Ditch the peat, keep the lawn: Ten steps to a greener garden in 2020

Stop using pesticides, allow weeds to grow and go for pro-pollinator planting

Searching for simple, practical ways to garden sustainably? Follow these ten steps to a greener garden

1 Harvest rainwater

Yes, we've endured an unusually rain-filled autumn and winter but that's not to say that it won't be followed by yet another punishing drought plus water restrictions, to which harvesting rainwater is the planet-friendly, sustainable, economical solution. You can use high-tech underground tanks, custom-made rainbarrels or simply recycle old water tanks or other waterproof containers (ideally fitted with a secure waterproof lid for reasons of safety and hygiene). For ease of use, the latter can even be connected via a gravity feed using lengths of garden hose, with any overflow directed towards a garden pond (see rainwaterharvestingsystemsireland.com)

2 Think pollinators

Pollinator-friendly gardening isn’t as simple as planting a few pretty flowering plants. Think avoiding the use of chemical pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, and about counteracting habitat loss in the wild by providing plenty of different areas within your garden for different species of insects.

For example, some species of wild bees like to overwinter in the dead flower stems of perennials, others in the cavities of dry-stone walls, rotting tree stumps, roof eaves or sunny banks. It's also about leaving space for pollinator-friendly weeds such as dandelions, buttercup, clover, celandines and wild grasses and choosing flowering species with single (rather than double/multi-petalled) flowers so that insects can easily access their carbohydrate-rich nectar and protein-rich pollen. To ensure a ready source of pollinator food when insects are emerging from/entering into winter hibernation, it's especially important to grow a range of spring and autumn-flowering plants. Pollinator-friendly examples include pulmonaria, crocus, honesty, hellebores, forsythia, currant bushes, fruit trees, mahonia, dahlias, comfrey, eupatorium, berberis, cotoneaster, wild ivy, flowering hedges and many native species of trees (see pollinators.ie).


3 Ditch peat

Avoid the environmentally harmful use of peat by using peat-free seed and potting composts such as Klasmann's (available from fruithillfarm.com), which is certified to organic standards. It's not cheap (€11.45-€11.75 per 70L bag) so make it go further and earn yourself even more eco-brownie points by adding it to a mix of homemade garden compost or sieved leaf mould (aim for a 50:50 ratio).

4 Embrace weeds

For those who like their paths pristine and lawns daisy-free, foregoing the use of weedkillers requires a radical attitude readjustment regarding what constitutes conventional garden "tidiness". But as the song goes, the times they are a-changin', and we now know about the long-term negative effects of weedkillers on the environment and human health, as well as the vital role that many common weeds play in supporting garden wildlife. Some – for example nettles, horsetail, dock and dandelion– are also valuable natural sources of garden nutrients that can be used to make health-boosting, biostimulating liquid plant feeds (see gardenorganic.co.uk for a step-by-step guide) while, as Jack Willington explains in his new book Wild About Weeds (Laurence Press, £19.99), many weeds can also be decorative, not that I'm advocating that you completely surrender your garden to them. Instead keep them in check by investing in an oscillating hoe (fruithillfarm.co.uk) and using weed-suppressant organic mulches, green manures and landscape fabric such as Mypex.

5 Source organic seeds

Sourcing open-pollinated seed from organic Irish producers helps to support biodiversity, preserve seed sovereignty and enable home seed-saving of adaptable, garden-worthy varieties proven capable of withstanding the vagaries of our volatile Irish climate. Irish organic seed producers include Cork-based Brown Envelope Seeds (brownenvelopeseeds.com) and Clare-based Irish Seed Savers Association (irishseedsavers.ie). Other suppliers of organic/ open pollinated seed include Cork-based fruithillfarm.com; theorganiccentre.ie; UK-based kingsseeds.com; realseeds.co.uk and US-based johnnyseeds.com.

6 Plant a tree

Find space in your garden for at least one tree; not only do these magical giants of the plant kingdom play a crucial role in supporting pollinators but trees also filter air and noise pollution, help counteract the effects of flooding and drought and provide valuable nesting sites and food (the fruiting/berrying kinds) for birds, which is to say nothing of their hugely ornamental qualities,

Native Irish trees include rowan, crab apple, willow, hawthorn, birch and arbutus, while there are many non-native planet-friendly species that are equally worthy of a spot in even the smallest garden including Amelanchier “Robin Hill”, Cercis siliquastrum and Cornus kousa var chinensis.

7 Just add water

Even the smallest pond will add life and music to your garden, while creating yet another biodiverse-friendly habitat within its complex ecosystem. It doesn’t have to require expensive butyl liners and electric pumps but can be as simple as a small, strong, watertight, recycled container (30cm is the ideal depth to encourage a wide variety of pond life) buried in the ground, its edges concealed with paving stones/slate. Fill the container with harvested rainwater and then pop in a few non-invasive oxygenating plants such as water starwort, hornwort or water milfoil. Soften the edges and provide cover for garden wildlife by planting around it with few non-invasive bog plants such as Geum rivale, Iris laevigata, astilbe and candelabra primulas. For a truly biodiversity-friendly garden pond, avoid stocking it with fish and make sure to situate it in a sunny spot.

8 Not so fast with the lawnmower

Reduce the size of your lawn and/or reduce the regularity with which you mow it by allowing it (or parts of it) to grow longer, ideally waiting at least six weeks between cuts. As long as you're not using moss/weed-killing chemicals or synthetic fertilisers, wildflowers will soon appear with a consequent boom in garden wildlife. Replacing that fossil-fuel guzzling lawnmower with either a manual or cordless electric model will also help minimise your garden's carbon footprint. Simple push lawnmowers such as Einhell's are perfect for small gardens while both Bosch and Worx do a great range of lightweight, cordless models.

9 Feed the soil

Protecting and nourishing your garden or allotment's soil is absolutely vital to its wellbeing as well as that of its wildlife (including us humans). Regular use of organic garden mulches such as homemade garden compost, leaf-mould, well-rotted manure, straw, grass clippings, seaweed or Irish-made products such as Enrich (enrich.ie) or Gee-Up (gee-up.ie) will do a lot to keep it in good heart, as will sowing planet-friendly green manures (cover crops that are subsequently cut back and used as a mulch or else dug into the soil (seed suppliers include fruithillfarm.com and mrmiddleton.com).

10 Put waste to work

While composting garden and kitchen waste is a fundamental principle of planet-friendly gardening, I'll admit that it's not always as simple as it sounds, sometimes resulting in a foul-smelling sludge that's about as far removed from fragrant garden compost as vinegar is from wine. But don't give up because when you get it right, it's quite magical. Plus, modern compost bins such as the award-winning insulated Hotbin have revolutionised the process by dramatically speeding up the process and allowing homeowners to successfully compost all sorts of previously uncompostable food-waste including meat and fish (from €195, available from quickcrop.ie).

This Week in Your Garden…

Take advantage of this quiet time of the gardening year to give indoor plants a little love and attention by gently removing/cutting away any dead foliage or faded flowers and using a damp, clean cloth to wipe down dusty leaves. If you do spot signs of insect pest infestation, then treat with a homemade spray made with a drop of washing-up liquid, a teaspoon of vegetable oil and four fluid ounces of warm water.

If you're planning on getting a glasshouse or polytunnel this year, then now is a good time to place your order. Leave ordering it to spring and you risk being added to a lengthy waiting list, leading to inevitable delays in installation. Recommended Irish suppliers include cwp.ie, polydome.ie and owenchubblandscapers.com (agents for Garbriel Ash glasshouses).

Try this…

The leaves of comfrey make an excellent organic liquid feed or soil-enriching mulch but it can be surprisingly difficult to source the sterile variety known as Bocking 14, which the famous organic grower Lawrence Hills recommended as one of the very best for this purpose. If you've found that to be the case, then you'll be please to hear that rooted cuttings can be ordered online from the Organic Centre (from €8 for 6 cuttings plus postage, theorganiccentre.ie)

Dates For Your Diary

January 28th (8pm), Foxrock Parish Pastoral Centre, Kill Lane, Dublin 18, Ireland's Wonderful Wildflowers, a talk by wildflower expert and author Zoe Devlin on behalf of Foxrock & District Garden Club, see foxrockgardenclub.com;

February 1st, (9.30am-5pm) Mount Wolseley Hotel, Tullow, Co Carlow, Snowdrop Gala & Other Spring Treasures, with guest speakers Catherine Erskine of Cambo Gardens in Scotland and Ross Barbour and Helen Picton of the UK's Picton Old Court Nurseries plus specialist plant sales by some of the UK and Ireland's leading nurseries (Tickets €90 includes lunch, contact Hester Forde at 086 8654972 or hesterforde@gmail.com or Robert Miller at sales@altamontplants.com or 087 9822135).