Earthworm research spurs farmers to act

biodiversity earthworms farming biology science

A study of England’s farmland has found key earthworm types are rare or absent in two out of five fields and has led to the majority of farmers affected vowing to change the way they farm.

The results indicate widespread, historical over-cultivation, and may explain observed declines in other wildlife, such as the song thrush, that feed on these worms.

The #60minworms project was the first comprehensive worm survey concentrating solely on farmland and was carried out by farmers themselves – 57 percent of whom said they would now change their soil management practices as a result.

The scientist behind the survey, Dr. Jackie Stroud, a NERC Soil Security Fellow at Rothamsted Research, said: “Earthworms are sensitive and responsive to soil management which makes them an ideal soil health indicator. The aim of this research was to find a baseline of farmland earthworm populations that would be useful and used by farmers to assess soil health now and in the future.”

Biologists categorise earthworms by ecological role—with surface dwelling and deep burrowing worms the types most sensitive to farming practices, whilst the topsoil worms are generally unaffected by over-cultivation.

Earthworms perform a number of useful ‘ecosystem services’, and high numbers of earthworms have been linked to enhanced plant productivity.

This new citizen science project published today in the journal PLOS One, has revealed most fields have good earthworm biodiversity – meaning an abundance of all three types of earthworms were seen.

In Spring 2018, the average field had 9 earthworms in every spadeful of soil, with top fields having three times that number. One in 10 fields had high earthworm numbers of more than 16 worms per spadeful.

However, the study also revealed that 42 percent of fields had poor earthworm biodiversity – meaning either very few or none of the surface dwelling and deep burrowing worms were seen.

The absence of deep burrowing worms on 16 percent of fields is concerning, says Dr. Stroud, because they are ‘drainage worms’ with vertical burrows that aid water infiltration and ultimately helps combat waterlogging.

“The deep burrowing worms have slow reproduction rates so recovery in their populations could take a decade under changed management practices. In fact, we know very little about earthworm recovery rates.”

More than 1300 hectares were surveyed from all over England for the project, including fields managed under arable, potatoes, horticulture and pasture.

Earthworm research spurs farmers to act
Deep burrowing worm. Credit: Rothamsted Research

Each farmer volunteered to dig 10 regularly spaced pits across their field to make the observations, and an identification guide allowed them to allocate any sightings to one of the three main types of earthworm.

The success of this pilot project has already led to a much larger study, which recently concluded, says Dr. Stroud.

“Working with farmers led to the redesign of the pilot survey, culminating in a shorter, more efficient field assessment and a co-created earthworm identification guide, to help improve farmer confidence in earthworm monitoring.

“These improvements were well received, with farmers all over the country spending an hour of their time digging five soil pits and assessing their earthworm populations in the Autumn.”

Empowering farmers to survey their own soils would save about £14 million in soil health monitoring if rolled out nationally, she added.

Healthy Soils were not a headline indicator for the draft DEFRA 25-year plan for the environment, so the DEFRA policy aspiration of achieving sustainable soils is currently unclear.

Despite this, soil health is widely regarded as vital for both farming and the environment.

Dr. Stroud said: “Decisions made above the ground, whether by farmers or policy makers, influence the billions of earthworms that are engineering the soil ecosystem below the ground.

“Earthworms influence carbon cycling, water infiltration, pesticide movement, greenhouse gas emissions, plant productivity, the breeding success of birds and even the susceptibility of plants to insect attack.”

However, she added, as earthworms are sensitive to various farming practices, including tillage, rotations, cover cropping, organic matter additions, and pesticides, we need to do more to look after them.

“Crucially, working together with farmers, we now know typical earthworm numbers in agricultural soils and between us have developed a quick method for ongoing monitoring. Many farmers have reported they plan to survey again this Spring following benchmarking their fields last year.

“Soil health is complicated, but the path to doing things differently has to begin somewhere.”

This story is by by Rothamsted Research for https://phys.org

UK gardeners urged to bring back the garden pond as the best way to help wildlife

The Wild About Gardens challenge encourages people to build their own pond

The Wildlife Trust and the Royal Horticultural Society have joined forces to urge people across the UK to bring back the garden pond as the feature that can make the biggest difference to saving wildlife.

As part of their annual Wild About Gardens campaign, it encourages people to get involved by creating a garden pond of their own. Whether it’s a large container or deep sunken pond, any water outside can drastically help reverse the decline in garden wildlife.

Ponds are a brilliant way to attract wildlife through colourful flowers, the sound of water and creating a safe space they can inhabit in peace. It’s great for animals such as hedgehogs to have a place to drink and for frogs, newts and other amphibians to feed and breed.

If you don’t have space for a whole pond, consider creating a ‘pocket pond’ instead.

“It’s such fun to help wildlife with a pocket pond – it needn’t be big,” explains Ellie Brodie, Senior Policy Manager at The Wildlife Trust. “All you need to do is fill an old sink or washing-up bowl with rainwater, plant it up and make sure that wildlife can get in and out – it’s easy! I love watching bright blue damselflies landing on the irises in my pond – they’re so beautiful and it’s great knowing I’m helping local wildlife.”

Helen Bostock, Senior Horticultural Advisor at the RHS also says: “Ponds and other water features are an attractive focal point in any garden and are a real haven for wildlife. Even cheap container ponds made from up-cycled materials will quickly be colonised by a whole host of creatures and help form a living chain of aquatic habitats across the neighbourhood.”

The UK has lost ponds, rivers, streams and wetlands at a rapid rate, with only a small amount of natural ponds remaining. With many ponds left in uninhabitable conditions, 13% of wetland species are at risk of extinction.

Continue reading at: Country Living.

It is best to keep the shape of your pond simple

Getting your garden ready for spring

Getting your garden ready for spring

One of the most joyous times of year is during the first days of spring when you can watch your garden come to life. Fragrance is bursting forth from beautifully coloured beds and the chirping of happy little birds and lush greenery are all around you.

A springtime garden is a real delight, so full of life and potential, however, there’s also a bit of work involved in maintaining a healthy, beautiful garden so here are some great spring gardening tips.

After winter, you may find that your raised beds are now filled with mud, vegetation laying on the ground needs to be cleaned up and your tools may need a thorough cleaning.

RELATED: Do I need to clean my pruning shears? How Do I prevent rust and bacteria from developing on my secateurs?

Take stock and start a list.

Before starting any large tasks, make sure to check your inventory. Figure out what you have on hand make a list of what you need. This is a great time to stock up on supplies as there may be spring gardening sales near you. Creating a list will help keep you on track and prevent over-buying of things you may not need.

Examine and care for your raised beds.

After winter, your beds may need to be repaired or even replaced. Check to see if there’s anything left alive in them and clear out any dead plants and leaves. Make sure to remove all the weeds and prune overgrown shrubs. Early spring is the best time to work on your raised beds to make sure they will be fresh and ready for planting. This is also the time to Divide your perennials if they’re getting to big. Simply dig them up and divide them. If you have extra, you can give them to your friends, family or neighbors. It’s a nice way to share your gardening experience and you just never know what you might get in return.

Planting, sorting and preparing.

Your ground may be too soggy to plant in right now. If that’s the case, use this time to organize. Sort your plants, cuttings and seeds. Decide which you will plant first, maybe even mark the planting locations on paper or actually at each location with a marker. Kudos to you if you already had your seeds sorted into warm and cold weather categories so you don’t need to do it now, in the spring.

Once your soil is dry enough, start planting your spring cool weather plants. There are many choice when it comes to planting in the spring, including kale, lettuce, radish, broccoli, spinach and peas just to name a few. Remember to use your organic compost to add important nutrients to your soil.

RELATED: Which is better for plants, chipped mulch or shredded mulch?

Since seeds are less expensive than plants, you can save some money by planting warm weather plants, indoors and then relocated to the garden once it warms up. These warm weather plants include cucumbers, runner beans, tomatoes, peppers and melons just to name a few.

Repair damage from pests.

Look for mounds of soil which could be indicative of gopher and mole tunnels. Fill in the holes and collapse all the tunnels. Reseed with grass and keep checking to make sure these pests don’t return. Check also for rodents that may have gnawed on your wood, wires, strings and ropes. Also check your bags for chewed holes. Check to make sure pests haven’t moved into your birdhouses.

How are your garden stones structures doing?

After a long winter, take some time to examine your garden stones. Are the stepping stones in your pathway uneven, are there cracks or missing stones in your walls? Do you have tumbling or crooked dry stacked stone walls? Right now is the best time to repair or replace these stone structures.

Take care of your birdhouses.

Spring is a great time of year to clean out your birdhouses. Make sure there’s no mold, mildew or parasites living in them and make sure they are firmly attached and in good condition. If you want to be really helpful, you can leave some piles of nesting material near the birdhouses, which will surely make our feathered friends happy. After you take care of the birdhouses, make sure you don’t neglect the bird feeders and bird baths. These should be scrubbed and carefully examined.

Proper gardening can be a very rewarding, year round endeavor, however here are some ideas for springtime gardening chores:

  • Remove debris from ponds and other water features.
  • Clean gutters to facilitate proper plant to water disbursement.
  • Remove dead wood from trees.
  • Remove suckers from shrubbery and trees.
  • Cut perennials back to almost to ground level.
  • Remove parasites from trees and shrubs.
  • This is the time to move or plant dormant shrubs and trees.
  • Scrub out your pots.
  • Check hoses for leaks, kinks and clogs.

Here are some more simple tips for springtime gardening:

Rotate your crops. This reduces crop specific diseases from building up in the soil and keeps the soil from being depleted of certain nutrients the previous plants thrived on.

Avoid gardening in the rain or walking on wet ground. Doing so can cause the ground to become compacted, ruining the structure of your soil which can cause your roots to suffocate.

When planting rows, run them north to south to allow your crop equal exposure to the sun.

Remember, to use care when digging early in the season as some of your perennials may be slow to appear and difficult to see.

Plant half of your vegetable rows now and the rest a couple of weeks later so you don’t get overwhelmed when it’s time to harvest.

Wondering what UK gardening zone you’re in? Here’s a helpful list of gardening hardiness zones from PlantMaps.com

We are Cowen Landscapes, and landscape gardening and design is our passion. We’d love to speak with you about your garden and landscaping needs in Kent. https://cowenlandscapes.co.uk Please give us a call or send us a message.

01622 320277 The Old Dairy, Court Farm, Thurnham Lane, Maidstone, ME14 3LH

How to protect plants from frost and what to do if they’re damaged.

how to protect plants from frost

A winter frost can be such a beautiful thing. White and sparkling like little diamonds. It can also be deadly for your plants.

When plants freeze, the water in the cells expand causing the cell walls to break. Since the cells of the plant carry the nutrient rich sap the plants require to live, the plant can die.

Frost can form when water vapour in cool air condenses into droplet of water that form dew on the ground and on your plants. Then, when the temperature drops below 0 °C, all this moisture freezes, creating those beautiful but deadly ice crystals.

There are three types of frost, including ground frost which covers the ground, trees and other objects that have a freezing or below temperature. This frost is also called the white frost.

Hoar frost is similar to ground frost in that it’s composed of ice crystals that formed in the same way as dew however the surface temperatures were already below freezing point. This type of frost will have a beautiful feathery appearance.

There’s also “air frost” which occurs when the temperature of the air is below the freezing point of water and at least a metre above the ground. This air frost damages plant stems, fruits and flowers and can even kill them. Occasionally you can have ground frost without having air frost If the ground freezes before the air does.

Not all plants will die all the time from frost. Some plants are much more hardy and their leaves and stems may survive. Evergreen trees and Evergreen bushes are a great example however even Evergreens and other hardy plants may be damaged or killed by extended periods of freezing, especially when the soil freezes. Frozen roots can no longer absorb water and the plant may die from thirst.

One way to tell if your plants have been damaged by frost is when the above ground parts of the plant may blacken. You can also expect to see wilting, damaged fruit, flowers and buds may become brown and drop to the ground.

By far, the most damaging frost is in the late spring. Plants with tender new growths are very susceptible to frost and quickly die.

You probably didn’t come here for a lesson on plant biology or an explanation of what causes frost. You want to gain some insight into how to protect your plants from frost. One of the first things I’d suggest is to include frost in your initial garden planning. If you live somewhere were frost may be a problem, pick hardy plants that are known to withstand the damaging effects of frost. You can ask your local garden centre which plants they would recommend for your area.

If you do choose plants that are susceptible to frost, try to plant them in against walls and shrubs or under trees to reduce wind and help protect them during the winter. If possible, do not plant your early flowering plants in the east facing section of your garden as the first warmth of the sun can quickly thaw them causing shock when the plants are unable to acclimate quickly. You can also leave old growth, leaves, etc. over your plants to help protect against frost. If you prune and cut back your plants in Autumn your new growths are more susceptible to frost. Remember that frost and cold air will descend to the lowest parts of your garden, so plan accordingly when planting tender plants.

If you have potted plants which you kept inside during the winter, take your time putting them back outside. Make sure there’s no chance of a surprise frost which could quickly kill them.

You can also use horticultural fleece [Amazon] [eBay] to protect your plants. To be doubly sure you can put a layer of straw, plant material or old leaves between two layers of the fleece to provide the best insulation against frost.

If you need to immediately protect your plants from frost, use an upturned bucket, bin or box to cover the plants. This is a quick protection however you must remember to uncover your plants later in the day so they get sunlight.

Some plants with flowering bulbs and perennials that die back can be covered with leaves, manure mulch or straw to prevent the soil from freezing. Make sure you remove the mulch in the spring or it may act as an insulator, trapping the coldness in the soil.

Even though Evergreens are hardy, you can protect them from ground frost with a thick layer of mulch. This will help prevent the roots from freezing under the soil which could cause the plant to become dehydrated.

[Which is better for plants, chipped mulch or shredded mulch?]

Cordylines, palms, small trees and ferns can be protected by wrapping the crowns and trunks layers of fleece stuffed with straw.

When using outdoor pots in the winter, make sure they are frost proof. Also, place pots on sticks or feet to prevent them from becoming waterlogged when the bottoms freeze to the ground. You can insulate the inside of your pots with a layer of hessian or even bubble wrap.

Here’s an interesting article by Andy McIndoeh about frost proof pots. www.learningwithexperts.com/gardening/blog/is-this-pot-frost-proof

My plants have frost damage, are they going to die? Now what do I do?

Even if your plants have been damaged by frost, they may survive and you can greatly assist them by minimising the frost damage.

In the spring cut back any damaged growth on your plants to encourage new growth. If your frost damaged plants are small enough, dig them up and bring them into your greenhouse. They may recover quickly.

According to the Doubleday Research Association; Giving your frost damaged plants liquid feed, such as Comfrey tea, will encourage new growth.

We would love to hear about your experiences with frost. Let us know if you have any good tips to share with our readers. Good luck!

how to protect plants from frost

Which is better for plants, chipped mulch or shredded mulch?

Small Contemporary Urban Garden

Neither. Don’t use chipped mulch OR shredded mulch. Both of those will rob the precious nitrogen from the ground that your plants need.

Nitrogen is vital for healthy plants because it’s a major component of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is the compound by which plants convert sunlight into sugars from water and carbon dioxide. Nitrogen is also a major component of amino acids which are the building blocks of proteins.

Plants are unable to use or take nitrogen directly from the atmosphere. They must uptake it through nitrogen forms that include ammonium and nitrate.

So, what should you use instead of chipped or shredded mulch? Composted mulch!

This is from my Quora answer: https://www.quora.com/Which-is-better-for-plants-chipped-mulch-or-shredded-mulch/answer/Matt-Harvey-84

Which is better for plants, chipped mulch or shredded mulch

So what do professional gardeners do in the winter months?

winter gardening tips frozen leaves kent

So what do professional gardeners do in the winter months?

It’s a question I get asked all the time. A lot of people assume there’s not a lot that can be done in the garden during the winter, however this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact I have a little saying “what you don’t get done over winter, never gets done.”

The weather might be on the colder side, but it’s a great time to do some of the heavier tasks like digging over vegetable beds, as the ground will be a lot easier to work this time of year.

Don’t forget to protect your perennials during the cold winter months!

how to protect perennials during winter in the UK

Give all your borders a good mulch of compost at least 4 inches thick. This will protect your perennials from the worst of the winter frosts, feed the plants and enrich the soil. Best of all, when the weather eventually warms up, it will stop lots of the weeds. That’s got to be a winner.

garden tree in the winter maidstone kent

Tree work is always best done over winter, as the sap is down and the tree will be dormant. There’s also less disease floating around in the air that could get into fresh cuts and pass on diseases.

Also, with the leaves off of the trees you can better see the shape of the tree and what the branches are doing much easier.

Remember the three D’s: Dead, Diseased and Dying.

 Make sure to remove any branches that are rubbing together as this can also lead to disease and fungal infections.

winter frost berries on tree in maidstone

Lifting and dividing perennials is best left until the weather improves slightly however it’s a good idea to make notes, or take photos of your border in summer. Some perennials will be more dominant in the border than others and can take over if not kept in check. Simply dig them up and divide them. They can be moved to fill gaps in another part of the border or given away to friends and family. Who doesn’t love a free plant!

winter composting snow gardens.jpg

The compost bins will need looking at. Undoubtedly your good intentions of mixing them every few weeks and adding the right ratio of carbon and nitrogen have gone down the pan but don’t let that bother you. Just build a new bin and move the contents from the old one. Mix in equal measures of straw and grass clippings.

If you managed to make some decent compost last year now is the time to put all those lovely nutrients back into the beds. Your plants will thank you for it in the spring.

winter greenhouse cold weather agriculture

Another thing that tends to get forgotten about over winter is the greenhouse. I use mine to store all my tender plants that live in pots on the patio over summer. It’s important to remember fungus can thrive in warm moist conditions. The trick is to air it out on walmer days and give the glass a good clean with fungicidal wash before spring gets going.

If the winter isn’t  too cold you can use your greenhouse to grow winter salad, and to start seedlings.

Frosty cold fresh mornings in January and February are some of the best memories I have as a professional gardener. There is something magical about being out and about in the cold crisp air, and definitely a feeling of satisfaction when you eventually get home. There is plenty to be done over the winter months and a great deal of accomplishment knowing you have pushed the garden on to be even better when spring finally arrives.

Do I need to clean my pruning shears? How Do I prevent rust and bacteria from developing on my secateurs?

how to clean gardening shears

Do I need to clean my pruning shears? How do I prevent rust and bacteria from developing on my secateurs?

From cutting away branches and pruning shrubs to gently snipping a beautiful flower to display in a vase, your shears can be one of the most important tools in your garden.

The one thing you don’t want is to spread harmful diseases, eggs and bacteria from plant to plant.

The blades of your shears can easily start to rust, become dirty, become sticky with sap and develop bacteria that can infect your healthy plants, however this can be prevented with these simple and helpful tips.

Use a stiff brush with a bucket of warm soapy water. Washing-up liquid works best, it is easy to rinse off and doesn’t leave a harsh chemical residue on the blades.

Use steel wool If the blades have started to rust. Sandpaper can be used as well.

After washing and rinsing, soak your shears for a few minutes in a pail of water mixed with a spoonful of bleach to destroy bacteria, eggs and other harmful organisms on your blades.

After soaking, dry them well with a cloth or air dry them.

Once they are dried, spray lubricating oil on them to prevent them from rusting.

Make sure to keep your shears hung and out of the elements when not in use.

Follow these simple steps and you will find this valuable garden tool will provide you with many, many years of quality service.

Thinking of growing your own veg? Here are 9 of the fastest growing vegetables for your garden.

fastest growing vegetables top gardens in Kent

Not all vegetables take from spring from fall to mature. If you’re getting a late start on your home garden or live in a region with a short growing season, fear not, there are many healthy, delicious vegetables that are quick to harvest.

Here are the 9 fastest growing vegetables to get your garden jumpstarted.

Garden Cress – 14 Days Ready to harvest in as little as 2-weeks, garden cress can be planted in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked. Also a garden space-saver, a small (1 or 2 feet square) patch of cress will supply you with an abundance of this tangy herb.

Radishes – 21 Days A cool season crop, spring radishes grow best in 50⁰F to 65⁰F weather. Once sown, you’ll see leafy green shoots above the soil in just three or four days. Keep planting seeds every week or two for a constant harvest through spring and autumn.

Green-Onions – 21 Days Also called scallions, green-onions are quick-growing plants that can be cut back to their base again and again throughout the season. Once their green shoots reach a height of 6-inches, they are ready for the first round of harvesting.

Tatsoi – 25 Days A low-growing mustard green, tatsoi is a wonderful addition to salads and soups. Baby tatsoi leaves can be harvested when they reach 4-inches in length, or you can wait the full 40-days for tatsoi to mature to full size.

Lettuce – 30 Days Another cool-weather vegetable that prefers temperatures between 60⁰F and 70⁰F, lettuce seeds should be sown in early spring and late-summer. Of the five types of lettuce – loose-leaf, cos, crisphead, butterhead, and stem. leaf lettuce varieties like green leaf and red leaf are among the easiest to cultivate and are more tolerant of hot weather. Planting new seeds every 14-days will provide a continuous harvest.

Spinach – 30 Days Able to survive in temperatures as low as 15⁰F, spinach is a cold hardy-vegetable that can be planted as soon as the ground-thaws. Pluck outer spinach leaves from the plant as it grows or re-sow seeds every 2-weeks for successive harvests. Don’t wait too long to gather spinach because its leaves will become bitter once the plant reaches maturity.

Arugula – 30 Days Since arugula seeds germinate well in cooler-soil, they can be planted as soon as the garden bed can be worked after the spring thaw. Sow seeds every two to three weeks for continuous-harvesting.

Kale – 30 Days A “cut-and-come-again” plant, kale’s young and tender leaves can be culled continually throughout the growing-season once the plant is about 2-inches tall. Avoid picking the central bud, since this keeps kale growing and productive.

Swiss-Chard – 45 Days A member of the beet family, Swiss-chard can be harvested throughout the season by cutting-off the outer leaves when they are about 3-inches long and are still young and tender. In addition to using the fresh-leaves in salads, you can cut Swiss-chard stems from the leaf and cook them like you would asparagus.

fastest growing vegetables top gardens in Kent

Helpful tips for easy gardening with hassle free plants

Some plants are high maintenance and even though they may be beautiful, they are not always worth the time and money you may need to spend on them.

There are many great plant choices for a low maintenance garden or patio.

Try to avoid plants which require stakes, netting, support strings, etc. Delphiniums are just one example of these high maintenance plants.

Hostas are just one of the many plants that rabbits and slugs love. Try to find plants that don’t taste delicious to pests and you will save yourself time and headache. Send us a message if you’d like advice on pest free plants. 

Plants that climb can become very burdensome. Vine plants like ivy cling to walls and if not controlled, will take over walls, fences and other plants. Also clinging plants may need support which means lots of tying.

Shrubs, Daphne, Lavender, Holly and Euonymus are great choices for low maintenance plants and they alternate their colours throughout the seasons making your garden area beautiful and ever changing. You can also keep them in pots to easily transfer them inside when you like.

You can save yourself time and headache with a watering system. Whether you choose a top of the line automated system or a simple leaky hose setup which lets the water seep out along your plant beds you will find your plants are happy and you are happy.

Pergolas, arbours, arches, statues and fences can be relatively simple to install and may not be as expensive as you think. They can liven up a garden or patio dramatically and may even be used to block unsightly views like breaker boxes. They have the added bonus of not requiring extra maintenance on your part.

Have a bad back? Use long tables with potted plants or have raised beds for easy, bendless gardening.

Of course if you’re looking for one of the easiest and quickest ways to spruce up your garden you should consider getting plants that are already potted. Pick them up from your local garden centre, place in your garden, job done!

When you’re ready to update your garden, give us a call or send us a message, We’ll be glad to help.

Small Contemporary Urban Garden