Dead Zone

The environmental case for banishing bedding plants from our gardens has never been stronger. It’s high time we ditched these resource-guzzling, horticultural misfits.

By John Walker. Published in Organic Garden & Home, December 2008.

If you’re a lover of the eye-wateringly garish, the clashing, the bland and the ecologically impoverished, look away now. Of all the summer flower shows, the Royal Horticultural Society’s Tatton Park event has earned a special place in my heart. Although I feel increasingly uneasy when nosing around this carbon-belching horticultural jamboree (at least I don’t contribute to the acres of sprawling car park), it nonetheless provides me with a useful annual snapshot of how the gardening industry is responding to environmental challenges. A few encouraging if erratic blips are beginning to appear on the ecological monitor, interspersed with plenty of greenwash – but there’s one big, multimillion-pound area of the gardening business that’s flatlining.

Summer bedding plants in bright colours. Many are double, with no nectar or pollen available for visiting insects, making them ecologically redundant.

Garish, clashing and devoid of all life, except the sap pulsing through their stems, bedding plants are ecological oddballs that have no place in any environmentally-enlightened garden.

My greatest admiration at Tatton is reserved not for the show gardens or any of the exhibits, or indeed any of their creators, but for an unnoticed chunk of show-goers: insects. I’m always awed by how insects of all shapes, sizes, and colours find and exploit the riches of this transient floral spectacular. I’m beguiled by bumblebees hurrying between the flowers of hastily planted dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, and transfixed by honey bees urgently yet methodically working lavender bushes that have appeared literally overnight. I’ve often ducked at a swooping dragonfly, or faced off a motionless airborne hoverfly. It’s not bad going for what, bar a few July days, is a deer park.

Perhaps perversely for an earth-friendly, organic gardener, there’s one part of the show I always make a beeline for, although I rarely find any bees there: the National Flower Bed Competition. This comprises two rows of beds, of a few square metres each, lining one of the show’s main walkways. The very mention of the term ‘flower bed’ strikes fear into the heart of many an organic gardener; a vision of bright pinks, oranges, purples and yellows, all horribly juxtaposed, springs to mind. Well, this annual competition is all about grimace-inducing colour schemes, but it’s also a sobering lesson in how to turn your garden into a biological desert, a biodiversity-impoverished ‘dead zone’. Walking past these flower beds is a depressing experience; there are no bees, no hoverflies, in fact nothing except unfettered gaudiness – not even a redeeming whiff of fragrance.

Foxglove (Digitalis excelsior) is a 'pioneer' species that quickly colonises any disturbed ground. Its flowers are attractive to bees.

Self-seeded foxgloves (Digitalis excelsior) soon colonise disturbed soil and adapt to the conditions they find.

Over the last month or so, I’ve been doing a bit of intentionally reckless seed-sowing. I’ve scattered big curly seeds of calendula far and wide, tapped the long-dead stems of foxgloves to send thousands of tiny seeds showering down on to the soil, emptied the pepper pot-like seed-pods of Welsh poppies into every nook and cranny, and flung handfuls of ox-eye daisy seeds into the rough grass enveloping my garden. I’ve even been ‘seeding’ my compost heaps, so the seeds can hitch a free ride when the next batch of manna is spread on my beds. Some of those seeds, especially the foxgloves, are coming up already – these welcome opportunists start healing bare soil the moment it appears.

Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica) provides valuable early supplies of pollen and nectar for early-flying bumblebees and honey bees.

Bees of all types flock to the crepe-petalled spring flowers of Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica). The fat seed pods that follow contain thousands of tiny, free seeds which I scatter around my garden.

Next spring, the foxgloves will be joined by germinating calendulas and poppies. A few weeks later, the latter will come into flower, along with foxgloves which started into life this last spring. All have simple, ‘single’ flowers. The results will be seen and heard. Insects will flock to the first flowers; bees of all denominations will flit noisily between the foxglove spikes and the creped poppy blooms, and aphid-seeking hoverflies will make perfect landings on the calendula’s flat discs. Other flowers will join the show as my garden’s evolving ecosystem unveils its frenzied summer performance.

None of this will have required any more effort than the tap of a stem or the flick of my hand scattering free seeds willy-nilly around the garden. Granted, there will be a little effort in pulling up any plants which sprout in less desirable spots, but it will be as nothing compared to the vast amounts of energy and resources poured into producing trays of bright but ecologically redundant bedding plants next spring and summer.

Bedding plant production is far more involved – and far worse for the environment – than you might imagine. First, there’s the worldwide, multi-million-pound plant-breeding business to consider; its job is to give us grotesque dwarf rudbeckias, hideous double-flowered snapdragons, legions of lurid French and African marigolds, and the ultimate turn-off for beneficial garden insects – the busy lizzie.

Once we have these horticultural misfits, they need growing. This involves compost (invariably peat-based); trays and pots (mostly plastic); automated seed-sowing and transplanting equipment; greenhouses or polytunnels and the equipment to control their heating (using fossil fuels) and ventilation; water; synthetic plant foods, pesticides and fungicides (made from oil); growth regulators (to stop them growing too big before they reach the garden centre or your letterbox); a low-paid, often migrant workforce; transport by road, sea and (in the case of at least one UK company) air; often dizzying amounts of packaging when they’re sent by post; and all the resources, from DVD catalogues to TV shopping slots, needed to promote these man-made ecological oddballs to those daft – or duped – enough to buy them. Now there’s a carbon footprint.

“‘Double’, scentless flowers, crammed with petals, their nectaries and pollen-carrying stems obliterated through breeding, bring nothing to an organic garden”

But it’s not just the resource demands of bedding plant production that makes them a no-no in an environmentally overstretched world. Equally important is how little they give back, and how dysfunctional they are when it comes to being team players in a garden ecosystem. Organic, earth-friendly growing is all about encouraging a vibrant, biologically diverse, balanced garden, with strands of interconnectedness flying off in all directions. When the occasional imbalance occurs, we engage nature, rather than the chemical spray bottle, as a troubleshooter.

The flat, single flowers of hardy annual pot marigold (Calenedula officinalis) attract a wide range of beneficial insects: bumble and honey, bees, hoverflies and many others.

Simple, single flowers like these annual pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis), are hardy, act as bug magnets from the moment the first bloom opens, and once growing in your garden, will self-seed indefinitely.

The plants we choose for our gardens have to earn their place; they must offer us as many benefits as possible, and play an active part in maintaining the garden’s ecological dynamism. Bedding plants may be bright, cheerful and uniform, but highly ‘double’, scentless flowers, crammed with petals, their nectaries and pollen-carrying stamens obliterated through breeding, bring nothing – other than a wince – to an organic garden. They also have an in-built craving for regular feeding and watering, which the self-seeded offspring of my foxgloves, Welsh poppies, calendulas and ox-eyes won’t ever have. And if they can’t muster even a glimmer of interest from a passing hoverfly, what chance do they stand when overrun by sap-sucking aphids?

Not all ‘bedding’ is bad. The most notable exception I know is single-flowered mixtures of dwarf bedding dahlias. I’ve stood transfixed, watching clouds of butterflies and bees dancing over them in flower trials. You can buy ready-grown packs of bedding dahlias, but to grow them in the most environmentally-friendly way possible, raise them from seed at home, indoors on a window-sill, in mid- to late spring, using peat-free compost, then plant them (after frosts) randomly throughout your garden or allotment.

There’s so much wrong with the bedding plant industry that it’s hard to see how, if at all, it can green up its act. But one thing’s for sure: if our gardens are to become havens for wildlife seeking refuge from a biosphere under pressure, we must ensure they are zones filled with vibrant, interconnected life – not pink, purple and yellow dead zones.

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