Sustainability and all that

London daughter’s field of work is public relations and communications and she was groaning last week at “Eat a British Chicken Week” (referred to by her as “Oh my goodness bird flu has knocked the poultry industry hard what can we do about it week”). Plumbing new depths of contrived PR, she felt.

But I am watching the food miles campaign in the United Kingdom gain some traction and this one should make New Zealand very nervous. As one of the countries most remote from many of our markets, our food travels extraordinarily long distances before it reaches the British or European supermarket shelves. Our government can protest all it likes that the environmental footprint of our food production is very low and much of the produce is carried by sea so in fact it contributes less to global pollution than food produced much closer to the markets. But the grocery shopper in the supermarket is still going to look at the 12000 miles sticker on the apples, kiwifruit, venison or lamb and buy the alternative which shows considerably lesser distance. That way the shopper can feel good about saving the planet while living in one of the most urban, pre-packaged, over packaged and over populated countries on the planet.

Watching environmental issues take centre stage and lose the fringe tag is certainly interesting. I think we are in another period of rapid change comparable to the introduction of television which brought the world into every home and the introduction of the internet and email which have revolutionised communication and information. You know you are witnessing a quantum leap in changing attitudes when the Warehouse has signs at its checkouts suggesting that the customer can help the environment by refusing plastic bags. Goodness we may only be a couple of years off the time when the middle classes are too embarrassed any longer to drive their SUV’s. The status symbol of the new millennium is fast becoming the pariah of the environment.

What has this to do with gardening, you may wonder. Lots really. As talk of sustainability and protecting the environment gains traction and becomes mainstream, damaging gardening activities may lose popularity too. It isn’t that long ago that organics were the preserve of ageing hippies. Good red blooded gardeners saw nothing wrong in pouring on the sprays and chemical fertilisers. Now the organics sections in the supermarket are growing in size and acceptability. I noticed my London hosts routinely paid extra for food labelled organic and I expect that this country will see a similar rise in consumer demand.

According to gardening magazines, home grown vegetables and fruit are enjoying a huge return to favour. Fresh herbs are now de rigueur in many households with the old standby of Greggs packets of dried herbs either absent from the food cupboard or reserved for emergency only. I am ever optimistic that supermarkets will replace the use of dried mixed herbs in pre-prepared stuffing for rotisserie chickens and colonial goose. Tasteless bought tomatoes grown hydroponically are gradually becoming a thing of the past, replaced by “vine ripened” produce. Even many desultory or unenthusiastic gardeners will grow their own herbs and try a few gourmet lettuce or baby tomatoes.

So if you are starting to heed the talk of environmental sustainability, what can you do besides growing herbs and vegetables?

  1. Replace plants which require routine spraying to keep them healthy. There are almost always higher health alternatives. Had consumers been demanding healthy roses 15 years ago, we would have a far greater range now which could be grown without Super Shield and all the other rose sprays. Plant conifers and rhododendrons which suit your climate and therefore don’t need spraying.
  2. Avoid the use the chemical fertilisers as far as possible. There are alternatives which are much kinder to the environment than the plastic coated bubble types. Good old blood and bone or Bioboost are choices. Make your own compost if you can and use that to feed the garden.
  3. Use a mulcher mower. The clippings will feed the lawn and reduce the amount of synthetic fertiliser you need to add.
  4. Learn about sprays and favour those which are safer to the environment. Many insecticides are pyrethrum based – synthetic pyrethrum these days but that is just a chemical recreation of a natural compound found in the pyrethrum daisy. Fortunately there is no evidence yet that Roundup (or glyphosate as it is often sold these days) is damaging in the environment. The same can not be said of various other chemical cocktails which are readily available.
  5. Be aware of plants which threaten to become noxious weeds in the environment and be very careful of how you dispose of them. At least deadhead those you want to keep. If you live near a reserve, a waterway or a National Park, get rid of them altogether.
  6. If you routinely irrigate your garden, consider a different approach which doesn’t require anything more than an occasional emergency water. If you have a water feature, however small, which relies on turning on a tap and using town water, consider a system which will recycle the water rather than endless pumping of high quality water through your feature and out the stormwater system.
  7. Plant trees wherever and whenever you can.

I doubt that the talk about sustainability and environmental footprints is going to go away. It is time we all took it seriously. By no means is all gardening kind to the environment, as an environmental friend keeps reminding me. We could probably all sharpen up our practices to minimise the negative impacts without any great loss of our gardening pleasure.