Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Friday, 26 February 2010

Winter Colour and OOTS News

If we have anything approaching a signature planting combination in our part of Chippenham it's gold and red stemmed Cornus alba edged with Cotoneaster horizontalis. This is a particularly fine example found outside Morrison's this afternoon in the kind of bright light you find just before the most rain lashing of storms.

At this time of the year it really brightens up the neighbourhood, particularly when some of the Cotoneaster has been cloud pruned. Later on it fades into the background somewhat, but it's worth it for those 3 months of cheerful bright stems during our gloomiest times.

I've decided to make a slight change to Out on the Streets this year. I won't be running it quarterly, but plan on asking for your contributions in April, August and December instead. I recall that many of you wanting to join in across the pond last time found March a bit early and as everything over here is much later this year, it seems sensible to go for an April edition instead. An August OOTS also gives us an opportunity to view plantings at their peak and for you to report back on holiday sightings. December will be sparkly and festive as usual.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

ABC of Weather: Film

Weather is often a feature in its own right at the cinema. A violent storm is the classic device used heighten drama: it adds tension to a horror film or drives the heroic couple to seek shelter in the mansion or castle of fear. It's the portent of impending doom in many films, not just the horror genre. Strangely whilst thinking about this topic, I haven't come up with any cinematic examples involving good weather. Can you?

Imagine a world of film without weather. Frankenstein's monster would have remained lifeless in the laboratory and Count Dracula wouldn't have found his fresh victim. Dorothy would never have been whisked off via a tornado to the land of Oz, nor would she have wistfully sung Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It also means Twister's apparatus - used to measure what happens in a tornado - would have been anonymous rather than bearing her name.

Neither the attendees at Monsoon Wedding nor Gene Kelly would have turned the misery of rain into a celebration. Then without Singing in in the Rain we'd have missed out on one of Morecambe and Wise's classic sketches. I would never have been reminded of the painting Les Parapluis whilst watching Hitchcock's The Secret Agent, nor would I have marvelled at what penguins do in the winter in order to survive. And it would never have been Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, my favourite film title of last year.

Cinema would be a much duller place as a result. What's your favourite film featuring the weather in some way?

And how's the weather with you today?

For more Fantastic F's, do visit the ABC Wednesday blog.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

That's Shallot

The soil's too cold and wet at the allotment to do anything, yet the shallots are demanding to put down their roots and settle in to this year's growth. So I've decided to start them off in seed trays this year. Here's some Pessandor I saved from last year's crop. It's a large and long shallot with a lovely sweet flavour that keeps well. I also saved some Pikant: a round shallot with a little more bite and slightly red in colour. Another good keeper, from which I've managed to save seed from every year since my first crop in 2004.

As usual I've over bought in everything. Despite saving my own shallots, I bought some more (a round, yellow type) at Malmesbury potato day. I also have masses of garlic started in pots because they hate the cold winter's clay up at the plot. In addition to my saved Albigensian Wight and Cristo, I have Music, Sweet Haven and Kransnodar Red which Patrick kindly gave me from his massive saved garlic stash at the Food Growing Bloggers get together last October. Then there's the elephant garlic...

I had a quick look at the potatoes I have chitting on the windowsill. How on earth have I managed to acquire so many potatoes? Ahhh yes, I'm trying lots of new varieties this year for a massive potato trial:
  • 3 kinds of Mayan potatoes - new in the catalogues, derived from Peruvian stock and said to cook more quickly than our usual potatoes. Judging by their willingness to sprout, they're not going to be good keepers, but their bright purple and red sprouts from chitting are very cheerful
  • Rudolph - a red potato, which I believe is also new this year
  • Blue Danube - a blue potato from the Sarvari institute's blight resistant breeding programme and available for the first time this year
  • Will - given to me by Ben at Real Seeds and meant to be blight resistant
  • Swift - I'm curious to see if they really are quick to produce and crop well in a container
  • Vales Sovereign - a free gift because Threadspider and I combined our regular Vivaldi and Pentland Javelin order via our allotment society's seed scheme
10 potato varieties - that's madness! Thank goodness Threadspider will be taking some of these off my hands. I think I'll just get everything at the potato day next year, it's safer. In the meantime, if S and L are reading this, I have the solution to your lack of seed potato problem...

Monday, 22 February 2010

Garden Visit: Snow on Snow at Painswick

Last Friday I'd planned to visit Painswick Rococo Garden with Patient Gardener for a spot of 'snowdrop peeping'. However, Malvern was snowed in so we failed to make our rendezvous. Chippenham was snow free all weekend and because my grumpiness at not going in brilliant sunshine was increasing, NAH took pity on me and we went yesterday. It wasn't until we reached the Cotswolds that I got an inkling of the problems Helen had been experiencing. Still, snowdrops on snow's rather fetching isn't it?

The garden at Painswick is most unusual. Rococo describes an ornate style of architecture, art and interior design dating from 1720 to 1760 and it's only recently that the corresponding style of garden dating to the same period has been rediscovered. It's really a transition style: from the formality of earlier French and Dutch influenced designs to the later grander and much more successful English Landscape style developed by Kent, Capability Brown and Repton.

The Rococo garden style is a playful one, full of follies (like the pictured Eagle House above), grottoes and places for the aristocracy to have their fun. A place of decadence and to have lavish parties. I was reminded of the song Nymphs and Shepherds (a poem by Thomas Shadwell, with music by Henry Purcell which we used to sing at school) whilst I wandered around the garden, particularly:

In this grove lets sport and play,
For this is Flora's holiday,
Sacred to ease and happy love,
To music, to dancing and to poetry.

The garden is built on a steep hillside with clear springs within its grounds, thus affording the building of grottoes, a plunge pool and follies with which to surprise the visitor. However, it does also have elements of the more sweeping vistas of the later English Landscape style, such as this hedged walkway flanked by trees on either side which takes the visitor from the Red House at the top of the garden down to the Fish Pond at the bottom.

The garden is also famed for its massed plantings of snowdrops at this time of the year. It's reputed to be one of the best places in the country to view them and there must have been hundreds of thousands if not millions of them. In Victorian times the local villagers were let in to the garden at certain times to pick them by the basketful. Today it's look but don't touch, but when they're like this, who cares?

The other great thing about having snowdrops on hillsides is unlike at home it's very easy to take fetching close-ups of the clumps without having to lie down on my tummy. Most of the snowdrops are plain old Galanthus nivalis or its double form 'Flore pleno', which is fine by me. In the hillside area choicer varieties have also been planted recently, such as 'Magnet' and 'Lyn Sales'. Sadly there was no sign of G. nivalis 'Atkinsii' for which Painswick is famed, either in the garden (mind you I'm no expert, so I expect I saw loads of them without realising) or in the plant sales area :(

The dominant garden feature is The Exedra, which is found in many of my photographs from all round the garden. Just as well because it's meant to be an eyecatcher as well as the kind of discussion piece of its time. This, plus the ice-cream colours or honeyed local stone of many of the garden's main features also reminded me a little of Portmeirion.

There's a reflecting pool, plus a small intimate garden in front of The Exedra, but it also stands at the head of a large kitchen garden, which dominates the central section.

You can just see the kitchen garden beyond the maze which was built to commemorate 250 years since the garden was built by the Hyett family. The kitchen garden was closed and owing to the season it was quite difficult to make sense of this space, though it is true to the original garden's design and usage. In season, the produce supplies the most pleasant cafe and I was also pleased to see a local heritage potato variety - Gloucester Black Kidney - amongst the potatoes being chitted in The Bothy (aka potting shed).

The maze is unusual because it has three goals within it and I suspect it's much easier to solve at this time of the year...

A view of the main part of the garden from the Fish Pond at the bottom. I rather like the reflection of the snowdrops in the water. The 'white' building to the right of the picture is the Red House which is undergoing some renovation work at the moment.

From the Fish Pond there's a walk through the Tunnel Arbour to the woodland snowdrop area. Here the snowdrops weren't quite as advanced as the hillside ones I showed you earlier, so there's still a few weeks of snowdrop heaven available for visitors!

The Gothic Alcove shown at the top of this post completely hides this view of the Cotswolds until you step behind it. It meant I had a bit of a tussle with myself over this garden feature. The main way of reaching it is along a long straight path, where it forms the classic focal point you will find in any book on garden design. And I was happy with that until I found this view at the end. However, on balance I'm not sure the garden's orientation would lend itself to the view being opened up, so I'm satisfied it can remain as a surprise waiting to be discovered.

This is Painswick House, originally known as Buenos Ayres to Charles Hyett who moved here from industrial Gloucestershire for the sake of his health. He built the house so he could benefit from the clean air, but sadly died soon afterwards. It was his son Benjamin who commissioned the building of the Rococo garden in the combe behind the house in the 1740s. It seems that like the Rococo style itself, the garden soon fell out of fashion because no sign of the garden can be found in the parish map of 1820, even though subsequent generations of the Hyett family carried on in the spirit of decadence and play the garden represented. They instigated a festival dedicated to Pan - the god of shepherds, lust and mischief and a statue of Pan can be seen close to the garden's entrance.

The original garden lay forgotten until a painting by Thomas Robins (a local man thought to be the garden's designer) was exhibited in 1976 which showed the plan of the garden in great detail. This led to a revival of interest in gardens from this period and the property's then owner, Lord Dickinson decided to restore the now completely overgrown garden back to its original design. Restoration work commenced in 1984 and is almost complete. Painswick House is now a separate property to the garden and I wonder if it's the immense cost of restoration which forced Lord Dickinson to sell the house in 1999, whilst retaining the freehold to the garden.

So what's seen today is a mixture of original features and rebuilt ones, all true to a design seen in a painting. Painswick is a unique garden (I believe there is no other dating to the same period), but as I haven't delved that deeply into garden history I don't know whether it's a typical design (or even a 'good' one) from that period. There's often quite a vigorous debate in the gardening world about whether an historic garden should be preserved in aspic. I'm usually for gardens moving on and evolving, but in this instance I'm all for it remaining as it is: as an example for study as well as enjoyment.

I do hope Helen will forgive me for going without her and there aren't any of these...
I've just found out I followed in the footsteps of other blogging visitors to the garden from a few weeks ago. We both experienced snow, though at least mine had stopped falling...

Update: Paul Hervey-Brookes who owns the nursery next door (and also blogs from there) left this most informative comment. Having gone through in my mind the way the garden was originally accessed in his description, it does make much more sense:

One of the great ironies of Painswick is that we modern gardeners approach the garden from the Gardeners Gate in the Melon Ground. Actually original visitors would have been taken across the front of Painswick House and entered the garden at the Gothic Alcove and walked through the woods past the Hermitage and caught glimpses of the more formal garden until they arrived at the pond. This would have been a deliberate design statement to reinforce the suggestion of folly and arbitrary excess, perhaps with our modern 'design' eyes and the way we now enter the garden this reference seems slightly lost. On a more practical note, Galanthus Atkinsii is planted for the main part in the wilderness in front of the Red House and is possibly the largest naturalistic planting of them in the country. Incidentally we always seem to sell out of G. atkinsii, and we potted over 400, by the 1st week of February.

And Sarah, also visited the garden this week which then inspired her to do this...

Friday, 19 February 2010

The Big Sing

The Big Sing, Bristol 2009 from Dee Jarlett on Vimeo.

A look back to the summer of 2009:

1 choir, 630 singers, 7 songs

All gathered together at Bristol Harbourside

Over £37,000 raised for WaterAid

Blink and you'll miss me!

Update: If the embedded video doesn't come up for you or the logo continues whirling around, you can click on the The Big Sing, Bristol 2009 link below it to see and hear what we were up to.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

You Ask, We Answer: Mushy Peas

A little while back, Monica confessed she was having a craving for mushy peas and wondered whether she would be able to make them in the USA. She'd found a recipe, but as it specified using Marrowfat peas, she wasn't sure if these were available in her local shops.

This of course, is right up the You Ask, We Answer team's street, even if they have been a little tardy in responding to Monica's plea for help. As you can see, extensive research has been undertaken so you get an idea of what mushy peas look like. They're a traditional accompaniment to fish and chips (as sampled by George W when he visited Tony Blair) and if you also hear of someone eating pie and peas, that's the other main way they're served. When I lived in the north-east of England I found mint sauce is usually provided to go with the peas. Yum.

That's all very well, but it doesn't really tell you whether you can get hold of the right kind of pea to cook muy autentico mushy ones. If you can find dried peas like those pictured above (not necessarily in a box), then you can. Note they're wrinkled peas, which tells you they're quite starchy in nature. Dried yellow peas may also work: they still need to be wrinkly and you'll need to add a drop of blue or green food colouring to them if you want them to be green. However, if you leave them yellow, they should taste the same as the green version!
This video tutorial shows you how to make traditional chip shop mushy peas. Note you'll need to adjust the quantities to suit the size of family you're serving. The video gives a good hint: the peas swell up to around three times their dried size, so that should give you an idea of how much to use. Some recipes add a little sugar (though it's not really necessary) and don't worry if you don't have bicarbonate of soda* (you'll only need to use a pinch for a family sized portion of peas) as you can still make a good version without it. You can still see some peas in the video's final result: you may want to puree yours to make peas like the ones shown at the top of this post.
If you can't find dried peas like the ones shown, don't despair. You can make something similar using frozen peas. Simply cook them as usual, with or without some mint and then puree them using a blender or just mash them with a fork or potato masher. This is a simplified method of what posh chefs do over here when making their upmarket version of fish, chips and mushy peas.
Mmm fish, chips and mushy peas - that reminds me of a joke... ;)
*= you can leave this out, but the pea skins will be tougher

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

ABC of Weather: Electric Storm

I seem to live in a place which quite often has electric storms. A couple of times at least during the summer I awake at night to find an eerily silent flickering across the sky. Naturally, I stay up to watch the free show: it's mostly sheet lightning of mainly yellow, white and orange hues, but I always watch out (and hope) for the more dramatic forked lightning stretching across the sky. Sometimes it might be accompanied by the tiniest rumble of thunder, indicating the storm has moved within hearing range. Thunder is usually heard when a storm is 30 miles away or less, lightning can be seen from up to 100 miles away.

To be able to watch a storm these days shows I've conquered a most primeval fear. As a child I was really frightened of them and hated to be left alone in the summer in case one arrived. If there was any chance of one, I'd head off to the nearest shopping centre to be held safe amongst a crowd of strangers. My fear wasn't helped by being made to stand sobbing with fright on a chair with my hands on my head during a particularly violent storm when I was at primary school.

Nowadays I love them for their beauty and awesome power and perhaps for the thrill of being close to danger, yet feeling safe. Sometimes when flying over the Alps I've looked out of the tiny window of my plane to see a number of storms brewing over the mountains. I see vast billowing cathedrals of cloud being lit dramatically from within. They serve to remind me what a tiny speck I am in the vastness of the world.

How's the weather with you today? This very instant a watery sun has just revealed itself after a morning of sleet and rain.

For more in the way of E, do visit the ABC Wednesday blog.

Picture courtesy of Christian Meyn on

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Garden Cafes: Boon or Bane?

The Loggia cafe area at Hanham Court, July 2009
Last week Threadspider and I attended a most interesting talk at Bath University Gardening Club given by the Head Gardener (Catrina Saunders) at The Courts. I'll have more on that in a later post: today I'd like to focus on an interesting discussion we had during question time at the end.

Up until 5 years ago The Courts had no cafe facilities and a lady asked how much of a difference having one had made to the garden. Catrina immediately picked up on the hidden agenda within her question: she didn't really like the additional people the cafe brings and wanted her garden back.

Catrina said initially as Head Gardener she hadn't really liked the idea of having a cafe at The Courts as she wanted people to visit for the garden itself, not just a nice place to have a cup of tea and cake. She then went on to say when she visited other gardens, how much she appreciated having a cuppa on arrival, particularly after a long journey.

The discussion then touched on the tensions between the increase in visitor numbers that having additional facilities brings, the need for income to keep gardens going and how more people can potentially destroy a garden's aesthetics and mood. There was some inference in the discussion that people requiring facilities somehow aren't real garden visitors.

Threadspider and I chewed this over on our way home together. I'm firmly in the pro garden cafe camp. I've come to realise they not only ensure a pleasant visit, they're also an essential component of my appreciation of the garden I'm visiting. After a long journey, I can recover from my travels and get in the right mood. Whilst going round the garden they also provide an opportunity to pause and take stock of what I've seen. It means I can appreciate the garden in its entirety as well as in detail. As a result I spend far longer on my visit and that's not just the additional time spent in the cafe.

Last year, my friend S and I visited Stoberry near Wells when it opened for the NGS. This garden is well worth a visit, has bags of atmosphere and has spectacular views towards Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury. We spent over an hour taking our refreshments because the light that day was constantly changing and we were observing how it affected the mood of the garden and its surrounding landscape. If there'd been no coffee and cake we would have missed an entire dimension to the garden.

What do you think? Does providing additional facilities cheapen a garden in some way, or are they an essential component to a visit?

Monday, 15 February 2010

GBBD: A Touch of Yellow Amongst the White

The main news for this month's Blooms Day is how the snowdrops have come out in force since their brave showing through the snow last month. All the flowers I showed you then are still very much in evidence (though less soggy, thankfully!), as is the iris I showed you last week.

But it's the snowdrops which dominate this month's show: I just have plain Galanthus nivalis, plus its double form G. 'Flore pleno', but I love them nevertheless. Most of them were a birthday present a few years ago, bought in the green and steadily multiplying ever since, so I always feel like they're a present all over again when they start blooming in numbers. I've started my annual snowdrop count, which currently stands at 1033. It looks like they're around a fortnight behind last year's count, but there's plenty waiting in the wings still to burst forth, especially in the guerrilla garden area.

I don't really go for collecting lots of Galanthus species: I prefer to have masses of the ordinary ones as they're special enough to me. However, I may add a new one to my collection this week, because I'm due to go snowdrop peeping with Patient Gardener on Friday at Painswick Rococo Garden. As well as being noted for its massed planting of snowdrops, it's also home to Galanthus nivalis 'Atkinsii'. According to the garden's blog, the noted snowdrop grower James Atkins retired to one of the estate cottages and may have helped to create the display at Painswick. Galanthus nivalis 'Atkinsii' is named after him and it's claimed he found it in his back garden there. To buy some as a souvenir of our visit somehow seems to be the right thing to do :)

The pictured winter aconites on the right are also treasured as they were also bought for me in the green as a present when we first moved here and I actually planted them out on my birthday. They've been multiplying slowly and now form a tiny yellow trickle of a stream down the edge of the front side garden. I'm hoping they'll spread themselves down the bank eventually, so the trickle becomes a river. But patience is the key here.

Both they and the crocus nearby (a free gift with the aconites) are portents for March: when the current masses of white in my garden give way to the bright yellows of the long awaited daffodils.

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Friday, 12 February 2010

How Advertising Works in Chippenham #13

  1. Plan to have your usual winter plant sale
  2. Design a seasonal banner to welcome customers at the entrance to your garden centre
  3. Wait for a blogger without a camera to notice the ambiguity of your main message
  4. Luckily her companion does have her camera :)
  5. Wait for her to notice the picture caption on the advert is also hilarious (click to enlarge picture)
  6. Et voila!

My thanks to Threadspider for providing the picture.

I can't believe this occasional series now stands at number 13, but then on the other hand perhaps I can because Chippenham's a rather quirky place. You can read the rest of the series (with a few added extras for good measure) if you click here.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Wildside: Keith Wiley's Field of Dreams

Last month we had the privilege of hearing Keith Wiley speak at the University of Bath Gardening club. Keith is a knowledgeable and humorous speaker with plenty of colourful slides to satisfy the most flower hungry amongst his audience. He also has quite a different approach to creating a garden which was a wonder to behold.

Keith started his gardening career at The Garden House in Devon where he was Head Gardener for 25 years. Testament to his skills there has been paid by Tim Richardson no less, who named The Garden House amongst his list of the most influential gardens of the noughties in this month's Garden Design Journal.

Change of ownership at The Garden House meant that Keith left in 2004 and the pictured well-written and illustrated book was also published that year. It not only shows how wonderful the garden was under Keith's care, it also tells of how his father's grand gardening projects combined with Keith's detailed examination of wild flower communities and their natural associations in his travels all over the world have inspired and influenced his new garden at Wildside.

So how does one start a completely new and exciting garden from scratch, starting in 2004?
  • Have sufficient cash to buy an almost flat 4 acre field full of cider apple trees not far from the Garden House and nothing else
  • Have only yourself and your wife available as labour for creating the garden and starting a nursery business (I'm not quite sure where his house fits into all of this! The Garden House had a staff of 20 to keep it in tip top condition)
  • Persuade your wife that changing the levels in the garden will provide some wonderful views of the surrounding countryside
  • Understand your site's aspect (south facing), climate (very windy with 60 inches of rainfall) and soils (a very stony, gravelly 'shillit' [?] beneath varying depths of topsoil, neutral to acid) perfectly
  • Create an enormous variety of different soil conditions and microclimates in a very small area. This is achieved by using a digger and creating enormous banks of soil and shillit of varying heights and sizes. In places the height difference from top to bottom is now 25-30 feet. This in turn will allow drifts of lots of different plants to be planted in each area
  • Be a flower junkie: thus having a vision of them filling the viewfinder - 'I want to go out every day and see as many flowers as possible'
  • Take natural landscapes as inspiration: the flower filled scenes of South Africa; the Acer/natural scrub mixture on the USA/Canadian border; a rolling Californian landscape; the unusual vegetation of New Zealand, the Mediterranean vegetation of Crete. NB this doesn't necessarily mean using the plants from those regions, but plants suited to the garden's climate which will create the same effect
  • Ignore the 'rules' and trust your own instinct/ learning from observation: don't bother with the traditional colour wheel rules because nature doesn't; understand that e.g. a plant on well-drained soil in a rainy climate can still perform well despite what the books might say (the book probably documents the author's own experience of their garden in Essex say, rather than the full extent of where a plant might thrive); plant 30 Magnolia trees where normally only one would do; grow honeysuckle trimmed into a shrub rather its usual climber form; have an entire wood of free-standing Wisterias on 4ft high banks - 'who says you can't have one?'
  • Take inspiration from the surrounding landscape but use different plants: mass-planted Magnolia trees mimic Hazel copses; the form of Acers are similar to Hawthorns
  • Use The Garden House experience: large drifts of pastel-hued plants are also planted at Wildside, but the intention this time is eventually to have them reflected in water; rescue plants thrown out from The Garden House such as 50-years worth of crocuses and 'bonsai'-like trees
  • Don't stake anything and Chelsea chop plants like Campanula and Michaelmas Daisies so that they don't need support
  • Indulge flower passions such as Erythroniums - 'my dream plant'
  • Use grasses and plants self-seeding into gaps to allow the planting to knit itself together
  • Have a spectacular vision and infinite amounts of patience - this is a very long term project
Towards the end of his talk Keith said with a wry grin:
I seriously need therapy. My dream garden is a quarry and I now realise I've made myself a quarry. He reckons he's shifted about 50,000 tonnes of soil so far... and the garden's not completed yet.
I asked Keith during question time whether he was using a garden plan. He isn't, but his vast gardening experience allows him to see what opportunities a particular combination of slope, aspect, soil and drainage has in order to select plants that will not only do well in that particular spot, but will combine well with its neighbours. He said he couldn't plan because sometimes he's out digging until late at night and in the morning what he thought he'd dug turns out to be completely different! I'd say that's the mark of an extremely knowledgeable and confident gardener.
Unfortunately I can't show you any of the oodles of superb views Keith showed us during his talk. However with the power of blogging I can supply you with links to a couple of posts to drool over from Arabella (plus her corresponding piece about The Garden House) and Anna, together with these articles from Gardeners' Click and The Telegraph. I hope to add my own pictures to theirs very soon.
UK residents will also be able to see Wildside from the comfort of their armchairs as it's been filmed for Matthew Wilson's Landscape Man series for Channel Four. The latest from Matthew is that the series is due to be aired in April.
Wildside is open Thursdays and Saturdays from March until July (NB this is what Keith told us at the talk; the website currently shows 2009 opening times which are very different).

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

ABC of Weather: Drought

The definition of drought differs across the world: here in the UK an absolute drought is defined as a period of at least 15 consecutive days where there's no more than 0.2 mm of rainfall over that time. In other areas (such as Libya or Mongolia in China) this would be considered quite rainy! There an absence of rain over 2 years is needed before it's considered abnormal, rather than our two weeks.

Living through the legendary drought of 1976 has made me particularly aware of this weather extreme. I'd just started studying geography A Level at the time which was following a new syllabus with lots more practical work. I chose a couple of weather related projects to count towards my exams because I found it such a fascinating topic.

My first project looked at soil infiltration rates (a posh term for how quickly water soaks into soil) on different types of soils in our garden before and after rain. My other one was keeping a weather diary. How much rain actually fell during the soil infiltration project? ...None. How many weeks of exactly the same hot, sunny weather did I record in my diary? ...Six. That's 42 different ways I had to find to explain what was happening i.e. high pressure from continental Europe blocking our usual rainy weather from the Atlantic. Luckily the seventh week was rather different, otherwise I reckon I would have gone bonkers!

As a gardener I'm also interested in physiological drought, where there's sufficient water but it's temporarily unavailable. We've seen this happen more frequently than usual this winter owing to its severity: the soil's water's been frozen and everything in the garden subsequently droops, particularly my Violas. They soon recover if the temperature increases sufficiently during the day. At other times, particularly in summer the same thing happens when the rate of water leaving a plant via evapotranspiration exceeds the water it can take in via its roots. This often happens on a hot, windy day. This time, the plant wilts in the daytime, but recovers overnight, when evapotranspiration ceases. Vigilance is especially needed with anything newly planted out as their roots have not had the time to establish and seek out water lower down in the soil.

Today, gardening on a limestone enriched clay soil sounds like I shouldn't have many problems with drought and I suppose it does mean I don't have to water as often during the summer as say someone gardening on sand. However, it seems we only need to have just a few days of sunshine for my soil to turn to what seems like concrete and for rather alarming cracks to appear. I react by frantically raiding the compost bins and pouring as much organic matter into the cracks as I can in a vain attempt to close them, so that my plants are kept happy. It might not be much of a solution, but at least I feel I'm doing something positive and I am getting some organic matter into the depths of my soil in addition to my autumn round of mulching everything.

How's the weather with you today? It's very cold, but sunny here. 1pm: Now it's snowing!

For more Delicious D's, Do visit the ABC Wednesday blog.

Image courtesy of prozac1 via

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Grafted Tomatoes et al.

I first came across grafted tomato plants in the seed and plant catalogues a couple of years ago, but completely dismissed them as a bit of a gimmick and rather expensive for most vegetable growing mortals like me at around £9.95 a pop for three plants. Come to think about it, it must be grafted plants I've seen on sale at our local garden centre sometimes. It would explain their rather hefty price tag (around £4.99 for one plant).

Then a couple of weeks ago Geoff wrote over at his GardenForum about how he's going to try them out this year. We got chatting in the comments, as you do:

VP: I'm glad you mentioned grafted vegetables, because I can't get my head around what on earth you graft a tomato or pepper plant onto?

And having shelled out your £9.99 + p&p for 3 plants, do you get sufficient extra crops to justify the expense?And are the tomato grafts just as vulnerable to blight, bearing in mind I've lost my (albeit outdoor crop, not having a greenhouse to hand) to blight 3 years in a row now.

As you can see, I've been giving these quite a bit of thought!

Geoff: Just like fruit, the vegetables are grafted onto rootstocks of the same species/related species that have been bred to provide specific characteristics.

For the vegetables these characteristics include healthier, more robust plants with greater pest & disease resistance (the plants aren't blight resistant as such, but are more vigorous and should grow through the disease), larger yields (up to 15-20%; the rootstocks put more of the plants' energy into fruit production and less into overall growth) produced earlier and later, less susceptibility to nutritional disorders and less susceptible to poor weather/cooler conditions.

Around 60% of all commercial tomato crops are produced on grafted plants, as is most aubergine production and the majority of organic peppers and cucumbers. So, if they're good enough for the professionals - they should be good enough for us!

Hope that helps - and stops the brain ache!

Since then I've researched this technique a bit more. It's used extensively in Asia and there's a lot of information about it coming out of North America. It's not new: our own Allotments4All forum mentions it being popular during the 1960s for greenhouse grown tomatoes, particularly before varieties (like Alicante) suitable for coldhouse growing were available. Another A4A member tells how he's grafted tomatoes onto potato rootstock and vice versa. It seems grafting potatoes onto tomato rootstock is a good way of obtaining lots of potato seed especially when breeding them (note to self: must ask Tater Mater if he's tried this technique).

I haven't found much in the way of grafting being used outdoors (which is what I'm interested in) and I still wonder whether blight years like those we've had lately would still decimate crops. The references I've found talk mainly about soil borne disease prevention, which is only part of the story as far as blight is concerned. Also the varieties available aren't that well known to me - I wonder if they're the ones usually grown commercially? In which case they may not have the characteristics home growers value, such as taste. So I don't think there's much of value to me yet, though I'll be watching the results of Geoff's experiment with interest. He's also keen (as I am too) to hear from anyone who has tried them before or is going to this year, or has tried the grafting technique themselves.

If you'd like to try it out, then this YouTube video gives a detailed account:

Update June 2012
: Since writing this post I've also seen how grafted plants are grown commercially. There are also varieties available now which are suitable for growing outdoors.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Aaaaah, That's Better

It's been good to have a couple of days in a row to get out into the garden and to start to make serious inroads into the late winter clearing. Borders are looking much tidier and I love the way my clothes smell after a spell in the fresh air. It's like bringing the outdoors inside for a while.

In spite of the cold winter we've had, the plants can't resist making their plans for the spring. I found some fat pink buds of Dicentra spectabilis, lots of Monarda leaves pressed flat against the soil and the tiniest of miniature Lupin plants. Fingers crossed the slugs don't find the latter for a tasty snack.

Bulbs are in bud everywhere and it's high time my annual snowdrop count started. My major delight yesterday was finding the first Iris reticulata 'Katherine Hodgkin' in flower. I bought these at the plant sell-off at last year's RHS Plant and Design show in London. I was going to plant them out in the main part of the garden, but thanks to a timely article by James (with one of his other blogging hats on), I planted them in the gravel at the side of the house. They're much more visible there than the spot I'd originally chosen for them. Cheerful colour heralding the end of winter is now just a few paces away :)

Friday, 5 February 2010

VPs VIPs: Derry Watkins of Special Plants

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Derry Watkins at her home, garden and nursery - the acclaimed Special Plants - just a few miles along the road from me. I first met Derry at one of her open garden days last year and was keen to find out more about her wonderful garden and running an independent nursery. She specialises in tender perennials and regularly goes on plant hunting trips to find new treasures, particularly in South Africa. As well as running Special Plants and opening her garden under the NGS scheme, Derry holds day courses at her nursery, hosts Special Tuesdays from April until September, lectures and has written a couple of books.

How did you find your way from Connecticut to the UK? I'd started a biodynamic vegetable garden in Connecticut and we used to have people come along at weekends to help out. A particular young man turned up: he returned many times and at the end of the summer I married him.

So it was all down to love? Isn't that the best way? I initially came over for just 2 years whilst Peter [Clegg] finished his studies at Cambridge. But then he came over here to set up his architectural studio in Bath with Richard Feilden. We eventually found this place and so over 20 years later, here I am.

There's quite a difference between vegetable growing and specialising in tender perennials though. Yes, my mother was a very keen plantswoman and I resisted following in her footsteps very strongly. Then when we first came to Bath, we built a wonderfully large conservatory onto our house because I was desperate for one. That's when my love of plants really took off. Tender plants are much more beautiful than hardy ones: their foliage is more interesting and they flower much more prolifically. My one regret about this place is not being able to have a large conservatory, but with way the site slopes here that's impossible.

How are your plants coping with the severe winter we've been having? I won't know until much later in the year [around May]. Of course, I've taken lots of insurance cuttings, which are overwintering in the greenhouse. But then it doesn't really matter if I lose something, I can try something else. I love trying new things.

Isn't there one plant you'd really regret losing? Well, there's my Melanoselinum decipiens. It's an monocarpic umbelifer which I've been nurturing for two years and it should finally get to look its best this year. If it's survived. [we had a quick peep under its protective fleece in the garden later and there were encouraging signs of green - fingers crossed it stays that way]

How do you look after all your plants and cuttings over the winter? The less tender plants are in the area at the top of the nursery under plastic (to keep the rain off), which gets pulled back most days to give them plenty of air. The tender ones are in the heated greenhouse which gets ventilated during the day. If it's below -2 degrees [centigrade] it's opened up slightly, above that temperature the doors are fully open. I believe in tough love: it means my plants are hardened up and ready to grow well come spring.

Is everything being kept on site here? No, Maureen [a former neighbour who has the use of a large greenhouse close to where she now lives and who popped in whilst I was there] also overwinters plants and grows on some of the seeds for me.

How do you prevent pests and diseases? Tidiness and good ventilation are the key to mould prevention [whenever we went outside Derry's fingers were constantly busy pulling off dead leaves and tidying up whilst we were talking]. I have to use chemicals to prevent vine weevil: as a nursery owner I cannot afford to sell a plant which is diseased or comes complete with pests or weeds. I use Neem oil (organic) in the greenhouse to prevent red spider mite and whitefly.

Are you using peat free compost? No it's around 20% peat. I haven't had good results with peat-free compost. A particular compost brand can be very variable and I need consistency to ensure good quality plants.

Do you grow all of your plants? It's around 80%, either from cuttings or saved seed. The other 20% are plants which I find difficult to propagate and I buy them in, or new seeds which I'd like to try. There's some wonderful Coreopsis 'Jive' young plants ordered for this year [as shown recently in the new Coreopsis featured in The Garden magazine].

Now is a quiet time gardening-wise, what do you do at this time of the year? I make sure the nursery is cleaned and tidied up, then there's the accounts and tax returns to do, website updates, putting together the catalogue, press releases, arranging group visits and just general organising. I love the natural rhythm of the year from this quiet organising time, then seed sowing and the garden clean-up starts next month and goes on into March, in April everything gets staked, in May there's the Chelsea chop, then the nursery gets really busy...

It's a while since your famous Black and White garden at Chelsea in 1999, do you have plans to do another exhibit there? Back then I used to do about 47 shows per year all over the country, and sometimes I'd do more than one over a weekend. I decided I wanted to get my life back, and I'd not previously exhibited at Chelsea, so it was a kind of fond farewell. At the time everything in the Floral Marquee was blowsy and colour, colour, colour. Mine was a complete contrast. The Head Gardener at Highgrove saw it and now there's something similar there. Lots of people found it inspirational because it was so different. I just do a few local shows nowadays, about one a month. However, whilst Chelsea was a goodbye to doing the big shows it was also the start of something. You can't sell plants at Chelsea, but you can sell seed. Chelsea was the start of the seed catalogue side of my business.

You also put together the programme of speakers for the University of Bath Gardening Club, how did your involvement come about? I just was just a member at first around 20 years ago when everything to do with the club was done by just one woman. It had very good speakers in those days too and was very popular. Then one year she stood up and said she wasn't going to do it anymore and the club would fold. There was a howl of protest and three of us volunteered to take things forward. That's the best way to get help with this kind of thing: threaten to give up and leave and a few people will volunteer.

Do you choose the speakers yourself or does the committee decide? I have a totally free rein and I get to choose the people I want to hear. It's great, they come on over and some of them stay here. It's the fun job to do on the committee. I'm thinking about asking the Head Gardener from the Inner Temple for next year's programme, what do you think? [Fantastic!!!!]

Where in the world inspires you? South Africa is my absolute favourite[and several of Derry's lectures are about South Africa]. You stop at the side of the road and you immediately see at least new 10 plants you don't know. I've just come back and I just love it there. We also do a lot of mountain walking: the Mountains of the Moon in Uganda were rewarding but extremely hard going, I've never seen such deep mud on the steepest of slopes! Peter and I will be going to Libya in the spring: I think there's a lot of North African flora that's relatively unknown and worth exploring.

At this point we went outside as I was keen to contrast my visit with last September's. I wanted to get more of an idea of the structure Derry's husband had put in place when designing and constructing the garden before she set to with planting up the borders. I just wish there was more of an opportunity to do this kind of thing at this time of the year: plants are lovely, but they do wave about and can get in the way of studying the structural elements of a garden!

I'll tell you more of what I found, plus a winter's look at the nursery soon. However, just before I go, Derry posed an interesting question during the close of our chat. We were mulling over how you get to meet the nicest of people when it comes to gardening. Her question was this:

Does gardening make us nice people, or is it only nice people that do gardening?

Now it's over to you...

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Unusual Front Gardens #7: Rowde

NAH and I went to Devizes for the afternoon today, which reminded me on the way that I'd taken this photo last October of a front garden in the nearby village of Rowde. I'd like to go back when it's dark after a sunny day (so the batteries are fully charged) to see what the effect of the solar lamp 'eyes' have on passing motorists. It could be rather alarming to see a bush which glows in the dark!

Everywhere is full of Valentine's Day at the moment. There's special window displays replete with balloons, red roses, heart shaped biscuits and cakes with pink icing, chocolates, champagne, the works. Of course anywhere that serves food has some kind of Valentine's meal promotion. Most of them are the usual fayre: the one which stood out for me was at Wadworth's, the local brewery in Devizes. Their special comprises: a tour of the brewery, beer tasting, a 2 course meal and a souvenir bottle of Valentine Ale to take home at £20 per person. I hope the beer's not that strong, else there might be a bit of brewer's droop later on!

We're classy in Wiltshire.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

ABC of Weather: Clouds

I think the biggest proportion of all the time I've 'wasted' in my life so far is that spent watching clouds. I find them fascinating because they're ever changing - unless it's an unusually cloudless day of course. From the wispiest of clouds like the pictured cirrus, through to the threatening anvil shaped cumulonimbus of an approaching storm, they also form a rough guide to the weather we can expect over the next few hours.

On the project I'm involved in Mallorca, I've been given the nickname 'weather woman' because I've managed to quickly absorb (without realising it) how the subtle changes in the haziness of the nearby mountains and any cloud cover they have affects the weather later on that day. It's proved useful on many occasions when arranging our fieldwork for the day. The work's outdoors in a reed bed and the last thing you want to be is the tallest thing around when a violent Mediterranean storm suddenly blows up!

Clouds as a rough weather guide is also enshrined in our weather lore. There's the classic mackerel sky not 24 hours dry - which forecasts the impending deterioration of our weather after the appearance of cirrocumulus clouds. These clouds - like cirrus - are an indication of an approaching weather front. They gradually pick up more moisture, thus thickening and extending downwards to become low-level clouds which bear rain. The appearance of these clouds can look just like the patterns found on mackerel, hence their common name.

My mum's into very short-term weather forecasting. She'll often say it's black over Bill's mother's, meaning it's going to rain very shortly. It's a brummie and black country phrase and Bill is thought to refer to William Shakespeare. As Stratford upon Avon (Shakespeare's birthplace) is south-west of Birmingham and most of our rainy weather comes from that direction, there might be a grain of truth in the story.

Perhaps it's my mum's influence which got me interested in cloud watching in the first place. What's surprised me in putting this piece together is how little that of fascination has found its way into my vast library of photographs. Perhaps I need to remedy that by joining the Skywatch Friday meme, or The Cloud Appreciation Society?

How's the weather with you today?

For more Captivating C's, do visit the ABC Wednesday blog.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Guess Who's Coming to Malvern :)

NB this is a simulcast with Meet at Malvern to ensure everyone coming or thinking of coming to Malvern Spring Show has a chance to see this very important information.

I thought it was about time I attempted to put together all my 'virtual scraps of paper' (i.e. emails, blog comments, tweets and direct messages) into a summary and publish a first cut view of who's coming so you can see the information I have from you plus who else is coming to the show. I tweeted a couple of days ago I needed a spreadsheet summary, ideally to publish on here and the lovely Frugilegus came up with the goods by suggesting I try this simple scheduling tool. It's done the job, shame it can't tell me when I don't put something in alphabetical order - so sorry Anna and Dawn :(

If you click on link at the top of the box below, you'll see a summary of who's coming and when. I've also split each date into two, so you can see who'll be at the show or meal each day. You'll also see most of it's in yellow which means I don't have firm information from you yet. It's also quite possible I've interpreted the information I do have from you incorrectly. Therefore, I need you to have a look at the schedule and confirm what you're doing and when. The most important events to clarify right now are who is coming to each meal. Helen needs to book this for us ASAP, especially as there could be rather a lot of us.

You won't be able to change the information online as I need to know who's responded with an update. I'd love to give you a free hand, but it would make it impossible for me to know who's updated, who hasn't and who's happy with what's on there. Please email me at Malvernmeet at gmail dot com with the changes needed for you OR confirming your details are correct by 5pm Friday 5th February. I'll be chasing any stragglers after that! I'll be tweeting this most important post shortly. I'd appreciate it if all my fellow tweeps could retweet the link, particularly as there's a danger I might have missed someone out (Frugilegus in particular?) who thinks they're coming. Many apologies if I have :(

Monday, 1 February 2010

GBMD: Winter Garden

In winter's cold and sparkling snow,
The garden in my mind does grow.
I look outside to blinding white,
And see my tulips blooming bright.
And over there a sweet carnation,
Softly scents my imagination.

On this cold and freezing day,
The Russian sage does gently sway,
And miniature roses perfume the air,
I can see them blooming there.
Though days are short, my vision's clear.
And through the snow, the buds appear.

In my mind, clematis climbs,
And morning glories do entwine.
Woodland phlox and scarlet pinks,
Replace the frost, if I just blink.
My inner eye sees past the snow.
And in my mind, my garden grows.

There's no picture to accompany this poem today, so that you can imagine the garden of your dreams just like Carol Magic-Lady Cynthia Adams did.

Update 20/7/2011: The poem's author Cynthia Adams has kindly been in touch to tell me that the internet source I used for this poem has the incorrect attribution. It was actually published in the Dec/Jan 2003 issue of Birds & Blooms magazine. I'm so glad she contacted me as something didn't quite chime as right with me at the time, but I didn't come up with anything after further delving (and hence the lack of link). I'm very happy to have the opportunity to put things right.

Do join Carolyn Choi over at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago for more garden bloggers' musings :)
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