1st January 2022 and at 14ºC in North West England it’s been unseasonably mild – more like Easter Sunday than New Year’s Day. I won’t deny that this made our trip to the allotment to repatriate the Christmas tree all the more pleasant. However, I don’t need to be a climate scientist to appreciate that over the course of my 45 year lifetime the UK climate has palpably changed. The long, cold winters of my childhood are a distant memory and anomalous weather such as this is becoming ever more ‘normal’. If all that meant was a few more Spring-like days to bring relief from the bleak mid-winter I’m sure none of us would complain. We have known for some time though that the effects of global warming will become ever more profound and damaging.
Those of us who are keen gardeners become attuned to seasonal variations and even more obsessed with the weather forecast than the average Brit! For me gardening is also closely related to my love of the natural world. Getting outside and hearing the birds singing and the hum of insects is a large part of its charm, alongside the plants themselves. So it seems self-evident to me that gardeners should be concerned about negative changes to the environment. In my gardening social media echo chamber there are many others who I know feel the same.
Yet for some their gardening practice is less about embracing nature and more about controlling and suppressing it. Gardens are seen as an extension of the home and must be kept ‘neat and tidy’. People must have absolute mastery of their realm. There is a huge industry devoted to perpetuating and profiting from this rather Victorian concept. Garden centres are awash with feed and weed treatments promising the ‘perfect lawn’, by which they mean a monoculture of pure grass with not a hint of daisy to tarnish it. Come Spring, supermarket ‘gardening’ aisles will be dominated by shelf upon shelf of brightly coloured pesticides designed to blast into oblivion any bug that should deign to pitch up on your Roses, or Dandelion that finds a crevice to occupy in your drive. There is simply no place for such messy features of the natural world in our carefully curated gardens.
For me this perfectly encapsulates how we have arrived where have with the climate change crisis and associated loss of biodiversity. We humans seem to regard ourselves as something separate from nature, resisting its imposition on our world. That’s not even just an urban attitude. In rural areas too, the landscape has been carved to meet our demands and species regarded as a threat hunted and culled, in some cases to extinction. The planet we inhabit though functions via a complex system of interdependent species and biological processes. We are just as much a part of that system as any other animal and, not only that, we are wholly reliant on this delicate balance being maintained for our own wellbeing. It is clear, however, that human activity is causing serious disruption and we really must now start working in greater harmony with the natural world rather than regarding it as a beast to be tamed.
In gardening terms there are some very straightforward ways to take a more environmentally friendly approach. A crucial starting point should be avoiding the use of pesticides. These products are literally poisons designed only for the purpose of killing other living things. While they may be marketed for use on specific pests such as greenfly, they will of course also kill any other insect which is unfortunate enough to come into contact with them. Quite aside from the sadness of that fact, some of those insects such as bees and hoverflies are essential for pollinating plants which produce crops. Even those insects which are considered problematic by gardeners are actually a source of food for other species and so by disrupting that supply we are contributing to the demise of other creatures we value. For example, greenfly is eaten by Ladybird larvae and Blue Tits which many of us would consider to be welcome garden visitors. These days I let nature do the work for me. When it comes to weeds, prevention though dense planting and mulches can go a long way, and hoeing or hand pulling is just fine for those that make it through.
Next on the itinerary should be choosing peat-free compost. For many years peat has been a primary ingredient in shop bought compost or growing media included mainly for its water-retaining properties. Use of peat for horticulture is problematic on a couple of counts. Firstly, peat bogs are fragile habitats formed over centuries but which are now seriously degraded putting the species which live there at threat. Secondly, peat bogs are an incredibly effective carbon store but when we extract peat carbon dioxide is actually released into the atmosphere, which is a disaster from a climate change perspective. Some will say that peat-free composts are not as good as those that are peat-based. Even if this were true (and based on my many years of using peat-free compost it is not) the negative environmental impact of its use surely cannot be justified for the sake of some Petunias!
The easiest thing to do though is to take a more relaxed approach. Mow your lawn a little less often or, if you have a large garden maybe even let a corner grow to full height, providing a habitat for bees and other insects. Resist the temptation to cut back plants that have completed their flowering for the year and leave the seed heads in place until late Winter – they can actually look very attractive and provide seeds for birds and a place for insects to overwinter. Rather than clearing leaves in Autumn, let them gather on your beds and borders to create a mulch – again they can provide shelter for overwintering insects as well as improving your soil by adding organic matter.
Whether a keen gardener, or someone who likes to pick up a few plants from the supermarket to brighten up the patio, these simple things can help to make your outdoor space a part of the solution to our mounting environmental challenges, rather than contributing to the problem. There are lots of other things that we can do to help wildlife in our gardens and The Wildlife Trust has some great resources.
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