Soil and data everywhere

It is hard to imagine now in the wet and cold of early November that in the summer many of us were growing borage in some of the hottest weather we have seen in decades. As we head towards the deepest darkest depths of winter, the EQUI-Food team are in the throes of finalising the different data sets across soil samples, surveys and diaries that many participants have contributed over the past few months. And data keeps coming in. People are still completing their final diaries, wellbeing and nature connection surveys and we’re doing the final checks with growers over the coming weeks.

We have been overwhelmed by enquiries and interest in the project from June onwards and from the end of July and into early August needed to turn people away from being involved. This was due to logistics, the size of the pilot and the research funding, which has meant we have needed to finish most of our data collection and early analysis before the end of the year.

We have been really engaged in reading and watching as growing endeavours succeeded or, with regret, failed as fortnightly diaries came in. Some of the borage plants either didn’t do very well due to extreme heat of the summer and lack of water. Some of the plants didn’t do well due to other creatures taking interest in the borage and cotton, and some didn’t grow for reasons we are just not currently clear about. Borage is usually a fairly hardy wild plant and so usually grows well anywhere, or so we thought. For some growers their plants just didn’t get going or they got going and then died before flowering. Some growers planted late in the season in August – September and so have had reduced daylight and colder weather to contend with, which we can see has reduced the opportunity for many flowers to bloom.

We’ve also had a few technical problems too with the reporting app and website due to changes in Newcastle University’s cybersecurity protocols. We’re grateful for the patience of our growers who have continued to share their insights and soil samples with us over the past few months, despite the technology being so frustrating. Again this is a huge learning curve for us and with so many data points to analyse, this has created some unexpected challenges. As with most research it has helped us understand where we can make significant changes in moving forward with future work.

The following is a brief overview of insights so far as we start to make sense of the soil, surveys and diaries people have sent in to us.

Who got involved? We received over 350 initial enquiries and responses to our recruitment adverts. 140 kits were sent out to growers who fitted our preliminary criteria and who completed the first survey. From this initial distribution of kits, 130 participants across the UK actually started the study, provided their first soil sample and completed their first week of the soil diary telling us when and where they had planted their borage. 30% identified as novices and 70% said they were experienced growers. However, when rating themselves on a scale of 1-10 on their growing experience the median shows much more distributed perceptions of growing experience, than indicating either novice or experienced status.

Distribution of participants across the UK. The stars in the map indicate our rooftop growing sites.

Where did people plant their borage? 28.5% of the participants involved reported they were growing from an urban area, with 66.2% stating they were from a semi-urban or suburban area and 5.4% from edges of rural towns and villages. Participants highlighted the geographic area they were growing in was predominantly residential (97%) rather than commercial, describing their area as mainly green (47%), combination of green and concrete (27%), or mainly concrete (26%). 38% of participants described their local area as high in traffic with the majority reporting low (59%) or no traffic (3%). Most planted their borage in their garden (53%), with fewer growing in their allotment (30%), yard (8%) or a communal shared, public or balcony space (9%). Higher proportions of growers planted in the ground (74%) with fewer growing in containers (18%), raised beds (7%) and window boxes (1%).

We also ran a separate study growing borage on rooftops and ground level across five different locations in Liverpool, Cardiff and Cirencester.

What did the preliminary soil analysis tell us? Preliminary analysis of the soil tested for PH, organic carbon, total carbon and nitrogen. A full elemental analysis is yet to be completed for the soil samples as this requires special machinery which the team have only just got permission to use. From this initial analysis PH levels were fairly consistent and remained at a fairly good alkali level (7-7.5). There were high portions of organic carbon revealed which suggests soil has predominantly come from potting soil or similar.

In looking more closely at how growers described their soil and local environment, 72% specified they added a range of extra soil conditioners, from organic compost, homemade compost, potting compost, animal manure, mulch, and blood fish and bone to tomato feed. Only 28% said they did not add anything to their soil. Over half (56%) stated they had previously grown vegetables either that growing season or in previous years. Others described the patch they grew their borage in was previously home or adjacent to wildflowers and weeds (13%), grass and lawn (12%), plants and trees (7%) and soil conditioners such as comfrey (7%). 22% of growers highlighted additional unwanted items in the soil such as stones, litter, debris or pollution and contamination.

Over half of the growers rated their soil as good for growing (good 51%, amazing 7%, OK 22%) and healthy (amazing 6%, good 39%, OK 34%) at the start of the study. We are currently processing and comparing analysis from before and after growing borage to look for specific changes in the soil and perceptions of soil health as a result of growing the borage and planting the cotton strip.

From a nature connection perspective only 12% of participants described observing other creatures (insects, animals, amphibians) in relation to their soil, and only 16% mentioned observing these creatures and plants more broadly in relation to their local environment at the start of the study in the first week. However, we are finding that growers reported many more creatures inhabiting their growing patch through the fortnightly diary reports.

What did the cotton strip tell us? The cotton strips that were planted to show how microbial active the soil was, predominantly showed complete biodegradation. Most people so far have reported their cotton has completely disappeared. Those growers who did manage to find some evidence of the cotton strip photographed limited remains of the cotton. This is largely different to more intensive agricultural soils which tend to be less active and diverse taking more time for cotton to biodegrade as shown in other studies using cotton undies to test for microbial activity [1]! There could also be a number of other factors such as the extreme heat, more frequent watering by growers and the plant itself secreting a sugary substance through its root network that helps attract bacteria and fungi to break down the soil and the cotton to absorb as nutrients.  

Example piece of cotton shared by one of the growers. This was dug up after 12 weeks in the ground and planted at the same time as the borage. The photograph indicates a high level of microbial activity with the majority of the strip almost gone except the edging, which usually takes longer as it has a tighter denser weave. Most cotton planted in the soil by growers, however, was reported to have completely disappeared and could not be dug up or photographed.

What did the soil diaries tell us? Each diary produced a lot of rich individual qualitative visual and textual data about the growing journey of borage in different locations, sites and conditions. The main aspect of this part of the study was to develop a more expanded view of wellbeing and nature connectedness than could potentially be recorded in the start and end surveys. Growers have produced over 820 diary entries, and they’re still coming in. Diaries have included excellent photographic records and detailed descriptions of the borage and soil and everyday things that growers noticed about the environment that their borage lives in.

Example sequence of photographs from four of the growers from diaries in weeks 1-10.

We are currently conducting a thematic analysis which is helping us to make sense of this richer data set to help draw connections between the overall growing experience and potential impacts on wellbeing and nature connection. We are exploring the themes below from initial coding of the data that underline how the diaries support reflection for growers who have been paying close attention to their plants and soil over the 12 week growing period.

  1. Active demonstration of interest and care towards the plant: Many of the fortnightly diaries demonstrated participants keen interest in the plant development, expressing care about and for the plant, often involving questioning, expressions of concern and/or taking active responsibility for the plant.
  • Perceived soil health: Growers expressed particular beliefs about the soil health, often noting properties and features believed to influence the soil quality.
  • Perceived plant health: There were also frequent reflections on the plant health, growth and development, often presented as a thought or assumption of perceived health due to a feature that suggests health status.
  • Sensory Observations and Detail: This theme involves detailed descriptions of the plant and soil, often noting its colour, smell and texture. Additionally, there is mention of new plant developments, such as leaf growth, budding or flowering.
  • Animal and insect behaviours towards the plant / soil: Many growers have discussed the way animals and insects are behaving towards the plant and/or the impact this is having on the plant (e.g. chewing, eating, causing holes in the plant). This includes how the plant and soil is attractive to or abundant with particular species. Both negative and positive values are ascribed to these behaviours and to different species depending on how the species behave towards the plant and soil.
  • Impacts of weather: General discussions of the weather at the moment or prior notable weather conditions, sometimes suggesting whether this is positive or negative, due to the impact it has had on the plant and the soil. For example sometimes rain is considered good or bad for the plant and soil.

Example of submitted information for 12 weeks of diary entries.

What did the wellbeing and nature connection surveys tell us? Overall growers reported relatively high levels of wellbeing and nature connectedness at the beginning of the study. We have conducted a preliminary analysis of the first 40 responses, comparing the start and end of week 12 through the wellbeing survey (WEMWBS) and nature connection (NCI) survey analysis to look at any potential changes during this time. At present there are no notable changes between the start and end reports and therefore no increase in feelings of greater wellbeing and nature connectedness have been found.

Since many of the end of study surveys have been taken as we go into autumn and as the cost of living crisis has become more notable, we have noted how these external factors can also influence how people feel about the future and how likely they are to spend time outdoors. Despite this we can see regular focused attention was paid by over half of the growers to the plants and soil during diary reporting, which is documented in the fortnightly diary reporting.

Our themes from the thematic analysis of the qualitative data do not directly correlate with the phrases included in the wellbeing and nature connection surveys. However, our preliminary insight is that the themes do provide more detail to specific aspects of the reported scales (e.g. “I’ve been interested in new things” as an indicator of positive wellbeing and “I always find beauty in nature” as an indicator of greater nature connection). In reflecting on these scales in relation to the study, feelings of being well in a more intimate and smaller kind of nature setting and being connected are potentially more transitory and momentary than some of the phrasing suggests. “I always find beauty in nature” is somewhat absolute. ‘Nature’ in urban environments is also potentially less abundant and all encompassing as the phrasing suggests. Growers are reporting on much smaller and intimate worlds; gardens, allotments, containers, window boxes, yards. This is not quite the dramatic ‘nature’ of David Attenborough, but rather the more gentle tinkering with much smaller and sometimes microscopic and microbial worlds we can not always really see. And some of these worlds appear to be in conflict with our growing endeavours as many growers reported insects attacking and eating their plants!  

In summary understanding the intersection between soil health, people’s wellbeing and nature connection in urban growing has been challenging and complex. We expect to analyse different parts of the data collected over many months and with our students for future projects. In the short-term we are focusing on answering our initial questions and looking forward to reporting more mid-December as we continue to spend time analysing segments of the data and connecting it to other aspects of the data collected across the team.

[1] https://www.farmersguide.co.uk/ofs-farmers-encouraged-to-plant-your-pants-to-spark-interest-in-soil-health/ https://www.surreywildlifetrust.org/news/soil-your-undies-science

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