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.


I Garden

There is a famous essay in the world of economics, called ‘I Pencil.’ It is written from the viewpoint of the pencil. He describes how he came into being, and the many processes involved in his creation. It surmises that despite being a fairly simple item, there is a huge complexity in its creation, and no single person has the many skills that would be required to make a pencil from start to finish. Despite this, they are made in their thousands, and remain relatively cheap. This essay and its message have long been seen as an explanation and justification of how capitalism works.

Personally, I am not all that into ‘isms’. I think ideologies are near impossible to apply to the chaotic and random nature of ‘real life’, and the only ‘ism’ I really subscribe to is that of pragmatism. After recently re-reading this essay, I was struck by the many parallels it has with the creation of a garden. 

In the creation of a garden there are a huge number of people involved. For example, in the garden that I take care of the owners discussed with the designers how they would like the garden to look. They worked with a team to create plans for the garden. These plans needed a large team of contractors with a wide set of skills to execute. The materials needed be delivered to site by skilled HGV drivers, from materials merchants who had in turn sourced the raw materials from quarrymen, stone masons and saw mills. Even once all of the ‘hard’ elements were constructed, the garden still needed to be filled with plants. The chain involved in getting plants to market can be long one. From the plant collectors, who hunt down new and interesting plants to bring into cultivation. Plant breeders will select the best cultivars. Propagators then increase the stocks of a plant and pass the young plants on to growers who will carefully nurture them until they reach a saleable size and then finally they arrive at the retail nursery where they must be cared for until they are sold, and eventually are planted into the garden. When we look at a much simpler model, like my own back garden, where I act in multiple roles as client, designer and contractor, there is still a huge chain of people involved in the creation, distribution and sale of the many different materials nessecary to make the garden. 

So we come to my role, right at the end of the process. As the gardener, I am only involved in the final composition of the piece. I like to think of my role as the conductor of the Orchestra, ensuring the correct balance of all of the parts is achieved, and maintaining the dynamic equilibrium so that the correct elements occur at the right time, appearing and receding just as they are meant to. I have a great privilege and when I look around me at the garden I feel happy in the realisation that I am actually the person who gets to enjoy it probably more than anyone else. My role dictates that much of my time is spent actively at work within the garden, weeding, trimming and taking care of the plants; but this is only a small part of the whole, so when I look up from weeding the small patch I have focused on for the day, I am still able to see the whole garden with a fresh pair of eyes, as if seeing it for the first time. 

Considering the sheer complexity of the many processes involved in the making of a garden helps me to realise how any garden can never be the product of just one person, and to look out on it and lay claim what is happening would be both incredibly selfish and egotistical of myself. 

I did not do this, I am doing it, and thankfully, it will never be done.

A Seedy habit

  I have a confession. I have an addiction; to buying seeds. 

This time of year is the worst for a seed addict. With nothing much growing in the garden and only a few jobs requiring my attention when the weather permits, I find myself cooped up in the house with a fresh set of seed catalogues from my dealers to tempt me and I inevitably become stuck in the same cycle. 

You see, my ideas are much, much bigger than my plot. My curiosity for growing new plants is almost endless, so every item in those glossy pages catches hold of my interest, and I am unfortunately all too easily seduced into purchasing just another packet. 

Perhaps it is the excitement that got me hooked. Few jobs in the garden are charged with the same emotions as seed sowing. The anticipation I feel when I receive a new packet, the excitement as the seed is carefully sown, the joy as the first shoots appear, the nerves as they are carefully pricked out and weened to adulthood, then the pride you are filled with as they finally develop to maturity, fulfilling their potential and filling your garden with their bounty.

My collection is burgeoning. A tin dedicated to their storage was soon filled, so I upgraded to a shoe-box, which inevitably wasn’t enough and I now have a bag-for-life bursting full of potential life. Not content with just one variety of tomatoes, I find myself wanting to compare several to see which is my favourite. This would not ordinarily be a problem, but when it begins to extend to several varieties of peas, beans and radishes, I begin to wonder ‘where on earth will I sow them all?’ And ‘how will I find the time to take care of them?’ I have an allotment, a veg patch in the garden I take care of, and a few spots in my own minuscule back garden, but even these combined are still nowhere near big enough to grow everything I would like to. 

I have tried to give it up. I reason with myself that I now have more seeds than I will ever need. My collection is starting to rival a seed bank, but I still find it so hard to resist. I have tried saving seeds from my own plants, thus hopefully cutting out the charm of the salesperson and their innate ability to convince me that I need to grow this new tomato or unusual squash, but it has been to no avail. As soon as I hear that catalogue coming through the door I am once again salivating in anticipation, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, ready to get my fix.

Chopping wood

 There is an old Zen Buddhist saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” This has been around for millennia, but I have found myself returning to consider its meaning more regularly during the past few weeks. My recent change of job has opened up a whole world of wood chopping which I was almost ignorant to before. My shed is surrounded by large stacks of logs from trees which were felled a few years ago when the garden was redesigned. Along one side of my shed is a large log store split into two bays. The house has open fires and a log burner so I took it upon myself to ensure there was a plentiful supply of fuel to keep the place toasty during the cold winter months.

During the quieter months of winter and early spring, the processing of these big logs into firewood is a great way to keep active and stay warm. Every morning, after arriving at work, I take my axe to the log stack to limber up for the day by chopping a few logs. The oldest, driest wood was chopped first and moved to stores nearest the house for burning, while I set about the younger, fresher, and damper wood, which would need to be dried in the stores for at least a year before it would be ready to burn. As I began to chop away at the logs I could feel my confidence build, and although I had little previous experience using an axe, I quickly learnt the most efficient ways to split the timber. Before long the wood began to stack up, and just before Christmas I managed to completely fill the stores.

The process of splitting a log can be used as a form of meditation. There is a strong need to be present in the moment and focus entirely on the task. You feel the tension build in the arms, like a coiled spring, as the axe is raised, and need to focus completely on the log as the cold steel of the axe is brought crashing down if you are to successfully cleave it in two. To lose focus at any point would make the task tiring and inefficient and even more importantly dangerous. For the Zen monks that originally came up with this saying, the wood itself would have been essential for providing fuel for the temple. Despite their devotion to quiet, sitting meditation, it would also still be necessary for a monk to complete the seemingly mundane, but essential tasks of life, such as chopping wood and fetching water. I think that the saying implies that by going about our everyday activities with the same focussed state of mind as we would in a more traditional meditation, that our everyday lives can also be a source of enlightenment and are able to give us the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction that we all seek.

The arrival of Winter

Winter took a long time to arrive this year. A mild wet Autumn extended all the way through December and even in the first weeks of January a few lonely leaves still clung obstinately to the tips of the oak trees branches. 
Then one night in mid January it finally came. Jack Frost’s icy grip took hold and the plants finally began to slip into their winter slumber. The garden reached the low-tide point of the year. 
The sky is grey like lead, and it seems as though all the colour has been sucked out of the scene. Even the bright green laurel hedges appear pallid in the cold.

The summer frock of leaves has been lost and plants stand bare and skeletal. The hardiest take on a new dimension as their outlines are highlighted by a hoar frost. Even sound seems to have left the garden, as the chatter of birds dampens to an eerie silence, with only a few robins brave enough to venture out from the nest in their hi-vis jackets.

There is little to do with the borders when it is this cold. The herbaceous plants are dormant, and are best left now until growth starts again in the spring. The sodden lawn could easily be damaged if you stray from the solid footing of the path. So the best thing we can do is take stock. It’s a great time to make a note of any gaps and consider what could make the most of that space next season. It’s time to retire to the (relative) warmth of the shed to sharpen tools and make a wish list of plants for the spring.

It’s a great time to work with the trees. They give a natural shelter and their protection seems to add a couple of degrees in the winter. It’s the perfect time for apple pruning; reducing the sappy growth of last year back to the short, fat flowering buds, full of the promise of blossom. I also love thinning the stands of hazel coppice, creating natural stakes that will support the vigorous Spring growth. 

Any work in the garden needs to be vigorous to generate heat and keep the cold at bay. Once the extremities get cold it is almost impossible to warm them up again, so the only sensible policy is to keep the toes and fingers well wrapped with thick socks and gloves until they can be warmed by a fire. 

With so many plants reluctant to make a display, centre stage is occupied by only the hardiest of plants, a such as hellebores and snowdrops who will brave even the coldest weather to show their best. On the few bright, crisp days we are blessed with shrubs such as Witch Hazel, Viburnum, honeysuckles and Sarcococca are conspicuous by the heady aromas that fill the air around the as the thin sunlight begins to warm their branches. Anything that is prepared to flower in these short dark and cold days must do its best to attract what few insects are around to do the vital work of pollination. 

Other people’s tools

 One of the aspects that distinguishes humans from other animals is our widespread use of tools. Our lives are filled with them, and they facilitate our activities, enabling us to do our jobs as efficiently and effectively as possible. I have a job which uses its own particular set of tools, most of which relate to cutting something specific, but would be near useless for another task. The tool itself prescribes the exact method of how a task can be done by how it will be used.

For the past few weeks, I have been working in our small hazel coppice. The straight stems of hazel are ideal for plant stakes, so once all of the stems were cut I set about preparing them. The ideal tool for this task was my ‘bill hook’. As I worked through the pile of branches I’d created I marvelled at how beautifully efficient and well-designed this tool was, the curved blade skimming down the stem, deftly removing all the small side branches.

I remembered how it was given to me by a friend several years ago. We had worked together before he moved to Australia with his girlfriend. We hadn’t been in contact since then, but using the tool he’d given me invoked many memories of him. The way it made short work of the branches reminded me of his impressive work ethic and dedication and I felt that I should embody that same attitude as I worked with the gift he had given me. 

I was struck by the idea that some small residue of ourselves can be left in these objects. I wondered if the way I worked was influenced not only by my memories of my friend, but also possibly by the tool itself and the memory it held of everyone who had ever worked with it; how the leather handle had taken the form of the hands of all its previous users and how every nick and scrape along the blade told a tale of its past. 

I like to think that as I get older I will be able to bequeath some of my tools to my friends, colleagues and children. I hope as they use them they remember me, and think about how I might have set about the task, and through them, and my tools, I may achieve some peculiar form of immortality. 


Being a gardener

As long as I can remember I have been a gardener.

Life as a gardener is governed primarily by the ‘rhythms’ of nature. The waxing and waning of daylight dictates the length of the working day, the prevailing weather dictates both the tasks and the clothing necessary, and the changing of the seasons provides variation in both work and scenery, so one day is never the same as the last.

It is a job like no other. It requires a wide range of skills, from that of the botanist; identifying plants, the ecologist; deciding where they may grow, the designer; deciding what would look good with them, the builder; constructing the garden, the cleaner; maintaining the overall appearance, or the mechanic; repairing and maintaining tools, amongst many others. Every day throws up new challenges that require a good dose of adaptability, resourcefulness and patience to solve, and every day provides satisfaction in the completion of some minor task, but never the completion of the whole.

As a child I always loved to help my parents in the garden. Some of my earliest memories are planting bulbs in our garden. When we moved to a new house, while the garden was being constructed, I used leftover hedging and turf to construct a miniature garden, just for my toys. As I grew up I was able to help more; spreading manure in the veg garden and cutting the hedges and grass for pocket money. In the summer I would even cycle to the local strawberry farm to help pick berries to save money for my holidays.

It seemed a natural choice then, that when it came to choosing my career, I should be a gardener.

I started this blog as a way that I could record my thoughts about gardening, my garden, and being a gardener, as they occur to me. Hopefully you will be able to relate to them, maybe you will find some useful, but mostly I hope that you will find them interesting.