There is something so particular about September sun slanting across leaves that seems to deliberately lead you away from summer. The light has the expectant air and stillness of a theatrical set before the actors arrive onstage. By the second week of the month trees were colouring at the fringes, the Ash ‘keys’, like hundreds of diminutive golden chandeliers turning a tarnished brown in a matter of days.
The bug-eyed Southern Hawker dragonfly
The Ha-ha meadow was cut, avoiding the top-hat sized ant hills dotted about. We had collected the seeds of the yellow rattle [Rhinanthus minor] “the meadow maker “, a semi-parasitic plant that reduces the vigour of the surrounding grasses, allowing for a more diverse range of wildflower to germinate and flourish. The wild carrot [Daucus carrota] had done particularly well this year, a fantastic plant for pollinators as it’s flat umbel provides a perfect landing pad for them to feed from the clusters of small flowers. While we spread the seeds, seven or eight Southern Hawker dragonflies suddenly appeared looking like a cluster of mad bug-eyed scientists whizzing from one Eureka moment to the next, evidently enticed by the insects the mower blades had disturbed.
We’ve been continuing our exploration of the subject of soil, having received the results from the garden samples we sent to the chemical analysis lab. The most striking information was how high the levels of phosphorus were, particularly in those beds where we had added compost from our own bays. This had been mixed with horse manure which explained the excess, but too much can present problems for plants being able to take up micronutrients like zinc and iron. On BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific, Professor Dale Sanders, a plant scientist whose research showed how plants extract nutrients from the soil at a molecular level, discussed the importance of calcium. He was the first to show how calcium’s electrical ‘signaling’ in a cell helps plants respond to stresses or nutrients. We were also very interested to listen to a podcast by Dr. Elaine Ingham, a soil biologist who explains why soils shouldn’t need rotations or chemical fertilisers if the balance of nematodes, bacteria and fungi are healthy. By understanding the ‘recipe’ of the biota and matching it with the range of your plant’s needs, natural processes can thrive without intervention. Clearly, we have a great deal to learn. The diverse voices we’re listening to reassures us that the notion of restarting natural processes as they occur in the greater rewilding project, is as relevant in the soil beneath our gardener’s boots as the plant and animal diversity above ground.
The next phase of Tom Stuart Smith’s design for the Kitchen Garden is about to get underway. Tom travelled down for a visit with Charlie and Issy, ourselves and Antony Riggall who is undertaking the groundworks. The paths are to be ‘dirtied’; the existing Breedon gravel scraped off and mixed with varying depths of soil, then replaced and firmed. These will be planted with mainly culinary herbs, reducing the width of the paths and softening the formal edges of the existing beds to irregular waves. The remainder of the turf will be removed and replaced with similar pathways, and we were relieved to hear we are to have a more extensive irrigation system laid. With this summer’s 37° peak, watering was a time-consuming affair.
The biggest change will be the raised beds. This regimented row of seven brick rectangles is to be replaced with one large dedicated vegetable growing area. Inspired by a visit to Charles Dowding, an organic vegetable grower and an early pioneer in the ‘No Dig’ movement, Tom was keen to implement the system in the design. This will certainly make moisture retention much better, allowing free movement of soil biota, and give us the ability to grow a greater variety of vegetables.
We’ve been reflecting on what has done well this year; back in February we seed swapped at Seedy Sunday in Brighton. The positives are the preservation of heritage varieties, often not commercially available, and the seeds being open-pollinated and non F1 [F1’s are sterile]. Unless you’re a fan of surprises and not too bothered about yield, the downsides are that you don’t always get what you expected; the tomatoes in particular were mostly disappointing, although in the greenhouse the summer heat may have been just too much despite the shading. We’ll put seed swap varieties among the beds next year and try to find a good alternative to ‘Sungold’ that is as delicious, high yielding and reliable but not F1. We did read that James Wong has collected his F1 seeds for years with great success in the growing, so we’ll see about experimenting with our own.
Deer rutting in the park
There had been some rain and many warm sunny days, rising to 30° towards the end of the month, both welcome and disturbing as suddenly overnight temperatures plummeted by fourteen degrees. We were wondering if there is ever a ‘normal’ year, or is it some whimsical childhood notion of the proper form a season should take? One sure manifestation of Autumn is the rut. Clearing some of the mass of self-seeded Sisyrinchium in the gravel terrace by the house; the sound of the stags reaches us, their prehistoric guttural calls compelling us to check that a T-Rex is not about to emerge from behind the yew hedges. That reminds us……another seasonal task to be done; but these are the yearly certainties that can anchor us in these unsettled times and allow us to take a step back and regain some perspective.
Moy Fierheller Joint Head Gardener September 2020
What we are reading:
The Life Scientific https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000lv3x
Wet on top, dry underneath https://soils.vidacycle.com/2020/09/
Elaine Ingham; Why healthy soils don’t need rotation https://open.spotify.com/episode/0mlyLiepV5TwCoE3nFxIf4