Nectar-rich versus Franken-flowers: Sarah Raven’s buzz


We’ve been drinking in the glory of high-def tv this week with the sumptuous floral close-ups of Sarah Raven’s latest Bees, Butterflies and Blooms episode. Unfortunately Britain’s insects are drinking very little in gardens that lean heavily on double begonias, busy lizzies and other flowers that offer no pollen or nectar. They are empty: their sweet nectary bits have been bred out of them, in exchange for extra petals and other showy attributes. (Jump to the bottom of this post if you want tips on how to choose flowers that are bee-friendly).

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Our garden here at Mercat Cottage is fairly buzzy with flowers that make insects happy, from the February crocus to the early November cosmos daisies. This flower choice was more through accident than art; so was our choice to put in a pond, which was really meant for the newts and slugivore frogs, but which I’ve learned is vital for bees, who consume litres of water. (In this week’s episode, Sarah Raven’s beardy garden naturalist told her she could bump up the wildlife value of her walled garden “two points” by adding water).

The “perfect for pollinators” initiative launched by the Horticultural Trades Association and the RHS, also discussed in this week’s show, was probably the single most important blow for Sarah’s campaign. Gardeners need advice at the point of sale, and the yellow and black logo will now make it easier to choose pollen and nectar-rich plants in the garden centre. It’s a shame it’s taken so long to do something so sensible; gardening magazines, even those I love, haven’t done enough to drive home the urgency of the biodiversity message. The magazine messages I remember about pollinating insects and garden plant choice have been along the lines of, “double plants don’t do much for bees.” After listening to Sarah, I think her alarmist opening gambit (“pollinators are in crisis and we gardeners have to act now”) is more appropriate at this stage of the game: three species of bees are extinct and hundreds more insects are on the brink because traditional habitats (country wildflower meadows) have been replaced by modern farming methods.

The millions of hectares of British back gardens could feed rather than frustrate pollinators who land on our flowers looking for a nectar payload, not just pretty colours. My husband calls the foodless plants — like the double begonias — “Franken-flowers” and he’s right. Over-bred and over-valued by gardeners craving a “wow” factor, they could easily be exchanged for colourful and nutritious alternatives, flowers that take care of the “wow” as well as the welfare of insects. Don’t forget, they’re the ones who pollinate the crops that feed our families.

“Why does biodiversity matter?”

It’s fair to ask the question, and I did once, when speaking to an ecologist. I’m a writer by day and was doing a brochure for a university wanting to attract more students to study science at third level. I asked him why biodiversity — multiplicity of habitats and species — is so important. He told me the stories you’ve probably already heard, but which were new to me in 2009, about the disappearance of bees in parts of China, where crops now need to be hand-pollinated by humans. That’s expensive — but it’s also the beginning of who-knows-what kinds of chain reactions in the environment.

Biodiversity, the ecologist said, is like the rivets in an airplane: lose one habitat or species, and it may not matter; but you never know which loss will trigger the catastrophe.

“What flowers should I plant to help bees and butterflies?”

In the cutting garden I’ve been planning as part of my New Year’s Gardening resolutions, I’ll have lots of sunflowers, lemon basil and zinnias. I’d thought about skipping the sunflowers, but now that I know the bees and other insects need them badly, they’re going to make the cut.

Sarah’s experts on the show this week made it clear what to look for when planting bee- and butterfly-friendly flowers:

  • Visible pollen: If you can see the yellow centre, there’s probably something there for bees. Bees need daisy-like flowers and other “singles” that aren’t so packed with petals you can’t see the flower’s reproductive bits.
  • Variety of shapes: Imagine a crocus, a foxglove, a daisy, a buddleia (butterly bush), an achillea and a lily. From trumpet shapes to goblets, flat landing pads to long clusters of close-packed flowers, all require the insect to work in a different way to get the pollen and nectar. This attracts and feeds a wider range of insects than loading up your garden with a single flower type or shape.
  • Early to late: Look for plants offering food in the quiet periods like February and October…fill any gaps like these with flowers guaranteed to offer nectar and pollen, so insects never go away empty-handed.
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  • No excuse for no water: If you’ve no water already, go outside today and fill a large drip tray or shallow bowl with water and put a stone in the middle for insects to land on. Tiny ponds are also cheap to buy and easy to maintain, if you’re feeling more ambitious.

Make a bee-loud border

Remember the Yeats poem about his desire to live in a “bee-loud glade”? Imagine if British domestic gardens were full of bee-loud borders. We may live in imperfect and troubled times, but still — what a wonderful world that would be.


Gardeners World 2011: maybe it will grow on me


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Have you seen the 2011 season of Gardeners World, just aired? I know it’s easier to sit behind a keyboard and critique than get behind a camera and make it, but here’s what I would’ve done differently (and what they may still have in store for the coming season, who knows?):

Monty and someone else in his own garden — how much chemistry can one man have with his buxus? Let’s see some kind of occasional assistant working alongside Monty in his lovely garden (and why not call Monty’s garden Ivington, since that’s what it’s really called, viz The Ivington Diaries? The makey-uppy Longmeadow name is not keeping it real — a bad start when the new GW needs to build trust. Monty has since tweeted that Longmeadow is the old name of the garden…I think that needs saying on air)

Joe Swift at his best — What did you think of Rachel de Thame and Joe Swift being sent off around the country as jobbing gardeners in otherwise immaculate NGS Gardens? Feels too low-level for these skilled folk. This idea is a boring bit they’ve lifted from the otherwise quite watchable Open Gardens show (where candidate gardens compete to make it into the National Gardens Scheme’s Yellow Book, which lists gardens that open for charity). The idea feels awkwardly pasted into Gardeners World as busy work for Rachel and Joe. I’d love to see Joe designing, maybe in urban spaces. In my opinion he excels at it, and I want to see more of it.

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Bring back Alys Fowler — I was racking my brains Saturday night thinking how GW could have kept Alys and made better use of her on the show. Doing urban gardens with Joe Swift would have been a no-brainer. A visit to my local Dobbies showed a vast section of seeds devoted just to the urban gardener, as well as balcony boxes and other small-space accoutrements. Can anyone doubt that urban gardening is a massive upwards trend? Alys’s credentials speak for themselves in that area, and Joe would be a perfect partner. As it is, both Alys and Toby Buckland are the babies sitting in a puddle of bathwater on the kerb. Mistake.

A woman in her garden — Rachel de Thame is beautiful, but I’m tired of hearing that her looks are the only reason she’s back on air. She’s a knowledgeable writer, gardener and broadcaster and just a couple years ago she took on her dream patch in the country. Why aren’t we seeing Rachel in her own garden, designing that young space? If you want to be a sexist pig about it, it would provide plenty of opportunity for shirtsleeves and ogling. But if instead, like me, you identify with young mothers who struggle to find time for children, work and the garden, Rachel in her own space would strike the perfect note, shirtsleeves or no.

Carol and more Carol — I loved the BBC red button coverage of Chelsea Flower Show a couple years ago, where Carol Klein just roamed about and wowed over the plants. It’s good that Gardeners World now has her visiting open gardens; hopefully it’ll provide plenty of opportunity for her to talk about plants with fellow experts. But wouldn’t it be good to also see Carol working alongside Rachel in Rachel’s garden, as some kind of learned-oracle presence? Carol is too established to be an assistant, but she could be an advisor, and the partnership would offer a lovely older/younger woman dynamic that I bet millions would relate to — including Carol, who often speaks of her own time gardening with her late mother.

It’s absolutely right that Gardeners World is centered around a stunning garden, a strong personality and skilled gardener with vision, passion and knowledge to share, like Monty Don. But how many gardeners out there have Monty-scale dilemmas (“what shall I do with my large garden and mature pleached limes?”) Sure, have Monty’s garden as the standard to which we can aspire, but use the rest of the show to strike notes which really resonate with the people filling their trolleys at the garden centre, online and off-line.

Speaking of online: Attn gardeners world producer Gill Tierney, why not take a leaf out of the book of Later with Jools Holland and display a twitter hashtag at the start of Gardeners World – can I suggest #BBCGW? You might be surprised who’s watching and tweeting. You were quick enough to broadcast an e-mail address where viewers can send in gardening dilemmas that may be featured on the show. (How many days will it take the intern to go through that inbox?) Instead of just inviting work for themselves, why doesn’t the GW production team use technology to take the temperature of the twittersphere, and eavesdrop on what people really think of GW?

I’ll be watching GW, but if they want to win more hearts and minds than just mine, they’ll have to dig a little deeper.

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A good gardening podcast is hard to find


Click for larger imageIf you hunger for good gardening podcasts as much as I do, you know they’re hard to find. Here’s my list of favourites, from the unmissable at number one to the merely OK at number eight. I’ve given the web address of the feed; I hope this will let you track down the show and subscribe to it with whatever podcast tool you use. I use Google Listen on an Android phone, and I’ve created a folder in Google Reader called “Listen Subscriptions” that lets me add any new podcast if I know its Web address.

I know that all sounds a bit technical. If you have any questions, let me know, and I’ll try to help you. (By the way, I’m now doing my own rather stumbly Stopwatch Gardener podcast, which you can subscribe to here for iTunes or another podcast player.

  1. Gardeners’ Corner with Cherrie McIlwaine
    Feed URL:
    My all-time favourite. Host Cherrie is a true radio talent, painting evocative pictures of the gardens she visits, making everything sound magical and intriguing. It’s the one podcast I really miss if it’s not available immediately after its usual Saturday recording date. The show, broadcast by BBC Radio Ulster in Northern Ireland, has also hit on the perfect mix of phone-ins, visits to stunning gardens, chats with experts, road shows, and on-site help with listeners’ gardens. About 22 minutes per episode.
  2. The Greendays Gardening Panel with Steve Scher
    Feed url:
    KUOW radio in Seattle has put together an excellent Tuesday gardening panel which takes questions by telephone and from its Facebook page, hosted by Steve Scher with advice from Willie Galloway (perky veg expert), Greg Rabourn (conservationist and tree guy) and Marty Wingate (the one who uses Latin plant names). I love their no-nonsense approach and the satisfying 50-minute format, and their knowledge about what works in the Pacific Northwest and their willingness to share it is evident. I wish they’d use more Latin names; I once spent a half an hour googling for the ground cover plant “kinnickkinnick” (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).
  3. Gardening with Tim and Joe – Tim Crowther and Joe Maiden
    Feed URL:
    This folksy advice show from BBC Radio Leeds is notable for its insights on growing fruit and vegetables, as well as routine care of garden plants like roses, chrysanthemums and more. I like the “back to basics” feature, and gardener Joe Maiden’s decades of experience shine through, although I wish he wouldn’t call every plant of the week “absolutely fantastic”. Short and sweet, just 12 minutes per episode.
  4. A Way To Garden with Margaret Roach
    Feed URL:
    This US gardening luminary writes the “A Way to Garden” blog and has just published a new book, “And I shall have some peace there,” about the New York garden she commuted to for two decades and now lives in permanently. Host Jill could do with sounding more in charge, but I like Margaret’s insights on seed sowing, managing a mature garden, and why going organic is worth it. About 20 minutes per episode.
  5. Gardeners’ Question Time with Eric Robson or Peter Gibbs
    Feed URL:
    This weekly BBC radio broadcast is a must-listen for the range of unrehearsed questions the experts can answer, and although I like Peter Gibbs, I wince at episodes hosted by Eric Robson, who manages to be jolly and disdainful in the same breath. The conflicting and/or bad advice given by the expert panel can become wearing (why did they just advise listeners not to bother doing a big tidy up of last season’s fallen rose leaves? David Austin experts told me the February clean-up is a golden rule for preventing ills like blackspot, and I believe them.) I do appreciate many of the insights from panellists like Bob Flowerdew and pest expert Pippa Greenwood, despite her recent broad slur against gardening blogs. About 50 minutes per episode.
  6. HearSay with Cathy Lewis and Jim Orband
    Feed URL:
    This podcast from Virginia would be much higher up the list if it were more frequent, but Jim Orband only joins Cathy once a month, and their chat doesn’t have its own feed, so you need to keep an eye on the episodes and download the ones with Jim. He takes phone-in questions from listeners, and his willingness to share knowledge (and gardeners’ hunger to learn) is wonderful to behold — listen and marvel as he gives out his e-mail address for people to send in extra questions. I do like the banter between Cathy and Jim; she’s a truly likable host.
  7. North Country Public Radio – Cooperative Extension horticulturist Amy Ivy talks to Todd Moe
    Feed URL:
    Amy’s interviews with Todd are too new to me to rank higher on the list, and like the Cathy Lewis podcast, this is another one that doesn’t break out its gardening into a separate feed. But I’m now watching out every Monday for Amy’s segment, which gives practical, seasonal advice I appreciate. About 10 minutes per show.
  8. Dean of Green
    Feed URL:
    Sultry-voiced Laura Kennedy speaks to Don Schmidt of the Illinois State University School of Biological Sciences. Laura’s incessant station identification (WGLT) is irritating, but Don Schmidt is incredibly knowledgeable and his enthusiasm is infectious. I’ve picked up a few useful tips on everything from moving peonies to the biological inner workings of plants. Super short, only about seven minutes per episode. Don takes questions from anyone, anywhere, just submit yours online at — yes, you guessed it —

Attention broadcasters and bloggers – we want more, quality gardening podcasts. Why has the Scotland’s Gardens podcast has gone off air? And someone tell me why the otherwise useful and veg-centric UK online gardening community has made its GC podcast unsubscribable-to. (You can only listen to it within the walled garden of GardenersClick. Must do better, GardenersClick.) There must be hundreds of thousands of gardeners out there who, like me, would love to listen more and learn more, and would certainly be disposed to remember the names of sponsors who back such podcasts.

Do you know any other good gardening podcasts I could listen to? Do tell.

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Five things you didn’t know about the new Gardens Illustrated website


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Been thinking about whether the Web is going to kill glossy gardening magazines? No? Phil and James and lots of other people have been. But from the looks of the latest Web efforts by the UK’s aspirational Gardens Illustrated magazine, the glossies won’t go down without a fight. A bit of digging this morning turned up the following interesting facts about GI‘s shiny new web self:

  1. Looks nice and it didn’t take long: According to Editor Juliet Roberts, the relaunched site took only four weeks to turn around; granted it has the BBC magazines online team behind it, but still, that’s reassuringly fast.
  2. The magazine’s bloggers want your views: Although not enabled at launch last week, the site’s “Add a comment” feature went live today and, if you’ve seen this magazine in the past, you’ll know that this is a step change for a premium glossy where readers’ voices were previously confined to Letters. Roberts and Deputy Editor Sorrell Everton are already blogging about shows, design and other issues, and are looking for your reaction. Go forth and comment, ye bloggers.
  3. Breaking down the garden walls: If you find Gardens Illustrated stand-offishly highbrow, the editorial team wants to change your mind. “It’s unfortunate that Gardens Illustrated has been seen as unapproachable — as editor I would like to change that,” Roberts said. “I believe we can still deliver the very best, top-notch content and take a more sharing approach with readers. I’ve been working hard to make the magazine more accessible and the new site is edging us further towards that.” On the cards are GI on Twitter, additional podcasts and more chances for readers to contribute content, including potentially users’ own garden images and a discussion forum.
  4. Web exclusives are a feature: Roberts says the site isn’t just a repurposing of print material; Web exclusives will feature in Garden Visits, Plants and other areas. The publication seems to grasp that online readers don’t just want a re-hash of print content anyway.
  5. The US market is in their sights: International gardeners already revelling in the atmospheric Britishness of UK exports like David Austin Roses will be interested to hear that Gardens Illustrated is aiming squarely at global markets, the US in particular. Traditional marketing to those geographies is prohibitively expensive and like other resource-strapped BBC titles, GI will do what it can to use online to reach out to new audiences.

With other parts of the BBC web presence facing as much as 25 percent cuts in staff and talk of reducing its web activity, guarding against a potential money pit is a key priority for GI, which is run by BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the Beeb. “A number of magazines were very gung-ho about their websites and these have become great big black holes that people are wheel-barrowing money down,” Roberts said. “We’re going slow and cutting our cloth accordingly.”

How do you think Gardens Illustrated should include readers more in its online activities? Go on, I know you’ve got ideas.

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