Gardening sustainably in Metro Detroit.

Gardening has been one of my favorite hobbies for the last few years.  The main thing I like about gardening (besides the basically free food!) is the fact that you learn something new each year.  My goal for this year was to learn how to grow my garden in a sustainable way at my Metro Detroit home.

What is a sustainable garden?  To answer that question, lets first look at how most people plant a garden.  First, you go to a big box retailer and buy plants started somewhere out of state shipped in by a semi- truck.  You then plant your plants in dirt you bought from the same big box that was dug up from a field in the thumb by some sort of machine.

This dirt was shipped by a big truck to a place to get bagged.  The bagged dirt is then shipped by another semi-truck to a distribution center maybe further away from the field it was dug out of then your actual house is.  That dirt then sits in a warehouse until a fork lift operators load it on to another truck to go back to your local store.

Now that the dirt you bought which by the way probably has thousands of weed seeds in it is in the ground with your newly planted tomato plant which may or may not be suited to grow in your region, we are ready to grow the plant.

Growing a tomato plant in sub-standard dirt requires fertilizer.  When most people fertilize their garden, they use some sort of synthetic fertilizer which goes through about the same amount of trucking to get to your home not to mention what the heck is in that stuff?

Now that your tomato plant is pumped up on steroids, you will need to water.  Most of us have city water so to water your plant you have to pay the city of Detroit.  To cut back on water usage, some of us will mulch our plants.

We won't use lawn clippings though because they are soaked with synthetic fertilizers and weed spray.  We need that stuff to have the perfect yard right?  Back to the store it is.  This time we grab some bagged mulch that went through the same amount of trucking the dirt in your garden did.

After you have completed all of these steps, your tomato plant should be producing fruit.  You can now proudly present your tomatoes to your family and tell them what a great deed you are doing.  You are growing food in your backyard instead of buying it from a store that had it shipped in from Mexico.  You are cutting down waste in a wasteful world.

Or so you thought....  please excuse me if that example sounded snobby.  I am in no means an organic know it all.  In fact, I used to do the exact same things when I first started gardening.  However, I now realize that there are better ways to feed your family and help the environment.

Some of the things that I have done to improve my gardening skills.

I stopped using synthetic fertilizer and weed control on my yard.  What does this have to do with my garden?  I use the yard clippings from my yard as mulch.  Yard clippings work very well as a mulch plus they will break down next year and give my beds more organic matter.

I started a compost pile.  I have been doing this for a few years but took it to a whole new level this year.  Everybody in the family is on board with saving kitchen scraps (no meat) and I have also been using the idea of lasagna gardening to start new beds.

Crop rotation.  Do not plant the same crops in the same spots year after year.  Crop rotation helps with improving pest control as well as being better for the quality of the soil if done correctly.

Let plants go to seed.  Most people want to clean up their plants when they are not producing any more.  I have started letting some of my garden plants go to seed this year.  Why does this matter?   

Letting plants go to seed allows them to complete the cycle which bees and other beneficial insects are a part of.  I actually have honey bees this year buzzing around my oregano and other plants as well as a few hundred lady bugs hanging around.  This is exciting.

Letting plants go to seed also lets you collect their seed for the next year.  Some of the plants that I have saved seeds this year for next year are dill, cilantro, green beans, peppers, basil plus many more.  Collecting seeds not only saves money but puts you closer to the natural process of gardening our ancestors went through.

As you can see, having a sustainable garden is a good thing to strive for.  Having a sustainable garden is not only good for the environment but is great for the pocketbook.  Once you gain some experience, you will basically be eating for free.  Minimal seed costs, minimal water costs, minimal to zero fertilizer costs.  Who doesn't want that?

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Drew51 said...

I agree in general. But it's not as easy as it sounds. For one without manure home made compost does not have enough nitrogen. So I add store bought composted manure to my own compost products.
I have found pine straw makes an excellent mulch, somebody around you with a pine tree will thank you as you ask to rake up the straw and even remove from their yards! My in-laws have hundreds of pine trees so my supply is unlimited. Well I probably could only harvest a few hundred lawn waste bags :)
I also mulch my lawn, so grass clippings are unavailable to me. This is a great way to naturally fertilize your lawn. I do not like weeds, but using a weed and feed is wasteful and destructive to the environment. So I spot treat weeds. It's better than broadcasting poisons, as I only use them where needed.
I also collect rain water. Our Detroit city water is at about a ph of 7.8. Way to basic. It doesn't matter too much for plants in the ground, but I have many in pots, and using rainwater on them, and my blueberries has really improved growth. I use organic fertilizers, but like synthetics for pot culture. Pots can lack enough bacteria to break down organic products properly. Plus rate is uncertain. You know exactly what to add with synthetics depending on plant needs. I grow in a soilless mix (5-1-1), so all nutrients are added by me. Results have been exceptional. I'll never go back to not using synthetics, or muddy normal soil that won't drain properly.

I do let some plants go to seed, but I'm too interested in trying new cultivars and varieties. I have a few favorites I grow every year, but with over 2000 different tomato cultivars, I want to always have new ones to try. Plus seeds are not expensive in any sense of the word. Skip lunch one day and they will pay for seeds.
I also use backyard orchard culture to guide me in growing fruit trees in urban or suburban settings. Having small trees that ripen at different times gives fresh fruit for the whole growing season. I do this with raspberries and blackberries too. I have over 15 different raspberry types that produce at different times. Same with strawberries, and blackberries. I have 8 different blackberry cultivars, over 20 different strawberry cultivars.

Drew (Sterling Heights)

greg said...

Thanks for the comment. Sounds like you have a good system that works for you.

My goal is slightly different than yours though it sounds like. I hate lawns so I would never waste my lawn clippings on mine. I only have one because I live in a sub!

My other goal is to reduce costs to zero. I am sure adding manure or other things would help my garden reach its maximum potential but I can live with the production I had this year. Check out my facebook page to see my yields.

You are also right on seeds being cheap but the therapeutic value of being in touch with nature is one I would not put a price tag on. The seeds are only an added benefit!

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