Monday, April 30, 2012

A recent interview

A couple of months ago I went to Switzerland to do a lecture for the Swiss equivalent of the Hardy Plant Society. Xavier Allemann, who runs a very interesting looking little nursery - Lautrejardin, did an interview with me. Here it is.

It was translated into French and German. Those versions are on the right-hand bar ----->>>>  under 'Für Deutsche Leser' and 'En Francais'.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A gothic hunt for heirloom daffodils.

What am I doing wandering around a graveyard at dusk? In the little town of Ullapool in the north-west of Scotland. "I wonder if he'll put this in the book, that the Donalds are mad, spend their evenings in cemeteries" muses my companion. We had been out for supper, a surprisingly good meal in a most unpromising place (reek of stale beer, plastic wood paneled walls, a bizarre painting of bare-breasted women in ancient Egyptian headresses holding a submarine). Passing a graveyard I jokingly suggested we go and look for old daffodils. "This is what we do all the time" said Duncan and Kate Donald, who collect heritage daffodil varieties and are always stopping by the side of the road, old gardens, and churchyards. So in we go. It is a spectacular location, overlooking the loch and the mountains. Kate bends over a clump, cautiously names it, bends over another one - she runs the stem through her fingers - the smoothness or otherwise of a stem can itself be a key to identification. 'Ornatus' she suggests. Duncan says something about always keeping a spade in the back of the car. For one awful moment I wonder whether he is going to go and get it. I can already feel the eyes of the notoriously god-fearing folk of Ullapool upon us, suspecting us of digging up the Presbyterian dead.

Duncan and Kate Donald live and grow their plants in the incredible natural beauty of Loch Ewe on the north-west coast of Scotland. Rows of daffodil clumps are lined up around their cottage and an impressive wind turbine – a reminder that although the climate here is very mild, the wind is a constant. Kate had a childhood love of daffodils, which was rekindled by a scholarship year at Tresco Abbey Gardens on the Scilly Isles in the late 1970s. In 1983 she became RHS Daffodil Registrar, and because of this was asked by the National Trust for Scotland to create a National Collection of daffodils at Brodie Castle. Duncan adds “we got interested in making a collection of old daffodils in the 1980s... I was curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London... we had some bad storms then... a large tree blew over on top of a heritage daffodil collection... it really focussed our minds”.

Kate worked as RHS Daffodil Registrar between 1983 and 1986. “I was always more interested in the older varieties” she says, “old varieties which still come up in gardens decades after they have been planted shows they are survivors and therefore proven, unlike modern show varieties which are an unknown quantity”. “We made 1930-1935 our cut off point” explains Duncan, “why?... this was when 'Fortune' derived varieties began to become important... we don't like orange cups, they all look like each other, we don't care for the Fortune look”. That leaves around 7,000 named varieties of which the Duncans now have 400 plus. He went on to explain how “we began to spend a lot of time looking at derelict cottage gardens, and then to ask garden owners for bulbs, and started to build up a reference collection.... we targeted garden owners through our various contacts, for example, people were so often very generous”. 

In 1990 the couple moved to Scotland 1990, and as Duncan explains, “the children got used to the Easter holidays being daffodil time and endless garden visits”. Scottish gardens have often preserved the past better than English ones, and with the climate being a good one for daffodils, they have proved a fruitful territory for tracking down long-forgotten varieties. As time has moved on, and the daffodils have grown they are able to offer a number for sale – wide distribution is always a guarantee of survival. “We want to do for narcissus what Graham Stuart Thomas did for roses” says Duncan.
One particular property, Threave in Dumfries and Galloway, “has been a Rosetta Stone for us” says Duncan. The property had been owned by the Gordons, a family of Liverpool industrialists, who had used the castle as a summer residence. They had regularly bought bulbs over a long period and crucially kept good records. Additionally, in the 1960s an extensive set of notes were made of the old head gardener's knowledge. The Donalds were then in an excellent position to identify daffodils growing in the garden, so far they have named about ninety.

Over the years, the Donalds have worked out an effective methodology for identifying varieties in old gardens. They have systematically gone through old nursery catalogs, held by the RHS's Lindley Library in London, and assembled a database mapping the availability of varieties over time. “The collections for sale in the catalogs are particularly valuable” explains Duncan, “as these would have been bought in bulk and therefore most likely to still be around in gardens... if a garden is known to have been planted up at a particular date or between two dates, then it is possible to go to the catalogue database, and see what was available, narrowing down the possibilities... magazine articles (e.g. The Gardeners' Chronicle) can be a useful source of information about when a particular garden was planted up if the garden itself has no record”. Gardens which do keep archives may sometimes contain invoices from nurseries or bulb dealers, listing varieties, or there may be old catalogues with names marked up.

There is no doubting the rigour of the Donalds' approach. The changes in names resulting from the way daffodil classification systems have worked over the years and duplications in naming have resulted in much confusion. “We are very careful” says Duncan, “every clump is mapped, and has two aluminium labels with the name and accession number impressed onto them, one of which is buried with the bulbs”. He goes on to explain that flowers are systematically photographed, at different angles, and at different times – as flowers can change in appearance considerably over the period in which they are in flower. The eventual aim, apart from making as many varieties available for sale as possible, is a field guide to old daffodils, which will enable anyone with a garden which may have been planted up before the 1930s to identify their bulbs.
Sweetness - a 1939 Jonquil
The Donalds' daffodils are sold through Croft 16.
more to read on my Amazon Kindle page, including essays, interviews and Dig, Plant and Bitch, the world’s first Soap Opera for gardeners.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Godophin, ghosts of formality

Godolphin House in Cornwall, is a relatively recent National Trust acquisition. A great house until the 17th century when the money began to run out, it never got ‘modernized’ by Capability Brown or his cohorts, so retains old formal features. Previous owners popped in the old rose bush and tree peony but little else, or at least not much else has survived a period of neglect. The primroses have gone mad as they do in Cornwall, self-seeding everywhere, loving the wet, the mild winters............ Read on..........

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Rounding up the evidence, and perhaps organic growers should stop poisoning their workers

The days of trying to solve all garden problems with a quick chemical blast are, thank goodness, long since gone. However there are still occasions when something in a bottle can make a huge amount of difference. Which is why I wrote a 'Talking Point' in Gardens Illustrated magazine on the use of RoundupTM a while ago. Only one letter of objection to the magazine so far. Whew!
Here I'd like to revisit the issue, and pull a few skeletons out of the cupboard. To recap – Roundup is an enormous help in weed control in a new garden, especially one in a climate which favours the growth of a limited number of aggressive weedy species, and in dealing with invasive aliens, like Japanese knotweed. Conservation organisations have long recognized its value in vegetation management, and without it the battle against invasive species would be, quite honestly, hopeless.

We live in a world saturated with toxins. Overwhelmingly natural ones, but a poison is a poison is a poison. Plants, including the veg we eat, produce a formidable array of toxins to dissuade animals from eating them. Certain preparation techniques enhances the impact – a cup of coffee apparently contains more carcinogens than an annual average intake of pesticide residues (

On the subject of bad stuff, I think we need a bit more honesty about the chemicals used by organic producers. I have heard it said that the most frequent source of chemical injury suffered by US farmworkers (many illegal migrants from Latin America) is sulphur, used as a fungicide by organic growers. I couldn't find a recent reference but here is one for a 2001 study which gives some indication of the problem a few years ago: (, and oil and sulphur (both ok by US organic standards) are the most widely used (Roundup is no.8). Regulation of dangerous chemicals used by organic producers is much lower than for conventional. Statistics on use are less well kept too.

How do we find sound information on garden and agricultural chemicals? It is actually quite difficult. Scientific papers are hard to follow without specialist knowledge and often do not give any kind of clear result. The use of technical language can also be misinterpreted; the word 'acute' for example means something quite different to its everyday use. There is ample scope for those with an entrenched, ideological, position to misinterprete the language of these scientific papers. On the subject of Roundup/Glyphosate, I do try to keep up with research, and i have not seen anything seriously untoward about it; and it has been quite intensively studied.

The one place not to look for objective information is anything published by the organic movement or environmentalist campaigning groups. It is obvious that the former have a vested interest in scaring us; this is business after all and they want to increase their market share (currently declining here in the UK); and it is a sad fact for those of who care about environmental issues that many campaigning organizations have a history of putting the campaign first and objectivity and accuracy last – the myth of the 'terminator GM gene' being a good example. At the end of the day, regulation is science-led; newspaper and campaign group literature very often isn't. 
As a final shot, here's a very good, and balanced, non-rhetorical sceptical piece on organic farming from Scientific American.

This is what I originally wrote for Gardens Illustrated:
Weed control in the garden can take up a huge amount of time, particularly in mild climates when creeping buttercup and many grasses can grow 365 days of the year. Correctly used, Roundup ™ is a very effective tool for dealing with weeds, especially when creating new areas for planting, when total clearance of existing vegetation is vital, and for large gardens with a persistent weed problem. The beauty of Roundup, perhaps the most successful crop protection chemical ever, is its excellent safety record. It is absorbed very quickly by the soil, inactivating it - bacteria then biodegrade it. This means that it can be used to control weeds amongst the plants you want to keep. The only proviso is that it may last longer in the ground on very sandy soils, and like any herbicide, should not be used where there is a risk that spray could blow into water.