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 12-Final day

So, we have come to the end of 12 Days Wild. As ever, I would recommend supporting your local Wildlife Trust. It is a great organisation and like so many of the charities it will have lost out on some of its revenue this year.

We didn’t get much time today for acts of wild, but we did finish Alice’s birdhouse. She’s happy with it and once the glue has dried we can find a spot outside to hang it. I’m not sure whether the birds like hanging super colourful homes. But we’ll see. She enjoyed making it and it encourages an interest in birds. So, that’s all positive.

She certainly went with the brightest colours.

After discussing the sound of the rain yesterday, I found a nice website for nature sounds, Tree FM. People around the world have made recordings of forest sounds. They are lovely and peaceful and if you are in need of a moment of calm today I would recommend listening. Some of you may not be able to get out right now but the Japanese concept of Shinrin-yoku-forest bathing is a good one. The sounds of the forest are reported to be one of the most significant elements in this.

Tree FM.

I hope you are all keeping well and if not reach out to people. There is help out there. The news in the UK is pretty grim right now so it’s more important than ever to have your stress relievers. We have had a lovely break off and our time outside plays a large part in this. Stay safe.

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12 Days Wild: Day 10-Plant hunt and bird box

Today was the last day before I return to work so we’ve tried to make the most of it. The ice decorations we made yesterday came out of the freezer. The ribbons helped to ease the decorations out of the plates.

We kept one inside in a bowl so we could see how it melted and Alice could go back to keep checking and feeling it.

Then two went in the trees outside. The decoration inside took until dinner time to melt while the outside ones held out until the late afternoon.

Then we carried on with the craft activities. Alice received a paint-your-own birdhouse for Christmas from my parents. So, we made a start on painting it. She wanted the brightest colours going. I’m not sure how birds feel about kaleidoscopic homes. We’ll see if any end up using it.

It will need a bit of time to dry before we assemble. Some pieces will need painting both sides.

Then we got out to take part in the BSBI’s New Year Plant hunt. I think we’ve taken part the last 2 or 3 years though we’ve often been up visiting Amy’s dad at Robin Hood’s Bay.

Nothing unusual recorded but I find it enjoyable taking part in these hunts. My knowledge has increased over the last few years and I take pleasure in seeing the flowers coming and going through the seasons. Each flower at the moment taking us a step closer to the warmth of spring and the abundance of summer. First up we have red valerian which is a common sight through a lot of the year.

A few different daisies spotted on our walk.

Winter heliotrope. A rather nice flower that was introduced to gardens in the UK in 1806, but with a bad spreading habit making it unsuitable for most gardens.

As Alice gets older we’ll hopefully make it a bit further afield and find more interesting flowers. But, her legs will only manage so far currently. Eventually, it will be nice to go around the Mere where there is a variety of habitats. But for now, a jaunt to the park and around town is about her limits.

So, I return to work tomorrow but it’s only a training day so I get eased back into it. The endless cups of tea at home come to a halt. Time to get back on with a bit more RHS revision. Hope you’re all enjoying your Sundays.

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12 Days Wild: Day 4-Bird watching at the park

Today was a very frosty start. The day began in the minuses. The garden was crisp and frosty registering a -2. It hasn’t warmed up massively through the day. It has stayed very low all day. But it is sunny and still felt like a good day to get out. I was considering planting the last few bulbs but minus temperatures are not the weather for that job.

The birdbath needed the ice breaking again. We are getting a good number of birds visiting currently though not much variety.

We enjoyed a few rounds of bug bingo. She’s quite enjoying it now and it’s interesting to see how she spots the similarities between different cards. I discovered a documentary on an Inuit hunter, ‘The last igloo‘. It seemed suitable viewing for the cold weather and since Alice enjoyed her igloo den so much. We watched the first half of the show and Alice was fascinated by the huskies and igloos.

I didn’t want to spend the whole day in though as while it was cold it might be one of the dryer days of the holiday with rain forecast. I wanted to go an pick up some more bird food to keep them going in the cold weather and try and encourage a few different birds into the garden. We wrapped up in every layer and headed out across the park.

The park gets water-logged pretty easily and you can see why we don’t have a top league football team when this is the state of the pitch.

It is, however, great for birds as most of the time they live a safe existence where they are left undisturbed. We had come prepared with our binoculars. The tits and finches were out. Alice still insists on using her binoculars back to front as they are more comfortable this way.

We enjoyed a few games of hide and seek. Alice insisted on playing as she said it would improve her counting.

We successfully made it to get some more bird food and Alice got a robin from the discounted Christmas stock. She’s very happy with it and has sat cuddling it back at home.

Now we are all set with extra bird food we can get that set for the birds tomorrow. I currently have birdseed and sunflower hearts out but I like to provide a greater variety of food as the weather gets colder to encourage different birds into the garden. We are building up for the RSPB big garden birdwatch next month and it’s nice to see how many species of birds we can get into a relatively small space. More on our bird feeding efforts tomorrow.

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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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12 Days Wild: day 2-bug bingo

Yesterday was day 2 of the Wildlife Trust’s 12 days wild. The scheme aims to get people out in nature and help people connect to nature and improve their mental health. I was pleased, yesterday, that my six on Saturday post on mental health and gardening received lots of positive feedback. I was happy people got some pleasure from it.

We spent much of yesterday just chilling. Alice took stock of what she had received for Christmas and she had more of a chance to enjoy it. She wanted to spend most of the day playing games. She received a chess set from her grandparents. So, she is now desperate to learn to play. I need some nature therapy after each lesson as it isn’t the easiest game to teach a 4-year-old. But, she is full of enthusiasm. Ludo was pretty frustrating for her as it takes quite a while to play and she kept getting sent back to the start. Uno junior makes for a good quick burst and it’s a game with can put in the rucksack for when we do go out on adventures. Suited to a quick game in a cafe while waiting for food. Or will be when we can actually return to cafes and restaurants. On the ‘acts of wild’ side of things, we played bug bingo. This was enjoyable and simple enough for us to play straight out of the box. The illustrations are lovely and it helps teach us the names of many different bugs. We looked up a few that captured her imagination afterwards to learn more. It was quite long and while we do play games to teach patience and turn-taking I may play it with her as the first to get five or ten initially to keep her attention. I’d rather play several rounds of the game than have one big game that loses her interest. The bugs come from around the world. In an ideal world, I would prefer an edition which just covered UK bugs that we are likely to see. My approach to the natural world is very parochial. I am mainly interested in the nature within our own patch. Corona Virus has only strengthened this with us being limited to our locality. But enough of the bugs are UK based for it to still teach her about the names of UK bugs and foster an interest in them.

Having bought one nature game I am now seeing lots of recommendations for other nature games through my online advertising. There are many variants of the bingo for the nature lover. There is a jungle, bird, dinosaur, cat, dog, monkey and ocean bingo. There is even a poo bingo which if I’d seen first I probably would have bought as she is at the age where poo is hilarious. I saw it first looks to be another simple game for seeing the great variety of life out there. Match the leaf looks like one I could do with to help teach me to match the leaves and trees. It even includes the Latin and common names so could help with my RHS course. It also comes in many varieties with a flower version, a bird version, paw prints and more. There are a wealth of nature games out there suited to any age now.

I hope you’ve all had good Boxing Days and now the main days of gluttony are done you find a chance to start getting back outside. We had yellow weather warnings last night but it didn’t sound too horrific out there. But, I will need to check the garden for damage as it gets a bit lighter. Enjoy your days.

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12 Days wild: day 1

Today is the start of the Wildlife Trusts 12 Days wild initiative. In the dark days after Christmas, many peoples moods drop with Christmas done and the dark days. 12 days wild aims to get people involved in nature. They share some ideas on the website and some more if you register. I’ve taken part the last two years and I’ve found it nice to take part in some of the activities to give focus to the holidays. It helps get us outside and create lasting memories in nature. If you’ve got bored children it can give some ideas or if you’re just feeling down it can help. You can take part through social media with the hashtag #12dayswild There is a great online nature community there supporting each other.

Today was obviously a busy day with Christmas. We have had a lovely day and I may talk more about our day in a future blog but I’m going to focus on our 12 days wild today. There wasn’t much time to get outside but I did pop out first thing to top up the bird feeders and crack the ice on the birdbaths. As the weather gets colder and natural food sources scarcer the feeders see more visitors. The birdbath has seen many birds gathering today as they may not have been able to access many of their usual water spots.

Apart from that and trips to the compost heaps, the day has largely been spent inside. I am not going to go through everything we received but I will share a few of the nature-themed presents we received. Amy was given this beautiful bee decoration from my parents. She is becoming a bit of a crazy bee lady. In her younger years, she amassed a collection of cat ornaments. Now people seem to want to get her bees. Possibly after our wedding. But she got a good few bee gifts for her birthday earlier in the month and she got a few more today.

This is a gift I bought for Alice. There are several nature-themed bingo sets by the same company but I liked the look of this one. It’s a simple enough game for a 4-year-old while also teaching us the names of many bugs. It should make for a good act of wild even if we are stuck in.

My Aunty Dot works for Bodleian publishing so I received these gorgeous books. I had seen she’d been involved with the gin book. Chris’s illustrations are stunning I have a few of his other books and this looks like a nice one for dipping into. The bird anthology has a great mix of excerpts and poetry for flicking through. Some nice winter nature reads.

And Amy treated me to a Stanley flask. However, she didn’t realise she had bought XXL so she bought me a smaller thermos for smaller outings. These will be great for our walks for filling with tea and soup. Our current ones just didn’t keep the heat whereas the Stanley ones are rated as some of the best. It doubles as a bludgeon in a survival situation. It is pretty solid. I may need a bigger rucksack to go with it.

We have been very fortunate to still have a lovely Christmas this year, even if we can’t see family. But we would rather leave family safe than expose them to risk when we may have a vaccine in the not-so-distant future. We have had good quality family time in our household. Playing games, sharing Alice’s toys and building things. Each year I always end up reflecting on how lucky we are, but we are. We live in a lovely community in a gorgeous area. We are very blessed. Hopefully, over the next 11 days, I can share some of the wild acts we do as part of 12 days wild. Here is one final picture of Alice hiding in her new den building set.

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Saving pollinators

This week a new label for plant sales has been launched by the National Botanic Garden of Wales to help protect pollinators from plants containing insecticides. The story has been picked up on nationally though I think the significance of the story may be lost on some.

Currently, many plants are sold as being beneficial for pollinators. If you go shopping at a garden centre or nursery you may see labels with the RHS Plants for pollinators badge on. This is a very useful resource listing plants the RHS have deemed to be useful for pollinators. The lists are very useful. They list plants by season that are beneficial. This allows you to plan your garden to have plants in flower through the year to help the pollinators in your garden. Which is all great!

However, many of the plants sold with the RHS ‘plants for pollinators’ label may have been grown using pesticides. This will mean that the plants you are buying to help may actually be harming the wildlife. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and all that. In tests where plants bought with the perfect for pollinator label, 76% contained at least one insecticide and 38% contained two or more insecticides. The RHS has been discussing changing the label since 2017 but has shown little leadership in making the change. I imagine it would ruffle too many feathers withing the Horticulture Trade Association and the RHS sponsors. But it is a change that needs to come so consumers can buy without engaging in a Russian Roulette of whether they potentially harm the insects they are trying to help.

The plants containing pesticides causes harm to the pollinators and has been linked to colony collapse disorder. But it can also affect food up the food chain. Birds and mammals such as hedgehogs can be affected by eating these poisoned pollinators. It has been hypothesised that eating the infected insects may lead to the birds becoming denourished. It has also been shown that birds eating the neonicotinoids directly may lead to bird deaths. You would have thought we would learn from our past mistakes where the pesticide Organochlorine led to a decline in birds of prey as the eggshells ended up thinner but we obviously haven’t. On top of the decline of birds, many of these pesticides have been strongly linked to cancer in humans. While glyphosate was banned here in the UK companies like Bayer have just developed alternatives that are likely to be as harmful.

So having painted a rather gloomy picture there I hope you can see why the Botanic Gardens new ‘saving pollinators’ logo on plant sales is so significant. The label will indicate that these plants have been grown without any pesticides whatsoever. This will give consumers peace of mind that the plants they are buying are beneficial for pollinators and they don’t have any hidden surprises. Currently, the new label is being taken on by a series of Welsh nurseries but it would be great to see this go national.

In the meantime what can you do to ensure the health of your plants for pollinators? You can buy direct from several nurseries. More and more nurseries are advertising the fact that they are pesticide-free and peat-free. Alternatively, you can grow from seed. While some seeds sold are coated in pesticides this is used more in agriculture than horticulture. But again, companies advertising their eco-credentials. A number of the nurseries on Dog Wood Days Peat-free list state that they don’t use pesticides. The RHS plants for pollinators lists are still a valuable resource for planning for wildlife gardening but the label isn’t a guarantee of safety. Hopefully, in time, we can see the Welsh saving pollinators badge adopted nationwide.

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Further reading

https://botanicgarden.wales/press/science-fact-fuels-campaign-to-stamp-out-pollinator-friendly-fiction/

http://www.sussex.ac.uk/lifesci/goulsonlab/blog/bee-friendly-flowers

30 Days Wild: Day 22-The Great Yorkshire Creature Count day 2

Today was the second part of the Yorkshire creature count. It continued until dinner time and we managed a few more sightings. As it had been very wet overnight the insect life was low but still a few birds.

And the seagull enjoying a morning drink.

It was also Father’s Day. Alice had made me a card with a rainbow flower and butterflies on she had drawn. She said she thought I’d like them. Then for a present, I was bought some Bluetooth headphones. We sat and watched Disney’s, Christopher Robin. This came out a few years ago. It tells the story of Christopher Robin growing up and forgetting his old friends. Winnie arrives back in his life and reminds him of the importance of family. It’s a nice gentle watch with different bits for different ages.

Then I got out for a run with my new headphones. I’ve started on couch to 5K. This gradually builds up how much you run. I ran before Alice was born but haven’t done any since so it seems like a good time to get started again. I headed out of town along one of the bridleways. This took me along the edge of the bean fields with lots of small tortoiseshells flying up in my wake. A nice run through the greenery.

Back at home, I was treated with a good cooked breakfast. Then I was able to get on with a few garden jobs. The planters by the front door have been attacked by slugs, so I’ve removed the Hosta blue mouse ears to go in plant hospital for a bit. The patio has got a bit cluttered with seedlings over lockdown so I’m gradually getting things potted on and in the ground. The mix of sun and rain has really brought on the garden. We had the first of the Dutch irises out. A pleasure to see.

Then in the evening, the skies opened with hailstones and thunder and lightning. It was only brief but gave everything a good drenching. So it seemed a good time to get some Nemaslug down to control the growing slug population. Nematodes act as a biological control only affecting the slugs rather than pellets killing animals up the food chain.

A fairly relaxed 30 days wild day, but don’t like heading out at the weekend as it ends up much busier around us. But nice to have a quiet day.

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30 Days Wild: Day 21-The Great British Creature count day 1

Over yesterday and today, it is the Great Yorkshire Creature Count. This has been arranged by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. Over 24 hours they are looking for people to watch the wildlife in their areas, snap it and record it. They are using the iNaturalist app. This is a simple to use app that allows you to log wildlife sightings and then they can be added to projects like the Great Yorkshire Creature Count to help different organisations carry out surveys. You can upload photos and it has options to help ID your sightings if you are unsure of what you’ve seen.

Alice helped have a look through the garden and I added them to the App later.

Here a few of our sightings.

A red admiral butterfly. These are gradually coming out in bigger numbers.

The ladybirds are enjoying the aphid filled dahlia.

The poppies bringing in the bumblebees.

We didn’t have much time for spotting yesterday but we have until dinnertime today. It’s a bit wetter so we might have some different sightings. See if we can find some of the many frogs hiding away in the garden currently. When I started in the garden I was keen to bring in a lot of wildlife and it’s good to see how much variety we are attracting in. We are doing something right.

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