The physical side of gardening

For the professional, gardening can be a very demanding job. It requires the memory of an elephant to correctly identify thousands of different plants at a glance. It requires the organisational abilities of an executive, to remember the huge to do list, and to be able to prioritise them correctly. It requires the logic of a mechanic, able to fix a machine on the spot, with the minimum of tools. It requires the analytical mind of a biological scientist, able to spot the difference between mineral deficiency, fungal pathogen or insect attack and diagnose the best solution. And, by no means least, it requires the physical abilities of an athlete, able to keep up with the relentless demands on a body that this kind of physical work entails. 

For many non-gardeners the idea of spending all day ‘pottering’ in the garden seems very attractive. With plenty of sunshine, fresh air and a beautiful workplace, what could be better? Having spent all of my career so far working in horticulture, I have to stop myself telling people the reality of doing it as a full-time job is totally different to doing it as a hobby. Being on your feet, doing physical work, all day, whatever the weather is quite a tough proposition most would shy from. In a commercial environment, driven by deadlines and profit margins, I have seen many people struggle to keep up with the physical demands placed on them day after day. After moving four tons of materials across the garden in wheelbarrows, when the next load arrives it can start to feel like an endless task, and thank goodness it is, otherwise we would all be out of a job.

Over the years I have seen my fair share of accidents in the garden, from the everyday minor cuts and scrapes, to the unbelievable stories of careless chainsaw owners, runaway mowers or man-eating rotovators. There are plenty of chances to do oneself harm, and I have had to have the occasional trip to accident and emergency myself. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) around 300,000 Britons are injured in the garden every year. 

The statistics show that the most common accidents in the garden are slips, trips and falls. Even with the strength of a gladiator and the balance of a prima ballerina, we would all feel a little vulnerable perched at the top of a ladder, swinging a hedge cutter around in the pouring rain, but the most common accidents occur from slippy or uneven surfaces. Just wearing a good pair of boots can work wonders, and provide you with the sure-footedness of a mountain goat. 

The next most common injury is back pain; something I have had to deal with on more than one occasion. The constant bending, lifting and twisting can place a lot of strain on he lower back. I regularly used to suffer from bouts of sciatica in the autumn from collecting up the huge piles of leaves. With regular stretching and acupuncture I was able to get relief, but the best ways to prevent back pain are 1. Avoid lifting where possible (use a device or machine to do the work) 2. Lift correctly (bending at the knees, keeping the back straight and keeping the load close to the body to reduce strain.) 

One of the most common injuries they found were those sustained to the eyes. The eyes are sensitive instruments and unfortunately very vulnerable and easily damaged. A stray branch, spiky leaf or even just a speck of dust can wreak havoc with the eye. I have managed on more than one occasion to get something in my eye, scratching my lens and spending the next couple of days in some discomfort. Whilst many of these incidents would have been impossible to predict, wearing eye protection, wherever possible is a good prevention. I found that the eye protection made for carpenters who use nail guns as part of their everyday work were suitably tough and comfortable for most jobs where there was a risk of injury, although for jobs like brush cutting, a full face guard is an added line of defence.

Another risk for gardeners to consider is that of allergies. There are hundreds of plants in the garden that could potentially be poisonous. Recently we heard of a gardener who was poisoned by the Aconites (monkshood) he was dealing with. Seeds from Ricinus (the castor oil plant) contain powerful toxins (ricin) that were, several years ago, implicated in the poisoning of a secret agent using a poison-tipped umbrella. These types of poisoning are very rare, but it pays to know which plants could pose a potential risk. Even innocuous seeming plants such as cherry laurel can produce cyanide gas from fresh clippings or foxgloves, which contain chemicals that will slow the heart rate. As the famous physician Pliny said ‘Sola docsis facet venum’ (the dose makes the poison) – anything can become dangerous in the wrong amounts.

Strangely, the results do not show how many people suffered from what must be one of the top injuries sustained in the garden – sunburn. Exposed to the elements we can often think we are hardy enough to take the weak British sun, but it is surprising how quickly damage to the skin can be done. Gardeners are among the highest risk group for skin cancer in the UK, primarily because we are in the sun more than most. Never underestimate the value of high factor suncream and a large hat. 

With a little thought and preparation before starting work most accidents can be avoided in the garden. You can easily protect yourself from electrocution by using a residual current device (RCD) when operating electrically powered tools. This will cut out if there is a power surge or short circuit. Keep chemicals out of reach of children, locked in a cabinet, and always use them exactly as instructed on the label. Always use the suitable personal protective equipment for a task, wether it is gloves, goggles, helmet, or facemask. Always check that ladders are in good condition before use, and use them at the safe angle (1 in 4) with three points of the body in contact with the ladder at all time 

Gardening is great for health when done correctly and a little bit of fresh air and hard work will keep you young vigourous and full of life well into your old age, but going about it all wrong could potentially shorten your working life. Although, knowing most gardeners, we would probably just put a brave face on and keep soldiering on whatever happened.

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The worms I view


I share my garden with many different animals, but there is one which has more influence on the garden than any other; the worm. Whilst I am working hard above the ground, they are hard at work beneath. They complete the feedback loop of the cycle, converting the detritus of the year into compost and making its nutrients available to the plants again. 

This week I had to do quite a bit of digging in the garden, filling in any gaps in the borders with late-summer flowering perennials. I was struck by the effect the worms were having on the garden. In areas where I found worms, the soil was much more friable, easier to dig, and the plants in these areas seemed to be thriving. In other areas the soil was hard, compacted, lacking organic matter and the plants were struggling to establish. Whilst the site of an earthworm is enough to send a young child recoiling in horror, I have come to regard them as my friends. When I spot them in the soil I know that we have a healthy soil, and the plants will thrive. Their absence provokes feelings of worry and doubt.

The action of earthworms burrowing improves the physical structure of the soil. They increase aeration, porosity and permeability, which means the soil can absorb more rainfall. They are one of the main organisms involved in the breakdown of leaf litter at the soil surface. They massively increase the surface area of the leaf litter allowing fungus to continue its breakdown, and enabling the release of valuable nutrients into the soil. Some deeper burrowing worms will even draw trace nutrients up from deep in the soil. A recent study found that compost created by earthworms (known as vermicompost) showed a huge increase in the germination and growth of many plants. Even adding just a small amount of the compost (5%) to multipurpose compost showed an increase in plant growth. Tests in the 1960’s demonstrated that crops grown in soils rich with earthworms showed huge increases in yields over crops grown in earthworm-free soil.

Earthworms are fascinating creatures. They do not have a skeleton, but much like a bouncy castle, are held up by the pressure of fluids inside their skin, which they also respire through. Earthworms are both male and female producing both eggs and sperm. The number of segments of each worm is consistent across the species, and individuals are born with the number of segments they will have throughout their life. Earthworms do not have eyes but instead have specialised photosensitive cells called ‘light cells of Hess’ ( I guess after the chap who discovered them?) The earthworm’s gut is a straight tube running from the head and mouth at one end to the anus at the other. Instead of being convoluted, like a mammalian digestive tract, it is folded internally to increase the surface area for absorption. 

There are thought to be around 6000 species of earthworm worldwide and some earthworms in the tropics have been known to grow to almost 10 feet long. There are many types of earthworm that we can find in the UK, from the red ‘Brandling’ worms we often find in leaf litter or compost heaps to ‘Lob worms’, ‘Red-headed worms’ or the imaginatively named ‘Octagonal-tail worm’, each with its own preferred location and food source.

Earthworms habits fall into 3 categories. Those that live their life almost entirely in the leaf litter, like the Brandling. Those that burrow and recycle organic matter within the top 10-30cm of the soil, and those that construct permanent deep verticals burrows used to visit the surface and collect organic matter. One earth worm can digest up to 36 tons of soil every year, and there can be almost 8 million worms present in one hectare of healthy soil. The population of worms in the soil is dependent on availability of food, ph (worms prefer soils on the acidic side) and moisture content. Applying a regular coat of organic matter to the soil every year as a mulch will encourage a healthy population to develop and do the work of cultivating the soil on the gardeners behalf. 

Earthworms are fundamental to many food chains. They are food for many birds such as crows, robins, starlings and thrushes (not just the early ones.) They are eaten by mammals like foxes, hedgehogs and moles, and even provide a food sources for insects, such as beetles. Earthworms are also sold as food for human consumption. Noke is a culinary term used by the Maori of New Zealand, and refers to earthworms which are considered delicacies for their chiefs.

In the 1960s the New Zealand flat worm was accidentally introduced to the UK, (probably hidden in a potted plant) and has rapidly settled into its new home. Whilst I am all in favour of increasing biodiversity, the New Zealand flatworm seems to have an opposing view, and has developed a disturbing taste for our earthworms. New Zealand Flatworms are usually found under pieces of wood, stone or polythene or lying curled-up on bare earth. They leave slime circles where they’ve been resting. The New Zealand Flatworms are flat, and look a bit like ribbons, with a dark purple-brown upper surface paler margins and a creamy, pale belly. They are usually about 0.3-1cm wide and 5-15 cm long, pointed at both ends and covered in sticky mucus. OPAL (open air laboratories network) are asking gardeners to keep an eye out for them and take part in a survey to find out more about their distribution by completing a short survey. You can find more information here: https://www.opalexplorenature.org/nzflatworm 

In North America, earthworms were wiped out during the last Ice Age when a huge icecap extended south over much of the continent. As the ice retreated, the forests that sprung up were no longer dependant on the earth worm to provide its role as a composter. The organic matter built up quickly on the forest floor, and was utilised by other organisms instead. Earthworms were over the years accidentally introduced and began to chew their way through this bounty of food, radically altering the landscape around them.

In 1881 Charles Darwin wrote: “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.”

It is strange given how fundamental they are to our ecosystems in the UK, why we don’t consider them with more importance than we do. I know that without earthworms my garden would not be the same.

Sharpening tools


How often do you sharpen your secateurs? Earlier this week I was with a group of gardeners who, when asked this question, quickly turned their eyes down towards their shoes like embarrassed students, caught without their completed homework.

As one of the main tools of our trade, we take it for granted that they will be dependably by our side whenever we enter the garden. Few of us give them the care they need to be able to work consistently and accurately. We would shudder at the idea of a surgeon performing surgery with a blunt scalpel. So, why do we have so few qualms at amputating parts from our plants with blunt blades? Rather than leaving a clean wound that heals quickly, cutting a plant with blunt secateurs crushes the stem, leaving fine fissures and a ragged edge, that takes longer to heal, with more potential for infection and dieback. 

Taking care of our tools should form a regular part of our routine in the garden and any cutting implement needs to be cleaned and sharpened on a regular basis. I have two pairs of Felco number 2 secateurs as my weapons of choice. One of the pairs is 15 years old, and the other is 13. Every winter, one of the pairs is sent off to the manufacturers for reconditioning. A few weeks later they return home with new bolts, springs blades and re-dipped handles looking as good as new. But if they are to last me a lifetime, they still need regular day-to-day maintenance. 

Secateurs can be used and abused so much it’s essential to clean all the dirt out of the moving parts. First, I give them a quick wipe down with something like WD-40. This will remove sap, dirt and water from the blades and leaving a lubricating film on the moving parts. The next step is to sharpen the blade. I start with a file to remove any nicks or burrs in the blade. Unlike a knife, bypass secateurs have a edge on just on side of the blade so it only needs to be done from one side. I then run over this surface with a diamond file. The finer texture of the abrasive surface will produce an even smoother surface and sharper edge. The final stage is to use the oilstone, stroking the blade across its oiled surface in a circular motion, until it takes on an almost mirror-like quality. 

I was given my oilstone by my Grandad. I remember as a child, every time we started a new project together, he would spend a few minutes ensuring that all the chisels were razor-sharp before we began the ‘real’ work. To my eager, younger self, it initially appeared to be time which would be better spent on the activity, but by ensuring that the blades were as sharp as possible meant that the job progressed much smoother much quicker and more precisely. The time we spend preparing for a job, is just as valuable as time spent on the job itself. The preparation is a mental activity in which we focus our mind (much like sharpening a blade) onto the the job in hand. The preparation is thinking time where we can calculate every possible problem, and it’s relevant solution, so that when we start it just becomes a matter of putting all of that thought in to action. 

Given that we use these tools, mental or physical, almost every day, we can easily overlook the importance of their care and the value of this preparation. Over the past year, I have made it part of my daily routine that, whenever I pick up a tool I check the blade, carefully hone it, ready for action, and try to restrain my eagerness to start for a few moments, so I can consider the best way to accomplish the task ahead of me.

Sound in the garden


Sound is often a secondary consideration when we think about the garden. In the garden, the sounds that we hear are often be ‘borrowed’ from the wider landscape. Most gardens will never be entirely silent, whether it is birdsong, running water or the wind rustling the leaves, there is always ambient noise. Many of us enjoy the calm and quiet that being outdoors provides. Its a chance to escape the hectic clamour of our everyday lives, which are all too often filled with an overwhelming surplus of sound.

A report from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (1992) found “there is growing evidence that noise adversely affects general health, and the cardiovascular system particular.” A report by Dr Rokho Kim on behalf of the World Health Organisation (2011) stated that “exposure to excessive noise is second only to air pollution as a cause of environmental ill health.” Last Autumn, even my local area hit the headlines when the Hampstead Garden Suburb Residents Association (in North London) proposed a system of football style yellow and red cards would be handed out to residents who excessively used noisy garden machinery.

In 1959, to combat the ever increasing volume of modern life, the Noise Abatement Society was set up. They have successfully campaigned to introduce legislation on noise pollution. In 2012 they introduced the ‘Quiet Mark’. To gain accreditation tools are assessed by a team of acoustic experts to see if they really do produce reduced noise levels, whilst still being able to do the job.

Careful planting can provide some acoustic protection in the garden, reducing both the flow of noise in and out. The best plants for reducing sound are dense evergreens, like Thuja, or Lawson’s Cypress. Unfortunately, even a dense hedge, several meters wide will only reduce noise by around 25%. A wall or fence (at least 2m high) will also provide a reduction in airflow and can reduce noise levels by up to 50% in some circumstances. 

Given the din all around us, it comes as no surprise there has been a renewed interest in the Quiet Garden Movement. Started over 20 years ago, the main aim of the movement is to preserve the peace and quiet of a variety of outdoor spaces to provide a sanctuary for rest, contemplation, and inspiration. The opportunity to have time in a peaceful space promotes rest, refreshment, provides an opportunity to wonder at the beauty of the world and can be helpful for our health and wellbeing. I find that having a chance to take more notice of my environment enhances my relationship to it and encourages me to take better care of the world around me. There are currently over 300 gardens signed up to the Quiet Garden Movement worldwide. This summer many gardens in the UK are taking part in the Silent Spaces project and will have areas of the garden reserved for silence. This project in conjunction with the Landscape, Gardens and Health Network hopes to be able to study in more depth some of the health and wellbeing benefits of quiet spaces. 
Go to Silent Spaces to see the gardens taking part.

Colour in the Garden


It was a lovely sunny day today, so we sat in the garden and painted our old garden table. I had some old tins of garden paint, in various shades, so we set about adding a splash of colour to the boring old table. It was a bit of an experiment, mixing them together, so I was surprised what we came up with.

One of the primary consideration we have when planning our garden is colour. How will the colours of all the different plants work together? Personally, I love to see plenty of colour in my garden. It is never as carefully planned as it probably should be although I am lucky to have an advisor. My wife has the eye of an artist, and a great instinct when it comes to pairing colours, so it stops just short of a cacophony (mostly).
Planning for succession of colour is important. Many plants spend most of their lives just as leaves. They may only be in bloom for a few months or weeks (days even for peonies). When planning, we must consider both the timing of flowering, but most importantly, how the plants appear when they aren’t in bloom. Even at the height of summer most gardens will predominately be different shades of green.
Humans have a natural affinity to colour. It is thought our sensitive colour vision evolved to help survival. Our eyes have gradually developed a fantastic ability to accurately distinguish the colour of objects. The act of psychological perception of light also has a social context. It enabled us to avoid danger, and find food. Over the years we developed deep seated associations with colour. These associations vary considerably from country to country.

Blue often is thought of as calming and relaxing. Green is perceived as a healthy and reassuring colour. Yellow is vibrant and is often described as energising and Red encourages excitement and intense emotions.

Much of modern colour theory is based on work by Johannes Itten (1888-1967) who taught at the Bauhaus art school in Germany. Itten developed colour wheels to describe how colours go together. The colours were laid out in a circle with gradations of primary, secondary and tertiary colours. The theory is that colours opposite one another on the wheel are strongly contrasting but complementary. Colours near one another are ‘analogous’ and will work well when used together.
Our colour preferences can be strongly influenced by changes in society. Many studies have focused on the preference of colour in the 20th century. It is thought that prosperity encourages people to choose more bold and bright colours. In times of economic uncertainty they will choose a much more muted and subtle colour palette. Thankfully, gardens take much longer to develop, so colour palettes will not change so fast. Colour trends change annually in the fashion market, but long term changes can have an subtle, but inevitable influence on gardens.
Colour is not an absolute concept. Waves of different lengths enter the eye. They are focused by the lens, on to the retina. Here they trigger nerves that are sensitive to either red green or blue light. There are varying levels of each of these sensors in everyone’s eyes. Some people will be more (and less) sensitive to certain colours, (such as in colour blindness), causing our personal preferences. Some people also think age plays a part. Younger people are more attracted to bright primary colours and older people more drawn to more subtle tones.
In the garden we see colour in terms of three dimensions. One of the great advocates of “painting with colour” in the garden was Gertrude Jekyll. Her book: ‘Colour schemes for the flower garden’ is a masterclass in colour. Her famous herbaceous borders and were planned with swathes of colour from ‘hot’ colours (oranges, and reds) together, moving gradually through the full spectrum to the cool colours (blues and purples) at the other end. These colours can be used to alter the perception of distance. By placing hot colours near and cool colours away we make the border appear longer. By placing cool colours near and hot colours far away it appears shorter. the exception to this rule is white, which appears just as bright at a distance or nearby.
When planning areas in a smaller garden, it can be most effective to just use a few colours in the scheme. Don’t be frightened of adding a few flashes and highlights though. Too few colours, though appearing considered, also appears very unnatural. Be prepared to allow the odd self-seeder a bit of space and give room for a touch of chaos. We always seem to discover that some of the best colour combos come from no more than a fortunate accident.