I’m continually encouraging those around me to be more sustainable. Whether it’s cutting down on food waste, curbing the use of disposable utensils, or improving fuel economy, I’m prone to gently coax my friends and family to consider alternatives to consumption. This is also a principle we can apply to gardening, an area where I have plenty of room for improvement.

There are numerous ways we can choose to be a little greener with our gardening practices. And as we head into a new year (and a new decade!), it’s a great time to consider how we can reduce, reuse and recycle in our own backyards. The heart of sustainability is the health of local and global ecosystems. And at the heart of our own gardens is the health of our soils. So perhaps a look at how we treat our soil is where we should start.

Layering compost and manure into our soil builds up the beneficial bacteria and feeds microorganisms. This practice eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, which do little for the improvement of soil quality. When it’s time to treat plants with a dose of food, compost tea can be used, too. A scoop of finished compost steeped in water can work miracles on all plants, from trees to tropicals.

Recycling or reusing pots

Nursery plastics can be a large source of waste, one which can be easily curbed on the consumer end. When you purchase plants, try to recycle or reuse the pots. Whether it’s a flat of cell packs or an empty 15-gallon pot, there are many ways in which you can reuse. Start your own seeds in small containers, use sturdy annual flats for storage, or use large containers for harvesting produce. And if the plastic pots and containers start to become too plentiful, recycle them. Nursery plastics can be recycled at local Lowe’s Home Improvements, the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market in Colfax, or Verity Recycling in Asheboro.

When starting your own plants — whether from seed or cuttings — consider using biodegradable peat pots. Many growers are now using them to start herbs, annuals and vegetables. These types of pots can be planted directly into the ground and will decompose over time. Direct sowing is another way to eliminate the need for any kind of pot. Once the soil warms a bit in the spring, many seeds can germinate just as easily in the ground as they can started in containers.

Rain barrels

As our weather has become unpredictable these days, our gardens almost demand the use of rain barrels and water collection systems. Cutting down on water consumption is crucial during periods of drought, benefiting both the watershed and our pocketbooks. A rain barrel can very easily be retrofitted onto an existing downspout, which can collect 30 to 50 gallons of water during a short, heavy rain. A short run of gutter and downspout can be added to a shed or sloped surface to collect into a barrel, as well.

And just as drought can be detrimental to our gardens, so can downpours and prolonged periods of heavy rain. Runoff from impermeable surfaces, development, and flash floods can erode our yards, slopes, and streams, as well as place a lot of pressure on local watersheds. Designing these vulnerable areas with native plants, vegetated swales and bioretention principles are key ways to cutting down on soil erosion.

Perhaps one of the hardest ways for gardeners to practice sustainability is lawn maintenance. Mowing, weed whacking, spraying, fertilizing, and blowing leaves are common methods of keeping a nice lawn. Most of the power equipment used to maintain our lawns is gasoline powered. If the size of your lawn allows, opt for a rotary mower instead of a gas mower. Places that would usually be weed whacked can be mulch or planted with ground cover. Rake leaves instead of using blowers. There are big and small steps to being more sustainable with your lawn care.

Consider also the ecological benefits to eliminating your lawn. There is no rule that states that we have to groom and maintain a beautiful patch of grass surrounding our home. We are free to choose to replace grass with native plants or edibles, which benefit our local ecosystems so much better than grass.

When it comes time to trellis, stake or support something in the garden, look around at what you have before you purchase something new. Supports for flowering vines, peas, beans and cucumbers can all be made out of appropriate prunings. Birch, cedar and bamboo make good choices, as they’re strong and durable.

Making the choice to be a more sustainable gardener is incredibly important. It not only benefits our gardens, our harvests and our bottom line, but it makes our communities stronger and our ecosystems healthier. As we go into a new year and a new growing season, I urge you to seek out all the small ways you can become just a little bit greener.

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If you have a gardening question or story idea, you can find Amy Dixon on Facebook at www.facebook.com/WSJAmyDixon. You can also send an email to her attention to news@wsjournal.com. Put gardening in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101

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