Friday, April 24, 2015

New Garden Festival - up and running!


It's a funny feeling doing something and feeling that what you are doing might be the start of something really major. I had that feeling on Saturday at the first Gardens Illustrated Festival, in Malmesbury, a small and very picturesque town in southern England. It was an event we had been planning for over a year, and dreaming about much longer. When it finally happened there was that wonderful feeling that perhaps this was the start of something.

A few years ago I had spoken at the Swarthmore Convention, an annual get-together just outside Philadelphia. It was a great experience – 750 plus people, from all aspects of the garden world and indeed beyond – I was much impressed by all the folk from the landscape profession, who could be used as 'plant users' rather than gardeners as such, plus nursery people, amateurs and people from the community garden network. The US however does have a much stronger tradition of people getting together to learn, network and share experience.



So, early last year, the designer Annie Guilfoyle and I sat down over a bottle of wine, and about halfway through we had decided that we should try and organise something similar. She had been to an event for garden design professionals which had been run by Chris Marchant of Orchard Dene Nurseries – the number one stop for contemporary perennials in Britain. Annie, unlike most Britsh garden people, was also getting into going to conferences in mainland Europe: I Maestri del Paesaggio at Bergamo and ISU (Hardy Plant Union) in Germany.


Gardening can be a very solitary occupation, particularly for those professional involved. The opportunities to meet others, or to do professional development, are quite limited. Amateur gardeners are perhaps a more sociable lot - indeed many garden clubs feel more social than horticultural. Garden clubs however tend to operate on quite a local basis, and the opportunities to hear or meet top-notch people in the profession are limited.

We in Britain have a tradition of short-duration flower shows, which to some extent have added on a lecture or workshop component, but not usually very successfully - I have had two awful experiences lecturing at the otherwise very good Malvern show. Apart from anything else, people are not in a sitting down and listening mode, they are too distracted by what we call in English 'all the fun of the fair'. If they sit down they do so to eat their sandwiches, discuss things they have seen with the people they have come with, or fall asleep; anyone who does a presentation at one of these shows will be familiar with these behaviours.

No, Annie and I wanted to create a forum where the listening and communicating came first. We talked over various options and in the end, as neither of us fancied taking on the logistics, took it to Juliet Roberts, editor of Gardens Illustrated, who almost immediately said that she'd like us to work together, as it was something that she had been thinking of for sometime herself. The company who own the magazine took on the logistics and a year later, it all happened, thanks to the enthusiasm of Marie Davies, the publisher herself. The gods smiled and poured sunshine onto southern England. People came, listened, talked, bought and went away happy, informed and inspired.


What we were aiming for, and I think achieved, was something of the character of a literary festival, one which was accessible in its location, pricing and outreach. People pay for the events they want to go to, wander about the town, visit the marquee where a small selection of stands sold their wares, visit the famous and rather relentlessly colouful Abbey Gardens, hang out in the cafe – etc. And we had a team of garden staff from Sissinghurst who camped out locally (brrrrr) and ran a garden advice clinic, and a garden design clinic run by Rosie Nottage.

We need however, to think about next year. We want suggestions as to who and what we include. There is a fundamental need to 'play safe' and have big names to achieve the proverbial 'bums on seats' but we have to provide opportunities for less well-known people in the garden world to be heard as well, and to create spaces for discussion and debate (after all, we don't all agree on everything all the time do we?) and perhaps most importantly learning opportunities. I would like to see workshops – where people could learn new skills off experts, panel discussions where issues could be aired and events that linked gardening to the wider world of the arts, philosophy and society. So we'd like to hear from you.

Missed it! 
Come to Gardens in the Wild in lovely Herefordshire. June 20-21.

Interested in learning opportunitities with me in Herefordshire and Devon too - check out my diary left. There are some workshops coming up.





Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Historical or Wild Garden Plant Image search



I'm currently getting towards the end of writing a book provisionally called A Garden Flora, the Origins, Ecology and History of Garden Plants, to be published by Timber Press, 2016. The book is an introduction to garden plants - not how to grow them, but the ecology of their wild ancestors, traditional uses and their history in cultivation. The idea is to fill in on the context and background of familiar genera, so gardeners have a better sense of where a plant is from, geographically and historically. It's intended as reference, for dipping in, and hopefully as a way in for those who want to go and on and do further research into particular plants.

BUT – I need help with pictures. We have a limited budget and that we need to spend on getting some very good quality historical images from libraries. So, I'm asking for help. What I'd like is:
  • pictures of garden plants or ancestors of garden plants in the wild,
  • images from out-of-copyright books, which have a period feel,
  • images from old (pre 1950) nursery catalogues, preferably from businesses no longer in existence (to avoid permission issues),
  • vintage images which clearly show garden plants in some sort of interesting historical context,
  • vintage publicity material for plants, seed companies, nurseries, where particular plants are a clear part of the image.
Unless really exceptional, images need to be in colour.

So, if you think you might be able to help, then do send me an email (noelk57@gmail.com), and I will send you a list of the genera I am looking for, and the specifications. We can't pay for images but will of course credit you. 

Thank you.






Saturday, March 28, 2015

and the Cyclamen gets the prize!



Mega-magnolias. They really stole the show.
Its a long time since I have been asked to judge anything at a flower show. The last time was in Seattle years ago, when we (the late Wayne Winterowd and Barbara Ashmun) gave top prize in the show gardens category to a community organisation that worked with disadvantaged youth and a couple of the flash landscape companies who had pored money into all-singing, all-dancing gardens were none too pleased.
Magnolia 'Shiraz'

The Cornwall Spring Garden Show is an early one, and a really lovely one. Modestly sized, very high quality with little of the tat that lets down so many shows, lots of very good little nurseries, and a wonderful setting at Boconnoc, one of those secret estate landscapes which you feel privileged to visit. I have been surprised by the number of people who have said to me over the last week “isn't it a bit early” - which indicates that they can't come down here that much. Spring happens early here. There is so much to see in March: magnolias, camellias, rhododendrons of course, but drop your eyes and there are primroses and daffodils everywhere.


Competitive showing of plants and cut flowers is a long-established part of the British flower show tradition. Its always thought that it encourages quality gardening, although in actual fact most of the entries seem to come from a fairly limited number of people, who one imagines vie with each other every year. At least in the rather miscellaneous classes I was co-judging (Herbaceous, Pot Plants and Alpines). In some classes, however, such as daffodils, success for new varieties in shows is of considerable importance in deciding whether or not they get to be successful. And a really good showing of a plant can help draw attention to something which deserves it.
We gave these hellebores 1st prize.

What gets shown very much reflects what is currently fashionable. Hardly any tulips. Lots of hellebores, which are difficult to show as many are by this time going over. Some very nice primroses/polyanthus, including some new cultivars I have not seen before. Rosemary, my fellow judge, and I make our decisions quickly and we are almost entirely in agreement, and we fill each other's knowledge gaps nicely. Plant condition is vital, presentation important but not as much as the condition and quality. We reward more unusual or new varieties, and we try to reward evidence of dedication - which means that the perfect bunch of (say) tulips that could have been grown from a packet of bulbs bought last autumn won't necessarily get marked above something less visually impressive but which we know must have been cared for for years.

We got our judging done relatively smoothly and then had to decide on what would be put forward as 'best in show'. A wild form of Cyclamen persicum really stood out. Someone had obviously grown it for years, and it had wonderful silver foliage (and this is a species whose foliage tends to be fairly predictable). But, it had to go head-to-head with the best daffodil prize. The daffodil judges were taking ages, and from our peek into their exhibition room were agonising over over every bloom, and doing a lot of grumbling, or at least petal-by-petal critiquing. When they had finished we had to agree between us on a 'best of show', but comparing twelve nearly perfect daffs with one wild cyclamen seemed like comparing chalk and cheese. I rather determined I would fight the corner for our cyclamen. The twelve nearly perfect daffodils I actually rather took against; they were all relatively modern division ones and twos: big, full-petalled flowers – silicon-enhanced porn star daffodils, not the smaller, subtler, more airy varieties I (and indeed many others of the gardening public) now tend to go for.
'Sabrosa', one of the increasingly popular miniature daffodils.

So, the two daffodil judges, Rosemary and myself stood in front of the daffs, with the cyclamen brought in for comparison. I gave a bit of an impassioned speech about the cyclamen, and then the daffodil folk began to admit that one or two of their flowers were actually less than perfect, and in no time at they crumbled and admitted that the 'best in show' award should go to the cyclamen.
The big blowsy dozen

The winning Cycalmen persicum - wild form.

* * * * *
If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.
SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.
********

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Where have all the alpines gone?





Where have all the alpines gone?

Here, I want to ask this question, and I am illustrating it through the generous donation of pictures by Harry Jans, but I do not get round to talking about him 'til the very end. Harry is, you could say, the light at the end of the tunnel.

When I was growing up, alpines and rock gardens were a big thing. There were various things every serious gardener had to have, and a rockery was one of them. For a plant-mad teenager, helping my father build a rockery was a thrilling project. I remember studying closely a magazine pull-out special on how to layer the rocks, for stability as much as naturalism. My dad had taken very early retirement and spend an awful lot of his time in the garden. We moved to a town in Kent in 1968 and I remember him building a whole series of low rockeries, using retaining walls made out of old paving slabs – clearly he must have sweet-talked someone in the local council for these.


My first independent venture here was a 'peat garden', again something many serious gardeners used to have, before peat became so politically-incorrect. Actually, for us in Sevenoaks, it made sense, as the soil is so poor and sandy that it is rhododendron and ericacous plant paradise, without having to add much to it. I remember my first independent trip to a local rock plant nursery, to buy plants. There were then quite a lot of nurseries in the south-east of England which sold alpines, peat plants and other choice, slow-growing plants. I remember this one was called Robinsons, and I remember being surprised at what a mess it was (I understood better why, when I came to run my own nursery many years later). I remember Mr. Robinson wrenching the weeds out of the pots of the plants I had bought. Another was W.E.Th. Ingwersen's, down a long track on the edge of the estate that William Robinson once owned in Sussex. The son kept the business going long enough for it to coincide with my own modest nursery, and I remember him coming to RHS flower shows in London, plants packed into an old camper van, a few years later he gave up the business.

But, where have all the alpines gone? Last year, I decided I would try to research some in order to evaluate plants for possible use on small-scale green roofs. And could I find a nursery? Eventually I got them all from Potterton's Nursery in Lincolnshire, a very long way from home. There are a couple of others, but only a fraction of the number that there used to be.

I was well aware that rockeries were thoroughly out of fashion, but it took a while for me to realise just how much they have taken so many alpines with them. One thing which brought it home to me was reading the autobiography of Lawrence Hills, the founder of what is now called Garden Organic. Hills had started out as a specialist propagator of alpines, and he was clearly a very busy man, churning out vast numbers of plants – this was back in the 1930s. A skilled propagator was clearly someone who would have no problem in finding a job.

Rockeries and alpines had come into fashion in the late 19th century and had something of a heyday in the interwar years. Travelling in Switzerland and Austria was one of the spurs for this. Germany too went through a rock garden craze at the same time. Grand rockeries were quite simply, a status symbol for wealthy gardeners. Expensive they may have been to build and maintain, but they would have been cheaper than the greenhouses full of (mostly) orchids which had been the previous way to show off your combination of wealth, status and good taste. The ever-expanding middle classes went in for them too, so the market for plants was clearly enormous. With the demise of the rockery, there has been a massacre of plant availability. I am in the almost-final stages of writing a plant reference book right now, which highlights history in cultivation; one of the things which I am realising is just how many 'alpine' type plants have vanished from general cultivation.

Back in the day, when I had my nursery, which was 1985 -1993 (not very long I know, but I rapidly realised this was no way to make a living!), I started off doing a mix of hardy perennials and alpines. I had calculated (wrongly) that a thriving local branch of the Alpine Garden Society would be good customers. I also realised quite quickly that the whole concept of the alpine had come down in the world; for many garden centre managers, and customers, it meant something which could be shoved into a 9cm pot and sold for 99p. Now, even a great many of the 'small but cheap because it spreads quickly' type of alpine have disappeared.

What the Alpine GardenSociety did do very effectively was have shows, indeed it still does and has an excellent online encyclopaedia. Growers would turn up with pots of plants, grown to a kind of unnatural perfection. Such as Primula allioni or Dionysia or Androsace species grown in perfect hemispheres so covered in flower you could hardly see the leaves. The shows were competitive, and maybe it was this competitive element which brought out an odd kind of underlying nastiness which is generally rare in the garden world. I remember one local show secretary being a particularly aggressive character who once reduced a nurserywoman to tears over some misdemeanour or other.


I find the disappearance of the alpine sad. These are often exquisitely beautiful plants, often not at all difficult to grow if a few basic needs are met, and remarkably well-adapted to that obsession of the garden media industry – the small garden (yes, I am writing a small garden book at the moment, for my sins (was we often say in Britain), and no, since you ask, there are no alpines in it). But how do you grow alpines if you do not build an unfashionable rockery, and do not want to grow them in pots like the AGS gardeners with their travelling mini botanic gardens? This conundrum appears to have so defeated the British garden community that they have given up on alpines altogether.

Years ago, I spotted the answer. In, of all places the one country in Europe that lacks rock. Holland. In fact I remember actually sploshing through a minor flood to admire the wonderful sculptural rock gardens built at Utrecht Botanical Gardens by Wiert Nieuman. These had been built out of scrap building materials, with plants squigged into the cracks. Perfect drainage, which is requirement number one, and the possibility of putting all the sun-lovers on the south side, the shade lovers (like Ramonda myconi, the Balkan answer to the African Violet) on the north side and those that like a little bit of sun on the east and west sides. Problem solved.

Harry Jans' is a leading Dutch grower of alpines, I'm showing his garden here - he uses a lot of tufa but artfully arranged in a completly different way to the old-fashioned rockery. Time to re-think alpine growing in a sculptural and design-led way and start growing these amazing plants once again.


* * * * *

If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********






Friday, February 20, 2015

Volunteering in gardens


Volunteering in public gardens seems a big new trend. Basically – the idea is that public gardens, such as those owned by Britain's National Trust, use volunteers to help maintain their gardens. A great idea? Not according to gardener Rachel Cassidy who wrote about this recently on Thinking Gardens.

I was initially inclined to be sympathetic to her viewpoint, except that I knew sometimes volunteers can do a fantastic job. Many of us have heard horror stories of volunteers pruning the wrong tree, weeding out the wrong plants etc., but then trainee gardeners and apprentice do this too. I discussed this piece with a couple of National Trust gardeners I know. One, let's call him Roger, basically agreed with Rachel's posting, but did say that about a third of the volunteers in his garden are “fantastic”. To me that sounds quite significant, but it was the others who are a worry. He works in a small NT garden however and there are no staff with much experience of selecting or managing volunteers – crucial!

The reason volunteers are being promoted is clearly to save money. Its obviously a strategy of 'having to'. Looking at it more broadly, it is all a part of the 'Big Society' idea. This was launched by our Prime Minister David Cameron, some time ago, as part of a regeneration of civic responsibility, that society benefits if everyone does some voluntary work. I tend to instantly distrust anything said by a Conservative politician but this did strike me at the time as being good and sensible, but then along came the recession and a government hell-bent on 'austerity'. The Big Society soon became an excuse to save money, and slash budgets for all the services that government provide, and which anyone in the civilised world outside the American Tea Party brigade expects them to provide. The whole concept of volunteering is in danger of being undermined by using it in a cynical attempt to plug holes in budgets. We await a call for volunteer heart surgeons.

Back to the garden. Volunteers are used very extensively in some public gardens in the US. I've talked to colleagues there about this and there seems to be a general agreement that they work well. Part of this I suspect is that in big cities there are a lot of people who have good gardening skills who simply do not have anything more than a couple of pots on a windowsill to exercise their gardening skills on, so volunteers tend to be good gardeners. 

Volunteers of course, need managing, which is one of Rachel's points. Some big American gardens have a volunteer manager whose job it is solely to organise volunteers, but realistically very few gardens are going to have the resources to do this, which means that managing volunteers becomes the task of garden staff who have no experience in managing people. Time to point out that a lot of people go into gardening precisely because they do not want to manage people and are no good at it.

Another NT gardener I spoke to, works in a much larger garden. John describes how “we have a recruitment process, we select carefully, we interview”. The Trust, he says “is a social organisation and providing volunteering opportunities is part of that, and so it is a two way process, we provide a social sphere and training and they help us”.

There is no doubt that many volunteers are people who are really committed to the garden and to good gardening and who make a massive difference. In a world where we have a growing number of fit and healthy retired people who want to do something, continue to make a contribution, and, to be honest, get out of the house and make themselves useful, then volunteering in public gardens strikes me as a splendid thing for them to be doing.

Does Rachel's point that volunteers undermine gardening as a profession stand up? I think that it is possibly too early to tell. Using volunteers is still relatively new. In the old style Victorian garden there were often huge numbers of gardeners who the Head Gardener and sometimes his deputies had to manage. Management was part of the job. It is only since those days, as garden staffs have shrunk, that management has dropped by the wayside. I can actually see a situation where gardeners who are good at management of volunteers, or who have received training in doing so, will be able to lever higher pay for doing so.

A point I would make, from the point of view of someone who promotes naturalistic planting, is that using volunteers might enable old-fashioned high levels of garden maintenance to continue unchecked. I think it was Nick Macer of Pan-Global Plants who said to me many years ago that some of Britain's best gardens have been through a period of neglect, during which time things happen that would not be allowed to happen in a traditionally, highly-maintained garden. Things like lilies seeding into lawns, trees developing interesting bendy shapes, shrubs suckering into impressive thickets. One of the things I can't stand about so many National Trust gardens is that they are so overmaintained: too much bare earth, crisp lawn edgings, plants kept rigidly separate. One of the drivers towards naturalistic, sustainable and biodiverse planting is the need to reduce maintenance. We will never see gardeners or garden owners try to develop complex ornamental low-maintenance plant communities if there is an army of volunteers ready to weed out anything that steps out of line.

Its a balancing act, like so much in life. Probably the best thing to conclude is that volunteering in gardening is here to stay, at least in the English-speaking world, and that it can be a very positive experience for all concerned, but does need commitment and continued assessment. I might even put out an appeal for some in our garden!

* * * * *

If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.

SUPPORT THIS BLOG
I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address: noelk57@gmail.com
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

********






Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Confessions of a garden tour guide



The elderly American lady stood in the middle of the German park, tears streaming down her face. Initially alarmed, I soon realised they were tears of joy, “I was last here in the 1950s” she explained, “my husband was an officer in the army of occupation”, going on to explain how Germany was now a totally different country, and the park we were in, with its colourful and diverse planting summed everything up about what she felt about how the country had changed. It is special moments like this that makes leading a garden tour such a rewarding diversion from my normal working life.

Read more here......

And if you'd like to join our tour to Ireland this year... July 14 to 21, then email me for details: noelk57@gmail.com