Recently there has been a lot of discussion on social media about how we, as gardeners, can cut back our environmental damage. How can we garden smarter? Garden to have a positive impact, not a negative impact. I have cut down my use of bedding plants but I haven’t really gone into detail of why. Horticulture is, in general, very damaging to the environment. Plants are transported predominantly from Holland and abroad. They are still mainly grown in peat, the damage from peat is well documented. The boom for houseplants has fuelled plants being removed from the wild. There are many aspects of horticulture that are incredibly damaging to the environment. Many would probably surprise many gardeners who think they are doing their bit by planting things. I’m going to discuss bedding plants as in my mind they are one of the more damaging sections of the industry and one that is pretty easy to come up with alternatives. This may start off quite preachy but I am going to be moving onto positives. I will be touching on climate change which I know a small handful of readers are climate change deniers. However, much of what I am talking about has the advantage of being thriftier as well as positive for the environment.
It has been estimated that home owners spend £30,000 on our gardens over our lifetimes. I can’t find the figures for how much is spent on bedding plants each year but my guess would be it would be high. From working in a garden centre I know it made up a large part of the sales. Bedding plants are a large part of the horticulture industry with seasonal bedding plants keeping people returning to garden centres. To give an idea of the amount York City planned to spend £70,000 pounds on bedding plants over four years. So, what’s the problem with this?
Bedding plants are largely grown in peat. Peat makes up one of our greatest carbon sinks. It is keeping carbon locked up to help prevent climate change. Much of the large scale production of bedding plants makes use of peat compost. This has many hidden environmental impacts. The peat compost is delivered in plastic wrapping that isn’t recyclable. It goes straight in the bin for landfill. The peat itself is often travelling long distances to the growers. The bedding plants themselves often undergo multiple journeys to the consumer. The plants may be started as cuttings or seed in one location, say in Holland. These plugs are then transported to another location, say in the UK. The plugs are grown and sold to the consumer. These may be sold as grown in the UK when in reality they are only ‘grown on’ in the UK. But the consumer thinks they are buying local. Within each stage of transport there is a good amount of wastage. Some plugs arrive dead, some are die during growth and some die transported to garden centres. These will usually end up in the bin. Not to be composted or put to use. Just pure waste. The plants need to be grown in greenhouse with carefully controlled temperatures, again requiring a high energy input. Then once out of the greenhouse and into people’s garden they will often sulk.
On top of the damage done by peat. Many of the plants will be sprayed with lethal cocktails of insecticides, pesticides and fungicides. The plants may still be sold as being of benefit to wildlife while the chemicals on them are causing harm. These can still cause damage when the plant gets to the consumer with the chemicals leaching into the gardens soil. In order to keep many of the plants looking their best they need regular feeding. Many of the commercial fertilisers have a high energy cost to their creation. We can create our own fertilisers through wormeries and homemade alternatives like nettle tea. But by and large people aren’t going to do this. Many bedding plants end up grown in pots. This means more feed, but also more watering which is becoming an issue with dryer summers and areas facing water shortages in the future.
Many bedding plants are bred to be sterile. This means no pollen. No benefit to wildlife. Little purpose in existing beyond looking pretty. But by and large they are not the richest source of food for pollinators. For the environmentally conscious gardener, the space could be better used on a plants that will attract pollinators. There is also the issue of native vs non-native plants. Most bedding plants will be non-native and won’t feed into the larger ecosystem or caterpillar host plants and feeding birds.
My main issue with bedding plants is just the disposable nature of them. They are grown for one season. So all the mass amount of environmental damage discussed so far goes towards one season of having a plant that may look pretty. It probably won’t though as they are sulky plants that need care: watering, feeding, deadheading, etc. So they may not even last a season. If you are lucky they may survive a mild winter to then look too leggy the next year. If you are dedicated (I’m not) you may protect them over winter digging them out, putting them in greenhouses or taking cuttings. So all this effort and they are then binned. If they are lucky composted. It’s disposable culture at its worst. Lots of attention has been drawn to single use plastic bottles. The bedding plant industry is undoubtedly worse. Right down to the plastic pot the plant came in that probably won’t be recycled.
So, preaching over, I want to look at how we can garden with lower impact on the environment. Bedding plants are usually used to provide a burst of seasonal colour or fill gaps in the border. Many of the areas they would be placed can be filled with annuals sown direct in the soil. Plants like Nigella, Calendula, and Nasturtiums all grow easily when the seeds are scattered directly on the soil. This cuts out all the transportation issues, chemical use and peat issues around bedding plants. Plus, most of these have some benefit to wildlife. Some of these will self-seed or the seed can be saved for the next year.
Many self seeders can fill gaps in the border. I make use of a lot of self seeders. Ox-eye daisies, forget-me-nots, cornflowers, poppies all fill gaps in the border. Self-seeders take over any bare ground making sure my borders are always full. Over time I’ve learned to recognise the seedlings coming through and then I thin them out or move them to suitable locations. In spring the forget-me-nots fill many of the border gaps providing for a whole range of insects with a carpet of blue.
In order to avoid the disposable nature of bedding plants my borders are predominantly shrubs and perennials that will last a good few years. Many will spread and with division should outlive me. Perennials may cost slightly more than bedding plants initially but long term you save money with them returning each year. You may even be able to divide your plants to spread further around your borders or pass to other people. I make use of a lot of hardy geraniums that have spread and been divided many times.
Many common garden perennials can be grown from seed. While this obviously takes longer than buying a fully grown plant is a cheap way of producing a large number of a plant with low environmental impact. It doesn’t need to take up a lot of space either. I have a mini greenhouse. It fits neatly against a wall. Within it I’ve grown a good number of Digitalis lutea, heuchera, poppies and more. Currently I am growing several types of primulas and a few foxgloves. Many bedding plants can be grown from seed as well. Short dahlias, violas and pansies are all fairly easy to grow. This cuts out many of the damaging aspects of bedding plants and generally will give you more for a lower cost.
I know many of you won’t want to part with your treasured bedding plants but I hope I’ve provided some food for thought. Reducing the number of temporary plants you can make a difference. It can reduce your carbon footprint and with reduced sales it shifts the horticultural industry to change its practises and what it focuses growing on. I’m sure not everyone will agree but change is coming to the industry whether it wants it or not. Peat is being phased out and people are becoming increasingly aware of the damage done by chemicals. I’d rather work towards a positive change.