Since adopting the Zero Waste lifestyle, my life and that of my family has completely changed, for the better. We not only feel happier, we lead more meaningful lives, based on experiences instead of stuff.
Today, my goal is to shatter pre-conceptions associated with the Zero Waste lifestyle and share what we have discovered about its incredible health, financial and time saving benefits. 

Zero Waste Gardening

Or “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 3 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 ten 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 an 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 6 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 7 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 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:


PLANTS
  • 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 on Craigslist. 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.
WATER
  • Consider investing in an irrigation controller: We have a RainBird 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
  • 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.
TOOLS
  • 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.

4 comments:

  1. The Urban Farmer store (http://www.urbanfarmerstore.com/) is a great place to shop for your irrigation needs. It is the only place that I have found that sells their irrigation components in bulk. For example, there are bins of drip system components (e.g., in-line drippers, metal stakes for fastening the drip lines, etc.). Try going to The Home Depot some time if you want to see a lot of packaging (e.g., bins full of packages of 10 drippers each).

    Also, I purchased an irrigation controller with a rain gauge / temperature sensor - for about $450, and almost the entire amount was rebated by our water district (Marin Municipal Water District).

    Plus they are a certified green business in Mill Valley - and most importantly, very friendly and helpful.

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  2. Worm compost is a fantastic way of recylcing! We use newspaper (we gather from our neighbors), left over veggies/peals etc. in our worm beds. The castings (worm poop) is absolutely THE best stuff for your plants, especially if you are wanting an organic garden. http://rottenapplewormfarm.com

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  3. I'm making a worm bin out of used wooden wine boxes I got on Craigslist (stacking 3 wine boxes, drilling holes in the bottom of each, propping them up on some bricks, and sliding a recycled plastic tray under the bottom one to collect the worm tea). Just a thought to pass on to readers since you've expressed frustration about having a plastic worm box.

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  4. Susan d8/09/2011

    Hi B:
    A few years ago I tried to do the indoor composting thing with worms. I purchased the correct type of worms but it was a disaster. I think that conditions have to be exactly right in order for it to work. Because we live in a climate with a long cold winter I placed the bin in my basement. Apparently the worms don't like it if the floor is cold so they all decided to escape. Nothing like 500 worms on your basement floor first thing in the morning! I also found that the worms didn't like certain foods like citrus and only broke down a small amount of food (much less than we produce). Finally I ended up with maggots on the bin and that was the last straw. The worms got dumped into my outdoor composted. I'm sure many people have better luck than I do but I found that they were more work than our dog!

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