Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Book Review: A summer crop for your reading pleasure

The summer holidays are beckoning and thoughts turn to reading matter. Here's five review books I've enjoyed over the past couple of months...

The Little Book of Bonsai

This RHS book tackles a less well-known aspect of gardening. It's a jargon-free introduction, written by two of the UK's bonsai experts. Packed with lots of information and top tips, it's illustrated with plenty of photographs and clear drawings.

There are step-by-step instructions for you to look after an established tree or to grow your own. A guide to the most commonly used ones towards the end of the book, will allow you to select the tree of your choice.

I didn't know each shape has its own name, nor that wiring is an important step in the process of growing a bonsai tree.

There's a comprehensive list of other resources at the back of the book to help take you beyond this introductory text.

This is a thoughtful gift for a keen gardener, or for someone who'd like to make their life a little greener, especially if they are short of gardening space.

Grow Your Own Wedding Flowers

You may find this concept surprising, but I know two people who've successfully grown the flowers for their own wedding, or for a family member in the past year.

This review is too late for this summer's weddings, but is just right if you're contemplating this task (for a wedding, or another big occasion) for next year. It'll help you decide whether this is a challenge to relish or relinquish.

Georgie's relaxed style and practical approach at Common Farm Flowers shines through in this book. Her
inspirational ideas could be scaled down for home arrangements, and there's plenty to work from for those nervous about creating their own for the big occasion.

The useful spreadsheets ensure vital details and the number of stems needed aren't overlooked. Seasonal chapters provide plenty of inspiration and there's lots of advice on what and how much to grow, harvesting and flower conditioning. Don't ignore the details in the plentiful pictures as these have informative gems crammed into the captions.

Separate pictures of each flower featured in the arrangements would be helpful for less experienced gardeners, though maybe it was assumed they weren't needed as some expertise is needed to tackle growing for such a big occasion.

The Miniature Garden Grower

Don't judge this book by the cover image, it's about more than just terrariums. Whether you'd like one of those, or to make a miniature landscape, or to grow something vertically, play with water or attract wildlife, or grow your own food, there is a chapter to help you do so.

There are lots of great ideas suitable for indoor and outdoor growing. I'm particularly pleased to see there are instructions for moss graffiti, as I've researched this topic as part of my Great Green Wall Hunt.

If you as a child entered a garden on a tray at your local garden show, then you'll recognise the thinking behind some of the miniature garden ideas. The 'grown up' version is themed. such as a meadow in a pot.

If you make your own terrarium or kokedama, then you'll also save quite a bit of cash, if the ones I saw on sale in London recently are anything to go by. It's more fun to create them from scratch too.

There are plenty of clear diagrams and drawings, though in some instances photos are lacking. There's a lot of enthusiasm, easy to follow instructions, and kit lists to give you the confidence to tackle a project for yourself.

This is a great book for anyone - young or old - seeking ideas for a gardening project that doesn't take up much space.

Wonderful Weeds

This is a welcome change from the usual gardeners approach to weeds as it celebrates them as plants in their own right, rather than something which must be destroyed. It includes lots of ecological notes and stories about each of the 200 plants featured.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and devoured it from cover to cover in a single sitting. It works very well, when read as a straight text, but I found a distinct flaw when I returned later to identify an unknown weed which popped up in my garden.

Not knowing its name (common or Latin) or plant family, meant I had to work my way through the book, until I found a picture of the right entry - Mouse-ear Hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum). An introductory key would have be useful in this instance, though I acknowledge this would be quite difficult to achieve across the breadth of plant material and lifecycles covered.

Then I checked the index with a couple of names I did know - chickweed and speedwell - and unfortunately they weren't listed, even though I knew I'd seen their entries. They are there, but I'd omitted the common from chickweed, and the various expanded common names given for the different speedwell species (e.g. wall speedwell for Veronica arvenis). 

It's a pity, as this is the first book I've seen which shows the featured plants from seedlings through to fruit, with plentiful photographs. That level of detail makes it a commendable work, and I hope it can be expanded for a subsequent edition to help readers like me who have some knowledge, but not enough to make the index or general structure work for them.

Lessons from Great Gardeners

This is a great dippable book, which I devoured at bedtime, one gardener at a time. 40 gardeners are featured in chronological order, starting with Somai in Japan in the 15th century, and finishing with Dan Hinkley in the 20th.

Some like Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto are familiar names; others like Carl Ferris Miller are not so well-known, though in the case of Carl many of us will have one or more of the results of his work with hollies and magnolias in our gardens.

Each chapter starts with a profile of the gardener featured, which explains their importance in gardening history. Then follows a lessons section, packed with hints and tips intended for the reader to use in their own gardening.

Where applicable (and with some woeful omissions, such as no view of iconic Bodnant for either McLaren entry), the chapter finishes with a view and explanation of a garden associated with the person profiled. There are delightful botanical illustrations throughout, of plants each gardener was interested in, wrote about, or introduced. Fascinating quotes are also scatterd liberally, where applicable.

The profiles and garden views work well, but I sensed some of the lessons sections were padded out with general hints and tips, perhaps in the absence of concrete examples to draw on from the gardener's own work, or writing. I would have preferred the focus to remain with telling the story of each gardener and the plants and gardens they worked with, rather than the resultant hybrid between this and a general book on gardening.

I now want to find out more about each gardener profiled, so my next step is to plunder the author's bibliography via my local library.

Taking a break away from gardening books?

If the summer holidays turn your thoughts away from gardening books, then I can thoroughly recommend the following reads from my recent stay in Yorkshire...

  • I Bought a Mountain - Canadian and complete beginner farmer Thomas Firbank's compelling story about buying a remote sheep farm in Snowdonia in the 1930s.
  • Cause Celeb - readers will find echoes of Bridget Jones in Helen Fielding's debut novel. I found this witty story based on the author's own experiences more thought provoking, as it looks at third world poverty and the role of celebrity fund raising. 
  • The Return - Victoria Hislop's tale of a family torn apart by the Spanish Civil War is a little clunky in its structure, but I found the well researched details of this less well-known war and the art of flamenco dance fascinating. There are worrying echoes to be found in the current migrant crisis. 
... and for a random selection not chosen by me, I'm just about to start The Paying Guests ready for my first book club experience next month.

Friday, 22 July 2016

The Great Green Wall Hunt: The story so far

Part of the green wall at Edgware Road station (Bakerloo Line)
My favourite find so far - part of Edgware Road station (Bakerloo line) on Marylebone Road.
The wall was installed to help reduce PM10 air pollution and is being monitored by Imperial College.  

It's a while since I announced I was embarking on a Great Green Wall Hunt. It's been great fun and is still a work in progress.

When I started I thought I'd just look at living walls, i.e. the stop-you-in-your-tracks installations like the one I saw at the Athenaeum Hotel last year. However, I soon realised that would ignore numerous other examples of green walls that are of value - look out for a post on the types of green wall coming soon.

I've uncovered a whole host of benefits attributed to green walls along the way, worthy of a post to itself too. Meanwhile, here's a brief summary of my findings thus far...

Green walls inside and out in London
Main picture: Inside Anthropologie on Regent Street.
Top to Bottom: Double Tree by Hilton Hotel; Mermaid Theatre, Blackfriars; and St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. 

There's a lot more of them than I thought

A quick Google of Green Walls returns a lot of websites, which include the two main providers of living walls in the UK. They show dozens of examples in their online portfolios, and they're not just confined to London. Oswestry, Birmingham, Surbiton, Leicester, Leeds, Slough and Bristol are just a few of the other locations where they can be found.

I've confined my hunt to London so far, as I can combine it with other reasons for visiting the big smoke. Therefore, all my examples are from there, though I hope to see the one in Bristol soon. Their increased presence in London is partly due to the City of London actively encouraging their installation, plus there is some funding available via the Mayor's £20 million Air Quality Fund.

I've also found indoor examples aren't confined to Canada, and living walls aren't the preserve of public spaces. However, the latter tend to be in private houses, so I haven't had the opportunity to view any of these yet. The link takes you to an example installed in a dental practice in Exeter.

Some of the green wall surprises I found in London
Some of the green wall surprises. Main picture: At the back of the public loos at St. Luke's Gardens, Chelsea.
From top to bottom right: Royal Vauxhall Tavern, on the site of the former Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens;
artificial green wall at the Wellness Centre, St James Court Hotel; a green wall photo at a Crossrail construction site.
Bottom left and centre: temporary green walls at Crossrail construction at Finsbury Circus; and outside Vauxhall station. 

There are plenty of other surprises (to me anyway)

It's good to have my pre-conceptions overturned by the reality. Living walls aren't just the preserve of high-end properties, such as hotels, boutique shops, or showrooms for upmarket cars. Some are in quite humble places, such as at the back of a public loo in a park, and on a pub in Vauxhall.

I've found examples of temporary green walls, such as those at the Crossrail construction site at Finsbury Circus and some portable ones in Vauxhall. Both Vauxhall examples were totally unexpected as I hadn't seen anything about them online before I saw them.

Sadly some of the temporary green walls escaped my hunt. I would have loved to have seen the representation of Van Gogh's 'A Wheatfield, with Cypresses' at the National Gallery, and those installed for Wimbledon fortnight. However I did manage to catch the showstopper one at Sloane Square a couple of years ago, those set up for the 2012 Olympics, plus a host of those used in various show gardens (particularly this thought provoking one).

There are plenty of artificial green walls to be found, either using plastic plants (see my Separated at Birth? post from Piccadilly), or hoardings using huge photographs of green wall installations. Most of these are a wasted opportunity in my view, but understandable when I found out some of the costs involved (e.g. Edgware Road is reported to have cost £120,000 for 200m2). However, I really liked the one I found in the Wellness Centre at St James Court Hotel. The use of floral aromatherapy oils there meant nothing was missing in terms of scent!

Another selection of London's green walls
Main picture: 20 Fenchurch Street; Top left: student accommodation at The Minories, both in late April
Top right: Rubens by the Palace Hotel; Bottom left, then right: St James Court Hotel and Puddle Dock - all in early July

It's early days yet

Not all living walls have survived in the UK and the first official one - installed in Islington in 2006 and reported dead in 2009 - was controversial because public money was used to fund it. Since then, construction techniques have improved, and most of the the walls I've seen are in a better condition.

I was quite worried about the health of quite a few of them when I first visited at the end of April. A return to view some of them earlier this month (Rubens at the Palace Hotel, Edgware Road, St James Court Hotel, and Puddle Dock) showed they were in much better heart.

I still need to return to the one at The Minories, which I was most concerned about. I anticipate it will have improved like the others, but quite a lot of the horizontal planting below the windows looked like it'll require replanting. I've also heard that the wall at 20 Fenchurch Street is facing issues caused by the strong downdraughts found in the area.

Dozens of different plant species are used for green and living walls and to my inexpert eye some fare much better than others. Heucheras, Sarcococca and Vinca were doing well in April, and I could see ferns unfurling after their winter sleep. The grasses I saw also looked to be good doers, and we all know how well ivy thrives in all kinds of conditions.

I'm sure some plants will need more maintenance than others, such as the lavender and geraniums I saw at Edgware Road. This need for maintenance needs to be balanced against other benefits these plants may bring to the walls in which they're used. And if plants die... well, I saw evidence of these not being replaced earlier this month (too difficult or costly perhaps?), despite online assurances that regular maintenance is in place.

Since the first living wall's demise, their design and irrigation has improved, and the knowledge of which plants are suitable has increased. Planting techniques and growing media have also changed. Despite these changes, I sense there is room for improvement for growing walls consistently and well, which in turn should bring down their costs.

Whether these walls can deliver on their promise (year-round or otherwise) and supposed benefits, is still to be assessed. Research is in hand at various institutions, and that's a topic I'll return to another day. There are some DIY options to explore too, should you fancy having a green wall to call your own.

Green walls at the Olympic Park during the Paralympics in 2012
Two of the green walls I found at the Olympic Park during the Paralympics in 2012

If you know of any green walls I've not mentioned, please leave details in the comments below, or feel free to tell me about them in a blog post of your own.

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