That is to say, thinking about what strategies the plants are using in the garden and how I can appropriately respond. Yesterday I was tidying up the edge of the lawn working my way along the ‘long border’. As I went I was looking closely at what was growing and how the individual plants are faring. It was not long before I saw that the mints I planted last spring were starting to take off in all directions. ‘That’s hardly surprising!’ I can hear you thinking – we all know that is what mint does and famously that is why people always recommend putting it in a pot rather than in the actual garden. Well, of course I have to be different – I have never grown mint in a pot – and until yesterday, however unlikely this may sound, I have not seen it do this famous spreading behaviour.
So there I am patiently working my way along this edge and the garden has given me something to think about, which is what I love to do. The reason I have never confined mint to a pot is precisely to see what it does naturally. This is my reasoning with all plants – let them be themselves and see what happens. In my former, Telford, garden the soil was rich and fertile even before I began experimenting with forest gardening and edible perennials. There was mint there that did not run and I have mint in one place in this Borderland garden close to the hedge that has not gone very far. So why the different behaviour? I am wondering if the rich soil in my old garden meant that the mint did not need to travel? In the case of the mint near the hedge it may be constrained by the substantial roots of the damson and hawthorns and it is also a bit shady so not ideal conditions for it perhaps.
Regarding the mint in the long border my hunch is that it may be to do with plant strategies for improving the soil and also with gaining the nutrients they need. The ‘long border’ is characteristic of this garden and this area in that it is clay mixed in with lots of stones derived from the shale rocks that lie very close to the surface and can be clearly seen in woods adjacent to where we live.
I wonder if the mint and the other plants placed in the long border by nature, like docks, dandelions and lots of self seeded salsify, are trying to break up the hard packed soil for me – the mints pushing through sideways and docks and salsify and others (like Jerusalem artichoke) pushing down vertically they are breaking up the structure. To me that seems worth considering and so I am going to let the plants get on with growing the way they want to and see what happens.
The main strategy for this bed is to improve the soil alongside growing fruit, herbs, vegetables and flowers. The other strand to improving the soil is to add as much biomass as possible to it – mainly by mulching with plants from the border and some other materials such as grass cuttings. So I will use the dock and dandelion leaves as mulch; and the same goes for the chicory I planted – it gets far too large if allowed to grow unrestricted, but is a useful source of mulch. In the meantime the roots of these plants make themselves useful below ground.
As well as adding biomass mulching between the plants I want to encourage enables me to suppress some that I am not so keen on at present (like herb Robert); in due course the flowering plants and other herbs and vegetables will close the gaps.
I do not think I will need to do much over the coming summer to keep it all in a reasonable balance and of course it will be interesting to see how far the mint does spread. I am prepared to eat my words (as well as the mint) and find out in due course that this was a silly strategy, but the deeper point is that I will always want to find out what plants actually do in practice and not just take the ‘accepted wisdom’ as a given. My ongoing aim to be in a co-operative agreement with nature whereby she is given as much freedom as possible and I gently ‘tweak’ the system towards the set goals.
This is the most wonderful weekend this year – warm sunshine, birdsong and such abundance spring up everywhere. Winter is over and the world is celebrating!