Thursday, 30 July 2009


The Mother of Parliaments has collapsed into summer recess and no doubt its brow-beaten and expenses-ridden members will be cavorting on the sands, canoodling in the limpid waters of the Adriatic or careering about their constituencies, trying to patch up leaky credibilities and pretend to be looking forward to the next General Election.

I had considered taking a short sabbatical from this 'ere blog, but simply couldn't break off without paying a brief tribute to He Who Got Me Blogging. I gather that today (30th July) is a certain Special Day, and that the Award Winning Journalist, Millinery Expert, Blogmaster, Plantsman, Gardener, Garden Designer, Garden Writer, Frenetic Lecturer, Sparkly Presenter and absolutely faultless and flawless all round Good Geezer has just made his half century.

Polite round of applause from the Pavilion, please, but do remember that even the best batsmen walk on eggs, a bit, when their first 50 is up, and often go completely to pieces as the 100 approaches. This could not happen to our AWJ who shows poise and coolness to the ultimate degree.

I think I first met him on his garden at Chelsea a decade or so ago. I remember being marginally impressed by a path paved with rusty washers but being absolutely knocked sideways by the richness of his planting. Intense blues and vibrant oranges, I seem to recall, and a cunning use of levels to make the flora look as though it was floating about in a wafty layer of luscious colours.

Another pleasant memory was going, one year, to the Garden Writers' Guild Annual Selfcongratulatory Luncheon at which he performed as an absolutely peerless compére. I had expected to be bored stupid but spent the whole bloated event laughing like a drain.

An unerring eye for colour.

More recently we worked together, doing some of the provincial theatres with our joint show Green With Envy. We got locked out of the Gaiety Theatre in the Isle of Man, were shaken by an earthquake at Whitby and broke all attendance records with an audience of eight at Lytham Saint Annes. His computer bust at Barrow in Furness and the zip to my fly broke in Ludlow, meaning that we didn't dare work with secateurs that evening.

JAS always sniffs out the best plants.

His performance on stage was - is - exhilarating, sometimes frightening, usually unexpected but always in perfect connection with his audiences. I'll never forget his impersonating a lawn mower, when trying to dissuade elderly middle class men to do away with their pride and joy - their lawns. Indeed, whenever I'm cutting the grass at home, I trudge behind the mower with an idiotic grin on my face, remembering his act.

So, without further ado, here's to the dear old chap - well, not old at all, actually. Just rather nicely mellowed and mature, like a couple of bottles of special Madeira I've got in my shed, or a tangy truckle of cheddar.

I will be visiting friends on the day, and forbidden computer access, so I'm posting this in advance, hoping it will appear at the appropriate moment.

Good enough to nurture in a Versailles Tub.

I'm listening to Schubert's Der Winterreise - a re-mastered recording by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. One should get into the mood, and it looks like winter outside.

I've watched Andrew Davies adaptation of Sense and Sensibility for BBC. Hugely enjoyable Austen, done rather well. The DVD was free with the Daily Mail. I believe the PG purchased the paper just to get the DVD.

On this day in 2007 the hard drive on my iPod broke. The replacement iPod - a tool as essential to civilised life as a lavatory, cooker and fridge - is still running beautifully, however, and it holds much more music.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009


Leucanthemum x superbum 'Phyllis Smith' - shaggy, blowsy and lovely.
Like fried eggs done in proper bacon fat, and hot enough to splutter.

This is the fourth attempt at starting a blog post, having spent the last hour downloading an inordinate quantity of impromptu software updates. They all seem to come at once and the least important - a Google Earth plugin thingy, in this case - seemed to take the longest to crank itself onto my somewhat aged Mac G5.

All the school kids in the village are home for the long hols. It's raining outside and they're all logged onto something or other, so what is laughingly called 'broadband,' round here, is narrower than a wasp's waist - thank you BT, as ever, for such an absolutely SHITE service.

Recent rain may have rescued and freshened things a bit but our garden is beginning to slide into the usual midsummer, mid-life crisis. Every time I venture outside and look at the borders, I'm reminded of a blowsy female who got too plastered to remove her make-up, last night, and is now blinking to a wakefulness of smudged lipstick, migrating mascara, headache and a flaking psyche. (Not that I've ever been near such a personage, you understand.)

There is plenty of colour, of course, and some things - such as Allium sphaerocephalon - are looking their best. But all virginal or vernal traces are gone, gone, gone. We are definitely in slut country, now and there we shall remain until crisp mornings come back to freshen things up.

Silly name, that by the way. The name 'sphaerocephalon' means rounded headed, but this particular garlic is one of the few that isn't - it's oblong. Botanists? Ha!

A proper Shirley poppy, with pale pollen.

I've become even more obsessed by poppies. The true Shirley Strain of Papaver rhoeas, developed in the 1880s by the Rev. Wilkes, in his parish, near Croydon, originated from freak a pink one, he spotted in the wild. It had pale stamens, apparently. I encourage the grunge-coloured Cedric Morris selections to grow near my Shirleys and love it when they're promiscuous. You have to yank out dull red offspring but otherwise, the mix 'n' match technique come up with some exceedingly pretty blooms.

The big daisies Leucanthemum x superbum - butch cousins to our more petite Ox-eye daisies, L. vulgare, which frequent nitrogen-hungry meadows - are becoming a mini-obsession. I love all daisies, but varieties of especial charm, just now, include the delectably tarty 'Phyllis Smith,' (picture at top of post) repeat-flowering but feeble-stemmed 'Sonnenschein' which has pale yellow ray florets and a new one to me, the anemone flowered 'Christine Hagerman.' I will get more, including one usually sold as 'Old Court' whose ray florets are so thin and shaggy as to look like shredded coconut. It's real name, according to Graham Rice, is 'Beauté Nivelloise' a lovely name for a magnificently disshevelled and tousled flower.

A couple more discoveries: Walking under arch into our pretentiously named 'wild wood' which is a bit of overgrown shrubbery where the woodlanders grow, I picked up a delectable scent. Twas more subtle than honeysuckle, but sweet and compelling all the same. I soon discovered that the fragrance came from Clematis viticella 'Betty Corning' whose pale lavender-grey-blue flowers I have foiled with Rosa 'Compassion.' What a bonus! I love all the viticella varieties - though I suspect that 'Betty Corning' has a touch of C. texensis in her blood - partly because they flower in midsummer, but also because you can slash them half to death every winter and they bounce back.

Clematis viticella 'Betty Corning' has hidden qualities and a soft, unobtrusive colour.

Some of our roscoeas are looking quite nice, too. R. purpurea has been colourful for ages but the oddly named R. purpurea var alba is a winner, with its bold painted purple stripes on a white background. I love the flowers, but the habits of roscoeas leave much to be desired. Gawky, grassy things which don't know how to die down discreetly.

Roscoea purpurea 'Alba' exotic but untidy.

I'm listening to Bill Evans playing Never Let Me Go from his album Bill Evans Alone. His jazz is in tune with my garden, lazy, downbeat but still seductive - well, it is to me anyway. (People who worry about unclipped hedges, untrimmed edges and clover-ridden lawns need not apply!)

This week's film was Antonioni's Il Grido, which is set in the very, very flat, very, very muddy, Po Valley. Deliciously depressing with a perfectly apt conclusion, all amid grey skies, rain, snow and almost anything else that is positively un-Mediterranean.

This month in 1991 I was told that I was to be dumped from BBC Gardeners' World, when the programme moved from BBC Pebble Mill to an independent production company, the following season. It was the hardest and most bruising knock I have ever experienced. But I also began to write Short Cuts to Great Gardens with Conran Octopus and that turned out to be a worldwide best seller.

Thursday, 16 July 2009


Two rather tired bumble bees on Echinops ritro. Bees have made a come-back in our garden this year.

Well, since you ask, it's been a bit of a bastard, these last few days.

My 84 year-old mother is still on her back in hospital 150 miles from her home and has been there for a month, ticking over on 25% lung power.

Birds have eaten my third sowing of Swiss Chard - don't even ask what happened to the first two!

I did something nasty to my back when leaping energetically out of my car - it now takes a minute or two to straighten up when I stand.

Parts of the garden are getting so weedy that the perennials are under threat and the courgettes resemble torpedoes with nuclear warheads.

And a particularly nasty species of aphid has corrupted the growing tips of one of my favourite autumn perennials, Leucanthemella serotina aka Chrysanthemum uliginosum. The top few leaves have all bunched up and stuck together.

On top of that, parts of my new yew hedge, previously described here, really have failed and will have to be replaced. Still, mustn't grumble!

Woudn't yew know it? The surviving plants have done extremely well but having to replace some means a year's delay on reaching the desired 1.6 metre height. The border will have to be re-planted to face west, before the hedge develops.

Actually, I do have another serious gripe which I'm sure is not just a solo moan. What is happening to our language? Have we become so lazy that we can't be arsed to pull the right words out of our limited vocabularies but would rather resort to the same crappy old clichéd terms that everyone else uses?

In garden writing, the commonest example of such etymological sloth is the word which describes the effect of an injurious blow to the head, expressed in the present participle - or is that a gerund? I refer to the epithet 'stunning.' Is there no other way of depicting a burgeoning hanging basket, a magnificent bed of tulips, a Piet Oudolf border, the England Cricket Team's recent eleven over last wicket stand or James Alexander-Sinclair's hats than 'stunning???' I mean how about magnificent, kaleidoscopic, sumptuous, life-changing, orgasmic, voluptuous, pulchritudinous, elegiac, psychedelic, polychromatic, gargantuan, festal, fab, well-horny - indeed, anything rather than that bloody word 'stunning?'

I was once told, by an eminent editor that he finally decided to sack a garden writer - and this was decades ago, by the way - because an opening line in his copy ran something like this. 'I was stunned, last week, by the hanging baskets in Cheltenham.' The writer, no doubt, thought this was a clever shift in the use of the same cliché - from gerundive to imperfect tense - but the editor thought he had actually knocked himself out by bumping into the floral displays in that honey-stoned Cotswold spa town of second hand book shops and over-priced tea rooms. Indeed, he had knocked himself out - of the paper, that is.

So I wondered if any of you might like to join my voluntary ban on use of the word STUNNING in future postings, except where a blow to the head has actually taken place? I know it turns up on some blogs in this community, but wouldn't dream of naming names! What do you think?

And while we're on the topic, there's another word which puzzles me. What is this thing called 'leverage?' If you use a lever and fulcrum, to move an object, the task is made easier, ie, you have leverage. But now the noun is becoming a verb, so you have business people 'leveraging' things. That is not English, it's jargon - an ugly word describing ugly pseudolanguage. Comfort zone, wiggle room, singing off the same hymn sheet, pushing the envelope, blue-sky thoughts, 'bored of,' rather than 'bored with' or 'by' or worse, 'fed up of' - Lord preserve us from this hideous, babbling Babel, innit!

And some positive things:
Bees are back! They've been more plentiful, in our garden, than for the past three or four years, and are buzzing enthusiastically among our perennials. I love the sound and sight of them, but feel sad to see them working their short lives away so feverishly.

Several impromptu plants have been exceedingly pretty, this summer. Salvia sclarea var turkestanica seeds all over the place and has given us joy in the gravel, by the front gate, in odd dry corners and so on. We have two shades - albino and mauve-purple flushed.

Since removing three big whitebeams, the meadow has changed character, growing its grass and flowers shorter, thanks to the extra light, and some yellow Lady's Bedstraw, which I was sure I'd lost, has flourished and flowered. Hurrah!

One of the self-sown Salvia sclarea var turkestanica - the bracts are prettier than the flowers and last for ages.

And now that I've stood down as RHS Council Vice-Chairman - but still remain as an ordinary Council Member - I will have a little more time to do paid work and can, perhaps, be a little more outspoken than previously from time to time. Award winning journalists need no longer describe me as 'Presidential' - see his latest post - since I'm just a dogsbody these days, and with the extra time, I should be able to make even my own poor garden look absolutely stunning - whoops, sorry!

I'm listening to the cement mixer making the foundations for my fantastic new greenhouse which is coming on 17th August. I can hardly wait! Watch this space, for more news on that one.

This week's film was Hitchcock's Psycho which we haven't viewed for donkey's ears. It still works, despite the notoriety and it's fascinating to see Janet Leigh in light of the ideal Hitchcock actress. He clearly had a sort of a thing about that particular type of gal. The Photographer General tells me that one of the minor roles - Janet Leigh's colleague at the estate agents office - was played by a Hitchcock relative. Once she had explained that, I was mesmerised by the family resemblance. It was as if the portly movie maker had dropped a decade and gone into drag.

This day in 2006 I had gout and watched the Mankiewicz masterpiece, All About Eve, with Bette Davis and George Sanders.

Sorry - far too long a post, yet again, and too much ranting. Pure horticulture next time, I promised!
Happy propagules to all!

Wednesday, 8 July 2009


The Dry Garden at Hyde Hall - this shot taken a few years back. It's even better now.

Well hulloooo! Hurrah! Huzzay! Huzzay! The two big London flower shows are done and dusted - or rather, they are for me. Pressures from other quarters - sick mother in hospital, copy dates and an over-flogged and exhausted blumenlust (if there is such a word) drove me and the Photographer General away just before the gala got going on Monday night. So instead of champaining, roister-doistering and cavorting with bankers and other corporate pillars of society, we spent several happy hours parked on the M25, trying to get to the A1 and home.

I felt rather robbed, I have to say. I had to work so bloody hard moderating all the floral exhibits for the RHS that I had barely a moment in which to view the show gardens. I’m told, however that they were pretty good, on balance.

I should like, at this point, to lob a wordette or two of the gentlest criticism at my fellow, but much more distinguished award winning blogger, James A-S:

In the first place, he was disgracefully late for the Judges Dinner, held at the salubrious, riverside watering hole known, inaccurately as the Kingston Holiday Inn. (It is actually in Surbiton, nestling quaintly amid a cluster of factories, which makes location a little challenging.)

In the second place, those of us who were waiting with bated breath for an airing of the FAMOUS NOO SUIT were bitterly disappointed to find him merely ‘smart casual.’ Hatless, even.

Setting up at Hampton Court.

In the third place, and with a highly reproachable exhibition of triumphant glee, he showed me his new iPhone, which includes A WORKING COMPASS!!!!!!! This made my 6 month old iPhone look as out of date as a 1948 Austin Seven, and made me very sad and envious. To rub it in, he told me that he also has a new Macbook Pro. All I can say to that is ‘remember Barrow in Furness’ – which he will understand, but sadly, the rest of you may not.

And finally, despite working himself far too hard, I have to say that he was looking disgustingly fit, happy and successful. I’m appalled at such wellbeing and think it should be tempered at once with a sobering challenge. We want one of his fabulous gardens at next year’s Chelsea. No ifs, no buts! That will steady the lad up a bit – except that he’d almost certainly win best in show and then none of his hats would fit. And then where would we be?

A helpful, if discouraging sign at Chessington World of Adventures,

Highlight of Hampton Court, for me, were Hyde’s lilies. They absolutely bowled me over with their great mound of fabulously huge blooms, all exuding the most luscious perfume. If you stood near for too long you’d soon be intoxicated and in love.

I was shown a cluster of seedling lilies, as yet unnamed, which the Dutch breeders had reject on grounds of their being the wrong shape and size to cram into nasty supermarket bunches. Instead, these held their blossoms pendulously, with tremendous grace, and were the most subtle, gorgeous pale colours.

May I work backwards from Hampton Court? Thanks!
On Saturday, the PG and I went, with our daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters (6 and 2) to Chessington World of Adventures. I expected a serious degree of naffness and crassness and was not in the slightest bit disappointed. Candy floss, fairground rides, lurid sweeties – all was there. But I was rather impressed by the aquarium, which had some interesting exhibits including jellyfish, superbly lit, in the otherwise dark area. Outside we watched sea lions performing, observed a very charming Sumatran Tiger cub and encountered an engaging and delightful Madagascan beast, known as a Fossa. It's a kind of civet and is related to the mongoose but predates lemurs, rather than snakes.

Last week's excitement was the RHS Annual General Meeting held at the remarkably well organised Hyde Hall Garden, near Chelmsford. Curator Ian Le Gros, resplendent in a fine straw hat – though not a patch on those worn by the AWJ, already mentioned – showed us round, the evening before the event.

Captured jellyfish, beautiful in the right light.

The new visitor centre and car parks are coming on apace and will open later in summer. The gardens are all in tip-top nick and, apart from the gabions – which I hate, loath and despise – in what was once known as Hermione’s Garden, all is looking pretty good.

The Dry Garden is as ravishing as I’ve ever seen and the Australia and New Zealand zone is coming on apace. I predict that this garden will, one day, be bigger, better and brighter than the RHS’s star attraction at Wisley. You mark my words!

Before the AGM, I lunched with the omniscient and bubbly Roy Lancaster, the President of the RHS and Alan and Mrs Titchmarsh. A jolly time was had by all.

The AGM went well and the best and most intelligent question did not concern RHS finances, policy or strategy. It went roughly like this: ‘Could we please have a shelf installed in the ladies’ loo at Hyde Hall? There’s currently nowhere to put one’s handbag.’ Thank goodness some people have got the wit to think of practical, sensible things.

A slumbering Fossa, Cryptoprocta ferox, at Chessington World of Adventures.

I’m listening to Brahms String Sextet Number 2 in G Major.

This weeks film wasn’t. But we’ve been catching episodes of The Onedin Line which, despite wobbly sets and noises off – even in the scenes not at sea – is remarkably good. Onedin’s sister is an absolute dish!

This day in 1984, we arrived at our parish church for my neighbours’ daughter’s wedding when the P G noticed that the Bride’s Mamma was wearing an identical outfit to her own. Red faced, she sprinted home and returned, seconds ahead of the bride, looking radiant, lovely and completely differently dressed. This from the woman who constantly complains of ‘having nothing to wear.’

Toodle ooh!