Branch Out Blog: Rolling around in Tilth!

17th April 2013 by

Branch Out participant Phil tells us all about their first week in the Gardens!

st marys signToday was my first visit to the St Mary’s Secret Garden for Otesha’s Branch Out Programme. It is tucked away behind the overground railway line between Hoxton and Haggerston stations, and the garden has all the mod cons a horticulturist needs: a large greenhouse, poly-tunnel, shed and a small headquarters equipped with library. Casting a sweeping glance, I can see the garden itself currently consists of grassy expanse, raised beds and trees intermittently punctuating the perimeter. There are St-Marys-Secret-Gardenalso occasional hints of the urban environment such as the car tyres re-used as soil containers. I am already looking forward to exploring and re-exploring these areas over the coming weeks to acquaint myself with the changing environment during the Spring growing season. Vibrant vegetation is only just beginning to emerge after the extended winter temperatures continued into April. However, I can confirm buds are appearing, and vegetable shoots are starting to reach for the sky. We met Liam, our friendly course co-ordinator and gardening guru in HQ, where I booted and gloved up. I was ready to Branch Out. 20130415_143540

My first task was to identify some tools and cover aspects of safety. First up, were a selection of rakes: soil, leaf and grass. Liam then (carefully) re-enacted a range of classic ‘Tom and Jerry’ inspired rake related slapstick for our amusement, and to demonstrate the dormant danger of a stray rake. Liam thrust two large digging tools in my direction. At first this seemed an easy one and I took my chances on ‘spade’, but eagerly swapped my answer to ‘shovel’ when this was met with expecting silence. This too received a headshake and I was put firmly on the back foot; my ego felt like I had trodden on one of Liam’s proverbial rakes. I was holding one of each, but didn’t know where to start to split the synonymy. Liam grabbed the spade, the more narrow of the two, and plunged it into the earth like a guillotine. Purposefully pushing his weight onto the spade’s shoulder, he explains that spades are sharper and primarily designed for vertical incision into the soil, to ease its working for later on by breaking it up with a decisive first strike. The shovel has a wider platform with a slight curvature to its side edges, making it excellent for scooping. This is the tool to transfer a loose soil, compost, leaf mould or any other pile for that matter, from one place to another.

20130415_143428The group began working on a raised bed that needed to be prepared for the planting of seeds/seedlings. The soil was uneven, clumpy and peppered with pebbles, and it was our objective for that session to achieve a good tilth. This is the all-encompassing property of the soil that was spoken with a mixture of fondness and reverence by the gardeners. When I pushed Liam for a more precise definition, I was slightly overwhelmed by a volley of descriptions concerning soil receptivity, moisture, topography, texture and permeability. The lesson I took away from that discussion was not only the importance of all of the above, but also the particular emphasis on uniformity-working the soil to give all that is planted an equal chance to thrive in the micro-ecosystem. Tilth is a loaded term and demands more than a single definition; it is multi-dimensional and has personality almost as if it embodies some ancient god. However, Liam probably best described it with a great cake baking analogy involving the meticulous preparation required to ensure the even spread of currents, chocolate chips, cherries and blueberries within the well mixed sponge.p-stmaryssecretgarden.jpg.270x270_q95_crop--50,-50_upscale

To that end, we spent the next 20 minutes digging the soil; turning in some leaf compost which aids moisture retention; removing stones; raking the surface; and most importantly gently treading down the soil. We were interacting with the soil, feeling for troughs and rises with every micro-step, so we could repeat our tilth-preparing ritual. The site of four grown men jauntily bobbing about like chickens, within the confines of one small raised bed should have raised many eyebrows. Fortunately, the secret garden was empty, and the four of us, whilst looking extremely silly, made short work of the bed. We probably didn’t achieve the holy grail of breadcrumb texture, but our work was certainly approved by Liam and the other gardeners.

20120101_124233The first day was a success. A combination of practical work; time for reflection on our learning; preparation for assessments; the eating of delicious dates (for some of us); sunshine and visits from inquisitive robins made for an enriching start to the Branch Out Programme.

 

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