Sustainability is a tough word these days (and actually always has been). Its definition is convoluted and abstract and our ability to monitor our attempts at being sustainable is difficult as the timescale when dealing with the natural world is so long.
I think about sustainability quite a bit, usually as a means of making myself feel guilty about luxury/waste/travel or just about anything in these modern times we live in.
But specifically, I was thinking about gardening. I was thinking about how I have been spoiled by my gardening in Ireland as, almost despite what I do or don’t do, things grow.
I have been reflecting on this quite a bit because I have been working on a couple of garden projects in the States as well and at this time of year, I see the buzz of landscaper activity fertilizing and weeding and pruning and composting and getting rid of leaves. I watch all this as I carefully distribute the fallen leaves more evenly over my client’s garden, as weed suppressant and natural fertilizer. I consider this as I look into my gardening trug – devoid of any fertilizers, fungicides, weedkiller.
And I realize my approach to garden maintenance has been one more influenced by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution than say George Martin’s Game of Thrones. I look at the garden as a lesson in evolution, not world domination.
How would Nature do it? Some might call it Laissez Faire. But I think it is more Darwinian in approach. Allowing and acknowledging the evolution of a garden. The way it would work if we just let it be. Even though we don’t.
For example, leaving some leaves behind to compost away and replenish soil nutrients.
Or, for example, accepting that no amount of fertilizer/bug killer/fungicide/soil amendment is going to make that rose grow there. It’s okay. I know for some people growing roses or growing anything where it’s not meant to be brings ultimate satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment but not for me. I think the garden should be an endless experiment in understanding nature. Not an endless, heartbreaking penitentiary of man’s domination over Nature (ie most lawn care).
I came across two articles this week, one old and one new, that provided excellent inspiration both in theory and in practice if you are pondering a sustainable garden.
The first is Steve Martino’s blog post on sustainability in the garden. My favorite line is:
In order for a beautiful garden to also be significant it needs to accommodate the natural environment besides responding to the client’s needs and conditions.
My second favorite quote from Martino summarized well in an interview here is:
‘Our landscapes are like terminally ill patients. They are tethered to IVs and monitors and need constant attention to keep them alive. If someone pulls the plug, the garden will die. The only way to break out this situation is to use native plants. They have less of a demand for water and fertilizer, which is better spent on food crops. My definition of sustainability has always been very simple: when the power or water is shut off, your garden should not die.’
While Martino’s exact definition of sustainability isn’t applicable to Ireland, the driving theory is: If we stopped putting chemicals into and onto our gardens, they shouldn’t die.
So, if you stop using slug pellets and your plants die – then you should use a different plant. Or if you stop spraying your roses with fungicide and they die, then you should try a different plant.
For me, it is pretty straightforward, if you have to work to apply much more than compost, seaweed and a bit of elbow grease weeding, pruning and raking leaves than it is not sustainable.
My own Darwinian rules of thumb for garden maintenance are:
If it’s yellow, your soil needs some manure and seaweed
If it’s an acid loving plant and it’s not thriving, your soil is not acidic and don’t try and grow acid-loving plants
Leave some leaves, they are nature’s fertilizer
If you have a fungus: see what concoctions you can put together using benign ingredients and if you can’t solve it, it’s really just tough luck. Let the garden evolve.
If the bugs are getting to it: if it’s the leaves you can try some non-toxic soap sprays and you can also just let it be until next year. If the bugs are getting the roots, try nematodes or other beneficial predators first, second – potting it up and saving it for next year or moving it to another location and if none of those work…give up on that plant.
Martino is a big believer in using Native plants which I think, in the context of the landscape he lives and works in, it is probably the best way to garden sustainably. In Ireland, I think we can be more lenient as the climate supports all kinds of natives and ornamentals without significant inputs. Natives are always an important part of a garden for me but by no means the only plants that will thrive sustainably. Which brings me to the second article I found in this months Self Build magazine by Fiann O’Nuillainn.
Fiann provides some excellent, practical tips on gardening sustainably my favorite being:
‘Sustainable gardening is all about looking after that system’
That system being what Fiann calls the ‘ecoweb’ or network of all organisms, plants and resources in the garden. If you want to garden sustainably, you have to look at the bigger picture and acknowledge how each element of your garden is related to the next. That resonates with me and I think is a good guiding principle
Fiann provides good practical tips on how to do that, one of which is planting for biodiversity and pollinators ,which in my opinion is one of the best reasons to incorporate any and all non-invasive plants that we can grow in Ireland.
For Irish gardeners, I have to say, it is this mix of exotic and wonderful ornamentals that can be grown in Ireland that make it so exciting and fascinating.
Which brings me to my last inspirational quote on gardens and which highlights the underpinning of a sustainable garden that meets the client’s needs while providing for the natural world:
Gardens are an enduring concept. They reflect our ideas and beliefs about our relationship with nature and gardens provide the space to experience this relationship. This has been true throughout history.
– Steve Martino
So, sustainable gardening to me is a matter of balancing the creation of outdoor spaces that we love being in with creating outdoor spaces that will thrive in a way that reflects their environment, whether we are there to enjoy them or not.