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




Thursday, January 29, 2015

Perennials - which is the best reference book?




Several people have been asking me recently about the best reference books on perennials. So here goes (until that is I've done my own!).

Perennial garden plants, or, The modern florilegium: A concise account of herbaceous plants, including bulbs, for general garden use. Thomas, G. S. (1990). Timber Press.
Well with a title like that, it looks like someone thought they were in the 19th century. Graham Stuart Thomas probably thought he was. He was one of the great gardeners of the 20th century, gardens advisor to the National Trust, and saviour of many old rose varieties. His style is rather mannered and louche, the voice of a rather upper-class gent reminiscing about plants with his second 12 year old malt whisky of the evening in his hand. All very much from deep personal experience and occasional prejudice. Enlivened with quotations and rendered very useful for its 'special purposes' lists in the back.The weak point is the illustrations - few and far between and ancient looking
Still my favourite.

Perennials. Phillips, R., & Rix, M. (1993). Pan.
Comes in two volumes, one for early and the second for late. Not exactly a mine of information as the entries are short but this is the book I always turn to when I want to check on the identification of something. Quite a lot of pictures of things shot in the wild, which gives some nice context. Probably the best source of illustrations.

Allan Armitage on perennials. Armitage, A. M. (1993). Prentice Hall.
The sheer weight of this book could do you some damage if it fell off your bookshelf, which reflects the amazing amount of knowledge in it. Revised in 2011, looks a little dated, engagingly written, still the gold standard for American gardeners and actually has more hard data in it than any other book. This man knows his stuff inside out. More down to earth than G.S. Thomas Esq., and likewise very poor on illustrations.

The Royal Horticultural Society encyclopedia of perennials. Rice, Graham. 2011. Dorling Kindersley.
Sumptuous, well-illustrated, very comprehensive, lots of interesting supplementary information in boxes. Looks beautiful but non-British readers will be irritated by its very British focus, while designers will be driven insane by its lack of information on spread. There is something which looks identical going out in the USA under the aegis of the American Horticultural Society edited by Kurt Bluemel; I'm not 100% sure but almost certainly the same thing.

Hansen, R., & Stahl, F. (1993). Perennials and their garden habitats. Timber Press.
Not an A to Z but an incredibly useful setting out of the German approach to thinking about perennials in terms of plant communities. Read this, understand it, and you will have an immensely useful opening to a very different way of thinking about plants to the Anglo-American approach.

Perennials: the gardener's reference. Carter, Susan, Carrie Becker, and Bob Lilly. 2007. Timber Press.
Detailed, comprehensive – but could do better on this score. Valuable in that it pools the experience of three very experienced growers. American but perfectly usable in Europe. Provides suggestions for planting companions so useful for design too. Probably the best all-round book here.

Dream plants for the natural garden. Gerritsen, Henk, and Piet Oudolf. 2000. Timber Press.
Planting the natural garden. Oudolf, Piet, and Henk Gerritsen. 2003. Timber Press.
Very nicely and sometimes humorously written by Henk, with information shared from both authors. Does not aim to be comprehensive but is a good starting point for those interested in contemporary perennials; organised in a very sensible way around idiosyncratic categories that help beginners make sense of the plant's basic character. Biased towards cooler winter climates. Plant selection slightly out of date now.

Zatloukal's border perennials: a discursive encyclopaedia. Zatloukal, R. G. Z. 1997. Blandford: Spider.
Originally privately produced, an idiosyncratic guide with some useful plant selection lists at the back. No illustrations. Definitely worth a look at.


And now for some websites.

www.perennials.com
3,000 perennials, very American in its selection, but thorough, clear, formulaic like all online databases. A commercial selling site from what I can see, which I suppose biases the selection, although they do not make it obvious they want to sell to you.

www.stauden-stade.de
A commercial site that is trying to sell you plants, but very thorough, more detail than any other weviste. (In German).

www.plantify.co.uk prides itself on being 'Britain's largest plant selection' – I think they must operate as an agent for several nurseries; not particularly informative, crude generalisations and sometimes inaccurate.

Royal Horticultural Society website, which covers trees, shrubs etc, as well.
Generally agreed to be crude and clunky, its ambition to include photographs of everything in UK cultivation is a noble and worthwhile one which might make it worth looking at one day. Has been combined with the Plant Finder, with the effect of massively reducing the functionality of the latter. An example of how the bigger the software project the bigger the cock-ups.
Cotswold Garden Flowers
British nurseryman Bob Brown, he of the acerbic lecture and plant commentary,  has written an excellent, and needless to say opinionated, and sometimes funny, guide to a vast array of plants, many not discussed elsewhere. Very basic info, but valuable. Some illustrated. The man has immense knowledge and a very good eye.

www.shootgardening.co.uk
Currently the best UK gardening A-Z database, information a bit slim but easy to use and navigate, and pretty comprehensive.

Missouri Botanic Garden Kemper Center
is much the best, with really detailed information, delivered in the kind of text-led non-formulaic way rarely seen on the web. It is of course biased to North America Midwest and east coast and the range is perhaps not as comprehensive as some - the information though is first rate.

Please send me your comments on your experiences and recommendations which I can include in future reviews.


* * * * *

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, January 7, 2015

Gardening - where have all the men gone?


First of all - Happy New Year!


A recent piece in Gardens Illustrated, by the always interesting and perceptive Ambra Edwards, discussed the role of women in garden design, and in particular that all-too familiar problem, that it is always a small number of men who dominate at the 'top' of the profession, and that women in the profession tend to be stereotyped in what they do. Both are issues in many professions.
Here, I'd like to address a problem at the other end: the demographic both of hobby gardeners and of the horticulture professions more generally. Where are the men?

The audience. Whenever I do a talk, I always do a quick mental survey of the gender – how many men, how many women? All too often these days there is a shortage of men. Men are a particular rarity in my all-day workshops, usually 20 or so people, quite often there are no men. Occasionally, I do a public lecture – 50 or so people, and no men at all. I find that profoundly depressing – all those chaps who could be enjoying gardening, and getting something out of a event, and who aren't there.
I grew up in the 1960s when gardening, as hobby, was dominated by men, and as profession, overwhelmingly by men. My father was a working-class Welshman who just loved gardening. He was also something of a Victorian throwback whose backward views on gender did not see any role for women in the garden. Garden culture at the time was undeniably very male-dominated. Although having said that, Vita Sackville-West and Margery Fish were extremely influential as writers in the papers. There were some women who ran nurseries, very often characters who attracted adjectives such as 'redoubtable', such as Mrs. Desmond Underwood and her silver plant nursery; my father came back from an RHS flower show one day and he was clearly terrified of her. Does anyone else remember her? (I also remember my father being completely nonplussed by a very butch lesbian friend of mine). BTW, I may have got my love of gardening from him but I did not get on with my father.

When I had my nursery, back in the 1980s-1990s, I could see a gender shift. One of the things I really liked about the whole horticulture world was that it did seem a relatively egalitarian one, in which male/female roles were pretty irrelevant compared to so much else. But there were some groups I used to sell plants at, which did strike me as having a very distinctly female bias. Which has just gotten more and more so over the years.

I am not the only one to have noticed that there has been a considerable male turning away from gardening in the last decade or two. Part of it is to do with the collapse of traditional working class culture – of which the allotment (i.e. community garden) was an important part, and a certain kind of gardening-as-craft. Mind you – the passing on of that whole generation of older working class men (who often sexist attitudes like my father) has created a space for a completely different
demographic – for all the families, couples and women who now crop these places, which were once so overwhelmingly, and almost aggressively, male.

Ornamental gardening was almost certainly an invention of women in the first place. I am thinking of all those little peasant plots around the home, full of vegetables and medicinal herbs – it was here that a few plants would be grown for colourful flower and leaf. You can see this today in many developing countries – a narrow strip of annuals along the wall of an adobe house, or pelargoniums in cooking oil cans arrayed along the path to the front door. But I suppose, as ornamental gardening became organised, commercial, and competitive, the boys took over. Victorian values (which seemed to have been quite general across the industrialising 19th century world) marginalised women, and in the middle-class or aspirational home, tended to keep them out of the garden – anything which involved women getting dirty fingers was a slight on a man's perception of being able to pay someone else to do it.

Another reason perhaps is the way the media present gardening. In the past garden TV and magazines were very much focussed on gardening as a craft – how-to stuff, getting it right, dealing with pests and diseases. The 1990s saw the beginning of the shift to a much greater focus on design, how to make it look right, rather than grow it perfectly. This had the effect of shifting gardening into a much more aesthetic territory, making it more attractive to many women, but less so to many men. Gardening, in some senses, became 'girly'. There is nothing guaranteed more to put a lot of men off. Particularly in making career choices.

The huge boom in vegetable growing has helped bring more, and younger, men back into gardening. Part of the reason I am sure is that it is about craft and skill rather than looks. Many of these veggie gardeners will end up growing ornamentals, especially since there is now so much of a focus on the importance pollinator plants and bee populations. I certainly hope that this will happen.

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.

********
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.








Sunday, December 7, 2014

Україна - teaching and enthusiasm in Kiev



I was in Kiev, Ukraine, last week to teach a two day workshop on planting design. Such an amazingly enthusiastic group, as was my group in Moscow last year. There is an incredible thirst for information and knowledge; everything gets written down, every slide photographed. I get the feeling that this is basically a strong gardening culture (see my post on Russian dacha gardens) and people are desperate to make the most of what is now on offer.

I insisted that we do some work with real plants. Going in the middle of the snowy winter is never my idea of the best time to visit anywhere, but there is still a lot you can learn from plants even when they are just sticks poking out of the pots. Victoria Manoylo, the organiser of the event managed to get together a very good selection of plants in 2litre pots for us to work with from a nursery. The students fell onto these plants with an eagerness I have never seen before. Usually people are quite cautious, with a few leading and others holding back. This lot were straight in there, picking up the pots, knocking plants out of them to look at the roots, and discussing eagerly. It was a teacher's joy to see!

Great to be in such an appropriate venue – the botanical gardens (one of two in Kiev). We even got a tour around the glasshouses, impressive as they were relatively new ones, compared to the semi-derelict condition of many post-Soviet botanical institutions. Before I left I had been told some horror stories of previous British people going out to teach courses and being stuck in an old sanitorium complex miles out of town in a snowy waste with terrible food (sounded like an educational gulag). My experience was so much better, and the food and hospitality fantastic!

People had come from all over – so quite a bit of a challenge trying to keep things relevant, as the country is big and sweeps from the forested hills of the Carpathian mountains in the west, with which I am actually a bit familiar, from holidays in eastern Slovakia and Romania to the steppe, around Kharkiv in the east, beyond which is the territory Vladimar Putin is trying to slice off. Rainfall drops as you go east.

The conflict in the east inevitably hangs over several conversations. My conversation with Victoria in the ride from the shiny new airport soon turns to a conflict which is dividing nations who she said are “like brother and sister”. Others say how they have family in Russia, but feel afraid to go there now, while Russians don't feel comfortable visiting Ukraine any more. Its nothing about ethnicity. Everyone speaks a common language, or culture. It's political – Russia has always been divided between facing Europe and modernising or turning inward into a regressive 'Oriental despotism', and of course intimately linked to Putin's political machinations. Ukraine has always been more European in its identity – they had one of the world's first democratic constitutions back in the early 18th century, before being swallowed up by the Tsars. It is frightening to see how quickly close communities can be torn apart. Very frightening in the context of Scotland. Not that David Cameron is going to smuggle tanks over the border.

Visiting the Maidan, the site of the demonstrations back last winter was a very special and moving event. What was particularly strange was seeing the location of where there was a massacre of demonstrators by hidden snipers – just outside an upmarket shopping mall with a branch of Lagerfeld and Swarwovski. Almost surreal juxtaposition.

It does feel as if garden making and quality landscape design are part of the modernising project in this part of the world, and yet one which is also deeply culturally rooted. Not that landscape design under communism was necessarily bad, but it had little variety or quality, let along creativity - vast numbers of the same generalist species were used. A new era, with nurseries, some of them innovative in their plant range, and real creativity amongst the design profession, is all part of a new and more outward looking and more global culture. Perhaps this is part of the explanation of the incredible enthusiasm and commitment that Ukrainian and Russian garden people have.