Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Monday, 29 April 2013

Re-editing the Plot

View from the top of the plot

I've been spending quite a lot of time at the allotment lately and already the above view is looking quite different. Much tidier! I've been meaning to write about my plans for the plot since I gave up half of it just over a year ago, but last year's dreadful season meant I never got around to it.

The thicket you can see are my raspberries 'Autumn Bliss'. These of course are remaining because they're prize winning. Last year I experimented with not cutting the canes down in February* and as a result obtained an earlier crop and a heavier yield. Definitely worth repeating this year.

Behind the raspberries is a mess of gooseberries from which I'm currently trying to extract a vigorous bramble. So far the bramble (aided and abetted by the gooseberries) is winning...

And guess where this view is from...

My major project at the moment (apart from plot clearing) is the installation of some raised beds. After the task of emptying out the compost bins to fill them up (who needs gym membership?!), they're so much easier to maintain and keep weed free. There are 5 so far - 3 with strawberries and the other two have garlic, shallots and onions. The latter two are also host to another biochar experiment to see how I get on with different crops to those I trialled last year. I have another 2 to set up - probably playing host to my peas and carrots, though I suspect there'll be an overflow of lettuces at some point as I've sown so many.

When I gave up half of the plot, I was worried it would bring a halt to my experimenting, but happily so far that hasn't been the case. I'm also planning on trying some Oca this year, probably right there in the front of the picture. I have 7 tiny little tubers to plant as soon as the soil's ready...

A major shock this week has been the removal of the trees bordering the plot by the owners of the garden over the fence. I now realise that the trees were probably helping to prop up my shed, so it's time to get a new one. An unexpected bonus has been getting to know my hitherto unseen neighbours, who are great. Unfortunately this won't last for long as they're planning on having a higher fence. However, yesterday they gave me a large compost bin, some wire mesh to go underneath it, plus some metal poles which are ideal for building part of the new supports I'm planning for the apples. Result!

I was sad to lose half of my plot, but lately I've realised I'm falling back in love with my allotment again. It takes about a week to clear now and is much more manageable. As soon as everything's been cleared and planted up, I'll draw up a new plot plan for you to peruse. The pictures on today's post are also a bit of a 'before', so I'll post some 'after' shots too - taken on a sunny day I hope!

* = a tip gleaned from My Tiny Plot, who in turn gleaned it from Which? Gardening.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

April is the Blog Love Month IV

Colander lights add a quirky touch to Yeo Valley HQ 

I'm veering off-topic - as I frequently do here on Veg Plotting - with some non-gardening blogs which have caught my eye this week. Don't worry, there are a couple of gardening ones by way of a finale too :)
  • First up is my beloved NAH. After years of teasing me about Veg Plotting, he finally started his own blog a couple of years ago. He's putting a steam engine back together without the manual - or many of the parts! Have a look at how he's progressing on Sentinel 7109
  • I've just found out about the fascinating neolithic houses project at Stonehenge. It's something I hope to investigate personally next month.
  • It's a small hop, skip and a jump to my Local Vocal Janice's new blog Immaterial Practice documenting her progress and discoveries in the 30 days up to her Fine Art degree show.
  • Found via my friend Mark's blog, I love Perpetua's way of roving in retirement.
  • Not a blog, but I couldn't resist telling you about the Darwin Correspondence Project - which showcases the correspondence between Darwin and the botanist Joseph Hooker. They were great friends and Darwin wrote to Hooker about his emerging ideas re evolution...
  • Found via my daily Twitter newspaper - an article on the science of colour in marketing is also food for thought for blog design and layout methinks...
  • Shared by Mark Diacono this week, I enjoyed this exploration of the routines famous authors and artists used in their day to day work.
As this is the last Sunday in April, I'm also including the final two discoveries for tomorrow and Tuesday.
  • Sarah Salway has a number of blogs, all of which deserve a link, but Writer in the Garden is the only one I haven't commented on... until now. I love her idea for this year's Chelsea Fringe. Now everyone has the opportunity to take part :)
  • I've saved a real treat until last. Alys Fowler has a blog now and started with a beautifully written and observed encounter with a bee.
So there you have it. 30 days and (almost) 30 new to me blogs. All showing how mind bogglingly rich the blogosphere is and how Emma's idea for April was a cracking one :)

Here's the previous weeks if you missed them:

Which enjoyable new blogs have you discovered lately? Tell me about them in the comments below...

Friday, 26 April 2013

Salad Days: Windowsill Lettuces

Lettuce 'Amaze' looking rather perky a couple of days ago
What a difference a few weeks makes! Spring has sprung at last and those leggy seedlings I showed you last month are transforming themselves into something rather tasty looking.

I've now planted out all my lettuce seedlings into the coldframes and cloches outside, except the pictured 'Amaze'. As you can see from the above picture they're romping away on our bedroom windowsill.

The initial 22 varieties I sowed are now down to 18 - 2 failed to germinate as reported last month and a further two - Mordore and Musson melted away in the overcrowded legginess that was the initial tray of seedlings. I'll catch up with these and some further varieties I've acquired later on in the year.

This month I've taken delivery of several exciting looking items of kit to trial courtesy of Greenhouse Sensation. My initial efforts have focused on the simplest item they've sent: the small Saladgrow planter, which is suitable for windowsill as well as greenhouse growing.

Setting up the Saladgrow: Fully assembled and ready for the windowsill; then L-R, top to bottom:planter feet used to support the upper tray; upper tray showing the water level indicator + wick; upper tray with compost + lettuces added; the opening used for adding water to the lower tray

As you can see it looks like a slightly larger propagator, but there's a twist. The planter sits on top of the horticultural equivalent of a bain-marie (though without the heat) - a lower tray of water and diluted nutrients (provided as part of the kit), complete with a cloth 'wick' dangled from the upper tray which soaks up the water and feeds it through into the compost above. Thus a constant supply of water and nutrients is delivered to the root level and this is one container I won't have to worry about when it comes to holiday watering. I think I've used less compost than with my usual windowbox style containers, but then I might have been using a greater depth than what's needed with them anyway.

It was relatively easy to set up, though I did manage to put the planter feet into the wrong tray at first. Then I started reading the leaflet to find out how I should set things up properly! There are a couple of clarifications with the leaflet I've asked the company to look at and I'm also awaiting an answer to my question on whether the nutrients they supply are suitable for organic growers. I'm also not sure how the water level indicator works: I don't know which way up is correct and I found I could add water to almost overflowing without it showing the tray was full. But overall as you can see it's working well and I'm looking forward to picking our first leaves very soon.

'Bright and Spicy' mixed salad leaves this morning - sowed on March 5th

This month I've also learnt:
  • Some salad mix packets should really say Sow outdoors all year; ready in 3 weeks under absolutely ideal conditions instead of Sow outdoors all year; ready in 3 weeks.  Of course I knew that when I sowed the seeds in the freezing cold over 7 weeks ago, but now I've proved it. ETA is in a couple of weeks...
  • It's possible to oversoak peas (um, I forgot them!) - 5 days soaking rather than overnight slows germination down dramatically and the rate to around 50%

How's your salad faring this month?
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The 52 Week Salad Challenge is sponsored by Greenhouse Sensation.

Note to readers: sponsorship goes towards my blogging costs and does not affect my independence.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Plant of the Centenary: The Official Shortlist

Starting to bounce back after a hard winter: Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' in my garden yesterday
We had a lot of fun choosing our own Plant of the Centenary, and now we get to do it all over again with the RHS's official shortlist :)

There are some truly landmark plants: Russell hybrid lupins; a Heuchera,  and Geranium 'Rozanne' - how many plants can claim to be the subject of a court case? There's also a nod to the gardening legacy shaped by the plant hunters, in the form of Pieris formosa var. forrestii

My congratulations goes to Shirl, whose chosen favourite is amongst the shortlist of 10: the pictured Erysimum. Sadly I can't find my picture with a hummingbird hawk moth dancing attendance one summer, so I've had to make do with a snap taken yesterday.

Each plant has its champion, matched by their decade of birth as well as the plant's Chelsea debut. It's worth looking at them on the RHS's site, purely for the wonderfully named Chelsea Pensioner who champions the Saxifraga 'Tumbling waters': Sergeant Stan Pepper :)

All that remains is to get voting everyone!

I have 3 out of the 10 in my garden. How does yours fare?

Monday, 22 April 2013

What Spam Looks Like

No, not that tinned pink meat of a dubious nature, the other spam...

It's clear there's been a LOT of spam around lately. By a lot, it's meant up to 50-80 extra comments for my blog on some days. This is what a spam attack looks like via my stats on Blogger. I'd often wondered why there were sudden spikes shown, but it took a rash of notification emails with attendant spam comments, all coinciding with 08:22 one morning for me to twig what was going on. On bad days, those spikes are happening every half an hour or so.

It's not just Blogger with the problem. I see Wordpress has also warned of increased levels of spam and hacking attempts recently.

I've noticed various types of spam comment along the lines of:
  • Nice blog, I'll be back for more - really funny if it also compliments your writing on a Wordless Wednesday post ;)
  • Asking advice on theme, hacking, plagiarism etc.
  • Advising you of a problem with your blog or how you could do better
  • Complete gobbledegook with or without explicit wording
  • Explicit wording
  • Most worryingly this week, I've seen a context derived comment - advice on plant growing on my Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day post. So wrong, it was obvious, but if it gets refined, this kind of spam may get rather hard to spot
All have a link to a blog completely unrelated to the comment content, apart from some of the SEO and explicit ones. It's also worrying that some of the comments manage to get through the spam filter and onto the blog. Guess which type does that the most.... very embarrassing :(

The spam seems to fall into two distinct groups:
  • It happens almost immediately after a post is published
  • It's on old posts from months, even years ago. Most of them don't get trapped by the comment moderation I've set for after 15 days... There's often a number of these coming in 1 after the other within a few seconds. It's made me wonder if LinkWithin is being used in some way to find successive posts to leave comments on.

Why is it happening? I can think of three distinct reasons:
  • Link sellers/spambloggers who try to establish backlinks from reputable blogs to up the Google Page Rank for their shadier offerings 
  • Shady blogs trying to tempt the curious to click on their links (either on the comment or via their entries in the blog's stats) either just for kicks OR in the hope that a) they like what they see and make a purchase and/or b) the shady blog can download malware onto the blogger's computer. NB an example of this type is shown at the top in the above Print Screen from my Blogger stats. Whatever you do, DON'T click on any links from unknown sources when looking at your Blogger stats. That's exactly what they want you to do.
  • Email farming (this again is via Nitecruzr) - collecting any subsequent commenters' email addresses if they leave it in the process of commenting. Any email addresses can be then be linked with the bloggers' URLs and hackers can then look through the blogs for personal information which might possibly be used as passwords. They then use a program to go through hundreds of email/blog/personal information combinations to see if a blog can be opened into its admin area. If successful, those blogs can be hacked for all kinds of dodgy purposes. Unbelievable? Possibly. BUT I've already had an email from Google advising me of a possible hacking attempt on my blog...
Here's hoping, one day...
In the same boat? If yours is a Blogger blog, here's some options for what you can you do about it:
  • Make sure you mark any spam comments which have got through as spam ASAP. Don't just delete them as this doesn't give Google the opportunity to learn about new spam sources, then seek out and destroy them.
  • The Google Forum has a problem rollup thread which is collecting information for their spamwars. Completing the questions in relation to your spam experiences gives them much more information to go on, rather than just reporting comments as spam. I add information on there whenever I detect a change in the way spam is hitting my blog. 
  • Add extra comment security from the blog Settings options in Blogger:
    • Don't allow Anonymous commenters. Stops the spam in its tracks, BUT it will also stop some of your WordPress commenters, as owing to a Blogger bug not all of them can comment using the OpenId option. If I did this I'd also stop my dear friend Lu - who has no online account -from commenting :(
    • Use Word Verification. Stops most of the spam in its tracks, but it hacks off an awful lot of commenters because the letters/numbers given are almost impenetrable at times
    • Use Comment Moderation all the time. I don't know how effective this is at trapping the spam, but seeing it's not been that effective for my posts older than 15 days setting, I'm not holding my breath. It also means that subsequent readers can't respond to your comment conversation, unless you're very quick to publish the pukka comments
  • Add extra comment security from the Options item in the Post settings at the individual blog post level. I do this for posts which attract spam if they're older than 3 months. It's a tip I got from Diana at Elephant's Eye - thanks Diana! I disable both the Reader comments and Backlinks options for completeness. It's a shame to disable commenting in this way, but as I rarely get any comments on a post after a month or so, it's worth it to preserve my own sanity
  • Install another commenting service such as Disqus. Blogher recently discussed the three most popular ones available. Personally, I loathe Disqus as it's so unwieldy and I give up commenting, no matter how good the post is. Commentluv is great, though I don't know if it's available for Blogger and I haven't used Livefyre. NB Nitecruzr has posted about the potential pitfalls of installing a third party comments service... 
Picture of the other spam, for a bit of light relief - courtesy of Matthew W Jackson & wikimedia

As you can see, there are plenty of options available, but they're not entirely satisfactory. For now I'm not implementing any of the extra comment security options because I still want everyone to be able to comment. However, if the spam gets really bad again, or I'm away, you may find I've disabled Anonymous commenting for a while.

Additionally if you're worried about your blog's password (irrespective of blogging platform), change it to a strong one which is also non-personal, plus consider two-step authentication for additional security. WordPress users also need to check that their blog access doesn't include the id Admin as this is being subjected to lots of hacking attempts at the moment. If it's there change it.

Going forward I'd also like the options WordPress.com has to approve first time commenters and the ability to block specific URLs, IP addresses and words. At least that way, I can deal with the spam which I find is increasingly getting around Wordpress's Akismet...

Have you noticed an increase in spam lately? How are you dealing with it?

Sunday, 21 April 2013

April is the Blog Love Month III

Porch still life - Great Dixter March 2013
Week three of my version of Emma Cooper's Blog Love Challenge sees me discovering blogs which are celebrating gardens - especially theirs - as my homage to National Gardening Week.
  • Firstly there's Pauline from Lead Up the Garden Path, who celebrates the return of her St Patrick.
  • We gardeners love talking about the weather, so here's a blog which keeps tabs on gardening and the weather in Ossett, Yorkshire.
  • Helene has been a regular, thoughtful commenter here over the past few months, so it was lovely to discover her multiple-collage celebration of her garden this week.
  • Not a garden, nor a new blog (though sadly I haven't visited in ages, so it feels like a new blog again), but I had to share Val Littlewood's willow sketches from Pencil and Leaf.
  • A Blooms Day discovery this week is Mario and Hortus | 5 - thoughtful posts and good presentation of  his beautiful images
  • Rosie at Leavesnbloom has some lovely, dreamlike photos of her garden in Perthshire this week
  • And finally, Silverpebble has opened her spring notebook :)
If you missed my discoveries for Week 1 and Week 2, follow the links to find some great blogs and posts :)


Friday, 19 April 2013

Blackbird Singing in the Middle of the Day



It's not just the flowers which have woken up to spring this week at VP Gardens: at last the birds are singing strongly. I couldn't resist taking a short video of this male blackbird singing its heart out on the public land next to our house. He seems to be responding to another blackbird further away, which suggests he's probably proclaiming his territory or fitness to breed to the other males in the area.

The greenfinches have started 'zooming', a woodpecker is tapping away and the resident song thrush in our garden is my current alarm call in the morning. I've also seen reports of the first swallows arriving to these shores. As soon as I hear the chiff chaff, then my spring will be complete.

Which birds have you heard in your garden lately?

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Breaking the Rules: Sprouted Lentils


I've learnt recently lentils have a strong urge to keep on growing. I sprouted some as usual for my Salad Challenge, but last month's exceptionally cold weather turned our appetites away from salad.

So this batch got shoved in the fridge for a couple of days until the weather warmed up. Except it didn't and a few days turned into a few weeks :o

I knew beansprouts of the shop bought variety are grown in the dark (weighted down to keep them stumpy), but I thought the cool temperature of our fridge would stop the lentils growing. After all, the text books say a minimum temperature of around 5oC is needed for plant growth. That puts them firmly into my Against the Odds series too ;)

The shoots are etioliated as expected, but I'm surprised the tiny leaves are green rather than the chlorotic yellow usually seen when plants grow in the dark. Perhaps the occasional burst of light as we go to the fridge for milk or whatever is sufficient for chlorophyll production?

This isn't me breaking the 'rules' this time, but my lentils are showing that once again, plants don't read the manuals ;)

It's interesting to see what's happened, though I'm playing safe and composting rather than eating these! 
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The 52 Week Salad Challenge is sponsored by Greenhouse Sensation.

Note to readers: sponsorship goes towards my blogging costs and does not affect my independence.

Monday, 15 April 2013

GBBD: Blackthorn Winter


We've just emerged, blinking and rather wan, from the coldest March in over 50 years. Much of the garden is only just beginning to stir into life and after a day's warmth the blackthorn - which has remained tightly in bud throughout the cold spell - has rather ironically burst into bloom.

I say ironically, because a blackthorn winter usually refers to a late cold snap in late March or early April. Had it bloomed when it seemingly wanted to last month, then I'm sure we would have seen the phrase touted regularly around the weather reports. As it is, its blossoming now serves as a warning. We may at last have some longed-for warmth, but winter could just as easily return.

The blossom gives away its Prunus heritage (it's Prunus spinosa - an apt name): such starry flowers on bare branches. A simple flower, but beautiful nonetheless. Soon the petals will be strewn across my front garden like confetti. This year the blossom is prolific, which will be good for this effect and also bodes well for sloes in the autumn.

If I have my way these particular blooms won't get to form their sloes. Like many of its Prunus cousins, blackthorn suckers prolifically. The blossom you see is right at the front of our side garden and has wormed its way through from the public land next door. If I allow these to remain - and I should have steeled my heart a couple of years ago - their next stop is through the tarmac of our drive. Don't worry, plenty of blackthorn is close by as we have a rather fine hedgerow next to the house, so we will still get to forage for sloes later on this year.

Now the real gardening season begins. There's two months work to squeeze into one, which undoubtedly applies to the flowers too. I'm expecting some unexpected flowering combinations this year :)

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

Sunday, 14 April 2013

April is the Blog Love Month II

Oh to have a compost heap so tall it needs a ladder!
Week 2 of my version of Emma Cooper's April Blog Love challenge has led me to the following new discoveries:
  • Peonies and Polaroids - a discovery thanks to Out of My Shed as Cara was on the list for the bloggers get together at Great Dixter. Sadly we didn't get to meet, but I've enjoyed getting acquainted with her beautifully written and photographed blog instead.
  • The joys of the headlines from Brighton's The Argus. My favourite (not included in the link) is Bearded Woman Attacked At Crucifixion, though many seen via the link also had me crying with laughter.
  • Rusty Duck - I love the cheeky robin on the header photo.
  • Amy at Get Busy Gardening - another discovery via Gayla Trail's Grow Write Guild :)
  • Missing Henry Mitchell - an intriguing blog name, which is succeeding in being as observant in its nature as the writer Henry Mitchell apparently was. I particularly enjoyed this week's encounter with an opossum.
  • The Smithsonian's science blog  - I could spend days reading all of their blogs! I've settled for their account of how technology is being used to identify small areas suitable for wetland creation which can make a huge difference to flood alleviation.
  • In a week when so much has been said about Margaret Thatcher, Noel Kingsbury examines her legacy with regards to public open space.
You can view my discoveries for Week 1 here.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Google Reader: The Hunt for an Alternative


So, farewell Google Reader.

It's served me well for over 5 years. I've kept up with around 300 blogs without going insane. I've even filed away long-gone favourites in there in the hope they'd be revived some day - and to my delight some are from time to time.

So like many others in the blogosphere I've started the work this week to see the potential impact and what needs to be done ahead of Google Reader's demise in July.

Looking at my subscription rates*, around 700 of my subscribers might go. Thanks for subscribing if you're reading this via your Google Reader BTW! So what are the options for you going forward?

I've come up with the following possibilities so far:

1. Use one of the other facilities you have to hand

I already use the Google Follow facility (as shown in my left sidebar) to read lots of blogs. It isn't just confined to Blogger blogs either as I've successfully added my WordPress and Typepad faves. This means I see the latest from everyone on my Blogger dashboard whenever I go in to write a post. In fact, I usually have a good read - and comment - before I start my own blogging! I also use the blogrolls on the right of my blog in a similar way as I have a couple of them configured to show post titles and to move them around according to what my blogging buddies are publishing.

If you're on Blogger, you could use these options. Wordpress has a Follow facility too, though I don't know whether it works in the same way as the Blogger one does. Let me know in the comments and I'll update this post :)

Update: I've had a play with the Follow facility in WordPress and found it's very easy to copy and paste the URL of a non-Wordpress blog using the Edit facility.

However, if you want to file your reading away into various categories or you don't blog, then these options aren't really for you.

2. Sign up for posts by email or blog newsletters

Only really viable if you read a few blogs, or to catch those which are more random in their posting frequency, otherwise your inbox will get full very quickly. It's also dependent on bloggers having these facilities on their blogs. I like the flexibility Wordpress offers for its email signups as you can elect to have them on a weekly basis and on a particular day.

Update: Janet helpfully said in the comments that email filtering can be used to categorise and store blog posts for later reading.

3. Use Twitter/Facebook

It's dependent on you using these forms of social media and the blogger tweeting or sharing their posts to them, but I do catch a fair few of my favourites (and others spotted and shared) this way. I also use paper.li to combine tweeted links into various virtual newspapers on a daily or weekly basis, which are great to catch up with over a cup of coffee. It also means I don't have to hunt through twitter to find the blog posts I've missed.

I showed you how paper.li works here. Not on Twitter, or don't want to join paper.li? You can  subscribe to my Plotting Daily instead if you like :)

I'm also going to have a look at what Google+ has to offer, especially as I have a feeling it may replace Google Follow sometime... I'd appreciate your comments if you have any experience of reading blogs in this way.

4. Sign-up to another reader

The only real option if you want to continue reading blogs in a similar way to now...

The candidates available are in the dozens if not hundreds. So how to choose? I'm playing a wait and see game at the moment, but looking at the random straw polls that are my Feedburner and blog stats, I can see the following are proving to be early leaders:
  • Bloglovin' - and this is how Veg Plotting looks on there :)
  • Feedly - which claims over 3 million have switched over from Google Reader so far
  • Netvibes - which is also one of the options Google presents if you click on my feed button
  • The Old Reader - probably the closest to the Google Reader experience
From what I've read from people who've already made the switch, these all offer an easy import facility from Google Reader. I haven't got a handle on which ones work well with mobile phones though, so any information you can add would be great! The first 3 offer an app; the Old Reader doesn't but claims it works fine on mobiles.

Update: Wordpress has since announced its own Reader option which works with the Follow option mentioned above.

Not impressed with my straw poll? Then read Lifehacker's more considered list of the best Reader alternatives.

Other things I'll be doing in the run up to July
  • Backing up my Google Reader data just in case the switch over to my new one doesn't go as smoothly as advertised. You can find out how to do that here.
  • Consolidating my various methods of reading blogs into fewer options!
Have you made the switch yet? Which reader did you go for, or which ones are you considering?

* = to find your subscription numbers, go into your Google Reader, then click on View all Recommendations under the Explore option (you can see this option to the left in the picture at the top of this post) and then perform a Search on your own blog name.

Update: Helen has commented Feedly doesn't support Internet Explorer, so you also need to factor in browser compatibility with your choice of new reader. She reports it works fine in Firefox, the transfer went smoothly and she prefers it to Google Reader.

Matt says he uses Apple Mail to manage his RSS feeds. He likes having feeds and emails in one place, but points out this will only work at the desktop level, which is fine for him. I also have a number of feeds showing in my stats which are associated with Macs or particular browsers - another example of making use of what you already have to hand :)

Janet has reminded me that using filters to automatically forward new posts to a separate folder is a great way to handle lots of email subscriptions. As a result it's her favourite way of keeping up with blogs. A very useful tip, thanks Janet :)

Also, don't consider using iGoogle, as this is due to go towards the end of 2013.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

In the Footsteps of Plant Hunters: Borde Hill

Commemorating the birth of Colonel Stephenson R. Clarke 150 years ago*.
L-R we have: great grandson Andrewjohn Stephenson Clarke, RHS President Elizabeth Banks,
Head Gardener (HG) Andy Stevens & Estate Manager Jonny Morris
I must confess that until a few weeks ago Borde Hill hadn't featured on my garden visiting radar. Now having gone there last week on a blowy, snowy day, I'm pleased to say it now very firmly is.

Even on a winter's day in April, Borde Hill is special. Why? Because just over a century ago, the then owner Colonel Stephenson R. Clarke was one of the major sponsors of plant hunters. The likes of Ernest Wilson, George Forrest, Reginald Farrer and Frank Kingdon Ward were despatched to bring back as  many wild treasures as they could muster; particularly rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and exotic trees.

Stephenson R. Clarke was influenced hugely by the wild gardening approach advocated by William Robinson and was also an early pioneer of 'right plant, right place'. He took great care in selecting sites on his estate which closely matched the conditions under which the plants and their seed were growing at the time of collection.

For the plants this means they've often grown to their maximum potential. For the visitor it can mean quite a walk to see everything as some of the choice specimens are spread over the 200 acre estate instead of being confined to the main garden area around the house. For me it meant a supplementary trip with the Head Gardener, Andy Stevens after the main day's activities to one of the estate's woodlands to see many of the prize rhododendrons just beginning to bud up ready for their spring display :)

On our garden tour - is there a champion tree out there?
We proved ourselves a hardy lot by insisting on an extensive garden tour whilst it was trying to snow. Here Andy Stevens is explaining how the garden uses the wider views of the landscape wherever possible. That hedge line behind him marks the line of the ha-ha used as the boundary between the garden and the wider estate. Next to him is Owen from the Tree Register, whose job is to measure and confirm the UK's champion trees. Borde Hill has around 80 of them - the largest number in a private collection - thus confirming many of them were indeed planted in the right place :)

I also learned they've been digitally mapping the collection - not just the champions - but some 8,000 trees and shrubs. Whilst they have records of what's been planted, it often just cites a vague location, so this will enable the creation of a much more detailed database. I was involved in a similar project with the National Trust a while ago - who've digitally mapped 100 of their 300 gardens - and I believe this has massive potential, not only for Borde Hill's management, but also in identifying key plants of conservation (and possible propagation) value. For example some of the specimens at Borde Hill are extinct in the wild now, so the garden is akin to a giant 'Noah's ark' for these plants.


I don't mind visiting gardens on wintry days because it gives me the chance to get to grips with a garden's structure. Here we have the Italian Garden stripped down to its bare bones. I was standing under one of the champion trees when I took this photo - a bonsai-like Discaria discolor - there's a little bit of it framing  the top centre of the shot.

The other aspect of Borde Hill this photo illustrates is the family's keenness to not let the garden stand still. Yes, they are very aware of the garden's heritage and history, but it doesn't stop them from changing things. Eleni Stephenson Clarke loves Italy, so this part of the garden acknowledges the memories and influence of good times spent abroad.

Elsewhere, the garden's heritage is acknowledged via an ongoing programme of replanting, some of which this year is in celebration of Stephenson R. Clarke. I saw some of the amazing correspondence on file between him, the plant hunters he sponsored and other families who were establishing plant collections in the late Victorian/Edwardian era. It was fascinating to see and will be a very useful resource for this project.


This is Jay Robin's Rose Garden, another newer part of the garden and named after the current Stephenson Clarke's eldest daughter. Studying it provides a masterclass in training and pruning roses as well as understanding I don't manure mine enough! Once again, I have walled garden envy plus a desire to see what's in the greenhouses you can just see to the left of the photo.

Closer to the house are more enclosed, intimate spaces. Some of them make use of existing landscape features such as a secret, sunken garden called the Round Dell. This was a former quarry and full of sticky clay, perfect for damp loving plants. Most of the garden is on Wealden clay, so I sympathised with Andy over its claggy nature.

I also learned Andrewjohn Stephenson Clarke is currently developing a garden app for Borde Hill's visitors. I've given him some of my ideas for how it could work and the kind of content I'd like. What would you like to see on there?

Borde Hill is poised to wake from its winter sleep and become a mass of colour as the rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias put on their display. It'll be well worth a look from then, right up to the autumn tree colours seen at the end of the season in October. My thanks go to Andrewjohn and Eleni Stephenson Clarke for their hospitality and to Andy Stevens and Jonny Morris for providing me with loads of information on the day of my visit.

This is the first post in a mini-series of snippets I have planned on plant hunting - a subject I'm keen to explore further in 2013. More to come soon :)

Update 11/4: I've just heard that Owen Johnson confirmed Borde Hill's 83rd champion tree last week: Meliosma beaniana. More info can be found on Borde Hill's facebook page.

* = the tree planted is a Styrax obassia supplied by Crug Farm Nursery from seed they collected in Japan in 2005. A rather nice connection between Stephenson R. Clarke's plant hunting sponsorship and 2 of today's modern plant hunters.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Learning to Scythe


Those of you watching The Village on Sunday evenings will have seen quite a bit of scything lately courtesy of John Simm. So, it was with great timing Beth Tilston had kindly offered to teach me to scythe on Saturday. The picture shows Beth in action in the sunshine. Yay, sunshine!

I'd always thought scything must be a difficult thing to do. Well, it's not difficult, but to do it well takes some practice. After Beth's lesson I'm confident I'll get there. The key is to keep the blade low on the ground and to keep the arms relatively close to the body (as you can see in the photo) when making the cutting swing. This conserves energy (and muscles!) and makes it easier to keep the blade in the right position. Hacking away isn't the right thing to do!

The scythe is easy to assemble and much lighter than I was expecting. Though of course a light scythe makes sense when you've got a meadow to mow. We scythed in three main areas. The first was newly emergent grass (not much of this because of the recent cold weather), which was akin to trimming an area that's looked after regularly or clearing an area which has lots of fresh growth.

The second was topping (as shown in the photo) which clears off the top layer of dead grass ready to trim back fresh growth. This technique will be useful on my allotment, not only for clearing neglected areas, but also for clearing back the mounds of grass which typically appear over the winter and a regular lawn mower really struggles with. I also used this technique to clear the grass surrounding the raised beds you can just see to the right of the photo. A smaller blade was used for this latter task due to the narrow space.

We also cleared an area of brambles close to the hedge you can see in the photo. It was most satisfying. It's also interesting to see how the scythe blade is used to turn over and trace the brambles to their source before chopping them off in their prime. Beth had cleared this area a couple of times last year and noted how the brambles' re-growth is getting noticeably weaker. Ha - take that you brambles! Something to remember for those coming over to us from the public land methinks.

As well as using the blade to turn over the brambles, Beth also showed me how it can be used to pile up the scythed grass or brambles ready for disposal. All this without any bending over - much easier on the back and legs :)

Beth also showed me how to sharpen the blade. This needs to be done every 10 minutes or so. I was surprised at first, but quickly realised how right she was. When you feel your technique's got a bit rubbish, then that's the time to sharpen the blade and find all is right with the world again. The blade also needs peening from time to time. This is a special kind of hammering technique which levels the blade out again into its optimum angle for scything.

I had a fab day - Beth is a great teacher and her enthusiasm for scything has taken her to many interesting places. I could tell you lots more, but they're Beth's stories to tell, not mine.

If you live in the south-east, or are visiting the Sussex area, it's well-worth checking out Beth's website for details of her courses. She teaches individually, or in groups of 6-8, so the latter's a great option if you can get a group together. It's a rural craft that's well worth reviving; it's eco-friendly and a useful technique to have in one's gardening armoury. A scythe is the ideal partner for anyone with a wildflower meadow and how about us starting a campaign for quieter lawn mowing on Sundays?

My thanks to Beth for her time and patience and to her friend Caroline for allowing us to use her smallholding for the day. She also provided the yummy wild garlic pesto and pasta we had for lunch :)

Useful links

Sunday, 7 April 2013

April is the Blog Love Month

Another excuse for a view of Great Dixter: the Sunken Garden this time :)
Emma Cooper, that all-round good egg of garden blogging has come up with a great challenge for April: spread a little blog love. I found out on Monday, because I was one of the first recipients :)

In her kick-off post Emma says:

It has been a bit of a gloomy old start to the year. The sun won’t come out and play, the NHS is being dismantled and anyone with a blog has been battling spam comments every day [too right - Ed]. Now we can’t do anything about the first, and it feels like we can’t do much about the second, but we can bring some love to bloggers everywhere (because we do love them, don’t we?) and so I am starting the April Blog Love Challenge.

Emma is commenting on 5 blogs a day, then sharing those posts back over at her blog. Hers will be a combination of old favourites and new discoveries. I've modified her challenge for my purposes because I've been trying to comment on 5 blogs a day since last November (it was my NaBloPoMo replacement). Instead, I'll be commenting on one blog a day I've not commented on before, preferably one I've not seen previously either.

I'm also sharing my discoveries on Twitter using Emma's hashtag #bloglove. I thought it would also be a good idea to have a weekly round-up of the blogs I've discovered. Hopefully it'll help me to keep up with my challenge ;)

So here goes:
  • First up is Alex Ramsey, whose photography I've admired for a very long time.
  • Leaves, Stems and Thorns - a discovery via a comment on my response to Gayla Trayle's Grow Write Guild - who writes about their first garden
  • Curious? Gardener - I met Colin at Great Dixter last week and have enjoyed discovering his blog since. I commented on his post about Dicentra
  • Staying with Great Dixter, we also learnt about the Christopher Lloyd Scholarship and how Maggie Tran - this year's recipient - is keeping a diary of her year at Great Dixter.
  • CJ from Above the River - started blogging a few days ago and left a comment for me earlier in the week :)
  • Ann Somerset Miles - many of you will be familiar with Ann's work already, but may not know she's blogging about Malvern in the run up to the spring show. You can catch up with what's happening via her new blog and I hope to see you at the show on Thursday.
  • And finally if you're a Blogger blogger, check out The Real Blogger Status. Nitecruzr aka Chuck Croll is very helpful on Google's 'Something is Broken' forum and his blog has lots of useful information about the key Blogger issues of the day.
Thanks for the Challenge Emma - may this post send good things your way! And thanks to those of you who've chosen Veg Plotting for a spot of Blog Love too :)

Have you made any great blogging discoveries recently?

Friday, 5 April 2013

Against the Odds: Lichen


Here's one of my school geography lessons in action: lichens colonising our bedroom windowsill. In this context they're known as a pioneer species and as the windowsill has had no vegetation previously, this is known as a primary succession.

At school we studied this kind of colonisation on rocks and lava flows. I never expected to find it so close to home, nor happening on plastic! I wonder what kind of food the lichen is gleaning from its unusual home?

In the long term this probably isn't doing the windowsill much good, but I haven't the heart to clear it off as it's far too interesting. Many lichens are an indicator of clean air - I must look these up to see if they fall into that category.

You may also like to look at OPAL's Air Survey and the role lichens play as an indicator of clean air. Looking briefly at their lichen guide, I see the yellow lichen is a leafy Xanthoria, which is a nitrogen-loving type.

Against the Odds: an occasional series on Veg Plotting looking at plants in unexpected places.

Footnote: a few days after I scheduled this post, The Telegraph issued a photo gallery showing Digging for Victory during WWII. It includes a garden created in a bomb crater - now THAT shows gardening against the odds!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Great Dixter - A Pause for Thought

First view of Great Dixter - 'over the garden gate'

Is it possible to have a memory of a place without going there?

This is the central question posed by a book called Losing Site, which I tried to review for Green Places magazine last year. I gave up in frustration because a) I found the book unreadable and more importantly b) I heartily disagreed with its premise that a place can have resonance through artifacts such as postcards.

But I'd forgotten about Great Dixter.

The Long Border

Visiting Great Dixter last week was like going home. Christopher Lloyd was the first garden writer who 'spoke' to me. His words made sense and for the first time I 'got' how magical gardening can be.

His words also form a golden thread sown through very dark times. Some years ago NAH's father died just before we went on holiday to Derbyshire. Much of that time was spent to-ing and fro-ing between our holiday cottage and Darlington;  making arrangements, attending the funeral, dealing with the final part of growing up losing a parent brings.

In the quiet pauses between the bustle, I was reading Succession Planting for Adventurous Gardeners. It was  a healing balm. If we'd been at home I would have spent time in my own garden, but as we were away, Great Dixter and its Long Border was my place of recuperation.

It's one of the reasons why I've not visited before. When so much emotion is invested in a place and what's been written, visiting can only lead to disappointment can't it?

Well, I was wrong.

Despite what the sign says, we were made most welcome!

We may have visited in one of the coldest of Marches and just before the doors opened to the public, but Great Dixter was magical. It's the first time I've been to a place where its feel can be summed up in one word. Happiness.

The team there truly enjoy what they do. Fergus Garrett is inspirational and his enthusiasm flowed from him into we bloggers there for the day. I was struck how Christopher Lloyd's legacy carries on through those left behind. The strive to learn, do better, and experiment is refreshing. It's not always perfect - Fergus readily admits they get things wrong sometimes - but the key importance is it's taken as a positive thing, an opportunity for learning. It's something that's sadly missing in most places I've experienced, particularly work.

As well as feeling inspired and invigorated, I also felt a bit daunted. The team there have so much knowledge* and expertise and I have so little. Thank goodness I have my garden and my blog; they form the backbone of my own learning.

Probably the tidiest garden nursery I've ever seen
It was a fabulous day. I had great company in the shape of blogging buddies and the team at Great Dixter put a fantastic programme together for us. I shall return as soon as I can. I feel the need to simply sit on a wall and make copious notes, just like the woman in the picture.

And I NEED to find one of these:

Helleborus 'Anna's Red'
* = this time I understood all the latin names. When I heard Fergus speak at my first ever visit to the Bath University Gardening Club 4 years ago, I hardly understood any of the plant names he mentioned. I'm holding on to the fact I've improved in the meantime!

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Writing News


A very warm welcome to Garlic and Sapphire readers :)

I'm burbling on about growing salad leaves in a guest post over at Sarah Raven's blog today. For those of you contemplating joining the 52 Week Salad Challenge, this is the perfect guide to get growing now.

In other writing news, I've also started to blog for Gabriel Ash, with a quick review of last month's Edible Garden Show. It'll be interesting to see where this regular feature goes over the next few months.

Now, I must settle down and write my latest article for Wiltshire magazine; edible insect anyone?

Monday, 1 April 2013

GBMD: Lettuce is Like...


Lettuce is like conversation, it must be fresh and crisp, and so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it.

Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900)

It might not be the 16 different leaf salad Sarah Raven enjoyed with Christopher Lloyd one February*, but I'm proud of last month's 8-leaf version grown by my own fair hand.

In the picture we have: lettuce 'Amaze', lamb's lettuce, 'Bull's Blood' beetroot, Komatsuna (leaf and flower), hairy bittercress (foraged from the patio), mustard 'Giant Red' (picked small to keep the heat in proportion), pea shoots and sprouted lentils.

I've read recently lettuce is better if left to plump up in cold water for a couple of hours before serving**. I pick ours just 5 minutes before tea and just give it a quick wash and spin dry. I don't think it's had time to wilt which is what I believe the advice is about. I feel the need for a little experimentation coming on...

I can confirm that like today's Muse Day quote, the pictured salad was fresh, crisp and sparkling :)

* = as she related during the Grow Cook Eat day she did at Yeo Valley recently. This is part of the series of talks they're hosting to raise funds for Horatio's Garden. A 16-leaf salad is what I'm aiming for next year :)

** = Sarah Raven mentioned the same thing at the Grow Cook Eat day.
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The 52 Week Salad Challenge is sponsored by Greenhouse Sensation.

Note to readers: sponsorship goes towards my blogging costs and does not affect my independence.
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