Friday, June 16, 2017

Can we have a sensible discussion about Roundup?

Roundup. Incredibly useful stuff. You've got to plant an area up, but how do you get rid of the existing vegetation, specifically all the persistent perennial weeds like couch, ryegrass, bindweed etc.? Or if you are trying to establish a native wildflower meadow mix on a site dominated by pasture grass? Or deal with Japanese knotweed? Or deal with a persistent weed problem which is threatening to overwhelm an existing, perhaps otherwise very successful planting? Or cope with a weed problem deeply rooted into paving or other hard surfaces? Roundup is usually the answer.

For years, since 1974 in fact, Roundup has been an essential part of the toolkit for the landscape and horticulture industries, and increasingly for nature conservation workers too. Now, in the European Union at least, it appears threatened. It needs to be re-registered by EU rules - a process required for all agrochemicals, and designed to ensure that all materials used are regularly reviewed for safety and environmental impact. Re-registration appears to be being constantly delayed. 

There is an incredible amount of hypocrisy round Roundup, and indeed many other agrochemicals. Well-known designers hoe their 'organic' plots in magazine articles and TV progammes but out of the limelight specify herbicide clearance for many of their clients' gardens. A lot of us love to eat in organic 'artisan' restaurants, buy organic food when it suits us, but carry on buying conventional produce the rest of the time. Conventional agriculture, for all its faults, does a remarkably good job of feeding us, on a steadily diminishing global stock of arable land. 

After a very long time in use, there have been countless studies showing Roundup to be, ok, not something you'd pour over your cornflakes, but pretty well harmless to humans. Then a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer came up which claimed a cancer link. The organic lobby, who having ignored the science on the active ingredient glyphosate for years, grabbed this with both hands and ran with it. Only the other day I read a Facebook posting from somebody describing how she accosted a neighbour and accused him of poisoning the neighbourhood. Now there is a story, see here, about how unpublished evidence of glyphosate's safety has been ignored. The cancer scare should perhaps have never seen the light of day, and a lot of unnecessary controversy and worry avoided.

For us in the garden and landscape industry there are two main questions here. One is the safety of this very widely used chemical, specifically of glyphosate, its active ingredient. The other is, given that its safety record has actually been remarkably good over 42 years on the market, why is re-registering so politically fraught?

It is always difficult for those of us outside a narrow scientific circle to really assess whether a chemical is safe or not. Scientific and medical research uses a jargon which can be impenetrable and rarely gives the clear answers we want. Such research is often passed on to us by journalists, who rarely have any better understanding of science jargon than we do, and often have little interest in doing so. There is a further problem, which is a political muddying of the waters. Environmental campaign groups have long had it in for all agrochemicals, and their well-funded press departments are all too quick to fling out press releases on the latest research findings giving their own point of view. Journalists overwhelmingly react to these, rather than research on their own, they written in plain English, and inevitably take up no more than one side of A4.

Every now and again, I try to take a look at what the scientists are saying, and I have a chat with a colleague who is a plant sciences prof. and does work for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. What I see and hear is not, to be honest, hugely worrying. You can check it out for yourself on wikipedia – which gives a good dispassionate summary with lots of references. I personally use Roundup, mostly on nursery plots, for which I find it incredibly useful.

Roundup's being in the dock is largely political, an example of how the garden and landscape world is getting blow-back from other, bigger controversies. Many environmentalists hate Roundup because it was invented by Monsanto, an American multinational. It is very hard to have a sensible conversation about this company with many people, largely because of the genetically-modified crops issue. Has there been a single negative impact on human health because of GM crops? No. So, why the almost-hysterical opposition? The sheer irrationality of much of the debate has seeped into and poisoned sensible discussion of so much else. Of course need to discuss how and when we use agrochemicals in the managed landscape, and to continually review this. But we need to look at the evidence and take it from there.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Moving on?

“You should have seen the garden last week” is a comment often heard from the lips of gardeners. In fact it has become something of a joke, about nature's unwillingness to perform on cue, or the inevitable tendency of gardeners to express dissatisfaction with their creations. How much sadder however is “you should have seen the garden last year” or worse still, “... several years ago”.

I have, in my time, been to more than a few gardens which are past their best, and not in a good way. Certain gardens just seem to decay gracefully and still maintain their dignity. Others though decay badly, and sadly. I particularly notice this with gardens which are the result of their owners overextending themselves and being unable to keep up with the maintenance of their own creations. Or being unable to downsize and adjust to changing circumstances.

So, this is one reason, amongst many, that we are planning to move on from Montpelier Cottage. We have been there for twelve years and achieved a lot, and I have certainly learnt a lot. But it is time to move on. I have always seen my personal garden making as much as a process of learning and experimentation as anything else, and I now rather feel that the learning process is plateauing out. There is so much else to be gained from being somewhere else, with different potentials and challenges of soil and climate.

Herefordshire is pretty wet, has very fertile soils and an increasingly we are all having a longer growing season. Stuff grows furiously well, and it has been a great place to grow perennials and learn about their habits and cycles of growth. Unfortunately the weeds benefit too, and I now feel that I spend so much time weeding, or paying others to weed, that it is becoming rather counter-productive. Part of what I have done here however, has been to set up some trial plots looking at low-maintenance weed-resistant planting. They have been very successful and I can confidently say I can now design and recommend plant combinations that will do this. However I am also looking for people who might be able to take on some of the plot combinations for further evaluation. Any volunteers?

The proviso with the weed-resistant perennial combinations is that they are rather restricted in the number of species they use: so these combinations are great for clients such as landscape designers but unsatisfying for the gardener who wants to grow lots of different plants. A few ornamental perennials really do work together to suppress the incredibly effective unwanted plants we have to cope with: mostly pasture grasses, creeping buttercup, nettles etc. However, like many gardeners I want to grow stuff I can't at the moment, or cannot, without a great deal of (mostly weeding) effort.

Now, Jo's daughter and family are decamping/emigrating to Portugal. Total disgust with Brexit, fears for the future of our country, realising that the open society we all fondly thought we were in is in fact something else. A chance for the children to learn another language and get European passports. We think we might join them, and are provisionally thinking of renting a property somewhere most probably in central/northern Portugal next year, as a first step. Maybe a garden there? The sunnier climate is an attraction, but one without a severe water shortage. The country feels like a backwater which is beginning to go good places, whereas I fear Britain is at the top of a long slippery slope towards becoming a backwater. Interesting things are beginning to happen in garden and landscape design both there and in Spain. Some of the new landscaping one can see in Portuguese towns and cities is amazingly good and cutting edge.

I went through several months of feeling very sad about leaving where we are, but the frustrations of trying to keep the garden at an acceptable level with my limited (physical and financial) resources have driven me more and more towards thinking positive about leaving. One pull factor is the very rich flora of Iberia. Yes, I know I complain endlessly about eucalyptus in Portugal, but having just come back from two weeks travelling around (Picos de Europa down to Beixa Alta) I can only look forward to being somewhere much more botanically exciting than Britain: there are c. 7500 flowering plant species here, compared to Britain's 1500. There is a great deal of stuff there which could be good garden and landscape plants. I've always been attracted to the trialling of new plants for cultivation. Not the old-fashioned 'plant hunting' but something much more systematic – looking for species to fill particular functional or aesthetic niches, particularly those which might perform well in drought-stressed or dry summer climates.

For now, this year will be the last one to be able to see the garden. Let me know if you want to come and visit, remember we do B&B. Also, come the autumn there may be plants to dig up if you want to give them a new home. Or indeed a property to buy if anyone is interested!

I shall be very interested in hearing from people already garden making in Portugal or Spain.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

RHS Shows - A Requiem for a great institution

I've taken some time to get this post up, seems ages that I was down in London to do a lecture for the Royal Horticultural Society Spring Show. I'm surprised that I have never done a blog about RHS shows before as they have been a big part of my life, and have been for many other garden people, but unfortunately the way things have gone they won't be for a younger generation. So this posting is a bit of a requiem for what used to be one of London's great institutions.

This particular show was a joint effort with the Orchid Society of Great Britain (quaint that, we used to be Great Britain but at some point we became the rather anodyne United Kingdom; soon of course we probably won't be that either). The Early Spring Show always was a joint enterprise, as there never used to be an enormous amount out in March, but a lot of orchids were looking at their best. This year, much to the disgust of many RHS members, the show in the 'Old Hall' was run separately by the OSGB and everyone, including RHS members, had to pay to go in; traditionally membership entitled you to go to every show. Much grumbling at the gate.

It was a fab show, but then orchids are pretty fab anyway. What was interesting was to see how orchid growing has changed over the years. It is now far more democratic, although the social changes that have happened over the years have been in play for a long time. Once the preserve of the very wealthy, orchid growing has come down the social scale nicely over the years. Centrally-heated houses, cheap methods of mass-production, mass tourism to Thailand where people can see the things in windowboxes - all must have helped.

And one of the most intriguing aspects of the democratisation of orchid growing was here, the Writhlington School Orchid Project, a truly wonderful enterprise, especially since it is at a state school not a private one. Read about it here. It's a wonderful example of integrating hobby orchid growing with science teaching.

Anyway what I really wanted to talk about was not so much orchids but the RHS London shows. In the dim and distant past they used to be every two weeks and were even known to a previous generation as "the fortnightlies". My first awareness of them was my dad going up to London in the 1970s and coming back with catalogues of rhododendrons and pieris and all the other things which flourish on the acid sandstone of Sevenoaks where we lived. Now my dad used to hate London, so they must have been pretty good, and him a very keen gardener, to get him up there. By the time I had started going, they were down to one a month.

By the time I was running my own nursery, showing at the London shows was the obvious thing to do. So from 1988 to 1994 I used to show and sell plants for probably around six shows a year. There was always a fantastic atmosphere, a great way to get to know other growers, see new plants, meet all the top people in British gardening and make friends. Some of the people I met then are still really good friends. The thing I shall always remember was the smell as soon as you entered one of the two halls the RHS owned, a combined mix of flowers and foliage with, I suppose, an undertone of potting compost. You'd spend a day setting up, helped by whoever you knew in London you could rope in to help you. They you'd sell plants and catalogues and answer questions frantically for two days, before breaking it all up and shoving it back, minus the plants you had sold, into your van and the drive back down to - in my case, Bristol.

Shows would generally be in one hall, the New Hall, a rather splendid Art Deco edifice with a fantastic high arching ceiling and wonderful light. If they were really big shows - The Early Spring and the Great Autumn, they would be in the Old Hall and the New Hall. They generally ran for two days and were a great opportunity for people who either lived in London or would come in to London regularly, to buy plants, see what was new, meet people, use the RHS library and generally hang out. Traditionally it was the wealthy, and often quite aristocratic, folk who would have a London house or flat, as well as a country 'seat', who came. They would buy plants which would end up in their garden in the country. But they were also fantastic for people who live in London, particularly for those who were just beginning to get excited about plants and gardening. As my life began to turn from running a nursery to writing, I would quite often send people I met in publishing off to an RHS show. They always came back energised and delighted.

Sadly though, the RHS realised, around 15 years ago that they could make more money selling space in the halls to computer and antique fairs, or renting them out for exams. This coincided with the greater expense and difficulty involved in driving a van into central London, parking it outside for the duration of your setting-up, finding somewhere to park it the rest of the time you were in town, finding somewhere to stay, etc, etc. The number of nurseries began to drop off, and as they diminished, the visitor numbers began to drop too. It became a vicious circle. Many London RHS members were suspicious that the RHS were trying to kill off the shows, so they could make more money renting the halls out. There were accusations that they were not making much effort to market them. The sad thing was that as the shows began to die, the great boom in vegetable growing took off, and the RHS was no longer in a position to attract a new, and younger audience. In 2011, the RHS announced that they had leased the New Hall (now the called the Lawrence Hall) to Westminster School for 999 years, and it would be used for flower shows only four times a year. No doubt they will do good things with the £18million they got for the deal (which makes you think, what kind of school is it that has that money to spend ! the only person I ever knew who went to Westminster ended up joining the International Marxist Group - I remember him swanking around in one of those combat jackets the IRA used to wear). BUT to lose your London base, the opportunity to present gardening to one of the world's wealthiest and most dynamic cities, seems to many of us like selling the family silver for a mess of pottage. (for non-English readers, that means a bowl of watery soup). The loss of the shows has been a great sadness for many.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

William Robinson - a reputation (un)deserved?

I groan inwardly everytime someone mentions William Robinson and 'The Wild Garden', which he wrote in 1871. His name is all-too often mentioned as if he were some secular saint – such as the 'father' of ecological planting.

I'm minded to write about Robinson as over the weekend we were at the very successful Gardens Illustrated magazine Festival at Westonbirt School – once the house of which the famous arboretum was the garden. People kept on mentioning “the anemones... you've got to go and see the anemones”. So off we went to see the anemones. We were greeted by one of the most spectacular spring flower naturalisings I have ever seen. Anemone blanda in various shades of blue, as well as white over a very extensive area in grass under a high tree canopy. Kerzillions of them!

I have seen this before, on a much smaller scale, at Bryans Ground garden in Herefordshire, where they could not have been there for much more than 20 years – interestingly I seem to remember the same blue to white colour palette. The Westonbirt plants must have been there decades, and in fact I suspect since the early 20th century. The species is one of those, very similar to our native A. nemorosa, which do naturalise in humus-rich soils in light shade, but take their time over it. Once established however, they seem to take off at quite a rate - it was obvious that there were seedlings in the grass around the main clump. The key thing is that grass growth is light and weak – suffering competition from the shade of the tree and from its roots, and making it easier for anemones to flourish. Primroses, cyclamen and small bulbs like chionodoxas can naturalise in this situation too.
This wonderful display can probably be traced back to the ideas of William Robinson, a prolific garden writer of the late 19th and early 20th century. The idea of naturalising bulbs is one of the many ideas he puts forward in his book The Wild Garden. It certainly worked for daffodils, which take off in grass amazingly well, although to be fair it could have been Gertrude Jekyll who thought of this idea. The lifespans of these garden greats overlapped, and they were friends from the 1870s onwards.
Not much else of Robinson's ideas in The Wild Garden have had such success, although it is worth mentioning two others which have taken off: Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed. “Magnificent” landscape plants, according to him. Which indeed they are. Except that we now know more about them. The truth of the matter is that in the late 19th century there was no understanding of what we would now call 'ecology' or that non-native plants might spread and become problems. The idea of the 'invasive alien' would have been, well – alien!

Robinson suggested planting garden plants in wild surroundings and watching native species and exotic one mingle and spread. Very few did. British grass, whose photosynthetic maximum efficiency is achieved at below 10C, suffocates most interlopers very quickly, which is why we do not have much of a problem with invasive aliens. This is not something Robinson would have understood. Most of what he must have planted out, or which others planted out at his behest, must have disappeared pretty quickly.

Robinson wrote The Wild Garden at a time when he was doing an amazing amount of writing, on many different aspects of gardening. He wrote it as a polemic, not as a result of experience. He wrote it without really knowing what he was talking about in other words. His rhetorical style however still fires people up, at the Westonbirt event I mentioned, a member of the audience reported how he had been greatly inspired by reading him. There isn't necessarily a contradiction here, a lot of radical ideas have a hare-brained content and a workable content - it is up to the pragmatists, experimenters and 'doer's to see what works and what doesn't.

Robinson was a bombastic character who got into terrible rows with other writers, although sometimes I think these were deliberately stoked up, like the one with Reginald Blomfield over formal gardens. He denounced bedding plants in no uncertain terms but in fact never stopped using them himself. He comes across as someone who jumped on and off his soapbox to sell his magazine and books and well aware of the power of publicity. Like many such people, he did a great deal to move things forward, shake up complacent thinking and challenge received wisdom. His prescriptions however were often contradictory and not necessarily what we would today call 'evidence-based'. Take him with a pinch of salt in other words.


Find out more here:

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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Educating gardeners and designers part two

More thoughts on garden education

Following on from my last post, more thoughts on how we learn stuff. I've lost count of the number of people I have interviewed over the years about their gardens, mostly for magazine articles. First few times I did it, it was quite nerve-wracking, as no-one knew who I was, and sometimes it was quite posh folk, and I couldn't help feeling that they were probably thinking “who is this young whippersnapper?”. This was the period around 1990 btw. Anyway, I usually established credibility pretty early on in an interview, as I knew my plants. There were some difficult moments though, and I actually was thrown out of the odd garden, despite having a magazine feature lined up. I will tell more in the memoirs.

What I actually wanted to say was that the vast majority of the people I have interviewed picked up their love of gardening from a relative, if not a parent, then a granny, an uncle, or a family friend. In most cases they will have picked up knowledge and skills too. In the past most garden knowledge would have been passed down this route, or professionally, from master to apprentice. Enthusiastic amateurs could always pick up more from books and magazines, or from local gardening clubs. Nowadays of course, the knowledge content of books and magazines has dropped considerably, so it is much more difficult to pick up much this way, as noted before.

So where do people turn to? Not the telly obviously, as Gardeners' World and any other TV offering is pretty basic stuff, and has much less practical content than it used to; almost everyone I talk to about the programme complains about it. Garden clubs and societies are one obvious source and must account for their continued popularity. Some of them may be a bit of an excuse for an over 60-s (yikes, I'm 59) get-together (and why not) but every meeting is always built around a speaker. And such gatherings are a great way for the less-experienced to meet the more so.

There was a worry a few years ago that online forums would displace the garden clubs, and to some extent there may well have been some erosion of their position, particularly for more specialist societies. Would be interesting to hear from somebody in the Alpine Garden Society if this is the case. But such fora are probably adding to the ability of people to learn more, and to ask questions and get answers from sources they probably would not have done in pre-internet days (doesn't that sound like a long time ago!).

I have a background in adult education, so this is something that interests me deeply. I used to teach English as a Second Language, firstly to Vietnamese refugees (the boat people), then to every other ethnic minority that ever showed up in Bristol (I'll have to write about this one day, some amazing stories and insights into the lives of others, as well as a sneak preview of Islamic fundamentalism). On our course we were taught that to be effective what people learnt had to be internalised. You can teach someone some information or how to do something and they can go off and do it, but unless they understand why they are doing it, they will be stuck in a dogmatic and repetitive rut, always going through the same procedure, and unable to vary it. This is what old-fashioned 'learning by rote' achieved. However the learner who has understood the underlying rationale for a course of action will be able to make allowances for different circumstances, think of improvements, adapt the procedure for different outcomes etc. 

For some years now I have run a very successful workshop, called with my rather mad whimsical sense of humour, 'The Rabbits' Eye View' (serious sub-title: Understanding Long-term Plant Performance). I don't think I have ever written a post about it. Should do soon. Anyway – the whole point of this is to provide information that empowers students to go off and look at plants (often at ground level, hence the rabbit reference), and then make up their own minds about how they will perform in years to come. 

What I'm leading up to is to give a bit of a plug for a course I do on MyGardenSchool
which covers much of the material we do on the Rabbit's Eye View course - Planting Design with Perennials. Students are encouraged to go off and take pictures of plants in ways which will help them understand patterns of growth, as well as deal with some basic design issues. Giving people tools as opposed to just saying “this one does such and such and this one blah, blah”. Part of the thinking behind this is that as so many parts of the world develop their own distinct garden cultures, using locally native plants, the traditional garden flora seems increasingly limited. 'New' plants are also of course something of an unknown quantity; everyone may agree some wildling is 'garden-worthy' but there will be so much to learn about it. Having a framework for interpreting its growth habit and lifecycle is vitally useful if we are to use it effectively. The 'Rabbits' workshop is intended to provide a way we can 'read the plant'.

Working with a designer presents other challenges. How do you explain a designer's work so that people can emulate or learn from it? I have for worked with Piet Oudolf for several years on just this. He is, like many artists, not analytical about his work – he just does it. It can be frustratingly difficult to pin down clear concepts about what he does that can be spelled out to others. I've made a pretty good try at it over the years, and worked out how t o do it for books. Last autumn I teamed up with MyGardenSchool to produce some teaching videos with him. All a bit of a leap in the dark, but we got some good footage, and they have been reviewed well by Gardenista

The course is available here – there are assignments, which I comment on. Here again we are up against the learning by rote danger. In the videos Piet shows how he selects plants on the basis of various characteristics based on plant visual structure. As an exercise we ask students to make their own suggestions for plants with these characteristics. That's the first stage. The more imaginative will go off and create some categories of their own. 

Yes, you can take up Piet's ideas and use the same plants in the same categories and make some Piet Oudolf-esque plantings. Many of these will be very good, some of them will use the same ingredients but mix them in very different ways – so no-one who knows their Calamagrostis from their Achnatherum could possibly mistake it for the master's work. Most let's face it, will make 'also-rans'. That's not necessarily a bad thing – the world is a better place for having them, let's face it, there are very few innovators, and most of our cultural landscape is made up of copycat also-rans. We do the same thing when we do a Delia Smith recipe (Americans read Martha Stewart). How many of us create a new dish every time we cook?

Anyone following the course in a climate zone where the late-season perennials and grasses that define the Oudolf look do not thrive will be forced to innovate, to find a different range of plants to fit the structure categories we talk about on the course. In many cases they'll have to invent some categories of their own to reflect the aesthetics of the local garden-worthy flora. And this where the internalised learning should really take off – understanding that the Oudolf look is not just about using certain plants or even plants with certain shapes but concentrating on long-season structure, and developing a design language that articulates and uses that structure. 

So far on the course, we've had people from all over, and what will be most exciting is seeing what people do with the information in climate zones with completely different ranges of plants.

Finally, check out the Garden Masterclasses I'm helping put on this summer: eight venues across the UK, 20 tutors, 13 events.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Teaching gardening skills - the decline stops here!

Two conversations recently about the terrible state of horticultural education in Britain: both with former teachers at (former) horticultural colleges. Another reason for national shame – the world's leading garden nation (well probably!) has now hardly any college courses teaching horticulture. As for 'adult education', run by local councils, this was something we used to be really good at, but it began to run into problems back in the 1980s, and then be starved of funding from the 1990s onwards. It is now effectively dead. 'Lifestyle' publishing stressing design over gardenING. End result is a whole generation seems to be growing up not knowing how to prune, take cuttings, grow their own bedding plants.

I feel more and more concerned and interested in the whole issue of 'garden education'. I write as someone who has worked in adult education in the dim and distantly youthful past, and socially I move in a world where there are a lot of professional educators. As a writer and 'communicator' I am fascinated by information and how you present it, in particular the challenge of how you break down really complex or counter-intuitive information and get it across. I really feel its part of my mission now.

Teaching gardening is a complicated business, which is perhaps one reason why I find it so fascinating. It is a mix of art, craft and science. Art means creativity, and beyond the basic growing of lettuces in straight lines, almost any gardening involves some creativity. By craft I mean the application of a set of skills, something which through constant repetition, you get better at. When people talk about science however, what they often mean is technology, a trial and error process of making something work. Understanding some basic plant science however, does help a lot – it enables you to take some acquired knowledge and then apply it to new situations.

OK, that's enough definition defining. One of the wonderful things about gardening is the way that leads people who often don't think of themselves as artistic into creative activity. Just how do you set out the begonias you just bought from the garden centre? Now that you have got the clippers out, just how are you going to shape that hedge? Shall I buy those screaming pink lythrums and put them next to the yellow rudbeckia? Traditionally gardening was essentially a craft activity, the perfecting of skills which could be applied in more or less creatively, depending on the person. Most would clip a hedge to a straight line, but those who felt like it could turn their skills to castellations or curves. Artistry and creativity have always been like optional add-ons; more or less as mood and confidence allow.

The last thirty odd years however have seen a 'design revolution' which has completely turned the craft/art equation around. The creativity of many gardeners (very often women, traditionally rather marginalised) has been given a boost, but at the expense of the passing on of the craft skills necessary for quality garden maintenance. Gardening media have focussed on 'getting the look' rather than 'how to do it', and have simply not been transmitting the nitty-gritty practical knowledge. We now face the situation of gardeners 'getting the look' but being unable to keep it. And no use turning to professional gardeners, because there are not many of them, and so many of the semi-skilled ones are precisely that, capable of doing the basics but with no real depth of skill or plant knowledge; they can mow, clip and weed, but cant' prune properly, propagate or train.

We, in Britain, don't do too badly with 'garden schools', privately-run institutions which put on day classes on various aspects of gardening, and garden design. These to some extent make up the slack left by the loss of council adult education. Except that most of them are in the south and south-east of the country and are marketed at, and priced for, older and reasonably well-off people. If you are a youngster trying to get into gardening these days, or find out more, the opportunities are greatly reduced.

What do the 'garden schools' offer? A lot actually, up to a point. Getting big name speakers is part of the appeal, so there is an opportunity to learn from real expertise and knowledge. However, the quality of teaching is pretty basic, so basic that 'teaching' had better go in inverted commas – it's actually lecturing. Most of the speakers at these events give a good lecture, and that's that. There is often little 'active learning', where participants have to do things; the design-orientated courses seem to be ones most likely to include an active participation element. However good a lecturer is, they cease to be good after about an hour or so – the human mind only has a limited ability to concentrate, and after a while begins to switch off. Another activity is needed to refresh the mind and preferably, to enable information acquired to be put into practice.

There are garden lecturers who seem to think that showing slides and talking to people for hours at a time is 'education'. Sorry, its not - its being 'talked at'. I remember one experience, in the US, where a speaker lectured an audience for two hours solid in a temperature of over 30C, allowing the prisoners a brief break and then launching into another hour. The few gardening conferences (all in the US) annoy me too, wall to wall lectures but no conferring.

The trick is to design events where participants can do something: make lists of plants, analyse plans, take some cuttings, discuss a plant selection, prune a rose bush. Its not always easy, as venues often don't have enough space or facilities to allow this. But this active engagement is vital, if information gained is actually to be retained and internalised.

Which, in short, is why Annie Guilfoyle and I have started the Garden Masterclasses. 13 events and 20 tutors across 8 venues, in the South-West, South Wales, South East, Cotswolds, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Scotland.
Find out more here and come and join us:

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Would you trust a seed swap seed?

Its February, so it must be seed swap time again!
Seed swaps have been growing in popularity for some years now. The best known one in Britain is Brighton's Seedy Sunday. The events are an excuse for a get-together for gardeners apart from anything else, and since gardening often is a rather solitary activity, this seems a jolly good idea. Very often the seed swap is just a peg on which to hang the event, with most attention and energy spent on going to talks, eating, networking, buying stuff from stalls etc.
But what about the idea of the seed swap itself?
Basically the idea is that you save seed from a good variety and then package it up and offer it to other people, so you are sharing your good variety. But why do this when the range of seed available commercially is so good?

Promotors of seed swaps like to portray themselves as keepers of genetic diversity, safeguarding old varieties from extinction and keeping that diversity going for the next generation. Commercial seed producers are generally cast as agents of wicked corporations which are trying to limit the range of what we grow, so they can monopolise it. Particular venom is reserved for F1 seed varieties, which will not breed true and are therefore 'one use only'.

Seed swaps tend to concentrate on vegetable varieties. Given that such an epic range of vegetable seed is now available commercially, whereas the range of ornamentals: annuals, perennials etc, has actually gone into decline, I would be more likely to see myself visiting a seed swap to get interesting ornamental varieties. The emphasis, and the undoubted moral ardour is however very much on the veg, so that is what I'll concentrate on.

Sorry to pour cold water on what sounds like such a good idea, but I'd be pretty wary about getting my seed from a seed swap myself. Here's why.

Is it what is says on the packet?
With the best will in the world, it is very easy to muddle seed up. I have just been informed by a correspondent that DEFRA (the British government department for agriculture and the environment) recently did a survey of online seed sources, and 60% was the wrong species, i.e. not just another variety of carrot, but beetroot instead!

How has it been kept?
When you buy a packet of commercially-produced seed, you can be 100% sure it has been harvested and stored in optimum conditions. You can never be sure with seed swap seed, where its been. Seeds deteriorate if conditions aren't right. Damp shed? Overheated room? This season's harvest, or last years?

Local does not mean best.
One of the 'facts' touted around the seed swap movement is that vegetable seed from locally grown plants will be adapted to local conditions and therefore grow better. This is complete rubbish. Nearly all the veg we grow have what is known as a wide ecological amplitude – they'll grow well across an enormously wide range of conditions. Most of us (in the UK) will have noticed how the Italian company Franchi sell their (very reasonably priced) seed really widely now. Does this mean that their vegetable varieties will do less well here because this is not Italy? No. And in many cases the varieties are the same anyway.
Even if vegetable seed could meaningfully evolve towards being better adapted to local conditions this would take many generations to achieve.
The only possible exceptions might be those veg which are right on the borderline of being viable in the local climate. Tomato or aubergine seed from somebody who has grown the plants outside at a northerly latitude is going to be in with a chance, at least.

Genetic Drift
Someone has a veg variety they like, so they keep the seed, and sow it again next year, and the year after that, and so on. Every year it will actually change slightly, so that after a few generations it may have lost the special characteristics it had that made it special. Commercial growers ruthlessly 'rogue' their plots of plants, removing any which do not 100% match the original. They also operate on a large scale, so minimising the distorting impact of the odd rogue plant. Anyone seed saving on a small scale will be growing a relatively small number of plants, so if you are saving from ten plants, one of which is a bit dodgy, then that'll be 10% of your seed harvest off-kilter.
When growing veg in the garden, there is a strong tendency to harvest the good plants, so saving seed from the remainder. With plants where you cannot 'have you cake and eat it', like lettuces or carrots, saving seed from one's own plants might actually mean you are consistently saving from inferior plants.

Saving varieties from extinction
Given what I have just said, the problems in maintaining a variety's integrity on an amateur basis can be pretty major, so I don't see seed saving and seed swaps as doing anything very much towards maintaining genetic diversity.

Seed companies of course maintain considerable seed diversity, but that isn't much help to anyone with a small plant breeding business . There is a very valid criticism of the seed business - that they have a monopoly, and is probably one of the reasons that we (in Europe or North America) see very little small-scale or independent vegetable seed selection and breeding. The exceptions are tomatoes and chillis, where there seems to be a very healthy market in amateur or small-scale breeder varieties. See Simpsons Seeds.

The accusation is sometimes made that all commercial veg seed breeding is for the big growers, and the amateur grower has to do with the crumbs from the table. Well, actually the demands of all growers are pretty similar: strong-growing, reliably producing crops tolerant of a wide range of conditions and pest and disease resistant. It is the latter factor which makes modern breeding so superior to 'heritage' or 'heirloom' varieties – so much breeding effort now goes into producing varieties that will stay healthy without using pesticides. This is why the statement on one seed swapping site that “It keeps seed making in the garden and out of the laboratory” is so daft. If you want to live in the Middle Ages, that's fine, but most of us would like to move on.

F1 seeds are presumably one of the 'laboratory' crops. For many of these, there is probably little point in us growing them, as their advantages are mostly for commercial growers. BUT for the latest in disease-resistant varieties, or sweet corn or courgettes for cooler climates, then there is little option – F1s maybe more expensive, but their advantages can be well worth the extra cost. The prejudice against F1s is little short of ridiculous, a sort of spill-over from the rather hysterical opposition to GM breeding, a technology which by the way has yet to show any of the ill-effects that were predicted. 
Much of the discourse around the seed swap movement reflects a kind of 'small is beautiful' romanticism. There seems to be a widespread belief that evil multinational corporations are hell-bent on forcing governments to ban varieties, forcing us into a kind of vegetable totalitarianism. In reality, the range of varieties has risen dramatically over the last twenty years, partly because more mainstream commercial varieties are available to the amateur, the expansion in the range of heritage varieties available, and the increasing interest in trying varieties from other countries. Above all, we are more adventurous and are demanding and fussier consumers, so the trade in vegetable seed has inevitably reflected this. There is room for the small producer as well, the sort of place that sells obscure varieties that probably wouldn't sell well from the supermarket. For these, such as RealSeeds, we should be grateful. But if you want to see the full range of commercially-bred varieties and the opportunity to buy them in whatever quantity you want, try Moles Seeds. Better to spend your money with a proper seed merchant than risk all the unknown factors of a seed swap.Anyone selling seed commercially will generally have some sort of government certification, which in the words of one small grower, “if you buy from a registered merchant then you will get good seed, that germinates, of the variety on the packet.” So there. 

And gardeners should get together to meet each other anyway, even if it only to swap seed catalogues.