Monday, 29 August 2016

Snippets & Sunflowers

I imagine every tradesperson has an association with his or her special tool. No doubt painters and decorators have their preferred type of brushes; hairdressers who’ll only use a certain manufacturer of scissors; bricklayers with their favourite trowel…. and so on! When it comes to us gardeners, without doubt the tool that becomes our most reliable friend is, of course, the trusty pair of secateurs. Permanently sat in their holster, resting on my right hip, they are a constant source of comfort and activity throughout the day. I must reach for mine over a 100 times a day… everything from cutting string, to dead-heading dahlias... pruning shrubs to opening bags of compost. 
Image result for felco 2
Felco #2's - the choice of the professionals.

I’m forever advising students and clients to invest in the best pair of secateurs they can afford – easy for me to say of course! I believe the best pair of affordable secateurs on the market are undoubtedly made by Felco: for many years they have been the choice of the professional gardener. They retail from around £40.

 I often joke that like Trigger’s broom, in Only Fools and Horses,  I have had the same pair of Felco’s for about 15 years. Of course, they’ve had 10 new blades, 5 new springs and 2 replacement handles , but essentially they’re the same pair! I use the standard Felco #2, but they produce quite a range suiting most hand sizes and preferences.
Anyway, back in the early summer, I was made aware of a growing rumble of fuss being made around a certain manufacturer of Japanese secateur: Okatsune. A couple of friends of mine had been using them for a while, and along with many high-ranking hortics, they were waxing lyrical about how great they were. They let me have a go with them, and yes, they felt quite impressive. Not too dissimilar from Felco. Incredibly sharp and making a very professional-sounding click as they made their cuts…. a bit like a VW Golf door closing, they do sound the business! In fact there are whole You Tube clips where you can just listen to the sound they make... not the guiltiest of guilty pleasures one can have I suppose!
Image result for okatsune 103
Okatsune with their distinctive red and white handles.

So, I did my research, and not being one to part with my hard-earned cash that easily, I read articles and reviews, Googled discussions all over the Interweb, listened to those clips on You Tube and so on! Eventually, curiosity alone tempted me to add a pair of Okatsune’s to my basket, proceed to the checkout, and then sit back and wait their arrival.
So anyway, a month later, what’s my verdict? Well, I’m constantly being told that Felcos are the choice of professional gardeners in the West, and that Okatsune remain the #1 choice for the Japanese gardener. They’re very good. Quite well balanced, about the same weight as Felco’s, but incredibly sharp. So sharp in fact, they scare me a little.
With my Felco’s I go cutting down clumps of hardy geraniums like Edward Scissor Hands, grabbing bunches of foliage and stem and shearing away like a maniac. However, I tried that particular task with my new Japanese friends and to be honest I had to stop using them. As I say, although the Felcos are sharp, you just feel that, should an accident happen with them, you would probably only give yourself a nasty cut. With the Okatsunes however I feel that they are so incredibly sharp, I could probably lose a finger or two in the operation and not even realise until I took my gloves off at the end of the day and had a finger count – surgically sharp!
Also, the Okatsune secateurs are not nearly as ergonomic as the Felco’s. They obviously embody a certain design simplicity, with their distinctive red and white handles having subtle simple curves to them. However, with activity, this can cause your fingers to quickly rise up and sit just where the blade pivots – not good!   
My Okatsune's with my very own ergonomic adaptation.

All in all, for me, the Felco’s are still by far the best! They feel robust; they’re well-designed. They sit comfortably in the hand. All parts are replaceable – unlike the Okatsune’s – and they also don’t feel so sharp you could might accidentally circumcise a gnat. 

Shoulder height when first cut
Whilst on the subject of pruning, you might like to see what I do with my sunflowers most years. As you may recall, I have a tiny bit of garden at the front of my cottage and each year I ram it full with pots, mainly herbaceous perennials, many late season daisies plus grasses and a few more exotic-looking annuals: Cleomes and Ricinus.

Of course, sunflowers are mega daisies and I tend to grow the rather tall varieties, again in pots. However, long before they flower, and when they reach approximately shoulder height, I brutally snip the stems.

A few weeks later, once it has branched off.

I do this in the hope of seeing it branch out into a multi-stemmed flower, giving me more bang for my buck. It’s a bit of a numbers game as it doesn’t work on every sunflower I do it to. Sometimes, I spend the rest of the summer simply watering a flowerless stick! But, when it does work, the results are great. Do give it a go!

The end result... several flowers from one single stem! Do this to a few sunflowers and the effect is stunning! Tough, robust mega-daisies towering over your displays.

Oh well, I think that’s just about it for this post. Thanks very much for reading it.
My next post is on the subject of assisted dying, and rather surprisingly, is not as depressing as it sounds!

Have a good one... 'til next time!
Le Jardinier

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Gardening as Therapy

Having read Tim Richardson’s column in the Telegraph last week, I got to thinking. His subject was regarding the supposed health benefits of gardening. As always, his job as The Horticultural ‘Medlar’ was to scratch slightly at the veneer of a topic, revealing a base layer of healthy scepticism together with an alternative view on the subject. As always, he again did this rather too well, if you ask me.

If the various contemporary approaches to health and well-being were to be ranked, a kind of therapeutic top ten, you would probably see the charts full of such hits as C.B.T, Mindfulness, M.B.S.R (Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction), the modern-day anti-depressant (SSRI’s) plus a whole range of Green Care approaches. Green Care could probably be summed up as any activity which uses the great outdoors (horticulture, agriculture and animal care etc) as a therapeutic tool, enhancing our mental and emotional well-being through social, as well as physical exercise.  ‘Nowt wrong with that’ I hear you say!

As a (part time) horticultural therapist,  I am of course, an advocate of most Green Care approaches. Gardening is a great way of both improving and promoting mental and emotional well-being. If you ask me, little research is really required to prove that gardening is good for you: gardeners have been saying so for years! In fact, it’s probably the main reason gardeners do indeed garden! It simply feels good to be outside, in the fresh air, gently occupied with tasks closely-aligned to the seasons. The work of the gardener, and the speed and stress in which he or she works, is kept in check by both the seasons and the weather: you simply cannot rush nature along.

However, in Tim Richardson’s article, he does raise a few valid reasons as to why gardening should not fall blindly into a kind of Green Care vacuum, whereby it becomes to be seen as a vocation concerned primarily with encouraging a kind of ‘condescending caricature that horticulture is only fit for damaged people who require help.’  As with both C.B.T and Mindfulness (this decade’s darlings of the N.H.S), Green Care (especially the horticultural wing) has been becoming increasingly popular, with various projects seemingly popping up all over the place. Sometimes, it appears that all you need is some funding, a catchy name (Growing to Grow… Growing and Sowing etc) and voila, health and well-being are sure to follow!

However, as a hardened maintenance gardener, who has worked closely with the entire industry for many years, I can tell you from first-hand experience, gardening ‘proper’ is one of the toughest ways of working there is! I also know of many gardeners who say the same. Physically it is very demanding… more demanding and damaging to bodies than any of the building trades if you ask me.
Mentally too it can be very challenging. Working in one of the lowest paid, socially-isolating industries there is can be anything but fun and therapeutic. Just ask the charity Perennial who, for over 100 years, have helped countless individuals within the industry who have fallen on both hard surfaces and hard times! It’s an unforgiving industry where your over-worked muscles and joints determine both your usefulness, and your retirement age.

In looking at the perceived mental health benefits of gardening Tim Richardson makes a great analogy between human relationships and our individual relationship to the garden, and as he states, these relationships ‘do not always run smooth, and is it taboo to suggest that a garden can make you feel bad sometimes as well as good?’ I think we have to be very careful in simply reciting the mantra that ‘gardening is good for everyone’. Yes, working with nature, within the often-boundaried environment of a garden, can allow someone to experience elements of risk and reward: a gentle invitation to love and be loved back.  I have always thought that the care and nurturing of plants and animals gives one that opportunity. However, we do need to be careful we don’t limit the appeal of gardening, ‘portraying it as a branch of occupational therapy.’

I do share slightly Tim’s concern when he says that ‘we do not garden simply because it is good for us.’ Gardening is about so much more than that! It can be about everything from art and design to social and political history; from the study of the natural world and about our place within that world. There is of course the history of the great garden makers and the changes they have brought to our green spaces. Wars have shaped the history of our gardens: the fight for irrigation… the fight for post-war labour… wars over tulips… wars over thy neighbour’s fence!

So, in harking back to my introduction, at times, it does seem as though many things are being hijacked in the service to therapy these days: C.B.T has stolen much from ancient Greek Stoic philosophy; mindfulness has been ripped from the Buddha's Noble 8-Fold Path. 

Now gardening is at risk of going the same way, and if Tim Richardson is right - and for as long as the lowly-status of the care industry remains - narrowing its appeal in this way might only serve to dissuade even more young people from entering the profession.
'til next time!
le Jardinier

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Cristo's June 18th!

The great man himself

So, what’s so special about June 18th? Well, it kind of goes a little like this.
I can never remember from where I heard it, and it certainly wasn’t from the great man himself, but I have often quoted the great Christopher Lloyd who believed that gardens reach their peak on June the 18th.  In fact, myth has it that he actually gardened with this date in mind, spending the first half of the gardening year working up to this horticulturally picture perfect day. As I say, I can’t recall exactly where I heard or read it, but I’m certainly not making it up! I definitely heard it somewhere.

To be teased by the teasels!
Anyway, whether it be truth or myth, it certainly has Cristo’s stamp of wit and wisdom about it.

It sounds like the kind of thing he would say, so I’m sticking with it!

Think about it for a moment, around that time, perhaps the weekend closest to that date, go poke your nose into a few gardens and I guarantee that they'll be hitting their annual peak around then. Of course, it makes complete sense when you think about it and smacks of the stupefyingly obvious.

Our gardens closely follow our clocks and calendars, the quarterly seasons and the associated weather patterns. Although we often remain completely unaware, we too are intimately related to the changes in our seasons, our ever-changing weather; the ebb and flow of daylight length, the rising and falling of our plant life, and so on.  You could almost set your watch by the various seasonal tasks required in the garden, with a tick-list too long to recount here!

le maison et le jardin
Look at where we are now, around Cristo’s June 18th. Gardens are at their peak. The soft lush foliage of trees and shrubs has reached maturity in shape, size and colour. Flowering time reaches its peak also, with probably the highest number of summer-flowering plants reaching their colourful best. Insect activity is also at its busiest and day length is fully extended with a solstice sun reaching its zenith. With this is mind, I’ve often heard designers say that Chelsea is a few weeks too early in the year, and that Hampton Court is a few weeks too late. Why neither of these famous shows are staged in mid-June is beyond me! 

Such successional abundance!
Then, following the hectic, heady heights of June, gardens begin a very slow decline: resting into a sulky July, often  overworked and somewhat exhausted by August, before receiving a little pick-me-up from the freshening winds of September.

As a gardener, people often ask me how I get through the winter months. Well, believe me, December and January are often busier months in the garden than July and August! In fact, many gardeners I know prefer to holiday in August, due to the general inactivity in the garden. Usually, by then, both gardener and garden need a rest!
With autumn comes another period of intense activity in the garden. Helping to put a garden to bed, rushing around behind it as it descends into dormancy is quite a skill, and is closely linked to its opposite – that of opening it up again (letting it unfold) in the spring: autumn and spring are more closely related than you would think. Rather gloomily, I once told my students that pre-winter work in the garden is not too dissimilar from assisted dying, in that your task is really one of helping your plants to die with both dignity and grace!

Those low autumnal tones I mentioned.
Of course, for new perennial lovers such as myself, September - and into the autumn - remains my favourite time of the year. I always plan to see many naturalistic gardens around this time: Scampston, Pensthorpe, Sussex Prairies, the Oudolf borders at Wisley, and so on. The combination of the many perennial daisies (asters, heleniums, rudbeckias), coupled with ornamental grasses reaching their beautiful best, and all backlit with low autumnal tones mingled with a chilly breeze is, to me at least, easily the most enchanting period of the garden.

Caryopteris x clandonensis
So as you can see, for most people, the horticultural crescendo that reaches its peak around the summer solstice really is a garden at its height. By then, all of it is pretty much up and doing so to speak. Okay, there may be a bit of wiggle room either side of that date, two or three weeks of weather wobble causing flowering advances or delays, but generally that is when our cottage style gardens are at their best.
As you can probably guess, the flowering window for most plants is relatively short - only a few weeks at most - and these windows open and close in quick succession throughout the year.  However, it is only now that the luminous June sunshine throws a brilliant gloss on to our plants and beckons us to throw open the largest window of them all – an invitation to simply get out there and see for ourselves!

It's all so good.....!

Le Jardinier.
Bye for now....

Thursday, 25 February 2016

A Bridge Too Far?

A vision of London's Garden Bridge

So anyway, it finally looks as though the Thames is to have its garden bridge after all. Ever since our very own Ghurkha girl, Joanna Lumley, way back in the late 90’s, raised the potential of crossing the Thames by way of a floating garden, there have been mootings and mutterings about a possible garden bridge.  Although the seed was sown a few years before, the idea properly managed to germinate around the time of London’s most recent renaissance, that of the 2012 London Olympics. During that time, and not since the BritPop era of the early nineties, had we as a nation felt quite so invincible, seeming to believe that any grandiose design idea – especially one based within the capital - could be midas-touched and blessed by the people.
So it was that a few U.K top-trendies somehow found themselves to be straddling that rather fortunate, age-old axis, that of being in the right place at the right time. Again, with the echoes of Olympic success still bouncing around the Millennium Stadium, design folk such Tom Heatherwick (he of the famous flaming Olympic cauldron) and Dan Pearson (Blighty’s very own Piet Oudolf) set about working on ideas for a garden bridge.
Planning applications were submitted in 2014 and a judicial review took place a year later, along with ground surveys of both the north and south banks of the famous river. The foundations of such a project, both literal and metaphorical were looking good. So, bridge building specialists were approached, as were specialist steel manufacturers and planting contractors, Willerby Landscapes of Kent. All the hard stuff, the very structures designed to keep us elevated and dry seemed to be advancing well.
Artistic mock-ups of the proposed bridge

But what of the actual planting elements on the bridge itself? Designing, imagining, creating what will be a massive park… on a bridge, comes with huge horticultural challenges. The journey across the bridge will be designed to tell the tale of the capital’s horticultural history, with ancient old wild marshland being depicted towards the south side, unfolding its proud heritage into more ornamental gardening as you cross the water north towards Temple.
Of course, it is around this area, long-famed for its inner temples of law and order, where the Knights Templar of the 12th century brought back many plants from the holy land, including figs, roses and lavender, creating gardens that to this day, are revered all around the world.
The High Line. Similar, but also very different
Within this story, there is of course an elephant in the room, albeit a rather small one. It’s very hard to discuss London’s garden bridge without also making reference to New York’s High Line, a 1 ½ -mile long disused train line elevated some nine meters above Manhattan’s Lower West Side. Instigated in 2009, the High Line has undoubtedly become the world’s largest landscape design project of the last 50 years.  In fact, ever since its initial conception, London’s garden bridge has constantly been referred to as ‘London’s High Line’ and has, in my opinion at least, been driven ever-so-slightly with at least some degree of Anglo-American competition.  
But of course, though appearing to be quite similar ideas, there are some very strong fundamental and critical differences between the two projects.
Firstly, New York’s High Line was created more in the spirit of our original Olympic bid, in that it was designed to help regenerate an extremely deprived part of the city. It made use of a huge, and pretty ugly, redundant infrastructure that was ear-marked for demolition anyway. Quite unlike London’s garden bridge, which promises to link two already popular tourist destinations (the South Bank and Temple) which quite frankly, don’t need linking. One can hardly argue that these two areas of London are in any way impoverished and in need of regeneration.
Secondly, and quite unlike The High Line which has successfully enhanced the landscape of a rather uninviting part of Manhattan, London’s garden bridge is set to ruin one of London’s most historic and iconic views: the sweeping view from Waterloo Bridge across the Thames to St Paul’s Cathedral. Maybe London’s parks and gardens should remain exactly where they are, hidden away behind the rows of terraced houses and sitting within the many squares, waiting to be discovered like the secret oasis gems they all are.
However, in an attempt not to sound like the half-empty kind of guy I’m often accused of being, and in the spirit of balanced reporting, there are of course, many good things to say about the this potential project.
I feel it will offer the people of London, both tourist and worker alike, a free and unrivalled method of crossing the Thames. I’m sure it will be glorious. A way in which to cross the Thames, already a pleasure in itself, one will be transported like a passenger through one of the world’s most creative and innovative landscape designs.
Once again, and following on from our Olympic success, it’ll showcase British creative design, our way of thinking and inventive engineering, and will remind the world of our history of horticultural excellence.
Okay, the ‘great’ in Great Britain may not actually shout as loud as it once did. Now we have a very small manufacturing industry; an ever-increasing gap between us and the world’s super powers; all our neighbours seem to want independence, and now we are faced with a possible exit from the European Union. Well, perhaps a project such as the garden bridge is exactly what we need right now.
The view from the Temple
Our ever-changing, four-seasons-in-one-day style of weather has always been a horticultural gift to this small island. Our temperate climate, with (believe it or not) as much sun as there is rain has allowed us to grow, breed and show a huge range of diverse plants in our gardens. As a result, our horticultural heritage continues to portray us to the world as a land of green-fingered gardeners still cultivating our mixed borders, growing bountiful supplies of fruit and veg in our allotments and laying down stripes in our cut lawns at the weekend.  
Couple this with our equally-long and proud heritage of both engineering and architecture and suddenly London’s garden bridge begins to feel simply like the right thing to do. The U.K has always had a history of being able to punch above its own weight and demonstrate to the world exactly what we are capable of, and let’s be honest, when we do something, we do it pretty well in this country.

I’m sure the garden bridge will be fantastic! Like everything we do in this country I’m sure it will be an incredible success, an amazing experience for all those who use it, and yet another jewel in the crown for both the capital and the country.

Until next time.

Le Jardinier.