End of 2020 blog! (Vija)

‘Gardening is boring and messy. Plus, it often results in despair’.

This headline rather caught my eye. What follows is a ‘debate’ between two people, one who espouses the values embodied in the headline, while the other puts an opposing argument. The two views are summarised in the table below.

Boring and messyRewarding
You need stuff like compost, tools and special glovesFresh fruit and vegetables are a joy to eat.  
You have to go to the nursery and buy plants then bring them home and plant themYou can grow better and more varieties than you can buy
You have to prune – things don’t survive on their ownYou are part of your environment
A puppy will destroy a weekend’s work in minutesPlants want to grow – if you pay attention, they will do that for you.
A storm will wreak destructionYou can garden for nature, for the bees
Fluctuations in weather will kill plants 

Having read the article, I did think there are a lot more rewards!

I wonder to what extent disappointment in gardening is sometimes promoted by gardening programmes, particularly of the quick fix kind. I actually find Monty Don running his fingers through his garden soil rather disheartening. Mine is never like that! In September I took over a second plot adjoining my own on my allotment site. A young family had taken this on in the spring, clearly full of very good intentions. The plot already has ‘good bones’ – a fruit cage, solid shed, greenhouse (some panes missing) and is divided into neat beds separated by paths. But the soil is pretty heavy clay and digging it is a lot of effort, basically manual labour. After several visits and some hard work the young family did not return. I wonder whether the ‘good bones’ of the plot had misled the couple into thinking this was going to be an easy job.

This has, however, been to my benefit. At the end of a horrid 2020, I am looking forward to working on this new plot in the new year. There are currant and blueberry bushes already planted which just need nurturing and I am already thinking that I will plant wigwams of runner beans with an understorey of French beans and perhaps squashes in one of the beds.

A Christmas card I received has written inside it: ‘Think positive; test negative’. Onwards and upwards.

A Walk to the Bottom of the Garden (Vija)

Like Francis Griffiths and Elsie Wright, as a child I believed there were fairies at the bottom of my garden. Unlike Francis and Elsie, I didn’t take this any further. The story of the Cottingley Fairies went on to become one of the greatest hoaxes of the twentieth century.

When Elsie’s mother showed the photographs to the local Theosophical Society, it set in motion a chain of events that led Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to conclude that the photographs were authentic.

Then in 1920, when Conan Doyle wrote an article on fairy life, fairy fever gripped the nation.

But there are other reasons to go to the bottom of your garden!

In one of the December entries in his book The Rivington Diaries, Monty Don writes that, in order to feed his chickens, he has to walk right to the end of the garden and back, ‘which means that whatever the weather … I am obliged to have a good look at things’. There is no doubt that, in the depths of winter, having to get from one end of your garden is quite an education. You can make all kind of assessments in terms of use of space and structure, when everything is so bare.

And there are, of course, additional benefits. The scent of the viburnum bodnantense at the end of my garden is astonishing. It knocks me out every time.  Perhaps even more so in winter when there is less competition. I think I should have it closer to the house, or perhaps I should get another one.

Virburnum bodnantense

Similarly Clematis ‘Freckles’ blooms away on an obelisk throughout the winter and I did decide way back in the spring that I would get another one and plant it to scramble though the Ceanothus which stands by my back doors, so that I could admire it at all times. That never happened. Well, this was after all 2020. I shall resolve to do better next year.

But I do like the idea of a little cluster of fairies whispering somewhere under the still green leaves of my nasturtiums at the bottom of my garden!

Humanising our Plants (Vija)

Many of us anthropomorphise plants. It is often a winning combination when writing about them. Anna Pavord, a particular favourite of mine, writes about Symphytum grandiflorum as being ‘thuggish in its attitude to neighbours’.[1] Violas are described as ‘well drilled miniature rent-a crowds, all gazing in the same direction, each bloom well-mannered enough not to get in the way of the one behind’[2].

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I have a pretty little Fittonia sitting on a table indoors and bought one for my daughter a while ago, as they seem fairly bullet proof. I tend to under water my houseplants and have noted this Fittonia in particular suddenly looking terribly limp; its leaves really hang down and it looks very miserable. However, a spot of water revives it swiftly and it looks complete sprightly again. My daughter commented that her plant ‘fainted’ – this is such an apt description it made me smile.

Of course, attributing human characteristics to plants may be another way of expressing the care we have for them. There are many keen gardeners who talk to their plants. I apologise profusely if I accidentally dig up and damage a bulb and it is often said that gardening is a form of nurturing.

Although anthropomorphisation has long been regarded as something of a lovable quirk, recent studies suggest it promotes a view of the object as prosocial, intelligent and able to suffer, all of which are important aspects in conservation. If this is not limited to species which we view as somehow ‘being like us’, the empathy intrinsic to anthropomorphisation can be a useful tool to conserve threatened biodiversity. Of course, this is a huge debate, but it does highlight the relationship between private attitudes and public approaches.


[1] Pavord, A. (1991) The Flowering Year Chatto and Windus, p. 56

[2] Pavord, A. (2001) Plant Partners Doring Kindersley, P 106.

A Robin for Christmas (Kathy)

John Sturgis has recently written an article in the Spectator, much after my own heart. He says he has two birds on the go, one in the garden, one at the allotment, both real beauties — and both robins.

With much of the nation still working from home, robins have become more familiar than ever. Most species of garden birds are horribly in decline, but the robin has stubbornly stuck around in great numbers.

While those other great survivors, magpies and pigeons, are brash and ungainly, the robin is a delicate little gem: magpie song is shrill, pigeon dumbly repetitive, but robin chirrups are a delight. They’re bold, too. Other garden birds flap away when we appear, but not robins. In fact, they approach — as inquisitive as a kitten.

The robin has a territory that ‘can be as small as a half acre’ so where I live I must share my robin with several neighbours. But one always appears as soon as I venture out of the back door, for human activity is their cue. My robin particularly likes it when I use my daisy grubber on the lawn. The stabbing activity seems to prompt all the worms near the daisy to come to the surface, in case I stab them too, I suppose. But there she comes, Mrs Robin following my every footstep, darting around where I have just been, feasting on the worms leaving their cover.

I say ‘she’ but frankly I don’t know. No doubt your Chris Packham types would be able to gender a robin from half an acre away, but to the untrained amateur, male and female are very much interchangeable.

Sturgis points out that robins frequently come up in literature and songs – John Donne’s Robin Redbreast, or The Secret Garden, or Rockin Robin of the Jackson 5. And, of course, the robin is the Boy Wonder’s spirit bird in Batman. Imagine trying to pitch that set-up today. ‘I like this Bat guy – very dark and cool. What are we doing for the kid? A scorpion? Eagle?’ ‘No, we thought a robin.’ Yet it works, accentuating the character’s chirpy loyalty.

But their definitive place is on Christmas cards. They’ve somehow smuggled themselves into the greeting card nativity scene, apparent survivors, along with holly, ivy and mistletoe, of pre-Christian winter festivals, one of the few flashes of colour in the bleak midwinter.

So just go outside with a trowel or daisy grubber and she will soon appear. And despite the Christmas connotation, she’ll still be there in the bleaker days of January and February. Because robins are very much for enhancing life, not just for Christmas!