Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Plant Messiah

When I heard that Kew's 'Plant Messiah', Carlos Magdalena, had just brought out his first book I was intrigued. Carlos is a 'Botanical Horticulturist' at Kew, known best for his work bringing critically endangered plants back from the edge of extinction, and his nickname of 'The Plant Messiah' was bestowed on him by none other than legendary naturalist Sir David Attenborough, so a book seemed quite promising...

I've read many things written by people involved heavily in conservation and materials tend to fall into two camps; 'the world is going to die and this is why it's your fault' or 'this is a tree, and trees make the lovely air'. With what I would say is a tolerable understanding of the troubles facing our planet in times to come, and how plants contribute to our world, I really didn't want to read yet another book along these lines.

I was more than a little surprised by this book; part autobiography, part account of real work carried out by the author, this is what the world of plant conservation has needed for some time- a good natured insight into the world of plant conservation that is gripping and thought provoking.

Magdalena's style of writing and his interesting stories of his work in far flung places (as well as 'back at base' behind the scenes at Kew) makes this book a bit of a page turner. Personally I devoured it over the course of two days, and it's currently on loan to a friend who is finding it similarly gripping. The language is straightforward; there's no attempt to force in technical language to make the author look clever, but neither is there an assumption that the reader can't understand technical detail if explained coherently. In fact, the book starts with a brief glossary so all readers get the opportunity to brush up on a few terms before starting the book if they so wish!

This is one of the very few books I own that has moved me to review it; whatever your level of technical expertise this book is fascinating and will renew your interest in safeguarding plant species for the future.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

My Life With Plants, a review

Old wisdom says that you should never meet your heroes, but I've met my gardening hero three times now and it's done me no harm! If you had to write a list of 'great heroes of gardening' then the late and very great Christopher Lloyd would certainly be on the list, as would the very influential Beth Chatto, but I would hope that most lists would included Roy Lancaster.

For me, Roy Lancaster is the very epitome of what a plantsman (or indeed plantswoman) should be; friendly, warm, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, informative. There are those who think that plantsmanship is about men in corduroy trousers or women in floral dresses and big hats professing that a plant merrily living its life in a border should be ripped out in favour of some obscure plant (nearly always something the 'plantsperson' grows themselves), while gaggles of 'lesser gardeners' frantically try to make notes and capture this great 'wisdom'. In truth I find this to be an abhorrent definition of plantsmanship, and I would dearly like to see these 'ships in full sail' barred from gardens nationwide. For me 'plantsmanship' isn't about collecting rare and obscure plants to try and show off to other gardeners and make them feel inferior, plantsmanship is about understanding plants, their diversity and their needs, to make the best selections. You can be a plantsperson using Photinia 'Red Robin' or Potentilla fruticosa 'Abbotswood' (a favourite of mine)- it's not the obscurity of the plant that makes a scheme work, it's the suitability of the plant for the purpose.

Anyone who has heard Roy Lancaster give lectures, been with him on garden tours or come across him in the media will know that he has an infectious way of getting everyone interested in plants; it was Ian Hodgson (former editor of the RHS magazine 'The Garden') who once said “he could make the most nondescript, green looking plant the most interesting thing on the planet just by the very words and passion he conveys”. This is what I believe plantspeople should be like, not bogged down in pointless hierarchies and one-upmanship!

Roy has written several books over the years, ranging from fairly easy going general books about trees and shrubs right through to 'My Travels In China', an impressive and possibly sometimes daunting book about, not surprisingly, his travels in China and the plants he saw there. Roy was also a critical part of the creation of arguably the most influential reference books for serious gardeners, 'The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs', the latest edition of which (with Roy Lancaster and John Hillier as consultant editors) describes over 13,000 woody plants without any pictures whatsoever! It's very easy to enjoy the fruits of Roy's research yourself- every gardener should own a copy of The Hillier Manual!

Roy's latest book is very much the odd one out in that it focuses very much on him. 'My Life With Plants' is a very enjoyable and fascinating autobiography which takes us on the journey of his life, from his early days in his native Bolton to his national service in Malaya and up to recent times, and talks with great fondness of the people who influenced him and got him into the world of plants. Of course there are plants mentioned on nearly every page, plus birds and other wildlife found along the way, so even here the reader is being fired up with enthusiasm for plants!

The style of the book is very light and easy, and you quickly finding your mind reading the words with a Bolton accent! Some stories will be familiar to anyone who has been to Roy's lectures while others are probably less well known. I found the chapter on Roy's garden particularly interesting; I've long wondered what his garden is like but don't really have the connections to wangle a visit, so reading about it was the next best thing. Finding out that Roy's garden is around 1/3 of an acre but contains around 1,000 species further cemented one of my beliefs of plantsmanship and that is that you don't need to have a huge space to have an excellent collection of plants!

There are parts of the book that I suspect have been edited back pretty hard, particularly stories of plants he's seen in the days since leaving the Hillier Arboretum, but I daresay those stories would make up another book on their own. In fact I really hope they do make another book on their own; while 'Travels in China' is an astonishing in-depth story of Roys various trips to that seemingly never ending botanical paradise it would also be nice to have a book more centred around Roy's more recent experiences in gardens and wild places around the world, trips where he has had first hand experience of some of the most remarkable plants in the world? Either way, this book is sure to delight fans of arguably Britain's most enthusiastic plantsman!

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Michael Wickenden

Today I was saddened to hear that Michael Wickenden, plantsman, explorer and owner of Cally Gardens in Scotland, has passed away.

Although I've never met Michael in person the Cally Gardens catalogue has been a highlight of my gardening year for some time now; every autumn (then latterly spring) the catalogue stuffed with rare and interesting plants from around the world dropped through my letter box, and was always the first piece of post to be opened. The biggest challenge with the Cally Catalogue has always been whittling down the desirable list to things I can afford and grow...!
Impatiens rothii- huge tuber from Cally! 

From what I've heard so far, Michael died doing what he loved, travelling, exploring and collecting seed of interesting new plants to introduce to his nursery. At this point I gather that there is an intention to continue the nursery at Cally Gardens, a fitting tribute to the work of a real plantsman.

(Unfortunately I can't find my picture of Rheum 'Cally Giant', a whopper of a species. Well worth looking for online, and if you're into big leaves you'll need to grow it!)

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Coombe Sculpture Garden; a review

I'm sure I'm not the only one who travels great distances to see gardens yet always manages to miss a garden on my doorstep. I've been aware of the existence of Coombe Sculpture Garden in Bradstone, Devon, for several years thanks to conversations with other gardeners and occasionally driving past signs pointing up one of Devon's charming country lanes, but it was only this year that I finally took the plunge and visited.
Nestled in a secluded valley, Coombe House would be idyllic without a garden. Here lush, burgeoning hedgerows create a patchwork of fields on rolling Devon hills, and almost secret country lanes take you to beautiful sleepy hamlets with beautiful houses. This is a place off the beaten track, and is all the better for it.
Nonetheless there is a garden here, a superb garden. While so many of us dream of our country paradise, creating a garden that sits well in its landscape can be surprisingly difficult. With a careful guiding hand, the owners of Coombe Sculpture Garden have created a garden that is entirely comfortable with itself; there's no pretence here. All too often people who open their garden feel the need to show off and try to make their garden as high-end and aspirational as possible, but here the garden just feels right; this garden is unapologetically what it is. It's hard to put this mysterious feeling into words- you'll have to visit to see what I mean.
The garden only runs to 1.5 acres in all, but this doesn't feel like a small garden; the layout and planting has a similar quality to Knoll Garden in Dorset which also manages to trick you into thinking you're in a garden much bigger than its four acres. You will find a small orchard, a mill pond, a stream, several ornamental ponds, borders, interesting plants, and of course sculptures. I'm reluctant to go into too much detail about the garden itself for fear of spoiling the surprise!
This is overwhelmingly a private garden, although the owners are justifiably proud of it and are pleased to welcome people to the garden during its all-too-short opening season in summer. Would I recommend this garden? Yes and no; my reluctance to heartily recommend this piece of heaven is simply because I love that it's still a bit of a treasured secret in the gardening world. If you just happen to find yourself here then you're in for a treat.
Coombe Sculpture Garden is at Bradstone, a tiny hamlet between Launceston and Milton Abbot on the Devon/Cornwall border. It has very limited opening times, being open for just a few weekends during the summer. Be sure to enjoy a light lunch or delicious piece of cake while you're there!

Monday, 20 June 2016

My favourite rose

It's strange to think that I've actually been working in horticulture for a good 15 years now! Anyway...

Over the years I've seen a lot of roses. I've seen them at flower shows, I've seen them in gardens, I've seen them in nurseries... I've potted them, I've planted them, I've pruned them, and I've taken pictures of them.

I'm really not all that fussed on roses.

There, I said it! I'm not a big fan of roses. I don't go all gooey at the latest introduction, I don't feel a sentimental attachment to an old fashioned rose, I get neither attracted to nor repulsed by a hybrid-T. I'll grow them, I'll care for them, I'll even evaluate them for my customers, but I am in no way a big fan of roses. I do grow a few but these are species roses grown as shrubs with flowers rather than being held in high praise because they're roses!

There is one rose that I will always hold in high praise though; one rose that I make sure I sniff whenever I see one in flower.

Yes, it's Rosa rugosa! Now I know that to sensible gardeners this species is a bit of a thug, but when have I ever been sensible? For me the thuggish thick stems of Rosa rugosa are the perfect structures to hold large, tissue-paper like blooms in pink or white. Add to this that Rosa rugosa is tough, vigorous and free-flowering (when big), and you've got a winner. Large bright orange hips in autumn are just the icing on the cake.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Why I do what I do

People pick careers for many reasons; job security, money, interest, challenge, opportunity to make a difference.... I'm a gardener, and I get enormous amounts of happiness from the work I do.

But Ben, you might ask, what about all the cold and wet days, don't they get you down? Cold and wet days are a physical and mental challenge, an endurance test I suppose, but they are an important part of my personal well-being; think about it this way, if every day was hot and sunny you would simply take hot and sunny weather for granted. By enduring the discomfort of cold and wet days you quickly learn to appreciate the warm and sunny days!

The other thing that contributes massively to my happiness is that every day I see something AMAZING! Yes, 99% of the planet don't share my wonder at the natural world but that's their problem, not mine. To see beauty in the buds on a bare stem, to enjoy the high drama of mist rolling in, or maybe just the sound of birds chirping away while you work... these are the things that make life rich.

Take this flower bud; this is Rhododendron sinogrande, one of the large-leaved tree species. It's a magnificent shrub/tree for a special spot in the gardens of the more discerning gardeners, and it takes several years to get to flowering size. Once it starts to flower the trusses appear each year and are eagerly anticipated; even though the flowering season isn't very long the period of excitement and eager anticipation as the buds swell lasts for several weeks before a single flower opens.

This is why I really love what I do! Every garden I visit has something happening, something to anticipate. I get in my van each morning wondering what I'll see during the day that will make life better.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Out with the old, in with the new

After 10 years of abuse, neglect, rain, mud, strong horticultural disinfectants, opening packaging, fires (well, two bonfires specifically) and plant sap I decided it's time my Felco No. 2s enjoyed an honourable retirement! While my new secateurs might be shiny and sharp they lack the character of my old ones...