Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

New Beginnings

Suggested resolutions for 2017

Here's a chuckle for regular readers who know I don't make new year's resolutions... it's the answer to a meme I was tempted by on Facebook the other day. It's a pretty good set of actions to live by in 2017... if I only knew who Ruth is!

However, despite my lack of resolutions I have made some new commitments for 2017. The clue is in the top line above; my mother's move to a local nursing home means I'll be spending more time with my family this year. I'm learning to appreciate the little things too - the impact of mum's stroke affected her speech, so every new word she speaks, or when she manages to string several together are very much appreciated. They're small victories to celebrate with a cheer.

As a result we smile a lot rather than talk. Each one is much appreciated by me as mum couldn't smile at all for a while and they show she's more comfortable in her new home. Her face lights up when the staff come into the room, so I'm reassured I've made a good choice for her. Today we had laughter too and a grabbing of both hands, a sign that some strength is returning to her at last. I'm told the road to recovery from a stroke can take up to two years, so we're living each of those precious moments too.

One of mum's new words is 'flower', in response to the thoughtful Christmas gift of a bowl of hyacinths from the nursing home staff. She loves their scent and her strong response to them means I've resolved to grow some cut flowers for her this year. I've earmarked two of my raised beds on the allotment, and I'm in the process of making a list of what to grow. Look out for more blog posts once seed sowing starts.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Postcard from 2016

Some of my favourite highlights of 2016. Here's to a wonderful 2017 for you and yours :)

Monday, 19 December 2016

Seasons Greetings

Christmas lights on Oxford Street
Bustling Oxford Street when I treated myself to a day out in London recently. 

Merry Christmas everyone! Here's to a brighter, kinder 2017.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

A Quick Update...

Festive yarn bombing on Chippenham High Street
I couldn't resist this week's festive yarn bombing on Chippenham's High Street  
Just popped in for a quick update and to show you some cheerful pictures. Thanks to everyone who commented on my last post; your good wishes have helped me through the past few weeks.

Mum moves down to Wiltshire tomorrow, so cross your fingers it all goes smoothly. There are still a lot of hoops to go through, but we're getting there... slowly.

It'll be a while before I'm back to regular blogging again, but I'll pop in from time to time for a quick update or two.

In the meantime, here's the full story from our local paper on who's behind Chippenham's yarn bombing. Someone even wrote in with a thank you letter :)

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

A pause for thought

A butter-yellow leafed tree with matching garage door
I love how the tree matches the garage door at this time of the year. The house is just round the corner from us.

Sometimes life conspires to take you down a different path to the one expected. It was just such a diversion which led to the start of Veg Plotting nine years ago today, when I realised being a distance carer was more important than my job.

I started this blog on the day I wrote my resignation letter and what a sensible move that's been. It's meant I have at least one happy place in my life and it's allowed me to tell the stories which my head demands be told each time I go to the allotment. It turns out this new path has its own unexpected twists and turns, with plenty of new friends and surprises I've welcomed along the way.

To keep Veg Plotting happy means I choose not to talk much about the most personal aspects of my life. Until today that is.

The path turned again recently as I had to make a tough decision about my mum's continuing care. She suffered a stroke in August, and it's clear she'll not recover well enough to return to her home in Birmingham. She needs nursing care from now on, and so I've started on a long list of tasks to find and fund the safe and caring place she needs.

It means I need to let go of Veg Plotting for a while. I've struggled to blog over the past few months and it's clear I can't continue to research and write my posts to the standard I demand of myself.  I also need to spend more time actually in the garden rather than writing about it to help my whirling thoughts sort themselves out. Rest assured I'll continue to read your blogs when I can, and I hope to stop by and leave you a comment or two to say hello.

Veg Plotting will be back as soon as possible - it's going to be interesting to see how long I can keep quiet! In the meantime, I wish you all well until then.

Update: A timely tweet tells me today is also National Stress Awareness Day. I'll be keeping these top tips in mind over the coming weeks in addition to spending more time in the garden. I just wish there was something in there about coping with sleepness nights...

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Book Review: Three for Reference

Autumn is a good time to start plans for next season in the garden, and the following three books are great aids to help gardeners to do so. Over the past few weeks I've had the pleasure of reading:

  • The mother of all plant reference works
  • A great boxed set to inspire the budding fruit and veg grower, no matter how small their plot
  • A book on design that's been a regular companion in my garden, whilst I ponder where it's headed next.

All three are review copies, I received courtesy of the publishers.

The RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants

RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants - book and slipcase images
This is no lap book, but a hefty tome weighing in at around four kilos. It merits a read whilst sitting at a table with a cuppa and notebook to hand.

This is the 4th Edition of Christopher Brickell's outstanding work. Around 5,000 plants have been added, to provide a comprehensive reference of over 15,000 garden plants.

I would have preferred the two-volume approach of the previous edition, but welcome the increased focus on plant descriptions of this one.

Other reviews have criticised the exclusion of some of their favourite sections from previous editions, most notably the one on pests and diseases. I have a well-thumbed copy of RHS Pests and Diseases, which is a more comprehensive reference, and I'd recommend that as a replacement guide.

Readers should note the entries are found under their Latin genus name, but are cross referenced against their common ones, so everyone should still be able to find what they're looking for.

The genus entry begins with an introduction and general cultivation notes, followed by specific descriptions of the species, plus variants and cultivars where appropriate. The usual descriptive information on flowers, stems and leaves; height and spread, and hardiness is all there as expected. I would have liked to have seen Award of Garden Merit information too, as this is often a deciding factor gardeners use when faced with a plethora of choice.

There are plenty of clear photographs on every page, though note not every plant has a photograph. Drawings of e.g. plant taxonomy are also included, where needed. The result makes this reference attractive to look at and read.

With the advent of the internet some might question whether there is still a place for this kind of work. I'd argue there is as I've found it particularly useful for choosing the replacement plants I'd like for my back garden. I've found it easier to look through and bookmark the possibilities, then look through them again to make my shortlist, Rather than trying to keep track of dozens of online equivalents.

The RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants has a RRP of £75, which is good value for such a comprehensive work and some bargains may be found if you look around. It's worth consideration as a gift for the gardener in your life regardless of their level of ability.

RHS Fruit and Veg Box

RHS Fruit & Veg Box slipcase image
There are plenty of books on growing your own (GYO), but this one is a little different. It's actually three volumes, neatly packaged in a flip-top box, designed to lead beginner GYO gardeners from container growing (Grow Fruit and Veg in Pots), through starting their own veg patch (Step-by-step Veg Patch), then finally feasting on their harvest (Cook Your Crop).

Each book is bright and attractive, and the growing guides are packed with information to get budding fruit and veg growers off to a good start, no matter how small their dedicated GYO space may be.

The recipe book is divided into seasons, so fits in neatly with the GYO books. There are 100 recipes to help growers make the most of their crops, with a wide variety of starters, mains, puds and preserves. They also range from everyday cooking through to recipes fit to grace any dinner party or special family occasion. Most are quick and easy too and make good use of their fresh ingredients.

The RHS Fruit and Veg Box RRP is £20, and has an air of "buy 2 get 1 free" about it, as it's a combination of two RHS grow guides published already, plus a brand new cook book. It's a great combination. I'm going to pass on my review copy to a friend who is in the process of buying her first house and can't wait to get growing. I think this neat box is an ideal way to keep her enthusiasm going.

New Small Garden

New Small Garden book cover image
Noel Kingsbury's book is aimed at gardeners with smaller gardens than mine, but much of his advice and guidance is just as relevant to my situation.

It's also a timely volume as I'm planning a couple of replacement borders in my back garden. The strength of this book is it's rooted in reality as most of the gardens featured are real ones, rather than the stock photos of show gardens used in similar volumes. As a result it shows solutions to real problems overcome by garden owners, which are transferable to those gardens found on new or newish urban estates like mine.

Another strength is the emphasis on planting design which fits my needs exactly. However, that hasn't stopped me sitting in my garden mulling over the introductory first principles explained in the opening chapters, even though I already know my garden's soil and aspect, and the hardscaping is in place already.

A major takeaway for me from those chapters has been to look at my garden afresh from the patio and decide what needs to be done from there i.e. the place from where the garden is viewed most often. I now realise I've over complicated matters in the past by trying to design my garden to fit all viewing angles, and thus I've set myself up to fail.

I shall continue to use this book over the winter - along with the RHS encyclopedia reviewed above - to plan my new borders.

The New Small Garden has a RRP of £20, which I think is good value for the quality of practical information and great photography by Maayke de Ridder. You may also like to read Noel's blog about his writing process for this book, it's an interesting read.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Music for the Masses

St John Passion chorales score - first page
Our part of the score, with my annotations above the score line on how it should be performed on the day. 

My head is still stuffed with the most wonderful music today, so it's time to take a break from my usual bloggage.

On Sunday I sang the chorales in Bach's St John Passion at the Wiltshire Music Centre in Bradford on Avon, as part of a project put together by English Touring Opera (ETO). Our performance was reviewed in The Guardian yesterday, which has kept the music in my head and the good feelings going well into today.

I must admit I was a bit daunted at first. I can't read music, it's a challenging piece, and it's not the kind of thing I usually perform or listen to. However, the WMC Choir component was a scratch choir, so there would be plenty of people like me there. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Can a scratch choir perform to the standards expected by ETO with just four rehearsals? It seems we can, as long as you do your homework. There were practice tracks to sing along to courtesy of Cyberbass and the whole thing is available on YouTube. The latter looks like a classical music version of karaoke, with the various components of the score moving along to the music, and a translation line running underneath.

Scrolling text and music version of St John Passion on YouTube - this is the opening chorus, Herr, unsere Herr.
Scrolling version of St John Passion on YouTube - this is the opening chorus, Herr, unsere Herr.
The left shows the sung parts, the middle is the strings and organ, and the right the other instruments. 

The first three rehearsals with Mike were fun and full of laughter, especially when he demonstrated correct breathing with the aid of a squeezy tomato sauce and lemonade bottles. They were a stretch for me, particularly when some of the pauses in the score were crossed out, but doable. Our role in the chorales was to be the ordinary people commenting on proceedings, and so the ETO had our pieces translated into English by the likes of John McCarthy, Rowan Williams, John Sentamu and Marina Warner.

The fourth rehearsal on Sunday was with the ETO and my first experience of performing with classically trained musicians. Jonathan Peter Kenny, the conductor, gave us no quarter despite having an imperfect piece but with a huge chunk of soul in mind. This would take the performance back to Bach's original intention, when it was sung in church as a community witness of faith with the congregation singing the chorales. It truly is a piece for the masses rather than the hoi polloi, but that didn't mean a sloppy performance was expected of us.

"You sang beautifully, but it might have been in Zulu, which I can't understand", was a typical remark from him. I giggled at this point as I have sung in Zulu. "Remember, text, text, text. I want the audience to hear what you're saying and be involved with the performance, yes? Look at them and draw them into the piece."

He was also a very dramatic and energetic conductor, roaming amongst us during the rehearsal and we took bets on whether he might fall off the stage later that evening. Sadly, he was a little more restrained in the performance.

The opera singers were a revelation. As a soprano I was drawn to Susanna Fairbairn's technique. I noticed she relaxed and bent her knees slightly for the trickier parts of the score, and when she stood next to me, I could hear her emphasis on the consonants like 'b' and 'p'. It sounded like she was spitting them out. As for mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, I never knew so much sound could be expelled from so tiny a frame.

Part of the running order, with our instructions for when to sit and stand without making a noise
As for the performance, for me it was extraordinary, even though we weren't dressed up for the occasion. The opening chorus was so loud, I thought it was going to raise the roof. The orchestra - the Old Street Band - played period instruments and had quite a different sound, which to my ears added grandeur to the piece.

I was particularly struck by the lute with an enormous neck, which is called a theorbo. I also spoke to one of the flute players during the interval. Hers was a wooden, less complicated instrument compared to today's, like a cross between a flute and a recorder. She told me it's her favourite instrument to play and the silver rings are purely for decoration. It seems even musical instruments can have a bit of bling.

At the end everyone was in tears - choirs, audience, orchestra, and our conductor. As I left the building to come home, I overheard a couple of the audience say "That was amazing!" That's a good enough review for me.

A lot is written about the inaccessibility of opera. The cost of tickets is high, you need to dress for the occasion, and it's usually sung in a foreign language. I'm glad those criticisms - and my preconceptions - were blown apart by this amazing project. Around 30 local choirs will be involved in the tour around the country, including a gospel choir. I'd love to hear that.

Friday, 21 October 2016

A poem for Apple Day

Freshly picked apples in my trug
You can read the whole of Robert Frost's wonderful After Apple Picking here
I'm not quite as weary as Robert Frost's apple picker, but then I'm not doing it for a living. This year's crop is a good one, and now is the right time for picking most of them here at VP Gardens. It's the perfect way to celebrate today's Apple Day.

This year marks a change in how I'll use some of my harvest. The bulk is for eating fresh or squirreling away in the freezer to extend the time I can add chopped apple to my daily porridge. The difference lies in what I'll be doing with the remainder: in the past windfall cake and apple jelly were our staple fare, but now we're trying to reduce the amount of refined sugar in our diet.

As a result, a smart, shiny new juicer awaits these apples in my kitchen. I agonised for ages over whether to invest in this or a press. In the end I decided I'm not quite ready for a bulk approach to juicing, nor do I have the freezer space or bottles needed to store them. Smaller amounts freshly prepared to accompany our meals are sufficient for our needs... for now at least.

If you want to find an Apple Day celebration, then the People's Trust for Endangered Species' website has taken over the mantle pioneered by Common Ground. Their Apple Day section is the page you need, and their Traditional Orchard and Orchard Network campaigns have a wealth of useful information on all things apple.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

A Hellebore Convert

Hellebore article in Suffolk Plant Heritage's magazine which details how I became a hellebore convert

Here's a nice surprise from last week's mail. I wrote the above article for Suffolk Plant Heritage Journal early this year and then promptly forgot about it. Click to enlarge the picture if needed.

Washfield Double hellebore in the lower terrace bed
'Washfield Double' hellebore 
Since I wrote the article I've added twenty 'Washfield Doubles' to the shady borders in the front and back gardens. I've planted some of them in the lower terrace bed, so I can admire them without having to bend down to do so.

They rewarded me with a surprise flowering in late spring which shows they must be settling in well. These forms were bred by Elizabeth Strangman, who raised them from double flowers of Helleborus x hybridus she found growing wild in Yugoslavia.

They're beginning to make themselves known again, now that summer's foliage is beginning to die back.  So far I have a couple of creamy speckled ones, and I may find I have white, yellow, light or dark pink ones too. It's good to know I have some new treats and a few surprises in store for when winter takes hold of the garden.

We also have a University of Bath Gardening Club member who is well-known for the hellebores she breeds in her garden on the edge of Bath. I'm looking forward to visiting one of her open days next year. Who knows what might follow me home from there...

Which plants have you decided not to grow, only for them to seduce you into thinking again?
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