Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Friday, 29 March 2013

A Timely Reminder


Don't forget we "spring forward" into British Summer Time this weekend, so at last the evenings will be light enough for gardening :)

The picture is of the clocks I found on the wall of one of the conference rooms at Yeo Valley HQ recently. Guess which one is showing the right time? Like their garden, there's lots of individuality and quirkiness to be found in this corporate HQ, which I loved.

Have a great Easter everyone!

Thursday, 28 March 2013

A Bloggers' Day at Great Dixter


Just a quick extra post to thank Naomi for getting us all together for a superb and inspirational day at Great Dixter yesterday. Here we all are during our tour of the garden and taking lots of notes as Deputy Head Gardener Siew Lee shows us around.

I'll be writing a more personal response about the day soon and I've lots of other snippets for Against the Odds, Breaking the Rules (and Friday Bench over at Sign of the Times) to feature over the coming weeks.

I'll be using this post to round-up the posts from the rest of the gang about the day as and when they appear. We had the privilege of being there when the garden was closed to the public, but you can go there from tomorrow :)
So there you have it. The same visit, yet lots of completely different perspectives on the day. However, I can relate to absolutely everything my fellow bloggers have said :)

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

YAWA's Madame Zelda Predicts: The Garden Just For You


Easter is when many gardens open their gates for the season and at last we're spoilt for choice on where to go. To help you decide at this most special of times, I've coaxed Madame Zelda out of her sherry soaked dreams to predict the very one to suit you - I feel there's slightly more chance of a successful outcome this way than my original idea of using a map and her hat pin.

To obtain the very best result she has cast aside her usual blue ball and is using her all-powerful magic blue mushrooms. I fear I may have woken her a little too sharply as she's seeing stars and has chosen to couch her reply using the signs of the zodiac ;)

Oh my dear, the impenetrable clouds part to reveal a whirling firmament - a galaxy of possibilities only the deeper mysteries can resolve. [she pauses to poke at the largest toadstool with her gnarled finger which promptly falls over] Ooooh, such pretties and colours and lush green vegetation you can only dream about my lovely.

But lo! My shooting star messenger comes forth to reveal the answers you seek...


The Dell and Foggy Bottom: the twin gardens of Bressingham. Both introduced new approaches to gardening

Aries:
the first sign of our astrological circle requires a pioneering approach and a glimpse of Adam and Eve, the first gardeners. Alas the their earthly paradise is long gone, but a trip to The Eden Project will suffice.

Taurus - our cosmic bull demands straight talking and no nonsense, so you're bound to find your spiritual home at Veddw. But there's no need to rush there like you're in a china shop: it doesn't open for this year's season until June.

Gemini - a dual natured garden is needed to sate the curiosity of our celestial twins. [she peers deeply at the two smaller mushrooms] Aha, I have the very idea! A double pioneering garden, presented in two different ways: Bressingham!

Portmeirion - where gardening meets the sea
Cancer - a place of tranquility and fantasy is the recipe required to soothe away any hint of your characteristic crabbiness... somewhere with the salt-laden tang of sea air... [a pause]... and a rocky pool... it has to be Portmeirion.

Leo - your leonine airs and graces demand a need for regal exclusivity. The royal gardens at Buckingham Palace are the truest of settings for our own king of the jungle.

Virgo - as the most logical minds of the universe I see something more cerebral is needed. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation will appeal to your sense of order. Though you must hasten and don the most comfortable of your travel garments - this garden only opens its celestial doors for one single day each year.

Just a tiny portion of the vastness that is Blenheim Palace
Libra - the scales of power and balance in your sign suggest a more formal setting which dominates over all who dare draw near. The immaculate landscape and formal gardens of Blenheim Palace does your sign justice.

Scorpio - the warm, dry regions of the world are your natural habitat, the rarest kind found in these lands of the Elizabethan queen. And Eden is already spoken for... so where does destiny lie for my pretty with the sting in its tail?... ahhhh, Kew has the answer... in the form of the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

Sagittarius - our celestial archer demands a chivalrous scene, where knights are bold and can win the favour of many a fair lady. A courtly place, where the talents of valour preside is found at Arundel Castle.

Hawkstone Park Follies - the  perfect garden visit for a mountain goat

Capricorn - our wily mountain goat requires all his sure footedness and stamina to view the multitudinous charms of Hawkstone Park Follies.

Aquarius - your age has dawned and the shock of the new is all you desire. No permanent garden can bind you to this earth, but the conceptual gardens of the RHS Hampton Court flower show will make your spirits soar.

Pisces - as the most mutable sign of the zodiac any of my astral projections above will suffice. But you are drawn to water and your opposing fishes need contrasts to make you whole... so the cliff top gardens of the Minack Theatre is your special place.

With one final cry, Madame Zelda sinks to the ground in a drunken stupor. I fear it may be many a year before she is able to join us to make a contribution to the pages of You Ask,We Answer once more ;)

Happy garden visiting! NB Other gardens are available... or do you have something to suggest that's more suitable?

Monday, 25 March 2013

The Grow Write Guild: My First Plant

Gayla Trail at You Grow Girl has started a creative writing club for gardeners called The Grow Write Guild.

Every fortnight she's publishing a prompt. It's up to the reader to choose the medium in which to respond: writing, photography, artwork, a poem. Anything goes. The idea is to tell stories in some way, and that's great.

The first one was posted a few days ago: My First Plant. I can't remember mine, but that's fine. It's OK to relate the story of the first plant which resonated with you, so that's what I'll do...

My first plant... was the humble radish at the age of 17. I know I was aware of and grew plants before then, but coming from a family of non-gardeners, not a single one has stuck in my mind. The radish was the first plant I chose to grow and I grew it at school for my A level Biology practical project.

The Nuffield biology syllabus I studied placed a great emphasis on practical learning (e.g. we looked at Mendel's original experimental data to draw the same conclusions as he regarding genetics), so the choice of project and its execution was a big deal in getting a good grade. Most of my classmates struggled to think up a topic - and most eventually were handed something to investigate by our teacher - but I was bursting with ideas.

I finally settled on The Effect of Insecticides on Plants, much to the amusement of my peers. "Insecticides?", they guffawed, "on plants? You must be mad!". But I stuck to my guns and was duly allocated some precious space in the crammed school greenhouse to house my experiments.

There was just enough room for 3x24 cell growing trays and I had just 2 terms to complete everything, so my experimental material needed to be small, quick growing and hopefully not keel over in the winter. It also needed to have a fairly long growing period so the insecticide could be applied several times. Just like most researchers, I had a tiny budget, so my plants needed to be cheap too. There was really only one solution: radishes and "French Breakfast" gave me the most seeds for my pennies.

So, I started my growing and turned my attention to a literature review - no internet back then - so I spent a lot of time in Birmingham's Central Library. Of course, I found quite a lot on the effects on insects and animals (especially on their nervous systems), but a big fat zero on plants. Oh, how my friends laughed.

But then things changed. I arranged with a friend to visit an open day at the [then] National Vegetable Research Station at Wellesbourne. I took my ideas, screwed up my courage and spoke at length to the researchers there. Not only were they interested, they said they knew of no literature on the subject either and could they see my results? My previously critical friends were impressed!

It was a defining moment. I decided to study Agricultural and Environmental Science at university and whilst it didn't turn into the career I'd imagined for myself, I'm sure you'll recognise the seeds of that study are still flourishing here on this blog. Things have definitely come full circle over 30 years later - guess what was the first RHS trial I joined soon after starting Veg Plotting?

Yes, you're right. It was radishes.

If you'd like to join Gayla's Grow Write Guild, you'll find all the information you need in the link. You don't need to respond to every prompt and it's entirely up to you to decide how you want to respond. It doesn't even have to be on a computer, or made public :)

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Book Review: Three For the Salad Challenge

I bought two of these and asked for a review copy of the other (The Speedy Vegetable Garden) to fill some gaps in my 52 Week Salad Challenge Reference Library. Note: all three of them are suitable as general references, not just for salads.

Martin Crawford is well-known for his work and courses about forest gardening. I've been pondering this system and the principles of polyculture Alys Fowler outlined when she spoke about Edible Gardens at Holt Farm last year. As a result I bought How to Grow Perennial Vegetables to expand my knowledge of what can be grown for eating from this plant group. In this regard it doesn't disappoint.

There are a few introductory chapters outlining why growing perennial vegetables is a good thing to do, plus the techniques and growing systems involved.  Finally a chapter on maintenance concentrates on how to keep plants in top condition, so pests and diseases find it hard to get a look-in.

The bulk of the book is devoted to an A to Z directory of the ones to grow, from Air Potatoes (see Yams) to Yellow Asphodel.  Common names are used first in each entry, so some plants have more than one  like the air potatoes do. Each descriptive entry has a good photo of the plant, followed by a general description, hardiness (USA version), then cultivation and culinary notes. A lot of information is packed into a relatively short space - this applies to the introductory chapters too.

Lots of the plants listed were new to me entirely, or as an edible possibility. Now I'm not only thinking where edible perennials may fit on my allotment, but also in my garden too! This is an informative and detailed book, which I shall be returning to again and again.



The Speedy Vegetable Garden is perfect for the impatient grower. The first produce (soaks and sprouts) can be harvested in a few days and the longest waiting time is 70-90 days for early potatoes and 80 days for mange tout/sugar snap peas. There are a few perennials like daylilies and lavender thrown in for good measure.

The book is broadly divided into Soaks and sprouts, Micro greens, Edible flowers, Cut-and-come-again salad leaves, Quick-harvest vegetables, then a round-up of useful sources at the end.

Each growing chapter devotes around two-three pages per crop, including a whole page photo to show-off each possibility. Quicker growing varieties are given, which is useful as some crops can vary pretty wildly in their sowing to plate times depending on the variety chosen. Some recipes are included, particularly for the more unfamiliar crops and growing techniques are sprinkled in where they're most needed. Remarks and tips from the authors (Lia Leendertz and Mark Diacono) are included from time to time, which gives a more chatty feel to the book where they appear.

My only gripe is I felt some of the entries were a bit sparse and padded out somewhat, particularly in the Soaks and sprouts and Microgreens chapters as there's not a lot that can be said about each crop individually. For me, the general technique followed by a list of the possibilities for each one works better. That's probably because I've blogged about them in that way; someone not so familiar with the options may prefer them served up one at a time.

Readers looking for an all-round edible growing manual will need to look elsewhere, as the slower growing groups like many of the brassica family aren't included. However, a gardener looking for a quicker return for their efforts - particularly in a small space - will find much to inspire them in this stylish volume.

A hot bed has been on my list of techniques to get to grips with ever since I began the 52 Week Salad Challenge. How glad I am I haven't got around to it yet!

Jack First's small but perfectly formed volume on Hot Beds is going to save me a lot of time. I won't be making mistakes like using the well-rotted cow manure I can get hold of easily (there's no heat from decomposition, so no hot bed), nor will I be placing my cold frame on top (too much space to heat up, so a warm bed at best).

If you're unfamiliar with this once widely used technique, then Jack First is the man to tell you all about it. A hot bed uses a huge heap of decomposing material such as fresh manure to create the heat. A frame is placed on top to enclose the heat and crops are then sown and grown on the hot bed within the frame. It means salads and many other vegetables can be grown much earlier in the year, for very little outlay needed for heating. Jack manages to do this in Keighly, Yorkshire, so it's not just a technique that's possible for us namby pamby southerners!

This is a very detailed guide and Jack has experimented with plenty of alternative materials such as cloth, to see what's possible if a supply of fresh manure isn't readily available. It's not a pretty, pretty technique, so it's one I'll be using on my allotment rather than in my garden. Charles Dowding has read this book and is experimenting with the technique on his new farm. That's got to be the highest recommendation anyone can have :)

Friday, 22 March 2013

Salad Days: Mastering Lettuce


I've decided one of my salad challenges for this year is to grow as many lettuce varieties as I can, ready for the publication of my planned Factsheet* later on.

The idea is to grow as many of the Tried and Trusted lettuce varieties last year's Salad Challengers helped compile, then provide a visual guide and as many lettuce facts as I can muster. So far I've found around half of those listed**. Then naturally whilst I was out searching - because such is the way with seeds - a number of other varieties found their way home too ;)

A couple of weeks ago I sowed 22 varieties***. Just the simple act of sowing them has me intrigued. Why are some lettuce seeds black and others white****? They split into about half white to half black in my sample and as far as I can tell it's nothing to do with whether they're a type of cos, iceberg, or whatever.

I sowed them indoors and popped them into a propagator on the windowsill. The soil's too cold outside for sowing and it won't be warm enough to plant them out in the cold frame outside until late April or May. Most of them germinated in 4-6 days, well within the 7-10 days given on most seed packets. I have a couple of no shows - Crisp Mint and Tamburo. Crisp Mint was a bit of a dodgy prospect anyway because I opened the packet a couple of years ago. However, Tamburo was all shiny and new, so I'm currently conducting a germination test to see if I have a duff packet.


As you can see, despite being on a sunny south facing windowsill in March, my lettuces are rather leggy. However, I'm not going to throw them away and start again because we had a top tip from Alys Fowler in #saladchat on this very thing last year: just bury the stem up to the leaves when pricking out and they should come out OK in the end. That won't solve my problem of where to put them all though!

All this legginess means I've been pondering grow lights again. The pukka thing is hideously expensive, though I'm told eBay is the place to find a bargain if I go down this route. Alternatively, Antjon posted recently about a DIY solution he's rigged up for his geranium seedlings using a full-spectrum SAD lamp for around £10.

It's got me wondering whether all SAD lamps are full-spectrum and if a daylight bulb (which I have already) is the same thing. We've also been chatting on Twitter and Arabella Sock and Alex Mitchell - who already have SAD lamps - are having a go to see what happens. As we've now reached the spring equinox, I'm saving my experimentation for later in the year. I must also remember to try John Harrison's tip re using aluminium foil as a reflector to maximise available light.

How's your salad coming along? Link to your salad post's URL in Mr Linky below. BTW I've answered question 5 from last month's Salad Days: pre-soaking makes no difference to pea seed emergence rates. It does allow me to assess seed viability though, so I'll continue with this practise.

* = in the meantime, this article from the University of Illinois has lots of information.

** = they are: Black Seeded Simpson, Dazzle, Freckles, Iceberg, Little Gem, Lobjoits Cos, Lollo Rosso, Marveille de Quatre Saisons, Red Salad Bowl, Relic, Salad Bowl, and Tan Tan

*** = Note to self: must sow more thinly next time - just 1 or 2 seeds per module will do

**** = it seems it's a genetic factor, just like bean colour. This paper also says there are a few yellow seeded varieties too.

Monday, 18 March 2013

A Fab Day at the Edible Garden Show

On Friday, I visited The Edible Garden Show for the first time. Previously it's clashed with family celebrations and I'd also wondered whether such an early season gardening show would work. Well, it does work - very well indeed. Here's a taster of what I saw...


I spotted this intriguing basket on the way in. Taking edibles to the show? There must be a story regarding those leeks...


One of the show's strengths is the extremely full programme of talks. Here James Wong is in full flow in the Experts Theatre, which itself was full to overflowing whenever James appeared (apologies for the quality of the photos, the lighting was awful for taking pics!). I could have just sat down all day listening to talks here... and in the Cookery Theatre... and in The Potting Shed... AND in the smallholders area.


The concept of edible was present at the show in its widest sense. As you can see even the snails are moving too quickly for my camera's shutter speed! I had a long chat with the stallholder of Slow Summer Snail Farm - her snails get fattened up on things like cherries from Brogdale, much to the delight of local chefs. Oh, and these are the same species as our garden snail, but in a larger form.


There were lots of stands to peruse and many an idea to ponder. This show is very much about down to earth practicalities with loads of expert advice on offer. There aren't any show gardens, but that's what made it work so well for me and also marks it as a very different show. Garden Organic had a strong presence (and I loved hearing about their Sowing New Seeds project), as did the BBKA, the RSPB and the local Wildlife Trust.


There were loads of innovative ideas with specific expertise on hand too. Aquaponics is on my list of techniques to tackle for The 52 Week Salad Challenge. This system was on the expensive side of things, but Daniel from Aqua Allotments was a complete enthusiast and very informative. Schools and care homes are proving to be a good fit for this idea. Elsewhere it was interesting to see lots of renewable energy ideas e.g. solar powered watering systems and small-scale wind turbines.


My favourite area was the Smallholder Marquee - full of puffed-out chest chickens, curious goats, calm sheep and some very contented grunting pigs. These were having a lie down after bumping into me earlier. If you're thinking about keeping animals, this was the must-see spot: not only for the expertise so easily at hand, but also for a visual guide to lots of different breeds.


I also believe a star was born on Friday. Here's Naomi after giving her very well received debut talk - she's a natural! You can read her view of the show - with chickens - here (and my review of her book). I also met Greg Becker of Plot52 - his illustrations of allotment life are charming and deserve a much wider audience :)


And of course I came home laden with lots of seeds, products and plants. Here's a threesome in my bag from the James Wong Homegrown Revolution plant range launched at the show. From left to right we have wasabi, kaffir lime and cardomom. The latter two mean I will be exploring keeping edibles as houseplants :)

Next year this popular show moves to the Alexandra Palace on 28-30 March. I'm sure this will take it to a much wider audience, though I'll miss my scenic drive up the Fosse Way to get there.

Disclosure: I received a Press Pass to the event, but those plants were bought with my hard-earned cash! Any monetary benefit I gained on entrance fees was wiped out 10-fold by my car breaking down in Moreton-in-Marsh on the way home :(

Friday, 15 March 2013

Red Nose Day: Salad Humour

It's Red Nose Day... with a tomato!

We break from our traditional Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day broadcast to bring you some salad based humour in honour of today's Red Nose Day in aid of Comic Relief...

For starters, how about a quick round of an alternative Gardeners' Question Time?

Q Why did the tomato turn red?
A Because it saw the salad dressing 

Q: What is small, red and whispers?
A: A hoarse radish

Q: Why did the tomato go out with a prune?
A: Because he couldn't find a date

And then there's...

Knock, Knock
Who's there?
Lettuce
Lettuce who?
Lettuce in and you'll find out.

A man walks into the doctor's office with a banana stuck in one of his ears, a head of lettuce in the other ear, and a carrot stuck in one nostril.

The man says, "Doctor, this is terrible. What's wrong with me?"

The doctor says, "Well, first of all, you need to eat more sensibly."


BOOM BOOM!

And finally - a humorous quotation to round things off...

"Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in your fruit salad." Miles Kington.

Do you have a joke or quotation of a salad-y nature you can add in the Comments below?

Update: Red Nose Day raised over £75 million last night - not bad for a bright idea which started 25 years ago...

Monday, 11 March 2013

The PR Files: A Blogger Replies

The PR Files - an occasional series in which VP examines some of the more unusual correspondence she receives, simply because she set up Veg Plotting ;)

With enormous gratitude to the cuddlesome cashmere Ms Arabella Sock, whose special correspondence with her Senator, inspired VP to find a suitable way to reply, without sounding like a wailing banshee who's swallowed a whole lemon.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I have really enjoyed reading through your blog. I think you would be a great fit to write a sponsored post for our dog fence site. You would receive a Target gift card for $65 and $10 extra for submitting your post within 20 days,if you would write a post on creating an outdoor environment that is pet friendly. We are also hosting a garden & pet blogathon where several bloggers are writing a post titled “My Horror Story of Pet Damage to my Garden”, if that topic would be a better fit for you. Whichever pitch you choose would need to start with a line that this post is written in partnership with dogfencediy.com (including the link)**. If you are interested in writing on either topic, let me know. Send me a link when the post is live and I will send you a Target gift card worth $75 if it is within 20 days.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Kind Regards

An Enthusiastic Person
Director of Non-Profit Affairs

Editor's Notes:

* = ooo - perhaps Arabella could enter one of her Kitten Diaries posts?
** = link removed to protect blog readers
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Hi An Enthusiastic Person,

Thanks for your email and your kind words about the blog. It's great to see company representatives like you are meticulously researching for the right blogs to choose before reaching out for that vital connection.

As you've gone to so much trouble,  I thought you'd like a more visual reply from my blog, composed especially for you.

Thank you for your attention and have a nice day!



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
LOVE IT!!!! I can send you a gift card for a company that you can use if you would like to write a post...Amazon maybe?
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Words so far have failed me... ;)

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Book Review: Design, Grow, Sell


Design Grow Sell is one of a series produced by Country Living magazine which describe how to start a business from home. They also have a corresponding Kitchen Table Talent website designed to support and encourage those who have (or are thinking of starting) any small business.

Many people dream about starting their own gardening business. This book aims to show how it can be done. Having just filed the first tax return for my freelance writing income, does this book tell me the things I wish I'd known when I started out? The answer is well yes, ...partly.

Strengths
  • It's easy to read and relatively short compared with most books I've read of this kind
  • Inspirational - there's a positive 'can do' message. It's definitely one for those who want to take their daydreams about starting a small business a step further
  • It focuses on how to start a gardening business, so it puts what can be a dry subject into an understandable context
  • Real people and case studies from a cross-section of horticulture are featured. This shows some of the breadth the industry has to offer. 
  • It features those reaping a business success, so the message is a positive one
  • There's a good list of further references, resources and websites etc., though with some surprising omissions (see Further Reading below)
I did pick up some useful tips, though I'm itching to add some of my own (see below).

Weaknesses
  • It needs a section on how to decide whether a starting a business is for you - a long, hard look at the positives and negatives
  • The book needs to beef up the practicalities of running a business. It's great for inspiring someone to start, but having started they will soon leave behind what this book can teach them. For example there seems to be an assumption the financial side of things can be taken care of by an accountant. That's true, but many people starting out don't have this luxury. Some information on basic accounts, business planning and tax (with examples - just some simple spreadsheets will do) would be really helpful. These are the business aspects which many people (including me) struggle with. 
  • The potential income where given tends to be at the top end of the scale. This may raise expectations too high. There is inevitably some down time associated with most gardening businesses (e.g travelling to/from clients, professional development, wrestling with accounts etc.) and this needs to be factored into the potential income equation.
  • A summary of key points from each chapter would be useful (like the Conclusion section at the end) as quite a lot of the really useful tips tend to get lost in the narrative.
  • A detailed profile of each person (with a picture) and their business would be of interest.
  • Some of the terms used aren't explained e.g. social enterprise. A Glossary would be useful.
  • An Appendix 'To Do' checklist would be helpful e.g. the tasks associated with business registration
  • It needs a bit more colour and pictures/illustration to enforce the positive messages.

Overall verdict:

Design Grow Sell is a positive, 'can do' book which will encourage dreamers to make a start on turning those dreams into a reality. However, I think it needs more practical details to be a definitive small business start-up guide for the gardening industry. NB Elizabeth's also reviewed this book and given it more of a positive thumbs up than I have. She spends quite a lot of her time advising small businesses in her area, so I value her conclusions.

Further Reading, Training and Networking:

Work from Home Wisdom - Judy Helminsley's book (and website/blog) are a mine of information for anyone starting or running a home business. It's realistic account, which looks at the pluses and minuses and covers lots of the gaps found in other books, such as diet and exercise and keeping self-motivated.

Start and Run a Gardening Business - Paul Powers' book is now in its third edition. It covers much of the practicalities I thought were missing from Design, Grow, Sell. It focuses mainly on the garden maintenance kind of business and is very thorough and realistic in its approach. I read the first or second edition ages ago and it helped me realise that this kind of garden business wasn't for me. I think my ideal book would be a cross between this, Judy's book and Design, Grow, Sell.

So You Want to Start a Nursery - I haven't read this book, so I can't vouch for it, but it is another one which specialises in the gardening business side of things. If this is more of your potential line of work, you might also like to consider esteemed nurserywoman Derry Watkins' 2 day course on Growing Plants for Sale in October.

The FT Guide to Small Business Start Up 2013 - I have a much earlier edition and I found it invaluable for understanding the legal and taxation side of things. A new edition is brought out every year, so it's probably worth waiting for the next one which will include details of the imminent 2013 budget.

HMRC has lots of online training available for business start-ups. And do register your business with them ASAP after you've started trading, even if you remain employed elsewhere in the meantime. If you don't within the time parameters set by them you can incur a penalty. I actually found HMRC really helpful when I set myself up and not scary at all!  The Starting Your Own Business e-learning guide takes you through all of this and more.

NB self-employed people have to complete a tax return every year, even if their income falls below the tax threshold. An additional tip I had from the tax man: consider paying Class 2 National Insurance contributions to keep your state pension contributions going - it's much cheaper (and spread over a longer period) than if you elect to pay the bill the DSS send you for plugging any contribution gap.

Sadly Business Link and its useful local advice and training is no more (another victim of the government cuts), but it lives on in a website form packed with information which also has links to business training and networking events. Also look out for local business [breakfast] clubs, local Chamber of Commerce events etc. Update: Anon in the comments tells me that Outset have taken over where Business Link left off :)

Georgie Newberry at Common Farm Flowers has found her local branch of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) very helpful. She also has thoroughly engaged with social media (Facebook and Twitter in particular) to build her business. She describes them and her blog as her 'shop window' and says she wouldn't have a business if it wasn't for them. NB Georgie runs Social Media 4 Business and Flower Farming for Beginners courses at her flower farm in Somerset.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher and I don't stand to gain from an affiliate link (there aren't any!) in this post.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Adverts: How Not to Say it With Flowers

NAH  knows how - a surprise from him this morning - not 1 but 2 bunches of daffodils :)
Thanks for all your comments on yesterday's post - when I set it up, I'd forgotten I'd be attending a TOTS 100 Blog Summit in Bristol and 'no follow' would be covered there too.

Interflora shows how not to say it with flowers

I found out yesterday Interflora were penalised by Google recently. They manipulated their page rank by placing advertorials re Valentine's Day with around 150 national and local newspapers and got caught out. As a result they and all the newspapers concerned received page rank penalties. For Interflora it meant their ranking on the keyword 'flowers' went from 1 to 49 and they didn't even appear in page 1 of search results for 'Interflora'.

Whilst their page rank has been restored relatively quickly (within a few days)*, with Mother's Day happening tomorrow here in the UK, it's likely they've incurred a substantial loss of business as a result. Quite a spectacular own goal eh? It also probably explains why one of my few remaining advertisers at the time asked for the removal of their advert, even though we'd agreed to have a no follow link.

My Interflora experience

I have a bit of a track record with Interflora too as they were the second company to take an advert on my blog. They supplied a nice little badge with all the corresponding HTML needed, so it was easy for me to add them to my sidebar. This was well before no follow reared its head, so I had no worries about the link to their website, though I did think they were a bit cheeky at the time because the badge had not one, but two links.

A few months later they approached me again. Would I like to review one of the plants in their gift range? It was a rather nice expensive standard bay tree with a twisted stem - most tempting. However, they also wanted to dictate the 3 links my review should contain. None had anything to do with the item I'd be reviewing: there were a couple of links to father's day gifts (including whisky!) and another to one of their European websites. None would have been natural links within my content and I knew readers would be puzzled by them.

I refused and after a number of emails were exchanged, Interflora finally got the message I couldn't be persuaded. I decided I wouldn't be contacting them when the time for advert renewal came up. I haven't purchased anything from them since either.

That was a couple of years ago and it looks like Interflora have continued with their 'games' and gone out to play with much bigger fish in the online pond than my minnow sized blog. The whole sorry tale serves to reinforce what I said yesterday.

And now for some good news...

It was encouraging to learn there is at least one digital marketing agency prepared to place adverts with no follow links. Take a bow Tom Brennan of Fresh Egg**, for not only representing a company prepared to do so, but also for ensuring lots of bloggers understand why the concept of no follow is important to them :)

* = this tends to happen when major companies are penalised. The problem is that if search for a large company doesn't feature that company, most people tend to think 'Google is broken', rather than 'that-company-must-have-sneakily-been-trying-to-manipulate-its-position-in-search-results'.

** = I can't link to their website at the moment as it appears to be down at the time of writing :(

Further reading

The Independent's informative article on what happened with Interflora - I believe from comments from bloggers yesterday (because they suddenly found their blog placed higher in search results than the newspaper) they were one of the national newspapers penalised by Google.

Kalexico's  article from 1st March which graphically show's Interflora's fall from grace and some of the twitterchat happening at the time. It also contains evidence Interflora have continued to try to manipulate bloggers' content and the story that Google had to self-impose a 60 day penalty last year as they found themselves in breach of their own webmaster guidelines!

Google's reminder dated 22nd February re their webmaster guidelines re link selling. Interflora aren't mentioned, but the media believe this piece was in response to their shenanigans. I read this when researching for yesterday's post but didn't realise what else had been going on. Matt Cutts is in charge of Google's anti spam operations and also writes a very readable blog about this kind of thing.

Search Engine Land's piece from 5th March on how Interflora managed to come back from their penalisation so quickly. It's not quite as readable as the other links, but does it put forward the idea that part of the explanation could be people might think 'Google is broken' when a company goes missing from searches on their own name.

April 2013 - apparently Penguin v2.0 is imminent (Penguin is what caused all the furore last year) and is a major update. Here's a very good article about what constitutes a natural link/good linking practice. Use it to test the way you add your links to your posts.

Finally I  must mention Sally Whittle and TOTS100 because she and they often have very readable blog posts about blogging issues in general. I might not be a mummy blogger, but I do value the tech reads content area on their blog and for also arranging days like yesterday's Blog Summit.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Of Adverts, Disclosure and Spam

I removed the last of my blog's adverts last week as they've run their course and I don't have any more lined up, yet. I'm OK with that. I outlined my approach to Adverts and Blogging With Integrity a while ago, but since then the landscape of adverts on blogs - and working with companies in general - has changed. I feel it's time to say something about it.

Last year, Google made a real effort to prevent the artificially high return of items in their search results, because they wanted searching to reflect the content that's really valued rather than the content whose position's been paid for. That doesn't mean that all paid-for links are bad, but it isn't easy to build that distinction into a computer algorithm designed to reward real effort which is well regarded by real people.

Their algorithm changes caused quite a furore at the time. Some blogs were penalised by Google (their Page Ranking was reduced to zero) almost immediately all this came to light; others like mine received requests from companies wanting their adverts removed.

Talking to these companies, it soon became clear having links with the no follow attribute set, would be OK as these don't affect search engine results. Some were happy to change their link to the no follow attribute, most were not. Google also updated Blogger's editing software to make it very easy to include the no follow attribute when adding links to a post. NB the no follow attribute was introduced to cut down the amount of automated spam around the internet, though it doesn't seem to be doing much of that in my experience! *

I still have plenty of advertising enquiries and most of them turn away as soon as I say my links are no follow. I'm happy for them to do so, as it's a great way of sorting out the wheat from the chaff! In time, I hope companies and the PR they use come to realise that trust and online brand value are just as important as search engine results. So today I've altered my advertising page, to help them understand why that is:

  • Having no follow links for advertisements means my blog complies with Google's Webmaster Guidlines (see also Google's helpful page on Link Schemes)
  • I have lots of requests for advertisements. Having a no follow links policy is an excellent way of finding good companies to work with who value their brand over their product's internet search position
  • If I had a follow policy and if Google then penalised my Page Rank, my links out become worthless from a SEO viewpoint
  • Some say a few follow links are acceptable to Google. I have no way of checking that, so I'm not prepared risk my blog for the sake of a few £££
  • Nowadays, when I see a blog advert with a follow link, the trust worthiness of that blog AND the company linked to goes down in my view
Whether they're persuaded remains to be seen. I only decided to take adverts to cover my blogging costs and I've now built up a nice little reserve of funds to tide me over for a while.

Bloggers should note the Webmaster Guidelines don't just cover adverts. I've seen a marked increase in provided content, product reviews and competition offers from PR companies since Google made their changes. Whatever stance a blogger decides on taking adverts (if they decide to have them), it should apply to any associated links for these other approaches too.

NB all UK based bloggers also have to disclose by law any relationship they have with a company. This doesn't just mean making it obvious when and where any adverts are displayed. It also means the receipt of anything from a company, such as money for content (even when it's the blogger's own) or any gifted items which are reviewed or blogged about in some way - no matter how tiny their value - needs to be made clear to readers**.

* = I've written this post solely with no follow links added. It'll be interesting to see if I have any spam comments - they're usually the first thing to arrive as soon as I hit the Publish button!

** = after today's seriousness, next week I'll be examining one of the recent approaches made to Veg Plotting in a much more fun way.

Update 9/3 - the day I published this post, I also heard about Google's PR penalisation of Interflora, who went about acquiring links big time and probably lost quite a lot of Mothers' Day business as a result. It's a sobering story - here's my summary of what happened + links.

Update 14/3: Interesting update on Disclosure guidelines in the USA, especially re the placing of Disclosure notices after the product links possibly being regarded as not transparent enough.

Update 28/3: I'm delighted to have a new sponsor for part of the blog with a company keen to develop a good working relationship. Their support is clearly marked as such and links are no follow.

Update 21/10/2016: Apparently the since latest version of Penguin was implemented last month, Google now penalises at Page level rather than blog or website level. It means that the risk of Follow links is lessened, but I'd still rather not risk any part of my blog. It's rather ironic that I was contacted by the PR company who published this article explaining the changes, who are themselves employing the "black hat" SEO tactics they say are bad in their article.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

My Plant of the Centenary

We all have our 'plants of the moment', never mind the centenary! I'm loving this front garden combo 

It's time for everyone to tell all! Last week I told you about the plans for the Plant of the Centenary, to be revealed at Chelsea Flower Show in May. I thought it would be fun for us to come up with our nominations for the accolade today, or if that's too hard, you can blog about up to 10 plants. We can then come over for a good rootle around your blog and help you choose the final one.

Angie left a fine comment last week with a lovely story about her nomination:

I would choose herbaceous Paeonies - not everyone's favourite, considered by some fussy and by others as twee but a main stay of a proper English country garden, in my opinion! From the minute those fat red shoots emerge from the soil in February - the anticipation of those fattening flower buds - the prayers that a heavy rainfall will not spoil their show - have you offered enough support - it's all part of the enjoyment!

My earliest memories of my grandfather are him tending to his huge paeony bed which ran the whole length of the garden. Those big blousey blooms - have always been my favourite and I honour him by having a few planted in my own garden now - even one from his original garden which has moved with me from garden to garden.

His other obsession was Dahlias but I have never quite got into them the same - too much work!

My choice could never be described as exotic, tropical or rare but where would we be if we were all the same.


Helen Gazeley wrote a great post about her favourite and how Rosa 'Peace' got its name. She also shows how important the right name can be for a plant to touch our hearts. Helen, I may not be a huge fan of roses, but I'm very happy to add this one to our bloggers' Plant of the Centenary list :)

As for my selection... ???

Threadspider knows me well, so it's no surprise she thought a Heuchera might feature... but then Karen bought Clematis 'Freckles' for her garden and associates me with the purchase... ah yes, there's also my no-longer-a-mystery-clematis C. 'Diamantina', seen in my garden long before its launch at Chelsea in 2010...

All are very fine choices and all are very me. But now I can confirm my favourite IS the plant I showed you last week. After a long, dull cold winter, its sultry dark leaves and hot yellow and red flowers are what I crave the most. Above all, I'm missing the buzz of the bees drowsling through the blooms. It's been here from the garden's first year (in 2001, though its AGM dates back to 1998) and was a new discovery for me then. Each year, I give it a duvet for the winter and heave a huge sigh of relief when its shoots reappear in May. Fingers crossed it happens again this year!

Therefore, my Plant of the Centenary is Dahlia 'Moonfire' :)

We have paeonies, a rose and a dahlia so far. Now it's over to you - what would you like to add to the list? Either leave a comment, or add the URL of your post in Mr Linky below.

Update 22nd April: The shortlist was announced today. It doesn't have my plant, but it does have 2 of my garden favourites. If I remember correctly Shirl deserves congratulations for her selection of Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' :) Get voting people!

Monday, 4 March 2013

Supporting Horatio's Garden


I've decided I'm going to make some of the charitable organisations I support a bit more prominent on the blog. First up is Horatio's Garden, the first hospital garden built specially to suit the needs of spinal injury patients in the UK, which also just happens to be here in Wiltshire :)

You may remember I followed the amazing story of the building of this garden last year (you can read about it here and here) and I was delighted Wiltshire magazine commissioned a feature about it too.

Although the garden is now open and the patients are enjoying a taste of the outdoor world, the hard work and fundraising continues. Last year, one of my favourite gardens, the Organic Garden at Holt Farm hosted a series of talks from the great and the good in support of Horatio's Garden. I'm pleased to see they and Yeo Valley next door are doing so again this year.

1st attempt at soda bread, thanks to my Grow Cook Eat diary
I'm going to the Grow, Cook and Eat day which Sarah Raven's giving on March 19th. She's also doing a flower oriented day and there are talks from Bunny Guinness, Mark Diacono, Kim Wilkie and the garden's lovely designer Cleve West. James, the head gardener at Holt Farm is doing a day on organic gardening, so there's your chance to hear his famous compost talk. It's a fab line-up and I hope you'll be inspired to sign-up too. NB some of the talks currently (until March 13th) have a 30% discount on offer, so they'll make a perfect Mothers' Day gift for the right kind of mum!

I'm also going to sign-up as a volunteer - it's about time they had a little bit of me as well as my mouth. I was a bit daunted at the prospect of an 80 mile round trip every week, but I'm told I only need to commit to a half day a month. Salisbury is a lovely city, so I also have a perfect excuse to explore it further on the days I'm there.

If you're wondering if my interest in WaterAid has waned*, don't worry. Sing for Water West is happening again in early July, so I'll be adding my voice to that cause as well.

* = see my separate Open Garden blog, plus Meeting Ringo post.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Book Review: On Veg Street


How easy can it be to start getting a whole community to start growing their own? In Veg Street we learn all it needs is a serendipitous knock on a neighbour's door...

...Naomi Schillinger's lively debut shows how one simple action can unleash a sequence of events which ends in the floral transformation of a London neighbourhood and over 100 residents growing their own.

I always feel a bit nervous when reviewing a book by someone I know, especially when they've sent me the book. However, I needn't have worried. Veg Street is just as warm and thoughtful as Naomi's blog, Out of My Shed. I've always thought a community growing project must be a complicated affair, but it's reassuring to see the lure of cake is just as irresistible to neighbours as it is to those who visit gardens. The Cake Sunday events are a brilliant way to bring everyone together informally to share ideas and distribute resources. Naomi is equally reassuring the committee side of things can be relatively simple too.

The bulk of the book is divided into months, though it's not just a month by month guide of what to do, grow and harvest. The One Pot Shop pages (engagingly housed in a large flowerpot outline) highlight a host of fun projects designed to make the most of small spaces. Suitcases, kettles and tennis ball tubes all vie for the award for the funkiest container. The Simple But Brilliant Ideas pages are the home for more projects such as making seed bombs, home-made plant labels plus the anti-squirrel crop protection usually much needed in urban areas.

The Community Corner pages, not only highlight the communal growing areas in Veg Street, they also provide a simple step by step guide for anyone wanting to start their own community gardening scheme. By inserting these tasks amongst all the practical growing and fun projects, it makes the management side of things seem much more doable.

The growing guides aren't definitive, but that's not a problem as there's enough information for anyone to get started. The main point of Veg Street is a celebration of what's been achieved by a very diverse group of people in a relatively short time. It also helps having an enlightened council (Islington) willing to provide the resources and small grants needed to get the project off the ground. Long may they continue to do so.

As well as providing gardening advice to her neighbours and writing the text, it's Naomi's photographic skills which show off her cheerful neighbours as they go about their tasks. They depict gardening as an enjoyable activity for all ages - something that's missing in many gardening books.

Veg Street is the heart warming story of the transformation of one London neighbourhood, which provides a model for any street, anywhere to change into one which not only embraces fresh air, flowers, fruit and veg, but also becomes a much friendlier and safer place in the process. Solo growers needn't feel left out either, as there's lots to inspire them too.

Congratulations, Naomi on a very fine book and the rest of the Veg Street residents for making me want to move to London!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Buying Cards - The Orchard Way


I always have loads of cards and presents to buy at this time of the year, so the offer for a £20 allowance to go shopping on Orchard Cards' website was very tempting. As you can see, I couldn't resist!

I put together a wants list, then thought about other cards I've bought recently. This meant I was able to have a thorough look around the site with plenty of purchases in mind. I found they don't just do cards: there are related items such as ribbon, gift tags and bags too, so I took the opportunity to add a much needed roll of birthday gift wrap to my 'purchases' :)

Back to the cards - my wants list included ( = success):
  • Wedding anniversary and birthday cards for NAH (hope he's not reading this!) √√
  • A Mothers' Day and birthday cards for my mum √√
  • Exam good luck card for my niece (GCSEs loom large in her life this year)
  • Birthday card for my nephew
  • Easter card for NAH's aunt (she always sends us one)

It was too late for Valentine's Day and my MIL's 90th birthday but I had a look to see what was available for these too. I excluded the Christmas product ranges as I've lots of these already.

I found a nice set of reasonably priced notelet cards to add to my selection and Orchard Cards kindly sent me an extra garden related card (the one with the wheelbarrow) because they wanted to see what I thought of a new range they're stocking which includes seeds (lovely - thank you!)

The 5 cards I selected (excluding the extra one), plus the gift wrap and set of 10 notelets came to just under £20. I can't vouch for the order fulfilment side of things as mine was done manually after I'd made my selection. I see First Class P&P is free for 10 or more cards, £1.99 for 9 or less, and £2.99 if wrapping paper or Advent calendars are included. Guaranteed next day delivery is £5.99 irrespective of order size or items selected.

Having explored the site and made my selection, here are some further observations:

Strengths:
  • An easy to navigate website with plenty of details shown when the mouse is hovered over the card (though see also Weaknesses below)
  • The drop down menu at the top of the page makes it easy to find the types of cards wanted. In addition they're also searchable by theme and artist, or a general search
  • There's quite a lot of the humour and photography ranges I've previously bought elsewhere
  • An excellent selection for gardeners, nature and landscape lovers
  • The Valentine and 90th birthday selections were better than those I bought from elsewhere
  • Prices are generally competitive
  • Some cards come with a small gift which are a nice touch for the right recipient e.g seeds, or a voucher for a pot of tea for two at a National Trust property (NB check the T&Cs of the latter to ensure the recipient can make use of it and can generate the voucher code)
  • Details re country of origin, card sourcing and compostable packaging are shown when the card details are clicked on. This makes it easy to find UK cards which use sustainable materials (NB 95% of the cards are from the UK)
  • A card writing service is offered (not tested)
  • I was pleased to find my robustly packaged, 'awkward' parcel (because I'd selected a long, thin roll of paper to go with my cards) was padded inside with compostable filler instead of the usual polystyrene 'pellets' or air-filled plastic.

Part of the website showing the mouseover problem on the left & the good card description display on the right

Weaknesses:

  • I had to sign up for an account - my personal preference is to buy as a 'guest', so I don't have a squillion internet accounts 
  • There was a problem with mousing over cards on the left hand side of the page (see above) - most of the enlarged image didn't display (seen with both IE and Google Chrome browsers)
  • Some of the ranges are very limited e.g. just 3 to select from for Exam good luck (and sadly none of these were suitable for my niece)
  • Need to click on the card for more details to see the message inside - my preference would be for this to be included in the mouse over description as it's one of my main buying criteria
  • The Checkout information only shows the card reference number and price for each card ordered. It's therefore wise to check the more detailed View Basket details (which includes card thumbnail pictures and brief descriptions) to ensure the order's correct before proceeding to payment
  • A search on card type and size would also be useful, e.g. find a really large card for a major event such as an 18th birthday (i.e. the kind of card you get from your parents when you reach this milestone). Card sizes are given in the details, but I didn't spot anything above a MED size.

Overall verdict


On the whole Orchard Cards have a good product range and their prices are competitive. However, additions to some of the ranges on offer are needed if they're to provide a 'one stop shop' for all card requirements. It also pays to plan ahead, buy in bulk and buy cards or smaller items only to make the best use of the cheapest or free postage charges. The site is ideal for anyone who has difficulty in getting to the shops to buy cards, or if the selection available locally is poor.

I'll be back - if I can get my act together and not think about buying cards at the last minute in future!

Friday, 1 March 2013

GBMD: Miracle on St David's Day


They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude
                 - The Daffodils,
William Wordsworth

An afternoon yellow and open-mouthed
with daffodils. The sun treads the path
among cedars and enormous oaks.
It might be a country house, guests strolling,
the rumps of gardeners between nursery shrubs.

I am reading poetry to the insane.
An old woman, interrupting, offers
as many buckets of coals as I need.
A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens
entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic

on a good day, they tell me later.
In a cage of first March sun a woman
sits not listening, not seeing, not feeling.
In her neat clothes the woman is absent.
A big mild man is tenderly led

to his chair. He has never spoken.
His labourer's hands on his knees, he rocks
gently to the rhythms of the poems.
I read to their presences, absences,
to the big, dumb labouring man as he rocks.

He is suddenly standing, silently,
huge and mild, but I feel afraid. Like slow
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness,
the labourer's voice recites 'The Daffodils'.

The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.

Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

When he's done, before the applause, we observe
the flowers' silence. A thrush sings
and the daffodils are aflame.

Gillian Clarke in: Letter from a Far Country

Gillian Clarke is a new discovery for me, courtesy of finding a poem for today's Muse Day. I have just ordered all her books, on the strength of this poem :)

The picture is of the paperwhite daffodils on our kitchen table this morning. They were born out of a broken rule and their scent is another miracle for today's St David's Day.
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