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  1. ‘When you think about your garden, do you think about the nature living in it at all?’.

    This was the question I asked a group of my friends’ hubbies recently, when discussing astrograss (read previous blog for my thoughts on that particular matter). They looked at me as if I was a bit mad, before gently ribbing me for my eco ways (threats to post a piece of astro through my letterbox, that sort of thing). I, in turn, treated them to my best blackbird and earthworm anecdotes…

    But, joking aside, what is that we, a nation of garden-lovers, consider our back gardens to be for exactly?

    We are a nation of gardeners, with membership of the RHS numbering in the hundreds of thousands. However, garden-loving doesn’t always mean nature-loving, with seating, lighting and hard landscaping (fencing, decking etc) often top in the priority stakes.

    Garden centres encourage us to see our gardens as outdoor rooms, to be perfected with the help of a startling array of chemical treatments and weather-proof furniture. Keeping gardens tidy and pest-free is the order of the day!

    However, the realisation as to just how much trouble British wildlife is in is starting to dawn on our collective conscience. The population of birds, bees and other insects has fallen dramatically over the last fifty years, with around 97% of natural bee and butterfly habitat lost since world war two.

    'Researchers predict that if this decline is allowed to continue, insects will be extinct in 100 years. Pesticide use, intensive agriculture and urbanisation are all blamed.’ Alex Mitchell, Evening Standard

    High profile garden designers like Sarah Raven are now promoting the benefits of gardening for nature, and The Duchess of Cambridge helped to design The RHS Back to Nature Garden for this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.

    ‘The woodland wilderness garden aims to get people back to nature, and highlight the benefits of the natural world on our mental and physical wellbeing.’ @KensingtonRoyal, Instagram

    They recognise that gardening for nature can help in the battle against climate change as well as to improve our own mental health.

    So, back to my first question, what are our gardens for?

    No matter what the size of your outdoor space, I agree with Sarah Raven that it can function as a place for beauty and beasts,‘‘I don't want this to sound too inflated, because after all, it is only a garden, but I am beginning to think of my garden as a contribution to the world. It has - or can have - effects and influences beyond itself.’

    In this first of my ‘gardening for nature’ blog series, I challenge us all to rethink how we see our gardens, and look at the small changes we can make to create a more wildlife-friendly space. (Part Two will look at planting; what are the best flowers, trees, shrubs etc).

    Don’t be too tidy minded
    Humans have an inclination to over-manage things, our gardens included. Gosh, we just love to make work for ourselves! We talk about someone’s ‘immaculate lawn’’ (read chemically enhanced) with a note of wistful envy and rush out to sweep up and noisily blow away fallen leaves.

    This will come as a relief to many, and anathema to some, but we need to do less sweeping, blowing, digging, pruning...and generally ‘doing’ to enable nature to flourish.

    Striped lawns are so passé
    Can’t keep your grass looking perfect? Whack a bit of paving or astro down so that it doesn’t look a ‘mess’. Or crack out the fertiliser. Or re-seed until you are blue in the face (been there).

    Here’s the rub; nature likes things a bit messy. And it’s not really a mess. Those leaves, that soil, the moss, the worms - are all part of a really clever, intricate ecosystem that works to feed itself. Spend a few minutes watching your garden and you’ll see birds pecking away at the soil, feeding on worms and other organisms (if you witness this, let your heart be gladdened, as it means your soil is healthy!).

    If you douse your lawn with chemicals, you’re creating a dead zone. You may consider it a price worth paying for a neat looking lawn, but keep in mind that you will lose birds and other invertebrates that would happily hoover up the pests you don’t want on the rest of the garden; like slugs and greenfly (which then leads to you spraying more chemicals - madness!).

    ‘Grass Lawns provide the most work and worry of traditional British garden features - whilst offering the least in return.’ James Wong, garden designer, The Guardian

    Low-Mow or No-Mow
    Reduce the frequency with which you mow your lawn and when you do, use the highest blade setting, to allow a more diverse range of plant and grass species to grow and germinate, and to give time for insect life to feed and regenerate.

    In part two, I may try to persuade you to join the ‘no-mow’ movement (just easing you in gently!). You’re probably imagining some sort of derelict wilderness, but you can create a beautiful (& neat) effect by mowing a path around/through, or cordoning off, areas that have been left to grow wild. We did this in our front garden last year, with a small path mown through the middle (so that it looked intentional, although I still had to suffer jokes about my overgrown foliage!).

    Our local organic flower farmer and natural floral arranger, Annie of There May Be Bugs, has created a Thyme Walk (pictured below) as part of her lawn. The different varieties of thyme and camomile look beautiful, are hardy to footfall and require no maintenance at all. Oh and the bees love them!

    One person’s weed is another person’s (and insect’s) flower
    Allow a bit of space in your garden (and heart) for weeds. If the sight of them growing in your lawn offends thine eyes, then allow them to grow in a few select places, like between paving stones, on driveways and at the bottom of fences. Many weeds like dandelion are richer in pollen and nectar, and bloom earlier, that other spring flowers. They attract bees and other insects emerging from winter hibernation, when they are most hungry for food.

    If you have a big enough garden, keep a patch of brambles (unsung heroes of the insect world now largely confined to brownfield sites, where they support critically endangered species like the Purple Emperor Butterfly).

    Moss is another underappreciated ‘superplant’ of which you may be trying to rid your garden. Before you do, consider that moss is drought resistant, provides a rich habitat for insects and fungi and is an incredible carbon sink, as James Wong, Garden Designer discovered, ‘Speaking to the designer of the LG Eco-City Garden...I was surprised to learn that studies suggest just 12 square metres of moss lawn can apparently absorb as much carbon as 275 mature trees.’ James Wong, The Guardian.

    Its use is becoming fashionable with garden designers, influenced in part by Japanese moss gardens which are renowned for their beauty.

    Leave the Leaves
    Did you know that fallen leaves are free fertiliser for your soil? That’s why trees and plants drop their leaves in the first place, to enrich the soil beneath them so that they can grow bigger and stronger next year. The leaves provide food for organisms in the soil, like earthworms and ants, who do a wonderful job of depositing nutrients into the soil through the digestive process.

    Come Autumn time, there is no longer a need to painstakingly collect every leaf! Unless they are creating a skid hazard on your hard landscaping, leave them where they are and save yourself the cost of bags of manure.

    Don’t be a prune(r)
    Don’t be overzealous with your pruning. I know, I know...it doesn’t feel like you’ve carried out a proper gardening session without a good prune, but be selective with your secateurs! Seeds heads are an important source of food for birds in the winter and the stems and branches are useful perches, keeping birds safe from prey.

    Fallen branches, stems, twigs and (plentiful in our garden) pine cones are a nutrient-rich food source for the microorganisms in your soil.

    ‘A single handful of soil contains considerably more life than the human population of planet earth.’ Matthew Wilson, Financial Times

    Rather than throwing this debris and other cuttings in your garden waste bin, create a pile or pile(s) around your garden. Tuck it behind large hedges and trees if you would rather not see it. Think of any garden waste as food and potential shelter for a host of small creatures; like stag beetles and hedgehogs. Birds will feed on the insects and use some of the material for nest building (like Mrs Blackbird is doing in our garden at the moment).

    On balconies and roof terraces, you can bundle cuttings together - particularly hollow stems - and they will create a refuge for spiders and solitary bees.

    Creating wildlife homes is a lovely activity to do with children. You can be as neat and ‘intentional’ as you like with it!

    No more chemical brothers (& sisters)
    One squirt of a bottle to remove greenfly, or shake of a box to kill ants, and you risk affecting a far wider range of plants and animals. Both industrial and domestic treatments are gradually being banned. As of this year slug pellets with metaldehyde are no longer available to buy in the UK. Don’t wait to be told - use your common sense and switch to natural alternatives.

    Remember that what we consider as pests, particularly insects like ants, are an important protein rich food source for birds and other animals, as Starre Vartan discovered,

    ‘While yes, there are lots of insects, that means a healthy variety of food for the incredible number of songbirds that I now share my home with.’ Starre Vartan, Why I’ll Never Have A Lawn Again

    Remember - variety is the spice of garden life!
    Stop thinking of your garden as a never-ending to-do list, and start appreciating it for the outdoor wild space that it should be. I don’t expect you to turn your garden into a nature reserve overnight, but if you can keep some of these points in mind when gardening this year, you’ll be giving nature a helping hand. Nature is remarkably resilient, and before you know it you’ll be enjoying a garden filled with colour and life!

    Thank you for reading. Please share your comments below, including your own tips and observations. My favourite comment will be chosen on Friday 29th March, and will be sent a pack of Native Wildflower Bee Bombs.

    References & Interesting Reads
    Wilding by Isabella Tree
    The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel

    https://www.sarahraven.com/articles/pollinator_super_plants.htm?trackterm=pollinat

    https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jun/03/blade-runners-the-joy-of-moss-lawns

    https://modernmint.co.uk/5-ways-capture-carbon-garden/

    https://www.ft.com/content/2833fdee-2dbe-11e8-97ec-4bd3494d5f14

    https://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/blogs/why-ill-never-have-lawn-again

     

     

     

     

     

  2. My second child (daughter, Rose, 11 years old) is coming to the end of her time in Junior school. Once the ‘dreaded’ SATS are out of the way, the children will be free to concentrate on the more important events in Year 6, like the much anticipated Leavers’ Disco.

    Having stepped up to help organise the same event when my son was in year 6, I thought I ought to do the same for my daughter (yep, always motivated by guilt :-)). The nice thing about having some clout in organising an event, is that I can influence the ‘eco-friendliness’ of the proceedings, and do my best to limit the tatt and the throwaway!

    Thus, in this (generous-ish) spirit, I thought it might be interesting to look at how school events can be made more eco-friendly. We all know that schools are strapped for cash, so these events are often important money raisers. The challenge is in finding ways to run the events without producing mountains of waste.

    It’s time to burst your balloon once and for all...
    Balloons are one of those lose-lose plastic items that can’t be recycled and never biodegrade, ending up instead in landfill, on beaches or in the stomachs of unwitting birds and mammals. They gradually break down into small pieces of plastic ‘microplastics’ which end up being ingested by animals throughout the food chain (ourselves included). They are so synonymous with celebration in the West, that it probably seems like a big leap to think of not using them (although let's get real, we really don’t need them to have a good time at a party!).

    "WE HAD A TURTLE COME IN RECENTLY THAT HAD FOUR DIFFERENT COLOURS OF BALLOONS IN ITS STOMACH. IT HAD A WHOLE PARTY GOING ON IN THERE."

    - LIBBY HALL, MANAGER OF TARONGA ZOO'S WILDLIFE HOSPITAL

    Unfortunately, and I confess to having been caught out by this one, balloons claiming to be biodegradable are nearly as bad, as they take many, many years to degrade. I have some on my compost heap and they haven’t budged in years. What about foil balloons I hear you cry? No, not biodegradable either I’m afraid and they contain metal, which makes matters worse.

    So kiss goodbye to balloons, and look on the bright side. You won’t have to panic when they burst as you try to rescue the small chokable pieces from the hands of small children and the mouths of animals. Oh and lots of people REALLY don’t like the sound of a balloon bursting so you’ll be saving their frazzled nerves.

    Balloon Alternatives
    There are a wonderful array of tissue paper alternatives on the market, including paper pom poms, fans, honeycomb balls, hanging lanterns, paper garlands. You can choose from different sizes and they are really impactful when used to decorate a room. For a previous Hollywood themed disco I bought some large paper pom poms in white, silver and black, which we strung from the ceiling to great effect. There are plenty of options online; try Party Delights who have a comprehensive selection. Hobby Craft sell plain brown bunting which you can decorate yourself.

    Remember to check what was used for previous events. It seems silly to buy more and more decorations every time, only for it all to be tucked away, thrown away and generally forgotten about. Apparently a group of parents made some wonderful decorations for last years disco. I shall be happily commandeering them for this year’s event! Which leads me to my next point…

    Make your own. Draw on your pool of keen parent volunteers to see who has the wherewithal to make some decorations. Even better, suggest that the pupils get involved (post SATS). When I think of all of the amazing creations on display during Arts’ week, I know that the children and parents can come up with something super duper.

    Use, and re-use, fabric bunting. We did this to great effect at the summer fair, and there is no reason we can’t use the same bunting for other events; whether disco, fair or tea party. Buy once and it can become a school heirloom, or borrow from parents who have some pretty bunting at home. An eclectic mix will give your event a vintage look!

    Anything ‘glow’ must go!
    It's safe to say most parents dread the glow stand at school events. Children are drawn to glow stuff like moths to a flame, and parents are faced with taking a stand and being ‘mean’ (I quote my daughter) as their friends bop on by with a necklace, sword and bracelet.

    Following fireworks night last year (when did fireworks become NOT ENOUGH?) I helped pick up the litter the next day. We found hundreds of tiny plastic tabs from the glow sticks that had been sold (the bit you pull out to get it working). The flipping things are almost impossible to pick up, and meant I had to get down and dirty on my knees and use my hands, instead of being able to saunter around brandishing my smart litter picker. Bad for the environment and your back!

    These aren’t tiny little glowsticks I’m talking about, but great big plastic things filled with liquid, and loads of them were already in the bin. No part of a glow item can be recycled, because of the chemicals that are inside. Every year, more than 100 million liquid sticks end up in landfill, where they take eons to decompose. The liquid inside gradually leaches out into the earth - you see, they really are an all-round charmer.

    It is time to say goodbye to glow items that we absolutely don’t need in our lives or at our parties. Invest in a good torch instead. There are some snazzy head torches and LED lights on the market out there.

    Glow Alternatives
    There aren’t any, as nothing can replicate the chemical reaction inside. Enjoy the food, drink, music and company and try to forget that these things ever existed. You won’t find them on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

    All that glitters ain’t gold (or biodegradable)
    You’ve probably noticed that glitter itself is made up of tiny bits of plastic, so it falls into the microplastics category straight away. It doesn’t biodegrade, and floats around in our ecosystem for hundreds of years. I think the name ‘G-litter’ is a reference to the fact that at the point of use it almost immediately becomes litter. I’ve made the mistake of allowing it at one of Rose’s birthday parties before; this was over five years ago and there are still small glitter bits ingrained in our table top.

    Oh and don’t ever buy glitter glue. Literally one of the worst inventions ever..

    Glitter alternatives
    There is good news on the glitter front, as there are a number of companies now making biodegradable glitter. Eco Glitter Fun was one of the first that I came across. ‘Bioglitter® replaces the core polyester film used in traditional glitter with a unique and special form of cellulose from hardwoods, primarily eucalyptus sourced from responsibly managed and certified plantations operating to PEFC™ ‘.

    Glitter, even the biodegradable stuff, is still a messy substance that will ultimately end up anywhere but in the bin. There are also natural face paints on the market, like this one from Conscious Craft, which may be a better bet for discos and the like.

    Food & Drink ware - plastic isn’t fantastic
    Feeding and watering large groups of children and adults is always a challenge, and it seems so much more convenient to use disposable cups, plates, cutlery etc so that it can all be dealt with quickly at the end. However, even if this lot finds its way into recycling (and in my experience, this is rare) much of it ends up in landfill or in an incinerator. We can’t use convenience as an excuse any more, as that is what got us into this mess in the first place.

    We’ve also got to set a good example to the children, who are being taught about plastic pollution at school. When they see the changes, they can understand their part in making choices that will avoid plastic waste.

    Eco friendly alternatives
    The most truly eco alternative is to use china plates, glasses and metal cutlery. My daughter’s school recently held an adult’s quiz night, and we ate our food off china plates from the kitchen. It was a pivotal moment in the school’s history! Compostable bamboo cups and cutlery were provided too. Always check with your school kitchen/ canteen as to which items they will allow you to use - usually a promise to leave everything exactly as you found it is enough!

    For afternoon tea events, consider asking people to bring in their own mugs, or ask for mug donations so that a batch can be held in school for these kind of events. You could even task someone with buying some from a local charity shop. Remember to encourage parents and children to bring reusable water bottles, and make sure they have access to a tap for refills.

    If the event is liable to result in breakages, then there are plenty of alternatives on the market, like this bamboo range from Little Cherry. I bought plates and bowls for my daughter’s disco, and they are so hardy that I have stored them away for future events. The whole range is compostable - consider chopping up and placing on your school compost heap!

    All events require a great deal of planning and thought - with a bit of creativity it is possible to run an event with far less plastic and throwaway waste. As well as doing your bit for the environment, you are setting a great example to the children and who knows, in the long run it might just make life easier!

    Please do comment below with any tips you have for organising an eco-friendly school event. All names will be entered into a prize draw to win a mini care package from The Wise House; containing a Coconut Soap MatNatural Soap and Chocolate Face Mask (everything you need to relax after helping out at school :-)).

    Eco Friendly Gift Box