Friday, 25 September 2015

Grow Your Own Wedding Flowers........Georgie Newbery's latest flower farming book is here!!

Being sent a copy of Georgie Newbery's new book, which, by the way will be published in early November, was a complete treat and made my day on Saturday when it arrived. It is a thing of beauty. A coffee table tome. The kind of book you would be proud to display when you wanted to show off a bit perhaps. It's cover is a beautiful bouquet that could only have come from Common Farm Flowers, full of exquisitely conditioned roses and sweet peas, fennel and poppy seed heads. It is a quintessentially English bouquet that any bride would be thrilled to have as part of her special day.

Now to actually review a book by a friend is hard, and so, frankly, I'm not even going to pretend that is what this is. However, I do have one issue and that is the name of the book, Grow Your Own Wedding Flowers, ought to be Find A Wedding To Grow Flowers For, because this book is not just how to grow flowers for your wedding. It goes far beyond that. From cutting and conditioning, to quantities of stems needed and advice on how best to manage the floristry as well as tips on scheduling and how to manage the flowers and floristry at the same time as everything else, what this book gives the reader is an insight into how Common Farm Flowers grow, manage and cut for weddings every season of every year. But you could change the word wedding and add any event that flowers might be appropriate at and this book is for you. In fact you could decide you wanted to grow a great bouquet for yourself, a friend or relative and this book is for you. And even if you decide not to grow your own flowers, this book is full of inspiration to help you decide what you want from your event flowers.

What I found really wonderful are the four chapters that help the reader to decide what it is they are going to grow for the appropriate season that their special day falls in. It doesn't just concentrate on what you can grow, although it covers that comprehensively with sections on annuals, perennials, bulbs and shrubs, but it also looks at how wild flowers, the plants already growing in the garden, including plants for foliage, can be added into the palette of plants being produced, as well as separate sections on how to cut and condition these. Alongside these are sections about the symbolism and meaning of individual flowers; daisies for loyal love, sunflowers for loyalty and longevity and on each page are the most startlingly beautiful photographs of weddings that Common Farm Flowers have created both flowers and floristry for.

What is particularly special about this book though, more than the words and the photos, is the insight into the work that Georgie and her amazing team put into not only each and every wedding they create such wonderful floristry for, but in fact the work and effort behind running such a hugely successful business as Common Farm Flowers is. She speaks lovingly of slow flowers, allying the way she and Fabrizio work the land with the Slow Food movement, one at which love and care for the land and the other species that inhabit it is constantly at the centre of everything they do. She speaks of organic practises, compost teas and the gentle ways in which they steward the land from which these magnificent flowers are cut and with this knowledge it is no wonder that the quality of both the flowers and the floristry sing through.

At Common Farm Flowers a successful business has been made growing flowers for cutting and creating floristry with those flowers in a way that is kind to the earth, wildlife and people. This book proves that you can have an ecologically sound and principled business, producing a really extraordinary product that is also sustainable and principled. Take this book and apply the principles to your garden and you won't go far wrong, in both growing and ecological practises. And you will have some magnificent flowers that you could, if you wanted to, use for a wedding.

I forgot to mention that Sarah Raven wrote the foreword. I also forgot to mention that if you can get through the acknowledgements without a tear, then you are a less sentimental soul than I!

As a little addendum I have to mention the Common Farm Meadows. Teaming with butterflies, pollinators and full of orchids and native wild flowers, they are a complete marvel and speak of Fabrizio's understanding and love of the land for which he cares. Whilst Georgie is the force behind the floristry and the commercial business, Fabrizio manages the land, always with an eye on the natural turning of the seasons and the vast amount of other species who inhabit the land alongside the family and the team. Once upon a time I commented that these meadows are on a par with those at Great Dixter, and those who know me also know I would never say such a thing unless I truly meant it. This summer they were stunning and could only have been brought into being by a man who knows the land. I doff my cap to Fabrizio, steward of the extraordinary land at Common Farm.

Monday, 21 September 2015

What do you look for in a garden?

I've been thinking a lot recently about gardens.....
No surprise there I hear you say, but what I have really been thinking about is what I find makes a garden successful and seeing if I could pinpoint the answer. Obviously stunning planting schemes help but often that isn't enough, and sometimes however beautiful the planting, I feel let down by places that I thought would be mind blowing.
Now there is no doubt that plants and the way they are used is a hugely important part of a successful design. For me, and this is purely a personal thing, I find too much hard landscaping often overwhelms me and that if the majority of the design isn't planting or plant related that I struggle. I'm not a fan of lots of stone, unless it's a drystone wall in which case I'm in heaven, and I think the decade of Titchmarsh blue we had in the 90's put me off coloured fencing for life!
And then the love for a drystone wall made me really think. It brought back memories of the North Yorkshire moors and the Dales that I spent my childhood exploring. It reminded me of my mum who became a bit of a drystone master and made many in her garden, often using them to differentiate between one space and the next. It made me think about the little cracks we found ferns on the moors and the mosses I was fascinated by. And it occured to me that this was interesting, not because I only loved a garden with a drystone wall, but because all the gardens I really admire and return to over and over, fit in the landscape they sit in. They feel like they should be there. They speak to and of the landscape that surrounds them, regardless of native plants or drystone walls. They feel like they have always been there.
And that feeling of belonging is a very clever and quite wondrous thing because not that many, or many that I have found, really have it. Large historic gardens, with their history and their traditions, often leave me asking why everyone raves about them, and I think this is why. Often they are a very beautiful space attached to their house, but often also they are not meant to be a part of any landscape that surrounds the gardens and hence ar just a well put together (or not), collection of plants.
So, I hear you ask, give us examples.......
Great Dixter is one such place with it's stunning topiary and mixed herbaceous borders that lead into meadows and in turn into the counrtyside beyond. There's the most incredible views from the area by the entrance gate and the way the meadows coccoon the main garden leads you gently out into the Sussex countryside beyond. At once you are held in the garden, in a safe and beautiful space that feels a little removed from the world, but always reminded of the countryside by the meandering meadows with their orchids and other native meadow plants that are rarely a part of the planting palette in a garden.
Veddw, the garden of Anne Wareham in Monmouthshire, does just the same and although I know Anne will hate me likening Veddw to Great Dixter, the way the gardens sit in the landscape talk directly of each other. At Veddw the history of the site that is spoken of in the garden, the woodland and the meadows again seat the garden firmly in the landscape and make it feel as if it has been there for a thousand years, overlooking the views; contemplative and at some points dark but always right and just.
The garden of the designer Tom Stuart-Smith is another space that sits comfortably, even though in the front garden is a reworked example of one of his RHS Chelsea gardens, with dark pools and Hakonechloa, as you walk through the space the boundary between the garden and the north Buckinghamshire landscape is blurred by meadow that leads into the farmland beyond. Whilst at once designed it is also seated to it's spot in the world, and speaks of the land around it.

This photo is of the meadows behind Great Dixter, leading up to the succulent steps, but it could as easily be a village green that the house sits next to or even fields leading up to the house. The meadows, while being part of the garden are a tool that seats the garden into the surrounding countryside, whilst still being very much a part of the garden. Considering the vibrancy of the planting, particularly in the tropical garden, it could also be seen as the meadows buffering the countryside from some of the garden!!
This picture of the Veddw shows a view from the garden across to the countryside beyond. The whole garden sits within the space as though it has been there for centuries which is not something that I find is either thought about often, let alone actually managed.
So thinking about all of these things I think for me a successful garden is far more than a design or a collection of stunning plants, but more about the space in which that design or collection lives and how it talks to and of it's surroundings.
With that in mind, off I toddle to see a botanic garden in a park I spent hours in as a child and which I had no idea was there-I wonder how that will fit into it's space........

Friday, 18 September 2015

Some Love for our Botanic Gardens

Botanic gardens, be they large or small, pull me towards them like a bee is drawn to nectar. These, often ancient, gardens with their collections of often rare, and always magical plants speak volumes not just about the British love of plants and gardens but also about the history of plants in the UK, the way they were collected and eventually planted out. Many a collector sent their finds back to Kew, or another of our world renowned botanic gardens, and those gardens would sow the seeds, nurture the plants and then offer out the propagation of these plants to nurserymen. The plants we take forgranted as being the backbone of our gardens began their life in the country being looked after by these incredible places.
Bristol has a wonderful botanic garden, that today sits just north of the Downs in the garden of one of the University of Bristol's Halls of Residence. It has moved here quite recently from another site and it is proof of the brilliance of the team who work there, both paid and voluntarily, that it looks as though it has been there forever. The garden has 4 core collections, Evolution, Mediterranean, Local Flora and Rare Natives and Useful Plants and these can be seen used over a selection of gardens that include a herb garden, a Chinese Medicine Garden, beautiful herbaceous borders that are set out to show which plants are pollinated by which insects, or indeed small mammals in some cases, as well as sections based on the evolutionary collection and the collection of plants native to Bristol and it's surrounding area.
It also has amazing glass houses with a National Collection of Lotus, which are beyond beautiful and offer an ethereal beauty to a glasshouse that also house the Victoria Amazonica waterlily and a huge collection of Nepenthes.
But, like every botanic garden in the UK and probably worldwide, it is being squeezed by budget cuts and constantly is having to fight to survive. It's well documented that Kew's budget is always under threat but so are the budgets of the majority of these gardens, as few universities actually use them as a resource hence their constant fight for survivial.
So what can you do to help? Well make sure you know where your local botanic garden is and use it!! So many people I speak to about the Bristol Botanic Garden are completely unaware of it's existence and I imagine the same is the case for many. Visit, become a member or a friend, go to their events or even volunteer to help in the garden or in some other way. An hour helping them once a week with marketing or admin releases someone else to raise precious funds or other do other vital roles that are less easy to find volunteers to cover.
Here are a few photos of Bristol Botanic Garden that I took at their recent Bee and Pollinators Festival.
 The Amazon waterlilies with the Lotus plants growing above them are quite beautiful in the tropical glasshouse.
 Always good to see a bee buzzing around at a Bee and Pollinator festival!!
 This is a custard apple and it was growing in the Native American Food Garden on which there will be a full post soon.
The wonderful bird of Paradise plants, which in their native countries are pollinated by sunbirds.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Hooray for SylvaGrow!!

Yesterday Melcourt's SylvaGrow 100% peat free compost was awarded the accolade of best newcomer in the chemical, fertilisers and composts category at the Glee, the UK's premier show for the horticultural industry.
This is excellent news on so many levels, because it's proof that peat free compost is now being taken seriously in an industry that often fails to consider its environmental impact, or makes excuses for not doing so.
Recently I visited a nursery who have created a new compost and were keen for the people visiting to trial the product. I asked various questions about the product including what the peat content might be, really hoping they were going to say peat free or at least a very low proportion. But, and here's the crux, when I asked what the peat content was, it turned out to be 80%. 80%!!!!! When I expressed shock they were very quick to say that any government guidelines for peat reduction are voluntary, they were not the only ones still using it, plants can't be grown as well in peat free composts and all the usual excuses and were genuinely shocked when I refused, point blank, to take any home with me.
Now we all understand that although peat does eventually replace itself it is an extremely long process of thousands of years and so when used as a fuel it is classified as a fossil fuel. Peat bogs are singularly the best and most efficient carbon sinks we have and although they are still used for energy around the world, the use of peat in horticulture has long been seen as an issue. In 2011 the UK government asked the industry to look at voluntarily reducing peat use so that by 2015 all publicly procured plants were peat free, all amateur composts and growing mediums would be peat free by 2020 and all commercial media to be peat free by 2030. At the time this created serious ripples within the industry and there were a lot of the smaller growing media companies working really hard on creating great peat free alternatives. However, the bigger companies carried on as usual and the one we were dealing with at the time actually just laughed when we brought it up with them and told me in a phone conversation that they would speak to my boss as I was obviously an hormonal woman not able to see reality yes, seriously said those words) and laughed.....
 As at the time we were using over 50 tonnes a month of their product, when the nursery made the jump to peat free, they were, to say the least, surprised and shocked and sent us a hugely patronising report on how peat free growing media would never take off as an industry standard. Sadly so far they have been proven correct.
I wonder where we are with this? Again and again I'm told by growers that it's impossible to grow without peat, but as a professional grower myself I have grown trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants in peat free compost (actually in Melcourt SylvaGrow) and although, without a doubt, it was a challenge to begin with because it is a new media and any new growing media take time to get used to, it took a reasonably limited amount of time to get it right and to start to produce plants that were at least as good in standard as anything that had been produced previously with peat. On a personal note, at home, at the allotment, and for the Physic Garden, I have always used peat free compost, including for seed germination, and again I have never seen this as an issue.
But here's my real concern. People see gardening as being green, environmentally friendly and good for the planet, which in the main it is, but it could be more so. Peat reduction would be one way of doing this, instead of every time it raises its ugly head stating that it's only a voluntary reduction in peat, and so not law and so not really taken seriously. I seriously hope that Melcourt winning this award might get people talking about this and realising that peat free growing media is now a real alternative.
Fingers crossed I guess.........
This Philadelpus was grown from a cutting in peat free compost and flowered for the first time this year. The compost in it's pot today is Melcourt's SylvaGrow and that is what it has been potted into at each stage of it's growth.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Organic September through new eyes!!

Once again it's September and that means the Soil Association are running their Organic September campaign as they do every year, highlighting how buying some organic food helps our health, wildlife, the land being used to produce the food and local producers amongst more.

Last week I was walking through the Bearpit roundabout in Bristol and came across these amazing artworks that the Soil Association have commissioned some of Bristol's incredible grafitti artists to paint to bring Organic September to the fore and possibly introduce the concept of organics and bring a food production conversation to a new audience. I think it's worth applauding the Soil Association for this and proves again that art is often the way to open a conversation with a new audience.

 This piece is by Luke Sleven, a really talented chap and pal of mine!! It has created conversation as it, quite rightly, says that organic production uses fewer pesticides, rather than none which is often what people assume organic means. It's worth pointing out that quite a few really unpleasant pesticides are allowed in organic production, although often smaller producers avoid these too. Larger scale growers will definitely still be using some chemicals though, albeit that they are sourced from natural ingredients rather than synthetic ones. However, if you have ever sprayed copper as a fungicide you will know just how unpleasant it is.

 It's interesting, I think, to see art making quite political statements and bringing important information to the fore in a safe and often beautiful way!! Many people have no idea how important soil is as a carbon sink and that keeping soil healthy is as much about helping climate change as it is food production.

 Of course there is an irony here in that often these artists use spray cans which are hardly environmentally friendly! However, I'm assured that they are now sourcing less unpleasant paints!
This is a piece we, Incredible Edible Bristol, collaborated with the People's Republic of Stokes Croft on and it stands in the central reservation of Stokes Croft. it's planted with tree spinach, kale and nasturtiums which were grown, by me, for Incredible Edible Bristol's part of the project.

Monday, 7 September 2015

My Little Garden

I often get asked about my own garden, as opposed to the allotment, and so I thought I would share a few pictures and talk a little bit about what goes on in the patch outside my back door.
The garden is tiny and is part of a larger space that is shared with the house upstairs, so our garden is basically the patio area outside the back door and is delineated by the step down to the main garden. The main space is very wild and occassionally I go and hack some of it back but it's not my space and so I shall concentrate on what is mine to play in.
Firstly I have no soil so the entire garden is in pots and raised beds which were here when we arrived. When we first arrived the whole space was over run by brambles which we are still fighting, and with the ivy which still adorns the wall and which, now we are in control of it, lends a lush background to the space.
The garden's main issue is its lack of biodiversity, which is an ongoing issue and will continue to be so. Being in the centre of a city means that the naturalised birds are seagulls and pigeons and there is not a hedgehog to be found for miles around. We are starting to see smaller birds by introducing feeders and with the wilder area at the back offering seclusion there have been a few nests in the garden this year but the thrushes and blackbirds we so desperately need to control the mollusc problem are not to be seen. And the mollusc problem is huge!! Twice daily patrols, organic pellets and now the introduction of a copper band around a lupin, many thanks to STV Peat Control, and we are beginning to win a few battles but in the rain last week that was so torrential I forgot about slug patrols, we lost 24 kale plants, 48 lettuces and my Monarda was eaten down to its roots. But more on Sluggmagedon in a future post!! In the meantime the fight to increase numbers of birds goes on along with the hope that we might be able to introduce a small pond into the wilder area which might bring with it some amphibians.....
The large banana plant came from the south east with me and will need to be repotted into a far larger pot next spring. I left it outside over the winter and it was perfectly fine-one of the joys of being in the city centre!

That empty pot needs filling desperately as well as being moved to a different point in the space. I think it may soon have the banana in it!!

A corner of the garden that has a large raised bed at the back and pots at the front full of echinacea, fuchsias, agapanthis and more. I've spent all summer moving pots around until they worked and there is still more moving to do.

There are two benches in the garden, both of which are full of plants and seedlings!! This is a great sunny spot for the chillies which are ripening nicely. The really great thing about the garden is not only is it really secluded and has it's own microclimate but it also is south facing.

This corner is still continually having to have brambles cut back in it but they are starting to get the message I hope.

The area under the stairs from the upstairs is really useful for propagation but at the moment there are more chillies ripening there.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The state of our plots.........

Those of you who follow me on social media or regularly read this blog will be aware of the ongoing work going on to put a bus only road through our allotments at Stapleton in Bristol. The year has been long, sad and felt fairly unproductive as the site has and continues to feel unwelcoming and difficult.
Still we have to show a key, now for a long lost lock, to gain access through fencing from a security guard who is on duty 24/7.
Still we arrive to find that there are constantly security dogs on site, which on a personal level makes me constantly anxious whilst there.
There are machines digging and moving things about and now the plots at the far end of the site, the ones that will be lost forever despite the love and attention given them by their tenants for, in some cases, longer than I have been alive, have been given a date to vacate and will finally be moving to the new sites that are located on what was  Feed Bristol's wonderful wildflower meadow.
Being at the plot has felt stressful and caused anxiety and although we have tried to make it business as usual a lot of plots have been left untended, or not as well tended as usual. It has taken a huge mental effort to go there since the occupation of the trees, and it's hard walking around the site and remembering those brave souls who fought so hard not just to save that land but also to create a wonderful if temporary community on our site. To this day and forever I will thank them for their bravery and for standing up for our land in the face of cold, wet winter and foregoing their personal comfort to do so.
But I have gone. And some things have been planted and some crops have appeared, mainly through their own determination to survive than anything that I have really done. The beetroots and chard, sorrel, spinach, potatoes, kale and herbs have flourished despite the sadness and we have cropped and eaten them as we would every year, but in all honesty they haven't brought their usual joy. They are a constant reminder of what was and what will soon be gone.
But we move on and plans are beginning to become clear as to what must be done to move this sad and sorry place forwards. Plans for more flowers, new and bigger beds and a possible polytunnel are alive and running in my head. The area at the far end, left to nettles this year in order that the destruction of the wild flower meadow couldn't be seen from the plot, needs to be addressed now that there is a path and new allotments at that end rather than wildlife rich hedge and meadow. Dead trees that are at the end and were a part of the hedge, now need felling and a new area will appear for, as yet, I know not what. Perhaps a wildlife area to in some tiny way, make up for the loss of those trees, those wildflowers......
What this year has really made me realise is that my mental health has been directly affected by the state of the site and the destruction of the land. Half way through the occupation, when fences had gone up and security were brought in, depression hit in a way it does only rarely, knocking me into a deep and dark abyss that saw me having to stop.
Stop to let the dust in my head settle.
Stop take in what was really happening to that precious piece of land.
Rarely has a visit to the plot this year not seen tears as I so desperately needed to be there despite the destruction feeling that it was pulling me apart. And recently that deep abyss has been threatening to re-open as the time comes closer and closer to those plots being forever sealed under tarmac for a bus only route that is already reneging on it's promises.
I don't share this lightly. But I share this in the hope that people, whoever they are, and whatever their link might be to growing, the land or food, might realise that us allotment holders don't just grow food.
 It's not just a little hobby.
For many it's about sanctuary.
For many it's about health and well being.
For many it's about a connection with the earth and the seasons.
But for all of us it's about a connection to that piece of land, that precious piece of earth that we call our plot.

                   My plot can be seen here on the left with the greenhouse-that hedge is now tarmac.
                                  Flowers in the first year I had the plot-before the chaos began.