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  . 

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.