Tim and Tom

The end of October brought with it my last tomato harvest of the year. The experiment with food-growing-in-shade continues, and I decided to give different varieties of dwarf tomatoes a whirl to see how they fared in four hours of daily sunshine. Having had success with ‘Whippersnapper’ (an ex commercial variety from the Heritage Seed Library) I was curious about more readily available tomatoes, and chose ‘Red Tumbling Tom’, ‘Balconi Yellow’, and ‘Tiny Tim’.


Tomato ‘Balconi Yellow’ with Lobelia in self-watering hanging basket

The results were skewed by the fact that I grew ‘Tumbling Tom’ and ‘Balconi Yellow’ from seed, but I bought ‘Tiny Tim’ in the form of plug plants because I didn’t spot these available as seed. By far the most prolific of these varieties was ‘Tumbling Tom’ which I grew in the top of hanging flower bags with Lobelia and Alyssum trailing down the sides. However, I preferred the flavour of ‘Balconi Yellow’ (another tumbling type). These were grown in a self-watering hanging basket with Lobelia. Notably, this gave half the harvest of ‘Tumbling Tom’. As for ‘Tiny Tim’ – productivity was okay but comparison with the other two varieties was difficult because it was planted out about a month later. The flavour? Hm.. well, that was ordinary.

Next year, I think I will try the yellow version of ‘Tumbling Tom’. I also really want to grow black cherry tomatoes but can only find tall versions, so I fancy having a go at grafting them onto dwarf rootstocks. I admit to being a bit of a geek, so I’m ridiculously excited at the idea!


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A Theory of Relativity


Size. It’s a relative thing. Take the lowly cyclamen: an ankle-biter to you and me, but not to this chap. It’s the equivalent of a giant sunflower to him.

The context? One of the gardens I work in is used by children, and inevitably the occasional toy gets left lying about. Cyclamen sometimes pops up in unexpected places too, like in the lawn, and I dodge these when I’m mowing so I don’t decapitate them. Today, I found this toy and plonked him next to the towering cyclamen. I wonder if the Jimmy the kid will actually notice the pairing…?


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Cross Bones

I first encountered this garden when it was just a few ribbons tied to a fence. Having just visited the nearby Red Cross community garden, I was on my way up to Southwark Street when I noticed a handful of ribbons rippling in the breeze. I paused to read what they signified, and the history gave me goosebumps. The ribbons commemorated the medieval prostitutes who were licensed by the Church yet not permitted Christian burial – the outcast dead. A ‘meanwhile garden’ has recently been established after several years of informal remembrance.


The story of this garden began with the discovery of human bones during the expansion of the Jubilee Line extension in the 1990s. Subsequent research recovered a forgotten history: this patch which the local council had categorised as ‘derelict land’ had, in fact, been a place of burial. Most recently, it was a paupers’ burial ground – by 1853, however, it had become “completely overcharged with dead” and any further committals ceased due to public health risk. It is widely believed that, prior to the Victorian era, this was a ‘single woman’s churchyard’ where ladies of the night were buried (although the evidence for this is not conclusive).


In conjunction with the unearthing of these skeletons is the work of poet and writer, John Constable. He described having visions, or visitations, during a session of automatic writing 0n 23rd November 1996 and channelled a character, or spirit, called the Goose ( a term for prostitutes in medieval times). This character was one of the Winchester Geese, who were the sex workers operating within the semi-autonomous manor ‘the Liberty of the Clink’ overseen by the Bishop of Winchester. The Goose emerged in Constable’s writing as a fully formed character, taking the work in a direction unknown. The resulting poem, The Book of the Goose, reverberated with the secret history of Southwark, and coincidentally mentioned an unconsecrated burial ground for women. Later, when investigating the history of the area, and much to his surprise, Constable found that there had indeed been an unconsecrated burial ground, and that it had recently been dug up due  to urban development.

John Constable was instrumental in turning this ‘vacant lot’ into a place of commemoration. He leads monthly vigils during which ribbons with the names of the dead (obtained from the London Metropolitan archive) are tied to the perimeter fence: Mary – daughter of William Booth, a lighterman; Margaret Burton, Redcross Street, age 39; Thomas Bushell, workhouse; to name but a few. Constable says: “The Goose’s teaching is about embracing  the people who are very often excluded… People who, for whatever reason have been marginalised are brought in and celebrated.” It’s a process of healing, because in remembering and honouring them, “we give them the opportunity to find their way forward”.


The garden itself is a thing of rough beauty. Its entrance is spanned by the ‘goosewing’ archway, designed and constructed by the artist Arthur de Mowbray. Anserine symbolism is found elsewhere in the garden: the Madonna of Crossbones holds a goose in her arms, and figurines of geese stand alongside other items of dedication.

One of the main areas is the ‘infinity bed’, built using a combination of rubble from the site and donated bricks of London stock. A burial mound indicates where skeletons were first discovered, and a focus on red foliage and flowers represent the life force of the people buried here. Other beds have been made using Cotswold limestone, using dry stone walling techniques. The planting is generally in a pastel palette to suggest the Feminine (a stereotype which is my only complaint!)


Possibly one of my favourite symbolic gestures was the presence of bee hotels for solitary bees: “nature’s social outcasts”.


Whatever you think of John Constable’s mystical approach, there is no denying this is a poignant place. Cross Bones has become more than a place of remembrance for outcasts of centuries past. For example, I remember seeing a ribbon on one of my first visits dedicated to the victims of the Crossbow killer, who murdered five sex workers in Ipswich in 2006, and there is a dedication to “all suicides” scribbled on a wooden board in the garden. The Friends of Cross Bones have secured a three year lease for the land, and I hope this will be a precursor for the meanwhile garden becoming permanent.


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Tree Following: a follow-up

This time last year, I was ‘following’ a tree on Parkland Walk. I noticed that although all the other Sycamores I was seeing were flowering, this one was not. I made a mental note to investigate if this was a quirk of 2015, and duly visited the tree again this year in May. Guess what? No inflorescences in 2016 either. I don’t know why this lack of flowers might be the case..

Did I notice anything different to last year? More weeds maybe, but the obvious was this:


.. a dog walking advert!

Strolling on from the Sycamore, I went to  check the Coral-root, a plant which is rare for London and one which I never knew before it was pointed out to me here. It had finished flowering when I was introduced to it late last May, so I was pleased to see it at its floral stage.

The Latin name, Cardamine bulbifera, reflects the fact that the plant bears bulbils in the leaf-axils. They look a bit like rose buds, but will go on to produce new plants, not blooms. Fruits ensuing from the flowers are uncommon, so it’s a good thing there is another propagation method.

Thanks, as ever, to Pat at Squirrelbasket for hosting Tree Following, the monthly sharing of tree observations.


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Phone Home..

Here’s a delightful way to retain a heritage feature without it being totally obsolete..


Not so good if you’ve dropped your mobile phone down a drain, though!

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To Be or Not to Be

In this, the 400th anniversary year of William Shakespeare’s death, I repeat a question pondered in Hamlet:

To be or not to be..

But I ask this about a plant, a weed no less, and consider whether or not it should be hoicked out.

The offending plant is the Three Cornered Garlic (also called Stinking Onion), Allium triquetrum. I’ve heard people refer to it as Wild Garlic, but it is not to be confused with the official Wild Garlic (or Ramsons), Allium ursinum. It’s very invasive but apart from one garden that I worked in, I’d never really noticed it in London before. Until the last year or so that is, and now I’m seeing it everywhere in my local area, from gardens to paving cracks.


In the community kitchen garden where I volunteer, it’s generally removed where it pops up. But the new maternity-cover supervisor is allowing a clump of it to tarry on the wild bank where herbs, fruit and veg aren’t cultivated, much to the vexation of a long-standing volunteer who thinks it should be yanked out. Given the pervasive tendency of this stinker, is it irresponsible to let it remain? Even though it is being monitored and kept in its place? The leader likes it because she picks the flowers so they can be used as table decoration in the cafe, and the leaves are being served up in salads there. The flowers can also be eaten, as I learned last week – a mild cucumbery flavour to begin with, followed by quite a pungent garlic kick.

So, does Allium triquetrum have a place? Re-phrasing Shakespeare:

To hoick or not to hoick, that is the question.. 

Answers on a piece of parchment please..

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Tree Following: January

Yesterday I visited the sycamore I’ve been following for the past twelve months, a last visit to scrutinize it so closely. One thing I was curious to know was how the mild winter has affected it. In early January, it should be well and truly dormant, but from what I could observe, the buds were already on the move, bursting their tightness and beginning to stretch into leaves too soon!


Bud burst… in early January!

The forecasters predict frostier weather later this week, which may well halt the urge to leaf.

A bare tree forces a tree-follower to look closer at the permanent structure, the ‘skeleton’, and I noticed things that perhaps I had seen before but not properly registered and certainly not put into words. The base of the tree is quite craggy, the bark fractured into plates typical of mature sycamores.  The multi-stems are smoother, more skin-like.


Craggy bark at base of this sycamore

I also noted silvery and green blemishes which I realised were lichens. Are these newly acquired or did I just not spot them before..?



There are dribbles and black staining I seem to have overlooked previously. It appears that two stems have merged together but not so closely that the commingled stem is watertight. This allows for moulds and slimes to take hold which may not have found opportunity otherwise, thus adding to the biodiversity of the tree as an ecosystem in its own right.


Dibbles and stains

I think the thing that surprised me the most about this tree is that it didn’t produce any flowers and thus no ‘helicopters’. For a tree species that is widely vituperated as a weed, this individual defies the profligate reproduction typical of its kind, this past year at least. I should make a note and see if it produces seed in 2016. Remind me someone, please!! The late Felix Dennis, in his collection of tree verse Tales from the Woods, wrote a poem entitled ‘Sycamore’, noting that Some rave of sycamore as if they crept/ Upon the countryside, hearts full of vice;/ Yet long before this frozen land was swept,/ All trees were interlopers of the ice. He considered it a “noble tree” and chased people off his land who sought to rip up sycamore youngsters.

On that slightly controversial note, I end my year of tree-following. For various reasons I have decided against more official tree-following in 2016, but I will  continue to read with interest those accounts by others. Not forgetting to thank squirrelbasket for hosting this monthly event – cheers Pat!


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