Intensive Care

As weather patterns shift and water supplies dwindle, can we sustain the container gardening craze in its present form?

By John Walker. Published in Organic Gardening, August 2007.

Love them or loathe them, there’s something mesmerising about those TV dramas set in hospitals. We seem strangely drawn to these fictional life and death crises, especially when a character is clinging to life by a thread, hooked up to a spaghetti-like assemblage of life-supporting pipes and tubes. Already this summer I’ve come across a number of real ‘life support’ systems, all sporting a fine array of carefully placed pipes, tubes and electronic gadgetry. But I haven’t been anywhere near a hospital; these life support systems were in the great outdoors, and the life being supported was plant rather than human. Just like in a human drama, though, some of these plants were literally clinging to life. It got me thinking about whether we need to pay a bit more attention to the most important life support system of all.

Plant growing in containers are like patients on life-support: they rely on others for absolutely everything.

So in which part of the garden were these dramas unfolding? On the patio, of course, where we practise possibly the most resource- and energy-intensive growing of all: container gardening. Growing plants in containers – be they pots, window-boxes or hanging baskets – is the gardening equivalent of running an intensive care ward or, at best, a high dependency unit. When a plant is confined to a pot it becomes totally dependent on you for its survival, just as the poorly patient relies entirely on the medical team. My analogy with the ‘plumbing’ that’s part and parcel of intensive care units is apt, as we are sold ever more sophisticated automated watering systems to keep our pot-imprisoned plants alive.

Such high dependency plants also rely on us for their food; they need us to keep them free of pests and diseases, and expect to be treated to a handful of water-retaining gel granules. They also need compost, and a container to hold it. Both require raw materials (no need to remind you what most composts are still made from).

All in, container gardening must be the most unnatural, resource-intensive, environmentally unfriendly and morally questionable form of gardening there is. As climate change gathers pace, and our government ponders how we might one day need to defend dwindling supplies of fresh water with military force, it looks increasingly doubtful whether this resource-gobbling form of gardening can continue.

“Container gardening must be the most unnatural, resource-intensive and environmentally unfriendly form of gardening”

Like drug addicts, container plants need a constant ‘fix’, primarily of water and plant foods. If feeding is overlooked they sulk but struggle on. If water runs out, things get serious. The gardeners who care for them inevitably become addicts too, hooked on an annual fix of compost, plant foods, moisture-retaining gel, moss for lining hanging baskets, watering systems (often electrically and/or battery powered and running off mains water supplies), pesticides and fungicides, and the like. We need to get our fix from somewhere, and the ‘dealers’ are garden centres and other retailers selling us the ‘gear’. From their perspective, there is every incentive to keep us hooked on growing high dependency plants, regardless of what shifting weather patterns, hydrologists, or our own gut instincts might tell us.

Yet neither climate change nor the warnings of experts on global fresh water distribution (humanity is currently using up more fresh water, including ‘fossil’ water from ancient aquifers, than is being replenished), are even ruffling the garden industry’s feathers. Indeed, moves are afoot to lure the unwary into another loop of dependency by enticing them into the ‘DIFM’ culture. This buzzword, which recently crept into the jargon of the gardening industry, stands for ‘do it for me’, and is directed at a supposed new market of ‘homeowners’, rather than gardeners. They, to quote a well-known gardening ‘guru’, ‘… are ready to pay well for large, planted-up containers.’

Even as global temperature records tumble like dominoes, the gardening industry has high hopes for rolling out the DIFM culture. The same guru went on to encourage ‘… a move towards offering big containers filled with summer bedding in full flower selling at £25-£75 from July to September.’ Doubtless the DIFM-tempted will be equally enticed by the life support systems being offered to keep their overpriced potted junkies alive.

“We are entering what needs to be an unprecedented period of reflection on the very way in which we garden”

We are entering what needs to be an unprecedented period of reflection on, and re-evaluation of, the very way in which we garden. I am not suggesting that container gardening should be swept away overnight, but it does need to evolve from a resource-hungry indulgence into a way of growing that’s sustainable within the limits of each and every garden. If that means growing two patio pots instead of ten, nurturing home-raised plants in peat-free compost, relying on roof-harvested rainwater and home-made comfrey feed delivered via a watering can, and hand-picking slugs at dusk, then we have an ecological if not a moral obligation to grow that way.

This is all part of the pressing need for us to ‘power down’ the way we garden, and to wean ourselves off our more addictive pursuits. We don’t need ecologically ignorant, profit-driven campaigns like DIFM, we need the more planet-friendly DIFYO – do it for yourself, organically. I’ve a hunch that as our collective gardening consciousness finally begins to burst into truly ‘green’ shoots, we will see an unlikely spin-off – one which will give a welcome and much-needed boost to the one life support system that we all depend on for our very existence: planet earth.

Healthy soil.

Good old-fashioned soil will help us sustain our gardens when the container gardening craze is history.

“The biggest loser was a quiet, miraculous substance that has taken aeons to come about”

It wasn’t so long ago that we were being encouraged to cover huge swathes of otherwise fertile ground with wooden decking. Over-hyped celebrities duped many of us into believing that creating a garden was something to be achieved in a weekend. And what did they do then? They dotted the decking with intensive-care pots and planters. Instead of plants being self-sufficient and self-reliant, total dependency on ecologically damaging compost and a cocktail of fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides became the order of the day. The dealers rubbed their hands with glee.

The biggest loser was a quiet, miraculous substance that has taken aeons to come about, and which will still be forming long after you and I have popped our clogs. It’s a substance that’s not in need of intensive care, just a little gentle nurturing and self-improvement. It doesn’t require a cocktail of chemical additives to allow plants to achieve their full potential, and with the right amount of coaxing, it can sustain them through spells when water runs short. It doesn’t denude precious peat bogs, nor does it help fatten company profits. But it is addictive, you won’t be able to resist grabbing handfuls of it, it will get under your nails, and it smells divine.

It is the one thing that connects both us and our plants directly with the planet beneath our feet. Long after the container gardening craze has been consigned to horticultural history, it will continue, undiminished, to sustain us all. It currently lies slumbering in the darkness, as footsteps tread the boards overhead.

It’s the soil, stupid.

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