Do your bit for the planet by making a few simple changes

We must grow green: Do your bit for the planet by making a few simple changes

  • Nigel Colborn is encouraging gardeners to adapt because of climate change 
  • UK-based expert says gardens can be carbon-neutral and attractive all year
  • Recommends boosting levels of organic matter in soil to lock down more carbon 
  • The new gardening year began this week, along with the autumnal equinox. So with the climate crisis in mind, let’s make this the year to make a real difference.

    As gardeners we must make profound changes. For a start, we should look to our soils. By steadily boosting their levels of organic matter or humus, we can lock down more carbon. That will boost numbers of beneficial soil microbes, helping plant-growth.

    Well-farmed meadows and pasture can store more carbon than they release. Garden lawns and permanent ground-cover could also store carbon. But not if that grass is frequently closemown, with the cuttings always removed and discarded.

    In beds, carbon levels can go either way. If cleared and replanted with bedding twice yearly, carbon is not stored. Applying artificial fertilisers makes that worse.

    Golden spread: Pot Marigold, Calendula officinalis, will self-sow in the right spot

    Golden spread: Pot Marigold, Calendula officinalis, will self-sow in the right spot

    For peat’s sake 

    But with modest changes, gardens can be carbon-neutral and attractive all year. I believe we can go a step further.

    We can lock down significant quantities of carbon without compromising beauty, productivity or wildlife.

    A simple first step is to go peat-free. Damaged peatland releases greenhouse gases, as do peat-based composts.

    When I converted to peat-free compost last year, it felt horrible to handle. It also drained too rapidly. But you soon learn to manage and, surprisingly, so do the plants. Our summer containers looked lovely.

    There are carbon-friendly alternatives to bedding, too. At the 2012 London Olympics, 7,000 sq m were carpeted with annual flower ‘meadows’. The direct-sown seeds produced multi-coloured carpets, abuzz with nectar-hungry insects.

    Flower ‘meadows’ like those can be any size. They’re grown entirely from seed direct-sown now, with more added in April.

    That gives a charming, longlasting show. If the plants are left to seed, the show repeats for several years.

    Plants for annual flower meadows include wild poppies, corn marigolds, Californian poppies, calendulas and toad-flaxes for hot colours. Cooler hues come from larkspurs, flax, nigellas, cornflowers, borage and Salvia horminum. So you can choose your colours. 

    Even on a tiny scale, you could try that instead of summer bedding. Sow the seeds randomly into a good tilth in a sunny spot. They won’t need fertiliser but rake the soil gently to cover the seeds. Expect bees and butterflies to love your display next summer. 

    Natural lawns 

    Lawns can capture surprising amounts of carbon. But they have to be managed for that and sadly most are not.

    Fine lawns are also key features in gardens and have been for centuries. I couldn’t bear to part with mine, but don’t have to. By never feeding, and by mowing without the grass box, my lawns have been self-sustaining for years.

    After mowing, grass fragments on the lawn wilt and shrink. Overnight, many are pulled into the ground by earthworms. Humus levels are thus boosted and carbon is stored after every mow.

    That breaks the costly cycle of weeding, feeding, close-cutting and dumping the grass. If daisies or speedwells flower in our lawns, I consider those a bonus and so do the bees.

    In rougher grass, you can plant or seed wildflowers. So please, let’s all lock more carbon down this year.




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