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Joshua Sparkes is curious by nature. Keen to question and look at alternative practices further afield. It’s this approach that won him a coveted Winston Churchill bursary and afforded him the opportunity to travel to America for a month in June and fully immerse himself in new ways of working. Ones that embrace a new methodology that could have far reaching implication on gardening in the UK. If the idea of never having to water your garden ever again appeals, then read on.

Josh puts forward the case for change and why it’s needed:

“On the approach to sustainability and climate change and the need for horticulture to change, we are further behind than what our partners in America and the rest of Europe are currently doing. We need to change because our climate is changing; we’re getting increasingly hotter in the summer, which is putting a strain on our gardens which are used to a different kind of climate. So things like lawns now require irrigation and our plants rely too much on it. In America, it’s agreed that too much irrigation is a problem because the plants don’t send their roots naturally down to the ground. If you’re needing to irrigate then there’s a problem in your soil or in your plant choice and you need to change it.

The best way to do that is by managing and maintaining a healthy soil. One that focuses on not just chemistry and texture but also the biology and making sure we can grow a highly populated and diverse biology in our soil so that they can grow the plants for us. To start with, you’ll need to invest in some soil testing to really understand the makeup of your soil. The benefits will be immeasurable. At Mount Cuba they believe that in the next few years they won’t have to do anything to their lawns because they’ve built up a biology of bacteria, for example, to create and excrete enough nitrogen for the soil to be able to take care of itself. 

We still take a very artistic approach to gardens. We look at the beauty and the art and make make these aesthetic pictures whereas places like America are very scientific and they look at the science which has helped them create many interesting different techniques. They questioned the idea of climate change in gardens and sustainability, but they don’t have that artistic element that we have. They have scientific and innovative ideas and we have a very artistic approach and what needs to happen is that the two need to merge and become one”.

There is enormous debate and questions being asked about what is sustainable gardening and ecological gardening. In Josh’s mind, it starts at ground level which is the soil and that’s the foundation stone to build on. You can’t hope to create an ecological garden and not look at the soil and the ecosystem its growing in.

The first step is questioning what we know and our traditions that have been handed down with each generation. “We follow traditions in the UK which has its positives but also has its negative. In horticulture we do things that our last head gardener showed us, that their last head gardener showed them and so on; handed down in a time when it worked.  But now there’s new understanding and as gardeners we need to question everything we do and look at how we can improve what we’re doing. Mulching, is a common practice in UK gardening, but now at Chicago Botanic Garden they’re thinking of mulching as a negative because if you’re mulching in excess of over one inch, you’re building the organic matter too much; you’re diluting and depleting the biology in the soil. Soil should be 5 % of organic matter. It’s not a haphazard process but requires the correct proportions for it to be effective.”

So, with Josh at the helm as head gardener next year, 2018 will be a combination of vermiculture, worm composting, compost heaps, compost tea extractions and a little bit of Korean farming for good measure. The kitchen garden will be a test bed for different ideas and working practices. Follow our progress on instagram and watch what happens next….