Wednesday, 23 February 2011


Well, hullo my hearties!

First, the tasteless and unnecessary information:

A big NHS van arrived today, bearing - for all the village to see - a showy, white, clinical-looking raised bog contraption, a pair of crutches and special elephant feet to increase the height of the Matrimonial Bed.  The raised bog is nothing to do with peat, but perches on top of our existing khazi so that I can perform without bending at the hip more than 90º. Don't ask me how one is supposed to do that! It's going to be a sharp learning curve next week.

Enough already!!

Now, as a foot note to my last post - a rather arresting comment on the radio this morning:

According to the John Innes Institute at Norwich,  More wheat will be eaten, worldwide, over the next fifty yearsthan has been harvested over the past ten thousand years.  

Something to think about?  Certainly a good reason for keeping an open mind about all forms of food production.

Helleborus purpurascens in my garden this week. I've come to the conclusion that I prefer simple wild species to fancy hybrid hellebores. They're certainly prettier than those awful doubles.  Click on pic to enlarge.

Well, well,
What do you do when the spirit is feverishly, yearningly, urgently willing but the flesh is weaker than a Methodist's whisky and soda?  You get frustrated and angry, then if you're not jolly careful, you can become resentful and moany.  But I'm hideously behind with all my garden routines.

As I type this, I'm looking out of the  window – yes, I can touch type – at the climbing rose, 'Scharlachtglut.  It has still not been pruned or trained.  It's the last one to do, but should have been finished weeks ago.  I love its  big, single, blood red flowers, with their yellow stamens, and the generous clusters of fruity orange hips which last all winter. But now they're hanging – some wrinkled, some rotten, none pretty – and the whole plant needs serious attention.  

I really am in a pickle. Half my perennials are still not cut back and I now see spring bulbs coming up among the dead stems.  There's a good day's work there, tidying, dividing plants that need it, and taking a few basal cuttings of treasures, for security.

Most of our 'lawns' are wild mini-meadow, but what little fine grass I have is, as yet, un-mown. It's tussocky here, muddy there, and where it runs up to the borders, has begun to merge with the little plants at their edges.

The 10 foot Corylus avellana 'Contorta' which I'd normally hate, and certainly didn't plant myself, has a forest of straight suckers round its grossly convoluted main stems. I have to remove these without disturbing the violets, wood anemones, epimediums, Omphalodes verna and Scilla bifolia at its feet. The suckers should have been removed in October.

Actually, that Harry Lauder's Walkingstick hazel won a reprieve when we moved here 7 years ago.  I had marked it for death, along with such other monstrosities as a big, half dead weeping willow, a 20ft Leyland 'hedge' and a mature-ish Cryptomeria, outside the back door that was so hideously pruned that it resembled a wrinkly old man with no trousers.  

But I realised that  if I pruned the hazel with guile, it could develop an open-framed, characterful plant for winter, at the entrance to our tiny woodland garden.  I'd planned a foreground of tall herbaceous stuff for summer, so that the nut's full-on ugliness, when in leaf, would be sufficiently disguised.  It looks elegantly Chinese, in winter, now, but still abominable in leaf.

A-a-a-anyway.  The reason for this horticultural tardiness is genuine and unavoidable.  My failing hip allows work for about 40 minutes, and then converts me to a staggering, limping wreck.  Getting up and down takes minutes, rather than seconds, and bending or flexing feels like feeding oneself through a very small hoop backwards, arse first.

I could have hired a gardener, but somehow, I didn't feel I could bear a stranger rummaging about in my borders.  Those beds are rather private and only I know where the really sensitive places are.  How could an outsider know where the small colony of Tulipa sprengeri lives, or why one cannot weed in the wood until one can see where submerged specials like Trilliums lie. 

And how could I bear a professional laughing at my childish habit of stuffing broken bits of plant – dianthus, helianthemum, penstemon & so on – back into the ground, hoping they'd root, even though they usually do?

The PG has repeatedly offered to help, but I forbid it. She has more than enough to deal with, without more labouring.

So I've decided that the garden – poor little mite – will just have to wait until I'm properly mobile again. It will recover, once I get my hands back on it.  And meanwhile, there'll be plenty of contemplation time while the new hip replacement beds in.  I'm told it will be 6 weeks no bending, 3 months near normal, 6 months to almost full recovery.

Next autumn, therefore, a gentle renovation will begin for parts of the garden.  But a great central re-design is on the cards.  I've had a major inspiration but may need help from a design expert.  I know pretty well what I want, but it's always worth getting others to cast their beadies over one's plans.  (I'm thinking that double barrelled geezer with the big hats.) Someone like he might spot obvious errors, idiocies and missed opportunities.  But of that, more later.

Life, I believe, needs a jolt from time to time, to buck one up and stimulate creativity. But with the pre-Christmas fire, my collapsible mother and this bloody hip, I think we've had quite enough, for now, in the jolt department.

Crocus chrysanthus 'Blue Pearl,' one of the best coloured chrysanthus types and a reliably tough little crocus.  This was shot by the PG a year or so ago.  Mine in the garden just budding.

I'm listening to Melvyn Tan playing Schubert's Moments Musicaux on a Broadwood Fortepiano - a recording, he's not here personally!

This day in 2006 I attended the Official Opening of Delamore Young Plants, in Wisbech Saint Mary's. Peter Seabrook was guest of honour and I lunched with a group of Israeli plant breeders.

This week's film was Social Network.  After keen anticipation, I have to say I was disappointed. Aaron Sorkin's screenplay was clever - perhaps too clever - and like his West Wing, the dialogue rattled along almost at the speed of light.  But with the modern film makers' maddening habit of boosting background noise to the max, and then picking actors with mediocre diction, I found parts of the dialogue inaudible or incomprehensible.  Even with subtitles turned on, it was a race to keep up.

But it wasn't all the film's fault. Part of the trouble was the subject. I found the characters, particularly the main protagonist and his closest associates to be such staggeringly repellent creatures, so amoral, dysfunctional, nerdicular and just plain revolting, that by the end of the film, I wanted them all to die, and their nasty gimlet-eyed lawyers with them.

I'm sure it will get scads of oscars on the forthcoming Sunday stitch up, but if it does, that might be more to do with chauvinism than merit.

No blog next week, unless I come out of hospital double quick.  So until March - toodle ooh!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011


Sorry - there's virtually no gardening in this post.  More, I promise, next time.  Meanwhile, the Muscari azureum seeds that I scattered two years ago are coming into flower.  Huzzah!  But now, down to business. . .

Oilseed rape growing on the fens near my village. Heavy inputs of nitrogen fertiliser and pesticides are needed to produce good crops, but it is highly productive.  A well grown rape crop can produce nearly 1.5 tonnes of vegetable oil per hectare.

Back to that ewe. . .

It was a little girl.

I know!  I could hardly believe it either but I was listening to BBC Radio 4's Farming Today when, to my astonishment, a woman shepherd (she sounded too bossy to be a shepherdess) announced, amid much grunting and other agricultural sound effects, that the ewe – I believe it was a Norfolk Horn – had just 'had a little girl.'

Now I know Norfolk has a reputation for, shall we say, eccentric couplings but even the simplest grasp of biology will tell you that when sexual liaisons between genera occasionally happen, however satisfactory the consummation might be to the participants, no progeny can result.  The DNAs wouldn't mesh.

And then it dawned on me that this was not a fleshly abomination at all.  It was worse!  This was an example of anthropomorphism – a fashionable tendency which I find extremely worrying.

If you call a lamb a lamb, nasty minds like mine turn quickly from cuddly little woolies, gambolling in daffodil-strewn paddocks, to thoughts of Barnsley chops, Lancashire hotpot, Kleftiko or mutton Shashlik.  And if I were a livestock farmer – which I once was – I'd be totting up potential profits on the carcasses and wondering how I could maximise them.

But if you call a lamb a 'little girl,' that gives a skewed picture.  It gets you closer to cuddly toys or to characters like Larry the Lamb – bet none of you remembers him! – or to LambChop.  Nice, comforting imagery?  Certainly! But it's removed from the reality of livestock farming.  And the more removed consumers are, from the truth about origins of their food, the more unrealistic the whole thing becomes.  Or is that balderdash?

Anyway, if you could just keep the foregoing rubbish at the back of your mind, while I bombard you with a couple more thoughts, I'd be deeply grateful.

Some thoughts:

1.  According to the United Nations, world food production needs to double by 2050, if everyone is to be fed. It's here.

Achieving high yields already consumes profligate levels of resources, many of them irreplaceable.  Doubling production will have to be achieved, therefore, not with the same resources, but with fewer.  Have a look at this New York Times piece which outlines the need to change production methods.

Traditional vegetable gardening can be incredibly efficient as a means of raising food. As gardeners, we can care for our environment, enhance biodiversity and can be highly productive.  Food gardens, to me, have greater beauty than the over-topiarised pretentiousness of some 'great' gardens.

2.  If we are to feed the 9 billion – expected population in 2050 – we need to box clever.  A lot cleverer, I suggest, than we've done so far.  There isn't the luxury available, of fostering bat-brained ideas based on emotion or worse, inaccurate pseudo-science.   We've got to learn how to have two birds in the hand while leaving another two constantly in the bush.

3.  Environmental damage, as witnessed in the past half century cannot be repeated.  It is obscene and intolerable.  Such reckless destruction is also dangerous to the whole of humanity and is therefore stupid. Yet we persist. Can't stop. Have to carry on wrecking.

Answers to our most desperate needs could be out there, in the wild.  But if the loss of biodiversity continues at its current rate, there'll be nothing left.  Then what?  Will we live in a degraded earth, continually hammered by destructive climates, cowed by political instability and enduring constant, nagging wars over resources.

4. The power fulcrum is shifting eastwards. The world's second largest economy, China – and with it, the rest of Asia – will be calling the big shots pretty soon. And if the populations of India and China want the levels of self-indulgence we enjoy in Europe and the United States, where will the resources come from?

Virgin rainforest was removed to plant tea, in the Cameron Highlands region of Malaysia. Can production of such commodities be increased without further destruction of rich, natural resources?

Meanwhile, here in Britain we are about 65% self-sufficient in food.  But with predicted population growth, that will drop to about 50%.  We should be aiming higher.

Livestock production, butchery and our Western diets have become difficult and emotive subjects. In the face of dwindling resources and changing values, many of us are increasingly troubled about what we eat, and how much.  But it is also becoming clear, that we must be ready to embrace technological advances that will benefit productivity, provided safeguards such as animal welfare are firmly in place.

After the traumatising experience of BSE, and subsequent food scares, consumers have become suspicious of anything new.  That has to change: not the suspicion - that's healthy - but the willingness to keep an open and curious mind, rather than following the mob.

Genetically modified crops were roundly - and in my view, unwisely - condemned.  The chorus of disapproval, led by Prince Charles and orchestrated by the Soil Association has been deeply destructive, closing people's minds to reasoned argument and shutting doors not only to efficient food production, but to a vast range of potential benefits including better wildlife conservation, reduced dependency on fertilisers and chemical-free plant health.

In a challenging future, I think we must be ready to look judiciously at all new technologies. And we should embrace any that will help to fill bellies without causing collateral damage.  

Tapioca, manioc, cassava, Manihot esculenta - call it what you will, the roots are a source of dietary starch and the plants can grow in cereal-hostile conditions, even rainforest.  Therefore a valuable world feeder with huge potential, even though we Brits remember it mainly for the gloopy 'frogspawn' milk puddings.  It'll be better still if the toxins can be bred out of the sap. (This is a curious red-stemmed variety I photographed on the island of Sulawesi.)

I'm listening to Haydn's The Creation or rather Die Schöpfung. Neville Marriner is conducting.

This week's film was Bunny Lake is Missing.  A British thriller, directed by Otto Preminger, screenplay by John and Penelope Mortimer, starring Larry Olivier, for once rather under-playing his role as an educated policeman. (You could tell he was educated 'cos he wore a Cambridge University tie all the time.)  For all those big names, it's a bit of a disappointment for two reasons: first, the long suspense scene at the climax is milked so dry that one is beginning to yawn before the denouement arrives.  But the big reason is that it's one of the few British films of its day without an appearance by Sam Kydd.  We felt bereaved, having scoured every frame for him.

This day, roughly, in 1956 I was in the worlds coldest and most inhospitable spot – the corridor between classrooms at my Norfolk prep school. Icicles developed on the insides of the windows. The Suez Crisis and Budapest Uprising were to follow that year.

Bye bye

Monday, 7 February 2011


Hullooo! Huzzah!!! And how lovely to be alive, in this force 9 gale, watching all my late winter pretties being lashed to pieces.  Lovely!

Crocus imperati 'de Jaeger' - first bulb to bloom this year, beating even the first snowdrops.

I promised to deliver a serious rant, this week,  about - well, you'll remember this 'teaser' from my last post.
'. . . here's a vision of 2050:-
Nine billion people, a crashing climate, new top dog superpowers replacing the old top dog superpowers and a looming resources crisis.  Food for thought? And probably not for eating.'

But I'm afraid you'll have to wait another week.  Playing on Twitter has neutralised too much of my bile, for some strange reason, and I've come over all benign.    And it's sunny, even though the gale is howling, and things at last are beginning to look really pretty, in the garden, so I'll save the food controversy for next time

So for or now, let's begin with some really, really bad things.
1. Mubarak's hair dye.
2. England's post-ashes cricket.
3. The return of Just a Minute on Radio 4.  In its early days, around the time that Oliver Cromwell died, this was an amusing programme with some jolly contributors.  But now, like a number of shows I could mention, it has had it's day and should be kindly but quickly euthanised.  In fact I wish it would, like Fred Chopin's awful 'Minute Waltz,' fade away - but for good.

This is an important issue because Radio 4 is a precious remnant of the once wonderful BBC.  Since virtually all network television is unwatchable, Radio 4 is almost all that remains for anyone who likes to think, judge, consider and generally to cogitate about things.  Radio 4 also has some of the best comedy and drama - Saturday's dramatisation ofChandler's  The Big Sleep was done deliciously and I had my tranny radio tied to my waist while I gardened.  (OK, so it's sad, but I couldn't stop listening.)

Cyclamen coum - toughest little brutes in the garden

When I take over, as Commissar of Radio Four, there'll be quite a few sacred cattle for the chop.  Woman's Hour will only be allowed to remain if equal time is given for Man's Hour.  And on Man's Hour it will be perfectly acceptable to discuss intimate 'man' things like cars, football, real ale and husband bashing, not to mention cringy stuff like circumcision and bicycle saddle design. (If they can do cringy on Woman's Hour - and boy do they ever! – we blokes should be allowed it, too.) 

You and Yours will be cut to five minutes and broadcast at 5.40am.  Intense, boring documentaries on current affairs will be banned between Saturday midday and 6am on Mondays.  The Material World, Costing the Earth, Home Planet, Farming Today, From Our Own Correspondent and 'In Our Time'  will be protected by a PPO - Programme Preservation Order' - just like hallowed trees,  so that no future, power-mad, ratings-chasing, celeb-crazed  Controller could kill them off.  

All programmes that have 'phone in' sections will be banned forthwith.

Oh, and Gardeners Question Time will also go. It was fine in its day, just after the war, but not now.  For incurable addicts, they could re-run programmes from 1960 to 1965, since the same questions are asked every year.  Either that, or let there be proper gloves-off punch-ups on the best way to zap vine weevils and prune wisterias, and no more of this pussy-footing mutual politeness.

In place of GQT there'll be 30 minutes a week of Gardening Actualité - that is to say, a mic dangled near or attached to someone actually gardening.  NO CELEBRITY GARDENERS - corduroyed or otherwise - would be allowed near the programme, neither would those who dye their hair, Mr T  (see Bad Thing Number 1.)  Indeed, gardeners selected for microphone attachment will be just ordinary blokes down our allotments. And the programme will go out live, so swearing, farting, grunting and tool breaking would be part of the show.

4. Some berk has paid several hundred quid for a blasted snowdrop.  But it was a poculiform one, so that's ok then.  Read about it here and here.

5. The woman who lives virtually next door to me has had a dense and beautifully screening shelter belt hacked into a number of hideous, naked trunks.  I can now see into our neighbour's (not the tree hacker's) conservatory - can even see what magazines they're reading.  And as I realised, while standing naked at the window, scratching those parts of me that in polite society are best left unmolested, the neighours can see straight into our bedroom.  The shelter belt was of Prunus cerasifera with some laurel, sycamore and other odd shrubs and trees.  It was never profoundly pretty, except when in full blossom, but folk would pick the cherry plums, in summer and the whole lot gave of its greenness.  Any living vegetation is better to look at than no vegetation.  A flock of long-tailed tits foraged in it every day.  Now it's ugly, barren and bare and the tits are gone.  I don't know why she had it cut down.  Perhaps she resented others eating the cherry plums; perhaps she has an obsession with tidiness and the innate hatred of trees that seems to be common in Lincolnshire.

5.  Er, that's it for bad things.  We'll pass on Cameron and multiculturalism, fire and flood in Australia, the disgusting parade of obscene peep shows on Channel 4 and the fact that the blasted cats have shat on my most precious winter aconite, Eranthis hyemale '

And now for the good things:
1.  Our darling little Cyclamen coum are rushing into flower.  The one on the picture isn't mine.  Mine are more wind-mangled and sparse, but it's the same thing.  This is the toughest little cyclamen in cultivation and seems to put up with a wide range of conditions from partial shade to baking sun.  It is happy in our rough grass, as well as in the chilly, east facing border in our front garden - made more chilly still by the tree feller.

Hepatica nobilis in flower - this one exhibited by Ashwood Nurseries.
2.  The hepaticas are coming.  Someone tweeted me, this morning, asking what they were, so here's a piccy.  These weren't photographed in my garden.  Ours are being blown in the hurricane, at present, so I've pulled this pic from our libray.  It was shot, like the Cyclamen, by the PG.  (I did the crocus at the top.)

3. We've confirmed our booking for Berlin, in September.  We're going to the entire Das Ring Des Nibelungen and it's booked.  Huzzah - or should I say Hoch! Hoch! Hoch! 

4. Our Grimsby Fish Van can supply un-dyed kippers on the bone.  Mmmmm!  If you soak the kipper in very hot water for ten minutes, and then cook it sealed, in a microwave, the saltiness is reduced and the flavour is as good as I've ever tasted.  Plus, the house doesn't stink of smoked herring for a week afterwards.

This week's film was Lagaan - starring Aamir Khan and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker – a Bollywood classic, set in the 1850s, about British colonialism in India.  To avoid paying an unjust tithe or 'Lagaan,' the locals are given the option of a three day cricket match.  If the Indian side wins, the tax will be waived but if it loses, the tax will be trebled.  A gripping tale beautifully told. 

I'm listening to the builders hammering.  Work has begun on repairs to our house after the fire before Christmas. We have no wall on part of the house and the door to the guest room is nailed up.  The only way into that room is by climbing the scaffolding.

This day in 2007  I went to Stamford for a haircut and walked on the Thurlby Slipe Nature reserve at dusk, watching barn owls hunting.

If you're read this far, you're an absolute saint and I love you - unless you delight in wanton tree felling.  Oh, that' reminds me.  I've just read Roger Deakin's superb book Wildwood.  Anyone who loves nature and has a slightly pervy lust for wood should read this book  What an irony that I was reading it when the trees opposite were being mutilated.  Ah me!!!