Wednesday, 31 March 2010

ABC of Weather: Katabatic Winds


I need you to use your imaginations today and substitute the Antarctic Ice Sheet in the above diagram (courtesy of Hannes Grobe and available for use under Creative Commons Licence via Wikimedia) for the 1 in 10 slope in my garden and the ocean/sea ice to the left for the bottom of the slope complete with fence and hedge. If you do that, you now have the classic conditions for katabatic winds forming in a garden setting, more commonly known as a frost pocket or frost hollow.

As you can see from the diagram, katabatic winds are formed when cold air meets warmer air and the resultant difference in pressure between the two, aided by the downward pressure of gravity forces the cold air down the slope. As well as the Antarctic and my garden, these winds are commonly found in mountain areas and many other places where these kind of conditions occur.

Whilst you're probably not familiar with the name katabatic (from the Greek kata, meaning down) you might know some of the special, regional names given to this type of wind. There's the Bora, a northeasterly wind which blows across the northern Adriatic and the Mistral, a northerly which travels across the French Mediterranean coast in winter. We've experienced the latter on sailing and windsurfing holidays in the Mediterranean and NAH owns an Equipe, a racing windsurfing board made by the Mistral company. The speeds of these winds can be high: the Bora can reach over 100 miles an hour and they often exceed 120 miles an hour in the Antarctic.

It's usually difficult to see these kinds of winds, but I did find a rather beautiful example of it in action in the Antarctic to show you courtesy of Samuel Blanc, again under Creative Commons Licence and via Wikimedia. I also found a rather beautiful description of them (complete with diagram showing how they form in mountain areas) from a sailor's viewpoint.

Here in my garden any katabatic winds I get are very much gentler breezes and often go unnoticed as is the case with anywhere where frost pockets or hollows occur. The terrain isn't as dramatic or as high as that found in the Antarctic or mountainside, nor is the difference in temperature between the warmer and colder air. After all, frost does tend to form in relatively calm conditions.

However, the effects of my relatively minor katabatic wind does mean I have to be careful with my choice of plants for the bed at the bottom of my garden. They need to be much tougher than those I can grow as the top which also has the protection of the house and warming effects of the patio and garden walls. In an ideal world I should get rid of the hedge and fence completely as they're allowing the cold air to collect at the bottom of my garden.

Failing that, I should replace them with something that would allow the air to flow through the barrier. However, this is the boundary to my garden and to replace or remove them would leave us vulnerable to vandalism or burglary. So they'll have to stay and I'll choose my plants for there accordingly. Luckily my garden's south facing and in the southern half of Britain, so the days when my garden is truly a frost pocket are thankfully rare.

How's the weather with you today? Having come in like a lamb, the last day of March is living up to the rest of the saying and roaring out like a lion. It's windy with downpours of rain plus lashings of hail to add some variety. At least here in the south of England I'm not plagued by snow like the poor people in Northern Ireland and Scotland today.

ABC Wednesday is brought to you by the letter K and the ABC Wednesday blog.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The Latest Hippeastrum in the World?


Hippeastrums (aka Amaryllis) tend to be associated with Christmas in this country: various potted possibilities are usually on sale around November time, which means they'll be in bloom at the end of December and continue to brighten the January gloom. They're the ideal gift for a garden or plant lover starved of gardening activities or flowers around that time.

Mine came into bloom yesterday. Regular readers know I'm pretty poor at planting my bulbs out at the given time and it looks like I might have gone down that road in a spectacular way. However, my giant Hippeastrum 'Vera' bulb wasn't purchased in November: Threadspider and I bought ours in the January sales from our local garden centre - reduced to £1.49 from £6.99 - a bargain. They were also giving out free eco-friendly shopping bags to garden club members that month, so it was only natural to use mine to bring all my other purchases home.

Having emptied the bag of everything but my very large new bulb, I then left it in there to fester in our hall for a month. A surprise burst of tidying up then bought it to light again when I put the bag away. So I didn't get round to planting it until the beginning of February, where it then sulked and did nothing for the next month or so.

Two weeks ago the tiny suspicion of a green shoot appeared. Hippeastrums grow at a very fast rate once they've started and as you can see I now have a spectacular flower forming the centrepiece on my kitchen table. Two flowering stems have been produced, so it'll be there for a while yet. Is anyone else reminded of The Day of the Triffids when they see these flowers?

Somehow by flowering against the odds and at a less commonly seen time of the year, this plant has become endeared to me. Not so the accompanying label. Does anyone else get annoyed with these? By trying to create something universally understandable, the bulb producers have come up with something of little use at all. I believe the pictured information is wrong (which the link above confirms) as the bulb should protrude from the top of the compost, not be buried in it. However, I also think it's telling me my Hippeastrum might not be the latest in the world and that my planting time was quite sensible after all. Will anyone be planting theirs to flower in May I wonder?

Monday, 29 March 2010

Elspeth Thompson

I was saddened over the weekend to hear of Elspeth Thompson's untimely death and my heart goes out to her husband Frank and daughter Mary, who must be devastated.

We have so many great gardening writers in this country, but Elspeth was unique in the way her writing brought sunshine to the reader. It was her natural, witty manner and delight in the simple things in life which really brought pleasure to me when reading her columns and books.

She was a generous soul too: she donated to my Open Garden 2 years ago and left a most encouraging comment about my achievement and garden. Soon after that I bumped into her at the RHS Show at The Inner Temple. Once she realised who I was (psst I'm VP!), we had a delightful half hour chatting about the show, my garden and her project to convert two railway carriages into a family home. Her lurcher had just had puppies, the yard was a full of (recyclable) junk, and they were in the middle of converting units from a school chemistry lab into a workable kitchen. She should have been tearing her hair out but no, to her it was delightful adventure.

At last she was able to turn her energies into converting the (slightly emptier) yard outside into a new garden last year and it was great to see it unfold via her blog. Whenever I left a comment there, I always received a warm email in return full of extra snippets of news. How I wish we'd corresponded more.

Those of you who are RHS members will find an article about Auriculas by Elspeth on page 234 in next month's The Garden. I'm not going to link from here to her blog (fine though it is) because the message on there from her husband is heartbreaking, as is her obituary in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph. Instead, why not take a look at her books such as The Urban Gardener and The Wonderful Weekend Book, if you're unfamiliar with her work. I guarantee you'll be pleased you did.

Friday, 26 March 2010

International Garden Photographer of the Year


Yesterday Threadspider and I wended our way to Lacock Abbey to view the International Garden Photographer of the Year (IGPOTY*) exhibition currently housed in its grounds until 18th April. I thought you'd particularly like to see the above picture of the award winning 43 gardeners' hands by Paul Debois. James blogged about his sitting for this novel portrait a while ago and amongst the other great and the good of our UK gardening world, you'll find the likes of Plant Mad Nige, EmmaT (twice - many congratulations on the birth of your son Emma!) and Cleve.

Like last year's show the pictures snake through the Botanic Garden, where Fox Talbot grew some of the specimens he used for his book, Pencil of Nature. Lacock is a particularly apt location for this exhibition because it's where 175 years ago he developed the world's first photograph using the positive/negative image technique . With the advent of digital cameras this may seem an outmoded form of photography these days, but we owe a hell of a lot to Fox Talbot's inventiveness.


We also took time to walk around the grounds of the Abbey. The exhibition was accompanied by the magnificent song of the Song Thrush, whilst here we were directly underneath a quite large and raucous rookery. The woodland was in an in between stage: we were too early for most of the daffodils and too late for the snowdrops and crocus, with the exception of this sheet of blue we found in a cooler part of the woodland. There were also signs of wild garlic and fritillaries to come.

Over the winter many of the paths through this part of the garden have been relaid with fresh hoggin, so fresh it still needed our steps and those of many more to come and tamp it down into a firm walkway. We soon realised we were following in the tracks of a deer who must have passed that way only that morning.

After coffee and cake in the local tearoom, we had a final bit of excitement on the way home. The busy A350 just by our local garden centre has a horse crossing instead of a pedestrian one. I've waited years to take this albeit blurry, rainy picture of a horse + rider waiting to cross over the road. The red light you can see is an outline of a horse rather than the usual little man. You'll be pleased to know I wasn't driving at the time, it was Threadspider :)

* = does anyone else think I Go Potty when they see the IGPOTY acronym?

Thursday, 25 March 2010

VPGGB #14: Fab Ticket Deals


Just a quick reminder for those of you interested in joining us at Malvern Spring Show that we have a fantastic half-price ticket deal available for Friday or Saturday 7th and 8th May. In order to qualify you need to write a blog post about Malvern by 31st March. Full details of the offer, some inspiration for you if you need it and what you need to do are here on our rather lovely dedicated Malvernmeet blog.

I've also been contacted by the site editor of the London-based money-saving website, VoucherCodes.co.uk about a free ticket deal for Grand Designs Live at the Excel centre in London for 4-7th May. Unfortunately this means you'll miss both James' and Three Men Went to Mow's appearances there at the weekend, but there should be plenty more to see. I found the series of talks pretty good at the NEC's equivalent last October.

The site has a specially created voucher code which allows you to receive free weekday tickets for the 2010 show. These usually retail at £10 in advance or £15 on the door. To receive the free ticket all you have to do is:
  1. Visit The Grand Designs Live page on VoucherCodes.co.uk and click the link on there to reveal the code. At this stage you'll need to make a note of the voucher code or copy it (VOUCHFW when I looked, but this may change with each view)
  2. This will then take you through to a dedicated booking link on the Grand Designs Live website (opens in a new window at the same time as you click on the voucher code box to reveal the code, so don't panic, you can get back to see what it is very easily)
  3. Select the weekday you want to visit the show on (NB Tuesday to Friday only as the Bank Holiday Monday counts as the weekend in this instance) and then once you reach the checkout enter in the special voucher code
  4. You will then be issued with a print-at-home ticket - this will be your admission to the show
  5. NB Like our Malvern ticket deal, this free ticket offer also expires on March 31st.
Happy show visiting everyone!
Photograph courtesy and copyright of Happy Mouffetard.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

ABC of Weather: Jet Stream


This photograph (courtesy of Solar Views) was taken from the Space Shuttle whilst at around 200 miles (320 kilometers) above the Earth. It shows a band of cirrus clouds produced in this instance by a westerly jet stream stretching across the Red Sea. The clouds are in distinct tube-like structures, created by the way the air currents in our upper atmosphere move.

Jet streams are fast flowing, narrow air currents located near the tropopause. They're called jet streams because pilots flying the early kinds of jet aircraft developed during the 1940s who were flying much higher than usual, noticed that they travelled much more quickly when flying from west to east.

The earth's rotation means that the major jet streams are westerly winds (i.e. flowing west to east). They're formed by the action of atmospheric heating and appear near the boundaries of adjacent air masses with significant differences in temperature, such as at the poles or the equator. Their paths typically have a meandering shape: this be quite variable as can the direction of movement at any one point in the stream.

Unlike in the photo you can't usually see them, but jet streams have a major part to play in the weather we have here in the UK as the very strong polar jet of the northern hemisphere is usually located somewhere over us. This jet stream is also one of the major factors in the formation of the Atlantic lows and that westerly to easterly airflow means their windy, rainy weather is brought straight to us.

The actual location of the jet stream in the past two summers has been a major factor in the miserable weather we've experienced. Usually it's located over or to the north of Scotland, thus allowing warmer, sunnier continental weather to settle in over Britain. However, the past two years has seen its location much further south, over the English Channel, thus allowing the rainy Atlantic weather systems to continue to dominate.

So, mapping jet streams is a valuable tool for weather forecasting and is also used by airline pilots to plot the best course for their flights as flying times (and fuel costs) can be dramatically reduced by flying with a jet stream's flow. This is the kind of map they use. It's also the reason why you might encounter clear-air turbulence on your flight. This potential hazard to aircraft is often found in a jet stream's vicinity and is another reason for airline pilots to keep studying those maps as well as trying to get you to your destination more quickly.

For much more in the way of J, do consult the ABC Wednesday blog.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Special Plants: A Final Winter's View

Back in February when Derry Watkins was my VIP, I promised you a return to Special Plants to show the garden and nursery during winter time. As the world is currently turning golden yellow with the arrival of the daffodils and there's the suspicion of a fuzzy green appearing on some trees, I think today's my last chance to show you before all this becomes history for another year.

When I visited last September, it coincided with an article appearing in The English Garden. Just like this winter view from the back door of the house, the magazine's photos looked completely different to the one on view. That's because the garden was photographed the previous year so pictures relevant to the month of publication could be used. As Derry likes to change things around each year, the garden will look different again when you make your own visit.

A winter's visit not only meant I got the chance to see the garden at a time not usually seen by visitors, I was also able to appreciate the garden's structural elements such as this Beech circle called The Empty Quarter, introduced by Derry's architect husband Peter (he designed the garden, Derry planted it).

We also admired this view over Peter's Shapes in Landscape for several reasons: it's practical because the hedges disguise the water pump and sewage tank, plus the structures stop the garden running down the steep hill. I also thought they acted like a windowsill, underlining the view over the fields and hills beyond the garden. We joked about the garden having two halves: the structural, but planted half being Derry's and this more architectural side belonging to her husband. She also pointed out how the variable colouring of the Yew hedge was (shown in the middle of the picture): this was something I'd not noticed before, but winter brings out this kind of detail for us to appreciate.


In the summer I'd remarked to Threadspider about the unusual grass hedge, but didn't take a photo. It was still going strong in January. Derry likes the idea of the succession of the short grass of her garden, then the long grass of the Miscanthus forming a boundary, followed by the short grass of the fields beyond. The cut down area in the foreground is where she's using Pictorial Meadows seed mixes for a long lasting border of successional annuals.


The pond area still looked inviting and the plants within it showed the water quality to be extremely good. There was plenty of watercress growing at the point where the spring flows into the pond to the right of the picture.

Derry's nursery specialises in tender perennials many of which are also planted out in her garden. I was therefore surprised at how little the garden was wrapped up for winter protection. Instead lots of cuttings of favourite plants had been taken ready to plant up the borders anew come spring. Anything not surviving the winter is seen as an opportunity to try something else.


The garden and nursery have a spring fed water supply. Here, one of the springs splashes into the top of the garden at one side of the house. Threadspider and I thought this part of the garden wasn't working that well when we visited last year, so I was cheered when Derry told me this area is one of her projects for 2010: a new bog garden.


After my interview and tour, I was allowed to wander freely around the nursery and garden. I must be one of the few people around who can get excited over a relatively empty nursery! However, I viewed it as part of winter's renewal: a time to clear out old stock and to clean and prepare the nursery for 2010.

After all, there was plenty of life elsewhere: here's the greenhouse stuffed with plants as usual and with quite a few unusual Pelargoniums in flower. Derry confessed at her talk to Bath University Gardening Club last week that she had to start her nursery so she could make room for more plants in her greenhouse!


At the top of the nursery there's plenty of cuttings being given the tough love they need to provide good, strong healthy plants for 2010's gardening season. By now garden tidying and seed sowing will be in full swing and both the nursery and garden will have started their transformation into what this year's visitors and customers will see. Opening times can be found here which also includes details about this year's Special Tuesdays: Derry's series of short weekly talks about various aspects of gardening and plant care.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Postcard from Stratford

Saturday saw a very early start for the latest Wiltshire Wailers venture: a trip to the Community Choir Festival at Stratford upon Avon. The venue was where William Shakespeare is believed to have attended school, though we were in the more modern buildings a couple of hundred yards down the road rather than the 'Old School' more familiar to him and today's tourists.

650 singers gathered for a day workshop learning 4 new songs, followed by a quick rehearsal during afternoon tea for the end of day concert where each choir (all 21 of them) was given an opportunity to really show their stuff. Our piece was Delilah, but sung in the style of Welsh rugby fans gathered at the Millennium stadium in Cardiff prior to a game. We'd found it almost impossible to stop giggling during rehearsals as this version calls for lots of drama. Our choirmaster Chris also added some Tom Jones style audience participation as he distributed a number of comedy pants and other underwear to be thrown on stage at the end of our performance. Judging by the overheard reaction after the concert, our choir went down rather well. Wiltshire Wailers has made its mark :)

One of the downsides of using a boys school when around three quarters of the visitors are female are the lack of loos, especially at the beginning of the day when most people descended on the venue at around the same time and after similar lengths of journey. Faced with a very long queue we decided to commandeer the gents loos alongside. The coast was confirmed as clear prior to our entry, however it wasn't once we'd finished and came out of the cubicles. No-one had kept 'cave' for us whilst we were in there and a number of men were doing their stuff at the urinals. I think they were a little more surprised than we were!

From a gardening perspective an added bonus to the day was the opportunity to visit the walled Great Garden (open to the public and free) across the road from the school. Luckily the rain stopped just long enough over lunchtime for a quick visit.

As you can see there's plenty of Yew and Box, clipped into a mixture of organic and more formal shapes. The borders were only just beginning to show signs of greenery, but there were plenty of bulbs on view, especially in the lawn. There were also dramatic sculptures: each one representing a Shakespeare play complete with quotation. The pictured sculpture represents Macbeth. The garden was a pleasant spot to grab some fresh air after spending all morning in a school hall, especially when a friendly blackbird posed for his photo just before it was time for us to head back for the afternoon's session.

Sadly there wasn't time to explore the delights of Stratford so familiar to me from my childhood visits. However, NAH has agreed we should go there for the day very soon :)

Update: See our performance on YouTube! The link takes you to a later post where I've embedded the video.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Donate to NGS and Win a Yellow Book!

A post synchronised with the Meet @ Malvern blog :)


It's Malvern Show's Silver Jubilee this year and as part of their celebrations they're supporting the marvellous National Gardens Scheme (NGS). There'll be fundraising events such as an auction during the show and I thought it would be great if Meet @ Malvern also supported their efforts. Anna is working out how a plant/seed/book swap can be fitted into our get together and I've put up a Just Giving button up on the Meet @ Malvern sidebar for anyone who'd like to donate to the cause. If you can't make Malvern this time, it would be a good way of wishing us well.

Joe Swift (whom many of you know already as one of the Three Men Went to Mow) is NGS President and has kindly sent us this message explaining what it's all about:

The National Garden scheme is simply the most wonderful charity for garden lovers. It's so simple - The NGS annual publication 'The Yellow book' contains around 3,600 gardens up and down the country which open when they are at their peak. The average price is £3 for a garden visit, which I think is extremely good value and most of them also put on fabulous teas with home made cake, adding possibly the most important element to the days experience! The NGS is the biggest single fundraiser for MacMillan and Marie Curie [2 of our major cancer support charities - Ed] and it just goes to shows what can be achieved when garden lovers pulls together.

As you all know blogging is an immediate and extensive form of communication so I want all you garden bloggers out there to do your bit and spread the word of the NGS. Try and get all your readers to visit at least one yellow book this year and hopefully we can raise more than the staggering £2.5 million which was raised last year.

Blogtastic.

Thanks so much
Joe Swift (NGS President)

NB Anne and Victoria who will be joining us at Meet @ Malvern are opening their gardens under the Scheme in July and August respectively. Two perfect excuses for us to take Joe up on his challenge of visiting at least one NGS garden this year. I'll put up details of those near Malvern open around the Spring Show weekend in a later post.

Joe has also kindly donated a couple of Yellow Books (as shown above) - I'll enter all of you making a donation into a prize draw to win a copy. Gardenersclick have also given us some T-shirts, which you could opt to have instead: an excellent alternative for those of you unable to make use of the book.

So don't delay - head on over to our Malvern blog and make your donation!

[Seriously cropped - Ed] photo of Joe Swift courtesy of James Alexander Sinclair.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

How Advertising Works in Chippenham #14


  1. Decide on your company's special offers for March
  2. Produce a swanky large leaflet for all your potential customers
  3. Deliver to all the homes in your projected catchment area
  4. Wait for a blogger with a camera to notice the nearest branch is in Frome
  5. Et voila!

They may have been touting for internet business seeing they're 22 miles away and Countrywide (a company selling pretty much the same kind of products, to a similar set of customers) is a mere 6.5 miles away in Melksham. However, many of the items in the leaflet aren't available online :/

For the full set in this occasional series, click here.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

ABC of Weather: Isobars

The above picture (courtesy of Meteorologica) shows the British Isles complete with mapped isobars. These are the many blue lines shown on the map and denote lines of equal air pressure. The term isobar is derived from iso, from the Greek meaning equal and bar, one of the unit names given for air pressure measurement.
We have High pressure (aka an anticyclone) over the UK at the moment: Tuesday's map* showed it was to the south-east with the pressure well over 1000 millibars (1027 in fact). High pressure means a period of calmer weather, which we've actually been enjoying over the past couple of weeks or so. You can tell the weather is calmer from the map if the space between the isobars is relatively wide.
However, whilst the weather has been quiet and sunny, the winds on the whole have been bitterly cold because they've been from the north or east. As air circulates in a clockwise direction around an anticyclone in the northern hemisphere, you can tell which way the wind is blowing simply by finding the centre of the High and following it round to its position over the British Isles. Luckily there's also been sunshine, so it's been fairly pleasant outside for gardening once the early morning frost has gone, though that cold wind has meant I've had to resort to my fingerless gloves from time to time.
Today, our weather is set to change to dull and wet as a Low (aka cyclone) is due to come in from the south-west tomorrow. It means the air pressure will probably fall to below 1000 millibars, the mapped isobars will grow closer together and their alignment over the British Isles will change as the wind picks up and veers round to the south-west.
Maps like the one shown are one of the basic tools used by weather forecasters. The data for the maps are collected from dozens of weather stations throughout the UK and the air pressure measurements are corrected to sea level values (as air pressure varies with height) before the computer produces a map like the one above. When they're shown on the TV forecast, I get much more out of that simple visual cue on how our weather will be over the next day or so, than any amount of description from the presenter. There's nothing like the tightly packed isobars of a remnant hurricane heading our way to get me rushing out into the garden to batten down the hatches!
* = I have no idea what the map will be showing when you read this as it appears the HTML code I'm using to show you the map updates the map every few hours or so rather than being a snapshot in time!
How's the weather with you today?
For many more Interesting posts in the way of I, do visit the ABC Wednesday blog.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Seed Sharing and Chitting

Threadspider and I are sharing our seed order again and met up for coffee recently to divide the spoils. Our allotment society is using Dobies as the discount supplier of choice this year, though we did find ourselves putting in a sly side order with the previous supplier DT Brown in order to have all the varieties we want to grow.

We're trying a new parsnip variety (to us anyway): elegant Cobham Improved Marrow which tapers neatly, is resistant to canker and reputed to not grow too big. In our clay soil the massive champion style varieties would only twist and fork themselves into something resembling a sea monster and so would be hell to prepare for cooking.

That clay soil and parsnip seed's notoriety for being more than a bit reluctant to germinate means I chit them in addition to my seed potatoes. For parsnips this means keeping them spread out on some damp kitchen towel in my seed sprouter. As soon as their tiny roots appear (and before they drill those roots through the paper towel) I transfer them to loo roll (aka TP) tubes filled with some nice fine compost. Parsnips are also notorious for not liking any root disturbance (so its usually recommended they're sown in their permanent position rather than being transplanted later) and I've found the extra length of the loo roll tube gets over this problem. If you're feeling really flush, you could invest in some Rootrainers instead. For more on growing parsnips you might like to read the guide I wrote last year.

We're also trying a new mangetout pea this year, Carouby De Maussane. It was the purple flowers which persuaded us to buy them and we both got incredibly excited when I opened the packet to reveal these brownish red seeds. We wondered if it meant purple podded peas as well as flowers, but sadly Rebsie's guide shows they won't be. I'll keep you posted on what we think of the flavour.

Monday, 15 March 2010

GBBD: Crocus Carnival

I was sorely tempted to post the same collage as my last Blooms Day because the flowering kaleidoscope is essentially the same this month. However, that wouldn't do justice to the proliferation of crocus flowers which have exploded onto the scene over the past 10 days or so. So far they've not really had much of a look-in on previous Blooms Days: snowdrops and daffodils have tended to take the limelight for February's and March's posts respectively, but this year the daffodils have yet to bloom. It's the latest they've been in my time a-gardening and even the earliest ones (on February 9th a couple of years ago no less) are nowhere near trumpeting forth. I've also noticed the tips of some of their leaves are brown, probably a sign of frost damage and something I've not seen before.

So it's the crocuses which are cheering up my garden this March time and thus deserving the spotlight. Like my snowdrops I have massive clumps of them dotted around my front and back gardens, plus the odd one (second from top on the right) in the guerrilla garden. Crocus are another bulb (well, corm actually) which clump up and multiply rather well here. Bright sunshine is needed for them to show off their interiors and they've been a welcome sight for the bees visiting my garden today (see bottom left photo) and collecting their pollen as they go. I don't grow much in the way of variety crocus: most were a job lot of mixed cheap corms from Parkers which I planted in the garden's first year. I also have some C. tomassinianus which were a free gift with a magazine another year which have bulked up very well indeed. They're of the deep purple variety, which Mary Keen was a little disparaging about whilst she inspected the clump of them at Oxford Botanic Garden on Friday morning (she prefers the lighter form), but I still like them nevertheless.


Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

A Refreshed Blog

There's a new look to Veg Plotting today because I've been having a bit of a spring clean and a play with the new templates and designer available in Blogger Draft. What you see was very quick to implement (around 10 minutes) and the adjustments made (such as sidebar widths) have not required me to do any fiddling around with HTML. That's so different to when I set up my 3 column template originally :)

I've tried to replace the old format with a similar looking one from the new templates so you're not taken too much by surprise by the new look. There were a couple of glitches: each of my sidebar contents were swapped to the other side (so needed to be dragged and dropped back to their old positions) and the Link Within widget insisted on showing itself in the sidebar as well as giving you the usual 3 further posts to select from at the bottom of each post. I've not quite overcome the latter problem, so it's been moved to the bottom of the blog for the moment to hide it from peeping eyes.

I'll be making further adjustments as and when time permits. I need to check what the new format has done with posts where I've placed pictures alongside text for instance. I may not stay with this template either, but chose it because the text and background colours are amongst the easiest to read online.

I recently implemented some of the Pages I talked about, which you may not have noticed. They're in the right hand sidebar rather than tabs along the top of the page. This is simply because I can introduce them with some sidebar text and the extra space allows me to give them more meaningful titles. However, some of the new templates have better designed tabs, so I'll be having a play with them too with a view of possibly moving my pages to the more usual top of blog position.

Any feedback on my new look is most welcome!

Update: Anna's just commented on the new blog layout being easy on the eye, which reminds me to tell you that Verdana is the font to choose for reading online. Research has shown its simplicity makes it less tiring for our eyes. The new layout is also using a 14 point font size as default for most of the text, which I believe is larger than I had before. 12 point is meant to be adequate, but I thought it was too small when I had a play with the font size options.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Postcard from Dublin

A wedding anniversary, birthday and an all-day workshop in Oxford with Dan Hinkley today means things are a touch hectic here at VP Gardens this week. So here's a photo of the Spire of Dublin on O'Connell Street from our trip on Wednesday (for £10!) to keep you going. In order to fit in all 390 feet you either have to go very far away (and therefore find there's all kinds of clutter in the way), or right up close and personal and look skywards. Guess which option I went for...

I've been to Dublin many times with work and also as a volunteer on the Special Olympics in 2003. This was the first occasion I was there as a tourist and accompanied by NAH. We had a fab time :)

There's more of our visit to come at Sign of the Times over the next week or so.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Unusual Front Gardens #8: Sculpture

Here's a garden spotted by Juliet from The Clockwork Dodo, who quite rightly said in her recent post she thought this garden deserved a place in my Unusual Front Garden series. It's in South Cambridgeshire and the owner has eschewed gardening for the chance to display the many and varied sculptures he makes in his spare time. It's well worth a trip to Juliet's blog to see the full story [not just this one - why not have a good look around whilst you're there? - Ed] and lots more pictures.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

ABC of Weather: Hair

Have you spent ages getting your hair looking just so, then gone out only to find it's gone into an unsightly frizz (curly hair) or limp and lanky (straight hair)? If you have, then you've observed the effect humidity can have on your body. Hair is shorter when the air is dry and stretches when it's moist by up to 2.5 percent.

This phenomenon didn't go unnoticed by the early inventors of humidity recorders (aka hygrometers): In the 15th Century Nicolas de Cousa observed changing humidity levels by recording the amount of moisture absorbed by wool. Others used human hair, string, intestines or wild oats before the standard wet/dry bulb thermometer method and today's electronic wizardry were developed.

If any of you have one of those little weather houses, where a man or woman comes out of a door depending on whether it's going to rain or shine, then you're using hair to tell you what the weather's doing. If you don't have one, then here's how you can build your own simpler version.

Humidity isn't the only weather component our hair reacts to. I was taken by surprise by the speed of an approaching storm in Mallorca once and I knew exactly when it was directly overhead as all the hairs on my arms were raised clear of my skin. I felt electrically charged and very alive. Needless to say I headed for shelter as fast as I possibly could as I was the tallest object around and on a bicycle to boot. Not the best of situations in a raging storm!

How's the weather with you today?

Happy ABC Wednesday everyone :)

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Painswick Yews

Until I started blogging I didn't really have much time for Yew trees. They seemed rather dark green and dreary and were mainly to be found in churchyards. My discovery of places like The Courts and them gossiping on the lawn has helped to change my mind, as did the marvellously shaped ones at Powis Castle. I now love them for their structural and medicinal qualities. I usually can't help giggling when I see them and I'm all for a touch of garden humour.

When we visited Painswick Rococo Garden recently, I didn't know I was in for a horticultural surprise before we got there. St Mary's church in the middle of the village has around 100 yews of all shapes and sizes in the churchyard. Most of them are paired along the paths and clipped into lollipop shapes, though some have also been allowed to join overhead, particularly at exit and entrance points. Quite a number are proudly sponsored by local businesses with a little plaque nailed to the trunk to say so. Whilst I was there, plenty of chattering sparrows were seeking out potential nesting sites tucked well away inside the foliage with the occasional cheeky one popping its head outside to check on my progress.

According to Wikipedia, local folklore says that the churchyard will never have more that 99 trees as the Devil will pull out the hundredth. However records at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London show 103 trees and the parish map has 100 trees marked on it. I would defy the casual visitor to do more than come up with an estimate (mine was 100): there are so many paths and quite a few of the yews are most tunnel-like, so it's quite easy to get lost and lose count.

Yew trees are commonly associated with churches because they're rooted deeply into our folklore and pre-Christian traditions. Yews were a common meeting place for community ceremonies, so the early Christians adopted these places, then built their churches right by them and continued to plant them subsequently. It means many of the massive churchyard yew trees seen today are amongst our oldest trees in the UK.

And whilst I've seen many churchyard yews in my time, there's nothing quite like the ones at Painswick :)

Monday, 8 March 2010

VP's Guide to 'Cataloguespeak'

I've warned against this practice before and this year I've found it much easier to resist those catalogues. The descriptions of the plants on offer I've seen so far are so fanciful and excessive, I was almost crying with laughter. However, there's a danger some of you might still be taken in, so here's a quick guide to what some of those descriptions and photos really mean:
  • Classic = It may be new, but it's really hard to tell because it looks just like any other of its kind
  • Easy to grow = Ha ha ha! We're looking at really good profits at these prices!
  • Exclusive = Nobody will touch this with a bargepole apart from us OR we've bred this ourselves and haven't sold it on to anyone yet
  • F1 = we can sell this to you at a much higher price and hey, because any seeds produced don't come true, we can sell it to you again next year
  • Hurry, this variety has been discontinued = we're flogging a dead horse here
  • Mid season half price sale = we've got more of these than we know what to do with OR they're not selling very well
  • Mixed or Shades = contains at least one colour you don't want
  • Pictured as part of an enormous construction = we've put 10x as many plants in here as you would, so you can't really tell how well it flowers and/or trails
  • Pictured with a small child for comparison = it's not really as big as it seems
  • Reintroduced = we're still going to sell this to you as if it's a new plant. In fact we'll say New in the accompanying description, so that it's clear
  • Unusual = it's ugly and we don't really understand why anyone would buy this
  • World's first + cheap price = we've been trawling through our back catalogue to find something we hope you've forgotten we had
And how's this for a description - let's see if you can guess which bedding plant is being described (clue: I don't think it's edible):
Delicious xxxxxs! Frivolous blooms drench the lush foliage in dreamy shades of coral, orchid rose, salmon, pink and white all through the summer until the first frosts. Enjoy their breathtaking displays in...
Or how about (this is a different bedding plant which isn't edible either, though it did make me think of cauliflowers):
Imagine hundreds of dazzling florets spilling over your hanging baskets, cascading from xxxxx [= a trade marked item which would give the catalogue away - Ed] and bubbling from patio containers right through the summer months...
I could go on, but I've got the giggles again. What's the best 'cataloguespeak' you've found so far?

Editor's Note: Photographic evidence withheld in order to protect any innocents which may be lurking in VP's catalogue pile.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Compost Crisis?

There's been some concern in the media over the past couple of days about the risks of contracting Legionnaire's disease from growing media (aka compost) bought from garden centres. This isn't new (I saw it first reported in 2008) or proven, but it's re-emerged recently owing to a report published last week in Eurosurveillance. It summarises three cases reported in Scotland in 2008/9 where inhaling the Legionella bacterium via water droplets from wet compost is thought to have been the cause.

Three cases in a couple of years suggests the risk for any of us catching the disease from our compost is extremely low. The most common way people catch it is via the air conditioning or water system in a major building such as an office or hospital. Note it's not contagious as it's transmitted via the inhalation of contaminated water droplets. However, if anyone's still concerned, you might like to have a look here on the NHS website.

What concerns me more is the presence of glass in my compost. I bought 5 bags last year to supplement my home made stuff and two of them contained glass. The picture shows the piece I found last October whilst planting up my winter pots: the coin alongside is a 5 pence piece. The one I found earlier in the year was about 3x larger. I garden without gloves as much as possible as I hate not being able to feel the soil, so luckily I saw this piece before it found me.

I believe the move towards reducing peat in our compost is the root cause of this problem. Don't get me wrong, I'm not an advocate of peat. Despite the drawbacks of using peat-free compost I've found and commented about (as Veep) recently, I still use it wherever I can because I think it's the right thing to do. I'm sure the use of composted green waste in most peat-free or reduced peat formulas is to blame. It seems not everyone is exacting about what goes where in their waste bins and it looks like the screening process of composted green waste isn't yet able to achieve a 100% glass (or indeed plastic) free material.

What's your experience - have you found glass or other non-compostable materials in your bags? Is there anything else which worries you about going peat-free, or have you found the perfect product to tell us about?

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Garden Visit: The Courts

Over the winter months I've reached the conclusion that it's a shame more gardens aren't open to the public. It cheers up the winter gloom to have somewhere to visit and it's a great opportunity to study a garden's structure without all the flowers there. After all, if a garden works well at that time, then the chances are it'll be good if not spectacular the rest of the year. Do click on the collage to see an enlarged view of what there is to see on a February day.

So when The Courts' Head Gardener announced at her talk at Bath University Gardening Club recently it was opening mid-February as an experiment, Threadspider and I thought we'd be mad not to avail ourselves of the opportunity to have a peep at one of our favourite gardens. It rained whilst we were there last week, but we both thought the garden was still looking good.

Until the 1880s the garden at The Courts was a woollen mill, so it would have been an industrial scene at that time rather than the tranquil place it is today. Then the UK woollen industry crashed (out-competed by Australia) and The Courts was sold to George Hastings, who created the first garden at the turn of the century (around 1901). He wasn't a professional, but his interest in form and structures such as hedges and statues led to the installation of the basic bones of the garden seen today. The remains of the mill also affected some of the garden's layout: the terrace area is out of line, but is actually the remains of a factory wall (the soil is full of slate and rubble, so tough as old boots plants are grown there) and a stone square in the lawned area covers an enormous capped well.

In the 1920s, the Goff family acquired The Courts and Lady Cecily added a soft, romantic planting to Hastings' garden bones. Her planting palette would have been limited to those plants available at local nurseries or from friends, so the Head Gardener restricted her planting to the kind of 'good doers' from that time using old photographs to see the kinds of plants used. It still means there can be hot borders and clashing purple and acid yellows as well as the more romantic mauves, purples and blues. It also means grasses are planted. These are usually considered to be a contemporary option, but apparently Lady Cecily used Fescues in her designs.

We saw hardly any of that on our visit (apart from the grasses looking like they were having a bad hair day which amused us greatly) but we did see the masses of early spring bulbs coming through. Snowdrops under hazels, thousands of crocus (though tightly closed owing to the dull day) and cheerful winter aconites. A few Hellebores told of riches to come. For me, the witch hazel was a surprising find because I thought they can't be grown in alkaline soil, but there was a magnificent specimen right by the orchard stuffed with carefully pruned heritage apples.

Even the mainly bare kitchen garden looked good and I seriously covet the terracotta forcers and of course the gossiping Yews on the lawn were as gigglesome as ever. Apparently they weren't trimmed for a while, so the prevailing winds helped to shape them the way they are today. A new discovery for us were the massed clipped box. Overlooked on summer visits, but a fantastic feature on a dull February day.

In the garden there were signs of activity everywhere: major pruning work was going on and someone was busy in the greenhouse. The entrance hut was being rebuilt so we found a new use being made of the pleached limes (a place to hang the glue gun) and we even had a rare glimpse inside the house because it was the garden's temporary reception area. The tenancy is available at the moment, so if you fancy living in a posh country house, now's your chance.

It was well worth the visit and we saw a few other stalwarts braving the weather on our way round, so I hope this year's experiment becomes a permanent feature. The cold drizzle meant our dethawing coffee and cake afterwards was thoroughly deserved: we even matched the turquoise decor of our table and crockery :)

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

ABC of Weather: Gulf Stream

We gardeners here in the UK should thank our lucky stars for the wonder that is the Gulf Stream. Without it our average annual temperatures would be lowered substantially and we'd be 'enjoying' the same kind of climate as that found in Labrador. It also means we have one of the widest choices of plants in the world for our garden palette: from dainty alpines through to lush tropical foliage. It's one of the things that helps to shape us as a nation of gardeners.

What is the Gulf Stream? It's a northerly flowing ocean current which brings warm water to us from the Gulf of Mexico. It's part of the 'conveyor belt' of water flowing between that area and the Arctic. In the latter region, water cools, sinks because it's heavier and starts to flow southwards to replace its warmer, lighter counterpart flowing northwards.

And what has this to do with the miserable looking olive tree in my garden? We all know how bad the last winter has been and my poor unprotected olive tree is suffering as a result. One of the reasons for this could be because scientists have found the Gulf Stream to be 30% weaker than it was half a century ago. This may have been sufficient to allow the colder, north continental European air to dominate for longer periods over the UK than usual and in turn block the warmer, wetter Atlantic weather systems we know and love coming in from the south-west.

Of course it's rather simplistic to say a weaker Gulf Stream explains our cold winter, or to extrapolate this means all our winters will be cold from now on should it remain in its weaker state. Our weather and climate are much more complex than just one factor governing it and after all, we usually have one bad winter in around seven of them anyway. However, it's interesting to note the Met Office has increased its scientific monitoring in Greenland to see how this area impacts on the Gulf Stream and in turn our weather/climate here in the UK.

It also shows the impact of Global Warming may mean we might not be reaching for the shorts and shades after all...

For more in the way of G, do have a look at the ABC Wednesday blog.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Book Review: Gardeners’ World Practical Gardening Handbook

It’s been a while since Gardeners’ World has produced a comprehensive, practical guide to gardening, so with a new lead presenter last year, it was almost inevitable a fresh companion volume to the programme would appear on our gardening bookshelves.

Gardeners’ World Practical Gardening Handbook is aimed at beginner gardeners or those with some experience who would like to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. It’s also designed to be inspirational: for readers to find their ‘inner gardener’ and begin to explore the enjoyment to be found outside their front and back door. In this aspect the book works pretty well: Toby Buckland has a chatty, friendly approach and has plenty of ideas for both fun and practical projects.

The book is divided into three parts: Getting to Know Your Garden, Growing Your Garden and Living in Your Garden.

Getting to Know Your Garden

This chapter assumes the reader is taking over an established garden, rather than a new build plot. Here are the techniques needed to take care of overgrown, weedy areas, to prune back overgrown shrubs, improve garden boundaries, make new borders and start composting. I was rather surprised to find getting to know your soil wasn’t given an earlier mention and I found the inclusion of a couple of pages devoted to slugs and snails at this stage rather mystifying.

This section’s strength is the lists of suggested plants, shrubs and trees and where they can be used. However, it was all rather let down by the lack of photographs, which are plentiful elsewhere. Much more could have been made of the sub-chapter called Outsourcing, a look at recycling and reusing materials (including composting) and where they can be found. Toby is really keen on this aspect of gardening, yet I felt he didn’t really get the chance to fully express his passion or ideas.

Growing Your Garden

This is the largest section and looks at how to grow from seed, propagation techniques, growing fruit and vegetables, lawn care, greenhouse/polytunnel growing, some basic pest and disease care, plus ways to encourage wildlife into the garden.

For me, this part of the book worked the best: there’s plenty of practical information, good photography and it’s laid out in a more logical order than the preceding chapter. However, more step by step photography guides would have been helpful, particularly in the propagation section. There's too much reliance on the reader being able to follow what needs to be done from the text alone, which could be rather daunting for beginners.

Living in Your Garden

This chapter looks at the enjoyment a garden can bring, an aspect of gardening overlooked in most books of this kind. There’s more practical projects such as creating a garden swing for the kids, fruit juicing, and creating a ‘hangi’ - a temporary garden oven often used in New Zealand. I was pleased to see a way to disguise our ever growing collection of refuse bins – build a nifty garden store complete with green roof – which was tackled well. But I was surprised this chapter was a mere seventeen pages in length. After all, the book’s overall ethos is gardening is fun, not a list of chores.

So, does this book bring the Innovative ideas, Expert skills and Traditional techniques as advertised on its cover?

Sadly only partly. There’s lots of ideas and techniques and I expect plenty of people will be enthused to get out and start gardening after reading this book. However, quite a lot of the tasks have been over-simplified, so the information is misleading or doesn't fully deal with what’s needed. The section on pruning Clematis for example, is most confusing.

As mentioned before, the book would benefit greatly from more pictorial step by step guides. For example, I would struggle to complete many of the practical projects: if only they were all explained as well as the Comfrey Feeder is. I did ask NAH to look at these too: he said he could tackle most of them from the information (or picture) given, but the fruit cage explanation and diagrams were woefully inadequate. It would probably collapse (owing to no strengthening cross beams) and we both noticed that the door had no frame, but was attached to the cage’s netting instead.

But what really lets this book down is its editing, particularly in the first section. I was quite happily reading about soil type and aspect, when whooosh… I found myself reading how to plant up a wall crevice and make a timber raised bed, before being taken back to soils a couple of pages later. A lot of the pages in this chapter seemed to be in completely the wrong order, thus jarring the flow of information. One of the pictures showing how to plant a tree wasn’t explained and some of the useful hints and tips found in the margins needs to be moved. Their position is often totally unrelated to the main text next door and they should be moved up or down the page to their rightful place. A more extensive index would have been helpful, as would a list of further reading, particularly for anyone wishing to dig a little deeper into a particular topic.

I know from reading Toby’s articles in Kitchen Garden magazine previously that he can write succinctly and informatively without misleading the reader. It’s a shame those skills haven't been fully exploited here because if they had, this could easily be the book to inspire a new generation of gardeners.

Note: I was kindly given a copy of this book by the publisher for independent review.

Update: Just like buses there's two book reviews from me today. My review of Parks, Plants and People by Lynden B Miller is now up on ThinkinGardens. It's all about about one woman's amazing achievements with public planting in New York.

Monday, 1 March 2010

GBMD: Atlas


There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it

Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;

Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes; which deals with dentists

And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds

The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living, which is Atlas.

And maintenance is the sensible side of love,
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dry rotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air,
As Atlas did the sky.

Following the talk we went to recently, Threadspider and I were keen to renew our acquaintance with The Courts. More on our visit later. At the entrance I found a list of poems called Aspects of Love with suggested garden locations for each of them. I was quite taken by this idea, particularly as I didn't know many of the poems on the list.

I've had a very happy hour googling poems both old and new. When I read the above poem by UA Fanthorpe, I knew it had to be my Muse Day for March because it sums up my relationship with NAH to a T. On our first date he repaired my dodgy plumbing (despite my proudly independent female protests) and on our wedding day he fixed my nan's central heating. As I write this he's sorting out his aunt's defunct vacuum cleaner following our visit to her in Poole last Wednesday.

It's our 26th wedding anniversary in a few days time... :D

Garden Bloggers Muse Day is hosted by Carolyn Choi at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago.
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