Hartley Magazine

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Question time

As the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere crosses the symbolic 400 ppm mark, it’s time for gardeners – and those who represent us – to answer to their environmental responsibilities.

When I took my first tottering steps into a lifelong interest in gardening, we used mostly clay pots, lit coal fires, and spread some of the most toxic chemicals humanity has ever made on the garden. We zapped bugs with glee, potted using peat compost without a care, and spared no thought for how gardening might impact on the world around us. My thigh-high gardening memories are few, but etched deep is one where I’m out in the sunshine, squeezing the grey powder from a ‘puffer’ pack onto the fattening buds of much-loved roses and dahlias, which were coated with greenfly. The DDT certainly did for them, as we now know it did for other species. We didn’t have much truck with the aphid-munching qualities of hoverflies and other ‘good’ garden bugs back then.

Nowadays DDT and most of the other toxic garden chemicals that once laced garden centre shelves are gone. We know that using peat compost destroys the natural world (although we’re still doing it). For many, nature is now gardening’s ally, not its nemesis. Things have moved on; my gardening life has seen many positive changes in the way we grow things. But there have also been other creeping, invisible changes since that fledgling gardener in shorts stood spellbound watching the greenfly in their death throes. These changes foreshadow a profound shake-up for gardeners of every hue, wherever in the world they are, and whether they’re ‘gardening’ for sheer pleasure or sheer survival.

Steady, invisible changes since I was a grubby-kneed fledgling gardener means gardening as usual is no longer a viable ecological option.
Steady, invisible changes since I was a grubby-kneed fledgling gardener means gardening as usual is no longer a viable ecological option.

In 1967, when I was a grubby-kneed five-year-old, the air around me contained 324 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. (‘Parts per million’ is simply a way of measuring the concentration of different gases found in Earth’s atmosphere; a higher ppm means a higher concentration, and vice versa.) A few weeks ago – my knees now creaky, though still grubby – carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air reached 400 ppm for the first time in human history.

This matters. Around 200 years ago, the air contained roughly 275 ppm CO2, but the level has been rising constantly since the start of the Industrial Revolution, due to our burning of carbon-rich fossil oil, coal and gas. The boffins who study climate science tell us that the ‘safe’ limit for CO2 – which will hopefully avoid dangerous change – is around 350 ppm, and that bringing it back down is an urgent task (it’s currently increasing by 2 ppm every year). Unusual and extreme weather events – such as this year’s dragging, cold spring – might be a foretaste of what’s to come.

A few weeks before we hit 400 ppm, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) called on ‘garden lovers to take part in [a] unique climate change study.’ This sounded promising, especially as many of the organisations, businesses and lobby groups which make up the ‘gardening industry’ pay lip service at best to wider environmental concerns. When climate change first gained serious attention, I remember horticulture’s response: it was about ‘new opportunities’. Somehow, their hot new Britain replete with olive groves never quite materialised. The RHS itself doesn’t score highly on the climate change front. Its gardens are, except for the most determined of visitors, car-dependent; most of its shows, such as Chelsea, leave sizeable carbon footprints; and its growing zeal for international garden cruises involves the most energy-intensive, polluting travel on earth.

But, with grubby-kneed optimism, I gave the online questionnaire a go. It was devised in conjunction with the University of Reading, and the blurb says that it will ‘form part of a survey that investigates the likely impacts of climate change on our gardening behaviour in the UK.’ So already the signs weren’t good – the focus was on our topsy climate’s influence on gardening, rather than the other way around. I couldn’t resist a possible rewording: ‘a survey of how changing our gardening behaviour in the developed world could benefit ‘gardeners’ facing climate disruption around the globe.’ Oddly (or perhaps not; divorcing gardening from nature is a common trick) ‘environment’ only appears once in the whole questionnaire, while ‘nature’ and ‘natural world’ don’t get a look-in. To be fair, the questionnaire is wide-ranging and asks some sensible questions, but it has a muddled feel in parts, with questions on visiting parks and gardens, as well as on home gardening.

No question asked if I would welcome improved public transport to the RHS’s gardens, which would both cut pollution and ease pressure on the sprawling car parks, such as here at Wisley, in Surrey.
No question asked if I would welcome improved public transport to the RHS’s gardens, which would both cut pollution and ease pressure on the sprawling car parks, such as here at Wisley, in Surrey.

In a section on ‘Changes in gardening’, questions include whether I think it’s likely that public gardens will open for longer/shorter hours because of climate change, and whether I think ‘the grass will not be green in summer’. I found these bizarre. And there’s an old chestnut: ‘Do you think climate change will bring more opportunities or threats?’ In the section on ‘The future of gardens and gardening’, I’m asked how strongly I agree (or not) with such statements as, ‘I can’t wait until we get a warmer climate. I’m excited about all new (sic) exotic species I can grow/will be able to grow.’ (I ‘strongly disagreed’, particularly given the naïve assumption that the climate will simply be ‘warmer’.) I hoped for better in the ‘Your gardening practices’ section, but this asked me, among other things, where I bought seeds and plants, whether I asked for advice on coping with climate change at garden centres (eh?), if I checked how moist soil/compost is before watering, whether I will try to keep my lawn green during dry summers, and whether I visit gardens ‘only in good weather’.

I eagerly awaited the questions asking what I might be willing to change about my gardening activities, both to slow the increase in ppm, and to help it head back down. But they never came. No questions asking if I would cut energy use in my garden, by not heating my greenhouse or propagator using fossil fuels. No questions asking if I would end my use of weedkillers, insecticides and fungicides – all of which consume raw materials and energy in their manufacture – and grow organically instead. No questions asking if I would consider shrinking the overall footprint of my gardening by, for example, growing more plants from seed rather than buying them mail order, which uses energy and resources. No questions asking if I would be prepared to drastically reduce my lawn (if I had one), or if I would forgo it altogether to cut the energy and raw materials needed to feed, titivate and mow it. No questions asking if I would switch to peat-free compost to slow habitat destruction (and keep CO2 locked in the ground). No questions asking how I would feel if public transport to RHS gardens was drastically improved to help trim my visitor’s footprint. And no bigger questions asking if I ever think about where gardening products come from, whether they are essential, and if I would consider consuming far less to help slow the steady rise of ppm CO2.

We need an open and honest discussion about the role gardens and gardeners must play in pulling back the parts per million. We can’t have that if we insist on casting gardening as a mere passive ‘victim’ of a changing climate, while at the same time turning a blind eye to its collective contribution to it. The RHS’s survey is a masterful exercise in cherry-picked questions which duck the bigger, more prickly issues. Gardening as usual is no longer a viable option, ecologically or ethically.

Out in our gardens is where we now feel, in each day’s weather, the full heat, cold, wet or tearing wind of an altered, unpredictable climate. As gardeners we’re on the front line of palpable change. Being so close to it, we surely want to think hard about what we can do to help, for the sake of ‘gardeners’ around the globe. For us, a bad year in the garden or allotment spells at worst disappointment and perhaps higher grocery bills. Dismal results on other, distant plots could mean far worse.

Text and image of grubby-kneed youngster © John Walker. Car park image © Alan Hunt