Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Sunflowers in time for Pollinator Awareness Week

I know there seems to be a special day, week or month for everything these days, but here is another one: Pollinator Awareness Week.

Bees are not my favourite things when I am faced with them. I've only been stung once, but that was quite enough for me, thank you. I was on a romantic date, watching Romeo and Juliet in Stratford-upon-Avon, looking very glamorous with an ice pack clamped to my arm all evening!

So even though I shy away from bees, I also grow flowers to attract them because I know how vital pollinators are. As luck would have it, the first sunflowers I've ever grown (from seed) showed their pretty faces this week. And the bees are all over them already!

I never used to like sunflowers much - they were too bright and impactful for me. But then my lovely ex bought me these once, and I came around to them. This is a terrible photo that I took of them, but the sunflowers were wonderful and made me smile.

Now I like to combine the yellow, happy flowers with equally impactful blue hydrangeas. I got these from Tregothnan - I don't think I'll ever grow hydrangeas as big as these and certainly not as blue.

Or more brights, such as the pink snapdragons, orange celosia, and lime green Thlasbi 'Green Bell' that I used here. And yes, bees did follow me as I carried these to the photoshoot!

Monday, 13 July 2015

Describing autism

Following on, in a way, from my last post: I was interested to read some research on the language that is used to describe autism. The research was carried out by the National Autistic Society, the Royal College of GPs, and UCL's Institute of Education. If you are interested, you can read the full report here - it's nineteen pages of academic writing though, so you may need tea! I did. A shorter summary is on the NAS website here.

My personal opinions on and feelings about the findings and the research itself are jumbled and a bit raw, but I'll try to get some of it out here.

Having done such a big study (3470 respondents), it seems a shame not to have sought a more balanced sample. For example, of the parents questioned, 188 said they were male, but 1999 said they were female. That's a huge voice given in this instance to mothers, but not to fathers. Of the autistic people (as most of them preferred to be called, rather than "people with autism"), 450 were white, 25 were another ethnicity, and 27 didn't want to say. In both of these instances, I wonder how different the results would have been if the samples had been more representative of the population.

There were 2207 parents questioned, but siblings (I know, I know, I'm being very self-centred here!) were mixed up with the 380 "extended family members and friends". Forgive my egocentric bias, but really, I do think the relationship that a sibling has with an autistic person is different from relationships that aunts, uncles, cousins and friends have with them. For example, since childhood, I have understood that my sister will always need someone to care for her, and I have been aware that if anything happens to our parents, I will care for her. I will be the one who struggles (and it will be a hell of struggle) to explain to her why our parents aren't around - which will be difficult, if not impossible, given her limited vocabulary and (what I understand to be) her difficulty understanding concepts (such as illness and death, and even family). I don't have the distance of extended family members, who see my sister once a year, if that. I cannot detach my mind from her or her autism/learning disability.

Back to the research, and "person-first" phrases such as "person with autism" were preferred by professionals working in the field, while "identity-first" phrases such as "autistic person" were preferred by the autistic people who took part in the research. There was much debate about whether autism was part of a person, and whether adding a separate description makes it sound as though an autistic person has a choice about being autistic or not. I had not considered this point of view, and I can see the disparity. Personally, I prefer to say "my sister with autism" because she is my sister first and foremost, and someone with autism second. In her case, she wasn't diagnosed with brain-injury until she was a toddler, and then wasn't diagnosed with autism until she was in her late teens - so I certainly don't see her person and her autism as one and the same. It's difficult, because she doesn't have the communication skills to tell me what her preference would be, or even how she feels about her autism. All I have to go on is her behaviour - the times when she laughs and smiles, the times she strokes my hair, the times when she makes happy-sounding noises, the times when she makes anxious or angry-sounding noises, the times she pushes me away, the times she spits, bites or screams.

Finally, the huge dislike of the term "low-functioning autism" has led the NAS to drop the term - but it hasn't replaced it. I looked on the website just now and there is a section on the difference between high-functioning autism and Asperger's, but nothing on low-functioning (or an equivalent/alternative term). This itself feels rather alienating. In the research, there was also dislike of the term "high-functioning", but not to the same extent. Again, I can understand the dislike of the terms - they are simplistic, and many people find the term "low-functioning" derogatory. But my reasons for using the term "low-functioning" and occasionally the term "severe" are certainly not to cause offense.

I use these terms because so often, when I simply tell people that my sister is "autistic", the response is one of the following:

  • "Cool! Is she really good at drawing?"
  • "Wow! Is she good at maths?"
  • "Oh yeah, I'm a bit autistic too," before explaining that they like to line their shoes up neatly/tidy up the kitchen before they go to bed/do anything that a neat and tidy person would do.

I use these terms because professionals will churn out the word "autistic" when it suits them, but then they will forget how serious my sister's learning disability is and how she is unable to ask for her needs...but that she still has needs.

Basically, I love my sister to pieces, I feel awful that she can't express herself the way I can, and I want people to make an effort with her - professionals and people she meets socially. The debate about language is an important one. It's the reason that terms that were used when my sister was young (the one beginning with "r" that I don't want to repeat, and "mentally handicapped") aren't used now. But as we find some words are not so helpful to everyone, we need to find new words that are more helpful to more people. If autism is a spectrum, there are a lot of people whose voices and needs ought to be listened to in future discussions about the language we use.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Nymans in June: Smelling the roses

I watched the first episode of The Autistic Gardener this evening. I wasn't sure about the sound of it - I was worried it would be just another entertainment programme misrepresenting vulnerable people. But I watched it, and as all of the team had high-functioning autism, it did seem to be their story and edited sensitively. There was a lovely, warm sense of humour running throughout it, and some very tender moments.

It reminded me that I took some photos with my sister (who has low-functioning autism) just over a week ago that I wanted to share here.

We made another trip to Nymans, and there was a sensory treat in store for my sister. She has paid a couple of brief visits to the beautiful National Trust gardens, just sitting in the meadow or walking up the path and looking at the narcissi and crocuses - the staff are great at suggesting what is quick to see and not too far to walk to.

At the end of last month, when it was very warm but not horrendously hot, we paid another visit on the way to Brighton. We walked through the centre of the meadow and I ran my hand along the grasses, and she copied me. She took my photograph, but decided I look better with most of myself cropped out!

Nymans has left boxes around the place with activities for children and families. I demonstrated a skipping rope, very badly, but she didn't fancy skipping. I tried to get her to play giant noughts and crosses, and she sort of joined in.

We saw all sorts of colour emerging in the gardens.

Does anyone know what this is?

We sat down in the rose garden, and for the first time she really sniffed when I asked her to smell the roses. The heat meant the scent was even stronger. So although we didn't manage to see the bluebells or the wisteria this year, sitting in the rose garden surrounded by the most wonderful fragrance was a pretty cool achievement. She seemed happy.

British flowers at the Summer Tumblr Eco-Design Fair

I had a stall at the Summer Tumblr Eco-Design Fair at the Garden Museum. It was like the Christmas fair, but summery!

I had buckets of British flowers from the garden, from a friend's garden (she let me raid it with a bucket and scissors), and from Pratley and Dennis Edwards at New Covent Garden Market. Summer is certainly the best time to buy flowers - the prices are cheaper and more things are local. You can't get outdoor-grown sweet peas in January, and if you could (like imported peonies at Christmas) they would cost a bomb!

I got lovely, small poppy seedheads from my friend - the cultivated ones at the market are great for bigger arrangements, but are too dominant for smaller ones. I also snipped some feverfew (which means protection in the language of flowers) and scented dianthus (aka carnations).

Pratley was full of boxes of beautiful flowers...but the heat was getting to some of them. Even though the market is temperature-controlled, of course if it's hot outside (it was like a furnace outside on Saturday morning at 6am) it's going to seep indoors, particularly with doors opening and closing all of the time. I bought pale blue delphiniums, powder blue scabious (which I love to buy, in case you hadn't noticed), and white, lilac, and pink larkspur. Delphiniums symbolise levity and larkspur, their annual sisters, lightness. I was told that the (boxed) larkspur weren't happy with the sun, but I took a chance and bought some - hoping that several hours in water, flower food and a cold shed would perk them up (which it did).

Dennis Edwards (where you can buy David Austin cut roses and Withypitt dahlias) had British stocks, peonies, veronica, garden phlox, sweet peas, and alchemilla mollis. I bought pale peach stocks (which were in water and seemed much healthier than the stocks I sometimes see in boxes) and veronica.

This is how to condition garden hydrangeas - upside down in lots of water. Their delicate petals tend to wilt if they are not properly conditioned, and I guess it's hard work for them to suck up water from their woody stems if you condition them the usual way. After a few hours like this, I turn them upright.

I had a calamitous morning on the day of the fair, with a nosebleed ruining my outfit and my face, and my two left feet tripping up the stairs twice. But after that, there was calm (followed by a downpour of rain).

I made lots of tall bouquets in buckets that people could cut down as they liked when they got home, rather than aqua-packed handtieds with shorter stems. I made up bunches of flowers, from gorgeous seedheads to hydrangeas that are at that pretty, pastel pink-pale green stage. I made small posies in tins and bigger posies in posh coffee tins that I've been saving for years.

And I had some plants grown from the seeds that were given to me as a thank you for doing some funeral flowers last year - these are Impatiens balsamina.

The most popular seller? My friend's poppy seedheads!

And the posh Fortnum and Mason coffee tins of scabious and veronica.

I had a wonderful day, made even nicer by family and gardener friends from the museum helping out or stopping by to chat. And at the end of the day, two lovely things happened. A Swedish woman told me that the word for carnation in Swedish is the same as the word for clove, because of the scent. Ooh, what about stocks, I asked - they smell like cloves too. She smelled some stocks and smiled - oh yes.

Then a family bought a plant to give to a friend, and were going for a tea in the cafe and picking up the impatiens later. I was about to start packing away, but I had a small bucket with larkspur trimmings. So I made a posy with these and tied it with yellow ribbon. When they came back to pick up the plant, I gave the posy to their little girl. The shocked look on her face reminded me of when I went to Dickens and Jones (an old House of Fraser on Regent's Street) with my mother when I was a little girl, and a sales assistant gave me two perfume samples, which I thought were real bottles of perfume. At the stall, the girl's mother said, "Oh! You look like a flower girl," and the girl said a shy "Thank you" to me.

And that's what flowers are for.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Coming Up For Air

I found this diary entry by accident a few years ago. It was in my book where I had all of my notes for my dissertation that I'd written a couple of years earlier.


Four weeks ago, I was in a car going from Oxford to Henley-on-Thames for my first real Orwell "pilgrimage". I was in the middle of rereading Coming Up For Air, and [my partner] had just finished reading it for the first time. On the way to Henley, I got a phone call from my mother: "Don't drive through Central London, there have been some bombs." Bombs? When we watched the news that morning, they just said there had been a power surge. So we turned on the radio and yes. Three bombs on the Underground, the top of a bus blown right off, twenty-something people dead, witness after witness, chaos upon chaos. Bloody hell, I thought. This is a bit too Coming Up For Air.

I turned the radio off, [my partner] pulled into the car park, and we sat in silence for a minute. "I don't think we expected it to be quite so Coming Up For Air," he said. No. It was scary and weird.

I'd hoped the trip would evoke all of the nostalgia that Orwell, through the character of George Bowling, felt about his childhood in Henley ("Lower Binfield"), which he remembered "always in sunny weather". The day we visited the town it was on-off rain. Windy rain that makes it hard to hold an umbrella up, and put me in a snappy, irritable mood. This wasn't the Golden Country I'd expected.

The year after the attacks, I went to Queen Mary's Gardens in Regent's Park before I went to work. I wouldn't have felt right going to any of the memorial events that were happening that day, but this one thing - the public being invited to place purple carnations in a mosaic template - felt different. It felt like a small way of paying my respects and showing my empathy without being intrusive. I got there at 8am and they were just setting up. A woman with brown hair and a kind smile gave me a carnation and I placed it in the mosaic. I watched for a while, and then I went to work.

Throughout the day, people placed these carnations and the mosaic took shape, becoming a giant flower with seven petals. In the evening, there was a service where relatives of those killed in the attacks placed yellow gerberas in the centre of the giant flower.

Yvonne Nash, whose fiance Jamie Gordon died in the attacks, read the e. e. cummings poem, i carry you in my heart, at the memorial service in Regent's Park in 2006. Her friend, Lucy Smail, had designed the floral tribute. 

Yellow gerberas will also be laid today in Hyde Park as people think about the people who died, those who lived through that morning, and the loved ones who have been bereaved. 

Monday, 6 July 2015

Scent to sleep: Blue Jasmine

I was given a jasmine and lilac scented diffuser as a gift at the start of the year. The scent has been lovely, especially on warm mornings.

It's reaching the end now, so soon I will be using the bottle for tiny flowers. But before that happens, I was able to use the jasmine that's been flowering for a few weeks to make up a posy of leftovers from yesterday's flower stall.

How beautiful is the powder blue scabious? It reminds me of a Degas ballerina.

The larkspur trimmings began to flower in the heat and looked so pretty.

The poppy seedhead is so smooth and nature's design on the top is wonderful.

And that jasmine.

Jasmine smells amazing late in the evening and early in the morning.

The jasmine in both the diffuser and the posy scent me to sleep last night.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

British Flowers Week: A Mad Tea Party for Alice's 150th

2015 is a year of a few special anniversaries. One of these is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

When I first read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, my favourite chapter was A Mad Tea Party. I loved how conversational and silly it was, I loved the setting and the characters. I didn't want the chapter (or the party) to end. I also loved the meeting with the Queen of Hearts, even though she was terrifying. The Duchess freaked me out though, especially after I saw a television version in the 80s.

Today is Alice's Day - the day that Lewis Carroll first told the story of Wonderland to Alice Liddell, who inspired the books. If you were lucky enough to be in Oxford today, you may have seen the celebrations, including a line up of 150 Alices!

When I did flowers a couple of weeks ago, I had the tea party in mind.

I often do - I bought this Alice cup when I visited a friend in Oxford, and another friend sent me this cake stand from Jersey.

Last month, I got rainbow cake fit for Wonderland, from Brighton cake and ice cream cafe Cloud 9. (This anniversary Mad Hatter cake is quite something though.)

There were "bunny ears" grasses to represent the White Rabbit and the March Hare, and a few strongly-scented red roses to keep the Queen of Hearts happy. There were also chamomile flowers, which I've wanted to grow for years, ever since I learned that they symbolise energy in adversity.

There were jam and marmalade jars, but no mustard.

I have three copies of the book because I love the different covers so much. I'm busy today and tomorrow with a flower stall (come and visit me - it's at the Garden Museum from 10.30!), but will dig out one of my copies and have a read again.