Monday, 8 January 2018

Curated Nature......

It might be cold and grey but the gardening continues.....

Not in a seed sowing or even planting kind of a way, but in a planning and how will this garden work for me way which is important when you garden like I do. I garden predominantly for me, but not just in a making it look the way I like kind of way, although of course that is important but I feel it's important to go deeper than that and look at ethics in the garden.

Tithonias-rarely seen without a bee!!

I am loathe to use the word organic, because for me that isn't quite enough. Organic for me is a tool for certification; a means to an end for recognition rather than an ethic. That is not to say I don't appreciate the effort it takes to get organic certification because I am more than aware of the skill and shear hard work that this takes, but unless I was going to open my garden, what would be the point? I'm not interested in opening my garden but I am interested in creating a space that is healthy, clean if you like, and that will support more than a nice place to sit. I want to support nature and there is definitely a challenge in that in a space this small. By supporting nature I mean I want to create a natural space that feels like home to wildlife, the flora and fauna all around us but that aren't there. Or at least aren't there yet.

Now this is not new to me. Turning 40 acres of nursery from conventional to organic horticulture taught me a whole lot of things that had I not have had that opportunity, I may never have considered. There is truth in the saying, "make it and they will come", but patience is an important part of this process, as is living by the seasons and accepting that it will happen if you give it time.

But back to the garden. It's a teeny, tiny space, maybe 5m by 5m. I'll measure it at some point but that measurement isn't all that important. What's important is that it will be jam packed to the rafters with beauty that will support nature in a somewhat curated way. All the plants will be good for insects and bees, and there will be spaces for invertebrates to hide. It may not be spotless, or look like a main avenue garden at RHS Chelsea, but it will be a haven for wildlife as well as for those invited into it.

Doesn't have to be ornate! In previous gardens this type of feeder has brought in birds a plenty.

What I have never had to factor into a garden previously is that into this already busy space I have to put food growing. At the moment I have no allotment, although 42 edible spaces across the city should stop me feeling bereft from that, but I do want to include both fruit and vegetables in my plan. This is going to lead to an interesting use of vertical space that will include products that will support using the walls as well as clever, I hope, use of archways and climbing plants. We will have to wait and see if this works, but I am entering into the nothing ventured, nothing gained ethos here, and if it doesn't work I can reassess and possibly look at an allotment.

So what are you doing to start this process back to nature Sara, I hear you say? Well birds are the answer and as I sat in the garden drinking tea on Sunday morning I listened to the amazing chorus that is out there every morning and decided Sunday was the day to begin the process, if that is what you can call it, of bringing them in. I thought about a bird table but there were concerns over cats and also how much of the garden it would appear to be taking up, so instead we pootled off to Wilkinsons and bought a stand for bird feeders along with some new feeders, and filled them with peanuts, fat balls, nyger seed and a seed mix. And now we will wait and wonder who will be first to use it as they fly across the gardens that up until now they have ignored. I hope they hurry because I am spending an unearthly amount of time watching from the kitchen window.

Zinnias-the darling of the cut flower grower but still great for pollinators.

I'll keep you up to date!!

And just in case you weren't aware you can find me on both Twitter and Instagram where I am @saralimback!!

Friday, 22 December 2017

A Visit To.......The Living Rainforest

I woke up on Sunday with an urge for a botanical type visit to somewhere new, so we did a bit of Googling and decided to pootle off to The Living Rainforest, just off the M4 near Newbury.
I am super interested at the moment in the way people are embracing houseplants and keen to remind folk that houseplants are garden and forest plants in other climes and I am trying to work out how we link the two things so that indoor gardeners realise that they are a part of the gardening community, even if they are just getting planty indoors. Anyway that's for another day!!

The Living Rainforest is on the site of what was Wyld Court Orchids in Hampstead Norreys in Berkshire, and is run by the Trust for Sustainable Living. The greenhouses now house three separate rainforest zones, with appropriate planting, and some wildlife, from each in the separate zones. Sadly when we were there the sloth was hiding, but we did see his back. What amazed me the most is that the centre supports 23,000 school children per year to learn about the rainforest and it's importance for the planet, which for me makes it a space I will always want to support. If we are to change the way we perceive the world we have to turn children and young people into passionate environmentalists who will use future votes to make sure we protect what effectively protects us.

I am not going to bore you with lots of words here because the photos really do speak for themselves, but what I will say is that this is a great place to visit with or without children, and if you are at all interested in what we today see as houseplants in their natural environments or just with each other as they would be in rainforests across the world, this is a great place to visit. Plus, go once, and you have a ticket for a year!!

Jade Vine (Strongyloden macrobotrys) from the Philippines.
Monstera deliciosa and water lettuce in one of the ponds. 
Anthurium veitchii. The leaf was as tall as me!
Madagascan Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus)
More ponds and more Monstera!

For further info and visiting details go to the website at

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The New Garden.........

I have had several social media requests for an update on the new garden so I thought a little something would be a good idea in the run up to Christmas festivities. As many of you will know we don't celebrate Christmas here at Venn Towers, preferring to celebrate the solstice and just take time out of our busy lives to rest and recuperate over the festive period. And with that usually comes a whole lot of preparation for the garden, ensuring that we are ready for the months ahead when life with my own space and supporting 41 others usually gets a tad manic. There is also a very new and exciting incredible edible Bristol project I need to tell you about soon, so watch this space for that!!
The aquaponics unit, surrounded by pots of bulbs

Thus far I have really done very little. The garden is completely gravel so there has been a lot of weeding to do and that will need keeping up with as the blighters continue to germinate despite the cold. The aquaponics unit is in place and the fish survived the move, and we are working to make the system more sustainable next year with a solar pump and aeration but I will return to that once we get the equipment. My pots have been weeded and a fair few filled with bulbs so there will be some colour in late spring, and I have bought a bit of bedding to alleviate the grey.

But what has been most exciting is a conversation I had with Burgon and Ball who have kindly agreed to gift me some products to really support the use of the whole space, whilst turning the garden into a really sociable as well as productive and beautiful space. At the weekend we put up the first of these which is a great peg board on which tools can be kept, as well as other bits and pieces which in my life usually end up being flung somewhere only to be found several weeks later, usually a bit the worse for wear!! I also have some of their amazing Flora Brite tools in pink, which should ensure my habit of going through lots of tools is abated because in a tiny space there is no way I can lose those tools. Or at least I hope that is the case! What I am most excited about with this type of product is that it, as well as the rest of the range it belongs to,  the Garden Supplies range, can be used inside or outside, or anywhere in between, so people with balconies or just window boxes, could still use this range. For example I have the herb planters on my kitchen windowsill, bringing the garden into the kitchen.

So that is where we are so far. There will be lots more to come over the following weeks so do keep an eye open for updates and let me know in the comments if there is anything in particular you'd like to know more about.

Friday, 13 October 2017

A Date with Mr Don....

I mentioned in my last post that I was writing on a train to a book launch in London, so now some more about that.
I was somewhat surprised to be invited to the launch of Monty Don's new book, titled Down to Earth, but was at the same time thrilled. Monty and I may have an interesting relationship what with #shoutyhalfhour but having worked together with Ross on Big Dreams, Small Spaces last year, in reality we actually have quite a lot in common. I have always been an enormous fan of his writing, which touches my soul in a really deep and emotional way. In fact The Jewel Garden:A Story of Despair and Redemption is one of the books I return to over and over and has pulled me out of moments of real crisis. What thrills me about Down to Earth is that it is a book about why we garden. For most of us, whether we garden for pleasure or for a living, or of course as with so many of us for both, we recognise that why we garden is as important as how we garden and those two things feed each other. I have been thinking about why I garden quite a lot lately and this book and the few words Monty said at the launch about why he wrote it, have really supported me to have that internal conversation. I will come back to that. It will not be an easy thing to write but I will get there.

The seating areas at Ham Yard Hotel were surrounded by beds filled with Cosmos and Mexican Fleabane, cool and calming colours in such an urban space.

Now back to the book. I haven't read it all yet. It's in the pile to read in the dark of December and January. But I have read the introduction several times and on first read I can't deny that the tears fell. There are two quotes that really made me think.
The first is "....good gardens are as much about the people that make them as the plants growing in them. You are an integral part of your garden. Without you it will not exist."
The second "Life is short and absurd and run through with pain and sorrow. But in the face of real suffering, gardening can make our days shine with joy."

I could spend my time discussing those quotes but needless to say my feelings about them are wrapped up in the role I play now, supporting others to garden, and in the deep connection that my mother had with her garden and with me through that space. Gardens have supported me through more loss than I can even describe, including the loss of mum, but through many a crisis, both mental and physical. For me, and for others I am sure, to find someone willing and able to annunciate those words is a joy. The writing is empathetic and deeply touching. And kind. And that is what I really think Monty is. It was lovely to be greeted with a warm welcome from him, the comment that it was lovely to be welcomed by a friendly face, and the feeling that the words were sincere. Our conversations went from how Ross was doing to Big Dreams and led onto a short but meaningful conversation about Gardeners World, initiated by Monty. And no, I am not going to tell you what was said dear reader, but the words were kind, considered and understanding. My critique of the programme has never been about Monty, and always about the programme which, and I am saying this now in public, has I believe begun to really improve now it is an hour long and taking on board a lot of the criticism and shortcomings that have been mentioned over the years.

The beautiful bug hotel on the edge of the veg patch. there are also two bee hives on the roof which will explain the amazing crops up there!

And all of this happened in a garden. A garden in the top of the roof of the Ham Yard Hotel in central London. With the bustling life of Soho below us, we wandered around this extraordinary space, with it's seating areas, flowers and beautiful vegetable garden, delighting in the garden and in the use of the space. I deeply believe that green roofs and gardens have a vital role to play in cities and to see such a wonderful space and be within it, whilst being surrounded by the roof tops and spires of Soho was entrancing and joyous. Even better was that I got to share it with other garden blogger pals, whose blogs and vlogs about the event I will post links to below.

I do just have to comment though on the sad folks who thought that it was ok to troll me on social media after the event. I didn't post a photo of me with Monty on Twitter because I knew what it might lead to, but someone did, and the trolls came out in force. Of course they are completely ignored but it's a sadness that people think that the point of #shoutyhalfhour is to personally ridicule someone. It never was, and it never will be. And in fact some folk will tell you that I have spoken to them personally if it has ever looked as if the criticism was becoming personal.

So in essence I think what I am saying is go out and buy this book. After the intro there are sections on a whole host of things, including urban gardens, small gardens, wildlife gardening and all have the usual down to earth, practical advice you would need to create a garden in the way you might want or need to. The book is peppered with photos that are stunning and my feeling is that not only is it a fabulous edition to your gardening library, but that it would also make a fabulous gift for someone who either is becoming interested in gardening, or who is just starting out in a garden, how ever small. But I also think it's the perfect book to inspire people to understand that horticulture, gardening or whatever you want to call it, is therapeutic. It's a thing we do as much for our souls as for the aesthetic and the power of those two creative elements joining can lead to the creation of some incredibly powerful spaces. Not all those spaces will appeal to everyone of course, but as long as you, the creator, loves it and it makes you happy, anyone else's reactions are by the bye.....

Other blogs about the day........

Saturday, 30 September 2017

I'm back........

It's been a while. And I was going to start by apologising for that until I realised I've done that twice before and so I'm in a cycle and that cycle needs breaking.
I have nothing to apologise for, but I do want to share a few things to support some continuity. And the first of those things is that I haven't been very well. I don't think until yesterday even I realised how unwell, but the depression and anxiety have been back pretty much all summer. The result of this is a little voice in my head telling me not to do anything that the positive side wants to do, making the spiral into the black hole even more acute. Going out into the garden, working the allotment, writing here are all things that demon stops me from doing, telling me that even if I do, it won't be good enough, and generally bullying me into inactivity. It's a hideous, sad and lonely space to be and the pressure it creates is beyond frightening. 
But why? There's a question occasionally it's important to ask of yourself and deal with the answer properly. And one of the answers is that I have been beyond unhappy living where we are. We moved into our house 2 years ago, when my daughter and her partner were still with us, Des our little dog was still with us, and we were excited, or so I kidded myself, that we had a garden after just a courtyard in our city centre flat. But the reality has been much different. Our ward in Bristol was one of only a couple that voted to leave the EU, the provision for fresh food is dire, and its right up there in the most deprived areas of the city, and I had hoped to be able to work to support Incredible Edible Bristol into the area. But all I've heard is 'you don't come from round here' in various guises. Never have I felt so out of place. 
So yesterday we visited what will be our new home. It's perfect. Views across the city from upstairs, and a tiny garden that is a  completely blank canvas. Excited doesn't cover it. Reinvigorated, I have plans a plenty to really turn this into our home.
But there is something else I've battled with. An off the cuff remark by someone suggesting that, when I asked an online forum if others struggled to write at times, that my blog wasn't worth the effort if it didn't earn me any money, and nor was Incredible Edible Bristol. And that has brought about an internal, difficult conversation about worth. 
A lot, if not most, of what I do is voluntary. I don't hide that and I'm not trying to be some sort of saint. It's just the way it is. Incredible Edible Bristol is a voluntary organisation and as such supports expenses but funding for core costs is nigh on impossible. I really feel like I'm putting my head on the block writing this, but my thing is and always has been that If something needs doing let's do it. Waiting for funds often means things don't happen so we just get on with it! I think supporting 40 public realm gardens to begin and prosper over 4 years sets the precedent that just getting on with it, involving as many organisations as you can, and creating a buzz across the city, is the way to go to make real grassroots change. Yes it's meant sacrifices but its never occurred to me to prioritise my earning potential over getting on with it. My bag. My decision. 
Equally I write this blog, and my social media stuff for me. It's not my job. I'm aware of course that bloggers can and do earn a good living from blogging but although I'm not suggesting I never would, I never have. 
So that throw away comment really, really bothered me. Is everything we do supposed to be about financial worth? And if it is how do I change this so people take what I do seriously? I still don't have the answers to this but if anyone does, please share.....
So here I am, today, feeling much better, reinvigorated if not slightly nervous that firstly we have to move house which is my least favourite thing in the world to do ever, and that yet again I am wearing my heart on my sleeve. But there it is. Out there. 
Right now I'm on a train, off to a book launch in London and acutely aware I have books I've been sent to review, a garden and house to plan, and a very large project with Incredible Edible Bristol to plan. But today is a new day, those things will happen and the future is looking brighter.......

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Lavender-a life long love.........

I am not afraid to say that I adore Lavender. it's not my favourite plant because I am not sure that I could ever have such a thing for more than a fleeting second until my eyes flickered to something else, hence the Today's Favourite posts, but I cannot imagine a garden without lavender in it.
obviously sometimes it can be a somewhat problematic plant. It does get leggy and woody if it isn't pruned properly and for sure it sulks in a garden that is boggy and wet, and isn't to be advised in those situations, but in the right place, well looked after I think it's a magnificent plant.

There are of course a million varieties and several species within the genera and I have to admit that when I talk about Lavender I do very much mean the English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia. I know L. stoechas, or french Lavender has it's charms but it does struggle to be hardy in wet soils in the west of the UK and so I stick with those English varieties in their many colours and heights. I am particularly fond of L. angustifolia Hidcote with it's bushy, short habit and deep violet flowers. As a short hedge it is a delight and can be used alongside other, taller varieties such as L.angustifolia x intermedia Alba, to create the most beautiful planting schemes.

During my time working in nurseries I grew more lavender than one person possibly can imagine in a lifetime, of many varieties and species. One particular season we grew 2,500 for a show garden and I spent many an hour pinching out the tips of the plants to get them bushy and in bud for early May, in the greenhouse that they were growing in. One particular day, a sunny March morning before the chaos of the Chelsea dance had properly begun, I remember almost falling asleep amongst the plants as they gave off their scent in the heat of the closed up greenhouse, and having to open the doors for a while just to stop their amazing scent from persuading me to lie down amongst the pots and have a doze.

Of course as a plant lavender is beautiful and the scent is amazing but it has also been grown for centuries as a medicinal plant. Said to help mild depression and anxiety it is also a powerful sleep aid as can be seen from my nearly falling asleep in the greenhouse, and is a great scent to use in a space where you require calm and serenity. As someone who has spent many years dealing with the joys of insomnia, lavender oil on my pillow at bedtime is a frequent go to, and lavender pillows something I look out for and regularly buy to hang in the bedroom. Of course lavender is also a natural antiseptic and a few drops of lavender oil in water can really help to stop infection in cuts and grazes.

Of course many people use lavender as a flavouring and although I have to admit I am not a fan of it to eat, lavender shortbread and lavender ice cream are very popular. The flowers are definitely very pretty when crumbled over something and make cakes and puddings look delightful too.

I always cut and dry some lavender flowers. it's an easy thing to do, just requiring the cutting of as long a stem as possible, and then tying the flowers into bunches and hanging upside down somewhere warm and dry to dry. The flowers, once dried, can be crumbled into kilner jars and saved for use in pot pourri, in small bowls where the scent will fill the room, or in cooking, and they last for ages.

Recently my largest use of lavender has been in the Bearpit garden, a space designed for calming and so very apt! There are large, billowing hedges of plain Lavandula angustifolia and smaller hedges of Hidcote all around the space, inviting people to sit amongst it and relax, whilst watching the bees busy taking it's nectar as of course it's other great bonus is that it is adored by bees of many species. In fact in the Bearpit, a space in which no pollinators were regularly seen, by the time we had planted the first three plants last year, the bees had arrived and more and more came and followed us along the lines as we planted.

How do you use lavender? I would love to know!!

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Today's Favourite....Tithonias

Tithonias. Those tall, gently swaying, orange flowers that fit so well into a late summer planting scheme, have just begun to flower in the garden. From seed sown in early April, they have gently just grown, needing only 1 potting on before I put them out, from modules to 9cm pots, more to keep the slugs away than anything else. Planted out in early June, it's only taken a month to get them into flower, and regular dead heading or picking for the house, will keep them flowering for a while.
All they need is a warm start and to be kept moist once they've germinated. Why not give them a go next year?