Author Archives: foe

Ecosystems

9 June 2019

Looking around the gardens lately, we’ve realised that we’re finally getting close to our original aim of creating an ecosystem, where all the different elements in the garden work together. Apart from growing only bee-friendly plants, we’ve also been focusing on soil health, and the rest of the benefits seem to flow from that – far fewer weeds, less need to water, and plants that establish quickly and really thrive.

Rather than turning over the soil between plants with trowels to remove weeds, which damages soil structure, and just brings yet more weed seeds to the surface, we’ve been adding mulches of compost or leaf mould on top of the soil to keep light out and stop any weed seeds from germinating. The mulches also add soil organic matter, which improves soil structure and helps to make more nutrients available to plants, and they keep moisture in by slowing down evaporation.

We worked hard to remove the more invasive weeds like self-heal, white clover and sheep’s sorrel, and now it only takes a few minutes to weed the beds by scraping any weeds out – they come out easily from areas that have been mulched. Over the last year or so we’ve added back more of the native plants that thrive in the soil and light conditions here, particularly red and white deadnettles, foxgloves and Welsh poppies, all of which are real bee magnets.

We’ve also noticed far more insects and other invertebrates around the gardens this year, and many more different types, too.

Most of this doesn’t apply to the bed nearest the car park, which we need to dig over every year as we grow cornfield annuals there, which prefer to grow in newly-disturbed soil. We do add leaf mould to that bed, to improve soil structure without adding too much fertility. We’ve also added or left a number of perennial native plants there, like black medick, red clover, deadnettles, geranium sanguineum and devil’s bit scabious; and now that bed seems to be beginning to form its own separate ecosystem, too

 

Green ripples

6 June 2019

Over the years, we’ve been very happy to discover that we’ve helped in a small way to spread the idea of gardening for bees and wildlife, and of how it’s possible to create small gardens on unused patches of ground. One unintentional consequence of these gardens, and SBFoE’s other eighteen bee-friendly sites around the town, has been to inspire other people to include a few bee-friendly plants in their gardens.

Recent posts on the blog have described how we’ve been supplying our sister site outside Bossard House in West Street, opposite Leighton-Linslade In Bloom’s stunning drought garden, which inspired us to try a north-facing drought garden; we’ll be posting soon about the Pocket Park up next to the railway station, which the team has also been helping with (another shade garden, only this time there are three trees there as well which keep most of the rainfall off the ground below, and there’s only a few inches of soil there anyway, just to keep us on our horticultural toes).

And there’s a much smaller site inspired by this place – if you ever go to the Majestic wine warehouse on Leighton Road, next to St Christopher’s garage, look out for the two green ‘cycle park’ troughs outside the doors – they were also planted up by the team working here, and now the staff there look after them. A year ago they were just bare earth, unloved and unused; then some of the In Bloom volunteers gave the staff a few plants that had been left over from their plant stall in June 2018, and the staff asked one of the Memorial Gardens team for advice when they wanted to build on that gift. We were standing talking next to a display of craft gins, many of which referred to the ‘botanicals’ used to flavour them – and suddenly, we had a theme! So you’ll see rosemary, lavender, thyme, sage, mint, lemon balm and other bee-friendly plants that are sometimes used to flavour or colour gins. Originally the planters were sited on the corner of the building by the wide drive, which meant they got quite a bit of sunshine and the Mediterranean herbs thrived; now they’ve been moved to the doorway, they get a lot of light but not much sunshine. So we’re already looking out for shade- and bee-friendly gin botanical plants for them – any ideas would be welcome!

The current exception to the ‘botanicals’ theme is the acid-yellow nemesia, which is there just because we wanted to inject some colour into the planting and couldn’t resist these plants from local nursery Potash Plants – perhaps we were thinking of the ‘amnemesia’ that might follow over-indulgence!

 

Gardening with the children from the local preschool

27 May 2019

 We’ve started trying to meet up more often with the children from Mentmore Road Under-Fives, as we all enjoy it and they remember things better after a couple of weeks than after a month! – particularly when they’ve been sowing seeds. This year they sowed peas in post – getting the multipurpose compost into the pots was all part of the fun – and they’ve been out much more often to water them than we managed last year.

A couple of people who themselves run community gardens have asked for any advice about gardening with very young children. I wouldn’t say we’re experts! But from trial and error, we’ve found that watering is probably the very favourite activity, with digging around in earth or leaf mould a close runner-up.

For watering, we’ve learned a number of things that make it easier and more fun –using child-sized watering cans (ours were a couple of pounds each from the local Homebase) and having fewer cans than the number of children, it’s much easier to keep an eye on the children that way (water travels fast, and soaked feet / t-shirts / other children spoil the event for everyone). We only fill them half full, because that makes turns come round again faster, and there’s less water to be spilled. We’ve found that the newer children, the two- or three-year-olds are pretty good at waiting for just one or two other children to empty their cans before it’s their own turn. A couple of things that make a difference, that we’ve learned over time – 1) if the tap’s quite a way away, bring plenty of water over before the children arrive as it keeps one more adult in the mix for longer – we now take four ten-litre water containers round to the garden (because that’s what our wheelbarrow will hold comfortably) and fill them from the tap before the children arrive. Also, it’s much easier to fill tiny watering cans from one adult-sized watering can than directly from the containers.

Sometimes the children bring their own watering cans!

This last week we also thought of something for the children to do while waiting for their turn. We have a lot of leaf mould that we’ve gathered over the last couple of years, and store in our work area round the back; we bring in a compost-bag of this and decant some into a trug, then have the children sieve it into another trug. We can get four children round one trug comfortably, with room for adults to help too. Then when their friends have watered bits of the garden, they go along and put leaf mould out round the plants, like tucking in the plants under a blanket. This keeps the moisture in for longer, and keeps weeds down, too.

 

Mind, towards the end of the session we  let them just throw the leaf mould onto the flower beds, well away from the paths – most of it falls on the earth anyway, and any that doesn’t get shaken down pretty quickly. And they love it!

Supplying some of our sister sites – outside the Job Centre Plus offices in West St (2)

27 May 2019

The alkanet began to take over, and while it looks really pretty in early spring, with its fresh green leaves and brilliant blue flowers, it’s one of the favourite foods of the scarlet tiger moth, which shreds its leaves – very good from an environmental point of view, less so in terms of how it looks. The plant also suppresses many other plants, so we’ve gradually removed it to take somewhere more appropriate, to replace it with other wild flowers to keep the site looking good all year.

This spring we’ve also added more of these wild flowers, as well as a few non-native plants that work well in an area of naturalistic planting like this one, such as raspberries, to give some height and structure (and bees just love them!), purple toadflax, geranium macrorrhizum, Michaelmas daisies and bugle. All of these were propagated from plants that had become congested at the Memorial Gardens. We also donated some seedlings of Bowles’ Golden Grass from one of our gardens, via the Pocket Park by the station, another of our sister sites. In this case, it’s not so much a source of nectar and pollen for bees, as the kind of habitat some of them need for nesting, as several species nest in clumps of long grass, including that one.

  And so it continues – we’re now potting up some rudbeckia for a couple of months for autumn colour; we’ll plant it out in a couple of months when it’s developed a good root system, as that means we won’t have to spend so much volunteer time watering new plants to get them established.

And the last thing we’ve been able to share is some of our leaf mould, thanks to hours of work by the Memorial Gardens team and much-appreciated contributions of sacks of leaves from Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway and many other residents and gardeners. We now have enough for any of our bee-friendly sites around Leighton Buzzard that need it – generally, we don’t improve the soil at all in wild flower areas, but at sites like this one, we need to add organic matter without adding the fertility that comes with compost or manure. We make sure the ground’s wet, then just put the leaf mould on top (not digging it in even with a trowel, as that disrupts the soil structure), and it starts holding in moisture at once and keeping weeds down by shutting out the light they need to germinate. Then worms start pulling it into the ground, and doing the hard work for us!

What has been really nice for us has been the appreciation of members of staff, who said they’d enjoyed watching what we’ve been doing, and they really like it!

 

Supplying some of our sister sites – outside the Job Centre Plus offices in West St (1)

23 May 2019

When the current team took over managing the Memorial Gardens, we were quite daunted by the amount of empty space in the various beds. So we set to, sowing seeds, splitting plants up and growing them on, transplanting toadflax, foxgloves and other plants from our own gardens and allotments, and generally trying to populate the beds with bee-friendly plants. And now we’re actually running out of space! And we’re able to pass some plants on to some of our sister sites.

Most recently we’ve been working on the South Beds Friends of the Earth site outside the Job Centre Plus offices in Bossard House on West Street. It’s a difficult site, north facing with much of the site never seeing the sun; but the front is in full sun for much of the afternoon in late spring and summer, so we can’t use too many plants that like deep shade.

Job Centre Plus staff members with the South Beds Friends of the Earth members in June 2017

The team working there added a lot of manure to the site in May 2017 to improve the soil’s structure and its ability to hold moisture, so they could water less often. That still seems to be working well – a number of passers-by have commented on the ‘triffid’ in the centre, a magnificent stinking hellebore plant (a horrible name for a beautiful UK native plant), which has grown huge on the manure, and flowered magnificently. Last autumn we were able to add some Welsh poppies, water avens, foxgloves and meadow cranesbill and a beautiful St John’s Wort shrub which had outgrown its home, all spare plants from the Memorial Gardens.

 

 

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!