Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Unusual Front Gardens #24: Santa Stop Here

Festive arrangement on Haworth High Street, December 2014
Haworth, Yorkshire - late December 2014
Haworth in West Yorkshire is famed for its connection with the Brontes and is a popular tourist destination as a result. Its steeply cobbled main street has many tea rooms and shops, so it was great to spot one place where there is a home with much evidence of the hopes of at least one small child.

All the pansies were frozen into submission when I passed by last year, but once the seasonal cold snap stopped they'd soon be springing up again to brighten the stony street .

Veg Plotting will resume in the New Year; may you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year, wherever you may be.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Solstice Song

Solstice dawn 2015 from our bedroom window with the chorus from the Halsway Carol
Solstice dawn 2015 - from our bedroom window

A winter day, the summer grass turned hay
Frost in the field 'til the dawn of May
A summer's light never shone as great or as bright
So dance in the shadows of a winter's night

~ Halsway Carol - Music by Nigel Eaton, words by Ian Frisk *

We've been learning a wonderful new carol at choir and it's great to have one which is about the turning of the year at the time of the winter solstice. I took the above photo to match the words.

December daffodils at Crewkerne, Somerset
However, the scene I found at Crewkerne, Somerset on Saturday was quite unexpected - and it looked wrong when I matched the words to it. What a topsy turvy December we're having. Coincidentally,  Halsway Manor is also found in Somerset and is the only residential folk centre in the UK.

If you thought the solstice was the 21st (which I did), this year it's today at 4.49am instead. Apparently the date can vary between 20th and 23rd December, though the 21st is the most common day. This link tells you a lot more.

* = the link takes you to the composer playing the tune on his hurdy gurdy, the instrument for which this carol was composed in 2011. Click on Show More and the lyrics will be revealed.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Puzzle Corner: Christmas Traditions

2015's Radio Times' bumper Prize Crossword

Every family has its own set of Christmas traditions and it's no different for NAH and me. One of our favourites is the Radio Times (RT) bumper Prize Crossword of 60 or so cryptic clues, which marks the start of our festivities.

Puzzles such as this and the RT Trackword are a shared activity we both enjoy. It's a shame they seem to have dropped the Trackword Christmas special; perhaps they've run out of suitable Christmassy phrases for us to puzzle over. Those of you unfamiliar with the Trackword may like to try your hand with this online version I've found whilst writing this post. There's also an App if you're interested.

Over the past few years the crossword's become doubly delicious as a few of us get together on Twitter to exchange news on our progress. The first few days are sacrosanct: everyone is on their own to solve as many clues as possible, then little tidbits of help are offered in exchange for help elsewhere. It's only an extra hint mind, never the actual answer.

We've nearly completed this year's crossword, so thoughts are turning to other puzzles to tide us over the festive season. We're both enjoying Wordbrain and I see the director of GCHQ has designed a fiendish looking puzzle which I'm saving for the collective Chapman brains to crack when we visit the rest of the family next week.

Do you enjoy a good puzzle? Tell me about your favourites in the Comments below...

Update: Completely by coincidence, today's Google Doodle has a fun music puzzle based on the works of Beethoven. Here's the archive of all interactive Google Doodles, I particularly enjoyed the one celebrating John Venn's 180th birthday :)

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

GBBD: A Winter's Collage and a New Form of Plant Hunting

A collage of 9 flowers in my garden, December 2015
From top to bottom, left to right we have:
Cyclamen 'Snow Ridge' (wine form), Nemesia 'Wisley Vanilla', self-sown summer honeysuckle
Bolted rocket (arugula), an unusual form of Rosa 'The Fairy' (usually red), Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty'
Galanthus nivalis (the earliest flowering I've ever had), Rosa 'Kew Gardens', Knautia macedonia 'Red Ensign'

It's amazing to have enough flowers to make a Blooms Day collage, not only that but have enough to leave some of them out! I've noted my current colour scheme is tending towards white, pink and red. It's an interesting mix of summer and winter flowering blooms and everything looks set for a record breaking garden flower count on Christmas Day.

Talking of flower counts, you may like to take part in BSBI's New Year Plant Hunt. This looks at wild and naturalised flowers (not planted or garden escapees) open on one day recorded between New Year's Day and 4th January. All you need to do is go out for three hours and record what you see. Help is available for identification if needed, and tea breaks or comfort stops are allowed! Take the above link to BSBI's website for more information.

You can also read about 2015's results, where it's surprising to see just how much was in flower last winter. This survey looks set to join January's Big Garden Birdwatch (30-31 January 2016) as a great citizen science project which collects a useful data set over time. It's also a fun activity which is the perfect excuse for a walk and helps to lift the winter gloom. Remember, the nights are getting lighter already * even though we have a few more days of the entire day getting shorter.

* = warning, this interesting link which explains why our nights get lighter ahead of the winter solstice includes audio

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

Sunday, 13 December 2015

A Treasury of Garden Books

If you're stuck for a Christmas present or two for a gardening friend or family member, you may find something suitable in this selection of gardening books I've enjoyed this year...

For food growers


A treasury of garden books: Grow for Flavour
Grow for Flavour has turned out to be my hit of the year as it's the book I've returned to many times. James Wong has extensively searched through thousands of scientific papers and distilled the knowledge gained into this attractive and very readable book.

One of the reasons we grow our own is for the freshness and superior flavour our crops brings us. James examines the factors which influence flavour and delivers dozens of handy tips which are easily achievable.

It's not all theory and science, James also looked at which varieties do the best in our climate by commandeering some space at RHS Wisley to conduct a flavour trial. So for each popular crop examined you have a number of suggestions to try for yourself.

We noticed at the tomato trial earlier this year there was a distinct difference in flavour between tomatoes grown in pots in the greenhouse and those grown directly in the ground. The ground grown had more flavour and the Brix meter showed they were much sweeter. Sure enough, when I looked up tomatoes in James' book when I got home, ground vs pot is one of the factors discussed.


A treasury of garden books: Ferment Your Vegetables

Hot on the heels of the Fermented book I looked at last week comes Amanda Feifer's Ferment Your Vegetables.

Where last week's book served as a general introduction to the world of fermented foods, this one takes a more detailed look at just one aspect.

Here you will find lots of ideas for naturally fermenting your vegetables to produce kimchi, kraut and lots of pickles.

Being of American origin, this book has plenty of reassurance on how safe the fermentation process is and lots of troubleshooting guidance on what to do when things go wrong.

As a newcomer to fermented foods I'm glad to have both books to explore. This one is particularly good for dealing with future allotment gluts. The only downside to this book is the resources section only caters for the USA and Canada audience, so it's handy I have Charlotte Pike's book to plug that gap.

A treasury of garden books: Straw Bale Gardens Complete cover
I confess I read Straw Bale Gardens Complete in the spring, got all enthused to give it a go, but sadly family circumstances meant I couldn't put US author Joel Karsten's thorough guidance into practise this year.

It's great to have a book which puts a different cultivation technique firmly into the hands of ordinary gardeners like me. I saw instantly how it would help to clear and suppress weeds on part of my plot, and it would be easier to look after. It has all kinds of other possibilities e.g. where there is space, but no ground for cultivation - at some of our older schools which only have tarmacked space perhaps?

One caveat springs to mind for UK gardeners: no matter how well designed a straw bale garden may be, there will be plenty of onlookers who won't see its beauty. However, I'm sure there are plenty of instances where that doesn't matter.

Once straw bale(s) are sourced, there is a crucial time period where the bale has to be kept thoroughly wetted to start the decomposition process which in turn helps to feed the crops as well as providing a good water supply. Once this intensive time is complete, the amount of watering needed is far less than for more conventional growing methods - a definite plus for drier summers or where access to a water supply is restricted.

Can't source a supply of straw bales? No problem, this book shows how you can make your own.

This book is at the top of the pile for me to return to for 2016.

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For plantaholics


I love this series of Plant Lovers Guides (see my previous review of Snowdrops and Salvias; I then acquired the equally delightful Sedums and Dahlias for my birthday). They deliver just the right amount of detail on how to grow, designing with the plant in question and planting companions, plus a great selection of species, varieties and cultivars to choose from.

This latest selection doesn't disappoint and I'm hoping Santa brings me Tulips and Epimediums this Christmas, and I see there are Clematis, Hardy Geraniums, Magnolias and Primulas to come. 

A treasury of garden books: Plant Lover's Guide to Asters cover
The name Picton is probably familiar to you already as The Picton Garden in Worcestershire is renowned for its autumn asters aka Michaelmas daisies, which has national collection status.

Therefore the selection of garden owner Paul Picton and his daughter Helen to produce the Asters guide is a wise one.

Another great thing about these guides is the authors' individual voices are allowed to shine through. Here it's much more of a conversation between Paul and Helen.

An immediate surprise when I opened the book is that asters have been reclassified into several new genera, with the brain taxing Symphyotrichum and Eurybia (and a number of others) sitting alongside Aster, which I briefly touched on in October's Blooms Day. The reasons why are tackled here with aplomb, and I've since learned our American cousins have had several years ahead of us to get used to the new names as they refer to genera hailing from over there.

I also learned several of the asters looked at in more detail originally hail from the Devizes area, most notably the popular S. 'Little Carlow'. I'm contemplating starting a collection of Wiltshire cultivars - I already have the foxglove 'Glory of Roundway' for the spring/early summer, and some asters would add an autumnal highlight.


A treasury of garden books: Plant Lover's Guide to Ferns cover
I was privileged to meet Richie Steffen last year, when my friend Marty arranged for him to be our guide (with Victoria and Charlotte) round the Elisabeth C Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, where he is the curator.

I came away from the garden enthused by Richie and by the many ferns on display, especially seeing how well they're used in the deeply wooded areas. So it's no surprise to me that Richie was chosen to co-author Ferns.

Kate asked me a while ago how applicable this book is to a UK-based audience. Having now worked through the book and produced a long wishlist of ferns for the front side garden, I can assure her that it's provided me with an invaluable guide.




A treasury of garden books: Claire Austin's Book of Perennials cover
Claire Austin is noted for her displays of Irises at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, but a visit to her nursery on the Welsh border quickly shows she has a great depth of knowledge of hardy perennials.

So it's great to see she's put that knowledge to good use and produced a guide to her personal selection of 800 'good doers' for our gardens in the appropriately titled Claire Austin's Book of Perennials.

This is a useful guide for any beginner or gardeners facing a completely blank canvas to fill, or for those like me who go mad from time to time and clear out a bed entirely and start all over again. There's good guidance on 'plants for the right place' in your garden and notes on good perennials for attracting insects, or for cutting.

Irises and peonies get an extra special nod as Claire specialises in these at her nursery.

I was delighted to catch up with Claire in the pub after the GMG Awards, where she had just picked up the award for Reference Book of the Year and was 'chuffed to bits' (her words not mine). Her success shows it's possible to self-publish an award winning book and her advice to those tempted to follow in her footsteps is to hire a good editor.

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For a sense of place


A treasury of garden books: Great Gardens of London cover
Victoria has quickly followed up her hugely successful Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds (she tells me it's probably thanks to a prominent placing in the window of a Cirencester bookshop) with an insiders guide to the Great Gardens of London.

This time Hugo Rittson Thomas is joined by award winning photographer Marianne Majerus to bring us the mouth watering images this book delivers and I had a lot of fun trying to match the gardens to each photographer (I scored a pleasing 80%).

Here the definition of great is used in a wider sense to include gardens which have a firm place in our history, and may not necessarily be classified as such design-wise. All are worth their inclusion whatever the reason.

Many of the gardens aren't open to the public, so it's great to have the chance to 'sneak in the gate' of gardens such as 10 Downing Street and the American Ambassador's in Regent's Park to see what's what.

There are 30 gardens to view, divided into 'Pomp and Circumstance', 'Wild in the City', 'Gardeners' Worlds', 'High-Rise Retreats', and 'Private Paradises'. The variety is vast, from the Downings Road Floating Gardens to our latest public park, the Olympic Park. London is huge, so there's a supplement of a further 46 suggested gardens and events to explore.


A treasury of garden books: Oxford College Gardens cover
The first thing to note about Tim Richardson's Oxford College Gardens - apart from its delicious cover - is its weight, at just under 2.5 kilos according to my kitchen scales.

Like Victoria, Tim has drawn on his insider knowledge of a place - as an Oxford graduate in his case - to bring a detailed guide to the best college gardens Oxford has to offer.

Not every college makes the grade, with some of them grouped into a summary guide, before the more 'meaty' gardens are considered in turn.

It is possible to visit many of the college gardens, but Tim's scholarship and Andrew Lawson's expert lens also draws us into those parts not usually on public display, such as the fellows gardens.

I was pleased to see the gardens I was familiar with whilst working in Oxford made the grade (Magdalen, New College and St Anne's) along with my personal favourites, the non-college gardens of the Botanic Garden and University Parks.

Tim's text is engaging and the photos delightful. Once you've worked up the strength to pick it up, this is a great book for anyone planning on a trip Oxford (you can look up college opening times here), or wishing they had a souvenir of the golden times they had whilst studying there.

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Disclosure: These are review copies I've received from various publishers. Note I've only reviewed the books I'd recommend and the links are non-affiliate ones to a book company that pays its UK taxes (and delivers worldwide). The exception is Claire Austin's book where the link goes to her own website.

If you prefer to support independent bookshops, then online ordering via The Hive allows you to do so.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

A DIY Christmas Wreath

A DIY Christmas wreath I made at a workshop in Corsham

I spent a delightful morning at the Pound Arts centre yesterday making my own Christmas wreath to adorn our front door. I usually fish our willow one out of the attic, but this year I fancied trying something new.

Amanda from Daisy Chain in Corsham showed us the ropes, and accompanied by Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas' and plentiful chocolate biscuits to hand, it was the perfect way to get into the festive mood.

We started with a wire wreath ring. We fixed a thin wire onto this, then plenty of 'sausage shaped' damp moss with the wire wound around them to form the base and keep the foliage fresh. Then we snipped our greenery into lengths of around six inches. These were gathered into bunches of three and fixed onto the brown moss side of the base. We made sure the ends of the stems were together, so only a couple of turns of the pliant wire were needed to fix them. The foliage faced outwards and in the same direction.

Then came the fun part - adding the decorations from a selection of baubles, cones, dried apple or orange slices, whole oranges or limes, and cinnamon sticks tied together with raffia. These were fixed onto stiff wire, and then threaded through onto the wreath.

An optional bow plus a hanging loop added the finishing touches.

All the other Christmas wreaths made at the workshop

It was interesting to see how different everyone's wreaths were, even though we had exactly the same materials to choose from.

A few things I learned along the way

My DIY christmas wreath on our front door
It smells wonderful!
  • It was a lot of fun and surprisingly easy to do
  • Add foliage anti-clockwise, so the ends of the new bunch of foliage cover up the stems of the previous one
  • It feels like you're adding way too much foliage at the time, but it looks fine at the end
  • The ends of the last bunch of foliage are tucked under the first for a professional looking finish
  • There are two approaches to decoration: plonk and fix on one at a time and hope for the best (me); or place everything first until the design looks right, then fix on (nearly everyone else there)
  • It can be quite difficult to thread whole oranges onto their wires and some are much easier than others
  • I'm rubbish at making a bow, Amanda had to take pity on me
  • With the addition of four candles, this forms the traditional Christmas centre table piece in Germany
  • Holly are the most popular wreaths sold at the shop and they're the devil to make!
Update: If you'd like to make your own, but want a more detailed guide than I've given, look no further than the Not So Secret Garden's guidance, which has step-by-step photos similar to what we did on the day.
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This post is sponsored by Whitehall Garden Centre.

Note to readers: sponsorship goes towards my blogging costs, the words are my own. There are no cookies or affiliate links associated with this post.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Events With Capabilities

View of part of Blenheim Palace's landscape by Capability Brown.
View towards Vanbrugh's Grand Bridge (built in 1710) at Blenheim Palace, September 2010
Capability Brown re-landscaped over 2,000 acres of parkland surrounding the palace (1764 to 1774) 

Lancelot Brown was nicknamed 'Capability' because he had a habit of telling his clients their estates had a 'great capability' i.e. potential for the kind of sweeping changes which made his fortune.

Sadly Capability Brown and his contemporaries swept away many of the gardens which pre-dated their work via the 18th Century's English landscape movement. However, the movement's legacy still has much to be admired.

Now 2016 is set to have a 'great capability' as far as garden visits and events are concerned. In addition to the usual suspects, there is the long awaited festival to celebrate the tricentenary of Capability Brown's birth. You can find out which events are happening near you here.

View down to the house at Dyrham Park Gloucestershire
Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire, October 2010

Then there are Brown's gardens and landscapes, and I've included views from some I've visited so far in this post. He was involved with more than 250 and the biggest number ever will open as part of the festival, including many not usually open to the public.

Lots of those usually open are found in the care of either the National Trust or the Historic Houses Association (over 70 of them in the case of the HHA). Therefore membership of either or both organisations is worth considering if you plan to visit lots of gardens during the festival (hint, hint to NAH re the HHA and Christmas).

Lacock Abbey
View during the Illuminating Lacock Abbey event, January 2014

Here's an interactive map to find out which gardens are near you. As far as Wiltshire is concerned, I have a choice from 10: Bowood (HHA), Charleton, Chute Lodge, Corsham Court (HHA), Lacock Abbey (NT), Longford Castle, Longleat (HHA), Tottenham, Wardour Castle and Wilton House (HHA).

No wonder VisitEngland has designated 2016 as the Year of the English Garden.

Trentham Gardens
Trentham Gardens, Staffordshire, June 2010

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NB Dyrham Park is looked after by the National Trust and Blenheim Palace is a member of the Historic Houses Association.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Serendipity, Independence and Fermented Foods

Tweeted talk opportunity from Corsham Bookshop

Life's been in the doldrums of late, so I'm glad serendipity came to my rescue via my local independent bookshop.

I've wanted to learn more about fermented foods such as kefir and kimchi for quite a while, and here was an opportunity to do so (quite literally) served up on a plate. Did I tweet back immediately? You bet I did.

Nice tweeted welcome prior to the talk

Then cheery messages from both the bookshop and the author, set up my anticipation nicely for a good evening. And all this happened before I found out there'd be cake.

Charlotte Pike talking about her book, Fermented
Charlotte explains her book to Corsham TV - with tasty goodies to hand

It was so civilised to sit with wineglass in hand and listen to Charlotte Pike explain what her book Fermented is about. Beforehand I thought I knew nothing, completely forgetting I've made yoghurt and sourdough bread before.

There's still lots to learn. For instance the possibility of fermenting fruits and vegetables beyond just sauerkraut opens up a new way of dealing with my allotment gluts.

The mysteries of various drinks using kefir and kombucha were explained, alongside the fieriest of fermented vegetables, kimchi. The probiotics found in these and other fermented foods might offer some answers to mine and NAH's health problems.

Then came the tasting, and the bookshop's owners excelled themselves by making a wide selection of treats from the book beforehand to show Charlotte's recipes are easy to make and delicious. From the vegetable and preserves sections we tried cucumber, carrots, cauliflower and beetroot. All provided plenty of crunch and a variety of flavours from the accompanying herb and spice combinations.

Next came saj from the sourdough section, a wonderful flatbread to make if you haven't got the patience for the full sourdough making experience. These were spread with a savoury version of the labneh (drained yoghurt - similar to cream cheese) from the dairy section and a fantastic quick mango chutney from the preserves chapter.

And finally there was cake. Three of them in fact - a raspberry lemon yoghurt loaf cake, the tastiest stollen ever, and a labneh cheesecake. My neighbour particularly enjoyed the latter as it's a gluten-free option, with the base layer formed from nuts instead of the usual crushed biscuits.

Charlotte cheerfully answered a barrage of questions, including a few of mine. Can I use the liquid from labneh making for my sourdough? Yes. Can I combine sprouted seeds with fermenting? Not recommended. Could I use my stash of jam jars to make smaller quantities? Yes, as long as the liquid in the jar doesn't come into contact with metal.

With such an enthusiastic author, and so many goodies tasted and sighed over, it's no wonder nearly everyone bought a copy of her book!

We also gained a fascinating insight into how recipes are developed as Charlotte confessed it took 9 attempts before she was happy with one of hers. Then it's handed over to a number of recipe testers to make sure it works in a variety of kitchens before making its way onto the printed page.

If Charlotte ever needs another recipe tester, I'm sure she'll find plenty of willing volunteers in Corsham.

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If the labneh cheesecake sounds familiar, you might remember the rhubarb cheesecake I made after my cookery masterclass at Yeo Valley. I still have my sourdough starter from that time too!

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

GBMD: A Little Learning

Quotation on the Nymphaeum at West Green House, October 2015 
I've been trying to take a decent photo of this quotation for Muse Day for ages and at last, autumn's softer light enabled me to do so. It's given me quite a lot of food for thought over the past few months.

When I tell people I write a gardening blog, the most common reaction I get is I must be an expert on gardening. Anyone who gardens knows there is too much to learn in a lifetime, no matter how deeply we might drink from our own 'Pierian Spring'. My blog is simply all about what I've learned or thought about gardening along the way.

Sometimes the amount left to learn seems overwhelming, and it's tempting to think it might be best not to drink (or blog or garden in this instance) at all. However, as an advocate of lifelong learning, I've decided that would be a shame, and so I must drink deeply for as long as I possibly can.

Luckily Pope agrees, as Wikipedia's entry for Pierian Spring shows. Reading the rest of his poem reveals his true meaning: a little learning can be intoxicating, but drinking deeply sobers you up and reveals just how little you really know.

As long as I - and you, dear reader - realise my shortcomings, everything will be fine.
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