Gardening Is A Good First Step On A Green Journey & In This Article We Look At How to Garden In an Eco-Friendly, Green, Sustainable, Carbon Neutral Way.
Gardeners know that growing food crops of vegetables and fruit, as well as growing decorative and amenity gardens is good for our physical health, our mental health and gets us into the great outdoors. But for many of us it is also about making the planet more sustainable. We know we can help achieve the objectives of COP26 and ensure we became carbon neutral or even better. We can garden in an eco-friendly green way that cuts food miles, decreases dependance on single use plastics, cuts pollution and is just a much better way to live.
For example one of the reasons I started my Facebook Group, “How To Dig For Victory”, was because we had queues in supermarkets and some empty shelves. I knew, from my days as a commercial market gardener, that it’s possible to produce significant amounts of food from very small areas of garden or allotment, from patios and window boxes, as we all as window sills.
I knew that if I gave people just a bit of help many of them could become at least partly self sufficient for at least part of the year. In turn this would cut down on empty shelves, would mean fewer food miles and hence hydrocarbons to run delivery vehicles and also generally cut down on polluting agricultural and horticultural pesticides. Of course what one person produces makes a minimal difference. But if hundreds of thousands of us grow just a little bit it makes a huge difference to the planet.
How Gardening Can Make a Real Difference to The Planet
In the next few sections I’m going to detail some of the hundreds of ways we can garden in a more eco-friendly, sustainable way, and over the next months I’ll keep coming back to add more ideas as I remember to add things i forget the first time! So tag this page and come back again later.
The Most Important Green Gardening Strategy Is Our Mindset
We have to believe in the importance of being green, in being sustainable and we must want to do our bit for the planet. We only have one chance to save the planet. There is no Planet B. No second chances. Our kid’s and grandchildren’s lives depend on what we do now.
So think green and make your garden productive as it can be .. not forgetting to also make it biodiverse, as the bees and other creatures are important if we want to survive.
Intensive Production Is Green And Eco-Friendly!
I’m sure that many people will feel uncomfortable with this headline. They’ll think I’ve got it wrong and that I’m supporting intensive, pesticide supported farming and growing.
The reality is nothing could be further from the truth.
Look at it this way. We can either produce a small amount of food in a given area or we can grow a lot in a small area and let the rest of the land return to nature (or become a woodland-based food forest, wildlife rich meadow or whatever). Just because an area of garden grows crops intensively doesn’t mean it isn’t eco-friendly. In fact it might well be far greener than a less intensive area. Let me give you an example.
In my own garden I grow crops using the No-Dig system. It is very productive but uses no pesticides or herbicides, recycles all my garden and kitchen waste and sequesters carbon. It also grows 2-4 crops per bed most years. When I had my market garden I also used to get 3-6 crops per year out of every greenhouse and tunnel, but that’s a story for another day.
The thing is No Dig is eco-friendly, it’s one of the greenest ways I know to grow large quantities of nutritious and tasty crops. So it’s intensive and green. You can have both.
High Versus Low Yields
There’s another issue here. I frequently hear people say they are happy with their yields. In most cases they think they have good yields, whereas the reality is that they are getting a small proportion of what is possible. In many cases they could get 2, 3 or even four times more yield from a crop whilst using the same resources. That’s more yield for the same amount of effort, the same quantity of water and the same amount of nutrients being used.
If they want to produce higher yields they will use more land, more water, more nutrients, more fuel and more time. Thats not eco-friendly. Thats not green. And it doesn’t release land for nature!
So. I’m a big advocate of intensive gardening provided it doesn’t mean using too much energy, pesticides, water or polluting the world.
The First “How to Garden In an Eco-Friendly Way” Secret
If we are going too maximise the potential of our gardens, so that we can return more to nature, We need to understand our garden.
Location, Location, Location
No, I’m not selling houses. Location is of prime importance in gardening terms. And we need to understand how it affects our garden. Here are a few examples.
Hilltops are likely to be windy and more exposed. That means some plants could be damaged by high winds. But we are less likely to get stagnant air that leads to frost pockets and some diseases such s late blight. We are also slightly less likely to get aphids etc. (think about where seed potatoes are grown, in aphid free areas where aphid borne viruses aren’t a threat). Higher land is also much cooler.
Valley bottoms are the exact opposite to hill tops. Frost and mists are more likely in valley bottoms but wind damage is less likely.
Seaside locations are likely to have salt laden winds and the salt can damage sensitive plants. But frosts are much less likely.
Rain Shadows occur where there is high ground between you and the prevailing wind. When rain laden winds hit the high ground the winds are driven upwards and often drop their rain, leaving land to the sheltered side of this high ground much drier.
East-West Location is another consideration in England. The prevailing winds are from the Atlantic so the west of the country is wetter than the east. These locations favour grass growing. That’s why we see more grass in the west, and hence grazing animals. And the arable is more likely in the east where rainfall is lower and damp encouraged crop diseases less likely.
North-South Location. It’s generally colder the further north we go in the UK. The exception will be where the land is influenced by the Gulf Stream. Hence the SW of Scotland is quite mild relative to the north of England.
We need to know our soils. For example, clay soils tend to be fertile but are often cold and unyielding to cultivate (they respond well to No Dig). Sandy soils are less fertile and we often refer to them as hungry soils. But they drain well and favour some crops. Many soils are a mix of soil types and I’ve written a lot more on soils, there are several articles if you follow this link.
Plants need moisture. But too much is bad for most plants. And gardening when the plot is flooded is a non runner. But, frequently I see photos of allotments under water in winter.
So, check if a plot floods before taking it on. If you don’t you’ll find that cropping it might depend on spring and summer cropping with the winter being water laden.
Sometimes simply cleaning drains or ditches out is enough to prevent flooding. Other times it is due to the soil being “panned”. This is where there is an impermeable layer in the soil that has been caused by compaction or similar. In this case deep digging (its one of the few times I recommend it) or subsoiling will help or even cure the problem.
And where soil moisture is poor you will undoubtedly benefit from adding plenty of organic matter and ensuring you have plenty of water saved for irrigation or watering.
How to Garden In an Eco-Friendly Way By Harvesting Rainwater
Each year we are blessed with plenty of rainwater in the UK. Sadly much of it is wasted and we then sometimes need to resort to using mains water to keep crops alive. So harvesting rainwater is a green and eco-friendly way to manage our gardens.
A simple water butt or water storage tank can harvest rainwater when there plenty available and will be there for us to use during droughts. I’ve written a lot on Water Harvesting and Storage So will not repeat it here. Just follow the link and learn more about how to use water diverters, water butts, IBC tanks and irrigation systems.
Organic Matter And Your Garden – How to Garden In an Eco-Friendly, Green and Sustainable Way
Where water is in short supply a perfect solution is to add organic matter to the soil, or add a mulch to the surface. It helps retain water and that means we don’t need to use valuable water to irrigate our plants. Water has increased in cost in recent years. But the real cost isn’t financial. It’s the environmental cost of taking water from rivers and aquifers, plus the environmental cost of treating water before we can drink it. Each of these is a drain on the environment.
How to Reduce Surface Water Flooding – A How to Garden In an Eco-Friendly Way Strategy
We need to do what we can to allow excess rainwater to soak into the soil. Every time we concrete a drive, or build an impermeable patio, we potentially stop water from soaking into the soil. And if it can’t soak in it runs off into drains which are often combined sewage and stormwater drains. Where this happens it contributes to the sewage that water companies dump in rivers when the system can’t cope.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have drives and patios. We can have them and ensure the drains don’t get overloaded. Civil Engineers invented SUDS (Sustainable Urban Drainage) over 5000 years ago! So it shouldn’t be beyond us to implement it now. Either ensure you make the surfaces permeable or utilise some form of water retention/buffering /attenuation tanks to prevent flash flooding.
New UK legislation is going to prevent us from buying peat based composts. That’s a good first step as peat is a major contributor to environmental degradation and peat harvesting contributes huge volumes of CO2 to the atmosphere. There are plenty of alternatives to peat that we can use in gardens.
The downside of the new legislation is that it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t stop garden centres and plant growers from using peat when they grow plants. That means that the plants you buy may well contain high volumes of peat, or even be pure peat.
So, when buying plants, ask about the peat policy of the garden centres you use, and about peat use regarding the plants they buy in to sell on.
Read more on the truth about peat and garden composts on this website by following the link.
Pesticides and Organic Gardening
Pesticide is the word used to describe any product designed and manufactured to kill pests, diseases, weeds, nematodes, rats etc. The different type of pesticides are sub divided into herbicides (weedkillers), fungicides, (kills fungi), rodenticides (to kill rats and mice), nematicides (kills nematodes) etc.
People often refer to these products as chemicals and say we need to garden without chemicals. The only trouble is the word chemical includes water, manure, composts etc. And gardening without them is impossible. So its better if we use the correct terms and try to garden without all forms of manufactured pesticide where possible.
Likewise people talk about organic as if anything that tis natural is safe and even desirable. One of the most toxic organic substances I’ve ever used as a pesticide is nicotine shreds. We used to burn them in greenhouses to kill off insect pests. But one good breath of the burning nicotine shreds could kill a full grown human as well. So natural, or even organic, isn’t necessarily safe to us or the environment.
We do what we can to prevent toxic substances from entering water courses. That’s good. But if natural substances such as nicotine or even lime gets into our streams or rivers its death to most life forms in the water.
So we need to think carefully about pesticides and the use of “natural” substances. Both can be damaging to the environment in specific circumstances.
How to Garden In an Eco-Friendly Recycling Way
I see some great examples of recycling in gardens and on allotments. Whether it’s using toilet roll centres as pots, reusing yoghurt pots as plant pots or using plant modules made from recycled plastic, there is a way to reuse and recycle in so many situations.
For example, I recently recycled a greenhouse. Someone local to me bought a house with several greenhouses and didn’t want them. They advertised them as being free if you dismantled and removed them. The one I had made a perfect extension to my existing greenhouse and saved me around £2500.
Once my greenhouse was built I wanted a potting bench and recycled some left over plastic fascia and soffit boards. There’s more info on how I made it on this page about Low Cost Gardening Techniques.
Using Biological Control Rather Than Pesticides
Most plant pests have a natural predator, or at least the pests that are naturally endemic in your area. And if we harness this fact we can use natural biological control in many cases. Examples include Encarsia formosa wasps to predate whitefly, Bacillus thuringiensis to control caterpillars, ladybirds to control aphid and much more. The first recorded use of biological control goes back to nearly 1700 years ago to when the Chinese used ants to control certain pests on citrus crops.
Using Barriers to Control Pests
Another way to protect crops and the environment is to create a barrier between the pest and crop. It can be as simple as a net to prevent birds from eating cherries or strawberries to horticultural fleece used to keep carrot fly from attacking our carrots.
Plants That Benefit The Environment
By now we all know about planting nectar rich flowering plants for bees and other pollinators. But it shouldn’t stop there.
As well as planting for the bees we need to think about how plants can improve the air quality in our towns and cities. Trees act as biological filters and cleanse our air as well as cooling the temperature by increasing humidity and providing shade. They also improve our physical well being and mental health as do so many other plants.
Plants in our homes are also important for our well-being being as well as the environment. In my home we have Strelitizia reginaea for its graceful leaves and beautiful flowers. Lemongrass provide food and a delicate tracery of leaves that is a delight to enjoy. And large lemon geraniums add a lemony aroma to the air each time we brush past it. In total we have a dozen out more large plants in our home and they are great for the environment and our health.
But plants don’t have to be large to improve our lives and environment. Pot plants on a window sill can be a delight. And if you’d prefer to eat your indoor plants then micro greens, sprouted seeds and baby plants are worth considering.
Hydrocarbon Fueled Machinery
My grandfather cut grass with a scythe and taught me how to master the tool. He never used a strimmer simply because they hadn’t been invented. We can’t un-invent the strimmer, leaf blower, hedge cutter and all the other petrol-guzzling noisome machines. But we don’t have to use them all the time.
I’m not suggesting we never use petrol or electricity powered machines. They have a place in some situations. But they almost put us at arms length from the work that needs doing and its so easy to let them take control. For example, a friend of mine, Ed, recently reported how an errant strimmer “wrangler” had recently decapitated a six foot high Monterey Pine tree that he’d been nurturing for several years. I’m not sure if it’s stupidity, a lack of horticultural experience or the inability to control a strimmer that caused the damage. But I do know that when cutting brambles or other undergrowth by hand we are less likely to be as indiscriminate.
Strimmers aren’t the only noisome and sometimes unnecessary machines used in gardens. Chainsaws are sometimes used for very small jobs where a handsaw would suffice. And leaf blowers seem to be used by gardeners and a myriad of council workers. I’ve yet to understand the purpose of blowing grass and other vegetation off of pavements into the road, where they get washed into the drains. Why not sweep them up? And if it is necessary to remove them why not use the sucker rather than blower and make leaf mould from the leaves and compost from other vegetation?
Seed Saving & Home Grown Plants Are Greener!
If we can produce our own seedlings and young plants its usually a lot greener than buying plants in. Especially if the plants have been grown miles away, had to be transported and were heated to produce them.
We can start by saving our own seed. In many cases its very simple and we can all save seeds such as peas and beans. However seed such as celery and most of the brassicas are much more challenging as the seed is either very small or genetic crossing is going to be a major issue.
So start with what is simple. But let me give two words of warning. Firstly, beware saving seeds from F1 plants. In most cases they will germinate well and grow, but the crop is going to be (predictably) genetically unstable and whilst some plants will be OK some will be very poor quality. Luck plays a big part with these plants. However if you save seed from Heritage varieties they are far more certain and work 99% of the time in my experience. I’ve written explanation of why F1 seeds don’t work in another article about Mendel and The Three Laws of Genetics.
My second warning is to beware using seeds saved from shop bought plants. I know a lot of people do it, it can be fun and it is low cost. But not only do you risk the plant being an F1 there’s a second risk. The variety that you bought could well have been grown overseas where it’s a lot warmer. And even if the seed is perfect the variety may not cope with our climate.
By all means save seed, but learn enough about it to ensure your efforts aren’t wasted.
Greener Boundary Hedges That Save The Planet
Most living hedges are green so what do I mean. Simply this. The right hedge contributes to biodiversity whilst the wrong one does little to help. For example box hedges have their place in the parterre but contribute little to wildlife. And leylandii hedges are pretty useless for most garden or biodiversity purposes.
What would be better for the planet is a hedge that gives back as much or more than it takes. A mixed hedge would be ideal and will help mitigate against flooding, noise and pollution. On top of that it will provide food and shelter for many species.
And if you want a decorative hedge then consider a mix of plants that produce fruit for wildlife. Things like honeysuckle, hawthorn, cotoneaster, forsythia, briars, etc. are all worth considering.
Sequester Your Share of Carbon
When soil is dug, ploughed or cultivated it releases carbon. If we limit these activities and curtail the desire to dig the life out of the soil we start to reduce carbon loss.
And if we move to No Dig the carbon starts to build in our soil. So our gardens can become natural carbon sequestering points if we allow them to do so.
And, thinking about the hedges I mentioned earlier, research shows that the older a hedge is the more carbon is sequestered in the soil below it. So No dig and hedges are good for the planet.
I’ll be adding more tips on How to Garden In an Eco-Friendly Way in the next few weeks. Watch this space.