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How To Apply Zero Waste Principles In Your Garden

As well as running this site I also have a fabulous group on Facebook who look for ‘zero waste no or low spend ideas and inspiration’. It is full of thousands of beginner and expert gardeners and we have come up with our favorite tricks and tips to share with you all.

Gardening is pretty zero waste to begin with. From making your own compost to organic slug control methods and reducing food miles by growing your family meals. Reusing old wellies with holes in or repurposing a chipped teapot as a birdhouse.

There is still more we can do to make the most of our resources and reduce our waste in the garden.

zero waste gardening tips

How To Apply The 5 R’s Of Zero Waste To Gardening

  • Refuse: By refusing to use compost containing peat we are maintaining natural habitats and by refusing to use chemicals we are encouraging our own biodiversity.
  • Reduce: By reducing our dependency on plastic single use modules for seedlings we are reducing what is going to landfill. By reducing the fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs we buy in supermarkets we are reducing food miles and plastic wrapping. By sharing our big ticket items that maybe we only use once we can build a community of gardeners who have a reduced cost and storage issues.
  • Reuse: By buying quality products we can make them last for generations as opposed to cheaper tools that last one season. When we reuse old kitchen scraps for compost or as new plants we are reducing our costs and creating new life.
  • Recycle: By asking for old containers or using the kids old bath that is not suitable for reuse we can create vibrant new planters. Old wooden floorboards can become raised beds and cardboard makes a great mulch for the ‘no dig method’.
  • Rot: Allowing our gardens to produce our compost means no more plastic bags to lug around, it also means a quality control to feed our crops.

Zero Waste Ideas For Your Garden

These are just some of the ideas and suggestions we have received and use ourselves.

Build Your Own Compost Heap

A little bit of space and some old pallets or wood and all you will need to buy as a few screws to hold it together. Using kitchen waste and garden waste mixed in with cardboard and even newspaper can make a great start. We have free range chickens so their bedding is added as well.

  • You will save plastic from store bought compost as well as the miles travelled to the nursery and to your home.
  • You will minimize the risk of inadvertently buying compost that contains peat. The Natural Environment Research Council has a break down of the importance of peatlands for our carbon emissions. Moreover it feels there is a dissonance between a gardener who is willing to destroy one habitat in order to try and create another in their own garden. Peat free compost made at home is great for adding organic matter to clay soils.
  • As long as you avoid adding any diseased plant matter to your compost heap you will be rewarded for years to come with rich, chemical free soil. If you are tight on space you can use a smaller more compact and faster hot compost method.
  • You are creating an entire universe for micro organisms and insects. It will be teeming with all sorts of life and letting the kids dig it through with a little spy glass can be very rewarding for them. Creating a biodiverse garden is the key to good soil.

Why Using Your Garden To Grow Food Is Zero Waste

I’m not saying that every plant in your backyard has to have a role, but there are many dual purpose plants. Ones that look lovely and will produce edible fruit, stems, leaves and even roots. Here are some factors to consider before growing your own food.

  • Reducing food miles. By looking at foods that traditionally grow further away you can calculate the miles they would travel and how much carbon you are saving by growing your own. For example Kaffir lime is usually grown in Thailand and we live in the UK meaning as the crow flies we are saving 5922 miles by growing our own tree. It is possible to grow the ingredients for a curry at home in the UK and reduce your food miles this way.
  • No need to buy expensive organic fruit and veg as you can grow chemical free in an affordable way. By learning how to cook with your ingredients you are maximizing your productivity as well as adding to your family favorites.
  • Think outside of the usual cabbage and carrots garden and think about a kitchen garden to suit you. Grow spices and herbs that will need drying and storing, but would make nice additions to a Christmas hamper for friends and family.
  • Kids really do eat straight from a raspberry bush, or taste test before putting into the basket. So growing your own food with children encourages them to eat a wider range of fruit and veg.
  • You can grow ingredients that would be hard to get in your local farmers market. This is good for those more unusual plants like cardoons or even lovage. This will help you eat more seasonally.
zero waste kitchen starts in the garden
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Water Saving In A Zero Waste Garden

This is not just for those of us on a water meter or looking to save time and effort strategic planting and a few water butts can help conserve water too.

  • If you want hanging baskets in your garden, try using herbs that are more on the Mediterranean side as they tend towards needing less watering. Thyme, rosemary and many more herbs are drought tolerant and will thrive in drier Summers, not just in hanging baskets but in any pots or containers.
  • Water butts and a series of butts are essential to a healthy garden. The water from rainfall is much healthier for plants than treated tap water and it saves energy in the water treatment plant.
  • Reuse water from cooking vegetables. As long as you haven’t added salts to the water it is nutrient packed and will help your houseplants to thrive.
  • Avoid watering during the heat of the day. The problem with this is two fold. You will lose the water in evaporation meaning you have to add twice as much, but you will also run the risk of scorching leaves. Scorched leaves are a major cause of lower crop production, even on larger fruit baring trees like persimmon.
  • Plant beds lose water from the surface quickly in locations with full sunshine. Unfortunately this is also where many of our plants thrive. So choose a mulch to reduce water loss and the amount of time you will need to spend watering.
  • You can also recycle an old water bottle into an irrigation system, by punching holes in and burying it below the surface of the soil, top side up. Then water the surrounding soil well and fill up the bottle of water. It will release water through it’s length and works well when planted with fruit and veg that have vertical roots (long taproots).

Fertilizers For Free – Chemical and Cost!

Once you have established your garden and have a routine you really do not need to buy any fertilizers.

  • Green Manure can be a great way to over winter your garden and reduce the need for weeding.
  • Growing comfrey to make a ‘comfrey tea’ that acts as a liquid feed for many plants during growing season.
  • Grow borage to act as a nitrogen fixer in your veg patch. Borage will also bring all the bees and pollinators to your garden as well!
  • In an open compost bin you are looking at about two years from starting to being able to apply your compost to the garden. There are faster methods, but this is perfectly fine for most gardeners who would have two in use at any time and ill one per year.
  • Free range chickens are a time saver and great fertilizer, literally fertilizing as they walk. Use a frame to hold them in one spot in your garden for a few days and then move it on. Put them home to roost each night though obviously! This way your waste weeds or veg patch that needs turning becomes eggs for your table as well. Zero waste and happy chickens. Our girls are ex-battery hens and the British Hen Welfare Trust has the best advice on how to look after them.

Grow From Seed Vs Division

The option of growing from seed is not always zero waste as some plants are not true replicas of their parent plant when grown this way. Division is a cheap way to get plants for free. Cuttings from herbs like rosemary or lavender do well and will become great gifts. Swapping seeds or plants is a good way to get a larger range of plants in your garden as well as making friends with people who can give you tips and tricks.

Avoid growing seeds in those flimsy plastic modules that will need to be thrown each season. Make biodegradable plant pots for starting seedlings off. Do not use peat pots as you are not zero waste then.

Certain plants like tomatoes can be grown from the seeds gathered and processed from their fruit. This means food for free each year.

Zero Waste Approach To Pests & Diseases

  • Slugs and snails can be held at reasonable bay with broken eggshells, regular free range chicken patrols, kids with flashlights, straw mulch, beer traps and watering the the base of a plant. Major infestations will be spotted early on and creating a wildlife pond encourages natural predators to come for a feast.
  • Aphids can be controlled with natural predators like lacewing, ladybugs or ladybirds. By keeping a natural habitat for these beneficial bugs we can save a lot of time and energy looking for expensive solutions.
  • Plant diseases are often heartbreaking with several of the group saying it made them lose heart in growing their own food. Becoming friends with fellow gardeners will help as you can seek advice, or look online for youtubers or sites like this that offer plant specific advice and what to look out for. Also removing the plant and not adding to your compost is very much key to stopping the spread.

What To Avoid In A Zero Waste Garden

This actually came up in group discussions more than I would have first thought.

  • Plastic weed suppressants were a hot topic. Not just for how ugly they look poking out from under gravel, but also due to how ineffective they are. They are also not always permeable so you end up with water pooling from rain and weeds coming through. Solution: Use cardboard as a no dig method base and use gravel on top or create a raise bed.
  • Flimsy seed modules that crack after the first year. This was another bug bear for fellow gardener’s. It is often essential to start seeds off indoors or in modules to get a longer growing season and avoid frosts. Solution: use egg boxes to start seeds off and then you can water them without drowning them as the cardboard allows drainage. You can also rip them into individual sections to plant at the appropriate distance.
  • Buying seed markers. This is always a waste of money for young plants. You may like plant markers that are attractive for older plants, but with seeds it was an additional cost that created more plastic waste. Solution: use an old margarine tub and cut into strip to then use marker pen to write your seeds, or use wooden lollipop sticks to label up younger plants. we have an article on plant markers here.
  • Buying cheap tools. I cannot agree with this one more. I am also an electrician by trade and one of the sweetest things a friend did was when he retired he gave me some of his hand tools. They are still loved and work really well. Solution: I am not just going to say buy expensive tools and give you a link, but rather learn which tools are worth spending the money on. Which tools do you use regularly and cannot simply borrow from friends? For that matter which ones will you use once a year and never again, can you ask in a local Facebook gardening group to borrow or hire? Also learn how to maintain your tools. Sharpening and using oil on joints can extend lives of secateurs immeasurably.
  • Just going for it and trying everything. This came from a beginner to gardening. She had wished, instead to try a few family favorites and then progress the following year. Equally she tried to grow plants that didn’t really like the conditions of her garden. Solution: Choose plants that will grow in the garden you have to begin with. So if you have soggy soil, grow wet soil loving crops. If you know that you are only going to get a few hours sunshine go for plants that thrive in shade. Don’t try to fight against nature in this way until you are more experienced and can add mulches and organic matter to change the Ph or drainage of your plot.
zero waste gardening tips that are cheap

What Next & Further Reading

Stay a while and have a look at some of our growing guides to see how you want to tackle your zero waste garden. I don’t think we take enough time to appreciate that traditional gardening methods and the humble allotment can be a real solution to much of the waste in our kitchens.

If you want a zero waste kitchen, start in the garden.

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