A rant.

I’m not really one to court controversy but a six on Saturday comment got all these issues churning round in my head and I just spent a bit of time writing a few thoughts down. Usually that would be cathartic enough and I’d save the file and forget about it but I thought for a change I’d stick my head above the parapet and go public.

There are a fair number of people around who seem to want to make gardeners feel guilty if they aren’t doing enough for wildlife in their gardens. Hedghogs have declined massively, insects are in steep decline, depriving birds of their food supply and food crops of their pollinators.
We are told that we should be growing native plants in our gardens not exotics and that we should not use chemicals of any sort.

Undoubtedly these are genuine areas of concern but other than the fact that gardens are mostly a tiny fraction of the size they once were, I don’t believe that peoples gardening practices have changed dramatically in my lifetime. I don’t believe it is gardeners who are responsible for the calamitous state of the country’s wildlife.

Rant-1

I believe that in the main gardeners are being asked to make up for the damage done by farming in this country and around the world. Glyphosate is a very effective herbicide and as farmers try to reduce cultivations in order to reduce structural degradation of their soil, they are using more of it. When they spray a field, every living plant dies, up to and sometimes including the hedgerow. The selective herbicides used in the various grass crops are just as effective. Both have been widely used for decades and the effect on wildflowers in the countryside has been devastating. Potato fields are liberally dosed with slug pellets at rates that would keep whole towns of gardeners going for years. Small wonder there are fewer insects and hedgehogs.

Not that I disagree with the need to conserve soils. They are massive carbon sinks, home to many insects for all or part of their lifecycles, as well as the substrate in which the plants that we depend on totally, for food and oxygen, are growing.

I saw a small fenced off compound on Bodmin Moor a few years back and was amazed at how flowery it was on the inside compared to the outside. The difference was the relatively low density grazing of sheep, cattle and horses on the outside. All our upland areas are being destroyed in the same fashion for an industry that barely makes ends meet. It makes no sense.

Fly over this country and you realise that built up areas account for a small percentage of it. There is no way that gardeners can make up for what has been lost from the countryside, any more than councils can by re-wilding their parks.

Roadside verges still amount to a significant semi-wild area, with the advantage that they form a network which animals can move around in, unlike the very small isolated pockets that gardens, individually or in areas comprise. When they build new roads these days they don’t top soil the verges and encourage coarse high maintenance grass to grow but leave it as bare subsoil which slowly gets colonised by wild flowers. I think more could be done to get those populations established, it being a slow process otherwise.

I have often seen hedgehogs in my 500m2 garden, but the adjoining gardens plus mine probably amount to four or five times that, all surrounded by the houses themselves and the roads they front onto. I cannot see that sustaining a viable hedgehog population.
I grew a large patch of Dahlias on my allotment this year which, flowering from late May, were a busy feeding station for bees of all sorts right up until the frost a few weeks ago. All the hedgerows around had long since been flailed and the fields cut for hay so there was next to nothing available anywhere else around. I’d like to think that my Dahlias attracted bees that stopped off on other crops while they were close by.

Rant-2

I’m not an ecologist or trained environmentalist. I’m a gardener who’s seeing hundreds of goldfinches on my bird feeders in winter, because there is no food for them in the countryside surrounding our village. They then go back in spring to nest because there are more nest sites and less cats in the countryside.

Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m misinterpreting what I see around me. It just seems to me that gardeners are often asked to take more blame for the way things are than is in any way reasonable, probably because they’re an easy target compared to farmers and large landowners.

16 thoughts on “A rant.

  1. I’d love to know what comment sparked off this rant Jim! I pretty much agree with everything you have said and I think it is unrealistic for gardeners to replace what has been destroyed by modern farming practices. It is so lovely, when visiting somewhere that doesn’t use pesticides, to see the wild flowers thriving. But in today’s market of wanting far more food than we can even eat (don’t get me on the matter of food wastage) for the cheapest price then intensive farming is not going to disappear soon. I’d like us to return to using seasonal produce instead of expecting everything to be available all year round. And then there is the issue of the meat we eat – often pumped full of antibiotics. And I am intensely jealous that you have hedgehogs!

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    1. I haven’t eaten meat in over 40 years and grow a lot of my own fruit & veg. But then again, how many times have I flown to Australia. We’re all consumers. Conserving plants and soil is central to our survival as a species. The issues are complex but we mustn’t get side-tracked into worrying about little issues by interests that don’t want us focussing on the big ones.

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  2. Your garden is a wildlife haven to me. I agree with your points. Gardeners ought not to be made to feel guilty for expressing themselves in their gardens however they see fit, especially as they tend to be the ones most in tune with – and most respectful of – nature. I am sometimes gently reproved in comments for sharing pictures of many-petalled flowers which are less attractive to pollinators, but I believe there should be room for all kinds of plants. I won’t share my views on growing natives other than to observe that each new plant presumably happened somewhere once, and to think of untangling all that and returning them all to that one area is clearly absurd. But I do love to see wildflowers along the roadside or anywhere else.

    I know from my own blogging that it can be hard to host or respond effectively to a comment you disagree with. We are very fortunate that people who read and respond to gardening blogs are overwhelmingly encouraging, caring and supportive, but we’ll never please everyone all of the time.

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    1. The point you make about double flowers is classic. Most of my Dahlias were semi double and it made no difference to the number of bees on them. Nor is it all about flowers and pollen/nectar feeders, insects and molluscs eat leaves, woody stems are trapped carbon, then food for beetles and fungi. It all breaks down to organic matter in the soil. When you look at nature there’s a lot more greenery than flowers.

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  3. A little ‘googling’ suggests in the UK private gardens make up about one thirtieth of the land area. Not completely insignificant, but tiny in comparison to farmed land. That’s not to say that paving all the gardens wouldn’t be sad, but not where the greatest effect can be had. I think the key is in your comment on financial viability of farming. It’s easy to generalise when I really don’t know the facts, but wonder whether most profitable farms are those who are best at ticking the right boxes for subsidies?…..however I always think that nature reserves wouldn’t be necessary if everyone farmed (and bought) ‘organic’ produce.

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    1. I asked an organic expert and writer once what organic growers did to control potato blight. His reply was that they got a derogation to use the same chemicals non-organic growers used. Then sold them as organic. I don’t know how widespread that is, but it happens. If by using relatively benign chemicals responsibly and in moderate amounts you get a much bigger harvest perhaps it’s justifiable. I’m sure you’re right about the financial viability of farming being the main driver, there cannot be much margin for sentimentality with the margins and levels of uncertainty they work with.

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  4. Gardeners are under assault from all angles! On the one hand we have the zealously chemical-free types who seem blind to the need to educate, merely piling on the pressure that leads to so many opting for paving or decking over their potentially green spaces as they don’t see how they can get by without a shed full of sprays and pellets. On the other, we have the people who sell all this stuff who “provide” on the packs the good advice in tiny print, often behind a stuck down flap whose opening instructions are in even smaller print. Like Vitax, who were yesterday promoting woodlouse killer to eradicate the pests (???!!!) in your compost bin! So those that don’t want paving and decking fall into the wrong habits simply because they know no better. Meanwhile, the farm next door is up for sale and I’m hoping the new owner will carry on not spraying chemicals everywhere. Though less frequent muck-spreading would be nice! 😉

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    1. I’m trying to get my head round the idea of pests in your compost bin. Even slugs would be doing nothing but good if they stayed in a compost bin. Are people so alienated from nature that they have to kill everything that moves. I’d rather hoped we were going the other way. I wonder what the ratio of chemical usage is between farmers and gardeners. I imagine gardeners use a tiny fraction of what farmers use, and mostly far less damaging (effective) chemicals to boot.

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  5. I wholeheartedly agree with your rant

    One year the local farmers killed off most the bees in our surrounding area. I rarely use pesticides in my garden but if I do it is because I have exhausted all organic concoctions. While farmers and professional gardeners employed to manage other people’s gardens spray everything to within an inch of its life whether the plants need it or not. I can never understand this practice. It’s like taking a weekly dose of antibiotics.

    I now make a concerted effort to be mindful of what I plant to encourage the bees.

    We also have the added problem of hunting. One year they included the blackbird on the approved hunting list and I was absolutely horrified! We have several blackbirds who have taken up residence in our garden and I just don’t understand why anyone would want to hunt blackbirds. when I enquired it was because the farmers said they were destroying their crops. What balderdash!

    Anyways… excellent post

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    1. There are undoubtedly many farmers who care deeply for the environment and are as appalled by the actions of the bad guys as anyone. Sadly they seem to be a minority and responsible for a tiny fraction of cultivated land. But consumers demand cheap food and farmers produce it, staying within the law as far as pesticides are concerned, to make the best return they can. Nothing changes without getting consumers, lawmakers and farmers on board.

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  6. I wholeheartedly agree! Here in the States gardening is not what it is in the UK, most yards are lawn- most of that is chemically treated- very few are gardens proper. Those gardens are already havens- native plants or not- to ALL wildlife. Yet there are still those who will readily chaste a fellow gardener for planting non-natives or some other such thing. Asking gardeners to do more is akin to asking Einstein why he didn’t do more for Physics. The problem is Big Ag, it is the development of wild spaces, and urban sprawl. Yes, its best to not use glyphosphate/RoundUp and neonicotinoids and the like when possible in the home garden, but real change is only going to be possible when industry and Big Ag change their practices. In my opnion, ANY garden is a haven for wildlife, meaning any garden is a good garden.

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    1. It’s not as if Big Ag are outside the law by pursuing the practices they do. Environmental concerns don’t feature much in mainstream politicians manifestos and there aren’t many voters who’d demand tougher laws so they can pay more for their food. A lot of people want a better world but aren’t willing to pay a penny for it or to alter their own behaviour one jot.

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  7. Global warming is having an effect too. Insects have difficult reproducing in non normal temperatures. Having said that if you walk round my area all there are are shrubs for ease of maintenance. There are very few insects around because of it which is sad. However our council is cutting costs and turning half the park into wildflower meadow so fingers crossed it will work.

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    1. Must have missed your comment, apologies. I’ve just been watching birds scratching around in the mulch I have spread around the garden, so there must be insects amongst it. I’ve been experimenting with shredding and spreading, not composting first, thinking it might encourage soil fauna.

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