Environmental Gardening: Bedding Plants

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.

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12 Days Wild: Day 3-A walk out

We are up to day 3 of 12 days wild and it was time to get back outside. We’ve had two days largely inside and that’s pretty much my limit. It was only a short walk out but it felt good to shake off the cobwebs.

We are very lucky to live by the sea and it is a short walk to the seafront. Today was a gorgeous winter day with blue seas and views out to Flamborough.

At several sites along the coast, these recycle bins have been placed. Alice loves to check it out each time and sometimes asks to save recyclable rubbish to put in it.

Next to it is a sign explaining how long it takes for rubbish to decompose. It is a shocking amount of time but despite many of the schemes we still end up having to do beach cleans. The number of years are too big really for Alice to comprehend but she knows it isn’t good. If a 4-year-old can understand there is no excuse for anyone else. There are bins every 20m probably. The seagulls can be a pain and pull things out but much of the rubbish is just pure laziness.

Preaching over. As it was a lovely day just about everyone else had decided to get out for a walk along the seafront. The car parks were rammed. I don’t begrudge people wanting to visit but I felt a bit hemmed in so we headed away to the memorial gardens.

And Alice found a cousin to play with for a little bit.

It was only a short walk but I think it did us all good to walk off some of our food from the last few days and feel some sun on our skin. A lazy evening ahead of games and reading. I am reading Merlin Sheldrake’s entangled life which is fascinating. It is all about fungi which in the grand scheme of human knowledge we still know little about. I also got an alert to tell me the new Monty Don had dropped to 99p on Kindle. I’ve been interested to read but didn’t really want to pay full price. This looks to be Monty’s efforts at talking about nature and wildlife gardening. I have quite a few very good books on the subject so I’m not expecting anything new but figure it will be an easy read alongside my RHS revision. The reviews have been very critical as they say he defends fox hunting which isn’t going to win him any fans amongst environmental readers. But we’ll see when I read it whether it is any good. At 99p I don’t mind if it doesn’t turn out to be amazing.

I read a few of Alice’s new books with her sat in her den set. We read Nicola Davies-Last: the story of a white rhino. Despite her face, in this photo, it did quite upset her hearing about how animals are becoming extinct.  This isn’t a book that is going to be a regular bedtime read but it introduces that idea of animals endangered to promote our need to care for the natural world. It sparked a lot of conversation from her which was the point. We want Alice growing up aware of our need to be stewards of the natural world. I am a fan of Nicola Davies books with the promise being one of my favourites of recent years.

I hope you’re all managing alright and not suffered too much with storms the last few days. It hasn’t been particularly bad here despite warnings. Hopefully, you’re all keeping well and got a chance to get outside today.

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The Promise-Tree Planting

The wonderful picture book, “The promise” by Nicola Davies has had a lovely animation made in in collaboration with the BBC. The story is a beautifully illustrated story with illustrations courtesy of Laura Carlin. It tells the story of a young girl thief who finds redemption through planting acorns. It has a dark side to it but ultimately a wonderfully positive message. Even if you don’t have children I would recommend reading it and watching the new animation as it’s beautiful.

Link to the BBC video.

The Promise provides a wonderful platform for climate action with young children. It has been launched in several versions with an English and Gaelic version currently. The main purpose is to get people planting trees. For educators there have been some wonderful resources made to go alongside the launch with presentations on why trees matter, biodiversity, and worksheets to learn more. There is lots for teachers to get their teeth stuck into. Increasingly schools are having to send their children home during the Covid crisis and much of what has been included here is ideal for home learning. Even if the school is not facing Covid closures there is much here that can be shared with families and a time when educators are having to be a bit more distant than normal. We can’t currently invite parents into the nursery I work, but we can encourage growing projects at home. This is well suited to bridging that gap between home and school at the moment.

I wanted to do a few activities with Alice this half term around the story but we are lacking acorns. I have a few saved from earlier in the year but I don’t think many are viable for planting so I have been looking at different seeds we can try growing in order to encourage a few more trees.

Conkers

While we are lacking acorns we have no shortage of conkers, horse chestnut seeds. Conkers need to experience a period of cold for several months before germination. Known as cold stratification. You can plant them outside and many will likely germinate, though some will rot, some may be eaten before they get a chance to get going. So we are placing them in the fridge for a few months. After that we can check to see which are viable by dunking in water. Floaters are viable, sinkers need discarding. In spring we can plant them out in pots outside. They just need protection from being eaten by squirrels or the young stalk being devoured.

Self seeders

Usually when I weed the garden I will find a handful of trees that have established in the borders by themselves. The nearby maple is the worst culprit for this. It often seeds its helicopter seeds into the mass of hydrangeas making it hard to get out and also the reason it goes unnoticed until it has gained some height. Having a look through the borders this week I found a tiny little seedling that looks to be a holly. I’ve carefully dug it out and potted it up. Holly and most evergreen plants are not necessarily great for battling climate change but they are great for wildlife so it seems worth preserving. They also tolerate our sea winds well.

Pips

When I mentioned to Alice that I wanted to grow more trees she was keen to grow apple trees. Thinking with her stomach. Most apple trees are sold as grafts as this ensures that they retain the flavour of the parent tree. However, you can take a chance and grow from the pips, from the seeds. The pips will have a mixture of genetics meaning they may taste nothing like the parents so it is something of a lottery. However it is only through this experimentation that we end up with new wonderful varieties of apples. As with the conkers pips need a period of cold. We have placed them on a damp paper towel, then within a slightly opened bag in the fridge. Some may germinate while in the fridge. In a few months’ time we will take them out of the fridge and plant a few to a pot. Then I’ll pull out the weaker ones. Apples apparently have quite low germination success so we may not have much to show for this experiment, but it is ultimately free as we eat tons of apples.

Seed

We started a tray of Paulonia tomentosa last month and many have germinated. Known as the foxglove tree, it is one of the fastest growing trees around. An acre can absorb 103 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. It can be highly invasive in some countries but I plan to pollard it cutting it back each year as it grows large leaves, up to 40cm long, this way. This means it doesn’t get a chance to flower and spread. On the positive side though it can absorb mass carbon, prevents soil erosion and produces hard wood quickly leading to it getting recommended for many tree planting schemes and reforestation projects. But one I would recommend researching before trying to grow.

A little more information on easy trees to grow from seed here.

Pine cone

I have low expectations of this method but it looks ornamental enough even if it fails. Pine cones contain the seed of the tree. The seed is usually small and falls out when the pine cone opens. If you keep a pine cone moist the seeds can grow up from the pine cone or around the base if placed on a layer of compost. The cones needs to be found while closed before they open and drop their seeds. I have set mine up pushed gently into a pot of compost. I will then spray this to try to keep it moist but not so wet it rots. Around the base I’ve placed a bit of moss scraped from the fence. I may set up a few more around the garden in different locations if we find some more cones. This beast of a cone was found on a walk through the park in the rain yesterday. We’d gone out for some puddle jumping and leaf kicking to make the most of autumn. I may see about going back to see if we can find some more.

The Promise project is looking to connect with local planting and growing groups. So if you are involved with community projects that are planning to plant more trees it is worth checking their site out. You can make a handshake agreement to promise to plant more trees.

https://www.thepromise.earth/localpartner

The resources on the screening page look useful with templates for looking at parts of an acorn, the lifecycle of the oak, Japanese leaf pressing, and ideas for acrostic poems based on The Lost Words poems.

I hope you all check it out. It’s a great project and it will hopefully inspire some tree planting projects. Below is one last link to the video.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/the-girl-who-changed-the-world-with-an-acorn/p08v4r0t

We will see next year which of our tree planting efforts succeed. I don’t need all of these for my garden so I will look at using some for work or donating to community projects locally. There have already been many tree planting schemes locally but some of the trees have died over summer as they didn’t plan for aftercare and watering while they establish. So, if we manage to get any of these to a decent point we can maybe help replace some of those. Fingers crossed.

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30 Days Wild: day 11-Save water

Today I’m looking at saving water in the garden. We have recently added two water butts One 300-litre beast in the back garden and one smaller 100-litre butt in the front garden. For the last week, I’ve been watering purely using the butts. Granted it has rained lots but as I’ve got quite a few newly planted trees and shrubs I want to make sure they are staying damp. At the bottom end, you can pay £30 for a cheap butt to make a big difference.

Installing a butt has many advantages both for the environment and practical:

    • If you’re on a water metre it saves money. In the future more of us may be put on metres if droughts continue. Get prepared!
    • Less water is taken out of rivers for drinking water. Up to 70% of the water from our taps is used for gardens at peak times. This means water companies have to drain streams and groundwater reducing valuable habitats for many species.
    • Most plants prefer rainwater to tap water, particularly if you live in an area of hard water like me.
    • It can save time and effort walking to the tap. This has helped me in the front garden where I have to walk a long way around.
    • It’s estimated if everyone in the UK used a butt we could save a reservoir worth of water.
    • It saves energy. Water treatment plants use up lots of energy so butts help save energy.
    • It potentially reduces flood risk. As you are reducing the water going down the drain it helps stop the drains get full.

Hope this inspires you to add one if you don’t already have a butt. We’ve already had one person in the neighbourhood say they’ve ordered one having seen ours at the front which is great news.

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30 days of wild: day 13: read a wild book

Day 13 has seen me finish my car audiobook and start a new one. On my commute I like audiobooks. With a one year old my reading time is limited, so audiobooks offer me an alternative. I had been listening to the evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson’s book Half Earth. The concept of the book is rapidly gaining ground within conservation. It isn’t enough to just save single species. We need to put aside large sections of the Earth for us and biodiversity to have a future. It was an interesting listen, but I wish more ground was covered on how it could be implemented.

BBC podcast on Half Earth concept

E.O. Wilson on podcast 

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Having finished half Earth I decided to move onto another nature book, but this time fiction. I started Watership Downs. Only an hour in and I’m hooked. The introduction was interesting. Richard Adams discussed how the book started as a story to entertain his kids in the car. It was initially rejected as too complicated for the younger audience and older children wouldn’t want to read about rabbits. Time has shown that to be wrong, so there is a good lesson for aspiring children’s authors. Don’t talk down to children. The descriptions of the animals in the book show Richqrd Adams as someone who was a keen naturalist. I think I will enjoy this audiobook a lot.

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On kindle I’m reading Rob Cowen common ground. The book is covering Rob’s forays into edge lands. I’m enjoying it, but keep finding myself comparing it to other books that have covered the same ground.

I also just got Hattie Garlick’s book born to be wild. Hattie is a journalist who has written for the times, the guardian and independent. The book grew out of a blog free our kids. The idea is activities to do with kids that will be free or using common items in your house. It has some super ideas and I particularly like how it has ideas split by seasons. I first heard about it from the RSPB podcast, but only just got it. But just a quick flick makes me think I’ll use it lots.

RSPB podcast

 

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I hope you enjoyed my reading updates. What are you reading? Leave a comment.

30 days wild 2017: day 2 Bempton walk and book review

This afternoon was one of the bigger acts of wild we went for a wild walk. We headed in the car up to RSPB Bempton Cliffs. The Bempton reserve is one of the best places for seabirds. With many coming to nest at this time of year. There are a number of well built observation platforms along the cliff edge and along the cliff edge are fields of wild flowers. It was raining lightly on arrival, otherwise I imagine we’d of seen a lot more butterflies.

The cliffs were thronged with seabirds. Every crevice is taken. It’s amazing how they stay perched.

We we saw the gannets. Lovely looking birds with their long necks and pointed tails they are rather striking particularly in flight.

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We saw the guillemots. They just come to land to nest. The rest of their lives are spent at sea, so this is the best chance for most people to see up close.

There were plenty of razorbills. Similar to the guillemots in looks, the main difference for me is the beak. As with many of the species at Bempton they are under threat with risks to marine health quality, through pollution, fishing, and rising sea temperatures.

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As well as the seabirds I saw a fair few farmland birds: sparrows, corn buntings, a moor hen and a few pigeons trying to hustle in on he sea bird action.

The star of the show though at Bempton are the puffins, which we saw up close through one of the RSPB telescopes. Wonderful characterful birds, however my camera wasn’t up to the job. You can just make out the beak is a puffin hiding in a crevice.

As the day had warmed up and the rain subsided the bug life’s came out.


On the way back to the centre we took Alice out of the howdah for a walk back up the path.

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Back at centre we avoided buying any stuffed toys, but did have a hot drink. Amy had a slice of cake and I had a rather nice Stilton pork pie. While eating the jack daws were very obliging for photos, keen to pick up food scraps.

 

A lovely trip out despite a drab start. Another random act of wild achieved for 30 days. Hopefully the RSPB will be able to keep these birds safe for many more years to come, so Alice can enjoy them when she’s older.

We an add on to day one.

The end of yesterday saw the arrival of a new nature book for children. The national trusts-go wild in the woods. The national trusts 50 things to do before your 11 3/4 is a lovely book and this looked to be in the same vein.

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The quality of he book is lovely. It’s hard backed and has an elastic bookmark to seal the book or mark the page. The book acts like a junior SAS survival guide for children. It covers setting up a camp, building a shelter, tying knots, navigating, tracking, animal prints, food to avoid, finding water, drinking wee, a whole host of subjects to appeal to a mini adventurer. It is showing off a number of bushcraft skills in a good accessible way for children. I was expecting ideas of activities to do in the wood, whereas this is aimed a little older than I expected. But still a nice read. The younger children can enjoy the animal sections and get some den ideas, while the older child can look at developing skills. A nice addition to the National Trusts growing adventure books. If you have a budding bushcraft fan or forest school child they will probably enjoy this.

The nature principle-Richard Louv

I have just finished listening to Richard Louv-The nature principle on audible. Since Alice came along my reading time dropped, so I like listening to audio books on my journey to work. I’ve worked through a lot of nature books over the last year, so even with lack of time I’m still learning new things. I’ve reviewed Last child in the wood, Richard’s previous book. Last child is something of a modern classic for educators wanting to get children outside. The nature principle has more of a focus on adults and how connecting to nature can benefit us in many ways.

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It covered a lot of similar ground as last child in the woods, sometimes even falling back on the same research or giving further details of events mentioned in last child. So I wouldn’t recommend this without reading last child first, as you may find some of these references annoying. Unlike many nature writers covering the same topic I like Richard Louv as he concentrates on positive steps that can be taken to find a space in nature. Many nature books currently get stuck on the doom and gloom and stating that much of what has happened to the environment is irreversible. But Louv, while he does talk about places that have gone wrong, spends more time discussing what can be done to move forwards to create a better world. He has ideas for embracing both nature and technology. His work isn’t about just reclaiming a past we can’t go back to.

Louv argues for the benefits of time in nature. He covers research showing how recovery time in hospital is shortened in patients look out onto green space. Time in nature can boost creativity, increase immunity and help de-stress. While I’m already sold on the benefits of nature time it’s still nice to hear.

The narration is good. Rick Adamson, who narrates, has a clear voice. Many of the non-fiction audible books have narrators with no intonation suitable for putting you to sleep. Not suitable for me driving, but this was done well.

Having enjoyed this second book I’m now tempted with Louv’s more recent book Vitamin N. May be a future purchase.

 

Home for nature

As I prepare for moving house I want to plan the new garden for being as wildlife friendly as possible. My current garden has improved over the three years I’ve been in, but this time want to get more going from the off.

The RSPB have a set up to make your own personal plan for nature

You put in details of time, garden type and who will be doing it and it gives activities to suit.

My plan:

Open a hedgehog cafe

Make a butterfly banquet

Open a bird cafe

Create highways and byways for nature

Sow a poppy patch

Build a bug hotel

I reckon these are all quite achievable. The poppy patch won’t be until next year, but I can clear a space for that ready. The garden is already quite nicely set with a number of good bee and butterfly attracting bushes, a compost heap, so I can build on that. I’d like to get some trellis up for some ivy for helping the highways and biways and give a bit more cover on the fence. Going to have a reread of the wildlife garden.

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