Thursday, 28 April 2011

Are women better gardeners than men?

Everyone has their clandestine vices; mine is reading the Daily Mail. Something, which prior to this heroic disclosure, was very much kept under the radar. The daily digestion thereof, requires limited mental aptitude and its content certainly not to be accepted as gospel. However, the entertainment value is priceless and this week was no different. As expected, the focus of current coverage is the imminent Royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine, which incidentally and rather unfortunately abbreviates to; 'the WC wedding'. Anyway, amongst all the joyous royal nuptial news, was an amusing article penned by Quentin Letts, entitled 'Yes, its true. Women ARE better gardeners than men'.

Letts' article was prompted by the publication of a report from a recent survey conducted by a weedkiller manufacturer, concluding that women are better gardeners than men.  Unfortunately, the original survey report is proving to be elusive as it would have been interesting to find out how the unidentified weedkiller manufacturer, was looking to ascertain what actually constitutes a 'good' gardener. In the article, Letts concurs with the report's conclusions and provides an amusing personal insight into Mr and Mrs Letts respective gardening traits and roles. 

Letts (dubbed barrow boy) considers his and the male gardening role, to be limited to the more arduous physical side of gardening such as moving heaps of mulch, digging, pruning and pushing mowers, whilst his wife's and hence the female gardener, is more involved in the 'fiddly' elements of gardening, such as tending to flowers, weeding, planting and choosing colour schemes. Despite the article's thoroughly comical quality,  it is of course a rather simplistic point of view, and apart from his own experience, for most, rather inaccurate. Whether weeding, planting, mowing or digging, all gardening activities require substantial physical effort, all equally undertaken by both sexes. To my mother's continued chagrin, the state of my hands, certainly proves this point. Furthermore, eminent gardeners such as Christopher Lloyd, Piet Oudolf, Noel Kingsbury and Tom Stuart-Smith are very apt indeed when it comes to working with plants, textures and colour. I would hazard a guess that, Mrs Letts, who must be a good gardener, working up to 6 hours per day in the garden, frequently battling stubborn weeds, may be a tad miffed about her husband's rather disparaging depiction of her gardening activities as being merely 'fiddly'.

Having said that, I suspect that for many households across the country, some of Letts' observations may ring true. Just as it is for us and most of our keen gardening family & friends, she works the flowering borders and he takes pride in the lawns, and deals with the copious collections of menacing machinery. In my case, it is indeed accurate to say that I am most interested in working with plants, that is; planting, creating the borders, propagation and growing vegetables. Though, contrary to Letts view, my activities do extend to the associated physical requirements; digging the borders, mulching and pruning. Similarly, my husband is certainly a wiz with the lawn mower, shovels and secateurs, but his gardening interests don't just end there. He is very interested in plants, in fact he has a passion for herbs and fruit plants/trees. He has created a superbly laid out fruit cage, crammed full of the healthiest of plants, elegantly and effectively supported, producing the most tantalising harvest of early, mid and late summer berries. My envy never ceases to subside, and my poor kitchen garden finds itself in a continued beauty contest. On that score, I am still but the runner-up.

Fruit cage - 29th of April 2011
According to Mrs Letts, men are unable to weed. Apparently, she sings a rather interesting rendition of Julie Covington's song, 'Only Women Bleed', where she changed the words to 'Only Women Weed'. From a childhood perspective, this certainly rings true. My father's weeding weapon of choice is the hoe. On a hot dry day, the hoe is a fabulous weapon, but in my father's hands, its repertoire is however not always limited to weeds. Frantic apologies to my consequently, fuming mother, often follow. On the other hand, my husband is a super weeder, which has opportunely resulted in a rather enormous collection of shiny weeding tools.

Fruit cage - 29th of April 2011

I suppose the moral of the Letts' article, is not to antagonise either of the gardening sexes. Rather an ode to the foresight of fashion conscious Victorians and Edwardians, allowing women the opportunity to publicly develop their green fingers. Genius plants women such as Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West, Rosemary Verey, Penelope Hobhouse and Beth Chatto, set the standard still much followed today. Consequently, thanks to those accomplished ladies, men have been liberated from the perceived tedium of fiddly gardening, and can instead opt to operate heavy gardening machinery and or take to the shed to read the sports pages.

Is that really true though? Reading through the lines, one cannot help but wonder, if barrow boy Letts' continued attempts to assist his wife in the garden is not a sign of shy budding gardener, just bursting to blossom?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Rude disturbance loo roll germination experiment

Disaster! Despite continued progress, with the broad beans growing beautifully in the germination trial using loo roll inners, their growth was rudely interrupted. The worrying, tell-tale signs of scattered young plant tops and actual bean seeds missing or partially digested, can only be the work of uncouth, pillaging mice. All my fault; with the warm weather continuing, the greenhouse windows have been open longer, even during the night. The latter for which, yours truly has now been severely punished. 

Curiously, the mice were not at all interested in the neighbouring Borlotti bean plants growing in the Root Trainers. Many of my young Borlotti's, sown direct last year, had brutally succumbed to mice damage. Peculiar, therefore that no attempt was made on them whilst openly available, without covers, but simply in their plastic Root Trainer casings.  I wonder if the manufacturer of Root Trainers has anticipated this additional advantage to using their product?

Loo Roll Inner Germinated Broad Beans - 17th of April 2011
In an attempt to save my young broad beans, I decided to plant them out. Decision confirmed by the fact their two week older siblings, growing happily in the Kitchen Garden, have been untouched by mice. Could be a risky strategy, but as the mice seem to have developed a taste for them in the Greenhouse, one can only presume they would return there. Particularly as the cheeky tyrants even managed to get underneath the covers, I used to try to protect them. It would have been preferable to plant them out a week later, as they were still quite small, but action was required. My fingers are crossed the young plants survive outside and grow quickly so as to be out of harms way of gluttonous mice.

As for the result of my non-scientific trial? Very positive indeed. The beans had wonderful root growth. Not as netted as one would expect from Root Trainer grown specimens, but long, dense, healthy roots, many of which penetrating the loo rolls.  As many have reported, it was somewhat tedious to remove the covers, so to limit disturbing the roots, many went in, roll and all.

No creepy mushroom growth to be reported, and the plants themselves (at least those not ravaged by mice), all very strong and healthy.

The personal conclusion therefore, loo roll inners are certainly a viable alternative to Root Trainers. We will therefore undoubtedly be using them again, naturally depending on the continued charity of obliging family members. For next time though, extra caution and care is required to protect them from mice, which seem to find pillaging loo roll inner grown specimens easier, than their counterparts grown in the tidy Root Trainer casings.

Progress Kitchen Garden - 17th of April 2011

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Aristocratic Magnolia Campbellii 'Alba'

By now, the magnificent Magnolia flowering season has probably ended. Though, depending on your location, for the lucky few, it may still be in full glory.  Admittedly, my knowledge of these wondrous trees is very limited indeed, having to date, simply admired from afar.

However, that changed after seeing Carol Klein's visit to Geldurgan Garden in Cornwall on a recent episode of Gardeners' World. In particular, regarding the Magnolia Campbelli Alba, which featured on the programme. The sheer size of the Magnolia Campbelli Alba tree, and not to mention its enormous, yet delicate, flowers, can only but induce one to scurry, wallet in hand, to the local nursery. However, our North Oxfordshire weather is no match for Cornwall's unique micro-climate. So, could this superb tree survive in other parts of the country, particularly in colder areas?

'Bowl' shaped flower of the Magnolia Campbelli 'Alba' (Source BBC iPlayer)


In an attempt to find the answer, I have been doing some digging in our bulging book shelves, on the internet, and consulted some specialist nurseries for additional advice.

In his comprehensive book entitled, Magnolias A gardener's guide, Jim Gardiner, describes the Magnolia Campbellii, as the 'aristocrat amongst the Magnolia species'. Despite discovery by Archibald Campbell (hence its name) in Darjeeling, the first white Magnolia Campbellii ('Alba') was discovered by William Griffith in 1838. Incredibly, the first Magnolia Campbellii 'Alba' to be grown in the West, was raised from just three seeds, sent to J.C. Williams at Caerhays in 1926.

This particular Magnolia has a variable habit, in that it can either become a single stemmed tree with pyramidal outline, or have a more sprawling habit, similar to that of that many common Magnolia species. The former was the certainly the case for the tremendous tree featured on Gardeners' World. Surprisingly, its growth rate is vigorous, growing on average 90-120cm per year and could start producing flowers from 10 years. Maturity is reached at 25-30 years, where depending on location, is capable of growing up to 35 metres in height. This, therefore, certainly seems to be the Magnolia of choice, for the impatient gardener. Hence, brilliant, for yours truly.

See if you can spot Carol; look for a red coat... (Source BBC iPlayer)


Though, on further reading, the M. Campbellii is said to be amongst the first Magnolias to flower, which sadly does not bode well for our cause. As with all early flowering varieties, it is therefore very susceptible to (spring) frost damage. I would hazard a guess, that the sheer size of its buds makes it even more susceptible to frost and especially cold winds, all of which our region has in abundance. However, it is said to be hardy in temperate regions to about -15°C, and planting in a sheltered spot should provide sufficient protection. Furthermore, just as it for its cousins, frost is a danger to most Magnolias, but they seems to thrive regardless. We have two, established Magnolia x Soulangeana in the garden, that despite flowering late (late March/early April) are still susceptible. When frost damage did occur, they recovered and continue to thrive.

Our Magnolia Soulangeana - April 2011
Interestingly, too much shelter is no good either. According to Gardiner, if planted within a walled garden, a North facing wall is preferable. West facing walls could generate too much heat, causing its buds to burst even earlier, and hence putting it at more risk of frost. This is all becoming rather complicated...

Sadly Gardiner's erudite book had no further answers to my quest, so I turned to some of the specialist nurseries for additional information.  Obligingly, Burncoose nurseries in Cornwall, provided both helpful and hopeful advice. According to Burncoose, the Magnolia Campbellii Alba is perfectly hardy and in the wild, grows in far colder temperatures than in our humble North Oxfordshire. Flowers may get frosted in odd years when they are out, but this is the case for all Magnolias. They confirmed that due to our colder climate, Magnolias flower much later, as they adjust to local conditions. All good news therefore.

Burncoose went on however, to mention that it would be a smaller tree than those growing in Cornwall, but that it will certainly flower. To flower successfully, it would need to be planted, in full sunlight, and under no circumstances be overshadowed by other trees. Similar to Gardiner's advice, shelter is good, but it has to be selected shelter. In this case, shelter from overhead trees is definitely not good. As a local condition and weather gauge, one of our local nurseries, Nicholsons, kindly confirmed that the tree would need protection from strong winds and that it should be able to withstand temperatures down to -15°C.

So, the good news is that the Magnolia Campbellii Alba should certainly be able to grace our garden, and thrive. The bad news is that it may not be the enormous sparkler, I had hoped it to be. We will certainly be looking out for a good place to plant one in the autumn. For those, keen to plant a Magnolia, Gardiner recommends autumn planting, though he went on to say that spring (March - April) planting can produce equally good results.

And who knows, with special care and attention, our future, soon-to-be-purchased, Magnolia Campbellii Alba, may prove us all wrong and grow into that magnificent towering tree that I so admired on the programme. One can always hope....

Good progress on loo roll germination

Just as quick follow up to related post entitled 'The ubiquitous Root Trainer versus loo roll germination saga', good progress reported on the broad beans sown in loo rolls.

Germination progress 9th of April 2011
























Germination time, is similar to that of those sown two weeks prior in the Root Trainers. Since the photo was taken, nearly all seeds have germinated in their respective loo roll cells. Pleased to report, that to date, there is no sign of scary terrorising mushroom growth as some reported.

Compared to their proud Root Trained broad bean cousins, they do however have some way to go.....

Friday, 8 April 2011

Ha-ha, 'not to be confused with laughter'

Unfortunately, when first introduced to this lovely landscape design feature, there was no personal incitement of its famous 'ha-ha', or in French 'ah-ah', sound of surprise. Furthermore, despite attempts to startle numerous friends and family, no one seems to produce the infamous yelps, which makes one wonder as to its admittedly odd, and seemingly erroneous, name. For those unfamiliar, the term 'ha-ha' is allegedly derived from the sound of surprise, when people come across it.

Ha-ha April 2011
The history of the ha-ha is rather interesting, albeit rather inconclusive. Evidence appears to indicate that the concept of the ha-ha was part of Chinese gardening techniques, but the consensus seems to be that its European origins are earlier than that of the actual discovery of Chinese gardening. One can confirm that its claim to fame almost certainly came through the Landscape Garden movement, where it used to create an invisible boundary and hence infamously long sweeping, uninterrupted views.  Despite the initial perspectives, the invention of the ha-ha, is not that of Bridgeman or Kent, but appears to date back 17th Century France, whence a similar device existed, called the 'Saute de Loup' (wolf leap). I certainly hope that the French version was a tad wider than our ha-ha, as it seems that ours is no barrier to Dudley, our 10 month old puppy, let alone a wolf....

Having said that, the construction of what basically looks like a sunken ditch, is rather clever. Dudley can briskly jump over it one way, but requires desperate rescuing to return. One side of the trench is straight and reinforced with stone, whilst the other is gently sloping, hence creating an extended barrier. Most documented usage for this barrier was to ensure formal gardens were protected from grazing cattle, sheep and wildlife such as deer, without having to use obstructive fences. Thereby providing the illusion of animals gently grazing on the forever sweeping lawns.

Horton stone ha-ha, April 2011




There are many great examples of ha-ha's to be seen across the UK, such as Burghley and Rousham. The value of a ha-ha is notably apparent at Rousham, where it is used to keep their alarmingly huge, but majestic, Long Horn cattle at bay.

There certainly seems scope for more use of this elegant landscape design feature in modern gardening, though we have never seen any modern-take examples. Perhaps if one of the cunning garden designers would try it at the Chelsea Flower Show... ? Having said that, despite its setting, I suppose, our ha-ha could be defined as 'modern'. This ha-has was built but a few decades ago, by the foresight my husband's parents, to protect the garden whilst preserving the view of the field.

Apart from its ability to effortlessly extend the view, ward off greedy grazers, the ha-ha is our gauge of the coming of Spring. When the ha-ha presents no barrier to the majestically marauding Primroses, Spring has arrived!

On that note, I had better get to the packed greenhouse, to start planting out my over coddled seedlings...

Primroses in Ha-ha, April 2011
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