New Year’s Resolutions

I hadn’t really thought about a New Year’s resolution for 2021, apart from the one that most of us have in the forefront of our minds at the moment: test negative, stay positive. (Sent to me in a Christmas card by a friend). But as we get closer to the end of January, to move forward into the year without one seems a bit neglectful.

I was therefore interested to read about the drive to encourage people to save seed and to encourage seed saving communities to develop. One of the few upsides of the lockdowns over the past year has been a huge boost in demand for seed. The argument is that this “grow your own” revolution re-diversifies seed crops and provides more security for not only our seed supplies, but food in general.

Josie Cowgill, one of the women who works with the Stroud Community Seed Bank in Gloucestershire sums up the impact of seed-saving in the context of 2020: “It’s difficult times we are living in. We have got a pandemic, we’ve got climate change, we’ve got biodiversity loss, habitat loss and economic collapse as well. It might feel quite small, just saving beans and growing your own food, but actually I think it is really fundamental. By doing something infinitesimally small like this tiny little gesture in a tiny little group, in a tiny little country somewhere, you are working towards something that makes you feel more hopeful. It’s a positive step. I’m not saying this is a magic wand or a cure-all, but it’s a positive step.”

Former ‘Bake Off’ winner Nancy Birtwhistle claims we have been ‘brainwashed’ into believing we need harsh chemicals to clean our homes. In an interview with her, what caught my attention was the amount of plant-based materials she used. It sounds miraculous, but she swears by ivy as a laundry detergent (about 60g, cut up and put in a muslin bag, then put in the drum). “It excites me so much; my husband thinks I’m crackers. I knew in the depths of my memory something about ivy and saponin [a natural foaming detergent], so I Googled it. Conkers have it as well.” (Although we should remember that ivy can be a skin irritant for some people.) In the autumn, she collects conkers and boils them up to create a creamy laundry liquid. (Nancy Birtwhistle’s book Clean & Green is published on 21 January by Pan Macmillan £12.99).I’m prepared to give this one a try, but have visions of a ‘green’ wash in a way I did not intend.

Food for thought.

Vija, January 2021

Celebrating Candlemas

This year, for the first time, I decided to put up a Christmas light curtain along the back windows of my house, never thinking that it would be such a difficult job! Having finally got the things up, with a good deal of foul language, I have felt reluctant to take them down. As well as the candles and lights around the house they have provided a welcome point of light in a rather dim January.

Imagine my delight when I heard a representative from English Heritage talking about Candlemas on the radio recently. Apparently, a tradition preceding the one which instructs us to take down Christmas decorations on the twelfth night, this allows for decorations to remain until Candlemas – the second day of February, which means that my lights can stay put for some time yet!

And snowdrops are also known as Candlemas Bells as they bloom so early in the year, and often before February 2nd. At one time it was believed that it was bad luck to bring these flowers into the house before Candlemas, but an opposing view has it that they are believed to purify the home. According to folklore, an angel helped these Candlemas Bells to bloom and pointed them out as a sign of hope to Eve and the flower is thus often seen as a sign of hope for the world.

It seems to me that everything comes together quite neatly: lights, illumination, snowdrops and hope. I think I will continue with this tradition!

Vija, January 2021

Philosophical Gardening (Vija)

Ravilious “Garden ” design for ceramics

Beginning 2021 on a philosophical note – Voltaire said that it is necessary to cultivate your garden. Andrew Marvell said that green thoughts come from any green shade. More recently, Marc Hamer in his latest book ‘Seed to Dust’ uses his cultivation of someone else’s garden as a catalyst for a range of philosophical meditations. His chapters begin with a gardening task but lead onto thoughts about life itself and his part in it.

I was reminded of ‘Plot 29’, Allan Jenkins’ book about the healing power of gardening, in which he gives an often heartbreaking portrayal of the violence and neglect of children, growing into an adult who seeks solace in tending a London allotment.

In their book ‘The Meaning of Gardens’ Mark Francis and Randolph Hester argue that gardens have meanings and go on to explore six categories of meaning: faith, power, ordering, cultural expression, personal expression and healing, each of which can operate at a social or an individual level. Jane Brown’s wonderful book ‘The Pursuit of Paradise’ aptly sums up the meaning of gardens for many of us: the desire to create something which may be not only useful, but a pleasure to be in.


Eric Ravilious: The Tortoise in the Kitchen garden

Whether your mind strays to such philosophical thoughts or not, there is a simple joy to be had in growing and nurturing and then enjoying the fruits of that labour, whether it be the beauty of a cactus dahlia or the taste of a home grown tomato, still warm from the sun.

Vija, January 2021

Eat your Christmas tree! (Kathy)

One of my presents this Christmas was a fun book called “How to eat your Christmas Tree” by Julia Georgallis. As you would expect for a book with such a title, there are some bonkers ideas in it – but there is a serious message behind it and some quite intriguing recipes too.

The statistics are quite sobering: the author calculates that if we DIDN’T cut down one years worth of Christmas trees, the carbon emissions saved would be the equivalent of banning all global air travel traffic for a year, or taking all the cars in the United Kingdom off the road for the next five years.

On a much lighter note, here are a couple of her recipes:

Christmas Tree Tea!

Apparently pine, fir and spruce contain a lot of vitamin C, although pine produces quite a weak tea. If you have a go, make sure you wash all the needles thoroughly. (And never use Yew, obviously.)

Ingredients: A handful of pine, fir or spruce needles / Juice of a lemon / 30ml (1fl oz or 2 Tbsp) Honey

Brew the needles in a teapot for 6 minutes. Add a dash of lemon juice and 2 teaspoons of honey to each cup. Pour over the brewed tree tea and serve.

Christmas Tree Cordial

This tastes a bit like grapefruit juice according to the author!

Ingredients:

Juice of 10 lemons, zest of 4 / 2 litres water / 700g caster sugar / 400g spruce and/or fir needles (you can also use some of the branches for flavour)

Sterilise a 2l glass bottle. Bring the ingredients to the boil over medium-high heat, turn down low and simmer for 2 hours. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, a few times, to make sure no needles are left and pour into the sterilised bottle. Keeps for 2 weeks in the fridge.

Christmas Tree Mimosa

70 ml Christmas tree cordial (above)/ 140 ml prosecco / Ice cubes and lemon

Combine in a cocktail shaker, pour into a cold glass and serve!

How to eat your Christmas Tree by Julia Georgallis

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!

Jane Loudon (Part II)

Title page, Jane Webb Loudon’s Practical Instruction in Gardening for Ladies, Armstrong Brown Libraries

The Loudons were considered the leading horticulturalists of their day. John Claudius was a passionate reformer and saw gardens and horticulture as a means to improvement. He designed the first public parks and argued, for example, that all trees should be labelled to encourage ordinary people to read and become informed. Their circle of friends and acquaintances included people such as John Locke, Charles Dickens and William Thackeray among many other prominent names. Undoubtedly, Jane Loudon herself would have been part of these debates on reform.

As she sought to improve her horticultural knowledge, Jane Loudon had found the gardening manuals of the day were targeted at those who already had a solid level of horticultural understanding –   there were no entry-level manuals, for which she saw a need and potential interest and so began to write them herself.  She set to writing them as she herself learned: Instructions in Gardening for Ladies; The Ladies’ Flower Garden; The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden; Botany for Ladies; The Lady’s Magazine of Gardening.  These became standard books of reference, and attained a large circulation, making gardening an accessible pastime for women, who were often excluded from planting practices.

Like Mary Wollstonecraft, another keen reformer, Jane Loudon was acutely aware of her position. Mary Poovey’s book, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (1984) and Alexis Easeley’s First Person Anonymous (2004) explore the challenges female authors faced in a late eighteenth and early nineteenth century society which emphasised the proprieties of the Proper Lady and the accommodations which women writers made.  They also point out why many prominent female writers chose to publish anonymously, as it provided effective cover for exploring a variety of conventionally ‘masculine’ issues’.

Despite its associations with virtuous endeavour and the home, the garden also provided opportunities for women to negotiate between domestic space and the larger world. Jane Loudon was not alone in publishing for women, although most focused on botany – a far less ‘practical’ activity than gardening. And it is clear on reading Jane Loudon’s work, that she is actually encouraging women to get outside in the garden and to engage in some gardening activity – the reader is advised on how best to dig, the most suitable types of implement, as well as on soil quality, compost and plants themselves. Her work is encyclopaedic. Not quite advocating the throwing away of dresses, she treads a careful line between decorum, education and reform.  For many years she has languished in the shadow of her husband, but her work deserves to be read on its own merits and for the contribution it makes to the study of the history of women in the garden.

For anyone interested in reading a little more about Jane Loudon, Bea Howe’s book, ‘Lady With Green Fingers’ is a very readable account of her life. Bea Howe herself ( a ‘fringe ‘member of the Bloomsbury Group) was born in Chislehurst.

Bea Howe, painted by Duncan Grant, 1925

Suburbian writers and Jane Loudon (Vija)

I have recently finished reading Sarah Bilston’s book  ‘The Promise of the Suburbs’. This is a very readable study of the history and development of the suburbs and their representation in literature. Rather than being the incredibly boring places often demonised in popular culture and variously vilified as boring, conventional and unimaginative (Bilston’s introductory chapter is titled ‘The “Horror” of Suburbia’) Bilston shows how they provided opportunities for female professionalism and new ideas about modernity.

The massive expansion of the suburbs during the Victorian period enabled an increasing role for the middle class people who were to occupy them. Central to this were ideas of taste. Visions of landscape gardens and spacious country home interiors were not appropriate to these smaller scale domestic environments and a new market developed for advice texts. With the removal of the paper tax, the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century saw a burgeoning of journals of all kinds and many of these were written and contributed to by women. This was the period of Mary Wollstonecraft, George Eliot and Jane Austen when middle class women were finding a voice and journals provided an opportunity to share ideas, in many cases anonymously if these were particularly controversial. [1] Bilston includes a chapter on Jane Loudon (b. 1807, d.1858), a name which, until fairly recently, I was unfamiliar with. More popular than Mrs. Beeton in her day and writing at the same time, selling huge numbers of books in print, as a female gardener writing for people in the suburbs, she didn’t stand a chance and, for the most part, has disappeared from view, receiving scant attention in the scholarly discussions of horticulture.


Jane Wells Webb Loudon was born on 19 August 1807 and died on 13 July 1858. After the death of her mother in 1819, she travelled in Europe for a year with her father, clearly a far-sighted man with regard to a suitable education for girls, but who lost his business to excessive speculation. He died penniless in 1824, when Jane Webb was only 17, forcing her into a position where she had to financially support herself. Already quite a prolific writer, she wrote ‘The Mummy; Or a Tale of the Twenty-second Century’ which was published anonymously in 1827 and has been seen as an early forerunner of science fiction. (Mary Shelley had written Frankenstein in 1818, but The Mummy is a very different narrative).

Through this she came to the attention of John Claudius Loudon, who, on meeting, was surprised to find that she was a woman.

 Although much older than she (he was 47) and well established with a reputation in horticulture, the two were married seven months later. Jane Loudon makes it clear in her diaries that, knowing nothing whatsoever about plants, she was determined to make up her knowledge deficit. She studied botany (at the time this was considered a suitable subject for girls and women ) under John Lindley and worked closely alongside her husband. By the 1840s she was publishing horticultural journals and books in her own right, supporting her husband’s work and his family (his sisters lived next door) and continued to do so for the rest of her life – John Claudius died in 1843, leaving her to bring up and to financially support their 10 year old daughter single-handedly. She died age 50 in the family home in Bayswater.

[1] See work such as ‘The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer’ by Mary Poovey and Alexis Easely’s ‘First Person Anonymous’.