Author Archives: foe

Earthworms!

Earthworms!

15 March 2019

 Following on from the last post – it’s still been too cold for the children to sow any seeds, so when they wanted to come and help this week, we decided to go on an earthworm hunt. Over the last couple of years we’ve gradually increased the amount of organic matter in the soil by mulching (covering) it with layers of compost, when available, and leaf mould. The idea was to help the soil hold water better – very necessary last year in that long drought – and to help increase the many microoganisms that help make nutrients available to plants, and generally do a lot of our work for us. We thought it would also have increased the number of earthworms in the preschool bed, making it very likely they’d find some.

So last Monday, we again had two children helping to push a spade down into the bed, then pull backwards (with a little help from an adult holding the handle), so that a lump of earth rose out of the ground on the spade, and split slightly open to reveal a few wriggling earthworms inside it. Then we lowered it to the ground, and they dived in to find them, the bravest of them picking them up, the rest enjoying watching one on my hand. And once again, I’d thought they’d enjoy the digging and rifling through the soil, but I had no idea how entranced they’d be, just with the lump of ground rising up on the spade – there’s nothing like gardening with three-year-olds who’re seeing these everyday things for the first time, for making you see them as wonderful, too.

And then they just wanted to dig until it was time to go back to the pavilion; some of them dug the earth along the edge of their bed, while a couple of others took turns to throw leaf mould from the trug onto the ground, which will help us repeat the cycle all over again.

In theory, we don’t dig the ground in the gardens, as it’s much better not to keep breaking up all the mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria under the surface; but this an exception that’s really worth making, just to watch the children’s delight in their gardening.

Preschool helpers

11 March 2019

Last week we had the pleasure of gardening with a few of the children from Mentmore Road Under-5s, who meet in the pavilion on Mentmore Road playing fields. They’ve joined us ever since we started gardening at the Memorial Gardens, usually sowing things like nasturtiums, peas and carrots, and coming down to see how they’re growing. Eating peas straight off the plant was one of the favourite activities last year!

This year, they were keen to help us back in early February, while it was still cold, too cold to sow anything. So we needed to find things for them to enjoy doing – and the obvious one was to help us get the ground ready for their peas and carrots. Instead of some of the usual Friends of the Earth volunteers clearing away self-sown plants that were in the way, we let the children do it – you can have two preschoolers pushing the fork into the ground next to one of the purple toadflax plants there, then (with a little help from one of the gardeners holding the handle), they can lever the whole plant and root ball up out of the ground. I thought they’d enjoy doing it; I never guessed how entranced they’d be to see it come of the ground, and to look at all the roots they don’t usually see. Some of the other children dug a hole in the next bed, then we all carefully lifted the uprooted plant across, placed it in the hole, and ‘put it to bed’ by filling the gaps with soil and pressing them down with a trowel (gently!). Then we moved another couple of purple toadflaxes to make a group, which gave everyone a turn at whatever they wanted to do.

And then, of course, the bit the children really, really love – the plants needed watering in! From long experience now, we use four child-sized watering cans, half-filled – that’s an amount they can manage without spilling the water over their feet, and taking turns isn’t so bad as your turn comes round again pretty quickly. When I go over to the tap to refill our ten-litre container, Some of the children like following me over to have a look around – I love seeing the gardens through their eyes, they take pleasure in the most mundane tasks. They’re a real inspiration.

More on peat

07 March 2019

A couple of years ago we discussed why we don’t use peat.

At this time of year, when gardeners are going out to buy compost to start sowing seeds and repotting plants, could we make a direct appeal to buy peat-free compost?

We do try not to bang on about the environmental principles that underlie what we do at the Memorial Gardens, but I’d like to make an exception this time, because climate change is accelerating much faster than we thought it would a couple of years ago, and we have to reduce carbon emissions urgently in the light of the latest evidence on climate change.

When I wrote that first post, the situation was bad, but there was a lot of hope that if we could limit our greenhouse gas emissions, we could stop the earth’s temperature rising uncontrollably. In the last two years the situation has got much worse, much faster than we expected. When peat is dug up to make cheap multipurpose compost, very large amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere, and we just can’t afford to keep doing it. Peat-free composts have improved tremendously over the last few years, and they’re being stocked much more widely; with bulk-buying, the price has got much closer to the price of ordinary (peat-based) multipurpose compost, which is cheaper to produce.

We’ve rung round local suppliers to find prices for ordinary (= peat-based) and peat-free multipurpose composts, and apart from the most heavily discounted multibuys, the difference in price for three 50-litre bags or equivalent would  only be the same as a couple of cups of coffee. Wickes has New Horizon peat-free at £4 for a 50-litre bag, which is cheaper than peat-based multipurpose compost at most of the local suppliers. If you prefer the Sylvagrow range, they’re stocked locally by Potash Nursery, and others are being introduced all the time.

Edited on 8th March: we’ve rung round a number of local suppliers, and found that most of them are stocking good, reliable peat-free compost – Sylvagrow, Westland’s New Horizon,  or equivalent. The price is generally a little more than peat-based multipurpose composts, but the gap is much closer than it used to be, and it really is only a little more expensive now. Locally, suppliers (in alphabetical order) include Dobbies, Frosts, Homebase, Leighton Buzzard Garden Centre, Potash Nursery and Wickes; and Ascott House tell us that later in the year they’ll probably have whichever peat-free compost they’re using this year for sale in the car park, along with plants they’ve potted up in it – I think they’re the only local supplier of plants grown in peat-free compost at the moment. If anyone cares to add to the list, add a comment or email me as usual!

 

 

Less weeding!

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!

There But Not There

09 November 2018

Leighton-Linslade Town Council is supporting the ‘There But Not There’ project by the charity ‘Remembered’, by installing perspex silhouettes of those who died in World War I, in order to educate all generations about why they made the ultimate sacrifice and to raise very substantial funds to help heal those suffering from the hidden wounds of war.  One of those figures was with us while we tidied the gardens today in preparation for Sunday’s service:

Much commented on and appreciated by the many people who visit the war memorial around this time.

Update on bedding plants

07 November 2018  

Last year, we wrote about the problems of finding, growing and  using bedding plants, and were a bit dismissive of the ‘Blue Bedder’ echiums we’d tried growing; they were very slow to get going in the first place, took a lot of coaxing to establish when we’d planted them out in the gardens, and grew very straggly. True, once there were a few flowers it was clear they were real bee magnets, but what with the very cold weather at sowing time in March and April, and the drought, we didn’t plant them again this year and forgot about them completely.

Until this last month, that is, when I noticed that we had more of them than we’d had all last year, and after the couple of half-days’ rain we had in early October, they’ve been flowering well and attracting a lot of bees on warmer days. The clear blue flowers are very welcome amongst all the dying-off perennials – they’re small flowers and don’t look out of place, just cheerful as the colder weather sets in.

They must be self-sown, as they’re growing mainly around the places the preschool children planted them in last year; those plants died off in the autumn, so it’s unlikely these hardy annuals have suddenly come back after nearly a year. Definitely one to try again next year, probably just sowing direct rather than raising under cover and then transplanting.

Here’s another one that’s appeared in my front garden in Mardle Road, just behind the gardens, together with some white deadnettle that’s clearly had a new lease of life with the rain.

There’s quite a bit of this and the smaller red deadnettle in the beds at the Memorial Gardens, as they’re very attractive to bees, and flower and look good more or less all year. We just cut off spent flower stems, and a week or two later there are new green shoots, even now, in early November. A very useful and attractive pair of plants.

The gardens in early autumn

2 October 2018

We didn’t take as many photos as usual this year, but here’s one of the gardens a couple of weeks ago – still lots of interest as we go into October, quite a bit of colour, a lot of height, and many interesting seed heads that are attracting goldfinches and other birds already.

A long hot summer

02 October 2018

It’s nearly three months since we managed to post on this blog; I’m sorry for the long silence. This summer has really taxed us, with much more watering than usual both at the gardens and on our own allotments and the other gardens we look after. There’s been a knock-on effect too, as we couldn’t move any plants or try and establish new ones during the drought and unusual heat, so there’s been a backlog of work which we’re only just getting done. And now we’re running straight into the leaf-collecting season – though for the first batch we had help from the local preschool, who had a great time on Monday helping load leaves into bags (and run through them, and run around with those big-hand leaf collectors which a couple of the boys felt made them into mini Incredible Hulks).

Our original plan for this year was to consolidate the planting, and to try and reduce volunteer hours as we’d just be maintaining the gardens, rather than rescuing them from the invasive plants like white clover and self-heal which were choking the beds when we took over. This year, we said, we’ll just be able to do a bit of deadheading and move a couple of plants that would be happier in other places, and perhaps add a few more plants that we’ll have grown ourselves.

Well, along with the bit of deadheading we’ve had to do much more watering – we usually try to water as little as possible, partly so as not to waste a valuable resource, and partly because plants grown ‘hard’ (with all they need, but not overfed or overwatered) seem to thrive better. But we did end up watering many parts of the beds with a hose five times in the last five months, and using watering cans for specific plants that weren’t sufficiently established before the heatwave started. These include the five new roses, which need a proper soaking every week for the first year or so even in normal weather, to encourage their roots to get down into the soil; so we’ve given each of them a couple of cans of water every week. At least the thick mulch of leaf mould we put on in May has helped keep what moisture there is deep in the soil, and watering most of the gardens once a month is probably not too bad for this year.

We didn’t manage to sow many hardy annuals as the ground was just too dry and we’d have been watering them every couple of days, though we did raise a few tomato plants with the preschool (and the fruits are just beginning to ripen now). Their peas and carrots didn’t survive the heat, though, and we’re rethinking what we do in their bit of the garden – for a start, we’re adding more herbs and some lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) as they love the smells of rosemary, mint and fennel, and the softness of the lamb’s ears leaves.

At least with the combination of heat that stopped many weeds from germinating, and mulch that kept light away from those that were there, we haven’t needed to weed the beds since July, just before the In Bloom competition this year. We had a lovely sunny day for the judges’ visit, with the preschool children out in force demonstrating just how much they love watering anything and everything. The whole team came along, too, including our invaluable Duke of Edinburgh’s award student Miles, who’s helped us so much this year.

And in September we heard that Leighton Buzzard had been awarded 12 Golds, 2 Silver Gilts, and two ‘Best in the region’ awards (for Linslade Wood and for the Tactic youth project). The gardens are part of Mentmore Road park, which was one of the sites awarded a Gold – it’s good to know we’re all on the right track!

The other half of the wild flower bed

8 July 2018

An earlier post mentioned that we were trying to introduce more perennial and late-flowering UK native flowers into the bed nearest the car park. This involves a completely different form of wild flower management from what we need to do to keep the poppies coming back every year, and we’ve been asked a couple of times what we’re doing in that half of the bed – in particular, we’ve been asked if we’re growing a meadow.

Well, no; in a smallish, narrow bed, with half given over to cornfield annuals that like rich soil, we don’t think we’ve got room to grow a meadow that would prefer poorer soil (one of the best ways of establishing a new meadow is to remove the top layer of soil, and plant into the next layer down, which will have fewer nutrients in it). So we’ve left a number of the self-seeded cornfield annuals, particularly the oxeye daisies, and started moving plants from other beds into the spaces between them. For example, a few years ago the children from Mentmore Road Under-Fives sowed wild flower seeds in the second bed up from the memorial, and a couple of plants have succeeded so well that they’re crowding out many of the other plants we’d put in that bed; so we’ve tried transplanting the overgrown clumps of wild flowers into the top bed. The various types of scabious have been really successful, and so has the kidney vetch; however, we’re finding it harder to establish Jacob’s ladders and Welsh poppies there.

We’ve recently added Geranium sanguineum to extend the flowering season for bees – this is the pale pink variant ‘lancastriense’ that grows wild on sand dunes on the north-west coast, rather than the more common, magenta-coloured one, whose flowers don’t seem to be nearly as attractive to bees (which is a pity, as it would look great in that bed). The ‘lancastriense’ variant was featured on Gardener’s World a couple of years ago, with Carol Klein extolling its virtues while huddled up against the side of the dune where it was growing, on a very blustery day. The landscape here in the gardens is rather less dramatic! but as the plant grows well in gardens in Mardle Road, which runs behind the Memorial Gardens, so we’re hoping it’ll be equally successful in that top bed too.

In addition, we have a lot of black meddick and forget-me-nots forming an understorey that seems to be very attractive to insects – there’s a real ecosystem down there, for those with the flexibility to get down to look at it (and get back up again …). We had one musk mallow plant surviving in one of the middle beds, from several that were planted when the beds were first established; the survivor died after a year, too, but not before setting seed, which we sowed in a seed tray and left until this spring, when it germinated. We now have fifteen small plants, one or two of which will find their way into that end bed, to provide some structure and interest when the poppies die down, and some of the others will probably be added to some of South Beds Friends of the Earth’s other bee-friendly sites around Leighton, to keep the display going later into the year.

But at the moment, with this heatwave burning up quite a few of our flowers, and no rain for weeks, we’re not thinking of putting any more new plants in; we’ll get back to working on that bed once it’s had a good soaking!

Dead leaves

 7 July 2018

We’ve been asked a couple of times why there are so many dead leaves on the flower beds at the moment.

They’re there for two reasons; the first is that we’re using them as a mulch, to try and keep moisture in the soil, while adding more organic matter without overfeeding the beds. We recycle all the material we take off the beds as compost, which we add to the beds in autumn to increase soil organic matter, which in turn helps the soil retain more moisture, as well as feeding it. We don’t have any compost available yet, but we clearly needed to do something to make the most of whatever water we’re putting on the beds as it’s been so much hotter and drier than usual, and the heatwave started so early – we’d only just got used to the fact that the freezing wet winter and spring had finally given way to summer!

So even though we wouldn’t expect to be able to use leaves for a year or two after we’ve started a leaf mould bin, we did start rifling through our new bin in the work area behind the Memorial Gardens to see if enough leaves had rotted sufficiently to be put out on the beds to help keep in any moisture there is in the ground. We’d put quite a few new plants in, grown from seed or from cuttings, and we weren’t able to water them every day to establish them; this way we can water them just once or twice a week while they establish. We hope it doesn’t look too untidy! The mulch is making a real difference, everything looks much fresher than we’d expect in this heat and drought, and most plants are still growing on well. We’d still like a few good heavy showers, though!

And the second reason? It’s a great substitute for bare earth when you’re three years old and want to just dig something with a trowel. Last week when the children from the local preschool came over to help us water, we dug up some of the potatoes they’d planted before Easter and found that their second favourite activity (after watering) was digging with a trowel. Problem – there isn’t enough clear soil to let them dig. Solution – we filled a large flexible trug with leaf mould, put it next to the flower beds, and let them dig it out and put it on the earth around the plants, and let them get on with it. Result – happy children and some very well-mulched flower beds!