Is Gardening Really ‘Green’?

Exploring the reality behind gardening’s widely touted but increasingly unconvincing claim that ‘gardening is green!’

By John Walker. First published in The Garden, magazine of the Royal Horticultural Society, December 2015

Writing about gardening is a solitary game. But using the pen to place gardening in a broader environmental context, to explore where gardening fits among nature, and how gardens affect the natural world – for good or ill – is a truly desolate place. In my experience, few wellies dare to tread here.

john-walker-gardening-green-comment-royal-horicultural-society-rhs-the-garden-green-environmentWhile composing an anthology of my ‘enviro-gardening’ writing from the last decade, what hit me hardest is just how little has really changed. As concerns over climate chaos, the use of pesticides and peat, and our energy and resource profligacy mount, gardening – by which I mean both gardeners, and the businesses that serve us – carry on as if none of it matters to our enduring passion. As the natural world buckles, our green-fingered myopia thrives, and we toddle on, soothed by the equally myopic cries of marketing-types that ‘gardening is green!’. Oh, I wish.

“It is no longer tenable to treat the supply side of gardening like an unmentioned, embarrassing relative”

My garden has been on an earth- and climate-friendly path for a while now. It is beautiful, productive, and brimful with wildlife. There is nothing hair-shirted about it: a conscious effort to lessen the negative impact of my gardening activities, through frugality, thinking local, attuning with nature and, when necessary, making mindful, informed purchasing choices, gives me a garden that feels as good as it looks. For gardening to play its part in helping us live within our planet’s limits, our short- sightedness must go, and the multimillion pound industry that supports us must truly ‘green-up’.

“As the natural world buckles, our green-fingered myopia thrives”

‘Growing plants is good for the environment!’ is true in essence, but the devil’s in the rootball. Blinkers off, we must ask those questions that matter: where have plants and products come from? How have they been grown or made, and by whom? What kind of ‘footprint’ do they leave behind? You only fail to spot the crushing irony of lauding a pollinator plant, grown using peat, heat and insect-harming pesticides, if you choose to. It is no longer tenable to treat the supply side of gardening like an unmentioned, embarrassing relative: we need to know all we can to be sure our shared passion for plants matches gardening’s ‘green’ billing. There is little sign that business wants this awkward relation uncovered: perhaps too many skeletons lurk in gardening’s shed. I’m up for a bit of horticultural bone-rattling, but it’s no fun doing it solo.

So, don your wellies, and let’s get digging.

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