Our insatiable appetite to grow flowers, coupled with the desire to prove ourselves as gardeners, may just be the undoing of our fragile environment. While we blame Amazonian timber-loggers, multi-national petrochemical producers and our government’s inability to deal with ozone depleting gases, some of our environmental problems may be occurring much closer to home, possibly in our own backyard.
Gardeners are no strangers to societies ills. Our own gardens are often the result of trying hard to keep up with the proverbial Jones’.
Our drive to have more, be more and do more is what keeps us as fat as our friends and away from our families. That same drive forces us to skew nature to our advantage with little respect for natural order and at a cost to which we are unaware.
The accomplices: Garden Shows and Magazines, Green Thumb Sunday and Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day.
While none of these are specifically evil, and are certainly not created to be, they do encourage us to put our effort and value into gardens where flowers are the focus. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. However, the problems begin when we start to see others having more success with a particular plant. Our desire to improve then focuses on unnatural aids in the same way as a struggling cyclist in the Tour de France.
The killer: Phosphorus.
Anyone who’s been gardening for some time can identify with having plants – especially flowering plants – not live up to their optimistic expectations. For whatever reason; the soil, climate or seasonal dysfunctions fail to produce a show of flowers that we can truly be proud.
So we reach for artificiality, working against nature’s rules rather than finding ways to move within it.
Sadly, this has devastating effects on our environment. Fertilisers, that are created with the sole purpose of helping us achieve our ridiculous desires, end up in our water sources. They create havoc with ecosystems that eventually filter back into problems to which we lay the blame on large agricultural producers. Those dreaded farmers who keep leeching nutrients into our waterways.
Unbeknownst to us, we produce 100% more phosphorus leeching than they do.
In an article by John Lory, from the University of Missouri Extension Services, titled Phosphorus Best Management Practices for Biosolids and Other Organic Residuals he states that a 5-year limit of 600 pounds per acre of phosphorus in the soil is an allowable application for sustainable agriculture.
While that may sound huge it becomes even more scary when you consider the Department of Horticulture at Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service
[PDF] suggests that in growing flowers we should fertilise them at a rate of 1lb of 5-10-5 per 100 sq. feet every 4-6 weeks.
Assuming that a gardener is diligent with this ratio and feeds their flowering plants once per month for every non-winter month, they will be adding the equivalent of 393 pounds per acre of phosphorus every year. Over a 5-year period, this calculates to nearly 2,000 pounds per acre with a residual amount of more than 1200 lbs – twice that allowed by agriculture.
Most gardeners will quickly justify that they don’t even have that much gardening space and therefore can’t possibly use the quantities quoted. But it all adds up. As most people who have gardens don’t use organic matter in feeding their plants they choose instead to reach for a bottled substitute and will often exceed the manufacturer’s application rates – not that these rates were that great anyway.
Once a buildup of phosphorus occurs in the soil it begins to leech into our waterways and adversely affect our local environments. Over time, the problem becomes much bigger and an eco-disaster becomes acutely probable.
If we are to continue being good gardeners we have to stop focusing on flowers and start enjoying every part of the garden. Especially the soil that supports it.
We need to use organic matter – which Scott’s likes to blame as the root cause of our phosphorus issues – and live with the failures that our climate and environment permit.
It would be great to see those accomplices mentioned previously actually disclose how the flowers they illustrate were produced. Let’s start acknowledging those gardeners who snub chemicals and produce flowers naturally – even if they do look a little less than perfect.