Friday, 20 August 2010


Victoria Summerly wrote, on Friday 13th, an inspired article in The Independent entitled Colour Prejudice in the English Garden.

It twanged a deeply sympathetic chord with me, as well as making me laugh like a drain. Quite rightly, she singles out the English as being the worst perpetrators of colour and style Fascism in their gardens. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, she suggests, are immune from such idiocy because of climatic or topographic limitations.

I'd narrow her geography down even further. The worst of the hortipuritans hang out south of Watford and East of Christchurch. There are pockets of creative inhibition elsewhere, of course. Harrogate is not exactly free of garden fascism and parts of the Cotswolds are highly suspect. But by and large, it seems to be a 'southern' thing and Victoria's piece reminded me of how much I hate such haughtycultural red-neckery.

Echinacea 'Art's Pride' with Scabiosa 'Chile Black' - hot colours for August and early autumn. Hues too shocking for Surrey gentility?

This is not a rational hatred, of course, and there's no virtue in it. Consider it on a par with wanting to fart in church, or, on being presented to the Queen at Chelsea, undergoing a wild fantasy of ignoring the outstretched, gloved hand and instead, throwing one's arms around the majestic personage and shouting, 'Come on, Grannikins, give yer loyal subject a big, sloppy kiss!!'

But doesn't it ever give you a sense of crashing hopelessness and despair, when you see yet another 'English Paradise' of genteel, colour co-ordinated, tastefully confined borders and lawns? Clippy-clippy yew allees; gracious planting schemes with refined and subtle lemons, creams, pinks or mauves; yards and yards of bloody lavender; tasteful obelisks furnished with pink roses and pale violet-blue clematis – these are the essential ingredients of a 'good' garden, we are told. By implication, a garden which does not exhibit these features is not good.

And don't forget the Chinoiserie garden seats, cherubic nudes – usually born minus genitalia – concrete greyhounds, chicken wire geese or faux Grecian urns, not to mention pointless sundials or lions' heads which drizzle water into upturned concrete scallop shells.

Modern additions to such 'refained' embellishments include snap-on conservatories or timber summer houses which must be painted thyme green and have that abomination of the 'noughties,' sedum sodding roofs.

It's all so bloodless. There's no passion, no wild abandon, no spunk. And there's certainly no risk.

What also narks me, about some of these Country Life Mag, Good Taste, Roy Strong-pleasing type gardens is that they're so smug and comfortable with themselves. No nasty innovative ideas, please, we're Surrey! Climate change? That doesn't affect us – we fly Business Class.

Trees and shrubs, in such places are 'correctly' pruned, as prescribed by the RHS. Border plans are still Jekyllic or Sissinghurstian, a century on from when such styles were innovative and exciting. In musical equvalents, it's like being stuck in a time-warp with Franz Lehar, Harry Lauder and Marie Lloyd.

Genuine nautical knick-knacks in a working chandler's yard. Potential garden ornaments?

Colour control seems to be at the very core of all this. Get out and about, in what's left of our countryside, and you'll find the most extraordinary colours working together like a gorgeous dream. Bluebells with red campion; an orange tip butterfly perching on pale lilac cuckoo flower; the bubblegum pink husks of Euonymus europaeus contrasting startlingly with the bright orange of the exposed seeds; strident yellow charlock and scarlet field poppies - there are countless wonderful and sometimes shocking combinations.

But in a garden, persons of delicate sensibilities might feel faint if they encounter a strident orange Geum, especially if it grows too close to a pink Sidalcea. I even knew rather grand gardener, female, who grew variegated London Pride in broad bands along her border front, but who cut off all the flowers before they emerged because their pale pink hue 'didn't go.' That, to her, was good colour discipline; to me it was sick and perverse.

And while we're on the subject, here's a bit of colour fascism from me: most variegated plants are about as sick and perverse as it's possible to be – specially the ones with stipples and blotches rather than well-defined cream or white lines. When I was learning to garden, back in the early seventies, I planted a variegated zone. It soon became known as 'the vomitorium' because every plant looked as though it had been chundered upon.

Lobelia speciosa 'Fan Rose' - another beauty for rude colour in late summer, provided you have moist, fertile soil. Almost nothing 'goes with' that shade of pink - wonderful, isn't it?!

And now that I've offended virtually everyone, I can conclude by saying that, thank goodness, there are plenty of gardeners, even in the Home Counties, who ignore all this nonsense and have exciting, vibrant, thought-provoking and emotionally moving gardens.

Fergus Garrett carries, with panache, the banner first raised by Christo Lloyd and as a result, the colours are more glorious than ever at Great Dixter, despite a strong presence of yew-hedgery and home counties posh. And Fergus' wild meadows are an inspiration to all of us. See them in early June and if you fail to be profoundly moved by the devastating beauty of such pristine flowery meads, you have a heart of carborundum.

The Hyde Hall Dry Garden, from a crushingly inauspicious start when a pile of rocks was dumped outside the main garden, has developed into a dazzling example of how to turn an unforgiving site into a horticultural gem. Not only that, it has never been watered and is as environmentally correct as can be.

Oh, and perhaps I should add, here, that my own garden is absolute crap, style wise. But it's mine and I love it and I'll do what I bloody well like in it.

I should admit, too, that there is just the teeniest bit of yew clippery in the form of two big bobbles. Each had a ridiculous nipple on top, when we move here, and both were too small. So I sheared off the protrusions and grew the little green boobs into big egg-shaped tumps. I think they're out of place - but as Victoria Summerley might say, they're there as 'ironic statements,' so that makes them all right.

Crocosmia 'Bressingham Blaze' and other varieties in gloriously violent colours. They flower when the delicately pastel-hued June flora is long gone. Far too red-blooded for some tastes, but what autumn drama!

I'm listening to Britten's Peter Grimes Act Two, would you believe? And look what prejudice and self-satisfaction did to him, poor sod!

Last Night's film was Almodovar's Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces.) Penelope Cruz, I'm sure, is at her best when she's being Hispanic. A crackling performance, and what startling glamour! The usual brilliant Almodovar mix of sexual ambiguities, misplaced fidelity and inverted values. I enjoyed it very much, but didn't get quite as caught up as with All About My Mother.

This Day in 2006 the PG and I flew to Amsterdam for a two day stopover before flying on to Cape Town. We stayed on Prins Henrikkade and sipped van Konink's ale by a Canal.

Lawks how I hate August! My garden looks knackered, pox-ridden and repugnant.

A belated Happy Lughnasa to all!

PS - in case you didn't know, the title is from Casablanca - Bogey says it to Ingrid Bergman.


  1. Bravo, at last someone who makes me feel as though my garden is OK. I have nothing clipped, no statutary, no conservatory, no colour co-ordinated borders. I have plants I love, some I try to love but wont love me back and sometimes they work together but more often I think oh dear better move that next year. I have reds, yellows, pinks, altogether and its exciting (in places) Saying that I live in Malvern so maybe far enough away from the snobbery not to be affected.

  2. Hurrah! (Although unlike you, I love August, because my garden is full of orange, reds, yellows and a bit of clashy pinks & blues.)

    By the way, your rant on the use of the word 'stunning' has now transferred to me - I found myself shouting at the TV when it was used several times in quick succession on a programme about the British countryside this week.

  3. Hurray - it needed to be said. And whatever the 'taste police' might say, Prof. Hitchmough's research at Sheffield shows that Joe Public prefers a good old drop of colour.

    *shameless plug alert*

    I've just posted what must be the ultimate antidote to all that tasteful green and white stuff - a picture of Keith Wiley's garden in Devon. It was dull and raining when we were there in July and it was eye fryingly bright even then :)

  4. Oh, goodness, I'm blushing as pink as one of Christo Lloyd's dahlias. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece, but I have to say I've enjoyed your post much more. (Possibly because I didn't have to write it...)

  5. BTW since you are remembering Cape Town - today they imploded the two Athlone cooling towers. Strange to imagine that skyline when next we see it. Our colour themed bits, all wander off theme ...