Sustainability – the buzz word for 2009

In between the excesses of food and alcohol which mark the current festive season for many of us, New Year is traditionally a time for reflection and resolutions to do better in the coming year (or weeks, sometimes only days!). So too, have we been reflecting on directions in gardening. It feels like such a short space of time since I used to write deploring the horrors of the pretentious minimalist garden and the clonal aspects of many gardens which used an identical palette of plants and a very narrow palette at that. The minimalist garden is just so passé now that it is consigned in history to the same category as the 1970s conifer garden planted under a mulch of black plastic and either pebbles or scoria. Fad gardening.

But the rise and the rise and the continuing rise in popularity of the vegetable garden and growing fruit trees at home has taken pretty well every professional in the garden and horticulture scene by surprise. Who isn’t growing at least a few lettuces, herbs and mini toms at home these days? Those who have been doing this all their lives will not be surprised at all but are possibly basking in the wholesome glow of virtue. Novices will be discovering that it takes hard work and time to be anywhere near self sufficient and there is no guarantee that it will save you money until you are a great deal more competent and experienced, but the beauty of veg gardening is that there are repeated minor triumphs to encourage you along the way. Intermittent or random reinforcement, it is known as in psychological jargon – the most powerful form of behavioural reward there is.

It is likely that the global economic crisis and the global panic which has yet to hit New Zealand as hard as the UK and USA but which is waiting like the wolf at the door will serve to encourage this desire to be a little less dependent on the supermarket and fruiterer this year at least. And when I think about the books I have received to review in the past couple of years, publishers must have been picking this growing interest in thinking local, eating according to the seasons and producing one’s own food. Both gardening and cookery books have been dominated by these themes in recent times. Yes this is fashion, but not fickle fad of the trite nature of minimalist gardens. And it is very positive garden fashion.

The other underpinning theme that is starting to come through gardening internationally is sustainability. That will, I predict, become the buzz word that will replace organics. Historically, the home vegetable garden and orchard has been practiced reasonably sustainably through the centuries from when our forbears made permanent settlements and moved away from the early slash, burn, crop and move on to fresh ground regime. But ornamental gardening has by no means been a champion of sustainability. In fact it has roots firmly in wealth, power and status and good environmental practice did not even feature on the radar. It still doesn’t, in many cases, but the tide is turning.

The worst excesses of the use of chemicals in the garden have been curtailed to a large degree by government regulation and a jolly good thing too. It is not that long ago that Paraquat used to be seen as a super quick acting alternative weed control to glyphosate. In terms of a heavy duty chemical which was extremely dangerous to humans and all round bad for the environment, Paraquat ranks right up there. And it was only one of many that the toxic generations of gardeners from the 1950s to the 1990s saw as progress but which are now widely deemed unacceptable.

For some time now, I have been advocating a reduction in the application of chemicals in routine garden management, and moving away altogether where possible and I am certainly not a lone voice. I am just reflecting a growing body of opinion which is saying that we gardeners need to be more responsible in how we manage our garden environment and to question some of the very dodgy practices embraced in the past and which some gardeners still follow. The perfect swathe of lawn (in my experience invariably achieved by environmentally bad practice using frequent applications of some pretty heavy duty sprays and chemical fertilisers) may come to be seen as dodgy in the extreme sooner rather than later. As embarrassing as an SUV, in some quarters at least. We have already seen the move away from the mono culture of the rose garden where perfection is achieved by fortnightly spraying. In nature, it is rare to find a mono culture (where only one plant variety grows) and in gardening, mono culture or mass plantings of single varieties is not sustainable either.

Mark is reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma which is both illuminating and somewhat scary, causing him to rethink some long held opinions. No longer can we assume that organics = good for the environment and the planet = more healthy and sustainable. The growth of industrial organics (mass production of food which meets organic regulations to satisfy consumer demand – even frozen organic TV dinners, for goodness sake) can leave a carbon footprint larger than conventional food production, requiring even higher usage of fossil fuels in production. There is a charming and naive association that goes on in most people’s heads whereby organic food evokes images of local, small scale and seasonal production which respects the environment , all typified by the farmers’ markets. This may still be largely true in New Zealand but it is certainly not true in the increase of organic food production overseas which is managed just as cynically as conventional large scale production of anything else. So too with anything labelled natural, which we have been conditioned to accept as superior to unnatural or synthetic and therefore all good for us and for the environment. If you pause to think about it, there are many naturally occurring substances which are not at all good for us or for our planet so all we have done is buy into a marketing term.

I suspect we are seeing a devaluing of the term organic. Watch instead for the term sustainable which embraces most that is good about the organic movement but takes it all a step further philosophically. And as 2009 looks destined to bring us both economic and environmental crises on a scale hitherto unseen, the human response to such massive problems will often be to think smaller, to think locally and to take more responsibility for our own patch where we can influence what happens. That is where sustainable practices in gardening and food production start.