Gardening Sustainably – Tips and Tricks

Gardening Sustainably – Tips and tricks

Growing things is surprisingly good for you. You’re connected to nature, and growing something of your own makes you more aware of the plants around you.

It’s particularly nice to have a few herbs growing near the kitchen, so you can add what you need to your cooking without having half-packets from the supermarket rotting in the fridge. Easy ones to start with are thyme, mint, rosemary or oregano.

Another good place to start is with a pot or two of salad leaves – lettuce, rocket, even peas (early in the season; they don’t like growing in hot weather). With peas, you wait till they’re about 20 cm high, then cut the top few cm off to have as pea shoots. The best bit is, they keep regrowing several times, so you get a lot of pea shoot off one plant!

Don’t feel everything has to be perfect – a few aphids on your plants will probably be seen off by the local birds and insects like hoverflies and ladybirds.

If you’re switching to peat-free compost for the first time, you might need to change your watering routine – the top of the pot can be dry, while the compost underneath is still wet enough. Over-watering kills more plants than under-watering a bit.

You can buy moisture meters, but the best way doesn’t cost anything – stick your finger into the compost to the second knuckle – if it’s bone dry all the way down, the pot needs watering; if not, wait a bit longer before you give it a drink.

Compost This is a confusing term, it can mean ‘stuff you buy in large bags to grow things in’; but it also means ‘stuff you make by rotting things down for a few months. Throughout this leaflet we’re using ‘garden compost’ for the rotted stuff, and ‘compost’ for the growing medium you buy in bags. Many gardeners have been using their own mixes of soil, leaf mould, grit, garden compost etc. in different proportions, and people still mix their own growing media, often including bought-in composts. ‘John Innes compost’ refers to a recipe rather than a brand, using a mixture of peat, soil and other materials in set proportions; it was developed in the 1940s and 50s to find a consistent product for growers. Most versions still contain peat, unless they say ‘peat-free’ on the label. The numbers refer to the plants they’re useful for – John Innes No. 1 for sowing seeds and seedling, No. 2 for growing plants on a bit, and No. 3 for mature plants in containers.

Save water

– Mulch (that just means, cover the soil). Even pots (especially pots, as they have more sides to dry out from. A layer of mulch conserves moisture; it also protects plant roots from getting too hot, it adds organic matter to the soil or compost as it rots, it protects low-lying fruit like strawberries, and it helps keep weed seeds from germinating.

Use woodchip, gravel, chipped bark. leaf mould,straw, pressed wool, cardboard or shredded paper

– Do several trips with a watering can instead of using a hose – good exercise, too!

– Stand pots in a saucer or tray when watering, and reuse the water that runs out the bottom

– Put in a water butt if you have room. Or even just leave a bucket or trug out when rain’s forecast, to collect enough for a pot or two

Soil improvers If you want to improve your soil, you need to feed it and keep it healthy by adding organic matter (I.e. stuff that’s been alive). The best is homemade garden compost, which helps the soil structure and adds nutrients. The compost from a wormery is great, too, though that takes longer (but you can enjoy watching the worms making it for you while you wait) Leaf mould helps the soil structure. If you haven’t got either of these, you can buy well-rotted manure or composted woodchip, which improve soil structure and add slower-release nutrients over time Sand, grit or gravel improve drainage in heavy clay soil, though long-term improvement really comes from adding organic matter to the soil Peat-based composts are still sometimes sold as a soil improver, but dry peat by itself doesn’t contain any nutrients, and it doesn’t really improve the soil

Grow things in the right stuff

If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, just plant in ordinary garden soil – you can improve it if necessary by mulching (see above)

If you don’t have a garden, plant up a few pots – bought-in peat-free compost is probably better than soil for this, as it’ll be the right consistency and have enough nutrients for a few weeks (or for a year, in the case of Dalefoot).

How do you know you’re buying peat-free compost? – it’ll say so on the label. ‘Reduced peat’ can still contain up to 70% peat or more, so be careful

If the bag doesn’t say ‘Peat-free’, it isn’t

A few links to sites with more advice and info:

Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) – Growing vegetables in containers – information on composts, individual veg, and aftercare –

The Cloud Gardener – gardening on a balcony –

GrowVeg – similar but complementary to the RHS site:

The Earth-Friendly Gardener – An online resource on growing sustainably for experienced, beginner and non-gardeners everywhere

Other things you can do

  • Create a log pile or bug hotel. – or just a pile of leaves / smaller sticks at the back of a border or other out of the way spot
  • Try not to use pesticides or herbicides, they kill a lot of the good stuff too!
  • Have a few plants that encourage beneficial insects like ladybirds, they eat lots of pests like aphids (there’s a list of the flowers bees visit most often on the Linslade Garden of Remembrance website (
  • Reuse any plastic pots, plant labels and trays you have for as long as possible
  • grow perennials and/or shrubs instead of bedding plants which use far more resources
  • Reuse things like tools – try eBay Freecycle, Freegle and charity shops
  • Leave small piles of logs and dry leaves in less visible parts of your garden for insects and small creatures to hide and hibernate in (grass snakes, toads and frogs love them, they eat a lot of slugs and other garden pests)
  • Don’t work the soil more than you need to – when you turn a spadeful or trowelful of soil over, you destroy its structure and harm the teeming microorganisms that help get nutrients to plants. You’re also releasing more carbon dioxide into the air. Spread your mulch on top and let the worms do the work for you by pulling it into the soil