Emma Townshend boots up, logs on and communes with nature

Click to follow
The Independent Online

If you're a gardener, you may not think there is much reason to trawl through the nerdy world of the internet blogger. Why would you sit indoors on the computer when you could be out admiring the hellebores? But in the realm of the garden blogs, it seems that what gardeners really crave is a bit of friendly chat and advice, even if it is in hyperspace.

Mark Diacono started off helping to run Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage message board, but now he has his own blog, devoted to the climate-change farm where he grows plants which - pre-global warming - would not have survived the British winter temperatures.

Diacono puts the case for men of the spade communicating electronically: 'You think to yourself as you're posting some weird question about pruning, 'I'm the only person in the world who's interested in this. No, really, nobody's going to care... ' And within about half an hour, you've had all these replies, all this different expertise, from all over the place.'

The sheer size of the internet presents gardeners with a rather novel opportunity. Another blogger, Rebsie Fairholm, who writes as 'Daughter of the Soil', explains: 'Last February I went to a local nurseryman who specialises in heritage fruit trees. When I asked about the apple tree I was buying, he shrugged and said that, even though the variety has been around for 100 years, it's so rare that nobody knows anything about it, until such time as somebody grows it and volunteers some information. That was when I realised that even ordinary people like me could make a significant contribution to the available knowledge just by writing about our own experiences with these unusual varieties and posting it on the internet.'

Fairholm is now having a go at hybridising her own vegetables using the internet as a source of information, and then as a place to record her experiments. 'Amateur plant-breeding is a real lost art and nobody seems to be doing very much to revive it,' she says. 'It was common practice for gardeners in the past, before we got into the habit of buying everything from the garden centre. So I learned what I could about hand-pollinating different plants and blogged it as I went along.' She illustrates the story with snapshots, so that you can see her purple-pea experiments in action. You can also, in one of those weird cross-overs that the internet specialises in, read all about her alternative existence as a folk-singer, and her phobia of wells.

Perhaps due to all this globe-spanning, people want to create human structures on the internet - a village green, for example, or an allotment bench. But given the millions of people who could be reading these musings, there's something amazing about authors trusting you with so much information about their lives. The level of personal detail is extraordinary, from bloggers who post the name of every packet of seed they've bought and how well it grew, to a chicken-keeping gardener who posts images of freshly laid eggs, and names the hen they came from. (She also provides the slightly technologically dubious tip that the top of your DVD player makes a great heated propagator.)

Others of course have more straightforward goals and use their blog as a record of what worked, and what didn't. 'It's for my own benefit,' says Mike from surelythisisntinteresting, 'as I can never remember when I've sown or dug or harvested anything and it always annoys me when Monty Don mentions that he harvested his first sweetcorn of the year 20 minutes earlier than in 1976.' And for the very competitive, it's a chance to show off their produce - a virtual village show, if you like.

For many, the pleasure of a blog is simply to be able to share a first flower, a sprouting seed, or a cutting beginning to root, with people who suffer the same obsession. 'You can compare notes with people in other parts of the UK and you can look at what people halfway across the world are growing in their gardens,' says Fairholm. 'That instant sharing of pictures and information is something that has never been possible before at any time in history.'

There are, of course, nutters on the internet. You just have to remember that there are probably nutters on permanent secondment to every allotment site in the UK. And that, sometimes, they are the ones whose amazing invention, involving plastic guttering and bale string, suddenly comes to your rescue one frosty morning. One such allotment genius once showed me how to make pots for spring-sowing entirely out of sheets of old newspaper - in delightful Blue Peter- style steps.

If you want to dip a toe into the world of gardening on the web, first stop should be the BBC gardening message boards, where discussion currently rages over Diarmuid Gavin suing Andy Sturgeon, and whether the BBC should reshow all of Geoff Hamilton's programmes (answer, a unaminous yes). More seriously, Diacono emphasises how valuable this store of communal knowledge is: 'You get a totally different quality of advice than you would in a book. You get specific, personal tips, explained in your own language. And you're getting everyone's experience, instead of just one person's. It's like having the village horticultural committee in the room with you.'

But, as all internet freaks know, there is plenty of room for the just plain silly. As Daughter of the Soil puts it so nicely on her blog: 'Let's be honest, there's only one question anybody really wants to ask a gardener: do you wee on your compost heap?'

Mark Diacono, www.otterfarm.co.uk; Rebsie Fairholm, www.daughterofthesoil.blogspot.com; www.surelythisisntinteresting.blogspot.com; www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbgardening

If you do one thing...

Sow spring onions

The clue's in the name; spring onions are a nice way to start your year. They don't get eaten by slugs either, and they are quick to crop, taking about 10 weeks from sowing to eating. No self-respecting green salad should be without their fresh tang. Most-often grown is 'White Lisbon', which is mild and fast-growing, but consider trying also the much prettier 'Salad Laser', or sweet Japanese 'Shimonita'.