Thursday 30 October 2008


 That damaged medlar tree I told you about (see TOO MUCH MEDDLING.)  I had my pocket camera with me this time.  A rubbish pic, but thought you'd like to see it.

Well thanks, everyone, for responding to the first in the GLOOMY FOREBODINGS series with such valiant optimism!  

VP -  this will absolutely NOT be a regular series.  Re-reading it depressed even me, and I don't think I could manage such posts more than once in a while.   I love the Robert Preston comment, by the way!

James - I've a notion that you may have called me a miserable old sod a time or two anyway  - but if you haven't, you should!

Victoria - thanks for the info on possible links between imidacloprid and colony collapse.  I take these seriously and will investigate them further.  I would, however - at risk of bringing the wrath of several of you onto my head - need to see documented evidence of such links, from an impartial, scientifically based source, before being convinced.  Information like this, while important and of great interest, would test my credulity somewhat, if it came only from pressure groups such as the Soil Association.   And at the risk of further rage from some of you, I must own up and admit that I do use Provado, occasionally, and I do recommend it as a highly effective remedy for such pests as vine weevils.

HOWEVER, if I can find convincing, documented evidence that there is such a link, I will not only stop using it forthwith, but will also never recommend it again.

r pete-free - Dracunculus is an excellent suggestion.  I'll plant some at once.  A lot of our prettier umbellifers are fly pollinated too, so I could add those as well.

The next post, I promise, will be cheerful and optimistic, if anyone will still speak to me, after reading the above!

Monday 27 October 2008


A startling discovery prompts me to start a new series of short posts catered exquisitely for the delectation of doom merchants.  

If  worries about climate change rob you of your sleep, this series will be specially for you.  If your bottle is half empty, this will be the miserable company in which you will find comfort.   If  you think the stock markets are nowhere near bottom yet, find joy in this new Jeremiah of a series.   

Anyway, enough of all that.  Kindly take a swift look at the photo which I shot in my garden a few days ago.  Notice anything wrong?  

Well, have another look, then.  

Got it now?  That's right.  There is  not a seed in sight - just aborted embryos.  And the whole point of honesty, Lunaria annua, is that you're supposed to be able to see the dark, flat seeds through the beautiful transparent pods.  But the purses are empty because back in spring, we had crap weather and were desperately short of this plant's main pollinators, the bees.

The discovery reminded me of news coverage, during May, that the honey bee is now almost extinct in the wild, in Britain, largely because of the introduced varroa mite.  When I was a boy, they nested in our roof and in my last house, built with limesone, they nested in cracks in the mortar.  They also nested in the nearest piece of ancient woodland, in a hollow oak.  

But, if you see honey bees on your flowers, they will almost certainly be from hives, rather than the wild.  All is not well, even with domestic bees, where varroa is increasingly difficult to control, and where there is also a mystery affliction which causes colony collapse - the mad cow equivalent of a bee hive.
And as if that weren't worrying enough, most species of bumble bees are also either in decline or have suffered almost terminal population collapse.

This is a sorry state of affairs for all of us.  Apart from the missing hypnotic pleasure of dozing in a garden while bees buzz and hum along the flowers, there are more threatening implications.  Just stop to ponder on how many of our essential food crops are bee-pollinated. What if there were no more bees at all?  Ever!  Scary, isn't it?

Thursday 23 October 2008


There was a tragic moment, today, when I discovered an old friend, sadly brought down by age and infirmity.  

I walked from Kings Cross Station to the RHS Headquarters at Vincent Square - howzzat for good, green behaviour??!!  - but I digress.  My favourite route is through Bloomsbury, past the British Museum, across Tragalgar Square and then a leafy interlude through the Whitehall end of Saint James's Park.  

There's an ancient medlar tree that I've known and enjoyed there for nearly thirty years.  It has been well cared-for, with the down-curving, gnarled limbs carefully supported by props, and with old or dying branches removed  from time to time.  In spring, the solitary blossoms are a joy and all summer, it creates a companionable, dark green hump when foliage covers the stooping  boughs.

When I passed it today, however, I saw that much of the top growth has been removed, leaving a sadly disfigured wreck.  Before, it was quaint; now it's ugly and sad.  Whether gales or decay did this, I know not, but as a horticulturist, I suppose I should recommend its removal.  The remains would be chopped down and the roots removed, perhaps to make room for a 'more interesting' tree.  But it would break my heart if the Royal Parks did that.  Let's hope they bolster up the poor old wreck, as long as it can produce a flower or two in spring and a little foliage in summer.

As usual, I'd forgotten to take my pocket camera to Town, so no picture of my languishing loved-one I'm afraid.  The picture of the medlar fruit at the top is growing in Rosemoor and is a much more vigorous specimen.  Not a pretty sight, though, and a compelling explanation of the disgustingly anatomical name given by more raunchy Victorians to this fruit which is inedible until rotten.

Sunday 19 October 2008


                                   Miraculous mess - leaves on my lawn.

Here we are, in the most deliciously melancholy of seasons, watching the floral world subsiding to mush  - just as it should in October.  Colours are running through gentle changes and the sky is returning to our vistas and backdrops, as the branches become bare.  The trees seem happy to be shedding their scabrous clothes, like tired old tramps who've been offered bath and bed, and at our feet, shifting carpets of reds, browns, dun and beige rustle companionably as we walk over them. 

And yet all I see and hear are gardeners frenziedly raking and scraping, gathering up the unwanted harvest to pile up for leafmould or worse, to cram into their garden compost bins for the councils to remove.  Worst of all, some heap them to burn in fitful, acrid fires.  Bonfires?  They should be called malfires! 

I welcome the fallen leaves, loving the changing colours and enjoying dynamism as the garden scene transforms to winter.  The lawn looks beautiful, when leaf-strewn and on my borders, even though they look untidy, I can make myself be patient and wait for rotting to begin.  That is so much easier than the alternative of raking up, composting and then forking the leafmould back onto the soil after all that unnecessary work.

Leaf colour has been brief but brilliant for us this year.  Star trees were Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium' (left) and Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy' (below.)  They took ages to turn but then, instead of lingering sweetly on the trees, succumbed to the gales and were first shattered and then scattered.

We have to re-think leaves.   They are friends, rather than enemies and we should welcome them.   In the London parks, what little peace there is gets shattered on a daily basis by loud, pointless, petrol driven leaf blowers which shift them about the grass.  

Even among shrubs, instead of being allowed to lie and decay, they are feverishly hoiked out and piled up.  The process transforms them from naturally forming mulches into heaps of undesirable waste, to be disposed of rather than treasured.

Even at such conservation-minded places as the RHS Garden, Rosemoor, when I was last there, noisy blowers were shifting leaves across the lawns.
When we moved to our present garden, I was determined to run a 'slow gardening' policy with a laisser-faire approach to maintenance.  I make it a rule not to remove leaves from borders unless they are likely to damage vulnerable plants by over-lying them.  The whole place looks untidy for a while, but one learns to tolerate the mess.  The problem, I suggest, is in our heads, rather than in the leaves causing problems.  One can unclog gutters and claw matted, decaying leaves from drains or from between rocks in an Alpine garden.  But the rest can do no better than to lie, die and give their sustenance back to the soil.

The same principle goes for tidying up flower borders - but more on that anon.
Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy' in October

Monday 13 October 2008


                                            The Severn Sea, from the Valley of the Rocks.

Oh, the beauty of this place!  The last heather flowers giving little touches of purple on the uplands, the terrifying ruggedness of the coastline, the intimacy of the deep, narrow valleys with their plush green mantle of ferns, mosses, gnarled oaks and shapely rocks.  Exmoor is somewhere I've frequently driven through, but seldom been intimate with.  Every gardener should be made to come here, to sit on a rock and drink in the natural line, the intricate geometry, the subtle texture blends and the mealy-mouthed ponies.  

                                  The East Lyn, above Lynmouth

I can foresee an 'important' seminar ahead, for all les Eminences Grises of the garden design world - James A-S should treat his howdy hat to a moorland excursion; Cleve should go West to view the dialogue twixt fern and rock; Monsignor Wilson - you must come to see how Nature planteth!  And at this seminar, all we'll do is sit silently, on chosen spots, and gawp.  No talking, no notes.  Just vision.

                                Our borrowed cottage garden shed.

There's a price to pay, for this beauty, though.  Seven days away from blogland and I'm a quivering jelly of withdrawal symptoms.  My fingers twitch for a keyboard, my heart sinks each morning, knowing that even if I boot up my laptop, I CANNOT, go on line.  Can't even send thought messages through the ether.  There's no signal for mobiles.  We've only got a phone, in the adorable cottage we've been lent, and hardly dare use that for fear of running up an unwelcome phone bill for our gracious hosts.  

Being tucked away in the middle of Exmoor is adequate consolation but I still yearned for contact with the bloggist community, despite being such a newbug.  I've only blogged for a number of days, but already I'm a total addict.  Is this healthy?  Probably not, but I'm too old to care.
                                   Ferns and dew - texture, colour, freshness.

I've often thought that the best parts of the two biggest west country moors are at their edges, rather than their deep interiors.  The Devon and Somerset coasts which make up the northern edge of Exmoor are some of the most rugged in England;  to the south, the transformation from hard, unyielding upland to the quilted patchwork between Exmouth and Tiverton is dramatic and stirring.  

A brief visit, to Knightshayes garden, on my way home, reminds me that the design works so well, not only because of the superb, south-facing terrace, but also because of the distant views.  Autumn colour at Knightshayes and at the RHS Garden Rosemoor is wonderful.  

A volunteer at Rosemoor told me that some of the visitors were really quite shocked at the daring colours in the magnificent newly installed Square Garden.   'Who would even think of putting that orange with that pink?'  was the sort of question he'd been asked.  Well, I would for a start and if it shakes up the Torygraph gardener, so much the better.  I love Rosemoor - the spirit of the place, the friendliness of the staff and welcoming feel of the garden is like no other.  And their kitchen garden is so cosy that one can relate to it.  The fan-trained bamboos there are superb, if a little spoilt by the plum trees that have been tied to them!

Earlier in the week, we walked the East Lyn Valley, from the prinked and cherished National Trust Caff at Watersmeet to the fish-and-chippy village of Lynmouth.  (I'll return to the NT in a later posting, with luck.)  The Village Inn, Lynmouth, gets the PMN Bad Taste Award for its hanging baskets - not so much horticultural decoration as floral diarrhoea.  

                                   The Village Inn, Lynmouth - with tasteful street furniture.

For natural beauty, the Valley of the Rocks - a doddle of a walk along the clifftops from Lynton - takes some beating (see pic) but watch out for rather officious goats which try to butt you over the cliffs when you bend to snap a picture.  Then, a drive along to Lee Bay, Woody Bay and over the top, back into Somerset, rounds off an inspiring day.

Back at home,  where it's flat, I'm trying to re-think the garden.  How does one conjure up that soft, quilted, gentle-coloured patchwork of the Westcountry landscape, in one's backyard.  I'm sure it can be done, but haven't quite worked out how.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

MOSS ON A ROLLING STONE, with apologies to anyone called Cyril.

A desperate letter in this morning's post asks for help:  
'I've tried various solutions,' the writer pleads, 'but nothing seems to keep the moss off my asphalt drive.  Can you please suggest a remedy.'  (I've paraphrased.)

I replied with a reference to the Saiho-ji garden in Kyoto, where moss was never intended but turned up anyway and has been loved and admired by all for, ooh, about seven centuries.  Kyoto is a place I'd love to visit, mainly because of the gardens.  I suggested to my correspondent - let's call him (and it's almost always a 'him' in such cases) erm,  Cyril, yes, definitely a Cyril - that he might like to consider taking a leaf out of the Kyoto book.   I wondered if it had occurred to him that moss might look just a tad more attractive than clean tarmac.  I await Cyril's response, but suspect it may not be very positive.

Moss grows on you.  (ha ha)  I've even begun to enjoy its presence in the lawn and actually welcome it in the mini-meadow where the yellow rattle has nicely impoverished the grass.  In Singapore, in the National Orchid Garden - picture above - they encourage greenery to proliferate on the statuary and that makes a nice relief from the parti-coloured multiple intergeneric hybrid orchid flowers which look like plastic toys.

I love mossy tree trunks, too, but you need to live in the west for those to be commonplace.  The  Betula utilis - pictured -  is at RHS Rosemoor where they have rain and cool in just the right quantities.   A wonderful silver and green moment.  If only my trunks were this full of moss!

Ferns are perfect chums for moss, and in our deep shade, I try to nurture the bryophytes between them.  But they won't be nurtured and have a minds of their own.  You just have to do the  Saiho doodah thing and provide the right habitat - then the moss will come and then it will stay, a soft, velvety green carpet -  Rolling Stones or no.

I feel sorry for Cyril, but hope he might be able to see the point.