Friday 14 August 2009

I wonder...

A little while ago I was reading 'The Summer Book' by Tove Jansson which tells of the relationship between 6 year old Sophia and her Grandmother. They spend their summer on a tiny island off the coast of Finland where the native plant life made up the garden vegetation. But one summer Sophia's father orders some seeds from Holland. He boats in some soil to replace the turf that covers the island and sets about planting a beautiful array of plants around the house.

Without the new soil the plants would have died, but more than that, the plants needed lots of water. Sophia's father developed an irrigation system with which to keep these non-native plants alive and in doing so he pulled vital resources away from the indigeonous plants. 'The island's own turf dried out and turned up its edges like slices of old sausage, several spruces died...'

Eventually, the rain came and the island turf was able to establish new growth but it had been a close call. The whole passage just got me thinking about our own gardening history. It has long been an accepted practice to import plants from other regions of the country and, of course, other countries. We 'artificially' assist the growth of plants by changing soil type, giving extra water, providing extra heat in greenhouses and feeding plants. No doubt many plants have been saved from extinction through these methods, but I wonder how many local plant species have been lost over the course of history due to the introduction of new species. And I wonder what I would be growing in my own garden if 'foreign' plants had never been introduced.

This sounds like a research project for later in the year when the vegetables in my garden require less care. I wonder what discoveries I will make.

1 comment:

  1. If you're going to do it empirically, should think you'd have to leave a good sized patch fallow for a couple of years or more, maybe cropping it back (like a meadow, in June)and just see what comes up.I'm sure there would be seeds of native plants still there in the ground, but hard to guarantee there wouldn't also be seeds of other things too. Japanese anemone has suddenly appeared in my garden this year and I don't remember planting it!
    The border in our front garden regularly throws up wild sweetpea, a common woodland plant here in the South East of England, even though it's been under cultivation since the 1930s.
    This is a really interesting idea, be interested to hear how you get on. I am sure you will find lots of beautiful places and plants. There was a gorgeous photo of an ancient meadow in Oxford, absolutely covered in fritillaries, in The Garden (RHS magazine) a few months ago. Apparently it hadn't been ploughed for centuries. These rare places in our long occupied and cultivated countryside are often declared sites of Special Scientific Interest, and I should think, hold much of the native plant life. Locally to us there are small areas of unimproved downland pasture which also are rich habitat for plant species.
    I found Jenny Uglow's A Little History of British Gardening an interesting read, right back to the monastery gardens of the middle ages. And I do think of our long term history as being clearing of the forests for food cultivation, which might suggest that woodland plants must have been among original species. But then, the trees themselves evolved from smaller things didn't they?