Supporting plants in a timely manner has been one of members’ New Year’s resolutions on more than one occasion. I remember one reading: to support plants before they fall over!
But how to do it in a way that is both attractive and unobtrusive? In addition to which, you have to find the right materials. I have long been an admirer of the ‘birch halos’ used by Sarah Raven and at Great Dixter, for example, but had never attempted to create one.
This year I managed to find myself a pile of birch twigs and, inspired by the clear instructions in Arthur Parkinson’s book The Flower Yard, I had a go.
As you can see from the Antirrhinums, although not quite on the same level of skill, my efforts are doing the job and don’t look too bad!
I wonder what other attractive supports members have found for themselves?
The City of London might not be the first place that you would look to understand how nature conservancy developed in this country. The Wildlife Trusts, the umbrella organisation for local groups that care for their environment, makes it clear that they owe their existence to the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, for which Charles Rothschild, a partner in the merchant bank of N M Rothschild & Sons, was the catalyst.
I thought about him during Joe Beale’s excellent talk on Zoom to the CABAHS meeting on 17 May. Members learned a lot about biodiversity in the area of Greenwich Park, Blackheath and Charlton. We also learned how important it is for people to work together. Joe didn’t just mean small groups of concerned individuals, although those are crucial. He meant engaging with local councils and other bodies to make sure everyone’s interests and concerns are understood.
This is what Charles Rothschild did. He sent out questionnaires to local natural history societies, asking for nominations for sites that could be nature reserves: sites that were ‘worthy of preservation’. On the basis of these returns, the newly-created Society for the Protection of Nature Reserves published a list – Rothschild’s List – and sought government intervention to protect the sites. Here is the list, published in 1915.
Joe also brought home the importance of keeping records over time so that measurements of improvement and, sadly, deterioration have value. In the link above The Wildlife Trusts also presents an analysis of the condition of Rothschild’s Reserves, 100 years on.
This document features a pie chart of habitats, 2% of which are pavements. I wonder if our very own Terry might well be responsible for some of that, based on what he told us he was up to at the end of his road!
Charles Rothschild was an extraordinary man by any measure of means. His collection of fleas, now the national collection of fleas in the Natural History Museum, was lovingly catalogued by his daughter, Miriam, who was herself a powerful advocate for nature, advising the Prince of Wales on the creation of his garden at Highgrove.
One of his fans is sports- and nature-writer Simon Barnes, whose book, Prophet and Loss: Time and the Rothschild List is available on Kindle for only £2.37. If members were to buy the book (profits to The Wildlife Trusts) they could buy a cake from the WI at the CABAHS community day at Charlton House on 30 May and still have change from a fiver!
In his book The Flower Yard, Arthur Parkinson writes lovingly about his grandmother Min and her gardening practices, typical, he writes, of an older generation of gardeners. He describes the kinds of plots tended by Min and her neighbours and how ‘there was no acceptance of insect life, as proved by the cupboard of death in the garage, its shelves packed with poison, weed killers and bug spray’.
My Mother’s death bequeathed to me not only her gardening tools, but a similar shelf’s worth of gardening aids. I have very vivid memories of the shed she and my Father had in their garden, the tools neatly lined up and clean, sweet jars ready for pickled vegetables, saved seed in envelopes and plant labels ready to be re-used. But alongside all this were also the toxins.
And it is not only a younger generation of gardeners who believe in far more environmentally friendly gardening practices. In a recent online talk given by Fergus Garrett, he argued that ‘gardening and ecology have to come closer together’ and devoted one whole lecture to how gardening at Great Dixter has become much more sustainable in recent years and delighting in the huge quantity of species that the gardens are home to.
Driving somewhere in the 1970s meant cleaning the windscreen and headlights of bugs on arrival home. That no longer happens and is a sure indication of how much insect life has been destroyed in a very short space of time.
 Parkinson, A. The Flower Yard (2021) Kyle Books p.119.
Many of us who are avid and long-time fans of Beth Chatto’s garden and her Unusual Plants Nursery will always remember that she won 10 consecutive Gold Medals at the Chelsea flower show. Her legacy is a garden she created which is unlike any other in the UK and abroad: it is unique.
Dr Catherine Horwood, Beth Chatto’s authorised biographer, introduced Beth Chatto to members and guests via last Monday evening’s Zoom meeting.
The talk was about Beth Chatto’s personal life and the influences that led to the garden’s creation. We learned that she happily gardened alongside her parents and had her own garden patch of cottage garden flowers. And we know that her hobby as a flower arranger as a young woman hugely influenced her interest in plant forms, textures and colours.
Dr Horwood described Beth Chatto as ‘tough’ and ‘steely’, and she must have been extremely determined from a young age, as she trained as a teacher during WW2, instead of taking the usual route of joining the Forces. An advantageous marriage to a fruit farmer, Andrew Chatto, with a life-long interest in plant ecology, set the stage for the purchase of land at Elmstead Market and the garden that followed.
But why did Beth Chatto design the garden the way she did? We know she was influenced by the terrain and various soil conditions, in addition to a natural spring at the lower level. How did her design of a ‘necklace of ponds’ separated by very narrow water channels come about? We know she was influenced by her friend and mentor, Cedric Morris in those early days and Beth Chatto acknowledges the huge debt to her husband at the start of her book, ‘The Dry Garden’, in which she states: “Without Andrew neither my garden nor a book would have been possible”.
Dr Catherine Horwood is an English journalist, author and social historian who has written extensively on horticulture and garden design and is the authorised biographer of Beth Chatto. A keen gardener for over thirty years, Catherine has created three gardens that have been open through the National Gardens Scheme and was for many years an organiser for the NGS. Her Facebook page gives you links to her other work on women gardeners, growing houseplants and you can check out her blog on growing vegetables. Her book on Beth Chatto won European Garden Book of the Year in 2020.
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.
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.
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
Method: 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)
Method: 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
Ingredients: 70 ml Christmas tree cordial (above)/ 140 ml prosecco / Ice cubes and lemon
Method: Combine in a cocktail shaker, pour into a cold glass and serve!
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!
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.
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!
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.