On Sustainable Gardening

This is a trendy word, but as a gardening philosophy it goes all the way back to when we had to make do with what we had, and only demolished or imported what we had to, relying on materials and features in our local landscape. To try and work with local conditions – rather than fight against it armed with the latest technology – not only provides a longer-lasting and less expensive garden that fits into the landscape, but a more satisfying and involved experience from the human perspective.

As a gardener I try to avoid the use of synthesized chemical fertilizers, pesticides and soil-compacting heavy equipment, especially anything that will harm soil structure and the army of worms that till, aerate and drain the soil for free. However, there are situations where a bit of short-term “intensive care” leads to longer-term rewards. For example, use of a chemical herbicide can be justified on the dreaded Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis and C. sepium, sometimes confusingly called Morning Glory, after the tropical relatives), which is best controlled with physical root-extraction, but where it cannot be dug out, by use of topical treatment of emerging shoots to systemically kill the roots (check your local bylaws first). Bindweed can travel several metres underground before popping up and invading a fresh area, so it tends to be extremely invasive..

While good healthy soils are built with organic matter, trucking in vast mounds of top soil or composted manure to rescue a neglected and washed-out garden is not always desirable or practical, particularly if you grow plants adapted to local soils and conditions. Here on the west coast of BC, soils are generally thin and winter rainfall extreme, and given the hot and usually dry summers, soils easily become leached of nutrients and bone dry in summer. Try to grow plants from mediterranean-type places (native plants, southern Europe, South Africa, and so on) that are suitable and able to better compete with less well-adapted weedy plants that thrive on rich soils.

The use of balanced and controlled slow-release fertilisers (less wastage, foliage burn or run-off than quick-release fertilizers) can not only help plants fight disease, but provide a sustained boost in plant growth that results in an overall increase in the organic matter in the soil. High nitrogen quick-fix foliar fertilizers tend to produce weak sappy growth that is prone to various afflictions. Using a slow-release organic fertilizer also helps hold water in the soil and makes it “wettable” when dry. If a chemical slow-release fertilizer is used, then follow up with a regular input of garden compost or my favourite of all, well-composted chicken manure.

One area I am passionate about is the need to make a garden for all seasons and all the organisms that use it. Pour chemicals on your lawn non-stop and your earthworms suffer, then as a result you need an aerator which uses gas and compacts the soil, then grass diseases follow, and so on and so on. Then there is the use of pesticides: as a general rule with garden bugs, pest species breed faster than their predators: kill the predators and your garden becomes heaven for the pest, and a vicious circle is created. If you have to spray (hopefully with something short-lived and not too toxic) then do it at the time that non-target species are away or inactive. Think soapy water, fatty acids, garlic juice and such, as treatments.

The concept of sustainability is a huge subject that I will not further expanded upon here, but I hope this acts as an introduction to my philosophy on gardening. You may have another take on it and that is fine, after all you are a gardener too. My closing words on this is to remember that a “weed” is something that is not wanted in a particular time or place, and has no botanical meaning in itself. After all, what looks beautiful in the border of an English cottage garden may be out of place growing in a meticulously maintained vegetable row. Whatever your approach, be bountiful.


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