Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Monday, 26 June 2017

Bonsai: care tips from the experts

Bonsai trees exhibited by the Federation of British Bonsai Societies at Chelsea Flower Show
Part of the Federation of British Bonsai Societies gold medal exhibit
at this year's Chelsea Flower Show, including some from Swindon.  
I have a confession. I usually leave the bonsai exhibits at flower shows alone. They're quite difficult to photograph and until recently this is a branch of gardening which was a mystery to me ('scuse pun).

However, I was given a bonsai tree in March and it's clear I need some help to look after it properly. I'd read they should be kept outdoors, which was fine until April's hard frosts. My poor tree ended up with lots of leaves sporting an unhealthy bleached look.

So this year for once I made a beeline for the Federation of British Bonsai Societies' exhibit at Chelsea Flower Show, where a friendly expert was more than happy to give me a few tips.

My bonsai tree
My tree is probably Ligustrum sinense and is approximately 9 years old 

As you can see, my tree is quite small, even by bonsai standards and my first piece of advice was to bring it in for the winter for quite some time to come. Here you can see it in the final spot I've chosen for it for the summer, on the table on our patio.

This is because I need to see it from our kitchen so I'm reminded to water it daily - my second piece of advice, the tree should not be allowed to dry out. Ideally it should be fed daily too, with a dilute solution of the plant food I usually use. I was told there is no need to buy the special feeds available. I'm currently trialling some seaweed feeds, and my tree's looking much happier... it did go through an alarming period of the bleached leaves turning yellow and then dropping off. Now there's a lot of new growth - phew.

I was concerned about my tree's exposed roots and I was reassured to hear these are fine. If there are any exposed ends, then these can simply be snipped off. I spotted that most of the bonsai on display at Chelsea showed even more exposed roots than mine, with many sporting moss between them which looked quite decorative.

Now my tree has recovered from its frosty shock and has started to grow it's time to think about thinning out the foliage and training it further into shape. For this I will need some wire and I was surprised that training can also involve anchoring some of the wires into the soil. Mine is vaguely growing in an s-shape (not one of the traditional forms I was told) and this gave my expert a clue to my tree's origin:

'Aha', he said, 'you've got one of those trees imported from China via Holland.' I don't think he was that impressed.

Bonsai tree with ladybird larva

I'll persist with my tree, though going on holiday may prove a challenge. My neighbour's kindly agreed to water it every day, thank goodness. If you think a bonsai tree is an ideal gift for a keen gardener, do give it some thought. You're giving them something which requires daily attention. Will they be up for that?

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Blightwatch revisited

Good looking potato foliage and flowers

Once upon a time I wrote about potatoes and the excellent service called Blightwatch which warns when weather conditions become ripe for an outbreak of potato blight.

Back then the service looked out for a Smith Period i.e. a time during the potato/tomato crop season when the weather served up 90% humidity over an 11 hour period in temperatures above 10°C for 24 hours, and for both conditions to exist over a period of two days. If this occurred for my postcode area, then I'd get an email warning me that a Smith Period had happened, or one saying there was a near miss if the conditions only occurred for a day.

These emails usually started around July/August time and I always received them with a sense of impending doom.

Now since May this year I've had several emails called a Hutton Alert from the same service instead. This is much earlier to receive a blight warning and slightly worrying. Is my practise of growing early spuds to avoid late blight in danger now?

It seems the Smith criteria are no longer performing well, so the James Hutton Institute conducted some research to see if the system could be improved. All aspects of the criteria were tested and their results showed lowering the humidity factor to a mere six hours improved blight prediction significantly.

From what I've seen so far, it means pretty much any period of rain or damp weather results in a warning email and as a consequence I've become more blasé about the future health of my crop. I'm sure the farmers for whom this service is really designed take it much more seriously than I.

I do remember an incredibly early blight year a couple of years ago (in June) so I do have anecdotal evidence of the need for a different system, perhaps in response to a change in the way the blight fungus performs. However, my allotment is on a windy site, which I'm sure helps keep the blight at bay.

In the meantime, I'm watching my potato leaves for signs of an earlier blight than usual. All's well so far *crosses fingers*.

How's your potato crop faring this year? Do you subscribe to the Blightwatch alert system?

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Colour from the garden

Nettie Edwards in her temporary studio at Lacock Abbey

Sometimes even the most familiar things in life can offer a surprise which sets you off in a completely different direction. This is exactly what happened to me at Lacock Abbey recently - the garden I visit the most - in the form of Nettie Edwards, pictured above.

She was based in the botanic garden showing her work with anthotypes, a technique which uses plants as the light sensitive material to produce a photographic print. The technique itself is well over a century old, and until Nettie's demonstration I hadn't realised it's easy to do at home.

Nettie's view of her outdoor studio
The studio on the day I did pop by - Twitter screen grab courtesy of Nettie Edwards

All that's needed is some suitable plant material, a means to extract its juices, a paper and frame for printing, a positive image for reproduction, a source of light, and plenty of time. The combination of two of my favourite things - photography and gardens - got me fired up and itching to get started. Nettie's enthusiasm for her work also helped :)

The start of my colour notebook for VP Gardens
Click to enlarge if needed.
Note the scan hasn't quite reproduced the
actual colours, but you get the idea
I was taken with Nettie's notebook, where she documents the colours found on her travels, so I've started one of my own for VP Gardens. You'll see I've taken a simple approach of picking some likely looking material, squishing it directly onto the paper and letting it dry. Quite a few of the colours look entirely different when dry, and some of them went through quite a range of colours in front of my eyes.

From this I can instantly see which plants look the most likely candidates to play with - Centaurea montana, Clematis 'Arabella', buttercup, red berberis leaf, Rosa 'The Fairy' and Geranium psilostemon. The Monarda leaf result looks far better in real life (a lovely light green), so I've added it to my list.

Nettie's currently experimenting with 'Bull's Blood' beetroot and Allium christophii heads, though the latter came out a little disappointing in my test. Sue Carter - Lacock's Head Gardener - is growing a range of other plants for her to try and a tweet on June 13th, shows foraged wild garlic paste, and another on June 12th some gorgeous deep flower colours. Berries and other juicy produce are other possibilities to try.

My next consideration is which of my shortlisted plants can produce enough extract to coat the paper I'm going to use. I've reluctantly discarded the electric colours of the Centaurea and geranium as these currently only have a few flowers. The rest are up for grabs - watch this space!

Notes about the process for my future experiments

Pestle and mortar with Berberis thunbergii 'Gold Ring' leaves
New growth on Berberis thunbergii 'Gold Ring' - compare the colour obtained with old growth extract?


Use a pestle and mortar or a small blender. Need to filter the liquid out from the rest of the material e.g. use a tea strainer, coffee filter paper, or a clean cloth such as muslin. May need to add a few drops of water (what effect does our hard water have?) or clear alcohol (Nettie held up a bottle of vodka!) to thin down thicker extracts such as the Bull's Blood beetroot she was demonstrating.

As the material is sensitive to light, I guess it has to be used quickly. How to store to preserve its 'shelf life'... possibly in the fridge?


Don't use shiny paper, use matte so the liquid doesn't 'pool' on top of the paper. Note that chemicals in the paper can affect the final colours, depending on the chemicals used in the production process. Adding chemicals such as a few drops of lemon juice (acid), or bicarbonate of soda (alkaline) is a great way of playing around with the colours obtained. Even gently touching the damp paper with a finger can change the colour.

Several coats of plant extract may be needed to produce a colour deep enough for printing (hence the need to think about possible storage).


The paper needs to be dried in darkness before applying the next coat, or going onto printing. I'm going to use our airing cupboard.

Recent feet on the lawn image converted to black and white
I love the idea of linking my recent #mygardenrightnow project with anthotypes in some way

Image selection for printing

This is a positive:positive process, so an object or a transparency is needed for the final image. Leaves e.g. ferns would be a great way of connecting my experiments with the early photographers celebrated at Lacock Abbey, especially Fox Talbot himself.

Transparencies need to have a high contrast, preferably with lots of black & white. These can be made easily by converting a digital photo into a black & white one, upping the contrast if needed, then printing it out onto acetate. An inkjet printer like we have should be fine.

Printing frame

Nettie had some lovely vintage contact printing frames, but I found later these are expensive to buy. Improvisation with various picture frames is the name of the game and I'm going to try some cheap clip frames. Nettie suggested I use masking tape to attach the image I use to the print paper. How the print is progressing needs to be checked from time to time and the masking tape prevents the image from going out of alignment.

Producing the print

The print frame + paper/positive image needs to be left for some time to develop. The sun is used as the light source needed to bleach out the white/lighter parts of the image onto the paper, so I've earmarked my south facing windowsill upstairs for the job. How long the print takes to develop depends on where in the world and the time of year. In Italy it'll probably take just a couple of hours; here at this time of year we're looking at a couple of weeks or so, depending on the weather (hence the need to check progress).

Rosa 'The Fairy'
Or how about a plant portrait using the flower as the photographic material? I have so many ideas I want to try!

After care

Unlike most photographic prints, these can't be fixed so they deteriorate when lit as the light continues the bleaching process. Prints need to be stored in darkness and brought out on special occasions for viewing (it'd be like having a secret garden!). Alternatively prints can be mounted behind museum quality glass which reduces the UV light levels.

Nettie takes photos of her finished prints, but for her it's nothing like looking at the real print itself. The ephemeral nature of the process (just like a garden is too) and the gradual decay of the print is part of the continuing life of the image.

There are anthotype images around which are over 100 years old, so it is possible to limit the loss to a slow decline. Just like there's a slow flower movement, there should be a slow photography one too.

Other notes

I love the element of unpredictability in this process. The colours obtained from a plant will vary depending on time of picking, location, climate, weather, soil type etc etc. Then there's the potential of added variation with the paper used, the extraction process, the number of coats applied to the paper, the addition of other chemicals, and a host of other things I haven't thought of, even my mood perhaps?

I'm going to enjoy lots of experimentation with this process, by playing around with it and my garden, perhaps even linking Lacock Abbey to the project in some way. In view of the time needed, please grant me the patience to carry it through...

You may also enjoy 

Nettie's demonstrations continue on weekdays until the end of June. Highly recommended.

Read Nettie's description of the anthotype process and the production of her first print on her blog. Note the improvised equipment she used from what's to hand at the time. It's something I'm going to enjoy doing with my own experiments.

Read about some of my other visits to Lacock Abbey on my Garden Visits Page (or visit!). NB the curators at Lacock have a great way of linking the garden and photography together using various art and photography exhibitions, plus different installations in the garden - both temporary and permanent. It befits the place where modern analogue photography began.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day: In the white garden

Rambling Rector rose above the clematis

I usually think of my garden in terms of cool blues and mauves at this time of the year because of the many alliums, clematis and other flowers in full flow.

Whilst they're there as expected, their presence is dwarfed by the outburst of white that's happened over the past week or so, mainly in the trees which surround the garden. Here you can see my 'Rambling Rector' rose which has leapt over the fence onto the public land next door. The clematis you can see are draped over six foot high obelisks which gives you some idea of how high the roses have jumped.

Elderflowers at the bottom of the garden
It's also peak elderflower time, and the creamy flower heads keep the white theme going at the bottom of the garden (click to enlarge the picture if needed).

If you looked at my submission for #mygardenrightnow the first weekend of June, you'll know that bright ox-eye daisies have taken over the lawn. White clover is also making its presence felt (along with some red), and I was surprised to find some sweet rocket lying in the grass at the bottom of the double terrace bed.

I grew this flower in the lower terrace for the first couple of years (2001-2) of the garden's incarnation, only for it to disappear in year three. It must have gone to seed and remained dormant for around 15 or so years. It's a testament to the seed's viability... I wonder what stirred it into action this year, lack of lawn mowing perhaps?

Here's a closer view of some of the most notable white flowers in VP Gardens this month...

White flowers from the garden this June


1. White clover, Trifolium repens - no 4-leafed clover found... yet
2. Rosa 'Kew Gardens' - compare the flower colour with its bud
3. Ox-eye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare
4. Rosa 'Rambling Rector'
5. Mock orange, Philadelphus 'Virginal'
6. Marguerite daisy, Agyranthemum Molimba® L White
7. Mexican fleabane, Erigeron karvinskianus
8. Nemesia 'Wisley Vanilla'
9. Sweet rocket, Hesperis matronalis
10. A sprinkle of delicate elder flowers which have fallen from the flowerheads above

Rambling Rector and the mock orange are on the western fence and the prevailing wind is combining their scents in a most pleasing fashion. Too bad I can't share that piece of my garden with you. 

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

Monday, 12 June 2017

Things in Unusual Places #20: Ladybirds

Ladybird larva crawling on a laptop screen
Apologies if this photo is sending your eyes a bit squiffy! 

Last week saw an unexpected and special group of visitors in our house. As you can see, I found a ladybird larva crawling across my laptop whilst I was in my study.

There were four in total, including one NAH found on my hair, plus a couple more I found on the Flowers for Mum bouquet I shared with you last week. I suspect that was the source of all of these most welcome visitors.

I was concerned when I spotted the first one, because it was quite small and there didn't seem to be any food available. However, the next day it had happily doubled in size and I saw there were a few aphids clambering around the lemon balm and ox-eye daisies.

A day later all the aphids had gone and I discovered my first ladybird had a companion. Both were transferred outside to my 'Kew Gardens' rose to continue with their good work, as were the others I found later that day.

First I found an earthworm, then the snail, then last year a cricket graced unexpected places in my house. What's the most unusual garden creature you've found at home?

Update: NAH has just found another one upstairs and there are loads in the garden. It looks like it's going to be a good year for ladybirds.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Flowers for Mum: the wild and woolly edition

An arrangement of ox-eye daisies, lamb's ears and lemon balm
I love the cool greenery and strokeability of this simple arrangement. 

Since I outlined my Flowers for Mum project, it's fair to say things have not gone to plan. I've been preoccupied instead with obtaining some specialist equipment and care for her, and despite Georgie's reassurance that growing cut flowers can be broken down into manageable chunks of time, I failed to sow any flowers this spring.

Thank goodness for Franks Plants - still going strong - who've supplied me with many of the plants on my original list (plus a couple of extras based on your comments on my previous post) at a reasonable cost. These are now safely planted out on the allotment as planned ~ more on these anon.

Thank goodness too for my Wild and Woolly Lawn, whose self-sown flowers and leaves have yielded my first home-grown bunches of flowers, not only for mum but with a bonus bunch or three for me. I'd anticipated using the ox-eye daisies, but never the lemon balm nor the lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina) which grace this week's offering.

I picked the daisies just as their buds were starting to open. They're still slowly unfurling a week later and along with the accompanying leaves are proving to be a selection with a good vase life as well as looking attractive (in my view). This bunch also has the bonus of the lemon scent from the balm, plus the strokeability of the Stachys. It's a bunch with visual, scent and touch appeal... plus taste if a few of the lemon balm leaves are nibbled or made into a refreshing tea. Mum appreciates them all.

Self-sown flowers from the lawn and patio - perennial cornflowers, alliums and Aquilegias
May's first home-grown and self-sown bunch of flowers - perennial cornflowers, alliums and Aquilegia

Monday, 5 June 2017

Thank you for #mygardenrightnow

Many thanks for your #mygardenrightnow contributions over the weekend

What an amazing response to #mygardenrightnow over the weekend! We nearly doubled the participants from March, and more than doubled the number of entries across social media. Twitter and Instagram in particular exploded into life and as a result it's taken me a while to catch up with you all.

Roses are most definitely the bloom of the moment with geraniums and lavender running a close second. It's harder to pinpoint a produce favourite, lettuce or beans possibly. We also had some early harvest action - strawberries plus various salad leaves and herbs.

A mainly sunny weekend saw you out enjoying your gardens in many ways, with washing lines being a new notable feature alongside various garden toys. It's great to see real gardens being used by all family members and for all kinds of purposes. Sadly there was no anticipated barbecue activity, but a rather nice bonfire finished off Sunday's efforts.

Here in the UK we awoke to horrific news yesterday morning, which required a pause for reflection for a while. After that it was uplifting to see everyone coming together for #mygardenrightnow - including contributions from other Chelsea Fringe projects plus Canada, Denmark, France, India, Switzerland and the USA - to share the positive aspects of your world. I found it most soothing - perhaps gardening is the answer after all.

The next episode of #mygardenrightnow will be the first weekend in September. See you there?

Veg Plotting's photos for #mygardenrightnow
Some of my efforts for #mygardenrightnow from the weekend. Jess says hello!

For a beautiful set of photos of real gardens, look no further than the Instagram and Twitter #mygardenrightnow timelines (you don't need an account to see these feeds).

My post on Saturday has all the links to the wonderful blogs written for #mygardenrightnow.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

#mygardenrightnow: heading into summer with the Chelsea Fringe

Heading off into the long cool grass

Ahhhhhh, that's better! I love walking through dewy grass in bare feet, not that there's much in the way of grass on my back lawn this weekend. My wild and woolly lawn has morphed into meadow of sorts this month, which even NAH admits looks attractive*.

It's also proved a great source for my Flowers for mum project so far, yielding self-sown perennial cornflowers, lamb's ears, and lemon balm in addition to the blooms you can see. These originated from elsewhere in the garden, the ox-eye daisies must have blown in from the A350 nearby.

* = he got very stroppy about the weeds aka self-sown foxgloves in the lawn one year, so he's come along a bit since then.

Skimble rolling around the patio

Skimble's demanding to say hello to you too. He does enjoy the patio when it warms up.

If the embedded video doesn't work try this link instead.

The Nectaroscordum are a revelation. I planted the bulbs around 2 years ago, but it's only this year they've bloomed properly. The bees gather around the flowers, and it's such fun to watch their antics from the comfort of our kitchen.

Chelsea Fringe Logo 2017
How's your garden right now? Mr Linky is waiting below to accept your #mygardenrightnow contributions this weekend. We can then follow your links to peep over your virtual fence!

NB please enter the URL of the blog post itself rather than just your blog.

Not sure of what to do for #mygardenrightnow? All is explained here (opens in a new window).

Here comes Mr Linky...

Friday, 2 June 2017

#mygardenrightnow for Chelsea Fringe

What you need to do to take part in #mygardenrightnow

Back by popular demand, the second #mygardenrightnow weekend is upon us! This time we're doing it as a Chelsea Fringe event because it's a cool project, worthy of inclusion in their wonderful activities. It's so cool we've even made The Guardian!

The principle is the same as before. All you need to do is take a photo of yourself in your garden sometime this weekend, then blog about it or post on your favourite social media (choose from Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram) on Saturday or Sunday and let me know when you've posted your effort.

Last time we had plenty of mud, puddles, leeks and crocuses. Who knows what we'll see this time? I hope there'll be lots of evidence of you enjoying your garden as this project is all about celebrating real gardens as used and loved by real gardeners.

I'll post my effort tomorrow, along with a Mr Linky to add your blog posts. I'll also patrol the #mygardenrightnow hashtag on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to promote what you're up to. Expect others to pop by as we all come to have a peep over the virtual garden fence!

Clematis 'Diamantina'
Clematis are going bonkers in my garden. Watch this space to see if they feature in #mygardenrightnow

Some FAQS from March to help everyone join in this time around...

Does it have to be just one photo for my post?

That's entirely up to you! I plumped for one photo so it's easy for as many people as possible to join in. If you want to do more, please do.

I'm away this weekend, but I still want to join in

We had a couple of people 'adopt' the garden where they were staying last time, and you're welcome to do the same.

I have both a garden and an allotment, which one should I photograph?

It's entirely up to you. I've linked my garden and allotment together previously by using my trug to represent what's going on at the allotment. If you want to take separate photos of you at both sites, then that's OK too.

I'm camera shy

It doesn't have to be a photo of all of you. Feet or hands are acceptable and are easy to do if you're taking the photo yourself (see above). Selfies are acceptable too, the more the merrier!

I don't have a garden

If you have just one houseplant, then you can take part. That's your garden.

My garden's not a showpiece

But you love it because it's yours, right? That's just the kind of garden I want to see in #mygardenrightnow - we're celebrating all gardens. Though if yours is all primped and ready for a NGS opening (real or otherwise), that's welcome too.

Can I use YouTube?

We had a debut YouTube video the last time round (embedded in a blog post, plus another included in a Facebook Note), so I don't see why not. You will need to let me know where it is if you choose to go down this route. If you don't link to it via your blog or other social media it's more difficult to find and promote your efforts.

Let me know in the comments if you have any further questions...

... otherwise see you tomorrow and Sunday for #mygardenrightnow!
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