Thursday, January 14, 2016

Book review: The gardens of the British working class

Another book review for the blog, and another book that I started ages ago and have only just finished. It's funny, now I'm having to read more for my EdD, my appetite for reading other material has increased, perhaps as an antidote to having to read about epistemology and hermeneutics.

Anyway, enough of that - on to the interesting stuff. I bought this book about 18 months ago, with my own fair money.

Margaret Willes is the author of The Gardens of the British Working Class, and she has previously worked as a publisher at the National Trust. She has had several garden-related books published, and I have another of hers on my pile.

This book is an attempt to fill the gap that so often arises when one looks back at any era of history - the story of the working class. The voice of the poor is difficult to find, but the author investigates the role of the garden or working class people from the 1500s onwards. She even manages to find evidence of a few of those most excluded from history - women. The book charts the move from rural setting, through industrialisation to suburbia, all the while discussing the importance of the garden, allotment or even window boxes. Throughout much of this time, a well-stocked garden was all that stood between many of the working class and starvation. It's only relatively recently that gardening for the pleasure of flowers has come to the fore, although Margaret does find evidence of flowers being cultivated whenever possible.

One good example of the desire to grow flowers was the rise of the 'florists' and their societies from the 1600s onwards. Here, middle class and working men (they all appear to have been men) competed for glory and prizes in the cultivation of flowers such as carnations, auriculas and tulips. Some bright perfection in what was often a hard life.

Some of the history of urban parks is also of great interest, with philanthropists providing land in places such as the East end of London to be developed as parks. Well, in part philanthropy but also to reduce the risk of rabbles and revolutions.

The book also discusses the rise of allotments and their political past (to be truthful, they still are...), Dig for Victory and the development of radio and TV gardening celebrities.

I could go on, but I'll never start the next book. I found this a fascinating read and am enthralled by the amount of research which must have gone into it. I can't wait to read the next book in the pile by Margaret Willes. However, first I'm reading SPQR by Mary Beard, so I may be gone some time.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Garden Anthology - a book review

The Garden Anthology - edited by Ursula Buchan (Frances Lincoln, Ltd., 2014).

I am an RHS member, and receive on a monthly basis their magazine - The Garden. This is generally an interesting read. Whilst I do get occasionally fed up of yet an other gushing review of a huge private garden, there are also articles on smaller gardens and, increasingly, social/gardening movements. This year, Tim Richardson wrote a great article on  the High Line in New York. Whilst I'm never likely to visit it, Tim's coverage of social and political factors lying behind the garden made for a more interesting read than the normal "Look at the lovely herbaceous perennials" discussion of it.

Tim Richardson is one of the authors chosen to feature in this book, a collection of articles from over 100 years of The Garden magazine. His short article discusses the landscaping at Ground Zero. Other authors include plant hunter George Forrest, garden designers Geoffrey Jellicoe and Gertrude Jekyll, and cook Nigel Slater. I was going to write 'a real mix', but perhaps very much indicating the typical readership. Middle class (and higher - Viscountess Byng of Vimy?), almost exclusively white, although men and women are both well represented. I suppose a pretty accurate reflection of the readership.

The articles themselves cover a range of topics - seasons, the kitchen garden, plants and people. The more fascinating chapters for me were those which showed a wider variety between the years. For this reason, I particularly enjoyed the pests and diseases and science and innovation sections. Here, dates of articles ranged most widely, from 1900 to 2013. It was fascinating to read a review of the horticultural value of Mendel's experiments in genetics, and to see how the use of chemicals has changed over time. I was glad to see that the author of a section on popular weedkillers acknowledged that arsenic might constitute a health hazard for the user. Chlorates, on the other hand, were fine.

As I mentioned above, it was the older articles (a smattering of early 1900s through to 1954) that were so interesting, shedding a light on past thoughts and gardening practicalities. Some things change, others not so much. Which leads me on to the one thing I found disappointing about the book. With the weight of history of The Garden magazine, it was a shame that the editor concentrated on very recent articles. I became a little obsessed by this, I admit. It turns out that 30% of the articles chosen for this anthology came from the single year 2010, with 73% of them being from 2009 - 2014 Whilst I was working this out, I also noticed the editor's name cropping up quite a lot in articles, and discovered that 9 (or 7%) of the articles she chose were written by her. The only other writer with anywhere near the same number of articles chosen was Hugh Johnson, mostly writing as Tradescant, who wrote for The Garden from 1975 to 2006. He contributed 6 articles (4.6%). I can only conclude that The Garden had a golden year in 2010, for so many articles to be chosen. Thinking back, I can't imagine that 2010 was so outstanding. Perhaps that was when a modern system of online indexing made article choice easier...

I must make mention of the beautiful illustrations by Jenny Bowers that are scattered throughout the book - they're a joy.

In summary - an interesting read, easy to dip into, but I can't help wishing for a few more historical articles.

Note: I was sent this book to review. I do so belatedly (it was published in late 2014). All views are my own, etc.

Wordless Wednesday - Arachnophilia

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015 and all that


2015 will not resound as a success in the blogging scheme of things. And only slightly more gardening has been done than blogging. One or two garden visits, but only to places I've been before and now with a small child who isn't interested in standing still while I photograph plant combinations.

The garden has been slightly neglected - the summer seemed so dull that I lost my mojo. It looked well enough though; it's starting to mature so most things in the back garden just get on. I will need to divide herbaceous perennials in the spring, though. This year's heleniums were rather poor. The front garden needs rethinking and retaming. It looks good for a while in early summer, as it grows in wild abandon. Then it looks untidy, and misses some flowering time before late summer flowers make their entrance and stretch through to autumn. I'm hoping some of the information I learnt from the MyGardenSchool course with Noel Kingsbury will help with that.

I did go to the Gardeners' World Live show in June and Tatton Park in July. Tatton was great, GWLive tired.

So what have I actually done in 2015? Well, it's been a year of sorting myself out, I suppose. I've lost 4.5 stone. I've started running again - furthest so far is 10 miles. I've enrolled on a part-time Doctorate in Education - it'll only be 5 or 6 years and around 100,000 words before I (hopefully) get to call myself 'Doctor'. Because of this, I've learned how to say "epistemological", though I do still need a bit of a run-up at it. I've also tried to be a good mum.  I've given up on the long-held vague idea of a career in horticulture. Far better to concentrate on enjoying it as a way of relaxing, though I'm also still learning to share the garden and not worry when footballs get kicked into prized perennials. I'm not sure I'll ever lose the pang I feel when this happens, but I'm gradually learning to ignore the pang and kick the ball with abandon myself.

As for 2016?  Hopefully blog a little more. Maybe photograph a little more. Get round to replanning the front garden. Run the Chester Half Marathon on 15th May. Take time to smell the lilac. Learn to chill. Try to be nicer. Be more patient. Enjoy the moment.

I wish you all a happy and healthy 2016 x

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Wordless Wednesday - Red

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Perennial planting: My Garden School weeks 3 and 4

And so, my course with MyGardenSchool draws to an end. I've very much enjoyed the learning journey along the way.

It has been rather difficult to keep up with the assignments, especially as I've just started a doctorate and had to read half a dozen research papers on research paradigms over the past two weeks, as well as complete assignment for the perennials course. This has meant that I haven't been able to devote quite as much time as I'd have liked to my assignment this final week.

Last week we looked at perennials for difficult places and this week at seasonal use of perennials. I found this particularly interesting, as it allowed  me to rethink my use of perennials for winter structure. Over the past couple of years, I'd cut back the dead perennial stems, for purely practical reasons. With a small child, it meant I could definitely get the garden work done before new growth started in spring. So, from a time management point of view, it was fine. From a garden interest point of view, it was less of a success. The front garden, in  particular was pretty devoid of interest until spring bulbs came out. This year, then, I will leave attractive stems, and just plan a couple of garden days in spring for the clear up.

As with my previous report, Noel has provided excellent feedback - correcting where I've made mistakes, but with positive suggestions and alternatives, as well as positive feedback. He has also commented in the online discussions between students, which were a very interesting part of the course.

So my verdict? A very useful and interesting course. As I mentioned in my first post on the course, you do have to consider the price (£145 for four weeks, though, as I said, I was offered it for free in return for an honest review). In that first post, I also suggested that it would probably equate to the cost of a day's course with an expert, as part of a group. There are advantages to either way, but this route is  more accessible to many, as it doesn't require you to travel, just make time at your desk, or on the sofa. Not everyone enjoys learning online, but having taken a number of MOOCS, I found the interface easy to use and the small numbers of participants meant very personal, useful feedback. Over the long term, it will, no doubt save me quite a lot of money through more effective buying and use of plants in the garden, and an understanding of how they grow. Only you will know if you think this is an appropriate price for you.

Thank you to MyGardenSchool and to Dr Noel Kingsbury for this learning experience.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The roles of herbaceous plants - My Garden School week 2

I've been a bit late submitting my second assignment. I couldn't log in for a couple of days, but the technical team soon got the problem sorted out and I got to work. Last week (week 2) involved looking at the various roles of herbaceous perennials in the border. They can be structural, act as a 'filler', have interesting foliage, or be grown for their flowers/flower heads.

This assignment was very useful for me  it has identified that I don't have enough structural plants in several borders. Whilst these borders are not just herbaceous and do have shrubs, the addition of some stronger structural perennials, repeated through the border would, I feel, help reduce the 'bittiness' feeling I get when looking at it.

As the garden wasn't good at providing examples of structural perennial plants, I raided some photos from previous garden visits. It was interesting to look at photos of borders and identify the roles of the various plants within them.

I also go comprehensive feedback on my first assignment by the course tutor, Dr Noel Kingsbury. As someone who works in education, I understand the importance of effective feedback in the learning cycle, and I learnt as much from his feedback as I did from completing the assignment.

This week, we're looking at perennials in their habitat and will be exploring how some plants are adapted for specific environments and how we can use this knowledge to plant effectively in 'problem' areas.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Sunday, September 06, 2015

My Garden School week 1: Act like a rabbit

It's the first week of the My Garden School course I introduced here. I thought I'd write a little about the structure of the course so far, and some of what I've learnt.

The home page of the classroom has a friendly message board where students and tutor (in this case, Noel Kingsbury) can interact. We've all been busy introducing ourselves and our gardens. Whilst most of the students are from the UK, with it being an online course, we could be from anywhere. One student is from Uruguay, so it will be interesting seeing her take on herbaceous borders.

The lesson is a video, supported by a clear handout which reinforces the video information, making it easy to refer back to. And, in true back-to-school style, there's also homework to complete. You have 7-10 days to do this, and upload it online for critiquing by tutor and other students. I've nearly completed my first assignment - I just need to find one more example of a spreading perennial to photograph and talk about and then I can submit.

So, what have I learnt so far? Well, Noel has encouraged us to get down on our hands and knees for a rabbit's eye view of our borders. We've been looking to see whether or how perennials spread, and if the do spread, are they guerrillas or through phalanx style. These facts can help you understand how they'll grow and spread in your garden  - are they going to take over, or be relatively well behaved? I've learnt about cespitose grasses - those beautiful dome-forming grasses that look so elegant. What use is this information to the gardener? It's already helping me understand how different plants compete or grow together happily, and why some plants get swamped in a border whilst others can hold their own, or even take over. It'll even give you an indication of how long the perennial will normally live.

Roll on week 2 - homework has never been so much fun!

(Not my garden: a photo of grasses and Achillea at RHS Harlow Carr).