Friday, February 24, 2012

Lettuce, pray?

It's lettuce. But look closer:
how many kinds can you spot?
A lettuce is a lettuce is a lettuce, right?
Well – not exactly.

As I was drawing up my (still lengthening) shopping list for VP's 52-week salad challenge – three lettuce varieties sown, about 33 to go – I began to realise that there is a whole lettucey world out there of which I know very little.

My VP-powered list began sprouting ever more names: Batavian, Butterhead, Romaine...

I'm familiar, in a woolly sort of way, with some of these through buying them in the shops, and as it turns out I've grown most types at one time or another, without taking much notice of what they were or what they did. But that's about it.

So I went and did a bit of digging around to see if I could find out what's out there. Here's what I came up with:

Batavian (Black Seeded Simpson, Lettony, Rouge Grenobloise)

The British Leafy Salad Association website (don't get excited: it is, how can I put it, not designed for gardeners) describes this as 'non-hearty' – I beg to disagree, as when I grew Black-seeded Simpson last year, thinking it was a loose-leaf, I was a little disconcerted when it did in fact form a heart. A very loose one, it's true, but undeniably hearty.

Anyway, Batavian lettuces are known for their thick, crinkled leaves, crisp texture and exceptional flavour – usually described as nutty, and I found it quite savoury in comparison to other lettuces. It's very complex, very interesting, and quite unlike any other lettuce I've ever eaten. Oh, and they're enormous, stand well after maturing, and stay fresh for ages.

Iceberg (Webb's Wonderful, Chancellor, Reine de Glace)

Also known as crisphead; also known as the wateriest, most tasteless lettuce you'll ever eat.

Iceberg was terribly trendy in the 1970s, but that was when we knew nothing about food. Part of its success was its ability to keep, making it a supermarket buyer's darling. Flavour, shmavour.

It comes as something of a surprise to realise that Iceberg was bred from Batavian lettuces. Didn't inherit the flavour gene, then. But: Joy Larkcom says the red-tinted ones are tastier: the only one I could find was 'Red Iceberg', offered by Real Seeds, so maybe that's one to try.

'Salad Bowl' frothing at the
feet of my peas last year
Loose-leaf (Catalogna, Salad Bowl, Oakleaf, Lollo Rossa)

The lettuce type I almost always grow, as it's easy and keeps going for ages and ages. They don't form hearts, simply continuing to produce leaves from a loose centre which you can pick, either taking off the outer leaves whole, or snipping the whole thing off with scissors about 5cm above ground (leaving enough to preserve the growing point intact).

Monty Don rather surprised me by writing he thought Lollo Rossa 'runs Iceberg hard for tastelessness'. That's not been my experience. The flavour is fine – perhaps not the greatest of them all, but good – and the texture excellent. And it looks fantastic. But my desert-island loose-leaf is Salad Bowl; pretty, in zingy lime green, and very tolerant of nearly every type of neglect I throw at it, it's beautifully crisp, with a light, refreshing flavour.

I also adore the deeply-lobed oakleaf types – Salad Bowl is similar in leaf shape but the one I covet is bronze-tipped. I think it may be Bronze Arrowhead and I must track it down and grow it: they are quite the most beautiful things.

Butterhead (Merveille de Quat' Saisons, Tom Thumb, Valdor)

Another one with other names: cabbage-head, round-head, or those flaccid lettuces we all ate before Iceberg came along and seemed the answer to all our woes (little did we know what a world of flavour was just around the corner).

The only one I've grown is Tom Thumb, which is just the cutest little lettuce you ever did see. It's only about 3” across, tightly hearted and ready in next to no time, and you can serve a whole lettuce as a side salad, with room for the trimmings. This month I also sowed Merveille which is red-tinted: I've coveted this one for a while.

All have tightly-packed hearts with flattish tops – rather like a cabbage – and are soft in texture, so eat straight after picking or they'll wilt (as we all know from the shop-bought variety: this has to be one of the veg most profoundly transformed by growing at home).

Romaine and Cos (Freckles, Deer Tongue, Lobjoit's Green Cos, Little Gem)

Well – who'd have thought it. Romaine and cos are the same thing. I always had them down as something different: and I'm sure I've seen both of them for sale side by side.

Apparently 'cos' is a British name: we called it after the Greek island it arrived from (via North Africa). Romaine is used in France and the US: it just means 'Roman', which is as far back as it's been cultivated. Joy Larkcom adds the category 'semi-cos', which as far as I can see means the smaller varieties like Little Gem.

They all share that torpedo-like upright shape, a slowness to mature, and an outstanding flavour, much praised by gardeners in the know. Monty Don swears by Lobjoit's; I grew Freckles last year, and... well, it was nice enough, and pretty, but I wasn't jumping up and down about it.

I'm probably just not growing the right one. I really fancy Amish Deer Tongue (also Red Deer Tongue); a big bruiser of an American lettuce which looks just gorgeous. And I suppose I'll have to give Lobjoit's a go: Joy Larkcom likes it too. Whatever you grow, pick it the moment it's ready: once a cos lettuce reaches maturity it'll bolt as soon as look at you.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: Wisley butterflies

(you can still see these for yourself: Butterflies in the Glasshouse at RHS Wisley, Surrey, continues until 26 February)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Garden words: The February Review

The Morville Hours
by Katherine Swift

This beautiful, heartfelt, classic work of garden writing is poised just at the point where the muddy business of gardening becomes something more spiritual and meaningful. It captures perfectly that elusive depth of feeling we all experience when we've got our hands in the soil. It is the kind of book I would like, one day, to aspire to when I write the story of my own garden.

It's essentially a love letter from Katherine Swift to her 1.5 acre garden at the Dower House at Morville Hall, an Elizabethan manor house owned by the National Trust in Shropshire.

Katherine – a garden historian – designed the garden to tell the history of British gardening through a series of rooms, each designed in a particular historical style. It's open to the public, so you can go see for yourself.

The book, published in 2008, tells the story of the making of this garden, from the moment Katherine first arrived there – somewhat unwillingly, since she describes the garden as her husband's 'plan to lure me home', with great reluctance, from Dublin where she was then working looking after Trinity College's collection of rare and ancient books.

But what lifts this book above just another story of how a garden was made is the fact that – like so many of the best gardeners – Katherine is a dreamer, and an uncurable romantic. Just take this paragraph, from the first page of the book.

'I came here to make a garden. In the red earth I find fragments of blue-and-white willow-pattern china, white marble floor-tiles, rusted iron nails. A litter of broken clay pipes in the flower-beds, their air holes stopped with soil. Opaque slivers of medieval glass, blue as snowmelt. Flat wedges of earthenware dishes with notched rims and looping patterns of cream and brown. Who drank from that cup, who smoked that pipe, who looked through that window? Did they stand as I stand now, watching the clouds on the hillside?'

It is beautiful writing: and she has a knack of making you see things in a new light. I've never looked at the junk I've pulled out of my garden in quite the same way since reading that paragraph: last week I dug up an old iron hook, hand-forged and rusted but still strong as an ox, and have been wondering about the Somerset blacksmith who made it – and the farmer who left it there - ever since.

She's also a wonderfully inspiring historian, seamlessly weaving historical facts and stories from hundreds of years ago with mysteries and ancient lore through the text, meandering down sidetracks every few sentences until you've forgotten where it was you started. The book itself is modelled on the Book of Hours: a guide for mediaeval monks laying out the seven Day Hours and Vigils, the Night Office (aka Matins): a strict code to follow, but within which she finds plenty of room to wander well off the beaten track.

This means that one minute she's talking about thawing the garden stopcocks, the next she's wondering whether a figurine in the local museum – thought to be a votive offering to a natural spring and found at nearby Wenlock Priory - is a Gaulish sacred relic or a Romanesque carving. And that leads on to a short history of milling and the Industrial Revolution in Shropshire: for a book about a garden, this is one with the widest possible remit.

A deep feeling of place pervades the text and you fall in love with Much Wenlock and the Shropshire Hills along with the author as she delves further into its people and its history.

It's also full of delightful vignettes: take Lady L (for Labouchere), nearly 80 and in failing health.

'There was lunch at one and tea at four, hot-cross buns at Easter and steam whistles from across the park on Bank Holiday weekends – the sound of the Severn Valley Railway on the other side of the river. The big old sitting-room was piled with books, papers, letters, photographs, Country Lifes and Christie's sale catalogues, half-finished embroideries and just-begun watercolours.'

She goes on to mention that Lady L is related to the pioneer women photographers Lady Charlotte and Lady Lucy Bridgeman, known to their descendants as 'the burnt aunts' because they died together in 1858 when their crinolines caught fire.

It's a finely-observed, sharply intelligent, sensitive book, quite unlike any other I've read. Apparently there's a successor now: after The Morville Hours was serialised on Radio 4, people woke up to the fact that Katherine had been quietly contributing gardening columns for The Times for four years. 'The Morville Year' is a collection of those columns, published this time last year. She's also currently working on a third book. But this is the one they'll all have to measure up to: and I can't think they'll find that easy at all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The seeds of change

A humble potato day in a little village hall in the middle of nowhere (pace the residents of Castle Cary) in Somerset might seem an unlikely setting for the beginnings of a revolution.

But as I walked around picking out this year's little bundles of treasure, it occurred to me that everybody in that room was uncomplicatedly and happily going about the task of undermining the establishment – those people who tell you what you can and can't grow, what varieties of potato you're 'allowed' to buy.

They were doing so with a smile on their faces: peacefully, yet astonishingly effectively. You could see it from the sparkles in their eyes, the excitement as they dithered over 'Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy' or 'Vitelotte' and riffled through the paper seed packets or scooped up a generous mugful of shallot sets. It was the excitement of the person who knows they're in on something – and that it's really, really good.

Of course, it's partly just the joy of gardening: there are few occupations which bring on outbreaks of unadulterated cheeriness in quite the same way.

But I think there's something else going on here. You see, I've seen those expressions before, at seed swaps, on the face of the lady I spoke to about Transition Town Totnes, in the eyes of the rapt audience watching a beekeeper go about his work at an allotment open day in Brighton.

Quiet revolutionaries?
It's a quiet revolution: one where people just get on with it. They don't march on Westminster: they don't even particularly want to take on the world. I'm not sure they even realise they're revolting.

But what they're doing is, undeniably, sticking two fingers up at the status quo, at the vested interests, at the government diktats: rejecting all that, and going their own way.

So far it's also a minority, though a growing one. It's noticeably middle-class in its concerns and interests, but I don't see why that makes it any less valid. I find its various manifestations incredibly inspiring, well beyond the initial rather woolly and slightly irrelevant impression they might give at first.

In fact, they couldn't be more relevant. They give me hope for the future.

Here's how you, too, can join the revolution:

Potato Days (Jan-March): now happening at a village hall near you. A wonderful opportunity to join other like-minded people in rifling through tubers with unlikely names, eat a great deal of cake and – if you go to one of the larger ones – find out a fair bit about local heritage and gardening. I have no idea how it works to cement a community: but it does.

It is - like all the best revolutions - fuelled on
copious quantities of cake
Seedy Sundays (mostly February): more openly alternative: you're as likely to come across a local renewable energy cooperative or someone trying to persuade you that building houses out of tyres is the next big thing (actually, it is kind of cool). And the overall concept is definitely more 'hippy' – you bring a few seeds you've saved from home, you take home as many as you want in return, nobody's counting, nobody's watching, they just trust you to join in the spirit of the thing. But because it's based on trust, it works: and it restores your faith in human nature, which is surely what community is all about.

National Beanpole Week (April): if forests (or at least, woodlands) are your thing, you can get down with the woodsmen at coppicing events around the country. Those who manage the coppiced woodlands in our countryside are often a hidden community: this is the week they come out of the woods and join in with everyone else. Events are community affairs, with demonstrations of traditional crafts, and an encouragement for gardeners to use more locally-sourced, sustainable coppicing products in what they do.

National Allotment Week (August): find out what your local allotments are doing and get to know what a strong community you can forge by just exchanging tips over the plot fence. Many are much more than just a load of people growing veg: Moulsecoomb, in Brighton, have started a forest garden which provides gardening therapy to some of the most disadvantaged kids in the area. They keep bees, too.

and if you're serious about your revolutionary tendencies:

Community Supported Agriculture: farms run cooperatively by local communities. Now embraced by the National Trust, until recently firmly establishment but becoming more and more revolutionary by the day. They're running four CSA farms, notably the MyFarm setup at their Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire - so democratic that members vote on what to grow and how to raise the animals.

The Transition Town movement is sweeping the country, having migrated here, like the CSA movement, from across the Atlantic. The most established is Totnes, not a million miles from here (where they grow lettuces for amenity planting) and it's spreading to dozens of towns from Brighton to Melrose in the Scottish Borders.

It covers so much more than gardening, although growing things is the fuel behind the whole scheme: the thinking is that the entire town becomes self-sufficient, disengaging itself from globalisation and the wider nation and producing its own food, its own energy, its own support systems. It therefore - the thinking is - becomes more resilient, less at the mercy of a whim-led government.

If you follow that to its logical conclusion, soon we won't need governments at all. Now there's a revolutionary thought: it might just be that the seeds of change are to be found in our gardens.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

When is a meadow not a meadow?

Not a meadow
Does it matter what we call things?

This was the question posed by Miles King, well-respected Conservation Director of the Grasslands Trust – an increasingly vociferous and effective pressure group, campaigning to reverse the destruction of the nation's grasslands and meadows.

Now, that's ancient, traditional meadows, I should clarify – what Miles King capitalises as Wildflower Meadows.

What with 2012's RHS Britain in Bloom going 'wild about wildflowers' (that's arable cornfield flowers, not meadows), and the Olympics planting Fields of Gold (that's annual seed mixes, not meadows) and the advent of MeadowMats (that's wildflowers used as shed roofing: does that count?) and the people who manage Hyde Park letting the grass grow long to encourage wildflowers (ah - now we're getting there, surely?): there has never been a time when meadows have been more in the public eye, yet more annoyingly woolly in definition to the purist.

This isn't one either: the Fields of Gold
at the Olympic Park
In his blog, Miles takes particular issue with the highly successful Pictorial Meadows: annual seed mixes invented by Professor Nigel Dunnett, urban horticulture specialist, RHS Chelsea Flower Show regular and urban renewal pioneer, of the University of Sheffield's Department of Landscape.

Pictorial meadows are transforming urban spaces cheaply and effectively: they are introducing many people who have never had much to do with nature, or the countryside, to the joys of getting up close with beauty, and teeming insect life, and the pleasures of feeling things growing under your feet.

I've planted them in my own garden: they are breathtakingly beautiful, full of wildlife, and one of the best things I've ever done. I should add – just for balance – that I'm currently also taking care of 1/3 acre of rare traditional chalk downland meadow, the top third of my garden, and that's beautiful, full of wildlife and one of the best things I've ever done, too.

Read the post for Miles's full argument, but it basically boils down to the fact that by calling themselves meadows at all, Pictorial Meadows are distracting people's attention from ancient traditional meadows – of which there are precious few left - confusing the issue, and therefore undermining Miles's attempts to save our traditional grasslands. To quote: 'pictorial meadows are not contributing to the conservation of Wildflower Meadows or their wildlife (and other values). And for that reason it does matter what we call things.'

I happen to know, from regular conversations with him over the past few years, that Nigel is someone who thinks particularly deeply about our wider environment and the role plants have to play.

So when a Twitter discussion erupted last week – mainly in support of Miles's position – I couldn't help thinking Nigel's voice was missing from the debate. I was curious to know his take on the subject, so I got in touch and asked him. I felt his answer deserves quoting at length.

So what about this? MeadowMat growing at the nursery
He told me a story from the very early days, when he was just beginning to work with annual seed mixtures. Gloucester Council asked him to vegetate a central reservation on a dual carriageway: roadworks and tree planting had ripped up existing grass and shrubs, and all that was left was 'mown grass and tired landscape shrubs'.

Nigel made them an annual mix which flowered from June to November, a blaze of yellow and orange through into the autumn.

“I was contacted by a representative from English Nature,” he says. “She said this should never have been done.

“Her issue was that by making it look so easy to make these 'wildflower landscapes', we were giving the go-ahead to farmers to destroy meadows in the countryside because they would think that they could be made again in cities. And because these weren't proper wildflower meadows, that was a very bad thing.”

Nigel asked her whether she would have preferred the central reservation to remain mown grass and variegated shrubs: to which her answer was 'yes'.

'I was staggered by this,' says Nigel,' because this was a nature conservationist saying that she would rather have areas offering very little wildlife value, and extremely monotonous in a visual sense, instead of these flower, nectar and pollen-rich landscapes.

'By implication, her purist approach would both deny people a beautiful experience, and also eliminate a potential wildlife haven. People like this are dangerous in my opinion.'

This is: wildflowers in the south west
(courtesy of the RSPB via
He points out that research has shown that far from non-natives having little wildlife value, the opposite is true. He says the general consensus now is that diverse flowering meadows and gardens are highly valuable to invertebrates, regardless of where the plants come from.

'What I am doing is working, and it is highly successful,' he says. 'It is bringing flower-rich landscapes into the heart of the city, into the everyday landscape. This isn't the nature reserve approach, where people are kept away from valuable sites and only those in the know can visit them, or make the choice to travel to them.

'What we are doing is making meadows in places where people have no choice but to walk through them, live with them, look out on to them. And therefore they do have to have a different character.'

His final point struck a particular chord for me: I dislike the entirely unnecessary polarisation of gardener and nature conservationist almost as much as I do the whole gardener vs designer dichotomy. Though it may be in a different key, we're all, surely, marching to the same tune.

'People like to see things in such simple black and white terms – things are either one thing or the other: it's either a meadow or it isn't.

'To me, life isn't so simple. Things are in shades of grey. So there is a whole continuum of meadow types, ranging from flower-rich and annual, through to grassy, perennial and with little flower.

'The key thing to me is that the pictorial meadow type approach, whether annual or perennial, opens the doors, or the floodgates to the much wider use of the native wildflower meadow because it makes meadow landscapes far more acceptable and part of the norm, and enables them to be used in high profile, high intensity places that would formerly be preserved for intensive horticulture.

“The use of the word meadow is deliberate. People can identify with it, and it makes sense. Of course it isn't a meadow in the purest sense, but then the same applies for countless other things that I can think of that are popular and well-liked.

'I would suggest the argument in [Miles King's] blog is entirely misplaced and focussed on the wrong thing. Rather than attacking a concept that is really entirely positive and is bringing huge benefits for urban biodiversity compared with what was there before, I suggest that the real fire should be on the rural landscape and the covering of thousands and thousands of hectares with monocultural crops with minimal habitat value.

“Compared to this, the concern over the naming of a few tens of hectares of flower-rich landscapes is rather trivial.”

**stop press** Miles King's response to this post is included among the comments below

Monday, February 06, 2012

Gardening trends for 2012

Far be it for me to set myself up as a gardening soothsayer: about all you can say about the coming year with any sort of certainty, let's face it, is that the weather will be occasionally surprising and not at all 'normal', someone somewhere will be killing a slug, and Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen will be at Press Day at Chelsea.

But since I'm not one to shy away from sticking my head above the parapet, quite frequently getting it rapped sharply by assorted arrows in the process, I thought I'd make a few predictions.

Fresh from the Garden Press Event last week, in which all things new in the world of horticulture were dangled enticingly before the garden press to distract them away from their coffee and the fencing (and I don't mean the garden variety: it's a long story) in order to convince them that this - yes, this - is the next Big Thing.

Of course only a few will fulfil such promise, and part of the fun is trying to spot which those might be. Here are the top trends I think we'll be hearing more of over the next year.

Gardening gone digital: The power of the web is being harnessed in ever-more-sophisticated ways: definitely a trend on the up.

Garden design tools, for example, are moving steadily from the clunky to the cool: Plantify is the new kid on the block with its new online design tool launching at the end of March.

It's the latest in a long line of increasingly good online design tools accessible to ordinary gardeners, yet offering a satisfyingly high standard of graphics and at the same time being properly useful. A personal favourite is the ever-wonderful, which helps me work out what I'm growing in my veg patch each year.

There's one innovation Plantify has which raises it above the mildly irritating and increasingly old-fashioned offering from the BBC (not enough plants, not enough detail, not enough anything, really) and the product-centred Garden Visualiser from Marshalls.

And that's the frankly inspirational idea that you can use Google Earth to produce a to-scale outline of your garden. I have been, I'll confess, terrified to the point of paralysis about trying to measure my former quarry with its near-vertical banks and countryside-wonky edges. But Plantify did it within minutes (including the position of a couple of established trees).

There's more: the intention is that once you've decided what you want to plant, it'll be automatically costed using current nursery price lists, and then if you want to go ahead and buy, however many nurseries your purchases are scattered across, Plantify gathers them all in one place and delivers the plants to your front door. Now - if it works - that's impressive: and surely a sign of things to come.

The return of 'new' old veg varieties: Eat your heart out, heritage varieties and exotica: nostalgia veg are the next big thing. Spotted on my rounds (and in some cases, snapped up for growing chez moi): samphire, asparagus pea, and Scorzonera 'Duplex'.

All vegetables grown hundreds of years ago (or in the case of samphire, gathered from the seashores as a delicacy to use with fish): and now, after a spell in the doldrums, being rediscovered. Others to return to favour lately include cardoons, seakale, strawberry spinach, and salsify.

Renewables-powered gardening: there are wind-powered and solar-powered garden lighting systems already on the market. Solar also powers fountains (if somewhat erratically, I'm told, from those who have them); and an innovative company in Cambridge has even invented a greenhouse with solar glass which generates enough power to heat itself and to spare.

And now there's solar-powered irrigation, here to solve that ages-old problem of lugging watering cans back and forth when you don't have any mains water available. The only potential drawback I can see with Irrigatia's new system is that you'd have to keep your water butt topped up somehow: but as long as you can get around that, your allotment watering is sorted.

Meadows: I am stewing up a little bloglette on the wider subject of meadows, so I'll restrict myself to saying that this a Jolly Interesting Subject which I suspect may well be one of the debating topics of the gardening year this year.

So more of this later: but I just wanted to point out that you can now buy meadows on a mat. Discuss.

Peat-free innovations: Spurred on by the government's impending (though voluntary) phase-out of peat in gardening composts by 2020, peat producers are - at last - expanding their range of peat-free growing media.

It's long been a bugbear of mine that I can't get hold of a good peat-free seed compost. I am very nearly entirely peat-free, and have pretty much always been (one of the few areas in which I turned out to be an early adopter - but I won't bore you with all that). But the very nearly comes in because I use John Innes seed compost, which is soil-based but also peat-based.

That's mainly because I haven't been able to find anything better. I've been thinking about sieving my New Horizon but can't quite bring myself to risk a trial sowing.

Now I discover Sinclair's, who extract vast amounts of peat but are also in a Jekyll and Hyde sort of way the country's leading producer of peat-free and manufacture New Horizon, do a peat-free sowing compost.

I had a long conversation with the nice lady on their stand and even she admitted that it's in its early stages; knowing how long it took them to get peat-free reliably right, I suspect we may have a little way to go before it's threatening my consumption of John Innes.

But I plan to hunt some down (it's not available in any of my local garden centres - another area where there might be some room for improvement): perhaps I'll even be brave and do some trialling with some sacrificial seedlings. I will be reporting back.

The hammock is dead. Long live the swing seat: not exactly new, but more of a growing trend emerging from the last few years and showing no signs of going away.

The swoon-inducingly gorgeous hanging seats designed by Stephen Myburgh have led the way in what amounts to the usurping of the hammock by nest-like cocoons hanging from free-standing frames (or occasionally from the ceiling or a handy - though presumably sturdy - pergola).

There's now a cheaper and more hammock-like version too; the Cacoon, inspired by and I think made out of sails. Even John Lewis have 'pod chairs', for goodness' sake. Roll over, hammocks: your days are done.
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