RSPB England’s Rich Morris takes a look at how you can maintain a beautiful and productive garden without having to use harmful chemicals.
“Arm yourself against ants”. “Kills weeds and grasses – roots and all”. “Kills all crawling insects”. Just a few of the claims you’ll find plastered across an array of colourful spray bottles at your local home improvement store or garden centre. Pesticides, including herbicides, offer a quick and simple way to protect a garden’s plants or vegetable patch – but at what cost?
Taking a ‘nature first’ approach to gardening might require a little more effort and thought on occasion, but the potential benefits to wildlife and the wider environment are huge. What’s more, it’ll also save you money.
Turning your back on harmful chemicals
The shelves of most shops selling garden supplies are packed full of pesticide products designed to make dealing with ‘pests’ and ‘weeds’ quick and simple. But as well as being bad for the environment, they can also harm other wildlife you weren’t intending to target. Instead, consider alternative, organic methods of control that can be just as effective.
Rather than using chemicals to kill aphids on this year’s tomato plants, first try a strategy known as companion planting – an effective way to keep unwanted visitors away from your veg crop. Try planting French marigolds in your pots or borders, as the strong smell works to keep whitefly at bay. What’s more, marigolds provide nectar for hoverflies whose larvae then eat the aphids. One simple action - two solutions. You could also try using a spray bottle to simply knock aphids off the plant’s leaves. Fill it with either plain water or a light soap solution and you’ll have a far more eco-friendly way of dealing with any infestation.
Also remember that while you might see these insects as pests, other wildlife like ladybirds will regard them as a rich source of food. By spraying chemicals you’ll remove this potential food source. You can find lots more ideas for organic pest control here.
Slugs are another often unwanted garden visitor. But again, chemical solutions should be a last resort rather than a first option. There are plenty of non-chemical ways to control the slug population in your outdoor space, such as creating protective barriers using materials like forest bark. You’re more likely be successful by trialling various methods, so read our non-toxic organic slug control & pellet guide for ideas and start experimenting. And while no gardener wants to see slugs munch through the plants they’ve cared for from seed, it’s important to remember they can be valuable source of food for other wildlife including thrushes and hedgehogs.
Want to find out more? Watch as our wildlife gardening guru Adrian Thomas guides you through how to avoid using pesticides in your garden.
Forget herbicides – embrace the weeds
Given a free choice, most gardeners wouldn’t choose to spend their time tackling weeds. Instead of immediately seeing weeds as a messy problem that needs to be dealt with, remember they also increase biodiversity in your outdoor space. They’re important for many insects and are another source of food for our garden birds.
Dandelions are one of the first sources of nectar for bees emerging in the spring, while their seeds are highly sought by goldfinches. Other ‘weeds’ are important food and shelter for wildlife too. Ideally, embracing all kinds of plants in your garden is the best solution. However, if removing some weeds from your drive, patio or paths is important to you, choose an organic method rather than turning to herbicides. Using mulch on your beds is an effective form of weed control which works by suppressing them and blocking out sunlight.
Try to avoid using chemicals to ‘improve’ your lawn. Nitrate-rich lawn care products might well make your outside space look green and lush, but it’s bad news for wildlife when these chemicals find their way into ponds and rivers, leading to a build-up of nitrates and phosphates. What’s more, while using fertiliser on your lawn might be good for the grass, it won’t benefit wildflowers, leaving you with a less biodiverse outdoor space.
A neatly trimmed, artificially fertilised and weed-free lawn is typically seen as a sign of a well-tended garden but it’s likely to be the least friendly for wildlife. Clover is a great example of something that’s generally seen as an unwanted feature in a lawn. However, not only does clover feed the lawn with nitrogen, it attracts bees that will go on to pollinate your plants.
Also remember that simply putting your feet up in the garden can be great for nature. Mowing your lawn less frequently not only saves time but can be hugely beneficial to wildlife. This step-by-step guide details lots of benefits to leaving your mower in the shed.
Go peat-free for peat’s sake
Pesticides and herbicides aren’t the only things commonly used in gardens that can harm nature and our environment. Peat has been used extensively in garden compost since the last quarter of the 20th century. Peatlands are a really large store of carbon and their protection is vital in the fight against climate change. Peat needs to stay wet and in the ground.
Peat bogs are also important for nature. They have their own unique and amazing flora, including bog mosses, rare flowering plants and even carnivorous plants. Wetlands are wonderful for animals too, from dragonflies and rare butterflies, to otters, water voles, curlews and reed buntings.
Along with partner organisations we’ve been campaigning for a legal ban to end the use of peat in gardening products for more than 30 years. Unfortunately, around half the compost sold in garden centres is still peat based. In a video to support the #ForPeatsSake campaign, gardener and broadcaster Monty Don made clear his view on the use of peat-based composts. “Gardeners should not be using peat.”
Thankfully, you no longer need to go searching high and low to find peat-free compost. There are plenty of alternatives and they’re widely available. Make a pledge to only use non-peat composts and help tackle the nature and climate crisis.
Decide to make your outdoor space a haven for nature
While it’s quicker to pick up a bag of compost without checking the label, or to reach for a colourful bottle of chemicals that’ll keep your plants and vegetables free of aphids, choosing the nature-friendly option isn’t difficult.
If you want more inspiration on how to improve your outdoor space for nature, be sure to take a look at the rest of our Nature on Your Doorstep blog. You’ll find guides on what to plant in spring and summer, how fantastic a garden pond can be for attracting wildlife, and ways to get little ones excited about nature and gardening.
What’s more, you’ll find wildlife gardens at many of our reserves across the country. They’re a great source of inspiration and our site teams will be more than happy to discuss ideas that’ll work for you at home. Find your nearest RSPB reserve here.
The RSPB online shop has a fantastic selection of wildlife-friendly gardening equipment, seed mixes and more. Alternatively, pay a visit to your nearest RSPB shop in person.
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654
Accepting all non-essential cookies helps us to personalise your experience
These cookies are required for basic web functions
Allow us to collect anonymised performance data
Allow us to personalise your experience