For the love of soil – reflections on gardening – by Alice Maxwell
For those of us blessed with a garden or allotment, the motto Stay Safe Stay Home has given us time to enjoy and nurture our plots – lawns across the country are being dug up to make way for flowers and vegetables, and Garden centres are swiftly running out of stock.
A gardener has the joy of observing an endless stream of miracles. I watch amazed as a tiny dry seed realises its potential and becomes a beautiful flower which, in turn, attracts insects galore to feed on its nectar and pollinate the flower.
I have wasted money on “bee friendly” flower seeds, which look delightful on the packet but generally fail to come up, so now I plant quantities of phacelia, which has a bright purple flower that bees adore. It grows anywhere and doesn’t mind a lack of sunlight, so is perfect for covering shady poor soils. It is also a green manure, but if using it as such it should be dug in before flowering.
I allow some of my vegetables to flower in order to provide a feast for both eye and bee alike. Brassica flowers are a lovely yellow, chicory left to its own devices grows enormous and is covered in blue flowers that last for weeks. The seeds can then be collected and/or left for the birds. The yellow mustard Mizuna, Rocket and ragged jack Kale happily self-seed.
I marvel how plants seem to have a will of their own. We recently planted a row of coriander, watered and nurtured it, and yet it steadfastly refused to come up. Meanwhile seedlings from last year’s coriander, which had seeded itself and had not had any special attention, are popping up all over the place.
We are told that plants need space and light, but in my leek patch the biggest leek happily defies the experts, growing with the least space and the least light, happily squeezed between a kale plant and a tulip.
Another mystery to me, is why some gardeners have great success with certain vegetables and not others. Beetroot for example simply refuses to grow for me and my mother finds the same. Perhaps it is the chemical make-up of the soil (though I have sandy soil and my mother has clay) – or is there some mysterious aspect of our personality that effects the development of our plants?
It is important to follow the lead of your garden, get to know what it likes, and concentrate on that rather than wasting time and money on nurturing plants that subsequently die, or at best do poorly. My garden suits calendula, borage, osteopurnam, Californian poppy and honesty create a striking blast of yellows, oranges, blues and purples.
Gardening requires a great deal of patience – all sorts of wee beasties are also eyeing up our plants as a potential meal. What could be nicer than a plate of garden peas – but this year the pea weevil got there first, leaving the tiny leaves with jagged edges resembling jigsaw pieces. Undefeated we are planting again – this time inside until the peas are strong enough to resist their predators.
Slugs, wire worm, carrot root-fly and cabbage white butterflies – to name but a few – are also on the look-out for a tasty meal, or a nice cabbage leaf on which to lay their eggs. We collect slugs at night and deposit them in the undergrowth across the river. The gardening books inform us that planting carrots in a tall pot will prevent carrot root fly as they only fly near the ground. However, last year the carrot root- flies ignored the text books and crunched their way through their lofty prey. Green in the Snow mustard leaf is supposed to prevent wire worm – we will wait and see!
Harvest time produces gluts, so we preserve vegetables by dehydration (apples, strawberries, kale) and by making saukerkraut with cabbage and carrots. Friends and neighbours are of course also recipients of abundant salad leaves, strawberries and brassicas.
We compost our kitchen materials, and add horse manure and seaweed to enhance the soil quality. Washing up water is thrown on the garden so as not to waste water, and we have two water butts collecting the rain.
As Wendell Berry says “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”