A sustainable garden is diverse and thriving with blooms and produce. It is teeming with wildlife yet ecologically balanced. How difficult is that to achieve?
The heartbeat of a garden is its compost – not the stuff you buy in bags from garden centres but real garden compost made from cuttings, clippings, peelings and paper from the home and garden itself.
Recycling, which puts back into the garden what has come out of it, is both beneficial and great fun. The process of composting starts immediately. Grass clippings begin to heat up within hours of being added to a compost bin.
But from mixing all the ingredients, maintaining the air in the mix to produce usable garden compost can take around nine months to a year. That is why every garden needs more than a single bin. One can be for adding fresh material to, a second can be work in progress and a third can house the finished compost, ready for use.
Newly planted specimens will need extra water to help them become established. New roots will be forming and need help. However, established trees and shrubs will not usually need irrigating in dry conditions as their roots are deep in the soil, searching out all available moisture.
Plants in the M&G Garden 2017 at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, for example, are adept at foraging and storing water. Blasted by drying winds and baked by scorching sun in their native Malta, native plants are born survivors.
The overall health and sustainability of a garden can improved with planning. This is important in the vegetable plot where crop rotation can eradicate common problems.
If a crop is grown year after year in the same place it will repeatedly take the same nutrients out of the soil, eventually depleting it. The same crop will also attract a build-up of pests and diseases that in time will become a major headache.
Moving crops to different areas of your plot will not only reduce those problems but allow the soil vital recovery time. Wherever possible, swap and change crops and plants to different areas of a garden.
Toads and slugs
James Basson, designer of the M&G Garden 2017, prefers to treat bugs with bugs (using natural predators), and not use chemicals that leach back into the soil.
Wild plants native to a particular area are often immune to attack. It can take a few years for a garden to be properly balanced.
Ladybirds will find the aphids but while they do you may have to put up with some damage (or squish them with your fingers to reduce numbers quickly).
Encourage birds into your garden and snail numbers will decline; create a pond and frogs and toads will feast on your slugs. It takes time – but gardening is a long game.
Some plants are better neighbours than others. Garlic planted beneath roses can deter greenfly, and marigolds are reported to counter blackfly. Lavender roots exude natural chemicals to stop weed growth; planting onions and carrots together can confuse onion and carrot flies. Look to nature and study landscapes to see how plants work together in an area.
A sustainable garden is one in balance. It takes time for natural predators to become established and to control numbers of prey.
The same principle applies to allowing plants to self-seed. Genetically the offspring will be strong and adapted to local conditions. The bonus is that any seed left on the plants will be devoured by birds, increasing the sustainability of your garden.
Pesticides and weed killers can have an adverse effect on wildlife. Keep their use to a minimum or do not use them at all. Consider some weeds as wild flowers and allow them to flourish in pockets of your garden. This all helps in the garden balancing act.
Seed formed in the garden will genetically be better suited to its conditions. This makes for stronger plants in the future.
The ecosystem of local fungi and bacteria will also flourish if nourished with homemade compost. Feeding a garden from itself is the perfect way to encourage natural balance.
Enter the M&G Little Garden Awards to win tickets to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and RHS Gardens.