Friday, 28 November 2014

Put your best foot forward

By now most people with even a cursory knowledge of the horticulture know that it's not the best paid industry around, and this is mostly because the funding simply isn't there to pay more, in addition to organisations having the mentality that garden staff are somehow second rate employees (a fact reflected in wages between different parts of an organisation). The nation's gardens and parks are being tended by an ever dwindling number of employed gardeners, partly as a result of technology making it possible for one person to jobs more efficiently (such as large lawn mowers speeding up the task of mowing big lawns), but also because various financial problems have meant that staff have had to be cut.

The gap between the amount of work to be done and the number of gardeners available to do it is increasingly being plugged by an army of volunteers. These people give their time and energy to helping garden staff to maintain and develop gardens across the UK. Over the years many gardens, especially those run by the National Trust, the RHS and other organisations, have come to rely increasingly on goodwill, but is this willingness to take part and get stuck in actually endangering gardens?
Volunteers are vital in large gardens, but for good reasons?
Over the years I've heard some cracking stories about volunteers; a head gardener of a public garden (which will remain nameless) recently told me about sending a trusted team of volunteers to weed and generally tidy a border of plants which had been specifically grown for the winter interest of seedheads etc. Off he and his team went to work in another part of the garden, but when he came back he found that the volunteers had used their initiative and gone to the shed, picked up some hedge trimmers and cut the whole border back to bare earth. The head gardener telling me this was right to say that he couldn't get angry about it because the team acted without malice and were desperately trying to be helpful but, nonetheless, the winter interest of the border was noticeably absent for that year.

I've heard rants too; one RHS gardener (who again won't be named) got really annoyed that the gardeners increasingly felt that their role in the garden was just 'babysitting' volunteers, some of whom were incredibly able (and sometimes had to be stopped from going too far!) while others seemed to be volunteering simply as a way to pass the time and managed to cause more work than they were doing. Some volunteers were raring to go, while others wanted to doss around all day, but both required the supervision of a gardener.
Even the RHS relies heavily on volunteers to maintain gardens.
Now of course we have two different issues here; the gardeners who cut down the border when they shouldn't have had made an error of judgement which could easily have been made by a new or inexperienced paid gardener, while the rant from the RHS gardener is more about the relationship between gardeners and volunteers when organisations are using free labour to avoid paying staff. The common issue between both stories is supervision. Paid gardeners often have to be the ones who use machinery and do the more dangerous jobs for safety (for that read 'insurance') reasons, but if you take on volunteers you're at the mercy of a lot of variables.

The people who sign up to become volunteers may be incredibly skilled and experienced gardeners or they might have never picked up a spade in their lives, they might be hard workers or lazy, they might be responsible or a liability... this list could go on. The problem is that until they've worked with a head gardener and a gardening team who can assess their skills and weaknesses properly they really should be monitored/supervised, tying down gardeners who should be gardening! I have over the years met some absolutely incredible volunteers, people with passion, skill and expertise who are a real asset to a garden, but I've also heard enough horror stories to know that some cause real headaches. I've heard blazing rows between volunteers who want to do a particular job and head gardeners who have other ideas, I've seen volunteers do bad jobs of things because they've lacked proper guidance and support, and several years ago I was even told by a volunteer at one National Trust property that the gardening staff there were all idiots and that if they had any sense they'd strip the herbaceous borders and turn them to bedding because that's what 'proper' gardeners do (I let him finish before I told him that the head gardener at that property was a good friend of mine)! These people cause grief while others become real assets to a garden and those employed to look after it, but when someone volunteers at a garden it's a real lucky dip as to what that person will be like, and all to often getting rid of 'bad' volunteers can prove difficult.
Volunteers can work in some great gardens!
So should people be allowed and encouraged to volunteer in gardens? Yes, of course. So many volunteers build up a personal bond with a garden and put so much of themselves into it, and so many volunteers bring skills, ideas and work ethics that make them very much a part of the gardening team. The problems come when organisations use the goodwill of volunteers to avoid having to find money to employ gardeners, putting additional pressure on gardening teams and causing disharmony with gardeners who may face losing their jobs. A balance must be struck, because at the end of the day it is the garden that will suffer most.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Glorious Gardens From Above

After such a long time of getting it wrong the BBC have finally managed to get gardening right with their new series, Glorious Gardens from Above, in which Christine Walkden visits some of our great national horticultural treasures. This series manages to bring in new angle on gardens; with the aid of a hot air balloon our presenter encourages us to appreciate these gardens from an angle we are unlikely to see them from ourselves, from the air.

Even though the series is not yet even halfway through I am confident to say that excellent gardens have been chosen. From the intimacy of Beth Chatto's garden in Essex to the grandeur of Powys Castle in Wales, and from the rugged extremes of St. Michael's Mount to the enviable microclimate of Trebah (both in Cornwall), someone has had the unenviable task of choosing just two gardens to represent each county, and yet has managed to choose and to choose gardens with an interesting blend of inspiration, horticultural difficulties and challenges, as well as concise but fascinating human elements.
Trebah in Cornwall, a garden well worth visiting!
In many ways this programme is held together by the excellent choice of presenter; Christine Walkden is eminently likeable, with her down-to-earth approach and her willingness to express, in front of TV cameras, the excitement that excellent horticulture brings to many of us. This show isn't as pretentious as too many programmes about gardens manage to be, neither is it patronising, and Christine Walkden goes a long way to make the somewhat exclusive world of the big gardens accessible and inspirational to a wide audience.

There is of course a but.

But why is this programme being shown at 3.45pm on weekdays? The sheer quality and accessibility of this series would surely make this absolutely perfect for that niche in the schedules where broadcasters need gentle but uplifting broadcasting? Or maybe a winter alternative to Gardener's World? Does the BBC assume that the only people who will want to watch this series are retired or aren't at work? If they do think this then why commission such a high quality series to sit between 'Escape To The Country' and 'Flog It'? Quite simply there is only one thing wrong with this series: it's simply too good to be consigned to an afternoon slot.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Waste of money

Go to any decent garden centre and you will see pallet upon pallet of composts and soil improvements. When you see someone load up half a dozen bags into a car and then find that the customer has spent £40+ on compost in one go it's easy to see why organic matter is big business!

The contents of the different types of compost vary quite considerably. Most ordinary multipurpose composts still have peat as their main ingredient, although with the price of peat rising in recent times and with increasing environmental pressure on peat as a material other ingredients, such as bark or 'greenwaste' (essentially vegetable peelings etc.), to bulk out the compost and keep the price competitive. Some suppliers are able to provide good peat free composts too; SylvaGrow compost from Melcourt is essentially the same product that commercial nurseries are using, so you can be reasonably assured that the product will be consistent and of good quality- nurseries don't take kindly to deliveries of rubbish compost!
Melcourt SylvaGrow- use what the big boys use!
Understanding what you're looking at is key to choosing the right product, especially if you're buying lots of expensive bags full! 'Composts' are essentially split into two categories, growing media and soil conditioners. A growing medium is the product you need to use if you're planting in containers; typically it's a fairly fine mix with a lot of fibrous material (like peat or coir) with a few chunkier bits (usually bark) added for bulk, and often there is a short-lived fertliser content too. A soil conditioner is a lot bulkier, being made up mainly of graded partially composted bark. Soil conditioners are added to soil either as a mulch or by being dug in, and add additional bulk, drainage and organic matter to the natural soil. Knowing the difference between these two types of compost is vital- adding a growing medium to soil won't do any real damage, but trying to grow plants in soil conditioner is really not a good idea!

What I can't understand is why people take their garden rubbish to the tip and then swing round to the garden centre for some compost. Personally I would recommend most gardeners use bagged growing medium for their garden unless they're confident that they can produce a reliable and fine grade growing medium, but all the waste of free soil improver....

Traditional recycling of kitchen or garden waste revolves around the compost bin. There are hundreds of different compost bins out there to suit every garden (and budget), so if you have a garden then there is no excuse. I mean it! Composting is too important in a garden to avoid, so no matter how small your garden you should be able to at least compost something! If you have soil and plants then organic matter should be recycled into the soil; this is more important to the garden than a greenhouse or a water feature because composting is about adding goodness to the soil and improving the well-being of your plants, and no garden features are worth bothering with your plants aren't growing well!

How much space you dedicate to making organic matter is down to your space, your requirements and your ability to generate the right ingredients. Composting can take care of fallen leaves, cut stems, kitchen waste and grass clippings, although no one ingredient should dominate the bin or you will end up with an unbalanced (and often squidgy and smelly) compost goo. If you have excess of any ingredient then this is what can go to the tip, but give the compost bin the first priority!

Don't feel the need to rake borders clear of leaves for the winter. Aside from being a tedious job you are also taking away this much needed organic matter; leaves will break down over winter and be taken into the soil by the earthworms. Leaves must be raked from lawns or the grass will go bad, but all you have to do is spread them on the border (assuming you've got all the ones you need for the compost bin of course) and let nature take its course. Surely this is more straightforward than filling bags to take to the tip?!

The only things you probably shouldn't compost are weeds (particularly perennial weeds), diseased leaves and stems, or meat. Meat in compost attracts pests and is generally not a good idea- invest in a more upmarket composter that will take care of all food waste, or dispose of in the bin. Weeds and diseased material should be taken to the tip, or you can then burn them in an incinerator and add the ash to the compost (any ash from burning wood or organic matter- NOT COAL/PLASTIC/RUBBER/FUEL/OIL- can be added to the mix!). If you don't want to take diseased material to the tip it must be burnt or disposed of in the household rubbish to avoid reintroducing spores into the garden.
Ash from burning organic matter is useful too!
Think before you throw away what could be a valuable commodity; could your pile of 'garden waste' be more use to you if you kept it and used it?

Thursday, 6 November 2014

And now the end is here

So here we go...
After 10 years of service to my company, a nursery in Cornwall that cannot be named for contractual reasons, today is my last day. Today will be a day of great sadness as I say goodbye to many of the people I've shared hardships and met challenges with over the years.

It's funny how patterns emerge; it cannot be a coincidence that I know other people who are leaving similar organisations, similar that while we work in horticulture we are owned or run by non-horticultural businesses or organisations. Parks, historic properties, gardens... it seems that good horticulturists are leaving these places in droves. Although I am being made redundant in a restructuring of the business by the parent company, others seem to be saying that they're sick of being treated as second rate.

It must be hard for accountants and businessmen to deal with horticulture, and to deal with those who take great pride in doing what boardroom directors would no doubt refer to as 'menial work'. The idea that there are people around the UK who would rather dig a hole in the rain than work in an office must be such an alien concept for people conditioned to sit behind desks and look at computer screens all day. Nonetheless we're here, out in all weathers, doing what we do best.

To everyone out there changing jobs/paths now I wish you good luck. There are people out there who value our skills, abilities and passions; we just have to find them.