Dirt under your fingernails

I’ve been procrastinating about this latest blog post. I’ve been very busy and haven’t had the time to create the time to write. I first started to think about writing about six weeks ago when it was still cold and the evenings dark. The garden was only just waking up and my attempts at growing from seed depended on the kitchen floor acting as my greenhouse. I’ve had ideas about what I have wanted to write but nothing stuck. In the meantime summer has arrived.

Alliums and the Chelsea Flower Show were high on the list but still I procrastinated.

Alliums are such a useful and beautiful bulb. They come in all shapes and sizes and grow from early April to July. You can plant all sorts of colours and sizes and they are a source of nectar early in the year for bees attracted by the warmth of the sun on a chilly day.

I have a complicated relationship with the Chelsea Flower Show. Attracted by the brilliance of designers and fascinated by the artistic mind I buy a ticket most years. It was something I often did with my mum, chatting about what worked and what didn’t. The trouble is I am less enamoured of the profligacy and waste engendered by the show. Trees and stone flown in from far flung places. Plants either held back or grown on to be in flower for the five days of the show at the end of May raising expectations of what a garden can look like at this time of year when, in reality, the spring flowers are mostly over and the summer ones haven’t quite got going.

I have read a book in the last few weeks that has had a profound effect on me. It has made me consider the artificiality of my need for a manufactured flower garden. No weeds are allowed in my perfect idyll. The manicured lawn sets off the riot of the borders. I regard myself as environmentally conscious. I garden organically. I recycle as much as possible. I try to be mindful of the amount of water I use, I have a water butt in the garden and at the allotment. And yet I am controlling over nature to create a picture of beauty and abundance.

Wilding by Isabella Tree has made me joyful, angry, hopeful and despairing by turns. Her book about the re-wilding of the family’s arable farm in West Sussex is an emotional read. Or it was for me. What they have achieved since 2005, the year Olli was born, has been nothing short of miraculous. The turn around of ecosystems and endangered species and recovery of the land in such a short time is inspirational. It made me realise there is a way to heal our beleaguered landscape.

Not everyone feels the same way it seems. There has been opposition from people who believe that our victorian notion of how the countryside, the green and pleasant land, should not be besmirched by thorn thickets, scrubland, relaxed hedgerows, free roaming, grazing cattle and exmoor ponies. The book and the Knepp Project does not advocate for the whole of the country to be returned to it’s wild origins but many issues from climate change to the recovery of catastrophic species’ failure could be addressed if there were a corridor of wild land (truly wild land) across the country.

As a gardener I am aware that my lovely borders and plants are only as good as the soil they are planted in. The compost and manure I incorporate annually help with the structure of the soil and allow a myriad microscopic invertebrates to work their wonders in the deep, dark subterranea. Earth worms are the heroes of the cast of billions. The health of our soil is an indicator of the health of the land itself. Soil degradation is one of the most pressing problems facing our planet. More than 80% of the world’s farming land is ‘moderately or severely eroded’, with 75 billion tonnes of soil lost every year. Nationally the health of our soil is in a pretty poor state. Intensive farming using artificial fertilizers has stripped the soil of all its nutirents and beneficial micro-organisms. The pesticides have not only killed the baddies but the goodies too. Which causes a vicious circle of more pests because there are no natural predators to deal with them. The structure of the soil is non-existant.

I found the story of the recovery of the soil at Knepp from overworked and artificially fertilised to a rich, living, subterranean world that is the engine for the greater recovery of the land engaging and enraging by turns. This book addresses the crisis that many farms and farmers find themsleves in. And when the european farm subsidies stop in 2019 or 2020 or 2021 the story of Knepp may well be the saviour for farmers and the natural world in this country.  I urge you to read it.

Ps If you have a garden or veg plot give your soil a treat of an annual feed of organic compost or manure. Hold back from the box of artificial fertilizer. The soil will thank you and repay you in ways you couldn’t imagine. And we urbanites (and countryphiles) may not be wild but we can help make our gardens a haven for urban wildlife. And I might even try to let the odd weed into the garden.



2 thoughts on “Dirt under your fingernails”

  1. Most of us do not want to be reminded of how unnatural gardening is. We think of it as a way to bring nature closer to home, not realizing, or wanting to realize, that the more effort that goes into such endeavors, the more we deviate from nature. People think of gardens and good, and ‘development’ as bad, even though landscapes are part of development. We want to plant more trees in our cities, even though our city is naturally a chaparral, where there were naturally only a few trees. There are more trees in our unnatural city than there have been in the past many centuries!


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