Growing Green: Eco-Friendly Gardening Tips
With the weather warming up this week it feels like spring has finally sprung! And if you’re a keen gardener like me, you’ll be itching to get outside and get on with all those gardening jobs that need doing this time of year. I heard a statistic recently that there are 1 million acres of gardens in the UK – meaning gardens take up a greater area than our nature reserves! As gardeners, we are in the wonderful position of being able to help wildlife, improve biodiversity and fight the climate crisis on our own little patches of land. The potential difference we can make collectively is huge.
Gardening is surely an eco-friendly activity, right?… Well, actually, it’s not that simple. Yes, garden plants absorb carbon and provide habitat and food for wildlife. But it is surprisingly easy for gardeners to inadvertently cancel out these benefits by doing certain things or using certain products.
Gardening in a more sustainable way is kinder to nature and reduces your carbon footprint – and coincidentally it could also save you time and money, leaving you more time to sit back and enjoy the little piece of paradise you’ve created in your garden!
Here are my top tips for eco-friendly gardening:
Use Peat-Free Compost
Why the **** is peat still used in compost? The government target of all amateur compost to be peat-free by 2020 has been sadly missed. Although the amount of peat used in compost has been reduced, unless it specifically says “peat-free” or lists the ingredients on the bag, any compost you buy from a garden centre, supermarket or DIY store will contain peat.
Using peat is bad news because digging it up from peat bogs releases all the carbon that’s been sequestered by the decomposition process over thousands of years, massively contributing to the climate crisis and destroying a unique ecosystem at the same time. Peat harvesting in England alone emits the equivalent of 3 coal-fired power stations every year, and all of that peat is used for horticulture!
Gardeners urgently need to move away from the outdated mindset that “peat is best” and “peat-free is poor quality”. These days there are some really good peat-free composts available, such as Melcourt Sylvagrow and B&Q’s GoodHome range (I haven’t actually tried these myself, but heard them recommended on a brilliant podcast with Sally Nex, author of How to Garden the Low Carbon Way).
Another option is to avoid buying compost altogether and make your own, although admittedly this isn’t going to be possible right away if you’re new to gardening and haven’t started composting yet! You can find instructions online, depending on whether you want to sow seeds or pot on young seedlings, but in practice you can just mix homemade compost with a bit of garden soil. If you mix your own soil in, it helps plants establish better. Sieved leaf-mould is another good alternative to bought potting compost.
It can be so frustrating to have the plants you’ve lovingly raised from seed be destroyed overnight by slugs/snails/aphids/caterpillars or any other garden pest. But by using pesticides, such as slug pellets or insecticides, gardeners are doing untold harm. By killing one species, you are removing a food source for another animal, which could have a devastating effect on your garden wildlife higher up the food chain. If you spray to kill the caterpillars, birds will lose a valuable food for their young. If you put down slug pellets, you could kill a hedgehog. These toxic chemicals can also get into the fruit and veg that you will eventually eat and leach into the soil and the water system. Whichever way you look at it, chemicals in the garden are bad news and should be avoided.
I’ve found the key to being an eco-friendly gardener is to be more relaxed and tolerant about a bit of damage. If you can improve the biodiversity in your garden by planting to attract a range of beneficial insects and provide habitat for wildlife such as birds, frogs and toads (hedges, ponds etc), it won’t be long before a natural predator will take care of whatever pest is pestering your plants!
I also take precautions to physically protect my vulnerable plants without resorting to chemical warfare. I’ve found it’s much better to sow and raise plants in seed trays, modules and pots than to sow seeds directly into the garden. You can protect your seedlings before you plant them out by keeping them up on shelves, which makes them harder for slugs to reach, and by checking underneath the pots regularly, especially in damp weather, and removing any pests to another part of the garden! Bigger plants are less prone to being nibbled and are more resilient to attack, so by waiting until your plants have grown a bit before planting them out gives them a better chance of survival.
Another trick I use is to protect brassicas such as purple sprouting broccoli and kale from cabbage white butterflies (as well as pigeons and aphids) with Enviromesh. Yes, this is made from plastic, but it isn’t single-use – it’s a quality brand and has lasted me 14 years so far!
If you really do have an overwhelming problem with slugs, I’ve heard that putting a thick layer of bran as a barrier around your plants could be the answer. Apparently, the bran will swell in the rain, the slugs come out to eat the bran and it carries on swelling inside them until they explode!!!
No Mow May has become a bit of a thing in the last few years, and I welcome the excuse to avoid mowing our lawn for a whole month for the sake of helping wildlife! Research by Plantlife has shown that by mowing only every 4 weeks you end up with loads more flowers in your lawn (daisies, dandelions, clover etc), which provide loads more nectar for bees and other pollinators.
I’ve also started leaving a couple of bits of lawn that I only mow once a year in the autumn, for the “wild meadow” look. Not only does mowing less improve biodiversity, it also lowers your carbon footprint. An hour of using a petrol mower has the equivalent emissions of driving 93 miles in a car!
While we’re on the subject of lawns, please don’t be tempted to feed your grass with a high-nitrogen fertiliser or treat it with weedkiller, both of which can destroy the goodness in your soil and the manufacture of which has very high carbon emissions. An immaculate green lawn is a monoculture and biodiversity desert.
Of course, it’s nice to have a lawn to sit on in the summer, and I love to have the grass cuttings for my compost bin, but if you can change your attitude to having an immaculate lawn and embrace the “weeds” as food for the bees, you can get away with mowing much less and free up your time to do something more fun!
Don’t Waste Anything
I’ve found my attitude to reducing waste in the home extends to my gardening, and it is amazing how little gets wasted. I don’t think I’ve ever bought new plant pots or seed trays, having been given loads over the years by family members. Most long-time gardeners have a surplus of plastic pots, so if you’re a newbie gardener, why not put a shout out on Facebook/Freegle/Freecycle to see if you can get some second-hand ones for free?
I also make my own seed trays from plastic food trays (just make a few drainage holes with a knife) and use plastic food trays as pot holders. I have loads of black plastic trays that can’t be recycled and I’ve saved up over the years as they “might come in useful one day”!
Cardboard toilet roll tubes are really useful for starting off things like beans and sweet peas, as you can plant the whole lot directly into the ground without disturbing the roots (the cardboard will rot naturally).
I even make the best of weeds – nothing gets thrown away! Most things get chucked in my compost bin, but the roots of perennial weeds may survive the composting process and spread into the garden. So, these can be left in a bucket of water for 6 weeks to kill them, the liquid used as fertiliser and the remaining bits composted.
If you have lots of nettles or comfrey, see these as a valuable resource and not weeds! The leaves can be dunked in a container of water for 6 weeks and the resulting liquid used as an organic plant feed if you dilute it 1:4 with water so it’s the colour of weak tea. Just make sure you cover the container as the stink is horrific! Comfrey feed is high in potash and is great for fruiting plants like tomatoes. Nettle feed is a great general purpose liquid feed, which is high in nitrogen and also provides magnesium, sulphur and iron.
Something I’m going to try this year is building a “fedge” a.k.a. a dead hedge. Fedges have become very fashionable (in gardening circles!). A fedge is basically a pile of woody prunings held between posts to act as a barrier – a cross between a hedge and a fence. Eventually the prunings will rot down and the carbon will end up back in the soil (you can keep adding to the pile). In the meantime, the fedge will be full of nooks and crannies offering shelter to wildlife. Usually, I’d put woody stuff in our kerbside garden waste bin that’s collected by the council, but by making a dead hedge, less waste is leaving my plot and is creating a carbon store, as well as benefiting wildlife.
All plants need water, some much more than others, and with increasingly hot summers water is becoming a precious commodity. However, one of the common mistakes new gardeners make is thinking they need to water everything in the garden when we get a bit of hot weather. Not only is this a waste of precious water, it is a waste of time as well. I’d much rather be sitting on a lounger enjoying a summer’s evening than spending an hour each night watering! In my experience, it’s also not necessary to water most established plants (unless they are looking a bit thirsty). And there is absolutely no need to ever water an established lawn. It might look a bit brown for a while in a heatwave, but the green grass will always come back.
Watering your garden can actually do more harm than good, as you want to encourage plants to send their roots down deep to find water and become more resilient. If you wet just the top bit of soil, the roots will be shallower and the plants weaker. Even so, at the height of summer, it can sometimes seem as if you never have enough water for your plants. So, prioritise your watering; if you’re growing fruit and vegetables, water young seedlings first and those in pots. Things which have already been in the ground a while (potatoes, onions, carrots planted in early spring for example), will probably be better able to survive on less water. As a general rule, long established shrubs and perennials in your borders shouldn’t need regular watering, unless there is a very prolonged drought. Occasionally a plant will tell you it needs a drink by wilting, although I have some hardy geraniums which do this in very warm weather but recover by the evening without extra water. This is probably a good example of “right plant, wrong place”, a good rule of thumb for all gardening. I’ve learnt from bitter experience that moisture loving plants with glossy green leaves, like Hostas, will not survive in my dry, sunny garden. Pick the right plants for your garden and you won’t need to waste water on them.
When you do water, it is so much better for your garden plants to give them a really good soak once a week rather than a light sprinkle every day. If you can, try to water either in the early morning or evening, when the weather is cooler to avoid evaporation and make your precious water go further. And always water the soil at the base of the plant so the water can get to the roots, rather than pouring it on the leaves.
For plants in pots, I put a tray underneath to capture the water and direct it towards the roots. The “once a week” rule doesn’t apply to plants in pots or containers. It’s best to water these once a day, using the 10% rule – give them an amount of water equivalent to 10% of the pot’s size; so for a 1 litre pot, use 100ml of water.
If you can, I recommend investing in a water butt, so you can collect rain water, which is much better for plants than tap water. It also seems incredibly wasteful, when there are water shortages all over the world, to use clean drinking water in the garden if rain water is available. This could be as sophisticated as a custom-made water butt with tap connected to your house or shed’s down pipe, or as simple as an old bucket, dustbin or other suitable container left to fill up with rain water or “grey” water from your home. I have two proper water butts, as well as a make shift container that I keep under a bit of broken gutter to catch water when it rains! Like compost, I can never have enough water butts!
Last summer when we had a lot of prolonged dry, hot weather, my water butts ran dry and even some of my old established plants were looking a bit parched. So, what I did was use “grey” water to water random plants that looked a bit floppy, as well as my pots and newly planted flowers in the border. Grey water is basically water you’ve used to wash in or washup in, and as long as you use eco-friendly soap and washing up liquid, it is safe to use on non-edible plants. I put the bath plug in when I had a shower and scooped out the leftover water with a bucket. I also collected water from running the kitchen taps, washing hands and washing up in the washing up bowl and emptied it into my make shift water butt whenever it was full. At the end of each day, I’d use the water I’d collected to water things that needed a drink.
Adding organic matter (homemade compost, leaf mould, spent hops, coffee grounds etc.) to your soil will in the long term improve water retention in the soil, reducing the need for watering. This will also add important nutrients, leading to better soil health and better plants – a win win! A great way to add this organic matter is as a mulch – a thick layer of organic matter on top of the soil, around the base of plants. Not only does mulch suppress annual weeds, but it also reduces water evaporation from the soil. Last summer, I used mulch from Apsley Farms and have been completely converted! It kept moisture in the soil, suppressed weeds and we had by far one of our best vegetable harvests ever!
For more tips on saving water, check out this episode of Gardeners World from 2020.
Relax and Enjoy Your Garden
In writing this post, I’ve realised there is so much more I could write about eco-friendly gardening – such as the no-dig method, what plants to grow and where to get them, building wildlife habitats, seed swapping etc. However, the gist of my message is to relax and enjoy your garden more. Often by doing less in the garden we are helping wildlife and in turn, the more wildlife we attract, the more enjoyable our gardens are! For more inspiration, have a look at our previous post Don’t Let The Butterflies Flutter By.