Avoiding herbicides and single use plastic in the garden, on the farm, and in the neighbourhood

The use of black plastic sheeting and mats both in cities and in the countryside has become ubiquitous in Japan. The thin sheeting used on growing beds is generally only used for a year before being replaced. As a result, there are huge amounts every year of what is essentially single use plastic waste.

As only a few gardens still do, it was traditional to grow early spring grass that is cut and used as a thick mulch, which helps maintain soil moisture in the summer, and suppresses weed growth. A sustainable alternative are grass cuttings, collected leaves and weeds, cuttings from trees.

This year I used a similar method to clear my paths and driveway of weeds. I found that leaving piles of weeded material and leaves for two weeks before moving them to a new patch of path or driveway was enough to kill off any stubborn weeds. This effective method therefore negates any excuse to use herbicides or plastic matting to keep areas clear of weeds.

Below are a few before and after photos of some areas cleared using this method. You will notice that I also used some old ‘sudare’ bamboo blinds, which also effectively choke off weed growth.

An even more harmful trend is the use of thicker mats, carpets or sheeting to cover large areas of vegetated ground, in the misguided belief that they will keep weeds at bay. In reality, after as little as a year, they are engulfed by the weeds which make their way through, or over them. What this creates are expanding areas of ground covered in tonnes of a slowly disintegrating layer of plastic or tar material, with the seasonal vegetation on top.

As an alternative to this practice, responsible management of grass verges and areas of vegetation could involve tree planting. As the trees grow they will create a canopy of shade over the area, significantly reducing weed growth and making the area easier to manage. I have been able to do this to some areas around our neighbourhood and the results are very positive. The trees I have used the most are wild arcashia (Silk tree), but also local pine and oak.

Added benefits for the local area of having more trees include a cooler more attractive environment which ultimately attracts and supports more pollinators and birdlife.

On the same topic of responsible management of grass verges, Japan would benefit greatly from the UK’s No Mow May campaign #nomowmay. This aims to help raise awareness of the benefits of not cutting grass in the spring. This allows wild flowers to grow which in turn, helps to support biodiversity.

In addition, this would greatly help the dwindling populations of fire flies, which rely on long grass for their brief emergence and mating cycle during early June.

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Almost one year later

In August 2020 I was lucky to be asked to talk on JJ Walsh’s podcast series Seeking Sustainability in Japan. Now almost one year later she kindly asked me back onto her show for an update. It was another great experience and chance to talk about sustainability in everyday life, and hopefully, to share some information that could be useful to others interested in a more sustainable lifestyle.

Regrettably, August 2020 was also the last time I added a post to this blog. So doing this talk will, I hope, motivate me to be more active on this site and add posts more regularly. Let’s see …

So please check out the talk Innovative Eco-Home Design for a Comfortable Low-Impact Lifestyle | Iain Davey #ssl261 as well has the many other talks she has had with some very inspiring people in the field of sustainability.

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Sustainable Development talks from around Japan

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to have been invited to speak with JJ Walsh.

She hosts a series of live podcast from people from around Japan that are invoved with sustainable development. This (above) is a link to my session which also leads to the full series of talks for you to browse though.

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What nature takes – it gives back




After repeated attempts to drain newly appeared lagoon


After attempt at draining newly appeared lagoon

In 2018 we were hit by two particularly destructive typhoons, which took away much of the sand from our beach.

All this year it has slowly been replaced with the natural rise and fall of the lake’s water level and movement of the waves. Recently though we had high rainfall associated with the huge typhoon Hagibis.


This led to the creation of a sand bar and lagoon all along our beach which today I’ve been trying to drain. My manpower and shovel I realized are no match for the enormous power of the waves that constantly rebuild any break in the sandbar I tried to make. And what’s more, with the sunny weather these waves were barely bigger than ripples.

All the physical effort expended for very little gain (see photos) got me thinking how futile it is to go against nature – draining land that should be flooded, creating pasture on areas which were rich forest ecosystems, re-routing rivers etc. And of course the scale of such anthropic destruction, has only been allowed with the brute  force bequeathed to us by fossil fuel.Screen Shot 2019-10-30 at 18.17.45

Screen Shot 2019-10-30 at 18.22.02

Nature’s systems are cyclical. Everything is reused, replenished, recycled. From the largest systems – continental drift, volcanic eruptions, storms – to the smallest decomposing micro-organism.

All are important for replenishment and renewal. Unfortunately, there is only one system which works against the basic principle of taking and giving back – our economic system.

Currently it is ‘taking’ to such an extent that it’s breaching many of the earth’s natural boundaries -climate, nitrogen, biodiversity for example (see table).  Unlike natural systems which are essentially cyclical, our economic system is a linear system of extraction, production, consumption, and disposal.

At the moment it is utilizing the equivalent of 1.7 earth’s worth of natural capital (Ecological Footprint.org) . Of course this can’t continue without tipping many natural systems towards irreversible collapse.

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Helping and battling nature

Summer 2018 in Japan has been extremely hot and with no rain for many weeks since the devastating rains which made world headlines in early June. It’s now a constant battle to keep the garden productive and the trees alive as the soil has progressively become drier and drier. Even the two typhoons that passed by failed to deliver the much-needed  water to replenish the moisture in the soil.

Today is no different. It’s August 27th and the temperature outside is 37C. But in addition to the daily watering duties, this morning, more than usual, it was to be dominated by my interactions with nature.

  • early morning battle with horseflies while milking the goat. They are particularly bad at this time of year and make life for the goats extremely tiring and uncomfortable.
  • another early morning battle to eliminate hornets attacking one of our bee hives. recently, many of the large hornets at once have been attacking the hive and as they obviously communicate with those back at their oven hive, it’s a battle now to keep their numbers down – killing as many as possible by hand as soon as they arrive. While this has been successful so far, I decided to enlarge the protective areas at the entrance to the bee hive to give the bees a better chance of survival when I’m not around.

  • while making this new protective entrance, one of my daughters came from the lakefront beach with a piece of discarded netting that had THREE snakes entangled in it. Unfortunately we could only save two of them but whole episode was a vivid example of the damage plastic waste is having on nature, particularly around our seas and oceans.

plastic killer

A dead snake entangled in plastic netting

  • finally, we felt compelled to do a beach cleanup before lunch. A typhoon last week left an appalling amount of rubbish along the beach, most of which was plastic. While we cleared most of it on the day following the typhoon, there is still more cleaning up to do until the beach is back to its regular and relatively clean state.


I think we all need to be more re-connected to nature and examine the consequences of the disconnect most people in the westernized world experience. Indeed, this disconnection is likely to widen further as modern conveniences become more and more engrained into people’s lives, and as more of the world’s population find themselves living in cities.

Today mother nature she kept me particularly busy and engaged – and although much of my mornings activity could reasonably be regarded as dealing with problems and trouble, I remain thank full for a lifestyle that gives me so much contact with nature, and for all the experiences, gifts and challenges she presents.


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DSCN5276Last year we failed to catch a wild colony of bees, so this year we decided that in addition to trying to catch some again, we would order a nuc (nucleus colony).

This has now arrived (9000 bees on 3 frames) in a brood box. I added 7 empty frames and am now hoping they don’t abscond, but instead use the new frames to expand the colony.

When 7 to 8 frames are full, I will need to add a 2nd box (super) for the colony to expand into and make their food store for the winter months.

I’m now studying again and relearning what I tried to learn exactly one year ago. There’s a lot of jargon but it’s a topic that is easy to get engrossed in.

Needless to say, we are all enjoying watching these fascinating insects, that truly bring the garden fully to life. Hopefully our wisteria, honeysuckle and star jasmines will soon come into bloom.

I have also been weeding very selectively, leaving anything that produces a flower (speedwell, dead nettle, vetch …) well alone.






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Water issues: Future proofing the garden (part II)

greywater settling system

The above diagram shows the settling tank we now have. Grey water from the house must now pass through it before being released into the wetland area next to the pond.

The wetland area itself is at a level slightly higher than the pond allowing water to pass through the wetland area (and the network of plant roots) before reaching the pond.

The settling tank is made with two pieces of large water pipe that are used to create two columns of sand and gravel. This should help take out the worst of the contaminants from the water and is relatively easy to take apart and clean. Below you can see the tank and pipes which were used.

Any questions on the system or advice on how to improve it, please feel welcome to contact me.

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Water issues: Future proofing the garden

The other day it rained for the first time in 9 days, and at the time, our harvested rainwater supplies were almost completely gone. The really bad news is – it’s only May and the long hot summer period that always follows the rainy season (June) is still quite a way away.

Summer dry spells over the last two years have become noticeably more frequent and watering the garden, more and more of a commitment. As a result, I have been planning various improvements to our water conservation measures. These are;

  • adding more upcycled tanks to increase the capacity (by around 800 liters so far) of our rainwater harvesting
  • collecting old hoses to make a drip-feed systems. For this holes are drilled into lengths of hose which are attached to junctions that help spread out and shorten the path the water has to take. Finally just shut off the end of the hoses with pieces of wire (see photos above)
  • diverting the greywater from the washing machine to a soak area in the back garden and having the rest of the house’s greywater going into the wetland area around the pond (shown above). Although we use washing power which is phosphorus free etc and is designed not to harm the environment, in the past when too much gets through the wetland area and into the pond, it can still kill fish.

In addition to the dry spells we are experiencing, I also read an article which predicts a particular hot dry summer for North East Asia. Article here; 2017 Asia summer forecast: Heat to roast northeastern China, Japan And longer term, the prospects are not likely to be much better Japan may become 4.5 C hotter if no anti-global warming steps taken


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Bees and honey?

traditional japanese hive

traditional Japanese hive

By the end of this year, or more realistically, next year,  we hope to add honey to the list of foods we provide for ourselves. To get us started a local beekeeper provised us with 3 traditional style hives to attract native Japanese bees using the scent of wax.

If successful the bees will start making a cone from a horizonal cross suspended at the top of the top box. As it gets bigger, it will extend down to a second cross bar at the top of the next box. When the cone extends far enough into the next box, the cone in the top box can be cut off and harvested. The now empty box is then placed at the bottom of the stack. And so on…

That is the plan, and a wonderful site explaining this much better with video can be found here http://warre.biobees.com/japan.htm

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Winter fuel (part II)

In addition to the earlier post here two other sources of winter fuel:

  • salad (chard, muzuna, lettuce) and a few other vegetable greens (spinach, konmatsuna, tat soi) which are available when the snow is not covering them
  • deer meat (venison) – we have a neighbour who hunts deer and with winter being the middle of the hunting season, have a regular supply of fresh venison. Although I generally don’t eat meat, venison directly off the nearby mountain side ticks many of the boxes that help make good food item choices:
    • locally sourced
    • sustainable sourced or produced
    • organic

If you have any recommended venison dishes, please let me know 🙂


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