Tuesday, 20 October 2009


Huzzah huzzay! Calloo callay! Hey nonny noodles and all that crap!!!!!
We've broken our duck, we're off the mark, we've scored, we've struck gold we have HARVESTED OUR FIRST CROP from Wendy. But first . . .

American witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, flowers before the leaves fall. This is the species from which oil of witch hazel is extracted. Photographed at Westonbirt Arboretum

I downloaded the Dylan cheezy Christmas album from the iTunes store and inflicted it on the family. I've had to promise the Photographer General never to play it again unless with headphones at the bottom of the garden. One of my daughters was also home, and backed up this threat by confiscating my carob coated Brazils. (Do you know, there are actually times when I prefer carob to real chocolate. Not often, but just now and then.)

And while I think about it, can I just say that Jaffa Cakes are utterly awful? I know certain distinguished and Award Winning Bloggists adore them, but I just want to say that if he wants to bat for the wrong team, well, that's fine by him. I'm with him on most things - orange flowers planted with blue; minimal or zero lawns; the wisdom to chicken out of chewing raw, whole chillies when challenged (see here) - but not the Jaffa Cakes. Those slick, non-crunchy, brown-bottomed jobs, with their faux citric centres, were inspired to corrupt the middle classes. Pretending to be biscuits, when they're really cheap cakes, these absolute Griffins of the confectionary world should be expatriated, extirpated, excommunicated or dumped. Send 'em back to Jaffa, say I!

Phew! Thank you! Yes, much better now.

Now then, now then!

Wendy, my precious and beloved Hartley Botanic greenhouse, has yielded her first fruits. OK, they're only a few Pak Choi, but I gathered the first lot to have with roast chicken for this past Sunday lunch. Mmmmm - delicious! The greenhouse was built on the 19th of August. The young Paks, from Fothergill's seed, were sown in late August and planted in September. Their growth rate has been quite astounding.

Our first little Pak Choi - harvested young, to make room for the prop bench.

Under different circumstances, we'd have left them growing for another two or three weeks, but I had ordered a propagating bench from Two Wests and Elliot and was anxious to get it up and running. The Chinese veg were exactly where the bench was to go.

The box, when it arrived, was full of promise but when we unpacked it, the enormous heap of little aluminium alloy strips was bewildering. My wise daughter, who teaches, sensed the growing panic in my voice and said, 'why don't I get a felt tip and mark all the pieces with their identifying letter?' Under her supervision, and with much grunting and perplexity on my part, we got it all built. It took the whole of Sunday.

My younger daughter helps to unfold the mystery of the flat pack propagation bench.

I've had rather a traumatic time with buying things on line. Our monster shredder, over 20 years old, once had the ability to chomp timber up to 3 inches in diameter and to macerate the toughest, nastiest prunings, weeds and other crap, spewing out a perfectly chipped and kibbled mulch. It was so finely chopped that sometimes I would scatter it about the garden without even bothering to compost it first.

But over the years, as with men, this beast began to lose virility. Its teeth blunted so that hedge clippings came out mangled, but still recognisable. And if I tried to poke a stick up its whatsit, I was confronted by a blank refusal to chop. Its time had come and since the engine was also tired, and burns oil, I decided to replace.

I had forgotten what my old machine was called, or who made it. The engine proudly boasts Briggs and Stratton, but paint and labels on the rest of it are long gone.

So I Googled 'garden shredders.'

In seconds, I'd found out that the identical machine is still being made - though its livery has changed from red to green. It's called a Woodsman Mighty Mac, and having been a Mac computer fanatic for as long as they have been made, the name had a positive and comforting - though totally illogical - resonance. (Unlike the Jaffa Cake which is deeply discomfiting.)

Having compared prices on line - they varied hugely - I placed my order and the machine, in a huge box, arrived at breakfast next morning.

But when I undid the box, the machine was in bits. However, unlike the propagation bench, it looked straightforward to assemble. Or, would have been if the necessary bolts, instruction book and other bits and pieces had been included in the box. They weren't

The extremely helpful and obliging proprietor of the Cheshire firm who supplied it, promised to send the missing bits which arrived speedily. Or, rather, some of them arrived. Other, important ones didn't and we had more embarrassed and apologetic phone calls.

The moral of the this boring tale is this:
Buying on line is brilliant for finding the best prices, and for efficient delivery. BUT, if things do not go quite as they should, you are - not to put too fine a point on it - well and truly buggered!

Wendy's staging is already beginning to fill.

I'm listening to a rather nasal-voiced, but devastatingly attractive and immaculately groomed receptionist girl in the palatial showrooms of my local car dealer. Though surrounded by amazing models - cars, not totty - ranging in price from reasonable to a shattering six figure extreme, I'm not here to buy. No, it's just an MOT while I wait, and to have my brake fluid changed. (They're doing something to my car too. Ha Ha!)

This time last year the PG was shooting pictures of me propagating succulents while pretending it was summer.

This week's film was The Yangtse Incident. I'm old enough to remember being told at school that a brave captain had just smuggled HMS Amethyst out of China, despite being attacked. Some years later, I discovered that the Amethyst was a ship, and that the aforementioned captain had not been some kind of glorified jewel thief. Life can be confusing when you're six. Richard Todd heads a cast of the usual Brit talent including, as in almost every known film of the era, Sam Kydd. A well made, well shot piece.

PS - I've just been told that my car has FAILED its MOT. Nothing wrong with the mechanics, but a front tyre is bald. So that was a waste of time. Isn't life full of little ironies??

Bye for now.

Friday, 16 October 2009


Autumn cucurbits stir up thoughts of pumpkin pie, trick or treat and other bits of American culture which we seem to have adopted. Can you actually eat these things, or are they just for gathering dust and bulking out harvest festivals?

Never break shocking news to anyone when they're driving. It can have terrible consequences for the car, and for road safety. It was done to me, this week, and I almost caused a multiple pile-up on the A1 just outside Stevenage.

This was not trivial stuff like being sacked. Or a death in the family, or winning the National Lottery. No, this one was a biggy, a head spinner, a pants dampener. And the blow was struck by the BBC! Bastards!! I heard, on Radio Noos, that the God of my youth, the Wunderkind of the hippie era, master of the ironic lyric, the original subterranean, tambourine rattlin', non-looking-back Artist - OK, also a bit Woody Guthrie-ish from time to time, and capable of dreadful harmonica playing - but still the absolute main, main man of the Beatle-infested sixties, Bob Dylan has made a cheeeeeezy Christma album. Look what the Indie said about it.

I know he did it for charity but they played bits of it on the radio - Dean Martin after a partial laryngectomy - and by the time I'd reached Sandy, I was in tears.

I won't say anything more about it, but think I will have to buy the album, just as a reminder that when one grows old, one should don woolly cardy and soft slippers, pour oneself a series of enormous whiskies, and sit in the dark, with the phone off the hook, watching Bette Davis films.

This is by way of a 'holding' post, just to keep in touch while I recover from the Dylan aberration, but a couple of things:

1. I have a question - and I do hope you'll take the trouble to respond:
Have you tried navigating the new RHS Website? I have, but I don't want to say a word until I know how you all find it. If you haven't done so yet, please log on here and if you feel like it, tell me what you think.

2. Tomorrow is the new yesterday. On BBC's Farming Today, all this week - it's on at 5.45 each morning! - they've been discussing organic farming. Apparently, consumption of organic food is falling rapidly and one of the reasons given was that shoppers are more concerned, these days, about whether food is local, rather than organic.

This startling example of consumers behaving exactly like sheep and following fashion, reminded me of a thing they used to have in Private Eye, as a satire on folk saying idiotic things like 'White is the new black.' and so on.

So I turned over in bed and said to the Photographer General, 'Local is the new organic.' She responded by laughing uproariously, leaping up and making me a delectable cup of tea.

So how about a few 'X is the new Y?' Go on, you're bound to think of something!!

Here for starters:
iPhone is the new Blackberry
Ilex crenata is the new box hedging.
Heucheras are the new Hostas
Pak Choi is the new curly kale
Butternut squash is the new marrow
Monty Don is not the new Alan Titchmarsh

Better examples welcomed, for the good of Mankind.

Cones of Pinus strobus, weeping resinous tears - clearly, they've heard about the Dylan album.

I'm reading. A brilliant translation, by Hussain Haddawy, of the Arabian Nights. It's in two volumes and gives a clear insight into Mediaeval life in the Middle East. It also shows how profoundly changed and degraded are the fairy tales of chaps like Ali Baba, Sindbad and 'Al Al-din, whose name got corrupted to Aladdin. Some bits are jolly rude, too.

I'm not listening to Bob Dylan. There will be forgiveness, but I need time to heal.

This time in 2005 I was in Aldeburgh to see Britten's Opera Albert Herring at Snape Maltings. The day after the performance, we saw a flock of Common Crossbills, between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness.

Bye bye.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009


Ivan Hicks's work at Butterfly World and Future Gardens

It's terribly important, don't you think, that a committed and determined journalist should always be ahead of the game. The knack is to be on the spot almost before the balloon goes up so that when all the other hacks are all breathlessly trying to catch up, you can swan along, miles ahead of the opposition and file your story - which will be a scoop - to a grateful and loving editor who showers you with bonus fees, hugs, kisses and, if you're very, very good, a couple of Mars bars.

With such sharp-elbowed competitiveness in mind, I thought I'd avoid the rush and make my first visit to Future Gardens and Butterfly World, yesterday. Naturally, there wasn't a journalist in sight anywhere in the vast acreage, so my fellow visitor and I had the whole place to ourselves. The site has just closed for the winter, so although I wasn't the first garden writer to visit, it's a reasonably safe bet that I will have been the last. Hurrah!

Metal bull rushes in Nature's Artistry, Autumn's Edge.

There has been comment, in the trade press, about disappointing visitor numbers to Future Gardens and Butterfly World, and about payment problems for some of the designers. That's a shame because the concept is impressive and much has been done towards making the place a big attraction.

By the time I finally got there, this year's Future Gardens were run down and, to an extent, in disarray. But it's good to see designs with their curlers in, with cucumber slices over their eyes and mud packs over their visages. They are to be disbanded, we were told, but no doubt everyone involved learnt a lot from this year's experience.

It was raining, too, meaning that to take pictures, keep the camera dry and not fall flat on my face in the mud required a combination of co-ordination and concentration, neither of which I have.

Butterfly World.
A glasswing or clearwing butterfly - I think
it's Greta oto in the family Ithomiinae, from South and Central America.

Some of the features that remained were still lovely. The whippy steel bull rushes by, I think, Fiona Heron waved in the breeze realistically and their starkness, along with the white ground, put me straight into a cold, sleety afternoon in my local Fenland landscape. Andy Sturgeon's monolithic thingies made me wonder where the apes were and I felt positively uplifted in Bruno Marmiroli's H Garden. White wooden trees are a delight against the orange walls.

But these gardens hammered home repeatedly this point: however hard you try not to give them their way, plants are the kings. Always will be. And where the plants don't rule, a garden's design is lessened. Without plants it cannot, no it cannot be a garden. Interesting installation, possibly; an exterior interior, maybe. But garden it isn't. (Rude comments on this heresy welcomed!)

Ivan Hicks has been - is - the Big Design Honcho, in this monster project and I really enjoyed seeing his series of giant drainage pipe moon entrances, looking warm, tempting and terracottary, despite the rain. I love the way weeds have blended with pretties, in the walls and barriers.

The future's orange! The H Garden.

Indeed, I loved massive spread of dead 'wild flowers' all over Butterfly world. Among the brown, the sere and the yellow, startling pink cosmos daisies are still blooming in little clusters. Cornflowers, Phacelia tanacetifolia and other arable weeds are still hanging on, making tiny star-bursts of colour - just enough to prevent it all from looking like the Somme on a bad day.

I hope this project succeeds. The huge geodesic butterfly dome will house masses of the beautiful insects, when completed. Meanwhile, we had to make do with a polytunnel in which the summer's last, lethargic beauties are still listlessly fluttering. The big, blue morphos and startlingly eyed owl butterflies are impressive, but for ephemeral beauty, I was most taken with the glasswing or clearwing butterflies from the Americas.

Sad things: The frogs seem to have got ranavirus. Two dead ones in my minipond this week. Also, the sparrowhawk has eaten another robin.

Happy things: Wendy, reported on here, is now wired and watered. I can warm her, moisten her and gently coax her into propagation mode. But long before the services were connected, I managed to root a dozen or so pelargonium cuttings with neither bottom heat nor irrigation. What a fecund beauty she is turning out to be already, bless her!

I'm listening to Louis Prima singing Just a Gigolo and I ain't got no body.

This day in 1981, I was working as a part time consultant in animal nutrition, visiting clients in Oxfordshire. I spent the night with friends at an extremely posh address in Holland Park.

This week's film was Sunset Boulevard. The 1950 classic with Gloria Swanson and William Holden in crackling form and a wonderful script, and direction, by Billy Wilder. The claustrophobic, decaying mansion was perfect. Miss Havisham redivivus ain't in it!

Picture: Greta oto feeding on Tithonia.

Thursday, 1 October 2009


First the swank: our snowdrops are already looking absolutely lovely, my deah! We have nine in bloom, as of this afternoon, all looking ridiculously out of place among the golden autumn afterdaze. They are Galanthus reginae-olgae (picture left) and come sans leaves, during the closing days of September. They prefer it a bit hotter and drier than most snowdrops and are happy in my searing gravel, where the cats crap and where a fox, last spring, buried an entire rabbit. The leaves follow at more normal snowdrop time in January.

If you've got snowdrops out, tell me! Bet you haven't!!!

Second, the moan. No rain now for weeks and my poor October lovelies are more wilty than ever. Chrysanthemums sulking, lower leaves dying before the buds open; Schizostylis going schizo because they're thirsty; dahlias looking jaded. Clover is the only thing making my lawn green and when I went to plant a few bulbs, I nearly shattered my elbow trying to dig a trowel into the ground.

Now the story - such as it is.
I spent Tuesday at the RHS Garden, Wisley, travelling with a celebrated and respected journalist - no, not the Hat, this time - and what I saw, down in that RHS topknot garden was enough to make me dance with delight, whoop aloud and clap several startled members of the public on the back with heartiness and bonhomie.

Miscanthus sinensis in full fettle uphill from the glasshouse at Wisley.

Among the trials, down on the Portsmouth field, there's a superb collection of garden-worthy dahlias, some with dark leaves, others not. Many of them show terrific promise and it's comforting to know that more new varieties are on the way. However, I won't dwell because this blog has been a dahlia-ed already.

Three things that really excited me, this time, were Tom Stuart Smith's magnificent gardens around the glasshouse. His semi-circular layout has matured in an amazingly short time and although the beech columns need a little maintenance, the overview was not only enchanting, in its own right, but resonates so aptly with the neighbouring parts of the garden.

I wrote about this in A Garden Under Glass and for Gardens Illustrated when it was new, but to an extent, what I wrote then was an act of faith. Now that Tom's gardens have matured, I'm delighted to find that that my original eulogistic prediction was, if anything, understated.

Gaura flowers really were dancing like butterflies in Piet Oudolf's planting.

Uphill from the Glasshouse Garden, I followed the two big borders originally planted by Piet Oudolf and subsequently 'tickled up' by others. With the sun in my face, viewing all those dying grasses and perennials contre jour, was like wandering through a glittery dream where everything is luminously atremble.

Later, coming down hill past the main herbaceous borders was an equally inspiring experience. Here, David Jewel - surely, one of the most interesting creative planters around, these days - has managed to stage a theatrical masterpiece. Even now, after a long, hard summer, there is still plenty to come. Strong colours rule - quite different from the Oudolf 'sere and yellow' - but wherever you examine plant combinations, you are startled by their daring. A vivid purple Salvia leucantha, for instance, near the dark leaved Dahlia 'Twinings After Eight' with a short Cortaderia and red fuchsias. And it worked! They all blended beautifully.

The big double borders at Wisley, David Jewel's triumph of creative planting.

There's no doubt that with a double border, whatever the size, the whole is greater - far greater - than the sum of its parts. Both big double borders at Wisley should be looking a little bit knackered, by now but they don't. They look bloody marvellous. And at home my double border looks bloody awful. Sigh!

Outstanding plants, also at Wisley, included Wisteria frutescens 'Longwood Purple,' - short, stubby racemes - unmistakeably a wist but a late summer one. Worth growing, if you ask me.

Also the nerines in the glasshouse and Wisley's extensive collection of Hydrangea paniculata. They pollard them, to soup up the flower power - and it works. Even in extreme age, these flowers are lovely. Am I the only person who thinks dead hydrangeas are far prettier and more interesting than living ones?

Delightful chaos: Piet Oudolf's borders, augmented, at Wisley.

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

This Week's film was Stagecoach, a greatly acclaimed Western but for me, it has two serious problems: John Wayne. Firstly, the man simply couldn't act and relied on speaking really slowly in the hopes that that would build up some kind of tension. Secondly, when seen in motion, he gave the impression of being a nicotine-addled wreck who would need a week's holiday to recover from shooting a single scene. Action Man he wasn't. The other problem about the DVD I bought is its abysmal print quality. We are warned never to buy pirated copies but the film industry might want to 'keep a slice of all the advice they give so free' and stop fobbing us customers off with crappy videotape recordings, cropped for square televisions and packaged as higher tech DVDs.

This day in 2006 I managed to change the internal battery of my iPod. In those days, that was a scary thing to do. Apple provided you with an odd plastic tool which wasn't strong enough to open the iPod and a tutorial CD-ROM to talk you through the terrifying procedure.