News Tagged ‘Nutrients’


Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Two blogs ago I looked at the variety and number of worms present in our gardens and the crucial role that they play in maintaining and creating soils. You can get really pro-active, though, and harness the power of worms even more directly by turning your hand to vermiculture (the keeping of worms) by creating your very own earthworm hotel in the form of a wormery. Wormeries are an efficient, easily maintained and eco-friendly way of disposing of much of your garden and kitchen waste. Once the worms have done their thing they will not only have composted and disposed of your waste but will also provide you with two wonderfully useful end products: supremely rich, crumbly, ultra-high-grade compost – known as vermicompost – and concentrated liquid plant feed.

Vermicompost - almost good enough to eat!

Earthworms are the most efficient and successful detrivores to have ever evolved. Each individual eats, digests, excretes, and thus processes, anything up to it’s own bodyweight in decaying plant material each day. Together, a healthy and active population of earthworms can process pretty much all the suitable material that you can find, greatly reducing the overall volume of  your waste. The solid material that they produce – the vermicompost – can be used directly in the garden or in pots as a topdressing, planting material, or a soil conditioner/improver, whilst the liquid needs to be diluted at the rate of around 10 parts of water to one of concentrate.

It is estimated that each individual in the UK generates something in the order of 500kg of waste on an annual basis, and that each household collectively throws away over a tonne of waste every year. Something like 70% of this household waste has the potential to be either recycled or composted. Despite the fact that the majority of the people now regard recycling as worthwhile, currently only 14.5% of dustbin contents actually are recycled or composted. As a result many local authorities now offer for sale to the public compost generated by their own recycling efforts.

However, it makes far more sense for the individuals who are generating the waste to take direct responsibility for the disposal of at least some of the compostable elements. This, surely, is the most viable model for the future of kitchen and garden waste, saving money and time for the local authorities currently charged with it’s disposal (and by extension for the council tax payers who fund the process) and simultaneously providing a valuable source of planting raw materials for households that would otherwise have to buy them in. That’s what I call a win/win.

Of course many households who have access to an outside garden already do compost at least a proportion of their waste via their compost bins and heaps. Nevertheless, wormeries provide an invaluable alternative strategy for all households – they can process compostable waste far more rapidly than the average compost heap whilst opening up composting to those who have very limited outside space, or even no outside garden at all.

A 100 Litre wormery.

The equipment to create a wormery can readily be purchased, and generally consists of a large plastic bin with a tight-fitting hinged lid containing airholes and an internal perforated platform that separates the liquid waste from the solid. The bin is also fitted with a tap at the base from where the liquid can be drawn.

The earthworms that live and work within the wormeries are not the regular, soil-dwelling species that populate much of our regular garden soil. Terrestrial species would not survive in a wormery, instead one or more of the different species of British native compost worms must be used: composting worm (Eisenia andrei), red tiger worms (Eisenia foetida) or brandlings (Dendrabeana venera). The inhabitants for your wormery are generally supplied along with their living quarters, but failing that they can also be sourced from fishing shops or some organic gardening suppliers.

Compost worms - Eisenia foetida AKA Tiger Worms.

A well-maintained wormery should be odour-free, and so can happily live right outside the kitchen door or even indoors, where practically possible. To start the wormery place a single sheet of newspaper (about 20cm square) onto the separating platform and cover this with dampened, shredded newspaper. To this add a small amount of peat-substitute compost, such as coir, leaf mould or any other well-rotted sterile compost. The worms can now now placed into the middle of the bedding in their new home, along with their first meal – which should be no more than three or four handfuls of kitchen or garden waste. The lid should be left open for ten minutes or so, so that the light will encourage the worms to burrow down into the bedding. No additional food should be added for the next 7 days.

Wormeries may readily be located just outside a house door.

Once the worms have bedded in, they will start to increase their activity and speed of feeding. Initially add only small amounts (perhaps three of four handfuls) of waste each week and monitor to ensure that it’s all being digested and is disappearing as it should. Once the initial settling-in period has passed then kitchen and garden waste may be added at the rate it becomes available, ideally every day. Tough and woody material should be chopped up as finely as possible and the whole contents should be gently mixed through every so often to ensure an even distribution of worms and material.

Most wormeries are housed out of doors, and worm activity will slow with falling winter temperatures, however, if the wormery is sufficiently full at the start of winter, then the heat generated by the process of decomposition is generally sufficient to prevent the internal temperature of the wormery from dropping too much. Insulating the wormery over-winter can be a great help, and of course it can also be moved into a shed or garage to help maintain temperatures, particularly during very cold spells. Equally wormeries should never be placed in strong sunlight as the compost worms will not survive temperatures above 40°C.

When the wormery is nearly full and the material fully composted the contents will have a dark, spongy, soil-like appearance. Remove the worms, which should usually be in a layer just below the surface, and place them temporarily in a bucket or other suitable container. The compost may then be emptied out of the bin where you intend to use them or saved for use as an ingredient for making up your own potting compost. Your worms can be replaced into the newly set-up wormery and used for making the next batch of compost. It is usually possible to harvest worm compost from your wormery about every four to nine months, depending on temperatures, location and material used.

Most kitchen and garden vegetable waste can be added to a wormery – anything that you would add to a compost heap, essentially. However, compost worms cannot tolerate acidic conditions, and the failure of a wormery is often down to the pH dropping too low. This is further verified by the appearance of tiny cotton thread-like white worms in the compost. The addition of calcified seaweed, or crushed eggshells, well mixed in with some dampened, shredded newspaper, should restore the balance.

Wonder Worms.

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Most gardeners are very well aware that worms are crucially important garden friends, and that their presence (or absence) in soil is a good indicator of how healthy that soil is. But earthworms do virtually all of their work undetected and invisible to us surface dwellers, so the exact mechanisms by which they operate are somewhat more mysterious.

Earthworms have been dubbed “ecosystem engineers”, and, like their human counterparts, they are able to alter the physical structure of their environments. Worms move through the soil by means of burrowing, with different species specialising in either horizontal or vertical runways some of which can extend deep into the soil. These burrows create a network of virtual pores through which beneficial oxygen and water can enter and carbon dioxide can exit the soil. At the same time worms digest their way through their surroundings, literally breaking larger particles into smaller, and their resulting faeces (worm casts) are responsible for much of the open, crumb structure of the the best soils, which in turn allows access to plant roots and myriad other subterranean organisms.

An earthworm cast.

Improvement in soil structure is only the start of the story, however. Earthworms are detrivores – meaning that they feed exclusively on dead material – and they play an equally vital role in the decomposition of that organic material. The earthworms resident in your compost are busily munching their way through, and thus decomposing your garden and kitchen waste, and soil-dwelling earthworms are engaged in exactly the same process. Together with a galaxy of fungi and bacteria this process of decomposition releases the nutrients tied-up in dead plants and animals and allows them to be accessed by living plants. The volume of material processed in this way is pretty staggering – just consider, for starters, all of the autumn leaves shed by deciduous trees and shrubs each season that are efficiently and rapidly recycled back into the soil, a job done largely by worms.

The industrious work of earthworms also acts to mix together the different strata of soil. Nutrition is incorporated deeper into the soil (without which it would be rapidly leached of it’s goodness by rain and the feeding of living plants) and the fertile top-soil region is slowly expanded. These actions lead Charles Darwin to refer to earthworms as “nature’s ploughs” due to their ability to mix and fertilise soil with organic matter, but worms are hugely more efficient, and entire ecosystems are dependent opon their actions.

An earthworm - this one is Lumbricus terrestris - in its burrow.

Earthworms, as mentioned above, aren’t the only operators in the area of decomposition. In fact they are the  first level – the macro-scale when it comes to matters of micro-organisms – and fungi and bacteria take over where they leave off, breaking particles into even smaller pieces and fully releasing the nutrients within. For the most part, however, these fungi and bacteria are unable to survive without the presence of worms, who are, effectively, responsible for providing their food, so whilst worms can operate independently of their decompostion partners the same can’t be said of the bacteria and fungi. What’s more the higher the concentration of worms in a given soil the larger the presence of beneficial bacteria and fungi will be.

It comes as a surprise to many gardeners to learn that there are actually many species of earthworm present in a typical garden, and even more so to hear that they all specialise in different terrains. From a gardeners point of view the species can be broken down into four broad groups.

First up are the so-called compost earthworms, so-named for their love of compost bins. They require a warm, continually moist environment with a regular supply of new material on which to feed and are highly active, digesting rapidly and reproducing quickly too. The most commonly encountered species of the compost group are Eisenia fetida and E. veneta, both characterised by their relatively small size and bright red colour with distinctive paler stripes, which lends them the common name of Tiger Worms.

Eisenia fetida - one of the familiar Tiger Worm compost species.

The second group are known as the Epigeic earthworms. They live on the soil surface amongst the leaf litter – Epigeic literally means to crawl across the surface of the soil – and can be regarded as the first line of attack in the decomposition of material and the recycling of nutrients. These species do not burrow at all, but feed exclusively above ground, breaking-down organic material into pieces small enough for the subterranean species to access easily. Epigeic earthworms are generally also bright red or red-ish-brown, but they lack the stripes of the compost species. Common Epigeic earthworm species include: Dendrobaena species, Eiseniella tetraedra, Helodrilus oculatus, Lumbricus species and Satchellius mammalis.

Next up come the Endogeic earthworms. As might be imagined, these species both live in and feed directly upon the soil. They create networks of horizontal burrows through which they move and digest/excrete as they go and are able to burrow deep into the soil. Although they do re-use their burrows to some extent they characteristically create new burrows as they go. Endogeic earthworms are large in size and generally pale in colour, with different species appearing  pink or grey as well as green-ish or blue-ish. Common endogeic species include: Allolobophora chloroticaApporectodea species, Murchieona muldali and Octolas species.

Allolobophora chlorotica - commonly known as the Green Earthworm.

The final group are the anecic earthworms. These species make permanent, vertical burrows in the soil and feed upon surface leaves that they capture on the surface and drag into their burrows. The anecic species are the ones responsible for the familiar surface piles of worm-casts so often seen in lawns and other grasslands where they create middens that surround the entrance to their burrows. Anecic species are the largest of our native earthworms and are dark red or brown in colour at the head end with paler tails. The two most common species are: Lumbricus terrestris and Apporrectodea longa.

Apporrectodea longa - the Black-Headed Worm.

The anatomy of an earthworm consists of a simple digestive tube housed within a thick cylindrical muscular sheath that forms the body. That body is segmented with furrows on the surface of the body marking the division between each segment. The first segment incorporates the mouth of the animal, and has a fleshy, muscular lobe on the top. This lobe can be pulled in to seal the mouth off, or pushed outwards to investigate its surroundings. Aside from the mouth, each of the segments has a series of eight retractable bristles which together allow the earthworm to propel itself along.

Earthworms are hermaphrodites, with each individual possessing both male and female reproductive organs. When two earthworms are ready to mate they adopt a head-to-tail position, cover themselves in a layer of mucus, and exchange sperm. Each then forms a tube of mucous that detaches and moves forward along the body, collecting both the individuals own eggs as well as the sperm received from its partner en route.

Mating earthworms.

Fertilization subsequently occurs within this mucous tube which detaches from the front of the body and is deposited in the soil where it dries to form an egg capsule or cocoon, from which one or more young earthworms will eventually hatch. Many species are able to breed several times a year.

Earthworm egg cocoons - these are from L. terrestris.

Going up in the World – the Benefits of Raised Beds.

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Raised planting beds, in one form or another, have been in use  for almost as long as humans have been cultivating plants – just think of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon….Whatever plants you intend growing, be they ornamental or culinary, these useful and highly adaptable garden features offer a remarkable range of benefits over growing directly in the ground and, so long as you’re not intending to create a new 8th wonder of the world, they can also generally be created simply and cheaply.

Simple but effective - a series of small raised beds awaiting filling.

Amongst the most immediate advantages are that you can cultivate all sorts of things that wouldn’t ordinarily be growable in your garden. Your garden might have soil that is too acid for vegetables, or too alkaline for ericaceous plants, for example, or your ground might be too stony, wet, quick draining etc. Going one step further, raised beds will allow you create planting areas where none currently exist at all, such as in a courtyard or rooftop, or simply make the very most of a small, or awkwardly shaped garden.

The extension of planting choices doesn’t stop at the soil itself however, as the actual sighting of the bed itself can open up new planting possibilities – a hot sunny location is perfect for a herb bed, for instance, and the extra drainage of the raised bed creates the perfect planting conditions too. On the other hand a spot in dappled shade, perhaps beneath the canopies of overhead trees,  would be ideal for growing a collection of woodland gems that might otherwise get swamped in open ground.

The dramatically improved drainage afforded by a raised bed makes the ideal planting environment for alpines.

If your soil is thin, stony, infertile or full of subsoil clay – all of which are common problems for the gardens of many new build houses, amongst others – then the addition of garden compost, well-rotted manure or leaf-mould will allow you to immediately create rich, balanced and ideal planting conditions. Improvements of the garden soil itself could take many years or even decades to come close to providing the same quality of growing environment and annual additions and improvements will be maintained within the beds much more readily than they would in the open ground too.

Another key benefit is that the soil in raised beds is not walked on and so remains uncompacted. In order to create an optimum growing medium  soil needs plenty of water and air moving freely throughout. Compaction progressively destroys the soil structure, prevents the movement and retention of both of these key elements and so seriously limits root growth. Crop yields from vegetables, fruit or flowers are all significantly better where compaction is avoided, and individual plants can also be spaced more closely together, further maximising the use of space.

Lots of veg packed in closely, making the most of the available space.

Even without any additional protection the improved drainage within raised beds means that the soil warms more quickly at the start of the growing season and the start of each day too. The leads to improved growth in general, but also allows Spring vegetables to be planted out earlier, and so the whole crop year is extended, which, once again leads to a more efficient use of space and time.

The benefits aren’t limited to simply extending planting choices, however. When properly sited and built to an appropriate level raised beds can dramatically increase the discomfort and/or pain of bending and kneeling to tend your plants as well as bringing smaller plants closer to eye level where they can be appreciated, tended or cropped, as appropriate. They can also allow access to planting areas that would be almost impossible to gardeners in wheelchairs or with limited mobility.

Raised beds can allow far greater access to soil and plants at a convenient height.

Once established raised beds will rarely, if ever need to be entirely dug over. The presiding principle is to add more nutrition at the surface and let the worms and other friendly soil beasties do the hard work for you, so, as a sub-section of no-dig gardening, working with raised beds requires much less physical work. General maintenance - watering, pest removal and particularly weeding – are also made easier since the soil level is closer to hands and eyes and the lack of compaction allows even the most stubborn weeds to readily be teased out.

Working with a fixed, raised frame bed also allows for the easy attachment of protective covers, when needed. Frost protection can be vital for getting seedlings and veg crops established in spring, and the solid boundaries of the bed can be purpose made to hold season-extending horticultural fleece, for instance. At the other end of the season fruit crops, in particular, can easily be protected from bird damage, by again using the frame of the raised bed as an attachment point for netting.

Highly beneficial though they are, raised beds needn’t simply be all about utility are crop-yields. From a design perspective, using raised beds in the garden is a bit like being given an extra spacial dimension with which to work, and can open up a whole new range of possible shapes, heights and effects that would otherwise be unavailable. It’s not simply a question of  having plants higher than ground level either, as the sides of beds can be turned into cascading walls of foliage or the beds themselves used to divide up an otherwise open space, in turn helping to provide shelter, shade or just simply surprises-around-the-corner in any garden.

Raised beds can make for beautiful, as well as functional garden features.

Despite their great simplicity raised beds certainly are extremely valuable additions to any garden, and it’s no wonder that they’ve been a staple of worldwide horticulture for millennia. In my next blog I’ll be looking at how to create a raised bed and the different materials that can be used.

Multi-tasking in the Garden and Kitchen!

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

On seeing the weather forecast for this week, I decided to make the most of the sunny day yesterday and did some jobs in the garden. It may be a little early but I pruned my Autumn fruiting raspberries  ..  they had all but finished fruiting and it is a job that I like doing, because of the job satisfaction provided with the end results.  Note to self .. get some well rotted manure from our neighbours to mulch and provide nutrients to the soil! 

I have made an attractive Halloween display in my house, putting all my homegrown pumpkins in a rustic basket, saving the largest to be carved before the weekend.  This proved cheaper than a bunch of flowers, and is far more current!  I also used one of my butternut squashes that was being stored in a hessian sack   and made some delicious Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Soup  …  recipe below:

Butternut squash and sweet potato soup recipe


  • 25g butter
  • 1 large onion, peeled and chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
  • 1 medium butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cubed
  • 800g sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1.5 litres vegetable stock
  • 150ml whole milk
  • Handful of chopped Parsley or Coriander (optional)

1. Melt the butter in a large pan. Add the onion and cook over a low heat for 5-6 minutes until softened, stirring occasionally.

2. Add the garlic, squash and sweet potatoes. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, removing the lid and stirring occasionally.

3. Pour the stock into the pan and bring to the boil. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the milk. Blitz with a stick blender or cool for around an hour then transfer to a liquidiser and blend until smooth.

4.Return to the pan and reheat just before serving. Adjust the seasoning to taste and ladle into warmed bowls.

I noticed that my Bird Bistro needed refilling so, I quickly popped a refill on, before moving on to the next job. Just before darkness fell, I collected some eggs from the nesting box, and encouraged the chikens to go to bed (with a handful of corn) because there is evidence of a visiting fox in the paddock where the hens roam.  One last visit to the vegetable patch to grab a handful of red chard, and a couple of leeks for the stir-fry, and I would say jobs well done today!

Cold Enough for Soup!

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

I can’t believe how cold it has become again …  I even woke up this morning to frost on the roof of my car!  But luckily it hasn’t seemed to settle as low as my lettuces, and new potato shoots that have been emerging from the ground during the last week.  3 years ago we planted some asparagus plants in our vegetable patch, and somehow we managed to lose 2 of the plants the second year but the remaining plant has this year done exactly what it said on the label … started to produce really respectable looking asparagus spears!  My home grown spears are too precious to use to make soup, however my local farm shop and all the major supermarkets have shelves bursting with asparagus at the moment, so this weekend I used the last of my homegrown leeks and some of my white onions, with the shop bought asparagus and made some really delicious soup bursting with nutrients, and this is the recipe I used:



  • 800g asparagus, woody ends removed
  • lug of olive oil
  • 2 medium white onions, peeled and chopped
  • 2 sticks of celery, trimmed and copped
  • 2 leeks, trimmed and chopped
  • 2 litres good-quality chicken or vegetable stock, if preferred
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


Chop the tips off your asparagus and put these to one side for later. Roughly chop the asparagus stalks. Get a large, deep pan on the heat and add a good lug of olive oil. Gently fry the onions, celery and leeks for around 10 minutes, until soft and sweet, without colouring. Add the chopped asparagus stalks and stock and simmer for 20 minutes with a lid on. Remove from the heat and blitz with a hand-held blender or in a liquidizer. Season the soup with salt and pepper until just right. Put the soup back on the heat, stir in the asparagus tips, bring back to the boil and simmer for a few more minutes until the tips have softened.

We ate the soup hot, but if the weather was warmer this soup is equally tasty served chilled.

I have reason again to sprinkle EcoCharlie Natural Slug and Snail Deterrent in my vegetable patch.  Last year I vowed to never again buy a shop bought pumpkin for Halloween.   After a false start due to a mouse digging up the planted pumpkin seeds to eat, from the 4 little pots that were waiting to germinate in the potting shed, I was able to plant out the replacement seedlings that germinated in my conservatory!  I loaded the soil with some well roted compost, and once the plants were securely in the ground, I applied some Natural Slug and Snail Deterrent around each plant to save them from the next potential attack! 

I am happy to say that the seed strips that I have been experimenting with, have all germinated and I have perfectly straight lines of well spaced rocket, beetroot and carrots emerging.  Also the first of the rhubarb is now ready to harvest, so I feel sure there will be a recipe to follow next time.   Anyway, must be off now ….   it’s time to give the hens their afternoon treat of mixed corn!

Bog Gardening.

Monday, April 5th, 2010

A mature bog can rival any other ornamental zone of the garden.

Bog gardens aren’t one of the more frequently seen garden features, and probably aren’t often near the top of the list for many gardeners when considering what features to add to a new plot. This is a shame, because they can provide attractions to rival any pond, and with very little effort.

Bog gardens are also the ideal solution for making practical use of a wet, poorly drained or otherwise awkward spot in the garden, as well as providing a perfect introduction to the delights of aquatic life for those with young children who might be concerned about safety around a pond.

Rodgersia tabularis - luscious leaves, around 90cm across.

All of which might make the bog garden sound like a second-class citizen to the pond proper, which is definitely not the case. In nature boggy, marshy regions are at least as frequent and widespread as open water and come with their own very rich and diverse eco systems, habitats and range of plants.

In the garden there are actually a huge range of plants that either thrive in bog gardens, or actively need them to survive, and in order to be able to welcome some of these plants into your own garden you, of course, have to provide them with a suitable habitat.

Wild boggy regions are, at least in these Isles, very much endangered, restricted and reduced in area, most having been drained long ago for agricultural use.

Making a bog garden in your own plot might not go very far to redressing the balance of these endangered habitats, but it certainly will encourage a range of insects, amphibians, birds and even (if you’re very lucky) reptiles, as well as giving a little pocket that marsh and bog plants can call home.

Where to position a Bog Garden.

A small trough bog garden.

One of the satisfying aspects of bog gardening is that they are pretty easy to create and don’t take too much maintenance – always a plus.

Much like ponds bog gardens they need to be positioned where they will receive the most direct sunlight possible – preferably for at least half the day during the growth period.

If you have a muddy, wet, frustratingly soggy spot in the garden already, so much the better.

Think how satisfying to be able to stop fighting the problem and basically let nature take it’s course!

With the right container bog gardens can be added to pretty much any location.

If you have a pond already then the drainage side is also an ideal, and entirely natural location for adding bog garden. Just be sure that the bog area is lower then the surface of the water, you want the pond to drain and overflow into the bog, definitely not the other way around.

Siting the two side by side will also give you the largest possible range of plants and allow for a natural transition and blend between the two habitats.

Just as with a pond, it’s equally possible to create a bog garden in an otherwise perfectly well drained site, however, so don’t feel that you need to have a semi marsh in your back yard before you can begin.

Making a Bog Garden.

Excavation for a new bog garden.

You can create a bog garden on pretty much any scale that suits your fancy and your site, and you certainly don’t need a big space, much less natural water flowing through your garden.

Once you’ve decided on a site, and an approximate size, and assuming you have a soil based garden, then you can get to digging.

Bog gardens are shallow habitats, and you only need to go down by around 30cm. The easiest option is then to line the base with a butyl type pond liner, although if you do have a naturally year-round wet site this may not be necessary.

The liner needs to have a small number of holes cut into it to allow for a slow, percolating drainage, otherwise it may turn into a shallow pond. If you have a very heavy clay soil (which is often likely to be the case in an existing wet spot in the garden) then this can be used as a natural lining, and, once you’ve dug out, you may well find the resulting hole starts to fill with water from the natural water table and/or with rainwater.

The same garden, now with a liner and sand base.

Small bog gardens can also be created entirely within containers, if need be, which allows them to be added to pretty much any location, from paved yards to rooftops. Choose a wide, relatively shallow container – old basins are ideal and can be highly decorative.

Whichever method of construction you’ve chosen add around an inch of sand into the bottom, to assist wit drainage and then backfill the bog garden-to-be with a 50/50 mixture of garden soil and compost that can also enriched with well-rotted manure for optimal results.

Next comes the water. Ideally rainwater should be used, but tap water works fine too so long as it’s left to stand in the new bog garden for a few days, allowing the chlorine to evaporate before planting. Fill the lined bog garden to overflowing point, at which point you will have created a big, gloopy, muddy bath. As the soil starts to settle, and a little of the water percolates away, the whole thing will settle and firm up somewhat, at which point it’s ready to plant.

Plants for a bog garden.

Ligularia stenocephala The Rocket

There are a really wide range of possibilities for planting, depending on whether you want a naturalistic or very ornamental look, or a combination of the two.

Yellow Irises (Iris pseudacorus) and purple Irises (I. sibirica and I. ensata) are hard to resist, and Candelabra Primulas, Rodgersia species, Trollius, Astilbes, Marsh Marigolds (Caltha palustris ) Ligularia, Persicaria, the fabulous Ostrich-Feather Fern (Matteuccia spp.) and even more spectacular, autumn colouring Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) are all pretty irresistible.

A semi-tropical, exotic look is easy to create too, and the addition of Rheums (Giant Rhubarbs) or, where space allows, Gunnera (REALLY Giant Rhubarb) along with Zantedeschia (Arum lilies) and the fabulous Lysichitons will do the trick with ease.

Lysichiton americanus - think BIG!

Once established many bog plants will grow pretty rapidly and will spread and colonise new areas of their new habitat, so don’t fill every available space, as you might think of doing in a new border.

Finally, when everything is planted, consider adding rocks, logs, driftwood, whatever feels right for your garden. Old stumps and rotting wood make for great and entirely natural additions – just the sort of thing that you find in bogs worldwide in fact – as well as providing valuable wildlife habitats and shelter.

Keep a watch on the moisture levels, depending on the weather and the location of your bog garden, you may need to top up with water from time to time to keep everything suitably marshy.

Improving your soil.

Monday, March 1st, 2010

A few days ago I blogged about the importance of getting to know your soil, but, as vital as this knowledge is, it’s what you do next that really counts.  Once armed with the basics of your soil type and it’s strengths and weaknesses you can then set about planning how best to make improvements.

Loam - the dream soil for any gardener.

You can think of garden soils as being like the scoring areas of a dartboard, with bands and boxes of possible scores representing all the different varieties of soil. Some will deliver a higher “score” than others, allowing you to grow a wider and richer variety of garden plants, but the ultimate goal has to be the bull’s-eye, which, in the case of garden soils, is a rich, crumbly, open, humus-rich loam – think of worm-casts.

The big difference between your garden and a dartboard, though, is that with a little help from you, the trusty gardener, your soil score can be shifted around and boosted in all sorts of ways, and eventually land right on that bull’s-eye.

The general catch-all advice to apply compost whenever you plant anything and to mulch everything once a year is certainly a good start, but it’s by no means the end of the soil improvement story.

Improving soil structure.

The most common soil type is clay based and they tend to be sticky, dense and poorly drained, in extreme cases plants can essentially drown over winter with the roots rotting of into a big wet mush. Improving a clay soil means breaking up that dense structure by creating micro air pockets throughout, which will automatically improve drainage.

Adding compost to clay might help initially, but within a matter of months that organic material will have been thoroughly assimilated and broken down by bacteria and you’re back to square one.

Pea shingle - the number 1 remedy for opening up a heavy clay soil.

The longer-term solution is to add in large quantities of inert, non-organic, (i.e. non break-down-able) material to open the structure and keep the clay particles apart permanently.

Grit and/or pea shingle are what is needed, the exact quantities being dependant on just how much clay there is present in the soil.

A general incorporation of any of these materials every time you dig, plant or work the soil will slowly improve conditions both for plants as well as for worms and other essential soil fauna.

Composted bark.

Beware of adding sand to a clay soil, the particles simply aren’t large enough to open up the dense clay and you’ll likely end up making a kind of home-grown garden cement mix instead.

The next phase in all about keeping a good supply of coarse (and it must be coarse) organic mulch on the soil surface, ideally in bi-annual applications.

Chunky composted bark is pretty much ideal for the task, as is semi-composted leaf mould.

The aim here is not to feed the soil directly – clay soils are already naturally full of nutrition – but instead to feed those worms and myriad soil critters & micro-organisms who will then repay you by working, digging, digesting and opening up the soil 365 days a year.

Improving soil moisture levels.

Light soils – typically sand or chalk based – suffer from the opposite problem to clay soils. They drain beautifully, so nothing’s ever likely to drown, but they are very bad at retaining moisture and gardeners are likely to be forever watering and feeding to keep their plants looking spruce.

Here the non-organic, inert parts of the ideal soil are already present, and you’ll certainly never have to add shingle to a sandy soil, but often the organic elements are sorely lacking.

Humus is organic material that has been digested, and processed by soil bacteria until it has reached the point of stability – in other words it won’t break down any further, but neither will it disappear from the soil. With light soils the aim is always to increase the humus content, which in turn makes for a more porous, sponge-like soil that will retain water through dry spells, but still drain well in the wet.

Leafmould - the most natural of all soil conditioners.

Bulky, organic materials are the solution and your own garden compost is likely to be as good as anything, as well as being chemically harmonious with your garden (since all the leaves and garden debris originated from there in the first place!)

Well-rotted farmyard manure and leaf mould also work well, and other options include old mushroom compost (which is very alkaline) and composted paper, spent brewery hops or seaweed.

All of these should be added as a mulch, where, once again, the worms will do the rest for you.

Mulching has the added benefit of insulating the soil from evaporation and should be considered pretty essential to help conserve moisture levels in lighter soils.

Adding nutrition.

Nutrition is not the same as structural bulk in a soil, although the most useful materials can certainly supply both. Most mulches, though, are not going to do anything for your soil nutrition levels, in fact they may even end up depleting nutrition as bacteria use up nitrogen to break down bulky material like wood and bark chips.

The decomposition of organic matter – be it compost from your garden or manure from a farm – involves several phases, and it’s only during the final phase (when things are pretty much well and truly rotted) that nutrients are released back into the soil in a balanced and useful way.

Horse Manure - well composted and ready for garden action.

Quick fix plant feeds (be they liquid or solid, such as pelleted chicken manure) may feed individual plants but will generally leach away almost immediately and are of no lasting benefit to the general soil. The old maxim of “feed the soil not the plant” is definitely one to keep in mind.

Well-rotted manure (preferably horse, though any large-ish herbivore that you happen to have handy will also supply the goods) is certainly the number one choice for adding slow release nutrition – principally nitrogen – into the soil. Bonemeal is also slow to break down and releases phosphorus as it decays, and wood ash (which like mushroom compost is strongly alkaline) will provide potassium.

Together these are the three main elements for plant growth and will provide the recipe for effective and long-term soil nutrition.

Getting to know your soil.

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Selecting and arranging plants in the garden is probably one of the most rewarding tasks for any gardener, and one that many of us devote lots of time and thought too, but how many of us can say the same for the soil in which those same plants will have to grow?

Good old garden soil isn’t as pretty, glamorous or tasty(?!) as the flowers, trees and veg that it supports, but getting to knowing your soil, it’s limitations and benefits, must be one of the most useful things you can do in any plot. It will allow you to determine the range of plants best suited for success in your particular garden, and so minimise disappointments, and will also let you figure out the best methods to improve the soil you already have.

There are five different types of soil found in British gardens. Any given site can, of course, have a combination of several of these types, and there are also gradations between types, as well as extremes of each, where the gardening is at it’s most challenging. Being able to recognise your particular soil types is probably the best place to start in any garden.


A pure clay lump - typical of subsoil that has been brought to the surface.

All soil types are, to a large extent, determined by particle size and clay soils have the smallest particles of all. Pure clay – which makes up much of the British subsoil – is just like modelling clay, the sort of thing you’d expect to find spinning round on a potters wheel. Put a glob between your fingers at it will feel smooth and putty-like.

Most clay garden soils aren’t quite as extreme as that – although individual, fist-sized balls of pure clay are not uncommon even in topsoil, and are typical of new gardens where the subsoil has been disturbed and brought up to the surface by building work.

The great benefit of a clay based soil is that it is extremely nutrient rich and capable of supporting a very wide range of plants. The downsides are all to do with that tiny particle size. When wet the soil is extremely heavy and frustratingly difficult to dig and work with. It can also be easily compacted, driving all of the air out and forming a dense, thick layer that roots can find all but impenetrable. Although clay soils are naturally very moisture retentive – which can be handy in a dry summer – when they do dry out they bake into an extremely hard, cracked surface pan which is, once again, completely unworkable.


Sandy soil - open and free running.

A sandy soil is one with a very small percentage of clay particles, where the large bulk is instead made up of much more coarse quartz and silica originating from weathered rock. Take a chunk of this between your fingers and it will always feel gritty and loose. Unlike a clay soil, sand-based soils will never “clump” and will always be more-or-less free running when you dig through them.

Sandy soils can make for fantastic cultivation options; they warm up very easily in the spring and so promote a long growing season, they will never be water-logged and are easily worked at any time of the year. The major downsides are to do with fertility and water-retention, which are both pretty poor, or in extreme cases, non-existent. A wide array of drought tolerant, generally surface rooting plants have evolved to specialise in sandy soils, but unless you are happy to stick with these, a sandy soil will require ongoing maintenance to allow for a wide community of plants to flourish.


Lovely loam - nutrient rich and easily worked.

Loam is a kind of generic term given to the ideal garden soil that consists of a roughly equal mixture of clay and sand, and which brings the benefits of both soil types with few if any of the disadvantages.

Loam soils are open, and easily worked but full of nutrients. They are moisture retentive in summer but free draining in winter.

There is no doubt that a loam based soil will support the widest range of garden plants with the least amount of alteration and soil maintenance. Very few “wild” soils are naturally loamy – river basins and flood plains with millennia of silt deposits are perhaps the main exception – although having a loam garden soil is, understandably, an ongoing holy grail for most gardeners. Continued cultivation and improvement will gradually move any soil towards a loamy condition.


Chalk soil - typically very shallow and stony.

Certain localised regions of Britain have naturally calcareous or chalk-based soils, all of which are derived from weather limestone, which is itself the result of deposition in ancient, long-since-disappeared oceans.

Chalk soils are identifiable by their light colour. They are generally very stony too, with pieces of pure calcium chalk in the mix. They can be wet and difficult to work in winter but bone dry and rock-like in summer, and their overall nutrient level is low.

Again, a specialised wild flora has evolved to thrive on chalk soils, but many cultivated plants will find conditions much tougher. Most garden plants require acidic to neutral soils in order to be able to access the full range of nutrients that they need. Chalk soils, though, are inherently alkaline in nature and, unless you plan on replacing the entire top soil, that’s not something that can be fundamentally changed.


A very pure, black-peat soil.

The other localised soil type, and at the other extreme from the chalk soils, are the peat-based soils. All of these soils occur in regions that were once marshland, and the peat is the result of many millennia of rotting plants all deposited and compacted.

Peat-based soils are, of course, naturally acidic, and very dark in colour ranging from dark brown to pure black bog peats. This dark colour ensures that  the soils warm rapidly in spring and like loam soils, provide for a long growing season. They are also recognisable for being very light and crumbly in texture but having a poor range of nutrients naturally available.

Depending on where they are located peat soils may either be very wet and still marsh-like year round or, where the geology has displaced and raised the ground level, seasonally dry and easily cultivated. Again, a range of plants have evolved to specialise in peat-soils, and so long as the area isn’t water-logged, the gardening possibilities are rich and extensive.

Wildlife ponds.

Friday, February 19th, 2010

Having some form of water in the garden, whether running or still is certainly one of the top choices for many gardeners, wherever they may garden. Most also know that providing water, and a pond in particular, is one of the key things that you can do to help out and attract wildlife into the garden.

A very well established wildlife pond.

Not all ponds are created equal, however, and there’s a world of difference between an ornamental pond and a wildlife pond. That’s not to say that wildlife ponds are not ornamental – considering the added benefits of wildlife watching I’d say they are actually more attractive.

Equally, ponds build purely for ornament can also be useful to some wildlife, but they are just as likely to prove frustratingly out-of-reach for many species that are otherwise itching to call your garden their home.

So if you have a pond already nestled somewhere in your garden, or are pondering adding one somewhere, what are the main considerations for attracting wildlife?


First off it’s pretty critical that your pond is located in as sunny a spot as possible. Shade, whether from buildings or over-hanging trees, is not a recipe for a well-balanced aquatic eco-system. From plants to frog-lets to dragonflies, they all require the suns energy in large doses if they’re to live long and prosper.


Broad-Bodied Chaser - a dragonfly that specialises in colonising new ponds.

Over-hanging trees can not only serve to block out the vital light, but are also likely to deposit large quantities of fallen leaves in the water, which will either spell possible disaster for the pond-life, or a considerable amount of wet and squelchy work for you as you try to keep them out in the first place.

Tree roots also have a habit of puncturing liners – even solid ones – so be wary of locating a pond too near to them. On the other hand almost all wildlife will greatly benefit from the shelter and protection of shrubs, or taller grasses and perennials.

Virtually all visiting insects will also greatly benefit from a sun-bathing spot – log piles and large, flat stones provide perfect platforms for them to warm up on a chilly morning and can become life savers through unseasonably cold or wet summer weather.


The ideal base for any wildlife pond is certainly a natural, clay lining, but in almost all cases this is either impossible or impractical, so a butyl liner is the next best option by far. Solid moulded resin ponds are readily available but are generally both too small and too limited in design to be ideal for wildlife. They also represent quite poor value for money and often have a shorter life span than a butyl liner.


In short, fish are a major no-no. If you want a fish-pond, that’s absolutely fine of course, but realise that pretty much everything else that might otherwise want to live or feed at the pond will be pretty much annihilated by the presence of fish, which, in small garden ponds at least, are strictly the preserve of the ornamental pond.

Not only do fish feed on all of the invertebrate, amphibian and many of the plant life forms in a pond, but their manure also destabilises the chemical composition of the water and can lead to algal monocultures that are encouraged by the excess nitrogen.


Palmate Newt - by far the most common of the 3 British species.

The depth of water and in particular the variety of different depths within the pond is probably the most important consideration for attracting wildlife. Somewhere near the centre needs to have a minimum water depth of 60cm, preferably 90cm. This will ensure the pond never freezes and will provide a vital haven for a huge number of over-wintering aquatic insects and newts.

Even more crucial though (and the reason why pre-formed solid ponds don’t make for good wildlife habitats) is that the sides should be gently sloping, with shelves and shallow platforms incorporated in as many places as possible. All of these features are multi-functional; they allow amphibians to easily get in any out of the water – it’s quite possible for frogs and toads to drown in unsuitable, steep-sided ponds; they create drinking and bathing places for birds; they allow the water to heat up rapidly and form important nursery zones for tadpoles and numerous invertebrates; and they allow for a wide variety of different plants, which in turn attract and support the widest variety of wildlife.


Sagittaria - the Arrowhead, a pretty and very useful British native marginal plant.

Pond plants come in three basic types – fully aquatic/oxygenating, floating/surface dwelling and marginal. The fully aquatic plants are crucial habitats for everything that lives in the pond, as well as being the digesting engines that keep the water clean and oxygenated. The marginals, though, are at least as important, and create an array of different mini-habitats for wildlife. These are also the most ornamental plants in the pond and allow for a huge number of different styles, looks and colour-combinations, whilst benefiting the wildlife that they live with.

The floating or surface plants (water-lilies included) are also required to create pools of shade and prevent the whole pond from over-heating. Finally, consider a run-off/overspill bog garden area at one end of the pond to encourage an even wider range of animals.


Ideally tap water should never be introduced to a wildlife pond, either when it’s first created and filled, or when topping-up is needed during the summer. If possible try to collect rainwater in butts or barrels – it will be far less destabilising, and will have a chemical composition close to that of the existing pond water.


Blanket weed - with the patented rake removal technique.

Pond maintenance is a large-ish topic unto itself, but a well-balanced wildlife pond is much more self-sustaining, and requires far less maintenance that do most ornamental ponds.

Excess vegetation may need to be cleared out in autumn, as plants are dying back. This is also the time of least impact to the wildlife, but make sure and aquatic pond-weed is left at the pond edge for 24 hours or so to allow newts and dragonfly larvae time to wriggle back into the safety of the water. The weed can then be added to the compost heap. The appearance of blanket-weed (a filamentous form of algae) or green water (a free floating form of algae) denotes an excess of nutrients in the pond.

So long as there isn’t a major run-off of garden soil or fertiliser then balance will eventually be reached and the algae’s will largely disappear, but this happy equilibrium can take a few seasons. In the meantime blanketweed can be removed by hand or by twirling it around a rake.

Planting trees (and shrubs too…).

Friday, February 12th, 2010

An old gardening book of mine quotes the owner of a large country estate (one which boasts an impressive collection of rare trees) as saying that he paid: “a shilling for the tree and a pound for the hole,” the pound being the cost of the labour involved to dig a sufficient hole. This quote has always stuck with me, and generally runs through my mind pretty much every time I plant anything larger than a bulb.

Prunus incisa - a pretty flowering cherry that makes an ideal garden tree.

The simple fact is that, once planted, trees and larger shrubs will likely never be moved, and, if all goes well, will remain in place for decades or even centuries to come. Aside from mulching, the only chance that you will ever have to improve the structure of the ground where they will grow is at the time of planting. Bearing that in mind it has to be well worthwhile putting in the time and effort to ensure your spindly sapling will one day grow into a mighty tree (or shrub…)

Although it’s possible, with care, to plant at any time of the year, by far the best seasons are  late autumn and the early spring, when the plants will be dormant and will suffer far less shock than they would in the growing season. The ideal weather is cloudy, cool, windless and most definitely frost-free, so if necessary delay planting until suitable conditions occur.

It was long thought by many that the most important factor in tree planting was the fertilisation of the ground, with the addition of composts, manures and so on. Research has now shown this to be not the case; in fact the fertilisation of your planting hole is actually likely to prove harmful, or even fatal to new trees, the emphasis instead is all on the preparation of the hole itself.

Planting hole preparation - the most important job of all.

Generally speaking the bigger the planting hole the better. The aim is to break up as large an area of soil as possible, not in terms of depth, but rather width, because it’s here that your tree will be making it’s initial forays into it’s new soil.

How big is big? Certainly the planting hole should be considerably larger than the root ball of your new tree and none of the roots should have to be bent or curled to fit in.

It’s important to plant on the same day as you dig the hole as exposure to the elements will kill off many of the beneficial micro-organisms, and in particular the fungi that are present in the soil. Microrrhizal fungi are amongst the most essential members of the subterranean community as far as plants are concerned, and most trees actually derive much of their nutrition not directly from the soil, but rather from these fungi with whom they set up a symbiotic relationship.

Mound planting - to help trees establish on wet ground.

It’s often necessary to be a bit flexible with your planting location too. If you dig down and find standing water or a layer of bedrock, for instance then it’s best to stop right there and consider a new spot.

Having said that trees can be planted in wet sites by mounding soil up above ground level. We’ve taken this approach is a seasonally wet patch of our garden where we have succeeded in establishing a number of Acer palmatum by planting each one on a large mound as much as 60cm above the natural ground level.

In very dry locations you can take the opposite approach and plant in a dip so that any rain-water that happens by will be diverted to the roots of your tree. Be very, very wary, though, of creating a sump that collects water all year round, roots need oxygen as well as water so this is a quick recipe for a drowned plant.

Staking - short and sweet.

Before reaching for the tree, the next step is to consider staking. Unless your new arrival is on the short and stocky side then it’s often necessary to secure by tying to a stake. This makes sure then tree isn’t rocked – or even uprooted – in the wind and will allow it to properly establish at the roots.

Stakes should be short but sturdy – always thicker than the tree itself. It doesn’t matter if the top of the tree moves around (within reason), in fact it promotes thickening of the trunk, and if you stake too high you will end up with a perpetually spindly trunk that may never be able to support itself.

Securely drive the stake into the planting hole on the side of the prevailing wind and make sure you have a good, durable tie to hand – preferably rubber or plastic to minimise rubbing – and long enough to secure the tree but still allow for some movement and flexing, again to encourage strengthening of the trunk.

A rootbound pot-grown tree.

Once the hole is prepared you can unwrap or un-pot your tree or shrub and take a good look at its root system. My experience of planting many thousands of trees and shrubs is that unless the roots are relatively free and open then establishment will be delayed, often for several years. This is particularly key if your tree has been pot-grown.

If the roots are looking bound-together and have spiralled around the inside of the pot, and a gentle shaking and teasing won’t budge them, then the best remedy is to soak or hose away some (or even most) of the compost to try to free the roots without breaking them.

Next mound up a small amount of the top soil that you’ve previously removed into the centre of the planting hole until the tree sits with the base of it’s stem/trunk at the natural surrounding ground level. This level is really crucial. If you plant too deep, with the trunk collar under ground level, then the bark at the base of the tree will almost certainly rot off and the tree will be killed. Too high and the roots will be exposed, severely weakening, and probably destabilising the whole plant.

Then, breaking up all large clumps of soil that you’ve dug out, and crumbling everything into as fine a tilth as possible (again to allow quick and easy root penetration) quickly infill the rest of the planting hole and gently press in with your hands – not with a big stomping, root and air crushing boot! – then water thoroughly to let the soil settle into the hole.

The only material that goes back into the planting hole should be that which came out – or if it’s very poor or stony, other topsoil from as near as possible to the planting hole.

Why not take the opportunity to add lots of juicy well rotted manure or compost to feed the tree? The breaking down of this type of material completely changes the soil chemistry near the tree roots. It robs the soil of oxygen for it’s own decomposition, kills most of the beneficial, but very delicate fungi, and creates excess moisture that leads to root rot. Fertilisers also promote excess shoot and leaf growth, but do nothing for the root system, and will leave the tree with a desperate imbalance that may result in massive die-back as time passes.

Betula nigra - the river birch: well mulched, grass-free and thriving.

Finally it’s important to protect the new tree from competition for water from weeds, and particularly grass – vital if planting in a lawn or field. So once safely planted and staked the planting hole should then be mulched.

We use purpose made mulch mats, which fit flat over the planting hole and give years of protection as they slowly decompose. Well composted bark or garden compost is another, and more attractive alternative for the garden, but be sure to leave the trunk itself mulch-free or you’ll invite basal bark rot once again.

All that then remains is to keep well watered during dry spells, particularly for the first few years, and top up with an annual mulch. Then, sit back and enjoy the fruits of your one-days-labour for many, many years to come.