Monday, November 27, 2017

Gardening - explaining a British national obsession?

Back in the summer I received a surprise email, from the Almeida Theatre in London, who were staging a play - Albion, in which a garden plays a crucial role. As part of the background to the play, they commissioned me to write a piece for the programme about gardens, as an introduction to people, many of them from overseas, to the whole history of British gardens as part of our national identity. I'm reprinting it here, for the benefit of a non-British audience.
See the review of the play here.
Gardening is very important to the British. It has also a big part of how the rest of the world sees us. Gardening is not just popular as a practical hobby, but also in the form of 'garden visiting', a form of leisure activity which is all but unknown elsewhere. This refers not so much to visiting historical gardens, but to visiting contemporary private ones. One measure of this is the scale of the National Garden Scheme, which this year oversaw the opening of around 3,700 private gardens, the ticket money going to charity. Originally an act of noblesse oblige on the part of the rural gentry, garden opening is now an activity which involves the owners of small and town gardens as well. Visiting other people's gardens gives keen gardeners ideas and something to measure their own efforts against, although to be honest the activity also satisfies a deep sense of curiosity, giving people the chance to, ever so politely, snoop on other peoples' lives. 

Gardening in Britain has many varied, and deep, roots. The first explanation is perhaps that these isles on Europe's north Atlantic shore are a very good place to grow things. With a mild climate and rainfall distributed year round, the growing season is long. Plants from a great many lands and climate zones can be grown together, to the extent that gardening visitors from harsher climates are often astonished at seeing juxtapositions in British gardens that would impossible for them at home. This bringing together of the world's floras gives us another insight into the origin's of Britain's gardening obsession. Several centuries of being an imperial power saw plant hunters set of with the explorers, the missionaries, the traders and the plunderers who were all a part of the story of empire. Indeed quite often the role of plant hunter was combined with one or more of these other roles.

Wave after wave of trees, shrubs and perennials arrived on British shores, sometimes first coming to botanical gardens, such as that established at Kew , but more likely in the nurseries that supplied the gardens and greenhouses of the aristocracy. At first the playthings of the wealthy, the very ease with which many plants can be propagated, from seeds, cuttings or simply digging a plant up and splitting it, meant that new introductions could very rapidly find their way down the social scale. A novelty in His Lordship's garden would very quickly be propagated, at first to provide gifts for other gardening members of 'society', but then later as gifts from one head gardener to another, and then to the head gardener's family, and then the mother of the girl the under-gardener had his eye on, and so on through the village. Nurseries catered for the rising middle classes, while even the urban poor could grow geraniums on their windowsills. 

Whilst one great arm of British gardening has been about plants, another has been about landscape and garden design. Indeed it might be said that perhaps Britain's greatest contribution to world culture has been the landscape movement of the 18th century. Until then gardens in Europe had been firmly formal and geometric. British landowners however made a break with this tradition, ripping out mile upon mile of clipped hedges, tearing out intricate parterres and inserting bends and curves into formerly straight ponds. The landscape around the country house was made to look as unmanaged as possible, with artfully arranged clumps of trees amidst acres of grass, usually grazed by cattle or sheep. The new landscape was on the one hand rational (the grazing animals produced an income) but at the same time an artistic celebration of a supposedly 'natural' landscape. This was no mere practical movement, but a philosophical one as well, with garden making being earnestly discussed in journals, coffee houses and London clubs.

Later developments may have brought back the formal garden in many different guises, but the naturalistic curves and contours of the landscape movement never really went away. A tension between the love of the formal and ordered and the informal and supposedly natural has remained ever since. The 1890s saw this explode into a long-running dispute between two prominent garden makers and commentators, the architecturally-trained Sir Reginald Blomfield and the irascible gardening journalist William Robinson, whose views can be guessed from the title of his 1871 book, The Wild Garden. Both laid claim to their vision of gardens as exemplifying Britishness, Blomfield that terraces, allées and topiary expressed the country's architectural tradition, Robinson that sensitivity to nature, to local landscape and wildflowers was more important. Ultimately however it was a turf war between professions: architects versus horticulturalists. 

Another great dispute lay at the heart of the golden age of British gardening, the Victorian era. More than anything this was dominated by a passion for exotica on the part of those wealthy enough to afford greenhouses, the men to manage them, and the coal to fire the boilers to keep them warm. The collecting and display of exotic plants, orchids in particular, became something of a national obsession during the latter half of the 19th century. Fortunes would be spent on rare plants and elaborate glasshouses in which to display them. Members of the aristocracy and the new industrial elite vied with each other to build the finest collections of plants. For the general public there was a spin-off, as city parks departments would lay out elaborate plantings for the summer, mostly using warm-climate plants reared in greenhouses.

However a reaction set in by the end of the century. Just as the Arts and Crafts movement questioned the new industrial society, so many gardeners began to react against the artificiality and exoticism of sub-tropical summer planting reared in hothouses, instead promoting the supposedly simple plants grown by country people, hardy annuals and herbs which could be sown out of doors in spring and perennials which came back year after year with no effort. Thus was born the cottage garden movement and a whole new phase of garden making. In many ways this became the core of the British garden ideal. Images of country gardens, often featuring colourful flowers against a backdrop of clipped hedges and topiary (which had now made a come-back) were reproduced in the books and magazines and on the packaging of the merchandise that bound the empire's far-flung servants to a particular sense of what it meant to be British.
During the early 20th century, a great final phase of plant hunting brought hardy plants rather than exotica to British gardens, as the incredible bio-diversity of the Sino-Himalayan region's rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias were discovered and brought home, again primarily to the estates of the elite. In the end though something more important happened - a healing of the formal-informal rift. Garden makers began to bring together cottage garden insouciance with clipped geometry. Gardens such as Hidcote in Gloucestershire (actually made by an Anglophile American) and Sissinghurst in Sussex (created by the aristocratic duo of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West) used frameworks of hedges to contain exuberant perennials and annuals; voluptuous abundance balanced with ascetic discipline. This Arts and Crafts garden style dominates the most popular British gardens, and has been widely emulated internationally, its intimacy, order and sense of historical roots proving an immensely satisfying and pleasurable part of the national psyche.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Overwhelmed by garden books?

Many gardeners accumulate as many books as they do plant species. Now that we are moving, I face the problem of culling an extensive library that has not had a serious edit since we came to this part of Herefordshire twelve years ago. It is an interesting exercise, sometimes difficult, sometimes painful, but strangely cathartic. And it makes me ponder on the relationship between books, gardening and gardeners.
I am sure gardeners write more, read more, and accumulate more books than other hobbyists or semi-professional activities. Whereas most beekeepers, dog-breeders, potters and embroiderers probably have a good shelf or two, I don't think they have the multiple-shelf-verging-onto-libraries that many gardeners have. Why is this?
Partly I suppose it's because modern gardening has a great deal to do with information. Whereas the traditional core of gardening is a craft set of skills and intuitive abilities, the kind of gardening we indulge in (if hobbyists) or profess (if well.... professionals) is both an art and a science. The former implies constant change and the expression of different and often rival ideas, and the latter the access to hard data. We want to know what Dan Pearson thinks of Veronicastrum virginicum as well as what conditions the Veronicastrum likes to grow in (we do not however have so great an interest in what conditions Dan Pearson likes to live in – there is no 'Hello' magazine of the garden world and I am not sure there is even a functioning gossip column anywhere).
Gardeners, and their surprisingly modern colleagues - garden designers, are also great writers and communicators. More so than those of many other fields of human endeavour. There seems to be a strong urge to share and broadcast ideas, knowledge and opinions. Gardening is after all a surprisingly social business. The plantsman always seeks the new, and this is usually gained through some interaction with others: the garden visit, the club meeting, or a nursery fair. Transmitting ideas through print (or its modern digital equivalent) is the next most obvious thing.

Gardening and garden design are lucky in that they do seem to attract people who actually like writing and do it well. Communicating ideas in print does seem to be a real expectation at a particular point in someone's career. The result is an awful lot of books. The garden book has become a genre in itself, and one that has benefited enormously from all the technological advances in printing technology and colour photography of the last few decades.

Inevitably the books accumulate which raises the question – when you are getting ready to move, as we are. What do you keep? and what do you give away or sell second-hand? Books are heavy, gardening books particularly so, because of all that china clay smeared over the paper to create a nice photo-friendly gloss. You don't want to be carting too many of them up and down stairs, into and out of vans, etc. Starting with reference books, I find I'm hardly getting rid of any. The internet has of course become the first point-of-reference but it has huge limitations. Put in a plant name and very often it is nursery sites which come up; it can be very difficult to find more dispassionate sources, or which tell you anything else about the plant. Websites often just give bald data: height, flowering time, hardiness zone etc., but none of the subjectivity and opinion that gives the text in a book real character, and which is often far more useful in making decisions about whether to grow something or not. Nothing online comes anywhere near the dry wit of Henk Gerritssen in Dream Plants for the Natural Garden or the measured aristocratic snootiness of Graham Stuart Thomas in Perennial Garden Plants, Or, The Modern Florilegium: A Concise Account of Herbaceous Plants, Including Bulbs, for General Garden Use. Such a wonderfully 18th century title.

Books about gardens or by designers are a different matter. So many are inevitably in the much sneered-at 'coffee table' category. Publishers also have a high turnover, so the same book concept basically gets published every few years, with different authors and photographers. I shall never forget a commissioning editor saying to me “we haven't done a small gardens book for five years, its time we did another one”, implication of “it's your turn”. The advances in colour repro also mean that what may have looked stunning ten years ago, now looks dated and fuzzy.  A lot of writing about design is fuzzy too; there is little real hard analysis of why some designs work and others don't. Designers writing about their own work is often a disaster, they lack the perspective to 'stand outside their own work', to explain how it functions, let alone to look at it critically. As you may have guessed, an awful lot of these end up on the 'go to second hand' pile.

Old magazines are going out too. There is always the Lindley Library in London to go through anyway. And increasingly, contents are available online, as with The Hardy Plant Society Journal
How often do I refer back to the carefully ordered copies of The Garden that took up nearly two metres on my shelves? Almost never. Out they go. Hortus? Collective noun for a pile of Hortuses; the classicist might suggest 'Horti', I would suggest a 'smug' - some very good writing in it, and far too nice to put out in the recycling, but always so oddly unchallenging and unquestioning - 'gardens of a golden afternoon' type complacency. So they are on ebay, unless someone wants to come and pick them up. Any offers?

In going through books I am reminded of some real gems, classics that stand out and in many cases, deserve to be better known: Andrew Lawson's The Gardener's Book Of Colour, The Inward Garden by Julie Moir Messervy (a psychological approach to garden design, quite unique) Plant-Driven Design by Lauren Springer and Scott Ogden. The common thread being a unique approach, a singular vision, stepping outside the box. When so much in garden publishing is so samey, such individuality is all the more important.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Voyages east and west - but new plants needed

Three year old street planting in Vilnius, Lithuania
At home after some very interesting travelling. I blogged before aboutLatvia and particularly Lithuania. And then Poland, which has a very organised wholesale nursery industry but no real organisation for domestic gardening. Ten days or so at home and then running a workshop in Italy for the Valfredda nursery near Bergamo. Something of a culture shock. Actually that is the first time that I have been asked to lecture or teach south or west of the Alps; something I think which highlights the deep cultural divide in Europe over attitudes to nature and its expression in naturalistic planting.

Using perennials in Italy is relatively new. There is a kind of obvious reason for this in that Mediterranean climates, with their dry summers do not favour the growth of plants which need summer moisture, as most perennials do. Just before the lecture started, the presence of two Russian students led me to musing about as a gardener how much more at home I feel in Russia, which may have a very different climate to ours but which at least allows the kind of plants I am familiar with to do very well. Italy of course is at least as divided in gardening terms as it is in every other way: regional cuisines, language and political culture. It is only partly 'Mediterranean' - there are in fact plenty of areas where the water table or moister microclimates, or altitude, allow for good perennial growth. 
Seven year old pot-grown Miscanthus at Valfredda

Italian planting design has tended to be very conservative, at least what you see publicly, and garden design generally to be dominated by evergreen shrubs, which after all, are the most ecologically appropriate plants for much of the country. This is however, an incredibly design-focussed culture, so it will be interesting to see what happens to planting design here. Grasses at least seem to be making a big impact in the little exhibition spaces around Bergamo which are set up for the annual conference held here in September. On this subject, it was interesting to see the enormous pots of grasses dotted around the Valfredda nursery – these are used for when the company do exhibitions or trade shows. Some of the miscanthus or panicum grown like this have been in the containers for five to seven years. 

The big divide in European planting design does seem to be around the question of 'is nature beautiful?'. I have always read about this from garden history in terms of an attitude that dates back to the Renaissance, of nature only being beautiful when shaped by the hand of Man (male gender, capital letter), Man being the image of God (ditto!). How much of this is down to Catholicism or Renaissance Humanism I don't know. The other Europe: Germanic/Scandinavian/Slavic/Baltic has a love of nature for its own sake which is quite different; always expressed with an inappropriate definite article, as in “we love the nature”, which further stresses its singularity and importance. I suppose a cultural historian might put this down to a residual paganism which gives untrammelled nature a value which it lacks elsewhere. 

What about the British? I hear you ask! My immediate answer is to reach up onto the bookshelf to get out Keith Thomas's monumental study Religion and the Decline of Magic of 1971, and think about re-reading it. My gut reaction is that in many ways we are a sort of in-between: like our language (German grammar and core vocabulary, plus Latin vocab) something of a hybrid. The British love nature but we don't really understand what it is, as a cultural landscape of fields and hedges has long since replaced the real thing. Above all we have very little woodland, and indeed sniff at dense forest as somehow 'germanic' and therefore not to be trusted. 
students on the course at Valfredda

Basically, I would guess that the great wave of interest in perennials that kicked off in northern Europe in the 1990s is finally reaching southern Europe (see a previous post). However up and over in eastern Europe the interest in perennials is totally climate-appropriate in the way that it is not so in southern Europe, the idea of naturalistic planting is immediately understood, and – crucially, the economies of most of these countries are now at a level whereby there is, increasingly, money for ornamental private gardens and quality public planting. Some of the most large-scale and best work seems to be happening in Russia, thanks to Anna Andreyeva. Lithuania and Latvia show great promise, as I have flagged up before.

The Italian nursery I worked with – Valfredda, and the nurseries emerging in eastern Europe (which mostly seem to be in Poland) currently offer a very similar range of perennials to what we might expect in Britain or Holland. There is a great danger that a successful roll out of these, especially in public places, might lead to a boredom factor kicking in. What is currently lacking appears to be R&D – developing new varieties. New cultivars and hybrids developed which are climate-appropriate will enable these emerging perennial markets to improve their sustainability and to develop local character. More important still will be collection from the wild. Italy has pretty good biodiversity, as do Spain and Portugal, and the geographical and climatic complexity of this whole region means there must be plenty of garden-worthy species awaiting discovery, or distinct forms of already established species. 

Eastern Europe can, in theory call on the vastness of the Eurasian landmass for new hardy species for cultivation. They will need to, as the geography (predominantly flat) and geological history mean that there is little local genetic differentiation amongst plant species, until you get down as far south as Romania and Bulgaria, both still 'off the map' in terms of gardening innovation. There is a problem though, and that is that eastern Europe has so firmly set itself looking westwards, away from the old tyrant to the east, that any thought of going plant hunting in Russia or central Asia is a non-starter. An older generation had Russian as a common language (something the non-Russians could all moan about the Russians in) but a younger one went wholesale for English around 1990 (my wife Jo was involved in training English teachers in Slovakia in the early 1990s). East European botanists and plantspeople may have been forbidden from travelling west but the whole vast Soviet empire was open to them; it was interesting a few weeks ago to hear Janis Ruksans, the Latvian bulb expert, reminisce about looking for bulbs in Soviet central Asia. Much as we are all glad for the political changes there is a sadness in seeing this common scientific culture and language disappear. Also sad to hear about is the personal divide between the western-looking republics and Russia. I once suggested to an east European colleague that she invite a certain Russian landscape architect to speak (incidentally known for their liberal views), I was told a firm “no, we're not ready for that yet”. But she's not going to arrive in a tank!

Serious planting hunting and new introductions will almost inevitably depend on Russian plantspeople and nurseries looking east and not just growing western-developed species and cultivars, which they all seem to do at the moment. I haven't heard of any Russian plant hunters yet – I very much look forward to doing so. We would all greatly benefit. As we would from some Italian ones.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Białowieza - Europe's last virgin forest

The Białowieza Forest in eastern Poland is somewhere I have always wanted to go – the only genuinely virgin, untouched lowland forest in Europe. Last week I finally got to go there, thanks to friend and colleague Małgosia Kiedrzynska who organised the trip. The scale of the place is immense and to us, used only to 'forest' being small areas of woodland, overwhelming. At 1,400 square kilometres it is almost the size of London. The border between Poland and Belarus goes more or less down the middle.

At the moment the forest has a somewhat higher 'recognition factor' than normal, owing to the proposals by the Polish Ministry of the Environment to allow tree felling in supposedly protected areas. See the Guardian article here. <>

What is intriguing for the British visitor is to see familiar species we all share as natives, both trees and perennial ground flora, growing in very different ways. Everything on one level is totally familiar and on another level very different. Take the trees for a start. There is oak, although it is nothing like as dominant as it would be at home. Oak at home branches low down, even when fairly densely planted, but here the trunks soar upwards, dead straight for 15m, maybe even 20m, and then branch out rather sparsely; they look more like something out a tropical rain forest than anything I'm familiar with. And alder, great dense stands of them, dead straight and soaring upwards, at least half as much again in height with what we are familiar with from British riverbanks.

There is (on the Polish side) a protected core area, which you can only enter with a guide. It is surprisingly light, with a high canopy, a mix of hornbeam, lime (Tilia cordata), ash, maple (Acer platanoides) and oak. Very few trees are actually that big, for reasons I didn't get to understand. What is intriguing is the ground layer. Lots of indicators of high fertility like ground elder and nettle, but they are sparse and mixed up with a huge range of other species. We are so used to seeing both these plants as aggressive weeds, but here it is presumably lower light levels that keep them in check and allow for greater diversity. In fact ground elder is almost universal in light shade everywhere I went on this trip (Latvia southwards) which gives you a different perspective on it compared to the “ohmygod what a terrible weed” attitude we have at home where it is not actually native.

The forest is divided up into a whole series of segments on a grid, put in place by the Russians when it was an Imperial Forest in the latter part of the Romanov regime. Each grid is marked with numbers, which makes it actually very hard to get lost. Different grids are managed differently, with many being commercially managed and others under varying levels of protection. This all means that in travelling around (which we did on bikes) you get to see an enormous range of woodland types: different tree compositions, different soil-determined habitats, and different types of management. And water level, which was particularly interesting.

Much of lowland Britain probably had forest like this, very wet, and at times flooded. Now we have almost none. In fact we have no river floodplain forest at all, and haven't had any for centuries, only a tiny bit of alder carr (wet alder woodland) and very other little wet woodland – most was drained or drained and cleared in the 19th century. Being here and seeing these vast swampy woodlands, where it was simply too wet to risk walking across, gave me a sense of what a lot of lowland Britain must have once looked like. And then there is one area, conveniently located near our hotel, which is spruce over a peat bog, but mysteriously given the obviously acidic conditions, the sphagnum moss etc, there were some (famously nutrient-hungry) nettles. Apparently this is the most westerly example of the habitat that covers vast areas of Siberia – the taiga.

So what about the notorious tree felling which has broght Białowieza into prominence? There is a whole patchwork of old-growth forest outside the main protected zone which the environment ministry has started to extract timber from, under the guess of controlling spruce bark beetle, threatening a uniquely old habitat. Commercial factors are of course thought to be the real reason; presumably because the old-growth trees are bigger or better quality than the truly epic amount of younger material which could be felled without damage to old-growth forest. The forest does seem very poorly managed from a commercial point of view however. I noticed masses of felled timber, much of it presumably felled for safety reasons along roads, where it had clearly been left for years. I suspect the real reason for felling is political provocation, as the current Polish government is one of the few foreign admirers Donald Trump has, and which is similarly dividing families and friends.

To see it in English tap the Union Jack in the top right hand corner.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Gardening's new frontier: Latvia and Lithuania

I've been travelling to eastern Europe since 1993 when Jo got a job in Bratislava, Slovakia. I love the area, for all sorts of reasons, and am particularly fascinated by how societies emerge from a long period of cultural, political and economic repression. I've just come back from a trip where I was lecturing and teaching in Latvia and Lithuania, two of the 'Baltic Republics'. Latvia was fantastic but what I experienced in Lithuania was extraordinary.

“I needed something for the backyard” Lina Liubertaitė recalls. “People here know how to garden, but not how to make it look nice, to design”. And so began one of the most impressive experiments in garden promotion I have come across. Lithuania is a small country in northern Europe, long colonised by Russia under the guise of the communist Soviet Union, and only independent since 1991. Like all ex-Soviet countries, growing vegetables and fruit (with a few flowers on the side) was second nature. It had to be because the shops were often empty. Now there is a new world, of higher living standards, a consumer culture and many entrepreneurial possibilities.

“All the information available was so old-fashioned” Lina says. With a background in marketing, Lina saw the possibilities for promoting gardening, and started writing magazine articles and crucially, began to get local experts to run courses. At the beginning it was hard, a young woman in a rather conservative culture faced criticism as a newcomer, and not a professional or trained horticulturalists. Eventually she has triumphed, with her company and brand - GeltonasKarutis – Yellow Wheelbarrow.

Last week I was one of the speakers at Garden Style, an annual conference Lina has organised for three years now. There were 500 people there, “about half the population” joked a Polish friend (the popn. is actually 2.7million), an incredible number in a small country; a third were professionally involved in gardening or design. Lina gave her conference clout by inviting overseas speakers from year one: Carrie Preston from Holland in year one. The great thing about Yellow Wheelbarrow is that it is a 'one stop shop' for gardening – if you want to know about gardening in Lithuania go to the website. 
Lina asked me to do some teaching, as her big thing is education. I ended up teaching three day workshops back to back, with twenty people each day. For the first two days I was interpreted by Rasa Laurinavičiene, a very innovative local gardener whose garden in a village just outside the capital, Vilnius, is packed full of perennials. We used the facilities of Vilnius University Botanical Garden, which is an excellent teaching garden with a wide range of plants. As a garden though, it still feels like it does not yet belong in the modern world, Soviet style public gardening - with but in the best possible way, with enough labour to continue to maintain enormous beds of perennials, and mostly very well-labelled. 
As always with east European audiences the thirst for information was almost palpable and there is that wonderful sense that you are really helping something develop. There were plenty of landscape architects in both the Latvia and Lithuania groups, a good sign that quality planting is part and parcel of larger projects here. Indeed in both countries perennial combinations perennial plantings are beginning to emerge in public spaces. Places to watch indeed.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Jimi Blake and Hunting Brook Gardens - Gardening's R&D Department

I recently took a day trip to Dublin, flying there and back in one day, which is not something I have done to anywhere before. To go to Ireland and not drink a Guinness seems sacrilege but sometimes needs must. All for a meeting with Jimi Blake and of course a look around the fantastic garden he has created over the last dozen or so years – Hunting Brook Gardens. I went with Anna Mumford of Filbert Press, as we wanted to talk to Jimi about the possibility of doing a book with him.

Jimi's garden is quite amazing. All the more so for its hidden almost unexpected nature. The Irish countryside is, famously, green, not as green as a Boston-Irish St. Patrick's Day hat of course, but a gentle quiet green, so when you drive off the main road up a very undistinguished looking side road up a hill, woodland on one side, and a field of cows on the other, you do not expect to suddenly turn off into a crazily-flamboyant botanico-artistic wonderland. There is something very 'Portland' about the garden: the defiance of obvious climatic boundaries, the combination of rich textures with strong colours, an obvious passion for diversity, the rather whacky sculptural elements – above all a clear love of plants and of things that show them off.

Gaining a reputation as one of our most consummate gardeners Jimi will undoubtedly fill the shoes of Helen Dillon, who has been gradually, and needless to say, gracefully, retiring for a few years now. Plantsmanship and a good eye so often do not go together, but with Jimi they do. He seems to have an eye for enough consistency to balance the more pushy and show-offy of his plants; bananas arise from a mass of lower herbaceous leafy stuff but are sufficiently far away from other bold exotica that you don't get the sense of overstimulating clash that you get in the gardens of many exoticists. In fact I think it is the combination of an interest in bold foliage and in naturalistic planting that makes Hunting Brook Gardens so good; the frothy chaos of the latter (or what is so often frothy chaos by August) is held together and given focus by the strong forms of the former.

Nurseries and plant hunters seem to be making more and more new cultivars and species available. Of these only a very limited number get a wide circulation. In particular there seems to be a wide gap between the sources of introduction and good creative use in gardens. Nurseries and plant producers only have a limited interest in design, and garden designers are rather infamously, often have rather limited plant knowledge. It is people like Jimi who fill the gap, creatively using new plants.

The imaginative use of new plants is most dramatically seen in the woodland garden. This is actually the newest part of the garden, or perhaps I should say that there has been a huge amount of new planting over the last few years, which will take a long time to really take off. For example, Jimi has been planting out a lot of the dramatic woodland plants being introduced by Bleddyn and Sue Wynne-Jones of Crûg Farm nursery in north Wales from the Far East and Central America: many are shrubby Araliaceae (ivy family) with big dramatic palmate leaves, ferns, hardy begonias and 'Solomon's seals' (Polygonatum, Disporum etc.). These are overwhelming foliage plants, with a vast array of form and texture around a limited range of greens; subtle but a very long season. Many of these might have potential as urban courtyard planting, but we need to see them in an environment nearer their native habitat first – like Jimi's woodland.

Some of the older plantings in the woodland have really taken off, showing what a perfect habitat this is: well-drained soil on slopes, but (it being Ireland) never short of rainfall, high shade from beech and sycamore. Rodgersias and Chrysosplenium have begun to run forming big patches with self-sowing Primula florindae dotted around.

One really important aspect of plant introduction is conservation; natural habitats are being destroyed at a terrifying rate in much of the Far East. Plant populations are often highly diverse with very localised genetically-distinct populations, which is not something we are familiar with in Europe, where the same species is found in the same habitat across vast areas. Each mountain top may have distinct species or at least clearly distinct populations. In many cases cultivation in the gardens of the western nursery trade and consumer may be the only chance of survival.

Less than an hour from Dublin, Jimi's garden is perfectly located for easy access. Its a truly inspiring place to meet new plants and see how they might be used, a true R&D department for horticulture.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Travels in Iberia

Its at least a month since we got back from a trip to Spain and Portugal, but better late than never. Basically a holiday but also an opportunity to explore central Portugal, where we are thinking of moving to. One of the things that attracts me about living in Iberia (i.e. Spain/Portugal) is the very high level of biodiversity. It is thought that there are approximately 8,000 species of flowering plant, compared to 1500 in Britain. Many of these have never been seriously evaluated for cultivation, and the possibility of being involved in some pioneering work on this front is an exciting one. A more contemporary approach to garden design is beginning to take off in Spain, and there is the enticing possibility of doing some genuinely pioneering work which might have some fruit. 

One groovy biennial umbellifer - Thapsi villosa, would make  a very dramatic garden plant.
Having got off the ferry in Bilbao in our rather elderly camper van we crossed the Cantabrian region to spend a few days in the Picos de Europa, a region which is deservedly legendary for the richness of its wild flora. How many plants can you think of with the specific name cantabrica? Mostly 'rockery' plants. Much of the region is limestone, which means that it has a particularly rich flora – for some reason, which no-one has yet been able to explain, European wildflower diversity is at its richest on limestone – which does not necessarily apply elsewhere in the world. 

Walking through what is basically a fairly rocky countryside, the richness of the flora is soon apparent, with old walls and rock faces being particularly richly varied habitats. A lot of nice looking plants which are too small for borders or perennial plantings but which you could grow on …. well, rockeries. Which begs a question. Who now has a rockery? They were all the rage in the early 20th century and slowly fell out of fashion. They were still popular when I was growing up in the 1970s; I remember my father was particularly good at building them, and filling them with a wide range of plants. I am not quite sure why they have fallen out of fashion. Maybe it is because so many of them were so downright bad, and once they have gotten out of control, with weeds and rather over-vigorous plants, like the infamous 'silver strangler' Cerastium tomentosum. they were just an embarrassing mess which was singularly difficult to clean up, or remove. Perhaps it is time we took a new look at the concept and develop the neo-rockery, the post-modernist alpine garden and look at using second-hand construction materials instead of rocks. Some Dutch growers have started on this route – ideal for the urban environment. Northern Spain has certainly got a wide range of species which would be perfect.

The Picos de Europa has some fantastic meadows, and what looks like just about enough small-scale agriculture to support them. Most remarkable was a wet cliff face we found on a walk which we did when we had to leave the poor old camper van to cool down after it over-heated on a particularly steep mountain road. Here, on a jumble of limestone was an extraordinary mix of species from a wide range of habitats all growing together: woodland Anemone hepatica, peat bog Pinguicula vulgaris, dry meadow Eryngium bourgatii, alpine Erinus alpinus, woodland Helleborus foetidus and tall-herb flora Aconitum sp..
Erinus alpinus and Pinguicula vulgaris

Presumably this mix was growing the way it was because of the almost unique combination of circumstances: plenty of water (enough to flush excess calcium out), perfect drainage (or at least highly oxygenated water), and a reasonable amount of nutrients. I was reminded of another gardening concept which looks like it is going the way of the not-much-lamented rockeries of old - the living wall. Killed off by Patrick Blanc's absurdly expensive and over-ambitious creations and a whole run of appallingly designed systems sold, or built, by many others, the living wall is a great idea which needs to be recovered, perhaps by amateur growers who have the time, the plant knowledge and the enthusiasm to really make something of it. 

This little charmer is Hispidela hispanica - an annual with garden promise.
Driving across the increasingly hot an sunny plains of northern Spain in April, it is the annuals that grow on patches of waste ground that seize the botanical attention, mostly daisy family, or species of Silene. Plenty of things here which might belong in annual seed mixes, if only someone would get around to trialling them. On that front, I am glad to hear that there is a chap in Madrid, Miguel Garcia Ovejero, who is working with the Sheffield annual mixes in some Madrid parks and now some perennial mixes too. There is plenty of biodiversity here which could potentially be included.
Somebody asked me recently about new developments in Spain (maybe Portugal too). They should check out Miguel Urquijo and Fernando Martos as designers

I haven't seen much sign of innovative garden design in Portugal yet, though there is a Chaumont-style garden festival at Ponte de Lima, and a lot of the new small urban landscape projects you see around are stunningly good, the hardscaping and concepts at least – I am seriously impressed.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Can we have a sensible discussion about Roundup?

Roundup. Incredibly useful stuff. You've got to plant an area up, but how do you get rid of the existing vegetation, specifically all the persistent perennial weeds like couch, ryegrass, bindweed etc.? Or if you are trying to establish a native wildflower meadow mix on a site dominated by pasture grass? Or deal with Japanese knotweed? Or deal with a persistent weed problem which is threatening to overwhelm an existing, perhaps otherwise very successful planting? Or cope with a weed problem deeply rooted into paving or other hard surfaces? Roundup is usually the answer.

For years, since 1974 in fact, Roundup has been an essential part of the toolkit for the landscape and horticulture industries, and increasingly for nature conservation workers too. Now, in the European Union at least, it appears threatened. It needs to be re-registered by EU rules - a process required for all agrochemicals, and designed to ensure that all materials used are regularly reviewed for safety and environmental impact. Re-registration appears to be being constantly delayed. 

There is an incredible amount of hypocrisy round Roundup, and indeed many other agrochemicals. Well-known designers hoe their 'organic' plots in magazine articles and TV progammes but out of the limelight specify herbicide clearance for many of their clients' gardens. A lot of us love to eat in organic 'artisan' restaurants, buy organic food when it suits us, but carry on buying conventional produce the rest of the time. Conventional agriculture, for all its faults, does a remarkably good job of feeding us, on a steadily diminishing global stock of arable land. 

After a very long time in use, there have been countless studies showing Roundup to be, ok, not something you'd pour over your cornflakes, but pretty well harmless to humans. Then a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer came up which claimed a cancer link. The organic lobby, who having ignored the science on the active ingredient glyphosate for years, grabbed this with both hands and ran with it. Only the other day I read a Facebook posting from somebody describing how she accosted a neighbour and accused him of poisoning the neighbourhood. Now there is a story, see here, about how unpublished evidence of glyphosate's safety has been ignored. The cancer scare should perhaps have never seen the light of day, and a lot of unnecessary controversy and worry avoided.

For us in the garden and landscape industry there are two main questions here. One is the safety of this very widely used chemical, specifically of glyphosate, its active ingredient. The other is, given that its safety record has actually been remarkably good over 42 years on the market, why is re-registering so politically fraught?

It is always difficult for those of us outside a narrow scientific circle to really assess whether a chemical is safe or not. Scientific and medical research uses a jargon which can be impenetrable and rarely gives the clear answers we want. Such research is often passed on to us by journalists, who rarely have any better understanding of science jargon than we do, and often have little interest in doing so. There is a further problem, which is a political muddying of the waters. Environmental campaign groups have long had it in for all agrochemicals, and their well-funded press departments are all too quick to fling out press releases on the latest research findings giving their own point of view. Journalists overwhelmingly react to these, rather than research on their own, they written in plain English, and inevitably take up no more than one side of A4.

Every now and again, I try to take a look at what the scientists are saying, and I have a chat with a colleague who is a plant sciences prof. and does work for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. What I see and hear is not, to be honest, hugely worrying. You can check it out for yourself on wikipedia – which gives a good dispassionate summary with lots of references. I personally use Roundup, mostly on nursery plots, for which I find it incredibly useful.

Roundup's being in the dock is largely political, an example of how the garden and landscape world is getting blow-back from other, bigger controversies. Many environmentalists hate Roundup because it was invented by Monsanto, an American multinational. It is very hard to have a sensible conversation about this company with many people, largely because of the genetically-modified crops issue. Has there been a single negative impact on human health because of GM crops? No. So, why the almost-hysterical opposition? The sheer irrationality of much of the debate has seeped into and poisoned sensible discussion of so much else. Of course need to discuss how and when we use agrochemicals in the managed landscape, and to continually review this. But we need to look at the evidence and take it from there.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Moving on?

“You should have seen the garden last week” is a comment often heard from the lips of gardeners. In fact it has become something of a joke, about nature's unwillingness to perform on cue, or the inevitable tendency of gardeners to express dissatisfaction with their creations. How much sadder however is “you should have seen the garden last year” or worse still, “... several years ago”.

I have, in my time, been to more than a few gardens which are past their best, and not in a good way. Certain gardens just seem to decay gracefully and still maintain their dignity. Others though decay badly, and sadly. I particularly notice this with gardens which are the result of their owners overextending themselves and being unable to keep up with the maintenance of their own creations. Or being unable to downsize and adjust to changing circumstances.

So, this is one reason, amongst many, that we are planning to move on from Montpelier Cottage. We have been there for twelve years and achieved a lot, and I have certainly learnt a lot. But it is time to move on. I have always seen my personal garden making as much as a process of learning and experimentation as anything else, and I now rather feel that the learning process is plateauing out. There is so much else to be gained from being somewhere else, with different potentials and challenges of soil and climate.

Herefordshire is pretty wet, has very fertile soils and an increasingly we are all having a longer growing season. Stuff grows furiously well, and it has been a great place to grow perennials and learn about their habits and cycles of growth. Unfortunately the weeds benefit too, and I now feel that I spend so much time weeding, or paying others to weed, that it is becoming rather counter-productive. Part of what I have done here however, has been to set up some trial plots looking at low-maintenance weed-resistant planting. They have been very successful and I can confidently say I can now design and recommend plant combinations that will do this. However I am also looking for people who might be able to take on some of the plot combinations for further evaluation. Any volunteers?

The proviso with the weed-resistant perennial combinations is that they are rather restricted in the number of species they use: so these combinations are great for clients such as landscape designers but unsatisfying for the gardener who wants to grow lots of different plants. A few ornamental perennials really do work together to suppress the incredibly effective unwanted plants we have to cope with: mostly pasture grasses, creeping buttercup, nettles etc. However, like many gardeners I want to grow stuff I can't at the moment, or cannot, without a great deal of (mostly weeding) effort.

Now, Jo's daughter and family are decamping/emigrating to Portugal. Total disgust with Brexit, fears for the future of our country, realising that the open society we all fondly thought we were in is in fact something else. A chance for the children to learn another language and get European passports. We think we might join them, and are provisionally thinking of renting a property somewhere most probably in central/northern Portugal next year, as a first step. Maybe a garden there? The sunnier climate is an attraction, but one without a severe water shortage. The country feels like a backwater which is beginning to go good places, whereas I fear Britain is at the top of a long slippery slope towards becoming a backwater. Interesting things are beginning to happen in garden and landscape design both there and in Spain. Some of the new landscaping one can see in Portuguese towns and cities is amazingly good and cutting edge.

I went through several months of feeling very sad about leaving where we are, but the frustrations of trying to keep the garden at an acceptable level with my limited (physical and financial) resources have driven me more and more towards thinking positive about leaving. One pull factor is the very rich flora of Iberia. Yes, I know I complain endlessly about eucalyptus in Portugal, but having just come back from two weeks travelling around (Picos de Europa down to Beixa Alta) I can only look forward to being somewhere much more botanically exciting than Britain: there are c. 7500 flowering plant species here, compared to Britain's 1500. There is a great deal of stuff there which could be good garden and landscape plants. I've always been attracted to the trialling of new plants for cultivation. Not the old-fashioned 'plant hunting' but something much more systematic – looking for species to fill particular functional or aesthetic niches, particularly those which might perform well in drought-stressed or dry summer climates.

For now, this year will be the last one to be able to see the garden. Let me know if you want to come and visit, remember we do B&B. Also, come the autumn there may be plants to dig up if you want to give them a new home. Or indeed a property to buy if anyone is interested!

I shall be very interested in hearing from people already garden making in Portugal or Spain.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

RHS Shows - A Requiem for a great institution

I've taken some time to get this post up, seems ages that I was down in London to do a lecture for the Royal Horticultural Society Spring Show. I'm surprised that I have never done a blog about RHS shows before as they have been a big part of my life, and have been for many other garden people, but unfortunately the way things have gone they won't be for a younger generation. So this posting is a bit of a requiem for what used to be one of London's great institutions.

This particular show was a joint effort with the Orchid Society of Great Britain (quaint that, we used to be Great Britain but at some point we became the rather anodyne United Kingdom; soon of course we probably won't be that either). The Early Spring Show always was a joint enterprise, as there never used to be an enormous amount out in March, but a lot of orchids were looking at their best. This year, much to the disgust of many RHS members, the show in the 'Old Hall' was run separately by the OSGB and everyone, including RHS members, had to pay to go in; traditionally membership entitled you to go to every show. Much grumbling at the gate.

It was a fab show, but then orchids are pretty fab anyway. What was interesting was to see how orchid growing has changed over the years. It is now far more democratic, although the social changes that have happened over the years have been in play for a long time. Once the preserve of the very wealthy, orchid growing has come down the social scale nicely over the years. Centrally-heated houses, cheap methods of mass-production, mass tourism to Thailand where people can see the things in windowboxes - all must have helped.

And one of the most intriguing aspects of the democratisation of orchid growing was here, the Writhlington School Orchid Project, a truly wonderful enterprise, especially since it is at a state school not a private one. Read about it here. It's a wonderful example of integrating hobby orchid growing with science teaching.

Anyway what I really wanted to talk about was not so much orchids but the RHS London shows. In the dim and distant past they used to be every two weeks and were even known to a previous generation as "the fortnightlies". My first awareness of them was my dad going up to London in the 1970s and coming back with catalogues of rhododendrons and pieris and all the other things which flourish on the acid sandstone of Sevenoaks where we lived. Now my dad used to hate London, so they must have been pretty good, and him a very keen gardener, to get him up there. By the time I had started going, they were down to one a month.

By the time I was running my own nursery, showing at the London shows was the obvious thing to do. So from 1988 to 1994 I used to show and sell plants for probably around six shows a year. There was always a fantastic atmosphere, a great way to get to know other growers, see new plants, meet all the top people in British gardening and make friends. Some of the people I met then are still really good friends. The thing I shall always remember was the smell as soon as you entered one of the two halls the RHS owned, a combined mix of flowers and foliage with, I suppose, an undertone of potting compost. You'd spend a day setting up, helped by whoever you knew in London you could rope in to help you. They you'd sell plants and catalogues and answer questions frantically for two days, before breaking it all up and shoving it back, minus the plants you had sold, into your van and the drive back down to - in my case, Bristol.

Shows would generally be in one hall, the New Hall, a rather splendid Art Deco edifice with a fantastic high arching ceiling and wonderful light. If they were really big shows - The Early Spring and the Great Autumn, they would be in the Old Hall and the New Hall. They generally ran for two days and were a great opportunity for people who either lived in London or would come in to London regularly, to buy plants, see what was new, meet people, use the RHS library and generally hang out. Traditionally it was the wealthy, and often quite aristocratic, folk who would have a London house or flat, as well as a country 'seat', who came. They would buy plants which would end up in their garden in the country. But they were also fantastic for people who live in London, particularly for those who were just beginning to get excited about plants and gardening. As my life began to turn from running a nursery to writing, I would quite often send people I met in publishing off to an RHS show. They always came back energised and delighted.

Sadly though, the RHS realised, around 15 years ago that they could make more money selling space in the halls to computer and antique fairs, or renting them out for exams. This coincided with the greater expense and difficulty involved in driving a van into central London, parking it outside for the duration of your setting-up, finding somewhere to park it the rest of the time you were in town, finding somewhere to stay, etc, etc. The number of nurseries began to drop off, and as they diminished, the visitor numbers began to drop too. It became a vicious circle. Many London RHS members were suspicious that the RHS were trying to kill off the shows, so they could make more money renting the halls out. There were accusations that they were not making much effort to market them. The sad thing was that as the shows began to die, the great boom in vegetable growing took off, and the RHS was no longer in a position to attract a new, and younger audience. In 2011, the RHS announced that they had leased the New Hall (now the called the Lawrence Hall) to Westminster School for 999 years, and it would be used for flower shows only four times a year. No doubt they will do good things with the £18million they got for the deal (which makes you think, what kind of school is it that has that money to spend ! the only person I ever knew who went to Westminster ended up joining the International Marxist Group - I remember him swanking around in one of those combat jackets the IRA used to wear). BUT to lose your London base, the opportunity to present gardening to one of the world's wealthiest and most dynamic cities, seems to many of us like selling the family silver for a mess of pottage. (for non-English readers, that means a bowl of watery soup). The loss of the shows has been a great sadness for many.