Bridget Ginnity on steps you can take to have a gorgeous garden without the chemical input
It’s well into summer now, and gardens and laneways are in full bloom, with butterflies and bees hopping from flower to flower.
Most Clare households have gardens and they’re often a source of great pleasure. When walking about, we also have the benefit of other people’s gardens but without the work, which is perhaps even better.
A few generations ago, gardens were either the manicured estates of the big houses or cottage gardens. In cottage gardens, every corner of the garden was planted and what thrived survived, what struggled was taken over. As society became better off and urbanised, the trend began for manicured gardens but nature is a bit like a teenager’s bedroom – it descends to chaos very quickly. Chemical pesticides came along and helped us have the order of a big house garden without the manpower.
The term “pesticide” covers chemical control of anything considered a pest – weeds, slugs, insects, rats so on but there are serious concerns about their impact on the environment and our health.
Whether we garden seriously or in a blitz once or twice a year, it can be hard to believe that using pesticides in our little patch of a garden is going to have much of an impact. Pesticides are very effective and don’t require heavy effort. How bad can they be? Alternatives can seem like a lot of work – and do they work?
How bad are pesticides?
The price we were paying for excessive use of pesticides was first described in calm yet startling terms by Rachel Carson in her book “Silent Spring” of 1962. Loss of biodiversity, contamination of waterways, serious health effects were among the consequences.
Since then, some of the most hazardous pesticides have been banned although the effects have been long lasting. Although DDT was banned almost 40 years ago, recent research in the US has shown that even the grandchildren of women exposed to high levels of DDT in the sixties have adverse health impacts associated with DDT exposure. Other studies in Europe find that DDT is still in the soil.
There is debate about how serious the hazards are for the newer pesticides. While many are safer than first generation pesticides, it is clear there are still hazards – for example there are concerns about glyphosate (Round-Up) causing cancer and possibly reproductive issues.
A strong case can be made for controlled use of pesticides in food production and health protection, such as malaria. But when it comes to gardens, can we justify the risk that even a tiny percentage of people have reproductive problems or cancer for the sake of a tidy garden? Wildlife is under enormous stress due to the combined effects of pesticides, climate change and habitat loss but can anything we do make a difference?
It’s hard to think that our tiny patch of garden can have any significant impact but every patch of garden can be a vital stepping stone within wildlife corridors. Home gardeners are also significant users of pesticides.
Although gardens in Clare are only about 1% of the area that farms take up, private gardeners account for 17% of total pesticide sales nationally. Local authorities are another major purchaser of pesticides.
What’s the alternative?
Can you have a tidy garden without chemicals, without a lot of backbreaking work? Yes you definitely can, but it helps to have a shift in attitude. For a start, using pesticides doesn’t always give the nicest gardens.
There are usually fewer birds and insects, so a garden loses a bit of life and interest. Yellowing vegetation in gardens and road verges at houses after weed killer application is not attractive – and who hasn’t unintentionally damaged a plant or grass when spraying! It takes a good bit of time to apply weed killer when you include the preparation and clean-up and it’s not a very enjoyable job, with mask and gloves to keep you safe – and what do you do with the bit left over? Many poison the water and take a long time to degrade.
If you want a neat appearance in your garden, there are lots of environmentally friendly approaches. Hand-pulling, vinegar, hot water, flame throwers (with care!), weed suppressing mats are just some of the approaches for weeds.
If you have a treasured hosta or similar slug magnet, how about trying some of the safer alternatives to slug pellets? The birds and hedgehogs who are working hard to control your slug population will thank you. Slugs are very fond of beer, or more correctly alcohol – I tried 0% alcohol in my beer traps and it was a quiet party. Copper wire is a bit like an electric fence for slugs. I’ve also tried crushed egg shells but with limited success. I suspect it’s like us walking over Lego on the floor and crying “ouch ouch” but not stopping.
A huge range of approaches to deal with every pest are easily found in books and the internet, including on the Pesticide Action Network UK website. Strengthening plant growth with organic fertilisers and mycorrhizae fungus is also great to help plants you want get the upper hand.
Perhaps you take a leaf out of the cottage garden approach, and go for survival of the fittest. You can always post a sign like the council use – managed for wildlife – to remind both yourself and visitors! And use the money you would have spent on pesticides to buy plants instead.
What the future holds
Regardless of the style of garden, a good garden for wildlife isn’t totally left to its own devices.
Careful planning can improve on nature, by providing nectar year round, water, shelter and all the other supports for wildlife.
Nature is more dependent on gardens than it had been in the past both because of large amount of built areas and more intensive farming. Our towns have lots of hard surfaces, with fragmented bits of nature. Large fields with monoculture provide very little year round support for wildlife.
The more our gardens can provide stepping stones of nature between larger natural areas, the easier it is for wildlife.
Green gardening can have a significant impact on supporting our wildlife, both in towns and in the countryside, and that starts one garden at a time. Every little change, whatever you feel comfortable doing, is a change for the better.
Make a change, make a difference
Here are some things you can do…
• Think twice before you use weedkiller
• If you continue, reduce use and try out alternative approaches in some sections
• Use natural control measures for slugs and other insects
• Look around to discover organically tended gardens that are beautiful
• Change your attitude about what makes a perfect garden
• Support organisations that support our environment by joining, donating or volunteering
BRID VAUGHAN, VAUGAHN’S GARDEN CENTRE
There is a greater awareness nowadays among my customers of the benefits of more natural gardening. In particular, most people realise that when they poison the slugs they kill the birds that they are probably feeding so they prefer to buy organic options.
Most weedkiller is purchased for lawns and a lot of effort goes in to having the perfect weed and moss free lawn. Aerating and improving draining with sand stops moss growth, a more long term effective solution.
I advise people not to use chemical pesticides and weedkillers and recommend organic products and methods. Minimising soil disturbance is a great way to reduce weed growth.
Insecticide use disturbs the natural balance. I can see a lack of insects generally but there is an increase in some pests like aphids and greenfly because the natural predators like ladybirds are nowhere near as common as they used to be.
The more organic matter you put in the soil, and ensure it is well aerated, the healthier the plants are and the greater the pest resistance. Good soil also holds moisture and saves the need to water except in drought conditions.
Spend a penny on the plant and a pound on the soil is advice I give to customers every day.
CORMAC MCCARTHY, ENNIS TIDY TOWNS
In Ennis Tidy Towns, we have seen growing interest in environmentally friendly gardening and find that as people learn about the alternative methods, they are delighted to incorporate them. A wildlife friendly garden doesn’t have to be a wild garden. A small uncut section, or simply a wildflower window box can help a lot. Natural herbicides like vinegar and salt can be great for controlling weeds on driveways and simply pulling weeds is very effective.
There is great information on www.pollinators.ie and www.wlgf.org and we hold information evenings.
Every garden counts, and the cumulative impact is immense as it provides small tendrils of wildlife highways going through the town that help creatures move about between larger areas. It has been great to see many of our community spaces and roundabouts becoming pollinator friendly. Ennis Tidy Towns have purchased a Zero Grazer mower for efficient management of larger areas. For areas that need to be weedfree, like kerbsides, we also use environmentally friendly Foamstream equipment but good construction and regular cleaning is a big help.