Recycling and smart buying brings you one step closer to earthly altruism

By Leigh Bramwell

I'm doing sustainability," a friend in real estate told me proudly the other day. What she was actually doing - in pink rubber gloves and clothes I would consider smart enough to wear to meet the queen - was a quick tart-up of the garden of a client's house in an effort to make it sell. Her efforts had about as much to do with sustainability as replacing one lightbulb in the house with an eco version.
"Exactly what," I asked her, "do you mean by sustainability?"
"Oh, you know - planting stuff that doesn't need much watering," she said airily.
Wondering if I'd completely missed the point, I surreptitiously consulted the online dictionary to reassure myself that I did at least have an idea of what sustainability meant. "Able to be maintained," it said. Mmm. Not my garden, then. And "exploiting natural resources without destroying the ecological balance of a particular area". Not my garden either, yet, but I'm working on it.
The broader definition is about using materials whose production doesn't destroy natural habitats or cause pollution during their transportation or end use, along with recycling materials that are already on site.
I'm working on the first part of that principle and it's quite hard. It requires investigation, dedication and sacrifice. The second part - recycling - is easier. I've always been a scavenger and my idea of a blissful weekend is being given access to a neighbourhood skip once a building project has been completed.
I have to admit, I'm not totally driven by environmental altruism - it's equally about making sure my bank account remains sustainable, too.

So I'd far rather build a stone wall, despite the back-breaking labour, from rocks found on the property, than cart in a trailer load of concrete blocks which I think are extraordinarily expensive considering their complete lack of aesthetic appeal. And I can afford to be self-righteous about that because cutting down on the use of cement was one of the sustainability guidelines I found on a very helpful website the other day.
Replace cemented walls with alternatives such as dry-stone, rammed earth, turf banks or gabions filled with recycled materials, it recommended, and use products that don't need cement footings.
Replace gravel with bark chippings, shells or recycled products such as glass and rubber was another suggestion.
I couldn't imagine re-surfacing the driveway with glass for obvious reasons, but I'm certainly happy to use shells wherever possible. Always use wood from sustainable sources and buy local products where possible, bearing in mind transportation, the website advised.
That's easy since we live within a stone's throw of two sawmills and have a couple of good green waste recycling centres handy.
Try to reuse resources from the existing site - old paving can be broken up and used for drainage, and the turf you dig out to make a vege garden can be used to patch up other areas where the grass has died off.
Purchase plants grown locally - now that's tricky. Eco-sourcing is certainly sensible because locally grown plants often do better than those you've brought in from hundreds of miles away. But, oh, is it fun to find unusual plants in other parts of the country, order them on the internet, and wait for the courier to deliver them.
Design your garden to minimise new construction, and use low-tech solutions and materials. And if you do need construction work done, try to find local contractors who are interested and willing to work within sustainable criteria.
Gardening sustainably is a big ask in the face of countless television makeover shows that truck in mountains of ready-mades to "transform" a garden.
Garden design expos are also inclined to lure us into the latest fashion statement. It's a track many of us have been going down for the past 10 or 20 years, but there are many experts who believe those days are over.
The time is quickly coming, they say, when our gardens will no longer be places of purely visual beauty, but primarily space we will need to produce food. And using your land to feed yourself and your family is, of course, the ultimate in sustainability.

- Northern Advocate

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