Tag Archives: sustainable gardening

Treading more lightly on the land

The onions are not the main purpose of this story – more on those a little later. They are just more visually appealing than the sight of rubbish sorting at its most basic level.

I mentioned in last week’s post the heartening sight of how little landfill waste was generated by the 50 members of the IDS when they lunched here.   This week it was a coachload of Massey University environmental ecology students who visited. I put out my labelled pots for the waste, curious to see how they would respond. They passed with flying colours. Of course they did. What else would one expect from these young people on whom rests so much hope for the future?

I now realise what I have failed to do is to photograph the lunch food laid out for these large groups. Therein lies the key to minimising inorganic waste. With the IDS, the menu included quiches cut in squares, small filled rolls, green salad and fresh watermelon for dessert. And coffee, tea and chilled water served from large jugs. All the food came out on china or wooden serving dishes. The only disposable items used were the cardboard ‘plates’ and bamboo forks.

The students had an expansive range of options from which to assemble their own filled rolls and sandwiches with fresh fruit to follow. Plus the option of yoghurt and treats like muesli bars which admittedly generated individual waste. But the bulk of the food was in multi-use plastic containers and even the butter came cut in individual cubes from a large block so there was no packaging needed and no wastage. The students had been told to bring their own water bottles which they refilled from a nearby tap.

I have learned two things. If you set up a situation where individuals are expected to sort their waste, they do it but most waste is reduced by the steps taken in the catering. We have become so used to individually packaged portions – marketed as being both convenient and hygienic – that many people have forgotten that it used to be done differently and sometimes that is better. A sandwich or filled roll prepared on the spot to one’s own tastes is hugely preferable to getting one somebody else prepared four hours earlier and then left to sweat in its own plastic cling-film wrapping.

Soy beans! Part of the Tikorangi soy bean crop

Waste is much on our mind here. Hence the onions seen above. And the delight at a successful soy bean harvest. Why onions and soy beans when they are extremely cheap to buy, you may wonder. Why not grow the higher value crops? We grow those too, or at least Mark does. Space is not a problem for us. But commercial onions are reputed to be one of the most heavily sprayed crops and we know ours are spray-free. And soy beans may be cheap as chips but they also come with very high food miles. The food miles are on our soy beans are zero. Besides, when it comes to taste treats, freshly picked edamame beans steamed and sprinkled with a little rock salt is right up there as gourmet food.

Not all crops are worth growing. The peanuts gave a really good yield last year but were so tedious to de-husk by hand that even Mark decided they weren’t worth the effort. He is quite happy to prepare the beans, seeing his attempts to produce as much food as he can from our own property as a worthy challenge. Not only does it hugely reduce the amount of waste we personally produce but we also know the origin of our food, the conditions in which it has been grown and the age of the produce.

This all feels like a return to where we were at back in the 1970s, though we are more lined and more experienced now. If more of us had stuck with that rejection of consumerism back then, maybe the world would not be in such a parlous state.

One man has indeed made a good start on the annual a-mowing of the meadow

Applying related principles of lightening our footprints on the land to the ornamental garden is an entirely different topic because there is the added factor of aesthetics. We are spending a lot of time discussing and experimenting here but in the meantime, I can tell you that one man went to mow, went to mow the meadow. With our smart new sickle-bar mower because that is all that could handle the mountains of meadow grass. So much grass, in fact, that Mark was wondering if we should be teaching ourselves the old skills of building haystacks. This current and most major mowing is just the latest instalment of an ongoing experiment.  How far can we change our gardening habits and tread more lightly on the land yet still be happy with the high aesthetic values we strive for in the garden? Time will tell.

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.

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.