When I was a child in the 1960’s, gardening was, literally, a very green activity. Every summer weekend, every suburban neighbourhood would buzz with the quiet shirring sound of manual lawnmowers, and the gentle snip-snip of hand-shears as hedges were cut and shrubs pruned – the pleasant, soothing sounds of gardeners using only their own muscles, with the days of deafening power tools still lying well in the future.
Of course, the advent of petrol-driven mowers and leaf-blowers, petrol or electric hedge-cutters, strimmers and so forth was a great time-saving boon for folk who were busy, had big gardens to care for – or, like us, worked as professional gardeners. Despite our eco-aspirations, we often can’t afford not to use these noisy, smelly machines, otherwise we couldn’t get through our workload in the allotted time – customers don’t want to pay for the extra hours it would take to do everything by hand.
However, we’ve made progress in greening our gardening business, thanks largely to technological improvements which have brought a whole range of excellent battery-powered machines onto the market. Our first such acquisition was ‘Little Red,’ a Mountfield domestic lawnmower with a folding handle I can carry in my hatchback. All plastic, with no engine to break down or need annual servicing, it only weighs as much as a bag of shopping, making it easy to manoeuvre around fiddly garden features; it’s so quiet that I don’t need ear-defenders, gives a lovely cut, and has enough juice to mow all the lawns of a standard council-house garden if the grass is dry (cutting wet and/or very long grass uses more power).
Once you’ve enjoyed the convenience of battery, you never want to go back to noise, petrol fumes or awkward, dangerous electrical cables again. We duly bought ‘Little Hedgey,’ a Mountfield domestic hedge-cutter with an even longer-lasting battery, and most recently, ‘Big E-GO,’ (see below), a superbly-designed professional-grade mower for bigger lawns. These user-friendly lightweight machines are all future-proofing for our ageing, aching bodies, and environmentally-friendly too, (the batteries only cost about six pence to fully re-charge, and cost us and the planet nothing since we installed solar panels).
We’re also doing what we can in response to climate change and the worrying decline in biodiversity and insect biomass. Last year’s severe drought prompted us to install more water-butts and encourage customers to do likewise; and on our smallholding, Hubcap dug a cistern to hold over 2000 litres of rainwater – enough to keep our orchard alive through several dry months, trapped in the ground by a thick layer of turf and hay mulch round all the trees. This magic mulch also supports the micro-organisms needed for healthy soil, and, supplemented by un-mowed strips of ‘beetle bank’ in the orchard and numerous areas on site left to grow wild, provides habitat for a great range of insects including crickets, grasshoppers, and many varieties of butterfly and moth.
Contrary to popular belief, Lepidoptera need more than just flower-nectar to feed on, they need long grass to live in (making me feel like a vast home-wrecking juggernaut every time I mow a lawn). Unfortunately, even green gardening often disturbs, and sometimes destroys, this small fauna; but in view of their drastic reduction in numbers, we try hard not to hurt them, never kill anything deliberately, and are forever rescuing stray worms and snails from our paths, involuntary swimmers from bird-baths, and cold, exhausted bees. We extend this policy to the house, too, where no insect has been sprayed or swatted (except by the cat) for the past several years – we’ve even perfected methods of ushering unwelcome flies out.
Encouraging insects and invertebrates pays tremendous dividends. By going organic, planting insect-friendly flowers, and putting up ‘bug hotels,’ we’ve turned our small garden into a fruitful, self-supporting eco-system complete with biological controls for pests . We don’t need or use slug pellets because we have at least one resident hedgehog to gobble them up; wasps and small birds eat our aphids; and our apple trees are beautifully pest-free thanks to the jam-jar full of ladybirds we collected round the house over winter, put to hibernate properly in the cold dark loft, and released onto each tree in the spring. Our tiny, gin-clear pond on the smallholding is filtered only by a fresh-water mussel, naturally oxygenated by aquatic plants, rainfall and an occasional top-up from the water-butt, and any mosquito larvae in it are devoured by amphibian tadpoles and a large fat stickleback. Meanwhile Henry Wowler deals with the rodents, although his unfortunate tendency to bring live ones in through the cat-flap causes us more mouse problems than it solves.
As for weeds, where we can, we tolerate – even enjoy. I hate mowing out dandelions, buttercups, daisies and red or white clover – they add such colour and jollity to a lawn, as well as feeding our precious pollinators. Plenty more so-called weeds, like purple loosestrife, could be considered perfectly attractive wildflowers, and are frequently useful – for example, dandelion leaves can be eaten in salads or used to brew a diuretic tea, while young tender stinging nettles, boiled, make a tasty, iron-rich substitute for spinach. Where we can’t tolerate them, we hand-weed or hoe if possible; or in the last resort, break off flowering heads before applying weed-killer to minimise the risk of poisoning pollinators. (I still have some weed-infested patches I can’t bear to treat because they’re so full of insects).
Altogether, this gentle, holistic approach to our business makes us feel we’re doing as much as possible to protect and improve the small parts of the world we directly control, working to minimise our negative impact and maximise the positive – with some very heartening results. Our own garden and smallholding are veritable nature reserves, where we regularly find plants, insects and birds we’ve either not seen for years, or never seen before. The endangered hedgehog is thriving in the gardens of numerous neighbours and customers; the rain has brought back goodly numbers of worms, slugs and snails, and made all vegetation grow hugely – a refreshingly verdant contrast to last year, and a great boost for carbon capture!
More than ever before, in these perilous times, our fragile planet needs gardens and gardeners. Green gardening plays a crucial role in providing habitat for threatened wildlife , cool shade to help us withstand heatwave summers, vital soakaway ground to absorb extreme rainfall, compost to nourish the soil and its organisms, a bounty of fresh, organic, plastic-free produce literally on our doorsteps – and in the process, absorbs countless tons of atmospheric pollution. Cumulatively, the world’s gardens make a gigantic difference to the environment; and between Brexit and climate change, gardening is surely the best occupation or hobby to have – because in the not-too-distant future, we may all be forced to conserve every drop of water, and grow as much food as we can, to reduce pressure on resources and avert shortages and rationing. So I’ll close with five of my favourite ‘green gardening’ tips to prepare for the challenges ahead – get out there and enjoy!
- First and Foremost: Do It! Gardening is wonderfully therapeutic, as healthy for you as it is for Planet Earth. Even if you have no outdoor space at all, you can still enjoy seasonal flowers and a vegetable garden: spring bulbs, miniature roses, geraniums, cress, radishes, bean-sprouts, herbs and chili peppers all do well in pots on a window ledge or other suitable location. Window-boxes, hanging baskets, tubs by the doorstep and climbers on trellis make a lovely display on terraced houses whose fronts open directly onto the street, as do container plants on apartment balconies, and all provide welcome nectar sources for urban insects. With a little imagination and the right sort of plants for the conditions, any outdoor space, no matter how small or unpromising, can be turned into a beautiful living asset to your home. For instance, our back garden is the smallest on the estate, yet we still find room for a fig tree, a grape-vine, raspberry canes, a salad bed, assorted herbs, a greenhouse for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers , a twisted hazel, various flowers and shrubs, a small lawn, and a patio with numerous container plants – as well as a shed, two water-butts, and a wood-store. As a result, it’s a riot of colour, alive with birds, bees and bugs, (and bats by night); full of interest all year round, and an absolute joy to sit in or enjoy through the window.
- Shun Artificial Grass! The antithesis of green gardening, this horrible product is as bad for wildlife and the environment as it is for people, and inferior to the real thing in every way. Living grass remains cool even in baking hot weather, an important consideration as we face increasingly extreme summers; it absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen through photosynthesis, improving air quality; and, of course, it supports a huge range of organisms. The fake stuff is completely devoid of, indeed discourages, any sort of life; it photo-degrades into micro-plastics to pollute the air, soil and ground-water; and it can become dangerously hot, reaching temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius under strong sun – enough to give first degree burns to your children or pets when they go out to play on it, and I won’t be surprised if it’s banned for domestic use within the next five years due to injury claims. So if you want to enjoy your lawn safely in the midst of a heatwave, either stick with real grass, or find a sympathetic, natural alternative to plastic, like bark chippings or a different ground-cover plant. Camomile lawns, for instance, don’t need mowing, produce pretty white flowers you can use to make camomile tea, and give off a heavenly scent when you walk across them. If maintenance is your big issue with real grass, forget about trying to achieve a weed-free billiard table and embrace informality: only mow every two to three weeks, and appreciate the daisies and pretty yellow miniature chrysanthemums (as the bees surely will). Longer grass looks attractively natural, is much better for carbon capture, and much healthier for the grass itself – our lawn stayed green, and blessedly cool to walk on, throughout last year’s brutal summer simply because it had missed a cut before the drought really hit, whereas short, newly-mowed lawns fried to a crisp in no time and took months to recover. Further lessen the workload and enhance the effect by leaving uncut wildlife areas; tall waving grasses and flowering weeds look delightful, especially if you toss in a wildflower seed mix, and make a great haven for butterflies, moths and beetles. And for the ultimate in lawn-labour-saving, ditch your old, cumbersome mower and switch to a battery model. They’re cheaper to run than petrol or mains electric, light enough for a child to use, and make grass-cutting a positive pleasure (the fragrance! the nice stripy effect! the satisfaction of a job well done!) – not to mention good healthy fresh-air exercise. How can nasty plastic compete with that?!
- Have As Many Water Butts As You Reasonably Can. Rainwater might be a renewable resource but it’s an unpredictable one, as we saw last year to great cost – yet still we take this vital asset for granted and squander it in disgraceful quantity. So it’s prudent to future-proof against drought by maximising your rainwater catchment, whether in water-butts or sunken tanks – it’ll help keep your garden alive in the event of severe shortages and water rationing.
- Encourage Biodiversity. Mother Nature really needs a big helping hand, so plant your garden to provide year-round shelter and food – nectar, berries and seeds -for as many creatures as possible. Around ours, as well as front and side hedges, big ivies, and several trees or large shrubs where birds can nest, we’ve put up bird-boxes and a wren-pot, plus a hedgehog box and several bug-hotels. And since Hubcap was so surprised and delighted to see swifts back on the estate this summer, for Christmas he’s asked for two swift bricks which our neighbour will install in our gable wall in return for a brick for his own house. Then with any luck, next year the swifts will spot these new nesting sites and set up a little colony – or if they don’t, we’ll buy a swift-call lure to entice them! We also provide year-round fresh water and good-quality food: for the birds, sunflower hearts, mealworms, fat blocks and fat balls (always in a proper feeder, never the individual plastic nets in which they can become entangled and die), and Spike’s semi-moist pellets for the hedgehog. Meat-based cat or dog food does just as well, but never give hedgehogs milk, (they’re lactose intolerant and it can kill them), bread, or mealworms, (which prevent them from absorbing vital nutrients). The result? We’re blessed with a miniature Garden of Eden, teeming with wildlife great and small. The downside? Blackbirds pinch our soft fruit, mice gnaw our best hessian sacks, and there’s bird-splat (spectacularly purple in elderberry season) and hog-poop everywhere – but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We feel privileged to help struggling species, and in return we get to watch all the wonderful drama of their lives, every day, played out in front of our windows. Yes: the more biodiverse you make your garden, the more you’ll help nature – and the more you’ll enjoy it!
- Don’t Freak Out Over Stingy Things. Swarm of honeybees trying to nest on your house or in your garden? Don’t panic! Above all, don’t kill them (or call in a pest exterminator to do it). Bee numbers have taken such a battering in recent years that we can’t afford to lose any more of their precious little lives – just ring your local Beekeepers Association, and someone will gladly come and take the colony away for you, free of charge, and find it a good home. What about wasps? Again, don’t panic! Shrieking and flailing about are sure-fire ways to scare or annoy a wasp into stinging you. And please don’t kill them in the mistaken belief that it’s essential – humans and wasps can co-exist quite safely and happily. (Hubcap and I have both lived for years with a wasps’ nest in either our loft or garden without either party being aware of, or bothered by, the other’s existence; we find that, by and large, if you leave wasps alone, they leave you alone). Besides, they’re an essential part of any green garden’s eco-system, and valuable workmates for any gardener: ferocious hunters of pests like aphids, and ravenous scavengers who clear away rotting fruit and carrion, bit by tiny bit, to feed to their grubs – all tremendous fun to watch, too. So do tolerate these amazing insects if you possibly can – you may even learn to love them, as I do – and look out for my forthcoming blog in praise of the much-maligned wasp. Happy green gardening!