Tuesday 30 December 2008


Winter Oak at Bourne Woods, Lincolnshre

Well that was a bit of a bummer!   
Talk about a clap of vengeful thunder!   I never thought the Gentleman Upstairs, Intelligent Designer, Big G, or whoever – or whatever it is who organises the universe and things –  would give me quite such a smack in the chops for being somewhat irreverent with my last post.  OK! I'm sorry, I'm sorry!  I repent!  Mea culpa! I promise to try harder, and not to be so cynical this coming year.  Less colborning; more horticulture in the coming months, I promise!

My Granddaughter is only five but already a lover of plants and gardens.  In late 2006 she and I set some fuchsia cuttings together and later, she came back to pot her plant up and take it home.  Each time we spoke, after that, she told me that it had more and more flowers until, not surprisingly, it became easily the biggest and best fuchsia in the world.  
Keep that image in your mind, if you kindly would!

Frost on the car - it's much too cold to garden!

But for the moment, back to the bit about Divine Retribution.

It all began just after I'd popped the pictures into my last post around 21st December.  (I dare not mention the word 'Perisolstice' nor ever will again!)  I leapt up from my computer, in response to an uxorial order to get the hell out of my office and tart up for some forthcoming social jollies, and discovered that my head was spinning, and none too gently - a bit like that girl's in The Exorcist - and my legs had been transformed into damp cardboard which buckled under the weight.  And not a drop of festive punch or mulled wine yet touched!  

By next morning, the 'flu had increased my age from sixty four– all right, nearly sixty five –  to about a hundred and four and the day after that, my wife got the 'flu as well.  Even our two cats turned morose and more sedentary than usual and the moment my beloved younger daughter jetted in from abroad for the festivities, she went down with it as well.  Bummer!

We had five more relatives due by 24th and although no one else succumbed, the poor loves must have felt they'd arrived at a field hospital.  Since my youngest granddaughter - hereinafter knicknamed 'The Buster' - is not 2 until next May, it was necessary to barricade all the fires, in case she decided to try 'doing a Brunnhilde' by hurling herself into the flames.  That meant that to refuel the big kitchen inglenook, I had to bend myself like a contortionist, over a caged construction which would accommodate an adult and hyperactive chimpanzee, while manoeuvring large hunks of seasoned ash wood onto the grate.  

Now the joker who built that part of our house, back in the 18th century, certainly understood how to position beams, lintels and kingposts - but in those days everyone was about 4 feet high and I'm 6ft-2ins! The number of blows, to my already fevered head, while contorting myself to service the fires, was  therefore prodigious and I suspect, delayed my recovery.  I also tore some back muscles, when carrying a full basket of logs, and now walk with an disconcerting list to port as well as taking about five minutes to loosen up, whenever I've been sedentary for more than a few moments.  The Tin Man from Wizard of Oz is lissome and supple, in comparison!

And the final blow was a stiff email from a very close relative who I absolutely worship, telling me off for being far too cynical in this blog, particularly where farmers are concerned.  I will reform, I promise!

But my woes were nothing to those our my poor wife and hostess who had to keep rising from her sick bed to baste, roast, chop, peel, direct and of course, like the rest of us, run after The Buster, to rescue her from all manner of perils.  It is quite remarkable that someone a mere 19 months old can zoom about at such speed, and with such dogged determination.  And would it be sexist to say that 19 month-old girls are infinitely more ballsy than boys of the same age?

But back to the horticultural five-year-old.  
By way of conversation, on Boxing Morning, and to try to take her mind off the preoccupations of the day - broken toys, missing batteries, the absence of more parcels to unwrap - I said:
'By the way, how's your fuchsia?'
'Dead, of course,' she responded, adding, 'it's winter, Grandpa.'  

She returned her attention to one of a trio of little doll things she had been given, each with long, slinky, sexy legs, a bust and worrying hair, and seemed to be trying to dislocate its arm. Suddenly, in a solicitous but chillingly unnatural voice, the hideous mannikin breathed and said, in tinny accents that blended Connecticut with Hong Kong: 'Hi!  I'm your friend!'  How on earth could a rooted cutting of  Fuchsia magellanica 'Lady Bacon' compete with that?

Friday 19 December 2008


'The holly bears a berry, as red as any blood. . .'

Ilex aquifolium  'Golden van Tol'

What is this dreadful word Winterval?  I won't have a bar of it, I won't, I won't!  Who coined it? Woolworths?  The world's Bankers?  It's smarmy and horrible, a loathsome politically correct mongrel!  Almost as cringe-making as 'Crimbo' or 'Crimble.'

I wanted to wish everyone a very merry Christmas, but I'm told that could be offensive for some reason, so I've been torturing my brain to come up with a suitable name for midwinter merrymaking.   I gather that quite a few people did Yuletidy things – hung up holly, kissed under the mistletoe and gave gifts – long before the birth of Christ, so I presume all the feasting has something to do with celebrating the winter solstice.  

So I've come up with the perfect PC greeting.   Since 'perinatal' means 'the time immediately before and after birth,' I thought a similar word derivation might do for the period immediately before and after the winter solstice.  I admit that the result sounds a bit like intestinal movements but that, after all, is what goes on rather a lot, when one's eaten turkey, plum pudding, Christmas cake, mince pies etc. etc. etc.

So here goes:  Look below the picture for your brand new, perfectly PC, seasonal greeting –

'Lo, how a rose e'er blooming. . .'

Rosa 'Scharlachtglut' in snow.


And just to stick to the anatomical, may I also wish you, for the 1st of January, 2009, 
a joyful Circumcision.  Ouch!  But I trust you get the point!

'In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Snow had fallen, snow on snow .  . .'

Snow in the apple orchard at Careby, circa 2000

I'll be back in the blogosphere, subject to not being scragged by grandchildren, alcohol poisoning and the Credit Crunch, early in the New Year.  Until then. . .

Monday 15 December 2008


A robin, at the RHS Garden, Rosemoor, photographed a couple of years ago.  Robins are aggressive loners in the bird world, tolerating none of their kind anywhere near their territory, except for sex and breeding.  And yet they have been chosen to symbolise Christmas, the season of peace and goodwill among mankind.  A delicious irony!

It's been far too cold to garden lately - well, that's my excuse anyway.  So here's something different.

love Marcus Brigstocke's satirical monologues.  Compared to his diatribes, the timid little rants posted on this blog from time to time  –  and flatteringly coined as 'colborning' by certain Award Winning Journalists – are but feeble milksoppery.  His railing about BT Broadband on BBC Radio 4's The Now Show, for instance, had me convulsed with an almost unendurable mixture of sympathy, hysterical laughter and blind rage.  I had been trying to get connected to broadband, via BT, at the time of the broadcast, so his piece struck a particular chord.  The BT connecting service was BAD BAD BAD in every possible way from start to finish.

But Mr Brigstocke's more recent rant made me blush. He was satirising not just the commercial tinsel and tat of Christmas - I think we all hate that - but also the nauseatingly cheap sentimentality that tends to go with this month of drinking, eating, skiving and other Yuletide jollies.  That felt like a personal dig, and I reacted like a small boy caught pinching sweets from the cupboard.  Let me explain:

I never fail to become infected by soppy sentimentality at Christmas. I've even been caught listening to Bing Crosby before the December dates move into double figures and worse, the other night, we watched that most drippy of films, Love, Actually.

It's an awful piece of cinematic drivel, but I absolutely adore every moment of it.  The plot - plot? Don't be ridiculous! - has everyone kissing and hugging and doing all sorts of warm, cuddly things together, 'cos it's Christmas.  The one saving grace, in this chocolate coated marshmallow of a movie is the Bill Nighy story strand.  He plays a superannuated rock star, ravaged by sex, drugs and bad music, but seeking a revival by converting one of his earlier songs into the cheeeeziest and most awful Christmas Pop Song possible.   It's so bad that it rockets to Number One, proving that popular taste will always go for rock bottom.  (And speaking of bottoms, Nighy vows to strip off to the buff, the 'full monty' if his number manages to top the charts.)

Over the next couple of weeks, I expect to be bathing in warm, treacly sentiment, Brigstocke notwithstanding.  And the seasonal goodwill thing really does work.  I found myself in the friendliest of conversations with a taxi driver, on Wednesday, when we discovered that we both had the same number of children and grandchildren at roughly similar ages and genders.  (Isn't that nice!) And that happened in London - surely one of the world's unfriendliest cities -  where, on the very same day, someone barged into me at Oxford Circus tube station, distracted by trying to speak on his mobile and eat a croissant at the same time, and then paused, looked me in the eye, smiled - yes, smiled! -  and said 'Whoops, sorry!' How rare is that?

So, for the next few days, at Chez Colborn we'll be getting immersed in some intensely warm and cuddly things.  We'll be watching several versions of Scrooge on DVD with the grandchildren, including the one made by the Muppets with Michael Caine!  It's easily the best and most intellectually stimulating.  Also on the DVD list are The Wizard of Oz, Miracle on 34th Street, Little Women, Polar Express - you know the sort of thing.

Gardening will be limited to picking a few bits of greenery and digging up a Nordman Fir, to put in our sitting room for the grandchildren to decorate, and then to wreck.  It's a tree I planted five years ago, but which is now in entirely the wrong place, ie, on the spot where the Colborn Greenhouse is to be built next year - unless credit crunch, banking incompetences and the limitations of old age intervene.

So, strictly no Bah Humbug, if you don't mind!  Kick off your inhibitions, rush out and hug someone today, even if it's only a tree!

I'm listening to Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols.

Last night's film was Paris, Texas - Wim Wenders' masterpiece about breaking and mending human relationships, and about the intrinsic goodness in some people - but not the least bit sentimental.  The soundtrack, of Ry Cooder's slide guitar playing, is the most haunting and beautiful of almost any film made.

On this date in 2005, I was overhauling my elderly, but still serviceable Macintosh Powerbook Titanium laptop computer and re-installing its operating software, before giving it to my daughter.  And I see from my diary, that in the evening we watched - no, really, it's true - Love Actually!

Wednesday 10 December 2008


Our autumn border in frost.

Out on my bike this afternoon, after beating my head against the wall, trying to write a rushed piece all morning, I was enchanted to discover that ice was still covering the puddles.  What chilly joy!  What toe-tingling, ear-nipping, breath-steaming delight to have a December day that really feels like winter!  It almost enables you to forget climate change and think about chillblains and burst pipes.  (But I expect  you're all too young to remember those!)

You can't imagine what utter jolly delight it is, on your bike, to go whizzing  through frozen puddles, hearing a satisfying crunch.  Not only do have the spine-tingling naughtiness of smashing something beautiful, but you also know that no one else can do the same.  You've grabbed the puddle's cherry, as it were, and that's that.  All that remains are shards of muddy glass, littering the road.

Frost has been nicely timed, this year.  I got my dahlias lifted, at last, just before the promise of overnight temperatures below minus 5C - that's, erm, 23Fahrenheit for friends across the puddle.  (By the way, that's quite cold for England) - and managed to get part my cache of well rotted, friable compost barrowed and spread.  

Helleborus foetidus

That, in itself, creates a dilemma of conscience and principle.  Let me explain.  For years, now, I've ranted and railed about the hateful habit of putting the autumn garden to bed by cutting everything herbaceous down to ground level.  It's a pernicious practice for a gamut of reasons: it reduces cover for wildlife; it cuts down the amount of feed available for seed-eating birds; it exposes the perennials to the full rigour of winter and, above all, a shorn border look miserable and depressing and unnatural and brown and dull and hateful.

So my borders tend to resemble the picture at the top of this post.  Hardly surprising since the picture is one of my borders!  And in frost, or snow they look lovely.  They don't look bad earlier in autumn, either, when the plants are gently subsiding into their annual Liebestod - if that's how you spell it.

Osmanthus delavayi

But how the heck are you supposed to barrow heaps of compost among moribund perennials, or over them or between them without making a disgusting mess?  I've tried the discreet forkful here, handful there approach but that takes for ever.  In desperation, I've pushed wheelbarrows over and kicked the stuff about.  That, at least, gives one more exercise, but it doesn't get the good stuff spread.

Buddleja 'Lochinch'

And another thing: what do you do about plants that get so wind-bashed or flop so much that they just look plug ugly?  The purist in my says 'watch, observe, rejoice in the decay, accept the entropy, the return to chaos.'  But the artist in me – no, that's bragging, I've as much artistic sense as funky gibbon –  the fragment of aesthetic sense which still lurks in my head says 'remove the offending limb for the good of the rest.'  

Sorry, I'm writing even more nonsensical drivel than usual.  The pictures are frost on leaves or catkins - pictures of compost look horrible, however you dress them up.  

Corylus avellana 'Contorta' 

This time last year I was - and do hope James doesn't resent me for scobbing his idea of doing this - I was watching the film Of Human Bondage with Leslie Howard and, for once in her acting life, a surprisingly wooden Bette Davis.  (It's  not good memory - I've just checked my diary.)

I'm listening to L'Enfance du Christ' by Berlioz.

Friday 5 December 2008


The past few days have seen the passing of two people who were extremely special to me, and to many others.  Both men were remarkable for their kindness, their tireless energy and a supreme level of dedication and skill in their professional lives.  

Peter Buckley was a phenomenally successful financier, chairman or director of several major companies, inspired gardener and President of the Royal Horticultural Society.  When I joined the Society's Council he was Treasurer, guiding the finances during the most ambitious period of investment the RHS has ever seen. His extrovert friendliness and positive attitude were wonderfully infectious and when he was elected President, a couple of years ago, these qualities helped him to succeed in that difficult and challenging role.  

I've known few people with such energy.  He'd even make Margaret Thatcher look lazy, running his businesses, working day and night with, for example, 6 am Fundraising Breakfasts at Chelsea, late night phone conferences to the USA, globe trotting on business and commuting between his London home and his magnificent house and garden in Scotland each week.  There was never a moment to be lost, with Peter, and I suspect that if he had ever caught me sitting quietly, staring into space - one of my favourite occupations - he would ask, with great concern, what was wrong and how could he help?  

Out of the blue, Peter contracted pulmonary fibrosis.  There was no remission, sadly, and within a few weeks, this hideous disease literally took his breath away.  

Ron Grey was the most skilled carpenter I have ever known and also a fanatically keen gardener.  His craftsmanship was unsurpassable, particularly when working on the irregular shapes and awkward corners with which old houses like ours abound.  He could look at a surface, even if it was irregular, adze-hewn oak, and then, purely by eye, cut a piece of timber to the required shape.  Nine times out of ten, the old and new wood surfaces would fit like a hand in a glove.  I never once heard him crow in triumph, if he got it right, but self-blaming vexation would be written all over his face if he got it wrong.

Ron was one of ten children, born in the Fens, near where I live.  Over thirty years, he has been a regular visitor, building, mending, repairing, always working in challenging situations, always with a profound respect for, and knowledge of the materials of his trade.  He was quiet, modest, generous and thoughtful and by all accounts, a kind father and devoted husband as well.

When, soon after moving to our new house, I fell behind with my vegetable gardening, he brought a car boot full of young leeks, runner beans and brassicas, ready to plant out.  He even offered to plant them for me.  And when I mentioned, wistfully, that I was unable to find a source of Yucca gloriosa anywhere, he turned up with one of those, too, dug from his own front garden.  It still grows in a place of honour, in our yard.

Ron came on Monday 24th November to begin a week's work, repairing and refurbishing part of the house. He died suddenly, from a cardiac infarction that evening.

The world is poorer for the loss of both these good, kind men.   But I'm thankful for their lives, and for having known both of them.

Wednesday 3 December 2008


No ranting, I promise.  But a big swank instead:  I think I've just grown the fastest narcissus in the west!  Twenty three (23) days, from slightly wizened, dry bulbs, bought on impulse at a local garden centre to the pictures shown here.  It took even less time, only 21 days from scratch, for the first petals to unfurl.  (Yes, all right tepals, if you're a botano-pedant.)  Can anyone beat that?

There used to be a thing about getting bulbs to bloom for Christmas.  I can't imagine why, when windowsills are already burdened with cards, candles and tinselly things, that it should be de rigeur to add bowls of hyacinths to the clutter.  But it was, and when I was a boy, if my father couldn't get his first hyacinths to open and release their rather sickly scent, by the time the nervous little treble from Kings College, Cambridge was singing One in Royal David's City on the BBC Home Service at 3pm on Christmas Eve, he'd sulk until New Year's Eve.  Golly, that was a long sentence!  Isn't it simply divine, not having an editor to disapprove?

Narcissus papyraceus - the paperwhite narcissus - a native of southern Spain and
 Gibraltar where I've seen it flowering in the wild.

I bought these bulbs –  Narcissus papyraceus  – on impulse when I called at our local garden centre for a bag of potting compost.  They looked miserable and shrivelled, in their little display pack, so I took 'em home and gave them the gravel treatment.

The procedure is so easy:  Take a chipped and rather ruinous salad bowl and partially fill it with gravel.
All you need: a knackered but watertight bowl or pot, gravel or shingle, bulbs, water and a bright windowsill.

6th November.  Half fill the bowl with gravel and place bulbs gently onto surface.  

6th November.  Simply add water and keep the level to just beneath the bulbs.

6th November.  Top with pretty pebbles, to decorate the surface - on loan from my fancy scree garden.

15th November - watch them grow faster and faster!

29th November - Twenty three days after planting, this is how they looked.

The pot at its best, just before the stems get weak, too long and begin to collapse!

It's all so simple!  No dark period, no special bulb compost - just bung 'em into a bowl with shingle and await the results. That must be as close to instant gardening as you can get.  But if anyone out there has got them to bloom faster, I'd love to know.

These are late-autumn bloomers, in their native Iberia, and are pretty closely related to N. tazetta.  Most of the commercial ones are from an improved stock with flowers larger and whiter than the wild species.  They're also intensely fragrant, but the perfume has rather excremental undertones.  I walked into the room where they grow, recently, when the door had been closed all day and thought one of the cats had got in and crapped on the carpet.  Isn't it odd, how odours can be vile or alluring, but have the thinnest dividing line between?  Good coffee can smell like crap, too, not to mention the best Havana cigars, but I adore the former and was once addicted to the latter.

This time last year, approximately - well, on 26th November - AWARD WINNING JOURNALIST James 'Le Chapeau' and I were playing to our largest audience - some 700 souls - with a Green with Envy show at the Princes Theatre Clacton.

I'm still listening to the boiler which is gurgling and hissing  along the lines of something written by Olivier Messiaen but is distinctly more melodious.