For centuries, the objective of gardening has been to tame the wild, and that led to many horticultural practices that are disastrous for wildlife and the ecosystem at large. The objective of ecological gardening, a new movement, is to create beautiful spaces in concert with nature rather than trying to overcome nature. To explain the value of ecological gardening and how to implement it yourself to create beauty and biodiversity, my guest this week is gardener, consultant and writer Matt Rees-Warren.
Matt lives in Shepton Mallet, a sleepy little town in South West England. He’s been gardening since he was a boy helping his father turn the compost pile and pull up beets, but it became a career for him around 15 years ago. Matt learned landscaping, masonry and carpentry and spent a year working and studying in Australia, where he was a horticulturist at the Curtin University botanical gardens. He later became head gardener at Kilver Court Designer Village in Somerset, England, and worked alongside Roger Saul, the founder of the Mulberry fashion label. His recently released book is “The Ecological Gardener: How to Create Beauty and Biodiversity from the Soil Up.”
Matt is an excellent writer, and I really love his book. It’s both inspirational and a practical guide to working with nature instead of trying to control it. The book teaches both novice and experienced gardeners how to make gardens and landscapes that welcome birds and pollinators and allow native plants and wildflowers to flourish — all while minimizing their carbon footprint and the need for fresh water.
Where Matt lives and gardens, it can be cold, rainy and windy at times, he says, and the work can be back-breaking. But he always looks toward the end goal. He knows the work and planning that’s put into his garden pays off down the line.
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A Step Change
Matt says he was always a proponent of organic gardening practices but becoming an ecological gardener was a step change. He says a turning point was the 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The report warned of the dire consequences of climate change if greenhouse gas emissions are not curtailed.
In response to the report, Matt drew a line in the sand. It made him look at what he does as a gardener and reevaluate it. He looked at his traditional knowledge and institutional knowledge and determined what was built on sound advice and what is based on outdated ideas.
An ecological garden is aspirational, Matt says, and no one is doing everything perfectly. But gardeners can take steps to mitigate their contributions to climate change. Elements of permaculture, wildlife gardening, organic gardening and no-dig gardening all come together into one.
Creating more wildflower gardens, creating more compost, leaving areas undisturbed and recognizing the importance of soil as a carbon sink are all methods and principles of ecological gardening discussed in Matt’s book. It’s nice to know that we actually can play an active role in our little corner of the world in helping to nurture that along.
Traditional Gardening vs. Ecological Gardening
Matt says in his book that neatness has become a default for achievement in gardening. The desire for order goes back to the 16th and 17th century, when control over the untamed wilderness was the goal, he says. But now there is far less wilderness on the planet and far more artificially structured and manicured spaces.
But we have a new way to gauge success. Ecological gardening asks us to assess if our gardens are supporting pollinators and providing food and habitat for native birds and insects. How little supplemental water do our gardens need? How little fertilizer can we use? Can we refrain from using pesticides? How much carbon is our garden sequestering in the soil?
Ecological gardening adapts from and builds on other horticultural practices that have a focus on sustainability: organic gardening, regenerative agriculture, permaculture and others.
The aesthetic may be different than conventional ornamental gardens, but ecological gardens are still designed to be pleasing to the eye. As Matt writes in his book, regenerative landscapes can be functional, beautiful spaces full of life and vigor, robust enough to face the challenges of the future and elegant enough to beguile all those who walk among them. To me, that’s the best of all worlds. Regenerative gardens can have show-stopping beauty while being a piece of nature and sequestering carbon.
“A key thread through the book was that to make a garden completely ecological doesn’t need to mean that it’s just wild and it’s untamed,” Matt says “I don’t really believe in that, because it’s a garden. I do believe that it’s an interaction between the human hand and nature. There should definitely be areas which are left wild out in the wilderness, and we need to push towards a more wild element to our garden. But it’s always going to be an interaction between the two.”
That means that though you are putting nature first, you can still imprint your style and sensibilities. Your hand as the gardener is a key component of an ecological garden.
There are ecological practices that look fantastic, Matt says, such as wildflower meadows with crisp, cut-short paths. So why not take a massive lawn and convert 75 percent to meadow? “You’re balancing the two,” he says.
Though Americans often think of European gardens as neat and tidy with clipped hedges and straight lines, Matt’s garden is nothing like that. Ecological gardening does not call for that formality. Rather than manicured perfection, ecological gardening is about releasing control. Matt says he’s constantly questioning what he does: Shall I leave that grass long? Should I pull that plant?
There are positive benefits for wildlife when we let plants grow, well, wild. Instead of trimming hedges to make them look neat, let them grow out so they provide berries, seeds and nuts for birds during nesting season. And you can still plan a pruning schedule that will work for both you and the birds.
Combating Ecological Decline & Climate Change
Entomologists like Doug Tallamy in the United States and Dave Goulson in the United Kingdom are constantly sounding the alarm about ecological declines, Matt says. If we don’t adapt, it’s the next generation that will suffer, he notes.
The broad use of pesticides, the destruction of habitat and the replacement of native plants with invasive species and cultivars all contribute to insect and bird population decline. Our ecosystems are in crisis, and climate change only exacerbates these issues.
Matt’s book states that it’s estimated the Earth’s soil holds 2,500 gigatons of carbon, which is more than three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and four times the amount of carbon stored in all living plants and animals. The question is, how can we keep that carbon in the soil? As gardeners, we have control over that.
Matt says soil is sometimes, to us, just the medium in which to grow. But when we add more awareness to the situation, we realize it’s much more. By growing plants and trees, we are capturing and sequestering carbon.
Other gardening activities, including tilling and composting, release carbon. The good news is, refraining from tilling is easy and has a number of benefits aside from carbon sequestration.
No-dig gardening, also known as no-till gardening, is a practice gardeners can employ to keep carbon in the soil. Tilling disrupts the fungal networks and other beneficial microbes in soil, and it also releases carbon by encouraging rapid decomposition of organic matter.
Matt cuts down on digging any way he can. For instance, when dividing a plant, he considers whether he really needs to dig it up. There is often a less invasive approach. “Is that unnecessary digging? Can you take a cutting? Can you take seed first?” he asks. By leaving the soil untouched, he benefits from the continued service of the soil microbe community that he has nurtured.
In forests and other areas that have been undisturbed by human activity, soil microbes have built up their populations over decades, creating vast mycorrhizal networks between trees and plants. Researchers are learning that those networks are among the most important reasons for the longevity of a forest. The microbes connect the root systems of trees so they can share nutrients and “talk” to each other about environmental stresses, like drought, disease and pests. (“The Hidden Life of Trees” by German forester Peter Wohlleben explains how it all works.)
When it comes to composting, the release of carbon dioxide is inevitable. It’s just a natural part of the decomposition process. It occurs in nature everywhere that leaves fall. But when gardeners create compost piles at home, there are steps they can take to reduce carbon dioxide output and to stop the production of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps much more heat than carbon dioxide.
Organic matter can decompose either aerobically (in the presence of oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen). If your finished compost is sludgy and it stinks, it decomposed anaerobically, producing methane. You can stop this from happening by turning your compost pile regularly to introduce oxygen into the mix. Proper drainage is also important, as is mixing compost inputs in the right ratios.
Don’t Defend Plants at All Costs
I often advise that if you allow beneficial insects to do their work, they will help to control pest problems before they get out of hand. There are organic pesticides and biological controls that can be applied when a serious pest issue calls for them, but Matt practices great restraint. “I don’t defend the plant at all costs,” he says, adding that he doesn’t push nature completely away just to get a perfect brassica.
Pesticides — even organic pesticides — can kill the beneficial, predatory insects that naturally keep pest populations under control. When our gardens encourage beneficial insects and we refrain from applying pesticides, many pest problems will be resolved naturally with no intervention on our part.
Closing the Loop
An important principle for reducing our impact on the environment is to “close the loop.” As gardeners, we should always strive to reduce our water usage and never let organic matter leave our property.
Instead of applying “drinking water” to a garden, Matt looks at ways to collect the water that falls during the year: harvesting runoff from the roof, creating ponds and constructing bioswales. Then that water can be put to use during periods of drought.
If you have trees on your property, your greatest source of organic matter each year will be fallen leaves. Instead of bagging those leaves and putting them out by the curb, use them on site as mulch or to create compost. Pile up leaves in the fall, and six months to a year later they will become what’s called leaf mold — partially decomposed leaves that make a wonderful compost input or soil amendment.
Another concern is plastic. Horticulture is drowning in plastic, Matt says. Plastic is cheap and practical — it doesn’t wear away in weather — so it is ubiquitous. Matt suggests using terracotta pots, fiber pots and hessian sacks that will go back into the earth eventually, unlike plastic containers, which will not decompose. If you already have plastic containers, endeavor to reuse them rather than buying new.
Small Acorns Make Mighty Oaks
To conclude, I want to leave you with this brief excerpt from Matt’s book. I think it will help stick with you.
Reimagining how we garden may seem like a small way to help mitigate our ecological crisis, but it’s an important one, and it has the ability to make a substantial difference. Gardens are natural spaces after all — the great green lungs of every nation; Individual and idiosyncratic but together fundamental to their local and wider ecosystems. How we guide them will be the difference between a future in which they play a key role in restoring our nature’s health, or one in which we continue our parsimonious approach to nature’s needs. While there needs to be a collective changing of the guard, from the community scale to the planetary, small acorns, make mighty oaks, and it’s also what we do as individual gardeners, today and tomorrow, that matters.
I hope you have a greater understanding of ecological gardening after listening to my conversation with Matt Rees-Warren. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
How have you changed your gardening practices to benefit the environment? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.