The new year has brought deluge. One day after another of rains. Some gentle and constant, but the most persistent lashing against the windows and driving their way into every corner of our ramshackle barns. The soil, which just weeks ago was still cracked and fissured by summer drought, is now at saturation point. Springs are breaking through on the slopes and travelling over the surface because they have nowhere else to go and the stream that runs in the crease in the bottom of the valley has been boiling over and throwing itself at the twists and turns to redefine its contours.
The alders that I planted to stabilise the banks ten years ago were placed at a sensible distance to give them time to get their fibrous roots established, but this much water is outstripping even their fast growth, so that several are already teetering on the edge where the banks have been eroded.
Collectively we are now going to have to move with agility to keep up with the changes. The wet winters are replenishing our aquifers and reservoirs, but the dramatic seesaw between the heat and dry of the summer is going to be a challenge to respond to. Though it is hard to know how to solve the big picture, working in the microcosm of the garden allows us to at least see how we can initiate positive change with often small but mindful actions. Actions that can be carried into all walks of life and an approach to using our energies carefully.
Simple moves to protect the soil when it is being challenged to this degree become the way we negotiate the garden. To keep the soil from exposure in the winter, when it is prone to leaching and erosion, with green manures, groundcovers or mulch and to think ahead with how winter work can ease the drought in the summer.
In the dry windows we have already begun the process of clearing the garden where the first bulbs are pushing through, but rather than leave the soil exposed where the cover of last year’s skeletons have been removed, we mulch immediately with our homemade compost. A circular activity that ensures that there is no waste. The clearances composted and the compost from last year replenishing and protecting bare ground. The organic matter is as important as a protective eiderdown as it is for the soil’s health. The worms will draw the humus down and open up drainage channels that in turn supply air to the microcosm of interconnected flora and fauna which support all that we see above ground.
Increasingly I aim for the garden to have a layering of groundcovers so that there are fewer and fewer spaces exposed to the elements and in need of mulch or intervention. Part the leaves and rummage to find the soil in a clump of protective violets or geranium and you can feel the balance you should be aiming for at soil level. Moisture where it is needed, but no standing water and an open texture to the ground where the stability provided by cover allows it constancy.
We work from boards to spread our weight and not compact the soil whilst it is wet. The activity of laying them between the plants in a zigzag of access routes and treating your soil with care and consideration is a reminder in itself that the soil is precious. When it becomes too perilous to walk the planks in slippery weather, we look to the winter work that can be carried out beyond the beds. Work carried out from the deliberately functional paths in the kitchen garden that allow us easy access to prune the fruit is saved for the wettest of weathers. The snatch of extra warmth if there is a break in the cloud against the south-facing wall where the pears are espaliered or the distinctive smell of currants as you reach in to thin the old wood in the bushes.
I am grateful for the free-draining paths in the garden, when beyond them every footfall is met with a squelch. I vary my routes across the grass that we call lawn to avoid damage. These are small areas, no more than we need to spill out onto in the summer, which need a light foot in dormancy. In contrast we establish a line of desire out in the fields and a wishbone emerges below the house where we divide for frequent visits to the pond in one direction and the polytunnel in the other. Walked in lines to allow the ground elsewhere to remain untrampled whilst it is still sleeping and us the opportunity to tread lightly but with purpose.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 14 January 2023