Tag Archives: sustainable gardening

Food forests – fashion trend or sound option?

Mark's recent directions in the old vegetable garden may unwittingly be well down the food forest track

Mark’s recent directions in the old vegetable garden may unwittingly be well down the food forest track

Food forests. Trendy. That was enough to make us raise our eyebrows and sniff, even more so when we saw a patently absurd attempt on an earlier series of BBC Gardeners’ World to plant a so-called food forest. But we realised that they were in vogue. It was time to have a closer look.

If you are into raised vegetable beds, ultra-tidy gardens, mown lawns and general orderliness, the food forest concept will not appeal. It is not going to be an easy fit for somebody who buys their veg seedlings by the plastic punnet and on the way out, picks up a heavy grade plastic bag of compost. Nor is it overly practical in a tiny back garden.

In its simplest form, the food forest is modelled on the tropical forest and traditional methods of achieving ongoing food production with fewer inputs and less hands-on work. In a forest, you have three layers. The top canopy is the tallest trees (maybe mango, coconut palm, avocado). Beneath that are the mid canopy plants like the banana palms, maybe citrus trees or figs. At ground level are the crops that will grow in semi shade and with root competition – the likes of cassava, yams and physalis. Clambering up the trees are the climbers – think passionfruit.

The whole thing about the tropics is that you get fantastic rates of growth because of the warmth and the moisture. It is a bit different in a colder climate and, to be honest, the more temperate food forests I have looked at on line are somewhat less purist with the layers. That is because, the colder the climate, the more important sun, warmth and light become. We just won’t get the food production without them.

Parsley, bluebells and self-seeding brassicas. Why not?

Parsley, bluebells and self-seeding brassicas. Why not?

The contemporary, temperate food forest appears to be more about building a sustainable ecology. So the top layers of maybe the walnut tree, the pear, the olives and plums get pushed back to the boundary where they become a productive shelter belt, rather than a canopy.

In appearance it may look somewhat chaotic, untidy even, maybe unkempt. Crops are not usually put into tightly managed rows. Garden beds and edgings disappear. Plants are placed where they will grow best and often dotted around in a visually random manner. There is a heavy emphasis on permanent plants and on varieties which will seed down to regenerate themselves. Ornamentals and vegetables are often inter-planted, though the ornamentals will usually be there for a purpose other than aesthetics – maybe to provide food for the bees or the native birds or to contribute as a green crop.

Traditional practices of crop rotation don’t feature in this style of food production. As far as we can see, the range of plants that can be grown also contracts. You are not likely to get marginal crops through. While pumpkins may seed down and adapt, the rock melons probably won’t. Aubergines will want more hands-on management and for much of the country, tomatoes are not going to be a reliable crop in such situations.

But neither will you be working as hard (a good, traditional vegetable garden takes a lot of work and time) and the environment you have created is going to be a great deal sounder ecologically. Maybe those positives make up for any drop in range or volume of produce.

If you like rules and a tightly defined philosophy, look into permaculture. It will give you a great deal more detail. It is a recent movement, founded on principles of sustainable and ecologically sound food production and ways of living. It still sits outside the mainstream as a somewhat fringe movement, even though the driving principles are very hard to fault.

As we talked through the whole food forest concept here and peeled back the layers of romanticism, of philosophical purity, the higher moral ground and the occasional flaky spirituality, we came to the conclusion that Mark’s efforts on the old vegetable garden here probably qualify. He has relocated the pickier crops to his sunny terrace gardens as increasing shade has created problems. There is the top canopy of assorted citrus, a side dressing of espalier apples of venerable vintage (including a Golden Delicious, no less), banana palms, a feijoa. Self seeders include yams, Cape gooseberries and parsley and there is a rich middle layer of plants grown predominantly as butterfly and bee food. Not to forget the sugar cane. It is all a bit chaotic but largely sustainable and very pretty in summer.

Mostly the food forest concept is about finding a balance in producing food and sustaining nature – about not stripping so much goodness from the soil that you have to keep bringing in fertilisers and soil conditioners, about not growing crops that need spraying and intensive care to get a harvest while keeping labour to a minimum.

It is mighty hard to argue against those principles. This might be a garden trend to be considered with an open mind.

Not such a great view in winter, but what can we expect? Navel orange trees. swan plants (for the monarch butterflies) and physalis

Not such a great view in winter, but what can we expect? Navel orange trees. swan plants (for the monarch butterflies) and physalis

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

Reviewing summer garden choices, as the drought worsens

Plant options for dry conditions- at Beth Chatto's Garden.

Plant options for dry conditions- at Beth Chatto’s Garden.

Have we reached a point where the emerald green sward of lawn in the midst of drought is a badge of shame, rather than a symbol of pride and good management?

The current extended dry spell has focussed my train of thought on inappropriate gardening styles. As I walked around Christchurch a few weeks ago, I marvelled at just how many sprinklers were running and how many property owners were out holding hoses and watering their ornamental gardens of an evening. At the time, I wondered why this city of keen gardeners were so determined to ignore their Mediterranean-style summers and slavishly pursue an English style of gardening which, in their conditions, relies entirely on irrigation.

Eryngiums - another plant option for dry conditions

Eryngiums – another plant option for dry conditions

The deepening drought conditions here in the north should be raising red flags for gardeners who rely on summer watering. Where I live, drought is pretty much unheard of – until this summer at least. But much of the Waikato was in severe drought a few years ago and there are warnings coming from meteorologists that these are likely to become more common. Maybe it is time for thinking gardeners to lighten their heavy hoof prints on the planet and actively explore other ways of creating beautiful and pleasing gardens without following what are, at times, downright bad environmental practices. A clarion call, no less.

Lawns are a major offender. Frankly, I regard watering your lawn as an indefensible waste of a scarce commodity. Perfect green lawns are a value we have adopted, almost without question, from American suburbia. We have elevated the lawn to a pedestal way beyond its actual position in life which is to offer a useful area upon which to play and entertain and to provide a negative space (an empty space) to act as a foil which highlights ornamental plantings. A lawn should be a functional tool, not an end in itself.

Watering hedges is similarly dubious in my books. If you have to water your hedge to survive, you have chosen the wrong plant in the first place.

I also put permanent irrigation systems throughout gardens in the same category. If you are having to water your garden all summer to achieve the effect you want, then I think you should be going back to the drawing board and looking at different gardening styles.

We watched a BBC Gardeners’ World programme recently on the Royal Horticultural Society gardens which includes Hyde Hall in Essex. The head gardener there commented that their annual rainfall was less than Jerusalem. We have been to Hyde Hall and while they certainly irrigate many of the ornamental gardens (and probably the lawns, too), the dry garden was a revelation to us.

Not far from Hyde Hall are the famed Beth Chatto Gardens and it was Mrs Chatto’s dry garden which astounded us with its magic when we visited. She is gardening in similarly dry conditions and her dry garden is on an old river bed so with even less moisture retention.

We wanted to come home and try a dry garden but alas, in a climate where we regard three weeks without rain as a drought and where we have an annual rainfall level about eight times higher than those areas of Essex, it is never going to work here. We failed on the photography stakes in those two gardens. I took plenty of photos of wonderful colour combinations in perennial plantings at Hyde Hall (gifted colour combos, even, though my photos are average) but it is the special magic of the dry gardens at both locations which has stayed in our memories.

Missouri meadow garden at Wisley - simple but magic in 2009

Missouri meadow garden at Wisley – simple magic in 2009

Wisley Gardens in Surrey to the south are also very dry and they were showcasing a different style of dry gardening in their Missouri Meadow.

Helichrysum Silver Cushion - happy in dry conditions, attractive, tidy and it's even a native

Helichrysum Silver Cushion – happy in dry conditions, attractive, tidy and it’s even a native

If you pause to think, much of the world is dry and of course there is not only dry gardening with Mediterranean style plants – shrubs, trees and perennials which will take poor, dry conditions. These are often dominated by grey foliage, not necessarily small leaves but frequently so, often furry or prickly – all ways for the plant to conserve water. Some of our native plants fit into this type of garden. Pachystegias, our native helichrysum, some of the olearias, Astelia chathamica – all will take dry conditions.

The American prairies are a rich source of inspiration for seasonal gardens and home to a host of wild flowers that we now incorporate in our gardens such as echinaceas and black-eyed Susans. The work over recent decades by prominent Dutch gardener and designer, Piet Oudolf, appears to draw more from the American prairies as it does from the Med. The Oudolf School has been one of the most influential garden styles in Europe for the past decade but has pretty much bypassed us in this country so far. Yet it is one which lends itself to dry gardens.

Look across the Tasman. Our nearest neighbours have a wealth of plant material which has evolved to thrive in dry conditions. Some of it is very beautiful.

As the drought deepens here, maybe it is time to seriously question why so many of us are hanging on for grim death to an arguably outdated genre of lush, green gardening, mixing formality with informality, inspired by the English gardens of early last century.

If you are having to water anything other than your vegetable garden every summer, have a rethink. There are other ways to garden.

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.

In the garden this fortnight: Thursday 29 March, 2012

A fortnightly series first published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

The little known Rhodophiala bifida

The little known Rhodophiala bifida

We keep talking about sustainable gardening here. For us, sustainable garden is twofold – both managing the maintenance of a large garden with a small labour input (wouldn’t we love legions of skilled gardening staff?) but also following garden practices which are not damaging to the environment. To this end we make our own compost, mulch heavily, use a mulcher mower, eradicate or control plants that threaten to become invasive, shun chemical fertilisers and hardly use sprays at all to keep plants healthy. We have a few plants of exceptional note that warrant a touch of insecticide, but generally, if a plant can’t grow well in good conditions, we will not persist with it. A few more roses are destined for the incinerator as I cull further. We do use glyphosate for weed control and Mark lives in fear that it may one day be ruled environmentally unacceptable because we would find it very hard to maintain standards without it.

The enormously useful leaf blower

The enormously useful leaf blower

But our biggest environmental footprint here is the internal combustion engine – the lawnmower, weed eater, mulcher, chainsaw, water blaster and motor blower (leaf blower). We console ourselves with the thought that we are only a one car household and that car often has only one outing a week so maybe that compensates for CO2 emissions. The motor blower is a huge timesaver for a big garden. We started with a cheap handheld one but progressed to a backpack model. It is possible to sweep and groom one’s way right around the garden at walking speed. That is an awful lot faster than doing it with a leaf rake, broom and barrow. As we hurtle at alarming speed from deeply disappointing summer into premature autumn, the blower comes into its own. Fine debris gets dispersed (it does generate dust) while larger leaves can be hustled into discreet areas to break down and rot.

The autumn bulbs are starting. At the moment the little known Rhodophiala bifida is looking terrific as are the red paintbrush blooms of Haemanthus coccineus (the plant many readers may know better as elephant ears). The lovely blue Moraea polystachya is coming into bloom, along with Cyclamen hederafolium and the early nerines are open. These seasonal delights offer some compensation for a summer which never really got going.

Top tasks:

1) As perennials pass over and many fall over, we need to do a tidy up round of the garden borders. Because our temperatures are mild here and we have soils which never stay waterlogged, we can and do lift and divide perennials most of the year. There is still time for plants to re-establish before winter temperatures stop growth.

2) Where repeated use of the blower has led to too much of a build up of debris (mostly in our hellebore border), I need to get through and rake off the surplus for the compost heap before we add this season’s leaf drop.

The latest take on living sustainably

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

Ah, the romance of picture book chookies in your back yard

Ah, the romance of picture book chookies in your back yard

The Good Life has come to Havelock North, but it has been renamed Green Urban Living and it is all absolutely simple and easy to manage, requiring very little time. That is according to author, Janet Luke, who has written a book of encyclopaedic spread (but not encyclopaedic detail) based on her own personal experience. The book is backed up by 32 You Tube clips and many website references.

Topics covered include setting up a green urban garden, compost, sustainable water use, growing vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers (an eclectic mix ranging from paeonies to sunflowers to globe thistles), keeping chickens, beekeeping, worm farms, gardening with kids – all peppered with Top Tips, recipes, and hints. Plus photos – all in 172 pages. It is a very busy book.

On the positive side, the author is passionate about her topic and comes to it from practical and personal experience. If you are into the new age, trendy urban living which wants to be green but is not too purist, then you may well find the enthusiasm and simplified advice in this book is a wonderful motivator. I looked at some of the You Tube clips and there is an engaging naivety and brevity about them. Janet Luke has worked extremely hard to put together a comprehensive but user-friendly package.

If you are a crusty, hardened old cynic who has been through all this (going green is hardly a new concept – many of us chose that way back in the mists of the post Woodstock era of the 1970s), then the newfound zeal, sweeping statements and sometimes very woolly thinking of the latest converts can seem a little like reinventing the wheel.

Green? Hmm. I don’t see buying grow bags filled with potting mix as being green. Nor do I think wheeling your barrow around your neighbourhood as soon as you hear a lawnmower start up is particularly green. For starters, you have no idea what chemicals your neighbours may have used on their lawns (some lawn clippings are too toxic to use in a compost heap). Added to that, you are taking away their organic material to your site – which hardly follows permaculture principles.

Do we really believe that cabbage whites have large enough brains to be duped?

Do we really believe that cabbage whites have large enough brains to be duped?

We are deeply suspicious of the claim that white butterflies are territorial. The current received wisdom is that you can deter incoming cabbage whites by putting half eggshells on sticks amongst your brassicas, fooling them into thinking that another cabbage white is already in residence. This is not the first time I have seen this claim so I did a quick Google search to see if I could find a credible source to confirm it. The key word here is credible. I failed. We are storing our eggshells and when the first cabbage whites of the season show up here, Mark will be out testing this theory. Having observed clouds of cabbage whites on crops such as swedes, we lean to the view that this piece of advice is more wishful thinking than actual fact.

But it is not doubt that we feel regarding the claims that commercial corn is mostly genetically modified and controlled by the terminator gene so it makes sense to keep to heirloom varieties. The author clearly has not got to grips with the differences between F1 hybrids, line breeding, selection, genetic modification and the terminator gene. And seed companies in NZ like Kings and Yates might be a little annoyed to see the suggestion that their product is GM. Internationally, many commercial crops of maize have undergone genetic modification (in which case, it can equally be argued that the dreaded terminator gene is a good thing because it will stop the escape of some GM material into the wider environment), but what is sold in this country, certainly for home gardeners, is not GM. It is either the result of controlled crosses (which is an F1 hybrid) or of line breeding (selecting out the best performing cobs and continuing with them). That is what has brought us the new generation, sweet and tender corn that we all expect now. By all means go back to the heirloom varieties if you wish. Just don’t expect to be eating the tender and super sweet product because those old varieties are tougher and starchier and more akin to maize. Sweetcorn has improved in taste and texture in recent times, which cannot be said of all vegetables.

The retired beekeeper we had staying last week was critical of the chapter on beekeeping. He was surprised to find that top-bar hives, as promoted by the author with near religious zeal, are even legal in this country and he pointed out numerous reasons why they are inferior to the Langstroth hive. Of course Langstroths don’t look cute. He also felt that, given the author’s brief experience of beekeeping, she has been very lucky so far and she makes it look too easy altogether. I just thought that the advice that you could have your beehive on an apartment balcony or the shed roof came more from the Do As I Say school of advice, rather than the Do As I Do school. How on earth are you going to monitor and look after your hive if it is on a shed roof? That said, it is interspersed with some sound advice with regard to legal requirements and she recommends you join a local beekeeping club. I could not understand, either, why apartment dwellers would want to have a worm farm on their balcony. Move to ground level, I say.

It is great to see interest in topics related to sustainability, reducing one’s carbon footprint and organics. I would just prefer to see a little more rigour along with the joyous fervour.

Green Urban Living by Janet Luke. (New Holland; ISBN:978 1 86966 322 3).

In the Garden – April 16, 2010

  • Forward planning is needed if you want to move larger trees and shrubs in winter. This involves wrenching the plant, which is simply cutting the roots in a staggered sequence well in advance of the moving process. This will shock the plant but also encourage it to form fresh young roots. Move as large a root ball as you can physically manage. Make the first cuts now with a sharp spade around two sides of the plant. You will follow up with the next cut in two weeks or so.
  • Continue planting out in the ornamental garden and the orchard. Pretty well anything and everything can be planted successfully now though you may need to protect tender material for the first winter as it acclimatises to your conditions. Tender plants are those which do not like cold, wet or frosty conditions.
  • The autumn rains trigger a new round of weeds so try and stay on top of these to save work later on. Slugs and snails also become more active with wetter, still mild conditions. If you reduce numbers now, you may reduce the spring population explosion.
  • Autumn leaf fall is starting. Raking these into mounds or heaps and keeping them moist will accelerate their breakdown. You can then rake them back thinly over the area later in the season to nourish the soils with leaf litter. There is no excuse for burning leaves.
  • If you are harvesting pumpkins, they are best dried out before storage and eat the most blemished specimens first. The softer green skinned buttercup types don’t store anywhere near as long as the armour plated grey skinned ones.
  • By now you should have your winter vegetables in the ground. We are not far off planting for spring. You can get in broad beans, spring onions, winter spinach, peas and even leek plants (though they will only make small specimens now) and the ever faithful brassica family. You can start preparing the beds for garlic which can be planted from next month. Dig the area over incorporating compost and animal manures and then leave it to settle down until planting time.
  • Get any bare areas which are not going to be planted until spring sown down in green crops as soon as possible. We can not over-emphasise the value of green crops in terms of good, sustainable gardening practice. Vegetable gardening involves constant cropping, stripping goodness from the soil. You need to keep replenishing it and it is so much better to do it by compost, manure and green crops than synthetic fertilisers (which do nothing for the soil structure and the worms).
  • Shame on Te Radar. Delightful he may be, but we saw him on Sunday TV filling his new raised vegetable bed with plastic sacks of commercial mix. There is nothing sustainable about that practice.