Review: Gardens of Marrakesh by Angelica Gray

If gardening books should inspire or inform, then Gardens of Marrakesh succeeds on both fronts.

Part history lesson, part traveller’s guide, it opens the door on a place rooted in its gardens.

gardens of marrakesh

Marrakesh was, author Angelica Gray tells us, planned as a garden city “with orchards, market gardens and pleasure gardens as part of its urban model”.

Today, the majority of historic sites are beloved as much for their gardens as their ancient buildings, several hotels have notable grounds and throughout the city high walls shield lush courtyard spaces from public view.

Gray takes us on a journey through the three main areas of the city: The Medina, its historic centre; The New Town created by ex-pats in the early 20th century; The Palmery, a thick band of palm trees described by Gray as “one of the wonders of Marrakesh”.

The gardens themselves mainly fall into one of two types: riad and arsat. The former is an enclosed, inward-looking, urban garden, the later a productive, irrigated space that often doubled as a space for relaxation.

gardens of marrakesh
Green and white tiles imitate the ripple of water at Dar Si Said

It is a journey into the unfamiliar for a Northern European gardener. Not only are the plants exotic – think cacti and citrus – the style is formal with blocks of planting offset against brightly coloured tiles, fountains and columns far removed from English herbaceous borders and rolling lawns.

While many of the gardens explored are centuries old, some are more modern and not all have been created by locals; Brazil, Sweden, Swiss and France are among the countries represented by designers of notable gardens.

Among the most memorable is The Jardin Majorelle, made by painter Jacques Majorelle. It first opened to the public in 1947 and is known for the startling cobalt blue that is used throughout the garden. It was rescued from decline following Majorelle’s death by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.

gardens of marrakesh
Cobalt blue is used throughout Jardin Majorelle to memorable effect

Gardens of Marrakesh is a paperback edition of the original hardback, published in 2013 and, if there is a fault, it’s that the text has not been revised or updated. So, we are told The Bahia Palace is undergoing restoration and due to reopen in 2013 while a restoration project is planned at The Agdal, Marrakesh’s most important garden and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The current state of either project is not clear.

That said, Gray’s deft weaving of historical fact and personal anecdote into the text make it an easy read while heat shimmers from the pages thanks to Alessio Mei’s atmospheric photographs.

Gardens of Marrakesh by Angelica Gray, photographs by Alessio Mei, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced at £14.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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Review: The Book of Orchids


I’ve always been nervous of orchids. Partly because I’m not known for my skill with houseplants. Things that grow outside always fare better than those reliant on my care indoors.

My lack of confidence wasn’t helped by a delivery of plants from friends in Australia. Alarm bells rang when the accompanying leaflet opened with ‘Instructions for attaching your tropical orchid to a tree’. These were plants that needed far more than my usual neglect and hope regime.

But perhaps it’s the fear of becoming too attached to these exotic blooms than makes me keep them at a safe distance. I’ve interviewed many orchid growers over the years and all shared the same all-consuming passion.

Bulbophyllum lobbii

It’s a trait that Mark Chase, Maarten Christenhusz and Tom Mirenda, the authors of The Book of Orchids, obviously have. This book oozes enthusiasm and even devotion to plants that “have gripped the psyches of many humans”. They are in good company: Darwin was so entranced by orchids that he dedicated an entire book to them.

And orchids are now the top seller when it comes to ornamental plants with a huge industry devoted to filling supermarket and garden centre shelves.

Yet, as the book, produced in conjunction with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, reveals, there’s far more to them than just a beautiful flower.

The range is vast: there are 260,000 species, making them one of the two largest families of flowering plants, and they cover all but the most inhospitable parts of the planet.

If that were not enough to make them worthy of study, orchids are consummate deceivers. They have an awe-inspiring ability to trick pollinators into assisting them in reproduction for little or even no reward, while their relationship with soil fungi is decidedly one-sided.

Bletia purpurea

Naturally, with such a huge topic boundary lines have been drawn and the book covers just 600 species, illustrating the diversity of habitat and the range from showy blooms to the smaller species.

Some, such as the ‘Yellow Grass Orchid’ are not obvious members of the family while the ‘Northern Banana Orchid’ lives underground until it flowers and ‘The Mother of Hundreds’ is so named because of its wide use in commercial hybridisation.

There’s no stinting on detail within the 600 featured with size – both flower and plant – habitat, flowering time, type, family details and even conservation status listed. There are details of pollinators and explanations of common names, some as eye-catching as the flowers themselves; I loved ‘Enchanted Dancing Lady’ and ‘Spotted Pixie Orchid’.

What brings the book to life though are the colour photographs that illustrate each flower while the accompanying captions are more than just merely a name label and give even more information.

Anguloa virginalis

The opening sections, covering everything from evolution and pollination to the threats facing wild orchids, are easy-to-read and informative, making this far more than just a book for the collector.

I learnt a lot: vanilla is an orchid; some orchids are eaten; chemical extracts from orchids are used in cosmetics and shampoos. The latter the authors believe is unsustainable and they urge us not “to purchase any products that contain orchids, regardless of what the labels on these products might say”.

Will the book tempt me to grow them? Let’s just say I’m intrigued and a step closer to joining those who are “wildly obsessive about orchids”.

The Book of Orchids by Mark Chase, Maarten Christenhusz and Tom Mirenda is published by Ivy Press, priced £30 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Ivy Press.

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Review: The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants

medicinal plants

As a child, I was always given swede and brown sugar at the first sign of a cough. An old recipe passed down by my gran, it tasted not unpleasant but I was never sure it did any good. Yet, like most of these old country remedies, there was possibly more to it than just a sweet, soothing syrup.

The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants aims to give some scientific backing to the use of healing plants and shows that many of these traditional remedies have some substance. Lavender, for example, has long been used for aiding sleep and now studies have shown it “reduces alertness and memory, while improving general contentment”.

medicinal plants
Rosemary can boost mental performance

Often the clue to a medicinal plant’s uses lies in the name: lemon balm is a traditional remedy for stress; self-heal was made into a poultice to help wounds heal; feverfew was used to combat fevers and pain.

Running through the plants in alphabetical order, the authors give the scientific and common names, traditional uses, often quoting herbalists such as Culpepper and Gerard, and a brief overview of modern research results, some of which validate the old remedies, while others just give the compounds discovered that might suggest a possible health use.

With 35,000 plants worldwide having a medicinal use, there has naturally been some selection. The list has been limited to those with a long history of use to treat a range of complaints and, where possible, to have been subjected to some scientific research. Those that are well-known to pharmaceutical companies – such as foxglove and yew – have been left out.

medicinal plants
The book includes recipes such as rosemary-infused oil

And there are some surprises: who would have known that the diminutive wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa, has antibacterial properties, or that the teasel, Dipsacus inermis, is being studied for possible use in treating cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.

In fact, the range is wide from trees, shrubs and perennials to those that we usually consider weeds, such as nettles, couch grass and cleavers or goosegrass. Unfortunately, there is little scientific proof that the traditional use of horsetail, Equisetum arvense, for a range of medicinal uses is valid so I won’t be able to make millions from the plants infesting my garden.

The book has been produced by the world famous Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and written by Jason Irving, a forager and qualified herbalist, Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes, a registered pharmacist and chartered chemist, and Professor Monique Simmonds, Deputy Director of Science at Kew.

medicinal plants
The book is illustrated with botanical drawings

Yet this is far more than just an encyclopaedia of scientific fact. Beautifully illustrated with botanical drawings it is an easy read with occasional tips on cultivation, and more in-depth sections including the history of herbals, traditional medicine – records date back almost 5,000 years in China – and the importance of plant conservation.

For those interested in producing their own ointments and syrups, there are recipes for making remedies, including fennel tincture, marshmallow lozenges and passionflower sleep tea.

They are, we are assured, easy so long as you have “basic cooking skills” while the equipment required is “the same as those used in jam making”.

medicinal plants
St John’s Wort oil

Remedies should be used in small amounts and their effects assessed before another dose to ensure there is no allergic reaction. Labelling is essential. As we are warned: “it is very easy to forget what that strange smelling liquid is at the back of your cupboard!”

The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants, An A-Z of Healing Plants and Home Remedies by Monique Simmonds, Melanie-Jayne Howes and Jason Irving, is priced at £14.99 RRP and published by Frances Lincoln. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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Review: 101 Organic Gardening Hacks by Shawna Coronado

gardening hacks

In my world, a hack is an old hand on a newspaper so it’s just as well Shawna Coronado starts her latest book with an explanation of what it means to her.

Hacks or hacking, she says, are clever ways to solve a problem, preferably while saving cash with the very best being “easy, smart and economical”.

In 101 Organic Gardening Hacks, she applies this philosophy to gardening, outlining ideas for everything from managing weeds to reusing old furniture as planters.

gardening hacks
Old furniture can be put to a new use

Many of her gardening ‘hacks’ make use of things that would otherwise be thrown away – saving money and saving on landfill.

It’s all part of Coronado’s green living lifestyle: “Ultimately, garden hacks are about wellness: an overall state of well-being not just for you, but for the whole planet,” she tells us.

To those of us who have gardened for many years, some of the gardening hacks are obviously aimed at the newcomer. Most experienced gardeners know about making leaf mould, mulching and using composted manure though she does take it one step further with ‘recipes’ for different mixes, such as one suitable for succulents.

gardening hack
Glass insulators are used to edge a border

Many of the ideas are things to make; I liked the idea of hollowing out a tree stump to create a planter while putting coloured tape around the handles of garden tools would make it less likely that the secateurs would end up in the compost bin. Organising seed packets into a photo album is a neat idea and far easier to manage than a tin stuffed with packets.

Other suggestions – using old wine bottles and plastic milk cartons as watering devices – are simple but probably better suited to the veg plot than ornamental flower beds.

Not all the gardening hacks involve DIY: many simply outline how to grow plants – planting tomatoes deeply to encourage roots is one idea – or even what to grow, geraniums if you want to attract bees, for example.

gardening hacks
Wine bottles mark out a path

She explains a way of testing your soil’s pH without using a kit, how to determine how freely it drains, and how to make sure your garden hose isn’t toxic.

Plenty of pictures, a colourful layout and chatty style make it an easy book to read. While there are ideas an experienced gardener could use, it’s probably best suited to someone just starting out on their growing journey.

101 Organic Gardening Hacks: Eco-Friendly Solutions to Improve Any Garden by Shawna Coronado is published by Cool Springs Press, priced £12.99 RRP. Photography ©  Shawna Coronado. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Cool Springs Press.

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Review: Build a Better Vegetable Garden

garden DIY

On the path of garden DIY

I’ve never attempted woodwork since a compulsory carousel of practical subjects in my first year at secondary school. It wasn’t a high point in my school life though I fared marginally better armed with a chisel than with a sewing machine in needlework. Build a Better Vegetable Garden by Joyce Russell may change all that.

Covering everything from building an easy fruit cage to constructing a decorative obelisk, it shows how to save money and improve your veg plot by a little bit of garden DIY.

garden DIY
An apple store is one of the projects

The book, subtitled ‘30 DIY projects to improve your harvest’, achieves the near impossible by appealing to both the no-idea first-timer and the seasoned DIY expert; the latter are advised that they may want to skip straight to the projects.

Starting with the basics – what tools to buy, timbers to use and even the difference between galvanised nails and panel pins – Russell outlines in clear but unpatronising language how to get started.

garden DIY
Each project has easy to follow steps

There are tips on marking up timber, cutting and drilling, along with the sort of advice that comes only with experience: keep tools in familiar places so you don’t waste time searching for them; don’t cut anything until you’ve checked your measurements; be aware that cutting metal pipes makes them hot so allow them to cool before touching.

She suggests starting with something easy, such as the broad bean support, fashioned out of poles and string. From that you could progress through the leaf mould container and simple cloches to a mini greenhouse or garden caddy.

garden DIY
The A-shaped bean frame folds flat for winter storage

Each project is scaled for difficulty and the hours needed to complete. I particularly liked the ‘slug-proof salad trays’, complete with either copper pipe legs or feet sat in jars of water or old welly boots.

Woven through these practical projects are cultivation ideas from how to plant raspberry canes to crops for cold frames and what to put in a hazel planter.

garden DIY
There are ideas for planting in raised beds

Given my previous experience of woodworking, this book did not immediately appeal but it won me over. As Russell says in her introduction: “wherever we are on the gardening journey, there are always more things to learn and more ideas to follow”. This is one path I’m tempted to take.

garden DIY
The wooden planter can be used for flowers or veg

Build a Better Vegetable Garden by Joyce Russell, photography by Ben Russell is published by Frances Lincoln (£16.99 RRP). Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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Review House of Plants by Caro Langton and Rose Ray

Despite growing houseplants since childhood, we’ve always had an uneasy relationship. True, I did keep an asparagus fern going for more than 30 years but then I’m also probably one of the few people who has managed to kill a mother-in-law’s tongue. Houseplants also became less important once I left student days behind and finally got a garden of my own.

So, I was intrigued by the offer of a review copy of House of Plants by Caro Langton and Rose Ray. Would it rekindle my interest in indoor greenery and, more importantly, would it show me where I’ve been going wrong?

growing houseplants
Houseplants are a great way to bring outdoors inside

The authors’ love of growing houseplants began when they inherited a London house from Caro’s grandmother and in it “a collection of ancient cacti, succulents and tropical plants”. It’s these plants that they concentrate on in the book; if you’re planning to grow orchids, it’s not for you.

Wanting to know more about their new charges, they started to research and, more importantly, observe where the plants were growing and thriving in the house. Indeed, knowing what each plant likes is the key to their philosophy.

growing houseplants

“When it is in its ideal position, a plant will be at its attention-grabbing, animated best and it will thrive,” we are told.

Yet this is not strictly a ‘how-to-do’ book. It’s far more interesting than that. Beautifully illustrated with carefully composed photographs and some sketch drawings, it has more of the feel of a lifestyle guide than gardening tutorial and is written in an easy, conversational style.

growing houseplants
Houseplants can be used to screen ugly views

Yes, it does cover how to care for different plants, including watering, feeding, light and temperature requirements, whether they need humidity and how to repot, but there are also ideas on how to display them from using chairs and stools where there are no shelves to creating a foraged wall hanging.

Indeed, display is as important as care when it comes to growing houseplants and there are numerous suggestions: grouping plants in a glasshouse terrarium; sourcing unusual pots from markets and second-hand shops; making your own coir and concrete pots. I’m not sure seventies-style macramé plant holders will make a comeback though.

growing houseplants
There are ideas for displaying houseplants

Many of the ideas are accompanied by step-by-step instructions and photographs, while more advice covers plant ailments, repotting, propagation and even cleaning – with a paintbrush in the case of a prickly cactus.

Some of the tips are simple: taking a cardboard box along, if you are planning to buy a spiky cactus. Others are more complicated: mixing your own compost and how to make nettle fertiliser; I hadn’t realised strawberry leaves were an alternative.

growing houseplants
Houseplants can be used as table decorations

Meanwhile, a ‘cast list’ of plants and a glossary explaining horticultural terms make this ideal for the beginner who’s thinking of growing houseplants.

As for me, I was amused to find mother-in-law’s tongue among ‘The Immortals’, plants that “will keep bouncing back no matter what life (or their owner) throws at them”. Perhaps it’s time to give it another go.

House of Plants by Caro Langton and Rose Ray is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £20 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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Review: The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden by Roy Strong

Did Shakespeare garden? Visitors to Stratford could be forgiven for thinking so as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust maintains five gardens at houses associated with the Bard, including New Place, which has just undergone a £6m transformation.

Yet, as art historian and landscape designer Sir Roy Strong outlines in his latest book, The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden, the New Place plot owes as much to nostalgia, patriotism and a dislike for Victorian bedding as it does to historical fact.

roy strong
Sir Roy Strong launching his new book in Stratford-upon-Avon

The recent revamping of New Place included an overhaul of its Elizabethan-style knot garden, first created in 1920 by Ernest Law.

It’s this knot garden, says Sir Roy, that occupies a special place in gardening history.

“. . . this recreated Elizabethan garden is not just sentimental curiosity but a milestone in the emergence of garden history and recreation,” he tells us and he describes the garden, created after a public appeal for funds, as “the first major public attempt in England to accurately recreate a garden of another age.”

The appeal of the past and, in particular, what was considered to be a golden age was shaped also by the timing of the New Place garden, coming two years after the First World War.

“Amid the turbulence of that era, security and tranquillity were seen to reside in recreating the past,” comments Sir Roy.

Part of the reimagined New Place garden

The knot garden was laid out ‘in accordance with authentic contemporary plans’ but these were not specific to New Place; although contemporary reports state that it had a ‘greate garden’ beyond that nothing is known about it, including whether Shakespeare altered what was there when he bought the property in 1597.

However, the book is not concerned so much with the building of this garden as with the emergence of the idea of garden history and the linking of Shakespeare with nature that together provided the impetus for its creation.

In his characteristic lively style, Sir Roy takes us on a journey through the past covering the influence of the 18th century actor David Garrick on Shakespeare’s popular image, the Victorian fashion for the ‘language of flowers’ and the beginnings of the study of the history of the English garden.

Along the way, we encounter the flower-obsessed novelist Marie Corelli, Daisy, Countess of Warwick, who planted a ‘Shakespeare border’, and Henry Ellacombe, who first considered the idea of Elizabethan gardening in his 1878 book The Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare.

Ellacombe, we discover, was particularly attracted to the idea of Elizabethan gardening because he considered Shakespeare’s flowers to be ‘thoroughly English’ and hated the Victorian practice of planting tender annuals from Central and South America.

“ . . . it offered ammunition in the battle against mid-Victorian bedding out,” explains Sir Roy, former director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The New Place garden

Of course, much of the alliance between Shakespeare and nature comes from the many references to flowers in his plays and these are quoted throughout the book.

They, along with paintings depicting the plays, details from Elizabethan gardening books and old photographs, help to break up what is carefully researched text, sometimes literally as I found my train of thought distracted by an engraving or quote.

The book concludes with Francis Bacon’s 1625 essay in which he outlines his views on what a garden should contain, something he describes as ‘the purest of human pleasures’.

The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden by Roy Strong is published in association with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by Thames & Hudson, priced £14.95 RRP. Buy now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Thames & Hudson.

Read Roy Strong on Shakespeare, Gardens and Hanging Baskets here and about my visit to his garden, The Laskett, here

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Review: Monet’s Garden by Vivian Russell


I’ve always loved Impressionist paintings and those by Monet in particular. As a student, a visit to the National Museum in Cardiff to gaze at their collection was an instant pick-me-up. Years later on our honeymoon, I dragged my other half into Paris’ Orangerie to see the famous waterlilies. Naturally, as a gardener, Giverny has long been on my list of must-see gardens.

Yet, it’s somewhere that I knew very little about – beyond the instantly recognisable pictures of the wisteria-festooned bridge, the mass plantings of iris and sprawling nasturtiums.

Photographs show Giverny’s planting schemes

I say ‘knew’ because writer and photographer Vivian Russell’s book Monet’s Garden, Through the Seasons at Giverny, has filled in many of the gaps.

It’s a new paperback edition of a book that was first published in 1995, winning The Garden Writers’ Guild ‘Book of the Year’ award. Whether the text has been revised to allow for any changes in practice in the garden is unclear but that doesn’t detract from what is an enjoyable and informative read.

The book charts the history of the garden at Giverny from 1883 when Monet and his family moved in, starting as tenants and later buying the former cider farm, to the painter’s death in 1926 and beyond.

We learn how the various borders were designed, from the ‘paintbox beds’ to the Grand Allée and the book describes how Monet created his famous water garden, despite initial local opposition, turning the stream into a pond and slowing the water flow with a grille to protect the waterlily blooms.

A picture emerges of someone who gardened with a passion, searching out new varieties, sending plants to friends by train, worrying about his plot while away and even sitting up all night to ensure a new stove would adequately heat his greenhouse. He was a perfectionist, leaving detailed instructions for his head gardener, down to how many sweet peas to sow and the dates for starting dahlias into growth.

The book charts the garden through the seasons

That Giverny is today a popular tourist attraction is due to Gérald and Florence van der Kemp who masterminded its restoration 50 years after Monet’s death.

“There is no question that, without this formidable duo, Giverny would by now be history,” Russell tells us.

Yet, there is more to the book than a mere historical journey and it is as much about how the garden is managed as it is a description of what is there and why.

Working through the seasons, Russell outlines the extraordinary lengths the garden team goes to in order to recreate the Monet look. These range from the wholesale lifting of borders in autumn in order to store tender plants to the sowing of thousands of annuals and the endless tidying and manicuring of plants through the garden’s months of opening.

The behind-the-scenes life of Giverny is explored

Along the way, she gives details of varieties grown, from dahlias to roses, and the atmosphere of Giverny at different times of the year, all underpinned by numerous photographs that chart the life of this famous garden.

Yet, despite all this Giverny is, says Russell, a garden of “compromises”. Plants that would have been grown in blocks are now woven through borders, the banks of the pond are today densely planted as the original grass was being ruined by visitors’ feet, and the once open boundary railing now sports pyracantha to prevent a “free peep” into what is a commercial operation.

“Most visitors want to be dazzled more than they want authenticity,” explains Russell. “It is only the few purists who wish to see the garden as it was in Monet’s day with some beds in flower for just a few weeks of the year and positively dull the rest of the time.”

Monet’s Garden, Through the Seasons at Giverny by Vivian Russell is published by Frances Lincoln priced £16.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I will receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Quarto Press.

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Review: Raised Bed Revolution by Tara Nolan

As with elephant eating, so growing vegetables is much easier in bite-sized pieces. I used to have an allotment-style plot, daunting in its size and soul-destroying to weed; by the time the end was reached, the beginning was re-infested.

raised beds

Putting in raised beds has proved a winner on so many levels. With only minimal loss of space, I can get to the crops without tramping on soil and weeding stints on single raised beds produce results that are instantly more noticeable.

And I’m not alone in making the switch: many of the allotments near me have raised beds and I’ve seen them at countless gardens and several schools.

In Raised Bed Revolution, Tara Nolan attributes this change to the rise in popularity of grow your own and the need to maximise increasingly small gardens; raised beds can be fitted into courtyards and go sky-high on rooftops. You don’t even need soil to stand them on so long as they are deep enough and filled with a good growing medium.

Wine or coffee anyone?

There’s also no need to stick to the traditional wooden rectangle. Raised beds today come in all shapes and a variety of materials. Why not use stone or logs, she suggests, or something recycled such as old wine boxes or washtubs. Even old plastic boxes or drums can be used and disguised by wrapping them in coffee bean sacks.

Part inspirational, part practical, the book is full of ideas to copy and outlines several projects in more detail with well-illustrated and clearly explained DIY instructions.

In fact, it’s the pictures that make this book such a delight although page after page of perfect vegetables did have me looking at my patch in despair.

There are sections on vertical gardening – and how to make simple plant supports – ideas for making a bog garden or pond in a raised bed and tips on sowing, cultivation, plant choice and what soil to use. Surprisingly, the latter includes the use of peat, which seems at odds with the otherwise ‘green’ tone.

There are also more general tips from how to know when potatoes are ready to harvest to using upturned flower pots to keep trailing crops off the ground.

Nolan states that her aim is “not to reinvent the wheel but rather to inspire you”. I’ve certainly got plans for our old wine boxes.

Raised Bed Revolution by Tara Nolan is published by Cool Springs Press priced £20.

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Review: RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening by Chris Baines

wildlife gardening

It seems hard to imagine a time when gardeners didn’t encourage wildlife into their gardens. Most that I meet welcome the benefits of bees, birds and bug-eating insects to help with pollination and pest control. Yet it wasn’t always so and the republication of Chris Baines’ classic on wildlife gardening is a timely reminder that still more could be done.

First published in 1985 as How to Make a Wildlife Garden, The RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening has been revised, updated and re-illustrated for a new generation of gardeners.

Baines first brought the subject to public attention with a wildlife friendly show garden at Chelsea in 1985, a venture that he describes as “brave” in the days when “most of the gardening advice . . .was about how to get rid of wildlife in your garden.”

wildlife gardening
The ‘pictorial meadow’ at RHS Wisley. Photo: Carol Sheppard

Despite, it now being a mainstream issue, he paints a gloomy picture of the fate of our natural landscape, pointing out that 98 per cent of wildflower meadows have been destroyed and half of the ancient lowland woods.

As a result, domestic gardens are more important than ever, covering more than 400,000 hectares – bigger than the combined area of the country’s nature reserves.

“Wildlife gardening can make a massive contribution to creative nature conservation,” he says and goes on to outline a blueprint of action to take from providing the right habitat to supplying food.

wildlife gardening
Wildflowers mix with grasses in a meadow. Photo: Carol Sheppard

Chapters cover a range of terrains that will suit different species from woodland and hedgerows to water and wildflower meadows. Their importance is explained and the steps needed to recreate something similar in a domestic setting.

Mixed in with the call to arms – Baines is passionate in his appeal, urging letter-writing and membership of local environmental groups – there is a great deal of practical advice ranging from how to dig and line a pond to sowing wildflower seed.

There are sections on which plants to use – and those to avoid: some, such as sycamore, are deemed of little use to wildlife; others are invasive, including herb Robert; a few, including Ludwigia (water primrose) are dangerous when they escape into the wild.

wildlife gardening
Wild poppies are a beautiful summer sight. Photo: Carol Sheppard

Prevention is better than cure and vegetable growers are encouraged to net crops and employ companion planting to avoid the need to spray. Choosing the right varieties can also prevent problems: copper-leaved lettuce seems unattractive to birds, we’re told, while climbing French beans are better protected against slugs than their dwarf cousins.

As befits a serious subject, this is not a lightweight book: the text to picture ratio errs towards the copy and, despite the revisions, there is still a whiff of the 1980s about the layout with large slabs of text. However, the chatty tone helps to prevent it becoming dry.

We may not all embrace wildlife to quite the same extent as Baines, who is “thrilled” when he finds leaf cutter bees have cut circles on his rose leaves; I admit to being less than thrilled by visits from our local badger. Even so, there is still plenty that can be done to join his “green revolution”.

The RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening by Chris Baines, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced at £25 RRP. Buy now (If  you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

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