Saturday, 29 March 2014

A Sensual Garden Creating a Place for Being in the Present Moment by Shenandoah Kepler


I was honoured and delighted and not a little scared when a famous blogger, Shenandoah of Fleeting Architecture e-mailed me and asked me to review her new book, What if I did not like it or was unable to relate to horticulture in another climate and culture? 
I should not have been concerned. It is a lovely book with a catchy title relevant to gardens everywhere! Even better her US climate zone does not look very different to that of my own  garden and her very fine photographs almost all taken herself, are of plants I can grow and some I actually know.
The theme of the book is the myriad of sensory routes that plants in a garden have into our lives. I used to do a lecture to amateur gardeners called ‘Colour in the garden all the year round’ where I used to argue that there was more to colour than just flowers. Shenandoah’s beautiful book goes much further and gives numerous well illustrated examples of how all our senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste and sound respond to plants. It goes deeper and looks at the effect on our wellbeing and mood analysing the psychological and physiological processes involved .

I refer you to Shenandoah’s blog for a description of why and what she tries (and succeeds) to achieve in her book. You will also find details of where and how to read the book and indeed download it for free if you join her website. It is a very modern e-book with interesting references to click on to when you want detailed explanations. I would describe it as a ‘coffee table book’ even though it’s on the computer. As an old stager myself I have just been reminded that on a pad or a kindle it is a book!
You will learn many new plants, landscape design principles and much about yourself. Shenandoah’s fertile mind gives so many examples of how plants please and when she shares her original thoughts you need to pause for breath and think. That’s why the book is so good. There is too much to miss if you try to read it in one go! 

The book

The only way I know how to review a book is to recount responses it evokes in my head and I can tell you that I know much more now how to respond to a garden! 

I related to references of odours that bring back childhood memories. They are not always the plants! In Mrs. Kepler’s case it was smells of the farm. In my own case it is the bouquet  of the soil. It is earthy smells when digging(!) and clean fungal odours of compost and log piles. Some of the strong essences Shenandoah remembers you might not be terribly fond of. Brenda recently complained to her son Peter that his stables were smelly with dung. He replied, “Mother it is a beautiful aroma”

Catching thoughts about aromas, not all plants smell nice. I personally hate the stink of sorbus flowers. Shenandoah says she rather savours the bold odour of box. To me it smells like cat’s pee!

Much is written about beautiful scents and the book describes many  plants you will want to add to your own garden. It recommends subtle placing of such plants often near to the house. Brenda constantly demands to know why I fail to do this. I tell her that I have an acre to fill. She cannot have every special plant outside her window or next to the door. She does not seem to agree.



Although many plants and especially flowers have beautiful scents they are not always very long lasting and often are sometimes not very strong. I love to put my nose into a flower but really prefer those fragrances so powerful that you do not have to work hard to detect them. Two of my own favourites are sarcococca and cercidopyllum. Both have long lasting pervading smells which you can enjoy even on a windy day. The common name of sarcococca is Winter box. Rather ironic in view of my earlier comment about buxus. Brenda regards sarcococca as rather sickly, I can’t win! At least she agrees that the candy floss smell of cercidophyllum autumn leaves is stunning!

The wind snapped my outdoor hyacinth. Its delightful smell graced our conservatory for more than a week.

My own Daphne 'Jaqueline Postill' has a very powerful smell

Pleasant odours of plants may be the same ones as food - if one should imagine candy floss to be a food, I sowed my own cherry pie (heliotrope) today! Mrs Kepler actually promotes edible fruit and vegetables to be dispersed in the garden for their beauty, odours and taste. She mentions tomatoes. I agree that tomatoes have a first transient attractive smell. but if  you have ‘twisted and side-shooted’ tomatoes and ended your working  day in a commercial glasshouse with black stained hands you might disagree.

Different senses reside in separate chapters. There are sound thoughts about sounds. Shenandoah explores how to ameliorate unwanted noise and reminds us of the murmurs of beautiful breezes that drift through the plants and crunching sounds on gravel paths. She mentions wind chimes. I find them somewhat repetitive - to put it mildly - like the one in Worsbrough Cemetery garden hanging on a tree. One person’s charm is another’s irritation. I regret to inform you that for a short while in Bolton Percy I had a wind chime  myself! My poor neighbours!

The chapter on touch is touching. I enjoyed Mrs Kepler’s feelings about feel. I was reminded of Brenda’s tendency to touch plants and being screamed at at by a stand holder, “you cannot do that!”

Shenandoah's avatar

I think Shenandoah is a more spiritual person than me. Gardens are places of emotion. I remember a garden visiter to Bolton Percy cemetery in tears at he sight of beautiful plants growing over graves. My eyes watered too. Much pleasure is obtained in a garden and it is not all horticultural! The calm of a beautiful garden has influenced love, poetry, music and great human beings walking thinking great thoughts and making historic decisions.

I liked the references to enjoying the gestalt of a garden. Gardens are places for meditation. Although I sometimes do yoga and stand on my head I cannot myself relate to sitting and contemplating in a garden. Until I met Brenda I did not know what garden seats were for. Now they are everywhere! I do recall the contentment an old man who regularly sat on a bench in Bolton Percy cemetery and thought thoughts.

My own failure to relate to meditation in a garden is that I meditate all the time! Most people call it day dreaming and lack of attention. I have a peculiar ability to switch off and not hear what is going on around me. Brenda cannot stop herself listening to every word uttered by a stupid DJ! When I garden I am in my own little world. Sometimes these days I am writing a blog in my head! My serious point is that we are all different and derive numerous but very various pleasures from contemplation.

Although Shenandoah explores how the well being of the body and mind is enhanced by psychological processes she might have said more about the direct physical effect on our bodies of being outside. There is much modern research suggesting that plant biochemicals released into the air have very beneficial effects. Fresh air has powerful anti-bacterial properties and sunshine has very significant effects on our health and mood as well as providing vitamin d. The latter compound will do more for our health and wellbeing than most over-hyped pharmaceutical products.

Rather counter to my suggested omission, Cathi was round for a meal last night. She was relating how our limbic system responds to tastes and smells and how one can recall deep-seated  memories. I was able to say “I know, I have read Kepler!” As my blog-meister she was delighted to learn I was reviewing Shenandoah’s book!

Perhaps the most lasting thought that this lovely book has left with me is that I should live more in the present. I should savour the pleasures of now. I tend to be be thinking of the immediate future and the tasks and pleasures to come in the day. I should learn to enjoy ‘nowness’ and the  immediate sensations provoked by my garden and plants.


In her latest post Mrs.Kepler says a great deal about herself, her philosophy and more about the book. Thank you Shen for the book and your kind permission to show some of your pictures.

These are two of my earlier book reviews
Chillies by Jason Nickels
Wild flowers on the Edge by Margaret Atherden and Nan Sykes




Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Growing our calamondin orange


Bought at Homebase ten years ago. It was a little careworn and had been on the shelves rather long. Nothing that a little tender love and care would put right, it had been reduced from £40 to £10! What value for a then 18 inches high (and bedraggled) evergreen glossy leaved plant that would give us scented delicate white flowers and perfumed long lasting edible fruit every year. Restricted by annual pruning our plant is now maintained as a sturdy shrub five foot high.

Citrofortunella micocarpa is a multiple hybrid between varied species and genera of citrus plants. Its exact origins as a sub-tropical edible fruit are lost in antiquity. It is one of the easiest citrus to grow as a conservatory plant in temperate climates such as the UK. Our stately homes have a long tradition of orangeries where citrus plants were brought inside to overwinter.

Our conservatory faces east and gets substantial morning sunlight. It is heated to suit our own comfort. Today in late March our orange carries over a hundred small fruits and looks quite superb.



Growth tends to come in flushes and will be strongest in Summer. Such growth will often, but not always carry new flowers. To some extent fruit formation is therefore staggered becoming apparent in December, the plant increases in beauty throughout winter and early Spring. It is orange with fruit for almost five months. 




Our plant in December

Calamondins will survive several degrees of frost but because it looks so nice inside I am in no hurry to put it outside for Summer when it is still beautiful inside. It will stand outside in what we pretentiously call our courtyard from early June to first frosts in early October. It is a convenient time to prune it when we bring it in at that time. Let me remind you that your pruning should look natural and not be apparent to the casual observer!

Standing outside in Summer in it’s previous earthen-ware pot 

Calamondins do not make a good houseplant if rooms are dingy and if they are not put outside in full summer light that lasts at least part of the day. Otherwise they are easy and I fully recommend them. Ours is now in a fifteen litre, square plastic pot. We have gone plastic because it is lighter and as we get older feel less inclined to heave inside its previous heavy earthen-ware container. 

All my conservatory plants (other than the orchids) are in our own sandy soil. I know many gardeners need to use compost because their own garden soil is unsuitable. For large volumes of soil in a tub, I believe more gardeners have a more appropriate soil than they think. I generally recommend they add slow release fertiliser and sometimes dolomitic limestone or chalk when preparing such soil. In my own case I know I will be top dressing the calomondin with my yaramila fertiliser four or five times a year and sometimes omit the more expensive slow release stuff. As I have suggested in a previous post, plants like calomondins that make substantial new growth through the winter need generous feeding at that time despite what some of the books say. 

I have nothing against liquid feeding, it is normal sound practice. I take the easy way and top dress by scattering fertiliser on the surface instead. Every time I water some of my granular fertiliser washes in. My  yaramila compound fertiliser contains NPK and the other major elements calcium, sulphur and magnesium and all the trace elements. Every nutrient my plant needs. I generally recommend to those who liquid feed  to use a proprietary tomato liquid fertiliser. I don’t recommend taylor made ‘special’ citrus feeds.

You will see that my calomondin  looks a little chlorotic.Leaves on  evergreen plants do become senescent at certain times of the year and some leaves will fall. Do not imagine that this will always indicate your plant needs a special feed.

I think I have only repotted my calamondin three time in ten years. First when it came to its new home base, second, when it needed a bigger pot and latterly when we moved to a square plastic  pot from a round one!

In its new pot

When grown in the open ground in warmer climates calamondins are known to be tolerant of a wide range of soils but are sensitive to poor drainage. Same in a pot, never let them stand in saucers of water other than when a little run-through soaks back in a couple of hours. Water them generously on the occasion of watering but wait until the compost or soil looks distinctly dry at the surface before watering again. Outside in Summer they will need generous watering when dry - even if it has rained, unless you have had an absolute downpour!  Plants can dry out very quickly in warm windy conditions, beware. 
As long as your growing media drains freely do not worry that in extended periods of heavy rain your soil or compost is repeatedly watered when it is already wet!

Beautiful blue ball

You might be intrigued by the blue watering device standing in our pot and might be thinking it’s really not quite my style! You would be right and as for actual irrigation it is pretty useless!
It was given to us by a particularly dear friend -  and a regular post peruser so I am trying to be  diplomatic. It has a place in our hearts but merely as an ornament. On a technical note a typical single watering with my watering can when inside, or hosepipe outside, will be ten times the blue balls’s capacity.




We are sometimes asked whether we eat the fruits. My usual reply is that they look far too nice to spoil the plant’s beauty by picking. Last year however when the fruit was getting really ripe we did pick some and Brenda made the best marmalade ever. Billy, Brenda’s grandson regularly sucks a lemon. She cut one of our citruses for him to try. He never asked again! The flesh is apparently rather tart but the peel is sweet. Apparently they are very nice cut in two and frozen and used as an ice cube with drinks. So maybe the next time we serve dinner to friends in our conservatory we can savour it’s flavour!
It has only just dawned on me - I am pretty slow on the uptake - that if this year I collect a few seeds I can raise some more plants. I don’t know what I will do with them but it will be fun.

There will be ripe seeds in these fruits

I have written before about conservatory plants that we put out for the Summer.


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

You do not have to dig up tree stumps!


Reasons not to dig stumps out


Not a pretty sight?
Some gardeners will be unable to follow my advice today! It is not in their make up. They may be tidy and cannot abide letting nature take her course. They want immediate results. They want a challenge and prove their virility by extracting every stump. It might mean a few broken spades, worse a strained back or a few sprains. They will get those roots out! No matter what harm their effort may do to the natural ecology of the site. Worse, weasel words will have suggested that this is something they must do. “You will get armillaria and other unspecified pest and disease, the dead stump will be ugly as it decays, it will be there for years, it will sprout and grow again, you will not be able to dig

Visitors might trip over

This is coral spot which also attacks sick woody plants. Fear not, your shrubs are no more likely to be infected than from normal ubiquitous air born spores

Many fungal infections of both living and dead trees are rather ornamental

I have deliberately followed my last post in which I promoted the idea of hugelkultur and today suggest that a dead stump in the ground will give the same horticultural benefits as this method of growing when the wood decays. All that heat of decay warming the soil, all those slowly released nutrients, all that microbial life and interesting beetles. Even better as dead roots deep in the ground decay the ensuing open channels will facilitate water penetration and drainage.

My Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’ has enjoyed the company of this stump

I recently looked at a gardening internet forum where an inexperienced gardener had found a dead stump in his garden. Dammit, it had been there for years and he had only just found it. One member rather guiltily suggested he disguise it by planting a shrub next to it. Excellent advice, the shrub would benefit hugely by this source of nutrients! The general opinion was no, the stump had to go and all manner of weird advice was given about what he should do it. Give gardeners a chance to be natural and they fail at the first hurdle when there's a threat to the look of their loosened tarted up soil.

This stump is well camouflaged most of the year

In a moment of weakness a few years ago I watched a TV gardening programme. After keen deliberation the ‘team’ advised a gardener to remove a a fairly large shrub. I would have had it down in less than five minutes, albeit rather longer to take the top away and process the wood. The programme ended with an army of family members carrying their buckets and spades, machetes, axes, saws and crowbars marching down the garden to toil for the rest of the day removing every last piece of the poor plant. TV producers have a lot to answer for when their spectacular ‘shot’ creates it’s own false narrative. They have a lot to answer for, when dubious content is inserted to ‘make an entertaining programme’.

But stumps are ugly!
They don’t have to be. They can be cut flush to the ground and either just left or covered with soil or a mulch. There is a slight problem with chain saws as soil can easily blunt them and unless asked chain saw operators tend to cut higher. 
I once had a very large stump in my old garden in Bolton Percy (The one that fostered the tame armillaria in my recent post) and it became an ornamental feature covered with climbers and ornamental variegated ivy. In that same post I confessed to the fact that my lilac at Boundary Cottage might have been checked by armillaria. If it does die the ivy covering the stump is already there!


I recently freshened up my gravel mulches and decided to cover this stump. In the end I just gravelled up to it and left the top exposed 

Some gardeners leave the trunk and a few branches of a dead tree as a support for a vigorous climber such as Clematis montana. After many years it will eventually blow over but so will a pergola or fence!
A local ‘Open Garden’ had a beautiful garden feature where the roots of a dead tree on a bank were cleared of soil and washed clean to reveal rivulets of gnarled roots which were planted with dwarf plants.

Roots on this birch growing out of an old concrete foundation on the village plot are not unattractive

The ants sowed my hardy cyclamen in this stump

This stump acts as a stand

My former neighbour Mick Needham carved this cat on Cathi’s stump

If, heaven forbid, this shrub in an Oxford garden died you would want to keep it

What if the stump sprouts?

Many trees and shrubs such as conifers don’t sprout. Some plants make a weak effort to survive  and others if unattended will grow back strongly. This might be a good thing. Sometimes supposed dead shrubs and trees regrow to make rejuvenated plants. For some woody plants cutting back to the ground is a method of pruning. My multi stemmed birch in my cemetery gardens used to be chosen by photographers as photogenic features. When original self sown saplings had outgrown their position I would cut them back and let them regrow with multiple trunks.

If a stump does make unwelcome new growth, cut it away. Initially you might have to be quite persistent but the effort and time will be a fraction of that to dig out the stump. Many gardeners who refuse to use herbicides pull out couch and convolvulus for ever more. What’s a few extra sprouting shoots?

The sprouting shoots need attention. My neighbours to the cemetery garden have been quite original!

Sprouting stumps can of course be treated with brushwood killer. Some gardeners seem to have a curious ‘disconnect’ with this and are prepared to use this type of herbicide. Somehow it is not so evil as spraying!  And of course regenerating growth can be conventionally sprayed as I sometimes do. Glyphosate in general is not very good and I use, albeit rarely, MCPA. This is a ‘lawn weedkiller’ which is also used to kill brushwood.

Should any plant be dug or pulled out when it dies?

I am thinking here about things like old haulm of Brussel sprouts, tomatoes and annual plants. As a minimum cultivator I cut them close to the ground and sometimes shred the tops. I use my loppers to cut still green brassicas before cycling them to Cathi’s sheep and rheas next door.(But not poisonous tomato tops). What a treat and I get much joy when they come running expectantly towards me. Most gardeners who are tidier than me will of course take such things away for composting or diggers will dig them in. Anything is better than throwing away valuable organic matter in the wretched green wheelie bin.

But why yank them out when they can be cut away to leave all that good root and attached soil in the ground?



Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Why gardeners dig; to bury wood



I have lost count of the reasons I have found for digging in this series. Indeed my recent post about digging hydrophobic soil was not even under this heading. You may consider some of the reasons I disturb the soil are quite eccentric. I have separately discussed burial of newspaper, placement and mixing of drainage sands and gravels and the forking-in of my homemade biochar. Some of you may think for a none dig gardener I disturb my soil quite a lot. In fact if you exclude very shallow hoeing, I disturb by planting and other management functions no more than 10% of my soil each year and that includes substantial help from the rabbits and moles! In fact one of the advantages of generally being a minimum cultivator is that I have no worries about what I might subsequently dig up. This is very relevant to burying newspapers, woody prunings and logs!

The first evidence I offer to the pedigree of burying wood is from my hero Masanobu Fukuoka the Japanese grower-philosopher who is often credited to be the father  of no dig gardening. On his hilly orchards he buried his grubbed-out unwanted trees and buried them to create drainage holes in his rocky subsoil and  provide reserves of organic matter and nutrients. He also used wood to create ‘rubble drains’ of buried wood to channel water enriched with nutrients released by decay. His fruit trees benefited hugely from this buried organic resource

When woody prunings eventually decay they make a longer lasting contribution to  soil organic matter than normal material from a compost heap. Indeed many composters now shred their prunings and add them to the heap or the bin. Professional ‘composting facilities’ make huge returns from receiving waste timber and tree prunings  to make their somewhat dubious product. I have even accepted a free lorry load from a local exponent!  
Many landscapers shred their prunings and it makes a very excellent mulch. I remember when our college garden curator used shredded bark to add a lumpy component to sandy soil. Indeed bark makes an excellent potting compost ingredient especially for orchids. Wood has a great deal to offer the soil.

Bark is excellent for orchid compost

My own experiences of burying prunings

I will gloss over that I have been known to add hedge clippings to my holes of buried newspaper! Four years ago on my visit to my son Ben and his lovely wife Kathryn I was given the task of planting a small new border. Fathers have their uses and I cannot compete with Kath’s dad for his work on the house! My preferred method of planting a very weedy plot of land is to spray off with glyphosate and a few months later plant.
This was not possible here and I have explained before that one advantage of digging is that you can transform a plot in just a few hours. Fortunately, although weedy there was no perennial weed. The structure of the clay soil however was appalling. In a London small garden it is not practical to have a fire and behind Ben’s shed was a heap of several years prunings left by the previous owner. It was appropriate to raise the height of the new border. I had not dug for years but took out a wide digging trench and filled it with prunings and then skimmed weed onto the top. I continued turning the soil over to regain my trench and cover the debris with a spit’s depth of soil. I seem to remember I planted herbaceous perennials that I had brought from home as I proceeded. There was no prospect of the buried prunings interfering with later cultivation. Not so much a none digger, Ben goes further and is a none gardener!
The point of my story is that three years later there was a change of plan (don’t ask), and the border would have to be planted again. The soil had been transformed, the prunings had virtually gone and the soil was black and crumbly!

Ten years ago when I was still developing my new garden at Seaton Ross, a small existing raised border was adjacent to a hollow. I wanted to level and considerably raise the whole site. I had lots of woody prunings and some were quite thick, even small tree trunks. At the time I still had clients and frequently brought home bagged prunings to dispose of. It was before I used the farm field for my bonfires and before I got the terra preta bug of making biochar!  I hate wasting any organic matter and indeed I take a rather pathetic pride in not doing so! I buried the lot to create a new herbaceous planting alongside the entrance to my drive. It has been very successful on a previously dry and degraded soil. The only interesting thing to report- other than that my herbaceous plants grow exceedingly well - was that a buried magnolia trunk sprouted from a foot down and made a new plant!

Hugelkultur

I have only recently read about hugelkultur. It is a well established ‘organic’ system well described on this Permaculture site. I am amazed and impressed by how far this system has been developed to grow ornamental plants, fruits and vegetables over buried wood in level or raised beds. Indeed the raised beds might be two metres high! There are no absolute rules to hugelkultur. It’s just the principle of growing plants in a fairly thin layer of soil that overlies wood. I was amazed to see the layer of soil might be as little as two inches! Better, I would suggest, a little more.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if all those ugly raised beds used by vegetable growers were buried trees overlaid by soil.

The buried wood might be anything from small prunings to huge tree trunks and logs. The deeper the layer of wood the better. Almost all untreated wood is suitable although willow, apple and poplar are particularly recommended. The wood is a huge resource of heat (the same principle as a traditional hotbed) and a supply of nutrients as it decays. After a year or two it is able to retain more available water than soil. If after many years it has totally decayed the soil remains in a beautiful black condition.
In the first year or two there may some small nitrogen depletion as fungi and bacteria grab this nutrient which is used in the early stages of decay. In practice this is inconsequential or can be adjusted by adding a little high nitrogen fertiliser. If you are a true believer the fertilizer will be urine!

A little flight of fancy


OK, I have lost the plot  - on the plot - and have just given way to pending senility. I have always played in my garden and here I go again. It was too good an opportunity to miss. Waiting for a bonfire on the village plot were two elder trees killed in last year’s flooding, Peggy’s hedge clippings and a large pile of decayed grass - a kind gentleman had cut the long grass under the fruit trees. Against my own better judgement there was even a supply of compostable material gathered up by someone much tidier than me. (I normally leave the dead forget-me-nots on the soil surface). Around the plot were some huge logs that I could scarcely move. I spent three happy hours building a heap. I will fling some hardy annual seed over it in a few weeks time. With many small prunings at the top it will sink a lot, and I am planning to plant it with select hardy perennials next year.
The woodpile built for the beetles is still intact but they have a holiday home now.

Brenda has not yet noticed that a funny shaped pile seems to have appeared at the bottom of our own garden!




Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Musings from York


Should we be so precious about only growing native plants?

I frequently read about how dreadful it is to move plants around the world and to introduce alien species into our gardens. A bigger crime is to introduce them into the countryside and we certainly should not plant them into the wild.
A contrary view comes from ecologist Chris Thomas at the University of York. He is the man who predicted ten years ago that a global temperature rise of two degrees centigrade would perhaps over the next thousand years create species-loss of millions. This is on the scale of previous mass extinctions.
In a recent article in the New Scientist, Chris, who has not changed this view, argues that such extinctions have always created the conditions for massive bursts of new evolution. He argues that there is abundant evidence that this process has already started. 
He says that contrary to popular opinion, when foreign invaders are introduced hybridisation will lead to valuable new species. Where Darwin made the analogy of evolutionary steps as new twigs on a tree, modern genetics sees rather speedier jumps in diversity when closely related species hybridise. Genes are more mobile than previously thought.


This is not to say we should not be concerned  about the numerous documented cases where new introductions have invaded new habitats to the detriment of native ecology. More overlooked is where closely related species have given rise to plants and animals with beneficial selective advantages. This might not be obviously apparent where European rhododendrons have combined forces with native American species to create R. x super-ponticum. Nature does not pander to man’s ideas of how it should be. In evolutionary terms this rhododendron is a superior plant!

Ten years ago we stayed on the Bahemian island of Andros. The casuarina trees, known as Australian pine were taking over the island and grew twice as large as in Australia. They were introduced by man for coastal erosion control. This one planted in a hotel garden in Costa Rica is arguably no threat to the local ecology.

One problem with introduced species is that natural predators are often left at home. Japanese knotweed is no problem in Japan! Eventually new predators will arise or be imported by man. A new predator of invasive honeysuckle in North America has arisen by the natural hybridisation of two fruit flies. Actually, even Japanese knotweed is no threat to the wider British countryside. This has not stopped legislation that makes planting Fallopia sinense illegal in the wild. The not inconsiderable threat of knotweed, readily talked up by the extermination industry, seems to be restricted to man made environments such as old industrial sites, general wasteland and old cemeteries. 
Japanese knotweed does hybridise with the thuggish climber called Russian Vine. Not the monster you might imagine. It’s not a good match, a woody climber mated with a herbaceous plant. No hybrid vigour here, more that of a wimp!


Chris Thomas regards the whole world as a gene pool that potentially has the capacity to counter mankind’s destruction. Rather than prevent transportation of animals and plants he argues for open corridors of movement. His university department have moved some of our own native butterflies further North than their previous distribution with very good effect.

I have no idea of the name of this insect, nor whether it is uniquely endemic to Costa Rica or widely distributed, nor whether it would be desirable introduced to foreign climes. What is almost certain is that it’s chances of survival would be enhanced by transportation. But to the detriment of what?


There is an irony that border controls whilst permitting a (restricted) movement of plants have not also permitted their pests! There is a further irony that the worst cases of introduced plants causing havoc are where they have been deliberately introduced by governments for agriculture or control of erosion. Many occasions of unwanted plants having serious detrimental effect have been created by war.

I do not know whether this strangling Costa Rican climber is native or not
Richard Mabey
I have been reading an excellent book about weeds by ecologist Richard Mabey. In it he describes examples of harm caused by introduced plants. He never-the-less takes a benign view to growing and introducing none native plants. I have leaned heavily on his superb book in what follows.

Are there such things as native plants and natural native communities?
After each Ice Age, plants retreated back in different combinations. Ever since early man started to travel, plants and animals have moved and created new stable ecologies. New islands have arisen from the sea and have been randomly colonised with plants and animals of extremely diverse genetic origin. Such islands are evolutionary hotspots and their dynamic ecologies function extraordinarily well.

Walking the beech in Costa Rica I imagined these ocean carried coconuts were colonising a new island. The lower one had success.

Who are we to say what is native? Long before the Romans came to the UK  bringing hundreds of plants now thought of as our own, new plants and animals were arriving. Early human activities, not least hunting, forest clearance and farming led to new landscapes. Over the past two thousand years new plants and animals have been brought to our  shores. Nothing is  completely stable. No environment is untouched by man.

What could be more evocative of England than playing conkers on the village green? The horse chestnut was introduced from the Balkans 400 years ago.
Even some of the as yet unspoiled parts of the Amazon jungle which we regard as pristine, grows on land cultivated by early indigenous communities. The Amazonian black earths, the man made terra preta soils, remain as evidence of land management more than a thousand years ago over South American regions that together total the area of France!

The movement of weeds.
Ever since man started to cultivate the ground, unwanted plants have muscled in and natural selection over thousands of years has led to their superbly efficient strategies of survival in the garden and farm. Everywhere that man has gone he has been accompanied by weeds. Their well honed survival techniques have enabled many to outcompete native vegetation. 50% of New World weeds were brought over inadvertently by the settlers. Having survived many hundreds years of European farmers’ attempts at control, introduced weeds - or should I say wild flowers - easily outcompete native flora.

Despite their success, introduced plants have not lead directly to the actual extinction of native plants. It would be difficult to specify a plant lost to the UK  because of introductions over the last 2000 years. That is not to say that plants have not been lost to man’s activities and changes in climate.
I liked Richard Mabey’s story of Kentucky Bluegrass.The grass has an image to us here in the UK as being American as American pie. Smooth stalked meadow grass was brought over from England! 
Nettles, groundsel, sowthistle, knotweed, dandelion, chickweed, shepherd’s purse, mayweed and couch are just a few of Britain’s gifts to the world.

Planned distribution
My friend Harry Kennedy was a merchant seaman in his youth and travelled the world. He tells me that what most impressed him was not the differences, but the similarities between plants from country to country. Our Victorian ancestors regarded it as their God-given duty to explore  and redistribute plants. Kew gardens was a broker of plants that served the Empire. The world’s plants and social systems were changed with the transfer of rubber, sugar cane, tea, coffee and bananas. Plant explorer-collectors have imported plants for hundreds of years. World agriculture shares numerous crops. Many plants and animals deprived of their natural habitats by human activity have been conserved by their redistribution. The world is a better place for the sharing of plants.

William Robinson.
His book ‘The Wild Garden’ published in 1873 created a sensation in Victorian times. He advocated using the wild flowers and weeds of the world to be planted naturalistically on the boundaries of  country estates. He introduced  from America, solidago and wild michaelmas daisies. He promoted wonderful Japanese knotweed and lovely yellow goat’s rue. Inevitably his plants escaped to the wild. Was William Robinson a visionary or a vandal?

So where do my musings take me?

Perhaps to reinforce prejudices! Here are some of them.

I will continue to fill my cemetery gardens and village plot with self seeding plants of the world.

I do not support the idea that when trees are planted in public places that they need to be native.

My prejudice against that vigorous intergeneric hybrid, the Leyland cypress remains.

I will continue to plant variegated plants and dahlias in my garden.

I will promote the use of insect and bee friendly plants on farmland whether they be ‘native’ or not.

I support efforts to maintain special landscapes whether they are deemed ‘natural’ or are relics of our forbears.

I am cynical about ‘offset arrangements’ when developers wish to develop ‘pristine sites’.

I will continue to point out that there are many instances of habitats for rare plants such as orchids on industrial wasteland that are bi-products of herbicide use. Clear examples of plants’ accommodation to man. Further, that enlightened use of herbicides has a place in land management.

I will continue to admire the fashionable colourful labour-intensive blobs on urban landscapes created as meadows with gaudy agricultural weeds. But they are too hard work for me.

I will also continue to look at the work of Piet Oudolf with a mixture of jealousy, envy and admiration. His methods are too expensive for me. I wonder how his landscapes will mature and how history will regard his skills.

Although it might be desirable to move  animals and plants around the world there is still a place for governmental restriction and prescription.The only present permit from The European Commission for the import of a plant parasite is a psilid fly specific to Japanese Knotweed. Completely free transport would encourage the crooks who despoil natural habitats. Look what is happening to elephants now that the United Nations has allowed the worldwide sale of historic stored ivory. It has provided cover for their slaughter.

I am emboldened to argue against fashionable politically-correct notions of plants we must avoid. I think Himalayan balsam is a wonderful plant. An old rural name is the ‘bee-bum plant’ which is indicative of busy bumblebees deep in the flowers. It is a very pretty nuisance on wet sites already spoiled by man but in my view is no threat to nature.




What hat are you wearing today? Is it the one that maintains only ‘native’ flowers or the one that preserves insects and bees?
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