These 3 Gardening Mistakes Harm the Environment, Say Experts

Make your yard more eco-friendly by avoiding these practices.

Growing a lush, beautiful garden seems like a no-brainer when you're trying to help the environment and live a more sustainable lifestyle. That's because growing flowers gives pollinators like bees and butterflies a boost, planting a few more trees can help clean the air, and raising your own vegetables can mean fewer trips to the supermarket. The more plants, the better, but how you're gardening can actually have a bigger impact than what you choose to grow. In fact, you could be doing more harm to the environment than good if you go overboard with chemicals, watering, or digging. Here's how to avoid making these three common mistakes.

woman pulling weeds
Rather than spraying it with chemicals, weeding out a dandelion by hand is a more sustainable alternative. Maximkostenko/Getty Images

1. Using Pesticides Too Much

Pesticides include insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Most of these chemicals (both synthetic and natural) don’t distinguish between good and bad: In one fell swoop, they knock out both destructive and beneficial insects, fungi, and plants, which can affect the entire ecosystem in your backyard.

Gail Langellotto

In the not too distant past, the garden that many people aspired to have was one that was free of insects.

— Gail Langellotto

“In the not too distant past, the garden that many people aspired to have was one that was free of insects,” says Gail Langellotto, Ph.D., professor of horticulture at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. “Now many people, including me, view these types of gardens as biological dead zones,” she adds. Reversing course on your plot is simple. “Pulling back on insecticide use will help to restore the insect community in your garden,” she says.

You can think about fungicides and herbicides in the same way, too. When you apply an insecticide to combat troublesome aphids, for example, you’re in turn wiping out ladybugs and other insects that act as natural predators. And then, those pesky aphids will likely return with fewer of the beneficial insects that naturally keep them in check.

ladybug on hydrangea plant
Beneficial insects like this ladybug naturally help keep pests under control. Ellen van Deelen/Getty Images

Instead, turn to non-chemical control methods and preventive techniques. Handpick large insects and remove diseased plants as soon as you see them. If pests or diseases have already gotten out of hand and you need to take more drastic action, use less toxic pesticides that are made to treat specific pests rather than wiping out everything in their path. One resource you can use for more environmentally friendly options is the Clemson Cooperative Extension’s fantastic guide, which include soaps, oils, and botanicals.

When you're dealing with weeds, instead of breaking out the weed killer, rely on good, old-fashioned mulch. “There are many great studies consistently showing how wood mulch can, for the most part, improve soils, plant health, reduce weeds, increase soil moisture, and many more things,” says Alison O’Connor, Ph.D., Horticulture Agent, Colorado State University Extension in Larimer County. O’Connor recommends a 4- to 5-inch-layer of organic mulch, such as locally sourced shredded bark. Be ready to refresh this layer with 2 inches or so of fresh mulch yearly as the organic matter decomposes. It’s not completely fool-proof (expect to hand-pull some weeds throughout the season), but it's way better than using chemicals as your go-to.

2. Tilling Up the Soil

If there was a most valuable player award in the garden, the trophy would go to soil. It might not look like much, but garden soil holds nutrients and water that plants need to thrive, and also acts as an anchor for roots. Soil is also key in reducing atmospheric carbon, a major contributor to climate change.

Quick reminder from your eighth grade biology class: Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air, break it apart to use the oxygen, and store carbon in their tissues. When plants die, their stored carbon becomes part of the soil with the help of fungi, bacteria, and other tiny organisms that live there. But every time soil is tilled and disturbed, carbon is released into the atmosphere.

gardener placing mulch on ground of perennial flower garden
Add organic matter like mulch on top of the soil instead of mixing it in. Blaine Moats

The good news for backyard gardeners: One of the easiest ways to prevent releasing carbon into the air is to not work so hard! Instead of digging compost and organic matter into your garden beds, “do what Mother Nature is doing,” says Jennie Cramer, Horticulture Program Manager and educator with Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension program. “When leaves fall in the forest, nobody digs them into the ground. There are critters that live in the soil. They have evolved to take that organic matter and move it deeper. You can just lay compost on top of the soil,” she says.

And when it comes to getting compost, use what you have or what you can get locally, Cramer says. A 2- to 3-inch-layer of compost or organic matter, such as chopped leaves, spread over the soil in fall will enrich soil the following spring. If you keep garden tilling to a minimum or stop it altogether, you’ll help make your garden's soil even better and also keep a bit of carbon out of the atmosphere.

3. You're Watering Too Much

Many areas of the United States alternate between overflowing water supplies to bone dry, depending on the current climate pattern. California, for instance, has been battling the latter, and is enacting water efficiency goals to prepare for the next drought. “Rethinking the American landscape is extremely important, and not only in areas that have faced water use restrictions,” Langellotto says. Valuing water starts by changing our minds about planting landscapes that require a ton of water to survive and thrive, she says. “It is possible to plan and plant a landscape that does not require a lot of irrigation and that still looks beautiful.”

drip irrigation system with lettuce
Drip lines help keep plants watered with minimal waste. Helen Norman

One way to start is to replace traditional water-demanding fescue and Kentucky bluegrass lawns with native grasses and dry gardens. But if you still need extra, water smart. “Drip irrigation in vegetable gardens and landscape beds is exceptionally efficient,” O’Connor says. By slowly delivering water directly to plant root zones through perforated tubing, drip irrigation cuts a lot of water waste and reduces runoff. Plus you can set your drip system to only turn on when necessary and use a timer so it will shut off once enough water has been delivered. And don’t forget to mulch! A layer of mulch helps the soil hang on to moisture, meaning you won't need to water as often.

Relying on nature to battle pests, water your landscape, and create fertile soil can have a big impact on the health of the ecosystem in your yard. "Sustainable gardening allows you to meet your current gardening needs in a way that does not compromise the ability of future generations to do the same,” says Langellotto. It can also add up to less work for you, that means you'll have more time to enjoy your garden!

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