Wednesday 31 March 2010


Just a quick post this week, mainly to wish you all a very productive, fulfilling, and enjoyable Easter week-end. If you plan to be devotional on Friday, may your devotions be devout; if you're intending to listen to the Good Friday Music from Wagner's last music drama Parsifal, you'll be in excellent company, 'cos that's what I plan to do while the weather commits its usual acts of Easter malice outside. Misery finds comfort, don't you think?

And I haven't edited or read this through, so apilogies for bishes, howlers and cock-ups.

Dicentra spectabilis - described to me once, in Sri-Lanka, as the 'lady-in-boat-type-flower.' By the time you read this, any that have come through will already have been damaged by April frost.

At the beginning of this week, I thought spring flowers would be coming out ten to the dozen, by Easter. But that was before this maddening rump of frigid air crept back down from its lair at the top of Norway. So now we have gales promised, possible snow and the prospect of a nasty Easter, weatherwise, that is.

Several odd and startling things have happened, so I'll list them here.

1.) I was telephoned by someone moderately illustrious and asked if I'd be willing to take Julian Fellowes to lunch. I can't say more, but that's a name that simply has to be dropped. I can also give him a gentle bollocking for not providing subtitles for the 'cloth-eared' on the DVD of Gosford Park. I've watched it three times already, dammit, and still only picked up about half the dialogue.

2.) I went for a hobble in Bourne Woods with my elder son and the Photographer General where I heard, even without my hearing aids, several chiffchaffs singing. First this year. Also saw a willow tit (there are both marsh tits and willow tits in this wood and telling them apart is a bit tricky. One has a rugby forward's neck, the other skulks more.) The chiffies' 'dit-dat-di-dah-tit-tat-dit-tat- tew' reminded my that I didn't hear or see a single willow warbler in that wood last year whereas 20 years ago, they were more frequent there than chiffchaffs. We also heard a tawny owl calling in the middle of the afternoon. It's an omen, I tell you! An omen.

Primroses have come into bloom in the wood, pretty well on time, I'd say, but we only saw one, single wood anemone. I have more of those blooming in the garden.

3.) Only two of the seven trilliums that I paid telephone number prices for last spring have emerged, despite their having been planted in what I would have regarded as trillium heaven - ie, moist but well drained, neutral woodland soil which is rich in leafmould. I have no hope of ever seeing the others again. One of the two that have popped up only has two leaves, so I suppose you should really call it a billium or a duollium. I won't give up on them, but I am rather resentful. All the other woodlanders seem fine.

4.) I heard today that a pet shop lady was fined £1,000 and had to wear an electronic tag for three months for selling a goldfish to a 14 year-old boy. A criminal record, for that???!!! Read about it here. Apparently, the kid was a plant and had been employed by the Morality Police on the lookout for hardened criminals who make a habit of selling pets to minors.

What a nasty little sneak that 14 year-old must be! I'd like to box his ears for deceit but would probably be charged with child abuse and locked up with a burly safe robber for years. Anyway, wasn't using a minor as bait somewhat abusive? What kind of moral message does it give him? And also, what happened to the goldfish? I think we should be told.

We have SO got to get rid of the meddlesome, power-crazed, spying, prying, snooping, bludgeoning, moralising culture which seems to exist in the 'deep heart's core' of anyone in a position of authority. If that lady is a criminal, for selling a live fish to an adolescent boy, then I'm a banana.

5.) Cop this for an interesting bit of news. A tomato hybrid with a 60% increase in yield, and sweeter, too! It looks like an exciting break-through, but it will be sorely needed. If we are to feed ourselves properly in the future, yields over-all - but in particular, of cereals - are going to have to double. And the chances of being a meat eater, in the 2050s and beyond, seem to be diminishing for all sorts of reasons. Interesting. But I'm glad we're having roast beef for Easter Sunday and, hopefully, sausages and mash tomorrow.

Not this year! The woods last April.

I'm listening to Bach's Saint Matthew Passion. Well, it is Holy Week - not that I'm religious or anything. I just love the music.

This day in 1986 It was Easter Bank Holiday Monday. I showed the Princess of Wales's sister's mother-in-law round our garden and watched Cosi fan Tutti on television. We ate pork chops for supper.

For this week's film I was going to mention the remarkably good adaptation of J. M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace which we watched on Sunday.

But in yesterday's vile rain, instead of gardening, the PG and I sneaked off to see what we thought would be a 3D presentation of Avatar. It wasn't in 3D and I'd been warned that it wasn't a kinemaphile's thing at all. Quite the opposite. So I entered the theatre with a knowing sneer forming, but that was soon wiped away. Yes, the story is dreadfully thin, and yes, the acting is wooden and, OK, perhaps the characters are just a scriddick cardboardy and the music is dreary and relentless. And NO I will NEVER forgive James Cameron for the execrable Titanic. Never! But Avatar I really enjoyed. The scenery and CG stuff is absolutely spectacular. The life forms, both plant and animal were totally fascinating. (Whoops, I nearly said 'stunning!' tut tut!) My erudite son tells me they were designed by Wayne Barlow, an artist who specialises in science fictiony things. Well, good on ya, Wayne! 166minutes not exactly wasted. Plus we had a tasty curry on the way home.

Have a lovely Easter/Passover or whatever, y'all!

Thursday 25 March 2010


A couple of auriculas: Left, 'Sirius,' right, 'Robbo.'

Now then. Gosh and begorrah! I think it's time for a bit of thought on Alien Invasions.

I'm sure you are aware, as we all are, of the threat posed by invasive alien species. Naturalist Edward O Wilson, his website is here, lists five main causes of extinction which you can remember with the mnemonic HIPPO:

H = habitat loss
I = invasive alien species
P = pollution
P = population growth
O = over-harvesting, of natural resources.

Alien species are responsible for horrendous extinction problems in the UK. The antipodean Crassula helmsii for example, is wrecking lakeland habitats; Himalayan balsam, Impatiens glandulifera harms our water courses by smothering natives and of course, we have the Victorian plant collectors to thank for the more widespread scourge, Japanese Knotweed.

More recently, the harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis, a thug from Asia introduced to Europe, apparently, AS A BIOLOGICAL CONTROL, has established itself comfortably in Britain and looks set to eat the population of native ladybirds, and then move on to a large range of insects.

Keep that little point in mind, if you kindly would.

Now then. I heard recently, about another alien species, Aphalara itadori, a plant-sucking psyllid which will destroy the Japanese Knotweed. And DEFRA, in its wisdom and sound judgment, is to release this into the wild.

Anything coming from that monstrous megaministry fills me with fear and loathing. It was they who cocked up the payments to farmers, thereby incurring a hefty fine from Brussels which we taxpayer had to pay. You can see earlier rude comments about this horrendous Government Department here.

That gives me serious misgivings. DEFRA says the psyllid has been tested on important British food plants. Oh? So that's all right then. No worries there. Ah, but what about the rest of the British flora? And what about our garden flora?

The only important British food plant I can think of, which is related to knotweed, is rhubarb, so I hope they've tested it on that, in particular.

And what about the many, superb Persicarias which we grow in our gardens? Will this psyllid munch into our native wild bistort? Will it ruin Persicaria affine, or the magnificent, rat tail flowered Persicaria amplexicaulis? Gawd, I hope not!!

And what happens if (?when) this species makes a tiny genetic shift and produces youngsters which like other genera? What then. A beet sucking psyllid on the way? A potato psyllid? Probably not, but you never know!

One of the main reasons given for not using genetically modified crops, in the UK, was the danger of 'modified genes' getting into the wild. Nobody managed to explain how that could happen, but it was still pedalled as an argument for banning them 'A Pandora's box,' we were told, 'and once it's out, there's no putting it back.

Persicaria polymorpha
will it succumb to the psyllid introduced to zap Jap. knotweed?

Well, it's exactly the same with this damned psyllid. You can let it go, but you can't control it and you certainly can't get it back. Thinking you can do so is about a daft as believing you could re-capture and destroy all the harlequin ladybirds. Or as stupid as trying to cull badgers, thinking that will cure Bovine TB - and that - Welsh Assembly please note - in the face of scientific evidence showing that attempting to cull them causes perturbation which actually increases, the spread and risk of TB.

Alien species, released for 'natural' pest control have been disastrous in many parts of the world: cane toads in Australia, Mongooses in the Caribbean and Mauritius and Harlequin ladybirds are all strong examples. I just hope Aphalara itadori doesn't turn out to be as disastrous.

That knotweed again, Persicaria polymorpha, in close-up.
It's too pretty to lose and completely harmless.

I'm listening to Thomas 'Fats' Waller performing Your Feet's Too Big!

This day in 2006 I made a mini-pond with an old white Belfast sink and some rocks. Today, it has frogspawn - most of which I must remove so that the few tadpoles left behind have a chance of developing.

This week's film was Michael Haneke's superb Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte. (The White Ribbon.) Set in the last years before the Great War, this gave us a portrait of a near-feudal, German rural community following, in particular, the lives of the children. The oppression, at all levels, provided the driving energy for the narrative which unfolded amid enchanting scenery, all shot in black and white. The child actors were remarkable and the outcome not really as down beat as it could have been. An absolute masterpiece of cinema. Do watch it, if you haven't already seen it.

Auf wiedersehen

Thursday 18 March 2010


This is not a proper post, but an enquiry. I've been getting some highly suspicious comments on my posts, recently. Some are from India, others from the Cradle of Civilisation on the western side of the Atlantic.

They seem vaguely connected with spamming and hint at such things as acne treatment. I don't like them and don't want them.

Have any of you experienced bloggers had problems like this? And if you have, is there anything you can do about them? I'm loath to click on their links, incase of computer pollution.

Any advice would be gratefully received.


Tuesday 16 March 2010


Alyogyne Huegelii - a delightful Australian hibiscus which won't stop flowering.

The spring weather has brought a spring to our steps, don't you think? Wendy is beginning to wake up and bring forth her sweetness. For too long, hateful cloud and 'starving' weather has kept my propagules cold, un-stirring and liable to rot off. But now, the cucumbers and tomatoes are up and ready for pricking out, the bedding is coming on and it's all systems go.

I've over-produced easy stuff, of course, as one always does, but am thanking providence that I had the sense to root cuttings of my more hardy pelargoniums. All, without exception, have perished outdoors, so my little babes, cherished in the Ark known as Wendy, have become extremely important.

Wendy, shot earlier today.

Now, a little shameless name dropping. We dined last week, my dears, with the sparkly Titchmarshes at a private supper party, chez the RHS President Giles Coode-Adams. And we stayed overnight with the Johnsons.

The mighty Hugh Johnson, who I've always admired enormously, not only because his World Atlas of Wine – first published in the early 1970s and revived in a myriad editions – taught me a great deal of plonkmanship but also because his written English, in style and construction, is sublime. He would never have been guilty of a sentence as clumsy as the one I've just written.

If you recall 'Tradescant's Diary' which used to appear every month in The Garden, you'll want to see this link and to discover, with joy, that Trad is still keeping up his journal.

The Johnsons are terrific gardeners of course, and our breakfas
t time tour of walled garden, dells, vistas, Japanese pool, trees, trees, trees and other delights put us in the best possible mood for the day.

A distinctly chilly, windswept Hyde Hall was our
next stop where we witnessed the Official Opening of the new Visitor Centre by El Magnifico Titchmarsho. Ceremonial ribbon snipping preceded an expertly conducted tour of the garden. We were split up into groups, for this, and as luck would have it, my gang ended up with the enthusiastic, ebullient Essex native James Nolan. James is responsible for all the new garden area which leads visitors from the centre gently up the long, long hill to the Dry Garden and beyond. He has a remarkable resemblance to Robson Green and I couldn't help thinking, as we toured that there might be a gruesome mangled
body somewhere.

Finally, when completely rigid with cold, we ducked under cover for what is known as a 'finger lunch.' I have to say, I didn't see any of the said digits among the food, but there are things one should never, never attempt at such events:

One is to try to drink fruit cup, when there are thousands of bits of fruit in it, when both hands are occupied juggling a plate and trying to stop the small, snacky things from rolling off. By magic, a tempura object fell, kerplunk, into the fruit cup which I subsequently managed to tip over someone's shoes.

Some of my tomato seedlings - hating peat-free compost.

The other thing is always, always, always avoid meringues like the plague at stand up events. They always explode, depositing their cream on your nose while the fragments waft away onto other peoples smart luncheon clothes. I should have known, but it is a well known fact that Hyde Hall meringues are the best - the absolute best. And they make them tiny, so you think they'll be manageable. But they aren't

The day went rather downhill after that. Cruising down the M2 - to visit my brilliant brother and help celebrate our Mother's birthday - don't ask - and cruising at a well-managed and legal 70mph, my car smacked into a metal object left in the road with a sickening thump. This trashed the back tyre and bent the wheel.

Changing a wheel on a motorway hard shoulder tends to make one work quickly and efficiently and we were away again within about 15 minutes, on a barmy army spare wheel which looked as though it had been borrowed from a bicycle.

But despite my resourcefulness, in remembering where the tools and spare tyre were kept, and the icy, controlled calm of the Photographer General, I got rather a ticking off by the attractive and extremely decent lady at the Canterbury Audi Garage.
'It's quite scary, changing a wheel on a motorway hard shoulde
r,' I said.
'You shouldn't have,' she said, severely. 'You should have called the RAC.'
'Have I been silly?' I asked, unaware that changing a wheel was apparently beyond my official skills.
'No' she replied, wearily, 'you just did it because you're a man.'
Alyogyne huegelii

But enough of all that!

I'm listening to the PG, threatening me with violence if I don't get away from this computer.

This week's film was The Thirty Nine Steps - the Hitchcock one with Robet Donat. It's an absolute gem, riddled with dark humour, deliciously told and with early vintage performances from John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft. Every moment pleasurable and exciting. If only trains were like that now! Ah me!

This day in 2006 I was at Rosemoor, for a meeting of the Gardens Committee. A senior member of staff suggested that RHS volunteers, since they loved what what they did so much, might be invited to pay for the privilege of helping out with the garden!


Monday 8 March 2010


Sunshine has brought this Crocus tommasinianus 'Roseus' into bloom.
The garden is coming to life, birds are squabbling and the buds swelling.

'You'll feel a prick,' the rheumatologist muttered into my ear, as he wrenched my pants down and grasped my buttock.

'How could one not feel like one,' I thought, 'lying prone, naked where it matters and with a medical apprentice of some kind looking on while his boss manhandled parts of me that I'd rather he left alone. I was about to respond with a smart-arse remark about sexual predilections when pain sharper than a scorpion's sting made me grunt.

My right hip, you see, has gone ridiculously on strike and prevents me from walking properly, or at times, from walking at all. The medics, so far, have been unable to diagnose the problem. X-rays show a healthy skeleton, so no arthritis which is comforting. The tentative diagnosis was an inflamed bursa. (Sounds like an angry school financial controller.) This has been injected with some kind of corticosteroid, but the hip still refuses to work. So instead of jauntily leaping from one spring garden job to another, I hobble, cuss and moan.

I spent part of the week end, cutting back the last of the dead perennials and did it all while remaining on my knees, like a penitent crawling through the Stations of the Cross. So I've got bruised knees, now as well.

I wouldn't have bored you with these tedious tales of self-pity, except to offer them as a partial excuse for the rather jaundiced tenor of my last post. I was rude about people - even politicians - and that won't do.

But the hip is still in the cack, so this week, I thought I'd carry on in a nasty vein - but be rude about words, instead of people. I'm referring, here, to stupid, lazy, superfluous, pointless, jargonic words and phrases that make me want to scream and smash things, every time I hear them. Such mind-numbing, ire-inducing, scorn-rousing, lip-curling, head busting, clichéd expressions should be stamped out. Now.

You know the sort of thing. Mindless utterances from people who can't be arsed to think up meaningful phrases for themselves; who haven't the vocabulary in their noddles to recall anything that transcends a bloke's normal daily occupations of sex, money, sex, food, sex, warmth, sex and security.

I'm referring to crap words and phrases like:

Twenty-four seven,
Going forward,
Let's be clear,
Next up,
Mother's Day - referring to Mid-Lent or Mothering Sunday,
Strategic fit - an RHS favourite, I regret to say,
Fit for purpose,
On the back foot,
Comfort zone,
Wriggle room,
At this moment in time,
Recession busting,
Toxic assets.
Talking the talk versus walking the walk - what the hell does that mean?
Double dip - sounds more like an ice-cream than an economic graph.

and, of course,
Stunning! AAAAAAAAArrrrrghhhhhhhh! People are still using it!

Let's just glance at that odious word 'leverage.' It's perfectly acceptable as a noun but it is NOT a verb. You can't 'leverage' anything - or you couldn't until the word got so widely misused that it became part of the dross in the bottom of the gargantuan dustbin that is the English language. Lorries and cart horses haul loads. They do not haulage them. An engine driver would not 'leverage' the throttle but if he had a dozen levers to manipulate, that would be a lot of leverage.

It has to be admitted, that we all tend to laziness, when writing or speaking. It's a vice common to almost everyone, an example of the sin of sloth - though whether two-toed or three-toed, I'm not sure.

I think a good Mid-Lent resolution for all of us - particularly those of us wot rite for there living - might be to ban all clichés and hack-crap from our utterances and our writing for at least a month. Whaddayasay?

And just to get the ball rolling, I've devised a ridiculous little exercise and you are invited to take part.

Here goes:
Construct a sentence which makes sense and which includes, in any order, all the words in this post's title. As well as containing those words, it must also hold at least one ridiculous cliché.

If it helps: blue eyed shags are being assisted, in South Georgia, by a rat-culling programme; I have just written about ichneumons in response to a query for Garden News and Arsenicals were once used as pesticides (lead arsenate) and more bizarrely, arsonic and arsonilic acids were used as growth-promotors in intensive pig farming.

A bouquet to the winning entry.

I'm listening to a Schubert String Trio

This day Last year I weeded our vegetable patch and planted tubercles of Achimenes. It was a cold Sunday.

This week's films were No Country for Old Men, and Laura. Two great films in staggering contrast. The sets and costumes, in Laura, were camper than a row of tents and the acting, especially from Dana Andrews, was a tad wooden at times, but that didn't spoil the enjoyment one jot. In fact it seemed almost appropriate to the preposterous story.

Bye bye - or should I say TTFN!

Tuesday 2 March 2010


Before potting up, flowering hyacinths should be thoroughly wilted, preferably in hot sun. (See text for more helpful advice about experts.)

I've been getting worried about experts. Not only are they oftentimes wrong, and frequently a pain in the fundament, but they also – judging by the facial expressions that some of them adopt, when advising – appear to be not quite happy.

Let's begin with a non-gardening thing. By far the worst and most dangerous non-horticultural expert is your economist. None of them has a bloody clue, frankly, and yet they speak with such weighty authority that we – mugs that we are – tend to assume they know what they're talking about.

Here's an example of Econo-twoddle:
You should spend a great deal of taxpayers' money on useless enterprises because that will make the nation richer. Keynes came up with that one in the 1930s and is credited with ending the great depression by applying those very principles. Hmmm? Did it really work, or did World War Two do it? Or would the whole thing have fizzled out anyway?

And now our thrice blessed, slack-jowelled, non-bullying leader – he of the curious inhalation mannerisms – is pursuing similar spend-or-bust notions with frenzied gusto. And in spite of this Government's illogical approach to debt and economic health, Her Maj's Opposition are slipping towards a coveted second place in the coming cricket match some time in May. It's as if the last thing they want is actually to win the election.

In the 70s, a hard-hitting Chicago econo-twoddlist called Milton Friedman, told us that if we spend more mazoola than we've actually got, we'll soon be in trouble. (Well there's a surprise!) And if you print extra funny-money, to make up for the real dosh that you spent but didn't have, you'll invite disaster. Soon, you'll need a wheelbarrow full of used tenners to buy loaf and a can of beans. The poor old £ is on the way there already.

So where does that leave us today? Well, broke, obviously. And worse. 'Quantitative Easing' is a euphemism for printing funny money - just like Little Herr Friedman said we shouldn't - so the value of the spondies in our pockets has plummetted in the face of the dollar - which is sort of understandable - and also in the face of the Euro which makes absolutely no sense whatever. I mean, just look at the Euro!!! It's even more Mickey Mouse than the Pound, so what the Sam Hell is going on??? Look at it another way, if you like: the Greek currency is harder than ours!! That's never right, surely! Or is it?

Absolutely no one who should know the answer to these questions, does. Ask a dozen economists or business experts and you'll get at least twelve different answers - probably more. But ask your average London Cabbie, and you'll get a pretty accurate analysis which might go like this:
'We're in the cack, Gov, fair 'n' square, an' there's sod all anyone can do abaht it. By the way, is it alright if I take you via Islington, only Trafalgar Square's been a bloomin' nightmare all mornin'?'

Which is a roundabout way of casting doubt on the efficacy of your average expert. Including gardening ones.

Trillium luteum - a swine to grow but something to crow about if it succeeds

I can be legitimately rude about these - unlike economonaniacs - because I've earned most of my income, in the past few decades, by being one. And I've been coming to the conclusion that it is really important to question absolutely everything.

For instance, you'll find a wonderful posting about pruning a wisteria here. You'll need to have seen the post to understand the following, but hurry back!

Received wisdom, on this wisteria topic tells me. . .
1. Wisteria should be pruned - or in 'expert parlance' - the correct time to prune wisteria is in August, and again in January.

2. One should never prune during frost or snow, as the cold might cause damage to pruning scars.


3. Anyone who, in the face of weather like that, who is not tucked up by the fire with a good book - preferably a Dickens - is completely mad.

And yet, what the Garden Faerie was doing, is absolutely spot-on excellent. No doubt the wisteria in question will thrive, despite being pruned in the frost and in the wrong month. And for anyone to volunteer for hard, outdoor work in such extreme weather conditions should be awarded medals for self-sacrifice, even if weather that cold is normal for March in that part of Michigan.

I remember watching a top-rate professional gardener transplanting a young medlar tree in late summer. 'Aren't you supposed to wait until the leaves have fallen, before you do that,' I asked, astonished at his brutality in digging up the actively green and growing tree.

'So you are,' he replied, and proceeded to pull off every leaf by hand, leaving the poor medlar bald and twiggy, before its due time.

That was donkey's ears ago, and the medlar still lives, though sadly, not the gardener. I'm thinking of analysing all I've recommended, in the past, and then producing an iconoclastic book, showing how rules can be broken, often to everyone's advantage. But the trouble is, that would just replace one version of expertise with another, and that won't do.

Anarchy is all very well, in theory, but as soon as you try to practise it, a legal framework rears up out of nowhere and bites you in the arse.

I'm listening to Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes - probably explains my misanthropic mood.

This week's film was Guys and Dolls. What a load mediocre rubbish! Sinatra was in it but only sang about one song; Marlon Brando, who couldn't really sing, sang too dam' many songs - if it was him singing, and not a plant; the characters were so unsympathetic that one wanted them all to die, so the thing could end. And the choreography was silly, stagey and completely unconvincing.

On a more positive note: Lenny Henry, playing Othello on BBC Radio Four was absolutely brilliant.

This day in 2007 was the morning after the first night of the world famous stage show, Green With Envy - when James Le Chapeau and I shared an audience - the first of many delightful jaunts into the world of thesps, fusty dressing rooms, curled sandwiches and exhausted but helpful stage managers.