My Manifesto: Poor soil is Manna from Heaven

My Uncle is a botanist and a brilliant old-school gardener. When he saw the land we had bought he was incredulous: “You can’t grow anything on this!”

IMG_1983.JPGThe soil isn’t really soil at all – its mostly stone with a sandy loam in between the rocks and it varies greatly across the site – heavy ballast on top of the railway line and imported seams of clay that once held the water within the canal. The soil’s PH is 7.5-8 (alkaline) and it has virtually no nitrogen content at all, but, it seems to be ok in terms of magnesium and potassium.


Lets make no bones about it: despite it’s rural idyllic setting this site is an old industrial wasteland and a brown field. – This is exactly the type of place I wanted to garden.

Wildflowers and meadows are notoriously difficult to grow in gardens – they are highly specialized to grow in difficult, challenging environments – they don’t like nutrient-rich garden soil. If my garden was going to offer nectar and food resources and create habitats for wildlife then it needed to have native wildflower species. This rock and concrete rubble stripped of topsoil is an opportunity to garden those plants that normally will not be cultivated.

Orthodox gardeners long for rich friable loam and customary wisdom has it that you need to ‘improve’ your soil by digging and cultivating and adding to it in order to grow a beautiful garden. PANTS TO CONVENTION…Work with what you have got.


The reasons for this are twofold:

Topsoil is under threat. It can take about 1,000 years to make just a couple of centimetres. Our modern building and argicultural methods are abusing the topsoil of our planet. Over the last 150 years half of our planet’s topsoil has been lost. This erosion goes beyond the loss of fertile land, it has led to pollution, flooding, and the increased use of unsustainable fertilizers and herbicides on our land. If I was to “buy in” topsoil from somewhere else I would be depriving another area of land for my gratification. And what about all those gardeners who garden urban plots of rubble and waste? Or, the gardeners of new homes on brown field sites? Is it really sustainable to keep on bringing in soil from elsewhere into developments like this? Shouldn’t we be asking town planners and architects and designers to be thinking about the sustainability of the landscape around these buildings AS MUCH AS the buildings themselves?


Good Design makes a positive of the peculiarities and difficulties it doesn’t seek to quash them.First and foremost I am a garden designer and I seek the aesthetic, BUT, I don’t seek it over and above other considerations. For too long our “Chelsea” garden designers have put the visual above the ecological and the sustainable. A good designer should be doing both: not only is it possible it is VITAL if we are to have a future as a nation of gardeners.img_2485

So in my gardening revolution I would urge you all to rip out those herbaceous borders and ditch the manicured lawns… These are not the future…. Be groundbreaking…. Count your success in how many bees visit your garden and how many birds nest, rather than what specimens you grow and your “infinity pool”.


Ground cover

IMG_1955The meadow has its first flowers of 2016 and is beginning to come into being. Bugle, Ground Ivy and Dead Nettle are romping through: clinging on under the trees and overhanging the railway walls. Ground Ivy is particularly mesmerising at dusk/ low light levels…. It seems to have an ultraviolet glow about it . Perhaps this is a deliberate attraction for the bees (who see UV): certainly they flock to it; particularly the bumble bees. This morning there were all sorts of sizes and shapes and varieties: I counted at least 5 different varieties – but I am still not sure which ones they were.


Bumble on the Ground Ivy April 2016


Ground Ivy in Meadow April 2016

Ground Ivy (Glechoma Hederacea) along with Bugle (Ajuga Reptans) are such beautiful ground cover plants. They are both part of the mint and deadnettle family – having aromatic foliage and stems and the distinctive labia petals. When you look closely at it you can see the similarty to Mint, Staychs and Nepeta.

All are all easy to propagate from stem cuttings…. Though I prefer to divide and plant… And because they grow by sending out runners as soon as you have a few (as long as you have planted them in the right place) you will very quickly gain a carpet.





Both were here when we arrived at the Farm – clinging on to the remnants of the railway wall and growing underneath the Lombardy poplar…. But since I’ve sown and “managed” the meadow the ivy has spread through the grass and provides brilliant ground cover beneath the trees.

Conventionally these ground cover plants are grown in herbaceous borders where they sit, mope and look messy. These are native plants found in grassland, scrub and woodland clearings and (as with most plants) look their best (I think) when they are grown where they are meant to grow. So, I suggest growing it in those difficult areas of shade – under deciduous trees and over steep slopes, rockeries and retaining walls. Let it get into your lawn or ‘wilder area’ and then mow it away in the areas that you don’t want it…. After all what is better than the buzz of bees in springtime?