Friday 21 August 2009


To my Australian friends in general, and in particular to the one who said that England was incapable of playing a consistent game of cricket and was unlikely ever to win the Ashes, all I can say is: Ner, ner, na, ner ner!!!

Oh and that Stuart Broad chap. What a guy! He's surely a human Verbena bonariensis – fast, tall, slender, beautiful, enviable, and irresistible to butterflies.

The Bathroom

It's been too long since my last post – and sorry for that – but we've had a rather eventful couple of weeks. The Photographer General decreed that the sanitation in our creaky little farmhouse simply won't do. And when the PG decrees, it is usually wisest to enter into the spirit of the thing, offering fulsome support.What I didn't expect was to walk into our main bathroom the other day, stark naked, towel over shoulder, to discover that workmen had removed the shower, bath, bog and washbasin. What a surprise! And last weekend we had three guests coming to stay. Hmmmm.

Repairs and alterations are never plain sailing, in old houses. As soon as the floorboards come up, or a ceiling comes down, it becomes obvious that original budgets and estimates will be about as accurate as Britain's was for the 2012 Olympics.

Previously hidden pipes turn out to take the longest possible route between two points; structural timbers appear in the most unexpected places and in some spots, we are finding vestiges of previous civilisations.

There are quaint 1950s tiles under some of the plaster. What we thought was a currently operational soil pipe - it bulges menacingly between beams in our kitchen - turns out to be a pre-war cast iron one. It is no longer used to convey what is euphemistically called 'soil' but was left in situ to be used as a conduit for thinner, more modern water pipes. Why?

Scarily horrible wallpaper has been unearthed, in places, as well as 1940s lino. I'm told it will be another 2 to 3 weeks before we are back to normal.

But enough, already. The PG's grand designs – though they make those of Peter the Great look modest – is not the subject of this post.

No, the week's big event, is the arrival of Wendy, my little treasure of a greenhouse from Hartley Botanic.
My new Hartley Botanic, Wisley 8, Six Pane Greenhouse. Mmmmmm!

For various reasons, I've had to wait for my greenhouse since we first moved here nearly 6 years ago. There were boundary 'issues' with our neighbours, all of which were perfectly amicably resolved, eventually. Before that could happen, however, there was an odious and avaricious third party involved and the legal settlements were not concluded until three lots of solicitors had significantly enhanced their wealth.

The structure arrives on Tuesday 18th August at 12.30

But that's all behind us. I'm now the proud owner of a tastefully cream coloured, reinforced glazed, fully operational greenhouse. I can't believe it's really here and on Friday evening, when my dear brother turned up to our bathroom-less house for a semi-impromptu overnight stay, and when three of our four grown up children were here, we had what is known in the PR trade as a 'Soft Launch.'

The official opening will have to wait until the building is stocked with pretties, and until the surrounding squalor has been cleared and the area landscaped. But on Friday, Champagne was sipped and an inaugural plant was placed into Wendy's tender care.

The Hartley Crew assemble the bits on Wednesday 19th.

Strictly speaking, her full name is Wendy Three. Wendies One and Two were at our last house and accommodated two grape vines, an internal 'hothouse section' where I damped off almost everything and plants of every description from Arctotis seedlings (also damped off) to Zantedeschias. The earlier Wendies featured on BBC Gardeners' World programmes where, with good editing, we managed to conceal horticultural disasters and look mildly professional. Wendy three definitely will not feature on Gardeners' World.

Installing an automatic vent.

It's fitting, perhaps, that the Inaugural Plant is a new propagule of Crassula ovata aka Jade Plant. Remarkable for its boringness, if nothing else, this particular little jade plant has a history.

When my younger son was studying Art at Loughborough, back in the 1990s, he and two mates shared a room with the usual student-land mix of vermin, cheap lager, Mother's Ruin white bread, dodgy substances and the sickest, most desperate looking jade plant ever observed.

The Assembly Boys - Peter, Jonathan and Joseph.
They did a superb job, completed in just under 5 hours.

The jade plant's compost was used as an ash tray and when someone watered it with Kestrel lager, it responded by collapsing with a central rot which caused the branches to fall off. When I first saw that plant, it consisted of a dead – a profoundly, Norwegian Blue parrotly dead – trunk with the last few wizened twigs lying scattered round the base of its pot.

I picked one of the pieces up, said, 'I could revive that' and slipped it into my pocket.

Ten years later, it was more than a metre high and burgeoned shinily in a huge clay pot which obstructed our French windows – as fine a specimen of the world's most boring plant as you're likely to see in a container.

When we moved to the Fens, I had planned to dump the jade plant but the PG wouldn't have a bar of that. 'It's coming with us,' I was told. We have no window big enough to do it justice, so it stands outside, each summer, boring for Britain, but must, I'm told, be kept alive at all costs for sentimental reasons.

Early this year, I sawed through its main trunk, to encourage it to be more bushy, but also with a mildly subversive hope that it would die as a result. It hasn't, but as an insurance, I rooted a tiny cutting and that is what we first put into Wendy on Friday night.

By Sunday midday, Wendy was also accommodating Leonotis leonurus, a rather exhausted Euphorbia milii, two South African 'mesems' of unspecified nomenclature and a Haworthia which, during the bathroom campaign, managed to spend a few days immersed in water. Things can only get better, on the plant collection front!

Some of the family assemble with Champers, for the 'Soft Launch.'

I'm listening to the weather forecast. Apparently we're to have a second hand, knackered hurricane on Wednesday. Sounds a bit like my car!

This week's film was The Reader, which I greatly enjoyed. A rattling good story, well constructed screen play by David Hare, sublime acting, not only from Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, but also from the young David Kross and the old Bruno Ganz. And the deftest, cleverest directing from Stephen Daldry. An unsettling, unnerving film, making one re-evaluate at every turn in the tale.

I've just read Peter Marren's brilliant column in the journal British Wildlife which I heartily commend. You can find details here.

This day in 2007 we discovered that my Mother-in-Law had died in the night. She was 91.

Wendy's first ward, the little Crassula propagule. Aaaah!

Tuesday 11 August 2009


Begonia 'Sherbet Bon Bon' - don't blame me, I didn't name it! A trailing variety which flowers all summer, photographed at the Ball Colegrave open day in Adderbury, Oxon, last Friday. I like it.

Sad things:
- The swifts are gone. Only two pairs nested in our roof this year - three less than last year.
- The garden robins have disappeared. Two birds which are my constant companions through the seasons are simply not there any more. I fear disease.

Happy things:
- Anthyllis vulneraria has seeded copiously in my shingle bank and produced a peppering of babes. I'm hoping for an interesting colour range.
- The swallows appear to have had a good season with loads of young.
- More butterflies than ever, this year. More Painted Ladies than the world's largest brothel could boast and at Wisley the other day, a Clouded Yellow. Hurrah!

Well the sun has come out, at last, but I have to say that it rather lacks conviction. Last week's incredibly heavy rain has revived the mildew on our aged perennials and bashed down the last of the big daisies. The late asters and chrysanthemums are weeks away and there is, frankly, b***all to pick for the house other than the late sweet peas which, at last, are delivering. If only I'd grown more, and in a wider variety. The saving grace of my red, pink or white ones is that they smell divine.

Something without a shred of decency or kindness is ruining all our dahlias. I prefer single flowered varieties - you may remember one of my own children here - but their blooms are so much more vulnerable than big doubles. Thus, whenever a thrips (it's one thrips/many thrips. there's no such thing as a 'thrip') or a capsid bug, or one of the loathsome army of pre-pubescent snails that seems to have invaded our patch, arrives at a flower, it is soon ruined, misshapen and ugly.

Some members of the RHS T.O.P Committee, making a fashion statement at Ball Colegrave. Story follows.

One thing I am proud of, though, is the 'lawn.' I vowed, when we moved here, never to feed it and had been concerned that it had developed the habit of turning from green to a rather bilious tint far too early each season. But I was adamant - no feed! The poor water table carries enough nitrogen pollutant in these parts, anyway.

Back in April, this year, I decided to dispense with the grass box on the mower and to allow the mowings to lie on the top. This demands rather more frequent mowing, to avoid clots of damp mowings everywhere, so increased petrol usage may cancel any savings on non-sustainable fertilizer. But the overall effect has been astounding. We are green, my dears, green, green, green! My theory is that the clover is responsible.

Let me explain:
1. Our lawn was about 60%clover, 10% moss and 30% grass with a few flowers. Oh, all right, then, weeds! (In fact, it was a groundsman's nightmare.)
2. Clover fixes nitrogen from the air.
3. The severed clover leaves rot down speedily releasing their newly acquired nitrogen.
4. Ergo - the grass snaps up the N and the lawn goes green, green, green. But the daisies and flowers have reduced - a little, and I'm a bit sad about that.

Anyway, enough already!

Tropical Plant expert, Tim Miles admires a Niagara of dangly begonias at Ball Colegrave.

Last Friday, I joined the illustrious Royal Horticultural Society's Tender Ornamental Plant Committee for a trip to the trials and demonstration plantings laid on by Ball Colegrave at Adderbury, near the town to which that lady rode a cock horse, ie, Banbury.

What exactly is a 'cock horse' - does any one know? It sounds a bit rude. And if you reverse the order of the two words, it sounds even ruder!!

A-a-anyway! I have to say that some of the plants soon to come into more general cultivation are rather impressive. We saw some enchanting herbaceous climbers, for instance - a winsome, white Lophospermum - like a climbing foxglove; sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas, with golden or purple leaves and an overwhelmingly loud, brash, bright Niagara of dangly begonias. There were suteras which don't look like weeds - that's new! - Callibrachoas in coffee and cream hues, fancy selections of smelly but enticing lantanas and, oh, so much more!

The most heartening words of the day, issuing from the lips of Ball Colegrave's Stuart Lowen went something along these lines. I paraphrase:

Too many plants have been bred to lose their character, have become too compact and may not last. They look fine in sales displays but might not perform well in peoples gardens. We are trying to develop plants that will perform well at planting, and will last much, much longer in the season.

I suspect that some of you will loath bedding and others, probably rightly, are concerned about summer annuals and carbon footprints. You may raise an incredulous eyebrow at the concept of window boxes, baskets and summer displays - but for millions of gardeners, these are the heart and soul of what they grow and love. And when a breeder, or a propagator begins to recognise and to acknowledge the wrongness of developing plants that sit prettily in Danish Trolleys, but let gardeners down before the end of July, I believe real progress has been made.

So hats off to Stuart and everyone at Ball Colegrave. Lets have lots more plants that we can set out in June and still enjoy in mid October! And with climate change, perhaps we will see parks bedding hang on until November.

Callibrachoa Can Can 'Mocha' The petunia's cousin in coffee and cream tints.

I'm listening to Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

This week's film was Pasolini's rich, 1970s raunch-fest, Il Fiore delle Mille e Una Notte (Arabian Nights) which is pretty uninhibited with its nudity, especially male, but is a beautiful and skillfully woven tapestry made from threads of the original Sheherazade stories. Princesses, love, demons, love, djinns, slaves, love, amazing scenery - it was shot in Yemen, Iraq and Nepal - and scads of very, very naughty bits.

This time last year I was biking into a keening westerly, across the Fens. We had hobbies nesting down, sadly, I haven't seen them there this summer.

Got to go weeding. Bye for now!

Monday 3 August 2009


Travel is less to do with geography than with one's state of mind. Trips to far flung places are exciting to plan and exploring exotic places and, of course, foreign gardens is all very wonderful and jolly.

On the Faversham Marshes. Peggoty's house, from David Copperfield? Peter Grimes's hut? No, it's just a knackered old boat but set in a garden with alluring sculptures. Do we spot a Derek Jarman influence here?

Food and drink is, in itself, a form of travel. You soon settle to local customs and learn to accept them. In Malaysia, for instance, pretty well every recipe includes at least one hard-boiled egg. In Spain you soon learn that tapas are not gourmet delights, to be enjoyed as food per se, but are there mop up, internally, some of the wine you consumed in the first place to fertilise good conversation.

French food is magnificent, but their breakfasts are disappointing non-events; English ones kill you unless you indulge in them only on rare occasions but a well-honed, thoughtfully composed American breakfast is an utterly delicious, comforting, sustaining feast, designed to set you up for a day's hard labour, and to take away the pain with mild but aromatic coffee and nursery mixtures such as crisp, streaky bacon, light waffles and real maple syrup. None of that Aunt Jemima travesty!

Dickensian rigging - a wherry on Faversham Creek

But back to travel. Ahem, where was I? Ooh ah! For me, the best travel is to places where the inner part of one's being connects emotionally with where one is.

Going to my brother's house in Faversham, for example, is as delightful an adventure for me, as a week end in Paris or a bird watching expedition to the Zapata Marshes in Cuba. There are always the warmest of welcomes from my host and his wife; the town has its own brewery where they brew proper English ale; the local wildlife is fascinating but above all, we are in the land of my current fave Victorian writer, Charles Dickens. What more could a body want?

Unlike the top boat, this garden is a bit impromptu. The reed mace obviously planted itself in the boat. Not sure I'd want to sail with the geezer who owns this. I'd suspect his seamanship.

My Bro's garden is tiny, but packed with the most wonderful plants, all in immaculate health and beauty, every one arranged in ways which would please even Beth Chatto or those two wonderful ladies Pam and Sibylle, who were joint head gardeners at Sissinghurst, when La Sackville West was still there.

No flight of ducks for my Brother. He graces his walls with Begonia bolivensis 'Firecracker' instead. We both love this plant but our better halves, I suspect, like it less. The PG has actually been quite rude about my specimen.

He regards any container, however modest, as an unlimited opportunity for more colour, fragrance and beauty. He plants injudiciously - no, let's say daringly - but always gets away with it. Big, Cornus alba, for instance, grow in tubs at the front of his house. A Liquidambar styraciflua, for goodness sakes, and a vast wall of climbers, grow in the tiny back courtyard.

There are camellias, oleanders, hydrangeas, scads of perennials, spring bulbs, winter berries - you name it, and it's probably there! Anyone with less sense of 'right plant for right spot' would have created a mess, but his garden is an exemplar of best use of small spaces.

Summer jollies along the boundary wall of my brother's courtyard garden.

The pictures do nothing to back up what I've written and I feel wretched about that. (The PG didn't join me on this trip.)

The Faversham street where he lives, with my equally able and supremely hospitable Sister-in-Law, is one of the most elegant and charming in Britain. Every building has architectural value and the pavements are furnished with real stone.

The street trees were lovely but sadly, some were removed, recently, and replaced with small amelanchiers. Town planners should be bolder with their street tree planting. Vehicles should make way for trees - not the other way round. And if the fallen leaves are messy, stop whining, clear them up and make leaf-mould of them. But I rant! Ahem ahem. Calm down at once!

More pretties on the wall top.

As as one walks the length of this street - one Charled Dickens assuredly trod - one travels from the centre of the old town to the tiny harbour and creak. This is where hints of Dickens' stories bring a sharpness and shudder to the genteel Kentish landscape. The Swale Estuary is here, with saltmarshes, old boats, modest huts with little gardens near more upturned boats, sailing wherries and big, flat, open spaces. One thinks of Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend and the Suffolk bits of David Copperfield.

On my visit, I offered to treat my hosts to a dinner somewhere special. They chose The Sportsman, a desperate-looking pub at Seasalter, further down the Swale, where Romans once extracted salt from the sea.

The pub is exactly like the one described early in Great Expectations - isolated, in the marshes, by a sea wall. Instead of blossoms on the tables, they had arranged little vases of marsh plants - Phragmites reed, wild carrot, sea aster etc.

The beer, brewed in Faversham by Shepherd Neame, was good - warm, by world standards, but hoppy and bouncy with natural life, rather than CO2 forced in from a cylinder. The food was sublime and the company fun. I ate six huge raw oysters - despite there being no 'R' in the month - each with a tiny disc of frazzled chorizo on top, followed by a goodish hunk of gently poached turbot. Distinctly yummy.

Dickens characters borrowed as boat names on the Swale.

I'm listening to the third Ashes test limping towards a disappointing draw.

In the garden, I'm weeding like mad. I took heed of James A-S's advice and ignored the little weeds, in spring. Now they are three metres high and the nettles sting like vipers. Something vile, possibly thrips, is nibbling our beautiful dahlias and the slugs and snails bring tears to my eyes. Nothing is safe from those little bastards.

This day in 1991 we were enjoying a hot day. I was summer pruning the apples and wrote this in my diary: I've never seen such an apple crop. The Worcester Pearmain is positively bowed down with fruit. I had to thin once before, and today, I thinned apples again, scattering fruit all over the grass. The trees all look a bit butchered, at the moment. Have I got the pruning wrong?

This week's film was Sixth Sense, in which Bruce Willis, is the antithesis of an 'action man' and plays the part of a child psychiatrist with remarkable sensitivity and poise. The child actor Haley Joel Osment was staggeringly convincing, too. This film should have been more raved about than it was, when made in the late 1990s.

Whoops - another interminable and boring post. If you've read this far you deserve a medal, not to mention my grateful thanks. Bye bye!