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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Life Returns to Notment - and my soul

It has been such a long time, we had so much cold and rain and snow this winter that I have hardly been down to the notment at all. A couple of weeks ago I did go, and collected some baby Alexanders, which went down very well with the family. They are very herbal, like fennel, aniseed or celery but stronger and with a distinct flavour. They work very well chopped up with mashed potato or in an omelette.

Then yesterday I went back for a propoer look at the spring life. Many of the fragile little seedlings planted last year in their fleece-poo blankets are still alive if not exactly thriving - including a sage, some fennel cuttings, a feverfew and calamint.

Sadly though, the huge ants nest has gone since the breeze blocks were sold to alocal builder who has been able to reuse them. I had been hoping to provide a new home for the ants, but failed to act in time and so now just have to wait and see if they managed to survive or not.

I am fairly ignorant about the habits of ants, but I believe the ants on the breeze blocks were the common black garden ant Lasius niger.  Ants hibernate in winter, so who knows whether any could have survived the disturbance. I hope they have because I think ants add enormous value to the ecosystem in my little plot. They are amazing - and had made a big impact on an area of earth about two foot square. Apparently "they have quite a large brain in proportion to overall body size, at about 6%."

I found the soil under where the breeze blocks had been, is of a thick clay type, but in the part where the ants had nested, the soil is fine and crumbly and soft and almost looks good enough to eat. It is full of tiny woodchips and seems to me to be very clean and clear of debris and seeds and stuff. There is loads of it, and I think it will make a very good seedling compost if I go down that route. I spread some around and then scattered fennel seeds onto the area. It remains to be seen whether the seeds will get eaten by hungry creatures but perhaps a couple will make it.You can see in the picture the square where the soil is a different colour because the ants made it.

I met Pam at the field and was trying to explain the philosophy I am developing on this project. I can illustrate with the ants quite well. I have noticed a number of websites saying ants are pests and they can be killed in such-and-such a way, but I would like to propose another view. The ants are making fresh compostable soil - in fact one of the pest websites actually said that the soil they make 'encourages weeds' which illustrates the point that the soil is great for germinating seedlings - and the ants do it in the natural course of their business, and produce large volumes.

This fresh, clean soil that the baby plants love so much, is a valuable resource to any plants that are suited to using it. So, my concept is, not to say that the ants are a nuisance and will bite me, so therefore have no place in "my" garden, and should be killed; but to notice they are there, observe their habits, and that they have made all this lovely seedling compost, and then use or redistribute their product, just as we do with honey from bees, to give benefit in turn.

So now it not about killing the ants and preventing the weeds, but providing the ants with somewhere to live that is not too much in the way and in turn, won't be disturbed; and then collecting their fresh earth each spring for seedlings. I would in fact then observe the weeds that grow, finding out when they grow up, whether they can be eaten or used for other purposes, by myself or other animals, and in turn, intervene to find them their place in this little ecosystem. These little plants by some magic, then turn this earth, with a little sunlight and water mixed in, into food for my plate, or for something's feast.

And this all requires almost no work on my part, but just sitting in a small garden and observing and thinking about what I see. And all the while, browsing on baby Alexanders. While this won't feed me properly, it could be scaled up and over the years I would extend this experiment to a larger space and a more complex system. And there all the benefits of gardening such as creating an interesting and relaxing place and providing an abundance of resources to draw upon, from cut flowers to herbal medicines, light snacks to staple dishes and from rare encounters with wild creatures to celebrations with dear friends. And look - if an ant bites you, well, you can eat it, and the ant cannot do the same to you. (I am convinced that sherbert dip is an artificial imitation of its natural precursor, the ant snack.)

The goal is really, to maximise the diversity of the site, and to have the minimum amount of effort but to allow each thing to work in its natural way, intervening to distribute things evenly and prevent anything taking over too much, and to thus create the greatest total wealth possible in the given space.

I could say that this philosophy could be extended to human society too, a matter not of opposing forces, with this absurd concept of "winners" and "losers" and "the fittest" but of each element finding its place, each behaviour having a function, and of placing people and things in such a relation that they feed off each other. Redistribution and balance are very important, when there are great imbalances, such as an overadundance of, say, nettles, but once its running, a complex system can usually manage itself. As in the case of a rainforest or ancient wood.

Finally I add that the pond in the nature reserve had a lot of frogspawn but it was drying out, so for the first time in my life I touched frogspawn, and it wasn't slimy but rather firm, like a jelly, and I hope I might be able to save a few frogs.

5 comments:

  1. Fantastic blog, really like the bit about looking after the ants. All reminds me of my grandmothers saying "a weed is just a flower in the wrong place". Have you seen all that stuff about edible forests? I think you would love it, as woods is what most of London would return to if it was given half a chance.

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  2. Sarah D3:32 pm

    Thanks for the comment, glad you like the blog :-). I have read about edible forests, and a lot of these ideas I developed when working in Amazonian Eciador where people grow what many here might consider a conpletely chaotic mess of plants, but in fact its an incredibly rich way of manipulating the forest ecosystem. There are still battles - getting the staple food to grow is the most important one - but since we have the luxury of gardens for pleasure, with the food battles being fought for us by people far away, I thought the concepts could be applied in the uk and would be interesting as well as beneficial.

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  3. Anonymous10:29 am

    What are you going to do about slugs?

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  4. Yes slugs - a good point and the bane of gardeners.
    So slugs are also a part of the ecosystem. "Normal" gardening involves filling a plot with delicious and delicate fancies that is the equivalent of providing free luxury foods for life to slugs. In an ecosystem garden, there are several things that keep slugs down:
    - I use sheeps wool as a mulch and barrier around seedlings - slugs hate fur and wont climb on it and it has worked all last year and this spring too
    - seedlings are never put in big rows - they are spaced around the place so it is hard work fro the slugs to go from one to the next
    - i focus on growing and eating "weeds" - plants that suceed naturally and dont need lots of extra protection. A great example is the Alexanders - the little seedlings are everywhere, they make a great salad and herb and the slugs havent been near them
    - companion planting takes the 'scatter effect' one step further - you deliberately select plants that slugs hate and put them around the ones they love, to reduce their appeal.

    Above all, its about what you expect to happen. I do not expect that I can grow a bed full of lambs lettuce and have no slug trouble. I expect that there will be slugs, and I will only seek to keep them in check to the extent that I and other parts of the system get something out of it. Slugs are also important food for hedgehogs and some birds, various parasites no doubt, and bacteria, and all kinds of other mysteries. And I am sure they also eat little things that wouldnt be wanted in the garden as well.
    My aim is to make a garden where slugs, birds, hedgehogs, mice, bacteria, fungi, beetles, ants, alexanders, onions, nettles, and people can all find a place and get something out of it.
    And that is what i am going to Do about slugs.

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