Fiona Gilsenan

Editor & Writer

Noisy Weeds

So many euphorbias are blooming in gardens right now. They are fantastic plants for so many situations, and they bloom for ages. But this is a genus with a down side. For instance, if you happen to be walking alongside a cornfield on a quiet autumn day and suddenly hear a loud ‘crack’, it’s probably a noisy spurge. Euphorbia helioscopia, also known as sun spurge, is so keen to get its seeds out and into the big wide world that the seed capsule often splits open with a sound like a whip cracking or even a gun firing. The seeds have an oily appendage that is eaten by ants, which aids in dispersing the seeds away from the mother plant.

Like most euphorbias, the plant itself is loaded with compounds called diterpene esters, which is why latex (sap) from cut stems causes skin irritation or worse--the common name spurge is said to come from the unpleasant gastrointestinal consequences of ingesting the plant. If It also contains compounds that are being researched for a range of ailments from asthma to gastrointestinal worms in cattle.

Alternative common names for this noisy, dangerous little plant is wart spurge (the sap was believed to cure warts) and madwoman’s milk. Quite a family.
Image from Wikimedia.

Give him a Shrubbery

I don’t have a source for this image; like most nonsense, it came from Facebook.

Young Hort or Trad Hort?

From the Telegraph’s report on YoungHorts, by Ed Cumming. I am SO young hort, but I see that some took offence.

Which Hort Are You?

Young hort: Lobbing homemade seed bombs onto forlorn roundabout Trad hort: Double-digging your allotment because you think you should. Young: Getting up a posse to plant sunflowers round a bus stop Trad: Outsourcing your lawncare. Young: Re-purposing: plastic drinks bottles into wall-hung planters; pallets into compost bins; supermarket punnets into seedtrays Trad: Splashing out on gardening knick-knacks, including painted signs that say, "I'm in the garden”. Young: Hitting Freecycle for old garden tools Trad: Ordering an expensive compost bin shaped like a beehive. Young: Posting plant pics on Twitter and asking for ID help Trad: Dusting down a 20-year-old plant encyclopedia to look up a plant. Young: Growing cucamelons, Inca berries and electric daisies Trad: Planting Moneymaker tomatoes - again. Young: Setting up square metre, no-dig raised beds for veg Trad: Having a dedicated rosebed and blitzing it with chemicals


“I got that homegrown, I don’t care about the Dow Jones.”

Live version (not great quality, but...):


Amsterdam Weekend

A few sights from a recent trip to Amsterdam, which is in some ways a garden-lover’s town--and not just because of tulipomania. There are plenty of quirky sights, gardening efforts on front stoops and houseboats, and even wildlife sightings.
Bottle trees on a houseboat do not need watering.
Momma coot doing the best with what she has.
We were having coffee at an outdoor cafe and watched this little coot collecting sticks and then disappearing behind a houseboat moored nearby. We went to have a peek at her work and realized that she had built her nest not only with sticks but also bits of garbage--food containers and the like. It was sad and sweet at the same time.
Blooming amaryllis.
People at the Tulip Museum were a bit disappointed because there were no tulip bulbs for sale. The saleswoman patiently explained that it’s the wrong time of year to plant tulips. Tulips: plant them in autumn.
Chrysalides (lovely plural form of this word, btw) in the Butterfly House at Hortus Botanicus.

Beth Chatto's Garden

I had not been to Beth Chatto’s garden before, but I wanted more than anything on my birthday to spend some time in a garden, and then by the sea. Lucky me, we had the most gorgeous weather, a truly springtime day. So Julian and I made our way to darkest Essex (actually, bright and sunny Essex) to see the fabled gravel garden and perhaps to have some cake.
Having always heard of the gravel garden as Mediterranean-style island beds, I was amazed how wonderful it looked in early March. No waving grasses as yet, but plenty of structure with the shape of the beds, the background hedge, and the towering Eucalyptus (every other Eucalyptus in England was halved or quartered last winter). The euphorbias were in full bloom. I should have guessed that the area had seasonal interest based on the titles of two of Ms. Chatto’s books A Year in the Life of Beth Chatto’s Gardens and Gravel Garden: Drought-resistant planting through the year, but I didn’t have these books at the time. I do now.

The remainder of the garden was lovely, very simple, with curving grassed pathways, ponds, and a wooded area. Blissfully, there was no garden art. The snowdrops had mostly passed, but there were plenty of blooming hellebores in both the nursery and the garden.
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In addition to the hellebores, the Woodland Garden was filled with Ribes in bloom, erythroniums, daffs, the remnants of snowdrops, and unfurling ferns. I expect that in two or three weeks the woodland will be fully emerged and more colourful, but the spare and only-just emerging feeling of the woodland was perfect on the day.
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Do you suppose this is Beth Chatto’s laundry?

Tree Murder

There are plans for a major redevelopment of the Cambridge Train Station. The new station complex will include the largest cycle park in the UK, a hotel, new traffic patterns (it’s currently a big old mess), new ticket hall (please let it be so), and possibly retail and restaurant outlets.
Chop off their limbs and then make them stand and suffer.
We’ve been hearing about these plans for a while, but I guess it really is starting to happen. They are slowly murdering the trees.

Essex is Not the Only Way

Bookseller Nicolas Hoare begins his review of the book, 
A Year in the Life of Beth Chatto’s Garden by pointing out that Colchester is a town with few charms. Based on our drive-through yesterday, I would have to agree, although the boulevards do boast an extraordinary display of bog-standard daffodils, more than I have seen anywhere, and a very impressive civic gesture.

Pix of our day to come...

Garden Press Event, Part 1

The other week I attended the Garden Press Event at the Barbican Centre in London. This was my first time at the event and I’m very pleased that I went. I saw some friends and colleagues, and had a chance to look at some new products. I brought a few things home with me. Although my findings were not quite as impressive as those of Arabella Sock, here are some of the highlights.
Slug repellents. Can’t get enough of these, and neither can readers. A theme seems to be organic products. I did pick up a bag of Vitax Slug Gone pellets made from sheep’s wool. The pellets are meant to melt into a sort of mat that the slugs find abrasive. Eventually they will rot down to provide nutrients. Price is about £6 for 3.5 litres. Verdict: a bit pongy but will try around my lettuce.

Mycorrhizal fungi. I’ll probably learn how to spell this just in time for it to fall out of favour. Although the RHS has put its stamp on the particular blend from Empathy Rootgrow, I think the jury is still out on its effectiveness for most garden plants. Although there’s no doubt that mycorrhizal networks form critical symbioses with plants in nature, The Garden Professors have reviewed the research and found it limited at best. The main argument against these products is that unless they are in an environment where they’ll thrive, it’s a waste of time. The man on the stand did say that their product comes from homegrown British fungi, but knowing how different the soils are around the country, the argument about viability holds true. More on this from Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott. Given the paucity of the evidence for this product, it makes me wonder why the RHS approves it. Something to look into.

Biodegradable Nitrile Gloves. I love these. Although they apparently won’t break down in a home compost, they can be put into landfills. I like to use disposable latex gloves for cleaning, especially when cleaning out my chicken coop because I don’t want to have too much chicken bacteria on my gardening gloves. This company, Showa, take their grip technology very seriously, and their packaging is 100% recycled. If you’re wondering what nitrile is, Wikipedia will give you a lot of very dense information about von Braun amide degradation and chemical compounds. Still, I’ll be looking out for these and hope to see compostable gloves eventually.

Sugru is the best thing in the world for one thing: fixing broken MacBook power cords. This self-setting rubber can be moulded around small objects and it then sets to form a permanent bond. There are tons of great ideas for using the stuff at the Sugru website.
Microgreens. Suttons Seeds has introduced a very affordable and handy little micro green box kit that would make a great stocking stuffer next Xmas. The kit contains a tray and a growing mat, along with a seed mix. I’ve started the first one off now and I’ll report back on how well it does. The box doesn’t indicate if the mats can be reused or composted, but I should think they can.

Next time: rosy clogs, honey cake, and gorillas.

Dande lion

My allotment society has quite a few Italian plot holders, some of whom have been cultivating their sites for decades. I like prowling around to see what they are planting because their plots are beautifully tended and fairly exotic. A peek into one of the greenhouses revealed this sheltered crop. Dandelions. But it does seem much nicer in Italian,dente di leone.


Supermodel Birches

The gardens at Anglesey Abbey, especially the winter garden, are highly recommended. If you have children, they are doubly recommended because the property features a huge wildlife area full of piles of sticks, tree houses, mysterious willow sculptures, and pile of feathers (foxes, I guess). The snowdrops are legendary, and I hear the summer perennial beds are also good, although I’ve only been in winter.

Julian’s favourite garden feature is the birch grove at the end of the winter garden--really a curving walkway bordered by quite fabulous winter combinations of shrubs, trees, grasses, hellebores, snowdrops, irises, etc. At the final bend in the path, one comes upon this. An elegant collection of slender snow-white Himalayan birches, widely spaced and underplanted with a single type of bulb (not yet emerged in this photo). Look, this grove is so lovely that people even
get married and hold each other tenderly in it.
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However, we got to thinking that all the birches are of a certain gamine girth and smoothness, and even a stunner like Betula utilis jacquemontii can get a bit stout and weathered with age. The birches in this grove are eternally sylphlike. What, we asked ourselves, happens to these model-like trees when they start to get a bit broad in the beam?

We think we found the answer in the wildlife area. Fashion is a cruel business.


Beach Treasures

My daughter, Maeve Winchester, loves sharks. Gardening, not so much. She was thrilled to find this mermaid’s purse on the beach in Brighton. Normally I look for beach glass and cool rocks on the beach, but this was a special find.
"The Great Eggcase Hunt aims to get as many people as possible hunting for eggcases that have either been washed ashore, or are found by divers and snorkelers underwater. In recent decades, several species of shark, skate and ray around the British coast have dramatically declined in numbers. The empty eggcases (or mermaid's purses) are an easily accessible source of information on the whereabouts of potential nursery grounds and will provide the Trust with a better understanding of species abundance and distribution."

As you can see, it has a developing shark in it (actually the lesser spotted dogfish). Although I’ve seen these egg cases for years, this is the first time I’ve seen one with an embryo in it.

It turns out that there is a non-profit called the Shark Trust that has tons of information on sharks and rays on its website, including an Eggcase ID Key, and the Great Eggcase Hunt Project.

We searched for another embryo on the beaches of Brighton and Ferring for hours but didn’t find another embryo. Maeve handed over the specimen to the SeaLife Centre at the Brighton Pier, and it was gratefully received.


Rock n' Roll Hotel

My hotel room in Brighton at the Hotel Pelirocco. We stayed at this seaside hotel on a recent trip to Brighton and it was truly fun. The hotel has themed rooms and an incredibly tiny elevator that we called the ‘sushivator’. It was just a half block from the beach and the water and wind were high, making for an exciting time. I used to go to Brighton as a little girl, my how it’s changed.
Seriously, if you can’t love that, what can you love?
And the view.

Christopher Lloyd on Roses

As I start to edit a book on roses, I found this recording of Desert Island Discs featuring Christopher Lloyd. There is plenty of horticultural name-dropping, and he is a charmer. But don’t get him started on roses.

After famously ripping out the rose garden at Great Dixter, he claims to like only one rose, and that was given to him by Vita Sackville-West. It is ‘Mrs. Oakley Fisher’. He also claims the two of them got on well, and talked about plants, but not about books or sex. Too bad.

Photo Rosa ‘Mrs. Oakley Fisher’ via New York Botanic Garden on Flickr

Winter Walks

Our Boxing Day walk was in the hills around Alveston, in South Gloucestershire. It was warm and balmy. Views from here run over the fields and down to the Severn River. I love the way the light shines on the grass and the long winter shadows cast by the old cypress trees, planted out on a hilltop to surround a long-gone home away from any roads. Beautiful part of the country.
Look at this pretty thing, blooming on a tall brick wall. I thought it might be a Clematis alpina ‘Constance’ as the flowers are a similar colour, but they open white before darkening to that lovely light pinot colour. I love the jaunty little green calyx at the base of the flowers. It looks a bit like C.a. ‘Constance’ but then, what is that calyx?
Here is a view from underneath, inside a flower (sorry about the bad photo; I was rushed). I think there must be two different cultivars growing together. A bit of googling tells me it’s probably Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ and it does indeed bloom in winter. Raymond Evison, in his book The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Clematis, describes the “two calyx-like bracts”. What a treat, to find a wondrous Christmas-flowering clematis.


Forgotten Plants

All of the data management solutions now available have come several years after we have all collected piles of data in haphazard ways. If only I had Evernote and Dropbox 10 years ago, before all of my notebooks, clippings, and MS word files became overloaded and scattered through various office moves and hardware upgrades. Photos are a case in point. Organising a photo library in Aperture is a task and a half, not least because it’s so easy to be distracted when looking through hundreds, thousands of photos of gardens gone by. Take this photo of a fuchsia I came across the other day. No metadata of course, because it was probably scanned from a slide.
How could I have forgotten about this little rosy beauty? I had it planted beside a small brick pond in my garden in Victoria, BC. It is the most perfect pearly pink. But what is it? I find an ancient list of plants from this garden but there is no fuchsia. Why did I buy it?
I resolve to keep better records.
Did I buy it? Is it written down in some long-forgotten garden journal? What happened to it when I left that garden?
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With an Italian urn, a flowering tobacco, and some reedy things.
It could be Fuchsia magellanica molinae or F. ‘Whiteknights Pearl’, but I may never know. So this isn’t even a flower memory, just a photo of a flower memory. Is there any chance my photos will ever be organised?

Landscaping with Natural Materials

I was at the seaside this week and picked up some shells for my garden path. Every time I go to the beach I plan to pick up a pocketful and add them to the small path that runs down the centre of my two tiny garden beds. Because I usually look at the garden from an upstairs window, I like to have yellowish or creamy colours in the path so that it really has definition.

When I lived in San Francisco, I used crushed oyster shells for my path; they came from Marin County. Because I was just on the edge of the fog belt, the I see that they are sold
online in England, but terrifically expensive as they’re used not used for landscaping purposes, but for aquariums or chickens. Which reminds me how crazy it is to buy ‘special’ aquarium rocks for £10 for a small bag when you can get a huge (and heavy) bag at B&Q for £2.

If you live in places like Florida or California, you can buy
bulk shells that are, one hopes, harvested from renewable sources. You can also buy beach pebbles from Costa Rica or Mexico. Those of us far from the ocean can always go and spend a silly amount of money on a pile of beach stones at the Chelsea Flower Show.

This pile of rocks costs as much as a pitcher of Pim’s.

When Monty says "Jump!"

I can’t quite decide what to make of Gardener’s World and Monty Don. I’m not alone in this, as the Independent calls him a ‘Marmite figure among gardeners’. I know he’s meant to be swoonable (autocorrected to ‘spoonable’ which also works) but he doesn’t impress me that way. He’s obviously a passionate and self-taught gardener, and is sometimes criticised for his lack of academic training. I don’t think you need a degree in horticulture to tell people how to lift dahlias, but he also wades into agricultural policy issues (GM, neonicotinoids) on behalf of the Soil Association where I think his ideology trumps his scientific knowledge. I suppose I think there are just too many of the same faces on gardening TV in the UK and it feels he’s on EVERY program. He also has a strained relationship with social media as explained by Arabella Sock, huffing on and off twitter when things get a bit heated. Can’t we all just get along on twitter? Anyway, in case he ever reads my blog (unlikely unless he has himself on google alerts and that’s even more unlikely because he doesn’t like social media), he does seem a lovely man and his jewel garden is very pretty.

Mr. Don has his following, though, and not just because the lady gardeners fancy the length of his suspenders. The other day he was exhorting the nation to plant broad beans, and be sure to choose Aquadulce, for they are the finest broad beans in the land. I happened to be at the garden centre the next day and I guess folks were listening (see photo). I had to settle for The Sutton, which is dwarfer than Aquadulce. But I have only a quarter plot, so it will have to do.

‘Aquadulce’--best for autumn sowing, so says Monty Don, and I believe him.


We got an allotment at the Vinery Road Allotments after just a few months on the waiting list. It’s a small quarter plot for £5 a year. First job, weeding! A lovely friend lent me this very fancy hoe, which makes clearing weeds very easy. (Warning, do not google ‘fancy hoe’; it’s known as a ‘swoe’.) It has a stainless-steel angled head that slices the weeds very easily. The soil is sticky and heavy, so I have no intention of digging it all over (this used to be called lazy but now it’s called ‘no-till’). I’m just slicing off the weeds and letting them decompose--except for dandelions with deep taproots, but I have another spiffy tool for that.
Julian wields his swoe.

There are a number of older Italian gardeners who have had plots on the allotment for decades. Their vegetables and fruits are legendary, especially the beans and grapevines. They have extensive buildings on-site, some of them labyrinth-like. Who knows what’s in there? But right away I noticed they were growing masses of artichokes. I fell in love with artichokes when I lived in New York and used to go to Monte’s Trattoria in Little Italy. The baked stuffed artichoke there is unsurpassed. I also like the look of the plants, big, blowsy leaves kept from being show-offish thanks to their lovely soft grey-green colour.

Wanting to plant my own, this fall so they could develop their roots over winter and hopefully produce some heads next summer, I went online shopping, only to find that all nurseries deliver their artichoke plants in May. Fortunately, all I had to do was express my desire to the allotment manager and the next time I visited there was a little pile of artichoke divisions. Job done. Four artichoke plants are the first thing in the ground.

I got the free tiles-cum-stepping stones from a Facebook group called Life’s a Gift.