This post was sponsored by Earth Cycle. I’d been wanting to write about soil and gardening for a while now, so when they reached out it was a case of perfect timing! All thoughts my own, and happy National Gardening Week!

Anyone who knows me well in the real world will tell you, having my own garden has been a goal of mine for years. It may not seem like the obvious bucket list item, but I regularly dream about having an outdoor space where I can grow my own food, sharing any excess with friends and neighbours. This is certainly influenced by my grandfather; he has tended an allotment since I can remember, and many childhood memories involve him handing out extra tomatoes, onions or carrots to anyone passing through his house. As a kid I remember going with him to help sometimes. I took it for granted then, but in retrospect I count myself extremely lucky to have grown up understanding where our produce comes from, without the disconnect from our supply chains that can so often creep into our perceptions of both food and fashion.

I believe that, as much as possible, the best diets work in accordance with the land you live on. Seasonal, local to you and grown the old fashioned way. No pesticides, just good, solid gardening. But, as I am yet to still claim my own outdoor green space, I know there are still things I have yet to learn about sustainable growing and the larger impact of this. And one thing I didn’t know much about was soil health.

Now, I get it. Soil isn’t exactly the flashiest topic to talk about, but it’s vital to consider. There are real worries over the future of our soil fertility; The UN has warned that the world’s soils have approximately 60 harvests left before they are too degraded to feed the planet, whilt a 2014 UK study estimated that we had 100 harvests remaining. We need to restore our soil health if we want our species to survive, and I believe it can be done.

‘Philip Lymbery, of Compassion in World Farming, laid the blame for soil problems squarely with modern large-scale agriculture. “Trees disappear, hedgerows disappear, then insects disappear, birds disappear. We are putting huge pressure on our soils. To make [our soils better] we need to move away from industrial agriculture.”’

Some of this movement has to come in the form of public policy and company regulation (more on that later), but I believe we can make a difference by supporting small farms and buying from allotments, and by having a go at growing our own if we can. When Earth Cycle first reached out to me in regards to working together I was interested simply as a garden lover, but as I started to research soil, compost and our environment, I realised this was an important topic to think about as it really does go beyond our back door. Below you can read our discussion on what makes a sustainable garden, plus more thoughts from me, and tips on how to have a go yourself.

And if you don’t have a garden, check out my post on growing food without a garden here.

What would you say to someone who wants to get into gardening but doesn’t know where to start?

EC: There are few things more rewarding than seeing the fruits of your gardening labour, but in order to enjoy them, planning is key. The first step to gardening glory is to check the soil, as this will determine what should be planted (check out a full guide here). Put together a plan of what the garden will look like and where the different plants will grow and what times they will bloom.

What makes a garden sustainable or unsustainable?

EC: There aren’t any hard and fast rules, but the guiding principle of sustainable gardening is that there are fewer short cuts and less damage incurred for short-term gains. For example, pesticides may help protect vegetables or prize roses one year, but over time the chemicals can damage the soil. Organic products can give much better results over the long term because they don’t damage the earth.

Why is having a sustainable garden important?

EC: Fundamentally gardening is about working with nature. The benefits of sustainable gardening are endless; increasing wildlife populations, reducing your carbon footprint, and ensuring future crops for years to come. Each action that we take, ultimately determines the future for our planet.

Any tips for growing your own fruit and vegetables?

EC: Whether its apples or carrots, the secret to a bumper crop lies in the soil. As with most aspects of the garden, the quality of soil will determine the success of a vegetable patch. Much like us, young vegetables require a large dose of nutrients for healthy growth. Choosing a high quality, nutrient-rich soil will enhance plant establishment and sustain growth for many months, resulting in a bountiful crop of healthy vegetables.

“The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself” -Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Beyond the ability to grow crops, healthy soil worldwide plays a key role in preventing erosion, carbon sequestration, cycling nutrients and filtering pollutants through buffering and detoxifying organic and inorganic byproducts. When it comes to our own gardens there are always ways to improve our soil for growing plants, and compost is a brilliant tool for revitalising soil fertility without using chemical fertilisers. It’s a two birds one stone situation: we care for the health of our own soil, and we aid global soil health by reducing the demand for industrial agriculture, which is one of the major causes of soil degradation. Good compost contains a ton of benefits including improving soil structure, promoting higher yields of crops, improving air quality by removing VOCs from contaminated air and facilitating reforestation, wetland restoration and habitat revitalisation (source).

Basically good composting = healthy soil. And healthy soil = healthy habitats and healthier habits for everyone.

Because of this, it’s also important to make sure the compost you invest in is peat free. Here’s why.

What role do gardens play when it comes to ecosystems?

EC: While many concentrate on the ecosystem within their own garden, it’s important to remember that the products we use will ultimately affect ecosystems elsewhere – depending on where they have been sourced. For example, peat is an ingredient used in most garden-centre composts; which is extracted from bogs in peatlands. Formed over thousands of years, peat bogs are vital habitats for a wealth of wildlife including birds, insects and unique plants. Draining these fragile ecosystems releases carbon into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming.

Gardeners can play a positive part in stopping the destruction of these precious habitats – by choosing peat-free compost. 

We’d always recommend reviewing the environmental credentials for any gardening products, whether that is tomato feed or compost. While most people immediately think of avoiding pesticides as the solution, it is also important to consider what compost to use.

Peat-free compost is not only simple to use and readily available, but is also just as effective, if not better than peat-based mixes. The trick is to choose the right compost, as environmentally friendly or organic composts don’t necessarily mean peat-free. Peat-free composts are largely made from sustainable sources of organic matter such as composted green waste, coir or woodfibre – so are packed full of nutrients making them ideal for established seeds and plants. Investing in a good quality peat-free compost will not only help gardens flourish but will stop the destruction of valuable habitats elsewhere.

You might think of peatbogs as dull expanses of empty, waterlogged land, but if you wandered into the heart of the Mosses National Nature Reserve on the Welsh border you’d find a unique and beautiful range of plant, insect and bird life that depends on the layers of peat that make up this lowland raised bog.’ (source)

Because of commercial extraction, only about 6,000 hectares of lowland raised bog in the UK remain in pristine or near-natural condition. Peat used in compost is now commonly sourced from Ireland, the Baltic States and Finland, spreading the risk of habitat destruction across Europe. It’s much more sustainable to use locally produced resources that don’t have to be imported, and leaves vital eco systems and habitats alone in the process.

Once we start to get used to green fingered ways, gardening is really a lot like many other areas where we are trying to be more ethical. It’s often about making the smaller decisions that add up to larger impacts, like what compost we use, how we grow, and how we care for our local wildlife. Choosing a compost which contains peat may help our garden out in the short term, but utimately comes at a larger cost of habitat destruction. By making a simple switch, we’re able to live in a more holistically sustainable way, a way that benefits everyone.

Can you tell us more about your products?   

EC: Our Earth Cycle range of peat-free composts and soil conditioners are made from recycled, composted plant materials. Using recycled plant materials not only diverts garden waste from landfill, but also offers an abundance of benefits for your garden including enhanced moisture retention and boosted microbial activity. Due to its high organic material content, it also acts as an excellent soil improver.

Any other tips for making your garden more eco-friendly?

EC: Yes!

  • Having a water butt in the garden is a great way of saving water
  • Avoid using pesticides – use non-toxic methods to deal with pests
  • Re-use garden equipment and plant pots – there are lots of ways to recycle plastic pots including building a bug hotel!

Are there things gardeners can do to make their gardens more wildlife friendly?

EC: Absolutely! Planting wildflowers is the perfect way to encourage bees and insects in to the garden. From vibrant daffodils to scented sweet peas, lavender and heather, pollinator friendly flowers create a beautiful display and support the growth of our plants and food. For those lacking space, a climber such as honeysuckle produces beautiful berries and attracts lots of insects.

Plants such as holly and ivy provide a great source of food for our feathered friends: producing juicy berries to help birds survive over the winter months.

Create a “hedgehog highway” by cutting a small gap in fences, allowing hedgehogs to find friends and forage for food – food that includes every gardener’s foe – slugs!

And when it comes to policy change and corporate accountability for soil health:

Neville Fay, founder and director of the Sustainable Soils Alliance, told the Guardian there were many steps the government could take to prevent soil loss and give farmers and others an incentive to preservation and improvement. These would include requiring the Environment Agency and other government bodies to include soil health in their assessments, and making sure farmers did not lose out by restoring natural features such as hedgerows and leaving fields fallow or in rotation with non-commercial soil-improving crops. “We need the government to set milestones, so we can judge what we are achieving, and we need data on the current state of our soils,” he said. “Soil is essentially irreplaceable when lost.”’ (source)

So, if you can:

  • Try creating your own vegetable patch
  • If you don’t have a garden, try signing up for an allotment or joining a community garden
  • Use peat free compost in your garden
  • Try buying your produce from local allotments or smaller organic farms, and ask them if they use peat free compost
  • Ask your local representatives to push for policy that will look out for soil health