Interview and article by Robert Hughes
The Garden Jungle: Or Gardening to Save the Planet
Intensive agriculture is wiping out insects and other species on such a scale that the only real hope for them rests on our shoulders. We should see these creatures for what they are – as vital elements of a delicate ecosystem – one which we have wreaked havoc on through the ages.
In the past, nature has had the space to recover and revive. However as more and more land is being gobbled up for housing, industry, roads and farming, and our native hedgerows and wildflower meadows disappearing at an alarming rate. This results in fewer and fewer natural places for wildlife to survive and even fewer places in which it can truly thrive. In short, it leaves no chance for nature to regenerate.
Within the pages of The Garden Jungle, Dave Goulson takes us on an adventure of discovery through the garden. He engages us with simple garden recipes and inspires us with the possibility that any garden, no matter the size, can be a vital source of food, shelter or habitat for many creatures.
Many of us have an opportunity to reconnect with nature in our own backyards. If we can all engage in this, we may be able to save the wildlife that is vital for our own survival. Our lives literally depend on it.
Dave kindly accepted my invitation to ask him a few questions about his book and his conservation work. On a crisp and delightfully frosty December morning we met on the Sussex University campus. Dave was warm and friendly, dressed in jeans and an outdoor jacket. Of course, I knew what he looked like from the many insightful and informative Youtube videos he has made to promote natural methods in agriculture and gardening and to raise awareness of the plight of the world’s bees. So it came as no shock to me that he didn’t look like the typical college professor that one may conjure up in the imagination.
What inspired the new book The Garden Jungle: Or Gardening to Save the Planet?
I’ve always been a keen gardener. Whatever kind of garden I’ve had, I’ve always tried to encourage wildlife. It actually also comes from my work which is about wildlife. My focus is on insects and particularly bumblebees to try to understand why they are disappearing and what we can do about it. Of course, one of the more obvious things we can do about it is to make our gardens more insect and wildlife friendly.
The book is trying to win people over to try and manage their gardens in a way that will encourage wildlife, particularly insects. If you encourage insects then you’re encouraging everything else too. You need the flowers for the insects, the insects for food for the birds and bats and all those other things. I guess more broadly it is about trying to persuade people to care for the planet really at the end of the day. We face these terrifying ecological crises and I wanted to point out to people that we could all get involved in helping and what better place to start than in your own garden if you’ve got one.
What are your top tips to create a wildlife enhancing garden?
There are so many things. Obviously it depends on the size of the garden as to what is possible. If you’ve got rolling acres, you can have woodlands and recreate meadows and all sorts of things. Most of us are more likely to have a tiny town garden, particularly around Brighton.
So what can you do? If you do have a lawn, simple things like not mowing so often is the easiest thing in the world. Just be a bit lazy with your lawn. Most lawns have got flowers in them … buttercups, dandelions, daisies, clovers … all sorts of things that just pop up if you stop mowing. Obviously you do need to mow occasionally to keep it as a lawn, but that’s a really simple way to help.
Growing the right kind of flowers is another tip. There are loads of flowers available that are really attractive to lots of insects that produce lots of nectar and pollen. Most are easy to grow. Traditional cottage garden herbs in particular are good. I’ve created a load of YouTube videos of which ones are best or at least the ones that work best in my garden and attract lots of insects. We’ve done research on this, published papers and all sorts and there’s no shortage of advice. It’s just getting people to plant a few of the right kind of flowers and avoid double varieties and some of the intensively bred bedding plants.
Can you explain why it’s best to avoid those – the double varieties and the bedding plants?
Plants with a single row of petals are better for bees that the double-flower varieties which often have no pollen. Intensively bred bedding plants are best avoided because they have lost their “rewards” or become misshapen to such an extent that insects can’t get into them. Many have also been drenched in insecticides.
Do you have any advice about having garden features like ponds?
A pond is fantastic for wildlife. Whilst we all know that, it is worth saying again as it’s amazing for wildlife – even a tiny pond! An old sink sunk in the ground works well and within minutes you’ll see things start to turn up. We have invented hoverfly lagoons which are little soggy habitats full of rotting leaves that attract hoverflies to lay their eggs. Put up a bee hotel – there is lots of advice out there about how to do that. These are great little projects for kids. Again we’ve made Youtube videos about how to make them.
I would also say don’t use any pesticides in your garden. There is just no need at all in a garden setting. Farmers may or may not need pesticides but gardeners definitely don’t. If you’ve got a nice balanced healthy garden with lots of ladybirds, lace wings and hoverflies then they’ll eat all the pests. It is absurd that people use those things.
If you’ve got the space then flowering trees are great. If you plant a flowering fruit tree then you are providing blossom for the insects, capturing carbon as it grows and getting your own zero air-mile fruit when it fruits. Brilliant! Even in a tiny garden, you can squeeze in a little dwarfing rootstock apple tree or something along those lines. I could go on and on but there is tons of stuff people can do, big or small, in their gardens.
What native plants do you consider important to include in the garden?
There is a huge variety of native plants which are perfectly suitable to grow in the garden. People often think native plants are weeds, which is crazy, because plants are just plants. The ones we called weeds are just based on a decision we made to call some plants, like dandelions, weeds. Actually they’re beautiful wildflowers.
Wildflowers tend to be attractive to insects because they haven’t been messed around with by people. In my garden I’ve got loads of things like Foxgloves. Viper’s-bugloss is a fantastic plant that is easy to grow from seed. It is biannual and it’s really attractive to bees.
It’s great to include food plants for butterflies and caterpillars. People often think of nettles at this point. Whilst there are some beautiful butterflies that will lay their eggs on nettles, a small patch of nettles in the garden doesn’t tend to attract them. So instead think of things like Lady’s Smock if you have a bit of room in your garden. Then there’s a good chance you’ll get some orange tip butterflies coming in and laying their eggs in your garden which is great.
Native hedging is fantastic if you’ve got a hedge or need some kind of barrier. Rather than the panel fence, think about putting in a mixed native hedge with some flowering shrubs like Hawthorn and Blackthorn. That provides lots of flowers in the spring for the insects as well as leaves for caterpillars.
In the book you have included an impressive list of home-grown fruit and veg including 95 kg of potatoes per year. How do you manage this? Do you have help?
It’s really not that difficult. I like gardening and obviously if I didn’t then that wouldn’t work. You need to have enthusiasm when you get home from work on a summer’s evening to go out and potter around in the garden rather than putting your feet up. I’ve got a full-time job, I’ve got three kids, I’ve got a mortgage to pay so it’s not like I have more time than most people on my hands. Vegetables are just pretty easy to grow. You mentioned potatoes. Potatoes are the easiest thing in the world to grow – you just put a seed potato in the ground and six months later you dig up a load more potatoes. There’s a little bit of weeding in between but really not much.
I tend to focus on things that look after themselves … Jerusalem Artichokes I have coming out of my ears because they don’t need anything. Parsnips are a piece of cake. Leeks are easy. There is no magic to it at all as long as you know the basics of how to germinate seeds and plant out seedlings and so on. It’s all really simple stuff that you could learn very quickly even if you didn’t know it already. Everyone could grow their own fruit and veg. It would be hard for most people to be self-sufficient because most people haven’t got the space or the time. But if you have even a square metre or a grow bag then you can grow some tomatoes, fresh lettuce or other greens. There is loads of stuff people can produce themselves and it’s so much more sustainable to grow your own food. Even if you’re buying locally produced, it’s better to grow it yourself.
We all know that when we go to the supermarket there’s loads of packaging, the food has been treated with loads of pesticides and it’s been flown in from all over the world. If you can replace even a little bit of that with some home-grown produce then it greatly reduces your impact on the planet.
Neonicotinoids often come up in your studies. Could you explain what these are and also what the known effects of using these have on the environment?
They are neurotoxins. A kind of insecticide that first came on the market in 1994 and they became very popular with farmers all over the world. They became the best-selling insecticide globally. In fact they still are. However as of the beginning of 2019, they are banned in Europe – most of them anyway. The reason for that is that it turns out they have a whole bunch of pretty undesirable properties. They are incredibly poisonous. After all, they are meant to kill insects. However, they kill all insects – they don’t discriminate between bees and good insects as it were, and aphids which are the ones you want to kill.
The toxicity is hard to get your head around…1 tsp of Neonicotinoids is enough to kill one and a quarter billion honey bees. That is a lot of bees! And we are using hundreds of tons of this stuff on the landscape, or we were, until Europe banned them just recently. But it is not just that they are really poisonous, they are quite persistent too. Once they get into the farmers soil or garden soil, they stay there for years. They are systemic which means they get sucked up by the roots of plants and spread through the plants. So we do research on local farms around here (University of Sussex) and we found that all the wildflowers growing in the hedgerow and hedgerow plants themselves were all impregnated with neurotoxic insecticides so any wildlife living in those hedgerows, if it is eating the leaves or drinking the pollen, is basically being exposed to this stuff designed to kill insects. We put bee nests out into the landscape-honey bees and bumblebees – and then looked at their pollen and their honey stores. Almost invariably anywhere around Brighton, whether in farmland or in towns, we found that the food stores of these bees all contained these pesticides plus many other pesticides.
There is abundant evidence that the doses the bees are getting are enough to harm them. Not always to kill them outright, but enough to leave them unable to navigate properly and unable to remember which flowers are rewarding. They have reduced fertility, impaired immune systems and a whole bunch of other unpleasant things. Thankfully Europe took the decision to ban them. But, of course, we look set to leave Europe and so it is theoretically possible that they might be unbanned in the UK. Even if they are not they may be replaced by something else that will probably turn out to be just as bad. If you look at the last seventy years since synthetic pesticides have been introduced, we just keep making the same mistakes. With DDT for example, everyone thought it was brilliant, until it turned out all birds of prey were dying and it was building up in our livers. So that was banned although there are still traces of it around. Then the organophosphates came along and they were banned mostly, and there have been others too…carbonates and other pesticides.
We eventually realised they were really harmful, like Paraquat, so we ban them and just replace them with something else. Twenty years later we realise that was really harmful and on we go. It is so dumb. The only real answer is to try and manage without them at all which is perfectly possible. In a garden it is really easy you just don’t need them. It is so depressing when I go to a garden centre a DIY chain or even supermarkets and they all have shelves and shelves of pesticides these days for home use. These are poisons! You don’t want to be using them in your gardens where your kids play and your pets play and where you might grow food to eat yourself. So Neonicotiniods … we are best off without them and long may they be gone.
Did you have an impact in the banning of these harmful pesticides?
I think we did. It is sometimes hard to know exactly why politicians make the decisions that they do. Some of the research we did showing harm to bumblebees and particularly showing how all these chemicals were turning up in the wildflowers was one of the triggers for Europe deciding to ban them. It suddenly dawned on everyone that these pesticides were doing a lot more harm than anyone really understood.
We also did some work on pesticides on garden centre plants that were being sold as ‘bee-friendly’ or ‘pollinator-friendly’, and we found that three-quarters of them have got insecticides in. When we published that in 2017, Friends of the Earth ran a campaign on the back of it which persuaded all the big suppliers to remove Neonicotinoids from their bee-friendly flowers. It is absurd to be selling them as bee-friendly when they are full of insecticides. There is something badly wrong there. So they have withdrawn the Neonicotinoids directly as a result of the research we did. But sadly, they will again just replace them with some other insecticide so people should still be cautious of buying plants from their local garden centre. They tend to come in a disposable plastic pot, usually grown in peat which is a whole other story but I’m sure you are familiar with it, almost certainly drenched in a whole bunch of pesticides and probably travelled hundreds of miles to get here. There is a high environmental cost associated with heading to your garden centre to buy plants. Unfortunately many people think going to the garden centre feels like they are doing something green, but it’s not. It is just consumerism, sadly.
What impact would you like you book to have?
I have this fanciful kind of vision of everyone’s garden full of insect friendly flowers and people not mowing their lawns and not using pesticides and all the things I’ve talked about. There are roughly half a million hectares of gardens in the UK. If they were all wildlife friendly then that is a bigger area than all the nature reserves in Britain. That could really make a difference! It would create a mosaic of tiny little nature reserves all across the landscape. It would be absolutely brilliant. You could link it up – if we could persuade councils to come on board with the way they manage parks and cemeteries and road verges and roundabouts and all these other kind of green spaces. If they were all full of flowers and bees and butterflies it would be brilliant. It is possible. We could do it easily. The only real obstacle is persuading people to come on board. There is no downside to this – only a huge upside! I know it’s a bit optimistic, but that is the dream.
People want to use their outdoor spaces for leisure. So how can we achieve a healthy balance between a leisure space, growing our own food, and a healthy wildlife habitat in such a confined space as an urban garden?
Obviously, if you want room for your kids to play football there are limits but most of us don’t need a big mowed lawn.
You might need enough room to sit and have a gin and tonic or a coffee but few people actually play tennis or football or croquet or whatever on their lawn.
So don’t have too big a lawn. If you do have a lot of grass then don’t cut it too often. Very few people are going to have a garden big enough to squeeze in all the things you could do for wildlife but it doesn’t matter. Because not everybody needs to have a pond as long as lots of people have ponds. And as long as lots of people plant flowering trees and wildflowers and so on, then the insects will hop over the fence if one garden hasn’t got everything they are looking for. It is the combined effect of lots of little gardens all having wildlife friendly features. That would work just as well so you don’t have to worry about packing it all into your own garden.
What can people do to help create the next wave of localised small scale food production or farming? Will the revolution start in gardens?
Well it would be nice to think so. I do think we somehow need to try and reconnect people with the pleasure to be had in growing food and in eating seasonal locally produced fresh produce rather than relying on processed, packaged food from the supermarket. It is a big ask but that’s what we used to do. There are still parts of Europe where there are farmers markets, veggie box schemes and so on and they are making a comeback.
I’ve done some really crude calculations. At the moment we import something like 76% of our fruit and veg in the UK, despite having a climate that is pretty good for growing fruit and veg. You would need about 200,000 hectares of fruit and veg growing land to be completely self-sufficient in the UK. I know people might be thinking that we can’t grow avocados but we can grow, in terms of bulk, sufficient fruit and veg to feed everybody a healthy diet in the UK. That 200,000 hectares of land is just half the area of gardens in the UK which is not that big an area. So it is absurd that we are so far from being self sufficient. If we could get everyone to have a little veg patch in their garden or get more people into allotmenting, the sustainability benefits of growing your own food are so obvious and so strong compared to buying imported food flown in food in plastic packaging from the supermarket that even if people were doing it in a small way that would really help.
There are logistical problems with the shortage of allotments in many parts of the country. There are 90,000 people on waiting lists for allotments nationally so it would be great if governments could free up land for more people to take up allotmenting and encourage more people to take up allotmenting.
If we could engage people in a big way with a public information campaign about the benefits of growing your own food, maybe free seeds and free training session for people to encourage them, we could have a kind of new green revolution with everybody getting back out there and digging and growing their own potatoes. As crazy as it sounds, it is sort of happening as there is a demand. People want to reconnect but the challenge is persuading more to come on board.
I’m a bit of a fan of stoic philosophy and you’re a fan of the humble bumblebee, how do you relate to the Marcus Aurelius meditation, “that which is not good for the beehive, cannot be good for the bees?”
Oh that’s very profound. Possibly the most unusual question I’ve been asked. I’m gonna side-step answering that one philiosophically. But I agree with that statement when looked at literally – that which isn’t good for the bees, isn’t good for people, because we need bees. We need pollinators generally, not just bees, because people often forget there are lots of insects that pollinate.
We’ve forgotten that we are part of the environment and people think that food miraculously appears, or they just don’t think about it at all, they just expect it to always be there in the supermarkets, but actually if we keep messing up the planet it won’t be.
So learning to tread more lightly on our planet and to appreciate what nature does for us seems to me to be really vital. It is worrying that we are increasingly urbanised creatures that have forgotten that we are actually still part of nature whether we like it or not.
We need to look after bees and soils and everything else a lot better than we have been doing.
I believe you founded the bumblebee conservation trust. Can you tell us a bit about the need for that and how people can support bumble bees either through the trust or in their own gardens?
My research focus has always been on bumble bees and they are declining. They are really important pollinators and cute as well and it seems a shame that they are disappearing. I’ve published lots of academic papers on bumble bees. We know why they are disappearing…not enough flowers, not enough habitat, too many pesticides. And publishing more scientific papers didn’t seem to be helping, they’re not read by anyone but a few other scientists.
It was frustrating. I felt that I wasn’t really achieving anything just by doing more research so we decided to start a charity back in 2006. Now, 13 years later, it’s going great guns. It has 42 staff and 12,000 members with projects all over the country creating habitat for bumble bees.
Do look at the website which has loads of advice on making your garden bumble bee friendly including what the best plants are for bumble bees. You don’t need to join to access that advice and to do something in your garden. It is worth thinking about joining as the membership cost is not too high – you receive a newsletter and get to be part of the community. You can also take part in things like Beewalks, which is a recording scheme for bumblebees and you can learn to identify them and so on. There’s loads of stuff people can do to get involved.
Any other thoughts you’d like to share with us?
I feel we need to connect. I sometimes feel we are in a bubble- whether that’s on social media or the talks I give or the books I write. And all these things I do to try and get people to care for the environment basically. Sometimes I think to myself that everyone who comes to my talks already agrees with me but they aren’t the people I want to get to. How do you get to everybody else? That’s the real challenge. Probably 95% of the population are blissfully ignorant. They’ve probably heard of climate change and things going extinct but they probably won’t have really thought about it because they’re busy doing other stuff and won’t feel it is relevant to them. Somehow we need to persuade them that it really is relevant because if we don’t, then the future is pretty terrifying.
Thank you for your time and for speaking with us.
As I wandered out of Dave’s office, a small room lined with bookshelves containing pages of his studies along with a wealth of other titles around biology and ecology, I could feel the energy of curiosity all around me. Mounted on the walls were old glass framed cases displaying perfectly preserved mummified insects, there was a large bone in the room which turned out to be the bone of a Mammoth his grandfather had excavated from a gravel pit decades ago. This room reflected a life which observed the natural world and asked questions that lead to a more examined life, far deeper than most of us are comfortable to go. I guess it
is only from those depths that you can truly understand what is happening to us and from there you can craft the answers that we desperately need to change our fate. Dave’s studies have had, and will continue to have, a huge impact on the world. Let’s all learn more.