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: http://www.blackhalls.co.uk/shop/peter-korns-garden/
Or from Peter Korn himself here: http://peterkornstradgard.se/book.html

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.