Fiona Gilsenan

Print & Online Communications

Junior Allotmenteer

My son Julian was very hands-on on at the allotment this year. For our first year, we did quite well. What worked: strawberries, raspberries, artichokes, onions, garlic, broad beans, peas, courgettes, roses, a few giant summer cabbages. What didn’t work: salad greens, beans (both martyrs to the slugs), sweet peas, a few other summer cabbages (basically snail hotels). Oka is still in the ground.
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Onions from a mixed selection from Thompson & Morgan, planted in October and harvested in June.
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‘The Sutton’ broad beans, sown in November and harvested in May & June.
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Spring-sown ‘Sugar Ann’ peas. I had poor luck with my autumn-sown sweet peas, which was disappointing.

Learning from the Master

Here’s my piece for the Garden Media Guild on a wonderful (if hot) day with Clive Nichols, the garden photographer extraordinaire.

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A Poem for the End

Japanese Maple

by Clive James,
via The New Yorker

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable.
You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

Cambourne Collage

Here’s a collection of creatures from Cambourne Nature Reserve. Created just 10 years ago, this is a mixture of existing and built habitats adjacent to a new-built village. Wonderful to see how a new community development can incorporate such diversity in a small area.


My post and photos of the wonderful garden of Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes has gone up on Check it out!
Midsummer eve, the sun setting over Veddw.

A Few Garden Jokes

I have a gravel path in my garden while my neighbour's is concrete. I think mine wins on aggregate.


There was a young farmer of Leeds,
Who swallowed six packets of seeds,
It soon came to pass
He was covered in grass
And he couldn't sit down for the weeds.


Two caterpillars on a leaf watched a butterfly pass overhead. One of them said with a shudder,
"You'll never get me up in one of those!"



“But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and prophyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”
Edna Ferber (via


Q: What do you get if you divide the circumference  of a pumpkin by its diameter? A: Pumpkin pi.


Q: What is small, red and whispers?
A: A hoarse radish.




Rooftop Dancing

The Southbank Centre is one of my favourite places to hang out when we go to London for the day. There’s always something going on--festivals, foodie events, live music, art installations--and it’s also a good place to catch your breath if you’re having a busy city day and need a place to regroup between the science museum and a night at the theatre.

Yesterday we wandered along, stopped at the Udderbelly Festival for some nosh, and then climbed up a yellow spiral stairway to the
roof garden atop Queen Elizabeth Hall. It’s been planted up with a mixture of raised veg plots and wildflowers in collaboration with the Eden Project and Grounded Ecotherapy.

It soon became clear that in addition to being a bar and a community garden (great combo), this space is also a therapeutic and artistic venue. As we poked around, we became aware of some dancers who started moving to music that we couldn’t hear. Some of the dancers had Downs’ Syndrome. Others, I don’t know. But they were dancing on a rooftop overlooking the river and it was good.


Bees out and about.

Murray Edwards College

I took the old fella on a little visit today. I chose to toddle around Murray Edwards College because they have the largest collection of women’s art in Europe, and also because they have an awesome Facebook page where the gardeners regularly post pithy comments and sweet photos of the garden. It turned out to be a very rewarding visit, even though the OF soon developed a case of the vapours and had to retire to a bench.

Murray Edwards is one of the newer Cambridge colleges, founded in 1954 as New Hall. Then, as now, it is a woman’s college. New Hall was able to expand in the mid 60s when it was given The Orchard, a Darwin family home on Huntingdon Road. The architects for the main college buildings were
Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, who also designed the Barbican in London, a brutalist arts and residential complex that was once voted the ugliest building in Britain.
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Is this a planetarium or a design statement?
Alumni of the college include Tilda Swinton (actor), Sue Perkins (comedian), and Dame Jocelyne Bell Burnell (discoverer of the first four pulsars), and the latest Miss England, medical student Carina Tyrrell. So like most Cambridge colleges, they must be doing something right.
Roses, delphiniums, and a pergola. Looks traditional?
My first thought about the grounds was that they don’t seem to have an overall landscape design, which one might expect from a contemporary college. Borders filled with perennials and roses seem to be squeezed in here and there, alongside the buildings and the driveway. The plantings are unconstrained. The fence that divides the carpark from the tennis court is covered with grapevines. Containers full of gargantuan fragrant lilies surround the front entrance. There is an edible garden project featuring a lot of pots painted blue and a little sedum-roofed book exchange. The overall effect is a bit quirky but charming and often exuberant.murray_edwards (7)murray_edwards (9)
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I truly love this loopy sculpture. Think how different the effect would be if it wasn’t coloured like a David Austin rose. Tinted blue or silver this create a completely different effect, soft and sinewy at once.
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One of the most restrained vignettes in the garden.
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After the death of her husband Charles in 1882, Emma Darwin bought a house on Huntingdon Road called The Grove, where she spent the winters. The Grove is now part of Fitzwilliam College, but somehow the greenhouse ended up on Murray Edwards’ pitch. (What Emma Darwin grew in this greenhouse is surely of interest?)
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Sergio likes his job.
As we continued to poke around, we ran into Sergio, who was assembling some lovely arrangements for an event at the college. Sergio has worked at other Cambridge colleges, and is clearly talented. He told me a bit about the garden that helped to explain why it looks as it does. It’s all about the plants, he says, rather than being design-driven. Lacking the huge endowment possessed by the older colleges, there is little point in trying to maintain manicured lawns. But the garden is meant to give pleasure and inspiration to the young women who attend the college, so the gardening team strive to get the borders looking at their peak for graduation in May (a challenge this year because of the warm spring that brought everything forward) and when the new students arrive in September. They also leave arrangements of blooms and message for the students.
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But the best thing Sergio told me was that the college actually encourages visitors to help themselves to blooms and produce from the gardens. He even lent me a pair of secateurs so that I could gather my own bouquet. Will I revisit? Absolutely.


Hipsters (get it?).

When Alliums Go Bad

This leek looks to me as though it has evil intentions.

Dancing Queen

There are fears in the media of an impending beepocalypse, but there seem to be plenty buzzing around Cambridge these days. In my own garden, a family of white-tailed bumbles are now resident in an old tit box.

Non-social (or solitary) bees do not form large colonies like honey bees. But they still have to find somewhere to safely raise their brood, so in spring the queen emerges from hibernation and looks for a place to nest. Like most monarchs, queens are a little selective about the real estate. Some prefer underground tunnels, perhaps left by a previous inhabitant; others look for warm, dry places underneath decks or sheds. If you see a large bee flying around a bit aimlessly in early spring, chances are it’s a queen looking for the ideal spot.

Sometimes of course, a bee will get into the house and buzz furiously at the window, failing to grasp the concept of glazing. That was the story with this lovely little bee, so I approached with the usual bee-catching equipment of a drinking glass and a thin sheet of card. The queen spotted me with her five eyes (strictly, two eyes and three
ocelli) and decided to get imperious. When a bumblebee thinks you’re getting too close, she raises up her middle legs to tell you to back away. She probably thinks she’s pretty fierce, but actually looks pretty dorky, sort of like Prince William at a Nelly Furtado concert.

I can highly recommend Dave Goulson’s excellent book,
A Sting in the Tale, to anyone who’d like to know more about bumblebees and their comedic habits. Dave also founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which is doing its best to make sure those queens continue to enter the housing market in the future.

Man Bits

I was learning a bit more about pollination syndromes last night. At the Cambridge University Botanic Garden greenhouses, we tried to fill out a matrix to determine which animal pollinates the bottlebrush shrub (Callistemon citrinus). I brought a prejudice to the exercise, because my daughter had reached out to curl her hand around a bottlebrush flower many years ago in San Francisco, was stung by a wasp, and it soon became apparent that she has an allergy to wasps. I’ll never forget a kind stranger on Haight Street bringing us a towel full of ice.

One of the flower traits we were looking for was ‘stiff anthers’; another was ‘exposed anthers’. What you can see in this photo are the wiry uncurling stamens of each individual flower. They look like balls of silk thread. It is these stamens that form the bristles of the bottlebrush inflorescence. According to the key we were given, neither wasps nor birds are attracted to exposed anthers, which these are--quite flagrantly so. So to Google we must go.

Canal Art

Spotted from the Camley Street Natural Park near King’s Cross in London.


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A sweet little robin helping with the allotment cleanup in Olveston, South Gloucester.

Heronswood Redux

Just think what it was like for Hinkley to step back on the property he hadn’t seen for six years. “The woodland was solid, black, dense with overgrowth; you couldn’t see into it. The garden was suffocating,” he recalled.
At least 20 percent of the plants, including precious trillium, hellebores and arisaema, were dug and sent back to Burpee’s Pennsylvania headquarters. Plants duked it out for survival as Japanese anemones, vinca and salal ran amok. -Val Easton
For those who visited and loved this incomparable garden and nursery, the past few years have been a bit of a rollercoaster of hope and disappointment. Fortunately it looks like the future of Heronswood is secure.

If you aren’t familiar with Heronswood, it was created in the late 80s on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, Washington, by Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones. They built a creative shade garden under mature

The catalog was a joy to receive, one of the highlights during those winter months when gardeners long for spring. In addition to the intimate knowledge plant imbued in the plant descriptions, Dan would pepper the catalog with recipes, journal entries, tales of the Heronistas, thoughts on conservation and biodiversity, and anecdotes about gardens, people, and plant hunting. Here is a sample,

Robert and I ate laughing berry jelly. We attended a potlatch on Metlakatla Island in S.E. Alaska in remembrance of our friend’s grandfather and it was the first such celebration ever to occur there. There were dances and drums and howling, grand regalia and two totem poles erected over a span of three days. We ate and ate. There were huge platters of food at every meal; freshly caught salmon and halibut, crab, smoked mussels and clams and venison from assorted creatures. And with every meal, we were served laughing berry jelly as a condiment. I would ask our table mates what laughing berry jelly was made fro. Laughing berries, they would say. Then we would all laugh. I would allow this marmalade to site for a while longer on my tongue, letting its esters and acids seek a familiar pathway to my brain, but they would repeatedly return empty handed. I was tempted to say I knew a lot about plants, and that I would know what this plant was, even its scientific name if they could describe it to me, but I knew better than to say anything. I was with people who knew a lot about a lot of things. On the day that we were to take our float plane from this island and this experience, our friend handed me a sprig of Salal, Gaultheria shallon, still carrying enormous clusters of ripened purple fruit. Ah ha, I said. And then we all laughed.”

In 2000, Dan and Robert sold the garden and nursery to W. Atlee Burpee Company. A few tumultuous years followed, where many precious Heronswood plants were transplanted to Burpee headquarters and the garden was more or less neglected before being closed in 2006. To garden lovers in the Pacific Northwest (and beyond), it was a travesty.

Finally, in 2012, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe bought Heronswood from Burpee for a fraction of the asking price. There are no plans to reopen a nursery but the garden is being restored and Dan has been brought back on board to help. Open days and events are listed on the new website, along with photos of the garden.

I asked Dan if the resurgence of Heronswood might mean a reappearance of the catalog, but it seems unlikely. Even if a viable nursery does eventually take shape on the site, he can no longer “spend three months writing plant descriptions.” Our loss.

Noisy Weeds

The forbs are frothing. 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. 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 are 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...):