The Orange Tip

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Tag: ecology

Mulching With Autumn

Right, a rant. But I’ll make it a very small one.. and begin with a positive. There definitely is a change for the better in the way gardening is being approached these days; taking into account again the wider ecologistical (claiming that word for my own) practices that were once routine but long since discarded, and allowing nature to play a larger role in our so often otherwise prescribed and sterile ideas of how a garden should look.

However, having worked in ‘high end’ garden maintenance not so long ago, it seems there is still a common and baffling aversion to allowing leaves to fulfil their intended after-life destiny. Still deemed aesthetically displeasing, so often garden owners and parkland officers want their annual Autumn drop to be hidden, bagged or removed altogether. The result is simply that the same trees that shed them are having to go without their biggest and most essential feed of the year. The ecology is amazingly simple: no longer necessary for photosynthesis during Winter, the leaves are sealed off, die and drop, rotting down back into the ground and releasing nutrients back into the soil, ready for consumption by their creator. It’s one of the fundamental processes that have sustained our woodlands for millennia.

On top of this (or underneath), a huge range of creatures depend on leaf litter for survival, such as beetles, earthworms, hedgehogs and overwintering insects like ladybirds. And if not for any of these reasons, do it for the free mulch! It’ll keep the weeds down, enrich the soil and retain moisture for the dry times.

There we are.

Homes

An integral part of working in gardens is in the provision of habitat. It’s common courtesy, as a gardener, to look out for the greater ecology of creatures in their millions that work even harder than we do to maintain the borders, plants and soil. As simple a thing as a patch of un-mown grass or loosely stacked logs can form all the necessities with which a whole world can be created; a practice now familiarly advised in all our nature-related media. As gardeners, it’s sometimes hard to know exactly how far to take this advice, and how to balance gardening and conservation. Some may argue there is a line between the two, but if so, for me it’s a blurry one.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to Pam Lewis of Sticky Wicket gardens giving a talk at the Garden Museum in Lambeth, London. After hearing her describe, along with images of the various meadows and plants in her garden, the nature of her gardening approach, I realised something enormously important about my own ‘horticultural’ development. It seems that the more one strives to learn about the habits of the creatures and plants encountered while gardening, the deeper an irreversible connection is made with them. In just the same way as it is much harder to consume an ethically unsound product once it’s formation is learned, it becomes very difficult to knowingly sacrifice the needs of certain insects, birds or amphibians for the sake of a brighter flower or neater appearance.

In the case of Sticky Wicket, from what I understand, Pam is a (very good) example of the resulting extreme end; slowly shifting in favour of how best to serve the ecology of her landscape, rather than any pre-conceived aesthetics. It was clear in the way she spoke that such a shift only came about through a continued interest in the creatures she observed and stumbled upon while at work, a process that can be wonderfully  symbiotic with that of gardening itself.

Of course such a menial thing as leaving a few logs on the ground won’t dictate the mortality rate of a particular species of insect; they’ll make their own homes regardless. After an extensive study of the habitats found in our gardens, Ken Thompson writes of some interesting and conflicting results in his book, ‘No Nettles Required’. Often where measures were taken to provide areas in which certain creatures could theoretically flourish, very low numbers were sub-sequentially recorded.

Making conscious room for our wider garden ecologies may not therefore be a matter of life and death, but an awareness of their needs and importance is definitely a good, and ultimately mind-altering thing.  Pictured below are a few of the very basic gestures I have added (or left) in the garden here.