Review: The Community Gardening Handbook and Grow by Ben Raskin

Aside from the ravages of slugs, the menace of ground elder and the weather, two topics often crop up in my conversations with gardeners: how to encourage the next generation and the difficulty of growing in towns where space is short. So, it seems appropriate in the midst of National Gardening Week to be looking at two new books that tackle those issues.

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The Community Gardening Handbook and Grow have been written by Ben Raskin and draw on his experience both as Head of Horticulture at the Soil Association and as a father of two.

In them, he seeks to encourage us all to discover the joys of growing – whatever the space available or whatever our age.

The Community Gardening Handbook is a comprehensive guide on how to join a fast-growing movement in towns and cities across the world.

“There are plenty of ways to get your hands on some growing space,” Raskin assures us before going on to outline some solutions.

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Although he includes the more solitary individual allotment plot or rooftop garden, it’s clear his real passion is for group gardening and even the allotment section has ideas on how to collaborate with other growers.

Novel space solutions include ‘portable gardens’ in skips, sand delivery bags or trailers while he suggests land awaiting development or the corners of parks could yield growing room.

Guerrilla gardening, where otherwise neglected public space is cultivated, is also considered, although he concedes planting up potholes would be more a statement on road repairs than a horticultural benefit.

Having established the parameters, each with practical considerations that would need to be considered and often with an example from across the world of where it has worked, he goes on to lay down a route to a successful community garden.

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And it is thorough. Everything is covered from how to drum up support and, importantly, money to legal issues and how to ensure the project lasts more than one season. There’s even advice on running a public meeting.

More practical advice comes in sections on how to grow, including planning, watering and crop rotation, and what to grow with a list of his favourite crops complete with cultivation notes.

Despite the wealth of advice packed into the book, it is an easy read thanks to the layout and numerous photos.

As a handbook, it would provide a firm foundation to any new community project but much of the growing advice, such as saving seed and calendar of tasks, is suitable for any new gardener.

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It’s new gardeners that Raskin is particularly concerned with in his other book, Grow. Billed as a family guide to growing fruit and veg, it is obviously designed with younger members in mind.

Colourful, illustration-heavy pages and a chatty style give it a children’s book quality. Yet, again it is packed with sound advice ranging from the structure of plants and what they need to grow to planning a veg garden and how to sow seeds. There’s even a simplified version of the periodic table showing what chemicals plants need and a checklist for spotting deficiencies.

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Pages of stickers – ‘Top Gardener!’ and ‘I Dig Fruit and Veg’ – add appeal for younger readers and there are two games, a gardening version of snakes and ladders and a card game pairing fruits, to encourage participation while a recipe for pizza suggests using vegetables from the garden for the topping.

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With a list of his top ten crops to try and a great ‘growing wheel’ showing how long things take to mature, there’s plenty to inspire and the book would be ideal as a starting point to getting children growing.

The Community Gardening Handbook (buy now) and Grow (buy now) are written by Ben Raskin and published by Leaping Hare Press. Both are priced at £9.99 RRP. (If you buy through the link, I may receive a small fee and the price you pay will not be affected.)

Review copies supplied by Leaping Hare Press.

For more book reviews see here

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Paul sets a growing challenge

There’s a new contest at the Malvern Festival this year. I’ve been talking to Paul Hervey-Brookes about his plans.

Cotswold designer Paul Harvey-Brookes may be well known for his award-winning show gardens but at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival 2017 he’s launching a contest on a much smaller scale.

Rather than large, carefully composed herbaceous borders he’s challenging gardeners to combine growing skills with display flair by showcasing just a few plants in an innovative way.

Although Malvern has always had amateur classes including for alpines and pot plants, Paul believes this contest offers something different.

“The Growing Challenge is about how you present things not just how you grow them,” he explains. “It’s about how you can do it creatively so it’s a thing of beauty and has a narrative story.”

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A display of ferns and other shade-lovers is one category

The first of the five categories in the contest is for a collection of ferns or shade-loving plants, presented in a stylish way while the second is for a terrarium or group of plants that are growing in a sealed unit.

“It could be with soil or without,” says Paul, who is based in Stroud. “It could be ferns hanging from Kilner jars just with moss.”

Houseplants have seen a recent resurgence in popularity and the third category feeds into this trend. It asks for a trio of houseplants in an imaginative display.

“You can grow them in anything you like so long as it can get to Malvern. It could even be in an old grandfather clock or a tea plant growing out of a teapot.”

Paul’s hoping the fourth category in the Growing Challenge will appeal especially to younger gardeners. It asks for a fruiting plant, such as an avocado, grown from seed, and in a suitable container. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been grown, although the sowing date is needed to gauge the growth rate and condition.

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Watering cans could be an unusual planting container

The final category is ideal for those with a small garden or no growing space at all. Competitors have to produce a collection of culinary plants that can be harvested in the kitchen, again with the emphasis on creativity.

“People don’t necessarily have a garden but it needn’t stop you growing things,” says Paul.

And to prove it can be done, Paul is taking the challenge himself and growing something for each of the categories, which he will exhibit at the show in May.

He’s hoping the innovative approach, which is looking for creativity as well as growing skills, will encourage newcomers to have a go.

“I’m really interesting the benefits of nurturing plants and how they can make you feel good about things.”

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Prizes will include vouchers for Allomorphic in Stroud

He will be judging the entries with first, second and third prizes in each of the categories. Among the prizes are Sneeboer hand tools, tickets for a lecture and lunch with Paul, and £50 vouchers for Allomorphic, the gardening and lifestyle store he runs in Stroud; an Allomorphic concession is due to open later this month at Jekka’s Herb Farm in Alveston. The best in show winner will receive a £200 border fork.

It all makes for a busy few days as Paul will also be taking the RHS young designers he mentors to Malvern to pick up ideas and chairing the RHS judging panel looking at the Festival’s show gardens, the first time he’s headed a group.

“It’s a huge honour to be chairman of the judges especially as it’s only my second year as a judge,” he says.

“It’s rather apt that it’s at Malvern as it’s where my design career really launched.”

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The Growing Challenge will be a new feature of the RHS Malvern Spring Festival

And it’s not the only show where he will be leading a judging panel as he is chair of judges for the Artisan and Fresh categories at this year’s Chelsea and will be chair at the Tatton show as well.

With a big show garden for the Institute of Quarrying at the new RHS Chatsworth Show and a Hampton Court garden for show sponsors Viking River Cruises, he’s also got a hectic design schedule.

“It is going to be a busy year,” he admits, “but I think it’s good to see a judge who’s active in the business of making gardens commercially and putting my money where my mouth is and making gardens at the shows.”

The deadline for entries to the Growing Challenge at RHS Malvern Spring Festival is Friday May 5, 2017. Details can be found here

• The Malvern Spring Festival runs from May 11-14 2017. Ticket details here