Spongy

Our garden today (taken from indoors!)

The only impermeable, soil-free part of our garden today (taken from indoors!)

Even if you don’t live in the UK you may have heard that we are having a very wet winter here. It’s been raining for a couple of months… we have had some short dry periods, but every two of three days the jet stream delivers a new low pressure cell to us with associated wet and/or windy weather. Some parts of the country, like Somerset and the Thames valley, are suffering from flooding, whilst many of us are just very wet. Chez Snail is on a hill, but our garden is currently a stream, with water flowing off the field behind and both down our drains and into next door’s garden. Today we also have a red warning for high winds, meaning there is a risk of structural damage. I am certainly not going out and about and I will be trying to dissuade Mr Snail-of-happiness from going to his Chinese class tonight because driving conditions are currently described as ‘dangerous’. At least we are safe and dry and in our own home, unlike so many folks right now.

In the face of this sort of extreme whether, it’s easy to feel disempowered and useless. However, whilst all we can do at the moment is batten down the hatches, I do think that it is important to remember that everyone can take small steps to improve our situation in the long-run. If we act collectively, we can make a difference to our environment.

Whether you believe in climate change or not (and remember that the vast majority of experts do) it is clear that we are all exposed to extreme weather in one form or another (my thoughts are also with those of you in Australia under threat of fire or tropical storms). So, what can we do? Well, as far as flooding or drought are concerned, we can help the environment by improving the soil. Soil that contains lots of organic matter acts like a sponge, whilst mineral-dominated soil has a much lower water-holding capacity and hard landscaping just leads to rapid run-off… delivering water in a fast, large pulse to those people further down the water catchment.

If you have a garden, therefore, caring for the soil – making it healthy and active and full of organic matter – means that you can create a little reservoir to hold water. This is not just good for people who live downstream from you, this is good for you. It means that you will have water stored in the soil ready for your plants to use in drier months… it may not be enough to last the summer, but it will help you along. It also means that if you do need to water your garden when it’s dry, more of the water will he held in the soil for your plants to use rather than just flowing over the surface or soaking straight through. Adding organic matter is quite simple if you make compost, although I have to confess that I could always use more of the stuff! There are all sorts of sources of organic matter, from wood to teabags, from weeds to paper and any of it can be composted to help your garden become a better sponge. Different materials require different approaches, but there’s lots of advice available if you look.

Colleen and Valor in a raised bed

Our raised beds (photographed last summer) do not flood, hold lots of water and are really productive

In addition to acting like a sponge to hold water, organic matter in the soil sequesters carbon and thus keeps it out of the atmosphere where it acts as a greenhouse gas. And once you have a healthy soil, it will be much more productive – allowing you to grown a greater diversity of plants… all photosynthesising and thus also reducing the carbon in the atmosphere and being available to compost later and thus adding to your healthy soil. This is a virtuous circle with wide-reaching positive effects.

So, don’t feel you can’t make a difference – you can – and at the same time you can see the benefits right in your own back yard.

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