Tuesday, 24 November 2009


What ho!

A couple of nice things:
1. My Daphne bholua 'Darjeeling' has begun to flower and smells wonderful. I always think the leaves should make good tea with a variety name like that.

2. I've got the tulips planted - well, all but 50 'Queen of the Night' which will be put snugly close to Wendy, so their near-black petals contrast with her opulent cream paint. Being an absolute cheapskate, I've raided the garden for self-sown forget-me-nots to plant in all the terrace pots, as foils to the 'Orange Lion' tulips. Who needs to buy bedding, when freebies like these abound?

And a very, very sad thing:
The PG's car has died. She muttered something to me about it having mad a strange clunking noise, and that it had spewed dark and visceral-looking liquid over the ground. Next morning, she announced that it would go backwards, but not forwards. 'When I tried to drive it across the yard, there was a loud clatter and bits of gear - I'm talking broken cogs here - burst out of its bottom onto the gravel.

Later, a fey but extremely obliging mechanic arrived to price up a likely repair bill. 'Yer diff's completely smashed up,' he told us, helpfully, 'an' it's bust through.' I've no idea what a 'diff' is, but I'm nowhere near thick enough not to understand that 'bust through' is pretty final.

The cost of repair would exceeded the value of the vehicle. So, one, black Fiat Punto, not quite 10 years old, and therefore not eligible for the scrappage scheme - Damn! Damn ! DAMN!!!!! - RIP.

Broiler Orchids. Phalaenopsis flocking for fancy retailers.

Thanks for all the responses to the gardeners vs designers thingy. I think we've all said enough on that one, don't you?

And if you haven't yet been, get over to Martyn Cox's alternative awards. Much more fun and far less self-congratulatory than the real Garden Media Guild thing which looms next week.

I got far too caught up, first with the Sock's South Africa reveries and then with the Hat's return from NY and subsequent shenanigans on brainybuggersgardens that I failed to tell you about my trip, earlier this month, to Double H nurseries.

An immeasurable sea, not of gravy but begonias!

Picture, if you will, a big factory farm. An intensive broiler chicken operation, with important-looking people doing important-looking things in white coats; zillions of livestock, all crammed together, all looking absolutely identical and stretching almost as far as the eye can see. Got that image? Nasty, isn't it?

Now, in your mind, turn those animals into plants. Not nearly so nasty, I'd suggest. In fact, not nasty at all. Plants, you see, are not - as far as we know - sentient creatures. They have complex physical needs, but if these are met in full, they grow, they thrive and there is no visible sign of suffering. Even though they are being raised in the most unnatural conditions possible, they all look absolutely glorious.

Potting by batch, at Double H Nurseries.

At Double H, they go in for big numbers. 45,000 begonias, for example - PER WEEK! 32,000 pot chrysanthemums and gawd knows how many Phalaenopsis - their big thing. When we visited, they had 200,000 cyclamen ready to go out and, among masses of other stuff, enough Poinsettias to lower the tone of almost every Christmas household in the UK.

Mike Holmes, Double H's Technical Manager spells out Phalaenopsis technology.

We were introduced to the remarkable culture techniques for Phalaenopsis. The plants go, mostly, to retailers like Marks Expensives and Sainsburys, grown on to flowering perfection, and dunked into a fancy ceramic pot for added value.

Several things struck me about this place. Many of the staff were Polish. They were remarkably skilled at what they did and appeared to take terrific pride in such demanding and difficult work. The automation was impressive - mechanical potting etc. - but the whole system depended on the watchfulness and competence of the staff.

Bio security is strict, with stringent quarantine rules for all plant material coming in. We had to wear protective clothing and dip our shoes in disinfectant, before being allowed into the more hallowed growing areas.

A football pitch of bronze pot chrysanthemums. Who buys these things?

The Phalaenopsis take 30 months, from propagule to market size. That's some investment in time, not to mention mazulah! The Pot Chrysanthemums only take 8 weeks, the cheap, nasty things!

After such an interesting visit, I thought that I'd seen enough pot 'mums' and lurid begonias to get me through for the rest of my days without ever encountering another.

On the way home, I reflected on the day, as the train ran through the New Forest towards Southampton. What a difference! Vast, flat sweeps of garish 'flars' compared with afternoon sun on the golden bracken, rusty leaves, silver-grey birch trunks, making long shadows and pools of light in the New Forest.

Whenever I go into Marks and Sparks, in the future, and see those ritzy orchids in their smart plastic wraps and ritzy price tags, I'll recall the jolly Polish gals, working away among acres and acres of the things. That place, though light, live and flowery, still recalls - to me at any rate -the spirit of William Blake's 'Dark, satanic mills.'

Cyclamen by by the mile.

I'm listening to Marlene Dietrich singing an old recording of Lilli Marlene.

This week's film was La Vie en Rose, the biopic of Edith Piaf. When her song came out, back in the 60s, I thought the title was La Viande Rose, so usually referred to it as 'Pink Meat.' What an awful life that poor woman had! No wonder she was so nasty.

This day in 2005 it was bitterly cold - I'd photographed frost on the Brussels sprout leaves two days before - and we were visited by my daughter, son-in-law and little granddaughter who at 2, had already learnt how to turn on the charm.

Bye bye for now.

Monday, 16 November 2009


Nice things: Still nearly a week to go before Stir Up Sunday whose Collect begins: 'Stir up we beseech thee, oh Lord, the wills . . .' Nevertheless, the Photographer General got to work early and spent the past weekend making and baking the family Christmas Cakes.

On Saturday, huge bowls of benodorous - no such word, I've just made it up - dried fruit sat soaking up alcohol and on Sunday afternoon, amid a great deal of grunting, whisking, stirring and creative macrame work with baking paper, the PG managed to manoeuvre what looked like half a ton of dark, stiff, fruit-rich, spicy mix into two substantial baking tins. And that followed, I might add, the production of a delicious lunch of roast chicken including all the 'fixings' and bread and butter pud with custard to follow. What is Sunday for, if not celebratory feasting?

From mid-afternoon, the house gradually filled with the delicious aroma of baking Christmas cake. I'm sure that smell is the best part of the whole cake fandango. It even drifted upstairs and when we went to bed, I dreamed of bakeries and confectionaries where fantastical cakes, big enough to dive into, were iced with glorious designs in royal icing that melted delectably on the tongue. This was about as sensual as a dream can get, but not a hint of eroticism anywhere - a sure sign, that advanced old age and general decreptitude is creeping in.

Landscape in microcosm A lichen-coated rock face with tiny succulents growing in the crevices.

Now for the rant.
I happened to be speaking to Mr Hat, the other day, having been absent from Bloglandia for a while, and was prompted to get up to date with his latest post about trying to find contentious issues and looking, albeit quite gently, at ThinkingGardens. He seems to have caused a mild kerfuffle.

After reading his post and having been, in the past, exhorted by various bods, both illustrious and humble - and in a few cases both - I finally got round to visiting the site. You probably know far more about it than I, so I won't bore you with details but one message comes through strongly. Fun is not in the repertoire. It's all a bit disdainful, at first glance, but perhaps if I'd bothered to read more carefully, and gone further into the website, I would have got a little better tuned in.

The pieces that I skimmed included an excellent description of Cesar Manrique's work and Fondacion in Lanzarote, which I know well and like immensely. Manrique loved a bit of fun and rudery, and therefore gets my vote, despite some distinctly dodgy giant mobiles on roundabouts.

Another, by Tim Richardson, suggests - and I paraphrase - that professional garden designers must be miffed that the most iconic gardens were made by non-professional designers. He cites, among others Derek Jarman and Julia Trevelyan Oman who, I thought, were both trained artists famous for set designs.

It made me wonder what you actually have to do to be a 'professional garden designer.' What is the dividing line between rank amateur and qualified professional? Could an architect be a professional garden designer? A structural engineer? One thing seems clear, from this website: real gardeners need not apply.

But that's not the rant.

This is.
What REALLY gets my goat. REALLY PUSHES UP MY BLOOD PRESSURE AND MAKES ME WANT TO SMASH THINGS, is this ridiculous notion that there's some kind of an idiotic conflict between garden design and horticulture or gardening.

I don't know who originally tried to trump up such an ludicrous notion but I remember there were some, frankly, rather silly debates staged by the RHS on this. I ought to remember them because I was one of the speakers at the first one and got quite a bit of flak, afterwards, for being rude about designers, which I wasn't.

May I make a statement here?


Got that? Good! Some gardeners are atrocious designers. I'm afraid my designs are, by and large, puerile and riddled with defects. And some designers are absolutely crap gardeners. But that doesn't make a conflict; it merely causes deficiencies on both sides.

Gardens are, of course, art forms. All of them. It simply depends on how you perceive them and to suggest that a semi-detached house in Swansea, with lawn, gnome-ridden pond and bedded tagetes isn't art, is just plain snobbery. It may lack challenging shape, philosophical content or cunning conceits. The colour scheme may make a bad thing worse, but it is still the garden owner's expression and as such, IT IS ART. Good or bad, it is art. So are a good many allotments; so could be the plantsman's array of primula cultivars or snowdrops. So is the ludicrously topiarised hedge, near where I live, which has been fashioned into a steam train. Good or bad, they are art. Like graffiti, the coca cola sign, Degas' ballet girls or Rembrandt's self portraits, they are all art.

And another thing. You can create an artistic installation, indoors or out, but it may or may not be a garden. This is just semantics, but to me, if it grows things, it's a garden; if it doesn't, it isn't.

Gardeners make a huge contribution to design. They ensure that the design's soft bits - the plants - survive and thrive to make sure the artistic expression is as intended. You can't do that unless you know how to garden. Gardeners who design, know what can and can't be done.

Designers who can't garden are as inadequate as painters who don't understand how to mix pigments or sculptors who can't carve. They may construct wonderful outdoor installations but, however artistically valid, those won't be gardens.


I'm listening to one of Beethoven's Rasumovsky Quartets.

This week's film was Ordinary People. Agonising to watch a family disintegrate, but a brilliantly crafted tragedy, easily - but unjustly - written off by some as trivial or melodramatic. Donald Sutherland at his absolute finest; Mary Tyler-Moore gut-wrenchingly tortured and Timothy Hutton's teenager with a guilt complex was an immaculate performance.

This time two weeks ago I was visiting Double H nurseries and will tell you about it soon.

As Bill Giles used to say, with a wink - ' That's it from me. Bye bye for now.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


Misty dawn on the Crododile River, at the Malelane Game Lodge, Kruger National Park, South Africa. The birds are Egyptian geese. A Goliath Heron was nesting just below the verandah where we sat.

This blog post is inspired by and dedicated to Arabella Sock.

The answer to the giraffe sex question is at the bottom of this post.

I've been trying, for the past few mins, to choose which of the myriad enduring, pulse-racing, tear-jerking memories with which to launch this piece. It's a tough one, not merely because it's always exciting to touch down in another continent, but because South Africa will probably provide more rich, life-changing experiences per square metre than almost anywhere else.

My sweetest floral memory was being driven, knackered and jet-lagged after a crowded flight, out of Cape Town and up the nearest decent green bump, Signal hill. It was the first week in September and the ground was carpeted with rain daisies, Dimorphotheca pluvialis. When I got out to walk among these, I discovered masses of treasures: Babianas, Homerias, Pelargonium lobatum - an extraordinary species with purple and khaki flowers, Lachenalia orchiodes and loads more. All this within an hour of coming through Customs!

For animals it's a toss-up between the whales - yes, in Hermanus, but also in False Bay and all along the coast - or the young female leopard which I watched for nearly an hour stalking a Kudu in the Kruger.

But the nesting pair of Paradise Flycatchers at Malelane were pretty fantastic, as were the Bataleur Eagles laying on aerobatic displays. And they were only pipped for wonderfulness by the pair of African Fish Eagles whose trysting tree was opposite the verandah where we sat for almost two solid days, watching everything that moved. Their beautiful and haunting cries, when one partner arrived at the tree where the other was waiting, literally moved me to tears. It is one of the most beautiful sounds in nature. These birds pair for life and their scientific name, Haliaeetus vocifer is apt.

Rain daisies, Dimorphtheca pluvialis on Signal Hill, just outside Cape Town.

The view, of the Crocodile River which forms the boundary to the Kruger in those parts, was memorable (see top piccy). So was our nightly lullaby and dawn wake-up call from the hippos, grunting in the river. Their deep-bellied roars sang out in antiphon to the eerie cry of the ubiquitous Hadedah ibises which seem to be yelling in terror every time they fly.

A typical piece of wild countryside, in the Western Cape. Postberg Wildlife Reserve.

People? Oh, some wonderful acquaintances. Several local guides and naturalists, the staff and volunteers at places like Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden, the gazelle-like guide who led us on foot to the top of Table Mountain - forget that bloody cable car, it's far better on Shanks's Pony!

Food: don't forget that the Cape has an amazingly rich culture. It was the world's crossroads before that French Engineer built the Suez Canal and has Portuguese, Dutch, British, Malay and Chinese cultures all pasted on top of its own original ones. Cape Malay food is excellent; the fish is perfect, especially at a seaside restaurant at Hout Bay - ask for King Clip and help it down with a bottle of Boschendal Blanc de Noirs.

Fruit and veg - well, it's as you'd expect, perfectly fresh and delicioius. Wines? Some of the nicest in the world.

If you like Jazz with your supper, dine at The Green Dolphin, near the Victoria and Alfred Centre (yes, Alfred, son - not husband) on the Waterfront.

Well, that's just some off-the-wall impressions. Now for some practicalities.

The recommendations given by others, on Arabella's blog seem as sound as a bell, so it's pointless to repeat. But here are a few, very personal views.

Must visits for planty people - in addition to those already menched:

The Little Karoo - your only likely taste of SA's dry interior. When they try to persuade you to visit the horrible Ostrich Farms at Oudtshoorn, decline, but do give yourself time to enjoy the Karoo flora outside the town. Avoid the Kango Caves, unless you love crowds, King Solomon's Mines and touristic nastiness on a par with Wookey Hole. For easier Karoo Flora studies, go to the Karoo Botanic Garden at Worcester.

All SA's botanic gardens are beautifully curated and hold rich collections. All are worth visiting, both in the south west and up in the subtropical (Kwa Zulu Natal and the Transvaal, or whatever it's called these days.

The Fynbos. It has to be seen to be believed, especially at this time of year. There's lots of it, all different, from tiny fragments near Port Elizabeth to masses of waving restios, proteas and all the other stuff that goes with them, along the Garden Route and up the Western Cape. Best first experience of SA flora is found at the Cape Point National Park. In an area of roughly 500 square kilometres there are over 2,600 species of wild flowering plant - more than the entire UK flora.

The Podocarpus (Yellowwood) forests near George and Knysna. The storms river. (Knysna is where the Coelocanth was first reported. It's all there, in the museum.) There's also a moderately good nature reserve with interesting flora at the Knysna 'Heads' called Featherbed Reserve. You can take a boat there

A Yellow-billed Hornbill looking like an angry, retired general

Namaqualand. Only seriously flowery in late-winter, early spring. The first week in September is your best bet. They have a glorious wildflower festival and display that week, in Clanwilliam Church. Not to be missed. Clanwilliam also has a fine botanic garden, enabling you to identify many of the wildlings, before you get into the bush to see them untamed. Acres, no, thousands of acres of mesembryanthemums, ursinia and gorteria daisies, bulby things, quiver trees, Aloe ferox - it's all absolutely spectacular.

Animals. For Birders, SA is a world class place. For general naturalists, its unbeatable. The flora apart, there are wonderful creatures to observe.

It is ESSENTIAL in my view to get across to the east, to work through Natal, up through Swaziland and to see the Kruger National Park. It's so huge, so full of interest, and so superbly managed. There are plenty of lodges to stay at, within the park, and it is worth giving yourself three or four days, just for wildlife watching. BUT, you never know how much or how little you will see.

The Impala Lily, Adenium multiflorum knows when the rains are about to come and flowers in advance but produces no leaves until the ground is damp. It's common in the Transvaal.

Therefore, forget the 'Big Five,' species and just be grateful if you spot anything that lives. Enjoy the small game, even the insects, the Lilac Breasted Rollers, picking up dung beetles - that alone is better to see than driving fifty miles on dirt tracks to spot a mangy lion fast asleep under a cloud of flies. Mind you, my leopard was the first since I was 8 years old one Sunday Morning in Kenya when I was out watching with my baby bro and my father.

The east side, bordered by the warm Indian Ocean, has a different weather system with summer rainfall. The Western Cape is chilled by cold currents coming up from the Antarctic, and has winter rain but hot, dry summers. The Namaqua blooming is not guaranteed and depends on cold fronts bringing rain to the semi-desert in August.

Regarding yesterday's post - the giraffe is a male. When the dangly bits are out of vision, as here, you can tell by the horns. The male has broad horns with bare tips; the girl's horns are thinner. I photographed yesterday's giraffe in the grounds which surround the Malelane Game Lodge, near Nelspruit. You can fly from Jo'burg in a small passenger aircraft.

I'm listening to Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano in F.

I'm reading Hard Times which is not Dickens' best but still a rollicking good read.

This week's film was Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Well sorry, but I was bitterly disappointed. I can't believe my comic hero could succumb to doing a French style, voice over narrative type plotless threesome thingy. But perhaps he was having a laugh.

Sorry for the boring length, the poor quality of English, the crap spelling and all that. Done in a bit of a rush. Byeeeeeee!

Monday, 9 November 2009


I was about to post a calm, measured piece about the amazing 'factory farm' for plants, I visited last week but that will have to wait.

I've just read Arabella Sock's latest posting here and have aborted for the time being. Also, I'm due elsewhere in 3 minutes so must stop now.

But watch this space for a brief but pant-wetting - or a pants but brief-wetting - response to the Sock's request. Africa, you see, is a kind of drug. You can't get enough, even though you know it can damage your health, your career and your bank balance.

More on this within 48 hours. Monster plant production after that. You'll be absolutely amazed - I promise.

I'm listening to the PG shouting that I'm late.


Wednesday, 4 November 2009


Fly agaric in woods near us, prettier than anything in the garden.

Nothing to do with today's subject, but I believe that if you smoke fly agaric, or use it to make tea, or shove it somewhere rather personal, you may hallucinate about chrysanthemums the size of elephants, or see elephants the size of a single flower of Pratia pedunculata. I was told by a reliable Swede - person, not vegetable - that to consume this safely, you get a friend to do the primary smoking, drinking or shoving, and then drink his or her urine.

I wonder how long you have to wait. I mean, is it like asparagus, and through in a moment, or should you hang around the person for a day or so? I should warn you that I'm not an expert - in such things and I don't think the Swede was either. Such practices should not be carried out, in my view, except in the presence of a qualified merchant banker, Mr Shylock Homes or a member of Her Majesty's Whatsits.

I'm a smug, self-satisfied git! No, that's not strictly accurate. I'm sparky young actor pretending to be a smug self-satisfied git, in certain current TV commercials.

I may just look like a prat working out in a gym, or being generally modern, hip, bright eyed and ingenuous-looking, but my aim is to convince you that it was I who thought up the important new improvements in Microsoft Windows 7. And it was because of me, and my lovely wonderfulness that whoever has to use a PC - poor dears - have now the opportunity to glimpse at something better than the last Windows edition. Well hurrah! I'm sure PC users will be very happy.

Meanwhile, I still have tulips languishing in their net bags, long overdue for planting. The new border is yet to be dug, the weed seedlings are like mustard and cress and even Wendy is feeling a little neglected.

Why all this dereliction of gardening duties?

Why am I so behind with reading all your posts?

Because I've just undergone a migration. My big, clunky, power-hungry Macintish G5 has been gently eased into semi-retirement. Bye bye Silvertree, and good luck in your new home. (He's going to live with a son of mine and will be taught how to do things with music and graphic arts.)

Meanwhile, what is now weighing down my desk is, quite a beast. So much so that I've christened him Dogwood because he's not only the canine's goolies, but has an erection to boot, or at least, is significantly larger in some of his parts than is strictly necessary. (Dog, wood, geddit? OK, ok, I admit it's a bit of a cornus joke ............ oh do leave off!!!!)

We've also had a remarkable domestic drama which I might reveal in a future post. But now, I've got to dash out and console both Wendy and the Photographer General for neglect. I think they're both rather jealous of Dogwood, but I'm not at all sure why that would be.

I'm listening to Rossini's Petite Messe Solonelle - more charming than all his operas.

This week's film was Little Miss Sunshine. Toni Collette - wasn't she superb in Muriel's Wedding? - wry humour, some beautiful writing and a convincingly uninhibited child actress. Delectable comedy.

This day last year I bought a small box of rose and violet cremes at Fortnum and Mason. (Visits to such an august and expensive emporium are, I assure you, a rare event.)

More garden stuff next time. I'm off to Double H nurseries tomorrow, possibly to view an ocean of poinsettias. Nice!