As gardeners, there are many opportunities for us to become better stewards of the environment. On this week’s podcast, I share my ecological garden blueprint: 10 steps for you to take to partner with nature and support the ecosystem.
Joining me on the podcast this week is the Director of Marketing and Communications here at Agrivana℠ Media, Amy Prentice. She visited me here in the Atlanta area for my team’s annual planning retreat, so we were able to record together in person — a first for us. Ecological gardening has been a frequent subject of discussion during the retreat, and we decided to recap our thoughts on the best practices for gardeners to adopt if they wish to join us in reversing environmental decline.
As gardeners who care about this planet, we discussed ways that we and like-minded people can have a greater impact. There are a number of names for this kind of gardening — ecological gardening, nature-based gardening, naturalistic gardening, etc. These are all different spins on the same general idea, and there is no consensus on the number of steps or specific practices that home gardeners and the professional land care industry should adopt to achieve the goals of helping the environment and boosting biodiversity.
I view it as our responsibility at Agrivana Media to be a leading information source for those who trust us and turn to us for that education. That’s why at our annual planning retreat, we looked ahead to what information we want to get out there in 2024 and beyond, always staying current and fact-based.
The headlines and conversations happening around gardening today have shifted. Topics that were not even being discussed when I started gardening are now coming up frequently in articles in both local and national newspapers and magazines, and from online sources.
Amy shares that since she became a gardener the enjoyment of having a garden has shifted from just growing a big tomato and having pretty flowers to the pride of seeing a huge explosion in biodiversity of insects, birds, frogs and reptiles. She sees moth, butterfly and bird species visit that never came around before, and that’s because she adopted ecological gardening practices.
All across the United States and globally, gardeners are becoming more attuned to the need to stop using synthetic chemicals and to start growing food organically, supporting nature and gardening in concert with nature.
Entomologist Doug Tallamy, who has been on the podcast a number of times and also appeared in an episode of my public television show “Growing a Greener World,” has started an initiative called Homegrown National Park to encourage people to take more ownership of the land under their care and take advantage of the opportunities to improve the ecosystem around us.
Doug said, “In the past, we’ve asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. And now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators, and manage water.”
Doug puts the challenge into perspective in a way that no one did 10 years ago.
In most of the last century, gardeners have been in attack mode, trying to eliminate as many insects and weeds as possible. Now more and more gardeners are leaning toward conservation mode and promoting biodiversity. Rather than just making gardens pretty for us at all costs, we gardeners are thinking about the unintended consequences and ripple effects of using pesticides and toxic fume-emitting mowers and blowers.
It’s not mutually exclusive either. We have the power to have beautiful, healthy biodiverse environments that are not only good looking, but also really contribute to reversing what’s happening to the climate and the planet. And we need to shift our thinking on how we do what we do and try something different. If we want a healthy lawn and landscape and garden, we should be taking notes from Mother Nature because that’s the perfect system.
As Amy points out, helping the planet doesn’t mean that we have to stop enjoying and cultivating a garden. You don’t have to let everything on your property turn back into forest. You can have a managed garden that plays a role in improving the ecosystem by observing nature and gardening in a way that increases natural habitat and benefits wildlife.
In our discussion, Amy and I share with you the impactful steps that we have seen make a positive difference and will get you thinking about what you can try next. I have distilled the list into the 10 most important steps that I recommend.
Amy’s Biodiverse Garden
Amy can personally attest to the difference between largely undisturbed land and the suburban landscape. She grew up in rural Oklahoma surrounded by forest, almost off the grid. She says you take that for granted when you grow up that way — that when you go outside, there are butterflies everywhere. There are frogs, and there are snakes that you have to watch out for. Birds are part of the natural soundtrack of your life.
When she moved as an adult into a suburban-urban neighborhood, her property was more like a blank slate: Bermuda grass, a few boxwoods and a couple of crepe myrtles.
Boxwoods and crepe myrtles are plants that are ubiquitous in new subdivisions, along with Bradford pears, a cultivar of Callery pear that is short-lived, fast-growing and very invasive in nature.
Amy recalls there was really nothing living around her yard besides the occasional chirping bird. Then she started a garden. As she added more and more plants and a greater variety of plants, wildlife started to show up. She also reduced lawn chemicals and called off exterminators who offered to kill spiders and wasp nests. Learning more over time, taking lessons from mistakes, removing synthetic inputs and increasing plant diversity eventually led to frogs and toads showing up. And it snowballed from there.
The first time she saw a ladybug in the garden was a huge deal and cause for celebration, as was seeing a bee come to a flower.
She says it’s been her goal to re-create what she grew up with — wildness and biodiversity — in her backyard. It started to come about by surprise and discovery, every year something new.
Averting the Insect Apocalypse
The insect apocalypse is here right now. Biology professor and Bumblebee Conservation Trust founder Dave Goulson spoke about it here on this podcast and wrote about how to avoid it in his book “Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse.” The New York Times published the article “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here” in 2018, with fact after fact confirming that it’s not just a theory — it’s happening.
“We notice the losses,” David Wagner, an entomologist at the University of Connecticut, told The Times. “It’s the diminishment that we don’t see.”
The decline in insects and loss of habitat have both contributed to North America losing 3 billion birds in the last 50 years. Half of North American birds are gone at this point, which is scary to think about.
We don’t really notice the day-to-day differences happening, because those are very slow. But suddenly, it’s a big difference.
Matt Lee-Ashley wrote in American Progress: “Evaluating the condition of nature in the United States is a bit like watching a leaking pipe. If a person focuses on each drop as it falls to the floor, the leak hardly seems damaging. If they leave for the day, however, they are likely to come back to a room full of water.”
Two-thirds of the Earth’s wildlife is gone. One million species face extinction, and 40% of the Earth’s plants face extinction. In the last 35 years, there has been a 45% loss of arthropods. And then, of course, the monarch butterfly populations have seen a 92% drop in just the last 20 years. Clearly, the writing is on the wall, and there is a sense of urgency.
We are at a critical point of losing so many species from our local ecosystems, and they’re the ones that are helping to produce the oxygen and the clean water, and manage the flood control and pollination and pest control and on and on.
What a shame it is to lose the species that our children and grandchildren will never know, Amy says. She misses hearing the whip-poor-wills when the sun goes down, and had thought it was just because she moved to another area where they don’t come around. However, Amy learned that whip-poor-wills are among the bird species that are on decline.
About 78% of the United States is privately owned, while the rest is government-owned or otherwise protected. The National Parks comprise 84 million acres across the 50 states and U.S. territories, while 40 million acres nationwide are being used for lawns.
Homegrown National Park’s initial goal is to convert 20 million acres — half of the lawn space — into uses that will increase biodiversity and ecosystem function. So if each homeowner could convert just half of their lawn to native plants, collectively the Homegrown National Park would be bigger than the largest U.S. National Park.
No. 1: Promote Healthy Soil
Healthy soil yields healthy plants. One of the easiest ways you can start improving your soil is by adding a compost bin to your yard. Your kitchen scraps and yard waste will decompose into the best soil amendment there is — compost. When you add compost to your soil, it will support more microbial life that helps plants access nutrients and offers protection from diseases.
When you leave the leaves where they fall, composting will naturally happen. The leaves will break down and provide organic matter to soil, just like it happens in the forest.
No. 2: Increase the Use of Living and Natural Mulches
Mulch over the soil’s surface reduces runoff, compaction and erosion and it suppresses weeds. It also helps to sequester carbon and suppress plant pathogens, and as organic mulch breaks down, it improves the soil.
I don’t recommend plastic mulch or dyed wood chips sold in plastic bags, but I do promote using arborist wood chips or a living mulch — a low-growing crop that covers the soil while not competing with your other plants.
Mulch also provides shelter, hiding places and foraging opportunities for wildlife.
No. 3: Lighten Your Footprint
Lightening your footprint means maintaining your garden and your yard in an environmentally responsible way so that you can protect the soil, air and water and refrain from polluting them.
Reducing noise pollution is also part of lightening your footprint. Gas-powered mowers, blowers and trimmers not only emit greenhouse gasses, they are also far louder than the newer battery-powered alternatives.
Noise pollution is bad for wildlife as well as human health. When you switch to quieter tools or refrain from using tools as often, the creatures using your yard as their habitat will thank you as will your human neighbors.
Leave the leaves is a practice that falls under the banner of lightening your footprint. It means letting leaves lie where they have fallen so they can provide food and habitat to overwintering insect species, serve as a natural mulch and return their nutrients to the soil.
When you bag your leaves and leave them at the curb to be hauled off to a landfill, you are missing out on a beneficial resource and contributing to waste.
Amy and I are both in the habit of collecting leaves from neighbors who were going to throw them away. We set aside those leaves to use as mulch, hopefully allowing whatever insects were in those bags of leaves to finish their life cycles.
I shred some of the leaves that I free from bags, but most I apply to my garden whole. And any leaves that fall on my own property never get bagged.
It was long a recommended practice to remove all of the leaves and vegetative debris from under flowers and shrubs to reduce the prevalence of overwintering diseases, but this is no longer the case. Now we know the importance of the leaves and the duff layer for overwintering insects and other animals.
Cutting down all of the herbaceous stems to the ground was also a standard practice in fall, but now we know that hollow stems are important habitat for many overwintering insects. Plus, the seed heads, if left in place, will provide food for birds during a season when food sources are hard to come by. And when the following spring comes, birds will grab old vines and other vegetative debris for their nesting material.
The trade-off is some disease spores may overwinter too, but diseases will blow in from somewhere no matter what you do.
Some people may believe leaving your coneflower and rudbeckia stems up over wintertime is messy, but it’s really not. The contrast of those beautiful spiky seed heads against a snowy background or the leafless trees is actually pretty gorgeous.
Amy adds that seed heads create beautiful texture in the garden. If you cut down your garden in fall, you won’t get to enjoy that texture all winter.
No. 4: Eliminate the Use of Chemicals
Synthetic chemical sprays have dire consequences on the wildlife in our gardens. In our efforts to eliminate pests, the neutral and beneficial insects are also killed off, disrupting the local food chain.
Manufacturing synthetic chemicals has consequences that are bad for the environment before those chemicals even get used. Organic sprays don’t raise that same concern, but any time sprays are used with a heavy hand, wildlife suffers.
Before using a chemical, synthetic or otherwise, ask yourself: Do I really need to be doing this? The fact is, 99% of the time, there is a solution that does not call for spraying. Increasing your threshold of tolerance and patience, and growing your awareness of alternatives, such as creating a healthier habitat, eliminates the need to use chemicals. For example, if you provide a natural or living groundcover, the garden will preclude weeds from growing — and you’ll never reach for an herbicide.
Using organic ground cover also improves the soil as the mulch breaks down, reducing the need for extra fertilizer.
Amy adds that the chemical use also affects toads and frogs. The spring after she reduced chemical use, these amphibians showed up. She learned that toads and frogs are indicator species because they have porous skin that readily absorbs chemicals. The same chemicals can also disrupt birds’ health.
Steve Kress, the founder and former executive director of the Audubon Seabird Institute at the National Audubon Society, told me during an interview years back that Audobon estimates on a conservative basis that 7,000,000 birds die each year from eating insects poisoned by pesticides. He added that you could add a zero to that number and the estimate might still be low.
When we look for kinder, gentler, safer control options, we look for organic products, but not everything that is organic is kind, gentle and safe. As my friend Jeff Gillman likes to point out, snake venom is organic, but do you really want to be near it?
Likewise, vinegar is a natural product, but that doesn’t make it safe for wildlife. The vinegar (acetic acid) you get at the grocery store is 5% or 7% concentration, while the vinegar recommended for home gardeners is more like 20%. Amphibians are vulnerable to vinegar, so if you use it to kill weeds, you may also be impacting toads, frogs and salamanders. It’s a grueling, agonizing, slow death when they are exposed to vinegar. I’m not saying to never use vinegar to control weeds, but to be really precise rather than broadcasting it.
No. 5: Conserve and Provide Water
Though some spots on the globe are having record rain events, others are experiencing record drought. In fact, there has never been a time when someplace in the world is not having a severe drought.
More than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, but wherever you live, you will experience drought from time to time. Considering increasing populations and how water is used and abused, water is becoming a more precious resource.
You can harvest rainwater to save it for a sunny day. But in addition to keeping water on hand for your garden, think about what the wildlife in your area does when there is a drought. One of the best things you can do for animals is to provide a water source.
A bird bath or shallow saucer can attract more birds to your yard than a bird feeder, and a moving water source, such as an artificial pond with a fountain or bubbler, is even better.
Amy added a small pond surrounded by shrubs and native grasses to her yard and included rocks piled above the surface so frogs and toads could climb out and birds could perch. Leopard frogs use the pond and hide out under the herbs in the nearby herb beds, hunting for insects. That small water source has become its own ecosystem.
Amy got her pond as a Mother’s Day present. Her husband and daughter dug out a hole to install a small round liner, and they piled up rocks around it. They added duckweed to the water to keep it shaded and cool.
In my work environment at home, I purposely face out the window toward my bird feeder and bird bath. It’s such a joy to watch the bird bath and a confirmation that providing water sources — I have more than one — is so important to wildlife. Not only do birds visit, but bees line the edge and drink as well.
Amy has a stone with an indentation outside of her office, and it fills with water when it rains. In that small puddle, little birds splash around, providing entertainment for Amy as well as her cats.
You should refresh the water in your bird bath once every three days, if not every day, to eliminate mosquito larvae and any diseases potentially building up in there.
On my bucket list is adding a big pond with moving water because moving water attracts a lot more wildlife.
Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden has ponds to die for, as you can see in the “Growing a Greener World” episode I did on Margaret’s bird-friendly garden. She also has water-tight planters that she fills with water and adds duckweed. Many of her best photos are of frogs peeking up from under the duckweed.
No. 6: Grow Native Plants
We’ve talked at length on the podcast many times about all the benefits of native plants — from less maintenance to ecosystem services — but you don’t have to go 100% native to make a difference for wildlife. Many experts agree that 70% native plants is the minimum goal that gardeners should strive for to support insects and the birds that eat them. When your garden reaches that critical mass, it will support a diverse range of wildlife.
With native plants, the axiom “right plant, right place” still applies. Shade-loving plants should be planted in shade and sun-loving plants should be planted in full sun. This will help plants stay healthy so they don’t need extra inputs like fertilizer to thrive.
Sometimes, native plants will find their way into your garden on their own, Amy points out. For example, pokeweed is native to Oklahoma, so when it appeared in her garden, she left it be. “I just let it go, and boy, did it go,” she says. The birds love the berries, and it’s beautiful seeing them perch on the pokeweed.
Nancy Lawson of The Humane Gardener recently did an Instagram video on why gardeners should leave pokeweed alone and even encourage it. Deer eat it, which keeps it pruned, catbirds and migratory birds eat the berries, giant leopard moth caterpillars eat the leaves and pollinators visit the flowers.
Amy grew up with pokeweed all over the woods. She remembers collecting the berries — which are not safe to eat for humans — mashing them up and painting rocks with them.
If you have a kitchen garden, not everything will be native. Amy is a big herb grower, and there are not a lot of culinary herbs native to Oklahoma. But her herbs, many originating in the Mediterranean, are host plants for insects, and pollinators love them.
No. 7: Remove Invasive Plants
Invasive plants are non-native plants that spread aggressively, outcompeting native plants. Many were imported intentionally as ornamental plants and escaped cultivation. Now they are taking away opportunities for natives to thrive. In turn, the animals that co-evolved with native plants are denied the food and shelter that they are adapted to.
Do your best to beat back invasive plants on your property. They can be really stubborn, but with your repeated efforts they can be kept at bay.
No. 8: Reduce Lawn
Reducing the amount of lawn we have on our properties and replacing it with native plants is one of the best opportunities we have to reclaim some of what was lost to urban sprawl and habitat loss.
I like the look of grass and believe it can be beautiful in moderation. On my property, I have walkways and pathways of lawn that connect, and they guide visitors through the landscape to various native beds. The lawn I do have is not treated with chemicals and doesn’t get watered. It’s not all fescue — there is plenty of clover and other things that I enjoy watching the bees visit.
So I’m not demonizing lawns. I’m just recommending that we all have less of it and manage it more responsibly.
No. 9: Promote Biodiversity
Promoting biodiversity starts with thinking about our plant choices. Having a monoculture (like a turf grass lawn) won’t attract the animals that depend on a diverse environment. Our planned landscapes and cultivated places can provide that diversity of flora that leads to diversity of fauna.
Diverse landscapes full of an array of native plants provide food and resources for insects, and that draws in the spiders, birds and other creatures that eat them and, in turn, the larger animals up the food chain. The dense vegetation also provides shelter and nesting sites for wildlife to overwinter and raise the next generation.
A rock pile or brush pile can be valuable habitat and as enjoyable to watch as a bird feeder. Your compost pile can also be a nesting site for turtle and lizard eggs, which is why I don’t turn my compost nearly as much as I once did.
Amy notes that there is ongoing destruction of woods in her area to make room for new subdivisions, which could be one of the reasons foxes, bobcats and other unexpected visitors are coming to her garden.
The changes Amy continues to make in her yard are having a noticeable impact. When you start making changes, you’ll be surprised how fast wildlife finds your yard.
No. 10: Think Beyond the Garden and the Landscape
The choices we make as consumers in what we buy, how we use it and how we dispose of it when we are done impact all of these issues discussed above. The more we consume, the more it encourages production — and we just need to dial it back.
Consumption contributes to pollution, habitat destruction and climate change, to name a few concerns. When we reject single-use plastics and other wasteful conveniences, we stand up for the environment.
If you haven’t already listened to the 10 ways to follow the principles of ecological gardening in all that you do, you can scroll to the top of the page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the page title to do so now.
What would you add as No. 11 on this list.? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse” by Dave Goulson
“The Little Things that Run the World” by E.O. Wilson
“The Insect Apocalypse Is Here” by Brooke Jarvis | The New York Times
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.