Saturday, March 4, 2017

Educating gardeners and designers part two

More thoughts on garden education

Following on from my last post, more thoughts on how we learn stuff. I've lost count of the number of people I have interviewed over the years about their gardens, mostly for magazine articles. First few times I did it, it was quite nerve-wracking, as no-one knew who I was, and sometimes it was quite posh folk, and I couldn't help feeling that they were probably thinking “who is this young whippersnapper?”. This was the period around 1990 btw. Anyway, I usually established credibility pretty early on in an interview, as I knew my plants. There were some difficult moments though, and I actually was thrown out of the odd garden, despite having a magazine feature lined up. I will tell more in the memoirs.

What I actually wanted to say was that the vast majority of the people I have interviewed picked up their love of gardening from a relative, if not a parent, then a granny, an uncle, or a family friend. In most cases they will have picked up knowledge and skills too. In the past most garden knowledge would have been passed down this route, or professionally, from master to apprentice. Enthusiastic amateurs could always pick up more from books and magazines, or from local gardening clubs. Nowadays of course, the knowledge content of books and magazines has dropped considerably, so it is much more difficult to pick up much this way, as noted before.

So where do people turn to? Not the telly obviously, as Gardeners' World and any other TV offering is pretty basic stuff, and has much less practical content than it used to; almost everyone I talk to about the programme complains about it. Garden clubs and societies are one obvious source and must account for their continued popularity. Some of them may be a bit of an excuse for an over 60-s (yikes, I'm 59) get-together (and why not) but every meeting is always built around a speaker. And such gatherings are a great way for the less-experienced to meet the more so.

There was a worry a few years ago that online forums would displace the garden clubs, and to some extent there may well have been some erosion of their position, particularly for more specialist societies. Would be interesting to hear from somebody in the Alpine Garden Society if this is the case. But such fora are probably adding to the ability of people to learn more, and to ask questions and get answers from sources they probably would not have done in pre-internet days (doesn't that sound like a long time ago!).

I have a background in adult education, so this is something that interests me deeply. I used to teach English as a Second Language, firstly to Vietnamese refugees (the boat people), then to every other ethnic minority that ever showed up in Bristol (I'll have to write about this one day, some amazing stories and insights into the lives of others, as well as a sneak preview of Islamic fundamentalism). On our course we were taught that to be effective what people learnt had to be internalised. You can teach someone some information or how to do something and they can go off and do it, but unless they understand why they are doing it, they will be stuck in a dogmatic and repetitive rut, always going through the same procedure, and unable to vary it. This is what old-fashioned 'learning by rote' achieved. However the learner who has understood the underlying rationale for a course of action will be able to make allowances for different circumstances, think of improvements, adapt the procedure for different outcomes etc. 

For some years now I have run a very successful workshop, called with my rather mad whimsical sense of humour, 'The Rabbits' Eye View' (serious sub-title: Understanding Long-term Plant Performance). I don't think I have ever written a post about it. Should do soon. Anyway – the whole point of this is to provide information that empowers students to go off and look at plants (often at ground level, hence the rabbit reference), and then make up their own minds about how they will perform in years to come. 

What I'm leading up to is to give a bit of a plug for a course I do on MyGardenSchool
which covers much of the material we do on the Rabbit's Eye View course - Planting Design with Perennials. Students are encouraged to go off and take pictures of plants in ways which will help them understand patterns of growth, as well as deal with some basic design issues. Giving people tools as opposed to just saying “this one does such and such and this one blah, blah”. Part of the thinking behind this is that as so many parts of the world develop their own distinct garden cultures, using locally native plants, the traditional garden flora seems increasingly limited. 'New' plants are also of course something of an unknown quantity; everyone may agree some wildling is 'garden-worthy' but there will be so much to learn about it. Having a framework for interpreting its growth habit and lifecycle is vitally useful if we are to use it effectively. The 'Rabbits' workshop is intended to provide a way we can 'read the plant'.

Working with a designer presents other challenges. How do you explain a designer's work so that people can emulate or learn from it? I have for worked with Piet Oudolf for several years on just this. He is, like many artists, not analytical about his work – he just does it. It can be frustratingly difficult to pin down clear concepts about what he does that can be spelled out to others. I've made a pretty good try at it over the years, and worked out how t o do it for books. Last autumn I teamed up with MyGardenSchool to produce some teaching videos with him. All a bit of a leap in the dark, but we got some good footage, and they have been reviewed well by Gardenista

The course is available here – there are assignments, which I comment on. Here again we are up against the learning by rote danger. In the videos Piet shows how he selects plants on the basis of various characteristics based on plant visual structure. As an exercise we ask students to make their own suggestions for plants with these characteristics. That's the first stage. The more imaginative will go off and create some categories of their own. 

Yes, you can take up Piet's ideas and use the same plants in the same categories and make some Piet Oudolf-esque plantings. Many of these will be very good, some of them will use the same ingredients but mix them in very different ways – so no-one who knows their Calamagrostis from their Achnatherum could possibly mistake it for the master's work. Most let's face it, will make 'also-rans'. That's not necessarily a bad thing – the world is a better place for having them, let's face it, there are very few innovators, and most of our cultural landscape is made up of copycat also-rans. We do the same thing when we do a Delia Smith recipe (Americans read Martha Stewart). How many of us create a new dish every time we cook?

Anyone following the course in a climate zone where the late-season perennials and grasses that define the Oudolf look do not thrive will be forced to innovate, to find a different range of plants to fit the structure categories we talk about on the course. In many cases they'll have to invent some categories of their own to reflect the aesthetics of the local garden-worthy flora. And this where the internalised learning should really take off – understanding that the Oudolf look is not just about using certain plants or even plants with certain shapes but concentrating on long-season structure, and developing a design language that articulates and uses that structure. 

So far on the course, we've had people from all over, and what will be most exciting is seeing what people do with the information in climate zones with completely different ranges of plants.

Finally, check out the Garden Masterclasses I'm helping put on this summer: eight venues across the UK, 20 tutors, 13 events.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Teaching gardening skills - the decline stops here!

Two conversations recently about the terrible state of horticultural education in Britain: both with former teachers at (former) horticultural colleges. Another reason for national shame – the world's leading garden nation (well probably!) has now hardly any college courses teaching horticulture. As for 'adult education', run by local councils, this was something we used to be really good at, but it began to run into problems back in the 1980s, and then be starved of funding from the 1990s onwards. It is now effectively dead. 'Lifestyle' publishing stressing design over gardenING. End result is a whole generation seems to be growing up not knowing how to prune, take cuttings, grow their own bedding plants.

I feel more and more concerned and interested in the whole issue of 'garden education'. I write as someone who has worked in adult education in the dim and distantly youthful past, and socially I move in a world where there are a lot of professional educators. As a writer and 'communicator' I am fascinated by information and how you present it, in particular the challenge of how you break down really complex or counter-intuitive information and get it across. I really feel its part of my mission now.

Teaching gardening is a complicated business, which is perhaps one reason why I find it so fascinating. It is a mix of art, craft and science. Art means creativity, and beyond the basic growing of lettuces in straight lines, almost any gardening involves some creativity. By craft I mean the application of a set of skills, something which through constant repetition, you get better at. When people talk about science however, what they often mean is technology, a trial and error process of making something work. Understanding some basic plant science however, does help a lot – it enables you to take some acquired knowledge and then apply it to new situations.

OK, that's enough definition defining. One of the wonderful things about gardening is the way that leads people who often don't think of themselves as artistic into creative activity. Just how do you set out the begonias you just bought from the garden centre? Now that you have got the clippers out, just how are you going to shape that hedge? Shall I buy those screaming pink lythrums and put them next to the yellow rudbeckia? Traditionally gardening was essentially a craft activity, the perfecting of skills which could be applied in more or less creatively, depending on the person. Most would clip a hedge to a straight line, but those who felt like it could turn their skills to castellations or curves. Artistry and creativity have always been like optional add-ons; more or less as mood and confidence allow.

The last thirty odd years however have seen a 'design revolution' which has completely turned the craft/art equation around. The creativity of many gardeners (very often women, traditionally rather marginalised) has been given a boost, but at the expense of the passing on of the craft skills necessary for quality garden maintenance. Gardening media have focussed on 'getting the look' rather than 'how to do it', and have simply not been transmitting the nitty-gritty practical knowledge. We now face the situation of gardeners 'getting the look' but being unable to keep it. And no use turning to professional gardeners, because there are not many of them, and so many of the semi-skilled ones are precisely that, capable of doing the basics but with no real depth of skill or plant knowledge; they can mow, clip and weed, but cant' prune properly, propagate or train.

We, in Britain, don't do too badly with 'garden schools', privately-run institutions which put on day classes on various aspects of gardening, and garden design. These to some extent make up the slack left by the loss of council adult education. Except that most of them are in the south and south-east of the country and are marketed at, and priced for, older and reasonably well-off people. If you are a youngster trying to get into gardening these days, or find out more, the opportunities are greatly reduced.

What do the 'garden schools' offer? A lot actually, up to a point. Getting big name speakers is part of the appeal, so there is an opportunity to learn from real expertise and knowledge. However, the quality of teaching is pretty basic, so basic that 'teaching' had better go in inverted commas – it's actually lecturing. Most of the speakers at these events give a good lecture, and that's that. There is often little 'active learning', where participants have to do things; the design-orientated courses seem to be ones most likely to include an active participation element. However good a lecturer is, they cease to be good after about an hour or so – the human mind only has a limited ability to concentrate, and after a while begins to switch off. Another activity is needed to refresh the mind and preferably, to enable information acquired to be put into practice.

There are garden lecturers who seem to think that showing slides and talking to people for hours at a time is 'education'. Sorry, its not - its being 'talked at'. I remember one experience, in the US, where a speaker lectured an audience for two hours solid in a temperature of over 30C, allowing the prisoners a brief break and then launching into another hour. The few gardening conferences (all in the US) annoy me too, wall to wall lectures but no conferring.

The trick is to design events where participants can do something: make lists of plants, analyse plans, take some cuttings, discuss a plant selection, prune a rose bush. Its not always easy, as venues often don't have enough space or facilities to allow this. But this active engagement is vital, if information gained is actually to be retained and internalised.

Which, in short, is why Annie Guilfoyle and I have started the Garden Masterclasses. 13 events and 20 tutors across 8 venues, in the South-West, South Wales, South East, Cotswolds, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Scotland.
Find out more here and come and join us:

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Would you trust a seed swap seed?

Its February, so it must be seed swap time again!
Seed swaps have been growing in popularity for some years now. The best known one in Britain is Brighton's Seedy Sunday. The events are an excuse for a get-together for gardeners apart from anything else, and since gardening often is a rather solitary activity, this seems a jolly good idea. Very often the seed swap is just a peg on which to hang the event, with most attention and energy spent on going to talks, eating, networking, buying stuff from stalls etc.
But what about the idea of the seed swap itself?
Basically the idea is that you save seed from a good variety and then package it up and offer it to other people, so you are sharing your good variety. But why do this when the range of seed available commercially is so good?

Promotors of seed swaps like to portray themselves as keepers of genetic diversity, safeguarding old varieties from extinction and keeping that diversity going for the next generation. Commercial seed producers are generally cast as agents of wicked corporations which are trying to limit the range of what we grow, so they can monopolise it. Particular venom is reserved for F1 seed varieties, which will not breed true and are therefore 'one use only'.

Seed swaps tend to concentrate on vegetable varieties. Given that such an epic range of vegetable seed is now available commercially, whereas the range of ornamentals: annuals, perennials etc, has actually gone into decline, I would be more likely to see myself visiting a seed swap to get interesting ornamental varieties. The emphasis, and the undoubted moral ardour is however very much on the veg, so that is what I'll concentrate on.

Sorry to pour cold water on what sounds like such a good idea, but I'd be pretty wary about getting my seed from a seed swap myself. Here's why.

Is it what is says on the packet?
With the best will in the world, it is very easy to muddle seed up. I have just been informed by a correspondent that DEFRA (the British government department for agriculture and the environment) recently did a survey of online seed sources, and 60% was the wrong species, i.e. not just another variety of carrot, but beetroot instead!

How has it been kept?
When you buy a packet of commercially-produced seed, you can be 100% sure it has been harvested and stored in optimum conditions. You can never be sure with seed swap seed, where its been. Seeds deteriorate if conditions aren't right. Damp shed? Overheated room? This season's harvest, or last years?

Local does not mean best.
One of the 'facts' touted around the seed swap movement is that vegetable seed from locally grown plants will be adapted to local conditions and therefore grow better. This is complete rubbish. Nearly all the veg we grow have what is known as a wide ecological amplitude – they'll grow well across an enormously wide range of conditions. Most of us (in the UK) will have noticed how the Italian company Franchi sell their (very reasonably priced) seed really widely now. Does this mean that their vegetable varieties will do less well here because this is not Italy? No. And in many cases the varieties are the same anyway.
Even if vegetable seed could meaningfully evolve towards being better adapted to local conditions this would take many generations to achieve.
The only possible exceptions might be those veg which are right on the borderline of being viable in the local climate. Tomato or aubergine seed from somebody who has grown the plants outside at a northerly latitude is going to be in with a chance, at least.

Genetic Drift
Someone has a veg variety they like, so they keep the seed, and sow it again next year, and the year after that, and so on. Every year it will actually change slightly, so that after a few generations it may have lost the special characteristics it had that made it special. Commercial growers ruthlessly 'rogue' their plots of plants, removing any which do not 100% match the original. They also operate on a large scale, so minimising the distorting impact of the odd rogue plant. Anyone seed saving on a small scale will be growing a relatively small number of plants, so if you are saving from ten plants, one of which is a bit dodgy, then that'll be 10% of your seed harvest off-kilter.
When growing veg in the garden, there is a strong tendency to harvest the good plants, so saving seed from the remainder. With plants where you cannot 'have you cake and eat it', like lettuces or carrots, saving seed from one's own plants might actually mean you are consistently saving from inferior plants.

Saving varieties from extinction
Given what I have just said, the problems in maintaining a variety's integrity on an amateur basis can be pretty major, so I don't see seed saving and seed swaps as doing anything very much towards maintaining genetic diversity.

Seed companies of course maintain considerable seed diversity, but that isn't much help to anyone with a small plant breeding business . There is a very valid criticism of the seed business - that they have a monopoly, and is probably one of the reasons that we (in Europe or North America) see very little small-scale or independent vegetable seed selection and breeding. The exceptions are tomatoes and chillis, where there seems to be a very healthy market in amateur or small-scale breeder varieties. See Simpsons Seeds.

The accusation is sometimes made that all commercial veg seed breeding is for the big growers, and the amateur grower has to do with the crumbs from the table. Well, actually the demands of all growers are pretty similar: strong-growing, reliably producing crops tolerant of a wide range of conditions and pest and disease resistant. It is the latter factor which makes modern breeding so superior to 'heritage' or 'heirloom' varieties – so much breeding effort now goes into producing varieties that will stay healthy without using pesticides. This is why the statement on one seed swapping site that “It keeps seed making in the garden and out of the laboratory” is so daft. If you want to live in the Middle Ages, that's fine, but most of us would like to move on.

F1 seeds are presumably one of the 'laboratory' crops. For many of these, there is probably little point in us growing them, as their advantages are mostly for commercial growers. BUT for the latest in disease-resistant varieties, or sweet corn or courgettes for cooler climates, then there is little option – F1s maybe more expensive, but their advantages can be well worth the extra cost. The prejudice against F1s is little short of ridiculous, a sort of spill-over from the rather hysterical opposition to GM breeding, a technology which by the way has yet to show any of the ill-effects that were predicted. 
Much of the discourse around the seed swap movement reflects a kind of 'small is beautiful' romanticism. There seems to be a widespread belief that evil multinational corporations are hell-bent on forcing governments to ban varieties, forcing us into a kind of vegetable totalitarianism. In reality, the range of varieties has risen dramatically over the last twenty years, partly because more mainstream commercial varieties are available to the amateur, the expansion in the range of heritage varieties available, and the increasing interest in trying varieties from other countries. Above all, we are more adventurous and are demanding and fussier consumers, so the trade in vegetable seed has inevitably reflected this. There is room for the small producer as well, the sort of place that sells obscure varieties that probably wouldn't sell well from the supermarket. For these, such as RealSeeds, we should be grateful. But if you want to see the full range of commercially-bred varieties and the opportunity to buy them in whatever quantity you want, try Moles Seeds. Better to spend your money with a proper seed merchant than risk all the unknown factors of a seed swap.Anyone selling seed commercially will generally have some sort of government certification, which in the words of one small grower, “if you buy from a registered merchant then you will get good seed, that germinates, of the variety on the packet.” So there. 

And gardeners should get together to meet each other anyway, even if it only to swap seed catalogues.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


As a frequent visitor to the USA I think I should offer my thoughts.

I visit the US pretty frequently. Once a year usually. Sometimes more. Garden lectures, work trips, leading garden tours etc.
I've read a lot about American history and keep up with the politics.
So, I think I'm in a good position to make some comments, particularly aimed at fellow Europeans who are aghast at the election of the man one US journalist dubbed “Donald Trumplethinskin”. In fact I think I have something of a duty to help explain, and suggest some reading matter. So here goes:

Firstly, the gardening crowd I meet are overwhelmingly well-travelled, open-minded, liberal. I have only once had socialise with someone who asked me things like - “is it true that Muslim fundamentalists are taking over Switzerland?” Yes, really. That was in North Carolina (since you ask). He listened to Fox News, which clearly has a lot to answer for, and gives you a good idea of the kind of misinformation which makes up many people's supply of news.

Oddly though, the garden groups that make invitations are overwhelmingly in the North-East (New England, New York, Pennsylvania) or the West Coast, and perhaps Chicago. I have only twice, in the course of a twenty year history of lecturing in the US, had invitations from The South (capital T, capital S). There is a deep garden culture here though. But it is not necessarily what we might expect After all, they have a magazine, called 'Garden and Gun'. Yes, really, I am not making this up. You can look at their website.

The 'gun' refers to the love of hunting (a form of nature appreciation though many might not see it like this), and linking the two together does help hint at part of the explanation of real difference we Europeans feel about the US. Its the whole thing of being a pioneer: grow your own veg, shoot your own supper, look after your own needs, don't need no government to tell me what to do. These attitudes are particularly strong in the South and parts of the west but can be found anywhere. A good guide to understanding them is the book: American Beliefs

Growing your own supper and shooting your own veg is one thing but in the crowded, interdependent modern world, the extreme individualism of the pioneer mentality militates against community and social responsibility. This atavistic pioneer mindset is what has driven The Tea Party and the hostility to national health care, which we Europeans see as one of the benchmarks of a civilised society.

The question of The South gets to a crucial point in how we outsiders understand the US, and the seeming insanity of their recent presidential election – the United States of America is anything but united, and never really has been. The post-war period did show an exceptional unity, and we can be forgiven for thinking, as we peer across the pond, that 'they' really are one people. Not any more, as the bitter divisions over Trumpthinskin are showing. These divisions reflect some very different political cultures, essentially geographically defined and dating back a long time. One of the most useful books to help you understand this is American Nations.

Which sets out to establish that there are eleven very distinct cultures across North America, whose origins, often during the first few decades of European settlement, have somehow fixed a particular mentality and culture. The author argues that this has stayed remarkably stable over time. Reading this book explains so much, and in particular should warn us away from lazy stereotyping: e.g. gun-toting maniacs? no, most of the guns are owned by people in very distinct geographical areas; a country of immigration? not really, most immigrants go to a few cities or regions. It does a lot to explain the major differences in political behaviour and almost visceral loathing between different political tendencies which we now see developing.

We all know about the Civil War of 1861 to 1865 – a bloodbath if ever there was one. That was the civil war that really took off. The War of Independence (1775–1783) was effectively a bloodbath of a civil war too (wars of independence usually are: ask an Algerian or Zimbabwean). The latter was followed by a series of armed conflicts which almost flared into civil wars. A recent and very well-reviewed book covers this period well and debunks many a myth of national unity: American Revolutions

Looking back over the course of US political history, the election of a failed businessman and game show host does not look so extraordinary. Politics has often been violent and corrupt, especially in the big cities; to take one example Chicago's Richard Daley (Mayor from 1955 to 1976) is infamous for the expression "Vote early - and often". To get an idea of the long history behind Trump look here.
 BTW, Daley's son was Mayor too, but made of better stuff - it was he who got the Lurie Garden and many good green things happening in the city.
To return to The South. Of course there are plenty of good people here, but there is undeniably a large sector of the white population who have never confronted the evil of slavery and the following century of lynching, segregation and denial of the vote as a moral outrage, and who saw the election of a black man to the White House, as something deeply and totally unacceptable. I want to say that I think it is difficult for Europeans to understand how deeply racist the white South is, but then I remember the Holocaust. But then western Europe at least has confronted its horrors, and moved forward in a way the white South has really failed do so.

One way of looking at the last few decades of US politics is to see the poisonous politics of the white South seeping beyond its old boundaries – the spread of Southern-style Christian Conservatism (80% voted for Trump the sexual predator), the continued killings of young black men by the police, the refusal to accept Obama as a legitimate (i.e. American-born) president. For the next few years it is the race factor that really worries me – things could get very nasty indeed. Black Americans' lives have not gotten one iota better under Obama. Remember the Black Panthers? The KKK? With Trump in control, they could both enjoy a revival.

I have mentioned the deepening of already deep divisions. This is one thing which is very frightening about the US right now, two nations who listen to different news outlets, live in different neighbourhoods, keep different friends, and I am not just talking about Black and White, but about Democrat and Republican voting blocks. No-one seems to listen to each other any more. There is a silo-thinking of which liberals are also guilty of; express an opinion which is divergent to the liberal canon and you can get some odd looks – I shall never forget stating how I thought GM crops were a good thing and hearing a dinner table fall silent. At its worst we see this in the universities and the stifling intolerance of political correctness which is increasingly making a mockery of freedom of speech. There are a lot of liberals who need to get out more and listen more.

Finally, don't give up on our friends and colleagues over the pond. There is always a latent anti-americanism in Europe just below the surface, which Trumplethinskin's antics will do much to increase. Visit, keep in touch and show solidarity!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Eucalyptus and Mimosa - Portugal's Australian problem

A typical cultural landscape in Coimbra district. The distant hills would be about 90% eucalpytus
Just had two weeks in central Portugal, near Coimbra. The Iberian peninsula is not somewhere I am that familiar with, but would increasingly like to be. It is home to some 6,000 native flowering plant species, scattered over an amazingly wide range of habitats. A brief foray into Spain last spring made me feel very optimistic about spending more time in the region. Central and northern Portugal however been a bit of a reality check. It seems to be home to one of the biggest accidental experiments in ecology I have ever seen. One which looks disastrous and which has had amazingly little publicity, at least outside the country.
The trees in the rear include cork oak, some pine but also the characteristic cones of middle-aged eucalypts. The trees appear in many village contexts not just in formal plantations in the hills

The problem is Australians. Not the people I hasten to add, but eucalyptus and Acacia dealbata – the familiar mimosa and Acacia melanoxylon. And a New Zealander – Pittosporum undulatum, and increasingly the South American Cortaderia selloana – pampas grass. I have, as many of you may be aware, often been pretty sceptical about much of the currentdiscussion of invasive aliens. I have always felt that people in Britain who worry about impatiens or Japanese knotweed have very little idea of the damage that really invasive aliens can do; and that many 'invasives' are actually not so bad. Increasingly there is evidence that alien species can even play a positive role in the development of novel ecosystems. Portugal is a good example of where things can go really really wrong, but also just how complex these issues are.

To start with the deliberately spread alien, the eucalyptus, mostly E. globulus. Almost any vista in the region between the mountainous east and the coast, north of Lisbon, that we drove through included it, in vast quantities, the distinctively bunchy growth of the outermost branches being particularly conspicuous in silhouette. Almost all the hills are covered with it – nearly all planted as a forestry crop for the paper pulp industry, although it also has some capacity to spread by seed too. The story is that much of this region has granite or other acidic soils, and is not much good for the pastoral agriculture that one might expect in hilly regions, or indeed for cork oak, which is a major form of land use in the warmer and more calcareous south which the tree prefers. Historically, these hills were dominated by oak and chestnut but centuries of deforestation resulted in them being covered in scrub: gorse, heathers, cistus and suchlike. Economically pretty useless. Pine was often planted or spread naturally. But during the 20th century eucalyptus was introduced and promoted under the Salazar regime (always nice to have a fascist dictator to blame!). The paper pulp industry continues to promote planting the tree. The result is an oppressive monoculture, which with the decline of the pulp industry (now moving to South America), is going to be increasingly worthless. To say nothing of the fire risk, posed by this infamously inflammable tree. A eucalypt fire can turn whole landscapes to ash.

Eucalyptus is a controversial crop. One can't blame poor rural regions for wanting to earn money from forestry. And in fact in terms of the big environmental picture it is actually a good thing. The vast area under the tree here must have soaked up a huge amount of CO2, done much to help reduce soil erosion and hold water in the ground. There is a widespread belief in much of the world that the trees dry the soil out, but in fact there is little evidence that this is the case. In very poor regions their presence can actually help protect native forests by being a superior source of firewood and timber, e.g Bolivia.

Eucalyptus plantations have been accused of being 'green deserts'. This is not necessarily the case either, as from what I have seen in most unmanaged plantations is that amongst older trees there is extensive undergrowth in the form of gorse and heather or bracken (western Europe's main invasive non-alien). The problem is that the trees themselves do not support any biodiversity, unlike native pines or even better, oak. One of their worst aspects is that they are more or less indestructible; fell them or burn them and they simply pop again from the base, getting way ahead of any pine or oak which might compete with them. Planting them has been an almost irrevocable decision. The result is a lifeless green coating over almost all the hills. It is as if the country has signed a Faustian pact with a malign fairy, who agreed to reforest it, but with a green monster which will never go away and supports no life.
Mimosa - notice how closely packed these young trees are - they stay like this with little competition between each other, suppressing all other plants

Worst still are the uninvited aliens, the escapees from ornamental cultivation which in the moist mild climate are seeding and spreading at an incredible rate. Mimosa is a particular menace in the central part of the country. It is the perfect example of the worst kind of invasive alien: rapid-growing, rapid-seeding, nitrogen-fixing and almost totally suppressing all other plantlife. Talking to locals in the area about Lousã it appears that in the last ten years they have spread along roads and streamsides to form a kind of foreground to the eucalyptus. They root into cracks in rock, into banks, over streep, into established maquis vegetation, and then grow incredibly densely. The shade they cast is so dark almost nothing will grow beneath them, killing off entire ecosystems. In many circumstances, these short-lived pioneer species would be replaced in due course by longer-lived canopy trees but there is so little here to seed into them that that is simply not going to happen. The danger is that the tree will become self-perpetuating, smothering what is currently the main refuge for much native vegetation along the eucalyptus forest margins.
The bio-desert beneath a mimosa canopy
 Environmental activists have long been warning about eucalyptus. There does seem to be a growing awareness, but once the tide of opinion has turned, it is going to be an almost superhuman struggle for a not very wealthy country to manage this gigantic and multi-faceted problem.


Friday, December 23, 2016

Japanese Gardens - what are we actually looking at?

Still mulling over our recent trip to Japan, leading a privately-organised tour. It was my second trip, and the first for most of the people in the group – and probably their last – not, I hasten to add, because we had a bad time, but because the country is so far away for most of us, that it is one of those places that we probably won't go to again unless we have a special interest. This has a distorting effect on the way people see a country. Think of it the other way round – if you were a Japanese person coming to visit Britain, and interested in gardens, what would you do. Visit Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, London, maybe Oxford and Stratford on Avon, and of course Edinburgh, and leave the rest of the country unvisited. I once had a look at a Japanese book on visiting British gardens – several swathes of the map in the front were empty! Part of the thinking behind organising this tour was to try to avoid this effect, so after all the must-see Kyoto garden masterpieces we set off on a backroads tour, to visit places tourists don't normally get to (Matsue and Hagi for those who really want to know). 
Yuko Nagamura, my co-guide on the tour, at Kinkakuji

Here I would like to explore the theme of 'looking at Japanese gardens' a bit more, in particular the problems that those of us who are interested in garden and planting design can actually learn from them. The trouble with looking at gardens in Japan on a first trip, is that it can be very difficult to concentrate – Japan is so overwhelming in its cultural depth that the mind (and body) is constantly distracted, “have you seen that paper shop, ohmygod, it is amazing, I never knew...... was that really octopus ice cream in there? ...... ohmygod, I've just found a cat café, they really exist” etc, etc, etc.

The garden at the Kikuya house in Hagi, Yamaguchi province, a lovely little-known garden
The visitor also needs to 'get their eye in', to know what to look for, to know what not to look at. An art form like the Japanese garden is so profoundly alien to much of our experience of gardens, that we tend to focus on the surface, the immediate impact, and not be able to look deeper. We can also be quite undiscriminating. Kyoto is so full of gardens that it can be difficult to choose which to go to, or in what order. They also vary a lot – some are definitely 'also-rans'; maintenance can also vary, depending on who runs them; some I was alarmed to see have gone down the “let's get the punters in with some night time illuminations” road which results in obtrusive chunky lights and cabling, or even moss lawns being covered in a web of wiring for LED lights.

The Kinkakuji (Golden Temple). Incomparable, just because its gold doesn't make it flashy, its proportions and poistioning are perfect

My Little Kitty likes Kinkajui too

I have a tendency to react against the sticking of certain cultural highlights on a pedestal – I carefully avoided the Taj on my first visit to India, and on my first time in Paris (many years ago) I never saw the Eiffel Tower in a whole week! Icons are icons however for very good reasons. The Golden Temple (Kinkaku-ji) is a good example I had not been to on my first trip: perfectly proportioned, with an unspoilt backdrop of wooded hills. It really is a breathtaking sight. However it is one of those places where you are liable to take your partner's/friend's photograph with the temple in the background and walk on. The people-watching has to be seen as part of the pleasure. The vast numbers of people who go there though prevent a real exploration of what is actually quite a complex garden, as many paths are closed off; so it cannot really be fully appreciated as a garden – its subtle interplay of water, islands and pines. Instead the garden and view become relegated to being a backdrop.

Appreciating Ryoan-ji
Amongst garden cognoscenti, it is the rock and sand landscape of Ryoan-ji which is the most famous of all, an abstract composition which has always fascinated western artists and commentators, who tend to see in it the essence of Zen, and of Japan, or of their idea of Japan. That Japan is more than abstract conundrums is shown by posters showing My Little Kitty in her kimono standing in front of the Golden Temple, a reminder that this country is actually more interested in colourful cuddly kitsch than conundrums and koans. At Ryoan-ji MLK makes no appearance and indeed this garden is nothing like as crowded as you might think. No-one is having their photograph taken posing in front of it, and no-one is waving a selfie-stick. Either this most intellectual of gardens attracts a different clientele, or the garden has a powerful effect on its visitors. It has to be viewed from a raised verandah type structure which somehow focuses everyone's attention on to the garden, and there are tiered steps to sit on, so it is possible to experience the garden one-to-one as it were.

The Daitako-ji temple complex in Kyoto is the best 'one-stop' place to see some of the very best gardens
I had agonised for ages, and I don't think my group quite appreciated how much agonising went into this planning, about what gardens to go to, in what order, and on what day. Three days in Kyoto is hardly enough to even begin realising just how much this extraordinary city can offer. Last time I came, I spotted a guide to its art and craft galleries, it was the size of an old-fashioned telephone directory. Beyond the city, our attempts to 'get off the beaten track' led to some very complex train journeys. Since the trains run like clockwork, and there is a very comprehensive rail network, this can mean some terrifyingly tight connections – six minutes to get from platform two to platform seven etc. - 18 people, including one 86 year old. Every connection worked though.

The Okoji-senso villa in Kyoto is a relatively modern, more naturalistic, little gem
We do face a problem in how we look at Japanese gardens I think.We tend to see sand, stones, pine trees and not beyond. We also, inevitably, see them through a veil of our experiences of western copies of them. In the case of British visitors this is particularly unfortunate, as our historical experience of Japanese gardens is rather a kitsch one. Long ago I remember listening to a lecture by Jill Raggett who has made a study of the Japanese garden in Britain – her doctoral thesis and the study ‘Shadowy Figures’ Japanese Garden Designers in Early Twentieth Century Britain, is unfortunately not published, but is available through the Japan Society's e-library. There is some information from her here. It seems that many British examples were built by Japanese people in Britain who had no particular knowledge of traditional garden building, I may be exaggerating slightly, but I think one early 20th century garden builder had come off a ship and found himself at a loose end and got into it that way! Modern versions are mostly amateur built and are very kitsch, to the extent that they actually have a negative impact on how Japanese gardens are seen.

My belief about why Japanese gardens work, is that they encapsulate certain spatial relations which go directly to our sub-consciously hard-wired sense of aesthetics – a bit like the best abstract art. Because of their simplicity, the very best classical gardens, appeal to this directly. I bet if you were able to boil down the formal relations between plants in a Piet Oudolf border, the trees in a Capability Brown landscape or the entire space of a Russell Page garden, you would uncover the same basic relations. In fact there is a whole study available here which shows just this. and here is a news item summarising another study  Put people in front of a model of Ryoan-ji apparently, move the stones, and people will find it less 'attractive'.

The Ensui-ji temple in Hagi, its relaxed style is more typical of many smaller temples

Trouble is, actually appreciating any of this requires a lot of Zen emptying of the mind, trying to put aside the concerns of being a first-time traveller in this extraordinary country and seeing through and beyond the mere physicality of what is directly in front of us, the memory of the last green tea macha latté with a cat drawn in the foam on top, the complexity of this morning's breakfast (what do I eat first?) or fretting about whether you will be able to catch the next train. But, I firmly believe, that if we understood this most sophisticated of art forms a bit better, it would help all of us as designers.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

'A Garden Flora' - for Christmas reading all year round

Here we are, hot off the press!
My new book, which I was working on last year. A reference book, a dipping-in book, an ideal Christmas present of course.

While this is my shameless Christmas promotion, I've been wanting to write a blog post for some time about why I wrote it.

Why does anyone write any book?
Primarily because we see a gap in the market. I see 'we', but which I mean an author (potential), commissioning editor, or the publishers' sales team. The latter often know nothing about the subject matter, but they are good at judging trends, and when to leap in with a new concept, or (more usually) a re-visit of a trend already established.

Garden Flora is a book which I think, fills a gaping hole in the market; Timber Press fortunately agreed with me. There are shelves of books of the A to Z 'how to grow it' variety. Almost nothing about the 'non-horticultural' aspects of plants - their history, their ecology, their uses, etc. Increasingly I find keen gardeners wanting to know about where their plants are from, in terms of their ecology and heritage. It's like the whole heirloom vegetable trend, wanting to know the context of a plant, where it is from, how come it is in cultivation, who first introduced it, who produced the cultivars and hybrids we all grow today? So, this is what Garden Flora aims to do for around 150 general of ornamental plant genera: mostly hardy perennials and popular annuals, quite a few shrubs, a few trees, and a very few non-hardies.
Begonias, from the 1959 catalogue of the Dutch bulbå company N.V.L.Stassen Jnr
First of all - where do garden plants come from? Many of the A-Z reference books do give some vague idea of geographical origin, but I wanted a bit more precision, particularly about the kind of habitat and plant community they came from. This sort of information can be very useful in helping get a picture of the kind of place it might grow in the garden. More crucially, I wanted to bring in a body of knowledge we have been building up over recent years about plant longevity and survival strategy: are they short-lived pioneers, long-lived competitors or wiry survivalists in difficult conditions? All that needed quite a bit of explanation, so that went in a fairly lengthy introduction, starting with the rather stern injunction to "read this first".
A boxwood parterre,  on the Hampton estate, at Towson, Maryland. The photograph was taken c.1915 by Frances Johnston Benjamin, 1864-1952, who was one of the first woman professional  photographers in the US.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Actually, even more fundamentally, for some entries I was aiming to give a general overview of the genus. Some plant genera  are amazingly confusing: if there are bearded irises, are there also clean-shaven ones? what are 'aril' or 'oncocylus' irises; ok. there are zillions of rhododendrons divided into confusingly titled 'sections', but where do you begin?; what's an old shrub rose? as opposed to a modern one? etc, etc. So part of the aim of each genus entry was to give a very rough account of how botanists and horticultural taxonomists actually divide up those really big, complex genera. Just to shine a little light into the nomenclatural darkness, and in particular to give new gardeners a little bit of an insight and confidence.
An extract from 'Still Life with Flowers on a Marble Tabletop' by Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750), a highly regarded painter of flowers, one of the most prominent women artists of the Dutch Golden Age; indeed during her lifetime her flower paintings reached considerably higher prices than Rembrandt's work. Oil on canvas, dated 1716.  Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
I also tried to cover a little on the evolutionary history of garden plant genera, but since this is much better known for woody plants than herbaceous perennials (which do not fossilise well) then the information tends to be patchy. This involved doing a lot of digging through material in the extraordinary new field of evolutionary phylogeny, working out what is related to what through both DNA and other forms of analysis; there is a whole new language here, and the non-specialist (like myself) inevitably finds it very difficult to extract useful or digestible information. There is some fascinating stuff though, particularly about the deep dinosaury origins of certain plant genera.
An illustration showing the many uses of bamboo, with a caption in Malay and Dutch, produced in The Netherlands between 1868 – 1881. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Part of the original intention of the book was to include material on the uses of garden plants, or their relatives. Many plants have had uses in traditional societies or in some cases, have close relatives which serve, or served, some day to day function. As an example, did you know that there was a brief go at growing hollyhocks commercially for fibre in Victorian Wales? They must have made a spectacular field crop. In the end I did not go into too much detail here, especially for medical uses, which is such a minefield; many medically-useful plants have been prescribed for so many conditions that the information becomes almost worthless, especially since much has no scientific backing.
What are clearly very similar to modern large-flowered clematis can be seen in this Japanese book, 1755. Courtesy of Chiba University Library.
 In the end the bulk of the book's text is about garden plant history, and I think this is the area most people will find the most interesting. There is really very little in English on this subject; Alice Coats wrote a couple of very interesting books around 1960 - scholarly, but livened with a dry wit (Flowers and their Histories; Shrubs and their Histories, all readily available second-hand). In German there is a book called 'Crown Imperials and Red Peonies', very scholarly, but rather drying up by the time the author gets to the 20th century.
Fritillaria imperialis in Iran, Baktiari Province. Credit: Bob Wallis.
As you might have gathered from this posting, the fun part of this project was the illustrations. Well, it wasn't fun to begin with - one of those situations where "if only I knew then what I know now". I said I would do all the picture research, so I was given a budget, which I rapidly realised was totally inadequate for getting more than a few pictures from commercial sources. Libraries and museums try to make money by charging licence fees for reproduction of stuff in their collections, as they should, but they seem to have very little understanding of the laws of supply and demand, and effectively price themselves out of the market for more specialist titles. The Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library in London has some fantastic material, but very little of it is digitalised, the catalogue is a nightmare, so you don't know what they have got unless you know what they have got, if you know what I mean. The staff do their best, but in the end the place was a disappointment.
Avena glauca in a public planting in a housing estate in communist East Germany during the mid-1950s. From Karl Foerster's Einzug der Gräser und Farne in die Gärten, of 1957. Courtesy of Verlag Eugen Ulmer. To which I might add - life in 1950s East Germany might have  been grim but at least you would have had Karl Foerster's students doing some of the planting!
So, how do you get images for free? Scrounging for a start. Part of my intention was to include images of garden plants in the wild, which is actually a tall order, as plants in the wild don't often look that spectacular. I had some quite nice stuff from Kyrgyzstan and from Japan but I don't get out into the wild at the right time of year nearly often enough, so thank you very much to Larry Mellichamp for his photographs of eastern US natives, and to Bob Wallis for his wild bulbs in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Then I realised that you can get old nursery catalogues online, from ebay; most nurseries and seed companies that existed in the 20th century are (sadly) no more, so making their images usable. Some of the 1920s and 1930s images are pretty crude but have a charm of their own, and of course are so much a part of our garden history.
A page of phlox varieties in Foerster's Gartenstauden Bilderbuch, illustrating a technique occasionally used in German catalogues of the period to show off a wide range of cultivars. Painted by Escher Bartning. Courtesy of Bettina Jacobi.
I also realised that a lot of material could be found as prints, again available on ebay or illustrations in old books, but with the proviso that the artist, if named, had to have been dead for over 75 years, for the images to be out of copyright. Some of the finest images I found were in Gartenschönheit, the magazine Karl Foerster edited in the 1920s until December 1939, when the magazine closed down during the war. All the colour pictures were painted by one woman, Escher Bartning. She was part of a big artistic family, so the descendents were not too difficult to track down; Bartning's niece, turned out to be in Leipzig so a few emails brought me permission to use the pictures.

A print by the great master of the Edo period woodblock print, Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849), made between 1800 – 1805, showing Fujiyama through a veil of mist and cherry blossom. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Japan was quite a big part of the story. I have long been fascinated by the way that western growers fell with glee onto Japanese nurseries when Japan opened up to foreign trade in the
mid-19th century, taking advantage of, but rarely giving the credit to what Japanese growers had achieved with variety selection and hybridisation during the Edo period from 1600 onwards - even discovering the principles of heredity first credited to Gregor Mendel a hundred years later. I had one very good Japanese source, a privately published book (again thank you ebay!), but also the help of my friend Ayako Nagase who was able to get me copies of some book illustrations from a university library in Japan.

Primula sinensis  as the 'fruit fly of plant genetics' – a diagram by a John Innes Horticultural Institution artist, made in 1929. John Innes Archives, courtesy of the John Innes Foundation.
One of the most mysterious stories in the book is about Primula sinensis, similar to, but rather more spectacular than, the winter pot plant, P. obconica. Like this, it has allergenic hairs on the leaves, which probably accounts for its fall from grace. During the early 20th century it was a very common pot plant in British flower markets; during the 1930s a workhorse for plant geneticists, but since then has become effectively extinct in cultivation in the west.
A variety of flowers in a Greek vase, painted as an Allegory of Spring.  Rhododendron ponticum is prominent as is Kalmia latifolia. Oil on canvas, by Georgius Jacobus Johannes van Os (1782 – 1861), a member of a renowned family of Dutch artists. Oil on canvas, dated 1817. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The very best source of images though has been the new system of Creative Commons, where institutions make digital collections available, for free, only seeking accreditation. Mostly the images are far too small to publish but the US Library of Congress has got a fantastic collection, which can be downloaded and used as large file sizes - there is a great collection of early photographs of Gilded Era gardens there, as well as yet more Japanese material. Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, under its previous director has also put its entire collection on line - you can ask them for large files for publication and they'll email them to you. Almost the most enjoyable part of this book was cruising Rijkstudio, where you can create your own virtual galleries to source pictures. It has been an incredibly generous policy and one which has done much to cement the museum's global reputation.
This has been a wonderfully enjoyable book to work on, and one which I hope one day to return to, to fill out the number of garden plant genera I have covered, and fill in gaps. One of those never-ending projects. I hope lots of readers will enjoy it too.

A Garden Flora, published by Timber Press