Book Review: My Life with Plants

It was with some trepidation that I agreed to review Roy Lancaster’s My Life with Plants; after all commenting on the writing of someone who is held in such high esteem by so many in the horticultural world and beyond is quite intimidating.

My Life with Plants is a form of autobiography written by Roy Lancaster, as he celebrates his 80th birthday, looking back on his adventures in horticulture.  The book starts with his childhood explorations of the local countryside firstly due to a love of birds but progressively, due to encouragement from mentors in the local naturalist’s society, a fascination for plants developed.  These mentors encouraged Roy to pursue his interests into a career in the local Parks department.  The book continues through Roy’s national service mainly spent in Malay, what a thrill that must have been for a burgeoning plantsman, and onwards to his time with Hilliers, before launching on his speaking and media career in the 1980s and brings us right up to date with his plant hunting travels in recent years.

As you would expect from someone who has spent a significant portion of their 80 years in horticulture the book is full of plant references. Roy recounts numerous encounters with plants all over the world along with the people who accompanied and supported him.  Whilst the book is entitled My Life with Plants the people who encouraged, supported, worked for, learnt from and travelled with Roy are in fact the books  main ingredient; which reads almost like a whose who of horticulture.

My criticism of the book, and I’m afraid I need to be honest, is that due to the length of time in Roy’s life that is covered in the 299 pages it often felt that we were skimming along on the surface to include everything and I often wished there was more description of the places, or plants and especially the people.  I have to admit to not being a fan of the typical plant hunting travel log which this book often is as I find the tone too academic in approach for my taste but for those who enjoy learning about plants and where they come from and how they were originally located this should be a good read.

I certainly think My Life with Plants would be hugely inspiring for anyone thinking of embracing a career in horticulture as it demonstrates the truth behind the idea that you have to seize opportunities when they present themselves as you never know where they will lead or who you will meet.

 

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My Garden This Weekend

Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Swan’
Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Swan’

The first weekend of 2015 is coming to a close and the prospect of returning to work after the Christmas break is upon me.  For me any time spent in the garden at this time of year is a bonus. I don’t believe in the approach of putting the garden to bed particularly as I need to spend time outside and with plants on a regular basis to keep me sane.  Even if it is only, like today, half an hour wandering around the garden taking photographs of the frosted plants it makes all the difference to me.

Buddleja salviafolia
Buddleja salviafolia

Over the period between Christmas and New Year we have had several days of temperatures just at freezing although not going below 0C but also a few days with milder weather which gave me the chance to do some more tidying up.  I even managed to work my way through the Cottage Garden Border weeding and dead-heading which was a real bonus. I am always cheered by the sight of a tidy border which makes me think that the idea of a more natural look would never work for me! I have also managed to clean up the plants overwintering in the garage, sow some fern spores and also re-pot sempervivums which I hope to show later in the year.  Finally, I dug up the Magnolia stellata which was at the far end of the Big Border and had been looking a little unhappy.  Having dug it up it seems that the reason it wasn’t doing well was due to a lack of root system! It may be too late for the plant but I have potted it up and it is now sitting on the patio in intensive care.

Melianthus major
Melianthus major

With the cold temperatures, and fog, making gardening unpleasant I have taken the opportunity to catch up on my garden magazine reading, as well as looking at seed and bulb catalogues.  I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions as to me you are just putting yourself under pressure to achieve something and life has a habit of getting in the way unless you are very single minded. Instead I have some ideas and plans I would like to implement and achieve during the coming year.  I have already said in an earlier post that I hope to show more plants and I have already started working towards this by potting up and cleaning some sempervivums.  I am beginning to form a plan for the border in front of the new seating area and I am seriously considering removing the Stipa gigantica from the Big Border as it too large for the space and I seem to spend a lot of time cutting it back which seems to go against the nature of the plant.  If I do remove it I will be able to use the space, in one of the sunniest parts of the garden, for agapanthus and other sun loving bulbs which will be a bonus. I also plan to move the Cotinus from the lower part of the Big Border to roughly where the Magnolia was as this will make the border space work better. In the next few months I also want to work through the Woodland Border to improve the planting combinations and see what needs improving and finally I would like to do something with the bamboo border along the fence which needs some evergreen structure among the bamboos – I think I have a plan for this.

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I think I said last year I want to garden better and this still holds true.  Although I am surprised when I look back at photos from the past year that the garden looks better than I remember it there is still work to be done on improving planting combinations and more importantly the performance of plants. As ever I am experimenting with sowing seeds from plants new to me including more bulbs and also more Mediterranean plants. I find that through researching the plants to help me grow the seeds I learn more and more and widen my knowledge.

I have also tidied up my pile of seed/bulb catalogues and gardening notebooks which was long overdue and am ashamed to say that I have 3 notebooks which all have records of seed sowings with no really record of what seeds did well.  I am terrible at keeping records and I wonder if this is a reaction to the fact that I spend my working life doing administration so I don’t want to do it when I get home.  If I were to have a New Year’s resolution it would be to keep better records and I am all set up now to give it yet another go – but with low expectations!

This coming week the various garden clubs I attend start their meetings and I know it won’t take long before my head is buzzing with ideas and information on top of all the work stuff I have to absorb. My 2015 diary is already groaning with events and gardens I want to attend during the year so it has been wonderful to take time out these last two weeks to just think and ponder, plan and dream and recharge.

 

Behind the scenes at the RHS

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I had a wonderful day yesterday at RHS Wisley and to add to my enjoyment the sun shone which came as a welcome change to the recent cool and damp weather we have had.

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It is strange how I have ended up visiting this garden twice already this year when I had only ever been once before.  My favourite part of the garden was The Walled Garden it is planted up with ferns, hostas and other interesting foliage plants.  I love the textures in this space.

2014_06060009However I was there for a meeting with the RHS staff in charge of the AGM Plant trials.  It is strange how things have a way of coming together.  I have been interested in getting involved in plant trials for some time and applied a few years ago but to no avail. Earlier this year my friend, Helen Picton of Old Court Nurseries, told me that they had agreed to host an offsite trial of Aster novae-angliae for the RHS and would I be interested in being on the Committee. Fantastic! Then Robin Pearce a local nurseryman who is on the Herbaceous Plant Committee and behind the trial happening in the first place contacted me to see if I would be the Recording Secretary for the trial.  Apparently the RHS are beginning to consider having 2014_06060016more offsite trials – there is a Thalictrum one at Aberglasney and Nerine in Shropshire – but this is quite time-consuming for RHS staff causing them to be out of the office quite a bit.  Robin had suggested to the RHS that they consider having an offsite recorder who would then feed the results back to the RHS Trial Staff.  Amazingly, they have agreed although I think they are a little nervous about it!

Robin and I went to RHS Wisley to discuss the whole process and what I would be required to do and to convince them that this was possible.  I suspect me telling Mark  Heath that I have no horticultural training hasn’t inspired confidence!  We went through the whole process step by step and what information them needed from me and why.  They showed us the Bgbase database which is used internationally.  Each plant species and cultivar is recorded, the information is crossed reference with by the Botanical staff who check names etc are correct.  Then this information feeds into the Plant Search database we can access from the RHS website and also provides information for the RHS Plantfinder.

RHS Wisley trial fields
RHS Wisley trial fields

The plants we will be including in the trial are from two national collections both residing in the Malvern area along with some other additions again from Midlands nurseries.  We will be putting out a call for other entries.  Our next step is to agree the cultivar list and for all the plants to be delivered to the nursery so Helen can quarantine them until planting next spring.  Then during the flowering period (September – October) we will meet three times to assess the plants and we will do this for three years before agreeing on AGM recommendations to put forward to the Herbaceous Plant Committee.

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This will involve me attending and minuting four meetings each year and sending the notes etc to Sue in the Trails office for her to record on the database.  Thankfully they aren’t going to ask me to enter the information direct into the database.

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I think it is going to be fascinating and a good learning experience for me.  After lunch we had the afternoon to explore the gardens.  We had a look at the trial field so I could see how this was done and things we needed to pass back to Helen at the nursery when she is laying out the planting.   I then went for an explore and discovered a lovely woodland area that I hadn’t visited before which was delightful especially as it had got quite warm by this point.

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We left at 3pm having perused the plant sales (and yes bought a few things) unfortunately being a Friday we were stuck on the motorway for some time and it took 4 hours to do a journey which had taken 2 hours in the morning.  However, I had a wonderful day.  I learnt lots and it was fascinating to see behind the scenes at the RHS.

I have checked and I am allowed to report on the trials, in fact I have been encouraged to, aside from the voting and AGM recommendations.  So next year you will probably get tired of me wittering on about asters.

Images of RHS Chelsea 2014

Positively Stoke-on-Trent
Positively Stoke-on-Trent

I have been to the Press Day at RHS Chelsea Flower Show today, lucky me!  Its been a long day so I am too tired to post a proper post tonight but here are some images which you might like

Cleve West's The M&G Garden
Cleve West’s The M&G Garden
Vital Earth The Night Sky Garden
Vital Earth The Night Sky Garden
'Parsley The Lion'
‘Parsley The Lion’
Avon Bulbs
Avon Bulbs
The Brewin Dolphin Gardens
The Brewin Dolphin Gardens
Hope on the Horizon
Hope on the Horizon
Interflora
Interflora

Gardening Myths & Misconceptions – A Book Review

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I firmly believe that a lot of garden lore derives from job creation for the legions of under gardeners that used to exist.  I have a habit of doing gardening jobs as and when they occur to me and I tend to trust my instinct more than referring to books unless it is to remind me how to take cuttings.  I believe that this is how you learn through trial and error rather than mindlessly following an instruction from a book or fellow gardener without questioning it.  So I was very pleased to be offered a review copy of Charles Dowding’s new book Gardening Myths and Misconceptions

Like me Dowding has a questioning and challenging approach to life and in his introduction he explains that he has been trying and testing various myths for some 30 years.  Hardly surprising to hear from an influential vegetable grower who advocates a no-dig approach to growing; going against the long-held practice of double digging practised by many a veg grower.

In the introduction Dowding discusses the idea of myths and how we are brought up to believe various facts which it never occurs to us to question.  He gives a number of random examples such as Marie Antoinette did not say ‘let them eat cake’ which I was taught was an example of the aristocracy attitude to the poor and lead to the French Revolution instead this apparently was said 50 years earlier by Louis XIV’s wife.  Equally the claim that Mussolini made trains run on time is based on the fact that he banned the reporting of delays rather than the efficiency of the train system!  Once the ‘facts’ you were taught at school have been challenged your mind becomes open to the idea that other ‘facts’ may be untrue and so we go to horticultural practices.

The book focuses on the growing of edibles including watering, compost making, fertilising and soil.  I only grew edibles for a short time on an allotment, where fact and lore abounded and I found the whole experience quite daunting. I consulted books and the internet and my confusion grew as one fact contradicted another and to be honest some made little sense.

Dowding argues that when presented with these ‘facts’ you should ask the giver why this is true and challenge them to explain the reason behind their belief.  I tried out one of the myths on twitter the other evening.  Dowding argues that you don’t need to wash and sterilise seed trays and pots.  He states that he hasn’t done this for 30 years and rarely had a problem.  Some tweeters were aghast at this idea and when I challenged them, as per Dowding’s instruction, they all argued it was to remove pests and diseases and to prevent damping off.  However, Dowding argues that the only diseases he has encountered is from sowing too closely, which I know is a cause of botrytis, and humidity.  This makes complete sense to me and I know the other tweeters were celebrating that this tedious task was not that necessary. The RHS is also now agreeing with this view.

The crux of Dowding’s arguments come down to seeing the horticultural practice as a whole and understanding how one thing connects to another.  So green manure might provide some nutrients but you also have to take into account that the it can harbour slugs as well as beneficial creatures and the decomposition of the green manure can take weeks rather than days so may remove nutrients from the seeds or plants that have been planted, if planted too soon. As with many things it is a case of weighing up the pros and cons and making an informed choice that suits you rather than blindly and unquestioning following a prescribed view.

For anyone who grows edibles or for that matter gardens intensively I would recommend this book.  You might not agree with all of Dowding’s views and arguments but you will find yourself questioning what the ‘experts’ tell you and this in turn will lead you to be a more intelligent and successful gardener.

 

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.

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!