RHS Chelsea Flower Show Highlights

The attention to detail in the 2018 Chelsea Flower Show gardens surpasses anything I’ve seen before; I love the way the planting maintains a sophisticated and elegant feel, yet is more grounded than in previous years. Many gardens focus on naturalistic forms and soft planting with coppery tones, highlights of deep purples and pinks, and fresh green foliage alongside white and ivory flowers.

After an busy and truly inspiring day I’m finally home. I’ve taken off my sandals and had a cup of tea; so now it’s time to look through my photographs at some of the highlights of the day:

Pearlfisher Perfection

The Pearlfisher Garden combines a big idea – the plastic crisis in our oceans – with immaculate planting to create a garden which draws the visitor down into its watery recesses. The use of cacti, succulents and air plants mimics the underwater environment and my initial impression of the garden was of waves washing over me – from the curved steps, the tillandsia fronds undulating on the ceiling, the circular motion of the fish to the spiral cobbles at the heart of the garden. I’ll be writing more on the exquisite planting in this sub-marine garden later in the week.

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Pearlfisher Garden

As I walked into the central area the water from above sent shadow ripples across the paving and the detail of the planting – down to individual lithops in the paving and wall gaps – was revealed. I lost myself taking photographs of the planting until a commotion ensued and I was ushered to one side while Theresa May came to look round the underwater scene.

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Theresa May admires the planting in the Urban Flow Garden

Oh Happy Day

Sooner or later I always find myself at the Pennard Plants stand, marvelling at the latest salad crops, or new varieties of chillies. It’s a dangerous move for a vegetable obsessive like myself. Today Pennard Plants were launching a new tomato called ‘Oh Happy Day’ to the accompanying voices of the singers from the Brighton School of Music.

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Tomato ‘Oh Happy Day’, Burpee images

‘Oh Happy Day’ is a new beefsteak tomato with blight resistance and a sweet taste with acidic tones. For those of us growing outdoors, blight resistance is key to the success of tomato plants, so this looks like a tasty and interesting variety to try.

Wormhole

Alice might have fallen down a rabbit hole, but I fell through a wormhole on the David Harber and Savills Garden. 

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Through the wormhole…

The design showcases sculpture in a garden setting and the large sculptural pieces create energy as you pass through and see the space from different angles. The planting is airy without being insubstantial and the final view reveals a wormhole through which Aeon, a nucleus of energy can be seen in a state of equilibrium.

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…and relaxing on the other side

Tea Break

Halfway through the afternoon, feeling rather parched, I arrived at the Wedgwood Garden. Not only has Jo Thompson designed a sumptuous, modern tea garden for relaxation, in which Iris ‘Kent Pride’ lives up to its name and takes pride of place, but it opens onto the Wedgwood tea pavilion. 

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Wedgwood Garden

After sampling a light Darjeeling and an aromatic Ceylon it was back to the gardens with renewed vigour.

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Tea drinking, Wedgwood style

Feel Good Gardens

It’s great to see such a focus on relocating the gardens after the show this year so that many other people can continue to enjoy them for the future and one garden due to be relocated to the Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust is the RHS Feel Good Garden designed by Matt Keightley. This beautiful garden with its cantilevered stone terraces and aromatic planting will give patients, staff and their families the opportunity to enjoy the relaxation and also the stimulation that the garden creates. I’m looking forward to writing more about the planting in the garden and the ideas behind it later in the week.

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RHS Feel Good Garden

Cocktails and Dancing Box

At the Pennard Plant stand I was lucky enough to have a garden cocktail mixed for me by Mark Diacono from Otter Farm. It was a delicious mix of homemade orange and limoncello with sparkling water, but afterwards strange things began to happen – as I passed the Space to Grow gardens, the box balls started waving at me – then they were still. Just another day at the most inspiring garden show in the world…

What has caught your eye so far? What gardens do you think will win gold?

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Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe – the landscape, arts and the mind

I’ve spent much of the past week reading about one of the twentieth century’s most influential landscape designers and it has left me surprised that Geoffrey Jellicoe’s name doesn’t crop up more often in discussions of contemporary garden design. As someone who has always worked between the margins of different disciplines – especially focusing on the often disregarded connections between literature and science – I find Jellicoe’s focus on the links between design, landscape and the mind, both refreshing and inspiring. So I though I’d share some of his life and works on the blog this week:

Background

Geoffrey Jellicoe is known for his private and public landscape designs. He was born in 1900 and continued working through retirement and beyond, well into the 1990s. He believed that landscape design was part of a wider creative movement throughout history, which encompassed visual arts such as painting, sculpture and architecture, and he was influenced by such disparate forces as the writings of the ancient Greeks, Cubism and the psychology of Carl Jung.

Jellicoe was trained as an architect and in the early 1920s he travelled across Italy with fellow student, J. C. Shepherd, drawing the villas and their gardens, and immersing himself in Italian garden design. When he returned in 1924, the two young men published Italian Gardens of the Renaissance and the influence of this trip can be seen throughout Jellicoe’s later work.

Early Work

By 1929 he was a master at the Architectural Association school, a founder member of the Institute of Landscape Architects and was established in private practice with Shepherd. He continued to write, teach and design and in 1931, set up his own practice at 40 Bloomsbury Square, London. In 1934 he began designing the restaurant at Cheddar Gorge; the project which really saw him take his place at the forefront of modernist architecture. He included influences from German expressionist architecture, created a glass-bottomed pool with fountains above (water became a key element in his designs in later years) and also drew inspiration from the surrounding landscape.

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Modern view of the Caveman Restaurant designed by Jellicoe without the original pool and fountains, image by Philippa Crabbe, Creative Commons Licence

As his practice developed, he began to take on larger private gardens. From 1935 he was involved in designing the garden at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire on a site where little of the original garden remained. He designed a formal landscape heavily influenced by his knowledge of Italian design, creating a long formal terrace overlooking the lake and a water-curtain of secret fountains to allow bathers to use a semi-circular pool unobserved from the house.

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Front view of Ditchley House, image by JeffJarvis, Creative Commons Licence

He also became involved in designing more public landscapes throughout the 1930s and 40s. 1935/6 saw him working on the surface layout of Calverton Colliery in Nottinghamshire, the plan for reconstructing the Mablethorpe foreshore in Lincolnshire and the town plan for Hemel Hempstead. By the 1950s Jellicoe was back in Hemel once more, this time designing the water gardens which surround the River Gade in the centre of the town. The gardens formed the shape of a serpent from the lake as the head, past a fountain which formed the eye and culminating in a curving tail resting on a mound. Bringing water into the town as a feature was intended to allow people to become closer to nature and the landscape.

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Hemel Hempstead Water Gardens

As Jellicoe developed as a designer, the role of the wider landscape in his designs became more important. With projects like Harvey’s Store Roof Garden (1956), Jellicoe made the most of the view of Guildford and the North Downs. Jellicoe wrote in Studies in Landscape Design that it ‘is primarily a sky garden and the underlying idea has been to unite heaven and earth; the sensation is one of being poised by the two.’ He based the design on the launch of the first sputnik which took place in 1957 while he was designing the garden. The circular pools represent the spinning of the planets and originally there were fish in the pools and a waterfall cascading over the parapet to the levels below. Once again Jellicoe was creating movement and impact through his use of water in the garden.

Paul Klee

Throughout his career, Jellicoe was heavily influenced by the work of modernist artist Paul Klee. The Swiss German painter lived from 1879-1940, but the two men never met. Klee’s work on colour theory and his use of elements of Cubism, Expressionism and Surrealism inspired Jellicoe in designs like the rose garden at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire in 1959. This design was based on an abstract Klee painting The Fruit (1932), which depicts an embryonic being inside a fruit. Jellicoe created a garden with soft curves and described it as a vegetable form, like a cabbage, which was intended to absorb the visitor deeper into the garden.

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The Fruit by Paul Klee, 1932, oil on jute, LACMA, 1932, {{PD-US-not renewed}}

The roses ranged in colour from soft pinks, through deep oranges, reds and yellows, again inspired by Klee’s experiments with colour. The rose garden demonstrates Jellicoe’s increasing interest in the relationship between garden and people in the way he uses shape and colour to create a connection between the visitor and the landscape.

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The Rose Garden at Cliveden was replanted with herbaceous perennials in 2002 as shown in this image, and then restored to a rose garden in 2013, image by Simon Q, Creative Commons Licence

More prestigious commissions followed with projects like the Kennedy Memorial Garden in Runnymede, Surrey indicating Jellicoe’s position as one of Britain’s foremost landscape designers. One of Jellicoe’s original ideas for this garden was that it would represent an allegorical journey from darkness to light, following the spirit of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The garden opens on a stretch of meadow and then a pathway leads through the wood to the seven ton block of Portland stone monument at the top with views back over the Thames and the valley in which the Magna Carta was signed. The path is irregularly laid with 60,000 axe-hewn granite setts and the view of the monument is obscured until the visitor reaches the top, when the culmination of the pathway is finally revealed. In this way the garden is both a physical and metaphysical journey – mind and matter combined through landscape.

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John F. Kennedy Memorial Garden

Later Designs

In the 1970s and 80s, Jellicoe worked on a number of long term projects such as Shute House in Dorset (1970-90) and Sutton Place in Surrey (1980-86). At Shute, Jellicoe made use of the spring to create a series of watercourses guiding the flow through bubble fountains, rills, seven pools and out towards the open landscape. He experimented with creating a true harmonic chord with water as it passes over the four cascades in the rill, and the sounds and views created with water are intended to replenish the mind.

In 1980, Jellicoe was commissioned to design the gardens at Sutton Place for the American Stanley Seeger. Jellicoe proposed significant changes, such as moving the lake, adding a walled garden to balance the house, and developing a Paradise Garden and a Moss Garden. There was also to be a bronze sculpture by Henry Moore ‘Divided Oval’ and a ‘White Relief’ wall created by Ben Nicolson. Although the wall was installed, a change of ownership meant the sculpture was never added.

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Ben Nicolson 1934 (relief) oil paint on wood sculpture 1934, Tate Modern, similar style to the Nicolson Wall at Sutton Place, image by Wmpearl, Creative Commons Licence

One of Jellicoe’s final projects was the Moody Gardens in Texas, US which he began when he was 86. The scheme was to design a human landscape in the wetlands which would allow development of the site for domestic and leisure purposes. Jellicoe proposed a landscape which would explore the evolution of plants with a range of areas within the gardens demonstrating the ecology and habitats of different species. Creating the 126 acre site to encompass the botanical history of the world was a way to foreground nature within the landscape and to make a point about the importance of plants to the past, the present and the future. Unfortunately his plans were never implemented, but they demonstrated his desire to promote a design which, as Michael Spens explains, shows ‘man ‘in’ a botanical landscape of the universe. The theme is one of creation, growth, pollination and survival of species on the edge of chaos.’

A Designer For Our Time

Geoffrey Jellicoe’s work cannot be reduced to a single style or influence. His projects spanned the subjects of garden design, landscape design, architecture, town planning and teaching, and he was active in these fields for over seventy years. His influence on modern design tends to be overlooked, but his interest in the ways that garden and landscape design interacts with many other creative disciplines, his desire to see it as part of a wider artistic and historical movement, is innovative and exciting. He wrote in The Landscape of Man in 1982, ‘The world is moving into a phase when landscape design may well be recognized as the most comprehensive of the arts. Man creates around him an environment that is a projection into nature of his abstract ideas. It is only in the present century that the collective landscape has emerged as a social necessity. We are promoting a landscape art on a scale never conceived of in history.’ His deep conviction that gardens should relate to the wider landscape and his belief that our relationship with the landscape is intrinsically linked to our subconscious, mean that Jellicoe’s work has acute contemporary relevance, especially in a world which has become increasingly divorced from the reality of external landscapes, with far-reaching consequences for our present and the future.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on modern garden design. Which landscape/garden designers or styles do you find most inspirational and where do you think the future will lead us in terms of our relationship with the landscape? 

Featured image, Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe and Ben Nicholson by Harris Lynda, Creative Commons Licence

Humphry Repton: Art and Nature for the Duke of Bedford

2018 is Humphry Repton’s bicentenary year and over the next few months events and exhibitions all over the country will be celebrating his life and work. The first person to use the title of ‘landscape gardener’, Repton (1752-1818) began to practise in 1788, five years after Lancelot Capability Brown’s death. His designs reinstated the importance of the garden around the house, whilst also developing the landscape to create vistas with impressive visual impact. One of his most elaborate garden designs was at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, and this year the Abbey is showcasing Repton’s work through a new exhibition featuring a collection of designs, maps, letters, artifacts and two of his red books in which he presented his proposals for his clients. The red books include watercolour scenes showing before and after views of the estate, intended to impress upon the client the beauty and scale of Repton’s designs.

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The restored Doric Temple (Photo credit: Woburn Abbey and Gardens)

Repton was commissioned by the 6th Duke of Bedford in 1802 to create a design to enhance the gardens and parkland, and by 1805 he had produced one of the largest and most ambitious of his red books for the Duke showing detailed plans of the approaches to the Abbey, the lakes and plantings in the surrounding parkland and the formal pleasure grounds. In 2003, nearly 200 years after the red book was created, Her Grace the Duchess of Bedford and her dedicated team of gardeners began to work on plans to bring Repton’s designs back to life.

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The restored aviary (Photo credit: Woburn Abbey and Gardens)

One of the projects involved reconstructing the aviary and cone house which were burnt down and later deconstructed during the second world war. In 2011 restoration work began to rebuild the aviary using green oak and the final stage of the project commences this month with the construction of green oak open-sided cottages complete with cedar shingle tiles situated either side of the aviary to mimic the keepers’ houses.

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The restored cone house (Photo credit: Woburn Abbey and Gardens)

When discussing the project, Estate Gardens Manager, Martin Towsey said “It is fantastic to reveal the reconstruction of the aviary according to Repton’s plans and it has felt like a true ‘phoenix from the ashes’ project. We have all worked so hard to restore this magnificent structure to its former glory and the aviary is now home to an array of birds once again including golden pheasants, budgies and a quail. The final structure is due to be opened by Her Grace during the Woburn Abbey Garden Show held on 23rd and 24th June.”

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The folly in the children’s garden (Photo credit: Woburn Abbey and Gardens)

Alongside the ongoing work on the aviary, temple and walled garden, the children’s garden with its folly and planting has also been restored. This area of the garden is still used by the Duke and Duchess and their children, and it is important to them that the gardens are designed for the use by the family as well as for the public.

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The folly in spring (Photo credit: Woburn Abbey and Gardens)

The launch of the exhibition, Humphry Repton: Art & Nature for the Duke of Bedford took place last week and it will be open daily between 11am and 5pm (last entry 4pm) until 28th October 2018. It’s a fascinating opportunity to see the work behind the design of the gardens and a rare chance to see Repton’s red books and accompanying documents, maps and artifacts alongside the restoration work of the historic garden itself.

Secret Seed Club: Agretti

It’s a rare treat when the postman brings a letter these days; it’s even more unusual when the envelope is sealed with red wax in the impression of a tree and the contents include an information sheet about agretti and a pack of seeds. The Secret Seed Club for Ethnobotanical Explorers was launched last month by Emma Cooper, The Unconventional Gardener, to cater for those of us who enjoy trying new things and learning more about the background of the crops we’re growing. I’ve been reading Emma’s blog for a couple of years now, and it always introduces me to interesting scientific facts and new botanical information. With a background in ethnobotany and several gardening books to her name, Emma’s enthusiasm for unusual edible plants is infectious and her articles are both informed and engaging.

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An interesting beginning…

When Emma kindly sent me the first of her Seedier Explorer Mailings, I was excited to see a pack of agretti seeds as it’s a plant I’ve neither grown nor heard much about before. Agretti (Salsola soda) is in vogue at the moment as a gourmet vegetable but Emma also traces its history in the soap and glass industries, alongside its potential as an edible crop which can be grown in salty soils. Exploring the historical, etymological and scientific stories behind edible plants is a fascinating approach to growing and I’m currently spending much of my time researching the background of plants which have local significance for my book on engaging with the wild in our local landscapes, so I really enjoyed this aspect of the Seedier Explorers Mailing.

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Fascinating facts about Agretti

Agretti is a ‘cut-and-come-again’ crop that apparently tastes like a cross between salty asparagus and spinach. I love seafood: chowders, mussels and fish pie are some of my favourite dishes, so I can’t wait to get sowing in the next few weeks. I’m told I’ll need patience as it can be ‘a most infuriating seed to germinate’, but I’m up for the challenge and its unpredictable germination patterns will make it all the more satisfying when I sit down to my first agretti salad later in the year.

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For all your seedier exploration needs…

If you are interested in joining Emma’s secret seed club, details can be found on her Patreon website. Oh, and let me know if you sow agretti and it germinates – I’m keeping all my fingers crossed…

Garden Birds: Redwing and Fieldfare

Yesterday there was a frantic scramble at the breakfast table – there was a fieldfare in the birch tree – the first we’d ever seen in our garden. Later, as I drove down Bedfordshire lanes on the way to visit a friend, I saw fieldfare in the hedgerows and when I arrived there were redwings and fieldfare in her garden – again the first they’d ever seen. In the last few days thousands of fieldfare and redwings have arrived from Northern Europe and have been visiting gardens in search of food and shelter. There have been so many that the RSPB organised an impromptu redwing and fieldfare count today and reports of large flocks have been sent in from all over the country.

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Fieldfare in the snow (image: Alan Garner)

It’s a rare treat to see these birds so close to home, but they are visiting gardens because of the harsh weather and they act as a reminder that all garden birds need our help in the cold weather. The RSPB recommend:

  • providing fatty food, making fat balls and homemade bird cakes, and putting out kitchen scraps such as mild grated cheese, porridge oats and soaked, chopped currants, although be aware that currants are poisonous to dogs
  • providing water – with a ping pong ball in the bowl to stop it freezing or putting out juicy fruit like apples and pears
  • providing shelter – nest boxes work well and will be used by garden birds like long-tailed tits for roosting
  • offering winter shelter such as in evergreen climbers, dense hedges like privet and hawthorn, and evergreen shrubs and trees
  • even if you don’t have bird boxes or evergreen shelter, the RSPB advises propping a bucket up sideways or grouping plants in containers together to provide some shelter from the wind

Considering the fact that around one quarter of a typical UK city comprises private gardens and that the total area of UK gardens is roughly equivalent to an area one fifth the size of Wales, the potential for gardeners to make a real difference to the fate of our garden birds is clear. Our birds need a little help from us and in return we get to watch one of nature’s most beautiful sights from the comfort of our own homes.

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Another occasional winter visitor to our garden (image: Alan Garner)

What birds has the Beast from the East brought to your garden this week? Do you have any tips for ways to help our garden birds through this cold spell? Please leave your comments below. Thank you  🙂

More information on feeding garden birds is available from the RSPB website.

3 Top Tasting Tomatoes…

If you only grew 3 tomatoes this year – which cultivars would you choose?

I’ve never had this dilemma before as the greenhouse is usually a jungle of tomato foliage by June and I always defend my excessive tomato habit by claiming that growing for the school fete necessitates producing several extra trays of tomatoes – as indeed it does. But this year, having passed the responsibility of the stall onto fresh hands, I might have to acknowledge the other reasons for the tomato chaos, which include:

  1. An inability to compost unwanted seedlings
  2. An endless desire to try out new cultivars
  3. Too much focus on sowing: not enough on growing

So this year, with no pressure to grow for others, I’m going to raise fewer plants and make more time and space to care for them better. I’ve decided to choose only my 3 favourites – the ones with the best flavour – along with 4 new cultivars. I’m just intending to grow one of each type (please hold me to this) and thus I’ll be reducing my normal tomato numbers by three quarters.

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Beautiful summery colours

Reading back through my records to decide on the 3 ‘keepers’, I’ve come across a few which just don’t quite make the grade:

  • ‘Millefleur’ – a centiflor variety with hundreds of small yellow fruits, but a little disappointing on taste
  • ‘Indigo Rose’ – a deep black cherry tomato with beautiful red skin under the calyx and a sweet, meaty taste, but doesn’t quite make the top three
  • ‘Black Russian’ and ‘Black Krim’ – lovely mellow beefsteak tomatoes, great for salads, but not quite enough yield to make the grade
  • ‘Gartenperle’ – my favourite hanging basket tomato with a sweet taste and excellent yield – would be my number 4

Other good tasting tomatoes have included ‘Tumbling Tom’ – red and yellow, ‘Tigarella’, ‘Sungold’, ‘Black Opal’ and ‘Heinz 1370’, but my self-restrained top 3 would have be:

  • ‘Green Zebra’ – my children’s favourite with vibrant green stripes and a fresh tangy flavour which adds a real zing to summer salads
  • ‘Gardener’s Delight’ – an unsurprising favourite for its reliability, thin skins and sweet taste
  • Golden Sunrise – a deliciously sweet yellow tomato and my top tasting cultivar

Tomatoes form the basis of so many summer meals

Alongside these I’m trying:

  • ‘Rosella’ – a smoky rose-pink cherry tomato with high anti-oxidant levels and very few seeds
  • ‘Red Zebra’ – high levels of lycopene, excellent flavour and I can’t resist the stripes
  • ‘Sweet ‘n’ Neat Red’ – a sweet container tomato for the kids to grow, reaching only 30cm

And I’d like to add another tomato based on flavour recommendation, so please leave me a comment about your top tasting tomato. I’ll choose one from your delicious favourites and sow all my tomato seeds in the next few weeks. Then hopefully, come June, the greenhouse will be home to seven healthy, heavily-cropping tomato plants, with plenty of room left over for my chillies, cucumbers, marigolds and cucamelons.

Happy sowing and growing! If you’d like to follow the progress of my tomato crop in 2018, do keep in touch via social media and subscribe to the blog below…

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Thanks for all the recommendations. Here are your top tasting tomatoes, shared yesterday and today on the blog and social media:

Purple Ukraine, Japanese Black Trifele, Tigerella, Sungold, Gardeners’ Delight, Dona, Sweet Millions, Super Sweet 100, Black Russian, Tornado, Rapunzel, Bumble Bee, Black Prince, Ship Saint, Black Krim, Pineapple, Green Zebra, Rosada, Chocolate Cherokee, Maskotka, Roma, San Marzano, Rose de Berne, Tumbling Tom

What a glorious selection of assorted colours, shapes and flavours! I’ve chosen Rose de Berne to try this year. What a great excuse to order some seeds from Real Seeds and it’s just possible that some quinoa and tomato ‘Purple Ukraine’ may have snuck into the basket when I wasn’t looking… 😉

 

How Our Love Of Gardening Began – With Thanks

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about how my love of gardening began and asked readers to share their own stories as part of my research for a book I’m writing on our relationship with gardening and the natural world. I was overwhelmed by the response – over the next week, more than 200 gardeners from across the world contributed 25,000 words of personal recollections. Many readers, like me, dug far back into their childhoods, unearthing tales of Victorian coal cellars, air raid shelters, RAF gardens, memorial gardens and recoveries from mental illness. The stories frequently made me smile and, at times, cry – many spoke poignantly of the importance of gardening in their lives.

Almost every story begins with reference to a family member (most often a grandparent), an inspirational figure who passed on their knowledge and enthusiasm for growing flowers, vegetables and/or fruit. There are many recollections of childhood vegetable patches – supporting the idea that giving children the chance to have a go themselves is key in getting them involved with the process. The powerful experience of watching a plant grow is important to many, with lovely stories like the lady who recalls her father nurturing a weed all summer, knowing it was a weed, just to see it grow. She writes ‘I never forgot that tiny yard with its little weed that my father looked after.’

The importance of passing a love of gardening down through the generations is also emphasised by the number of people who mention their relationship with their own children and grandchildren. I was particularly moved by the lady whose love of gardening began:

 nearly eighty years ago in 1938 when, as a five year old, I first encountered the         wondrous kingdom of the allotment, but really took off later in the war when… [I] was befriended by a German prisoner of war who worked on the strawberry field next to the allotment field, who showed me with great patience and knowledge nearly everything I needed to know.

As past moves to present, she describes the ‘greatest moment… when my granddaughter brought her son (my great grandson) down to the plot and showed him where she herself had spent so many hours with me.’ Her recollections celebrate one of the fundamental pleasures of gardening – sharing the experience with others.

Gardens are also places where memories can be revisited, places of remembrance bringing us closer to loved ones who are no longer with us. Several stories touched on the way gardening creates a connection to those we’ve lost – plants taken as cuttings from family gardens, old tools lovingly used, smells which bring back warm memories and areas of the garden dedicated to loved ones, which all have a healing effect on the soul. This aspect of gardening is explained well by one writer who says ‘to me it’s more than gardening, it’s remembering time spent together’.

Mental and physical health are also recurring themes. The benefits of fresh air and exercise are well understood and the positive effects of gardening on mental health are now becoming more widely accepted by doctors. The stories describe the way gardening has helped people cope with breakdowns, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and grief. One lady says that gardening ‘keeps me grounded’, another that it is ‘the one thing that’s keeping me sane’. This healing force is summed up by one gardener:

Gardening is so good for the mind and soul.

Senses emerge from the stories as an important part of our memories and none more so than smell. Many people wrote of the fragrance of tomatoes, alongside ‘the smell of earth’, ‘fresh grass’, ‘tuberose and jasmine’, ‘fertilisers’ and one gentleman’s memory of Uncle Wilf’s ‘two huge Victorian glass houses’ with the smell of ‘the coke and dampness inside when the heating went on’. Taste also evokes remembrance –  my mouth was watering as I read about delicious ‘Blue-Mouth Pie’, ‘wine that tasted like whisky made from parsnips’ and the best accompaniment to cheese sandwiches – crunchy pickled onions.

It’s lovely to read about those who come to gardening later in life, either when they  start growing houseplants or herbs on the windowsill, take on a new garden or begin to garden for or with someone else – a partner, parent or their children. These stories are filled with the joy of new discoveries, the sense of satisfaction when new gardens are transformed and several references to wonderful mother-in-laws who have passed on their knowledge – as one lady writes ‘I just can’t ask for a better mother-in-law nor a better gift than what she has taught me… introducing me to the pleasure that is gardening!’

For many, the interaction with nature is at the heart of time in the garden; as one gardener writes ‘quite simply I garden for nature’. Childhoods were spent playing in the woods and fields, birdwatching, learning the names of wildflowers, reading I-Spy books and adding contributions to the nature table (a tradition missing from many modern classrooms). Several people refer to a ‘kind of spirituality’ or innate connection ‘to the earth’ experienced whilst gardening which one gardener believes is ‘in everybody’s subconscious’. Whatever the essence of this love of the land, almost all the gardeners who responded are in agreement that it arises from contact with the earth and learning from inspiring friends or family members, and that it is important to pass on to others.

I began the first piece on how the love of gardening begins considering the inspiration I took from my Granny and I end the second with thoughts of how I might influence my own children. Although not everyone who responded had gardened throughout their lives, the majority saw the foundations of their love of gardening arising from their childhoods – even if they had come back to it later in life. In a society where engagement with nature is no longer seen as intrinsic to learning about the world, in a curriculum which marginalises nature study, we need, more than ever, to be sharing our love of gardening with the younger generation. ‘If children are introduced to gardening when young, it wires your brain for life!’ writes one lady and another suggests ‘we must teach our children about the natural world if we are to have any chance of protecting it.’

Thank you for sharing your inspiring stories – it’s lovely to read about the wide-ranging positive effects of gardening and to know that so many are passing on their love and knowledge for gardening and the natural world to the next generation. 

Seedy Saturday: Rainbows, Crocodiles and Pearls

With chilli sowing season already upon us, it’s time to unearth my special seedy shoeboxes to plan for the growing year ahead. One particular box contains an exciting collection of seeds – those I’m trialling for Suttons in my role as a guest blogger for 2018. I’m really looking forward to trying out some of the new seed ranges – in particular their children’s ‘Fun To Grow’ seeds and the rainbow-coloured ‘Developed by James Wong’ collection. I’ll also be experimenting with crops and varieties I’ve not sown before, like edamame beans and chilli pepper ‘Pearls’.

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Chilli sowing signals the real beginning of the new year for me

I began buying seeds from Suttons years ago whilst searching for more unusual tomato and chilli varieties. Over the past few years I’ve grown a range of interesting Suttons crops such as cucamelons, achocha, inca berries, tomatillos, trombonchinos, Chilean guavas, and Kaffir limes. Some have been more successful than others, but the exploration of more unusual crops has been fascinating and has introduced some new staples into our family garden and kitchen. Suttons continue to expand their range and now offer everything from electric daisies (on the list for next year) to liquorice (a hardy member of the pea family which I’d also love to grow).

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Dogwooddays as a guest blog in Suttons 2018 catalogue

The kids are particularly excited by the ‘Fun To Grow’ range as it combines edible crops such as Crocodile Cucumber (‘Bush Champion’) and Bowling Carrots (‘Rondo’), with the more unusual Strawberry Sticks (Chenopodium – a leaf vegetable in the summer with strawberry-like fruits in the autumn) and interesting ornamentals like the Dancing Plant (Mimosa pudica) and the Caterpillar Plant (Scorpius muricatus).

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Suttons ‘Fun To Grow’ range

I like the way these varieties offer children different shapes (round carrots), easy-to-grow dwarf varieties which will work as well in pots as in the ground (Tabletop Tomato – ‘Sweet ‘n’ Neat Cherry Red’) and interactive plants like the touch sensitive Mimosa. Anything which engages children by making them think differently about plants (and where their food comes from) is a step towards a more widespread acknowledgement, not only of the complexity and beauty of the plant world, but also of the way we rely on plants for our food, medicines, many materials and the life-support systems of the planet. I think we’ll learn interesting things together and have a lot of fun with this range and I’ll be updating the blog with the progress of my little ones and their plants throughout the growing season.

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‘Developed by James Wong’ rainbow range

The second range includes fruit and vegetables in a variety of different colours – focusing particularly on varieties which are rich in lycopene, the bright red phytonutrient found naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Medical studies suggest that lycopene may be a factor in improving heart health and reducing cancer risk, and work is ongoing to find out more about its health benefits. This is a topic the ethnobotanist, James Wong, covers in detail in his book ‘How To Eat Better’ which I reviewed when it came out last year. I’ve always loved growing different coloured crops – it’s fun for children and makes them look at food in a different light when they’ve grown a yellow raspberry or purple carrot. It also fills me with pleasure when I harvest a colourful basket, especially in the darker months (oca is particularly good for this), so it’s great to know that lycopene, along with a range of other colourful antioxidants in our fruit and vegetables, is also great for our health. So here goes with purple carrot ‘Night Bird’, striped tomato ‘Red Zebra’, orange squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’ and beetroot ‘Red River’.

You can’t get much better than a rainbow of vegetables – for the eyes or the stomach

Last year, the cutting patch in the allotment was one of the most pleasurable and successful elements of our growing, so I’m planning to continue growing flowers for cutting in 2018. I’ve chosen a couple of zinnias – ‘Queen Red Lime’ and ‘Molotov Mix’ as our zinnias were stunning last year and Rudbeckia ‘Irish Eyes’ as the rudbeckias lasted for ages in vases last year and really brightened up my study windowsill for much of the summer. I’ve also chosen Tithonia ‘Red Torch’ which is a vibrant orange – a colour I unexpectedly fell in love with last year.

Zinnias and rudbeckias in 2017

Finally to the new experiments for the year – I’m growing edamame beans for the first time alongside a dwarf french bean called ‘Yin Yang‘ which might look too beautiful to eat at harvest time. There’s also a new chilli variety called ‘Pearls‘, to add to my chilli collection, which has bright red ‘beaked’ fruits and a mild, fruity taste – ideal for a family meal.

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Too beautiful to eat?

If you would like to follow the blog – do sow and grow along with me and compare notes throughout the year. Let me know in the comments what you’re growing this year and what crops you’re most looking forward to trying at harvest time…

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A growing season of fun for all the family

Suttons kindly supplied me with the seeds for these trials.

This post is not sponsored and I only ever trial seeds and other materials from companies which I believe in and already use. In the case of Suttons, I have been a customer for many years. I hope you find the post useful 🙂

Year Of The Almanac

2018 has brought me not one but two almanac treasures, each a joy to read and written nearly 200 years apart. The first is a beautifully illustrated hardback: The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide To 2018 by Lia Leendertz which I bought a couple of months ago along with copies for friends, but hid away so I wouldn’t be tempted to read it cover to cover before the new year commenced. The second is a book of John Clare’s poetry published in 1827: The Shepherd’s Calendar which follows the progression of the year for the rural labourers of Helpston.

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The shepherd rests by David Gentleman

This is another attractive hardback illustrated with evocative wood engravings by David Gentleman which capture the essence of the rural Northamptonshire landscape and its people at work and play. Like Emma Dibben’s illustrations in The Almanac, Gentleman’s engravings use simple lines to build up precise detail, whether it be the grain of a particular wood in The Shepherd’s Calendar or the characteristics of different sheep breeds in The Almanac.

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Leicester Longwool and Ryeland Sheep by Emma Dibben

The Almanac‘s entries for January include many facts to entice you out into the new year, even when skies are lowering and footpaths slippery with mud. I’m enjoying the supermoon tonight – where the full moon is particularly close to earth and at its brightest. With the times of the moon’s rising and setting noted for each day, I started my watching at 15.49 precisely and there it was, a huge orb perfectly framed by the silver birch tassels outside my study window.

One of the statistics for January which brings a glow to my heart is the fact that during the course of the month, day length increases by 1 hour and 12 minutes (in London). That’s nearly an extra hour and a quarter by the beginning of February to get out in the garden or walk along the footpaths. This is a fact which would have been of the utmost importance to John Clare’s community, relying as they did, on occupations out of doors. In ‘January: A Winter’s Day’, Clare conjures up the winter landscape:

While in the fields the lonly plough
Enjoys its frozen sabbath now
And horses too pass time away
In leisures hungry holiday

whilst, in the cottage:

The shepherd from his labour free
Dancing his children on his knee
Or toasting sloe boughs sputtering ripe
Or smoaking glad his puttering pipe

The Almanac describes ‘Wassailing’, a festivity which celebrates the cider crop, involving drinking ‘warm cider and apple juice with spices, sugar, oranges and lemons, and a dash of brandy’, as a way to fill the indoor hours, or there is marmalade making – one of my favourite preserves made with Seville oranges, and a ‘date, apricot and pecan sticky toffee pudding’ for indulgent winter suppers. Gardening jobs for January include pruning and planting fruit trees – jobs redolent of summer jams and autumn crumbles – although personally I’ll pass on the ‘Glut of the Month’ for January as one swede a year is too many; the thought of a glut of swedes brings me out in a cold sweat!

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Two almanacs to start the new year

Then, finally, the section on ‘Nature’ documents the monthly treats in store in the garden and countryside throughout 2018: the bulbs appearing (I saw my first snowdrop last week), hazel flowers with their filigree winter beauty, and fieldfares and redwings (a frequent reason for the dash for binoculars in our house as the redwing flock lands on next door’s cotoneaster – or even, one year, a museum of waxwings.) Clare also celebrates winter birds as:

…flocking field fares speckld like the thrush
Picking the red awe from the sweeing bush

although this comes in March, January being far more concerned with daily freezings:

The ickles from the cottage eaves
Which cold nights freakish labour leaves

set once more against the cosy cottage interior where:

…[the] keetle simmers merrily
And tinkling cups are set for tea

Both of these almanacs are objects to be used – with ribbon bookmarks for dipping in and out of sunrise times, recipe ingredients and monthly nature observations. I’d been looking forward to the publication of The Almanac for many months as I was involved, along with many other supporters, in crowdfunding the book through the publishers Unbound. The company has revived an old method of publishing whereby a network of supporters help fund the process, allowing authors to write the books which their audience wants and enabling them to get a much fairer percentage of revenue than they would from standard publishing.

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Supermoon, 1 January 2018

It is particularly apt that The Almanac has been published in this way as it also revives an old tradition of annual volumes which, in Clare’s words, give us details of ‘frost and snow’ and ‘wisdom gossipd from the stars’. More than this, almanacs connect us to the particularities of each year, through the combinations of the weather, the phases of the sun and moon, natural cycles of plants and animals, and our traditional festivities. It is heartening that the support has been there to enable Lia Leendertz to create this delightful volume, hopefully the first of many new almanacs. Although our modern lives are rarely as intimately entwined with the natural calendar as those of John Clare and his contemporaries, knowledge about the natural world, its cycles and constant changes is no less vital today, perhaps even more so, and traditions like the almanac help us to keep this information alive.