Growing Louder

With low-energy light bulbs and loft insulation dominating media headlines, the part that gardens and gardeners can play in the widening environmental debate is being overlooked.

By John Walker. Published in Organic Gardening magazine, July 2006

The next thousand words or so are intended as a rallying cry, an environmental call to arms, if you like, to organic gardeners everywhere. My hope is that at least some of you who choose to read this article will, by the end of it, be moved – if you aren’t already – to shout about organic gardening from the rooftops of your sheds, greenhouses and polytunnels.

Environmental issues now infuse all of our media; gone are the days when those chaining themselves to trees in an attempt to thwart another road development made news headlines for only a few fleeting moments. Environmental concerns, especially climate change, are now firmly established as ‘big’ news, and in recent months the print and broadcast media have been awash with facts, figures, opinions and sometimes fictions about our impending ecological ills. You might think that this bringing of environmental matters to a mass audience can only be a good thing. I for one am not so sure.

To its credit, The Independent newspaper keeps a close eye on matters environmental, and on global climate change in particular. This spring it asked its readers to suggest their own ideas for ‘saving the planet.’ (The replies were forwarded to the All-Party Climate Change Group led by Colin Challen MP, who are arguing that to mitigate global warming, the ‘business as usual’ attitude will simply not do.) The Independent received an ‘overwhelming’ response, resulting in pages of ideas, suggestions and solutions to help combat climate change. I read, word for word, almost all of the responses published.

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It’s high time we got the gentle yet powerful act of gardening back on the environmental radar.

“There is simply no better place to engage others in the environmental debate than in your own garden”

On the face of it, this was all good stuff – there can’t be many downsides to general awareness-raising about issues likely to directly influence the future unfolding of life on this planet. But as I read about low-energy light bulbs, loft insulation and the need to discourage air travel, it struck me that one vital, supremely positive and planet-enhancing strand to this debate was missing. Gardening, organic or otherwise, was not once posited as a ‘planet-saving’ measure. There were the predictable references to local organic food production and the resultant reduction in ‘food miles’,  and, encouragingly, a ban on patio heaters made it on to the ‘top 10’ ideas put forward for Earth’s salvation – quite right, too.

But the simple act of gardening, of pushing your fingers into the soil, of feeling the sun on your neck, of savouring your own food, or of enjoying a bunch of flowers gathered from your own patch, didn’t make The Independent’s top 10. In fact, it hardly ‘made it’ at all. Permaculture got a mention, but gardening, not a squeak. We seem to have become fixated on solar panels and wind turbines, getting on our bikes, and searching out goods labelled ‘ethical fair-trade local organic’, all of which, it seems, will do the much-vaunted ‘saving’. Doubtless they’ll do their bit, but we seem to have lost sight of the simpler things we can do, which involve taking, in most cases, only a few footsteps outdoors. Gardening seems to have disappeared from the environmental radar.

“My ‘call to arms’ urges you to do just one thing: throw open your garden gate this summer and let people in”

Part of the reason for this lies with the media itself; if you tell people often enough that low-energy light bulbs, loft insulation and not leaving electrical appliances on stand-by are planet-saving measures, the idea will take root and grow into positive action that’s second nature. Perhaps this is inevitable; we all switch on lights daily, but not everyone gardens. We all use electrical appliances of some kind, but we don’t all spend much of our time outdoors.

As a writer, I’m inherently interested in communication, and I find one of the best settings for explaining ideas, answering questions and making all kinds of different connections, is in my garden. When I tell visitors that I have never had, nor ever will have, a wheelie bin here, their reactions range from raised eyebrows to thinly veiled suspicion; some cannot believe such a thing possible. When I moved here, there simply was no wheelie bin, and as time passed, the need for one never arose, largely due to my obsessive penchants for recycling, composting, and making minimal-waste shopping choices. When the very thought of life without a big plastic ‘guilt gobbler’ sends a flicker of terror over visitors’ faces, I move them on to the compost bin, and off comes the lid.

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I explain to terror-stricken visitors how insatiable compost worms help me to live a wheelie bin-free life.

Peering in, terror-stricken looks are replaced by curiosity and quiet amazement, for it contains anything with even an outside chance of being transformed into compost: kitchen scraps, scrunched paper and cardboard, food packaging, used kitchen towels, and the contents of hoover bags, as well as weeds, fallen leaves, pulled bracken and other organic waste gathered from the garden itself. A handful of this ‘work in progress’, dug from the beating heart of the bin, reveals a tangle of brandling worms thrashing amid the crumbling remains of a cornflake packet.

Easing up the base of the bin, I can tease out a handful of rich, black compost, which I proffer for a ‘sniff test’. I then point out the decent growth on the first soft fruit to benefit from this compost in my still fledgling garden. Birds permitting, I’ll be picking my first harvest of black, red and whitecurrants this summer, and I can weave into that moment a tale of zero packaging, food footsteps instead of miles, and how there’s not a drop of pesticide residue in sight.

All of this – the glee with which I announce my sans-wheelie status, the pride with which I pull the lid off my compost bin, and the sheer delight of sharing my first ripe blackcurrants – is about making connections. I can talk about minimising personal waste through careful purchasing decisions, then seeing just how much unavoidable packaging I can turn into compost to reduce my personal contribution to landfill. This leads me on to discussing different approaches to composting, and then showing off the results. I can then demonstrate the effect of using that compost, my audiences’ taste-buds being judge and jury. And when you’ve taken only a few footsteps to harvest produce, the full ecological insanity of global food miles suddenly hits home hard.

“Our gardens can and must become powerful and persuasive players in the environmental debates ahead”

If I were asked to rank everyday activities for their ‘environmental connectivity factor’, organic gardening would go to the top of my list. There is simply no better place in which to engage others in the widening environmental debate than slap bang in the middle of your own garden. My ‘call to arms’ urges you to do just one thing: throw open your garden gate this summer and let people in. Let them see for themselves what organic gardening is all about, talk to them, engage with them, and start making connections. In these times of ecological uncertainty, our gardens can and must become powerful and persuasive players in the environmental debates ahead.

It would be wonderful to think, next time a national newspaper asks its readers for their planet-saving suggestions, that its pages might bloom with a whole crop of interconnected ideas, courtesy of us organic gardeners. But for that to happen, we all need to start gardening louder.

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