Gardeners Report

8th August 2017

Michael texts me as I arrive on site: ‘Please let me know if you see anything odd’.

The site always presents different degrees of ‘odd’. This week, Odd is a single sheet of toilet paper hanging from the Elder tree, one of a series of offerings and anomalies found on site over the course of the project. Odd is returning from coffee to find my spade handle is warm.  Not the spade, just the handle, as if someone has been gardening in our absence.

This week someone has been gardening in our absence, but the renewed fox activity is not odd. In fact it is odd that we would get to August without any. Each year we become a little more open-minded about their interventions, frustrating as it is to see our plants uprooted and strewn about the place, stems snapped, foliage wilting, flowerheads buried under fresh excavations.  Where Hari has spent the weekend filling holes, reviving plants and reseeding the bald patches, the fox has re-dug. There are fresh paw-prints in the soil – perhaps the fox left as I was arriving. Our plans for the space are currently incompatible, but I persevere and refill the holes, brush off the plants and do my best to level the ground.

Michael refers to the annual fox intrusion as an opportunity; new space for sowing purslane (Portulaca oleracea), an allusive plant in the meadow.  For the blackbirds and the robin it is feast day and they hop through the piles of earth tidying the mess of scattered worms. For me, it’s an opportunity to assess the health of the soil, now so artfully exposed by the fox. Now the chamomile is beyond salvaging, I can step guilt-free through the bed to remove some unwanted comfrey, and make some space for the neighbouring plants.  Our pioneer species – the common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) – thrive on recently disturbed soil, so the upheaval offers opportunity for a new flush of seedlings. If anything, the fox’s digging will alleviate some of the compaction and improve the drainage in that area.

Also busy in the meadow this week are two families of wrens. At first I mistake the adult pair for a pair of butterflies, so small and weightless, tumbling over one another as they dart manically through the dogwood hedges. The fledglings are not much smaller, but their gummy yellow beaks and stubby tail feathers give them away. There are three in the meadow, sunbathing, climbing through the elecampane, calling to be fed. By the pond there are two more, smaller and huddled together, a two-headed ball of brown fuzz, shuffling through the undergrowth.

I berate the black and white cat for the crime he is yet to commit and wonder at the probability that five ground-dwelling chicks have made it to this stage, in spite of the foxes, magpies and jays.  I choose to forget that the wrens are carnivores too, and the number of worms I’ve shamelessly sacrificed to the robin recently.  

In a final effort to discourage the fox, I grab an old tree stump to leave in the meadow – the fox is habitual and has a tendency to re-dig the same spot. Splitting the log, I disturb a stag beetle larva hidden deep within, a fleshy squirming jelly-like grub that’s writhing uncomfortably at its sudden exposure. This is one intrusion that cannot be rebranded as an ‘opportunity’, at least not for the stag beetle, and I’m humbled and disappointed by my clumsiness. Stag beetles spend over 5 years in the larval stage, and in 5 seconds I’ve managed to disrupt that. I piece the log back together and search for a hidden spot in the woodland to wedge it, but the fear of disturbing something else in turn is paralysing.  It’s a frank reminder that in spite of our efforts to care for and nurture the site, so often we are the real intruders here. This week I’m left with the feeling that the only thing that is ‘odd’ about this place is us.

1st August 2017

This week, the re-appearance of stickyweed (Galium aparine) comes as no surprise. Whilst we usually think of stickyweed, or ‘cleavers’,  as one of our first spring plants – a tonic for the system after a long winter – we have now come to expect the second wave; their offspring.  Unlike ‘annual’ weeds, stickyweed could be classed as an ‘ephemeral’, one of those enthusiastic species that pumps out more than one generation across the growing season and, in many ways, lends credence to the theory that a gardener’s work is never done.  

To repeat the same task week in, week out is no doubt tortuous for some. One seemingly never-ending task that we have all embraced this year is the gradual ‘restraining’ of our ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea). Every year, we come to know a little more about the habit or nature of one of plants, and it is through regular interaction and increasing familiarity that this knowledge emerges.

Ground ivy is a stubborn and persistent weed. Too stubborn to grow from an original sowing in 2012, it was introduced the following year as a handful of plantlets, prised roughly from my father’s lawn. This spring, we reopened the site to find a thick rug of ground ivy across the meadow site, dominating two thirds of the site and smothering the emerging plants.  The common name comes from its ivy-like habit of sending out long, adventurous stems, anchoring itself every couple of inches with a set of fairly insignificant, shallow roots. Other perennials in the meadow such as comfrey (Symphytum sp.) or dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) have evolved deep tap roots, forcing each plant to commit to one spot, and mine deeply for water and nutrients.  Ground ivy is more of an opportunist, a forager treading lightly but over a vast area, our very own Nomad in plant form.

To remove it, you must trace its long stringy stems, plucking out each rooted ‘node’ with finger and thumb. It’s a slow and methodical task. Where one plant ends and another begins is vague, not least for the tangled masses of intertwining stems, but also for clonal nature of the plant. New plants can regenerate from the tiniest fragment and any nodes left in the ground will send out their own spaghetti-like stems within a few days.

My day in the garden is typical, following the usual structure. I fight my way through the lush new growth and drooping stems the crisscross the narrow paths after a week of summer rain. I make a general assessment of the site, a scan of the meadow for new seedlings, sickly plants, fox holes and any other damage. Ten minutes later, as usual, I’m picking at a strand of ground ivy. The foliage is strongly aromatic, and the savoury mint-like smell on my hands becomes more and more familiar as the summer progresses.

My 2017 stint in the meadow will certainly be remembered (by me at least) as interesting things that happened whilst I pulled up ground ivy.  As mentioned in a previous post, following a trail of ground ivy invariably leads to something interesting.  This week: a red ant’s nest, a baby newt, and a giant orange slug (Arion sp.). It also directs me to new tasks: grass seedlings to be removed, foliage to be cut back, new seedlings to be identified. At the end of one ground ivy trail, I find a small screw from the safety clasp of our red secateurs – treasure.

It will be a strange predicament if or when the ground ivy ‘residency’ comes to an end, when it is neatly restrained in its allocated patch and all the final rogue fragments have been removed from the meadow. The great ground ivy trail will then begin and end in its own domain, and, whilst its dense ground cover will still provide refuge for various surprises, the need to trace its wondering path will no longer exist.  Greater diversity will likely flourish in its absence, a new thug may eventually come to dominate, and we will have to find another plant to direct us around the meadow.

20th July 2017

The meadow has always been a space of mysterious riddles, where plants outsmart, confuse and surprise us on a fairly regular basis. The success of our common weeds is largely down to their ability to sneak, mimic, lurk, then rapidly multiply at an opportune moment. Here, there are many masters of disguise. Our new gardeners quickly learn the difference between a white dead nettle (Lamium album) and the unrelated stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), the learning process hastened by the frequency and severity of the stings. In a matter of weeks, our new garden recruits have themselves evolved to outsmart the doppelgängers, and the white dead nettle leaves can be boldly plucked by gloveless hands. 

How do we know our ‘weeds’ from our weeds? After several years working in the meadow, I’ve come to recognise most of our plants in their seedling stage. By the time the first leaves have emerged, the size, colour and shape all act as clues for identification and ‘undesirables’ can often be whipped out before they take root. Once identified, whole colonies of self-seeded plantlets can be lifted in spring, and redistributed around the meadow. For the established perennials, where the first emerging shoots are somewhat ambiguous, we leave in the previous years gnarled old flower stems as a reminder the following year.  The old, cane-like stalks of the elecampane (Inula helenium) and marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) protect the emerging foliage, reminding us to tread cautiously, and the shrivelled seedheads provide a clue to what species we are looking at when we return to the site.

Where our eyes or memory fail us, we employ our other senses – seedlings of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) can be quickly distinguished from the seemingly identical chamomile (Matricaria recutita) by crushing fragments of their feathery young foliage – the first is rich and almost sage-like, the other is sweet and appley. Our newly-introduced sorrel (Rumex acetosa) has no scent, but even as a seedling its sharply acidic twang is distinct from the bitterness of its close cousin, the invasive and not so useful dock (Rumex obtusifolius).

So it is a surprise and an irritation this month to discover several colonies of entirely unrecognisable seedlings within the meadow.  I list the various routes by which such an abundance of rogue seed has invaded the meadow – guerrilla gardeners, a mis-labelled seed packet, contaminated compost.  Something has unbalanced our normally predictable palette of plantlets.  Another riddle to solve.

One such colony occupies a patch cleared and seeded with plantain and yarrow, forming a dense carpet and crowding out its neighbours.  On close inspection they show a certain similarity to the common mallow (Malva sylvestris), waxy, with hoof-shaped seed leaves and a blood-red dot at the centre of the larger foliage. There is no scent. I take a gamble and eat some, and I’m relieved to find it almost entirely flavourless, bitterness often being an indicator of toxicity.

I’ve been watching these seedlings for weeks, reluctant to pull them out until they have been identified, but I’m losing patience. In the end, it is not these finer details but the bigger picture that provides the answer; on stepping back I realise the seedlings form a neat arc, circumnavigating a clump of mature marshmallow. Elsewhere in the meadow, our other marshmallows are each sporting a similar green halo.  For the first year, they have reproduced by seed, crossbreeding and serving us a new generation of plants, genes recombined, and new possibilities with that. Bearing little resemblance to the parent plant, these bold little pioneers can be left well alone, welcome guests but tricksters nonetheless.

So how do we know our ‘weeds’ from our weeds?

The answer is ‘slowly’.

7th July 2017

In the garden we often refer to something as having ‘gone to seed’, as if the act of seeding is the final destination for the plant. For many flowering plants, the production of seed is the end of the road. As gardeners we employ all kinds of trickery to delay maturity, trapping our plants in a somewhat artificial juvenility.

Having hit mid-summer, it is now a battle to keep the meadow full and verdant, whilst several of our species suggest so explicitly that their work is done. Malva sylvestris – the common mallow – has gone to seed. I spend the morning cutting back our mallows. I cut down one third of our stock, saving half the ripened seed and throwing the rest back into the meadow. The seedpods, traditionally referred to as ‘cheeses’ are small, hard, black ring doughnuts, comprising several ‘wedges’, like a flattened tangerine, or an unappetising cheese.

Feverfew too is also running to seed. I cut down the yellowing stems, shred the stems and flowers, and throw this back into the meadow too. The seeds of feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) are fine and dusty, but the aromatic smell is intense and lingers on your hands long after harvesting.

It is is easy to be captured by the allure of the big showy stars of the meadow – the lion-like Elecampane (Inula helenium) or the sprays of common mallow flowers, but the seeds themselves have their own unique intrigue and encourage a closer eye. Across the rest of the nature reserve, several of our other residents are putting on their own midsummer displays – the Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) are dying back, but their sprays of dark black seeds remain, like inverted candelabra. The juniper (Juniperus communis) fruit are small and easy to miss, but their flavour as pungent and gin-like. The Hazel (Corylus avellana) have already been raided by squirrels and shells lie munched in the woodchip. Perhaps most noticeable are the plums, dropping from the canopy, and decorating the woodland floor across the site.

Back in the meadow, we’ll continue to meddle with our own plants, keeping them productive and extending their growing period as far as we can – fresh flowers and foliage are needed for our work. But the beginning of the seeding season across the site is a certain reminder that their own story continues regardless of our interventions. Certainly not their final destination, just business as usual.


30th June 2017

Tuesday gardening is postponed to Wednesday due to the arrival of long-awaited rain: real rain. The reserve is quiet, cool and still and it occurs to me that the previous week had attracted such an abundance of ‘daytripping’ birds. Today is strictly residents only, and even the bees are absent. The heavy rain has left damage in its wake and across the site, the tree canopy is full and heavy. The Buddleia’s are sagging under the weight of their soggy blooms, bringing their perfume closer to nose height. The ponds are full of water, and unfortunately so is the tool shed.

Today is a day for weeding. Weeding the meadow has always been a confusing predicament, since its planting was initially inspired by a sympathetic attitude towards ‘weeds’. But, since some of our favoured ‘weeds’ do not have such a sympathetic attitude to one another, some intervention is required.

As ever, weeding begins with a quest for one weed only, namely ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), but always ends with more interesting discoveries. Last week’s ground ivy hunt unearthed a previously unknown colony of much-loved St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), taking our collection into double figures. This week, a less happy discovery of several bind-weeds (Convolvulus sp.), who have strayed into the meadow from their more acceptable position by the pond. Ground ivy – the master-smotherer – has finally met its match.

A more welcome sight this week is the flowering of Small teasel (Dipsacus pilosus) around the new wetland area. I’ve had my eye on this new arrival for several weeks, waiting for it to flower so it can be identified. At 5ft tall, its not so small, and one of a few pleasant surprises from a seed mix I scattered with Naseem in 2016. The plant is striking – pom-poms of white flowers with purple stamens, held on tall, prickly stems. Whilst the rest of the planting appears somewhat ‘weathered’ after a week of challenging weather, the teasel is unmoved, along with its resident cousin the wild teasel (D. fullonum). Whilst it’s not listed as a medicinal, the new teasel will provide a valuable new food source for the site’s pollinators when they return from hiding.