Wasabi – the real deal

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Wasabi from The Wasabi Company

Wasabi from The Wasabi Company

In a world where the way we shop, cook and eat is changing a growing number of innovative farmers are looking at unusual crops which can be grown in our climate. The Wasabi Company, based in Dorset, is a fascinating example of this.

Wasabi has been grown and eaten in Japan for thousands of years but it has only really come to our attention in Britain as the popularity of sushi has grown. It’s a member of the Brassica family with a flavour similar to horseradish, although the two are not related. In fact, most people in Britain who think they have tried wasabi probably haven’t. Many of the ‘wasabi’ products for sale or those used in pre-prepared foods contain only a very tiny amount of wasabi and are actually made up of horseradish and mustard powder. I had never tasted wasabi, real or otherwise, in fact I’ve never even eaten horseradish, so when I was asked if I would like to try some from The Wasabi Company I thought, why not!

It’s the chunky rhizomes which the plant forms just above ground that are grated to make the wasabi paste. I’ll admit I was a little dubious. I had heard of its reputation to be quite potent and for someone who is a self-confessed chilli wimp I was a little trepidatious. Well, it turns out it’s not as hot as I thought it would be, which in my opinion is a good thing. I’ve never really understood why people love super hot chillies which overwhelm your taste buds and render the rest of a meal virtually tasteless. The heat of wasabi is much more akin to a mustard rather than a chilli and I really liked it.

Would it be actually be a useful product was my next question? I love to cook but I’m becoming a little weary of recipes which require a whole gamut of weird and wonderful ingredients. They are all generally  very tasty, but once opened they often have such a short shelf-life which means you need to eat the same ingredients every other night for a month to use them up, or gain an increasingly eclectic bunch of jars, bottles and tubs in the fridge which are never finished. I imagined it only working with sushi but it turns out it’s actually very versatile. We had it mixed into puréed peas with crème fraîche served with scallops which was delicious, but I was intrigued as to whether it could be used in more day-to-day food. I loved it added to mayonnaise which tasted fantastic with cray fish and it even worked in my humble egg mayo sandwiches. So rather than the rhizomes festering in the fridge they were actually a quick and easy way to add flavour. Apparently you can add it to mashed potato too.

Fresh wasabi needs to be finely grated into a paste to release the flavour (this is not the time to use the cheese grater). The Wasabi Company sell special wasabi graters, (although a microplane would be fine) and a little brush is used to remove the paste from the grater. The flavour lessens within 15 to 20 minutes so it’s best to prepare wasabi just before you want to eat it rather than in advance. It’ll look much paler in colour – a pale green – than any shop-bought wasabi which has colourings added to it.

My young wasabi plant

My young wasabi plant

As for growing my own. Well it’ll take some time to tell whether it’s a suitable plant for home-growing. It seems it can be a tricky plant to cultivate, particularly on a large-scale. In Japan it grows beside cool mountain streams where it is flushed with clear, nutrient-rich water, similar to watercress. This type of growing is known as sawa wasabi and is the most sought after. It’s taken several years of research and trials for The Wasabi Company to get the growing conditions right and as they have over 120 years of experience growing watercress they are certainly well-placed to make commercial cultivation a success. These aren’t conditions I can replicate at home, so I’ll have to make do with growing oka wasabi (soil-grown). It needs lots of shade, doesn’t like extremes in temperature and is hardy down to -5°C. The young wasabi plant came wrapped in hessian and was the size of a good-sized plug plant. Advice is to pot up into a 9cm pot initially so that it can establish a healthy root system. I’m in garden limbo at the moment so mine will have to live in a large pot for the foreseeable future but I’ll have to make sure it’s kept moist and given a regular feed.

An attractive plant in its own right with pretty heart-shaped leaves and delicate white flowers (apparently they’re scented) it could make an excellent addition to a forest garden where shade-loving crops are hard to find. Wasabi will grow to about 60cm tall and it’ll take a few years at least for the plant to form good-sized rhizomes which are ready to lift and eat, but the leaves and stems are also edible. Sounds like a fantastic crop for cooks and growers. Fingers crossed it’s happy growing in Wales.

Thank you to Sophie at Pam LLoyd PR.

For more information, recipes, how to buy the rhizomes and your own wasabi plants go to The Wasabi Company.

 

Are you bored with snowdrops yet?

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A sea of snowdrops at Colesbourne Park

A sea of snowdrops at Colesbourne Park

If the answer to the title of this post is yes then you probably won’t want to continue reading. I know, I know, you can’t get stirred for galanthomania at this time of year. But lets face it, flowery delights in February are a little thin on the ground, we’ve all had enough of winter and are a bit desperate to see some signs of life in the garden. That’s not to take anything away from the beauty of snowdrops but I do think they owe a certain degree of their popularity to the fact that they bloom so early in the year and there is little else to compete for our attention. For a period of about four weeks from mid-February to mid-March gardens with collections of snowdrops are at their peak and it’s hard to not be blown away by the spectacular sight of carpets of these nodding white flowers as far as the eye can see. In fact it can trick you at first glance into thinking it has snowed and that it’s not actually thousands of flowers. Colesbourne Park in the Cotswolds is our nearest snowdrop heaven. Our last visit, a few years ago, was marred by the discovery the camera battery had barely any charge left and, at the time, we didn’t have a spare. But I’m always happy for an excuse to return to a great garden.

Galanthus 'Rosemary Burnham'

Galanthus ‘Rosemary Burnham’

I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to have plant labels dotted about and it does make photography a little difficult.  At somewhere like Colesbourne, which is displaying a collection of different varieties, it’s incredibly useful. In fact I’m increasingly finding myself scrabbling around in gardens hoping there’s a label somewhere so I can find out what a particular plant is called. It’s even more important with a plant where the distinctions between some varieties are not that obvious at first glance and perhaps, in the case of snowdrops, even after a few glances. I did hear several ‘they all look the same to me’ comments whispered among visitors as they passed by. I was of this thinking a few years ago when I was just happy to see clumps of snowdrops, but recently I have been slightly bitten by the galanthus bug. When I say slightly I mean I can spot and appreciate the differences between a collection of snowdrops now, but I’m not yet prepared to spend £25 on a tiny pot with one flower and a few leaves in it, let alone the £1390 plus £4 postage paid yesterday for one bulb of Galanthus plicatus ‘Golden Fleece’. My new-found interest has been ignited partly from some of the blogs I read, and partly from Naomi Slade’s book The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops and the recent talk she gave at the Botanic Gardens in Wales. It was fascinating to wander around Colesbourne on Saturday with my newly appreciative eyes spotting varieties I now recognized and tuning my eyes into the subtle and not so subtle differences between the various varieties.

Galanthus 'Jaquenetta'

Galanthus ‘Jaquenetta’

When you first enter Colesbourne the gentle slope and woodland area is a sea of white. These areas are planted with the common snowdrop Galanthus nivalis, the scented variety ‘S. Arnott’, ‘Hippolyta’, ‘Ophelia’ and ‘James Backhouse’. All have formed substantial clumps and are divided in the summer to increase their populations. The initial snowdrop collection was started by Henry John Elwes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but it was largely forgotten about until the current owners of Colesbourne, Sir Henry Elwes (the great-grandson of Henry John) and his wife Carolyn, started to uncover plants and build up the collection. We were lucky enough to have a quick chat with Sir Henry and glean a little bit of his expert knowledge. Apparently the best time to divide your snowdrops is in July. At this point in the year there is nothing to be seen of the snowdrops above ground as all the foliage has died back, so at Colesbourne they employ a basic system using coloured sticks. Yellow sticks are placed near the clumps as the leaves die back and white sticks are used to mark areas where there are, as yet, no snowdrops. Then in July they lift the clumps, divide them and replant. When I asked him what was the best method to introduce snowdrops into a garden he said it was with potted bulbs at this time of year.

A charming spring planter

A charming spring planter

Small groups of the rarer varieties are planted closer to the house, in borders, raised beds and planters. Displayed this way it’s easier to appreciate what makes them so special. My own favourites were the unusual ivory, green-tinged variety Galanthus ‘Rosemary Burnham’ and the green, frilly petticoated ‘Jaquenetta’ (see above photos). I loved the stone troughs that were dotted about with snowdrops planted alongside iris and cyclamen. Snowdrops can be tricky in containers but large ones like this trough would be worth trying.

Cyclamen coum

Cyclamen coum

Snowdrops aren’t the only attraction to Colesbourne. They have incorporated other winter and early spring-flowering plants. I don’t think I’ve seen such large vibrant clusters of Cyclamen coum, the shocking pink flowers shouting out at you. There’s a growing collection of hellebores, gloriously scented winter honeysuckles and viburnum. It’s a magical spot. Apart from the gentle hum of visitors chatting, the valley in which the estate sits is incredibly peaceful and there’s a real feeling of modern life not intruding. This is an old estate with classic parkland, mossy stone balustrades and urns, and a tiny church. The lake, created to provide hydro-electric power for the house, is stunningly and ethereally blue. It’s believed the colour is due to the colloidal clay in the water.

Colesbourne lake

Colesbourne lake

There’s still time to kick off the garden visiting season with some fantastic displays across the country of snowdrops and early spring flowers. I’d love to hear about your favourite gardens to visit at this time of year.

Scent in the Garden

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Scented narcissi

Scented narcissi

I didn’t inherit any fragrant plants when I took on my garden and I’ll admit scent hasn’t been given enough priority when I’ve been out plant buying. My tastes and ideas have changed from the fairly inexperienced gardener I was eight years ago and I’ve learnt a huge amount in that time, not just about plants but also my own tastes and the type of garden I want to create. Up until we moved here I had gardened mainly in pots to accommodate our frequent moves and the fact that we were renting. Container gardening was a brilliant way to assuage my need to grow, but it’s quite a different discipline to growing in soil and planting with a sense of permanence. Many of my ideas now are driven by my love of cutting plant material to bring indoors to fill vases, and scent is playing an increasing role in these choices. Along with Sue at Backlane Notebook I’m hoping that a ‘Scent in the Garden’ meme will encourage a focus on scented plants, will make me look at this extra dimension to my garden and will uncover some fantastically fragrant plants over the coming months.

For the February instalment of the ‘Scent in the Garden’ I have both Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ and Viburnum tinus flowering, as they have been since the end of November. The freezing temperatures haven’t been enough to discourage the winter-flowering honeysuckle from blooming. It has a tendency in very cold weather to retreat and withhold new flowers until the weather warms up. A few stems have provided a lovely addition to some stunning Cornish scented narcissi, which are a far superior Valentine’s Day gift than any red rose.

February scent

February scent

As for new appearances, there’s sarcococca, or winter box, which smells fabulous. It was just coming into flower in mid-January, but now it is in full bloom. It’s planted by the path which leads from the gate to the front door, so wafts of scent fill the air as you pass by. It’s a relatively new addition to the garden at just two years old and it is still quite small, so at the moment the air needs to be still and relatively warm for the fragrance to come to the attention of your nostrils, otherwise you need to bend down. A garden in the village has two sarcococca plants about a metre high which I covet. They are currently pumping out their heady perfume which means you can smell them well before they come into sight. One day that will be the scene in my own front garden.

In terms of scent, one of the biggest revelations for me in recent years has been the discovery that certain varieties of snowdrops are deliciously fragrant. Most of the snowdrops in my garden are the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis. It’s a great variety – easy to come by, fairly inexpensive and it bulks up readily to form good-sized clumps, the one thing it lacks is scent. I had heard of snowdrops which smelt of honey, but it was only this year, when I attended a talk by the author and snowdrop connoisseur Naomi Slade, that I had the opportunity to sniff a selection of snowdrops. Naomi had brought with her a collection of snowdrops in pots to illustrate the different forms – those with short, strap-like leaves, flowers with layers of petals like a ballerina’s tutu and tall-stemmed blooms with large, nodding heads. As the pots were passed around I smelt each one and made a note of those with the surprisingly potent perfume. ‘S. Arnott’ was the variety which stood out and it immediately went to the top of my must-have plant list.

I probably shouldn’t be making plant purchases until we’re settled in a new garden and I was about to resist the temptation of the plant stand at a recent visit to Colesbourne (more of which in a later post) when Wellyman encouraged me to make a cheeky purchase. He can be quite a persuasive influence when it comes to plant nurseries, but, to be honest, it doesn’t take much to break down my resistance. So here is the latest addition to the scented garden. It’s an exquisite flower and hopefully one day, in the not too distant future, I’ll have enough of clumps of ‘S. Arnott’ so I can pick a few tiny nosegays of snowdrops to bring indoors.

Galanthus 'S. Arnott'

Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’ (copyright Ian Curley)

If you’d like to join in with ‘Scent in the Garden’ just post about what’s perfuming the air in your garden/growing space and leave a comment here or at Sue’s blog Backlane Notebook with a link to your post.

Happy sniffing!

 

Reawakening

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A shy hellebore

A shy hellebore

Slowly but surely the garden is emerging from its winter slumber. On gloomy, grey days the nodding heads of snowdrops glow; on gin-clear days they sparkle and glisten. Hellebores hang their flower heads as if they are too shy to display their beauty. The slender green shoots of crocus bulbs are appearing. One lone crocus is ahead of the pack, its buttermilk-coloured petals opening to the first hints of warm sunshine.

I, too, am experiencing a reawakening. I feel a bit like a bear poking its head out of its winter hibernation home, sniffing the air, rubbing its eyes and deciding whether it’s warm enough to emerge yet. Up until Sunday I would have said no. If I was a bear I’d have retreated inside, had a good scratch and eaten lots of marmalade. That’s what bears do, isn’t it? As I’m not, I put more logs on the fire, I read, I crocheted, I wrote and I ordered seeds. Too many seeds, as usual.

Then it was if that first tantalizing hint of spring arrived. Sunday was a stunner. Crystal clear skies and warm sunshine. Well, when I say warm it was 8⁰C, but that felt positively tropical now there was no north wind to add windchill to the freezing temperatures of the previous week. After weeks of wondering whether my garden mojo would return I was outside filling seed trays with compost and preparing for the first seed to be sown. The compost was cold. Cold enough to make my fingers numb. No seed would be encouraged into life in this, so the seed trays and modules have spent the last few days warming up on the heated propagator and near a radiator. It’s imparted an interesting smell to the kitchen, but hopefully it has created a much more welcoming place to sow my seeds this week.

There’s a lot written at this time of year about whether to sow or not. Most of us are so eager to start growing. The conditions aren’t ideal yet for many seeds and sowing too early can lead to problems later on with a backlog of plants too big to look after indoors but it’s not quite warm enough for them to be planted outdside. Some plants however do need an early start. They can be slow to germinate or just need a long growing season to do their thing. For me this includes flowers for my cutting patch such as ageratum, statice and antirrhinums. Any plants which say on the packet they will flower in their first year from an early start are worth sowing in the coming weeks. They’ll need a bit of warmth in order to germinate and as much daylight as you can give them. But, as we’re only six weeks away from the spring equinox and seven weeks from the clocks going forward, light levels are definitely improving. I also like to get sowing now as I know how frantic March can be. I have limited space so starting off some plants now is one way of staggering the seed sowing demands on the horizon.

Warming up the compost

Warming up the compost

Obviously a few sunny days in February doesn’t mean we can shake off winter just yet – as I’m writing this post, the gloom of winter has returned, with an impenetrable grey sky looming over head. But I’m going to embrace the last few weeks (hopefully) of winter and savour any time in front of the fire. My winter project – a crocheted granny square blanket – is nearly completed. It’s been an epic. All 208 squares are finished and I’m in the process of stitching them together. Then I just need to edge it with a border. The aim is to complete it for the start of March. I hate having unfinished projects lying around, so I know it needs to be completed before the garden grabs my attention.

Granny square blanket

Granny square blanket coming together

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to read in my lunch break. As work has been a bit crazy over the last few weeks (the pattern of freelance work is very much like the frequency of buses) my utopian idea of reading every day hasn’t come to fruition. But my resolution hasn’t been a complete right-off and I have managed to devote some time to this gem of a gardening book.

Michael Pollan - Second Nature

Michael Pollan – Second Nature

Second Nature by Michael Pollan is a fascinating and wittily written book by this American author. It’s worth reading simply for the hilarious description of his war with a woodchuck which sets up home in his garden – I laughed so much I snorted my tea. One of the benefits of working from home is that nobody saw that moment of inelegance. The book is full of deeper, thought-provoking ideas too – our love of roses, a gardener’s relationship with trees and man’s desire to tame nature – with each chapter following the creation of his own garden. I would heartily recommend reading it. Stop drinking your tea though when it comes to the woodchuck bit.

 

Scent in the Garden

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Winter-flowering honeysuckle

Winter-flowering honeysuckle

A few months ago Sue at the blog Backlane Notebook suggested we start a monthly ‘Scent in the Garden’ meme. Being a bit of a fragrant plant lover myself I thought it was a fantastic idea.

For centuries scent was the most important characteristic of a plant. In the days before bathrooms and a plethora of lotions and potions to make us and the world around us smell good, the fragrance of plants was an essential way to combat the many whiffs and pongs that would have been a constant onslaught to our olfactory organs. Nosegays – small posies of scented flowers and foliage – would have been pinned to your dress or coat or simply held under your nose in an attempt to mask whatever unpleasant aroma was in the vicinity. I just love that term ‘nosegay’ – in medieval Britain it meant an ornament to please the nose. Nowadays we have Glade plug-ins.

Now I certainly don’t want to return to the days when the contents of chamber pots were flung out of windows but I do love the idea of embracing fragrant plants and natural perfumes rather than the artificial chemical air fresheners we have today. But, ever since plant breeders started crossing varieties to create fancier flowers and supposedly ‘better’ plants scent has been the feature most likely to be lost in the process. Perhaps as we have become cleaner our interest in fragrant plants has waned. Certainly many shop-bought cut flowers are scentless, and for a period in the mid to late 20th century flower form and disease resistance were higher on the list of priorities for plant breeders, particularly when it came to that classic of all fragrant plants, the rose. Why you would want a rose with no scent is a mystery to me.

I have been enjoying the Great British Garden Revival series of programmes on TV and it has been fantastic to see scent playing a big part, with Toby Buckland championing scented plants and Christine Walkden campaigning for people to rediscover the carnation, a plant which has suffered more than most as a result of the global trade in flowers. So it seems like a great opportunity to seek out, to share and to celebrate all that is scented in our gardens. Sue and I hope you’ll join us each month throughout the coming year by posting about what’s filling your garden or allotment with fragrance. It doesn’t just have to be in your garden though, if you spot a deliciously perfumed plant whilst on your travels, you sniff out something in the hedgerows or you have an indoor plant filling your home with scent please feel free to share them too.

Viburnum tinus 'Gwellian'

Viburnum tinus ‘Gwellian’

Winter might seem like an unlikely time of the year to be able to talk about scented plants but it’s surprising how many shrubs have evolved to flower at this time of year. It’s not easy attracting the small number of pollinating insects which might be flying around in winter, so to maximize their chances of grabbing the attention of a passing bee many winter flowering shrubs have incredible, intoxicating fragrances which will knock your socks off. One of my favourites is the winter-flowering honeysuckle. It’s a scruffy, unkempt plant for much of the year. It doesn’t have much structure other than looking like an unruly twiggy clump. Every year I debate whether to dig it out. Then it had a stay of execution when we started to think about moving as I didn’t want to have to replant the gaping hole it would leave behind. I’m also a bit sentimental about it. My winter honeysuckle was taken from a larger plant in the grounds of the college where I studied horticulture. A fellow student, Peter spotted a stem which had bent down and where it had touched the ground it had rooted. He dug it up and gave it to me. It’s all the more sentimental as Peter died a few years later.

Then, of course, every winter the plant does its thing and I’m smitten all over again. Tiny, delicate ivory flowers with strikingly yellow stamens appear along the woody stems, looking like miniature summer-flowering honeysuckle flowers. And the fragrance is just beautiful. I spent Sunday afternoon in the garden tidying up dying and soggy foliage to reveal the spring bulbs poking through and the honeysuckle perfume which hung in the air was such a treat.

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’

You might say, ‘What’s the point of fragrant flowers in winter, it’s too cold, too wet or snowy to venture outdoors and appreciate them’, but a front garden filled with scented flowers will greet you every time your return home. Even a container planted with Christmas box (sarcoccocca) placed by your front door will raise the spirits on a January day. And, of course, you can always pick a few stems and bring them indoors to enjoy the perfume in the warmth.

My own January fragrant plant count includes Viburnumbodnantense ‘Dawn’, Viburnum tinus ‘Gwenllian’, Sarcoccocca and the winter-flowering honeysuckle, which isn’t too bad but I would love more. In particular, I covet a wintersweet (Chimonanthes), although I’m dismayed to hear it can take up to eight years from planting to flowering. One of my quests is to fill my garden with as many scented plants as possible, so I’m hoping that if you’ll join in this meme I’ll be able to uncover lots of perfumed gems to add too my plant wish list.

If you’d like to join in with ‘Scent in the Garden’ just post about what’s perfuming the air in your garden/growing space and leave a comment here or at Sue’s blog Backlane Notebook with a link to your post.

Happy sniffing!

Hopes and Aspirations

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Christmas Day walk in the Brecon Beacons.

Christmas Day walk in the Brecon Beacons.

For the first time in 16 years Wellyman and I had a whole 2 weeks off this Christmas and what a joy it was. Apart from my Christmas Eve blog post I didn’t touch the computer for the whole time. There were lots of frosty mountain walks, we met up with some lovely friends and caught up with family, ate more than enough dried fruit in all of its festive guises and snuggled in front of the fire watching films and reading books. But, as I’m realising, the longer the break that harder it is to return to the real world, and the fact that it is January, my nemesis, makes it all the more difficult. Oh to be like Anna Chancellor’s character Lucia in the fabulous TV adaptation of the Mapp and Lucia novels, wafting around in a kaftan, picking flowers from the garden, painting on the beach and practicing Beethoven. *whispers* Between you and me, I’d be fine at the first two but rubbish with the brush and the piano.

Instead I find myself ensconced once again in front of the computer, in my slightly bobbly cardigan clutching a cup of tea as the light fades. New Year’s resolutions might not be everyone’s cup of tea but for me they’re one way of motivating myself and giving me a sense of focus. I’ll be celebrating a significant birthday this year and I’m only too aware of how quickly time seems to pass. I know how easy it is once the routine of daily life takes over to forget to book those tickets for that play, or to sign up to that course that caught my eye. Probably the best bit about having a long break this Christmas meant I had a chance to clear my head. For the first time in months, maybe even a year, my brain didn’t feel like it was constantly whirring with thoughts about work, the house, moving, shopping lists etc.

For me New Year’s resolutions should be an encouragement to do the new and interesting or to pick up something I haven’t done for a while rather than a stick to beat myself with. They should be goals or aspirations but if they aren’t achieved I don’t feel as if I’ve failed. In fact we’re only 7 days into 2015 and I’ve already foundered with one of them. The great thing though is that there are another 358 days left to give that particular resolution a go.

So in 2015 I hope to:

– juggle more. Wellyman taught me to juggle when we first got married but in recent years I’ve let my practice slip so much so I can’t remember the last time I picked up the juggling balls. I was always in that forlorn group of kids left to the end when team sports were being picked. It was fair enough to be honest, I was pretty rubbish when it came to hand-eye coordination. I was always more concerned about self-preservation partly due to a rounders bat in the face on one occasion and being taken out by a basketball to the head on another. So it was a huge surprise when Wellyman showed me I wasn’t a lost cause when it came to throwing and catching. It’s fantastic exercise too, particularly when you’re learning as you spend most of your time picking up the balls that you keep dropping.

Christmas gardening books

– read more. This is one I haven’t had great success with so far this year. I was lucky enough to receive this fabulous stash of books for Christmas. Before Christmas I had developed the naughty habit of working through my lunch break, sandwich in hand showering the keyboard in crumbs, so my plan for 2015 is to spend 30 minutes at lunchtime reading. So far, after only 3 days back at work, the plan hasn’t worked but I’m hopeful that I’ll achieve it at least some of the time.

– make more. Rather than dwell on the number of years I’ll be celebrating this coming birthday I’ve decided to use it as a spur to try my hand at a few new crafts I’ve always wanted to learn. There’s book binding, willow weaving and how to navigate my way around a sewing machine for a start. Hopefully there will also be the completion of my winter project of a crocheted blanket. I’m at about the halfway stage at the moment and starting to think if I ever see another granny square it’ll be too soon.

Winter project - my granny square blanket

Winter project – my unfinished granny square blanket

So where does growing fit into my plans for 2015. Well, I have a feeling it’s going to be a year where my plans have to be very flexible. I’m keeping the allotment for the foreseeable future at least, and I’ll be trying to treat spring and the early part of summer as normal, after that, well, who knows. If I need to dig up and move a cut flower patch mid-growing season well so be it. My blog posts may be a bit less welly/garden based this year as a result of possibly moving so I hope you’ll bear with me. It’s been quite hard reading about everyone’s plans for the forthcoming gardening year on twitter and blogs when I feel in such a state of limbo myself. In some ways the resolutions I’ve picked are a way of distracting myself from this state of mind and forcing me to stay positive about the year ahead. I do have plans though for a series of blog posts entitled ‘Inspired by Nature’ so I’m looking forward to writing those, hopefully you’ll enjoy reading them.

Wishing you all a fabulous 2015. x

What’s in a name?

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Gladioli murielae or acidanthera

Gladiolus murielae or acidanthera

There was a time when plant names were long-winded descriptions of a plant’s most notable features or vernacular monikers which might have only been recognized in a small geographic area. Some native plants have, as a result, a remarkable number of names by which they could be known. Arum maculatum or lords and ladies has, according to Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica, another nine common names including ‘Parson in the pulpit’ and ‘Willy lily’. Even over five hundred years ago, when discussing and writing about plants was limited generally to a select few, these methods must have been incredibly tiresome and not at all foolproof ways of identifying plants. Casper Bauhin (1560-1624) was one of the first scientists to devise a more structured way of identifying plants by giving them two names, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that Carl Linnaeus took the idea and ran with it. He set about the task of classifying all living creatures, now known as taxonomy, and giving them a genus and a species name in Latin, a bit like our surname and Christian name.

There’s no doubt his system has been incredibly useful. If we just relied on common names confusion would be widespread. For instance, in Scotland a plane tree refers to the sycamore or Acer pseudoplatanus, in England the plane tree generally means the London plane tree or Platanus x acerfoila but in North America their own native plane tree Platanus occidentalis is commonly known as the plane or sycamore. And, grouping plants together based on shared characteristics has many benefits, from knowing the sort of habitats plants might share to similar chemical compounds which could be useful when creating medicines.

Latin was always the language of science, universally recognised and accepted, and this has allowed scientists, botanists and horticulturalists to share knowledge and plants without the encumbrances of language barriers. However the system is by no means perfect. Whilst Latin may have been embraced by scientists us gardeners haven’t been quite so enthusiastic. So many of us are put off by Latin names as if they hold some mystical quality about them that means the Latin is only for academics. If you do use the Latin there’s always a worry you’ll sound pretentious or you simply won’t be able to get your tongue around the words. I still can’t pronounce the grass anemanthele (pheasant’s tail grass) without sounding as if I’m trying to teach it to a five-year-old by breaking it down into syllables. And then, just when you think you have mastered the names of the plants in your garden, groups of botanists go and change them to something else. The subject of name changes came up last week with Christina over at My Hesperides and she suggested we should both write posts on the subject.

Jacobaea maritima, Senecio cineraria or dusty miller

Jacobaea maritima, Senecio cineraria or dusty miller

The ‘Rule of Priority’ is one reason for name changes. Hostas were first named as such in 1812 after the Austrian botanist Nicholas Host but five years later they were renamed funkia after Heinrich Funk. Right through Victorian Britain they were known as funkias, but in 1905 under the ‘rule of priority’, which states that a plant must be known by the earliest published name, the name hosta was reinstated.

Most name changes which are occurring now are due to improved scientific research and the desire to categorize plants based on genetic information rather than the opinion of individual botanists. In the past, plants were grouped together generally on the basis of shared visual characteristics of the plant, seeds and how the plant reproduced. Botanists are now reclassifying many plants as improvements in microscopy, biochemistry and genetic research improve the understanding of how plants evolved and relate to each other.

It has been only in the last year or so that I have become aware of just how important a regulated and agreed universal system of botanical names actually is. Writing a book which will be sold in other countries has certainly opened my eyes to the complexities of plant naming and the importance of people knowing which plant you are referring to. Despite the Latin system it’s surprising how many plants are still known more readily by a common name, sometimes this can be complicated further by some names being used only in particular countries. Then, of course, there are some plants which have no common name and the Latin is the only way we know the plant. What we’ve ended up with is a remarkably confusing situation which has been complicated further in recent years with the advent of DNA research. For instance, the silver-leafed plant Senecio cineraria more commonly known, particularly in the US, by the name dusty miller should now be known as Jacobaea maritima. Then there are the Michaelmas daisies, Aster novi-belgii and Aster novae- angliae, which it has been decided will now be known as Symphyotrichum novi-belgii and S. novae-angliae and Schizostylis coccinea, or the kaffir lily, which now goes under the name Hesperantha coccinea.

Heartsease or Viola tricolor has a variety of common names

Heartsease or Viola tricolor has a variety of common names

For my books my editor uses the RHS Plant Finder and/or RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants as her guides but even then life isn’t simple. The house style of my publisher asks that a plant has the Latin name used when the plant appears in the text for the first time and then subsequently it can be referred to by the common name. But which common name to pick? Would you know what ‘Harry’s walking stick’ is? Well I didn’t. Turns out it’s another name for contorted hazel. Fortunately there is a degree of flexibility and I have a very understanding editor, so we went with contorted hazel in the end.

So who decides what name a plant will go by? Well, committees of botanical experts meet to discuss potential changes every 5 or 6 years at the International Botanical Congress. Often a botanist will suggest a plant doesn’t belong in the genus it is currently in but it can take years 20 or 30 years in some cases before the idea has picked up enough momentum to be accepted. Changes can also be blocked if it’s believed it could be detrimental; crops in particular tend to be protected from botanical name changes. Imagine the impact name changes could have on areas of the horticultural trade. If, for instance, the name of petunias changed, as was suggested at one point, how would this affect the vast business in bedding plants? Would they continue to use the name petunia thereby making the change seemingly pointless or adhere to the new name and risk losing business if customers didn’t know what they were buying?

So what does all this mean for gardeners? Certainly the need for a regulated and universally accepted system of plant names has never been greater and not just for scientists. As many more gardeners are communicating about growing via social media and blogs we all need to be able to know which plants were are writing about. It does seem to me a little odd though that the system we have means it is easier to revert to a plant’s common name despite all the inherent problems this can cause. And as plant names come under further scrutiny with changes arising it seems more likely that we will continue to use common names. Some plants now have two Latin names, the old one and the new one, and a multitude of common names. I’m not sure this is the ordered system that Linnaeus had in mind. However, I do see that plants placed in groups based on their genetic make-up seems the most logical and useful way of classifying them.

Human nature is generally conservative, we rarely like change and certainly change that makes life more confusing or difficult, even if it’s just in the short-term. I was of a generation which was taught metric at school but I have parents who still use imperial, as a result I have grown up using a mix of both and still favour imperial in certain circumstances. It shows that just because it has been decided that something is the accepted and recognized way of doing it, it can take a long time for changes to filter down and be used by everyone. In the mean time there’s a muddle where both systems have to run alongside each other. Acidanthera is no longer and should be referred to as Gladiolus murielae instead but how many bulb catalogues have made the change? How long it takes for name changes to become accepted outside scientific circles is hard to know but one thing we can be sure about is the world of taxonomy is going to get a lot more confusing.

 

Behind the walls

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Victorian glasshouses and cold frames at West Dean

Victorian glasshouses and cold frames at West Dean

I love walled gardens. There’s the sense of intrigue as to what lies behind those solid, sturdy walls and a feeling that I’m stepping into another world, somewhere where the distractions of life won’t trouble me. It feels as if the walls envelop me like a hug protecting me like they do the plants that grow within the boundary. All walled gardens have a magical air about them, but it’s the classic Victorian versions that are the true pinnacle for me.

Packed herbaceous borders

Packed herbaceous borders

I’ll admit I’m someone who lives by the phrase ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. I’ve always been like it. My parents were never subjected to the horror of a teenager’s messy bedroom with mounds of clothing in the ‘floordrobe’ and items of food left to cultivate an impressive range of moulds. It stood me in good stead for the poky student digs I lived in and the tiny ‘can’t swing a cat’ flat we rented when we first got married. Now I find it hard to write if I know the kitchen is in a bit of a state i.e. Wellyman has been baking again, even if I’m upstairs and the plumes of flour are downstairs. I’ve heard that it’s not unusual for writers to feel they can’t work unless the space around them is tidy – a cluttered house, a cluttered mind perhaps. And I have a bit of a theory that my slightly obsessive tidiness is why I have such a thing for Victorian walled gardens. I drool over the neatly arranged potting sheds and the rows of wheel barrows lined up ready for use. The rows of little plants germinating in perfect rows make me think of my own pathetic attempts where clumps of seedlings are interspersed with bare patches.

Orderly veg

Orderly veg

West Dean, near Chichester in West Sussex, is a magnificent example of a Victorian walled garden restored to its prime and two summers ago I finally managed to visit. Head gardeners Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain have spent over twenty years bringing the gardens and the wider estate back to its former glory days.

Peachy!

Peachy!

Like any grand house in 19th century Britain, West Dean wanted and needed a kitchen garden and orchard to supply the house with food, and it was a notable place with King Edward VII a regular visitor enjoying pheasant shoots held on the estate. The orchard is enclosed within walls. Walled gardens are often thought of as providing protection from the weather but often it was more to do with protecting valuable produce from animals and hungry humans. The fruit collection is impressive with some of the fanciest trained trees I have ever seen, including heritage varieties specific to West Sussex. The walls are put to good use with pears, apples and plums trained against them but there are also specimens dotted about that have been intricately contorted into goblets and domes. Two herbaceous borders run through this walled garden too, offering an ornamental touch to what are often considered purely productive spaces. Although these borders would have been a clever way of supplementing the cutting patch to provide the house with vases of home-grown blooms.

West Dean's cut flower garden

West Dean’s cut flower garden

Ah ha! The cutting patch, now this was a bit of a surprise. I walked through a gateway in the wall into another enclosed space and what was the real hub of the walled garden, with rows of the original cold frames, potting sheds and glistening glasshouses. On the left hand side were beds and borders planted with the sole purpose of supplying flowers for cutting. Needless to say I was in my element. I do love the sense of order created by rows of plants and I think this is why I’ve found growing on my allotment easier than designing and planting my garden.

Elaborate fruit training

Elaborate fruit training

Beyond this was the walled kitchen garden where every bit of the space was used to its full potential. Red and white currants were trained against the walls of a shed now used as an information centre, herbs lined the edges of beds and cane fruits, such as raspberries, were grown in neat rows.

One of West Dean's stunning glasshouses

One of West Dean’s stunning glasshouses

The glasshouses were quite something. I have been to many a walled garden where glasshouses lie unused and forlorn, shades of their former selves, crying out to be loved and filled with plants. Victorian walled gardens are nothing without these buildings. Clever engineering coupled with the ingenuity of 19th growers meant that in a time before air freight and the mass importation of food, crops such as pineapples, peaches, apricots, melons and citrus fruits not suited to our climate could be produced to grace the tables of the wealthy. The sight of the restored glasshouses at West Dean is something very special. There was the peach house with fat, juicy, hairy fruits dripping from a beautifully trained tree, melons dangling from above in another, there were glistening black aubergines and a fantastic array of chillies. There was the glasshouse devoted to tender plants we recognise as house plants. I’ve never been much of a house plant lover but the collections of succulents, streptocarpus, begonias and fabulous stag’s horn ferns were enough to make me change my mind.

Filled with basil. That would make quite a lot of pesto!

Filled with basil. That would make quite a lot of pesto!

It’s incredible to think these glasshouses were completely derelict in the 1990s. They were originally built at the end of the nineteenth century by Foster and Pearson of Nottinghamshire whose client list read like a who’s who of late Victorian high society and included Queen Victoria herself. The glasshouses were an ostentatious symbol of wealth. Only the richest in society could afford these creations and the teams of workers needed to put them to full use. Now though they are not just a symbol of that wealth but also one of our most precious links with our horticultural heritage and the skills, knowledge and hard work of the gardeners who worked there. The glasshouses underwent a restoration process in the 1990s but two of the glasshouses are in need of urgent attention once again. The team at West Dean need to raise £30,000 to repair just one of the glasshouses.

If you’d like to help you can donate. Just £10 could pay for 1kg of nails and a sense of satisfaction that you have helped to save these precious buildings for the future.

For more information about West Dean and visitor information.

Up the Garden Path

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My garden path

My garden path

I have spent quite a lot of time this year assessing my garden, noting what has worked and what hasn’t. If we move I want to learn from my mistakes, if not there are aspects of the garden which most definitely need an overhaul. Surprisingly for someone who considers themselves a plant lover the path we added to the back garden is one of the most successful, and perhaps one of my most favourite elements. I don’t tend to like garden designs which are heavy on hard landscaping. Often show gardens at Chelsea leave me feeling cold because the expanses of sleek and sharp paving are too large in comparison to the areas devoted to planting. That’s not to say though that I don’t appreciate the importance of paths, walls, terraces and patios in a garden but it’s all about getting the proportions right. In my mind the hard landscaping is there to provide the backdrop to what should be the main stars of the show – the plants. So often though vast expanses of paving have replaced plants altogether. Over the last few months I’ve been reacquainting myself with the language of house selling. I know when I see the phrase ‘low-maintenance gardening’ in estate agent blurbs it tends to mean no plants at all and an awful lot of pink paving slabs.

Redesigning a garden

Redesigning our garden back in 2008

One of the reasons why hard landscaping is so hard to get right is partly down to the cost. When we move into a house we often inherit someone else’s taste which doesn’t match our own, but budget often doesn’t allow full-scale change. Most of us have other demands on our money when we move, so digging up a perfectly serviceable but interestingly coloured patio isn’t top of our priority list, particularly if there’s an even more interestingly coloured bathroom to be removed. And so gardens end up with a hotchpotch of hard surfaces which read like a potted history of the DIY centre. In years to come Time Team archaeologists will be able to stratify our gardens – crazy paving – 60s and 70s, coloured paving slabs – 80s, the remains of decking – 90s.

When we moved into this house we inherited an expanse of inoffensive concrete slabs for a patio but the only way to get to the shed was across a patch of grass. In hindsight this blank canvas was fantastic but I spent that first winter cursing every time I slid my way to the shed to collect logs for the wood burner and trod muddy footprints across the kitchen floor. A garden path moved up the priority list pretty quickly. In fact it ended up top-trumping the new bathroom.

The garden and path in 2008 just after it had been laid

The garden and path in 2008 just after it had been laid

There was a lot of graph paper used to come up with the final layout of the path. It needed to provide access to the shed primarily but also to the space behind it – that place where old compost bags reside and the stumpy remains of plants which have seen better days. It also needed to provide the demarcation for the new borders. Beds need to be in proportion with the height of the boundary behind so they should be the same depth as the height of the fence or wall. There was also a tricky part of the garden, a shady spot under the crab apple tree. Grass hadn’t thrived there. Rather than the path go nowhere we decided to make this into a semi-circular terrace, although terrace is perhaps too grand a term for somewhere so small.

I knew what material I wanted for the path before we even moved in. I have always had a thing for old, reclaimed bricks. I wanted any path we created to look like it had been there for a while and old bricks are perfect for creating this lived-in, established look. New landscaping materials just don’t age very well. Even new bricks don’t have the depth of colour and quality of Victorian versions. The idea that we were reusing something too, rather than buying a new material appealed.

A maturing garden

A maturing garden

From the kitchen window I look out on to the path every day and I love it. It has served its practical purpose of providing access to the garden, but has done so much more than that. It has defined the planting areas. In late winter and spring the path lets me get close to the tiny bulbs which line the path. By May voluptuous geraniums and alchemilla tumble over the edge. There comes a point in June when the plants take over and I have to shimmy my way through. Never once do I think about cutting these plants back – I love the exuberance they create. In autumn the path is festooned with leaves from the acer and liquidambar. As winter arrives the herbaceous perennials die back and the path is visible in its full glory providing structure. I’ll idly watch blackbirds scoot about eating fallen crab apples as I wait for the kettle to boil. The free-draining sandy gaps between the bricks where they were bedded in provide the perfect conditions for grasses and primroses to self-sow in among the crevices, which I then prick out and pot on. Then there are the mosses which have colonised the shady part of the garden creating a green carpet. A couple of bricks have cracked due to frost but I even like this as it again gives the garden a feeling of age.

Tumbling plants

Tumbling plants

Ultimately the path has become the backbone of the garden and I love it.

Is there something in your garden or on your allotment which has transformed the space?

P.s. I know, I should have taken more photos of the ‘before and after’. I trawled through my photo archives in the hope I’d taken more, but I hadn’t. It’s funny how blogging has changed my ideas about recording what I do with the garden. It won’t happen again!!!

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