Review of ‘The Garden of Equal Delights’

Finally some good news!  Anni Kelsey’s new book, The Garden of Equal Delights, was published yesterday.

Picture

This is a book about how to be a forest gardener. It is not a ‘how to’ garden book. The emphasis is on being and becoming, rather than doing. Anni shows us that forest gardening is a different type of gardening from the horticultural norm; one which requires a different type of gardener. Her book shows how the garden and gardener can grow together in a process of co-creativity in which an abundant ecosystem emerges. The job of the forest gardener, suggests Anni, is largely one of learning to keep out of the way; to sit on ones hands. To watch, and wait, and learn from the garden about how it wants to grow. The gardener may then make gentle, informed interventions – a nudge here, a suggestion there – without being wedded to the outcome. But this isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds; it takes practice. By telling the story of her own garden, Anni shows us how she developed this practice.

The book first reminds us what a forest garden is. Anni explains how it is a different type of garden – a self-supporting ecosystem. The main chapters then suggest what kind of ‘tasks’ this type of garden requires. Anni gives some practical examples of observations from her own forest gardens, and the subsequent actions (or rather non-actions) that she took. From these, she unfurls a set of principles that can be used by other gardeners to reflect on their relationship with their gardens. These principles were developed through watching her own garden and listening to her internal dialogue with it. The work of the forest gardener, she suggests, shifts from traditional tasks of digging and weeding, to more observational ‘tasks’ of watching, waiting, and learning how the garden develops as an ecosystem. She acknowledges that watching and waiting can be uncomfortable, as the gardener gives up their enculturated urges to tidy or weed and lets the garden run rampant. The gardener allows this to happen. Their job is to watch carefully as an ecosystem slowly develops that no longer requires pest management, weeding, or added fertility. Only once the forest gardener begins to understand this ecosystem, and the many interactions occurring within it, can they begin to gently intervene. They may make introductions to increase biodiversity – and then stand back and watch rather than trying to control what happens next. This is a patient, absorbed quality of watching with no agenda other than noticing what is going on. Anni shows us how she evolved this gentle, watchful role in her own garden, and how she learned to delight in its complexity and abundance. Her development of the gardener’s role into one of appreciation and humility brought her to a transformational understanding of her place in the world, and perhaps our place in the world. Slowly, gently, the garden changed the gardener.

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Mucky work

There has been a pungent smell in the air of late as I’ve been walking alongside fields of pasture.  The farmers are clearly telling me that it is time to get mucky.  It is time to actually use some of the compost and manure that I spent last year preparing.  It is also gorgeous weather for getting out in the garden.  Rather too gorgeous for the time of year.  Whilst I’m enjoying it, I am supressing a sense of unease.  Spreading compost is one way to alleviate this.  It is good for me, in that the exercise and fresh air that it entails is good for managing anxiety.  And it is good for the garden, because it improves soil structure by adding compost, and keeps the soil covered by mulching with manure.  These are two of the most important things that you can do to make your garden more resilient to climate change, according to Kim Stoddart’s article The Extreme Gardener in the Autumn/Winter 2018 Garden Organic magazine.

green compost bag shrunk

Home made compost stored in bag

The first thing that I saw when I unfolded the top of the green canvas bag in which my homemade compost is stored was a purple crocus protruding out of the compost, in full flower.  The first job, then, was to find a more suitable home for the enterprising little corm.  I hope it may be happier in the Spring border, although I have to say, it was doing splendidly in its compost bag.

Home made compost

Home made compost

I picked out some of the twiggier material from my compost and used it to mulch my path at the back.  Then I shovelled compost into a trug and trotted round the garden, patting handfuls in place around my perennial edibles.  I am prioritising the perennials, as they need the sustenance and protection, and are the best bet for a climate change resilient garden says Kim Stoddart.  She explains that these plants get their roots right down into the subsoil to find water and nutrients, and have evolved to last longer and therefore have greater resilience.

Perennial edibles mulched with compost and manure, protected against cats

Perennial edibles mulched with compost and manure

Next, I delved into Bob Bin.  The manure was lovely and buttery, soft and malleable and teeming with worm life.  There was no smell (unlike the farmers’ pastures) and it was frankly a pleasure to work with.

Manure composted in Bob bin

Manure composted in Bob bin

I used it to mulch over the compost that I’d just spread, patting it down firmly. Sadly, this won’t discourage the blackbirds who love to dig in it for the worms, chucking clumps of manure out onto the surrounding paths. It doesn’t discourage cats either. As you will notice from the photos, I’m working on that one.

It was also a good opportunity to take stock of the garden.  I moved some garlic chives which had been a little bit jammed in last year.  I mulched them in, and hopefully they will reward me with big juicy clumps of garlicky leaves to munch.  More pungent smells.

Garlic chives mulched with compost and manure

Garlic chives mulched with compost and manure

Greenhouse – a year on

It was around this time last year that our new greenhouse arrived.  Now that we’ve come a full year’s cycle, I’ve been thinking about what’s worked and what hasn’t.  I wanted a greenhouse for two reasons: (i) to safely raise perennial and annual plants from seed (so I can be sure that no chemicals or pesticides have been used); and (ii) to provide an all year round productive space.

For the first half of the year, the greenhouse did a really good job of safely raising seedlings.  I managed to grow a good range of perennial plants, including sea beet, Caucasian spinach, good king henry, kale, garlic chives, wild rocket, and lovage.

Seedlings in greenhouse Summer 2018

Seedlings in greenhouse Summer 2018

I grew annuals including tomatoes, salad greens, kale, French marigolds, snapdragons, basil, parsley, and more.

Plants in greenhouse Summer 2018

Plants in greenhouse Summer 2018

I was determined to use peat-free compost.  Finding a good one isn’t easy, but I used Sylvagrow with added John Innes, and it performed well.  It isn’t available locally, so I had it delivered from an online supplier.  This obviously bumps up the cost quite a bit,  so I just used it for seed sowing and raising seedlings.  For my salad troughs, which require a lot more compost, I used veggie soil from a local supplier.  It is peat free and cheap, but isn’t actually a potting compost.

As the year went on, I started to encounter problems.  The first was the number of plastic compost bags which I ended up accruing.  I don’t throw them away as I prefer to reuse things rather than ‘landfill’ them (especially plastic).  But there is a limit to how many empty compost bags I can actually use.  So I need to find a growing medium that doesn’t proliferate plastic bags.  The only way that I can think of to do this is by making my own.

The second problem was that a load of compost fly arrived with the veggie soil.  Compost fly are not a nuisance for mature plants, but unfortunately their little grubs feast on seedling roots.  Once the compost fly arrived, the seedlings stopped growing.

A third problem, which is related to the relatively dark situation of the greenhouse as well as my ineptitude in keeping things too damp, was the arrival of powdery mildew.  This particularly liked the chard and kale baby leaves.

For this year, then, my objectives are to learn: (i) how to make my own greenhouse growing medium; (ii) how to manage pests in the greenhouse – specifically compost fly and powdery mildew.  The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted a problem here.  If I’m putting the compost fly and mildew back into the compost (erm – yes, I am), then my home-made compost will not be a pest free growing medium for the greenhouse.  I’ve already had a go at making potting medium from home made compost, leaf mould, sand, blood fish and bone, and garden soil.  I can see from the arrival of enthusiastic volunteer seedlings that I don’t kill the seeds in my compost.  I also found a slug under a pot.  That explains the vanishing remains of seedlings that were already struggling.

In summary, the problems that I face if I use my own growing medium include slugs, seeds, compost fly, and powdery mildew.

Things that I intend to try to address these problems are:-

  1. Turn my compost every month to heat it up and kill the seeds.  This is a pity, because I actually delight in ‘volunteers’ in the garden.  An alternative is to create the compost and pot it up, let the seedlings grow, and ‘hoe’ them off before sowing the stuff I actually intended to grow.    
  2. Check under pots for slugs regularly.  Put down something they might love to hide under, and check that regularly.  Put ‘bait’ in there, such as a large cabbage leaf.
  3. Grow the things that aren’t susceptible to powdery mildew, such as oriental greens.
  4. Don’t overwater in winter, don’t underwater in summer, and don’t water foliage.
  5. Clean greenhouse and pots thoroughly to remove mould spores.
  6. Try biological control for compost fly, including carnivorous plants.
  7. Try sowing seed into leaf mould (do compost fly lay eggs in leaf mould?)

I’m learning the hard way that a greenhouse is a micro-environment which is more susceptible to pests and diseases, as it is a closed system rather than an open eco-system.  There are  fewer natural predators, and the air and sun can’t get at the plants freely.  Trying to manage without commercial potting compost, and particularly without peat-free compost, makes a difficult task even more tricky.  But that is no reason not to try.

Comfrey, the plant miner

“Once you’ve got it in your garden, you’ll always have it.”  So said the grower who gave me my first comfrey plant, nearly a decade ago, from her own garden.  I planted it anyway, possibly irresponsibly, in a corner of the rented garden which provided the first home for my edible growing.  In due course, we moved away taking my precious compost with us, neatly bagged up, to start our new compost heap.  Sadly, the comfrey  was forgotten in the general chaos of moving.  All was not lost however.  We are good friends with the neighbours of that property, who had taken the opportunity to take a cutting before the property was reoccupied, which they then established in their own garden.  When I bemoaned my lack of foresight in leaving the comfrey behind, they brought a carrier bag of the stuff, taken from their own garden.  It soon took root, and since then, I’ve potted up seedlings from my own garden to pass onto other friends.  This is a plant of great generosity that can be passed on, and on.

It has taken a while to find the right home for my comfrey, but for now it is fighting it out with the raspberries against the back wall.  It gets sun there, so it can make beautiful purple flowers which bees love so much.

Comfrey first emerging

Comfrey first emerging

This was its first emergence after being planted in that position.  It grew and flowered, and I harvested the leaves which I made into a very smelly comfrey tea (by adding them to water and waiting 2-3 weeks).  Undaunted, it grew on again.

Comfrey second growth of the year

Comfrey second growth of the year

I harvested another fat crop of leaves which I simply layered directly into the compost heap at turning time.

This generous, forgiving plant is one of the great plant miners, its deep roots tapping mineral resources and bringing them up into its floppy, hairy leaves.  According to Garden Organic, it contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium which are essential for plants.  This ability to mine resources from the surrounding rocks and stones (that’s magic – isn’t it?) and deposit them in its leaves can help me to improve my soil’s fertility.

I hope I do always have it in my garden.  I just hope my ex-landlords feel the same.

Groundings 2 – Leaf mould

I’ve been trying to make leaf mould for years.  I used to shove the leaves into black plastic sacks and punch holes in the bags.   A year or two later, I opened the bag hopefully, and found … leaves.  Only one of my leaf bags actually turned into leaf mould.  This was disappointing, because the one thing that we have literally bags of is leaves.

Leafy lawn

Leafy lawn

Our garden sits beneath a retaining wall, and on top of that are mature trees:

Mature beech trees above back garden

Mature beech trees above back garden

So we have a plentiful soil improvement resource right on our back doorstep.  Where the leaves fall on the beds, I let them be.  Perfect mulch, nature’s own way.  Where they fall on the ‘path’ at the back, they are also allowed to stay.  They break down slowly, providing a walking surface over the winter, just like a woodland path.  The leaves on the lawn and on the paving get swept into piles and then sucked and munched with the leaf vacuum.  Sweeping first means the vacuuming takes no time, and uses less electricity.  Munched leaves break down much more easily, especially as our leaves are mostly beech which breaks down very slowly.

The leaf mould breakthrough came when we made a proper bin (in the middle-front of the top picture).  It is ridiculously simple – just some wire mesh in a circle, held up by garden canes and fastened with wire.  We built this bin a year or two ago, and this year we dug out three good-sized compost bags of lovely crumbly leaf mould.  (I never throw away a compost bag.  You would not believe how many compost bags I have.)   Having emptied the bin, I started filling it again.

Leaf mould makes a great peat substitute for homemade compost, which I’ve been making for the first time this year.  I’ll write about this some other time.  I’ll also write about my other use for leaves in my third (yes, third) black dalek compost bin.  My brilliant neighbours also deposit bags of their leaves over the fence for me, and I am taking it as a personal challenge to use all the leaves from both gardens.  Leaf no waste.

Autumn un-tidy

A few musings as promised on the lack of Autumn ‘tidying’ (following Anni’s post).  In theory, I should be chopping down all these seed heads …

A corner of my front border

A corner of my front border

But looking at these more closely, I observe tiny cave-like dwellings in the marjoram …

pot marjoram seed heads

pot marjoram seed heads

And lurking inside those untidy purple toadflax seedheads are nutritious black seeds, which could be a perfect snack for something on a cold day …

toadflax seeds

toadflax seeds

Where I deadheaded them earlier this year, there are hollow stems – whole tower blocks where insects could be curling up ready for the winter …

hollow toadflax stems

hollow toadflax stems

The ‘lambs lettuce’ path below is full of bits of grass, self sown cranesbill, and strawberry plants that walked out of their pots …

lambs lettuce path

lambs lettuce path

I once tried to tidy up under this hedge, pulling up the grass and intending to put bark mulch underneath.  I hadn’t got very far before I noticed a movement.  On closer inspection, I saw a tiny newt which had been taking full advantage of the warm cover that the ‘mess’ of dried grass provided.  I picked it up to check that I hadn’t injured it, feeling pretty rotten that I’d disturbed it.  It sat, blinking, on my hand. I gave up the idea of tidying, and tucked the little creature back under the hedge. 

One permaculture principle is to ‘use edges and value the marginal‘:

“don’t think you are on the right track just because its a well-beaten path” 

My untidy path is not a well-beaten one, but this edgy ‘mess’ will be a haven for wildlife through the winter.  I can still step on it to get at the lambs lettuce for winter salads.  I’ll just need to give any lurking residents a bit of warning first.

Path Maintenance

This was a quick 45 minute job.  I picked a section of path  at the back to work on.  First I weeded it, which was really easy as they just lifted out of the mulch:

Path weeded shrunk

Then I moved aside the woody top layer, and dug out a trug full of the lovely dark brown crumbly wood mulch:

Mulch dug out boards put down shrunk

This left a bit of a hole, which I filled in with some rotten planks of wood that had  previously made a small raised bed.  I trampled it all down until it felt level (and safe!).  Meanwhile, the raspberries needed a haircut:

Overgrown raspberries shrunk

So I trimmed them back and tucked them into their wires, and put the woody cuttings down across the boards in the path.  They will die back and go brown over time:

Raspberries cut back onto path shrunk

Path maintenance.  Simple!

Paths that offer a yield

OK, so I’m a bit thrifty.  I don’t like shelling out hard-won cash on paving slabs, and I’m not keen on the environmental cost of them.  So I have evolved a rather unorthodox approach to ‘paths’.  Clearly, I do need to be able to access the raised beds.  My feet have to go somewhere.  So I had to come up with some sort of path covering solution.

There are two permaculture principles that I apply regularly to help me solve problems.  The first is ‘the problem is the solution’.  The second is to ‘keep everything in the system’.  I hate waste.  So when we had some trees cut back at the boundary of our property, we asked if we could keep the wood chips – keeping them in the system.  The tree surgeons left them in a pile, and we bagged them up and tipped them out onto our ‘path’ area in the back garden.  So far, so tidy.

path at back - good - shrunk

As time went by, of course, we found ourselves wading through our ‘paths’ in wellies in the wet winters.  The wood chips had turned into a beautiful growing medium.  And underneath the surface was a wonderful woody mulch which we can excavate and use on borders.  In the summer months when we need to access the beds, this mulch dries out and becomes perfectly useable as a path.  It also grows a few edible greens on the side.

path at back growing chard landcress sorrel - shrunk

I maintain the path by throwing down any of our woody cuttings – bits of trees,  shrubs, and even woody cabbage stalks.  These are things that don’t compost easily, but they do eventually break down on the path, after doing their job as a walking surface.  The problem – hard-to-compost ‘waste’ – becomes the solution.

back path - good - shrunk

The front path alongside the boundary hedge is something else again.  We started by putting down some leylandii trimmings from our friendly tree surgeon.  These came from a neighbour’s property, and the tree surgeons wheeled them to our property in our wheelie bin.  It is not a good idea to leave them in the bin too long, as they actually start to steam as they heat up.  We hurriedly laid the ‘path’.  This did its job as a path for a while.  After a surprisingly short space of time, things changed.  In the bed beside this path I had lambs lettuce.  This self-seeded prolifically into the leylandii trimmings, and seemed to rather like it there.  Before long, we had a bed of winter salad.  And in winter, of course, we don’t really need to use the path for access.

By spring and early summer, the lambs lettuce flowered, and we had a beautiful wildlife space …

front path overgrown 2 - shrunk

then it set seed …

Lambs lettuce seeding on front path

Lambs lettuce seeding on front path

Soon it had dried to a nice, walkable mulch.  All summer I had access down the side of the garden.

Lambs lettuce dried mulch

Lambs lettuce dried mulch

When the rains came again in early Autumn, the winter salads started to reappear, ready-mulched by last year’s growth.

Lambs lettuce seedlings

Lambs lettuce seedlings

A third permaculture principle is to ‘obtain a yield’.  These two path systems yield:

  • a walking surface for the time of the year when I need one;
  • a long-term compost system for woody, hard-to-compost trimmings;
  • a mulch that can be excavated when required, simply by removing the top layer;
  • a growing medium for additional edible greens, which can be weeded and eaten to reclaim the path.

Magic.  Just magic.

An ecology of mind: Gregory Bateson

ladybird larvae on blackcurrent June 2017

Sometimes it’s good to pause, and consider what makes us think the way we do.  I’ve recently been re-reading the anthropologist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an ecology of mind (1972) which I first read in 2002.  I remember that it had a significant impact on me at the time, and re-reading it has brought me to realise how much it has shaped my thinking.  Continue reading

Permaculture Magazine

The 25th Anniversary issue of Permaculture Magazine just arrived …

PM94 cover

… with my article on designing and planting an edible perennial polyculture:

PM article

The article explains how, inspired by Anni Kelsey’s book Edible Perennial Gardening, I started to garden in a slightly different way.  This blog has been recording my development of the garden since April this year when I wrote that article.

Permaculture Magazine looks at practical solutions for more sustainable ways of living, creating productive systems that respect ecology and people (who are, after all, part of an ecology).  This latest (and beautifully redesigned) issue also contains articles about market gardening, natural skincare, compassionate dairy farming, Universal Basic Income, Food Forests, solar power, vegan cheese-making, and using natural spaces for healing.

You can subscribe from the Permaculture Magazine website, which also has useful blog articles.  They sell some good books too!