Monday 30 March 2009


With apologies to all for substandard photographs in today's post.

Nice naffodils, in Saint Jim's

It happened as I was striding through the Whitehall end of  St James's Park, last Thursday, on my way to the RHS Council Room to attend a 'teach in' about children and gardens.

I was feeling a bit virtuous and smug, having just walked there from Kings Cross station, and a few moments earlier, had nodded to the statue of my big hero, Captain James Cook, near Admiralty Arch, before walking past the banked flower beds which front the shrubs which, in turn, partially conceal the public conveniences.  Bogs in parks are so fussily planted up that it's hardly surprising they're called  'cottages!' 

Royal Parks usually do pretty well with their bedding, blending crassness with unnerving colour combinations.  When beds are massed, as here at Saint Jim's, they have the effect of making one feel exhilarated but at the same time, slightly nauseous and trembly.  This spring, Parks have stuck rigidly to their policy of sustained fortissimo and when I spotted the beds from afar, I was about to adjust my ancient, wrinkled, chammy leather face into a supercilious sneer of superiority when all of a sardine, I was whacked almost senseless by a brutal, olfactory cosh.  So instead of scoffing, I found myself swooning in an ecstasy of fragrant pleasure.

I can't play back the perfume, for you but I took a picture with my iPhone which, though wonderful in every other respect, has a totally pants camera.  BTW, the other scary thing about the iPhone is its slick shape.  It has nowhere to grip and feels like taking pictures with a bar of wet soap.  One day, I'm sure I'll drop it, hopefully not like Lucy, though, who gave hers an impromptu bath.   Sorry, therefore, about the grotty picture quality, but it gives you a rough idea of what we are up against, visually, at least.

Discreet, quiet, tasteful - iPhone picture of the bedding near
 the bogs in Saint James's  What colour will the tulips be?

Nothing smells quite as gorgeous as an over-bred polyanthus.  Cowslips smell faintly of freesia, a fragrance that instantly recalls early childhood, for me, when my parents would take me into the meadows to pick bunches of them.  Some, but not all primroses have a sweeter scent, unless you bruise a leaf which then smells slightly acrid - like school ink.   But modern polyanthuses (polyanthes? polyanthi??) seem to have caught up the fragrance of both species and have had that amplified, perhaps in parallel with the grotesquely inflated flower sizes.

A pink haze of cherry blossom, in Saint James's Park. 
Not remotely relevant to the post, but pretty, all the same.

I am resolved to grow some of these hybrid monster pollies next year, but will have to erect a black gauze veil over them, so that I can breathe in the celestial vapour without having to endure the hell of those violent colours and blowsy, caricatured blooms.

Speaking of which, the bloody wood pigeons have turned their attention from anemone buds, in my wood garden, to the primulas.  The sods!

This post was supposed to describe the sexual promiscuity that has been going on beneath the bushes at the bottom of my garden, but I got carried away by the Royal Parks Bedding Schemes. You see how damaging they can be?   Imagine how much they must terrify the horses.  More on nice primulas soon.

I'm listening to  Strauss's song Die Heiligen drei K├Ânige aus Morgenland. The accompaniment has a musical phrase which sounds just like the theme music for The West Wing.

This day in 1988, I was writing a book called Laissez Faire Gardening for Helm - a chapter on roses.   2000 words in rough in a single day, I boast in my diary.  No wonder it needed so much editing!

Fallen petals.  Cherry blossom, so long awaited, is soon gone.

Sexual promiscuity in my next post - and that's a promise!  

Monday 23 March 2009


Oh the bastards!! The swine!!! The utterly despicable, scumbag, chickenshit, sonafabitch, dumber than dumb, fatuous, pointless grey-feathered, cooing, wing-flapping IDIOTS!!!!!!!!!!! What did I do to deserve such aimless destruction? 

Believe me, the only suitable place for a wood pigeon, Columba palumbus - even its name sounds stupid - is in a casserole where it should simmer gently, in a rich, red wine marinade, surrounded by diced carrots and parsnips

 Anemone nemorosa in a wood in the Pas de Calais.

I'll get back to those ornithological nightmares in a moment. Christopher Columbus, Columba palumbus - Aaaaaaahhhhh!

Let me explain: I'm trying to build up a collection of one of my favourite spring wildflowers, wood anemones, A. nemorosa. After years of careful husbandry which involved developing my tiny woodland garden, building up the leafmould in its soil, conserving just enough shade to provide the right conditions, I've managed to make these plants - even the more miffy varieties - reasonably happy.For half a decade, the collection has been quietly building up and, after two damp summers, some of the original purchases have developed into satisfying clumps, dottings and even, in a few cases, drifts. For the first time, this spring, we would have had something to boast about.

Sought after varieties like the semi-double white 'Hilda,' the almost greyish lavender 'Parlez-Vous' and larger than normal 'Leeds Variety' looked particularly promising, budding up nicely and just beginning to show colour.  Until the week end.  NNnrrrrraaaagggggghhhhhhh!

Anemone nemorosa 'Parlez Vous'

Anemone nemorosa 'Hilda'

That was when the blasted wood pigeons discovered them. The amount of nourishment, in a single, tiny wood anemone bud is negligeable. It probably takes more energy for the stupid bird to digest the thing, than the calories the bud can provide. But what do the damn pigeons know? And their call is irritating, too!  'Take two cows, David, take two cows, David, take. . .'  They can't even finish a sentence!

They got my cuckoo flowers, too.

And another thing! In various parts of my garden, particularly the damper bits, and in the grass, we have a flourishing population of Cardamine pratensis, cuckoo flower or lady's smock. And strike me a delicate colour of pale lavender mauve if those dratted, cretinous birds haven't eaten them, too. What is it with these pests????  I wish I hadn't handed in my shotgun, when we moved house, but there it is. All I can do is dance with rage and hope that the victim plants will recover and build up strength for a bigger, better display next year.  It'll probably just mean fatter wood pigeons.

Meanwhile, on a jollier note, the violets go from strength to strength. The common ones are blooming in all sorts of unexpected places and we now have the enchanting apricot coloured variety 'Sulphurea' in flower. I believe this one was spotted in the Vilmorin nursery, growing among the shrubs but that may be a myth. Whatever its origins, this is an extremely pretty sweet violet, but it lacks fragrance.

Viola 'Sulphurea' aka 'Sulfurea'

I'm listening to Brahms's Alto Rhapsody

And have just read  Matthew Wilson's brilliant piece in April's The Garden on new approaches to grass, lawns, and so on. I do love a lawn, I have to admit, but hate the idea of killing everything in sight, just to keep it green.  To take my mind of the bloody woodpigeons, on Sunday, I hijacked a few more square metres of one of my lawns to make more meadow.

This day in 2006 I was at Wisley helping to plan an NCCPG (Plant Heritage) conference.

What busy little lives we lead, don't we?  Bye bye!

Monday 16 March 2009


Viola odorata 'Amiral Avellan'

What an absolutely frabjuicilious spell of weather we're having!  My dear editor at the Daily Mail has forbidden me to use any more exclamation marks, ever, so I hope you'll forgive me for feeding my secret punctuation habits here on the blog.  No editors, you see!  Utter blissikins with choccy biccies thrown in!!!!!

You'll be hugely relieved to know that this post will be mercifully short.  Family arrangements for my father's funeral have tied me to the phone and a sudden spurt of work to my desk for longer than I like.  But during stolen moments outside, in the gentle sun with the occasional Brimstone butterfly fluttering by, I swear I could actually see the spring flowers opening.  Our first wood anemone is open, the snowdrops have shot their bolts, pretty well and a song thrush is nesting in the hedge.  Oh, and joy!  Two tree sparrows in my hedge - another bird first for our garden.
Viola odorata in my garden.

But among all this spring exuberance, I'd like to say a word for the  humble violet.  This is, surely, the most modest and secretive of all our spring wildlings.  We have only white ones growing in the hedge bottoms in our village lane but in the garden I grow several named varieties and am blessed annually with numerous seedlings which have amazing hybrid vigour.

The top one for picking is Viola 'Amiral Avellan' which has quite a sharp scent, and ruthless spreading qualities.  But for me, the wild white violet is tops.  A bunch of those, with some big purple ones mixed in – just to prove they really are violets – will win the heart of even the most unromantically minded lady.  The Victorians - and what romantic old sausages they were – were big on violets and in decent gardens, extra sweet-smelling, double-flowered Parma violets were grown strictly for cutting.

White violets in our fen lane.

When I had a tiny plant nursery, we used to sell sweet violets.  Few people do, nowadays, but Groves,  the old Bridport based nursery sells an interesting range.   

My top spring flar of the week is a superb cyclamineus hybrid daffodil known as 'Rapture.'  It stands 25 cms tall, with delectably swept back petals.

Narcissus 'Rapture'

That hedge again:  I'm all dug and dusted for the new yew hedge, even to the point of having spread the compost and tidied the site.  All I need now are the yew plants, due next week, DV.

I'm listening to Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor Horn and Springs, the old recording with yer actual Peter Pears.

Happy spring to everyone.  May the frosts be gentle and the days continue in this vein until I've got the veg bed dug.   Toodle-ooh!

Monday 9 March 2009


Primroses in the garden, photographed at twilight today with my swanky new camera which shoots well, even at ferocious film speeds.  (Today's subject ain't exactly photogenic, hence some totally  irrelevant pictures.)

First a question:
What is the difference between my 6 year old granddaughter and the Governor of the Bank of England?

Answer:  My granddaughter understood, finally, why I couldn't just draw a postage stamp, instead using of a real one, because it didn't really count as a true stamp.   

The other bod doesn't seem to understand that you can't just print lots of paper money when it isn't backed up by reality and expect it to have any true value, even if you give the activity a ridiculously euphemistic name like Quantitative Easing. 

I mean really!!  Honestly!  For cripesakes - this is just a step away from wheelbarrows full of Reichmarks.   Zimbabwe here we come - huzzah!!   A pint of bitter - that's ale, for those of you on the opposite shore -  might cost more than a Volkswagen in a couple of years time.  To hell with the bloody banks, I suggest.  Let's all have a bit of deflation.  It's Lent, after all, and we're all supposed to be tightening our belts.

Now then, enough of all that hooey.   To the serious stuff:  Concentrate!  Think!  Focus!

I'm minded to plant an - not 'a' but 'an' - hedge.  Our back garden, you see, is really our front garden, and vice versa.  It's all a bit complicated, and you really don't want the details but the main bit of our plot is reached through a rather low, head-banging tunnel squished between crook-back outbuildings and our house.  Once you've got through that obstacle, you find yourself rubbing the bump on your bonce in a private, secluded garden.

My Yew Hedge!  The string and sticks are real.  The rest has to be imagined.

But the aforementioned psg is bordered by the  village road and protected from it by a thick shelter-belt or screen of evergreens and deciduous trees.  Without that living screen, people could peep in to see what an absolute horlicks I'm making of the garden.  And one wouldn't want that.  I mean, think what would happen to the tatters of my reputation.  (He who steals my purse steals trash etc.  - by the way, refer back to the top of this post to be reminded that the contents of all our purses will be trash within a year or two.  But I digress and mustn't.)

For some time, now, we've been increasingly concerned that some of the ugly conifers in the shelter belt are ailing.  There seems to a national conifer malaise, and I'm profoundly in favour of that, since they were horribly over-planted in past decades.  But that isn't the point. 

These lugubrious evergreens, if dead and gone, would leave horrid gaps.  Hence my decision, over the week-end when yet more brown dead areas manifested themselves in yet another sad cypress, to take affirmative action.   And another thing.  My garden design is intrinsically mediocre as it is, but the whole thing is made a zillion times worse by having too much visible all at once.  

Scilla bifolia tiny, short-lived, but first spotted by me on Mount Parnassos, coming up through the melting snow.  
It's a little sweetie and seeds prolifically.    Shot at a ridiculously high film speed - 4,000 iso, hence the unreal blue.

So, I've ordered up my yews – the only possible choice, in this case – and over the next couple of weeks, just in time for the beginning of the growing season, I'll be lifting turf to pile up and make into super humus rich stuff for soil improvement else

And if we live long enough, and the Phytophthera keeps away, there will be a symmetrically sculpted, cuboidal, neat, lovely, formal hedge.  A backdrop for the herbaceous pretties to the west; a shelter from east winds and a sight screen for the more intimate parts of the garden.  That will enable us to partake of tea on the Tea Lawn, in peace and privacy.

The true wild daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, still 
my favourite, bless its little heart and blooming in my garden.

I'm listening to Beethoven's 3rd Rasumovsky Quartet, Op74, 3rd movement which keeps saying 'tickety-boo.'

I'm Still Reading Martin Chuzzlewit. 

This time last year I was in Malaysia, trekking with my wife and younger daughter in the Taman Negara.  Hot, steamy, leech-ridden and absolute heaven on legs my dears!

Bye Bye!!

Thursday 5 March 2009


I think turtle soup is a really bad idea.

Oh for the utter joy of gardening! And oh! - Oh! - OH! - how I long, crave and yearn to get back into my own, neglected and mistake-ridden patch. I've never felt such need for some therapeutic weeding and digging! Meanwhile, though, if you don't mind, I think it's time for a little mild colborning. By the way, don't bother to read on, if this post bores you! There'll be more horticophany soon enough.

Staying down in Kent with my mother, for reasons made clear in my last post, I've been obliged to break with my usual habits and watch more network television with her than has been good for either of us. She spared me the banalities of East Benders and Coronation Street but we have managed to burn away hours watching all sorts of crap.

Beyond Channel 4 News, and the occasional wildlife or science programme, I seldom watch the broadcast telly, preferring DVD films. Don't assume any virtue here - I'm as addicted to screen gawping as my mother is to soaps and cook programmes. And don't assume that my film selection is limited to introverted Swedish explorations of despair or Fellini's cinematic tiramisu. I get just as much fun out of a roister-doistering Western or a soppy Hollywood romantic comedy and my wife and co-film buff adores a taught thriller, as long as it's peppered with plenty of violence and shocks.

But back to my telly nightmare with the Mater. We
watched a quiz called The Weakest Link, chaired by an acerbic and rather spiteful red-headed woman. The standard of questioning is illustrated by this example: 'If you add 9 and 8 what it the total?' The quiz contestant, a trolly dolly from BA, dithered for some seconds before doubtfully proffering the answer.

Later, with a plate of smoked mackera
l and a lettuce leaf on my knee, we both enjoyed an episode of Coast which visited parts of the Northern Isles. This was well researched, jauntily presented by a bloke with very long, lank hair, and was absolutely riveting. Gloriously lovely filming of the natural beauty; an item on new technology for depth sounding and historical footage of the herring industry – all super stuff. I'll be watching at future programmes, if they sustain the standard. At the climax, a couple of rock climbers scaled the Old Man of Hoy! I mean is that dangerous or what??!!

And then, I was instructed to switch to Channel 4 to see the most extrao
rdinarily pointless, profligate and yet spookily fascinating show on food ever to be screened. Channel Four, judging by the trailers, loves a freak show. The world's fattest/thinnest child, pregnant men, persons who wish to marry animals etc. etc. But this particular 'cookery' programme was curiouser than anything I've seen!

A friendly-looking, stubble-headed and manically enthusiastic chef who, my mother tells me, is immensely famous - securing a table at his restaurant is less easy than getting to meet the Pope - told us he was going to create a Victorian Meal.

Spiders can be surprisingly nutritious, I'm told.

I had in mind a Dickensian feast, with roast beef, oysters, plum duff - that sort of thing, but oh no! This gastronomic event began with a piece of laboratory glass, rather like a bent pipette, which contained a pink gunk resembling Symington's Strawberry Blancmange. It turned out to be a viscous liquid tasting, at different stages of consumption, of turkey, butterscotch, toast or some such. The panel of media wannabee dinner guests went into raptures while the chef spied on them through CCTV.

Mock Turtle Soup followed, but not in a plain old soup bowl. Oh dear me no! This had to be a consomme of cow's head, boiled down until it could be set in a pocket watch-shaped mould which was then gold plated and . . . . oh, I can't go on with this.

The main course was a miniature version of a garden, but with edible soil, edible gravel, deep fried insects - oh yes! - and not only deep fried, but stuffed with some kind of tomato paste to resemble insect guts. The Z list celebs went into a symphony of sycophantic rapture over this but it all looked a bit daft, to me. And we weren't shown them eating much, other than just the tiniest taste of crisp cricket - or was it a maggot? From the culinary point of view, I can't judge, but as a garden, it would have struggled to pick up a Bronze Medal.

The pud was the last straw! A huge, pointy jelly - sort of phallic and breastlike all in one go - which glowed in the dark, and into which the chef had plunged a number of vibrating dildoes so that the whole thing lurched and wobbled in the most giggle-inducing way.

Victorian? No!! An enjoyable meal for six? Not on your life! But for sheer, fascinating horror, delight, revulsion and wonderment - top marks.

Anyone fancy a deep fried brittle star?

I'm listening to nothing - but I'm about to watch Francois Truffaut's film Jules et Jim.

I'm still reading Martin Chuzzlewit.

This day in 2007 I heard that the book I was developing for Mitchell Beasley on naturalistic gardening had been turned down on the grounds that it was 'too British.' Americans, I was told, weren't into that kind of thing.

Monday 2 March 2009

LESLIE COLBORN, 1916 - 2009

I hope you will all forgive the brevity of this post but few words are needed.  On Saturday morning my father died, nine days short of his 93rd Birthday.  I am grateful for his long, happy and successful life but that does not ease the pain of his parting.  He was a keen and capable gardener who taught me a great deal.

The picture is of Scilla greilhuberi, currently blooming in my garden.  Its flowers are almost exactly the colour of my father's eyes.