Meeting Nature Halfway

The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway. MICHAEL POLLAN

We’ve achieved a lot in our garden this Spring.

The six new raised beds are doing well. I planted two with first-early potatoes, one with salad and sweetcorn, one with onions/carrots/beetroot, and another with brassicas (sprouts and broccoli). My girl’s have taken over the final one, and planted it with a chaotic mixture of peas, sprouts, poppies and sunflowers – it actually looks very good ! As we now harvest the potatoes, I’m replanting with leeks, late peas and cabbage.

Elsewhere in the garden we’ve a number of other beds – the rhubarb and berries are all doing well, but the peas and beans seem to be struggling a bit.

In my endless fight against the weeds I’ve used grass cuttings from the lawn as a mulch, which seems to be working up to a point. As well as acting as a weed-suppressant, mulching supposedly limits the loss of moisture from the soil, and when dug back in over the winter will return nitrogen. A lot of gardening websites advise against using grass cuttings for various reasons (weeds, soil heating etc) but I’ve not noticed any problems so far.

We’ve recently harvested our first potatoes, which have mostly been fantastic boiled or steamed, but a small number have been extremely bitter. This is caused by the chemical solanine, the same toxin that’s found in deadly nightshade. Potatoes produce solannine in response to infection and predators, and so is an indication of disease or other problems in the plants. Many people assume the green colour potato tubers go when exposed to sunlight is the toxin, but strictly speaking this is not the case. The green colour is chlorofil, but it does usually indicate solanin presence.

My best guess is that the solanine has resulted from water stress, as we have had a very dry spring. I plan to dig and lift all my remaining potatoes as soon as I get chance and will make sure to peel them well when cooking (as the majority of solanine is found just below the skin).

Note to self – water potatoes more !

The other big change in the garden is the chickens. We had four older birds at the start of the year, but unfortunately lost three due to a fox attack around a month ago. Foxy came into our garden over a 3.5ft wire fence and killed the birds on the lawn mid-afternoon (we have them running  free during the day). It wasn’t able to carry the dead birds back over the fence, however, and simply left them at the end of the garden.

We’ve had chickens for three years now, and have lost a couple of birds to the fox previously, but to loose three at one time, and the ‘mess’ that was left was certainly a bit upsetting. An electric fence is now on my shopping list . . . clearly I’m turning into a farmer !

Our remaining bird managed to escape by flying over a dividing fence in the garden, but was clearly badly traumatised. In fact it died overnight a couple of weeks later, which I’m sure was down to the stress of the attack and loosing it’s companions. Chickens are social birds, and don’t thrive when alone.

Last week we brought three new birds (of three different breeds, all aged between 12 and 16 weeks) from a local family supplier, and am looking forward to the respective brown, white and blue eggs. They should start laying when they reach around 20 weeks old . . . hopefully they ARE all female! I’ll write more about the joys of keeping chickens shortly.

I’ve also installed another water butt, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, the dry weather finally nudging me to get on with. We’ve now a total of three, which should be enough to see the garden through all but the most extended period of drought. We only normally water the vegetables, soft fruits and the greenhouse in any event, leaving the lawns and trees to their own devices. Most people’s gardens in the UK shouldn’t really require watering from the tap, so long as there is sufficient rainwater storage available and I recommend all keen gardeners maximise their rainwater storage. Treated tapwater isn’t just subject to seasonal scarcity in its own right, but has both a significant chemical and carbon footprint associated with its abstraction, treatment and supply. Minimising water use means saving energy too.

Overall I’m pleased with progress in the garden so far this year, though the proof will be in the eating, as the saying goes. Every year we seem to do a little better, and produce a little more food and I’m already planning next years changes in my mind . . . but if gardening is teaching me anything it’s that nature has it’s own ideas about things, so if I can continue to ‘meet it halfway’, I’ll be happy.


  1. Farming’s not natural, the human race only became farmers about 10,000 years ago, since then we’ve waged a constant unyielding war against nature. Killing weeds, slugs, aphids, snails, caterpillars, beetles, bears, foxes, wolves and other weird things that just kill our crops. It’s likely we started farming by accident, but once we realized what a bad idea it was we had no choice as our population was two great. The remains of hunter gathers indicate that they are generally of much better health than early farmers. Perhaps a better tag line would be Farming squeezing nature out.

    On a positive note, my peas are good this year, I just didn’t grow enough of them. But they only survived because I killed all the slugs.

    • Matt Ridley (Mr rational Optimist) and I, aren’t always ‘on the same page’ – but I agree with most of his thoughts of ‘footprinting’. Clearly 7 billion people can’t go back to hunting-gathering, but he also argues most steps towards it would be damaging for the environment.

      His key argument; that we need better technology to get efficiency improvements, and reduce ‘footprint’, seems very clear and sensible to me, but the question of which technologies, and how we distribute them seem far more debatable.

      The sad truth is that there’s simply not much Nature left, in the sense of pristine wilderness untainted by humankind. On the other hand I seem to have plenty of Nature, in the sense of creatures, weather and events I can’t fully control, making itself known in my garden – including the songbirds eating all our cherries again this year!

      Actually I quite like that :)

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