What’s brown and magic?


It is beneath your feet and grows the food you eat, but as a society we take it for granted. The good old brown stuff, soil, is one of our unsung heroes. Trees and bees get all the attention – they are, let’s face it, rather more active and endearing than soil. However, it is time for soil to take its turn in the spotlight… Ladies and Gentlemen, today is #WorldSoilDay.

So we all know that soil is essential for food production, obvs, but don’t forget that plants are also grown to provide fibre for energy, clothing, medicines and animal feed. Not only that, but according to the Soil Association, soil also stores most of the world’s carbon (beat that, trees) and is home to an incredible amount of living organisms, such as invertebrates, bacteria and fungi. In fact, just one teaspoon of soil can contain as many micro-organisms as there are people on the planet.

Soil is also vital in its role as storing and filtering water. This means that it increases our resilience against floods as well as droughts.

As if that wasn’t enough, the good bacteria in soil are also beneficial for our health. Contact with soil makes us happier and smarter and explains why activities such as gardening can help with mental health.

That’s nice then. Thanks soil for being there. I’m off now to find some buzzy little bees to save… Bye…

Except, stop. Soil isn’t ‘just there’ a static, immovable constant in our lives. In fact, our soils are in danger. They are disappearing at a rate that is alarming for future generations, with 2.2 million tonnes being lost and degraded in the UK each year. This is caused by factors such as expanding cities, transport infrastructure and pollution – either industrial or through the inefficient use of fertilisers.

Not only that, but climate change may increase rates of loss if drier conditions make soils more vulnerable to wind erosion, or if intense rainfall washes soil away. It’s much harder to put it back than it is to look after it.

The Soil Association campaigns for better protection for soil, including supporting organic farming practices and promoting best practice. We can all do our bit for soil too.

Organic may be part of the solution, but it can be more costly. As an alternative, seek out the LEAF marque (a symbol of a leaf) which indicates that products have been grown sustainably.

Next, think about your own patch of soil and how you can look after it. If you have a garden, however tiny, then get composting. Leaves, cut grass, fruit and veg peelings and tea bags will all mulch together in perfect harmony in a compost heap or bin. You’ll end up with lovely rich organic matter to spread onto your flower beds and help make healthy soil.

Don’t buy peat-based compost either. This is a direct way of digging up special habitats and valuable carbon stores. The peat-free alternatives these days perform just as well.

It is most definitely brown and at first glance rather boring, but soil is the very stuff of life and it needs our love.


Children and real tools – really stupid or really important?

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Gardening is amazing for children. Fresh air, exercise and learning about their world all make for wholesome fun but it can also do masses for confidence and motor skills. When they are under three, then a bucket and spade can keep them occupied for ages. But as they get a little older, they ‘wanna be like you ooh ooh’, and that means proper, grown up tools.

Sharp secateurs, long handled rakes and juddering pressure washers in the hands of impetuous, impulsive individuals may sound like a recipe for disaster, but if you want your child to stay interested in gardening past pre-school age then it’s time to, gulp, hand over the tools.

The Forest School ethos includes using real tools because they teach children responsibility and risk assessment. Of course, you’ll need to do the safety chat (never run with tools, keep away from others when you are working, don’t leave them on the ground and so on) and feel confident that your child is coordinated and sensible enough to handle something potentially dangerous.

Often, you will see a whole new side to your child when they feel trusted. Part of giving them this responsibility is stepping back and letting them get on with it – helicoptering over them while they work will frustrate them. Yes, your hedge may look a little odd when they have finished, but they will be glowing.

Accidents can happen – my son was given a penknife for Christmas (aged 6). He has cut himself twice and now has a healthy respect for the blade and actually listens to my advice on how to use it safely. I hope he won’t hurt himself again, but he might. You may not be happy with this level of risk, so choose your activities to suit your own views.

If you are prepared to spend a little money, then try slightly down-sized tools that fit small hands better, thus improving the safety and ease of use. Draper’s does a good range of young gardener equipment that is reasonably priced, such as spades and rakes. They feel ‘proper’ – no babyish plastic here but include features such as a wrist strap on trowels.

And at this time of year, with everything growing like a jungle, I need all the help I can get.