“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…