In the introduction to her new book, Sustainable Garden, landscape architect Marian Boswall is quick to point out that despite being today’s buzzword, the idea of working with the land sustainably is hardly new. And in many ways the tips and projects that fill this book are not about novel methods but about getting back to basics. Stripping back our gardening practices to be more low-key, to welcome in nature and harness ecosystems, to buy only what we really need and to use local materials—or better still to recycle and reuse whatever we can. The good news is that sustainable gardening works on any budget— in fact it celebrates the lo-fi—and in any outdoor space. Here we round up some of Boswall’s most accessible ideas on how to be an eco-friendly gardener.
Photography by Jason Ingrams.
Recycle and reuse.
It’s tempting when you start out with a garden to fall for the very practical looking plastic pots, trays, and containers stacked up in garden centers, but you don’t need to buy these items new when there are similarly useful alternatives sitting in your home ready to be upcycled. Cardboard tubes, toilet paper rolls, and egg cartons all make great temporary pots for seedlings and they can also be put straight into the soil when your plants are ready to go out. Longer tubes are especially good for the long root systems of sweet peas and other annuals. Plastic food containers can be used as seed trays; just puncture a few holes in the base to allow water to escape and yogurt pots can be washed and cut into strips to make plant labels.
Ditch harmful fires and make a dead hedge.
Rather than burning the pruned branches from trees, shrubs, and hedges, build them into a dead hedge. You can use these informal structures to mark an area. Create a structure by spacing out two rows of posts around 6 feet apart with 2 feet across, and then gradually pile up branches, twigs, and grasses. Over time you will create a dead hedge—a haven for bugs, insects and smaller mammals.
Use local and natural materials.
Reusing old bricks, logs, tiles and other materials for edging paths and defining areas of the garden is far more eco-friendly than buying new products. You can even use logs to create a makeshift planter; Boswall suggests using a spiral of different sized logs in a spiral to create a natural and beautiful area for herbs. Plant drought-tolerant Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary or thyme at the top of the spiral, where the soil is likely to get drier, and then parsley and tarragon at the base, where the soil will retain more moisture.
Protect and feed your soil.
If you want to nurture healthy plants, improving the quality of your soil is the single most important thing you can do. Avoid any quick-fix chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which are likely to harm the wildlife in your garden. Instead, feed your soil by allowing leaf litter to rot down on borders and by making compost with your garden and kitchen waste that you can use as a thick annual mulch on all borders. In turn, this will support a diverse ecosystem of bugs and birds that will help to control pests. Boswall also suggests protecting soil by planting in layers using ground cover plants to avoid any exposed soil; this will help keep carbon locked in as well as vital nutrients being washed away by rain.
Treat water as a precious resource—for plants and wildlife.
Collecting rainwater from guttering is an easy way to preserve resources—and prevent water from being transported and treated before being returned to us. And your plants will much prefer rainwater to the treated water than comes out of a tap. Use a water butt to collect rainwater, or use rainwater harvesting tanks for larger gardens. Incorporating small water features will also be hugely beneficial to the wildlife in your garden, too. Boswall recommends creating a rain garden—a collection of moisture-loving plants that can be held in an old trough or stone sink with drainage underneath small roofs. Alternatively create a mini wildlife pond using an old galvanized bath, half barrel, or any watertight container. Ideally, you need it to be 16-inches deep for aquatic plants. Add oxygenating plants such as hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum) and flowering marginal plants such as water crowfoot (ranunculus aquatilis), and wait for birds and dragonflies to arrive.