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.


Monthly challenge: Catch the compost fever…

8th February 2011 by

This month we challenge you to start composting. Where there’s a will – there’s a way and we’ve got a wheelbarrow full of different ways to do it.

Why compost you ask?

The UK sends more waste to landfill than any other European county, with more than 27 million tonnes of waste going to landfill each year. This has earned the UK the title of the ‘dustbin of Europe’. More than a third of this household rubbish is kitchen or garden waste. Green waste in landfills does not break down through natural composting and instead gives off methane, a greenhouse gas which is around 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide and since the 1960s has increased in the air 1% per year (twice as fast as the build up of CO2). Organic substances need the proper environment to biodegrade and landfills aren’t one of them. Most landfills are too tightly packed, and there’s a possibility of industrial processing which skews the biodegradation process. Quite aside of the issue of wasting all that food, the environmental benefits of keeping green waste out of landfills are pretty clear!

If you need even more reasons on why to compost, read on:

1. Economic Benefits: Using compost can reduce the need for water, fertilizers, and pesticides. It serves as a marketable commodity and is a low-cost alternative to standard landfill cover and artificial soil amendments. It can also aid the government to cut disposal costs for waste and spend it on other social services.

2. Garden and Soil Improvement: Compost can improve soil texture, nutritional quality and can help regenerate poor soils. It has also been shown to suppress plant diseases and pests, promote high yields of agricultural crops, prevent erosion and silting on embankments parallel to creeks, lakes, and rivers, and prevents erosion and turf loss on roadsides, hillsides, and playing fields.

3. Helping Biodiversity: Currently, peat bogs are being destroyed to make potting compost. When making your own compost, you can avoid purchasing it from the shops at the same time as encouraging worms and keeping birds happy.

One of the most obvious ways of keeping green waste out of landfill is not to throw away so much in the first place. Some amount of food waste is going to be inevitable, so home composting your peelings and egg-shells along with greenery from your garden can be a big help. Even if you have almost no wastage and a tiny garden, home composting can still make a worthwhile contribution to solving the bigger problem.

And in the future, perhaps the government could turn it into eco fuel.

Make Your Own:

If you’ve got some outdoor space, creating your own compost is easy in a bought compost bin, a homemade bin or a big pile. Earth Friends have loads of advice on all three options and some advanced composting tips.

If you’re feeling adventurous go all out a build your own wormery.

If you’re short on space make your own mini composter.

Or find out if your local authority is subsidising compost bins (and water butts and all sorts of other garden goodies).

Get your food waste collected:

If you don’t have an outside area to create your own compost, you still have plenty of other alternatives.

1. Home collection for garden and kitchen waste
Many local authorities and community organisations will collect waste from your home for composting. Many of them compost this waste and sell it for use at home. Green waste collections are often free but some councils charge a small fee.
To find your local council website that deals with disposing of garden waste click here.

2. Taking garden waste to a recycling centre
You can also take garden waste to your local household waste and recycling centre (civic amenity site). You will find skips for garden waste that will be composted, and the compost sold or used locally. Your council looks after local waste and recycling centres and can advise you on opening times and locations. To find more information in your borough, click here.

3. Community composting
Contact an organisation like the Community Composting Network to get involved in composting projects and for other examples of Centralised Community Composting Schemes around the UK, click here.

Pester your local authority:

Council collections of food waste are on the up, but not all of us have access to them yet. So let your council know that you’d like them to collect your food waste that you very much and encourage your neighbours to do the same.

We’ve even made you a template letter/ email to get you started:

To Whom It May Concern,

I am concerned about the millions of tons of rubbish going to landfill each year in the UK and the greenhouse effect of methane caused by green waste and food waste in landfill sites. I think I can reduce my household waste by at least 30% by recycling food waste, but I have no way to do it myself. I would like the council to help me by providing a doorstep food recycling scheme, or by advising other ways that I can recycle my food waste.

Thank you in advance for your assistance,

Yours sincerely,
[insert name here]

[insert address here]

Bin your bin

3rd May 2009 by

It’s the rubbish challenge – we challenge you to do away with your bin and see if you can go a month (or more) without producing any rubbish.

That means trying your very very best not to consume anything that can’t be reused, recycled or composted. What’s more, you’ve got to reuse, recycle or compost all those things, even if it means carting round old apples cores until you find a compost bin.

It’s not easy being rubbish free, so we’d like you to share with us your trials, tribulations and tactical ways of avoiding rubbish. We will, in turn, share it with the world via our website. So send us your stories, photos and tips to .

We tried to go rubbish free last year, with some success (we were rubbish-almost-negligable but not quite rubbish free). Biscuits were our downfall, so if anyone knows where we can get packaging-free biscuits we really want to know. Recipes for homemade biscuits are also valuable information.

Bonus points if you rope your whole household into it with you. Bin the bin! Bin the bin! Bin the bin!

And here’s the results-

Everyone we spoke to managed to signifcantly reduce their rubbish, but the scourge of plastic packaging could not be completely side-stepped.

The things that were hard to get rubbish free (that we couldn’t quite give up):

  • Cheeeeeeeeese
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Camping equipment ordered online arrived packed to the hilt

Ways we found around creating rubbish:

  • taking our own plates and tupperware containers to the takeaway
  • seeking out unpackaged vegetables at the shops
  • baking biscuits and brownies instead of buying packaged ones
  • growing our own salad
  • foraging for free food

Jo’s joys of being rubbish-less:

The bin hasn’t entirely been binned but there have been a few long term changes:

  • Being the cheese addict that I am, I now only buy cheese from a cheese counter wrapped in paper or even better popped straight into my clean lunchbox.
  • I’ve discovered a great green grocers which sells fruit and veg bare and naked – including lovely herbs. No more supermarket fruit and veg for me.
  • If I eat from the work canteen I take my plate and cutlery and wash up afterwards – no more styrofoam containers and disposable plastic cutlery.
  • Camping was a little difficult, as we didn’t have a fridge, so we need to think about that a bit more before the next trip…
  • Pasta/rice – always wrapped in plastic…. I think I need to start shopping here at Unpackaged, a shop in North London which does what it says on the tin.
  • I’ve been doing some foraging this year, which I’ve never really got into before. We’ve eaten lots of greens (highlight being nettle paneer) and have enjoyed homemade elderflower cordial.

Eluned ranted a bit about her rubbish:

On the whole, I did fairly well at reducing my rubbish – but I was pretty rubbish (oh dear…) at binning my bin altogether.

Some things which helped:

  • Buying veg from a farmer’s market and getting a weekly veg box saved packaging – and often with veg boxes any packaging there is can be returned.
  • Buying meat from the butcher’s and taking a tupperware to carry it home in.
  • Guerilla composting (i.e. creating some neat little holes in the soil of London town, filling with veg scraps and covering over again).
  • Buying less, growing more and getting creative!

As I started turning more to these options, I found that week on week my bin got emptier and emptier.

However, the thing that really got me was that darned crinkly plastic!! If you shop in the supermarket, or buy anything brand new, this horrible crackly, clear un-recyclable rubbish wraps virtually everything. So surely if you avoid supermarkets and only buy second-hand goods you can do without it, right? But what I found is that even if you stick to local shops, veg boxes and farmer’s markets, and even  if you don’t buy anything non-essential or food-related (as I tried throughout these 4 weeks), its still hard to avoid; rye bread, pasta, nuts, pulses, cheese… it all comes wrapped.

What to do? Some suggestions I’ve heard include re-using the wrapping to make a toy for the cat, some kind of jewellery fashioned from scrumpled up plastic, or a contraption to scare birds off. Ideally though, I think I’d rather do without it full stop. Any other ideas on how to re-use this horrible stuff, or better still avoid it altogether?

Jessie told us:

One thing i did do which was probably the most significant is switch from rice/soya milks on my cereal, to fruit juice … so instead of a new tetrapak every 3 days or so (tons of difficult to recycle waste) i now have a small 500ml glass bottle of fruit juice concentrate to last me at least a month!

Additional tips for waste free periods- mooncups and washable moon pads.

Down at Camelot-the-eco-castle:

Adam, Nic and Kirsty made a planter out of a cereal packet and an old basket they found. They call it “sweet re-using-the-trash-for-green-things”.

Search Blog

Get Social