Bring Me Sunshine: The Power Behind Renewable Gardening

Using a greenhouse to grow your own food will make your garden greener and help trim your ‘ecological footprint’ – but only if you tap into the right kind of sunshine.

By John Walker. Published on the Hartley Botanic website, 23rd September 2011.

My garden has become important to me in ways I could never have imagined. Barely a week goes by without it providing me with ultra-local food for my stomach, as well as often challenging food for my grey matter to get its metaphorical teeth into. However, there’s one special part of my garden that yields an ultra-rich harvest of food for thought, and that’s my lean-to greenhouse. It’s a big one: a full 18ft (5.5m) long by 8ft (2.4m) wide, and I simply love it. It’s a used-for-just-about-everything space where I do much more than grow plants. I drink tea with friends here, read a book, hatch gardening plans for the year ahead, shelter from North Wales’ legendary downpours, sow, prick out and pot on, watch and learn as nature goes about its business, split kindling for the woodburner, dry off and ripen crops, and gaze up at the moon and stars… the list goes on.

But my greenhouse is also a place into which I can retreat to think, reflect and ponder, and to sow the seeds of inspiration for my work as a gardening-cum-environmental writer. It has changed not only the scope of how I garden, but also the way I look at the world and at my evolving place in it as a gardener. That’s not bad going, is it, for a sturdy metal frame holding together sheets of toughened glass? Apart from the infrastructure, there’s one vital ingredient needed to power up this all-weather, season-stretching and mind-expanding space: sunshine. And not just any old sunshine, mind, but modern sunshine.

Sunlight is the energy which powers the growth of plants in our gardens. It is free, non-polluting and endlessly renewable.

Modern sunshine is clean, green, costs nothing, doesn’t pollute and can be harvested effortlessly using a greenhouse. The only time it’s not available is at night…

My overarching ambition for my garden is that it is created and then cultivated in a way that minimises any negative environmental impacts, while maximising the positive benefits. Just as I try to reduce my own ‘ecological footprint’ in everyday activities , to live that bit lighter and ‘greener’ , I also try to make sure that my gardening activities leave only the shallowest of ‘gardening footprints’ in their wake. I’m as assiduous about rounding up every last scrap of rottable stuff with ‘compost me’ on it, so the local landfill site can heave a sigh of relief, as I am about switching off lights.

The underpinning ethos of my approach to gardening is that I try to do everything in a thoughtful way that’s as ‘earth-friendly’ as possible. Using peat-free compost, finding non-chemical ways to tackle problems, and reducing garden energy use are at the top of the list. For me, peat compost, synthetic, usually oil-based chemicals, and energy-hungry gardening gadgets and equipment all belong in the earth-unfriendly category. There’s nothing congenial about any gardening activity which, somewhere down the line, contributes to the accelerating degradation of our natural world.

“Next time you’re in your greenhouse when the sun comes out, remember that you’re part of a quiet (and argy-bargy-free) renewable energy revolution”

That said, my greenhouse uses an awful lot of energy during the course of a year , or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it catches an awful lot. This clean, ‘green’ energy doesn’t come down a cable or a pipe, it costs me nothing (there’s no meter to read), there are never any outages (except at night), it causes zero pollution (no release of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide), it doesn’t involve destruction of natural habitats, and it’s supplied daily (the actual hours vary depending on the season) in mind-boggling amounts on a renewable basis, meaning it will last pretty much forever. It’s wonderful stuff, this modern sunshine.

Gardeners with greenhouses are the unsung heroes of the renewable energy movement. Forgive me for foisting heroic status on you (just as you’re mulling over scrubbing down the glass before winter), but it’s true. While arguments rage over how to switch to generating most of our energy needs from renewable sources , be they wind farms, solar photovoltaic panels on our roofs or hydro-electric schemes , without blighting our precious landscapes, we gardeners have in fact been tapping into renewable energy since the year dot. Eco-warriors by default, or what? Next time you’re in your greenhouse when the sun comes out, remember that you’re part of a quiet (and argy-bargy-free) renewable energy revolution.

Greenhouses capture sunlight that both powers plant growth and helps create a warmer, more protected environment that allows us to grow a wide range of crops.

Growing this bumper crop of tomatoes in my lean-to greenhouse has upped the ‘earth-friendliness’ of my garden and helped trim my ‘ecological footprint’.

When I’m not bathing in it myself, I use modern sunshine primarily to grow organic food, both under cover and outdoors. This is a winner on many different levels and fits perfectly with my ‘earth-friendly’ approach. By growing my own food I make a conscious decision to be, for certain periods of the year at least, a bit of a rebel (lots of heroes are also rebels). By sidestepping the conventional ‘food chain’ during periods of abundance on my plot, I’m both greening my garden and shrinking my environmental footprint. Eating home-grown chemical-free food cuts down on packaging, pesticide and fertiliser use, transport, processing and storage, and reduces demand along a long chain of energy-intensive events which can literally encircle the globe. It tastes good and is more nutritious, too.

But if what we’re using is safe, clean and green modern sunshine, what of the ancient variety? Most of modern life runs on non-renewable and finite ancient sunshine, in the form of oil, coal and natural gas, the so-called ‘fossil fuels’ used in manufacturing and burned to provide energy. This sunshine was captured by plants when it shone on Earth some 400 million years ago, before being locked away in their decaying, carbon-rich tissues and eventually becoming fossilized. Burning fossil fuels liberates the energy of that ancient sunshine, but when we drive our cars or heat our greenhouses, we’re paying a hefty ecological price. Burning ancient sunshine releases carbon dioxide, and it is this gas, which we’re unleashing in increasing amounts, which is sending our global climate off kilter.

Whenever the sun warms my face, it’s reassuring to know that the energy I choose to power my greenhouse with isn’t going to run out any time soon, cost me a penny or pollute the world around me. Using the sun that’s shining today to grow my plants, especially those I eat, makes my gardening ecologically renewable and sends out positive ripples far beyond my own garden gate.

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