Sunday, 12 January 2020

What makes a gardener?

What greater pleasure than to breed a new plant
I don’t mean what makes a successful gardener, I mean what makes many people just want to grow plants. Some of us are so besotted we think of nothing else. I write about both gardeners at home and those who dedicate their whole professional lives to it
Is there a ‘green gene’?
I wonder how much our love of growing is genetic. Clearly some of us will have characteristics that predispose us to it. But is there some arrow perhaps shot when some of our hunter- gatherer ancestors started to sow and plant plants?
Involved in horticultural education I would interview young people whose sole desire would to be gardener. 
On the other hand mature students would declare their long desire to garden even on their retirement from another profession. 
Alan Warwick  - equally proud of his spuds

My friend Alan Warwick - I wrote about the Chelsea apple tree he bred and his insightful theory about how water gets to the top of a large tree -  was a very senior ICI executive who on his retirement enrolled on my one year craft gardening course, bought a small nursery and now thirty years later at ninety one gardens all day.
No dig gardener - digging? (No just lifting)
In my own case I got the bug at the age of 14. Up to that time weeding my parent’s garden was an unwelcome chore and not a joy. We moved to a new house with an overgrown garden and as I have written before, my parents (to my juvenile mind) did not have a clue or inclination what to do. I took it upon myself to restore the  garden. It was digging out couch grass and the smell of the soil that turned my green gene on.
The pleasures of gardening
I thought it would be easy write about the joy of gardening. Not so. For every gardener it is something different. For every gardener there is a different garden
Gardening is a spectrum running from pure hatred to a reason for living. It runs from intense physical activity to easy gentle reflection. It contrasts precise manipulative garden maintenance to communion with nature.
Best give a few examples

* I know a lady whose idea of pure heaven is to lie in a warm bath and study a seed catalogue.

*I myself fall asleep thinking of what gardening I will do next day or mull over the future of what I have started
The thrill when a difficult plant flowers

*Gardening brings moments of pure joy. The first time you see new roots on a cutting will bring an ecstasy never to be repeated although always bringing huge satisfaction. A first new flower on a precious plant just the  same.
And cooking them too

*Eating your first homegrown tomato. You own vegetables however manky will always be delicious.

*The feel of fresh air and solitary reflection.

*The creation of a new or changed garden in your own image

*Transforming in a day by hard labour a weedy patch into a beautiful picture. (A way of gardening that I myself do not approve)

*Watching an ever changing image as the seasons unfold or merely when a dull patch transforms as the sun shines

*The allotmenteer who leaves his worries behind and meets his mates.

*The warm feelings when you share your passion and/or show off your garden

*Getting your hands dirty and the smell of the soil

*The endless progression as you learn something new

I love this quote from The Garden Jungle by Dave Goulson 
"My garden is a little corner of the earth I can control, small enough to comprehend where I can make things right"
What makes a good gardener?
It does not really matter.
A very good gardener
 When I set out to write this post I had the intention of offering a few pointers to what special attributes a good gardener possesses. When I started to list these features it all fell apart. They don’t hang together. Superb gardeners proceed in diametrically opposite directions. 
For every attribute I can think of, I go to a good gardener who is different
Brenda gardens when it is not wet, windy or cold
I would like to think I am a good gardener myself and yet every day Brenda tells me how I am not
Perhaps the greatest thing about gardening is that we are all different and so are our gardens and the pleasures we get from them. You can be a garden lover - even an expert - without lifting a finger!
Some gentle scarifying?
Perhaps a universal attribute of really good gardeners should be that they recognise the skills and endeavour of others. Things might not always be to their personal taste but quality shines through.
(Except that a few are  scathing and intolerant. Gardening for some brings out our worst competitive instincts)

Where wise men fear to go fools step in. So purely for your entertainment here is my opinionated offering of things that make a good gardener
Sue Garrett is a superb gardener and a brilliant blogger
Doing jobs at the right time - not only on a seasonal basis but day to day decisions,  Is it dry and windy?  -  hoe. Is the soil wet? - plant (not if you are a fluffer). If it is a still day consider spraying.

When doing routine maintenance don’t just tidy for the day but consider long term development. 
Inspection time
A good gardener’s plants will be healthy. He might never spray but by doing things right his plants grow well.

Understanding watering. It takes a good while to learn. You get to the stage that just a casual glance will tell you a plant is in need.

Listen to advice but make your own decisions and always be prepared to try something different.

Love you soil, even if that means leaving it alone. All soils are different and your own deserves your understanding

For many gardening tasks such as weed control a ‘little and often’ approach might be best. (not for watering)

A good gardener listens to his plants and treats them accordingly

Be generous to others. The best way to preserve your plants is to give some away.
Just as well I gave Peter Williams this rare dicentra

In the last month of his life philosopher Franz Kafka with terminal TB retired to the country. He said he had never known such happiness as tending the garden at that time.


Read how Alan Warwick raised a sensational new weeping tree

Learn the correct name of that yellow dicentra


Wednesday, 1 January 2020

My throw and grow colour kaleidoscope - Year Two

The problems of continuity 

An early splurge of orange - other colours followed
Last year I posted about my new hardy annual feature and if you missed it, it is best to read it now.  (You will be able to click back)

It was naughty of me to call it a meadow.  It is really just  a hardy annual  border but one managed on naturalistic lines. I did mix in a little fescue grass but it was completely overgrown.

There are several things I want to pick up on, not least how local authorities might differ from the home gardener in their management  bearing in mind we gardeners are there everyday to pounce on a stray weed whereas municipal gardeners are never there. After all it is supposed to be low maintenance. Dream on.

Many recent and very popular municipal roadside displays of direct sown annuals really are magnificent and in the first year are no bother at all. I wonder how they manage continuity from one year to another.
Do they need to resow? How do they tackle the inevitable perennial weed that will establish? Do they dare use glyphosate between seasons on what are (wrongly) perceived as natural features? How do they tackle the prolific annual weeds such as fat hen, sow thistle and shepherds purse that grow and self sow so freely amongst the colourful flowers - potentially becoming worse every year. Perennials such as nettles readily self sow too if allowed to do so.

This fat hen must not be allowed to self seed!
On my own patch I will describe how this year it was almost completely self sown - I did not sow fresh seed other than a few whimsical extras. How long can I continue before some subjects are lost and the more vigorous becomes dominant?
On a different note I observe Peter William’s perennial wild flower meadow each year changes its character.

I was lucky that in April and early May the soil surface was constantly wet and the seed got a superb start. Nature sows more densely than I would ever do. A very good thing and if the odd seedling got trampled if I pulled out a weed or aimed a delicate spray no matter.

A touch of colour in Lyndi's field
In contrast I scattered some seed in Lyndi’s field in early May when unfortunately the soil was starting to dry and germination was poor. On a small patch at home gardeners might choose to water if the weather turns dry. There might be ample water in the ground to sustain growth but insufficient surface wetness to get the seed started.


A few large weeds have been hand weeded away
In this my third season there were more weeds from seed than before.
In my half-hearted first season in what had previously been my vegetable garden managed with my ‘no dig; and ‘no weed seeding’ methods I had an extremely clean start in terms of absence of weed seed. The annuals were broadcast as is my normal practice - unlike traditional methods where in conventional hardy annual borders the clumps are usually sown in seed drills to facilitate hoeing.
It was easy that year to hand pull the odd weed!

I do feel that the ‘throw and grow’ seed mixture was not immune from weed contamination and in the next year I did find certain new weeds resident in my garden. I must have missed them in the first season and they took to their new home.
When you have solid masses of flowers it is much more difficult to stop weeds seeding. I try my best but even I miss some and I anticipate possible problems in future years.

I find that seeded nettles thrive in my ‘throw and grow’ regime. This year and last I have spot-treated small clumps of nettles with carefully directed glyphosate. Quite easy as you get into Summer and some of your flowers start to ‘go over’ and the odd trampled annual grows on anyway! (Indeed I twinkle through the display to pull a few carrots on the far side)

When I pull out my weeds I just throw them down to desiccate and die. Although my annuals are on very fertile ground and in theory might be better on soil of less fertility I am unable to break a habit of a lifetime of enriching the soil by casting down weeds! Where a large weed has slipped through and is already prolifically seeding it is best to remove it!
At the end of the season and before new self sown seed starts to germinate from March next year one has a completely free run for easy weed control! Do not neglect this opportunity to tackle all weeds.

The flowers

As previously mentioned they are (mainly) hardy annuals and not native wild flowers. They very well might be if I had originally chosen such a mixture. Peter Williams observed today that some of the annuals might very well be another country’s wild flowers harvested from meadows.

Not in the original seed mixture these short lived perennial violas sow themselves
Actually I found my mixture was not wholly hardy annuals. I have spotted a few biennials and a lovely orange wallflower two years ago held on to flower in the next April among the new seedlings.
Today in October I spotted a few cosmos which in my book are half hardy annuals.

Bold commelina flowers up to each lunchtime
My own variations have also intruded and have self seeded in amongst the melange. Lovely short lived perennial commelina adds splashes of gentian blue. A few dahlias wandered in last year and proved to be hardy. I will this time deliberately scatter some more. 

Self sown dahlia in its second year
That lovely annual grass that Brenda constantly harps on about when it self sows in other parts of the garden is in there too.
Anyone know what this invasive foxy grass is called?
Last season from May was hot and dry. Many of the flowers had after three months completed their life cycle. Ever tidy Isobel whilst admiring the flowers, delicately inquired what I do with the strawy dead yellow or brown stems. It would be easy to pull a few handfuls out - and indeed some found their way to Lyndi’s field and Cathi’s verge as seed sources. 

Late germinated alyssum pervaded the whole plot with a scent of honey
Late Summer rains brought new germination. A refreshed white carpet of honey scented alyssum was an Autumn joy and dwarf nasturtiums came into their own.

Nasturtiums and second flowering of Salvia horminum
Calendula also comes into its own in late Summer

Winter management
In Autumn of the previous year year I had mused how I would clear up the debris at the turn of the year and how hard it would be. I should not have worried, the strawy remains frittered down to almost nothing. It was work of just a few minutes to rake off shrivelled vegetation and leave any promising seedlings and still green plants.  I had a clear run to spray off any weeds and up to March this opportunity continued.
I wonder what local authorities do at this juncture? A York roundabout which had had a very successful season looked rather scruffy in December but not untoward. I expect that in April they will remake a seedbed and resow.

Myself I shall yet again do zero seedbed preparation and just wait for my annuals to emerge. There will be copious seedlings but will they maintain a suitable balance? Perhaps I will top up with a few favourites? 
And when should I sow them? New self sown seedlings start popping through in March

Originally from the farm field corn marigolds will be back

My original post when I stopped growing most of my vegetables and scattered a few annuals

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Airborne weeds: creeping thistle

Mainly about thistles

Fluffy fiend
It has been my wont to quote ‘One years seeding - seven years weeding’ in my effort to encourage gardeners into a cycle of virtue where weed control becomes easier as the years pass.

The prettiest of the dreaded epilobiums
My cosy symbiosis has now been shattered  as I suffer airborne invasions of thistles and epilobium. I have written about epilobiums extensively before but now for me personally there is a new kid on the block, the dreaded  creeping thistle.

Invading epilobiums
Come back to haunt me is the occasion when I wrote about airborne weed seeds blowing into Bolton Percy cemetery from ‘dirty neighbours’. It was in an obscure specialist magazine which unfortunately I showed to one of the newspapers that at that time descended when the churchyard was famous  One quoted me verbatim and a local villager enquired as to who those neighbours were!

I have always been aware of the minor inconvenience of airborne dandelions and its relatives and the need to spot treat them in my lawn at least once a year. 
Epilobiums have always been a curse and I wrote recently that more than half my weed control time is taken up by that pretty weed.
Peter W. recently brought to my attention how light weed seeds such as annual meadow grass just blow in from everywhere and  superficially surprising weeds are tree seedlings from such as winged sycamore seeds that cascade down.

High on the horizon now
As for thistles, they have not been on my horizon and have thought of them as agricultural weeds that invade such places as poorly managed horse paddocks or old abandoned allotments. Not any more!

Pretty self seeding plants that are NOT airborne are more of my thing
Although today I complain about two plants with natural flight capabilities, weeds can spread in other ways into our gardens; not least those carried in bird and animal droppings. Indeed many of us have acquired valuable plants such as daphne this way. I suppose in extremis most seed is capable of carriage by strong wind. When you think of it it is perhaps surprising how little some weeds actually spread.
I wonder what happens if you have a massive seed source immediately next door?
Now I know

Why my weed control is becoming harder
I have acquired a massive thistle seed source next door!
The eight acre field that borders two sides to my garden three years ago came under new management. It is now home to pheasants that are raised for shooting. I have now no need for peacocks to decorate my garden - and for that matter rabbits are even more of a nuisance (not sure about the moles).
In the last three years, parts - but not all - of the field have  been ploughed twice and also at the end of the season the coarse vegetation mown to the ground ( a temporary treat). Other than a small area of maize (pheasants love corn) no crop has been sown and weeds are given free reign and some such as fat hen  (chenopodium) are actually encouraged.
It is really interesting the ecology that is developing. There are very few pretty wild flowers but plenty of coarse ones. There is no woody intrusion as the mowing suppresses such plants.
Creeping thistle is having a field day!

Seeding everywhere for a couple of months
Epilobium girds its loins to invade from next door
To compound the deterioration of my neighbourhood environment former pasture on the other side of my garden for several years now has increasingly been taken over by prolific free seeding epilobiums.

Creeping thistle Cirsium arvensis 

Its aggressive root system might spread in at ten metres or more a year
Don’t tell me that our worst weeds are evil aliens, creeping thistle is a european native and is up there (or perhaps down) with the worst of them. Not only does it invade with vigour vegetatively it does so also by seed.
Most nasty vegetative perennials such as couch, ground elder, Japanese knotweed and bindweed set no or very little seed. Creeping thistle is not only equally vegetatively threatening but produces huge masses of seed  which is prolific and windborne. 

Once established creeping thistle spreads laterally with great vigour and its speed of travel outpaces all others. It is a long lived perennial, government certified as noxious and subject to statutory regulation (sadly unenforced these days).
A single strong plant has been shown to spread into clean land previously lacking competition up to ten metres a year. A ‘single plant’ is a bit of a contradiction as with such a rate of spread a field might contain contain several huge single clones. The only slightly good news is that half of the plants will be males (which produce prolific pollen but no seed) and some of the copious thistle-down from the females is not always fertile.
Thistle seed germinates at almost any time of year but especially in Spring.

Subtle invasion

And sneaky establishment
Thistles and me
The problem has crept up on me. Hitherto I have been complacent and although I have for two years now been stopping invading thistles in their tracks  by spraying the edge of the field their thrusting roots and rhizomes are becoming more persistent.
(The owner of the field is a lovely old man - er younger than me - and has no objection to my effort. It’s always best to tackle invading weed ‘the other side of the ‘fence’ - with the owner’s permission)

The seed is a new problem. It is only last season that I have started to notice and find thistles popping up in unusual places. My glyphosate kills it of course in open spaces but plants appear in hidden serendipity places and if I miss one it can initiate it’s vegetative spread
The strength of thistle seeding has increased almost exponentially over the last three years as it has built up its strength in the farm field. Now I watch huge masses of thistledown drift gently over my garden July to September
Epilobium is still my very worst weed  - but I wonder how long?

I am also starting to have trouble with windblown sowthistle -not to be confused with creeping thistle but a real nuisance as it is not very sensitive to glyphosate

Control of creeping thistle
Actually in a field a farmer has got a great weapon and so may you in an overgrown paddock. Just let it go rampant up to full flowering before seeding and then mow it. With all it’s energy directed into seeding it is very vulnerable. This will not completely eliminate it but this will get you well started and if repeated each year keep it under a degree of control (I chose my words carefully as I am hedging my bets)

If your thistle is in grass or lawn, standard MCPA or 24D weedkillers are effective after a few repeat treatments. Search my blog for posts about them.
I used MCPA as farm product Agritox in my post about nettles in Cathi’s field. There was also a corner of creeping thistle which I casually zapped with unused spray from my knapsack. It really hit it but as this was just a casual gesture and not repeated it is back now,

When strong intact thistles are sprayed  with glyphosate - perhaps best at 1 in 40 dilution of commercial product - it kills thistles well. Again inexperienced gardeners should search my extensive articles on how to use it.

I await germinated thistles with intrepidation next year.

Not to mention sowthistles in Lyndi's field

Sadly my anxiety is as nothing compared to the consequences of this!


Read about my 'willow herb' problem
I wrote about the nettles in Cathi's sheep paddock

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Passing three million

Not so dizzy heights
Cathi, blogmeister and young Crumb who parrots the prose
I check my blog statistics from blogger every day. Sad really. Initial pride has dissolved into habit and indeed my figures have been static for several years now. It is useful to see what my readers are reading and I can try and write what might be popular but other than that my numbers do no more than satisfy my ego.
As I now approach a total of three million Cathi insists I recognise the occasion and Peter has thoughtfully suggested we go out for a celebratory meal. Fortunately a few of my friends do read me but it is very few. Isobel still promises to have a first look but she is busy and Jackie will one day get round to asking John to bring up my page. Brenda never reads me and now has the excuse that her macular won’t let her. At least that gives me the opportunity to make loving digs about her or very rarely give vent to her wisdom.

Believe it or not this was the morning of our wedding day
It’s a sort of addiction. I was originally inveigled into it by Cathi and Harry to share my gardening knowledge. Cathi as major domo for York Publishing even knowing I had never written before, set up the blog for me and Harry showed me how to work the apple computer and process the pictures. It had been thirty years since I had used a camera. Harry despaired I would ever achieve fifty readers a day and he laughed at his window when I miss-held the camera.
Apart from any element of self promotion I think there is a dearth of real horticultural knowledge in the vast amount of shallow and sometimes incorrect, amateur, endlessly recycled, gardening literature. I felt I could make a contribution injecting into gardening lore the kind of information we gave our students. There are too many myths I wanted to challenge.

A stumbling start

Harry holds a sparrow hawk
At first I thought my posts ought to be short and concise and carry relatively few pictures. Wrong. It took perhaps my first hundred posts before I strayed into a more relaxed and expansive style. Perhaps too far but Peter Williams assured me that if a post was worth reading there ought to be some meat in it.
My first 74 posts were actually posted by Cathi from my draft ‘Pages’ document. She even, poor girl, placed my selected pictures and put in the captions. (I eventually realised that the dialogue of the captions  and placement of the pictures was so much part of the story)
I of course wanted to get my message about not digging-over over (please excuse the pun). With so many individual strands to the argument not usually tackled in generic articles I wanted to be specific and I started two parallel series - reasons to dig and reasons why not. Only intrepid early readers lasted the course!
People who now come to the blog expecting to find it to be all about not digging are these days surprised to find very little about it. I do still like to throw in sly little bits of propaganda but I don’t really want to too much to repeat myself. It is still all there in the archives!

My blog got off to a great start thanks to Harry’s pictures. He was an amazingly talented photographer and gave me access to all his pictures. Without them I would have never really got going. We were lucky to get some wonderful photographs of a sparrow hawk that Harry had rescued from my garage. It was me that actually clicked the camera as he cradled the defiant bird.
With Cathi’s promotion that post was for me  a very big ‘hit’.  Cathi has always been my secret weapon and she still promotes me all over the place.

The changing blogosphere
Even in the six years since I started, I get the impression that blogs have changed. Apart from the commercially successful blockbusters that have more readers in a day than I have had in a lifetime I get the impression that as far as gardening blogs are concerned there are not so many around. It seems to me that the urgency of modern media and its multi-directional flow gives more success to sharing gardening information. Indeed most successful gardening blogs seem as a requisite be littered with links to Facebook and similar; half a dozen media platforms and more. I am afraid I cannot be bothered to supply a similar service although I must confess in the early days I did trawl Facebook sites promoting myself by making comments related to gardening and nature.
More than half of the wonderful gardening blogs that I once regularly visited are now dead or dormant.
My own reader numbers remain fairly constant and to my surprise vary little with season. No doubt many readers have left me and new ones arise. It is a bit of a dilemma how much I should repeat old information. I suppose like the gardening magazines I endlessly recycle.
One fascination is how my old posts have a life of their own and a few are read regularly and achieve astounding numbers. Some that when published were hardly looked at are now read more in a day than in the first six months!
On the other hand some that were originally popular are now never read at all.

Producing a post

Harry Poole picture of 'Piff'
It would be nice to think they were just dashed off on a whim. Not even close, my posts undergo a period of gestation. Every morning  I get up at about seven, do several kitchen chores, feed and water the bird who then alights on my shoulder. As I write now he is dictating my prose.
Still in my pyjamas I sit at the computer and blog for an hour. A post starts with a germ of an idea. Goodness knows where it comes from. Usually it is the most current bee in my bonnet.

Peter Williams provided the pictures for this popular post
Sometimes the prose flows and the verbiage appears in a couple of  sessions. More often it takes several days to get the first draft.
I allow myself another couple of sessions to assemble the pictures and carry out any editorial chores. Ever so rarely I might then give myself a day off from my obsession. The post then goes into purdah as I take the next post off my desktop. My friend Peter who produces his wonderful articles to a last minute deadline cannot believe I have four posts in stock! Perhaps that is why they are so out of date.

I next edit the new post off the desktop. By now - (on a good day) - a few new ideas have emerged and some of the old ones suddenly seem garbage. It next takes a couple of sessions to cut and paste the prose onto the blog, place the photographs, write the captions re-editing as I go.
With intrepidation I press the button to go public. Will this be the one that eventually destroys my reputation?
It takes an average of ten hours to produce each post. Why on earth do I do it?

My top posts

I was tempted to do my all time ‘top ten’. Unfortunately many  are already reflected in those at the top of the post which records the previous month. I assume many new readers just click there and keep the popularity going.
Instead I shall take samples of the most popular posts in order from the beginning. What I thought blockbusters at the time boast now seem relatively small numbers. They just did not stand the test of time as the thread of self generating publicity weakened. Unless a title brings in new readers from search engine ‘finds’ it fades out of attention.

1. The sparrow hawk came to dinner
Already mentioned today this post has only only been read 5000 times. It seemed so much more at the time. Ironically in contrast the very next post ‘corn marigolds’ has been a sleeper and accumulated 8000
2   Harry Poole pictures.
Harry was a superb photographer. Multi talented he was just as happy changing a washer or building a power station. His pictures were really what got the blog going. This very short post links to several of his very fine pictures. I has only been read 2000 times

3 An ubiquity of sparrows
This was the first real success read 178,802 times
4. Eliminating nettles. This is the first post to achieve many readers because it answers a question that many folk search for. 162,766 readers
5 A congress of corvids
Still in the top ten it is also based on Harry’s pictures 155,000 readers
6. When I wrote about Harry and Cathi’s baby rheas in the first six months it was read 63 times. It suddenly caught on and has accumulated 188,000

7 Po’s Christmas moonshine
All time winner, Po Simpson had sent me his wonderful moon pictures. 333,556 times read. We think that somehow the word ‘moonshine’ has brought in the punters.

8. Mission unaccomplished
It is difficult to know why this record of our holiday in Costa Rica topped the then current top ten for more than a year. 278,923 times read. Now no one reads it. The last reader was eight weeks ago  and was probably me!

9. Longevity in Gardeners
This is the most recent of the more popular posts and has clocked 56,000 in less than a year. I find that these days that ‘general interest’ posts like this do best 

10. Decline in bee populations
I would like to thank everyone who has helped me blog (is it a verb?). Harry and Cathi of course. Harry Kennedy for pictures of Costa Rica and worms. That lovely man Po. Alan Armitage who sends me ‘edits’ from the far north. All readers who comment and contribute their pool of knowledge. Not the spammers who never learn that their intrusions are immediately wiped.
Peter Williams has written for me the very best articles and freely provides superb quality pictures, many ‘on demand’. He is a great person to bounce ideas off, check facts and provide new ideas. The bee post which boasts 55,000 ‘reads’ is a fine example of his help.

Couch grass sprayed in December, pictured in February
11. Can you use Roundup in Winter?
Apart from not digging and soil science, I have several reoccurring themes. Glyphosate is a fundamental part of my gardening which I promote, describe and defend. My most read glyphosate post answers a question that many folk search the net for and brings them to me. 24,068


12. Significance of hybridisation 
I have an intense interest in evolution and hybridisation’s fundamental contribution. I first set out my thoughts three years ago and each new contribution to this series of posts quickly rushes to 5000. This early one has grown to 88,432

Friday, 22 November 2019

Getting your minerals

Eat healthy
Spoiler alert, if you eat plenty of fruit, nuts and vegetables as part of a healthy diet there is (usually) no need for supplementation.

Once again I am indebted to James Wong for an interesting article in his column in the New Scientist that suggests to me a blog topic. He has written an excellent piece about the nutritional value of trendy ‘ancient wheats’ compared to modern varieties. I plunder his best lines.

“variety for variety compared, Canadian wheat contains ten times as much selenium to that grown in the UK”

“ boring old flour contains twice as much manganese and fibre than most ancient wheats”

“ Much research on the claimed benefits of specialist grains is supported by growers - funny that”.

It is not my intention today to talk about all round nutrition and talk about fibre, vitamins and such things. I just want to concentrate on the minerals in our diet - and their primary source, plants from the soil.

A line I will take is that our own UK soils are not seriously nutrient depleted and my worry is that possible future legislation that will seek to improve agricultural practice in terms of acting upon issues of global warming and habitat destruction might be misdirected. I just cringe when the tv news endlessly shows that silly man who keeps preaching that for the last seventy years we have been poisoning our soils. (Nominate your own culprit, another contender was minister for the environment!)

Plant nutrients
As gardeners we consider what nutrients will make our plants grow healthily.
For certain crops farmers are also  concerned which nutrients from their crop are needed by their animals. Selenium and iodine are two examples of trace elements not needed for plant growth but are paramount for the health of livestock.
We too should be concerned about mineral nutrients in the plants that we grow.

On a worldwide scale their are large areas deficient in specific important nutrients and plant breeders are working to breed crop varieties with increased nutrient uptake from  the soil.

Quick check on nutrients essential for plant growth

Gardeners will be be familiar with the major nutrients NPK, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Once called minor nutrients magnesium, calcium and sulphur are now considered major too
Micronutrients, also dubbed trace elements are (in no particular order) manganese, molybdenum, iron, copper, zinc and boron.
Some other minerals are essential for specific plant species and in other cases although not essential, are beneficial. These include chlorine, sodium, cobalt, selenium and the not at all inconsequential silicon that I blogged about recently.

Old gardeners fed their asparagus with common salt (not recommended)
I find it interesting that many minerals are ‘actively absorbed’ by plants and others are passively absorbed and in effect ‘go with the flow’ of water take up
There can be massive variations in plant uptake of minerals which vary with such as soil and plant-species or variety.
It is important to note that their are very many more different minerals that plants absorb than those they require for their own nutrition
A very important point is that farmers and growers need to ensure a supply of essential minerals to get a healthy crop and it is these very same nutrients that are important in our own diet. Many modern fertilisers contain the essential trace elements and rather than being detrimental to the level of necessary minerals in our soil as is sometimes claimed, modern fertilisers are the opposite.


Reports that UK agricultural soils are depleted of nutrients and that modern vegetables contain less minerals than historically

As to the first absolutely not. As to the second maybe and sometimes
There have recently been much hyped claims that our soils and its produce are seriously mineral depleted. Over the top and out of proportion it is worthy of investigation and over the years it has been intensively and responsibly scientifically studied.
Great ingenuity has been directed in comparing past and present. It is notoriously difficult considering such things as huge differences between mineral content of one plant-variety and another, plants grown on different soils in different countries in varying conditions in different seasons and even whether old methods of analysis are the same as those done today. Much excellent and detailed research has been carried out and I recommend if you really want to really know about these things you read the link to the Elsevier article in the Journal of Food Science 2017. It is a long piece bringing stuff together.
To be honest my head hurt as I continued to read it but as an informed honest  analysis it is second to none.

It accepts that there will be exceptions to any conclusions - there is so much variation the world over.

It shows in the round, that UK farm soils are NOT depleted in nutrients, indeed as the result of modern enriched fertilisers they sometimes contain more nutrients than before

In respect to whether crops contain less minerals there is sometimes a ‘dilution effect’ as modern high yields spread nutrients thinner. The effect is relatively small and by no means universal. The affects of varietal and soil differences hugely out distance such mineral depletion.
In counter to this, modern living has greatly increased the range and extended season of vegetables and fruit on our table all year round and the modern portion size on our plate is much greater.

I pile kale on my plate
(As to portion size it personally surprises me the small amounts of vegetables our own visitors take from the serving bowl and when eating out how much vegetable and salad folk leave on their plate.
In contrast at home Brenda insists I take my own huge helping last after visitors have taken their meagre share.
Phooey to five a day propaganda).

Do fruit and vegetables from our gardens contain more or less minerals than those from the shop? …
…and how do we maximise them?

More manky but what about their minerals?
I know of no reliable statistics about this but my own suspicion is that they are very much the same. Bare in mind that unlike vitamins and organic elements of nutrition they are not depleted in transit.

We gardeners avoid many perhaps overlooked mineral deficiencies by increased use of organic matter but recycled organic matter contains no different minerals than those available from the parent soil. It will be true that nutrients are less likely to be ‘locked up’ and become more available in those soils with higher levels of organic matter but nutrients do not come from nowhere.

In contrast purchased produce might have been grown anywhere in the world and will benefit from huge variations in soil’s natural mineral content. The presence of specific trace elements might vary by orders of magnitude depending where they come from.
In a sense if all your produce is homegrown, all your eggs are in one basket. You might just win the lottery and some ‘magic nutrient' might make you live for ever! I don’t really think so.

Some minerals are potentially toxic. I wrote about what I dug up in a failing patch in an ornamental border at home. In old properties you cannot imagine what your ancestors might have disposed of. In my case it was rusting old machinery!
American blog ‘Garden Professors’ carried an article where the writer had her soil analysed in the vicinity of an old lead painted conservatory and concluded she had better not grow vegetables there. I think she might have been a bit of a hypochondriac but no need to take chances.
I believe our own retail food supplies are so carefully monitored that toxic levels of such as ‘heavy metals’ would never happen.

Do we need to supplement the minerals in our diet?

For most of us multi mineral pills are a firm no and our varied diets ensure we get what we need.
Some folk recognise that their diets are poor and are tempted ‘to make sure’ by taking pills. Take care if any, not to take too many.
Of course some people have special mineral needs such as those who have iodine, calcium and iron deficiencies and are under medical supervision to supplement them.

Bananas are a good source of potassium
I recently checked on factors that effect blood pressure. Apparently enough potassium in our diet is important and bananas are a good source. When you feed your tomatoes with a high potash fertiliser perhaps it’s good for your heart? 
On the downside excess common salt - a source of the minerals chlorine and sodium is a serious risk. (Down with processed food and up with fresh vegetables on your plate)

No minerals here
In my piece today I have concentrated on plants. Our diets acquire many of their minerals from meat, fish and dairy. Vegetarians and vegans need worry more about supplementing certain vitamins and for all I know minerals such as calcium and magnesium which milk richly provides.
For many of us the future is likely to be almost vegetarian but with regard to lack of minerals we have little to fear.
That is not to say that there is no place for breeding crops with enhanced mineral uptakes and indeed direct mineral supplementation. Food supplementation brings its own political problems and in the UK is fairly small.
I am ever grateful that the water in Hartlepool was naturally rich in fluoride and my teeth got a good start in my early years.


As I write my post I have a morning cup of tea. Apparently it is a useful source of manganese. The other minerals do not have time to dissolve when we brew it according to research in New Zealand. The writers observed that the tea drinkers might get more (and not insignificant) nutrients from the hard water.
I curse every time I use tap water to top up my pond I get a flush of algal growth as a result of its minerals.
My old auntie swore by the benefits of emptying her tea pot onto the hydrangeas every morning. 


The Elsevier article that gives you the lowdown

I dug up some heavy metal

I wrote about mineral uptake

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