Sustainability, it’s everywhere. You can’t turn a corner, turn on the radio or log onto Twitter without getting some slice of either hopeless doomsdayism or deluded optimism on the subject.
It’s become a monster, malevolent or benevolent who can tell. And a bit like Homer and his ‘’the internet, is that thing still around? ‘’ line, sustainability is not going to go gently into that good night. Get comfortable with it.
Grand so, what does it actually mean? Well the word itself has several meanings but in the modern 21st century context it has come to mean what could be whittled down to, the capacity for the biosphere and human civilisation to co- exist.
Sounds great, what’s the biosphere though? The biosphere refers to the regions of the surface and atmosphere of the earth occupied by living organisms. And that includes us.
That’s sustainability on the macro level if you like, on the global level. Another line you will continually hear mentioned in connection with sustainability is ‘Think globally act locally’
What that is trying to say to us is that the cumulative effect of billions of small individual actions can be profound, can have a global impact. It might not seem like that; we might not think it but there is power in the collective.
We have seen a great example of this play out over the last few weeks, the cumulative effect of millions of individual decisions to stay at home to observe the regulations has had a significant macro effect in slowing the spread of the virus. There is a profound lesson here and one that I hope is heeded in relation to climate change and arresting it.
Ok, so there is power in the individual decision, great. On a practical level what does that mean for us, on a daily basis? It means putting into practice those habits, those seemingly small habits that, believe it, can add up to something huge.
And there is nowhere more capable, more ready and more appropriate to be adapted to sustainability principles than the garden.
The first thing to say is that sustainability does not necessarily mean scruffiness. In any talk of sustainability in the garden we would tend automatically to make a connection with Permaculture and the images of an unruly, untamed garden which that conjures in our minds. It doesn’t have to be that way; you can practice solid sustainability principles in your garden without going full bore Woodstock, growing a beard down to your knees and digging out your Scott McKenzie albums.
Permaculture refers to working in harmony with nature’s patterns and rhythms, elements of that obviously feed into sustainability.
Sustainable gardening in a nutshell is growing food without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. It depends on compost, diversity of plants, native plants, reducing water demand, reusing materials, making the space productive in terms of food, fruit and herbs. Generally, it refers to employing methods which enhance rather than jeopardise the health of humans, wildlife, plants, soil and water.
The Twelve Steps
1. Get the Kids involved
Before we go anywhere near the technical elements of sustainable gardening, we need to observe the most fundamental strand to sustainability that there is. Another line you continually hear in connection with sustainability is ’Our children and their children’s children’. The future, essentially. Our kids are not going to be well placed to inherit the responsibilities that come with climate change unless they have some ownership, understanding and engagement with the principles as they relate to the outdoors. They won’t have any ownership if they have no familiarity and they will only start to develop familiarity, immersion, engagement and emotional investment when we get them out and get them involved. So, get them involved, that’s no. 1
2. Test your Soil.
A central principle of sustainable gardening is growing what is suited to the existing conditions. You won’t know what those existing conditions are unless you do a soil assessment. Test your pH, analyse the texture, the heaviness, the draining capacity.
Luckily, most soil in Ireland is neutral pH, meaning 6.5 – 7.2 on the scale that we all remember from school. Most plants will grow well in neutral soil. If you want to grow something which has a specific requirement you can localise the conditions that plant wants. A great example of that would be blueberries, they like acid so a bit of peat or ericaceous compost will provide that. And what could be better in a sustainable garden than blueberries.
3. Build your Soil.
What that means is building the nutrients and health of your soil. So, you should be looking to organic enhancements such as manure, organic compost, compost that you make yourself from the kitchen. Another aspect of soil care is trying to employ organic weed control methods.
For every chemical weed control option there is what we call a cultural control option. This typically will involve a bit more elbow grease but you’re saving humanity, so it’s worth it.
Examples: Mulch, hoeing, hand weeding, cultivation, weed suppressing ground cover plants, edge strips, spun or woven fabrics, strimming, weed knives, flame guns.
Mulch is magic. It does a range of things – it controls the temperature in the root zone of your plants preventing them from getting too hot in summer and too cold in winter, it suppresses weeds, it retains moisture, it looks good and it will eventually break down organically and transmit its goodness downwards to your soil. We’re familiar with bark or wood chip mulch but coir (coconut fibre), grass clippings, pine needles, leaf litter also make decent mulches. When going with bark or woodchip remember, the finer the better.
5. Native Plants
A core principle of sustainable gardening is to plant what will thrive thereby taking full advantage of existing conditions. Natives are already acclimated to the type of soil, amount of rainfall and the general climate in your region and so will do better and demand less water than unacclimated species. In addition, native populations of birds and insects use them for their food and shelter. Think about the impressive list of native Irish trees – Hawthorn, Arbutus, Hazel, Birch, Crab Apple, Cherry, Pine, Willow, Rowan, Oak. There is one for every setting.
6. Manage your Water Usage
Planning a garden that requires less water is a central principle of sustainability. A method of landscaping and gardening called xeriscaping has sprung (lol) up in recent years and is centred on the use of drought tolerant perennials and shrubs.
We tend to over water our gardens. Drive a spade into the soil to the depth of the blade. If it comes out dry it needs water but if it’s wet, resist. Getting new plants established is a different scenario and will require careful watering but for general maintenance, the spade rule rules.
Also, get to know your soil. Sandy soil will need more regular water because it is percolating through quicker. Heavier soils will need less water.
Consider modifying your watering techniques. Irrigation hoses, soaker and seep hoses are more targeted, surgical and efficient than the traditional blunderbuss approach of the garden hose.
Plant drought tolerant plants such as verbena, lavender, olive if you have a sheltered garden.
Remember that mulching prevents evaporation, compost based on coir will retain huge volumes of water. Water at night and get some water butts and barrels working for you. The roof of a standard garden shed will produce a surprising volume.
7. Grow Your Own Food.
A pivotal part of sustainability in the garden is making it productive. There is a bit of work involved but huge satisfaction in growing your own herbs, vegetables, and fruits. It’s a fundamental part of the lifestyle if you want to live in a sustainable manner. Where possible, plant with the seasons and plant intensively.
Think about successional planting, once the lettuce and greens are finished, use the space created to plant peppers, tomatoes, and other warm weather crops. When they’re done and autumn is arriving, your winter crops can be sown. The same area of your garden can, in theory, deliver three seasons worth of food if planned well.
8. Companion Planting and Flowering Herbs
Marigold, Borage and Nasturtium are good choices and easy to grow. Marigold is a good companion plant for lots of vegetables and can also be used as a sacrificial plant as they attract red spider mite. Yarrow and alyssum can help control your aphid population as they attract bugs which will feast on the offenders. Think about attracting bees by loading up on the lavender and rosemary.
9. Save Seeds
Sunflower, marigold and morning glory seeds are easily collected. Gather them at the end of the growing season and store them over winter in a dry space. Unleash them the following spring to catapult the garden into life.
10. Build up your Organic Material
Build up your store of organic enhancements as you go. Matter such as animal manure and home-produced compost are essential in feeding fungi and bacteria, the microbial mass of the soil.
11. Trees Can Still Save Us
Possibly the most obvious measure of them all, Plant Trees. Every Government has an official tree planting program. You can augment that by enhancing your own space with a tree (or several) appropriate to the scale of your space.
Trees are magic, oxygen manufacturing machines. In the process of using sunlight to make their own food they break down atmospheric carbon and turn it into oxygen. The more the merrier.
Plant perennials. They get stronger year on year, can be divided regularly and represent great value.
12. How Could we Forget the Three Rs; Reduce, Re-use, Recycle
Try to find a second use for materials. It is a principle fundamental to the whole world of sustainability. Try to reduce your dependence on mains water, save seeds, divide plants, take care of your soil, make your own compost. And on it goes.
I think we would all concede that in the last two years we have seen a more profound cultural move towards a real embracing of sustainability principles.
Some of the major car manufacturers are no longer going to manufacture diesel cars.
Similarly, in the realm of landscaping and horticulture, we are seeing a move away from gas guzzling gardens which are heavy on carbon impact and non-renewable elements.
There has finally been a universal acknowledgement that we need to tread a little lighter on the earth, we need a softer touch.
Our gardens are the perfect platform to implement those principles.
Stay safe stay sustainable, and happy gardening.