Pride and Predudice

Sometimes you are taken by surprise. Last spring I was sent a gift by the daughter of an old friend. Long ago she had been inspired by our garden and now she is working as a gardener in Devon. And, delightfully, she had collected some seeds and sent them to me.

They were a mixture of some commercial seed packets and some seeds she had gathered herself. There were a few things I might never have thought of growing and some I have tried in the past and failed to germinate.  I sowed the lot and had some interesting results. ‘Datura’ was the poisonous Thorn-apple, which I scrapped lest it escape into our surrounding fields. The ‘Deptford Pink’ is a pretty, rare British native and it is now growing in our garden (Dianthus armeria)

Call me a snob, but I had a longstanding prejudice against Ageratum – I thought it was too fluffy, too mauve, too girly – the sort of plant that the late Barbara Cartland would have liked. But it turned out to be one of the stars of my group of plants-in-pots last year – just the right colour to set off the predominantly sunset-coloured display – and it lasts well in a vase.

When the seeds arrived they were in plastic bags.  I had always read that it’s best to put seeds in paper envelopes and keep them in a box in the fridge. I thought that many of these would not be viable, but germination was excellent. In the past I have failed to grow any plants of Lysimachia ‘Beaujolais’, even when sown really fresh, but the seeds from Devon came up with enthusiasm. Maybe they like being stored that way – maybe the ‘received wisdom’ is wrong?

So I have learned some useful lessons, thanks to my good friends. And I will grow Ageratum again this year. It will soon be time to start sowing.

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Household Advice from the Past

A kind friend lent me The Home Book – price one shilling (5 pence) and published by Reckitt and Sons Ltd.  It doesn’t have a date inside, but the illustration on the cover puts it in the 1930s. It calls itself “…a handbook covering the whole range of women’s interests in the home”

If I were getting married at that time I would have found this book quite terrifying. It’s edited by a Mrs D D Cottington-Taylor, who was not only the Director of the Good Housekeeping Insitute, but had First Class Diplomas in Cookery, Laundrywork, Housewifery etc etc.  As a rookie housewife I would have quaked in my shoes.

It has the air of a text-book, and would have taken weeks, if not months, for the poor woman reader to have digested all the information contained therein. Although there is still some useful advice, much of it seems quaint now: how to equip a small home laundry – (the importance of starching table linen cannot be over-emphasised) – how to clean piano keys – (with lemon juice and whiting – do make sure it doesn’t get into the cracks) – orris-root is good for greasy hair.

There are daily and weekly timetables – set out in quarter-hours – for both the mistress and the maid – at 9.45 every day the letter-box, porch and steps should be cleaned – and the windows and silver should be attended to on Tuesdays.

There are sections on cooking (banana-and-cheese-sandwich, anyone?) beauty-care, budgeting, upholstery, babies, pets, and how to clean a car (but I notice that the lady-of-the-house is not given any directions about how to drive it.)

The section on Gardening (by John A McNab) was of particular interest to me. It’s set out in monthly tasks, and concentrates on edible crops and some ornamentals including Gloxinias, which few people grow now (very 1930s). Most of the advice would still be applicable today.

But there was no peace for our woman – in January she was expected to make a hot bed for early crops from layers of leaves and ‘stable litter’ which should be 3 feet deep, and turned several times. Much spraying of insecticide is required. And she should “use the hoe continuously” – though how she was expected to do this while polishing her letter box at 9.45 sharp I can’t quite fathom.

A truly horrible thought occurs to me – supposing you were given this book by your Mother-in-Law as a wedding present…

It’s Tuesday today.  I had better go and polish the silver.

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Gardening is Good for You

On a bleak January day, when it’s too wet to get outside, my thoughts have turned to the benefits of gardening.   I chanced upon the website of Country Living Magasine, where they are advocating that “gardening should be available on the NHS”.

Gardening, along with other outside activities, is being promoted as a panacea for all ills:  – we are living an increasingly sedentary life – we have lost touch with where our food comes from – children spend less time playing outdoors – and in a largely urban society we fail to notice nature and the changing seasons.

I’m not just talking about exercise, fresh air or even fresher food from the garden, but the sense of well-being that comes from working outside – it’s good for mind, spirit and soul. I can testify to this myself – I’m prone to depression and the best therapy I’ve found is neither Prozac nor Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (I’ve tried both) but getting out of the house for a good walk, or doing something – anything – in the garden.  There is always a task to be done, from sowing seeds in the greenhouse to some vigorous pruning with a large saw, and it takes my mind away from any worries and irritations that I might dwell on.  A day without some time in the garden doesn’t feel complete.

Many people have cited gardening as their salvation. Monty Don – in The Jewel Garden – has written very openly about how it rescued him from financial disaster and a serious mental breakdown. I personally have seen its therapeutic effects in others.

Country Living was reporting on the annual John MacLeod lecture to the Royal Horticultural Society by a GP, Dr William Bird, and a researcher from Sweden, Dr Matilda van den Bosch, who both outlined the evidence for the positive action of gardening on many aspects of health.  Dr Bird asserts that £1 spent on Horticultural Therapy could give rise to £5.00 in health benefit.

There is a charity called Thrive which has been putting these ideas into action since 1978. They run activities at several gardens around England, helping people with such diverse conditions as stroke, visual impairment, learning difficulties, post traumatic stress syndrome, cancer, dementia and mental health problems.  They even encourage some of their clients to gain horticultural qualifications and help them to get a gardening job. Do have a look at their website if you would like to know more.

It seems that there is no shortage of evidence for the benefits of gardening.  It just needs more people to get involved.  For my part I have signed-up for Thrive’s monthly e-newsletter and joined as a member to see if there is anything I can do.

I’m a retired Doctor and it would have been  good if I could have prescribed  gardening as a cure – I’m sure many of my patients would have benefitted.  Wouldn’t it be great if there was a Centre for Horticultural Therapy in every town (though it might need a more catchy name!).  Maybe one day the Government will see the sense of this – but, sadly, Politicians tend to work in the short term, whilst gardeners plant trees for future generations to enjoy.

I braved the weather and potted up some nicely-rooted cuttings in the greenhouse today – I felt better for it. And here is a tranquil photo of our garden last summer – how pleasant to look at on a dreary January day.

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A Year in the Garden

I’ve not been very active on my blog recently.  Last year I was exceptionally busy – we had over 750 visitors to the garden.  But it’s an odd fact that prevarication always leads to more prevarication.

As it’s the new year, it seems a good time to start again.  I thought that it would be good to record the garden and my gardening thoughts throughout a whole year, both in words and images. So here goes…

I have been suffering from a severe case of the Winter Blues.  I feel oppressed by the cold and damp, and being driven in from the garden at 4.00.  I decided to cheer myself up by posting some colourful images on the NGS (National Gardens Scheme) site. Here is one of them.  And here is the NGS link if you would like to see more (click on ‘View’).

New Year resolutions are notoriously fickle, and I can’t claim to have a good record in that department, as my expanding waistline testifies, but I promise to try harder.

Front Garden, Summer 2014

Front Garden, Summer 2014

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A Big Buzz and a Little Buzz

Our garden was certainly buzzing this Sunday.  It was our last NGS opening for the year, the sun shone, and 124 visitors were enjoying the tea-and-cake and asking about the identity of plants.

But my friend, Lyn, became interested in a much smaller buzz – a tiny bee.

Lyn is a great friend – one of the best.  I have known her for most of my life (longer, now, than either of us care to admit) and she loyally turns out for our Open Days.  Not only does she ‘man’ (woman?) the plant stall, but she brings lots of plants to sell.

In a quiet moment I sat with her and she said she had observed a small bee going into the side drainage-hole of one of my pots. It came back again as I watched, clasping a surprisingly large piece of leaf to its belly.  A leaf-cutter bee, making a nest.

I have observed them previously, and sometimes I have accidentally disturbed one of their nests when turning out a plant pot – it looks a bit like a cigar.  Fascinating creatures: they usually nest in hollow stems or small holes.  It’s intriguing to watch them cutting a piece of leaf – they zip round very quickly and efficiently.

If you find oval or circular sections about 1 or 2 centimeters in diameter cut out of your rose leaves, then it is a leaf-cutter bee at work.  They also favour beech and lilac – they do no harm and are useful pollinators.

Without thinking, I moved the pot so we wouldn’t sell the plant, but then the bee came back and was confused because the pot was no longer where it should have been.  We put it back and the bee was much happier.

Later I looked for the cut leaves and found them about 10 metres away on our beech hedge.  Here is a photo of the leaves, but I wasn’t quick enough to photograph the bee. They are smaller than honey bees and rather dull in colour.

I wonder how long I will have to leave the pot in the same place now?

Beech leaves harvested by leaf-cutter bee

Beech leaves harvested by leaf-cutter bee





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Bye-Bye Bunny

One of the delights of a country garden is the wildlife, but it’s also one of the snags. Along with the birds and the butterflies, we have LOTS of rabbits, as well as moles, squirrels, field mice and the occasional cow. The rabbits do a lot of damage, especially in spring when the young ones will sample almost anything.

It’s impractical for us to rabbit-fence the whole garden, so I have learned to live with the bunnies by putting up temporary barriers and finding out what rabbits don’t eat: we have lots of poisonous plants! But we have put a rabbit-proof fence around our kitchen garden, where I grow cutting flowers as well as fruit and vegetables. It’s also a safe place to put young plants in pots.

But – disaster!  This year a rabbit managed to get in. Perhaps we left the gate open one night? I noticed a bit of nibbling here and there, and then our French beans were attacked.

So how do you catch a rabbit when there is plenty of food for it to eat? I looked online and discovered that rabbits are addicted to carrots. As I hadn’t sown any carrots in the garden this year, it seemed a promising solution. Beatrix Potter knew this – her picture of Peter Rabbit shows him enjoying carrots.

For several evenings I left an offering of carrot on the path, and it vanished overnight. Then I put my (humane) rabbit trap tied open, next to the carrots. Finally I put the carrot inside the trap. Last night I left the trap sprung.


I finally got to meet my marauder face-to-face. It looked young, glossy-coated and very well fed, which is not surprising seeing it had been feasting on my lettuce, broccoli and chard for some time (not to mention the carrots).

Feeling a bit Mr McGregor-ish, I took it for a car journey of about three miles and released it into a field where there were already several of its kin. It won’t be lonely, but it will have to learn to live without the gourmet food.

Now I need to check if there is another rabbit.  If there were two there may be even more – rabbit…rabbit…rabbit…


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The Last Crown Prince

The end of a dynasty?  No – the last of our pumpkins for this season.

If you want to grow a Pumpkin (Winter Squash) to keep through the winter, then look out for the variety ‘Crown Prince’ – I think it’s wonderful.  They are large but manageable and they store well until mid April in a corner of our kitchen. They look very handsome there, whilst I try not to feel too smug and self-satisfied about all this bounty. The smooth grey-green skin is fairly thin, so you can cut off a piece without risking a visit to A&E.  The flesh is dense and a rich orange colour and above all they have a superb, mellow flavour.

I sow my seeds now and in June I will plant them out on one of my rotting compost heaps or piles of horse muck, where they need little further attention, apart from some water in very dry weather.  They grow prodigiously but I usually manage to contain each plant in the 4 foot square of my compost bin and hope to get two or three good sized fruits.  In late September I cut them with a generous chunk of stalk, and put them into my greenhouse to ripen.

I find the best way of cooking is two slice off a couple of wedges and bake them in the oven at 200C for about 25-30 minutes, until the skin begins to brown and wrinkle.  Eat it just as it is, or remove the skin, and serve as a mash or cubed in a curry or risotto. It makes a superb soup, and can be used in cakes and scones.  You can store the unused piece, unwrapped, in the fridge for about a week.

Our very last 2 slices of the season are about to go into a soup with some carrot, leeks and some of last year’s tomatoes (roasted and frozen).  In the meantime the seeds for next year’s crop are about to germinate in the same corner of the kitchen.

The Prince is dead. Long live the Prince!


(The seeds are sold by DTBrown, Sarah Raven and Thompson and Morgan)


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