Coral, Peach and Ivory Tones in Jo Thompson’s Wedgwood Garden

The Wedgwood Garden, designed by Jo Thompson, marks the 260th anniversary of the company, founded by Josiah Wedgwood in 1759. The hard landscaping is inspired by Etruria – the pioneering Staffordshire village that Wedgwood built for his workers – and the canals that transported his pottery throughout the UK. 

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One of the vistas through the garden

Many of Wedgwood’s motifs were based on Greek and Roman mythology and this influence is captured in the interlinked arches that provide multiple frames through which to view the garden. The importance of the Staffordshire canals are referenced in the watercourse that flows through the garden, connecting the architecture with the surrounding planting. The garden includes sculptures by Ben Barrell – ‘Erosion’ is a rippled stone surface inspired by centuries of erosion and ‘Poldhu Point’ is a bronze sculpture inspired by a headland on the Cornish coast.

The overarching conifers (Pinus nigra, Sequoia sempervirens and Cedrus atlantica) and soft colour palette of the shrubs, perennials and annuals creates a warm, secluded atmosphere, perfect for relaxation. I’m helping on the garden this week – answering questions about the design and planting, but what I most want to do is settle down amongst the umbellifers and peonies to drink in the sights and scents.

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Water is the key element in this garden – seen here in Ben Barrell’s sculpture

Jo’s planting takes my breath away with its subtle, natural combinations of form, texture and colour. I am particularly drawn to certain plants – as are many of the visitors to the garden – these are all cultivars that would be easy to grow at home in both formal and informal gardens:

Iris ‘Pink Charm’

A gorgeous bearded iris with a name that belies its delicate peachy falls and intense tangerine beard. This iris creates drama and height among the lower perennials on the margins of the garden. The fragrant flowers will reach 60cm and bloom throughout May and June. Iris need full sun and well-drained soil in a sheltered position. If you can give them the conditions they require (sadly not easy in my garden), they will repay you with bursts of peachy joy in your early summer borders. Without a doubt, my favourite plant in the Wedgwood Garden.

Iris ‘Pink Charm’

Eschscholzia ‘Ivory Castle’

Another flower attracting a lot of attention from the crowds is Eschscholzia (bless you) ‘Ivory Castle’, the Californian poppy. This delightful annual has glaucous feathery foliage and ivory flowers with a creamy eye. It’s not too late to sow seeds and as ‘Ivory Castle’ only grows to 40cm, it is ideal for softening the edges of beds and borders.

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Eschscholzia ‘Ivory Castle’

Paeonia ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’

This herbaceous peony has semi-double flowers that last well in a vase. Peonies prefer well-drained soil in full sun, and prefer a sheltered position. It will reach 90cm and produces scented blooms throughout May and June. The glowing coral-pink flowers fade as they age, revealing a centre filled with soft yellow stamens. It’s a real beauty.

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Paeonia ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’

Daucus carota ‘Dara’

Jo’s planting is light and airy using umbellifers like Ammi majusAngelica archangelicaAnthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ – another of my favourites – and Daucus carota ‘Dara’. I grow this cultivated variety of wild carrot for its light burgundy umbels and ferny foliage. At 90cm, the flowerheads create drama above the surrounding planting, but don’t obscure the views beyond. As with many umbellifers, Daucus carota attracts pollinating insects and later in the season provides seeds for birds. Another bonus is the concave seedhead which is almost more beautiful than the flowers themselves.

Daucus Carota flowers and seedhead

DSC_0063 (2)Verbascum ‘Helen Johnson’

I love verbascum in all its shades and sizes – from native Verbascum nigrum (dark mullein) and Verbascum thapsus (great mullein) to cultivars like ‘Clementine’ and ‘Gainsborough’. ‘Helen Johnson’ was found as a chance seedling at Kew and its pinky-coppery shades bring together the dusky tones in Jo’s planting. Verbascum flowers attract a wide range of pollinating insects – bees, butterflies and flies. Rather wonderfully, hairs are also combed from stems and leaves by wool carder bees to use as nest material, and males guard areas of the plant for potential mates. 

Related Articles:

Book Review: Dahlias by Naomi Slade and Georgianna Lane

5 Environmentally-Friendly Ideas to Take Home from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Planting Palettes: Reflections on RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016

Cutting Patch: Into The Limelight

 

5 Environmentally-Friendly Ideas to Take Home from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

1. Wildflower Power

Everywhere you turn at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, indigenous trees, shrubs and perennials are interpersed with native biennial and annual wildflowers. The gardens are awash with hornbeam, birch, willow, yew, guelder rose, cow parsley, foxglove, ragged robin and sedum. The pinks of red campion and ragged robin are particularly conspicuous across the showground, creating a frothy haze around the garden borders.

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‘R’ is for RHS, Red Campion and Ragged Robin

We’re all aware of the importance of growing flowers for pollinators and there are many different ways to create a mini-meadow even in the smallest garden. While pollinator mixes and seed mixes for pictorial meadows do provide pollen and nectar for pollinating insects, unfortunately they do little to support the huge numbers of other invertebrates that feed on indigenous flora. So if you can keep even a small area of the garden for native meadow flowers, you will be creating the best garden habitat for all manner of invertebrates that, in turn, support healthy local ecosystems.

One way to create a mini-meadow is to add wild flower plants as we are doing in our garden this year. I bought 140 plug plants from Naturescape a month ago – some have been planted in bare areas and some I’m growing on to add to wild patches at the edge of the lawn. Plants include a range of shade and sun lovers – ox-eye daisies, red and white campion, garlic mustard, mallow, yarrow, field scabious, knapweed and selfheal. I can’t wait to see the flowers develop later in the summer and to investigate what invertebrates these native plants attract to my garden.

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Wildflower turf contains a mix of many native annuals and perennials

Another way to create an area of meadow is to use wildflower turf. When I talked to Lindum, who are showcasing their turf at Chelsea this week, they explained that wildflower turf is now a hugely popular product – demonstrating the growing desire of UK gardeners to support biodiversity in their own backyard. The wildflower turf is grown on a biodegradable backing that breaks down completely as the plants establish, and it includes a wide range of plants – 27 native wildflower species in total. 

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Lindum also sell sedum matting

2. Peat-Free Potential

As always, I made a bee-line for Dalefoot Composts, who are launching their new peat-free tomato compost at Chelsea this year. I’m looking forward to trying it when I pot on my tomatoes next week. The wool-based compost is designed specifically for tomatoes, reducing your workload and environmental impact as plants do not need additional feed during the growing season (the compost has all the nutrients the developing flowers and fruit need) and watering requirements are reduced by 50%.

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Dalefoot Composts have a wide range including the new tomato compost. Image Credit: Dalefoot Composts

3. Circular Design

The Morgan Stanley Garden, designed by Chris Beardshaw, considers ways to manage resources in more sustainable ways, beginning with the creation of the show garden itself. From the domed yew balls to the spherical sculptures, the shapes in the garden depict the cyclical pathway of recycled products that keep materials in circulation for as long as possible. The Hi-Vis jackets and plant pots are made from recycled materials, the flooring is constructed out of bamboo, a rapidly renewable resource, and the rear relaxation pod is clad in an ultra-thin layer of stone that reduces demands on natural resources. These lightweight materials also lower the transportation carbon footprint and reduce the structural demands on the building.  

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In the past few years, the RHS has made huge steps in ensuring that gardens and their products and plants are reused across London and the UK. This year’s Morgan Stanley Garden is destined to be repurposed within the local community by Groundwork London. It would be great to see the commitment to reuse, recycling and minimising energy use embodied in the Morgan Stanley Garden rolled out across all Chelsea show gardens in future years.

4. Growing Heritage and Heirloom

Pennard Plants always creates a fabulous garden in the Great Pavilion and this year is no exception. Next month they have the honour of being RHS Master Growers at Chatsworth Flower Show – demonstrating the RHS commitment to growing your own fruit, vegetables and herbs. 95% Pennard Plants’ seeds are heritage or heirloom varieties and they offer 500 plant cultivars in their nursery and online. Providing such a wide range of different cultivars helps to conserve genetic variation for the future.

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Pennard Plants’ 2019 Chelsea Dig for Victory Garden complete with Anderson Shelter

At this year’s show Pennard Plants are launching the blight-resistant tomato ‘Cocktail Crush’ which produces sweet, small fruits with an acid tang. Blight has become more prevalent in the past 30 years and there are no chemical controls available. 

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‘Oh Happy Day’ – another blight-resistant cultivar available from Pennard Plants

The best option to avoid blight on outdoor tomatoes is to maintain good plant hygiene, maximise airflow around plants by trimming foliage and sideshoots, and growing blight-resistant cultivars like ‘Cocktail Crush’, ‘Oh Happy Day’, ‘Crimson Crush’ and ‘Nagina’ (another new introduction from the nursery).Pennard Plants is also one of the best UK nurseries for unusual edibles – this year I picked a new plant to try – Epazote or Wormseed (Chenopodium ambrosides). A native of Central and South America, this leafy herb was used by the Aztecs in tea, as a leafy vegetable (used sparingly) and to favour bean and rice dishes. Believed to be an aid to prevent flatulence, this would also seem to be the perfect companion plant for anyone growing Jerusalem artichokes this year.

5. Forest Carbon

Forest Carbon finance projects across the UK, planting woodland and restoring peatland with support from both companies and individuals who want to mitigate their carbon footprint. They are certified under the Woodland Carbon CO2de, meaning their carbon capture statistics are based on sound science, the woodland has the right species in the right place and sites are sustainably managed after planting. They also explained to me that they undertake survey work after planting to check that the woodland is having a beneficial effect on biodiversity.

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Riparian woodland creation in the Cheviots. Image Credit: Forest Carbon

Carbon offsetting is a complex issue. If companies and individuals use it as a smokescreen or a way of assuaging their guilt whilst continuing to live and work in an unsustainable manner, then offsetting may well have negative net effects. If, however, offsetting is practised as part of a broader sustainable lifestyle, then it could be argued that it has a place in an environmentally responsible lifestyle. I might, for example, choose to offset the carbon produced by our small amount of driving, whilst saving for an electric car – we’re hoping it won’t be long now! And there’s no doubt that the seven million trees planted by Forest Carbon since 2006 and projects like the peatland restoration at Dryhope in the Scottish Borders and Doddington North Forest – a new 350 hectare forest in Northumberland – are beneficial to people and wildlife. 

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Native woodland creation near Dunbar. Image Credit: Forest Carbon

Forest Carbon are running a new scheme called the Carbon Club for individuals and families to offset their carbon footprint with a monthly payment which helps fund afforestation and peatland restoration. Alongside undertaking other steps to minimise carbon footprints, this might be a suitable option for some.

 

What are your opinions on wildflower planting, peat-free compost, sustainable design at RHS flower shows and carbon offsetting? Please leave me a comment about what you believe to be the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly options for gardeners. Thank you.

As always, my observations and suggestions come from my own opinions on which companies and gardens are offering environmentally-friendly choices for the consumer. I have no connection to Lindum or Forest Carbon except through the discussions I’ve had with them; I’ve bought from Naturescape and was pleased with the quality of the plug plants.

I have, on several occasions, been given a few of packets of seed by Pennard Plants to trial, but I have spent far more buying seed and plants from them. This is also the case with Dalefoot Composts who have sent me bags in the past (including the tomato compost) to trial. However, I also purchase the majority of my peat-free compost supply from them and have done for several years now. I support these companies because they offer fabulous products and really care about the environment.

Related Articles:

Peat Bog Restoration: Protecting Ecosystems and Limiting Climate Change

Oh Happy Day! New Tomatoes, Pepper and Watermelon Launched at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

7 Green Gift Ideas for Gardeners

Family Fun: The Great British Wildflower Hunt

Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside

Book Review: The Secrets of Great Botanists and What They Teach Us About Gardening

For my birthday this year I received the ultimate present – money to buy gardening and nature books. Matthew Biggs’ The Secrets of Great Botanists was one of the books I bought and it turned out to be an excellent choice…

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The Secrets of Great Botanists by Matthew Biggs is published by Mitchell Beazley in collaboration with the RHS, £15.99.

From Pedanius Dioscorides’ seminal work De Materia Medica to Patrick Blanc’s modern, innovative mur végétal structures, Matthew Biggs explores the lives and scientific endeavours of 35 of the most influential botanists of the past 2000 years. Although the histories stand alone as individual vignettes, the beauty of this book is in the way it reveals the progression of botanical knowledge over time, exploring developments like James Edward Smith’s purchase of Carl Linnaeus’ botanical collection after the Swedish botanist’s death and his founding of the Linnean society in 1788.

The author recounts the lives of famous botanists like Leonhart Fuchs, John Lindley and Joseph Banks, but also introduces less well known pioneers such as the botanist-pirate William Dampier who was collecting plants in Australia seventy-one years before Sir Joseph Banks, and the botanical illustrator and plant collector Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe, who designed and oversaw the development of the Maymyo Botanic Garden in the early twentieth century.

Although only eight of the 35 stories focus on female botanists, they comprise some of the most remarkable tales in the collection. Who could fail to be inspired by Anna Atkins, who perfected the art of the cyanotype and produced the first book in the world to be illustrated with photographs? Or the indomitable Jeanne Baret who accompanied naturalist Philibert Commerçon on his plant hunting expeditions around the world disguised as a boy, collecting specimens and acting as chief botanist when Commerçon was ill?

The Secrets of Great Botanists is beautifully illustrated with period botanical images including Marianne North’s painting of the pitcher plant, Nepenthes Northiana, and several of Anne Atkin’s fern cyanotypes. The text covers daring exploits and exciting discoveries, but I most enjoyed seeing how the legacies of these botanists influence horticulture and design today. Nikolai Vavilov’s work to conserve genetic diversity and Philipp von Siebold’s introduction to Europe of over twenty hosta species, Wisteria brachybotrys and the infamous Japanese knotweed have never seemed so relevent.

If you would like more inspiring gardening and nature reading, here are some other reviews of books I’ve enjoyed:

Book Review: Dahlias by Naomi Slade and Georgianna Lane

Year Of The Almanac

Book Review: James Wong’s ‘How To Eat Better’

Book Review: RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book of Hygge

Book Review: Around The World In 80 Plants

The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work] at 72

 

What Nestbox Where?

During the People’s Walk for Wildlife and the rewilding conference in Cambridge last year, I learnt in disbelief about the dramatic declines in insect, bird, mammal and wild plant populations since the 1970s – the decade in which I was born. This year I have resolved to put nature at the heart of our garden in an effort to support the natural world in my small piece of over 400,000 hectares of gardens across the UK – a collective habitat with the potential to make a real difference for wildlife.

We already feed the birds and have nestboxes; we grow plants for pollinating insects and garden organically without peat. So I am beginning to look for more ways to make our garden accessible and welcoming for wild creatures. We are currently adding a range of nestboxes for different species of birds to the small hole boxes we already have, and there are plans to install a barrel pond, create a small wild flower lawn, build hedgehog habitat beneath log piles and monitor the garden birds, amphibians, mammals, mini-beasts and wildflowers throughout the year.

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Building, installing and monitoring nestboxes is a great activity for all the family. My dad made this robin box and the kids helped him put it up

In early March there’s still time to put up nestboxes before the breeding season is in full swing, so this seems like a good place to start. I hope you’ll join me throughout the year, as we encourage as much wildlife into our modest-sized garden as possible.

What nestbox where?

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Blue tits laid in one of our small hole nestboxes last year

When putting up nestboxes, it is important to ensure they do not get overheated during warmer weather. Unless they are sited in good shade, it is best to site them on a wall or tree, facing between north and east, so that they are protected from the sun for much of the day. Unless otherwise stated, it is advisable to fit them at least 1.5 – 2m above the ground. It is also worth remembering to put them out of reach of neighbouring cats.

As a general rule, it is best to avoid the “decorative” nestboxes frequently seen in garden centres and some craft shops; they are often too small and may have the hole too close to the floor of the box (a distance of at least 120mm is recommended).

Small Hole Nestbox

This traditional nestbox is frequently used by Blue Tits and Great Tits, depending on the size of the hole (Great Tits need a hole with a minimum diameter of 28mm, while Blue Tits can fit through a 25mm hole). If you are lucky enough to have Coal Tits in your garden, they will also sometimes use artificial nest sites (again, a 25mm hole is big enough for them).

We’ve had both great and blue tits nesting in the small hole boxes in the garden

House Sparrow Terrace

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House sparrow populations have declined by 50-60% since the 1970s and it’s now a red-list species of high conservation concern

House Sparrows generally nest in small colonies and will readily accept boxes if there are several close together. For this reason, many wildlife product suppliers offer “House Sparrow Terraces”, which usually take the form of a long box with 3 separate compartments. However, the same effect can be achieved by placing three, or more, boxes in close proximity to one another. Being somewhat bigger than Great Tits, House Sparrows need an entrance hole of at least 32mm diameter. Boxes should be at least 2m above the ground and, preferably, somewhere that is not subject to too much human disturbance.

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I saw sparrows with nest material on top of this box last week

Medium Hole Nestbox

Starlings typically nest in holes in trees or under roofing tiles if they can get access. They happily accept nestboxes but need more space than smaller species, so use a slightly larger box with an entrance hole of 45mm. Boxes should be placed at least 2.5m off the ground.

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This nestbox is destined for the side of the house – our neighbours already have starlings nesting under their eaves

Open-Fronted Nestbox

These boxes are aimed primarily at Robins although will sometimes be used by Wrens. Being open-fronted, they are more susceptible to predation than conventional nestboxes and should be placed in a well concealed site such as under overhanging ivy or clematis. Height off the ground is unimportant although, again, it is best to try to keep them out of reach of the local cats.

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My dad constructed this open-fronted box and the kids helped him install it under our winter-flowering clematis

Swifts and House Martins 

Swifts have declined as a breeding species in Britain as many older buildings with access to the eaves have been demolished and new houses do not usually offer any access. Specially designed Swift boxes can be put up under the eaves of your house but it might be necessary to play Swift calls throughout the summer months to attract them to the site. Artificial nests for House Martins are also available and can be fixed under the eaves.

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House martin boxes mimic their natural mud nests, like this one

Other Species

Many species will not nest in boxes. Some that will, but are less likely to be encountered in most gardens are listed below:

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Some birds – like this long-tailed tit – prefer to make their own nests

Nuthatch
Pied Wagtail
Spotted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher
Redstart
Jackdaw
Stock Dove
Tawny Owl

If you live somewhere that has any of these species and would like to try to get them to nest in your garden, I would recommend “The BTO Nestbox Guide” by Chris du Feu, an excellent publication, with details of a wide range of nestboxes. Good quality nestboxes can be bought from the RSPB, CJ Wildlife, Ark Wildlife and other reputable wildlife equipment providers.

What Next?

If you have a nestbox in your garden, why not take part in the British Trust for Ornithology’s “Nestbox Challenge”. They provide guidance on how to monitor nesting birds safely, without causing them to desert their eggs or chicks.

With thanks to bird guru, Alan Garner, aka my generous, talented and fabulous dad! If you’d like to follow our garden rewilding this year, just click below to subscribe. 

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25 Colourful Crops for a Vibrant Vegetable Garden

In January I banished grey days by reading The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair. It took me on a vivid journey through the history of colour, to explore the unknown corners of sepia, fallow, orchil, Isabelline and vantablack. As I read, I noticed how many of the terms are derived from plants like madder, amaranth, saffron, ginger, avocado and violet. Often these words referred to the dye the plants produced as with woad, or the colour of the plant’s blooms, like heliotrope. Colour is an integral part of our relationship with plants, we have used them over the centuries to produce dyes and paints, to bring colour into our homes with cut flowers and recently we’ve learnt more about the health benefits of many of the antioxidants that give plants their colour.

Now we are nearing the middle of February and my dining table is splashed with colour as I sort my seed packets. I usually avoid sowing anything except chillies until early March, so there’s still a couple of weeks to select a rainbow of colour for health and happiness later in the year. Here are my top picks for a vibrant vegetable patch in 2019:

Red

  • Suttons’ new lettuce ‘Outredgeous’ is the first plant to be grown from seed, harvested and eaten in space. It has vivid red leaves, a sweet crunch and can be grown in part-shade as well as full sun
  • Sprout ‘Red Rubine’ is an unusual brassica with red/purple sprouts. We particularly liked the red sprout tops which taste like sweet, crunchy mini-cabbages
  • One of my favourite salad onions ‘Apache’ produces glossy red spring onions that keep their colour when peeled. They are also ideal for container growing
  • The first oca I grew was ‘Helen’s All Red’ from Real Seeds. It produced heavy crops and is also one of the best flavoured of the 15 or so varieties I’ve grown. With edible leaves and ruby fruits in November when the rest of the garden has gone into hibernation, this is one colourful crop you won’t regret growing this year

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    Oca ‘Helen’s All Red’

Orange

  • Suttons’ Squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’ has dense round fruits which keep well and look superb hanging off the climbing plants in the autumn
  • Chilli ‘Apricot’ from Sea Spring Plants was a first for me last year. Its mild fruits matured late and tasted more like a sweet pepper than a chilli – a good choice if you want chilli plants for young children or chillies for stuffing
  • Tomato ‘Sungold’ is an orange winner time and time again in taste tests for the sweetest tomato. The cherry-sized fruits are irresistible to both kids and adults, especially when eaten warm straight out of the greenhouse

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    Squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’

Yellow

  • Visually, I prefer ‘Chioggia’ beetroot with its striking pink central rings, but the kids’ favourite is always ‘Burpees Golden’ for its mild, sweet taste
  • Tomato ‘Golden Sunrise’ is a beautiful contrast in a salad to darker varieties and ‘Striped Stuffer’ has scarlet skins striped with vivid yellow making the most beautiful hanging display
  • If you prefer your chillies hot then try ‘Lemon Drop’, a delicious Aji chilli that comes in at a spicy 30,000-50,000 SHU rating

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    A mix of yellow and orange tomatoes

Green

  • A poor relation in the garden, green is often dismissed as simply the colour of foliage, but it can be beautiful and vivid in its own right. Try Tomato ‘Green Zebra’ with its deep green stripes over a soft lime background
  • Or try the tinted white-green patty pan squash with their prolific scalloped fruits – a seed mix like ‘Summer Mix’ from Thompson and Morgan combines the paler squashes with dark green and yellow fruits
  • Cucamelons also celebrate the colour green with their beautiful speckles over the paler skin and Romanesco broccolli excudes lime green from every fractal millimetre

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    Cucamelon green

Blue

  • An unsual colour in the vegetable garden, many ‘blue’ crops tip over into tints of purple. You could try Tomato ‘Blue Bayou’ from Chiltern Seeds for its ‘richly coloured dark navy-blue to purple fruits’
  • Alternatively try Sweetcorn ‘Hopi Blue’, an American Indian heirloom variety from Jungle Seeds to find out if blue is for you in the vegetable garden

Indigo

  • We like the meaty, deep flavour of Tomato ‘Indigo Rose’ from Suttons. This almost black cultivar has a secret – lift up the calyx and underneath you’ll find remnants of the red coloration where the skin isn’t exposed to the light

Violet

  • I love deep purple vegetables – whether it’s ‘Purple Haze’ carrots, ‘Kolibri’ kohlrabi or the dwarf bean ‘Purple Queen’ There’s something deep and mysterious about them – especially when the colour magically disappears during cooking as with the beans or gives way to the traditional orange centre inside the carrots

Rainbow carrots and the orange inside

Rainbow

  • If your garden is too small to grow a wide range of crops or you fancy more colours for your money, rainbow collections are a fun way to liven it up. Chilli ‘Prairie Fire’ moves through the colours of the rainbow as the fruits mature
  • We love growing carrot ‘Rainbow Mix’ as the kids never know what colour carrot will appear when they gently pull out the roots
  • Beetroot naturally lend themselves to multicoloured seed mixes. ‘Rainbow Mix’ includes ‘Chioggia’, Burpees Golden’ and Albina Verduna’
  • Of course, the ultimate rainbow crop has to be Swiss Chard ‘Bright Lights’one of the first vegetables I ever grew. If the neon stems of ‘Bright Lights’ don’t convince you of the charms of colourful crops, nothing will!

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    Beetroot ‘Rainbow Mix’

What colourful crops are on your seed list this year? Do you have any favourites that you grow time and time again?

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7 Green Gift Ideas for Gardeners

Is Christmas a time for delight or dread? A combination of both if you’re anything like me. There will be more opportunities to talk, go for walks, play games and share meals than at any other time, but the endless stuff, the commercialism and the waste accepted by society makes me uncomfortable at Christmas.

David Attenborough’s words at the UN Climate Change Summit play on my mind as I write my Christmas lists, test my daughter on the words for her Christmas show and put up the decorations. The immense challenges facing us concerning the climate, plastics, pollinators and many other issues arising from our past and current treatment of the natural world can’t be solved by small changes at Christmas, but I believe it is part of a changing mindset and complements more direct activities such as writing to MPs and supporting environmental charities and campaign groups. If you are buying gifts for Christmas, here are a few sustainable options for the gardeners in your life…

1. Grow Your Own

Plug plants are ideal for busy gardeners who like to grow their own or those who would like to begin. They normally come in plastic modules that can’t be recycled, but this selection from Pippa Greenwood arrive wrapped in paper and are grown in Lincolnshire. 

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Grow Your Own with Pippa Greenwood (Image credit: Pippa Greenwood)

The selection includes your choice of 15 different vegetables and the recipient gets a weekly email from Pippa tailored specially to the plants in the pack with advice right through from soil preparation to feeding, watering, staking/supporting, pinching out, and pests and disease.

Top Tip – Avoid wrapping paper at Christmas and for birthdays, as it is usually only suitable for landfill. It often contains plastic, glitter, dyes and is covered in sticky tape. DEFRA estimates in the UK we buy enough of this single-use material each year to gift wrap the whole of Guernsey!

2. The Gift of Time

Time is a valuable gift – far more than money or stuff in so many ways. Give a friend or family member a voucher for help with the allotment in the New Year or help create a new growing space for children. Meals for the freezer made with ingredients from the garden are also a way to pass on a little love without costing the earth.

Gifts involving experiences are a favourite in our house. For a keen gardener there are fabulous courses like those at the Cambridge Botanic Garden (I’m particularly looking forward to the ‘Rewild Your Garden’ this year) and for new gardeners there are often short courses and sessions at local community gardens. As a new mum, I joined a course on fruit pruning at my local community garden many years ago and it gave me the confidence to start formal horticultural qualifications.

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Tending the apple cordons at my local community garden where I learnt to prune in my first horticultural session

Top Tip – Instead of wrapping paper use fabric bags or scrap material and ribbons which can be used for many years. The Japanese art of furoshiki is centuries old and is enjoying a resurgence in Japan now that the issues with plastic bags and wrapping are becoming clear.

3. Festive Fungi

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The oyster mushrooms we grew a couple of years ago

The Espresso Mushroom Kitchen Garden from The Espresso Mushroom Company is an edible gift grown on the biodegradable, recycled coffee grounds of one hundred espressos. Made by a family firm in Brighton, these sustainable oyster mushrooms are a fun way to get growing in the New Year. 

4. Share Seeds

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Yin Yang beans are objects of beauty

Reusing materials is the most sustainable way to create a gift and seeds are so easy to share. Choose favourite seeds – this year, for me, it would be the French Dwarf bean seeds ‘Yin Yang’. I’m passing some onto friends to grow next year and even a handful for a fellow gardener who makes beautiful jewellery so that she can create a necklace.

Top Tip – Ditch the sellotape and buy 100% recycled paper tape with a natural latex adhesive backing. 

5. Donate

Charity gifts allow someone less fortunate to benefit at Christmas. I like the gifts from Send A Cow where you can donate to a Mandala Garden, a Keyhole Garden or even an Allotment in a rural African community. I saw a keyhole garden at Gardeners’ World LIVE a few years ago and was impressed by the design which allows a family to grow enough food for three meals a day – even in the face of an extreme climate and poor soil.

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Little Havens Hospice garden (Credit: Greenfingers)

 Alternatively you could gift a donation to gardening charities like Greenfingers or the Gardening for Disabled Trust. Greenfingers creates beautiful gardens in children’s hospices across the UK. This is the interactive garden at Little Havens Hospice in Essex, designed by Matthew Eden and completed in 2014.

 

Gardening for Disabled

Gardening for Disabled Trust Logo

The Gardening for Disabled Trust provides small grants for people with all kinds of chronic disabilities – mental and physical – to help get them gardening again, from money for a ramp so that a gardener with MS can access her garden again, to grants to set up gardening clubs in care homes. This work is vital to enable all members of society to benefit from the therapeutic effects of gardening and interacting with the natural world.

6. Plastic-Free Pots

The majority of the 500 million pots we buy in the UK each year are incinerated or sent to landfill. Part of the solution to this astounding amount of plastic needs to be to reduce the amount of plants we produce and buy, alongside using more sustainable containers. Garden Ninja presents an interesting discussion of the issues with and alternatives to plastic containers on his blog this week. 

In addition to Garden Ninja’s recommendations, these attractive biodegradable containers available from Pippa Greenwood are made from sustainable bamboo and rice. They are sturdy enough to last several years and when they finally need to be replaced, they can be added to the compost heap where they will biodegrade in 6-12 months. They are available in 5in and 6in, and come in packs of 5.

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No plastic here (Credit: Pippa Greenwood)

Top Tip – Use newspaper to wrap presents – iron it first to set the ink, or buy a roll of recyclable brown paper and jazz up with stencilled designs or ribbons. Include a note explaining that the wrap is recyclable.

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My daughter has used brown paper with stencilled snowmen (biscuit cutters for stencils), a recycled tag from last year’s cards and reusable ribbon on this present for her brother.

7. Perennial Power

Perennials are a gift that by their very nature just keep on giving. I love growing perennial vegetables like rhubarb, sorrel, Daubenton’s kale, perennial onions, garlic chives and Jerusalem artichokes. My first port of call when I’m after a new perennial for the garden is Alison Tindale at The Backyard Larder. She grows an interesting range of perennial vegetables in peat-free compost from seeds and cuttings. The plants arrive in recycled shoe boxes using as near to 100% recycled or fully biodegradable materials as possible and she is always on hand to give advice.

 

Marsh mallow and red-veined sorrel – some of the perennial vegetables I’ve grown in the garden and allotment over the years

Please do pass on your top tips for wrapping and presents in the comments below – there’s still time to make changes before Christmas and I’m keen to learn as much as possible about how to make this festive season the most sustainable yet. 

This is not a sponsored post – all the products are ones I have either bought myself and been impressed with or have come recommended. The only product I’ve tried but didn’t initially buy myself are the oyster mushrooms which I was sent to trial a couple of years ago. They were such fun to grow and so delicious to eat that I’d definitely grow them again and have bought them for others since.

(Featured image credit: Pippa Greenwood)

Peat Bog Restoration: Protecting Ecosystems and Limiting Climate Change

Last month I wrote Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside exploring the inextricable links between gardens and the wider landscape  – with all the benefits and responsibilities this entails. As we become increasingly aware of the direct effect of our collective actions on the environment, complex issues such as the use of plastic, energy and peat in gardening are under scrutiny. We are beginning to accept that sustainable energy use and a circular economy are vital if we are to develop a world where our children can grow up to enjoy the pleasures, horticultural or otherwise, that we currently do.

One perennial issue in the garden is the use of peat. The arguments against peat use are much rehearsed and despite repeated undertakings by the government to phase out the use of peat in horticulture, there has been depressingly little progress in the past 20 years. The 2010 target to reduce peat use in composts by 90% was comprehensively missed and the same was true of the 2015 aim for all public procurement to be peat free by 2015. Unfortunately, the most recent target to stop the use of peat by 2020 by amateur gardeners looks set to go the same way.

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Degraded blanket bog

One argument which is often made against peat-free compost is the environmental impact of transporting materials like coir long distances (although much of our peat now comes from Ireland, Canada and the Baltic). Another problem has been quality – I’ve seen this in my own garden with green waste based peat-free compost which often contains a large quantity of woody material, isn’t suitable for either ericaceous plants or seed sowing, and contains fungus gnat eggs which then hatch and fill my house with clouds of irritating sciarid flies.

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Damage caused by peat extraction

To overcome these issues, a few years ago I sourced peat-free seed compost from Dalefoot Composts and was impressed by the results in comparison to other growing mediums. I’ve used their ericaeous, multipurpose, high strength and bulb composts, all with excellent results – some I’ve been sent to trial, but the majority I’ve bought myself over the years. One of the advantages is its relatively local nature (produced on the family-run farm in the Lake District) and the sustainability of the raw materials used – sheep’s wool and bracken – products which would otherwise have little or no value.

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Bracken cutting for compost

In addition, the sheep’s wool (used for the majority of the composts) retains moisture thus reducing the need to water and both materials have naturally high levels of nutrients so no additional feeding is necessary. I grew my tomatoes, chillies and cucumbers in the high strength compost this year and didn’t add any feed throughout the growing season. Yields increased and I noticed no difference in the size and health of plants or fruit.

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The Dalefoot compost range

Recently I read about the peat bog restoration work undertaken by founders of Dalefoot Composts, Professor Jane Barker and Simon Bland over the past 20 years and was keen to find out more. Jane is an ecologist and Simon a seventh-generation Cumbrian sheep farmer, so between them they have a 360-degree perspective on the damaging operation of peat extraction that has caused the loss of thousands of hectares of peat bog across the UK. Lowland peat bog in England currently covers only one tenth of its original 38,000 hectares due to agricultural drainage, forestry, landfill and peat extraction and many remaining bogs still have permissions to extract peat in the future which are extremely costly to buy out in order to protect the sites.

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Simon and Jane at work on the peat bog 

In 2002 the Government’s advisory body, English Nature, wrote in Peat Bog Conservation:

Today, one of the greatest threats to our peat bogs is from our continued use of peat in the garden. The gardening hobby that brings many of us a great deal of pleasure is doing so at the expense of our wildlife.

Wildlife is certainly one key issue – we’ve known for decades about the importance of peat bogs as a rich and diverse habitat for specially adapted plants and animals like sphagnum moss, butterwort, sundew, bog myrtle, the large heath butterfly, black darter dragonfly and wading birds such as dunlin, curlew and golden plover.

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Golden plover in breeding plumage (Image credit: Alan Garner)

More recently we’ve become increasingly aware of the fundamental role peatland environments play in storing carbon (around 3.2 billion tonnes are stored in peatland in the UK), reducing flooding and fires, and providing drinking water (70% of our water comes from peatland river catchments in the UK).¹ The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) also outlines the way ‘peat-dominated landscapes can help to underpin a sustainable rural community as well as providing key benefits to society (eg. water supplies, carbon storage and sequestration) as a whole.’ But they point out that these services can only be provided if ‘peat bog habitat is correctly identified, characterised and thereby managed in an appropriate way’.²

The definition of a bog is a wetland that receives its water exclusively from direct rainfall as opposed to fens where groundwater causes the water-logging. Raised bogs occur in the lowlands where the surface rises over time as a result of peat formation creating a dome shaped bog. In wetter upland conditions peat covers wide areas and is therefore described as blanket bog.

When discussing the restoration work with Jane, I was fascinated by her description of the diversity of peat bog habitat and the huge range of flora (particularly sphagnum moss) which colonize different areas. There are many different types of sphagnum moss – the genus Sphagnum contains around 380 different species – some grow in the water and some on the edge of the bog, but all species hold large quantities of water within their cells (16-26 times their own dry weight). The moss acts as a blanket over the bog which keeps the methane in and, ultimately, becomes peat-forming vegetation.

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Sundew in the sphagnum moss

The UK has disappointingly broad terms for these diverse habitats unlike many peat-rich western nations like Sweden, whose terminology records precisely the individual fen and bog systems. The IUCN states that consequent on this paucity of descriptive language:

most of the UK blanket bog landscape is described only in terms of rather broad vegetation types, which ultimately results in poor understanding of key site features and condition.

There has been much debate recently about the generalisation of terminology for natural landscapes and its effect on our perception of the environment in which we live. In his book on language and the environment, Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane discusses the specificity of reference we are losing as whole tranches of vernacular vocabulary for landscape disappear. He suggests:

It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit.³

Learning more about peat bogs has revealed a rich vocabulary which I relish – a world of watershed bogs, saddle bogs, spur bogs, saddleside bogs, basin fens, flushes, kettle holes, schwimgmoor raised bogs and blanket mires. One of the strengths of the restoration work which Jane, Simon and their team undertake is their knowledge and understanding of these varied micro-habitats and the different restoration treatments each requires.

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Pristine blanket bog

Peat bog restoration is a complex and time-consuming process primarily because mires (current peat-forming bogs) are ‘one of the most sensitive ecosystems on the planet due to their limited capacity for self repair.’4  Barker and Bland – Jane and Simon’s company – have developed methods using both specially designed machines whose footprint is less than 2 lbs per square inch (less than half the weight of a human’s) and working by hand, depending on the sensitivity of the site.

The first step is to restore the hydrology of the peat bog which will have been damaged by the drainage systems put in place so that peat extraction could take place. Inspired by techniques used in rice paddy fields, the team creates crescents along the drainline, blocking the drains and ditches with peat dams to raise the water table. The hags (the eroded cut edges of the peat) are then reprofiled to prevent further erosion and sphagnum moss is introduced to recolonise the area.

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Timber sediment traps slow the flow of water downstream and enable re-vegetation

The growth tips of sphagnum moss are sustainably harvested from specially selected donor sites – usually local pristine sites as similar to the ecosystem of the restoration site as possible – and within 36 hours these must be spread across the bog in a re-vegetation layer. Sphagnum moss gets its moisture and nutrients from the air: the shallow root system simply acts as an anchor and dies off forming peat when the plant is established, so unlike other plants, moss can be propagated by spreading the growing tips across the new site. In addition to harvesting moss from donor sites, Barker and Bland have built a sphagnum farm in Cumbria to grow different species of moss for their restoration work.

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Re-vegetated bare peat

Two of the most recent peatland restoration projects undertaken by Barker and Bland include Bolton Fell in Cumbria and large blanket bog areas in the Cairngorms. In 2014 the government bought out William Sinclair Holding PLC’s peat extraction rights at Bolton Fell, a 375 hectare site and one of the largest degraded raised peat bogs still capable of natural regeneration in England. Once restoration work started in 2016 the Fell was restored to a sphagnum moss habitat with the year, although it will be many decades before peat depth becomes substantial again beneath the sphagnum moss.

In July this year, Barker and Bland began restoration work on a 134 hectare upland blanket bog site in the Cairngorms as part of the Scottish government’s project to restore 40% of Scotland’s peatland (618,000 acres) by 2030. Over the past five months, six members of the team have been working on re-profiling thousands of metres of hags across the peat bog. This work will continue until Christmas through the first sprinklings of snow.  A further two teams are currently working in the Cairngorms tackling 25,000 metres of peat hags and 1.75 hectares of bare peat. 

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Timber sediment traps across the peat bog

Over the next few years we have difficult decisions to make about how we use our land – either we learn to manage it in sustainable ways or we use up the resources in the short-term and pay for it in the future. Peat bog restoration is only the beginning of a regeneration process that will take many decades to complete, but restoring and managing our peat bogs is a vital step if we want to benefit from the practical services these environments offer and preserve the rich ecosystems which they support.

¹ UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands, IUCN
² Peat Bog Ecosystems: Key Definitions, IUCN
³ Robert MacFarlane, Landmarks, p. 24
4 Natural England, A review of techniques for monitoring the success of peatland restoration, quoted from (Maltby, 1997)

Image credits: Barker and Bland unless otherwise stated

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Prince and Pedlar: Forgotten Fruit

Ripening in the garden this afternoon are the last of the ‘White Marseille’ figs (Ficus carica); the first, and therefore somewhat miraculous, harvest for 14 years. On either side of the fig are the fruiting canes of the pink, seedless ‘Reliance’ grape (Vitis vinifera) and in the front garden, a handful of Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) berries that survived the drought earlier in the year are developing their burgundy shine. The honeyberries (Lonicera caerulea) and pinkberries (actually a pink blueberry, Vaccinium ‘Pink Lemonade’) also fruited for the first time this year and there were a even couple of mulberries  on the juvenile ‘Charlotte Russe’ (developed from Morus rotundiloba), although I have to say I’m still unconvinced about their quality in terms of flavour.

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When I saw these figs I could hardly believe they were real

We had a fair apple harvest from our espalier ‘James Grieve’ and ‘Egremont Russet’, although ‘Bountiful’ and ‘Fiesta’ sulked all spring and produced not one blossom. The plum (Prunus domestica ‘Opal’) had a successful year and the greengage (Prunus domestica subsp. italica ‘Cambridge Gage’) also produced a good harvest, although due to poor timing on our part we were away when the fruit ripened and on our return all that remained were a series of wasps’ bottoms poking provocatively out of each syrupy gage.

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After 13 quinces last year, this haul was an utter delight

Quantity of Quince

But the delight of the year has been the success of our appealingly dishevelled quince tree (Cydonia oblonga), the aptly named ‘Meeches Prolific’. A couple of weeks ago, at five years old, it delighted us all with a harvest of around 100-150 small fruits, picked by my husband and daughter, each quince carefully handed down from the tree and placed reverently in a bucket which it soon became clear was far too small for the seemingly limitless supply hidden beneath the foliage. The quince harvest alone made my year in the garden complete. My only regret, fruit-wise, is the lack of space for that king of trees – the medlar.

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The medlars in the community garden are cropping well this autumn

Meeting Medlars

I first discovered medlars when I moved down to Hertfordshire in 2003. Until that moment my fruit aspirations went no further than childhood memories of my dad’s ‘Laxton’s Superb’ apple trees, bilberries foraged on the Welsh mountains and the loganberry – a fruit that attained an almost mythic status in my memory as the sweetest food on earth when eaten warm from Aunty Florence’s garden, the berries almost as big as my mouth. But I’d never encountered anything like the medlar. Here was a fruit that offered neither immediate candied delight, nor vibrant hues; a fruit whose dun, leathery skin seemed a deliberate indication of its disinclination to be eaten. I was intrigued.

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A most unassuming fruit

The tree stood in the corner of my friends’ new garden – a modest, rather overgrown patch with unexpected treasures lurking at the back of each brimming border. Their area has a rich horticultural history: situated on the borders of a medieval park dating from before 1380, then developed into a town pleasure garden in the 18th century. With the cottages and gardens themselves dating back to 1820s and 30s, theirs was a historically interesting garden with dynamic borders full of flowers and fruit – redcurrants, damsons, gooseberries, blackberries, quince, raspberries, rosemary, campanula, hollyhocks and clematis.

The garden in winter and with spring blossom (Image credit: Lindsay Cook)

I was attracted to the story behind this garden and the questions behind the design – who had planted with this balanced purpose of beauty and productivity – and what had the garden meant to them? Why had they chosen the majestic medlar as the cornerstone of the garden and what did they do with the fruits? The garden and its medlar tree ignited my interest in unconventional fruits and the stories that they can tell. We harvested the medlars in the garden for several years, bletting the fruits, watching the disintegration of the skins as the not-quite rotting took place and savouring the smoky date-apple flavours of the jellies and cheeses that we produced using methods that have been around for hundreds of years.

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Beautiful, yet the undignified butt of many an ancient joke

Ancient Fruit

Both quinces and medlars were once popular fruit in the UK. In 1629 John Parkinson, Royal Botanist to Charles I, lists three varieties of medlars and six of quince in his study of plant cultivation, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris. Gervase Markham (1568-1637) has advice for both ‘husbandmen’ and ‘housewives’ regarding storing and cooking these fruit. Husbandmen should ‘gather [medlars] about the midst of October after such time as the frost hath nipt and bitten them’ and lay them in ‘thicke woollen cloathe, and about the cloathes good store of hay, & someother waight of boards’ to heat them and bring them to a ‘perfect rottenesse.’ Quinces, on the other hand, should be stored away from other fruit ‘because their sent is so strong and piercing, that it will enter into any fruit, and cleane take away his naturall rellish’.

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One of the joys of growing quinces is their pale, cupped blossom in mid spring

In The Well-Kept Kitchen, as well as advising housewives in matter of religion, temperance, dress sense and their knowledge of gardening, Markham also includes instruction in the art of  making quince conserve, preserve, cake, paste and marmalade. 200 years later Eliza Acton continues the tradition with her recipes for quince juice, custard, jellies and marmalade, whilst Isabella Beeton’s 1860s recipes for medlar jelly and mebrillo (quince cheese) are the ones we use in our kitchen today.

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Quince cheese – a special autumn treat

Soup Tales

Many years ago at university I bought Soup & Beyond by the New Covent Garden Soup Company – an exploratory cookery book for which we were required to ditch our student staples of chicken, pasta and cheese, and explore hitherto unknown ingredients like dill, lovage, buckwheat and buttermilk. One of the recipes for prince and pedlar soup looked intriguing, but I was at a loss to source the strange fruits so as I worked my way through the other recipes the prince and the pedlar remained uncooked, forgotten for the last twenty years. Yesterday, with huge piles of quince fragrantly ripening in boxes in the kitchen I remembered the old recipe and unearthed the soup book. 

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The downy coating on an unripe quince disappears as it ripens

Although we have a few foraged medlars they haven’t yet completely bletted, so this time I’ve substituted one of our Egremont Russet apples as suggested in the recipe:

Ingredients

50g (2oz) butter

575g (11b 5oz) quince (approx 3), peeled, cored and roughly chopped

1 russet apple, peeled, cored and roughly chopped (or bletted medlar – I’d use 3/4 and just add the flesh to the soup mix)

1 teaspoon tumeric

1.25 litres chicken stock

3 tablespoons single cream

2 egg yolks

salt and freshly ground pepper

Method

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the quince, medlar and tumeric. Cook over a low heat for 10 minutes. Add the stock, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool.

Process in a liquidiser until smooth, then return to the pan. Beat the cream and egg yolks together, add a ladle full of soup to this mixture then pour into the soup. Cook gently over a low heat until the mixture thickens, stirring continuously. Season to taste.

From New Covent Garden Soup Company’s Soup & Beyond (1999)

The Taste of History

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Prince and Pedlar Soup finally in the flesh

Supper is now served: a warm yellow soup with a silky texture and a mellow sweet and sour flavour that reminds me of parsnip and orange. I’ve made cheese bread, so we’re all sorted for the evening. Whether your taste is for soups, jellies, poached fruit, marmalade or membrillo, quinces and medlars have so much potential and they deserve to be remembered.

 

What are your favourite autumn fruit recipes? Do you have any special quince and medlar concoctions? If so, please leave me a comment so that I can try them too. Thank you.

 

Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside

in Just-   

spring    when the world is mud-

luscious…                                                                                                                                     

when the world is puddle-wonderful

So wrote the idiosyncratic American poet e.e. cummings in Chansons Innocentes: I, expressing a child’s wide-eyed wonderment and joy upon encountering puddles in early spring. We are all born with this sense of awe but as we grow towards adulthood a lack of exposure to the wonder and intriguing ‘otherness’ of the natural world can blunt this fascination and ultimately extinguish it. 

Nature in the Garden 

Last year, when I asked readers why we love to garden, many of the responses linked gardening with an innate connection to nature and the landscape, often first experienced as a child. Joanne explained that when she was young:

I felt this connection, an enjoyment, a love and nurturing feeling and my passion for plants, flowers and soil was born…

and another gardener, whose love for growing began in 1938 when she first entered ‘the wondrous kingdom of the allotment’, wrote:

[to] sit and watch our own small wildlife going about their daily lives is as good as it gets.

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Kids need access to the natural world in gardens and the countryside. Image credit: Plantlife/Kim Newman

Whether it’s the ability of my tithonia to produce its flaming blooms at the height of my daughter’s head within a year from sowing the claw-shaped seeds or the subterranean mycorrhizal networks connecting the plants in our borders, it’s this fascination with the power and precision of nature that draws many of us into a lifelong relationship with our gardens.

Nature in the Wider Landscape

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So much has changed since I was a kid – the 1970s are my baseline – but the decline in habitat and species began far earlier…

I’ve been captivated by plants, their habitats and the ecosystems which they support, for as long as I can remember, fostered by a childhood spent in red wellies (if the family album is to be believed) helping my dad dig in our vegetable patch, foraging in the Welsh countryside with my grandparents and birdwatching as a member of the Young Ornithologists Club. Since the 1970s and 80s – the decades of my childhood – there has been a dramatic reduction of natural habitat in the UK and an equally rapid decline in populations of a whole range of species, including farmland birds, hedgehogs and insects. In addition, shifting baseline syndrome adjusts our collective memory as each generation believes that their baseline is the original ‘normal’.

Even with the statistics from the 2016 State of Nature Report readily available, with the evidence that in terms of biodiversity we are ‘among the most nature-depleted countries in the world’¹, we continue to sanction the destruction of natural habitat referring to passive ‘losses’ of species like the apple bumblebee, the frosted yellow moth, the Kentish plover and the wryneck, instead of extinctions brought about by human action. As Sir David Attenborough states in the introduction to the State of Nature Report:

Our wonderful nature is in serious trouble and it needs our help
as never before.

For this reason, I joined the People’s Walk for Wildlife last weekend: a peaceful family event attended by around 10,000 people. We walked from Hyde Park to Downing Street to express our shared love of nature and highlight the catastrophic consequences of continuing to destroy our ecosystems and wildlife. Chris Packham and six young conservationists handed A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife to the government. This draft manifesto is a collection of short essays and practical steps written by 18 experts, which if implemented today would make a huge difference for wildlife tomorrow.

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Ten thousand campaigners walked together through London. The BBC and ITV failed to cover the event. Image credit: Luke Dray/Woodland Trust

A Part of Nature, Not Apart From It

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Poster created by RHS Gold Medal winning landscape architect Adam White

Within our private gardens, enclosed by boundary hedges, fences and walls, it’s easy to believe we exist apart from the surrounding countryside, but in reality each garden is a part of the whole landscape – the way we treat the plants, insects, birds, animals, water and soil in our gardens affects what happens beyond our boundaries, on a local and national level and, conversely, changes in the countryside directly affect our gardens.

On a practical  level, our gardens need access to healthy populations of beneficial insects – bees, butterflies, moths, and even wasps to pollinate flowers, creating seeds for subsequent years and fruits to harvest; we need ladybirds, toads and birds to act as pest control in place of the chemicals that simply exacerbate the ecosystem problems.  At a deeper level, we need nature in our lives to enable us relax, to feel part of a seasonal, more natural rhythm of life, to inspire, give solace and to improve our general mental health. Fortunately, the symbiotic nature of the relationship between our gardens and the wider landscape means that any practical steps we take to improve the natural health of our gardens can have far reaching consequences…

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This waxwing was such an inspirational sight and a wonderful reminder that my garden is part of the local landscape. Image credit: Alan Garner

Practical Steps

With over 400,000 hectares² of garden habitat across the UK, gardeners are in a position to make a real difference. Here are a few ideas arising from A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife

1. Rewild Our Gardens

We’re unlikely to be in a position to reintroduce beavers or longhorn cattle as Isabella Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, have on the Knepp Estate (as Isabella recounts in her ground-breaking book Wilding), but we can all make a space for the wild in our gardens. We know that introducing ponds, long grass, log piles, trees and hedges, and leaving stems and seedheads over winter in our gardens creates food and habitats for a wide range of animals. Even in a small garden, containers with plants for pollinators (single flowers, rather than doubles) and a bird feeder can bring in wildlife from the local area.

This August, at the Great British Birdfair, I met the Butterfly Brothers. Their award-winning wildlife garden designs focus on attracting butterflies to the garden, but they also spoke passionately about the dragonflies, moths and birds which visit the gardens. Jim and Joel have a YouTube channel with practical ideas for encouraging wildlife into the garden and also more information on British butterflies like the ringlet and the chequered skipper. And even if you live somewhere where ringlets are unlikely to visit your garden (we’ve had whites including green-veined, gatekeeper, peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell, but never a ringlet), adding a bird box for tits or house sparrows or a hole at the bottom of the fence to give hedgehogs a passageway, makes every garden a little wilder.

For more information, George Monbiot’s proposals regarding rewilding on a wider scale are available on page 33 of  A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.

2. Garden Organically

Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at Sussex University, bee expert and author of a number of books, including A Sting in the Tail, has written the proposals addressing pesticide use. Whilst these proposals are primarily aimed at agricultural use, there is still the issue of pesticide use in gardens and by commercial growers.

The RHS advice to its members and to ‘millions of other gardeners’ is ‘to avoid using pesticides’. Organic methods help create a sustainable environment for beneficial wildlife like blue tits and ladybirds, which act as natural pest control. Using physical barriers and biological controls is often extremely effective, and if I have holes in some of my hosta leaves when the slugs breach the copper tape barriers, at least I know my plants are part of a natural cycle and nothing I’ve put on the garden will have harmed the toads, hedgehogs and birds that live alongside us.

The manifesto pesticide proposals can be found on page 22 of A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife

3. Embrace your Growing Space

Garden writer, Kate Bradbury has written the proposals for urban spaces in A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife. She begins by discussing the RHS report which found that 24% of front gardens had been lost to paving, concrete or gravel by 2016, as compared to only 8% in 2005. The report suggests that by 2016 more than 4.5 million of Britain’s front gardens were completely paved, and 7.2 million mostly paved. As these spaces disappear, as back gardens are given over to offices, fake grass, decking and low-maintenance paving, and as more gardens become fenced, Kate points out that wild creatures such as amphibians and hedgehogs are excluded from our gardens. Without access through gardens and with the added dangers of roads, it is difficult for many animals to travel through their territories. By making our gardens accessible, we can help to create wildlife corridors and improve the chances of these animals.

If car parking or paving is necessary in front or back gardens it can be kept to a minimum and integrated with planting spaces. The RHS has some excellent advice on how to green your grey front garden to create a practical and wildlife-friendly space. Kate’s other proposals can be found on page 41 of A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.

4. Support Wildlife Charities

Charities like Butterfly Conservation, Bat Conservation Trust, Plantlife, The Wildlife Trusts, The RSPB, The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, The Woodland Trust and many more organisations, work tirelessly to conserve our wildlife and the habitats upon which they rely. Supporting their work helps to protect plants and animals which then become an important part of garden life.

I joined Plantlife earlier this year when I read that the RHS (of which I’m also a member) has around 500,000 members whilst Plantlife, a charity working to save threatened flowers, plants and fungi, has only 11,000. I love my garden and believe that growing ornamental and edible plants is one of the great joys of life, but my garden is part of a wider landscape – a landscape I treasure and want to help conserve.

References

¹ Introduction to The State of Nature Report, 2016

² For more on garden statistics, Gardens as a Resource for Wildlife by Ken Thompson and Steve is an interesting read.

 

 

I believe that the only way to create a truly balanced garden is to put nature at the heart of it, and then it lives.

Sowing the Seeds of Tomorrow

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The offending articles

When my godson was three his favourite foods were apples and peas: a predilection that I naively assumed was the norm for small children. As my son started on solid foods I offered him fruit and vegetables with enthusiastic expectations, only to find he cried when peas appeared on his plate and the concept of eating apple brought on sulking and tantrums.

Perplexed, I persevered – we sowed seeds together, pricked out tomato seedlings, watched apples swell and picked as many colourful crops as we could – yellow ‘Allgold’ raspberries, ‘Purple Haze’ carrots, ‘Pinkberry’ blueberries, deep red ‘Boltardy’ beetroot, striped ‘Green Tiger’ tomatoes and purple-podded ‘Blauwschokker’ peas.

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Vivid colours motivate children to try new foods…

Gradually he started trying a wider range of fruit and vegetables – it’s hard not to get excited about ripening tomatoes when you can remember pushing the seeds into moist compost with your fingers. That was over 5 years ago, and this week my daughter (6) decided she likes our homegrown beetroot and my son (now 9) ate one of our James Grieve apples whole – an unimaginable feat just a year ago. 

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First steps – sowing seeds…

We have all benefited from growing food as a family. Each spring we choose our crops for the next growing season and from that moment, the anticipation begins. This February we made our choices and were soon surrounded by a colourful collection of seed packets from the Fun To Grow range, courtesy of Suttons Seeds. We began with Table Top Tomato, sowing the seeds almost immediately, then started off the delightfully alliterative Crocodile Cucumber, Mini Muncher Peas, spherical Bowling Carrots and the non-edible but nonetheless exciting Dancing Plant and Caterpillar Plant a few weeks later.

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Pleased with the new arrivals

Recycling has been a family priority this year, so we began by making our own seed pots out of old newspaper. It’s a fun job and the kids quickly got the hang of wrapping the paper strips at just the right tension so they would slide off easily once the bottoms had been firmly secured.

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First job: roll the pot sides

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Pressing down the base firmly ensures the compost won’t escape later

Then we filled our pots with compost and read the seed packet instructions – learning about the varying depths, light conditions and germination temperatures that different seeds require. 

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Writing labels

Once the pots were labelled, we counted the days until germination and slowly but surely tiny shoots and seed leaves began to appear. The appearance of new growth, that magical emergence, fills cold spring days with joy for adult gardeners – so what a wonderful experience for young children for whom the world is naturally filled with enchantment. 

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Crocodile cucumber buckets

In late spring we planted the Crocodile Cucumbers into a couple of broken buckets, the Table Top Tomatoes went in the greenhouse with the Caterpillar Plants, and the Mini Muncher Peas and Bowling Carrots began developing in the vegetable beds.

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Table Top Tomatoes were a sweet hit with the kids

We ate peas fresh from the pod throughout June and the tomatoes are still being picked and ripening in the greenhouse. The cucumbers have produced so many fruit that we’ve had enough for tzatziki – another first for the kids, declared ‘delicious’ and requested as a regular dip with pitta and olives. 

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Tasty Mini Muncher Peas are so low growing that they need no staking and are easily accessible for small people

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These ‘Boltardy’ beets were harvested by the kids for Beetroot and Chocolate cupcakes

The Caterpillar Plants have bloomed all summer in the greenhouse – tiny yellow flowers which have turned into the eponymous caterpillars curled back on their stems, providing seeds for sowing next year. The Sensitive Plants didn’t germinate, so no scientific experiments to test whether the foliage responds to our touch this year. But it’s good that the kids experience growing failures as well as successes – one of the realities of working with nature.

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These delicate, furry caterpillars delighted the kids

Growing our own crops has, without doubt, had a positive effect on the way my kids approach what’s on their plates. But learning about how plants grow, how they provide for us and for wildlife, goes deeper than this. Such experiences help to form lifelong relationships with nature and develop an understanding of its fundamental role in our lives – providing us with enjoyment, wonder and the food upon which we rely.