Turning Off the Tap

 Peak oil’, when global oil supplies begin to enter terminal decline, is a matter of when, not if. So when can we expect a transition away from oil-hungry organic gardening?

By John Walker. Published in Organic Gardening, Winter 2008.

Just when we thought we’d got it right, when we thought we were on the right path, and that it was only a matter of time before the wider gardening world caught up with us, we find ourselves snookered.

Not by climate change and destabilised weather patterns, not by a lack of information on how to garden organically, nor by a lack of resources – never have there been more. Our gardens, on the face of it, have never had it so good. In some fundamental ways, they never will again.

A dalek-type compost bin made from recycled plastic (AKA oil).

The existence of this compost bin, although made from recycled plastic, ultimately depends on a ready supply of crude oil to make the original plastic in the first place.

What threatens to snooker our laudable efforts at growing organically, thereby ‘doing our bit’ to ease mounting environmental burdens, is the turning off of the tap from which flows the substance on which so much of our gardening currently depends: oil. I’ve just done a straw poll around my own garden: recycled plastic compost bin, fruit cage netting, ground cover fabric, plant labels, plastic pots, twine, watering can, some old plug plant packaging, a Tubtrug, a recycled water butt, a bird feeder, some old polytunnel covering, a compost bag, Enviromesh. Indoors, there’s a DVD plant catalogue, gardening magazine wrappers, and a plastic ‘Jiffy’ bag full of seeds. They’re all made of one thing: oil.

And how did this stuff actually get here? Some came by post or courier; some I’ve picked up by car on garden centre visits. And how did the garden centre stuff get on to the shelves, and the mail order stuff to the warehouses? The UK-made stuff hurtled around motorways in trucks; much else will have landed on our shores in huge ships, or bumped down on to one of our runways. I know that the DVD catalogue was made in China. What made all of this possible? Oil, along with gas, coal and other fossil fuels, burnt to power the production of so much of our gardening ‘stuff’.

“Will it be possible to first contemplate and then roll out, pretty smartly, an evolving form of organic gardening that reduces our dependence on oil?”

If you have a polytunnel, if you’re using plastic cloches to protect your crops, or you’ve enough insect-proof mesh stockpiled to fortify an entire allotment against brassica butterflies, flea beetle and carrot fly, you’re covering your plot, almost literally, in oil. It’s not the black, sticky crude that chokes our shores after a spill, but oil refined and processed into ingenious products that help to make much organic gardening possible.

Visits to gardening supercentres like Dobbies, which is part of Tesco, rely almost entirely on fossil fuels to get their customers to them.

What do visits to car-dependent ‘out of town’ gardening superstores depend on? Oil.

We hit the road to visit increasingly car-dependent ‘out of town’ garden supermarkets; garden visits warm the exhaust pipe, too. We defy the seasons by using fossil fuel to push plants into growth – then use it to pamper them. We use petrol lawnmowers to cut grass to within an inch of its life. We light up our gardens at night so we can ‘enjoy’ the outlines of plants better served by moonlight. We grow spuds on our patios in ‘attractive’ plastic bags.

At our worst we burn, in patio heaters, the sunlight captured over many millennia, to take the chill off an outdoor sitting area for a few hours, when pulling on a jacket would do. We turn vast quantities of oil into toxic chemicals with which to ‘protect’ our plants, and consume vast amounts of energy to make synthetic, unnecessary fertilisers.

“Our gardens won’t long be immune from oil prices nudging US$100 a barrel”

All gardeners, organic or otherwise, will become increasingly familiar with a certain phrase in the years ahead. ‘Peak oil’ is the term coined over the past decade by energy analysts who warn of the time when the global extraction rate of oil reaches a peak, and then begins to decline. While there is ongoing debate as to when we will hit peak oil – some believe the tap began to be turned off in 2006 – there is no debate over whether it will occur. Although you may not believe it when you fill up your car or do the food shopping, fossil fuels are still plentiful and cheap – the very fabric of most of our lives is built around them. But it won’t always be that way. Our gardens won’t long be immune from oil prices nudging US$100 a barrel.

The caterpillars of large cabbage white butterfly eating a brassica.

If we’re forced to become less dependent on insect-proof meshes and screens made from oil, how will organic gardeners tackle pests such as large cabbage white butterfly caterpillars?

So how do we garden, organically, from here on in? Will it be possible to first contemplate and then roll out, pretty smartly, an evolving form of organic gardening that reduces our dependence on oil? The good news is that organic gardeners are and always have been in the vanguard of reducing dependence on outside resources, preferring to find the means to beautiful, healthy and productive gardens from within. That is why we do things such as composting on the one hand, and avoid oil-guzzling chemicals and fertilisers on the other. It’s why we work with nature, not against it, seeing it as mentor, not adversary. It’s why we’re waking up to the real, tangible role that organic gardening can play in putting the brakes on global climate change.

The one thing most analysts agree on is that, in a post-oil world, technology won’t save us. We can’t afford to be complacent and hope that as oil supplies reduce, we can go on gardening, even organically, as we always have. Two words will become ingrained in our organic psyche as we grapple with first the sheer fright, and then the opportunities, that will flow from peak oil: ‘adaptation’ and ‘localisation’. They won’t come as a huge surprise to organic gardeners, who’ve always been adapting and favouring local options – we’ll just need to do it better, and more.

As fuel prices rise, some activities, like mowing the lawn, will be priced out of existence, but there are alternatives aplenty to even organic lawns. The death knell has already sounded for patio heaters. But when it comes to stuff like polytunnels, fleece and mesh, we’ll have harder choices. We can’t expect some fabulous new material to emerge, made from some fancy bioplastic; where will the energy come from to grow the crops to make the bioplastic? We’ll need to learn to do without those crop-saving covers – we’ll need to adapt. Pots that rot exist already; how about paper and/or online rather than DVD catalogues, and Jiffy bags emblazoned ‘compost me’?

Mustard is a fast-growing green manure that can be used to improve soil on any bare patch between successions of crops.

Green manure crops, such as this fast-growing mustard, will become integral parts of our organic gardens and allotments as we’re compelled to garden with less reliance on oil.

One of the key challenges we’ll face will be feeding the soil. As we’re compelled to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions released by livestock production, there will be fewer animals – and less manure. There’s nothing quite as local as using living green manure crops to build and sustain soil fertility, supplemented by some serious composting. One day, green manures will star at the front of every seed catalogue, not be buried somewhere in the middle. Transporting other ‘organic’ plant foods will become prohibitively expensive – we will simply have to make our own. The days of the brown ‘garden waste’ wheelie bin carting resources away from our garden, burning fuel in the process, are numbered.

Seeds are ripe for localisation. At present most of the seeds we buy in packets have been harvested in kinder climes than ours, with fossil energy used both to grow them and then to transport them. Then there’s the packaging and distribution. What could be more local and more energy-frugal than home-saved seeds?

“There’s nothing quite as local as using living green manure crops to build and sustain soil fertility, supplemented by some serious composting”

‘Peak oil’ may well be behind us already, or it may be only a few years off. Either way, organic gardening has still to reach its own ‘peak’. That peak of creativity, ingenuity and imagination, forged with adaptation and increasing localisation, will put our gardens at the heart of an increasingly oil-scarce but healthier and more sustainable world. Maybe we won’t be snookered, after all.

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