Monday 26 January 2009


Colour in surprising places:  
Our rhubarb chard, not only still pretty, but beginning to produce a few succulent new leaves. There's always a last, late winter bite, from this versatile spinach, even though the seed for this was sown as long ago as last April!

Well!  There I was, having breakfast with Alan Titchmarsh.  No, really, it's true.  It was on Friday, up at the RHS Garden Harlow Carr and I was there to witness him 'turning the first sod' to launch the the new all-green, carbon-lovely, environmentally-adorable Learning Centre. To be built out of knitted nettle stalks and powered by the famously radiant Yorkshire charm, this building will set new standards in this person's favourite word, sustainability.  And of course, it has a sedum roof, so it must be sustainable.

Somebody, rather unkindly in my view, asked me whether I was the 'first sod' in question and I was able to tell him, 'far from it,' indeed, by the looks of the churned up earth and fencing, many a sod had already been tumbled, on that particular spot. Alan's role, it seemed, was to be purely symbolic.

Before the event, over bacon, croissants and exquisitely aromatic coffee in Betty's Restaurant, we discussed horticulture as a career.  A chap from Yorkshire Forward, asked Alan why there weren't any celebrity gardeners who behaved like the more frenetic or foul-mouthed TV chefs. 'Gardening just isn't like that, ' he explained, and went on to describe  how serene gardeners were in comparison.  

'That's because we all know that its hopeless,' I suggested. 'When a magnolia you planted 26 years ago as a seedling, flowers for the first time but is ruined by an April frost, you either find your sense of humour, or you give up.'  Alan's most telling point, at that breakfast, was that although qualifications and degrees in horticulture are highly important, it is longstanding practical experience that really makes a good gardener.  Hear, hear!

When the formal proceedings were done, and the nettle-knitting could thereby resume, I persuaded the management to let me have a sneak preview of the superb new Alpine House at Harlow Carr.  Built in the classic style - no Kew Coathanger nonsense up here - this one has a steep-pitched roof with good, old fashioned crank handle ventilators all along the top and in double rows down each side.  The rock work is made up from recycled sandstone, from the superannuated and formerly horse-tail-ridden Sandstone Rock Garden lower down in the valley.   They are using shredded tyres as backfill, for the raised beds so instead of there being an earthy, rooty, limestony aroma, the atmosphere was similar to being inside a balloon, or perhaps, a condom - not that I've ever been in either, you understand; well, not all of me, anyway.

Yorkshire was the home of the mighty Reginald Farrer, father and Patron Saint of Alpine Gardening and an even more verbose and flowery writer than the hack wot churns out this rubbishy blog. So it is absolutely mete, right and our bounden duty to have an Alpine House of which he would have been proud.  While standing in the strangely echoing, empty building, I could feel his ghost, smiling benignly over my shoulder, and could almost - above the noisome rubbery miasma - hear the scratch of his pen, as he dashed out some more gushing prose.

I know you're thinking 'wot, no pictures?'  But have patience.  I'll do them one day soon, I promise!

On another tack, I was listening to  Gardeners' Question Time which surprised me by turning up on a Friday afternoon, rather than Wednesday.  A woman had watered her plants with liquor from her compost bin and had, not surprisingly, killed them all.  She wondered whether there might be a way of testing the evil-looking liquid to find out what levels of nutrients it contained.   

Bob Flowerdew was invited to answer and I thought he would mention a testing kit like this. But he had a much more surprising approach:  First, you have to find some living duckweed.  A challenge, in January, I'd have thought!  Then, if I remember correctly, you fill a bucket of the liquor diluted to suit.  Next, you count out twenty teeny tiny duckweed plants - each one being wet and sticky  - and you float them on the surface of the bucketful of liquor. Memory fails me from that point, so I'm not sure what you were supposed to do next.  I think it involved a control, and you had to count the number of duckweeds after a specific interval to quantify their fecundity.  But by then I was losing the will to live - not healthy when driving on the A1 M just south of Doncaster! 

I don't know whether there's a podcast available or not, but I'd love to know if anyone has tried this, or can even name an authoritative source for analysis by duckweed.  

A frosty dyke at Holme Fen - Britain's lowest point.  
Altitude, here, is below sea level.

I had planned to tell you about my visit to England's largest birch wood at Holme Fen, but that will have to wait until next time.  I was staggered by the beauty of the place, and can't wait to take you on a stroll through.   Meanwhile . . .

I'm listening to Brahms' 'Cello Sonata No 1 Op. 38  Wonderful chuntering of the 'cello when the piano takes up the melody - like an old soak at a pub with a centimetre of beer in his mug and gone grumpy because no one will fill it for him.

I've just read Pat Barker's latest novel, Life Class about an art student turned Red Cross ambulance driver in 1914 Ypres.  It starts a little haltingly but soon gathers pace, deftness and, as always with her work, burgeons with intriguing subtleties and ambiguities.  I was inspired by her winning the Booker for Regeneration and have enjoyed all she has written.

This week's film was the Korean Chinjeolhan geumjassi (Lady Vengeance) a harrowing piece with slaughterhouse violence, too good to dismiss as purely gratuitous but you need a strong stomach.  It was directed by Chan-Wook Park

This day in 2006 I was in Norfolk, watching tens of thousands of pink foot and brent geese flighting in to roost on the saltmarshes and taking a break from writing a book about Wisley.

Gawd, this post is wa-a-a-a-ay too long.  Sorry for that, and goodley bye!

Monday 19 January 2009


Jasminum nudiflorum on my house wall –  the one winter-flowering plant I would not be without.

What a difference a day makes!  Well, a couple of days, actually but you know what I mean. 36 hours of mild, westerly weather – after the frost and misery – and Kerpow!!! Whooppeeeee!! Zapparroooodle!!! Up pop two winter aconites.  That was 8 days ago.  Now we have a respectable smattering of the little yellow darlings, joined by clumps of snowdrops and Crocus imperati sbsp imperati 'De Jager.'  

It ain't spring, yet, not by a long chalk, but our resident 'darkling thrush' is reviving Hardy's poem every afternoon; the cock blackbirds are fighting each other, instead of chucking all my neatly spread compost off the borders and onto the paths.  And to top it all, yesterday afternoon, I actually took off my woolly hat and felt the kiss of the sun on my slap head.  Well, not exactly kiss - more like the prune-mouthed 'mwah!' of a frigid cryptolesbian starlet - but still an almost discernible sense of uncoldness.

Ahem, now then, now then!   Look lively!  Gardening stuff coming up!
I've been squirming with indecision over the winter jasmine.  It's a plant I wouldn't be without, especially at this time of year.  The cheery yellow blossoms begin in November and plod on until the end of winter.  Lovely!  But it's also an untidy bastard thing.  Wherever a down-hanging shoot touches soil, it roots and a new child leaps into action, adding more and more stolons until pruning the resulting tangle is almost impossible.  The summer foliage hasn't much to boast about, either, and the bottle green stems can be sombre and depressing.  

With that in mind, I was trying to analyse the failure that is my tiny front garden and conclude that a big reason for its dishevelled, frowzy appearance is the huge jasmine which scales the wall.  But have I the heart - or the guts - to remove such a splendidly healthy and floriferous thing?  We'll see.  Fan trained Chaenomeles might be better.

At my last house, I grew winter jasmine through a boring laurel hedge, to excellent effect.  And there's a tempting little gap in my west boundary hedge, here, so I might try a stolon or two in that.  Once they're established, a front garden make-over will be in order.

The RHS has got butterflies at large, in the great Glasshouse.  I gather there are Wood Nymphs, enormous, electric blue Morphos, Owl Butterflies and species of Heliconius.  But what's this I see on the web page?  It looks like a Common Blue Polyomattus icarus which you can also find illustrated  here! Hmmm!  Not exactly tropical, and about the size of a 10p piece.  Next to a monster morpho, this tiny – but staggeringly beautiful – little chap would look distinctly puny. What's more, it wouldn't be on the wing in January, I suspect, and is unlikely to be spotted in a glasshouse.  Do they think that because it isn' t plants, we won't spot the deception?  

Here's a male common blue I photographed yonks ago, one summer, in Norfolk:

A male Common Blue, Polyomattus icarus, resting on a flowering plantain.

Unlike winter Jasmine, a climbing rose responds superbly to discipline.  Also in the front garden, a few feet south of the scruffy but lovely jasmine, I planted the intensely fragrant, sumptuously red, red rose 'Climbing Alec's Red'   Pruning these things is a breeze, as long as you don't object to punctured fingers and scratched wrists.  You get the odd crossed or rubbing stem which can be perplexing but in general, once you've removed superannuated leads, and all the weak or diseased rubbish, the remaining branches almost put themselves into place.  

With all climbing roses, it's important to strain the stems downwards towards the horizontal.  That encourages flowering and also enables one to distribute them evenly - well, sort of evenly - over the surface.  The text books say all crossing stems should go, but I've left one on. It should have been removed but was so young and healthy that I just couldn't bring myself to give it the chop. 

Rosa 'Climbing Alec's Red' before pruning.

The same thing, after its annual haircut and shampoo. Note the crossing stem.

This week's film was Fitzcarraldo, starring the scarily manic Klaus Kinski and directed by the equally off the wall Werner Herzog.  Kinski, a 'Remittance Man' of Irish descent decides to carry a ship over a mountain, deep into the jungle, so that he can build an opera house good enough to entice the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso.  Bonkeroonies or what???

I'm listening to Bill Evans, playing solo Jazz Piano.

This day last year, I was cutting perennials back in our autumn border.  That's when I discovered that my son had used my NEW CHRISTMAS FELCO SECATEURS to cut wire.  Aaaaagghhhhhh!!!!!!!!!

Monday 12 January 2009


Soft, misty  light on Lake Como, from gardens of the Villa Balbianello

Ahoy there, me hearties!  The sharper eyed among you will have spotted a couple of new links to the right of this post.  The pictures are rather old, taken with an early digital camera and not that good.  Sorry about that, but I hope they give you a taster.

There was a time, a year or two ago, when I seemed to be spending more time travelling with people abroad, than gardening at home.  At the height if this journeyman existence, a few wags even used to greet me as 'Admiral,' on account of all the ocean cruises.  'Idiot Seaman' would have been more apt and anyway, a lot of the travel was overland and much was in search of wildlife, rather than gardens.

Being elected to the Council of the Royal Horticultural Society clipped my wings somewhat, because of big new calls on my time,  but I still get abroad when I can. So when the respected, rather swish travel company Cox and King invited me to to host two garden tours in 2009, I was absolutely thrilled.  We 'do' the Italian Lakes, in April and Australia in October.

More about Oz another day, but the spring trip to Lakes Como and Maggiore should be an absolute belter!  The last time I went was in April when the wisterias were all at their best, azaleas flourished and each stately villa was perfectly prinked and prettied for spring perfection.  (Wonderful to alliterate to such excess without a nasty editor to hit me!)

Azaleas at the Villa Carlotta, Menaggio, on Lake Como
The island gardens in Maggiore, particularly Isola Bella, are seared into my memory.  How romantic, to take over an entire island - there's a feeling of Swallows and Amazons about the boat trip across - and convert it into the most lavishly statued, terraced, parterred and planted paradise.  You can hear, in your mind's ear, glorious arias from Verdi or Rossini, as you wander among the cypresses.  There are regal steps, with a potted and clipped box bobble on every one, going plink plonk plink plonk, all the way down, while a rude American dogwood, in riotous pink  blossom throws loud informality into the Italian chic.

In one villa, we wandered beyond the formal gardens - more clipped box and rectangular pools - into woodland where nightingales and yellow warblers sang, and where Paris quadrifolia and Melittis melissophyllum (known in Britain as Bastard Balm, for heaven's sake!) flowered in massive clumps. 

The grounds of the Villa Carlotta, in Menaggio, were riotously coloured by massed planting of Japanese azaleas.  The Italians have a superbly creative approach to pruning, and had sculpted living landscapes with these, so that they merged and blended into each other with bumps and knolls and valleys. Cynics amongst us felt that they might look a bit better when all the violent colour had gone, just leaving the shapes, but for us Philistines, they were fab de luxe - sorry, I meant fabuloso di lusso maximo.

An ancient wisteria, bigger than the pine tree which 'supports' it.

I fell for the small lakeside towns of on Como, particularly Belaggio and Menaggio.  So close to Switzerland and yet, so absolutely northern Italian, with relaxed restaurants and bars, pretty vernacular architecture and always the the lake and mountains as a backdrop.

We dined magnificently on such local delicacies as Lavarello - a lake-dwelling relative of the trout, but with sweeter flesh - and sipped many a glass of pert northern Italian wine.  I can't wait to go again, and late April is the absolute key time. The weather will have warmed, but the landscape and the gardens will still have that crisp freshness so treasured in all Mediterranean countries.

And the beauty of this trip, from your point of view, is that you don't have to put up with me, if you decide to go. The magnificently knowledgeable, friendly, enthusiastic and delightful Roy Lancaster is hosting a tour just before mine, so you can take your pick.  For details, click on the links in 'Handy Information,' above, right.

Statues on the Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore.

This weeks big film, for us, was The Ice Storm, directed by Ang Lee, set in the 197os but made in 1997.  It's about terrible weather, wife-swapping and sexual experimentation  for all ages, most of it ending in disaster.  As well as smartly played parts by Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline, it had a cameo played by the magnificent and deeply adored Alison Janney.   What? Ask any fan of The West Wing!

I'm listening to the fan on my Apple PowerMac G5, which sounds a little grumpy.  The computer's getting old, but what a monsta!  A veritable Bentley-Porsche-Ferrari hybrid, for speed and class.

This day las year, according to my diary, several snowdrops and two winter aconites were in flower and I spent part of the day installing swanky, new MAC OS 10.4  Seems like last week, but now MAC OS 10.5 makes it look almost as laughably old fashioned as - I was going to say Windows, but it could never have been that creaky, could it?

Tuesday 6 January 2009


Schizostylis coccinea flowering on New Year's Day

The hangover fades at last.  The house is quiet, now the relatives have all left and as the dried, wizened holly twigs flare up and crackle in the grate of our kitchen fire, post-Christmas joy begins to run its naughty fingers up and down my spine.  

There's such a sense of excitement, once one has de-toxed, about the New year.  A new start in the garden, the sun a tad higher each noon, winter things budding and breaking, all like coiled springs waiting for the frost to ease so that they can be released.  And of course, the newness and tidiness in my office.  (Well I haven't actually got round to the office cleaning, but  I will, I will, I will. . .possibly I will!)

Each year, between Christmas and New Year's Day, I like to take a census of what's flowering in the garden.  And now that this blog exists, I promised to pass such relatively useless information on.  I'll try to do that without presenting a tedious catalogue - oh - and I should say that a lot has happened since the count was made.  Severe frost over the past week has put paid to a blooms that were teetering on the edge and daily sustained cold is holding the January regulars back.  How dramatic it all is!  What will happen next?

The most remarkable flowers are what I'd term the 'unofficial blooms.'  A shocking pink thrift has three jolly blooms, as does the extraordinary blue-flowered Corydalis elata. My original plant came from Coton Manor, in Northamptonshire last spring and has seldom been out of flower since. The wallflower superhero Erysimum `Apricot Twist' has also been in constant flower, now, for 18 months - no garden should be without it, unless you dislike orange.  I mentioned Pelargonium sidoides last time - still surviving, despite further, deeper frosts - but there's also Senecio pulcher, a New World beauty with rose-purple daisies.  

Senecio pulcher, scarred but still blooming.

Two roses 'Perle d'Or' and 'Bengal Crimson' hung on until yesterday and a frail little flower stem of Erigeron 'Quakeress' was almost, but not quite pickable until the week end.

Hangers on from autumn include Schizostylis coccinea - a wild collected form given me by a retired Submariner who originally received it from an elderly relative, possibly an Admiral, who dug it up in the Cape when it was legal to do such things.  The arbutus still blooms, just, as does Chrysanthemum  'Emperor of China' and I can't tell whether the four different species of primula are super-early, or super-late.  

Outstanding pluck!  A British wild primrose blooms in the short grass of my meadow. 

 The Asian Primula vulgaris sbsp sibthorpii  flowers sporadically through winter.

Official winter bloomers – whoops, pardon missis! –  are a little later to flower than usual, apart from winter jasmine which has never looked better.   Clematis cirrhosa 'Freckles' (bottom picture) is a joy over our front door, Daphne bholua 'Darjeeling' flowers outside the back door and prostrate rosemary is blooming on the terrace steps.  (That sounds a bit posh, but the steps are cheap, nasty corporation flags, inexpertly laid by me in a hurry and all a-hoo, as they say.)

What else?  Viburnum farreri - so much prettier with its little white blobs, than the coarser pink V. x bodnantense.  Lonicera x purpusii has one bloom but plenty of bud; Stachyurus praecox has flowered before the leaves have fallen, the winter cherry is late opening but has a smattering of blossoms and the bright red Chaenomeles 'Rowallane' is almost at its best.

The total is only 35 plants, but I suppose that's not too bad for a small garden.  I'll bung the full list at the bottom.

Clematis cirrhosa 'Freckles.'

This day last year we were enjoying an Epiphany lunch with our oldest friends who, a year earlier, had bought an old, thatched dwelling in Northamptonshire, and who had then restored it with such minute attention to detail, and with such inspired craftsmanship, that the building looks good for at least another century.   Before sitting down to eat, a gang of us stood round the grand piano which our hostess played with skill and gusto, singing a selection of carols and chunks of Handel's Messiah.  We had scores and sang in harmony, sort of.  Luckily, there was no one around to hear us and our hosts had been canny enough to invite the neighbours so that they couldn't complain.

I'm listening to bits of Mendelssohn's  Elijah sung by the Academy of Saint Martins in the Fields.  The back hairs are bristling at the sound of Thomas Allen's supreme baritone voice.  It's like dark, ivy-blossom honey.

That New Years Honours  list again in full
Arbutus unedo
Armeria maritima
Chaenomeles 'Rowallane'
Chimonanthus praecox
Chrysanthemum 'Emperor of China'
Clematis cirrhosa 'Freckles'
Coronilla valentina sbsp. glauca var. citrina
Corydalis elata
Daphne bholua 'Darjeeling'
Erigeron 'Quakeress'
Erysimum 'Apricot Twist'
Forsythia 'Lynwood'
Galanthus nivalis (bud only)
Helleborus foetidus
H. orientalis
Iris unguicularis
Jasminum nudiflorum
Lonicera x purpusii
Pelargonium sidoides
Primula - hybrid polyanthus
Primula elatior
Primula vulgaris
Primula vulgaris sbsp. sibthorpii
Prunus subhirtella autumnalis
Rosa 'Bengal Crimson'
Rosa 'Perle d'Or'
Rosmarinus prostrate form
Schizostylis coccinea
Senecio pulcher
Stachyurus praecox
Viburnum farreri
Viburnum tinus
Viola Avellan


Thursday 1 January 2009


The grass formerly known as Stipa arundinacea, now
 Anemanthele lessoniana  with  Pelargonium sidoides
on my south-facing terrace, shot on 31st January 2008.

May I wish everyone a supremely happy, prosperous, fulfilling, rewarding, peaceful, jolly, sexy, delicious and generally gardentastic New Year?  Thank you so much for all for your lovely comments, since I began this blog just a few months ago, and may 2009 be a vintage year for bloggers and gardeners everywhere!

Apart  from sending you good wishes, this is a speedy interim post, inspired by a joyful discovery in the garden yesterday.  Having spent the last few days nursing fireside toddies while the 'frosty wind made moan' outside, I had assumed that two weeks of bitter weather would have have bumped off most of our tender plants.  

But when I went into the garden yesterday, to take my usual New Year's Eve tally of what was in flower, I was rather impressed.  Details of what's on show will follow in a day or two - not too boringly, I promise - but I have dashed back indoors to sing the praises of a single, remarkable plant.

We've just heard the New Years Honours – and I mustn't make any cynical comments about getting on your bike, if you want a knighthood, or how bank officials seem to get rewarded regardless of the quagmire they've dumped us into.  No! No!  Enough of that!!!  Instead of the predictable list from Downing Street, I have a candidate for the ultimate award:

Meet Pelargonium sidoides, a pretty 'geranium' from the Eastern Cape region of South Africa. I've seen it growing wild near Port Elizabeth, but have been told that the specimen in my garden, acquired in the UK,  is probably not quite the truly wild species and more likely to be an early hybrid.  

The flowers of Pelargonium sidoides of gardens

The rounded, ruffled, silvery leaves are an absolute delight, especially when joined by airy cascades of small maroon flowers which are held on slender, branched stems just clear of the leaves. Flowering is almost continuous and I gather that this plant also has medicinal properties, providing an extract which is used to relieve bronchial diseases.

What is so amazing is that my oldest specimen has overwintered outdoors, unprotected, for three winters.  And it seems to be shrugging off the current, considerably colder one.  At first light for past few mornings, its leaves have been white with hoar frost.  But by midday the frost is gone and although the air temperature has hovered within a degree or so of freezing, the plant is totally unscathed, thus far, and continues to bloom merrily.  The pictures above and below were shot yesterday, but the plant is still healthy and happy today, even though last night's frost was even fiercer.

So, I'd like to salute the bravery of this steadfast little Afrikaaner – the local name is kalwerbossie – which looks so pretty next to the rust-coloured grass Anemanthele lessoniana on my terrace.  I thought it should receive nothing less than the coveted Victoria Cross.  This is appropriate, not just because of the words on the medal itself: 'For Valour' – a delectable example of Victorian understatement – but also because the ribbon that goes with Britain's highest military decoration, is similar in colour to the flowers of Pelargonium sidoides.