Things that creep and crawl
Why getting over the ick factor is key to a healthy, thriving garden, by Alex Valk
I’m sitting by my compost heap as I write this. It’s not somewhere I normally hang out, though I have thought about it from time to time. It’s right at the bottom of the garden, mostly screened by rhododendrons and camellia (which previous gardeners have planted here), a Japanese Acer (‘Sango-kaku’ - one of the first things I planted in this garden and which came with me in a pot from the patio of my previous garden), and a big stand of bamboo (which was hacked right back last year and is now in a gigantic heap on the floor). The area is a sun trap in the mornings when the sun is out, as it is this morning. It has a wild, hidden-away vibe and it’s the part of the garden where we most often spot slow worms and grass snakes.
The sweet smell of freshly mown grass clippings, recently tossed on top of the compost pile rises in the air. I take my trowel, scrape away some of the upper layers from the side of the compost cake and stick it deep into the pile. I’ve come to take a photo of the black stuff to accompany Alex’s article today.
A dunnock flits by, lands on the beech behind the compost heap and sings a little song. A speckled wood butterfly flutters past and comes to rest on the stand of nettles next to me. I hear the sudden squeak, rustle and scarpering away of what I presume is a wood mouse or a shrew. The smell of the rich, damp, black gold at the end of my trowel meets my nostrils and I inhale.
I should come and hang out by the compost more often…
Things that creep and crawl: Why getting over the ick factor is key to a healthy, thriving garden, by Alex Valk
In the many years I lived in rented flats, I had two major encounters with insects; carpet beetles in Shoreditch, and drain flies in Ealing. Of course, the real problem in both cases was not insects at all. Had the landlords replaced carpets that were 30 years old, and kept the drains clear, the bugs would have had no reason to infest our home. We left them behind years ago, but they left me with a prevailing sense of panic when it came to creatures that scuttled and crawled.
When we first got our garden, two years ago, I was still pretty squeamish. I panicked at magpies pecking holes in the lawn, turned to Google when I spotted an ant hill, and was struck with fear when I found mason bees in an old bird box. I had been gardening for years, but only in pots, and the reality of a healthy garden ecosystem was alien to my city-dwelling mind.
Plenty of people are scared of creepy crawlies. Some argue that a fear of bugs and spiders stems from an anxious evolutionary trait. Many insects, after all, especially the slimy, underground ones, are signifiers of death, rot and decay. If you found maggots in your sandwich you’d be quite right to throw it away.
But there is also evidence that a phobia of insects is learned. If that’s the case, then can you teach yourself not to fear them? In my case, yes. And it was the garden that helped me to reprogram my anxious mind and accept that insects, slithery things, and the dead, rotting matter they help to break down, are as important as plants and flowers.
Every good gardener composts, so, wanting to be a good gardener, I bought a Dalek style compost bin and merrily filled it with grass clippings and weeds. I waited impatiently for it to turn to black gold. Instead, it turned into a sorry, stinking pile of slime. When I lifted the lid I got a face full of little white flies. Slugs were everywhere. This was not the crumbly, sweet-smelling result I was expecting. As it turns out, it was easily fixed. A good compost mix needs a 50/50 balance of green stuff, like grass and weeds, with brown stuff, like twigs, straw and cardboard. Once I figured that out, and shredded a pile of cardboard into the mess, I finally got the result I was looking for.
It was the bugs and the fungus who transformed it all. They knitted together the slime and the cardboard and, with a bit of help from me gingerly poking around with a garden fork, a few months later the bin really was bursting with black gold. The maggots, woodlice, slugs and compost worms had turned the decay into new something I could use. As it turns out, a little death is essential for a healthy garden.
I think about death a lot at the moment. In July last year my dad died. Two months later, grief filled my veins with a strange, fizzing energy, and I dug up half the lawn. Onto the barren, dusty soil underneath I threw down barrowfuls of that home made compost, rich with worms. It was rich, sweet smelling, and a brilliant mulch after the rain, when it finally came.
That new bed is now bursting with life. The plants I placed are thriving, alliums and aquilegias are popping up everywhere, and birds hop about between them looking for snacks. It is, in my modest opinion, a beautiful sight. But it’s all the more beautiful knowing that new life is being fed by the rot and decay of what lived before.
I don’t love winter, but I can appreciate now how the seasonal dying down of the garden, the leaves falling from the trees and the bitter cold are all essential for that explosion of growth in the spring. And the little creatures beneath the ground, making the fallen leaves disappear, are not to be feared, but welcomed.
So if you find yourself in fear of creepy crawlies, and crave a sense of control in this chaotic world, I propose an unusual form of therapy. Get yourself a compost bin. If, unlike me, you get the brown and green balance right form the start, it won’t smell bad, and when it is really full and you lift the whole thing you’ll find a goldmine for your garden. You’ll find worms in it, and you’ll be pleased to see them. Throw them on your borders, into the bottom of your pots. Mulch your trees, worms and all. The soil and plants will love it. And you will learn to love the bugs.
Alex Valk is a journalist and communications consultant. She is currently studying horticulture and writing about gardening and environmental issues. You can find her on Twitter @alexvalk, Instagram @alexvalkgardens and on Substack at Rants about plants.
Alex is being paid for this article.
Photo credit: Sui Searle
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