Ethical gardening and home decorating
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Date: 20 July, 2003

India working on school garden

Working in Green school garden, India. photo: Christian Aid/Kim Naylor


With so many ways to make your home and your garden more ethical, it's hard to know where to begin.

We'll start outside in the garden while the weather's nice. (We can go inside later on.) Now, if you thought you could detect a faint smell of something, you're right. That's because a great way to make your garden more eco-friendly is to go organic, and that means giving up on chemical fertilisers like artificial nitrates and choosing natural sources such as well-rotted manure and compost.

The beauty of organic fertilisers is that they're cheap to buy - many farms and stables sell manure for as little as 1 per bag - they're a form of recycling (think about it) and they release their goodness slowly rather than all at once. It also means there's much less chance of nitrates finding their way into our water supply, where they pose a health risk. If you're a fan of blood, fish and bone meal, but you're a veggie too, you could try animal-free fertiliser in the form of calcified seaweed, available from The Organic Catalogue.

Unfortunately pests won't greet your change to organic gardening by disappearing. But there are things you can do. First of all practise crop rotation to reduce susceptibility to common diseases, and use smart methods like biological control, where you purchase nice insects (like ladybirds) to eat the pesky insects (like aphids). You can also use physical barriers like Enviromesh, which prevents carrot root fly and other nasty bugs from getting to your prize parsnips (and carrots). Once again, The Organic Catalogue has all you'll need. And if you must resort to pesticides, use products with natural plant extracts rather than lab-produced chemicals. Look out for sprays based on extract of neem, a traditional Indian pest-control plant.

Another garden tip is to create your own fertiliser and compost from organic kitchen waste. If you want to do it in style, get hold of a wormery where carefully chosen worms process waste into rich nutritious compost that will be a hit with your cabbages and just about everything else you're growing. And yes, this does mean you can even buy worms online. Try Green Shop.

If you've used peat in your garden in the past, stop right now. Peat is extracted from peat bogs, which are delicate natural environments and which take a very long time to form. The mass destruction of these bogs is a serious threat to certain species of plants and animals. An excellent peat substitute is coir (pronounced 'coy-ya'), which is derived from coconut fibre. Pester your garden centre to stock it.

Since it's getting dark now, let's move indoors, pausing briefly to point out that for lovely summer evenings in the garden, you might like to try solar-powered lights which charge in the daylight, then create mood lighting at night.

Indoors, recycling is one of the obvious ways to make your lifestyle more sustainable. Buy yourself some sturdy plastic crates and collect glass, tins, aluminium foil, paper and plastics. Most supermarkets have recycling points, and in cities local authorities often provide roadside facilities in local areas. To find out if your local council runs a kerbside scheme, where recycling boxes are collected from your home (or to lobby them to start one), visit The Green Directory where you can search for the contact details of people to talk to.

Another form of recycling is to think twice before throwing away household objects that you don't want any more. Your old TV, computer or sofa might not be what you want any more but chances are that someone out there would be delighted to have it. Give your favourite charity shop a call and ask if they'll sell the things you no longer need. That way you avoid sending more waste to landfill sites and you help to raise money for causes you care about, so everybody's a winner.

While you're at the charity shop, have a look around. You might find that elusive something you've spent months looking for, and this way you won't be adding momentum to our voracious consumer society.

Nobody likes household chores but you can make them easier, on your conscience at least, by carefully choosing the cleaning products you use. You'll want to avoid companies that still test on animals, including Clairol, Lever Bros, and 3M (Post-It notes etc). For a fuller list visit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA).

Another important issue with cleaning products is what's in them. Chlorine bleach is highly toxic and a bad thing to be flushing into the sewage system, and not all detergents break down into harmless substances when we wash them down the sink. By choosing a range like Ecover, available from many supermarkets and health food shops, or online from Green Shop, you can be sure that you're not adding to pollution while you're adding sparkle round the rim of the loo.

Finally, when decorating your home, remember to choose lead-free paints which have low-levels of 'volatile organic compounds (VOCs). It'll save you from breathing nasty fumes and it's kinder to the atmosphere too. And, when the paint's dry, all you need to add are a few fair trade crafts for a finishing touch, and you'll have the ultimate green home, whatever your favourite colour.

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