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).

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.