Saturday, December 9, 2023
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Earth and water


Meadowsweet and purple loosestrife

Mary Green explains why ‘the answer lies in the soil’.

Some of my neighbours are lamenting the sudden lack of goldfinches in our gardens where there are usually dozens (a “charm” of goldfinches). Their regular nesting site was in some trees which were cut down in late spring – quite the wrong time to do it. I’ve seen major hedge cutting too recently.

Apart from real emergencies, and hand-pruning of some garden shrubs, no-one should cut down trees and hedges at this time of year. Not only are birds destroyed, but our vital insects and of course the plants themselves which should be trimmed in winter if needed. Contractors should know this, but I suppose they can’t turn down work.

Meanwhile, also nearby is a roadside hedge that someone forgot to cut this winter. Although some of the neighbours found it a bit inconvenient as it doesn’t leave so much driving space, it is a delight. It has flowering hawthorn, field maple, dogwood, ash, hazel, elder – and some beautiful elm, and all the insects that feed on them. I walked past it in May, and it was just jumping with baby birds cheeping.

When I was young there was a radio programme where a comic country character kept saying “I think the answer lies in the soil.” The joke was on the rest of us, though, because he was right. Underlying all our plants, animals, insects and all the other things that make up our countryside habitat is the soil, the earth itself.

We haven’t collectively given it enough attention, and are in danger of a time coming when it no longer supports all our natural life. Or, looking at it another way, maybe we have given it too much attention and messed it around and ruined it, when we should have left it alone.

In the cycle of nature, the soil is constantly replenished and provides the nutrients for plants – which as we know then support all other life. Decaying plant and animal matter is taken down into the soil by worms and other small creatures, worked on by them and by fungi, creating a rich humus.

Not only that, but in this process, carbon is locked up in the soil and our atmosphere is kept in balance. One of the contributors to global warming is the fact that so much soil is ploughed up all the time and the carbon released into the air instead of being absorbed into the cycle of growth.

The roots of plants carry tiny rootlets and have fungi and bacteria associated with them. The roots, fungi and bacteria affect the chemistry of the soil, often feeding other plants, and carry messages between plants. For example, alder adds nitrogen to the soil, and oaks use their root structures to warn each other of disease and predators.

There is a big movement now for no-dig gardening and minimal-cultivation agriculture to solve the damage to the soil. Food plants can be planted directly into the soil and have the advantage of the natural fertiliser provided by the earth full of broken-down matter, as well as keeping the carbon in.

Yields are good, but it is hard to shift a farming tradition. We have been ploughing and harrowing for centuries, not recognising that the soil is gradually depleted so that we have to use more and more added fertilisers.

Even worse, these fertilisers may be chemicals which then leach out of the soil and pollute streams. Even organic fertilisers like animal manure need to be used carefully or they will pollute streams, rivers and the oceans. Our own river, the Arrow, and Bittell reservoirs are polluted from nearby farming.

When you think about it, digging and cultivation are not natural – in the wild, plants establish themselves and survive in the already plant-rich environment.

When land is developed (and when gardens are made for Chelsea) people are careful about some individual species but rarely think of the composition of the soil and all the structures and organisms in it. That’s why somewhere like Eades Meadow is so special, as it hasn’t been dug or artificially fertilised for centuries.

Not many things are named after the earth, perhaps because it is so taken for granted. But there is a beautiful but poisonous fungus called earth star, and of course earth worms and ground beetles. There is a bugle-like plant called ground pine and a ground thistle, which grows low down.

Ground ivy is a spring flowering plant with a lovely blue flower, used as a herbal tea. Ground elder is a member of the cow parsley family with similar pretty white flower-heads. It is hated by gardeners, except me, but used to be a prized herb, also called goutweed because of its herbal use. I use the leaves in salads. Groundsel, a little member of the dandelion family, is a very nutritious chicken food.

Ground ivy and groundsel, like most of our most successful edible and medicinal plants, are called weeds. Contrary to the common phrase, a weed is not just a plant in the wrong place. A weed is a plant in the right place – it’s our garden plants that are in the wrong place. Weed was originally an Anglo-Saxon name for herb, so let’s restore it!

Earth, air, fire and water were seen in ancient times as the four key elements of the world. When we move to water, its effect on wildlife is a bit more obvious. We have many plants and animals that live specifically in or next to water. Living near a canal, river or lake makes such a difference to the range of wildlife you see.

Plants range from those growing fully in water – like water-lilies, out in full glory now – to those on the edges, like water plantain, arrowhead and water bedstraw, to others that like to grow in damp places, like purple loosestrife and meadowsweet, along all our waterways this month.

Unfortunately in some places the edges of canals and even sometimes rivers are mown throughout the year so there’s only grass. Good maintenance can involve one mowing in the winter. Water benefits from plant life and algae – it shouldn’t be artificially cleared.

All plants need water, and as soon as we get a dry spell, gardeners start bucketing or hosepiping. In nature, of course, plants survive without being watered by us. They have ways of maintaining their water content, which may include having a speeded-up flowering season in a dry year, but they come back fine the next year.

So wild flowers have been abundant and lovely this year despite the drought last summer. Our native trees have huge roots which mean they can find water in the soil even when it seems dry. The natural growth of our wild plants helps keep water within the soil. Clearing ground, and hard-mowing, makes things worse.

It’s harder for insects and invertebrates to survive if water is scarce, and in dry years we do see fewer of them. Even birds like swallows suffer in a drought because they need mud for their nests. We can all help as individuals by having ponds, and collectively by looking after our waterways and not draining wet areas.

Rivers need to be able to twist and turn naturally and to flood when there is too much rain. The sort of flood prevention we have done in the last centuries, damming and draining, just moves the flood problem somewhere else. At last action is being taken to help by creating settling ponds, rewilding rivers and restoring water meadows. Our habitat won’t survive without the balance of earth and water.

To the ancient alchemists, our early scientists, everything in nature was made of earth, air, fire and water. My last interesting plant name for this month is one with the Latin name Alchemilla or little alchemist. Its English name is lady’s mantle. It holds the dew on its leaves, and this was thought to be the purest water and was used in alchemy and herbalism.

The English name is a Christianisation, as it is Our Lady’s mantle, a plant of the Virgin Mary. You might have it flowering now as a garden plant, but there are wild varieties especially in Scotland. Plant names are full of old magic and science.

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago about the places I have lived.

I started life in a semi in Yardley
Born a child of peace and atom bombs
But nothing since has been so ordinary
All I remember is the bottom of the garden
Which had crazy paving, a phrase I liked.
Next was the childhood farmhouse
With an extended and uneasy family
The house built with local stone and sea sand
So when it rained it sweated inside
Perpetually cold, despite the elm logs
That came so bountifully, and painted
Uniformly brown and cream like a railway.
But who cared, with that view of sea and river?
A series of shared rooms and bedsits followed
Mostly without benefit of bathroom
(“The last gentleman used t’baths at City Station”)
Honing my skills of cooking on one ring
And sharing or hiding my comings of age.
Married, my first home was a flat
With outside toilet which froze in the winter
And a garden line for my stiff washing.
Then a rented house, a whole house
With a bathroom, though still heated
By a one bar electric fire we carried round.
Thanks to Barbara Castle, I got a mortgage
And bought our first house, old and tall
A weaver’s cottage, huge upstairs windows
And I fell in love with bricks and gold Bath stone.
Bought a new cooker and a fridge, did some painting.
Then life became liquid again, and again
The sharing and the bedsits intervened
And the city flat four storeys high
Where I carried grow-bags up the stairs
To have something green to remind me.
A long time ago now, thirty years and more
I came here. Red brick, old beams
Garden with apples, plum and damson
People around me but my place at last
Where somehow I put down my straggling roots
Like that rose I have under the apple tree
Planted in a big plant pot. When I came to move it
Its root had gone right down into the earth.

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