How to Make an Indoor Garden More Sustainable
Taking steps toward a sustainable indoor garden is not only better for the environment, but it could improve your yields and reduce expenses as well.
Implementing sustainable growing practices is the epitome of environmentally friendly gardening. Sustainable gardening practices reduce waste, eliminate most chemical inputs, and increase productivity. This is accomplished by combining organic gardening techniques with resource conservation. Many growers, both indoor and outdoor, are taking steps to maximize the sustainability of their gardens. A truly sustainable garden not only perpetuates its own existence but does so while providing the essential elements and environmental inputs needed for plant nourishment. The old adage reduce, reuse, recycle is the key to increasing sustainability and a garden’s overall profitability. Although there are some components of an indoor garden that will still require outside influences, indoor horticulturists can implement some specific gardening practices to reduce their environmental impact and increase an indoor garden’s overall sustainability.
Water conservation is a great starting point when getting into sustainable gardening practices. Reducing the amount of water used or recycling water can go a long way in increasing sustainability. Although rainwater collection is generally thought of as an outdoor gardening technique, it can also be used for indoor horticulture. Strategically placed rain barrels or collection bins can be piped into an indoor garden. A grower can also haul the rainwater inside the old-fashioned way, but piping is much less labor intensive. A reservoir or cistern located within the grow space can then supply the irrigational needs of the garden. Having a reservoir or cistern will give the horticulturist an opportunity to make pH adjustments or add additional nutrients to the water before feeding the plants. This is especially important for hydroponic growers.
Speaking of hydroponics, hydroponic systems are another great way to conserve water in an indoor garden. Recirculating hydroponic systems conserve, on average, 70-90 percent more water than a typical soil garden. This is mainly because water is captured and reused. Indoor soil containers are normally more efficient than outdoor field irrigation, but hydroponic systems are still the most efficient way to conserve water. That being said, there are ways for indoor soil growers to conserve water, such as incorporating automated watering systems (drip systems) which maximize efficiency. Whether an indoor horticulturist is using hydroponics or soil, taking steps to conserve water is a great way to increase sustainability.
When it comes to sustainability, artificial horticultural lighting is the elephant in the room. The simple truth is, without the sun as the main energy input, plants will require artificial lighting and artificial lighting requires electricity. However, this doesn’t mean indoor horticulturists can’t take action to reduce their environmental impact when using artificial lighting. First and foremost, choosing the most efficient lighting system can make a big impact on reducing electric usage. LED horticultural lighting systems have come a long way since their inception and, relatively speaking, offer more efficient horticultural lighting options. Whenever possible, a grower can also supplement sunlight into their garden through a window or skylight. Even if it is only for an hour or two a day, supplementing natural light will reduce electrical usage and an indoor garden’s environmental impact.
Another way to get the most out of your lighting system is to properly utilize the given space. Many growers waste a good portion of the light energy by not properly arranging their garden spaces. With careful planning, every square inch of the light emitted by an artificial light source can be used. Grow spaces that have close walls surrounding the garden should use reflective materials to maximize light and efficiency. Any steps taken to increase the use of an artificial light source will help increase an indoor garden’s sustainability.
It still may be years away from practical use, but fiber optic technology will be the ultimate solution for indoor horticultural lighting. An outdoor solar collection system would capture the sunlight and, with the use of fiber optic cables, distribute the light into the indoor garden. Again, this technology is still years away from everyday use, but, down the road, it will likely be the most sustainable option for delivering light into an indoor garden.
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Sustainable Electricity Options
Electricity use is unavoidable for indoor horticulturists. However, this doesn't mean steps shouldn’t be taken to increase the sustainability of the source of electricity. Solar- and wind-powered generators are becoming more common for home use and many commercial indoor gardeners are investing in these sustainable energy options. When it is not possible to install solar panels or wind turbines, it is worth checking with your power company to see what kind of sustainable energy options are available. Depending on your location, power companies may offer a sustainable source of electricity for a slightly higher price per kilowatt hour. By paying a few extra cents per kilowatt hour, a grower may be able to power his or her indoor garden with a more sustainable energy source.
Composting and Reusing Soil
Indoor horticulturists can take advantage of composting, just like outdoor horticulturists. Even a small compost pile created with kitchen and garden scraps can make a difference in the long run. Excess plant material can also be collected and composted after each indoor harvest. Given a little time, it can then be used as fertilizer for an indoor soil. In fact, there are many indoor horticulturists who have had success building and using a perpetual soil in an indoor raised bed. Much like “building up” an outdoor soil, these indoor raised beds are reused over and over with compost added between each garden cycle. A soil test kit or getting a soil analysis done periodically is a good idea for those who want to experiment with a perpetual raised bed soil indoors. As long as a well-balanced soil is maintained by properly adding the right ratio of compost and/or organic ingredients, this system can be the most sustainable way to grow with soil indoors.
Indoor growers who don’t want to use a perpetual raised bed or those using a hydroponic media will still be able to find other ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Many hydroponic media are reusable (at least for a few cycles) and soils used indoors can be reused outdoors in a flower bed or other landscaping project. Getting creative and finding ways to reuse indoor growing media instead of sending it to the landfill is just another step toward reducing an indoor garden’s environmental impact.
It is inevitable that, at some point, an indoor grower will encounter unwanted pests and/or pathogens. The most sustainable approach to these issues is to use a biological control. Predatory insects, beneficial microbes, plant extract sprays, and/or incorporating plants in the garden that naturally ward off insects are more sustainable when reducing or eliminating pests and pathogens than chemical pesticides/fungicides.
It takes dedication, a little creativity, and a series of steps to increase the sustainability of an indoor garden. By implementing multiple practices, an indoor horticulturist can do his or her part to reduce a garden’s negative environmental impact. Even steps as simple as purchasing locally made products for the garden will contribute to the greater good of sustainability. Using sustainable gardening practices provides more benefit than just helping the environment. In most cases, these practices will increase a garden’s productivity and a grower’s return on investment. Simply put, taking steps to increase the sustainability of an indoor garden is a win-win situation for the environment and the grower.