Fiona Gilsenan

Editor & Writer

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.
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Beecollage

Bees out and about.
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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.
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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.
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Gardentunes



Hipsters (get it?).
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When Alliums Go Bad

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

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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.
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Man Bits

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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.
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Canal Art



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

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A sweet little robin helping with the allotment cleanup in Olveston, South Gloucester.
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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
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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.
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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.
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Image from Wikimedia.
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Give him a Shrubbery

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



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

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

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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.
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Bottle trees on a houseboat do not need watering.
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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.
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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.
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Chrysalides (lovely plural form of this word, btw) in the Butterfly House at Hortus Botanicus.
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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.
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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...
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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