March 14, 2012

15 Tips to Zero Waste Your Garden. ~ Bea Johnson

Or the Journey to a Garden That Works (for us). 

Our house is perched on a steep hill, and our lot is small in surface, but we very much enjoy its height: our balcony extends into the mid branches of our front oak trees. Squirrels (red or grey), birds (hummingbirds, blue birds) and butterflies (well, they’re more like moths, but that doesn’t sound as poetic) respectively hop, chirp, and flutter right outside our windows.

We’ve been in this house for three years and I never get tired of it. They stare at us, we stare at them. And in all that staring, they become part of our lives, and we become part of theirs.

Ok—the hummingbird is really too busy to stare, but our plants give them what they need, and in exchange, we get an amazing wing beat show of 80 flaps a second—I counted.

Oaks are majestic. I love each one of our 10 oak trees. How can we not? They provide us with great shade in the summer, give our house curb appeal, and provide a habitat for the local fauna that we so admire. But because they are scattered all over our property and can die from too much watering, we had to give up the idea of growing a vegetable plot to protect them (we also gave up the idea of the chicken coop, but for other reasons related to my yearly trip to France).

Furthermore, we are surrounded by amazingly rich flora…

Since we moved to the area, almost four years ago, we strive to discover a new trail every week. But a year and a half ago, it struck me that, unlike my parents’ botanical expertise, I could not name even one plant (I envy my dad’s mushroom recognition abilities most). My ignorance became an unbearable weight and suddenly, walking the trails wasn’t enough. I wanted more from my hikes; I wanted to know all about the plants that accompanied them. So I took an evening college botany class for six months and learned about our local plants. And, very much in the fashion of the French, I specialized my learning to edibles.
After completing my class (including a few lab/essay tests with self inflicted stress), and hours researching the internet and library books, I was able to elaborate a list of edible natives, with a plan to landscape our yard with them. By nature, natives require less watering and once established, no watering at all, so the idea seemed to match our landscaping requirements perfectly. We went to a local native nursery, bought all available plants (about seven types, 30 containers), planted them according to their instructions—but in the space of two months, they all died or got eaten.

“Yeah…that’s a shame…” (a la Jerry Seinfeld).

Because we enjoy a welcoming, open, fence-free yard, the deer roamed in and ate the few berries that we had managed to grow and the wild roses whose hips I had hoped to add to my floral tea. However, I really enjoy their unexpected visits. I love the way they hop our terraces so effortlessly, the way they move on their feet so lightly, and the way they stare at Zizou (our dog) in confusion: “hmmm…I have not seen a rat that barks before.”

A new plan was in order!

And it’s the plan that is still working for us today: using my botanical knowledge strictly on foraging hikes for medicinal and edible plants, growing some citrus and herbs in containers on the enclosed balcony, and landscaping with plants that are deer proof, low maintenance (for our backs and schedules) and drought tolerant (native as much as possible)…

Today, everyone is happy. The oaks can enjoy a few more years, the squirrels can hop, the birds can chirp, the moths can flutter, the bees can buzz, the wild turkey can visit, the deer can roam, the cook (that’s me by the way) can reach to the balcony or the wild.

That is until our oaks die of Sudden Oak Death (sadly several are infected), and disturb our balancing act…

Here is what you can do to Zero Waste your garden:


    -Use natives as much as possible: Some nursery plants are invasive and will take over/kill your local natives. With what I learned in my botany class, I feel really bad planting ice plants (succulent native to South Africa) on my previous property, it is one of the worse invasive in California, destroying flora and fauna all along the coast.
    -Use drought tolerant plants: You can even replace your lawn with short native grasses. The look is amazing and does not need mowing!
    -Return plastic containers to the nursery: Home Depot does not take them back (at least mine does not yet), but I drop them off at a local nursery that reuses any brand.
    -Find bulk seeds: They are hard to find, but some nurseries carry them. Don’t forget to bring your own bag! You can then start your seeds in an egg carton thus reducing your plastic pot use and trips to return them.
    -Give away plants (also, landscaping rocks, fencing, irrigation piping, etc…) that you do not want anymore: Post them for free online. Within an hour someone will pick them up. It’s also a great way to get those pots reused.
    -Get your dirt, rocks, compost, etc… in reusable sand bags: We go to a garden center that has piles of mulch, dirt, rocks… we get charged by the bag.


    -Consider investing in an irrigation controller: We have a Rain Bird with a rainwater sensor to control the amount of water irrigated based on precipitation. Smart thing. We were able to use a rebate for ours; it came out to be practically free.
    -Install a rainwater catchment: Gasp! We don’t have one yet. We are saving up to install the  Rainwater Hog which would fit our house disposition beautifully and simply. Not cheap though.
    -Put a bucket in your shower to collect the cold water while your shower heats: Use it to water a different part of the yard each day.
    -Check out your grey water ordinances: Ours just changed. We’ll soon be able to water our plants with the rinse water from our wash machine.


    – Compost (duh): Great for your plants, veggies, and your zero waste kitchen.
    -Pee in your citrus and your compost: It works wonders.
    -Worm compost (Can-o-Worms) for liquid fertilizer: I am not crazy about having the large black plastic container in the back yard, but the “worm pee” that comes out of the convenient spigot has been great for my plant wall. It just needs to be diluted to 4 parts water.


    -Keep a minimal tool selection: Select the best, donate the rest to your local garden club, nursing home, or better yet, tool co-op, if you’re lucky enough to have one in your town! You can also post them on Craigslist too.
    -Select metal and wooden tools: Although they cost more at first, they’ll last longer, look better, and can be repaired more easily.

An original post from Bea Johnson, The Zero Waste Home.


Bea, of The Zero Waste Home, says “Refuse, Refuse, Refuse. Then reduce, reuse and recycle (and only in that order).”

Meet Bea and her family in this video: Second Act: The Johnson Family

Since embarking on the Zero Waste lifestyle a few years ago, Bea’s life and that of her family has completely changed… for the better. They now not only feel happier and eat healthier but also lead more meaningful lives, based on experiences instead of stuff, and action instead of inaction.

Today, Bea participates in media and speaking engagements to share her stories, tips and the benefits of Zero Waste living. She also provides home consulting services on decluttering, living simply and waste reduction.


Prepared by Jill Barth / Brianna Bemel

Read 6 Comments and Reply

Read 6 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,490