Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Saturday, 31 January 2009

YAWA - Your Event Guide for February

Here's the latest monthly event guide as compiled by the You Ask, We Answer team :D

Snowdrops are bravely showing their heads to reassure us that Spring really is on its way. Many gardens noted for snowdrops have events in full swing this month. The coldest start to winter for over 30 years should give us a magnificent display this year, to more than satisfy all Galanthophiles * Details of National Trust properties with snowdrop events can be found here. Other properties worth visit are Brandy Mount House (complete with snowdrop national collection), Hodsock Priory and Welford Park. An extensive list of gardens famed for their snowdrops with links can be found here.

Like last year, I'm conducting my weekly snowdrop count. It currently stands at 898 - this time last year it stood at exactly 700.

* = the name given to snowdrop lovers, particularly collectors. I can't recall any other group having a special name like galanthophiles do - can anyone enlighten me?

Dates of note:
Bramley Apple Week - 1st-8th February - the bicentenary of the nation's favourite cooking apple kicks off this month. Click here for more information.
World Wetlands Day - 2nd February - a day to celebrate one of our most important habitats, which I wrote about here. Once again, The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust has plenty of activities in celebration both on the 2nd and all weekends during February.

St Valentine's Day - 14th February - Don't forget your beloved!

RHS Plant & Design Show - 17 & 18th February - A return to London's Horticultural Halls with a mix of nursery exhibits with plants for sale plus indoor show gardens and balcony displays. Claire at The Ecospot is exhibiting her Electric Urban Orchard design.

Fairtrade Fortnight begins - 23rd February - I wrote about Chippenham and Fair Trade as my contribution for 2008

Shrove Tuesday - 24th February - Shrove Tuesday takes place 41 days before Easter and we'll all be feasting on pancakes in preparation for Lent. Another popular Shrove Tuesday tradition in many towns is pancake racing: the oldest purports to date back to 1445 in Olney, Buckinghamshire. Lichfield also has a Shrovetide Fair and Pancake Toss, dating back over 400 years. An ancient, rather mad football game takes place in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. The players can number a thousand or more, the goal posts are miles apart and the game can go on for days. The link tells you a lot more...

Wakefield Festival of Food, Drink and Rhubarb - 27 and 28th February - Wakefield's part of the mysterious rhubarb triangle and is the perfect venue to celebrate this delicious vegetable that's eaten as a dessert. I wrote a lengthier piece about it last year.

Let me know if you've got another February event to add to the Guide.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Defining Public Planting

Click to enlarge if needed: the public planting at the centre of Radstock, Somerset on a grey January day two weeks ago

At the start of the year I declared I'll be writing a series about public planting. Of course my taste might not be yours, so my good and bad may end up with us having a debate (I do hope so), but before we get to that part, I need to state some terms of reference.

I've found there's all sorts of opinions on what actually constitutes public planting. In its widest sense it can be anything designed for us to view, or land that's accessible to us all. If these were my terms, we'd need to consider any properties with gardens open to the public, allotments, parks, common land - practically everything that's not built on, farmed or designated as a National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I just want to focus on the everyday and (usually) mundane: the areas we pass by on the way to work, the landscaping of our suburban estates, what we see when we go to the supermarket or the planters on our streets. I want to consider those plantings we don't usually visit for recreation or pleasure (or pay to see), but they still form part of the fabric of our lives. Most of these have been designed in some way, but they usually have very little in aftercare - unless there's a strong Britain in Bloom or community element involved - those merit a series of posts on their own.

Having said all that, I'm struggling with whether to include roadside verges or not. Roundabouts are definitely in, especially as some councils permit sponsorship of them these days and they often form the first impressions for our towns. So if I'm including those, why not verges too? I'm still undecided at this point, so value your opinion. In the meantime, there's plenty to say about the rest! More details from that Radstock planting and also Chippenham's roundabouts are in the pipeline already. In the meantime, you might like to have a look at the posts I wrote before I realised public planting was becoming an interest and rant of mine:
  • Pruning rage! - what happened last November to the winter interest planting on the estate where I live
  • An End to Chippenham's Conkers? - Leaf miner moth is in town and is tearing through some of Chippenham's most stately trees
  • Happiness Is - my day trip to Weymouth last August, including an example of a typical bright seaside bedding scheme
  • Are You Doing Your Bit? - a post about National Volunteer Week last June which includes a view of the simple but effective planting outside Heelis, the National Trust's HQ in Swindon
  • Chelsea Roundup - a post about the Chelsea Flower show with another view of the planting outside Heelis
  • Blooming Marvellous? - an example of a large street planter in Chippenham in May last year with a bit of a debate in the comments
  • ABC Wednesday - G is For... the green walls of the Eco houses built in Chippenham last year
  • Bunches of Daffodils - the lovely mass planting of daffodils on part of our estate last St. David's Day
  • Tree Rescue - the trees I Guerrilla Gardened last February
  • Snowdrop Census - Week 6 - a picture of some of my Guerrilla Gardened snowdrops
  • Guerrilla Gardening - a brief introduction to my Guerrilla Gardening activities which also links to Richard Reynolds' guerrilla gardening website
I'm not planning Public Planting as a regular slot, but will post as and when I have enough material on a fresh topic. Your views are welcome too - as comments here, or as examples to share either via me or your own posts.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Veg Plotting - 2009 Style

Click on image to enlarge if needed

This year's plot's a little nearer reality now I've sucked on the end of my pencil and produced my planting plan - the sole record keeping I have for my allotment apart from the task and buying information I record for both plot and garden in my RHS diaries. You can see last year's plan here, which also explains a bit more about my allotment's design. It's got a basic grouping of 4 sub-plots, which makes planning crop rotation a breeze as long as I keep the previous year's plan updated with what actually went where. Permanent features and planting are in glorious technicolour, the rest's in pencil until the actual planting takes place as the initial and actual plans are rarely the same. I'm hoping to start actual plotting next month if the soil's not too wet - with the shallots I've saved from last year's mega crop, plus the garlic currently in pots on my patio. Other jobs earmarked for next month include digging up some raspberry runners promised for G and R and all the strawberry runners promised to S and L, the latter have overrun the patch allocated to the Vivaldi potatoes!

When I did my Allotment News post last week some of you asked for more information about allotments. Rest assured I'd already planned to do something as a You Ask We Answer post, though I also need to research Victory Gardens first as I think they're the closest equivalent in the USA. In the meantime, you might like to read one of my very early posts on the strange world of naming plot measurements and the multitude of meanings of the word lug.

This is my third and final post on this month's Gardening Gone Wild record keeping and labelling design theme. The others are Tagging My Garden and Garden Tagging the National Trust Way.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

ABC Wednesday 4 - B is for...

...Book Review

Just before Christmas I had the good fortune to win this book courtesy of the lovely Zoe and her fundraising advent blog. She's raised over £441 pounds so far for Macmillan Cancer Support - how about helping to make it a round £450 or even £500 by visiting her fundraising page? If you're not aware of Zoe's story, you might like to have a look at her Journey blog first.

When I found out I'd won, I promised to review the book as soon as I'd read it - here goes.

Val Bourne is a well known garden writer and organic gardener who writes regularly in a number of our newspapers and gardening magazines. This is the first book I've read by her and it won't be the last. Although Clive Nichols is credited with Special Photography on the front cover, most of the sumptuous photographs are Val's, mainly taken in her own garden. They're so vibrant and colourful, thus making a fantastic advertisement for organic gardening before I'd even started to read the text.

Val's road to natural gardening as she calls it was shaped by her early career at the National Vegetable Research Station (NVRS) where she worked on disease transfer by aphids. She quickly noticed the best way to get her next population of aphids was to spray the greenhouse with systemic insecticide. From there she became hooked on growing cottage garden flowers and gradually began to notice her flourishing garden full of wildlife naturally kept the nasties at bay. This she calls her 'living jigsaw' - a way of gardening which encourages wildlife throughout the year by ensuring as plants fade away once their season is over, others are poised to take over and provide nourishment.

Whilst Val doesn't profess to be a scientist, she is observant, has an eye for detail and can explain complex matters in layman's terms. These gifts she brings to bear on gently persuading us that natural gardening is the way forward. Her own Cotswold plot is relatively modest in size and has been created on a shoestring, thus her style of gardening is within the reach of most of us.

Like many gardening books it's divided into the seasons and is like taking a garden tour to see what's looking at its best throughout the year. Even in winter there's lots to see and rich fragrances to sniff. Each sub chapter within the seasons ends with a look at a gardening friend or beastie, mainly from the insect world. There's plenty of information on how to keep the friends (even one of the slug family!) and the natural ways to fend off the foes.

This isn't a campaigning book, but is all the more powerful for not being strident. What better way is there to argue a case than by leading by example and showcasing the results from your own healthy, sumptuous garden?

Do visit the ABC Mr Linky website to find lots of other bonza posts on the theme of B.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Desert Island Plants - The Experts Set Sail

This is a follow up post to last week's fun and very successful Desert Island meme posed by Shirl plus my response. If you haven't visited her desert island already, do pop over and follow Mr Linky to see what we all came up with.

Whilst I was researching links for yesterday's post, my search for Graham Stuart Thomas revealed he'd chosen his desert island plants for a series of articles Mary Keen wrote for The Telegraph in 2002. It seems he had just as much trouble as we did in deciding and he had the luxury of choosing eight! His selection naturally errs towards the herbaceous border and is particularly rich in winter interest: Alchemilla mollis, Crocus tommasinianus, Hedychium coccineum 'Tara', Hemerocallis 'Marion Vaughan', Jasmine nudiflorum, Mahonia x media 'Underway', Rhododendron x 'Nobleanum Venustum' and Rosa 'Souvenir de St Annes'.

Do follow the link to the original article as Mary Keen is a lively writer. She also managed to buttonhole Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto, so you can follow the links to see their selections and what they had to say about how difficult the choice was. Note there isn't a duplicate selection amongst three of our greatest gardeners. I can also reveal February's edition of Gardeners' World magazine also follows a similar theme - 10 of their regular experts list their top 10 to give us 100 Best Garden Plants. I'm particularly intrigued by James' selection - it's completely different to his desert island pick from last year - only one plant is in both lists, Persicaria polymorpha and not a Sanguisorba* in either of them! There's also an extensive tour of his garden in the magazine - well worth a look at even if you're already a regular visitor over at Blackpitts.

* = James got rather animated about them at last year's Gardeners' World Live.

I've also been planning a fun meme for a while which I hope you'd like to join - check back here on February 2nd when all will be revealed ;)

Monday, 26 January 2009

Garden Tagging The National Trust Way

Gardening Gone Wild's (GGW) design theme is all about plant labelling and records this month and last time I wrote about my own tagging and record keeping. This post's about my experiences from volunteering at the National Trust's (NT) HQ in Swindon. The guy I do the voluntary work for is the NT's plant curator, meaning he's responsible for ensuring there's a good methodology in place for labelling and record keeping its hundreds of thousands of plants in the 200-odd gardens in its care, and also for looking after the Trust's plant database.

Until now, the recommended way has been to label major trees and shrubs with small, unobtrusive aluminium tags like the ones shown above. I've found quite a few of these whilst trawling through the Trust's gardening archive boxes - each tag I find represents a dead plant. I've also found long 'labels lists' i.e. lists of plants a Head Gardener (HG) sends to HQ, so that interpretive labels can be ordered centrally and issued for 'planting' in the garden - used particularly for the herbaceous elements where tags would fall off when the plant dies down.

For some of the major gardens, the plant details and tag IDs have been entered onto the Trust's database as well as the records kept at the garden. I've also found the results of various plant surveys plotted onto large maps (large table sized in some instances) and scale drawings of the garden, each painstakingly replotted or redrawn after each survey or garden revamp. I've also had the pleasure of finding planting plans drawn by Graham Stuart Thomas and copies of Vita Sackville-West's garden notebooks from Sissinghurst whilst trawling through the (mainly mundane) archives. These are just a fraction of the plans, task and planting records kept at the individual gardens.

All this is rather cumbersome to maintain and only a handful of gardens have been well documented on the database until now - about 5% of the Trust's total garden treasures. Thus there isn't really an overall idea of the tremendous resource looked after on the nation's behalf, a resource that's not only historically important, but is potentially significant genetically too.

Last year Yorkshire Bank made a huge donation spread over a three-year period. If you become involved in the NT's Outdoor Programme of events like Greener Gardens or the Plant Hunters project, then you're also seeing how some of this money is being spent. Behind the scenes I've been involved in planning the Plant Hunters project, a survey and documentation of 80 of the Trust's key gardens - including the Trust's 20 working kitchen gardens. Each garden now has its own digital camera and the identity and location of each plant will be recorded using GPS technology. These records (GPS and selected digital images) will then be used to update a new plant database available both at NT HQ and at each garden. Thus every plant will have its own 'virtual' tag and photographic record plus new garden plans will be plotted and published. At the same time plants which merit conservation because of their historic, genetic or other significant importance will be identified for propagation by the Trust's specialist unit at Knightshayes Court in Devon.

That's a major step forward for the Trust, but it doesn't really help the garden visitor who can't identify a particular plant. Sylvia remarked at GGW on how well the Abbey House Gardens near here in Malmesbury are labelled. That might be so, but they'd been moved around so much when I visited 2 years ago, most of them were with the wrong plants. Luckily I was with 2 expert botanist friends who could help me identify those I didn't know. Oxford University Botanic Garden is the best for labelling I've found so far, but a well labelled garden whilst useful to visitors, can look rather unsightly and isn't usually wanted by many of the Trust's Head Gardeners either.

One solution is to have interpretation boards by the beds. Those seen at the RHS Inner Temple Show last September (see above) were particularly welcomed by attendees, who were heard to exclaim over a particular cultivar whilst rushing to the board to find out their new 'must have' plant for their garden. I've seen similar examples at various NT Gardens, plus photographs on display at central points (such as the shop), showing which blooms are at their best at that moment. A number of gardens also have leaflets available (some free, others to buy) showing various combinations of planting plans, photographs or details of significant collections. A cheerful member of staff or volunteer can usually be found to help with particular plant IDs if they're needed.

So whilst the Trust has much larger gardens to look after than most of us, you can see they also tussle with the best way to keep records and labelling up to date. They do have the added dimension of aesthetics versus visitor information. The GPS solution is particularly innovative, but probably not the way forward for most of us. It'll be interesting to see how this project progresses over the next couple of years and whether subsequent record keeping is easier.

Have you seen anything on your own garden visits (National Trust or any other garden) which you thought was a particularly good idea?

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Erm, I Think I Might Have a Book Problem...

We always kick start the new year with a thorough tidying up, especially our respective studies. Mine's still a work in progress because things have got even more out of hand than usual. This pile of books was rescued from various corners and is awaiting a new home somewhere. That's not counting the enormous pile by the side of my bed either. Nor the box of 6 which arrived from Amazon on Monday (thank you Premium Bonds).

We bought Billy last year to cope with a similar sized problem, but he's full now. NAH's adamant I can't have a giant new bookcase on the landing even though there's loads of room for one. All the other bookcases are full to collapsing point. I feel like part of me goes out the door when I get rid of a book, even if I'm donating it to charity, so I've only managed a measly 7 for that particular pile. Even so, they're threatening to play hide and seek back into the house whilst I'm not looking.

Hmm, what am I to do?

My name is VP and I'm a bookaholic...

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Problems You Don't Get at the Office

NAH is finding competition for the mouse can be quite tough when he works at home and the cats' keyboard skills leave a lot to be desired too. We held our second board meeting yesterday - with a cake baking in the breadmaker at the same time after the last meeting's woeful sparseness in that department - and Skimble insisted on joining in with us. He just would not stop climbing onto the table, purring and nudging the various files and papers. The only way we could stop him was for NAH to have him sitting on his lap*. We went flat screen quite a while ago, so we have at least managed to cure the cat draped over the monitor problem before all this mayhem started.

* = NAH's written up the meeting's minutes showing Skimble as an attendee, so I guess that makes him our company's sleeping partner ;)

If you work at home, what unforeseen problems have you encountered which differ from office life?

Friday, 23 January 2009

Desert Island Plant Fare

It's January, gloomy and raining, so what could be nicer than to be wafted away to a desert island where there's warmth, blue skies, good company and a host of lovely plants to grow chosen by my garden blogging buddies? Shirl set us that challenge for yesterday, but my leaky, battered raft of a blog has taken a little while to reset its course and has landed on the soft, white sand a day late. I hope I'm not too late for the welcoming party. Rum punch anyone?

James set us a similar challenge last year and it's one worth revisiting with Shirl, only this time we have just three plants allowed as stowaways instead of six. My head really hurt back then when choosing my companions and you'd think that by having a shortlist already, I'd be in a better position to whittle it down to three. That just ain't so, the plants I didn't include the last time around are still sulking in my garden and of course the select six are still preening themselves most winsomely. So I'm sorry Shirl, my original list of snowdrops, mystery Clematis (thankfully no longer a mystery courtesy of Mr Evison), Echinacea, Lavender, Heuchera 'Licorice' and golden fastigate Yew are mutinous looking swabs at the moment and staying firmly aboard.

However, it's always been my intention to produce an allotment version of my desert island and whilst Shirl has been most reassuring there won't be a food problem at our new home, I'm a bit worried it might be the usual desert island fare of coconuts, mangoes and fish. Now, I love all three and they do combine well, but I suspect they might pall after a while, so I've taken the liberty to bring a few choice nibbles with me as dietary supplements.

You may think I've made my job a little easier by choosing food, after all their palette is a little more limited than garden plants, but those of you who do grow vegetables and have been consulting your seed catalogues recently know only to well, the choice of vegetables and varieties can be equally bewildering. Besides, I've tried to pick three plants which give us the possibility of a two course meal like Ready Steady Cook.

First up is Garlic. The cloves I potted up last November have just begun to poke their shoots through the soil this week, so are a firm favourite currently. And what could be better than scrummy garlic bread to accompany our meal? The leaves could be used as a more subtly flavoured wrapping for our fish - yum. It has superb medicinal properties and will ensure we're kept in tip top health during our sojourn. My choice is Cristo - a softneck variety that produces large fat cloves of superb flavour and stores particularly well.

I've decided we need a touch of luxury, so my second choice is asparagus. I haven't grown this yet and like the Yew in my first desert island choices, represents my future allotment. I have some Gijnlim seedlings growing in my coldframe at the moment ready for planting out later this year, so I'll just put them in that well drained little patch over there if that's OK with you? We can feast on the fresh spears, make a delicious soup and even bottle (aka can) any surplus to eke out our produce.

My final choice has been the hardest to make - the fruit for our pudding. I'm a great fan of heritage apples, so had a massive dalliance with them for quite some time. Choosing one from the 2,000+ varieties available proved too much. I also considered strawberries long and hard - it's the one glut I never tire of and I was speculating our desert island might yield a few cacao trees for us to make unlimited supplies of chocolate to dip them into. Then the chocolate melted away because of the heat and I gave up the idea. I finally decided on my prize winning Autumn Bliss raspberries. They crop for a much longer period than strawberries (July to November in my experience) and are delicious red jewels to eat fresh from their canes even if there's no cream, yoghurt or chocolate available. Another food with storage possibilities for any excess, assuming we can stop indulging ourselves of course.

Hmm, I can see there might be an eensy weensy little problem with my choices owing to their new climate. Garlic needs a cold period to thrive and promote clove formation, whilst raspberries prefer a cool season hence their productivity in Scotland and Scandinavia. Hardly desert island fare - perhaps we'd better stick with the coconuts, mangoes and fish after all.

Do head over to Shirl's Gardenwatch to have a look at everyone else's choices. She's set up Mr Linky (as well as the image used above - thanks Shirl) to make your tour an easy (boat)ride.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Tagging My Garden

Gardening Gone Wild's design topic for this month asks how we label our gardens and keep our records. As my garden is small and not open to the public, I don't have any labels in my garden at all. I used to occasionally put out the labels which came with my purchases in my previous gardens, particularly for plants which die down or were in the seasonal pots, but found the plastic soon became brittle and broke up, not to mention how awful they looked in the first place. Gone was the plant's ID and the useful information found on the label. Record keeping was nil. A different solution was needed.

When I started my current garden in 2000, it was the first time I was a plant planner rather than a plant plonker. I'd been reading every gardening magazine and scrap of information I could find on plants for a year before we decided on the garden's design, so I was pretty sure of which ones I'd include. However, the garden was my largest so far and had so many levels and beds, so I wanted to make sure I had something of interest everywhere. I decided to draw a freehand sketch of each bed to show where I'd put my chosen plants. Several attempts were needed as I kept changing my mind on where each plant was to go. I also had hundreds of plant labels as I was planting up from scratch, so it seemed sensible to buy a scrapbook to house my sketches and put the appropriate plant labels alongside. Subsequent pages were used to add labels for new additions to my garden and more notes about how they were doing or further snippets about their care.

All was well for a couple of years and then work went crazy, so I wasn't too good at keeping my records up to date after that. Also two years in is a dangerous time for a garden - you don't like some of the planting because it doesn't go together that well, or you got the spacings wrong and they're all squashed together, or too far apart. And of course you've had the inevitable casualties along the way or need to divide plants so they remain healthy. So I made my changes to my garden - with my plant plonking tendencies reasserting themselves. I found I simply didn't have the time to update everything, especially as some of the drawings were severely out of date, so my solution was this:

Yes, the inevitable basket of labels. I didn't throw them away because they have useful information. You'd think I'd have thrown away the ones for the dead plants wouldn't you? Erm, no. This basket was a godsend for my Open Garden blog though. I'd decided to put some illustrated plant lists for each bed on there and had totally forgotten a lot of the cultivars. The basket held the answer for about 95% of them. Some plants were mislabelled by the supplier, but that's another story.

A large basket of labels isn't a good solution, so what's to be done? I believe the way forward is to use photographs. I've been having a play with Picasa and using the text facility to label my plants - as shown above. Any photo text facility could be adopted - for instance I've seen Flickr's tagging used well by other bloggers. This has several advantages: both general and close-up views of plant combinations can be documented; if a photograph has too many plants to label clearly with text, then a numbering system can be adopted; the garden can be photographed over time, so that succession planting changes can be seen e.g. where spring bulbs come and go. I've found these particularly difficult to show well on my garden plans. Photographs can be updated more easily than plans when plants are moved around or added etc. - it just takes the discipline to do so.

What about the plant care information though? I'm toying with the possibility of setting up another blog for my garden photographs. This will enable me to post a cultivar list alongside each photograph (especially needed if a numbering system is adopted) with links to the best information available on the internet for each plant. As for my day to day records of what gets done in my garden, they go into my lovely RHS diary - next year's is always a treasured Christmas gift.

I have the photographs - taken every month last year for Garden Bloggers Blooms Day, plus all the hundreds of photographs I didn't use for my Open Garden - it's now just a matter of putting the plan into effect. Ummmm.

That's it for my garden - in my next post on this subject (due next week) I'll tell you about the approach to garden labelling and records used by the National Trust.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

ABC Wednesday 4 - A is for...

... Allotment News Roundup

The picture may have been taken on a gloomy day, but for once I have some positive allotment news to report. As you can see, Bradford on Avon (about 10 miles away) is set to have some sparkly new ones. Fifty new plots will be available for a three-year let on farmland and are already over subscribed. Trowbridge - Wiltshire's county town - is also seeking to extend one of their current sites and Corsham, another town near here is also keeping an eye open for suitable land. There are 70 names on the waiting list and the town council is anticipating room for new plots will be made available as soon as a site is found for a new cemetery. I haven't been able to find a link for you to verify this story, so you'll have to rely on my memory of an article I read in Wiltshire Life at the dentist's recently. I'm rather intrigued - are the town council looking for dual usage perhaps, or just a site with room to house both alongside each other?

Remember my TARDIS for auction story? I'm pleased to report that the delighted winning bidders have chosen to use it as a shed on their Devizes allotment. I was hoping it would be used in this way and I hope to bring you a photograph of it in its new home very soon.

And finally (adopts Trevor McDonald like voice), I managed to provide this week's comedy moment up at the allotment on Sunday. After Saturday night's driving rain and gales, things were a tad slippery up there, so of course I decided to park my car on the slope by my plot. Getting out of the car was fine, but my progress instantly deteriorated as my feet met the slope and slid merrily downhill. I managed to stop myself from falling flat on my face just in time, but in doing so my trainer took off in an elegant arc and landed on the allotment quite a few yards away. Thick, oozing mud between the toes feels terribly therapeutic, even in January - luckily I had no socks on. And naturally there was a witness to what went on to tell everyone else later. He did manage a nice cross between sympathy and laughing his head off though ;)

Do hop on over to the ABC Wednesday Mr Linky to find a lot more stories beginning with the letter A...

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

RHS Online Forum - Update

What an interesting morning that was! And I'm glad to see Arabella, Gary and NewShoot joined me for the debate. It would have been good to have had a few more there, but the low attendance is to be expected on a working weekday. It would be interesting to hear how it compared with other Q&A sessions held previously.

The low turnout didn't mean there was a small number of questions though. Lively debates were had on membership, the broadening of The Garden's content, value for money, Gift Aid, RHS Shows and a 5th RHS garden amongst others. 21 threads were started and I suspect it might have been more had the method of kicking them off and getting back to the start of the forum had been a little more user-friendly.

I managed to ask all the questions you asked me to (if I wasn't beaten to them already) and the forum is being kept on indefinitely for future debate and reading for those of you who are interested. Overall, a good start - though note that not everything was answered satisfactorily - and I hope to see more of this kind of thing in the future.

Bummer - I forgot to ask a question about whether we can take part in any RHS seed trials this year. Must head on back and ask that one, but first a certain Presidential inauguration and history in the making takes priority...

Sharing the Spoils - VPGGB #8

After our seed choosing session, Threadspider and I decided it would be great to do the same with our potato order. They arrived last week and we met up at my house to divide the spoils. We'd both chosen one of our favourite croppers from last year, plus we gave a little nod to nostalgia by each choosing a variety our fathers liked to grow. I chose Harlequin and Pentland Javelin, Threadspider went for Vivaldi (the potato lower in carbohydrate) and Ulster Chieftain. It also meant we shared postage costs between us, our size of order qualified for a free bag of Dunluce and we can grow more varieties than usual without having to resort to buying massive quantities, nor using up half our plots to grow them. Result!

We've decided not to order any maincrop or late potatoes - blight's been so bad up at the site the past couple of years and we're not going for any of the Sarpo varieties (blight resistant) to compensate. Having harvested a massive bag of spuds is one thing, but actually we've found the flavour and cooking qualities aren't that great - however, our findings seem to be different to what others say who've tried them. I'm also skeptical of the slug resistance claims - no-one seems to have told the slugs up at my plot they're not supposed to like them - though this article has some interesting observations on why I might differ on both the taste and slug resistance fronts (I might have left them in too long). Earlies aren't meant to be that good for keeping, but we've found Harlequin and Vivaldi are much better than most. Neither of our crops from last year has done much in the way of softening and sprouting yet - pretty good seeing we're close to the end of January.

It's been rather nice to do something positive in the gardening line after what feels like weeks of inactivity and dreaming. The potatoes are now laid out on the windowsill in the dining room to start chitting and I even managed to get up to the plot on Sunday for a while. The chilly wind certainly helped to blow the cobwebs away!

Have a look here for more information on the types of potato (early, maincrop etc.) and the chitting technique. The database I've linked to in the first paragraph gives you a lot more information on the varieties we've chosen and can be used to search for details of any other ones you may be interested in growing this year.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Stop Press - RHS Online Forum

I've just been checking out the RHS website ready for tomorrow's online Question and Answer session and it looks like you can set up questions ahead of tomorrow morning's 9.30-12.30 live discussion. There's a couple on there already and it means there's an opportunity to take part even if things like work prevent you from doing so tomorrow.

As I mentioned in my post last week, you need to be registered on the My Garden section of the RHS website in order to take part. Once you've done this, go to the Forum section and click on the RHS Directors Online Forum discussion thread. If you've already registered or just want read-only access, then this link will take you there. You'll see I've tested it out already by taking the Write a New Post option and asking how long the discussion will be available for viewing afterwards.

Thanks to those of you who commented last week - I've added your questions to my extensive list ready for tomorrow.

Calling All Food Lovers!

Emma Cooper (Fluffius Muppetus) has started an exciting food growing bloggers e-book project. Here's an extract from her introductory post:

...Contributions could be on anything relevant – green gardening, composting, detailed cultivation notes on a particular plant, a report of a visit to a kitchen garden that’s open to the public, notes on how to deal with a pest or a disease, or just a collection of handy hints. It doesn’t have to be high brow, tales of gardening disasters could work too. We’ll also need photos or illustrations, and if you’re a gardening cook then perhaps you could share a recipe. Maybe you once wrote a blog post that you think deserves a more lasting audience. Each contribution would be attributed to the author, you can plug your blog/ website/ other projects/ favourite charity along the way...

This came hot on the heels of my Undecided post and seemed just the ticket to do something with my writing, so I signed up straight away. There's still plenty of room for you to join in too - food blogger or not judging from the above ideas - the more the merrier!

There's other ways you can participate, even if you don't want to write an article. For example, Emma's currently running a poll for you to help decide on the book's overall theme. The options are:
  • Open gardens, similar to my Open Garden blog last year
  • Allotment show classes
  • A kitchen garden
  • Other - let Emma know what you have in mind

So whether you're a budding author or you'd just like to help shape the book's future, either email Emma to join us or head on over to Emma's and have your say.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

No Fuchsia In It?

It's not long into the new year and I'm ready to have a rant courtesy of the above advertisement I received recently. It's for the world's first striped Fuchsia and as much as I usually love them, I do hate the habit some nurseries seem to have in bringing us pretty well every variation and colour for a plant under the sun, irrespective of their quality and whether we actually want them. Judging by the pictures actually used, to call this Fuchsia striped is quite debatable and adds nothing as far as I'm concerned. In fact I think it looks worse - if I saw that in someone's garden I'd be worrying the plant had a virus.

I'm not even told whether this is a hardy or tender plant, just the massive price saving I can expect by taking them up on the offer. I hate the assumption I'm completely price driven when considering plants for my garden. It's called Bland's New Striped - hardly the best of names to choose, except maybe the marketing people had an outbreak of honesty at the last minute?

Update: Ha! I've just done some further research and found out this half hardy Fuchsia is thought to have been introduced in 1872. Perhaps Bland was the name of the nursery or breeder at the time. It's hardly a new variety then, which is carefully left out of the marketing blurb though the low price on offer should have been a clue. Has anyone actually grown this cultivar? Did it turn out better than shown here? I reckon it must have done somewhere for it to have been kept in cultivation for well over a century.

It reminds me of the saturated advertising of Fuchsia 'Lady Boothby' lately. Billed as The World's First Climbing Fuchsia! and implying it's a new plant - except I've had it growing in my garden for a number of years already (see my sidebar slideshow too). Further research showed 'Lady Boothby' hails from 1939 - hardly new then. It looks like nurseries are searching their ancient back catalogues for anything a bit more unusual to tempt us into buying. I suppose it offsets all those costs incurred in breeding their new cultivars, most of which seem to last for just a few seasons before being replaced by the 'next best thing'. Sigh. Am I the only one finding it hard to keep up with all of this? There's a massive range of plants out there already, if you can find somewhere that has a decent choice of course.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

How Advertising Works In Chippenham 3

  1. Spend several years locked in a controversial planning tussle to build on some land on the edge of Chippenham
  2. The company finally starts building and advertises the fact on major routes close by
  3. Amend these advertisements with your feelings on the subject
  4. Wait for a blogger with a camera to notice what's happening
  5. Et voila!
This is the third in an occasional series on the more unusual advertising seen around Chippenham. The last one was here and in turn links to the first one. If you like these you may also like to see what I said about Bath and Devizes. If this builds up into a more substantial body of work, I'll set up a label for them.

I have a couple more in the pipeline... ;)

Friday, 16 January 2009

VPGGB #7 - Living Salad

I laughed at the idea at full price - I thought to myself - I can do that at home from seed much more cheaply and so promptly did nothing about it. But at 20p reduced from £1.29...

A quick trip to the supermarket after choir on Monday evening to buy some biscuits ready for the accountant coming to see us the next day, found me waylaid by the bargain vegetable trolley. And so I came home with the pictured tray of Red Chard, Baby Pak Choi, Tatsoi and Golden Streaks. Oh and some dark chocolate HobNobs too.

Having a Sell By date's a bit laughable in this instance, but OK by me. What do you think? It means a kick start to this year's successional sowing - I'm already ahead on last year's efforts :)

Thursday, 15 January 2009

GBBD - January Brings the Snow...

Click to enlarge image if needed. Clockwise from top left: Clematis cirrhosa 'Freckles', Pulmonaria, Primrose 'Cottage Cream', Galanthus nivalis

It was touch and go whether Blooms Day would be held here at VP Gardens this month owing to the week upon week of frosts with a little snow and the many freezing cold days we've had since the beginning of December. It's officially the coldest start to winter for 30 years, but of course we still have a while to see whether that title will be upheld.

As a consequence all the plants in bud last month have stayed steadfastly so, except for Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty'. However, my winter honeysuckle's flowers are so small, they confused my camera and stayed resolutely unfocused in the viewfinder. The same happened with my rosemary (another new bloom this month) and my Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' (in bloom for a whole 8 months so far!). The winter jasmine has retreated to the back fence in a huff and a spiky Berberis (due for removal, so feeling particularly spiteful) stopped me from having a closer look. Another consequence is a number of last month's blooms have shut up shop for the winter. However, I was cheered to see the Cyclamen are putting out new buds after only a couple of days of mild weather.

Not really enough flowers for a slideshow this time, so November/December will continue winking away in my sidebar until I get bored and put something else on there. I've made a collage for you instead this month. You'll see the primroses survived the big freeze - they've been blooming since July now, which is just plain crazy. The Pulmonaria is new this month and serves as a reminder that I must replace it with its blue flowered, spotted leaved cousin as the large plain leaves of my pink one are soooooo boring. Clematis cirrhosa 'Freckles' is still cheerfully adorning next door's garage wall. But my favourite prize of all are the first snowdrops - I first spotted a clump of them in bud on Christmas Eve, the earliest I've ever seen them. Now 3 clumps - 2 of single and one of double, are just peeping bravely above the ground and can be judged as being in flower. These and the first daffodil spikes (about 3 weeks later than usual) give real hope that winter is being conquered and dear Spring is finally on its way.

Tuesday saw my first casualty of the big freeze. As the ice melted it revealed the birdbath has sprung a leak. At least I have the opportunity to give it a really good clean before getting out the grout to repair it. A bumblebee flew past just as I was making my inspection of the damage - a cheering bit of compensation and at least I had some suitable blooms to offer it sustenance. It must have been a cleaning day at its hive after weeks of being kept indoors.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

ABC Wednesday - Z is for...

The United States Department for Agriculture (USDA) plant hardiness zone map, 1990

... Zones - a You Ask, We Answer Guide

If you blog about gardening here in Britain, it's not too long before you encounter your American and Canadian cousins who all talk about which zone they garden in as if it was as natural as breathing. Strike up a conversation with any of these gardeners and it's not long before you're asked what zone is your garden? Luckily when I was first asked this last year, I had just been looking at the above map in The Essential Design Workbook by Rosemary Alexander.

The USDA map is based on winter low temperature records and divides the continent into 11 hardiness zones - zone 1 is the coldest and zone 11 the warmest (plants surviving lows of -45.6 degrees centigrade or below, and lows of just 4.5 degrees centigrade respectively).

Whilst knowing their garden's zone is a useful tool for your American and Canadian friends to understand what they can grow in their gardens, there can be differences based on altitude, soil type, rainfall, day length, rural or city location etc etc. For example, Austin (Texas) and Portland (Oregon) are both nominally in Zone 8, but their local climates are very different. This also holds true when trying to place a British garden into these zones. Based on latitude alone, we should be gardening in relatively chilly zones 2 to 4 like they do in Canada. However, our maritime climate and proximity to the warming Gulf Stream puts us in the warmer zones 7 to 9.

The limitations of the USDA classification are recognised and consequently a couple of other maps were developed. The American Horticultural Society (AHS) uses highest summer temperatures for their Plant-Heat-Zone map and for western US gardeners there's the 24 zone Sunset map, named after the magazine in which it was first published. This factors in the length of growing season, humidity and rainfall patterns in addition to the winter lows and the summer highs used by the USDA and AHS. I believe this information is used for plant labelling and by plant suppliers - perhaps one of my American or Canadian readers can confirm this? I haven't been able to find AHS or Sunset equivalent maps for outside North America, but this link shows the USDA equivalents for Europe, if you're interested.

I've put my garden into zone 8a (temperatures down to -12 degrees centigrade) and whilst I'm happy with my conclusion, I'm still a bit cautious in quoting it too extensively. My garden rarely goes below -10 degrees centigrade (even this year!), but my south-western England winters do tend to be wet and I also garden on clay, a relatively cold soil. In my experience this combination is lethal for both tender plants and cold tolerant alpines, neither of which like a wet winter. Therefore I grow these kinds of plants much closer to the house - at the top of the slope (drier) and by my garden or house walls (warmer). Thus I'm using my garden's microclimates to ensure I can grow a wider variety of plants without having to give them much in the way of special treatment. That said, the recent weeks of very cold weather will surely test the antarctica portion of my tree fern's latin name!

Of course we don't have the USDA, AHS or Sunset information on our plant labels or at the garden centre. Here in Britain we're more used to the terms tender or half-hardy (protect from frost), hardy and fully hardy (tough as old boots) when choosing which plants to buy and I suspect many of us make some allowances when buying. For example, I shouldn't be able to overwinter half-hardy plants in my garden, but I know that by planting half-hardy fuchsias in the walled beds or keeping them by the house, most of them will survive. I also know this doesn't apply to my front garden as it's north facing. The RHS has devised a more detailed hardiness categorisation for the UK, which can be found here and you'll see it quoted in the RHS Plant Finder and on some plant labels.

I'm off now to have a look at my tree fern to see if I was a bit optimistic in not wrapping it up for the winter. Fingers crossed my dahlia duvet has worked too...

Do check out the ABC Wednesday blog for more entries on the theme of Z. I hope this piece hasn't been too much of a Zzzzzzzzzz for you!

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Parsnip Potage

When I told you all about parsnips last week little did I realise that I'd need a follow up post quite so soon. We decided the large parsnip on the right of last week's photo was too much, even for parsnip lovers like us, so I put it back in the damp newspaper I'd used to take it up to Yorkshire, so it wouldn't dry out. Back home I prefer to store them in the allotment, though I couldn't get at them last week because the ground was frozen solid! Others who dig them up and store them in damp sand would have been feeling most superior.

So it was just as well I had my newspaper wrapped parsnip when I came to make some soup. On unwrapping it, I was surprised to find the top of the parsnip had started to sprout as shown in the picture, betraying its close cousinship with celery. As a result I'm wondering if parsnip tops can be forced* like other vegetables such as beetroot. I'm tempted to have a go with the ones left up at the allotment. These tops are edible (so are carrot tops - has anyone tried them?), so I added them to my soup.

I didn't use either of the two recipes I linked to last week. Both are rather heavy on the cream and NAH and I are trying to eat more healthily at the moment. If you are too, you might like to try my version made up on the spot which uses no fat in its cooking. Don't worry, it's still delicious.

  • 1 large parsnip - peeled, roughly chopped and including any vegetable tops. NB the more woody core of the parsnip can also be used, unless it really is as tough as old boots (this can of course be used to make stock for your next batch of soup instead)
  • 1 large onion - peeled and roughly sliced
  • 1.2 litres vegetable stock, or 1 vegetable stock cube made up to this amount, depending on what you have available
  • Ground cumin seeds or similar spices such as ground coriander, nutmeg, garam masala or a mixture of any of these - to your taste. I used 2 heaped teaspoons of freshly ground cumin
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Salt to taste - I don't use any in my cooking, so this is omitted for NAH and me
  1. Add the onion and stock to a large pan and heat through gently
  2. In the meantime prepare the parsnip and add to the pan
  3. Grind in some black pepper and add the spices you are using - taste and adjust seasoning if necessary
  4. Bring to the boil, then cover and turn down to a simmer immediately
  5. Simmer for 15 minutes and turn off the heat
  6. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary
  7. Process the soup with a hand blender until the mixture is smooth and relatively thick
  8. Serve immediately - if you want, you can garnish with croutons, chopped parsnip or celery leaves, or even a swirl of cream if you're not counting the calories
Serves 4.
Variations: I had a couple of leftover squashy tomatoes and half a pepper to add last week - they added to the parsnip's sweetness very well and gave the soup an attractive colour, though they're not strictly seasonal of course. Salad leftovers work well as would carrot or celery if you have some spare at the time. Use warming spice(s) like the cumin I used as they go so well with the warming nature of the parsnip itself. Remember to taste the soup for seasoning and spicing as you go.

* = strictly speaking I wouldn't be forcing them as I won't be digging the plants up like I did with my beetroot last year. The correct word when plants are left in situ is blanching, though the technique (the covering up part anyway) and the end result are the same.

Monday, 12 January 2009

The RHS - Time To Be Direct

A little while back a number of us had a bit of a rant about the RHS and I also examined whether I was getting value for money from my membership. It seems that the powers that be must have been listening and have arranged an online question and answer session for next Tuesday (January 20th) from 9.30am until 12.30pm.

You don't have to be a member of the RHS to take an active part, but you do need to register on the My Garden section of their website. If you don't, you'll have a read-only access. If you've already registered, it might be an idea to try and login beforehand, because if like me you're an infrequent user, it may take a while or you may need to go through the password reset process like I did.

The lineup for the Q&A session is impressive:
  • Inga Grimsey - Director General
  • Jill Cherry - Director of Gardens & Estates
  • Dr Simon Thornton-Wood - Director of Science & Learning
  • Sarah Buxton - Director of Finance
  • Gordon Seabright - Commercial Director
  • Dan Wolfe - Director of Marketing, Membership & External Communications
You might like to have a look at the RHS' summary of how they fulfil their charitable remit beforehand too, especially if you're not that familiar with their work. This session is promised to be part of an ongoing programme to involve everyone interested in gardening (not just its members) more fully in RHS activities. So seeing we've had quite a bit to say about them in the blogosphere, I'm welcoming the opportunity to have a word with them more directly.

Anyone care to join me? :)

Sunday, 11 January 2009

At Sandbanks

Click on image to enlarge if needed. Clockwise from top left: 1. Ferry shed window 2. Poole Harbour on ice 3. Ferry with bus 4. Jetty 5. Ferry shed detail 6. Shore Road, Poole 7. All aboard 8. Street furniture 9. Our ferry arrives

NAH and I made one of our regular trips to Poole yesterday to see his aunt - always an enjoyable experience. We arrived at midday and immediately entered her timewarp where lunch takes at least 3 hours, very continental and relaxing. When asked what she'd like to do for the rest of the afternoon, she requested a trip to Sandbanks, on the edge of Poole and always an interesting place to visit, for me in winter particularly as I think that's the best time to be at the seaside.

Our trip took us past Evening Hill, scene of many a windsurfing weekend and holiday for us, though with no windsurfers to view yesterday as we'd arrived at low tide. Poole is always an interesting place to windsurf as it has a double high tide owing to the proximity of the Isle of Wight. Evening Hill is a great spot - good onshore winds and forgiving waters when you fall in as much of the vast sailing area is very shallow. The top middle photo shows this area and the little strip of land top right is part of Brownsea Island where Baden Powell held the first ever scout camp. Today the island is in the care of the National Trust and is home to a population of rare red squirrels. The low tide was the furthest out we'd ever seen - I'm wondering if tonight's full moon and its orbit's close proximity to Earth have something to do with it.

We parked at Shore Road, one of Poole's beaches on the seaward side. This is part of Sandbanks, an narrow strip of land with some of the most expensive property in the world - only Hong Kong is more expensive per square mile. This area always feels like it's not strictly part of England, the pine trees and vegetation look more Mediterranean than English and the Italian ice cream colours of the various architect designed properties add to this feel. There's a strange juxtaposition here - millionaire's row sits very firmly alongside an area popular with families for the traditional bucket and spade holiday. I wonder who gets more enjoyment? The families certainly won yesterday - no millionaire could be seen on their balcony, but plenty of families were togged out in coats, hats and woolly scarves happily building sandcastles on the beach, although lots of running and giggling seemed to be needed to keep warm.

Having photographed the Shore Road side at sunset, I hurriedly walked through the grounds of Sandbanks Hotel to get onto the Poole Harbour side of the peninsula to make use of the dying light. I was surprised to find the sea on the high tide line on the beach was frozen solid, something that's not happened there for well over a decade (it was even more dramatic earlier on in the week - do have a look here). Jumping up and down on the ice was added to the activities seen at Shore Road. On getting back to the car, we realised that the traffic back into Poole was horrendous, so decided to go to the end of Sandbanks and have a look at the ferry. This is another juxtaposition - there's narrow strip of water here usually populated with gin palace-like yachts and all kinds of sailing craft which contrast with the dumpy looking chain ferry plying between Sandbanks and Shell Bay.

The ferry had just left with a bus on board - such is the saving in distance to get to Swanage, a trip on it is part of the local service. We patiently waited for the ferry to come back so we could board, taking our place behind an ambulance. Here another juxtaposition awaits - the ferry leaves an essentially urban spot and lands on a national nature reserve in the care of the National Trust. It's like entering another country and is one of my most favourite places in the world. The stretch of water between urban and natural is small and I suspect a bridge has never been built between the two as the ferry acts as a crude control on the number of people and cars accessing the area. There was just about enough light to be able to see the unusual heathland vegetation, though too late for any birds.

We were now on the Isle of Purbeck, not an island, but a narrow stretch of land bounded by the sea on one side and the vastness of Poole Harbour on the other - the harbour is the second largest in the world, beaten only by Sydney. Most of the land is low lying, but in the middle rises a hill of strategic importance topped by Corfe Castle which can be seen for miles. Travelling through here at dusk, just added to the mysteriousness of the place and the silhouetted castle looked its most foreboding in spite of being a ruin.

We were too late to take in a stop at Wareham and its turfed town walls as by now it was almost dark. So we wound our way back to Poole for a well earned, highly fattening tea (NAH's aunt always looks after us very well in that department), before heading back home after a lovely day.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Hyacinths - The Easy Peasy Way

There was quite a bit of a conversation over at Emma's recently on the difficulty of Christmas hyacinth cultivation. I'd just taken the above photo and was feeling a bit smug, so I left the following Comment:

The solution for hyacinths is:
  1. Your niece (11) and nephew (7) buy you some for Christmas and get them delivered to you a couple of days beforehand
  2. You put them on the coolest windowsill in the house, because the accompanying leaflet tells you to put them somewhere cool and where there's not too much light so they won't flop over - our dining room's ideal as it's north facing and the central heating doesn't seem to work in there
  3. You also give the moss area around the bulbs about 2 teaspoons of water because the leaflet says to give them just a tiny amount
  4. You shut the door and forget about them. In the meantime Christmas and New Year happen
  5. You go past said dining room yesterday (5th January) and are bowled over by the scent of hyacinths COMING THROUGH THE DOOR
  6. Rescue them from the dining room and put them on the kitchen table to admire
  7. Take a picture to blog about them
  8. Have tea at which point NAH says he can taste the hyacinths in his salad because the scent's so strong
  9. Come online for a bit of light blog reading and laugh at everyone's comments here about how difficult hyacinths are
  10. Feel guilty 'cos what you've just said sounds like you're a smarmy smartypants :)
Thanks so much L & E!

Friday, 9 January 2009

VPGGB # 6 - Compost

I don't usually expect much in the way of gardening bargains in the January sales, but Homebase this year have come up trumps - 60 litres of peat free compost substantially reduced as you can see from the picture. January would normally be one of the worst times to buy compost too - the bags on sale have usually been left outside for months and consequently have had a lot of their nutrients leached out and aren't a good buy. However, the bag I bought a few days ago had been kept inside in the stock area, was for sale inside the shop and was therefore OK. Just as well as I still have a few tulip bulbs left to pot up as I ran out of compost just before Christmas.

At other times of the year, you may pick up similar bargains. Stores often have a cheap deal going on 3 bags of compost and I use the empty bags as a weed suppressing cover on my allotment. I have 10 compost bins on the go, so you'd think I'd never have to buy any wouldn't you? But I seem to have a garden and allotment that obeys the law - the more compost you have, the more uses you can find for it, so the occasional top up is needed. Also keep an eye open for broken packets, not just of compost. I found an enormous bag of purple slate chippings for £1 a couple of years ago which I've been using as a decorative mulch for my pots ever since.

The pictured bag turned out to be even more of a bargain - the recent VAT reduction was taken off when I took it to the till, so the final bill came to £3.40 :)

Thursday, 8 January 2009

My Garden's Mission Statement

Part of our back garden on Monday morning - click to enlarge if needed

Anna (Flowergardengirl) wrote an amusing and excellent post a few days ago about the name she's given to her garden. This was inspired by an article by Helen Yoest over at Gardening with Confidence who's challenged us all to come up with a name and/or mission statement for our own gardens.

At first I dismissed the idea and told her so. I've spent many a long meeting at work where we've discussed mission statements ad nauseum. They're meant to encapsulate an organisation's ethos in a succinct and memorable way, so it's a serious business and needs to be just right. In my experience World War III has practically broken out over whether and where the word and belongs in the sentence. It can get really picky and heated. As a result I feel they belong firmly in my former life and not my present one, certainly not in something as personal and non-corporate as my garden. However, I found I couldn't stop thinking about my response to the Why do I Garden? challenge last month alongside Helen's ideas, so I went and had another peep at her article.

To summarise, Helen argues that having spent so long developing and nurturing our gardens, it's a natural step to name and devise a mission statement to encapsulate that journey. It's meant to be liberating and by writing one, there's an instant shorthand available when describing the garden to others. Whether the name or the mission statement comes first doesn't matter. Helen then describes in some detail the merits of her garden (Helen's Haven) and summarises it all as:

Helen’s Haven is a sustainable, wildlife habitat, created to attract and feed birds, bees, butterflies and for the enjoyment of friends, family, and visitors to educate, enjoy, and to understand we are the earth’s caretakers, so let’s take care.

There's an interesting discussion in the comments. Most have risen to Helen's challenge and have come up with their own mission statement or name. As statements go, I think they're great - much better than the corporate ones I've been involved with. But I do feel uncomfortable with the implication that somehow I haven't thought deeply enough about what my garden is or means to me if I don't have a name or mission statement. I may be wrong in thinking that, and it also feels too formal for me: I'm reminded of The Garden Monkey's strapline - Smile it's only gardening. For me a garden is fun and it evolves: it grows and sometimes dies; the environment surrounding it changes; I learn new things and apply them - there's a whole creative process in there which I don't think can be bound adequately by words. As for describing it to others without a name or mission statement, I haven't had any difficulty in that direction yet. And should I be imposing my beliefs on them anyway - can't a garden have many meanings depending on our differing beliefs and experiences, just as we all respond in different ways to things like art and music?

So I'm going to decline Helen's challenge and let my garden just be - speaking for itself, continuing on its journey with me and delighting myself and others in so many different ways. Perhaps I might think differently if I was a professional gardener or opened my garden to the public on a regular basis. However, I've enjoyed the thought process along the way to making that decision: my gardening world shifted on its axis for a little while. Now it's back on an even keel again and I feel a sense of relief and contentment.

Footnote - that was originally the end of my piece which I wrote a couple of days ago. However whilst showering this morning, the following just popped into my head:

My garden: ever changing, always learning.

That's the closest to a mission statement you'll get from me. And guess what - I've already had an argument with myself whether there should be full stops instead of a colon and comma ;)

What do you think - will you take Helen's challenge and give your garden a name and/or mission statement, or will you let your garden just be?

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

ABC Wednesday - Y is For...

... YAWA - Your Guide to January's Top Events

Last year when ABC Wednesday was back at S, I promised You Ask, We Answer would provide a guide to UK gardening events for 2009. At the time I thought I'd just highlight the quirky like the sprout festival Anna had found, but on doing some research, I thought it would be good to include all manner of things which you might be interested in hearing about or even attending. I found the list got ever larger, so I've divided it into a monthly guide.

Although it's winter and our gardening activities are severely curtailed, there's still plenty of events to highlight this month:

Gardeners' Question Time - 9th January onwards. Not really an event, but a new time to note. The new broadcast day changes from Sunday to Friday afternoon at 3pm, with a full repeat (not shortened like today's will be) on Sundays at 2pm. It looks like the content's undergoing a revamp, as we're promised a weekly rant from one of the panellists!

Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival - it was customary for this farming community near Peterborough to dress one of their number in straw and parade him round the town the Tuesday after Plough Monday (which is the first Monday after Twelfth Night). The festival was revived in 1980 and is 9-11th January this year. The website has some interesting pictures of the event dating back to 1900.

Wassailing - traditionally takes place on 17th January, the old Twelfth Night *. Wassailing is an ancient ritual (probably with pagan roots) performed to ensure apple trees fruit well in the autumn. It differs from place to place, but it usually involves pouring cider onto the tree's roots, banging anything to hand to make a noise and shots fired through the branches to ward off evil spirits. Warm cider is drunk and toast soaked in cider is placed in the branches for the robin and Wassail songs are sung. 'Wassail' is from the Anglo-Saxon 'waes haeil', to be in good health. Details of wassailing events across the country can be found here - note that some of them happen before January 17th.

RHS Question Time Online - 20th January. A chance for you to ask your burning questions about the RHS and where it's headed. You don't have to be a member to take part, but you do have to register. I'm posting separately about this event at the weekend.

Potato Days - started over a decade ago by Garden Organic who were worried our heritage potato varieties might die out, potato days have become a popular January event. The weekend of the 24/25 January is the 'official' date for this year, but many events can be found on other dates and locations too. I'm delighted a local event will be held in Malmesbury on January 31st, which Threadspider and I hope to attend, so consequently I'm also hoping to post separately about our adventures. Note that Garden Organic's day on the 24th January is for members only and the public day is on the 25th.

RSPB Garden Birdwatch - 24-25th January. A must-do event in my view and in the comfort of your own home. Grab a cuppa and spend an hour watching and recording which of our feathered friends visit your garden. Here's the results of my survey last year. The RSPB website has full details and you can send in your results online.

* = I think (but I haven't found confirmation) this is referring to the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendar in 1752, when an adjustment of 11 days was made in September, Thus our current Twelfth Night (6th January) + 11 days = 17th January. The other big change was January 1st replaced March 25th as New Year's Day, but the former date is still preserved in our calendar as a starting day as 6th April is the start of our tax year (25th March + 11 days = April 5th, adjusted by an extra day from 1800 to give the current start to our fiscal year).

I hope you get to enjoy an event for January. Do let me know if I've left anything out, or of any you think are worthy of including in future YAWA listings. Otherwise Waes haeil everyone and see you next month!

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

A Guide to Parsnips - You Ask, We Answer

It never ceases to surprise me how some of the simple things I take for granted are complete unknowns to other people. But the comments from December's comedy vegetable post soon showed me parsnips are not the universal seasonal food I thought they were - apparently they're only familiar now to northern European gardeners. So for Prairie Rose, who asked and Mr McGregor's Daughter, who didn't like the look of them, here's You Ask, We Answer's definitive guide.

You'll see I've pictured Pastinaca sativa this time in both their misshapen and desired forms, together with their close relative, the carrot. Both are umbellifers, setting their seed in their second year, though they're usually harvested during the first so they can be eaten at their sweetest and most tender. Parsnips in particular can go rather woody at their core if they're left too long before harvesting.

I've welcomed the chance to investigate their history: in cultivation here for over 2,000 years and prized by the Romans, they were one of our staple foods prior to the introduction of the potato, which then took over as the root crop of choice to fill us up. They were also used to sweeten food: winter frosts sweeten them and make them all the more delicious, but the rise of the sugar cane trade saw their demise in this role. So now we're left with them used mainly as an accompanying vegetable, in season from November through to February.

Parsnips have one of the longest growing seasons, usually being sown in February/March depending on how cold the soil is at this time. They prefer an open soil with a good tilth, so the roots can go long and deep. The soil should be neutral or slightly alkaline for best results. Clay, stony and well manured soils are all likely to result in parsnips with forked roots. I grow a shorter variety on ground at least two years after manuring in my crop rotation cycle, but as you can see I still get misshapen vegetables!

Germination is notoriously slow (and fresh seed every year is also recommended - I've found Mars and Avonresister to be good varieties), so many gardeners mix the seed with a quick growing crop such as radishes or lettuce. This serves as a row marker, ensuring the seed isn't disturbed by hoeing or confused with weeds and this crop will be harvested in time for thinning the parsnips to eight inches apart. I haven't had much success with this method, and germination has tended to be uneven, so I've resorted to 'chitting' (aka pre-germinating) my seed. I use a sprouter for this, spreading the seed out evenly on some damp kitchen towel. Once most of the seeds have started to sprout, I either carefully space them out into a prepared bed on my allotment, or if the weather's cold, I'll transfer them to some loo roll tubes filled with compost. I use these as parsnips hate being transplanted, so the tube allows plenty of room for the roots with minimum disturbance when I finally plant them out. I leave them in the tube, which then rots away as the plants mature.

You're probably thinking why go through all that faff when they take so long to grow and are so ugly? Well, they're one of mine and NAH's favourite vegetables, especially roasted. They're a fantastic comfort food. Nutritionally they're a good source of vitamin C, fibre, folate and potassium. For me, it's psychologically uplifting to have something to harvest on the allotment over the winter months. They're also relatively large - one good root will make a delicious curried parsnip soup, or a curried apple and parsnip soup to provide us with a couple of satisfying lunches. The latter recipe also tells you how to make parsnip crisps (aka chips - must add that to the planned YAWA dictionary!) - so much nicer than potato ones.

A detailed guide to cultivation can be found here, and loads of recipes by following this link. Finally - Joy you referred to Dr Who in the Comments on my last parsnip post. Might you be thinking of the OOD perhaps? My blogfriend Louise came up with that likeness with her parsnips last year. I can't get to her post directly, but it's the second one down if you take this link instead ;)

Update: I see from today's comments parsnips are known outside Europe, albeit not that widely.
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