Gardening responsibly

Excerpt from: The Garden As Paradise,
by George Seddon

Australian Garden History - Journal of the Australian Garden History Society, vol.8, #4, 1997, pp 8-12.

'It is not usual for a book on understanding and conserving landscape to devote a whole section to gardens. Yet Voltaire thought it necessary to cultivate one’s garden. My reasons are his, and others that were not his. One is that gardeners are, in fact, one of the most important groups of land managers in this country, since between us we manage more than 50 per cent of all urban land in Australia, that is, the land that carries 80 per cent of the population: land that is not vast in area compared with that managed by farmers, pastoralists, miners and state agencies, but greater in value and in resource consumption than all of them. Gardeners are key land managers. Our choices therefore lie not in whether but in how we manage the land. We would all agree that we must do it in an ecologically responsible way.

But most Australians are not gardening in an ecologically responsible way at present, although some of us are trying. If we take the sum of gardening in Australia, it is undeniable that the resource input is gross. As with the rest of the world, we are an extreme reflection of the consumer society. The consumption of land alone is impressive. Perth, for example, stretches north-south for 120 kilometres and east-west for 70 kilometres, and this huge area houses 1.2 million people, at a density lower than that even of Los Angeles, and the reason is that nearly everyone has their own garden. Moreover, this is not just any land - although the soils are of low fertility, it lies in the only corner of the state that has a temperate climate and a substantial and reliable rainfall. The other state capitals, which house most of our population, are also favourably situated.

Next, the water consumption is heavy: it averages 515 kilolitres per household, and it is estimated that 40 per cent of this goes on parks and gardens. Lawn grass is a major irrigated crop in Western Australia. There are now concerns about both the quality of the water and the rate of replenishment.

Moreover, water moves nutrients in solution. Since our parks and gardens are heavily fertilised with chemical fertilisers brought in from distant sources, there is an oversupply of nutrients to the coastal lakes and rivers, and this is causing eutro- phication and algal blooms. There is a long list of resources consumed:

It is difficult to get good statistics for these inputs. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reports that Australians spent $910 million in 1991 on nursery and horticultural products. This equals $172 per household, but the ABS statistics cover sales from nurseries only. Supermarkets and chain stores would double that figure comfortably, and for Perth, the figure is likely to be much higher than the national average, given the more demanding gardening environment. Clearly we need to lift our game. How?

The appropriate goals, it seems to me, are fairly easy to spell out. To reach them is harder, and requires commitment. We could return to the gardening practices of our parents, although in their case, they followed from necessity, while in ours, we have been undone by availability. No more bags of peat moss, nor loads of pirated topsoil, nor chemical fertilisers, nor toxic insecticides. Stick to pyrethrum, garlic sprays, hose off the aphids, make your own compost and mulch, keep seeds, swap cuttings, and go easy on the water. Above all, learn what works in your neighbourhood. There has been a great and healthy interest in garden design over the last few years, and this is both desirable and overdue, but the search for an Australian style is a chimera. John Brookes, the English garden designer, urged recently that we should be incorporating motifs from Aboriginal culture to make our gardens more distinctively Australian. My response is that we have taken enough from the Aborigines already without trying also to appropriate their culture, and that, in any case, the goal is wrong. Good design is good design. We do not need an Australian garden design style. What we do need is better design, and to evolve sound Australian gardening practices, which must be frugal, and, of necessity, regional, even local.'

Is organic gardening more sustainable?

More, Sir Thomas, (1516) 1910, Utopia, trans. Ralph Robinson, 1551, 1556, (ed.) George Sampson, 1910, London: G. Bell and Sons.
Park, Geoff, 1995, Nga Uruora: The Groves of Life, Wellington: Victoria University Press.
Sadeur, Jacques (Foigny, Gabriel de), 1693, A New Discovery of Terra Incognita Australis, or the Southern World, by James Sadeur a Frenchman, London: Charles Hem.
Schama, Simon, 1995, Landscape and Memory, London: Harper Collins.

Also published as part of:
Reflections on Place and Landscape
George Seddon, with a foreword by Sir Gustav Nossal
Cambridge University Press 1997

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