Bonafide Farm

Life of a plant collector

March 4th, 2015 § 0

This morning I put on my botanist hat and headed to the east side of town to begin one of the year’s biggest assignments: Locate, identify, harvest, press, and mount 35 native British plants as herbarium specimens. It sounds like a bit of a faff, I know, but it’s actually proven quite challenging for many reasons, the first being that I am not familiar enough with the local flora to identify as many things offhand as I could back in the U.S. So I haul wildflower and plant i.d. books into the field with me, but those are no real picnic to decipher. Second, so many plants that one might believe are native are, in fact, introduced. A prime example is the little snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, which to me and many others is emblematic of late winter in British woodlands. However, it was introduced in the 16th century and then naturalized until it was found in the wild in the 18th century.

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Finally, the time of year is a challenge as March is just too early for most plants to be actively growing let alone flowering, which limits what I can successfully identify. The assignment is due in May, and it takes weeks to properly dry herbarium specimens so they can be stored without rotting.

So I figured I’d better get cracking, even with these odds against me. I packed a picnic lunch with a roast pork and chutney sandwich, filled a flask of hot tea, chucked my secateurs into my backpack and headed in the direction of Duddingston Loch, a lake and bird reserve south of Arthur’s Seat.

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I tromped some woodland on the way, and cut a bits of holly and ivy (yet unidentified) and Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius) before I stopped off at Dr. Neil’s Garden to eat my lunch overlooking the beautiful loch. The Pentland Hills in the distance were still covered in yesterday’s snow, and the streaming sun, shimmering water, and myriad swooping and singing birds made for a perfect picnic.

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I made my way up the garden to a sheltered nook with a great wooden bench. It was warm in the sun, and I lay down. Watching the clouds skid across the sky made me so mellow I fell asleep for at least an hour. I can’t remember the last time I slept outside—I was entirely relaxed.

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When I woke up I hopped a stone wall and ambled around the loch, climbing amongst the spiney gorse (Ulex europeaus), which of course I cut for my assignment despite being prickered to bleeding. I scrambled up some rocks and found myself on an overhang high above the loch, discovering a beautiful feather along the way. Pheasant?

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The top of the hill was a great spot to watch the geese, swans, seagulls and other little birds swim below.

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As I was drinking my tea I saw two huge grey herons fly side by side to their nest in a brushy little peninsula. It was an amazing sight, something I’d never seen before—a pair of herons on the nest. It’s egg-laying time. Wish I’d had binoculars!

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So it turns out that the life of a plant collector comprises a little hiking, lots of fun thinking about plants, a picnic, a nap in the sun, and some birdwatching. It’s a good life, and added up to one of my favorite days yet in Edinburgh.

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Hopeful

February 27th, 2015 § 2

Yesterday our nursery production class visited the Inch Nursery, where all of the bedding plants used to decorate the city of Edinburgh are grown. I was really struck by the huge nursery tables filled with seed-starting trays. Each module is no bigger than a centimeter squared and yet every one held a tiny growing seedling just a millimeter or two tall. These are the beginnings of new life, and I stood in front of all that potential and felt like there’s so much to look forward to with the coming of this spring.

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My classmates and I spent the afternoon potting up thousands of bedding geraniums, standing and chatting and laughing at a long bench full of compost. It’s mindless work, and essential to do quickly and efficiently. But it’s lovely to get lost in the feeling of compost under my hands. Scoop, dangle a young plant over the pot, one scoop, two scoop, tap the pot once on the counter and on to the next. It’s a flow activity if ever there was one.

I am not sure bedding geraniums are anyone’s favorite plant, but these are destined to bring bright color to what the Rough Guide just the other week voted the fourth most beautiful city on the world. That I had anything to do with making something pretty for millions of people to see is entirely satisfying, especially when that something pretty began life as a dry little speck shoved under compost, with hope.

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And also with shovelfuls of hope, here’s a little shout-out to the person who at 7 this morning gave me the best news I’ve had in months. So happy and excited for new adventures in our future, couldn’t stop grinning all day. XOXOXOXOXO!!!

Happy fourth birthday, Tucker!

January 17th, 2015 § 3

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Even though I now live 3,570 miles away from my farmdog, I think about him all the time, especially when I see a black and white shepherd here in Edinburgh—which is about every day given that this is the land that originated the breed. Ancestors of the English Shepherd went to the New World with the colonists, where they were developed into all-purpose American farm dogs.

Interestingly, the breed “English Shepherd” isn’t known as such here in the U.K. unless dealing with a specialist breeder. A quick glance around the internet reveals that some U.K. breeders are importing English Shepherds from the U.S. for their breeding programs, touting the benefits of these “American” dogs. What goes around, comes around, right? Here’s the clearest explanation I’ve seen of the origins of the breed and how it developed. Right now there are only three U.K. English Shepherd breeders listed on the U.K. English Shepherd Club Web site. Maybe Tuck has a future here as a stud dog?

As much as I am sure he’d like that, Tuck is doing great living with my parents, where he has everything he needs plus the added benefit of canine cousins. Tuck grew up a wild child in a Free Union holler’, homeschooled by an eccentric and reclusive single parent—this new socialization is good for him. As dogs do, he’s adapted to and accepted his new reality without a backward glance, which is all I could hope for. Happy fourth birthday, farmdog.

Past birthdays: Third birthday, second birthday, first birthday.

(Thanks to Dad for the photo, and all the regular updates.)

Studying

January 15th, 2015 § 2

This week’s plant identification is a real challenge: conifers. We had a walkaround last Friday, just snuck it in as soon as the gardens reopened after having been closed most of the week because of high winds. It was still gusty, and a cold rain fell as we sped around the garden looking at twenty different conifers. My notes bled across the paper, which melted in the rain and sloughed away under my pen.

The weather and similarity of the subject matter conspired against me, and over the weekend I found I wasn’t able to learn the conifers as fast as I had other plants. So Tuesday night, after a full day of work experience at the Botanics, I set out alone to find the twenty trees we’d been assigned to learn. The gardens had closed for the day, the gates locked, and I was alone with the plants.

It was a real scavenger hunt as I tried to remember where we’d walked in a garden I have still not learned by heart. The day was going dark fast, and snow fell as I tromped beneath evergreen boughs, trying to spot the small black labels that identify each plant in the garden. The only sound was the strange and reproachful flapping of the large roosting birds whose bedtime I’d disturbed. It was so cold that my hands cramped and I could write only shaky initials on the labels I’d brought to i.d. cuttings from each of the assigned trees.

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In the empty garden, in the freezing dark, I caught a tiny glimpse of the wildness that makes urban gardens such important links to the natural world. By day the Botanics are obsessively orderly and man’s desire to control nature is the main attraction. But when all the people leave, and the darkness erases tidy edges and labeling plaques, the garden occupants revert to their undomesticated outlines. Walking amongst them, in the quiet dark, the city dropped from my awareness and I was for just a moment back in all the wild places I have lived in and loved, and miss.

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All week I’ve been working with the plant material I collected that night, learning these conifers not only by sight (Chamaecyparis pisifera has white, butterfly-shaped markings on the underside of its leaves) but also by touch and smell (Thuja plicata smells like pineapple or artificial fruit flavoring). To have such closely related plant material has been an exercise in broadening my identification skills to include all senses. The test is tomorrow, wish me luck.

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Winter light

January 11th, 2015 § 2

Each year, in the coldest and darkest days of winter, I have to make an effort to keep my spirits up by noticing beauty where I can. This year is no different, and is perhaps compounded by Scotland’s incredibly few daylight hours. It’s unnerving to look up at noon to see, when it’s not raining, sleeting or snowing, a weak sun barely clearing the housetops. It makes me feel like I’m on a different planet, and maybe I am.

I go outside as often as I can, and walk for miles around the city. Thankfully the city cooperates, and where natural light is scarce cheerful electric lights and fires have blazed all winter in what seems a concerted effort to beat back the dark. Here’s some wintery color and light that have caught my eye these last few weeks.

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December 31st, 2014 § 0

I’ve never lived anywhere that celebrates the New Year over three days, but that’s the case here in Edinburgh. The festivities kicked off last night with a torchlight procession that attracted 35,000 people who carried long wax torches from the medieval part of the city down the Mound to Princes Street. Amazingly, no one appeared to get burned and nothing other than wax and paper went up in flames. Which is quite something for what was basically a city-wide river of fire shepherded by Vikings.

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Initially my companion and I were spectators, but some departing revelers gifted us with their extinguished torches. From the curb I hailed a stranger to light my torch, and with that sharing of flame I stepped into the flow.

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Everyone looks beautiful in firelight, and cheerful. No doubt part of that was because of the clear and not-too-cold weather, which in Scotland at New Year’s is indeed a gift. The best part of the night for me was seeing the faces around me lit with love, joy, and companionship. At my farm I lived a long time in isolation, and to see and be part of such collective emotion is powerful and affecting. In many ways moving to Scotland was a personal fight to regain connection with other people, and carrying a flame in this procession became a very literal manifestation of that intention.

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Of course, it wouldn’t be Scotland without a bagpiper in a kilt.

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The evening ended with fireworks on Calton Hill, which we watched from a sea of torch-bearing processioners. This town shoots off fireworks without hardly any excuse, and ever since October there has been a marked increase in the festivals and fire-bearing festivities. It appears to be an active rebellion against the winter days that start to dim around three in the afternoon, and further proof that a Pagan heart still beats in this ancient land.

I love it, the mix of old and new, the smearing of religion into custom into celebration and back again until everyone is just walking together toward a sky full of wonder.

I’m headed out now for even more fireworks, but I wanted to wish all of you a very happy new year. If there was ever a year of radical change in my life it was 2014, and though it certainly wasn’t easy it was exactly what I needed. I hope that 2015 brings good health, inspiration, joy and wonderful new possibilities, for all of us.

Merry Christmas

December 25th, 2014 § 0

My first Christmas in Scotland brought the gift of a crystal-clear day amongst so many full of rain, hail, and grey clouds. I walked six and a half miles around the quiet city today, rambling up the Salisbury Crags for a great view of Edinburgh in all directions from the Pentland Hills to the sea. Spot Edinburgh Castle below, and the three spires of St. Mary’s Cathedral to the left, marking the neighborhood where I now live.

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The extremely low winter sun, when it’s actually out, makes for some pretty light—caught here on the native gorse (Ulex europaeus). It’s a devilishly spiny shrub that’s been used as hedging to contain livestock. This guy was on my last i.d. exam, and it was nice to see it in flower today.

Wherever you are rambling today, I wish you all a very merry Christmas.

Found a little bit of Bonafide Farm

December 16th, 2014 § 2

on the top shelf of an Edinburgh garden superstore.

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Learning a new language

December 10th, 2014 § 0

My first term as a new horticulture student ended Friday, and I am a strange mixture of relieved it’s over, proud of myself for surviving, and excited to get back to school. The last six months were some of the most challenging I’ve ever lived, beginning with the decision to leave my beautiful farm in Virginia and move to a foreign country where I knew no one, all to try to learn something new at age 35.

And I am happy to say that I have indeed learned a lot, which really came into focus when I received the most recent issue of my favorite magazine, Gardens Illustrated. This British publication is so lovely that I’d actually splashed out on an international subscription when I was still living in the U.S., and it is no understatement to say that the writing, photographs, and knowledge contained within its pages influenced my decision to study horticulture. When I got a U.K. address, one of the first things I did was subscribe to Gardens Illustrated here. My first issue arrived last week, and while paging through it I was amazed to see that after three months of studying horticulture, I am reading a completely new magazine. What’s changed? I’ve learned a new language.

Latin. That language no one speaks but everyone said, while I was growing up, was “just so helpful” for understanding what seemed like everything in the world. As a young student I didn’t study Latin, yet I managed to grow up and become a semi-literate member of society who garnered a fair share of bylines without anyone knowing my secret linguistic deficit.

And then came the first week of horticultural training, and into my hands was thrust a list of 25 plant names. In Latin. That I had to learn to identify from live material and name. It Latin. I swallowed hard. The gig was up.

Before I had time to panic the class was herded outside on a high-speed zoom about the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, trailing our sprightly and quintessentially English head of education as he pointed out each of the plants on the list and where they grew. All while spouting even more Latin.

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The class stood beneath a tall tree that had just about dropped all its buttery yellow autumn leaves: Kalopanax septemlobus. Our teacher picked one of the tree’s leaves up off the ground, counted the seven lobes out loud, and tossed it on the ground, scoffing, “It must be broken.”

British humor.

And off we zoomed to the next plant on the list.

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We did this every week with a new list of plants, and one of the things that’s most amazed me about this transition is that I am actually able to learn and remember all these new plant names. In Latin. Which brings me back to reading my magazine, where, because it is a reputable horticultural publication, all plants are referred to by their Latin names. Today, when I read down a list of plants and came across Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens,’ which was just on my last exam Friday, I almost leapt from my chair out of sheer joy of recognition and understanding. Now I know that rather complicated name refers to the relatively prosaic little black mondo grass that edges municipal plantings everywhere. And which isn’t actually, technically, a grass.

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For the first time in a life spent loving plants I am learning to call them by their real names. This might not seem like a lot, but one of the major benefits of binomial nomenclature (two name—there I go with more Latin, somebody stop me!—the first being the genus, second species) is that if you know the genus to which a species belongs, you are well on your way toward a basic understanding of the fundamental characteristics of a plant whether you’ve seen it or not. How handy!

Before I began my course, I used to kind of just gloss over those Latin plant names, as one tends to do with things in foreign languages one doesn’t understand. But now, for the first time in my life, I have begun to read and understand this language. And it’s a whole new world.

Where I’ve been, and a happy Thanksgiving

November 26th, 2014 § 1

I miss writing in this space, and have many stories to tell. However, my return to higher education has hit me like a lead cudgel and it’s been all I can do to just stay on top of my assignments and exams, all whilst navigating the zillion challenges attendant to plopping oneself alone in the midst of a foreign country.

However, I wanted to post a few photos showing where I am two days a week, at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. All day Tuesday I have work experience, in which I spend four weeks at a time shadowing different professional teams at the gardens and doing what they do. Everyone has been great to work with, and I have to pinch myself that I get to help care for such a beautiful and respected garden. Then I am at the gardens again all day Friday, when I have horticultural practices all morning. It’s a very hands-on learning day where we’re again working with garden staff—some of them the best plantsmen in the world in their areas—on all sorts of learning scenarios. Friday afternoons is plant recognition, when we learn morphology, taxonomy and take high-speed walks through the garden with the head of education as he points out everything we have to learn for weekly identification tests…in Latin.

These photos are from last April, when I first visited the garden as a tourist having no idea that in six months I’d be working here…even though when I walked through the gates my first reaction was that I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Strange how we dream our lives into reality, isn’t it?

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The Chinese hillside. The Botanics is very active in China now, with many staff going on lots of seed-collecting trips and bringing material home to Edinburgh for propagation.

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The John Hope Gateway cafe and reflecting pool. To the left is an area planted in the perennial/meadow style, which in April is not doing much but looks fantastic in the late summer. On this deck was an outdoor display of the International Garden Photographer of the Year photos, which I had written about here last February, never expecting to see the prints in person.

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The alpine yard, which is a miniaturist fantasy with all these gorgeous tiny little plants flowering in rock installations. The British love their alpines—I am working on some theories as to why but need to do more research.

So while I have not been tending Bonafide Farm, nor writing on this blog, I have been here in Ediburgh, at the Botanics. The first term is over at the end of next week, and I hope then to catch up on some writing here. Until then, I wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving!