Tag Archives: mulching

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!

Black Gold

4th November 2017

This is the time of year when gardening programmes and magazines exhort us all to make leaf mould; and coincidentally, it’s the time of year when I find myself eyeing up all the piles of leaves along roads, in parks, on lawns and on pavements, and wish I had time and space to collect them all. It’s a lot of work in November, but all you have to do then is leave them for a year or two, and they turn into black gold – a free soil conditioner, seed compost, weed suppressant and reducer of hours spent watering in the summer.

Perhaps most importantly, it increases organic matter in the soil, which helps plants take up nutrients. We also use garden compost, but that adds nutrients too, which isn’t always what you need – sometimes it can make plants grow too lush, which makes them less resistant to wind, storms and drought; and many wild plants and Mediterranean herbs like lavender and rosemary prefer soil with fewer nutrients. But leaf mould adds plenty of organic matter, which increases the populations of invertebrates, fungi and microorganisms in the soil, which seems to have helped the plants in the Memorial Gardens establish quickly and thrive.

It also makes the beds look good – here’s part of the Mentmore Road Under-5’s bed that we were weeding and mulching this week, to tidy the gardens before the Remembrance Sunday service:

The next job will be to thin the forget-me-not seedlings – we want some of them, but we can’t keep them all or they’ll crowd out the snowdrops and grape hyacinths they’re growing through; once we’ve taken them out, we’ll add yet more leaf mould mulch. to keep those bulbs happy.

The forget-me-nots are really useful in the spring, when the bees emerge and need a lot of nectar – we always think there won’t be enough flowers out, but with the self-sown ones, there always are. We add thick layers of leaf mould in the spring, to block light and stop weeds from germinating – though we do try avoid areas where we want forget-me-nots or California poppies to seed themselves around.

We also find the soil then soaks up water like a sponge, and holds it – you can see the difference between areas that have had leaf mould applied and those we haven’t had enough for, which tend to puddle, then dry out quickly. This year we hardly had to water at all, even with three dry months in spring.

And at this time of year, we pile leaf mould up over the dahlias to insulate them against the cold – we don’t really have anywhere to store them if we lift the tubers, and the last couple of years they’ve all survived fine under their leaf mould blankets.

Up till now, the only problem has been getting enough of it. We’ve been very lucky in that the Town Council had spare leaf mould this year, so we’ve been able to use that; and we’ve  now built a large chicken wire bin near our compost area, and started collecting leaves to fill it. Leaves rot down by a different process from garden compost, which rots through bacterial action; leaf mould rots down mainly by fungal activity). There are two bins, each two metres square, and about 1.80 metres high; a couple of weeks ago they looked very empty and daunting, but some of the team have been raking up leaves from the Memorial Gardens and the playing fields, while others have bagged up leaves from home and brought them over. We’ve been promised more from other organisations round the town, and most afternoons some of us are out raking them up – on warmer, sunny days it’s a great way of getting plenty of exercise, though it’s a lot less enticing when it’s freezing cold and wet. Still, it’s always good to focus on how much less weeding and watering work we’ll have to do next year as a result of all our work now!

One of the team treading this year’s vintage of sycamore, hawthorn and maple leaves.

Difficult to photograph against the low winter light, but that leaf mould bin is now higher than we are! Thank you to Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway for filling bags for us when they cleared the lines before starting the Santa Specials; and thank you to the Town Council’s ground staff, who cleared a lot of leaves from the park before Remembrance Sunday and took them over to the bin for us, to the children from Pulford School, who collected leaves from their playing fields (not forgetting Barry who organised the deliveries), to John Milebush and John from the allotments, who both gave us a lot of bags of leaves, to Penny and Janet who let us go and rake up the leaves in their gardens, and last but definitely not least, to members of South Beds Friends of the Earth, who saved bags of leaves for us. This will rot down to about a third or a quarter of its current size, hopefully with the bit in the middle rotting fast enough to provide us with leaf mould next growing season. Thank you all!

 

 

 

 

Looking back over the last few months

10 July 2017

As the summer flowers give way to the ones that’ll take us through autumn, it’s a good time to look back at how the gardens have been doing so far this year. It’s been quite tough keeping everything going, as we’ve only had two periods of rain several hours long since March, and that’s been it; so we’re having to water a lot more than we usually would to make sure there are always a couple of the bees’ favourite plants in flower right through the year. We should be looking forward to new plants coming into flower in a few weeks, but many of them are two to four weeks early – the Michaelmas daisies started flowering last week, in the first week of July!

Most of the plants established last year are doing OK despite the drought, but this has been the year we trialled bedding plants for their usefulness to bees, and bedding plants seem to be the divas of the plant world – they need constant watering, dead-heading, feeding, and weeding around. With hindsight, they weren’t the best choice. Still, the echiums are settling in and providing bright blue colour in the beds, and welcome nectar for the bees – though nothing like as much as their wild equivalent in the second bed down from the car park, where we have two Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) plants, tall spikes of smallish blue flowers, covered in bees most of the time. The ‘Disco’ French marigolds provide great bursts of bright orange – but then, so do the California poppies they’ve largely displaced, and while there have been a lot of bees on the California poppies, there haven’t been many bees on the marigolds. The mignonettes are finally growing well and flowering, and they do smell sweet, but it’s taken a lot of watering and TLC to get them established, and we have limited resources. So while they’ve provided a nice change this year, I don’t think we’ll be repeating the experiment. We’ll need to find something else for the children from Mentmore Road Under 5’s to plant next year – they thoroughly enjoy planting things out, and watching them grow and flower!

Last week some of the children had fun picking the peas they’d planted a couple of months ago, and eating them straight from the pod, and they also lifted some of their carrots to see how they were doing (fine, but nowhere near ready). That didn’t seem to bother them at all – they still found it magical that they could dig out little green feathery plants and find a real carrot underneath, even if it was only 10cm long! Next year we’re thinking of getting them to plant early potatoes so they can dig up some buried treasure well before the end of term; we always have to race a bit to get them something to harvest before they break up for the summer. A couple of weeks ago they planted some annuals for the autumn (sunflowers and Cosmos) and a few foxglove and hollyhock seedlings, so that should give them something to watch grow next term. I’m not sure they believed me when I told them the tiny hollyhock seedlings would grow into plants like the ones twice their height in the next bed.

The Leighton Buzzard Observer carried a nice article on June 20th about the cooperation between the preschool and the regular team.

The regular team have been doing more dead-heading and less weeding as our earlier work has begun to pay off, especially as we were able to mulch the ground with almost-ready leaf mould after we’d weeded it. The local blackbirds throw the leaf mould around too much – often, our first task of the day is to brush the leaf mould off the paths and back into the beds. Leaf mould usually takes a couple of years to rot down completely, and what we’re using isn’t quite a year old, so we should have less mobile mulch in future. We’re also thinking ahead to autumn, when we’ll be able to sort out some compost from the bins round the back, and top it with leaf mould to keep weed seeds from germinating.

We’ll also be lifting all the dead plants in the wild flower bed – they’ve gone over much faster than usual, and have grown much less than usual too. This is almost certainly due to the drought – we watered copiously until a couple of weeks ago, when we decided we were just wasting water by pouring it onto the ground to no real effect, as wild flowers don’t seem to respond as well as garden plants and all the annuals were clearly dying back much earlier than usual. So as usual we’ll start the gardening year in September by collecting seed from the poppies to sow once we’ve turned the soil and added compost.

Getting ready for winter

28 October 2016

We’ve lifted all the spent annual wild flowers in the top bed by the car park, and we’ve resown poppies, cornflowers and toadflax. These cornfield annuals often need a period of cold weather to start their germination, but the bed’s already full of seedlings, probably from last year. We resow every year to be sure we’ll have a good show of flowers from June and July, though we do then have to thin the seedlings to leave enough room for the remaining ones to grow into stronger plants. It works well in practice, but it feels a bit odd to be sowing seeds, then pulling half of them up!

Over the last couple of months we’ve moved a few plants to places where they’ll be happier or look better, we’ve planted bulbs for next spring, sown seeds of California poppies and Welsh poppies, and thinned some of the seedlings of forget-me-nots and borage; all of these provide a lot of nectar and pollen for bees, and by letting seedlings emerge now we’re ensuring they’ll be flowering earlier next year than if we’d sown them in the spring. It does mean that we can’t mulch all the beds, though, or we’ll choke seeds that are still emerging. We’d like to mulch the beds to prevent heavy rain from damaging the soil structure, to keep nutrients in the soil, and to provide places where beneficial insects can hibernate. Blackbirds seem to appreciate a layer of leaf mould, too, judging by the amount they turn onto the paths when they’re looking for worms underneath it.

We try to have the gardens looking their best for Remembrance Sunday, which isn’t quite as easy as it is in June and July! We do leave quite a few stems and seed heads for hibernating insects,  because many seed heads look good in frost, and because it stops the gardens looking too bare through the winter months; however, we try to balance these ecological requirements with keeping the gardens looking cared for and well tended, in respect of their setting. It’s a difficult balance.

Although we’ve started making our own leaf mould, it won’t be ready for another couple of years and we used all our existing stock to make peat-free potting compost; so we’re very grateful to the local residents who’ve given us enough leaf mould for our needs this year. Thank you!

Watering and mulching

13 September 2016

There are still a lot of bees in the garden – here’s one enjoying the coreopsis:

coreopsis

We’ve had very little rain for the last couple of months, and the ground’s dried out again very quickly even after a whole day of it.  We’d never claim to be a ‘drought garden’, but we do try not to use more water than we really need to. Even in this very dry summer we haven’t (yet!) had to use the hose this year, but the gardens don’t look particularly dry. This is thanks partly to the amount of mulching we did last year (putting leaf mould or compost on top of wet ground to hold the moisture in), and partly due to our choice of plants – garden perennials and many wild flowers need much less watering than annual bedding plants, for example. We use watering cans for a couple of weeks when we move plants or put new ones in, to get them established, then mulch them well and leave them to get on with it.

The exception is the vegetable bed where the children from the local preschool are growing peas, beans and carrots this year, where we’ve been using the watering cans a lot, particularly before the children broke up for the summer – they love watering things, and the runner beans probably had such a good start that they’ll survive any number of dry weeks now!

The mulch used for the bottom two beds (nearest the war memorial) last year was a proprietary compost made from wool and bracken, which has also kept weeds down for over a year and is still making a difference. We’re just beginning to notice a few weeds creeping back now, but it’s saved us a lot of time. It forms a bit of a crust, which does make the soil quite hard to work in the second year, so we haven’t used it this year in the other beds where we’re still moving a lot of plants round; there, we’re using garden compost round individual plants that need more feeding, or leaf mould where we just want to cover the ground over the winter, which is better for the soil. We’ve noticed a lot of ladybirds and other predators rooting around in it, which is good as we want to encourage them as much as possible around the gardens – this year they did a great job of seeing off any aphids that did try to colonise the plants!.

It’s a difficult balance at the moment – if we cover too much of the ground too early on, we’ll stifle all the self-sown Californian poppies, cornflowers and others that we’d welcome, but this is exactly the time when a lot of weeds start germinating, and we don’t want our volunteers to have to keep weeding the same patch again and again.