University of Maryland Extension

Organic, sustainable, ecological gardening

What is 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. These include eco-gardening, organic gardening, sustainable gardening, and permaculture. They all seek to minimize the negative impacts of human activity and share some of the following goals:

  • Increase biological and genetic diversity to mimic nature and increase ecosystem resiliency
  • Reduce or eliminate synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
  • Improve soil quality with organic matter; recycle nutrients through composting
  • Reduce fossil fuel use; re-use and recycle local materials

What kind of garden or landscape is best?

The best is one that meets your needs and gets you and your garden closer to these desirable goals of sustainability. Observing, learning about, and appreciating nature is one of the rewards of gardening!

How do I become an organic gardener?

Farmers who sell organic products are certified under the USDA National Organic Program, administered in Maryland by the Maryland Department of Agriculture. There is not a similar certification for organic gardeners. As a result, organic gardeners vary widely in their practices. Most avoid all synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Keep in mind that it’s possible for organic gardeners to make unsustainable choices. For example, purchasing and applying organic chicken manure fertilizer produced 1,000 miles from home when one could make and apply compost or purchase local organic fertilizers in not the most sustainable practice. Organic gardeners and farmers also can over-apply or miss-apply manure and fertilizer and contribute to water pollution!

What’s bio-dynamic gardening?

Bio-dynamic gardening is a farming approach formulated by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s. In addition to traditional organic practices, it includes the use of nine special preparations (e.g., buried cow horns filled with cow manure). 

A review article in HortTechnology (Dec. 2013) examined research results comparing bio-dynamic to other farming systems. The studies suggest that the benefits of bio-dynamic farming come from the organic farming practices -- crop rotations, cover crops, polycropping, etc. The nine preparations did not provide soil fertility or crop growth benefits. See “The Science Behind Biodynamic Preparations: A Literature Review,” by Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D.

A different article from eOrganic suggests there are reasons why some of the bio-dynamic preparations could be useful.

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