Peat-free or pest-free: just how green is your garden?

This week, amateur gardeners were accused of damaging the environment by using peat-based compost. Terry Kirby compiles an organic check-list for those heading to the garden centre this weekend
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The Independent Online

The totally green gardener will try to follow the fundamental principles of organic life: to eschew all chemicals and pesticides and do everything possible to sustain the environment and support wildlife. Nevertheless, there are still some important rules to bear in mind.

PLANTS

The totally green gardener will try to follow the fundamental principles of organic life: to eschew all chemicals and pesticides and do everything possible to sustain the environment and support wildlife. Nevertheless, there are still some important rules to bear in mind.

Despite the fashion for spiky plants and exotic grasses, remember to choose plants that are suited to the conditions you can provide in your garden.

Plant flowering shrubs such as buddleia that attract butterflies and remember bees like plants with very small flowers, such as cotoneaster. Birds like berries of all kinds.

The Royal Horticultural Society, which is making care for the environment one of the main themes of the Chelsea Flower Show, which opens later this month, warns gardeners to avoid non-native invasive species which threaten UK habitats, however decorative they may be. This includes plants such as the Himalayan balsam, the giant hogweed and the floating pennywort.

Don't cut the lawn too short (and leave the clipped grass to feed the lawn). Try to recycle pots and planters (scrub them well to avoid disease and pests).

WEEDS

It is no longer acceptable to use chemical weed-killers. The organic gardener will either get down or hoe down: that is, get down on his knees and dig the weeds up by hand or use an old-fashioned tool like a hoe.

Some gardeners use old carpet as a blanket on large areas to keep down weeds but the Henry Doubleday Research Association, the country's foremost organic gardening body, now recommends against this because of the dangers of chemicals from the carpet leaching into the soil.

It also points out that other weed-controlling devices such as textile or plastic membranes, while they are preferable to carpets, come from non-renewable resources.

Biodegradable alternatives include cardboard or newspapers (a very suitable use for back issues of The Independent) covered with a loose mulch made from garden prunings. Ornamental bark or wood chips can also be used. Remember to ensure all wood products are organic and/or from sustainable sources (see below).

DECKING AND FURNITURE

The current fashion, encouraged by endless television makeover programmes, for urban gardens to be designed as outdoor living spaces, has led to massive boom in all kinds of garden-associated paraphernalia - from decking to hammocks via patio heaters, gazebos and oil lamps.

Wooden items, such as barbecue charcoal, bark chips for mulch, decking, furniture and sheds, should come from sustainable sources and carry the logo of the Forest Stewardship Council. The Soil Association in Britain has its own FSC-approved certification system called Woodmark. Some garden centres have now adopted this scheme.

Avoid plastic furniture, tableware and particularly children's play equipment that comes from non-renewable sources.

You might also want to ensure that "ethnic" items such as chimineas and hammocks do not originate from exploited Third-World producers.

Some charity shops sell items such as wind chimes and tea-light holders for the garden which have been bought under the Fair Trade principle and are often much cheaper than those on sale at garden centres.

STONE

Several beaches around Britain, particularly in parts of Cornwall, have put up notices warning visitors not to cart away large bags of attractive stones for their garden features.

All decorative stones should be bought in bags from garden centres, which get their supplies from recognised quarries.

The RHS has also alerted gardeners to the use of rocks taken from the rare geological features called limestone pavements.

It has banned them in its gardens and shows and recommends the use of other types of natural stone - wherever possible recycled from walls or buildings - for use in rock gardens and landscaping.

LIGHTING

Garden lighting wastes energy, blocks out the view of the stars in the night sky and annoys the neighbours. Monty Don, presenter of the BBC's Gardeners' World programme, says an item on garden lighting provoked a flood of complaints from viewers about light pollution. So, use solar-powered lamps instead of electric lighting to give a different type of illumination. These store up light during the day and glow gently after dark. They can also be easily moved around, therefore avoiding dangerous and complicated cabling. Alternatively, use candles or oil lamps, which can be more attractive.

If you have a pond, consider a solar-powered fountain, which floats on the surface of the water. Greenhouse and glasshouse owners should remember to conserve energy by improved insulation and sensible thermostat settings.

WILDLIFE

As well as providing plants for butterflies and bees, the organic gardener should encourage wildlife by other means. There are now huge varieties of nesting boxes, bird tables, baths and feeders (many of which are squirrel-proof) to attract wild birds.

It is also possible to buy ready-made homes for ladybirds, bats and hedgehogs from specialised companies, but these can easily be contrived at home. A pile of old logs in a quiet corner provides an ideal habitat for beetles and other insects. This is all in the gardener's own interest as far as pest control is concerned (see section on pests).

If you are creating a pond, do not take frog spawn from the wild, but wait for the frogs and toads to arrive by themselves - they usually will, along with dragonflies. Avoid goldfish or carp, as they eat the native wildlife.

PESTS

Green gardeners will never use pesticides. They use shallow traps filled with beer to catch slugs and snails and let them drown happily. Or they trap them in the rinds of breakfast grapefruit and release them in wild areas.

Greenfly and similar pests can been combated by encouraging ladybirds, hoverflies and lacewings, which prey on them, or spraying plants with water and organic liquid soap. Ants can be tackled with talcum powder.

Don't be too tidy: predators that eat pests like slugs, such as hedgehogs, need safe places to hide.

Local authority recycling schemes will help get rid of your old pesticides and weed killers, many of which have now been withdrawn. For more information, go to www.pesticides.gov.uk and follow the quick link to "Home and garden use" or try www.pan-uk.org for advice on disposal.

COMPOST

This is International Compost Awareness Week, designed to promote composting of household waste rather than landfill or incineration. Compost made this way, say organisations like Friends of the Earth, should always be used instead of peat, which is extracted from valuable wildlife sites.

FoE have criticised some garden and DIY centres for selling peat labelled as "multi-purpose" compost and urges gardeners only to buy compost labelled "peat-free". According to one poll, 74 per cent of gardeners now support a total ban on peat, although it still forms three-quarters of the soil-conditioner market.

Green gardeners will buy organic or mushroom compost. They will probably also make their own compost, either in a home-made composter or using a special bin available from garden centres (or some local authority recycling centres). Kitchen scraps such as tea bags and vegetable peelings (not cooked vegetables or meat) can go in as well as green garden waste. Bacteria and worms will do the rest.

Tiger or brandling worms ( Eisenia foetida) produce a particularly fine compost. The Henry Doubleday Research Association (0247 630 3517) can advise on setting up a worm bin.

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