It feels like an obvious point - if we are using an outdoor space to improve our health and wellbeing we will hopefully also be taking care of our natural environment. But it can sometimes feel as though this is an afterthought. I have been in many settings and environments where outdoor activities are taking place and sustainability is barely mentioned or recognised. It can take a little forward planning but it is possible to adapt a lot of outdoor activities so that you can tread a little lighter. Here are some ideas for steps in the right direction.
It is essential that we find ways to reduce and eliminate the use of peat in our growing media. The removal of peat from the ground is huge problem environmentally as peatlands are the worlds largest carbon store and when extracted, that CO2 is released back into the atmosphere, contributing significantly to climate change. Peatlands are a unique habitat for a wide range of plant and animal species and because peat is very slow growing, it takes a long time to regenerate once degraded. The basic rule of thumb is that if it doesn't say peat free on the bag, it is likely that it contains peat so it is to be avoided.
Compost also comes in plastic bags and we should go to every effort to clean and recycle this or reuse it in some other way before recycling. I have seen compost bags being used to make temporary linings for hanging baskets and planters, to make aprons for students and also in Dutch rolls (a way of taking hardwood cuttings). If you have a large enough area it is possible to get bulk deliveries of compost but this is not a solution for most individuals or settings.
If you are in a setting where there is the possibility of making your own compost from garden or kitchen waste, this is the ideal but it is a long term solution! However, composters or wormeries do create opportunities to talk to children about waste and also provides activities on a regular basis - adding to and turning the waste, and of course, studying worms and other creatures that might make this their home!
Seeds and Plants
It is easy to get carried away in a garden centre and have a sudden desire to buy all the seeds and plants, so I find it helpful to be really clear about what you want to buy before you go shopping! If you buy to more seeds than you need, the likelihood is that you will not get around to sowing them and they will linger in the seed box and potentially go out of date. There is nothing more frustrating than going to the trouble of sowing seeds that are not viable or have a low success rate.
I actually like to order seeds from a reputable source, preferably those that have been produced organically. I find that this is a good way to curb my enthusiasm as I can see the price adding up in the basket as I go along! However, it is possible to obtain seeds through donations and seed swaps which has the advantage of making good use seeds that someone else has already bought so that they don't go to waste.
I find that the shine is taken off buying plants when I think of the plastic pots I will be accumulating. It is very difficult to avoid this, as there are few alternatives although it is possible to search out some plants in biodegradable pots in garden centres. A bit of forward planning might make it easier to raise the plants you will need from seed but don't discount the possibility of dividing and propagating more plants from the ones you already have.
Some very useful garden plants like verbena and geraniums and snowdrops make this very easy for us by self seeding or forming clumps that can be split and potted up or replanted elsewhere. Belonging to a couple of local gardening groups on Facebook is also a good tip as many people advertise plants which they no longer want or that they have as surplus, usually free to the first takers.
Pots and Trays
Again, it is pretty easy to find pots and trays for free in your local area or at the garden centre recycling bins so you should never need to buy new, just for the purposes of raising seed and plants. You can also raid your own recycling bins for items that can be used as pots and trays. Anything works, as long as it is deep enough for the seed you are planting and either has, or can be adapted to have, drainage holes in the base.
A fun activity to do with children is to make pots from cardboard tubes or origami pots from newspaper. These pots are great for seedlings that don't like to have their roots disturbed as you can plant the whole pot out in the soil and will biodegrade in situ.
If you do have to buy new pots or trays, look for those that are made from recycled or biodegradable materials such as coconut husk or choose light coloured plastics (black plastic cannot be detected in recycling plants, so it ends up being discarded and burned or put into landfill).
Tools and Equipment
Looking after garden tools and equipment for outdoor activities is very important. Cleaning off and storing things away carefully instils the message that we cannot just keep consuming and buying more and more stuff. This doesn't work well from a budget or a sustainability point of view!
We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with messages that everything would be better if we have the latest gadget and we need to make sure that the next generation of children and young people value the things they already own.
Where replacement tools or equipment are needed, look for the best quality available so that they last and also consider second hand tools, if they in good condition.
Harvesting and Foraging
I love activities where children enjoy harvesting and foraging as well as going on treasure hunts in the environment. We often focus on making sure we are not picking anything that might be harmful or poisonous but how much emphasis do we put on how the quantity of the items foraged might affect sustainability?
This is a great opportunity to talk to children and students about plants and their purpose. Ultimately a plant just has one primary focus - to make more plants! The added bonus of providing food or shelter for us and other creatures is all part of the big plan. A plant that encourages pollinators or birds with its colourful flowers or seeds is really just fulfilling its own purpose - it is part of the circle of life. So it is really important that we allow this natural process to take place and don't strip plants bare.
When it comes to harvesting, why not leave some crops to develop seed. This can also be saved and used at a later date and is a good learning point as some biennial plants do not set seed until their second year.
There is a lot of fun to be had spotting different birds, animals and insects outdoors but we must always make sure we are expressing how important it is to be respectful of these living creatures. Many children and young people have become physically and mentally distanced from outdoor spaces and I have found that groups I have worked with need to be reminded that when we are outdoors, we are in someone or something else's habitat.
Some are reticent about touching or handling things like worms and snails but it does help them to understand that it is alive, and can feel discomfort just as we can. I like to make sure I set some ground rules and boundaries before anyone is allowed to touch or handle a living creature as this minimises the chance that they are going to deliberately or unwittingly harm it in any way.
Practising quiet mindful activities outdoors can also help everyone to appreciate the need to be still and quiet around other living creatures and of course, time needs to be allocated at the end of a session to return any creatures back to their own habitats.
Hopefully that has helped everyone to think a little bit about sustainability in outdoor spaces. I'm off to make my own list of sustainable garden goals for this growing year - including a few composting experiments!