31 July 2012

The Answer To The Pea Quiz

Drum roll ... the answer to the pea quiz is ... butterflies.

The question was what do clover, sweet pea and vetch plants have in common, apart from being generally leguminous?

They all have flower shapes that are papilionaceous. That is to say they have a butterfly-like form.

The flower head has a large upper petal with a distinct vertical groove, called the banner or standard petal. Two lateral petals are attached to this that look like the wings of a butterfly, hence the 'Papillion' association. Beneath the wings are two petals that have fused together to produce a keel shape. These protect the stamens.

(Between you and me, as grown-up women, a butterfly is not the first image that springs to mind when confronted with this diagram, but perhaps we have to make allowances for the sensibilities of our botanical forefathers of yore ;-)  )

But hold on, I hear you say, sweet pea and vetch flowers do look the same, but clovers are spherical, chunky little flowers, not butterfly-like at all.

Here we reintroduce the word inflorescence that was used when we were talking daisies. The clover flower, like the daisy, is composed of many little flowers, or florets. If you look closely each individual floret can be seen with its wings and keel.

There is however something that the clover flower as a whole does that sweet pea and vetch don't. When each floret has been pollinated it wilts - those are the lower brown petals - and the young virginal florets remain perky and inviting until they too have served their purpose.

Sound familiar?

29 July 2012

Of Snails, Sex and Soul

[To increase Pea Quiz fervour I'll keep the answer until later in the week]

You know that disappointing moment when you realise you’ve finished reading all the newspaper articles you intended to, and you should now get up and do something domestically more productive, but you find yourself in the grip of a tea-and-biscuit fuelled inertia that whispers ‘the ironing can wait, read another section’? This Saturday morning surrounded by a litter of discarded newspapers and lulled by the rhythmic strokes of Olympic rowers (on the TV) I had one of those moments. I turned over the unread sections. Travel? Not likely in the present economic climate. Property? Ditto. Telegraph Weekend? Sounds harmless enough.

Inside I was surprised to find, hidden amongst the stair lift and recliner adverts, the fierce Germaine Greer, and that she had written an interesting article on snails. “My one-acre wood is festooned with them.” Unexpected.

The article is efficiently written covering little known facts and literary associations. She has done her research and expresses sympathy for the delicate creatures. Nothing revolutionary or challenging there at all. But us ‘Female Eunuch’ graduates need not worry that her fighting spirit has diminished with age. In looking at the contribution of poets to snail related literature she says tartly of a Thom Gunn mollusc,

“His snail is male and predatory. The image tells us more about the poet than it does about the snail.”

Good old Germaine!

Here is the poem in full, called ‘Considering the Snail’,

The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth’s dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail’s fury? All
I think is that if later

I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.

Germaine objected to the notion that the snail is hunting, and that he moves in a ‘wood of desire’. Until today I didn’t know anything about Thom Gunn, but apparently he was a Cambridge educated homosexual Englishman who enjoyed an LSD fuelled 1960s in the Californian sunshine. Good for him. Is there a hidden agenda to Germaine’s sniffy distain of his snail? I wonder if they were contemporaries and she felt obliged to develop a resistance to his celebration of maleness.

You have to be careful how you interpret poems. The poem does have sexual undertones – gay or heterosexual, but I think it would be too easy to dismiss it as simply erotic. Poets are clever people; they know how to weave many meanings into what at first looks plain.

What strikes me in this poem is Gunn’s Wordsworthian awe of the power of Nature.

“I cannot tell / what power is at work, drenched there / with purpose, knowing nothing.”

It seems to me that he is saying this brainless animal, who doesn’t read newspapers or write blogs or believe in any ‘isms’, who knows nothing, still has a determined purpose. ‘What is a snail’s fury?’ he asks. What drives it? Where does it get its passion from?

In another poem, ‘On The Move’, he describes a group of leather-clad bikers bowling through the countryside,

They scare a flight of birds across the field:
much that is natural, to the will must yield.
Men manufacture both machine and soul,
and use what they imperfectly control
to dare a future from the taken routes.

the self-defined, astride the created will
they burst away; the towns they travel through
are home for neither bird nor holiness,
for birds and saints complete their purposes.
At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
one is always nearer by not keeping still.

OK we’re moving away from snails here. However, I think it continues his observation on the difference between humans and the natural world. Men manufacture soul and imperfectly use it to seek meaning, whereas birds (not sure about the saints) are already complete and free from restlessness. Bird and snail don’t think, they just Be. Man has a mind and a will which only leads to discontent.

Who would have thought The Telegraph would stir up such existential musings?

Here is a link to Thom Gunn reading his snail poem. He had a lovely voice.

26 July 2012

Pea Quiz

What do the Clover in the lawn, the Vetch in the green manure, and the Sweet Pea climbing the trellis have in common?

Warning: the answer isn't very exciting, but I thought I'd give a little botany quiz a whirl.

For a start they are all of the Fabaceae family of plants, which generally speaking means they are nitrogen fixing beany/pea-y plants (which gets explained further in the graphic below).

But wait ... there is another characteristic they share ... *secret squirrel* all shall be revealed in the next post. What can it be?!

White clover

Sweet Pea
Sweet Pea

Common Vetch
Common Vetch


25 July 2012

My First RHS Flower Show

At the weekend my friend Sally initiated me into the mysteries of an RHS Flower Show.

Over the years I’ve hesitated to go to the Tatton Show, which is not far from where I live, because I thought it would be like Chelsea, which judging by the BBC coverage seems a place crammed with people carrying tall plants in flimsy bags who would no doubt get in my way and I’m sure I’d get annoyed and hot and wouldn’t be able to get near the displays because there’d be packs of Sarah Ravens with their unbrushed hair in the way, and when I’d say ‘excuse me’ they’d look at me disdainfully because they’d know just by looking that I couldn’t name any of the plants ... I have indeed worked up some anxiety around attending a grand flower show.

In the end it wasn’t like that at all and Sally and I had a great time, lubricated by coffee and ice creams.

Tatton is in a big field which leaves plenty of room for ambling maddeningly past crowd phobic people. It is interesting to contrast it with Latitude Music Festival, which was also a first for me this year. Both involve getting your entertainment from wandering round a field and popping into marquees with the hope you will be wowed by what you find. There were no teenagers at Tatton, and no drunkenness, although Sally told me a cautionary tale of her sister who at a similar flower show indulged too heavily in free samples of wine. Another major difference was in the level of ambient noise. Tatton was eerily quiet compared to the constant bass thud of Latitude. You may be wondering why compare a music festival to a sedate flower show? Well, it seems to me, as an inveterate people watcher, that here are two examples of the middle class at play. It’s just that the grandparents and mothers (hello) of the Latitude kids got to reinforce their tribal identity by tramping round flower shows, rather than getting rained on at a Bon Iver concert (my son is so middle class the Latitude performance he raved about most was the ‘paper theatre’).

This lady, photographed at Tatton, seems to have confused ‘flower show’ for ‘festival’.

These legs also intrigued me. Look at the brown leather shoes teamed with jeans.

This is the ‘smart casual’ uniform of the rich man, in this case probably the rich man of the Cheshire set (I can’t account for the women). These two, admittedly attractive, men and their silver fox companion were manning a stand called ‘I Want Trees’.

If a sudden urge for mature trees grips you all you have to do is call some cool dudes (don’t you just know they drive an open top Lexus?) and they will fulfil your whim, at a price of course. You’d think they’d soften this blatant pandering to avarice with a company name that suggested gardening expertise or at least a love of nature, but no, it seems in this case there is no need to hide the base line materialism. It indicates the type of people they are dealing with: ‘I want it now, I get it now.’ I’m still a little shocked.

Generally speaking Tatton came across as a festival of consumerism, if not at the level of the above example. As you entered (at an eye watering ticket price of £28) the first half of the site was taken up with stands selling garden related knick knacks. To which I confess I wasn’t immune. I came away with a rug. Yes, I went to a flower show and left with something for the kitchen. Maybe those nightmare Sarah Ravens were right to be disdainful of me.

In previous posts I’ve confessed my ambivalence towards garden designers. Tatton didn’t manage to change my mind. Both Sally and I felt the show gardens were not as imaginative or theatrical as we had hoped. It appears as though they were all created with the same formula. This year’s fashion is evidently naturalistic planting schemes, which means wispy grasses and achillea, which are then squeezed round a ‘feature’.

And even I would hang my head in shame if I juxtaposed a mauve flower against a yellow flower in a show garden. Surely that trick is ‘term one’ of a design course?

To be fair the sets were entertaining enough. You got the same thrill as when walking round Ikea and imaging yourself sitting in that tiny living room, or in this case that weedless garden, but I wonder if the designers were constrained by the need to demonstrate client friendly planting schemes instead of being free to experiment. Money rears its head again.

Eventually we came across the real show. At the back of the site a huge marquee contained displays by specialist nurseries. Entering into the dank darkness you came into an exotic world scented by extravagant lilies, and bejewelled with perfectly formed flowers.

Giant bonsai trees as solid as elephants spoke elegantly of the patience it had taken to shape them. Heucheras of all hues glowed seductively and little ladybird poppies made us go ‘Aww’.

It was good to see genuine horticultural skill. If there was any justice it would be the nursery men and women who got to pose in their shades and rich man shoes.

I'm very pleased I went. It wasn't as intimidating as I imagined, the plants were amazing, and the company was lovely.  Thank you Sally.

[My views on Tatton in 2013 where another version of the cool dude was spotted are posted on 27 July 2013]

22 July 2012

A Roy Strong Moment

Roy Strong

 I had a Roy Strong moment earlier this afternoon.

Which was unexpected.

Because at the time I was being quiet macho.

twisted wire

I’ve planted a rambling rose, Albertine, by the new back fence where the leylandii once were. The vain hope is that it will quickly blot out the neighbours in a wall of exquisite fragrant flowers. (Ha! we’ll see). This afternoon I strung some wires along the fence for the rose to ramble through. This involved so much hammering it brought a neighbour to her upstairs window to have a nosey, and some rather skilled use of a pair of pliers.

fence panel

 So there I was knee deep in the lush green manure, making a loud noise, and wrestling with fairytale-sized thorns, when effete and cultured Roy Strong came to mind.

Roy’s one of my intellectual heroes. A high point of my other younger life in London was brushing past him on the stairs of The Victoria and Albert (squeal!). He’s a high-end version of Grayson Perry. There is no dress wearing but you do get flamboyant suits and diamond earrings. They are both highly individualistic, with strong views, but are clever enough to know life is a game which you might as well enjoy while you can.

“When I first became a director, I thought I had to be a little man in a dark suit. But then I thought, 'To hell with it. Let's be me.' That moment, my career took off like a rocket.”

So why did Roy pop up while I was congratulating myself on this short burst of muscular gardening? It was the idea of the roses.

rambling rose wire

Garden65 is palimpsest of different gardens made by its various owners over the years. I’m not a strong enough gardener to wipe it all clean and create one coherently designed plot, so I deal with old bullying shrubs and awkwardly sized borders. It’s a fight to impose any vision of a lovely garden on this unplanned mess. It probably doesn’t help that I don’t have a defined idea of what that perfect place would be, but roses would be one ingredient. They represent Beauty with a capital B; an unattainable divine beauty.

I haven’t had much luck with roses in Garden65. They either produce one begrudging bloom, or bud promisingly but open flowers that quickly turn over to brown mush. So Albertine on the back fence is not only a defiant act against experience, but an act of faith in Beauty.

So that, I think, is why my subconscious whispered Roy Strong’s name (although in reality he would probably sniff at my sentimentality): art and beauty are something worth investing in.

20 July 2012

Sheila Has An Adventure

Cartoon of a Shield Bug Nymph

Meet Sheila The Shieldbug Nymph.

Sheila lives high up in a tree with her brothers and sisters, and her mum, also called Sheila The ShieldBug. They spend their days eating berries. On this particular day Sheila (the nymph) trundled just too far along a twig. A gust of wind blew her off the tree. Luckily she landed on the soft leaves of a mint plant underneath. She looked so comfortable there that a passing gardener mistook her for a jolly little mint bug. The foolish gardener, who was also in search of a topic to blog about, took her photograph, uploaded it to ISpot, then sat in front of the computer waiting for a proper identification.

Poor Sheila was all by herself far from home, with no one to put her back, because no one knew she was lost.

How will Sheila get back up the tree?

Spoiler Alert: she doesn’t. A bird eats her. And thus the circle of life continues.

Shield Bug Nymph

19 July 2012

5 Reasons To Visit A Park

Natural England MENE Spatial Report
Reasons to visit a specific place

In December last year Natural England published a report on how people use the greenspaces around them. The powers that be want to see where we go, how far we are prepared to travel and how much money we spend when we get there. For example, although 7% of visits (between 2009 and 2011) were to the coast this type of location accounted for 20% of expenditure. In other words, it costs a lot to go the seaside.

Perhaps not surprisingly given our predominantly urban population, parks were the most popular environment to experience nature. Woodlands and rivers also ranked highly, with mountains and allotments some of the least visited categories.

Analysis of the various reasons given for visiting specific greenspaces revealed dog walking as the main motivator for using them, though this wasn’t the case when going to mountainous areas and beaches. I wonder if that is because if you let your dog off the lead in an unfenced area he’ll just run and run. Overtones of Fenton here, maybe?

Glancing through this report made me think about my own visits to the great outdoors, and I have to admit I too seem to need a concrete reason to go. I don’t have a dog, but do have children, and have used them as a similar excuse. We did visit parks and local woodlands far more when they were younger. I think it’s also true that more ambitious trips to the Lake District and the coast were also done ‘for the children’. Now they are teenagers I can’t use them as cover, which means I don’t go out into the countryside as much. I now have to find my own reasons to don the wellies.

Luckily I have this blog and its insatiable appetite for new posts. As I’ve said before people seem to have to have a purpose to use a park. Somehow there is a feeling that if you go there simply because it’s nice you could be opening yourself up to accusations of indolence.

For fun I had a quick think of the real reasons I have for setting foot in my local park, Fog Lane.

My reasons for visiting my local park
  • Top motivator is the blog, either in the hope something will catch my eye, or to investigate something specific. In the past the park has also been the subject of artwork. And I’m sure we’ve all gone holly robbing at Christmas. So top reason, I suggest, is ‘creative projects’.
  • Not far behind is riding the bike on traffic free paths. When I’m feeling energetic I jump on the bike and do a loop of three local parks, going from one to the other via quiet backstreets. It probably doesn’t qualify as proper exercise – I hardly break sweat at all – but it does feel good to zip along without worrying about lorries and traffic lights. Second reason is then ‘exercise’.
  • Sometimes the park is used more practically as a short cut. In the winter I’ve trudged through snow to get to a friend’s house, and in summer, after spending a day in the city, I’ve got off the bus a couple of stops early and cooled off by ambling home across a field. It’s like a little sip of nature. Third reason: to get from A to B.
  • The last two motives are purely psychological. The park is somewhere to go on those occasions when I’ve run screaming from the house. And then there are times when Curiosity says ‘what’s going on over there?’.

Do you think the way you use greenspaces would be covered by a tickbox in a government survey?

18 July 2012

Vivienne Westwood And Her Gardener

vivienne westwood by tim walker british vogue

Vivienne Westwood - mad as a hatter, brave individualist ... and gardener.

Or rather she has a gardener, a man who 'looks like a cross between Dave Grohl and Eric Clapton'. In 2009 Vivienne used him as her muse and based a collection of menswear on his personal style.

"Today, Andy is wearing the most extraordinarily composed three-piece suit, topped off by a doubled pair of jaunty hats. In one hand is a roll-up; with the other he's digging out peonies."

What a fantastic reversal of the old idea of the artist's muse being a young soulful woman. Vivienne’s gardener is in his 50s, and it seems as idiosyncratic as she is (who gardens in a three-piece suit?). Not only has she celebrated uniqueness, rather than some out-of-reach ideal, she’s managed to make a lot of money out of it too.

What a heroine!

As requested by Bertram (see Comments below) here are a couple of pictures of Andy Hulme, the man himself.  I didn't include them in the original post because I thought he was best left to your imagination.  What do you think?

Andy Hulme Vivienne Westwoods gardener

Andy Hulme Vivienne Westwoods gardener on catwalk

15 July 2012

The Cat And I Have A Coffee

It was one of those hot sultry days in which you half expect alligators to crawl up out of the drains. The cat and I retreated to a cool corner of the garden by the pond. I drank coffee, ate brazils and journalled. The cat dozed intermittently but remained alert to the slightest sign that a frog might be out of its watery domain. She is a nervous animal; a born hunter. I had the privilege of sharing a moment of companionship with her, but in truth it was a matter of tolerance on her part, not friendship.

Here is a rather duff film of our morning together. The singer is Earth Kitt (see what I’ve done there?)

10 July 2012

Daisies Smile Defiantly At Tesco's

July seems to be the month of oxeye daisies (though I think it's normally June, but this year has gone all awry).

And Monday is Tesco day. My weekly shop has developed into such a routine event that much of it is accomplished without any conscious thought. Somehow I find myself back in the kitchen with a couple of bags of shopping. This Monday’s visit began in much the same way. Quickly scratch out a shopping list – dodge the rain to get in the car – Radio 4 – automatically turn into the car park ... but this time there was something different ... exclaim out loud ‘What’s that?’ (I’m sure you talk to yourself in the car too). On the other side of the road a big starry display of white flowers has miraculously appeared.

The road junction where my Tesco sits is complicated. If you stand in the middle of it you have the option of going to three towns, as well as in or out of Manchester city centre. At that precise point is a small triangular green space; too small to be called a park. It contains trees and grass and at certain times of day groups of slouchy children going to the nearby high school. But at the moment an extravagant sea of meadow flowers sits amongst the mad confusion of cars and buses.

parrs wood roundabout

three views of traffic island in Parrs Wood, Didsbury

I came back to it on my bike to have a closer look. Whoever planted it has done a good job. The daisies and poppies will go over soon, but there are thistles and other plants I don't recognise still developing their buds, and primroses are still flowering underneath. It’s the kind of planting that a brave council might try in the larger areas of grass in a big park, not a tiny noisy traffic island. I wonder if it's the result of some subversive guerrilla gardening. I hope so.

This traffic island was created in the 1930s, perhaps earlier. A bus depot was on the current Tesco site, on the very edge of Manchester, and the roads from the three towns (then villages) were wide and quiet. The current high school with its associated cinema complex were the kitchen gardens and orchards of a grand house.

1935 map of Parrs Wood
1935 map  of Parrs Wood showing bus depot and open ground

1909 Parrs Wood East Didsbury Station
1909 Looking through rail bridge to Parrs Wood

1935 Parrs Wood
1935 Bus depot to left (and no cinema to right)

 As Manchester developed all the surrounding land was built on and another bigger road was driven through. The bus depot closed and as the wheel of time has turned we now have a large tram terminus being built nearby. During all these changes the triangle of greenery remained. To be honest it would help the traffic flow immensely if it was cut down and turned into a proper roundabout, which would make my Tesco run much smoother, and I’m sure I’m not the only one has thought that. I don’t know why it survives. Perhaps it was bequeathed to the council and can’t be altered, though more likely it’s a matter of lack of money.

This new fashion for councils to plant meadow flowers and leave grass to grow high is caused by having to meet national biodiversity standards, and shrinking budgets, but it has the effect of producing chaotic areas of nature in the normal urban landscape of concrete and conformity.

How strange that this small overlooked traffic island has become, by the simple addition of oxeye daisies, a gentle symbol of sedition against one of the greatest examples in our age of corporate banality.

8 July 2012

Flower Infographic

oxeye daisies and fox and cubs

Daisies make a return to Garden 65 - this time in the guise of their taller cousins, oxeye daisies.

A beautiful swathe of daisies has opened up at the same time as the fox and cubs. They occupy only a small space, about a metre square, but if you take a step in and squint a bit you can pretend you're in a summer meadow. And if you wear a floaty dress and sandals you might even get the full 'summer of love' effect, but as you see I didn’t go that far.

'Oxeye' seems a strange epithet for a white flower. Let me explain the reason for the association ...

  • daisies were used in ancient times to help with wound healing.
    Apparently the Romans carried mashed up daisies with them on their marches
  • Hera, the goddess of war, was called ‘ox-eyed’
  • War – wounds – daisies – goddess of war – oxeye           ta da!

But it seems whoever the scholarly person was that first associated the flower with Hera’s nickname may have got his Greek translation wrong. The literal translation of the Greek word βοωπις is ‘cow-faced’, which was not necessarily a criticism of her looks, but could refer to her earlier more primitive guise as a horned cow goddess (think Catal Huyuk). But I digress. Perhaps we should ask Mary Beard to sort this one out.

The orange hawkweed, for that is what ‘fox and cubs’ is more properly called, has a lot of strange names associated with it. Surprisingly, given its scrappy character, it is not a native of Britain but was introduced in the 17th century as a medicinal herb to be used for eye problems. So any names attached to it must have only developed over the last 400 odd years.

The fox and cubs epithet apparently refers to the appearance of the flower clusters. If you look closely you can see one main flower on a stem with many unopened buds crowded behind it. The image implied is rather sweetly of a red mother fox hiding her darker little cubs underneath her. Awww.

Another of its names is ‘Grim the Collier’. This explanation is a little more muddled:

  • The plant has black hairs = looks like it is covered in coal dust
  • Grim the Collier was a well-known folk figure of the 17th century
  • A play was written in 1662 called ‘Grim the Collier of Croydon’ in which the devil comes up to earth to find out how naughty women are (and then discovers they are naughty but also clever, so he goes back down again)

I’m not sure the relevance of the last point, but there seems a general reference to the dark colouring of the stems and unopened flower buds and the fiery foxy orange of the flower.

Those ancients were an imaginative bunch weren’t they? Suppose us moderns would be too if we didn’t have tv and twitter.

In the picture below I’ve combined my fleeting interest in taxonomy with the new online fashion of ‘infographics’ (diagrams to you and me) to produce some no doubt fleetingly interesting information on these two flowers.

They both belong to the family Asteraceae, which used to be called the Chrysanthemum family, and this is because, as I understand it, the shape of their flowers is star-like. And, full circle, we are back to the Greeks.

infographic flower taxonomy

(made in Word, saved as pdf, opened in PhotoShop, saved as jpg)

5 July 2012

Re-opened Old Blog

In 2008/9 I studied for a photography degree. For financial, and shall we say, creative (see below), reasons I stopped.

While I was a proper student I kept a blog, rather cleverly called ‘Uncalibrated’ (hardcore digital photographers will get the allusion). When I left the course the photographic muse packed her bags and left too, so I shut the blog down, but I'm opening it up again because, although I don't think I'll be contributing to it, I get the feeling it compliments dear old Garden 65.

At first glance photography and gardening may appear different disciplines, in that one takes (a picture) from the world, the other creates, but then again they both involve a close examination of the life around them. A garden is an ever changing environment in which the gardener tries to pin down and take control of some sort of beauty or efficiency, whatever they judge that to be.  Similarly a photographer tries to isolate a distinct image from a world that is in perpetual motion.

So while flicking through Uncalibrated and sighing over lost times it occurred to me the same curiosity was being used that now fuels the creation of Garden 65.

Have a butchers if you want to – no obligation.  Some of the links might not work, but I don’t think that’s of major importance.

Uncalibrated (can also get to it via my Blogger profile)

Here is a bizarre movie made during those arty years (I don't know what I was thinking!):

4 July 2012

Flickr Slideshow of Ox-eye Daisies

This is an experiment in embedding a Flickr slideshow.

Let me know if it doesn't work for you (or does). It doesn't work on my Ipad.

3 July 2012

A Moth Workshop

brimstone moth in container
Brimstone Moth (?)

Forty Tawny Moths and Seven Silver Ladies

In a room behind the grand Victorian facade of Manchester Museum 7 silver-haired ladies and 1 silent man examined 40 moths trapped in an Urmston garden the night before.

elephant hawk moth
Elephant Hawk Moth

This Saturday I attended a workshop on moths run by the museum’s Urban Naturalist programme which is specifically for adults. So many ‘find out about’ sessions run by museums or other similar organisations are family friendly events which is handy if you have children to entertain (I’ve been one of those desperate parents) but makes for an embarrassing day if you don’t have a child to bring along as cover. You feel an idiot asking questions or handling specimens alongside sticky-fingered 8 year olds. Well, I do. So having an opportunity to be unashamedly geeky with fellow grown-ups (I believe it’s correctly termed ‘lifelong learning’) is a relief.

What struck me that afternoon, though, was the nature of the moth people. On similar outings I’ve found the participants to be a mixed bunch with a common sartorial taste in anoraks, but the moth group were predominantly female, smartly dressed, and silver haired. The only man (apart from the two genuine naturalists) was a rather uncommunicative bachelor.

I wondered what brought these women to the museum to look at moths. Of course, they could all have been bloggers on a mission to find a topic to post about, but more poetically it was as though we recognised ourselves in the moths.

We too have done our living, all our emerging and eating and pupation is over, and now we are in our papery silver years. Over-looked and fragile, was there some part of us that felt an empathy with the creatures trapped inside the plastic containers?

trapped moths
Magpie Moth

I don’t know why the man was there. He didn’t look at the moths and asked only a couple of obvious and forgettable questions. Perhaps he wanted to know how to pin them down, but didn’t dare ask.

peppered moth
Peppered Moth

On the other hand ... it may be the case that moths spend most of their lives crawling through dirt and chomping on leaves, but the weeks lived with wings are the most fecund  ;-)

1 July 2012

The Poignancy of Restricted Roots

drawing of roots in a plant pot
At last, Garden 65 becomes the go-to blog for gardening tips ... !

The last post contained some useful information about a garden pest. Today’s practical advice is about growing plants in containers.

Did you know doubling the size of pot in which your plants are grown increases their size by about half again? In other words if you repot into a bigger container the plant will grow more stems and leaves, and this will keep happening every time you give them a new home. I suppose that’s obvious really, but now it has been scientifically verified by scientists, and they think they know why.

A meta-analysis of root related literature from the last 100 years has been done recently by a team lead by Hendrik Poorter in Germany. The conclusion was roots that are restricted in their growth send a signal to the rest of the plant to slow the rate of growth. And this process occurs in every kind of potted plant from little herby ones up to trees grown in containers.

The researchers looked at some of the more obvious problems caused by small pots, such as:

  •  Many plants in small containers can be grown close together and consequently the amount of light reaching the individual plant is reduced
  • Less nutrients available*
  • Reduced water holding capacity*
  • Temperature. Smaller pots get hotter faster. Experiments show a 5C temperature difference in 0.19L pots compared to 1.9L ones

*  However plants grown hydroponically with abundant water and nutrients, but restricted roots, still demonstrate reduced leaf and stem growth

But they found in their inimitable scientific way that these factors did not produce a mathematically significant change in plant growth.

The final suggestion of this research is that it is ‘root impedance’ itself that is the causal mechanism. An experiment showed that within 10 minutes of increasing root impedance leaf expansion rate reduced (what sensitive instruments they must have!).

Using MRI scans to look at how roots use the whole space allowed them within the pot the experimenters saw a consistent pattern, whereby the plant was sending out roots to the far limits but not using the inner soil. Generally 20-25% of root biomass was found in the inner part of the pot, and 50% in the outer 4mm next to the pot wall.

Root growth showing outer 50% in blue

It is as if the plants are searching for the edge and once it is found sending a signal to slow growth up above. Quite poignant really. Apparently when Hendrick realised this he repotted all his house plants.

"I thought, you poor guys, what have I done to you?"

Although I suppose we have to trust the scientists with their analytical skills and super-dooper measuring machines I’m personally unconvinced by this idea. There must be more to it than that. In my experience for example the Heucheras I grow in pots are bigger and healthier than those who have the freedom of all the soil of the flower beds (and believe me, it’s not because I feed them). And how many times have you dug up a plant you bought from a garden centre a few years ago and found the roots haven’t broken away from the circular pattern they developed in the pot? Life, as we all know, is complicated.