Sustainable gardening

I have been married to the same man for over 35 years now and he has spent much of that time curbing my tendency to hyperbole but I am about to open with a sweeping statement this week.

The single biggest issue that is dominating garden writing and garden theory at this time is that of sustainability. Through all the media, garden presenters, writers, planners, Uncle Tom Cobley and all are talking sustainability. Sometimes it comes in the guise of organics, but it is about a great deal more than just organics. And it has only come to the fore in the last few years but I believe that we are in a time of extremely rapid change again and the somewhat alien concept of sustainability in gardening will be accepted as the norm in a very short space of time.

Ornamental gardening doesn’t have a great history of being sustainable. Agriculture and food production is different. It is integral to human survival and even back in the days of subsistence living, it had to be able to be continued. The current strong lobby for organics in food production is really a turn of the wheel back to how things used to be done. It is only in recent history that we embraced the chemicals, pharmaceuticals, manufactured fertilisers and all the rest in a drive to lift production and to increase profits.

But ornamental gardening is rather different. Historically it was the domain of the rich and the powerful minority. You want a sweeping, gently rolling countryside view from your terrace? Get Capability Brown in and move a few untidy villages out of the way. You fancy a pleasant and cooling water garden in the middle of a dry and arid area? All such problems can be solved if you have the money and the power. Even the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon were testimony to man’s control over inhospitable nature (apparently in the quest to please a foreign born wife). Versailles was famous for the ability of the gardening minions to totally change the colour scheme of the bedding plants overnight so that when the French king and queen looked out of their window in the morning, instead of pink petunias and purple cineraria, they were looking instead at yellow pansies and blue forget me nots. I once used to know how many thousands of plants it took to achieve this overnight transformation.

In recent times we have become a great deal more democratic and ornamental gardens are no longer limited to those with power and deep purses. But we have tended to take on the trappings, albeit in a miniature form. A water feature is almost mandatory, even if you have to install a pump to get the water to the right place. Statues, urns, sculptures – all hark back to the rather grander gardens of yore. So too the sweeps of lawn, vistas (though many of us have to borrow them) and most of the trappings of ornamental gardening.

It is all about controlling our environment. About creating something we find pleasing and holding the unpleasant aspects of the world beyond at bay so we can have our own tranquil haven where we are in control. At its best, gardening is about working with nature. Alas, more often it is about controlling nature and bending it to our will. And that is the bit that is not sustainable.

Gardening is about loving beauty as we see it individually. Save us from the utilitarian approach whereby planting ornamental trees is replaced solely by food bearing specimens. Yes, I enjoy the apples off our apple trees and the plants themselves are attractive enough, but they don’t make my heart sing like the sight of Magnolia Iolanthe in full bloom this week. I will happily harvest fresh vegetables, but I don’t want to wander around admiring them as I do the flowering cyclamen and daffodils. Growing fruit and vegetables is not a replacement for growing ornamental plants and creating a garden which feeds the soul.

But much of our talk here is focussed on how we can make our gardening practices more environmentally sound and what compromises we are willing to make in order to reduce our footprint on this planet. Truth be told, Mark is more prosaic in his interpretation of sustainable gardening. He sees it at a far more personal level of ensuring that the garden we continue to develop and extend remains manageable and able to be maintained to the standard we want in the long term. Part of that is shunning at least some of the questionable gardening practices, particularly the routine application of sprays.

I guess that adapting our gardening practices to be more sustainable and more environmentally friendly is all about individuals taking small steps rather than dramatic turnarounds. The domestic lawn is probably the worst crime. We are not willing to cast out the lawnmower (and we console ourselves that at least we don’t drive to work) but we do use a mulcher mower so the clippings are not removed. You can not keep stripping off the grass and expect the lawn to remain healthy so you either catch the clippings and feed the lawn or you mulch the clippings back in as part of the mowing process. Mark has a dislike of hormone sprays in the garden, so he has generally stopped spraying the lawn. We will take out the flat weeds by hand and have learned to live with some of the others.

Gardeners should be seriously questioning the use of plants which require routine spraying to keep them healthy. Strong, healthy plants will often withstand diseases and pests. If they won’t, maybe it is time to replace them different selections that will.

Mulching garden beds not only feeds the soil (reducing the need to fertilise), it also suppresses weeds. Being maniacal mulchers, we are now of the view that bare soil anywhere but in the vegetable garden is a black mark. Mulches also reduce or remove the need to water. Yes it rains a lot in Taranaki and water is rarely a problem in the north, but it is still hard to justify the regular use of water in an ornamental garden when it can be managed without. Delivering water to your garden tap still comes at an environmental and financial cost.

Learning how to make compost saves taking green waste to the rubbish transfer station (and buying in compost and mulch in return).

Small steps in gardening will not change our planet but it may just help to make us a little cleaner and greener. It is a myth that gardeners are environmentalists but it would be nice if we could be.