9 ways to create a sustainable garden

Create an eco-friendly garden in nine simple steps, with expert advice from Matt James

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Creating and maintaining a garden while minimising the impact upon natural resources and the wider landscape is an important part of modern garden design. Mention the word sustainability, however, and an informal garden full of rustic materials springs to mind.

Nowadays, though, many contemporary, often formal, garden designs include renewable materials from sustainable sources, green roofs to encourage beneficial insects, and wildlife-friendly planting.

Sustainable gardening does require a conscious change in the gardener, but it’s not all about grand gestures — small ones are equally important. A simple bird feeder to encourage and support wildlife, or growing a few tubs of leafy salads, are steps in the right direction.

1. Avoid chemical pesticides

Use alternatives to synthetic pesticides in a sustainable garden. Natural insecticides based on fatty acids (soap) and sulphur are great bug killers – garden centres stock a huge range – and biological pest controls help curb all common pests, from vine weevil to greenfly (try Defenders.co.uk and Nemaslug.co.uk). You’ll also be doing your bit for wildlife, as many chemical pesticides kill good insects as well as bad.

Companion plants can also be useful:

  • grown under roses, onions and chives help control black spot;
  • carrots and leeks ward off each other’s pests;
  • and the pungent smell of French marigolds keeps blackfly off tomatoes.

Many plant varieties on sale are naturally resistant to once problematic pests and diseases; it’ll say on the label. As for weeds, try to hoe the ground before they set seed, meaning there’s no need for toxic weedkiller.

2. Choose plants carefully

Plants are vital in a sustainable garden and the key principle is obvious: always put them where they’re happiest. Contented plants take care of themselves, but stressed ones need constant feeding and watering, so make sure you don’t plant your sun-lovers in the shade, for example, or vice versa. Matching the right plant to the right place will also help keep garden maintenance time to a minimum.

Packets of ready-mixed seeds can help create a vibrant summer meadow in a section of your garden.  Boheme floral meadow seeds, with 26 different annual flowering varieties, from £11.99 for a pack that will cover seven square metres, Meadow In My Garden

In recent years, botanists, ecologists and contemporary planting designers have taken this concept to a new level, resulting in naturalistic, ecologically sound meadow or ‘prairie-like’ plantings that feature colourful perennials and seas of ornamental grasses. Planting on this scale often needs room, but it’s still possible to achieve in a small garden. Make sure to avoid overly competitive perennials, and keep the plant colour palette simple to avoid a ‘bitty’ look.

3. Improve your soil

Lots of compost and/or well-rotted manure will keep your soil in what gardeners call ‘good heart’. This creates a healthy soil teeming with essential micro-organisms, which in turn gives you healthy plants that don’t succumb to pests and diseases. Compost soaks up water like a sponge, too – useful in free-draining sandy soils.

Dig in a large bucketful every few feet when planting, or spread liberally around plants as a mulch each spring; this also helps stop light soils from being washed away in heavy rain

4. Make your own compost

Recycling green waste is important, too – homemade compost costs nothing to make, and will save money on bagged compost and soil conditioner from garden centres.

What to add to your compost:

  • lawn clippings
  • wood ash (in moderation)
  • hedge trimmings
  • veg peelings
  • tea bags
  • egg boxes
  • leaves
  • shredded newspaper and cardboard
  • vacuum cleaner contents

Avoid cooked food, meat, pet faeces and glossy magazines.

Save money by making your own eco-friendly compost.  Beehive composter, (H)80x(W)74x(D)74cm,  made from pressure- treated wood, £99, Primrose. It comes in a natural finish that can be painted in the colour of your choice – for similar, try Willow Garden Shades woodstain, £23.49 for 2.5 litres, Cuprinol

5. Limit peat-based composts

Peat is dug from peat bogs, causing irreparable damage to precious natural habitats, and as it forms very slowly, simply isn’t sustainable either. The problem is that it’s great for growing plants as it’s sterile, easy to handle, and holds onto nutrients and water like a sponge.

To cut down your use, stop using peat as a mulch or soil conditioner, and instead use homemade compost, rotted farmyard manure and leaf mould, which perform better and are full of nutrients. Buy peat-free or reduced-peat compost for potting – it’ll say so on the bag – and you’ll now find that modern peat-based composts available to gardeners include some of the alternatives, such as bark, wood fibre, coir (coconut husk) or specially formulated green waste.

Substitutes do have their critics, due to poor products rushed on sale in the 1990s, but now most of the better peat-free alternatives perform fairly well, although cheaper products will need beefing up with fertiliser and watering. For the best results, buy tried-and-tested brands, such as New Horizon or Vital Earth, and peat-free products from Miracle Grow and Westland.

6. Reduce water use

Rainwater can be easily harvested by installing a butt on every downpipe. Use mulches to prevent evaporation, focus water on plant roots, and, in dry spells, let the lawn grow longer, watering only in the morning or evening.

Automated systems are effective – one good soak per week is better than a brief spray every day. Water management in flood-prone urban areas is also vital; permeable paving, gravel, and grass reinforcement ‘grids’ are better than solid paving, reducing the impact on storm water drains.

Automatic watering systems are a great way to regulate your water usage in the garden. Kits start at £34.99 from Dobbies

7. Recycle materials

An easy way to increase your green credentials is to re-use items, and there are hundreds of products available. Reclamation yards are a tried and tested source, but can be expensive, so trawling supermarket notice boards and newspaper classifieds can be useful, too. Websites such as eBay provide a great online resource, but compare listings carefully to avoid paying over the odds.

Unused items, such as this old wicker shopping basket, can easily be recycled by turning them into unusual, decorative garden planters

A little creativity goes a long way. Old olive cans or fire buckets make quirky containers, and cardboard loo roll inners are ideal for starting off deep-root beans and sweet peas. Try timber off-cuts and old scaffold boards to make cheap raised beds.

8. Go for local materials

Choose materials and features, such as paving and pergolas, that have been sourced or built locally, as this will help reduce a garden’s carbon footprint and support nearby businesses. For timber products and decking, look for a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) logo, for wood originating from certified plantations.

If you’re planning to install new decking, go for FSC-certified products. Patio deck kit, made from FSC-certified pressure-treated softwood, (H)130x(W)249x(D)244cm, £369.99 including delivery, Forest Garden

For granite, sandstone or slate, particularly from abroad, it is worth considering materials from suppliers who’ve signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which monitors living and safety standards in the countries of origin – typically India, China and Brazil.

9. Increase wildlife and biodiversity

Encouraging wildlife makes your garden far more entertaining, as well as helping with pest control – slug-eating hedgehogs and slow-worms love piles of leaves and logs. To attract birds that help with caterpillar control, erect nest boxes and put out a variety of food. Song thrushes love dried fruit, blackbirds adore rotten apples, and sunflower seeds will attract chaffinches and blue tits.

Entice bees by choosing plants with ‘open faces’; bright, showy blooms that flower throughout the year. Spring flowers are important for waking bees but are often overlooked; wallflowers, aubrietia and rosemary are all good pollen and nectar sources. For summer, catmint, thyme and lavender are particularly good. Ivy in flower is great in autumn. To help solitary bees, a special bee hotel provides the perfect nesting site – Wiggly Wigglers has a large range.