Our geographic isolation works to our advantage environmentally. But our clean and green tag has more to do with a very small population than with a high level of environmental awareness. Many of us have a long way to go before we can claim to be green and clean at a personal level and some have even further to go than others. It would be good if the gardening norm here embraced sustainability and sound environmental practice. I think it is described as gardening with the environment, not in spite of it.
A feature last week on the gardening pages of our regional newspaper highlighted an increasing awareness of environmental issues in public sector gardening. Followers of organics have also embraced sound practice at a personal level. But sitting in the middle is the vast majority of the population, including, alas, a fair proportion of gardeners.
Most of us accept clean and green as a statement of fact for New Zealand. A clean atmosphere, yes. Overall, we enjoy what must be some of the cleanest and freshest air in the world. But once you hit ground level, it is a different story. Yes, some people are extremely clean and green, but others, and they are large in number, could not care less.
Living where we do in the country, I can tell you that all that litter, almost without exception, is thrown out of car windows. It is nothing for us to collect over a supermarket bag full of inorganic rubbish just from our own stretch of road verge. An entirely unscientific study a little farther down the road suggests to me that on average, there would be a visible piece of plastic, glass, tin or similar every three metres on both sides of the road. Added to that is a whole lot of rubbish that has been cut to pieces whenever the verges are mowed. That is a lot of rubbish.
Down at the crossroads, there is a district council-sanctioned horror that is nothing short of bizarre. Founded on a belief that the vast majority of people will play the game, there is a rubbish collection point. The rules are that rubbish must be in approved bags with appropriate stickers and recycling will be collected free. No rubbish is meant to be left there before Sunday. The reality is that there are far too many people who couldn’t give a toss as long as the rubbish is not outside their house. From Saturday morning onwards, a veritable tsunami of assorted rubbish bags builds up, often ripped and with the contents falling out. Get a wind and it blows around the area. On Monday morning, the rubbish contractors come along and pick up the rubbish that meets regulations. What remains does not seem to be anybody’s responsibility, although from time to time, somebody will do a clean-up. Would I want to own one of the four properties around that corner? No. I can’t think windblown plastic and polystyrene are great for cows, and the recyclable light plastic bottles are also scattered widely. We open our garden to the public and get a fair number of overseas visitors. If they come at the weekend, they get to pass the unedifying sight of a small rubbish tip beside the road that would give anywhere in Asia a run for its money. Frankly, it is disgusting.
The current row over the use of 1080 also belongs to this environmental discussion. Yes, there are pros and cons on both sides, but what its use indicates is a high tolerance level and official sanctioning of the mass application of poison as the lesser of two evils. 1080 enters the food chain, as we well know, but at least it kills quickly. There are various over-the-counter poisons that are uncontrolled and readily available in this country. Cholecalciferol is one we learned about last year to our grief. Our little dog Wilfred took two weeks to die from slow poisoning and while final results were inconclusive, we are sure in our minds that we were dealing with secondary poisoning. The widespread use of rat poisons is questionable. Selling slow-acting poisons for vermin over the counter with no controls and no monitoring is no longer acceptable in large parts of the developed world. Not only do we use a scary amount of it here, but even many environmentalists will argue in favour of unleashing such toxins into the environment.
Home gardeners have seen a sharp reduction in the availability of many chemicals in recent years and given the often cavalier attitude to handling them in our gung-ho pioneer country, that is a jolly good thing. But our gardeners still have access to many sprays that are now tightly controlled overseas or simply no longer available. It could be that at least one reason for the increasing attention to organics in the developed world is that government regulation has removed most of the alternatives. If you can no longer buy fungicides or insecticides and the only available herbicide is glyphosate, then you have to look to other ways of managing garden pests.
The spray we have been talking about here most recently is copper. Now, in the scheme of things, copper is useful and the occasional seasonal application is unlikely to do any harm to the wider environment. What is disturbing is to see frequent and regular applications of copper every two or three weeks in the mistaken belief that it is safe. While copper is a natural trace element, it accumulates rather too well in soils and can reach toxic levels quite quickly. One useful measure for a home gardener is earthworms. If you are a regular user of copper and you don’t have many worms, that is an indicator of toxic levels. I would advise all gardeners to err on the side of caution and minimise its use. If you want to know more, try doing a search on http://www.sciencedirect.com. There is quite a bit of international research being done on the build up of copper residues in the soil as a result of repeated spraying.
Routine spraying used to be advised as a preventative measure, even for home gardeners. In this day and age, the much more advisable philosophy is to avoid application of chemicals where possible and, if you are going to use sprays, even simple copper, only use when needed, not according to some sort of timetable. In this case prevention is not better than a cure.
We can not continue to rely on this country’s geographic isolation to keep our environment clean. Gardeners espouse nature and beauty and celebrate the growing of plants so it seems a real contradiction when we employ practices which are suspect and dodgy. I am not sure that there is a whole lot of difference to throwing your rubbish out of the car window. I would rather our country was clean and green than murky khaki.