Friday, August 28, 2015

First Autumn - almost...

I was trawling through my laptop folders for an up-to-date CV a couple of days ago. I didn't find one. What I did find was something I wrote when Thomas was just six months old and coming up to experiencing his first autumn. Not that he'd have been aware of it. This year, he'll be much more into leaping into piles of leaves, and he loves peering at blackberries to see if they're ripe.

At the risk of turning this blog into the gardening blog equivalent of a Vogon poetry recitation, I thought I'd publish it here.  In the garden at the moment it's autumnal by feel, if not by date. Normal, non-poetic service will resume shortly.

First Autumn

Flights of brown and red and orange tumble through the air;
Fallen flights crunch under hands and knees, and smell of age.
A thousand bright jewels reflect rainbows, strung together by invisible threads;
In the middle is eight-legged patience, waiting for trembles.

Sweet explosions of red and purple orbs on the tongue,

Plucked by a loving hand from twigs guarded by grabbing plant claws.

Out of the window, the garden made blurred by clouds that touch the ground,

Muffling the robin’s sad song.

A new season, new sensations – a myriad new experiences
To touch, to taste, to see, to smell –
My first autumn.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Back to school - MyGardenSchool


It's nearly September, the traditional time for new academic ventures. In this spirit, I'm embarking on a new learning experience myself. I was asked if I'd participate in a four week online MyGardeningSchool gardening course, in exchange for writing about it on this blog. So, here is my first report. The course doesn't start until 2nd September but I thought I'd introduce the topic a little first.

I love learning, so this was a wonderful opportunity. I had a choice of a whole range of four week courses, including professional planting design, wildlife gardening, garden photography and veg growing - it's a pretty extensive list. I was sorely tempted by the garden history course, but I have studied that a little in the past. All of the tutors are experts in their field; for example, Clive Nichols is the tutor on the garden photography masterclass, and you'd be hard-pressed to not find his photographs in the best garden books and magazines.

The four week courses cost £145 so are not cheap, but are on a par with a day course, if you were to pay to spend the time with an expert. For this money, you get access to the virtual classroom, and four weeks of video tutorials with the named tutor. In addition, and perhaps slightly daunting at the moment, you have four assignments to complete. These are critiqued by the tutor, who provides feedback.

So which one did I choose to try? Well, parts of the garden are suffering at the moment from a lack of structure and succession, so my eye was drawn to Planting Design with Perennials. There are few tutors who would have as much academic experience in this area as Dr Noel Kingsbury, who has written a number of books on the topic, as well as recently publishing his first e-book with MyGardenSchool.

Rather exciting. One bonus is that because it's virtual, I don't need new school shoes. I used to hate that part of going back to school. Watch this space!

Note: I have received the course free of charge in exchange for writing my opinions on it. I have not been asked to provide a positive 'spin' in exchange for this, but just to provide regular feedback through this blog, for the duration of the course.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A-foraging we will go..

Another week, another Twitter conversation which inspires another (poor) cover of someone else's genius.

Apparently the bane of many a riverside, Himalayan Balsam, is dripping with nectar for pollinators. Great, but it's a bit rubbish for other plants which would like to live along the river banks.

Carol Klein commented on James Wong's tweet along those lines. Having spent a couple of summers when I was at university 'balsam bashing' at a local nature reserve, I have to admit to having itchy hands, ready to pull it up, whenever I see it.


(By the way, I love that two of the presenters on the very programme also use the hashtag #ShoutyHalfHour! However, when they have bits in an episode, it usually becomes #QuietlyAbsorbedAndInterestedHalfHour in our household but that hashtag is too long for Twitter).

Anyway, back to the topic. Turns out, according to VP, that Himalayan Balsam is edible..

Of course, many things are edible. That doesn't mean you'd actually want to eat them. Our allotment was over-run with ground elder when we took it over. To be honest, parts of it pretty much remained so. I read that it was edible. We tried it. To bowdlerise the great Mick 'Crocodile' Dundee: "You can live on it, but it tastes like $h1t". Still, not as bad as strawberry spinach, which is an actual crop. Anyway, you can now appreciate my starting point when it comes to the trend that is foraging. Just no.

But then, a challenge...

And so, with apologies to Thomas Arne, I present A-foraging we will go. Not my best, but it's Sunday evening and I haven't had any wine...

A-foraging we will go,
A-foraging we will go,
Himalayan Balsam’s quite dandy, if it’s covered in candy;
And then we’ll let it grow.

A-foraging we will go,
A-foraging we will go,
Ground elder’s quite nice if you drown it in spice;
And then we’ll let it grow.

A-foraging we will go,
A-foraging we will go,
Nettles have zing, if you don’t mind the sting;
And then we’ll let them grow.
A-foraging we will go,
Oh actually, wait, just no
Don’t call me an arse, but they all taste like grass
Let’s just let them grow.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

An Ode to Monty Don's Box Blight

Anyone who watched Gardeners' World last night would have seen that quite a lot of it was about box blight. I tweeted:

HappyMouffetard @HappyMouffetard 23 hours ago
Monty, if you cut down those tall hedges and got some breeze through, you might get fewer fungal problems?

As you'll note, I didn't @Monty into the conversation. I don't follow him, either. And he certainly doesn't follow me, although he did briefly and mistakenly follow my alter ego a couple of years ago. It would seem, however, that he checks out the #shoutyhalfhour hashtag, as I had a reply:

Monty Don @TheMontyDon 22 hours ago
Very true. Have reduce much but happy to trade some blight for more height.

And so, having read a Dr Seuss book to Thomas at bedtime this evening, I have turned the programme's general coverage, my response, and Monty's reply into a small poem.

With apologies to Dr Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham..

That boxy blight, that boxy blight
I do not like that boxy blight.

Do you like it in your hedge?
Do you like it on your ledge?

I do not like it in my hedge
I would not like it on my ledge.

You may like it on living walls
You make like it on your box balls.

I do not like it on living walls
I do not like it on my balls.
Not in my hedge
Not on my ledge
I do not like it with all my might
I do not like that boxy blight.

If you don’t like boxy blight
Why not try to let in light?
Let in some wind and blow away
Those fungal spores that like to play.

I do not want to cut it down
That would make me grump and frown
I do not want to lose tall hedges
Even though I’ve blighty edges.

Try some fungicides, you'll see
That they might kill it properly!

I do not want no chemicals
Dusted on my boxy balls
A brown dead mess won’t make me panic
Unlike the thought of not being organic.

Perhaps that boxy blight’s OK
I’ll keep it for another day
No chemicals, no cut down hedge

I’ll keep my blighty balls, I pledge
I’ll give no plant its final chops,

 I do so love my blighty box.

Friday, July 24, 2015

RHS Tatton Park: Year of Light Gardens

The Year of Light gardens celebrate the UN designating 2015 as The International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies. Three gardens celebrate this concept. All of the Year of Light gardens achieved gold medals. The planting was beautiful in each - Achillea and Salvia ('Caradonna'?) were to be found in many of the gardens.
'Quantum of Light' was designed to represent a visual interpretation of a particle collision event in the CERN Large Hadron Collider. It appeared to achieve this very well - as an occasional reader of New Scientist, I've seen a few of these visualisations, and the link was clear. The box balls, ball structures, Agapanthus and Echinops all echoed the pattern.


Quantum of Light (gold)

'Reflecting Photonics' - another exciting garden. According to the blurb, it reflects the world-leading research into light-transmitting optical fibre by the University of Southampton. It was the devil's own job to take photographs of this one - it seemed forever haunted by Monty Don and various cameramen (see camerman's foot in second photo down).. The vibrant colours surrounding the 'fibres' below worked very well. I was less taken by the pale Hydrangea next to the structure, but that is probably my own personal prejudice against hydrangeas. I would imagine the use of white and then to bright colours illustrates the splitting of light into its component colours, so it obviously makes sense conceptually.

The structure in the garden was striking. It reminds me of the d├ęcor in 1970s Butlins at Barry Island. I think it must have been the light fittings. That sounds like I don't like it, but I do. I have very fond memories of Barry Island and its Perspex, coloured, light fittings.

'Reflecting Photonics' (Gold and Peoples' Choice best large garden)

And finally, I have saved my favourite until last. The planting in this garden was just perfect. The garden is 'Light Catcher'. This design explores the drama and ambience created by natural daylight, with the central structure funnelling sunlight down to a central reflective bowl of water. It radiated peacefulness, and the planting was so harmonious -a mix of bright and paler planting, and so tactile. A garden to dream in. Beautiful.

 'Light Catcher' (Gold and best Year of Light garden)

A carnival of flowers

I've  not been to RHS Chelsea or Hampton Court - maybe one day. However, I do enjoy the RHS show at Tatton Park. There will be more blog posts on the gardens later, but in the mean time, I thought I'd give you an  overview of the colours and fun at the show.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Midsummer Madness

June 21st.

Prince William's birthday, International Yoga Day, Go Skateboarding Day (why not combine yoga and skateboarding and celebrate two days for the price of one?), the day before National Onion ring Day. Oh, and my birthday. And what better way to celebrate all of these than at the Chester Midsummer Watch Parade?

The parade started in 1498, but stopped in the 1670s. It was banned in 1599 by Henry Hardware, a Mayor of Chester who had all of the props broken up because the Midsummer Watch was an ungodly gathering that encouraged people to have a good time and behave badly. It returned the following year, due to popular demand and a new mayor. There's lots more history in the link above, including about the revival, which was started in 1989 by Dave Roberts.

To be honest, I think that Henry Hardware's views were pretty spot on, if the characters in the revived parade are anything to go by - it's a full on extravaganza for the senses, with angels, green men, drummers, pirates, crows, dragons, pike, devils, and the traditional giants, as well as a few of the city's great and good.

So, here are a few photos. If it reminds you a little of Summerisle, then that's no bad thing. Though we don't burn a virgin here.


The photos don't do the spectacle justice. Look through the photos whilst you listen to the drums on the video below.

The longest day is a signal of the move towards winter to many, myself included. So it's good to take some time to celebrate this day. If this whets your pagan appetite, welcome the changing of winter towards spring with the Winterwatch Parade in early December.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

BBC Gardeners' World Live - Beautiful Borders

One of the innovations at BBC Gardeners' World Live is the small border competition. It has been running for a number of years. Anyone can submit an entry, and the size of the borders means that it is a relatively cheap way of exhibiting at a national show. Also, the borders seem very popular with the visitors - their size means that the average gardener can envisage something similar in their own garden.

This year's theme was the 'Industrial Heritage of the West Midlands'.

Steel - Gold and best Beautiful Border (Kareena Gardiner)

The rusted steel and relatively muted colours of the cornflower and the bronze fennel looked sophisticated. The designer managed to fit in a small rill to denote the Birmingham to Wolverhampton canal. One side of the rill was planted with brighter foliage - I was surprised that I loved the small violas on this cooler side of the planting. They sat well with the silvery foliage.

A Glass Act - Luke and Cheryl Sibley (silver)

This seemed a vibrant take on a formal garden, with the glass mulch suggesting the water that would form the centrepiece of a formal water garden. Interesting use of glass, but I wasn't so keen on the colour mix - either between the glass and the plants or amongst the flowers themselves.

Back to Nature - Birmingham Metropolitan College (Silver)

A very strong link to the industrial background of the brief. Compared to the initial drawing, however, the planting was much sparser than I expected. A good example of how nature starts to reclaim even the bleakest industrial landscape.

The Teacup Garden - Georgina Chahed, Touch Landscapes (silver)

Lush planting in this garden, but it didn't grasp me as some other did. A mix of temperate and more tropical planting to link Wedgewood's Midlands potteries to tea-growing regions.

The Cut - Priory Park Level 2 Royal Horticultural Students (bronze)

Ah yes, Birmingham is oft described as the Venice of the North. Presumably by those who have never been to Venice, or possibly to Birmingham. Nevertheless, the team here endeavoured to show how the canal system is gradually being reclaimed by nature. The bees certainly seemed to be enjoying the Welsh poppies. Nice enough, but certainly been done many times before.

Foundry Garden - Amy Harper (silver gilt)

I took against this garden slightly, and I've been trying to think why. The design, planting and thought behind the border were all very good (as evidenced by the silver gilt). However, I didn't like the actual plants used. Plant snobbery, maybe? Perhaps, but whilst I loved some of the combinations, I was less keen on the yellowy Heuchera and marigold combination above. Luckily the judges work rather more objectively than me, and so it did well.

The Potteries - Nicola Oakey Garden Designs (gold)

 This was one border which wasn't afraid of getting some real height to it. The woven willows were beautiful and, listening to the designer, a real labour of love to complete. The planting was of delicate blues and whites, clearly reflecting the link to Wedgewood's china.
Forge Ahead - Lisa Niemy (gold)


Another beautifully planted border. Some great planting combinations, and the planting clearly linked to the narrative. The orange glass with black Ophiopogon grass was visually arresting, although not something most people would want in their own gardens. The Kniphofia/Euphorbia combination was one example of beautiful harmony within the planting scheme

The Black and the Green - Berkshire College of Agriculture (Silver)

The planting looked lovely against the rusted metal work in this garden. However,  my aversion to marigolds struck again, in the area where plants were supposed to be colonising an area of coal. This section looked a bit of a mish-mash of planting. The magenta Osteospermum against the darks straps of the Phormium and the rusted rails made up for this, though.

I must admit to a reason behind my great interest in this competition.I had every intention of submitting a design. I envisaged a border based on the heritage of Ditherington Flax Mill in Shrewsbury. It would have had rope features, and flax flowing through the garden. One side would have been planted to hint at the dereliction of the site, and the opposite side was to have been more structured, to hint at the redevelopment currently being undertaken there. BUT..... I didn't finish it. I got hung up on trying to draw a perfect perspective drawing, and ran out of time to submit. Having looked at the perspective drawings submitted, I could kick myself. A lesson learnt. To be honest, I couldn't have matched the work of the designers who did submit and got to make their designs come to life.

Maybe next year...