Kicking the Habit

GMG Environmental Award 2010, John Walker for Kicking the HabitOil spills and their impact on our planet’s ecology might seem faraway and remote, but one way of helping prevent them lies closer than you might think.

By John Walker. Published in Kitchen Garden, August 2010. Winner of the Garden Media Guild Environmental Award 2010.

Here’s a question for you: what does the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (still underway as I write this) have to do with your garden? And while you’re pondering that, try this: how much of the materials, equipment and gadgetry that make your kitchen gardening possible is made from a dark liquid just like that gushing from 1,500m (5,000ft) down on the ocean floor? Here’s a clue to get you started, whether you’re of an organic disposition or not: rather a lot.

The ecological disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico has permeated the news for months, ever since the BP-run ‘ultra-deepwater semi-submersible oil rig’ Deepwater Horizon suffered a massive explosion in late April, and sank a few days later, with the loss of 11 lives. During the rig’s collapse, pipes carrying oil became damaged, and several subsequent attempts to plug or contain the leak failed. Since then, anywhere between 5,000 and 25,000 barrels (estimates vary) of crude oil a day have continued, after aeons of slumber, to spew from beneath the seabed.

Satellite view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico June 2010

The pale and swirling oil slick from the Deepwater Horizon, which is polluting the Gulf of Mexico, captured by a satellite in late May 2010. The oil smooths the ocean surface, making the sun’s reflection brighter than the surrounding water. The bird’s-foot-like land extending into the sea is the tip of the Mississippi Delta. Image: NASA

Soon after the rig sank, slicks of dark liquid began to appear on the ocean surface and drift toward the ecologically fragile coastlines of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi in the southern USA. The worst man-made oil industry disaster in American history began to unfold and, by early June, was clearly visible from space.

I was in my greenhouse the day the Deepwater Horizon caught fire, sowing seeds in some much-used plastic pots and various plastic cell trays acquired over the years. The peat-free compost I was using was scooped from a plastic bag, and I wrote names and sowing dates on yellowing, much-scrubbed plastic labels. It was then that I asked myself the same two questions I’ve just asked you.

Here’s my answer to the second one: plant pots, multi-cell trays, some plug plant packaging, a fading plastic watering can, compost bins, a hosepipe, a hand sprayer, fruit cage netting, some fleece and insect mesh, a plant food container, some buckets, ground cover fabric, shade netting, garden twine, a couple of Tubtrugs, a water tank, a birdfeeder, some bed edging, some old polytunnel covering, a ‘patio bag’, and numerous empty compost bags. Granted, some are ‘recycled’ – the bed edging is made from plastic milk bottles and the water tank once contained orange juice – but all of the stuff on my list ultimately derives from one ancient substance: oil.

How did you get on? If you’re definitely not of an organic disposition, I’d wager that you can confidently tick ‘all of the above’, and then some. How about adding insecticides, fungicides and weedkillers to your list? What about synthetic chemical fertilisers and plant foods? Almost without exception, all of these are derived from that dark stuff oozing from the seabed. And don’t forget the packaging; the worrying trend toward ever more elaborate and over-packaged garden ‘convenience chemicals’ only adds to our growing addiction to crude. Some even have oh-so-handy sprayers with pumps powered by batteries (we’re too lazy to even squeeze our fingers together any more).

Insect mesh is used by commercial and home growers alike. It keep insect pests, such as butterflies, away from crop plants without the need to use synthetic garden pesticides.

Curtailing our use of oil-based products like this insect mesh, which keeps butterflies off our brassicas, means we would have to do more squidging, but it would help to avoid environmentally damaging oil spills.

Let’s face it: in gardening terms, organic or otherwise, we’re up to our necks in the stuff. If we could wave a magic wand and turn all of the oil-derived materials in our gardens and allotments back into crude oil, our plots would be plastered with dark and smelly gunk. Like me, you have probably never seen, smelt or touched an oil spill in the flesh, but looking at pictures of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, especially through the impassive eye of an orbiting satellite, and then glancing around my patch, reminds me of gardening’s often painfully high ecological price tag.

For many gardeners, even us supposedly earth-friendly organic ones, kicking the oil habit is going to take some effort. If we don’t do it voluntarily, driven by a growing sense of obligation to respect the beleaguered life-support systems around us, we’ll end up doing it the cold turkey way. Those of us growing organically can take some comfort from knowing that we’re through the worst; you might say we are ‘recovering gardeners’.

If you’ve kicked the habit completely, if you’re tending a flourishing and abundant food-bearing plot which depends on barely a drop of fresh oil being extracted, give yourself a pat on the back. But if you are still getting your oil-derived fix, if you are in thrall to chemical-pushing gardening pundits-cum-dealers, don’t fret; it’s never too late to join an organic recovery programme.

 “If you are still getting your oil-derived fix, don’t fret; it’s never too late to join an organic recovery programme”

Although growing organically spares us the worst shakes and shivers of addiction recovery, most of us will have some way to go before we’re completely tremor-free. But the rewards, both for ourselves and for the world around us, are priceless. By weaning ourselves off oil, we can, as gardeners, send a powerful signal down the supply chain that reduces demand for it (and for the other ‘fossil fuels’, coal and natural gas).

One of the main reasons for the spill in the Gulf of Mexico is that as demand for oil continues to rise, easily extractable oil supplies are getting harder to find, forcing oil companies to search for ever more hard-to-reach reserves. Piping oil from 5,000ft down on the sea floor is a dangerous, precarious business, with dire consequences when it goes wrong. Reducing demand for oil decreases the urgency to exploit risk-laden reserves.

Recycled plastic garden edging boards and stakes made from high density polyethylene (HDPE), more familiar as plastic milk bottles.

Oil already in daily use, in the form of plastic, can be recycled indefinitely and put to good use in our gardens. These durable and maintenance-free edging boards and stakes are made from recycled plastic milk bottles.

By cutting back on all ‘new’ oil coming into our gardens, by using pots until they are on their last legs, by keeping fleece and insect mesh until it’s threadbare, by patching up leaky hoses, and by simply choosing oil-less stuff, we might just lessen the risk of another Deepwater Horizon. If this smacks of being a futile gesture when you look around your own plot, try multiplying it up by tens of millions of gardeners the world over; together, we would make a real difference.

Will reducing or cutting off the flow of new oil-based stuff into our gardens be so bad? We might get the shakes at the thought of no more fleece or insect mesh, but I’m sure we could hold it together sufficiently to squidge cabbage white butterfly eggs and hand-pick any caterpillars, while bumping up our companion planting to bring in beneficial insects.

Better still, perhaps those who make these wonderfully useful materials might actually get around to ensuring they are fully and easily recyclable; whatever you think of plastic, it’s a durable resource that can be sent around in a virtuous cycle indefinitely. And what’s to stop us insisting – nay, demanding – that any really indispensable organic gardening stuff be made from oil that’s already ‘in the system’, and that it just keeps going round and round?

They may be far apart, but our gardens and the dark, growing slick glinting in the sun off the USA’s southern coast are inextricably linked. Anyone for rehab?

* * *
GMG Environmental Award 2010, John Walker for Kicking the Habit“John Walker shoots from the hip, shattering any illusions ‘grow your own’ gardeners might have that they are greener than green. He seized the opportunity presented by the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico to highlight the link to just how many oil-based products are in daily use on allotments and in gardens throughout the land. Having made our oil-dependency crystal clear with a long list of plastics, pesticides and paraphernalia, John then challenges his readers to lead the campaign to refuse, re-use, recycle and press for more of our ‘must have’ garden products to be manufactured from recycled raw materials, thereby reducing the need for more fresh oil production. The structure and the language of the feature are compelling and the timing inspired. John managed to make a major environmental issue of the day directly relevant to his gardening readership and to make it clear that individual actions can make a difference.”
Judges’ citation, Garden Media Guild Environmental Award 2010.
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