Red Queen’s Race

24 Nov
A few vibrant fallen leaves of Acer palmatum 'Elegans'.

A few vibrant fallen leaves of Acer palmatum ‘Elegans’.

I can’t believe it has been more than a month since I have posted anything – sorry! I feel a little bit like the Red Queen in Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking-Glass, where she famously said to Alice: ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.’ I’ve been taking photos, making mental notes, and drafting posts, but with the shifting every week the blog has been a bit neglected. However, I am not complaining at all.  It’s been wonderfully busy and fulfilling here at RHS Garden, Wisley so far and I’m savoring every moment.

Okay, now for a quick recap. Where was I…? Oh right! The first week of October I was still in the Science Department with the Informatics department. Then I moved to the Trials department for the second week. The  third week I was with the Fruit department, then the Turf department, and then the Seed department. This month I started off with the Glasshouse department, then with the Formal department, and finished with the Alpine department just this last week. Phew! What a packed two months and that doesn’t include the gardens and historic places I’ve visited!

So this post I will run through what I did at Wisley during October and in the next post I will cover November.

Informatics in the Attic / Sept.30 – Oct. 4

I know It looks boring, but I quite liked the rhythmic work of checking and editing.

I know It looks boring, but I quite liked the rhythmic work of checking and editing.

During this week I went upstairs in the Laboratory (in the attic) to work with the Informatics team. There they set me up with a computer and I worked on their plant profile program called ‘Orchard’. The Informatics team work on many things including plant records (BGbase) and the annual RHS Plant Finder book, but a large part of their work is keeping plant information online current and detailed. The RHS will be launching an improved version of their website, so in preparation of that my job for the week was to help add, edit, and update plant profiles for the new online versions of ‘RHS Plant Finder’ and ‘RHS Plant Selector’. After all the programing work and updated plant files are completed, the website will have more content and a fresh look. My work ranged from adding new profiles, updating names, and expanding cultivation techniques on different plants.

These are the original copies of nursery catalogs from the early 1900's.

These are the original copies of nursery catalogs from the early 1900′s.

Another gem that the Informatics department takes care of is a collection of vintage catalogs, many of them from the early 1900′s. I was lucky enough to be able to leaf through a few, and feel aged paper and smell the faded pages.

On Trial(s)Oct.7 – 11

The van is all loaded up with autumnal goodies for the London show.

The van is all loaded up with autumnal goodies for the London show.

On my first day with the Trials department I was whisked away with the autumn crops to help setup our display for the RHS London Autumn Harvest Show. This is a smaller show compared to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show or RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, but it’s a nice one to “…get ideas and inspiration on late summer gardening and growing fruit and vegetables…”. This show included talks/demonstrations, fruit and vegetable competitions, and apple tasting/identification, among booths of vendors and societies.

Here's Lindley Hall with the morning light streaming in.

Here’s Lindley Hall with the morning light streaming in.

We drove our van – heavy with fruit and vegetables – to Vincent Square in London, where we would set up our display in the Lindley Hall. In my imagination I pictured a grand hall – spacious like an opera house and filled with baroque flourishes. When I stepped into the hall, I didn’t expect the space to be as small as it was. However, the size didn’t detract from the feel of the space: the simple, clean lines of the architecture and vaulted glass ceiling created a breathable, airy atmosphere. (If it were as how I imagined it, it would be much too oppressive and fight with the shows itself for attention.)

Here we are starting to build an autumnal feast upon the blank slate.

Here we are starting to build an autumnal feast upon the blank slate.

There were onions to braid, garlic to lay, beets to stack, chilies to tuck, and green tomatoes to drape, but mostly there was (a torrent of) squash and pumpkins to clean cluster together. We worked diligently throughout the day arranging the pristine vegetables upon the Wisley-green backdrop. We were going for the effortless look of tumbling-autumnal-abundance. Though we arrived a little later than scheduled, we finished everything by the end of the work day and I think we managed just fine with what we had with us. (Apparently, the table last year was a little too small, so this year they gave us a larger table – which we feared was going to be too large.)

Oh the opulence!

Oh, the opulence!

My hands weren't listening to what my brain was trying to tell them...

My hands weren’t listening to what my brain was trying to tell them…

For the rest of the week in Trials, I helped maintained the trials fields so that it wouldn’t look neglected: i.e., weeding, edging, deadheading, etc. Normally for trials fields the main purpose is observe how well a variety/cultivar of plant performs, so weeds and untidy edges that aren’t interfering are left alone. Though since the main Trial beds in Wisley are open to the public, weeds are not tolerated; they have to be kept as tidy as the rest of the garden. (Think neighborhood association.)

This is the Dahlia trials bed in early October - awash with colors.

This is the Dahlia trials bed in early October – awash with colors.

Fruit-full Week / Oct. 14 – 18

Crazed by the sticky, sweet fragrance of quince...

Crazed by the sticky, sweet fragrance of quince…

Here’s another week and another autumn show: the ‘Taste of Autumn’ to be exact! While the majority of the week I was helping out with the apple tasting stand, the week started with a little bit of weeding and frenzied – but controlled – fruit picking.

From Monday till Wednesday, I helped the fruit team and the volunteers pick apples, pears, and quinces for the autumn festival. We picked the trees clean of all fruit, including damaged ones and ones that were attacked by brown rot, mind you, these weren’t mixed with the tasters or sellers.

Crates of quinces glowing like yellow sapphire gems in the dreary day.

Crates of quinces glowing like yellow sapphire gems in the dreary day.

The correct way to pick apples or pears was to lift them up gently away from the direction they are hanging and – if ripe – would cleanly fall into your hands. Pulling or twisting was frowned upon, because you would take a fruiting spur with it and reduce the number of blossoms and fruit it would set next year. (Essentially the tree would have to regrow a new spur taking up three years before another apple would be produced from that branch.)

Not very glamorous, but weeding in the gooseberry collection needed to be done.

Not very glamorous, but weeding in the gooseberry collection needed to be done.

My job description for the show entailed that I had to try each apple variety we were selling and to open the world of apples, pears, and quinces to visitors. How could I complain? Once opening day rolled around, I was stationed dead front and center in the apple tasting/selling marquee – a position I did not fine daunting. In fact, I enjoyed devilishly encouraging the curious visitors to extra samples and had repeated tastings of apples and pears myself. Being sounded by the sweet smells of autumn and the excited hum of visitors all around was a perfect way to end my week with the Fruit department.

Coring and slicing apples on demand!

Coring and slicing apples on demand!

Oh, I almost forgot about this little beauty:

Apparently, an apple affliction, but a delicious one.

Apparently, an apple affliction, but a delicious one.

What’s wrong? You mean what’s right! This apple-y affliction (some fruit growers call it a disease) is an apple phenomenon called water coring. See that discolored area? It’s glassy, very juicy, and quite sweet. This is the results when an apple tree has experienced hot sun and draught stress in the summer, cold night temperatures in the autumn, and not enough calcium. What happens is that since there isn’t enough water or calcium for the apple to grow and develop correctly, some pockets of the apple where cells could not grow are replaced with water and oodles of sugar. This results in a window pane of sweet, apple-y goodness that  tastes a bit like – to me anyway – Champagne grapes. Quite lovely! If you ever find one, don’t throw it out!

That’s my TurfOct.21 – 25

The plan of repair.

The plan of repair.

So after coming from the Taste of Autumn, I had to help with the Turf team clean up the ragged mess we made of the lawns. I know I made that sound like a disastrous time, but I had a great time working with the Turf team repairing the grass and keeping the other lawns groomed and green.

I couldn't have said it better myself!

I couldn’t have said it better myself!

One thing that I never thought about with turf care was mowing sideways, or ‘scarifiying’. It sounds quite unpleasant, but necessary for a thick, luscious lawn. A ‘scarifiyer’ is a machine that looks like a heavy duty mower and it cuts the side shoots of the each little grass plant in the lawn. If you can picture an individual clump of lawn grass, it’s cutting all the blades around the clump and only the ones growing straight up are left. This keeps the grass from suffocating each other and allows for a denser lawn. Along with scarifiying, we also relieved the soil, aerated the lawns, over seeded, and repaired turf with sod – which involves precise measuring, digging, placement, and mending with good compost. This is normally done to turf, but since the Taste of Autumn show really marred the lawns we had to be a little bit more attentive than usual.

The troops are lined up and ready for duty.

The troops are lined up and ready for duty.

All of that is very important, but the one thing everyone is always amazed by is how the Turf team mows such perfect lines and patterns into the lawns. Finally, I learned their secret! Their mowers are equipped with heavy metal rollers in the back that helps push the grass to lay in one direction or another. I know I made that sound much simpler than it really is – it really wasn’t. Since the mowers push the grass in one direction, it was like a puzzle game trying to figure out how to mow in one direction without going over the previous pattern you just laid down. I must also add that it takes concentration, steady hands/feet, a good sense of what ‘straight’ is, and lots of practice.

I'm just as surprised as you are that it turned out so well...

I’m just as surprised as you are that it turned out so well…

Oh, and another tip I learned from the turf team: don’t walk on frosty grass! The grass turns yellow where your feet have been. This happens because the impact from your foot causes the ice crystals inside and outside of the blade of grass to lacerate the cells, which kills the cells and that is revealed was yellow-y foot-print-shaped patches after thawing.

A frosted lawn is beautiful to look at, but don't tread on it.

A frosted lawn is beautiful to look at, but don’t tread on it.

Phew! We’ve come a only way and I am only half way done! I’ll leave the next four departments for my next post, but hopefully you enjoyed that quick jaunt through October. Here’s a treat for trekking through all of that:

A lovely Red Admiral sunning itself in the late autumn sunlight.

A lovely Red Admiral sunning itself in the late autumn sunlight.

Anyway, thanks for reading and I’ll see you soon!

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3 Responses to “Red Queen’s Race”

  1. terrygardens November 24, 2013 at 10:54 am #

    Reblogged this on RHS/GCA Fellowship Experience and commented:

    Sorry it’s been so long – I’ve been running to stay in place! Here are my adventures at Wisley for the month of October. There is more to come, so stay tuned for part two!

  2. Agnes December 5, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    Terry! That was such a wonderful and informative read, thank you for sharing! I would love to go through those old catalogs, how did they entice gardeners then?! The hanging leeks look so funny! The dahlia beds, ah!!! My favorite tidbits were about the turf…but the water cored apples were a great nugget of information as well. Juan says you look very British!

    • terrygardens December 15, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

      Thanks, Agnes! Apparently larger flowers, strong stems, and good reblooming renticed gardeners then. Yah, those leeks were special, lol! Tell Juan I think it’s the uniform. I hope your flower beds are coming along!

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