Tag Archives: environmentally friendly gardening

Not quite lawn-free but leaning more to meadows

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One of the advantages of having our garden closed to the public for a year or two, or maybe more, is the freedom to experiment. And experimenting we are with lawns – or mown green areas may be a more accurate description. We stopped mowing half our park at the end of last winter, choosing instead to keep to a mown track meandering through, so it is possible to walk without getting wet feet.

We have been talking about lawns and grass for years here. Lawns are arguably the most environmentally unfriendly gardening practice of all. Yet there is considerable value placed on the perfect lawn and some people take great pride in achieving this. Perfection is measured against the bowling green which has no connection whatever to the home garden, let alone to nature.

I have never forgotten taking Mark along when I was doing an interview for a commissioned garden story. The owners were very proud of their lush, green sward and claimed that garden visitors often said they wanted to take their shoes off and walk barefoot or roll on it. I saw Mark throw me a telling glance and later he expostulated: “You want to let your bare skin touch that?’ For we both knew that sort of lawn perfection is only achievable by regular spraying with a fair range of chemicals, as well as fertiliser application and the usual frequent mowing, scarifying and over sowing that is required to keep it in such an artificial state.

The perfect lawn is a triumph of man or woman over nature, a dominance achieved at considerable cost to the environment and no small financial cost. There are all sorts of concerns around the western world about run-off from domestic lawns and frankly, when your lawn clippings are too toxic to put into the compost without risking your tomatoes and other crops for the next six months, there is a problem. Some folk will even kill off the worms with a residual spray in the quest for lawn perfection.

Mama Quail and two little feathered bumble bees of babies feeding on the lawn

Mama Quail and two little feathered bumble bees of babies feeding on the lawn

Mark is keen to have grass expanses with at least one flowering a year to feed the bees and other insect life. An added bonus has been unexpected. We made a decision a few years ago not to replace our cat, even though I adore fluffy felines. As a result, the Californian quail population has been steadily increasing and these lovely birds are a delight, foraging across the house lawns for seed. We might feel differently about a flowering lawn if we had small people in our lives running around bare footed, but in their absence, there is no need to worry about the bees.

We use a mulcher mower so the clippings are returned to the grass and this has eliminated any need to feed the lawn. Come early November, we let the grass grow long before cutting because then the dreaded Onehunga weed gets stretched and cut off before it can set its prickles. We do a certain amount of hand weeding to keep the flat weeds and undesirable grasses at bay in the house lawns. Beyond that, as long as it is fine or small leaved and cuts neatly, it is allowed to stay. Our lawns are more mixed colony environments than controlled grass species. We still mow regularly, but we are stretching out the intervals between mowing because we have become very aware of how dependent we now are on the motorised gardening aids and just how much fuel we have to buy to keep the mower, strimmer, chain saw and leaf blower running.

One of the delightful gardening books on my shelf is early Alan Titchmarsh, the Yorkshire gardener who is now a star TV presenter in the UK. Back in 1984, he wrote about The Lawn:
“Avant-gardeners do not have lawns; they have grass….The ‘bowling green’ lawn is a feature that belongs in front of council houses where it is surrounded by borders of lobelia, alyssum, French marigolds and salvias with standard fuchsias used as ‘dot plants’.

The avant-gardener’s grass is intermingled with daisies, plantains, buttercups… and plenty of moss (usually at least of 50% of the total coverage). This is a state of affairs to be encouraged. The grass is mown (avoiding a striped effect at all costs)…” (Avant-Gardening, a guide to one-upmanshop in the garden).

We have extensive areas of grass but have already decided that the front lawn should remain mown lawn rather than mixed meadow

We have extensive areas of grass but have already decided that the front lawn should remain mown lawn rather than mixed meadow

I admit we own the Rolls Royce of lawnmowers. It cost more than our car to buy

I admit we own the Rolls Royce of lawnmowers. It cost more than our car to buy

It does not appear that we have moved a long way since 1984 avant-garde thinking. If you are wondering what half our park looks like after six months without cutting the grass, I can report that the buttercup and self heal are thriving. To a critical eye it probably looks better in the shady areas than in the full sun but the mown strip is indeed like a path through a meadow and that is the effect we now want. We have worked out that we want the lawns immediately around the house more tightly maintained but, even in a large garden, we can achieve that without chemical intervention and top-up feeding. We see that as far more sustainable and environmentally friendly than the suburban value of an immaculate lawn.

First published in the June issue of the New Zealand Gardener and repinted here with their permission.

New Year’s Gardening Resolutions for 2014

Plant food for the bees. Collectively, gardeners can make a difference

Plant food for the bees. Collectively, gardeners can make a difference

I failed on the Christmas-themed column. I am not big on poinsettias and I couldn’t think of anything new to say about Christmas trees. But New Year’s resolutions – these are different. If you are making garden resolutions, you may like to consider some of the following.

Lawns are a shocker when it comes to good environmental practice. There is nothing sustainable and healthy about most lawns but the vast majority of us have them for a variety of reasons. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that if you cut your lawn really short, it will mean you have to mow it less often. Not true. You stress the grass and open it up to weed invasions. Set the level on the lawnmower a little higher to keep a green sward. Good lawns invariably have longer grass.

Next time you buy a lawnmower, choose one that mulches the clippings. That way you don’t have to remove the clippings to get a tidy finish and if you are not removing the grass, then you don’t need to feed the lawn to keep it looking healthy. It reduces your inputs and therefore reduces both time and cost.

We are encouraging clover back into our lawns. It stays green, doesn't need mowing as often and feeds the bees

We are encouraging clover back into our lawns. It stays green, doesn’t need mowing as often and feeds the bees

Be cautious about lawn sprays and read the label information carefully. We are not fans of lawn sprays at all here. Year in and year out, we field enquiries about plant damage which is attributable to spray drift from lawn sprays. If you are using a spray which has a six month withholding period before it is safe to use on food crops (and that is common), you may want to think again about how environmentally sound is your gardening practice. Putting it through the compost process will not make the clippings safe for use. It might even be time to move on from the Chemical Ali generation. We are going back to encouraging the clover here. It used to be popular in days gone by and it has many merits.

Mulch. Mulch well, but only after the soil is wet through. If you lay mulch on top of dry soil, it stays drier longer. The rains this week may have been a reprieve for those who missed getting mulch laid in spring. If you lay the mulch on top of relatively weed-free soils, it will save you a lot of work later because it should suppress many of the germinating weed seeds that lurk in all our soils.

While on the subject of weeds, if they really worry you (and they do worry most of us even though, as the old saying goes, a weed is merely a plant in the wrong place), remember the old adage that one year’s seeding gives rise to seven year’s weeding. It is best to weed before the plant sets seed if you want to save yourself work down the track. If you weed with the push hoe, you need to remove seed heads that have formed already. You can leave the rest of the plant to wither in the sun but the seed heads will just continue to ripen and then germinate.

Single flowers with visible pollen and stamens feed the bees and indeed the butterflies

Single flowers with visible pollen and stamens feed the bees and indeed the butterflies

Grow plants with flowers for the bees. This means any flowers with visible stamens and pollen. We all know the bees are under deep stress, here in New Zealand as well as the rest of the world. We need the bees for pollination even more than honey. Every gardener’s contribution counts and collectively, we can make a difference to their food supplies. Fortunately, most of us have moved on from the austerity of the 1990s minimalist garden which contributed a big fat zero to the natural environment.

I am of the view that gardening should be two things above all else. It should be a pleasure. At its best, it can make your heart sing at the beauty. At a more mundane level, it can be quietly satisfying. If you get neither pleasure nor satisfaction from your garden, if it is all a great, big, tedious chore then review what you have and what you are doing.

If you really don’t enjoy gardening, then keep it very simple. It is much easier to maintain, especially if you can’t afford to pay someone to come and do it for you. If all you have to do is maintain edges, sweep paved areas, mow the lawns and do a seasonal round of tightly defined garden beds in order to keep it looking tidy, then it becomes more manageable for the reluctant gardener. Alternatively, move to an upper floor apartment.

Secondly, I think we should be gardening WITH nature, not in spite of it. Gardening shouldn’t be about imposing human will over nature, controlling and suppressing it, establishing dominance. Too much gardening practice is an imposition on the landscape, a battle with nature. Happy gardeners are often those who have managed to carve out a more constructive relationship with the natural world.

On which note, I wish readers a happy gardening year in 2014.

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

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.