Documenting the seasons of coastal Dorset. I'm a complete amateur so don't trust I'm always right. If ever you see I'm wrong - whether with identifications or in anything else - do say!

Saturday, 3 December 2016


Part of the menu for Boxing Day 1925 which includes 13 eggs.

In my family, when I was growing up, we had a saying 'Take sixteen eggs'. It meant anything which, while desirable in itself, was in-excess of our, or anyone else's, needs; a reference to Mrs Beeton's cookery.
* * *
This post is about a book I've been sent to review.
'Build a Better Vegetable Garden
30 DIY Projects to Improve Your Harvest'. 
It's by Joyce Russell with photographs by Ben Russell.
Published by Frances Lincoln.
Publication date - 5th January 2017

An illustrated introduction to cooking utensils, 1903.
From a 1903 version of Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book.
If you've been reading Loose and Leafy for a while, you will probably have noticed that I tend to be a bit cynical about books I review. When it comes to gardening my thought is that you only need one book. This book, in my narrow-minded opinion, would have information about seasons - when to sow and when to reap - rotation, pruning, a bit about composting, a bit about digging, a large section on pests and friendly insects (instars included). Beyond that, I'd write in big letters - READ THE PACKET and TAKE NOTE OF THE LABEL. That's it. You need nothing more. (If you want to grow cacti on windowsills . . . well . . . . )

Despite this, I get real joy from books recommending you take cushions from your house and put them in the garden, or that reckon you'll have the time and wealth to build beautiful paths and sheds on your allotment before spending only half an hour each day on the veg.. I like pictures. I like absurdity.

But I don't review all the books I'm sent. 'Sorry,' I say to the kind promoter. ' Sorry, I really can't recommend this'. (One of these rejects included a garden so boring it has now been completely ripped out and completely re-designed and completely re-planted . . . so I feel my judgement on that one has been justified!)

So . . . I'm about to tell you of a book so peculiar I really and truly have lain awake in the night puzzling about who would read it. It's not for me. I doubt it's for you. So what is it for? None the less, I've not put it aside so . . . there must be something which attracts . . .

Back to the sixteen eggs.

An illustrated introduction to cooking utensils, 1903.
It surprises me that tinned food was in the shops in 1903
- let alone tinned oysters!
If given the choice of simple meals I'd rather eat baked beans on toast.
One of the Mrs Beeton cookery books I have at home was published in 1903 - an era in which people of modest means were trying to be less modest in what they cooked; and they wanted to present themselves to the world as wealthier and more sophisticated than they really were. So the tone is confidential. It tries to show how one person in a kitchen can provide a meal which would previously have needed several staff to prepare. And although it advises how to truss snipe and serve a calf's head, it also gives a recipe for 'cheap gravy'. Tinned pineapples and peas figure in lists of ingredients.

At the front, someone has handwritten a menu for Christmas Dinner dated 1925. Then at the top of a list of meals for Boxing Day, low and behold, they've written 'thirteen fresh eggs'. (See at the top of this post.)

Now to the book about how to 'Build a Better Vegetable Garden'. (Using wood.)

Protection against carrot fly - Build a Better Garden by Joyce and Ben Russell.
Heavy duty protection for carrots.
The 'recipes' here are as mind boggling as calf's heads and, on the whole, also in excess of what most people would want or need. I've turned it around in my own head, over and over - would anyone really take time to build a huge and heavy wooden fort in which to protect carrots from carrot flies descending from the sky instead of leaping sideways? How would I get the carrots out? Where would I put it in the winter? Who would help me cart it around the place. Would its benefits outweigh its challenges?

Picture of an hinged A-frame for growing runner beans up. Build a Better Garden by Joyce and Ben Russell.
A way to grow beans,

Then there's the hinged construction for growing beans up. Poles can be a bit awkward to tie into lines or wig-wams . . . but it doesn't really take that long if you only need a few . .  and it's very satisfying when they're all neatly in place . . . wouldn't a wooden frame which looks like a clothes airer not fly away in our mid-summer storms?

Salad trays protected from slugs by putting the legs in wellington boots. Build a Better Garden by Joyce and Ben Russell.

And I seriously doubt that many children are likely to be gripped for very long by seeing the legs of 'salad trays' standing in wellington boots filled with 'slug repellent material'. (Interesting concept that; 'slug repellent material'.)

And when it comes to Raspberry Supports - it's not 'take sixteen eggs' but 'make holes in the ground with a crowbar' and 'use a sledgehammer to knock the posts in place'. (I think Mrs Beeton would have recommended employing a local professional and pretending you'd done it yourself.)

And in terms of health and safety . . . I don't think using a power-tool to drive screws downwards into the sides of frames supported only by hand is sensible. Nor using the lawn as a work bench. Stones are mysterious creatures. You think you've cleared them but they wriggle underground till they're back exactly where you don't want them; and if they've taken residence right under your whirring power drill . . trouble!

Pictures of tools from the 'buying tools' section at the beginning of Salad trays protected from slugs by putting the legs in wellington boots. Build a Better Garden by Joyce and Ben Russell.
Some of the tools recommended in the 'Build a Better Garden' book.
I've used a power drill, a jigsaw and various other conventional saws and planes . . . and from frustrating experience I know woods wobble and wander; and that while clamps are useful, in my non-expert opinion we can all do with a good vice when dealing with large planks of wood.  I've gone through decades of being an amateur and you really shouldn't even think of letting me near projects like these without a sturdy work bench. And everyone using this book will need a big budget. Sledgehammers, crowbars, staple guns, saws, hammers and spirit levels are on the shopping list. (You should see the big box she has of drill bits and power screwdrivers and things and - oh my goodness, I hadn't noticed this till now, she even has a circular saw!)

Things (like 6 Wrought Iron Stewpans) recommended for a 1903 kitchen, along with estimates of cost. (Mrs Beeton.)
Some of the kitchen tools recommended
for home cooking in 1903.
So . . . why am I telling you about this book when it could be dangerous in the hands of a ham-fisted amateur; and when there's not much point in buying it if you're a professional because you'll know it all already? I enjoy a bit of digging now and then, and I'd like to live in a big house with a big and beautiful garden and space to store carrot forts, but I'm unconvinced everything here is truly useful.

(To some degree, it's a matter of taste too. I love cold frames but beyond that I like an uncluttered atmosphere in vegetable gardens.)

Back to the question then - why am I writing about this book? And, for that matter, why did I lie in bed wondering why I'd decided I would do so?

Illustration of raspberries and raspberry canes. Build a Better Garden by Joyce and Ben Russell.
This is the kind of thing I admire but can never achieve.
Perfect and beautiful symmetry.
I think it's because I'm not a mathematician. I'm a disorganised muddler. And to be a carpenter you have to be incredibly good at making very precise angles. Precise angles are beyond me. So I admire them; and look at the perfectly placed holes for screws and am struck down by their beauty in round-ness and symmetry. And I read the simple instruction that the sides of a box should reach down beside its base, not be perched upon it . . . and I think 'wow, I would never have thought of that yet I can see clearly now why it should be thus'. And I look at the power drill and admire the writer who is bound to use it well; in contrast with me; for my drill turns itself dangerously on whenever I pick it up. (Because I've never been strong enough to grasp the handle without pressing the 'go' button by mistake.)

So, this book is, I've decided, a kind of philosophy of wonder . . . of how can anyone be this precise and clever? . . . and why would anyone want these things? . . . and would I buy all this equipment unless I wanted a career in carrot-fort construction?  . . . and why did the 1925 list-maker think it necessary to pencil into the front of her Mrs Beeton cookery book that her family would be subsisting on a relentless diet of potatoes, cold ham, cheese and swedes once Christmas Day was over?

For the thirteen fresh eggs which figure at the top of 'what's needed for Boxing Day' vanish as soon as they're mentioned. So here's another context in which we can say 'take sixteen eggs'. The strange desire for such superfluities surfaces when, although we don't specially want to be mega-rich, we'd wistfully like to have a little more than we have just at present. So we write 'take sixteen eggs' before knuckling down and trying to pretend, as that list maker did, that serving potato mashed is enough of a variation to make a plain diet festively exciting. And we write 'work bench' on our Father Christmas list before sticking bean poles in the ground as usual.

. . . except . . . except . . . I also have a cookery book which advises
 how to cook spinach . . . 
and ignoring all other recipes in it, it's worth the price for that alone . . .
 And for some of us 
having it explained how to make a wooden raised bed 
that doesn't wobble would be 
. . . pretty handy . . . hm.

Friday, 11 November 2016


Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Light from the courtyard spilling down some steps onto the street
The other side of Oxford; its golden light. Lots of places have golden light but if the sun happens to shine like mad in the middle of a rainy day in a place where the stones are dull and the pavements grey . . . and you  (oh so surprisingly) have your camera to hand . . . well, what do you do? You look for street plants, that's what.

I'd arranged to meet a friend outside the Ashmolean Museum but was a little early. I could have gone in - seen the Rembrandt Paintings . . the Viking Hoard . . masses of things bound to be special. A notice outside says it's the oldest museum in the country. (And of course, as we know, it's one of the best) . . .  BUT . .  if I were an exhibit, although I'd be proud to be there . . . I'd probably be a little vain by now and wouldn't be too chuffed if a scruffy woman in worn-out shoes came and stared into my eyes. And however famous I was, I reckon I'd be a little overwhelmed too. All those visitors; in-out, in-out. All day. No peace for a statue or a painting! So, respectfully, I decided to leave them alone and potter around looking for plants instead.

My world is somewhat divided into places where weed-killers are used . . . and places where they are not. The area in front of the Ashmolean must be a killing field. Could I find little seedlings between paving stones? No. Little trees up on the rooftops? No. So, having walked up and down the courtyard for a while ( 'courtyard' is probably the wrong word because it has a side missing) . . . I wandered under an arch, down a flight of steps, into the street.

By every second, the light was losing day. The clocks have already turned to winter and autumn is settling in. But an odd and brilliant shaft of golden sunlight had landed in front of the museum. Here (above) you can see what I mean. Looking back up the steps . . . you can see that tourists gathered outside the main doors are unfairly standing in summer. And for all that my socks are soggy where the rain has crept through my shoes . .  a little bit of summer is leaking down the steps onto the wet pavement and has almost reached my feet.

Leaves on paving stones (flags?) outside Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Retrospectively, I should have gone and stood in summer and imagined it was there specially for me - but I think it was really trying to get to these particular leaves. Some leaves are . . . some leaves are . . . some leaves are as good as anything you find in a museum. I'm not turning ridiculous. If I had to chose between preserving a Rembrandt or an autumn leaf, I would, definitely, definitely, chose the Rembrandt - though with regret. Because for all that leaves are ephemeral and plentiful in a way great paintings are not, they are still absolutely and marvellously incredible. Actually . . . a leaf is more incredible than the very best, the very most beautifullest and insightful painting. It's obvious how a painting came into being (someone picked up a paintbrush and made it) a leaf just is. And if I were in a scientific mood I'd go into paroxysms of praise for its complexity. And how, when I was at school, words like 'zylem' and 'phloem' were magic. (And 'ox-bow lakes' - but that's geography.) (And 'chlorophyll' is pretty good too.)

Oh, my goodness, where am I?

Yes. So. While paintings were busily being protected in the museum . . . I was searching for plants beyond attention.

Little plants where a paving stone has broken outside the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Back on the terrace (better description than courtyard?) the golden light had vanished (it does!) but a few foot from the main doors; look! a cracked paving stone and a little garden!

A magnificently rebellious garden. And the most rebellious, the most defiant of all, a little grass plant in flower. See it? Oxford has it in for grass. University authorities must have arranged for armies of gardeners to keep grass under assault. There are acres and acres of lawns . . . mowed and mowed and mowed, battered into uniformity and into wearily precise, ultra-green stripes. Ne're a daisy to be seen. You can't even walk on most of the grass! What do they think grass is for if it's not for growing daisies in and picnicking on? But there you are. Back to big brains missing the point yet again - and tiny plants re-seizing their world.

Dead plant on window sill by column at Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
And, by chance . . . (it can't really be chance? more that I can't think of a reason?) - one plant on a window sill. A bit of a dead plant admittedly. But that's what most plants ultimately are - dead. It's what they eventually do - die. This one is a real mystery though. Why was it the only one there? How come other window-sills didn't have dead plants too?

And one last walk under the arch before tea at the top of the museum . . .

If you have ever wandered between state schools and public ones . . . or FE colleges and wealthy universities . .  you notice things like doors. And handrails. The more money a community has to spare, the more it has to live without interesting scratches. Being a bit of a grump-box I tend to think there are better ways to spend money on than polishing doors . . . but . . . Now. Here's a really important question. Why don't statues smile? This isn't the beginning of a joke. I really ask - why it is that citizens in public sculptures stare straight ahead or thoughtfully frown? Cherubs blow out their cheeks and grow fat. Dancing children look dizzily happy and smile past each other as if they've been drugged and frozen mid-prance.

Bust of a smiling man beyond windows in polished wooden doors.
Yet . . . under the arch . . . where the doors are polished and clean . . . looking out and smiling . . . the bust of a smiling man. Does anyone know who he is? Why he is there? Why he is smiling? I took his photograph with a wink of complicity. I doubt many people notice the garden in the broken paving stone . . . or a remnant of summer on a window-sill . . . But he and I shared something. I was looking for a world-un-noticed and he was looking un-noticed onto a world where a little bit of golden light had got itself left behind under an arch.

(Of course, he may turn out to be a mass murderer, chortling cheerfully over his crimes. Let's hope not!)

Wednesday, 26 October 2016


Sow thistle on wall after flowering.
A sow thistle growing on a wall may flower and thrive.
A human with no-where to go will be less successful.
As you know - can't fail to have missed - I am impressed by street plants. They live in shop doorways and gutters and flourish there. People don't.

You may also have gathered from previous posts that I visit Oxford from time to time. What I haven't said in these posts is that while photographing street plants, I've been taken aback by how many people live on pavements there too. I mean, in almost every town people sleep rough - but in Oxford, to an outsider like me, the visible numbers are shocking - so many doorways are every night turned into cramped, temporary bedrooms.

Sycamore tree growing in rain drain.
The sycamore tree in a drain we have followed for the last few years
still lives but is getting a bit cramped.
Drains are not meant for trees - nor shop doorways for humans.
June 2016
I don't understand. Oxford is a place with one of the best universities in the world. It's a place stodgy with outstanding brains. You'd have thought they could have set aside some time to put their intellectual heads together and work out what can be done.

Meanwhile, council funding for charities working with and for homeless people in Oxford has been cut by £1.5 million this year.

I don't want to go on about Oxford over much. It's just happens to be where I get most shocked. It's the place where I think about homelessness more than I do anywhere else - even more than where I live. It's the place where I think, over and over "what are minds for if not for addressing these kinds of basic needs?" And it's where (I expect you were waiting for this . . . ) where I know someone who is taking part in an event to raise a little of the money charities need to help those who are homeless, or newly homeless, or newly with a roof over their heads. Having somewhere to stay - though important - is not the end of the matter. It means a life-style change and that doesn't necessarily come easy to everyone.

Two plants in a dry kerb
Weymouth, June 2016
It's always hard to think of an event that will draw people to raise money, to raise consciousness, to 'make something happen' without it being naff or offensive. Selling jam to raise money for famine victims it's . . . well, there's something uncomfortable about it. So it may be that the group of students and local citizens who will be 'sleeping-out' for one night may find it a bit awkward . . . Being in the open for one night is not the same as curling up under a cardboard box every night in November. However . . . however . . . however awkward it feels . . . sometimes if money is needed you have to go with the ideas you come up with; ideas that are within your reach to fulfil

By clicking the link you'll go to the Just Giving page of a first-time fundraiser. She won't be the only one coming at this from scratch but she happens to be the one I know . . . And while each participant has been asked to raise £100 by being cold for a few hours . . . it would be good if every one of them were to raise more, for it's not for themselves they are doing it.

If any of you do feel moved to give - perhaps you will think of those street plants
And how people are rarely as resilient as they are.

Money raised will be shared between

Photos in this post were taken in Dorset, not in Oxford. But these kinds of plants live in both places.

P.S. I suddenly realise it looks a bit odd, exhorting you to give when it seems (from the list) as if I haven't done so myself! But due to the nature of my card I had to use the 'anonymous' option.