Monthly Archives: December 2013

Backwards and forwards

Almost the end of the year, and a time to look both backwards and forwards. 

I am not a great one for New Year’s Resolutions. Like the great majority of people, I suspect, any resolutions I do make tend to fizzle out by the end of February (if not before). Perhaps I should make a resolution to show more resolve?

I was, however, inspired by an article by Bunny Guinness in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, extolling the virtues of gardening as exercise. A lot of what she wrote was familiar, if uncontestable, stuff about the benefits of gardening for both physical and mental health. But it’s worth being reminded, especially at this time of year when getting outdoors comes at more and more of a premium amidst the gales and floods, that what I do for a living is actually good for me. Not something that could be said of some of my past periods of my career, when long commutes involved sitting – and often eating, or at least snacking – for far too long in a day.

One excellent point Bunny G did make was the importance of ‘swapping sides’ when working in the garden. I am right-handed, and spend most of the day using my right hand to dig, pull, cut, chop and the rest. Even sowing and planting are predominantly right-sided activities. And then I wonder why I end up with regular episodes of intense pain in my right shoulder and neck muscles, often leading to migraine headaches and a couple of days of feeling lousy (if not stuck in bed with the curtains drawn). So, the answer is to consciously change hands every few minutes, bring the ‘lazy’ hand and arm into action, and spread the strain. Maybe I’ll need to train myself to do this more regularly, but I hope it will help. As too will varying tasks, and consequently the muscles I use, rather than keeping going at one thing all morning. Not always easy, when there’s a heap of compost to shift, or dozens of roses to prune, but   I will try. 

In terms of happiness and mental well-being, the enormous value of gardening cannot be overstated. It is about being physically active, being outdoors in all weathers and being in touch with the natural world, about nurturing and growing, about an annual cycle. For me it is also about an element of solitude, time to think, and time not to think, when the pace and rhythm of an activity allows the mind to drift into a quiet and peaceful place, away from the everyday world. In this respect work becomes a form of meditation, with only birdsong and the elements to distract me. 

As regards other resolutions… One is to keep on top of the allotment, and use it much better this year (as I have been saying for weeks now). Another is to devote more time to my own garden. To that end, I might enter both in the Allotments and Open Gardens competitions, as the thought of some external scrutiny will provide some incentive not to settle for second-best. My third is to buy no more seeds (again, something I have said often before): I have enough seeds to see me through the season easily, and need no more, however tempting they may look. I’ll not turn down offers of seeds from other gardeners, but I will only exchange not buy.

For the year just gone, I am looking back and feeling quietly satisfied. It was a strange year for weather, especially the peculiarly cold spring, but the long warm summer was a delight. Some good work done, some nice things grown and planted, some gardens ending the year looking better than they began it, and some lovely people met – both in person and in the virtual world of Twitter.

Happy New Year to you all.

A good read…

Nights drawn fully-in, blowing a gale outside, Christmas lights a-twinkling… time perhaps for reading about gardens as much as working in them?

Well, apparently – and at odds with what I asserted in a post a few days ago – gardening books are both boring (or have become so), and declining in sales. There are certainly a lot of uninspired and uninspiring books out there – usually cluttering up garden centres and discount bookshops. Which prompts me to mention garden centres – briefly, I promise. At this time of year they are impossible places to contend with, even the smaller ones which are generally alright. I visited a local centre last week to buy a couple of bits and pieces – actually, some mycorrhizal fungus to apply to bare-root plants – and had to walk past miles and miles of festive (sic) tat before I got near anything related to actual horticulture. I understand that garden centres have to make best use of their space, and not many people are buying plants, garden tools (or mycorrhizal fungus) at this time of year – but there is only so many baubles, so much pot-pourri a man can take…

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, garden books. Important, I think, to distinguish between garden books and gardening books. Let me explain my thinking… To my mind, garden books are about gardens, or gardeners, or plants, or gardening – but the pleasure is in the words and (often) the pictures. Whereas gardening books are practically-oriented, how-to guides, books to tell you what to do, when, how and where. It is a difficult distinction to maintain – there are too many exceptions – but one to keep in mind.

So which garden and/or gardening books have I enjoyed this year?

Readers of this blog (poor souls) will already know of my enjoyment of Monty Don’s The Road to Le Tholonet, which managed both to inspire and move me. It also prompted me to read Susan Cahill’s Hidden Gardens of Paris (2012), a guide to and through ‘the parks, squares and woodlands of the City of Light’. I’ve not had chance to use it as a guidebook yet, but it certainly excited me about a new dimension to a city I know and love.

On my bedside bookcase, alongside my collection of Polar literature, I like to keep ‘dipping’ books, especially those which are arranged according to the cycle of the year. Ronald Blythe’s collections of his Wormingford columns from the Church Times are, whilst not about gardens, always good. But I also have some gardening versions – Monty Don’s My Roots (2006) being one, and whileI have not yet got round to Anna Pavord’s The Curious Gardener (2011), I do have her earlier collection of Independent newspaper columns, Anna Pavord’s Gardening Companion (1992).  

Another pleasure, although I only picked it up a few days ago, has been Hugo Johnson in the Garden (2009)- a collection of his columns from the RHS magazine The Garden. Full of sensible observations and good humour this will be joining the bedside shelf for a good while. As will Robin Lane Fox’s Thoughtful Gardening (2012) which I found languishing in a discount bookshop among the celebrity autobiographies  for £2.99: a bargain.

Those are all, according to my classification, garden books. As regards gardening books, I’ve enjoyed Mark Diacono and Lia Leendertz’s The Speedy Vegetable Garden (2013), which encourages the growing of quick crops such as sprouted seeds, microgreens and mini-veg. Good for impatient GYO-ers, and – most impatient of all sometimes – children.

The RHS continues to publish a stream of encyclopaedic volumes in association with Dorling Kindersley. One such is the What Plant Where Encyclopedia (2013), which will never be read from cover to cover, but will doubtless be pulled from the shelf behind my desk whenever I am asked to put together planting schemes. It illustrates and describes ‘over 3000’ plants (I haven’t counted them), categorised by growing environment. It has been done before, but perhaps not so comprehensively.

I finally caught up with Cleve West’s Our Plot (2011) this autumn, and have found his combination of practical advice with the story of everyday life at his allotment truly encouraging. He stresses the communal aspects of allotment gardening, and the way in which the people alongside whom we garden are so important. This is a good example of a ‘hybrid’ – part handbook, full of tips and guidance; part essay, character study and narrative. It’s definitely restored my motivation to manage our allotment in the coming season.

In a category of its own, and a birthday present from my children, is Harrap’s Wild Flowers (2013), which has received rave reviews in the wildlife press. It is simply the best-illustrated, most up-to-date and practical guide to Britain’s native flora currently available: and, as we all know, that ‘native flora’ has a habit (sometimes welcome, sometimes not) of finding its way into any garden. 

Speaking of weeds (did I say that?) I have to mention Ken Thompson’s brilliant No Nettles Required (2007) about which I have written before – but a great read for any wildlife gardener, established or budding.

Lastly, I have to mention magazines, of which there are always plenty. One resolution for 2014 is to buy fewer, as one month’s advice is largely the same as last year’s version, and a lot of the ‘news’ is simply publicity and repeated across all those who received the press release. Out, I think, will go The English Garden (too much of a lifestyle magazine these days – though good if you have five grand to spend on a shepherd’s hut, or want to commission a wrought iron replica of the Great Wall of China), and perhaps Gardener’s World (rather tired and repetitive). But I’ll keep Gardens Illustrated, because it is still – in its uncritical way – a good way to see and read about good gardens, and has some good writing.The Garden will continue to come along as part of my RHS membership – and does contain at least one or two good, in-depth articles each month.

How, I wonder reading back through this, do I ever find time to do any actual gardening?

Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year to you all.

Feed the birds…

It is interesting to read that lots of folk have been contacting the RSPB and other wildlife organisations, as well as writing to the newspapers, to express their concern about the dearth of birds in their gardens at the moment. Of course, there are always genuine concerns about bird populations, and it’s good to know that people are interested enough to spot unexpected changes and shifts.

The latest depressing story I have read is about Barn Owls, which seem to have taken a real hammering from a combination of wet summers, cold winters and the very late spring this year – maybe only 1000 pairs remain in Britain. That really is alarming, and it will take at least two years of ‘normal’ weather to allow populations to recover. It makes me realise how lucky I was in the summer to have a Barn Owl as a ‘neighbour’ at our cottage in Norfolk, although we only discovered him a couple of nights before we were due to come home. 

However, the wider picture as regards garden birds seems not to be a major cause for concern – quite the opposite. Birds are not coming into our gardens because the mild weather means they have been able to stay out in the fields and woods and hedges (whence come most of our ‘garden’ birds) eating wild food, and not yet needing to come after the food provided by humans. Doubtless, when the weather turns colder, and natural food sources run low, they will be there on our feeders and bird tables once again. That said, I have already seen a Blackcap (almost certainly a visitor from the Continent) and a Goldcrest in the garden, along with the more regular visitors. 

The weather has been truly foul over the past 48 hours – still mild, but persistently wet. Much needed rain perhaps, after the fairly dry autumn, but miserable nevertheless. 

The Great British Gardening Revival

Much has already been said, tweeted and written about the BBC2 programme ‘The Great British Garden Revival’, but I’d like to add my own view to the discussion. 

Firstly, the title. Does British gardening really need a revival? There are more gardening books and magazines, more coverage of the big RHS shows on mainstream television, more viewers of Gardeners’ World, than ever. There is a lot of anguished discussion about the shortcomings of GW amongst the garden-Twitterati, and some very justified concerns about the Tesco-isation of garden retail – as large chain garden centres take over from independent nurseries – but gardening seems to me as popular now as it was twenty years ago. 

Admittedly the emphasis has perhaps changed, as fads and fashions (by definition) do. New-build domestic gardens are becoming smaller, and they are under pressure to fulfil more simultaneous and diverse functions: outdoor playroom, outdoor kitchen and dining room, veg patch, wildlife haven – all of which can rarely be accommodated with any success in a small suburban garden. Whoever introduced the wretched trampoline to the British garden has a lot to answer for. Hence people want small, compact, easy – they want the gardening equivalent, perhaps, of ready meals and package holidays. 

I don’t think that equates to a lack of interest in gardening: just a change from the traditional forms of the activity. That was why the makeover programmes of a decade ago were so popular – before a wistful and nostalgic ‘lifestyle’ tone took over, and Carol Klein began her chuckling wafts through swathes of wildflowers. 

A lot of what passes for gardening may not be of very good quality, but it is still going on. Gardening television may be dull, gardening books are apparently dull too – but they do still exist and presumably have an audience. Dan Brown is a rotten novelist, but his books sell and are read – is that better than no books and no readers? That debate – applied to any area of human activity – has been going since Caxton’s time, and shows no signs of reaching any conclusion. And of course there are excellent gardens, fascinating and inspiring books, brilliant gardeners out there for those who seek them – and to which we can direct those who are interested to know more. Which brings me to the content of the new programme.

Joe Swift’s section in the first programme dealt with the – real – decline in front gardens, as they are paved over for car parking space. The rise in car ownership since the 1960s, and the rise of multiple occupancy, both contribute to this. For many people, however, the tyranny of the front garden – keep the lawn mowed, prune the roses – is probably something they do not mourn. It was even evident in the pressure on the working mum in the programme who was deemed to be ‘letting the side down’ in Rockcliffe Terrace because her garden was not planted to the rafters with pots and troughs. Gardening must be fun and fulfilling for the gardener, not something done under duress merely to pacify the neighbours.

My main problem with the programme was its incessant bittiness. Although it was divided into two distinct sections – Monty Don on wildflower meadows, and Joe Swift on front gardens – each section was itself then further subdivided. So Monty’s half had to cover: the decline of native wildflower meadows, preparing the ground for a new meadow, meadow management at Pensthorpe, scything, planting a mini-meadow in a pot, manufacturing meadow seed mixes and (deep breath) the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place. Less, surely is more. None of this was sufficiently detailed or really inspiring. The only ‘practical’ section for most people was the mini-meadow segment – and meadow plants really don’t lend themselves to such planting. If we want people to use limited space to plant and grow beneficial plants, there are more useful and realistic options. Indeed, as Ken Thompson and others have argued, native wildflowers are not inherently better than ‘immigrant’ flowers for pollinating insects – pollen rich is the key, irrespective of where the plant originally comes from.

Joe Swift’s section, whilst also bitty, was also repetitive. How many times did he tell us about the ‘alleyway’ at Rockcliffe Terrace in Whitley Bay? And how many times did we need to see a concreted or paved-over parking space outside a house? Again, the piece seemed torn between a makeover approach – giving away free plants (what was the point of that – let alone Joe Swift doing his milkman impression? Ironic, given that milkmen are even rarer than front lawns these days) and doing a bit of quick planting in a couple of gardens; and a more detailed look at the impact of front garden loss in terms of drainage and air quality.

OK, so this was programme one, and we ought perhaps to celebrate any addition to the gardening coverage on television. But this feels like the same old same old. Should we be pathetically grateful for anything the producers and schedulers toss our way? Surely not. Same presenters, same content, same audience. Where’s the element of revival in that?

Darkness Visible

One thing about this time of year that I am really aware of is the light – or rather the lack of it. On Thursday it was dark, to all intents and purposes, at about 3 o’clock, as I got ready to collect the children from school. Even on a fine sunny day like yesterday, the sun sets just a little after 4 o’clock, and there is another half an hour or so of gloaming in which to finish off and tidy up. 

My job yesterday afternoon was to finish off some replanting of perennials, and I was just finishing when Mrs M emerged from the darkness. Looking up from the border I realised that it was properly dark, though down at soil level it hadn’t seemed quite so bad. One’s eyes do become accustomed, and – even with my lousy eyesight – it is surprising how much one can see with very little light.

Earlier in the autumn my son and I joined a bat walk at Blashford Lakes – a nature reserve near Ringwood, managed by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. We were forbidden to use torches, and followed our guide carefully around the woodland paths in complete darkness. After about twenty minutes, one could see perfectly well enough to make out the path and see sufficient to navigate through the woods. (with care not to fall into the ditches). It makes me think that our pre-electric ancestors were maybe more able to function without artificial light than we sometimes imagine. Certainly, with any amount of moonlight, one need not have retired to bed as soon as the sun set.

The perennials had been dug up last week in readiness for a deposit of topsoil across the border. Well established clumps of Hemerocallis, Pulmonaria and Geranium, along with some roses and peonies, needed to be lifted and put to one side. I then returned earlier this week to get them back in – taking the opportunity to rearrange the planting a bit, as it had got very congested.

I also spent some time going around the pots and planters which contain permanent planting – as well as those which had been used for bedding plants. Each one was carefully tidied, dead plants and weeds removed, and  the top inch or so of compost taken out. I then topped up with fresh compost – and will get any empty pots filled with bulbs on my next visit.

All afternoon I was accompanied by the hoarse, guttural croaking of two Ravens. When I was first birding, back in the early 1970s, Ravens were only ever to be seen on (fortunately frequent) visits to the Lake District: birds of the crags and bleak tops. Forty years on they have spread from their former range in many places, and are now regularly spotted in rural Wiltshire. This was the closest I have ever seen them to Salisbury itself – but the wooded valleys of the Avon and other rivers suit them well. Like Buzzards and Red Kites, Ravens are restoring the skies of our countryside, and increasingly our small rural towns, to the sounds and calls of Elizabethan times.

Shovel, shovel…

Cold, almost sleety rain, and a lorry-load of composted manure. Not perhaps the most enticing start to the day, but needs must. My client’s garden has been steadily getting clear of perennial weeds – largely couch grass, with a bit of ground elder, docks,  and a lot of dandelions for good measure. Now was the time to deliver a coup de grace.

The soil is chalky but also sticky and clayish, the consequence so often of newly-built houses in this part of the country. Masses of stones and flints, along with a helping of builder’s rubble, and perilously thin topsoil, can make working the ground a real chore. Planting too can be difficult, as there’s scarcely sufficient depth of earth to get roots down into if the plants are of a decent size. So a good covering of manure would serve at least three purposes: it would suppress weed regrowth from the cleared and tidied borders; it will improve the soil structure and the nutritional content of the soil; and it will make everything look tidy for the winter. I’ve been putting lots of bulbs in – as mentioned a post or two ago – so they would benefit from a warm blanket too before pushing their noses up in the new year.

At nine thirty prompt, a lorry backed itself effortlessly up the steep driveway, did a nifty three-point turn, and dumped a trailerful of rich, dark compost onto the side of the driveway at the back of the house. As ever, the quantity looked formidable as it sat there steaming gently in the cold morning air.

I lost count after the thirtieth barrowload, but over the course of the day I managed to move, deposit and spread about half the manure from the heap. Unfortunately, the main garden is up steps, so I had to take the barrow round three sides of the house to reach a set of steps low enough to take an improvised plank-ramp. I did speculate during the course of the day whether my recently renewed membership of the local gym was really a sensible investment, as I shed insulating layers down to my shirtsleeves and toiled back and forth. 

To be fair, the gym membership is something of an insurance policy, against the days (weeks even) when it really is too cold, wet, windy or snowy to work outdoors. Then I can maintain – even enhance – my level of fitness in the warmth and comfort of the local leisure centre: and also reap the benefit of exercise and exertion on the mind, which might otherwise get sluggish and gloomy.There is nothing to beat the endorphin-rush generated by some hard, physical work. The gym is simply a physical complement to the anti-SAD lightbox which I also use to counter the potentially deadening effects of the dark months.

No danger of that just yet though. The drizzle persisted only for an hour or so, and then it was happy barrowing, shovelling and raking all the day long.