Saturday, 28 June 2014

Build it and they will come

Probably not always true, at least when it comes to East London Stadiums and West Ham, but I'm talking about the garden here, and the thing with wildlife in the garden, it takes little more than piling some logs in the corner to give some bug or another a home. These are ideas from one garden I've been working on....

I think this is a dragonfly nymph - St Leonards Spring 2014 
A pond. Probably the ultimate in habitat creation. Deep central zones, shallow edges, water margins, crevices, basking stones, drinking water. The watering hole on an African plain brings together all forms of Wildlife, a pond emulates just that. Dragonflies, water boatmen, pond skaters, freshwater hoglice, newts and frogs all appear as if by magic, but its not – its nature in all its awesomeness moving in to use a resource.
Teaming with different species, its hard to take your eyes off it. Predators, prey, life, death, birth and development. Its all here, because there's water and all its benefits. Larger animals will visit too. Foxes, badgers and birds. Its no wonder its top of the list.

In this pond

Wildflower meadows. Another way to create a beautiful habitat. They have a low carbon footprint as all you need is a patch of ground and a bunch of seed. It can be a bit hit and miss with the germination, but when it works.... you get this. Humming with insects, overwhelmed with colour and movement. This meadow was given a structure beneath it to both protect and support from Rocky the dog. Last year it came up and was quickly flattened – not this time. Often these stands of flowers are the show stoppers of the gardens I create or tend. They are always busy with bees and other pollinators.

Using existing resources to create habitat is a common sense approach. This garden is full of trees. Reusing this resource as part of the infrastructure is definitely a permaculture principle. The logs go in as a retaining wall, and the gaps (inevitably there will be gaps) are backfilled with brush and twigs. We have created a wall that is a genuine one off, has cost little in materials, a carbon footprint of almost zero (wood from 10 Metres away), and a habitat for insects.

With the excessive amount of brush and logs, we not only have wood piles in every possible corner, but our first hugel mound. Basically wood of various sizes and types (make sure the wood you are using is not alliopathic, like black walnut) buried in a pit and mounded up over the surface, then buried with topsoil and compost. The wood breaks down over time, creating nutrition, mycellium and heat. It also soaks up water, keeping the mound moister in the Summer, and as its a mound, and higher than existing ground, it won't flood in the winter. It appears to be working already, and the expected optimum time (when the wood has sufficiently broken down) is probably 1 or 2 years from now. The spinach and lettuce are not bolting, despite a lack of watering and a hot Summer so far (Bolting is caused by stress, often lack of moisture or excessive heat).

So we can build to attract insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. We can even build to attract mycorrhizal funghi, and just like a good festival – they will come. It is however, good to understand what we are building, and why. It is great putting together habitat projects, creating microclimates and niches but it is also possible to create problems for ourselves. Collecting pots together, as I have done on the deck in my own garden does conserve moisture for the veggies. It also gives a good home for snails. Moist, cool and food on tap. It means a sweep most nights and the inevitable cull. The lip at the top of large tubs tend to house the most molluscs, but also check under pots, any trays or old pots you have lying around, and go out at night if you can to pick them off. Its necessary – theyll eat it all if you let em!

And the shack – it's happening. It's slow – and I keep changing my mind about stuff, but the shell is there. Once this is built, it'll be beers on the deck and banjos on the rocking chair. Me and Michelle can hide from children and students, and Scotty Garret, master and Commander of BADASS (Bohemia Area Dad's Association.) will be popping round to tinker with rocket stoves and talk permaculture. And just like a pond for habitat creation, a shack will create a habitat for me and mine.


Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Triumph and Disaster

If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same – If,  Rudyard Kipling

Its a beautiful passage in a beautiful poem, and it is never more apt than when wrestling with anything horticultural. The possibilities for disaster are endless, the triumph we are presented with is fortuitous in many ways and to believe your own hype is to set yourself up for an almighty fall.

I'm getting slightly obsessed with the ideas behind failure and success right now. Its a subject we can all identify with, and at this time, it appears to be more and more commonplace to label life's little ups and downs with excessive gusto and hysteria.

TV especially appears to be shoving the ideas of success and failure down our throats by attaching a competitive edge to lots of things that should be fun, exciting and anxiety free – see Master chef, Britain's best allotment (or whatever the hell its called), The X Factor. In fact it feels like I could go on forever – all formats that either make the participants look silly or attach anxiety and failure. Failure that is to be avoided at all cost, failure that is the end of the world (If you fail you're out). Judges sit and (funnily enough) judge. Success at any cost? That is what seems to be peddled. The questions we have to ask is success or failure by who's standards? And what does failure really mean? Its certainly not the end of the road.

And I know these programmes and the other stuff we are bombarded with are classed as entertainment, and maybe I've got to chill out a bit, but what a double whammy – taking a pastime that always existed for its own sake and sucking anything good from it by attaching negative formats. What's wrong with having a sing and a dance (badly) if it makes you happy without some po-faced judge telling you you're not good enough. What's the big deal if the cake you bake doesn't impress some TV personality? Who are they to judge? I mean really, most of them are just bullies. I try not to watch this stuff, Simon Cowell especially upsets me – mean and nasty, pushing the idea of kids lives being over if they don't impress (or more accurately, conform to a bland formula of success).  You might think I'm over egging this, and maybe I am, but its important in my opinion to not take this version of reality to our hearts. It promotes anxiety, and a 'not good enough, you've failed' attitude – its also very often unkind and inhumane. Rant over, but it pisses me off and always will.

Don't get me wrong, I love a bit of success, but failure arrives when we attempt the new stuff and challenge the status quo. Failure is glorious, laced with lessons, helping us to be better at what we do. To never fail, is to never learn, and while success is nice, like the man said – treat it as an imposter. Believing anything else can turn people into assholes!

This blog is becoming more and more,  a why to garden as apposed to how to. Its because I think its a powerful tool for reconnection, yes with the land, but just as importantly for human healing and development. The most experienced gardeners and growers will be able to tell you many stories of failure, and will still make mistakes. This is what makes them experienced. To take failure and use it to achieve success, to not fear failure and experimentation and see it as a tool for future success. Once you have worked that out you will never fail in the Simon Cowell sense ever again.

So I want to be the anti Simon Cowell! not particularly in bank balance, but certainly in spirit. It is never the end of the road, simply a blip in the ephemeral nature of life. Be nice, be supportive, chase the extraordinary - don't be Simon Cowell!

And its funny, my favourite people are the flawed, imperfect, self deprecating ones. Able to admit to their faults and accept themselves as they are. Rather that than someone who believes they have no flaws. Very dull.

Level heads are required.  Often, especially with growing annuals, you have one shot, maybe a few depending on how organised you are! Disasters can always happen, inclement weather, pests and disease. Good growing weather can fool you into believing you've got it sussed, only for the following year to kick you in the nuts. We have to assume that failure will happen, and legislate through insurances. Experience is a great ally in this respect. I will sow more than I need, plant in different locations, try different varieties, and plant and sow throughout he growing season - all ways of mitigating the effect of failure whilst still being able to learn from it. Its been a good year so far. We have had a Spring (which is a bonus the last few years). Mild and recently wet, enables germination, all over the garden we have lush growth. On the other side of the coin, slugs and snails are having a field day, black spot, a fungal disease is popping up on the roses and Asparagus beetle has had a very nice time this year.
Daisy with the first Strawberry of the year! 

Failure in the garden is as perennial as the trees. If you are practising a more natural style of gardening, you are accepting a degree of failure. No quick fix solutions here - a softer, more nuanced thinking is required, and failures more often than not present us with solutions (the problem is the solution) More traditionally there is a 'quick fix' available in forms of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, enabling a solution in a bottle. The problem with this is you aren't addressing the cause of the problem, instead unbalancing the natural systems already in place to deal with it, and the baby goes out with the bath water.

So nothing is as it seems in the moment. A failure can feel insurmountable, like you're on your own, as if no one ever did the same, but the truth is that both success and failure are the same thing, a coming together of many random elements, culminating in different outcomes. Experience, both in horticulture and life at large is the thing that enables us to recognise and understand. Triumph is nice, but we learn more from disaster, those little lessons that enrich us and our future adventures, and the sweetest of all? Triumph through disaster, the ultimate learning curve.

So it is a inherently human condition to fail, make mistakes, overlook the infinite trip hazards, and even more human to accept, move on and learn from those failures. It makes you a better person to realise you can't control it all. A gardener will have to cope with this conundrum on an almost daily basis.

The Cherry in the front, despite the praying, begging and love sent its way, went south pretty sharpish after being planted – my afformentioned 'edge' – replaced with Rosemary, some currants, and a fig, to be pruned hard. The Cherry on the other hand is in intensive care, throwing out a few new shoots so at least its stable and not critical. Lessons from this failure? The front is a great big wind tunnel, bringing great gusts charging up the street and treating anything in its way to a large dash of hostility, the open, south facing aspect bringing a great pendulum of year round weather – hot to cold, dry to wet. The soil also held within a concrete pit, not particularly deep or wide – perfect for a Fig. The Cherry simply didn't cope. Its successors, selected to deal with a bit more weather – look at the leaves of Rosemary – waxy and tough, as apposed to the soft growth of a cherry tree. I should have known – in fact I think I did know in my heart of hearts, but I wanted to see how it coped. Now it will go to its sheltered spot out back.

So my mistakes form the basis on how we move on, and my successes should present me with an informed satisfaction. Informed and treated with the caution it deserves. Just because one year we have a bumper crop of peas or potatoes, never believe you've got it sussed. Nature presents us with infentissimal possibilities – weather, pests, diseases and human interference. Without getting too zen on you, stage one, in my opinion is to be aware of the external influences – or observe with as little commentary in your mind as possible. Look and see, don't analyse – which paths does the dog take? what's in the air? What grows where? Where is dry/wet? This information guides us to understand the environment we are in. How many players there are in our space, what the land does. Only from there can we build. See, don't judge. Learn, don't capitulate. DON'T BE SIMON COWELL!