15 questions you need to ask about guilt-free ‘green’ gardening
Do you – as an ‘ordinary gardener’ – feel guilty about spraying your plants with chemicals or buying a peat-based compost? After all, what difference does it really make? If your garden is middle-sized, that’s not alot of space in which to change the world. But small-ish domestic gardens account for 25% of most UK towns and cities. A Sheffield University study estimated that, for Sheffield, that means 25,000 ponds, 45,500 nest boxes, 50,700 compost heaps and 360,00 trees. So, collectively, we do have a voice.
Domestic gardening isn’t automatically green. Once you’ve costed in the power tools and lawn-mowers, the sprinklers, peat compost and the plants grown all over Europe (and how much fuel you use to drive to buy them or have them delivered), you usually have a negative impact on the world’s resources.
1) Isn’t organic gardening just for eccentrics?
I’ve cruised the internet for eco-friendly gardening advice. There’s alot out there. Some of it is confusing or just plain unrealistic. One post (from a respected newspaper) told me not to buy plants in plastic pots. Hello? Should I take them out of the pot in the garden centre? And how would that help? So I’ve asked the leading organisations – the RHS, The Soil Association, EthicalConsumer.org,Garden Organic and others – for their advice on the simplest, easiest and most effective steps non-eccentric gardeners can take.
2) What’s the difference between ‘ethical’ and ‘environmentally friendly/eco’ gardening?
The terms are often used interchangeably. But broadly speaking, ‘ethical’ is about people – workers’ rights, human rights, irresponsible marketing and supply chain management. Of course, environmental issues come into it, but if you find yourself reading a post purportedly on ‘ethical gardening’ that majors on your use of plastic pots, then it’s….(fill in the blank yourself. Four letters will do).
‘Eco-gardening’ and organic or environmentally-friendly gardening is about bio-diversity. Issues include habitat and food for wildlife (eg pollinating insects), quality of your soil, water run-off and flooding, use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers and whether you use peat-based composts. It can seem a bit never-ending and woolly – but it’s about how everything in the environment fits together. At EthicalConsumption.org they take a ‘holistic approach – we look at a variety of issues from workers’ and animal rights to environmental issues, and give it a scoring system.’ See their Ethical Gardening report here.
3) ‘My garden is only 50′ long – how can I make a difference?’
That’s what I thought, until I looked at it the other way round. Individuals often turn their front gardens into off-street parking. According to the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society), the equivalent of 22 Hyde Parks have been covered by hard standing for off-street parking in London over the past 10 years.
All this off-street parking means more localised flooding (because garden soil absorbs water), fewer habitats for wildlife, and loss of air quality (that’s your air quality as you step outside your front door). Paving over front gardens also gets rid of the trees and bushes which make cities cooler in the summer and protect houses from wind in the winter. Most of this is us, one at a time, doing what we can to improve the value of our houses and make our lives easier. So what we do in our little space does have an impact. Luckily, the RHS’s Greening Grey Britain campaign has come up with some very attractive ideas for front gardens that still incorporates the parking – do get their booklet here.
4) How can I find time to ‘go green’?
Quite alot of eco-friendly gardening involves not doing things…not driving to the tip with your garden debris, for example, or not buying pesticides. Organic gardening association Garden Organic says that organic gardening doesn’t require more work – just a different mental approach.
5) Can I go ‘a bit organic’? What’s the one change I could make?
All the organisations said ‘start with your soil’. Compost everything you can, then use that compost on your garden. Composting minimises your use of landfill, saves you petrol on driving to the tip with your prunings and provides food for the worms that keep your soil healthy. unsustainable.’
The Soil Association says that looking after your soil is one of the best things you can do, both for your garden and for the environment. That also means not using pesticides or weed killers, unless they are organically approved, and ‘looking after your worms.’ My heart sank to hear that there were yet more beings in my life I ought to be looking after. I feel guilty enough not cleaning the dog’s teeth. But apparently all worms need is good compost.
Compost is a very middle-sized problem, because it’s hard to find the space for the required three large bins without creating an eyesore. There are lots of myths around it – the best advice I found came from Recycle Now. My friend, Fern Alder of Full Frontal gardens, has just bought a Hotbin, which takes every scrap of kitchen waste, including meat. It also takes perennial weeds as it’s hot enough to fry them into nothingness. She has only just got hers, and I want one, as it makes compost in 30-90 days instead of the usual year or so. However, I’m not sure it would be big enough to take all our prunings. The RHS advises against using your own home-made compost for seedlings, though.
6) What’s so bad about peat?
This is the gardener’s biggest guilt trip. Peat-based composts work very well. But once again, all the organisations – the RHS, EthicalConsumer.org, The Soil Association and others – all speak with one voice on using peat-based composts. It damages the environment irreversibly. The RHS says ‘the use of peat-based composts by gardeners is unsustainable.’ Peat bogs absorb carbon, and they also affect flooding. Digging up peat also affects bio-diversity – the animals, plants, birds and insects that rely on it. The RHS doesn’t use peat-based composts itself and is trialling alternatives. At Garden Organic, Sally Cunningham says:’As an organisation, we’re OK with recycled peat – the stuff which gets cleaned off reservoir grilles in upland areas, mostly in Wales and Northern England (sold as Moorland Gold). We do accept that if you’re using really small modules, there aren’t many green composts that work as well as peat. For ericaceous plants we recommend either making your own compost with composted bracken (harvested when green to avoid breathing in the spores) or a wool-based compost.’ The RHS say that you need to read the instructions for using green composts as they retain water differently. There’s more advice here.
7) Can I be ‘green’ and have an off-street parking space?
Yes. These RHS ideas are attractive and realistic. They include only paving over the part of the garden the car will drive over or stand on, rather than the whole area. You can then plant the rest of the area with tough plants that don’t mind being parked over, like creeping Jenny or thyme. UK regulations now mean that all new off-street parking areas should have permeable surfaces, but a rough straw poll indicates that hardly anyone is taking any notice of this. If you already have paving and don’t want to re-pave, even adding a big trough or pots, or growing a climber up the front of the house adds some green that wildlife may enjoy. And maybe you can save up for a big-ticket re-vamp at some point.
8) How does my garden affect local flooding?
When it rains, your garden absorbs the water. Your plants drink it up or it filters down to the water table. If your front garden is wholly concreted over and your back garden has a huge terrace, then the water will run off, often into the local sewers. If everyone is concrete-d over, then flooding (especially of sewage drains) is likely. We really notice it here – after very heavy rain, the Niagara Falls rushes past our house, ending up in a neighbour’s basement at the bottom of the street. Nigel Dunnett has pioneered the concept of Rain Gardens. Thinking about rain in small areas can help enormously – and be very attractive to look at. The London area of Victoria suffers from a great deal of run-off flooding, and Nigel has done a rain garden in front of John Lewis’s Victoria offices. There is much inspiration for the middle-sized gardener here – many of it involving only a few small changes.
9) How can I grow vegetables that genuinely do save money and food miles?
We all know that once you’ve costed in the cost of seeds, plants, tools, fertilisers etc, growing your own is often not cheaper than buying from the shops. But I’ve scoured the blogosphere for all the tests on grow-your-own veg that really do save money. The same results came up again and again: lettuce and salad leaves, along with herbs (inc chillies) and tomatoes. As salads use up alot of water when grown commercially, and are flown or lorried for long distances, this is a choice that makes sense both financially and environmentally.
10) There’s a huge tree blocking out all my sun. Can I cut it down?
Along with everyone I have ever met, I have cut down mature trees in our garden. Cutting down trees seems to be an instinctive human response to settling in a new home. But, even if you replant, it takes trees 5-15 years to get established. Garden trees are important carbon sinks – they absorb carbon dioxide. They also shade buildings and streets, preventing them from getting too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Trees cover up eyesores and glaring street lamps. They provide homes for birds. Even the phrase ‘tree-lined street’ evokes an upmarket area. ‘But there’s a terrible perception that trees are somehow dangerous,’ says Fern, who is also a Tree Warden. ‘But they’re not. Right place, right plant is the key – to tree planting as well as all other planting.’
Of course, many trees have got too big, too old or were never planted in the right place anyway. Massive conifers keep smaller gardens in permanent gloom. But see if pruning and shaping could sort your trees out before cutting any down (see How to have light & privacy). The RHS puts trees at the top of its environmentally-friendly garden list. See here for its other tips.
11) Can I use any pesticides and chemicals?
Look out for pesticides and fertilisers that have been approved by the Soil Association or for organic gardening. I’ve had good success this year with Sluggo, (made of naturally occurring ferric phosphate) this year. I started in February, scattering the tiny blue pellets lightly across the ground and topping up around vulnerable plants later in the year. And I’ve just been sent Envii Feed & Protect to try out – it’s a probiotic treatment with micro-nutrients to improve nutrition to flowers and vegetables and discourage slugs and snails without harming worms.
12) How much difference do water butts make?
You need a water strategy rather than relying on a water butt to save all the water you need. If you have a really large rainwater harvesting water butt taking all the rainwater off your roof and storing it, great. But we have three ordinary-sized water butts. In dry summers, they run out in a week. If you want to save water, then only water plants around their roots (no sprinklers), use a timed irrigation system for your veg and/or plant mainly perennials which only need watering in their first year in your garden.
13) Are some plants ‘greener’ than others?
If your borders are mainly full of annuals planted in Europe, lorried over here and then in need of constant watering and feeding because they don’t have mature root systems, then they’re not ‘green’ plants. At the other end of the spectrum are shrubs and perennials which go on year after year and never need much attention. If you grow your own plants from seed, that’s green too. Ditto self-seeded plants.
14) What are the best resources for an ordinary gardener who wants to be a bit more sustainable?
Garden Organic has really sensible advice on all sorts of issues, and takes a realistic approach to ordinary gardeners’ problems. There is an advisory service, free factsheets, events and a useful FAQs. The RHS is a great resource, with lots of facts and comparative trials, and it too makes everything clear and easy. The Soil Association runs courses aimed at the ordinary gardener.
15) Is there one general philosophy that will help?
Mary Reynolds, author of The Wild Way, told a conference on sustainability at Palmstead Nurseries that the only way to be truly sustainable was ‘to keep it local.’ That makes sense. Local nurseries that grow plants from seed, your own home-made compost, well-rotted manure from local farms – it all keeps the ‘garden miles’ down. That’s often harder for people in towns and cities – but it’s worth bearing in mind.
In all my talking to the major organisations and rootling around the internet, plastic pots were barely mentioned…although Garden Organic have subsequently come back to me to recommend recyclable pots made of materials like miscanthus, which are, apparently, available in a tasteful range of sludge colours.
I include easy, practical eco-friendly gardening tips whenever possible in my posts, so if you’d like to have the Middlesized Garden delivered to your email address every Sunday morning, do sign up in the box on the top right. And do spread the word about greener gardening by sharing using the buttons below – thank you!