Moles … Again!

There are grass verges in front of most houses at the outskirts of our village, a legacy of Edwardian planning, setting the houses back from the road. Most of the verges are neat, mown regularly by the council, though occasionally covered in wheel tracks or removed altogether where space is needed for parking. Ours currently is not neat or tidy. Ours is completely covered in little brown molehills, where a small, black creature has evidently been digging in circles.

When I started this blog, I asked which animals would like to help me and offer their support. The result is the sketch I made at the top of the page. One of these animals was the mole, who made himself known to me in the same way as he is now, by making molehills all over the place. And then disappeared as silently and completely as he had appeared.

So now he is back, I felt he had a message for me.

Unfortunately with the holidays my meditation time was massively reduced, my focus has been elsewhere, and I never made the time to simply ask Mole what he had to say. Instead I spent three weeks being puzzled. Not annoyed with the destruction of the otherwise perfect lawn – it is winter and no one is harmed by a few molehills, but it is so extreme as to be very odd. And then suddenly the penny dropped.

Molehills on the grass verge.

I have been working with the elements individually, something I do every so often in a cyclical way, deepening my connections each time, and this time started with Earth knowing I find that element hardest. It is also the element of the North, and of Winter. A good time of year for working with rocks, crystals and other gemstones indoors, and going for (short) walks on Derbyshire gritstone, but not for gardening and connecting directly to soil with my hands. The ground in my garden has alternated between frozen or waterlogged for the past three weeks and certainly wouldn’t be helped by digging or compacting right now. But then I looked again at the molehills. Perfect soil, not frozen, not waterlogged, already loosened for me. Created by an animal of the Earth. So obvious in retrospect.

My original intention had been to try meditating with some soil indoors, just as I had done with different types of rock – one from my pond, another I brought back from Wales last summer, etc. Soil is after all the basis for trees, which I have never had a problem connecting with! But when I got outside I realised I had already done all the indoor work I needed to, exploring loam, sand, silt, clay etc. and how they relate to different types of trees growing, and if I did any more was in danger of becoming so Earthed that all would reach a standstill. I needed to be active, practical. So instead I had a really enjoyable time raking all the little heaps level, seeing the various qualities and ingredients in the soil that help plants to grow and moles to feed, and marveling at how much the soil can vary in colour and texture even over quite a small area. Not only that, but I managed to do it in the only hour of sunshine for about three days. A really lovely working meditation. So thank you mole, and I expect it is goodbye again for now.

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Growing Small ‘Trees’

Here is a gardening challenge that most people don’t face – how to grow small ‘trees’ for planting alongside a model railway.

The scale of the railway is 1:22.5, known to railway-minded people as Gauge 3 in the UK. (In real terms, around half inch to the foot.) So a tree would ideally be between 1 and 3 feet high. And preferably not too wide, or too fast growing, or it will be in the way of the trains. Other railway gardens use small plants, like alpines in a rocky landscape, but given this section of the garden is in shade for more than half of the day, and is fairly damp clay soil, and we don’t really want to feature the brick wall behind too strongly, trees seem like a better option!

I have one abiding problem, however. How to grow a tree that will keep growing and healthy, and not get too big too quickly. Some model gardens use crab apples on dwarfing rootstocks to great success, others use dwarfing conifers. Neither will grow well here. I have a couple of Japanese maples, now ten years old, one of which is growing very well and is almost too big, the other is rather less happy. There is a Euonymus alatus (Spindle) which can be pruned and seems to be doing well. A small magnolia was removed after such a devastating insect infestation that it never recovered, and a small Rowan, Sorbus reducta, failed to grow roots in the sticky clay. And then there is my willow.

Salix hastata ‘Wehrhahnii’ is supposed to take ten years to get to 3′ around, sometimes longer. It should never get larger than 5′. No one told my willow that! I prune it most years to try and keep it within bounds, yet this year I see it is rather a lot taller than the wall…

Salix hastata 'Wehrhahnii' growing very enthusiastically thanks to a nearby soakaway. Anemone nemorosa carpet its feet.

Salix hastata ‘Wehrhahnii’ growing very enthusiastically, thanks to a nearby soakaway. Anemone nemorosa carpets its feet.


While in the process of redesigning the garden generally, I have given this somewhat frustrating area quite a bit of thought. Even to the point of considering removing the willow and the maples and starting again with smaller, more prunable plants such as box and spring bulbs – until I realised the cause of its excessive growth. There is a soakaway nearby and so the willow is actually doing a sterling job of removing all the excess water, allowing other nearby plants to thrive instead of drown. So when it finishes flowering, I shall try a new pruning regime similar to a blackcurrant of removing a third of the branches to the base each spring, and see if over three years it can be stabilised to a more manageable size. Of course, I now realise that what would be really happy in that spot would be bog garden plants – but I haven’t come up with any that will grow at an appropriate scale yet!

Planting the Rain Pond

We finally finished the pond at the beginning of this month: emptied all the tap water out, (two hose siphons and a lot of buckets, which M loved helping with!) cemented the edging in place, and refilled the pond using rain water as far as possible over a few wet days, cleaning out a water butt in the process. So I ordered a whole list of plants online, which duly arrived this week as bare-rooted specimens ready for potting up.

It really was a joyful experience, spending the best part of a day planting everything out and seeing all the exciting new water-loving plants I was able to add to my garden. The mesh pots were filled with soil that came out of the pond (best growing media for ponds apparently, far better than expensive ‘aquatic compost’! Only wish someone had told me this before I spread most of the soil around the garden as I would have set aside a neat pile of it.) Then followed the process of working out which end of each plant was root (not always obvious this early in the season) and trying to spread them out in the soil, plunging the pots into a tub of water, and then adding stones to fill the space created. Finally putting the pots in the water at the required depth, trying to assign each plant to a shelf of the right depth. Twenty times and I got a good work out!

How to get a newly planted pot into the bottom of the pond without spilling it was something I gave quite a bit of thought to. Eventually I came up with the idea that if all the pots were the square plastic type with a lip, it should be possible to design a flat wide hook that would fit under the lip and a flat bit to stop it pivoting. (Round pots wouldn’t work as the diameters would vary.)

Pot lifter, close up view

Pot lifter, close up view

Pot lifter in action.

Pot lifter in action.

So here it is. My amazing pot lifter, made (not by me) entirely from metal scraps we already had and riveted together. The top plate has a spacer so that it tucks neatly under the lip, the odd shaped slot in the centre is to fit various size pots with webbing under the lip. I won’t say it is easy guiding a heavy 10L pot full of soil into position, but it worked, and I know I can now move pots if I need to. Hopefully they won’t need too much attention: at least this is one type of pot that will never need watering…

Sour Grapes?

I read some interesting comments this week, talking about the way fruit and vegetables are treated:

“By spraying poisonous chemicals on our fields and gardens, we killed the micro-organisms and bacteria that provided the glue that held the soil together in its crumb formation. … Once the micro-organisms and bacteria had been killed, their work – which was to excrete humic acids that would break down mineral elements into nutrient forms the plants could use – did not take place! … Plants grown in poor, dying or dead soil were not healthy enough to withstand cold, heat, periods without rain, or the normal range of pests, fungi, and viruses that lived in any soil. … The dead and collapsed soil we insisted on trying to grow foods in was just not capable of producing either healthy plants or healthy foods. Since insects and fungus were nature’s garbage collectors, her way of cleaning up sick, diseased, or dysfunctional plants and removing them from the landscape because they were not fit for consumption, our continued use of poisonous sprays to protect worthless crops was nothing less than ridiculous, ignorant, and doomed. … Fruits, vegetables and grains that grew from dead soil were almost as dead as the dirt they came from. Even when they looked beautiful they lacked basic levels of proteins, sugars and minerals. Worse, they contained chemical residues and other poisons. Healthy, normal amounts of protein in vegetables and fruits had to be at least 25 percent to support human life. Foods grown in these depleted soils of these United States had been at 3 percent or less for at least thirty-five years.”
Penny Kelly, The Elves of Lily Hill Farm

And that is just proteins. Huge numbers of trace minerals are missing from these crops, leached out of the soil that hasn’t been taken care of, and further unbalanced by using NPK fertilisers with many of the essential trace elements missing. The effects of waxing or preserving fruits for storage, then gassing to ripen them only adds to the chemical imbalance.

Fundamentally for me was this statement:

“Most of us were paying for cheap, poisoned foods grown in depleted soils and still complaining that it cost too much to eat. No one realized that what was saved at the grocery store was being spent at the hospital.”
Penny Kelly, The Elves of Lily Hill Farm

As someone who has had major health issues in the past, this struck a chord within me. I don’t like buying overly processed food, or non-organic vegetables or fruit that may have been flown half way around the world, but sometimes I still do. I can make many excuses, like alternatives not being available, or being significantly more expensive, or that I have requests for particular things that are only available from sunnier climates, but ultimately I still have to take responsibility for the choices I make. I would like to do better, one day…

And then I ate a grape. Just one, but before any other food instead of after as I normally do. It made me feel queasy. It gave me an instant headache, something I don’t suffer from. Sure the grape taste was in there, but what else?

So I have realised I cannot carry on down the path I am on any longer. Ideally I would grow more fruit and veg, but my garden is small and the area given over to edibles is smaller still, not sufficient to grow everything we want. Neither am I a very successful vegetable grower, yet! But change has to start somewhere, and for me it is now. So I am writing down my intentions to grow better fruit and vegetables and to seek out organic and biodynamic locally grown alternatives, because what I write here has a good way of coming true.