Walking round the slums of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia a few years ago, I was struck by the flowers growing outside the homes. We were staying with a remarkable woman called Jember Tefera: great grandniece of Haile Selassie who has dedicated her life to working in the poorest slum areas in one of the poorest cities of the world.
She took us first to see some of the areas where they hadn’t, yet, started any work, and then we went to see where her project had been working. The difference was tangible and amongst many noticeable changes were the flowers. ‘Yes’, said Jember, when I commented on this, ‘one of the first things that people want to do when we start working with them is have their own little garden: it’s a sign that they’re beginning to take pride in themselves’.
The people who live in the slums of Addis Ababa are not the only ones who love their gardens. In the UK we are famed for them and it is staggering to think that British gardeners spend around £2 billion a year at garden centres and nurseries.
It is amazing just how much emphasis we place on our gardens. And yet, from a Christian perspective, perhaps it isn’t so strange after all. In fact gardens occur throughout the Biblical story of God’s relationship with his creation, framing the Biblical narrative at both ends and featuring strategically at the central climax too.
I’m in no doubt that our gardening obsessions are God-given. We were created from the soil (humans from the hummus; ‘adam from the ‘adamah) and placed precisely in a garden, to tend it and look after it (Gen. 2:15). But the sad thing is that sometimes our gardening habits damage God’s creation rather than enhance it.
I remember once being involved in judging a back garden competition on our estate. The winner’s little back garden was absolutely stunning: beautifully designed and full of colour, with an immaculately luscious lawn. But we were in the middle of a dry period and there were water shortages. My lawn was a far cry from his and I wondered what chemicals he had used and how much water had gone into its amazing appearance.
So how can we look after the land in our care, and do so in ways that benefit the earth and its inhabitants, rather than causing problems?
Here are my ten top tips:
- Only use organic garden products: avoid composts/fertilisers etc that contain chemicals. Garden Organic is a really useful website for this.
- Don’t use products that contain peat. Cheshire Wildlife Trust has more information.
- Enjoy a bit of mess! Wildlife will thrive in a garden that leaves flowers to go to seed and has corners that aren’t too tidy. The RSPB has lots of useful advice.
- Install as many water butts as you can fit in and try only to use the water that collects in them, rather than fresh water from your taps.
- Have a compost bin (or two) for all your kitchen and garden waste. If you have trees then you will find it useful to have a separate place to put your leaves because they rot down more slowly than other things.
- If you want to install decking, make sure that the wood you use carries the FSC logo (which ensures that the wood is from a sustainable source).
- If you want lighting then use solar lighting (but remember that wildlife need to have night-time too!).
- Plant things that will attract bees and butterflies, such as buddleia and lavender.
- Don’t have an outdoor patio heater.
- Build a pond: your garden and a host of inhabitants will thank you for it!
(and a final tip no. 11: if you have a gardener, don’t abdicate responsibility: talk to them and ensure they are following these tips too.)
These are my Top Ten but I’m sure you’ve got ideas too. Please leave a comment and tell us what other things you do to be green in your garden.