Tag Archive: sand


On the Beach: Sand

On our recent trip to the Hebrides I was taken by the beautiful textures and ‘art works’ that nature can produce; in this case on the beach and featuring some very subtle effects. Here’s the first of a two part gallery of pictures I took, mainly at Calgary Bay on the Isle of Mull.

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Old School Gardener

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Soil that you can  make pots from is a challenge...

Soil that you can make pots from is a challenge…

Having ‘good’ soil is one of the most important elements in successful gardening, though some plants are well adapted to and actually prefer ‘poor’ soils. A good soil is especially important for growing food crops. The terminology and approaches to creating and keeping good soil can be confusing, as this week’s questioner illustrates:

‘My garden seems to have a very heavy clay soil. i want to know what to do to make it easier to work with and I’ve heard the terms like structure, texture and tilth – can you explain what these terms mean and advise me on what to do to improve my soil?’

So writes Lise B. Lowe from Hereford. Well Lise, a good way of summarising the different terms is:

Texture = the mix of different types of soil particle

Structure = the spaces between these particles

Tilth = the quality of the structure

The basic types of soil texture

The basic types of soil texture

Texture

Garden soils contain particles of varying size. Clay particles are minute and tend to clog together (which is why your clay soil is so heavy and difficult to work). At the other end of the scale, gravel consists of very large particles; this type of soil drains very easily and so is known as a ‘hungry’ soil. Between these two extremes will be found comparatively small soil particles, known as silt, and larger particles of sand. The majority of soils consist of mixtures of the different sizded particles. The proportions of large, medium and small particles in a given soil determine its texture.

The components of soil structure

The components of soil structure

Structure

A soil has good structure if is contains a balanced range of particle sizes that provide air pockets of a size to accommodate the right amount of air and moisture for healthy plant growth; it drains well; and contains adequate humus (decayed organic material like leaves and stems which will not decay any further) and other organic material.

Tilth

When soil has been forked and raked and its clods have been broken down to a fine, workable structure it is said to have a good tilth. This quality is particularly important when small seeds are being sown, because it enables them to make good contact with the available soil moisture. Too fine a texture does not make a good tilth because such a soil’s surface will ‘cake’ (develop a hard surface or ‘pan’) in the first shower of rain. So working the soil (and adding diffferent materials to it like organic matter, gravel , sand) produces different tilths, some suitbale for seed sowing, others for establishing and growing on different plants etc.

With your heavy clay soil the best approach is to add lots  (and lots) of organic material such as compost, humus, manure so as open up the structure of the soil, making cultivation much easier. Autumn is an ideal time to do this, as once you’ve dug over the soil and incorporated organic matter, the winter weather should help to further break down the larger clumps of soil, making it easier to cultivate in the spring. Regularly adding organic matter before you sow/plant and as a a mulch during the growing season will continue to help improve the structure of the soil and add nutrients too.

Adding compost or other organic material to the soil by digging in or as a mulch is a must...
Adding compost or other organic material to the soil by digging in or as a mulch is a must…

If, on the other hand, your soil, like mine, is on the sandy side, adding organic matter can help with moisture retention and add much-needed nutrients to an otherwise poor soil. I tend to add lower nutrient material such as leaf mould in the Autumn and richer material like compost and manure in the Spring so that the nutrients these contain have less time to wash away and are readily available when plants need them most, as they burst into life. However, if your soil is really in need of improvement then add any organic matter in the Autumn and give it time to break down and blend with the soil. Of course the alternative approach, where possible, is to plant things that are suited to your soil, even if it’s on the ‘poor’ side!

However, you’re probably on to a winner by adding organic material, whatever your soil!

Different soil types

Different soil types

Further information:

Checking your soil condition

Soil structure and formation

The genesis of soil structure

Feed your soil not your plants

Old School Gardener

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WP_20130805_021It’s ‘Play Day’ in England today, so I thought it would be appropriate to report on my recent visit to the new Olympic Park Play Area in Stratford, London.

The ‘Tumbling Bay’ play space has just opened in the north of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Designed by LUC and Erect Architecture, the space is the core social area for this part of the Park, which opens fully next April. It aims to provide a facility of use to both visitors to the area as well as the growing new residential community in the area and local workers.

The naturalistic play space is based on ecological concepts of succession and life cycles and is laid out along a newly created valley, with a new ‘Timber Lodge’ café and community hub at one end. I must say that I was impressed with what I saw.

Given the heavy use this area is likely to see and that it is unsupervised, the designers and builders have done a great job at maximising natural play opportunities in an urban setting. I think children of all ages will be able to get something from it. At one end a climbing structure consisting of natural, rough finish timber bridges, ascents ,plus net walkways and other nooks and crannies is an exciting physical circuit for mainly physical play. The structures here are not so much designed on the drawing board as created on the spot – at least that’s how they look, with rough-hewn timber providing a wonderful variety of opportunities for climbing, clambering, crawling, walking and just sitting around.

This wood- strewn area gives way to an area dominated by a river delta – ilke landscape of gullies, pools and waterways. These are fed by a number of hand pumps and can be dammed at various points. And there are also spots offering a mix of sand and water play. The use of what seems to be blocks of natural (sand?) stone and sculpted landforms (made of composite materials?) conveys a natural look that could have been here for decades. Apparently the sand and water play area was inspired by the history of the River Lea and its industrial past. The arrangement of pumps and dams encourages children to experiment with water flows, work in groups and pump sufficient water to dam and divert water through the natural rock pools, rivulets and channels, filling a series of shallow pools and sand boxes along the way.

Finally, and running up to the cafe, is an area where water gives way to sand – dominated play, featuring a hanging conveyor system using sections of tyre and allowing children to move quantities of sand around the area. There are also a number of chunky wooden and gabion structures that are at different times seats, walkways or climbing features. I particularly liked the use of simple planed timber planking set around in odd places in the floorscape with grooves cut at right angles. I guess these are to provide a varied, grippy surface, but can also be a great little place for the very young to experiment with sand and water and other loose materials.

There are also some young hazel woodland copses where, in due course, children will be able to explore and build dens, hunt for bugs and get their hands dirty. The copses adjoin some ‘pine forest’ areas which run up against the timber play area. The curving form of the play area and its use of planting makes it blend in beautifully with the adjoining parkland landscape, avoiding the problem of all too many play spaces that stand out as colourful, metal-dominated, jarring places amidst surrounding greenery. The lack of fencing, but use of planting, land form and a variety of different log slice/trunk footways to provide barriers and create entrance and exit channels should also encourage children to play in the surrounding grassy and planted areas.

It is free to visit the parklands, cafe and playground. We enjoyed a lovely cup of coffee served by smiling staff at the new social enterprise – run cafe and events centre, which seemed to be doing a steady trade in these early days. I was interested to see that local primary schools have already contributed to displays in the Centre and this sign of community involvement is an early indicator of it becoming a successful community hub.  As you can see from the photographs, we were there early in the day, so only a few children were around. On our way home we passed lots of families with children who looked as though they were on their way to the park and play area.

If you get the chance it’s well worth a visit!

Old School Gardener

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PicPost: Touchy Feely- sand play for blind children

‘Keeping the play at ‘hand’ level for sight-impaired children at the New York Association of the Blind, c. 1917.  From the Museum of the City of New York; unknown photographer.’

From: Playscapes

Where trees for climbing aren't readily available these wooden climbing structures provide a great alternative

Where trees for climbing aren’t readily available these wooden climbing structures provide a great alternative

“I prefer climbing trees than climbing frames because they are quite different and there are many ways to climb. I can climb up quite high. My mum is worried but I’m not. I’m quite good at it. I’ve never fallen off a tree because I climb in the quite safe places of trees. It’s quite thrilling being up there. My clothes get messy though.” Christina (aged 11)

So, where did you play and what were your favourite sorts of play places? I bet that some of you (most perhaps) will mention bits of wasteland, parks, on riverbanks, in other people’s derelict gardens and up trees…

It’s likely that most outdoor play happens in ‘natural’ places, but that’s not to say that this is any better than playing on play equipment or in conventional, designed playgrounds. These defined ‘children’s spaces’ make children feel they have permission to be themselves, have fun and are valued – however, they are usually adult- created places. Equally we don’t need to think that every aspect of the playground needs to be ‘manufactured’ or protected; sand or bark are as effective as rubber safety surfacing. And perhaps we don’t need to fence everything in – though this probably gives a sense of security to parents of the youngest children.

A 'Nectar bar' of insect- attracting plants

A ‘Nectar bar’ of insect- attracting plants

There is now a wealth of evidence to suggest that children benefit from being outdoors and in ‘natural’ places – especially if we want them to grow up with an understanding of the natural environment and take a responsible attitude towards it. In 2006, Playday focused on Play in the Natural Environment. Key findings were:

  • Children will naturally gravitate to natural places to play; they are seen as more likely to be free from an adult agenda, free – creative – self-directed.
  • Natural places create a sense of wonder and awe
  • These places link to an appreciation of the natural world as adults
  • Barriers to play in the natural environment include adult worry of danger – fear of strangers – bullies – quality – and the sheer lack of them in towns and cities
  • ‘Nature deficit disorder’ = a disconnection or aversion to nature
  • We need to understand the importance of the natural environment and be prepared to protect, expand, leave it alone and ensure variety. There is a need for specialised/dedicated training.
A 'Giant's Causeway' provides a challenging ascent

A ‘Giant’s Causeway’ provides a challenging ascent

So, can designed play spaces be in any way ‘natural’? There is scope for bringing together the best of  ‘off the shelf’ play equipment and those which use natural materials, objects and environments – or perhaps are an artful interpretation of these.

The best play spaces are unique and valued by their community. A design -led approach which combines play features custom-built for their location, with ‘off the shelf’ play items like slides, climbing frames, swings and zip wires is a key interest of mine. I’ve included a few pictures of some of my own work in creating these  ‘play landscapes’.

Some of the ‘natural’ ingredients which can feature in designed ‘play landscapes’ are:

1. Making the most of natural features– fallen trees to climb, clumps of tough plants for building dens, slopes to roll down, small things like piles of grass clippings and places that encourage insects and other critters (e.g. the ‘nectar bar’ shown in one of the photos).

Earth sculpting

Earth sculpting

2. Land sculpting – do you live in a pretty flat landscape? Introducing some variation in the play area by sculpting the land into ditches and hills provides endless fun for children of all ages.

3. Boulders – these are becoming a feature of many play areas, but often lack the size and careful placing to make them a good play feature (as stepping-stones, or for clambering up for example). Ideally they need to be of a smooth granite for ease of climbing and to avoid dangerous sharp edges.

4. Sand – there is an ‘urban myth’ that sand pits attract cats and other animals who use it as a toilet. Though there are examples of this as an issue (and possibly also from vandals leaving cans, bottles and other rubbish in them)- the benefits of sand as a play medium usually far outweigh the possible risks, especially if they are inspected daily to remove any offending items. Sand can be used as a safety surface also though not where rubber or other matting is more practical or where children playing in the sand risk being knocked over by those using some equipment (e.g in the area at the end of a slide). And why not go one stage further and create/designate a muddy/digging area?

A notched pole climber with sand under

A notched pole climber with sand under

5. Trees– either naturally fallen or imported, dead trunks provide great climbing, sitting and ‘hang out’ areas. Some larger living trees are suitable for climbing or having rope swings attached.Planting groups of new trees is also a good idea, but these should be out-of-the-way of key play features, in areas where the temptation to uproot them is minimised! Where you can’t have natural trees, it’s possible to create tree-like structures to climb (see pics).

Long grass and hedges create places to hide

Long grass and hedges create places to hide

6. Hedges– mixed native species hedges are, once established, a wonderful habitat for many different insects, birds etc. and can include blackberries etc. as a fun source of food in the autumn! Don’t worry about thorns and prickles – once ‘bitten’ children, like adults, will be careful what they touch…

A woodland pond and climbing tower

A woodland pond and climbing tower

7. Water– surely a no go for children’s play? Well, once more it’s easy to over react and miss what can be a wonderful play opportunity. Rather than ban any water we should think about how it can be safely included in a play landscape – from a hand pump combined with sand play/mud perhaps (see pic), or in a shallow canal or stream….

8. Grass– introduce areas where the grass is not cut as frequently so as to vary the play landscape. Children love long grass –  it seems more  ‘jungly’ as one youngster commented to me!

A sand and water play feature aimed at younger children

A sand and water play feature aimed at younger children

So there are practical ways of creating interesting, naturalistic ‘play landscapes’ which avoid the one size fits all mentality so often applied to play areas (or ‘KFC’ = Kit – Fencing – Carpet).

In tomorrow’s post – how to secure more natural play for your children- ten tips for parents.

Further information: Play again film

Old School Gardener

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