Incendiary Horticulture: a plea to gardeners

IMG_5025.jpgOur beautiful world is on fire. I know you see it too. We both do, because we are gardeners and we are on the front line.


You and I, in the garden, are better placed than most to see man’s clomping footprint on our environment.


We hold the depleted soil in our hands, listen hard for the dimming birdsong, search out vanishing insects. The tell-tale signs of ecological degradation, collapsing ecosystems, and the beginning of mass extinction on planet earth.


From this vantage point, on our knees cradling the land, it is our responsibility to run in from our gardens to sound the alarm.


But those of us new to the land; first we look over the garden fence at the learned and wise. The experienced gardeners who’ve been at it for years.


You aren’t moving. Why? Can’t you see. The world is on fire!


We need you. The world needs you.


So please, put down your slug pellets and listen.


As a child in west London 30 years ago, I rarely got through a summer day in our little Acton garden without my mum fishing some small insect out of my eye, or soothing a bee sting.


Now my kids play in my own suburban garden, and I am aghast. The hordes of flying insects that populated my childhood are gone, their numbers gutted by climate change, habitat loss and agrochemicals.


The glorious birdsong has been dubbed over with traffic and aircraft. I strain to hear the garden birds, but their numbers are savagely diminished that their song is barely audible.


Ok, so gardeners are not the only ones to notice the beginnings of ecological apocalypse.


Scientists warn that fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24bn tonnes a year, and the problem already undermines the well-being of two-fifths of humanity.


According to a UN-backed report, over 3.2 billion people are affected, which makes soil degradation one of the world’s biggest environmental problems.


The report says intensive farming is to blame, plus vegetation loss, forest clearance, wetland drainage, grassland conversion, urban sprawl and pollution.


Vital pollinators teetering on the brink of extinction rely on the whim of legislators to restrict the use of pesticides and insecticides.


By 2050, hundreds of millions of people could be driven from their homes because of climate change and declining soil quality.


That all feels depressing, and too dislocated from us to be a cause for concern.


But stroll down any street in the UK. You’ll see front gardens tarmacked over for cars, back garden built upon to accommodate extensions, and lawns astro-turfed.


In ever-shrinking gardens you’ll see starved soils, organic debris having been swept away. You’ll notice fewer worms, leaving soil less aerated, drier and more compacted. Eroded topsoil deficient in nutrients and humus, sparsely garnished with stunted, chlorotic plants.


If you stop and look, the absence of virtually all wildlife will chill you to the core.


This is our new normal. This is our new base line. But it is not normal. It is not normal at all, and we need to do something about it.




Before I started retraining as a gardener I felt powerless in the fight against climate disaster.


As a journalist, I’ve reported from conflict zones where tensions flare into wars, often stirred by desertification, loss of fertile lands and migration.


Climate change is diminishing the amount of land we can live on. Not just by raising sea levels, but because of scorched dry land that can’t support life.


Now studying horticulture at college, I realize gardeners have a wealth of knowledge about the water-holding capacity of various soil pores, the lifecycles and habits of beneficial organisms, which leaf types are best suited to storing water, to capturing and recycling air pollutants.


And on and on and on.


Gardeners know how to carve and sculpt the soil and plant it up so that water is absorbed and held. We know which plant species can cope with flood and drought, which ones can flourish as a green, living mulch to slow evaporation.


Having tinkered with plants for centuries, we know how to use them to our advantage.


But what we do instead is perhaps the oddest thing for a newcomer to horticulture.


When us gardeners come together, like a great gathering of chieftains, we back-slap each other for spending time, energy and resources on restraining and forcing plants to flower for one particular week of the year.


Now, I absolutely understand and respect the history and prestige of shows like Chelsea, but I switch off at the industry-wide self-congratulation which props up a horticultural addiction to artifice and waste.


I’m so pleased to be making a career change, studying plants and soils – my passion. I’m grateful to be learning from excellent teachers, but I am stunned that my college justifies using peat in its compost mix.


And frustrated that horticulture students in 2018 are still taught wasteful summer bedding schemes of yesteryear, when we need to know about water-wise planting that is sustainable, and benefits both man and wildlife.


It is mystifying that an industry which could be so progressive in the fight to save life on earth is instead pursuing dated, shameful practices that prize fakery over sustainability.


Gardeners please, awake and unite.


Us newcomers look to you, the experienced and the knowledgeable, to teach us how to help save the world.


Teach us to compost, sending nothing to landfill: garden waste, food scraps and shredded household paper lumped in hotbins, to be dug in a few weeks later as rich humus to feed our soils.


Show us how to capture every drop of rainwater, and reuse all household water from showers and sinks, for irrigation. Tell us how green roofs and walls soak up run-off, reduce heating / air conditioning bills, help clean dirty air and provide habitats, wherever possible, for wildlife.


Unpave your driveways and proudly make room for front gardens again. Plant them up, let them breathe, to cool our cities and soak up rains. Leave only minimal space for a car.


Do it first – we need to see it and learn from you. Boast about your beautiful, real, living lawns that capture, store and recycle carbon and pollutants.


Spurn single-use plastics and don’t spray your roses.

Teach us how sensible planting, digging in organic matter, building up a healthy garden ecosystem, and encouraging beneficial wildlife can combat a raft of pests and diseases.


We’re hungry to learn.


Thank you

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