Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Unusual Front Gardens #24: Santa Stop Here

Festive arrangement on Haworth High Street, December 2014
Haworth, Yorkshire - late December 2014
Haworth in West Yorkshire is famed for its connection with the Brontes and is a popular tourist destination as a result. Its steeply cobbled main street has many tea rooms and shops, so it was great to spot one place where there is a home with much evidence of the hopes of at least one small child.

All the pansies were frozen into submission when I passed by last year, but once the seasonal cold snap stopped they'd soon be springing up again to brighten the stony street .

Veg Plotting will resume in the New Year; may you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year, wherever you may be.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Solstice Song

Solstice dawn 2015 from our bedroom window with the chorus from the Halsway Carol
Solstice dawn 2015 - from our bedroom window

A winter day, the summer grass turned hay
Frost in the field 'til the dawn of May
A summer's light never shone as great or as bright
So dance in the shadows of a winter's night

~ Halsway Carol - Music by Nigel Eaton, words by Ian Frisk *

We've been learning a wonderful new carol at choir and it's great to have one which is about the turning of the year at the time of the winter solstice. I took the above photo to match the words.

December daffodils at Crewkerne, Somerset
However, the scene I found at Crewkerne, Somerset on Saturday was quite unexpected - and it looked wrong when I matched the words to it. What a topsy turvy December we're having. Coincidentally,  Halsway Manor is also found in Somerset and is the only residential folk centre in the UK.

If you thought the solstice was the 21st (which I did), this year it's today at 4.49am instead. Apparently the date can vary between 20th and 23rd December, though the 21st is the most common day. This link tells you a lot more.

* = the link takes you to the composer playing the tune on his hurdy gurdy, the instrument for which this carol was composed in 2011. Click on Show More and the lyrics will be revealed.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Puzzle Corner: Christmas Traditions

2015's Radio Times' bumper Prize Crossword

Every family has its own set of Christmas traditions and it's no different for NAH and me. One of our favourites is the Radio Times (RT) bumper Prize Crossword of 60 or so cryptic clues, which marks the start of our festivities.

Puzzles such as this and the RT Trackword are a shared activity we both enjoy. It's a shame they seem to have dropped the Trackword Christmas special; perhaps they've run out of suitable Christmassy phrases for us to puzzle over. Those of you unfamiliar with the Trackword may like to try your hand with this online version I've found whilst writing this post. There's also an App if you're interested.

Over the past few years the crossword's become doubly delicious as a few of us get together on Twitter to exchange news on our progress. The first few days are sacrosanct: everyone is on their own to solve as many clues as possible, then little tidbits of help are offered in exchange for help elsewhere. It's only an extra hint mind, never the actual answer.

We've nearly completed this year's crossword, so thoughts are turning to other puzzles to tide us over the festive season. We're both enjoying Wordbrain and I see the director of GCHQ has designed a fiendish looking puzzle which I'm saving for the collective Chapman brains to crack when we visit the rest of the family next week.

Do you enjoy a good puzzle? Tell me about your favourites in the Comments below...

Update: Completely by coincidence, today's Google Doodle has a fun music puzzle based on the works of Beethoven. Here's the archive of all interactive Google Doodles, I particularly enjoyed the one celebrating John Venn's 180th birthday :)

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

GBBD: A Winter's Collage and a New Form of Plant Hunting

A collage of 9 flowers in my garden, December 2015
From top to bottom, left to right we have:
Cyclamen 'Snow Ridge' (wine form), Nemesia 'Wisley Vanilla', self-sown summer honeysuckle
Bolted rocket (arugula), an unusual form of Rosa 'The Fairy' (usually red), Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty'
Galanthus nivalis (the earliest flowering I've ever had), Rosa 'Kew Gardens', Knautia macedonia 'Red Ensign'

It's amazing to have enough flowers to make a Blooms Day collage, not only that but have enough to leave some of them out! I've noted my current colour scheme is tending towards white, pink and red. It's an interesting mix of summer and winter flowering blooms and everything looks set for a record breaking garden flower count on Christmas Day.

Talking of flower counts, you may like to take part in BSBI's New Year Plant Hunt. This looks at wild and naturalised flowers (not planted or garden escapees) open on one day recorded between New Year's Day and 4th January. All you need to do is go out for three hours and record what you see. Help is available for identification if needed, and tea breaks or comfort stops are allowed! Take the above link to BSBI's website for more information.

You can also read about 2015's results, where it's surprising to see just how much was in flower last winter. This survey looks set to join January's Big Garden Birdwatch (30-31 January 2016) as a great citizen science project which collects a useful data set over time. It's also a fun activity which is the perfect excuse for a walk and helps to lift the winter gloom. Remember, the nights are getting lighter already * even though we have a few more days of the entire day getting shorter.

* = warning, this interesting link which explains why our nights get lighter ahead of the winter solstice includes audio

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

Sunday, 13 December 2015

A Treasury of Garden Books

If you're stuck for a Christmas present or two for a gardening friend or family member, you may find something suitable in this selection of gardening books I've enjoyed this year...

For food growers

A treasury of garden books: Grow for Flavour
Grow for Flavour has turned out to be my hit of the year as it's the book I've returned to many times. James Wong has extensively searched through thousands of scientific papers and distilled the knowledge gained into this attractive and very readable book.

One of the reasons we grow our own is for the freshness and superior flavour our crops brings us. James examines the factors which influence flavour and delivers dozens of handy tips which are easily achievable.

It's not all theory and science, James also looked at which varieties do the best in our climate by commandeering some space at RHS Wisley to conduct a flavour trial. So for each popular crop examined you have a number of suggestions to try for yourself.

We noticed at the tomato trial earlier this year there was a distinct difference in flavour between tomatoes grown in pots in the greenhouse and those grown directly in the ground. The ground grown had more flavour and the Brix meter showed they were much sweeter. Sure enough, when I looked up tomatoes in James' book when I got home, ground vs pot is one of the factors discussed.

A treasury of garden books: Ferment Your Vegetables

Hot on the heels of the Fermented book I looked at last week comes Amanda Feifer's Ferment Your Vegetables.

Where last week's book served as a general introduction to the world of fermented foods, this one takes a more detailed look at just one aspect.

Here you will find lots of ideas for naturally fermenting your vegetables to produce kimchi, kraut and lots of pickles.

Being of American origin, this book has plenty of reassurance on how safe the fermentation process is and lots of troubleshooting guidance on what to do when things go wrong.

As a newcomer to fermented foods I'm glad to have both books to explore. This one is particularly good for dealing with future allotment gluts. The only downside to this book is the resources section only caters for the USA and Canada audience, so it's handy I have Charlotte Pike's book to plug that gap.

A treasury of garden books: Straw Bale Gardens Complete cover
I confess I read Straw Bale Gardens Complete in the spring, got all enthused to give it a go, but sadly family circumstances meant I couldn't put US author Joel Karsten's thorough guidance into practise this year.

It's great to have a book which puts a different cultivation technique firmly into the hands of ordinary gardeners like me. I saw instantly how it would help to clear and suppress weeds on part of my plot, and it would be easier to look after. It has all kinds of other possibilities e.g. where there is space, but no ground for cultivation - at some of our older schools which only have tarmacked space perhaps?

One caveat springs to mind for UK gardeners: no matter how well designed a straw bale garden may be, there will be plenty of onlookers who won't see its beauty. However, I'm sure there are plenty of instances where that doesn't matter.

Once straw bale(s) are sourced, there is a crucial time period where the bale has to be kept thoroughly wetted to start the decomposition process which in turn helps to feed the crops as well as providing a good water supply. Once this intensive time is complete, the amount of watering needed is far less than for more conventional growing methods - a definite plus for drier summers or where access to a water supply is restricted.

Can't source a supply of straw bales? No problem, this book shows how you can make your own.

This book is at the top of the pile for me to return to for 2016.


For plantaholics

I love this series of Plant Lovers Guides (see my previous review of Snowdrops and Salvias; I then acquired the equally delightful Sedums and Dahlias for my birthday). They deliver just the right amount of detail on how to grow, designing with the plant in question and planting companions, plus a great selection of species, varieties and cultivars to choose from.

This latest selection doesn't disappoint and I'm hoping Santa brings me Tulips and Epimediums this Christmas, and I see there are Clematis, Hardy Geraniums, Magnolias and Primulas to come. 

A treasury of garden books: Plant Lover's Guide to Asters cover
The name Picton is probably familiar to you already as The Picton Garden in Worcestershire is renowned for its autumn asters aka Michaelmas daisies, which has national collection status.

Therefore the selection of garden owner Paul Picton and his daughter Helen to produce the Asters guide is a wise one.

Another great thing about these guides is the authors' individual voices are allowed to shine through. Here it's much more of a conversation between Paul and Helen.

An immediate surprise when I opened the book is that asters have been reclassified into several new genera, with the brain taxing Symphyotrichum and Eurybia (and a number of others) sitting alongside Aster, which I briefly touched on in October's Blooms Day. The reasons why are tackled here with aplomb, and I've since learned our American cousins have had several years ahead of us to get used to the new names as they refer to genera hailing from over there.

I also learned several of the asters looked at in more detail originally hail from the Devizes area, most notably the popular S. 'Little Carlow'. I'm contemplating starting a collection of Wiltshire cultivars - I already have the foxglove 'Glory of Roundway' for the spring/early summer, and some asters would add an autumnal highlight.

A treasury of garden books: Plant Lover's Guide to Ferns cover
I was privileged to meet Richie Steffen last year, when my friend Marty arranged for him to be our guide (with Victoria and Charlotte) round the Elisabeth C Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, where he is the curator.

I came away from the garden enthused by Richie and by the many ferns on display, especially seeing how well they're used in the deeply wooded areas. So it's no surprise to me that Richie was chosen to co-author Ferns.

Kate asked me a while ago how applicable this book is to a UK-based audience. Having now worked through the book and produced a long wishlist of ferns for the front side garden, I can assure her that it's provided me with an invaluable guide.

A treasury of garden books: Claire Austin's Book of Perennials cover
Claire Austin is noted for her displays of Irises at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, but a visit to her nursery on the Welsh border quickly shows she has a great depth of knowledge of hardy perennials.

So it's great to see she's put that knowledge to good use and produced a guide to her personal selection of 800 'good doers' for our gardens in the appropriately titled Claire Austin's Book of Perennials.

This is a useful guide for any beginner or gardeners facing a completely blank canvas to fill, or for those like me who go mad from time to time and clear out a bed entirely and start all over again. There's good guidance on 'plants for the right place' in your garden and notes on good perennials for attracting insects, or for cutting.

Irises and peonies get an extra special nod as Claire specialises in these at her nursery.

I was delighted to catch up with Claire in the pub after the GMG Awards, where she had just picked up the award for Reference Book of the Year and was 'chuffed to bits' (her words not mine). Her success shows it's possible to self-publish an award winning book and her advice to those tempted to follow in her footsteps is to hire a good editor.


For a sense of place

A treasury of garden books: Great Gardens of London cover
Victoria has quickly followed up her hugely successful Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds (she tells me it's probably thanks to a prominent placing in the window of a Cirencester bookshop) with an insiders guide to the Great Gardens of London.

This time Hugo Rittson Thomas is joined by award winning photographer Marianne Majerus to bring us the mouth watering images this book delivers and I had a lot of fun trying to match the gardens to each photographer (I scored a pleasing 80%).

Here the definition of great is used in a wider sense to include gardens which have a firm place in our history, and may not necessarily be classified as such design-wise. All are worth their inclusion whatever the reason.

Many of the gardens aren't open to the public, so it's great to have the chance to 'sneak in the gate' of gardens such as 10 Downing Street and the American Ambassador's in Regent's Park to see what's what.

There are 30 gardens to view, divided into 'Pomp and Circumstance', 'Wild in the City', 'Gardeners' Worlds', 'High-Rise Retreats', and 'Private Paradises'. The variety is vast, from the Downings Road Floating Gardens to our latest public park, the Olympic Park. London is huge, so there's a supplement of a further 46 suggested gardens and events to explore.

A treasury of garden books: Oxford College Gardens cover
The first thing to note about Tim Richardson's Oxford College Gardens - apart from its delicious cover - is its weight, at just under 2.5 kilos according to my kitchen scales.

Like Victoria, Tim has drawn on his insider knowledge of a place - as an Oxford graduate in his case - to bring a detailed guide to the best college gardens Oxford has to offer.

Not every college makes the grade, with some of them grouped into a summary guide, before the more 'meaty' gardens are considered in turn.

It is possible to visit many of the college gardens, but Tim's scholarship and Andrew Lawson's expert lens also draws us into those parts not usually on public display, such as the fellows gardens.

I was pleased to see the gardens I was familiar with whilst working in Oxford made the grade (Magdalen, New College and St Anne's) along with my personal favourites, the non-college gardens of the Botanic Garden and University Parks.

Tim's text is engaging and the photos delightful. Once you've worked up the strength to pick it up, this is a great book for anyone planning on a trip Oxford (you can look up college opening times here), or wishing they had a souvenir of the golden times they had whilst studying there.


Disclosure: These are review copies I've received from various publishers. Note I've only reviewed the books I'd recommend and the links are non-affiliate ones to a book company that pays its UK taxes (and delivers worldwide). The exception is Claire Austin's book where the link goes to her own website.

If you prefer to support independent bookshops, then online ordering via The Hive allows you to do so.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

A DIY Christmas Wreath

A DIY Christmas wreath I made at a workshop in Corsham

I spent a delightful morning at the Pound Arts centre yesterday making my own Christmas wreath to adorn our front door. I usually fish our willow one out of the attic, but this year I fancied trying something new.

Amanda from Daisy Chain in Corsham showed us the ropes, and accompanied by Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas' and plentiful chocolate biscuits to hand, it was the perfect way to get into the festive mood.

We started with a wire wreath ring. We fixed a thin wire onto this, then plenty of 'sausage shaped' damp moss with the wire wound around them to form the base and keep the foliage fresh. Then we snipped our greenery into lengths of around six inches. These were gathered into bunches of three and fixed onto the brown moss side of the base. We made sure the ends of the stems were together, so only a couple of turns of the pliant wire were needed to fix them. The foliage faced outwards and in the same direction.

Then came the fun part - adding the decorations from a selection of baubles, cones, dried apple or orange slices, whole oranges or limes, and cinnamon sticks tied together with raffia. These were fixed onto stiff wire, and then threaded through onto the wreath.

An optional bow plus a hanging loop added the finishing touches.

All the other Christmas wreaths made at the workshop

It was interesting to see how different everyone's wreaths were, even though we had exactly the same materials to choose from.

A few things I learned along the way

My DIY christmas wreath on our front door
It smells wonderful!
  • It was a lot of fun and surprisingly easy to do
  • Add foliage anti-clockwise, so the ends of the new bunch of foliage cover up the stems of the previous one
  • It feels like you're adding way too much foliage at the time, but it looks fine at the end
  • The ends of the last bunch of foliage are tucked under the first for a professional looking finish
  • There are two approaches to decoration: plonk and fix on one at a time and hope for the best (me); or place everything first until the design looks right, then fix on (nearly everyone else there)
  • It can be quite difficult to thread whole oranges onto their wires and some are much easier than others
  • I'm rubbish at making a bow, Amanda had to take pity on me
  • With the addition of four candles, this forms the traditional Christmas centre table piece in Germany
  • Holly are the most popular wreaths sold at the shop and they're the devil to make!
Update: If you'd like to make your own, but want a more detailed guide than I've given, look no further than the Not So Secret Garden's guidance, which has step-by-step photos similar to what we did on the day.
Whitehall Garden Centre logo
This post is sponsored by Whitehall Garden Centre.

Note to readers: sponsorship goes towards my blogging costs, the words are my own. There are no cookies or affiliate links associated with this post.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Events With Capabilities

View of part of Blenheim Palace's landscape by Capability Brown.
View towards Vanbrugh's Grand Bridge (built in 1710) at Blenheim Palace, September 2010
Capability Brown re-landscaped over 2,000 acres of parkland surrounding the palace (1764 to 1774) 

Lancelot Brown was nicknamed 'Capability' because he had a habit of telling his clients their estates had a 'great capability' i.e. potential for the kind of sweeping changes which made his fortune.

Sadly Capability Brown and his contemporaries swept away many of the gardens which pre-dated their work via the 18th Century's English landscape movement. However, the movement's legacy still has much to be admired.

Now 2016 is set to have a 'great capability' as far as garden visits and events are concerned. In addition to the usual suspects, there is the long awaited festival to celebrate the tricentenary of Capability Brown's birth. You can find out which events are happening near you here.

View down to the house at Dyrham Park Gloucestershire
Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire, October 2010

Then there are Brown's gardens and landscapes, and I've included views from some I've visited so far in this post. He was involved with more than 250 and the biggest number ever will open as part of the festival, including many not usually open to the public.

Lots of those usually open are found in the care of either the National Trust or the Historic Houses Association (over 70 of them in the case of the HHA). Therefore membership of either or both organisations is worth considering if you plan to visit lots of gardens during the festival (hint, hint to NAH re the HHA and Christmas).

Lacock Abbey
View during the Illuminating Lacock Abbey event, January 2014

Here's an interactive map to find out which gardens are near you. As far as Wiltshire is concerned, I have a choice from 10: Bowood (HHA), Charleton, Chute Lodge, Corsham Court (HHA), Lacock Abbey (NT), Longford Castle, Longleat (HHA), Tottenham, Wardour Castle and Wilton House (HHA).

No wonder VisitEngland has designated 2016 as the Year of the English Garden.

Trentham Gardens
Trentham Gardens, Staffordshire, June 2010

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NB Dyrham Park is looked after by the National Trust and Blenheim Palace is a member of the Historic Houses Association.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Serendipity, Independence and Fermented Foods

Tweeted talk opportunity from Corsham Bookshop

Life's been in the doldrums of late, so I'm glad serendipity came to my rescue via my local independent bookshop.

I've wanted to learn more about fermented foods such as kefir and kimchi for quite a while, and here was an opportunity to do so (quite literally) served up on a plate. Did I tweet back immediately? You bet I did.

Nice tweeted welcome prior to the talk

Then cheery messages from both the bookshop and the author, set up my anticipation nicely for a good evening. And all this happened before I found out there'd be cake.

Charlotte Pike talking about her book, Fermented
Charlotte explains her book to Corsham TV - with tasty goodies to hand

It was so civilised to sit with wineglass in hand and listen to Charlotte Pike explain what her book Fermented is about. Beforehand I thought I knew nothing, completely forgetting I've made yoghurt and sourdough bread before.

There's still lots to learn. For instance the possibility of fermenting fruits and vegetables beyond just sauerkraut opens up a new way of dealing with my allotment gluts.

The mysteries of various drinks using kefir and kombucha were explained, alongside the fieriest of fermented vegetables, kimchi. The probiotics found in these and other fermented foods might offer some answers to mine and NAH's health problems.

Then came the tasting, and the bookshop's owners excelled themselves by making a wide selection of treats from the book beforehand to show Charlotte's recipes are easy to make and delicious. From the vegetable and preserves sections we tried cucumber, carrots, cauliflower and beetroot. All provided plenty of crunch and a variety of flavours from the accompanying herb and spice combinations.

Next came saj from the sourdough section, a wonderful flatbread to make if you haven't got the patience for the full sourdough making experience. These were spread with a savoury version of the labneh (drained yoghurt - similar to cream cheese) from the dairy section and a fantastic quick mango chutney from the preserves chapter.

And finally there was cake. Three of them in fact - a raspberry lemon yoghurt loaf cake, the tastiest stollen ever, and a labneh cheesecake. My neighbour particularly enjoyed the latter as it's a gluten-free option, with the base layer formed from nuts instead of the usual crushed biscuits.

Charlotte cheerfully answered a barrage of questions, including a few of mine. Can I use the liquid from labneh making for my sourdough? Yes. Can I combine sprouted seeds with fermenting? Not recommended. Could I use my stash of jam jars to make smaller quantities? Yes, as long as the liquid in the jar doesn't come into contact with metal.

With such an enthusiastic author, and so many goodies tasted and sighed over, it's no wonder nearly everyone bought a copy of her book!

We also gained a fascinating insight into how recipes are developed as Charlotte confessed it took 9 attempts before she was happy with one of hers. Then it's handed over to a number of recipe testers to make sure it works in a variety of kitchens before making its way onto the printed page.

If Charlotte ever needs another recipe tester, I'm sure she'll find plenty of willing volunteers in Corsham.

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If the labneh cheesecake sounds familiar, you might remember the rhubarb cheesecake I made after my cookery masterclass at Yeo Valley. I still have my sourdough starter from that time too!

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

GBMD: A Little Learning

Quotation on the Nymphaeum at West Green House, October 2015 
I've been trying to take a decent photo of this quotation for Muse Day for ages and at last, autumn's softer light enabled me to do so. It's given me quite a lot of food for thought over the past few months.

When I tell people I write a gardening blog, the most common reaction I get is I must be an expert on gardening. Anyone who gardens knows there is too much to learn in a lifetime, no matter how deeply we might drink from our own 'Pierian Spring'. My blog is simply all about what I've learned or thought about gardening along the way.

Sometimes the amount left to learn seems overwhelming, and it's tempting to think it might be best not to drink (or blog or garden in this instance) at all. However, as an advocate of lifelong learning, I've decided that would be a shame, and so I must drink deeply for as long as I possibly can.

Luckily Pope agrees, as Wikipedia's entry for Pierian Spring shows. Reading the rest of his poem reveals his true meaning: a little learning can be intoxicating, but drinking deeply sobers you up and reveals just how little you really know.

As long as I - and you, dear reader - realise my shortcomings, everything will be fine.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The Kindness of Strangers

Frosted rose bloom in my garden
Rosa 'The Fairy' kissed by last night's first hard frost of the season - at least I know she'll bloom again 

Dee told a story recently on her blog about meeting a stranger from Persia, which has stayed with me ever since. It's good to be reminded that simple acts of kindness are much more powerful on a personal level than anything the news can throw at us. Thanks Dee.

It sparked a memory of something that happened to me many years ago, so here's my story...

Graduation during a recession means even the best laid plans can go off track. So in the early 1980's I found myself back at home with my parents instead of forging the glittering career I'd anticipated by being the first in my family to study at university.

The work ethic is strong in our family, so I took whatever temporary jobs I could find to tide things over until my dozens of permanent job applications bore fruit. I never doubted that would happen, and finally it did, even though the result isn't quite the path I originally thought I'd take.

One of my temporary jobs was as a census officer, taking round and collecting in the questionnaire UK households are required to complete every 10 years. My allocated patch was a 10 minute bus ride away and consisted of a council estate of maisonettes and high-rise flats, plus some university accommodation allocated to postgraduate students. It turned out to be quite a cross-section of humanity.

I quickly learned the role of a census officer is a lonely and thankless task. You never meet any of your colleagues and the majority of people I met regarded me with suspicion and open hostility. I was a 'government snooper', rather than a young woman trying to make her way in life.

Towards the end of my stint, I was going around the remaining addresses left on my round where I'd had no contact with the people living there. Many of these were in the university accommodation and as it was now the Easter holidays I was not expecting to collect many more of the outstanding questionnaires. I was not finding it the most rewarding of tasks, and I quickly became tired and grumpy.

To my surprise, one of my last rings on the doorbell was answered by a young man dressed in flowing robes. Whilst his English was good, it was clear he would need help to complete my alien-sounding form. I was invited in and greeted by his smiling wife, who offered me some orange juice as I sat down.

It turned out to be freshly squeezed orange juice, something not readily available in England at that time. My spirits were lifted instantly and I stumbled out my thanks at being offered something so delicious.

"It is the tradition of my country to offer guests something refreshing when they enter the house", was the young man's reply. We soon turned our attention to the information I needed, and I duly entered 'Syria' in the appropriate place on the form.

I can still remember clearly that couple from Syria and their brief kindness some 30+ years later. I cannot remember any of the hundreds of people I met in those six or so weeks who greeted me with hostility and suspicion.

I read somewhere recently about a survey where people who'd been treated kindly said they were more likely to perform an act of kindness themselves, and to do it more than once. Perhaps the solution to many of the world's problems is in our own hands after all.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

How Advertising Works in Chippenham #35

Screen grab from Chippenham's 2015 John Lewis-style Christmas advert

  1. Set up a Business Improvement District (BID) to promote your town
  2. Install wi-fi in the centre of town and promotional flags at key entry points
  3. Create a John Lewis-style video to promote local businesses for Christmas 2015
  4. Wait for a blogger to spot she can't embed the good news into her blog
  5. Et voila!

I wanted to make this a good news story, I really did. There's much to applaud in an organisation dedicated to show the good things Chippenham has to offer. However, I can only give you a screen grab plus a link to our local paper's article about Chippenham's Christmas advert, rather than sharing it directly with you. NB it's worth a scroll down the article then a click on the video to have a look at the town at its best.

There isn't quite enough time at the end to see all the local businesses involved (unless you freeze the frame), so here they are:

  • Amelia Classics (bridal wear)
  • Butlers Butchers
  • Chippenham Museum and Heritage Centre (say hello to our friend Chris who volunteers there)
  • Sarah Jane's Cafe
  • Floral Culture (florist)
  • Humbugs Sweet Shop
  • La Passione (Italian restaurant)
  • Phase Patch (craft and haberdashery)
  • Rivo Lounge (NB go elsewhere if you're after Real Ale, as NAH found out they don't serve it)
  • St Andrew's Church
  • The Brunel (pub)
  • The Buttercross Inn
  • The Craft Company
  • The Garden Restaurant *
  • Thyme (deli and cafe) *

It's good to realise this isn't a full list of the local businesses nestled amongst the national chains found on our High Street.

* = as a garden blogger I feel duty bound to check on these establishments ASAP.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Things in Unusual Places #18: Salad

Picture of salad images used in the latest captcha development

Trying to outwit the spammers led to some amusing happenings in the past, but I didn't expect it to involve salad.

After puzzling over word verification, sums over at Karen's, proving I'm not a robot etc etc., the latest innovation I found over at Happy Mouffetard's was possibly the trickiest yet. How many images with salad do you see in the picture above?

I labelled this image 'Good Grief Google' at the time. Since then, I've seen its presence isn't confined to Google, but seems to be the latest CAPTCHA development on offer to anyone needing a spam prevention or similar service.

My inner imp still giggles at the notion this might be a development in context-driven provision. For example, craft blogs could get pictures of knitting to sort out from other fabrics.

Update 18/11/2015: I've since found out this CAPTCHA is a compulsory step for preventing spammers if you're allowing Anonymous comments. Note that mobile users are having particular trouble with this step, so you may wish to consider disabling anonymous comments instead. Also note that anything involving CAPTCHA et al. is a moveable feast and is subject to change!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

GBBD: Alstroemeria

I've grown Alstroemeria aka Peruvian lily for the first time, inspired by a bunch Victoria gave me around this time last year. They lasted for weeks in the vase and helped to brighten the dull days of autumn.

In the spring I planted a bag of mixed tubers on my allotment to edge part of the big Woodblocx bed NAH installed for me last year. I'm pleased my mixed bag morphed into solely deep red flowers which are gracing my kitchen windowsill. Just four stems more than adequately fills a large vase.

They came into flower in late June and by pulling the flowering stems when needed, they've continued to flower well into November. They're such good-value plants. Sarah Raven experimented with hers and managed to extend their flowering even more, though I don't know if that exhausted her tubers in the process.

I've grown mine separately as for once I'm growing flowers for cutting. However, they'd also look quite at home in my mixed borders, so my bulb order this year sees some earmarked to grace VP Gardens.

What excitement and plans do you have in your bulb order?

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

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Plant Profiles: Hellebores

Potted hellebore, 'Anna's Red'
Gorgeous Helleborus 'Anna's Red', whose tale you'll find in January's Blooms Day

Do you have plants that wax and wane in your affections? That's how I've been with hellebores. They're one of the first plants I ever bought; some Christmas roses whose crisp white blooms brought winter cheer to my first garden.

They were fine for a while, but then they came down with the dreaded 'black spot', the bane of most hellebore growers. I briefly considered replacing them with some of the larger hellebores, but I was put off by their downward facing blooms and tendency to self-seed everywhere.

Then a few years ago, I was smitten by H. x ericksmithii 'Winter Moonbeam' at an RHS London show. These have more upright blooms, - so much better for viewing them - with fantastic marbled foliage for year-round interest. They're also fabulous in pots.

Since then I've not looked back. H. 'Anna's Red' has joined my potted plants, placed on the patio to maximise winter viewing and cheer. I've even learned to embrace the qualities of the self-seeders, thanks to a gift from J from choir. I now have a much better spot for them than when I treated them with disdain and they're merrily spreading themselves around my woodland garden.

Over the years I've learned my gardening prejudices aren't necessarily to do with the plants. Sometimes it's because I don't have the right garden or spot for them.

Cultivation Notes

Fantastic marbled leaves of H. 'Winter Moonbeam'
Hellebores are the ideal woodland plant because they thrive in moist, sheltered, dappled shade which gets well mulched with leaves in the autumn.

Pot-grown is a more unusual way of keeping them, and I chose to do so because of my garden's heavy clay. Mine are in the shadier parts of the garden, though some like my H. 'Winter Moonbeam' don't mind sunshine. I ensure they're kept moist and I snuggle them down for the winter with a topping of leaves in the autumn.

I almost didn't buy my 'Winter Moonbeam' because of the 'black spot' problem (more properly known as hellebore leaf spot, a fungus) but I'm glad I ignored my doubts as I haven't had a problem so far (touches wood). If I do in the future, then I'll simply remove and destroy the infected leaves.

Clump of hellebores gifted by J from choir
Most hellebore species are well-know for their self-seeding tendencies. Large clumps can also be divided in the autumn or spring, like my friend J did.

H. x ericsmithii cultivars are sterile and slow to make clumps large enough for division. Thankfully micro-propagation techniques have served to provide good, healthy plants which are more affordable.

The National Collection of hellebore species is held by Mike Byford of Hazels Cross Farm Nursery in Staffordshire.

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Plant Profiles is sponsored by Whitehall Garden Centre.

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Monday, 9 November 2015

Separated at Birth? Piccadilly's Green Walls

A lush green wall and an artificial one as seen on Piccadilly in August 2015

Back in the summer on a trip to London, I at last found some time to gawp at the Athenaeum Hotel's green wall. Designed and executed by that master of vertical gardens Patrick Blanc, it's a fantastic showstopper on Piccadilly.

Imagine my surprise to find another green wall just a few doors down the road, using plastic greenery this time. You can decide which one's which in the above photo.

It looked like the artificial one was being used to screen the building work being carried out on the former In and Out club aka Cambridge House. This was a private members club for officers and gentlemen of the armed forces which relocated to nearby St James's Square in 1999. The building lay empty for many years, which is surprising for a Grade I listed building in such a prime location.

Earlier sources said the building is set to be the nation's most expensive home once renovation work is complete, though judging by the the latest reports it's unclear whether the site will be a home, a new watering hole, or a combination of the two.

Sadly it doesn't look like £214 to £300 million [depending on which source you read - Ed] will buy you a proper green wall when it's finished.

Update: Here's another showstopper I found in Sloane Square last year.

Previous blog posts from the same trip:

  • The Art of Swimming - a chilly dip in King's Cross Pond
  • Living Wall - a different view of the Athenaeum Hotel's green wall
  • A Royal Welcome - a look inside Buckingham Palace with a sneak view of some of the garden
  • A Malaysian Feast - a mouthwatering meal (with links to recipes) which also had this amazing view of Nelson's Column
Nelson's column as seen from the 5th floor of Tourism Malaysia's offices on Trafalgar Square

Monday, 2 November 2015

A Million Words

A blog I look after reached 100,000 Page Views recently, which was deemed worthy of a celebratory snippet in their company magazine. That blog has about 800 posts, each with an average of 200 words. After some light googling, I worked out that amounts to the equivalent of a couple of fiction novels, or around one weekday edition of the New York Times.

That got me pondering.

Veg Plotting turns 8 today and I've published 2011 posts including this one. I'm twice as wordy here as I am on there, and if I take a few extras like Pages and captions into account, then we're looking at around one million words written so far. Phew.

However, according to this blog post, I'm at the start of becoming a writer. I've enjoyed the ride so far and I hope you've enjoyed the read too.

As my Irish ex-colleagues are fond of saying, "Thanks a million" for reading and all your comments so far. I couldn't have done it without you!

Update: By a spooky coincidence Sally published this thought provoking piece about the so-called death of blogging on the same day as this post. I've commented over there about the splintering of the virtual world since I started 8 years ago.

Since then I've been pondering on who exactly says blogging is dead and I believe it's mainly those who are seeking to make money from it. I think that's an over-simplification; people blog for a whole host of other reasons. I believe it's still the best platform for anyone who wants to experiment with all kinds of self-expression, or say anything deeper than what other social media platforms have to offer.

What do you think?

Friday, 30 October 2015

Lantern Leftovers

Lantern leftovers: Moroccan Pumpkin Soup

I'm feeding our neighbours' cat this week, so I've had plenty of time to preview their pumpkin lanterns set out in the garden ready for Halloween. That got me thinking: if the nation's lantern innards were gathered together, they'd probably form a small mountain or three.

How timely. World Vision contacted me this week with news of their Carve a Heart campaign, designed to create a gentler, more caring side to this year's Halloween shenanigans. Their pack includes a recipe for Moroccan Pumpkin Soup - a delicious way of using up those lantern leftovers, or in my case the solitary pumpkin harvested from my plot this year.

As Julieanne wisely said on Twitter: "Pumpkins are for eating, not just for lanterns".

Moroccan Pumpkin Soup


These are tweaked slightly from the original recipe to fit with what I had to hand.

60ml olive oil
100g shallots, peeled and sliced thinly (or a small onion, or 1 leek)
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 small red chilli (from my Chilly Chilli Challenge), seeds removed and finely chopped
1 cinnamon stick
3cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1½ teaspoons cumin seeds
2 carrots, scrubbed and coarsely chopped
1.5 kg pumpkin flesh coarsely chopped
70g yellow split peas
1½ litres water
Juice of ½ a lemon (microwaved on High for 10 secs to release the juice)

The picture on the World Vision recipe card

To Serve (serves 6)

A large dollop of Greek yoghurt  
A sprinkle of pumpkin seeds

This topping was served by the Garden Museum cafe on their yummy butternut squash soup recently. The World Vision recipe card suggests a sprig of coriander instead, and strangely no yoghurt even though something similar is shown in the photograph.


  1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and cook the shallots and garlic until soft
  2. Add the chilli, cinnamon, ginger and cumin seeds, and stir until fragrant (around 1 minute)
  3. Add the carrots, pumpkin and split peas to the pan and stir to coat with the other ingredients
  4. Add the water to the pan and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 50 minutes, or until the split peas are soft
  5. Remove from the heat, discard the cinnamon stick and add the lemon juice
  6. Process the soup with a stick blender until smooth
  7. Serve immediately whilst warm, with a large dollop of Greek yoghurt and a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds added to each bowl

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If you're looking for a main dish instead or you have even more lantern leftovers, you could adapt my Butternut Squash Risotto recipe to suit your needs.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A Seaside Walk, Foraged Vegetables and Garden Interlopers

On the seashore at St Ouen's Bay, Jersey

The last day of our holiday saw us walking along St Ouen's Bay close to the site where Monday's Jersey Royals box is located. The tide was out, so there was plenty of beach to explore. I've added NAH to the scene to give a sense of scale.

View along the seashore at St Ouen's Bay

This view looks back towards the spot atop the cliffs where I took the picture postcard of the bay  shown previously. I was keen to have a closer look at the vegetation to the right of the photo, which stood next to the farmer's fields.

The foraged vegetable - sea beet

As I suspected, it's sea beet, an edible relative of chard and beetroot that's suitable for foraging. It was a new find for me and I saw plenty growing around the island during our stay. I wonder if it's ever harvested for the vegetable boxes? Young leaves can be used in salads, and it serves as a good substitute for spinach in any recipe.

Masses of sea beet

As you can see, it likes growing along the sea wall and in the shingle of St Ouen's Bay.

One of the slipways at St Ouen's Bay

However, when I reached the slipway at the end of our walk...

The first sign of a garden interloper on the slipway

... I found a garden interloper had gained a foothold between the cobbled stones and...

The garden interloper - alyssum - has gained a strong foothold

... a few yards away it was jostling with the sea beet for the best positions on the bank.

This is alyssum aka Lobularia maritima (syn. Alyssum maritimum). It's a popular annual bedding plant and a well-known garden escapee. The Wild Flower Finder website describes it as a 'mainly coastal naturalised garden plant growing to 30cm on walls and dry sandy shores especially at the foot of walls'.

My find was definitely growing true to type.

View of the alyssum looking towards the sea with the scent of warm honey

Sniff the air and there's a distinct scent of warm honey. No wonder its common names include sweet alyssum, sweet Alice and sweet Alison.

Whilst alyssum is well-known as a garden escapee (and I saw many large drifts of it on Jersey), it has yet to be listed on Plantlife's Plants of Concern for the UK.

Update: Janet's comment reminded me of an interesting talk Ken Thompson gave at the RHS on invasive plant species. He draws quite different conclusions (backed with evidence) to the usual information. It's well-worth 35 minutes of your time.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Jersey Royals

Honesty box vegetable stall at the side of the road in Jersey

One of my favourite sights on Jersey were these vegetable stalls at the side of the road. We found four of them, and this one was the first we discovered (at L'Etacq at dusk) and is also my favourite. It's the only one perched atop a wall (the rest relied solely on pallets) and I love how you can see the fields behind where the produce is grown, plus the clear light and the thin blue line which shows how close we are to the sea.

A head-on look at the Jersey Royals stall at L'Etacq

Now you can see how the system works. The produce is refreshed at least once a day and relies on an honesty box for payment. The island is famed for its potatoes and the Jersey Royal now has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, which means only potatoes grown and harvested on the island can be named as such*. There were a few bags of them for sale, alongside cabbage, kale, spinach, sweetcorn, courgettes, green beans and tomatoes. All are grown organically.

A closer look at the Jersey Royals stall

The stalls belong to Le Feuvre Farms, a family concern that's been farming on Jersey for over 5 generations. I love the contrast of the sign saying the produce is dug by hand (a Jersey tradition) and the fact they have a Facebook page to promote themselves. Their page is well worth a look as it gives a wonderful insight into farming life on the island.

Fields at L'Etacq and St Ouen's Bay

Here's a slightly different view to the one I showed in my recent postcard. You can see the L'Etacq area and how small the fields are on Jersey. Many farmers still collect seaweed to fertilise their fields and there was plenty along the bay's seashore. There was a wonderful old photograph in our cottage of horses with huge baskets being loaded up with seaweed ready for transfer to the fields.

Later in the week I saw a tractor pulling a trailer loaded with pallets and many potatoes delicately balanced on them. I was reminded of eggs in their boxes and it showed just how precious the cargo was to the farmer concerned. Apart from the Channel Islands, mainland Britain is the only other place where Jersey Royals can be purchased and we hoover up around 99% of the crop. It forms about half of the island's agricultural income.

Jersey Farmers Union display at RHS Chelsea 2012
Spot the Jersey Royals - Jersey Farmers Union gold medal awarded exhibit, RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2012
I also saw some campaign banners saying 'Keep Jersey Farming' during our stay. It seems farming is under threat on the island, just like it is here in the UK. Around half of Jersey's land is in horticultural or agricultural use, so if there's a decline it will have a major impact on the island's look and feel.

It would be a shame if farming continued to decline and there were no more exhibits at RHS Chelsea, or roadside vegetable stalls, or Jersey Royals for tea.

* = which is why everyone else has to make do with the less romantic sounding International Kidney.
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