Tuesday 21 February 2012


'What news?  What news in this our tottering State?' asked the First Baron Hastings, and with good reason.  England was as broke, in 1483, as Greece is now and although Lord H was a vital link between the bankrupt monarchy and London's rich city bankers, Richard of Gloucester chopped off his head.  Ungrateful bastard!  

A kangaroo court convicted poor old Hastings on a series of ludicrously trumped up charges, including witchcraft and adultery with mediaeval totty, Jane Shore.  (It should be said that Jane, one helluva party animal, was also enjoying bedroom romps at the time, with King Edward IV, the Marquess of Dorset and plenty more of the then rich and famous. 

Jane Shore lived to be at least 80, which for the fifteenth century was pretty good, so there is some sort of divine justice after all.  (The other nobles mostly killed each other while still in their prime and nasty Richard caught it in 1485 when he was 33 and that mardy-boots, sour-faced misery-guts Henry Tudor took the crown.)

WHAT ON EARTH AM I GOING ON ABOUT?  RIDICULOUS!!  I suppose it's because the economic cock-ups in Europe, and in particular, the Hellenic 'balls out' that's going on, with big central banks trying vainly to bolster up the poor old Greeks, and keep them tucked safely into the  Eurobed, is about as illogical, pointless and scandalous as were the Wars of the Roses in England, back in the fifteenth century.


So.  Gardenish stuff, then.

Crocus ancyrencis, the golden bunch crocus in out my garden this week.  Small but exceptionally good natured and, like Smarties – or M&Ms if you're American – inadequate when enjoyed singly but fabulously good in big handfuls. Cheerful is what they are - a bunch of February sunshine.  (Click pics to enlarge.)

There is absolutely nothing so cheerful as a crocus. Forget snowdrops, never mind aconites, lovely though they are.  Both are strictly winter flowers, effective for lifting one from the despair induced by post-Christmas dieting, income tax bills, and treacherous weather but not nearly enough to make one sing or dance.  

A crocus, on the other hand, elicits a verbal greeting.  The first appearance, of a proper spring crocus - rather than the precocious, skinny midwinter species - causes one to rush back into the house, grab the PG by her protesting arm and drag her outside to coo over those glowing egg-yolk petals as they open to the sun.

Crocus luteus 'Golden Yellow' aka 'Dutch Yellow Crocus.' – much larger than C. ancyrencis, and frowned upon by gardeners who prefer the soft mauves, purples, whites and stripes of C. vernus varieties.  But to me, this is easily the finest and most dependable of all, coping with all weathers and most soil types and looking sublimely happy, after enduring a night at -13.5ÂșC last week. More of these should be grown.

I heard certain world-weary journos, at last weeks RHS London Show, suggesting that snowrops have become rather old hat.  'Everyone's done them,' she sighed. 'One's is so weary of hearing about them.  To compound her ennui, I dragged her off to see, first hand, the horribleness of the variety Galanthus 'Blewbury Tart.'  In fact I dragged several folk whom I knew not, to see the same abominable things on one of the bulb exhibits.

But despite yawns of the gardening fashionistas, snowdrop mania is still decidedly with us. And the freakiest varieties have excited not only your run of the mill galanthobores but also, the mail order giant, Thompson and Morgan.  

T&M have just paid £725 for one bulb of a variety called 'Elizabeth Harrison.'  I believe it's a chance-discovered form of Galanthus woronoii - the species I think we once called G. ikariae - which has dark foliage, more the bottle green of bluebell leaves, than the familiar, glaucous narcissussy tint.

But this one has an amazing added virtue.  It's ovaries and the little vee marks on its tepals are, wait for it, not green, but YELLOW!  Like 'Wendy's Gold,' in fact, and a handful of other galanthonasties, but with dark leaves!  

Yellow!  Well lah-di-bloody dah!  A snowdrop with icterine bits instead of green. Hmmm.  Why is my pulse not quickening at the thought of a snowdrop with yellow bits?  Could it possibly be that the beauty of this frail species is the exquisite contrast between the white and the green on the petals, tepals or whatever botanists call the prettier bits of a monocot flower?

I beg you sir, madam, chum, cobber -  to pick a snowdrop: an ordinary, single-flowered G. nivalis snowdrop – as soon as you've read this.  Look at those outer petals.  Do you note the subtle shading, in soft lines, running through the plant's tissue like a watermark?  Do you see the boat-like shape of those three outer petals?  Now lift one, gently, and study the inner parts of the flower. Do you see how that green has a slight iridescence, making the colour stand out from the stem and leaves?  And do you note the slightly less subtle grey-green striping above the deep green? Oh, and can you detect that slightly naughty muskiness of the perfume, and the twin lobed, toothy base of those inner petals?  Study the flower, I beg you, for some minutes.  Such beauty cannot be improved upon.

A fairly ordinary snowdrop.

So,  would yellow look better than green on those inner parts?  NO!  
Is a yellow ovary, rather than a green one attractive? NO!  
Would you pay £725 for a single bulb of this variety?  If you were wealthy enough for it not to matter?  Well, would you???

Should anyone be prepared to pay £725 for a single snowdrop bulb?  
Well, apparently, yes. T&M are a huge and successful business. Clearly, they know what they're doing and no doubt, there will be lots of gardeners positively itching to have a G. woronoii with yellow where the green should be.

I wish them well.  And if you can't wait to have this thing, I wish you well, too.  But before you sign up for it, have another five minute gaze at the ordinary one.  It really cannot be improved upon.

I'm listening to Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B Minor Op 115.

This week's film was The Prince and the Showgirl, in which Laurence Olivier is acted off the screen, for the first hour at least, by Marilyn Monroe.  Ham versus film star - tangible proof that acing to a camera is a little different from declaiming to the man at the back of the Dress Circle or Balcony.

This time yesterday, I was sipping a glass of champagne to celebrate my 68th birthday.  Old, creaky, crabby but still loving work and still revelling in the mess that calls itself my garden.

Bless you for reading this far - and enjoy your snowdrop gazing.

Tuesday 7 February 2012


The cocktail party was getting out of hand.  At one point, the Archbishop of Canterbury said to me, in a shocked voice, "Oh no, no!  It isn't what you think! We always wear something like this!''  I had cheekily suggested that it must have taken a lot of bottle, to turn up at a posh bash, like this, in the loose-fitting Hattie Jacques-style frock he was wearing.  And in such a zany purple, too.

At the time I had on, if I remember correctly, bright yellow corduroy flares, a spectacularly flowery, huge-collared shirt beneath a ridiculously affected, greenish jacket that buttoned up, Nehru-like, almost to the aforementioned, oversized shirt collar.  (You were absolutely nobody, in the mid-sixties, unless you dressed like a technicolor prat.)

It was a gauche comment but I'd been terribly distracted by His Grace's enormous, bushy eyebrows which resembled amateurishly layered hawthorn hedges.  The bristles sort of curled round one-another, making  frosted thickets under which two intelligent eyes twinkled and glowed like hot coals. The Archbish in question, Michael Ramsey, was our 100th and bumping into him at that party was one hell of a surprise.  The girlfriend I was with was struck dumb and I don't think spoke much more all evening.  Or to me, ever again.

Winter afternoon on our Fen.  
The pictures all get bigger if you click on them.

I mention this pointless recollection because I was similarly distracted at this week's Garden Press Event.

I'd planned to take everything extremely seriously.  To greet old friends in a brisk and business-like manner but rather than just gossip, to get on with compiling facts and gathering information.

But I never really got beyond the 'greeting old friends' bit.

Early on, I bumped into the Queen of Garden Bloggers with whom I discussed, briefly, science. Together, we examined a strange green object which lay on the long tables where new products had been laid out. It resembled a discus, as used by athletes, but when manipulated in a certain way, popped up in an unnerving manner and revealed itself to be a rubber kettle.  'Not something to leave on the gas,' I suggested, but ingeniously, it had a metal base.

Its existence prompted a pretty obvious question: why would anyone want a collapsible rubber kettle?  When fully erected - sorry, but there's no other way to put that - the object took up little more space than when squashed.  And it held only enough water to supply a small tea pot.  (Mind you, the Kelly Kettle, which I gave the PG for Christmas, is equally miserly with capacity.  A thing the size of a small central heating boiler, it will speedily heat three quarters of a cup of soup.  It's fun, though, because the liquid boils from the heat of six burning fir cones or a copy of page three of The Sun.

There were other things of little apparent purpose, too:

Ground up volcanic rocks to sprinkle on gardens. Presumably, they'd make plants erupt into growth.

Compost impregnated with charcoal and therefore, it was claimed, better for growing things in.

Bundles that resembled broken shoe laces.  Useful, I gathered, for tying up plants if you happened to run out of string.

Big strips of paper, marked with big numerals.  You lay these flat on the ground, apparently, and then plant into the numbers.  No doubt, you'd end up with a planting scheme that has as much charm and originality as a painting done by numbers.

One of the delights of the recent snow was that the village was suddenly full of children who, for once, were allowed to play out by themselves.  They sat on sledges - optimistic, for the Fens - threw snowballs and built some great snowpeople.  I loved this sculpture, made by three of them without, as far as we could tell, any adult supervision at all.

Most exciting discovery, at the Garden Media Event, was a female member British Olympic Fencing Team.  (Some stuff here)

When I was told about this I assumed, since every human endeavour seems to be represented at the Olympics, that the person in question would be an expert at building or perhaps painting fences.

I conjured up visions of flying larch-laps or a frenzied clapping together of feathered boarding.  Perhaps there'd be formation trellis construction, set to music while the posts are knocked in and the panels gracefully assembled into arches and pergolas.  I was sure the Torvil and Dean of fence-building were out there, simply awaiting discovery.

But this was a genuine Olympian sportyperson - indeed a goddess who, to mix mythologies, would have given Freija herself some competition.  She fences with sword things - rapiers or foils or whatever, and I'm embarrassed that I cannot remember her name.  But then, I know the names of absolutely no one, on any of the teams.

Hilliers, in her honour, were handing out styrofoam rapiers.  I declined the one offered to me - I'd have preferred a Star Wars thingy that lit up -  but eagerly accepted the glass of sparkling pink stuff that Hilliers were also graciously dishing out.

The annual Press Event, I finally decided, is a perfect excuse for seeing colleagues, friends, competitors and those who make their living from horticulture.  So, ground-up volcanoes and rubber tea pots notwithstanding, it's an event that absolutely everyone, in our walk of life, should attend.  I'll be there next year, if there is one, and hope to see you too.

We all need warming up, so here's Tulipa purissima 'Madame Lefebre' often called 'Red Emperor.'  In My garden, this variety usually flowers in March.  Can't wait!

I'm listening to Debussy's String Quartet.  He only wrote one, and it's a belter, though his contemporary, Ravel, I think has the edge, especially with the pizzicato movement.

This day in 2007 A newspaper photographer came to photograph me doing things in the garden and seemed surprised not to find burgeoning borders, full of colourful flowers.  I think we ended up lurking in a shed.

This week's film was Victim - One of Dirk Bogarde's best roles, in this 1961 mould-breaker by Basil Dearden.  Supporting performance from Sylvia Syms was also superb.  It's about blackmail and is set in the days when homosexual contact of any kind, between males, was criminal.  The police were pretty heavy handed, too, so blackmailers treated it as a licence for printing money.  Watching the film today, I find it almost incredible that 'Society' has moved so far and so fast into more liberal, tolerant times.  Still a long way to go, though.

Gosh, what an outrageously long post, again.   If you've read this far, I love you - regardless of who or what you are! Almost.