Wednesday, 19 December 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: RHS - Greener-than-Thou?


The January issue of The Garden, the magazine for RHS members, just plopped on to my doormat, and it's a bumper issue devoted to the future of gardening and to questions of sustainability in particular. It's interesting to see a round-up of how large-scale gardening organisations like the RHS and Kew are tackling these long-term issues; all of them face similar problems. For example, most visitors arrive by car, yet should be encouraged to reduce their carbon footprint; and what can we say about the building of new hothouses, no matter how "green" they are claimed to be? The role of the Eden project in providing a campaigning platform on climate change issues has been huge, but then, presumably, so has their gas bill.

How we think about carbon output, sustainability and climate change
is complicated - and I feel totally confused. I'm thinking about trying
to do a carbon audit on myself in the new year, and wonder if anyone
else has done the same successfully? And where should we start? Is it
by growing our own vegetables, or is turning down the thermostat a
million times more important? That's what I really want to know.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: Those Cheaty Voting Cyclists!!


Garden lovers all over Britain have suffered a cascade of emails from the Eden Project in the past month, as the Cornish eco-domes campaigned to win £50m of lottery funding for their new "Edge" extension. The last message I received was a dignified concession of defeat to Sustrans, the cycle network, which finally triumphed in the phone/email vote, and which will benefit from the cash.

However this morning there have been reports
that Sustrans supporters didn't quite play fair... Well, honestly. I
don't know why everyone's up in arms about it. Did anyone genuinely
believe that cyclists - constitutionally incapable as we are of
standing still at a red light, without, at the very least, sneaking
forward over the line - were going to behave like English cricketing
gentlemen when it came to voting? (Actually, what am I saying, England
cricketers are fabulously cheaty
too.) Anyway it's not as if cycling along a path is going to preclude
there being nice flowers and trees to look at too, is it...

Nevertheless, I find myself wondering if is it actually right to
organise people to block-vote like that. And when there was quite that
much money at stake, shouldn't it all have been regulated a bit more
strictly? I have had quite enough of the story about the dodgy
phone-voting on TV, without Britain's eco-charities getting into
trouble for it too. Anyway - if you want to know what the Lottery is
actually going to pay for - here it is!

Sunday, 16 December 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: Pylons and Porticos

Pylonsjpeg By Emma Townshend

Going for one of those amazing winter walks at the weekend where the light is extraordinarily clear, I thought a lot about landscape and focal points in the distance - maybe because I'm currently reading a book recommended by Alain de Botton, about all the infrastructure you see in a landscape. This Field Guide by Brian Hayes is an American book, but still manages very well to make me curious about every piece of rusting metal I see dotted around the English countryside. Pylons, water towers and grain silos are all explained in great detail, as are motorway junction interchanges, and telephone wires.

The so-called "Pylon poets" of the 1930s were mocked for writing
poetry that seemed to praise the scourge of the National Grid spreading
itself across the hills and valleys; Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden and
Louis MacNeice all got tainted with the brush  (even though Spender's
original Pylon poem doesn't seem all that straight-forwardly enthusiastic if you read it now).

But it reminds me of our current national debate about wind farms. I
absolutely love the idea of a landscape which combines respect for our
architectural heritage, with a delight in what is to come - and for me,
wind farms and pylons are exciting: a gorgeous, exhilarating sight. But
to listen to some Radio 4 phone-ins, you'd think I was completely
alone. Now I've got Brian Hayes, though, I know there must be other
people out there who like pylons.

A Nice Green Leaf: Pylon PS - Your Best Winter Pylon Walks

453pxgoonhilly_arthurBy Emma Townshend

A friend just emailed to say her favourite winter "pylon walk" was over Goonhilly Down on the Lizard, where the pylon factor is the Earth Satellite Tracking Station - known by those of us old enough as "Telstar", after the first satellite to be tracked from there. She says: "Not only can you stare at the beautiful dishes, pointing up at orbiting satellites, but there's a huge windfarm too and there's that weird noise the whirling blades make in the wind." And a two ton menhir if I remember rightly.

What's your recommendation for a raw-cheeked walk combining wild countryside and advanced technology?

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: Sexy flowers

By Emma Townshend

There was a brilliant programme on Radio 4 this morning (yes, see how I tricked you with the title and then actually I'm going to go on about botany, zzzz). It was about Linnaeus, presented by The Independent on Saturday's Anna Pavord. Carl Linnaeus shocked 18th-century England by devising a system of classification for all living things, and his plant taxonomy was particularly controversial because it was so - well - saucy. Linnaeus used the sexual parts of flowers to differentiate one species from another - which caused even more uptightness among the already uptight English.

For gardeners, Linnaeus was an amazing figure, but the thing I loved on
Anna Pavord's programme was hearing from Timothy Walker, head of Oxford Botanic Garden.
He is an unrepentant gardening showman, whose particular enthusiasm is

He explained that the problem for botanic gardens at the
moment is that DNA fingerprinting techniques are now being applied to
plants, and are revealing that the neat families worked out by
taxonomists aren't as clear as was once thought. It turns out that
about 10 per cent of plants need to be reassigned to completely new
taxonomic groups.

The bigggest controversy has concerned the sacred
lotus flower. It looks like a waterlily, it grows like a waterlily, but
is actually more closely related (according to its DNA) to plane trees
and proteas. You can listen again until next Tuesday, and it's a really nice, interesting treat.

A Nice Green Leaf: Linnaeus's Big Birthday


Just to remind you to give the big sexy guy a thought tomorrow - it's an important birthday when you get to be 300. (Actually, he was born in May, but the Linnaean Society is going to give out medals in his honour tonight, so that apparently makes it OK to celebrate all over again.)

My favourite story about Linnaeus is that he was terribly bossy, always made his daughters wear traditional Swedish dress, and that he slightly made up a whole chunk of one of his most famous travels. I don't know how true these two stories are, but they appear in Patricia Fara's excellent book on the subject. But if you want to quickly get a handle on botany's most self-regarding forefather, Jane Owen's article is a nice place to start.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: Dodgy Green Tomatoes

By Emma Townshend

When it's raining this much, you have to stay indoors and just plan for next year. I was talking to a nice man dressed up as a Nasa space pilot on Saturday night (I don't think his qualifications were genuine. Think you know where this is going? Remember it's Emma not Catherine Townsend.) We chatted about balcony tomato growing. See what kind of conversations I get into at parties? Sigh.

One of my best tips for astronauts (and their wives) who are confused
about which type of tomato to grow next year, is the gardening blogs.
In particular, Hanna of Ohio always manages to make me smile. Check out her 2007 Tomato Tastings. She tries lots of different varieties and then posts her findings in
detail, with photos - which I find really helpful. Her comments are
hilarious, given that we're told she's a nice American grandma: "Will
Hanna grow this one again? No. The nice thing about pool boys is that
they are a dime a dozen. Great for a summer fling but when you are
looking for long-term tomato love, you need to find something with a
little more substance."

My favourite is probably the entry relating to "Rouge D'Irak",
adding "-Yes: that Iraq".  And if you want a true taste of internet
bizarrerie scroll down to the possibly spurious blog comment by Joey
Ballgaggio about tomato-related vomiting... If John Kennedy Toole was still alive I'd swear it was him, doing naughty posting.

Friday, 7 December 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: PS: Weird bloomin' stuff

By Emma Townshend

I forgot to add that the funny thing about the Sainsbury’s bulb is that it came with soil – four hardened discs of peaty compost dried like spacefood to be compact in the box. You pour Dsc00740_3on water and they Dsc00744_2rapidly swell up before your eyes to the dimensions of a large Nigella chocolate pudding. I honestly thought this was one of the most hilarious horticultural sights I’d seen for a while. I think that in particular four-year-olds the nation over will really enjoy it

Thursday, 6 December 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: Happy Bloomin Christmas (again?)

There's still time to buy supermarket bulbs for you to plant for Christmas. Though they probably won't flower in time for the big day, they'll be gorgeous during the dead first weeks of January, when you actually need cheering up. And unlike some of the things supermarkets sell which don’t work, this plant project is a sure thing.

Dsc00734I usually buy some paperwhites and some hyacinths, but my favourite for the past few years (under the influence of my friend Phoebe, who always grows one) is amaryllis. My first one this year is from Sainsbury’s – it’s bright red and comes in a fairly restrained stone-coloured pot (£6.99).

However I now have my eye on the M&S one, which is an exorbitant £12, but which comes in a gorgeous slightly Chinoiserie container.

I also have to devote a bit of care to the one I grew last year, which
was £2.99 from the Co-op and turned out to be a total trooper. I don't
know how easy it is to get an amaryllis to flower well the second time
round: this one is still looking determinedly leafy, despite copious
helpings of blood fish and bone: any tips gratefully received (yeah I
know it shouldn't be me saying that).

Friday, 30 November 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: French women don't wear fleeces


Sorry to sound like one of those drive-you-mad francaises, but British gardening outfits don't really do much for the figure, do they? It has occurred to me in the past that fleeces may have been invented by English men to drain English women of the last vestigial ounce of sex appeal, as a preventive measure against infidelity. And I have always avoided buying them. Like the plague. And by this I mean I panic and run home to stock up provisions and probably also Tamiflu if I even think I might have to try one on.

But now I finally have a fleece of my own, due to the verging-on-compulsory workwear I have to put on to volunteer a morning a week at Kew Gardens.

My god! Now I understand why ze English woman want to walk around making ze tit of herself.
Previously I thought all those mums standing outside the local primary school were simply participating in a project to look as unattractive as possible. But it's like the warmest thing I've ever put on! C'est chaud, hein? Et confortable, non? Plus it's made of such thick industrial navy blue synthetic fibres, zat ze Engleesh rain, ah, it's just a distant memory.

Anyway, basically, I haven't taken it off for about a week. But I bet French women have got some equivalent invention, but just more stylish, which they won't share with us. Someone out there spill the beans, why don't you? Post the link for the site where us fools can purchase sexy
French outfits for digging and pruning. Or maybe I've just finally got to the bottom of why they don't like gardening as much as we do.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: We wish you a smelly Christmas

Icerinkv10100341_3By Emma Townshend

The lengths horticulturalists have to go to keep their gardens going…

You’d hope that we lived in a world where people visited the Eden Project or Kew Gardens because it was a good cause 'n all that. But over the winter, we have to be tempted out of our toasty little houses by promises of Santa, mince pies, dramatic evening openings, ice-skating, fondues, festive shopping, roast chestnuts, gingerbread making, Bedouin tents, the Salvation army, wreath making, pumpkin soup, angel choirs, kissing bowers, carolling Cornish choirs and lantern processions.

This winter there’s been another draw though – with not a whiff of Boots Christmas pot-pourri about it. Amorphophallus titanum has flowered this November in both Kew and Eden.

Why’s that exciting? Well because it’s the world’s stinkiest plant. (Unexpectedly, this is not just of interest to small boys.)



Pollen was taken from the Kew plant, which flowered first, to the Eden project to pollinate theirs.

And on the Kew website you can see timelapse footage of the 6ft flower spike opening. Though sadly not in smell-o-rama.

The only problem with the titan arum is that while you can gawp at
the flower for a good fortnight, it only actually smells really bad for
48 hours. I guess you could look at this either as a disadvantage or an
advantage, but it certainly leaves keen visitors only a small window of
opportunity to get down there and have a look. Otherwise, you'll just
have to make do with boring old Santa. Sigh.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: Possible co-stranglers for Alan Titchmarsh required - enthusiasm more important than experience


I am not strong enough for real news on the weekend. I just read magazines on Sunday. I only get to the actual Sunday paper over Tuesday lunch. Somehow this seems to be the first point in a week where I can face all the bad news about global warming, the fall of the dollar and the pathetic wreck of Northern Rock.

Once I get through all the real news, though, I can always be deeply entertained by Hermione Eyre’s column. A few weeks ago she nicely described Alan Titchmarsh as currently “spreading across the TV schedules like Japanese knotweed”. Cutting back the BBC middle management is all very well, says Hermione, but while we’re there “can we also do something about Titchmarsh”?

I've always had a real problem with Alan Titchmarsh, especially since
Geoff Hamilton died suddenly of a heart attack in a charity bike race,
and Alan came back to present Gardeners' World. Feelings of irritation
started as, within weeks of taking over, AT urged us to plant seeds and
cuttings in peat-based compost. Geoff Hamilton was a one-man peat-bog
conservation campaign; it summed up Alan Titchmarsh as far as I was
concerned that he couldn’t even be bothered to preserve that little bit
of Geoff’s legacy.

On the other hand, I have dithered about whether to like Alan Titchmarsh
at times. I mean – what has he ever really done to hurt anybody? And
he’s so professional, and can verge on charming. Watching him calmly
talk his way through the complicated choreography of cameras at the
Chelsea Flower Show, as if he were just having a chat with his mum, I
was really impressed.

But Alan’s latest blatherings (re global warming) just make me fray beyond the point of no return.

“Now, I'm not one of those who believes Armageddon is on the way. It may be
something to do with my innate optimism, but I don't think I have my
head in the sand. Of course, we must do our bit to reduce carbon
dioxide emissions and control the number of gases we pump out into the
atmosphere, but our planet has warmed up before. There were warm
tropical periods between the Earth's many ice ages and mini-ice ages,
and they happened quite quickly. This is due, in part, to the fact that
the earth wobbles on its axis, and when it wobbles nearer the sun we
get warmer, when it wobbles away we get cooler. In short, climate
change is natural. The real news would be if our climatic conditions
remained static, but that wouldn't sell newspapers.”

Shouldn’t the man currently making his living telling us about “the natural
world” be taking a slightly more responsible position than this? I can
see that Alan Titchmarsh in private should be allowed to hold whatever
wacky opinions he likes. But he’s being paid by the licence payer to
talk about the beauty of Britain’s wild places and at the same time
contradicting (Oh it’s just Yorkshire commonsense) all scientific
consensus on the subject of looking after the planet.

The other day, he even went so far as to allege that nature would sort it all out in the end. 'We'll lose some, we'll gain others,' he says. ‘Wildlife is remarkably tenacious. Nature always copes.' Am I the only one who ends up wanting to strangle him?

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: Grow Your Own Surfboard

UntitledBy Emma Townshend

In the past year there's been more discussion than I've ever seen before about how to produce sustainable surfboards. While most amateurs are happy to flump about in the sea on a bit of foamy plastic they get out of the attic once a year, more serious surfers break boards all the time, leaving a fairly unrecyclable mess behind. In 2005 the messiness was brought home when Clark Foam, which produced about 65% of the world's surfboard "blanks", closed down after California introduced stringent new environmental regulations.

Surfers who felt discomfort about all this (especially when they spend so much time going on about being against sewage) looked back into the history of the sport. When surfboards were first invented, those yucky resins weren't even a twinkle in Mr Clark's eye. The original surfboards were made from the wood of the local Hawaiian trees: depending on your status within society, you might end up with a board made of koa or the cutely-named wili-wili. Today, Paulownia is the favoured timber of choice, producing a wood a little bit like balsa - light and floaty - but with more strength.

The wooden boards produce a completely different ride, much lower in the water, and can be difficult to handle. So the Eden Project in Cornwall (possibly no surprise there) has taken on the challenge of devising a mass market option. The Eden Eco Surfboard is entirely made of plant materials, including balsa and hemp.

And if you'd like to check out the balsa tree in person, you can see one at Eden. Those who fancy growing their own Paulownia surfboard, on the other hand, should try tree-shop. But if you're really keen on the genuine wili-wili article, you might have to hurry - a parasitic wasp is causing big trouble for this Hawaiian tree.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: Coughton Court Warwickshire

Coughton_court_01By Emma Townshend


Last Sunday I talked about a visit to Coughton Court - here are a

couple of the pics from the trip, to whet your appetite. Unfortunately now it's not open till spring. But make a mental note!

Monday, 5 November 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: Spring bulb planting

Emma_1_2By Emma Townshend

While writing the piece about cheering up your spring garden I went off to Hillier’s garden centre where they were offering a day of container planting. They provided free compost and planting advice, if you brought your own pots along and then paid for bulbs.

We spent ages choosing – in fact it would have been brainy to have decided a colour scheme in advance, really. But eventually went for quite tasteful whites (tulips) and also blue muscari and dwarf narcissi, with white hellebore plants in the pots to give a bit of winter colour and shape.

You build the pot up in layers. Bulbs can tolerate not being at exactly the right depth, and you need the layers to fit everything you want into the pot – for colour from January until May. Start with a layer of the biggest bulbs you have - probably hyacinths or tulips. Then add another layer, fitting in your plants at the right level.

Put the smallest bulbs in the very top layEmma_4_2
er, and don’t forget some
plant food for best performance. Very satisfying! Look out for similar
offers near you – we made all the mess at the nursery, not at home; and
didn’t haven’t to carry any bags of soil, as well as saving the cost of
the potting compost itself.

Monday, 29 October 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: Salcedo's Crack and Solomon de Caus


Long conversations at the weekend about the crack in Tate Modern.

Me (to Tate employee): "Excuse me, can you tell me anything about how this was made?"

Tate employee: "Oh no, I'm sorry, I don’t know, because the artist, you see, wants the work to be considered in terms of the message, rather than people thinking about how she actually constructed it."

Me, thinking: well that hasn't worked then. There are about 26 people in here at the moment and they are all, as far as I can work out by conscientious eavesdropping, talking about how she made it. (Apart from the three Italian girls trying to take a photo of themselves actually standing in it. Not sure they have any other ambition but trying to fit all their legs into the crack at once.)

Later, I recount the visit to my mum.

My mum: "Ha ha! That’s true actually. I've read about four articles in the paper about that crack, and none of them were anything about the meaning of it. Actually they were all by builders, speculating on how she might have done it. Apparently it's to do with ****** and ****
************. "(censored for your own good - see below)

So whatever it means, however it was made, absolutely nobody is talking about how this crack really sums up for them the big chasm between white and non-white peoples.

It seems to me that the crack really doesn’t speak as loudly on the subject of race as its creator would have wished. But it does seem to be talking with voice raised when you think about it in relation to another show on at Tate Modern at the moment – The World as a Stage.

Jessica Morgan and Catherine Wood have created an exhibition about theatricality in modern art. Which is how we (eventually) get to gardens, because theatricality is such an important aspect of garden design. Think of the gasp of breath you are meant to draw when, after walking through a wonderful garden, you finally see a stupendous view of three counties / a thousand acres / distant hills.

The Tate crack takes theatricality one step further because it amazes and foxes us. Like a magic trick, it makes us wonder how on earth the effect was achieved.

Me to Tate employee: "That's really annoying you can't tell us."

A passing stranger: "The only possible explanation is... magic?"

Certainly, whatever the professed ambitions of Doris Salcado, she is behaving like a true member of the Magic Circle, constructing her crack behind secret hoardings for some six weeks before her "dun-da-nah!" moment.

Gardens used to have this element sewn up in the Baroque period – Solomon de Caus
was famous for his sculptures that suddenly spat out water. He once
invented a water-powered merry-go-round that turned out to the sound of an
invisible pipe organ. And his trompe l'oeil was said to be so good it
actually fooled birds. 

I would love gardens to have this kind of quality again - the kind that
makes people stop and wonder how on earth it was done. We only have a
little of that sense of foxedness left in gardening; one area it
remains in is mazes. (Mazes are still something which fascinate people
– signs to the Maize Maze proliferated across Sussex this summer, I

We enjoy being played with, as long as it's not too sinister. I don’t go into a maze with a map. I don't necessarily want the illusion explained. And after some reflection, I’m glad I don’t know exactly how the crack was made.

(PS if you absolutely insist on disobeying Doris, read on:,,2187568,00.html)

Friday, 26 October 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: Just like in St Mary Mead…

David Aaronovitch in the Times yesterday had a wonderfully Agatha Christie-ish story. Writing about Dr David Kelly’s mysterious death, he brought up the 1984 murder of Hilda Murrell, an “elderly rose grower” from Shrewsbury, who was taken from her home and was later found dead in a little copse nearby. Hilda Murrell

was an elderly rose enthusiast, yes. But the story’s a bit more intriguing than that.

As Aaronovitch pointed out, Miss Murrell was also a tireless
anti-nuclear campaigner. (She also may or may not have been in
possession of documents about the sinking of the Belgrano, left
at her house by her nephew who was in Naval Intelligence at the time of
the Falklands War. Which is where the Kelly parallels come in.)
It made me remember all those moments when Miss Marple drifts off into
a little reverie about how  a particularly gruesome murder puts her in
mind of the baker’s daughter back in little St Mary Mead.

Miss Marple works as a character because we recognise the essential
truth in her favourite saying: “Human nature is pretty much the same
everywhere.” Miss Marple was pretty keen on gardeners. According to
Agatha Christie’s best-loved creation, she very much admired Briggs,
the head gardener up at St Mary Mead’s Old Hall, who had an “uncanny
ability” to sense when the undergardeners were slacking off. It reminds
me of a real-life Miss Marple, Mavis Batey, who is one of Britain’s most important amateur experts on garden history. 

It wasn’t until she turned up in a documentary about the programme
to break the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, though, that I realised her
steely mind had been put to ferocious use in World War Two. And yet you
would never know any of this, seeing her gentle grey-haired head at a
historical gardens meeting.

Old ladies can appear to be sweet little gardening enthusiasts, but
don’t imagine that means they won’t be sharp as a button. Elderly rose
growers may be hardened political campaigners too. Even Miss Marple,
who scarcely ever leaves the village, sees all kinds of things over the
hedge while she’s doing a little pruning. There’s just one lesson here.
Never underestimate a gardener.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

A Nice Green Leaf: Zaha Hadid – Does she do gardens?

By Emma Townshend

05_zaha_hadid_maxxi_photographer_he To Zaha Hadid at the Design Museum at the weekend. I feel like a bit of a philistine saying this but I had no idea about her work before going, except for one image of the firestation she designed in Germany. This is partly because, as the exhibition points out, for a long time virtually nothing she designed got built. (Some visitors may remark, thank goodness. Not me though.)


My brain grappled with what she’s trying to do, and I can almost see myself going back for another visit once I’ve processed it all. She’s been called a “visionary architect” and you can see why – her buildings look like Russian constructivist paintings perched on dramatic hilltops. I guess it helps that she’s been commissioned for some of the world’s most futuristic looking sites – waterfronts in the Emirates, shopping centres for Kazakhstan, and the flattened top of a vast mountain in Hong Kong.


What do we mean by a “visionary” designer, though? I think it means: someone who can imagine new things, which are nothing like anything we’ve got now.


And immediately I see it in that way, I begin to like the idea. Could we get a bit of that for gardening?

Oudolf The
nearest we have to a recent “visionary” is probably Piet Oudolf, who
completely re-imagined the herbaceous border. So is gardening
necessarily a rather conservative discipline, just because it tends to
interest slightly (cough cough) older people?

through Katie Campbell’s book Icons of Twentieth Century Landscape Design  for
about the 19th time this year, I don’t think this can be true.
Visionary landscapes were created all throughout the 20th century,
if her book is to be believed (and I think we can, there are photos and
everything). Thomas Church’s California style, Burle Marx’s
post-colonial Brazilian planting, Gaudi’s Parc Guell. Even Robert
Irwin’s deranged Getty Garden.

Why do we have to wait so long, as gardeners, for someone to think up something so completely new?

(MAXXI: Centre of Contemporary Arts, Rome, Italy, Zaha Hadid Architects, for completion 2008, Photographer: Helene Binet)