Zero Waste Habits for Gardeners to Try

A person adding vegetable scraps to a compost bin.

Sustainability is the process of using only what you need in the present to avoid depleting resources in the future — a concept that's superbly suited for gardening. But with all the buzz about sustainable living, how do you actually get to zero waste in the garden? The answer is simple: Adopt easy zero waste habits. From planning your garden to cultivating and harvesting your crops, you can live more sustainably each step of the way.

Zero Waste Planning

The first step in the process involves planning. It may feel easier to just cut back on everything, but creating a plan to reduce waste is crucial to avoid cutting back on the wrong things. In the garden, this involves planning what fruits and vegetables you might actually use. Do you enjoy eating fresh tomatoes all summer long, or are sweet peppers more to your liking? Do you enjoy sweet corn, or would you rather save space for your favorite summer squash? Before ordering your seeds, note what you enjoy to avoid wasting a season's worth of square footage, watering and fertilizing.

Once you've determined your favorite crops, think about how much you'd like to grow and how much land you have available. By midsummer, it's amazing how much zucchini one plant can produce, and nobody wants to see the fruits of their labor go to waste. Before planting your seeds, determine how much of each crop you might enjoy throughout the growing season and into fall. Then, plant accordingly. You can give any excess fruits and veggies to friends and family, and if you run low on anything one season, you now know to plant more the next!

Finally, you'll need to plant the right plants in the right regions. Some crops, such as onions, prefer specific day lengths to thrive: long days further north, intermediate days in the middle of the country and short days further south. Other crops, such as peppers, require long, hot days to produce fruit during the growing season and might be hindered in growing regions with short summers. Planting quick-growing cultivars will help to increase yields while avoiding wasted garden space on plants ill-suited for the region.

While planning isn't the most exciting step, it's the first step to living a more sustainable life.

Sustainable Planting

After you've planned your garden to minimize waste, think about sustainable habits you can adopt while planting your crops.

Starting a garden by seed is more environmentally friendly than purchasing seedlings in plastic pots and liners. Many seed packets are made of paper and can be recycled or composted. If you do need to buy seedlings, try to purchase those growing in compostable fiber pots, or ensure the packaging materials are recyclable (like Burpee's!). You can also save plastic pots and reuse them for next year's seed containers. To avoid wasting seeds that might go unused, check in with friends, family and neighbors to see if they can use them the same season. Seed viability lessens each year, so it's better to plant them now to avoid waste.

Zero Waste Habits for Cultivation

After planning and planting your vegetable and fruit gardens, keep zero waste living in mind throughout the growing season.

One way to implement zero waste habits in your garden is to watch your water usage. Whether in the desert Southwest or the hot and humid South, managing water is one of the most environmentally responsible habits you can adopt. Instead of flood irrigation and sprinklers, try drip line irrigation, spot watering and coordinating your watering schedule around rain events to cut down on wasted water. Rain barrels are an effective way to trap water from the roof for later use in the garden. Another common method to cut back on excess water usage is using grey water, or previously used water from the sink, bath or shower that's been captured for reuse in the garden.

Keeping your garden well fed is vital for peak production and important to plant health. To cut down on outside nutrient sources such as chemical fertilizers, compost your waste and spread it throughout the garden. This is an easy zero waste living practice that recycles nutrients into the soil and enriches its microbiome. The simplest way to do this is by using a garden compost bin. Keep a kitchen compost pail handy to move scraps from the kitchen to the outdoor bin. If you're looking to enrich your garden on a whole new level, try your hand at worm compost bins!

Staying Sustainable Throughout Your Harvest

Over a long season of building zero waste habits, remember that even after you've harvested plants, nearly everything can be eaten, composted, or collected and stored for the following season. As plants begin to die back after harvest, remember to compost as much as possible to avoid producing landfill-bound yard waste. Post-harvest is also a good time to begin planning for next season. Map out where you planted crops, and adjust their locations for the following year to avoid planting the same crops in the same places each year. By shifting each crop's location, you minimize the chance of disease, thereby avoiding the future use of pesticides and other chemicals. Finally, for any nonhybrid plants, collect the seeds by opening pollinated cultivars and heirlooms and label and store them for next year's planting season.

To learn more about zero waste living practices, check out Burpee's guides to composting.

Written by Derek Carwood, Greenwood Horticulture

Derek Carwood, a native of Northern California, currently resides in the Upper Midwest and has been involved in horticulture for over 30 years.  Derek holds a Bachelor's Degree in Environmental Sciences and a Master's Degree in Sustainability Education & Policy.  He has been heavily involved in education throughout his professional career and has volunteered and worked across the Americas, Europe, and Asia.  Most recently, Derek started Greenwood Horticulture focusing on both indoor and outdoor horticultural consultation, education, and design.

December 2, 2021
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