Friday, 20 May 2011


What ho, my hearties!  Still no rain, nasty cold winds, aphids building up and bloody Chelsea next week.  Can it get any worse?  Probably not.  [CLICK ON PIX TO MAKE THEM BIGGER]

The garden at Coton Manor where the PG and I  spent a delightful day last week.

If I walk into my greenhouse, I'm in danger of contracting a serious lung disorder from breathing in clouds of whitefly.  The sticky yellow strips which I hang seem only to catch non-target insects like stray ichneumans and also stick to my face, whenever I give my disease-ridden plants too much attention.

The June display is done, weeks early, so there's nothing to see but dead grass, a few dusty succulents and the bare soil where some evil creature – possibly a capybara sized rodent or a vegetarian bird that would dwarf an emu – has ruined my lovely sweet peas.

But I'm getting bad tempered, and that won't do.  Because the purpose of this post is to comment on Anne Wareham's new book The Bad Tempered Gardener - and two bad tempers on one blog post would be excessive.

Now, to Anne's Magnificent Octopus. . . but be warned.  This is not a review - it's merely my personal reaction.

I see from the cover that several good and great ones have done dutiful plugs.  James the Hat has place of honour on the front but Germaine Greer who seems able to opine about absolutely everything, includes a belter of a comment on the back of the dust jacket.  It runs thus:

'[Anne Wareham] invites intellectual engagement. . .'  Well dam' me, that's a bloody surprise!  The only book that could possibly not invite intellectual engagement would be one with blank pages.  And even then, one might ponder over the paper quality, grammes per square metre, whiteness, possible dot-gain and so on.  And if that isn't intellectual engagement, I don't know what is.

Ms Greer goes on to say 'gardens should have ideas in them and the ideas should be perceptible.'  May be, but perceptible to whom?  I can imagine a bemused visitor, looking at one of my many garden cock-ups and saying 'what on earth are you trying to do here?'

'Ah,' I might reply, ponderously,  'that is the execution of an idea which is perceptible - but only perceptible to me.'  And with luck, that would shut the bugger up.  If it didn't, I'd go for less subtlety and say, 'none of your business.  It's my bloody garden and I'll do what I like with it'

Digressing again - although not really.  Hang in there.

I must begin by saying that I greatly enjoyed reading Anne's book.  I like her articulacy and her acerbic style and although the structure is a bit random, I loved that and got the sense of reading a series of loosely connected, sometimes rather cross essays.  And I hugely enjoyed Charles Hawes' pictures. They, and Anne's eloquent descriptions make me long to visit The Veddw.

The BOOK, along with tools needed to create an exemplary lawn edge, faultlessly trimmed and with essential bare soil separating plants from turf.  (Shot by me, in my garden which is the one (and only) place in which I'm never bad tempered.)

The Bad Tempered Gardener gave me a series of sharp jolts.  I felt like a small boy caught doing something he shouldn't and receiving a stern reprimand.  I was slapped about quite a lot, as a child, and I felt some of my old scars stinging at times.  It quickly became obvious that many of my loves and passions are Anne's pet hates.

Here are a few:
She loves garden centres; I abhor them.
She is not endlessly fascinated by plants; they are the core of my gardening existence.
She is scathing about gardening experts; I am one - of sorts, so can't hate them too much.
She detests neat, clipped lawn edges; I regard them as essential in certain places.
She hates roses; I love them

But we are both in concert with rose gardens and agree that they are horrible.  And I'd go one further and say that they are also horticulturally suicidal - reservoirs for pests and diseases.

We both have big reservations about hellebores, too.  But she appears unable to make cut hellebore stems take up water.  Anne - here's how: take a jug of water out with you, cut the stems quickly and immerse them within two or three seconds to prevent air locks.  While they're still under water, split the bottom inch of each stem on one side.  (A simple tip but it works for me every time.)

Perhaps the biggest conflict we're likely to have is this:

Anne suggests that obsession with plants is the ruination of British gardens; I believe the one quality that lifts British gardens above most others in the world is our love of, respect for and deep knowledge of plants.

In good gardens, plants are allowed to speak, to proclaim their wonderful diversity.  They are what drive a garden's dynamic, ensuring sweet change from season to season, providing surprises, changing emphasis, cheering miserable winters and enriching the mad extravagance of May and June.

The more plants you can have, the better a garden can be. Anorakish collecting can, in itself, become the main driver for creating gardens and THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT.  I've seen superb collections of single genera, made to look ugly because they're clustered in pots on a concrete pad.  And I've seen similar collections, in beautiful and naturalistic settings which are as moving and intellectually engaging as anything designed by such talents as Tom Stuart Smith, Mr Hat,  the Lutyens-Jekyll gang or  Repton.

In an over-designed garden, plants are often imprisoned, hacked or beaten into submission.  That can work, of course, but to plant lovers it can also be hateful to the eye and painful to the soul.

I believe that gardens are highly personal things.  That's why I don't particularly enjoy other people seeing mine, unless they're close and understanding friends.  And why I HATE show gardens at Chelsea and howl with boredom if forced to look at parterres or knot gardens.

I also think it wrong-headed to try to preserve gardens, after the owners have gone, and awful to develop a National Trust attitude of sanctity about them, forbidding change and thereby killing the dynamism. The core quality of some gardens is their ephemeral nature, their fluidity and the little quirks that make each unique. Such things usually die with their owners, and that's probably no bad thing.

I draw virtually all my inspiration from nature.  I try to study landscapes with my own eyes, and not to be  too influenced by authoritative voices which tell me what I should see, rather than allowing me to see for myself.

And to me, gardens are relatively artistic, but they are not Fine Arts.  Great, soul-jerking, earth-moving art, for me, is Michelangelo, Wren, the Chrysler building, Wagner, Ely Cathedral, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Keats, Ingmar Bergman, Dürer, probably Antony Gormley and one day, maybe, Lucien Freud.

I do not consider gardens as forms of great art.  They can be beautiful, though, and inspiring and challenging and glorious.  But let's not - please, let's not - make them bigger and more important than they really are.

Anne's book is one I commend you to read.  Whatever your beliefs, I can guarantee that not only will you become intellectually engaged, you'll also probably experience a strong reaction one way or another.  What more could one ask, from a book.

This week's film was El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret of their Eyes.) From Argentina, directed by Juan Jose Campanella, a superbly told and well-filmed story about a retired legal counsellor writing a novel about an old, unsolved case and thereby solving it and also re-kindling a long but hitherto unrequited love.

I'm listening to Beethoven's early quartets again.

This time next week, I'll be thankful that Chelsea is done for another year.

Gawd - what a long, boring, rambling, railing post.  If you've read all the way down to here, you deserve a really good drink and a decent meal.  Now go and get those edges clipped, AT ONCE!  I WON'T TELL YOU AGAIN!

Monday, 16 May 2011


Well Blogger is working at last.  Huzzah!
Good day, happy Monday, and - well, you know.  Lah-di-bloody-dah!  I'm deeply depressed.  On Saturday, I dug a new bed, along my neighbour's fence and planted sixty (yes, 60) beautifully reared and nurtured sweet pea plants.  My plan? To grow exquisite blooms by cordoning the plants.  Long stems, heavenly scent, delicious colours.

On Sunday morning, some animal - badger? squirrel? rat? - had dug up and eaten every single one.  All that remains are a few wilted, severed leaves.  

The one thing you need, in gardening, is a robust sense of humour and a belief in the certainty of failure for much of the time.   If you can live with that, you'll be a gardener. Otherwise, forget it and play computer games.

Ferns, weeds and Corydalis elata (blue flowers)  in my mini-mini woodland bed, by the back door.

But that's by the way.  THIS is what I wanted to say. . .
 Artificial bumble been nests are a waste of time and money.  
Of the zillions that have been bought and lovingly installed by wildlifely gardeners, only a tine percentage have actually been used by bees.  Here's a typical press report.

And yet several British bumble species are still in dangerous decline. Why?  Because of habitat loss, and because of a lack of decent flowers.  

Given a choice between an old mouse hole, on a sunny bank, and a prettified edifice tied to a tree, it’s obvious that any self-respecting bee is going to take possession of the former and probably wouldn’t even notice the latter.

And do any of the gardeners who lovingly fix up bee nests also over-tidy?  Do they have galleried old banks, where soil may tumble, exposing tree roots?  Are there comfy holes in their masonry or under old stumps which might suit the bees?  And might also suit hibernating toads?  Or do conscientious and house-proud gardeners clear away such things in a frenzy of tidiness? 

And what about those immaculately designed gardens, with paving, decking and hard surfaces?  No doubt, these are pressure washed regularly to prevent moss and lichens – and decked about with trendy but useless plants such as tree ferns, bamboos, olives and, God forbid, hideous bloody cordylines?  (The greatest favour our past winter did was to kill millions of cordylines.)

Wildlife needs and loves mess.  And for true peace of mind, anyone with any feeling for nature will be happy and relaxed in a messy garden, and will enjoy the visitors which begin to arrive and share the ramshackle facilities.  (Though perhaps less pleased whey they eat one's sweet pea plants!)

Besides ruined habitats, bees suffer from a lack of decent flowers.  Year after year, in my area and in most places where I drive, verge-cutting is excessive.  Legally, I believe, a metre-wide strip must be cropped regularly for road safety. 

But if you mow entire verges, you kill flowering plants.  Within a couple of seasons, cowslips, ox eye daises, meadow cranesbills, knapweeds, mayweed, poppies, speedwell – all the typical grassland species will be smothered by a sward of boring, green grass.  To allow that to happen is vandalous.  To encourage it is downright evil.

To maintain a flower-rich verge, all that is needed is a single annual, or a biennial cut. Just one pass, with a mower whose blades are set reasonably high.  That serves to prevent woody plants from becoming established and smothering the verge, while allowing broad-leaved species to flourish.

The best way to ensure habitat protection on verges, I suggest,  would be to make them ALL nature reserves, and to forbid mowing, other than as just described.

That would easy to implement.  And as well as making Britain more beautiful and life-rich, would also save huge amounts of wasted energy.  Unmown verges are not only precious as food sources for insects; they also serve as wildlife corridors, connecting larger habitats which, hitherto, might have been isolated and at risk of deterioration.

So don’t mess about with pointless bee boxes.  Instead, campaign for neglected roadside verges.  Let's put pressure on prissy local authorities and unhealthily tidy farmers, whether in suburbia or deep in the countryside, and let's press for punishing those obsessively tidy minded bastards who mow village verges that would be better left well alone.  YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!  Crippling fines would be too good.

And while we’re at it, please, please, let’s outlaw the planting of disgustingly large hybrid daffodils along country verges.  They don’t help bees but they do smother valuable flowering wild plants.

 Athyrium 'Ghost' my second favourite fern this year. The silvery fronds are made even prettier by the darkness of the stems.  Piccies of my favourite next time.

I’m listening to the song Das Rosenband by Richard Strauss.  It's extremely soothing.

This day in 1991 I was struggling with my first novel which I wanted to call Slurry but which Orion insisted was to be entitled The Kirkland Acres. I was concerned about pace and structure, at that stage, and wanted to get it right.  I needn’t have bothered, though. Aside from an extremely handy £10,000 advance, it was not reviewed by anyone, on publication, and fell flat on its face.  Orion’s promotion budget and programme were laughable; the re-titling was a mistake but I learnt a little more about what fiction publishers are really like.

This week’s film was The Pumpkin Eater – Harold Pinter’s brilliant 1964 screen adaptation of Penelope Mortimer’s novel.  Anne Bancroft manages to act everyone off the screen – and with Peter Finch, a youthful Maggie Smith and James Mason, that’s a formidable cast – but seems to have less dialogue than anyone else.  Director Jack Clayton holds, time and again, lingering, painful, close-up shots of her suffering face.  These are agony to watch and by the end of the film, I had to sit in the darkness for some minutes, to pull myself together.

Oh, and I've just finished reading Anne Wareham's The Bad Tempered Gardener. More on that, soon, when the bruises have healed.

Bless you for reading this far.  Bye bye!  May your sweet peas never be ruined.