Garden view Love nature? Helen Billiald has gone organic in a bid to save her garden wildlife
love nature? Give the little critters a helping hand, says helen Billiald
We are a nation of nature lovers, are we not? David Attenborough holds a position hovering somewhere between deity and favourite grandparent. Millions of us tune in to watch Springwatch and more than 400,000 of us take part each winter in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. So why is it that so many gardening queries are about exterminating those creatures seeking to share our gardens with us? Last autumn a gardener asked me how much rat poison might kill the badgers digging up their lawn. Shocking though that may seem, the sentiment behind it isn’t all that unusual. We have a remarkable capacity for double standards: on one hand we can deplore the tides of plastic washing up on tropical beaches, the felling of rainforests, the loss of diversity… then on the other think nothing of popping out with a bottle of insecticide to drench the greenfly. My own response to ongoing habitat destruction and pollution is that I can no longer use pesticides. This from a farmer’s daughter who took a Masters degree in Pest Management. Change, we are told, must start at home. Of course coming out as ‘Organic’ makes me rather unpopular. There’s a colossal industry dedicated to removing unwanted critters from our plots. Garden centres stack row after row of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, and in the interests of honesty I know there are still bottles of glyphosate at the back of my shed. But do we need any of them? If expert growers like Jekka McVicar can produce gold medal-winning plants organically, why can’t the rest of us, when there are no gold medals or income at stake? The volume of pesticides and chemical fertilisers in use is alarming. A Dutch study looking at imidacloprid (a systemic insecticide that acts as a neurotoxin) found polluted ditchwater so contaminated it could be used as an insecticide in its own right. Do you remember stopping the car to clean insects from the windscreen when its wipers couldn’t cope? Or seeing moths swirling like snow in the headlamps at night? It’s years since I witnessed a scene like that, and my children have never seen it. Wipe out the invertebrates and the rest of the food chain goes with them. And that includes us too. Without pesticides and inorganic fertilisers, my garden is still beautiful. Aphids may appear in flocks one day, but they soon vanish as spiky black ladybird larvae move in. The lawn will never be an immaculate sward but I’d rather my children rolled about on weeds than herbicides. And if plants really do succumb to something, I’d sooner put that down to a lesson learnt. Perhaps I’d better avoid growing sweetcorn when there are badgers in the neighbouring wood? Last week I found signs of a stoat in the shed and there are grass snakes in the compost bins. Snail shells dot a corner of the path where a song thrush taps out their contents and even my decision to stop using organic slug pellets this spring didn’t cause the chaos I feared. The dahlias struggled with repeated grazing for a while and I lost a few pumpkins, but ultimately green life rampages on all around.
Helen Billiald is a garden writer with a phd in ecology and an Msc in pest Management
I can no longer bring myself to use pesticides
PEST CONTROL helen’s chemical-free garden is home to hungry blackbirds
small yellow underwing moth