Wednesday, 23 December 2009

FRIED GREEN PIPPINS ON THE WHISTLE STOP FORAY

I really must do something about the roof.

As ever, I'm disgracefully behind with reading other people's blogs - sorry for that.

The purpose of today's post is to wish everyone a Happy Christmas, or jolly holiday, or Winter Solstice, or Hanukah - bit late for that - or whatever way your faith (or lack of it) chooses to celebrate (or ignore) the turning of the year.


I'm a little punch drunk, having driven something like 560 miles since Friday morning in road conditions that, frankly, fell just a tad short of ideal. Detling Hill, near Maidstone was an adventure best forgotten. The M2 passes through some of Kent's most beautifully gardened landscape. Apple orchards and their alder wind breaks make a fine, symmetrical patchwork across the gently rolling downs which is just as well, since we had hours, while crawling in snow, to enjoy it.

On Saturday, the PG and I, along with my brother and his wife, laid on an unofficial Christmas Day celebration for my mother. What I wrote in Saturday's Mail about holly - here - didn't turn out quite as expected. The birds had pecked off every last berry, so my plan to return with armfuls of perfect stuff for decking the halls was dashed to pieces. It's almost Christmas Eve and I haven't even brought the tree in yet. It's buried in the snow somewhere!

At my Mamma's we enjoyed pheasant in a calvados sauce, with delectably butter-fried apple rings on top, cooked by my sister-in-law – a veritable titan among culinarians. That was followed by the PG's classic perfection of a Christmas Pud.

On Sunday we lunched with my daughter and family, also delicious - particularly a baked chocolate and pear dessert. My youngest granddaughter has recently learned to use a knife and fork. Being a typical female, and therefore able to multi-task, she devoted the time, not just to spearing pieces of poached salmon to eat, but also to use as face make-up and hair adornments while beating out some interesting variations of the Bossanova with her utensils.

And yesterday, after a fresh, heavy fall of snow, we had to travel to Norfolk. It was too cold to enjoy the outdoors and the journey was bleak since 'snow had fallen, snow on snow.'

I can't tell you how beautiful the Fens looked yesterday afternoon, when we crossed them on our return. It was too dangerous to stop, and I couldn't have taken a picture, even if I'd packed a camera. But here's what I wrote in my diary:

The beauty of the fens in winter was brought home to me yet again by driving through West Pinchbeck and Gosberton and then across Dowsby Fen. Setting sun, in a clear sky, touched up the snowy landscape with gentle, pastel colours including apricot, turquoise, mauve, pink and soft green – all just hints of those hues, rather than strong statements.

The sky was bright orange, near the gigantic, collapsing sun, fading to yellow and then soft duck egg blue-green directly overhead. The trees made a stark tracery of elegant branches, back-lit and so alive and so strong. I love the way the wind works together with the tree’s natural growth habit, to develop such characteristic outlines. In coastal regions, trees and shrubs are stretched to leeward, assuming grotesque, gnarled outlines. But here, where winds are less severe and swing in any direction, the shaping process is smoother, more subtle and differs more profoundly from tree to tree. One can recognise, from any distance, limes, sycamores, oaks, beech and ash.

The hedges were full of haws and in several places, vast flocks of fieldfares and redwings were feeding. I hoped to spot waxwings, but the icy state of the road wouldn't brook much driver inattention.

I am an icicle, whose thawing is its dying.

I'm listening to Balulalow, performed by Kings College Choir with David Willcocks conducting - an old recording, but a beauty. They've just moved onto The Crown of Roses to Tchaicovsky's haunting tune.

This week's film was Bad Santa - the antidote to the usual Christmas schmooze and saccharine sentimentality. The small fat boy who is constantly bullied has the snottiest nose ever witnessed on celluloid. The Coen bros were joint executive producers, apparently.

This day last year The PG and I were prostrated with 'flu. Our children and granddchildren arrived to find us semi-comatose.


Have a wonderful break, and the very best to everyone for a prosperous, peaceful, and utterly gardenworthy 2010!

Goodley-bye

Thursday, 17 December 2009

YULE NEVER NO HOW MULCH I LOVE YEW!

Well, goodness me! What an absolute gas!! I've just discovered the delight of re-visiting old blog posts and having a bit of a wallow in recent nostalgia. This time last year, I was blushing to admit loving the cheeeziness of soppy Christmassy things like the film Love, Actually and Scrooge and hanging up stockings and buying posh soap for the Photographer General - so I can use it in the bath - and eating mince pies and finding excuses for snarfing Madeira at 11am and so on.

And I mentioned that someone had bumped into me at Oxford Circus Tube Station and actually smiled at me, and apologised!!! Well, it happened again, this week. Is London beginning to thaw a little? No! Of course not. But there seems to be a temporary cessation of hostilities while the Season of Good Will and merry retailing gets under way. (If you weigh your anchor, when sailing off somewhere, I suppose you'd be under weigh?)

Hippeastrum 'Jewel' - a particularly nasty one whose petals remind me of blood and bandages.

Christmas gifts I hope I don't receive - apart from Argyll socks, a striped sweater or a Corby Trouser Press - are Hippeastrums. People will call these turgid monsters 'Amaryllis' which is both botanically and aesthetically wrong. Amaryllis is a beautiful-sounding, feminine name given to certain African and Asian relatives of the lily. Hippeastrums, on the other hand, are New World flarze. They're in all the shops at the moment, thrusting urgent, unnervingly thick, fleshy stems upwards, each one topped with an even more disturbing bud, encased in a sort of sheath. I mean really!!! I'd sooner have a naff hyacinth any day, or even an aspidistra.

Actually, you could play a variation on the 'shag, marry or die' game with Hippeastrum, Poinsettia and, er, well, how about Sansevieria? Which one would you have on your windowsill? Which one in your gabion, Ms Sock, if you're that way inclined, and which would you put in the hyperspeedy composterator?

Speaking of Amaryllis. At school, as a relief from corporal punishment, chapel and Rugby football, we were occasionally encouraged to sing madrigals. For some bizarre reason, I remember one by John Wilbye entitled Adieu, Sweet Amaryllis. Now, if you think the lyrics of most popular songs, these days are banal, try this one - you'll find it here. Naturally, if it was written in the early 17th century, it has to be good. Says who?? After all, even Shakespeare has churned out some awful turkeys. No? Ever read King John?


Crocus imperati - the first flower opened on Sunday but was zapped by the blizzard today.

The antithesis of horrible hippeastrums are delicate, frail, plucky little crocuses. Most are brave enough to open in March or even February sunshine but one of mine was foolhardy enough to shove its exquisite head above the gravelly parapet of my scree bed on 13th December. It was in good company. Two South African pelargonium species were still blooming nearby. They are Pelargonium ionidiflorum and P. sidoides (of gardens, for pelargonium pedants who say the only true P sidoides grows in a ditch outside Port Elizabeth - you know who you are!)

Yesterday, all these plants looked set to flourish for months to come. Today they've been bitch-slapped by a vile north-east wind and driving snow. What a difference a day makes!

I've dug out the last of the compost and spread it. The rotting down has been totally successful and the material for spreading has the consistency, and probably the flavour and texture of All Bran. But did it get hot enough to kill the sowthistle seeds, while composting? I bet not!

I'm listening to Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, sung by Westminster Abbey Choir.

This week's film was the Coen Brother's A Serious Man, seen at the luxurious Odeon in London's Raspberry Avenue. Seldom have I experienced such a swirling mix of emotions, from almost farcical comedy, to unbearable agony. This film is about big God and little man. And I have to say that the word 'spiteful' kept creeping into my irreverent mind. A wonderful film, provided you can laugh and weep simultaneously, as well as being completely puzzled as to why?

This day in 1975 I was living - don't laugh - in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, as an employee of Shell and working for the Animal Feedingstuffs industry. We spent Christmas day with our baby twins - then, two years old - and several friends, around the swimming pool which belonged to an orthopaedic surgeon. Never have I seen a cold turkey so deftly carved.

Bye bye.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

THE JACK BOOTS ARE JUST BEHIND YOU

Just before seasonal goodwill begins to emanate - I think it's time for a rant! Here goes:

First, to be read fff:

WOOOOAAAAAARRRRRRHHHHHGGGGGGG!!!!!!!

NNNNNNNNNNNNGGGGGGGGGERRRRRRRRRRRRRRAAAHH!!!!!!!!

I’m sickened, enraged, outraged, upraged, downraged and sideraged by some of the barmy-army policy-making that has been issuing in twin torrents, from Brussels and Westminster.

What have these two authoritative regimes – Mr Brarn's and Monsewer Rumpypumpy's I mean – got against us gardeners? What did we do wrong? Is it just spite, on the part of their officials, because we love what we do, whereas the bureaucrats have to sit bored rigid, in over-heated offices with nothing to look forward to but their index-linked pensions and featherbedded retirement arrangements?

This isn’t a rant about Health and Safety per se. (don’t get me started on that!) And I’m not railing about the Police who seem to have been given more powers, lately, than Hitler entrusted to Himmler and his gang. It isn’t about giving middle class grannies caught driving at 35mph criminal records, just to boost the crime-busters’ league tables. And it certainly isn't about blokes who help out with the Scouts being assumed pederasts until issued with a piece of official paper which says they aren’t. Although all those are examples of how this government has had it in for Middle Englanders over the last ten years or so.

A hoverfly on Ratibida. Valuable aphid predators, at risk from blunderbuss insecticides.

No, this is what is currently annoying me more:
Next year, we are to lose two more valuable garden products, bifenthrin and mancozeb. We’re allowed to buy them now, but must use up stocks before the end of 2010. (Newspeak gobbledegook for you here.)

You may or may not approve of manufactured pesticides. I respect your views either way. But from the middle of next year, like them or not, these are two more that we won’t be able to buy. There is practically nothing left to us, for pest control, other than germ warfare or black magic!

And it gets worse:
Aminopyralid, a herbicide whose residues have caused extensive harm to plants in private gardens has been reinstated for agricultural use. Why?

Let’s deal with the aminopyralid first. Over the past 18 months, I’ve received lots of letters from readers whose plants were ruined by suspected contamination with aminopyralid, a herbicide for pastures and hay crops. The aminopyralid residues appear to have ended up in farmyard or stable manure. (More info here; plus gov crap here and here)

I don’t know how you feel about this, but it seems to me that if a chemical sprayed in small quantities onto pasture, is persistent enough to come through the digestive system of a ruminant or a horse and can still, as a contaminant in manure, kill broadleaved plants, it’s nasty stuff.

So, is it banned? Is it heck! Subject to ‘precautionary measures,’ the stuff will be available for farmers to spray on their pasture. Forage, grass or manure has to stay on the farm, if the chemical is used. Hmmm! How well will this be policed? Who did the 'risk assessment' on that one??

The message to gardeners is clear. Don’t use farmyard manure unless you know precisely where it’s from and what the animals that crapped it have eaten. What a crying shame, when farmyard and stable manure were such valuable and reliable soil improvers and fertilizers!


Mildew looks almost pretty on my courgettes. It's almost a given that all courgette crops will get it, in time, but fungicide is hardly necessary if management is good. Potato blight is another matter, and needs fungicide control in most years.


Now the mancozeb. This has been sold as Dithane and used safely for decades. It helps to prevent potato blight, among other diseases, and has low toxicity. Organic gardeners may approve of its demise, but the alternatives offered by former suppliers of Dithane are to be based on copper.

Copper salts are toxic, though not dangerous if used wisely. In young lambs, though, as little as 10 parts per million of copper can be lethal. The substitute is thus more deadly than the original fungicide. How logical is that?


Bean seed beetle. A light infestation, on home-saved seed is tolerable.

The bifenthrin issue is less clear-cut. It is a synthetic pyrethroid and as such, may be implicated in the problems associated with bee colonies, even when bees have not been in direct contact. And it will certainly harm them if they absorb any of the spray directly.

A few years back, products like Roseclear contained pirimicarb (carbamate) which was harmless to bees but killed aphids. But pirimicarb was withdrawn, and replaced with the more blunderbussy bifentrhin. A retrograde step both for pest control, and for wildlife conservation. And now that the nastier bifenthrin is going, what have we left? Diddley Squat!!

Bt or Bacillus thuringiacus is championed by organic gardeners, but is even more of a blunderbuss bug killer than bifentrhin. And then there are nematodes loaded with entomopathic bacteria for an increasing range of pests. I’m not totally happy about any those, but will return to that wormy topic when I’ve done more research.

Management and good husbandry are the best pesticides and always will be.
But it was handy to have a shotgun in the cupboard, even if it was hardly ever needed. And now BIG GOVERNMENT is taking the last of the cartridges away, along with more of our civil liberties. Hands off our rights!!

Whoops, I’m beginning to sound like the The Sun!
Back to jollier issues next time. Sorry it’s such a long post, yet again.

Viburnum beetle: a spectacular pest, and ugly with it, but is insecticide necessary to control it? We'll see, now that there's little of any use left to private gardeners.

I’m listening to Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, the bit about the guillotine. Chop chop!

This week’s film was Soderbergh’s Traffic, a mosaic of story lines about drug cartels working through Mexico. Long, but riveting with some great sequences in Mexico. Michael Douglas was OK, too, though his role as some kind of Drugs Czar was supremely unconvincing.

This day in 1991 there was thick ice on our pond which didn’t melt all day. I was working up material for BBC Gardeners World Magazine and writing my first novel, The Kirkland Acres, which was published, eventually, by Orion. It’s out of print but in the libraries.

Bye bye.

Friday, 4 December 2009

THE ONLY THINGS MISSING WERE BALLOONS

THE GMG Awards Lunch is done for another year. Hurrah!

I shot these ballons at Cebu, in the Phillipines a while ago - they'd have done for the GMG Awards Lunch.

The talented and diligent organisers had picked a rather elegant shed, somewhere in the City whose cavernous superstructure was disguised with lots of white triangular bunting. Outside we were treated, not to a red carpet but to a giggle-stimulating walkway of neatly laid turf with an array of garden machinery on the side.

Once inside, there was a glass of pink fizz to accompany the gently developing crescendo of garden writers hallooing one-another across the primaeval swamp. Soon, with a mwah! mwah! here and a backslap there, we were shepherded into the feeding zone.

We had barely tucked into a cloying pumpkin and honey soup when there was a stentorian blast on the PA system followed by a deafening announcement to tell us that we were at the Garden Media Guild Awards Lunch. Useful items of information like this kept bursting into our conversation from time to time as the meal progressed. One was reminded of a big rally in a totalitarian state.

A threatening-looking pudding followed the custardy soup and turned out to be rather good, with craggy beef inside but alas, no kidney.

Dessert was delivered on strange, long, narrow strips of porcelain which resembled petrified open scrolls, and were served longways-on. I believe I recall that chocolate was involved. Oh, yes, now I remember - it was as sort of dusky bosooom from which oozed molten chocolate.

Then, Andy Mackindoodah-doodah-day arrived at the podium to give an accomplished and amusing speech, and to run through the lengthy award winning procedure. He did it all with amazing panache and professionalism. He reminds me of a slimmed down, Anglicised Mr Magoo.

Andy informed us that we garden media people are the very heart of horticulture. That surprised me, because I thought our sponsors and hosts yesterday - people like Westland, Thompson and Morgan, Hartley Botanic etc. were the 'very heart,' whereas I've always considered myself to be no more than a hack, commenting and reporting on what happens in the world of gardening. Horticulture could probably manage without us hacks, whereas we depend on horticulture to feed us the means of earning a living. Or have I got that wrong?

The awards procedure takes forever, with recipients having to grin at cameras, alongside the sponsors. Some make speeches of gratitude, others don't. Some awards were predictable, others not. Two were richly deserved and absolutely delighted me:


The Master at work.

The Best Photographic Portfolio was won by my good friend Tim Sandall. The deafening cheer, showed how strongly the crowd approved, too. Tim taught me most of what I know about photography and is one of the most versatile, workmanlike and accomplished craftsmen in the business.

For many years, when I worked for BBC Gardeners World magazine - oh, happy times! - he would spend several days a month, creating action pictures and building up the visual side of our various series. In those days, if ever I struggled with the technicalities of handling a camera, he would drip-feed his knowledge with amazing generosity, and with considerable modesty.

He is indefatigable, always jolly and, uniquely, able to combine utter professionalism with having a bloody good laugh. Well done Tim! What a guy!


The second award - and I will admit to a slight pang of jealousy, here. No, that's not sincere! I admit to quite a lot of jealousy – was the Best Blog. (More deafening applause, whistles and maidens fainting with bliss at the announcement.) James has done it again and is now to be referred to as Multiple Award Winning Journalist or MAWJ.

It was delightful to meet VP, at last, and to chat with her before the lunch. I was not at all surprised to see Veg Plotting on the shortlist and quite expected her to win. Silvertreedaze didn't even make it to the shortlist which I admit was rather a disappointment. But I'll try harder for next year and, well, you never know.

But James really is a worthy winner. Informative, funny, always original and interesting, it's a delight when his posts appear. It was he, I might remind you, who kicked me into the blogging habit, little more than a year ago.

Reading a JA-S's blog is rather like making love. First. you are gently aroused by the intriguing Edward Learish titles. Working through content then gives increasing pleasure but you always arrive at the end disappointingly soon, feeling limp and exhausted but relaxed and satisfied.

Well done James - but might you try not to enter next year, to give the rest of us a chance?


I'm listening to Gluck's Orfeo & Euridice. Poor old Orpheus' longing for his prize - er, sorry, girlfriend - seems to strike a bit of a chord, just now.

This day last year I attended the funeral of friend and craftsman Ron Gray.

This week's film was Casablanca watched with friends, on their magnificent megatelly. One of the biggest of the Hollywood greats. Afterwards, we enjoyed an absolutely superb Moroccan feast.

Bye bye.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

SHE WAS SWATHED IN DAPHNOUS GARMENTS AND BATHED IN AN AURA OF FRAGRANCE

Daphne bholua 'Darjeeling.' Evergreen, compact, though rather columnar in habit and intensely fragrant. I also grow D. b. 'Jacqueline Postill' and am never sure which I prefer.

Our lovely, lovely daphnes are beginning to stir. Just outside our back door I planted Daphne bholua 'Darjeeling' five years ago and each winter, the intensely sweet fragrance wafts indoors and on still days, lingers in the air. The first blossoms usually open around New Year's Day but this season has been odd and, though hardly in full bloom yet, it has enough blossom to make an impact.

Daphne has always been a favourite genus. When a schoolboy, I wickedly uprooted a seedling of what I thought was a strange looking laurel, one Easter Hols, in a Cambridgeshire wood and brought it home to plant in my parents garden. To everyone's amazement, the following spring it produced green, fragrant blossoms and I was able to identify Daphne laureola in my fathers British Flora by Bentham and Hooker. The common name, spurge laurel, suits it to a tee - it's spurgy and laurelous.

Now, as an old man, I remember that exciting discovery every time I cycle past the spurge laurel bushes that are so abundant a few miles west of where I live. On the calcareous soil of South Kesteven and Rutland, they love to grow on shady dyke sides but elsewhere in Britain, I guess they are relatively uncommon.

I don't uproot wild plants these days, I hasten to add, but am not above filching a few seeds or taking the odd cutting. But not of anything that isn't dead common.

I cannot understand why so many people stick to Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' - a miserable thing unless it happens to like you - when there are so many other fantastic daphnes. There was a brilliant article in The Garden a while back, with pictures of the various winter varieties in bloom at Wisley.

D. mezereum, our other native species, but extremely rare in the wild, is a fine garden plant until it succumbs to the virus that seems to shorten the lives of almost every member of the genus. At our village post office, years ago, where the postmistress would polish her copper drain pipes to a startling brightness - she also hoovered and dusted the village phone box every day and sometimes even put flowers in it - there was a vast D mezereum in the tiny front garden. It must have been more than 2 metres across and massed with magenta blossoms each spring. Small tortoiseshell butterflies, still woozy from hibernating, would feast on the flowers before going off to lay eggs on nettles.

One spring, in the 1980s, it was late coming into leaf, and then half the bush died, followed quickly by the other. And that was that. This specimen may not have been a champion oak, nor was it a a noteworthy rarity recorded in some plant knob's directory. But it was still a rattling good example of an endearing little shrub, once ubiquitous in cottage gardens, now becoming like twin sets and Ford Cortinas - a bit old hat.



The trouble with the English autumn is that the weather gets stuck into a groove. Weeks ago, I was on the whinge about how dry it was and how it was hurting my wrists and elbows, trying to plant bulbs into hard soil. Since then, we've had a deluge or five. My lawn squelches when walked upon and things which I ought to have done have been left undone.

My plan had been, in the Photographer General's parlance, to 'do a James,' as inspired by geezer whose latest post is here. (Doing a James means reducing lawn area to make more border space for good planting schemes.) If you follow the process to a sensible conclusion, you end up with no lawn, skinny grass pathways and extended borders, all equipped with 'personnel paths' which give access for servicing plants, weeding, etc. but which don't break up the line and flow.

The PG insists that our Tea Lawn must not shrink too much more, but supported the idea of doubling the bow-fronted autumn border with a twin. I marked out the area and began to double dig, burying the live turf.

The PG arrived. soon after I'd started and said, 'Ooh, a sausage! How funny!' Well, I was concerned that the curve had the grace of a banana, rather than a swan's neck or rainbow, but was rather hurt. 'Only fools and children judge a half done job,' I muttered, and sulkily drank the mug of tea she had brought. I think, when it's done, it will be an attractive, curved double border, but she's badly shaken my confidence.

I'm also well aware that my notions of line and form can be inferior to those of my 6 year old granddaughter, sometimes. Well, most of the time, probably. That's why my attempt to be a professional garden designer was so unsuccessful.


Finally, Ahem! ahem!! I'd like to conclude by quashing the wicked rumours that I have been limbering up for Boozy Thursday by imbibing double pints. The GMG lunch may be looming and with all the fringe partying that seems to be going on around the main event, it may be necessary to get one's liver into robust form.

But that is not done by whapping back aldermanic quantities of ale, thereby trying to turn the aforementioned organ into shoe leather before Thursday. Oh no!

That is done by feverish cycle riding, by double digging, and by hefting large bags of horticultural grit onto Wendy's staging.

The picture below, therefore, is a disgraceful calumny on a par with Stalin faking photographs by magicking his rivals out of them. I can't deny that the two jugs I'm holding are about a litre apiece, and I think it would stretch your credibility to claim that they contain iced tea.

The fact that the word 'Brasserie' figures in the background is merely an attempt by the perpetrator of this visual libel to lend a semblance of authenticity. I was asked - not by the PG, I hasten to say - but by some scurrilous photographer to pose while holding the handles of a water divining device.

And what do I find? The dousing thingy has disappeared and these revoltingly large beer mugs have been Photoshopped into position, thereby basting, roasting and serving my goose. It seems almost pointless, now, to deny that I was on a booze cruise to Europe, recently, but deny it I will. If I lie, call me Mr Archer.


I'm listening to As Time Goes By, not in actuality, but in my head as I'm off to a film party tonight. We're going to watch Casablanca for which I've written the interpretive leaflet.

This time on Saturday I was agreeing to present the PG with my car, as soon as I've found a replacement.

This week's film was The Train, a fine duel between Burt Lancaster as a grumpy rail traffic controller and member of the French Resistance and Paul Scofield, the German officer who loved art but lacked humanity. It's long, action-packed, well told and well shot. Thought provoking, too.


This picture is entirely fake. I don't even like iced tea!


If you're going to the GMG bash - hope to see you there!
Bye bye.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

DOUBLEDIBBLEDOODAHS!

What ho!

A couple of nice things:
1. My Daphne bholua 'Darjeeling' has begun to flower and smells wonderful. I always think the leaves should make good tea with a variety name like that.

2. I've got the tulips planted - well, all but 50 'Queen of the Night' which will be put snugly close to Wendy, so their near-black petals contrast with her opulent cream paint. Being an absolute cheapskate, I've raided the garden for self-sown forget-me-nots to plant in all the terrace pots, as foils to the 'Orange Lion' tulips. Who needs to buy bedding, when freebies like these abound?

And a very, very sad thing:
The PG's car has died. She muttered something to me about it having mad a strange clunking noise, and that it had spewed dark and visceral-looking liquid over the ground. Next morning, she announced that it would go backwards, but not forwards. 'When I tried to drive it across the yard, there was a loud clatter and bits of gear - I'm talking broken cogs here - burst out of its bottom onto the gravel.

Later, a fey but extremely obliging mechanic arrived to price up a likely repair bill. 'Yer diff's completely smashed up,' he told us, helpfully, 'an' it's bust through.' I've no idea what a 'diff' is, but I'm nowhere near thick enough not to understand that 'bust through' is pretty final.

The cost of repair would exceeded the value of the vehicle. So, one, black Fiat Punto, not quite 10 years old, and therefore not eligible for the scrappage scheme - Damn! Damn ! DAMN!!!!! - RIP.


Broiler Orchids. Phalaenopsis flocking for fancy retailers.


Thanks for all the responses to the gardeners vs designers thingy. I think we've all said enough on that one, don't you?

And if you haven't yet been, get over to Martyn Cox's alternative awards. Much more fun and far less self-congratulatory than the real Garden Media Guild thing which looms next week.


I got far too caught up, first with the Sock's South Africa reveries and then with the Hat's return from NY and subsequent shenanigans on brainybuggersgardens that I failed to tell you about my trip, earlier this month, to Double H nurseries.


An immeasurable sea, not of gravy but begonias!

Picture, if you will, a big factory farm. An intensive broiler chicken operation, with important-looking people doing important-looking things in white coats; zillions of livestock, all crammed together, all looking absolutely identical and stretching almost as far as the eye can see. Got that image? Nasty, isn't it?

Now, in your mind, turn those animals into plants. Not nearly so nasty, I'd suggest. In fact, not nasty at all. Plants, you see, are not - as far as we know - sentient creatures. They have complex physical needs, but if these are met in full, they grow, they thrive and there is no visible sign of suffering. Even though they are being raised in the most unnatural conditions possible, they all look absolutely glorious.


Potting by batch, at Double H Nurseries.


At Double H, they go in for big numbers. 45,000 begonias, for example - PER WEEK! 32,000 pot chrysanthemums and gawd knows how many Phalaenopsis - their big thing. When we visited, they had 200,000 cyclamen ready to go out and, among masses of other stuff, enough Poinsettias to lower the tone of almost every Christmas household in the UK.


Mike Holmes, Double H's Technical Manager spells out Phalaenopsis technology.

We were introduced to the remarkable culture techniques for Phalaenopsis. The plants go, mostly, to retailers like Marks Expensives and Sainsburys, grown on to flowering perfection, and dunked into a fancy ceramic pot for added value.

Several things struck me about this place. Many of the staff were Polish. They were remarkably skilled at what they did and appeared to take terrific pride in such demanding and difficult work. The automation was impressive - mechanical potting etc. - but the whole system depended on the watchfulness and competence of the staff.

Bio security is strict, with stringent quarantine rules for all plant material coming in. We had to wear protective clothing and dip our shoes in disinfectant, before being allowed into the more hallowed growing areas.

A football pitch of bronze pot chrysanthemums. Who buys these things?

The Phalaenopsis take 30 months, from propagule to market size. That's some investment in time, not to mention mazulah! The Pot Chrysanthemums only take 8 weeks, the cheap, nasty things!

After such an interesting visit, I thought that I'd seen enough pot 'mums' and lurid begonias to get me through for the rest of my days without ever encountering another.

On the way home, I reflected on the day, as the train ran through the New Forest towards Southampton. What a difference! Vast, flat sweeps of garish 'flars' compared with afternoon sun on the golden bracken, rusty leaves, silver-grey birch trunks, making long shadows and pools of light in the New Forest.

Whenever I go into Marks and Sparks, in the future, and see those ritzy orchids in their smart plastic wraps and ritzy price tags, I'll recall the jolly Polish gals, working away among acres and acres of the things. That place, though light, live and flowery, still recalls - to me at any rate -the spirit of William Blake's 'Dark, satanic mills.'

Cyclamen by by the mile.

I'm listening to Marlene Dietrich singing an old recording of Lilli Marlene.

This week's film was La Vie en Rose, the biopic of Edith Piaf. When her song came out, back in the 60s, I thought the title was La Viande Rose, so usually referred to it as 'Pink Meat.' What an awful life that poor woman had! No wonder she was so nasty.

This day in 2005 it was bitterly cold - I'd photographed frost on the Brussels sprout leaves two days before - and we were visited by my daughter, son-in-law and little granddaughter who at 2, had already learnt how to turn on the charm.

Bye bye for now.

Monday, 16 November 2009

MINDLESS GARDENS

Nice things: Still nearly a week to go before Stir Up Sunday whose Collect begins: 'Stir up we beseech thee, oh Lord, the wills . . .' Nevertheless, the Photographer General got to work early and spent the past weekend making and baking the family Christmas Cakes.

On Saturday, huge bowls of benodorous - no such word, I've just made it up - dried fruit sat soaking up alcohol and on Sunday afternoon, amid a great deal of grunting, whisking, stirring and creative macrame work with baking paper, the PG managed to manoeuvre what looked like half a ton of dark, stiff, fruit-rich, spicy mix into two substantial baking tins. And that followed, I might add, the production of a delicious lunch of roast chicken including all the 'fixings' and bread and butter pud with custard to follow. What is Sunday for, if not celebratory feasting?

From mid-afternoon, the house gradually filled with the delicious aroma of baking Christmas cake. I'm sure that smell is the best part of the whole cake fandango. It even drifted upstairs and when we went to bed, I dreamed of bakeries and confectionaries where fantastical cakes, big enough to dive into, were iced with glorious designs in royal icing that melted delectably on the tongue. This was about as sensual as a dream can get, but not a hint of eroticism anywhere - a sure sign, that advanced old age and general decreptitude is creeping in.

Landscape in microcosm A lichen-coated rock face with tiny succulents growing in the crevices.

Now for the rant.
I happened to be speaking to Mr Hat, the other day, having been absent from Bloglandia for a while, and was prompted to get up to date with his latest post about trying to find contentious issues and looking, albeit quite gently, at ThinkingGardens. He seems to have caused a mild kerfuffle.

After reading his post and having been, in the past, exhorted by various bods, both illustrious and humble - and in a few cases both - I finally got round to visiting the site. You probably know far more about it than I, so I won't bore you with details but one message comes through strongly. Fun is not in the repertoire. It's all a bit disdainful, at first glance, but perhaps if I'd bothered to read more carefully, and gone further into the website, I would have got a little better tuned in.

The pieces that I skimmed included an excellent description of Cesar Manrique's work and Fondacion in Lanzarote, which I know well and like immensely. Manrique loved a bit of fun and rudery, and therefore gets my vote, despite some distinctly dodgy giant mobiles on roundabouts.

Another, by Tim Richardson, suggests - and I paraphrase - that professional garden designers must be miffed that the most iconic gardens were made by non-professional designers. He cites, among others Derek Jarman and Julia Trevelyan Oman who, I thought, were both trained artists famous for set designs.

It made me wonder what you actually have to do to be a 'professional garden designer.' What is the dividing line between rank amateur and qualified professional? Could an architect be a professional garden designer? A structural engineer? One thing seems clear, from this website: real gardeners need not apply.


But that's not the rant.

This is.
What REALLY gets my goat. REALLY PUSHES UP MY BLOOD PRESSURE AND MAKES ME WANT TO SMASH THINGS, is this ridiculous notion that there's some kind of an idiotic conflict between garden design and horticulture or gardening.

I don't know who originally tried to trump up such an ludicrous notion but I remember there were some, frankly, rather silly debates staged by the RHS on this. I ought to remember them because I was one of the speakers at the first one and got quite a bit of flak, afterwards, for being rude about designers, which I wasn't.

May I make a statement here?

THERE IS NO CONFLICT BETWEEN GARDENERS AND DESIGNERS.

Got that? Good! Some gardeners are atrocious designers. I'm afraid my designs are, by and large, puerile and riddled with defects. And some designers are absolutely crap gardeners. But that doesn't make a conflict; it merely causes deficiencies on both sides.

Gardens are, of course, art forms. All of them. It simply depends on how you perceive them and to suggest that a semi-detached house in Swansea, with lawn, gnome-ridden pond and bedded tagetes isn't art, is just plain snobbery. It may lack challenging shape, philosophical content or cunning conceits. The colour scheme may make a bad thing worse, but it is still the garden owner's expression and as such, IT IS ART. Good or bad, it is art. So are a good many allotments; so could be the plantsman's array of primula cultivars or snowdrops. So is the ludicrously topiarised hedge, near where I live, which has been fashioned into a steam train. Good or bad, they are art. Like graffiti, the coca cola sign, Degas' ballet girls or Rembrandt's self portraits, they are all art.

And another thing. You can create an artistic installation, indoors or out, but it may or may not be a garden. This is just semantics, but to me, if it grows things, it's a garden; if it doesn't, it isn't.

Gardeners make a huge contribution to design. They ensure that the design's soft bits - the plants - survive and thrive to make sure the artistic expression is as intended. You can't do that unless you know how to garden. Gardeners who design, know what can and can't be done.

Designers who can't garden are as inadequate as painters who don't understand how to mix pigments or sculptors who can't carve. They may construct wonderful outdoor installations but, however artistically valid, those won't be gardens.

Discuss!

I'm listening to one of Beethoven's Rasumovsky Quartets.

This week's film was Ordinary People. Agonising to watch a family disintegrate, but a brilliantly crafted tragedy, easily - but unjustly - written off by some as trivial or melodramatic. Donald Sutherland at his absolute finest; Mary Tyler-Moore gut-wrenchingly tortured and Timothy Hutton's teenager with a guilt complex was an immaculate performance.

This time two weeks ago I was visiting Double H nurseries and will tell you about it soon.

As Bill Giles used to say, with a wink - ' That's it from me. Bye bye for now.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

AFRICANAFLORAFAUNAVITICETAECIANISM

Misty dawn on the Crododile River, at the Malelane Game Lodge, Kruger National Park, South Africa. The birds are Egyptian geese. A Goliath Heron was nesting just below the verandah where we sat.


This blog post is inspired by and dedicated to Arabella Sock.

The answer to the giraffe sex question is at the bottom of this post.

I've been trying, for the past few mins, to choose which of the myriad enduring, pulse-racing, tear-jerking memories with which to launch this piece. It's a tough one, not merely because it's always exciting to touch down in another continent, but because South Africa will probably provide more rich, life-changing experiences per square metre than almost anywhere else.

My sweetest floral memory was being driven, knackered and jet-lagged after a crowded flight, out of Cape Town and up the nearest decent green bump, Signal hill. It was the first week in September and the ground was carpeted with rain daisies, Dimorphotheca pluvialis. When I got out to walk among these, I discovered masses of treasures: Babianas, Homerias, Pelargonium lobatum - an extraordinary species with purple and khaki flowers, Lachenalia orchiodes and loads more. All this within an hour of coming through Customs!

For animals it's a toss-up between the whales - yes, in Hermanus, but also in False Bay and all along the coast - or the young female leopard which I watched for nearly an hour stalking a Kudu in the Kruger.

But the nesting pair of Paradise Flycatchers at Malelane were pretty fantastic, as were the Bataleur Eagles laying on aerobatic displays. And they were only pipped for wonderfulness by the pair of African Fish Eagles whose trysting tree was opposite the verandah where we sat for almost two solid days, watching everything that moved. Their beautiful and haunting cries, when one partner arrived at the tree where the other was waiting, literally moved me to tears. It is one of the most beautiful sounds in nature. These birds pair for life and their scientific name, Haliaeetus vocifer is apt.


Rain daisies, Dimorphtheca pluvialis on Signal Hill, just outside Cape Town.


The view, of the Crocodile River which forms the boundary to the Kruger in those parts, was memorable (see top piccy). So was our nightly lullaby and dawn wake-up call from the hippos, grunting in the river. Their deep-bellied roars sang out in antiphon to the eerie cry of the ubiquitous Hadedah ibises which seem to be yelling in terror every time they fly.


A typical piece of wild countryside, in the Western Cape. Postberg Wildlife Reserve.


People? Oh, some wonderful acquaintances. Several local guides and naturalists, the staff and volunteers at places like Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden, the gazelle-like guide who led us on foot to the top of Table Mountain - forget that bloody cable car, it's far better on Shanks's Pony!

Food: don't forget that the Cape has an amazingly rich culture. It was the world's crossroads before that French Engineer built the Suez Canal and has Portuguese, Dutch, British, Malay and Chinese cultures all pasted on top of its own original ones. Cape Malay food is excellent; the fish is perfect, especially at a seaside restaurant at Hout Bay - ask for King Clip and help it down with a bottle of Boschendal Blanc de Noirs.

Fruit and veg - well, it's as you'd expect, perfectly fresh and delicioius. Wines? Some of the nicest in the world.

If you like Jazz with your supper, dine at The Green Dolphin, near the Victoria and Alfred Centre (yes, Alfred, son - not husband) on the Waterfront.

Well, that's just some off-the-wall impressions. Now for some practicalities.

The recommendations given by others, on Arabella's blog seem as sound as a bell, so it's pointless to repeat. But here are a few, very personal views.

Must visits for planty people - in addition to those already menched:

The Little Karoo - your only likely taste of SA's dry interior. When they try to persuade you to visit the horrible Ostrich Farms at Oudtshoorn, decline, but do give yourself time to enjoy the Karoo flora outside the town. Avoid the Kango Caves, unless you love crowds, King Solomon's Mines and touristic nastiness on a par with Wookey Hole. For easier Karoo Flora studies, go to the Karoo Botanic Garden at Worcester.

All SA's botanic gardens are beautifully curated and hold rich collections. All are worth visiting, both in the south west and up in the subtropical (Kwa Zulu Natal and the Transvaal, or whatever it's called these days.

The Fynbos. It has to be seen to be believed, especially at this time of year. There's lots of it, all different, from tiny fragments near Port Elizabeth to masses of waving restios, proteas and all the other stuff that goes with them, along the Garden Route and up the Western Cape. Best first experience of SA flora is found at the Cape Point National Park. In an area of roughly 500 square kilometres there are over 2,600 species of wild flowering plant - more than the entire UK flora.

The Podocarpus (Yellowwood) forests near George and Knysna. The storms river. (Knysna is where the Coelocanth was first reported. It's all there, in the museum.) There's also a moderately good nature reserve with interesting flora at the Knysna 'Heads' called Featherbed Reserve. You can take a boat there


A Yellow-billed Hornbill looking like an angry, retired general

Namaqualand. Only seriously flowery in late-winter, early spring. The first week in September is your best bet. They have a glorious wildflower festival and display that week, in Clanwilliam Church. Not to be missed. Clanwilliam also has a fine botanic garden, enabling you to identify many of the wildlings, before you get into the bush to see them untamed. Acres, no, thousands of acres of mesembryanthemums, ursinia and gorteria daisies, bulby things, quiver trees, Aloe ferox - it's all absolutely spectacular.

Animals. For Birders, SA is a world class place. For general naturalists, its unbeatable. The flora apart, there are wonderful creatures to observe.

It is ESSENTIAL in my view to get across to the east, to work through Natal, up through Swaziland and to see the Kruger National Park. It's so huge, so full of interest, and so superbly managed. There are plenty of lodges to stay at, within the park, and it is worth giving yourself three or four days, just for wildlife watching. BUT, you never know how much or how little you will see.


The Impala Lily, Adenium multiflorum knows when the rains are about to come and flowers in advance but produces no leaves until the ground is damp. It's common in the Transvaal.


Therefore, forget the 'Big Five,' species and just be grateful if you spot anything that lives. Enjoy the small game, even the insects, the Lilac Breasted Rollers, picking up dung beetles - that alone is better to see than driving fifty miles on dirt tracks to spot a mangy lion fast asleep under a cloud of flies. Mind you, my leopard was the first since I was 8 years old one Sunday Morning in Kenya when I was out watching with my baby bro and my father.

The east side, bordered by the warm Indian Ocean, has a different weather system with summer rainfall. The Western Cape is chilled by cold currents coming up from the Antarctic, and has winter rain but hot, dry summers. The Namaqua blooming is not guaranteed and depends on cold fronts bringing rain to the semi-desert in August.


Regarding yesterday's post - the giraffe is a male. When the dangly bits are out of vision, as here, you can tell by the horns. The male has broad horns with bare tips; the girl's horns are thinner. I photographed yesterday's giraffe in the grounds which surround the Malelane Game Lodge, near Nelspruit. You can fly from Jo'burg in a small passenger aircraft.


I'm listening to Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano in F.

I'm reading Hard Times which is not Dickens' best but still a rollicking good read.

This week's film was Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Well sorry, but I was bitterly disappointed. I can't believe my comic hero could succumb to doing a French style, voice over narrative type plotless threesome thingy. But perhaps he was having a laugh.

Sorry for the boring length, the poor quality of English, the crap spelling and all that. Done in a bit of a rush. Byeeeeeee!

Monday, 9 November 2009

SOCKED BY AFRICA FEVER


I was about to post a calm, measured piece about the amazing 'factory farm' for plants, I visited last week but that will have to wait.

I've just read Arabella Sock's latest posting here and have aborted for the time being. Also, I'm due elsewhere in 3 minutes so must stop now.

But watch this space for a brief but pant-wetting - or a pants but brief-wetting - response to the Sock's request. Africa, you see, is a kind of drug. You can't get enough, even though you know it can damage your health, your career and your bank balance.

More on this within 48 hours. Monster plant production after that. You'll be absolutely amazed - I promise.

I'm listening to the PG shouting that I'm late.

Toodle-oo.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

A MACTASTIC WEEK

Fly agaric in woods near us, prettier than anything in the garden.

Nothing to do with today's subject, but I believe that if you smoke fly agaric, or use it to make tea, or shove it somewhere rather personal, you may hallucinate about chrysanthemums the size of elephants, or see elephants the size of a single flower of Pratia pedunculata. I was told by a reliable Swede - person, not vegetable - that to consume this safely, you get a friend to do the primary smoking, drinking or shoving, and then drink his or her urine.

I wonder how long you have to wait. I mean, is it like asparagus, and through in a moment, or should you hang around the person for a day or so? I should warn you that I'm not an expert - in such things and I don't think the Swede was either. Such practices should not be carried out, in my view, except in the presence of a qualified merchant banker, Mr Shylock Homes or a member of Her Majesty's Whatsits.


Hullo!
I'm a smug, self-satisfied git! No, that's not strictly accurate. I'm sparky young actor pretending to be a smug self-satisfied git, in certain current TV commercials.

I may just look like a prat working out in a gym, or being generally modern, hip, bright eyed and ingenuous-looking, but my aim is to convince you that it was I who thought up the important new improvements in Microsoft Windows 7. And it was because of me, and my lovely wonderfulness that whoever has to use a PC - poor dears - have now the opportunity to glimpse at something better than the last Windows edition. Well hurrah! I'm sure PC users will be very happy.

Meanwhile, I still have tulips languishing in their net bags, long overdue for planting. The new border is yet to be dug, the weed seedlings are like mustard and cress and even Wendy is feeling a little neglected.

Why all this dereliction of gardening duties?

Why am I so behind with reading all your posts?

Because I've just undergone a migration. My big, clunky, power-hungry Macintish G5 has been gently eased into semi-retirement. Bye bye Silvertree, and good luck in your new home. (He's going to live with a son of mine and will be taught how to do things with music and graphic arts.)

Meanwhile, what is now weighing down my desk is, quite a beast. So much so that I've christened him Dogwood because he's not only the canine's goolies, but has an erection to boot, or at least, is significantly larger in some of his parts than is strictly necessary. (Dog, wood, geddit? OK, ok, I admit it's a bit of a cornus joke ............ oh do leave off!!!!)

We've also had a remarkable domestic drama which I might reveal in a future post. But now, I've got to dash out and console both Wendy and the Photographer General for neglect. I think they're both rather jealous of Dogwood, but I'm not at all sure why that would be.

I'm listening to Rossini's Petite Messe Solonelle - more charming than all his operas.

This week's film was Little Miss Sunshine. Toni Collette - wasn't she superb in Muriel's Wedding? - wry humour, some beautiful writing and a convincingly uninhibited child actress. Delectable comedy.

This day last year I bought a small box of rose and violet cremes at Fortnum and Mason. (Visits to such an august and expensive emporium are, I assure you, a rare event.)

More garden stuff next time. I'm off to Double H nurseries tomorrow, possibly to view an ocean of poinsettias. Nice!



Tuesday, 20 October 2009

WENDY GIVES BIRTH TO LITTLE BUNDLES OF CHOY

Huzzah huzzay! Calloo callay! Hey nonny noodles and all that crap!!!!!
We've broken our duck, we're off the mark, we've scored, we've struck gold we have HARVESTED OUR FIRST CROP from Wendy. But first . . .


American witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, flowers before the leaves fall. This is the species from which oil of witch hazel is extracted. Photographed at Westonbirt Arboretum

I downloaded the Dylan cheezy Christmas album from the iTunes store and inflicted it on the family. I've had to promise the Photographer General never to play it again unless with headphones at the bottom of the garden. One of my daughters was also home, and backed up this threat by confiscating my carob coated Brazils. (Do you know, there are actually times when I prefer carob to real chocolate. Not often, but just now and then.)

And while I think about it, can I just say that Jaffa Cakes are utterly awful? I know certain distinguished and Award Winning Bloggists adore them, but I just want to say that if he wants to bat for the wrong team, well, that's fine by him. I'm with him on most things - orange flowers planted with blue; minimal or zero lawns; the wisdom to chicken out of chewing raw, whole chillies when challenged (see here) - but not the Jaffa Cakes. Those slick, non-crunchy, brown-bottomed jobs, with their faux citric centres, were inspired to corrupt the middle classes. Pretending to be biscuits, when they're really cheap cakes, these absolute Griffins of the confectionary world should be expatriated, extirpated, excommunicated or dumped. Send 'em back to Jaffa, say I!

Phew! Thank you! Yes, much better now.

Now then, now then!

Wendy, my precious and beloved Hartley Botanic greenhouse, has yielded her first fruits. OK, they're only a few Pak Choi, but I gathered the first lot to have with roast chicken for this past Sunday lunch. Mmmmm - delicious! The greenhouse was built on the 19th of August. The young Paks, from Fothergill's seed, were sown in late August and planted in September. Their growth rate has been quite astounding.

Our first little Pak Choi - harvested young, to make room for the prop bench.

Under different circumstances, we'd have left them growing for another two or three weeks, but I had ordered a propagating bench from Two Wests and Elliot and was anxious to get it up and running. The Chinese veg were exactly where the bench was to go.

The box, when it arrived, was full of promise but when we unpacked it, the enormous heap of little aluminium alloy strips was bewildering. My wise daughter, who teaches, sensed the growing panic in my voice and said, 'why don't I get a felt tip and mark all the pieces with their identifying letter?' Under her supervision, and with much grunting and perplexity on my part, we got it all built. It took the whole of Sunday.


My younger daughter helps to unfold the mystery of the flat pack propagation bench.

I've had rather a traumatic time with buying things on line. Our monster shredder, over 20 years old, once had the ability to chomp timber up to 3 inches in diameter and to macerate the toughest, nastiest prunings, weeds and other crap, spewing out a perfectly chipped and kibbled mulch. It was so finely chopped that sometimes I would scatter it about the garden without even bothering to compost it first.

But over the years, as with men, this beast began to lose virility. Its teeth blunted so that hedge clippings came out mangled, but still recognisable. And if I tried to poke a stick up its whatsit, I was confronted by a blank refusal to chop. Its time had come and since the engine was also tired, and burns oil, I decided to replace.

I had forgotten what my old machine was called, or who made it. The engine proudly boasts Briggs and Stratton, but paint and labels on the rest of it are long gone.

So I Googled 'garden shredders.'

In seconds, I'd found out that the identical machine is still being made - though its livery has changed from red to green. It's called a Woodsman Mighty Mac, and having been a Mac computer fanatic for as long as they have been made, the name had a positive and comforting - though totally illogical - resonance. (Unlike the Jaffa Cake which is deeply discomfiting.)

Having compared prices on line - they varied hugely - I placed my order and the machine, in a huge box, arrived at breakfast next morning.

But when I undid the box, the machine was in bits. However, unlike the propagation bench, it looked straightforward to assemble. Or, would have been if the necessary bolts, instruction book and other bits and pieces had been included in the box. They weren't

The extremely helpful and obliging proprietor of the Cheshire firm who supplied it, promised to send the missing bits which arrived speedily. Or, rather, some of them arrived. Other, important ones didn't and we had more embarrassed and apologetic phone calls.

The moral of the this boring tale is this:
Buying on line is brilliant for finding the best prices, and for efficient delivery. BUT, if things do not go quite as they should, you are - not to put too fine a point on it - well and truly buggered!


Wendy's staging is already beginning to fill.

I'm listening to a rather nasal-voiced, but devastatingly attractive and immaculately groomed receptionist girl in the palatial showrooms of my local car dealer. Though surrounded by amazing models - cars, not totty - ranging in price from reasonable to a shattering six figure extreme, I'm not here to buy. No, it's just an MOT while I wait, and to have my brake fluid changed. (They're doing something to my car too. Ha Ha!)

This time last year the PG was shooting pictures of me propagating succulents while pretending it was summer.

This week's film was The Yangtse Incident. I'm old enough to remember being told at school that a brave captain had just smuggled HMS Amethyst out of China, despite being attacked. Some years later, I discovered that the Amethyst was a ship, and that the aforementioned captain had not been some kind of glorified jewel thief. Life can be confusing when you're six. Richard Todd heads a cast of the usual Brit talent including, as in almost every known film of the era, Sam Kydd. A well made, well shot piece.

PS - I've just been told that my car has FAILED its MOT. Nothing wrong with the mechanics, but a front tyre is bald. So that was a waste of time. Isn't life full of little ironies??

Bye for now.

Friday, 16 October 2009

DYLAN'S THE NEW CROSBY?

Autumn cucurbits stir up thoughts of pumpkin pie, trick or treat and other bits of American culture which we seem to have adopted. Can you actually eat these things, or are they just for gathering dust and bulking out harvest festivals?

Never break shocking news to anyone when they're driving. It can have terrible consequences for the car, and for road safety. It was done to me, this week, and I almost caused a multiple pile-up on the A1 just outside Stevenage.

This was not trivial stuff like being sacked. Or a death in the family, or winning the National Lottery. No, this one was a biggy, a head spinner, a pants dampener. And the blow was struck by the BBC! Bastards!! I heard, on Radio Noos, that the God of my youth, the Wunderkind of the hippie era, master of the ironic lyric, the original subterranean, tambourine rattlin', non-looking-back Artist - OK, also a bit Woody Guthrie-ish from time to time, and capable of dreadful harmonica playing - but still the absolute main, main man of the Beatle-infested sixties, Bob Dylan has made a cheeeeeezy Christma album. Look what the Indie said about it.

I know he did it for charity but they played bits of it on the radio - Dean Martin after a partial laryngectomy - and by the time I'd reached Sandy, I was in tears.

I won't say anything more about it, but think I will have to buy the album, just as a reminder that when one grows old, one should don woolly cardy and soft slippers, pour oneself a series of enormous whiskies, and sit in the dark, with the phone off the hook, watching Bette Davis films.

This is by way of a 'holding' post, just to keep in touch while I recover from the Dylan aberration, but a couple of things:

1. I have a question - and I do hope you'll take the trouble to respond:
Have you tried navigating the new RHS Website? I have, but I don't want to say a word until I know how you all find it. If you haven't done so yet, please log on here and if you feel like it, tell me what you think.

2. Tomorrow is the new yesterday. On BBC's Farming Today, all this week - it's on at 5.45 each morning! - they've been discussing organic farming. Apparently, consumption of organic food is falling rapidly and one of the reasons given was that shoppers are more concerned, these days, about whether food is local, rather than organic.

This startling example of consumers behaving exactly like sheep and following fashion, reminded me of a thing they used to have in Private Eye, as a satire on folk saying idiotic things like 'White is the new black.' and so on.

So I turned over in bed and said to the Photographer General, 'Local is the new organic.' She responded by laughing uproariously, leaping up and making me a delectable cup of tea.

So how about a few 'X is the new Y?' Go on, you're bound to think of something!!

Here for starters:
iPhone is the new Blackberry
Ilex crenata is the new box hedging.
Heucheras are the new Hostas
Pak Choi is the new curly kale
Butternut squash is the new marrow
Monty Don is not the new Alan Titchmarsh

Better examples welcomed, for the good of Mankind.

Cones of Pinus strobus, weeping resinous tears - clearly, they've heard about the Dylan album.

I'm reading. A brilliant translation, by Hussain Haddawy, of the Arabian Nights. It's in two volumes and gives a clear insight into Mediaeval life in the Middle East. It also shows how profoundly changed and degraded are the fairy tales of chaps like Ali Baba, Sindbad and 'Al Al-din, whose name got corrupted to Aladdin. Some bits are jolly rude, too.

I'm not listening to Bob Dylan. There will be forgiveness, but I need time to heal.

This time in 2005 I was in Aldeburgh to see Britten's Opera Albert Herring at Snape Maltings. The day after the performance, we saw a flock of Common Crossbills, between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness.

Bye bye.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

PAPILIONACEOUS PEREGRINATIONS











Ivan Hicks's work at Butterfly World and Future Gardens


It's terribly important, don't you think, that a committed and determined journalist should always be ahead of the game. The knack is to be on the spot almost before the balloon goes up so that when all the other hacks are all breathlessly trying to catch up, you can swan along, miles ahead of the opposition and file your story - which will be a scoop - to a grateful and loving editor who showers you with bonus fees, hugs, kisses and, if you're very, very good, a couple of Mars bars.

With such sharp-elbowed competitiveness in mind, I thought I'd avoid the rush and make my first visit to Future Gardens and Butterfly World, yesterday. Naturally, there wasn't a journalist in sight anywhere in the vast acreage, so my fellow visitor and I had the whole place to ourselves. The site has just closed for the winter, so although I wasn't the first garden writer to visit, it's a reasonably safe bet that I will have been the last. Hurrah!













Metal bull rushes in Nature's Artistry, Autumn's Edge.

There has been comment, in the trade press, about disappointing visitor numbers to Future Gardens and Butterfly World, and about payment problems for some of the designers. That's a shame because the concept is impressive and much has been done towards making the place a big attraction.

By the time I finally got there, this year's Future Gardens were run down and, to an extent, in disarray. But it's good to see designs with their curlers in, with cucumber slices over their eyes and mud packs over their visages. They are to be disbanded, we were told, but no doubt everyone involved learnt a lot from this year's experience.

It was raining, too, meaning that to take pictures, keep the camera dry and not fall flat on my face in the mud required a combination of co-ordination and concentration, neither of which I have.











Butterfly World.
A glasswing or clearwing butterfly - I think
it's Greta oto in the family Ithomiinae, from South and Central America.








Some of the features that remained were still lovely. The whippy steel bull rushes by, I think, Fiona Heron waved in the breeze realistically and their starkness, along with the white ground, put me straight into a cold, sleety afternoon in my local Fenland landscape. Andy Sturgeon's monolithic thingies made me wonder where the apes were and I felt positively uplifted in Bruno Marmiroli's H Garden. White wooden trees are a delight against the orange walls.

But these gardens hammered home repeatedly this point: however hard you try not to give them their way, plants are the kings. Always will be. And where the plants don't rule, a garden's design is lessened. Without plants it cannot, no it cannot be a garden. Interesting installation, possibly; an exterior interior, maybe. But garden it isn't. (Rude comments on this heresy welcomed!)


Ivan Hicks has been - is - the Big Design Honcho, in this monster project and I really enjoyed seeing his series of giant drainage pipe moon entrances, looking warm, tempting and terracottary, despite the rain. I love the way weeds have blended with pretties, in the walls and barriers.












The future's orange! The H Garden.



Indeed, I loved massive spread of dead 'wild flowers' all over Butterfly world. Among the brown, the sere and the yellow, startling pink cosmos daisies are still blooming in little clusters. Cornflowers, Phacelia tanacetifolia and other arable weeds are still hanging on, making tiny star-bursts of colour - just enough to prevent it all from looking like the Somme on a bad day.

I hope this project succeeds. The huge geodesic butterfly dome will house masses of the beautiful insects, when completed. Meanwhile, we had to make do with a polytunnel in which the summer's last, lethargic beauties are still listlessly fluttering. The big, blue morphos and startlingly eyed owl butterflies are impressive, but for ephemeral beauty, I was most taken with the glasswing or clearwing butterflies from the Americas.


Sad things: The frogs seem to have got ranavirus. Two dead ones in my minipond this week. Also, the sparrowhawk has eaten another robin.

Happy things: Wendy, reported on here, is now wired and watered. I can warm her, moisten her and gently coax her into propagation mode. But long before the services were connected, I managed to root a dozen or so pelargonium cuttings with neither bottom heat nor irrigation. What a fecund beauty she is turning out to be already, bless her!


I'm listening to Louis Prima singing Just a Gigolo and I ain't got no body.

This day in 1981, I was working as a part time consultant in animal nutrition, visiting clients in Oxfordshire. I spent the night with friends at an extremely posh address in Holland Park.


This week's film was Sunset Boulevard. The 1950 classic with Gloria Swanson and William Holden in crackling form and a wonderful script, and direction, by Billy Wilder. The claustrophobic, decaying mansion was perfect. Miss Havisham redivivus ain't in it!



Picture: Greta oto feeding on Tithonia.