Waste not, weed not

Some of our apple trees hit peak blossom last week and gazing up into the sweet-scented branches, I’ve been wondering how it’s possible for a single tree to produce so many flowers at once! I’ve also been reflecting on the valuable lesson it teaches. As well as providing the perfect niche for nests (great tits again, who else?), each tree is currently feeding thousands of varied insects who in turn are carrying out the essential task of pollination. All being well, the autumn will see a bumper crop of fruit which fresh or stored, raw, cooked, dried, juiced and made into vinegar will offer us many months of healthy nutrition; other creatures will benefit from the windfalls, too, and those fruits that aren’t eaten will decay over winter along with the fallen leaves and help to create a nutrient-rich mulch to feed the tree itself, whilst supporting an unimaginably immense network of life within the soil. It’s nature’s perfect circular economy . . . and there isn’t a scrap of waste.

‘Produce no waste’ is a key permaculture principle and one I return to often in an attempt to reduce my impact on the Earth. There are so many things that we can waste: food, water, fuel, clothes, ‘stuff’, paper, money, time, energy, space, opportunity . . . in fact, every time we consume or use something, the potential for waste is there. Let’s face it, waste is very hard to avoid but the trick is to see it as a resource rather than a problem and what better place than a garden to really focus on trying to produce no waste when nature is very obviously there as a great and wise teacher? I know when I start talking (yet again) about working and connecting with or learning from nature, for some people there is an element of woo-woo or being away with the fairies so it always cheers me to see others far more qualified and talented than myself saying much the same thing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading an article this week about laid-back gardening by Alys Fowler; if this is your thing (or even if it isn’t), then it really is worth taking a few minutes to read it. There was so much in there that appealed to me that I’ve borrowed Alys’s subheadings as a framework to reflect on how things are going in our patch.

Throw out your spade

My spade has been redundant for quite some time now; in fact, the only time I ever use it is in place of a shovel for loading mulch materials into buckets and barrows. We’ve come to a no-dig system relatively recently but I am a complete convert and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else now. When we moved here at the end of December 2020 there were two small patches that had been under cultivation but weren’t nearly big enough for us to grow everything we wanted to so we hastily created two more ~ one by turning turfs and planting potatoes on top, the other by stripping turfs and forking over the soil beneath in order that we could sow seeds. It didn’t take us long to realise the ground was badly compacted, seriously deficient in organic matter and riddled with grassland beasties like wireworms and chafer grubs so when it came to preparing the soil in the polytunnel, we decided that double digging was the only strategy.

Extending an existing bed . . . even before we went ‘no-dig’ I always preferred to use a fork. (Quick aside: those horrible conifers are now at the bottom of some very productive Hügel beds! 😆)
Planting potatoes in upturned turf.

In retrospect, we could have sheet mulched everything and put a deep layer of topsoil on the seedbed but at the time there was a sad lack of available organic matter to use and serious time pressures, especially as we were still travelling back and forth to Asturias to collect our bits and pieces. Needs must and all that . . . and we did have a decent harvest.

Since then, every bed we’ve created has either been a lasagne bed or Hügel bed and the previously dug beds have been treated to a new no-dig regimen with piles of green and brown organic matter spread over the surface as a mulch, regular sowings of green manure and the lightest of touches when it comes to removing persistent perennial weeds pioneers. I no longer waste time and energy or the lives of worms by digging anywhere in the garden and although I wouldn’t dream of literally throwing away my spade (which would be the waste of a perfectly good tool), these days all I need is a trowel and bucket for mulch-moving and a small weeding fork. With the soil structure left undisturbed, the microbes and other heroes can go about their business of creating a rich, balanced soil which in turn leads to happy plants and abundant harvests. It’s a win-win situation and one I’m very happy to champion.

Savoy cabbages and self-set chard thriving in a phacelia jungle this week: this once-dug bed hasn’t been touched for two years now.

Ease off weeding

I wrote last time about how pleased I was that weeds were being rebranded to super heroes at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. I erased the word from my vocabulary some time ago ~ the strikethrough above was completely intentional ~ and agree totally with Alys Fowler that instead of treating them with disdain, we need to learn from what they can tell us. I like her idea of them being thought of as ‘elders’ or ‘common folk’ who arrive to help the soil out and whose wisdom we would be well-advised to tap into. From an observational point of view, it’s interesting how for us it’s the once-dug beds that have the biggest populations which suggests to me those are the areas most in need of healing; there are very few ‘common folk’ in the lasagne beds but a lot more fungi which suggests things are more in balance there. I’ve taken on board the fact that annual ‘weeds’ are a sign of bacterially-dominated soil which requires more carbon, so although I try to use alternate mulches and everywhere had a good dollop of dead leaves over winter, I’ve been sprinkling sawdust this week where chickweed and speedwell are sprawling (including in the tunnel).

I happen to think there is a lot of beauty in these ‘common folk’ which is so often shrugged off or ignored in favour of ‘garden’ flowers; if red deadnettle or scarlet pimpernel want to sit pretty amongst the lettuce, who am I to complain? The benefit they bring to wildlife also goes without saying and that alone must make them worthy of a chance to shine.

Embrace rot and death

In short, don’t bother tidying up! It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking the garden must look manicured and perfect, any quick glance at a lifestyle magazine or advertisements for all that garden stuff you simply must have is enough to prove that. How much time can be wasted on clearing dead growth, pruning this, trimming that and keeping everything ship-shape and Bristol fashion in the name of . . . what, exactly? Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting for one moment that gardens need to become tangled, overgrown jungles (although such can be very beautiful places!) and it’s good to have places to walk, sit, cook, relax, sleep or whatever and to enjoy and take a pride in our precious patch. The point that Alys makes is that rotting, along with disease and pests, is part of the Earth’s natural recycling system and if we leave well alone, a balance will eventually ensue. Dead vegetation will rot and nourish the soil where it lies, mulches that harbour slugs also hide their predators, where pests proliferate something will come in to feed on them. I have a very laissez-faire attitude to dead stuff and have never been bothered with the notion of creating a ‘tidy’ garden so I’m happy for it to lie and let nature do all the work. I’m also reasonably pragmatic when it comes to pests and diseases, for example, the currant bushes that have a bit of a a red curled leaf thing going on at the moment. It’s surely down to aphids but I’m doing nothing about it because the bushes are covered in those top aphid-chomping allies, ladybirds. I can honestly say I have never seen such a huge population in one place, all different sizes, colours and spotted symmetries, and there are plenty more on the way if my observations are anything to go by (I did apologise for intruding on such intimate moments!).

All that said and done, I know just how frustrating ~ heartbreaking, even ~ it can be to watch nurtured plants collapse as a result of pests or disease (or I, might add, terrible weather) so perhaps it takes a little more courage to embrace this approach, giving it time and trusting the natural process. I’m happy to shrug off losses as part and parcel of the gardening game but just occasionally some simple mitigation is required, like this temporary netting fence to stop hares scoffing the newly-planted sweetcorn ~ certainly the right call given that two days later, we found two leverets in the garden.

Stop chasing fast growth

When we go to supermarkets, I’m always amazed at how many aisles we don’t go down because we simply never buy what they offer and country stores or garden centres are the same. Just as I avoid the domestic cleaning products aisle like the plague (and don’t even get me started on air fresheners and scented candles), I can totally ignore the shelves of noxious and equally smelly garden chemicals. Synthetic fertilisers, rich in nitrogen and high on fossil fuel use during their production, are completely unnecessary in a garden. Honestly. They contribute practically nothing to soil structure and ecosystems and in fact, may actually reduce soil fertility by overstimulating microbial activity. My plants are looking a bit under the weather, not as green or flourishing as they could be and lagging behind, so what do I do? Scenario 1: jump in the car, drive to the nearest outlet (many kilometres in our case), buy a synthetic fertiliser in granular or liquid form with all its associated production and packaging issues and add it to the soil. Repeat. Scenario 2: wander into the garden, pull a few comfrey leaves to use as a mulch OR water plants I’m worried about with homemade comfrey tea OR pee in a bucket, dilute with rain water and apply to struggling plants. On balance, there’s no choice. Our society is imbued with the mantra of growth ~growing the economy, careers, bank accounts and so forth ~ and I wonder why more people don’t question the sense of it. Pretty much everything in nature has a finite limit of growth with checks and balances to keep them in place so why must we be under pressure to do more, make more, have more and spend more? When is ‘enough’ enough? I don’t want to push my plants to grow bigger or faster than they will do naturally; I love seasonality so everything in its own time is just perfect. Ease off and give them time, space and peace to grow. Put the kettle on. Pull a cork. Relax.

Our comfrey is in full bloom.

Compost in situ

Compost heaps are great things and I like the way Alys states that even badly-made compost is wonderful stuff for the soil; there can be so much arrogance and angst around compost making if you start to research it and while a decent balance of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ materials is preferable, it really isn’t rocket science. Organic matter will rot into something valuable sooner or later and I think it’s far better that we have a go rather than be put off because we’re not experts. Making compost in situ takes everything one step forward where ease is concerned and it’s definitely something I like to do because lazy gardening is my thing. Quite simply, why waste time and energy carting spent plants or whatever to the compost heap when they can be chopped and dropped where they grew and scattered over the surface of the soil for the worms to take care of? Brassica stalks are something I do remove because they are so chunky and obviously anything seriously diseased like blighted tomatoes, but everything else stays put, perhaps with a bit of hand-shredding first to reduce the size and speed up the rotting process. If I want to plant something in the same space, the old foliage just acts as a mulch around it. We currently have climbing beans and sweetcorn growing in last year’s squash and courgette remains, courgettes and cucumbers where beans were grown, broad beans in the old cabbage patch . . . it’s a wonderful recycling of precious organic matter for the very least effort. Granted, it doesn’t always look very pretty: take, for example, the patch which I’ve strewn with bolted radicchio plants this week (you can see the remains of last year’s climbing bean stems in the mix, too) which some would consider a ‘mess’ but once it’s full of winter brassicas, no-one will ever know!

Cold nights with the possibility of frosts are the last thing we need this time of year with all the tender plants bar tomatoes planted in the ground outside so we have to give them what protection we can to nurse them through the cold snap. We cover whatever we can with buckets and pots but everything else is being tucked under a deep blanket of hay, grass cut and dried from our meadow areas last summer. The covering-in-the-evening-uncovering-in-the-morning is a bit of a pain but the beauty of our system is that once the temperatures lift to something nearer normal again, I can just leave much of the hay on the soil both as a mulch layer and another composting in situ material. Perfect.

The no-dig potatoes in the mandala bed are already tucked round with a deep layer of hay . . . now they have a night-time blanket to cover the foliage, too.

Encourage plant promiscuity

If everyone grew just a little of their own food, I think there would be a much wider awareness and acceptance of just how diverse fruits and vegetables can and should be. What an indictment on modern society that anything can be labelled as ‘wonky’ vegetables! It really is time to drop these notions of perfection, of exactly what size, shape and colour a carrot or apple should be and start focusing instead on the things that truly matter such as flavour and nutrition; who cares if a parsnip has a smirk-inducing shape or a lettuce is a bit slug-nibbled when their flavour and freshness are second to none? We have just shared (!) the first strawberry of the season whilst wandering round the garden and nothing shop-bought could ever hope to match that moment of epicurean joy!

Diversity is such a key issue and resilience, too, if we are going to face a future of secure and wholesome food production so the more that gardeners can leave plants to flower and set seed, the better. We have saved seeds for ever but in recent years, I have become aware that now it is as much about helping to maintain or increase the genetic diversity in plants which is so seriously threatened as making sure we have seeds to plant next year. It’s true that some seeds are easier to save successfully than others but that’s no reason not to give it a go and to keep pushing the boundaries each season to see exactly what is possible. There’s a lot of fuss about growing parsnips which have a reputation for being notoriously difficult to germinate, something we only ever experienced in Asturias where I came to the conclusion they simply didn’t want to grow there (listen to nature, it’s telling us something). Every year, we leave a single parsnip in the ground and let it do its own thing; it produces a mass of tiny yellow flowers ~ which, like so many vegetable flowers, are a magnet for pollinators ~ then sets hundreds if not thousands of papery seeds which are easily collected. This is a huge part of the strategy: use fresh seed! We have never faffed about with germinating first on damp kitchen roll, just throw masses of seed into the ground during the coldest, wettest days of February. Job done, winter staple to look forward to. In every nook and cranny of the garden and polytunnel there are random plants left to set seed: a carrot here, an onion there and lettuce, lettuce everywhere!

Self-set lettuce with volunteer coriander and rocket friends.

Like taking a back seat with pests and diseases, allowing plants to freely cross-pollinate can take a little more nerve, especially as there tends to be warnings against certain crosses, but again I believe a healthy dose of pragmatism and common sense are needed if we are to become true landrace gardeners ~ and apart from anything else, it’s a totally fascinating activity and a lot of fun, too. Alys Fowler’s encouragement came as a breath of fresh air as I have recently read an article about the dire consequences of saving squash seed because there is a danger of curcubit poisoning or ‘toxic squash syndrome’ as curcubits freely cross-pollinate, particularly where wild ones are present. Let’s keep things in perspective: curcubit poisoning is a very unpleasant condition which can be quite serious but is also very rare. Furthermore, any curcubit likely to cause problems has a very bitter taste and as human beings who have evolved to instinctively recognise when something we’re tasting isn’t good for us, we ought to be able to recognise the fact before tucking in. We’ve been saving our own squash seed for many years now and have never had a problem, despite growing other curcubits in close proximity; quite the opposite, in fact. We have used the benefits of cross-pollination between squash varieties to develop ‘new’ strains that suit our tastebuds, culinary requirements, storage needs and grow well in our soil and weather conditions. It’s not unthinkable that in the very near future we will be able to make the leap from still growing a few plants from commercial seed ‘just in case’ to relying on our own seed one hundred percent.

One of our ‘mongrel’ squash growing last summer; note the abundance of self-set phacelia around it.

Certainly, I am always very happy for plants to seed and self-set all around the patch and they are often the ones to keep, being ‘happy’ plants that are growing where they choose to their own calendar and natural rhythms and coping well with the local environmental conditions. We currently have little volunteers popping up all over the place, some of which are quite likely to be the result of cross-pollination (squash, tomatoes, peppers . . . ) and I’m curious to see what they produce. Wild flowers, too, are appearing in an ever-growing range of species; the less we do, the more they come and that suits us just fine.

Laid-back gardening has so much going for it, an invitation to ease off gently and let nature take us by the hand. At heart, I think it’s about mutual trust, compassion and generosity and when you stop and think about it, how wonderful to be excused from the stress that comes with control, hard work and the struggle for perfection. This week, I’ve had to concede that the courgette in the tunnel had truly succumbed to ant business and it looks like an aubergine has gone the same way; that slugs have done for a couple of cucumbers and dwarf beans and are doing their best to annihilate one of the squashes, too; that the germination rate of a few things I’ve planted is disappointingly poor; that nothing will stop blackbirds from scratching my carefully-laid mulch out from around plants and scattering it to the four winds; that frosts in mid-May are a nightmare. The flipside is that I’ve watched as the squirrel kittens left home and the feral honeybees swarmed; I’ve seen numerous fledglings, all spotty feathers and big beaks, taking their first tentative steps and flights in the company of anxious parents; I’ve marvelled at the exquisitely-marked soft pelt of tiny leverets and counted more species of wild bees on the comfrey than I can remember; I’ve been mesmerised by the myriad life forms already populating the pond and the dark magnificence of huge dragonflies darting about its surface. I’ve opened planting holes that are deep and rich and teeming with worms where no spade has ever been wielded, I’ve acknowledged the benefit of letting annual weeds sprawl as living mulch, I’ve loved every instance of discovering that nature has sown seeds in crazy places. More than anything, I’ve gathered an abundance of wonderful food for our meals during what is classically a ‘hungry’ time, proof if ever it was needed that lazy, laid-back, do-nothing gardening works brilliantly. All I need now is a hammock. 😉

20 thoughts on “Waste not, weed not

  1. This was such an interesting read Lis, especially given my current not able to garden status! We’ve now got so many wild flowers appearing on our bank 🌺☘️🌼🥰- a few not so attractive ones are trying to take over, but I will suggest chopping them up and scattering them to the Head Gardener (😉😄)


      1. It’s happened to us all . . . at least you weren’t being rude!!!!! 😂Thanks again for reading, I hope your daughter enjoys it, too. 😊


  2. I love the way you think, and garden, Lis! I’ve never heard of toxic squash syndrome before, what a strange thing to even think about!
    We are in a new home and I have a clay soil. I also have lots of sun and an enduring love of roses. Any pointers on how to plant these and let them thrive? I’ve never had clay soils before!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Dorothy! I think it’s so important to keep things in perspective, awareness is one thing but articles that are more than likely to put people off trying different things in the garden ~ especially anything that might have a positive impact on the planet or future seed bank ~ aren’t very helpful. The cynical part of me wondered if there was a bit of seed company sponsorship lurking in the background? 😉 Clay soil gets such a bad press for being heavy, cold and wet or dry and solid but it’s packed with masses of nutrients and minerals which your roses will love! Just add as much well-rotted organic matter as you can and they should thrive, especially in that sunshine. I’ll look forward to photos! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, such a good article, a nice summary. We’ve decided that all our flower beds will have grass and weeds in it and that’s the future look of flower beds 😂. Actually the grass makes a nice contrast, covers the soil and provides bird food later. I’ll email you a pic of one of our wild perennial flower beds complete with docks and couch grass.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s just about standing back and questioning so much perceived wisdom, isn’t it? I feel so strongly that it’s time to stop being led by the nose (and not just in the garden!) and doing what feels right with the planet and future in mind, as well as everything we share our patch with. Your garden looks beautiful! 😊


  4. Very interesting post. When we lived in Nogata and I had a big vegetable/ flower garden I had a lot of trouble with fungus. I was practicing a similar method of just allowing things to grow and kind of composting like you are- hand shredding and just letting it rot into the ground.

    The fungus was terrible. It killed a lot of my plants. I had to ask my father in law ( Japanese gardener and bonsai expert) for help. He told me to keep the garden cleaner. I was feeding the fungus. He told me to keep the compost heap separate and to not include certain things in it- certain leaves etc. I followed his advice and the situation improved. Perhaps it depends on climate. We live in a very wet and humid climate where mold and fungus thrive and spread quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello, Cornelia! I agree, I think we all have to adapt our approach to our particular patch as every garden is unique. There are certainly some things I wouldn’t do such as spread blighted foliage around the garden or put it on a compost heap. Common sense needs to prevail but I think the move towards more nature-aware and less controlled garden strategies is the right way to go. Actually, much of my philosophy comes from rural Japan and the inspirational work of Masanobu Fukuoka! Hope you are enjoying a beautiful May! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree- I actually with more Japanese would have cared about his work. He went against the “norm” which isn’t a thing to do here. Once I’d mentioned him to my father in law and he had never heard of Fukuoka san. Too bad.

        Liked by 1 person

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