Tag Archives: Ventnor Botanic Garden

In search of the 287, two years later


I drafted this post two years ago, but for some reason never got round to posting it so, lacking inspiration currently (and wasn’t the weekend weather FOUL!), I thought I’d share today.  I’m not absolutely sure when I visited but I’m pretending it was still January.

As a ‘friend’ of Ventnor Botanic Gardens, I receive regular email updates and recently heard that this year’s new year flower count had totalled 287!  I’ve been meaning to visit since I’d heard and finally, on Saturday, during a long awaited dry afternoon, off I went.

I think it’s fair to say that a number of those 287 had exhausted themselves in the intervening month, but there were still many blooms to admire, not least the Magnolias, including Magnolia campbelli alba (above and below) and M.campbelli ‘Charles Raffill’ (pink).

Whilst Ventnor’s incredibly mild microclimate means they have avoided any frost damage, they have clearly been battered by both wind and rain, leaving a number rather strangely ‘naked’ like the one above.IMG_9950


The two below, still in bud, are in much better condition.  Perhaps the weather will allow these ones to flower in peace?

Magnolia x soulangiana ‘Triumphans’IMG_9954


Against a west facing wall another white flower, this New Zealander, 10ft tall Glory Pea or Lobster Claw, Clianthus puniceus albus.  It’s supposed to flower from April to June, but clearly hasn’t read the books…



A shrub I don’t remember seeing before is Buddleja offinalis.  I’m not a big Buddleja fan but this one is a lovely soft lilac and is scented and winter flowering.  Apparently it’s usually reserved for the conservatory in this country, but was thriving at VBG.IMG_9927

More shrubby interest was provided by this Cestrum fasciculatum ‘Newellii’, another plant ignoring the calendar to flower now.

I do love those arching stems, I wonder if they would last in a vase?IMG_9924

And anyone know what this one is?  It was covered in these pretty white flowers and growing in the ‘Australian’ area (hence the Eucalyptus in the background).IMG_9946


And to finish, Ventnor’s pride and joy, a little mirror orchid, Ophrys speculum.  I was lucky enough to see these growing in the wild in southern Spain last year (see post here).  They really are very special.

James Wong – growing for flavour and talking for Britain!


Wednesday saw me back at Ventnor Botanic Garden for a talk by James Wong,

The talk was entitled ‘Growing for flavour’ and, bearing in mind the two things I’ve grown following recommendations from him (Electric Daises and Cucamelons from his ‘Homegrown Revolution’ book) I’ve been less than Impressed with, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Well, suffice to say he is my new gardening crush.  Not only was his speech incredibly interesting and informative, but it was well delivered and laugh out loud funny too.

He has recently been writing a book in conjunction with the RHS about growing for flavour, and this talk was based on the research behind his writing.  As he made clear, he is not a hortculturalist, he is a botanist and his whole approach is science and evidence based.

To start with, he debunked the idea that taste is subjective – studies have shown for example that the range of sweetness or saltiness humans like is really very narrow (sugar percentage in the range 8-10%, with the salt percentage even narrower).  We may think we have a ‘sweet tooth’ but the variation really is quite limited.  He also mentioned that brain scans of people eating foods with the ‘holy grail’ 50/50 sugar/fat ratio show pleasure receptors lighting up in a similar fashion to heroin users.  Surely Krispy Kremes have to be safer than that?

Furthermore, something as fundamental as your liking for coriander turns out to be genetic, not ‘taste’.   People with a certain gene (up to 20% of the population depending on ethnicity) taste a mixture of soap and bleach when they eat coriander.  And there was me thinking my nephew was making a fuss!

So, to the growing.  I couldn’t possibly capture everything said, but here are a few points I noted

  • Choose the right varieties.  Genetics is key – however well grown, you cannot make a poor variety taste good, so choose carefully.
  • Leaving foods such as butternut squash, pumpkins, tomatoes and strawberries for a few days before eating (NOT in the fridge), substantially increases sweetness – for strawberries, for example, up to 700% in 4 days.
  • Using dissolved aspirin on plants to makes them think they’re under attack.  The plants produce tastier fruits in the hope they will be able to reproduce.  An example was watering tomatoes with 1/4 to 1/2 an aspirin tablet dissolved in a litre of water, three times during the growing season.  Other studies have suggested for different plants you just need to soak the seeds in the aspirin solution prior to planting, to enjoy the same beneficial effect.
  • Using Methyl jasminate (Jasmine water) to spray on buds has a similar effect
  • Mulching tomatoes and strawberries with red plastic, not black.  The science behind this is all to do with the colour of the reflected light.  Apparently the light reflected off red is actually green, which replicates the light reflected off competing (green) weeds.  Again, this tricks the plants to think they’re under attack when they are not.
  • Growing tomatoes as a single truss.  Apparently this was a method discovered in the UK, exported to Japan and then largely forgotten back in the UK.  Plants are ‘stopped’ after one truss has set fruit by removing all side shoots, as well as the growing tip.  Consequently the plant puts all its energy into ripening the one truss.  There are a number of advantages – you can cram in many more plants in the same area and therefore the yield is similar, but the plants need less attention as there is no staking/tying in/ side shoot pinching to worry about and instead, with all energy focussed on one truss, the flavour of that truss is significantly enhanced.
  • Watering with mollasses.  This has been found to dramatically increase beneficial soil bacteria.  The logic is that plants make their own sugar during photosynthesis, so if you water with a sugar solution early in a plant’s life, it will accelerate their establishment.  James suggested if you’re planting bare root trees, for example, you should dig a square hole, firm the plant in and water with a molasses solution – no stake, no mycorrhizal fungi, no fuss!

Modest chap that he is, James never mentioned the name of the book, nor its publication date, but I, for one, will be at the front of the queue.

And to finish, a few lovely blooms from a sunny, post talk stroll at VBG.





Don’t f-stop me now


Yesterday I was back at the Ventnor Botanic Garden to attend a photography course entitled “Get off Auto”.

Modern digital SLR cameras are so easy and effective on Auto mode that it is tempting to never stray, and just click away, rejecting any photos that don’t work.  And indeed that’s what I’ve done to date with the photos on this blog.  However, having had a father who was photography obsessed (pre digital, of course), I’ve always known there was a ‘non Auto’ world out there, and yesterday I took some baby steps to discover it, with the help of my two lovely course tutors Julian Winslow and Simon Wells.

We learnt about composition, aperture, depth of field and shutter speed.  And then, after a tasty lunch, got into even more detail with exposure (exposure level increments are measured in f-stops, hence the title) as well as light metering, white balance and ‘chimping’.


The two photos above of magnolia, both flower and bud, taken at VBG yesterday, were an exercise in the use of a relatively short depth of field, where the background was made deliberately blurry.  Conversely, the picture below taken at home this morning of the ‘Gentleman Bather’ sculpture by Denis Fairweather looking at my Prunus persica Mesembrine was all about exposure compensation, where I manually increased the exposure to ensure the Gentleman’s features could be seen.  I think I’ve rather overdone it as the peach blossom looks a little bleached, but I actually quite like the effect and it is heartening to realise I couldn’t have got a shot anything like it by leaving the camera on Auto, so I must have learnt something!


This particular tree is a nectarine with doughtnut shaped fruit (which I think I chose because I’d read that they ripen more easily than the larger spherical ones).  It grows in a large pot under a glass canopy, and not only does the canopy offer some protection against the dreaded ‘peach leaf curl’, but the glass warms the surroundings and thus helps to ripen the fruit.  Last year (year 2) we harvested just three fruits, but the flavour was stunning – unrecognisable from the bullet like nectarines we are offered by the supermarkets.  I think one of the reasons for the lack of fruit last year was some rather erratic watering, so I need to be more careful this year.  Also, I will need to tickle the blossom with a soft paint brush to ensure pollination of these beautiful flowers, as the bees are currently rather thin on the ground (or indeed the air).

And the last plant pictures are a mystery one from Ventnor (do you know what it is yet?) as well as a continued celebration of my Melianthus Major.  This has never previously got through the winter without being ‘frosted’.  I continue to cross my fingers.

Now whether the course will make any noticeable difference to the quality of my pictures  I don’t know.  What I do know however is that today I’ve been wandering round and round the garden taking the same picture over and over again using different settings and then uploading and critiquing, and then starting again.  Which is all very interesting and enjoyable, but it doesn’t get the seeds planted:


Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

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Yes, I know we’re done with Christmas, but whilst I think it’s a little optimistic to say we are done with winter, Ventnor Botanic Garden  seems to have other ideas.

Tuesday’s beautiful weather prompted me to head there for a visit and to renew my annual pass.  Astonishingly, apart from some magnificent Echium skeletons towering throughout the garden, there was very little sign of death and decay, with numerous plants still flowering like it was late September.

Much of the interest during today’s visit came from the South African terraces which get the most sunshine at this time of year, and Grevillea, Euryops, Osteospermum and Geranium were all found there, but there was still interest elsewhere, with Salvia and Schizostylis, as well as a white shrub I’m not familiar with (see bottom right).

As you may know, following the withdrawal of council support in 2012, the garden is now run by a Community Interest Company (CIC) and they are working hard to make the garden financially viable.  A number of ‘Design Walks’ have taken place with John Curtis (head of the CIC) and Chris Kidd (Curator) to invite ideas and suggestions from members of the public.  On the walk A and I attended last autumn, talk ranged from zip wires to luxury accommodation, so I think it’s fair to say they’re open to new thinking.

One of the CIC’s stated aims at inception was to establish three National Collections and it’s exciting to learn that in August last year they were officially recognised by Plant Heritage as the National Collection holders of Puya, Hardy and Half Hardy.  Further progress has also been made in the area of volunteers.  The garden is far from break even, let alone profit, and therefore volunteers are key to its future success.  Already gardening volunteers have doubled in number, and others have volunteered in ‘Meet and greet’ and ‘Education’ roles.  There will be a Volunteer Fair on Saturday 18th January (11-4) at the garden and I’m sure they’d be delighted to see you.  I’ll be going along to see what I can offer, and to see whether they’ve got another slice of fabulous Victoria Sandwich with my name on it….

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