can help make sure that your garden is truly as environmentally friendly as it can be — and you’ll enjoy healthful food and great, low-impact exercise in the process. It’s easy to make a few substitutions to organic products and methods to get your garden growing green — without worrying about adding pollution to your neighborhood.
Megan Wild is a home improvement writer who loves creating colorful flowerbeds in her yard. When she’s not gardening, she’s writing about her latest adventures on her blog, Your Wild Home.