Thursday, 24 September 2009


Competition dahlias at Harrogate, shot on my iPhone which, as I've said before, is a fab phone but has an absolutely pants camera. Such big blossoms had me striving to invent an apt collective noun. A 'vulgarity' of dahlias? A blowzitude? If anyone can do better, let me know.

I promised a proper post, this week and have to say that I’ve been itching to mention dahlias. I wrote a piece on them recently in the Mail – here – comparing the brash giants my father loved growing with today's more elegant lovelies.

I thought the outsize wedding hat dahlia was a thing of the past, in these days of hazy, grassy perennial borders and naturalistic planting but I was wrong. They were at the Harrogate Autumn flower show, last week, in vast numbers, practically filling an entire hall. The gigantic flowers, in uncompromising colours, were huge enough to make show visitors look small and drab. (Though some of us show visitors were, indeed, small and drab.)

To avoid arrest by the Fashion Police, I admit that in the past, I’ve often shuddered with disapproval at the huge-flowered monsters so loved by competition growers. But I think it’s time I admitted to harbouring a secret admiration of such floral behemoths. I don’t think I’d grow any at home, because I don’t grow for showing or competing, but when you see these flowers lined up on a show bench, all you can say wow! Gosh! Begorrah! Or, if you’re a Kiwi, Cripes!

At Harrogate, I lurked, by the entrance and heard almost everyone exclaim in surprise and delight as they came into the hall.

The only people with miserable faces were the judges. Why do they – or I should say ‘we’ since I’m also a judge – often look as though we’ve just swallowed a tumbler of vinegar, when judging.

Big white cactus dahlias at Harrogate Autumn Flower Show

At Harrogate I bumped into King of Dahlias Jon Wheatley. His team manages the National Dahlia Collection at Winchester Growers and his Chelsea exhibit, you may recall, won not only a Gold Medal but also the President’s Award this year. We discussed the virtues of new varieties such as D. ‘Knockout’ – dark leaved with luminous yellow, single flowers – and agreed that with such virtues as handsome foliage, manageable flowers and stately growth habits, these made supreme border plants. Furthermore, they flower freely, provided you dead-head them, until November.

To Jon's list of outstanding performers I'd add 'Twynings After Eight' for its soft white flowers and chocolate foliage, 'Woodbridge' which is worth having, just for the foliage, and a personal choice, 'Bishop of Auckland' whose mid-sized, single, port-coloured flowers go on almost forever.

As far as management is concerned, climate change has resulted in a Hamlet-like dilemma for dahlia growers: ‘To lift, or not to lift?’ Whether ‘tis nobler in the husbandry to suffer the slings and arrows of a possibly outrageous winter – and leave the dahlias in the ground – or to take up the tubers against a sea of troubles with moulds and rots in the storage shed.

Jon says: ‘if you live south of The Wash, leave them in and treat them like hardy perennials – unless your soil is wet and heavy. Elsewhere, lift the tubers. I’m level with The Wash, but my soil is heavy, so I lift.

But here’s Jon’s best gem of advice: Don’t cut them right back. Instead, pot up your dahlias, in autumn – but before they get frosted – and keep them partially in growth in a greenhouse, so that they can subside gently into dormancy. That’s a method I’m definitely going to try, now that I’ve got the lovely Wendy to play in.

You have to admire the quality of the blooms and the skill in getting them up to show pitch.

And if you haven’t a greenhouse and live on clay, north of, say, Leicester? Lift them in the old way, but make sure the tubers are dry before storing. I learnt that the hard way last winter when I lifted them sodden and lost about 60% of my tubers, even though they were stored in airy trays, in a warm shed, and cosseted in bubble wrap.

I’m listening to Traffic outside, since I’m writing this post in the RHS Lindley Library, Vincent Square, London. You can go online for an hour for £1, here, or for 18 hours for £5. I think ALL libraries should provide free wireless internet collections and will tub thump at my next meeting with the RHS Bigwigs.

This week’s film
was Dorian Gray seen at the ritzy Odeon, Leicester Square. Lovely cinema, but it should be: my balcony seat cost £19. The film was a re-hash of the Oscar Wilde story and couldn’t make up its mind whether to be a treatise on Victorian morality, a gothic horror story or a ‘taut’ thriller. The gothicality was overdone, much of the film being shot in grim light and set in a bizarre Walt Disney London.

The lead, Ben Barnes – sloe-eyed, reminiscent of Johnny Depp – just didn’t strike me as a Dorian Gray type but Colin Firth provided some convincing acting. I actually burst out laughing at the scene where the forever young Gray returns after a long absence and we see the rest of the cast suddenly, hideously aged and, for some reason, grey all over and looking positively cobwebby, like the Fluck and Law John Major. Oh, and the soundtrack was awful – endless bursts of dirgy, funereal music.

¡Hasta la proxima!

Tuesday, 22 September 2009


Loxodonta africana - he wouldn't forget any birthdays! I spotted him in Kenya, in 2001.

We're one year old today! Huzzah!

If you don't count the rather flaky one, on the 18th September when I still hadn't got a blogging clue, my first proper post, to which some of you very sweetly replied was on 22nd September 2008.

So I thought it was time to thank everyone who has been so incredibly kind and who have contributed such fab comments, over the past 12 months.

Thank you, too, if you voted for me to win Best Newcomer, not to mention Panel Beater, on the Fork 'n' Monkey awards. I'm really touched by it all and, no, there's not one trace of irony in what I've just written. I really do thank you. Very much indeed. Thank you!

I feel that I also owe an explanation. Why does this blog have such a peculiar name?

When I first began to stumble around the blogosphere, led there by an accidental Googling one day which led me to the Simian One, I realised that I simply had to start a blog of my own.

Typically, instead of thinking it all through and planning, I just sort of blundered into the thing and ended up suddenly having to give it a name. I knew the competition out there was tough - I mean, if someone calls their blog a 'sea of immeasurable gravy' and thinks of themselves as a sock, its pretty clear that the competition for weirdness is pretty tough out there.

So, I rummaged for a half decent title picture and while doing that, tortured my exhausted grey cells for a suitable name.

My computers all have names. Always have had, ever since my first Apple Classic in the early 1980s which had a tiny monochrome screen and storage for, ooh, about 2 megabytes. It was called Rose. (Apple is in Rosaceae and because Malus sounds too like 'bad', and it was a classic - it had to be 'Rose.') My first - and Apple's first - laptop, an unwieldy Powerbook with a battery like a house brick, was called 'Violet' because it was supposed to be small and shrinking.

Later, a Powerbook Duo was 'Orchid.' I won't bore you with Iris - she was a coloured iMac which soon got re-named the Fruitgum, because she resembled e a Rowntrees strawberry gum.

James A-S will recall that my more recent Powerbook was 'Cowslip,' since he was obliged to hijack it for one of our shows when his Powerbook suddenly died of a stroke, ten minutes before curtain-up.

Hang in there - I'm almost done.

My first Apple G5, a shiny metallic monsta, intimidated me. On account of its argentous nature - is there such a word? There is now! - I decided to name it after the South African Leucadendron argenteum, or Silvertree. Silvertreedays was a possible blog name but looked ugly on the page and since I'm, almost constantly in a daze, the name silvertreedaze seemed more apt. Subtle punning, you see.

In two weeks time, I'm taking myself off to Apple's bright shiny store in Regent street, and lining up a replacement for Silvertree - another monsta whose name I have yet to decide upon.

Silvertree, meanwhile, will go to a good home. My younger son is desperate for better computerage for his music composing and will take it over.

Cowslip was replaced by Tillandsia - it was to have been a MacBook Air, you see, until I discovered how hopelessly flimsy they are, and decided on another MacBook Pro. But the airy name stuck.

As long as it's always an Apple/Mac, all shall be well. Sort of.

I'm listening to Beethoven Piano Sonatas, playing with a slideshow on Tillandsia to run the batteries down so I can recharge them properly.

This week's film was Barnacle Bill, a deliciously corny Ealing comedy about a naval captain, played deliciously by Alec Guinness, whose career was blighted by incurable seasickness and who ends up in command of a decrepit seaside pier. It was filmed in Hunstanton and Wells, in Norfolk.

This time last year I was . . . but you already know.

Thank you for reading such utter drivel all the way down to here! Toodle pip!

Monday, 14 September 2009


This lonely little colchicum popped up today.

A lady wrote to me, the other day, to ask how she should prune her wonderberry. I giggled at first, thinking that only men had those. I suppose I was dredging up recollections of Chuck Berry, until I remembered that his thing was a dingaling and he was the Berry, if you see what I mean.

A-a-a-anyway, this lady had grown a crop of the aforementioned wonderberries (more info in this interesting thread) because, apparently, they are a superfood. Further investigation revealed that they were also a particularly unpleasant fruit, closely related to deadly nightshade. I had grown myself, a century or so ago. That was in the days of Saint Percy Bysshe Thrower and the Blessed Fred Streeter - but at that time these nasty black orbs of bitter-sweet nothingness were called Huckleberries. I have to say, mine was anything but a Finn crop, indeed it was a bumper harvest!!! - Geddit??? - but after harvesting about a teacupful, I tasted one, then another and then binned the lot and dug the plants in as green manure.

Prunus sargentii - the best cherry for autumn colour.
Nothing whatever to do with today's text, but so pretty I had to show you.

Now, apparently, snappy marketeers have named these things 'Wonderberries.' Huzzah! All I can say, though, is that it's a wonder that anyone bothers to grow the horrible things.

An ancient friend of mine, one John Codrington – who, incidentally, was sowing seeds of Douglas fir in his 91st year – also tasted some of my huckleberries and his verdict concurred with mine. He also noticed black nightshade, in full berry, in my disgracefully weedy veg garden and before I could stop him, snatched a few plump fruits and munched them. 'Aren't they poisonous?' I asked, shocked at his rashness. 'Almost certainly,' he agreed, 'but they taste better than those huckleberry things of yours.' He survived another three years.I suppose that when you're in your 90s, you don't mind being a bit reckless.

Speaking of which, I had a delightful Esther Rantzen moment when pulling my carrot - whoops, pardon missis! - as I was saying, when pulling up my carrots for today's lunch. A whole cluster came together - oooh, not again, missis, perlease!!! - from part of the row where, earlier, my hand had slipped while sowing the seeds and where I couldn't be arsed, subsequently, to thin the seedlings. There had been more than a little promiscuity in the overcrowded row and I ended up with what looked like a rather naughty orgy. I show them here exactly as lifted.

Not sure what these carrots are doing, but it looks jolly rude!

The dear Wonderberry lady, as an afterthought, asked me for advice on pruning Goji berries. Now that really did make me laugh. If Wonderberries - do they still make Wonderbras, I wonder? . . . but I'm digressing horribly, and revealing the mental age as hovering between 11 and 13. Stop it at once!

This lady, like hundreds, nay, thousands, of happy gardeners are growing what I've always known as the Duke of Argyll's Tea Trea Lycium barbarum and eating its nasty, tart little berries. Why? Because, my dear Watson, it is a Superfood like some of these.

Eat goji nasties and the years will simply fall away, leaving your skin alabaster clear and your heart going pit-a-pat with all that new-found health and vigour. Stuff your face with goji berries - an ancient Chinese medical miracle - and your body will scoot all those nasty age-causing free radicals and you will extend your life dramatically.

Or will you? If goji berries are so bloody marvellous at making you live longer, how come the Ancient Chinese who discovered the things are all dead?

I went blackberrying yesterday. Not a leisurely ramble, basket in hand while the sun beamed down and the late swallows zoomed over the stubbles, but a frantic dash on my bike, to grab enough fruit for the Photographer General to put a crumble on top of - if you'll pardon the clumsy sentence construction - for our Sunday lunch.

They were absolutely, utterly yummily delicious - or 'yummalicious' as the PG's brother will say - and what amazed me was that no one, not a soul, not a sausage not a single person - villager or foreigner - was there, in the lane where the hedges are hung with a heavy, ripe, lusciously glistening and twinkling blackberry crop. Such a waste! And then it dawned on me that they are all at home, tending to their goji berry bushes. Blackberries, you see, aren't superfoods like brocolli and goji berries. Or if they are, their 'superness' is done-for when they become fattening blackberry and apple crumble with clotted cream. MMMMmmmm! That won't extend your life one iota. Also, the seeds might give you diverticulitis - now that's painful.

Hydrangea 'Preziosa' - a faded tart of flushed beauty.

On another tack, I'm bitterly, bitterly betrayed, saddened and disappointed. Every year, since moving here, I've tried my damnedest to make colchicums bulk up and make an autumn show. Each year, I put several bulbs, always in different bits of the garden, always with a sense of optimism and joy. And what happens? They flower in Year One, and then decline and eventually die. I'm mortified, because I do love them. Those pallid, delicate flowers rising from the stale grasses so freshly and in such delicate lavender tones!

The Victorians called them Naked Ladies or sometimes, Naked Boys, and you can see why, when those delicate flesh tones make such a startling contrast with the tired autumn foliage that surrounds them. My mother despises colchicums for their own rank foliage which follows in spring. Beth Chatto, on the other hand, uses them specifically as foliage plants in her dry garden. Go figure!

Hydrangea 'Preziosa' again. Still pretty when dead.

I'm listening to Schubert's song cycle Der Winterreise, a remastered recording of Peter Pears accompanied by Benjamin Britten.

This time in 1984 I was loading plants into our Transit van to exhibit at the RHS Great Autumn Show.

This week's film was High Noon - Fred Zinneman's timeless (ha ha) classic with Gary Cooper old enough to be his bride, Grace Kelly's grandpa. I believe, along with Shane and The Big Country this is one of the greatest Westerns ever. Eastwood's Unforgiven is pretty fantastic, too. Miss Kelly looked lovely but was acted off the screen by the smoulderingly wonderful Mexican, Katy Jurado.


Friday, 4 September 2009


Rhododendron 'Vuyk's Scarlet.' This plant comprises 33.3333% of my extensive collection.

Some days ago, I read that my crisply suited and suitably hatted friend, James A-S, had found himself planting rhododendrons in the Cotswolds. (The client is king, I suppose.) His post, you may recall, was here.

Inadvertently, he stirred up a little emotion about the genus. I thought that I'd been, on the whole, quite balanced with my comment. But on revisiting his blog, I think, perhaps, that my language was just edging the teeniest scriddick or so towards the intolerant. Maybe there was even the merest trace of a fascistic reaction.

So I thought I ought to revisit the topic and revise my view.

It's naughty and lazy to generalise, I know, but by and large, I hate the things. Not only because a dense forest of them surrounded my prep school - which was in Norfolk, rather than Surrey, and therefore very much colder - but because for so much of the year, so many of them are mind-shatteringly boring.

Hearing a steady rain, dripping on those lank, dangling, miserable leaves is enough to make one suicidal. Nothing can grow under a rhododendron bush. It's too dark and they exude some sort of toxin. So they hog the space to themselves, huddled in ungainly forms, often with naked legs, like despairing flocks of marabou storks who have been done out of their carrion by hyenas.

But like all plants - even dandelions and bindweed - they do have saving graces. Not all are garish, of course. Some have interestingly coloured bare legs and a few sport quite pretty foliage, even if you have to lie on your back underneath them, to enjoy the cinnamon dusting on the leaf-backs. One or two - R. macabeanum for instance - are magnificent monsters. When seen in the wild, on some desperate Himalayan outcrop, or for me last year, in the highlands of Peninsular Malaysia, native rhododendrons can be touchingly beautiful.

Rhododendron fortunei Quite pretty in subtle pink.

The little ones can be sweet, too, and are handy for landscaping. The Japanese, I believe, use them to excellent effect, clipping ferociously to form mounds and blobs of exactly the desired shape. They do that, too, in gardens of the Italian Lakes, particularly at the Villa Carlotta in Menaggio. They've carved a sort of faux landscape of hills and valleys, all with shorn azaleas.

And I was never more impressed by azaleas than when wandering around in the American Quarter of New Orleans a few years ago - pre-flood - where every magnificent front garden had them in spades. They coped remarkably well with the heat.

Rhododentron 'Pook' Ridiculous name, but not its fault. The red tips to the stigmas are charming.

Rhododendron flowers reward close inspection. I love the way the stamens and sometimes the stigmata are coloured differently from the other parts of the flower. A number of them show subtle deepening of their tints towards the petal edges, sharpening their outlines. Many have fragrance.

Then there are the freckles. To guide the bees, some rhododendron flowers exhibit freckling or stippling, often in ginger or buff tones, which are delectably charming.

Rododendron impeditum 'Blue Steel.' Another third of my comprehensive collection and bizarrely, flowering today.

I'm so forgiving, I've even got three rhodos in my garden. A Kurume azalea 'Vuyk's Scarlet,' inherited from my late Mother-in-Law; R. 'Blue Steel' which I bought at Wisley to prove we had neutral to acid soil in our new garden - I treated it as a miner would a canary– and a little pink job I bought on impulse at Stamford Market because it looked so windswept, sad and lonely. They are all thriving - even the canary.

I'm listening to the gale which has whiplashed the Lespedeza to pieces, before it has had a chance to flower. It has also blown the blasted beans over.

On this day in 2007 my mother-in-law's funeral took place. Her azalea, in its vast pot, is a fitting memorial to such a keen and capable gardener. I owe it to her, to look after it well.

For this week's viewing we've fished out Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. A truly perplexing but intriguing story with a faultless performance by Alec Guinness as George Smiley.

Bye bye for now.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009


Rosa chinensis 'Mutabilis' finds renewed vigour in September. And rain-refreshed, this lunch time.

I've just been out to catch a breath of air and snap a few September lovelies.

But first - a public apology.
What an absolute disgrace! What an unpardonable display of atrocious manners! How could I have been so rude and neglectful? Please accept grovelling, embarrassed foot-shuffling and aw-shucks-mumble-type apologies for being so rude and neglectful. Days and days have passed, and the heap of other people's posts that I haven't yet read has grown to aldermanic proportions. Such bad manners are unforgivable. I'm riven with remorse and self-loathing. I've missed you all, but I will catch up. I promise!

Phew! That feels ever so much better.

Seed heads of Paeonia mlokosewitchii. A dentist's nightmare might look a bit like this.

The year has slipped sweetly on, leaving tatty, tawdry, brown-petalled, sag-bellied, bag-eyed, dandruffed August behind. Huzzah huzzah! How utterly divine to be welcoming sweet September, my second favourite - or sometimes my first favourite month! And when close bosom friends are here, conspiring with the sun, things are bound to become frolicsome.

May is wondrous, of course, but marred by Chelsea and its febrile activities; June is supposed to be sweet, warm and gently perfumed with honeysuckle and roses, but usually lets you down with the weather. Wet, windy evenings are always worse when it's too light to close the curtains and snuggle up with a good book but too unpleasant to go out for a walk or do the weeding.

Rosa 'Buff Beauty,' one of the best of the hybrid musk roses rewards a vicious dead-heading in June by delivering a fresh autumn flush. 'Penelope' and 'Pax' are also fine varieties.

Oh the soft September air! The lazy, reluctant-to-rise mornings when you shiver deliciously at first light because you know that the gentle mist is no more harmful than vaseline on a cine camera lens. Warm sun is promised by coffee time and a golden afternoon will follow, with rooks and jackdaws circling on the thermals as ploughs turn the stubbles.

Late Summer Pretties.
September is special, not just for early autumn lovelies but for its reprise numbers. Roses find second wind - the 'Mutabilis' and 'Buff Beauty' were looking particularly pretty this morning, tickled up by a thundery shower.

Cranesbills and pulmonarias have all grown crops of fresh foliage and the penstemons are limbering up for yet another burst. The peonies have astonished us with their magnificent seed heads, resembling mediaeval court jester hats and I regret to say that even the turds on sticks - you may recall them here - have offended the Photographer General's sensibilities by squeezing out a couple of autumn monsters.

Championship points, for long-running performance goes to Aster x frikartii 'Mönch' which has been in constant, glorious bloom for nearly ten weeks and has a long while to go yet.

Clematis x jouiniana 'Praecox' has completely covered its wicket fence support and now resembles a floriferous hedge. The origin is, I believe, C. heracleifolia crossed with C. vitalba - a couple of uninspiring species but what a superb little bastard they produced!

The bees have been loving all the late flowers. It's fun watching them try to feed from the Kniphofias which, I guess, would be pollinated by sunbirds in their native Africa. The bumble bees must get terrible headaches, trying to cram their way into the tubes. My favourite, this summer, has been K. 'Bee's Lemon,' but a K. rooperi which languished for years in the shade of the big whitebeam we removed has gone bonkers, in the increased light, and produced a positive forest of urgent, rude, upthrusting spikes which are so orange that they almost glow in the dark.

Kniphofia 'Bees Lemon' - a rather mature specimen, accommodating a female earwig.

I'm not a huge fuchsia person but there are some in the 'wild and interesting-looking' range which are pretty good. We grow F. 'Riccartonii' which is little more than a slightly emplumpenned 'magellanica' type with damson petals and scarlet sepals. The near white F. magellanica, 'Hawkshead' is a tad insipid unless shaded, to bleach the petals. Then it doesn't flower enough. My current fave, looking extremely pretty today, is F. 'Lady Bacon.' She retains the simple wild beauty of the species, but adds exactly the right snap of smartly contrasting colour on slim little blooms.

Fuchsia magellanica 'Lady Bacon.

But oh, how I ramble!

I'm listening to Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs - what else, for this deliciously melancholic season?

This day in 1984 I harrowed 40 acres, to make the land ready for drilling winter wheat. We then dined with friends in Rutland. Apparently we got home at 2 am, as I euphemistically record, 'rather tired.'

Last Night's film was Lawrence of Arabia the Director's Cut. David Lean really was a master and the youthful Peter o' Toole riveting in the title role. The desert photography was utterly fantastic but you need a big screen to appreciate it fully.