The Great British Garden Revival – My thoughts

This week saw the start of a new 10 part gardening series commissioned by the BBC – The Great British Garden Revival.  The concept is  that each one hour programme is split in two with each half focussing on an area of garden that the producers presumably think is interesting to the viewer; naturally each half  hour is presented by what one commentator called ‘the great and good of the gardening world’.

I think the range of subjects from topiary, through alpines, to exotics via wildflower meadows with a dash of lawn care and vegetable growing thrown in demonstrates the complete and overwhelming diversity of what we conveniently call ‘gardening’.  I think this breadth of subject is at the root of many of the complaints that proliferate on social media about gardening media and in particular the BBC’s Gardeners World.  How anyone can expect a programme that lasts for 30 minutes once a week to appeal to all of us interested in some form of gardening/horticulture is beyond me.

I remember listening to Geoff Hamilton’s son talking about his father’s time as the presenter of Gardeners World and the thing that stuck in my mind was that he said that Geoff’s goal each week was to inspire viewers to get out and do something in their garden.  I think this sentiment should be bourne in mind today when we watch any gardening programming we are offered.  Whenever a technique is shown on Gardeners World, particularly if by the current presenter, you can guarantee that if you go on Twitter there will be those who are decrying the lack of accuracy, picking holes in any and everything.  Personally, this irritates me, we all know that if we were to ask three vegetable growers on the local allotment site how to plant onions we would get three different answers and the same is true for any gardening technique just as it is with cooking, sewing etc – we all with familiarity bring our own approach and tricks, it is what works for us regardless of what we have been taught.

I believe that the purpose of a good gardening programme should be to inspire the viewer – perhaps to take up their trowel, perhaps to research a new plant, perhaps to visit a garden, perhaps to try a new form of propagation.  I  have to admit that in recent times it is not often that Gardeners World has achieved this for me and I think it has fallen foul of trying to be  too many things to too many people.  But it seems to be that the naysayers will find something to complain about regardless.  After all they complained endlessly about the previous format of the programme saying it was dumbing down, how they didn’t like the new garden, the modern magazine style of presentation, how it would be better set in the presenter’s garden, how Monty had more authority than the new younger presenters, etc etc.  So Gardeners World was changed, again, Monty was brought back and the programme was moved to his garden.  Are the critics happy – well no of course not, they just have new things to complain about!

I truly hope that this  new ten part series will appeal to a wide range of people: experienced and new gardeners, horticulturists and especially people who may generally ignore the green space outside their back door.  For myself, the first episode on wildflower meadows and front gardens was interesting.  Anyone who reads this post will know how I have a love/hate relationship with my front garden (see End of Month Views) and I have even dabbled and given up on wildflower meadows.  However, I found myself engaged and interested, my mind was stimulated and I found the two topics coming together and led to me wondering whether it would be possible to embellish my gravel driveway with wild flowers and whether I could get away with another small tree in the front garden.  I was inspired and if others were in whatever way then the series will have achieved one of the programmers goals.  And, if we show the BBC how much we value their investment then maybe, just maybe they will give gardening some of the coverage that cooking has and we can look forward to more inspiring programmes focussing on aspects of a hobby that is wide-ranging, compelling, fascinating but most importantly that we feel passionate about and brings so many of us together.

I am bereft….

Kirengeshoma palmata taken with son's point and click - not bad

Kirengeshoma palmata taken with son’s point and click – not bad

..after 5 years of service I have rewarded my beloved camera by dropping on the hard kitchen floor and breaking it!  What an idiot!  I am so cross with myself and more upset than I thought possible.

I have had the camera for five years so almost the life of this blog.  It has been everywhere with me, always in my handbag.  We have travelled to many gardens, the Olympics, Spain, Italy, the US.  It has recorded many happy family memories and recorded my sons’ creative achievements.  I know I still have the photographs but it like losing an old friend.

All of this is rather silly since if I am honest I had been considering getting myself a new camera this year anyway.  I had been toying with a DSLR but when I tried some the other day I found them very unwieldy and I am rather intimidated by all the controls.  I don’t want to spend all that money and then leave it on Auto – whats the point in that.  I told myself I would go on a course but that is so not going to happen as I have an almost allergic  reaction to such things at the moment.

My current camera is a Fuji Finepix and was sold as a bridge camera so a little bit more sophisticated than the point and click digital camera.  I play with the settings etc and it has done me well.  It also is slim and neat and fits in my bag or pocket easily.  Now the bridge cameras seem to have evolved into weirdly shaped things that would never fit in my handbag let alone a pocket so if I want another bridge camera I need to think about whether I want to have it slung around my neck or over my shoulder.  On the plus side I do rather like the idea of the screens that tilt so you can see into awkward angles which I think would be very good when taking photos of flowers.

The alternative is that I go for a top of the range point and click which will pop in my bag and be easy to transport but will it give me the quality of close up photographs I am looking for and that was making me consider a DSLR in the first place?

I need to go and look at some and try them but whenever I start researching cameras I become inordinately grumpy about the whole subject!  In the meantime I am borrowing one of my son’s cameras but that is also making me grumpy.  It is newer than my camera and supposedly better but I am struggling to get a grip of the controls and I suppose there is an element of sulking about having the change forced on me.  However, having been outside this evening taking photographs with it I think I am getting the hang of things and the results arent that bad (see top photograph).  Interestingly his is a top of the range point and click so maybe that is the route I should go.

The San Francisco approach to selling plants

2013_07030107During the Garden Bloggers Fling in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago we visited two nurseries.  When I saw these on the itinerary I was a little down as to make a plantaholic visit a nursery when they couldn’t buy any plants to take home to the UK seemed a bit mean. Oh well, I thought I would wander around and try not to covert too much and then we would be off to the next garden.

I was wrong.  Both of the nurseries/plant centres were eye-opening.  Their approach to selling plants was very different to the UK and in Annie’s Annuals case quite breath-taking.  I was so distracted by this that I didn’t really look closely at the plants.

Annie’s Annuals was founded 20 years ago and was in its third home.  I had been warned by one of my fellow attendees that it was in rather a run down part of San Francisco but then as Annie herself said the land was cheaper.  I don’t think I have ever visited a nursery with barbed wire around the top of the fence!  The colour hits you before you have entered and not only colour but mad eccentric ornaments and ephemera.  It’s like a nursery on speed.  Annie’s approach is to grow plants – perennials and shrubs as well as annuals – that perform year on year.  All the plants are grown on site and they acquire seeds from all over the world growing them for a number of years before they introduce them to the nursery.  Whilst the nursery was colourful it was mainly from the displays of mature plants and ornamentation rather than the plants for sale.  Annie told us during her enthusiastic welcome that if there are plants in flower for sale it’s because they grew too many; they want people to buy the plants before they flower so they get the best of them and are inspired and enthused to grow more.  This made me smile because I know from many a plant sale that it is the plants in flower that go first and anything without a flower tends to sit waiting for a more knowing gardener to come along.

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Victoria and I were quite entranced with the nursery.  As well as the approach to plants there was funky rock music playing and a bubble machine.  We had the giggles imagining the reaction of UK gardeners if this approach was transplanted to the home counties.  But then why not, if you found the right location and targeted the right market maybe this is the sort of injection the UK nurseries need, it’s certainly would improve many garden centres.  Instead of garden centres filling their space with various food, book and gift outlets so you can’t find the plants they should consider the whole experience of visiting.  If visitors could look at plants and have fun and a laugh at the same time it wouldn’t matter that there wasn’t a gift store or a coffee shop etc.  Word would soon spread that if you wanted a different more modern experience this was the place to go.

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Our very last stop of the whole weekend was Flora Grubb’s (isn’t that a great name and the owners real name).  This plant centre was focussed more on your sub-tropical plants but they were artfully displayed in groups among garden furniture, pots, and other nick nacks so you could see how you could grow them in your own space.  2013_07010335Whilst the plants were generally greens and greys the accessories were every colour of the rainbow and it really showed how you could add a different dimension to sub-tropical planting and have some fun.  I would say that Flora Grubb’s was a more sophisticated shopping experience there was a coffee shop and lots of nicks nacks for sale but again it was very different to a UK outlet.  It hadn’t lost its focus and it was clear to its customers exactly what that focus was – sub-tropical plants.

 

Both nurseries/plant centres were, to me, fun and they took away that serious ponderous tone we sometimes 2013_07010342have to plant buying in the UK.  I love plants, I love their diversity and I think it should be celebrated and gardening and plant buying should be fun.  I think we are too serious about gardening full stop in this country and I think this discourages some people who are frightened of having a go.  This is what I loved about Annie’s Annuals the whole approach was ‘have a go’ put what you want with what you want, see what happens.  And this approach is working – when we visited Keeyla Meadow’s garden the next day I noticed that the exuberant planting of her garden was spilling out down the side-walk and into her neighbours.  I asked her about this and she put it entirely down to the huge impact Annie’s Annuals was having on gardeners and more importantly non-gardeners in the San Francisco and the surrounding area.  Huge praise from a garden designer.

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I think there is a lot that could be taken from these nurseries/plant centres and adapted for the UK market.   We are at fault in that we aren’t prepared to pay a reasonable price for our plants so the garden centres buy in bulk from Europe bringing in virus and diseases and also reducing the selection of  plants.  I really believe that we need a change of approach, we need to move forward from garden centres that are more interested in generating income from anything apart from plants and instead we should have places that celebrate the plants and the joy of growing them.  I know there are arguments to be made that there isn’t enough money to be made from plants which is why garden centres diversify but I think the big chains have led the way creating what they call ‘destination garden centres’ and the smaller independents feel they need to keep up.  I would love to see some independents taking a different route and maybe the approach of the two establishments above, of making the plant the star could inspire them.

Colour

Hot Border at Wollerton

Hot Border at Wollerton

I was reading the April edition of The Garden last night, I know I am terribly behind, and I was intrigued by a short article by Helen Dillon on colour.  In it she talks about how gardeners have been influenced by  people such as Gertrude Jekyll, Lawrence Johnston and Vita Sackville-West on how we should organise colour in our gardens.  Jekyll is known for her colour borders which often had colours seamlessly blending into each other.  Sackville-West is known for her garden at Sissinghurst and in particular the White Garden.  Dillon describes how she had what she calls an epiphany and has said goodbye to colour themed borders.

Reading this reminded me of a conversation when I was on holiday in Cornwall last week.  We visited a garden where the owner is known for her colour theming and I decided to buy a couple of pots of Ixia.  The owner  warned me that the bulbs had got muddled and so the flowers would not necessarily be as per their label.  She was most concerned that they might upset my colour themed borders.  I reassured her that this was fine and I would take the risk but the comment really jarred with me and I was very surprised at how much.  I have been wondering why.

I have never colour themed my borders.  My borders, in theory, have a season of interest rather than a colour.  In recent years my interest has drifted more towards texture and foliage with the flowers secondary.  I have tried from time to time to really organise colour and put lots of thought into how this colour will work with that but inevitably the weather, like this year, leads to something or other flowering earlier or later than planned and the plan going out of the window.

Long border at Wollerton

Long border at Wollerton

I have been thinking about the gardens I have visited recently which I have really liked and why.  I loved the hot border at Wollerton Old Hall and I think this is because of its exuberance and complete celebration of late summer perennials.  I really liked the long border as well and I think this is because of the variety of colours and textures, albeit the colours are fairly restricted to pinks and lilacs. There is a white garden not far from me which is designed for wedding photographs and I am sure it is a beautiful backdrop but it didn’t excite me.  It was very well executed but it lacked something.  I think when you colour theme a border it really isn’t any way as simple as having just white or pink flowers.  You have to realise that there are green whites, blue whites, pink whites, yellow whites etc.  If you just plant a border or garden room with white flowers without taking this into account the tones will cancel each other out and it lacks sparkle.  People talk about colour but forget tone, they also seem to forget that some colours need other colours to lift them to help them shine out.

Part of a White Garden

Part of a White Garden

As Helen Dillon says getting a colour themed border right is difficult and from what I have seen it is much easier to create a colour themed border that looks nice rather than one that excites.  For me, and I know many will disagree, colour themed borders and gardens often seem too contrived.  Personally, I prefer more of a mix of colours but what I really like is a well stocked border with lots of foliage and texture rather than lots of bare earth waiting for some bedding or tender perennials to fill out.

The other thing I have noticed is that whilst I don’t have colour themed borders my garden seems to have colour themed seasons or even month.  Spring is definitely yellow and white with narcissus, anemones, snowdrops, catkins on the willow.  Currently in late Spring/early Summer it seems to have gone very purple with lots of Aquilegia, Alliums and Irises.  In fact I think it is just too purple and it needs some contrasts in there to zing it up – maybe some more of those cerise Ixia.  Late summer should see it have more vibrant pinks, reds and purples with dahlias and asters coming to the fore and then in Autumn it’s all reds, yellows and pale pink with turning leaves and colchicum.

I love colour and I find it interesting how different colours works together but I don’t think I will ever try to create a colour themed border – I think it is just too difficult to do really well.  Writing this post as led me to conclude that I’m still not 100% sure why the gardeners comment jarred so much and I think this is something I want to consider more.  I am interesting in how others approach colour since I see many beautiful borders on various blogs and I wonder what other gardens consider first: season of interest, colour, texture.  I look forward to hearing your views.

My Current Inspiration

My overgrown slope with a late summer focus and lots of textures

My overgrown slope with a late summer focus and lots of textures

This post is written in response to the latest prompt from the Grow Write Guild. We were asked to write about what inspired us to garden, or who our mentor was.

I don’t have a gardening mentor and I don’t really remember anyone in my past being very garden focussed.  I remember my parents clearing overgrown gardens so we spent a lot of time outside but they have a tendency towards lawn so that can’t have fuelled my passion.  I remember spending time with my aunt’s mother who had a small greenhouse and being fascinated by it but I don’t remember gardening with her so I have no idea where my passion comes from.

I am self-taught, I read lots of horticultural literature and over the years have picked up tips from various television programmes and a few day schools I have attended but I have had no mentor.  However there are writers who inspire me and I have pondered on this post trying to decide who I would like to be my mentor if I could choose and meet that person in real life.  My first choice was Christopher Lloyd, fairly obvious and I love his writing and his passion but I think he would be too intimidating as a mentor and my confidence is a fragile thing.  Also whilst I like his style and his ‘I’ll do what I want’ approach I’m not so keen on some of his planting.  I used to think I liked the big tropical  look but actually deep down inside I am a true English girl and I like the cottage garden look far more.

The patio border - its late summer appearance, it also has lots of spring bulbs

The patio border – its late summer appearance, it also has lots of spring bulbs

However, I have discovered someone else who I can completely relate to and whose book, he has written only one, encouraged me hugely last year.  David Culp is an American horticulturist and gardens in Pennsylvania.  He wrote a book called The Layered Garden which I reviewed last year.  Like Lloyd and others his approach is to build up the borders with layers and not just the border the garden.  So whilst each border has one or two seasons of interest when it isn’t at its peak it still looks good.  He gardens around the year and his book spoke to me as he not only loves plants but the same plants as me.  His garden is romantic, lush and quite wonderful – well if the photographs are to go by.

He made me start to think about how you use plants.  Yes he collects plants but he also understands about how to create a garden with them and how to show them at their best.  Planting so one plant picks up on the colouring of its neighbour or contrasts with the textures etc and this is something I am now trying to do.  I found his approach liberating, he states that you should garden for yourself.  You should forget about the current trends and what the neighbours will think. “Experiment, play with colours, do what pleases you, and do not be afraid to change things if you wish.” He talks at one point about how his grandmother when he was small planted a bed with hot and spicy coloured plants which was against the norm and how it had an impact on him at the time which has given him the courage in his later life to do what he wanted.  He says there is no rule book when it comes to planting, “Some gardeners get so hung up on all the “rules” that have been laid down by so many “experts” that they are constantly wondering, “What am I doing wrong”? My first rule for designing a garden is that there are no rules….” and I find this quite exhilarating.

Another view of the slope

Another view of the slope

There is a page in the book where he shows a border when he first creatred the garden and it now.  The first picture shows a border which I have to say I would be pleased with and looks a little like mine now (see photos of the slope) – he calls it dull.  But rather than be deflated by this I am inspired by the ‘now’ photo which shows a border with many of the same plants: irises, roses, geraniums etc but it is alive and exuberant because he has incorporated some fluffy grasses, architectural Phormium and there is a repetition to the planting and the colours. Not only does he look at the contrast or harmony of colours but also their values and as someone who has spent time painting this makes sense to me.

I spend ages peering at the photographs.  I really wish I had the book electronically so I could enlarge them and peer closer. There are archetypal herbaceous borders but with a twist, collections of pots, a gravel garden, a shady slope, a hellebore garden and rose beds.

Not only does David advocate an approach I aspire to achieve and which I admire hugely  but  he is a plant collector with passions for snowdrops, hellebores, narcissus, epimediums and many more.  Here is someone who has found a way to collect the plants he loves but to also create a garden with them which has a cohesive appearance and not a hotch potch as my garden had begun to turn into.

Having read David’s book last year I took a different approach to planting the front garden.  I thought about the structure of the borders as well as how the plants interplay and picked up on each other.  I have still got a very long way to do but I am pleased with the results already and I am finding that I am looking at the plants I love differently and my garden is benefitting from it.

So whilst I might not have, or have had, a real life mentor I am currently inspired by David Culp – his book makes me think but also makes me feel that the look I long to achieve is within my grasp.

Education of a Gardener

Primula marginata laciniata

Primula marginata laciniata

I cancelled my RHS membership this week, well I cancelled the renewal of it.  This hasn’t been an easy decision which is ridiculous given that it is just an annual subscription to something.

Just after having made the decision I read an article by Frank Ronan in a copy of Gardens Illustrated from 2008 which talked about whether membership of the RHS was necessary to be a good gardener.  In the article he captures all the things I had been musing about and questions whether the membership, about £50 for a single member, is worth it.  Like Frank I leave in the West Midlands, near the Welsh borders so I am at least 3 hours drive from any of the RHS gardens which means that to make any visit worthwhile an overnight stay is needed.  The monthly magazine, The Garden, is alright but there are far too many advertisements and it is trying to please all its members so there is a bit on vegetables, a bit on ornamentals, a bit on a gardening technique and quite a large section on events around the country.  The cover price for the magazine is £4.25 more than Gardens Illustrated which has similar content but it seems with less adverts.  I don’t feel that The Garden is worth £4.25.

I prefer the seed distribution schemes run by the Hardy Plant Society and Alpine Garden Society to the RHS’s.  I have used the RHS advice centre a couple of times, once getting no response at all.  Living where I do the London Shows and Chelsea are a 3.5 hour train journey each way and having been to Chelsea a couple of times I am no longer in a rush to go again – it’s too crowded and there is too much focus on the showgardens for me. A view shared by many keen gardeners I have met in this area.

I know the RHS is a charity and that it carries out research into horticulture etc and this is important but I’m not a charity and I can’t afford to pay for something which I don’t feel is adding anything to my life.  When I really got the gardening bug some 6-7 years ago I felt that I had to join the RHS, it was something that good gardeners did.  I also subscribed to the two main glossy gardening magazines – Gardens Illustrated and The English Garden.  However, after about 3 years I cancelled these subscriptions as the magazines had become repetitive, which in their defence is hardly surprising given the seasonal nature of gardening.  The pile of unread magazines had reached a ridiculous height and has only now been read through and disposed off – hence reading a 2008 edition  of GI.  As well as being repetitive the magazines no longer fulfilled my need for information and knowledge.

As I blogged about earlier this year I have now found and joined a number of specialist societies: The Alpine Garden Society, the Hardy Plant Society (including their Galanthus, Geranium and Ranunculus groups) and my localish horticultural society.  More importantly I have gone to the monthly meetings of the local groups and through these I have listened to fascinating talks about plants I had never heard of and met interesting and knowledgeable people who are happy to share their experience with someone who has realised how little she knows.  I have learnt more in the last 6 months than I have from 4 or 5 years membership of the RHS or reading the glossy magazines. Finally in the last month I have discovered the Scottish Rock Garden Society Forum which is fantastic – busy, friendly, international and not all about those tiny domes of plants people associate with alpines.

This is what works for me.  I think all of these resources, societies, magazines have their own place and all give something to gardeners.  When I  was on twitter I used to get tired of people moaning about Gardeners World dumming down etc but people forget that gardeners are a vast and varied group of people.  They all want something different.  Some are into growing edibles, some ornamental, some love plants, some design, some have acres and a gardener, some a window box.  To try to be everything to all gardeners only results in the offering being weakened and diluted.  I also know that in the UK we are very lucky to have the magazines and television programmes that we have and others in the US and Europe aren’t so lucky.

For me I have had my interest grabbed and held by the beautiful gardens in the magazines and the RHS has encouraged me with practical skills and to visit shows and gardens but now I have moved on to wanting to learn far more about particular plants than they can offer.  So I have  cancelled my RHS membership although I will continue with the Plantsman that I love.  I also get Hortus and the journals from the societies and when I need a sumptuous fix of beautiful gardens I will treat myself to one of the glossies.

I  feel like my horticultural education is really underway but there is an incredible amount to learn – it is very exciting.

What comes first?

2010_07300220What’s more important to you  – plants or design?  For me its plants every time and always has been.  Originally I started with some bedding plants and hanging baskets then as my confidence grew I started to grow a few perennials and shrubs.  The real leap came when I  moved to this house with a blank canvas of a garden and more time as the boys had grown up.  I love the thrill of germinating seeds, it gives me a pathetic sense of achievement.  If I do really well they eventually grow into plants which I add to the borders.

In recent years I would like to describe my taste as eclectic but I suspect in reality it was more a case of “oh I like that, and that, and that” and so I have all sorts in my garden.  One of these, one of those – all very bitty.  Over the last six months through joining some societies and local groups and meeting many skilled plantsmen my interest in plants has really been piqued especially in particular groups of plants such as Primula, Delphinium, Digitalis, succulents and more recently snowdrops.  I realised the other day  that I had a bit of a collection of Primula beginning and so I have bought my first real monograph on a species to help me learn more about Primula.

Stone House, Worcestershire

Stone House, Worcestershire

As for design – well this is something that is very secondary to me.  I do appreciate good design and the skill behind it but it just doesn’t hold my attention and doesn’t excite me.  I look at the showgardens at the local Malvern Spring Show but really my heart is in the plant marquee.  The gardens that I enjoy visiting whilst having varying degrees of design are often the gardens of plantsmen – Stone House, Cothay Manor.  I don’t tend to like gardens that have been designed as a set piece  as for me they often lack that extra something – maybe its passion, maybe its soul.  I prefer gardens that have evolved, gardens that are very personal; although I fully acknowledge that a personal garden can be very designed – I love Bryans Ground.

Bryans Ground, Herefordshire

Bryans Ground, Herefordshire

The reason I have been thinking about this is due to a conversation I had last weekend when visiting Victoria.  We were talking about shows and I was saying more or less what I have said above.  Victoria said her approach to plants was different.  For her it was about finding a plant that give her a certain look – maybe a particular colour or size of foliage, texture, flower to fit a particular gap.  She enjoyed researching what plants would fill this requirement.  I found this interesting as it is the opposite to my approach.

The Daily Telegraph Garden, Chelsea, 2010

The Daily Telegraph Garden, Chelsea, 2010

To me horticulture, particularly in the media and at shows, often gets split into two distinct areas – design and plants/plant care (which to me is what horticulture really is).  Gardening magazines are full of articles about this garden or that garden and how it was designed and who by etc etc with less so about plants.  Just as it seems to me that the focus of shows like the RHS Chelsea Flowershow is around the showgardens and less so about the nurseries and plants in the floral marquee.  More and more people are signing up for garden design courses and less for horticultural courses.  I think this is terribly sad especially when you consider that if it wasn’t for the nurserymen with their skills at breeding new plants or in holding or bringing forward plants for shows the designers would really be limited in what they can do.  Personally I feel that the garden media, including the makeover garden television shows of the 1990s,  is to blame for this shift and it is exacerbated by the ridiculous amount of sponsorship paid for the big showgardens and the pressure for the designers to then repay their sponsors with lots of media coverage.  How can the nurseries, never a cash rich industry, compete with this.

However, having said the above and had a bit of a rant,  I have learnt to appreciate the fact that many a plantsmen’s garden, including my own, can appear very bitty due to the disparate group of plants in it.  I have started to want my garden to feel more cohesive and for there to be more impact from groups of plants rather than a bitty look.  I will never fully embrace the whole design approach but I have started to consider focal points, sweeps of plants, stronger lines, journeys and the rest.  The trouble is that every time I start thinking like this I get distracted by something germinating or a Primula flowering – its truly is a lost cause!