Tag Archives: soil organic matter

Supplying some of our sister sites – Bossard House 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 Jobcentre 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 are 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.

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!