Sustainable gardening

07. February 2021 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
Categories: About gardening, english, Problems & worries | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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Nachhaltiges Gärtnern - Lebendes Totholz © Isabelle Van Groeningen

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzung auf Deutsch lesen – It is not always straight forward to make the right decision when it comes to the environmental aspect of our work. At first glance, what we do is pretty green: Gardening is, or at least should be, all about plants. There are some regrettable exceptions such as the ghastly gravel wastelands that seem still popular in some front gardens, but overall, for most people it is associated with vegetation. But how you garden, which plants, materials, and equipment you buy and how you look after them can make a big difference.

1. Buying seasonal

Die ersten... Schneeglöckchen © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Die ersten…

Some issues apply as much to your purchase of plants as to groceries and cutflowers: buy seasonal. I am always irritated when in the springtime hydrangeas in full flower are offered for sale, or somebody gives me a flowerbunch with chrysanthemums. With modern greenhouse technology it is possible to produce these plants at any time of year, just as you can grow cucumbers and tomatoes. Yes, we can buy them now, but it is not worth it: they completely lack flavour. But oh, the joy I experienced this week at seeing the first snowdrops, knowing soon they will be followed by daffodils and then tulips.

Nachhaltiges Gärtnern - Saisonaler Blumenstrauß © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Saisonaler Blumenstrauß

Similarly, I already think of the delightful dishes I will cook when the asparagus seasons starts, or the sun-kissed, juicy strawberries allowed to ripen on the plant. The problem for many is that they do not always know what is in season. Which is the time of year you can still expect to buy apples that were grown and stored in your country, or when do they come from the southern hemisphere. Look at the country of origin. Since last year, the EU has introduced a new labelling system for plants, that shows the provenance of a plant. Ask you nursery or garden centre where the plant has come from, or your greengrocer where the sprouts were grown.

2. Buying local

It is not always possible to buy local, as sadly many small nurseries have closed over the years and not all regions are blessed with a great number of growers in the first place. I recall talking to a buyer for the COOP supermarkets in England, who have been at the forefront promoting local produce and reducing their carbon footprint. They had worked out that their cutflower roses have a smaller carbon footprint when they come from Kenya than when they originate in Northern Europe. Although the Kenyan ones have a long air flight to get to your vase, they were produced outdoors without additional heat or light, whereas the northern European ones, particularly at this time of year, require heated greenhouses and additional lighting to bring them to flower.

I must confess to having a craving for fresh herbs, particularly at this time of year, and I know from our customers, that I am not alone. This is one of my big dilemmas. I should use frozen or dried herbs at this time of year, but nothing beath the fresh ones. The herbs grown here come from heated greenhouses, under artificial light. At this time of year these plants are much more susceptible to fungal diseases. They are very soft, and to be frank, flavourless as they lack sunshine. At the start of the season, we always receive a load of herbs from Italy.

Knackige Kräuter © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Knackige Kräuter

The thyme, sage and rosemary has been grown out in the open, and have a wonderfully solid, sturdy quality to them, and will happily develop into sturdy plants (if I have not grazed them completely down before) and they are packed with aroma.

3. Reducing waste

Much research is going on to find good biodegradable pots. Some of the compostable packaging will only compost at certain temperatures, so must be put in the bio-waste bin as only commercial composting facilities produce the required heat. Pots made of pressed peat have been on the market for decades, but peat is not a renewable resource and should be avoided. In the meantime, a number of alternative plant-waste based products have come onto the market, some of which will decompose well, so you can put pot and all in the soil. These are particularly convenient for growing on seedlings, that will be planted out relatively quickly. They are no good for plants that are meant to spend a season or longer in it.

Nachhaltiges Gärtnern - Torffreie Erde und Töpfchen © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Peat-free soil and pots

Until a good alternative is found for commercial growers, more and more are switching to plastic pots that are not black, as in many recycling stations black objects cannot be identified by the machinery, and will be thrown out with conventional waste. The best is of course to ask your nursery grower if they will take their pots back. Some do, not all. For us this is not feasible, as we only grow a small proportion of the plants we sell ourselves, and the rest is sourced from many different growers.

Most of what is used for transporting plants is returned and re-used. Either plants are delivered in plastic crates stacked on wooden pallets which are swapped at the time of delivery, or they come stacked on CC trolleys, which are also exchanged. Throughout Europe the same standard packaging/transport system is used, which is a great benefit. Where plastic crates or CC trolleys cannot be returned, we insist on plants being packaged in cardboard boxes.

Where possible we are switching to biodegradable labels. The many thousand bulb labels we print each year are now printed on paper instead of plastic. From this spring on we will colour code our bedding plants with re-useable sticks, rather than sticking pricetags on the pots. More and more plant information is being made available via QR Codes on the labels, so that we can keep labels comparatively small, yet provide valuable information for the customer to take home.

4. Reducing emissions

Nachhaltiges Gärtnern Roter Frosch Elektromobilität © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Electromobility in the Königliche Gartenakademie

Our “red frog” has just arrived. A small electricity-driven delivery bike which we will use for most plant deliveries in Berlin. On a garden level, you can exchange your power equipment to electricity-driven tools. Hedgetrimmers, mowers and strimmers were not so popular because the cable is always in the way and restricts how far you can reach. Nowadays the performance of battery-operated machinery has improved greatly. The operating time has increased, and the charging time has become quicker. Look out for makes that operate all their machinery with the same battery packs. Then you only need one charger and two batteries, so you can continue to work whilst the other one charges. But do think about whether power equipment is necessary for the job. Some things, like edging the lawn with edging shears, is done as quickly by hand, as it is with a strimmer. Not only that: it is wonderfully quiet!

5. Banning chemicals

Nachhaltiges Gärtnern - Nützlinge Marienkäferlarve © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Nützlinge: Marienkäferlarve

Already as a child I had a strong aversion to chemicals. What is potent enough to kill pernicious weeds, pests and diseases, surely will also affect other organisms. This was back in the seventies, when many more pesticides were on the market, their long-term side-effects on human and environmental well-being still unknown. In the meantime, the list of “approved pesticides” (for the amateur gardener as well as the professional ones) has been strongly reduced. Huge advances have been made in integrated pest control, and the list of organisms being used to combat problems gets longer by the year. In recent years much more research has also been carried out in the field of soil health and important co-existence between plants and fungi. Careful soil management contributes a lot to plant health.

6. Making the right plant choice

Providing a good growing environment for a plant is not the only way to ensure that a plant can grow happily and healthily. If you have chosen the wrong plant for the space, it will be weak and struggle, making it more susceptible to pest and disease attacks. You cannot train a sun-loving bearded iris to thrive in deep-shade. It simply lacks the required sunshine to build up energy required for next season’s flower. The same goes for roses. They absorb part of their nutrients by means of their root system, but equally important is the energy built up through photosynthesis. If the leaves do not become a full day’s sunshine, the plant will have insufficient energy to produce a second crop of flowers and is much more likely to succumb to greenfly infestations and blackspot.

Unglückliche Rose © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Unhappy Rose

If in doubt, talk to your nurseryman, or go to a good garden centre and ask advice what would work best for you in your garden. (or treat yourself to a “green hour” and ask one of our gardeners about your problem places!)

7. Practicing and promoting green gardening techniques

You can also make beneficial contributions to the environment by the way you garden.

  • Do not be too obsessively tidy in your garden. If you cannot resist having it immaculate, then at least designate some marginal areas to a bit of natural untidiness.
  • Part of caring for your soil includes giving back what the plant has taken: During the season many of the nutrients that the plant has absorbed will be fixed in the leaf, which in autumn is returned to the soil. It may take a few years to decompose, but the organisms are there to take care of this process. If you cannot live with the sight of leaves in the beds and borders, then collect them, compost them, and return the compost to the beds during the winter months. (But remember blackbirds love rummaging through leaflitter, in search of insects – it may well be your foe they are after!)
Nachhaltiges Gärtnern - Lebendes Totholz © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Lebendes Totholz
  • Leave perennials and grasses after flowering. They may dry nicely and provide great winter structures, which in turn can provide a food source for birds, or an overwintering place for insects.
Nachhaltiges Gärtnern - Badende Amsel © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Badende Amsel
  • Provide different habits for different creatures. A little water feature will provide an entertaining bathing space for birds, but you will also find other garden visitors like insects and hedgehogs coming for a drink. A log pile can provide a valuable home for a great number of beneficial creatures such as solitary bees, beetles and toads. A small nettle patch is a vital habitat for many of our native insects, an ivy-covered wall is a safe-haven for sparrows, a late feeding ground for bees, and an end-of- winter food source for birds. But exotics can also be of great value. Not all insects are that fussy about which plant they need to feed and breed and will enjoy a wide range of flowers. So choose your palette well, ensuring that the flowering season is as long as possible, preferably of single flowers.

Even if you have the feeling that yours is but a small contribution, if every garden owner makes such a small contribution, the world will be a better one! Have a think about what you will change this year.

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