Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Should we Flattr as well as Comment?

If you can't play the introducing Flattr video embedded above, try this link instead.

Today's been declared Pay a Blogger day by the people at Flattr, a social micropayments scheme designed to reward bloggers via readers and other bloggers who've signed up for it. Each signee decides how much they'd like to pay per month (a small fee, minimum 2 euros ) and bloggers who like the idea can display a button on their blogs.

If someone signed up to the scheme finds a blogger they like who's displaying the button, they can click on it in appreciation. At the end of the month their monthly fee is divided amongst all the sites they've clicked on. The idea is the blogging community can be rewarded for all the sparkling content they provide free of charge.

All this of course is dependent on people signing up and I suspect today's Pay a Blogger designation is to try and gain some publicity and generate awareness. Until last week I'd only found one blog displaying the badge: Patrick at Bifurcated Carrots. The link takes you to his latest post about the scheme. Zoe kindly brought Jane Alexander's post about it to my attention and so I resolved to write about it today.

I can see the attractiveness of the idea, especially for really good content providers. Many bloggers wish to retain their independence and not go down the advertising route to gain something for the often considerable time they give so freely. However, I'm not really sure how well it's been taken up by either bloggers or readers. I also believe it's dependent on having a significant proportion of non-blogging readers for it to work well.

Flattr isn't the only blog donation scheme available, though the others I've found aren't centred around the social side of blogging, nor geared towards regular payments. Garden Rant has had a Tip Jar for ages and NAH is using Blogger's Donate button to raise funds for his beloved steam engine restoration. I have no idea how well any of these options actually work in terms of generating funds.

Having looked at Flattr and the other donation buttons available, I've decided not to go down this route for now. I'm managing to cover the costs of my blogging via my Sponsors and my visitor numbers are increasing significantly, so it looks like you're not put off by them. 'Payment' via your comments will suffice for me, dear Reader :)

Update: Other social micropayment schemes are out there, such as Kachingle

Should we Flattr as well as Comment? Let me know your thoughts below.

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NB In case you hadn't realised, this is my penultimate post for NaBloPoMo and tomorrow's Wordless Wednesday post is all ready to go. Both you and I will be relieved to return to normal blogging frequency soon ;)

Monday, 28 November 2011

On Assignment With David Perry

One of the highlights of our trip to Seattle was the photography workshop kindly provided by David Perry. I've followed his blog for a number of years and from that know he's extremely talented and just how passionate he is about his subject. Here he's giving us our initial introduction at the start of our visit to the Bloedel Reserve - in the pouring rain, hence the slightly fuzzy shot.

Guess what's in the paper bag?...No Idea?... was a mirror - chosen to illustrate our first key point of the day: the most important element of taking a picture is ourselves. Each one of us is unique. This affects the way we see the world and ultimately the pictures we choose to take.
I hope David doesn't mind I've scanned his Fling handout into here. Apologies for the state of it, but a wet day in the Reserve, plus travelling thousands of miles hasn't kept it in a pristine condition. You can click to enlarge if necessary - there are some really good points on there which apply to any photography trip.

There were so many of us, David actually took 3 workshops. We were booked on the second, so having had our introductory talk, we headed out into the Reserve with our Assignment sheet, ready to find and capture the stories to tell the tale of our day.

It was rather romantic and fun to imagine ourselves as hotshot photographers ready to take pictures for a magazine. It also gave us an insight into David's regular work.

Then I learned my second key lesson for the day. Never go anywhere without spare batteries. Mine were running out within 20 minutes of starting our assignment. Luckily I had the next best thing: NAH with his camera, which I could snatch off him from on a regular basis when I saw a picture I wanted to take!

The Bloedel Reserve is the most wonderful of places, even on a wet day so there was no problem in finding stories and pictures to flesh them out.That's why I've put together a whole 'magazine cover' full of them in response to the assignment :)

Our main workshop session was after lunch, and David proved to be a humorous and clear teacher. His skill is being able to find a few key points which will help make all the difference to his audience. He also asked us what we'd like covered in the session. I requested breaking the rules, someone else about avoiding the cliche. I'll cover both of these in another post.

Here's what David had to say about equipment:
  • A miniature umbrella fixed onto the camera is ideal for protecting it during bad weather and acts as a handle helping to keep the camera steady
  • Don't buy a tripod from a photography shop. Very robust ones are available from Sears (US department store) for a fraction of the price. I'm hoping to find the equivalent over here
  • Use a flexible kitchen cutting board as a light diffuser - helps to even out the light on a subject
And his key general hints and tips about photography:
  • Get to know your camera well so you work with it, not fight it
  • For portraits - shoot into the sun so the subject is backlit and highlighted. This also ensures the lighting isn't flat
  • Step away from your camera's Auto facility. Use Programme and the +/- feature to under or overexpose shots when needed. Remember: the camera is 'programmed' to try and get everything 18% grey (including white), so playing around with the exposure ensures your pictures show their true colours
  • Don't be afraid to experiment and break 'the rules'. This is much easier nowadays with digital cameras rather than film
  • Above all else have fun and get out there and play!
We were moaning about the weather and David told us a miserable day is a great one for garden photography. The lighting is even for scenes and is good for bringing out greens. It can add atmosphere to a place. Having spent the day in the rain I can see his point - the story told might be different to the one originally envisaged, but decent shots were found. Of course it helps by taking them in a place like the Bloedel Reserve.

As well as the three workshops, David was so generous with his time and gave everyone who wanted one a mini critique of their work. NAH thoroughly enjoyed the workshop too, despite us having to take pictures of plants and we often discuss what we learnt on the day when we're out together with our cameras.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Felco Pruning Saw: Product Review

Before going to the Seattle Fling I'd heard they were giving away door prizes, but had no idea what that actually meant. It turns out they're items given out at some point in each activity on the Fling's timetable, usually over lunch or when everyone is gathered together for a good natter.

Quite often they were prizes in fun quizzes such as naming flowers in our host's garden or knowing a little something about Washington, such as its State flower*. When Lorene asked the question who's staying the longest in Seattle?, I was surprised to find it was me and even more surprised to find myself the owner of the pictured Felco pruning saw + spare blade, courtesy of David Fishman who'd generously donated it.

I was delighted, but soon began to worry I might not be able to get it home. Having been stopped at customs in Australia in 2003 with a metal kookaburra** in my hand luggage - you might get air rage and attack your neighbour with it madam*** - I had visions of being marched off as a potential terrorist like the shoe bomber or something. Luckily, packing it at the bottom of my suitcase proved to be the perfect solution to the problem.

It was the most timely of prizes to win as I've had to do plenty of cutting back of various trees both on the allotment and in the garden this autumn. I would usually have used my folding pruning saw, but it soon proved it wasn't up to the much bigger tasks I had for it this time. So out came my lovely shiny new Felco saw and it's finished the job with perfect ease. As you can see it's not the folding type, but instead comes with a tough protective holster which can be attached to a belt. I'm pleased no small boys saw me up at the allotment with it - I expect they would have mistaken it for a sword and challenged me to a duel ;)

* = Pacific Rhododendron aka Rhododendron macrophyllum
** = not quite as pictured colour or design wise, but close enough to give you an idea of the dastardly weapon I was carrying
*** = thankfully they saw sense and let me keep it. I slept most of the way home, so didn't have time for any air rage ;)

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Sites for Sore Eyes? More About Google Search

Last week I explored blog readability - thanks to all of you for your thoughtful comments :)

This week I'm looking at another change to Google's search capabilities I found out about at BlogCamp which you might not be aware of. Did you know the search result you see might be different to mine even if we enter the same search term at exactly the same time? This is because Google takes your previous searches and what you clicked on, plus the websites you visit through other means (e.g. via your bookmarks) into account when producing the list of sites it presents for you.

Most of the time this has little effect as it's very likely the site you want to look at is in the list. However, there are a couple of situations where it might not give you what you want to know:
  1. You may want to assess how your blog performs in a particular search e.g. on your blog's name , or whether e.g. a garden visit you wrote about features highly when that garden is searched for on the web
  2. The article you're writing is a knotty subject needing lots of research
By updating or looking at your blog on a regular basis, there's a chance any search you do where anything on your blog has those search terms will be returned higher up in the list you see than it would for someone else who's never or rarely reads your blog. Similarly when researching a topic, if the sites you regularly use for information match your search terms, they may be placed higher on your returned list. This means there's a risk you might miss something useful, particularly if you find your regular sources haven't quite returned what you wanted this time.

So if you want to see an unbiased view of your blog, or a good chance of finding some fresh research material, clear out your browser's cache*. Google is using the items stored there to determine what it 'thinks' you'd like to see.

What does all this have to do with the screen grab I'm featuring at the top of this post? It's illustrating how quickly search results may change depending on your browsing activities. I recently googled singing holiday Orkney to find out more about a holiday I'd heard about at choir.

You'll see the first search result after the adverts is called Candy Verney's Orkney Singing Holiday. However when I originally googled my search, it was the fifth one returned on the list. It was the only site I clicked on to look at. By using my computer's cache, the Google search engine has promoted its 'value' to me this time around and that little boost was enough to put it at the top of the list. Where it actually ends up each time also depends on the relative value placed by Google on the other sites matching my search terms.

This time I actually wanted to look at Orkney Island Holidays which appears at the bottom of the list today. It had caught my eye the first time when it appeared about half way down the page. I couldn't remember its exact name, but I could remember what I'd used in my search. As you can see, the site only just made it onto the first page of my results this time round.

I've also found out whilst researching this article it can be useful to use other search engines from time to time, particularly if you're looking for new material. I googled Veg Plotting on Bing and found Plant Mad Nige mentioned it in The Daily Mail in February. That's very nice to know. I've yet to find the same reference via Google, despite looking at 20 pages of returned results.

Whether or not you use this information depends on how happy you are with your search results or whether it's important to know how your blog performs in them. I thought you'd like to read about it because it might be useful sometime. Personally I'm not that comfortable with a computer deciding what I'd like to see. How about you?

* Update: Diana at Elephant's Eye has kindly left the following information in the Comments:

BTW if you Google Orkney Singing, as I just did - at the bottom it says View Customisations. There you can indeed toggle off the customisations, as G kindly asks - would you like to see the results ('without these improvements') before we sorted out what we think you want?! Much quicker and simpler than going to the cache.

Friday, 25 November 2011

How Advertising Works in Chippenham #28

  1. Form a company tapping into the increasingly lucrative accident compensation market
  2. Recruit a number of sales people to bring in the business you need
  3. Provide them with a mobile advertising unit just right for temporary high street installation
  4. Wait for a blogger with a camera to spot it has an in-built trip hazard
  5. Et voila!
Note that the usual blogger with a camera can be seen further down the street on the right. My thanks to NAH for spotting the possibilities and taking the photograph :)

Thursday, 24 November 2011

OOTS Extra: Snoqualmie

Serendipity brought us to this place. Having persuaded NAH to come with me to the Seattle Fling, he then found out one of his friends from Uni days lives in nearby Snoqualmie. I'd also earmarked it as a potential place of interest because it's home to an historic railroad :)

Both factors led us to spend quite a bit of time in the area. Having spent the night at D's lovely home overlooking the mountains, we also spent the last day of our holiday there. Wandering around the centre of this relatively small town, I quickly realised it has much to teach us about creating a sense of place in our public surroundings. In the above photo you can see the chosen paving looks like a silvered boardwalk and a generous decorative iron covering gives the street trees room to breathe.

Snoqualmie is proud of its railroad heritage and this is reflected in the pedestrian crossings on the side streets.

Even the drain covers are decorative and carry an important reminder they don't connect with a sewage treatment plant, but directly with a nearby stream.

The street layout celebrates the local river and famous waterfall which attracts visitors from miles around. Sculptures and some of the seating also reference the mountains nearby and their geology. It all makes for a most pleasant environment, which encouraged us to stay much longer than we'd planned.

Snoqualmie is a lumber town and was also a location for the cult 1990s TV programme Twin Peaks. I celebrated both of these aspects over at Sign of the Times :)

How does your town create its sense of place?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Wildflower Wednesday: 30 Degrees to Yakima

This is my final wildflower installment from our American roadtrip around Washington State and the Oregon Trail this summer. Firstly I need you to retrace your steps and imagine yourself on the relatively cool slopes of Mount Rainier, amongst the colourful Alpine meadows and the sweet mountain air...

Leaving the mountains and heading eastwards, the landscape soon changes most dramatically. The hills are more rolling in nature, brown in colour and sparsely vegetated. As we headed along the scenic route along the Tieton river valley, I looked up and realised we were travelling through the ancient beds of immense lava flows, hundreds of feet thick. The columnar structure of the rhyolite rock reminded me of basalt columns of the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland. I learned later these ancient lava flows are also hundreds of miles across. Imagine how active the volcanoes were at that time!

We're now in the rain shadow of the mountain where the annual rainfall drops dramatically from the 126 inches where we were at Paradise to a mere 8 inches at Yakima, our final destination for the day at around 90 miles from Mount Rainier. Here you can see the relative lushness of the river valley and how quickly the vegetation changes away from its banks. The spires of the tall Verbascum to the left of the picture show we're now amongst Mediterranean style vegetation, adapted to the hot, arid climate.

Here's a similar view to the previous picture with a cyclist to give it a sense of scale. There's plenty more Verbascum lining the road, plus the silvery sagebrush (aka Artemesia tridentata) which I learned later is the key shrub of this vegetation type in the States. Unlike the Verbascum, its yellow flowers don't appear until late summer/early autumn.

Back over the road again and a view looking upstream this time. The small leaved, silvery vegetation is a key adaptation for this climate, as are the low growing, furry leaves of the Verbascum. Both allow the plants to conserve what little moisture they find in the ground. What this picture doesn't convey is the sound of the rattlesnake I could hear which prevented me from exploring any further.

Having descended the mountain you can just see in the distance, we were much warmer. We experienced a change in temperature of over 30 degrees Fahrenheit between Paradise (65 degrees) and Yakima (97). This warmth and the fertile volcanic soil makes the land around Yakima one of the prime agricultural areas of the States, producing cherries, peaches, grapes, hops and suchlike. If you buy an American apple at the supermarket, then it's very likely to have come from there.

Unfortunately I didn't make NAH stop the car in time to show you the long rows of apple trees trained on vertical axis or y frames (modern apple training systems designed to grow many more trees per acre) with irrigation pipes along the top, so here's some sweetcorn instead. I was fully expecting a crop dusting airplane to come along at any moment, North by North West style. Looking at the roadside in the photograph and having told you about the climate and native vegetation of the area, I wonder how sustainable this level of agriculture actually is.

Why not hop over to Gail's to see what everyone else has for this month's Wildflower Wednesday? And if anyone is visiting from across the pond, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving for tomorrow :)

My other blogposts in this brief series:
At Mount St Helens - finding the wild form of one of my favourite garden plants
Streetside Delights? - a look at the ubiquitous Lathyrus latifolius
Mount Rainier's Delights - Alpine meadows

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Arne Maynard on Garden Design

Threadspider, T and I attended another great Bath University Gardening Club talk recently, this time courtesy of top garden designer Arne Maynard.

I'm showing a picture of Rousham, because Arne told us this is the one garden he constantly returns to for inspiration, as a point of reference and is the place he always learns from or visits if he has a problem to solve. He loves its pared back simplicity and explained there's no guidebook or signage for visitors. Instead, there's an 'invisible thread' William Kent (the designer) used to draw the visitor through the garden.

Arne likes the garden's subtle contrasts such as uncut vs. cut areas of grass, flowing vs. still water and perhaps most important of all, sun vs. shade. It's this latter contrast in particular which helps to draw visitors through the garden. He reckons most of them take the same route as they are constantly beckoned on to find what's around the corner or to see what lies beyond the next pool of shade. There's always a surprise or discovery lying in wait for them.

He explained water is also used as a thread and doesn't necessarily end in a grand design gesture as shown by the simple source of the garden's rill. Another design trick is the use of the widening or narrowing of a pathway, with the latter used to slow the journey.

Kent also worked with the landscape, unlike Capability Brown who worked against it. By this Arne meant Kent didn't move things around to suit his purpose, but instead worked with what he had. He also placed distant objects so the surrounding landscape is drawn into the garden.

Like Kent, Arne says he's a 'sense of place' person, so his designs are informed by the context of their surroundings, the area's history and the buildings (see this part of his website for more on his approach to design). The final piece of the jigsaw are the clients themselves and he tries to deliver a garden that's 'the biography of their taste and lifestyle'. He'll use their furnishings, ornaments and state of the house as inspiration. Thus the owners of a rigidly tidy house will usually be offered a formal design rather than a loose, unstructured one. This is tricky if the house is a new one or the clients don't really know what they want. His answer is to take them to Rousham and see which parts of the garden they respond to.

With the key elements from Rousham in mind, Arne then showed us a couple of his designs for private clients. I won't go into these in detail because I don't have any images to show you. Luckily one of them is shown in the Portfolio area of his website, so you can see for yourselves. My overall impression of both of these gardens were strong, architectural lines and a predominance of green. My other thought was these gardens are right at the top end of the market!

It was interesting to note that where his clients aren't used to gardening, he suggests they grow vegetables as a way to quickly gain their interest and to reward their efforts. He strongly believes the importance of connecting his clients with the soil.

Finally we had a quick tour of Arne's own garden, Allt-y-bella near Monmouth. He recently moved there, so he's still working on the final design. He described it as his 'Desert Island Discs' garden where the plants are his favourite ones, each having a particular meaning or association for him. He's aiming for a minimal style based on the key elements of topiary, fruit, wild flowers, vegetables, roses and bulbs. The Welsh landscape doesn't lend itself to his preferred formality, so he's evolving a new way of designing, such as randomly placing topiary.

At the end I asked for a sneak preview of Arne's show garden for Chelsea next year. He laughed and said It's top secret. However, having looked at his website I see he was particularly impressed with Ann-Marie Powell's show garden for the British Heart Foundation. So I wonder if we can anticipate a lush green garden with very strongly contrasting hardscaping from him next year?

You may like to read some of the other garden talks I've attended, or come a-garden visiting with me :)

Copyright free picture obtained via Wikimedia, credit: Grahamec

Monday, 21 November 2011

A Simple Garden Checklist

I've always considered VP Gardens as my first true garden even though we've lived in several places previously. It's the first time I've felt truly inspired by a space and wanting to do the best for it.

I wasn't that knowledgeable about gardening when we moved here and having a completely blank canvas I was worried I wouldn't manage to design the planting to have something of interest in every month.

So I came up with the pictured simple garden checklist (click to enlarge it if you want to see the detail) and put my provisional plant list down the side and the months of the year across the top. What you see is just one of several pages and this one covers the shrub side of things.

The blue crosses show the flowering season and the red writing any leaf colour or berry season. It was then an easy task to look down each month and identify the gaps. I'd also marked each plant with its height (in silver by its name, plus whether it's deciduous or evergreen in green), so I could choose additional plants with the right height and season of interest and ensure things weren't too evergreen heavy.

Once I was happy with my list, I used purple crosses to show all the months where I'd need to prune or tidy particular plants. I also used the notes area on the right to write up additional care requirements and anything else of note such as particular pests to watch out for. Thus my plant checklist also doubles up as a maintenance guide, where I can see at a glance the main jobs I need to do each month.

This was devised in 2000. Nowadays I'd set it all up on a spreadsheet so it can easily be maintained to reflect plant deaths and new additions. I'm going to set up something similar for my allotment over the winter as part of my revised plot plan. Many companies give away vegetable planners, but they never quite reflect what I grow, especially as I have so many different kinds of fruit. It's going to be great to have a plan which not only shows seed sowing, planting out and harvest times, but also reflects the key tasks such as apple training and applying grease bands. I can also adjust the plan to show what tends to happen on my plot and using the resources I have to hand.

Do you have a similar plan for your garden? Or perhaps you've designed something else to help with your gardening activities. Do tell me in the Comments below.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Two From Timber Press: Book Review

I'm writing two reviews for the price of one today because the second follows on naturally from the first, even though they're by different authors.

High Impact Low-Carbon Gardening by Alice Bowe is the first time I've seen design and environmentally friendly gardening in one volume*. I have quite a few books on this topic re planting, but virtually nothing on the hardscaping side of things**. The combination of the two here results in a much more holistic approach to gardening.

This isn't just about designing a whole garden from scratch. You may choose to focus on a chapter or two to give your garden a mini-makeover, such as deciding which plants to use (and their supplier) for a particularly challenging part of the garden or to attract more wildlife.

Since reading this book, I've started to think differently about the changes I'd like to make to my garden. Bowe writes about 'designing for disassembly' i.e. using materials which can be reused or recycled more easily. We may think of our gardens as a permanent feature, but in reality they're constantly changing and even the simple ones I'm thinking about like buying a new bench can be made in a much more thoughtful way.

It's a very readable and practical book with lots of eye-catching pictures, hints and tips, plus quick reference information in the book's margins. There's a comprehensive glossary at the back to help with jargon busting, plus an extensive further reference section should you want to delve more deeply into a particular subject.

* = I'm sure there's others out there (such as those produced by the permaculture movement), so do tell me more in the Comments below, if you've read any of them.

** = There's some in Matthew Wilson's How to Garden in a Changing Climate, but this is more comprehensive.

One of the topics Alice Bowe discusses is green roofs, so it's rather handy I also have a copy of Small Green Roofs by Nigel Dunnett and colleagues. Previous books I've seen on this subject are much more geared towards greening very large properties. This one is designed for people like me who are thinking about a small project at home or for a school or community garden.

The first few chapters explore the principles involved, such as getting the supporting structure right and which plants to choose. There's a useful few pages discussing whether DIY or hiring a company is the right thing for the project you have in mind.

The bulk of the book comprises a number of case studies showcasing various homescale and community green roof projects from around the world. A number of these belong to the authors, some of which highlight the research they've conducted in their own gardens to acquire the knowledge they're now sharing with us.

These and the copious photographs in the book also show just how varied green roofs can be: from a bird table through various sheds and storage spaces, to houses and outdoor classrooms. They're also not just a load of sedums and I'd love to see the trolley storage areas at my local supermarket converted!

On the whole I loved this book, but I sometimes found it difficult to find the answers to particular questions I have about putting a green roof on my shed. Suggested plants for different situations (e.g. shade) would have been particularly useful as well as a summary of the tasks involved from start to finish. The information's there, but it often has to be gleaned from reading through a combination of principles and various case studies.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of both of these books.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

How Readable is Your Blog?

One of the things we discussed at the Writing for the Web course I attended recently was the readability of various media. I was surprised to learn the average reading age in the UK is 10 years. The reading ages of The Sun, The Guardian and The Financial Times are 8, 14 and undergraduate level respectively. Whilst many people sneer at The Sun's content, it's the only paper we looked at on the course which has a chance of being read and understood by the majority of the UK's population. This may help to explain why The Sun has relatively high sales.

We then turned our attention to our web writing and a simple tool available on Google Search which can be used to gauge the simplicity of the language we use. You'll see in the image above I've put my blog's address into Google. As usual various pages from my blog are returned together with some examples of where it's mentioned elsewhere on the web.

I've then gone down the various options in Google Search's left sidebar and clicked on Reading Level (circled)* and up pops a graph showing how much I'm using Basic, Intermediate and Advanced Language in percentage terms. As you can see (click to enlarge image if necessary) the bulk of my text is at the Basic level. I must have been using fancier language recently (or discussing more 'difficult' subjects) as I now have 1% in the Advanced range. There was none of that when I tried this search immediately after the course ;)

When I first started blogging, there was a popular sidebar quiz widget doing the rounds which showed blog readability**. I remember quite a few people congratulating themselves when it said College (aka University) level. That's probably fine if your blog's about e.g. quantum physics or aiming at a relatively sophisticated audience, but for the majority of us who just blog about general, everyday things it might mean we'd lose our readers pretty quickly. So in this instance a large dollop of Basic is good :)

Reading Level could be useful for some of your Google searches too. Next time you want to explain or understand something that's quite complicated, use it to put your search results in order of complexity. I might not be explaining quantum physics to you or expounding on matters philosophical, but it would have been a useful option when I wrote about open pollinated seed varieties a couple of years ago.

How readable is your blog? Why not have a go for yourself and tell me in the Comments below.

* = if it isn't showing on your sidebar, you should have a More Search Tools option showing under The Web heading towards the bottom of the sidebar. Click on this and a host of extra options should magically appear including the Reading Level one. My thanks to my lovely NAH for pointing out the option wasn't there when he looked for it :)

** = It's fallen out of favour now and it's not worth searching for. This link explains how the widget contained a backlink in its coding designed to up the Google page rank favourability of a dodgy looking loans website. One to be avoided and something to bear in mind if you're looking to add any kind of fun widget to your blog.

Friday, 18 November 2011

How Advertising Works in Chippenham #27

  1. Times are hard, so come up with a new initiative to bring life back to your town's high street
  2. Give it the snazzy title Chippenham Alive!
  3. Advertise the key businesses involved in the initiative
  4. Wait for a blogger with a camera to notice the sole advertisement in the town centre is in the window of an empty shop
  5. Et voila!
Chippenham Alive! is the new monthly late night opening initiative, designed to counteract the effects of recent high street closures and massively hiked parking charges. The reaction to the first opening last month was mixed. There was quite a lot of publicity in the local paper, but it would appear not so much on the streets and participating shops themselves. Here's hoping tonight's late night opening which includes the Christmas lights switch on fares much better.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Allotment Experiments: Echalote Grise

Having given up half of my allotment, I was worried I wouldn't have the space any more for the kind of growing experiments I love to do. Thank goodness for the discovery of Echalote Grise, the strongly flavoured gourmet shallot (aka echalions or banana shallots, a variety I've always wanted to grow) which is planted in the autumn. Isn't it great to find something which can be planted out now?

To the left are some I bought from my local supermarket. Now most books warn about using shop bought edibles as seed. I'd certainly agree with them about garlic and potatoes*, but these British grown shallots look pretty healthy to me. On the right are some sets I bought from Edwin Tucker, a new supplier for me to try** and theirs was by far the cheapest I could find. However, they're still about twice the price of my supermarket ones for around the same number and weight.

Will I get what I pay for? Will proper seed triumph over shop bought? Will I be able to save any of my crop for next year's planting? Let the allotment experiments commence...

Thanks to Karen, who by simply having a packet of culinary Echalote Grise in her house when I visited, provided the kick start I needed to regain my allotment experiment mojo :)

* = my previous experiments have proved just how poor a crop of supermarket sourced garlic can be. As for potatoes, shop bought ones aren't certified as virus free. That's a risk I'm not prepared to take, though I know some plot holders who do.

** = and on first impressions, they're very good with their speed of delivery

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

GBBD: Fine Fuchsias

This spring, I was surprised to find some of my hardy fuchsias hadn't survived the harsh winter, even though some of the more tender plants like my in-ground dahlias and potted olive tree had.

Usually when I lose a plant, I treat it as an opportunity to try something else. After all, there are so many more I'd like to grow than there's room for. However, my Fuchsia 'Garden News' worked so well in my lower terrace bed I decided to replace it with one I found at the Malvern Spring Show. There's not that many hardy fuchsias with a double form and this one flounces its skirts so prettily. It's also good at arching itself over the wall which makes it particularly noticeable when taking the side path down into the garden.

On the upper terrace bed Fuchsia magellanica 'Versicolor' has grown particularly tall this year, despite its slow start after the winter. The flowers of magellanica type fuchsias always remind me of earrings. These are also providing a welcome splash of red amongst the mainly green or decaying foliage surrounding them.

The large terrace bed is home to Fuchsia 'Genii'. Its foliage hasn't quite been so garish this year - perhaps another consequence of the harsh winter and slow start to the season - and is lit up rather nicely by the sun's more slanted rays at this time of the year.

I have more surviving fuchsias elsewhere in my garden, but the ones in the terrace beds were looking at their best in the morning light when I took my camera for a walk. They may have been later to flower this year, but the unseasonably warm weather we've had over the past few weeks means they've still managed to have a long flowering season.

Just one sharp frost and all this will be gone...

Note: all 3 fuchsias have the Award of Garden Merit, as does my absolute favourite, Fuchsia 'Hawkshead'.

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Chestnut and Mushroom Soup: Seasonal Recipe

Our local supermarket was selling off tins of chestnut puree very cheaply recently, so it can introduce slightly smaller ones of the same brand at the previous price. Naturally I was very happy to score quite a few of the larger cans for my store cupboard :)

Last week, I decided to make chestnut and mushroom soup for lunch and devised this very quick and simple recipe.

  • 1x 435g can unsweetened chestnut puree
  • 250g well flavoured mushrooms e.g. chestnut (!)
  • 1 tbsp oil (I used olive oil for its fruity flavour)
  • 1 litre vegetable stock (or 1 stock cube made up to this amount)
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  1. Empty the tin of chestnut puree into a large pan, swilling it out with stock to ensure all the puree is obtained
  2. Add the remaining stock to the pan
  3. Bring the liquid slowly to the boil, stirring well at the beginning to ensure the puree is dispersed into the stock
  4. Meanwhile thinly slice the mushrooms
  5. Add the oil to a frying pan and add the mushrooms
  6. Fry the mushrooms - you're aiming to sweat them so their juices are released
  7. Add the mushrooms to the stock and bring to the boil
  8. Add salt and pepper to taste (salt won't be needed if a stock cube is used)
  9. Cover the pan and simmer for 5 minutes
  10. Turn off the heat and leave to cool slightly
  11. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary
  12. Whizz the soup together with a handblender
  13. Rewarm, and serve piping hot with plenty of crusty bread
Serves 4-6

This soup is delicious and very uplifting on a gloomy November day. It's also ready in 20 minutes! A more luxurious version can be made by adding some sherry or other fortified wine to the stock and serving with a swirl of cream, [low fat] creme fraiche or Greek yogurt. If you've been on a fungus foray, then using some of your spoils to make this soup would be very evocative of your walk in the woods.

If you don't have any chestnut puree to hand, then you might like to try my Garlic Mushroom Soup instead.

My thanks to Cally over at Country Gate Gardens for confirming that soup would be a great way to use my spoils. Petra at Oxonian Gardener suggested chocolate cake and kindly tweeted the link to this HFW recipe. @simiansuter also reminded me that my River Cottage Preserves bible has a fab recipe for Chestnut Jam. I'm looking forward to having a go at making all of these over the next few weeks :)

There's lots more seasonal recipes for you to try in my Easy Recipe Finder.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Remember Them

I found this poppy in the meadow at The Organic Garden at Holt Farm back in August. It seemed appropriate to revisit it today.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Using the Alt Attribute With Your Photos

Canal boats at Bristol harbour alt attribute example
Canal Boats at Bristol Harbour

Update March 2012:
Blogger have now added the ability to add the alt attribute directly onto images. Only read on if you'd like to know more about why it's a good thing to use in blogs.

When I wrote about Bristol BlogCamp recently, we had quite a conversation in the Comments on whether using the Alt Attribute for our photos is worth the extra trouble when writing our blog posts.

Colleen and Esther asked for a better explanation than the link to Wikipedia I gave at the time, so I'm giving it a go...

What is the alt attribute?

It's an HTML command which can be used to display some descriptive text when you use your mouse to hover over the image. The author decides what that text should be.

But I'm showing everyone lovely photos on my blog, why should I be bothered with adding some extra text?

There's many different ways people are accessing your blog - lots of browsers, different PCs, laptops, mobile phones etc etc. It's impossible for you to test every combination to ensure your images are displayed properly. Some of those combinations - or circumstances at the time when someone reads your post - can mean they don't see your photo. If you've ever seen an empty white box with a red cross in the top left hand corner when visiting a blog or website, then you've seen it for yourself.

Also, not everyone 'reading' the internet has good eyesight, so they may use special software which reads it to them instead. When the alt attribute is used, the software reads the text provided, so the reader gets a general idea of what's on display.

Then there's search engine crawlers such as the Google bot which use the alt attribute to make 'sense' of what your image is about. They can't 'read' pictures only text, so anything you can provide via the alt attribute may help them to catalogue your post better and give it the best possible standing in search results.

Ooh, so I can use the alt attribute to get more traffic for my blog?

It's best to think about what your real readers need first because the text needs to make sense to them rather than simply thinking about adding extra keywords to help a computer. Besides, Google and the other search engines have their algorithms changed from time to time, so what works for them today might not tomorrow.

Won't adding a caption to my photo take care of things (
as originally asked by Diana at Elephants Eye)?

Only for the instance where your photo can't be displayed. It won't take care of when someone is using web reader software to 'read' your blog or with better search engine cataloguing.

OK, I'll do it! How do I start using this alt attribute thingy then?

Right - bear in mind you don't have to. You need to weigh up the effort of doing it, the amount of images you normally post and the number of readers you have who may benefit. If you're blogging mainly for yourself or have a small readership, you may choose not to follow this best practice unlike website owners who have to. They need to bear in mind their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA)* and also typically have many more readers than we do.

I'd still like to have a go, can you give me an example?

The good news is the alt attribute HTML is already included by both the Wordpress and Blogger software (possibly other blog platforms as well) when you load your photo into your blog post, but without any text defined for it.

If yours is a Wordpress blog, all you need to do is add the text you'd like in the Alternate text box on the image details screen which appears after you've uploaded your photo onto your blog.

For Blogger blogs, all you need to do is click on your image in the post edit screen and then click on the Properties option. You'll get a pop up box where you can add a Title as well as the alt attribute information.

NB I haven't been able to prove the text is shown when the image isn't available, but an ex-colleague who has access to a web reader confirmed recently it does work when I set up a test image on another blog.

The W3C tips for webmasters website has extra information on the alt attribute if you're interested and is very readable.

* = I'm currently looking at the DDA (via the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative) in more detail to see if there are any implications from a blogging viewpoint. Whilst bloggers aren't usually obliged to comply as we don't provide a service, if there's some simple measures we can take to improve our blogs readability, then I believe this is a good thing.

Friday, 11 November 2011

How Advertising Works in Chippenham #26

  1. Set up your dental practice
  2. Decide to raise awareness of a particular health initiative
  3. Create a simple poster for your window
  4. Wait for a blogger with a camera to notice the second poster is definitely needed after displaying the first one
  5. Et Voila!
Joking aside, please do get checked out.

Whilst we're on the subject of adverts, you may have noticed a new bit of blog bling at the top of the right hand sidebar. My thanks to whoever nominated me for The Horticultural Channel's inaugural awards. I'm really chuffed, amongst some very fine company and I wish the best of luck to my fellow nominees. You can go along and vote here - there's lots of your other gardening favourites nominated in the other categories too :)

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Fascination of Plants Day

I ignore most Press Releases, but the one I received yesterday is too good too miss, especially is it allows me to share the kind of plant picture I can't take myself...

As you can see May 18th next year has been designated as the first international Fascination of Plants day.

Many of our tippety top plant organisations in the UK are involved, such as the Eden Project, lots of botanical gardens like Kew, the Natural History Museum, plus various research and educational organisations. The full list of participating UK organisations will be here*.

In the run up to next year's special day, Kew Gardens have selected ten of their most fascinating plants, from the giant titan arum rising three metres high to the smallest water lily in the world, with pads as little as 1cm across. The myriad of plants that has shaped history, and continues to affect our lives, is showcased by the John Innes Centre.

Here's the amazing plant picture as promised, taken by Olivier Leroux of the National University of Ireland, Galway. It's a longitudinal section of a fern crozier, Asplenium elliottii. You might like to compare it with the photo I took of my tree fern, Dicksonia antarctica unfurling in 2009.

I'm sure there's more like this to come next year :)

You can get up to the minute information by following @PlantDay2012 0n Twitter.

* sadly this currently isn't as full a list as the one I received yesterday - email me at vegplotting at gmail dot com if you'd like it

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

My Key Resources for Wildflowers

This post's for Nutty Gnome, who recently reviewed a 'sample' of Sarah Raven's latest opus on wildflowers. I said in her Comments my copy of The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose takes a lot of beating when it comes to the art of identifying our wild flora.

It's small enough to take into the field and allows me to identify both flowering and non-flowering plants. Much of the text is abbreviated so you need to decode it first, but this allows a lot of detail to be crammed into a relatively small volume.

As you can see from the cover it's also beautifully illustrated. An updated version was recently published, so it's better than ever.

I'm also a big fan of the laminated guides produced by the Field Studies Council such as those shown on the left and right of this picture. I have quite a few of these, but the ones on grass identification and the structure of flowers are particularly good.

I have a few of the AIDGAP* guides too - these are for knottier subjects which need a more detailed explanation. I have the Soil Types one -more as a fond memory of happy times digging soil pits at school and university - but I did use some of it to check out the soil in my garden when we first moved here.

These are just some of the my key resources [key - geddit??? Ed] you might find useful if you want to study the UK's wildflowers in more detail. Do you have a favourite to add to the list?

* = Aids to Identification in Difficult Groups of Animals and Plants. I was involved in testing the one for identifying freshwater fish and lampreys just after I finished my Masters degree :)

Monday, 7 November 2011

An Evening With Bob Brown Part II

Last week I summarised Bob Brown's reasons why perennials often don't propagate well via seed. This time I'm summarising the remaining top tips from his recent talk at Bath University Gardening Club.

Bob took us through a month by month tour of some of his favourite plants and the best way he's found to propagate them. Sadly we only had time to get to May!

  • January: Sarcococca confusa - an example of a perennial which can be propagated from seed - found in the plant's black berries. Sow fresh after cleaning them, on top of compost and top dress with grit (the latter prevents algal growth)
  • February: Miscanthus x Giganteus - divide plants when they're just about to start to grow. This allows the plants to grow out of the stress from division
  • February: Snowdrops - divide clumps of bulbs into smaller ones and replant. This can be done pretty much at any time, but avoid dry bulbs. Another recommended propagation method is twin-scaling, but this is best when the bulb is starting to grow. For snowdrops this is August/September time. Also ensure a portion of the bulb's basal plate is included in each scale
  • March: Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna' - Bob told us this plant has very recently been awarded the RHS AGM. It grows from a single stem, so is unsuitable for division. Bob finds these are best propagated via basal cuttings
  • April: Arisaema candidissimum - another candidate for division by Bob, though the link given recommends seed or planting up offsets in the autumn
  • May: Agapanthus 'Jack's Blue' and Kniphofia 'H. E. Beale' - division
  • May: Tibouchina urvilleana - softwood cuttings i.e. from the tip of the new season's growth
Other observations
  • The propagation method chosen and timing are designed to provide the least amount of stress to the plant. Thus avoid flowering times (because the plant is concentrating on reproducing itself) and the end of the growing season (the plant won't get a chance to grow away strongly afterwards)
  • Softwood, semi-ripe and hardwood cuttings are essentially taken from the same season's growth, but the type of cutting obtained depends on the time of year. Thus softwood cuttings are usually taken up to mid-summer; semi-ripe (tip is soft, but the base is hard) from late summer to mid-autumn; and hardwood (all the cutting is hard) from mid-autumn to late winter, often when the plant is dormant
  • If only leaves are obtained when pulling up a bulb, these can be potted up and a bulb will form
  • When dividing potted plants, take them out of the pot and divide from the bottom of the roots upwards. This minimises stress on the plant and ensures less plant material is wasted
  • Bob doesn't use peat based composts as there's problems with sciarid fly if he does and seedlings don't grow so strongly
  • There's no need to use hormone rooting powder with cuttings - he and his staff have found it makes no different to the end result
  • Using pot feet under overwintering pots leads to waterlogging. Apparently leaving pots standing on soil or concrete allows excess water to be wicked away. I haven't had any problems with not using them either. Bob also said using broken pots and polystyrene in the pots may also lead to waterlogging
  • The nursery cat is tax deductible!
Sadly Bob only spoke for an hour and we all could have listened for a lot longer. Tim Matcham was also there - here's his view on the evening :)

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Contemporary Colour in the Garden: Book Review

I've quite a few books left in the booklog for this year, so I expect to be writing quite a few reviews over the next few weeks as I make my way through them all.

First up is Andrew Wilson's Contemporary Colour in the Garden. This lavishly illustrated volume looks at how colour can be used today. There's plenty of inspiration drawn from top designers like Piet Oudolf and Christopher Bradley-Hole; many examples chosen from Chelsea show gardens and other shows such as Chaumont; plus lots of real gardens, both private and those open to the public.

I read a number of books and articles before writing about Colour Theory in Garden Design earlier this year, so I found the first few chapters didn't say much that was new to me. However, that doesn't mean they should be omitted as they give a thorough introduction to the subject. The later chapters on The Restricted Palette, Breaking Colour Rules (especially) and Inspired by Nature spoke to me much more. Andrew also has lots of useful things to say about combining hard and soft landscaping and it's good to see both taking centre stage in one volume.

Unfortunately I found the text quite hard going, partly due to the mainly three column layout and also because it's pitched more at the student and professional garden designer level rather than ordinary gardeners like me. However, I did find it very useful to treat each of the pictures as a case study and ask myself whether I thought the plant and/or colour combinations worked or not. From that alone, I now have a notebook of ideas ready to try out in my garden in future years.

This is a useful addition to the books on colour I have already, but newcomers to this subject might like to try Andrew Lawson's The Gardener's Book of Colour first.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from Timber Press, the publisher.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Getting to Grips With QR Codes

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Have you spotted how common QR codes have become lately? On seat reservations on the train; on food packaging; in magazines. Pretty much anywhere with a bit of spare white space seems to have them these days.

QR means Quick Response and is a two dimensional version of the bar code we're more familiar with. It can carry lots more information than its bar code cousin and was first used by car manufacturers. When I went round the Nissan car factory in Sunderland in the early 1990s, they were using bar codes to track progress through the production line, so I'm not surprised QR codes hail from this industry.

If you took a picture of the above code on your smart phone (or on a laptop camera or suchlike), you'd be directed right back to Veg Plotting's Home Page. Pretty cool eh? NAH and I are very excited about their potential, even though neither of us have a smart enough phone to read them. Indeed NAH has set up a QR code for his blog and consequently put up a couple of large laminated versions up on Joyce. They've become quite a talking point with younger visitors to Midsomer Norton station. He's also put his code on his blog's business style cards - that's one up on mine :)

I discussed their possibilities when I went round the RHS trials field at Wisley back in September. It would be a great way of directing visitors to the details of particular trials and a more instant way of getting there. At the moment the display just has details of the general AGM trials website in its usual www form.

They also have great potential for plant labels: again a code which links to AGM information could be displayed where applicable, and/or to much more detailed cultivation instructions than the rather limited version we currently see. I've also seen them used for various competitions and special offers.

However, more of us would need to have smart phones before these codes could become truly enmeshed in our daily lives. I also believe there needs to be sufficient written information alongside to tempt us to explore a particular code. If they were everywhere and the majority led to information we're not interested in, then we'd soon get pretty fed up and start ignoring them.

Claire Potter came up with a fun use via the wrapping paper she launched recently. Her QR code directs you to a secret part of her website with all kinds of craft ideas. The code's error correction capabilities also mean they're being explored as an artistic medium as up to 30% of a code can be altered without impacting on its successful usage. Have a look at @BarCodeArt's blog for more information and ideas.

I obtained my QR code via the kaywa website (via google) if you fancy having a further explore for yourself. There's quite a few websites offering them (e.g. the blog link above links to another), though I don't know whether there's a 'best' provider.

I'd love to hear about your ideas or the novel ways you've seen them being used via the Comments below.

Update: this post has been picked up by The Times of India in their QR codes topic, so welcome to anyone who's hopped over from there :)

Friday, 4 November 2011

Dessert Apple Jelly: Seasonal Recipe

This year has seen a bumper apple harvest, possibly the biggest in decades, so like many of you I've had my work cut out keeping up with the crates of apples piling into my kitchen. NAH has been most happy for me to convert a fair portion of the spoils into the pictured jars of his favourite apple jelly. As you can see all kinds of jars have been pressed into service.

My apple jelly is a little different to the usual kind. Neither NAH or I are particularly big on jellies or chutneys accompanying our meat, fish or cheese*, which is the traditional way of eating them. Also when I chose my apple trees, I went for the dessert varieties as that's what we like to eat. So my apple jelly is used like jam: on bread and often accompanying peanut butter.

All the recipes I have are for a savoury jelly, often flavoured with herbs such as mint or rosemary. They usually call for cooking or crab apples and so need quite a lot of sugar to sweeten them and to counteract the recipe's vinegar.

Therefore I've adapted the recipe in my trusty Good Housekeeping Cookery Book using my dessert apple windfalls, no vinegar or herbs and less sugar - I've found about 75% of the amount given in the recipe works fine.

Apple jelly is perfect for using up windfalls quickly as long as any damaged portions of the fruit are excluded. As the apples don't need to be peeled - they just need de-stalking and chopping up first - it's a good way of using any smaller fruit which would be fiddly to use in other recipes.

My Court of Wick tree has yielded dozens of perfectly good small fruit this year, so quite a few of my jars of apple jelly are single variety - that's rather trendy and posh!

This recipe is easily adaptable for the amount of fruit you have to hand, limited only by the size of your pan, bowl and jelly bag or muslin.

  • 5lb apples - washed, de-stalked and any bad parts removed
  • 2 pints water
  • Sugar - I find granulated is fine, though others recommend the qualities of jam sugar for reduced cooking times and ensuring a good set
  1. Add the water to a very large pan (a preserving pan or pressure cooker sized) and start to slowly bring to the boil
  2. Meanwhile chop the apples and add to the warming water (this ensures no apples turn brown whilst waiting for the others to be chopped)
  3. When all the apples have been added to the pan, crush them down lightly with e.g. a potato masher to ensure they're covered with water and to start releasing their juice
  4. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 45 minutes until the apples have turned to a pulp
  5. Turn off the heat
  6. Set up a jelly or muslin bag over a large bowl (see picture) next to the pan of apples
  7. Ladle the apples into the jelly bag - if your jelly bag is like mine you'll have to carefully hold it in place for the first couple of ladles to stop it from springing off the bowl. After that, the weight of the apples will hold it in place
  8. If needed, press down gently on the apples as you go, so they all fit into the jelly bag
  9. Leave the apples to drain into the bowl overnight
  10. Next day, remove the bag and wash it; and compost the apple solids or leave them outside for the birds
  11. Switch the oven on to its lowest setting and place your jars and lids inside so they can be sterilised whilst making the jelly
  12. Measure the juice into a large, clean pan and add 12oz sugar for each pint of liquid obtained
  13. Stir to dissolve the sugar and bring the liquid to a rolling boil
  14. Continue to boil for 25-30 minutes or until set point** is reached
  15. Pot the jelly into the warmed jars and cover. A ladle and jam funnel make this part of the process a lot less messy!
  16. Store in a dark cool place, though it's ready for eating straight away :)
Makes 3-5 jars depending on how juicy the apples are.

* = though I'm very fond of piccalilli, especially the way my nan used to serve it with home made fish cakes and pickled beetroot when I was little

** = Set point is reached when a little jelly spread on a cold plate - e.g. put in the fridge for the purpose - and left for a minute wrinkles when pushed with a finger. The liquid will also drop off a spoon in little jagged flakes instead of drops when set point is reached

Other - and very popular- apple recipes available on Veg Plotting:
Have a look at my Easy Recipe Finder for all of my seasonal recipes. You may also like to see my post about the differences between Jam, Jelly and Cheese.
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