University of Maryland Extension

Organic and sustainable gardening

Gardens and landscapes are not natural areas. To create these outdoor spaces for our benefit we move and change soil, alter water flow across the ground, and planting what pleases us. We disrupt the larger ecosystems made up of soil, water, air, plants, animals and microorganisms that interact in the “web of life.” Ecosystem services are the benefits we get from a well-functioning ecosystem and include healthy food to eat, and clean water and air.

There are many different and overlapping gardening approaches and philosophies that are safe for people and good for the environment.

The words “organic” and “sustainable” are often used interchangeably to describe a holistic gardening approach that recognizes that soil health, plant health, ecosystem health, and human health are all interconnected. Organic and sustainable approaches are similar and complementary.

 The cornerstones of organic gardening are:

  • Improving soil health by feeding the soil food web with organic matter and recycling nutrients.
  • Increasing biological diversity above and below ground. Growing a large number of different plants and cultivars expands genetic diversity, attracts and conserves beneficial insects, and increases garden resiliency.

 Farmers must be certified under the National Organic Program of the United States Department of Agriculture to sell their products as “organic”. The program is administered in Maryland by the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Caption: Logo for the USDA National Organic Program

A similar certification program is not available for organic gardeners. As a result, organic gardeners vary widely in their practices with the vast majority avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Sustainable gardening is growing vegetables year after year by relying on locally available materials and resources, practicing the 4Rs (reduce, re-use, recycle, re-think), and minimizing negative environmental impacts.

 These are best practices for sustainable, organic vegetable gardening:

  • Protect and improve the soil
  • Recycle plants and nutrients
  • Water and fertilize wisely
  • Control stormwater
  • Increase biodiversity
  • Organic Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
  • Attract and conserve pollinators and natural enemies
  • Rely on locally-available materials and resources
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