Wednesday, 20 July 2022

Holistic gardening

There is a lot of new age happy clappy rubbish spoken (and written) about holistic this, that, and the other, but it's one of those philosophies which is just made for gardeners. 

 So what exactly does it mean? 

The philosophical definition of the word is “characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.”

In other words, what affects one part of something, also affects other parts. Sometimes it is very easy to see the connection: if you push down on one part of a squashy lilo, for example, another part of it will rise - they are clearly connected. There is a seat at my local chinese takeaway like this: if someone else plumps themselves down on the other end of it, you find yourself being pinged upwards, in a rather amusing manner. 

Within the garden, we experience this all the time: some flowers or plants just go very nicely together. 

But in other situations, it might be less obvious: in the garden, you might think that watering your plants twice a day will do nothing but good, not realising that creating a constantly-damp environment can - amongst other things - create a haven for slugs and snails. This is bad.

Except that, this, in turn, can create a rich feeding ground for frogs, hedgehogs, and for birds, thus encouraging more wildlife into your garden. This is clearly good.

So in gardening, we all understand on some level that everything we do in the garden affects, and is affected by, the rest of the garden.

Perhaps we'll plant a nice tree, for example, just there. This creates a patch of shade, so the sun-loving plants underneath it will stop thriving and may die away - but the shade-loving plants will positively flourish. And we might enjoy having a shady place to sit, on a hot summer's day (ah, remember those hot summer days?!).

Birds come and sit in the tree, and we enjoy watching them come to our feeders, and we like the sound of their chirping and twittering. But then they strip all the buds off the cherry tree, eat all the soft fruit, poop all over our seat, and peck out our seedlings. 


Not to mention the forest of strange agricultural weeds which spring up, unbidden, underneath the feeders....

(Like this lot, left, in my own garden....)

Then, ten years later, we might realise that the lawn is now nothing but moss, we can't see out of the kitchen window any more, and there are no flowers left in the deeply shaded borders ... so we have the tree cut down. Then we realise, in horror, that that new housing estate they built round the back is really, really close to our fence... so we plant another tree

In a garden, everything is definitely connected!

But there's another aspect of the “holistic” approach that it totally relevant to us gardeners, and that's the concept that gardening is less about imposing your will on your green space, and more about working with what's there - for mutual benefit.

We all know that certain plants like certain conditions: acid-loving rhododendrons, pieris, and blue hydrangea come to mind, for example. And we all know that some plants need good drainage, some like it boggy, some need sun, others look best in shade, and so on.

So all good gardeners are naturally holistic - “right plant, right place” as they say. Ok sometimes we make a special effort to encourage an "unsuitable" plant - by physically altering the composition of the soil, perhaps - but such efforts are normally doomed to failure, as we all know! It is far better to work in harmony with what we have - although I'd make a caveat that it is always acceptable to improve the soil!

Even our choice of planting has a holistic aspect: just because a plant does well in someone else's garden, it might not do as well in our garden, if our conditions are different.  

And this works the other way round, as well: a dear friend of mine was given some Euphorbia myrsinites (Myrtle Spurge) by a neighbour, whose name is now mentioned with a curse and a spit.  In the neighbour's garden, this particular Euphorbia was a well-behaved and beautiful thing.

But in my friend's garden, in beds which had been mulched, fed, enriched and nurtured for decades, it took off like a rocket and within two years had infested the entire long bed, and much of the adjacent patio.

A case of a plant which settled in a little too well! 

But it demonstrated how "one" needs to consider the larger picture before introducing a new plant: it may have been fine in one garden, but could turn out to be quite unmanageable in another.

And this is the essence of the holistic approach: rather than taking a plant in isolation - "ooh, that looks nice, I want one of those!" we need to consider not only whether it will grow in our own garden, but whether it will look "right" there.  Will it out-compete other plants? Will it be overwhelmed by our existing planting? Will the colour, which looked so fabulous in the garden centre, clash horribly with what we already have?

So when we are talking about gardens, the "holistic" approach is clearly the right one!

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