Meanwhile, back at the Potwell Inn.

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Twenty years ago I’d have thought this was an unholy mess – purple sprouting broccoli, sweetcorn, courgette and nasturtium all growing through each other in a kind of uncontrolled wilderness.  Today? – well, today it seems the most natural thing in the world. Here are some more glimpses of the allotment, photographed today –

This year we made the policy decision to sow companion plants out of curiosity mainly – would they help?  Would they reduce pest attacks? blah blah blah …… what we realized in the end is that our plants are happier, much happier,  and the whole allotment looks more like a work of art and less like a military display. We’ve had blackfly but it was quickly wiped out by a large population of voracious ladybird larvae.  We’ve seen a few asparagus beetle larvae but, by and large, they haven’t damaged the plants. Cabbage White butterflies haven’t penetrated the brassica netting, flea beetle had a brief munch at the radishes but were not really a problem.  We can only compare our own allotment with the immediate neighbours, and it seems clear that stress – be it through weather or lack of nutrients – seems to weaken plants and so (surprise surprise) the strongest and least stressed plants don’t get attacked.  As for birds, we combined netting the most vulnerable plants like brassicas and the Apiaceae , with providing access to the ones that love to eat grubs slugs and snails and – later in the season – seeds. Because we’ve scattered so many pollinator attractors around the plot, the increase in yield makes up for the extra pests. Tagetes, Nasturtium  and Calendula function as repellants and diversions, beer traps get the slugs the birds and (hopefully hedgehogs) miss, and there are many other speculative flowers spread around the beds.

You can either treat growing food in an allotment as a battle or a party.  Our gamble seems to suggest that nature prefers a party.

As soon as we got back from Cornwall we unloaded the bags, had a cup of tea and went straight out to the allotment.  Our youngest son had watered while we were away and everything looked – cheerful! – we were particularly pleased to see that the tomatoes that had had a pretty bad start in life, were going tremendously well and had their first trusses in flower.  Madame had simply hacked off the straggly tops of a number of bush tomatoes and they too had thrown out side shoots and they too were going well. And so within twenty minutes we’d gathered potatoes, carrots and peas and set off back home.

The peas deserve a paragraph all to themselves. We’ve grown three varieties this year – we overwintered Douce Provence and then sowed Alderman and Kelveden Wonder in the spring.  The Douce Provence were early and perfectly good; the Kelvedon Wonder aren’t quite ready yet but last night we harvested some of the Alderman.  This is a heritage variety and really does better on beansticks as it will grow to over 5 feet. The favour of the Alderman was soooooo good – I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a better fresh pea.  If you’re used to the frozen ones then you would probably think this is a different vegetable in a blind tasting. The pods were long and full of larger peas that were so sweet and tender they only really needed steaming for about a minute. Bliss! – and there are still many more to eat. Our food culture insists that it’s best to have our favourites available the year round (at hideous cost to the environment), but the allotment suggests that the greatest pleasures are the seasonal ones, the asparagus, the new potatoes, the apple off the tree and, of course the peas and beans and all the rest. The fact that it’s a fugitive pleasure seems to make it all the more intense – every dish is a holiday romance on a plate!

Back home then to deal with the Mugwort and the Pellitory of the Wall I’d gathered as medicinal herbs in Cornwall. It seemed to me that the best way to deal with them, given that I know next-to-nothing about how to use them, is to dry them and store them until I am a lot better informed.  Even drying them turned ut to be something of a challenge, and much weariness of the eyes later I decided to dry them at 45C in the oven overnight.  I would be able to see from the results whether they had lost their colour  from overheating.  And so they spent the night in the oven and emerged more or less unscathed at lunchtime today.

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But during our morning session at the allotment today, Madame discovered a pretty well perfect specimen of Greater Plantain in the hotbed and that too will be added to the household pharmacopeia via the oven (and a great deal more study). Needless to say I shall be careful in my consumption of these remedies and not let the gathering of herbs exceed my botanical knowledge.

And so, without wanting to bang on about it too much, the natural world, upon which we rely absolutely, is abundant, glorious and healing.  Shame you couldn’t possibly say that about our politicians.  Were it not for the fact that I’m firmly attached to democracy I might go with the graffiti I saw years ago on a wall –

Don’t vote, it only encourages them!

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Potwell Inn – the return!

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Sadly our week in Cornwall is almost over. We’ve walked somewhere in the region of thirty miles, identified no end of new plants (to us) including one (subject to the opinion of the County Recorder) that isn’t on the vice-county list. I’ve slept with a bunch of Mugwort next to my nose, in pursuit of lucid dreams – I certainly slept well, but I would need to talk to my analyst about their lucidity.

We’ve found moths, butterflies and birds that we’d not seen before and I managed to keep the blog going without an internet connection at the price of my entire data allowance. Life is good then.

I mentioned the multi sensory nature of field botany previously, but didn’t really explain what I meant by it.

The visual is obviously top of the list because we normally see things before we do anything else. Colours draw our attention as does anything unusually tall.

But touch too is diagnostic- today I was distinguishing between three kinds of Cleavers – Goose Grass or whatever. Proper Cleavers has rough stalks whereas the other two didn’t. Of the others, one was white flowered and the other yellow flowered, so that’s probably Hedge Bedstraw and Lady’s Bedstraw respectively. Square stalks too can point you in the right direction.

Smell – well try Hedge Woundwort for starters. Hemlock has a ‘mousy’ smell, dill, fennel, Ground Ivy, Mint, Elderflower- and many more – all easily identifiable when you crush the leaves or flowers in your fingers and smell them.

Taste – well yes – I’ll often taste things as long as I’m quite sure they’re not poisonous. It’s not always pleasant but you can often place a plant in the right family by taste.

Finally there’s sound. Try Yellow Rattle, for instance. OK after that I’m a bit stumped for sound, but you get my point I hope, identifying plants means pressing all the senses into service.

Why is this important? Well it seems to me we’re in a race to preserve not just rare species but the ordinary everyday ones as well, and unless we can know and name them they’ll slip away and we’ll lose a great chunk of our culture. As Robert Macfarlane argues, if we lose the names, the words, the properties, we lose bits of ourselves and we are impoverished.

Who on earth would actually want to be the last person to see a Barn Owl flying silently, low along a hedge in the twilight? How could you teach Hopkins’ poem ‘Windhover’ to children who had never seen a kestrel? and how ‘Kes’ for that matter. How the novels of Henry Williamson – notwithstanding his abhorrent political views? How Ezra Pound to anyone who has never seen an olive tree (same reservations!).

How Elgar to someone who never heard a lark sing? Now I’m getting emotional!

The New Testament word for “daily bread” is untranslatable because it doesn’t occur anywhere else but I’d argue that ‘epiousios’ means more than bread, however San Francisco and right-on sourdough! Perhaps it means something more like the everyday, around and about us things that give us meaning, nourish us culturally not just by maintaining our body. The plants, the birds, fishes, animals and the weather sustain us in ways we can barely understand. That’s it! end of lecture and back up the M5 to see the allotment in the morning.

 

 

Furbelow Mugwort and Pellitory.

 

One of the best ‘Old School’ solicitors in the country.

– in my inflamed imagination, but in reality just three bits of the day joined up because I love the names so much. Furbelows is a species of seaweed, mugwort I’ll come to in a minute and Pellitory of the wall because I only I/D’d it yesterday and today it was everywhere down the green lane from Gerrans though the Rosteague Estate.

 

The first photo shows it doing what it’s meant to do according to its name – grow on a wall – but the second photo shows enough of it growing below the wall to provide for the urinary problems of a small village – it is, you see, a medicinal herb, which is a good thing because it would never live by its looks.

 

So for the first time in my life I gathered a very small quantity of the herb to take home and turn into a healing tea. Then, seeing myself as something of a Gandalf I went mad and gathered a bunch of Mugwort as well. If things go on as they are, hedgerow medicine may be the only show in town if you can’t afford private care.

I had privately determined to try these nostrums first on myself, but Madame has been incredibly supportive. We are surrounded not simply by abstract beauty – whatever that might be – but by meaning. Intensively farmed food has lost much of its nutritional value over the past decades, and yet we are surrounded (where it still survives) by the means of alleviating those deficiencies.

It seems to me that knowing, naming and understanding plants and the natural world is the first step to embracing a new and less exploitative way of living. Today I identified a red bartsia plant. It was there all the time but until I knew it’s name it didn’t exist for me.

As we walked up the lane after an hour on the beach (where I photographed the furbelows – blown onshore by last week’s fierce storm winds) – I was gathering some seeds from alexanders, cow parsley, and hogweed, I’ll post the macro photos when we get back, and I was struck by how little I’d seen before I started to look. They are all absolutely beautiful and absolutely different. To walk down the lane between, say, February and July, you might think nothing had changed and yet even during that brief period three different species had grown, flowered and died. The hedgerow is a highly dynamic and ever changing theatre, free to all. There’s only one word for it and that’s Glory.

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From left to right – Cow Parsley, Hogweed and Alexanders
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This is a hoverfly of the genus Syrphus but without a microscope it’s hard to tell which species.

 

 

Mirror mirror on the wall …

 

In the case of the five spot burnet moth versus spear thistles I’m not sure I could choose. The first sight of the moths was a carmine red blur of wings supporting the black body. I’d love to know how they make such large wing structures move so fast – that’s two moths in succession with this mesmerising and exceptional gift. but the sheer structural beauty of the spear thistles is pretty mind blowing as well.

The common blue butterfly was obligingly still for me. 90% of the time I take photos with my phone, and that means stalking and getting well within my quarry’s comfort zone. Most butterflies will take exception even to a shadow, let alone my clumsy great body looming over them, and so you have to do a rapid mental list of the attributes to fill in the gaps left by a poor photo.

This, of course, is why my photos are so biased towards the more cooperative subjects like plants – because they stay still. As I reviewed the pictures I was thinking, why on earth spend all that energy and money on safaris when you can find all this right where you are?

Both burnets and common blues feed (we’re told) on birds foot trefoil and its close relatives. The field we spotted both in was full of trefoils and yet both were feeding (don’t like the word ‘nectaring’ it sounds a bit red lipped and over-excited) so both were feeding on the spear thistles. Just goes to show that creatures don’t read textbooks. That’s twice recently I’ve found things where they’re not meant to be and discovered that there’s no such thing as never in the natural world. ‘Normally’ is much less authoritarian but allows amateurs like me to think in terms of probabilities rather than absolutes.

img_5644Being slightly obsessive I caught myself naming plants – with their Latin names if I knew them – as we walked down to the village today. Thank goodness no-one can hear the conversation in my head – if they could I’d have been locked up years ago!

Just to finish, here’s why a bit of botanising can be such fun. If you’re out for a walk on an earth or grass track and you spot this plant – Matricaria discoidea – like Plantain it doesn’t seem to mind being regularly trodden on – pick one of the yellow flowers and rub it between your fingers and then smell it. Now you know why the English common name is pineapple weed – one for the children! Field botany is such a multi sensory activity.

So did we? Or didn’t we?

There are two very different ways of going out after plants. The first is to go for a wander and stop whenever you see something you don’t recognise. The second is to go out after one or two specific plants, which is a strategy that often results in disappointment.

This week has been a sort of field trip in search of medicinal herbs, and so that narrows the field down quite a bit. The Holy Grail – well, that’s overstating it a bit – but the plant I most wanted to find was Stachys officinalis – Betony. It’s a close relative of the Woundworts. Its cousins, Hedge Woundwort and Marsh Woundwort both grow around here. The problem is that the Vice County list doesn’t show Betony as growing in this part of Cornwall, although the floras aren’t nearly so certain it’s not here.

But before we get to that, I have to say that Madame has the most remarkable gift of pointing out promising plants. So today we walked the length of Porth Creek down to the ferry and then back via Bohortha accompanied for part of the way by quite the noisiest couple of walkers we’ve heard in years. They were so noisy I thought they were at least two families with children following us, but no- they were just two women with a lot to catch up on. Generally we walk in silence, for no other reason than the fact that we’re usually immersed in our own thoughts. On the way we found wild strawberries, pale flax which looked wonderful in profusion in a meadow, common mallow (a medicinal herb), sheepsbit, rest-harrow and loads of nipplewort and – of course- all the Stachys I wasn’t looking for. Then just as we were about finished Madame pointed to the one I was looking for down towards the cliff top. img_5629It was much shorter than I had imagined, but the upper leaves were unmistakable. But was it the real deal? – there’s a hybrid but without Stace (the bible) I can’t be sure. Then, just to cap a lovely walk we spotted pellitory of the wall hiding behind a gatepost. That’s another two medicinal biggies and then at the last moment a Silver Y moth on the roadside.

How does a respectable sceptic find a word for blessed except – we’ll – blessed?

And so some photos  – now edited after arriving home

 

Some old friends

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Hedge Woundwort – Stachys silvatica
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Fox and Cubs –

 

As I wrote on Tuesday, we’re here to see some old friends and these are two of them. Field botany is an odd pursuit because you never forget where you first properly identified something. In my case it’s a bit sadder because I can’t resist the temptation to see if they’re still there.

There is actually a non botanical link between the two plants because I found the second – Pilosella aurantiaca – Fox and Cubs, in search of the first, Stachys sylvatica – Hedge Woundwort about three years ago, when I identified the Woundwort and went back to double check. Naturally I couldn’t find it again but stumbled on Fox and Cubs on the village green in Portscatho as I wandered disconsolately back to the van. Like most of my favourite plants it’s not remotely rare but I’d never seen it before. It’s a lovely flower except when, like today, it’s been mown off by an overzealous person who thinks anything except grass is untidy.

The Hedge Woundwort was my actual quarry today because I was looking specifically for plants used for healing.

So today, without really trying we passed Selfheal, Cleavers, Ribwort Plantain, Dandelion, Blackberry and Foxglove. There were probably many more lurking in the background, but Madame was fixed upon hearing a Curlew again – one of the most lovely sounds on the Percuil River. Sadly none were to be heard but when we got back to the campervan we could hear one calling in the distance. Honour was therefore satisfied.

 

Still in love with Cornwall

Cornwall’s easy to love and easy to hate as well – overcrowded and over exploited in summer and yet in spring and early summer and again in the autumn it offers more moments of pure joy than any other place I know.

There was a fierce east wind gusting at nearly 60mph overnight, and although it moderated through the day it was one to tie the hat on tight. Curiously the wind was not at all cold, having come up from Southern Europe and taken a turn westwards.

We walked east towards Dodman Point and as ever I was looking out for plants. Is it weird to experience such a leap of the heart when you see something you recognise and can name? So wiping a tear from my eye (I’m exaggerating just a bit) my two plants of the day were wild carrot, looking stunning in pink and white. This plant looks lovely even in death, when the umbels form little dry cages like lobster creels. But the star of the show was undoubtedly the clump of agrimony in full flower on the cliff top. A herb with a history of use in healing, but not something I’ve seen very often. There’s a dilemma in gathering herbs for medicine and that’s the fact that so many of them are disappearing from the landscape. I don’t think I could ever think of gathering agrimony, for instance. But we’re growing some useful herbs in the allotment and I’m quite exited at the prospect of making use of them. It all points to increasing diversity at home in order to build up rather than deplete the wild population.

We felt uniquely privileged to be able to walk along the cliff top today. It’s fifty years since we lived here for a year and fell in love with the place, and I think we both experienced a rather strange sense that the long gap in time had been bridged and in spite of our knackered knees we were in our twenties again.

[and in a late addendum I remembered that we saw two hummingbird hawkmoths working some valerian in Portscatho – never seen one before, but they were unmistakable – we’ll go back tomorrow and try to take a photo.]

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Agrimony

Boom and bust on the allotment

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In a perfect world – i.e. not the one we’re actually living in, crops would come along like parts in a car factory, perfect, exactly on time and in just the right quantities. The Potwell Inn allotment, on the other hand, is a boom and bust operation subject to the vagaries of weather, impulse buying and whatever pests happen to blow, creep or slither in. Therefore we are unable to impress anyone with photographs of complete gourmet meals straight off the allotment with no more than a rinse in our private springwater supply. The potatoes, which were worryingly slow to get going have now all flowered at once.  The strawberries are in the midst of producing a glut, as are the Hungarian hot wax chillies, and don’t even mention salad leaves, but the onions were a lost cause, the tomatoes grew leggy while we waited for it to warm up and most of the squashes died at the seed leaf stage. We are – categorically – not experts

Apart from the glamorous world of coffee table gardeners, this time of year is relentless in its demands. The ground, which was thick with bindweed three years ago, is still capable of growing a towering six foot specimen in a week even after we thought we had picked every tiny piece of root out. Couch grass is easier to tame – provided you conduct a vengeful campaign of uprooting every time it pokes a leaf out above ground. But the worst ones are the annuals that grow from seeds blown across from the unlet plots. Willowherb is a particular and common villain, but we have a problem with a much less common plant which, notwithstanding its name – “common ramping fumitory” is not at all common in our area and so uprooting it seems like a small crime except for the fact that it has secret plans to take over the world – hence the “ramping” bit of the name.

In the winter I was slaving over the ‘civil engineering’ of beds, paths and bins and longing for the summer. Now it’s almost the solstice and every day, it seems, we’re unable to complete all the jobs that need doing because there just isn’t time and so neither are we able to doze in the deckchairs and listen to the bees humming – which is what most people think gardening is for, although – to paraphrase Ghandi – it would be a good idea.

IMG_5520AND – I’ve also been trying to sort out my study which, as I’ve already written, involves getting rid of several hundred books that I’d been clinging to in case I forgot who I was. Consequently the twin planets of the allotment and the study have swung into malevolent alignment.  That said, though, the business of handing over boxes of books at the Oxfam shop and then rearranging the survivors in proper order on the shelves has had a very happy effect. I hadn’t realised how reproachful a shelf of unread books can be, and if – like me – you’re an olympian self-doubter, the constant look of unread-ness relating to a past enthusiasm can sap the will dreadfully. I’m sure this is the blindingly obvious core of the decluttering movement  – old stuff ties you down, keeps you looking backwards. I’ve had persistent images of my (suitably sad) children taking the exact same books to the same Oxfam shop after my death and, frankly, I’d rather spare them the pain and reward myself with the sense of release that comes from sitting at my desk and being surrounded by books I use constantly and love.

Of course there are many that I’ll hang on to – Edward Johnston’s “Writing Illuminating and Lettering” which I bought when I was about thirteen;  Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” which I chanced on accidentally when I was nineteen and which changed the course of my life – just two of the milestones that I could never part with. My Grandfather’s copy of “The History of Mr Polly” where I found the Potwell Inn, has been promoted to glory among the very special novels.

Back on the allotment it’s pleasing to be able to say that the seaweed mulch that we applied in the winter to the asparagus bed has had the most astounding effect, and it’s growing taller all the time – I mean over five feet tall and climbing!  We’ve been keeping a close eye on it because last year it was ravaged by asparagus beetles, but all we’ve been finding is lacewings which must have got there first. One painful lesson learned once and (hopefully) never forgotten is that asparagus beetles are not the same as lacewing larvae – so look before you squeeze. Luckily the presence of the adult lacewings and innumerable other pollinators working the flowers has prevented us from any spraying with soft soap, and so no harm was done by the misidentification.

Wildflower meadows part II

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So today was our second day at RHS Rosemoor.  We always like to split a new garden into at least two days, the first to get the lay of the land and the second to go back in more detail.  In fact you’d need to go two days a week for a year to truly get the measure of the place. After my big worry yesterday I was able to relax and enjoy the gardens for what they are and, hardling surprisingly, we spent a lot of time revisiting the wild meadow areas. The first thing to say is that the RHS aren’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. These meadows are as ‘artificial’ as any of the other (equally beautiful) gardens. It’s we visitors who like to put labels like “wild” and “cultivated” on what are basically different styles of garden: this kind of “wildflower meadow” style is developed by sowing and planting, using any means that works, for instance some of the plants are developed in modules and planted out. There’s no purism in the selection of species; no absolute rule that only native plants or archaeophytes are allowed in, and a scientific mowing regime is applied to  encourage self-seeding. Plants that don’t do well, or do too well and start choking the others out are dealt with by removal. This is a highly labour and resource intensive version of ‘natural’.

Imagine my sadness at reading in today’s Guardian that while many of us are working flat out to try to turn around this environmental and ecological catastrophy, our government are secretly eroding controls on harmful and cancer causing chemical insecticides that are absolutely banned in the EU but which may well be reintroduced by ministerial fiat if we leave. This is the greatest danger we’re facing today.  While I absolutely applaud the environmental efforts of bodies like English Heritage, the National Trust, The RHS and other non governmental authorities, we can’t save the world by building a few nature reserves like insect zoos.

Today I had a long conversation with a woman from Wolverhampton who is (pretty much singlehandedly) trying to build a wildflower meadow on a piece of land next to a housing estate. Last year was a terrible year for her and most of her spring sown seeds died during the hot summer, but she’s not daunted and today she was in Devon, at Rosemoor, trying to find out how she can give things a better chance and develop the plot. Her budget was about £250, and I think she might just pull it off, but all her work could be undermined in the stroke of a pen by a minister in thrall to the agrichemical industry lobby. I’m not very big on organised religion these days but sometimes I long for a bit of smiting from a higher power. Just a small plague of boils would do, as long as it was targeted at the right people.  Better avoid the flies and frogs, though, in case Bayer come up with some new and even more horrible chemical for dealing with plagues of  flies and frogs. The only (and more sensible) alternative is to make a stand with those who are trying to end this madness, and change the way we think about our relationship with (and complete dependance on) the earth.

 

The Pale Rider of the flower beds

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This is a white crab spider – I’ve never seen one before and neither had the gardener at Rosemoor who found it. I think it’s not so much rare as difficult to see, since it’s a bit of a pirate, ambushing its prey by sitting on a white flower and blending in until the unfortunate victim alights and gets more than it bargained for. If I’ve got the ID wrong blame me and not the gardener, I just googled “white UK spiders” and came up with this elegant assassin.

IMG_5498So our first day at Rosemoor was not nearly as wet as the forecast promised, although we kept our waterproofs on all day.  Last night’s rain was prolonged and heavy so we weren’t taking any chances. Our main interest was in the vegetable gardens because I wanted to find someone who could help us to understand what happened to our onions this year.  So I trailed around with the pictures on my mobile, accosting gardeners and largely discovering that they were no wiser than we were.  Aphids were mentioned, as were all the usual suspects – flies, fungi and eelworm, but none quite fitted the bill. In the end Madame suggested that it could have been that the sets, which arrived early and had to be stored for ages, had simply deteriorated before we planted them out.  The idea made sense to both of us, although it would mean that almost everyone else on the allotment site stored them badly as well. Anyway we’re getting an email address for a free ID service for members and I’ll send off the photos to see if there are any more suggestions.

As ever there were some wonderful things to look at – alliums were everywhere, as befits their recent ‘must have’ status; and as wide a range of plants as you could hope to see, but I’ll never be a gardener in the Gertrude Jekyll sense.  Notwithstanding the efforts to make borders and beds look “natural”, there couldn’t be anything less natural than this kind of English garden, absolutely stuffed with non natives and hybrids it reminded me of the way the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford used to be, apart from the fact that the labelling is a lot better. Two large tulip trees were still in flower, the photo on the right above is pretty much real size, and very spectacular they are.

I think the biggest question I came away with centred on the idea of nature. I have to confess right now that I’m a bit of a fundamentalist, and it’s not something I feel particularly happy about but my default position is that the less human intervention there has been, the better I like it. I can see a million reasons why that’s an unhelpful mindset because if anything is dynamic and ever-changing it’s the natural world and there’s no point in railing against Himalayan balsam, for instance because it’s here for good.

Much of the area occupied by Rosemoor is a relatively recent (1989) addition to the older gardens and involved digging out 13,000 tons of heavy clay and redistributing it around the gardens to achieve level beds.  That’s a lot of dirt being turned over and moved around, enough to keep a ‘no-digger’ awake for a week. So you just have to accept that this is a blank canvas garden of the kind beloved by hard landscape contractors, big flower shows and TV gardening programmes.

And I think I just have to accept that gardens like this are showcases where you can go and look at national collections of your favourite plants, and exquisite displays of plants from all over the world, and I’m sure that if I raised this with the RHS they would say ‘we’re not trying to recreate a natural landscape we’re creating a natural looking one’.

_1080773However, there came a moment when the dilemma became acute for me and that, ironically, was when the garden started to offer something I really wanted to see. There are now some quite large areas of wildflower meadow which I fell upon with joy. There were southern marsh orchids in flower, ragged robin, knapweed, oxeye daisies, umpteen grasses like crested dogs tail and so on, yellow rattle and an unexpected white flower that I don’t think I’ve noticed before which turned out to be Star of Bethlehem – Ornithogalum angustifolium . It was all too good to be true, surely? There, in a patch half the size of a football field, was a collection of plants I’d expect to find one at a time in a day’s search over a much wider range. All this in an area that had been turned over by earthmovers less than 30 years ago. It’s a wonder, a triumph of science and the gardener’s art.  A horticultural Las Vegas in the depths of a Devon valley.  I’ve never seen a better display of plants in a wildflower meadow; it exactly fits our current anxieties about biodiversity, and I don’t suppose the birds, the insects, moths and butterflies that flock to it will give a hoot whether it was there in 1930 . Compared with the usual miserable sowing of ‘wildflower mix’ that developers ususlly throw around their bleak gulags to persuade the planners that they really care about nature, this was xanadu. So why was I troubled? I think a large part of it was my stupid attachment to authenticity – whatever that means – and the truth is, starting from where we are (which is a pretty dreadful starting point) there’s no other show in town except the Las Vegas route, re-creating at great expense and with enormous skill, the flora and fauna of the environment we’ve allowed to decline to the point of no return. There’s no way back to the good old days before we lost nine tenths of our wildflower meadows, because simply abandoning a patch of ground to ‘nature’ can’t possibly succeed.

So my takeaway point is that there’s no cheap way of restoring these habitats.  If we’re serious about restoring them, throwing around a handful of imported and non-native wildflower seed is a dangerous distraction.  It will take time, skill and an abundance of resources.  Notwithstanding my reservations, I think the RHS have cracked it, bless them.

IMG_5512And just one more little joy – they’re developing a new orchard here and it’s dedicated to one of Madame’s old bosses – George Gilbert, a delightful man who probably knew more about apples than anyone else alive. We also saw a plaque in his memory at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, commemorating his contribution to the gardens there. He died in 2007, and took with him a lifetime of experience. His students are a big part of the future if we’re ever to rediscover and recreate the lost varieties of apples, pears and soft fruit, lost to careless agricultural policy, and that’s another star for the RHS who do so much to train the next generation of gardeners with apprenticeships, courses and such like.