Sunday, 24 November 2013

Through rose-tinted glasses....?

It's funny how people like to hark back to the 'good old days', when prices were cheaper, life was simpler, and generally things were better. In fact if you could go back in a time machine you would find that yes, prices were cheaper but wages were lower, life was simpler with no mobile phone/internet/digital TV, and things for most people were as hard or even harder than they are today. We love to reminisce...

A lot of things in gardening are about reminiscence; traditional techniques are making a comeback (things like planting in autumn instead of spring/summer), there is a lot of interest in old gardens and their restoration, and conservation groups are busy saving old varieties of garden plants from extinction.

Start a conversation about any TV show and sooner or later someone will say that things are being 'dumbed down', especially factual programmes, shows like Gardener's World. I'll be honest, I don't watch Gardener's World any more; for me things were much better with Geoff Hamilton, and went down hill during Alan Titchmarsh's tenure as lead presenter. The thing is that time can play tricks on you, so it's important to separate reality from impression. I recently found old episodes of Gardener's World on Youtube, and watching a couple gave me and idea- I should compare an old show with Geoff Hamilton and a new show with Monty Don and see if I can see what it is that I don't like about the new shows, if, of course, I don't find that actually the old style Gardener's World is no different from the modern show. I picked two episodes at random, one from 1991 and one from 2013.

The 1991 show, presented by Geoff Hamilton featured:
  • weeding
  • garden construction
  • plant maintenance (pruning etc)
  • lawn care
  • pests and disease advice (including a feature about Japanese Knotweed
  • a visit to the garden of a very uncomfortable Carol Klein (her first TV appearance!)
  • gardening under glass (Integrated Pest Management (IPM), plant maintenance, Fuchsia propagation and training
I noted 26 plants named in the half hour show, and identified 25 hints and tips given.

By comparison the 2013 show, presented by Monty Don, featured:
  • planting Clematis
  • a garden visit
  • planting brassicas
  • a 'jobs for the weekend' section (sowing sweet peas and wallflowers, and weeding with a hoe)
  • tulips in the garden
  • another garden visit (this time to Holland, with more tulips!)
  • sowing hardy annuals
I noted 23 plants named in the half hour show, and identified 18 hints and tips.

What struck me was that there was more packed into the 1991 show, and it covered a very wide variety of garden tasks compared to the 2013 show, which I reckon was probably filmed a little later in the year, but definitely still in spring.

The other thing that struck me was the general style of the show. The 1991 show was pretty basic, with presenters talking to the camera or shots of the plant/task in question- this might have been due to technical differences in the TV filming technology of the time. By comparison the 2013 show was much more advanced in it's filming style, and had been 'padded' in several places with clips of no real significance; let's take, for example, a 30 second clip of Monty picking up a tray of plants and walking to the place where he's going to plant them, all set to an intrusive backing tune. Why does the audience of a practical gardening programme need to see a man walk from one place to another? The camera work was excellent but the section was pointless. This 'padding' happened a few times in the show.

There was also significant chunks of show given over to presenters, not just Monty, getting all poetic and contemplative over the garden they were in. In the second garden visit, Rachel de Thame spoke at length with her mother about a trip they had made over 40 years ago to visit a garden in Holland (apologies, I forget which). Actual airtime was given over to a conversation between them about how much Rachel has grown in 40 years! Fair enough, we all have conversations like this but they are actually private conversations, not because they contain dark secrets but because they are only relevant to the people concerned.

Despite the fact that in real terms the old Gardener's World format only managed to slip in a few more plants and tips than the new format show there was a marked difference in the overall feel. Most notable was that the show now seems to be more about the relationships between the presenters and the gardens than between the viewer and what they are seeing. The presenting team on the 2013 show (including Carol Klein who has come out of her shell since the 1991 show) seemed keen to show off their own poetic interpretations of gardens and gardening than getting down to some 'nitty gritty' horticulture. In some ways Monty Don has an excuse; in his own words "I was – am – an amateur gardener and a professional writer...” (not sure which interview this quote is from).

All in all I don't think my fond memories of the Geoff Hamilton era are misplaced; the very 'down to earth' presenting style, most notably with Geoff but also with the rest of the team, was in keeping with gardening itself. Likewise the only egos in the show belonged to the plants and the gardens which, through excellent camera work, and careful, accurate and never patronising explanation, were brought to life for the viewer. I still remember hearing about the sudden death of Geoff Hamilton, the man who had instilled the thrill of gardening in me. My parents and I sat in silence for Geoff's last ever show, and somehow, even then, I knew that gardening TV would never be the same for me. For many gardeners up and down the country, these words from Alan Titchmarsh's tribute at the beginning of Geoff's last episode of Gardener's World are still fresh, poignant and above all, still true.

When Geoff Hamilton died, earlier this week, television viewers all over the country must have felt they've lost a great friend. For 17 years, on a Friday night, they'd watched him sowing and planting, often in his own garden at Barnsdale, and whether they were keen gardeners or novices they couldn't have failed to have been impressed by his easy going manner, his friendly approach, and his sheer passion for gardening.” Alan Titchmarsh, August 1996.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

For those who do not actually remember...

If our grandparents' generation hadn't killed and died to fight the forces of fascism in Europe we would be living in a very different world now.

In Europe you would not have been allowed to be gay, Jewish (or probably follow any other religion), from any non-European ethnic background... it is very unlikely that those in power would allow you to vote, or let you speak out against anything you didn't approve of. Who knows where the rights of women would have ended up?

Tomorrow, as the clock reaches 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month we are asked to remember those who we don't know, who have fought battles most of us wouldn't have the nerve to fight.

Also try and imagine what our world would have been like if things hadn't gone well for the good guys? Imagine a world where genocide had been committed on British soil, and where the freedom we have to complain ceaselessly about the world around us just didn't exist.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Fancy doing this as a career...?

Horticulture is a rewarding and fun industry to work in. Wherever you are and whatever you're doing in horticulture you will be challenged and, if you like challenges and feel a great satisfaction from a job well done, you will succeed.

Horticulture is almost entirely a 'hands on' industry. Whether you are a horticultural scientist working in a lab, a nurseryman growing plants on a nursery, or a gardener tending and creating a garden, you will spend most of your time 'doing' things, and while every day will bring it's challenges every day will also bring it's successes and achievements. There is great satisfaction in leaving work each day knowing that you've achieved something!

Of course in horticulture the plants are everything. The fairway of a golf course might just look like grass, but in fact is made up of different species carefully selected and nurtured by skilled grounds-people to create a surface fit for purpose, and often maintained to impressive standards. Maintaining a golf course, or any other surface used for sports (like a football pitch) is a skilled occupation, and people working in that particular part of horticulture are constantly making new developments to improve the performance of their turf. Imagine being the person who's work helps your favourite sports team to victory! Imagine being the person who's job it is to look after some of the most iconic sports turf in the world, like the pitch at Wembley!
Not quite Wembley, but a great croquet lawn!
Gardens are made up of plants to provide shape, structure and colour in order to create the overall effect. From tiny alpines to massive trees, the plants are what makes a garden. Ensuring the health of the plants in a garden is probably the overall reason to have gardeners in the first place, and maintaining a garden brings an enormous sense of well-being. Gardens have a cycle during the year, a cycle of growth, development, fruition and decline. Being a part of nature's cycle is very rewarding, and I know it sounds a bit strange but the whole experience could almost be described as spiritual. Yes, gardening has times of mad rushing around, mowing the lawn or collecting leaves, but there are also times when the pace of life becomes more gentle, and you are given a privileged front row seat in nature's theatre. Seeing buds burst after winter dormancy, waiting for flowers to open, watching as fruits set... all of these things are familiar to gardeners, but never do they lose their magic.
Cool office! The back garden of St. Michael's Mount, Cornwall
Growing plants on a nursery also gives you first hand experience of nature in it's finery, the difference being that on a nursery you are raising plants to be bought by other gardeners. There is an immense feeling of satisfaction as a customer buys a plant you've grown on the nursery and takes it home to their garden. Nurseries are very artificial environments, so knowledge of science, technology, economics, marketing... these are all put to the test on a daily basis. Growing plants in a nursery brings a lot of challenges, and it can quite often be a fast paced environment. Being able to think on your feet is important, as is not only knowing about horticulture but also having the passion for your subject that drives you to learn more. Wherever you look in horticulture there are things happening; new plants are being bred, new products developed, new techniques mastered, new markets created. For anyone who wants to go the extra mile there is room to carve a career in production horticulture.
Horticulture can bring you into contact with rare species; Grewia occidentalis

Production horticulture also needs people to sell the products, whether on the same site as the plants are being produced or in a retail only environment like a garden centre. As with any industry the key is to make sure that the product stands out, either by being displayed well or by appropriate marketing, or more than likely both! Retail in general is ever changing, and horticultural retail is no exception. Every customer through the door is different, and the skill in horticultural retail is to match your customer with the appropriate plant. You'll need a sound knowledge of horticulture as well as the passion to keep learning just to keep ahead with your customers! One might need a plant for a particular purpose, another might be worried about a pest or disease, and it's your guidance that will make sure that your customer continues to enjoy their garden for years to come. The retail environment is the perfect place to apply your knowledge and benefit others.

Garden and landscape design is a great way to make your way in horticulture. From a tiny little back garden for a private client all the way up to a major project, design and careful implementation is key. Designers painstakingly survey the site and produce often breathtaking results, all with the help of competent landscapers who actually build the project. The sheer variety of projects suits people who enjoy the challenge of being creative and implementing a design to a high standard, so a career as a designer or a landscaper will suit people who enjoy a new challenge with each site to work on.

Of course horticulture needs science and technology to succeed. Plants are living things and must be cared for or they will die. Horticultural scientists work hard to identify, monitor and deal with pests and diseases, they develop growing practices to improve productivity and plant health, they create new products to make the whole business of growing plants easier. Behind the scenes scientists are busy in their labs or trial beds creating and developing the future of horticulture, and if your leaning is towards science then you could well be part of something big!
New plants are often the result of complex breeding; Digitalis Illumination Pink
Of course as with any career there are downsides; the vagaries of the weather can make your day's work more challenging, there are economic difficulties around, and there is a shortage of skilled staff in most (if not all) sectors of horticulture. To be good at horticulture you need to be keen, willing to be passionate about what you do, interested in why and how things happen, and most of all willing to get stuck in!