Beyond the bird feeder is a regular column by Alys Fowler for Wicked Leeks.
Like every gardener, I am wedded to the weather’s ways and always longing for the opposite. I want rain. We all want rain. And there’s a grief in all of this, too. However cheery the sun is, the landscape around me is looking like August despite the fact it’s June, the rivers are too low and the ponds are drying out. These are all signifiers of the changes afoot to our climate and how we’ve brought them here.
Still, I know from my last garden that it is possible to grow a great deal and water very little, even in the hottest of hot spells. There are many ways to conserve water, but none better than protecting the soil so it isn’t beaten and baked by heat and then whipped away by winds.
The best way to do this is by protecting the soil with leaf cover. Closely neighbouring plants create their own microclimate through transpiration, collectively bringing down the temperature around and under their leaves. Processes like early morning dew trapping this moisture then help humidify the world around their feet.
Last year, on the hottest days any bare soil was measuring 40 degrees and above in my garden, but where the ground cover was rich with different plants, the soil remained in the low 20s all day long.
This new garden is a year away from having such an established base layer and there is still too much bare soil, particularly where I made big changes like taking out the wild plum and some privet hedge.
I know from my last garden that it is possible to grow a great deal and water very little, even in the hottest of hot spells.
The quickest way to create a dense cover for the soil is to allow it to do its own thing. All soils have a seedbank of ruderals and annuals that it calls upon to cover it up when exposed. These are what we call weeds, but in hot weather they are often better adapted to cope then many of our bred plants. The scarlet pimpernel and sow thistles are flowering with great abandon, creating a much-needed source of nectar for flying insects.
So, along the path edges, next to the lettuce and the like, I am relying on the faithful weeds to do their good work. I know that decades of teaching have said that weeds outcompete for moisture and nutrients with our precious chosen plants. And they certainly can do that, but judicious thinning (I prefer this term to weeding), will keep everyone on an even path. Once the sow thistles are starting to set seed, I either dead head them or pull them up.
If you can’t quite cope with the idea of such an unruly garden, then the other choice is to use green manures. White clovers make a wonderful understorey to beans, brassicas and other long season crops. Phacelia is fast growing and very pretty when in flower, and it can be scattered wherever there’s space. Sow in the evening just before rain is predicted, water well and the seed will have a whole night to swell and start germination before the sun beats away the moisture.
In the few places that are just too dry to do anything with right now, near the base of the cherry and hazel for instance, I’ve left dense swards of grasses, docks, sow thistles, sticky willy and nettles.
I noticed a peacock butterfly lying on the nettles last week and there are plenty of aphids and blackfly on some of this greenery, but equally as many ladybird larvae.
Deep down at the base is where the beetles are lurking; it might look unsightly to some, but it’s teaming with life that the rest of the garden needs. These days, what pains me more is not the unruly nature of such plants, but to see bare, baked soil with nothing growing at all.