garden

In which naming the bees is like worship

nasturtiums

vinegar

It’s the season for hot colours. I am making nasturtium vinegar and it sits on the windowsill as lurid as Lucozade. In the garden, the helenium is out, a variety called ‘Moerheim Beauty’. I have read that helenium is commonly called ‘sneezeweed’ because its leaves used to be dried for snuff.

helenium

It’s the season for exam papers too and I have spent entire days marking scripts, but with the sun so bright outside it’s impossible not to wander out from time to time, and sometimes to linger over lunch in the garden. That’s when I realise that the helenium is a magnet for bees.

honeybee

honeybee on yellow

Last week I was watching the honeybees come and go; it’s like a form of hypnosis. Then a bumblebee arrived and began to crawl over the flower centres. It was my daughter who said: ‘Look at the pollen sacs.’

cropped bumblebee

They are huge in proportion to the pin-thin legs, like growths, or the saddlebags of an overloaded packhorse.

bumblebee cropped

Something happens when you pay attention to the natural world. You find your curiosity awakened. It’s like recovering the endlessly wondering mindset of childhood. One question predominates: what’s it called?

Trying to answer that is a humbling thing. I dive into Google, wanting to identify the bees that have come to our helenium. I am fairly sure about the honeybee: there is only one species of honeybee in the UK, and although I may have confused it with a solitary bee (225 species).

The bumblebee is more challenging. I discover that it’s definitely a female because only they have the pollen sacs. Beyond that, it could be one of 250 different species found in this country, but the Bumblebee Conservation Trust recommends starting with the eight most common ones. I used their excellent, free chart here to decide it was either a buff-tailed or a white-tailed bumblebee. I’m not sure how you could be more certain without having the two species side by side.

climbing bumblebee with sacs

I planted this garden eight years ago. A succession of blindsiding life events had left me paralysed with depression: forget trying to take one day at a time; my target was to navigate the next ten minutes. Most everyday tasks became impossible but I found that if I could only get myself outside, I could garden for a couple of hours and not think about the time at all. Gradually, with help from all kinds of sources, but always against the backdrop of planting and growing, the depression receded

Depression kills your prayer life, or at least it did mine. I am recovering it slowly, along with the sense of wonder that is necessary for worship. I did not expect learning about nature to help but sometimes it feels almost sacramental, a resonance with the story of Adam in the first garden, naming the animals in response to God’s invitation to intimacy and co-operation.(Genesis 2:19).

Staying still long enough to really observe the bee, then taking the time to work on identification works a bit like contemplation for me. It opens up stillness and silence; it decentres my anxieties, my selfish preoccupations; it is a repeated, necessary reminder that humans are not the only creatures that matter on this planet.

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How does your garden grow?

Hmm, well in our garden the answer to that question all depends on where you stand. I could place you in front of the bog garden and pond, for example.

pond and bog garden

iris
That might give the impression of a relatively well-tended space. But you would only have to turn through 90 degrees to see this.

hedge clippings
And this.

DSC_0011

Hedge clippings waiting to be disposed of, a flowerbed so full it is amazing everything doesn’t collapse from strangulation.

It’s a similar story, but multiplied to the power of ten, down on the allotment. On the one hand I am ridiculously excited about the number of beans we have been able to plant, and I particularly like having enough room for a ridge support, which makes me feel like a proper veg grower.

beans
On the other hand – this confusion of fruit bushes, comfrey and waist-high grass is more typical of the plot as a whole.

DSC_0003
There have been times this month when I have wondered whether we will ever get on top of everything. Slugs ate all our beetroot and Brussels sprout seedlings. Birds took the first strawberries.

As an allotment newbie I’m learning the importance of perseverance. I’ve put nets on the strawberries and bought some new Brussels sprouts plants – which will also be netted. I’ve taken an old strimmer to be overhauled. It feels like a long slog, getting this plot under control, but every day there are encouragements to spur us on.

gooseberries

DSC_0034

green strawberries

I’m linking up with Soulemama today: I love the idea of gardeners all over the world sharing their plots. What’s more, sometimes Amanda posts a garden cocktail recipe. I’m not normally a great cocktail fan, but she had me at the Rhubarb Collins – another great incentive to persevere with growing.

Frog days

cropped frogs

The frogs came this week. They are reclusive little things normally. Sometimes I hear them croaking from the crevices in our dry stone wall, or I might get a sudden jolt when I am weeding and one leaps unexpectedly from under a patch of damp foliage.

Once a year, though, they come into full view. For a day or two our tiny pond, less than a metre across, becomes a writhing, splashing melee of copulating amphibians. We counted fifteen on Tuesday, although I’m fairly sure that should be an even number.

Frog Day, as we call it, is the start of spring for our family, that and the wild garlic and celandines bursting into leaf down by the stream. Sometimes we manage to take photographs. Yesterday I was looking back through the albums from previous years and was amazed to see how regularly the frogs appear. The picture at the top was taken on Frog Day 2010 – it was 18 March, just like this year. Our other pictures are dated 13 March 2007 and 15 March 2009.

Frog Day 2009

Frog Day 2009

It thrills me, the thought of these shy, mysterious creatures responding to some inner prompting and arriving in the pond almost as though they had marked the day on the calendar. I wonder about the ponds in nearby gardens: are they also experiencing the same orgiastic celebration of the changing season?

I feel connected to these frogs, for we share a common territory; they are mating in a pond that we dug as a family, sheltering in a wall that Julian built one chilly Sunday afternoon a few years back. And yet I know so little about them and understand even less.

I am especially sensitive to this dissonance this year, this sense of being both connected to the garden and yet through my ignorance also alienated from it. I read a book called Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis, and it turned out to be one of those texts that moves into in your brain, unsettling old ways of thinking and forcing your mental furniture into new arrangements.

I knew the Hebrew Scriptures were permeated through and through with references to the land but if I ever thought about that at all, I assumed that was because they were written in a pre-industrial age. Davis exposed the superficiality of that.

Her book showed me that it goes far, far deeper and that the Bible speaks of God always intending there to be a kind of kinship between people and the land. She demonstrates how in Biblical thinking the relationships we have with one another, with God and with the soil are all interrelated: in the Biblical story, violation of the land leads to the destabilising of everything else we depend on.

Davis’s teaching made me see for the first time that our little garden is profoundly important: it is land and in substance it does not differ from the grandest scenery you can imagine. The frogs, along with the ladybirds, the woodlice and every other facet of this patch are part of a vast ecosystem that connects them and us to the rest of the created order and what we do with it really matters.

In Biblical terms, it is a gift and we have a responsibility to it. Gardening is not just a hobby, something I pick up and put down according to my whims, but an outworking of discipleship.

In practical terms, as industrial agriculture continues to swallow the countryside, suburban gardens are rapidly becoming one of the most important habitats we have. For example, a report by the charity Froglife in 2007 found that eighty per cent of ponds in the countryside were of poor or very poor quality, often because of nitrogen-run off from arable land.

frogs

Davis’s book has spurred me to take our garden more seriously this year than I have in the past.  I want to work our land properly, finding ways to make it as productive and eco-friendly as possible, pushing through my natural reluctance to go outside when it is cold or wet and facing down the the boredom that sometimes sweeps through me when the garden is yet again full of weeds and the vegetable plants failing to produce as I hoped they would.

I am not saying we will save the world just by cultivating our gardens. But I do think paying serious attention to the land on our doorsteps is foundational to responding to the environmental crisis. Another book I read recently, Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith, puts it well:

Gardening work creates in us an indispensable ‘imaginary’ that enables us to think, feel, and act in the world with greater awareness for life’s complexity and depth. Gardens are the concentrated and focused places where people discover and learn about life’s creativity and interdependence.

I think a lot of us need to develop this ‘imaginary’. In her book, Davis asks why we in the industrialised world are not ‘stricken to the core’ by the way we are relentlessly despoiling the earth. I think part of the answer is that we have become so desensitised to the natural world that we simply do not appreciate the enormity of what is happening.

One way of recovering that sensitivity is, I think, simply to get outside and grow stuff. I am hopeful that by engaging more deeply with our garden I will grow too and be able to live more intelligently at this critical time.

I am worried about the frogs, by the way. For two days after they came the night frost was so hard that the pond froze over. Then it snowed for 36 hours solid. I have taken it for granted that we will have tadpoles in the pond every spring. Now I am not so sure.

a happy interruption

The last thing you need when you’re up against a deadline and you feel like there will never, ever be enough hours in the day is an interruption.

Unless it’s an interruption like this.

Sixty weeny but perfect plugs of organic salad plants.

The instructions said to plant straight away.  The autumn sun was shining in the garden, there was fresh compost waiting to go in the raised beds – how could I refuse?

Well, I could have argued that this semester’s module in Victorian Literature is eating up all my time. Dickens, Gaskell, Eliot – I love you all but why did you have to write such long books?

Or I could have protested that I was behind on a major writing project that is currently earning me about sixpence halfpenny an hour and needs to be sorted out if the Dobson family is going to eat next year.

Nope, none of this was worth the sacrifice of these gorgeous little promises of winter greenery. In just an hour or so I had cleared the miserable looking courgettes (oh 2012, what a dreadful growing season you were) and the overgrown rocket, dug in the latest lot of crumbly, chocolatey compost from our bin and planted everything out.

Now we can look forward to winter purslane, corn salad, land cress and wild rocket to cheer up our winter meals. There were also two varieties of lettuce – ‘Winter Density’ and ‘Arctic King’ – that I am assured will be able to cope with the worst of the Sheffield snow, although I might tuck them up in a bit of fleece if it looks like being particularly harsh.

It’s amazing what an hour of sun and soil can do for one’s energy levels. Last week the new economics foundation recommended that we should all work shorter hours and spend the extra time in the garden. Judging from my experience today, if we took their advice we might actually end up being more productive, not less. Not to mention healthier and better equipped to cope with soaring food prices.

Incidentally, my plugs came from Organic Plants. I’ve not used them before but so far the service has been brilliant.

a world on your doorstep

Last week I met a young man who is an expert in South American tree frogs. He used to take tourists around a remote part of the Ecuadorean rainforest, identifying all kinds of wildlife for them, but especially his beloved frogs.

I was a bit in awe of this guy, of his knowledge and of his experience of the world. He lived for six months in that isolated spot in Ecuador, an hour’s plane ride away from what you might call civilisation. He worked with tribal elders, helping them to work out how to make a living without damaging the forest.

But then he said something that changed everything for me. ‘I used to think that nature was far away and out there,’ he said. ‘I thought you had to travel for miles and get away from everything to find it. But then I realised it is on your doorstep.’

We were talking at his home in west Yorkshire, an apparently ordinary house in a seemingly average street. But when you look more closely you see that Mike’s home is anything but run of the mill. Instead of a hedge in the front garden, there’s a rustic fence made of the trunks and branches from the Leylandii he chopped down when he moved in. The rest of his plot is being slowly developed as a forest garden, a way of growing edible plants that imitates the ecosystems found in woodland. There’s a ground covering of strawberries, then a layer of bushes – in this case currants and gooseberries – then a planting of nut trees. This is just the beginning: eventually the whole plot will be a low maintenance, sustainable source of food for Mike’s family.

I was struck by the whole concept of gardening in this way, but even more by the richness that Mike was discovering simply by being attentive to the nature on his doorstep. When I got back to Sheffield it made me look at our lovely valley in a new way. As luck would have it, when I took one of my regular walks up to the top of the stream, it was just after one of the heaviest rainfalls of this incredibly wet summer.

Often in summer the water just trickles through this valley but on this day it was in full spate, fiercer and stronger than I have ever seen it. It was surging down towards the parks at the bottom, pleating and plaiting as it dropped more than three hundred metres through a series of weirs and millponds, relics of the days when it drove more than 20 mills used in the manufacture of cutlery and hand tools.

After rainfall like last week the iron deposits that have shaped this valley’s history churn up to the surface, shading the water through ochre and dark ginger to a kind of luminous rust colour. From a distance you could think it was flowing over a succession of underwater lights. As I made my way along a path made sticky with mud and sodden leaves I was thinking of our daughter currently hundreds of miles away, planting trees in a remote corner of Madagascar. I’d been a little envious of this trip of a lifetime, but today the unfamiliar roar of a stream in spate and the memory of Mike’s fascination with his garden were giving me a new perspective.

Here I was, a few hundred metres from our front door, surrounded by ancient woodland, torrential water and a long, rich history that I knew disgracefully little about. I know even less of the wildlife that inhabits this wonderful spot. Thanks to my parents’ fascination with ornithology I’m not too bad at identifying the birds – I’ve seen nuthatches, woodpeckers, dippers and even a kingfisher on my walks but I know almost nothing of the mammals that live round here and still less about the insects and reptiles, not to mention the fungi, the trees, the plants and what you can do with them.

The truth of what Mike said about nature being on our doorstep came home to me on this walk. I realised too that I didn’t even need to come this short way to find it. It’s in my tiny garden, too, a whole ecosystem that I am barely aware of.

The pond in our garden at frog-mating time

Back in the eighties, when AIDS was first identified, there was a health campaign with the slogan ‘don’t die of ignorance’. With the world now facing unprecedented food shortages, spiralling transport costs and weather patterns that are both unpredictable and potentially devastating, it seems our ignorance about the world in front of our noses may be at least as big a threat.

Mike is a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to the natural world. He knows what weeds you can eat, what to plant to fix nitrogen in your soil, how to manage ponds so that they sustain the widest possible range of beneficial wildlife. It’s a knowledge acquired over years and it flourishes within a deep appreciation and respect for the world on the doorstep.

I think it’s time to do something about my ignorance.

a (proper) tribute to my mum

It took me ages to find a decent Mothers’ Day card this year. First of all, I boycotted anything that was pink. My mother is not Barbie, nor does she wish to be. Then, pedant that I am, I had to eliminate anything with the apostrophe in the wrong place. (It goes after the ‘s’. This is not a day for one mother alone.) Then I had to pass over anything featuring high-heeled shoes, glittery hearts or ‘jokes’ about mothers lying in the garden while the men in the house burn the dinner. Seriously, in 2012 do we really still believe that men will starve if women are not in the kitchen?

Anyone know a woman whose favourite thing is popping kittens into flowerpots?

I’m sorry, Mum, but as you will know by now, the best I could find was a picture of a rather anodyne bunch of flowers. So by way of compensation, this blog post is for you. There are many things I can thank you for but I can honestly say that one of the most important is compost. Other people might laugh at this, but I know you will understand my appreciation.

You see, my mum has always been way ahead of her time. She was an environmentalist probably before the word was even invented. She has been gardening organically forever, certainly years and years before it was trendy. What she doesn’t know about comfrey and wormeries and rotation planting probably isn’t worth knowing.

But in the end the most important thing is compost. I honestly cannot remember a time when I did not know the difference between what went in the compost bin and what didn’t. Thanks to my mum, my sister and I are physically incapable of putting even a sliver of potato peel in a regular bin.  And thanks to my mum passing on her skills in this way, I am currently gardening quite successfully on heavy clay, made fertile and productive through the addition of copious quantities of home-produced compost.

Clematis 'Niobe' in our front garden last year. It has oodles of compost around its roots.

Another thing my mum was brilliant at was reading us stories, especially fantasy and fairy tales. But as you grow up, you have to leave that kind of magic behind. All the more reason to be grateful for compost then. Because no matter how often I see it, I will never grow tired of the magic that ensures that this

becomes this

Texture of chocolate cake - perfect!

which helps this

end up as this.

And of course then the whole cycle begins again. I can’t remember what those baby beets became in the kitchen, but I can guarantee that the peel and the roots went in the compost bin.

Thanks, Mum! Have a great day.

For anyone who needs them, there are some good instructions for making compost here.