Ebooks and the death of the hardback

Our latest article on the Garden Design Academy blog discusses the death of the gardening book. What do you think? Will the ebook soon replace the real thing?

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The world’s worst landscape customer, Lily Beetles and the writings of Henry Mitchell.

Clematis Ville de Lyon.
Our plant for the week 20 on Pinerest:
http://pinterest.com/pin/254875660131789636/

I’ve built a lot of gardens over the years, as a garden designer and owner of a two landscape companies. I don’t have the figures to hand but basic mental arithmetic puts the total built at around 500, while we have designed perhaps three times that.

Some of the people we worked for were not nice, some were dishonest and others unreasonably demanding. But the worst client ever? It could be me!

Iris Frost ‘ n’ Flame, one of the twenty or so varieties of Iris germanica we have in flower at the moment.

The problem is I know too much. At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, if a landscaper makes a mistake I can see it easily. While customers may complain about little things, they very often miss the fundamental errors which, in the case of our companies, I like to think I would spot and have corrected before any harm was done. Sometimes garden builders and landscapers will try to explain away the problems, justifying them, excusing them or denying they exist. We have years of experience behind us and can see through all that. That’s great if you are employing me to look out for your interests, but a disaster waiting to happen if you are working for us. I say “us”, but my wife is being much more mature and reasonable.

The Garden Design Academy and Les Sequoias, our B&B, are currently having a swimming pool built and I am not enjoying the process one little bit. I moan, I complain, I ask difficult questions, I get in the way. I know it’s not helpful but I just can’t stop myself. The French in general have a view about dealing with customers which is quite foreign to anything my clients expect and demand. I love it here, so I am reluctant to support the Anglo-Saxon stereotyping of the French by describing all of our problems, but I had hoped for a bit more service and consideration when I am spending my hard-earned cash with a company.

I mention all this mainly to address those of you who run businesses, and we have many students who do just that or will do so in the near future. I suggest they try to look at their operations from the point of view of a client. Are you welcoming, professional and transparent in what you are offering? Is your brochure easy to understand, your garden centre easy to navigate, your products easy to purchase? Have you thought about who your clients are and how you should address them, communicate with them, and explain things to them? Are you, your staff, your establishment and your marketing materials user-friendly? Do your products live up to the sales literature; can you do what you promise to do, on time and at a reasonable price?

Geranium Johnson’s Blue with Hostas in our woodland garden

From my point of view, what this swimming pool company lacks is a single point of reference for a client; someone who is in charge of every aspect of the job, can ensure that it is done well and that the client is kept fully informed. This person needs to be on site regularly. Teams of expert installers come and go seemingly at random – a day here, two days next week and three days the week after that. Most of them seem competent enough and reasonable friendly, but lacking hands-on leadership. We see minor and serious errors occur with each visit, and have to point them out ourselves. My wife spotted early on that the built-in stairway was installed in the wrong corner, averting the most serious mistake before it became too costly to correct. We have to repeat instructions and warnings to every team that walks in the door and I have lost count of the number of times I have asked them to be careful with our plants, only to watch them being buried under tons of earth, run over by machinery or trodden underfoot. I’m a nervous wreck now and can’t wait for them to go!

There is a place for human and other resource efficiencies and cost-saving business strategies, but when these interfere with good customer relationships it is time to reconsider your options. Do it anyway, on a regular basis and before minor irritations become magnified over time and customers are lost to more considerate competitors. At least the French don’t kill my plants and then demand Hobnobs with their tea!

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Lilium regale in flower last year

This is an incredibly busy time in the garden with seed to sow, seedlings to care for and pot on, tidying up the borders and lawns and weeding, weeding, weeding. A regular job cannot be ignored at this time of the year however busy one is. Every day, two or three times a day, we go hunting for Lily Beetles. This bright red beasties will eat every morsel of lily leaf they can find and must be collected and dispatched by hand, before they can do too much damage. It’s worth it, not only for the sake of the Lilies: if you have to deal with the larvae, disgusting things covered in their own excrement, the task is far worst. Those who grow a few Lilies and do not know this pest should look it up in gardening books or on the internet; I tried taking a photograph for this blog post, but they move as soon as they sense your presence. It is important to say that while all these tasks keep a gardener rushing around from one side of the garden to the other, time should always be found to admire the flowers which are everywhere at this time of the year. If not for pleasure, what is a garden for?

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We do not always receive as much response to these ramblings as I would like, but one recent comment on Cannas quoted the American garden writer Henry Mitchell. I was so intrigued by the remark that I ordered a copy of The Essential Earthman and have really enjoyed that gardener’s insights and observations. A real plantman, I have found myself reaching for the RHS Encyclopaedia several times to check on plants he recommends or otherwise. I like him, but suspect he was not always easy to get on with. He died on November 12th 1993, before I could read his articles “live”.

Book review: NGS Yellow Book 2012

There are some guide books which in our family are always kept in the car, so that whenever we go out for a drive we can find a great pub, hotel or, in the case of The Yellow Book, a garden to visit. This indispensible guide lists over 3,800 gardens in England and Wales, opened to the public on behalf of the National Gardens Scheme to raise money for charity – £2.6 million last year.

This wonderfully British institution seems to sum up all that is best in the country, sharing our collective passion for gardening and our benevolent concern for others. I have used editions of the Yellow Book since my student days, dropping in on hidden horticultural gems scattered about in every corner of the country; I’ve met some great gardeners, genuine enthusiasts and people with amazing amounts of knowledge and talent.

Every so often I have dabbled with the idea of opening our garden under the scheme, but never had the courage to do so. I have built gardens for clients which would be more than suitable, but I’m not sure I have ever owned a garden good enough and I am not sure I could cope with the criticism. This year a series of lectures will tell us how it’s done and encourage timid souls like me to have a go: it’s all in a good cause!

Another great innovation is launched this year – an iPhone application which will locate gardens near to you and provide all the details – all very clever. The Yellow Book itself is set out beautifully; after a county map of the country each of the counties has a section to itself. Bedfordshire for instance starts with a map with each of the gardens given a number. A calendar on the opposite page shows which gardens are open on which day each month. Then the gardens are listed alphabetically with a full description, opening times and contact details. Each of the other counties of England and Wales are treated in the same way: it couldn’t be more clear or easy to use. Scotland has its own quite separate scheme which has been going since 1931.

This inspirational guide is an essential part of own picnic set and a copy should be in every garden enthusiast’s home. You can buy a copy at the Garden Design Academy’s book store priced at £7.49

The Plant Hunters

Augustine Henry

I have never understood why Hollywood has not produced a film called The Plant Hunter – correct me if I missed it. Picture the intrepid Scot, battling against all odds, suffering all manner of deprivations and loosing half his staff to disease or head-hunters. There’s action, intrigue, political manoeuvrings and who knows, maybe sex, all to bring a new flower to the gardens of England or a new crop to a far flung corner of the Empire. It used to happen all the time of course and even in this age of GPS there are RHS and Kew sponsored botanists, beavering away in the most unlikely places looking for new species before they disappear from their native habitats. Their stories are a source of endless fascination for me and I enjoy linking plants to their country of origin and those who brought them back for us to enjoy. The clues are often in the name and I was astounded to discover that as a royal gardener in Windsor Great Park I was working in the same establishment as George Forrest junior, whose Father was the Indiana Jones of the plant world. One of the most productive of the plant hunters, introducing 1200 new plant species from western China up to his death in 1932.

On my desk sit two books; Wanderings in China, a 1847 leather bound original by Robert Fortune was given to me on my eighteenth birthday by my Grandmother. She tucked in a number of Central Reserve Bank of China bank notes dating back to 1940 when my Grandfather, an architect in Shanghai, was caught up in the Japanese invasion in the early stages of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The second book is brand new: In the footsteps of Augustine Henry and his Chinese plant collectionsby Seamus O’Brien and published by the Garden Art Press.

The Metasequoia Valley, Hubei province

Fortune was a Scot who served an apprenticeship at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh and went on to become Deputy Superintendent of the Horticultural Society’s garden at Chiswick. At the end of the Opium Wars (Britain has been selling Indian opium to the Chinese in exchange for silver and went to war when the Chinese tried to put a stop to this illegal trade) the Horticultural Society were quick to exploit the new opportunities that a more open country provided. On behalf of the Society (now the RHS) Fortune undertook a series of trips to China from 1843 until his retirement in 1862. He was responsible for the introduction of Tea to India and Ceylon for the East India Company when in 1851 he arrived at the port of Calcutta with 2,000 young plants and 17,000 germinating seeds. He also introduced numerous fine plants to UK gardens including many we take for granted these days and Buddleja lindleyana, in flower this afternoon in my own garden. The tone of his book shows him to be as patronising and zealous as only a British colonial can be.

Augustine Henry was Irish (though born in Dundee in 1857), the son of a grocer and flax merchant, who had also tried his hand in the goldfields of America and Australia. A brilliant scholar, Augustine had degrees from Galway, Belfast and Edinburgh in natural science, philosophy and medicine. In 1881 he joined the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, an organisation run by Europeans for the Chinese government, based in Shanghai on the Yangtze River and his employer for nearly twenty years. While Fortune risked his life in many of his clandestine plant hunting exploits, Henry was an employee of a service with stations throughout China and as such had access to the most remote corners of the empire.

Xiang Xi River

Collecting plants for scientific study in his spare time, Henry long felt that a professional should be dispatched from the UK to exploit the rich sources of plant life he was discovering. Eventually in 1899 the nurserymen James Veitch and Sons sent E.H.Wilson to find ornamental plants for them and in this Wilson was standing on the shoulders of the scholarly giant who had opened up the opportunities before him. Wilson was specifically tasked to bring back seed of Davidia involucrate which Henry had collected and described ten years earlier.

Plants of the three gorges region were collected by both Henry and Wilson. The flooding of a vast area by spanning the Yangtze to create the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric barrier, would result in the loss of many unique plants and animals. The goal of Shamus O’Brien was to explore this region, following the routes used by Augustine Henry, before the flooding obliterated everything. The book describes Henry’s plant hunting expeditions in some detail, giving us a real feel for the enormous amount of effort which went into locating and recording the plants he discovered. The results of just one 6-month trip were 27,300 meticulously collected, tagged, recorded and preserved herbarium specimens. O’Brian himself has catalogued the full 158,000 specimens collected by Henry in China.

A Three Gorges native - Lagerstrroemia indica in our own garden

The book recounts the setting up of O’Brian’s own expeditions to Sichuan and Hubei provinces in 2002 and 2004, visiting Henry’s old haunts in the region. Full of enticing detail, it is the ideal botanists travel adventure book, switching backwards and forwards between the original and contemporary expeditions. There are huge lists of plant names but also fascinating descriptions of specimens as they were found. Henry’s thoughts on the location and characteristics of each plant and explanations of how they are used locally or might be used in our gardens make enthralling reading. The current situation is well observed, describing the cities, towns and villages they passed through and comparing them to the accounts from Henry’s time. Photographs of the countryside, plants and people encountered are liberally distributed throughout the book, together with a number of pictures from archives of Henry’s visits.

This is a big book in every sense, exciting to read and one to be dipped into again and again. One of the early cities visited was the provincial of Wuhan, just 25 miles from the dam, where I have landscape design clients. Here, assistance was sought from Botanical Garden staff, who guided around the Three Gorges region. Luscious plant descriptions continually remind the reader of the debt we owe this region and those who introduced native plants to our gardens. We can be grateful too for a book of such massive scope, which puts it all into context by retracing the footsteps of Augustine Henry.

The book is available from the Garden Design Academy bookstore.

Ferns and other inconveniences

The local paper is up in arms! A hypermarket had bought a patch of land next to its store to expand its activities at a total project cost of 15 million Eurors, only to be told it cannot proceed because of the existence on the site of a wild fern, Ophioglossum vulgatum.

This plant is not especially uncommon in Europe but has protected status in several areas, including the Sologne, on the edge of which the hypermarket is located. The Adder’s-tongue Fern is an unusual fern that grows in old grasslands, on hillsides, along woodland rides and on sand dunes. It usually appears between June and August, spending the rest of the year underground as a rhizome. Looking more like an Arum than a fern, it is considered a good indicator species of ancient meadows and can be found alongside Common Spotted-orchids, Quaking Grass and Devil’s-bit Scabious. For centuries it has been used as a treatment for wounds, using a preparation of it known as the ‘Green Oil of Charity’.

Ferns (but not this one) are one of the solutions recommended in Graham Rice’s new book, “Planting the Dry Shade Garden”. Billed as the only book deal with this growing condition, I was interested to read what was advised, having several dry-shade areas in my own garden. The book starts by discussing the nature of the problem of planting against shady walls or under trees. It goes on to explain how to improve the situation by reducing shade and increasing the amount of available moisture around trees. Crown thinning, crown thinning and tree removal are suggested options to increase light levels while a range of techniques are available to improve fertility and soil moisture content.

Planting the dry-shade garden - Graham Rice

In dealing with the soil the suggested actions are to raise soil levels, improve soil quality, install irrigation and mulch regularly. Container planting is also proposed. Increasing soil depth is a common but controversial technique, and one which may have your local authority tree officer rushing ’round to intervene. Few trees can confidently be predicted to thrive or even survive if more than four inches of fill are placed directly over their roots, so great care must be taken when gardeners construct raised beds as suggested. The rule of thumb is to preserving the existing levels in a circular area around the tree, equal in diameter to at least one-foot for every inch of stem diameter. This means that I should protect an area of 100 feet (30m) around our 150 year old Sequoia which is 8ft 4″ (2.55m) in diameter!

The other issue not discussed here is the serious harm which may be done to trees by planting amongst their roots. Regular cultivation of the soil can also remove or damage delicate feeding roots and introduce soil-borne diseases, so a high degree of care must be taken when gardening under trees.

As Graham Rice points out, what can be grown in dry shade depends on how bad the problem is – after all, some on the world’s finest gardens are woodland gardens. The main part of the book describes a range of plants suitable for the toughest conditions, a source of inspiration to those gardeners who have about given up hope with their own shady areas. Around 130 plants are listed and illustrated, with descriptions written in a style that suggests he knows them personally. The well-illustrated sections are divided into Shrubs, Climbers, Perennials, Groundcovers, Bulbs and Annuals and Biennials. We already have a few of the plants suggested in our bed under the Sequoia and  in the shade of the neighbour’s Lawson Cypress, but I am happy to say that I learned a thing or two and plants I might have not considered were brought to my attention. It is the nature of such a book that a few of my favourites were left out, while some of the suggestions would need controlling if they were not to take over more favoured parts of the garden.

All in all I would recommend this book to gardeners of both the armchair and the hands-on kinds. It is written by a well-respected and knowledgeable plantsman and aimed at garden owners on both sides of the Atlantic. At just over £10 from the Garden Design Academy bookshop, it could make an ideal stocking filler this Christmas.

A Gardener’s Christmas wish list.

 

Mahonia x. media

The festive season has arrived at the Elliott household (we found a bottle of port at the back of Mother-in-Law’s cupboard, 40 years old, if it is a day – the port, not the Belle-Mère) and I’m writing my list for Santa.

Naturally, plants are a priority.

We have just passed through the mildest and driest autumn since 1900 and December shows no sign of altering the trend. Roses and Geraniums are still throwing out the occasional flower and spring flowering Rhododendrons and Camellias are already opening. Despite this, with memories of summer excess still strong in the memory, the garden seems to be lacking colour. I am hoping Mahonia  x. media ‘Charity’, ‘Winter Sun’ or ‘Lionel Fortescue’ would bring bunches of scented sunshine into the cool, misty mornings. As an ex-gardener at the Saville gardens, Windsor, I am very fond of Charity and her rarely seen sisters, Faith and Hope, which were bred at the nursery there.

Viburnum x. bodnantense


I already have my eyes on a sucker of Viburnum x. bodnantense in a garden in the village, although I am not sure of the variety. The cross of Viburnum farreri (formerly V. fragrans) and V. grandiflorum was originally made by Charles Lamont, the Assistant Curator at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh in 1933. He didn’t rate the resulting plants as being any better than their parents, so did not propagate them. In 1934 and 1935, the same cross was done at Bodnant, hence the name. ‘Dawn’ was the first cultivar to be named, ‘Deben’ was another and, after he died, ‘Charles Lamont’ was also named in honour of the original raiser. I am trying to find out if the French have their own hydrids.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna is a great little evergreen shrub that we have grown in several gardens, but do not yet have here in Chabris. It’s the sort of plant you hardly notice until, in December, it produces small, but intensely fragrant white flowers. Our front door faces north and this plant is ideal for these conditions. A small bed, which this summer contained a New Guinnea Hybrid Busie Lizie, awaits.

Hamamelis


I noticed a specimen of Chimonanthus praecox poking over the wall of a rather grand house in the village last year. This and Hamamelis are certaining worth growing for winter colour. We already have Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ growing amongst other woodland plants near the Sequoias, so a Wintersweet would make a nice addition. Close by, variegated Skimmia japonica Magic Marlot seems to have been in flower forever, Ilex Blue Angel provides a few seasonal berries and further down, a group of Erica Springwood White mark the start of the White Border.

The more you think about it, the more desirable plants come to mind. Then there are books: “Planting the Dry Shade Garden is already on order with Timber Press, a company whose stock list is one of the most desirable for gardening enthusiasts. Two other’s recently published by the same company are on my list: Contemporary Colour in the Garden and Designing with Grasses. A £500 Timber Press gift voucher, if such a thing exists, would be easy to spend.

Richard Ford’s book on Hostas (Crowood Press) is one of the best I have read on the subject and would have been on the list had I not already ordered it via the Garden Design Academy bookshop. I have also been reading “In the footsteps of Augustine Henry”, a recent purchase from the Garden Art Press, which I have been comparing with an original copy of Wanderings in China by Robert Fortune, another 19th C plant hunting hero. I will never tire of gardening books, or of plants, but I realise buying them for me is not easy…..hence the list.

What are other gardening enthusiasts hoping for this Christmas?

Missed opportunities and great potential.

My wife and I have wasted the whole day fighting with Dell, the supplier of our PC’s – not the way a gardener should be spending such a lovely, sunny day. I won’t bore you with all the facts, but after a hard disc failure on my wife’s machine, Dell seem to be doing everything they can not to honour the 24-hour repair warranty we were persuaded to take out. The latest tale is that while they will repair it free of charge, we have to purchase a new copy of Windows 7, the operating system without which the PC will not function. It’s a bit like buying a plant at the garden centre, roots not included!

This has not helped our sense of humour or improved our sun tan. In the meantime not only did the Courson Plant Fair come and go without us overspending, or indeed attending, we also seemed to have missed the Chestnut season; how could this be? Gardening works with the seasons if it works at all – if you sit too long in the shade, the summer will just pass you by – you have been warned by one who knows!

Fortunately there are suppliers out there who can be relied upon and the loud thud which accompanies the arrival of the seed catalogues is enough to galvanise even the most lackadaisical and distracted into action.

Big Begonias growing with Petunias in our garden

Over the years I have noticed a change, discreet at first but now gathering momentum, as the seedsmen increasingly sell their more interesting varieties as young plants rather than seed. This is difficult for us, as most UK companies will not post to France. There is good reason for this; our testing of grafted tomatoes was ruined by the condition of the plants on arrival: only two out of nine survived. A trial of a new variety of Begonia was similarly blighted (although I maintain the grower was also at fault, a theory firmly disputed by the company concerned). Benary’s Begonia “Big” has finished the season on a high, but taken most of the year to recover from the damage inflicted by the journey from the UK.

Commercial growers and parks departments have been utilising seedlings and young plants for twenty years and most now leave this stage to the specialists. Many years ago we had a 6 acre glasshouse nursery providing this service on behalf of a French seed company. At the home gardener level, tricky and expensive plants like F1 Begonia, Geranium and Impatiens are important seedling / plug subjects, but the range available is increasing at a pace.

Plugs and seedlings

The Dobies catalogue features 25 pages of flowers and 11 pages of vegetables offered as young plants, in addition to bulbs and fruit plants. Suttons also list more than 26 pages of flowers and vegetable plants, while Thompson and Morgan have them scattered throughout their catalogue. As the nature of their customers’ changes from garden enthusiasts to a much wider public and gardening skills diminish, this convenient and profits-enhancing development is sure to evolve.

T & M was the first of these catalogues to arrive and my order was sent by email a while ago. We do not yet grow a wide range of vegetables as, for the moment at least, we don’t have a lot of space for a proper veg garden and those we do grow are scattered amongst the ornamental plants. We like our tomatoes however and Sungold, Suncherry and Sungella are our choices for next seasons salads. Courgettes do well here but the plants take up too much space for my liking. This year we will try the F1 hybrid Defender, which I gather is a much more compact plant and less likely to give us marrow-shaped fruits of the variety we grew this year. Lettuce Lettony is a new variety I thought worth a try. I am hoping the promise of being resistant to bolting holds true as we had too much of that this season. Golden Berry Little Lanterns completes our selection and I hope it will do well out of doors: we used to grow them in the greenhouse and I love both the look and taste.

Gaura lindheimeri

In flowers, we are trying a mixture of easy and challenging subjects, including a few herbaceous perrenials like Eryngium, Gaillardia, Gaura lindheimeri and Lupins. New this year is Sweet Pea Prima Ballerina, Papaver Pink Fizz (two-tone pink with frilly edges) and Godetia Rembrandt, while Calendula Chrysantha is a variety which dates from the 1930’s. We are trying some tuberous Begonias from seed in addition to double Impatiens and award-winning Geranium Moulin Rouge. We are growing Antirrhinum Axiom mixed and Sunflower for cut flowers, with Sweet Pea White Supreme in the white border.

As I write, Chantal is studying the other catalogues.