Phytology’s Gardener’s Report, written by horticulturist Gabby Boraston, offers a behind the scenes look at the Phytology site. Each report captures Gabby’s personal interaction with the space, but also provides an invaluable record of the site’s diverse plant and wildlife.
Interview with Gabby Boraston
Phytology: When and how did you first get involved with Phytology?
Gabby: I joined the team in the winter of 2013 as the horticultural lead for the project.
Phytology: What is the biggest challenge for a gardener working in this particular site?
Gabby: The biggest challenge is keeping the meadow green for all of our open days. The weather, harvesting, garden pests and the natural life-cycles of the plants all lead to drooping, bald patches and yellow foliage. Its a bit of a battle to keep it looking great and being as productive as possible.
Phytology: Before working for Phytology how involved/interested were you in the medicinal value of plants?
Gabby: Before working with Phytology, I had an emerging interest in ethnobotany having studied anthropology and completed my training in botanical horticulture at Kew. I’d worked in an apothecary’s garden as part of my training so had some knowledge of European herbs. Having then completed an intro to permaculture course, I was interested to see how a group of plants could serve multiple outcomes, in this context serving as artwork, nature reserve, medicine cabinet and food resource.
Phytology: For future years, how would you like to see the site develop?
Gabby: In the short term, I’m looking forward to seeing an increase in plant diversity across the site. The 2017 bat project has brought attention to an area of the reserve that we have left fairly untouched during our residency, so I am looking forward to seeing the impact of this on the bat population, and on human/non-human site users. In the long-long term, I would love to see lots of local people use and appreciate the site with confidence and independence, and for them to take a major role in safeguarding the site from mis-use and development.
Phytology: What do you hope people take away with them from visiting the site?
Gabby: I really hope that people leave the site understanding that wild spaces are rich and complex and that they are worthy of our regular attention. I hope that they feel humbled and amazed by the many plant and animal species that we have, and the incredible interactions that can be observed on site. For me, it is important that people understand that our wild spaces are safe and beautiful, and that they go on to share that experience with others. Also, a feeling of responsibility and an awareness of the precarious status of so many of our green spaces and native species.
Phytology: Do you think it is possible for Phytology to be a kind of blue print for councils looking to develop more green spaces in urban environments?
Gabby: Absolutely YES! The Bethnal Green Nature Reserve site is small, and therefore easily replicable. It provides multiple learning opportunities and plenty of scope for partnerships and collaborative projects. I’ve no doubt similar initiatives would be supported enthusiastically by local residents, many of whom are craving access to wild spaces. With the exception of our medicinal meadow, the site is very low-maintenance, but provides a vast number of social benefits to the community and the local environment, with minimal overheads.
Phytology: Do you have a first memory of a garden?
Gabby: My earliest memories of gardens are from around the age of 3 or 4. One involves standing on a bumble bee barefoot and crying a lot, because I got stung and because the bumble bee died. I have another memory of ice-skating on our tiny pond at a similar age, and falling straight in. A more happy garden memory is of my first pet giant snails that my dad and I hid in a tank in Nana’s garden. At the same time, we stole Nana’s slug pellets and replaced them with chopped up spaghetti that we painted blue, and she never noticed.
Phytology: What do you think gardens symbolise, or could potentially embody in the larger cultural landscape/community?
Gabby: Gardens have so many different interpretations and roles within the community, it is hard to pinpoint one. Although I have pursued gardening as a career, I would still say they are predominantly restful spaces that enable contemplation, in contrast to other elements of the urban landscape or working life. They provide a really healthy form of escapism for people who don’t find that relief elsewhere. Immersion in nature can allow people to find peace and solitude, without feeling fully alone.
Phytology: Most underrated plant – an unsung hero?
Gabby: I think all of our meadow plants get adored, celebrated and pampered year-round, as they should. So I’ll choose the Iris foetidissima (Stinking iris) which grows elsewhere on site. Its special adaptation is that it can grow in the depths of the woodland with almost no direct sunlight. This also means that it is very easy to miss it’s incredible flowers in late spring. They are easily the most beautiful, complex and delicate flowers on the site. It also has Bovril-scented foliage, which is pretty weird for a plant.
I can smell the site before I’ve stepped through the gate. The scent is pungent and animal-like. My first thought is to search the site for whichever animal is decomposing warmly in the undergrowth. It’s not unusual to find body parts here: a wing, a bones, sometimes a whole animal. Not today. An army of blackbirds, but not a feather out of place.
The soil throughout the site is dry. From the roadside you can see the old birch tree is already relenting, naked branches dropping yellowed leaves back to the woodland floor. Underneath, what was once a broad rug of green moss has sloughed away from the soil in dry clumps, like a lizard shedding its skin.
Our ‘open’ season here is coming to a close and the meadow is gradually being put to rest. Plants are being labelled and cut back, seedheads removed, cleaned and stored. We will wean the meadow from its weekly waterings. Growth will rapidly cease, stems will fold, seed will drop. Our regular irrigations have held many of the plants in a strange liminality. Weekly harvesting and dead-headings have offered plants like our nettles (Urtica dioca) not one summer, but 10, as they’ve battled against us to complete their life-cycles and drop their seed. Unaware of the imminent drought about to hit, many of our meadow plants continue to flower. The elecampane (Inula helenium) and chamomile (Matricaria recutita) are still bearing buds. Today I count 10 species of optimist in the meadow.
For the soil fauna, their season will begin as ours end. Wilting foliage will be rapidly colonised by fungi and bacteria. The various earthworms, beetles and microscopic organisms will draw the resulting mulch back down into the soil, feasting, breeding, belching. Our marked absence overground will act as a foil to the ensuing carnival of activity underfoot. In the woodland, without our regular attention, the process has already begun and toadstools spring up on fox-hills and tree roots.
And that foetid smell is ripeness, at once moreish and repugnant. It marks the threshold between growth and decay, as we prepare to down our tools and hand back the site.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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 ‘day-tripping’ 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.
I’ve never thought about the collective noun for a gathering of snails, despite farming several colonies of molluscs as a child. Until this week, when London is hit by an almighty June heatwave with temperatures over 30degC and, as predicted, no rain.
The reserve is heaving with wildlife, all seeking refuge in its relative dampness. The blackbirds and wrens politely share the 6 new ponds, whose importance now becomes so very evident. The fox is snoozing unnoticed in the dense wetland planting and an hour has passed before we spot her.
During these extremes of weather, the reserve becomes a testing ground for adaptation; who will thrive, who will cope, who will wilt? The marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), with its deep taproot, seeks out moisture deep in the soil. Its silver felty foliage reflects the sunlight back into the atmosphere and the long stems stand tall in the dry heat, in spite of what its name would suggest.
For the live-fast-die young annuals – chamomile (Chamomilla recutita) and poppy (Papaver rhoeas) – the heatwave provides an opportunity. They flower early, and if they can evade the foragers’ hands, they will set seed in abundance. Perhaps another ‘brood’ is possible before the summer is up.
Not all our plants show such resilience to the heat, and so we also adapt, taking it in turns to water the meadow nightly when the sun is lower. The sticky huddles of snails can finally emerge from under the Elecampane and graze on the young burdock leaves before the sun rises again the following morning. We all survive the difficult week.