Book Review: The Ecological Gardener by Matt Rees-Warren

Book Review: The Ecological Gardener: How to create Beauty and Biodiversity from the Soil Up, by Matt Rees-Warren, published by Chelsea Green. 200 pages, paperback, $24.95

This is a lovely book for those wanting to make their backyard or homestead into an area more aligned with nature. It includes fruit trees and vegetables but these are minor themes in the book. It’s a guidebook to understanding your land, and working with the features of the space – slope, water, soil, light and shade. It includes constructing rainwater catchments, making compost, encouraging wildlife, and including more native plants. The author, Matt Rees-Warren, lives in southwest England, a country noted for artfully gardening every corner of tiny spaces.

The fact that almost all vegetables grown in the UK are non-native (changing the way wildlife and ecosystems interact with food production) can make a dividing line between those focused on encouraging biodiversity and those prioritizing food production. The author seeks to rebalance these approaches, to preserve wildlife, restore clean water and soil health.

The opening chapter, on design, suggests observing and studying our land, letting go of previously-formed plans and following nature. Observe your garden within the framework of the four elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water, using a page of questions about the prevailing conditions. There are tips on testing the structure of the soil and its ability to drain (or hold) water. If you notice an area prone to flooding, think about making a pond, a rain garden, or a bog garden. Or think about planting short trees to suck up some of the water without overshadowing other ideas for nearby. Give forethought to plants that colonize and grow rapidly. Imagine making the garden interesting and attractive (and perhaps productive) in winter as well as summer.

You can draw up your garden plans, but expect to be flexible about what happens. Work with the contours of the land, rather than plan for lots of earth-moving (unless you want a really big pond!) Note which elements of your dream will need the best light, and look at where to put those. Observe the microclimates as well as the prevailing elements of the weather.

As far as possible, design a garden that takes care of itself, providing for its needs from its natural resources. Make a cyclical design with no waste. Consider adding chickens or ducks. Make each area as rich in species as you can, for resilience and abundance of resources. The fittest will survive, even if they are not the species you expected to thrive there!

The second section, on the soil, encourages us to take care of the mycorrhizae, which extend the “reach” of plants’ roots, getting them more water and nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates for the fungi. Aeration of the soil can be a useful project for very compacted soils, but it will destroy the mycorrhizae. Reducing tillage will conserve the fungi. I like the author’s description of soil as “the basket that holds the roots of the mightiest organisms” (trees) as well as the roots of tiny seedlings.

The soil has an important role in holding carbon, and reducing tillage is one way of conserving the carbon already in the soil. When bare, soil emits much more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and supports fewer life-forms that might capture and store more carbon. In the natural world, the top 3 cm (1.2”) of the soil can take up to a thousand years to grow. Let’s not degrade that treasure! Building a successful compost system is a way to work in harmony with nature. Aerobic composting is what happens on the forest floor, open to air and water, heat from the sun, and animal activity. Cold aerobic composting happens if you never turn the pile: hot compost requires introduction of new air. Anaerobic composting corresponds to bog conditions, where the organic materials are deprived of air, and may have an overabundance of water. All composting is valuable. Hot aerobic composting adds the advantage of cooking weed seeds and pathogens. Anaerobic composting, where the ingredients are sealed underground, underwater or in a container, ensures that vermin have no access. There are tips on building compost bins, making leafmould and loam, bokashi compost, bokashi bins, compost teas and biochar. Vermicomposting (a good, cold-aerobic method for those with only a small space), animal manures and compost toilets (followed by hot-composting the product) are also given space. The issue for the ecological gardener, of how organic the animal manures are, including the humanure, is discussed. Medications, non-organic foods, are not the best ingredients. We work with what we have.

The third section is about plants. The native plants mentioned are, like the author, British. These plants are the European non-natives in the USA. Sometimes they are a problem. In helping you choose what to grow, consider plants that grow best in the open, in shade, in deep shade, in dry areas, in grassland, in marshes and bogs. You can substitute plants native to your region. There are tips on turning a lawn into a wildflower meadow. You need to start in the fall, cutting the grass very short and scarifying it to pull out 80% of the roots. The flower seed needs bare soil to germinate in, so roll or in some other way, press the seed firmly into the soil. Native plants generally shed seed in the fall, and some need a period of cold to break dormancy.

There are tips on scything, on planting a mixed species hedgerow (and for turning a hedge into a hedgerow of mixed species); on laying (pleaching or plashing) a hedge to keep livestock on one side of it, and on collecting seeds from wild plants. There is a table of which species need seed stratification, and which need scarification, and details on how to do each of those, and on taking and rooting cuttings.

Chapter 4 is about water, starting with rainwater “harvesting” or catchment. How we source, use and reuse water is of vital importance. Some past civilizations showed great mastery in water management: Minoans, Romans, Turks, and more. I’ve seen impressive English Victorian stonework reservoir management systems in Yorkshire and Derbyshire. One plastic rain barrel holding 150 l (40 US gallons) doesn’t go far enough to address a garden’s needs.  Your garden might need 5000 liters/1250 US gallons. Assuming barrels would refill 8 times during the year, one barrel only provides half enough.

The author avoids plastics whenever possible, and advocates for finding old wood whisky barrels. Most of the construction projects in this book use recycled lumber, typically from dismantled pallets. For rainwater collection, used metal drums and tanks are next best to wood. Aesthetics is important too. There are tips for creating a vista. There are tips on creating “Tranquil Effects” with rain chains for roof runoff, and channels, rills and gullies to move water through your landscape. Remember to make swales and ditches to catch overflow water from all the water features, to avoid erosion, slow the water down and let it soak usefully into the soil.

Matt Rees-Warren in his element

Rain gardens are easier to make than ponds. These are areas of dedicated plantings that can absorb larger amounts of water. There is a page on how to make one. There are instructions for constructing a bathtub reed bed in your garden. Grey-water use is another way to reduce the amount of fresh water you need for your garden. Water from showers, laundry, and sinks can add up to quite a lot of potentially useful water. One way to make use of grey-water is a keyhole bed with a central funnel or basket into which grey-water is poured onto compost full of micro-organisms, with a lower level of rocks and gravel.

The next chapter covers wildlife, everything from microbes to mammals. The author says: “By adding organic matter into the soil on a regular basis in the form of compost, you will do infinitely more to aid the food web than anything else.” The decomposition of organic matter sparks many life forms. Ideally, your garden will not be closed off from the rest of the world, but will have permeable boundaries. Opening your land to wild mammals will also mean the neighbor’s cat can come and go, which can cause problems for birds and small mammals. Ponds with a natural continuous water source can become part of a water-flow through your garden. Some ponds may sometimes need the addition of fresh water to prevent complete drying out. See the section on Creating a Natural Clay-Lined Pond. Find a good site, and a source of clay (try construction sites, where there is a pile of excavated clay). After digging the hole, spread a layer of cleaned, puddled clay over the inside, smoothing it with a plastering float. Sit back and wait for the pond to fill. Once plants start to grow, wildlife will soon follow. Seed the berm around the pond with fast-growing annuals to hold the soil in place, and add perennial plants later. Water-loving plants are not happy up on the relatively dry berms. Avoid plants with big roots that will destroy the integrity of the clay liner.

Pollination is important for most plants, so be sure to encourage pollinators: chiefly butterflies, moths and bees.

The chapter on materials includes growing your own plant stakes by coppicing and pollarding, as well as repurposing found and sought-out materials. Avoid new materials if possible, and when shopping, choose biodegradable materials and sustainable sources. Matt makes suggestions for repurposing many discarded items in creative ways. Plant your own coppice with a mix of whips of native trees such as willow, hazel, alder, ash and lime. After five to ten years, start harvesting rods by cutting the stems right down at the base. This kind of pruning can extend the life of the tree, which is perhaps counter-intuitive, but history and tradition bears it out. You can plan for a rotation of pruning each of the trees, some each winter. There are pictures and tips on coppicing a hazel.

We know it’s a poor worker who blames their tools. Here is information on maintaining and sharpening tools. I learned that waterstones should be soaked in water before use until no more bubbles come from the stone. I’d been in the habit of just dotting some water on the surface of the stone! Now I know better.

Mud mortars are explained as an alternative to cement. Matt also addresses the issue of agricultural plastics. He advocates for committing to a closed system, whereby you never send plastics to the landfill. Hard to do, but it does wonderfully focus the mind. And we can all do better at conserving and reusing plastic items.

The Ecological Gardener is a handbook for all who seek to be more ecological while working and playing outdoors on our land. It’s an earnest attempt to move the needle on the environmental impacts of our actions towards living more lightly. It’s not a soapbox, but a toolkit.

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