Review: Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest by Caleb Warnock

There’s a commonly held view that growing veg is possible only if you have a large garden or access to an allotment. Tiny plots, courtyards or the balconies and window boxes of generation rent make grow your own impossible. Or do they? In Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest, Caleb Warnock sets out to prove otherwise.

tiny garden huge harvestThe American self-sufficiency expert believes it’s possible to grow in the tiniest of spaces, in fact he says a small space can be beneficial: “For busy families, a tiny garden creates a manageable and sustainable workload.”

And he tells us that in a garden of just 8ft by 8ft, he managed to harvest 207lbs of veg.

The key is choosing the right things to grow – and the best varieties – and making full use of the space available.

In Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest, Warnock, who is based in the Rocky Mountains, sets out how to achieve this and passes on the tips and tricks for using space efficiently that he’s learned over the years.

tiny garden huge harvest
The book has charts and lists to help

In a small garden, there’s no room for passengers so the first rule is to grow only what you like to eat: “This may seem obvious at first, but surprisingly, many people fail to take this into consideration.”

Crops that take up a lot of room for relatively small reward, such as sweetcorn, are also best avoided and it pays to look carefully at the time from sowing to harvesting when choosing varieties.

One good trick is to grow things that give a long season of cropping. Cut-and-come-again lettuce is an obvious example but you could do the same with many other crops, including chard, kale and celery.

He also points out that the leaves of beetroot and turnips can be harvested for weeks before the roots are used, giving two crops in one.

Every inch of a small plot needs to earn its keep and successional sowing is a good way of making sure ground is never idle. A chart giving four possible crop plans is just one of many handy charts and there are also suggestions for things that will grow in shade.

tiny garden huge harvest
Chard can be harvested over many weeks

Having outlined what to grow, the book turns to how to plan your space. This covers traditional small gardens, balconies, containers and even vertical gardens in a bookcase-sized area: “Imagine you are in a library standing in front of a shelf full of books – except instead of books, these shelves are lined with potted plants.” Even potatoes, cabbage and squash could be grown using this method, he says, while a trickle-down watering system is easy and efficient.

The book is small – just over 60 pages – pocket-sized, making it ideal for use outside, and easy to read with Warnock’s ideas clearly and simply explained. Unfortunately, while his ideas of sustainable, grow-your-own living are very current, the book has a rather dated feel due to the black-and-white photos, used, presumably, to keep production costs down.

It’s worth ignoring the initial impression this gives as the book has many easy and interesting ideas and, while it doesn’t cover how to grow, it would be ideal for novice or established gardeners who want to get more out of their garden.

Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest by Caleb Warnock is published by Familius, RRP £4.99. Buy now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Familius.

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Review: Square Foot Gardening: Growing Perfect Vegetables

It’s so disappointing to spend weeks carefully nurturing fruit and veg only to miss picking them at the right time. Turn your back for a moment and it seems tomatoes split, radish turn bullet-like and courgettes morph into marrows. Square Foot Gardening: Growing Perfect Vegetables aims to take the mystery out of just when to harvest.

growing perfect vegetables

The book has been produced by the Mel Bartholomew Foundation, which carries on the work of the American who started the pioneering square foot method of cultivation more than 40 years ago. He advocated growing in a 4ft by 4ft box that was subdivided into 16 squares with one type of plant per square, arguing that it required less work and produced just the right amount of produce, reducing waste.

“He had seen a lot of ripe produce go to waste in his local community simply because of inefficiency and gardener burnout,” the introduction tells us.

Yet, popular though his method has proved, it did not answer the problem of when to harvest and it’s this “missing link in the chain” that Growing Perfect Vegetables aims to provide.

The book begins with an overview of exactly what we mean by ripeness and how it occurs. We learn about crops that will continue to ripen even after harvest (climacteric), such as tomatoes and apples, and those that stop ripening as soon as they are picked (non-climacteric) with examples being cucumber and lettuce.

growing perfect vegetables

There’s advice on which fruits to ripen in a bag and a warning about “enemy plants” – those crops that don’t work well as kitchen garden neighbours; basil harms cucumber plants while strawberries compete with cabbages for nutrients.

The bulk of the book is the ‘ripeness listings’, crop by crop analysis of what to look for in a ripe veg or fruit and how to store it, both in the short-term – asparagus spears with the cut end in cool water – and in the long term, layering beets in damp sand for the winter. And it’s not just for the kitchen gardener as how to choose the perfect shop-bought produce is also covered.

The listings are divided into three: crops that will grow inside the square foot system; those that have to be grown outside, such as fruit trees; crops that are generally imported into the USA, such as avocados and bananas.

There are nuggets of additional advice scattered through: wear gloves to pick aubergines because of their spiny stems; restore limp radish by soaking in ice water; snipping off the foliage on a cantaloupe melon decreases rather than increases the sweetness.

growing perfect vegetables

Also useful are lists of the crops with the shortest shelf-life; the 10 healthiest fruit and veg and the most beautiful crops, such as rainbow chard and Romanesco broccoli. The book also suggests some “less-famous winter squashes” that are worth growing.

Some of the advice is of little use to a British audience – who has a problem with racoons? – and some of the crops lose a little in translation; I’m still not completely sure what a pole bean is, while you have to read closely to work out that cilantro is what we know as coriander.

Growing Perfect Vegetables is also, despite the title, not a guide to growing but harvesting once you’ve successfully raised your crops.

But, if you’ve ever puzzled over whether a leek is ready to pull or how to extend the ripeness of apples, this book will more than solve your problem.

Square Foot Gardening: Growing Perfect Vegetables is published by Cool Springs Press, RRP 11.99. Buy now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Cool Springs Press.

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Review: Rosy Hardy – 25 Years of Chelsea

When it comes to column inches and television air time often it’s the garden designers at RHS Chelsea that get the most attention. Yet, in the Great Pavilion the nursery stands demand just as much planning and attention to detail. So, it’s good to see the spotlight being put on their contribution in this new book by Rosy Hardy of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants.

hardy'sIt charts the Hampshire nursery’s 25 years at Chelsea, including a show garden in 2016, and gives an insight into how it takes far more than just top class plants to make an award-winning display.

Seeing their success today, it’s hard to imagine the small-scale way in which Rosy and her husband, Rob, started. They came into the business “almost accidentally” when they bought some plants from a closing down nursery and sold them at a local car boot sale. Soon they had dug up their back garden to grow more and commandeered Rosy’s mum’s greenhouse for propagation before renting a walled garden for what Rosy describes as “a ‘grown up’ nursery”.

Their Chelsea debut in 1992 was similarly low-key: Rosy’s sister-in-law lifted plants from her own garden and brought them to Chelsea in carrier bags to plug gaps in the display. It’s a far cry from today’s highly organised preparations, which are described as “a military operation”.

hardy's
Rob and Rosy on their 2017 Chelsea stand

Written in a conversational style, the book looks at each of their Chelsea years with snapshots of the displays and anecdotes, from the plants they have introduced to food poisoning and a blackbird that nearly scuppered one exhibit. There is also the background to the 2016 show garden, which looked at the chalk streams that have shaped their part of Hampshire.

As they have grown in experience and confidence, so the exhibits have become more complex with the turning point in 2004 with the first of their more ‘garden-like’ stands. They are also known for their ‘walk-through’ features, which allow visitors to get close-up to the plants, such as their exhibit at Chelsea this year, pictured at the top of this page.

The book is also a record of the changing nature of the industry with the ditching of peat and the rise of the internet; in 2012 Hardy’s stopped producing a printed catalogue.

hardy's
The 2016 Chelsea show garden

But what makes this more than just a trip down memory lane is the inclusion of plant advice based on their years in the industry. Woven through the Chelsea stories are suggestions for plants for specific locations or soils and lessons in using colour effectively in the border.

Rosy admits that when they started, her beloved herbaceous perennials were unpopular with many and described as ‘weeds’ by her fellow exhibitors. Hardy’s must take some credit for changing minds.

Rosy Hardy – 25 years of Chelsea is available from Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, either at the nursery or any of the flower shows and plant sales they attend priced at £7. It can also be ordered by phone or email with a delivery charge of £1.95 per copy. Visit Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants for details.

Review copy supplied by Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants.

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Review: The Salad Garden by Joy Larkcom

I first encountered French dressing on a school trip to Paris. We were all puzzled by the idea of putting vinegar on lettuce as such things had yet to reach rural Norfolk. For us, salad was lettuce, tomato and cucumber with a dollop of salad cream. How little we knew.

My salads have been more adventurous for many years now but reading The Salad Garden by Joy Larkcom, I realise I still have much to learn. Yes, fennel, rocket and even red mustard are familiar but I’ve never thought of putting kale into salad and know nothing of Chinese artichoke.

The Salad Garden, first published in 1984, has been reissued with a revised and updated text that now includes more recent additions to the salad plate, including microgreens and cucamelon, described by Larkcom as “an edible novelty”.

the salad garden
There’s a huge range of lettuce to grow Photo: Jason Ingram

It has long been labelled a ‘classic’ among gardening books and it’s easy to see why. Packed with content, it covers more than 200 ‘ingredients’ for salads, ranging from the familiar lettuce, through Oriental greens to edible wild plants and even weeds.

Each section gives not only cultivation and harvesting directions but suggestions for varieties to grow; some to cope with particular conditions, others to give a longer season of cropping.

The advice is borne of many years of growing: Larkcom started with a Suffolk allotment, moving through potagers and a market garden to her present-day County Cork home. Many of her more unusual suggestions are the result of a year she and her family spent travelling around Europe in a caravan, learning about vegetable growing and local varieties. Later she continued her research across Asia and America.

The salad garden
Nasturtium flowers are pretty and edible Photo: Jason Ingram

But there’s far more to discover than just what to grow. Her tips include practical ways of stopping cabbages rocking on windy sites, how to water lettuces, and mixing carrots with annual flowers, such as love-in-a-mist, to hide them from carrot fly.

She suggests letting landcress self-seed – “This sometimes seems the simplest way to grow it!” – advises against buying oriental veg too early in the season as it is prone to bolt, and notes that dwarf ornamental brassicas make good winter conservatory houseplants.

There are sections on compost-making, the design of kitchen gardens and the best size and shape of beds, growing in small spaces or containers and how to sow seed.

the salad garden
Cold frames can be used for winter crops Photo: Jason Ingram

The book ends with recipe and serving ideas, a directory of seed suppliers and a very useful chart to plan a year-round supply of different salad ingredients. There is even a ‘where to start’ list for novices.

As such, this book would be ideal for anyone interested in producing salads more varied, fresher and cheaper than it is possible to buy.

“Experiment . . . and grow what you like!” Larkcom urges us. Her book makes it easy to start.

The Salad Garden by Joy Larkcom is published by Frances Lincoln rrp £16.99. Buy Now (If you buy through this link, I may get a small fee and it doesn’t affect the price you pay.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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Review: My Life With Plants by Roy Lancaster

my life with plantsI first met Roy Lancaster when he led a guided tour of Plas Cadnant gardens as part of the North Wales Garden Festival. It was a slow procession not because the 80-year-old is unsteady – far from it – but because every time we moved a few feet along the path he found something else to talk about. Latin and common names, cultivation needs and where to find things in the wild were all delivered with such fervour I was left wondering what his reaction had been the first time he’d seen them.

This enthusiasm for his subject colours every page of My Life With Plants, which follows his life from a childhood roaming the countryside around Bolton to becoming one of the country’s most respected plantsmen. It seems that far from being a mere job, hunting out plants and then cultivating them is an all-consuming passion.

my life with plants
Roy on National Service in Malaya

Such is his obsession he dried plant samples under his mother’s carpet, turned down a ‘safe’ teaching job during National Service instead opting to fight in the Malayan jungle because of “its rich tropical flora and fauna” and once there turned his Bren gun ammunition pouches into collecting vessels, stuffing ammunition into his trouser pockets.

Yet, as we discover, it all came about by chance. His first love was bird-watching and on a trip led by a teacher he “spotted a strange plant growing as a weed in a potato patch”. It was eventually identified by the British Museum as the Mexican tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), the first found growing wild in Lancashire and only the second recorded in Britain.

my life with plants
Roy in his garden with Cordyline indivisa, photo RHS/Neil Hepworth

More importantly it sparked an interest in the young Roy that has led to him obsessively plant-hunting all over the world with many leading horticulturalists and the book is as much a who’s who of the plant world as it is about his life.

Although technically an autobiography, My Life With Plants doesn’t follow the usual style. True it charts his progress from an apprenticeship with Bolton Parks Department, through work at Kew, and Hillier Nurseries to television, radio and a successful freelance career but it doesn’t follow a strict chronological line. Nor is there a lot of the personal life that occupies many autobiographies. His wife, Sue, does feature and their children are mentioned in passing but it is the plants that are foremost.

my life with plants
With fellow panel members of Gardeners’ Question Time in 2000

Thanks presumably to the journals he has kept since childhood, he is able to recall exactly where and when he first saw a shrub or tree be it in cultivation or in the wild, while his descriptions bring the scenes he encounters to life.

He describes himself as “a plantsman who loves storytelling” and the book is a series of plant-based anecdotes: the Norwegian taxi driver who refused to stop in a storm when Roy spotted some saxifrage; lying in wait up a tree for thieves at Hillier; battling to give a talk against a séance. All are delivered with the same enthusiasm I encountered in Wales.

my life with plants
Roy in his front garden, photo Sue Lancaster

And his curiosity about plants is still as strong. I next encountered him the following morning at Crûg Farm, the nursery home of respected planthunters Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones, where he and his wife were guests. Breakfast was on the table but Roy was in the nursery garden, eventually stepping through the French doors, eager to tell us what he’d seen.

My Life With Plants by Roy Lancaster is available now, published by Filbert Press in association with the RHS, priced £25 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through the link, I receive a small fee. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Filbert Press.

Review: Good Soil by Tina Raman, Ewa-Marie Rundquist & Justine Lagache

For many gardeners, feeding the soil is like the plumbing in a house, essential but frankly uninspiring. Indeed, the women behind Good Soil admit manures and fertilisers are unglamorous. It’s an image they seem determined to change.

From the start, it’s clear this is no ordinary book on the topic. Artwork images, catchy chapter titles – ‘Beauty Sleep’, ‘Magic Carpets’ – and a magazine-style layout lend a sheen of glamour to topics that plumb the very depths of the subject from the effects of different nutrients on plants to how to make a urine tea and the value of composting toilets.

good soil
The book has been beautifully styled

It’s written by Tina Råman, with photos by Ewa-Marie Rundquist and design by Justine Lagache. The trio make it clear that there is far more to good soil than just adding a bit of homemade compost or a dose of plant food. Only by understanding exactly what plants need from the basic nutrients to trace elements will we get the very best results.

The scope of the book is wide starting with why feeding plants is important and moving through different types of manure – cow, horse and even goat – to exactly how to make compost and what biochar is.

good soil
Manure in all its forms is explained

There’s a section on how to recognise nutrient deficiencies and how to correct them, an examination of the whole organic versus artificial fertiliser debate, and advice on mulches.

Scattered through the book are ‘guest’ appearances by some of Sweden’s foremost gardeners, including Lars Krantz of Wij Gardens, who talks about the need to understand your soil’s temperament, and Göran and Margareta Hoas, whose organic farm is world-renowned.

good soil
Knowing the make-up of your soil is essential

Given the amount of scientific fact that is packed into Good Soil, there was a danger it could have ended up reading like a school textbook. That this trap is avoided is largely down to the jaunty style. Plants, we are told, like “to snack” and the soil is seen as a larder for their food and drink. This meal-time theme runs throughout with compost compared to stock and an application of fertiliser in spring referred to as ‘a hearty breakfast’.

Having examined the reasons for feeding the soil, the authors turn in the later chapters to the different elements of the garden: annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, fruit and vegetables. What to apply and, more importantly, when is explained, with a useful ‘diary’ and rotation plan.

good soil
Fertilising needs to follow the seasons

Some plants, we are told, benefit from growing together, such as, rather aptly, peas and mint, while putting beans among your spuds is another suggestion as the beans “seem to have a ‘generally favourable influence’ on their bedmates”.

It’s useful tips like this that make the book a winner if you want to really understand how to feed the soil rather than the plant.

At the outset, the trio say “being able to wallow in manure has been great fun”. They have done it in style.

Good Soil by Tina Råman, Ewa-Marie Rundquist and Justine Lagache is published by Frances Lincoln priced £20 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through this link, I get a small fee. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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Review: Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster

It’s been some years since my gardening was confined to a few houseplants and some pots balanced precariously outside a window but I still remember the compulsion to grow despite the lack of space.

It’s a challenge faced by many city dwellers with little more than a balcony or at best a small garden. Yet with just a little thought even the tiniest area can be turned over to plants.

Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster is the perfect guide to getting the best out of what little space you have.

Visually appealing with informative and inspirational photographs by Jason Ingram, it’s the sort of book that invites you in and I found myself starting to read as soon as it was delivered.

urban flowers

Dunster, a florist and award-winning planting designer – she won the People’s Choice Award at the 2016 RHS Hampton show with a small cutting garden – specialises in planting for urban spaces.

She starts by outlining why urban flowers are important: “the absence of greenery can actually cause us to feel stressed,” she says, urging us “plant it rather than paving it over”.

Examples are given of enlightened municipal planting, community schemes and small steps that make a big impact, such as putting flowers below street trees.

She then takes us through the basic steps required to turn an urban patch green from assessing the space available, including soil type and aspect, to drawing up a detailed plan.

Privacy, gloomy spots, maintenance and even buying compost without storage space are all tackled along with suggestions for using roofs, walls and steps for plants.

urban flowers

There are some nifty ideas for containers, including transforming the plastic trugs many gardeners use, old catering-sized tins and wooden boxes.

“With a little imagination you can create a container garden almost anywhere,” we’re told.

She outlines three contrasting styles – classic, contemporary and rurban, a mix of rural and urban – and details how to achieve them with ideas for hard landscaping and plants.

For me, the section that makes this book a winner is where she deals with colour and plant combinations.

Using five different colour combinations, she outlines plant partnerships for every season, including cultivation tips with each suggestion.

urban flowers
Thyme is suggested as a space filler in containers

Woven through are projects ranging from hiding ugly drainpipes with plants and creating a rose tepee to making a ‘herb wall’ and putting alpines in crates. I loved the dahlias grown in an old wooden box but wasn’t sure about growing pelargoniums suspended upside down.

The book ends with advice on getting more out of your plants including how to make cut flowers last, creating a preserved wreath and seed-harvesting.

And that’s the book’s strength: it may be primarily about urban flowers but the advice and ideas are applicable wherever you garden.

Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster, photographs by Jason Ingram, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £20 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through 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: 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

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.

orchids
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.

orchids
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.

orchids
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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