27 November 2012

To Design For Death

These are beautifully atmospheric photos of gardens designed by Piet Oudolf.

Yes, I am showing an interest in a garden designer when my normal reaction to them is a pursing of the lips and an audible 'tut'.

It's the sense of wild romance his gardens appear to have that is holding the cynicism at bay.

I initially became aware of his work in a weekend colour supplement article about planting for winter interest. It said if you want to design for death look to Oudolf. There is plenty of that in Garden65 at the moment. There is a lot of soggy wet blackness, and although it wasn't designed in deliberately I do enjoy the sculptural shapes and honest bareness. Somehow it makes me feel 'Nature' is nearer than when the same plants are in full green maturity.

Oudolf style is to use perennials and grasses to give a naturalistic relaxed feel.

So I've taken inspiration from this and begun to replant that huge bare patch at the back of the garden. The heleniums have been put by the fence, with the shasta daisies in front of them. Some rudbeckias and an echinacea (I think that is what it is - I'll report back when I find out properly) will be relocated there. Then I need some grasses. Goodness knows if it will work, but I'm quite enthused with the idea of trying to translate my feelings about certain plants into a planned scheme ... 'designing' I think it's called. Gulp.

24 November 2012

Ash Dieback: A Lesson To Be Learnt

Ash dieback devastating our native woodlands: the fault of nurseries importing infected saplings, or the government not acting quick enough? The truth is probably more complex. Despite the bemoaning of the media, it appears they were minor players in the story. The disease was going to arrive here whatever we did or didn’t do. Chalara fraxinea is a naturally occurring fungus; its destructive power is distressing but not unknown in the natural world.

Although humans have not caused it, the appearance of the disease in Britain has shone a torch on our attitude towards trees and woodlands.

Everyone is asking why the ash, of all our native trees, is being imported when it grows here like a weed; a fact I ironically discovered for myself this year. The answer is no doubt complicated with all sides of the argument having their own justifications. In this post I want to look at the practice of mass tree planting. Has the current fashion for planting new woodlands created such a high demand for easily transported and planted trees that we have to import them to meet the need, and has it also simplified our understanding of what a wood actually is?

A wood is not simply a stand of trees, and yet this is what charities are urging us to plant. If we want to do the right thing by the environment, increase biodiversity and reduce carbon footprints, the easy and impressive answer seems to be to plant some trees. After a day's planting, sanctioned and financed by a charity, we look at our field of sticks protected in plastic sleeves and we feel we have done some good.

There are some people, however, in the conservation profession who disagree with this. Although tree planting is well intentioned a more creative and subtle approach to the natural world could be more successful.

A blog post by Habitat Aid, a company selling trees and plants sourced from British nurseries, outlines the concerns:

“1. There is always a tremendous hurry and lack of adequate cash about grant aided planting which means trees are often imported, increasing the danger of spreading pathogens and parasites and reducing the genetic variation of the plant population.

2. Inappropriate tree species are routinely introduced. There’s a “one size fits all” mentality about native tree selection, which seems very odd. In the world of wildflower plants, which shares many of the same problems, we always try to supply seed mixes appropriate to the sites where they will be sown, for example.

3. The groups of trees which are planted do not constitute woods. In particular, no-one bothers to establish an understory, which means they have less value for biodiversity than they should do. Demand for woodland bulbs is amazingly small and their purchase is never covered by woodland planting grants, for example.

4. This issue is compounded by planting densities being too high, which blocks out any light reaching the plants on the ground.

5. We sometimes establish these plantations, with limited ecological value, where more interesting habitat previously existed.”

Andy Byfield in the Guardian talks of the money involved in woodland making:

“An industry has developed around the creation of new habitat in the countryside, yet sometimes it seems more about meeting targets, and holding on to members, selling ecological advice and marketing tree saplings, and rather less about effective conservation.”

And here is dear Richard Mabey being wise:

In this talk he was talking specifically about the current situation of ash dieback. It is here, he says, and there is nothing we can do about it, but there is no need to over-react because ash is “cleverer than us”. Some trees will have a natural resistance to the disease, and through time nature will readjust and accommodate the changes. He believes that relying on stock from uncontrolled nurseries to revive woodland results in plants with a narrow genetic range that makes them more susceptible as a population to disease. He calls them ‘battery saplings’. His answer is to allow natural regeneration to take place. In this way “a self-willed natural woodland” would develop over time.

I understand a conservation industry has to exist. If any good is to be done money has to be involved. Hence there are charities with a need to justify their existence offering easy and attractive solutions, and there are nurseries with a need to make money quickly and cheaply supplying plants. They both improve the environment in some way.

I'm getting that twitchy feeling again though. When money and reputations are involved respect for nature declines. If ash dieback was a fictional story of government neglect, corporate greed and naive hope would the underlying theme be mankind's separation from nature?

I'm going to make a bold move and cancel my monthly donation to The Woodland Trust. It was miniscule. They won't notice the loss. The thinking is that although I fully endorse their work in buying and managing ancient woods I have my doubts about their encouragement of willy nilly planting.

The charity that gets my tiny contribution next year will either be Plantlife or Buglife. What do you think?

22 November 2012

Allotment 90

I'm pleased to announce Garden65 has expanded into Allotment 90.

Thanks to the determination and charm of Sally we now have our own patch of land in Bradley Folds Allotments.

Officially, if anyone asks, we are helping the plot's owners keep it ticking over while they deal with a busy period in their lives. We are on the proper waiting list so we still may get a firm foothold, but meanwhile this tenuous tenure will do just fine. The owners are neighbours of Sally’s. It was their purple beans we picked in August.

Our good fortune hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I have free access to land – land without any fences round it. I’m still dazed.

The icing on the cake (and I’m talking icing made with butter not margarine) is that this plot is the one with THE shed: the gypsy caravan shed. We’ve already had tea and Danish pastries in the shed with our friend Justina. Such moments are dreams made of. Well, suburban dreams, but still, I never thought I’d be allowed to drink tea with friends on a bit of my own land. Fantastic.

Thank you Sally

Unfortunately we’ve taken possession just as November has turned very wintry. The plot needs digging over before any thought of planting can be entertained. We have made a start, but the soil has a lot of clay in it and is sticky. Pull up a weed and a clump of mud comes with it that stays stuck to shovel, glove, boot, bucket, path, shed, mug, pastry, car .... My efforts remind me of when Margo helped Tom and Barbara in the Good Life. Do you remember that episode?

This is the plot (with obliging son in it):

And in context:

Dank, eh? But joyously dank. Because whatever vegetable or flower we manage to grow in the future it is the being outside in all weathers, either alone or with friends and family, that this new chapter is about.

It did my old mum's heart good to be able to mess about in the mud - my mud - with my boy. Heaven.

Not sure I'm going to be able to do the same with the "I want to be a wedding planner" daughter. Perhaps in the summer, when it's Pimms season.

20 November 2012

The Yellow Days

This is blog post as diary entry. 

It doesn't contain any educational, anecdotal or interesting content. 
It was created to simply act as witness to the yellow days.

Tree red has disappeared
Shrub yellow takes its place

For tomorrow there will be neither

18 November 2012

Who Is A Public Park For?

A few days ago a local ‘community interest company’ planted hedgerow saplings obtained from The Woodland Trust, in my local park, Fog Lane.

I’m not going to name the group because I am going to launch into a rant in this post, and it’s not the people themselves I have reservations about but the principle of their actions.

The reason I am feeling twitchy about this is that although planting shrubs and trees is generally a good thing (let’s hope they haven’t been imported) I’m not sure a small interest group should be allowed to plant anything in a public park.

On its website the group states its aim as providing “practical solutions to help people reduce their food carbon footprints.” Putting aside my other reservation (I have so many reservations) on the use of carbon as a way to explain climate change to the general public (i.e. do you know what a ‘food carbon footprint’ is?) I have doubts that community orchards and vegetable gardens are a realistic way to reduce food waste and decrease the reliance on large supermarkets, particularly in a city as densely populated as Manchester. They have educational benefits but are not the solution.

I am a Guardian reading, Green Party voting, Archaeology graduate and thus can’t help being concerned with global warming, globalisation, and capitalist greed. Yet, it seems to me this new interest in encouraging people to plant vegetables and apple trees is simply a fashion. To be involved with such projects must create virtuous feelings derived from helping other people and being close to nature. Sticking two fingers up to corporate Tesco in any small way is to be encouraged, and it is good to see young people thinking about self-sufficiency and the place of the individual in an increasingly homogenous and business-led world.

BUT the majority of people have no inclination, time or money to pick aphids off tomato plants or apples off trees. So at this moment in time planting hazelnut bushes remains a minority issue.

This is where I get back to my point – should minority interest groups, however well meaning, be allowed to change the contents of a public park?

If this was to be openly accepted then why couldn’t groups concerned with the mental health of the public be allowed to plant areas suitable for meditation? The design of these is generally based on oriental style gardens and involves meandering paths, bamboo, water features and herbs. Already we can see a difference in planting style from those who put their faith in a more naturalistic scheme of tree and native shrubs, and yet the motivation for each is equally worthy.

Fog Lane Park serves a fairly diverse community. On one side is affluent Didsbury and on the other the less well off Burnage. Guess where our ‘community interest company’ is based? During the day it is filled with dog walkers. At the weekends it gets busier with children in the play area and football players on the fields. By night it is haunted by drunk youths escaping their drunk parents. You could say it is a normal urban park. How many of those users have a burning desire to pick hazelnuts to roast or sloe berries to enhance their gin? This is what the group who planted the shrubs said we would be able to do in a few years time. I doubt there are many residents who would recognise a sloe even if it hit them in the eye.

If you genuinely, and powerfully, wanted to reduce the community’s ‘food carbon footprint’ wouldn’t the most practical action be to persuade the council to dig up the playing fields and plant potatoes? What do most people eat? Apple and blackberry crumble? No, chips. And bread ... would a field of wheat be viable in Manchester?

The role of the council in this is also interesting. Why did they allow their land to be planted with someone else’s shrubs? The first answer is, of course, because they were free and they didn’t have to pay anyone to plant them. A win win situation.

A local paper reporting on the event had a quote by a councillor, “the new trees will not only look great but increase the bio-diversity of the park.” Biodiversity – the new buzz word for governments. There is a directive on local councils from the government, the EU and the UN to increase the biodiversity in their areas. Manchester has lots of plans and does seem to be dealing with this. In fact I’m the happy recipient of some of its initiatives.

BUT when laws and directives and committee meetings get involved the likelihood of ‘tick boxing’ exercises increases. This is perhaps why our small youthful interest group were allowed to plant those hazelnuts. It facilitates the ticking of a number of boxes such as biodiversity and community engagement. Job done.

BUT isn’t this the type of working that allows the opening of chain shops where they are not wanted. If a large company says it can provide jobs and tax revenue a local planning office has few reasons to prevent the company from opening. Boxes have been ticked but there are no boxes for ‘maintaining local uniqueness’. I think it’s a matter of management. A small town or individual community doesn’t have someone with overall responsibility for its management. Planning applications are dealt with by remote departments with directives to meet. Likewise Fog Lane Park doesn’t have a manager (warden) with the power to say ‘is this of benefit to the local people?’

One other point – if anything needs to be improved in this park it is the facilities for the poor ducks. Their pond is a disgrace. But of course its occupants are mallards and Canada geese. These are not on anyone’s ‘must save’ list so money has not been put aside to clean the water or provide bins for discarded bread wrappers. And yet, I suggest a greater number of local people derive pleasure from feeding the ducks than they do from foraging blackberries.

Who and what should a local park serve?

16 November 2012

Veg Plotting

Garden65 drawn to scale

The homework this week on the vegetable growing course was to draw our ideal vegetable patch. The first lesson was about planning, so this is an exercise in measuring and deciding what plants go where.

Some people on the course have allotments of their own, and others, like the student, have no access to land at all. I'm in the middle: I have land but don't plan to plant vegetables on it in any volume (not counting the odd tub of tomatoes). However, I thought I'd go with the flow, throw caution to the wind and pretend that I was indeed going to take down all my beloved plants, rotovate the ground flat and turn Garden65 into Allotment65.

Step 1 is measuring out the plot. Luckily, hidden in the back of a cupboard, lurks a 30m measuring tape, the kind used by officials wearing blazers and panama hats to measure the efforts of javelin or discus throwers. I got it at a car boot sale many years ago. Not sure why. I liked the leather case, and it reminded me of school sports I suppose. Who thought a decade later it would actually be put to use?

It turns out Garden65 is about 10m long and 9ish m wide. It was good fun squeezing under shrubs and threading the tape through branches, but I'm hoping accuracy isn't important and that 'ballpark figure' is what we are after.

The measurements were plotted onto graph paper. I realise this isn't a genuine map of the ground. The perimeter is surely not a neat rectangle; the reach of the tree canopies were estimated by me lying on the ground, with the tape in my hand, looking up to find the tips of the longest branches; and measuring the little pond was too daunting, so it's represented by a pond-shaped blob instead.

The result after many sweary hours at the PhotoShop coalface is the neat diagram at the top of the page.

And with the swish of a magic wand here is Allotment65:

The decking has been sacrificed for a greenhouse; the problematic little pond is abandoned to the bees; a seat to drink coffee on is too important not to be included; and the 3 sisters have their own bed.

As for the crops there are two problems, apart from general ignorance (and naivety?). One is my family consists of two teenagers and a hubby from Wigan. Consequently we don't consume a great variety of vegetables. Think frozen peas and pounds of potatoes. Any romantic dreams of overflowing beds of pak choi, Jerusalem artichoke, and chard have to be abandoned. Thus the list of vegetables to play with is limited. Another issue to grapple with in this make believe allotment is that although it is south facing only the middle gets sunshine all day. What do you grow in shaded areas?

This is reminding me of maths homework when I was at school. I've learnt the formula but can't make the equation work so I'm going to hand this plan in to Marva but am expecting a B- at best.

This was an enjoyable exercise. I know my mum will be laughing because I used to do this kind of thing when I was young, although it wasn't gardens I was planning then but riding stables and zoos. However, it does highlight the limitations of transferring the real world onto squared paper, and reinforces my twitchiness about garden designers. Wielding a pencil and ruler creates a seductively organised picture, but this is an illusion.  A plan is only an approach, a starting point. The real journey begins when spade is dug into soil.


14 November 2012

The De-o-ha-ko In Debdale

The gradual absorption into the gardening fraternity continues: I have begun an organic vegetable gardening course.


I’ll tell you more about it later, but for now here's something I came across last week.

The course is in Debdale Ecocentre. The leader, my new gardening crush, Marva, began by showing us round the raised beds and poly tunnels of the centre. She explained normally the crops would have been harvested by now but she had been keeeping them back to show us what the centre grew. So in the poly tunnels were rich displays of tomatoes (still green), vibrant salad leaves, an overwintering wormery (got to get myself one of those), and neat beds demonstrating companion planting. Outside the ground was barer but there were still little leeks, beetroots, turnips, and a bed with the Three Sisters growing in it.

The Three Sisters? These are corn, beans and squash all grown close together. The beans twine themselves up the corn and the squash covers the ground. This system of three plants is an amazingly efficient example of companion planting. The corn supports the bean plants, which in turn fix nitrogen in the ground for the benefit of the corn, and the wide leaves of the squash act as a mulch to suppress weeds and keep in moisture. Not only that but eaten together they make up a complete protein meal.

The name ‘The Three Sisters’ was given to this scheme by Native Americans. We generally think of them as bison hunting warriors but forget they existed for many thousands of years by growing crops. The Navajo and Cherokee farmed at the same time as they were chasing John Wayne. The staple crops of corn, beans and squash were so important to them they wove them into their creation myth.

“The term “Three Sisters” emerged from the Iroquois creation myth. It was said that the earth began when “Sky Woman” who lived in the upper world peered through a hole in the sky and fell through to an endless sea. The animals saw her coming, so they took the soil from the bottom of the sea and spread it onto the back of a giant turtle to provide a safe place for her to land. This “Turtle Island” is now what we call North America.

Sky woman had become pregnant before she fell. When she landed, she gave birth to a daughter. When the daughter grew into a young woman, she also became pregnant (by the West wind). She died while giving birth to twin boys. Sky Woman buried her daughter in the “new earth.” From her grave grew three sacred plants—corn, beans, and squash. These plants provided food for her sons, and later, for all of humanity. These special gifts ensured the survival of the Iroquois people.”

The sisters were seen as protective spirits and called De-o-ha-ko, (pronounced Jo- hay- ko) "our supporters."

Now this is the kind of information that motivates me to grow veg. Forget utopian sustainability nonsense. A pinch of science, ancient history, and a story that involves a turtle. That'll keep me in the fraternity - or should that be sisterhood?

Source of story

12 November 2012

The Funny Side To Killer Cats

If you are young and groovy (oh dear, just by using the word 'groovy' you know I don't belong to that demographic) you will know of  The Oatmeal, the site of an illustrator who draws humourous cartoons about cats, and other stuff, but mostly cats. Here is his take on recent American research into cat predation.

I'm probably not supposed to reproduce his work, so keep it under your hat.

The researchers attached cameras to the cat's collars and managed to record some interesting encounters.

"Other highlights from the kitty cams were of the stomach-turning variety: Cats were seen eating roadkill, climbing down into storm drains and lapping up sewer water, and eating insects like walking sticks and earthworms."

10 November 2012

Fruit Grows in Garden65

Apple tree labels

What has happened to the old laissez-faire approach to gardening we expect from Garden65? Not only has an apple tree been purchased, from a local organic garden centre no less, but it's been carefully planted after intensive 'how to plant an apple tree' research.

The redeeming aspect of the whole episode, however, is that it was an impulse buy when the initial purpose of the nursery visit was to purchase one garlic bulb. We don't do any planning here. Let's call it an intuitive, spur of the moment, 'ooo that looks nice' approach to gardening.

TBH as autumn progresses I have been feeling the pressure to get a tree to make some sort of screen between me and the looming face of the house at the back, but I just couldn't decide what type to get. Until the visit to the nursery it was going to be a silver birch. There are already two in the garden, so if another one turned up it might look like some degree of planning had taken place. But then again we have to think of the bees, don't we? And sustainability, and peak oil and all that eco-panic stuff. A fruit tree would then be the 'right thing to do', and Garden65 could win it's save the planet badge.

I'm an avid stalker of the Twittersphere. Last week the tweets of a nearby nursery appeared on my timeline. Having fashioned a notion to grow garlic, with the assumption (as yet untested) that it would be both easy and practical to grow, it seemed a timely opportunity to support a local business. Amusingly located opposite a B&Q the garden centre is on a small triangular bit of land on a residential road (not sure what the neighbours think about the increase in traffic). It’s crammed with pots of healthy looking plants, stands of bulbs and bedding plants, and a tiny fateful area of apple trees. When I turned up the owner was tidying away fallen leaves, a good sign if you consider the lacklustre attention B&Q plants receive. She was immediately engaging and attentive and I found myself saying I wanted a tree-shaped tree. Which, to be fair, was the exact picture of my requirements but perhaps not a horticulturally useful description. It’s not a cool thing to blurt out to a plantswoman. We regrouped, then looked at a tree with bark like a red silver birch (can’t remember its name), but the apple trees were calling. To my eyes they were tree shaped; I could imagine them being able to blot out the neighbour’s house; and they did have the advantage of being good for the bees, sustainable, and not likely to invoke distain from eco-friendly friends.

Readers, I bought one.

Garden65 takes a new turn in its history.

Bud Garden Centre, Burnage, Manchester

7 November 2012

Drinking Coffee - Again

Dandelion coffee from Patrick Jones on Vimeo.

It's cold and wet out there. Let's hunker down round a fire and have a warming cup of coffee.

This meditative video (be patient and get to the end - the man with the lovely hands starts to talk) is on an Australian blog I follow called Permapoesis. I must admit I haven't got to grips with it yet, but get the impression it's by a man who mixes artistic and permaculture philosophies with an Aboriginal way of relating to the land.  He explains,

"Permapoesis is the portmanteau for permanent making, a term I've developed, incorporating permaculture principles and indigenous thinking, to define a practice of art that participates in what it represents; that is of its environment; that generates no waste"

None the wiser? No, me neither. However, I keep returning to his blog because I think its sensibilities echo the treasured experience of drinking coffee in my own garden. I struggle to articulate the peace felt in those few moments. It is not simply a matter of taking a break from the normal tasks of the day. It is more than that. There is a performative element to it - the right cup with the right amount of milk in it, two cushions placed on just the right end of the bench, perhaps a couple of lines written in the journal, an unspoken 'thank you' to the spirit of the garden when I go back indoors.

The dark and overlooked garden of a suburb of Manchester doesn't equate to the fierce light of an open Australian garden and yet both have the power to affect the people in them.

Having gone off on a flight of romantic fancy I feel I must bring us back to reality. There is no way I'm going to start drinking dandelion coffee, made with own hands or not. I remember my mum and dad drinking it in the 70s. Filthy stuff.

5 November 2012

The Party Is Over

Inevitably, as day follows night, as sons on school trips don’t keep in contact with their mums (a personal observation that one), the glorious autumn display of the Japanese maple has ended.

Practically overnight the red leaves have dropped onto the underlying pavement. It is as if the tree, suddenly overcome with embarrassment, abruptly let go of the gaudy red leaves, and sheepishly returned to its normal elegant discretion. She had a giddy moment, put on a spangly frock for a week long party, then threw it on the floor to face the business of winter in a sharply cut suit.

Nature writers (if I can humbly align myself to that tribe) are not supposed to anthropomorphise their subjects ... but where’s the fun in that?

Talking of which, That Cat seems a little pudgier of late. Too many pies, or simply the consequence of no longer being a teenager?