Posted by: lialeendertz | June 28, 2010

Roses, woad and Lake Naivasha

A bunch of flowers

Here’s a pretty bunch of flowers. It’s got roses ‘William Shakespeare 2000’ and a self-seeded snapdragon from the garden, and poppy seed heads and cornflowers, both from the allotment. You might say that this bunch of flowers isn’t any use to anybody, and ask what an eco-garden is doing producing such things, but I think it depends on your definition of ‘useful’. I like cut flowers, a lot. My husband used to buy me flowers pretty often, but has tailed off of late. He may have just gone off me, but I think it has more to do with my cries of ‘Bloody Kenya?!’ and ‘How the hell do they get tulips to flower in the Netherlands in DECEMBER?!’. Ingrate that I am, I now get no flowers.

I like cut flowers, but I don’t like ones that have lowered the lakes and water tables of drought-afflicted countries, or that have been picked and sorted by workers (most often women and children) exposed to dangerous and unregulated chemicals, or that have become so important to the local economy that at a time of unrest the government chooses to guard the shipping out of Valentine’s Day roses over the protection of the local population, at a cost of over 100 lives. Living here in our bubble, I think we can’t really believe that such things happen, over such fripperies as flowers, but they do. This is the power of big business, and flowers – pretty, scented, ephemeral things that they are – are big business. So I like them, but I’d rather do without, if it comes to that.

I have gone off on a bit of an unintended rant there, but what I wanted to talk about was the idea of a plant being ‘useful’. Useful plants are actually one of my pet hates. You see a garden at a show and it is ‘entirely planted with useful plants’, but what good is woad to me? Do I dye my own clothes? Am I about to start pounding up herb gerard to remedy gout? No. This was the thought that flashed through my mind as I watch Martin Crawford’s DVD ‘A Year in a Forest Garden’ the other night. He has a vast phormium, a plant known as New Zealand Flax for its fibres, woven together for clothing, blankets etc. It’s not a plant I like anyway, and so I instantly started to scoff ‘Am I about to start extracting fibres and weaving my own dungarees?’ etc…but then Martin – clever sausage that he is – snipped a bit off, split it and used it as a plant tie. Damn. Useful. Especially if you’re trying, as I am, to make a garden that looks after it’s own needs. So yes, I’m all for useful plants after all, but useful to me, in my real actual life, not in some fantasy one where run I around barefoot administering herbal remedies. If I use cut flowers, then a rose with good re-blooming properties becomes ‘useful’, surely. More roses and one of them horrible great big phormiums, please.



  1. The roses are useful as they provide fragrance for your house, not that i’m saying your house smells! You can use the rose petals in pot pourri is anyone still has that or in a domestic goddess moment, you could crystallise them with the children as caek decorations! I am sure there are also uses for the cornflower.

    That aside I think the presence of a bunch of flowers that you have grown is really uplifting – isnt that use enough?

  2. By definition, for something to be “useful” it has got to be used. Sounds simplistic I know but that’s how I see it. If you’re not going to use woad don’t grow it. If you don’t like strawberries don’t grow them.

    I sort of sense that for a plant to be useful it has to have a purpose, a reason for being where it is & guess that unless a plant has this “purpose” then it is unlikely to remain for long in any garden.

    The “purpose”, well that could be manifold from something to be consumed i.e. cut flowers or veg., something with a practical use (the formium you/Martin C describes, or hazel for pea sticks), something to keep the bugs & bees happy; or it could simply add aesthetics (structure & beauty) to garden.
    Whether something is “useful” can therefore be a very personal choice.

    BTW I wholeheartedly agree with your point re imported flowers but also wish for seasonality with(homegrown) flowers similar to that which we are encouraged to embrace with vegetables. It’s not cheap (in terms of resources or cost) to produce some British cut flowers out of season.

  3. AND, And, sucking out the nectar from a phormium with a straw is just delicious, honest. So, two for the price of one. Oh yes. Maybe yr husband should move on to buying you a bunch of only-length-ways-strippable-leaves

  4. Completely agree with patientgardener — flowers in general and roses in particular are a much-needed salve promoting mental health. I’m just back from Sissinghurst, Hever Castle & Nymans on a total rose overload tour — my daughter, wiped out from donkey rides and face painting, slept in her pram next to this fountain ( in Nyman’s stunning-but-not-useful rose garden for an hour. I don’t think life gets better than that.

    Sheila Averbuch – Stopwatch Gardener.

  5. I think you need to get Uncle Vince back to tackle that window surround. At the very least it needs a paint.
    The flower display looks nice though.
    I have a phormium, but can’t claim to really like them. They also grace nearly every office carpark from Carlisle to Truro, which isn’t a good thing. But I may try this nectar sucking business. Will it make me hallucinate?

  6. I remember sucking the nectar from Rhododendron flowers when I was at school: it made a change from smoking Woodbines which was the main reason for being in the bushes.

    Phormiums are generally quite horrid things that always look a bit awkward in most British borders. Especially the more hideously coloured ones like Firebird. A bit like someone dressed as a chicken at a Rotary Club dinner. Although they are sometimes acceptable in pots.

    But they do have one enormous advantage over your average herbaceous perennial.
    If woven together thickly they are strong enough to deflect a musket ball:as proven by the Maoris during the New Zealand land wars of the mid 19th Century.
    I find it comforting to know that.

  7. Patientgardener – ah but that’s the thing. I am almost as unlikely to crystalise rose petals as I am to pound my own verbena wrinkle cream. A bunch of flowers I can just about manage though.

    Simon – Thank you. That, in a (fairly large) nutshell, is what I was trying to say. We should redefine ‘useful’ to fit our actual real lives.
    Re: British growers, you will find a piece by one L Leendertz in this month’s Gardens Illustrated on Charlie Ryrie, a wonderful British grower very much on the ball with these issues.

    MarkD – this is a joke, right? hard to tell sometimes…

    Sheila – Sure yes, there is ‘use’ in that sense, and a wonderful, peaceful garden such as that is worth a lot. But I suppose want to make everything work a bit harder for its place here too, have some role in reducing my carbon footprint or stopping me needing to – say – buy flowers from exploited countries. Reckon a garden can probably do both.

    Roland – thank you for pointing out the dodgy state of my decor. DONT suck the nectar. step away from the nectar…

    James A-S – isnt rhododendron nectar poisonous? You posh boys like to live on the edge.
    Yes, I was thinking I might get one of the little ones, and put it in a pot, and hide it somewhere. Ugly brutes.

  8. I only grow useful stuff, cavalierly defining useful as what I like. So yes to roses (tough ones which can be neglected and don’t care) and alliums and broad beans, no to phormium and lobelia and bamboo. Never knew that about rhododendron nectar.

  9. I don’t understand why anyone would ask what am Eco-garden is doing growing pretty flowers. That strikes me as the sackcloth and ashes school of Eco-gardening. You like beautiful flowers, so you grow them and pick some of them for inside. Fine. The things we surround ourselves with need to be useful and beautiful. I think it was William Morris who said something like that. Useful to you, beautiful and homegrown – what could be better?

  10. Form and function…Beauty, scent and bee-food. So many uses. You could always garnish a salad with a few rose petals to ease your conscience 😉

  11. I found bindweed stems very useful tying up things on the allotment the other day; are they now useful plants?

  12. Is Patient Gardener really recommending the crystallizing of children? I suppose that would be one way of making them useful.

    I think Simon suggesting ‘with a purpose’ rather than ‘useful’ cracks it.

    re. Bamboo – every time I need to stake a plant in a pot (runner beans, small tomatoes, lettuces which have gone to seed . . .) I trot out the front and cut a young cane. Brilliant. Keeps the brute down as well.


  13. Hi,

    I am really glad someone else is writing about this. I became aware of the issue of V day:

    How Deep Is Your Love?

    What we buy and what we give has far more of an effect then we might think. Whilst all products have an ecological footprint impacting some part of the planet; some have dire, specific consequences for both ecological systems and people.

  14. elizabeth, gilly, Lara – yes, you are all right, of course, in that there is a massive amount of ‘use’ in having beautiful things around you, but I suppose, as i said to Sheila up above, I want to try to get MORE use out of everything, to make things really work for their space, to have some positive environmental impact, essentially, as well as being pleasing.

    Ms B – brilliant, some bindweed has just found its way into my garden (I’m looking at you, next-door neighbours). I shall now embrace it!

    Esther – and, of course, you can eat the shoots too, were you that way inclined. Actually proper tasty if you pick em young and give them a little steam, honest.

    Ecohustler – welcome! Always delighted when some eco-type washes up here among all the usual gardening riff raff. I have had a look at your blog and it is excellent. I will be revisiting.

  15. Nope, perfectly true honest (disblieveing cynic) And rather lovely they look too, see

  16. I’d be delighted if my husband came home with a bunch of gorgeous flowers like yours. Grow-your-own bouquets has got to be the next big thing…

  17. Ah, William Shakespeare was the rose I gave my favourite English teacher when I left prep school (and yes, that does make me a massive geek, but she emailed me a few months ago to say it’s still blooming in her garden, 14 years later). It’s an epic rose.

    When I lived in Bristol, I found a van of seasonal flowers which were grown by adults with learning difficulties in St Werbrughs. I got slightly overexcited, but the girls who ran it were so lovely and chatty. Here’s their website, in case you run out of your own flowers:

  18. Wouldnt be without flowers on my plot

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