Few will deny the charm of a perfect rosebed. Even if the owner does have to apply regular dressings of fertilizer, insecticide, fungicide and herbicide, the effect on the global environment will not be excessive. But there is another way of gardening, which could improve the global environment were it widely adopted. Some may think it a style for sandal wearing vegetarians, but the gardens it produces have a sweet charm that escapes the high tech gardener. Conservation is an inspiring theme. Like the sundial, it gives a sense of perspective. Unlike the sundial, it provides an opportunity to influence the future of the world.
'When are you going to cut the grass, darling?' is the question that disturbs the peace of too many summer afternoons. So do the whines and grumbles of motor mowers. Next time the question is asked may be a good time to sit back and consider how much of your grass really has to be 'cut', how often, and by what means. To judge from the books, being a 'lawn expert' is a matter of cutting, rolling, fertilizing, spiking, scarifying, watering, and applying selective weedkillers. The story is told of an American who asked the old gardener in an English stately home about the secret of his success. 'Well Guv,' came the reply, 'yer mows it once a day, and yer rolls it once a week. And after y'rve done that for a 'undred years - yer does it regular.' No doubt he used a sharp, well oiled, hand-mower. It is still possible to purchase a high-quality hand machine and enjoy something of Old Adam's delight in a perfect lawn. The exercise is good, and must be regular. The sound of a hand mower is a counterpoint to the owner's breathing. It conserves fossil fuels and saves one from the indignity of an exercise bicycle.
The poetic alternative to the expert's lawn (Figure 8) is the wildflower meadow (Figure 9). There, as Swinburn put it, 'tides of grass break into foam of flowers'. The grand old man of wild gardening, William Robinson, once asked "Who would not rather see the waving grass with countless flowers than a close shaven surface without a bloom?'. As the possessor of a fine Victorian beard, he was fond of remarking that shaving your face is as foolish as shaving your grass. Meadows are undoubtedly good for conservation. However small the area, it is pleasant to look out on a habitat for birds and bees, caterpillars and butterflies, cow parsley, mallow and knapweed. One of the most beautiful effects in gardens is the contrast between mown and unmown grass.
It is a wonder that more people do not devote larger areas of their gardens to fruit. The crop is unlikely to look as perfect as supermarket fruit but the flavour should be better, and one can be sure that no dangerous chemicals will have been applied. Fruiting plants are very good at making green leaves, and ornamental plants often look best with a backdrop of green. There is something unsettling about a garden where a majority of the leaves are yellow, purple, grey, light green, or dark green, instead of classic 'leaf green'. If one doesn't succeed in harvesting all the fruit, it will be more popular with birds and insects than berries from the cotoneaster and berberis, as recommended in some books on wildlife gardening.
'Thou shalt make compost unceasingly' was the first commandment of environmental gardening. The cry went up long before 'pollution' and 'conservation' became vogue words, and the humble compost heap remains the best example of a recycling project. The world would be a better place if cities could find ways of recycling a larger proportion of their organic wastes. Compost contains both organic matter, which provides good physical conditions for plant growth, and a better range of nutrients than any chemical fertilizer.
The substitutes that garden centres offer for well made compost too often cause environmental damage. Artificial fertilizers are washed out of the soil and find their way into rivers, lakes and water supplies. Nitrates are particularly harmful. In rivers, they cause an excess growth of algae, fatal to other wildlife. In water supplies, nitrates are accused of aggravating various diseases. Peat is an off the shelf solution to a lack of soil organic matter. It does no particular harm to the place where it is applied, but considerable harm to the places from which it is removed. Gardeners who like to conserve their bank balances might also reflect that peat is an expensive commodity, which lasts for a very short time in the soil.
Ethical considerations affect another material that is common in gardens: timber. In the eighteenth century, most good-quality garden furniture was made of oak. It was the only durable hardwood, and it acquires a soft silvery sheen out of doors. Where it is rubbed, oak takes on a faint polish, redolent of peace and tranquility. Tropical hardwoods have now taken the place of oak in the manufacture of garden furniture. Many are of excellent quality, even more durable than oak, but their use has provoked an avalanche of protest from the environmental lobby. It is objected that tropical timbers come from rainforest clearance, which is unjust to the native Indian populations and will cause permanent harm to the global ecosystem. If this were the case, I certainly would not want the booty in my garden.
The climax vegetation of most town gardens is deciduous forest. Other plants require special management to survive, using physical and chemical techniques. It is the chemicals that are suspect from an environmental point of view. There are other ways. One alternative is to become knowledgeable about the natural history of garden pests. It is an absorbing subject and adds another layer of interest to gardens. Without this knowledge, flower borders may become killing fields for insects and small mammals. The infamous agent orange, which was once used to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam, was developed for agricultural and horticultural purposes. Many gardeners practice chemical warfare on a proportionately larger scale in their back gardens. Snails and aphids are a case in point. In the countryside, insecticides have make great inroads into the butterfly population. In gardens, insecticides kill the aphids' chief predator, ladybirds. Another way of controlling aphids is to encourage the ladybird population. If particular plants remain infested, possibly because ants are using them as aphid farms, one can resort to an old fashioned aphid brush or a modern high pressure hose.
A new neighbour once asked, with shambling apologies, if I would mind if he asked a question about my wife. My consent was given: 'Well, er, could you tell me why she crawls around the garden in the dark with a torch?'. 'Thinking of the plants and collecting snails', I told him. While good gardeners keep their knees on the earth, ideas can link them to the great universe.
Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener's work is done upon his knees
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray
For the Glory of the Garden, that it may not pass away!
And the Glory of the Garden, it shall never pass away!