Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Friday, 29 January 2010

Mixed Messages: Recycling Plastic Packaging

Rach reminded me yesterday it's a couple of years since I posted about how difficult it is to get clear information about recycling plastic. In that time it has got a little better as companies have started to label their packaging more clearly with recycling details.

Or have they? Rach's excellent post showed one labelling scheme in operation, but this morning I noticed another one as used by the supermarket chain, Morrison's. Which packet do you think can be recycled? The one on the right perhaps? Wrong. Despite the green tick and the smiley face the small print actually says:

Not recyclable everywhere yet. To find out about recycling in your area visit
As you may have guessed, I'm a little annoyed. I wonder how many people just go on the visual cues and happily recycle that bag with a warm eco-friendly glow as they do so? What are the consequences of that action? We seem to be experiencing a plethora of different labelling schemes for recycling food packaging just as we have for the nutrition of the food within it. Why can't we have just one clear scheme? And if Morrison's do persist with this particular one might I suggest the following:
  • The face for non-recyclable goods (as shown on the left) is changed to red with a downturned mouth
  • If an item is not recyclable everywhere, the face displayed is amber in colour and with a straight mouth
  • Only goods recyclable everywhere should have a green smiley face and a green tick
  • Larger lettering would be helpful as we don't all have perfect vision
I'm just about to email this post to Morrison's. If you have anything further to add on this subject, please do so in the Comments below.
Update: Grrr and double grrr! I've just taken the above link to the Recycle Now website and have failed to find anything which tells me whether I can recycle the packet on the right in the picture in my area.
There's plenty of information on plastics and what various labels mean (including the scheme Rach posted about), but nothing explaining the Morrison's one. As there's no information on the packet to tell me which type of plastic I'm dealing with, I can't use the rest of the information on the site to see whether I can use my local recycling centre if its a type 1-3 plastic, or the plastic bag recycling facility (type 4 plastic - film) at either of my two local supermarkets.
Now I'm a pretty committed recycler and tenacious when it comes to finding out information. However, I'm probably in a very small minority and I suspect the majority of people don't bother, or will give up pretty quickly if they can't find an immediate answer and just throw their packet away so that it ends up in landfill. So I'm also emailing a link to this post to Recycle Now for their comments.
A further comment for Recycle Now: it's quite difficult to find the centre information wanted from the map presented after the postcode search when there's several sites close together. It would be really useful if the map showed the location name when each of them is hovered over with the mouse.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Singing in the Biscuit Tin

I'm guest posting today over at Encounters With Remarkable Biscuits :)

Here's a little taster to whet your appetite ;)

Whilst over at the Malvern Meet blog, there's another taster of things to come to tempt you to join us in May...

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

ABC of Weather: Barometer

This object may not look that much and I'm sure it's not that valuable, but NAH had this barometer on the wall of his flat when he first took me home and so it is a precious thing. It probably doesn't measure the atmospheric pressure around us that accurately either, but I do like tapping it every so often to see how the arrows move and thus broadly showing how our weather will be over the next few hours. As you can see, things are set fair and very dry at the moment. That's because high pressure (i.e. an anticyclone) has come over from continental Europe, and things are decidedly chilly again. Of course if this was the summer, we'd be cheering very loudly at this reading because it would mean sunny, hot days ahead. Just right for being out in the garden.

We had some sunshine today too. I was glad today's task was shredding loads of stuff I'd cleared up in the garden as all that lifting and carrying counteracted the icy blast around me. Brrr!

Changes in atmospheric pressure may also be the origins of the phrase feeling under the weather. Research in the Ukraine has shown that even slight changes can affect our ability to concentrate or our short-term memory. So the next time you've lost that oojamawhatsit, you know what to blame it on now ;)

How's the weather with you today?

For more Beautiful B's, hop on over to the ABC Wednesday blog.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Meet @ Malvern

Helen and I are organising a garden bloggers get together at Malvern Spring Show in May (6th-9th), so I've just set up a new blog to keep all the arrangements and information in one place.

We're at the stage of seeing who's interested and the dates you're able to come.

Wanna join us or know more? Then see you over at the new blog :D

Monday, 25 January 2010

Food 2030

I reckon we'll be seeing a lot more of this kind of thing over the coming months/years. Both NAH and I were handed a food container and leaflet like the one pictured at our local supermarket on Saturday. Love Your Leftovers looks to be Sainsbury's rebranding of our government's Love Food Hate Waste campaign, which in turn is set to be a central plank in their Food 2030 strategy, published earlier this month.

There's been quite a lot published concerning this document and supporting website already: you can see some of the very different blogosphere viewpoints and comments on here, here and here. Whilst I welcome the strategy, I'm also rather disappointed, particularly as the use of the word sustainable in what seemed like every sentence got in the way of the message rather. Having spent some time thinking about it further, my main gripe is because it's a strategy. There's lots of fine words, but very little in the way of how we as a country (and I don't just mean the government here) are going solve the food issues we'll have to face over the coming decades. I suspect that's one of the main reasons why others are rather disappointed too.

When I wrote about the Ration Book Britain programme a few days ago, I mentioned we potentially face a similar nightmare scenario concerning food our parents and grandparents faced 70 years ago. Then, rigid measures were introduced by the government: not only rationing (which went on for 14 years), but actions such as wasting food were made illegal. Campaigns like Dig for Victory were introduced, the country's allotments were doubled and a massive education programme swung into action. In the space of 5 years we went from producing just 30% of our own food to around 70% at the end of WWII.

This time, it looks like our government will not be so overtly draconian and parental in the way it acts. Education will be the main persuader in encouraging us to eat healthily and this in turn is expected to lead to consumer-led changes in the food industry as we change our diet and eat more seasonal food. Food production will be increased sustainably, the food industry's greenhouse gas emissions will fall, waste will be reduced and all this will be underpinned by top-notch science, research and development enabling us to do all of this in practical and innovative ways.

It all sounds wonderful, but the cynic in me isn't so reassured. My head's warning bells sounded whilst reading the Food 2030 report itself. Apparently 90% of people claim that healthy eating is important to them. Therefore it appears the messages from campaigns like 5-a-day are already getting through to the majority of us. However, we don't seem to be translating that into our dietary choices yet: we are still eating too much salt, fat and sugar and not enough fruit and vegetables. So where does that fit with a consumer-led food revolution?

Growing our own also features in the report as key to future success and there's already lots of independent initiatives around encouraging us to do more of this: Dig In from the BBC, Landshare and the RHS' Grow Your Own to name but three. All are very worthwhile, but sometimes I wonder whether a centralised, co-ordinated approach like that embodied in Dig for Victory might be more effective? I'm also concerned too much focus may be on the consumer and self-production end of things rather than what the farming industry could be doing.

Whilst I love having my allotment (and I feel very privileged to have one) and community projects such as Incredible Edible Todmorden are absolutely fantastic, but the bottom line is this: the land available for growing our own will probably diminish, not increase like it did during WWII because of the projected increase in our population taking up more land. Our farmers will need to produce more food, also on much less land than now (never mind what was available in the 1940s) and with less artificial fertilisers and water. I haven't seen anything in Food 2030 which really addresses this stark reality.

I'm also rather concerned that government funding for research seems to be trending towards pure rather than applied. Much of our agricultural research lies in the latter sector and most of the (highly regarded) food and farming research institutes that were around for me to apply for a job at when I graduated 30 years ago have already been closed or absorbed into other institutions. I'm worried the resultant vacuum is being filled by the large corporations who are focused on profiting from the results, rather than being independently led and focusing on addressing the key issues.

If that sounds rather depressing, well I think I need to refer you back to the point I made earlier: Food 2030 is a strategy, not the how to do it. As ever, the devil is in the detail and I'm fairly optimistic the policies resulting from Food 2030 will start to address the issues we face. As long as we all play our part wherever we can to help shape and act on them of course.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Blog News

I forgot to mention I have another guest post this week: over at Encounters With Remarkable Biscuits this time, all about some amusing research my friend D told me about :)

I'm also undertaking a blog makeover behind the scenes, so apologies if things go a bit skew-whiff from time to time. Blogger in Draft has the long awaited static pages option, so I'm giving it a whirl. Whilst it's a bit clunky (no lovely tabs like some WordPress themes have AND the formatting process currently leaves a lot to be desired, BUT you can test your links as you're adding them to the page), I've been meaning to simplify my sidebars for ages, so this is the impetus I need to do so. I'm currently planning pages on:

About - introducing myself, my family and where I live
Blog guided tour - looking at what makes up Veg Plotting
My Allotment & Garden - a brief introduction + link to my Open Garden Blog
Irregular Features - about some of my quirky themes, plus the memes I use/invent
Garden Visits & Showtimes - where I've been + some useful links
Public Planting - introduction to my regular 'soapbox', OOTS and useful resources guide
Press - Write-ups I've had etc.

Blogger allows up to 10 pages, so let me know if there's something else you'd like to see.

Once that little lot's in place, it should make Veg Plotting load a little faster for you as some of the images and widgets (the stuff that really helps to make it load more slowly) I use will move to the new pages. I'll also be updating my sidebar blog links to something a bit more informative than just a list and to reflect more accurately the longer list of blogs I read.

This should all be completed over the next month or two :)

Friday, 22 January 2010

Public Planting: Eureka - The Very Thing!

Eureka! At last I've found just the kind of document I've been searching for :)
I've been looking for an overview setting the context of why public planting is important, preferably backed up with references to research results which clearly demonstrate the benefits we all know in our hearts to be there. The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) have done just that, in a clear and concise manner to boot as part of their Plant for Life campaign, particularly in the Greener Planning part of their website.

Their recent report Greener Planning, Greener UK, shows there's been a 50% decline in planting and green spaces delivered in new building schemes. Of course some of this is because we're now packing our houses more densely onto the land available, but the report also says developers are failing to deliver on planting commitments outlined at the planning approval stage. Just over two thirds of councillors surveyed have seen this happen, with nearly a quarter of them saying it's been a frequent or very frequent occurrence.

Whilst I'm depressed - but not surprised - by that finding, I'm cheered that nearly everyone asked (93%) would like to see some of our Lottery cash being spent on public parks, thus showing we all care about our green spaces, not just readers of this blog! Most of the report focuses on making the case for ensuring future planning decisions fully embrace the need for green spaces, in the language that local authorities will understand. Don't worry, the report is a good read for everyone and is relatively short. It's also a useful document for looking at our existing public planting and provides a useful guide (with some key questions to ask) for anyone wanting to urge their local council to do better.

Here's just a few of the benefits research has shown our green spaces provide:
  • Significant reductions in stress and anxiety within 5 minutes of viewing a green landscape
  • Hospital patients with a view of green space suffer less pain and recover more rapidly. Their need for medium to strong pain killing drugs can be reduced by 25%
  • A 10% increase in tree cover could negate the 4 degrees centigrade rise in temperature predicted over the next century
  • Plants and trees grown for shelter and shade can reduce the energy consumed by buildings by 20-40%
  • Providing green spaces around the workplace can help to reduce absence levels by 23%, reduce staff turnover and also attract higher calibre job applicants
  • Buildings set within well cared for green spaces suffer 32% fewer crimes
  • Attractive surroundings can increase property values by 5-7%
Impressive figures in themselves, but couched in more business orientated terms, the money we could save must be in the millions. Food for thought in these cash strapped times.

Those of you reading this across the pond (and elsewhere) will find the report useful reading, even though it's aimed at a UK audience. You may also like to have a look at the America in Bloom website (which also applies to anyone reading this post), where there's lots of resources for making the case for the benefits of plants. I'm particularly drawn to the report produced by the Philadelphia Parks Alliance showing that their parks have not only saved the city millions, they've also brought in an income of millions of dollars too.

I'll be creating a summary page to go up in my sidebar shortly with these useful links, including the CABE ones I told you about in my OOTS wrap-up a few days ago :)

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Picture This: Winter's Beauty

Gardening Gone Wild have been holding a monthly photography competition for a while now, and this month I decided I'd try my hand at the given theme, Winter's Beauty. For once, we've had plenty of snow here in Britain to tempt us outdoors to try and capture our winter wonderland. However, I had to make do with a quick trip around the garden just as everything was beginning to thaw, whilst desperately scouting around trying to find something just that little bit different to show you.

One of my winter joys is looking at the whorled seedheads of the many Clematis in my garden and some, similar to the one shown below (taken last December) have even sneakily crept into Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day from time to time. However, this picture could easily have been taken in the autumn, so it was reluctantly rejected as a contender.

This one (a seedhead of my wonderful sport of C. 'Crystal Fountain') with its jauntily tilted cap of snow made me smile, but I felt it didn't adequately depict Winter's Beauty either.

However, getting in close to look at the few remaining ice crystals at the heart of this C. 'Nelly Moser' made me appreciate the structure of this seedhead anew. It's like each seed has its own protective fleece to keep it snug and warm. There's also something about the soft, out of focus elements of the picture that says 'oooh shivery' to me. Therefore, this is my chosen entry for this month's competition :)

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

ABC of Weather: Atmosphere

It's ABC Wednesday round 6 with a twist(er): I'm attempting to keep to a theme for 26 weeks rather than thinking of something at the last minute like I've done for the last 3 rounds ;)

We Brits are notorious for our obsession with the weather owing to its variability in our country. It's of interest to all gardeners and I'm also attempting to monitor what's going on in my garden. so it's got to be a sure-fire VP blogging winner*. I'm struggling with what will appear for X, but hey, that's ages away...

So without further ado, let's put the spotlight on A for Atmosphere.

Here's a nifty little diagram, showing how our atmosphere is divided into 5 layers above the earth's surface - you can click to enlarge it if needed:
Diagram adapted from The Weather Book.
Our atmosphere comprises a number of gases trapped by the pull of earth's gravity. The lowest layer, the troposphere contains about half of the atmosphere's total (though Wikipedia says around three quarters), and its height varies between the poles (where's it's at its thinnest) and the equator. The actual height of the troposphere on any day at any point on the earth's surface also varies slightly depending on what's happening with our weather. The name troposphere is derived from the Greek, tropos meaning turning or mixing. Most apt really because this is the layer where our very variable weather occurs, though it may also be influenced by the layers above it, particularly the stratosphere.

The gases in our atmosphere are about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.038% carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases plus a group of substances known as atmospheric aerosols, minute particles from volcanoes, desert dust whipped up into the atmosphere, plus human made ones from burning fossil fuels etc. These tiny particles can have a significant impact on our day to day weather e.g. dust from a volcanic eruption can increase cloud cover which in turn leads to atmospheric cooling and increased rainfall. The troposphere also contains almost all of our atmosphere's variable amount of water vapour, on average around 1%. The actual amount of water vapour is affected by what's known as the water cycle, particularly the effects of any evaporation or transpiration occurring at the time.

The earth's surface stores up the heat it receives from the sun and transfers it back into the troposphere, particularly at night. That's why the graph shows this layer as a relatively warm one (though the thermosphere is where it gets really hot - off the scale as far as my diagram is concerned - with a toasty high of 1,700 or 2,500 degrees centigrade depending on which reference we're looking at). Why the troposphere gets colder with altitude when we all know warm air rises, needs a post all to itself (in the meantime, see this link for an explanation).
The other layer I'll mention briefly is the stratosphere, because this is the one containing most of our atmosphere's ozone, the lessening of which has been of major concern with global warming. This reactive form of oxygen absorbs most of the sun's ultraviolet radiation, thus cushioning us from the harmful effects of these rays and preventing the troposphere from heating up to a temperature where we couldn't survive. If you're interested, here's some links to the layers I'm not telling you about: the middle layer aka the mesophere and the outer layer aka the exosphere.
So, to sum up: the atmosphere is complex (and I could say so much more about it) and very important for my themed ABC Wednesday round because it's where our weather actually happens.
How's the weather with you today? Here, it's snowing again!
* = I've also been rather obsessed with the weather since I was small: I invested my pocket money in a little book called The Weather Guide when I was 7 years old and I still have it. The Weather Book is similar, but published last year and I had a very happy half hour leafing through it at Bristol Temple Meads station last year whilst waiting for a train.
For more Adventurous As, do have a look at the ABC Wednesday blog.
Update: I'm also guest posting on The Guardian Gardening Blog today, where you can find out about Potato Days just like the one I'm going to on Saturday :)

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

VP's VIPs: Tim Matcham, Garden Designer

I have something new for you today: VP's VIPs, a series of interviews with people involved with the nuts and bolts of the garden industry in some way. First up is Tim Matcham, who battled through the snow last Wednesday to meet up with me at our local farm shop. After all that weather we'd both got cabin fever, so it was great to get together for a good old natter and feel like we were doing something gardeny for a change.

Tim is a local garden designer, based in Neston [about 5 miles from Chippenham] who takes commissions from the Bath and Wiltshire area. He's also the owner of The Garden Network, one of the larger, well-established online gardening 'clubs' and if that isn't enough he also blogs from time to time :)

What have you been up to during the cold weather? Getting to grips with Vectorworks [3D design computer software]. Whilst I can 'see' what a garden looks like from a 2D plan, most of my clients can't and this software has the potential to 'walk' them through a design and to see it from a number of viewpoints.

Why garden design? I spent 25 years in the print industry, but redundancy a few years ago coupled with a training cheque meant I could build on the introductory course I'd started at Lackham College in my spare time and start studying for a more formal design qualification [HNC in Garden Design & Planning - Tim was awarded Distinction].

That sounds a bit risky? Yes, we'd recently moved from Bedfordshire to start afresh, and some friends offered me a couple of hours work a week looking after their garden. That was enough encouragement for me to start my own garden services business whilst I retrained. That work simply snowballed over the two years I was at Lackham and then I found my first garden design client in 2005.

So are you now concentrating solely on garden design? No, I still look after a few gardens. I consider that to be part of my ongoing training as I can expand my knowledge of various plants and their care, which in turn means I can give better advice to my design clients.

You had a show garden at the Bath & West Show a few years ago? Yes, and it won Gold :) It was an amazing experience, though I didn't find any new clients there as most of the visitors were from the farming community. However, I do use it to show potential clients I can successfully deliver a garden to a set brief, on time and to budget. In this case it took £3,000 for a 4 metre square design.

I see the final garden was different to that shown in the original drawing, I thought there were marks deducted for that? As well as the original brief and design, I could submit an addendum. I soon realised the planting in the middle of the design was surplus to requirements. That's another thing I learned from my show garden experience: don't try to cram too much into a small space.

What's your key to delivering a successful garden design? Completing the briefing process well and in detail is crucial. The more time I spend getting to know my clients and what they want to do with their garden, the less problems we have along the way and the more pleased they are with the results. I'm told this is where I win over other designers.

Programmes like 'Ground Force' have led many to believe anyone can design a garden and deliver it in a couple of days. How do you overcome that perception? Yes, there's plenty of people who still think £500 for a 'garden makeover' is all they need to spend. That will do little more than pay for the skip hire and initial clearance. It's my job to talk to them about what they really want from their garden and to show them the amount of work that's needed to achieve it.

What happens if a client asks for something which you know won't work? Again, I'll talk to them about what they'd like. If we've got a good working relationship, then they'll take my advice and we'll find an agreeable compromise. Sometimes, if someone has very fixed ideas especially if it's the entire garden layout, then I have to say there's nothing I can do for them and I'll recommend someone else, such as a landscaper for instance.

So you don't build the garden then? No, I'll project manage and get the expert help I need in!

How much does it cost typically? Of course budgets vary enormously dependent on the scale and nature of the project. Most of my clients tell me I design something far better than they could have imagined, so they like the results. I also have some clients who also understand that using quality items such as a special water feature or sculpture will add value to their garden. After all a design, especially an expensive one doesn't have to be delivered all at once: we can take a phased approach and spread the costs. I'm doing this with a client in Box: the garden's spectacular and will be open for the first time this summer during the village's Open Garden event.

How do you market your business? Word of mouth is my number one source of clients, though of course you need some in the first place for this to work! I also get a good number of clients from my website following Google searches for garden design in Wiltshire. I've found advertising in local magazines like Wiltshire Life hasn't been that successful, so I'm currently having a think about how and where to advertise for my next campaign. I'm one of the sponsors of the local film club [that's how I got to meet Tim in the first place], which has been successful in the past.

What's the latest design trend? People still want low or straight-forward maintenance designs. They want to enjoy their gardens, not spend all their leisure time looking after them. Oh, and good garden buildings are coming up fast as working from home is increasing. Did I tell you I also have a rather nice sideline in quality self-build conservatories and garden rooms? ;)

Anything else you've noticed? Some garden centres are starting to include design in their landscaping. They're not a Chaumont or Chelsea, but they're showcasing a number of different styles and 'rooms' which will work in the area they serve. I wouldn't be surprised if some customers come away with the entire plant list from a design they've admired instead of the couple of plants they intended to buy in the first place.

Do you have a top design tip? Take time getting to know your soil [also a key part of Tim's briefing process]. Even in limestone areas like ours there's surprise pockets of sandy soil to be found. If you know the soil, you know what needs to be done to get it into tip-top condition and you can select exactly the right plants for the design that will thrive. This in turn leads to better established plants and less time needed to maintain them.

Do you have designs on your own garden? We're on top of an old quarry, so I don't have to dig down that far to reach solid rock. Ideally, I'd like to take out the current brashy topsoil, bring in a load of decent stuff and start over again!

Which gardens inspire you? My grandparents' garden at North Court Manor* on the Isle of Wight. I spent many happy holidays there as a boy and it was a garden which had everything. Locally, The Courts is a hidden gem as is the Peto Garden at Iford.

Thanks so much for agreeing to meet up with me Tim, especially on such a snowy morning! I'll be writing about about The Garden Network another time because it deserves its own space and this is quite a lengthy article already. We chatted for around four hours and this just scratches the surface of what we talked about. I expect other anecdotes will appear in later articles too :)

* = The next day I received a text from Tim, telling me North Court Manor is one of the gardens featured in the February 2010 edition of The English Garden magazine. It's interesting to note the garden has some completely different soil types within its 14 acres: both sandy and limestone areas owing to the island's interesting geology. It reinforces Tim's point about really getting to know your soil.

Monday, 18 January 2010

VPGGB#13: Bulbs Revisited

Being desperate to find any gardening related activity last week, I resorted to trawling around the garden departments of the local DIY stores one afternoon to see what's new. It's mostly the usual suspects: summer bulbs, plus a few dormant herbaceous perennial roots. However, this year looks set to be big on Dahlias as I found lots more choice than usual with not a D. 'Bishop of Llandaff' in sight. I've stocked up on more D. 'Arabian Night' as this did so well in my garden last year as well as looking marvellously sultry. I added a contrasting D. 'Duet' to my shopping basket: a cranberry and white striped combination, plus pure white D. 'Sneezy' again for contrast, but mainly because the name made me laugh.

All these were on offer at around the £2.49 mark for 2 good sized tubers, or three packs for a fiver. Good value, especially when catalogue prices are around £5.95 for three tubers + postage. However, the best bargain of the day were the pictured autumn onions for 10p. I know they should have been planted out by the end of November, but the sets are still very firm, with no hint of sprouting. Now, I have a track record in tardy bulb planting: In February last year I was planting some daffodils I found lolling around in the garage, 5 months later than advised. But I still had a marvellous display, with them flowering just a couple of weeks later than what was said on the packet.

Bearing that in mind these onion sets have got to be worth a try, so I'll be planting them later on today. If you've still got some bulbs lying around - floral or vegetable - and they're still sound, why not give them a go and plant them, despite what's said on the packet re planting dates. And if you find any similar bargains in the shops (like the tulips I used for my guerrilla planter last month), don't hesitate to buy them if they're still firm. Even if the ground's too wet or you've used up all your pretty pots, potting them up in any medium to large containers you've kept from previous plant purchases will give you plenty of additional colour to dot around in any gaps you find in your borders come spring :)

Friday, 15 January 2010

GBBD: Soggy Blooms

From left to right; top to bottom: a rather damp Viola; Clematis cirrhosa 'Freckles'; Primula 'Cottage Cream'; Galanthus nivalis; Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty', Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'

After the cold and snow of the past few weeks, the thaw's set in just in time for this month's Blooms Day. I reckon January's the low point of the year gardenwise, with the fewest blooms to show you, so it's onwards and upwards from now on. Most of my flowers are really just buds, as the cold weather has made them shiver and close up for survival, but even perfectly formed buds are a cheerful sight at this time of the year.

I have just 2 plants in flower, the Violas in large pots close to the house, deliberately placed there so they can be viewed easily and to get a little extra warmth. Their delicate perfume can also be sniffed when I venture outside. The other bloom is Primula 'Cottage Cream' in flower since July. Both plants are looking a little frayed round the edges after their recent wintry onslaught, but are no less welcome for that. Finally, there's a portent of what's to come: aptly named snowdrops emerging sleepily from their icy duvet :)

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

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Spirit of 1940

When NAH and I were on holiday in Cheshire last November, we visited the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port, one of three centres celebrating the heritage of our canals. On the day we visited, the museum was holding a wartime weekend, so there were lots of additional activities to show the role canal folk and the canal network played during WWII.

Food was a central feature and whilst the pictured typical 1930s garden behind the canal workers terraced cottages was a little lacking on the Dig For Victory front, this wasn't the case in the museum's cafe, where we both decided to pass on the spam fritters and have corned beef hash instead.

It got me mulling over my Incredible Edibles strand at the time and whether we might need to return to those days of rationing if we fail to meet our growing demands for food when the cost of importing around 70% of it (which is what we do at the moment) becomes economically unviable. I'm currently reading the government's Food 2030 Strategy (more in another post) which of course doesn't include this nightmare scenario, but I'd still like to know more about rationing and the wartime diet my parents experienced.

Tomorrow (15th January) there's an opportunity to do so because Yesterday (formerly UKTV History I believe) is showing a programme called Ration Book Britain at 5pm which commemorates the 70th anniversary of food rationing starting. Valentine Warner will cook some of the dishes found in wartime cookbooks, such as Woolton Pie (a vegetable pie, named after the then Minister for Food) and eggless sponge cake for his mum plus Marguerite Patten, who originally developed some of the recipes.

This is the first of six shows under the banner The Spirit of 1940 and Yesterday have also launched a companion website. As well as more from Valentine Warner, there's also a blog, where a mystery person is spending a month living off wartime rations. I'd be fine with my weekly 2oz tea ration (I'd donate mine to NAH as I can't drink the stuff), but I'm not sure how I'd cope with my alloted portion of butter and bacon (2oz and 4oz per week respectively). The blog is already building into a useful set of resources and recipes.

As well as these goodies, Yesterday are asking for help in compiling an online library of stories and memorabilia from WWII. This could be in written or picture form and scans of any precious documents are accepted rather than sending the originals. I'm going to have a look at the family recipe book we have downstairs: it dates back to NAH's great grandmother's time and has been added to by successive generations. There might just be a wartime recipe to share. We also have a gardening book dating back to the 1940s which shows how to convert your garden onto a Dig For Victory footing which I'll send in if I can get our scanner to work!

If you or members of your family have any WWII experiences to share (not just rationing or food growing), Yesterday would like to hear from you. You can send your memories in any format by email and the best will be chosen to display on the website for all to see. Getting involved is easy, you can either visit here or email your stories to

Yesterday can be found on: Sky 537, Virgin 203, Freeview 12.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

ABC Wednesday 5: Z is for...

... Zonal Denial

For ABC Wednesday this time last year, my chosen Z was Zones, the way of broadly categorising climate into regions so familiar to our gardening cousins across the pond. However, it was only whilst reading Noel Kingsbury's blog the other day that I came across the term Zonal Denial.

I'm sure many of us are guilty of zonal denial, irrespective of whether we're guided by the zone system or the RHS hardiness classification used here in the UK. After all, it's all very broad-brush and as gardeners we know other factors affect what can be grown successfully, such as aspect, soil type and height above sea level. Besides, most gardeners also love to experiment, so why not try growing some plants which are borderline hardy?

I'm sure talk of climate change and global warming have also fuelled our desire to have something a little different to our neighbours, plus the concern that we may no longer be able to grow some of our best loved plants has led to us seeking out alternatives. For some, a tropical garden is the preferred garden style, or an ongoing experiment to see exactly what can be grown in our climate. For many younger gardeners, a hard winter has been an historical fact rather than a present danger. Despite all the 'how to protect your garden for winter' guides around, it's tempting to leave the taking of precautionary cuttings plus the garden fleece, straw and bubble wrap safely stored in the garden shed, because it's all a bit a faff and the results look rather ugly.

So yes, I'm guilty of zonal denial and like many of us I was caught out last winter. Luckily my Dahlia duvet still worked (though I do wonder if this year's will prove sufficient), but I lost a prized Echeveria and a tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica). Surprisingly, the tree fern which was languishing in a plastic pot for 2 years in the nursery area did survive to replace it: I think my laziness in not taking it out of its plastic bag may have been enough protection. And despite my initial fears, my Fuchsias just about recovered sufficiently to put in a rather late flowering.

I'm glad we had last year's warning, because in late October I diligently put fleece around my surviving tree fern, thoroughly mulched everything in the garden and shifted lots of potted tender plants to snuggle up together in my cold frames. These are permanently lined with sheets of polystyrene, so I'm hoping this is cosy enough for them this extreme winter. However, there's one exception: a vigorous Anthemis tinctoria 'E.C. Buxton' was left to fend for itself this year because my cold frames were full. As you can see, it hasn't withstood the effects of the icicles on my leaky gutter dripping down onto it :(

As with any extreme weather event we have, our month of very cold temperatures has left many questioning whether global warming is happening. But what we're experiencing is day to day, really variable weather: climate is the average of this variation measured over time (30 years at least) and the trend is resolutely on the up. However, this and last year's winter clearly show we can't afford to continue to be zonal deniers, without taking some precautions. Or when things do fail, perhaps it gives us an ideal opportunity to try something new instead?

For more in the way of Zingy Zeds, do head on over to the ABC Wednesday blog.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

OOTS: December Wrap-up & 2009 Review

Many thanks to all of you who contributed to December's Out on the Streets. As expected, most of you showed us pictures of your town or neighbourhood's festive decorations, which certainly helped me to get in the mood for Christmas and I hope you did too. They were such fun, I'd do that all over again, with or without the existence of OOTS :)

As Christmas is well and truly over, I'm not going to summarise everyone's contributions this time, but I'll give all participants a mention at the end of this post. However, I will talk about Helen and Anna up front because they both managed to find some public planting to post against all the odds. Both of their posts show grasses are a major force to consider if planting is to look good at this time of the year. Most magazines show them tinged with frost in their winter features and whilst they do indeed sparkle in that setting, I think OOTS is admirable in showing us what still manages to look good when the sun's not shining and conditions are less than ideal.

When I started writing in earnest about public planting early last year, I asked the question Do We Care About Public Planting? Your response shows that we certainly do. However, I believe in general its profile needs to be raised a lot more and good planting is often delivered against all the odds. The issues involved are complex and are set to become even more pressing as the fallout from the credit crunch takes its toll and our population grows over the coming years.

However, I've been heartened by all your 2009 contributions showing good public planting can be found. I was also pleased to see public space designs featured as some of the show gardens at last year's Chelsea (such as here and here). This is one of the few times when gardening crosses over into the mainstream media, so no matter what you might think of the show itself, it's the main chance we have of getting these things talked about. Another profile raising outcome last year was Maggie's London winning architecture's Stirling Prize. Maggie's is open for anyone affected by cancer, but for me there is no doubt that Dan Pearson's garden designs are not only a key factor in the centre's success, they were also a major help in winning the award.

Here in the UK at least these encouraging signs are set to continue as the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) commenced a major campaign last November called Grey to Green. CABE is the government's advisor on architecture, urban design and public space and have been my richest source of good background material so far. Their initial report, Grey to Green: how we shift funding and skills to green our cities makes for very interesting reading and I've also signed up for the campaign's email alerts.

I'm pleased OOTS will continue this year and I'm already looking forward to your contributions. It's fast becoming a resource in its own right, so I'm also mulling over how to carry it forward alongside all the hundreds of bookmarks on public planting I have yet to consolidate into something more meaningful. I also need to reflect on what you've shown me plus my own discoveries made along the way. I'm anticipating writing some opinion and summary pieces this year, in addition to showing more examples of what I've found. I'm also in the middle of reviewing a book called Parks, Plants and People (about Lynden B Miller's 27 years designing major planting schemes in New York) for ThinkinGardens: that needs to be fed into the mix on here at some point too.

So as far as 2010 is concerned, there's lots to do! The picture's from my last trip to London of a rather jolly van I found, which I also need to tell you more about soon.

December OOTS rollcall:
Petoskystone - no blog, so via Photobucket instead!

Monday, 11 January 2010

Psst! We're Getting Another Bank Holiday

Whilst the media had a feeding frenzy over the state of our weather last week, our government chose to announce we're getting another Bank Holiday (aka public holiday) ... in 2012. I'm wondering if they carefully choose days to bury good news as well as bad. What do you think?

Assuming our illustrious sovereign keeps going for another 2 years, we'll be having Tuesday, June 5th off to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee. The late May Bank Holiday will be moved to the Monday, so we'll have a long weekend, just like we did for the Golden Jubilee in 2002. Order your bunting and start organising your street party now!

My beautiful RHS diary has a fascinating page at the back showing all the public holidays of various European countries. France has 14, Germany 17 and Spain 16. Lithuania has the most with a whopping 18 and the average across the 28 countries listed is 13.9. We get a miserly 8 most years (as does poor Romania), though Northern Ireland manages 10 public holidays per year, and Scotland's MSPs voted in 2006 in favour of a voluntary extra day off to mark St. Andrews Day, so actually we're not that consistent across Britain.

I always feel a bit grumpy after reading that part of my diary, but I'm heartened to hear there is a growing lobby for us to have an extra public holiday on a regular basis. The TUC are leading the campaign and a recent survey shows that the majority of 150 MPs asked are in favour too. I've often seen Armistice Day in November suggested for this: I would agree as long as the day focused on peace rather than war. I'm much more in favour of the campaign for us to have a Community Day on the last Monday in October.

A number of companies, including the most recent one I worked for already have a similar scheme where employees are given an extra day off per year for voluntary service. No activity approved = no extra day off. In many cases it's turned into a team building exercise where everyone turns out for a project, such as decorating a local community centre. These organisations already recognise this kind of activity delivers real benefits to their company in addition to the many thousands of extra volunteer hours available to make a difference somewhere.

If that's the case for the more enlightened companies, then why not extend the concept nationwide? It would be a day of positive action and also break up the long run from our August Bank Holiday up to Christmas. If you think we can't afford it as a nation, then have a look at the arguments for having such a day here.

Do you think it's a good idea? If it happens would you spend the day as suggested, or perhaps you see it as a good excuse for an extra lie-in, or maybe something else?

Friday, 8 January 2010

OOTS: My Guerrilla Planter

It's always really hard buying presents for my mother-in-law nowadays, ever since she's been in a care home because she's not in need of a lot of stuff. This Christmas was no exception, especially when we found out my brother-in-law had already bought the nice top and houseplant we'd come up with as ideas for presents.

So I was mulling over what else could we buy V and came to the conclusion that the best present we could really give her is a better view out of her window. Currently all she has is an expanse of lawn, a couple of rather bedraggled trees plus the birdbath NAH's aunt bought her a year or so ago. It's no wonder her chair's usually turned away from the window.

Now transforming V's view and the rest of the care home's landscaping to something a bit more exciting is a major project which will probably take some time to achieve, but I came up with a quick win that I hope will bring some cheer over the next few months. I've put together a guerrilla planter: a garden pot stuffed with bulbs and plants which should bloom from February to around June and can then be planted out into a permanent position later on.

You can see its main ingredients in the above picture:
  • A lightweight, but frost resistant Eco Friendly Fibreclay pot to match the birdbath (and thus merge with the scenery) @ £12.99
  • 2 packets of bargain tulips bought on Christmas Eve (yes, inspiration struck rather late in the day!) @ 99p each (Tulipa tarda to bloom March/April and lily flowered Tulipa 'Maytime') also from our local garden centre
  • 1 packet of Allium 'Purple Sensation' - a Garden Club freebie which I was planning on guerrilla gardening somewhere, but hadn't got around to yet
  • A few Violas left over from doing my winter pots - they needed trimming right back, but that's fine, the pot should be well established in its new home (and therefore part of the scenery - it's all about stealth establishment, so I didn't want anything too flashy at the outset) before they fill out the planter and start flowering profusely around February time

I already had plenty of compost and slate chippings in stock to fill and top the planter respectively. I started by putting an inch thick layer of broken polystyrene (aka styrofoam - also to hand and used to reduce the final weight of the pot) in the bottom the planter, then added a base layer of compost to about half its depth. Then went in the Alliums (x5) covered with compost. Next a layer of 'Maytime' tulips (x8) and more compost were added and finally a top layer of the Tulipa tarda bulbs (x15) at about 3 inches depth. I then squeezed in 5 Violas at the top of the pot, infilled with more compost, then topped off the whole lot with the slate chippings. The pot is about 9 inches in depth and 8 inches wide.

Once that little lot's finished blooming, I'll be able to plant them outside V's window for year-on-year flowering and refill her pot with some summer interest plants ready for further guerrilla planting later on in the year. I plan on repeating this until the care home's woeful landscaping is dealt with properly.

And what did V think? She loved it!

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

It's Still Snowing

9am this morning and we're at the wonderful stage where everything has a snowy highlight and there's not a paw nor footprint to be seen. The sounds of the world are muffled and it seems a simpler place somehow, unless you have to go out of course. I have a reflexology appointment later on the other side of town and I don't think that constitutes an essential trip: everyone's been advised to stay at home unless their journey is vital.

I've taken another video of the garden, but as it's so similar to yesterday's, I thought it wasn't worth loading up for display. The birds are still singing (as some of you observed), but today it's more of a token gesture. I was speculating where this winter might fit in the record books: so far it's the coldest since 1981/2 according to today's news.

I remember that winter very well. I'd just left home in Birmingham and moved into my first house which I'd bought at Pity Me, just outside Durham. There was no central heating, just a couple of gas fires. It was the devil of a job to keep the house warm and I awoke every morning to the sight of ice on the inside of the windows. I was sleeping on the floor at the time too as buying the house had taken all the available cash I had* and the thin mattress I'd managed to borrow was piled high with duvet, blankets, coats and everything else suitable in an effort to keep warm. The wind tore through the telephone lines outside the house making the eeriest of music at all hours of the day and night. I can also remember the River Wear freezing over in the centre of the city.

I was terrified the water pipes would burst, so I kept the fires on all day together with the cooker, so I was equally terrified that the house would burn down whilst I was out at work. Yes, I went to work: I'd just joined the Civil Service and they had a rule that if you lived within 3 miles of any Civil Service office, you had to make your way there when the weather was bad. I lived 2 miles away, so walking sliding there was the order of the day. That in itself was pretty scary because I had to go under the railway bridge just as I reached the city centre and there were some terrifyingly long icicles (over 4ft in length) dangling above my head as I went through.

The house didn't burn down and mine was the only one in the street not to have burst water pipes when the big thaw eventually came. Of course I thought it was a tremendous adventure at the time, but today I'm rather glad our house has central heating and my bedroom has a cosy duvet to snuggle under. It seems I've lost my tough northern constitution and joined the ranks of the softy southerners after all ;)

How's the weather with you today?

* = it was actually cheaper to buy a 2-up, 2-down terrace house than to rent a tiny flat, though I hadn't factored in the cost of buying furniture as well. A few essentials such as a cooker, table, dining chairs and a wardrobe came with the house. My new colleagues were wonderful (even though most of them couldn't understand why a young, single lass was buying a house especially when the sight of a ring on a certain finger was nowhere to be seen) and donated all the spare furniture they had, so I only had to sleep on the floor for a few weeks.

But do you know what? I was so proud of what I'd managed to achieve by scrimping and saving out of my student grant, post-student and holiday jobs that I sat there as pleased as punch despite the cold. That sense of freedom, independence and readiness to take on the world was absolute bliss :)

ABC Wednesday 5: Y is for...

...Yearly Review and Snow!

Like many of you, it's been my intention to review the year here at VP Gardens (just like I did for 2008) and to look forward to 2010. However, a heavy head cold kindly donated by my nephew has held things up a little and today's the first day when I really feel up to the task. It didn't stop me hanging out of our bedroom window though, to capture the snow in our back garden. Spookily, last year's projects post shows it snowed on the same date and we went on to have the coldest winter in 18 years: a proper winter for once. This year's snow is on the back of the coldest December we've had in decades, so who knows where this one will stand in the record books?

Last year I enjoyed trying things out. I took part in the RHS Mange Tout pea trial and tested the new garden version of Air Pots. The pea trial was far more successful than the yield from the Air Pots despite the latter's early promise. I also had a lot of fun finding out about the earthworms in my garden and gave the pair of Felcos I won a thorough trial during my autumn clearing up.

Sadly most of my 2009 projects are incomplete and thus will be carried forward into this year, just like Madame Zelda predicted. However, I did manage an unplanned revamp of one of my terrace beds, which has given me some ideas for what to do elsewhere using some of the plants I have in the nursery area. Luckily, the badgers weren't quite so rampant on my plot last year, so I was able to exhibit some rather nice pears at our allotment show.

I had my first visit to Chelsea and despite nearly everyone else being a bit sniffy about it (it was considered not to be a vintage year mainly due to the effects of the credit crunch), my friend H and I had a thoroughly good time. It's already looking good for this year and I'm very excited about going there during the build. I also managed more garden visiting and met up with lots more of you. Staying with Victoria and Esther, plus the second food bloggers get together were particular highlights. Taking part in Anna's Letters From Gardening Friends project meant I could reach out across the pond to several of you in a new and fun way. I'm looking forward to meeting many more of you at Malvern in May - keep 6-9th free in your diaries and your eyes peeled for more information!

When I decided to write about public planting at the start of 2009, I didn't dream it would resonate with so many of you. Thus OOTS was born and I'm pleased we'll be continuing with it this year. I also had a lot of fun thinking up some one-off memes, such as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and finding out what you were all doing on the 7th August. I've a few more of these lined up, particularly to help us through the next few months when blogging inspiration tends to flag a little. I also have plenty more Front Gardens, Things in Unusual Places and Adverts to make you smile and any contributions from you are also welcome.

I also hope to do a little more guest blogging, similar to The Guardian Gardening Blog and Encounters With Remarkable Biscuits. I'm planning on blogging a little less here during 2010 - 5 times a week or so - as I feel I need to spend longer out in the real world this year. However, I have such a long list of things buzzing around in my head to tell you (as well as daily photos to show you at Sign of the Times), we'll see whether that actually happens!

2010 is the UN's International Year of Biodiversity, so I'll be looking at ways of getting involved: OPAL are due to announce a freshwater survey shortly and as this is one of my areas of expertise, I'm hoping my services can be used in some way. Plotwise I have potatoes to trial (alongside Threadspider) and I'll be growing Angelica for the first time. I'll also be investigating how tasty the weeds are on my plot as part of my Incredible Edibles strand. It also looks like more seasonal recipes are needed: this was an unplanned regular feature last year, but seeing most of the recipes topped my list of most popular posts for 2009 - the Rhubarb and Ginger Jam one especially - perhaps I should publish a few more.

For me the absolute icing on the cake was being a finalist for Blog of the Year in the Garden Media Guild Awards. This, the amazing final total raised for my Open Garden and the great conversations we've had in the Comments are leaving me puzzling over how I can top 2009's events. However, we have Landscape Man to look forward to on the telly plus a new feature writer lined up for You Ask We Answer; I'm conducting a series of interviews for Veg Plotting and there's a great list of speakers lined up at the University of Bath Gardening Club. I'm also planning to take some personal action as far as public planting is concerned. Am I excited about 2010? You bet :D

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

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The Trials of a Novice Amateur Weather Monitor

Did you know last year was the wettest since records began? Well, it was here at VP Gardens because it was the first year I've been monitoring the rain gauge I installed in the garden in April. However, as you can see I'm having a little difficulty in totting up the final total for December as the rain/snowfall in the gauge has been frozen for the past 2 weeks and is likely to remain so for a while according to the latest weather forecast.

I'm also struggling to find the ideal location for the Max/Min thermometer Santa bought me for Christmas. My initial thoughts were to put it somewhere on the patio, but the readings will be distorted by all the hardscaping thus making my garden seem even more scorchio than it really is in the summer. If I was a proper weather monitor I'd house it behind an unsightly Stevenson Screen, to ensure the real air temperature was being measured rather than that of the sunshine. I don't think putting it behind one of the shrubs or the Rosa 'Rambling Rector' is an adequate (or accurate) alternative.

I doubt the Met Office professionals ever have these kind of problems. How do you monitor the weather in your garden?

Monday, 4 January 2010

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

On Saturday my friend H and I got the year off to a good start by visiting the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the City Museum in Bristol. It was strange to think this room had been one of the main ones used for the Banksy exhibition last summer as it was now back to a normal looking gallery rather than being full of fun and mayhem. However, evidence of Banksy was still to be found in certain other corners of the museum ;)

As expected, the photographs were of an extremely high standard. My overall favourite was a black and white shot of millions of starlings, blurred slightly to give the feel of them whirling around in the air trying to avoid the predator in their midst. This photograph particularly resonated with me because I've attempted to count similar sized flocks in Mallorca, where they were often seen dive bombing marsh harriers. Also one of my clearest winter memories from my early days of working in Bristol were of tens of thousands of starlings coming home to roost at Temple Meads Station in the evening. Sadly they're no longer to be seen over the city in such numbers: I believe they moved on when the roof of the station was restored in the 1990s to alternative roosts at Chew Valley lake and in the Somerset levels.

The exhibition is in Bristol until 10th January, or you can view it online here. It was an excellent start to my own personal celebration of the UN's International Year of Biodiversity.

Update 20/1: I've just heard on the radio news that the winning entry's been disqualified because it's of a captive animal being used as a model. Here's a report from December's The Guardian speculating that it might be so, with a picture of the photo concerned. This is the statement shown on the competition's website, confirming disqualification. The photographer denies that an animal model has been used.

Friday, 1 January 2010

GBMD: The Decade

Today's fresh blue sky from our back bedroom window

If Christmas is all about our families, then New Year's Eve has always been about friends and neighbours for NAH and me. For most of our life together it's been simply a massive party with something suitably fizzy at midnight, first footing and a quick burst of Auld Lang Syne. Last night was no exception, but in the past few years things have also become a little more structured.

Our neighbours started it all off by hosting a thrilling murder mystery evening one year. I played the part of a titled WWII codebreaker and we had to find the murderous spy in our midst. Lately we've had a quiz, with each family invited to bring a round of questions on a given theme decided by our hosts. For last night's events NAH and I were given the task of summing up the first decade of this millennium in just 10-20 questions.

We had great fun putting our list together yesterday and finally decided to keep things short and sweet by selecting 10 questions out of our shortlist of around 30. Just as well, because the previous rounds combined with lots of drink and yummy food breaks meant we became quiz masters at around 11.30pm. I thought you'd like to muse over them too for GBMD - they're rather GB-centric and non-gardeny, but I hope you'll find them a bit of fun after a hard night of celebrations and all of you should be able to find out the answers by fair means or foul! You're welcome to leave your answers in the comments and I'll add the 'official' ones in a couple of days time.

Unlike The Constant Gardener's fiendish Christmas quiz, I'm afraid I have no lovely prize to award. Just the kudos of being Veg Plotting's new year quiz champion :)
  1. Who was 50 in 2009, but doesn't look a day older than at birth?
  2. 2001 was the year of the foot & mouth outbreak: in which month was the first case officially identified?
  3. In 2004, Tony Blair was hit by a flour bomb during Prime Minister's Question Time. What was the colour of the flour?
  4. Name the British author who won the Nobel prize for literature in 2007
  5. In which year did the euro replace the franc and 11 other currencies, but not the pound?
  6. At the Beijing Olympics last year, which event did Rebecca Adlington win in world record time?
  7. What was recorded on 10th August 2003 at Brogdale, near Faversham in Kent?
  8. Who resigned in 2006, over a drink problem?
  9. In which year was London awarded the 2012 Olympic games?
  10. In 2009, 'The Last Tommy', Harry Patch died. What was his age?

Happy New Year everyone! Garden Bloggers' Muse Day is hosted by Carolyn Choi at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago.

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