Hartley Magazine

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Don’t stop the rot

Death fuels new life in the garden, so we should delight in the signs of decay.

Brown seeds falling from a tree
Instead, winter turned up and the fast-fragmenting discs began to drop their fat seeds.

Rot… death… decay… decomposition… mouldering… disintegration. What sort of gardener has these kinds of images racing preternaturally through their everyday thoughts? Those like me, I guess (c’mon, there must be more of you out there). While everyone else is busy cooing about the ‘new shoots’ of spring and of ‘life returning to our plots’, I find myself, on the brink of the season of ‘bursting buds’, preoccupied with life that’s already been – and gone.

I know what’s to blame for my unseasonal about-face: the sunflowers. Last year I grew the giant-headed ‘Sunzilla’, primarily for the bees (nectar, pollen) and the birds (seeds). And for me. They are sturdy, thick-stemmed beasts, so I bequeathed them to autumn’s grasp, in the hope that their heavy, seed-laden heads would be stripped bare by ravenous posses of goldfinches or siskins. They never came. Instead, winter turned up and the fast-fragmenting discs began to drop their fat seeds, finding more willing diners at soil level: voles. In the space of a few nights, the seed-shedding gathered pace as – I’m guessing here – impatient furry eaters learnt to scale the thick dead stems.

A brown tree with decaying fibres
Slugs rasp by night at their brown, decaying fibres.

The husks are now rotting, and the once-proud sunflower heads are mere nodding, fibrous skeletons. I went to pull them up, but just couldn’t do it, enthralled as I am by watching their slow disintegration, their return to earth. Even now they’re egged on toward collapse by another nocturnal tuck-in, as slugs rasp by night at their brown, decaying fibres. The one stem I did start to pull at was still held fast; sunflowers have some of the toughest, most fibrous and extensive roots of all our annual flowers. A few tugs and some soil heave later, it was the earthworms I spotted, burrowing inside the dead, rotting roots, that stopped my ‘pull up and tidy round’ efforts in their tracks. More feasting.

We easily forget that what our plants offer up into the seeable, above-ground dimension as stems, leaves and flowers is matched (and often surpassed) by what they splay out into the below-ground, hidden ecosystem of the soil, as far-reaching roots. If I leave them to rot, not only will the decaying roots feed earthworms and other soil fauna, but their hollow ghosts will become passageways through which air, water, and soil life in general commutes (don’t be tempted to wreck this fragile subterranean balance by needless digging). As the worms devour and digest dead roots, their casts – now supercharged with plant foods and growth stimulants – encourage even stronger, healthier plants. They must be ecstatic tucking into still-buried dahlia tubers turned to mush by winter frosts. Down in the dark root zone, death fuels life.

The once-proud sunflower heads are mere nodding, fibrous skeletons.

Nowhere is this more striking than in the garden beds I’ve revamped and enriched using ‘chipped branch wood’. Here, the slow, ongoing decay of sappy woody shreddings mixed into the soil, together with lashings of vintage leaf mould, has shifted life into top gear; soil activity from the macro (think big earthworms) to the micro is booming (see how I did it here). Fungal mycelium, the earth’s very own ‘internet’, weave their connecting strands throughout this subterranean world, linking mouldering, food-rich wood chips with the roots of our live, ravenous plants. This summer’s sunflowers could be the biggest yet, and I’m thinking of deploying some of this ‘death fuels life’ alchemy in my greenhouse, by mixing woody chips in with my peat-free potting composts. Some of the best-performing nature-friendly mixes are based on renewable composted bark and wood fibre (there’s the clue). Increasingly in my garden, rot equals results.

Decomposition is my trusted, loyal ally. It’s what provides me with the leaf mould that I use to enrich soil, for mulching, or for DIY compost-making. Death is what sends autumn leaves falling; then, it’s mycelium-powered mouldering in my cages that starts to pull them apart, before their final, slow disintegration into handfuls of sweet-smelling ‘mould’. But as well as an annual shower of leaves, the oaks around my garden, now in their declining decades, offer me a more humdrum but equally valuable windfall: dead branches, which are ready to gather after a decent storm. They come fitted out with an inbuilt ecosystem (mycelium again, plus heaps of bugs, and often small, bright red worms burrowing beneath the lifting bark) and are swaddled in moss and lichen (and the odd fern).

The oaks around my garden offer me a more humdrum but equally valuable windfall: dead branches.

I use them as rot-already-in-progress log piles for wildlife, with any spongey, well-rotted and crumbling sections going straight onto the compost heap. Tougher branches are used to weigh down the circles of plastic sheet I cover the heaps with, to stop their decaying contents getting sodden. The bigger and heavier branches are priceless for holding down black plastic sheeting, or layers of cardboard if I’m clearing a weedy patch using a rot-away sheet mulch. When the branches do eventually crumble, they go onto the compost heap, soon to power new life, while I look forward to the next storm.

Like last night’s – a real huff and puff and blow-your-garden-away howler. Few branches came down, but some of the sunflowers were finally felled, severed at last from their worm-nibbled anchors by the nagging wind. The endgame is in sight. Their roots have mostly gone, and now even vertigo-prone slugs will be able to take their night-time fill. Nudging the stems down into the mulch, within reach of decomposers, will hasten decay’s final act. Show over.

Bursting buds… new shoots… I can’t wait, but for now I’m rejoicing in my garden’s rot, in death and decay – and in the new life they promise.

Text and images © John Walker

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener