Hartley Magazine

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Even in the 2020s, gardeners could still depend on a familiar seasonal cycle. In today’s altered world, gardeners’ – and nature’s – ingenuity is needed more than ever.

Sprummer?’ Kris squinted at the endless blue sky. ‘So what you’re saying is…’

‘That there’s no difference between spring and summer now, no matter what the old calendars say.’ Jenna spread a thick layer of leafy, sappy-smelling mulch around the cordon tomatoes. ‘So it’s spring going on summer equals sprummer!

‘Tie that shade sheet down, Kris – it’s baking in here, even with half the glazing out.’ Jenna wiped her brow as she snapped off a side-shoot. Despite the clinging heat, the toms pulsed with dark green health.

‘So,’ mused Kris, ‘now that winter and spring are hardly any different – apart from the gloom – do they become… wing? Winting?’

‘Too smart for your own good. Way too smart to be my greenhouse mentee.’

Kris was a smart kid, but he barely remembered the last time a proper spring had turned into a proper summer, when he was five. Twelve years on, and April to August had become a predictable seasonal blur, a climatic mix-up of epic proportions.

Gardeners who had known the time before sprummer became a thing knew that change was coming – that things just weren’t right. They felt it: in the breeze on their clammy cheeks, under their grubby fingernails and in the deep roots around their growers’ hearts. Most scoffed, but gardeners – they knew. While the masses saw one ‘great summer’ after another, gardeners saw there was no going back to the settled, stable times their foregardeners had sown in.

There’s a whole web of plant roots and mycelium growing together underground.

Some hung up their dibbers for good, too disheartened to sow on as seasons bled into each other, and the weather became increasingly extreme. But fired up by the knowledge that gardening was a vital, proven, citizen-powered part of nature’s recovery, Jenna and others never faltered. Undaunted, they researched, trialed, adapted, tweaked and tested every useful gardening technique in the book, including those from books still to be written.

‘At least there’s a hint of a breeze today.’ Jenna lifted her shades and looked around. Dozens of neatly aligned greenhouses, big and small, surrounded them, each covered with a white cotton shade sheet. Pale-hatted figures bobbed in and out of doorless doorways. ‘Now tell me, smart mentee, what’s missing?’ Jenna gestured with a flourish at the reflective greenhouse village.

‘Well, mentor Jenna, let me see.’ Kris looked around, rubbing his chin in faux contemplation. ‘We’ve lots of greenhouses, each with a shallow ditch around it, some neat paths, strips of flowers buzzing with bugs, wheelbarrows piled with fresh mulch, but no… water butts! No. Butts. At. All. Oh, wow. Is this… ?’

‘One of the new myco-trial plots? It sure is. And it’s really promising. Come on. Time to look, sniff and feel.’ Jenna led him into one of the bigger greenhouses. ‘So what do you see here?’

‘Tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, all looking good, lots of fruit set so far. ‘New Future’ cherry toms which are almost ripe.’ He gently squeezed a red, gold-spangled fruit. ‘Hoards of hoverflies, dried-out mulch with spiders racing over it, and what look like, oh, little toadstools pushing up through it… but no watering can or any hosepipe?’

‘So what surprises you most, then?’

‘It’s a tie between no sign of any watering at all, and the mini toadstools.’

‘Let’s dig a bit deeper, shall we?’ Jenna knelt. ‘Now, clear a patch of mulch, but try not to disturb the toadstools.’

‘I thought digging only happened in crusty old gardening books.’

‘It does. Now stop being a clever-clogs and dig down into the soil with your fingers. Watch the toadstools.’

‘Wow!’ Kris sank his fingers into the dark, cool soil. ‘It’s so moist, and I’ve not gone that deep yet.’

‘Impressive, eh? Keep going, down about a foot, and see what you find.’

Kris scooped out more dark, moist, lumpy soil, clumps of it threaded together by the roots of nearby plants – and by something else. A scoop of soil dislodged the cluster of toadstools. ‘Oh, they’re… attached to the soil? Are these white strands the myco… ?’

‘Mycelium,’ said Jenna. ‘Kind of the roots of the toadstools, if you like. Now, smell it. Go on, give that handful of soil a nice deep sniff.’

The toms pulsed with dark green health.

‘Mushrooms! It smells just like mushrooms. That’s so cool. But don’t fungi usually come up in what used to be autumn? It’s the middle of sprummer.’

‘Look closer and tell me what the toadstools are attached to.’ Jenna offered her soil-beguiled mentee her hand lens.

‘The mycelium, it’s kind of wrapped around… oh, these are green wood chips – I read about them! The mycelium is growing around them, and there are plant roots as well – they’re kinda woven together. The mycelium feels soft, almost rubbery.’ Kris shook his head, grinning. ‘That’s utterly cool, Jenna. Was this your idea?’

‘It was a group effort. After six to eight weeks with no useful rain, it was obvious that water butts were becoming pointless. Then one day, Janet – she always thinks outside the butt – said that we needed to make the soil our new low-work, subterranean, shared water butt.’

‘So water is now stored in the soil instead of tanks. Kind of bottom-up watering?’

‘You got it, Kris. We prepared this patch using green wood chips from the willow fields, where the town’s flash water goes. We mixed the chips into the soil at the start of sprummer, then moved the greenhouses onto the plot. Any rain that’s fallen has gone into the ditch around each greenhouse and soaked straight down into the layer of chips. The results so far are amazing.’

Kris held up the clump of toadstools. ‘So the fungi are feeding on the wood chips, releasing plant foods, and helping to keep the soil moist below the dry mulch layer, right?’

‘Spot on, smart one. But what else do you think might be going on?’

‘So… there’s a whole web of plant roots and mycelium growing together underground, and when they join forces they form mycorrhiza to help each other out? Which means the fungi can help supply water to the plants, in exchange for goodies they need to grow?’

‘Top mentee marks. I’ll soon be out of a job.’

‘Just following my nose, boss.’ Kris winked, taking another sniff of the toadstools.

‘We followed our gardeners’ noses too. We couldn’t fathom how the crops in the greenhouses on the drier parts of the plot – where we knew the soil was poorer anyway – were growing just as well as all the others. So we –’

‘The mycorrhiza!’ Kris gazed into the cool, moist hole in front of him, then beamed at his mentor. ‘The fungi must be actually moving water around, pumping it to plants that need it. Is that it?’

‘It is. The boffins measured it.’ Jenna gazed around, smiling. ‘Nature’s proving almost as smart as you.’

‘You sprummer-beating beauties.’ Youthful fingers gently replanted the toadstools in the cool, moist soil.

Text and images © John Walker

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener