Got the Blues

Oh Boy! May has come and the garden and countryside is full of blue. I stopped the car and photographed the bluebells in the hazel coppice and beech wood nearby.

What the photograph can’t capture is the serene stillness in woods like this…. The dense woodland completely encloses you: no noises from outside intrude…. A shriek of a disturbed blackbird… Then a return to stillness and a deep peace.

It isn’t just the silence that’s compelling; it’s the smell too. A light floral musk that mixes with the damp-moss smell of the wood.

I planted 3,000 bluebells (Hyacinthoides Non-Scripta) in my garden last November… Now they’ve come up… A lot of them look Spanish or hybridised. (Spanish bluebells are paler, do not droop or nod and have little scent). Our English bluebells are threatened by habitat destruction, illegal collection, the Muntjac deer and the rise of the Spanish Bluebell: an invasive species that hybridises easily with our native variety.

So it looks as though I am going to have to do a lot of digging 🙁

Still, there are lots of other blues in the garden to marvel at. The Camassia Leichtlinii in the Walnut meadow are out – putting on a wonderful show.

The Camassia is related to the Asparagus family and comes from the American prairies. Apparently it was a food source for many of the native peoples in the US and Canada. I was worried about putting it in the garden, thinking that the badgers/ squirrels/ deers might dig it up and eat it… But so far…. *Fingers crossed*.

Pentaglottis sempervirens, May 2016.

This is Alkanet – the other blue in the garden. This was here when we arrived at the farm, there is no point in trying to get rid of it, – I suspect that this is indigenous to this place… There is so much of it it’s probably a keystone species! I keep it in check by strim-ing it before it goes to seed… it’s a bit like Rosebay Willowherb… A beautiful thug.

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!”

The 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 the rural idyllic setting this site is an old polluted 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 specialised to grow in ‘stress’ 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 agricultural 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 fertilisers 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.

I am a 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.

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’.