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The Voice - May 2022


Comment by Geoff

Geoff Juden

By working with others who also believe that the environment should be better cared for, The Great Eastern Parks Route was founded.

A group of us walked it on the 18 April 2022 to explore the history and nature of the route, and new ways of traveling east. Watch the Video

This goes to show that we should always adopt best practice and put it to the test if we want to achieve results.

If you value having someone campaign on your behalf to protect the environment and having access to useful articles about gardening and local environmental matters, please make a donation to help us with the cost of maintaining The East London Garden Society.


Love Your Weeds

Weeds

Do you have weeds springing up from the cracks in your front path and moss creeping over the bricks, allowing foxgloves and mulleins to rise up and tower? Perhaps wild marjoram is dancing from one side to another and growing on the top of a brick wall.

You may have a crowd of dandelions under the front step. You have probably battled to get rid of them but generally you don’t win. Instead, consider them as friends.

Many would think you need to do some weeding, but don’t. You may nudge some out of the way but some will stay and some will be outcompeted. If anything beastly moves in, you will need to intervene, but you need to fundamentally shift your view on weeds. They are welcome in the garden, because they do more good than harm.

Weed is a vague term. It comes from the Old English weod and means a plant, a grass, a herb or a tree; anything that grows abundantly around us. That is to say, a plant that exploits our growing conditions, be that in an agricultural field, a back garden, a pavement edge or a park.

Weeds are plants, often wildflowers, until they come a little too close and take advantage. Then they are weeds. They have been following us around since the Neolithic agricultural revolution, roughly 12,000 years ago. A long history, yet it is only relatively recently that it has become a battle.

We started off with a very different relationship. Weeds were not things that needed to be eradicated, but rather stuff we could gather and use. The ethnobotanical term for this is a cryptocrop, a wild plant that is useful to have on the edge of your field. 

The common names often tell of this. Fat hen makes your hens fat, as does chickweed. Sowthistle is good for lactating pigs and rabbits, hence its other name, hare thistle. All of these also happen to be delicious to humans, too.

For millennia, humans gathered, tended and used these so-called weeds so that they became a resource, either as a source of food for their animals or themselves, a medicine or a material. Nettles, brambles and fireweeds all have a long history of being used as cordage.

Many perennial weeds are very good at nutrient cycling, their long tap roots allowing them to mine minerals and nutrients from subsoil layers, which in turn helps to stabilise and improve soil for crops. They also protect soil; bare soil is easily eroded and damaged by the weather.

All of this would have been noticed and noted, but as agriculture turned into agribusiness, and farms went from small mixed systems to larger segregated ones of arable or animal, our ideas of what could stay at the margins changed and many cryptocrops have become weeds.

A rapid widespread introduction of chemicals, as well as manufactured fertiliser, meant weeds did better before synthetic herbicides got rid of them. As a result, the landscape radically changed. This new order was quickly marketed to the home gardener; the post-war aesthetic promoted a clean and controlled nature.

Weeds became something to be feared and to be defeated. However, they are an adaptable lot. They evolved out of changeable environments, so they reached into their gene pools and found new ways around our chemical attacks. Herbicides were then introduced which are doing serious damage to our water, our soils, our wildlife and our health.

The other way to remove weeds on a large scale is through tillage (ploughing, rotovating or digging) but that degrades and damages the soil.

Of course, weeds need to be managed, but there is another side to them that shouldn’t be overlooked. Many weeds are excellent for the environment because they feed others. Their flowers feed many insects; their leaves feed caterpillars, aphids and other soft-bodied things that in turn are the feed for other insects, birds and mammals.

Come autumn, their seed feeds many wild birds. These unwanted plants support all manner of wildlife. There is growing evidence that even the ones considered noxious to agriculture, such as spear thistle, field thistle, common ragwort, curled dock and broad-leaved dock, and which are controlled by the 1959 Weeds Act, are actually very good for nature.

That famous weedy nature, the ability to survive in places where other plants cannot, means that weeds often provide considerably more nectar and pollen than cultivated plants or plant species recommended for pollinator-targeted agri environmental schemes, wildflower mixes.

Think of buttercups that keep their flowers open on cloudy days, or the dandelions that arrive en masse when the bees are starting their colonies, or the bittercresses whose late-winter flowers are an important source of nectar and pollen to pollinators.

Many weeds are generalists, meaning they cater for many visiting pollinators, from bees and hoverflies to beetles and butterflies, with all their varying tongue lengths. Weeds tend to have simple flowers and often grow in swathes.

It is much easier for an insect to forage efficiently if it doesn’t have to fly far between food sources. Weeds flower in cold and dull weather so at any time of the year, there is a weed in flower somewhere.

Finally, they grow everywhere: in the shade, in the sun, on rubbish heaps, in the thickest clay or thinnest urban soils. You can buy wildflower seeds, but why not learn to love your own weeds.


Rewilding

It’s a useful tag for letting nature have a bit more freedom.

Rewilding

We’ve concentrated on plants for bees such as marjoram, late asters, and great willowherb, which is also good for the occasionally elephant hawk-moth. Hummingbird hawk-moth caterpillars eat the lady’s bedstraw which grows in all our meadowy bits.

There are early-season flowers like the little yellow comfrey Symphytum grandiflorum and late ones like ivy which flowers in October and November. We used to grow plants from the seed of the local nettle-leaved bell-flower, Campanula urticifolia, which is pretty uncommon now, and spread them around in the garden.

We keep plenty of dead wood around for fungi and beetles, standing or, if it’s fallen, stacked. Does all this sound like a mess? The funny thing is it doesn’t look like one. It’s actually a very liveable, loveable proper garden, just very alive.

Whether it was made for lazy lunches or hide and seek, for the pleasure of growing or simply finding somewhere to forget the daily grind, a domestic garden is a hard-working people space, more intimate than any public park or woodland or estate. A garden is a marriage of wildness and convenience.

However, the times are changing. The balance in that relationship needs to tip towards wildness because the environment needs it and the world needs it. Every rewilded garden will be different from the next, because local conditions and wildlife differ, the history of every garden soil differs, the way you will use it differs.

Garden organically, but more than that, stop importing things of any kind into the garden, it is better to let the garden’s ecology settle down to become itself at last. Identify your indispensable people spaces and people routes within the garden, so you are clear what other space is realistically free for wildlife use.

Putting water into a garden marks a whole step change for wildlife, whether it’s a bird bath or a pool to be a home for frogs and newts. Having a variety of soil conditions is a must, so that all manner of life-cycles are catered for. Absolute rewilders may wish to rip out non-native plants but the way to serve wildlife is to change over gradually, toward garden plants which serve wildlife better.

Here’s a choice to consider: Will you plant your favourite highly-bred large-flowered single garden rose, or a suckering little Scots rose, or a wild English dog rose? With care they can all have good hips. Although the highly-bred repeat flowerer offers a longer season of nectar the bushes are very different sizes. A rewilding gardener needs to make pragmatic choices.

It’s a gardener’s natural tendency to clear the jungle, to interfere. Yet having a thriving ecology demands the full spectrum of habitat, from newly churned-up places to places undisturbed for years. Soil may be bare or thick with fallen leaves or mossy. There will be a mixed age range of plants, from annual grasses to old trees.

Specialised habitats are found everywhere from shaggy lawns through damp corners and dense shrubberies to the treetops, and it’s up to you to simply maximise these opportunities to let nature choose which to occupy, be it for fungi, insects, mammals, reptiles or birds.

Think about using your chosen plants to create these habitats at all levels, some with warmth and shelter from wind, or with safety from predators. Make allowances for wildlife corridors and habitats of which your garden is just a part. 

Find out about local wildlife from keen gardening neighbours or the local Wildlife Trust thereby planting to encourage it. Identify which things are endangered specifically in your area and work up habitats which might encourage them.

Learn which garden plants are tolerant of the wildlife which comes to settle in your garden whether that’s a predatory insect, mammal or weed, and try to be tolerant of the damage. A rewilded garden can be lovely, romantic and totally useable, but if you like things super tidy it’s not for you.

A rewilded garden is always going to be a richly textured mesh of interlocking habitats, slow worms basking under old carpet on the compost heap is just one image to be created. It’ll be different, quieter, greener, but it will also be fascinating.


Why Not London?

Singapore

Singapore is known as a City in Nature. Lush canopy forests surround a cascading indoor waterfall, flora and fauna stretch into the sky from the rooftop gardens and koi carp swirl below the surface of tranquil ponds.

With more than 500,000 plants, it’s more greenhouse than airport. But this is just the beginning. Over the next decade, Singapore will reimagine what a city can be with its Green Plan 2030, a quest to become the world’s most sustainable urban destination.

Almost 50 per cent of the city is given over to green space, an achievement made even more impressive considering it has been consistently recorded as one of the most densely populated territories in the world.

The seed for Singapore’s transformation into an eco-friendly oasis was planted in the 1960s when then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, inspired by the European cities he had visited on his travels, began a tree-planting programme to line Singapore’s streets with greenery.

By 2030 Singapore aims to plant a further million trees and produce 30% of the country’s nutrition locally. It will also make 80% of structures into sustainably operating green buildings. Singapore’s existing green spaces will further be expanded and rejuvenated with the creation of vast cycling lanes, nature parks and park connectors.

Visitors will come face to face with extraordinary wildlife as the Mandai Wildlife Reserve, the Night Safari and River Safari, undergoes a transformation into a nature reserve, rainforest park and eco-lodge championing biodiversity and sustainability.

Singapore’s current attractions still continue to amaze. When exploring the city you’re greeted with bright bursts of greenery and lush creeping vines around every corner.

The island’s equatorial climate means there’s an exceptional diversity of flora and fauna, and thanks to its small size, day trips to even the most remote corners are simple.

Step into the surreal world of the Gardens by the Bay, where fantastical floral displays sit alongside conservatories shrouded with mist to mimic an otherworldly cloud forest. Wandering through these spaces, you’d hardly know you were in a city at all.

Pack a picnic for the UNESCO world heritage site of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, snap pictures from the walkways of hiking trails at the Southern Ridges or keep an eye out for scuttling crabs, monitor lizards and otters inhabiting the mangroves at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

Singapore’s unique heritage, cultural traditions and diverse geographical landscapes are wonders worthy of protection, and due to the measures put forward in the Singapore Green Plan 2030, they will be preserved for the next generation of travellers to enjoy.

Why can't London do the same?


The Hosta

Hosta

The Hosta originates mainly from Japan and for centuries it has been used in Japanese garden architecture. It is especially chosen because of the lovely leaves, the green and blue colours giving its beauty.

The first mention of the Hosta was by the Dutch. In 1712 the United East India Company obtained permission from the Japanese to establish a trading-post on this island of Deschima situated off the coast of Nagasaki.

The first drawings and descriptions of the Hosta are from this period. They were mainly made by Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1715) who was a doctor and a botanist for the United East India Company, and one of the first westerners to really see a Hosta. Keampfer spend a lot of time describing and drawing the plant and because Linnaeus had not yet published his works, he named the plant. 

Sometimes the names were peculiar, such as Joksan, vulgo gibbooschi Gladiolus plantagenis folio meaning the common Hosta with plantain like leaves. He named another Hosta Gibbooshi altera meaning The other Hosta.

Carl Thunberg (1743-1828), the doctor who succeeded Kaempfer at the United East India Company in Deschima, gave the Hostas new names and in 1812 the Austrian botanist, Leopold Trattinick (1761-1848), used the family name Hosta for the first time.

It took several years before Hostas came to Western Europe. The first Hostas to come were Chinese varieties - Hosta plantaginea (between 1784 to 1789 from Macao to Paris) and Hosta ventricosa in 1790 from China to London.

Doctor Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866) who worked at Leyden University played an important role in getting the Hosta all over Europe because he was able to collect and cultivate many varieties. Most of these varieties went to the Leyden Hortus Botanicus and fourteen varieties are still to be seen in Leyden.

Von Siebold also owned a nursery on the Zoeterwoudse Singel in Leyden but in 1899 this nursery closed.

The range of Hostas have not changed much during the past one hundred years in. In 1965 the number of Hostas on sale in the Netherlands was around thirty but in 2001 there were around 2,000 wirh many colours, tones and sizes.

The entire Hosta plant is edible from the shoots sprouting out of the ground up to the flowers, but it is a forgotten vegetable.


Cooking in a Different Way ‐ Hostas

Hostas are no different than any other wild-foraged spring edible. Somehow, when hostas made the transition from wild woodland plant to backyard ornamental, people forgot about eating them.

Just like any plant, the taste will vary between varieties. There’s a slight hint of onion, but the overwhelming flavour is the green goodness of asparagus.

They have a pleasant crunch, a bit like the juicy green of iceberg lettuce, but with a lot more flavour. The best time to harvest hostas is when they’re young shoots just emerging from the earth in spring. The flowers are also delicious later on in the summer, so these can be eaten as well.

Hosta

Method:

Beyond the shoots, which are a tasty spring vegetable, the blooms later in the summer are also edible. If you’re worried about harming your prize backyard hostas by harvesting the shoots, just be patient and wait until later in the summer when they bloom.

You can pluck off hosta blossoms without any cutting, which is a better option for young plants that are just getting established. Hosta blossoms taste sweet and floral, a bit like daylily blossoms .


Finally ...

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