The Sustainable Gardener

At Pig Row we try to have an eye to the future of growing, and in turn gardening, that our future and your's must be sustainable. Amateur gardeners are still responsible for the extraction of 2 million m3 of peat in the UK each year (as of 2010) and these figures do not take into account those in the professional side of the industry. Anyone who has ever done a show will tell you the hours that they put in, that the whole year is like a conveyor belt of preparation involving cold stores, heated glasshouses and thousands and thousands of plants and only a certain percentage will make it to the show. Even before those shows end they are back on the conveyor belt for the following year. We applaud the work that many of the small, independent nurseries do, and how many of them have moved towards the sustainable side of gardening, ditching peat products, raising their plants hard to create strong plants that will last the show and last in your garden for years. 

How sustainable are show gardens and why don't we question them as much as we question our food?

Yet beyond the floral marquee there are very few signs of the sustainable gardener. The gardens become more about the inspiration, the dream of gardening rather than the practicality of gardening. Most people if they saw how show gardens were constructed would run for the hills. They take a lot of hard work, years of planning, preparing plants, screaming and laughing in the same minute but there is still a feeling that show garden judges should be rewarding the sustainable elements of creating a garden rather than the final impact. We all want to see great gardens. We all want one but at what cost?

Good show gardens should be sustainable from the start to the end.

It is always a delight to see social groups that embrace the sustainable, the make do and mend, the use of recycled materials and the responses they get. Some of the big gardening boys could learn a lot from these allotment groups. We have seen people pass a Gold Medal garden with a sniff and a murmur of, 'we can't do that in our garden' and then come across an allotment group who've built a potting shed from used plastic bottles and the spend an hour pumping the allotment holders on how to build it. At the RHS Tatton Flowershow 2013 the crowning glory was the community gardens, manned by the community garden holders who embraced their audience. Not many big gardeners do that beyond the television screen, becoming more celebrities with a small 'c' than gardeners. We don't deny their enthusiasm but we do question their connection with a wider community of gardeners and shifting practices towards permaculture and sustainability. There are only so many gardens in the sky that can be put up in Hulme, Horwich or Harrogate. They simply don't exist beyond the show and they wouldn't exist for long beyond those few days. Plants are often too close in show gardens and some of the combinations are like placing a thug in a room of nerds. Though beautiful, they are not sustainable and many a gardener inspired by such gardens have been caught out after the second year of replicating the show garden. 

Use materials that could end up in landfill and be sustainable.

Maybe it is time that each show garden puts its money on the table producing a fact sheet outlining how much the garden cost, how little the growers were paid (UK Horticulture is shamefully and woefully underpaid, and this is a reason why so few young people enter the field), how much each plant was to grow and how much was paid for it, and finally where the soil came from, where the hard landscaping came from, how much the builders were paid (and they are well paid compared to a nursery) and then a plant list. We need to know more about these gardens, the practicality of bringing these plants into our gardens and a real sign of support for British nurseries. It still shocks us that so many plants are imported into the UK. Like food, we must pay the going cost as gardeners, rather than cheap, stack them high plants from Holland and further afield. We need more than ever to breath life into our Horticultural industry and support it. Show gardens should be doing this, they should have the same principles and growing skills that many RHS gardens have and many nurseries do day after to day. 

Be a sustainable grower.

We all went mad for grow your own but now we need to go loopy for British nurseries dealing with sustainable practices. Next time you're at a nursery ask them were their plants come from, if there are no signs of glasshouses on site, just great big lorries than there is a good chance those plants came from abroad. We are leaving a legacy of poor practice, opening our borders and natural fauna to terrible diseases. Ash dieback was an import. Sudden oak death was an import. We must question now or face losing the lot. We must recycle everything from our pots, there is great recycling pot scheme at Hulme Community Garden Centre and many more nurseries should do it. If there's not one in your location, start one. It's a small step, a good step to make and stops many pots going to landfill; many councils do not recycle plastic pots as they do not have the facilities. A pot used once by you can be used a hundred times by many, many gardeners.  

Start a pot sharing scheme and be sustainable.

We should question everything from the soil we use to the plants we buy. We should all be involved in composting, either through our councils or on our plots, we cannot afford to be complacent, we cannot continue to use peat and garden shows should be the spearhead of this movement. Every gardener on television and radio should be discussing it and every company that extracts materials for gardens that are not sustainable should be paying a hefty green tax. You may think we are on a soap box here or living in cloud cuckoo land but it can be done, we can learn from permaculture practices, we can learn from simple ways of recycling, we can do a simple thing like an apple arch over a path, pull out our fences for hedges, embrace nature, slow down and give a damn about something important. 

Life on Pig Row do not endorse the links here. They are here to help you find new areas of discussion in gardening and horticulture. We recommend that you question your plant growers as much as you would question your food producers. Get involved and ask questions, make a difference.