Wednesday 29 October 2014

The very special veg garden and gardeners of Wisley

Today it was the first time I ever managed to work in the veg garden and I was so excited!

In the flurry of activities that the start of our traineeship was, combined with Garden events, staff leave and who knows what else (time flies here!) I never managed to get to work in the veg garden. I had heard so much about it and the specialist colleague that works there and how the area is popular with the public.

The reason why I was specially excited was because I'm so keen to learn about vegetable growing, my passion. I am the first trainee in the Fruit, Veg and Herbs Department that is not just working on Fruit and I am determined to make the most of it, so much so I'm planning to carry out my Horticultural Management project on veg growing (I'll write more on this later on).

And the public is as excited as I am, it would appear, to learn more about growing veg, in fact the staff and volunteers in the area receive some 30-50 questions a day, from spring to autumn when most of the crops are growing!

The bright seed of runner bean 'Hestia'
I was there just clearing spent crops (namely beans and brassicas) yet received my fair share of questions, on the unusual plants they could spot (for example achocha - Cyclanthera sp, a crop I know very well as I've been growing and eating it for last three years) and on our plans for the beds that I was clearing.

Most of my colleagues do love to interact with the public and talk to people about crops and cultivation details: the specialist in the veg garden is particularly well endowed for the role as he used to be in catering in a previous career, so he can not only answer horticultural question, but culinary ones too!

But that is a very special brand of gardener that they are here, as in my experience there is a huge gap between those that like interaction and those that find it uncomfortable to receive questions on biocultural information. Some may well like to write about growing plants, but answering live questions is a totally different matter - I was reading about that just recently, as someone published a case study on their dissertation about growing and sharing information about new crops.

I have received a range of questions myself since I joined the garden, and it is quite an art to abstract yourself from whatever activity you might be busy on and figure out - off the cuff - what a question thrown at you is really aimed at knowing, putting it into context with counterquestions, and finding a suitable answer. I have done it in the past when - as a student - I worked in a customer service role, so I can see how it becomes easier with experience. But, as the relatively novice gardener I am, sometimes I am still thrown off. But it feels really good when you can provide helpful information, it does add to the job's pride.

One question that made me feel like that was about lichens on apple trees: are they a problem? I  knew the answer as we had discussed this last year when restoring orchards. Lichens cause no problem to the tree, but they are an indication that the plant is not growing fast, as they take time to establish. Apple trees that do not have some good vegetative growth tend to produce worse fruit with time, so if you see lichens on your apple trees when you want them to fruit, it's time for a good pruning session!

Some other questions result in you learning something new, like when I was asked: can one train peaches and apricots as cordons to have more space in the garden? Never had I thought about that, but luckily I had our fruit specialist on hand to ask: the answer was, unfortunately for the visitors' plans, no. And the reason why, is that peaches do not fruit on spurs, so you need whole branches and they cannot be restricted much, hence the fan shape they are usually trained as. In the case of apricots, it's the fact that there is no suitable dwarfing stock to grow them on, and as a plant they are too vigorous for cordons.

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