Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Friday, 23 December 2011

Merry Christmas!

Here's to a good Christmas for you and yours and may the sentiment expressed on the pictured Christmas decoration come true.

Veg Plotting will return in the New Year.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Announcing The 52 Week Salad Challenge

This post proves procrastination can pay because it was borne out of idle pondering instead of writing my Christmas cards on Sunday. My thinking went thus:

I really should grow more of what we like to eat.

What do we eat all the time?

Salads. At least 4 days a week, that's what...

...and they're really expensive at this time of the year...

Why don't I grow more of them then?

a) Because I'm pants at successional sowing - I get to our summer holiday and never get going again

b) I'm not really making the best use of the resources I have - cold frames, cloches, windowsill growing kit, sprouting kit - what a waste!

c) I'm not making the best use of the techniques I know about either - forcing/blanching, microgreens, cut and come again, sprouting - why's that?

I wonder if I can grow salad leaves year round?

I'm bound to fail going by my past record :(

So I then tweeted the fateful tweet:

@Malvernmeet we eat salad at least 4x a week. I'm contemplating a 52 week salad growing challenge for the blog next year. Is it a goer?

An excited flurry of tweets ensued, which confirmed it is indeed a goer. So consider this my formal announcement, throwing down the gauntlet, girding up my loins for the travails ahead etc etc. Forget the Olympics, we gardeners need a challenge requiring much more stamina and staying power. Will you join me in the New Year for The 52 Week Salad Challenge?

I'll outline the details in my first post on the first Friday of the month i.e. January 6th.

See you there?

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Worrying Times on the Plot

My allotment shed - in warmer and sunnier times

This week my plot's shed was one of 13 broken into, which now means there's 13 unsolved crimes added to our local police's statistics.

The first I heard about it was on Wednesday when I was telephoned by the local police. It was snowing at the time, so I wasn't able to get up there until yesterday to see what had happened.

As I suspected, I was lucky. I don't keep anything up there I would miss if it was taken, so all I had to do was close the door. Sadly my new allotment neighbours' spanking new shed had a neat hole where the padlock had been torn off. They weren't there at the time (no-one else was either) so I don't know if they or anyone else had anything taken.

We've not had a break-in for a few years and the colder, darker days means our site like so many others was less attended than usual. It must have been far too tempting a site for anyone looking for valuables to enhance their Christmas season. I wonder if the hard financial times means we'll see much more of this in future?

The topic of allotment vandalism was on Gardeners' Question Time recently (it's around 29 minutes and 45 seconds in on the link) and much was made about keeping sheds well padlocked. I don't do that because I believe it advertises there might be something inside worth taking. I won't be taking Bob Flowerdew's advice re growing something thorny round the door either, as I'd probably come to more harm than any thief!

What do you do to keep things safe on your plot?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

GBBD: Hangers on and a Few Surprises

November and early December have continued in their unseasonably warm spell of strangeness, so there's still the remains of summer blooms amongst the usual death and decay. Last week our first proper frost finally took away last month's Fine Fuchsias, but I couldn't resist showing off September's Echinops flower heads again. The morning sunlight was highlighting them so beautifully a couple of days ago.

The ever reliable Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' still has the odd flower head* to show for its troubles and the perennial Nemesia 'Vanilla Lady' I bought at Malvern is taking advantage of the extra warmth by my patio doors. The big surprise is the giant potted summer pelargonium in my north facing front garden. It's still flowering away when its companion New Guinea Impatiens have turned to mush.

The garden feels very in-betweenish because many of the reliable winter flowers are still in bud. The Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty' is being very shy as is the Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'. They and both my Clematis balearica are only hinting at what's to come, but then the latter were flowering completely out of season in July, so perhaps deserve a rest.

But then I find my rosemary and Pulmonaria are in flower well ahead of their usual late winter/early spring appearances and my perennial candytuft is flowering too, thus adding to the topsy turvy nature of my garden this month.

I usually confine my winter Cyclamen to various outdoor winter pots and this was so for this pictured bargain** until a couple of days ago. It was a welcome shot of red by the front door, but I've decided I want to keep its cheer much closer to me and so have brought it indoors. Here it's drying its wings in our utility room before it graces our Christmas table.

Moving back outdoors for a brief moment, the garden held one final surprise. Nestled under the blackened stems of my Helianthus 'Lemon Queen', I found my fig tree has finally borne fruit. The sunflowers must have nurtured them through our indifferent summer weather, to provide me with one final luscious taste of that season. There were just enough to brighten my breakfast this morning.

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. I have summer, autumn, winter and spring blooms in my garden this month. How many seasons can you see in yours?

* = always reliable in my garden where it often flowers all year

** = £3.50 for 3 in a terracotta bowl - not bad :)

Monday, 12 December 2011

Here's Some I Made Earlier

Following yesterday's review of the Brother garden labeller, here's some examples of the different kinds of labels I produced. Click to enlarge if necessary.

I've added some text in red, so you can easily see some of the examples I want to point out as follows:

A = Largest size text, normal label width
B = Repeated text set up as for A but with the printing set to 2 lines at the start of the text entry and the margin set to smallest (note the : at the start of the label is to denote where to cut so the label has even margins)

Numbers 1-4 are examples of me messing around with the settings to save tape as follows:

1 = 2 line entry, repeat label option set to 9 (with text settings as for A)
2 = 2 line entry set at the start of text entry, text size = small and repeated text entered twice. The chain entry print option was used 3 times, and also shows how the last label is cut in two if the print feed option isn't taken for the last label
3= 2 line entry where the space between the last word on line 1 and the first word on the second line isn't omitted, so the 2nd line is indented by 1 character
4 = Examples where the text = small and half width

5 = One of the examples using the special characters available which are dotted around the sheet. This one illustrates the italic + outline text option.

Note: some of the more fun characters when printed look nothing like they appear on the entry screen, e.g. the car at top right looked more like a pram. It's best to look at the leaflet to see what you're getting sometimes, though to be fair most of the symbols are self-explanatory.

Disclosure: I was given the labeller to trial by the manufacturer.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Brother Garden Labeller: Product Review

I was recently sent the pictured Brother garden labeller to review and my inner geek has thoroughly enjoyed making all kinds of labels for both my garden and office supplies.

Using the labeller

It's very portable and easy to use. Labels can be produced quickly without really needing to read the enclosed instruction leaflet as it's very much like using a calculator. However, if you want to make full use of the functionality available, then the leaflet is most useful. For example, gardeners may want to use italics and quote marks so their labels follow plant naming conventions.

Text entered and any setting adjustments are saved when the machine is switched off, so it's worth getting into the habit of resetting everything at the start of the next session. This is very easy to do, as is using the function keys to select fresh settings or using the special characters available. The back of the unit has a handy quick function key and shortcut reference label, so it's easy to quickly get to and adjust the particular settings you want.

Up to 9 labels can be stored in memory, which is particularly useful for producing name tapes without having to type them in time after time. I've been given a reel of the special iron-on tape available and I'm anticipating using this over the Christmas period to label some of my niece and nephew's new schoolwear. Note: there's lots of different types of tapes, plus a range of sizes and colours available.

How to ensure the tape lasts as long as possible

It's very easy to quickly use up the reel of tape provided with the machine and as replacements are relatively expensive to buy, I found several ways to conserve tape via a combination of:
  • adjusting text size and width
  • adjusting margin width (though unfortunately this only adjusts the margin on one side)
  • printing on 2 lines (only works with the larger 9mm and 12mm tapes; mine was 12mm)
  • using the repeat label (up to 9 at a time) or chain label (for different names) options
  • using the smallest label size setting (mini DVD) which restricts the maximum label width to 42mm (NB an error message appears if the text won't fit)
  • simply keying names one after the other with minimal spacing between them
If several of these options are used together, then the readability of the text on the label needs to be weighed up against the amount of tape saved. And if the last option is used, then I recommend using the preview function to make sure everything is spelled correctly!

Note: to see how much tape you have left, you need to take the back off the labeller and look in the little window in the tape cassette.

Things to watch out for when using
  • Batteries aren't included as standard and you'll need 6xAAA ones
  • when using the 2 line option, the space between the word at the end of line 1 and the beginning of line 2 can be omitted, otherwise the start of line 2 is indented
  • when using the chain print option, say yes to the tape feed option presented after the last label, otherwise it'll be cut in half. Say no to the tape feed option for your first label through to the penultimate one to minimise tape wastage
  • the error message explanatory text in the leaflet doesn't really explain how to correct the problem encountered. I found resetting the machine is usually the answer
Ideas for improvement
  • I'd like the option to adjust both margins down to minimum size so less tape is wasted
  • The Preview function just shows the text entered and label length. It would be good if there was the option to preview all print settings as not all of these are obvious or shown on the visual cues shown on the printer's screen
  • Make the difference between error message and settings displays clearer. It took me a while to realise the Line lmt message I was getting was an error message rather than part of setting up a multiple line. Use something like Error-Line lmt perhaps?
  • Make the explanatory leaflet available online in A4 format, so it can be printed off and laminated. Whilst the machine's easy to use, it would be good to have the option to have a more durable, waterproof and wipeable set of instructions as I can see the current version becoming torn and mud spattered very quickly. NB there is a leaflet available online, but it's for the previous model (so I've not linked to it) and there are subtle differences between the two
Overall opinion

This is the kind of thing you might not see the need of because your usual label + pen/pencil approach usually works fine. But then when you get one, you fall in love with it. It would make the perfect Christmas present for a gadget loving gardener.

Small businesses will also find this a useful piece of kit, particularly if portability and/or label durability is important. Any community group or other society needing to label lots of items e.g. for plant sales will find a good use for it. I think mine will come in handy for next year's Corsham Food Festival and Gardeners' Question Time :)

Tomorrow's post will show you some of the labels I produced whilst testing this gadget out.

A Bonus Item

I admitted I used to be in IT, so I was also sent a P-Touch 2430PC Label Printer to try with my laptop. This came with its own power unit (aka AC adapter), so didn't use batteries, though it can do if needed. NB We found the same power unit can be used with the garden labeller, though I can't find it as a separate item for sale. NAH's eyes lit up when the labeller arrived, so over to him for this part of the review (via email):

Arrived complete with white labelling cartridge, USB lead, Wall-Wart power supply [AC Adapter - Ed] and manual.
Battery operation is an option using 6 AA cells (not supplied and not tried).
Simple to load cartridge once side opened. Cartridge only fits in one position so cannot be mis-loaded.
No software to load but a CDROM is supplied for 'advanced' features.
Simple software auto-loads like a driver when USB lead is plugged in.*

Explorer opens; there is only one .exe file to open, then it works like a simple editor.
Text fonts and styles are there as usual. Sizes text automatically for multiple lines.
Pictures can be inserted but resolution is very low and monochrome only.

Neat and simple to use (and I didn't even read the manual!).


* = this means the software isn't downloaded onto the computer, so it doesn't clutter things up or potentially interfere with other applications on there

As NAH's an engineer you can see he's not as wordy as I am! I'll only add that this option is really for organisations needing to do a lot of labelling or needing to use the additional functionality it provides. Bearing this in mind, we're going to have a go at using the picture functionality to see if QR code images are readable when used. More on this to follow...

Disclosure: My thanks to Brother for arranging to send both items of kit, plus lots of tape so promptly and for giving both NAH and me a lot of fun testing things out ;)

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Story Behind the Name

I'm often asked how Veg Plotting and VP came about and Garden Faerie's recent meme, the Story Behind the Name is the perfect excuse to blog about it :)

We need to go back to just over four years ago... to a dark, rainy early November day with the wind wailing around the house like a banshee...

NAH was away and I was bored. Crucially I'd decided my then career break from work was going to have to be a permanent move (it was the deadline day for letting them know if I was going to return) and had just written my formal resignation letter.

I'd also decided I wanted to do something new to celebrate my now unemployed status, and so I was trawling the internet to find a nice weekend away. Instead I found The Bath Crafting Cranny. I liked her style and humour, the fact she was local to me and I loved the blogs she linked to, especially My Tiny Plot.

I wonder what it takes to start a blog? I pondered. A quick Google and 5 minutes later Veg Plotting was born. Bits and Bobs and Veg Plot were already taken as blog names, and thinking I'd be solely writing about my allotment, I plumped for Veg Plotting instead.

However, within days of starting it quickly became clear I couldn't stay on topic for toffee. Seeing most of my ideas for posts are born whilst I'm up at the plot, luckily the play on the word Plotting means the blog's title still fits. And judging by the number of keyword searches I see for it in my stats, it's a memorable title too :)

So why VP? Well, when I was faced with the fill-in box for who I was going to be on the interweb, I panicked about internet security and identity theft and so decided an alter ego would be the best way forward. I also thought people would get fed up of typing Veg Plotting the whole time and so wanted something a bit snappier. I remembered a wonderful cartoon Bill Tidy used to do for CAMRA called Keg Buster. The Keg Buster character was always called KB in the pictures, so VP is an affectionate homage to one of our finest cartoonists.

Since then it's all gone rather muddy and complicated. It started with a change to Blotanical a few years ago where I wasn't allowed to be VP any more. EmmaT sometimes calls me Veep, so that's who I became on there.

Then I started getting some guest blog posts and the possibility of freelance work beckoned, so I 'came out' as the real me at the Garden Media Guild Awards 2 years ago. I had an awful lot of explaining to do that day!

My presence on Twitter has complicated things further: @Malvernmeet was created specifically for publicising our bloggers' get together at Malvern last year, but has stuck around as my personal tweet handle even though I vowed my Twitter presence would be temporary!

@VegPlotting is on there too, but I hardly ever use that at all. At the moment I'm toying with the idea of letting @Malvernmeet go and using @VegPlotting more because I know people who've got to know me over the past year or so are most confused by @Malvernmeet. However, I'm rather daunted by more or less having to start to build up a Twitter following all over again.

If I'd known how things were going to turn out I'd be here as the real me and with a really clever blog title which reflects what it's all about instead of feeling sometimes like I'm suffering from a multiple personality disorder :o

But then I wouldn't have written this blog post as there wouldn't be a Story Behind the Name ;)

Thanks to Garden Faerie's friend Bren for providing the logo at the top of this post.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Trendwatch 2012: Honey I...

Pretty much everything's been said already about the Garden Media Guild Awards last Wednesday, so instead I've trawled through the new products catalogue in my goody bag for what might be hitting the shops next year. The main trend I spotted was everything's getting smaller, so with a nod to a certain film, here's several ideas to look out for...

Honey I Shrunk the Compost - several companies are taking pity on us (and their lorry loads) and drastically reducing the weight of their compost. I hope they work better than the similar peat based equivalent did a few years ago. I wonder how well this version will rewet and swell up to the proper size.

Honey I Shrunk the Gardening Space - in recognition that over 70% of us have much smaller gardens nowadays and use various pots and windowboxes instead, there's a special rebranded seed range designed to fill them.

Honey I Shrunk the Gardening - everything's happening at the root zone level and with mycorrhizal funghi. From just one commonly available product (since 2000), the choice is due to er, mushroom next year. Just make sure the pictured jar* isn't mistaken for coffee...

Honey I Shrunk the Gardener - there's the usual mini tools, bright seed packets et al. aimed at kiddiwinks (as well as Dawn's lovely new book which I've sneakily peeked at). Personally I'm going to swipe the Grow Your Own Ladybirds kit for myself because it was a business idea I had [sadly unconsumated - Ed] when I left uni decades ago.

Have you spotted any gardening trends this year - miniaturised or otherwise?

* = Disclosure - Toby Buckland sent me a free sample of his planting powder (also note the pictured QR code usage) after putting a shout out on Twitter recently. He was also very cheerful company on the Tube on the way home last Wednesday :)

Sunday, 4 December 2011

How to Receive Your Wiggly Wigglers Bouquet

What could be better to receive on a gloomy, rainy November day than a lovely big seasonal bouquet of fresh British flowers courtesy of Wiggly Wigglers via Fuelmyblog? Here are my top tips to get them from box to vase and ensure the resultant smile stays there as long as possible...

Find a big space to open the box and process the flowers. Keep the box upright just like the delivery man did.

Open the lid and look at what's packed inside. Smile. A lot :D

I was curious to see how the packaging was holding the bouquet in place, so placed the box on its side and opened the bottom of the box. There's a reason for that big This Way Up arrow I showed you earlier: it stops the water from the bouquet's pouch spilling all over the place.

Here you can see how well wrapped and tied the bouquet is, plus the pouch of water to ensure it stays fresh. And yes, those dots on the tissue paper are there to tell you it was raining when I took these photos...

Remove all the protective wrapping carefully. NB there's 3 lots of garden string in strategic places to keep the bouquet together as well as the raffia, plus a staple holding the tissue and paper in place.

Find a wide necked vase to hold everything and add a small glass of lemonade to the water to keep the flowers looking at their best for longer (florist and Wiggly Wigglers top care tip).

Plonk the bouquet in the vase (because I liked the way it's been arranged, though there's enough for several vases if you prefer) and admire for many days - 6 days later and the irises and lilies are yet to open :)

Reuse and recycle the packaging - the raffia will come in handy for hanging up my outdoor Christmas decorations and extra garden string is always useful. I even have a use in mind for the plastic film. There were a few Pittosporum leaves to compost. Just the water retaining pouch went into the rubbish bin, though I have tweeted @Wiggled and asked if this can be recycled in any way (see update below - it can be composted - yay!).

I've also asked about the seasonality of the bouquet: I'm intrigued about the availability of British grown irises and lilies (though they're lovely) in November. From past experience @Wiggled is very good at replying, so I'll update this post as soon as I have the answers. I'm expecting to hear they're grown under glass as the blurb I have says their flowers can be sourced in this way, so the bouquet stays British and those air miles are kept down.

Update 9.44am: Just found @Wiggled's reply to my questions:
nappy compostable, iris from cambridge and lilies from cornwal (under glass) - plastic recyclable - thanks lots x

The number of times NAH has bought me flowers is minimal, so receiving these was a treat :)

Have you had a nice surprise recently?

Thursday, 1 December 2011

GBMD: Miriam Rothschild

Sunlight through Clematis seedhead - late November 2011

I must say, I find everything interesting

Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005)

A quotation found via Transatlantic Gardener which could be a strapline for me and this blog :)

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Should we Flattr as well as Comment?

If you can't play the introducing Flattr video embedded above, try this link instead.

Today's been declared Pay a Blogger day by the people at Flattr, a social micropayments scheme designed to reward bloggers via readers and other bloggers who've signed up for it. Each signee decides how much they'd like to pay per month (a small fee, minimum 2 euros ) and bloggers who like the idea can display a button on their blogs.

If someone signed up to the scheme finds a blogger they like who's displaying the button, they can click on it in appreciation. At the end of the month their monthly fee is divided amongst all the sites they've clicked on. The idea is the blogging community can be rewarded for all the sparkling content they provide free of charge.

All this of course is dependent on people signing up and I suspect today's Pay a Blogger designation is to try and gain some publicity and generate awareness. Until last week I'd only found one blog displaying the badge: Patrick at Bifurcated Carrots. The link takes you to his latest post about the scheme. Zoe kindly brought Jane Alexander's post about it to my attention and so I resolved to write about it today.

I can see the attractiveness of the idea, especially for really good content providers. Many bloggers wish to retain their independence and not go down the advertising route to gain something for the often considerable time they give so freely. However, I'm not really sure how well it's been taken up by either bloggers or readers. I also believe it's dependent on having a significant proportion of non-blogging readers for it to work well.

Flattr isn't the only blog donation scheme available, though the others I've found aren't centred around the social side of blogging, nor geared towards regular payments. Garden Rant has had a Tip Jar for ages and NAH is using Blogger's Donate button to raise funds for his beloved steam engine restoration. I have no idea how well any of these options actually work in terms of generating funds.

Having looked at Flattr and the other donation buttons available, I've decided not to go down this route for now. I'm managing to cover the costs of my blogging via my Sponsors and my visitor numbers are increasing significantly, so it looks like you're not put off by them. 'Payment' via your comments will suffice for me, dear Reader :)

Update: Other social micropayment schemes are out there, such as Kachingle

Should we Flattr as well as Comment? Let me know your thoughts below.

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NB In case you hadn't realised, this is my penultimate post for NaBloPoMo and tomorrow's Wordless Wednesday post is all ready to go. Both you and I will be relieved to return to normal blogging frequency soon ;)

Monday, 28 November 2011

On Assignment With David Perry

One of the highlights of our trip to Seattle was the photography workshop kindly provided by David Perry. I've followed his blog for a number of years and from that know he's extremely talented and just how passionate he is about his subject. Here he's giving us our initial introduction at the start of our visit to the Bloedel Reserve - in the pouring rain, hence the slightly fuzzy shot.

Guess what's in the paper bag?...No Idea?... was a mirror - chosen to illustrate our first key point of the day: the most important element of taking a picture is ourselves. Each one of us is unique. This affects the way we see the world and ultimately the pictures we choose to take.
I hope David doesn't mind I've scanned his Fling handout into here. Apologies for the state of it, but a wet day in the Reserve, plus travelling thousands of miles hasn't kept it in a pristine condition. You can click to enlarge if necessary - there are some really good points on there which apply to any photography trip.

There were so many of us, David actually took 3 workshops. We were booked on the second, so having had our introductory talk, we headed out into the Reserve with our Assignment sheet, ready to find and capture the stories to tell the tale of our day.

It was rather romantic and fun to imagine ourselves as hotshot photographers ready to take pictures for a magazine. It also gave us an insight into David's regular work.

Then I learned my second key lesson for the day. Never go anywhere without spare batteries. Mine were running out within 20 minutes of starting our assignment. Luckily I had the next best thing: NAH with his camera, which I could snatch off him from on a regular basis when I saw a picture I wanted to take!

The Bloedel Reserve is the most wonderful of places, even on a wet day so there was no problem in finding stories and pictures to flesh them out.That's why I've put together a whole 'magazine cover' full of them in response to the assignment :)

Our main workshop session was after lunch, and David proved to be a humorous and clear teacher. His skill is being able to find a few key points which will help make all the difference to his audience. He also asked us what we'd like covered in the session. I requested breaking the rules, someone else about avoiding the cliche. I'll cover both of these in another post.

Here's what David had to say about equipment:
  • A miniature umbrella fixed onto the camera is ideal for protecting it during bad weather and acts as a handle helping to keep the camera steady
  • Don't buy a tripod from a photography shop. Very robust ones are available from Sears (US department store) for a fraction of the price. I'm hoping to find the equivalent over here
  • Use a flexible kitchen cutting board as a light diffuser - helps to even out the light on a subject
And his key general hints and tips about photography:
  • Get to know your camera well so you work with it, not fight it
  • For portraits - shoot into the sun so the subject is backlit and highlighted. This also ensures the lighting isn't flat
  • Step away from your camera's Auto facility. Use Programme and the +/- feature to under or overexpose shots when needed. Remember: the camera is 'programmed' to try and get everything 18% grey (including white), so playing around with the exposure ensures your pictures show their true colours
  • Don't be afraid to experiment and break 'the rules'. This is much easier nowadays with digital cameras rather than film
  • Above all else have fun and get out there and play!
We were moaning about the weather and David told us a miserable day is a great one for garden photography. The lighting is even for scenes and is good for bringing out greens. It can add atmosphere to a place. Having spent the day in the rain I can see his point - the story told might be different to the one originally envisaged, but decent shots were found. Of course it helps by taking them in a place like the Bloedel Reserve.

As well as the three workshops, David was so generous with his time and gave everyone who wanted one a mini critique of their work. NAH thoroughly enjoyed the workshop too, despite us having to take pictures of plants and we often discuss what we learnt on the day when we're out together with our cameras.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Felco Pruning Saw: Product Review

Before going to the Seattle Fling I'd heard they were giving away door prizes, but had no idea what that actually meant. It turns out they're items given out at some point in each activity on the Fling's timetable, usually over lunch or when everyone is gathered together for a good natter.

Quite often they were prizes in fun quizzes such as naming flowers in our host's garden or knowing a little something about Washington, such as its State flower*. When Lorene asked the question who's staying the longest in Seattle?, I was surprised to find it was me and even more surprised to find myself the owner of the pictured Felco pruning saw + spare blade, courtesy of David Fishman who'd generously donated it.

I was delighted, but soon began to worry I might not be able to get it home. Having been stopped at customs in Australia in 2003 with a metal kookaburra** in my hand luggage - you might get air rage and attack your neighbour with it madam*** - I had visions of being marched off as a potential terrorist like the shoe bomber or something. Luckily, packing it at the bottom of my suitcase proved to be the perfect solution to the problem.

It was the most timely of prizes to win as I've had to do plenty of cutting back of various trees both on the allotment and in the garden this autumn. I would usually have used my folding pruning saw, but it soon proved it wasn't up to the much bigger tasks I had for it this time. So out came my lovely shiny new Felco saw and it's finished the job with perfect ease. As you can see it's not the folding type, but instead comes with a tough protective holster which can be attached to a belt. I'm pleased no small boys saw me up at the allotment with it - I expect they would have mistaken it for a sword and challenged me to a duel ;)

* = Pacific Rhododendron aka Rhododendron macrophyllum
** = not quite as pictured colour or design wise, but close enough to give you an idea of the dastardly weapon I was carrying
*** = thankfully they saw sense and let me keep it. I slept most of the way home, so didn't have time for any air rage ;)

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Sites for Sore Eyes? More About Google Search

Last week I explored blog readability - thanks to all of you for your thoughtful comments :)

This week I'm looking at another change to Google's search capabilities I found out about at BlogCamp which you might not be aware of. Did you know the search result you see might be different to mine even if we enter the same search term at exactly the same time? This is because Google takes your previous searches and what you clicked on, plus the websites you visit through other means (e.g. via your bookmarks) into account when producing the list of sites it presents for you.

Most of the time this has little effect as it's very likely the site you want to look at is in the list. However, there are a couple of situations where it might not give you what you want to know:
  1. You may want to assess how your blog performs in a particular search e.g. on your blog's name , or whether e.g. a garden visit you wrote about features highly when that garden is searched for on the web
  2. The article you're writing is a knotty subject needing lots of research
By updating or looking at your blog on a regular basis, there's a chance any search you do where anything on your blog has those search terms will be returned higher up in the list you see than it would for someone else who's never or rarely reads your blog. Similarly when researching a topic, if the sites you regularly use for information match your search terms, they may be placed higher on your returned list. This means there's a risk you might miss something useful, particularly if you find your regular sources haven't quite returned what you wanted this time.

So if you want to see an unbiased view of your blog, or a good chance of finding some fresh research material, clear out your browser's cache*. Google is using the items stored there to determine what it 'thinks' you'd like to see.

What does all this have to do with the screen grab I'm featuring at the top of this post? It's illustrating how quickly search results may change depending on your browsing activities. I recently googled singing holiday Orkney to find out more about a holiday I'd heard about at choir.

You'll see the first search result after the adverts is called Candy Verney's Orkney Singing Holiday. However when I originally googled my search, it was the fifth one returned on the list. It was the only site I clicked on to look at. By using my computer's cache, the Google search engine has promoted its 'value' to me this time around and that little boost was enough to put it at the top of the list. Where it actually ends up each time also depends on the relative value placed by Google on the other sites matching my search terms.

This time I actually wanted to look at Orkney Island Holidays which appears at the bottom of the list today. It had caught my eye the first time when it appeared about half way down the page. I couldn't remember its exact name, but I could remember what I'd used in my search. As you can see, the site only just made it onto the first page of my results this time round.

I've also found out whilst researching this article it can be useful to use other search engines from time to time, particularly if you're looking for new material. I googled Veg Plotting on Bing and found Plant Mad Nige mentioned it in The Daily Mail in February. That's very nice to know. I've yet to find the same reference via Google, despite looking at 20 pages of returned results.

Whether or not you use this information depends on how happy you are with your search results or whether it's important to know how your blog performs in them. I thought you'd like to read about it because it might be useful sometime. Personally I'm not that comfortable with a computer deciding what I'd like to see. How about you?

* Update: Diana at Elephant's Eye has kindly left the following information in the Comments:

BTW if you Google Orkney Singing, as I just did - at the bottom it says View Customisations. There you can indeed toggle off the customisations, as G kindly asks - would you like to see the results ('without these improvements') before we sorted out what we think you want?! Much quicker and simpler than going to the cache.

Friday, 25 November 2011

How Advertising Works in Chippenham #28

  1. Form a company tapping into the increasingly lucrative accident compensation market
  2. Recruit a number of sales people to bring in the business you need
  3. Provide them with a mobile advertising unit just right for temporary high street installation
  4. Wait for a blogger with a camera to spot it has an in-built trip hazard
  5. Et voila!
Note that the usual blogger with a camera can be seen further down the street on the right. My thanks to NAH for spotting the possibilities and taking the photograph :)

Thursday, 24 November 2011

OOTS Extra: Snoqualmie

Serendipity brought us to this place. Having persuaded NAH to come with me to the Seattle Fling, he then found out one of his friends from Uni days lives in nearby Snoqualmie. I'd also earmarked it as a potential place of interest because it's home to an historic railroad :)

Both factors led us to spend quite a bit of time in the area. Having spent the night at D's lovely home overlooking the mountains, we also spent the last day of our holiday there. Wandering around the centre of this relatively small town, I quickly realised it has much to teach us about creating a sense of place in our public surroundings. In the above photo you can see the chosen paving looks like a silvered boardwalk and a generous decorative iron covering gives the street trees room to breathe.

Snoqualmie is proud of its railroad heritage and this is reflected in the pedestrian crossings on the side streets.

Even the drain covers are decorative and carry an important reminder they don't connect with a sewage treatment plant, but directly with a nearby stream.

The street layout celebrates the local river and famous waterfall which attracts visitors from miles around. Sculptures and some of the seating also reference the mountains nearby and their geology. It all makes for a most pleasant environment, which encouraged us to stay much longer than we'd planned.

Snoqualmie is a lumber town and was also a location for the cult 1990s TV programme Twin Peaks. I celebrated both of these aspects over at Sign of the Times :)

How does your town create its sense of place?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Wildflower Wednesday: 30 Degrees to Yakima

This is my final wildflower installment from our American roadtrip around Washington State and the Oregon Trail this summer. Firstly I need you to retrace your steps and imagine yourself on the relatively cool slopes of Mount Rainier, amongst the colourful Alpine meadows and the sweet mountain air...

Leaving the mountains and heading eastwards, the landscape soon changes most dramatically. The hills are more rolling in nature, brown in colour and sparsely vegetated. As we headed along the scenic route along the Tieton river valley, I looked up and realised we were travelling through the ancient beds of immense lava flows, hundreds of feet thick. The columnar structure of the rhyolite rock reminded me of basalt columns of the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland. I learned later these ancient lava flows are also hundreds of miles across. Imagine how active the volcanoes were at that time!

We're now in the rain shadow of the mountain where the annual rainfall drops dramatically from the 126 inches where we were at Paradise to a mere 8 inches at Yakima, our final destination for the day at around 90 miles from Mount Rainier. Here you can see the relative lushness of the river valley and how quickly the vegetation changes away from its banks. The spires of the tall Verbascum to the left of the picture show we're now amongst Mediterranean style vegetation, adapted to the hot, arid climate.

Here's a similar view to the previous picture with a cyclist to give it a sense of scale. There's plenty more Verbascum lining the road, plus the silvery sagebrush (aka Artemesia tridentata) which I learned later is the key shrub of this vegetation type in the States. Unlike the Verbascum, its yellow flowers don't appear until late summer/early autumn.

Back over the road again and a view looking upstream this time. The small leaved, silvery vegetation is a key adaptation for this climate, as are the low growing, furry leaves of the Verbascum. Both allow the plants to conserve what little moisture they find in the ground. What this picture doesn't convey is the sound of the rattlesnake I could hear which prevented me from exploring any further.

Having descended the mountain you can just see in the distance, we were much warmer. We experienced a change in temperature of over 30 degrees Fahrenheit between Paradise (65 degrees) and Yakima (97). This warmth and the fertile volcanic soil makes the land around Yakima one of the prime agricultural areas of the States, producing cherries, peaches, grapes, hops and suchlike. If you buy an American apple at the supermarket, then it's very likely to have come from there.

Unfortunately I didn't make NAH stop the car in time to show you the long rows of apple trees trained on vertical axis or y frames (modern apple training systems designed to grow many more trees per acre) with irrigation pipes along the top, so here's some sweetcorn instead. I was fully expecting a crop dusting airplane to come along at any moment, North by North West style. Looking at the roadside in the photograph and having told you about the climate and native vegetation of the area, I wonder how sustainable this level of agriculture actually is.

Why not hop over to Gail's to see what everyone else has for this month's Wildflower Wednesday? And if anyone is visiting from across the pond, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving for tomorrow :)

My other blogposts in this brief series:
At Mount St Helens - finding the wild form of one of my favourite garden plants
Streetside Delights? - a look at the ubiquitous Lathyrus latifolius
Mount Rainier's Delights - Alpine meadows

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Arne Maynard on Garden Design

Threadspider, T and I attended another great Bath University Gardening Club talk recently, this time courtesy of top garden designer Arne Maynard.

I'm showing a picture of Rousham, because Arne told us this is the one garden he constantly returns to for inspiration, as a point of reference and is the place he always learns from or visits if he has a problem to solve. He loves its pared back simplicity and explained there's no guidebook or signage for visitors. Instead, there's an 'invisible thread' William Kent (the designer) used to draw the visitor through the garden.

Arne likes the garden's subtle contrasts such as uncut vs. cut areas of grass, flowing vs. still water and perhaps most important of all, sun vs. shade. It's this latter contrast in particular which helps to draw visitors through the garden. He reckons most of them take the same route as they are constantly beckoned on to find what's around the corner or to see what lies beyond the next pool of shade. There's always a surprise or discovery lying in wait for them.

He explained water is also used as a thread and doesn't necessarily end in a grand design gesture as shown by the simple source of the garden's rill. Another design trick is the use of the widening or narrowing of a pathway, with the latter used to slow the journey.

Kent also worked with the landscape, unlike Capability Brown who worked against it. By this Arne meant Kent didn't move things around to suit his purpose, but instead worked with what he had. He also placed distant objects so the surrounding landscape is drawn into the garden.

Like Kent, Arne says he's a 'sense of place' person, so his designs are informed by the context of their surroundings, the area's history and the buildings (see this part of his website for more on his approach to design). The final piece of the jigsaw are the clients themselves and he tries to deliver a garden that's 'the biography of their taste and lifestyle'. He'll use their furnishings, ornaments and state of the house as inspiration. Thus the owners of a rigidly tidy house will usually be offered a formal design rather than a loose, unstructured one. This is tricky if the house is a new one or the clients don't really know what they want. His answer is to take them to Rousham and see which parts of the garden they respond to.

With the key elements from Rousham in mind, Arne then showed us a couple of his designs for private clients. I won't go into these in detail because I don't have any images to show you. Luckily one of them is shown in the Portfolio area of his website, so you can see for yourselves. My overall impression of both of these gardens were strong, architectural lines and a predominance of green. My other thought was these gardens are right at the top end of the market!

It was interesting to note that where his clients aren't used to gardening, he suggests they grow vegetables as a way to quickly gain their interest and to reward their efforts. He strongly believes the importance of connecting his clients with the soil.

Finally we had a quick tour of Arne's own garden, Allt-y-bella near Monmouth. He recently moved there, so he's still working on the final design. He described it as his 'Desert Island Discs' garden where the plants are his favourite ones, each having a particular meaning or association for him. He's aiming for a minimal style based on the key elements of topiary, fruit, wild flowers, vegetables, roses and bulbs. The Welsh landscape doesn't lend itself to his preferred formality, so he's evolving a new way of designing, such as randomly placing topiary.

At the end I asked for a sneak preview of Arne's show garden for Chelsea next year. He laughed and said It's top secret. However, having looked at his website I see he was particularly impressed with Ann-Marie Powell's show garden for the British Heart Foundation. So I wonder if we can anticipate a lush green garden with very strongly contrasting hardscaping from him next year?

You may like to read some of the other garden talks I've attended, or come a-garden visiting with me :)

Copyright free picture obtained via Wikimedia, credit: Grahamec

Monday, 21 November 2011

A Simple Garden Checklist

I've always considered VP Gardens as my first true garden even though we've lived in several places previously. It's the first time I've felt truly inspired by a space and wanting to do the best for it.

I wasn't that knowledgeable about gardening when we moved here and having a completely blank canvas I was worried I wouldn't manage to design the planting to have something of interest in every month.

So I came up with the pictured simple garden checklist (click to enlarge it if you want to see the detail) and put my provisional plant list down the side and the months of the year across the top. What you see is just one of several pages and this one covers the shrub side of things.

The blue crosses show the flowering season and the red writing any leaf colour or berry season. It was then an easy task to look down each month and identify the gaps. I'd also marked each plant with its height (in silver by its name, plus whether it's deciduous or evergreen in green), so I could choose additional plants with the right height and season of interest and ensure things weren't too evergreen heavy.

Once I was happy with my list, I used purple crosses to show all the months where I'd need to prune or tidy particular plants. I also used the notes area on the right to write up additional care requirements and anything else of note such as particular pests to watch out for. Thus my plant checklist also doubles up as a maintenance guide, where I can see at a glance the main jobs I need to do each month.

This was devised in 2000. Nowadays I'd set it all up on a spreadsheet so it can easily be maintained to reflect plant deaths and new additions. I'm going to set up something similar for my allotment over the winter as part of my revised plot plan. Many companies give away vegetable planners, but they never quite reflect what I grow, especially as I have so many different kinds of fruit. It's going to be great to have a plan which not only shows seed sowing, planting out and harvest times, but also reflects the key tasks such as apple training and applying grease bands. I can also adjust the plan to show what tends to happen on my plot and using the resources I have to hand.

Do you have a similar plan for your garden? Or perhaps you've designed something else to help with your gardening activities. Do tell me in the Comments below.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Two From Timber Press: Book Review

I'm writing two reviews for the price of one today because the second follows on naturally from the first, even though they're by different authors.

High Impact Low-Carbon Gardening by Alice Bowe is the first time I've seen design and environmentally friendly gardening in one volume*. I have quite a few books on this topic re planting, but virtually nothing on the hardscaping side of things**. The combination of the two here results in a much more holistic approach to gardening.

This isn't just about designing a whole garden from scratch. You may choose to focus on a chapter or two to give your garden a mini-makeover, such as deciding which plants to use (and their supplier) for a particularly challenging part of the garden or to attract more wildlife.

Since reading this book, I've started to think differently about the changes I'd like to make to my garden. Bowe writes about 'designing for disassembly' i.e. using materials which can be reused or recycled more easily. We may think of our gardens as a permanent feature, but in reality they're constantly changing and even the simple ones I'm thinking about like buying a new bench can be made in a much more thoughtful way.

It's a very readable and practical book with lots of eye-catching pictures, hints and tips, plus quick reference information in the book's margins. There's a comprehensive glossary at the back to help with jargon busting, plus an extensive further reference section should you want to delve more deeply into a particular subject.

* = I'm sure there's others out there (such as those produced by the permaculture movement), so do tell me more in the Comments below, if you've read any of them.

** = There's some in Matthew Wilson's How to Garden in a Changing Climate, but this is more comprehensive.

One of the topics Alice Bowe discusses is green roofs, so it's rather handy I also have a copy of Small Green Roofs by Nigel Dunnett and colleagues. Previous books I've seen on this subject are much more geared towards greening very large properties. This one is designed for people like me who are thinking about a small project at home or for a school or community garden.

The first few chapters explore the principles involved, such as getting the supporting structure right and which plants to choose. There's a useful few pages discussing whether DIY or hiring a company is the right thing for the project you have in mind.

The bulk of the book comprises a number of case studies showcasing various homescale and community green roof projects from around the world. A number of these belong to the authors, some of which highlight the research they've conducted in their own gardens to acquire the knowledge they're now sharing with us.

These and the copious photographs in the book also show just how varied green roofs can be: from a bird table through various sheds and storage spaces, to houses and outdoor classrooms. They're also not just a load of sedums and I'd love to see the trolley storage areas at my local supermarket converted!

On the whole I loved this book, but I sometimes found it difficult to find the answers to particular questions I have about putting a green roof on my shed. Suggested plants for different situations (e.g. shade) would have been particularly useful as well as a summary of the tasks involved from start to finish. The information's there, but it often has to be gleaned from reading through a combination of principles and various case studies.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of both of these books.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

How Readable is Your Blog?

One of the things we discussed at the Writing for the Web course I attended recently was the readability of various media. I was surprised to learn the average reading age in the UK is 10 years. The reading ages of The Sun, The Guardian and The Financial Times are 8, 14 and undergraduate level respectively. Whilst many people sneer at The Sun's content, it's the only paper we looked at on the course which has a chance of being read and understood by the majority of the UK's population. This may help to explain why The Sun has relatively high sales.

We then turned our attention to our web writing and a simple tool available on Google Search which can be used to gauge the simplicity of the language we use. You'll see in the image above I've put my blog's address into Google. As usual various pages from my blog are returned together with some examples of where it's mentioned elsewhere on the web.

I've then gone down the various options in Google Search's left sidebar and clicked on Reading Level (circled)* and up pops a graph showing how much I'm using Basic, Intermediate and Advanced Language in percentage terms. As you can see (click to enlarge image if necessary) the bulk of my text is at the Basic level. I must have been using fancier language recently (or discussing more 'difficult' subjects) as I now have 1% in the Advanced range. There was none of that when I tried this search immediately after the course ;)

When I first started blogging, there was a popular sidebar quiz widget doing the rounds which showed blog readability**. I remember quite a few people congratulating themselves when it said College (aka University) level. That's probably fine if your blog's about e.g. quantum physics or aiming at a relatively sophisticated audience, but for the majority of us who just blog about general, everyday things it might mean we'd lose our readers pretty quickly. So in this instance a large dollop of Basic is good :)

Reading Level could be useful for some of your Google searches too. Next time you want to explain or understand something that's quite complicated, use it to put your search results in order of complexity. I might not be explaining quantum physics to you or expounding on matters philosophical, but it would have been a useful option when I wrote about open pollinated seed varieties a couple of years ago.

How readable is your blog? Why not have a go for yourself and tell me in the Comments below.

* = if it isn't showing on your sidebar, you should have a More Search Tools option showing under The Web heading towards the bottom of the sidebar. Click on this and a host of extra options should magically appear including the Reading Level one. My thanks to my lovely NAH for pointing out the option wasn't there when he looked for it :)

** = It's fallen out of favour now and it's not worth searching for. This link explains how the widget contained a backlink in its coding designed to up the Google page rank favourability of a dodgy looking loans website. One to be avoided and something to bear in mind if you're looking to add any kind of fun widget to your blog.

Friday, 18 November 2011

How Advertising Works in Chippenham #27

  1. Times are hard, so come up with a new initiative to bring life back to your town's high street
  2. Give it the snazzy title Chippenham Alive!
  3. Advertise the key businesses involved in the initiative
  4. Wait for a blogger with a camera to notice the sole advertisement in the town centre is in the window of an empty shop
  5. Et voila!
Chippenham Alive! is the new monthly late night opening initiative, designed to counteract the effects of recent high street closures and massively hiked parking charges. The reaction to the first opening last month was mixed. There was quite a lot of publicity in the local paper, but it would appear not so much on the streets and participating shops themselves. Here's hoping tonight's late night opening which includes the Christmas lights switch on fares much better.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Allotment Experiments: Echalote Grise

Having given up half of my allotment, I was worried I wouldn't have the space any more for the kind of growing experiments I love to do. Thank goodness for the discovery of Echalote Grise, the strongly flavoured gourmet shallot (aka echalions or banana shallots, a variety I've always wanted to grow) which is planted in the autumn. Isn't it great to find something which can be planted out now?

To the left are some I bought from my local supermarket. Now most books warn about using shop bought edibles as seed. I'd certainly agree with them about garlic and potatoes*, but these British grown shallots look pretty healthy to me. On the right are some sets I bought from Edwin Tucker, a new supplier for me to try** and theirs was by far the cheapest I could find. However, they're still about twice the price of my supermarket ones for around the same number and weight.

Will I get what I pay for? Will proper seed triumph over shop bought? Will I be able to save any of my crop for next year's planting? Let the allotment experiments commence...

Thanks to Karen, who by simply having a packet of culinary Echalote Grise in her house when I visited, provided the kick start I needed to regain my allotment experiment mojo :)

* = my previous experiments have proved just how poor a crop of supermarket sourced garlic can be. As for potatoes, shop bought ones aren't certified as virus free. That's a risk I'm not prepared to take, though I know some plot holders who do.

** = and on first impressions, they're very good with their speed of delivery

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

GBBD: Fine Fuchsias

This spring, I was surprised to find some of my hardy fuchsias hadn't survived the harsh winter, even though some of the more tender plants like my in-ground dahlias and potted olive tree had.

Usually when I lose a plant, I treat it as an opportunity to try something else. After all, there are so many more I'd like to grow than there's room for. However, my Fuchsia 'Garden News' worked so well in my lower terrace bed I decided to replace it with one I found at the Malvern Spring Show. There's not that many hardy fuchsias with a double form and this one flounces its skirts so prettily. It's also good at arching itself over the wall which makes it particularly noticeable when taking the side path down into the garden.

On the upper terrace bed Fuchsia magellanica 'Versicolor' has grown particularly tall this year, despite its slow start after the winter. The flowers of magellanica type fuchsias always remind me of earrings. These are also providing a welcome splash of red amongst the mainly green or decaying foliage surrounding them.

The large terrace bed is home to Fuchsia 'Genii'. Its foliage hasn't quite been so garish this year - perhaps another consequence of the harsh winter and slow start to the season - and is lit up rather nicely by the sun's more slanted rays at this time of the year.

I have more surviving fuchsias elsewhere in my garden, but the ones in the terrace beds were looking at their best in the morning light when I took my camera for a walk. They may have been later to flower this year, but the unseasonably warm weather we've had over the past few weeks means they've still managed to have a long flowering season.

Just one sharp frost and all this will be gone...

Note: all 3 fuchsias have the Award of Garden Merit, as does my absolute favourite, Fuchsia 'Hawkshead'.

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

Monday, 14 November 2011

Chestnut and Mushroom Soup: Seasonal Recipe

Our local supermarket was selling off tins of chestnut puree very cheaply recently, so it can introduce slightly smaller ones of the same brand at the previous price. Naturally I was very happy to score quite a few of the larger cans for my store cupboard :)

Last week, I decided to make chestnut and mushroom soup for lunch and devised this very quick and simple recipe.

  • 1x 435g can unsweetened chestnut puree
  • 250g well flavoured mushrooms e.g. chestnut (!)
  • 1 tbsp oil (I used olive oil for its fruity flavour)
  • 1 litre vegetable stock (or 1 stock cube made up to this amount)
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  1. Empty the tin of chestnut puree into a large pan, swilling it out with stock to ensure all the puree is obtained
  2. Add the remaining stock to the pan
  3. Bring the liquid slowly to the boil, stirring well at the beginning to ensure the puree is dispersed into the stock
  4. Meanwhile thinly slice the mushrooms
  5. Add the oil to a frying pan and add the mushrooms
  6. Fry the mushrooms - you're aiming to sweat them so their juices are released
  7. Add the mushrooms to the stock and bring to the boil
  8. Add salt and pepper to taste (salt won't be needed if a stock cube is used)
  9. Cover the pan and simmer for 5 minutes
  10. Turn off the heat and leave to cool slightly
  11. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary
  12. Whizz the soup together with a handblender
  13. Rewarm, and serve piping hot with plenty of crusty bread
Serves 4-6

This soup is delicious and very uplifting on a gloomy November day. It's also ready in 20 minutes! A more luxurious version can be made by adding some sherry or other fortified wine to the stock and serving with a swirl of cream, [low fat] creme fraiche or Greek yogurt. If you've been on a fungus foray, then using some of your spoils to make this soup would be very evocative of your walk in the woods.

If you don't have any chestnut puree to hand, then you might like to try my Garlic Mushroom Soup instead.

My thanks to Cally over at Country Gate Gardens for confirming that soup would be a great way to use my spoils. Petra at Oxonian Gardener suggested chocolate cake and kindly tweeted the link to this HFW recipe. @simiansuter also reminded me that my River Cottage Preserves bible has a fab recipe for Chestnut Jam. I'm looking forward to having a go at making all of these over the next few weeks :)

There's lots more seasonal recipes for you to try in my Easy Recipe Finder.
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