Monday, February 21, 2011

What do I know?

For the past 12 months I’ve been studying for the RHS Level 2 certificate in horticulture (old style qualification, pre-QCF changes). I completed my second (and final) exam last week. For those who have not come across it, the RHS Level 2 cert is a theory-based qualification designed for the keen amateur, as well as people already working in horticulture. For those who don’t work on a daily basis with qualifications, Level 2 is at the same level as GCSEs.

The RHS have been training horticulturalists for over 100 years. The majority of the people attending the course that I attended were keen amateurs, wanting to learn more about how to get the best out of their gardens, with a scattering of apprentices.

So, the big question is - has this course improved my gardening skills? The answer is yes, probably.

I have learnt a lot of theory on fruit and veg production, pests and diseases, botany, ornamental plant growing, soils. The course in itself covers no practical work, although where they could the tutors levered in some practical work, such as soil testing, dissecting seeds and flowers, and looking at weeds and diseased materials. I have learnt the theory of how to sow small, medium and large seeds, but could in theory gain maximum marks in an exam question on seed sowing without ever having touched a seed in my life. The RHS have recently introduced a practical module at level 2 (the Level 3 qual has had a practical module for a number of years, I believe) – this is a “good thing” as far as I am concerned.

In practice, the knowledge has helped me to understand why different methods of propagation are done at different times of the year, and has made it less likely that I will drown my cuttings in future. I have a sharper eye for pests and diseases, and realise that cultural conditions will help me reduce the incidence of powdery mildew on the allotment. I’m no longer phased by the myriad of fertilisers on the shelf at the garden centre, but head straight for the N:P:K ratio on the back to see if it’s what I need. I know what I should be doing, even if I don’t always get around to doing it on time.

I also know that the RHS require an awful lot of information for just 2 marks in their exams – if I was to write exam questions for my degree students and require such a large amount of information for such a small amount of marks, the external examiner would require me to re-write the paper. Questions can also be ambiguous – difficult in an exam when you have approximately 90 seconds per mark (and by all accounts, the new Level 3 exams are much worse than this). If anyone wants to see what the old style exams involve, the RHS have past papers. Suffice to say that in 90 minutes, you do not have long to ponder, just write, write, write. I get my results for the exam I’ve just taken at the end of April.

I know, too, that the garden and allotment have been ignored a little over the past 12 months, as I have been learning instead of doing. So, I’m taking the next 6 months off from RHS studying, but may be tempted to start the new Level 3 qual in September. In the mean time, I’ll be sowing, propagating, weeding and feeding for real, not just in a book.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Book Review: For all the tea in China



This post is a copy of SomeBeans’ post  over on his blog. We both read this book recently, and it seemed a bit daft for me to review it as well when SomeBeans has done it so admirably. I’ve read a few books about plant hunters; this book looks at the political background of plant hunting in China, the effects of Empire, and the development of tea cultivation in India. I have to say that I can’t stand the drink tea, though I do try it every few years, just to check. However, this book had me wishing that I did like it, so I could learn to appreciate the nuances of flavour in the best teas.

Anyway, over to Somebeans...


“I’ve been on a bit of a reading spree: next up is “For all the tea in China” by Sarah Rose. This is the story of Robert Fortune and his trips to China in the mid-nineteenth century to obtain tea plants and the secret of tea manufacture for the East India Company to use in India.

Robert Fortune (1812-1880) was a botanist with a modest background. Starting his working life at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, he later became Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden. These were relatively poorly paid posts, however there were few such positions to support a professional botanist without their own means of support. He made several substantial visits to the Far East, funded by the Horticultural Society of London and the British East India Company. He died a wealthy man in large part through the wide range of plant introductions he had made, as well as through sales of artefacts he had acquired in the Far East. The list of introductions is well worth a skim through for the modern gardener.

[Note from HappyMouffetard: the list of plants that have made it into garden cultivation is amazing. Some are celebrated by the specific name of fortunei, for example Euonymus fortunei ].

The East India Company had been given a monopoly of trade to the Far East in 1600, through this monopoly they had built a lucrative trade in silk and tea from China, as well as effectively running India. The trades from China were matched with trades into China of opium from India, by the middle of the 19th century addiction to opium was a significant problem in China. The volume of trade it brought made the East India Company a very significant contributor to British government income (of order 10%). Although there are now many global corporations, the East India Company was one of the first and in many ways most powerful. The company was ultimately to lose its dominance following the Indian Mutiny in 1858, and was finally wound up in 1874. The mutiny was likely the cumulation of a long process since the monopoly that the East India Company enjoyed was not popular with free-marketeers who were starting to come to the fore.

At the time of Fortune's first trip to China in 1845 the English had long been drinking tea imported from China, in exchange for opium grown in India. The English drank both green and black teas, although unlike the Chinese they added milk and sugar (obtained from another British colonial outpost). The Chinese were keen to keep the secret of both the tea plant, and its manufacture into tea leaves for making tea. Whilst the British, in particular the East India Company were keen to get these secrets believing (correctly) that tea would grow well in Himalayan India and would make a good profit. Some tea was already being grown in the Assam district of India but is was derived from inferior Chinese plants. The tea plant is Camellia sinensis a close relative of the decorative camellias of which Fortune also introduced some species.

Before Fortune's first visit to China it had not even been established that black tea and green tea came from the same plant, but were processed differently. His trips required considerable subterfuge: Westerners had only recently been allowed into anywhere other than a limited number of ports in China, as a result of the first Opium War and Fortune's activities went considerably beyond what was allowed even under these revised regulations. One of Fortune's discoveries was that green tea had been coloured by the Chinese for the export market using Prussian Blue (which is toxic) and gypsum. Following a couple of false starts he was eventually able to transport a large number of highest quality tea plant seedlings to Darjeeling in India, as well as providing skilled tea makers and extensive notes on the tea making process.

The key to Fortune's success in shipping out tea plants from China were Wardian cases, these are essentially sealed glass environments containing soil and some water. Plants, or more importantly, troublesome seeds could be sealed into these containers and as long as they remained sealed, and given some light there would be a good chance of their biological cargo surviving a lengthy sea journey through a range of climates. Prior to this discovery long distance transplantations were tricky. Nowadays we see Kew Gardens as largely a place of leisure, but in the 19th century it was very much at the heart of the Empire in terms of facilitating the movement of plants around the world for commercial reasons. This type of activity was also an early interest of the Royal Society.

It's difficult not to draw parallels between the state sanctioned opium trade which the United Kingdom used to support, and its current attitude to drug smuggling. Nor between the industrial espionage of the East India Company in the 19th century, and the current issues with the Chinese approach to intellectual property.
I found the sections of the book reporting Fortune's travels a bit unfulfilling: they seemed to be a sequence of travel anecdotes involving the mischief caused by his Chinese servants - this style does affect other parts of the books. However, more generally the book made me curious to know more about the East India Company, the Opium Wars and so forth and I felt I'd learnt something about the introduction of tea to India.
I'm tempted by Fortune's book: Three years' wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China .”

Thank you, SomeBeans!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

GBBD – February 2011

There is a time, deep in Winter, when you wonder if longer days will ever arrive. But they do. And nature notices. Spring is here. The blackbirds are singing. My heart lifts.

IMG_7602 IMG_7583 IMG_7588 IMG_7596 IMG_7600 Thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting GBBD.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Wordless Wednesday - Bright


Sunday, February 06, 2011

Postcard from Austria