In an extract from a new book by Frances Tophill, she details six ways we can all be more mindful of the environment as gardeners.
This is an important consideration, especially in increasingly unpredictable climates. We use such a lot of water and it is a resource that is by no means infinite. Only 1 per cent of the world’s water is clean and drinkable and it seems such a waste to use it on plants when rain readily falls from the sky in many areas and does the job just as well. Here are some ideas for reducing water wastage:
Consider some of the amazing and innovative ways of harnessing water, including SUDs (sustainable urban drains), grey water recycling, reed beds, water butts and rain gardens.
Choose perennial plants, plant them in the right place and establish them well to reduce their future watering needs.
Water plants rarely, but water them well. This encourages them to grow strong and deep roots, making them far less likely to dry out in the increasingly hot, dry spells, as they are able to access water from deep in the ground.
Gather and collect storm water from flooding for use later. Boreholes, wells and reservoirs can do this, but try creating channels and ditches, even using upturned umbrellas, to funnel water into tanks as an effective water-saving solution.
In the event of excessive rainfall, trees and floodplain species can provide a great way of soaking up flood water to avoid flash floods.
To maintain a garden in an eco-friendly way requires thoughtful planning of layout and material choices. A lumpy, bumpy lawn, for example, will probably require a mechanical cut but you might think about creating a perfectly flat lawn that could be cut with a push mower that requires no power other than your own arms.
At every point of maintenance, try to cut out big, motorised machinery, reduce your chemicals and even reduce your maintenance so that areas are allowed to go a little wild, giving extra benefit to wildlife. That could mean leaving some twigs and leaves on the ground, or only mowing your lawn once a year, letting a few weeds slip through the net, or leaving a patch completely undisturbed for years at a time.
From fake grass to plastic pots, seed trays and packaging, our gardens have been reliant on plastic in recent decades. The greatest offender is the plastic flower pot. However, there is some progress: the ubiquitous black plastic pot, which cannot be recycled, is slowly being replaced by a grey/taupe alternative that industrial recycling machinery can recognise and process.
There are some recycling and reuse schemes at garden centres, but some problems still need addressing. Most garden centres do not grow their own stock but buy in from wholesalers, so have very little or no use for plastic pots. Before they can be reused, pots need to go through a cleaning and sterilisation process to avoid spreading pathogens, like flat worms or Xylella fastidiosa, around the country or the world. This sterilisation incurs a cost, both environmental and financial.
Plastic pots are perfectly suited to their job: they are lightweight, provide good drainage and are cheap to manufacture if they break. Plants are generally happy in them. They are not good conductors of heat so roots don’t quickly overheat or freeze, and the flexible sides make removing and repotting plants a fairly simple process. All of these issues must be addressed before alternatives can be considered – not just by the gardener, but by global and national policy and by the industry.
In the meantime, I try to reduce the amount of plastic pots I buy and I reuse old pots in the garden and on the allotment when I propagate. There are some alternatives that nurseries are beginning to use and I always try to buy these to show the demand is there. These alternatives include:
Cardboard – not very long-lasting and does involve deforestation, but a good biodegradable option.
Coir – coconut fibre with the same drawbacks as coconut compost, but still biodegradable and fairly lightweight.
Clay or terracotta – expensive, breakable and heavy for transportation. They also look lovely and last for years.
Plant-fibre pots – usually made from grains and by-products of agriculture, these are comparable to plastic. They are lightweight, stackable, so easy to transport, totally biodegradable and fairly attractive. There are a few drawbacks, though: they are prone to waterlogging, are more expensive than plastic, and they are brittle and do not bend when plants are being removed.
Varied species – natives and non-natives
Generally, the more ‘native’ your plants are, the more varied uses they will offer to your local wildlife, and the more easily they will grow in your climate. They will need less watering, feeding and other interventions. However, there are some arguments for growing a wide range of plants and edibles.
For example, in a temperate area, if you grow tropical edibles like turmeric, lemongrass, chillies, ginger and peppers in your greenhouse or home, then you are reducing the air miles on your food shop. So native is not always necessary. When it comes to benefiting wildlife, though, native or near-native will offer the most useful food sources – leaves, pollen, nectar, fruit and seed for wildlife.
Veg and productive gardening
This is a crucial part of being a modern gardener, and often the most desirable part for younger people and children. We can still feel an echo of the tradition of keeping edibles separate from the social or ornamental areas of a garden, but this is an antiquated practice and one that needs a rethink. For me, the choice between edibles or ornamentals is a false dichotomy.
Making your own products
For a few years I have used mostly products that I’ve made myself – moisturiser, lip balm, massage products for aching muscles, bath bombs and so on – to reduce air miles, chemicals and packaging. Think of all the fun to be had by also growing plants that can be turned into dyes, pigments or even fabric. You could even grow medicinal plants with a bit of research and guidance, and as long as you never take anything without first making sure it’s safe.
This is an extract from ‘The Modern Gardener’ by Frances Tophill, published by Kyle Books via House & Garden UK.