The importance of mulch

There is one job I rate as more important than any other in the garden; mulching. The application of a thick layer of organic matter to your beds will have multiple benefits and the garden will reap the benefits for years to come. 

At the moment, the leaves are still falling and the trees and shrubs are applying a thick layer of their own organic matter to the beds, but this will soon slow down. Now that all my bulbs have been planted, and the leaves will soon be cleared (where necessary) I will spend the next few weeks giving all the beds a dressing of composted bark mulch. This has many benefits for the soil. The thick layer of organic matter will act as a blanket, retaining warmth and keeping its biological processes at work long into the winter. It will provide protection from the erosion and leaching caused by winter storms. The blanket effect will also help to reduce the number of weed seedlings that appear as the soil warms again in the spring. Over the next 12 months it will gradually be incorporated into the soil by worms. Mulches generally have little nutrient content to add to the soil, but they will slowly improve the structure of the soil, making it less prone to compaction, able to retain more moisture, and making the ideal home for an even more diverse selection of beneficial fungi and bacteria.

It doesn’t just have practical benefits. After the storms of autumn have taken their toll on the borders, this is the ideal opportunity to dress the garden. The recent frosts have meant tender annuals and soft-stemmed perennials have melted into an indistinguishable sludge leaving just the sturdier plants with their handsome winter outlines and attractive seed heads. Filling in the gaps in the border with a protective coating of mulch provides a uniform background to display all those structural plants to their absolute best.  

There is a huge choice of substrates that can be used for mulching. My personal favourite is composted bark. It is light, easy to spread evenly, conditions the soil beautifully and is relatively inert, so you wont get a huge bloom of weed seedlings on top of it. On the veg patch I like to use the well-rotted compost from the bottom of our enormous heap. It doesn’t contain as much nutrients as animal manure, but it does provide some nutrition, and will quickly bulk up the soil. In the hot, Mediterranean garden we apply a layer of limestone chippings each spring, which don’t provide much in the way of nutrients for the soil, but are excellent for improving drainage and reflecting heat, meaning it is consistently the warmest part of the garden.

On amenity plantings, coarse bark chippings are often used as they breakdown much slower and will protect the soil from wear and compaction for a longer period before they need to be replaced. Mushroom compost is a popular option for veg growers. This is an animal manure which has been processed, then used for growing mushrooms. It is high in nutrients and excellent for the veg patch. I have also previously used recycled green waste on my allotment. You need a sharp eye to watch out for any household items which may have made it through the composting process but, apart from the teaspoons, it certainly helped to improve the soil structure. I have also used strulch, a mineralised composted straw. It takes a while to break down, and the minerals can affect the nutrient balance of the soil if used over a long period, but it does give a very even appearance, and is very light to move and spread.

Recently, I have become interested in the idea of using plants as ‘living mulches’. The use of green manures has gained momentum in recent years. In the winter, rather than leaving soils bare, or covering in manure, a secondary crop is sown, grown, then dug into the soil just prior to the next planting season. Legumes like beans, phacelia or clover are popular for increasing nitrogen, and mustard has become popular to act as a ‘soil sterilant’, reducing the incidence of pests and diseases. The climax of this idea must be the techniques advocated by Japanese horticultural researcher Masanobu Fukuoka in his book “The One-Straw Revolution”. In the book he describes his natural system of farming. Cereal crops such as rice, root crops like radish and vegetables such as squashes, are sown in mixed fields using clay pellets, through a living mulch layer of legumes like clover that feed the crop as it grows. When the field is harvested the waste straw is left in the field to compost where it grew, and the next crops are sown directly through it. The system tries to mimic natural systems as closely as possible and it was claimed that his farm achieved yields comparable to his neighbours with no inputs of fertiliser or any use of pesticides. As yet, I haven’t yet been able to initiate a ‘one-straw revolution’ system on my allotment beds, and I’m not entirely sure the allotment committee would look benevolently on such an experiment, but over the next few years I am hoping to see how I can use the principles of this system to inform my own growing, and hopefully find a way to make my plot as self-sustaining as possible.

Jack Frost pays a visit

Over the course of the past couple of weeks, Jack Frost has paid a couple of visits to the garden, decorating everything with a fine dusting of ice crystals. From the mild, dry and sunny days of early autumn, we have moved into a colder and wetter phase of the year. Last week we reached the milestone of the first frosty morning since the spring. 

The short, sharp, shock of a cold and frosty morning can initially be exciting and invigorating. This soon gives way as the cold begins to penetrate and chill the bodies extremities. I quickly realise that like the squirrel, busy collecting and storing his nuts for the winter, I must set about my tasks with urgency, if only to keep the blood flowing and my feet and fingers from frostbite. 

Frost will form on surfaces when they have been chilled below 0c. The water moisture in the air condenses on the surface and freezes to form ice crystals. The extent of this chilling, the moisture content of the air and the speed at which the moisture condenses all effect the eventual appearance of the frost. A ‘hoar frost’ occurs in a moist atmosphere when a surface has been quickly chilled to several degrees below freezing, and refers to the way everything appears to be coated with a thin layer of white hairs. 

This severe drop in temperature signals the end of the road for the tender, frost-sensitive plants. Their leaves will blacken and wither, quickly turning to a slimy mush when the frost lifts later in the day. It is time to move the summer annuals to the compost heap and lift the dahlia tubers so they can spend the winter somewhere slightly warmer.

For more tender plants like bananas, we have hopefully managed to pre-empt the arrival of the cold weather, and they are now wrapped up cosy inside layers of straw, hessian or fleece, gently slumbering until the return of the spring rouses them once again.

For some plants, this colder weather will bring out their best. For roots like carrots or parsnips, and brassicas like cabbage or Brussels sprouts, the cold weather will prompt them to turn the starch in their cells into sugar. The increased concentration of sugars in the plants fluids lowers their freezing point, acting like a simple ‘anti-freeze’ solution, but also greatly improving their flavour. 

Many of our native tree seeds need a period of cold weather followed by warmer temperature, known as stratification, to grow. This process of freezing and thawing breaks dormancy of the seed and kickstarts the process of germination.

Whilst it is damaging for some plants, a period of hard frost can be good for others. The cold may help to reduce populations of some fungi, bacteria, viruses and insects that need living material to continue their lifecycle.

The trees are now shedding their summer coat of leaves, and before long they will once again be bare. There is a unique beauty to the stark reality that this part of the year presents us with. It isn’t often that we have the opportunity to see the bare skeleton of the garden, stripped of all its summer decoration. It is a chance to see the structure of every tree and shrub. A chance to make plans, plant bulbs and order seeds to fill the bare spaces next year. The pace of work in the garden changes and I find I now have time to spend focused on just one area. I know that every hour I can spend working on the garden now, will repay itself tenfold next year, when I will once again be overwhelmed by the pace of spring and summer as they hurtle by.

If it were not for the cold days, I know that I would certainly not appreciate the warmer days as much when they finally do return.

The allure of the exotic

Whenever I go abroad I find myself fascinated with the local flora. I have lived all of my life in the UK so I can wander around my local area and am confident I can identify many of the native species, as well as a lot of the cultivated ones. 

When I go on holiday and find myself outside of my local patch it becomes much more complex. Even the most common of plants seems alien to me. I am caught in a mix of uncertainty, as I no longer have the confidence to identify what surrounds me, but also excitement at the prospect of learning a whole new vocabulary of plants. Usually by the second day I am wishing I had purchased a good identification guide before I came, and am rapidly burning through my data, furiously googling to see if I can get a rough idea what the strange plants that have been bamboozling me are.

Last weekend I arrived back in the UK from a week of visiting my wife’s family in Israel. In between trips to meet the relations we managed to ‘shoehorn’ a couple of botanical excursions in our itinerary to satisfy my plant curiosity. We visited the botanical gardens in Jerusalem, had a nosey around a local garden centre, paid a quick visit to the immaculately maintained, neo-classical, Bahai Gardens on Mount Carmel in Haifa, and had a tour of the wonderful Hula valley nature reserve, a vital site for migratory birds.

Touring the botanical gardens set my mind racing. I was like a kid in a sweet shop, in awe of the huge collections of plants from all over the world gathered there. It was peculiar to see plants we are so familiar with, like oaks, apples or pears grown as ‘exotics’ outside of their normal habitat. The reduced moisture and the intensity of the sun meant they were more wizened and gnarled, and didn’t quite look the same as we expect to see them when they are grown in the UK. The large collection of plants native to the region was impressive, but I was most impressed by plants such as the collection of Banksia, which are from Australia and were positively thriving in an environment similar to their native home range. 

The desire to grow plants beyond their native range seems inherent in almost all gardeners and we have been doing this for centuries. Many plant hunters such as George Forrest, Ernest Wilson or Robert Fortune who have been immortalised by their introductions, were paid a tiny fee in comparison to the huge risks they faced to bring back seeds of exotic plants from the far reaches of the world. It wasn’t until the invention of the ‘Wardian case’ (a small, portable greenhouse) in the middle of the 19th century, that there was even any guarantee of bringing back specimens alive. I suspect that those explorers were not driven by ideas of riches, fame and glory through their discoveries, but by an innate fascination with the world around them and an all-encompassing desire to know more about it.

I am just as guilty as them. Whilst I will not undertake stripping a whole valley of rare orchids just to stop my rivals discovering them, I often find myself collecting a small handful of seeds from any interesting plants I spot, then slipping them in my back pocket to try and grow them at home. 

They may prove to be successful. I have managed to grow ferula communis (a giant form of fennel) I collected from an abandoned army base in Malta, and echiums, which were collected from a front garden in Tenerife. When they thrive I am provided with a happy and lasting reminder of the fun I had on my holiday. If they don’t, then at least I have learnt a bit more about the plants of that region on my journey.


The story of the Halloween pumpkin

Halloween sees an unusual proliferation in the supermarkets. The space normally devoted to potatoes or apples becomes filled with the bright orange fruit of the pumpkin. The term pumpkin can often be used to refer to the large orange varieties of cucurbita pepo, popular for carving for lanterns at halloween. It is sometimes used to refer to other winter squash which can be varieties of cucurbita moschata, maxima, ficifolia, or even a hybrid, as squash are very promiscuous.
The tradition of carving lanterns for halloween does not originate in North America as some may claim, but has been a long-held tradition of the British Isles. Halloween as we know it (or All-Hallows-Eve) is the christianised form of the old Celtic festival of Samhain. This festival signified the end of the light part of the year, and our movement in to the dark half. This meant the divisions between the earthly world and the spirit world were at their most delicate, so people dressed as ghouls, lit bonfires and carved grotesque ‘jack-o-lanterns’ to scare away malevolent spirits. The lanterns would originally be carved from turnips to represent ‘Stingy Jack’.

Stingy Jack was a famous drunkard who was visited by the devil in search of his soul. Jack was no fool, and made one last request in return for his soul; a good drink. Jack and the devil drank heavily, but when it came to time to pay, Jack had no money so he suggested that the devil turned himself into a silver coin. Jack threw the coin in his pocket, next to a crucifix which prevented the devil from changing back. Jack said he would release the devil in return for ten years freedom, which the devil had to grant. Ten years passed and the devil returned. This time Jack convinced the devil that as his last request he would like an apple from the tree in his garden. Strangely, given Jack’s track record, the devil agreed, but no sooner was it up the tree than Jack surrounded it with crucifixes, stranding the devil in the tree. Jack bargained that he would let the devil down if he agreed that Jack would never be taken to hell, and the devil begrudgingly agreed. When Jack’s time came ( a bit early from all his drinking) he was barred entry from heaven for his lifetime of drinking, gambling and trickery. When he tried at the gates of hell he was barred too, so was condemned from that day onward, to walk the earth, between the planes of good and evil, with only an ember from the fires of hell inside a hollow turnip lantern to light his way. The pumpkin is a far easier lantern to carve than a turnip (believe me, as a child we had to make do with turnips), and it has since become adopted as the symbol of the festival. 

Although these pumpkins are technically ‘edible’, after years of selecting for bigger, rounder, more orange fruit with a larger cavity, the flavour and nutrition has unfortunately been bred out of these squash. They are now exclusively grown for their ornamental value. The pumpkin used to make the pumpkin pie beloved of Americans at Thanksgiving is actually more closely related to the butternut squash. These have a much higher sugar and nutrient content, and contain less water, so your pie will be dense and firm, rather than watery with a soggy bottom. I have grown lots of different varieties, but some of my favourite culinary squash for flavour are ‘Crown Prince’, ‘Kabocha’, ‘Buttercup’, ‘Marina di Chioggia’ and the unusual butternut ‘Barbara’. This variety originally comes from a South American strain. They grow prolifically in the UK and when they are ripe they are striped green, like a watermelon, with an even higher sugar content than the pale-brown types. If you have ever purchased the pre-prepared butternut squash, it will probably have come from one of these green butternuts as they are now favoured by the supermarkets due to their improved taste.

Pumpkins and squash are probably one of the most cosmopolitan of crops. They are thought to have first been cultivated in Mexico around 9000 years ago but have since moved all around the world and you are likely to find them growing in almost every country. The spiritual home of the pumpkin is still North America where there is a huge diversity of forms and shapes. Pumpkins were grown as one of the principle crops in the Iroquois ‘Three sisters’ system, alongside corn and beans. The corn provides a natural pole for the beans to climb up, the nitrogen-fixing roots of the beans provide fertility for the pumpkin and corn, and the pumpkin provides ground-cover to reduce the evaporation of water. It is a clever way to maximise the calorific product from an area of ground, but choosing the right varieties is essential, as many modern varieties have been bred to be more suited to growing in a monoculture. I have had a go at growing this way myself, with mixed results. Whilst none of the individual crops produced quite as much as I would normally expect when grown separately, the bed did overall produce a substantial amount compared to what I would have got if I only planted one of the crops. 

If you are growing squash in a more conventional system there are a few things to be aware of. Squash like fertile soils with plenty of organic matter as they need plenty of nutrition and water whilst growing. They need space, as if they are planted too densely, they will produce leaves to compete for light and fruit production will be delayed. Drought, excessive watering and temperature fluctuation will all cause flowers to abort and a poor ‘set’ of fruit. Typically the first eight buds that develop on a plant will all be male, and the first female flowers will only open around a week after the male flowers have started. The pollen needs to be transferred (by a bee or by hand) from the male to female flowers for a fruit to form. The fruit can take from 60 to 110 days to ripen, and its high sugar content makes it prone to attack from animals. Many growers lift the fruit slightly off the ground, so the sun can ripen all sides evenly. The growing season will often be cut short at the end of the year by mildew. Feeds high in phosphite can help to alleviate some symptoms, but it is almost the inevitable end for the plants. When harvesting the fruit always make sure to cut the vine, not the stalk of the squash, as this will reduce the chance of bacteria entering the fruit and causing rots in storage. The pumpkins need a few weeks curing in a warm sunny place so the skin starts to harden before they are placed into storage. Many squash actually experience an increase in the concentration of sugars in the flesh during storage as moisture is lost, and starch is converted to sugar. 

The growing of giant pumpkins has become something of a sport in recent years. This year Matthew Oliver of RHS Hyde hall managed to break the record for an outdoor grown pumpkin in the UK with a fruit that weighed in at a whopping 605Kg though this is still a little way from the world record of 1054kg held since 2014 by Beni Meier from Switzerland. Whilst these pumpkins are essentially inedible, the seeds can sell for huge prices to other growers who also want to grow a giant.

Squash are a versatile and diverse crop, that store well through the winter. With a bit of care and planning you can be enjoying them long into the New Year, and they needn’t be just for halloween.

Autumn leaves

One of the most spectacular moments of the gardening calendar has to be the arrival of the Autumn colour. The horizon that was once verdant and lush starts to reveal a natural tapestry of colour, hidden until now. 

The leaves were once packed with chlorophyll. This green pigment has been perfectly engineered to absorb energy from the sun and turn it into carbohydrates through the summer. A combination of the shorter days, and dropping temperatures signals to the tree the imminent approach of winter. Deciduous trees have adopted the survival strategy of winter dormancy. This means that like the gardener, the tree must now shift from producing, to storing. The production of chlorophyll in the leaf is reduced and the green colour slowly starts to ebb away, revealing the kaleidoscope of pigments hidden beneath. 

The colours that we see in the leaves are due to a range of chemicals present in the leaves. Carotenoids are the group of chemicals responsible for the yellow brown and orange colours. The red and purple hues come from a group of chemicals called anthrocyanins. These are both involved in protecting the leaves. They act like suncream, protecting the leaves from damage caused by the UV radiation of the sun. They can give the leaves a bitter taste, making them unpalatable to insects, and act like wood preservatives, preventing fungus and moulds from destroying the leaves. 

In the US it has become an annual obsession to visit the forests of New England to watch the colours as they start to develop. This pilgrimage to the woods has become know as ‘leaf peeping’ and the effect it has on tourism in the region has been estimated to be worth around 3 billion US dollars to the economy. It is not just the Americans who have made a hobby of visiting the woods. In Japan the habit of forest bathing, or shirin-yoku, is very popular. It is encouraged to spend time in mindful contemplation in the forest to experience the natural effect of stress reduction and relaxation it induces. The trees also give off volatile essential oils such as a-pinene and limonene that are thought to be anti-microbial and great for health. This desire to be in the great outdoors has sometimes been termed as biophillia, a love of live or living systems. It was made well-known by Ernest.O.Wilson in his 1984 book of the same name where he described ‘the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life’, and how these connections are fundamental to our sense of well-being. 

If you are looking to add colour to your garden in autumn there is a huge range of plants that take on vibrant colours at this time of year. The Spindle bush, euonymous alatus has to have some of the most dramatic colour and will often turn a vibrant hue of pink in the autumn. One of my own personal favourites for colour are the Japanese maples or acer palmatum. These small trees are ideal for domestic gardens, they appreciate a rich, moist soil and a bit of shelter. The variety ‘sengo-kaku’ has incredible colour, both when the leaves first emerge in spring, and when they start to fall in the autumn. For orange and copper tones I would choose a bush like the Saskatoon, or amelanchier lamarkii, which also has fantastic blooms in spring and tasty berries in summer or witch hazel, hamamelis which will fill the garden with scent on sunny winter days. If you are looking for yellows, one of the most stunning has to be the Maidenhair tree, or ginkgo biloba. Members of the dogwood family, or cornus, will often take on a mix of deep purple or red colours as they begin senescence. One of the most stunning trees for Autumn colour has to be liquidambar styraciflua. They are often too large for smaller gardens but as the season progresses they will start to show a huge range of colours right across the spectrum. If you are pushed for space in the borders, then Boston Ivy or parthenocissus tricuspidata will quickly cover a wall and provides one of the most stunning displays as they turn from green to flame-red.

Whilst autumn is a season that sees the end of the growing part of the year, it is a season that ends with the most incredible crescendo. If you brave the changeable weather and make time to take it in, bathing in its beauty, it will reward you tenfold.

The secret life of the compost heap – a tale of muck and magic

There is an easy way to spot a diehard gardener, just ask them about their compost heap. This often-forgotten corner is the true ‘engine room’ of the garden, providing the valuable organic matter that is the key to improving soil health and fertility and the eventual success of the garden.

The compost heap is the meeting point of myth and science. Whilst the effectiveness of burying cows horns full of quartz is yet to be proven, the worth of composting is well recognised. The process of recycling organic matter from the garden back to the soil is an age old process, but has been elevated to an art form in modern times with hundreds of accessories for the compost buff, from tumblers and kits to build your heap, to 100s of additives to speed up the process. However you choose to do it, the partial break down of green waste to humus for use in the garden is now universally recognised as an essential and worthwhile process. Advocates who encouraged the modern composting renaissance include Rudolph Steiner, the founder of the Biodynamic system of farming, and Lady Eve Balfour, an early proponent of Organic gardening and one of the founders of the Soil Foundation. Their interest in mimicking the natural process of the environment signalled a move away from the industrialisation of agriculture and the dependence on chemical fertilisers to promote plant health.

Building a compost heap can be as complex, or as simple you want to make it. The first ingredient is organic matter. This should be broken down into suitably sized pieces, whether that means chopping it up in a shredder, or with a spade or loppers. The smaller the pieces, the larger the surface area for the bacteria and fungi to act on and the quicker the breakdown will occur. Compost heaps work best with a mix of materials. We need materials that are rich in Carbon. These will tend to be brown, and are often quite dry like woody prunings, leaves or even cardboard. We also need materials that are rich in Nitrogen. These will tend to be more colourful (often green) and could include grass clippings, veg peelings or bruised and rotting windfall fruit. We also need oxygen and water to feed the bacteria and we have our ideal mix. It is better to have higher carbon than nitrogen levels in the heap (20:1 is often recommended) as a heap high in nitrogen can sometimes stagnate, and begin to produce more methane and ammonia. Few of us will have the ability to monitor our carbon to nitrogen levels quite so accurately, so we must assume that we should just alternately add a little bit of both carbon rich and nitrogen rich materials at a time to ‘feed’ the heap.

Inside the heap the processes start to turn our waste into the most valuable of garden commodities, compost. Small earthworms like ‘Brandlings’, ‘Red wigglers’ and the ‘European nightcrawler’, who all specialise on fresh detritus, will start to colonise the heap. They perform a large part of the process, breaking the waste into smaller pieces, massively increasing the surface area and combining the different substrates together. This huge surface area is then colonised by many different bacteria, fungi, moulds and yeasts that will continue the digestion process, releasing the nutrients locked in the materials. These processes would also happen if the materials were left where they fell in the garden, but the high concentrations present in a compost heap will increase the speed of breakdown, and reduce the chance of these organisms causing problems on plants in the borders. 

The plants (and weeds) that thrive in our gardens do so because they are better than others at isolating, and accumulating the elements our soils may be deficient in. These plants are often termed ‘dynamic accumulators’ of these nutrients. By harvesting them (weeding) then composting and returning them to the soil we can take advantage of the high concentrations they contain to help rebalance and improve our soil.

By composting locally and returning it to the soil we ‘close-the-loop’, saving tons of carbon needed to move it to large-scale, industrial composting sites, then move it back to the garden when we need it to mulch the borders. 

At the garden I care for, when the council started to charge for the removal of household green waste, many of the local gardeners started to resort to bonfires to dispose of their waste. Now barely a day goes by when the air in the village isn’t filled with acrid smoke as one of our neighbours lights a bonfire. This waste of organic matter is completely unnecessary, an environmental hazard, and highly anti-social.

As any gardener knows, good gardening starts with a healthy soil, and the easiest way to improve your soil health is by composting. 

How to make the most of all those apples

Apples are one of the crops I associate most with this time of year. Almost every garden will contain at least one tree, (and if not, it really should). For the biggest harvest, it’s best to have two different varieties that flower at similar times. This will give more successful pollination as some apple varieties are unable to pollinate themselves. In Hampstead Garden Suburb, near where I live in North London, every house had two fruit trees planted when they were built. A survey of the trees 100 years later, in 2009, revealed at least 45 different varieties still growing. This is just a small selection of the 2200 varieties held in the National collection at Brogdale. – and a drop in the ocean compared to the 6000 different varieties thought to have been grown through the years in the UK. 

The apple has come a long way from their wild relatives, Malus sieversii, who’s small fruit first attracted the attention of mankind in Central Asia over 7000 years ago. It has followed our spread around the globe and is now a grown across Asia, Europe and North America. It has put down deep roots, and is now part of many of our cultures and traditions. They have are celebrated through history, from the Roman goddess of the harvest, Pomona, to the creation story and the tree at the centre of the garden of Eden. 

Anyone who’s garden contains a mature apple tree will be familiar with the abundance of fruit that usually occurs around this time of year. The only trouble is, most apple trees will produce considerably more than most of us will be able to eat or store. So what are we to do with all those apples?

The garden I take care of is blessed with apples. The land was once part of an orchard many years ago and some still remain. We have 6 small Trees of various dessert varieties, and three grand old veterans whose gnarled old branches are heaving under the weight of their large ‘Bramley-esque’ fruit at this time of the year. 

Over the past few weeks I have been picking the apples as they ripened (five laundry baskets full this year) and last week they were sent off to the local press. For a small fee, the apples are prepared, squashed, pasteurised and bottled. I have just sampled some of this years product and I can confirm it was a great vintage.

The unsettled weather in spring meant that pollination wasn’t as good and the crop wasn’t as big as last year. The late summer sunshine helped to ripen and sweeten the apples though, and the finished product was excellent. Some trees do have a tendency to slip in to biennial fruiting, giving heavy crops on alternate years. Judicious thinning of the fruit in summer to just one or two per cluster will help the trees to produce good crops more consistently.

Unfortunately, not every one has access to a local press as we do, so projects are being set up around the UK to help people to deal with the glut of fruit in the autumn. Abundance –  is one charity that hopes to help people deal with their gluts. By getting communities together to collect fruit from under-utilised trees they hope to cut waste and reduce our dependence on imported fruit. It is thought we currently import around 90% of our fruit in the UK, so just harvesting what we already have can contribute to reducing the air miles of our food.

The Orchard Project is a charity, set up in order to create, restore and celebrate community orchards. They started in London but now have groups active across the UK. They offer training and support so local people can make the most of the harvest in their neighbourhoods. A quick glance at the map of my local area revealed a network of orchard spaces throughout the city. These can have a massive impact on the local environment, providing beautiful blossom, tasty fruit and strengthening the communities they help to support. Orchards for the benefit of the community is a fabulous idea. It helps to bond the small, tightly-knit communities that are able to unite at times such as the harvest to share a common interest and work toward a collective goal from which every member of the community benefits. Surely this is a vision of utopia.

Orchards don’t just provide food. Traditional orchards, with widely spaced trees of varying ages, are also great for the environment. They often comprise of several different ecosystems, such as woodland, hedgerow and meadow. This creates a vibrant mosaic of habitats which can be home to a huge range of bees, butterflies, birds, bats and beetles. They are vital for acting as a green corridor to connect together fragmented habitats within our landscapes. This type of orchard can be found in most areas of the UK, although the majority are in England. Over the past 10 years The Peoples Trust for Endangered Species has been working to map the remaining orchards in the UK. They identified over 35,000 sites in England and 7,000 in Wales. Their work revealed that around 90% of traditional orchards have been lost since the 1950’s. This is mainly from either neglect or development. 

I fondly remember spending my summers as a child camping in the orchards that surrounded my village, and in the Autumn snaffling a few of the fruit. The produce became like currency between the villagers, who exchanged their surpluses for the produce they wanted. These orchards have since been lost as the land was developed as housing. Whilst we can never turn back to clock, I would like to think that the orchards we plant today will provide plenty of fruit for our ancestors to go scrumping for in years to come, just as we did. 

To find an orchard near you visit their interactive map at –

How to log in to the ‘Wood Wide Web’

As we passed the autumnal equinox last week, and Michaelmas on Thursday, we are now deep into the rich and fruitful season of Autumn. The leaves are not quite taking on their most glamorous colours yet, but a few are starting to fall. The evenings are drawing in fast and the longer nights are noticeably cooler. Fallen apples and conkers decorate the paths and the air is filled with the rich scent of decay as we enter the dark half of the year. The plant kingdom is laying down its stores of summer carbohydrates in their roots, preparing to hunker down for the winter. Underground life is stirring. This is the time when the ‘flowers’ of the woodland start to bloom. Now is one of the best times of the year to go looking for mushrooms.

I don’t collect any mushrooms for culinary purposes. If you do it’s well worth taking an expert to guide you, and make sure your identification is 100% correct before risking cooking any. I have however grown mushrooms from a kit a few times. This year I collected the spores and have added them to a few rotten logs in the garden. I’m hoping I will be able to harvest oyster mushrooms of my own sometime soon.

My primary interest in foraging for fungi is to learn more about them. I want to be able to identify them better and know how they relate to the habitat in which we discover them. Many have specific requirements, only growing on wood in a particular life stage (from living, to dead, to near mush.) Many will be specific to one particular host plant or only occur in association with certain soil types. They are indicator of the health of the ecosystem and tell us just as much about our environment as the plants, animals or insects we see.

For all that we see going on above the ground, there is just as much at work beneath. Whilst the world of light is easily seen and tangible to us, the dark underworld of the soil and mushrooms can be easily overlooked. We only ever see their tiny fruiting bodies if they choose to make an appearance when the ideal environmental or climatic conditions allow. The giant redwoods of the west coast of the US are often thought of as the biggest organisms on the planet, but they are dwarfed by a leviathan of a mushroom. The giant body of a colony of armillaria mellea (honey fungus) is slowly eating it’s way through the Malheur National Forest in Oregon. It is thought to span 3.4 sq miles, and is possibly the largest single organism on the planet. The world of mushrooms and fungus plays an essential role of recycling nutrients in the environment. Without the approximately 1.5 million species of fungi that exist we would be without bread, beer or soy sauce. Millions would die from a lack of the antibiotics produced by fungi, and yet we still seem to be fearful of them. Perhaps it is their ominous sounding names such as the ‘Death Cap’ or the ‘Destroying Angel’. Maybe it is their association with malevolent imps of the forest, but we seem to push them to the edge of our world. 

The hyphae of the soil fungi form a mutually beneficial association with the roots of the plants that live there, called a mycorrhizae (from the Greek mykos – fungus, and riza – root.) This links every plant and fungus living in the ecosystem together. This huge network has been described as a ‘wood wide web’. Recent research has shown that this performs a beneficial function for both plants and fungi. The fungi are able to access the carbohydrates produced by the plants from a summer of photosynthesis. In turn the fungi provide the trees with essential phosphorus and nitrogen from the soil.

By using a special blend of carbon dioxide containing the carbon-13 isotope, researchers demonstrated trees utilised this network for mutually beneficial reallocation of resources. Young saplings, struggling in the shade of more established trees were supported by the matriarchs of the forest. Trees under attack from aphids used the network to warn their neighbours to raise their defences against the impending threat.

This starts to raise the question about if the traditional way we see the boundaries of an organism are really true. Should we start to recognise the forest as one single living, breathing and feeding organism, rather than a host of individuals, all competing for a niche in a laissez-faire, free-market system, as our current interpretation of evolutionary theory suggests we should. If so, how do we start to plug into this network. How can we start to add our own status updates? And how do we start to like the ‘posts’ from our friends and neighbours, the plants and fungi.

What if London became a National Park City?

What if?
Just Imagine. 

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend an event at the Southbank Centre which tried to address this question. The event brought together thinkers and activists from across the world of conservation, from the team behind the project to create a floating Lido in the Thames, to children beekeeping at school and a gardening fire fighter. They told us the real stories about how people across London are working towards this, and provided us all with the motivation to take action and to make it happen.

The UK is currently home to 15 National Parks which protect and conserve our diverse and beautiful landscapes. Around 40,000 people live within the boundaries of the National Parks, but they are thought to host more than 80 million visitors each year. They contribute more to the UK economy than the aerospace industry and yet they cost taxpayers less than 80p per year to maintain. 

London, on the other hand, is the largest city in the UK, it is home to 8.6 million people from a wide mix of different backgrounds and cultures. When most people think of cities they see the industrial sites, transport infrastructure and sprawling residential development, but London is different. Thanks to the philanthropy of our Victorian forefathers, this city has been built to include a dense mosaic of gardens, rivers, parks woods, meadows, lakes and allotments. In fact London is currently home to at least 8.3 million trees, 13,000 species of wildlife and recent surveys have revealed it is around 47% green space by area, making it one of the greenest cities in Europe. Together with the unique built environment, this makes London one of the most unusual landscapes in the UK, offering unique opportunities for both wildlife and human recreation.

There are millions of people across London who are working hard to protect and care for these vital green spaces every day. Using the principles of the National Parks model would unify these diverse organisations behind the single vision of ensuring everyone in the capital has access to high quality green spaces. 

To make London the world’s first National Park City would provide improvements to the mental and physical health of its residents. It would help to buffer against the impact of climate change and provide protection against environmental pollution. It would ensure the provision of space for children to play outside and access to recreational facilities for all. By making London a National Park city we could turn it into an even happier and healthier place both to live, and to visit.

The idea of establishing National Parks had been around for a while, but the United States were the first to legislate and Yellowstone National Park was designated in 1872, making it the first and oldest national park in the world. 

The National Parks movement didn’t gain momentum in the UK until the 1930’s. As the interest in using the countryside for leisure increased it began to cause friction between landowners and countryside users. Public movements such as the mass trespass of Kinder Scout prompted the formation of voluntary bodies to take up the cause of public access to the countryside and, in 1931, Lord Addison chaired a government committee that proposed a system of national reserves and nature sanctuaries. It wasn’t until 1947 however that a committee led by Sir Arthur Hobhouse proposed the establishment of 12 National Parks in the UK.

In 1949 the first National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed with support from all parties. This enabled the establishment of the first ten national parks during the 1950s, mostly on poor-quality agricultural upland. A lot of the land was still owned by individuals or private estates, but with help from public bodies (like the Crown) and charities (like the National Trust) who supported and encouraged access to everyone.

As a child I was lucky enough to live within driving distance of both the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks. I remember spending many happy hours rambling with my family through the picturesque landscapes. I am convinced that this access to the countryside as a child cultivated my own affinity for nature and probably lead to me choosing a job working outdoors when I grew older.

Since moving to London 11 years ago I have been able to continue working outside in some of the many diverse ‘pockets’ of green space that exist in-between the built-up environment. I have come to appreciate their unique nature and the value they have for the many people, as well as wildlife, that utilise them. In some ways the preservation of green space in the city, where it is under intense pressure, is far more important than the preservation of green space in the countryside, where it is abundant. The complex network of ecosystems sitting side-by-side creates an intricate mosaic of land use with an enormous number of ecosystem edges, where the biodiversity is at its most abundant.

To make London the worlds first National Park City would be a simple, and cost-effective step with the potential to push London forward as a world leader in environmental policy, making it a city where people and nature are better connected.

You can go to to pledge your support and find out how to help the campaign

Sun flowers

The fact that anything grows in our gardens at all, is due to three main elements – soil, water and sunshine. Without these necessities plants would struggle to gain a foothold. 

It is hard to alter the basic structure of our soil, but we can gradually improve it by adding organic matter. We can alter the amount of water in the garden by harvesting rainfall, storing and directing it to where it is needed. However, sunshine is a difficult commodity to replace. Commercial growers have developed light bulbs that can substitute for sunlight, but they will always be running at an energy deficit. Without the colossal nuclear reactor at the centre of the solar system, life on Earth simply would not exist.

Through millennia of evolution plants have developed the unique ability to capture the Sun’s energy through their own ‘solar panels’, and convert it to carbohydrate for later use. Most of the energy on the planet is in some way derived from the sun (apart from nuclear). As yet, apart from plants (and a few other organisms) nothing has evolved quite as efficient or useful a skill, so for the time being, we must rely on plants as our primary means of capturing solar energy. 

Sun is fundamental to the garden, dictating where plants will thrive or die, and conducting their circadian rhythms. Much is said about the influence of the moon on plants, but it is the Sun which is the denominating factor in the equation. The rhythms of the planet are fundamentally tied to the sun’s passage across the sky, waking in the morning with its arrival and sleeping at night when it disappears. In the temperate regions, our environments fluctuate according to the seasonal changes of the Sun’s angle. Conserving our energy during the dark months of the winter, and celebrating the abundance of warmth and light in the long days of spring and summer.

Heliotropism is the name given to the action of plants that turn to follow the sun. In Ancient Greece the movement of sunflowers was explained by the legend of Clytie and Helios. Clytie was a water nymph, who loved the sun god, Helios. Unfortunately Helios was besotted by another woman, but Clytie would watch, every day, as Helios raced his chariot across the sky. After nine days of watching him without food or drink, she became rooted to the spot and was transformed into a sunflower. Whilst sunflowers are growing, by altering concentrations of minerals in its tissues, the whole plant, leaves buds and all, will turn to track the Suns passage across the sky, ensuring it absorbs as much sunshine as possible. Once the flower buds have opened they will stop moving and remain facing east to maximise their absorption of heat, making them as attractive as possible to pollinating insects. 

This past week we have been blessed with a brief flourish of sunshine as summer returned and we basked in some of the hottest days of the year so far. In the South East, the heat wave broke on Thursday night with torrential thunderstorms causing travel chaos, but for a few days in the UK, we were enjoying temperatures higher than most of our favourite holiday destinations, so I am told. 

These last days of the summer have helped to ripen the apples and turned my green, outdoor tomatoes a deep red as the sunlight was transformed into sugar. The warm golden glow of the sun makes everything seem more positive, as it stimulates vitamin D production and the blues of winter seem a long way off. On those rare scorching days, I start to relish the cooler and shadier areas of the garden, not as difficult places to grow, but as a refuge from the heat. They will continue to look lush and fresh whilst the sun baked areas of the garden will start to look tired and thirsty in the heat of the day. 

I try to do my best to not complain about the weather, although I know it is one of the most British of pastimes. We love to tell everyone how we are too hot the moment the sun starts to shine, or bemoan the rain as soon as it starts falling, but we cannot have one without the other. Our green and pleasant land requires both sun and rain to keep it green and pleasant and if the sun shone every day, I probably wouldn’t appreciate it when it did.