Water and the garden

This year, spring has been fairly dry and apart form the occasional shower we have had quite a few dry days. The rapid warming of the atmosphere in the spring will inevitably bring more typical weather. In March and April, the weather can change rapidly and a warm, sunny day can quickly change as the garden is battered by sudden sharp showers. It’s no fun getting caught out in the rain, so I recently replaced my old, torn and leaky waterproofs for a brand new pair. Unfortunately, if there is anything that is guaranteed to bring about a spell of good weather, it is preparing for the worst (and vice versa).

Perversely, I hope that the rain does come at some point. Water is essential to life in the garden and a dry Spring could trigger that sanction most feared by British gardeners, a ‘hosepipe ban’. Whilst I can keep my seedlings and potted plants going with a watering can, keeping the newly planted shrubs from drying out will become an endless task. I recall being told, when i was training as a gardener that; ’watering a garden is like adding salt to soup, too little or too much and it is all ruined.’ 

Thankfully, in temperate climates like the UK, we know it is never long before we will see the rain again. Our green and pleasant land is only this way because of an abundance of water. In areas where rain is much more infrequent plants have to adapt to make the most of things whilst the going is good. The deserts of California have recently come alive as the rainstorms have triggered a rare ‘superbloom’ when everything tries to complete its life cycle of growing, flowering and setting seed before the valuable resources disappear once again.

The ‘Dew pond’ is central to the story of the estate where I work. Originally, the garden would have been part of the common, used by locals to graze their livestock. Dew ponds were constructed by digging a large hole and lining the bottom with puddled clay so the rainwater would collect and provide a place for the livestock to drink in the summer. There is still a chain of ponds across the common, and we are lucky enough to still have one in the garden, after which the house was named. 

When the garden was re-planted, the pond had fallen into disrepair and had become little more than a swamp, over-run by vigorous plants and silted up from years of fallen leaves. The pond was cleared, relined and is now replanted with plants suited to the damp conditions like rodgersia, petasites japonica and rheum palmatum. The margins are now filled with reeds, flag irises and pontaderia, and the deep water has floating lily pads where the moorhens are often keen to build their raft-like nests. It is now home to a huge range of different wildlife. In addition to the pair of moorhens that call it home and a couple of mallards that make regular visits we have several species of newts breeding in the pond. In the summer, the air above it becomes filled with dogfights between the many different dragon and damselflies. The pond is possibly one of the most biologically diverse places in the garden as it provides so many different habitats, from bank to margin, to deep water in just a few meters.

Water can be gentle and graceful, able to fill whatever vessel it is placed in and when calm it exudes the essence of tranquility. It can also be incredibly powerful, able to carve huge gorges through the earth and rip chunks of coastline away from the mainland. This makes it one of the most powerful of the elements.

Water is so fundamental to life, it’s no surprise that almost every culture has celebrated it and personified it by creating hundreds of aquatic deities to worship. The reverence of water takes many forms, from the awesomely powerful Poseidon of greek mythology (Neptune in the roman) who was also responsible for earth quakes, the well-dressing of the peak district, or the beautiful mermaid-like ‘Selkies’ of Scots folklore who might decide to run off with your husband, or wife unless you discover their seal skin like coat.  When I was growing up, we would often be warned away from stagnant, green water, for fear that ‘Jenny Greenteeth’, a river hag with green skin and sharp teeth might grab your ankle and drag you under. I think it was probably more to discourage us from playing in a dangerous place. 

In his book ‘Waterlog’, the great nature writer, Roger Deakin, tried to travel the British isles, swimming our rivers, lakes and the sea as he went to discover more about our relationship with this element. One of the most poignant feelings I got from reading his book was just how disconnected we have become from the water that surrounds us. Throughout the book he describes how people were shocked when they found him doing something as perfectly natural as swimming in a river. His passionate writing inspired me to try swimming in more lakes and rivers myself. After years of swimming lanes in a bland municipal building, to be able to see the world from a ducks-eye view feels liberating, subversive and allows us to reconnect with this powerful element in a uniquely tactile way. 

The urge to create

One of the strongest drives we experience, is our desire to leave our mark on the world, the materials, tools and medium are almost irrelevant. Whether it is through a picture, a piece of music, a sculpture or the written word, we often find fulfilment in the power of sharing our experience through our creations.

The power of imagination and creativity are probably some of the greatest and most unique qualities we are born with but unfortunately, as adults, our creative pursuits are not always encouraged and even more rarely developed. When we are children we have plenty of time for play, to tell stories, make up games and draw pictures. Through our schooling and the rigid systems that are used to measure our relative achievements in maths, science or the languages, the focus starts to become more about the collection and memorising of facts, rather than how these tools can be used to best effect.

Innovation is always a product of creativity. It is only when we are able to step outside of the normal narrow confines imposed upon us by society and think or act in a different way that we can create something truly unique. 

In his 1943 paper “A theory of human motivation”, Abraham Maslow espoused his theory of a ‘hierarchy of needs’. This is often described as a pyramid, with the most fundamental needs at the bottom. The pyramid starts with physiological needs like food, shelter and sleep. The next level of the hierarchy is safety, including personal security, financial security, health and well-being and resilience against adversity. Once our physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, the next level of the hierarchy is love and belonging, found through friendship, intimacy or family. We all have a need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance from a social group, otherwise exclusion can lead to social anxiety or eventually depression. The next level is self-esteem. We often feel a strong desire to be recognised and respected by others. This could be through a profession, charitable works or a hobby which give us a sense of contributing to a cause greater than ourselves. In some people this may manifest itself as a need for status, fame, prestige or glory, but in others it will manifest itself as a need for competence, mastery, independence and freedom.

The top hierarchical level of the pyramid is occupied by self-actualisation and self-transcendence. This is possibly the hardest both to pinpoint and achieve. It refers mainly to a person feeling that they have managed to fulfil their potential. This can be very specific to different individuals. Maslow returned to this aspect in later years in many attempts to refine and redefine it. He came to the conclusion that this is where the human need for spirituality arises from, our need to relate to “oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos” (Farther Reaches of Human Nature, New York 1971, p. 269). It is here that we find our need to express our experience through creation.

Gardening is one creative activity people of any age, ability or knowledge level can enjoy and get something from. To create a garden is to mould our environment, cultivating the wilderness and using the materials of the natural world to create our own vision of paradise. The process of shaping the earth to form a space, of growing a plant from a tiny seed, of nurturing and caring for it all are creative acts and through practicing them we can gain that sense of self-actualisation and self-fulfilment we search for. Ultimately, this is why we are driven to garden. 

A different perspective 

Last week, I was lucky enough to have a visit from a group of garden design students at the garden where I work. Since it was first constructed, the estate has acquired more land, and the new areas are soon going to be developed. The students were asked to visit the new section of garden and come up with ideas for its redesign. 

I have been taking care of this area since it became part of the estate, so I was on hand to answer any queries about the garden they might have. It was fascinating to see their reactions to the space and the kind of questions they asked. It offered me a unique ‘second opinion’ on the garden that I don’t usually have access to. When we try to see something from a different perspective, it can be as though we are seeing it for the first time again. Things become so much more interesting, with a whole new world of detail revealed.

This part of the estate has become home to my veg patch, compost heap and log stack. It comprises the more ‘functional’ and less ‘attractive’ elements of the garden. There is a large lawn, which I have ensured doesn’t get out of hand, but I don’t spend a lot of time on it. The students all noted it is now mainly made up of moss and weeds. What they couldn’t see was that during the spring it is transformed into a patchwork quilt of colour, buzzing with bees as the prunella, daisies and black medick start to bloom. In summer, when the formal lawns nearer the house are starting to flag, the moss means it still looks lush and verdant. 

Yesterday, I shared the picture above with my friends. It is a close-up, taken of the same moss that has come to dominate the lawn. I thought it was an interesting image, showing the huge variation of colour and texture in something we often overlook. It struck me how by looking at the moss in a different way, what appeared to be a problem to one group of people, becomes an object of beauty when it can be viewed from a different angle.

It made me think about how our upbringing and social influences effect the way we think, creating our own unique cognitive biases. These are the cultural and social ‘filters’ through which we view and interpret everything in the world around us. We are often led to believe that many things in life are black or white, right or wrong. Unfortunately, as we learn from experience, it is rarely that simple. Depending on our perspective, it is quite possible for something to be both right and wrong at the same time, and it can easily alternate between the two over time. A ‘judgement’ can only ever created by a person making a judgment at one moment in time, and as such it will never be free from their influence.

By trying our best to see things from a different viewpoint, we can hopefully build up a more detailed picture, and perhaps gain a better understanding of exactly what it is we are seeing.

Starting to feel like spring

This week it has begun to feel as though we are starting to turn a corner in the garden. We are not quite out of the woods yet, but it is slowly beginning to feel ever more springlike. Apart from a brief visit from storm Doris on Thursday, which shook all of the loose branches from the trees and provided us with more than a years worth of kindling, we have generally been blessed with warmer, sunnier days and milder evenings. Both myself and the garden breathed an audible sigh of relief as we started to wake once again from our winter slumber. 

The days are getting noticeably longer and there is movement in the dew pond once again. The edges are bubbling with the diving newts and we have seen the appearance of two new breeding pairs of ducks who have taken to feeding at the pond on a morning. Even the normally aloof moorhens seem to be spending much more time in closer contact, renewing their bonds and perhaps anticipating the new life of spring once again. 

This weekend, passing through my neighbourhood I saw daffodils ready to burst and the first of the cherry blossom appearing from the dependable blackthorn and black plums. Unfortunately, I am aware from past experience that the appearance of the blackthorn flowers can often be a prelude to a few cold nights, so I haven’t cast aside my warm coat just yet. Autumn sown broad beans and peas are now showing in the kitchen garden and the onions and garlic appear much happier. I have even started to sow a few trays of hardy salad leaves in the sheltered areas around the shed that I can quickly cover with fleece if the threat of frost is forecast. 

There is a comforting inevitability of the seasonal cycle. As sure as we know that January and February will be filled with cold frosty days, the imminent arrival of March signals the start of a new growing season. Life as a gardener seems to have created a unique obsession with timing. My whole year revolves around trying to schedule my tasks as accurately as possible so they can be done at the ideal point of the year when the soil is warm enough and the weather is cooperating. Our lives are dictated by natures calendar and, in much the same way that many flowers only open when they have the correct proportions of daylight, moisture and temperature, we are constantly watching the weather and calendar so we can judge the perfect time to set about our most pressing tasks. 

At no time during the year does this seem more critical than in the spring. Much like Easter, Spring is a moveable feast and seems to appear when it wants to, rather than when the calendar says it should. This year I have noticed that the colder weather in January has meant that many flowers are still several weeks later than when they first appeared last year when it was considerably milder. 

Like many gardeners, I have very little space outside to propagate my seedlings, so need to resort to filling the windowsills of my house with my tender plants. I know that if I miss-judge my timings the limited space will soon become chockablock with young plants eager to make their way outside, and leave me biting my fingernails as to wether they will make it. 

But as ever, the plants know best. They know when it is exactly the right time to sprout and when it is exactly the right time to flower, and they will continue to knowingly mock every one of my attempts to preempt them. For the meantime I will religiously consult my almanacs, calendars, schedules and weather reports in a desperate attempt to foresee what will inevitably remain elusive and unpredictable, and which after all, is the main reason that this is still so exciting after so many years of trying. 

How to grow a gardener?

I was recently asked by a friend how to get into gardening as a career. After many years working in an office, he wanted a change. Horticulture seemed to offer what they were after so I was only too happy to give them an intro as to what to expect. It got me thinking about the many different ways that people come into this profession and how to ensure we continue to develop and grow.

I think I have always been a gardener. We moved house when I was 4, and my parents set about transforming the garden at our new home. I was only too happy to muck in. I even made my first garden for my action man, complete with a lawn, swimming pool and tiny hedging plants. I remember helping in the veg garden spreading manure in the winter and the pride I felt when, next autumn, I could take a marrow that seemed almost as big as myself to the Harvest Festival celebrations. As I got older, in a bid to avoid household chores, I offered to take care of the garden. I would cut the grass, trim hedges and sweep the paths to receive my pocket money. In the summer I would supplement it by helping at the soft fruit farm down the road, although I think I probably ate far more strawberries than I picked.

It was only natural that when it came to selecting my career path I chose Horticulture. I knew I wanted to spend my time outside taking care of and managing landscapes. Whilst I was studying at university, I would spend my free days and weekends working in plant nurseries and alongside landscapers to make extra money. Once I had completed my degree I was able to take on a full time role working as a gardener.

I am a big believer in the master and apprentice model. To work in close quarters with someone who has a detailed knowledge and extensive experience is a great way to learn and develop a new skill. Ken, my first full-time boss, took me under his wing to foster my interest and help develop me. His patience and guidance were a huge influence for which I am still thankful. It was my first experience of the people for whom horticulture is not just a job, but a way of life.

Since then I have had many different roles. I have worked landscaping new-build properties, taken care of historic estates, maintained celebrity’s gardens, and tested new plant varieties. In every different role I was lucky to find many new things to learn to keep me inspired to continue my ongoing professional development.

If we are to develop in our role the constant improvement and refinement of our skills is a must. One of the most valuable skills we can cultivate is learning how to learn. In an era where information proliferates there is no shortage of sources, whether it is from books, websites or our mentors. We need to know ourselves and how we learn best so we can focus our efforts and get the most out of them if we are to excel.

There have been many studies of peak performers and what helped them to become the best in their field. One of the most commonly quoted is the now famous study by Anders Ericsson, popularised by Malcom Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’ as “The 10,000 hour rule”. Anders’ study stated that, to become brilliant at anything, one must first do at least 10,000 hours of practice. Obviously it is not quite as simple as just practicing for 10,000 hours. The quality of the practice also matters. There should be clear goals, feedback mechanisms and periods of assessment and reflection. These are essential to further refine the skills which, will eventually turn a beginner into a world-class expert.

Some people say that an ‘expert’ is simply someone who is one step further along the path than yourself. It is important that we take time to build relationships with those who have also previously been in our position. These people can act as our mentors, able to help us along our own path, offering help, guidance and contact with the people who will be able to aid our development and progression. 

To be successful in any area, it is essential we also cultivate the right character. In her book ‘Grit’, Angela Duckworth identified some of the key traits that gave people the ‘stick-with-it-ness’ that enabled them to reach the top of their profession.The four key elements she identified were:

Interest – You need to be fascinated by your subject. If you lose this fascination you need to find a way to revitalise your excitement and enthusiasm for it. It can help to find a small aspect of your field that catalysed your interest and really focus in on it with intense scrutiny.

Practice – You will need to practice relentlessly. Not just hours of repetitive practice, but practice that is working towards a real and tangible goal in order to succeed. Make sure you get unbiased feedback along the way, and take action on it to constantly refine your practice.

Purpose – It is important to know exactly what you are aiming for, otherwise how will you know where to shoot? Our lives, even as adults, need space for fun and play, but we should always keep an idea of the ultimate aim in sight.

Hope – Possibly one of the most essential elements. You have to truly believe that you can (and will) improve and get better. 

We often see someone who is brilliant at their profession as a ‘natural’ who was ‘born to do this’. We act as though their innate skills had been awarded to them at birth. We only ever see the finished article. We are usually completely unaware of the many long hours of hard work and practice they have put in behind the scenes to get to this level of performance. It has taken many years of careful cultivation and help from many different people to tend those delicate young shoots and ensure they flourish, developing into the fully-grown specimens that we finally see.

Making a home for wildlife

Our towns and cities have the potential to be fantastic habitats for wildlife.

Over thirty years of studying the inhabitants and visitors to her 741sq.m suburban garden in Leicester, Jenifer Owen, a University lecturer, identified at least 2673 different species including six species of parasitic wasp previously unknown to science. 

The incredible number of different plant species that gardens can support, and the unique diversity of habitats they provide, means they can be home to an astonishing diversity of life, right outside our backdoor.

Last weekend saw the RSPB’s annual ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’. Around the country an estimated 600,000 people took part in one of the largest citizen science projects in the UK. Participants simply observed and recorded the bird visitors to their gardens. 

The RSPB is the largest conservation charity in Europe with over one million members and maintains thousands of hectares of nature reserves across more than 200 locations, protecting some of the most important sites for wildlife in the UK. 

The data received from participants in the Big Garden Birdwatch will increase the data they hold about the state of bird life in the UK and help to inform their conservation plans for the future. Previously the Big Garden Birdwatch helped to highlight the decline of starlings across much of the UK.

Just by spending an hour or two in quiet observation of birds we can gain a unique insight into their habits and activities and an increased respect for the role they play in the local ecosystems. 

These direct experiences of nature help to form our ‘baseline’ from which our perception of the natural world is formed. The many species of plants or animals that we see in our towns and cities are often thought of as ‘common’. It is their ability to utilise the unique niches created by mankind that makes them successful in these locations although, in the wider landscape, they may in fact be much rarer.

As part of the project to help make London the worlds first National Park City I was involved in setting up a website to help Londoners become more aware of the wildlife all around them in the city https://www.wildhomes.co.uk/  . 

The website acts like an estate agent for homes for wildlife, with listings of bird boxes, bug hotels, log piles and ponds all over the city. The site features lots of helpful information about how you can provide a home for nature in your own garden, and a few ‘guest blogs’ from some of the wild Londoners looking to find a home. You can upload your own properties to the site. Simply take a photo of your wildhome, share it on social media with the postcode, including the hashtag #wildhomes, and the property will be automatically uploaded to the site.

In a stable ecosystem there is a dynamic web of interactions between many different organisms. When mankind chooses to utilise some aspect of the ecosystem to provide for ourselves, if we do not acknowledge and respect the ability of every organism in the ecosystem to support and provide for itself then we will always end up with a result less than the optimum, possibly jeopardising our own ability to provide for our own needs in the future.

Gardening is an instinct to cultivate the wilderness. To subvert the ecosystem to serve our own needs, whether it is for food, shelter, raw materials or aesthetic values. We have a unique ability and opportunity to alter our environment and a responsibility to do so in the least damaging way we can. 

We should use our interactions with nature as a way increase biodiversity. We can provide more sources of nectar for bees and butterflies, more habitats for bugs and beetles and more nesting points for birds. Our activities need not subtract from the whole but can in fact strengthen and reinforce it.

Prepared for anything 

I should have been a Boy Scout. I would have loved all that camping, tying knots and doing good. My mum was a guide leader, so I guess some of that must have rubbed off on me. I am a big fan of preparing for EVERY eventuality. Just look in the boot of my car and you will find almost everything you would need to survive if, for some unknown reason, society sudden collapsed tomorrow.

Recently I have been planning a lot. The cold weather this week has limited my options somewhat in the garden. There is always something that needs to be done, but when the frosts are so hard and prolonged not everything can be done. On most days it has taken until the early afternoon to warm up at all so my work outside has been restricted to mainly tidying up jobs and moving things around. There are only so many times you can turn a compost heap before it becomes a compulsive disorder.

I decided to spend some of the colder mornings tucked up in my cosy shed organising and laying plans for the year. The tools were cleaned, lawnmower serviced and hedge cutters sharpened. The forgotten corners were cleared and swept and all the detritus collected from the year was reorganised or recycled.

I find January can be the month of spreadsheets. Once the arduous task of submitting the tax return for the year is complete, I find them a great way of organising all my other tasks. My plans for the veg garden quickly become more detailed when I can make calculations of expected yield, space required, number of plants needed and even approximate sowing dates. Over a few hours it evolves from a haphazard and chaotic experience into a precisely timed exercise where I am aware of exactly what is meant to be happening, where, when and why.

But as with all good plans we need to accommodate two vital aspects; flexibility and contingency. Things will never be exactly the same from year to year. Last frost dates can vary by several weeks and sowing dates will need to be adjusted accordingly. Unpredictable rainfall and temperatures in the spring can be protected against, but we can never have a 100% guarantee when it comes to germination. Some of our plants will never make it to adulthood to fulfil their destiny, so we must use our previous experiences to try and predict the range of possible outcomes, and have a course of action suitable for each.

There are always things that will be beyond our control. Things will occur which are completely beyond our abilities to predict or protect against. It is at these times we must surrender to the chaotic nature of the world and accept that shit happens, sometimes.