Garden News Article – worms, soil and why organic is different to gardening with chemicals

“It’s a shame he was talking about worms”. This was the verdict on my one and only TV appearance, as passed on by my mum’s friend, presumably whilst playing off a quick game of Rumikub, as they have a tendency to do on a wet afternoon, which are quite well known in the region of Barnsley. I’m not quite sure whether the line was said in sympathy or disgust but its one I feel sure Alan Bennett would be proud of.
Delivered straight with a Yorkshire accent. I will now forever be known as the man who talked about worms.

Which is fine by me. I’ve long since understood that gardening revolves not around plants but all those creepy crawlies that make it possible, beautiful, difficult and maybe even occasionally dangerous. Gardening is the process of learning how life works. Best to leave your phobias and pre-conceptions at the garden gate. If all that you know about gardening is about plants your view of the world is one-dimensional: dull: unrequited.

That might appear sacrilegious to plant lovers but it is never the less true. Pollination, decomposition, predation, pestilence – the mainstays of gardening – are all defined by the activity of invertebrates. Where they go we must follow. For better and worse.

With the major construction work in the kitchen garden completed and the seeds sown and straining to reach the surface of the soil it seems a good time to talk about what defines organic and green gardening as different: what sets it apart from chemical, or what I prefer to call non-biological or pre-ecological gardening, both terms which suit its place in the evolution of gardening techniques. People tend to see chemicals as modern but actually they were developed in a unique moment in gardening history which is unlikely to be repeated so wholeheartedly again, a time when we became reliant on chemists for our gardening advice rather than biologists and ecologists.

As our understanding of ecology and biology gets more sophisticated we are learning to live without chemicals, both by designing our gardens to make the most of naturally occurring phenomena and by buying in specialist biological support when we need it. It’s not as simple as spraying on a chemical, nor as easy to believe in. After all biological solutions tend to be invisible to the naked eye. But every biological control is unique to the species it targets. It represents a much more sophisticated type of pest management than chemical sprays, which cannot distinguish between targets and kill both pest and predator.

But I’m almost getting ahead of myself. This article started off by talking about worms. And it is worms and soil life in general which should kick off any discussion about what makes organic gardening different to non-bio or pre-logical gardening.

Nature functions in cycles but the process of using chemicals is one directional and ends with a waste problem someone has to deal with. By contrast composting is part of the regular cycle of life. There is no waste.

Non-biological gardening treats the soil as a medium for holding liquid fertilizers designed by man to add the exact nutrients a plant needs to grow healthy and strong. Organic ecological gardening treats the soil as a home for hundreds of species of soil organisms that work away to decompose organic waste and make nutrients available to plants. It maintains this soil community through regular feeds of compost, leaf mould and cut green manures.

The soil community improves the structure of soil, enabling greater retention of water during droughts and preventing the kind of compaction that stifles growth in lifeless soils. Adding compost doesn’t perhaps feel as precise as measuring out fertilizers to a pre-determined formula but then again chemical formulas do nothing to improve the structure of the soil. As for the worms’ role in all this: I’ll have to save that for next time…

Compostlover article for Garden News – Timber Treatment and sustainable charcoal

I’ve been fencing off the garden plot with various styles to experiment with different techniques and get a feel for what it takes to fence off a plot of land properly. Thankfully I don’t have to worry about rabbits, foxes, deer or badgers so I’m just concentrating on keeping the sheep out. The next few blogs are all about making gates and fences – starting with this article I wrote for Garden News about my experiences trying to get totally green timber, which turned out to be slightly tortuous.

fence and gate

Garden News article – Timber Treatment
Un, dau, tri, pedwar, pump: sometimes knowing one to five in Welsh just doesn’t cut the mustard. Especially when you’re standing in a rain soaked wood negotiating a price for chestnut fencing posts and railings with a father and son sales team that fall back on their native tongue when negotiations reach a critical point. I’m lost in a flurry of constanants. It’s like a bad day on Countdown.

Buying the greenest possible fence – locally grown unseasoned chestnut cut from coppice (which lasts longer untreated in the ground than any other British wood) – has got me – if you can excuse the pun – stumped.

It should be possible to pop down to the nearest retail park and pick up local woodland products just as you can go to the supermarket to buy organic fruit and veg. The stick to go with the carrot: so to speak. But Focus obviously don’t Do it All and until they and other shops like them do there’s always going to be a sense of adventure about buying truly green wood.

So why do it? Well the answer for me, apart from supporting my local economy, is timber treatment. Its nigh on impossible to get untreated wood for fencing at a conventional shop and wood preservative used to stop rot contains fungicides, herbicides and pesticides, which seem to me the least organic addition to a garden I could imagine.

It’s also much harder to dispose of treated wood at the end of its life because the treatments are often quite toxic. Pre 2004 the most common garden wood treatment was Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA), a compound of Arsenic and Copper. Arsenic is one of the most dangerous substances known to man and has been banned for many years as a pesticide but is still used in timber treatment. In 2004 a European directive prohibited its use in gardens, presumably because it is highly toxic when burnt on a bonfire. In preference it should be disposed of in a lined landfill site to stop the poisons seeping into the ground. If you have old treated wood lying around take it to a designated recycling unit and place it in the timber section of the yard.

Never burn it. The rain can soak through the ash and take some of the poisons into your garden soil. Even the use of treated timber in raised beds has been questioned by some people because scientific studies have shown that higher than normal levels of arsenic can be detected in the soil a few inches from the boards.

The benefit of treatment is that it allows us to use cheap fast growing but quick to rot softwoods instead of longer lasting slower growing and more expensive hardwoods such as oak and chestnut. Modern economics sometimes makes poisons cheap and natural risk free materials more expensive. Go figure!

Thankfully the newer preservatives, if not perfect, are considered to be far less dangerous. They are still made using energy intensive industrial processes though and have to be dealt with at the end of their useful life. Untreated wood on the other hand carries no risk at all, no waste, nor any extra hidden environmental problems. When its useful life is over it can be left to rot in the corner of your garden providing a home for beneficial organisms and allowing the fertility to go back into the soil. It is quite simply compost waiting to happen. And to that I say Diolch yn fawr iawn. Or as they say over the border thank you very much.

temporary shade

I used more beanpoles to provide the frame for this temporary shade provider. I pack it up at the end of each day and take it back inside. The deckchair I found at the local junk yard. The previous owner said it was dangerous to sit in but a year on I’m still waiting to fall flat on my…

There is one UK grown coppiced product you will find in many garden centres and DIY stores – barbecue charcoal. It’s much better for the environment than all other charcoal because it is made from wood grown in our own coppiced woodlands and not – as many others are – from rainforest, other old growth forests or plantations. You have to look closely at the label to get the good home produced stuff. Check out regional variations such as the Dorset Charcoal Company and the nationally available Bio-Regional Development Group charcoal. If you’re looking for a local supplier of untreated wood for garden projects try your yellow pages for timber mills, woodlands, the Forestry Commission or even stately homes with large gardens and estates. For coppiced products check out, and the Association of Pole Lathe Turners (; or regional bodies such as the Welsh Timber Forum. For more info on treated wood try

Garden News article on compost from Compost Lover column

This is last weeks Compost Lover article from Garden News – just in time for Compost Awareness Week.

My article this week is wedged in between a brace of celebratory events organised to promote good gardening practice – National Beanpole Week and Compost Awareness Week. As May is also the first month in the year you can start ordering comfrey plants from the Organic Gardening Catalogue (and because I did bean poles in my last article) this week seems like the best to talk about the subject to which this column owes its name: compost. And in particular the compost plant: comfrey.

Composting has a distinct cyclical rhythm so although it’s the ninth article in the Compost Lover series it seems right to talk about it now. At this time of year the creatures that make the compost start to become more active, move back into the heap or simply come alive. If you’ve never done it before take a hand lense or microscope to your heap and watch the life there. It’s one of the most interesting nature reserves you’ll ever visit.

I have a slow or cool compost heap which takes between six and twelve months to mature, with much of the exciting decomposition activity occurring between now and September. You can make compost a lot quicker using the hot composting method but you need a lot more waste materials to get started. The cool composting method is best for a small garden like mine.

To make the most of the main composting season you need to get started as soon as possible. After September most of the micro and macro organisms that make compost are absent from the heap, dormant or dozy. If you leave it much longer you wont get a good amount of finished compost until the end of next summer.

Throughout the winter I’ve been topping my heap up with nitrogen rich kitchen scraps (vegetable peelings, fruit skins and cores, tea bags, coffee grounds, but not meat, dairy, bread or fats as they all attract rats) and any carbon rich cardboard I’ve accumulated through my normal shopping habits (cereal packets, egg cartons, food boxes). This carries on through the rest of the year and seems to stabilise the heap successfully. Generally too much nitrogen makes a heap smelly and soggy and too much carbon leaves it crackly and dry. Either way no good compost comes from a heap that has lost its balance. I never lay the cardboard in flat, which tends to suppress the movement of air into the heap. I scrunch it up into fist sized balls and chuck it in willy nilly. Compost creatures need air and these scrunchies help to keep the air in the heap.

There are plenty of weeds coming up at this time of year and it’s tempting to see them as a problem rather than a resource. But nutrients stored up in the tissue of many weeds can be recycled through the compost heap quite safely so don’t blat everything in site with a weed killer. So long as you keep out those weeds laden with seeds, tough perennial roots and anything that might reproduce in the heap from the stems or leaves there isn’t a problem. A Colour Atlas of Weed Seedlings by J.B. Williams will help identify those weeds that are safe to compost.

Wild comfrey growing in the wrong place could also be called a weed but the cultivated non invasive variety Bocking 14 is grown specifically to add umph to your compost heap or to make an organic liquid fertilizer. It always bounces back from a hard cut and carries on producing broad strong shoots and leaves throughout the summer months: each packed full of nutrients brought up from deep soils by their impressive root system. This means you can cut it to the base every six weeks without fear of losing the plant and add the stems and leaves to your heap. They are one of the easiest plants to propagate from root cuttings and come up fine without any attention if planted correctly: horizontally between one and six inches long and about two to four inches deep. Alternatively order plants direct from the Organic Gardening Catalogue.

The Organic Gardening Catalogue ( 0845 130 1304).
A Colour Atlas of Weed Seedlings, J.B. Williams.

The Low Carbon Garden: Making Wattle Hurdles and Dead Hedges

As some of you know I’m building a low carbon kitchen garden, using local materials from the garden or from within a small radius of my home. The idea is to show that you can transform a wasteland into a productive growing space that will reduce food miles without increasing CO2 emissions during the construction phase. So many gardens, even organic ones, wipe out the advantage of growing your own by using high energy materials such as concrete block or quarried stone from overseas or wood grown in an unsustainable way. I’m avoiding all these materials by recycling where I can, or choosing coppice woodland products that I can source very close to the garden. I also want to create a space that is great for me to enjoy and fantastic for wildlife. I’m very much influenced by Geoff Hamilton’s style of gardening and organic guru’s Robert Hart and Laurence Hills. I’m not that interested in modern design themes, which quite often sacrifice environmental concerns in the search for dramatic and all to temporary aesthetic statements. I prefer to create a timeless, wildlife rich, comfortable, productive space to enjoy. The structural elements will be simple, natural or recycled materials. The planting will be in the ornamental kitchen garden or pottager style.

So far I’ve cleared up a patch of ground, sorted all the rubble I found there and turned some of it into a rubble wall seat (see rubble wall seat blog). I wanted to show that you didn’t necessarily have to take rubble off to landfill but could turn it into something useful.  In fact, although I didn’t realise this at the time there’s a long tradition of rubble wall building which you can find out about if you do a web search. Monty Don featured a beautiful, artistic and individual Indian garden made out of rubble in his Around the World in 80 Gardens.

In phase one of the project I concentrated my efforts on clearing up and using the rubble. I’ve also made pathways and a little patio area but I’ll talk about this another time. My project runs alongside articles I am writing for Garden News magazine, which is the leading practical weekly gardening mag in the UK, now celebrating its 50th year. This week in Garden News, you can see the following article on making wattle fencing and bed edging and also dead hedges, along with loads of other great articles by gardeners such as Carol Klein, Joe Swift and Andi Cleverley. Anyway, enough of the plug, here’s the article.  

What to do with prunings and hedge row trimmings. 

I have a selection of unruly hedgerow trees at the rear of my plot that need regular pruning – hazel, sycamore, ash and privet. Over the next couple of articles I’ll be showing you how I’ve recycled the pruned woody waste into essential structural elements in the kitchen garden. The materials, supplemented for these projects with some cut coppice from a local woodland, have no carbon footprint, and are a waste product that might otherwise have been driven to the local dump-it site. Best of all no trees were harmed in the making!


Fencing and wind breaks

Even if you’re garden is already fenced off the wattle hurdle and so called dead hedge described below will make a useful wind barrier around your veggie plot – keeping the air temperature up around your plants by cutting wind chill and trapping sunlight. At this time of year a little extra wind protection and warmth can make all the difference for young growth. Make the garden micro-climate better for your plants when you design your garden and you will have fewer problems later on.



For both these projects you’ll need loppers, a pruning saw and a mallet. A bill hook (a type of axe) is useful but not essential.

 tools for hurdles

Wattle Hurdle and Edging – for straight and straightish branches

The principles for making wattle edging and fencing are the same. Assemble several long thin straight but flexible sticks of a similar length with all the small side shoots removed (probably no more than two-three year old growth: I’ve used ash, sycamore, hazel and silver birch). Using slightly thicker shorter straight sticks cut a number of stakes (at least three) a third as tall again as the required height of the edging or fencing. Space them in a straight line at regular intervals so you will be able to weave your sticks between them and have a slight overlap of each stick at each end. Push the stakes (use the mallet if necessary) into the ground so the part showing above the ground is equal to the height of edging or fencing you require; like an iceberg a third will be underground.


Take one of the long weaving sticks and place the butt end on the ground so it slightly overlaps and rests behind the first stake. Weave it in front of the second stake and then behind the third and so on until you get to the last stake. Take the butt end of the next stick and place it at the opposite end of the wattle to the first and if the first stick ended up behind the last stake put this one in front of it, and vice versa. Weave back the other way, in front of one stake and behind the next. Repeat with each stick until you’ve reached the required height, each time alternating the position of the butt end. This alternation balances the pressure on the stakes and prevents weakness. Trim any lose ends with loppers.

 The Dead Hedge – for crooked and dense branches

You soon learn that very few branches are actually straight or even straightish and therefore useful for wattling, but if you’ve got a mass of crooked and dense material you can make a so called dead hedge instead. This takes up slightly more space but making one is just as simple. Decide how tall you want your dead hedge and bash two lines of appropriately sized straight thick stakes in to the ground with the mallet (three to four year old branches will probably do it) – one foot apart at fairly regular but alternate intervals (in other words like a slalom or football skills course).

 dead hedge 2

Pile the brash between the stakes pushing it down as you go until you have a good even and sturdy barrier.

dead hedge 

Quite simple really: next time pea sticks, bean poles and more! If you want to learn more about coppice crafts CAT is running a coppiced products course next week –



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