April 2

Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino

This was my second attempt at reading this book. It just looked so loooong that I couldn’t face it although I thought I might be interested in the actual content. So, I started in the middle with Stichleton cheese and worked my way out, reading at random whatever caught my fancy and ended up reading most of the book.

Who wouldn’t be interested in the fact that we have many foods that are disappearing? The same arguments about animals becoming extinct apply to foods. Loss of diversity leads to greater dangers in a food being wiped out; lower diversity for wildlife and lower diversity for our gut microbiome. Often the people that continue with these foods are passionate about them or are part of a long tradition of making/growing them and when they die, so do the ways they know. This makes Saladino’s book really important in that it highlights what these foods are.

Stichleton cheese has suffered because it is made with raw milk. Can you imagine the French refusing a cheese made with raw milk? Stilton can only be made with pasteurised milk to be called Stilton. Pasteurisation did save many, many people from tuberculosis amongst other things but in eradicating raw milk we also lost something else.

Perry was also interesting – a cider type drink made with pears. I used to live in Worcestershire, one of the counties that made Perry, and in my time there orchards disappeared at an alarming rate. Now Perry trees are few and far between and their location has to be kept a secret. It is a delicious drink, quite deceptive and why wouldn’t the future of pears one day be dependent on some of the genes included in perry pears?

There used to be over 4000 varieties of potato, almost as many of corn, hundreds of varieties of apple and cheeses made where the sheep were grazing. Now we have one main type of potato – 2 or 3 if we are lucky – and half of the world’s cheese made with bacteria and enzymes from one company. It seems we have forgotten what happened with the Irish famine where everyone grew the same potato so that when blight hit, it got every single plant. This food monoculture is a danger to the planet and to our health.

Saladino has taken on the role of alerting us to the plight of these foods but it is someone else’s work to share with us how we can change this, what we can each do without it costing us the earth.

February 6

The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift

This was our latest Gardening book club choice, one I have tried to read before and not got very far with. Being a book club choice means I persevered with it and I am glad I did.

Katherine Swift was a rare-book librarian at Trinity in Dublin and her husband, Ken, a bookseller in Oxford. In order to lure her back to this country, they found a house where she could make a garden and Moreville House ended up being the lucky recipient of Katherine’s thoughtful research and reading about gardens.

This isn’t a garden book that will tell you what to do with sandy soil or which plants to use in shade, rather a very site specific treatise about the land, its people, history and geology with some botany thrown in for good measure. It is the sort of book that has a range of information that you could bring out on a quiz night and astound everyone such as the country name for daffodils is Lenten lily because they bloom in the liturgical season of lent or that there were 38 vineyards in Britain before the Romans arrived. The climate then was that of a warming one and so we are now and have vineyards again.

The book is structured around a book of hours used by the Benedictine monks who used to live on the land. It is a book of prayers for the different times of the day and so works neatly to fit the months of the year and for each ‘prayer’ or chapter to be a reflection and meditation upon the garden and how it ended up being there at that time of the year. In fact the structure is like that of a formal garden, neat, clipped hedging in the form of the times of prayer or seasons but inside each season or prayer there is a lushness and a billowing out of plants and people, history and geology. As readers, we are reading Swift’s reading of the landscape and it anchors her to the land and the garden.

I have seen it written that the book is a journey of self-exploration or that it is part memoir but all of these seem a generous description of the nuggets of her life that we are allowed to peep at behind the plants. Her writing about the garden is rich and descriptive with perhaps some of the longest sentences I have ever read, there are a lot of colons and semi-colons, but the writing about her family is greatly contrasted: short, spare, often tense or terse and never ever with any sense of her feelings about the situations other than love for her father. The nearer we get to the end of the book, the more she says until at last she explains that she has tried to tell the story of ‘why I am as I am’. She mentions friends and local people often, but of her husband there is little other than his understanding about her need to make a garden until she says that in 2008 the lease on the property would be due and they thought they would go and make a garden by the sea. She then says that he left before that and I was left wondering whether their marriage was over, had he died, did he have Alzheimers? As a reader, you have to do a lot of the heavy work about her life which is in complete contrast to reading about the garden. She has definitely done all the hard work there.

The writing is wonderful but at times a little too rich. I couldn’t sit down and just read, I had to parcel the book up and read it bit by bit, a certain amount each day so that I didn’t tire of it. She has very clear sentence patterns and once I had found them, I couldn’t stop noticing them. There are wonderful images,

The cat flap in the kitchen door lifts open, horizontal: the cats flatten their ears and narrow their eyes before breasting the tide of freezing air like Christmas Day swimmers taking the plunge.


and the idea of a Norman deed to the house, parchment paper with formal language, dense with contractions and suspensions and conditions ‘like an airline ticket to another world.

She is big on the idea of ‘threeness’

Only in the eighteenth century did Morville attain that sort of stability: Morville’s was a tale of lost heirs, heirs defrauded, heirs dead before their time; of childless couples, bachelor uncles; of a succession that zigzagged, backtracked, skipped generations; of a house eventually surplus to requirements, bought and sold; its library, archives, contents all scattered


She is a lister, with all sorts of ways of listing

Pippins and pearmains, costards and codlins, leathercoats and russets; silver and white, rose-pink and carmine, pearly grey and apple green – the apple blossom of old England, now in flower once more in the gardens of Morville: Geneting and Gillyflower, Calville and Catshead, Quining and Quarrenden, the branches clustered with flowers like posies carried by school children.


Yes, there are parts that are overwritten and could have been edited a bit more firmly but Swift is a wordsmith and I greatly enjoyed that element of her writing.

There were also sections that spoke to me as a gardener. The challenges of knowing when a pear is ripe, ‘my pears are a mystery to me. We just don’t speak the same language’, and the temptations of seed catalogues

First to list the seed saved or unused from last year. Then to list what new seed needs to be bought. And then, only then, cautiously, to open the catalogues, with their honeyed promises of shapes and tastes and smells; their coloured photographs of laden baskets and ripe pods, purple aubergines and ruby chard; yellow flowers of courgette and soft sweet flesh of parsnip; leeks like thighs and lettuces like the frilled red skirts of cancan dancers; flowers like butterflies, like birds, as blue as lapis lazulis, as dark as bitter chocolate. And every year, despite my resolutions, I fall, succumbing to their thousand-and-one temptations and ordering far more than I need.


I know this is a bit over-the-top, leeks like thighs is not an image that works for me or all the birds and butterflies, but I do understand that feeling of wanting to try everything and believing everything the catalogue descriptions and photos tell me.

This will not be an easy book to discuss in book club. I can’t think of questions that can be asked of it and us as readers. I do want to follow-up on any thoughts others might have about the sort of person Swift might be based on the little information that we got in the book. Swift is an expert in reading the land and I wonder if we can read the landscape of the allotments in the same way. What do we know about its geology, history and people?

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.

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.

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 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.

July 17

Gardening in a Changing World by Darryl Moore part 3

Plants as pictures.

This section of the book is a brief history of the styles of gardening and how we have ended up where we are.

Gardens have always been the province of the wealthy with land, and still are to a large degree today. As an expression of wealth, taste is very important and tastes have changed over time. From the very formal garden with a lot of labour to manage it, to those where the plants are left to a degree to make their own place in the garden, there has been a steady march towards more holistic, plant community planning that leaves gardens for people and wildlife.

I’m going to start with William Robinson and his version of naturalism. The planting he designed had plants from across the world not just natives and he was concerned with planting a plant where it would not need any further care. Whilst he tried many combinations of plants, one that has survived is the naturalising of narcissus and daffodils in the grass and around the base of trees. His was a style of gardening that showed the ecological requirements of plants which we still use today.

Next up is Jekyll and her use of colour through the use of flowers with this lasting for as long as possible in the year. She was the first colourist, probably due to her training as an artist and using colour theory based on the colour wheel. She treated plants as items to be arranged in a prescriptive manner and this lasted for a long time in UK gardens.

The next step forward was Lawrence Johnston who took over where Jekyll left off but introduced the idea of formality through garden rooms at Hidcote. These rooms were then themed as were some of the borders, e.g. the red border, the white garden where plants were categorised according to a feature, e.g. colour rather than naturalistic or environmental relationships. This was further developed by Rosemary Verey with her iconic laburnum arch underplanted with bulbs – often purple.

Alan Bloom then set up a garden using the plants in his family nursery, Bressingham, where perennials were used, planted in islands in the grass. These were designed to be seen from every angle and consisted of plants used based on form and colour – like annuals were previously used.

Sandra and Nori Pope developed the colourist idea to the nth degree with beds of all one colour, e.g. plum and playing with tones and hues. This was a high maintenance garden which ended when they left. They went on to manage West Dean where they took their ideas about colour but there were also vegetables and shrubs and trees in this different garden.

Eckbo started to think about gardens for people but John Brookes develped this much further with his idea of outdoor rooms. Now we have outdoor kitchens, but back in his day he developed a modular system for creating spaces based on the geometry and measurements of the house in relation to the garden. In fact our patio is the size it is because I followed his guidance on using the height of the house and width to create the right sized space. It worked! Brookes used the crossover between architecture, art and landscape in his gardens.

Christopher Lloyd used what he called mixed borders where herbacious and shrubs and bulbs and anything else were all planted together. He used the whole of the plant to see where it fitted in – height, form, colour, changes throughout the season, soil preferences and changed and updated planting througout the seasons. This was a very high maintenance, labour intensive garden which really took off with the employment of Fergus Garrett as Head Gardener. Since Lloyd’s death, Garrett has introduced a more ecological form of planting with plant selection and knowledge of their characteristics as key to the beds.

Beth Chatto was a near contemporary of Lloyd and is famous for her ‘right plant, right place’ ideas aided and abetted by her husband who studied and collected plant communities from around the world. Her boook Green Tapestry showed that colour was not the deciding factor in creating beds and her other titles reflect her ideas of right plant, right place: The Damp Garden, The Dry Garden, Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden and Beth Chatto’s Woodland Garden. I have them all! Living in a part of the country with very little rainfall, Chatto was ever aware of the changing climate and how we need to change our gardening for the future.

The current trend is for more naturalistic gardens, thinking beyond flowers to ecological interactions: plant communities that can be more resilient when faced with unpredictable weather – hotter and drier and wetter and which need less intervention and fewer resources such as water and fertilisers. These plant communities work together to improve the soil health, create habitats and assist biodiversity.

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

July 10

Gardening in a changing world by Darryl Moore part 2

Plants as panacea

There is a phase ‘plant blindness’ which is used scientifically to describe those people who do not notice or acknowledge plants, think animals are more important than plants – including humans – and who don’t recognise their use in our world. Plants are non-threatening, unlike some animals, and can usually be easily removed. There are some that can’t. Just talk to people with Japanese Knotweed on their property. They therefore are less able to fight back and we then enter a vicious circle of not living amongst plants, becoming distanced from them and then relying on the natural world to help heal us. Just think of prescriptions for gardening, forest bathing and other methods of becoming immersed in nature. There is an irony here that we rely on the very thing that we mistreated to treat us.

There is a lot of talk about rewilding or regeneration agriculture and its misuse to ‘sell’ a product. Those who are undertaking this work over time alongside the scientific community are doing sterling work but it is hard to rewild in a garden – difficult to have animals with hooves in a small city plot. Another term that might be more useful is ‘reconciliation ecology’ where the idea is to discover how to modify human areas of habitation to include as a wide a variety of species as possible. This is probably what I am aiming to do on the wildlife plot, I just never had a name for it.

Green plants are the starting point for all terrestial food chains and many insects are confined to one food plant or group of related species – diversifying plants generates many different food chains.

. . . the ecological value of the management of gardens is an important tool that can be used to increase biodiversity and ecosystem functions in the face of the climate crisis. The questions is: how can these benefits be maximised most effectively, and are gardeners up for the challenge?


This is my problem with this book. I thought we were going to find out how we could do this. Nope. Not yet. At present it still reads like a series of articles for an academic journal put together in a book.

Of course, gardeners are not ‘plant blind’, quite the opposite in many instances but their actions can have a very negative effect on the natural world. It’s that trifecta of plastics, peat and pesticides. We have to give them up.

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

July 4

Gardening in a Changing World by Darryl Moore part 1 of 6

Plants, people and the climate crisis.

In an increasingly post-industrial, urbanized world, gardens and parks offer opportunities for engagement that are beneficial for physical and mental health. This has become acutely apparent during Covid-19 lockdowns. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, as these places with plants, evolutionary ancestors that have successfully lived on the planet for 420 million years. They know a thing or two about adapting and surviving through troubled times.

So, perhaps we can learn from them, if we can first get to understand them better and move beyond many current attitudes towards them.

Preface p7

I would love to do that but unfortunately this book has all the appeal of a rather dry, academic tome: lots of small dense text on the page and very few pictures for a gardening book. The title really appeals to me as it is something I am very interested in, having had the hottest, and possibly dryest, June on record. I have tried twice to read it and failed miserably. I can’t get a sense of it and it is so very dry. However, I do really want to read it so have decided to read it in sections – there are 6 and I will read one a week. The first section is Plants as Producers.

We are inextricably linked to plants – they provide oxygen and food, materials to build with, medicines to heal us and can be made into cloth to clothe us – yet we seem to feel that they are not important. A new development trumps an old tree, a neat, tidy garden is more important than a bunch of nettles in an unused area andthey are often overlooked in terms of helping us to solve the problems we face. Geoff Lawton, he of permaculture fame, says that we should ‘farm like a gardener and garden like a farmer’ if we are to survive these times.

We know that plants have evolved over time to suit almost every condition found on earth through their physical processes and over long stretches of time when the world has been hotter, drier, colder, wetter and with CO2 concentrations that have been higher and lower. How quickly they adapt has been the key to their survival. What is different now is the rate at which these environmental changes are occurring and in many instances the complexity of the changes adding to the challenges.

Many plants find themselves living at the very edges of their ecological range, as do many insects and other animals. Isabella Tree writes very clearly about the rewilding at Knepp that they are discovering that some bird behaviour is very different to that reported on and written about over the last 40 years. Tree refers to this as ‘species-shifting syndrome’ as exemplified by nightingales and purple emperor butterflies. Nightingales are often referred to as a woodland species but left to their own devices at Knepp, the nightingales have nested in wide, prickly hedges and open-grown scrub both of which are rich in insects, not woodland. Could it be that they are seen in coppiced woodland because they are clinging on to a habitat that is present, not their preferred but the least worst thing. Time and again, Tree says that if you look in wildlife guides over a 100 years ago the range and type of habitat described in them is different to the modern guides. If we take the modern guides at face value we would be planting lots of coppiced woodlands to encourage nightingales but it wouldn’t. They cling on to these as a last hope not actively choosing them as their preferred habitat. She demonstrates the same shifting syndrome with butterflies and suspects the same thing with collared doves. It must be happening with plants.

At its simplest, the more diverse an ecosystem the more stability it has. It is quicker to recover from a disturbance and it means that whilst some species may not survive, others will do quite well ensuring the overall functionality of the system. Changes in plant fowering time affect the interactions between pollinators and herbivores. Alterations to the concentrations of chemicals in plants such as nitrogen will affect protein supplies for herbivores and the amount of plant matter they consume. More frequent and intense drought periods, resulting in a reduction of plant species, disrupts the entire community over time, decreasing diversity and making its functioning less efficient. And this downward spiral continues.

To link this to my garden and the wildlife area on the allotments, the early flowering of plants due to the drought will mean that the pollen, nectar and seed heads are not present when the insects and birds need them leading to a reduction in their numbers. Is this what is happening now to butterflies? I have seen far fewer this year than previous years.

I wonder if one of the things I am finding difficult about the book is the disconnect between the idea in the introduction of knowing the above and what we need to do to change the situation. Just knowing isn’t enough – we need help to make changes. What should those changes be in the context of a garden? Maybe this will come later. Patience!

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