Thursday, 30 October 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: I should Coco


Visitors to the Palm House at Kew often stop to marvel at the seed of a Coco de Mer. The so-called "Seychelles Nut" has the doublefold honour firstly of producing the biggest seeds in the world, weighing in at a sturdy 17 kilos, but also looking remarkably like a curvy lady's bum.

However today's news revealed they now have a further claim to fame, playing a crucial but slightly unexpected role  in a current significant case concerning British tax law. Millionaire businessman Robert Gaines-Cooper is claiming that since the seventies he's actually been resident in the Seychelles, despite the fact that his wife, son and vintage car collection all reside in homely Oxfordshire.

The bit of the case that made me sit up, though, is where Gaines-Cooper claims that it's his coco-de-mer plantation that really proves he is committed to the Seychelles. "there would have been no point in his planting a notoriously slow-growing coco-de-mer tree at Plantation Bois Noir in the 1970s if he had intended to move on", say his lawyers, according to today's Times.

I love the idea that planting slow-growing trees proves that's where you "really" live. And that British tax law is so complicated that you have to prove where it is that your heart is, to find out where your home is.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: All across the Cosmos

By Emma Townshend

Now that autumn is officially here I think it might be time to resurrect "Plant of the Week". Over the summer months there's so much in bloom to choose from that you don't really need a Plant of the Week, but lately I've found that familiar feeling of gratitude has been returning, whenever I see something looking particularly dandy amongst the piles of fading foliage.

This week I've especially noticed Cosmos doing its girly Barbie pink thing in the bursts of autumnal sunshine. Cosmos is a half-hardy annual, so it needs to be grown from scratch every year. You can't even think about planting it out until frost is a thing of the past, so it's a start off-on-a-windowsill job, and it'll be gone the first night the temperature dips below freezing.

Despite all this tenderness, though, it's still looking gaudy and delightful in gardens at present. Varieties that people I know approve: Sarah Raven's Dazzler, and T&M's verging on the Ku Klux "Purity". But actually most mere mortals buy it in £2.99 trays from Homebase as far as I can make out, with roughly similar results. 

There was talk (a few years ago now though mind) about Cosmos being unreliable : my anecdotal wandering around Ealing evidence says otherwise. But there are two important things to know: shorter plants flower more quickly (so try dwarf varieties); and also that you can strike cuttings and overwinter them if you've got a greenhouse. It's a girl's world you know.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Honey, I Gave the Garden a Fungus

By Emma Townshend

Dsc00368Whilst other bloggers seem to have been having wonderful mycological adventures, I am stuck with rubbish news. I showed this phone picture of my front garden's latest arrivals to British fungi expert Patrick Harding at the weekend over a drink. His diagnosis? "Looks like honey fungus."

Patrick is the author of several notable books on the subject, including a new one called "Mushroom Miscellany" which compiles lots of wonderful fungal folklore - full of wonderful old stories, amazing facts and beautiful photographs too. (And it's less than £10 on Amazon! Come on!) So even though Patrick only saw a little phone picture, I didn't spend too much time doubting his expert opinion.

Luckily I spent the next day going round Kew Gardens in the presence of many horticultural luminaries including Ursula Buchan. Over lunch I quizzed a few people about what to do. The consensus was that I should dig up the fruiting bodies first, and dispose of them without letting the spores spread if possible,then dig out the liquorice-like rhizomorphs that let the plant spread underground. And then, depending on who you talk to, dose with Armillotox (though don't tell anyone you heard that from me).

This afternoon, however, I happened to have Matthew Wilson on the phone, so I asked him what the implications of that heavy chemical dose might be? His problem with the idea: "I just am not really sure that it will do anything. It's like a stronger version of Jeyes Fluid." What I ought to be doing, according to the prince of organic darkness, is just making sure that all the plants nearby are kept as healthy as possible. Honey fungus is everywhere, but it's only stressed plants that will succumb. (This was also what Tony Kirkham was saying when we were at Kew: he has trees there which have had honey fungus for 30 or 40 years, but which are still alive because they are properly looked after.)

Anyway, perhaps I can relax a bit, as long as I get on with the organic bit where I dig the fungus out and dispose of it. Especially given that most of my front garden is planted with Hebes, which apparently don't succumb easily to honey fungus. Just to Chris Beardshaw.

P.S. For those interested in knowing more about the old mushrooms, but who want to go down to the woods with an expert, Patrick runs a range of courses all over Britain during the autumn. He's just finished working out his schedule for 2009, so drop him an email at patrickharding AT hotmail DOT co DOT uk for more details.

Monday, 13 October 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Where's Carol Klein?

420x190_carol_vegBy Emma Townshend

It's not often I take the possibly risky step of criticising a piece that's appeared in our own paper, but I was bemused to find whist checking out the "Green List", a list of Britain's 100 top environmentalists that appeared in yesterday's paper, that only three horticultural greens made the grade.

Gardeners ought to be all over the list, though. For a start, we all know the stuff about growing your own and how it can help to reduce carbon emissions associated with food transport. Eating more home-grown veg also means that we're doing as the UN told us recently, moving over from a more animal-based diet to a more-vegetable laden one. Not only that: in the last twelve months fruit and veg sales have rocketed as the great British public experienced a kind of epiphany, falling in love with everything to do with grow bags, allotments and pinching out.

You wouldn't know this looking at the list though. Okay, in the top ten you'll find Monty Don, coming in at a not-to-be-sniffed-at number 4. But although Monty is about to take over the helm of the Soil Association, I would have said that he is the kind of gardener who cultivates, hmmm, how shall I put it, strong feelings either way. And whilst watching him digging his potatoes is lovely Friday night viewing, I don't think he has been particularly successful in convincing people to switch over to growing their own. In fact I can think of several people I think have been much more important: If I was in charge, Carol Klein would have been top of the list for her inspirational series Grow Your Own, as would Joe Swift whose allotment antics on Gardeners' World have, ahem, made people think even they could manage to grow something.

Further down the list we've got Tim Smit, at number 56. I concede that the Eden Project is a wonderful thing which owes its very existence to Smit's (actually slightly scary) energy, but again if you're looking for the person who's made the most difference to garden-based conservation I reckon the name on the list should be Tony Kirkham from Kew, presenter of The Trees that Made Britain. This programme has been a hymn to native species and their interest and importance: while hothouse gardening is great for schools to learn about the wider world, preserving our own natural heritage goes undervalued and Kirkham has gone a long way towards addressing that. 

Finally at number 67 there's Guy Barter, a face some will know from RHS presentations on climate change. However, if I was going to pick an RHS figure who epitomised that organisation's serious approach to the subject it would have to be Matthew Wilson, author of New Gardening: How to Garden in a Changing Climate. Guy Barter is a nice enough chap but Matthew Wilson is the Mr Darcy of Climate Change, sexing carbon neutrality up to a remarkable extent. There's just no competition. 

Out of all of these omissions it's Carol and Joe's that offends me the most, though. Monty Don is an easy choice and yet his kingdom of corduroy puts loads of people off growing their own, imagining that they would need to sashay about all day long in leather jerkins to achieve anything in a veg bed. We need gardeners like Joe and Carol on TV to make viewers feel it's possible to have a go. They've been criticised for the gentle pop music soundtrack and the incompetent rotovating, but the truth is they make you feel it's something you yourself could attempt. Watching in awe is one thing, but achieves nothing. Watching with a smile on your face is what's required to get you out there the next day, having a go of your own.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Going on about salad, No.3

New_book_coverBy Emma Townshend

Yeah, I'm still going on about salad. Firstly, I hope you all have a copy of this book. I know it's winter, but salad is one of the few fresh things you can just keep on growing and growing over the cold months. And, frankly, what with people going on about the Wall Street Crash this week a little bit too much for my liking, I'm deeply ready for being distracted by the idea of growing something tasty and green that costs about 5p.

Everybody knows that bags of pre-washed salad are one of the biggest rip-offs in the supermarket, but it's hard to get motivated to grow your own. However I think Charles Dowding does a wicked job in this book. 

The secret to winter salad seems to be to get the sowing schedule right. You can do a big lot all in one go, but actually what you need is to sow regularly. This is particularly true in winter because the leaves take much longer to grow, so if you leave a gap of a week in sowing you'll have a three-week gap in picking. And best thing about winter salad: it's so spicy that slugs and snails take no notice of it! HURRRAAYYYYYYYY.

So my question to you now is: what are the tastiest mixes you've tried for winter leaves? I'm growing a really nice red mustard mix from Jekka's Herb Farm and a Seeds of Italy lamb's tongue, but I'd appreciate any tips for, or warnings against other packets.

PS. On Charles D's jobs for the month he says the ninth is the perfect day to get the garlic in if you garden by the light of the moon.

Monday, 6 October 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: In the green heart of New York

Museumpavilion2By Emma Townshend

Two lots of change to the greenscape of New York City this week. One is the announcement of detailed proposals for the Ground Zero site's commemorative garden and pavilion, which have to be finished before any work on commercial buildings can start, by order of the Governor. 

The roof of the new building overhangs two of the original "tree trunk" columns from the Trade Center, and leaf-like veins will pattern the roof. But the most exciting thing for me in terms of making this a place apart is the idea of an oak grove right in the heart of commercial Manhattan. Overlooking pools filled by long fountains, you can't help feeling the right note of meditation and commemoration has been created.

It will take years to finish though. In the meantime, elsewhere in New York, Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has made a spectacular set of lights for Madison Square Park that are set off by heart-rate sensors. Light will dance along amongst the trees, expected to attract up to half a million visitors to the park. "It's not like a disco," though, warns the artist, before saying he's aiming for something a little more Steve Reich than Steve Wright.

And if you can't get to Manhattan between the 24 October and November 17 but London seems doable, Lozano-Hemmer is bringing a similar light show to Trafalgar Square from the 14 November until the 23.