That’s actually a rather complex question. A garden is a place where we meet nature face to face, where we try to grow things and so does nature. Nature has had a lot of practice at this, and for us to impose our will may take some considerable effort. Alternatively, we could give nature a helping hand, working with it, instead of against it. That way, we can have a beautiful garden which is good for the environment, and which may even take less effort to maintain than we would otherwise expend.
We maintain our gardens with lawn-mowers, hedge-trimmers, fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. Machinery requires energy (electricity or petrol) to run, and the chemicals we use have to be refined, bottled, and shipped to us. Herbicides and pesticides are obviously not environmentally friendly, they’re designed to kill things after all. Many of them are also harmful to humans, so careless use can have serious consequences for you or your neighbours.
We might think that fertilisers can’t be bad for the environment, after all, they’re supposed to make things grow. But many fertilisers rely on minerals mined somewhere in the world being processed and transported during their manufacture, much like many of the things we buy these days. Fertilisers that wash off the land and into rivers and lakes can upset those ecosystems by causing excess growth of algae, which can in turn kill fish and other aquatic animals. So even fertilisers come with an environmental cost.So, if we could use less machinery and less chemicals, that would be a great start to making our garden ‘greener’, and save us some money in the process. That’s easy to say, but how, then, do we control weeds and pests?
One easy way to keep weeds under control is with a plastic ground-sheet. This is a sheet that covers the ground, you cut holes in it to plant the things you want. The sheet prevents weeds from growing, and your plants have no competition. You may have seen them at the side of motorways, where they are often used. If your plants are low and spreading, they will soon hide the sheet from view. Otherwise, you can cover the sheet with bark or gravel to hide it.
Another good way to control weeds is with mulch. Mulching means putting garden waste onto the surface of the soil. There it forms a dense mat as it decays, which helps protect the soil from drying out and makes it hard for weeds to grow. Grass-cuttings are ideal for mulch, but you can also use autumn leaves, straw, vegetable peelings from the kitchen, or anything that will pack down densely over time. Mulching also feeds the soil, as the mulch decays and releases its nutrients, just like it would in a compost heap. If you use enough mulch on your garden, you may never need to add fertiliser to your plants, the mulch will provide everything they need. That’s easier (and less smelly) than managing a real compost heap!
Alternatively, if you choose your plants carefully you can get the same effect from the plants themselves. There are many low-growing, fast-spreading plants that are very effective at preventing weeds from getting established. If you have only a small area to cover, hardy alpines will do the job nicely. Your local garden centre can help you choose some that are good for your situation. Once they have covered the ground they need very little maintenance. Plants which are taller than the cover-plants will not be affected, so you can have your roses growing quite happily surrounded by living weed-control.
You can also use plants such as clover and alfalfa, which serve double-duty as green manures. This means that they actually enrich the soil as they grow, so you will need less fertiliser to encourage your plants. Either grow them all year round, or just scatter the seeds on the ground towards the end of summer and let them grow through the winter, then dig them in in spring when you prepare to plant for the coming summer.So much for the weeds, what about the pests, such as slugs, snails, and insects? Here the best answer is, more insects! And birds, frogs, lizards, and hedgehogs. In other words, the more wildlife you can attract to your garden, the less chance the pests will have to take over your plants. Pests multiply rapidly when they are safe from predators, so if your garden is teeming with wildlife, there will always be something to keep them under control.
Actually, that’s one reason why pesticides are a bad idea. They kill all species of insect, not just the ones you want them to. But the ones we want to kill will bounce back first, and multiply rapidly. That’s because they have no competition for their food (i.e. your plants) and nothing to keep them in check.
Birds are very easy to attract, just keep putting out food for them. They will still take the insects from your plants, especially in the breeding season, because they feed them to their young. Raising chicks is hard work for the parents, so if they can get a quick snack from your bird feeders and then find a juicy fat caterpillar for their young all in one place, they will appreciate it. We’re not the only ones to appreciate one-stop shopping. If you put up some nest boxes too, you can have resident pest-control working for you, all day long.
Frogs and hedgehogs will eat slugs, and they and lizards eat insects, so they can also be very beneficial to your garden. You don’t need a pond to attract frogs, they will be happy with any permanently damp and overgrown area. A shaded spot covered in weeds might well do the job. They can travel quite a distance too, so you may find them even if the nearest pond or stream is some way away. You can attract lizards and hedgehogs by creating spaces where they can hide from predators, such as piles of stones or branches, or leaving part of your garden overgrown. If you leave such shelters available in the winter, they may hibernate there, so they are ready to go to work for you as soon as the spring sun stirs everything into life. Hedgehogs will come regularly if you put out food to attract them, so why not spread some peanuts around your lettuce instead of slug-pellets?Many insects are also useful for keeping pests under control. Ladybirds and lacewings can control greenfly, so are welcome in the garden. You can encourage ladybirds and lacewings by providing over-winter shelters for them, so-called ‘insect hotels‘ where they can hibernate safely. A greenhouse or garage is a good location for such a hotel, anywhere dry and sheltered, preferably away from the worst of the cold. It’s also possible to deter the pests from staying in your garden in the first place, by a technique called companion planting, or co-planting for short. Some plants deter pests, so can confer their protection on their neighbours. Others attract insects that eat the pests, so achieve the same result. Some plants actually attract pests, and can be used to draw them away from your preferred plants. Many of these companion plants, such as herbs, marigolds, or sunflowers, are easy to grow, and desirable in their own right.
You can also choose plants that are less susceptible to pests in the first place. Maybe a honeysuckle will go nicely on that wall instead of a climbing rose, which is likely to suffer from aphids. Need tall flowers for the back of the garden? How about collecting seed from Common Mullein (Verbascum Thapsus) and planting that. They look just as good as any expensive hybrid you’ll find in the garden centre, and being a native species, they’re probably more tolerant to pests.We can also help nature directly, rather than just letting it work for us. Instead of cutting down dead plants and burning them at the end of summer, consider leaving them alone until the seeds have set. Sunflowers look just as pretty with blue-tits and goldfinches hanging from them in October, picking at the seeds, as they do when in full flower. When the time comes to cut them down, why not add the stalks to the pile of branches for your hibernating garden assistants, and place the heads around your roses where they will decay in time to fertilise the new growth in spring. Plant a few late-flowering species to help the last insects of summer. Leave your dandelions alone in spring so they flower, the first bees to come out of hibernation will love them.
If you really want to go green with your garden, and can invest some effort to do so, growing your own vegetables is a great idea. By growing your own you can really cut down your carbon footprint by reducing your ‘food miles‘. That means that, instead of someone in the next country growing the stuff, packing it in plastic, and driving it to your local supermarket, you just get it from the garden, and all that plastic and fuel is not needed.
So, making our garden environmentally friendly is not difficult, it only takes a little planning and foresight. Our own environmental footprint, and the quality of wildlife in and around our garden, can vary a lot depending on the approach that we take. You might even save yourself time, money, and effort, and end up with a more satisfying garden as a result.