Sticking my head above the parapet – at last

The recent hiatus in posts has been caused by my fear of causing a ruckus over the subject I am about to broach. I usually try not to be controversial. But then the articles enjoy reading most, whether I agree with the author’s opinions or not, are those that spark a little controversy. And yet, in a time when there is so much to worry about, and to campaign about, does the topic of this post matter? Is it too inconsequential?

I don’t think life has ever been so confusing. Who would have dreamed, two years ago, that we would roll over and accept that governments would prevent us from going on holiday or leave our homes? Climate change, Afghanistan, human rights in China, consumerism as the measure of a country’s success; they all keep me awake.

So, with trepidation I will launch into this post which, I admit, is long and convoluted. It is not intended to offend.

To set out my stall first, I am concerned about the environment and climate change. Anyone who is will have their own views on what should be done. If we are to effect any real change we will all have to make substantial changes to our lives. The problem is that whatever we do, as humans, we consume. Whatever I do seems to be harming the planet. Perhaps limiting population growth is the answer – but that is a real can of worms. Governments seem to think that taxing carbon is the answer but I can see a huge inequality in the future where the rich will buy carbon credits and the poor live in slums: rather dystopian I know but, in a capitalist society, inevitable. China is watching.

But this is supposed to be about gardening.

In my garden I follow largely organic principles. I do use some garden chemicals. And I do not think that, by doing so, I am reducing biodiversity. I have a bed of seed-raised dahlias. They are providing pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies and hoverflies. I do not spray to kill aphids so the hoverfly larvae have food and nettles in nearby hedges and the edges of my garden produce the commonest butterflies in the garden. If I had not put down a few slug pellets when the dahlias were planted, these dahlias would not have survived. The bed would be grass and docks which are of no use to bees (though butterflies may use them as food plants).

Of course, I used compost to raise the plants and this may have contained peat. The peat issue is a tricky one because peat extraction is damaging on many fronts. Ireland has a long history of peat use and it is still burned to generate electricity, though this will be phased out by 2050 *

Peat to make briquettes for domestic heating fell from 500,000 tonnes in 1987 to 200,000 tonnes more recently (no precise date) and milled peat for power plants from 4 million tonnes to 3.4 million tonnes in the same period. For this reason I do not feel too guilty about using a little peat, though I accept that we must use less. However, shipping coir from halfway across the world is just as irresponsible and virtually all recycled options seem to be poor substitutes.

What we need to do is use local materials to reduce carbon emissions in transport.

It is this issue that defeats the vegan option for me. When I went to a café (before lockdown), they proudly advised that all their scones were ‘vegan-friendly’. Well I don’t want a vegan-friendly scone. I would prefer it made with local butter, with no air miles, rather than palm fat that is, apart from tasteless, shipped halfway around the world and contributes to the death of primates. Pushing our issues to other countries is not the answer: how dare we worry about the diversity of our hedgerows while we actively encourage deforestation elsewhere to cultivate palm oil! Surely, local, sustainable produce will help us all.

But the start of all this was a news story in Garden News (Aug 28) that screamed ‘Stop the Spraying’ ** ‘A petition calling for a government ban on the use of pesticides in urban areas and axing their sale for use in gardens has been launched by a range of conservation and health charities. National Bee expert and university lecturer Professor Dave Goulsen, who is spearheading the move, would rather the public learned to ‘enjoy the sight of dandelions and other wildflowers peeking from the cracks in the pavement’, stating that the use of such chemicals were a prime cause of the decline of wild bee species and other insects in the UK, triggering potential catastrophe for us all.’

The campaign is supported by organisations including the RSPB and Parkinsons UK.

The article states that more than 70 towns and cities across the UK have introduced measures to go pesticide-free and, as it happens, one of these was recently featured on the BBC news. Brighton and Hove council introduced such a ban in 2019. But it has not been universally popular.

From The Argos:
“Robert Nemeth, a councillor for Wish ward said: ‘It’s all very well for a trendy city dweller to say, ‘let’s rewild our pavements’ after hearing about the cause for the first time’.
“They probably haven’t got any friends who are elderly or disabled, who are most likely to be seriously injured under the current unsatisfactory situation.”
Pictures from across the city show rogue weeds are covering up street signs, coming up between the cracks in pavements and even growing in the middle of the road.’ ***

And one of the common weeds in verges and pavements is foxtail grass – and that is troubling dog owners because the barbed seeds can cause real issues, though as a child I used to throw them at friends to stick in their jumpers. ****

But what I am really upset about is removing all the possible chemicals that I may want to use in my garden. I don’t believe that most gardeners want to spray their gardens with a cocktail of chemicals.

In fact, far too many gardeners use ‘alternatives’ when spraying their plants. Apart from the fact that it is technically illegal to use washing up liquid to kill aphids, it may be harmful and it certainly has not been tested for efficacy or safety.

The use of glyphosate remains controversial and I have been criticised for suggesting its use. But I am adamant that it is safer, more practical and better for the environment to use a little glyphosate to control ‘difficult’ weeds than some other methods. Organic gardeners may recommend a ‘flame gun’ but apart from the lance, which is shipped from China, the burning of the butane, which will release CO2 and the disposal of the gas cannister, it won’t kill bindweed roots. I am not suggesting weedkillers for everything – a good old hoe or mulch is better in many cases. As usual it is not a case of one answer being appropriate for every problem. One size does not fit all.

Gone are the days when chemicals were seen as the answer to everything. I am glad that the range of chemicals is restricted and, as far as we know, comparatively safe when used as directed. (I know we don’t know everything – just look at whether coffee is good for you or bad, depending on the day you ask). And I don’t just accept everything I am fed – I recall the press launch of Provado ( the first amateur-use Neonicotinoid) when, after we had it explained to us, I asked if it was present in the pollen and nectar and what the effect would be on bees. We (probably) know the answer now.

I am of the generation when we watched films produced by ICI and Shell showing the spraying of vast swathes of DDT to save mankind. And I was moved by Silent Spring and my opinion influenced at a young age.

Garden sprays cost too much to use liberally. And apart from wanting a lovely garden, most gardeners embrace wildlife. They feed the birds.

But now that is wrong. *****

It is now thought that feeding bluetits and other garden birds is disturbing the natural diversity of birds and that dominant species such as blue tits are being encouraged and lesser species are declining as a result. So feeding your garden birds is now harmful to wildlife. I give up.

My garden is a haven for wildlife. But I do not want to be prevented from spraying a few chemicals when it is essential. Having a garden is a joy and a privilege but, although artificial by definition, it is not, on balance, bad for wildlife. My young plants are protected from slugs so they can become established but the garden is full of slugs, this morning crawling across my lawns (another thing that is sinful). I often wonder why I don’t have hedgehogs, with a permeable boundary and abundance of slugs. But then, surrounded on three sides by grass, which is shorn a few times of year with machines that would mince an armadillo, usually in the middle of the night, to be taken to cows that evidently don’t have legs to find their own grass, I can’t expect any wildlife bigger than a bacterium, to survive.

(I always buy organic milk because I hope the cows are not in sheds and are well treated – apart from which there is no reason for milk to be cheaper than bottled water and I am happy to pay 99c for a litre – I hope the farmers get a better percentage of this.)

In the past two years, many have turned to their gardens to remain sane and be creative, and gardens have shown themselves to be so valuable. Gardening encourages the better sides of humanity and, unless you regard a ‘garden’ to be a Tiki bar, hot tub, plastic palms and a swathe of paving, creating a garden is surely among the least guilty pleasures or activities. We don’t need to be presented as environmentally reckless for wanting to make the world more beautiful.


**I am a weekly contributor to Garden News




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12 Comments on “Sticking my head above the parapet – at last”

  1. Kathy Larson
    September 5, 2021 at 5:40 pm #

    I completely agree with you!
    I remember hearing a specialist in restoring our Iowa prairies recommend planting only wildflower seed produced in our own counties.”The ultimate in locally adapted.”But later,in the same lecture,boasting that she spotted a butterfly in her prairie that had previously only been seen in Illinois,a neighboring state.A lot of emotion-based moralizing,no consistency.

  2. Paddy Tobin
    September 5, 2021 at 10:27 pm #

    Despite your expressed fears, I don’t find your attitude in the least controversial and certainly unlikely to cause any ruckus in my corner of the woods. I use very, very little chemicals in the garden – one spray of a broad-leaved weedkiller on the field headland around my garden. This supplements the spraying of cereal crops in the field – the contractor keeps the sprayer away from the garden boundary for fear of damaging garden plants and this leaves a ribbon untreated on the headlands. One spray controls the various willowherbs and the likes which would otherwise be a nuisance in the garden. I also spray against box blight – one of the proprietary chemicals – but nothing for aphids nor blackspot or the likes on roses, for example. Nearly forgotten: I use bait to rid us of rats as we can have swarms of them when the cereal is harvested.
    To mention any of the above on social media would bring a torrent of abuse. For example, I showed a photograph of a covering of black plastic I use to cover potatoes in the vegetable garden and this brought abuse for creating waste etc etc until I pointed out that the same piece of plastic had been in use for almost fifteen years and that after it had been used as a cover on a silage pit. There are many, many out there who will attack at the mention of any of several trigger words but, I feel, that all this accomplishes is to stifle debate as I, for one, am inclined to keep my head below the parapet and avoid the nuisance of the inevitable exchanges that follow.

    • thebikinggardener
      September 6, 2021 at 8:30 am #

      That is very interesting. Isn’t it odd that we are scared to mention that we re-use a piece of plastic while we import countless tonnes of unnecessary plastic products from halfway across the world. Thank you for your comments.

  3. summercloud
    September 6, 2021 at 10:31 pm #

    Oh gosh. Things are different in the US and UK, of course. But I hear you! At least here the problem definitely isn’t gardeners using a small amount of pesticide in a conscientious manner. The problem is more: lots of properties being sprayed all summer against mosquitoes, which kill everything; lots of pesticides on hundreds of square miles of monoculture agriculture crops; businesses and municipalities spraying pesticides weekly as a regular practice rather than investigate any alternatives; 99.9% of people thinking anything not-grass is evil and must be killed with herbicides; people reaching for pesticides when they see any insects instead of considering that they kill the good with the bad.

    And the run-off from all of these, of course…

    Oh, and why are we still allowing neonicitinoids again?

    Gardeners do their research. They care about their gardens, the wildlife in them, and the greater ecosystem. If you’ve considered all options and thing a limited use of pesticides is the best choice for a specific situation, and if you are careful in using them correctly and in a targeted fashion, I think it’s OK. I don’t use a lot but to kill certain invasives it’s the only option, for instance. I won’t feel bad about that!

    Great post. I know it’s outside your norm but I enjoyed it!

    • thebikinggardener
      September 7, 2021 at 9:32 am #

      Thank you so much for your comments. You did touch on an issue that I skirted round – farmers spraying glyphosate by the acre. Fortunately we don’t have mosquitoes to worry about. Like you I want to be able to use a little chemical and be responsible which was the reason I posted – the thought of having all possible remedies removed. The problem is that if they are all taken off the market people will make up their own potions that could do more harm… and we know what happens when things are prohibited. Can you imagine gardeners waiting on street corners at night waiting for their dealer for a gram of slug pellets!

      • summercloud
        September 9, 2021 at 8:31 pm #

        Oh my! Black market glyphosate and slug pellets is definitely not where we want to go!

        I know in the US we have a lot less regulation than the UK and Europe and we could use more. Blanket bans…yeah. It’s tricky! Maybe one could have to take pass some sort of training on responsible use first? As so many don’t follow the instructions and that’s at least some of the problem. At least an online quiz to demonstrate that you read the actual label.

  4. Meriel
    September 7, 2021 at 1:17 pm #

    I concur with everything you said. I use chemicals very occasionally & sparingly and only when I get desperate! Almost exclusively on paths and to keep Bracken in check. It gets up my nose when others are very critical while not gardening themselves or certainly not on a large scale. Thank you for bringing up the subject.

  5. Anne Cullen
    September 8, 2021 at 4:17 pm #

    I read & re-read your blog so many times & agree wholeheartedly with all the issues you covered. My pet hate, & never really mentioned is – how many times do commercial growers spray for Carrot Root fly?? – many, many I think!. Also, thank you for the information on Bidens ‘Hannay’s’ Lemon Drop – I was given that plant many years ago but not identified – now I can give it a better home in the garden based on the good display I saw on your blog. Really enjoy your blogs. Thank you

    • thebikinggardener
      September 8, 2021 at 5:45 pm #

      Thank you for reading and even re-reading the post. I agree about the carrot fly. In fact I read somewhere that carrots have the highest pesticide residue of any veg. As a consequence I only buy organic carrots. I am glad I solved the bidens conundrum for you. I have only had it a year but I think it is a good plant. I hope you are keeping well.

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