Seeking Sustainable Gardening

Mint MothI’m sure I’m not alone in feeling utterly demoralised by the frequent news stories on the continued degradation of the natural world. From the shocking levels of plastic pollution in our seas to the now obvious signs of climate change, and industrial scale destruction of habitats, it’s hard to avoid feeling hopeless about the planet’s current and future state. While it is clear that addressing these issues will require major policy changes on the part of governments and a shift in culture from big business I do believe that individuals can also make a difference by becoming more engaged and changing their own habits.

Is gardening green?

With our interest in all things green and leafy you would think that gardeners would have an innate affinity with the natural world and would want to avoid doing anything especially harmful. Yet horticulture, like any other industry, can leave a significant footprint with its supply chain, its manufacturing processes and its choice of materials. Domestic gardeners can, and in my view must, mitigate this through their consumer choices and personal practices – be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. I would consider myself to be fairly environmentally aware but there’s always more you can do to minimise your own impact and so I thought I’d do a little audit of the sustainability of my own garden activity.

Chemical Controls and Fertilisers

What’s the problem?

Research shows that the number of insects is plummeting with potentially disastrous consequences and the use of pesticides is one of the key contributors to this situation.  Use of chemical controls and synthetic fertilisers is also associated with contamination of water supplies.

What am I doing already?

  • Rather than using herbicides I manage weeds with a mixture of mulching and hand weeding and on the whole this works fine (though by the end of Summer I have to admit it can all get a bit beyond me!)
  • NemaslugInstead of using pesticides I minimise pest damage through the use of barriers such as netting on crops, and by encouraging natural predators into the garden such as birds.  I have also used Nematodes at the allotment in an effort to control slug damage, though this is a relatively expensive option.
  • Between studying soils for the RHS Level 3 course and researching the no-dig method I am now convinced that for plants grown in the ground adding organic matter to improve soil structures is more effective than using fertilisers.  Now, rather than routinely applying pelleted poultry manure to my beds at the allotment as I used to, I just apply green waste compost as a mulch/soil conditioner.
  • For ornamental container grown plants I currently use organic pelleted poultry manure as a slow release fertiliser.

What could I do?

  • To completely eliminate chemicals from my garden and allotment sourcing organically produced plants and seeds would be the way forward.
  • For crops such as tomatoes and courgettes I tend to just revert to liquid feeds such as Tomorite.  Here I think I could certainly do more to either source an organic fertiliser or make my own nettle or comfrey liquid feed (though with limited space I’m not sure this will be all that desirable: phew – smelly!).

Growing Media

What’s the problem?

Avoiding peat-based composts is important because peat is a finite resource, its extraction can result in damage to important natural habitats, and perhaps most vitally it is a carbon store and its removal from the ground results in carbon entering the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

What am I doing already?

  • I’ve used peat-free multi-purpose compost for container growing for years and have found that Westland+ and Miracle Gro peat-free compost both perform as well as peat-based compost.  Cheaper ‘own brand’ alternatives tend to dry out very quickly and are worth avoiding.

What could I do?

  • CocoPeatFinding peat-free seed composts is a lot more difficult than multi-purpose and until now I have used the standard peat-based seed compost.  However, I have just recently bought a bag of CocoPeat from local supplier Dandy’s Topsoil to try as an alternative.  Although far more expensive than peat-based seed composts it is quite a lot cheaper than some of the other environmentally friendly options I have found online so hopefully a good compromise.

Water Usage

What’s the problem?

As climate change becomes a reality the likelihood of drought periods is increasing.  As such minimising irrigation and/or re-using waste water will become increasingly important.

What am I doing already?

  • We have water butts installed both at home and at the allotment, though neither provide enough water during warm summer periods.
  • At home we only use a watering can not a hose-pipe. We also try to save waste water, from for example emptying the kettle, for re-use in the garden.
  • In the garden we have many containers of varying sizes.  These include a number of large wooden planters which retain water for longer than smaller pots.
  • At the allotment watering using a hose-pipe can be a necessity during dry periods but we try to limit this to once or twice a week.  We also water in the evening to minimise water loss through evaporation.
  • I now apply no-dig principles at the allotment and the regular mulching and adding of organic matter to soils improves water retention.
No Dig Allotment
Mulched Beds

What could I do?

  • There is sufficient space to add an additional water butt to the garden and the allotment to increase reserves for dry weather.
  • One option is to capture ‘grey water’, e.g. from the washing up bowl or the shower, for re-use in the garden.  We use eco-friendly washing-up liquid so that maybe the place to start.

Garden Waste and Composting

What’s the problem?

Anything which avoids household waste going into landfill is worth doing both to minimise land pollution and avoid the unnecessary release of carbon gases into the atmosphere.  Garden and kitchen waste can be a valuable source of organic matter for re-use in the garden so it’s a win-win.

What am I doing already?

  • We do not have space for a compost heap in our tiny garden so all our garden waste goes into the local authority green bin.  We benefit from the resulting compost by paying for a pile of it to be delivered annually to the allotment colony.
  • Fortunately we live in an area where kitchen waste is collected separately in a caddy bin and sent for composting/green gas.
  • I have in the past stored up the leaves from the tree in our garden up to make leafmould but lack of space is a barrier, so I now cut out the middle man and apply the leaves directly to beds in the garden each Autumn as a mulch.

What could I do?

  • I have been planning on increasing composting facilities at the allotment for yonks so I really need to actually do that.  Currently we only have one bin and a lot of our waste goes into the local authority green bin when we could be making our own compost.
  • In the past we have had a wormery at home for disposing of kitchen waste.  We had problems with it flooding in wet weather and I’m not that keen on returning to that option, particularly given that we have the kitchen caddy.  It could be a possibility for those with limited space who do not get their kitchen waste recycled.

Plastic

What’s the problem?

Virtually everything we buy comes wrapped in plastic of one sort or another.  Some of this can be recycled and some can’t but either way there is so much of it that it is now threatening to overwhelm us, polluting our seas and our land. Reducing and reusing plastic wherever possible is a priority.

What am I doing already?

  • Egg Box Seed TraysMany plant pots are made from black plastic which is not recyclable in most areas so it is important to re-use pots as much as possible. I keep any plastic pots and seed trays and use them over and over again until they crack. I also re-use mushroom boxes as seed trays and fruit punnets.
  • For seedlings I use newspaper pots, toilet roll tubes and egg boxes all of which are biodegradable and can be transplanted direct in to the ground or another container.
  • Wooden Plant LabelsI use wooden plant labels and/or paper sticky labels to identify seedlings.
  • I use twine rather than plastic coated plant ties.
  • I re-use plastic bags from household waste when harvesting produce from the allotment. Yes, this is still using plastic but it at least prolongs the life of each bag and plastic can be useful in preserving some crops such as salad for longer.

What could I do?

The one thing which remains problematic is that growing media tends to come wrapped in unrecyclable plastic.  My local supplier Dandy’s Topsoil have started to introduce hessian bags so this maybe the place to go from now on.

Planting

What’s the problem?

Choice and location of plants can have a big influence on how much irrigation is required and whether they provide food and habitats for wildlife.  Some might look great but require intensive maintenance and contribute little support for pollinators.  Applying the principle of ‘right plant, right place’ on the other hand can minimise maintenance requirements, while ensuring a long flowering season can help insects.

What am I doing already?

  • Bumble BeeWe have a mature tree which I cannot take credit for because it was already here when we moved in but nonetheless this provides a great habitat for wildlife.
  • I try to choose pollinator-friendly species and cultivars.
  • I have tried to focus more on using perennials and less on short-term annuals.

What could I do?

  • I am in the process of overhauling the permanent planting in our garden with a view to improving it both from a structure and design point of view and ensuring a long flowering season to support insects, as well as being attractive.
  • We have a high proportion of hard standing in our small garden.  Although I am not a great fan of lawns I am considering replacing some of the paving with a patchwork lawn to increase the planting generally and perhaps include flowering plants such as clover to increase biodiversity.

Wildlife Habitats

What’s the problem?

In our desire to be neat and tidy in the garden we can sometimes undermine the natural habitats that support wildlife.  Gardens can be rich in biodiversity if some deliberate choices are made to encourage wildlife to make their home there.

What am I doing already?

  • Bird FeedersWe have several bird feeders and a bird-box (though this may need to be relocated)
  • I add organic matter to the soil through leaf debris and spent compost to support subterranean ecosystems.
  • I leave seedheads and avoid cutting back shrubs during the Winter so that these can provide a habitat for insects and food for birds.
  • I have half built an insect hotel using an old bird table and various bits of scrap wood (though I could do with finishing this off).

What could I do?

  • Finish the insect hotel!
  • Creating a pond is one of the top things you can do to attract wildlife.  In a small garden like ours it would have to be a miniature pond in a pot.  I would love to do this but with a toddler in the house I’m not sure now is quite the right time.  Maybe one for the future …
  • Leave a pile of deadwood in a corner of the garden.  This may be an anathema to those who like a tidy garden but it can provide an invaluable home for all manner of creatures.

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