You’ve just bought a young English oak tree and are looking forward to watching it develop into a native heirloom. But unless your supplier has guaranteed that it has been grown from British stock, the chances are that the acorns have been collected in Poland or Hungary, it has been grown on in Holland and Belgium and then imported to the UK where it is sold simply as ‘English Oak’. You won’t necessarily notice any difference when you buy it, but as it originates from a country with colder winters than ours, it is genetically different. It will most likely come into leaf and flower earlier than the native specimens do, and this will have a knock-on effect on the wildlife that use the tree, altering the ecological balance of where it is growing.
“The English Oak is part of our plant heritage,” says Jon Rose of Botanica nursery, “and I am interested in making sure it survives. The trees grown from British stock are heavier branched, will establish better and have better growth rate. This applies to ornamentals too. Big specimens from countries like Italy and Spain are much more susceptible to root death, and there’s an increased risk of them harbouring non-indigenous diseases which can spread to the plants growing here.”
Imported plants are controlled: all growers supplying to EEC countries must have a Plant Passport, which allows the authorities to monitor and trace any problems with plant health. Standards of inspection are very stringent in the UK, says Guy Barter of the RHS, but in other countries the checking may be more relaxed. Also, it is not possible to check every single plant, so pests and diseases can be inadvertently imported. Diseases such as Dutch Elm, have already done nationwide damage; others such as Sudden Oak Death are gradually spreading. Imported plants, such as Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam, can also become invasive, eventually pushing out native species and altering habitats. Some imported plants, such as tree ferns, cyclamens and orchids, may also have been dug up from the wild.
Many of the plants we buy have been raised in European countries such as Holland, France, Italy, Belgium and Germany, but an increasing number are being grown further afield in countries such as China or, as in the case of Japanese acers which are propagated in China, flown to Holland to be grown on and transported to Italy to mature, being moved between several countries and across continents before they reach the UK. The carbon footprint of these plants has not yet been calculated but is certainly considerable and could be avoided by sourcing British or locally grown plants.
Research by the South East England Development Agency shows that people who buy plants in garden centres show little interest in a plant’s country of origin. Nurseryman Bill Godfrey believes they would if they realised the key advantages of buying home-grown plants: plants that will grow better, fewer plant miles from the grower to your garden, and support for jobs in the UK horticulture industry.
Did you know?
- It takes at least ten years to eradicate giant hogweed in places where it has seeded. Swansea City Council has estimated that it would cost £1.25 million to treat its areas where Japanese knotweed has taken root.
- The fuchsia gall mite (Aculops fuchsiae), a microscopic mite which comes from South America, has been found for the first time on mainland Britain. It damages shoot tips, destroys the flowers and the only effective treatment for amateur gardeners may be to destroy infested plants.
- Between the late 1960s and 1990 some 25 million elms in the UK died, out of an estimated total of 30 million from Dutch Elm Disease.
- The fungal disease ‘Sudden Oak Death’ , Phytophthora ramorum, has reached epidemic proportions along the coast of California, USA. It was first found in the UK in imported viburnum and there have since been more than 300 cases.
- New Zealand and Australian flatworms, which feed exclusively on earthworms, have become established in parts of Britain and Ireland and have reduced the native earthworm populations to very low levels.
What you can do
- Choose smaller plants and grow them on in your own garden. Larger, mature specimens will most likely have been grown abroad and carry the risk of harbouring non-indigenous pests and diseases.
- Swap cuttings with friends and neighbours and buy locally at plant fairs or garden centres and nurseries. If the plants are not labelled British or locally grown, ask where they have been raised.
- Make sure you do not plant any invasive alien species in your garden, especially Japanese knotweed and giant hogweed and aquatic ones such as New Zealand swamp stonecrop (Crassula helmsii) and floating pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides).
- If you go abroad and want to bring back plant material, only bring seeds. Plant native species but make sure that they are grown from British stock.
- With plants such as tree ferns, cyclamens and orchids, where there is a risk that they have been dug up from the wild, only buy cultivated specimens.
The plastic plant pot is the gardener’s equivalent to the shopper’s plastic carrier bag: we know we use too many of them – some 500 million each year in the UK – but they’re really cheap and they’re handy. The only trouble is that like carrier bags, they have become a huge waste problem: they pile up, in our gardens, in our bins, and the majority of them are either sent to landfill or incinerated. And the manufacture of virgin plastic uses significant amounts of fossil fuels (4% of the worlds annual oil production is used to produce plastics and a further 3% to manufacture them).
An obvious alternative is to recycle them, not just by giving your surplus to neighbours or a local community project, but by being able to take them back to be recycled commercially, ideally to be made into more pots. Until recently, the argument against recycling on a large scale has been that it is too complex and costly to sort the mixed plastics. But now the majority of plant pots are made from polypropylene, with trays made from polystyrene, and advanced technology means that mechanical sorting is feasible. However, Steve Griggs of Associated Polymer Resources points out that the specialized machinery is very expensive.
The challenge for gardeners is to persuade garden centres and nurseries to take back used pots – this will entail them providing staff to sort, stack and shrinkwrap them – and set up a collection scheme with one of the country’s specialist plastic recyclers who can clean and granulate the plastic so that it can be re-used. Some enterprising independent garden centres, such as Groves in Bridport, have already set up schemes, and this summer Wyevale will have collection bins at all its 121 garden centres.
Using degradable plastic – plastic which has been treated with an accelerant so that it will degrade when finished with – throws up problems of emissions and the length of time it takes to break down. And, according to Friends of the Earth, does nothing to promote lasting solutions to plastic waste.
Biodegradable pots, made from a range of materials such as coir, wood chips, rice husks, miscanthus or seaweed, are becoming increasingly popular, especially with organic gardeners. There are two types: ones that last a few months and can be planted straight into the soil, where they gradually break down and add humus to the soil; and more rigid ones made from plant materials such as rice husks and latex which last up to three years and can be put on your home compost heap to degrade. Berryfields head gardener, Alys Fowler, has tried both kinds and found the miscanthus-based ones fell apart too quickly. She is now successfully using the rigid ones which can be washed and re-used, but will break, she warns, if you drop them on the ground.
Caroline and Derek Taylor of the Hairy Pot Plant Company have recently switched to coir pots, which they describe as ‘rustic looking’, having trialled several other kinds for three years. The roots establish quickly and once they push through the sides of the pots are air pruned, which encourages them to branch more inside the pot. This avoids rootballing and creates a well-developed root system that enables the young plants to romp away, with no disturbance, as soon as they are planted out in their pots. Organic grower Mike Kitchen of Rocket Gardens has had similar success with compressed wood fibre pots from France, the largest of which, he says, can last for up to a year before degrading.
Both these kinds of biodegradable pots dry out more quickly than ordinary plastic pots, and need to be handled more carefully. Except for the ones you make yourself from newspaper, biodegradable pots are also more expensive and their manufacture has a carbon footprint. In the case of coir, which is mainly sourced from Sri Lanka, there’s the extra transport costs, although very little energy is used in their manufacture as the coir is dried by the sun for most of the year. But as coir importer Joe Collinson explains: ‘We should consider the social costs of what we’re using too. In this case, the pots, which are finished by hand, provide a livelihood for communities hit by the tsunami.’
Did you know?
- Each UK household produces over 1 tonne of rubbish annually.
- The average net saving of CO2 from recycling plastics is estimated to be between 1 tonne and 1.5 tonnes CO2 equivalent per tonne of plastics.
- Worldwide, we produce and use 20 times more plastic today than we did 50 years ago.
- Plastics make up around 7% of the average household dustbin in the UK.
- Nearly 57% of litter found on our beaches in 2003 was plastic.
Alan Knight, Sustainability Director, Wyevale. “Recycling plant pots is a low carbon form of recycling as the material has already been manufactured and you are making use of lorries that would normally be returning empty to the growers. If we simplify the kinds of plastics we offer in our garden centres, it will make the recycling process even easier.”
Caroline Taylor, The Hairy Pot Plant Company. “Coir pots provide valuable employment in an under-developed area of Sri Lanka and work brilliantly as a pot. Last year we grew 20,000 plants in them. You plant the whole thing in the ground so avoiding waste and giving the plant a great start in life.”
David Gwyther, The Horticultural Trades Association Director General. “The industry has long been very conscious of the environmental challenge caused by used plastic pots, and has for many years been seeking both alternative materials and cost-effective collection and recycling schemes. There are no quick fixes to this problem. It continues to require diligent development and trial work. HTA is monitoring these activities and running its own investigative schemes. Current industry projects include a SEEDA funded waste reduction and recycling project, and recycling experiments by Hilliers and Bransford Plants. We are pleased that Wyevale too is running a pilot recycling scheme. Though we have no details of this at present, we would hope that it would add to the industry’s developing knowledge on how to come up with real solutions to the problem.”
What you can do
- Take any unwanted plastic pots to a garden centre that offers a recycling service. If your nearest centre doesn’t offer one, suggest the idea to them.
- If you want to buy plastic pots (with or without plants in them) choose ones that are made from recycled plastic (such as Plantpak).
- Make your own seed pots from newspaper. Use cardboard tubes for seedlings that put out long roots, eg sweetpeas.
- Experiment with biodegradable pots, both ones that you can plant directly into the soil and ones which can be used over longer periods and that can eventually be put on the compost heap.
Wood is potentially one of the most environmentally friendly materials we can use in the garden: it’s a natural material that can be sustainably grown, it takes less energy than other hard materials to turn into products such as planks, panels and furniture, and it absorbs harmful carbon dioxide as it grows. But there’s a huge demand for it.
The shortage of fence panels earlier this year, when many householders needed to replace ones felled by the storms, was put down to European producers exporting more to China and Dubai – and in parts of the world trees are being felled in a way that damages the forests, the people who live in them, and the wider environment.
Hardwood garden furniture and decking poses a particular problem if it’s from West Africa because it was probably felled in a forest in the Congo Basin, home to more than half of Africa’s animal species.
According to conservation groups such as Greenpeace, illegal logging is rampant in the region and corruption is widespread. This means that tranches of natural forest are being destroyed. It also means that local communities are losing many of their natural resources, such as food, fuel and medicines, and aren’t being compensated.
In a recent Greenpeace report villagers in western Democratic Republic of Congo explained how they were encouraged to sign access contracts with an international logging company, and in return received bags of salt, sugar, beer and soap. Not a penny of the area taxes raised in the last three years, agreed with the World Bank and earmarked for local communities to help with such amenities as hospitals and schools, has reached the local people.
Other hardwoods such as teak and yellow balau are used to make garden furniture, and may also be sourced illegally.
It’s not just wood from tropical rainforests we should be concerned about, say the conservation watchdogs. Illegal logging is rife in Russia, for example, where the larch for many of our timber fences is sourced. And even timber in plantations, which use fast-growing species and so are a more sustainable alternative, needs to be responsibly managed.
Many environmental groups support the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification scheme, which provides a chain of custody number for every labelled product. This tracks the timber through all stages of processing to ensure that it’s sustainably sourced and managed. But foresters in the UK point out that the scheme disadvantages small producers as it’s too bureaucratic and costly for them to comply with. And members of FSC-Watch are concerned that there are an increasing number of certifications that have not been rigorously audited and so are undermining the scheme.
Did you know?
- An area of virgin forest the size of a football pitch disappears every two seconds around the world to supply the timber and paper industry. Much of this logging is illegal.
- Ancient forests are home to two-thirds of all plant and animal species found on earth. Endangered species living in these forests, such as gorillas, chimpanzees and orang utan, are in danger of extinction in our lifetime.
- About 70 million people live in tropical forests, and depend on them for almost every aspect of their survival.
- A recent WWF report (Illegal Logging: Cut it Out) estimates that the UK is the third largest importer of illegal timber in the world. More than 65 per cent of this trade goes into the construction sector, which includes flooring and furniture.
- Currently the UK consumes about three per cent of the world’s primary wood products but has only about one per cent of the world’s population.
- European larch is grown in plantations throughout Europe but larch from Siberia, used in fence panelling, is often taken from ancient forests.
Andy Tait, Head of Biodiversity Campaign, Greenpeace. “Illegally logged wood is still being used to provide wood for our gardens – not just wood from tropical forests but in some cases also from boreal and temperate forests. It’s sometimes very hard for the consumer to know even what wood a piece of furniture has been made from, let alone where it comes from. So, the most important thing you can do, is to check that wood is FSC-labelled (Forest Stewardship Council). FSC is a demanding system of certification, that has high environmental and social standards, and that’s why we and other environmental groups support it. If it’s not FSC, you should immediately be wary of it and ask questions about where it comes from, and whether it has any creditation. Using recycled and reclaimed wood is also a good idea when possible.”
Steve Young, Director, Timber Decking Association. ‘Up until recently, 90% of the decking in the UK was made from pressure-treated softwoods, mostly from sustainable forests in Europe. Now architects and consumers are choosing to use more hardwoods – up to 25% – for decking and other garden structures such as balustrades, arbours and planters. Hardwood is more dense and hard wearing and has beautiful colour variations. There’s a plentiful supply of hardwoods such as oak from Europe, but with tropical species we are very concerned to promote the hardwood products that only come from legal and well managed forests. Full certification to a recognised standard such as FSC and PEFC (Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification) can be very costly and demanding so in developing countries there are various independent verifications that help foresters work towards full certification. It’s important we support these schemes.’
What you can do
- The growing, harvesting and processing of new timber uses energy and water. Where possible, use recycled or reclaimed wood. Re-use the wood you already have, or offer it to a local re-use project.
- Buy locally produced wood products that are FSC certified, which will mean less transportation costs.
- If the wood you want comes from abroad, make sure that it’s FSC certified, with a chain of custody number.
- With any wood that doesn’t carry the FSC logo, find out what kind it is and check to see if it’s from an endangered species (see good wood guides). If it is, try to find an alternative.
- Support the work of conservation groups such as WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and The Woodland Trust to implement responsible forest management in the logging industry worldwide.
You’re planning a smart new terrace and have been advised to use natural stone rather than imitation. Even though it will probably cost more, it will weather beautifully and will last for ever. But is it acceptable from an environmental and ethical point of view?
That depends on where the paving stones come from, how they were extracted and how they were delivered to you. Indian sandstone has become increasingly popular due to the competitive price and quality of the stone. But if your stone comes from India there’s a good chance that it has been quarried by children as young as ten. Recent reports revealed that those children, who make up as much as 25 per cent of the workforce in some Indian quarries, wield sledge hammers and operate jack hammers without any shoes, gloves or protective gear. The conditions for the workers in many of these quarries are harsh. Migrant families live in makeshift shelters, have little or no medical care, and are sometimes bonded to their employers which means they work to pay off the money they have borrowed to survive, and if they die, this debt is passed on to their children.
The environmental cost is also high: polluted groundwater, the spoiling of the landscape by illegal dumping, and the energy consumed to transport the stone half way across the world to our gardens.
But the environmental cost applies at home too. Heavily paved areas do not support wildlife and prevent water from seeping into the soil naturally to reach the water table. This run-off goes into overloaded drains and is a major contribution to flash flooding – something that has been a major hazard this year. In addition, the heat absorbed by paving during the day is released at night, leading to poor air quality.
Mark Laurence, one of the UK’s leading designers of sustainable gardens, says that all hard landscaping materials have an ecological price tag. Cement, the binder that holds the constituents of concrete together, and is heated to a temperature of 1450C in a vast kiln, accounts for ten per cent of the world’s carbon emissions and is certainly top of the list of materials he tries to avoid. Even gravel has associated problems. It’s often recommended as an environmentally friendly material because it allows water to drain freely into the soil and consumes no energy to manufacture, but it creates problems when it’s strip-mined off the seabed as this destroys unknown amounts of marine life.
Did you know?
- Almost a quarter of all front gardens in NE England have been completely paved over. It’s estimated that London has lost the equivalent to 5,200 football pitches by householders paving over their front gardens.
- Paving, tarmac and concrete increase the amount of rainwater than runs off by as much as 50 per cent, leading to flooding.
- Most concrete paving, also marketed as ‘Reconstituted Stone’, uses Portland cement to bind the aggregates and sand. Cement production is one of the most energy intensive manufacturing processes in the world. The process also gives off a cocktail of air pollutants such as dust, dioxins and hydrocarbon compounds.
- The UK produces about 12 million tons of cement per year.
- The production of concrete in the UK is responsible for 2.6 per cent of carbon emissions, compared with 28 per cent from transport (excluding international aviation and shipping).
Rebecca Matthews Joyce, RHS Principal Advisor on Environmental Policy. “We should try to minimise the amount of hard landscaping we use. A garden full of concrete, Indian sandstone and slate planters from China is only achievable at great cost to the environment. Ask yourself: do you really need a whole path or can you get away with a few stepping stones? Re-using materials has got to be the best way forward – there is probably enough hard material already to provide for all our gardens. If you can’t do that, try at least to source your stone locally. Being sustainable takes more effort – you need to think ahead, plan, spot things – but there’s plenty of material out there, waiting to be re-used.”
David Collins, Sustainability Manager at the Concrete Centre, argues that although many environmentalists regard the manufacture of concrete as a major polluter, “Concrete is a small net contributor to greenhouse gases in the UK. It accounts for 2.6 per cent of UK CO2 emissions. In comparative terms manufacturing a tonne of crisps is around 22 times more CO2 intensive than the manufacture of a tonne of concrete and some paving products now contain up to 85 per cent recycled material.” Collins points out that it’s almost entirely sourced from within the UK, provides employment to some 40,000 people; it’s durable, often made from recycled sources, and the cement and concrete industries in the UK are actively taking measures to minimise the carbon footprint of their products to be more environmentally responsible.
What you can do
- Re-use concrete slabs, stone, bricks, cobbles and aggregates. Enquire locally at municipal waste recovery centres, at salvage yards or on freecycle sites online.
- When using concrete, ask your landscaper or designer to source a mix that uses recycled aggregates and that replaces Portland cement with materials that would otherwise be landfilled, such as PFA (Pulverised Fuel Ash) or GGBS (Ground Granulated Blastfurnace Slag.
- If using paving slabs or blocks, ask for ones that use recycled materials. Set paving in sand, rather than mortar, so that rainwater can percolate through the gaps. For front gardens, use resin bonded gravel and aggregates, held in cells made from recycled plastic, or permeable paving with gaps that allow water to drain into the soil or to be stored and used to water the garden. If you use conventional concrete block and slab paving, slope it so that the water runs onto the garden.
- For pathways, choose from a range of natural or recycled materials, such as chipped wood or bark, glass chips, crushed brick, shells, recycled aggregates.
- If you want Indian sandstone or Chinese slate try sourcing ethical importers, who are signed up to the Ethical Trade Initiative. This means that they have agreed to a code of labour practice, which makes sure that their suppliers comply with it, and ensures safe, healthy and fair conditions for the workers. If the importer is not an ETI member, then ask questions about the supplier, and what measures are being taken to improve working conditions. If the stone you’re offered is amazingly cheap, then it’s likely to be sourced from an illegal quarry.
- Use minimal amounts of paving and mix this with other natural materials.
- Ask your local garden centre where they source their paving products from and whether they can show their provenance in the labelling.
- Use permeable paving blocks and permeable grass grids for hard standing, which lesson the environmental impact of paving over front gardens.
Peat has been used by commercial growers and amateur gardeners since the mid 20th century. Mixed with sand and loam it became a popular high quality growing medium, and, to meet the demand, acres of UK peat bogs were drained and destroyed. This kind of peatland is now one of the UK’s rarest and most threatened habitats. Environmentalists, the government, and gardening organisations all say the horticultural industry should phase out peat and use sustainable, and if possible, locally sourced alternatives instead. But gardeners still account for most of the peat that is used in composts and growing bags, and don’t seem to want to change.
You might think of peatbogs as dull expanses of empty, waterlogged land, but if you wandered into the heart of the Mosses National Nature Reserve on the Welsh border you’d find a unique and beautiful range of plant, insect and bird life that depends on the layers of peat that make up this lowland raised bog.
Many gardeners don’t realise that multi-purpose compost, unless it’s labelled ‘peat free’, contains between about 70% and 100% peat. But there are clear environmental reasons we should be concerned about using even small amounts of peat. We are still using approximately the same amount of peat in our growing media as we did in the late 1990s, even though the peat-free message has been broadcast by environmental groups and many of our leading gardeners including Monty Don and Carol Klein.
So why do gardeners still buy peat-based products? ‘Some gardeners just buy the cheapest to fill up their pots and tubs for the summer – peat-free ones are usually more expensive because they have to be processed more, ‘ explains Susie Holmes, co-author of the most recent report on peat and alternative products for growing media and soil improvers in the UK. ‘Keen gardeners tend to buy the compost they know and trust, and up until recently peat-free ones have had a reputation for being unreliable.’
Because of commercial extraction, only about 6000 hectares of lowland raised bog in the UK remain in pristine or near-natural condition. The latest government figures show that 62% of the peat we use in growing media and soil conditioners comes from other countries, primarily the Republic of Ireland and the Baltic States and Finland. But environmentalists say that we should not be contributing to our carbon footprint by importing this peat and should instead put our resources into using our own natural materials to make sustainable growing media that work.
A greater quantity of alternative materials, such as bark, green compost and wood waste, is now being used, though not enough to meet the government target of alternatives accounting for 90% of growing media requirements by 2010. This increase is largely because the major retailers, who have strong social and environmental policies, have put pressure on the manufacturers to reduce their peat use.
Did you know?
- The most recent government figures for the use of peat and peat alternatives in growing media and soil conditioners in the UK show that although the quantity of alternatives has increased in the six years from 1999-2005, the amount of peat we have used – 3.4 million cubic metres (or more than 48 million standard (70-litre) bags of multi purpose compost) in 2005 – has not changed greatly.
- Amateur gardeners use 66% of the total peat consumed in the UK, most of it in growing media such as multi-purpose compost and growing bags.
- 38% of the peat used in the UK comes from within the UK, 56% from the Republic of Ireland, 6 % from Northern Europe.
- 94% of the UK’s lowland raised peatbogs, one of our rarest and most vulnerable habitats, have been lost. There are just 6000 hectares in pristine or near-natural condition left.
- Each lowland raised bog, which is the preferred type for peat extraction, holds its own unique and biodiverse community of plant and animal species which is threatened by extraction. Over 3000 species of insect, 800 flowering plants and hundreds of kinds of mosses, liverworts, lichens and fungi have been recorded at Thorne Moors and Hatfield Moors in Yorkshire.
- Peatlands contain one of the world’s most important carbon stores – when they are drained the carbon is released back into the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming.
- The particular anaerobic conditions in peat make it a superb living history book that preserves plant, animal and human remains for thousands of years.
- Peatlands are important water stores, holding about 10% of global freshwater; peat takes so long to form – it grows by about 1mm per year – that it cannot be regarded as a sustainable material. Commercial extractors typically remove up to 22cm of peat per year.
Steve Berry, Wildlife Gardening Officer, Natural England “Having destroyed most of our own peatbogs we’re now helping to destroy those in places like Latvia and Estonia. Most gardeners live a long way from peat bogs and may not see the appeal or the value of them but every time someone uses peat they are contributing to the destruction of this special and important habitat. There are plenty of non-peat alternatives that work almost as well as peat-based products. The more people that use and ask for non-peat ones, the greater the commercial incentive to improve them further.”
Richard Gianfrancesco, Head of Research at Gardening Which? “Our trials of garden composts show that some manufacturers have made decent peat-free products for many years but others, especially those at the cheaper end of the market, have been churning out pretty poor ones and consumers have been burned by using these. Manufacturers need to invest in research to develop good performing products. Peat-free composts are heavier, so the haulage costs are higher. They tend to be fairly coarse too and generally are not particularly good for seed sowing, especially of small seeds. For gardeners who want to reduce their peat use, Gardening Which? recommends either sieving a good quality peat-free one, or buying a small bag of peat-based compost for sowing and then using a peat-free compost mixed with slow-release fertiliser when growing on in tubs and baskets. The available nitrogen in peat-free composts can be used up by the continuing decomposition of the materials in the bag so if your plants are struggling it’s worth giving the plants a liquid feed.”
What you can do
- Find out what’s in the bag of compost or soil conditioner and if it is peat based, ask for peat-reduced, or better still, peat-free.
- Follow the instructions on the peat-free packet to get the best results, and be prepared to water and feed more frequently. Experiment with different kinds of peat-free until you find one that suits your needs.
- Do not use peat or peat-based compost as a mulch or soil improver. Make your own compost and use it to improve soil, or use well-rotted animal manures. For mulch, use your own compost or other renewable materials such as wood chips, wood shavings and bark.
- When buying potted plants, choose ones that have been grown in peat-free compost. If your supplier doesn’t know, ask them to find out.