Seen at The Festival of the Tree

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

Monday, 31 January 2011

Requiem for Cadbury's


On Friday NAH and I visited the recently closed Cadbury's factory in Keynsham to see an exhibition about the history of the site which was on for one week only. The factory opened in the 1920s when Fry's moved out of central Bristol to a roomy country site perched next to the River Avon.

Fry's and Cadbury's are rooted deep in both NAH's and my psyche, not only for the amount of their chocolate we've eaten over the years. Peter Cadbury was in NAH's form at school and I've spent most of my life going past a Cadbury's factory every weekday. It was Bournville during my schooldays (and we could smell the chocolate roasting from there when the wind was in the right direction) and then over 20 years of commuting past the pictured factory on my way to Bristol.

We'd gone to the exhibition with that heritage in mind, but also because we find any insight into the way things work or are made is fascinating. We were expecting to be two of a handful people there, but that wasn't what we found. The car park of the company's social club was full to bursting and of the hundreds of people there, pretty much everyone apart from ourselves were dressed in their Sunday best.

It soon became clear that the majority of them were ex-employees and whilst the exhibition was fascinating, it was even more interesting to catch snatches of their reminisces. It was a matter of pride to be there and there was a great sense of community spirit around us. It was more like witnessing a family at a wake, than being at an exhibition.

There were many jovial stewards to welcome everyone and all were anxious to ensure we went downstairs afterwards to have a drink and to collect our free chocolate. The bar was open and many were nursing a pint or having a glass of wine. We had mugs of frothy hot chocolate and sat looking at our Crunchie bars: a palette from the last batch ever made in this country had been saved for this occasion.

Towards the end of the afternoon I went outside to take some pictures of the now redundant factory site. There were a few people in there: occasionally one of them would emerge from the entrance like a ghost and sometimes I would glimpse the security guard on his rounds. It seemed apt somehow to take photos of this place in the freezing cold and dying sun.

I took my Crunchie bar home where it still sits on the table in the kitchen. There will be Crunchie bars in the future: they'll be from Poland from now on. Somehow I don't feel ready to eat my last British one yet. It feels a little like cannibalism.


A statue of Peter Pan presented by Fry's employees to the Fry family on the occasion of the firm's bicentenary in 1928. Peter Pan was chosen to represent 'the factory that will never die'.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Birdwatcher's Garden


This is the weekend where we all dust off our binoculars, top up the bird feeders and complete our RSPB Garden Birdwatch survey. I'll be doing mine as soon as I've finished this post: I couldn't yesterday as I was in Oxford and I do seem to have picked the better day because it's beautifully bright and sunny :)

Many of us will probably need to consult one of the many identification books available today. However, I've also been enjoying reading my copy of The Birdwatcher's Garden this week, which I won in a Twitter competition (courtesy of @GardenAnswers) just before Christmas.

It's a very timely book for me because my thoughts are turning towards how I can make my garden more attractive to wildlife as I'm redesigning a couple of my borders. This book is perfect for this as it contains lots of information on which trees, shrubs and other plants are the most attractive to the widest variety of birds. Not only that, the tables of information are broken down by species, so I can make sure I have plenty of plants which are attractive to the birds I've seen in my neighbourhood.

The first part of the book is all about understanding what a bird needs from a garden. It's not only about plants for food or shelter, it's also roosting sites and providing good observation posts. The concept of wildlife corridors and a garden's role in this is also explained, as well as how a bird-friendly garden is ultimately good for all the creatures which are needed to support them.

There then follows a section on the key needs for breeding and feeding. After a general look at bird territory, nesting materials and sites plus the key influences on breeding and feeding, there's a bird-by-bird guide to what individual species need. The list of birds included is much wider than I expected and reflects the wide variety of garden locations and sizes we have.

The next section is on gardening techniques and the types of plants to grow to encourage birds. Here there's a special consideration for small town gardens, balconies and patios. This is swiftly followed by man-made provisions. This is probably the aspect most of us focus on, but forms a relatively small part of the book. It includes the expected supplementary feeders and how to make a nest box, but also looks at how to make a pond or bog garden to widen the variety of habitats available for birds.

Conservation is considered next which includes meadows and introduces the concept of a 'wildlife lawn'. This is not being too precious about lawn weeds, but understanding their value for birds (Ha - I've got one already!). Guidance on environmentally friendly pest control is given alongside some of the choices gardeners can make to conserve habitats elsewhere, particularly peat bogs and limestone pavements.

The last chapter is called The Birdwatcher's Year and looks at seasonal visitors, behavioural changes and the key events through the seasons. Throughout the book there's birdwatcher's tips clearly highlighted to supplement this chapter. There's also plenty of birdlife photography throughout.

This book is an updated version of one first published in 1999. It's clear it's based on sound observation and research conducted by organisations such as the BTO and The Wildlife Trusts, presented in a very readable way to help keen garden birdwatchers to do more for our feathered friends. It may be over 10 years old, but this is the kind of book which perhaps is needed even more today.

Birdwatch update: Wood pigeon 2, Robin, Blackbird, Herring Gull, Blue Tit, Blackcap, Chaffinch, Coal Tit, Crow (all 1), Great Tit 2 and Dunnock 1. Fewer species this year and not such great numbers as I usually get on a sunny day. The blackcap was a BIG bonus though :)

Friday, 28 January 2011

Replotting the Plot

Replotting the plot for 2011, not 2010 as the picture suggests! Click to enlarge if needed

So here's the plan for 2011: a new bed for wildflowers (previously the nettle bed underneath which lurked dozens of bags of soot) and the previous fire area (in reality a massive pile of weeds and grass clippings) will house this year's crop of autumn onions, shallots and all my saved garlic.
The right handside used to have the same layout as the left, but instead this year it will have larger plots and two edible hedges: one using the Fuchsia 'Genii' cuttings I took last autumn and the other some Japanese Quince including the bargain C. 'Crimson and Gold' I found last year.

Other projects include planting a wineberry plus a couple of bushes each of honeyberry and blackcurrant. The installation of the edible hedges plus the wineberry and honeyberry are due to the inspirational 'A Taste of the Unexpected' and herald the redoubling of my efforts to do something for my ongoing Incredible Edibles project.

The apples need to have stronger cordon training wires installed and all the new strawberry plants need setting out. I'll also be replacing some of the mulch paths with slabs as soon as I get hold of some freebie or cheap ones.

There's a No dig vs Dig experiment to conduct and a new biological pest control to trial. Oh and Kai Lan to grow - I seem to have left that off the plan. Thank goodness all the non-perennial crops are marked in pencil! I'm also hoping a space for my planned cutting garden will also make itself known - it might have to snuggle up with the Dahlias.

So there's quite a lot to be getting on with as well as growing all the usual stuff.

How's your plan looking this year?

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

ABC of Chippenham: Buttercross

When we moved to Chippenham in 1988, the Buttercross was not in its current home, but a few miles away in the village of Castle Combe. Its rediscovery led to a campaign to bring it back to form a focal point in the market square. Here's what's written about it on the stone bench beneath:

The Chippenham Buttercross was built c. 1570 in the position where Barclays Bank now stands today. The centre of the "Butchers Shambles" it was used for the sale of meat and dairy produce. In 1889 it was sold for £6 to Mr. E. C. Lowndes, who erected it as a gazebo in the kitchen garden of the Manor House Castle Combe. The design of the building in its new setting was by NWDC [the then local District Council] architects Jack Konynenburg and Teresa Surawy.

The Chippenham Buttercross was re-erected in this position in 1995 by Chippenham Civic Society, paid for by donations...

...there then follows a long list of everyone who donated to the cause.

The building you can just see (with 2 windows) to the left of the photo is Barclays Bank and old photographs show the Buttercross was placed sideways on there compared to its current position. Today on market days (Friday and Saturday) the Buttercross is surrounded by a few colourful market stalls, but I doubt it has the same hustle and bustle as when it was the centre of the Butchers Shambles.

However, I believe there is a move to try and expand the market and according to the Town Council's website: the Buttercross is available free of charge for charity or community groups for promotion, recruiting and fund raising. It was the focal point last November for a peaceful demonstration by local students protesting at the [then] proposed rise in university tuition fees. So hustle and bustle might be firmly on the agenda again!

The Chippenham Civic Society's regular publication is called Buttercross Bulletin which is very apt as they were instrumental in bringing the building back to Chippenham and this online extract I've found calls for help in a project to celebrate the diversity of Chippenham's homes.

Now here's a little Bonus B for today. This week's local newspaper reports the Borough Parade shopping area in the centre of town is about to have a £250,000 facelift (subject to planning permission) which will include the placing of a new canopy and neon sign at the arched entrance. Therefore, this picture forms the 'Before' in readiness for showing you the 'After' one soon.

This is for ABC Wednesday and forms part 2 of my themed round of posts about Chippenham.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Is 'Solar Farming' the Way Forward?


Sometimes a local issue comes along which serves to make my brain hurt very badly as it raises so many others and I simply don't have the answers. The news last week that a Chippenham farmer nearby is proposing to convert 35 acres of his land to solar panels falls firmly into this category. That's 'solar farming' on the scale of around 15,000 moveable panels, each the size of a door and arranged in rows in a field(s) to maximise their capture of the sun's energy.

There was quite a lot of talk about it on Saturday at our local resident's association quiz evening which NAH and I attended*. We're now expecting a 'call for action' email any day now and naturally the main point of concern raised so far is what this means from an aesthetics viewpoint.

That's the least of my concerns and I'm having a major tussle with myself over whether this is a good thing or not. My greener living head says it is because it means we're making more use of a renewable energy, but my we as a nation need to grow more of our own food head is rather concerned about another way in which our farmland is being taken out of cultivation.

I can also appreciate the farmer's viewpoint. If I was he and I found a scheme which pays for itself in about ten years and then offers a guaranteed income for 15 years way above what I could get from conventional farming, I'd be giving it some serious thought too.

But then I'm sure the last government didn't quite have 'solar farming' on this scale in mind when they set up the Feed in Tariff scheme to help them meet their 2020 carbon emission reduction targets. This is chiefly designed to encourage home owners and small businesses to set up solar panels on their roofs: indeed I've been trying to persuade NAH that we should do so. The reports I've found so far in places like the Daily Mail and by The Energy Conservation Group aren't in agreement on if and how long the larger field sized schemes will be allowed to continue.

What seems to be clear is that any legislation plugging this loophole won't be applied retrospectively, so we can expect lots more planning applications by farmers for solar panels in England over the next year or so. I wonder how much of our farmland will be taken out of production as a result.

I also wonder how the land will be managed over the 25 year life-cycle of this scheme. The local farmland in question is currently used for grazing, but I don't think animals will be allowed to coexist alongside the panels. If not, how is the vegetation going to be kept in check all that time so it doesn't block the sun? I can't see the land being co-managed for wildlife either. And what happens to all the paraphernalia when the land is restored back to how it is now? Does this give us net good or bad benefits (environmental or otherwise) over the life-cycle?

As usual with these things I have more questions than answers and I see there's a public meeting arranged about this issue next month. Perhaps I'll get some answers then?

* = which we won - hurrah!

NB Having no picture to hand of what massed banks of solar panels in a field look like (though this link to the article about this issue in my local paper gives you fair idea), I've used a photo courtesy of David Moniaux via Wikimedia.

Update 7th Feb 2011: The government have announced today a review of the FIT scheme as it isn't designed for solar farms such as the one I've discussed. More details here.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Book Review: Organic Vegetable and Fruit Growing and Preserving

As you can see it's a rather long title to fit into the one for my post! Organic Vegetable and Fruit Growing and Preserving Month by Month is probably the longest title of any book in my collection and hints at its comprehensiveness. The authors' pedigree is faultless: they were at Garden Organic (HDRA in their day) for many years and with a science background to boot they're very well placed to write this volume.

The title doesn't quite tell you everything this book contains. There's herbs and nutritional information too: the latter is the first time I've seen the subject tackled in the context of growing your own.

The book is divided into four main parts. It starts with a brief chapter on the basics which is divided into gardening and nutrition sections. Then follows a detailed month by month guide (grouped by season and starting with winter) of the key tasks. At the end of each season there's a 'project' section of major tasks which are appropriate to that time. Thus winter focuses on soil preparation, spring on seed sowing and so on

The third section is the crop guide, the largest section of the book. Each of the vegetables, fruit and herbs featured has the usual information you'd expect. Key nutritional information is also given, allowing you to make dietary choices in what's grown, including GI values. The final section is a 50 page basic guide to preserving and storing your harvest which also includes a few recipes for e.g. jams, flavoured vinegars and chutneys.

I could tell you a lot more about this book, but instead I've chosen to highlight what I think are its strengths and weaknesses (in no particular order), which I hope will help you to decide whether this is the book for you:

Strengths

  • Very comprehensive - over 300 pages from plot planning and preparation, through seed sowing and cultivation, to storage and preservation
  • An organic guide (though some of you may think this is a weakness!)
  • Lots of nutritional information to help you put together a balanced diet and identify which 'superfoods' you'd like to grow
  • Good for people with a large home patch or allotment to cultivate
  • Good for anyone starting to grow produce for the first time and through the first few years
  • Lots of guidance on good varieties to grow, including heritage ones
  • Covers over 70 different vegetables, fruit and herbs
  • Good for people who like to know what to do and when
  • Good value for money
Weaknesses
  • A little short on detail for soil preparation and nutrition, particularly for an organic-centric book
  • Poor specific guidance for anyone restricted to mainly container based growing and the best varieties to use for this situation
  • No detailed guides for some of the more complex tasks in the monthly lists e.g. pruning
  • More experienced grow your own addicts will probably want a few more unusual vegetables and fruits added to the mix
  • The nutritional information needs to be more engaging - I believe most people would struggle with this section
  • It's not pocket sized as claimed in the Introduction - or I need different clothes ;)
  • There's a lot of dense text - that's not a plea for more illustrations per se (there's just 27 of them), but more use of e.g. shaded boxes, italicised introductory text and two (or even three) column layouts would have helped to make the text more readable
Would I happily replace my usual guides* with this book? No, nor is it different enough to sit alongside them. However, if we could rewind the clock back to when I first had my allotment, I would be happy to have this one instead of one of the others.
* = The references I use the most (and used for comparison purposes for this review) are Joy Larkcom's Grow Your Own Vegetables, Caroline Foley's The Allotment Handbook, D.G. Hessayon's The Fruit Expert and Andy Clevely's The Allotment Book (though mine is the hardback version of the latter book).
NB The publisher sent me a copy of this book for independent review.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Urban Fox

On Monday we had to go up to Birmingham to see my mum. This is the sight NAH and I espied out of the kitchen window whilst making lunch. I've known about urban foxes for years, but this was the first really up close and personal daylight sighting of old Reynard (as mum calls him) I've had. Even NAH was excited at the time and we were able to watch our visitor for a good 5 minutes or so.

Back home in Chippenham the urban fox's presence has been in sound only. We often hear them barking at night at the moment as it's mating time. It can quite unsettling until you realise what's actually going on. I wonder whether we might have the return of Skimble the Bold sometime soon?

When I lived at home mumble mumble years ago, we found evidence of foxes in the garden, but had no actual sightings back then. A fascinating documentary was shown on the TV around this time highlighting the research carried out by Bristol University which showed just how well the fox has adapted to living alongside us. That research in still ongoing and is accompanied by an excellent website which has lots of information about the study and foxes in general.

BTW the tree immediately behind the fox is one of three trees and shrubs Birmingham Organic Gardeners came and planted in my dad's memory this time 13 years ago. Dad was a founder member of the group and he was very proud of (and amused by) the acronym ;)

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

ABC of Chippenham: Avon


Today dawned frosty, misty and sunny: a perfect time to go downtown and take pictures of the River Avon. It's one of several rivers in England with the name Avon: This one is called the Bristol Avon because there's actually two River Avons in Wiltshire. The other is in the south of the county - we're in the north - and is called the Hampshire Avon.

Our River Avon arises near Old Sodbury in Gloucestershire and finally drains into the Severn Estuary at Avonmouth, near Bristol. It flows south from Gloucestershire into Wiltshire, where it joins with the Tetbury Avon at Malmesbury, not far north of Chippenham.

It then meanders around in a generally westwards direction forming the lifeblood of many Wiltshire towns and villages such as Lacock, Melksham and Bradford-on-Avon - in addition to Chippenham - before flowing into Somerset, and the city of Bath. If you take the train from Bath to the south coast, the line follows the Avon valley for many miles and is one of the finest rail journeys in England.

The photo is taken looking upstream from the wooden bridge in Monkton Park, a view I've not shown you before. I'm standing just a few yards from office buildings and a shopping centre and I like that this scene is more like the out of town rural views. We also have a slight connection with the river where we live as the stream at the side of our house - the Hardenhuish Brook - is one of the river's tributaries, joining it in the centre of town.

At various times I've used both the brook and the river as an outdoor classroom to teach people how to identify freshwater invertebrates and their importance in showing the water's health. This has improved over the years and on many evenings and weekends you can see quite a few people 'camped' downtown taking advantage of the coarse fishing available. However, I'm worried about the continued health of the varied bankside plants as I've seen the dreaded invasive Himalayan Balsam has arrived.

Going forward, Chippenham Vision has identified our river as a valued and underused resource which can be used to increase the town's quality of life. Awareness raising of its possibilities started two years ago by holding an annual summer River Festival with various events such as dragon boat racing. The river is a pleasant place for a stroll at any time of the year (except when it's awash with rain!) and cycling is another possibility as the Sustrans National Cycle Route 4 is routed alongside for a few miles on its way to/from Calne.

NB Avon is the old Celtic word for river, so it quite amuses me we're really saying the River River when we talk about it ;)

This is for ABC Wednesday and forms part 1 of my themed round of posts about Chippenham.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Wassail! *


Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.


Gloucester Wassail - believed to date back to the middle ages and also sung at traditional wassailing times in North Wiltshire.

Tonight is the old Twelfth Night**, one of the traditional times to hold a wassailing ceremony. Wassails are sung from around Christmas time until today's date and are centuries old.

The purpose of a wassailing ceremony - apart from a good excuse to cheer up the winter blues - is to awaken the apple trees from their slumbers, give thanks for the apple harvest and to drive away evil spirits to ensure the next is a good one.

Our choirmaster is very keen on wassail songs, which we've always sung as a 'Happy New Year' welcome to the January term, but Saturday was the first time we'd been invited to perform at a proper Wassailing ceremony. This was held at The Courts, one of Wiltshire's finest gardens and best kept National Trust secrets.

The Courts is in Holt and the village morris side were also there; it turns out morris dancing is also closely associated with wassailing. They danced The Rose Tree which should be done around the 'father of the orchard' (or king apple tree), but the one at The Courts is very low growing, so they danced it round their band instead. They then danced The Hollow Tree, with the finale being an assemblage of the dancers sticks to resemble a venerable hollow tree.

Then it was our turn: we started with the Malpas Wassail which hails from Cornwall, then the Gloucester Wassail as shown above. The Green Man, our master of ceremonies (with a bright green face and dressed in a bright red coat with sprigs of holly around his hat) then found his king and queen of the orchard (a young boy and girl) to help with proceedings.

This involved the dressing of the king tree with cider dipped toast for the robin (the guardian bird), the pouring of lots of cider on the tree in thanks, and to kick-off the noisy part of the ceremony with a bang from a pretend gun (some ceremonies use the real thing!).

We sang The Apple Wassail (which hails from Somerset), drank our fill from the wassail bowl and then followed the morris men around the orchard making as much noise as we possibly could. Our instruments included a farting trombone, lots of rattles made that very afternoon, a football rattle, a vuvuzela, various pots and pans and me banging away like mad on our paella pan with a wooden spoon. NAH thought this was a most appropriate use of our pan as it could be held and struck like a gong ;)

Our final song was The Gower Wassail, which we learned for Christmas 2009 and can be found on YouTube (via the link) when we sang at Stourhead's winter Festival of the Voice. I can be seen lurking at the back in the mauve coat and greenish hat.

More dancing ensued including a mass participation dance to round things off. I suddenly found myself on the dance floor wearing an morrisman's large bowler hat, a-waving and clapping and leaping in the air. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the moves we learnt will be included in future choir rehearsal warm ups!

With the ceremony over, we wended our way past the warming bonfire, the twinkling candles in the trees, the tealight lined pathway and back into today's world.

* = wassail is from the Anglo-Saxon 'waes hael' = "be in good health"

** = today twelfth night is January 6th: the 'old' twelfth night is 17th January which is when January 6th was before our current calendar was introduced in 1752. This 'lost' 11 days from the old calendar. The fact that 17th January is one of the key dates for wassailing and there's many regional wassailing songs suggests how far back this tradition reaches.

Update: Here's the report from our local newspaper.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Digging for Victory: Book Review

Digging for Victory by Twigs Way and Mike Brown is a fascinating blend of gardening, history and social history. It tells the story of the government's WWII Dig for Victory campaign, richly illustrated by the stories of the people (or their offspring) who took up the call to grow more food, together with examples from the masses of ministry advisory leaflets, advertisements and articles from gardening magazines and books published at the time.

I've written before about my concerns about how we might grow our own food in the future and pondered whether a similar campaign might be successful today. So it's been fantastic to have a review copy of this book to give me a better insight into the harsh reality of the 1940s. The campaign was judged to be a success, but Digging for Victory shows it wasn't without hardship along the way.

The story is told more or less in chronological order with varied side trips taken to view the role of the media, the changing role of women, the country house battleground and the involvement of children. It wasn't just vegetables either: the keeping of livestock such as pigs, chickens, rabbits and even goats was encouraged to help eke out the ration book and even provide a useful surplus for bartering. There's also the dawn of the gardening personality - in the form of Mr Middleton. He was much in demand for personal appearances at the time and one of his books has been reissued recently too.

I hadn't appreciated how the outbreak of war contributed to the demise of our orchards (many were grubbed up and re-planted with potatoes), how growing strawberries wasn't encouraged initially (considered a luxury crop, but later viewed as a morale booster) and the government's initial concerns that too many potatoes were being grown.

I hadn't realised that nurseries were actively involved in the campaign (though quite logical when you think about it) and how the government restricted the land used for their pre-war business to just 10%. Thus many valuable garden cultivars were lost during this time and the loss of income meant many nurseries went to the wall. It's also ironic that the campaign was 'exported' to Germany and Russia post-war to help these countries solve the problem of their starving populations.

It's amusing for us today to see nearly everything couched in terms of the battlefield - Cloches against Hitler!, Lighten the Navy's task!, Beans as Bullets! - but it also serves to illustrate how desperate things were at the time. By the end of the war around 1.4 million allotments were in production (there's around 300,000 today), each estimated to produce enough food to feed a family of 5 for a year.

Digging for Victory gives a thorough insight into how the issues of food security and being relatively self-sufficient as a nation have been tackled in the past and gives us much to think about today. Can these issues be tackled in the same way again? Probably not, as I believe we as a people aren't so accepting of government doctrine these days, plus we have less land available for cultivation and a larger population to feed. However, that doesn't mean to say there aren't lessons to be learnt and ideas which could be used.

It's a fascinating read and one I can thoroughly recommend.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

GBBD: Green and White Shoots


I had quite a surprise a few days ago when I found these wonderful snowdrops in my front garden. They're much earlier this year - by a good two weeks - which I'm amazed at seeing December 2010 is officially the coldest since 1890 in this area. I know many of our spring bulbs need a period of cold to perform at their best, but didn't think that extended to early flowering.

Going out to photograph them for Blooms Day made me realise I have a little job to do today - if I can dodge the rain - to keep their hundreds of cousins happy in the front side garden. This area partly belongs to us and merges seamlessly into an area owned by the local council. Needless to say this was the scene of my first spot of guerrilla gardening (though I wasn't aware of the phrase then) as I quickly realised it wouldn't be looked after.

This is very much a shade garden owing to the many trees at the side of the house and it narrows to a tiny strip of just a few inches wide at its furthest extent. It's the perfect place for small spring bulbs such as snowdrops and crocus and also the perfect place for my neighbour to hang some bird feeders so her young daughter can watch the antics of the many birds (hurray!) and squirrels (boo!) who visit.

Whilst this is a good thing to do, I spotted the ground feeders such as the fat pigeons and the more nimble chaffinches have pecked and worn away much of the soil surrounding my bulbs. Luckily most of them still have their roots in the soil, but look like they need a nice blanket of compost to tuck them up and keep warm. They're showing plenty of green shoots, but unlike their neighbours no flower stems topped with a tiny glimpse of white can be seen yet.

It'll be a pleasant task, and as Lucy said in response to yesterday's post, to be amongst the snowdrops will make my heart sing. It appears many of us need sights such as these (and the year's first vase of Cornish daffodils on my table*) to help us get through the winter. It also means my annual weekly snowdrop count has started**. As Lazy Trollop's been saying, there's quite a number of #reasonstobecheerful at the moment :)

* = so yes Carrie, do treat yourself and put a vase of instant sunshine on your table immediately :)

** = you can join me if you like, they're all there in the above photo. Future virtual counts will be a tad more tricky ;)

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

Friday, 14 January 2011

Pink, Pink Sunshine


The dank, grey miserable weather the past few days has removed my New Year's optimism and sent me into my usual January Slough of Despond. So it was a rather nice surprise - even if in truth I'd completely forgotten, despite marking it up on the calendar in the kitchen to remind me - to find Threadspider on the doorstep yesterday morning ready to whisk me away to our local garden centre for a look round, a cup of coffee and a good old chinwag :)

It's at these times you really get to appreciate your friends. Threadspider loves the newness and endless possibilities of January with an infectious enthusiasm. She insisted we visit the Hamamelis on display to give them a cheering sniff. The day's drizzle may have drained their spicy scent away, but at least the rain I got up my nose in a vain attempt to obtain any last vestige of perfume meant my grumpiness changed into fits of giggles.

Then yesterday evening I realised to my surprise that what these desperate times really needs - even if they're usually not to my taste - is the loudest, brightest, most Barbie coloured Hyacinths to knock me off their feet with their scent, courtesy of my niece and nephew's Christmas present .

Thank you L and E for bringing me lots of pink sunshine, just when I need it :D

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Postcard from Yorkshire


We've just got back from a long weekend with my brother-in-law and family where we had the bit of Christmas we failed to have in December owing to the snow. On Sunday we visited the National Coal Mining Museum for England where I liked this view of the old pithead with a tiny sliver of moon in the distance.

It's a fascinating place to visit. We took the underground tour led by an ex-miner who worked at the nearby Grimethorpe colliery for 26 years. He gave a fascinating insight into life 450 feet below and delighted the children on the tour with tales of his gory injuries; various mining accidents through the ages; and how to prevent the many rats and mice down the mine from eating your lunch. We learnt how reliant the miners were on keeping a good airflow through the mine and how a simple sheet to divert the air could be used to disperse any dangerous gases detected via a Davy Lamp.

If you get the chance to visit, please do as the museum needs all the support it can get owing to the recent cuts announced by the government. The next two years sees the museum's subsidy cut by £140,000 per year, followed by a further £90,000 so that after 3 years there will be no central financial help. However, because it is designated a national museum, it can't start charging an entrance fee to recoup this financial loss. It's a clear case of use it or lose it.

Monday, 10 January 2011

VPGGB #16: Poundland


A trip into town last week revealed a surprising slew of gardening bargains to be found at my local branch of Poundland*, where I picked up this packet of 8 seed potatoes for, erm... a pound.

A couple of years ago Threadspider and I selected a potato variety each in fond memory of the ones grown by our dads and the pictured Pentland Javelin is now a firm favourite with us both owing to its great taste and good yields. As it's a first early, it usually doesn't have problems with blight either. Other varieties available are Charlotte, Maris Peer and Rocket: all are good sized and appear to be good quality.

There were large packets of reasonably sized onion and shallot sets too, though these were of variable quality. Look out for signs of softness or mould and avoid. In my case Red Baron was the best bet in my shop, the rest were to be avoided**.

Elsewhere small summer fruiting raspberry, blackcurrant and redcurrant bushes were on display. I couldn't see if they were a particular variety, but might be worth a go if you have the space to experiment with. However, a lot of them were to be avoided as there were signs of leggy growth, indicating they've been in the shop (or another warm place) for some time. Avoid plants like this and any where the roots look dried (as Lucy told me she'd found with her 'bargain' blueberry once - it died, so be warned). If all looks OK (especially if you can confirm the plants have been in the shop for a short time), go ahead and buy though they will need a good soaking in water to refresh them just prior to planting.

On the non-edible front were boxes of wildflowers seeds (enough for 15 square metres), lots of bulbs (e.g. Gladioli, Dahlias, Irises) and the usual suspects re boxed perennials (Eryngiums, Papaver, Kniphofia etc). There were also colour themed mixed selections of bulbs. My above warnings re checking for softness, mould and signs of leggy growth or dried roots apply and all but the wildflower seeds will need planting out or potting up in the greenhouse soon.

Of course these aren't the choice varieties many of us now hanker after, but if you have a new garden or vegetable plot, not much cash or a large space to fill, they're still worth considering. Actually, they're worth considering full stop as most of them are tried and trusted 'good doers'.

So, to summarise there's plenty of good basics to be found at Poundland, but you need to choose carefully to ensure that bargain isn't a dud.

Previously I've found compost and autumn onion set bargains at this time of year and just before Christmas I found onion, garlic, daffodil and tulip bulbs on offer at my local branch of Focus for 49p. Avoid any compost bargain if it's been stored outside as the rain and snow we've had will have drained out any nutrients. Only firm bulbs or onion sets should be considered and these should be planted out immediately. They'll probably reward you a little later than those planted at the conventional time, but does a couple of weeks or so matter?

Have you found any gardening bargains yet this year?

* = previously thought of as rather chav-tastic, but the media are currently lauding Poundland as the destination of choice for the suddenly cash savvy middle classes ;)

** = if a good proportion of packets have soft or mouldy bulbs it's probably best to avoid the whole lot as it's likely they've been stored incorrectly or are poor stock to begin with. Whilst bargains are a good thing, ones which don't work are just a waste of money.

Friday, 7 January 2011

A Very Early Chelsea Preview

The Thrive garden at last year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show

It may only be early January, but already the well-oiled machine that is the RHS Chelsea Flower Show has rumbled into life enough for me to give a preview of what's in store for 2011.

Late last month the RHS announced the main Show Gardens, swiftly followed by the Artisan and Urban Garden categories. The Artisan Gardens replace the Courtyard ones (the smallest) and is meant to emphasise designs which 'use natural, sustainably resourced materials in an artistic manner'. Quite where a Korean toilet fits into all of this (click on the link to find out more) escapes me ;)

The RHS Chelsea website already has a video previewing the design by Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins, the progress of which will be updated monthly. You'll see it also shows a return to Chelsea by Bunny Guinness, Luciano Giubbilei and Sarah Eberle.

Nigel Dunnett makes a most welcome return - by me at least - with the New Wild Garden, which takes its inspiration from William Robinson's The Wild Garden, first published over a century ago. I first found out about this at the Palmstead workshop last September when I met John Little who's involved with the green roof elements of the design :)

Our own Cleve West has The Daily Telegraph gig, which means he'll be one the favourites for best in show - hurrah! On the downside I doubt 3 Men Went to Mow will be at Malvern this year as the dates (12-15 May) mean he'll already be hard at work on the build in London. The Telegraph are already showing Cleve's progress online.

Serendipitous fate has put me in touch with the designer of this year's show garden for Flemings. Ian Barker is already blogging about his progress down under which includes an insight into the pre-show meetings which happen in London. I'm particularly excited about this garden as it's all about the unique Australian flora discovered by Joseph Banks. I had the privilege of seeing one of the original books containing the vibrant pictures of Banksia when I organised volunteer weekends at Kew - a most special moment for me, as was seeing them for real in Australia in 2003.

Elsewhere, Ann-Marie Powell is to be found occasionally squealing with excitement about her garden for the British Heart Foundation on Twitter via @AnnMariePowell. She's probably more likely to tell us what's going on there rather than via her blog, though we must be due another post from her at some point before the show ;)

Still in Twitterland I'm sure @The_RHS and @BBCatChelsea will spring back into life to bring us the odd snippets of news, plus sneaky pictures of what's going on. I'm also certain more people, nurseries, suppliers, tweets, blogs and websites will be joining in very soon to bring us their stories about the 'road to Chelsea'. I'll update you - and do let me know if you've already made a discovery not mentioned here - when I find more of them to show you.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Making a Difference?


I was girding my loins to have one of my regular rants about plastic packaging when spotting the above message stopped me in my tracks. You can't see why that is? Have a look at the right hand bag in the picture below taken this time last year...
... it (the bag in the top picture) has the magic letters LDPE. Still none the wiser? Well, my Mixed Messages post about plastic packaging last year suggested the information on the lower bag would be much more helpful if it told us the type of plastic it was so I'd have the information needed to decide whether I could in fact recycle it.
So LDPE tells me I can recycle via the collection bin for plastic bags at my local supermarket :) The change has also got me wondering if my rant last year made a difference: I did email both Morrison's and Recycle Now about it, but sadly neither have bothered to reply except for the standard 'thank you for your enquiry' :(
However, I'm still going to think that I have, just so I can add it to my Making a Difference category in my New Life's Resolutions. I've also resolved to write to my MP about this matter. It strikes me we need a system where plastic is always labelled with what type it is and all the recycling outlets clearly show which kinds are accepted. OK, ideally we should be refusing/reducing our usage, but I see that as a long term goal. My idea's a baby step which sets us on the path to get there...
What difference(s) are you planning to make this year?

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Allotment Dreams


It's that time of the year when gardens and allotments are viewed through misty, rose tinted spectacles and anything and everything seems possible. All will be perfect in the coming year and the slate showing the mistakes and trials of 2010 is wiped clean.

The miserable weather of the past few weeks has given me plenty of time to think about my allotment in the coming year. I have new beds to plant up, inspiration to try new things courtesy of Mark Diacono's book, A Taste of the Unexpected, plus a stern reminder from myself that I hardly managed to do anything on my Incredible Edibles project last year, having only added Fuchsia fruit to my list of new tastes (yum) and nothing to my grown first time (groan more like).

All the seeds are on order (Threadspider and I have decided to share again this year) and already a couple of boxes of promise have arrived with more due to arrive any day now. I was also given the happy task of spending £50 on whatever I wanted to trial from the Victoriana catalogue courtesy of Fennel and Fern (more on this to come).

I also have some plot re-designing to do: not only to add the new patches into my plan, but one half of my original plot was changed last year from 2 major beds with each subdivided into 6 or 7 mini plots to just the two. I'm not very happy with this new arrangement so I'm thinking of dividing both of them into two with my planned edible hedges of Fuchsia and Japanese quince. I'd like a path each side of them so that I won't need to do much traipsing over my sticky clay soil at planting and hoeing times: I just need to source a supply of (preferably free or very cheap) paving slabs to make this a reality.

Other new crops for me this year (or next perhaps depending on how they do) will be wineberry, honeyberry, kai lan and blackcurrants. Threadspider and I will be trialling a garden centre sourced pot grown blackcurrant 'Ebony', vs its nursery grown bare root counterpart. I have some home saved chilli seeds to nurture for the first time. I also have a freebie raised bed to assemble so I can experiment with no-dig salads vs my usual method of growing them. Both Threadspider and I found Charles Dowding's talk in Bath on the no-dig method most inspirational last year and now it's my turn to see if it'll work for me.

It's also time for more flowers on the plot, particularly to attract bees. I've chosen a wildflower seed mix, plus an artichoke to grace the new bed towards the bottom of my plot. This was where I discovered dozens of old bags of soot courtesy of my predecessor, so I'm concerned that growing crops here will take up too much of the heavy metals which may have accumulated. I also have plans for a massive cutting garden of Dahlias (tubers) and Asters (from seed), but acknowledge I may have double the size of plot available in my mind's eye, rather than what's there in reality ;)

So the dreams are all there, now it's time to take them a little more towards reality and draw up a new plot plan. And then the hard work begins :)

What dreams and plans do you have for your plot or garden this year?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Public Planting Resources: People and Blogs


This is the second of my posts designed to provide the content for my Page on Public Planting. I've reused this blog's header picture as a reminder that my posts grouped under the Public Planting label plus the Out on the Streets meme I host puts Veg Plotting firmly in this category ;)

So what else is out there? There's loads in my bookmarks folder, but in order to keep this post relatively brief I've selected the people and blogs which have lots of information on this topic. I'll compile a list of the interesting odd post or two I've found in various blogs later.

The Sheffield connection

I'm a big fan of the Department of Landscape at Sheffield University. Their work which fuses ecology with horticulture is first rate and encompasses research on rain gardens, green roofs, colour preferences, plant associations and the development of Pictorial Meadows to name but five.

The leading lights are Nigel Dunnett (whose show garden was my favourite at Chelsea in 2009), James Hitchmough (whose work on planting colour preferences has made me wonder whether the 'taste police' have got it wrong and the brightness of many Britain in Bloom displays is right) and Noel Kingsbury (who often writes about his work in this field on his thought provoking blog).

It makes me wish wholeheartedly that I lived closer to Sheffield, but at least I get a taster day next month when I'll be attending Nigel Dunnett's study day at West Dean College :)

Dedicated blogs

Here Naomi Sachs' Therapeutic Landscapes Network website and blog, plus the ones dedicated to the wonderful High Line are my must reads.

The Therapeutic Landscapes Network highlights the research, best practice, conferences and training available to promote landscapes and gardens for health and well-being. How I wish the people providing the landscaping for my mother-in-law's care home were readers! Naomi also hosted the Garden Designers Round Table look at Therapy and Healing in the Garden which had a variety of interesting articles from a number of designers recently.

Both the old and new blogs dedicated to the High Line in New York have heightened my resolve to visit there one day and give a fascinating insight into how a major open space project is developed and what happens once it goes 'live'. I consider the High Line to be a best practice example for how public planting should be.

And here's one all about green roofs :)

NB Whilst all the resources in this section hail from across the pond, but they have much to teach everyone about what's attractive and stylish in the public eye.

Other blogs with strong content about public planting

Gardening Gone Wild - especially the articles by Adam Woodruff, concerning his design and care of the planting scheme outside a bank in Spingfield, Missouri. He has further articles about this and other projects on his own blog.
Greenwalks - she's currently having a break from blogging, but Karen in Seattle has many a relevant and thought provoking post on that toughest of everyday public planting locations: the median strip (aka hell strip or verge).

The Hegarty Webber Partnership - a particular favourite of mine because they regularly write about the public planting in Bristol (and occasionally elsewhere on their travels) from the designer viewpoint which saves me quite a lot of legwork and pondering ;)

If you have any further discoveries to add to this or any other of my resource posts re public planting, do get in touch at vegplotting at gmail dot com.

Update:

From Camillap: Back in the summer I had an inspiring chat with Chris Raeburn, head gardener at the Phoenix Garden (tucked away behind Shaftesbury Ave, in London's west end). He is a font of knowledge about plants tough enough to withstand the challenges of poor soil and urban abuse. He blogs here.

From me: I forgot to mention that the Garden Visit website is more than finding out about which garden to visit. It has a thought provoking blog which often tackles open space issues, plus relevant book reviews and information on landscape architecture best practice. Another useful resource.

From @PaulDebois: a recommendation to visit his colleague Veronica Peerless 'for out and about stuff'. I've not been disappointed. Veronica says: I'm appreciating other people's gardening efforts - big and small, urban and suburban, amateur and professional. I'm peering over fences and through garden gates looking for ideas and inspiration - mostly in London, where I live.

From me: Bensgarden has started a blog (April 2011) called The London Review of Parks. He describes the blog as: ...reviewing London’s free spaces, their plants and their people. He's also open to suggestions re: ...urban greenery worth reviewing.
From me: It's not public planting per se, but my regular Friday Bench slot over at Sign of the Times shows just how varied this most ordinary of street furniture can be and how it can be used to enhance our public spaces.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

GBMD: A Poem for Hogmanay


Great good luck to the house,
Good luck to the family,
Good luck to every rafter of it,
And to every worldly thing in it.
Good luck to horses and cattle,
Good luck to the sheep,
Good luck to everything,
And good luck to all of your means.
Luck to the good-wife,
Good luck to the children,
Good luck to every friend,
Great fortune and health to all.

Extracted from The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands, by Ann Ross.

In Scotland, the last day of the year or Hogmanay has been a more important festival than Christmas for many centuries; indeed it wasn't until 1974, when the rest of the UK also adopted January 1st as a Bank Holiday that Scotland took Boxing Day as one of theirs.

Everyone is familiar with Robert Burns' Auld Lang Syne as the song to sing when the clock strikes midnight, but I rather like the sentiment of the poem I've chosen for today.

You can find out more about Scotland's first footing traditions, which is where this poem forms a central part of the celebrations at Woolgathering and Widdershins.

I wish you, your family and your garden good health and fortune for 2011.

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