From wildflowers to garlic pest repellent: how to make your garden better for the environment

Practical advice from the artists involved in the Hayward Gallery’s Dear Earth Exhibition (and the art installation you can create to conserve water)

The gardens at Great Dixter.

GAP Photos/John Glover

Environmental art, which is art that addresses social and political issues relating to the natural and urban environment, came to prominence in the 1960s. The best of it goes beyond a straightforward artist response, and inspires us, the viewer, to react in a positive fashion - for I don’t think there are many left who would attempt to refute the statement ‘Climate Change is Real’. Those words are currently flashing in neon on the walls of the Hayward Gallery, thanks to the artist Andrea Bowers – but the exhibition Dear Earth: Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis goes further than insta-worthy slogans; among other works is a vast installation from Agnes Denes (the artist who planted a wheat field on a landfill site in Manhattan, two blocks from Wall Street and the World Trade Centre in 1982), a powerful investigation into the destruction caused by the fossil fuel industry in Louisiana by Imani Jacqueline Brown, and a new video work by Cornelia Parker.

Installation view of Agnes Denes, Dear Earth: Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis (21 Jun –⁠ 3 Sep 2023). Courtesy the Hayward Gallery.

Mark Blower

Installation view of Jenny Kendler, Dear Earth: Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis (21 Jun –⁠ 3 Sep 2023). Courtesy the Hayward Gallery.

Mark Blower

Additionally, the exhibition has expanded beyond the confines of the gallery, into the Southbank-wide Planet Summer. There’s a schedule of talks (speakers include Greta Thunberg, Mikaela Loach and Rebecca Solnit), free events – and Paul Pulford, the head gardener of the Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden (free to enter), together with Grounded Ecotherapy, has created a replicable and useful permanent art installation in that garden, in response to the challenges faced by gardeners because of climate change. Between that artwork, Paul himself, and other artists exhibiting at Dear Earth, there are some valuable and transferable tips that are more than worth heeding when it comes to our gardens or any patch of land we have control of – particularly given the hotter summers we now experience, and the related hose-pipe bans (currently in effect in Kent, East Sussex, Cornwall and parts of North Devon – and expected to extend further.)

Concentrate on native species to encourage conservation

Wildflowers on the roof garden of Queen Elizabeth Hall.

“My main passion is conservation,” explains Paul. “Flora and fauna, birds, butterflies, bees, microbes, worms and more are all being decimated by global warming – what they need are particular native plants, which are the British wildflowers. They provide the nectar and pollen that insects and birds need; there are over 1500 insects that pollinate, and there are butterflies and moths that will only lay their eggs on certain plants. Once upon a time, these plants were really valued by us, too, because they’re herbs, or they’re edible, or they have medicinal properties,” he continues, listing toadflax, vetch, cowslips, scabious, meadow cranesbill, St. John’s wort, red and white camions, forget-me-nots, violets, borage, pansies, and larkspur.

97% of British wildflower meadows have disappeared since the 1930s, though there is more effort being made now to replant and revive them, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden – which, let’s not forget, is the roof of a concrete building in central London, where the soil is not deep - demonstrates that these plants can thrive anywhere. “We’ve got over 250 different species growing, and native fruit trees” says Paul, “and what’s more, they’re fine with this drought. They’re coping – unlike delphiniums and roses, which are imports, and need care and water.”

Use alternative means to get rid of pests

Andrew Montgomery

All that said, there are certain animals who are generally less welcome in gardens, namely, foxes and cats (who leave excrement, dig things up, and put off birds), squirrels and badgers (who dig things up, and eat them), snails and greenfly. And yet most of the means of getting rid of them are not environmentally friendly, and you’d be inadvertently getting rid of the pollinators too. Happily, Paul has ideas.

Firstly, for greenfly and all the other “little critters that eat your plants,” he suggests either crushing garlic or taking some tobacco, boiling it up for half an hour, decanting it into an atomiser, and spraying the plants with it. For squirrels and badgers, Paul recommends putting down chilli powder, pepper or paprika, “it puts them off,” he explains. “It gets up their nose and they’ll skedaddle. Just know that you have to re-do it after it rains.” Snails and slugs are trapped and collected by Paul: “I put little cups upside down everywhere, propped up on a stone – they hide under them. Every couple of days I gather them all up and re-home them away from my garden.” Finally, put a bell around the neck of your cat, and note that “foxes don’t like the scent of human pee,” he says. “So do your first pee of the day in a watering can, and then sprinkle it everywhere.” (If your garden isn’t overlooked, you can, of course, skip the watering can, if you’d rather.)

Conserve water – and use ancient retention methods

Neill Hepworth

“Collect all the water you can; rainwater is the best water you can give your plants, and especially seedlings, for it contains nutrients. Make sure that you’re collecting run-off from your roofs, and that your guttering feeds into a barrel or trough,” says Paul. Another good tip that he shares, which is particularly applicable during heatwaves, is to “put dry soil over where you’ve watered – it’ll stop the water simply evaporating.”

You can go further, too, as Paul has with the Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden, and create a similar art installation. “We’ve mulched the meadows with rubble and bricks and tiles, which we collected from the banks of the Thames, mud larking when the tide was out,” he recounts. “We’ve laid all these bits around the bottoms of the plants – like a sort of collage mosaic, and the plants rise up through it.” It’s essentially employing the ancestral water-retention techniques the Navajo and other Native Americans used “to grow crops in the desert. It stops most of the water evaporating into the air, instead it collects under the stones and then at night, when it cools, it turns into droplets and rains back down into the earth.” He points out that anyone can do it using whatever is to hand, “broken paving tiles, roof tiles, china, bricks.”

Then, mostly leave everything alone

Neill Hepworth

Dr. Patricia Brekke of ZSL, who has worked with the artist Jenny Kendler on her work for Dear Earth – ‘Birds Watching’ highlights endangered species – reminds us to “limit the amount of bush and tree pruning, and mowing, to reduce disturbance to nesting birds,” which is advice that also applies to insects. “We wait to the end of the year to strim and cut everything back,” agrees Paul. “It mimics what humans used to do with their cattle and sheep.”

The exception, says Patricia, is anything in the way of feeders, perches and birdbaths, which need to be cleaned regularly “to reduce disease transmission.”

Buy local

Britt Willoughby Dyer

“Make sure that the plants and seedlings you buy were grown in this country, not Holland,” says Paul, who shops from the Leahurst Nurseries in High Barnett – and points out that it’s not only about carbon footprint (though that is significant) but investing in plants that are adjusted to these climes. “The plants I buy are tough, because they’re grown in London,” he says. Handily, our garden editor, Clare Foster, has done a round-up of some of the best nurseries and garden centres in the UK, so wherever you are, you can find one local to you.

Encourage your friends and neighbours to join you, and increase the scope

Owen Gale

The artists and activists involved in the Dear Earth exhibition want to encourage wide-spread change – which is something that we can all play a part in. And, says Jenny Kendler, if you make your garden “part of a wildlife corridor, in collaboration with your neighbours and nearby local parks and greenways, it can be even more impactful.”

As well as this, maximise every area: make sure that as little of your drive is tarmacked as possible, replace faux-grass, and “I’m in the process of adding a green roof to the top of my garage to add more pollinator and bird-friendly spaces, and be able to grow more fruits and veggies at home,” recounts Jenny.