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Citizen Scientist

cuppaWe hear a lot, these days, about 'citizen scientists' – people who, often from their own backyard, make astonishing observations about the natural world that even the professionals have failed to pick up on. They may be avid bird watchers, hobby bee keepers, home-propagators or amateur astronomers. Each one of us has greater powers of observation than we realise and yet, because the subjects we are interested in are usually so much a part of our everyday life, we fail to recognise the significance of what we notice.

I was thinking about this just this week after sowing out broad beans. There I was in the garden, carefully laying the seed on the soil, and priding myself at how early I was getting them into the ground (we're talking deep-south here!), when I happened to catch a glorious perfume drift past on the breeze. I looked up and there, just a couple garden beds over from where I was working, I noticed two tall, self-seeded flowering broad bean plants! How could they be at that stage already – and so healthy? I never sow broad beans during the winter because the combination of heavy rain and freezing temperatures in our part of the world have the plants rusty and tattered come spring, at which stage later-sown beans soon catch up. So what was going on with these soon-to-fruit plants?

I went inside for a coffee and found myself thinking about just how much our seasons have changed over the last three decades (I've lived where I do for almost 30 years and staying in one place certainly has advantages when it comes to being a scientist in the natural world). The more I thought, the more I began to realise that, actually, our coldest, wettest months have shifted from mid-winter to late spring. Perhaps, after all, I wasn't now sowing my broad bean at the best time of year. Perhaps the seed would be better going into the ground in late autumn as happens in many other parts of the country.

As gardeners, we can learn a great deal about the plants we work with simply by noticing what's going on in our own back yards, and thinking about what we see. I've always known, for instance, that my self-seeded parsley plants do better than the ones I sow – and, always, I find them growing from some inaccessible nook or cranny. They may be popping up between two bricks or from the edge of a rock or sleeper. What this tells me is that the parley's roots like to be in a damp spot – one that never dries out. In the compost pile, I always find plenty of slugs for the chooks if I look under discarded rhubarb leaves. This reminds me to keep equally large and decaying fallen brassica leaves cleared from the garden lest slugs use them for homes by day then come out to feed on the cabbages at night. In my garden, a few leaves from the odd self-seeded Roquette are always available through the coldest months to add spice to a pizza topping or pasta sauce. Obviously this plant is one of the few really hardy vegetables to survive our southern winter, so why don't I actually sow a row of this green at the end of autumn? Dreaded buttercup can always be found growing close to my slightly dripping garden tap which has me thinking that if I did more to drain the damp patch in the donkey paddock, I may not get water-loving buttercup in my pasture.

Something else I've always known, through observation, is that as soon as the pumpkin seeds in the compost pile begin sprouting, it's time to sow my own cucurbit seeds (compost piles being a little warmer than garden beds). I'm off to prepare the potting mix for them right now and, having observed just how well cucurbits do in the compost pile, I'll be sure to include in it plenty of well-rotted animal. This week, I hope you enjoy keeping your eyes wide open in the garden, and your powers of observation switched on – you never know what you'll discover!