As part of the ‘Season of Creation’ Catherine Tidnam, St James’s Gardener, writes her Thought for the Week about developing a deeper understanding of the complexity of the natural world.
There is a new Natural History GCSE on the horizon which should be available for students to take from 2025. Pre-war natural history – the study of organisms including plants or animals in their environment, particularly from an observational rather than experimental point of view, was a valued part of someone’s education. But over the last 50 years it has fallen out of favour.
When I was at school, science and its related disciplines felt irrelevant to me. But all that changed in my 40s, as I turned from being someone who visited gardens to someone who worked in them, first by setting up a community garden on my estate and then by changing career and starting work at St James’s. In fact, working at St James’s has had a profound effect on my thinking and approach to nature and the environment.
When I first became a professional gardener I had been sceptical about doing RHS horticultural courses – did I really need to? But in fact, they gave me an invaluable foundation of knowledge which I draw on every day both in my maintenance work and my therapeutic gardening projects. I loved the fact that the theory I had learnt in class the evening before, could be put into practice or shared the next day. Plant biology was no longer a pile of facts but could be applied to the late summer cuttings we struck in our gardening group – cutting below the node where the plant’s tissue cells are most active then pinching out the growing tip to divert all the stems energies into producing new roots. There was now an imperative to understand the chemistry of the Southwood Garden’s soil where, due to drought, the chemical processes enabling nutrients to pass from the soil to the plant’s root system, had ground to a halt because the soil was bone dry.
But looking around me as I worked in gardens also threw up a lot of questions. I wondered why the coriander had self-seeded so readily in July on a hot roof top terrace when I had found it so difficult to germinate in the cooler spring months; why hoverflies seized the moment when the weather broke and rain filled a wheelbarrow in an hour creating the habitat they needed to lay their eggs; why I heard a cacophony of bird song coming out of a hedge I walked past when the leylandii hedge next to it was silent.
I took these observations as starting points from which to find out what was going on: the importance of temperature in the germination of different seeds, the lifecycle of a hoverfly and, in this instance, the habitat requirements of its rat-tailed maggot larvae. With the leylandii hedge, I figured it was planted as wind break – an intervention to solve one problem when they could have solved several at the same time with a mixed native wildlife friendly hedgerow.
The OCR examination board states: “A GCSE in Natural History will include developing skills of observation, monitoring, analysis and reporting which supports students to develop a deeper understanding of the complexity of the natural world, including its fragility and interdependencies.”
Being part of St James’s journey to attend to the natural world has inspired me and given me some hope in the face of the climate crisis. With a deeper understanding of nature you can make better decisions about when and how to intervene.
I encourage you, every so often, to give the natural world you are standing in, your full attention.