Thursday, 31 December 2015

That New Year Blog Post...

With constant news of war, famine, flooding, greed, corruption, abuse and scandal being drip-fed to us all day every day the need for gardening has never been so great.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Book Review: The RHS Encyclopaedia Of Conifers

It's easy to imagine some raised eyebrows when the RHS considered publishing an encyclopaedia of conifers; conifers have been out of fashion in the UK since the 1980s, so it would stand that any book about them, let alone a two volume set, wouldn't have the potential to be a best seller. Thankfully the RHS, along with Kingsblue Publishing, saw the importance of giving this unloved but diverse group its due, and the result is spectacular.

The RHS Encyclopaedia Of Conifers is a two volume set, 1506 pages in total, covering all 615 currently recognised conifer species and describing an impressive 8,000 cultivars. The set is lavishly illustrated with over 5,000 pictures, many of which were taken specifically for this encyclopaedia. Given the widely held view that conifers are “all the same” you could be forgiven for expecting page after page of nearly identical pictures or nearly identical plants, but you would be wrong; the pictures have been chosen and arranged in such a way that each page shows the diversity of cultivars, and even where the cultivars of a species can be fairly similar (as with some species of Abies, Picea and Pinus) the pictures may highlight a different characteristic such as needle shape or cone. This is hard to explain, so let me give you an example: within Abies koreana ('Korean Fir') there are a group named for the silvering of their needles, but rather than show photographs of each cultivar with its silver needles the publisher has chosen to focus on the habit of the illustrated cultivars while showing in a few spectacular images what the effect of the colouring is. This certainly cuts down on repetition in the pictures, as does the careful choice of cultivars illustrated at all. Some of the full page pictures used to punctuate these books are breathtaking!

Just one image of so many
The descriptions are concise but not without charm; each described cultivar is briefly covered, explaining habit, colouring (where necessary), origins and distinguishing features, but [crucially] also giving an expected height and spread in 10 years. Conifer growth rates can vary wildly according to climate, and my dwarf conifers grow much more quickly here in mild Cornwall than they do in drier and colder areas, but an idea of the height and spread is still very useful. So far I've not come across any ultimate heights and spreads in the cultivars, but such details are given in the descriptions of the individual species. Many of the ultimate heights given in horticultural books are nothing more than educated guesswork so the growth after 10 years is of more use to a gardener than a guessed figure, especially given that many dwarf conifers (take for example the tiny cultivars of Abies koreana) originate from much faster and larger growing trees, while some other cultivars (such as Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Little Spire') can grow considerably larger than expected! The species are covered in more depth than the cultivars, but descriptions stay away from being overly botanical. Species are described concisely, but also some interesting information is given about their habitats and preferences, their use as timber crops, and in some cases their relevance to local culture.

The RHS Encyclopaedia Of Conifers has been a labour of love for its authors, Aris Auders and Derek Spicer. I don't know much about Mr Auders, except that he was considered a leading expert on conifers and sadly passed away before this encyclopaedia was published. I have had the pleasure of meeting Derek Spicer on several occasions (he owns a conifer wholesale nursery, Kilworth Conifers, here in the UK), and I can personally vouch for his love of conifers; his enthusiasm for them, despite their fall from fashion, comes across in conversation. Derek has introduced several cultivars into cultivation, including the awesome Podocarpus 'Kilworth Cream', a beautifully variegated shrubby Podocarpus with a nice bushy habit (I would strongly recommend gardeners get to grips with Podocarpus, many are useful shrubs for colour and shape).

There can be no doubt that this work will remain unbeaten for many years to come. The sheer scale of the work, as well as the care taken to produce an encyclopaedia of such immense quality, makes this the definitive work for anyone who needs a broad understanding of conifer species and cultivars. My only criticism of this work is that it would be nice to have some pictures of the really rare and obscure genera that appear, if only for the sake of completion. Even a good picture of a pressed specimen in a botanical collection would be interesting, but at least by giving obscure taxa such as Retrophyllum a decent write-up anyone interested in learning more can go online for more information. This is a very minor fault with an otherwise perfect encyclopaedia.

Sadly I don't think the publication of the RHS Encyclopaedia Of Conifers has made, or will ever make, a difference to how ordinary gardeners perceive conifers. To change perception will need a radical overhaul of how gardeners value plants, and while herbaceous plants and growing food remain dominant trends the poor conifer is shunned. It's a shame really; to shun conifers is to ignore an enormous family of plants purely based on their methods of reproduction. Nonetheless this is where we are for now, and conifers will remain the interest of a minority of more experienced gardeners. For those gardeners, the RHS Encyclopaedia Of Conifers is a must-have book, and in addition to being a reference source it will also bring hours of pleasure just flicking through the pages. Will there be a second edition? Probably not.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Your nursery needs YOU!

This is an appeal on behalf of your local plant nursery...

A combination of recent bad weather and unforeseeable economic pressures have left small nurseries suddenly rather quiet. The stock is there, the bare rooted plant season is well under way, and the mild (if wet) weather recently has extended the autumn planting weather well into December. Despite so many reasons to buy plants, nurseries across the UK (and I've heard also around Europe) are missing trade.

There are many reasons for this; often wet and windy weather puts people off doing any gardening, stories of terrorism and war in the news generally lead to slower sales generally (presumably fear of what is to come makes people think twice about spending?), and the run-up to Christmas tends to favour shops rather than nurseries.

So why should we care? Businesses always have peaks and troughs in their incomes, so this is just another trough? I think there is a big concern because this has been a difficult year, with unpredictable weather and concern about how Government cutbacks will affect us all meaning that we reconsider our spending, and to end on a low note does not bode well for smaller businesses. January is nearly always a quiet month, and if February is cold then often this can add extra strain onto a small business's finances. If November and December remain this quiet then many (most?) small nurseries will face at least a third of the financial year unable to meet their costs. This could very easily be the end for some.

So yes, why should we care? Your local nursery is where you often find the better advice, the more interesting plants and the better prices and value for money. These are the places that focus of producing and selling plants, and are a very important part of our enjoyment of gardening. Would you really want to rely on your local garden centre for all of your plants, or have to send off to a nursery somewhere else in the UK or Europe every time you want to grow something different? I enjoy trips to my local garden centre for sundries etc., but my local nursery is where I find the better and more interesting range of plants!

What can be done?
  1. Don't delay your planned purchases. Yes, family might put pressure on you to go here, there and everywhere in the run-up to Christmas, but try to make some time to visit your nursery.
  2. Send plants as gifts! If you know a friend or family member well then you could choose a plant as a Christmas present. Do they have a tree in mind? What about a perennial for their border? Have they been coveting something in your garden?
  3. If you can't give them a plant, or you're not sure what they might like, why not send vouchers? There is a downside to this; the National Garden Gift Vouchers can be redeemed in hundreds of garden centres and nurseries across the UK, so you might have to stipulate that you would appreciate the recipient spending their voucher(s) in an independent nursery. Also the nursery has to pay to redeem the vouchers...
  4. Does your friend or family member have a good nursery locally to them? Why not contact the nursery and see if they would allow a credit note? You pay them X amount and then tell the recipient that they have an amount to spend at that nursery... Although a little more complicated, and not all nurseries will be able to do this, it would at least mean all of the money goes to that nursery.
  5. Be sure to raise the profile of your local nursery with gardening friends! It's the easiest thing to do... you get talking about gardening and just mention that your local nursery has the new season's fruit or bare rooted plants in stock. You might fancy a trip out yourself so you could make a day out of it with your friend(s)! My local nursery, Endsleigh Gardens Nursery in Devon, has new stocks of fruit, trees, roses and bare rooted hedging in stock now, and your local nursery is likely to be the same. Now is a great time to buy roses so they establish well in spring, and most come with pictures on their labels so you don't have to shop entirely by the description.

Although the nursery trade has been tough for several years it would seem that this autumn and winter is proving particularly tough for small independents. If they go, just imagine the world of homogenised garden centres, all selling the same plants at the same prices, that would be left. What gets planted in your garden will be decided by people in boardrooms, and over time gardens will all become clones of each other. All that's needed to stop this is a conscious decision to support independent nurseries, and not leave them fighting for their existence this winter.

Best of all your efforts are rewarded with plants!

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Ever decreasing circles

As popular gardening becomes more and more limited in its outlook it's rare to come across anyone daring to go against the flow. Gardening is directed by its fashions, with knowledge and practice of horticultural disciplines giving way to image-rich celebrities, heavily filtered 'vintage' Instagram nostalgia and pithy comments about vegetables and bees. Gardening is no longer about people making their own choices; gardeners are pushed and pulled by marketing campaigns and media stories into thinking that the only way to garden is to buy this product or that, and that anything that doesn't make out that it single-handedly saves the world is of no value.

It's a wonder that some plants manage to hold on against this relentless current. Modern gardening culture teaches us that ponds are dangerous to kids who are certain to drown in them (except for wildlife ponds of course, which must be surrounded by long grass and strictly wild plants but are otherwise OK), that native plants are always better for wildlife than non-native (even though there's increasing evidence that this isn't true), and that any plant that grows quickly is a thug that will destroy your whole garden.
You just don't see Euphorbia 'Fens Ruby' any more
With this blogger/media/retail constriction the diversity of our gardens is sure to suffer. Similarly our ability to express ourselves as anything other than lovers of dreamy 'naturalistic' Oudolf-inspired borders, rolling wildlife meadows or organic food factories is being eroded. Although it's not openly said, it's not really 'allowed' to be different any more. Those who pioneered or found their horticultural home in formerly popular trends like the hardy exotics movement or the whole 'prairie/grasses' thing risk being labelled unfairly as being unfashionable, despite the fact that these gardeners have continued to develop their style even though their own discipline is no longer de rigueur.

For the hardcore enthusiasts being fashionable isn't important, the issue really comes when new gardeners are pushed into particular styles of gardening because they aren't allowed by the garden influencers to be different. Open any of the glossy garden magazines and you will see the same formula time and time again; big [expensive] house with a garden filled with drifts of fashionable perennials, a few from a shortlist of popular/commonly found shrubs, and decorative pieces from their pet sculptor. It's not that these gardens aren't nice, they just become rather repetitive. Editors would argue that they are simply giving people what they want, while in truth they're helping to strangle the ingenuity and individuality out of horticulture. Whole areas of horticulture are sidelined not because they are unpopular per se, but because they never see the light of day. The result? Gardeners are being denied inspiration to make their own way in the world because they aren't being exposed to new and different ideas.
How often do you see carnivorous plants in garden magazines?
As coincidence has it while I was writing this post Anne Wareham published a blog post written by Noel Kingsbury about le Jardin de Berchigranges in France. This quote from Noel illustrates exactly what I'm getting at: “The trouble with most garden-making is that most people care too much about what others think, as they try to impress, or to emulate, or to, and ohmygod I hate this, make an English garden. Why do people in France, in Germany or the USA endlessly try to make English ****** gardens? I’m sick of them. They all end up the same – as a pastel pastiche, while their owners obliviously live the clichĂ©, almost wallowing in their inability to do anything actually creative.”

As a nation of gardeners it seems few gardeners actually relish doing any gardening. 'Gardening' has become something of a dirty word; while so many gardeners enjoy gardens it seems that the whole act of gardening has become something to avoid. There are exceptions, notably with those who grow their own food, but on the whole gardening has gone through a period of labour saving gadgets and techniques and has now ended up as 'labour avoidance'. You can, for a price, buy a robot lawnmower that will mow your lawn for you, and the plants available to most gardeners have been chosen for performance with as little maintenance as it's possible to get away with. No wonder then that formerly common skills like pruning are becoming rare! The modern world makes more demands on us than at any time in the past, yet we're only able to be so busy because we don't spend our time on 'chores' like gardening; ironic then that so many people claim that gardening is restful, relaxing and spiritual rewarding...
Conifers are about as unfashionable as you can get...!
I will fight for anyone's right to enjoy their gardening style, regardless of whether or not I'm 'into it'. Whatever you do, from growing wildflowers or fruit, topiary and carefully tended lawns, lush jungles or herbaceous borders, you should be proud of what you do in your garden. If you go against the flow then credit to you for keeping the less fashionable horticultural disciplines alive. Whether you're into bonsai trees, show Chrysanthemums, carnivorous plants, conifers, alpines, giant vegetables, Fuchsias, ornamental aquatics or anything else that never seems to make it into the public eye, you can at least enjoy what you do. I do, however, share your frustration that the things you love are never shared with the wider gardening community.

You can read the full review of le Jardin de Berchigranges here:

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Saving Horticulture

As certainly as spring follows winter, the question of how to recruit more (preferably young) people into horticulture is certain to appear in horticultural discussions. Horticulture is widely believed to be facing a 'people crisis', and there seems to be no clear idea about what we should do about it. No wonder then that some choose to ignore the issue until it goes away....

When you see fresh-faced horticulture students leaving college to make their way in the industry it's hard to imagine there could be a problem; yes, there aren't as many courses on offer as there used to be, and are there any solely horticultural colleges left in the UK? Nonetheless there are people leaving school, or changing professions, and heading into horticulture. So what's the problem? It would seem that people are retiring as quickly as new recruits are being trained... but is that entirely true, and is it the whole story?

I think it's actually more accurate to say that horticulture is facing a skills shortage more than strictly speaking a shortage of people. You don't have to go far to find businesses finding it hard to recruit people with the necessary skills to do a job; yes, there are plenty of people around with general horticultural qualifications, but there are also enough jobs around needing people with particular expertise. Skills are learned by doing, and so it stands that someone fresh out of horticultural college won't have as many skills as someone who has been working in horticulture for years. The obvious thing is to offer training 'on the job', but with so many skilled practitioners leaving the industry there simply isn't the time to train the next generation. This is where we have a problem.

See the subtle change there? In the space of a paragraph I've gone from referring to people retiring to 'leaving the industry'.

As much as we need to recruit new people into the industry, we also need to retain skilled horticultural experts. There is a subtle shift as skilled horts get tempted away by better conditions/pay in other industries, or get pushed by the somewhat troubled state of the industry, and this expertise is not being replaced. Decades worth of knowledge and expertise can be lost with each person leaving horticulture; what do we do?

To coax skilled people to stay in this industry horticulture has to clean up its act. We need to act on some poisonous cultures that exist in some (many?) nurseries, garden centres, gardens and other horticultural businesses. We need to stamp out sexism; in horticulture there is gender equality in that both men and women can freely encounter sexism. Sexism is making men do all the 'grunt work' because women automatically deserve the nicer jobs (whatever these may be), or telling a woman that she can't use machinery because that's 'man's work'. Sexism is paying competent women less than incompetent men. Sexism is implying that either men or women are naturally more competent at horticulture than their gender opposites; it's not true, and it's a culture that must be stamped out in the places where it's allowed to be the norm. Sadly also homophobia can be engrained in a company's workforce; other industries have cleaned up their act significantly, and horticulture needs to follow suit.

Conditions also need to be addressed. There is a degree of 'rough and tumble' in horticulture, but there are businesses that go too far by exposing staff to pesticides (I once worked for a company where teams of staff worked in the greenhouses while a pesticide team in full PPE sprayed the plants they were working on!), not providing Personal Protective Equipment or otherwise taking measures to protect safety and well-being, or working staff into the ground (which usually leaves businesses with high attrition rates as those that can leave do!). Yes, we all get cold in winter, and we get really hot in summer, but there has to be a line drawn somewhere.

Pay is a perennial favourite for those looking for reasons why people leave or don't join the industry. It is possible to earn enough money to live in this industry (I live alone and get by). If you're single and live alone you are unlikely to be able to afford expensive holidays and luxury items, but if they aren't important to you then you can get by comfortably. If there's someone else to share the bills then that's brilliant, but even then don't expect to be booking a fortnight's cruise on a horticultural wage. Through 15 years in horticultural retail I was aware that administration staff were often on better wages than the horticultural staff (but then the horticultural staff often earn more than casual staff); people are paid in line with the expectations of their industry, but horticulture is usually fairly low. The temptation to jump into another, better paid, industry does occur from time to time in most horticultural workers!

There is also a question of image. Horticulture is its own worst enemy here! It allows itself to be seen as unskilled, the kind of work that anyone could do if they weren't contributing to society in a more important way. Amateur gardeners who join horticulture so they can earn as they pursue their hobby often get a rude awakening; horticulture is often bloody hard work! My frustration is that I think horticulture focusses too much on a 'nice' and 'relaxed' image. For anyone who wants to succeed in life, and anyone who actually relishes a challenge, the sheer 'nicety' of the image is off-putting. Where are the challenges? Where is the career progression? Can you succeed if you're competent, or will the good jobs just go to people who are 'nice'? The number of times people have said to me “oh you're a nurseryman (or more recently, gardener), that must be so relaxing/calming/spiritually uplifting”! Excuse me? EXCUSE ME?! Potting hundreds of plants as fast as you can isn't relaxing, and neither is mowing a lawn in the rain! Horticulture is challenging, and those who succeed are the ones who enjoy a mighty fine challenge. There is a therapeutic side to horticulture, as can be seen by the various projects for people with disabilities or learning difficulties, but believe me when I say that while I have found professional horticulture to be interesting, enlightening, challenging and fun, I've never found it to be therapeutic; I would say that if you're enjoying professional horticulture as therapy then you might need to get a shift on and work faster before someone notices you're not breaking a sweat!

The new generation bring their own challenges. Sad to say that my limited experience with horticultural apprentices has been at best mixed. All bright people, but lacking any personal discipline and desire to succeed. Of course there will be diamonds in the future workforce, but there does seem to be a problem with young people not wanting to work for their money, coming in with interesting ideas that they are somehow above menial tasks, and often a profound difficulty in paying attention to the extent needed in horticulture. I wish this had only been my experience, but sadly I hear the same thing time and time again from others in the trade. Too many young people in horticulture expect to be entertained constantly, and this causes friction when they find out that about 90% of horticulture is about repetition (say, weeding each pot in a batch) or recurring cycles (such as potting each year). As I say, some people in this new generation will be absolute diamonds and will go far in this industry; many of today's recruits will probably drift away from the industry in the not-too-distant future. It's sad, but I'm afraid I think it's what will happen.

So what do we do? My suggestions are outlined here:
  • Shake up the industry as it is, removing less desirable elements that may linger in some businesses.
  • Work towards making horticulture a more appealing industry; work to increase wages for skilled and committed employees, and offer career progression rather than allowing the 'next in line' culture that's been around for decades to continue.
  • Show horticulture to be what it really is, a challenging and rewarding industry that's perfect for people with a wide range of skills and interests. To succeed in horticulture isn't about being 'nice', it's about working hard to build your skills and experience, and the rewards for that are worth having.
So there we have it; in a nutshell these are, I think, some fairly key issues affecting the industry. There are others, and some may disagree with my prioritising of these issues in particular, but I am increasingly of the opinion that it is absolutely vital to keep existing skills in horticulture. Once the attrition rate of skilled labour has been addressed the industry will be in a much stronger position to recruit and then retain skilled people in the future.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Stuck in a rut

Once every three months a copy of The Alpine Gardener drops through my door. This is the quarterly publication of the Alpine Garden Society, a society of gardeners who are particularly interested in alpine plants, woodlanders (things like Trilliums etc.) and an interesting selection of other bits and pieces that come under the group's remit. This is most definitely a more specialised gardening society, with no interest in fruits and vegetables, trees and shrubs, or designer gardens. The society hosts dozens of shows across the UK (to which everyone is welcome). At shows there are benches full of the many interesting plants on which the society is focussed, ranging from fairly common through to extremely rare, as well as plants for sale, cakes, books, seeds... you get the picture.

The other society I'm a member of it the RHS, the Royal Horticultural Society (if you're outside the UK). The RHS is a much broader spectrum organisation, with interests in every area of horticulture. The RHS performs trials on different genera and gives best performers an Award of Garden Merit (AGM), holds big flower shows, spends bucketloads of money teaching young children to grow food, has four RHS gardens, publishes a monthly magazine....

A few months ago I began to realise that I've become a little bored with the RHS. I've been a member for over 10 years, but I've come to the conclusion that I'm just not RHS material any more. Yes, I do get to visit the garden at Rosemoor free of charge (but how many times can you visit before you get too familiar with even such a lovely garden?), but the magazine feels bland and uninspiring and I haven't been to an RHS show in years. When the magazine drops through the door I open it, flop out all the advertising stuff and flick through in case there's an article that interests me. I read Roy Lancaster's articles, and sometimes something unusual like Matthew Pottage's fantastic attempt at getting gardeners to suppress their horticultural racism and look with fresh eyes at conifers, but on the whole I'm done with the magazine and pass it on to my friend after about 30 minutes of reading. It's not that the pictures aren't good, or that the magazine is in any way badly written, it's just so terribly familiar and, I've come to believe, basic.

This isn't a post about being a horticultural smartarse; this is a post about learning. Gardening is a learning process. Simple. You buy your seeds, sow them, grow the seedlings on, plant them out, enjoy them, and you learn from your successes and failures. You also learn new things from TV and radio, from magazines and from other gardeners. Gardening is a process of constant learning, and even the most experienced gardeners are still learning lots of new things. This is where I've become increasingly at odds with it all; I'm starting to feel that horticulture is stagnating. I know that the garden year is a cycle, and that this cycle repeats itself each year, but there is a wealth of knowledge out there that is untouched by the horticultural mainstream.

Nobody seems to want to break out of the mainstream. Every year Monty Don sows his sweet peas in the same way and at pretty much the same time, and magazine regurgitate the same tips and advice, only with slightly different wording and a few new articles dropped in to persuade people not to just reread last year's edition (good tip though!). There's a formula and those who generate media content are happy to follow it, tweaking it as they go. What happens though when you, as a gardener, want to break away from the mainstream and build on your knowledge, when you don't want to be an amateur gardener any more?

There are specialist plant societies around for various parts of horticulture, and even the RHS has The Plantsman magazine for those who want more depth on the plants themselves (although you pay £29 on top of your RHS membership or pay £37 if you're not a member), and there are groups like the RHS Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia group you can join (again for an additional fee, and I can't work out if it's £20 a year to be member and an additional £25 if you want to receive bulletins... and I presume that the society is completely separate from the RHS membership). What we are decidedly lacking is a broad spectrum gardening organisation for gardeners who have outgrown the usual mainstream content, something that goes into more detail for those who already have the basics covered.

As I say, this isn't about about being a smartarse know-it-all gardener... this is about progress. At the moment there's a yawning gap between the basic end of gardening and the specialised end, and bridging that gap is, I believe, key to helping gardeners gain more skills and knowledge. There is a thirst for knowledge in horticulture, and trapping gardeners in a perpetual state of amateur isn't helping anyone anywhere, not least the gardeners themselves.

So what do we do? Is it time the RHS launched an RHS+ membership (maybe sending the quarterly editions of The Plantsman out instead of The Garden), or do we need a new broad spectrum garden society for those with enquiring minds?

What do you think?

Monday, 10 August 2015

Heritage Apples

Lovely sweet apple!

I was brought up on heritage; National Trust properties, steam rallies, museums, old buildings... since I was very young I have respected old things and I've long held the belief that it's generally a 'good thing' for us to preserve all that is good about our heritage. In the last few years I've come to reassess my beliefs; is a 30 year old car a classic or a rustbucket? Is a big old cottage in the country really all that good if it's damp and the roof's falling off?! Do we really need 'Sounds Of The '60s' on Radio 2 every Saturday morning?!

It's good to challenge your ideas. Occasionally weighing up your arguments keeps you fresh and makes sure that you're wholly convinced by what you're arguing for. Sadly though there are plenty of people around who won't question whether it's time to let go of certain things. The National Trust takes on more and more property to preserve for future generations, while across the UK villages try to raise vast amounts of money to stop underused churches from falling down!

Heritage fruit is an area that seems immune from criticism. Through the incredible work of a few hardcore apple enthusiasts many old varieties have been saved from extinction and are now being grown in collections around the UK. Time was when most areas had their own local varieties, but the traditional apple areas in the South West were particularly rich. Over the years many of these varieties have disappeared due to lack of propagation, old age, housing on old orchards/gardens, lack of interest... what's missing from this list? Some trees will have been rubbish!

How can an apple tree not be good? Some old varieties are less than reliable, fruiting every two seasons rather than every year, only netting half a crop before we've even got to the fruits. Fruits can be insipid, bland and pithy, and can quite often be very small. Trees are often more prone to scab and canker, and some varieties can need an absolutely perfect season to get anything meaningful from them. Modern varieties have been bred to provide more reliable fruiting (each year!), to provide consistent size and flavour. Maybe they don't have the character of the old apples, but they more than make up for it with performance and disease resistance!

I say 'modern varieties' because actually some of the apples popular today aren't exactly new; 'Bramley's Seedling' is a popular cooker from 1856! Why has 'Bramley's Seedling' remained so popular? Because it fruits well/reliably and is pretty disease resistant. While modern tastes tend to lean towards dessert apples, 'Bramley's Seedling' has stood the test of time simply because it's reliable and needs no improvement. Will modern varieties still be popular in more than 100 years?
Apple 'Pendragon'
The quality of the fruit is pretty well the whole point of growing any apple variety. While texture tends to be down to the variety, taste can vary wildly from season to season, as well as from location to location (assuming the same variety). Trees grown on vigorous rootstocks but on poor soils tend to have better flavour, while those grown on small rootstocks in good soil can be a bit lacking. Without doubt the freshness of the apple has an enormous effect on the flavour, and this is where I have issue with those who blindly believe that heritage apples are inherently better than modern varieties.

Let's take for example, two lovely shiny apples. One is a commercial variety from a supermarket, while the other one is a heritage variety straight from the tree. In a blind taste test you would probably end up choosing the heritage variety. Why? Because it's fresher! Once any apple is picked it starts to lose its flavour. A supermarket apple will have been picked days or even over a week earlier, all the time its sugars breaking down, while the one fresh from the tree will be full of sugars and flavour. The supermarket fruit will have to be in exceptional condition to be anywhere near as sweet and juicy as the fresh fruit (and this applies to everything- try raspberries from your own canes as opposed to supermarket pre-frozen ones). Now let's turn this scenario around, and take a fresh modern apple from its tree and compare it with a heritage apple that's been stored... I doubt anyone would want to go for the heritage one- freshness is key! I remember, when I still worked for my former employer, a customer coming up to me to complain about his apple tree (a 'Fiesta' if memory serves); he'd bought this thing and by the time he and his family had eaten their fill of apples, used them in apple sauces and pies, juiced some and frozen some, he was sick to death of them!
Labelled 'Spartan' but isn't!
Popular heritage apples tend to be the more reliable varieties with fruits that store well; most people couldn't eat the entire crop of an apple tree when it ripens! Fruits that store well are those with more solid flesh and more stable sugars, but these are a minority in the heritage varieties; many stopped being grown simply because they didn't store well, and were in sharp decline way before more modern varieties came onto the market.

I'm not saying that these heritage varieties don't have a place in modern gardening. With names like 'Pig's Nose', 'Cornish Gilliflower' and 'Catshead' who wouldn't be sucked in by their interesting and romantic names? All I would say with heritage apple varieties is that you should grow them because you want to grow heritage apple varieties; if you just want a nice big crop of apples each year then go for something more modern. If you have a large space and want to have an orchard filled with old varieties then go right ahead, and I hope you enjoy the fruits of your endeavour.

If you want to know more about apples and their varieties you might enjoy this website:

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Another anniversary

Many of you will know the events of last year, a year that changed my career... Many would probably say (quite rightly) that I should just let things go, but I do find the anniversaries of key events to be a good time to take stock of where I am.

On August the 5th 2014 my former employers called a meeting. It was to be a big meeting; the whole business closed early so that all members of staff could be spoken to about 'the direction of the business'. Although colleagues called my cynical I knew it was going to be big news and it was going to be bad news, and I was right.

The company knew best. They had consulted with the best minds of British gardening (although didn't name names) and had had their beliefs confirmed; British gardening is "dead on its feet" and it is simply not viable to grow plants and sell them. Gardeners aren't interested in plants any more, and as such there is no point in the nursery (as a business) focusing on plants.

To hear that so many jobs were going was terrible, knowing from day one that mine was assured (no production, no production staff!) was galling, and the fact that all bar one of the job losses was in horticulture showed absolute contempt for horticulture! During the following weeks and months we all had to go through a horrendously drawn out legal process, but soon enough all of my predictions of who they were targeting came true.

A year on from that meeting and life is awesome. I'm building up my own business, still working for another nursery, and I'm back to being positive about my career. My former manager called me "boring" and had contempt for everything I did, but now my world is filled with people who appreciate my knowledge and skills. I wake up each morning knowing that I will spend my day doing what I love, without having to be immersed in what I've now realised was an unhealthy social atmosphere. I spend my time growing plants, selling plants, planting plants, caring for plants, photographing plants... As Confucius said "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life"!

I do miss a few things; the nursery had an extraordinary range of plants, with a huge collection of Camellias and Fuchsias as well as lots of trees, shrubs and perennials. This diversity kept me on my feet and meant that there was always something new coming into season. I also worked with a lot of really good people, most of whom we victims of the 'cull' and are now also out making their way in the world. There were also lots of polytunnels to work in when it was raining! Not a day goes by when I'm not glad to be away though...

In the end I'm confident that I will be proved right; as that business has focused its efforts more and more on its cafe and giftware its core of loyal customers have gone to other nurseries and garden centres. Barely a week goes by when I don't hear at least something about bad service (one of my gardening customers was aggressively sold a dead plant!) or something to do with the place. Good nurseries are sadly thin on the ground, whereas cafes aren't; thankfully their loss has been the gain of a lot of smaller nurseries and garden centres in Devon and Cornwall, and these businesses are reaping benefits.

Anyway I would like to thank again everyone who's given me kind words during the last year. It hasn't been plain sailing all the way, but I know that what seemed only a year ago to be a disaster has become a great triumph. Thank you all! 

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Four things eco-gardeners don't want you to know

If you dare to mention 'chemicals' on the internet you will very quickly attract a load of people who claim that everything is dangerous and kills bees (it's always the bees, never any other insect...). Speaking with these people it's all to often the case that they are well meaning individuals who prefer to follow their hearts than science, and while some are well informed about the issues surrounding the use of chemicals in the garden, others come up with some rather crazy and unorthodox 'facts' that others then take as being total truth.

It seems we've lost our ability to question; we can't question studies without bias any more. The prevailing attitude amongst a decent wedge of gardeners is that all research carried out that doesn't support the anti-chemical viewpoint is wrong, while research that does support the anti-chemical viewpoint is automatically right. People blame multinational companies for using very selective information, yet then choose to ignore studies that go against their viewpoint....

I'm not an organic gardener, and neither am I pro-chemical. For me a chemical is a tool that should be used with the same care and consideration as any other tool. In the same way that you wouldn't use a strimmer to deadhead your roses, neither is it necessary to dose a plant with insecticide every time you see an aphid. Unfortunately it seems that few others seem to think like me. Here, nonetheless, are four things the eco-gardeners don't want you to know:

Research done on chemicals such as neonicotinoids and glyphosate are aimed at agricultural usage; if you spray a neonicotinoid onto a few aphid colonies in your garden it's incredibly unlikely that you will cause any damage to bees unless you spray an open flower. Farmers spray vast areas of crops with chemicals regardless of whether or not there might be beneficial insects around. Spot treatment of isolated colonies of pests presents a minuscule risk, and it gets even better; if bees aren't foraging on a specific plant then the risk is even further reduced, so spraying a patch of weeds that aren't in flower with glyphosate, or insects on a plant that isn't in flower, simply does not pose any meaningful danger.

Banning neonicotinoids is great, but does anyone really think that farmers will just shrug their shoulders and stop spraying? No they won't; the next group of chemicals they'll turn to is the pyrethroid group which is much less selective and will kill all bugs. Oh and for anyone who thinks that these chemicals are dreamt up in a lab, both are based on natural plant insecticides.

It is simply not true that a litre of glyphosate sprayed in a garden is as dangerous as 10,000 litres sprayed on a field; the higher the dose and the more sustained the exposure the higher the risks. While we're on doses, there is compelling research that shows levels of glyphosate in bread. Firstly the doses are minuscule and you'd have to eat a lot of bread to be in danger, but fair enough, nobody wants any type of poison in their food. Glyphosate is sprayed directly onto grain shortly before harvest to dry it out, hence the chemical is still present in the grain when it's milled for flour. In your garden you would never spray your vegetables with glyphosate, and spraying weeds elsewhere in the garden will not magically poison your food crops.

It's not enough the say that you feel that chemicals are harmful. To be approved any chemical product must be rigorously scientifically tested, while few organic treatments have ever undergone any meaningful scientific study. Various products are sold as 'plant invigorators' and claims have been made about their control of certain pests but these haven't undergone trials and they aren't licensed. Fair enough, if they don't contain harmful ingredients then who cares? My point here isn't so much about ingredients but impressions; a lot of anti-chemical information around is based on selective understanding of selective studies, along with people's impressions of what is, in their hearts, right and wrong. In the same way that you wouldn't trust a chemical manufacturer to release research that shows their products in a negative light, neither can you truly trust the anti-chemical lobby. The use of chemicals in agriculture creates polarised viewpoints, and it seems that nobody is capable of occupying middle ground. Take for example the point I made above about chemicals in agriculture; the 'green gardening' lobby read research on agricultural practices and then proclaim that because widespread agricultural use of a product may be harmful it is therefore true that small scale use of the same products in gardens is equally harmful. This is simply not true, and yet it's the case that people spout half-truths at every turn. What you do in your own garden is up to you, but creating fear through misinformation isn't acceptable whether you're a vast multinational company or an eco gardener.

So there you have four things that the eco gardeners don't want you to know- I may add to this in the future as things occur to me or crop up. Your garden is your own, and if you fill it with flowers all year round and create a good ecosystem then wildlife (good and bad) will come to you. Most gardens are fairly self-perpetuating and won't need any intervention. I haven't sprayed for pests and diseases in nearly 10 years, not because I'm anti-chemical but because I'm just a good gardener, but if I did need to treat a pest then I would do so by whatever means are necessary. Similarly with glyphosate I will spray on the rare occasions that it's necessary (paths and drives, but most of my work is on borders and lawns where glyphosate isn't the right tool), but by using knowledge and common sense I won't be creating the ecological disaster the green gardeners claim I unleash every time I open the weedkiller bottle. Careful and appropriate small-scale use of chemical isn't the problem, it's massive use by agriculture, but that won't stop this article (and others before it and others still to be written) stirring up those who would prefer to follow their hearts than their brains. Such a shame really; the organic gardening lobby contains some incredibly good scientists and thinkers who could really change the world, but until science and common sense are allowed a voice....

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Book Review: Peter Korn's Garden

The 'right plant, right place' mantra has been drummed into keen gardeners for so long that it has become one of the foundations of modern horticulture. We learn the importance of growing plants suitable for our soil and climate fairly early in our horticultural journeys, so the prospect of yet another book along these lines didn't exactly excite me. Even opening the package I was expecting another book telling me yet again what I've been doing for years already.

Peter Korn is a name that is well known in certain areas of horticulture; this Swedish gardener is bold in his style, and has a deep understanding of ecology and the cultivation requirements of a wide range of niche garden plants. To say that Peter Korn gardens with nature is a bit of an understatement; his style is centred around his understanding of the plants he grows and an almost palpable need to recreate the growing conditions that his plants experience in the wild. To do this in the fairly harsh climate of Sweden would seem like an insurmountable challenge to most gardeners, and yet the pictures of Peter Korn's garden show that he has achieved this with style and elegance.

The images in this book are mostly breathtaking! A rocky ridge in Armenia, the dramatic scenery of the Sierra Nevada in the USA, or close-ups of plants in his garden, nearly every page has a jaw-dropping picture. This book is nothing if not lavishly illustrated, but once you've fought the urge to skim through the book and just look at the pictures(!) the text is full of detailed information. Thankfully the author's friendly and open style of writing makes the information easy to digest!

Peter Korn's whole horticultural ethos will be a little unnerving to the 'old guard' of gardening. His beautiful sand beds, wooded areas and open areas seem unorthodox in style but when you consider that these are habitats and not just borders things start to make more sense. You could even say that this is a garden built on common sense, given that Peter Korn's whole raison d'etre is to make his plants so comfortable in their setting that they look after themselves. With dramatic views and beautiful plants any maintenance must be a joy!

But is it a garden? That depends on how you define a garden. If your idea of a garden is clearly defined borders, a neat lawn and a carefully placed statue at one end then this is not a garden that will interest you. If you define a garden as a place where beautiful plants are tended and cultivated to perfection then Peter Korn's garden will appeal to you even if you don't dig up your existing garden to copy his work.

Clear and easy to follow, 'Peter Korn's Garden' is a book that will teach gardeners a lot about ecology and how plants grow in the wild. Although this book focusses heavily on the smaller plants the Peter Korn grows in his garden, any self respecting plant enthusiast will love the rare and interesting species shown, and will easily be able to adapt Peter Korn's mantra to the plants that they themselves are interested in. This is a book written to educate and inspire at the same time, and believe me it's hard to tear yourself away from!

If your idea of gardening begins and ends with heavily-bred roses, Penstemons and peonies then this might not be the book for you, but if you're into more unusual plants and want your horizons broadened then this is a book you are sure to enjoy.

You can buy a copy here in the UK:
Or from Peter Korn himself here:

Tuesday, 16 June 2015


Given my previous post, 'Hate Mail', I appreciate the irony of getting involved with such an emotive issue. The use of glyphosate, and its links with cancer, create polarised opinions. Here is my attempt at being balanced and neutral...

There's been a lot of chatter recently about the decision by the French Government to ban the direct sale of Roundup (and possibly other glyphosate products) in garden centres. This decision, based on studies of farm workers, has been hailed by many as a step in the right direction... but is it?

In small doses glyphosate isn't particularly dangerous compared with other pesticide products. Jet5 is a disinfectant approved for organic use, but get a small drop of it on your skin and your skin will go white and give you a very unpleasant burning sensation for several hours, and if you breathe in a fungicide like Roseclear (or trade versions) you can have breathing difficulties (add this to something like even mild asthma and you're in trouble).

The problems come from overuse; glyphosate is popular because it's a convenient way to kill weeds without resorting to physical methods like digging. Because it's easy for people who can't be bothered to control weeds in other ways it's become the go-to product for gardeners, but gardeners seldom fully appreciate the importance of things like spraying intervals or dose rates (I had a customer who used Clinic Ace (glyphosate) at 10x dilution rate because she didn't want to wait a week for the weeds to die!). If a home gardener doesn't see results quickly then they spray again and again and again until they get the desired effect, but also causing a pollution problem. Trained pesticide handlers know how to use these products while minimising environmental damage, but the public seem unwilling to take advice/training or even to accept that when they reach for any pesticide product they're entering into a legally binding agreement to use the product safely and exactly how the manufacturer tells them to. This, I'm afraid, really should be the number one reason for taking glyphosate off the shelves; not enough gardeners can be trusted to use herbicides or any pesticide properly at home. A dose of herbicide sprayed at the right time will kill troublesome perennial weeds and leave you with easier to manage seedlings to deal with, but you have to use it properly, and not just reach for weedkiller every time you see a weed.

In agriculture the reliance on glyphosate is even greater; as well as controlling weeds on ground before crops are planted, glyphosate is sprayed onto certain crops to kill them and dry them out. In many cases these weedkilled crops are destined for us, particularly corn and soy. How crops can be sprayed just before harvesting but somehow supposedly not contain glyphosate is beyond me; there is fairly conclusive evidence that glyphosate is getting into our food via these treated crops. Given how much agriculture relies on glyphosate it's not really a surprise that an EU study found higher than average rates of cancer in farm workers- even if the person spraying the crops is in a top of the range sealed cab and is protected from the product, the minute he or she works with the crop directly the dose rate will go straight up!

Given how massive the use of glyphosate is in agriculture I really doubt that normal horticultural use would generate even remotely similar results to the EU study but, as with so many other things like radiation or smoking, a regular large dose of glyphosate probably will put you at higher risk of cancer. I really doubt that horticultural contractors are particularly at risk because the amounts we use are tiny compared to those used on farms (it stands to reason that someone coming into contact with glyphosate sprayed by the hectare will be at significantly higher risk than someone who sprays a few square metres!), but I think controlling the access that gardeners have to pesticides is probably wise, especially while so many people remain ignorant of the dangers of misuse and their personal responsibility to the environment. 

Contractors aren't beyond reproach; I've been surprised by how many professionals I've seen over the years spraying in windy weather, when rain is forecast (and in one case even when it was raining!); we've had our training and really should all be sticking to it!

In due course there will be alternatives to glyphosate for garden use; citronella oil is available in some cases for weed control (although Canada has banned some citronella products so there may be problems there), and 'hot foam' treatment of weeds looks promising, if currently expensive) for larger areas. In the meantime it looks as though glyphosate will remain the dominant chemical weed control, but whether or not it remains in the public domain only time will tell.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Hate mail

“Ben. Its time someone let you know something important mate. All your stuff on twitter and your site makes you look like a real prick. Great you know all your clever plant names but you need to know that real gardeners don't care. I am sure your a nice guy but you won't make friends here if your not in touch with what real gardeners want. Maybe a bit less of the fancy plant stuff and more real gardening mate.”

Well that's quite an email (via my website) to wake up to! This person seems to misunderstand my remit here online, so let me make myself completely clear;
  1. I love plants, rare and unusual as well as most common plants- in fact I can't think of any plant I actually hate! I feature the rare and unusual plants because a) they interest me, b) writing about them helps me to learn about them (by researching them), and c) so many other people write great stuff about more common plants that I would just be repeating what they say.
  2. I do use the properly recognised botanical names. Live with it. Google Analytics shows me that my website gets visits from all over the world, even from non-English speaking countries. By using the botanical names I make sure that everyone, from my friend down the road to someone I've never met in South America, Asia or mainland Europe, knows the name of the plant they're looking at.
  3. Real gardeners are mostly the ones who want to know about their subject, whether it's finding the label of a plant they like in a garden or finding inspiration from a book, magazine or the internet. Learning is a key part of gardening, whether it's learning tips from your neighbour or taking a horticultural course. Very few gardeners like to grow the same things, year in year out, the same way forever! As I learn new things I share them, and I love to find out new things from other gardeners.
  4. I was brought up to regard name-calling as a bad thing, especially with people you don't know. In the last month I've been called a lot of things; arrogant, out of touch, several rude things that I can't repeat... This is the internet; you're not locked into anything, you are free to follow and unfollow anyone who you don't agree with, and to go and find people who see the world the same way you do. There are lots of people who don't share my views on gardening and I'm happy to discuss and debate things, but there's never any need to get abusive!

I do 'Ben's Botanics' for fun; I don't get paid for it, I don't have sponsorship. I set up the website,(then Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest) because I like sharing information and like to show off pictures of plants that I grow of have seen. I also spend a lot of time reading other people's stuff, as well as sharing ideas and inspiration. I'm not selling you anything, I'm just here to meet other like-minded people, and I will continue to run Ben's Botanics to the best standards I can.

I'm going to stay with proper plant names because I find them more inclusive for my non-UK followers, and I will continue to feature plants that interest and excite me.

Sorry if anyone if offended by this.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Chelsea is not the centre of the world!

It's that time of the year again, when the horticultural world turns its attentions to a small patch of London. The Chelsea Flower Show is hailed as the greatest flower show on Earth, and is the highlight of the horticultural year. Anyone who's anyone in gardening will be there, and if you want to call yourself a gardener then you must be there too.

But is this entirely true? Certainly there is a lot of attention on Chelsea, and it's the only time the media really makes much effort to represent gardening. Is it the greatest flower show on Earth? Well it's certainly the most famous. Do you need to be there? No.

People go to Chelsea for different reasons; nurseries go for the prestige of [hopefully] a Chelsea gold medal, designers go because they're being paid to design and build gardens, and a load of wealthy people with no interest in gardening go to get trollied in the hospitality tents at a big social event, one would hope to come home with a coveted 'I got wasted at Chelsea' t-shirt.

Why thousands upon thousands of ordinary gardeners spend quite frankly ridiculous amounts of money (non members day tickets are £99!) to be crammed into a small space with so many other people I simply do not know. I know lots of people who smile and tell me they've been to Chelsea, but when you get past their boasting they've actually seen a fraction of what they wanted to see. Some hardcore Chelsea veterans have learnt to barge their way through the crowds so they see everything, but most seem to just 'soak up the atmosphere' (wander around without being able to see anything).

My advice to gardeners? Avoid the crowds! Think what you could do with the money saved by not buying an all day ticket (yes, you can get cheaper tickets if you only want to be there for an hour or two); you could spend the money on some new plants, and maybe a tree for your garden? Maybe you could put the money into buying a new piece of equipment to make life easier in the garden? Or maybe, just maybe, you could spend that money getting inspiration from one or more of the great gardens looking absolutely fantastic up and down the UK right now?!

I don't mean to belittle the hard work that goes into making Chelsea what it is. Thousands of people are involved in growing plants, setting up displays/gardens and taking it all away. Many nurseries and design teams spend the rest of their year planning (albeit at the back of their minds) what they want to do to create the biggest spectacle and get their coveted gold medal. What you mustn't do is feel inadequate because you're not there. If you want to go and see some extremely expensive gardens built by armies of people and paid for by large corporations then by all means go for it. Failing that, save your money, enjoy your own garden and watch Chelsea on TV!

True gardening neither begins, nor ends, at Chelsea.

If you would like to experience the buzz of a major flower show the I would recommend the other RHS shows, including the Malvern Spring Flower Show, Hampton Court, and Tatton Park. For gardeners in London (and those who are happy to travel to London) there are well regarded flower shows held frequently at the RHS Halls. If you just want to buy plants for your garden then there are hundreds of smaller regional plant fairs across the UK, and there will certainly be one near you!

A rambling guide to bedding...

At this time of the year there are hundreds of different types of bedding plant available and, providing you can keep them frost free, now is the perfect time to get planting. Gone are the days of 'carpet bedding', where vast numbers of tender plants are planted in rows to make patterns. Nowadays the old popular bedding plants such as French Marigolds, Lobelia and Pansies have been joined by new strains of Verbena, Nemesia and Argyranthemum as high-impact plants for containers.
Lotus maculatus, an exotic trailing plant!
If you can keep them frost free, May is the perfect month to get planting your summer containers. Smaller containers can easily be moved into a greenhouse or somewhere else frost free if needed, but when you're planting larger containers it's worth bearing in mind the weight of the planted container  and that you might not be able to move it at short notice; with this in mind keep a decent amount of frost fleece handy just in case!
Argyranthemum 'Aramis Fire'
When you're choosing your container it doesn't really matter all that much what it's made of; there are so many really great trailing plants available that there will be something to grow and hide the pot whatever colour scheme you choose! If you want to use trailing plants or you live in an area with high rainfall it would be a good idea to use a tall pot. I would naturally lean towards using larger containers myself, and would recommend filling them right up with colourful plants for a spectacular display! Remember that smaller pots will probably need very careful attention to watering, particularly once the plants have really started to grow!
Nemesia 'Sweet Lady'
Site your pot sensibly! You want to see your display, so a spot near a front door, a patio or favourite seating area is perfect. You can use a pot of seasonal bedding as a feature in a border, maybe to provide colour where a spring plant has disappeared. If you want to pop your container into the border be sure to put it onto a paving slab just bigger than the base of the pot first; you don't want your pot sinking into the soil and the slab will stop the bottom of the pot getting filthy! If you don't happen to have a paving slab around then a D.I.Y. store will usually have cheap slabs for around £1- the finish isn't great, but you won't see it when your pot's on top.
Verbena Lanai Series 'Pink Twister'
A lot of the most popular bedding plants are quite thirsty, especially later in the year when they've grown a little more; make sure your container is somewhere near a hose and/or watering can! In hot weather you may need to water your container twice a day, so choosing the best spot will save you a lot of time and effort later in the year. Although most of the plants available say they want full sun I would recommend that, if you can, you shade them from the midday sun. Some plants can wilt if they get too hot (maybe on your patio with a wall behind), and if any run even slightly dry during the day then they can go crispy; although they will usually recover I would recommend avoiding any trouble in the first place. You can add water retaining granules/gel when you plant your container... these absorb water when you water or when it rains, and then release it to the plants when the compost starts to dry out. Although they're not a cure-all for watering they can give you a little help in hot weather.
People ask me about compost for bedding containers; by far the best is a peat based multipurpose because although it can be difficult to re-wet if it goes dry it gets too dry it does hold a good amount of water and also drain well. Failing that, a John Innes recipe compost with a little extra perlite for drainage and aeration can work well, but John Innes composts can be heavy around delicate young root systems and are incredibly heavy if you need to move a large pot! In the peat free composts I would recommend Sylvagrow from Melcourt Composts. This peat free compost is fairly moisture retentive but also free draining (unlike so many 'greenwaste' based composts), but like so many peat free composts you need to keep a closer eye on watering, and there is some indication that water retaining granules/gel might not be quite as effective (although they will be a lot more helpful than without them altogether!).
Argyranthemum 'Crested Merlot'
By far the biggest secret to success with bedding plants is feed. Pretty well anything will give them a real boost, but I would recommend higher potash fertilisers (Chempak #4 or tomato food) for the best flowers. Bedding plants want to flower, so if you keep them well fed then you will get the best results. Controlled Release Fertilisers (or 'season long', such as Osmocote) are usually more balanced feeds, so will promote lots of growth as well as flowers. There's enough nitrogen in a high potash liquid feed to aid healthy growth, but more potash means more flowers! I would recommend using a liquid feed (where you mix up crystals in a watering can) myself; feed as instructed on the packet, except when there's heavy rain forecast- you don't want your feed to wash straight out! If there's heavy rain on its way then delay feeding until it's passed. For the best results make sure your container isn't dry when you feed; if needed give it a good water to wet the compost and then add your liquid feed on top... this makes sure your feed spreads out in the compost.
Nemesia 'Sky Blue'
The only other maintenance to be done with bedding plants is to snip off any spent flowers or anything obviously a bit untidy. With big flowers, such as Marigolds, deadheading is important to keep them tidy and flowering, whereas smaller flowered plants like Nemesia and Verbena just need untidy bits snipped off.
Nemesia 'Scarlet'
I've deliberately not recommended colour/plant combinations here. A seasonal container is a wonderful opportunity to play with colours in a way you just can't get away with in your borders. You can use shocking pinks, bright oranges, cool blues and vivid yellows in containers and create beautiful displays. You'll see if you don't like the colours together when you put them in your trolley, and if your container is a fairly neutral colour then that won't be a problem. Be bold and brave with your colours! The only thing I would recommend is the use of white flowers; there's something about white (or very pale pink) flowers that causes some colours to become really strong and others to calm down, so when you're choosing plants try and add some white flowers into the mix.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015


Sometimes it can be very hard to believe the people who mean you well. In a world chock full of cynicism even the kindest comments are taken with a pinch of salt, often as social pleasantries instead of solid encouragement.

Six months ago today, on the 7th of November 2014, I was made redundant from a company I'd spent 10 years working for. During that time I had worked very hard to help that company build and maintain its reputation for horticultural excellence, it must be said against often considerable opposition from some colleagues as well as the business' manager and owners. There were a few of us 'die-hard' horticulturists there, all working tirelessly to produce the best quality products and provide the best possible service to the gardeners of Cornwall and further afield. In the end it was all in vain; the owners of the business had made it plain that they considered horticulture a second rate profession, and so they made their decision to purge the business of meaningful horticulture in order to focus their efforts on their foody nouveau riche customers, and in so doing discarding the customers that had been loyal to them for so many years.

When I left people told me I would have no difficulty filling my time with customers who would appreciate my skills and knowledge, but on the whole this hasn't been my experience. I do have customers who are absolutely delighted with my work and are happy to have me as their gardener, but I've also had my fair share of timewasters (people with unrealistic expectations of what a gardener can actually achieve and how little they can get away with paying!), as well as losing out more 'casual' work to a couple of guys who offer an 'expert gardening and building maintenance service' for less than the minimum wage!

I've been very lucky to have a part time job at the fabulous Endsleigh Gardens Nursery in Devon. It's a fantastic place to be; it's a small nursery that was nearly lost to us gardeners (due to the previous owner's retirement) but is now firmly back on the road to recovery. After my experience with my previous company I must say it's liberating to work for a business where horticulture is the priority, and not just some greenery to decorate a café and shop building. I'm indebted to this nursery not just for offering me work when I needed it but also for opening my eyes to the fact that growing plants actually is still a respectable thing to be doing!

I know I'm lucky to have been made redundant from my former employer; although I can do garden centre work standing on my head, their culture of 'image over substance' would drive me crazy! I started my career in a garden centre in Cheshire and have fond memories of it; we worked hard, had a limited budget and we had a huge garden centre just up the road, and yet we still developed a name for ourselves based on the quality of our advice and service. We had a crumbling infrastructure to contend with and not-so-understanding management team, and yet we had loyal customers because we offered substance. I don't think I could last in a business providing a thin veneer of quality but lacking meaningful substance, and neither would I be happy in an environment where horticulture, an industry and career I truly love, always plays second fiddle to everything else.

Horticulture is where my heart is, and although things haven't gone quite as expected, I do feel that things are moving in the right direction. Here's to the future!
Rhododendron 'XXL'- gorgeous!

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Collecting Rare Plants

If you visit a garden centre you will often be dazzled by the choice, particularly in spring when the sales benches are packed with fabulous plants all ready to take their place in your garden. Sometimes a plant range is so big and so diverse that it all becomes a bit daunting; working your way through the A-Z benches of a big garden centre can turn into an endurance test while you look for plants suitable for your garden and needs. New gardeners can find it hard to believe that there are more garden plants actually out there, but the garden centre range is the tip of a very large iceberg.

To be successful in a garden centre, a plant must meet certain criteria. Firstly it must perform really well. Most garden centre customers, and indeed more 'casual' gardeners, are looking for performance; the ideal plant will look great for as long as possible, flower for as many weeks or even months as possible, and won't grow too big or too open. The second of the criteria is ease of propagation; large retailers and chain stores will buy extraordinary numbers of plants to stock their shelves, so plants must be easy to propagate and mass produce either from cuttings or from tissue culture (micropropagation). Plants that don't meet these two main criteria won't feature in most garden centres.
Coming to a garden centre near you... never! Dionysia 'Gerben'
There are big advantages to buying mass produced plants. If a plant is mass produced then it will almost certainly have gone through rigorous trials with plant experts who will evaluate it thoroughly before it goes into production. Mass producing plants is a risky business; given that it will usually take several years to produce enough of a particular plant to release onto the market, these plant experts have to be very sure that the plant is worth the time, effort and money. Get it wrong and there will be trouble! You should be pretty confident that if a plant is mass produced it will have been deemed to be a very good performer, and it should make quite a show in your garden.
Geranium 'Rozanne' has been a very successful introduction!
Of course sometimes it goes wrong. Somebody fairly reliable told me that Geranium 'Bob's Blunder' came from a mistake made by Bob Brown, owner of Cotswold Garden Flowers in Evesham, UK. So the story goes, Bob was evaluating some of his seedling Geraniums and had chosen the best to go to a tissue culture lab to be mass produced. Something went wrong, however, and when the staff member went back to the Geraniums to pick up the plant to be sent away, he or she picked up the wrong one by mistake. This error wasn't noticed until it was too late! I'm not 100% sure that the story is entirely true, but don't have any real reason to doubt it. Geranium 'Bob's Blunder' is now a fairly widely grown variety with dark brownish leaves and charming smoky pink flowers. Maybe it wasn't quite such a blunder?!

An enormous number of garden plants will never be mass produced because they either don't meet the criteria set by the big producers or because they haven't been spotted by a keen-eyed product developer. Many of these plants are propagated and sold by smaller wholesale or retail nurseries, businesses that produce smaller batches of a wider range of plants. Most nurseries propagate their niche plants themselves, dividing perennials and taking cuttings the traditional way. Although this limits the numbers of many plants, it does at least keep a broader range available for the discerning gardener. 

So why would a gardener want a plant that doesn't 'perform' as well as more modern varieties? It's a matter of how you garden. For some a garden filled with a succession of traditional cottage garden plants is perfection itself, while for others a diverse range of foliage is better. For more experienced gardeners it's often a case of quality over quantity when it comes to flowering season. Certainly for me there is a great sense of anticipation in waiting for a plant that only flowers for a short period and, to be honest, although I'm often sad to see the last flower on a treasured plant fade, I think that a precious plant which doesn't flower for very long makes you appreciate each flower more. Nonetheless, this is a view that isn't shared by people breeding and growing massive numbers of plants for the garden centre trade!

Some plants are easy to grow and propagate but remain rare simply because they're not known. I've taken many a gamble on the word of an enthusiastic nursery owner or gardener, and rarely has it not paid off. The RHS Plant Finder lists thousands upon thousands of plants and nobody can know them all. Hidden on nurseries all around the UK are hundreds if not thousands of obscure plants that deserve to be better known. For the keen gardener stumbling onto one of these plants is a source of real excitement, a chance to enhance the garden and grow something new. There is always an element of risk trying something new, but providing we can get good advice from our nurseries we should be fine.
Easy but unknown; Trochodendron arailioides.
There are plants that are rare because their cultivation needs means that suitable places to grow them are rare. Half hardy or tender plants might need to live in a heated greenhouse all year round in most parts of the UK, and for so many gardeners that's just not affordable. Bigger tropical plants will need vast spaces to grow so will only be grown in big old Victorian conservatories attached to stately homes, far outside the reach of the ordinary gardener. 

Being entirely honest here, some plants are rare because they're rubbish! Old varieties so susceptible to disease that they can only be kept alive with frequent chemical intervention, fruit varieties with unreliable and insipid fruits, plants that have always been weak and hopeless... not every rare plant is an opportunity to grow something new and exciting! There is a nostalgia around old varieties that, although great for raising interest in conserving garden plants, is keeping some plants going that shouldn't be kept. I made the mistake early on in my love affair with rare and unusual plants of buying plants without evaluating them properly and bought some awful plants that died pretty quickly! If you have a passion for keeping old varieties going at any cost then good on you, but the rest of us need to evaluate plants before they come into our collections, simply to avoid disappointment.

I think to a degree everyone has a slightly different take on why they collect rare and unusual plants. Certainly the universal factor is the desire to do something different in the garden, to grow plants that aren't the same as the ones everyone else grows. I think once you get past the desire to be different people factor in things such as an interest in historical plants, interest in plants from certain parts of the world, interest in botany, a love of plants with certain uses (there are people who collect plants that were used to make dyes, and others that collect traditional English herbs), and an interest in a particular genus or plant family. There is nearly always a sense of the importance of conserving rare and unusual plants, and the sense that we are doing our bit for their survival if only by growing them in our gardens.

Whatever the reasons, people who collect and grow rare plants get extraordinary amounts of pleasure from their gardening. Yes there are bad traits around; some people use their knowledge of plants to belittle others, while others will steal plants or buy stolen plants. Most of the rare plant circles are a mixing pot of friendly eccentricity. Get enthusiasts of rare and unusual plants together and they will happily chat away about their collections, giving each other tip-offs about cultivation techniques or plants to look after. I have met a few rather unpleasant characters in rare plant circles over the years, but they have always been a very small minority. 

I've said about the sense of excitement that's felt by most people who grow rare plants. We live lives of perpetual delight and anguish; delight when something special is growing rather well, and anguish when something is struggling or facing damage from the weather (think Magnolias and frost here!). This emotional tie with plants seems very odd to non-gardeners or people who are new into gardening, but we are curators of living collections, and we do care about plants more than most people do.

This question of what to grow should be straightforward; surely just grow what you like? In reality we all face issues of climate, space, money (usually a troublesome issue for plant enthusiasts!) and practicality.

Climate is a bit of a sod with unusual plants as so many of the unusual plants we all love come from areas with different climates to our own. Take, for example, Meconopsis. Most of the Meconopsis species we admire are from a much narrower temperature band than ours in the UK. Typically winters aren't very cold (or snowfall protects them from damage from the cold) and the summers don't get too warm. The winter temperatures can be controlled with careful protection, but summer temperatures can be more tricky. Most Meconopsis start to cook above about 20C, so a cool moist soil in shade with good air flow is needed in most areas. Add this to the fact that they resent disturbance, won't tolerate soils that get too wet or too dry, and some can be monocarpic (flower once and then die, like an annual or biennial but not necessarily in their first or second year from seed) and you've got a plant that sounds like a real swine to grow. They are real swines to grow, and this is why gardeners who persevere with them and grow them successfully deserve credit. 

Not all plants have to be difficult, but many are. In my experience the pitfalls can come from not realising that certain species might be tender even though the rest of the genus is hardy, such as Hydrangea or Rhododendron. I've lost plants because I've not realised the subtle nuances of their cultivation, and these have in some cases been expensive mistakes. 
Worth a sheltered spot; Rhododendron johnstoneanum.
Whatever you decide to grow, if it's 'off the beaten path' it's worth doing your research before you get stuck in to a particular thing. You might well have to come to terms with the fact that certain desirable plants are impossible to grow until you win the lottery! This heartache is nothing compared to losing a whole collection to a bad winter.

There are ways around certain problems. Obviously cold and wet weather will warrant a greenhouse or polytunnel for your collection, and extra water needed might require an irrigation system. Growing things in the wrong soil type is usually the biggest challenge that faces collectors of unusual plants. Usually the problems come when soils are too heavy, but also pH is a big issue if you want to grow ericaceous (acid loving plants). Through necessity I grow all of my plants in containers, but this has given me the advantage of a nearly infinite range of soil types I can make. For my Hostas and Rodgersias the mix is John Innes #3 with multipurpose compost and perlite, while my choice woodlanders live together in big troughs with a mix of composted bark (NOT bark chips) and perlite. Other plants just get multipurpose compost with some perlite for air and drainage. By choosing pots that are fairly deep I get the best drainage I can (remember that shallow pots don't drain as well as deep pots), and the open mix in my troughs replicates the conditions of a forest floor, or at least as close as I can get it. The results have been great; the big Hostas and Rodgersias do well in their bulky mix, while the woodlanders (such as Trilliums) have a nice easy mix to bulk up into. I do have to keep an eye on watering in dry weather, but that's not a bad thing given that it's easier to add water than take it away!

A serious collector with more space might well be advised to make their own raised bed(s) for their more demanding plants. Providing you provide the best depth possible and make your growing medium from the best mix of ingredients you should be OK. As a serious plant collector you want to avoid certain practices, such as adding things to alkaline soils to dry and make it better for acid loving plants. Know your limits; if your soil is wrong and you can't make a decent raised bed then you will likely be heading for trouble.

Of course you might be lucky and have the perfect conditions for what you want to grow, in which case get planting! Be careful to keep plants in your collection defined when you plant them, particularly if you collect a specific genus such as Crocosmia. It's tempting to go for a nice drift that shows your collection off in a more natural looking setting, but trust me you will regret it! Even if you've become somewhat expert in identifying your plants in flower, could you still recognise them all out of season? I know from my experience growing Camellias commercially that even a fairly diverse group can look very similar out of flower, and it's usually when a plant is out of flower that you need to grab a cutting, division or plant for someone. Take care in labeling your collection, it really is worth the effort, even if you know all your plants really well!
Distinctive enough in flower; Camellia 'Dewatairin'
I'll leave this section with an anecdote; I worked for a while for a garden centre in Cheshire. One day I remember a chap visiting and looking at Clematis. He told me that he loved Clematis but couldn't grow them. On enquiring it turned out that this customer lived in Southport, a few streets in from the sea, on what are known as 'grey dunes'. Grey dunes are the part of a sand dune area where there is some humus but most of the bulk is still made of sand; not good Clematis soil! He told me that the top inch (couple of centimetres) dried out within half an hour of heavy rain, and that any organic matter he added just seemed to disappear. Over the years he'd lost probably 30 Clematis he'd tried in the garden, but a Convolvulus cneorum grow to six feet (2m) tall- a great height, but a plant he hated with a passion!

Sadly you will encounter other problems when you grow rare and unusual plants. The first is getting hold of your plants in the first place. There are some fantastic nurseries in the UK but they do tend to be hidden away in rural areas and might not be practical to visit. Don't get me wrong, if the plant you want is definitely in stock and the nursery looks interesting then take a day trip to visit- there's always the chance that you will see something else you like the look of...! Most nurseries offer a mail order service and have websites you can browse, but there is the issue of cost. Sorry, but many rare and unusual plants are expensive. It's hard to tear yourself from a plant you love but can't afford or justify but sometimes it has to be done. Nurserymen don't charge more for rare plants so they can afford to live a life of luxury (usually quite the opposite!), but higher prices often reflect the extra costs of propagating and growing a particular plant. This isn't great news if you, like me, are on a budget, but I'm afraid it's how things are. 

The more obscure the plant you want the more you will have to hunt for it. To be honest I think there is a thrill to be had in tracking down a plant that you want, especially if it's not listed in the RHS Plant Finder! Looking at websites, emailing people and generally asking around usually throws up leads or results, but collecting obscure plants teaches patience. The anticipation between finding your plant and it arriving in the post can be unbearable! 

There is an important skill that plant enthusiasts have to hone; plantsmanship. Being a plantsman/plantswoman isn't about going out and buying everything that has a different name, it's not 'stamp collecting' with plants. Plantsmanship is the ability to evaluate a plant according to its characteristics and requirements. Attempts are occasionally made to teach it but I think it's fair that it comes with experience. It is worth getting into the habit of evaluating plants; if you're faced with two comparable plants could you decide which one is best to have? Once you get into the habit you will start to evaluate plants with ease- which has the better scent, the nicer (not necessarily biggest) flowers, the best foliage, is this plant too similar to one you have already. This technique will help you develop a broad and interesting plant collection and will hopefully save you money by helping you choose plants more wisely.
I think Viburnum 'Mohawk' is one of the best scented shrubs around.
By far the biggest nuisance can be other people! I've been quite lucky in that my family and friends know I'm into plants, but I've known enough plant enthusiasts who've had to visit plant fairs and gardens with bored family members in tow. The world of the rare and unusual plant enthusiast is, to outside eyes, a strange one; seeing someone enthuse over tables of 'all the same' plants at a plant fair, only to pick up something that hasn't got big pretty flowers is a strange thing for most people. There is a certain nerdiness with plant lovers, and it really is better to try and leave non-understanding people behind when you're going to shows, fairs or open gardens. Other plant enthusiasts are seldom a problem, although you can usually expect a degree of competition at plant fairs!

For the die-hard plant enthusiast the rewards are incredible. While other people have gardens with overgrown lawns, kids toys and a few scruffy plants, to be able to enjoy your own collection of plants that you enjoy is its own reward. 'Planty' circles are usually great fun to be in, and being able to use your own knowledge and experience to contribute to plant discussions is a great thing. So much of being a plant enthusiast is about sharing knowledge (and often plants too!), so if you're really passionate about plants you will find your knowledge and interest will grow and grow.