Out In The Garden With The Bard of Ely
I grew up knowing (and even being related to) some interesting characters, so I’ve always been appreciative of those among us who are purely authentic and unique individualists. One of the early examples I had was, Euell Gibbons, for example, who was a fellow garden author and friend of my grandmother. Today, I’m privileged enough to share an interview with another such unique individualist — who some know as The Bard of Ely from other websites.
Steve Andrews (his real name) often writes very detailed and excellent articles on a wide variety of topics, including gardening, butterflies, insects, and is a huge supporter of the environmental issues that are of deep concern to all of us. Currently, he lives in Tenerife, Spanish Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa. Outside of his writing and journalistic endeavors, he is also a singer, songwriter, poet, and champion of the environment. Let’s get out in the garden with The Bard of Ely and share his passion for all that grows —
1. When did you first develop an interest in gardening? What drives your passion for gardening?
My answer to that, would be it was when I was a about four that the seeds were sown. From there, I started to develop a passion for plants and animals, and this began aptly enough in my parents’ garden. I was fascinated by flowers and insects, and when I learned how to read I wanted books about flowers and animals. My parents used to take me for outings in the countryside and I used to enjoy spotting species that were in my books.
Both my father and grandfather were keen gardeners and had allotments, and I used to help them and find wildlife that lived in such places. For example, I remember the Wooly Bear caterpillars of the Garden Tiger Moths used to eat rhubarb leaves.
Digging a garden was exciting too, because you never knew what chrysalises and grubs you might uncover.
My granddad was a beekeeper and so I used to enjoy watching him tending them. He also used to be involved with the local horticultural show. I used to love going to these to see the amazing range of prize-winning exhibits, and to buy plants from some of the stalls.
As a child, I didn’t have many friends and spent most of my free time studying nature and seeing what I could find. I had a lot of pets, including caterpillars and stick insects, and learned that you had to feed these animals the correct plants. I learned that everything has its place and its special requirements and that the world is an immense garden.
2. When it comes to gardening, what would you say is your favorite plant or flower and why?
I don’t really have favourites because I love all plants and animals, although I do tend to have periods when I am more interested or involved with certain types. When I was much younger, I had a collection of cacti and succulents and used to take pleasure not only in building the number of types I had up, but in also getting them to flower and set seed.
I take a lot of joy in plants I am concentrating on growing at specific times. There is a lot of pride to be gained in watching something you have grown produce its first flowers or fruit.
There is another in my father’s house, that I gave him when I moved here, and that I had already been growing in Wales after I brought seeds back from my first holiday in Tenerife.
I like Dragon Trees because they simply look so impressive and strange. I remember seeing my first one, and having to ask my friend the singer-songwriter Priscilla Hernandez what it was. “We call them Dragos,” she said.
I found out later that they are ruled by Mars in astrology, and it is my ruling planet too because I am born under the sign of Aries. So, the Dragon Trees and I had something in common.
I am also particularly fascinated by the Viper’s Bugloss (Echium) species that grow on the island. I am growing a Red Viper’s Bugloss (E. wildpretii) in a pot on my balcony, and it should flower in the next month.
I have developed a special interest in these plants because there are several wild species here and they can be very spectacular. I was used to the blue Viper’s Bugloss (E. vulgare) that grows in the UK, but to see red-flowered ones that grow high on Mt Teide, and other white-flowered species such as E. simplex that is very rare in the wild gained my interest.
I also became interested in growing Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) because it is the food plant of the Monarch Butterfly, and I realized that the number of these beautiful insects is directly related to how many parks and gardens have this flower growing in them. If nobody grows it then the butterflies will die out.
I started growing the plant in pots on my balcony and have reared as many as 50 butterflies, that have emerged in a week from caterpillars fed on plants I had grown.
3. What is your best tip that you’d like to share with other gardeners?
Copy Mother Nature as much as possible, but don’t be afraid to experiment. In other words, if you think you can grow something from seed, then have a go at it, but try and think about how and where it grows naturally and duplicate the conditions as best you can.
4. What’s been your biggest garden success story?
Definitely it would be growing a pineapple, in a pot in my living room in Cardiff and getting the story on HTV Wales news at Christmas.
5. Describe your gardening challenges.
Currently — they are not having a garden, so being restricted to what I can grow on a balcony, where the main problems apart from lack of space are caused by wind and insect pest infestations. Whitefly, aphids, scale insects, mealy bug and red spider mite all cause a lot of trouble here. I refuse to use insecticides. Hoverflies have been a big help keeping the aphids down.
6. You’ve written about growing pineapples at home. I personally know that they can be persnickity and a challenge for the novice pineapple grower. Since you live in Tenerife, do you have any problems due to your locale, such as we do here in Florida where just as they become ripe — the raccoons and other wildlife raid them?
I confess that here I have failed to grow a pineapple to fruiting size here in Tenerife. It seems silly, but I was able to grow them in a house in Wales in soil out of my back garden, but here in a sub-tropical climate where they can be grown outdoors I have lost the ones I have tried growing.
7. I especially enjoyed your article, Over The Wall, could you tell us more about the Flame vine and the Balloon vine?
The very pretty Flame Vine (Pyrostegia venusta) is grown here in lots of gardens and makes amazingly colourful displays as it grows all over walls and fences. The Balloon Vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum) appears to have been naturalized here and self-seeds itself. It grows on waste ground and abandoned farmland.
I had never seen either before I came here, so they are examples of plants I had to find out about in books. This happened to me a lot when I first came to Tenerife, and I saw all sorts of incredible plants and trees, but didn’t know what they were.
8. In your article, Gardening the Martian Way, you introduced a topic that was so unique and such a breath of fresh air, when it came to thinking about a garden theme. Do other planets bring, to your mind, such an approach to gardening with an artistic eye?
I was working on a book called The Herbs of Mars and Venus with a friend of mine several years ago. I finished my Martian herbs section, but the Venusian ones were never completed, because we failed to find a publisher and gave up on it.
I am far more familiar with the herbs ruled by Mars, than those under other signs, but of course it would be possible to organize a garden with sections devoted to herbs and flowers ruled by the other planets. It would make a very interesting project. The information on which planets rule which plants can be found in some old herbals by herbalists, such as Nicholas Culpeper.
9. It seems that many unusual plants are native to where you live. Having read, Earthstars Grew At The Bottom Of My Garden, it made me wonder, what other treasures that would delight gardeners around the world are found there?
That was back in Ely in Cardiff in South Wales. Something else that happened in my garden there that was of enough interest to get listed in the National Museum of Wales, was that hops that I had growing up a drainpipe were teratological specimens. In other words, they were natural mutants and some had leaves growing out of the hop itself.
I had contacted a “Gardener’s Questions” feature in the South Wales Echo about them. The newspaper forwarded my query on to an expert in the museum, who contacted me and, after seeing some, confirmed that they exhibited this mutation.
Sadly, now that I no longer live there — the hops and many other plants and trees I had growing, have all been pull out or cut down by the Ely council housing people and the new tenants. I don’t know if the Earthstars still come up at the bottom of the garden though.
10. I know that you are currently running David de Rothschild’s fansite on Facebook and are involved in corresponding with him in his Plastiki Expedition. Knowing that this effort is so important in bringing about awareness, and also knowing that a lot of gardeners also care about such vital topics, it is of interest to all of us. Plus, many people forget that what happened to the ocean also plays a role in earth’s environmental issues (i.e. marine plants provide us with 75% to 80% of the oxygen we breathe) — could you speak a little about that subject to our readers?
Well, the first thing that springs to mind comes from your words: “many people forget,” because this is a massive part of the problem. Many people do indeed forget about what happens to the rubbish they throw away. It becomes a case of out of sight and out of mind.
Sadly, a very large percentage of the plastic that ends up in the sea comes from inland. It washes down rivers and finds its way into sewers and drains and ultimately in the oceans. Yet more has been dumped there in a very irresponsible way.
Plastic cannot biodegrade and simply breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, which eventually become the size of sand particles and end up in beaches. Nearly every piece of plastic that has ever been made, apart from that which has been burned, is still somewhere in the environment with an incredible amount polluting the oceans.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which David de Rothschild and the crew of the Plastiki will be sailing through, is estimated to be twice the size of Texas. It is nearly all plastic. There are five more gyres like this in the oceans.
Already seriously endangered seabirds such as albatross species, marine turtles and whales are eating plastic, and then die horrible deaths. The animals mistake large pieces like plastic bags for jellyfish and smaller pieces for sea creatures.
Once swallowed they are unable to digest it, unable to pass it out of them, and the plastic fills their stomachs and blocks up their intestines. Not only that, but the plastic contains poisons. Millions of these animals die each year now due to marine pollution caused by plastic.
Parent sea-birds feed plastic items they find floating at sea to their chicks, not realizing that in so doing they are killing their babies.
If all of that isn’t bad enough, the plastic ends up in the food chain and ultimately in us. Tiny particles of plastic are swallowed by plankton feeders and in some parts of the ocean there are six parts of plastic to one of natural plankton!
David de Rothschild is calling the world’s attention to this very great danger to life of many forms including humans. He is calling for a global rethink about the responsible use of plastic, about recycling, and about the use of other materials when possible e.g. we can use stainless steel bottles for drinking water, and cloth bags to carry our shopping.
I urge readers to find out more about this dangerous threat to the environment, and to think about ways they can help reduce the amount of plastic pollution. If all of us do what we can then it all adds up.
David de Rothschild has said that he is optimistic that we can turn this all around and I pray that he is right.