Planet-Friendly Gardening

I have long been interested in reducing my impact on the planet, not least when gardening. I became a serious gardener in the 1980s when climate change was just entering into the public consciousness and a cold winter would conveniently put everyone’s minds at rest about global warming. My neighbour two doors away proudly boasted of all the peat she had lavished on her garden, and it was indeed lush and orderly. Years later, I still haven’t forgotten the deep discomfort I felt at this situation. Why should I judge my neighbour for wanting a beautiful garden and for spending large amount of money on bags of peat to achieve it? Deep down, I wanted to rant about the damage to irreplaceable peat bogs, but I was aware that I had also bought bags of compost containing peat. And I didn’t want to fall out with my neighbour. There was very little choice in those days, apart from making your own, which I did.

Nearly forty years later, I wonder how much has changed. I let my eco-crusade progressively slip as I focused on my career, relationships and caring for a family. Last year, after all this time, Monty Don began promoting the use of peat-free compost. I went to my local nursery and asked them if they would consider stopping the use of peat-based compost, and they said they would if everyone else did, otherwise they would become less able to compete on price. Peat-based commercial compost still seems to be the industry standard, although the alternatives are now more widely available.

I’ll come back to peat and compost later, as there is plenty more to say, but I have used it as an example of how the gardening industry can perpetuate damage to our planet, and to make the point that a well-informed consumer can make a difference. There is so much to being a planet-friendly gardener, and I will organise this blogpost around the principles of being a ‘green consumer’ –  ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ –  along with information about garden habitats for the organisms we share the world with.

Being a planet-friendly consumer

1. Reduce

The idea of ‘reduce’ is to ask yourself, Do I really need this new piece of equipment? Do I need to buy this bag of compost? Do I need to use these chemicals? Do I need to buy new plastic pots? Even peat free compost can come in plastic bags and takes energy to transport. It’s important to say that I am not against the use of plastic until practical replacements come along, but we gardeners can easily end up with a shed bulging with empty plastic bags and broken pots that we are loathe to throw out because we know they won’t be recycled. The first principle has to be to reduce our demands on the planet’s finite resources.

Some products have less impact on the planet’s finite resources because they are made from renewable resources. Plant labels can be made from wood or bamboo and plant pots can be made from plant fibres, commonly coir, paper, and sometimes composted cow manure. You would pay a lot more for these products than the equivalent plastic ones, and their lifespan is shorter, mainly because they are biodegradable.  For UK consumers, coir may be less desirable as it comes from coconut and has to be shipped some distance. Beware of the biodegradable pots made with peat!  Peat is not a renewable product, unless you are working on a 500+-year cycle. Peat bogs play an important role in storing carbon and more than ever, we need peat bogs to be left undisturbed and restored.

Reducing the use of chemicals is something everyone can do. Consumer regulations have tightened recently, meaning that it will soon be against the law to sell or use metaldehyde slug pellets in the UK. This is good news for our wildlife. Although the alternative, ferric phosphate, will still be allowed, these pellets contain chemicals that are harmful to earthworms and can also harm mammals in large quantities, so are best avoided. Insecticides and herbicides are rarely necessary in gardens, and there are plenty of other measures that can allow gardeners to exist side-by-side with nature rather than club it with chemicals. Artificial fertilisers are chemicals too. They can upset the soil ecosystem and affect soil structure. The production of garden chemicals uses energy and creates greenhouse gases as by-products. A far more planet-friendly way to look after your plants is to look after your soil by applying compost. More on this later.

Another way of reducing your product consumption is to make your own compost.  Some of the best advice I have come across is from Charles Dowding, and you can see one of his videos here https://youtu.be/BIV4lljN6Aw .   Making your own may not meet all your needs, but will reduce the amount you need to buy.

2. Reuse

Reusing is one of the easiest and most cost-effective thing gardeners can do.  If you can re-use your plastic pots and propagation trays year on year, you are limiting your consumption of the earth’s finite resources. As long as you keep on using them, you are keeping them out of landfill and you are not replacing them with more. You don’t really need to wash your pots either, so you can save on water that way.

In our neighbourhood, the gardening club organises plant stalls where gardeners bring plants they have propagated and buy plants that others have contributed. This is a type of re-use, where plants and their pots go to a new home. The local hardware shop takes unwanted pots off people’s hands and re-uses them, and sometimes gardeners will leave empty pots outside to be picked up and re-used by other gardeners who are in need of them.

I have used pots as an example, but you’ll be able to think of many more items that can be re-used or given a new home through in addition to other objects such as washing machine drums or old baths and sinks.

3. Recycle

Some garden products are made from recycled plastic, which is good because it is keeping plastic out of landfill. These products can include watering cans, garden planters, raised beds, and benches. It may be less easy to find ways of recycling your broken plant pots if you live in an area where they are not collected from the kerbside. Black pots are the most challenging because they are not detected by the sorting machinery in recycling centres. If there is no kerbside collection where you live, ask your local nursery whether they are able to take pots for recycling.

As for the compost bags bulging out of garden sheds, many people find ways to re-use them for other purposes, but there probably comes a time when they are too tattered to be of any use, or you just have too many. You might want to try giving the good ones away in case someone else as a use for them, or find a place where they can be recycled. Check out the bag recycling scheme at your local supermarket – you might be surprised at what they will accept, although you’d probably have to give your compost bags a good wash. There is also general advice available on recycling plastic bags.

Looking after the soil

So far, I have considered the consumer side of being a planet-friendly gardener. I’d like to focus on the garden itself now, starting with the soil.

Soil is a rich habitat, which in the recent past was poorly understood. Soil life ranges progressively in size from microorganisms that can only be seen through a powerful microscope through to larger organisms easily visible to the naked eye, such as slugs, millipedes, beetles, earthworms and small mammals. Soil organisms rely on a supply of dead organic matter (both plant and animal origin) to fuel their food web, although some will eat other living soil organisms. This is similar to the interdependence you would see in food webs above ground.

As a gardener, you want to optimise your soil for growing plants. Plants need the mineral nutrients found in soil to support their metabolism, and obtain their fuel by converting atmospheric carbon dioxide to sugar by the process of photosynthesis powered by sunlight. Plants also need a supply of water to take in through their roots along with the minerals. Waterlogging can damage some plants and very dry soils can cause wilting and eventually death of a plant. A good soil structure can help to maintain good water drainage as well as encourage water retention in a dry spell, and this is where it helps to cultivate your soil organisms. Look after your soil, and the soil will look after your plants!

These are some of the ways soil organisms promote healthy plants and gardens:

  • By ingesting and breaking up organic material such as dead animals, leaf litter and other dead plant material
  • Making the nutrients within organic matter available for re-use by other organisms including plants
  • By creating physical spaces within the soil that allow aeration and water drainage. Air in soils allows plant roots and soil organisms to ‘breathe’.
  • By distributing the organic matter, which can absorb and hold water

‘Mycorrhizal fungi’ have become very popular products in gardening circles lately. In nature, mycorrhizal fungi co-exist as tiny strands networked through the soil, living in symbiosis with plants. The fungi benefit from the sugars exuded from the plant roots and in return, they extend the plant’s reach into the soil by channelling water and minerals towards the root and aiding absorption. Digging the soil and adding chemicals can upset the soil ecosystem, which is one of the reasons we have become so dependent on fertilisers. Fertilisers themselves can contribute to this damage, so perpetuating a cycle of dependency. We return to the mantra: ‘Look after your soil, and the soil will look after your plants!’

The image here provides a useful overview of the symbiotic relationship between plants and micro-organisms
Hallrob3, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The solution I’m proposing is very simple.  By not disturbing the soil and by ensuring a good supply of organic matter, you are doing your best to care for your soil and your plants. Instead of digging the vegetable patch, simply add a layer of compost each year. Smother perennial weeds with a light excluding mulch such as cardboard, or black plastic. You can re-use the plastic elsewhere afterwards, and the cardboard will rot down in a few months. Hoe annual weeds when they are small, only grazing the surface.  The same principles apply to a flower garden.  Always think of yourself feeding the soil rather than the plants.

Making compost

You can buy compost, but it comes at some expense to you and the planet, especially if it arrives in plastic bags. There is also the environmental cost of transport.  I’ve already mentioned the advice supplied by Charles Dowding , and Monty Don provides useful information too. Most gardens are on a much smaller scale than you’ll see in these videos, so don’t be discouraged by that.

Welcoming wildlife

‘Gardening for wildlife’ is certainly a popular discussion topic nowadays. You’ve already thought about being good to the wildlife in your soil. All the other creatures that will potentially visit your garden will appreciate any shelter, food and water you can provide. Translating welcoming wildlife into an aspiration to be a ‘planet-friendly’ gardener takes some further thought. Perhaps the most useful way of looking at it is to consider how you might promote biodiversity and replace some of the habitats that are becoming scarce.

Gardens are becoming havens for amphibians and reptiles as their wild habitats become scarcer.  According to the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust creating wildlife ponds and log and brash piles, allowing lawns to grow long, and the use of roofing slates or paving slabs as reptile refuges are helpful strategies. If you are aware of grass snakes favouring your compost heap as an egg-laying site, do not disturb from June to September. A more in-depth treatment of the topic is available from ‘Hazelwood Landscapes’

Some birds have become familiar garden visitors. The provision of food, water and shelter for birds in gardens has boosted the numbers of certain species in the UK, for example, goldfinches.  The story is not always so positive. Greenfinches have declined dramatically, thought to be due to the disease finch trichomoniosis picked up at bird feeding stations. Although garden feeding clearly affects bird populations, it is still unclear how this would impact more widely on ecosystems. The most useful advice I have found for protecting birds is to clean feed dispensers regularly, along with not disturbing nests during the breeding season.  The British Trust for Ornithology has more information. As natural nesting sites are disappearing, it can also be helpful to provide nest boxes

A hedgehog foraging amongst fallen leaves

Photo by Piotr Łaskawski on Unsplash

In the UK, hedgehogs are much-loved and also in serious decline. Their decline could be an indication of decreasing quality of the UK ecosystem, such as loss of hedgerows and permanent pastures, and the use of pesticides. Therefore, doing your bit to provide some hospitality to hedgehogs can go some way to support their populations until, perhaps, hedgerows are restored in the countryside. In urban areas, gardens are even more important as habitats for hedgehogs. There is some very good advice issued by ‘Hedgehog Street’, a partnership project between the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS). Hedgehogs can benefit our gardens by consuming some of the insects and other soil invertebrates that eat our plants. By caring well for your soil, you can help to care for hedgehogs too.

What do you consider to be planet-friendly gardening practices? Leave a comment below!

Histamine – the enemy within for allergy sufferers

IMG_20170619_074520313

You probably know someone who suffers from allergies that result in hayfever, asthma or urticaria. It could be you. The recent heatwave in the UK has caused huge discomfort for many such allergy sufferers. A period of rain allowing lush grass growth followed by the heat has given rise to a perfect storm of airborne pollen. Antihistamines are the main pharmaceutical remedy for allergies, and I imagine they are flying off the supermarket shelves as I write. Cetirizine, Loratadine, and Acrivastine are types of antihistamine readily available in the UK.

But have you ever wondered why ‘anti-histamines’? Why is histamine such bad news for allergy sufferers, and why do our bodies produce it if it wreaks such havoc? Well, actually, our bodies need histamine for normal functioning. Histamine plays an essential role in protecting the skin, airways and digestive tract from invaders such as parasites, bacteria and viruses. It also acts as a chemical messenger in the brain, helping to keep us alert. Additionally, histamine helps to stimulate the release of stomach acid. Histamine’s role in fighting the invasion of harmful organisms and initiating tissue responses to damage is what affects so many allergy sufferers.

Photo of airboorne grass pollen
Airborne grass pollen

Mediator of protection and healing

If you cut your finger or inhale a virus into your air passages, your body needs to supply extra blood to those areas to bring in the necessary ‘weapons’ and healing substances. Release of histamine, which is stored in ‘mast cells’ in the skin and mucous membranes, makes the tiny blood vessels dilate, allowing more blood into the area. The walls of the tiniest blood vessels, the capillaries, become more permeable to allow protective white blood cells and fluid to pass into the tissues. They become ‘leaky’. This leakiness means that tissues swell with extra fluid and blood cells. In the skin, this appears as swelling and redness. In the airways, there is congestion and watery mucus appears. Itching and sneezing can occur from stimulation of nerve endings.

Histamine molecule
Histamine is a small molecule made of three nitrogen, five carbon and nine hydrogen atoms.

Harmless substances taken for pathogens

When someone has an allergic reaction, their body interprets harmless substances such as pollen as being pathogenic. At some point in the past, their immune system has become sensitised. The hygiene hypothesis proposes that children in the developed world have insufficient exposure to a wide range of harmful organisms, and a relatively ‘idle’ immune system targets harmless substances instead. Allergic reactions are most closely aligned with the mechanisms for fighting parasitic invasions, in which there is a massive release of histamine in the affected tissues.

In allergic individuals, then, histamine feels like the enemy within. The itching, soreness, sneezing, coughing and wheezing evoked by histamine release cause extensive misery, and in extreme cases an allergic reaction can be fatal.

Anaphylaxis

In extreme cases, histamine release can be deadly. If you have a severe allergy to wasp or bee stings, certain medications, or foods, for example, it may cause anaphylaxis. Overwhelming levels of histamine are released into many parts of the body within a very short time. Skin breaks out in urticaria, the mouth and throat swell, airways constrict. Rapid leakage of fluid from the capillaries into these body tissues can cause a fall in blood pressure, leading to fainting. All these effects combine into anaphylactic shock, which is life threatening. The main lifesaver is an injection of adrenaline, which counteracts the most damaging effects of histamine. You may be interested in this informative video featuring Anaphylaxis Campaign Professor John Warner OBE:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlMYStReFL8

Mast cells

A discussion of hayfever feels quite mundane after contemplating anaphylaxis! It is worth taking a closer look at the mast cells before a final thought about antihistamines. Mast cells are made receptive to allergens (which act as antigens – something that triggers an immune response) by antibodies attaching themselves to the cell. Once triggered, the mast cell releases histamine into the surrounding tissues. Most of the time, this is a local response in the air passages or a certain place on the skin. In anaphylaxis, mast cells are triggered on a large scale.

A diagram of a mast cell
A mast cell releasing histamine (diagrammatic)

The blood-brain barrier

You remember I mentioned that histamine acts on the brain to help us stay alert? Presumably, then, antihistamines interfere with this? I remember as a child feeling privileged that my GP took the trouble to explain to me why the antihistamines I was taking made me feel sleepy. Luckily, for those hayfever sufferers nowadays who drive or operate machinery or are doing exams and so on, pharmacologists have developed modern antihistamines to minimise the effects on the brain. They have taken advantage of something known as the ‘blood-brain barrier’, identified in 1913. Modern antihistamines are barely able to pass from the blood into the brain through the blood-brain barrier, and therefore have almost negligible effects on a person’s wakefulness.

It’s quite a simple idea to grasp, although very complicated in detail, and still the subject of intense research. In short, the blood-brain barrier is a unique physical and chemical structure in the body that keeps the majority of the substances carried by the blood out of the brain. It will allow, for example, glucose, oxygen, amino acids, hormones and anaesthetics to pass through, but not antibodies, toxins and bacteria. Although alcohol can be considered a toxin, it is small enough to slip through the blood-brain barrier. If scientists could prevent alcohol passing into our brains, I wonder if this would increase or decrease our consumption?

I wish all you allergy suffers some respite from the sneezing, itching and wheezing this summer!

Photo of grass
A grass head laden with pollen

Montgomeryshire Field Society visits Montgomery

Close-up photo of a bee visiting a Teasel flower
Bee on Wild Teasel

Now that the excitement of the spring and early summer flowers has passed and farmers are well on the way to harvesting their cereal crops, August has a mature feel about it. Dave and I have stopped exploring the hedgerows on foot as other demands have encroached on our time. Therefore, I was delighted to make an excuse to get out there with the Montgomeryshire Field Society this week.

The Montgomeryshire Field Society planned to explore Montgomery Castle and the surrounding countryside this August, as part of its Summer programme 2015. They have surveyed and reported on the flora and fauna in and around Montgomeryshire for over 60 years.

After meeting up in the very pleasant surroundings of Monty’s Brewery Visitor Centre for a picnic lunch (and having a taste of my favourite tipple, Monty’s Sunshine), we set off on a range of walking routes. The ‘birders’ took a route through Lymore park and along Offa’s Dyke (similar to this one), and some others opted to walk in and around the town. I joined the ‘long walk’ that took us past the castle, up to the county war memorial (‘the monument’) and around the fields between Montgomery and the village of Llandyssil.

A little group formed around the edge of the path leading to the monument. They weren’t looking at the brambles or the nettles or the hogweed heavy with seeds. No, they were studying the docks intensely. I have never paid all that much attention to docks before, apart from being thankful that you can usually find them near nettles, and that they do indeed soothe nettle stings. Now suddenly, they were attracting great attention and interest.

There were two species of dock in close vicinity of each other. The first was Wood Dock, Rumex sanguineus. Its latin name is far more descriptive than its English name, as ‘sanguineus’ refers to the blood red sap visible inside the stem, and sometimes in the leaf veins. A quick online search reveals that the Americans call it Bloody Dock and have cultivated varieties of it for their gardens, mainly as a foliage plant. The flowering spikes had turned an attractive red in the plants we looked at.

I didn’t get a photo of the other dock. This one was Broad-leaved Dock Rumex obtusifolius. This one is much more feared as a weed, as it is slightly poisonous and can harm livestock. The milky sap has a reputation for causing dermatitis. The flowering spikes were much more robust and ‘chunky’ looking.

On we went, stopping to look at plants in the extensive daisy family. Hawksbeards, plume thistles, and sow thistles dominated much of the terrain. One of the plants we identified early on was the Nipplewort Lapsana communis. It is a modest plant that finds it way easily into gardens and can be quite attractive in its own way. Perhaps it gets its name from the somewhat nipple-shaped flower buds, although some sources claim it is effective at healing sore nipples!

Photo of nipplewort flower
Nipplewort flower with 8 florets

Photo of nipplewort flower
Nipplewort flower with about 15 florets

Willowherbs also caught our attention. Close inspection of the flowers revealed that they had either a four-lobed stigma or a blunt club-shaped stigma. Using this information and the leaf size and shape and growing habits we identified Broad-leaved willowherb Epilobium montanum, Great willowherb E. hirsutum, Marsh Willowherb E.palustre, and possibly Short-fruited willowherb E. obscurum. We also observed the unmistakable Rosebay willowherb Chamerion angustifolium growing abundantly.

Close-up photo of willowherb flower
Willowherb flower showing stigma with four white lobes

Close-up photo of willowherb flower
Willowherb flowers showing a club-shaped stigma

Two other rather impressive plants, both in the daisy family, are worth a mention here. First, the Lesser Burdock Arctium minus.  This time of year when the flowers are bursting from their spiky buds, the intense pink can easily stop you in your tracks. Likewise, Wild Teasel Dipsacus fullonum takes on a special beauty as its tiny pale purple flowers create a halo around the unmistakable egg-like flower heads.

Photo of flowering Teasel head
Flowering Teasel head with bee

The Field Society members, who are very skilled at identifying plants and other wildlife, soon created a long list of species of interest. It was a great sunny day for butterflies. We spotted many Gatekeeper butterflies, and also Common Blue, Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood, Peacock, Painted Lady, and Comma butterflies.

If you are visiting Montgomery in August, there is plenty to observe out and about!