A Happy New Year

Happy New Year

2014 styling courtesy of Wellyman

2014 will be the year I sow when I’m meant to sow. My little plants won’t be ravaged by slugs. I will actually get round to planting some lilies in pots by my front door, after 7 years of saying I would but never actually doing it. I will ‘Chelsea Chop’ when Chelsea is on, rather than remembering in late June when the time has passed. In 2014 I will try not to sow too many seeds in my trays. I will then attempt to be ruthless when thinning and potting on. I will endeavour to put seed labels back in their home in the greenhouse rather than festoon them in a multitude of places. This will avoid the ‘hunt the plant label’ diversion which turns a relaxing afternoon pottering into a frustrating few hours with little to show for my effort. I will clean and sharpen my secateurs and flower snips after use, rather than waiting until they wouldn’t cut through jelly. But, most of all I will learn to accept that gardening isn’t about rules and perfection, it’s about fun and love and fresh air and butterflies. It’s about squeakily-fresh French beans, the sweetest of podded peas, sun warmed strawberries and buckets full of flowers. And if I don’t manage to keep any of my gardening resolutions then it doesn’t matter . . . Well, apart from the lilies one, because I REALLY do want to grow lilies this year.

Wishing you all a ‘Happy New Year’. I hope 2014 is a wonderful year for you all. Happy gardening! WW x

Merry Christmas

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Snow couple

I came home one day last week to find a package waiting for me. Inside was this delightful snow couple made by my very talented sister-in-law, Liz. They’re the perfect final touch to the decorations. Now I just need to do a spot of baking and wrap the presents, and of course, wish you all a very merry Christmas.

The predicted storm has arrived here in Wales. There’s a howling gale outside and rain lashing down so I hope everyone stays safe and warm, and if the weather is making you feel a bit gloomy then I’ve included a link to a very funny version of the Twelve days of Christmas. It’s read by Frank Kelly, an Irish actor best known for playing Father Jack in the comedy Father Ted. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if all of those gifts over the twelve days actually turned up it could well be something like this version. Hope it makes you smile.

Merry Christmas, WW x

Finding Inspiration

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What are your favourites?

What are your favourites?

It seems that the speech Dr Hessayon gave at the recent Garden Media Guild awards has created a bit of a stir. He wasn’t very optimistic about the future of gardening books, and in particular reference books, suggesting that the internet is killing them off. It was a statement that a substantial part of the audience, the assembled writers and publishers, probably didn’t want to hear. Then came a feature on the Guardian’s website entitled ‘Why are gardening books so boring?’ by Lucy Masters.

I LOVE books and always have, well, apart from a period of about a year after my degree when I couldn’t get beyond the second page of any book I picked up. My year at university had been a case of book overload and had taken the pleasure out of reading; I needed a break. It was gardening books that got me reading again. Wellyman bought me a set of Alan Titchmarsh books. We had just moved home from living abroad. I was stuck in a hotel on my own before we could move into our flat and all of our possessions were still in storage. I devoured those books in a day, mentally planning out a garden.

I advise anyone I know who takes on an allotment to spend the winter months reading as many gardening books as possible, taking notes and formulating ideas, then they can start the growing season with confidence and a plan. That’s the brilliant thing about gardening, you don’t need to go to college to be able to learn enough to have a beautiful garden and productive allotment. But are there the books out there to teach and inspire gardeners? If anyone has been to the RHS bookshop at Wisley it would be hard to say there isn’t enough choice. Some subjects have been covered more than others in recent years. The popularity of urban gardens and allotments mean there are container books and grow your own fruit and vegetable books galore. But this isn’t unusual, it happens with anything that has become popular, authors and publishers are simply capturing the zeitgeist of recent times.

I don’t think there is much doubt that the internet will have an impact, if it has not done so already, on gardening reference books. I’m much more likely whilst I’m writing to search online if I need information quickly. But, when I’m in the garden and I’m not sure how to prune a particular plant or I’m wondering which pest is chomping on the leaves in front of me it’s a book I’ll turn to. When my hands are covered in soil, I need some tips quickly and I’m gingerly tiptoeing through the kitchen trying not to shower everywhere with compost a book is much more forgiving than a computer keyboard. Perhaps the reference book’s days aren’t numbered just yet.

Complaints about gardening books seem to focus on the idea that many books are ‘celebrity’ driven, that books are aimed at too broad an audience and books are too often pitched at the non-experienced gardener. All these factors are driven by economics; is a book commercially viable? Perhaps it’s unpalatable but the reality is that publishers need to produce books which will sell well if they are to at very least recoup their costs. It shouldn’t then be any surprise that authors with a TV presence prove to be popular with publishers. They already have a large audience of fans and potential buyers. There are books by well-known faces which make me wonder what else are they offering but a ‘celebrity’ author doesn’t have to mean a lack of substance or knowledge. Alys Fowler and James Wong are both hugely knowledgeable and have inspired young and old alike to look at food and plants in a different way. Some of my own favourite gardening books are by Carol Klein, a gardener and writer who exudes enthusiasm for her subject, and Monty Don writes thoughtfully about connecting with the soil and nature. To dismiss these writers simply because they are on TV would mean missing out on some great reading.

Go to a publisher with what they consider a niche idea for a book and if they can’t make the figures add up then you’ll be unlikely to get it commissioned. There’s the option for an author to self-publish but it isn’t an easy option. New avenues are opening up such as Unbound but to get the money you would still need a profile of some description to gain funding from the public.

Working out where to pitch a book can be tricky too. Don’t write about the basics and you could exclude those new to the subject and not provide a comprehensive coverage of a topic, include the basics and you risk annoying the more experienced gardener who thinks ‘Blah, blah, blah, I know all this already’. Certainly what I have learnt from gardening is that no matter how experienced you are someone else may have a tip or sliver of information, however simple, that you haven’t thought of or come across before.

The other problem is the value put on writing itself. In a world where free content is increasing are people willing to pay for creativity any more? Few people would probably say they like advertising but it makes paid for content possible in magazines and newspapers. I remember an interview with Ian Hislop where he explained why Private Eye hadn’t gone down the route of free online content. He said he had explained to his children that if they ever wanted a job in the creative industries how would they ever earn a living if their work was given away for free. The perceptions of worth seem to be changing too? I overheard a couple complaining about the price of a book in a shop recently. It was the same price as the the bottles of wine they had in their trolley but they obviously didn’t see the value in a book they could go back to again and again. Creating a book is time-consuming, in some cases it can feel as if it has taken over your life. Unfortunately advances don’t cover the true time spent creating the book and so the author waits, hoping they’ve made something people want to buy. The phrase ‘deferred gratification’ couldn’t be more apt than for writing a book. More knowledgeable gardeners may crave specialist books. But the more niche a book the less of an audience and the less likely the author is ever to be rewarded for their efforts. And so, in the immortal words of ABBA ‘Money, Money, Money’ is the driving force. Whether it’s authors needing to make some sort of living and having to make compromises, whether it’s publishers needing to turn a profit and whether it’s consumers making choices with how and where they spend their own cash.

It’s quite a gloomy prospect, particularly for a new author but I didn’t want to end on such a negative thought because I do think there are some fabulously interesting and inspiring books out there. So here are my suggestions for useful and inspiring garden reading:

  • I love all of Carol Klein’s books but my favourite is ‘Grow Your Own Garden’. A subject which could be dry and dull but this is neither. Informative and enjoyable with useful tables at the back for quick reference.
  • Monty Don’s ‘The Jewel Garden’. He writes with a passion and eloquence about the making of his garden, the depression he suffers from and how the connection with the soil helps to heal him.
  • Cleve West’s ‘Our Plot‘. A celebration of allotments this isn’t a ‘how to grow’ book but with a plethora of those to choose from anyway this is no bad thing. Should be required reading for planners who should understand how important spaces for growing are in our communities.
  • Alan Titchmarsh ‘How to be a Gardener’ and the ‘Complete Gardener’. I would recommend these to any first time gardener. Packed full of information to start you on a lifetime of gardening.
  • Anything by Alys Fowler and Mark Diacono for their fresh approaches to writing and growing.
  • Charles Dowding’s ‘Salad Leaves for all Seasons’. This man knows his stuff. Ditch the supermarket salad bags of soggy leaves and grow your own.
  • Other favourites include Val Bourne’s Ten Minute Gardener books, any of Anna Pavord’s books and Elspeth Thompson’s writing.

I’d love to hear what you think about gardening books. Which are your favourites, the authors you love and what books you would like to see published in the future?

Inspired by Nature

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Winter's scene (this isn't a black and white)

A wintery scene

Much as I have loved the mild weather we have had so far this autumn and winter, it hasn’t felt particularly seasonal. We have had only two real frosts up to now and I have had to keep reminding myself that it’s December and Christmas is not far away at all. I’m torn really, I’m not a lover of the cold, but I am a sucker for a Christmas that looks like the images on the cards – all snow-covered houses, frosty trees and smiley snowmen. I know the reality is somewhat different, our transport system grinds to a halt and our hospitals fill with people who have fallen over but two of the loveliest Christmases we’ve had were recent white Christmases. We were snowed in at my parents for one of them. We played scrabble, we read, made an enormous snowman and warmed ourselves in front of the fire. The other time we were at home. The countryside around us was under several inches of snow and looked like wintery perfection. We saw people skiing in the Brecon Beacons, watched birds skate on the frozen canal and followed animal tracks in the snow. Of course, once it’s no longer pristine white and turns to slush it loses its appeal, even for me. But, for just a few days everything looks magically different. And I think that’s why I love it so much, a touch of frost and a sprinkling of snow transforms the dull and drab landscape of our typical winters.

Foraged finds

Foraged finds

With little sign of a white Christmas this year I have been thinking of other ways to create that festive spirit. Upstairs, in my spare room, I have boxes of goodies, reminders of the summer that has gone. Dried flowers, seed heads and grasses are joined by bits and pieces I have foraged over the autumn. I have always loved using natural decorations, particularly at Christmas. I used to just pick up cones and wind-fall branches when I was out on walks but over the last couple of years I have started to grow plants specifically for drying and decorating. The collection has grown bigger each year, so much so I have often ended up wondering what to do with it all.

A Brambly Hedge inspired natural wreath

A Brambly Hedge inspired natural wreath

Last year I was asked to do some flower arrangements for a dinner at Kate Humble’s rural skills farm. Problem was it was February and very much winter. Lets just say I was so very glad I hadn’t composted my honesty seed heads, grasses and teasels, as I had been planning to do the previous week. Jam jars of dried posies were delivered to them which were dotted about the tables, the honesty sparkling in the candle light.

Woven birch and crab apple decoration

Woven birch and crab apple decoration

This year my stocks of dried material were even bigger. I couldn’t get into the shed at one point I had so many bundles of drying plant material dangling from the roof. And the gas man looked more than a little puzzled by the collection of plants hanging in the airing cupboard. Using dried material is a really useful way to decorate for Christmas in advance. Much as I would love swags of evergreens around the house throughout December, shrivelled, dry leaves wouldn’t be so appealing by Christmas. So I use my dried material throughout November and December and then add in the fresh pickings in the days leading up to Christmas Day.

If you would like to see some more of my ideas for natural Christmas decorations, both dried and fresh, you might like to take a look at this month’s The Simple Things magazine which is out now. There were ideas in last month’s issue too which is still available to buy online. So the feature could be ready to be published in time the photographs were taken at the start of October. Wellyman LOVES Christmas, so I was surprised on the day of the shoot at how restrained he was. He didn’t greet the editor and photographer in a reindeer onesie with Wham’s Last Christmas blaring out, and instead settled for making Christmas tree-shaped biscuits, with a quick play of some carols on the piano. It was great fun making all of the decorations and fascinating to see the process of putting together a magazine feature. If you get the chance to see the outcome I hope you like it.

For more information about The Simple Things. And here’s a peek inside this month’s issue.

There are also a few ideas over on Wellyman’s own blog Pianolearner.

Grow Wild – Transform Your Community

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Meadowy delight

Meadowy delight

I don’t know if you got a chance to catch the first part of the new gardening programme, The Great British Garden Revival,  last night. A series of ten programmes kicked off with Monty Don extolling the virtues of our native wild flowers and highlighting the decline in our native species. It’s a subject I’m really passionate about. We’re lucky here in south Wales to have some stunningly beautiful meadows. Tiny pockets of land, which have been protected by the local wildlife trust, sparkle every summer with wild flowers and teem with insects.

I’ve written here about my favourite spot, just outside Monmouth several times. Last year as part of Wellyman’s degree we spent a morning recording species on the site comparing the diversity of plants between two fields. One was classed as unimproved pasture land and had been managed without any fertilisers for over ten years. The other field had been fertilised up until about two years ago. It was a fascinating few hours. Using a grid system we randomly selected squares to record. We were finding between two and ten species per square in the improved grassland but once in the unimproved field the distinction was clear almost immediately. Here recordings ranged from the high teens up to thirty. It was impressive that there could be such a difference when no more than 30 metres separated the two sample sites.

Grow Wild Barrhead flagship project

Grow Wild Barrhead flagship project

Wild flowers thrive on soil lacking in fertility and this ability is something we could exploit. We can all probably think of a patch of scruffy unused land somewhere, seemingly not much good for anything, that sits there unloved and makes our hearts sinks every time we see it. So I was really excited when I was contacted about a new initiative devised by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and funded by the Big Lottery Fund. Grow Wild will transform sites across the UK into wild flower gardens. The first Grow Wild Flagship site has been awarded to Barrhead in Scotland which will see a former sewage works transformed into an oasis of native flora. There’s even a plan for the derelict sewage tanks to be used as huge planters showcasing Scottish native wild flowers. Nominations are now open for a flagship site in England, with projects in Wales and Ireland to follow in 2015 and 2016. The winning English project will be given £120,000 to create a mini nature reserve in their town or city.

Kew and the Big Lottery Fund hope to encourage over 3 million people to get involved with wild flowers through this initiative, distributing 1 million packets of seeds through a variety of partners such as Girlguiding, Groundwork UK and the Prince’s Trust. There are also smaller grants available for community projects but you’ll have to act fast as the closing date for these is in January 2014.

Delicate harebells

Delicate harebells

There’s something very special about wild flowers. Perhaps it’s their simplicity, maybe it’s because they were often the first flowers we encountered as a child; whatever the reason, a meadow is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful sights in the British landscape. It would be desperately sad for us to see our native flowers disappear and it would have a terrible knock-on effect on biodiversity. So, if you were watching Monty last night wishing you had the space for your own meadow then maybe this is an opportunity to get involved in creating a space for wild flowers. If you can think of somewhere local to you which is currently a temple to shopping trolleys, rubble and brambles, a disused, neglected patch of land which has become an eyesore, then why not nominate it and who knows, maybe by the summer of 2015 you will be walking past a sea of grasses and wild flowers swaying in the breeze.

To nominate a potential site in England and for more information go to the Grow Wild website. The closing date for nominations is 14th February 2014. A short-list of four sites will then be drawn up and announced in August. Each of these four locations will be given £4000 to develop their proposals and a voting campaign will take place with the ultimate winner announced in October 2014. Work will commence on the winning site with the first wild flowers transforming the chosen project in 2015.

Squirrels, Mr T and inappropriate watering cans

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Ditching the wellies

Ditching the wellies

I’m in a bit of a daze at the moment. Some of it is due to a lack of sleep. We appear to have mice or squirrels in the loft/wall cavities which sound like they are performing their own version of Strictly Come Dancing throughout the night, right above our bedroom. Wellyman and I weren’t keen on the idea it might be a rat so thought we’d refer to it as a squirrel in the hope that would make it all better when lying there at 4am listening to some hobnail booted creatures above our heads. But it turns out rats are preferable to squirrels on the sliding scale of unwanted creatures in your loft. Squirrels, according to the pest control guy, are the animal equivalent of a teenager left home alone. I’ve always had a soft spot for squirrels, even the unloved greys, but apparently they will cause a scene of devastation given half the chance. Not a particularly comforting thought as it seems, on initial inspection, unlikely to be rats. Lets hope for mice then, although it’s hard to imagine something which can squeeze through a gap as narrow as a pen can make so much noise that even Wellyman is roused from sleep.

Only two hours slumber was probably not the best preparation for my day out in London last week. My publisher had invited me along to the Garden Media Guild Awards at a rather swanky hotel on Park Lane. So I ditched the wellies and jeans in favour of heels and a frock and headed east. The awards recognise the best in broadcasting, books, print, photography and online media in relation to gardening. Many of those attending are freelance so I suppose the event doubles as a bit of a Christmas do for those who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to end the year with a bit of a party. Although everyone seemed much too well-behaved for it to resemble a true Christmas party. I wish I could post up some photographs but the ballroom was strangely lit with green lights. Maybe they thought it appropriate as we were all gardeners but it gave everything an odd Kermit-like tinge. It was lovely to meet up with fellow bloggers Michelle, Petra and Naomi. Alan Titchmarsh made an impassioned ‘I have a dream speech’ about the future of gardening and horticulture, Carol Klein looked very glamorous and Matthew Wilson managed to keep the post-lunch (and wine) audience under control. Dr Hessayon, he of the ‘Expert’ books fame, took to the stage to present an award and made a speech, a speech which was oddly misreported in several newspapers. There was much consternation on Twitter from those who had been there – had we really missed the standing ovation? Turns out you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. I was really happy for Jason Ingram, who took the photographs for my book, when he won ‘Photographer of the Year’. Then it was time to leave; the matchsticks would hold my eyelids open no more. I did have to navigate a room of over 300 people with my goody bag first though. I’m sure the idea behind using a watering can as the receptacle for a variety of gardening related gifts rather than an actual bag seemed like a great idea on paper, the recipients were after all a group of gardeners. On the other hand the very long pointy spout was an accident waiting to happen. Numerous groins and a pregnant lady narrowly missed a poke from me but I thought it was safest to make my exit when I realised I had been stood with the spout only millimeters away from the ear of a man who was sitting down behind me. Still, I guess a watering can was an improvement on an axe, the gift given to all the guests a few years ago.

Delicious food at the GMG awards, shame about the green lighting

Delicious food at the GMG awards, shame about the green lighting

Then there was the long trip home before heading off the next day on another long journey to visit family in the north-east for the weekend. And now I’m back home and it’s December and I feel completely unprepared for everything this month demands. The garden and allotment demand little or no attention at this time of year which is just as well really. I miss the fresh air and exercise of a morning spent gardening but I’m enjoying the break this year more than in the past. Scouring seed and plant catalogues and the internet for ideas for projects I’ll be working on next year is exciting but daunting also. Where will I fit it all? Am I biting off more than I can chew? There are the first signs of new life on the plot as daffodils poke through the bare soil, encouraged by the mild autumn. It’s surprisingly how the sight of just a few fat green shoots can spark a feeling of positivity and creativity but they did. It’s going to be a hectic few weeks but I’m determined to get out into the garden and have a poke about in search of new life. As we move closer to the shortest day it makes all the difference to my mood to be reminded spring won’t be too far away.

Spring delights

Spring delights

Is gardening cool enough?

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Rainbow Vegetables

Gardening can give so much pleasure.

There is much talk at the moment about the future of gardening. There seems to be a collective panic amongst many within the gardening industry be it growers, writers or the gardening establishment of the RHS that gardening is in decline. The suggestion is younger people aren’t interested in plants, front gardens have been concreted over to give our cars a home for the night and where’s the room for plants in our back gardens when there’s hot tubs, trampolines and barbecues the size of some people’s kitchens taking up all the space.

Two new garden programmes will be on the BBC soon – The Great British Garden Revival and The Great Allotment Challenge – which it hopes will reignite the nation’s passion for plants. But is there a crisis in the first place? Certainly in my experience I know few people who garden and by garden I mean actively grow plants, mowing a lawn once a week doesn’t count. But if I think back to when I was growing up in the eighties I don’t remember gardening featuring highly as a hobby for the parents of my friends. So has much changed?

There’s certainly more opportunities to spend money on gardening products than ever before. But garden centres and even the large flower shows, where there is a huge focus on non-plant related garden paraphenalia, have changed our ideas about what constitutes gardening. The phrase ‘outdoor room’ makes me shudder but that has been the trend of recent years and means many gardens are becoming a repository for everything BUT plants.

There’s much comparison between the seemingly insatiable appetite for food programmes and the distinct lack of gardening on TV. David Dimbleby recently suggested there should be fewer food and garden programmes. He has a point regarding cookery, some nights it’s wall to wall nosh, but gardening? The half an hour a week of Gardeners’ World hardly counts as a surfeit of plant related telly. It has been suggested that gardening needs to be made cool and instead of people being obsessed by cake decorating and soggy bottoms it’ll be home-grown carrots and gardening gloves that we’ll all want. But food programmes do have one big advantage at capturing our attention and that’s all the sugar and fat? A soil encrusted parsnip isn’t going to get the saliva glands going in quite the same way as butter, cream and oodles of chocolate.

There’s a much quicker result from food. You see the ingredients being combined and then, ‘hey presto!’, a cake appears. It’s much harder to convey the satisfaction that gardening can give in a half hour programme. Sow some carrot seeds and then it’s three months before the result can be shown. Getting hung up on comparisons with the interest in food is distracting. Sales of juicers maybe up 210% but anyone who has ever owned a juicer knows the reality. You use them once or twice then you realise they are a nightmare to clean, they spend a year in the cupboard before you give it away to some unsuspecting relative. Viewing, purchasing and actually doing should not be confused.

Gardening has always been seen as a pastime for an older generation.

Gardening has always been seen as a pastime for an older generation.

Gardening does have a bit of an image problem. I recently received a birthday card from a friend. In the note inside she wrote about how she loved walking around it in spring and seeing the plants poking through. She finished this with ‘I must be getting old’. Admittedly we are both approaching forty so she isn’t wrong but the connection between gardening and age is interesting. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this either. Throughout my twenties and into my thirties I was made to feel as if my love of gardening meant I had progressed all too rapidly towards the world of pipe and slippers. Gardening presenters are, with a few exceptions middle-aged or over, and content often focusses on gardens that many of us unfortunate enough to be on the wrong side of the property boom will never in our wildest dreams be able to afford. These two factors do create a general perception that gardening is not for younger people. But hasn’t this always been the case and does that mean there should be a drive to make gardening trendy and appealing to a younger audience? The first problem is defining what is young. When I stand up after planting bulbs my knees remind me I’m getting older but in terms of the typical age group that watches Gardeners’ World, which is apparently over 60, I would imagine the production team consider me a youngster. The danger is trying to make something trendy can be like watching someone recapturing their youth on the dancefloor – painful. And what works for one programme won’t necessarily translate to another. Just because the format of Top Gear has worked so well, (this is completely unfathomable to me) that doesn’t mean you can shoehorn it into other subjects. Gardening should be seen as open to all, a rewarding and fun hobby but perhaps we need just need to accept that gardening is something that comes to many for the first time in their thirties, forties and even fifties and that in many cases circumstances drive this.

The back garden - under construction

The back garden – under construction

Perhaps a fundamental reason for the success of food programmes is that we all have a kitchen. When it comes to gardening not everyone has the space to grow. A straw poll of people I know includes those who house-share even in their thirties because to buy is too expensive and those who live in flats, again driven by financial circumstance. Then there’s time. Some spend several hours a day just getting to and from work, there’s young children to look after and childcare to arrange. Demanding jobs and increasing ways of spending our leisure time mean gardening is bound to be one of the hobbies that falls by the wayside. I can remember the days before Sunday trading was allowed. It’s hard to imagine now that Sunday was meant to be a day of rest, a day for pottering around the garden. I’m not looking back at the early eighties with rose-tinted glasses, I remember all too well the interminable boredom sometimes that drove us to watch programmes like Bullseye, but the way we use our free time has changed and gardening has suffered as a result. If anything the crisis in gardening is not about those who are choosing not to grow but those who would grow given the chance but a lack of space and time make it impossible. The problems affecting the future of gardening go much deeper.

Our garden transformed by plants

Our garden transformed by plants

I look forward to new, and hopefully inspiring, gardening programmes but if we want to get more people growing it won’t be enough for gardening to pin its hopes on TV to be it’s saviour in the same way The Great British Bake Off has been for cake tins and baking trays. There is a huge focus on gardening in primary schools now so there is hope that this generation of young people will grow up with a love of plants. Whether they have anywhere to grow them may be a different story. Whether land for growing, be it allotments, back gardens or community spaces is available in the future for today’s children to carry on Britain’s great tradition of gardening is down to our politicians, architects, planners, house builders and ultimately us. If this generation don’t value the green spaces we have bought alongside our houses then why should the politicians. If we concrete them over to provide parking why should we expect planners and architects to see a value in gardens. Whether gardening is cool should be the least of our worries.

A Sneaky Peek

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The Cut Flower Patch

The Cut Flower Patch

When I first started writing my blog one of the topics closest to my heart was growing cut flowers on my allotment. I have been a little quiet on the subject this year and that’s because I have been writing a book about it. Up until now I haven’t been able to say too much but at last I no longer have to keep it a secret. So I thought I’d tell you a little bit about it and give you a sneaky peek inside.

The book is called The Cut Flower Patch and it will be published on 6th March. Eeeeekkk!!! It’s all a little odd to be honest. This time last year I had just started the writing and had my first photo shoot. It’s hard to believe that I now have a finished book, I do find myself having to pinch myself. The book is a ‘how to’ guide to creating your own cut flower patch based on my own experiences over the last few years. When I first started growing flowers for cutting I thought I would need lots of space, which I didn’t have, for it to be successful, but it’s surprising what you can do even with a small patch of soil. The book covers everything from preparing a site and how to grow, to how to make your flowers last once picked. There is a whole section devoted to the flowers I’ve found to be the most productive and ideas about how to extend the cutting season using pickings from your garden and the hedgerows.

A page from Chapter 2 of The Cut Flower Patch

A section from Chapter 2 of The Cut Flower Patch

I love my cut flower patch, and it’s so addictive planning my list of what I want to grow next year. I really hope the book will inspire others to cut their own too. It frustrates me that so many flowers are flown half way around the globe. The environmental cost of this is huge. Then there’s the lack of any real choice, originality or seasonality. There are so many plants out there which make stunning cut flowers but we seem to be mainly offered lilies, chrysanthemums and carnations. There’s nothing wrong with any of these flowers as such but I’d like a bit of variety, blooms which reflect the seasons and ones which haven’t damaged the planet in the process. The theme of sustainability runs through the book with thrifty ideas of what to use as vases and using local suppliers and resources where possible.

A section taken from Chapter 9 of The Cut Flower Patch

A section taken from Chapter 9 of The Cut Flower Patch

Writing a book is an odd process. It has been fun, fascinating and at times frustrating. I feel really privileged to have had the opportunity. Like any other job, it comes with its stresses though. For a long period of time it is your baby and then you hand it over to the publisher and you realise it’s a collaboration where the finished product ends up a collection of ideas rather than just your own. I heard an interview with the crime writer Ian Rankin recently in which he said a draft copy of one of his books came back from the editor with a whole character removed from it!!! It can be quite a lonely process too. The ideas were in my head, it was up to me to produce the goods, and in the case of this book that meant not only the words but also the flowers. As a gardener I have always been fairly obsessed by the weather but that was taken to new levels this year. The coldest and latest spring on record followed by such a hot July played havoc with my plans. At times you start to take it personally. Growing flowers for cutting is really easy, growing them for a specific time when a photo shoot has been booked is a whole other ball game. I had small windows of opportunity for my flowers and the allotment to look their best which led to a few sleepless nights and moments of panic. Should I dead head and risk there being no new flowers or should I leave them and risk there being no new flowers. Planned photo shoots had to be rescheduled and there was a point in June when I did wonder if the plot would ever look like summer. But, in the end, it all worked out well and I’m really pleased with the final product. I have Jason Ingram, a wonderful photographer to thank for capturing the flowers and my allotment so beautifully. The photo shoots were one of the best bits of the whole process. Generally they went past in a frantic, lack of sleep induced blur but I loved them. When I have to leave my allotment behind some time in the next year or so it will be lovely to have such a beautiful record of the space I love so much.

Chapter 8 of The Cut Flower Patch

A sneaky peek inside -Chapter 8 of The Cut Flower Patch

The night before the last photo shoot I went up to the plot to give everything a final water and to make sure it was looking at its best. The sense of relief that I was nearly there was almost overwhelming. Tomorrow would be the culmination of all my hard work. I allowed myself a few minutes where I felt a real sense of pride, and then panic took over. The site is quite visible from the main road, and although I hadn’t experienced any problems with vandalism other plots on the other side of the road had. A horrible thought suddenly struck me – ‘What would happen if my flowers were sabotaged over night?’. It sounds funny and more than a tad paranoid now when I look back but this was it, a year’s worth of work now in front of me. The idea that something could happen to it over night was too hard to contemplate. Wellyman, bless him, stayed watch at the plot until 11pm. He probably would have slept up there if I had let him but fortunately our rational brains kicked in and everything was where it needed to be the following day.

So, in less than 4 months the book will be out there, which is quite scary. Of course, that’s always the point but it was an abstract thought when I first started this. The other consequence will be I’ll no longer be just Wellywoman. My cover will be blown!! Oh yes, and I need to get use to the publicity stuff which doesn’t come particularly naturally. So I’d better not forget this bit.

The Cut Flower Patch is available to pre-order now on Amazon here in the UK and in America or from Waterstones. If you would prefer to buy from your local bookshop you can pre-order from there too.

Embracing the shrub

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Hydrangea 'Limelight'

Hydrangea ‘Limelight’

It’s taken a while I’ll admit, but I’m finally starting to love shrubs. Cottage gardens packed full of exuberant herbaceous perennials have always been my ultimate in garden style. As soon as we acquired our own growing space the aim was to cram in as many plants as possible. I love the hotchpotch of cottage garden planting. We used to live in a house in an impossibly pretty village by the Thames. It was all brick and flint houses and long narrow gardens with meandering paths. The house we rented had a garden that had become a little neglected and unloved, as the gardens of rented houses tend to be. Having a rummage and a poke about through the borders I could tell this had been a garden of someone who loved plants. I have an old sepia photo of my great-aunt Dora from the 1920s, all horn-rimmed glasses and pin curls, standing in a similar garden next to towering hollyhocks and sweet peas.

This type of cottage garden planting, created over time through propagation and seed sowing, rather than the more modern approach of mass purchases for a more instant effect appeals to me. But the charming higgledy-piggledy nature of cottage gardens belies the design skills that go into creating that natural looking ‘undesigned’ space. It’s a bit like trying to create the au naturel look with make-up; it’s harder than it looks and often requires more effort than going for the more obvious option. The best cottage gardens were created by gardeners who had an innate ability to work with plants. Their plonking of a particular plant at the front of a border might not have had much conscious thought but deep down there was a plan or some deep-rooted understanding that it would work in that spot.

liquidambar

The appropriately named liquidambar

What I’ve learnt in the last 6 years is that a backbone and structure need to be there for the stars of the show – the herbaceous perennials – to shine. And this is where my new-found love for shrubs has come in. It’s not as if my early planting plans were a shrub-free zone. The teeny fatsia I bought is now an impressive specimen in my shady border and the box balls planted at intervals along the paths to provide evergreen focal points throughout the year have worked well. The idea that we’ll probably be moving has made me start to evaluate the garden and what has worked and what hasn’t. I’ve been thinking about how I have tackled creating my first garden. Looking back I was quite tentative about what to plant. Shrubs and trees are expensive purchases and I was so keen not to get my choices wrong that in some cases it was easier not to buy at all. And that’s how more herbaceous perennials crept in.

I was a little scarred by the 1980s desire for shrubberies and conifer beds. This idea for low maintenance gardens seemed pointless to the young me just becoming interested in plants. Why would you want a garden that was bland and boring, a garden that didn’t change with the seasons? There’s a form of this still out there, the highly designed, restricted palette look that is suggested as the best way forward for small spaces. And so I brought this shrubby baggage with me to my first garden. Some of my early purchases were a reluctant concession to the fact that I didn’t want to be staring out on to a barren, plant-less space over winter. I’ve discovered though that I need shrubs and my garden needs shrubs.

Choosing carefully seems to be the key. Firstly I don’t want my garden to resemble a supermarket car park, the home to so many a shrub. Secondly they take a while to get growing and finally there’s the hit to the bank balance. It’s tempting when considering this last factor to accept shrubby freebies when they become available. Of course, like any gardener my eyes light up at the prospect of free plants and any semblance of discernment tends to disappear out of the window. Much as I love the now substantial winter flowering honeysuckle that came as a rooted sucker from the grounds at college it’s straggly, sprawling nature doesn’t warrant such a prominent position in my garden. The problem is in a small garden everywhere is fairly prominent. This shrub’s days were numbered and its removal was part of a border redesign planned for this autumn. It has a stay of execution now until we have more idea of when and where we might be moving to. I’ve even found some more rooted suckers which I’ve potted up just in case our next space has the perfect tucked away corner where I’ll still be able to smell its heady winter fragrance.

The shrub I have fallen in love with is the Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ I bought two years ago. I have a while to wait for it to put on show. From spring until August it provides an unobtrusive background to geraniums and Iris sibirica, and then delicate ivory panicles of flowers start to appear, lighting up the shady border. I love the contrast between it and the hot colours of my raised beds on the other side of the path zinging with pinks and yellows. And then, as autumn approaches, the flowers take on a tinge of pink which spreads and deepens as the temperature drops and light lessens. It’s a cracker of a plant. Other additions this year included a sarcocca to provide scent by the path to the front door and I finally got round to purchasing some perennial euphorbia. Why it took me so long I don’t know.

Autumnal colour at the start of November

Autumnal colour at the start of November

Looking at my garden over the last week I see how I’m evolving and learning as a gardener. I’m often hard on myself about my gardening ability. There’s a desire to have that ‘perfect’ look, wanting my plants to work together and thrive. They do their own thing though, one will grow a little too well, swamping everything else in sight; another, supposedly slug-resistant addition, will be devoured over night. Despondency does occasionally creep in as my gardening pride is dented. But then I’ll catch a glimpse of something that makes my heart swell and I remember why I love it all so much. I was absent-mindedly staring out of the window the other day and focussed on a part of the garden which really captures what I had hoped I might be able to achieve. The view of the liquidambar in all its autumn glory with the pink of Hydrangea ‘Lime Light’, the dramatic leaves of fatsia and fading colour of the sedums. Even the soggy, black seed pods of the irises add form and interest.

I bought a shiny new notebook when I was in Edinburgh. It has sat on my desk since. I’m aware of the blank pages but a sense of creativity has eluded me. I’ve finally decided it will be my garden notebook. It’s going to be filled with ideas from my current garden, from garden visits and from any inspiration I come across from the blogs and magazines I read. The idea is that wherever we end up I will be more confident and less tentative about designing a new garden. In the past I’ve made notes and copious lists but they’re always on scraps of paper which I lose and don’t have with me when I need them. And so, to get me started, I’d love to know the shrubs you wouldn’t be without.

A Forgotten Fruit

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Quince

Quince (Cydonia oblonga) are an odd fruit, shaped like a knobbly pear, skin the colour of school custard with a downy covering similar to that of a baby bird. And yet, despite being easy to grow in the British climate they’re a bit of a rarity. You won’t find them in supermarkets where a myriad of exotics flown in from abroad are easy to come by. If you’re lucky to have a greengrocer nearby who really knows their stuff you might catch a glimpse of the fruit and it’s unmistakable, almost radioactive, yellow glow.

I first came across this forgotten fruit a few years ago. I’m lucky to live not far from an amazing farmers’ market where twice a month a wealth of locally produced food goes on sale in the village hall. One of the suppliers is an organic fruit grower. He has introduced us to jostaberries, yellow raspberries and an impressive selection of apple varieties including ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’ which does have a pineappley flavour, and ‘Claygate Pearmain’. Then one October Saturday I spotted a tray of quince and I had to snap some up. I wasn’t sure what to do with them but I figured there would be some recipes lurking in my collection of recipe books.

Quince used to be popular here in Britain. It’s ability to work as an accompaniment to meats and cheeses as well as a dessert meant they featured significantly in medieval cooking when the distinction between sweet and savoury food was much more blurred. One drawback though is they can’t be eaten raw when grown in our climate. The flesh is hard, like an unripe pear. Perhaps this explains why quince fell out of favour as our eating habits changed. Cooking softens the flesh and provides the opportunity to add something sweet to reduce the sharpness of the fruit. Quince might not provide the perfect quick snack on the run, like an apple or banana, but the need to spend a little time preparing it isn’t a negative for me. They form part of the bounty of autumn, a time when colder weather and darker nights lend themselves to slow cooked food. A bowl of strawberries wouldn’t satisfy me as it did back in summer, now I crave a crumble, and so far this is my favourite way to eat quince. It’s also rather lovely roasted in wedges with pork chops or you could add it to tagines instead of apricots, like they do in Morocco. Use it in jams and pickles. It’s even a popular flavouring for a fruity brandy in the Balkans.

You can get an idea of the flavour of the fruit from the aroma they emit. Forget those artificial plug-in air fresheners, put a few quince in a bowl and they will fill your room with a beautiful citrus scent until you use them. They last well too, so leaving them in a bowl for several weeks is not a problem. As for the taste, well there’s definitely apple, a hint of orange, the astringency of lemon and a touch of the floral, but not in a parma violets, soapy way. it’s that floral note that elevates quince to a higher fruity level.

Quince are native to western Asia, the area around Afghanistan, Iran and Georgia but they spread into the eastern Mediterranean too and they have been cultivated there for many centuries. The Spanish make dulce membrillo, a fruity paste known as a cheese which goes perfectly as an accompaniment to cheese of the dairy kind. They adapt surprisingly well to growing in our climate, so if you would like to guarantee a supply of the fruit the best way is to grow your own. They are hardy but a warm, sheltered, sunny position is best to protect the blossom from frost and to help the fruit ripen. They are self-fertile so one tree is sufficient and will provide even the most ardent quince-lover enough fruit to get them through the winter. The RHS recommends the varieties ‘Meech’s Prolific’, ‘Vranja Nenadovic’ (AGM) and ‘Portugal’. You might also come across ‘Serbian Gold’ which used to be known as ‘Leskovac’ and is said to be the hardiest and the variety most able to cope with a wetter climate. One of the latest additions is ‘Krymsk’, an introduction from Russia which is said to ripen sufficiently on the tree to be eaten fresh. If you’re tempted then try one of the specialist fruit growers for advice on the best rootstock and which variety would suit your conditions. Otter Farm, Carrob Growers and Brogdale all sell a selection of quince. If space is tight there’s even a patio quince, ‘Sibley’s’, that can be grown in a pot.

You should be able to find quince for sale right through into November so if you can track some down here’s my Spelt, Apple and Quince Crumble recipe.

Ingredients - Enough for 2 but Wellyman does have a big appetite.

  • 80g spelt flour for a nutty flavour
  • 30g butter
  • 20g golden caster sugar
  • 1 medium size apple – I like ‘Blenheim Orange’
  • 1 quince
  • a sprinkle of sugar for the fruit

Making

  • Preheat your oven at 180C or gas mark 4.
  • Wash the downy bloom from your quince and place whole in a pan with boiling water.
  • Cook on a high heat for 10 minutes or until a fork goes into the flesh easily. Then remove from pan and allow to cool.
  • Rub the spelt flour and butter together until you have a breadcrumb type texture.
  • Stir the sugar into the crumble mixture.
  • Cut the quince into chunks, removing the core. You can rub off the skin if you want but it isn’t necessary.
  • Prepare your apple, cutting into small chunks and removing the core.
  • Add the quince with chopped apple to a baking dish and sprinkle with sugar. Dessert apples are naturally much sweeter than the traditional cooker, ‘Bramley’s’, so you won’t need to use as much sugar. As the quince has a natural sharpness a sweeter apple variety works well in the recipe.
  • Then cover with the crumble topping. Place in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes.
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