Thursday 23 September 2010


This post is published as an apology and an explanation.

But first, an announcement:

I am not a garden designer.

Thank you.

Now the picture:

My micro pond last autumn.
This was not designed at all, as you can see. It was the result of mad Saturday impulse, motivated by the sight of a lonely frog which seemed to be in search of somewhere to swim. Construction involved feverish digging, by hand, lots of black plastic, spirit levels, sweat and pain. It was begun at about noon and completed by tea time three years ago. I'm staggered that it still holds water and breeds things that hop, wriggle and slither.

(The apples were carefully arranged at the request of the editor of a certain large circulation gardening magazine who wanted pictures of a 'natural looking water feature, warts, apples and all' but who then rejected the images on the grounds that the apples floating in the water might set a bad example. He was right; they do and I'm proud of it.)

Now then. . .
Yesterday, when browsing through my favourite blogs, I discovered my excellent and respected friend's latest post which you'll find here - if you haven't already seen it.

J A-S made some extremely well observed comments on gardens at Chelsea and elsewhere and elicited some interesting responses. His experience with show gardens is immense and his coverage of almost every garden-based event is deeply impressive. He has an eagle eye, a strong and unerring aesthetic sense and phenomenal designing talent. Also, less common than it should be among designers, he knows his plants really well and has an unerring knack for assembling them to their best advantage.

In short, his designs allow the plants he deploys to speak with eloquence. Furthermore, he's willing to accommodate effete objects like the weak-kneed Rudbdeckia 'Herbstsonne' and not break into a sweat if the stems drunkenly subside, when in full autumn flower.

But instead of commenting, politely, about his views, with which I fully concur, I suffered from a hot flush - or in American a 'hot flash' - and reacted rather emotionally to something else.

It happened like this:
He mentioned that he's been included in a list, drawn up by a magazine, of what they call The Twenty Best Designers, or something along those lines. He deserves to be lauded, and if there has to be a categorisation of this kind, I'd expect to see him absolutely up there. In the top five, even. But that's not the point.

This is the point: there's something about the current fashion for ranking things that really gets my goat. Broadcasters are particularly bad at this, holding big surveys of viewers, or getting gangs of intellectual knobs to discuss and come up with the best of this or that.

But how can you do that with something as disparate and multi-faceted as garden design? Indeed, how can you possibly rank the arts - and garden design is certainly one of them - at all?

Obviously, some artists achieve their objectives more successfully than others. Some have more original ideas than others; some are better at expressing themselves than others and so on and so on. But I just don't see how you can rank the people per se.

This does not mean that I'm against awarding prizes, or that I dislike the idea of competition - far from it. But although it's fine and healthy to have prizes, I just don't think it helps to compose lists of people. Prizes and accolades, I suggest, should be for specific works, or for collections of works.

It's pretty pointless, trying to line up Ibsen with, um, Shaw, say, and Chekov, and then try to rank them. And you have to remember that even Shakespeare wrote some turkeys as well as the finest literary gems. Supposing he was judged by King John, rather than Hamlet.

I suppose the thing that worries me most, about this kind of ranking is that it tends to spoon feed people, telling them what to think, instead of making them look and search their inner selves to find out which gardens/symphonies/films/plays/paintings/novels/tasting menus really, really, really get to their souls.

And if you stop being analytical, you are in huge danger of simply following the herd. I'm told that when a production goes to Broadway, its survival in the first weeks may depend entirely on the reviews of one or two key critics. What a shame, to condemn without even waiting for more information - more word of mouth from folk who paid to see the show and approved. In the West End, I gather we're a bit more adventurous. I've gone to plays or operas with stinking reviews and loved them; and also to things with rave notices that have disappointed.

And now I've probably offended absolutely everyone.

James - I love your designs.

That's it, really.

Tuesday 14 September 2010


A fly struggles in vain, on an American sundew, Drosera filiformis, at Hampshire Carnivorous Plants' nursery.

A jaunt to Hampshire recently, mainly to visit the Hampshire Carnivorous Plants Nursery but more on that in a moment.

We also toured the fascinating Silk Mill, at Whitchurch – surely the world's most elegant factory – and strolled along the banks of the River Test. (Piscators among you will acknowledge that the Test is probably the world's finest chalk stream and therefore offers the best brown trout fishing that a shedload of money, or the having the right relatives, will buy.)

We watched several large trout lying in wait for floating flies, their thrush-speckled flanks showing against the fluorescent green of the water crowfoot. Wickedly, I imagined how sweet and delicate their flesh would taste, if swiftly cooked as in Truite au bleu and served with a flinty Pouilly Fumé, or perhaps flash-grilled in foil on a barbecue, right there on the bosky river bank, helped down with a light summer ale.

Anyway, with tea and Whitchurch behind us, we arrived at our B&B, a working dairy farm of some 90 milkers, nestling in the beautifully folded, wood-sprinkled Hampshire country side. We knocked on the door but no one answered. We wandered round the house, calling. Suddenly, I was reminded of those aimless wandering scenes round the gardens in Last Year in Marienbad – what was that incomprehensible film all about???? – and began to feel rather silly. A horse hung its head over the fence and nodded sympathetically and outside the back door, an enormous shaggy cat lay, relaxed but with one yellow eye open and suspicious, fixed on us.

Suddenly the back door burst open and a small boy of about nine emerged. He had a wafer cornet in one hand with a huge, precarious mound of vanilla ice on top. Adults and girls open doors to enter or exit; small boys explode through them, just as they crash land into chairs.

'Ah!' he exclaimed, looking startled. 'Um. . .'

'We've come to stay,' the PG explained. I could see that she was about to go motherly.

'Yes . . . I'll . . . um, have to phone Mum,' he said, dubiously, taking a quick lick at his ice cream and eyeing us. He darted into the house and was seen juggling the unstable ice cream and a mobile phone. The angle of repose, on the cornet reached critical point, but miraculously, the vanilla blob stayed in place. It's a wonder he didn't shove the thing in his ear and munch on the phone.

There was a brief exchange and he re-dialled, another feat of co-ordination. More phone conversation, for some reason, yelled. The signal was bad, he explained. Mum was at Tesco's. He showed the PG the bookings list and said 'Would you know if you were on this list?'

'I think we probably would,' she replied, with exemplary diplomacy. 'I think that's our name, there.'

'Then I'm to show you your room,' he said, and with the icecream melting by now, and running over his small, starfish hand, he replaced the phone and rummaged for a key. It was rather sticky, when he handed it over.

Moments later, his father came charging over, presumably from the milking parlour, it being late afternoon, and took over. He made us a cup tea, chatted briefly to make us welcome and scarpered back to his beasts. Mum double checked that we were all right, and that our room was acceptable, as soon as she returned from Tesco. She also recommended a fine local pub for dinner and then left us to soak up the beauty of rural Hampshire.

So, which would you rather have? A family reception like that, or to check in at an impersonal, sterile, overpriced hotel chain dump?

You know the sort of thing:
"Welcome to – insert choice of hotel chain – your satisfaction means everything to us! Later, we'll flog you cheap supermarket plonque at £8.75 per glass, service not included, in the 'Ride 'em Cowboy Saloon, or the 'Rinky Zinky Cocktail Lounge' or the 'Low-light Fake Library with Hunting Scenes Bar' at £8.75 a glass, service not included.

After that, you can tackle and inedible meal chosen from our recently ponced up menu! We use important words like 'jus,' 'coulis' and 'drizzled' and, more recently, 'local' and 'from sustainable sources' to make you think our crap is prepared by imaginative chefs and not slammed from freezer to microwave to table, every portion controlled to the nearest milligramme. YOUR PLEASURE IS OUR BUSINESS!"

Drosera aliciae - I think. The droplets are exquisite when they catch the sun.

Anyway, as I was saying, the PG and I had driven down to spend the morning with the remarkably plant-erudite but refreshingly un-nerdy Matthew Soper, and with fellow guests - all members of the RHS Tender Ornamental Plants Committee.

Matthew owns and runs Hampshire Carnivorous Plants and has a comprehensive collection of pitcher plants, bladderworts, sundews, flytraps and so on. He likes to get his hands on pretty well any member of the plant world that is non-vegetarian and showed us some of the secrets of propagation, management and breeding of these potential cast members of Little Shop of Horrors.

The key to all is rain water. The slightest trace of chalk or chlorine will do his plants a terrible mischief, so he has elaborate rainwater gathering devices and grows everything in soil-free mediums - or, if you must, media.

And his plants are anything but tender. They have evolved successfully by adapting to mossy peat bog habitats where soil nutrients are virtually unavailable. Catching insects provides a source of nitrogen and other mineral elements and enables them to survive where other plants would perish. Some of his plants come from as far north as Canada - I've seen one species of Sarracenia wild in upstate New York, myself, so I know he speaks the truth. So it would be wrong to assume that these toughies need mollycoddling in a greenhouse at home.

Matthew showed us bladderworts which spring traps for catching tiny invertebrates in wet ground, or in water, using tiny hydraulic trap doors which snap open on a hair trigger and suck passing creatures in, to a slow death. We photographed beautiful, but deadly sundews, sinister Venus' fly traps and greatly enjoyed learning so much from Matthew. After our visit, he joined us in the local pub for more 'teach-in' over a pleasant lunch.

Moment of demise, a greenbottle being caught by a Venus' Flytrap.

I'd like to be listening to Wagner's Wesendonk Songs, sung by Jessye Norman, but think I've accidentally dumped the file.

This week's film was Sin Nombre, Fukunaga's finely crafted but dark work about gangs in Mexico. In view of the awful recent bloodshed among drug gangs, it was an apt choice. The horrors of gang violence and their inverted morality have been covered again and again, since cinema was invented, but this was a deftly told, beautifully shot piece which pulled no punches.

This day in 2007 we had the plasterers in, to 'do out' our new utility room. They were months late but worked superbly. And I was writing a book for the RHS about the new Glasshouse.

Bye bye for now.