Faced with worrying gloom over our environment, it's natural to feel powerless, as individuals, to bring about meaningful change.
If the question 'What should I do?' can feel overwhelming, why not ask the opposite question and ask 'What should I not do?' This way, even inaction seems positive. So here is Howbert and Mays's 'Not-to-do' list for the garden, along with the positive alternatives below.
DONT'S, FOLLOWED BY THE ALTERNATIVE
- CHEMICALS: Don't use chemicals in your garden. This includes synthetic fertilisers, weedkillers of pesticides. They damage soil structure, decrease diversity, kill far more than the intended target, get into our rivers, streams, lakes and taps, cost a lot and can make us seriously ill. Instead: We don't actually need to fertilise plants that often. It's better to create healthy soil by mulching with home made compost or well-rotted manure such as 'Gee-up''. Feeding, if at all, should be with products made from organic matter such as seaweed, animal by-products or soil improvers such as 'Soil Renew'. Instead of using weedkillers, unwanted plants can be pulled up, hoed, mulched or simply tolerated. Spraying roses etc for mildew, or any plants for aphids etc, ends up causing more damage than it does good, and if a plant is constantly under attack then the plant should either be removed or the focus should go into making it better able to cope by improving its health. Plants that are over-fed with products such as Miracle-Grow end up being more vulnerable to problems because their growth is unnaturally rapid and soft. The majority of the chemicals that are promoted for our gardens are done so for the benefit of the manufacturers and retailers rather than the gardens themselves, and a more natural approach is cheaper and has better results.
- HARD SURFACES: Don't pave over any area that is currently unpaved. Impermeable surfaces like cobble-lock, asphalt or concrete mean that rainwater flows quickly into drains, bringing pollutants from vehicles straight into watercourses. This leads to flooding, because the in-flow of water into streams and rivers happens very suddenly after heavy rain. Instead, have slow-draining hard surfaces such as gravel or permeable paving. Patios can be laid on paving grit with silica sand between the joints, which allows better permeability than pushing all water straight into drains. But in many cases, patios and hard surfaces are bigger than they should be, displacing land that could be more usefully filled with plants.
- PLASTIC LAWNS: Don't lay a plastic lawn. Considering the awareness that has gone into plastic bags, straws and cups, it's amazing that anyone still dares to install a plastic lawn. This single-use green flock-on-a-roll is non-degradable plastic that will ultimately end up in landfill or breaking apart slowly and ending up in our seas. It uses petrochemicals and masses of energy in its production and has no natural benefits in terms of providing a habitat for worms, spiders, birds, microbes etc. Nor does it sequester any carbon or create any organic matter during its time in your garden. Yes, it is green, flat and relatively clean, but it's made from plastic and does nothing good for the planet. Instead, have a real lawn, along with the problems that go with it such as moss, dandelions, birds looking for grubs, muddy patches on kids clothes, going brown in a drought and so on. A real lawn can be the habitat for thousands of small creatures that play their part in the food chain, and even if it's messy or hard work, or doesn't look great all year round, it is working hard to sequester carbon and absorb rainwater. Also, a real lawn is often the only place that we can sit or lie down and truly 'connect' with the earth. If it's made of plastic, that basic right is denied.
- 'WEEDS': Don't focus obsessively on 'weeds'. Weeds are the construct of opinion rather a fact. Some plants are regarded as weeds by us but are an essential food source or habitat for others. Don't root out all unwanted plants, or use herbicides on driveways or patios. Don't wage war on a plant that really wants to grow in a particular place. Instead: Take plants like dandelions, nettles and buttercups as examples of 'weeds' that are pretty essentiall for bees, hoverflies, butterflies and other insects. Bear in mind that these small creatures are just one part of the food chain. Giving space to plants like these in or around our gardens will have a ripple effect and help our beleagured insect population
- TIDYNESS: Don't keep your garden overly tidy. Again, tidyness is a construct rather than a fact. Don't cut everything back the moment it has finished blooming, or tidy away old logs, piles of leaves or dead foliage. Of course, a tidy garden is often a very beautiful garden, and gardening is, to a degree, outdoor tidying. But keep in mind that the garden isn't only for our benefit, and that birds, bees and other creatures may prefer a bit more of a 'mess'. Instead, tidying should be done judiciously and thoughfully. Of course plants need to be cut back and old leaves need to be tidied away, but cut back grasses and flower heads in late winter / early spring rather than just after flowering: they are a valuable source of food and shelter. Keep a pile of leaves, grass clippings and garden waste in a corner somewhere, and find room under trees and shrubs for old twigs and logs, which is the perfect habitat for everything from ladybirds to hedgehogs.
- MOWING: Don't mow your garden obsessively and frequently, and don't use a noisly petrol mower. Don't mow right to the edges of your garden or mow every square inch of it. Instead, use an electric mower, that it is quieter than a mower with petrol and does not generate emissions on site, and may even run on renewable electricity. If you have a large amount of grass, use a cordless electric mower, and reduce the amount of mown grass and have areas of different grass lengths. You can create 'islands' that you mow only every couple of months, where plants such as clover, dandelions and daisies can flourish. Or you can have tightly mown paths through longer grass. This reduces the amount of time you spend mowing, creates interesting shapes in your garden, and also allows different species to flourish without them getting out of control.
- WATER: Don't think that all water is dangerous and should be whooshed out of your garden straight away. If you live in the countryside and have a stand-alone house, don't connect all the pipes on your house to the nearest ditch. Instead, if you have the opportunity, connect all the pipes from the exterior of your house and outbuildings to a pipe that will bring water to a small pond, which can itself have an overflow to the nearest drain. This will slow down rainwater progress to the nearest watercourse in the event of a storm, but will also create an excellent wetland that brings an untold amount of wildlife to your garden. If you have a much smaller garden and don't have the opportunity to do this, you can simply bury a heavy-duty plastic tub in the ground, cover the edges with flat stones, and create a very small pond. Plant with a couple of aquatic plants such as flag iris, and very quickly the pond will attract frogs, newts, dragonflies, water beetles... someone will appreciate it!
- PLANTS: Don't regard plants as threats, or think that they can be too near to your house. Don't think that a garden looks messy if plants 'get 'out-of-control', especially trees. Instead, try to have as many plants in your garden as possible, and if you have any space at all, you should have at least one tree. In most places in the world, people have trees in their gardens, even if they live in cities, and visits to places as diverse as Dallas, Stockholm or London will show you that plants make places more beautuful. In Ireland, we have a bad habit of butchering trees when they start to reach their potential, or removing them completely. On some streets they have been removed because they are regarded as 'dangerous', and these streets feel barren and soul-less. The perception is that they can fall on people, or bits of them can fall on people, or they can harbour wasps or bees, or birds will do droppings from them, or people can hide in their shadows, or they will take all the sunlight... the list is endless. In fact, trees can support hundreds of creatures, they bring flowers, leaves and birdsong, and their benefits are far greater than their (perceived) threats. They slow down the wind, soak up water, sequester carbon in their roots, create shade in summer when we need it, but not in winter when we don't. And if you don't have room for a tree, or you don't have a garden at all, there's still room somewhere for plants - even indoors, plants cleanse the air and bring you joy.
- FINALLY: Don't be content when you feel that you are being 'less bad' than you were previoulsy, or than others. Instead, strive to be 'more good' in terms of the positive effects you can make. Cultivated, managed places can be better for nature than 'natural' ones, particularly if managed thoughtfully. So, through species choice, increased diversity and careful custodianship, a garden can be a positive force and be beneficial for humans andthe natural world.