November 15

Grow for Flavour by James Wong

I bought this book back in 2015, when it was first published and it set me off on a never-ending trial of tomato varieties to grow for taste. Nothing has really come close to Sungold apart from Shimmmer which I like best grown in a plantpot and underwatered. The taste is really intense if grown like that.

Anyway, this book has been chosen as our next book club choice and so I can read it again. It is a book that can be dipped in and out of which was probably necessary as we had all read The Overstory by Richard Powers for November and that is a loooooong book – good but long.

The book starts with some general principles for growing for flavour and then branches out into individual fruit and vegetables. The general principles are:

  • Choose the right variety for you and stress it slightly as that releases defence chemicals which make the plant taste better
  • The more sunlight, the more intense the flavour for most plants. Colour is important so red platic mulch for strawberries increases yields, green surfaces make for stronger basil, silver reduces aphid problems on peppers and melons planted through black plastic ripen earlier.
  • Watering – something people are always amazed that they need to learn how to do on the veg growing course we run. Leaf crops ned watering before picking, for fruits such as tomatoes, reduce the water before picking and would you believe the same goes for beetroot and carrots.
  • Soil and fertiliser – easy on the fertiliser and liquid feeds. However seaweed and molasses can have a positive effect on the taste of vegetables.
  • Pest attack is good – it is a type of stress and chemical defenses will be released. There are some sprays that can mimic an attack.
  • Prunng, grafting and thinning particularly with fruit will mean a higher ration of flesh to skin with fewer but bigger fruits.
  • Harvesting and storing. Harvest when totally ripe and the fridge is not always the best place to store fruit and vegetables, particularly tomatoes, squash, pears, strawberries etc. Salads should be picked in the morning, berries in the afternoon.

What I am on the lookout for are things that I can try next year. I am going to focus on trying to grow carrots for all year round. Wong suggests Purple Sun carrots as a different sort to grow, grow them in cooler conditions and cook them whole. The other vegetable I might try is hamburg parsley and grow it just like I would parsnips for a different taste.

This is a book jam-packed with ideas for trying on different vegetables with almost too much information to take in. I like the recipes that are included as well as the more unusual items at the end of the book. I do have a szechuan pepper tree which fruited this year and now I know what to do with the fruit.

It really is a wonderful book.

October 18

Big Butterfly Count results

The results are in for the Big Butterfly Count and so I thought I would compare the wildlife garden results with the national results. It is a mixed picture. Some butterflies are doing really well and others are struggling. I counted on 12 separate occasions and tried to get at least one photograph of each sort although I wasn’t always successful. The images below include a moth that was in the count – a Silver Y.

Name of butterflyWildlife garden numbersNational resultsIncrease/decrease for national results compared with 2022
Red Admiral83248,077+338%
Large whites73216,666+11%
Small whites47190,506+15%
Holly Blue234,655+22%
Comma 149,173+26%
Common Blue1 (I think)30,009-13%
Painted Lady3411,893+3%
Speckled wood329,708-11%
Green veined white0 (I might have had 2 but was unsure)24,093-0%

Strangely, not that different from the national results in terms of most seen to least seen. The plant that had the most butterflies on during the counting time was the Buddleja bush. How appropriate. At times there were more than 10 Red Admirals on it and upto 8 Peacocks, particularly in the mid-morning sun.

August 10

Composting Masterclass by Tony O’Neill

I can’t remember why I bought this book and I wish I could because it is not an easy read and I can’t see why I would need to know most of the information in this book to make compost. Spreadsheets so that you get the right ratios of carbon to nitrogen, weight and moisture percentages etc. It is almost too much. I’m not sure what I was expecting though.

I did like the explanations of the different methods of composting, many of which I have on the go – cold composting, vermiculture and composting tree shreddings but haven’t tried bokashi composting. I also liked his idea that composting is not just a managed decomposition of organic materials for the benefits of the soil but that it is a farming of micro-organisms. That puts a whole new spin on it. The other tip I picked up is that I need to get a thermometer to stick into my compost bins to see what sort of temperatures they are reaching.

I think I wanted things to do and I see that O’Neill has published a workbook to go alongside this book almost as if this is the theory which I think is a bit of a swizz. The workbook should be included in this book if it is a masterclass. I was also expecting it to link to videos of examples on his plots to exemplify what he talks about. But no. Perhaps that is my book to write!

One for the compost heap.

August 2

Gardening book club – Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is a name appearing all over the place at the moment due to winning the Pulitzer Prize and the Women’s Fiction Prize with her most recent novel, Demon Copperhead. We chose Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as it describes a year in her family’s life where they chose to eat only locally produced food, much of which they grew themselves as they have land. The book is divided up into gluts of veg by month so July was courgettes (!), May was asparagus etc. but we were all particularly taken with her description of making mozeralla – apparantly it is quick and easy, you stretch it across your kitchen as part of the process and you stick it in the microwave to finish it off – and so a couple of the group might give it a try. We await the results.

There were foods that they had to do without and we did discuss what we would have to give up if we were to eat in this way. Kingsolver was pragmatic and so they did buy tea and coffee and we also wondered how far away is local – a 70 mile radius in their situation which is rural Appalachia in the US. We considered lemons, spices, red wine, chocolate but in actual fact apart from chocolate, we can grow more than we realised: ginger, tumeric, lemon grass, pepper corns etc although many of these are growing on the edge of their preferred conditions and often an indoor space is needed.

Eating your own food often means preserving gluts so that you have something to eat during the winter. None of us were wild about spending long hours in the summer slaving over a hot stove, although if the weather is like this August we might be glad of something to do other than be out in the rain. This way of living does take time and commitment and that might not be possible for all. We wondered how working people might find it, but in fact Kingsolver and her husband both worked during the year that they did this. She mentions in the book that it is about a mindset and prioritising this way of living. She probably didn’t watch much TV in the evenings.

Somehow, the kit you need to preserve foods came up: pressure cookers, dehydrators and fruit juicers. It turns out that you can get a dehydrator and fruit press from the Library of Things in Exmouth. You pay a small fee to join and then can borrow the items. What a wonderful idea.

Dotted throughout the book are snippets written by Kingsolver’s husband about the science of whatever she was talking about and her elder daughter’s point of view and recipes to match the gluts. These really enhanced the message being given in a book that was written in 2008 but still so relevant today.

Our next meeting is on the 19th of September 2023 in the community room on HL plots at 7pm and we are reading The Botanist’s Daughter by Kayte Nunn.

July 24

Gardening in a Changing World by Darryl Moore part 5

Plants as possibilities.

In the early 1900s a Swedish botanist, Gote Turesson, discovered what he called ‘ecotypes’ of plants which is the same plant but with small genetic changes depending on where they grew. Understanding the ecotypes of plants provides a better fit of plant to place with climate, soil, latitude and altitude giving the greatest range of ecotypes.

How can this prepare us for the future? Well, some ecotypes are better adapted to warmer temperatures and so may help in a changing climate. Different ecotypes offer different rates of carbon sequestration and oxygen provision. Variations in leaf size and shape offer alternative responses to light and moisture. They can extend flowering seasons and therefore will be suited to different pollinators. Now, instead of saying right plant, right place we can say ‘best plant in the right place’.

Since 2012 Sjoman working at Gothenburg Botanical Gardens has been looking at ecotypes in trees to ensure the best plant not just when it was planted but for long-term success. His focus on drought tolerance of trees means that it will be possible to diversify the trees planted in urban areas. And we know from earlier chapters that a greater diversity in plants + a greater diversity in wildlife plus a greater likelihood of surviving temperature changes.

James Hitchmough has been focusing on this when looking for plants for his new house in Dorset and his research with Sjoman and others suggests that adaptation of trees in urban areas needs to be studied in greater detail to match the tree with the specific site, e.g. near a pavement or a busy road. The limiting factor here is lack of knowledge.

Plant communities are not, as previously thought, in competition with each other. Many plants have positive interactions known as facilitations where one species alters the environment for another and enhances their growth, reproduction and survival. This might be through reducing temperature, moisture or nutrients. Trees do this by moderating the light levels underneath them as well as the moisture content and alters the nutrient levels through leaf drop. Some plants will provide shelter for others such as in windy environments and enable it to survive in conditions it wouldn’t normally. This can also be planned for in changing climates.

But what about what is going on underground? Roots do not just anchor a plant into the soil but also transports carbon into the soil and extracts nutrients and water for growth and reproduction. The microbial populations assist in adaptation to environment as do the plants themselves. Different leaves when they decompose offer different nutrients and this will affect individual plants within a community. This leads to the idea that if the microbiome of the soil is varied so will our microbiome be as well. We’ve moved a long way from colour theory here . Could we offer planting schemes that provide particular bacteria to people walking through them?

You can read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6 if you click on the links.

July 21

Butterfly Count 21/07/23

A bit of variety today but only because I went down to the wildlife garden to count in the afternoon. It was much windier and less sunshine. This is definitely the week of the peacocks though.

At times there were up to 4 peacocks on one flower of the buddleia. I wonder if that is because they are starting to go over and so the small flowers with nectar are all at the end of the group. The small white was on the fading Nepeta or Catmint and the Gatekeeper on a Geranium leaf.

In this picture you can see the probiscus of the Peacock on the flowers.

July 20

Butterfly Count 20/07/23

Do you think I am seeing the same butterflies each day? I get the feeling I am but never mind. Here are todays beauties. The Gatekeeper or Hedge Browns are really enjoying the Marjoram or Oregano flowers at the moment. We have white and pink and they seem to prefer the white.

I might have been getting my Painted Ladys and Red Admirals a bit mixed up. I have them sorted for today!

July 20

Gardening in a Changing World by Darryl Moore part 4

Plants as processes.

Ecological planting can take many forms. One form is biogeographical in that plants from a certain area are grown together as a community. The communities have developed over a long time and are often used for historic situations as they are almost a restoration method of planting.

A second method is to take plants that exist throughout the world in similar situations and put them together providing more flexibility but novel communities. For example, here in Exmouth where we garden on dry, coastal sand with large pebbles, we are able to grow a large range of New Zealand plants that come from a similar type of environment but the other side of the world. Here the aim is a general naturalistic impression rather than a direct copy, but one where plants are more liable to support themselves with minimal intervention.

Whichever method is used, they both aim for the idea that diversity is healthy.

In the US there is a lineage of naturalistic planting often using native planting. Prairie planting ws driven by a romanticised view of the landscape – landscapes as seen by the white settlers. But what they were not was landscapes free from human intervention because the indigenous people had been ‘working’ them for aeons. The flora were not natural communities but those that had established after bison had been through and disturbed the land to which the plants had become adapted.

This type of planting should change over time as the plants seed and move around the area. In fact, this is the only constant of this type of planting. Van Sweden and Oehme developed this style of planting with grasses and perennials on quite a large scale. The were less interested in colour, but more interested in texture, height and drama. Colour was just left to do its own thing.

Rainer and West moved this style of planting on a stage with the layering of plants to fill every niche including complete ground cover. Annuals are also included particularly if there has been significant ground disturbance during the design. Balancing the needs of people and plants: the range and type of plant with what people find beautiful is a system of plant communities that shows great promise. It is something that I am trying to find my way with on the wildlife garden.

In the 80s we started to see the Dutch ‘new perennial’ planting as shown through Gerritsen and Oudolf where naturlaistic planting was mixed with modern design. Wild planting with strong design. They rejected the idea of continuous and intensive labour to maintain the gardens but meant that they needed a different palette of plants such as wild plants and ornamental grasses. In fact, this led to the development of the Oudolf’s nursery so that they could obtain the plants that they needed and wanted for their designs. Oudolf is the surviving member of this group and is interested in plant colour but he considers the flower’s shape and seed heads first, then the leaf shape and texture and then colour. He is the master of plant structures and shapes once they have lost their leaves so that they look good into winter. This type of planting relies on careful selection of plants, something Oudolf has been researching for many years.

Recent work such as Hitchmough and Dunnett has focused on random planting of species, sometimes through seed mixes to explore how communities and individual plants are responding to climate change and therefore provide useful indications of the future of vegetation, particularly for urban areas.

In Britain, work was undertaken to look at newly built on areas and not importing top soil but using what was present, disturbance, clay, rubble and shale and linking planting that remained arund teh outside of the housing site to planting within and around to create a richer and more diverse stimulating environment for the people who live there.

This cleared teh way for Hitchmough and Dunnett and the Sheffield school of planting, their most high-profile planting being the Olympic Park in London in 2012.Although the worked together on this, they do have distinct ideas on the relationship between ecological and aesthetics. What does tie them together is their scientific rigour of ecological planting. The university is a hotbed of research focusing on the relationship between planting and people in urban areas.

James and Helen Basson are using science to push forward the art of planting in the south of France where it is hot and dry. They focus on water-conscious methods of planting and research the stress-tolerance of plants and the communities they inhabit. So, the landscape may use Rosemary but eh Bassons will use up to 20 varieties that flower at different times, some of which will come from drier parts of the region such as Greece and Turkey and which will work with severe drought. This means that as the climate changes and becomes hotter the planting will survive. Most planting is in in 10cm of gravel mulch to help root run with deeper levels of gravel where they are deemed necessary. Whilst they do import materials, they do not irrigate and therefore waste precious resources. The gardens are constantly changing because some plants have shorter lives, lavender, cistus and rosemary about six years, and they prune or what they call ‘goat prune’. This replicates the grazing which takes place in the wider environment.

The Bassons have created a large database of plants based on where they grow best with many variables and are now useing AI to help process the data. This means that they will be able to identify which plants will become over dominant in an area and what the ideal balance of species is to make the community diverse and complex. Future factors they would like to add in are things such as scent and to link to climate databases. Phew. Garden design by AI!

You can read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6 if you click on the links.

July 20

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve read a lot of Kingsolver recently. Demon Copperhead for one book club and Unsheltered for another and now Animal, Vegetable, Miracle which I loved. In fact I am just going to list all the things that I loved.

  • Her choice of vegetables. If I had to choose key vegetables I would choose the same as Kingsolver chose. As I write this in July and we are sinking under a mound of courgettes and almost eating them at every mealtime. I am going to chop some up and put them in the freezer for soups in winter but I really couldn’t face the amount of time she spent in the kitchen in August preserving all that food.
  • The idea that we can decide how we feel about cooking at the end of the day. Is it a mind-numbing chore or is it an act of love to bring everyone together around something that is good for us but also provides a social occasion for a family. I choose an act of love and health.
  • She’s funny. I am still chuckling at the thought that we ask our young people to delay having sex, wait until they are a bit older, but we can’t wait for tomato season. We buy them all year round and eat them even when they are tasteless winter blobs. In fact they are like that in the summer if you buy them from a supermarket. Or, how about when she had to teach her turkeys how to have sex because it has been bred out of them.
  • Living on what you can get locally. Kingsolver and family had animals for eating. It requires that we research local suppliers and then buy from them. I love the idea that our money can be put to good use within our community. Farmers were having a hard time when she wrote the book in 2008 but they are having an even harder time in 2023. Climate change is happening and affects what and how we grow.
  • “We all may have some hungry months ahead of us, even hungry years, when a warmed-up globe changes the rules of a game we smugly thought we’d already aced.” p325
  • Secretly, I hanker after doing the same thing. I would have to be a lot more organised and think more carefully about how much of each thing to grow but I do have the space and some know-how. I would start in May and I would really have to think about winter because I don’t have the space to freeze everything to keep us going all winter but I do have a polytunnel.

Were there things I wasn’t so sure about in the book? Yes. Her daughters never appeared to argue about wanting things they couldn’t have – perhaps they had been talking about this way of living for several years so they had bought in to the idea. They do come over as a rather perfect family. But, how do you live without lemons? I have grown 4 this year, all tiny. Not exactly abundance so the things we would have to go without might be quite a lot. I don’t eat many bananas so that isn’t a problem. Maybe I ought to start growing lemons a little more seriously.

This book is one woman and her family’s journey. It isn’t mine or yours and so I think if we take the principles we can all have a go. It’s just that some of us might have more disagreements (!) along the way.