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What can a garden be?

This post is a ponder about what a garden can be – for us, and for the other inhabitants of planet Earth that live in the area. This is a big and sometimes controversial subject, so please take this writing as exploration rather than answers. All discussion that opens up the area further is welcome.

The word ‘garden’ originally meant ‘enclosure‘ and shares its origin with ‘yard’, ‘orchard’ and ‘garth’, among other words. The first recorded garden is probably the Garden of Eden, which from the description in the book of Genesis was just that: an enclosed space. Into such an enclosed space selected plants (and sometimes animals) were brought, maybe from the local area, maybe further afield. It puts me in mind of the images of Persian gardens one sees depicted in carpets and paintings.

Lightly skipping over 3000+ years of human history, it is clear we are in a different world now. Those original gardens were for a select few, the elite, and now most people have gardens to be in and engage with, including you and me. Our gardens, private and public, take up a lot of space. There are few wild places left. This means that our gardens have a new job to do.

There may be some clues as to a way forward in the rewilding movement. In several crowded and not-so-crowded countries, large tracts of land have been allowed to revert. A famous instance in the UK is the Knepp estate in Sussex. 3500 acres of marginal farmland have gone back to scrubland, with fascinating consequences. Birds, bats and insects, not heard or seen for a generation or more have come back of their own accord. Interactions and intricacies of interdependence in the ecosystem have been understood. It is an inspiring story, not least because the land is still productive, but in a way which does not involve eradicating whatever is deemed not to fit.

What is possible depends on the size of the piece of land. On a larger scale than Knepp, at Yellowstone Park in the US, wolves were reintroduced a few years ago. The effects rippled down through the whole ecosystem. The wolves ate the elk, which soon learned to avoid areas where they would be vulnerable. Those areas regenerated, as the vegetation was able to grow back. The willow trees came back and with them the beavers. The beavers’ dams provided more pools in the rivers: more space for the fish. And so the effects cascade through the system.

Can what has been learned in such large spaces be applied to our gardens? My suspicion is, yes in principle. One principle being that Mother Nature has a good track record of looking after her own affairs if we don’t get in the way too much. There is no need to plant native trees on reclaimed land, for example, at least in the UK. Don’t mow it for a few years and the trees will plant themselves. So, note to self: don’t micro-manage.

Another principle for me is that I am custodian of the garden, not its owner. Other species: birds, rodents, rabbits and insects also have their part to play. Leave them to get on with it. Again, don’t micro-manage. Leave the seed heads on the plants over the winter. Better than a birdfeeder!

Thirdly, my needs are valid too. I’ll still cut the hedges, for two reasons. First, the large herbivores that would browse on their leaves haven’t been around here for a long time. Our garden is not on the scale of Knepp or Yellowstone, so I will have to fill that gap, do the job those animals would do if they were here. The second reason for clipping the hedge is that I have my own notions of what is attractive. And a clipped hedge provides a great background for a small garden like ours. I’ll do it when the birds aren’t nesting in it, however.

So, because our world is so crowded, our gardens have become a valuable resource. This presents opportunities for new learning, new understandings of the delicate interactions that we have blithely blundered through for so long. I’m sure we’ll all get on fine in the new regime.

However, there are some adjustments to be made.

For example, there is a big discussion going on in the rewilding world about whether to eradicate non-native species. This is a complete about-turn from the views of gardeners a century, or even a few decades ago. For Victorian gardeners, a garden was a showcase for exotic species. Our garden centres and seed catalogues offer us plants from all over the world, descendants of those brought back by plant-hunters from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Tulips and snowdrops from Turkey, peonies from China, fuchsias from South America: the list is endless. And as for vegetables: potatoes, runner beans and tomatoes from south America, carrots and onions from Asia .. clearly some perspective is needed here.

Here is a comma butterfly feeding on the aster flowering in our garden a few weeks ago, in October. Aster is native to North America – but I don’t think the butterflies and the bees were concerned about that. So I won’t worry about it either. I won’t eradicate human-introduced species for the sake of it, because I have noticed that Nature is pretty robust and adaptable. Having said that, however, I’ll think carefully before introducing anything from outside into the garden from now on. I’ll try to check beforehand, in whatever way I can, with the non-human residents. I’ll also set aside spaces for the vegetable beds, cut most of the lawn and pull back whatever gets in the way. I live here too, after all.

In the end, for me what counts is the love. Do I love this space, do I want it to thrive? What does it call for?

For more about garden-scale rewilding, here is Mary Reynolds’ website: http://wearetheark.org/

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The statuette’s story

Bronze figurine, Ashmolean Museum

Yesterday we visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The Ancient Cyprus section was lovely – soft and gentle. I was drawn to a small figurine in a case in the corner. This is what it said to me.

“The men go into the ground, following the seams of green stone. With stone hammers they break up the seams to remove the lumps of rock. Sometimes they come across a nugget of pure copper: solidified strands of tangled pink metal. These they keep. They put the lumps of rock into baskets which they bring to the surface.

Back at the surface, the green stone is crushed and then heated over fires. The heat releases the liquid pink metal which is then poured into oxhide-shaped ingots. Oxhide-shaped in recognition of the time of Taurus, recently passed, when this activity began.

When the men have come out, it is the women’s turn. I do not know if the figurine was made by a man or a woman, but it is the women who take it back into the chambers recently cleared by the men. The women come with value and respect for what has been given by the Earth. They give back something of their own making, in order to reset the balance. A bronze figurine, standing on an oxhide ingot, naked, not hidden, her hair braided, her neck adorned with a precious necklace. They place the figurine in a safe place where the green stone has been removed. They bring food and have a party, a feast. Because of their genuine value and gratitude for the gift from the Earth, the rift is healed. All parties benefit.”

P.S. I have no idea if this is factually accurate. I am sure the humans living in Cyprus over 3000 years ago had their problems. However, I am also sure that living with the consequences of damage to the earth from industrialised extraction of minerals was not one of them. If they travelled to our time and saw the gaping holes that we have made in the ground, I have no doubt they would find such behaviour difficult to comprehend.

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Tamworth pigs, public footpaths and ploughing

Image from https://www.southeastfarmer.net/section/news/safaris-booming-on-farming-estate

The newly-released Tamworth pigs, two abreast, “unzipped the turf down the public footpaths, following the exact routes on the Ordnance Survey map, heading diagonally across the fields. We realized that what they were doing, with the undeviating propulsion of slow-motion torpedoes, was zeroing in on all areas of the park that had never been ploughed – margins rich in invertebrates, rhizomes and flora. In the first few days of their release the pigs drew an accurate blueprint of what modern farming had done to our soil.” ( page 110 of ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree, Picador 2018)

‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree is an inspiring account of an experiment to return marginal land, ill-suited to intensive agriculture, back to the rhythms of nature. As well as leaving the land to regenerate, they reintroduced grazing, browsing and rootling animals – the last being some Tamworth pigs.

The man who inspired our tools, Viktor Schauberger, had a horror of what modern ploughing was doing to the land. At the time, he could not imagine cultivation without ploughing, so he searched for an alternative, less destructive material to make the plough, and came up with copper. Subsequent field trials bore him out. The crops were healthier in areas cultivated with the copper-plated plough.

Times have moved on, and we are rethinking our relationship with the land. We know that the use of chemicals has long-term unintended consequences. Organic growing is becoming mainstream; it is hard to remember how it was seen as eccentric and unrealistic a generation ago. No-dig gardening does not disturb the life of the soil. No-till farming is proving its value. Bronze garden tools, the inheritors of Viktor Schauberger’s vision, share their sentiment of working with nature rather than against it.

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End of a chapter

Today, using my Mira Trowel, I harvested the onions from the new raised bed.

The frame of the bed was laid on the lawn last August, then the grass was covered with cardboard and the frame filled with about four inches of home-made compost. In September the onion set was planted.

The boiler room now has a decidedly oniony aroma. And I have transpanted some calabrese seedlings to where the onions were.

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Gravity assisted

Endorsement from customer David, a health professional. He uses the Atlas Pick, but the reasoning he gives is also valid for the Sirius Hoe, Pegasus Pick, Merak Drag Fork and Tuza Mattock.

If you have navigated to implementations then you are looking at purchasing high quality gardening hand tools. Each tool is manufactured and designed so that it is more efficient when working resulting in being able to do more but at the same time reduce the stresses placed on the body. This stress is often the cause of pain particularly lower back. Pain from gardening is something that takes the pleasure out of something that you take great pleasure from.

Why, because tools such as the Atlas Pick are ergonomically designed better for their particular purpose. They rely on a swing action with gravity to assist. The long shafts improve efficiency of the tool with added leverage whilst working in an upright posture. Next a pulling action using again the upper body. It is a natural fluid motion. The bronze heads and shaped ash handles are forgiving and absorb energy when working.

In contrast consider using a spade. One uses body weight to penetrate the soil, this places more loading of the spine on the left or right side which can expose back issues. Then one levers away from the body often lifting the soil at the same time. This motion is not fluid or natural and places greater strain on the lower back, this is made worse by the short shaft which necessitates one to bend the back. The back is vulnerable when  loading whilst bent but add a little rotation whilst bending over and one increases this vulnerability further.

One has to use the PKS bronze tool in a different way to the conventional British tools but when one has mastered its correct use you will wonder why the tools developed for gardening use in the UK ever became the standard. It does not make sense to continue using tools that take more energy to use and can cause pain and injury.

Why use tools that can reduce the pleasure you get out of something you love. Buying a gravity-assisted tool will not be a decision that you will regret.

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The Wood-Wide Web

From our latest newsletter:

In the last few years there has been a fundamental shift in how scientists view the way the plant kingdom works.

Take trees, for example. The old view was that woodland trees grow tall because they compete for light – and the strongest win. That view has been questioned. Researchers like Suzanne Simard have shown the level of co-operation, not only between species (she demonstrated how paper birch trees support douglas fir) but also between kingdoms. The fungi underground allow themselves to be used as a food bank. They store surplus nourishment for the trees in the good times and give it back in leaner periods. They also provide minerals which the trees can’t access for themselves, and they act as a woodland communication system. The world in a woodland has been shown to be a distributed network, with hubs (the ‘mother’ trees) and links.

This is the diagram Suzanne Simard used in her TED talk. The darkest circles are the ‘hub’ trees, the paler ones younger trees. It looks like a diagram of the internet. It has been called the wood-wide web.

That was the preamble to my ponder. My ponder is – if that is happening in woodland, what is going on in my house and garden? How can I best work with this intelligent, caring, interconnected world?

One immediate response from us was to think differently about potplants. For a single plant in a pot, life must be like solitary confinement. So, nowadays we put more than one plant in a pot, or we make sure that their leaves are touching other plants nearby. And we brush the leaves as we walk past them.

A lot of good gardening practice makes sense in the context of the wood-wide web. If you take something out, put something back, whether it is a bit of compost or a sprinkling of fish, blood and bone. Minimum-interference gardening practices like ‘no-dig’and permaculture are in tune with this view. The biodynamic approach sees the entire piece of land as a single entity, an ‘organism’. That also makes sense. And of course, our view is that the bronze tools help. Copper is a connector. Like the fungi in the forest floor, it links things up. It’s in our wiring. In our bodies, copper is to do with energy transfer. So at the very least, bronze tools should be less disruptive in the garden.

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No-dig works

Last summer this was part of our lawn.

One afternoon in August, partner Nigel made a timber frame. I laid cardboard over the grass, and then filled the frame with compost.


This is how it looked by the end of that afternoon.

In September I planted some onion sets and sowed some spinach and broccoli

Now, half a year later, the onions are flourishing, and I have been picking spinach leaves for meals. This is the first time I have managed to grow spinach that hasn’t bolted. Note to self: from now on, sow spinach in the autumn, to overwinter. The broccoli isn’t looking wonderful, but there is plenty of time yet for that. And as a bonus, some self-seeded land cress has appeared. A side-effect of using our own compost. I’ll put up with the weeds for that!

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No pressure …

When someone is at high pressure, conversation with them is not easy. There is a certain glazed look in their eye, as they try to manage the intensity of what they are trying to express. And you can’t get a word in edgeways. You open your mouth to reply – and they are off again. You just have to wait and sit out the onslaught. When children are excited and at high pressure, it is wonderful to witness. Plus, you know they won’t maintain it for long. But adults – that is not so much fun. It can go on – and on.

It’s like the weather. With high pressure weather systems the winds go one way – outwards from where the pressure is the most intense. When the high pressure system is over your area, there are the same conditions for days or weeks. If it’s cloudy, it stays cloudy. If sunny, it stays that way too. But on the outer edges of the system it is a different story. There are winds and turbulence as the high pressure equalises itself out, dumping its excess on the surrounding area in the process.

Given that being on the receiving end of someone else’s high pressure can be an endurance test, why do businesses inflict it on us? You know the sort of thing …

LAST FEW IN STOCK!!

or

HURRY! OFFER ENDS SOON!

It’s usually associated with exclamation marks, capital letters and gaudy red or orange notices.

It’s more subtle, but equally irritating, online. All those ads on Youtube or Spotify, whose main effect is to send me reaching for the ‘mute’ button. And the providers know the ads are irrritating, because they tell me that if I pay for their service, I won’t be bothered by ads. What incentive is that for an advertiser? I promise you, here and now, you will never be interrupted by an ad from Implementations when you are watching a film or listening to a piece of music.

What is the alternative? Is there another way of interacting with potential customers? What is the low-pressure approach?

As I see it, the low-pressure approach has three stages. First, I have to let you (and anyone else who might be interested) know that we exist. When the business was new and young, we had to go high pressure to do this. We went to shows. We pestered journalists. Jane gave talks. We said the same things, over and over again. Nowadays, we don’t have to be at such high pressure, so we have a Facebook page, and more recently, a Facebook group.

We run a small ad in some magazines, something like this.

It says who we are and how to contact us. That’s all.

That’s the first part.

In the second stage, we have to make sure that the lines of communication are open, that nothing will prevent the people who want to engage with us from engaging with us. Does the website work smoothly? Make sure someone is there to answer the phone if it rings. If someone has a problem with delivery or anything else, get on to it. If we get it right, this part is rather like a swan gliding on a lake: serene and smooth above water and paddling furiously in the part that can’t be seen, below the water.

The third stage looks simple but is actually more tricky – for us, anyway.

We wait. We go low-pressure.

We trust that there are people who love the concept of the tools as much as we do. To use the analogy of ‘Field of Dreams’, we’ve built it. Will anyone come?

The low-pressure approach has some hidden bonuses. I have some amazing conversations with customers, for example. I like them. I relate to them. We find we have common values. Interactions are a transaction, an exchange rather than a persuasion. A human-to-human affair.

So we will stay low pressure.