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Sunday, January 1, 2017

What does sustainable mean?

Happy New Year! For 2017’s first post, I’m going back to basics to clarify what I mean by sustainable gardening. 

Composting is key, but there's more

The term “sustainable” gets such broad use these days that it’s losing meaning.

     For example, did you know that Poland Spring water is “sustainably sourced from local Maine springs?” That’s what it says on the bottle. There’s a lot the label doesn’t say.

     It doesn’t say that Poland Spring has been owned for a number of years by the Nestle Corporation, an international bad actor that came to attention in the 1970s for causing infant deaths in the Third World by marketing infant formula to mothers who didn’t have access to safe drinking water. The babies could have lived safely with breastfeeding. 

    The label doesn’t address the impact of the the huge Poland Spring operation on Maine towns where Nestle extracts 800 million gallons annually from aquifers and ships it out on a fleet of heavy trucks. 

                          2013 Press Herald File Photo/John Patriquin

    Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t say that plastic water bottles are some of the most environmentally problematic products we use. 

     Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog for the Hudson, offers some eye-opening statistics about bottled water. The one that really got to me was this: “The energy it takes to transport the water to market, to chill the bottles, and collect the empties is the energy equivalent of filling each bottle a quarter of the way with oil.”  

There's no "away" for plastic water bottles

Whatever Poland Spring means by “sustainable,” it’s not what I mean. 

    Getting back to the garden, my definition of sustainable gardening is that it:
•    imitates natural processes
•    emphasizes cycling of materials
•    minimizes waste and energy use
That’s easy to say, but real gardening choices depend on weighing very local considerations.

    Say I’m choosing garden structures such as the tuteurs I bought last summer from Terra Trellis (my talented sister-in-law Jennifer Gilbert Asher is the designer and proprietor).  

I upgraded to an elegant steel tuteur like this one

The wooden structures I’d been using for vines such as cucumbers held out for a while, but as untreated wood will, they eventually began to rot and fall apart. 

The wooden trellis didn't last

The new ones are made of powder-coated steel.  That means they’ll last for the rest of my gardening life. But it also means that more energy went into their manufacture.

     Would it have been more sustainable to buy wooden ones every few years? That would depend on such factors as where the wood comes from, how it’s harvested, and what processes are involved in building the metal and wooden structures, all unknowns to me. 

     Perhaps most sustainable of all would be to build trellises from local scrap wood or straight branches pruned off my trees. That would tax another finite resource, my time and energy.

     I don’t think there’s a single correct choice. In each situation, we have to weigh our priorities and find the best solution for our time, place, resources, and stage of life. If we do our best to make informed choices, I believe we’ll gradually progress toward more sustainable practices. 

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