Updated: Apr 24, 2021
It’s no secret that the world needs saving. Many younger adults have been raised learning about the climate crisis and pollution from their very first days at school. Unfortunately, saving the world isn’t easy work, and it can feel overwhelming and impossible.
But what we can do is start by getting back in touch with the part of the world that’s right in front of us; rediscovering our connection to nature and our relationship with food puts us well on the way to not only saving the earth, but perhaps even saving ourselves.
This article outlines the top fourteen things everyone with an interest in helping the environment, or even just in maintaining their own personal health, should know. These facts have been inspired by Dave Goulson’s The Garden Jungle, a beautiful book about gardening to save the world, in which he shares with us everything he has learned about how we can help our gardens and Earth’s ecosystems grow in the most balanced and healthy way possible.
For those who have difficulty reading or would prefer to listen to audio, the video below is a recording of the article being read.
Now, on to our top tips!
1. Your grass only needs to be cut once a year.
Although this maintenance-free approach won’t give you the same perfect, short, green lawns you probably picture, the result can be astounding. You will likely find that some of hundreds of wildflowers have been waiting to bloom all across your yard or garden.
Most meadows and grasses do best with everything being completely cut down once a year in the late summer to ensure weeds don’t get the chance to take over. Be careful, though, to move the cuttings somewhere else to compost so you don’t kill whatever will be trying to grow underneath.
2. Insecticides and pesticides don’t actually benefit your plants.
Insecticides do more harm than good, and not just because they’re toxic. When we use insecticides to get rid of creepy-crawlies in our gardens, we aim to wipe out the pests that are eating what we are growing. But in reality, what we wipe out are the predators of those pests. For example, the earwig we all know and rarely love eats the aphids that eat many fruits and vegetables such as apples.
As soon as you spray insecticide once, you’re done for. The predators won’t be able to recover as quickly as the pests will. Essentially, when you spray insecticides on your plants you are ensuring that the pests – which will soon recover – can come back stronger than before, as they will have no predators left to control their population.
That means a single spray of insecticide condemns you to a future of needing to relentlessly douse your plants in these chemicals. It can take years for the insects that eat pests to make a comeback and restore the balance in your garden.
3. Pesticides have damaging effects on our health.
In fact, one commonly used type of insecticide is in the same chemical family as a nerve agent the Nazi’s used in their gas chambers. These can permanently damage our nervous systems and can cause brain damage to children. It is even beginning to be suspected that they have links to the increasing rates of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
So why do we choose to expose ourselves to these chemicals instead of brushing the occasional earwig off of our produce?
It is worth noting that these health issues extend to more than just the food we consume. Pesticides also show up in cities and towns alongside the herbicides that are used to keep weeds out of the pavement and children’s play areas. They might also be sprayed from the air over entire residential areas in places like the United States, and can even be found in some eco- and pollinator-friendly plants at your local garden centre.
Perhaps you go so far as to saturate your lawns with these chemicals by choice to keep them especially green and weed-free.
4. Insects can develop a resistance to pesticides just like bacteria can to antibiotics.
If we keep using these chemicals for aesthetic purposes on our lawns and city pavements, they soon won’t work for more practical purposes like growing crops. Avoiding the use of pesticides in your own garden can help prevent this resistance.
Think of it this way: if the plants you are trying to grow are easily damaged, it’s most often simply because you aren’t growing them in the right climate or environment. Plants that are grown in the right places are rarely ever incapable of withstanding anything insects can dish out.
Believe it or not, the flea and tick drops we put on pets is also a highly toxic insecticide. The only way these drops could work is by being absorbed through the skin and spread around internally through the animal. This means if you have a dog urinating on your flowers and lawn it could likely be spreading insecticide through the garden!
It has also been shown that this insecticide washes off in water, so if your pet is outside in the rain or gets into the garden pond, that water will end up containing these toxic chemicals as well.
5. Growing exotic plants can damage native wildlife.
The exception to this rule may be that some pollinators could make equal use of exotic flowers, but on the whole native insects can’t generally survive on exotic plants. Each type of insect has evolved to eat only a few specific types of plants, and for native insects their strict diet is only composed of – you guessed it – native plants. If our insects can’t survive on the exotic plants in your garden, then the wildlife that relies on those insects can’t survive either!
Anything we introduce into our gardens or country that is not native to the area is a threat to the ecosystem. Every foreign plant we introduce has the potential to eventually become a rather invasive weed, and is always going to be in competition with our native species.
It is important to consider how much we encourage exotic plants, because if they take over our native plants they could essentially rip the bottom layer out of our local ecosystem’s food chain.
6. Most of the trees and crops we farm today have been engineered to produce perfectly-shaped and quickly-growing fruit and vegetables.
This genetic tampering and forced evolution means most modern plants are weaker than their predecessors, and they often won’t survive when grown without pesticides. This is a problem we needn’t have created, and the solution is rather simple.
If we grow the older varieties of these plants in our own gardens, any gardener will find they are incredibly robust. Once we get our minds past needing perfectly round and shiny produce, and perhaps learn to tolerate the occasional bug or two, we can get back to growing crops that thrive without such dangerous chemicals and are significantly better for our health.
As an added bonus, growing these older varieties of plants could provide you with an opportunity to eat fruits and vegetables that modern society has completely forgotten about!
7. The bees are in decline, and the best way to save them isn’t to keep more bees.
If we want to support the bee population, the best thing to do is not to force their numbers up by encouraging beekeepers. Instead, it would be most beneficial to give the bees that already exist more food by planting more flowers.
In fact, planting more flowers is the best of many worlds because not only will they be a beautiful addition to your home or garden while supporting bees, but in the UK flowering plants can support around 4,000 species of pollinators that are native to the country.
If you do decide to help your local bees by planting more flowers, there are a couple things to keep in mind. First, the more diverse the selection you grow, the better. Second, carefully consider how you source your flowers and seeds.
There are great ways to get reliably organic plants and flowers, and if you get the chance to be that picky your local environment would certainly thank you.
8. Moths are in danger too.
You can help the moths by, of course, not using insecticides. Aside from this obvious strategy, you can further help moths by growing nectar-rich plants as well as night-scented flowers like jasmine, honeysuckle, and evening primrose in your garden. The more foliage your plants have, the more helpful they are for moth caterpillars trying to find something to eat.
Finally, if you can avoid cutting back what’s died in your garden until after the new growth has started in the following spring, it will provide a home for lots of wildlife including caterpillars and moth pupae.
There are other ways to encourage moths, as well as bees, to make their homes in your garden. From store-bought structures to backyard DIY creations, if you don’t have an aversion to these creatures they could certainly use your help in finding a cosy place to live.
9. There is no way to be sure what companies are putting in plants labelled as 'friendly' in garden centres.
If you want a genuinely environmentally friendly plant that won’t harm you or the wildlife, the sad truth is that you’ll have to get it from an organic source or grow your plants from seeds. The issue with ‘pollinator-friendly’ signs you might find at garden centres is not only that these plants could still easily contain insecticides, but some of the flowers you buy have been genetically modified to have more petals and less pollen in order to look more appealing to gardeners.
Goulson’s own study showed that only two out of twenty-nine plants listed as bee- or pollinator-friendly were actually free from insecticides. After a couple years of this being common knowledge companies stopped using the particular kind of chemical he identified in his research. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that most big companies and garden suppliers still use plenty of other types of chemicals in amounts we haven’t properly researched.
In his book, Goulson lists the following reliable and eco-friendly wildflower seed suppliers: Bee Happy Plants, Cotswold Seeds Ltd, and Emorsgate Seeds. He also lists his favourite plants for pollinators, which you may find well worth the read.
10. Adding a pond to your yard or garden is the single best thing you can do to encourage increased biodiversity.
Ponds only really need to take up a small amount of space, and can even be engaging for kids with the appropriate supervision. And who doesn’t want their children to take a break from their screens and get outdoors?
Just like how weeds and plants in a garden attract certain species of insects and start the base for a new food chain, a pond opens the doors for even more varieties of plants. Naturally, these new varieties of plants will be followed by new species of insects, which builds a whole new ecosystem in your yard.
You may even find your pond will attract some surprising and interesting wildlife!
11. The key to composting is simpler than you might think.
If you are willing to compost and have just a little bit of free space on your property, you can usually buy plastic composters at subsidised prices from local authorities.
To make sure your compost actually decomposes well, you need a balance of nitrogen-rich compost like kitchen waste and lawn clippings, and carbon-rich compost like wood, paper, and twigs. Mixing together these two kinds of compost will ensure that it properly breaks down instead of turning into a heap of rotten old food.
If your garden is small enough that the majority of your compost will be kitchen scraps, then you might be better off starting a wormery instead.
12. We should only buy ‘compost’ from garden centres and stores as a last resort.
Most of the ‘compost’ you can buy is largely peat, the extraction and collection of which has become incredibly harmful to the environment.
From a mundane and relatable perspective, the removal of peat from lowland bogs makes these areas less able to absorb water, which can cause a lot of flooding when it rains. From a climate change perspective, peatlands take up only three percent of the area on Earth, yet they have absorbed and stored twice as much carbon as all the earth’s forests and woodlands. Half a trillion tonnes, to be exact.
When we dig up the peat from its natural water-saturated environment, we allow oxygen to get in and break it down. That means the carbon it has stored will be let back out into the atmosphere. It cannot be overstated how incredibly important to our environment it is that we leave peat in its proper place and don’t mess with this valuable carbon sponge.
Not only is peat sourced from our precious and quickly-dwindling lowland bogs, which are currently being torn apart at 220 times the rate they can recover, but it is now also being imported to the UK from other European countries. Imagine, importing dirt and encouraging the destruction of ecosystems just to plant your flowers. First use what’s in your own backyard!
13. Supporting industrial farming, particularly animal agriculture, is one of the most damaging things you can do.
Industrial farming contributes to a quarter of the greenhouse emissions in the world, and is one of the biggest polluters out there. Three quarters of the greenhouse gasses produced by farming comes from farming livestock, which takes up 76% of the farmland in the world and a third of all crops grown.
In addition to being a major source of pollution, because of the expense of the equipment and pesticides being used to farm (and subsequently poison) the land, industrial farming is supported by massive amounts of taxpayer money as the government subsidises it.
Improvements in industrial techniques have also cost an incredible number of jobs, as now each farm only needs a handful of workers and has pushed most of us to live in suburbs or cities.
14. Cities or crowded towns without garden space should allow you to request an allotment.
What can you do about all of these environmental issues if you don’t have land of your own?
Though it may seem like it would be difficult to produce anything of much worth in whatever designated rectangle of ground you may be given, it’s actually the case that even allotments owned by amateurs are between four to eleven times more productive by area than the average farm. Allotments are always more efficient than farmland, as you can grow a huge variety of plants in close proximity to each other because you won’t be using imprecise harvesting machinery in your little garden.
This method of squeezing in whatever types of plants you can fit among what you’ve already planted has the lovely consequence of being much better for the local environment. It also helps deter pests, as they have a harder time finding their host plant and moving in en masse.
If you don’t have a garden and want an allotment, you should be able to get one even if there aren’t any that currently exist in your town or city. Once there is local demand for an allotment the council is obligated to provide it, so put your request in today!
Hopefully these fourteen facts encourage both your interest and your understanding when it comes to the nuances of gardening for the environment. There is so much more in The Garden Jungle worth exploring and considering, regardless of whether or not you have an established garden of your own. It is well worth the read, and promises to be inspiring to anyone with the readiness to learn about our wonderful world. To purchase the book, click here.
What are your eco-friendly gardening and lifestyle tips? Leave us a comment and let us know!