30 Days Wild-sign up time

It’s that time of the year again when I start preparing for a month of wildness. I originally set up this blog in support of the Wildlife Trust’s 30 day days wild initiative. Through June the WIldlife Trusts encourage you to do one wild act each day. This can be as simple as cloud gazing, finding something blue. Or you may actually get out to a reserve or go on a day out in nature. It is a great way to connect with our natural world. Connecting with nature in this way has been shown to improve happiness, reduce stress and make you more mindful of the world around you. But mainly it’s good fun. There isn’t any pressure to do something every day but there are basic enough ideas you should be able to manage something.

I signed up for the school pack. This comes with some lovely ideas on large cards. There is a pack of information, posters, stickers and a colouring wall sheet. Alice wants to steal the wild teacher badge from me so I don’t know how long I’ll manage to hold onto that.

People who have followed the blog for a while will know I’ve taken part for several years now. Earlier in the year, I was asked if one of my previous wild acts could be used in a book the Wildlife Trust was putting out for 30 days. The book is now out. 365 days wild by Lucy McRobert lists lots of ideas, as the name suggests, of things to do through the year to connect with nature. The book has been put together well. Attractively designed, it features many photos and details of the wild acts. It’s a book you can settle down to read or just flick through to get inspiration.

I’m proud to have a small entry within the book from my previous years taking part in 30 days wild. I wrote a haiku as one of my previous wild acts. There is a description of how to write a haiku and then my little effort at the bottom of the page. The family have taken the mick that it was just this small entry, but then they’re not published poets like I now am. Took me at least two minutes work.

30 Days Wild is great fun to take part in. There are great online communities through Twitter and Facebook sharing their efforts. I highly recommend signing up.  Never been a greater need to show appreciation for nature.

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Six On Saturday: 30.3.19 Birthday Edition

As mentioned last week Sunday was my birthday and I received a number of nice garden gifts. I had a good day despite my throat still hurting. The sun was shining and I managed a little bit of time out weeding in the garden. Then lunch out at the Floral Hall and a walk along the beach. So onwards with showing off my presents.

1. Niwaki treats

The wife has picked up from my Christmas present that buying me something from Niwaki is a good bet for making me happy. The first treat was the double holster. This comfortably fits the secateurs and snips. I’d bought a holster previously and I’ve found it very useful for having tools to hand. This should get plenty of use as well as storing the tools better. As I often leave them on work surfaces Alice isn’t going to spike herself on my tools. Then she also bought me some crean mate a block for cleaning tools with to prevent rust and build up of gunk. Should help keep my tools in good nick.

2. Hydrangea libelle

Hydrangea libelle is a small white lacecap hydrangea bought for me by my parents. So far my garden has three pink mopheads and I have three limelights to go in so this will add some variety to the hydrangea love. It grows to just over a metre so I may keep this one for a pot rather than the border.

3. Hosta Dream weaver

While it doesn’t look like much currently this should become a gold-leaved hosta. This grows wider rather than taller at about 50cm tall and 70cm wide so it might be a nice one for a pot or else I’ll use it in the shaded front garden.

4. Bird books

I got two books on birds. One to help with learning the bird song and another more informative book that looks like it should be interesting. It’ll be nice to sit in our new garden room and read these.

5. Garden vouchers

I received some garden vouchers. Vouchers are always nice as you feel you can buy something you wouldn’t normally feel comfortable buying yourself. I think I’ve got my hydrangea fill for now. So maybe some big patio pots or more ferns for the front garden.

A previous birthday present

This camellia Christmas Rose was bought for me two years ago by one of my now sister in laws. It has taken to years to flower but it has been worth the wait. They are big and brash but it’s a welcome colour burst at this point of the year. It probably isn’t quite hardy enough for my conditions but the edge browning doesn’t show as badly as on the white camellia.

It was a good birthday. I’ve now got to work out what to spend my vouchers on. My plans for the front garden are gradually coming together. The building work is still going on but I can start on prepping some of the space ready. Hope you all have good weekends and check the six on Saturday participants guide if you feel like getting involved in this lovely gardening community.

The Front Garden

Recently I’ve mentioned the front garden, quite a lot, in my six on Saturday posts. However, I rarely feature it or show it off as there isn’t very much happening. It is set up to be low maintenance and requires very little attention. Drought tolerant plants and evergreens have been the order of the day. While it easy it lacks any razzle-dazzle. The current building work is going to change the front. The top half is being rerendered. Then the bottom half is having the windowsills redone and we will be painting the brick again.

The garden itself is North facing and shaded as a result for much of the day. A few doors down to the West there is a house with an overgrown Aucuba Japonica hedge that provides a bit of shelter from that direction and a bit more shade. The small border I believe is fairly shallow. I seem to remember there is a pipe going through both.

I’ve emptied part of the thin border ready for the scaffolding going up. There was a patch of lavender close to the house but this has got a bit scraggly so I removed it. Arum Italicum pops up along this border. I will probably dig it out. While I like the foliage it spreads quickly. The lavender at the other end I will probably relocate. It’s doing alright but it doesn’t really get enough sun to thrive. I quite fancy a few evergreen plants with shade-loving perennials or bulbs to add some excitement. Possibly some evergreen ferns and maybe a few hostas. Alternatively, the bin may end up where the lavender is. I’d like them tidied away behind a screen but can’t decide on the right spot to place them. I’d like the garden to look better but it still needs to be practical.

The opposite border is dominated by two hebes and next doors conifer. I imagine the conifer will go at some point as it is blocking their window now and the house side is starting to brown off. The hebes are evergreen and require little maintenance. I like how they give nice rolling domes of greenery all year. Lamprocapnus Spectabilis, bleeding heart, pokes out through the middle for a few weeks each year. However, the darker of the two hebes is dying off with more browned off patches. They don’t flower much anymore. So, I’m unsure whether to remove the one or both and whether to replace with like for like but smaller and healthier. Or whether to go with something different. The hebes suit the shaded conditions and sea winds but it will have the same issues that it will need replacing every 5-10 years potentially. The hebes don’t prune well so when they outgrow their space it causes an issue. I have the two Ilex Crenata Holly stokes that will also form neat domes but could be pruned back and shaped to form tight evergreen interest for the whole year. While they are getting established I could plant some filler plants in between.

In front of the windows, I’ve got two window boxes. As the wall will have just been redone I don’t want to attach these to the walls so I plan to look for some stone bricks to sit them on. The windows open out at the bottom so I can’t put anything too tall that can’t tolerate being brushed by the window opening in Summer. The window boxes are 50cm long while the window is just over a metre. So they’ll sit under the windowsill centrally. I’m thinking some ophiopogon and small ferns, mini hostas for these. I reckon they’ll only fit 3 or 4 small plants with maybe some bulbs coming through in Spring. Maybe something spilling over the edge but unsure of what yet.

As I’m in doubt of what to plant in the boxes I’m seeking the advice of an expert, the good Dr Hessayon. As ever it’s full of lots of solid food for thought. Then how to window box gives lots of design ideas for different styles.

The stones are full of weeds so this will need to come up. Then I’ll either be replacing the weed matting and stones or turning it into a large planting area. One of the hydrangea limelights is probably going to be in the middle. As it’s a small area I want plants with long seasons of interest and there are few flowering shrubs as good as the hydrangea for this. Even after the flowers go over they can still look attractive. It should also suit the shaded conditions well. The ground ends up covered in weeds and moss. I don’t know whether to try and turn this over to a moss garden Japanese style. Moss is of massive benefit to the environment acting as a big carbon sponge making this an attractive option. Any advice anyone?

I’ve probably got a month or two to make decisions so I can carry on with my daydreaming and rearranging in my head.

So the big decisions are:

  • Where the bins will go?
  • What to do with the hebes?
  • What is going in the windowboxes?
  • What am I going to do with the stones?

Anyone care to offer their thoughts?

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Six on Saturday: 16.2.19 Taste of exotics

Having posted about Ophiopogon planiscapus last week I thought I’d continue looking at some of my plans to widen out my selection of exotic plants or at least exotic looking plants. While I’m holding off on most of my sowing a few of my choices for this year have such long germination periods I thought I’d get them started.

1. Musa lasiocarpa-dwarf banana

One of my Morgan & Thompson seed purchases this year was a pack of musa lasiocarpa. This dwarf banana is fairly hardy supposedly taking temperatures down to -10. I’m aiming to grow it for the patio but with up to six months to germinate, I thought I better get started. While they are available as small plants there is a satisfaction that comes with growing from seed. Though as these come with a warning that germination is “slow and erratic” I’m not getting my hopes of success up to much.

2. Agaves

The second of this year’s Morgan and Thompson seed purchases. This was a mixed packet of agave seeds. While I am in the cold North being by the coast I think might give them reasonable survival chances if I can get them going. There are a few gardens in my area that bring agaves out for Summer so we’ll see how I get on. At less than 99p after deals were applied I’m willing to take a chance on them. After a week in the propagator I’ve already got some germinating, so we’ll see if I can keep them going to become fully fledged plants. I need to read up on the next stage. I’d only read up on germination as I thought it might fail at that stage.

3. Heated propagator

In order to increase my chances of germination success, I’ve bought a heated propagator. It featured last week with the black mondo seeds. It’s only a cheap variety that adds a few degrees heat but that could make all the difference. It doesn’t have a thermostat to control temperature but I didn’t want to break the bank on it. I do wish I’d gone for the premium though for a more solid lid.

4. Discount ferns

A few weeks back I picked up a few discount ferns. While they are a bit miserable at the moment I think they’ll pick back up with fresh fronds. The borders are filled mainly with cottage garden favourites so to tie the patio and lawn area together I’m looking to use ferns and hostas that will feature in both areas.

One corner of the border already contains a good number of ferns. I’m now looking to mirror this on the opposite border. These new ferns are destined for there. Dryopteris is a nice erect shuttlecock form growing to around a metre tall.

Cristata the king is a tall form that remains evergreen in warmer climates and deciduous as it moves to colder climates. It tolerates a lot of garden situations from shade to semi-shade and tolerant of a variety of soils. It tends to clump and can then be divided to spread it around.

Filix-Mas is deciduous giving me hope that it will come back fine. Once established it shouldn’t need much care. Most of the ferns are evergreen as I’d intended them as a constant green backdrop. This will add a bit of contrast within that mix.

5. Plant lovers guide to ferns

Ferns make for fascinating plants with their prehistoric nature. They provide excellent foliage. Many of my choices are evergreen providing the garden with a background of year-round interest. This book from Kew Gardens has a lot more detail than I expected. I thought it would have a few recommended varieties and a bit of planting detail. A coffee table book but it’s actually very informative. There are recommendations for different areas of the garden, some design ideas, a solid section detailing different ferns and propagation.

6. Propagating houseplants for outdoors

It isn’t an original idea Will Giles did it, Christopher Lloyd did it but this year I want to try some of the houseplants I keep inside outside. It was discussed in one of this weeks plant based podcasts. My prime candidates are plants that are easy to propagate so I can keep the backup inside and put the propagated plants outside without worrying if they die.

Candidate number one is my spider plant. If I let it my spider plant population grow they could easily take over the house. I normally cut the flowers before they become pups. I have saved a few though to go outside in the Summer. They have put on good root systems and are getting to reasonable heights.

The second plant I’m looking at is my string of hearts. These are supposedly easy to propagate. Cutting laid on soil should root. I imagine this could be used in mixes pots to trail the edge of pots. I’m not sure of its hardiness but a few cuttings of these will only cost a handful of soil. So if they die straight away I haven’t lost anything but a bit of time.

I’m aware these are not necessarily the most exciting photos to ever feature on my six but hopefully, they will be more exciting later in the year. The discount bedraggled ferns should recover to become glorious foliage. The seeds will flourish into beasts. The houseplants will bring new elements to the outside patio area. Exciting times ahead.

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Six on Saturday: 12.1.19

The days are getting longer now. I’ve travelled home during daylight a few days this week. The first day back at work with the children has been nice, though we now have building work in the classroom and at home. No escaping. Good to be the weekend now and have some time to check over the garden.

1. Primulas

I’m not a massive fan of primulas. I mainly see them in Council bedding schemes with a lurid range of colours. But I’ve kept a few yellow and white varieties close to the wilder varieties. I considered removing them last year, but blog readers encouraged me to divide them and leave them in. I still can’t say they excite me, but it is a few flowers at a point where little is happening.


2. Crocus

With the building work going on I’d moved a few pots off the patio and onto the border. I’ve a suspicion that I may have crushed some of my existing croci. So I’ve added a few cheap ones from the local florist.


3. Fern-Dryopteris Affinis

Another purchase from the florist, I found this fern discounted as it has browned a bit. But once new fronds come along it will be fine. I currently have one patch of ferns under the Acre. I want to add some in the opposite border along with a few hostas. This will add some cohesion to the borders. Then with the planned ferns and hostas on the patio, this will hopefully tie the two layers together a bit. I won’t plant this yet though. I’ll let the weather warm up a bit first. Golden shield fern has the traditional look of ferns fronds and grows about a metre long. An attractive foliage plant that should look good combined with the hostas wider leaves.


4. Camellia buds

The established camellia is awash with buds. This is a white-flowered variety. It suffered from frost last year and many of the flowers had rather unsightly brown edges. It probably needs protecting with fleece, but I don’t really want large plants that aren’t hardy enough. We’ll see how it goes this year and decide it if gets the chop.

The less established I think was called Christmas Rose. It has red flowers. But it hasn’t produced any yet. It is looking a bit scruffy, but it does have buds this year. Again, I’m looking to see if it pays its way or whether it also faces the chop. I’m not a massive fan of them, so wouldn’t miss them much.


5. Lychnis Coronaria-Rose campion

Having cleared some ground over the last few weeks I can see the mass number of self-seeded Lychnis. Luckily, I like this plant but I will need to move some around the border. The mass of pink flowers kept going for a long period through last Summer and attracted lots of insects.

They are pretty well covered in dust from the render coming off, but a bit of wind and rain I’m sure will remove some of this. Once they put on new growth I’m confident they will look a bit healthier.


6. Dahlias-Naomi Slade

It’s time to rest now and dream of Summer. In preparation for that, I am reading Naomi Slade’s beautiful book. With lots of stunning photos it acts as a catalogue of dahlias to buy. But on top of the eye candy it has lots of information to go alongside. I’ve never grown dahlias before so this will be my first year. I’ve got a collection Sarah Raven sells to grow in pots on preorder. They are shorter varieties that don’t need as much staking land and can handle the confines of the pot to go on the patio. After reading this I’m sure I’ll want to add some to the borders as well. What dahlias are you planning this year?

So now it’s just patience of waiting for the weather to warm up to get started on the dahlias and other seed sowings. So enjoy your weekends and good gardening!

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7 Days of Wild Christmas: Day 7 Wildflower Hunt

Today is the last day of the Wildlife Trusts 7 days of Wild Christmas. It has been fun blogging daily again about our wildlife experiences, but it is time consuming blogging each day. So while my engagement with nature won’t stop the daily blogs will.

Moon Gazing

The day started early with Alice up at six. She is sleeping through on her own now most night so while it was an early start at least we’re not being woken up several times a night. As soon as Alice got downstairs she checked out the window. She is currently a bit obsessed with looking for the moon but lately, it has been too cloudy. So she was very excited to see stars and the moon this morning. We’ll have to spend a bit more time on astronomy rather than our usual biology studies.

New Years Plant Hunt

Today Alice and I got out for a walk to leave Amy to get on with some of her teacher prep. I haven’t done my New Year Plant Hunt for the BSBI so I thought today was the day. Last year we were up at Robin Hood’s Bay, so we saw no end of gorse. We headed out through the local park initially.

Alice was in a cheeky mood.

In the park, we found daisies, groundsel, and a small white flower I need to check up.

Alice told me the birds were singing and we managed to find the source of the singing.

We walked through town spotting a good spread of Winter heliotrope, a form of forget-me-not, and Herb Robert. I’m going to have to dig out the wildflower key to check it up.

Then we headed for home back along the seafront spotting another patch of winter heliotrope.

Not a massive number of species, but not bad for a walk just through town. Before I took part in 30 days wild I wouldn’t have known the names of most of these or even probably noticed them. So the fact that I can now name some of them shows some progress. It’s a simple joy spotting and being able to name elements of our natural world. Then by submitting my sightings I help contribute to the BBSI knowledge of seasonal shifts.

#WaveofWhales

The author Nicola Davies has called for a protest on Japan’s decision to resume whaling. She is requesting people send pictures, paintings and drawings to the Japanese ambassador to show opposition to this backwards step. I talked to Alice about the news story that whales would be killed and her answer was “Why?” A question I can’t really answer. Should you want an activity to do during the holiday this seems like a good activity to do with children and teach them responsibility for our world. Alternatively a good task for teachers when we return to school.

Post to be sent to Ambassador Koji Tsuruoka, Embassy of Japan 101-104 Piccadilly London W1J 7JT

Alice reading the snail and the whale

I was considering making seedballs today as got all the components ready, but after our walk, Alice just wants to colour and watch some Fireman Sam. As ever, Norman Price caused havoc. It really is time to look at pre-empting the trouble and look at getting Norman into a young offenders institute. At the very least Dilys should be getting monitored by social services for irresponsible parenting. I may get round to making seedballs later in the week but for anyone who fancies it here is a guide.

I hope you’ve all enjoyed my return to taking part in the acts of wild. The Wildlife Trusts 30 Days wild will return in June. While I won’t be blogging the same quantity enjoying the natural world will still continue. From taking part in 30 days wild taking joy from nature has become pretty ingrained in my daily practice.

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7 Days of Wild Christmas: Day 6 Field Guide to Fantastic Beasts

The seven days are going quickly. After writing about cutting down my environmental impact I saw this article on people who have gone that extra mile. While I don’t think Amy is ready to part with her electric toothbrush it is inspiring to read how other people have made the shift to reducing their waste.

Inspired by Alice’s love of stickman I thought I’d look at some other sources of mystical creatures outside. While the actual wildlife outside brings me a lot of joy I don’t mind adding a fantasy element to journeys outside. After the holiday I am going to be sharing the story Zog by Julia Donaldson. This is the story of a young dragon learning its school lessons. Alongside this, I have plans for setting up a few fantasy elements outside.

Here are three books I’ve found make for excellent inspiration for children’s imagination with the intention of searching for magic outside.

  • Fantastic Beasts and where to find them-J.K. Rowling
  • Arthur Spiderwick’s field guide- Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black
  • The Lost Words-Robert MacFarlane & Jackie Morris

J.K. Rowling’s books are probably a bit above Alice’s level at 2 years old but for the five-year-olds at school, the odd entry will inspire some hunting outside I hope. The children have been finding lots of trolls under the bridge (climbing frame) and their interest in unicorns is still high. Hopefully introducing them to a few more beasts may develop their plots a bit further.

The lost words is a beautiful book for encouraging people to get out into nature. While this one doesn’t have the fantasy element the poems work as spells to summon the various entries. If you want to encourage writing in slightly older children this is an excellent source of inspiration. But for the younger children, there is plenty of enjoyment to be found in the gorgeous illustrations. Alongside this, I plan to use Jackie Morris Tell me a dragon for some furth inspiration. This, again, has beautiful illustrations for inspiration.

For parents and teachers wanting further ideas look on the John Muir Trust website.

The last of the three books, the field guide, is based on the Spiderwick Chronicles series of books. The field guide is another beautifully illustrated book with sketches and paintings of beasts to find and notes on where to look.

Then on top of the books, you need your beast hunting kit. A notebook for field notes. Binoculars and magnifying glasses come in use. Then a pocket wand is always useful. If you don’t own a pocket wand sticks are often available outside. Alice reminded me we need a camera as well to record our sightings.

We’ve got family visiting today but hopefully get out later to look for signs of beasts. Equipped with knowledge of what to look for and kitted up who knows what we’ll find. Hope you all enjoy the last few days of 2018.

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beast kit

Six on Saturday: 17.11.18

Last weekend saw me fill two pots. I was planning to wait until the patio had been repaved, but as we’re not sure when this will happen I’ve added two new pots. Lots of wildlife is still visiting the garden. The behind our garden is swarmed with the remaining bees and wasps. I’m finding I’m reading a lot of gardening material currently. As the season shifts to mundane jobs of weeding, pruning and clearing it seems more fun to plan for next year.

1. Azalea japonica-Agadir

Amy has commented before on an azalea at her dads that she likes. I have another rhododendron in a pot that has become too leggy. This is going to be removed to school after it flowers next. The rhododendron has large leaves that suffer from the sea winds we get and last winter did it no favours. I’m hopeful the smaller leaves and more compact shape of this azalea will cope better with my gardens conditions.

2. Ceanothus-blue

I picked up a cheap ceanothus. These give lots of small blue flowers in late Spring potentially filling a gap in my seasonal interest. As with the azalea, this isn’t the ideal time to buy as I now need to keep it sheltered, but it was reduced. I’ve put it in a pot, for now, to give the roots some protection beyond its plastic pot, but long term it will be going in the border.

3. Hellebore

For some winter interest, I’ve added in two hellebores behind the bench area. The area is partially shaded for much of the day. I’ve tried hellebores before and liked the flowers, but I put them in too sunny a pot where they fried as it went into Spring. Then got eaten to pieces by slugs. The two I’ve gone for are angels glow, which flowers with dirty white-pink flowers. Then Christmas Carol, which has pure white flowers with a yellow centre. The leathery foliage isn’t the most attractive in my foliage corner, but the flowers can provide a good source of pollen for early Spring insects.

4. Garden gate

This is the gate from the front garden. It has been kicking around the back garden since I moved in. I feel I should make a feature of it somewhere in the garden or at any rate grow a climber through it. Any ideas anyone?

5. Garden robin

The birds have been visiting a lot recently, but the robins are one of the few that come in while I’m working. This one is practising its Christmas card pose.

6. Shelfie

I have tidied the downstairs bookshelf and sent a number of books to the charity shop. I have moved down a number of garden and wildlife reference books that I refer to pretty regularly. I often have breakfast before the rest of the house is up, so like browsing garden books to make future plans. I thought it would be better to have more of them together where I tend to read them over a cuppa. Just finished Christopher Lloyd’s exotic planting for adventurous gardeners and exotic gardening by Ian Cooke. I’ve moved onto new small garden after a twitter recommendation. So far lots of good design advice. I’m up to a point with the garden where I’m keeping plants alive successfully, propagating and filling the garden. But I need to look more at how it all ties together and this book has helped me find a few ways forward.

This weeks six featured a lot of potential interest in future months, so hopefully, the three plants featured this week will provide future posts in the coming months. Surprisingly the fuschias are still providing bright burst in the garden, the roses have more buds to open and the hebe is still providing colour. But the overall feel in the garden is still a bit drab in comparison to Summer. Better to return to my book and dream of warmer, more colourful times.

Enjoy your weekends.

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Houseplant hour: The man who hated aspidistras

This week I bring you a houseplant horror story W.F. Harvey. William Fryer Harvey (1885-1937) was a writer best known for writing horror and macabre stories. Born into a wealthy Quaker Yorkshire family he trained in medicine. He served during WWI in various medical roles. He suffered lung damage during the war that caused issues for the rest of his life.

After the war, he worked in adult education until ill health forced his retirement. During his lifetime three short story collections were published. Then after his death, in 1937, a posthumous collection was published following the 1946 film release of his best-known work, the beast with five fingers.

Harvey’s horror stories are interesting as they don’t follow one theme or formula. Many horror writers write one story in different variations, but Harvey’s follow different directions.

The story today is in the open domain now for copyright purposes. It offers a warning to abusing your houseplants, particularly that stuffy symbol of the Victorian middle class, the aspidistra.

The man who hated Aspidistras

The earliest memories of Ferdinand Ashley Wilton were green memories—of aspidistras. The aunt with whom he lived at Cheltenham was fond of the plants. As you entered the hall of Claremont Villa there was on the right an upturned drain-pipe painted a sage green and decorated with arum lilies. This contained Miss Wilton’s umbrellas and her father’s walking-stick. Projecting into the hall on the left a fretful erection of mahogany supported a mirror, hooks for cloaks, and two shelves. On the upper shelf was a porcelain bowl that contained the cards of callers; on the lower, in a sea-green earthenware pot, precariously rested the first of the aspidistras. The second stood in the dining-room—in summer in the fireplace, in winter on the ledge of the window that faced south. In the drawing-room was the third, raised high above the ground on a fluted wooden pedestal. The fourth and last aspidistra stood on the round table by the couch in Miss Wilton’s bedroom. At night it was carried out on to the landing, for Miss Wilton, remembering something that her doctor had once said about sick-rooms and flowers, thought it on the whole wisest that she should sleep alone.

The aspidistras dominated Ferdinand’s life. They were always liable to be upset, so that he was not allowed to run about in the hall or dining-room. When he was very small he had a fancy that they repeated to Miss Wilton the many things that he had done amiss, and especially did he distrust that fourth plant, which stood at night, a sleepless sentinel, on the landing close to his bedroom door. As he grew older he learnt, reluctantly, how to sponge their leaves with soapy water. When a gentle rain was falling he would carry them into the garden in order that they might enjoy what Miss Wilton called a thorough soaking. But if Ben, the poodle, were in the garden he had to be brought in straight away and dried. The laws governing the vegetable and animal worlds seemed to Ferdinand strangely different. In very dry weather the bath would be half filled and the four aspidistras would stand in a row for hours partially submerged. Ferdinand was not allowed to sail his boat among the gloomy islands of this archipelago, but if his conduct had been satisfactory he was permitted to pull the plug before going to bed. Ferdinand was still a very little boy when he was sent away to school. He was constantly ailing and even when he was well he received more than his due share of kicks and bruises. In the matron’s room he felt as if he were back again in Cheltenham, the pot of aspidistras reminded him so much of his aunt. On it he vented the hatred of his schoolboy world. When the matron was called out of the room he would share with the aspidistras vegetable laxatives and iron tonics, or impart to their leaves an unnatural glow of health by polishing them with Scott’s emulsion or liquid paraffin. A vertical section of the pot illustrating Ferdinand’s activities would have shown a thimble, three hairpins, a number of needles, the case of a clinical thermometer and, an inch below the surface, an almost complete tessellated pavement of sugar-coated pills. When, however, in a rash moment, Ferdinand, in applying the contents of a bottle of tincture of iodine to the leaves, found to his alarm that the black stains were irremovable, the fat was in the fire. The matron made a formal complaint, but nobody owned up. The ten more or less ailing boys who had visited the room on that fatal morning were indiscriminately punished. To them it was known that Ferdinand was the delinquent. He did not escape. Like the aspidistra he was poked and prodded and shaken to the roots. Boyhood passed. At the university Ferdinand achieved a certain success. He published a volume of verse and was founder and secretary of the Mid-Victorians. He only met two aspidistras during the whole of the time he was up, one in the porter’s lodge whose leaves he would absent-mindedly trim with pocket scissors, and the other in a dentist’s waiting-room. Miss Wilton died. She left to her nephew the villa at Cheltenham and four hundred pounds a year. Ferdinand was able to devote himself to literature, and from Bloomsbury lodging-houses wrote his first series of Antimacassar Papers. It was at this period of his life that he found himself once again under the influence of aspidistras. He began by nagging them, treating them as ash-trays, pen-wipers, and cemeteries for safety razor blades. He ended by torturing them. One, he slowly did to death with weedkiller; into another, following the example of the Good Samaritan, he would pour in oil and wine. A third he garrotted with rubber bands; a fourth, slowly succumbing to a solution of bath salts, filled his room for weeks with the faint perfume of lavender. A horticultural detective would, of course, have quickly got on the track of the Bloomsbury murders, but no suspicion ever fell upon Ferdinand. He was so inoffensive, so subtle, so respectable, and in his own way so quietly ornamental. His requirements were so few and he needed little looking after. His landladies were always sorry when he went. The aspidistras never got over his departure.

Ferdinand, of course, should have realised that it is dangerous to indulge in hatred. The man who hates open spaces as likely as not will be killed when crossing a square. It isn’t the motor car but the square that kills him. Ferdinand had his warnings. Once on a wet morning a pot of aspidistras fell from a third-storey window ledge on to the pavement at his feet. On another occasion when travelling by train a sudden stop brought down from the rack a heavy and bulky package that indubitably involved risk of injury to passengers. If Ferdinand had not been sitting with his back to the engine he would have been struck on the head by the most monstrous aspidistra he had ever seen.

He was smoking one day in a despondent mood when his friend Basset Tankerville chanced to call. The Blue Review had noticed his latest volume of essays with less than its usual appreciation. ‘Listen to this,’ said Ferdinand to Basset. ‘“We begin to be conscious of the limitations of his point of view—the interstices of a Venetian blind. He is the embodiment of the aspidistra.” And then,’ said Ferdinand, ‘they have the impertinence to give half a column to a review of Gertrude Stein.’ ‘Glorious jingles,’ said Basset. ‘You should really try your hand at them yourself. “Ferdinand Ashley Wilton with his dashed aspidistras that wilt unless fertilised. With black tobacco ash. Ad astra Aspidistra.” But seriously, you do remind me of the plants. You are becoming more and more green with envy, more and more pot-bound. And, by the way, have you ever thought of how applicable to aspidistras is St Paul’s description of charity? That specimen which I see before me suffereth long and is kind. It vaunteth not itself, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked. Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. And the same, Ferdinand, in a large measure is true of you. You and the aspidistra are one.’ Those light words of Basset Tankerville, spoken as they were in jest, marked an epoch in Wilton’s life. They stirred the vegetable fibres of his being. His conversation became more and more torpid. The wit that had enlivened the Antimacassar Papers vanished and though from time to time he still wrote, his style—polished and stately as it was—became dull. He left London to live once again in Cheltenham, but it was as an invalid that he lived. Though he took the waters regularly his skin acquired an unmistakeable greenish tinge which the dark green cloak he always wore made all the more noticeable. A little odd, his housekeeper thought him, and very old-fashioned, but Mr Wilton gave next to no trouble. On sunny days she would pull up the Venetian blinds and place his chair in the window, where he would sit quietly for hours occasionally sponging his long leaf-like hands with soap and water. He was happiest, however, when the faintest of drizzles was falling. Then the man who hated aspidistras would be wheeled out into the rain to enjoy a thorough soaking.

My classroom aspidistra, solid enough to survive a gloomy classroom and four year olds.

After thought

A warning to plant keepers. Have you become the plants you look after? Hope you’ve enjoyed the story. Are there any plants you need to ask forgiveness from? For more houseplant conversation check the twitter hashtag #houseplanthour A fortnightly conversation on Tuesday all about houseplants.

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Dr Hessayon: the most famous writer nobody knows

This blog is prompted by a discussion on who did the illustrations for the expert series. The expert series is a series of books written by Dr David Hessayon. They are best sellers. It has been estimated that one in two households own one of his gardening books. It has been estimated that one in two households own one of his gardening books. The Guinness book of records listed him as the best selling non-fiction writer of all time. I’ve tried using the power of the internet to find out about the illustrations with no success.

Right in the middle of the in-laws gardening shelf-an expert guide

The illustrations in the books are clear and demonstrate exactly what you need to know. Many more modern styles don’t communicate their meaning in the way these books do. The houseplant expert is still regarded as the houseplant “bible” by many. Commissioning illustrations for books like this is costly. The illustrator either has to have a good knowledge of the subject or be directed in what is required. Sadly, I have got no further with discovering what work went into these books, but I have read a lot of stories on Hessayon. For one of the most successful garden writers of all time, there is little information about the man. He is, apparently, famously reclusive. I’ve managed to connect a few dots together from the internet. I can’t speak to the accuracy of some of the sources, but interesting nevertheless.

My copy of the houseplant “bible”

I was vaguely aware that he had made a fortune, but little beyond that. The story is engaging but tinted with sadness at what may have been lost with his retirement from writing.

David Gerald Hessayon was born on February 13th 1928 in Manchester. His Cypriot father, Jack, was a watchmaker. He lost his mother, Lena, when he was six. A fact he attributes to part of his success.

A kid says in his mind, “It’s a bloody unfair world and if I’m not smart, things could turn out even worse”. I think that’s true for me. I knew that things do happen, that it’s not a bed of roses and that you’re going to have to fight to survive. Life has got a cruel edge.

David describes the garden as just a little plot with four square beds, some lilies and a hydrangea. As his father’s health wasn’t too good he helped. It wasn’t so much for a love of gardening, but for a love of his father. Which, as a father I certainly know Alice comes to help me for the positive attention she gains in that time.

He attended Salford Grammar School. The school which amongst others has given us: Albert Finney, Peter Hook, Mike Leigh and David Quinn. He grew up helping look after his fathers small garden.

“I was blessed by being poor,” said Dr Hessayon, who prefers to be called Dave. “We had no money, but my father’s great love was this little garden in front of the house. I gardened from five years old to please him.

“Each plant was a green pet and I got to know everyone. It sounds mad, but having so few and not having money to start again, you appreciated each plant.”

David studied Botany and Chemistry at Leeds University, graduating in 1950. He worked as an assistant lecturer in Manchester and then gained his PhD in soil ecology at Manchester University. The PhD document was one of the reasons for becoming an author.

‘It was green with gold letters on it…. I thought, “This is what I want to do”.

In 1949 he met his U.S. born future wife Joan. He went to work for her father in a Missouri newspaper. They married April 2nd 1951. Over the years they have had two daughters: Angelina and Jacqueline.

In 1955 he began work at Pan Brittanica Industries (PBI). Here he made agrochemicals. The company is best known for Baby Bio, a product familiar to almost all gardeners. In 1959 he bought out his first book, through PBI, “Be your own gardening expert”. The basic idea of these books was “easy to follow advice and information you can trust.

“The real secret of my work is that people feel at ease with them. People say they are the kind of books which they could have written themselves, which is really the best compliment.”

Over the years I believe 28 books have been published covering pretty much any aspect of gardening you could want information on. As already said, the houseplant expert is considered a definitive text. The books don’t suffer from fashions. There are mentions of rock gardens, gravel gardens, houseplants and other styles that have gone in and out of fashion. If there is something you fancy doing with your garden chances are Hessayon wrote about it. The presentation of the books is probably seen as quite old-fashioned. But, the illustrations and text give you exactly the information needed.

Some of the book push gardening techniques that are unpopular now. As an employee of an agrochemical company and later managing director (1964-91) and then chairman of the board (973-1993), the book often push weed killers that are no longer legal or considered good gardening practice. That said, you can still read and choose the techniques you want to use.

In 1993 a legal case was made against the company claiming the chemicals potentially caused cancer. It’s interesting looking back on the case in light of the recent Monsanto case. In this case, Monsanto is paying out despite no conclusive direct link being made to cancer. While I do garden without the use of weedkiller I’ve found the case interesting for its success and changing attitudes. The case against PBI, however, was dropped.

Many of the chemicals PBI produced have been banned by EU regulations. Hessayon has been outspoken about the regulations on these chemicals. Time will tell whether the agrochemical companies can create more products that conform to regulations. Or will we see more biological controls such as nematodes?

Charity shop bargain find

The irony of Hessayon writing the “green garden” in 2009 was commented on by many reviewers (thinking gardens review). In 2010 B&Q withdrew the expert series from their shelves in favour of Alan Titchmarsh’s how to garden series, despite significantly fewer sales. The Titchmarsh books covered the same subjects, had similar covers, but sold for £1 cheaper. I own a few and they are nice introductions to the subjects, but sadly don’t contain as much detail as Hessayon expert books.

David has criticised some of the TV garden makeover shows for the damage they have done to gardening. Which I have to say shows like ground force presented a fairly unrealistic version of gardening. A step away from the unrealism of a Chelsea show garden. One of the few shows of that style I’ve enjoyed was Monty Don’s Big dreams, small space. But this revisited gardens over a good period, so the gardens had time to develop. It also gave us Jack Wallington’s wonderful fern wall.

“People were expected to make a garden in less than 48 hours ‘before your wife gets back’. But in that time you could do nothing. You couldn’t even get the soil ready for a lawn. So I didn’t think much of that. The gameshow makeover garden in 48 hours was not very amusing.”

In 2013 he announced his retirement from writing. He listed the internet as one of the reasons for the demise of the gardening book. If people want to look something up they no longer need a book, they can look it up online. Sad, but probably true. If you look at the best selling garden books they are largely either TV gardeners or coffee table books of the Instagram kind. The actual content is often lacking. Not always, I refer to Carol Klein’s book on propagation regularly and Monty’s down to earth had lots of useful information. But many releases are now style over content. Plants being placed in the wrong places to create a good photo. His statement that to sell a book it needs to be something you can’t find on google is probably true. But, it saddens me that new gardeners may miss out on book knowledge gained from books like the expert series. Advice online differs massively in quality (my own included). Whereas Hesssayon is a qualified expert. While there are many sources of excellent information online it feels like something has been lost.

“Now it’s look at my garden or look at other people’s gardens. To write a bestseller now you need to choose something you can’t look up on Google.”

Davids contributions to gardening have been well recognised with the RHS Veitch memorial wedding in 1993. This is awarded to people who have made outstanding contributions to science and horticulture. Also in 1993, he received the National Book Awards lifetime achievement award. Then in 2007, he received an OBE.

“At 80 you run out of ambitions. I never had great ambitions. But I’ve been damn lucky. When you’ve been at the top of the bestseller lists for 50 years, you run out of ambitions.”

So having spent an afternoon reading through the various online sources I still don’t feel like I’ve even scratched the surface of this gardening legend. I apologise for any inaccuracies. I can only go off the limited information on this reclusive man available online. If anyone has any further information I will happily correct any mistakes. For now, I would like to thank David for the information he shared with many of us over the years. For those of you who have never encountered them check your charity shops and used and new on Amazon. For those of you familiar with the books what’s your favourite?

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Competition

I have one copy of the expert guide to houseplants. If you are interested check my Twitter and retweet and like the pinned post. Running until the end of Geo-Fleur’s Kickstarter campaign. It’s all or nothing with Kickstarter. The campaign is still off target, so please share. Even if you don’t want to pledge to Geo-Fleur, you have the chance to win a very useful book.