Reviewing accepted garden practice

Lawncare - one of the worst culprits in environmental vandalism

Lawncare – one of the worst culprits in environmental vandalism

I caught most of an extended interview with Fiona Eadie on National Radio last Monday. She is the head gardener at Larnach’s Castle just outside Dunedin. For me, the most interesting aspect was when she commented that much of our traditional gardening practice is bad. Just bad. Hear the clanging of bells, dear gardening readers. Change is coming.

It has been interesting to see the speed at which criticism of modern dairying practice has gathered momentum. It used to be that farmers held a pretty unassailable position, immune to criticism. Not any longer – environmental practices are coming under the microscope and the sure sign of pressure is the growing defensiveness in the sector.

Expect the same thing to happen in gardening. We have been talking about garden practices here for quite a long time and gently changing our ways. A trip to the UK a few years ago was a wake-up call. In the gardening sector, there was a lot more talk and action on beneficial gardening and sound environmental practice. It comes through most of the UK gardening programmes we get here (the main reason we subscribe to Sky) and also through their garden print media. It is a snowball that is gathering size and speed.

It may not be that long before a near perfect lawn is no longer a badge of honour but a sign that you are an environmental vandal. There is a direct correlation – the better your lawn, the worse your environmental score card. You cannot achieve that perfection without major intervention in the form of very frequent mowing (twice a week, I just read someone claim), removing all clippings which means you have to apply nitrogen based fertiliser frequently (once a month, the aforementioned lawn owner said) spraying, scarifying, summer watering and generally maintaining a complete monoculture. At its most extreme, even the worms are poisoned off. After all, worm casings spoil the green velvet. In fact none of this is good practice at all. While we appreciate the restful green interlude that lawns give, we have long since abandoned anything other than mowing with a mulcher mower and a bit of judicious hand weeding. Our lawns are less than perfect but at least they are non toxic. Greater purists abandon lawns altogether but that is a step too far for us.

Roses need considerable intervention to stay lush through summer

Roses need considerable intervention to stay lush through summer

Similarly, perfect luscious looking roses without a hint of disease in high summer and autumn may become an advertisement for your bad practice rather than a sign of care. You can’t achieve that state without regular spraying and heavy supplementary feeding and watering. The healthy buxus hedge in urban areas may be frowned upon in due course now that the dreaded blight has taken such firm hold. A healthy appearance is likely to be a sign of regular chemical intervention.

Gardeners have substantially reduced the use of sprays, in part because the Government has placed so many restrictions on the availability of many that were in routine use. That happened because many are either highly dangerous or downright environmentally bad. So the gardener who told me she drenched her alpines weekly with fungicide to keep them alive in lowland conditions may soon be accused of bad practice rather than cleverness in keeping such plants alive and healthy outside their natural habitat. At least we have moved on (I hope) from the Paraquat days when that highly toxic weekiller was used interchangeably with the much safer glyphosate. Mark remembers a neighbour in our Dunedin days whose Friday routine was to spray all edges, paths and any visible weeds with Paraquat. We have been frowning at brown sprayed edges for years – not a good look in a garden and not good practice.

I hope we will see a change from the rampant consumerism promoted by many garden centres sooner rather than later. Fertiliser use needs a good hard look. Frankly it is no more acceptable to routinely use chemical fertilisers in the garden than it is to saturate farmland in the quest for increased production. The very notion that the slow release bubble fertilisers, some of which are encased in a non biodegradable coating, are suitable for garden use is a shocker. They are developed for container growing (and are expensive) but I have seen garden centres promoting their use in garden situations.

My local garden centre has a major display at its entranceway of heavy duty plastic bags filled with all manner of mulches and mixes. It is one thing buying the occasional bag of seed raising mix or potting mix. It is quite another to load large numbers of these prepackaged consumable commodities onto your trailer so you can fill your new raised bed with a soil mix trucked halfway across the island and then mulch with peastraw shipped from a similar distance in the other direction.

It’s all about sustainability – making sure that our quest for beauty in our gardens does not come at the cost of degrading the environment. We have a long way to go with this debate in New Zealand but it was heartening to hear Fiona Eadie bringing a similar message. Maybe the time has come to review practices we have taken for granted and to take steps to ensure that our gardens actually enhance nature instead of wounding it.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.