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Keeping it green

How green is your garden? Gardening is the most naturally sustainable activity – you just need to remember a few simple dos and don’ts to embrace an eco garden philosophy, says Jane Moore

Gardening circles are buzzing with talk of sustainable gardening and efforts to reduce the use of plastic, but what does it all really mean? Isn’t sustainable gardening what we all practise anyway? In fact, isn’t gardening the most sustainable of all activities? Yes of course, in its pure form, but we can all do a bit more, we can all be a little more mindful of our environment and the limited resources of our fragile planet. These are hefty topics to swallow along with your morning coffee, I know. But I am here to break sustainable gardening down into nice, bite-sized chunks.

Be organic

It’s so easy to be organic – in fact, you’re probably 90 per cent there already. Most of it, quite frankly, is simply good husbandry such as making your own compost, practising crop rotation in your vegetable patch and encouraging predators into your garden. But the big transition is letting go of the pesticides and herbicides, the slug pellets and the rose spray. If you make your own compost, avoiding shop-bought fertilisers isn’t so difficult, but it is hard to do without the odd spot of weed killer now and then.
A little weeding very often is the only way to keep control organically and it is a thankless task, although the wildlife will be grateful. Don’t be tempted to start using salt or vinegar to manage those weeds – it just doesn’t work and only knocks back the foliage a little. And please don’t be tempted to mix them together as you’ll be creating a potent acidic concoction that will have a negative impact on the soil.

Bring in the birds and bees

You may already have the odd bird box, birdbath or feeding table dotted around your garden. If you don’t, then what are you waiting for?

Unless these things are already on your Christmas wish list, then do find some space for them in your garden. Birds are top predators, especially the little ones such as blue tits and wrens, and will eat their own body weight in invertebrates in no time at all. Admittedly that also means some of your lovely earthworms and butterfly caterpillars but it also includes less attractive visitors such as aphids. Added to that birds bring such a lot of life and colour into the garden, which is especially cheering as we head into the dormant winter months.

Plant butterfly and bee friendly plants – nectar-rich flowers and herbs will improve pollination of all your fruits and vegetables as well as adding to that all-important ecosystem that you’re cultivating. There are so many of these plants to choose from that you could fill up an entire National Trust garden, but the key thing is to provide a long season of flowering from spring to autumn. You can’t go wrong with a flower selection including buddleia, sedum, cosmos and lavender, while brilliant herbs include rosemary, thyme, borage and marjoram.

Companion planting

While you’re busy planting pollinator-friendly flowers, don’t forget that a little companion planting may help things along too. The classic combination is to underplant roses with alliums, whether chives, garlic or something a little more ornamental. This is supposed to deter aphids, although I’m not convinced. Having said that there’s no doubt in my mind that planting pollinator-friendly plants in your vegetable patch goes a long way to improving its ecosystem, encouraging friendly insects such as ladybirds, lacewings and hoverflies which are not so friendly to pests.

Make your own compost

It’s one of those rights of passage, making your own compost: you can’t really call yourself a gardener until you’ve done it. Many of us spend years perfecting our perfect composting technique and then spend hours discussing it when we meet fellow gardeners. It is a strangely addictive pursuit and one I will encourage you heartily to take up. Not only does it save you money buying shop fertilisers, but it also saves lugging rubbish out of the garden and commercial compost into the garden. So much better to put that effort into building a nice compost bin and then turning the heap regularly – that’s my tip for creating fantastic compost.

Jane using homemade compost

Recycle, reduce and reuse

Nurseries have finally started to use recyclable bedding packs and pots which make life much easier for the sustainable gardener. These plastics are more expensive to buy, but we can put them in our recycling boxes, although you’ll need to check with your recyclers. Look out for the pale, beige-coloured pots and packs. Black plastic is still a no-no for recycling and there are an awful lot of them about – even in the supermarkets. At least you can wash out and reuse black plastic pots and packs, which is more than I can say for those little trays that supermarkets use for their tomatoes. Better still, buy the tomatoes loose and steer clear of the plastic packaging altogether. It’s not so easy when it comes to buying plants, although I’m a great fan of buying bare-root roses and trees – you get so much more for your money, but that’s not realistically possible for most of the year and certainly not for smaller plants. Nonetheless, things are improving.

Create habitats

Your garden is a mini-ecosystem in its own right – or it could be. Do everything you can to create lots of habitats within your garden. Put in a pond – even if it’s minuscule, a body of water does wonders for wildlife, attracting anything from frogs and toads to newts, dragonflies, damselflies and birds and butterflies.

Let your lawn grow and add in wildflowers to turn it into a meadow, just mowing a couple of paths through it so you can get to the shed. And finally, don’t be too tidy: don’t trim under the hedge so the wildflowers can establish, leave the herbaceous stems untouched in the winter so the birds can have the seeds and let that pile of logs rot so the beetles have somewhere to hide. Remind yourself, and anyone else that questions your garden maintenance standards, that a neat and tidy garden is akin to a desert for wildlife, whereas a little slovenliness is a good thing. Blame me if you get complaints.

Jane Moore is an award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel.