Pesticide-Free Plants with the Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme

It’s a sultry September afternoon and I’m pottering round the garden, deadheading the dahlias as I go. I can hear the echinacea gently buzzing as a drowsy bumblebee picks its way across the tawny central cone. On the dwarf blue lavender hedge that edges the border, a green-veined white butterfly is also making the most of the late nectar supply.

Bumblebee on echinacea

The flowerbeds have been attracting large numbers of bumblebees, hoverflies, solitary bees, beetles and butterflies all summer long – especially the borage, globe thistles, calendula and red valerian. It is always a privilege to share the garden with wild creatures, especially when they play such a fundamental role in supporting ecosystems and pollinating our crops.

Green-veined white on lavender

Pollinator-Friendly Plants

We’ve tried to choose as many plants as possible for the garden with pollinators in mind – avoiding double flowers, incorporating small areas of wildflowers in the lawn, including a range of flower shapes for different pollinators, adding a mix of plants that bloom from early spring until late autumn and encouraging ivy to colonise the bottom of the garden near the shed to extend the nectar season over winter.

Vestal cuckoo bee on knapweed

We’re often told that even the tiniest patio or window box can grow plants to benefit pollinators – and this is absolutely true. No space is too small. Each individual plot, however modest, is part of the one million acres of garden habitat in the UK, each acre of which (depending on our planting choices) can make a significant difference in the fight against the catastrophic biodiversity declines that have seen a 68% fall in wildlife populations since 1970, according to the WWF Living Planet Report 2020.

But that’s not the end of the story. The recent focus on the damaging effects of neonicotinoids and other pesticides on pollinating insects is highlighting the unfortunate irony of buying ‘plants for pollinators’ that may have been treated with synthetic chemicals. Even if we make informed planting choices, with the best of intentions we could be unwittingly offering a poisoned chalice to pollinators, adding flowers to our containers, beds and borders that could be laced with residues of synthetic chemicals that risk harming the very insects we’re trying to support.

Common blue butterfly

The Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme

With this issue in mind, the National Botanic Garden of Wales recently launched their innovative Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme. When I spoke to Dr Natasha de Vere, Head of Conservation and Research at the Garden, she highlighted several problems that consumers currently face when attempting to buy pollinator-friendly plants from nurseries or garden centres. The first issue is that many ‘plants for pollinators’ lists aren’t based on scientific data, unlike the list behind the Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme which is backed by many years of scientific research on the best plants for pollinators. Plants with the Saving Pollinators logo have been scientifically proven to support pollinators (based on a strong evidence base of data from the Botanic Garden’s DNA-barcoding research).

Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme logo. Credit: NBGW

Natasha and I also discussed the depressing fact that most of the plants we buy (even if they are suitable for pollinating insects) are still grown in peat – the extraction of which destroys ecosystems and the environment, releasing vast amounts of climate change gases into the atmosphere. The Saving Pollinators logo can only be used on plants grown in peat-free compost – meaning consumers don’t need to choose between supporting pollinators and protecting the environment.

Dr Natasha de Vere, Head of Conservation and Research, National Botanic Garden of Wales. Credit: NBGW.

Finally, Natasha emphasised the lack of information available to consumers concerning the insecticides that have been used on the plants they are considering buying. I have certainly struggled in the past to find nurseries that can give me any assurances that their plants have been grown without the use of pesticides. To enable consumers to make informed purchases, all plants sold under the Saving Pollinators logo are guaranteed to have been grown without the use of synthetic insecticides.

National Botanic Garden of Wales. Credit: NBGW

I witnessed the widespread desire to make environmentally-responsible gardening choices last September when I compiled the UK’s Peat-Free Nurseries list. I was truly overwhelmed by the positive response to the list, which has already sent many thousands of readers to independent peat-free nurseries across the UK (many of whom are also pesticide-free) and I’m equally excited about the Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme which I believe will enable gardeners to support pollinating insects more effectively. It is being trialled initially with growers and nurseries across Wales (some of whom deliver nationally) and Natasha is hoping that the scheme, or something similar, can be rolled out across the UK in the near future.

Year of Green Action Garden at RHS Hampton Court

Many of us owe our love of plants, gardens and wildlife to early experiences in childhood. Even on a small scale, places that enable young people to connect with the natural environment can begin a relationship that lasts a lifetime.

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The YoGA Garden is full of interesting features to engage children with nature

At a time when we need the younger generation to understand, cherish and protect the environment like never before, these early experiences are vitally important. The Year of Green Action Garden, created by DEFRA and the Sensory Trust, explores ways that children of all abilities can get involved with nature through gardens.

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Starting early often fosters a lifelong love of plants and wildlife

It aims to inspire people to create sustainable, resilient outdoor spaces at home, in schools, workplaces and communities, with environmentally-friendly top tips including:

Peat-Free Compost

Healthy peatlands are crucial in combating climate change, so always buy peat-free and tell friends and family why peat-free is so important too. The compost in the YoGA Garden is sourced from Melcourt.

Water

Opt for drought-resistant planting schemes to conserve water. Key examples in the garden include low-growing woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) and wild strawberries (Fragraria vesca).

Year of Green Action Garden. Designed by Helen J Rosevear and Jane Stoneham. Sponsored by Defra and Sensory Trust. RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival 2019. Stand no. 329

The sensory plant wall, including woolly thyme. Image credit: RHS Joanna Kossak

Paving

Permeable paving is vital to avoid flooding on hard surfaces, an increasingly common issue as the climate becomes warmer and wetter. Accessible permeable surfaces in the garden include turf reinforced with a grid system, recycled shredded rubber paths and porcelain paving made from recycled materials.

Pollinators

Nectar-rich plants with different flower shapes attract a range of pollinating insects. Designers Helen Rosevear and Jane Stoneham chose common garden plants like nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) for long-tongued bumblebees and butterflies, woolly lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) for wool carder bees (which collect the hairs and eat the pollen and nectar) and Verbena bonariensis, a magnet for a range of butterfly species.

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Nasturtiums attract a range of pollinating insects

Native Plants

Plants from other areas of the world are useful for pollinators, but native species also provide food and habitats for wildlife, especially larval forms of invertebrates that provide the vital foundation of many food webs. As non-natives often don’t provide for the larval stages, it is important to include a range of native plants to support healthy ecosystems in the garden. Silver birch (Betula pendula) was chosen as part of the canopy layer in the YoGA Garden as it casts dappled shade on the sensory dome and also provides a habitat for over 300 insect species, seeds for birds and homes for woodpeckers. For these reasons we planted a silver birch in our garden this year and I can’t wait until grows up to join the two neighbouring birches, playing host to daily goldfinch visits and redwing and waxwing in the winter.

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Redwing in the silver birch outside my study window

All the ideas in the YoGA Garden are designed to be affordable and accessible. From the wheelable thyme lawn tables and planters filled with edibles, to the shrub den and willow tunnel, the garden encourages physical and emotional participation, helping children to learn about the natural world.

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The vibrant planters are full of edibles, including foliage with colour contrasts for partially-sighted visitors like this red-veined sorrel

If you visit the garden or the website (www.yearofgreenaction.org), you can make a pledge to take green action and help protect the natural environment. I hung my promise on the tree among many others:

I pledge to encourage my young children and my nieces to engage with nature through wildlife gardening in the coming years.

Year of Green Action Garden. Designed by Helen J Rosevear and Jane Stoneham. Sponsored by Defra and Sensory Trust. RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival 2019. Stand no. 329

Featured image credit: RHS Joanna Kossak

5 Environmentally-Friendly Ideas to Take Home from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

1. Wildflower Power

Everywhere you turn at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, indigenous trees, shrubs and perennials are interpersed with native biennial and annual wildflowers. The gardens are awash with hornbeam, birch, willow, yew, guelder rose, cow parsley, foxglove, ragged robin and sedum. The pinks of red campion and ragged robin are particularly conspicuous across the showground, creating a frothy haze around the garden borders.

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‘R’ is for RHS, Red Campion and Ragged Robin

We’re all aware of the importance of growing flowers for pollinators and there are many different ways to create a mini-meadow even in the smallest garden. While pollinator mixes and seed mixes for pictorial meadows do provide pollen and nectar for pollinating insects, unfortunately they do little to support the huge numbers of other invertebrates that feed on indigenous flora. So if you can keep even a small area of the garden for native meadow flowers, you will be creating the best garden habitat for all manner of invertebrates that, in turn, support healthy local ecosystems.

One way to create a mini-meadow is to add wild flower plants as we are doing in our garden this year. I bought 140 plug plants from Naturescape a month ago – some have been planted in bare areas and some I’m growing on to add to wild patches at the edge of the lawn. Plants include a range of shade and sun lovers – ox-eye daisies, red and white campion, garlic mustard, mallow, yarrow, field scabious, knapweed and selfheal. I can’t wait to see the flowers develop later in the summer and to investigate what invertebrates these native plants attract to my garden.

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Wildflower turf contains a mix of many native annuals and perennials

Another way to create an area of meadow is to use wildflower turf. When I talked to Lindum, who are showcasing their turf at Chelsea this week, they explained that wildflower turf is now a hugely popular product – demonstrating the growing desire of UK gardeners to support biodiversity in their own backyard. The wildflower turf is grown on a biodegradable backing that breaks down completely as the plants establish, and it includes a wide range of plants – 27 native wildflower species in total. 

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Lindum also sell sedum matting

2. Peat-Free Potential

As always, I made a bee-line for Dalefoot Composts, who are launching their new peat-free tomato compost at Chelsea this year. I’m looking forward to trying it when I pot on my tomatoes next week. The wool-based compost is designed specifically for tomatoes, reducing your workload and environmental impact as plants do not need additional feed during the growing season (the compost has all the nutrients the developing flowers and fruit need) and watering requirements are reduced by 50%.

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Dalefoot Composts have a wide range including the new tomato compost. Image Credit: Dalefoot Composts

3. Circular Design

The Morgan Stanley Garden, designed by Chris Beardshaw, considers ways to manage resources in more sustainable ways, beginning with the creation of the show garden itself. From the domed yew balls to the spherical sculptures, the shapes in the garden depict the cyclical pathway of recycled products that keep materials in circulation for as long as possible. The Hi-Vis jackets and plant pots are made from recycled materials, the flooring is constructed out of bamboo, a rapidly renewable resource, and the rear relaxation pod is clad in an ultra-thin layer of stone that reduces demands on natural resources. These lightweight materials also lower the transportation carbon footprint and reduce the structural demands on the building.  

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In the past few years, the RHS has made huge steps in ensuring that gardens and their products and plants are reused across London and the UK. This year’s Morgan Stanley Garden is destined to be repurposed within the local community by Groundwork London. It would be great to see the commitment to reuse, recycling and minimising energy use embodied in the Morgan Stanley Garden rolled out across all Chelsea show gardens in future years.

4. Growing Heritage and Heirloom

Pennard Plants always creates a fabulous garden in the Great Pavilion and this year is no exception. Next month they have the honour of being RHS Master Growers at Chatsworth Flower Show – demonstrating the RHS commitment to growing your own fruit, vegetables and herbs. 95% Pennard Plants’ seeds are heritage or heirloom varieties and they offer 500 plant cultivars in their nursery and online. Providing such a wide range of different cultivars helps to conserve genetic variation for the future.

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Pennard Plants’ 2019 Chelsea Dig for Victory Garden complete with Anderson Shelter

At this year’s show Pennard Plants are launching the blight-resistant tomato ‘Cocktail Crush’ which produces sweet, small fruits with an acid tang. Blight has become more prevalent in the past 30 years and there are no chemical controls available. 

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‘Oh Happy Day’ – another blight-resistant cultivar available from Pennard Plants

The best option to avoid blight on outdoor tomatoes is to maintain good plant hygiene, maximise airflow around plants by trimming foliage and sideshoots, and growing blight-resistant cultivars like ‘Cocktail Crush’, ‘Oh Happy Day’, ‘Crimson Crush’ and ‘Nagina’ (another new introduction from the nursery).Pennard Plants is also one of the best UK nurseries for unusual edibles – this year I picked a new plant to try – Epazote or Wormseed (Chenopodium ambrosides). A native of Central and South America, this leafy herb was used by the Aztecs in tea, as a leafy vegetable (used sparingly) and to favour bean and rice dishes. Believed to be an aid to prevent flatulence, this would also seem to be the perfect companion plant for anyone growing Jerusalem artichokes this year.

5. Forest Carbon

Forest Carbon finance projects across the UK, planting woodland and restoring peatland with support from both companies and individuals who want to mitigate their carbon footprint. They are certified under the Woodland Carbon CO2de, meaning their carbon capture statistics are based on sound science, the woodland has the right species in the right place and sites are sustainably managed after planting. They also explained to me that they undertake survey work after planting to check that the woodland is having a beneficial effect on biodiversity.

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Riparian woodland creation in the Cheviots. Image Credit: Forest Carbon

Carbon offsetting is a complex issue. If companies and individuals use it as a smokescreen or a way of assuaging their guilt whilst continuing to live and work in an unsustainable manner, then offsetting may well have negative net effects. If, however, offsetting is practised as part of a broader sustainable lifestyle, then it could be argued that it has a place in an environmentally responsible lifestyle. I might, for example, choose to offset the carbon produced by our small amount of driving, whilst saving for an electric car – we’re hoping it won’t be long now! And there’s no doubt that the seven million trees planted by Forest Carbon since 2006 and projects like the peatland restoration at Dryhope in the Scottish Borders and Doddington North Forest – a new 350 hectare forest in Northumberland – are beneficial to people and wildlife. 

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Native woodland creation near Dunbar. Image Credit: Forest Carbon

Forest Carbon are running a new scheme called the Carbon Club for individuals and families to offset their carbon footprint with a monthly payment which helps fund afforestation and peatland restoration. Alongside undertaking other steps to minimise carbon footprints, this might be a suitable option for some.

 

What are your opinions on wildflower planting, peat-free compost, sustainable design at RHS flower shows and carbon offsetting? Please leave me a comment about what you believe to be the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly options for gardeners. Thank you.

As always, my observations and suggestions come from my own opinions on which companies and gardens are offering environmentally-friendly choices for the consumer. I have no connection to Lindum or Forest Carbon except through the discussions I’ve had with them; I’ve bought from Naturescape and was pleased with the quality of the plug plants.

I have, on several occasions, been given a few of packets of seed by Pennard Plants to trial, but I have spent far more buying seed and plants from them. This is also the case with Dalefoot Composts who have sent me bags in the past (including the tomato compost) to trial. However, I also purchase the majority of my peat-free compost supply from them and have done for several years now. I support these companies because they offer fabulous products and really care about the environment.

Related Articles:

Peat Bog Restoration: Protecting Ecosystems and Limiting Climate Change

Oh Happy Day! New Tomatoes, Pepper and Watermelon Launched at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

7 Green Gift Ideas for Gardeners

Family Fun: The Great British Wildflower Hunt

Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside

7 Green Gift Ideas for Gardeners

Is Christmas a time for delight or dread? A combination of both if you’re anything like me. There will be more opportunities to talk, go for walks, play games and share meals than at any other time, but the endless stuff, the commercialism and the waste accepted by society makes me uncomfortable at Christmas.

David Attenborough’s words at the UN Climate Change Summit play on my mind as I write my Christmas lists, test my daughter on the words for her Christmas show and put up the decorations. The immense challenges facing us concerning the climate, plastics, pollinators and many other issues arising from our past and current treatment of the natural world can’t be solved by small changes at Christmas, but I believe it is part of a changing mindset and complements more direct activities such as writing to MPs and supporting environmental charities and campaign groups. If you are buying gifts for Christmas, here are a few sustainable options for the gardeners in your life…

1. Grow Your Own

Plug plants are ideal for busy gardeners who like to grow their own or those who would like to begin. They normally come in plastic modules that can’t be recycled, but this selection from Pippa Greenwood arrive wrapped in paper and are grown in Lincolnshire. 

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Grow Your Own with Pippa Greenwood (Image credit: Pippa Greenwood)

The selection includes your choice of 15 different vegetables and the recipient gets a weekly email from Pippa tailored specially to the plants in the pack with advice right through from soil preparation to feeding, watering, staking/supporting, pinching out, and pests and disease.

Top Tip – Avoid wrapping paper at Christmas and for birthdays, as it is usually only suitable for landfill. It often contains plastic, glitter, dyes and is covered in sticky tape. DEFRA estimates in the UK we buy enough of this single-use material each year to gift wrap the whole of Guernsey!

2. The Gift of Time

Time is a valuable gift – far more than money or stuff in so many ways. Give a friend or family member a voucher for help with the allotment in the New Year or help create a new growing space for children. Meals for the freezer made with ingredients from the garden are also a way to pass on a little love without costing the earth.

Gifts involving experiences are a favourite in our house. For a keen gardener there are fabulous courses like those at the Cambridge Botanic Garden (I’m particularly looking forward to the ‘Rewild Your Garden’ this year) and for new gardeners there are often short courses and sessions at local community gardens. As a new mum, I joined a course on fruit pruning at my local community garden many years ago and it gave me the confidence to start formal horticultural qualifications.

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Tending the apple cordons at my local community garden where I learnt to prune in my first horticultural session

Top Tip – Instead of wrapping paper use fabric bags or scrap material and ribbons which can be used for many years. The Japanese art of furoshiki is centuries old and is enjoying a resurgence in Japan now that the issues with plastic bags and wrapping are becoming clear.

3. Festive Fungi

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The oyster mushrooms we grew a couple of years ago

The Espresso Mushroom Kitchen Garden from The Espresso Mushroom Company is an edible gift grown on the biodegradable, recycled coffee grounds of one hundred espressos. Made by a family firm in Brighton, these sustainable oyster mushrooms are a fun way to get growing in the New Year. 

4. Share Seeds

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Yin Yang beans are objects of beauty

Reusing materials is the most sustainable way to create a gift and seeds are so easy to share. Choose favourite seeds – this year, for me, it would be the French Dwarf bean seeds ‘Yin Yang’. I’m passing some onto friends to grow next year and even a handful for a fellow gardener who makes beautiful jewellery so that she can create a necklace.

Top Tip – Ditch the sellotape and buy 100% recycled paper tape with a natural latex adhesive backing. 

5. Donate

Charity gifts allow someone less fortunate to benefit at Christmas. I like the gifts from Send A Cow where you can donate to a Mandala Garden, a Keyhole Garden or even an Allotment in a rural African community. I saw a keyhole garden at Gardeners’ World LIVE a few years ago and was impressed by the design which allows a family to grow enough food for three meals a day – even in the face of an extreme climate and poor soil.

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Little Havens Hospice garden (Credit: Greenfingers)

 Alternatively you could gift a donation to gardening charities like Greenfingers or the Gardening for Disabled Trust. Greenfingers creates beautiful gardens in children’s hospices across the UK. This is the interactive garden at Little Havens Hospice in Essex, designed by Matthew Eden and completed in 2014.

 

Gardening for Disabled

Gardening for Disabled Trust Logo

The Gardening for Disabled Trust provides small grants for people with all kinds of chronic disabilities – mental and physical – to help get them gardening again, from money for a ramp so that a gardener with MS can access her garden again, to grants to set up gardening clubs in care homes. This work is vital to enable all members of society to benefit from the therapeutic effects of gardening and interacting with the natural world.

6. Plastic-Free Pots

The majority of the 500 million pots we buy in the UK each year are incinerated or sent to landfill. Part of the solution to this astounding amount of plastic needs to be to reduce the amount of plants we produce and buy, alongside using more sustainable containers. Garden Ninja presents an interesting discussion of the issues with and alternatives to plastic containers on his blog this week. 

In addition to Garden Ninja’s recommendations, these attractive biodegradable containers available from Pippa Greenwood are made from sustainable bamboo and rice. They are sturdy enough to last several years and when they finally need to be replaced, they can be added to the compost heap where they will biodegrade in 6-12 months. They are available in 5in and 6in, and come in packs of 5.

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No plastic here (Credit: Pippa Greenwood)

Top Tip – Use newspaper to wrap presents – iron it first to set the ink, or buy a roll of recyclable brown paper and jazz up with stencilled designs or ribbons. Include a note explaining that the wrap is recyclable.

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My daughter has used brown paper with stencilled snowmen (biscuit cutters for stencils), a recycled tag from last year’s cards and reusable ribbon on this present for her brother.

7. Perennial Power

Perennials are a gift that by their very nature just keep on giving. I love growing perennial vegetables like rhubarb, sorrel, Daubenton’s kale, perennial onions, garlic chives and Jerusalem artichokes. My first port of call when I’m after a new perennial for the garden is Alison Tindale at The Backyard Larder. She grows an interesting range of perennial vegetables in peat-free compost from seeds and cuttings. The plants arrive in recycled shoe boxes using as near to 100% recycled or fully biodegradable materials as possible and she is always on hand to give advice.

 

Marsh mallow and red-veined sorrel – some of the perennial vegetables I’ve grown in the garden and allotment over the years

Please do pass on your top tips for wrapping and presents in the comments below – there’s still time to make changes before Christmas and I’m keen to learn as much as possible about how to make this festive season the most sustainable yet. 

This is not a sponsored post – all the products are ones I have either bought myself and been impressed with or have come recommended. The only product I’ve tried but didn’t initially buy myself are the oyster mushrooms which I was sent to trial a couple of years ago. They were such fun to grow and so delicious to eat that I’d definitely grow them again and have bought them for others since.

(Featured image credit: Pippa Greenwood)

Plastic Pollution in the Pearlfisher Garden

I have loved the marine environment ever since my first school biology field trip to Anglesey. Although I moved through a career in English to garden and nature writing, I’ve never lost my affinity for the sea. I became a member of the Marine Conservation Society many years ago and started learning about and campaigning on the issues of marine pollution. Although society is slowly coming to terms with the fact that our throw-away culture is doing untold damage to many habitats – especially the marine environment – we are still too quick to dismiss the changes that are needed, perhaps because their magnitude seems beyond our powers.

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The Pearlfisher Garden aims to stimulate debate on marine pollution

But attitudes can change – I was involved in campaign organising in my home town around ten years ago – we surveyed the public about their attitudes to plastic bag waste and tried to persuade retailers to reduce the number of plastic bags they gave out to customers. At the time we were greeted with incomprehension and, at times, derision whereas now one-use plastic bags are accepted to have a negative impact on the environment, even if there is still some way to go to eradicate them completely. I believe the more we debate issues such as these, the more quickly change will brought about, so a Chelsea garden focusing on plastic pollution in the marine environment immediately caught my attention.

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Air plants (Tillandsia usneoides) in jellyfish mode

The Concept

The Pearlfisher Garden, created by Pearlfisher Founding Creative Partner, Karen Welman and designer John Warland, celebrates the largest garden on the planet – the underwater world of the great oceans, and highlights the perils it faces due to human activities. Descending into the garden is an immersion on many levels; ripples play on the crazy paving from sunlight passing through the aquatic tanks and plastic bottle wall, and marine flora and corals (represented by the succulents, cacti and air plants) are growing or floating in every corner. 

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Submerged in the underwater garden

Planting

Designer John Warland has used the San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi f. cristata) with its undulating foliage which mimics the look of kelp suspended in seawater and woolly senecio (Senecio haworthii) which has similarly waving fronds. Coral is represented by the jade plant (Crassula ovata) with its red-edged, tubular foliage and cacti like the chin cactus (Gymnocalycium mihanovichii) and the mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera) create the contorted shapes and vivid colours of the coral reef. 

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A selection of succulents and cacti from the garden

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The bleached and dying Coral Man

Every year more corals reefs across the world are being devastated due to rising sea temperatures causing acidification of the water and their plight is highlighted in renowned sculptor and environmentalist Jason deCaires Taylor’s ‘Coral Man’ figure by the entrance to the garden.

The contrast between the organic shapes and vibrant colours of the planting against the muted tones of the Coral Man suggests the beauty and diversity that will be irrevocably lost unless solutions to climate change and warming oceans are found in the near future.

Solutions

The garden also offers solutions to what can appear to be an insoluble problem. Across the world we manufacture 78 million tonnes of plastic annually, of which a staggering 32% ends up in the oceans. This waste plastic, as we’ve all seen in the news recently, harms and kills marine life, and we are just becoming aware of the dangers of microplastics to human life too. 

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The bottle wall

In the garden, 500 plastic bottles make up the transluscent wall at the rear of the garden, representing the amount of plastic thrown into the ocean every 2.5 seconds. Reducing, reusing and recycling plastic is becoming increasingly important, as shown by the 3D printed pearl diver – made from recycled PLA plastic – rising from the centre of the circular suspended ocean ceiling. The pearl diver – or Japanese Ama uminchu – symbolises humankind living in harmony with the ocean; an largely forgotten skill which needs to be revived if ocean ecosystems and human life are to have a long term future on earth.

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The recycled pearl fisher

What Will The Pearlfisher Garden Achieve?

The garden acts as a window into an underwater world that few of us will have the privilege of seeing in person. It has always been the case that ecosystems outside our common experience, especially those beneath the sea or the ground – marine and soil environments – are afforded less protection. These habitats often go unseen and we don’t recognise what is being lost until it’s too late.

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Tanya Streeter, world champion freediver, modelling a gown made by Brighton Art students from waste plastic washed up on the beach

But with the pioneering work of marine scientists being brought into the public realm by organisations like the Marine Stewardship Council and programmes like ‘Blue Planet’, we can no longer plead ignorance of the state of the world’s oceans. There are, undoubtedly, many unknowns when it comes to solving the plastic crisis, but there are also many small changes we can make which, collectively, will make a big difference:

  • use reusable water bottles
  • use reusable coffee cups
  • boycott balloon releases
  • avoid plastic drinking straws (unless a necessity) and use paper cotton buds
  • join a beach clean
  • support the work of organisations like the Plastic Oceans UK and Marine Conservation Society

If the Pearlfisher Garden stimulates debate and helps to encourage change – for example, persuading organisations like the RHS lead the way on banning one-use plastic from their shows and sites – then, to my mind, the Pearlfisher Garden will have been both an aesthetic and ethical success.

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Theresa May visited the garden whilst I was photographing it – I hope the garden highlighted to her the urgency with which this issue needs to be treated

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Health, Wellbeing and Sustainability at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Chris Beardshaw recently said that he felt Chelsea show gardens should only be accepted if they were going to be relocated afterwards. It seems that other designers may be following his lead as this year’s show sees more of the gardens and planting being relocated than ever before. The recipients of the gardens are diverse; ranging from a refugee camp, a higher education college, the grounds of the Epilepsy Society, a community garden in Westminister and the grounds of the Hospice of St Francis in Berkhamsted.

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The Myeloma UK Garden will be relocated to the Hospice of St Francis

An average of 3010 plants are used in each show garden and many of these are borrowed then returned after the show; in fact some of the plants are Chelsea veterans, reappearing in different gardens year after year. The Weston Garden embraces the philosophy of reusing materials – many of the plants have been borrowed for the duration of the show from Crocus and the rest will be reused afterwards. Plants from The Morgan Stanley Garden for the NSPCC, designed by Chris Beardshaw, will be donated to the NSPCC who are organising plant sales in Barnet, North London and Maidstone, Kent. Across the whole show plants will be collected and redistributed to local schools and community gardens across East London and beyond as part of a reuse scheme set up by the landscape, architecture and art collective Wayward.

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The Urban Flow Garden plants will be donated by Thames Water to ‘Roots and Shoots’ – an environmentally-focused educational charity based in Kennington providing vocational training for young people from the inner city

The RHS Feel Good Garden is another design which is intended for a new life after the show. It will be relocated to the Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust which provides care and treatment to vulnerable adults in a build up area of London where green space is limited. Matt Keightley, the designer and twice-winner of the RHS/BBC People’s Choice Award, visited the NHS site in April. He said ‘I am delighted that the RHS Feel Good Garden will live on, providing a calm and beautiful space for adults in need of respite.’

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The RHS Feel Good Garden, destined for an NHS Trust site after the show

Matt is also creating a health and wellbeing garden at RHS Wisley, due to open in 2020, and the RHS Feel Good Garden is inspired by his Wisley design. With an increasing evidence base demonstrating the positive effect that gardens and gardening can have on mental health, the joint venture between the RHS and NHS to gift the garden to a mental health trust site signals the growing awareness of these benefits across the healthcare profession.

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The RHS Feel Good Garden creates a relaxing atmosphere which draws the visitor into the space

Sitting in the garden you are surrounded by soft planting in lemon, green and blue with bursts of deep reds and purples. It’s a relaxing space which also entices you to reach out and engage with your environment.

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Relaxing blue, lemon and green planting including nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’, Iris ‘Silver Edge’ and Salvia nemorosa ‘Amethyst’

The mellow sandy and chocolate coloured paving is laid transversely to give a sense of width to the space, encouraging the visitor to slow down and enjoy the journey through the garden. I like the way the planting falls across the pathway and Matt has chosen many aromatic plants like thyme, rosemary, mint and sage to create scent as you move around the garden.

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Mellow paving to match the planting

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Beneath the seats and stonework nestle aromatic herbs and tiny campanula flowers

Grasses such as Deschampsia cespitosa, Briza media,  Melica nutans and Stipa tenuissima, alongside naturalistic perennials like Pimpinella major ‘Rosea’, Astrantia ‘Moulin Rouge’, Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Cirsium rivulare and Dianthus cruentus create an airy filter through which the more textural plants like the ferns can be seen. The light planting also softens the cantilevered stone terraces which appear to float above the plants, grounding the visitor in the sanctuary of the garden.

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The layers of planting build up texture in the garden

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The shade loving epimedium, ferns and acorus create a sense of intimacy in these stone cavities

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Soft curves and airy planting stops the stonework becoming too heavy

The mushroom seats create more floating structures within the planting. Herbs predominate in this area so that visitors have to step on the mint and rosemary to access the stools and the scent emanating from beneath your feet commits the mind entirely to the present moment.

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These organic shaped seats give the visitor licence to immerse themselves in the garden

I sat in the garden for a while, contemplating the way it made me feel. I had a sense of being grounded in the moment; I was relaxed yet at the same time completely engaged with my environment. If the garden can foster the same feelings of happiness in the patients, staff and families at the Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust that I felt yesterday, it will be an extremely worthwhile addition to the site and will hopefully encourage more dialogue and practical projects based on the important relationship between gardens, gardening and mental health.

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Striking contrast of the soft Digitalis lutea and Trollius ‘Alabaster’ with the dark, silky Iris ‘Black Swan’

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The RHS Feel Good Garden – inspiring on so many levels

‘When you are sad a garden comforts. When you are humiliated or defeated a garden consoles. When you are consumed by anxiety it will soother you and when the world is a dark  and bleak place it shines a light to guide you on.’ Monty Don

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Gardening For A Sustainable Future

Wild, evocative show gardens like James Basson’s M&G Garden, inspired by the landscape of Malta, new plants to discover (my favourite this year is Raymond Evison’s Clematis ‘Pistachio’) and new technologies like the use of microalgae to capture energy at Capel Manor’s ‘Compost, Energy, Light’ Garden: these are all part of what makes RHS Chelsea such a captivating and vibrant show. But after six hours exploring the showground, learning about new plants and discovering new ways to combine old favourites, I had still to find a garden that evoked feelings strong enough to draw me into its story and planting, creating what Coleridge described as the ‘suspension of disbelief’ – in which the show garden recedes and you find yourself immersed in a landscape where nothing external exists. Then I found myself in Nigel Dunnett’s RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden and the showground faded away. Wandering through the garden, past the black elder (Sambucus nigra ‘Gerda’), surrounded by the loose planting of Camassia quamash, Euphorbia palustris, Dianthus carthusianorum, Libertia chilensis Formosa Group and Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ in deep purples and vibrant lime greens, with soft water over pebbles and looking up to green walls and roofs, I was in a garden that created a sense of peace: an instinctive oneness with both the planting and the environment.

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Nigel’s vibrant planting remains soft and delicate throughout

Up on the balcony overlooking the lower garden, Nigel explained that the main garden is designed as a community space where residents of high-rise and apartment developments could come together to relax, socialise and enjoy the planting based on drought tolerant, low maintenance species like Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fen’s Ruby’ and Stachys byzantina that will thrive in our warming climate. The water channels running beside the walkways and benches create a sense of tranquility for residents and also provide hollows and wetland areas to deal with runoff from flash floods, whilst the pebbles enable water levels to remain higher even in dry periods. Like Nigel’s 2015 Greening Grey Britain Garden at RHS Hampton Court, this garden includes recycled materials, green walls and green roofs. I was pleased to see the binstore green roof, having designed a similar roof on my binstore after being inspired by the idea at Hampton Court in 2015. Next to the binstore, tall, multi-tiered ‘Creature Towers’ designed with recycled materials mirror the high-rise apartments, offering urban homes for the insects which form such an important part of the natural ecosystem.

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High-rise insect homes

On the balcony, intended as a private garden, Nigel demonstrates how even tiny outdoor spaces can provide colour and edible crops. The small wooden planters are full of tomatoes, artichokes, herbs and a wisteria which trails along the balcony, whilst the walls provide a vertical growing space with a simple pocket design attached to a mesh on the wall. These pockets can be used for planting or simply to place plants still in their pots and the wall is small enough to be watered by hand, making this a practical and sustainable way to maximise space, especially as many of the plants (like the Mediterranean herbs thyme and oregano) require little water. Looking down from the balcony the private garden is set in context – a small space to provide privacy, flowers and food: a personalised area within a larger landscape of community planting.

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Edible green wall

As a community garden volunteer, I believe that working with plants is a healing and nurturing activity. Gardening also helps us to appreciate the fundamental role that plants play in our lives: a role that will become even more important in the future. As climatic challenges arise we will need to develop our understanding of horticulture, crop production and environmental protection to keep up with the changing climate, so engaging young minds with the beauty and importance of nature is a priority. With this in mind, the fact that the plants and other elements will be relocated to a school garden via the BBC One Show’s competition after Chelsea ends exemplifies the ethos of the garden and adds to its environmental credentials. The only addition I would like to have seen was more detail on the information leaflet about the plants chosen for their drought-resistant or pollution-soaking qualities, for example links to the informative RHS website pages, such as the section covering plants which tolerate dry conditions.

During my recent sessions running a growing club at my local primary school, I have seen firsthand the impact that becoming involved in gardening has on children. They are so open and keen to learn about the magic of nature, so receptive to the ‘wow’ moments when a seed germinates or when they learn to identify a plant. After half term I’m planning a session about careers in horticulture and botany – looking at what it takes to become a greenkeeper, a NASA plant scientist, a horticultural therapist or a park ranger. Maybe one of my pupils or a student from the school which receives the RHS Garden will become a future soil scientist or a biodiversity officer. Let’s hope so because we need experts in these fields like never before. The RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden has engaged the horticultural community in discussions about sustainable gardening, offered environmentally-friendly options for both domestic gardeners and landscape architects and I’m sure it will go on to inspire the next generation when it becomes part of a school garden. The creation of a show garden with this level of aesthetic and environmental integrity is an impressive achievement, especially when it provides such a practical model for the development of urban spaces in the future. 

A garden full of practical ideas, yet suffused with beauty

Further information about the Greening Grey Britain campaign and to sign up to turn a grey area green, follow the link to the RHS website.

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