6 Sustainable Gardening Tips for Animal Lovers
Cultivating a truly organic garden means paying careful attention to all creatures who live nearby
In creating cultivated backyards, we are removing habitat for wild animals. Here are several sustainable gardening practices that keep the wellbeing of all creatures in mind.
I must admit that I do not have a green thumb. Instead, I have a furry one.
When it comes to my gardening, critters are my priority. Often the plants can take proverbial second fiddle to those beings running through (or flying around) our backyard.
Much to the plants’ collective delight, that recently changed after I spent the winter’s cold months swaddled in fuzzy blankets with my feline companions Deacon and Buba-ji, studying the tragedies of the Anthropocene (the scholars’ name for our current geological age during which humans have been the dominant influence on our environment and its climate). During reading breaks, images of bulldozers razing rainforests and Australia burning filled my social media feed. As I fact-checked the stories, I learned this shocking statistic:
“1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.” (According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES))
As animal lovers, how can we respond?
My answer was twofold. First, increasing my donations to organizations that support animals in danger around the globe. And second, ensuring that the non-human beings around me―whether plant or animal―are living in a safe environment where they can flourish.
To garden as a spiritual practice, we make each decision grounded in (pun intended) ahimsā (the avoidance of harm) and interbeingness (the awareness that we are not separate from the non-human world). Instead of considering only how our environment looks, we contemplate who it might house, feed, and support.
Perhaps surprisingly, the world’s spiritual traditions are full of gardening advice to help us reduce suffering and sustain life.
Sustainable Gardening Blunders to Avoid
1. Avoid mowing from the outside in. Starting at the center and moving outward allows time for beings such as frogs and chipmunks to get to the outer edges―and out of your way.
Especially in the spring, take time to walk your yard before mowing to ensure you have located any rabbit nests to avoid or slow-moving turtles who might need a lift. Consider these words of the Buddha, “All beings tremble before violence. All love life. All fear death. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?” A few extra moments to search before you cut can help avoid both trembling and violence.
2. Refrain from removing all leaves and logs. In wooded areas, fallen leaves and logs provide a rich habitat for lichen, moss, pollinating bees, beneficial insects, and animal babies. If you love the look of a green lawn, consider leaving your edges wild. Spiritually, it’s an age-old practice found in the Hebrew scriptures: Don’t harvest everything. Leave the borders for the poor and the stranger.
3. Reconsider what you label weed. Often, what we label a weed is simply a plant growing in a place we don’t expect it or want it. Re-home what you can by moving unwanted shoots and sprouts to a part of your yard designated for rebels. Often a “weed” can blossom into a stunning flower if you just allow it time. Others may provide a lavish banquet for traveling wildlife. Even the smallest thing can have a tremendous impact on sustaining life. As Jesus offered in his parable of the mustard seed, “Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”
4. Bypass cruel products. Garden stores often market natural products to scare off wildlife from gardens. Many contain predator urine, which is collected from foxes and coyotes raised on fur farms in wire cages. Instead of this inhumane practice, have your dog (or even a human member of your household) strategically “mark your territory” every few weeks. For the pee-shy, strategically plant borders around gardens of pungent plants like chives.
5. Ban toxic weed, insect, and mouse killers. Spraying pesticides does more than kill: chemicals can harm plants downwind (or downland), destroy bird’s food supply, and affect future generations growing in affected soil. Neonicotinoids are particularly nasty and linked to declining bee populations. Killing mice with chemicals leads to other deaths, bringing suffering to insects or other animals that may ingest them.
Before giving a death sentence, reflect on these words from Mahavira, “One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.”
6. Don’t leave the lights on. Whether it’s taking a self-care day, observing the Sabbath, or relaxing into a guided meditation, our spiritual traditions provide us tools for resting. Of course, all beings need rest. Carelessly leaving exterior lights on can exhaust winged beings to the point of death. Light your world only when necessary. And check out yellow CFL or halogen bulbs that don’t attract fliers and use less energy.
Moving More of Your Life Outside
Of course, a spiritual life is not just about our compassionate “thou shalt nots.” Think about how you can infuse sacred moments of more-than-human connection into your days. Try a morning practice of outflowing loving-kindness for the four-legged and winged around you. Move your yoga practice outside. Meditate with chipmunks. It's about more than just sustainable gardening: Consider how your spiritual practices can inter-be with your entire environment.
In the spirit of interbeingness, Deacon and Buba-ji have taken up a spiritual cattitude (admittedly pressured by their humans). Rather than going outside to play in the organic garden, they now observe nature from their own cat-io. Heart overflowing, I recently watched them chittering with a chipmunk on the other side of the wire mesh wall. I considered it choir practice.
Sustainable gardening is great, but what about sustainable driving? Read more from Sarah Bowen: Driving practices for animal lovers.