What is Sustainability?

From Jennifer Fear, Executive Director of the St. Louis County Soil & Water Conservation District

What do we mean by a ‘sustainable’ yard?  Easy…it’s one that causes minimal harm to the environment in its creation or maintenance and contributes positively to the health of people and planet. The planet, you ask? Yup.

Habitat loss from human development has put a big squeeze on the environment.

For every yard that introduces even one of the ideas you’ll see on this tour, the balance tips back toward the diverse ecosystems we need to sustain a healthy planet for generations to come. That’s good for the water, air, soil, wildlife, beneficial insects and pollinators and that means it’s also good for us! And that is sustainability.

As you visit the yards on our tour, here some of the practices you may see that help make a yard sustainable:

Permaculture is a landscape/living design philosophy partnering food, water, energy and people to create a balanced, healthy biological community.

Aquaculture cultivates aquatic plants and animal in a controlled environment for harvest. It’s underwater agriculture (but no snorkels needed).

Xeriscaping helps conserve water by designing a landscape that requires little to no irrigation.

Composting is a great way to transform kitchen and garden waste to nutrient-rich fertilizer. Speed the process up by using earthworms. Now you’re Vermicomposting and the fun factor goes way up.

Hugelkulture uses raised, no-dig beds, made of decaying wood and other compostable plant biomass, to grow food.

Rainscaping is any combination of plantings and water control practices, like catch basins, bioswales or pervious pavement, that allow stormwater to slow down, spread out, and sink in as close as possible to where it falls. A rain garden is one method of rainscaping. It’s a garden that slows the flow of rainwater runoff by using elements similar to those that occur in nature: plants, stone, shallow swales and depressions that catch and hold rainwater rather than let it run off unhindered. Plants that offer a diversity of both deep and fibrous root systems help make the soil more permeable, sponge-like and able to absorb a large amount of rainfall. Native plants are typically preferred due to their hardy nature. Water gathers temporarily in shallow depressions and is absorbed by the soil and plants as well as being filtered as it percolates through the soil horizon.

Naturescaping uses native plant species and the natural character of the land to create an arrangement in the garden in a way similar to their arrangement in nature. Native plants: evolved in concert with the climate and growing conditions so they typically require less care and fewer resources to thrive.

Pollinator Services are an ecosystem service facilitating the transfer of pollen from one plant to another for fertilization. Plants include fruit trees, flowers, and crops. Pollinator services can be provided numerous ways, including by bees (commercially supplied or wild), wasps, birds, even wind. A pollinator-friendly yard supplies much needed food resources for butterflies, bees, and birds by adding native, flowering plants to your landscape. Pollinators are essential to the reproduction of the vast majority of flowering plants, including most food crops.

Sometimes, sustainability is about what you don’t see.

Invasive species are plants or animals not native to a given environment and whose presence has a negative effect on the local economy, environment, or human health. Examples in our area include Bush Honeysuckle shrubs and Callery (Bradford) Pear trees and eradicating them from your land helps state-level efforts. Learn more about these and other invasives at https://nature.mdc.mo.gov/status/invasive.

Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) are household wastes, such as cleaning supplies, solvents, paints, and pesticides, that are corrosive or toxic and may catch fire, explode, or react with other chemicals and create a risk to people or the environment. Proper disposal is important. In St. Louis, check with your municipality to find an HHW drop off site near you, visit St. Louis Household Hazardous Waste or check with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Plastic Pot Recycling Programs are the best way to get rid of the pots from all those must-have plants that catch our eye at those wonderful garden centers. Inquire at your local garden center before you leave to find out if they take the pots back. If they don’t, there are local recycling programs.

The Dirt on Soil

The ground you walk on is SO much more than just dirt. There’s an entire ecosystem under your feet. More organisms live in a handful of healthy soil than there are people on the planet. That life in the soil…microbes, fungi, nematodes, insects…supports the life above it…from the crops we grow for food and fiber to the trees we cut for timber. It even sequesters carbon and is literally ground zero for medicines like penicillin, derived from a fungus found in soil.

There are many ways we unintentionally destroy that ecosystem. Tilling your garden, for instance, destroys soil’s structure–water doesn’t infiltrate, compaction increases, nutrients can’t flow, and the whole soil web is compromised.

That’s why more and more farmers are turning to no-till agriculture and cover crops. You can practice the same in your own garden by only minimally disturbing the soil and keeping something growing on it at all times. Bare soil is dying soil.

Get the Most Out of Playing In the Dirt
1) Test your soil before amending it or adding chemical fertilizers. University of Missouri Extension will test your soil so you know exactly what you do, and don’t, need to add to your soil to improve it.
2) Compost your kitchen scraps and yard waste and not only will you never have to buy bags of soil again, you’ll have rich organic matter to feed your garden and lawn.
3) CALL Before You Dig – One call, at least 2 working days prior to digging, notifies all utilities that will then mark underground lines so that you can dig safely. Missouri One Call 1-800-DIG-RITE (1-800-344-7483). Plus, it’s the law.

What’s a Watershed?

Everything drains somewhere! That simple fact is why there are islands of plastic in the ocean that are the size of small states, large dead zones where rivers outlet to the ocean, and even why there are fish kills and algae blooms in your neighborhood creeks or lakes. The way water moves over land is just like how a bathtub drains, it all eventually flows to the lowest point, taking pollutants with it as it goes.

Protecting our watersheds, big and small, can start with our own backyards. Practices such as watering wisely or xeriscaping help conserve water while rain gardens and reducing impervious surface areas help reduce the amount and rate of stormwater runoff.

Visit local efforts like St. Louis Metropolitan Sewer District’s Project Clear or St. Louis County Soil & Water Conservation District’s ShowMe Rain Gardens to learn more.

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