Tag Archives: review

You Should Have Been Here Last Week – Book Review

I was sent this book to review by the lovely people at Pimpernel Press – I’d never really heard of a garden critic before and thought it sounded entertaining – it was! The opening line of the introduction is ‘You should have been here last week. That’s what people always say to garden writers.’ I don’t think it’s saved just for garden writers – I’ve heard that exact phrase from members of my local gardening club when it’s their turn to host a visit. It’s like the fish that got away.

Tim Richardson is quite a prolific author, having written a number of books about landscapes and gardens as well as being a regular contributor to publications such as the Daily Telegraph, Country Life and House and Garden. He writes about all manner of garden-related topics from trends and events to ghosts, films and accidents in gardens. We visit Europe, the US, China and South Korea, as well as the breadth of the UK in this book and I was pleased to see a few Scottish gardens making the cut – Little Sparta, Jupiter Artland and Broughton House.

‘Sharp Cuttings From a Garden Writer’, the byline for the book title, is about right too, it felt absolutely right that I should photograph the book next to a cactus! Richardson is certainly provocative and I can see why his musings have caused outrage and/or demands for apologies from all quarters – education establishments, gardens, gardeners, gardening bodies and committees. He sticks to his guns too – in one such incident The Garden Design Journal issued an apology to The London College of Garden Design, however below the apology was a statement from Richardson making it clear that he stood by his article. He does remind me, somewhat wryly, of my dad – he doesn’t mind ruffling feathers and I get the distinct impression he aims his grenades with precision and then sits back waiting for the explosions with glee! I’m almost petrified to write this in case he should happen upon it and tear me off a strip or two for my own ignorance and presumption.

This book is a collection of articles that were published mainly in the Telegraph and Garden Design Journal (before he was ‘let go’ after some tongue in cheek comments about a fictitious award/sponsor/winner) between 2004 and 2016. The reviews on the jacket tell us we’re in for “informed criticism”, “an entertaining read”, “incisive, witty, opinionated and thought-provoking” – it’s all of these things. It’s not the sort of book you can sit down and read in one go but is delightful to digest a couple of short articles at a time. As a result of reading the book, I can say that I’ve been educated. – I thought it was plants/gardening I know little about – it turns out there’s so much more that I’ve never even considered. I now have an extensive list of places I would like to visit, both here and further afield, as well as a couple of film recommendations – Alan Rickman and Kate Winslet in ‘A Little Chaos’  sounds right up my street!

Unlikely, but I really do hope that one day my path crosses Richardson’s – he seems like exactly the sort of person you could pass a wonderfully, intelligent, frank (waspish) and entertaining few hours with, over a drink or two. Which has just reminded me about his story of nearly getting taken out by a viburnum that had been blown out of a living wall some 60 foot above, while he was sipping champagne at some fancy gardening event – that’s exactly the sort of thing that would happen to me!

This is a great read for anyone who likes to challenge the status quo, enjoys gardening or visiting them and has ever wished they could stick a literary two fingers up (and for it to mean a damn)!


Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane – Book Review

I’m a lover of language and when I see an interesting-looking word I just have to try it out loud to see how it trips off the tongue. Living in Scotland is perfect for indulging this little hobby with place names such as Kircudbright (pronounced ‘kurcoobray’) Ecclefechan (‘eckelfeckan’), Auchenshuggle (‘awkenshuggle’), Auchtermuchty (‘awktermucktay’) and Findochty (‘fineckty’). Not to mention words like dreich (rainy, miserable), sleekit (cunning, sly), wheesht (shush!), coo (cow), crabbit (grumpy), stookey (plaster cast)  and bampot and eedjit (both meaning idiot). But enough about me…

Robert Macfarlane is a collector of words, words primarily about nature. He’s written several books on language but Landmarks is the first time I’d come across him (it was on on the kindle 99p offer a while back and sounded like my kind of read). It’d been shortlisted for a couple of awards (The Wainwright Prize and The Samuel Johnson Prize) so also packs some literary clout behind the cover-blurb…

Landmarks is Robert Macfarlane’s joyous meditation on words, landscape and the relationship between the two.

Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes are grained into our words. Landmarks is about 
the power of language to shape our sense of place. It is a field guide to the literature of nature, and a glossary containing thousands of remarkable words used in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales to describe land, nature and weather. Travelling from Cumbria to the Cairngorms, and exploring the landscapes of Roger Deakin, J. A. Baker, Nan Shepherd and others, Robert Macfarlane shows that language, well used, is a keen way of knowing landscape, and a vital means of coming to love it.

On diving in to the book, it is the type of book that beckons you to just jump right in, it immediately becomes apparent that the author is a logophile (a lover of words deriving from the Greek – logos, meaning
“speech, word” and philos, meaning “dear, friendly”) in extremis. He’s clearly spent a very long time collecting an astonishing hoard of words from around the British Isles relating to nature, the weather and our landscape – words that have often been long-forgotten and in danger of dying out altogether . In Landmarks he now generously shares them, along with an insight to the works of some of his inspirations (Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, JA Baker, The Peregrine, Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams and Peter Davidson’s ‘The Idea of the North’).

At the end of each chapter there’s a glossary of words that will delight – some of my favourites include:

Aquabob – icicle (Kent)

Billow – snowdrift (E.Anglia)

Blinter – cold dazzle (Scots)

Drookit – soaked or drowned (Doric0

Fleeches – large snowflakes (Exmoor)

Foggit – covered in moss or lichen (Scots)

Glincey – slippery (Kent)

Haggy – boggy and full of holes (Scots)

Plodge – to wade in water (N.E. England)

Pollywiggle – a newt (Norfolk)

Roorie-Bummlers – fast moving clouds (Scots)

Spangin – walking vigorously (Scots)

Spuddle – mess about in the garden (Devon)

Turdstool – a very substantial cowpat (S.W. England)

Twitchel – a narrow path between hedges (Midlands)

Urchin – a hedgehog (Cheshire)

Williwaw – sudden violent squall (Nautical)

Landmarks is a wonderful read that transports you from the peat moors of the Outer Hebrides into the skies and on to the shores of our wonderfully varied landscape. I happily accept Macfarlane’s challenge of bringing these ‘jewels’ back and rewilding our language with these gloriously descriptive words. This really is a book that you need to hold and thumb through so I’ll now need to acquire myself a hard copy version.

As an aside – I’ve since read Nan Shepherd’s Living Mountain (purely because of this book) and Macfarlane’s effusive praise is not unwarranted- it’s probably the best book about people/place I’ve ever read. Macfarlane provides the foreword in the copy I have. I’ve also added most of the other books he mentions in Landmarks to my wishlist.


SEED: The Untold Story (Film Review)

Last week, myself and a couple of classmates went along to a special screening of SEED: The Untold Story that had been organised by the local Permaculture Society. 94% of our seed diversity has disappeared in the 20th century, and many more irreplaceable seeds are near to extinction. SEED is a frightening yet heartening story of passionate seed keepers as they wage a David and Goliath battle against chemical seed companies who now control over two-thirds of the global seed market, reaping unprecedented profits while denying farmers the rights to save their own seeds.

I was particularly keen to see this film as I recently did an assignment on seed sovereignty and Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist and founder of Navdanya. Navdanya means 9 seeds and the organisation campaigns for the right to conserve seed and biodiversity, among other things and I have become very moved to get involved in some way and do my bit by growing open-pollinated edibles, seed saving and sharing. Vandana appears in this movie along with many other characters each doing what they can to preserve our food heritage.

This feature length movie is beautifully shot – the opening sequence is a feast for the eyes and it introduces us to a range of players on all sides of the issue, there are some of the well-known ones like Jane Goodall and Vandana Shiva however it was the other characters that charmed and inspired. Joe Simcox can be best described as the Steve Irwin of the seed world as he travels the world ‘gung-ho’ searching for new edible plant species. Will Bonsall is a highly entertaining white-haired hippie and founder of the Scatterseed Project, a genetic conservation project in Maine. Emigdio Ballon a Bolivian of Inca descent builds a collection of seeds in the back of a trailer in New Mexico.

We’re also introduced to a community on the Hawaiian island of Kauai where biotech giants have been given free reign to test experimental chemicals. The people are becoming ill and dying and children are being born with deformities – they’re fighting these companies in court to try and get the to reveal what chemicals are being sprayed.

Will Bonsall, founder of The Scatterseed Project

We take a trip to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway which hosts the world’s largest collection of crop diversity and is designed to withstand natural or man made disasters and protect our food for the future. After discovering earlier in the film that an important seed bank in Iraq was blown up when we invaded – all their seeds were lost – forever. It really brings home the enormity of the consequences of allowing large global enterprises, who only care about profit, to manage our food supply.

I would happily see this movie again, it’s beautiful and inspiring despite the frightening message beneath the surface. Please go and see it.



Get Plants – A New Book from Kew (Review)

I was recently sent a review copy of ‘Get Plants – How to bring green into your life’ – the latest book from Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. I seem to have grown a fondness, bordering on obsession, with gardening-related books these days  so any chance of indulging this new habit is fine with me.

The book has been written by Katherine Price, a trained gardener who worked at Kew for 10 years specialising in alpine and woodland plants. She has also worked on four gold medal winning gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show. The introduction draws on research that suggest having plants around is not only imperative to our existence but also improves our mood, memory and positive energy as well as studies that show people who spend time with plants have better relationships – I think us plant lovers will largely agree that there are many beneficial effects of having greenery in our lives.

The book aims to give the back story to a large range of easy to acquire plants that are simple to grow and will fit in to the different areas of your home and outdoor spaces in pots and containers. Plants that will fit ‘your style’ and brighten your home and life and radiate more of that positive energy. It covers such a broad spectrum of plants that it should have much appeal as a generalist guide encouraging people to rethink their space and get that bit greener.

On initial flick through my first impression was ‘ooh, nice pictures’, it definitely has that coffee table look and appeal to it so I waited for a quiet night home alone so I could sneak upstairs early with a cup of tea and read it. There are a number of things I like about this book – the photography is lovely and as a keen, but very amateur, gardener I learnt a huge amount of things such as how to over-winter plants typically considered as annuals, how to take cuttings from a variety of plants as well as the origins of many plants. I had no idea until reading this book that it’s pelargoniums (and not geraniums) that you see all over the place in those iconic blue pots in Greece. It was also really interesting to read about NASA’s research with plants in preparation for our colonisation of the moon (still ongoing). They discovered that certain plants are particularly good at cleaning up our environments by removing toxins emitted by mass produced clothes, furniture and wall coverings. They also remove bioeffluents, mould spores and bacteria as well as refreshing our oxygen and raising indoor humidity which helps counter issues caused by dry air from central heating systems.

There are also ‘Kew Tips’ littered throughout the book and one I have to try suggests that the pots of growing herbs you buy from the supermarket can actually be split and propagated so that you can harvest them for months instead of days. There’s also an environmental awareness running throughout with information on peat-free compost and how to make your own, warnings on the provenance of plants, recycling and sharing of cuttings.

There were some things I found a bit frustrating – there are lovely quotes from Kew gardeners throughout the book, however, often there are no pictures of the plant that they are referencing on that page so I had to turn to google to look these plants up numerous times. The photographs aren’t labelled individually so you have to spend some time working out which is which from the notes and often they are quite generic descriptions such as ‘dahlias’ or ‘petunias’ without the specific type, which would have been nice to know. The real niggle for me was the language used in some of the chapter titles ‘Trashy’, ‘Romper Room’ and ‘Lurve’ which seemed discordant with the content and Kew Gardens. But maybe that’s just me with my overly-genteel sensibilities.

Despite my niggles, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Get Plants and it would make a nice gift, however, caveat emptor (buyer beware) this book will likely having you rushing out to your nearest nursery and spending a small fortune if you’re anything like me. I now ‘need’ an African Violet, Florist’s Cyclamen, Mother in Law’s Tongue, Hostas (all of them), Purple Aeonium, String of Beads, Blue Star Fern, Elephant’s Ear and a Hyacinth – told you! Not a bad shopping list from one book.

RRP £25 and it will be released on 1st July. Available here on Amazon


Parrot Pot – A Connected Plant Care Device (Product Review)

I was very excited when I received an email about the new Parrot Pot – a plant pot with an inbuilt self-watering and regulating system that you connect to through a mobile app. I love new technology and seeing how the internet can help with everyday functions.

I was kindly sent one to review, here’s how I got on…

Just planted, but I’d forgotten to add the base!

It arrived nicely packaged but was quite a bit bigger than I’d been expected – the pot itself is about 32cm high when stood in its base but I suppose it needs to be that tall to house its 2.2-litre water reservoir.

The instructions were all pretty simple to follow and I soon had my plant potted and downloaded the app. Again, it was all nice and simple – I was guided through the set-up, I actually didn’t know the type of plant so I wasn’t able to make use of the installed directory – I believe that if matched with one of those it provides plant-specific care based on the data it has. The pot connected to the app without any issues.

After the first few days of set-up, it was great to see how the plant was being watered regularly and how the soil moisture was changing – the plant I’d used was quite a bushy headed one which meant it was difficult to water from above – part of the reason I’d chosen it for the pot, I’d clearly been under-watering it as it quite quickly used up the first 2 litres from the reservoir.

Plant is noticeably thriving

I’ve had it set up about a week now and I have to say that my plant is looking better than ever, it’s started spreading and growing down over the sides of the pot – it’s clearly very happy. It’s been super interesting monitoring progress through the app. There are graphs of watering, sunshine and temperature if you really want to geek out. I’ve had a couple of instances when the app has told me system maintenance was required and the app simply tests the water jets and then asked me to tamp down the soil and then it was all back to normal, not sure if this is because the plant is overhanging and partially covering the sensor. This morning I noticed some leakage on the window sill – the base which catches run-off from watering was full, not sure if this is a design flaw or because the plant has been over-watered, maybe because we don’t know what type of plant it is so that it can adjust to the plant’s specific requirements.

Getting geeky with graphs

So what do I think? I like it, I really love the technology and can see this having a place in the modern home. My only concern would be the price – it’s retailing at £129.99, although it’s currently on offer at £79.99. I have a LOT of plants indoors and most of them weren’t expensive purchases, just a few ££ each, so to pay that kind of money for enough pots to look after my plants would be seriously prohibitive. I’m sure because this is new technology, like all things, ways will be found to bring down the manufacture costs and once that’s been achieved (it’d need to be by quite some amount for me to purchase one, unfortunately), then I can see it as a much more viable product for the home. I guess if you had really rare or exotic plants then this could be a good investment. The pots have been built to be used indoors or outdoors so it could be worthwhile for more expensive outdoor plants that might benefit from regular watering and monitoring.

PS if anyone knows what type of plant this is please do let me know and I can update the app!

I’m really excited to see how this kind of technology develops.

You can find out more about Parrot Pot here on their website.