It cannot have escaped your notice that ‘environmentally friendly’ is the phrase of the moment. Green is the ‘in’ colour, whether it be in relationship to cleaning products, constructional materials or horticulture.
Nowhere has this desire for a greener, more pleasant land had more effect than on the world of gardening. Most people are more aware of potential damage to the environment and are anxious for remedies causing as little harm as possible.
This is a promising trend. In the past, gardeners have received a great deal of criticism for some of the methods they employed to achieve their aims. Much pressure has been brought to bear in recent years for the introduction of more ‘natural’ forms of cultivation and theoretically this should herald a new beginning for ecology.
The problem is, gardening is anything but ‘natural’. Manipulating plants for our own aims is a highly artificial exercise. Left to its own devices, nature would shape the planet very differently from one which is primarily convenient to mankind.
In an overpopulated world, unless action is taken to tackle the problem of providing for the needs and/or wants of a proliferating population at its roots, then any other moves towards protecting the environment of a particular moment have to be a series of compromises. And the ecological situation itself is not a static thing, but alters and adapts as circumstances change through time.
Some points affect the modern gardener very seriously. Through broadcasting and print, he or she is bombarded with conflicting opinions and advice from different lobbies with their own particular axes to grind. Unfortunately, the true picture is often obscured by stentorian propaganda, and the ordinary gardener who just wants to do the right thing is left in utter confusion.
Most issues are not just black or white and, to form the best opinions, it helps to stand back and view the arguments from all sides, especially where they concern the following subjects especially dear to the modern gardener’s heart and which are guaranteed to generate more hot air during discussion than the sun itself.
It is probably because so much countryside, along with its particular flora and fauna, is being lost to the developers every year that there is a sudden wave of nostalgia for indigenous trees and shrubs and native British wildflowers. This is an excellent concept on the large scale. Enlightened local authorities and appropriate ministries are transforming roadside verges and motorway embankments with copses of young trees and special seed mixes of native grasses blended with wildflowers, creating habitat and in time, one hopes, putting right some of the damage to the environment that has been done particularly in this century.
It is natural to want to carry this concept into our own patch of earth, but the modern compact enclosure which serves the majority of us as a garden is a far from easy place in which to recreate a tiny piece of rural landscape.
For instance, most native British tree species grow much too large in time for all but the largest gardens. Many planning authorities make the mistake of specifying beech, wild white cherry, mountain ash, alder and birch as screening trees around new, small properties, but this is the type of landscaping scheme which can only lead to future problems when the trees have grown so large they obscure light inside and out, their roots have lifted drives and penetrated drains, and their leaves have clogged gutters and downspouts. Modern houses are not ‘natural’, and with the wealth of ornamental garden trees available, albeit originating outside Britain, it seems misguided sentimentality to insist on only those species which, through one accident of nature or another, were around in this country a thousand or so years ago. Habitat can be created far more successfully in large, open spaces where it can be allowed to develop without hindrance. Pressure should be brought to bear on public bodies, especially county and district councils and other landowning local authorities, to make sure this is the case.
A similar argument applies to native shrubs. Modestly attractive as they are in a garden setting, and excellent for providing a whole host of wildlife with food and shelter, well, so are many non-native species and cultivars. The pyracantha which gives the blackbirds so much pleasure in winter as they strip it bare of its red berries may have its origins in China rather than northern Europe, but it is no less an admirable garden shrub because of this, and the blackbirds do not seem in the least concerned whether it is Chinese or British.