Wednesday 23 December 2009


I really must do something about the roof.

As ever, I'm disgracefully behind with reading other people's blogs - sorry for that.

The purpose of today's post is to wish everyone a Happy Christmas, or jolly holiday, or Winter Solstice, or Hanukah - bit late for that - or whatever way your faith (or lack of it) chooses to celebrate (or ignore) the turning of the year.

I'm a little punch drunk, having driven something like 560 miles since Friday morning in road conditions that, frankly, fell just a tad short of ideal. Detling Hill, near Maidstone was an adventure best forgotten. The M2 passes through some of Kent's most beautifully gardened landscape. Apple orchards and their alder wind breaks make a fine, symmetrical patchwork across the gently rolling downs which is just as well, since we had hours, while crawling in snow, to enjoy it.

On Saturday, the PG and I, along with my brother and his wife, laid on an unofficial Christmas Day celebration for my mother. What I wrote in Saturday's Mail about holly - here - didn't turn out quite as expected. The birds had pecked off every last berry, so my plan to return with armfuls of perfect stuff for decking the halls was dashed to pieces. It's almost Christmas Eve and I haven't even brought the tree in yet. It's buried in the snow somewhere!

At my Mamma's we enjoyed pheasant in a calvados sauce, with delectably butter-fried apple rings on top, cooked by my sister-in-law – a veritable titan among culinarians. That was followed by the PG's classic perfection of a Christmas Pud.

On Sunday we lunched with my daughter and family, also delicious - particularly a baked chocolate and pear dessert. My youngest granddaughter has recently learned to use a knife and fork. Being a typical female, and therefore able to multi-task, she devoted the time, not just to spearing pieces of poached salmon to eat, but also to use as face make-up and hair adornments while beating out some interesting variations of the Bossanova with her utensils.

And yesterday, after a fresh, heavy fall of snow, we had to travel to Norfolk. It was too cold to enjoy the outdoors and the journey was bleak since 'snow had fallen, snow on snow.'

I can't tell you how beautiful the Fens looked yesterday afternoon, when we crossed them on our return. It was too dangerous to stop, and I couldn't have taken a picture, even if I'd packed a camera. But here's what I wrote in my diary:

The beauty of the fens in winter was brought home to me yet again by driving through West Pinchbeck and Gosberton and then across Dowsby Fen. Setting sun, in a clear sky, touched up the snowy landscape with gentle, pastel colours including apricot, turquoise, mauve, pink and soft green – all just hints of those hues, rather than strong statements.

The sky was bright orange, near the gigantic, collapsing sun, fading to yellow and then soft duck egg blue-green directly overhead. The trees made a stark tracery of elegant branches, back-lit and so alive and so strong. I love the way the wind works together with the tree’s natural growth habit, to develop such characteristic outlines. In coastal regions, trees and shrubs are stretched to leeward, assuming grotesque, gnarled outlines. But here, where winds are less severe and swing in any direction, the shaping process is smoother, more subtle and differs more profoundly from tree to tree. One can recognise, from any distance, limes, sycamores, oaks, beech and ash.

The hedges were full of haws and in several places, vast flocks of fieldfares and redwings were feeding. I hoped to spot waxwings, but the icy state of the road wouldn't brook much driver inattention.

I am an icicle, whose thawing is its dying.

I'm listening to Balulalow, performed by Kings College Choir with David Willcocks conducting - an old recording, but a beauty. They've just moved onto The Crown of Roses to Tchaicovsky's haunting tune.

This week's film was Bad Santa - the antidote to the usual Christmas schmooze and saccharine sentimentality. The small fat boy who is constantly bullied has the snottiest nose ever witnessed on celluloid. The Coen bros were joint executive producers, apparently.

This day last year The PG and I were prostrated with 'flu. Our children and granddchildren arrived to find us semi-comatose.

Have a wonderful break, and the very best to everyone for a prosperous, peaceful, and utterly gardenworthy 2010!


Thursday 17 December 2009


Well, goodness me! What an absolute gas!! I've just discovered the delight of re-visiting old blog posts and having a bit of a wallow in recent nostalgia. This time last year, I was blushing to admit loving the cheeeziness of soppy Christmassy things like the film Love, Actually and Scrooge and hanging up stockings and buying posh soap for the Photographer General - so I can use it in the bath - and eating mince pies and finding excuses for snarfing Madeira at 11am and so on.

And I mentioned that someone had bumped into me at Oxford Circus Tube Station and actually smiled at me, and apologised!!! Well, it happened again, this week. Is London beginning to thaw a little? No! Of course not. But there seems to be a temporary cessation of hostilities while the Season of Good Will and merry retailing gets under way. (If you weigh your anchor, when sailing off somewhere, I suppose you'd be under weigh?)

Hippeastrum 'Jewel' - a particularly nasty one whose petals remind me of blood and bandages.

Christmas gifts I hope I don't receive - apart from Argyll socks, a striped sweater or a Corby Trouser Press - are Hippeastrums. People will call these turgid monsters 'Amaryllis' which is both botanically and aesthetically wrong. Amaryllis is a beautiful-sounding, feminine name given to certain African and Asian relatives of the lily. Hippeastrums, on the other hand, are New World flarze. They're in all the shops at the moment, thrusting urgent, unnervingly thick, fleshy stems upwards, each one topped with an even more disturbing bud, encased in a sort of sheath. I mean really!!! I'd sooner have a naff hyacinth any day, or even an aspidistra.

Actually, you could play a variation on the 'shag, marry or die' game with Hippeastrum, Poinsettia and, er, well, how about Sansevieria? Which one would you have on your windowsill? Which one in your gabion, Ms Sock, if you're that way inclined, and which would you put in the hyperspeedy composterator?

Speaking of Amaryllis. At school, as a relief from corporal punishment, chapel and Rugby football, we were occasionally encouraged to sing madrigals. For some bizarre reason, I remember one by John Wilbye entitled Adieu, Sweet Amaryllis. Now, if you think the lyrics of most popular songs, these days are banal, try this one - you'll find it here. Naturally, if it was written in the early 17th century, it has to be good. Says who?? After all, even Shakespeare has churned out some awful turkeys. No? Ever read King John?

Crocus imperati - the first flower opened on Sunday but was zapped by the blizzard today.

The antithesis of horrible hippeastrums are delicate, frail, plucky little crocuses. Most are brave enough to open in March or even February sunshine but one of mine was foolhardy enough to shove its exquisite head above the gravelly parapet of my scree bed on 13th December. It was in good company. Two South African pelargonium species were still blooming nearby. They are Pelargonium ionidiflorum and P. sidoides (of gardens, for pelargonium pedants who say the only true P sidoides grows in a ditch outside Port Elizabeth - you know who you are!)

Yesterday, all these plants looked set to flourish for months to come. Today they've been bitch-slapped by a vile north-east wind and driving snow. What a difference a day makes!

I've dug out the last of the compost and spread it. The rotting down has been totally successful and the material for spreading has the consistency, and probably the flavour and texture of All Bran. But did it get hot enough to kill the sowthistle seeds, while composting? I bet not!

I'm listening to Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, sung by Westminster Abbey Choir.

This week's film was the Coen Brother's A Serious Man, seen at the luxurious Odeon in London's Raspberry Avenue. Seldom have I experienced such a swirling mix of emotions, from almost farcical comedy, to unbearable agony. This film is about big God and little man. And I have to say that the word 'spiteful' kept creeping into my irreverent mind. A wonderful film, provided you can laugh and weep simultaneously, as well as being completely puzzled as to why?

This day in 1975 I was living - don't laugh - in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, as an employee of Shell and working for the Animal Feedingstuffs industry. We spent Christmas day with our baby twins - then, two years old - and several friends, around the swimming pool which belonged to an orthopaedic surgeon. Never have I seen a cold turkey so deftly carved.

Bye bye.

Tuesday 8 December 2009


Just before seasonal goodwill begins to emanate - I think it's time for a rant! Here goes:

First, to be read fff:



I’m sickened, enraged, outraged, upraged, downraged and sideraged by some of the barmy-army policy-making that has been issuing in twin torrents, from Brussels and Westminster.

What have these two authoritative regimes – Mr Brarn's and Monsewer Rumpypumpy's I mean – got against us gardeners? What did we do wrong? Is it just spite, on the part of their officials, because we love what we do, whereas the bureaucrats have to sit bored rigid, in over-heated offices with nothing to look forward to but their index-linked pensions and featherbedded retirement arrangements?

This isn’t a rant about Health and Safety per se. (don’t get me started on that!) And I’m not railing about the Police who seem to have been given more powers, lately, than Hitler entrusted to Himmler and his gang. It isn’t about giving middle class grannies caught driving at 35mph criminal records, just to boost the crime-busters’ league tables. And it certainly isn't about blokes who help out with the Scouts being assumed pederasts until issued with a piece of official paper which says they aren’t. Although all those are examples of how this government has had it in for Middle Englanders over the last ten years or so.

A hoverfly on Ratibida. Valuable aphid predators, at risk from blunderbuss insecticides.

No, this is what is currently annoying me more:
Next year, we are to lose two more valuable garden products, bifenthrin and mancozeb. We’re allowed to buy them now, but must use up stocks before the end of 2010. (Newspeak gobbledegook for you here.)

You may or may not approve of manufactured pesticides. I respect your views either way. But from the middle of next year, like them or not, these are two more that we won’t be able to buy. There is practically nothing left to us, for pest control, other than germ warfare or black magic!

And it gets worse:
Aminopyralid, a herbicide whose residues have caused extensive harm to plants in private gardens has been reinstated for agricultural use. Why?

Let’s deal with the aminopyralid first. Over the past 18 months, I’ve received lots of letters from readers whose plants were ruined by suspected contamination with aminopyralid, a herbicide for pastures and hay crops. The aminopyralid residues appear to have ended up in farmyard or stable manure. (More info here; plus gov crap here and here)

I don’t know how you feel about this, but it seems to me that if a chemical sprayed in small quantities onto pasture, is persistent enough to come through the digestive system of a ruminant or a horse and can still, as a contaminant in manure, kill broadleaved plants, it’s nasty stuff.

So, is it banned? Is it heck! Subject to ‘precautionary measures,’ the stuff will be available for farmers to spray on their pasture. Forage, grass or manure has to stay on the farm, if the chemical is used. Hmmm! How well will this be policed? Who did the 'risk assessment' on that one??

The message to gardeners is clear. Don’t use farmyard manure unless you know precisely where it’s from and what the animals that crapped it have eaten. What a crying shame, when farmyard and stable manure were such valuable and reliable soil improvers and fertilizers!

Mildew looks almost pretty on my courgettes. It's almost a given that all courgette crops will get it, in time, but fungicide is hardly necessary if management is good. Potato blight is another matter, and needs fungicide control in most years.

Now the mancozeb. This has been sold as Dithane and used safely for decades. It helps to prevent potato blight, among other diseases, and has low toxicity. Organic gardeners may approve of its demise, but the alternatives offered by former suppliers of Dithane are to be based on copper.

Copper salts are toxic, though not dangerous if used wisely. In young lambs, though, as little as 10 parts per million of copper can be lethal. The substitute is thus more deadly than the original fungicide. How logical is that?

Bean seed beetle. A light infestation, on home-saved seed is tolerable.

The bifenthrin issue is less clear-cut. It is a synthetic pyrethroid and as such, may be implicated in the problems associated with bee colonies, even when bees have not been in direct contact. And it will certainly harm them if they absorb any of the spray directly.

A few years back, products like Roseclear contained pirimicarb (carbamate) which was harmless to bees but killed aphids. But pirimicarb was withdrawn, and replaced with the more blunderbussy bifentrhin. A retrograde step both for pest control, and for wildlife conservation. And now that the nastier bifenthrin is going, what have we left? Diddley Squat!!

Bt or Bacillus thuringiacus is championed by organic gardeners, but is even more of a blunderbuss bug killer than bifentrhin. And then there are nematodes loaded with entomopathic bacteria for an increasing range of pests. I’m not totally happy about any those, but will return to that wormy topic when I’ve done more research.

Management and good husbandry are the best pesticides and always will be.
But it was handy to have a shotgun in the cupboard, even if it was hardly ever needed. And now BIG GOVERNMENT is taking the last of the cartridges away, along with more of our civil liberties. Hands off our rights!!

Whoops, I’m beginning to sound like the The Sun!
Back to jollier issues next time. Sorry it’s such a long post, yet again.

Viburnum beetle: a spectacular pest, and ugly with it, but is insecticide necessary to control it? We'll see, now that there's little of any use left to private gardeners.

I’m listening to Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, the bit about the guillotine. Chop chop!

This week’s film was Soderbergh’s Traffic, a mosaic of story lines about drug cartels working through Mexico. Long, but riveting with some great sequences in Mexico. Michael Douglas was OK, too, though his role as some kind of Drugs Czar was supremely unconvincing.

This day in 1991 there was thick ice on our pond which didn’t melt all day. I was working up material for BBC Gardeners World Magazine and writing my first novel, The Kirkland Acres, which was published, eventually, by Orion. It’s out of print but in the libraries.

Bye bye.

Friday 4 December 2009


THE GMG Awards Lunch is done for another year. Hurrah!

I shot these ballons at Cebu, in the Phillipines a while ago - they'd have done for the GMG Awards Lunch.

The talented and diligent organisers had picked a rather elegant shed, somewhere in the City whose cavernous superstructure was disguised with lots of white triangular bunting. Outside we were treated, not to a red carpet but to a giggle-stimulating walkway of neatly laid turf with an array of garden machinery on the side.

Once inside, there was a glass of pink fizz to accompany the gently developing crescendo of garden writers hallooing one-another across the primaeval swamp. Soon, with a mwah! mwah! here and a backslap there, we were shepherded into the feeding zone.

We had barely tucked into a cloying pumpkin and honey soup when there was a stentorian blast on the PA system followed by a deafening announcement to tell us that we were at the Garden Media Guild Awards Lunch. Useful items of information like this kept bursting into our conversation from time to time as the meal progressed. One was reminded of a big rally in a totalitarian state.

A threatening-looking pudding followed the custardy soup and turned out to be rather good, with craggy beef inside but alas, no kidney.

Dessert was delivered on strange, long, narrow strips of porcelain which resembled petrified open scrolls, and were served longways-on. I believe I recall that chocolate was involved. Oh, yes, now I remember - it was as sort of dusky bosooom from which oozed molten chocolate.

Then, Andy Mackindoodah-doodah-day arrived at the podium to give an accomplished and amusing speech, and to run through the lengthy award winning procedure. He did it all with amazing panache and professionalism. He reminds me of a slimmed down, Anglicised Mr Magoo.

Andy informed us that we garden media people are the very heart of horticulture. That surprised me, because I thought our sponsors and hosts yesterday - people like Westland, Thompson and Morgan, Hartley Botanic etc. were the 'very heart,' whereas I've always considered myself to be no more than a hack, commenting and reporting on what happens in the world of gardening. Horticulture could probably manage without us hacks, whereas we depend on horticulture to feed us the means of earning a living. Or have I got that wrong?

The awards procedure takes forever, with recipients having to grin at cameras, alongside the sponsors. Some make speeches of gratitude, others don't. Some awards were predictable, others not. Two were richly deserved and absolutely delighted me:

The Master at work.

The Best Photographic Portfolio was won by my good friend Tim Sandall. The deafening cheer, showed how strongly the crowd approved, too. Tim taught me most of what I know about photography and is one of the most versatile, workmanlike and accomplished craftsmen in the business.

For many years, when I worked for BBC Gardeners World magazine - oh, happy times! - he would spend several days a month, creating action pictures and building up the visual side of our various series. In those days, if ever I struggled with the technicalities of handling a camera, he would drip-feed his knowledge with amazing generosity, and with considerable modesty.

He is indefatigable, always jolly and, uniquely, able to combine utter professionalism with having a bloody good laugh. Well done Tim! What a guy!

The second award - and I will admit to a slight pang of jealousy, here. No, that's not sincere! I admit to quite a lot of jealousy – was the Best Blog. (More deafening applause, whistles and maidens fainting with bliss at the announcement.) James has done it again and is now to be referred to as Multiple Award Winning Journalist or MAWJ.

It was delightful to meet VP, at last, and to chat with her before the lunch. I was not at all surprised to see Veg Plotting on the shortlist and quite expected her to win. Silvertreedaze didn't even make it to the shortlist which I admit was rather a disappointment. But I'll try harder for next year and, well, you never know.

But James really is a worthy winner. Informative, funny, always original and interesting, it's a delight when his posts appear. It was he, I might remind you, who kicked me into the blogging habit, little more than a year ago.

Reading a JA-S's blog is rather like making love. First. you are gently aroused by the intriguing Edward Learish titles. Working through content then gives increasing pleasure but you always arrive at the end disappointingly soon, feeling limp and exhausted but relaxed and satisfied.

Well done James - but might you try not to enter next year, to give the rest of us a chance?

I'm listening to Gluck's Orfeo & Euridice. Poor old Orpheus' longing for his prize - er, sorry, girlfriend - seems to strike a bit of a chord, just now.

This day last year I attended the funeral of friend and craftsman Ron Gray.

This week's film was Casablanca watched with friends, on their magnificent megatelly. One of the biggest of the Hollywood greats. Afterwards, we enjoyed an absolutely superb Moroccan feast.

Bye bye.

Tuesday 1 December 2009


Daphne bholua 'Darjeeling.' Evergreen, compact, though rather columnar in habit and intensely fragrant. I also grow D. b. 'Jacqueline Postill' and am never sure which I prefer.

Our lovely, lovely daphnes are beginning to stir. Just outside our back door I planted Daphne bholua 'Darjeeling' five years ago and each winter, the intensely sweet fragrance wafts indoors and on still days, lingers in the air. The first blossoms usually open around New Year's Day but this season has been odd and, though hardly in full bloom yet, it has enough blossom to make an impact.

Daphne has always been a favourite genus. When a schoolboy, I wickedly uprooted a seedling of what I thought was a strange looking laurel, one Easter Hols, in a Cambridgeshire wood and brought it home to plant in my parents garden. To everyone's amazement, the following spring it produced green, fragrant blossoms and I was able to identify Daphne laureola in my fathers British Flora by Bentham and Hooker. The common name, spurge laurel, suits it to a tee - it's spurgy and laurelous.

Now, as an old man, I remember that exciting discovery every time I cycle past the spurge laurel bushes that are so abundant a few miles west of where I live. On the calcareous soil of South Kesteven and Rutland, they love to grow on shady dyke sides but elsewhere in Britain, I guess they are relatively uncommon.

I don't uproot wild plants these days, I hasten to add, but am not above filching a few seeds or taking the odd cutting. But not of anything that isn't dead common.

I cannot understand why so many people stick to Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' - a miserable thing unless it happens to like you - when there are so many other fantastic daphnes. There was a brilliant article in The Garden a while back, with pictures of the various winter varieties in bloom at Wisley.

D. mezereum, our other native species, but extremely rare in the wild, is a fine garden plant until it succumbs to the virus that seems to shorten the lives of almost every member of the genus. At our village post office, years ago, where the postmistress would polish her copper drain pipes to a startling brightness - she also hoovered and dusted the village phone box every day and sometimes even put flowers in it - there was a vast D mezereum in the tiny front garden. It must have been more than 2 metres across and massed with magenta blossoms each spring. Small tortoiseshell butterflies, still woozy from hibernating, would feast on the flowers before going off to lay eggs on nettles.

One spring, in the 1980s, it was late coming into leaf, and then half the bush died, followed quickly by the other. And that was that. This specimen may not have been a champion oak, nor was it a a noteworthy rarity recorded in some plant knob's directory. But it was still a rattling good example of an endearing little shrub, once ubiquitous in cottage gardens, now becoming like twin sets and Ford Cortinas - a bit old hat.

The trouble with the English autumn is that the weather gets stuck into a groove. Weeks ago, I was on the whinge about how dry it was and how it was hurting my wrists and elbows, trying to plant bulbs into hard soil. Since then, we've had a deluge or five. My lawn squelches when walked upon and things which I ought to have done have been left undone.

My plan had been, in the Photographer General's parlance, to 'do a James,' as inspired by geezer whose latest post is here. (Doing a James means reducing lawn area to make more border space for good planting schemes.) If you follow the process to a sensible conclusion, you end up with no lawn, skinny grass pathways and extended borders, all equipped with 'personnel paths' which give access for servicing plants, weeding, etc. but which don't break up the line and flow.

The PG insists that our Tea Lawn must not shrink too much more, but supported the idea of doubling the bow-fronted autumn border with a twin. I marked out the area and began to double dig, burying the live turf.

The PG arrived. soon after I'd started and said, 'Ooh, a sausage! How funny!' Well, I was concerned that the curve had the grace of a banana, rather than a swan's neck or rainbow, but was rather hurt. 'Only fools and children judge a half done job,' I muttered, and sulkily drank the mug of tea she had brought. I think, when it's done, it will be an attractive, curved double border, but she's badly shaken my confidence.

I'm also well aware that my notions of line and form can be inferior to those of my 6 year old granddaughter, sometimes. Well, most of the time, probably. That's why my attempt to be a professional garden designer was so unsuccessful.

Finally, Ahem! ahem!! I'd like to conclude by quashing the wicked rumours that I have been limbering up for Boozy Thursday by imbibing double pints. The GMG lunch may be looming and with all the fringe partying that seems to be going on around the main event, it may be necessary to get one's liver into robust form.

But that is not done by whapping back aldermanic quantities of ale, thereby trying to turn the aforementioned organ into shoe leather before Thursday. Oh no!

That is done by feverish cycle riding, by double digging, and by hefting large bags of horticultural grit onto Wendy's staging.

The picture below, therefore, is a disgraceful calumny on a par with Stalin faking photographs by magicking his rivals out of them. I can't deny that the two jugs I'm holding are about a litre apiece, and I think it would stretch your credibility to claim that they contain iced tea.

The fact that the word 'Brasserie' figures in the background is merely an attempt by the perpetrator of this visual libel to lend a semblance of authenticity. I was asked - not by the PG, I hasten to say - but by some scurrilous photographer to pose while holding the handles of a water divining device.

And what do I find? The dousing thingy has disappeared and these revoltingly large beer mugs have been Photoshopped into position, thereby basting, roasting and serving my goose. It seems almost pointless, now, to deny that I was on a booze cruise to Europe, recently, but deny it I will. If I lie, call me Mr Archer.

I'm listening to As Time Goes By, not in actuality, but in my head as I'm off to a film party tonight. We're going to watch Casablanca for which I've written the interpretive leaflet.

This time on Saturday I was agreeing to present the PG with my car, as soon as I've found a replacement.

This week's film was The Train, a fine duel between Burt Lancaster as a grumpy rail traffic controller and member of the French Resistance and Paul Scofield, the German officer who loved art but lacked humanity. It's long, action-packed, well told and well shot. Thought provoking, too.

This picture is entirely fake. I don't even like iced tea!

If you're going to the GMG bash - hope to see you there!
Bye bye.