Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Today's favourite.....Paeonias....

So today's favourite is the extraordinary plant that is the peony. Be they tree peonies or herbaceous peonies they entrance me, almost pulling me into their centres to smell their slightly musky, intoxicating scent and to marvel at the layers of petals involved in each bloom.
And yes they can be difficult. They hate having their roots disturbed and it will stop them flowering, sometimes for a few years, until they recover. They're not overly fond of being kept in containers, and occasionally they wink up, as my dear mother would say, and die for no other reason than that they can. 
But if you cherish them, mulch and water them, for a brief spell in May and June, they'll make your heart sing with joy, blooming and filling the garden at dusk with their unforgettable scent. 
My go to place for peonies is Kelways Nursery, not far from us here in Bristol, a mere hop and a skip across into Somerset. They are well worth a visit, and have some stunning varieties, bred by themselves. 
It's also worth remembering that peonies make great cut flowers. Cut them straight into water and they will last a good 5 days in a vase. And there's nothing better than a whole peony bouquet!


Friday, 26 May 2017

A Trip to Yeo Valley.

Yeo Valley Organic Garden is one of very few gardens with Soil Association organic certification, and is just down the road from us in Bristol so on a warm, sunny May Sunday when it was open for the National Gardens Scheme, we decided it was too good an opportunity to miss and off we went.
Now it has to be said I know this garden relatively well having visited on a few occasions and am always knocked sideways by how well it is kept considering it relies solely on people power. In fact I posted a photo on Instagram of the veg garden and one person almost refused to believe it could be so tidy in an organic system. It is, of course, down to a truly committed team of highly skilled, professional gardeners and their tireless work and it's also proof that you can garden completely organically and still have a stunning garden.
It was amazing to see the garden so busy, with car loads of folk arriving to see the garden, particularly as it was a day that was benefiting the National Gardens Scheme. The garden is also open throughout the season so it's worth looking at the Yeo Valley website and seeing when and popping along
So here is a walk through the visit with photos.
Those yellow signs never fail to make my heart sing!!

The stunning vegetable garden with views of the rolling Somerset hills.

The herbaceous borders that lead from the veg patch to the meadows. Alight with the freshness of lime green Euphorbia, tulips and fresh spring growth. The darkness of the Pittosporum Tom Thumb really makes these colours zing.

The meadow, full of stunning flowering Camassia. 

The Crab Apple walk which was alive with bees, who's hives are in the adjoining field, full of flower and the promise of the harvest to come. 

The main garden is full of colour, again all with a nod to pollination but also in a very designed, modern herbaceous border way, that really lends itself to the landscape behind it. The large pond, just out of shot, echoes Chew Valley Lake which is the other side if the wall.

Purples and pinks abound in Spring,making the freshness of the spring foliage particularly bright and zingy.

Wisteria features heavily in this part of the garden, covering walls, fences and pergolas and again supporting the bees that live so close.

I love a good piece of garden sculpture and this, I think, is lovely. It sits at the end of a new piece of garden where you can sit and look out at Chew Valley Lake.

Mint and other herbs sit on the patio outside the cafe, in containers of all types. As the Yeo Valley dairy is next door, there is an emphasis on using the recycled containers used in milk production.

The promise of the year ahead....

Tulips in pots adorn the outside area of the most spectacular greenhouse!

The greenhouse. Closed on really busy days but I have been allowed into these hallowed halls and what an amazing space, full of non hardy tropical type plants that come outside in the summer.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Todays Favourite............Mexican Tree Spinach.

One of the great things about working with edibles is finding the plants that are so beautiful that they look as fabulous in an herbaceous border as they do in a food garden or allotment. For me gardens, whether ornamental or productive, or a mix, should primarily be places of beauty and this is a plant that without a doubt adds a level of beauty, along with some glamour.

Growing to around 4-5 feet in height it's tips are pink and almost glittery. What's not to love?

Friday, 19 May 2017

What is a Healthy City?

This week I was horrified to read that Bristol City Council have proposed to cut the street tree budget that is managed by the highways department, from £243,000 to £53,000. This 78% cut will effectively see all pollarding and cultural work by skilled arboriculturists stopped, will mean any trees felled will not be replaced and there will be no new plantings, despite often planting trees is cost neutral as community groups and organisations often fund tree plantings. You can read more about this here on the Bristol Tree Forum's blog.

Beautiful trees in Bristol's Broadmead shopping centre.

Here I must say that there is a promise to revisit this decision by the city council after the general election, but I am going to add my own, possibly cynical thoughts on that. Firstly the promise to revisit could just be a good political move. Could it also be that revisiting this decision may mean that a contracted business could be given the remaining budget, or perhaps slightly more, to carry out the work for Bristol City Council. Usually that might not be seen as an issue, but knowing the horror of what is going on in the beautiful city of Sheffield with their trees, having had tree work contracted out to Amey, who are dealing with trees as a health and safety issue rather than looking at them as part of our natural capital, and planning on felling 6,000 trees over 5 years, i think my cynicism is totally understandable. If you'd like to know more about the Sheffield situation, here is the Sheffield Tree Action Group website.

According to the WHO a healthy city is one that 'continually creates and improves its physical and social environments and expands the community resources that enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and developing to their maximum potential.'

So with that in mind surely it's physical environments include looking after the trees within the city and the biodiversity that those trees support. Here in Bristol we have already seen Parks budgets slashed so hard that we no longer see park keepers or park teams working in parks, but instead have a small, central team that is working across the cities more than 400 green spaces. Friends of Parks groups and volunteer organisations such as my own Incredible Edible Bristol are beginning to be relied on to manage areas of parks, and take on the funding of their own projects. Whilst this is an exciting prospect for many, it is also often completely financially unsustainable, relying on volunteers and the ever decreasing amounts of public funding available. Anyway, back to the trees.......

We take trees for granted in the city often but they are a vital and rare green lung in areas of the city. They turn busy, concrete and tarmacadam rich areas into areas that appear green, with all the pluses that trees bring. Outside Bristol's Royal Infirmary is a typical place. Traffic heavy, busy with both pedestrians and cyclists, and regularly with the sight of the air ambulance overhead, the space is loud, busy and quite frightening in many ways. Ambulances scream around with their sirens blaring and there are a lot of people everywhere. Across the road is a short avenue of trees. Not enough but enough to add some shade and greenery to the area. Enough to allow you to stand underneath them and feel calmed.  Behind the BRI has been made a beautiful, tree rich walk, which, as I walk through it regularly on my way to and from events and meetings, calms the soul, supports re-energising and is a safe space in one of chaos. There are avenues of trees all across the city that do exactly the same thing. They are a part of our natural capital, supporting biodiversity, flood and temperature control and the health of the city and the people living and working therein.

Beautiful spring blossom!

According to the last citizen survey in the UK there are over 80% of the population living in urban areas. By 2050 it is estimated that world wide 70% of the planet's population will live in urban areas. We know that health, both mental and physical, is improved if people have access to nature. But what does that mean is a question I constantly ask. We can't bus people out into nature every weekend can we? We can't flood the Somerset levels every weekend with 455,000 people from the city in order to ensure that hit of nature happens, can we? Well no. Of course we can't so surely bringing nature into, and looking after nature within the city is a vital piece of keeping any city healthy. And surely that means being serious about looking after that natural capital within the city? Those parks and avenues of trees are important spaces for the health of the city, and it's populations. For cities that are battling rising mental health issues, and according to Bristol Mental Health that is estimated to be 15% of the population each year, approx 60,000 people, the benefits of sitting under a tree or visiting a park are huge, and important, particularly for people living in the less wealthy parts of the city who often feel as if they are the forgotten population, and rarely visit the central areas of the city for a whole raft of social and economic issues.

So how do we change this? Well I would suggest that we need a campaign. A national campaign on the importance of natural capital, of healthy cities in the true sense of the phrase, and a campaign run by real people who care about their individual cities and it's health and wellbeing. Living in a city like Bristol is amazing but it has to be said that the shortsightedness of this particular policy change leaves me both flabbergasted and sad. Not only must we ensure healthy cities for our current populations, but also for the generations to come so we ensure we never return to the unhealthy cities of less than 100 years ago. With air pollution levels rising and mental and physical health, particularly obesity issues on the rise, we need forward thinking local politicians who put the health of the population first. Prosperity needs to be seen as more than just wealth, taking statistics of health and well being into account just as much as development and business, and looking after the natural capital of a city surely must be a good way to begin this change? 

I'm interested in your thoughts so please do comment below. I expect this will be an ongoing them on this blog so please do get involved in any way you can!
Beautiful Ginkgo a stones throw from Cabot Circus!

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Today's Favourite is.....Auriculas

Oh my!! Auriclas make my heart sing with joy. They remind me of that favourite vegetable that is only around for a few short weeks each year and that you almost forget about in between. When it does appear however, you are joyous and eat it every day whilst you can, savouring every mouthful.
Of course the other thing I love about Primula auricle is that they are, whilst looking like they are tender and difficult, tough as old boots as long as you keep them fed and watered and split them on a regular basis so they don't become too large. Just like the rest of the primula family, they just keep on giving, year after year!
One day I will have an auricle theatre but in the meantime here are some I adore.....
Taken at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival

Should have noted the name!!

A stunning double!!

Auricla Double Trouble

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Warmley Waiting Room-a beautiful surprise!

Following a conversation on Twitter I was invited to go and visit a garden in Warmley. A small area of Bristol just across the border in South Gloucestershire. Of course I'm always happy to visit a garden so last weekend off we toodled.

So Warmley Waiting Room is just that-a restored, in stunning detail, railway waiting room that is by the side of what is now the Bristol to Bath cycle track, which used to be the railway line. The waiting room itself has been turned into a cafe, with loads of outdoor seating in the garden, which is also home to a youth community project, ice cream stall, and a loo in a tardis!! And a tardis that makes the noise of leaving for an adventure is the right button is pressed!!

To the right is a beautiful lawn and a garden that is beautiful and spans both sides of what was the station wall. Full of strawberries, paeonias, forget me nots, aquilegias, roses, bulbs and more, the garden is the work of Claire Hoggan and her mum who own the land and the cafe and have created a wonderful place for all to enjoy. When we visited the cafe and outdoor space was heaving with local people and visitors arriving by bike on the cycle path,  drinking tea, playing in the lawn and generally loving the space.

What a brilliant way to create a sustainable business, support your community and celebrate the history of an area!!
And don't forget the tardis......

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Garden Visits-A Trip to Feed Bristol

Yesterday, in the vague hope that getting out of the house would calm the Malvern nerves, (see my previous post), we toodled off to Feed Bristol, Avon Wildlife Trust's award winning food growing community garden and agro-ecologically based site. It's a spectacular space that supports health and well being and also gives small producers space to develop their businesses. On site are salad growers, herb specialists, a small CSA, mushroom growers and an incredible nursery that specialised in wild flowers.

Feed Bristol is open on the first Saturday of every month, often with an event going on, but always with the nursery open and the space there to enjoy. It's an extraordinary space that allows you to relax, and the kettle is always on!!


 Feed Bristol is in Stapleton, in East Bristol and more info can be found at www.avonwildlifetrust.org.uk.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Off to the Malvern Hills....

Those of you who follow me on social media will have seen references to the RHS Malvern Spring Show, but now's the time to tell you some more about what's going on.
Back in January I was contacted by Hannah Genders, a garden designer and organiser of the new Grow Zone section of the Malvern Spring Show. The Grow Zone will be home to several groups all producing food in ways that are far from mainstream farming, but are still doing so, very successfully. It's an exciting departure for the RHS and one I'm extremely excited to be a part of both personally and with Incredible Edible. She was hoping that I would go along and make 2 very small, 1m by 2m raised bed gardens in the Grow Zone, one representing Incredible Edible Bristol and the other talking of British flowers, edible flowers and pollinator rich flowers.
Of course it's always safe to come and ask me to do things like this as I find it beyond impossible to say no, although to say this has been a challenge is a bit of an understatement. I'm no newbie to growing for the big RHS shows, particularly RHS Chelsea where our nurseries proximity to the M40 and good relations with a lot of the designers, meant we were in the thick of Chelsea prep for a lot of the year, but having four acres of nursery space makes it a whole lot easier than doing it from a suburban back garden in south Bristol! However, I can report the plants are doing well, except the camassias which were beheaded by the dreadful wind, and tomorrow we'll be crating them up ready for the off.

Mexican Tree Spinach ready to go....

But still it's nerve wracking. I'm a strong believer in facing your fears but having been unmercifully bullied in my last two nursery jobs I now realise those voices telling me I know nothing, I'm not interested in plants, I'm not interested in gardens etc etc haven't really gone away completely and this last week have been really loud. To say I'm facing my demons is a complete understatement. 
I am lucky. I have an incredible ( all puns intended) team around me, supporting and taking on all of the logistics so I could concentrate on growing and design. I know I've been hard work and for the last week or two the phrase "it'll have to be post Malvern" feels like the only thing I've said. In case any of them are reading this, thank you guys-you all brighten my day, every day.

Calendula! Ideal for health, for food and for bees. Plus those smiley faces always make me happy...

But the hardest thing? All I want to do is pick up the phone and call mum and say guess what?!? I know she would have been intensely proud but, with the 15th anniversary of her dying just round the corner, as in the week after the show, I feel utterly bereft that she'll never know.
However, onwards and upwards. The hours are ticking by, and soon we'll be off on our very exciting adventure. And if anyone wants me to do a bigger garden next year or in the future, I wholeheartedly say bring it on!!

Alliums-good for people, for bees and for beauty! 

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Inspiration From A Devon Hillside.

Last Sunday, during a lovely stay in Devon, I was asked to go and see a community garden and project and having asked a few questions, very quickly agreed with pleasure.
Now I have banged in and will continue to do so, about how vital gardens and gardening is for mental health. There are many who, from knowledge of the effect on their own mental health, will agree with that, and I am at the front of that group, constantly advocating for gardens and gardening to be socially prescribed or self prescribed. However, this garden supports people who not only are struggling with mental health but who are often socially isolated and struggling to make sense of a system alien to them. These people are the veterans of war, our ex military men and women.
Now I am a pacifist at heart and I had a conversation over the weekend with an ex-military person who said to me "I am a pacifist too-I joined the military to advocate for peace." There was a conversation I never thought I would have in a garden half way up a Devon hillside in the pouring rain, and one that has really got me thinking.
But back to the garden.

The garden is on an allotment plot in a tiny Devon village and is run by a group who have been working with this group for a good while but recently lost their permanent space and so decided to create one that was accessible to all. A space where people struggling with the situations they have found themselves in can come, sit, drink tea and eat biscuits, grow some food, put their hands in the soil and chat. And that is what is so vital and why gardening as a prescription is so great.
When you are gardening, your mind is focussed on a job that is often repetitive, making your brain concentrate on that repetition and making anything else secondary to that repetitive work. Whilst the brain has settled into the pattern of the work, what happens is conversations become subconscious, people relax and words flow. Conversations that would seem impossible in a room, with chairs and tables and walls, suddenly begin to happen. People in this situation are more perceptive and more understanding, allowing the conversation to go beyond comfort zones, discussing anything and everything from politics to mental health whilst in the background the repetitive work continues. These conversations can seem almost unworldly when you are in them. There is no anger, although often there is deep emotion. Tears can flow. Deep breaths are taken and silences appear although never the uncomfortable silence that happens in a room. Real listening and deep understanding take place. Worlds that otherwise might never meet join up and are often permanently knitted together. And all the while, the repetition of the physical activity keeps the space safe, comfortable and open.
For people struggling with their mental health, on whatever scale, this is a place where confidence grows through these conversations. The feeling of being listened to, of being heard and understood, fosters a feeling of relief and a belonging in the world. A feeling that whatever happens there is strength and a safe space with others to retreat to if needed. A feeling of belonging and making a difference. It is an extraordinary phenomenon and one that as a facilitator is humbling to say the least.
As someone who has benefitted from this type of horticultural therapy both as a participant, albeit unknowingly, and as a facilitator, that understanding of the difference it can make to a vulnerable person, is something I will fight for.

Somewhere to shelter from the rain, surrounded by a newly planted orchard , drink tea and feel safe is vital.

And so I found myself on a rainy Devon hillside, surrounded by allotments, drinking tea and asking myself why this isn't something available to all. For these ex military men, all struggling to come to terms with the horrors of war, disability, the benefits system and feelings of isolation, this garden is becoming a safe space. A space where they belong and are creating that supportive community that will continue to support them in the years to come. But don't we all need this?
I think so. But I also think we need to fight for this to be seen as part of mental health recovery. Surely all hospitals should have a garden where long term patients can come and gently potter whilst meeting other people in similar situations. And surely all doctors should be linked to a garden for social prescription. Wouldn't our villages, towns and cities benefit from those safe spaces of beauty, kindness and hope?
I left the garden with hope in my heart and joy in my steps. It might be a crazy world out there but finding these extraordinary people, making change in and for their own community made me realise just how lucky I am to be a part of a quiet revolution that is centred around kindness.

Apple blossom everywhere. Even on a rainy day the space is soothing.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Robbing the Flower Fields.....

Flowers. No matter who you are it's impossible to be unresponsive to the beauty of a flower, and to be able to combine flowers and food is an extraordinary phenomenon that can lead to a really emotional connection with what it is being eaten. Part of my and Incredible Edible Bristol's remit, if you like, is creating both beautiful and productive spaces across the city of Bristol, and use of edible flowers is vital to meeting that. So imagine my delight when I was asked, with Incredible Edible Bristol, to put together two small raised beds in the new Grow Zone at RHS Malvern; one that speaks of the city centre Urban Food Trail and one that supports the more beautiful side of what we do, in showing beautiful blooms that we use, either as edible flowers or to attract pollinators, and all of which are British grown.

So fast forward a few weeks and I had a chat with Jan Billington of Maddocks Farm Organics who grows the most stunning array of edible flowers, some which are instantly recognisable as such but some which are a surprise, such as Wisteria which tastes like peas, who said she was more than happy for me to pop along and raid her flower fields. Well that is not an every day offer now is it folks, so yesterday, with our amazing volunteer coordinator Hannah, off we doodled to have a look.
Now I am a long time fan of Jan. Anyone who creates an organic flower farm on overgrown Devon fields, and grows not just a huge range of edible flowers but also looks after the land and the soil to high organic principles, is inevitably going to be a hero. And oh my.......when I say the farm is beautiful what I mean is the farm is heart rendingly beautiful. Not only are all the plants stunning, healthy and pest free, but the farm is buzzing with life. We saw three different species if bees in one polytunnel alone. Swallows were swooping and buzzards flying. A gigantic bug hotel sits by a pond teaming with life. Swathes of plants are there for pollinators alone. And of course by supporting those pollinators, Jan is supporting the blossoming and blooming of the flowers that make her business sustainable both for people and planet.

Often we see edible flowers as a by product. We might grow Tagetes for example as companion planting and then pick a few flowers to zing up a salad. We might grow Borage for the bees and then fling a few flowers into a salad or a gin and tonic. We all grow violas as part of bedding or hanging basket schemes. Our Wisterias are dripping in glorious flower. But instead of looking at these flowers as incidental perhaps we should begin to look at them as a great way of bringing beauty into the vegetable garden and treating them as a really important part of our salad offering. A salad with mustards, sweet cicely and chervil leaves and flowers, borage flowers, calendula petals, violas and primroses, wild rocket with its flowers attached and bells blooms, is far more exciting than a sad bit of iceberg, and tastes amazing, with different bursts of flavour appearing with each mouthful. Plus of course the more flowers we grow, the more pollinators we attract.

So perhaps let's take inspiration from Jan and l add beauty to our veg patches with more flowers that we grow to eat whilst marvelling at Jan at Maddocks Farm and the many ways we see people farming beautiful British flowers.
Alliums just beginning to open ready for use.

Beautiful calendulas flooring their socks off in the polytunnels and making a grey day bright.

White borage, sweet and full of nectar as well as being covered with bees, which annoyingly weren't in the mood for posing!

Jan grows an amazing array of tulips, and the petals are used to adorn wedding cakes amongst other things.

Two to three inches of local, organic manure is spread on the beds each year, feeding the flora and fauna in the soil that are vital for good organic growth.