Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Crocus survival guide

Crocus, the online plant nursery, is having another open day this Saturday, 2 July. Unfortunately, I won't be able to go as it is a, prize day at my daughter's school, and b, the Streatham Choral Society summer concert, in which I am singing*.
In a moment of madness, I considered sneaking down to Windlesham first thing in the morning, but luckily sanity prevailed. Bad enough to have to change clothes twice in one day (smart casual for prizegiving, long black for concert) without having to climb out of grotty gardening gear as well.
I can't really complain - I've been to two Crocus open days this year. If you haven't yet been, here's what I hope will prove an informal but useful guide.

1. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. The site is much larger than it looks, and in any case, you're going to be walking up and down rows of plants, not just going once round the whole site. If it's sunny, wear a hat. All that stooping over things and peering at plant labels will give you sunburn on your neck. I know this from personal experience.

2 Learn how to be a trolley-stalker. Everyone else will seem to have a trolley except you. The trick is to nobble someone as they come out of the paying area and ask them if you can have their trolley when they've unloaded. You then have to walk with them back to their car, and it's a nice generous gesture to help them unload (if they want you to). On the way to their car, and upon your triumphant return to the payment point, you will be accosted by other "trolley stalkers".

3. Remember that Crocus is not a retail operation. This is not Sainsbury's or Tesco - they can't just open up another 10 tills if it gets busy. If you have to queue for a bit, it will all be worth it when you get to the till and find the bill is at least £20 less than you thought it would be. And while you're waiting, you can admire your plants. And have a nose at other people's choices.

4. If you think you're going to buy loads and loads of things, ask for two sets of stickers. You'll be given these stickers, which have a number on them, at the start of your visit. The system is that you put a sticker on the plant you want, and it is then collected up by the many trailers touring the nursery and returned to your crate at the payment point. Your crate(s) will have the same number(s). It's very frustrating to be in the farthest reaches of the nursery looking at grasses, say, and find you've got to walk all the way back to the entrance for more stickers.

5. There are limited catering facilities (a van selling burgers etc, and drinks), and limited seating. There's a cafe at Hillier's next door, but on a sunny day, when it's likely to be busy, it's best to take a snack and a drink with you.

Happy plant shopping!

*Mozart, Mass in C K317
Britten, Rejoice in the Lamb
George Dyson, Hierusalem

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why you might like to think about talking to plants

The idea that plants might have feelings is usually greeted with loud guffaws in Western circles. We've smiled tolerantly at the idea of Prince Charles talking to his plants, while the national newspaper cartoonists must have thanked their lucky stars the day the story broke.
The subject always reminds me irresistibly of the scene in the Richard Curtis comedy, Notting Hill, when the Hugh Grant character, William Thacker, is being set up by his friends with a rather earnest girl called Keziah, who tells him she is a fruitarian.

William: And, ahm, what exactly is a fruitarian?
Keziah: We believe that fruits and vegetables have feelings, so we think cooking is cruel. We only eat things that have actually fallen off a tree or bush - that are, in fact, dead already.
William: Right. Right. Interesting stuff. So, these carrots ...
Keziah: Have been murdered.
William: Murdered? Poor carrots. How beastly!

However, a new book by Dr Matthew Hall, of the Centre for Middle Eastern Plants at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, seeks to challenge this attitude. It's called Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany and it explores the relationships between humans and the plant world.
The proposition, to put it as simply as I can, is that we tend to see the world in zoocentric or anthropocentric terms, which means we do not consider plant life to require the same sort of moral consideration as humans or animals.
Because of this, we are often more destructive and callous in our attitudes to plant life than we might be towards what we consider "higher" forms of life, such as mammals (and goodness knows we are pretty careless about those).
This hierarchical view of the natural world is something that has developed over millennia, both from the ancient Greeks and the teachings of Aristotle, and from the Old Testament, which teaches that man has "dominion" over the world.

"And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." Genesis, 1:26

Indeed, I have to admit that I am so deeply steeped in this tradition that I personally find it very difficult to get my head around the idea that there may one day be a "plant liberation" movement in the way that we have an "animal liberation" movement.
Dr Hall says: "In the ‘West’ (wherever that is) we don’t include plants within our moral sphere, a situation which most people think is ‘normal’. I basically wrote the book to try and find out why that was our default position, and to see if there were other ways of looking at plants, both from other cultures and from within plant science writings about the 'intelligence' of plants.
"The first three chapters look at this ‘exclusion’ of plants from the moral sphere and my argument is that this exclusion has been a deliberate process aimed at distancing humans from any sense of kinship with plants, something which we did once have.
"This is done by humans deciding that the faculties which humans or animals possess are somehow radically different and better than those plants possess. This has led to the idea that plants are a lesser form of life with lesser faculties, lacking in sensation, movement and intelligence.
"It’s really difficult to say why we’ve done this, but it always seems to be connected with a need to claim the natural world purely as a passive human ‘resource’ (as happens in Plato, Aristotle, the Bible) rather than as an equally valid, and related, place of life and being.
"For me, this process only really became clear when I looked at other cultures where plants are related to as proper persons (as well as being resources) because they are related to humans as creatures that come from the Earth, and because (as anyone who looks closely at plants sees) they obviously actively live their lives. Most interestingly, this way of looking at plants is backed up by lots of recent scientific evidence on plant behaviour."
So which cultures DO regard plants as worthy of the same care and consideration? What about Buddhists?
Dr Hall says: "Interestingly, Buddhism is actually split on whether plants are sentient or not. In Tibetan Buddhism for example, plants are not one of the six realms of sentient life. Tibetan Buddhists can’t be reborn as plants and therefore eating plants doesn’t involve ‘proper’ killing.
"It’s thought that this is a reversal from an earlier position where plants were thought to be sentient, but similar processes of exclusion rendered the situation similar to the one we have in the West.
"However, in East Asian Buddhism (traditions such as Zen), there has been a tradition of regarding plants as sentient, and some thinkers have even regarded them as enlightened(!), because they show the hallmarks of enlightenment e.g. not accruing any karma, wisdom, patience…
"Plants have been regarded as ‘sentient’ in early Hindu texts and very strongly in the Jain tradition. In Indigenous cultures and in Paganism, people tend not to use the word ‘sentient’ but speak of kinship with plants which are actually related to as proper family (for example, my uncle’s uncle is a kurrajong tree – and with all the respect that deserves) and as proper persons. Amazing really!"
Amazing, indeed - it's the sort of subject that leads you on and on into further investigation and inquiry. I'd always thought, for example, that Jainism was a branch of Hinduism until I looked it up. I now realise that despite superficial similarities, they are actually quite different.
I won't pretend to you that this is anything other than an academic book, but I think the ideas in it are fascinating. I know that, for some years, the Catholic church has been moving towards the idea of "stewardship" rather than "dominion" over the natural world, and for many Christians in general, the ethical issues involved in conservation are beginning to supplant the old belief that the planet was ours to do with as we liked.
However, for us to think differently about the world often requires a really radical shift. Dr Hall ruefully admits that a lot of his scientific colleagues "run a mile at even the mention of the word religion".
He himself takes up no particular religious position, merely asking where these beliefs come from and the effects they have had.
So, are you still guffawing? Or are you feeling rather thoughtful? If it's the latter, and you want to find out more, go here

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Mini garden makeover!

When we first moved into our house, we had a climbing frame at the end of the garden, and either side of the little slide that came down from it were two cordylines. At that time, they were quite small - about 30ins tall. One went ages ago, when we built what is now the pond. The remaining one has grown into quite an attractive, multi-branched tree.

Every year, in late spring, it has spectacular flower sprays, which the bees love. It has always looked a bit odd, sticking up in the middle of the lawn, but I'm fond of it. However, since I've gravelled the area around the pond, this has created a long straight line along the right-hand side of the garden, which I don't like. Apart from anything, it makes the cordyline look even odder.
Solving the problem of how to make the tree look as if it belongs with everything else in the garden, and how to break that long stern line, has niggled away at me for years.
On Monday, my gardening group met at my house, and my friend Pamela, who is a garden designer came along. I told her I was willing to pay her whatever her fee was to sort the problem out. Pamela is an extremely generous person, and she immediately said not to worry about the fee and what was the problem? I told her, and she said: "Oh, that's an easy one."

She got me to move a big pot with a huge hosta in it to the left of the tree. She said this would help tie the tree to the garden. Then, she said, I should deturf a rectangle around the tree, and gravel it, as I had done with the area around the pond. She said I should plant low-growing plants there, such as the Mexican daisy, Erigeron karvinskianus, which grows all over the garden.

I thought this was a brilliant idea. I could hardly wait for today - Saturday - to get stuck into that turf. Every morning before I went to work, I gazed longingly out at it...
I always mark everything out with canes before I start on a new area - it gives you a pretty good idea of how things will look, and whether you've got the lines vaguely straight.

Goodness, I hate deturfing! It's a backbreaking, knee-aching job.

Oops, there's a light here, which illuminates the cordyline at night. I went round it very carefully, so as not to sever the cable or electrocute myself.

All I did when I put the gravel down round the pond was to lay a thick layer of sharp sand before putting down the stones. The sand is soft, so it's easy to level, and to bed the bigger stones in. You have to be sure where you want to put your plants as well - there's nothing more irritating than trying to dig a hole in the middle of a lot of small stones.

In the end, I used my hosta pot, plus a phormium that I had lying around (as you do). This is 'Sundowner' which will look fabulous with the afternoon sun shining through its leaves.
I didn't want to block the view behind, but just half-hide it, so that you want to go round and see what's there. With the phormium, I planted a couple of Euphorbia 'Ascot Rainbow'. I turned my nose up at this when I first saw it (another gimmicky euphorbia, I thought). The foliage is "grey-green, edged in yellow, flushed with shades of red, pink and orange. From early spring it bears clusters of lime-green flowers". Sounds ghastly, doesn't it? But it looks great in my garden.

As every woman knows, you should always check the back view, too...

This is the view from behind the new bit. I love the way the view of the garden is now framed.
Thank you, Pamela!

Monday, June 13, 2011

The rose gardens at Mottisfont Abbey

I achieved a long-cherished ambition today. I finally managed to visit the rose gardens at Mottisfont Abbey, in Hampshire - arguably one of the finest in Britain. I went with Zoe, who lives locally and knows the gardens really well. She also loves roses, so it was a bit like having a private guided tour from an expert.
As the name suggests, Mottisfont was originally a monastery, founded at the beginning of the 13th century. Like so many religious communities, it was confiscated during the Dissolution of the Monasteries ordered by Henry VIII, and given to one of his favourites. The "font" refers to the fountain, or spring, which gushes from deep in the ground.

The house has been extended and rebuilt over the centuries, and is set in peaceful parkland.

A short stroll from the house leads up past the stable block to the rose gardens, where the historic collection of old shrub roses amassed by Graham Stuart Thomas is held. As advisor to the National Trust for 30 years, Stuart Thomas was responsible for restoring some of the most beautiful gardens in Britain. You can read more about his work at Mottisfont here.

The rose gardens are in what used to be the old walled kitchen garden. The first is divided into four squares, with a lawn in the middle of each square. The old walls help contain the fragrance of the roses.

When I was little, rose gardens meant rows of hybrid teas in bare soil, pruned within an inch of their lives, so that for most of the year they looked like a bizarre collection of sticks. I think this is what has given hybrid teas such a bad name. Many of them are gorgeous roses, which smell fantastic. I think it's true, though, that they are rather ungainly plants compared to the old shrub roses, that can arch and swoop through a border.
At Mottisfont, although the predominant plants are roses, the borders are also planted up with campanula, hardy geraniums, phlomis, achillea and even the extraordinary giant scabious, Cephalaris gigantea.
Apple trees support not only climbing roses but also clematis, while sprouting the odd bunch of mistletoe just for good measure.

The planting is cleverly balanced so that the roses, although they have a starring role, do not completely overshadow the herbaceous perennials. You're still aware of contrasts in colour and texture and shape. The result is very harmonious, which makes the garden a lovely place just to be.

This is the classic view of Mottisfont, the rose walk - planted with the climber Adelaide d'Orleans. It's a very pale pink, with darker buds.

There are two rose gardens at Mottisfont - the historic old roses garden and the new rose garden, below.

The climbing rose on the pergola is 'Debutante', a Wichurana rambler (below)

I love the eremurus erupting from this border like a flowery firework.

Even the propagation area is as pretty as a picture

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Coming soon: The Kittens

This is just a quick look at the two little people who will be joining our household in a month's time. We went to visit them this morning for the first time.

This is Mario, who is a chocolate Abyssinian.

And this is Luigi, who is a blue Abyssinian.

Here's Luigi with his mum, Angel, who is also a blue Abyssinian.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What taking home a piece of Chelsea looks like

I went to the Crocus Chelsea sell-off sale on Saturday. I'd been to one of their open day/sales before and really enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to going back. This sale had been much more widely publicised, and anyone within 100 miles who had seen something they coveted at the Chelsea Flower Show was determined to pitch up and snag a bargain.
Crocus were the contractors on two Chelsea gardens, Luciano Giubbilei's Laurent-Perrier Garden, which won a gold medal, and Cleve West's design for the Daily Telegraph, above, which won Best in Show. They also supplied some of the plants for Robert Myers' Cancer Research Garden, so they knew exactly which plants each designer had used.
All around the nursery, plants bore labels stating in which garden they had had a starring role. The only major omission was the gorgeous dark red Dianthus cruentus used by Cleve West, below, which had been a sensation at Chelsea and had sold out days and days ago.

Saturday was a hot summer day, and Crocus was busy. Really busy. It was like the opening day of Harrods sale. As I arrived, at 10.15am (thanks to roadworks, I was held up for 45 minutes coming off the M3), there were already queues to pay and tractorloads full of plants waiting to be unloaded. One innovation was the presence of plant experts in blue jackets, who were available to answer queries.
I was charmed by the fact that the tractorloads looked like mini Chelsea gardens all on their own. No one had designed them to look like that, but the combination of colours and textures looked sophisticated all by themselves.
Does this mean we don't need garden designers? No, not at all. If Cleve and Luciano and Robert hadn't chosen those particular varieties, the public wouldn't be buying them. The designers had set the style and the public was following.
When I was at the Chelsea press day, Anne Wareham was interviewing people about whether Chelsea is still relevant. Caught on the hop, I wittered something about the RHS. But I think that ideas is what Chelsea is for. If all the show does is to demonstrate how to combine plants in a pleasing way - some of them cultivars that are a bit more unfamiliar, such as the white centranthus, or the now famous Dianthus cruentus, then that's good enough for me.

Here's another little mini "Chelsea" garden, below. What's interesting about these plants is that they belong to different buyers. At Crocus sales, you go round with a sheet of stickers and label the plants you want to buy, which are then picked up and taken to the central payment point.
So while at first I thought this was someone's selection for a border, looking more closely I found it included the choice of several buyers. Yet it all looked good together. Interesting.

Luckily - and no offence to Cleve - I didn't actually want Chelsea plants, but was hoping to grab some Canna striatus at a reasonable price instead of the normal exorbitant one. I very rarely see it on sale for less than a tenner a pot (come to that, I very rarely see it on sale full stop), but the special open day price at Crocus was £5. I bought four.
I also bought two Musa sikkimensis 'Red Tiger' bananas (also a fiver), a couple of bronze phormiums to replace the slightly ratty ones in my garden, two Trachelospermum jasminoides to replace the jasmine that got clobbered in the winter, a Dryopteris wallichiana (I have a bit of a fern habit at the moment).
And I bought two Euphorbia cyparissias 'Fens Ruby', to which I am also somewhat addicted. The label said this plant had been used by Cleve West in his design. Well, I couldn't go all that way to deepest Surrey and not bring home a little tiny bit of Chelsea, could I?

I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott

When people ask me what life as a modern journalist is like, equipped as we are with multimedia information technology, I usually reply that it is rather similar to that of the Lady of Shalott.
For those of you unfamiliar with Tennyson's poem, the Lady of Shalott is a mysterious woman - witch, queen, princess? Tennyson doesn't really say - who has been cursed for some equally mysterious reason. She must weave a magic web and see the world only through a mirror which reflects the activities in the world outside. If she looks directly at the world, or ventures outside, the curse will strike and she will die.
Journalism - certainly my job - is rather similar. I see what's going on in the world through the mirror of my computer screen while weaving the web that will eventually become a newspaper. It's very rare that I have time actually to go out and meet people, or to be present at a particular event. (Perhaps that's why I enjoy the Malvern, Chelsea and Hampton Court shows so much - for me, they usually involve the effort of going on a proper outing.)
I won't be cursed, of course, if I look away from the screen or go out - but I might miss my deadlines. There isn't room in my week for a lot of going here and there and doing this and that. I've already turned down three invitations to press launches next week.
I've always thought The Lady of Shalott is a terribly sad poem. In one sense, the thought of being locked in a tower, able to get on with your work without interruption, yet with one eye on the world outside, can seem rather cosy. Especially when it's raining (and especially when it's snowing).
But if you live that kind of life, it does often seem that the world is, literally, passing you by. You have no power to affect anything unless you go outside and join in. In which case, what do you do about that magic web (work, housework, children, more work) that is waiting to be woven?
What was Tennyson trying to say? That you can never reconcile the need for time to create something with the need to go out and find inspiration for the creative urge? It seems that, even at the height of Victorian romanticism, the work-life balance was an issue.
There's more to it than that, though. Real encounters with real people become the exception rather than the norm. That's good in a way, because I treasure these meetings. Sometimes, the cybersphere can actually help achieve this. There are many people I wouldn't have met if I didn't blog, for example.
However, there is a point at which virtual communication becomes a kind of sugar-rush substitute for human contact. Twitter, for example, I find a bit like listening to the radio when the station isn't tuned in properly. Conversations come and go, fade and return without me having much of a clue as to what is going on. Facebook can be the same - by the time you've caught up with an issue or a joke, there are 27 comments and yours seems a bit redundant.
It's frighteningly easy to spend two hours at your magic computer mirror feeling you have really made connections with people, only to get up and go and make a cup of tea in an empty house and feel their virtual company evaporate in an instant. Is this healthy? I'm not sure.
I'm going to stick to blogging. At least it has the benefit of allowing me freedom of expression, which is a kind of liberation from the curse of other people's parameters - deadlines, demands, and the tyranny of 140 characters. And Facebook genuinely keeps me in touch with dozens of old friends, and I value that contact. But I think I might give up on Twitter.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The moveable feast

I’ve never been a great vegetable grower, more for lack of time and space than anything else. However, I do like home-grown tomatoes and this year I found the perfect way to plant them.

I bought an EarthBox, which sounds a bit like something a cat might use to relieve itself, but which in fact is a sort of windowbox on wheels.

You could be forgiven for thinking it was a solid gold windowbox on wheels, because I thought it was quite expensive considering that it is basically a plastic box.

I have to admit, the price really put me off, and I dithered for ages about whether to buy the plant support system that went with it too. The box was £35 and the staking system cost £25. I bought mine at Wisley, but you can buy them on Amazon.

Those of you who have allotments are probably rolling about on the floor laughing at my extravagance by now, but a, I bought the EarthBox with some gift vouchers that my family gave me for Christmas and b, I am now growing tomatoes and lettuce for the first time for years.

What’s wrong with a growbag, I hear you ask. Well, growbags are great (I used one to fill my EarthBox), but they are also static. And heavy. So you can’t whisk them out of the way if you suddenly decide you want that space for something else.

The EarthBox on the other hand, rolls gently across the patio out of the way if you have, say, people round for drinks and need more room for seats. You can also turn it round to follow the sun. And of course it is reusable.

I have lost the odd lettuce leaf to slugs and snails, but nothing major, which is pretty good considering I've done nothing to deter them.

The EarthBox is also self-watering. I think I have topped up the tank once since I assembled it, which given that this has been the hottest, driest spring for centuries, is pretty good.

Basically, there is a big reservoir in the bottom, which you fill via a plastic tube. You give the whole thing a good watering before you plant and from then on, the water is drawn up through the compost.

The cleverest bit, as far as I'm concerned, is what the manufacturers call a mulch cover. This is like a plastic shower cap that fits over the top of the box, which stops the water evaporating. The manufacturers are proud of the fact that it keeps weeds down, thus eliminating the need for herbicide. I must say, I laughed when I read this - the idea that you might need to resort to weedkiller in a space this small was hilarious. No, make that tragic.

I'm glad I bought the staking system, as it is very sturdy. It comes with a net for climbing plants, but I've tied in a couple of canes to support my tomatoes.

The manufacturers claim that the assembly instructions are foolproof, which is true, up to a point. However, if you've bought the staking system, you cannot assemble it after you have filled and planted the EarthBox. Again, if you have the staking system, the wheels from the basic EarthBox are used in a different way. I think the EarthBox instructions should make this clear.

The only other quibble I have is with the name. Rather than EarthBox, with its connotations of kitty litter, I think I would rechristen it The Moveable Feast.