Get off the fossil fuel habit
We humans burn fossil fuels in lots of ways. We’ve become addicted to them. We even fight wars over them (though the people who want us to fight the wars may try to kid us – and may even kid themselves – that the wars are about something else).
In Rebecca Hosking and Tim Green’s 2009 film ‘A Farm for the Future’, peak oil expert Colin Campbell said that the fossil fuel we use is the equivalent of 22 billion slaves, working round the clock. That’s a world figure. So those of us who live in the rich part of the world have even more fossil fuel slave labour at our disposal. Making the change to living without that support will not be easy.
(David McKay has looked at the energy budget for Britain and how we could reduce our energy use and get it from renewable sources in a book, ‘Sustainable Energy – without the hot air’, that’s clear, straightforward, and at times wickedly funny. He’s even made it freely available online. David McKay’s produced a map to show how one version of his plans would look.)
The biggest fossil-fuel-guzzler for the luckiest people who have big gardens with swimming pools will be the pool, because of the huge energy needed to heat water to a comfortable temperature in the British climate, and also because of the need to top up the pool and to kill any pathogens in the water. So for those lucky people:
- install renewable energy such as solar panels to heat the swimming pool;
- keep the pool covered when nobody’s using it, to conserve water and keep it clean;
- consider a swimming pond instead so that the water is kept clean by a healthy ecosystem rather than by chlorine compounds.
For the rest of us, another favourite summer activity for lots of people is cooking and eating outside on barbecues. If we eat lots of unsustainably produced meat – from imported animals, or animals fed on arable crops rather than pasture, for example – then we’ll be contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions from farms. Even if we eat meat from local pasture-fed animals, we’ll share responsibility for their methane emissions. But we can also avoid burning fossil fuels directly:
- use garden prunings (from non-toxic plants!) or sustainably produced charcoal instead of fossil fuel gas;
- use a ‘chiminea’ or cob oven which will be better at using garden prunings than barbecues.
We can also reduce the greenhouse gas impact of our food habits by eating tasty and nutritious plants foods that will help us to eat less meat and dairy produce:
- grow nuts, such as walnuts, hazels, and almonds;
- grow flavouring plants such as herbs.
If we have greenhouses and use them to grow crops which would otherwise be imported, or grown in unsustainable ways, then greenhouses can help us to be more climate-friendly. But what about heating? In the winter some gardeners burn fossil fuel to keep their greenhouses heated. There are a few ways we can avoid this:
- use greenhouses to only grow tender annuals, and/or perennials which need only to be kept in unheated greenhouses over the winter;
- put compost heaps in greenhouses so that the heat keeps the greenhouses warm;
- put ponds or water tanks in greenhouses to act as heat stores that absorb heat by day and release it slowly by night;
- use renewable energy sources such as solar panels (this is what Logan Botanic Garden do).
Lawn-lovers may want to look away now, because this is the tough one for them, but lawn maintenance can cause lots of greenhouse gas emissions, so here are the challenges:
- make lawns smaller;
- redesign lawns to make them into simple shapes that are quick and easy to cut;
- let lawns grow a bit longer or even consider letting some or all of them become meadows and only cut them once or twice a year;
- if a mower needs replacing, consider getting a more efficient mower that uses less power;
- and for people who can face it, get a mower powered by human energy.
Hedges don’t need to be cut as often as lawns, but the same principles apply:
- choose hedge species which grow slowly to form strong dense growth, so that we only need to cut them once a year;
- use shears rather than powered hedgecutters.
The same thing applies to other garden features that we can choose to manage using power tools:
- use hand tools such as rakes rather than power tools such as leafblowers;
- choose well-made hand tools and power tools with good energy ratings.
We can also consider the embodied energy in any materials we buy:
- choose locally grown plants and local materials where possible;
- grow plants from seed or cuttings to reduce the greenhouse gases caused by transporting heavy container-grown plants;
- use second-hand materials, for example paving slabs from salvage firms, where possible;
- where possible, choose materials with low embodied energy such as locally grown timber rather than plastic, metals, or concrete (there’s an excellent database, the Inventory of Carbon and Energy, by Craig Jones and Geoff Hammond of the University of Bath, for anybody who wants to check out the embodied energy and carbon dioxide of almost any construction material);
- but don’t use plastic instead of concrete for paving – putting plastic in the soil is littering!;
- follow ‘cradle-to-cradle’ principles whenever we buy or make anything.
All of these things are pretty obvious. But what we do in our gardens may also save us from burning fossil fuel somewhere else:
- hang clothes out to dry in the sun and wind on a washing line in the garden, instead of using tumble dryers, which use huge amounts of energy;
- grow roots such as potatoes and greens such as cabbages in our gardens, rather than buying potentially damaging crops which have come from big arable fields, where they can cause soil erosion;
- grow food crops which are tasty and nutritious, such as nuts, rather than buying lots of meat and fish, which have big greenhouse gas footprints;
- grow digestive plants such as garlic which will keep our guts healthy and reduce ‘wind’, which may include methane;
- get a woodburning stove and burn garden prunings in it, rather than burning fossil fuel to heat our homes;
- grow trees, hedges, shrubs, and climbers where they can insulate our houses from cold winds in winter, and reduce the fossil fuel used for heating, and they can insulate our houses from the sun in summer and reduce the temptation to use fans or air-conditioning;
- grow craft plants, such as bamboo for garden canes, rather than importing them.