Gardening is a political act… Don’t do it in a bubble.

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Garden,  April 2017

Henk Gerrritsen was a brilliant garden designer who never got to see his full potential. His gardens are about the battle between man and nature; a battle that man should enjoy losing. In his gardens he lets weeds takeover: Hogweed; Bindweed and Hemlock… because their beauty and their terrifying triphid-like features mesmerized him …I would have loved to meet him… A bold, brave man who was ahead of his time.

The other day I attended a gardening course taught by a well-known old skool gardening guru… I knew she wasn’t organic or eco… but nothing quite prepared me for the utter ignorance and exclusion of all things environmental. This was gardening in a bubble and, to my horror; the middle class and middle-aged audience were lapping it up. I felt as if I was in some sickening seventies time warp as a woman with a variegated Cornus that was suffering on the edge of a riverbank (that often flooded) was told to give it a “good feed…some meat and two veg… Nothing organic… Lots of nitrogen.”…My inner “swampy’ took up arms and wailed like a banshee demanding a justice my British politeness was unable to dispense.

So, I bunked off the rest of the class and walked back to the car through the churchyard….IMG_1528

Once my blood pressure was restored by the primroses I spent the rest of the journey home having imaginary out-quipping conversations.

Here’s a breakdown of my argument:

A Cornus is a dogwood – a native shrub that grows by riverbeds and in our hedgerows, it is often grown for its colourful stems. Firstly, I have a problem with variegation. Variegation is an anomaly in a plant, it normally occurs because the plant has genetically mutated and then the nursery trade grows it on as a cultivar…. Variegation immediately puts stress onto a plant as its leaves have less green chlorophyll to photosynthesize and get energy with. By keeping a variegated leaved plant you will always be fighting nature’s instinct to revert back AND you will have to feed it (AND it looks wrong). –What’s the point?

Nitrogen is needed by all plants in order to grow and thrive. It is very soluble, and so, when crop yield is low or an area of land has poor soil or has been flooded, it is normally the nitrogen that has gone from the soil. But what makes nitrogen “work” is the bacteria in the soil that process or “fix” atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, which plants need in order to grow. Fertilizers used by the agricultural and horticultural industries tend to be liquid feeds containing Nitrogen. The problem is that we try and make every bit of soil “work’ and we are all using too much fertilizer and nitrogen (often because we aren’t giving our bacteria a fighting chance in the soil to produce more)… Because the nitrogen is soluble, the excess is running off the land into our watercourses causing huge amounts of devastating pollution and contributing greatly to climate change.

Of course, one woman feeding or not feeding Growmore to her Cornus isn’t going to change the world, but, I am desperate that she and all the gardeners like her understand the consequences of what they are doing when they ’manage’ their land or “break” the ecosystem by intervention. We are all responsible for our own little plots in this great beautiful planet of ours…. And that means educating ourselves on what is within them and what reactions your actions will create…

I don’t pretend to have all the answers… or to be an eco-paragon of virtue. What I would like to do is make you raise your head from your herbaceous border and vegetable bed and look around you… what you do and how you do it has consequences… good and bad and indifferent… what if you could make your garden a living metaphor for how the earth could be if we respected it? How much more beautiful would it be then?

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Garden,  April 2017 (first year after completion)

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.

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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.

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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?

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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”.

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