January 2019 | Winter words

January 2019 | Winter words


Winter Trees

Hi again from Rosanna and best wishes to all readers for a new and productive gardening year.  In my search for all the good things in a British winter I have discovered another positive that I was only dimly aware of liking so much – something that only the people of the North will see.  It arises from a combination of nature’s work and the lower hanging sun lighting things differently.  I have always enjoyed the sight of winter trees – their twiggy hands darkly silhouetted against the sky appearing to be clutching at it – that is on those days of clear blue winter skies we are occasionally lucky enough to get in place of a porridge-like roof.  Being out and about with my camera has made me more intensely conscious of sights like these and how much I really like them.

. . . twiggy hands clutching at the sky . . .
. . . twiggy hands clutching at the sky . . .

I made the “clutching hands” remark to a fellow fungus searcher recently and she asked if I was familiar with the illustrator Arthur Rackham.  I wasn’t.  I looked him up and found that he saw trees personified in much that way – take a look at the glorious images he left with us.


Mistletoe clearly visible in bare winter trees
Mistletoe clearly visible in bare winter trees

It seems that our winter trees have even inspired people to produce videos and poems.  This poem for children by George Szirtes is from his anthology In the Land of Giants

Aren’t you cold and won’t you freeze,
With branches bare, you winter trees?
You’ve thrown away your summer shift,
Your autumn gold has come adrift.


Gardening Health Benefits

I overheard a conversation between two women a couple of weeks ago as to whether gardening was good for you or otherwise – one woman voicing the view that people, although clearly benefitting from being outside, were inclined to hurt themselves when gardening while the other flatly said it was without a doubt good for you but only if you liked it.  All rather inconclusive but it made me stop and give the health angle some thought myself.

Mistletoe growing in tree

Many times I have been told by people that gardening is therapeutic and how lucky I was to have that kind of work.  I often have to explain the difference between doing it as a hobby and as work.  When I do my own garden I can potter at whatever pace suits me – I can’t imagine any job of any kind could be done on that basis.

I did the practical side of gardening training under a head gardener which means, thankfully, I have been made aware of the best way to do tasks to avoid injury and I am aware of my physical limitations.  The woman who thought people hurt themselves gardening was right, at least in part, but very often this is because they have overdone something – too much repetition of a single task, awkward lifting, lifting too great a weight or even simply working for too long a session and causing aches and pains.  If you don’t like gardening – and believe it or not some people don’t – you will either employ someone to do it for you or have a low-maintenance garden so that your input can be limited but it isn’t always easy to avoid it completely.

If you always do what you always did you’ll always get what you always got. Mmmmm. Not sure.  A friend and her partner have had their house on the market for about a year and, on the phone to exchange Christmas wishes, I asked her if there had been much interest.  Apparently interest was no problem at all, they had been almost overwhelmed by visitors to show around and nearly all of these were very keen on the house.  However, her partner before retiring was a head gardener and for him when they bought the property the one-acre garden was the major attraction.  He works in it nearly all day every day; it has never been difficult for him although now as an older person he is getting extremely tired.  The size of the garden frightened the life out of even the keenest gardeners amongst their would-be buyers, mostly newly retired people, as well it might.  Fortunately they were prepared for this and realize their buyer will have to be looking for something out of the ordinary and they expect to wait.

The above preamble brought to mind a further way of injuring yourself when gardening that most of us will discover at some point.  It is so easy to forget that one has grown older and to estimate tasks time-wise as in previous years.  It is really disappointing when you allot, say, a week as sufficient but the task mysteriously seems to drag on and on as it never did before and for no reason you can see.  This is another recipe for overdoing it or at the very least making you feel a failure.  Tasks may well now take that bit longer to accomplish safely and we are wise to be aware of this and build in extra time. If you always do etc . . .   is not true in this instance.

Query female Pied Wagtail
Birds of south east London. I believe this is a female Pied Wagtail ? ? ?


What does it mean? We often hear this term used in a vague way. The World Health Organization defines it as

a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope
with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make
a contribution to his or her community.

I like this definition because it focuses on doing and suggests that wellbeing is a reachable something to be created by a person. For me gardening and horticulture offer a perfect vehicle for doing just this; offering a world outside oneself, the pleasure of growing your own food and eating it/the joy (hopefully) of creating beauty with ornamental plants. Gardening can be solitary but on allotment sites and similar public endeavours it can also mean being in a community.

Yes, my view is gardening, with care, is good for our health.

Riverside leisure area at Gravesend
Riverside leisure area at Gravesend

Winter Gardens

The days are short, you want to be outside but you can’t go very far. Even so, a walk on a beach not too far away is possible in an area that was a beach resort back in the 19th century. At Gravesend there is a promenade, a pier and park to enjoy even now in what is known as the riverside leisure area – you must see this. I had a great walk around on one of our blue-sky days as did many other people, children and dogs similarly walking off the Christmas feasting.

Promenade at riverside
Promenade at riverside

Flea Beetle

In my very early allotment plot days one of the first crops I tried was Rocket, sowing my seeds and looking forward to an endless supply of the peppery leaves in my salads. What happened in reality was I had my first acquaintance with flea beetle. No crop I grew before or since has ever been so full of shotholes – this pest’s trademark – and quite as impossible to use as was this one. It was the first and only time I experienced the complete decimation of any crop and I have never forgotten this serious pest.

I tried again the following year but as soon as I saw the shotholes I decided not to bother with Rocket again. Rocket and oilseed rape are both brassicas (cabbage family). Oddly my problem was limited to Rocket with all my other brassicas unaffected.

When studying for RHS exams I chose to study the tiny, shiny black flea beetle (Phyllotreta spp) for a special project – the unforgettable flea beetle that jumps like a flea when disturbed hence the name. I remember concluding that if wanting to grow organically any crop threatened by this pest and avoid using chemicals, the only way was to keep the whole crop under cover for its entire life, covered by plastic sheeting with the edges securely buried. I suppose if you were incredibly patient this might be feasible if you were growing in a small way and I could have tried again. I didn’t and were I a farmer growing on a much larger scale I would have been faced with a far greater order of difficulty.

The horticultural press shows the concerns farmers have had arising from the ban on use of neonicotinoids since 2013 – marvellously effective at controlling a serious pest like flea beetle (which I believe is related to the infamous Colorado Beetle) via seed treatments but a significant threat to bee populations.

Some farmers have lost as much as 90% of their oilseed rape crop in the gap that has arisen from the problem of pesticides being restricted faster than alternatives are being developed. So I was interested to hear on Farming Today (Radio 4) last month that a very old technique has been revived and trials indicate it has been successful. Carefully timed defoliation has significantly increased oilseed rape yields and reduced flea beetle infestation. It involves removing the leaves from the plant by grazing or mowing which exposes the beetle larvae to the cold and predators making them much less likely to survive. No chemicals at all are used and in some of the trials a 60% success rate was found with this age-old method. Not sure this would work with Rocket which is really nothing else but leaves but good news for growers of oilseed rape which is now a major crop in the UK.


No-dig Gardening

Harking back to a previous post in March 2017 I described there my adoption of a mix of lasagna gardening and Chinese bed gardening on my allotment plot. The Chinese beds, long, narrow and high and overlaid with black gardening material, have been very successful, and excellently space saving, for courgettes and strawberries.

Strawberry bed
Strawberry bed

The strawberry bed contained 6 to 8 strawberry plants but some died in last summer’s extreme heat and were replaced. I see at this point that the hardiest of them have survived and I think I can try again with the same set up this year and add several more plants. One drawback to the plan may be that the raised bed could heat up too much under the black textile if the weather is very hot. I originally dismissed this as not being very likely but then we had that ultra-hot summer of 2018.

Covering cardboard layer with compost partially completed
Covering cardboard layer with compost partially completed

Now I am creating a flat bed for the first time in much the same way; a process also known as sheet mulching. The undug bed is covered by a hefty layer of leaves and plant material, is then topped by a layer of cardboard which is then covered with a layer of home-made compost – minimum 5cm thick, preferably much more. Planting takes place in the spring through holes in the cardboard. Any weeds that grow meantime can be hoed off first. A twin aim as well as no-dig is to raise the level of the soil as much as possible as, for historical reasons, parts of my plot are very much lower than the surrounding paths.

The idea is to repeat sheet mulching every year eliminating the need for digging. The organic matter is added to the surface of the bed and worms, micro-organisms and fungi do the mixing work for you. The soil is never walked on so as to avoid compaction and destroying the soil texture. Work is conducted from the sides of the bed – this affects the size of the bed that is made since you need to be able to reach all parts of it, i.e. usually long and narrow or, if you prefer, small squares.

Bed covering with compost completed
Bed covering completed.

Our work focus then is to keep the paths in order. If they are grass paths they need to be kept closely mown.

It isn’t absolutely essential to construct wooden sided beds, although they look very tidy and attractive – I guess it is a trade off between nice and neat and expense. I am having a go without. No one yet has adopted the cardboard sheeting method on my site although I can see in passing the idea being taken up on other allotment sites in the area. Everyone’s continual problem is that there is never enough compost – so the bed creation either has to be piecemeal over a period of years or buying in soil is an alternative. Like many of you, no doubt, I was originally averse to the idea of no-dig gardening but am rather keen now as I certainly shan’t miss digging my very heavy clay.

One of the major reasons for digging is to control weeds. Doesn’t seem overly successful at times. The no-dig theory is that weeds kept in darkness weaken and die plus their seeds are not continually brought up to the surface by digging. It can take up to a year for perennial weeds with their strong root systems to weaken and if they pop up in the mulch they can be removed with a trowel.

One drawback could be that raised beds have a tendency to dry out (they are not suitable for sandy soils) but conversely this is a benefit in areas where the soil is wet and heavy which is the case with most of the London basin.

Blog Anniversary

One year this month. Thanks to all for the great support – leave a comment if you can – or better still do ask me about any gardening problems.

Bye for now. Enjoy your ground preparation and be ready for the coming growing season.

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