2 February 2019
One of the main changes we’ve this year isn’t immediately obvious, but it’s made a huge difference: we stopped turning the soil over when weeding. It’s only the top hundred centimetres or so that gets disturbed, but that’s enough to damage the soil structure and all the micro-organisms that help get nutrients and moisture to the plants, and the disruption also brings weed seeds to the surface. Those weed seeds germinate once they’re exposed to the light, and the weed cycle starts all over again.
So we’ve been experimenting with a ‘no-dig’ method for looking after the gardens (apart from the wild flower bed by the car park – the poppies and cornflowers grow best in newly-disturbed soil, so we do dig that bed over). We’ve been mulching (covering) the beds with leaf mould or the compost we make in the work area round the back of the gardens, which keeps light from any weeds, and stops them growing. When seeds do blow in from the surrounding gardens and hedges, they do germinate but the weeds are so much easier to remove when the roots are just in the mulch, and not going right down into the soil. We can either just scrape the side of a trowel along the earth to remove seedlings, or slip the point of a trowel under the plant’s growing point (the centre of the plant, where all the stems or leaves come out from at ground level) and lever the top of the plant out – it doesn’t take long to do this for each individual plant, as there are comparatively few in the undisturbed ground.
Looking at the records we keep, I see that in 2017 we spent 48 man-hours weeding; that’s a lot of volunteer time. This year, we spent 17 hours.
We do tend to leave weed seedlings that germinate in autumn, as they help to cover the soil and protect it from heavy rain that drains away nutrients, and from wind that erodes it. It’s a belt and braces approach – the main protection against rain and wind is the compost or leaf mould we put on top of any bare soil, but the plants help, too. And many of those plants are ones we actually want, like Californian poppies, red deadnettles, echiums, cornflowers and so on. If we have plenty of self-sown bee magnets, we can always remove them later if we want to put something else there, and if they’re in the right place, it’s less work and less expense for us!
Another benefit of all the compost and leaf mould mulches is that they get drawn down into the soil by all the worms there now, which increase soil organic matter, and help it to hold more moisture – something that was really useful last summer, when we had five months of exceptional heat and drought. So we’re really grateful to everyone who helped us collect record amounts of leaves this year, which will be usable leaf mould in a year or so. Thank you!