Bee Love and Plant Wars

I’ve been to two bee campaign launches this week, and I’ll declare my interest early on; the Friends of the Earth (“The Bee Cause”) are a customer, buying seed packets from us, and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (“Bees For Everyone”) are a partner charity.
Friends of The Earth hope their campaign will be an umbrella for the many fragmented and in some cases feuding bee groups out there, in order to lobby more effectively. It’s a good idea, and Tuesday’s publicity event was very encouraging. They’re basing their approach around a well-balanced and informed paper from Reading University’s Simon Potts, which seems a fair summary of the issues involved and includes some sensible action points relating to all 267 of our bee species. Presenting a complex issue is difficult though. The Times reported the meeting under the headline “Pesticides on verge of wiping out native wild honeybees”. Was their man at the same meeting? I’m not diminishing the impact systemic pesticides are having on honeybees (and other pollinators – let’s not forget the other 266 bee species there are out there, for a start) and continue to lobby against them myself, but, as I have written before, people seem to love to sensationalise and to focus on a single issue.

We Want Flowers and We Want Them Now!
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has always been ace at engaging their audience, and whatever they have to say is based on good science too. Their core message focuses on habitat loss, and their new website has a great practical gizmo which helps you make your garden more bee friendly. It might be less sexy than The Times would like, but they are making a real difference. Let’s hope that sooner rather than later people will start to grow the right flowers to feed bees in their back gardens in the same way they buy seed to feed birds now.
There’s a sense of fun about the new BBCT website too, which I’m sure is the way to go. I haven’t made it to Chelsea this year but my spies tell me it was full of very consciously worthy native meadow planting, enough to provoke Professor Hitchmough, a promoter of “prairie meadows” to say the use of native plants will kill the horticultural industry*.
You may be surprised to hear that if I had a small urban garden I don’t think I would have a “wildflower meadow” area. I’d love a bed of Prof. Hitchmough’s colourful, nectar rich and long flowering non-natives. You’ll be less surprised to hear that I would have loads of UK native species in my borders though, in formal planting designs, or that I might have “mini-meadows” in planters. Our gardeners need gardens which they can love and our invertebrates need our native perennials. This isn’t just about the nectar and pollen they can source from them, which they can find from carefully chosen non-native plants, but it’s also about their value for over-wintering animals and as food plants, for example; our butterfly and moth species rely on specific native plants to eat.
The BBCT have got this right too, bridging the gap between the warring native and non-native camps in a way we hope to illustrate with our new project at Hookgate Cottage. Perhaps people like Professor Hitchmough and the landscape design business will catch up with us some day.

*This probably deserves another blog. At this point, let’s just say his comments seem naïve/unhelpful/compromised/uninformed.

Photo: Bird Guides

The Porsche Cayennes of Larissa

One of the funnier stories to come out of the fiasco that is the Greek economy has emerged in the Athens News. Apparently a couple of years ago there were more Porsche Cayennes in the country than people declaring tax on earnings of more than 50,000 Euros. The diligent and talented citizens of the farming city of Larissa (pop. 25,000), have more Porsche Cayennes per head of population than London and New York*. I can’t imagine a clearer illustration of why there’s as much chance of the Greeks returning to the fold of the fiscally responsible as my wife.

What’s odd about this is that no Greek I have heard has made any mention of this kind of behaviour as being an issue. And how do the Germans (who are after all selling them all this kit) square the reality with the forlorn hope they won’t default? It’s left to people like Michael Lewis to point out that the average employee in the terminally knackered Greek railway system takes home 65,000 Euros a year. In the meantime, the feisty electorate blame bankers, markets, the Eurozone, the system, politicians, St. Paul’s, global warming…

I increasingly wonder at our own sense of reality here in the UK. Society now seems so fragmented it is increasingly difficult to piece it all together – and the earnest current arguments about the City are just a small symptom of that. For example, we’re currently talking to the planners about building a new house. There are issues which need to be discussed about the proposed design and landscaping. The planners seem to be very pleasant, professional people, but unfortunately, the process they are working inside now seems incomprehensible, time consuming and expensive, and guaranteed to alienate the reasonable applicant. Perhaps it should be no surprise that there are folk like our maniac ex-neighbour around, who built a house (!) in his yard without planning permission at all.

I’m not sure we haven’t come to this kind of pass with conservation. I’ve been really disappointed by the lack of take up for the ecological services we offer; why don’t landowners want ecologists on their land to recommend improvements to it? Is it price? Lack of interest? No; they don’t want a conservationist on their land for the same reason homeowners wouldn’t ask a planner to recommend improvements to their house. They’re worried about what they might find or what they might not find. There might be rules and regulations they’re not complying with or things they’re doing wrong, or new guidelines to follow they weren’t aware of.
Like the planners, the conservation lobby, backed as it is by the same kind of clunky heavy duty legislation, is often percieved as being an obstructive, expensive and silly extension of bureaucracy. The fact that both planners and conservationists perform a valuable economic and social function passes most people by. And conservationists are either Bill Oddie nice or they get so ANGRY they seem difficult to deal with; they are angry with Defra, farmers, landowners, gamekeepers, developers, lack of money, Jeremy Clarkson, 5th November… Because they’re passionate they also get excited about – well – stuff most people find laughable or at best incomprehensible. A recent example from Facebook, without an apparent trace of irony:

Today…finally… I have seen some Tree Bees (b. hypnorum)!!!!! Life doesn’t get much better than this 🙂

For all the work of folk like the Sainted David Attenborough (who described what we’re doing as “pioneering” – what’s not to like!), promoting biodiversity is to the mainstream here what paying taxes is to the mainstream in Greece. Why is it so difficult to persuade the 8.4 million watchers of the Frozen Planet, or the 41% of the population RHS research says “enjoy gardening”, to grow some native flowers in their back garden? The knack for folk like us – and we’d better get it right or we’ll be out of business – is to get away from the Conservation world with a capital C. It’s not the RSPB membership we have to reach out to, it’s the other 60 million people in the UK. There’s no point promoting our or our partner charities’ core values at Conservation shows; we have to be at Chelsea (and in the main bit, not the “Environment Zone”) and at events like Ecobuild and the Game Fair.

On a similar theme, we’re working on a project with the Wildlife Trusts Biodiversity Benchmark, which is reaching out to businesses and landowners with a great product of real ecological AND commercial value. There’s no point berating businesses about what they’re doing wrong; there has to be a commerical incentive for doing it right, which is why this initiative is so sensible. Promoting biodiversity, like paying taxes or planning control, has a real economic and social output – but it doesn’t take a marketing genius to realize you’re never going to sell it that way. You’ll never persuade the Greeks to give up their Cayennes and start to pay taxes on the basis that it’s for the common good. It has to become the social norm.

*Tim Harford subsequently analyzed these figures on Radio 4’s More or Less and found they were er… rather dodgy. What he also found, though, was that the Greeks pay CONSIDERABLY less tax than they should do, so the point still stands.

Newsletter No.18: October 2011

There’s almost too much going on. On the home front I’ve started work on the new veg garden while we wait to hear from the planners about the house. From March you’ll be able to read my monthly column about the whole thing in Build It magazine, so I hope we don’t screw it up!
I’ve been adding more products to the site, particularly apple trees, which are already selling well. We sold a lot of seed in Q3, which is carrying on, and now the orders for bare root trees and hedging are coming in as well.


We’re piloting some wildflower seed packets at Thorntons Budgens in North London. They’re only £2 each, pukka kit as you’d expect, and a fund raiser for the lovely Buglife. We hope to roll them out to other stores if sales go well. Fingers crossed!

Hacked Orf

Apologies to those who have tried to access the site recently. We fell foul of a Russian hacker, which meant that the site picked up a malware warning from the search engines. All should be returning to normal shortly.


We’ve got the Creating Landscapes Show coming up later this month, and I’ve just signed up to next year’s Ecobuild exhibition at ExCel. We’re using Hannah McVicar’s graphics for our stand, which should look amazing. I’ve had huge help on the concept from Liz Evenden and David Martin. Designer Phil Brown is already hard at work on the Chelsea garden too. Thanks all!

Chelsea 2012

I’ll be taking part in my own Olympic event in 2012. We’re going to have a show garden in the RHS Lifelong Learning area at Chelsea to promote some of the things we’re trying to get folk to do. Gulp! I say “we” but I’m just going to be doing the signage and the running around panicking. The design and build is being sorted by the brilliant Phil Brown, and one of our suppliers, the equally brilliant British Wildflower Plants, are supplying the plants and doing the growing for us. We’ll do a splashy Press Release in the new year along with a whole lot of other stuff, but I couldn’t contain my excitement in the meantime, so by way of a taster here’s the outline of the design brief:


Habitat Aid aims to build a garden exhibit to show how diverse micro-habitats can be created in contemporary urban design. We will use British native plants exclusively but it will not look like a “wildlife garden”. We feel that “Wildlife gardening” is often marginalised because it ignores the aesthetic and practical requirements of the most important animal in the garden – its owner.

It is an important part of Habitat Aid’s work to create landscapes which are both attractive and functional for their users AND which also deliver biodiversity, focusing on plants and invertebrates. We are trying to put the creation of micro-habitats at the core of a design philosophy rather than offering it as an option.

The London Wildlife Trust’s recent survey, reporting increasing hard landscaping in the capital’s gardens, suggests that this approach should also include specific reference to SUDS and usage problems confronting urban garden owners – e.g. parking.

The Chelsea exhibit will also be used to promote key messages from Habitat Aid’s partner conservation charities, including Butterfly Conservation, Buglife and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, who are all keen to be involved in the project. We hope to make it interactive as well as educational.

I’m sworn to secrecy as to details, but it’s going to be very different to anything you will have seen before. Wish us luck!

Obligatory Chelsea blog

I had a fascinating 3 days at the Chelsea Garden Show earlier this week, courtesy of Hilliers. What lovely folk – and while I’m on the subject, congratulations on your 66th consecutive gold medal, a record which makes you the horticultural equivalent of Don Bradman. Hilliers have been fantastic partners for our Meadow Anywhere seed project, and fingers crossed my hopeless attempts at helping on the exhibit haven’t persuaded them I’m bloody useless…

I’ve been known to grumble in curmudgeonly fashion at shows, but it seems churlish to here as I had such a rewarding and entertaining time. Let’s just say I really liked Nigel Dunnett’s show garden and really didn’t Diarmuid Gavin’s. ‘Nuff said. I got a huge amount of the show personally, and not just in terms of my own education (I can now recognise the beautiful Sinocalycalycanthus, even though I still can’t spell it). As a networking opportunity it was fantastic, and I’m looking at a whole bunch of new ideas, tie-ups and projects as a result of just wandering around and chatting to people.

For the outside world Chelsea is a great marketing opportunity for one of our best and, seemingly, most undervalued industries. I still don’t understand its economics at all; we regularly sell trees which cost more to get to the customer than they do themselves. The value and quality we get from our top nurseries is as extraordinary as the choice, and events like this are a rare opportunity to showcase them.

The show’s diversity isn’t just restricted to the exhibits and exhibitors, but it also attracts visitors from all over the planet. I was reminded of Jane Owen’s FT article on Taipei’s massive flower show earlier this year:

Michael Balston, a member of the RHS Council (governing body), created the garden to “remind the world through the quiet diplomacy of horticulture that the UK still exists”.

Don’t Bugger It Up

I had a great time at the launch of Buglife’s “Get Britain Buzzing” campaign at the Royal Society this week – video below – shame about Bill Oddie and that annoying bee quote that’s NOT Einstein, but otherwise very good, and I rather liked his alternative name for it (geddit?). The central message from the charismatic and engaging Germaine Greer was interesting. She sees the need for a change in social attitudes towards pollinators like the kind of change we have seen over a generation towards drink driving. Why, she asked, are children so interested in bugs and yet by the time they’re grown up see them as a nuisance? Pollinators are the good guys, and we should welcome them into our gardens – more than that, we should learn to take pleasure from them and the ecosystems we can create.

This is only a slightly different angle to the one I have banged on about in articles like this one in the FT, Nectar Pointers. Listening to Anne “The Bad Tempered Gardener” Wareham on Radio Four a couple of days ago I was absolutely sympathetic to her irritation with the heavy expectation on her from earnest conservationists and grow your own fans to be a “worthy” gardener. People don’t garden to be worthy, and nor should they. They shouldn’t do what they think is the right thing for wildlife; they should do what they want to do and create what gives them pleasure. The knack is to persuade them that the two things objectives coincide – to change their aesthetic. Perhaps we can do this by making it socially unacceptable to have decking like we’ve made it socially unacceptable to drink/drive (!), but I wonder if we haven’t got a better chance to make people think it’s just ugly. A good example is lawns; I bet within 10 years a flowery lawn will seem much more attractive than the manicured stripy job so beloved of lawnmower and selective weedkiller manufacturers.

I’m sure attitudes towards pollinators will change – are changing. We’re still a long away from getting there, though. If you want to see how far just go to Chelsea next week. These big gardening shows – another of my bugbears – still have “eco” or “biodiversity” areas. Why? Can’t the RHS, a real opinion forming institution, be brave and quietly embrace these ideas into the mainstream? That’s the way to facilitate change – make beautiful “wildlife friendly gardens” just appear the norm, without making a big song and dance about it or patronising people. I try and avoid talking about “wildlife gardening” and biodiversity for this reason in the context of gardening – it’s alienating to a lot of folk in the same way that “eco building” is.

I’ll be at Chelsea on Sunday/Monday/Tuesday promoting native planting and the very beautiful “Meadow Anywhere” at the Hillier’s exhibit, trying not to be worthy.

Chelsea, Chelsea, I believe…

I saw The Fratellis at Glasto a couple of years ago, and their “Chelsea Dagger” has been going round my head all week. A cracking song.
Much of my time over the last few days has been focused on a very different and somewhat less gratuitous Chelsea, as the flower show looms. I spent Monday at an event organized by the RHS at Wisley (for which a big thank you) learning about field trials with the jolly corps of the Garden Media Guild. Lovely people, incidentally, and on message – in contrast with one of the speakers – but that’s another story, and the equally lovely RHS has only just about made it into the 20th century, so it’s excused.
Anyway, as you can imagine, the journalistas are beginning to focus on the (sorry, THE) gardening event of the season, with an excitement which this year I share. Having been a paying punter a few times over the years, I’m now helping Hilliers out with their stand, which will feature the Meadow Anywhere seed packets we supply them with. This is an ace project, which among other things has so far raised £4,000 for each of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Butterfly Conservation. Anyway, we are growing a collection of planters for the stand. I say “we”, but actually one of our suppliers is (before you panic); Herbiseed’s Steve Morton is doing all the hard work for us, and I visited him at a secret location in Berkshire on Tuesday to do a quick check on them. How are they doing?
These planters are going to make everyone wonder why they bother growing anything other than micromeadows in their back gardens. See you at Chelsea.