Gardening and The Time Paradox

IMG_4526

It’s a little while since I wrote a garden book review. Followers of my Instagram account may know that I am reading Beth Chatto’s Garden Notebook month by month, and I won’t be ready to review this until I finish the year’s journey with her in December. I also have another gardening book on the go, one of Christopher Lloyd’s, and I’ll review that in due course too. In between reading these gardening books as well as fiction, I’ve now started my new garden design classes and have whole library shelves of delectable design books available to me: plenty to keep my eyes occupied. Meanwhile, another book I recently read gave me a great deal to think about. It’s not a gardening book, but it was so tempting to extrapolate its ideas to gardeners that I thought I’d write this post about it. The book is called The Time Paradox: The New Psychology Of Time and was written by two psychologists of Stanford University, Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd.

I first picked this book up in the hopes of finding an explanation of why I am late for everything. (I did find out, incidentally: I’m a ‘Present Hedonist’, forever too deeply immersed in the current moment to notice the clock). But far beyond that, the book described the many intriguing different ways we perceive time, and how our balance of past, present and future perspective drives everything we do. It describes how our view of the past (positive or negative) determines our contentment in the present, and has less to do with the magnitude of events in our past than our way of framing them. Our relationship with the present is just as important. Reminders to live ‘mindfully’ aren’t necessary for us ‘Present Hedonists’, who rarely forget to stop and smell the roses or sit and enjoy the garden. (We never get anything useful done, mind you, but at least we are less prone to chronic stress and its related diseases.) ‘Present Fatalists’ on the other hand, feel that their life is governed by external influences over which they have little or no control, a perspective that is linked to anxiety and depression. Then there are the ‘Futures’, people whose actions today are driven by anticipation of tomorrow’s gains. Futures are good at delayed gratification. They study for exams, they invest in their pensions, they are always on time for the train. They are the lawyers and accountants who make the world go round while the Presents are smelling the roses and forgetting to submit their tax returns. We all need a good balance between a Past-Positive, Present-Hedonistic, and Future perspective in order to lead a healthy and productive life. So what has this all got to do with gardening?

IMG_4516

There could hardly be a better pastime in which past, present and future are more intricately woven. Let me illustrate with a simple vignette. At the end of last month, I decided that my wildflower crates were past their best (they had never really got off the ground, to tell the truth), and I decided to replant them for winter. I pulled the remains of the wildflowers out, first snipping off anything that could be used for a vase. I walked over to the compost heap, took off the lid, had a good look inside first, and then threw the spent wildflowers in. Then I spent a good few minutes flicking the brandling worms off the side so they wouldn’t be squashed when I put the lid back on. Large ones first, then the smaller ones, then tapping the lid to knock any off the lip and into the bin. Some of them got stuck, and I scooped them off delightedly, squeamishly, with a forefinger, which I then wiped on my jeans. (Can you see why I’m late for everything?)

IMG_4523

I replaced some of the old soil in the crates with new compost, mixing it in with my bare hands, heedless of the dirt I was going to have to scrape out from under my fingernails later on in order to be hand-hygeine-presentable for my day job as a ‘Future’ at the hospital. I liked the smell of the compost and the way it felt. Time slipped like soil between my fingers as I searched for vine weevil grubs (none to be seen). Once the soil was prepared, I planted some snowdrop bulbs. My favourite flowers are snowdrops, and the thought of that first sighting of glaucous shoots in a dark January brings me great anticipation for the season ahead. With the pleasure of past winters always vivid in my mind, I took a large bag of snowdrop bulbs and divided them between the two crates, arranging them in an even pattern across the soil, pressing them in with my thumb. I’ve never planted snowdrops from dry bulbs in autumn before, and it will be five months before I see the results of this trial. I also planted some Narcissus ‘Minnow’ in the gaps between the snowdrops, having admired a picture of them in a magazine; it will be seven months before I see those in flower. To give me something to enjoy today and for the rest of the autumn, I topped the crates with generous pink and white Bellis daisies, bought at the garden centre in a present-oriented splurge. Memories of past enjoyment motivating me to take time over a pleasurable job in the present in order to reap future rewards. Little wonder gardening is therapy.

IMG_4525

People who have a tendency to live in the present are at a disadvantage in the Northern Hemisphere’s future-driven clock-time culture. On the other hand, you can hardly open a newspaper or social media site these days without seeing an article about how we should all be practising mindfulness and living more in the present. It’s getting the balance right that’s key, and I’m convinced gardening can help. Much has been written about gardening and mindfulness: how tilling the earth and being close to nature makes us slow down and experience the infinitesimal now. But what about gardening and a future perspective? Well, if anything could reorientate someone to a future perspective, it’s gardening. Practically every intervention in gardening is made with the future in mind. We plant bulbs in autumn so that we have flowers in spring. We sow seeds in February so that we have vegetables in June. When we plant a sapling, we are not thinking only of the benefit for ourselves, but of future generations, of people we may never know, who never knew we existeda transcendental future. Gardening teaches us about patience, consequences, delayed gratification, investment of time and effort. If education exists to turn Present-Hedonistic children (and adults) into well behaved Futures, then there’s no education like the experience of a dreary, tulip-less spring to galvanise a Present Hedonist into getting those bulbs planted in autumn. If I were a psychologist interested in the time perspectives of gardeners, I’d test the correlation between a Future orientation and a willingness to sow biennials.

IMG_4509

I would also test the correlation between enjoyment of weeding versus a Present or Future perspective. As a Present Hedonist, I adore weeding. Give me a hand fork and a podcast and I’ll happily pull creeping buttercups for hours. I enjoy the task itself much more than the result. Put a Future to the same task and they’ll get on with it too; but with merely the return on investment in mind they are likely to find it a mundane, if necessary chore. It’s the Present Fatalists who suffer most. With little consideration for any future return on their investment of time, and a sinking feeling that no matter how many weeds they pull they’ll never get them under control, weeding becomes a hated and seemingly pointless chore. Yet, gardening is a science, and reliable outcomes can be achieved through specific actions, so there could hardly be a better or more pleasurable way of engaging the Present Fatalist and showing them that this is one arena in which they can take control. To this group of people, who have often had the least control over their lives (through adverse social or economic circumstances, for example) and who suffer frequently from mental health disorders, gardening perhaps has the most to offer.

If you are interested in finding out about your own time perspective scores, you can test yourself on the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory.

Zimbardo, P and Boyd, J. (2008) The Time Paradox: The New Psychology Of Time. First edition, London: Rider.

IMG_4517

Book review: Some Flowers by Vita Sackville-West

‘This short book is personal, and therefore very arbitrary,’ begins Vita Sackville-West in the foreword to her book of essays on twenty-five of her favourite flowers. And at first glance down the contents page, the flowers she has chosen do appear to be haphazardly selected, heavily weighted as they are, for no reason that is immediately apparent, in favour of just a few genera with some oddities thrown in for good measure. In a list of twenty-five flowers that includes four types of old rose, three types each of primula and lily, and two types each of iris and fritillary, there isn’t much room left for the many other flowers that Sackville-West must have grown and loved. ‘What, no hardy geranium? No aster?’ you might well wonder as you begin to read, while also privately thinking, ‘What, so few of my favourites?’

But read on regardless, for you will shortly come to learn of the reason for Sackville-West’s choices. She has chosen ‘painters’ flowers’, though not the broad-brush flowers of the big border, not the flowers seen as an impressionist’s mass of blue or white from a distance. ‘The flowers I have chosen depend chiefly on their loveliness of shape, colouring, marking or texture,’ explains Sackville-West. ‘They are flowers which require to be looked at very intimately, if their queerness or beauty is to be closely appreciated. They are flowers which painters have delighted, or should delight, to paint.’

And it is refreshing that she has not restricted or restrained herself within self-imposed (or publisher-imposed) rules to widen the selection, a freedom that adds to the sense of casual. Don’t be fooled by her chatty, effortless style, which will transport you through the book as though riding a scudding cloud. Here is a mind alive with wit and information, and both are imparted as lightly as possible in a style that is by turns business-like, romantic, gossipy and indignant.

Always interesting and thought-provoking, she describes the many uses of mullein tea, which rose is the true York-and-Lancaster rose, and a memorable account of coming across a group of wild crown imperials growing in a dark ravine in Persia. But of course it is the descriptions of the flowers we are here for, and despite her admitting that it is ‘indeed very difficult to write about flowers’ we need not worry that she’ll fail us. Each is given its fair value in colour, texture, and the way light shines through translucent petals, while great care is taken not to descend to ‘purple’ language. A group of Verbascum Cotswold Varieties are fondly said to be ‘dusty, fusty, musty in colouring … as though a colony of tiny buff butterflies had settled all over them.’ Only about the Rosa gallica Tuscany does she get away from herself: ‘The velvet rose. What a combination of words! One almost suffocates in their soft depths, as though one sank into  a bed of rose petals, all thorns ideal stripped away.’ She brings herself back to earth by pointing out that ‘We cannot actually lie on a bed of roses, unless we are very decadent, and also very rich,’ and then apologises for her ‘fanciful way of writing’ before running away from herself again when looking closely into the ‘quivering and dusty gold of its central perfection.’ Don’t you just love her?

The edition in my hand is printed under the National Trust’s imprint, and gorgeously illustrated by the botanical painter Graham Rust. For some reason best known to themselves, the NT decided to print the book’s title not on the actual cover, but on a large sticker that looks most impermanent and strange, rather like a ‘3 for 2’ sticker commonly found on books stacked on tables in the entrances of commercial bookshops. It was just asking to be peeled off, which of course I started to do in a moment of distraction while on the phone. Sadly it would not peel off and so now I have a half-peeled sticker on the front of this otherwise handsome book, which in the spirit of things have tried to disguise with Some Flowers.

Eighty years have passed since the book’s first publication, and some of Sackville-West’s flowers have since become much more common and popular in ordinary gardens: the witch hazel, the meadow fritillary, the iris reticulata, zinnias. Some, like the Gerbera daisy have come through fashion and out again on the other side. The flowers have become popular because gardeners hang onto Sackville-West’s every word, and they hang onto her every word because she writes with such restrained beauty and sense, disguised as casual conversation. I urge you to rush out and buy this book, and then after you have read it immediately order everything else that Sackville-West has ever written, which is what I intend to do.

Sackville-West, V. (1937) Some Flowers. This edition (2014), London: National Trust Books.

IMG_3934

Book review: Lessons From Great Gardeners by Matthew Biggs

Madame Ganna Walska was a Polish beauty of enormous charisma, charm and energy.  Her initial career was in opera, but her particular talents lay in two quite different directions: firstly, in making prudent marriages (she married a succession of men of huge wealth); secondly, in exotic, exuberant, and extravagant gardening.

After divorcing for the sixth and final time, Walska set about creating ‘Lotusland’, her vast garden in California. ‘She filled the garden with rare and exotic species, falling in love with their beauty but never knowing their names,’ writes Matthew Biggs in his delightful book, Lessons From Great Gardeners: forty gardening icons and what they can teach us. ‘Wanting plants that always looked good, Madame… was more interested in their art, style and beauty.’

Her garden was funded, of course, by her acquired marital wealth. Biggs quotes a story in which Walska drove around the neighbourhood in search of choice specimens, and whenever she saw something she wanted in someone else’s garden, she had her chauffeur knock on the front door, offering to buy it. If the person refused, ‘a case of champagne was delivered; that usually changed their minds.’ She would go on to sell almost $1m of jewellery to fund her various collections, including a garden of 900 cycads representing half the world’s species, many of them incredibly rare.

Madame Walska’s accompanies thirty-nine similarly spellbinding four-page histories, written in chronological order starting with the fifteenth-century Japanese artist Somai who created Ryouan-Ji, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to the contemporary plantsman and plant hunter Dan Hinkley. Most of the gardeners one would expect to find here are present and correct: Paxton, Lloyd, Sackville-West, Chatto, Oudolf; and there are several whose names I recognised, perhaps from cultivars (Edward Augustus Bowles, Ellen Willmott), awards (James Veitch) or other subjects (Thomas Jefferson, Claude Monet), but about whom I knew much less. Then, like Walska, there were many I had never heard of at all, including the plantswoman Rae Selling Berry and the creator of the garden in the ruins of Ninfa near Rome, Princess Leila Caetani.

The gardeners are satisfyingly varied: there are those like Walska or the businessman Henry E. Huntingdon who built their gardens from great riches. Then there are those who gardened on behalf of the rich, like André Le Notre of Versailles, or Joseph Paxton of Chatsworth. Some gardeners had other jobs and gardened for relaxation (Thomas Jefferson, Sir Thomas Hanbury), others gardened obsessively to the exclusion of all else (Ellen Willmott, Madame Walska). The artist gardener is well represented in Claude Monet, Gertrude Jekyll and Jacques Majorelle.

I was unfamiliar with the writing of Matt Biggs, accustomed as I am to hearing his cheery voice on Gardeners’ Question Time. His writing style is as soothing as his subjects, telling their stories in clear, well written, well researched paragraphs, and it carries a quiet joy in its theme. Like many RHS published books, Lessons is printed on good quality mat paper: a satisfying book to feel and hold; each gardener is accompanied by a little portrait along with botanical illustrations of some of those plants best associated with them: Deschampsia for Piet Oudolf, Gentian for Geoffrey Smith, Asters for Gertrude Jekyll, Geranium for Margery Fish. Every gardener has a page of ‘Lessons’. Geoff Hamilton teaches us that ‘things don’t have to be perfect… Gardening is all about enjoyment; don’t take it too seriously’. Beth Chatto tells us to ‘accept the existing conditions, choose the right plants for that location’. Vita Sackville-West ‘disliked excessive tidiness’ (me too, Vita). Madame Ganna Walska has advice for us in conservation and sustainable gardening, though no specific instruction is given on the acquisition of husbands.

But while the lessons Biggs extracts from his subjects are mostly practical tips and ideas, a greater lesson was emerging for me. The unifying characteristic of these great gardeners, the thing they all had in common, was an overwhelming drive and passion for plants, gardens and nature, a strong desire for self-education, and a work ethic that set them apart. Whatever your background, your education, your income or your starting point, so long as you have courage, a will to work and conviction in your own style, there is room for you and your story among the stories of all the gardeners who have ever lived.

Biggs, M. (2015) Lessons From Great Gardeners: forty gardening icons and what they teach us. 1st edition, London: Mitchell Beazley.

IMG_3202

Scotland’s Gardens 2017

IMG_2128

That there are Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete in bloom in this photo shows how long I have been meaning to write this (or any, for that matter) post. I half intended to take a fresh, more seasonally appropriate photograph to reflect the fact that it is all of a sudden July, but my copy of the Scotland’s Gardens guide is by now so bruised and battered that it would not have looked nearly so appealing. On second thoughts, such a photo would have amply shown more than words what an essential and useful guide this book has been. If you live in, nearby, or travel to Scotland, and you love gardens, how could you do without this daffodil-coloured tome of horticultural promise?

IMG_0241
The rill at Shepherd House, Inveresk

Scotland’s Gardens is an organisation that allows private and public gardens to open for the benefit of local and national charities, with the help of volunteers and of course the generosity of the gardens’ owners. This year, some of the noteworthy gardens included a 700-year-old monastic priory, the apple-walk at Tyningham House, and an Edwardian Japanese garden, as well as 70 new gardens including Drumstinchall House in Kirkcudbrightshire, a wildlife garden at the Auld Post Office in Caithness, and Carey House garden in Abernethy. Beware – there are nine highly dangerous plant sales advertised, and several ‘Garden Trails’ and garden festivals are highlighted in the guide.

IMG_0018
Delphiniums and roses: Tyninghame Gardens, East Lothian

I have been a visitor of gardens all my life, at first in tow of my parents, who taught us to appreciate historic houses and their glorious rambling parklands and formal gardens from an early age. As I chased through the rhodadendrons after my sister, I cared little for the details of a garden but must have absorbed the whole unconsciously. These days, there is almost nothing I like better than to spend time in a beautiful, well-tended garden, and my sister and I often spend pleasant Sunday afternoons touring the gardens and historic houses of Scotland. Scotland’s Gardens is our signpost, a guide to all the gardens across Scotland, the majority of which are not routinely open to the public, set out region by region and detailing the days upon which they are open. There is also an online guide at www.scotlandsgardens.org in which gardens are searchable by date of opening or region.

IMG_2379
From the window: Crathes Castle, Aberdeenshire

This weekend, the annual East Lothian Garden Trail is our destination: twelve private gardens across East Lothian, which can be accessed for £5 per garden or £40 for all. For a map and downloadable guide to the gardens, follow this link.

With many thanks to Emma Mason for so kindly sending me a copy of Scotland’s Gardens to review.

IMG_0101
Bluebell woods: Newliston Estate, nr Edinburgh
IMG_0035
Tyninghame Gardens, East Lothian

 

Book Review: ‘What a Plant Knows’ by Daniel Chamovitz

IMG_1905

It was while investigating the genes responsible for regulating plants’ responses to light and dark that Daniel Chamovitz, a research biologist, became interested in the parallels between plant and human biology. How do plants ‘know’ that they must turn towards light, and how does this correspond with human responses to light? And if a plant can ‘see’ (that is detect difference in shades of light and darkness) can it also feel, hear, smell, or retain memories? What A Plant Knows is the wonderful result of Chamovitz’s research into these questions, and without giving too much away, it turns out that most of these senses are felt by plants just as much as humans.

But it is only by broadening our notions of what it is to see, feel or remember that we can justly apply these characteristics to plants, and throughout this book we are invited to perform interesting thought experiments about what exactly it means to smell or remember or hear, at both simple and complex levels. Chamovitz is at pains to point out that while plants can detect a range of sensations in ways very similar to humans, they do not have brains and so there is no reasoning or emotional component to what they ‘know’. For example, a plant can ‘know’ that its neighbour is being attacked by beetles by ‘smelling’ the chemicals released by the damaged leaves, and respond by producing its own defensive chemicals to deter beetle attack, but without a brain a plant cannot have an emotional response to its neighbour’s demise. Humans, on the other hand, not only take defensive action on learning of a neighbour’s injury or illness (‘She has cancer; I should really stop smoking,’ or ‘He hit his head falling from his bike; I’d better wear a helmet when I cycle’) but our practical responses are tied up with emotional ones: ‘Poor him, I do hope he wasn’t very hurt’ or, ‘I am worried about what will happen to her children.’ We can all too easily attribute such human emotions to other living things, and Chamovitz warns us against the silliness of anthropomorphising plants. With no brain to perform complex reasoning, your Camellia japonica cannot worry or fret any more than your dining table can. There is no need to wince when pruning a branch from your favourite tree. The tree knows that the branch has been removed, and will respond by healing the wound, but it cannot feel pain (a sensation useful only in creatures that can respond by moving away from a painful stimulus) and it certainly would not feel the ranges of anger, worry and grief that a human might feel on losing a limb. Plant responses are emotionless and practical, and if anything this book caused me to ponder on the energy that we humans expend in our sometimes crazy, overblown responses to adverse events.

There is one plant sense that Chamovitz fails to find any evidence for: suffice to say that when Prince Charles whispers sweet nothings to his dahlias, his words fall on deaf… leaves. But any disappointment the reader may feel over the stubborn inability of their plants to listen to, let alone ‘enjoy’, Mozart or The Beatles will be more than assuaged by Chamovitz’s astonishing and delightful chapter on plant memory.

The book is not without its small transgressions. I felt that the accurate word should not have been far from Chamovitz’s reach when without irony he stated that leaves ‘inhale’ molecules, a choice of verb that aptly demonstrates his subsequent point about our unwitting tendency to anthropomorphise plants. Chamovitz also overstrains himself in his first chapter to defend what I thought were perfectly reasonable comparisons of plants to humans, but he soon settles more comfortably into his theme and strings his arguments and ideas interestingly throughout this delightful and charming book, lending the scientist gardener a multitude of novel ideas and fresh perspectives of the minute and unnoticed goings-on among the plants in our gardens and beyond.

Chamovitz, D. (2012) What a Plant Knows. 4th edition, London: Oneworld Publications.

Book Review: ‘Dear Friend and Gardener’ by Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd

img_1463

In the mid-90s, a publisher suggested to the eminent horticulturalists Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd that they write a series of letters on ‘life and gardening’ to be published as a book. ‘Dear Friend and Gardener’ is the result of that suggestion, a cosy fireside delve into the chatty, gossipy, and wholly fascinating missives that flew back and forth between these two old chums.

Without ado, you fall into their world: of seed pans, topiary, propagation, opera, tulips, visits, droughts, plums, long journeys, gravel, potting up, dinner parties, carrots, dogs, daffodils. You instantly come to know the writers and their quirks: Christo, crotchety, confident, scathing, versus Beth, dreamy, poetic, a darling, nervous as a wren. Christo has an arch opinion to give to anyone who is unlucky enough to have committed a horticultural crime and to have come within earshot. At an RHS garden, he finds that the paths too wiggly, a patch of helianthus ‘of no great distinction’ is flowering without a supporting cast, and pruning has been done incorrectly. So of course he tells the gardeners so, immediately. Yet the reader cannot resent the man for his stridency, for we can tell without seeing the objects of shame that he’s bound to be right. Surely it is a genius’s prerogative to cast aspersions on the fumbling attempts of the rest of us. Anyway, Christo’s forthright manner provides us with the much-needed humour to stop the chat from becoming too earnest.

He is the perfect foil for kind, sweet Beth, who writes delightedly about everything she comes across, yet by contrast is a bundle of anxieties over her garden, especially about the perpetual lack of rain in her parched corner of Suffolk. She counts every precious drop, and wills the nearby thunderclaps to move overhead and bring a downpour to her dry land. But rain hardly ever does come to Beth Chatto’s garden. How often does she lament that it has cruelly drenched villages just a few miles off! To the maxim of never working with children or animals, we might just as well add ‘plants’ and ‘the weather’.

The backdrops to their letters are, naturally, Great Dixter and the Beth Chatto Gardens. Each is described in perfect poetry, particularly by Beth. Open the book at any of her letters and you will find grapes hanging ‘like a frieze over the potting shed door’, ‘tall columns of miscanthus grass, bleached and dried, [swaying] restlessly beside the frigid ponds’, or a baby hedgehog coming ‘purposefully towards us and, finding my feet in the way, [stumbling] unconciously over them… We held our breath.’

“I could just stand and stare: not only at the planting, still rich and full, albeit with few flowers now, but at the bowl of blue sky, filled with feathery white clouds twisting and dissolving into nothingness, high, high above. Below, slow moving indigo ‘mountains’ closed in behind the oast houses, their white caps highlighted against the dark sky, while all the autumn colours of the garden were gilded by the dying of the sun as it sank into a sea of gold.”

What I liked

The contrast between the two old friends gave the book the perfect amount of fizz and energy to carry me through, always wanting to read on. I aspired to the ‘good life’ they both led, a simple life of gardens, pottering round with chickens getting under their feet, wandering in from the vegetable garden with some fresh crop to turn in to lunch, or writing letters in front of the fire. Their ability to observe and describe the most minute of details with accuracy and poetry was inspiring, as was what they had both managed to achieve in their different ways within the horticultural world. I adored both of them, and was able to see gardening and gardens anew through their eyes.

What I didn’t like

Very little, although I found some of the writing necessarily contrived. Throughout the book, I kept wondering about the frequency with which they explained things that the other would have automatically known, for the benefit of the lay reader. Did they edit the letters afterwards to clarify things, or did they have to include tiresome facts as they went along? My question was answered in a throwaway comment of Christo’s in his final paragraph: he is relieved that henceforth their letters would be private and they could leave out descriptors such as ‘the autumn flowering Crocus speciosus‘ since they both know ‘perfectly well’ when this plant flowers. I can imagine what a relief that would have been for them both. Presumably they will also stop giving all their measurements in both metric and imperial, a practice which I for one found wholly unnecessary.

Who should buy this book

Anyone with even the vaguest interest in gardening would adore losing themselves in these letters. Just add a glass of mulled wine and a crackly fire for the perfect winter’s night in.

Chatto, B; Lloyd, C. (1998) Dear Friend and Gardener: letters on life and gardening. 1st edition, London: Frances Lincoln.

Book review: ‘The Sceptical Gardener’ by Ken Thompson

img_1162

My sister, bless her dear soul, is a Telegraph reader (those italics are for editorial correctness, not incredulity); moreover, she reads the analogue version, one section of the Saturday edition every weekday morning over her tea and toast, and when she’s done with the Gardening section she gives it to me. When it’s my turn, I like reading the adverts, and the monthly jobs, and cutting out bits with scissors, which I then glue into my gardening file. I was surprised, therefore, to discover that there’s a Telegraph gardening columnist called Ken Thompson whom I hadn’t heard of. Why hadn’t I discovered him before? Thompson is just about the ultimate man: a scientist, and a gardener, who writes interestingly, and has a kindly, bearded face, and above all, in this age of irrational personalities and defiance of expertise, talks calm, bridled, common sense backed up by scientific evidence.

Ah, evidence. Working in the medical and pharmaceutical fields, my daily life revolves around it. If a hospital colleague says something you disagree with, you can simply respond loftily, ‘Yes, but is that evidence-based?’ Every statement or action in healthcare has to be backed up by rigorous study, or face a scornful dressing down. Not so in gardening, where myth, folklore, old-wives’ tales, and plain nonsense abound. Well, that’s fine: after all, the stakes are somewhat lower in gardening than in healthcare. If your Camellia japonica dies, you can just buy a new one. But if you want to cut to the chase and get things right first time, then there’s lots of scientific study out there that will help you be a better gardener, if only you knew where to find it and how to interpret it. That’s where Thompson and his articulate collection of columns comes in.

But this isn’t dry science. Thompson picks topics that you didn’t even know were topics: a prisoners’ dilemma for trees; pouring sugar onto meadows; the frequency with which gardeners appear on Desert Island Discs. He swiftly, but kindly, dismantles myths (permaculture and planting by moon cycles are not worth the trouble, apparently), and expresses dismay at neonicotinoids, New Zealand flatworms, the tendency of Gardeners’ Question Time panelists to make stuff up when they don’t know an answer, and the number of people injured each year by flower pots (5000). A sceptic Thompson might be but he is not a grump, finding much to be cheerful about in the quality of allotment soil, a group of students growing their own food, and the unlooked-for advantages of a drought.

What I liked

I like Thompson’s choice of topics, his succinct, understated style, his lack of hyperbole, and his principles. I am a rather lazy gardener, and so I read with particular relish the chapter named, ‘Not Worth Doing’, describing various garden activities that can be scientifically dismissed as pointless.

What I didn’t like

Being someone who likes to read a book straight through rather than dipping in and out (as I suspect this book was designed for), I would have preferred the columns to have been printed chronologically rather than organised by topic, since they became rather repetitive and unvarying grouped as they are. But I doubt ‘dippers’ would find this layout disagreeable.

Who should buy this book

Gardeners who would like their questions answered in a scientific way, or want to find out a little more about scientific research into horticulture. Those who enjoy ‘bathroom books’ and like entertaining, useful, and interesting facts and snippets.

Thompson, K; (2015) The Sceptical Gardener: the thinking person’s guide to good gardening. 1st edition (London): Icon.

 

Book review: ‘Compost’ by Clare Foster

IMG_0547

From House and Garden‘s Garden Editor comes this charming little guide covering every aspect of composting. As Foster describes, composting is an accelerated imitation of the natural processes of decomposition that occur on a forest floor, a process that involves millions of organisms slowly digesting fallen leaves and dead vegetation, releasing the nutrients back into the soil for plants to use again. Adding organic compost to the soil in your garden has a multitude of benefits beyond simple plant nutrition, including improvement of soil structure and increasing beneficial soil organisms that compete against pathogens, as well as being a useful way of recycling vegetable and plant waste.

First, Foster goes through the science behind composting in three short chapters. Then the book gets to its main purpose, which is to explain to the beginner gardener how to start composting, the established gardener how to speed things along, and the large-scale experienced gardener, well, something they are likely doing already, how to create a three- or four-bin system. This is less a tome for the old-hand, and more an encouragement to the anxious person who is wondering if they are doing things right. To which, Ms Foster ably demonstrates, the answer is probably ‘yes’.  Because once we’ve covered the absolute basics that most of us should already know (don’t add cooked food, animal products or animal waste, or plastic, or anything else that won’t rot, obvs), then as long as you’ve made a heap of vegetable matter and left it alone for a while, you will eventually obtain compost. Decomposition is inexorable process that goes on anyway, whether we ask it to or not. Of course, there are methods of complicating the process (and your life), like adding the material in layers, shredding woody bits, using comfrey and green manures, periodic turning, wormeries, and special rotator bins: your production of compost will  improve enormously with any of these methods, but none of them is essential if you don’t have a yen to get fancy with your heap. However, if you are thinking of cranking things up, Foster goes into useful detail on all these topics and more. There are even step-by-step instructions on how to build your own stackable wooden container.

What I liked The ethos of the book is commendable. Foster conveys a good sense of the bigger picture, the damage we do with our landfill and how we benefit from better connectedness, for want of a better word, with the earth, in both macro and micro terms. She is not squeamish about worms, rotting stuff, or recommending the use of Bob Flowerdew’s favourite compost condiment, namely a good dousing of urine. And the photographs are homely and well captured, managing to make even compost heaps look quaintly charming.

What I didn’t like For a second-edition book written by someone with long experience in publishing, I was surprised by the number of typos, and at least one major error (Foster confuses the roles of the micronutrients potassium and phosphate) which inevitably detracts from the authority.

How will this book change my gardening Compost was more of a reassurance than a revelation to me; it seems that everything I am already doing compost-wise is fine. My system almost exactly mirrored the system of ‘Dean Riddle’, the protagonist of Foster’s third case study towards the end of the book. However, I will probably turn my compost heap more frequently than I currently do to increase availability of oxygen and thus speed up composting, especially since I use an enclosed ‘Dalek’ composter. I will also be more generous with additions of woody material and seaweed. The bottom line is that I was encouraged enough by this book to go outside and dig out some of the compost from the bottom of my Dalek, which I’d been putting off for fear something would have gone ‘wrong’ (silly me: what can go wrong if you have followed the basic rules?), and I was delighted to find that after riddling out the big chunks, sticks and the like, and throwing them back in at the top to rot a bit longer, I had a fine wheelbarrow-load of delicious compost ready for spreading on the garden.

Who should buy this book Beginner gardeners, anyone needing reassurance about composting, those involved in setting up community or school gardens an/or who wish to devise larger scale composting systems, anyone who wants to get tricky with their compost heap and try something more complicated, such as a wormery.

Foster, C. (2014) Compost: how to make and use organic compost to transform your garden.  2nd edition, London: Mitchell Beazley.

20160821_140735-2