Friday, 29 July 2011


Well hullo!
I'd like to apologise, most humbly,  to the following:

To Arabella Sock - because I was rude about her Heuchera which she grew in a miniature gabion.

To Plantagogo and Heucheraholics because they grow and market a huge range of the genus Heuchera   Their plant quality, as seen at the best of Britain's flower shows, is tip top and their service is, I'm sure excellent.

And to heucheraphiles everywhere - apologies to you too.

 Solenostemon, unnamed seedling.  A bit too close for comfort, to a heuchera hue.  But I still love it.


Now please don't misunderstand me, I still hate heucheras.  Although I'd defend to the death, the right of anyone to grow the things, if so minded.  They make excellent vine weevil food, anyway, and I'm informed by my friends at Buglife that insects need all the help they can get just now.

My main gripe, with modern heucheras are the leaf colours – the caramel ones, the pallid yellow ones, the ones with foliage that looks like pewter,  and the ones whose leaves are the hue of Christmas puddings and those ones with flat-hued, beetrooty lugubriosities for leaves.  And it also bothers me that the flowers look, somehow, as though they belong to a completely different type of plant.

BUT . . .But, but – I've good reason, now, to repent of my bellicose remarks concerning heucheras and it all happened like this.

Aeons ago, when my father was still youthful, he used succumb to the most passionate crazes about particular plant groups.  One year,  he propagated enough Asiatic primulas to re-stock all the wetlands in Kashmir.

In another, he discovered the wholesale seedsmen and bought seed for enough bedding to furnish Harrogate, Bath and Aberdeen - all past finalists in Britain in Bloom, since you ask.

These crazes for bulk growing began when I was about 13.  He couldn't make his mind up, one year,  which variety of coleus to grow.  In the end, he bought a packet seed of every variety from every seedsman he could find.  And for a string of summers, every windowsill in the the house, every inch of bedding space outside and an entire greenhouse was devoted to amazing displays of what where then Coleus and are now Solenostemon.

My mother loathed them and said they were 'common' and I have to admit, their colours are a bit naff.   But of course, that spurred him on to growing more.  Luckily, he managed to kill most of them off, each winter, with botrytis.

Not so sure about this Solenostemon.  It really is naff, isn't it?

But that spurred him to propagate more feverishly than ever each spring.  When we went on holiday to France, one year, he noted with scorn, that the French allow their flame nettles to flower, whereas he meticulously disbudded his.  And while, looking scornfully at the aforementioned flowering solenostemons, he would, with swift sleight of hand, swipe a bevy of cuttings.  In one hotel where he knew the owner, a Monsieur who resembled Wilfred Hyde White, he even absent-mindedly de-flowered - if that's the right term - a couple of plants, much to the displeasure of the proprietor's daughter.

Solenostemons went right out of fashion for a while.  I never realised how much I missed them, until I spotted a couple of nice varieties for sale at our local general nursery.

I added them to my basket, and a day or two later, spotted another batch going really cheap at Bourne Market.  I've rooted cuttings from every one of them, of course, so now I have a pleasing, burgeoning collection of Coleus, Solenostemon or, if you prefer, flame nettles.

Solenostemon, an unnamed seedling.  Fiery reds, fascinating leaf textures and so easy to grow.

Now here's the apology bit.  I was admiring my latest acquisition - a Solenostemon variety called 'China Rose.'  It was collected by Ray Waite, ex Curator of Glass at Wisley, and generously handed to me, in the form of three cuttings, by his successor, Nick Morgan.

I rooted all three in precisely 7 days and now have healthy young plants - though still too tatty to show you pictures.  When they're photographable, you'll be well impressed!

Anyway, as I admired my growing collection a spine-chilling realisation dawned on me.  'Some of these,' I told myself, 'are exactly the same colour as those nasty heucheras you hate.'

Oh my goodness, what a ludicrous thing!

Taste, you see, is utterly subjective and completely illogical. It enables me to adore plants that my mother calls 'common' and permits certain exalted persons to sneer at jazzy polyanthus or Schizanthus at flower shows while raving over azaleas in identical colours on their ducal estates.

I don't like heucheras but I love Solenostemon.  Where's the sense in that?

One of the cheapie flame nettles, from Bourne Market - I love the deep lobes and distorted leaves.

I'm listening to Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb - words by Christopher Smart who was mad as a hatter.

This day in 1983 I had just returned from a West Country visit.  Three people came to our garden, that evening, according to my diary, and went away cross because we didn't sell house plants. They were not interested in any of our hardy nursery stock.

This week's viewing - well, and for some time past - has been the 1984 ITV adaptation of Paul Scott's wonderful Raj Quartet, Jewel in the Crown, in which a dastardly Tim Pigott-Smith, boozy Judy Parfitt, cowed Peggy Ashcroft, delectably sensible Geraldine James and dishy Charles Dance take us through the death throes of the British Raj and birth pangs of the new India.

Bye bye, and enjoy your heucheras.

Friday, 22 July 2011


Echinacea laevigata growing in the prairie planting at Wisley.

(This was originally posted as Rudbeckia laevigata - thanks to Arabellsa Sock for spotting my stupid mistake.  Sorry!)

(Which, as JAS has kindly pointed out below, was also wrong.  The plants are actually Echinacea pallida.  And it's time I abandoned all pretences of being anything of a plantsman.)

As ever - click on pix for larger view.

What a sad, sad day, with news that the mighty Lucian Freud has died.  

I love his work.  And it's great that he generally gave contemporary artists, including Picasso, the metaphorical two finger salute.  And that he didn't give monkey's about publicity or the drekkily precious and self-loving contemporary 'Arts' scene.  No nasty, kitsch, cheap-looking, Woolworth-like diamond encrusted skulls for him!

When I was being treated to lunch, once, in a relatively posh Kensington restaurant, he sat at the next table.  I longed to kidnap him for a couple of hour's chat on how he manages to make his paintings so terrifyingly real - you can almost smell the models -  when his technique seems so brash and so un-laboured.

Stanley Spencer, Francis Bacon and now Freud.  Gone, gone, gone - like the art of painting? Or is that unfair?  We've still got Hockney, but he's decamped to the wrong side of the Atlantic.  Lord, I'm rambling!
A nice piece on Lucian Freud here.

Reisetomate - not a pretty sight.

SOME of my early tomatoes are a disgrace and I blame Twitter.  I had planned to grow only 'Sungold' which we love for its cheery sweetness and monster yields. Also  'Gardeners Delight' which was - note the 'was' - a beauty for taste and 'Striped Stuffer' purely for size. 

Then a tweetie friend - @simiansuter -  suggested I should try a couple more: 'Latah' - a bush type which I'm growing outdoors - and 'Reisetomate' which is remarkable for its strange shape.  He kindly sent seeds and I duly sowed them and grew the plants on.

The first 'Latah' ripened a week or so ago, outside, and is quite tasty and pleasingly firm-fleshed.  I like its habit - a comfortable sprawl, but not so prostrate as to dump the fruit on the ground - and would grow it again.

The less said about 'Reisetomate' the better.  It looks like an uncomfortable medical condition which is a pity because the flavour is not at all bad.  Sharp, I'd say, with a good initial bite, but I didn't detect enought of that sought-after tom-cat-tomato muskiness that makes home-grown fruits so much more desirable than those tarted up things that occupy supermarket shelves.

I wrote 'was' about 'Gardener's Delight' because I'm convinced that the variety has changed profoundly since I last grew it about 20 years ago.  I remember the fruits being smaller, firmer, greenish in seed long after ripening and having an amazing tang, acidity and musk.  The ones I'm harvesting now are nice, but really, you couldn't say anything stronger than that.  But perhaps I'm being harsh, since the first few I picked were well down below the leaves, and therefore shaded.  But seed strains drift, over time, unless they are rigorously maintained.  Beware your seed source, therefore!

THE PICTURES. (All but the tomato shots taken by the PG - the talented half of N&R Colborn.)

Helenium 'Moerheim Beauty' brings the first autumn colour to our late border.  Cardoons and globe thistles give background height.  You can see the buds of things to come.

After the hideous drought, our garden weeds are all perking up nicely.  The autumn border, of which I was so ashamed last year, promises to deliver beauty in spades, for the coming season.  Heleniums already bloom but there are rudbeckias, asters, posh salvias, chrysanthemums and what not all waiting in the wings.

I love that deliciously melancholy season from about mid-September onwards, when soft sun and lacy mists lull us into a relaxed state of composure.  I listen repeatedly to Richard Stauss's Four Last Songs, gorge on ripe plums, wallow in the moist warmth of the early autumn and try not to think of the coming winter fuel bills.

A gaggle of mini-rants.

Butterflies are more scarce than usual this year, in our neck of the woods.  Could that be in any way linked to the local obsession with mowing all nettles down, with cutting verges right back to the hedge bottoms and with spraying of the remaining nettles that can't be reached with a mower?   I wonder.  

When will people learn that the countryside is NOT something that needs to be gardened.  That its richness lies in the wild exuberance of growth wherever the landscape is not farmed.  Even wildlife conservation experts need a lesson or ten in how to be less heavy handed with their  management.  And the rest of us should stop being so bloody prissy about it all.  LET IT BE!  Even the mouldering carcase of an abandoned car can become a life-rich refuge. Go figure, as the Americans are sometimes wont to say!

A peacock butterfly on Inula hookeri - we haven't had many this year, yet.

I heard on Farming Today, on BBC Radio 4, that the acreage of oilseed rape is so large, this year, that the surplus will be exported to Germany where it will be converted to bio-fuel.  Well bully for us! And nice to have something to export, now that we don't manufacture very much and export far less of what we make than we should.

But bio-fuel? That is obscene! I realise that it will help to reduce burning fossil fuels but have you considered what the real carbon footprint is, of producing so intense a crop, of shipping the whole seed which contains about 40% oil overseas, and then of doctoring the stuff so it won't muck up diesel engines?

And have you considered the horrible contrast, between Europe turning such a precious, high energy food into something for feeding Audis, BMWs and Volkswagens while one of the century's largest famines is happening, right now, in East Africa?  

The badger cull.  Lord Krebs, the scientist who carried out the original experimental cull on badgers demonstrated that it doesn't work.  Survivors of the cull, including infected animals, moved away and took TB to new areas.  

I don't think the cull will work.  TB will continue to spread among livestock until faster, more accurate, on the spot testing can be carried out on cattle and the necessary action taken at once.  

And if it becomes necessary to step up farm biosecurity, to keep badgers away from cattle and vice-versa - so be it.  Better to spend the money on grants for doing that, rather than carrying out a vain and ineffectual cull.  Trained 'marksmen,' they say, smugly;  shooting the badgers and night. Gawd help us! 

Would allow your wife or your servants to grow this tomato?
(Name the origin of the misquote for an eBouquet.)

I'm listening to Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique

This day in 1990  I was in Padstow and my diary reads thus: 'We walked to Tregirls Beach, equipped with Dickens, sandwiches and beach wear. Sounds dull but it was heaven.  We rested, played 'catch,' paddled, swam, watched other people and scorched our skins.'  

Later that evening I wrote: 'A cold salad evening with the children all wilting infuriatingly while we ate. Their stamina is pretty lacking'  Of course, the poor loves were all adolescents.

This weeks film was  Ingmar Bergman's The Passions of Anna.  Swedish desperation on a claustrophobic island made worse by sheep killing, arson and a man driven to suicide by a vigilante mob.  Nice.  I'd go into a more analytical summary but I think you've had more than enough.

Bless you for reading this far,
Bye bye!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011


My dears!

We've been buzzed by Spitfire fighters, Lancaster bombers and beautiful Hummingbird Hawk Moths.  

I have fallen off my bike and damaged it but apart from bruises, a sprained wrist, dented helmet and embarrassment, am fine.

Our darling swallows have hatched off four young which are now flying slightly inexpertly about in a northeasterly wind.  They are also turning the narrow passage between our yard and garden into a tunnel of ordure - but we're honoured, rather than offended.  It can be hosed down when the birds have flown to Cape Town.

We have eaten the season's first home grown tomatoes and delicious they are!  I've also scrumped wild cherries from a garden in the village because the owner says they're sour and nasty.  They're deliciously bitter-sweet, tasting of maraschino, but tiny.

As so often happens, the pictures on this post bear no relation whatever to the text. The joy of not having a strict editor is a mixed one but I hope you get double value from this illogical way of doing things.

Cheap, speedy colour, in my autumn border, with Lychnis coronaria and assorted forms of Papaver rhoeas.  This is almost as pretty as the autumn perennials show which will get going in about 6 weeks.  

I was going to tell you about the RHS International Trials Conference which happened last week but I’ve just been listening to Tim Richardson – author of Avant Gardeners – on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. He was theorising about the political battlefields that gardens were and still are. (If you don't know his work, you might want a glance at the nicely turned piece here.)

Anyway, Tim R was suggesting that mighty British gardens such as Stowe and Stourhead, were biting satires on political situations of the day.  Lord Cobham, developer of Stowe in the early 1700s, was an old soldier and disenchanted Whig who had it in for the government of his day.  His garden was a demonstration of his disgust - perhaps even an expression of treason.  (You'll find an NT dumbed down history of Stowe here.)

He also suggested that public parks are designed as demonstrations of oppression.  Being well ordered and stately, furnished with plants looted from the British Empire and presided over by big statues of such personages as Queen Victoria, they're there to keep the populace in order.

We've enjoyed huge numbers of bees, in the garden this summer.  They love this purple toadflax almost as much as lavender.

Well pardon me, but I always thought that the inspiration to create public parks, in Britain, was the precise opposite of that.  John Claudius Loudon, a great horticultural philanthropist who died in 1843, championed the creation of landscaped public spaces where ordinary people might take pleasure and relief from the sooty, smutty city environment.  

It was Loudon who also developed ideal designs for model labourers' cottages, on large estates, and who insisted that such employees should have private gardens large enough to grow crops and keep livestock.  

And it was Loudon who brought a breath of country air into London’s squares, by planting them with trees and shrubs.  Anyone less bellicose or oppressive than Loudon, or his great friend Joseph Paxton, would be hard to find.

Hummingbird Hawk Moths Macroglossum stellatarum are constant visitors in our garden.  We counted five at once yesterday.

There’s no doubt that rebels and independent-thinking folk will do things in their gardens that may express contempt, or that might be intended to deliver strong messages.   After all, gardening is an art, and art is a means of expression - otherwise it’s pointless.  

For example, I admit to being tardy with trimming my roadside hedge and verge as a demonstration that wildflowers look prettier and are more biodiverse than groomed grass.  And I won’t pull the self-sown chicory up in my drive, partly because I know that it irritates persons in our village who are afflicted with excessive tidiness. 

Imagine the aerodynamics involved here, and the accuracy needed to extend a probiscis into the tiny opening of a lavender flower, and while stationary, on the wing.  Amazing!

Tim Richardson made a strong and convincing argument, on the radio, and I could visualise millions of Daily Telegraph-reading Radio 4 listeners nodding in hearty approval as they spread Tiptree Tawny marmalade onto their granary toast.  

But I tire of the current trend to try to make gardens something they are not.  Gardens are gardens are gardens.  They're outdoor places where you grow things.  And like any space, they can be substrates for design, and for artistic expression.  But if they do not contain living plants, they are not gardens.  A garden is a place where plants are grown. You can create an outdoor installation, if you feel so minded.  But if it doesn't grow things, it isn't a garden.

And I'm also sick, by the way, of the erroneous notion that garden designers are at war with those of us who garden, but who may be a bit crap at artistic expression, even though we love art.  

It's a stupid concept and arguing the toss about whether plant husbandry is more important or less, than artistic accomplishment in outdoor spaces, is about as fatuous and self-harming as trying to drink the Thames dry.

And before anyone calls me a Luddite stick-in-the-mud grumpy leek grower, I’d like to say that I believe the idea of Conceptual Gardens at Hampton Court was brilliant, even though, for years, they baffled horticulturally minded judges.  And indeed, it was I who suggested that Conceptual Gardens should be judged, not by garden judges, but by persons from the Arts world. Though there needs to be a qualified horticulturist present to make sure the designers’ offerings would actually work as gardens in real life, rather than for merely looking fabulous for 5 days at a show.  (I urge you to read Victoria Summerley's brilliant piece in the Independent, here.)

If you click on this, you can see the eye - it's a compound one, of course, but you can clearly see what excellent vision this insect must have.

I will be listening to Michel Thomas' German Course.  An attempt to converse with a Berliner in his or her native tongue, when I go in September, will immensely satisfying, even it it's only to order a beer rather than to explain that our postillion managed to escape being struck by lightning.

This Day in 1984 The PG, our four twins and I were driving through France without reservations and the only the loosest of plans.  We travelled to Evreux, Chartres, Blois and finally to Montrichard, in the Touraine which we liked.  We stayed in the village of Thésée, near Saint Aignon, and the children and I swam daily in the river Cher.  It was heavenly, and the auberge where we stayed served delicious Touraine cuisine including eels and pike cooked in various ways.
It was near there that I gathered seed of wild cornflowers.  I still have that particular strain which I sow, or allow to self seed every year. It is flowering gloriously here, as I write, 27 years later.

This week's film was Driving Lessons with Rupert Grint, Laura Linney and directed by Jeremy Brock.  I was persuaded by my brother to try it and despite some disappointing flaws in the screenplay, I greatly enjoyed it.  I even wrote an extremely pompous review which you'll find here.

Unusual sight - a Hummingbird Hawk Moth resting on our wall.

Bye bye - and thank you SO much for reading this far.  You deserve a decoration for endurance.

Friday, 1 July 2011


Good grief, can it be July already?
A Happy New Month to you all, and may the weather be less utterly bastardly to you, this month, than it was in June.  What a perfectly putrid 30 days!  Couldn't make up its mind, down our particular kink in the lane, whether to be a fridge, a blow drier or an oven.  It was the wind that was most hateful and that's still blowing as I write.

Why doesn't my own pitiful vegetable garden look this pretty?  Answer - this one is a mock-up for a flower show. [As always, CLICK ON ANY PICTURE TO MAKE IT BIGGER.]

Two rants today!

1. WHY are Britain's supermarkets so absolutely bloody awful?

Since the PG has been convalescing from her surgery, and forbidden to drive, I've been chauffeuring her to and from various Sainsco, Waitrissons and Marks Expensives and helping her with routine victualling exercises.

Although I frequently pop in and out of such soulless places, I haven't gone through the whole intricate process of pricing, selecting, carting and packing a week's worth of groceries for a very long time, other than in France - but more of that in mo.

The first and most obvious thing to hit me like a sledgehammer was the cost.  I've always reckoned that with Government Statistics, the golden rule is to note the official figure and double it.  Thus, if the official rate of inflation is about 4.5%, as it is at present, the real rate is at least 9%.  But when I paid something like  £1.49 for a tiny packet of skinny broccoli spears and £1.25 for a cauliflower, I realised that even my GSIF (Government Statistics Interpretation Formula) is faulty.

The last cauliflower I bought was in, I think, October, and was from a small trader in the neighbouring village.  It cost 25p and had been grown less than 3 miles away.  So cauliflower inflation, here in Lincolnshire is around 500%

But once I'd recovered from the cauterising prices - and one has to admit, those aren't entirely the fault of the egregious oligopoly that owns and runs Britain's supermarkets - it dawned on me that the place I was in was not where I wanted to be. Not at all. Standing in a street in a force 8 gale with driving rain, noxious exhaust fumes and a burst sewer main up-wind might have afforded more pleasure than being in that awful barn of a supermarket.  They ought to call them infernomarkets.  I had to resist the burning impulse to abandon my half full trolley and, well, just run.

Wheeling the thing down those aisles of sterile opulence, I began to realise how limited British supermarkets are.  For example, out of the zillions of cheeses on display, I failed to find a single one made with unpasteurised milk.  And although there were at least four kinds of melon, not one was fit to eat.  Not only were they unripe but they had no hope of ripening. Ever.  They'd been harvested too young and would stay rock hard and odourless for weeks, and then suddenly decay and stink.

My own 'Sungold'  tomatoes, but last year's.  Supermarket tomatoes, in Britain, are bland and unappetising, despite looking uniform and gorgeous.

We do we Brits tolerate such crap produce?  Why can't we buy seeded grapes that have flavour?  Or peaches in edible condition?  Or plums that have juice?  Or tomatoes that may not look beautiful but taste?  Why do supermarket meat counters bring on a death wish and why is supermarket bread like fluffed up cardboard?

Nip through the Channel Tunnel to the Carrefour at Coquelles, or drive on to the nearest Auchan and you can buy beautifully ripe melons by the sackful.   For next to nothing, you can buy a huge, old hen ready for casseroling or traditional Poule au Pot.  You'll find any offals you might need, too, and the cheese department staff will discuss the merits of their wares, both pasteurised and untreated, in detail and with knowledge.  The pâtés will taste good, rather than like high class cat food and there will be about fifty to choose from.  And that's just a supermarket, in France.

An old lady in Carrefour once found me fondling the melons and looking perplexed.  She took pity and showed me how to choose.  'C'est pour aujourd'hui ou demain?' she asked. I said I'd like one ready to eatl  So she got stuck in and began to weighed the fruits in her hands, telling me one must pick the heaviest because weight means maturity and therefore sweetness.  And one must then smell the blossom end. If it's alcoholic, it's too far gone.  If aromatic, and if the melon gives a little, when gently pressed, it is ready.

The poor PG has another couple of weeks before she can drive.  I hope my ranting doesn't drive her too nuts in that time.  Anyway today, we're off to a farmer's market.  Now we're talking!

Death of the strawberry.  I haven't bought a strawberry with flavour, in Britain, for about 30 years.

Rant number two will be briefer, I promise.

Who, I'd like to know, is responsible for the death of the English Strawberry?

It simply isn't possible, now, to buy strawberries that taste really good.  Oh, they look all right.  Some of the supermarket ones look gorgous.  But they taste of slightly acidulated water and have the texture of baby turnips.

As a soft fruit, strawberries never were outstanding, unless you could find them ripened to a red perfection. In that almost unheard of state, they should NEVER be washed, and must be eaten while still sun-warmed.  If you ever felt the need to add sugar, the strawberries were substandard, and the very thought of polluting such gorgeous fruit with cream should would have been as unthinkable as farting at the Queen's Chelsea drinks reception.

I suppose infernomarkets are guilty here, too, just as they're guilty for buggering up grapes.  If a strawberry picked in Wisbech  has to be trucked to, say, Spalding, for packing, and then trundled down to Plymouth or up to Newcastle, to be thumped down on Sainsco's produce shelves, it needs to have more staying power than a Rugby forward.

When I was a boy, we would buy fresh strawberries, on Ely or Cambridge market and if you didn't eat them within about 6 hours, they would deteriorate.

Then came Elsanta, the most horrible variety ever bred.  Even the word is worse than swearing. Elsanta!  Elsinner would be more apt, or 'Elstinka.' A mockery of a strawberry.  Shiny, red, conveniently sized and oh so tempting in the punnet.  It even smells like a beautiful, ripe strawberry.  But when you pop this travesty into your mouth, the disappointment is so keen that you're likely to become traumatised.

It's such  a shame.  I used to love strawberries.  Now I never eat them because I can't grow them, and because no one sells decent ones any more.  Pity.

I'm listening to Abba for some bizarre reason.  Fernando.

This day in 2006 I was gathering yellow rattle seeds from a certain location not far from here.  Our minimeadow benefited hugely from them and we now have a thriving colony of the semi-parasite.

This week's film was Nightwatch. Nattevagten. A nicely turned, grizzly nasty about necrophilia, student pranks and serial murder.  I expected to be revolted, but it was handled with great skill by writer director Ole Bornedal and above all, it starred the peerlessly marvellous Sofie Grabol, who is so good in The Killing. 

Byee! And thanks for listening.