WP_20170606_08_17_56_ProI’ve had a day working at home, waiting for a plumber to attend to a dripping tap.  It seems like a very minor thing but it’s taken us months to get round to sorting it.  Finally, the plumber has worked his magic and we no longer have the drip.  In the mean time, I have been suffering endless guilt at all the water that has been wasted while we failed to get round to this apparently simple household maintenance task.

To assuage some of that guilt and to get out of the house, I made a little trip to our local DIY store this evening.  I came home with a length of guttering and some fiddly bits to fix the guttering to the shed on the allotment so that we can install a water butt.   I’ve already fixed similar guttering for water butts to the two sheds in the garden, following the very helpful advice in one of my handy garden books (Practical Allotments, by Paul Wagland Guild of Master Craftsmen, 2009):


I’ve had this book for a good few years.  It differs from most of my gardening manuals because it is really a DIY book, giving lots of useful tips for making raised beds, things to grow plants up, and how to fix guttering to a shed. Paul Wagland’s advice is helpful, the main tip being to check that the whole thing works by pouring water into it.  Must remember to take some water with me to the allotment to check that bit when I get round to it.

Despite my skills at gutter fixing, my experience with water butts in the garden has been a little mixed, with the first two freezing solid one very hard winter, cracking round the edges and becoming quite useless. Photo here of the effects of excessive ice – and you can see the beautifully installed guttering at the top of the picture.

frozen water barrel

For more on that saga see here  and more here. But since then, fingers crossed, the replacements have done really well at collecting rain water and basically doing what they are meant to do.

water barrel

Despite the terrible waste from the dripping tap, water will be saved.



Clear out – or not

New Year, time to do a bit of tidying up.  I did a little in the garden this morning, clearing away some more dead vegetation and putting nets across the raised beds to keep the cat off.  But then it got dark and I moved inside and tried to clear up my desk a bit.  It was hidden under a pile of books and papers so I’ve had a satisfying clear out.  Actually, it’s still pretty hidden but at least I now have a rough idea of what’s there and why. This also involved putting at least some of the books back on their correct shelves. Which is when I realised that my garden books had overflowed their allocated bookshelf space – time to pass some on to a charity shop? I don’t really need any of them but I like them all for different reasons.  I’ve written about some of my favourites before: indoor gardening, containers, cookery books, children’s books but here are my absolute top gardening books. Number one, my all time favourite gardening book is The Reluctant Gardener, by Ethelind Fearon, published 1952.

You can still get copies of this through second hand booksellers – whenever I see one I snap it up and distribute to gardening friends as it’s so good. This copy belonged to my grandmother which makes it all the more precious. It has her scribblings in the margin and underlinings of important points:


The book pretends to be a lazy person’s guide to gardening but it uses this excuse to show that ‘doing nothing’ can often be the best way. ‘What we want is a garden which will do its own work, feed itself, clothe itself, sow itself, grow itself, tie itself up, cut itself down and in all respects be as relaxed and happy as its owner’. She continues her advice on pruning shrubs to say that the best way to do it is to ‘cut off the bit which has bloomed’ ‘while it is blooming’ and to prune the blackcurrants by cutting off whole branches of fruit and bringing them indoors where it is easier to detach the currants. She also has useful advice on pest control and compost making. Of course a book published in 1952 is rather old-fashioned and has its dodgy moments but it has been an old friend to me.

Moving slightly further through the twentieth century, my next favourite is by Geoff Hamilton, much missed presenter of BBC’s Gardener’s World. I’ve got several of his books but Paradise Gardens (BBC, 1997) is well-thumbed, particularly for the chapters on scented gardens and encouraging wildlife. The book was based on his last TV series and so is quite special for that reason. And of course it fits well with my blog:


These books are mainly not about vegetables and I do need a vegetable bible from time to time. That’s when I turn to The Complete Manual of Organic Gardening (Basil Caplan, Headline, 1992):


This tells me everything I need to know about sowing, pruning, harvesting, soil, compost and dealing with pests (except that it doesn’t tell me everything about pests, as I’ve yet to find a solution to either slugs or vine weevil that actually works). It has the added bonus for me that I bought it with a book token that I received for a piece of illustration work so in a sense I earned it.

My bookshelf contains other gardening gems that I turn to from time to time. I don’t think I can spare any just now so it will just have to overflow.


The bookmark

Bookmarks are very individual. Some people like to buy proper bookmarks, expensive things made of handtooled leather, or laminated with clever sayings about reading and literature. Children’s handmade efforts can often be found inside parents’ and grandparents’ books. Some people turn over corners or mutilate the pages. I like to use whatever comes to hand: till receipts, train tickets, fliers, empty seed packets.

My gardening books are full of these oddities, usually with a gardening theme:





WP_20151011_008Sometimes there is no obvious connection, including an out of date library card, old bus ticket and a till receipt from a family outing:WP_20151011_005

My father had the same bookmarking habits.  I started reading some of his old detective novels after a recent clear out. He had, what seemed to me, a bizarre taste for crime novels. But I’m beginning to see the attraction. I’ve just finished one. It was a novel of humanity and compassion, with very little gore or attention to forensic detail, a book about human behaviour rather than a racing plot. I put it down with a sigh, wishing I could discuss it with him.Then I wondered if he had even finished it. There was a bookmark stuck about half way through, a loyalty card for a local coffee shop, also unfinished.

But maybe he did finish the novel and just left the bookmark behind.  My bookmarks don’t usually mark a particular page, they just sit there for future use.  I often leave them in the book and find them years later, carrying memories, like this one.

This is about personal memories, there’s lots more on what you can find in second hand books here

Incredible Edible

I’d heard of the incredible edible movement, having read Pam Warhurst and Joanna Dobson’s book Incredible! Plant Veg and Grow a Revolution .  So I was delighted to find an incredible edible garden in Dumfries on a recent visit:

Incredible Edible, Whitesands, Dumfries
Incredible Edible, Whitesands, Dumfries

Incredible Edible Dumfries also has a wordpress site.  So you can find out more about them there.

I’ve been trying to follow the advice in Incredible! Plant Veg and Grow a Revolution to grow vegetables in the front garden but am having a little battle with the elements and slugs.  My herbs are doing really well but vegetables just don’t seem to like the front garden environment.  This year’s tomatoes have fruited but I think they’ve been too dry and the plants have shrivelled up.  There are a few tomatoes hanging on but they’re hardly an advert for growing your own.


Here’s how it looked in the spring:


I’ve been thinking of turning the whole patch over to herbs but I’ll give it a really good dose of compost and give the vegetables one more chance next year.  Meanwhile the lavender in the front garden is absolutely buzzing with bees – maybe I should get some bee hives and do the incredible edible thing that way.


Knit your own garden

I was in my local public library,  on the lookout for something new or a bit quirky.  As I grazed my way past the gardening books, the novels and the arts and crafts shelves, I picked up a book which qualified as gardening AND arts and crafts:  Arne and Carlos ‘Knit and Crochet Garden’.

Knit and crochet garden

This book is a gem of nuttiness, with ideas and patterns for knitting little people to inhabit your garden, wholly unnecessary knitted covers for hand tools, knitted seed bags and florally inspired items of all kinds.  I love it. Here’s where I admit to being a closet knitter.  I learned to knit as a small child when I lived in Shetland, survived the horrors of compulsory knitting classes at primary school (just the girls – the boys always seemed to get to do more interesting things), rediscovered it as a student in a flat full of fellow knitters and came back to knitting again a couple of years ago after a holiday in Shetland. Since then I’ve had a stream of knitting on the go – strictly in the evenings so as not to interfere with gardening or other activities.

… and, yes, this is a garden post because the book is sort of a gardening book.  Lots of lovely photos of the authors’ own garden along with their knitting.  I’m not sure I’ll be tempted to start knitting handles for my garden tools though – seems most impractical.

Containers and cabbages

My last post on November gloom was more depressing than I intended but the garden is still rather uninspiring today, apart from the birds.  The bird feeders  are covered in sparrows and tits, with the occasional fat pigeon clumping around underneath, trying to catch the bits that fall out.  I’ve added chilli powder to the bird food but suspect it hasn’t kept the squirrels away.  So I’ll stick with the chilli powder for the moment.

Away from the garden itself I thought I’d have a look at some of the quirky garden books on my bookshelf.

The first is New Container Style by Adam Caplin (Ryland Peters and Small 2001).  This book cheers me every time I open it.  Caplin’s approach to container gardening is to grow anything and everything in any mad container he can find, from empty food cans to genuine junk.  I get most irritated by the lifestyle gardening shops and books that encourage you to buy ‘new’ junk.  Real junk is the only way.  New Container Style encourages you to use almost anything that you might find lying around and the photographs  by Francesca Yorke  make it all look stunning.  Which is the problem with gardening books and magazines: the photographs never show the sad plants on a gloomy November day, or parched with thirst in the middle of summer.   Here are some of my gloomy November pots.

Lemon balm in leaky watering can
Lemon balm in leaky watering can
Herbs in baking tin and coffee pot

My least successful effort was the old wicker baby basket that I filled with strawberry plants.  I had visions of strawberries  dripping romantically through the basket work but the plants were destroyed by vine weevils and never produced any fruit.  Adam Caplin says that wicker baskets ‘are flamboyant and can produce an entertaining effect in a more eclectic garden’.   My basket has now started disintegrating and doesn’t look at all flamboyant or eclectic.  Maybe in the spring I’ll think of something to jazz it up.

My other book today is Plant Kingdoms: the photographs of Charles Jones by Sean Sexton and Robert Flynn Johnson (Thames and Hudson, 1998).  This wonderful book contains black and white images of vegetables from the late 19th and early 20th century, taken by Charles Jones, a gardener and enthusiastic early photographer.  His vegetables are stunning. I found another blogger, the gentle author, who has written about him and shares his photos if you want to see what I mean.

My senior assistant gardener gave me this book for a significant birthday a few years ago.  I was overjoyed but some of the relatives who had gathered for the cake and candles were visibly unimpressed.  If you’re stuck for Christmas presents for your garden loving friends and families, you might be able to pick up second hand copies of these.  But best avoid the people who don’t appreciate photographs of cabbages or flowers stuck in old tin cans.

The trouble with caterpillars

In my last post I wrote about Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar.  This set me down a track that I hadn’t planned. When I started writing about gardening books, I imagined I would include my favourite ‘how to garden’ books and a few of the more reflective ones on ‘why I garden’.  The Very Hungry Caterpillar reminded me about all the lovely children’s picture books that feature gardening.   I’m not sure they’ve influenced my gardening as such but some of them do inspire me.  So to start off this children’s book diversion I thought I’d mention some of my favourites. Top of the list, although not necessarily in this order are:

Babette’ Cole’s The Trouble with Grandad (part of a series of troublesome relatives books that are equally good but not about gardening so I’ll restrain myself on those).  Grandad in the book is a traditional flat-capped gardener whose problem is that he grows enormous vegetables.  Of course they get out of hand and all sorts of wild adventures follow. Babette Cole draws some cool vegetables but I think animals are her favourite characters.  Without giving away the plot, the stars are the caterpillars so they could easily have featured in last week’s post.

I also love Sarah Garland’s Doing the Garden ,featuring a harassed mum, her two small children and a dog, as they set out to get some flowers for the garden.  Apparently Sarah Garland’s books appeal to older siblings coping with the trauma of a younger child.  In our family, (and as a second child myself) we appreciated the younger child usually getting the last word.  Looking at it again now, I am struck by the winter vegetables growing in the garden at the start of the book and the impressive compost bin towards the end.

My all-time favourite book illustrator is Quentin Blake and I was wondering if any of his books featured gardening.  Probably several of them do (Cockatoos has an exotic conservatory for example) but The Green Ship is a joy.  In this book two children find a neglected garden, a ship made out of trees and the woman who made it – it’s too hard to describe, you have to read it. But it’s an absolutely lovely story with a perspective on gardening which goes beyond the imaginative games of childhood and touches on growth, grief and regrowth.

I could also mention Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden but I thought that these three were a little less well known.  Maybe I’ll get on to more another day and that might lead me into the wider territory of gardening in adult books and films but I’ll stop here for now.

Indoor Farming, Pips and other gardening books

I have a fridge magnet that quotes Cicero as saying ‘If you have a garden and a library, you have all you need’. This blog is about my garden but I’m also a reader. I’ve often found myself bookless and made a desperate dash to a library or charity shop to pick up a book to keep me going on a bus or train journey. As with gardening equipment, I prefer to read ‘preloved’ books rather than buy them new. I know I should be a prime target for an e-reader but I haven’t been converted yet.

Anyway, what does this have to do with gardening? Well, I read a lot of novels but I also love gardening books, the older and more tattered the better. My gardening bookshelf groans with gems that I have collected over the years, some new, some given as gifts but many, many picked up second hand. So I thought I should share some of my favourites on this blog. I’ll try and give you full publication details should you want to track copies down yourself.

My oldest gardening books relate to indoor plants, from the days when I didn’t have an outdoor garden. I have a very well thumbed copy of the ‘Houseplant Expert’ (D Hessayon, 1980, pbi Publications).House Plant Expert I used to grow houseplants fanatically, propagate their cuttings and babies and sell them at fundraising events for various causes. This book taught me the basics as well as the fundamental rule that if a plant is unhappy then it is probably too dry, or too wet, or too hot or too cold – and probably not getting enough light.  Given that you can’t do much about the light, you should cross your fingers and hope it gets better and then, when it doesn’t, start again with a different plant.

My oldest houseplants are an umbrella tree which is over thirty years old and a pomelo (a kind of grapefruit) which I grew from a pip. This was inspired by ‘The Pip Book’ (K Mossman, 1973, Penguin).

It is still flourishing although it has never flowered and will never fruit. I have returned to ‘The Pip Book’ several times to find out how to grow all sorts of things from pips and seeds. Some more successful than others – and some way too successful but I’ll tell you about those in another post.

Another of my oldest books is ‘Indoor Farming’ (D Wickers, 1978, Julian Friedman Publishers) . This is fantasy gardening at its best and has wonderful illustrations of vegetables growing in bedrooms and offices, in attics and under stairs.  You can of course grow some vegetables inside and I do – well herbs mostly Indoor Farmingand some chilli peppers on a windowsill – but this book is really optimistic.  I don’t follow its advice very often but I keep it to inspire me.

So those are my oldest gardening books and they are all about indoor gardening. I’ll tell you about some of my other favourites and some other weird finds in charity shops in future posts.