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!

Thursday, 16 March 2017


Isle of Portland (Dorset) disappearing into mist.
Not that people with perfect vision will be seeing much these days.
A few moments earlier, this was a moderately open view. A few moments later and everything was hidden behind a fast veiling, white curtain.
The default weather here is currently 'mist'. This somewhat reflects my own state of joyfulness - which could be more nearly described as - 'fog'. It will be another two weeks before my camera is returned from the menders; and just when I was thinking after the demise and replacement of my laptop, the demise and not-replacement of my music speaker, the smashing of my mobile phone (I tripped over a low concrete barrier) - there's nothing else to break . . . my glasses frame has suddenly and unaccountably bent and an arm is falling off so it's not just that the world is out of focus when looked at through a broken lens - I'm walking around with crossed eyes, constantly angling my head up and down and sideways to see if there's any way I can make things look better.

On the up-side . .  I've borrowed a camera.
On the down-side . . . although pictures taken with it may theoretically be in focus I have no idea whether they are or are not. (Broken glasses!)

I hope by now, you are completely overcome with sympathy, fighting back tears and playing violins.

Large expanse of reeds beyond brambles.
Friends don't necessarily help. "I know!" said one. "Come with me for a walk. That'll cheer you up!" After quite a long trek across the grey wastes of an abandoned Park-and-Ride, and after falling up a muddy, brambly bank because everything was so wet, we could see acres of brown reeds sticking up through invisible water-logged ground. I could tart up this picture. I've tried. So I know. With a bit of adjustment I can make it brighter and clearer. But to blog it like that would be to lie. What lay before us was a landscape of stripy murkiness. Which, I hope, is how you see it here.

Fortunately, I was not invited to put on waders to see if we could get through, nor given an axe and a canoe. Instead, my guide diverted us between clumps and bumps of tough grass, along muddy paths and deep puddles so I could experience the pleasure of cold brown water flowing happily into my only presentable pair of shoes.

But even in the murk of a warm, dull spring, there are moments of hope . . . 

Cordyline on balcony of block of flats.
Last week I reviewed a book on how to cheer an urban landscape with flowers. . . and brightened the post with an illustration from it of a balcony crammed with plants. I was in Southampton yesterday and as I climbed despondently up the hill from the station into town (wondering how much joy I could summon up from admiring concrete blocks of flats built to resemble ocean liners) I glanced up (never forget to glance up) and saw this. One Cordyline on one balcony. Is this a cheerful reminder that not everything is as bleak as it seems? Or does it emphasise that apart from itself everything is, indeed, bleak?
I've not yet decided.

(I hope you're enjoying this post!)
Here's a bit of light:

Plant growing on the windscreen of a car.

Earlier this week, I was going from house to house, posting leaflets through letter boxes suggesting - that plans to close the children's ward and neo-natal unit at our local hospital are not a good idea (that's not the light) when I came across this car. In some ways it could be a sad car. But it wasn't. It wasn't muddy (unlike my shoes) and the paintwork was shiny (unlike my shoes) and growing in the slot where the wipers swish - there was this plant. The photo isn't in focus . .  grey day, broken glasses, unfamiliar camera . . . but it brought - I wish I could say 'leap of joy' into a bleak and un-imaginative heart  (more violins please) . . . but it inspired a little spark of 'oh, look at this!'-ness A man emerged from the house opposite. After all, I was cavorting in his neighbour's drive, taking photographs of his neighbour's car etc. etc. But I couldn't summon enough enthusiasm to call him over to see . . just nodded, put my camera away and went to push the next leaflet through the nest annoying draft-excluding bristles in the letterbox of the next door along. But a bit of my brain (the tiny part spared from moaning about broken glasses) has, since then, been going around almost on its own - singing a little song.

Saturday, 4 March 2017


Cover of book 'Urban Flowers' by Carolyn Dunser and Jason Ingram.
Because I can't easily take my own photos at present, I've posted
some of my own photos of urban wild plants. They aren't exactly relevant because
the book reviewed here is about urban gardens rather than urban plants - but
I specially admire wild plants which grow in towns so I thought I'd
put some here!
And because, as you'll see at the end, I might decide it's my calling in life
to cast dandelion seeds at the feet of city walls. 
I may be moving.

Some readers will already know my next-door neighbours; Esther Montgomery and her family (her husband Ming and their sons, Worthing and Didcott). They are buying a house bang in the middle of Halifax (Yorkshire; not Nova Scotia!) and have asked if I would like to go too and live in a little flat that has been carved into the attic. This is why I was visiting Halifax last autumn . . . to take a look at the town and the house . . . and things like that.

Nothing is settled They are still checking whether all the beams are in place so it doesn't fall down, and that the roof is not so dilapidated they can't afford to mend it. But hopefully . . .

Wild plant growing by metal fence, Portland, Dorset.
A bleak urban landscape where
wild plants may grow.
(Not in the book.)
If we do move there, it will be a massive change. The south coast of Dorset is, without question, one of the most beautiful places in the world: huge views of deep-blue seas, warm sunshine, dramatic cliffs, sharp storms with raging waves. Skeletons here are Jurassic, not collapsed mills.

So . . . when I received the book 'Urban Flowers' (Carolyn Dunster and Jason Ingram. Published by Frances Lincoln) for review - I read it with Esther in mind. She could have chosen a house in the country if she'd wanted. Then she would have had somewhere to live and a large garden. But she decided on a back-to-back surrounded by enterprise parks and warehouses - with no garden except a few paving slabs at the front. (She seems to think theatres are worth the trade off - especially as there may be the chance of an allotment not far away.)

Whenever I start a book, I flick through its pages first, look at the pictures, check the contents and see what kind of index it has at the back . . . . and try to gauge who the author wrote it for. Could it be for Esther and people like her? What with her paving slabs and four short walls with iron stumps on - (Second World War reminders of how governments can be . . . not exactly precise in the information they give to the public - see this article about the mystery of the missing railings on the London Parks and Gardens Trust site.)

Self-seeded dandelions in a small garden.
My next door neighbour (Esther Montgomery) treasures wild flowers in her garden.
Dandelions - May 10th 2015
Not in the book!
Esther's garden used to be beautiful with roses (they pulled the roof off her shed) and jasmine (it smelled like bubble bath) and clematis (it got scraggly) Spanish broom (plastered with blue aphids) . . . until in the end she had to chop so much down it wasn't beautiful any more. It was a casualty of over-reach; a misjudgement of space. And when I look at the rows of potted plants she's been expecting to take to Yorkshire: bay trees, box bushes, lavenders, geraniums, cordylines, mint, balm, oregano . . . I think she's about to make the same mistake again. It was only when the removal firm advised her that plants cost a lot to move because they can't be piled on top of another) she began to concede she might have to leave quite a lot behind.

The book:

Perhaps one of the things we might take from it is that you can't fit Kew Gardens into a backyard. And another is how imprecise the definition of 'small' is - it's entirely subjective - probably related to the last house one lived in, or one's dream home or what the neighbours have got. The subtitle is 'Creating Abundance in a Small City Garden' but I don't think Amelanchier lamackii - which grows to about 39 feet high and 13 feet wide would fit into my idea of 'small'. It's not just a matter of space but of light. I often think about this when I see furniture laid out for inspection in department stores and magazines. As soon as you remember there will be a fourth wall, style flies out the window. Whether you are a plant in a garden, or a human wanting a sofa, you'll not survive unless there's enough light to help you grow.

Photo of a photo of plants on a balcony in book 'Urban Flowers' by Carolyn Dunster and Jason Ingram
(Incidentally, in terms of light and air-flow, I'd disagree with Carolyn's idea that you could sensibly pack a cordyline, a fatsia and a couple of other substantial plants onto one small urban balcony, even if you were prepared to obliterate your only hope of a view.)

But setting the definition of 'small' aside, I think it's a good book for saving would-be gardeners from despair when moving into an urban home with very little outdoor space. And it's for people who've never had a garden before too; people who suddenly find themselves with a few spare feet and are wondering what they might put in it apart from wheelie bins.

Dandelion next to an urban playground.
Not in the book.
- Introduce wheelie bins and the answer is probably 'nothing'. I have it in for wheelie bins. Since someone hit on the idea of fooling people into thinking it's 'ecological' to fill the world with these grotesqueries, properly 'small' town gardens have all but been abolished.

Books like this, I have noticed, fall into three sections of varying usefulness - a clear start, a list in the middle (which might be useful or might not) and fripperies at the end. So it is with this one.

The first part of this book really grabs the attention and gets one thinking. Sometimes these thoughts are of good things - like getting plants to grow in small cracks in walls. Sometimes not so good - like growing parsley in old pineapple tins. Even the illustration in the book shows some parsley looking as if it would prefer to be elsewhere.

The middle section is divided usefully into colours and types of plants. (Admittedly with bits of silliness thrown in. Well, I think it's silly to grow geraniums upside down.) Novices are offered answers to questions like 'what is a bulb?' and there are specific plant recommendations - useful for middling gardeners and those struggling with 'downsizing'.

The end bit is, mercifully, short. How to prolong the life of cut flowers is handy. But making a wreath from apples and blackberries is not. Brambles may find their way onto wasteland from time to time but blackberries don't otherwise tend to grow in towns. Certainly one wouldn't want a bramble patch in a small garden even if one could rise to an espaliered apple. And two pages on baking with petals is quite enough. (I tried crystallising violets once and ended up with a small, sweet, soggy compost heap stuck to a piece of grease-proof paper.)

Daisies and dandelions beside the pavement next to an urban park
Not in the book!
What do I think after reading the book? My conclusion is that if just one light and airy and feathery bamboo is all that can reasonably be fitted into a small space - let it be so. And if you have a bit more space than a gate and a step - use it and use it well but don't over-fill. You can be bright and cheerful or stark and elegant but planning is essential if you'd prefer to avoid disease and clutter. This applies to all small gardens - even back gardens where there's room for a table, a couple of chairs and a water 'feature'.

For my own part, I do suspect some of the plantings are a bit dense. And I don't take all ideas seriously. Nasturtiums don't grow gracefully - though I love them - and I'm wary when books say things like coffee grounds 'are said' to act as deterrents to slugs. ''Said to' isn't enough.

Another thing I've decided is that buying plants in pots, sticking them in the garden for a while, then chucking them away . . .  is not necessarily a bad idea. I can hear gasps of horror so I must stress this is me with a new conviction - not necessarily that of the author. People who live in cities and have ultra-small gardens can't always be gardening snobs. For instance, on p.161 there's a display of snowdrops and hyacinths (do hyacinths really need to be staked?) and candles and things, a table, a chair a lamp . . It all looks very pretty but where will you put all this stuff until you want it again next year? Will these plants ever come up again? Un-established snowdrops are certainly a bit iffy second time round.

Self seeded dandelions growing through tarmac next to a brick wall
Not in the book! (But there can never be too many dandelions to cheer a page!)
So, in Desert Island style . .  of the books I've reviewed, which will I take to Halifax? (If I go.)

This book about small gardens will be one.
Leah Lindeertz' book about allotments another.
Possibly last week's book '101 Gardening Hacks' by Shawna Coronado because I'd like to stay inspired about compost. (But I'm not sure.)
And maybe the 'Happy Home Outside' (by Charlotte Hedeman Gueniau) because it cheers me up and makes me laugh. Or perhaps I'd regretfully leave that behind.  It's one thing to joke about filling one's garden with cushions and carpets and outside cinemas. It's another to imagine not having a garden big enough to not put them in. Already I can feel tears stinging.

Do I want to live in a city? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
But if I do, I'll take a bit of hedgerow with me and sow dandelions all along the streets - at the foot of as many walls as I can. There are plenty of walls. And plenty of pollution. And plenty of dust. So maybe dandelions would turn their noses up. I hope they wouldn't though. Some are tough.

'Urban Flowers - Creating Abundance in a Small City Garden' - Frances Lincoln - £20 - Sent for review in March but not to be published till April 6th 2017.

* * *
Gosh! That's ages away yet. Enough time for Frances Lincoln (are you listening dear Frances Lincoln?) to commission me to write a book about Street Plants! You know - the wild kinds.

Saturday, 25 February 2017


Cover of 101 Organic Gardening Hacks by Shawna Coronado
This picture came with an email before the book arrived.
Maybe one day I'll take pictures of what's inside!
Shall I tell you my woes? My camera isn't mended. I've smashed my phone (I fell over) and the speaker I dance around the house to got knocked off its bookcase so the music it spouts sounds tinny.

Right. Having got that out of my system . . . there's a book I was sent ages ago for reviewing and I've been meaning to tell you about it ever since and would have done if I hadn't been feeling so very bolshy about not being able to take photos of it.

It's 101 Organic Gardening Hacks by 
Shawna Coronado.
Cool Springs Press Minnesota.

I like it. (I'll say that fast before you think I'm about to be hyper-critical as usual.)

But before I enthuse, I'll mentions a few 'buts' about the title. It's probably the English / American thing. To me a 'hack' is negative - 'old hack', 'hacking into a computer', 'hacking a horse' (whatever that means) 'hacks in fingers' during cold weather or after doing too much washing up; and taxis. (Hackney cabs.) Computer hackers have been getting a better press recently. 'Hacking' in computersese seems not so much to mean 'breaking in' or 'cheating' but going straight to the point with skill and disregard for convention. Something like that.

'Organic' confused me too. It's not really about organic gardening but it's a book about gardening by someone who happens to do organic gardening. In other words, it's practical rather than proselytising. You wouldn't need to be an organic gardener to find it useful.

Getting there!

The '101' bit.
The book has wonderful advice but there's also what I would call 'padding'. '101' is probably a number publishers (?) like . . .  '37' or '93' wouldn't have the same zing. And by padding I mean things like how to renovate a chandelier so you can hang it in your garden . . . or disguising your shed by putting screens and metal gates round it (what's wrong with garden sheds? I like garden sheds!) . . . or how to decorate your fence by sticking spades on it.

And at the risk of spending all the review space on the title, 'hacks' makes it sound as if the 101 ideas are easy - like growing carrots in a wellington boots. You know the kind of thing.

The cover's very jaunty and the insides are attractively displayed and widely spread - so it looks as if we can flick through and imagine gardening's a doddle. (A popular theme on the gardening shelf.)

So why do I like this book?
It doesn't go for the 'doddle'.

The big deal thing which won me over was that the first 22 'hacks' are solidly about soil and composting. (I'll miss the bits I found irritating in the introduction.) And while it all sounds fun - like making a muddy mixture with earth and tipping in vinegar or baking soda to measure the ph of soil by seeing if it bubbles (waaaaaaaaay!) . . . it's the first book to make me wish I had an allotment - and that the work involved would be properly serious. All of a sudden I want to experiment with making compost. I'm not sure I'd bother with growing veg. - I'd just spend my days making compost in different ways. Shawna does happen to suggest coffee grounds are useful. Maybe they are but I'm a dubious. In my hands they go white and furry. But my hands are not her hands! Clearly. And I'm not sure she mentions what kind of worms you should use. Ordinary earth worms wouldn't be interested. (If I were a good reviewer I'd re-read it to find out but I'm not going to.) Never mind - the thing is . . . all of a sudden, I'd like to go into compost production. (Can you really buy worm casts at garden centres?)

Three handed footpath sign.
This is the only picture which has come from my camera in ages so I'll use it.
I've got a grump about notices like these.
What if motorways had signs which pointed just to 'roads' in every direction.
It's definitely an American book and inclines to hot weather gardening. Cacti don't like Dorset even though it's hot compared with other parts of the British Isles. And succulents are expensive. I don't need to know how to attract hummingbirds (however much I'd like to) and don't think Japanese Beetles cause much of a problem in the UK. (Though one day they might so perhaps it's good to have this book on hand in case they do.) I can't find bee-preservers in our local gardening centre (or even on Amazon) but that's no matter; finding a way to give bees access to water without risking they'll drown is worth thinking about.

Apart from some things (like edging a path with old wine bottles) I think it's a very respectful book. Gardening may be fun but it's not 'a laugh' in the sense of 'anything goes'. It's a sensible mixture of different kinds of information.The easy-to-make garden bench looks ok. And the suggestion that we should try deep-planting tomatoes is interesting - especially when accompanied, as it is, by an explanation about different types of tomatoes. (I didn't know there are 'determinate' and 'indeterminate' ones. Did you?)

And there are a few 'tips' of the kind which are obvious once you've thought of them - like storing hoses in figures of eight to stop them kinking while stored away . . . or using flour on the earth to mark out garden designs before planting.

Yup. I'd recommend it.

P.S. I like the instruction that you shouldn't drink tea made from manure.
And I like it that arthritis gets a nod,
And that it's the first gardening book I've read with bison in it.