23 February 2015

Book Review: Principles of Horticulture by Adams, Bamfords & Early

This book covers everything you need to know to get started as a horticulturist and is aligned with the current syllabus of the RHS certificate of Horticulture.

Topics from Climate to ecology and from plant growth to pests and diseases are covered.

The book certainly does what it says on the cover and provides information on the principles of horticulture with a reasonable amount of detail. However, I found it to be a very dry book and it took me a long time to get through it. Although, saying that, I did learn lots of new things and I'm glad that I persevered with it.

I think that this is probably more a reference book than one that can easily be read cover to cover. It does provide information in an easy to understand way via text, tables, and illustrations. There are plenty of book references at the end of each chapter; which provide a way to learn more about each subject covered. I can see why it's made it to 5 editions so far and see no reason why it won't continue to be expanded and improved in future.

If you want to learn more about the fundamentals of horticulture, then this book is definitely worth your time.

16 February 2015

Sow and Grow: Sweet Pea Royal Mixed

It's that time of year again, when I start saving our empty loo roll and kitchen towel cores. That time of year then I get excited about the fragrance that will fill our home and garden come June. It's also that time of year when I really feel that my gardening year has finally begun. Mulching and weeding is all well and good, but until I start sowing and nurturing new life, it feels like I'm just surviving until the next growing season.

Last year we grew Sweet Pea Royal Mixed a cultivar of the annual sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus. The mixed meaning that we'd have a lovely and random array of colours from white, through to pink, red, and purple. While some sweet peas required soaking in water (check seed packet for info), this cultivar is happy to be directly planted.

I find that February is a good time to start sowing sweet peas indoor. The packet says we can sow indoors from September, but I feel February to March is a good time as by the time the conditions outside are welcoming, the sweet peas are ready to embrace the alfresco lifestyle!

Sweet peas seeds are hard and spherical. Before sowing, look through your seeds and filter out any that are very deformed - or material that is clearly not seed.

I mixed plenty of grit with my compost, for drainage, and fill up a cardboard core - ensuring that it is firm. I then push the seed to a depth of around 1.5cm, before covering it over and soaking it with water.  I have to confess that I've never used seed compost (I know, I shall hang my head in shame), but I do use a chamomile tea spray to prevent damping off.  I then place the cardboard cores in a tray filled with grit and place in a sunny location.

Within a couple of weeks, the sweet pea will have come to life. Looking at the seedling, it is immediately obvious why they need a long pot.

A couple of weeks after sowing the first batch, I sowed a second batch. This was to try to lengthen the flowering season. This is also a handy time to re-sow into any containers where germination hasn't happened.

When the plant has 4 leaves, pinch out the top two. This will ensure you have a bushy plant that will provide more flowers.

When the plant has a few good leaves and is looking healthy (around March/April), it's time to start hardening them off. This is a process whereby you put them outside during the day, but bring them inside during the night. Then you can place them in their final locations. If you have grown them in a biodegradable material, such as paper or cardboard, there's no need to disturb the plants - which they dislike. Just plant the whole thing and there won't be any sign of your paper or cardboard by the end of the sweet pea growing season.

Dead heading is a great way to ensure that the sweet peas keep providing a good crop of flowers. But, there's no need to wait until the flowers are dead! I like to make sure I have a good supply of flowers on the windowsill by the sink and in the living room - such a gorgeous fragrance. This way we get fragrance inside and out.

It's hard not to look at a sweet pea and smile. Not only do they provide a lush fragrance, but the shape of the flower is very pretty. While there are many flowers in the legume family (the third largest flower family currently known), sweet peas provide flowers that are large enough to truly appreciate.

The sweet pea has 5 petals: banner is the uppermost petal with the two wings below. The lower 2 petals are fused into a keep and they protect the many anthers and the single stigma. This beautiful arrangement is called papilionaceous, relating to the nature of the butterfly. This is because the two wings resemble those of a butterfly.

If you let the flowers go over, they will produce a seed pod, which is initially green. When it has turned brown, you can pinch the pod from the plant and dry them indoors for a few days. When you see the pods start to split at the seam, you can spread the pod and retrieve the seeds. Dry them thoroughly, package them, and store them in a cool, dry location until you are ready to plant them. I'm not sure how long harvest seeds last, but the store bought ones tend to last a couple of years.

09 February 2015

Trunk of the Month: February 2015: Platanus orientalis

In this second Trunk of the Month post, we'll be looking at the oriental plane (Platanus orientalis), the smaller cousin of the well known and widely planted London plane (Platanus x hispanica / Platanus x acerifolia).

While the oriental plane tends to be about 15 metres shorter than the London plane, at around 30 metres, it still makes quite an impact. With beautiful green leaves that are even more deeply lobed than those of London plane and very similar ball-like spiny fruits. However, for me, the most impressive part of this tree, native to the Balkans and eastwards into Asia, is the trunk.

As with the London plane, the flakes away over time and leaves behind a beautiful mottled effect. There have always been thoughts that this chipping allows the tree to deal with pollution, with Richard Mabey writing in Flora Britannica that it "is no longer reckoned to have a similar cleansing effect". However in a recent edition of Horticulture Week, the bark is said to absorb pollution through its bark and the hairs of its leaves - both of which will be shed in time. Perhaps in the native ranges of this tree, the shedding of the bark is an adaptation for removing diseases and disorders? I had a brief look through my University's online catalogue, but nothing jumped out at me! (References to studies performed will be welcome in the comments).

If the tree has been there for any length of time, then a quick look at the ground will reveal lots of shed bark. This must stop mosses and lichen from completely taking over the surface of the trunk, as we can see some lichen on the top right flake below.

In 2010, the BBC reported that a oriental plane planted by Capability Brown, in nearby Corsham, was the "most spreading" tree in the UK. Planted in 1760, most of the branches are now on the ground. But, they're still alive and well and with an average spread of 64 metres, it is the most vast tree the UK has to offer!

So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and find a tree trunk to admire and appreciate!


BBC News - Corsham Court Oriental plane 'most spreading tree in UK'. 2015. BBC News - Corsham Court Oriental plane 'most spreading tree in UK'. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-13682775. [Accessed 09 February 2015].
Kimberley, M 2014, 'Platanus', Horticulture Week, pp. 20-21, Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 9 February 2015.
Richard Mabey, 1997. Flora Britannica. First Edition Edition. Sinclair Stevenson.

02 February 2015

Gardening with ME: Getting Comfortable

Hazel in flower
With illnesses like ME, fatigue and pain as well as brain fog and concentration lapses are common. So, it's important to make sure that when you garden, you are as comfortable as possible to help keep symptoms at bay. With trial and error, you should be able to find an approach that allows you to focus on your hobby - even if just for a few minutes - instead of worsening your symptoms.

In this third post, I write about a few ideas from my 'Gardening with ME Toolbox' for keeping comfortable.

Firstly, I found that wearing more than I would have expected to wear was a great first step. While you may be doing something that increases your heart rate and gets your sweating, you're probably likely be in the same position for quite a while weeding or pruning. Therefore, wearing more is much better than being uncomfortable with cold, knowing that if you spend your energy getting another jumper - you're not going to have the energy to get back outside and carry on. It's much easier to take your hat, gloves, 4th layer of jumper off if you get too warm.

Also surprisingly, you may need your sunglasses too - the sun may be too bright in the summer, but it can also be at an awkward angle during the winter. So while it may not be as bright as summer, it may still be in your eyes.

Of course, you'll know what will make you comfortable - but it took me a few attempts to realise that things that I needed to take outside with me. One of the things I eventually realised was that it was better for me to wear walking boots, because they provided much better insulation during the winter months than my trainers. This wasn't something I'd thought of before - but then I hadn't been sat for ages pruning before either!

Another thing to think about is the task at hand. If it's cold out and you know you're going to be sat in the same position, it may be worth wearing thermal socks or a couple of layers of normal socks.

All of these things can be taken off as soon as you get inside, so you should be able to maintain a good temperature without getting too cold outside, or too hot when you return back to the comfort of the sofa.

Secondly, make sure that you have a range of seating available to you. I now have three different options. The camping stool for when I'm going to be 'quick' - it's also very light, which is great if I'm going out for a wander.

I also have the more solid garden seat, which can be turned the other way around and used as a kneeler. I often use this when pruning or observing wildlife in my garden. It allows you to sit there in comfort and enjoy your surroundings. The great thing about this is that it's comfortable for extended periods, the metal legs can be used to help you get up, and it folds away! What more could you ask for? What more indeed!

Well actually sometimes you need to kneel just for a short period, or you just need to be that bit closer to the ground to get at the pesky weeds. Well for that job is the fantastic mat below. It's really good for the price (no more than a couple of quid) and is light as a feather. The hanging tab comes in handy too. This one is also handy for when I'm trying to take photographs of my invertebrate friends, because the darn things move and I can be on my knees for a few minutes trying to get a good enough picture for the blog!

Have a look online or in your local DIY-type stores, I hadn't noticed these things until I needed them and now they're everywhere! I managed to get the garden stool/kneeler from Aldi, a place we don't normally shop - so it's worth having a look wherever you go!

One thing I would suggest is that you hang them near to where you garden most. I have mine hung inside the garage door, so they're close and I don't have to carry the far.

Prior to ME, I rarely wore gloves. But I find that even on warm days, my hands (particularly the one not in use) gets very cold. I used to wear builders gloves, because these were all I had, but they're loose fitting and not ideal for gardening tasks. These days I wear leather gloves that are lined on the inside. So not only do they protect me from thorns and prickles, but they also keep my hands nice and warm.

I actually find that because I'm not damaging my hands or allowing them to get cold, I feel closer to my garden. This is probably because while I have the ME pain, my garden isn't inflicting any additional pain on me!

Food and Drink
If you're like me, you're unlikely to have the energy to garden for extended periods. But even when gardening for 10 minutes, it can be handy to take out some food and a drink - perhaps a couple of biscuits and a cup of tea. Then you can remain seated on your stool and enjoy the garden and feel good about the work you've just done. This can be a good chance to reflect on how the garden is coming along and what tasks will need to be done in the future.

I'm going to talk about tools in a future post, but I just wanted to mention that choosing the correct tool is important for comfort. I can't use a full size fork and spade, but instead I finally use the hand tools I bought nearly a decade ago because they looked useful, but never used! The ones I use have big plastic or foam handles so they don't pull heat away from my hands and they are easy to grip and feel nice. 

These are just a few ideas based on the things that help me do a bit of gardening. Hopefully they will help you find tools and techniques that help you get out in the garden - even if it's just for 5-10 minutes at a time.

This is an update of a post I wrote back in 2012, before my diagnosis. You can read the original here. Next month I'll be writing about SMARTER Gardening.