Friday 30 March 2012


Good morrow all! And apologies for the huge interval since the last post. I trust you have enjoyed the unnatural, unseasonal but intensely pleasant faux summer.

'I think I'd be more comfortable and pull a less lugubrious face if someone would kindly remove the old fashioned terry nappy.'  A Malayan tapir Tapirus indicus, at London Zoo.  The Zoological Society of London has ongoing conservation projects in more than 50 countries, worldwide.
As usual, the pictures have nothing to do with the text, on this post. We just visited London Zoo, recently, with our daughters and grandchildren.   Click on pix for a larger view.

Three thought-provoking things in the last couple of days.

1. I'm increasingly worried about rare breeds.  
Not long ago the PG purchased, from a farmers' market stall, what looked like an excellent piece of rump steak.  It was dark, correctly matured and begged to be lightly seared in our cast iron, ribbed griddle and eaten with salad and really thin, rattly chips.  But the meat turned out to have the consistency of shoe leather and lacked what I call a proper steak flavour.

The steak came from a Longhorn, I believe, and was sold at a substantial premium because of being a rare breed.

In my experience, the finest steaks on earth, to this day, come from grass-fed, preferably Scottish raised Aberdeen Angus - until recently, the Western World's most popular beef breed.

And this morning, on BBC Radio 4's  Farming Today  I listened to a posh Chef from somewhere or other, saying that Middle White pigs provided superior pork because there was so much fat, and it had so much flavour.  Now in this age of health-obsession, where doctors blench and reach for defibrillator if you so much as hint that you might eat meat more than once a month – and only then, if there's an 'R' in it – isn't an excess of animal fat in cooking a very bad thing?

And didn't rare breeds become rare because they were superseded by better ones, in which geneticists have invested almost a century of careful selection to come up with animals which gain the right sort of weight - ie, more muscle than fat - in the most efficient manner possible?

Modern, well farmed pork is spectacularly lean.  Back-fat, on modern bacon, is about a centimetre thick, these days, which is healthier than the old fashioned couple of inches – if you dare eat bacon at all, because the Health Police want it made illegal, owing to the toxic preservatives and the fact that eating cured or salted meat is as self-destructive as jumping off Tower Bridge and seeing how far you can fly, by flapping your bare arms, before hitting the Thames and being swept off to Southend in the tidal rip.

Is it possible that rare breed meat is just a tad over-hyped? It's great for fanciers and hobby farmers to preserve and sustain such breeds. Those treasured and cosseted gene pools could have great future value, and I'm enormously in favour of that kind of conservation. Indeed, if taxpayers money must be squandered on farming subsidies, I'd prefer rare breed conservers to get the dosh, than pampered arable grain barons.

But whenever I eat a piece of topside, rasher of properly cured bacon, or a rack of lamb, I'd rather take what my butcher currently offers – meat acquired from local commercial farmers who make wise use of the remarkable progress made in animal breeding.

Tulipa 'Hearts Delight,' kaufmanniana or 'Waterlily' type of surpassing charm.  This one is flowering outside our back door.

2. The GM debate is opening again this year
 Rothamsted Agricultural Research Station is conducting a trial with wheat, genetically modified with material from the peppermint plant.  Pheromones from the modified wheat not only repel sap-sucking insects, but attract their predators.

If the trial is successful, it could lead the way to a new wave of cereal varieties which can match the yields of current high performers, but without the need for costly and potentially contaminating pesticides.

No doubt the arguments will polarise, with the anti-crowd campaigning to continue the ban on GM, and the 'science lobby' – whatever that may be – claiming that the only way to feed the world is with full-on, intensive, science-based agriculture.

But the world is closer to a crisis point than many of us care to believe.  Nations like China and India, with burgeoning economies – tomorrow's superpowers – seem to be adopting unsustainable 'Western' lifestyles.  Demands for cereals and meat continue to grow and, under current technology, it is not possible to continue the required growth in yields.

Modern, intensive agriculture is oil-based and there aren't the resources left, to achieve the growth targets as set out by UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.  (If you want to take this seriously, have a look at this PDF )

So we have to find other ways in which to increase yields.  Organic production cannot be dismissed. But it does not, in its current form, appear able to produce the yield growth needed.  Indeed, if the world were to go all organic tomorrow, yields would plummet and commodity shortages would be catastrophic.  (You might say that serves Mankind right, but it's a bit difficult to think that way, when you see footage of children dying of thirst or starvation.)

If modifying genes could result in crops which can deliver high yields, without needing unsustainable inputs, would that not be an extremely good thing?  Should we not, therefore, follow this trial's progress  with interest, or at least, with open minds?

There was a time when Westminster City Council produced some of the finest bedding displays on earth.  But this one, in the Embankment Gardens just below the National Liberal Club, shows how low they have sunk.  And whose idea was it, not just to use heucheras, but with those tulips?  I blame Maggie.  It was her government which dumped parks' in-house nurseries and enforced competitive tenders by contractors.  You get what you pay for.

3.  Bees, synthetic nicotinoids and motivation.
Finally – and heaven bless you, if you've come this far – Channel Four News interviewed a British research team, recently, who have identified a stronger link between use of neo-nicotinoids, such as found in Provado, and bee behaviour.  

Species of bumblebee appear to lose their sense of direction and are unable to forage effectively when subjected to low levels of imidacloprid.  The research continues.

French work on honeybees and another neo-nicotinoiod, thiamethoxam, also points to a possible link with Colony Collapse Disorder, where worker bees lose the ability to navigate and, put crudely, just slope off, thereby cutting of the food supply.

Neither team have proven, conclusively, that the pesticides are responsible for the decline in bee populations but it's a pretty strong indicator.  

There are plenty of other causes of bumble bee decline, such as habitat loss and climate change.  BUT, after seeing a summary of Dr. Whitehorn's findings so far, I'm restricting Provado to my greenhouse from now on.  Shame about the beetles which will devour my lily plants, but I'd rather have the bees.

Narcissus 'Rapture' - one of the best of the Cyclamineus hybrids and loving life in my garden.

I'm listening to Bach's Saint Matthew Passion, obviously!

This week's film was Francois Truffaut's Les Quatre Cent Coups.  This is 'Nouvelle Vague' when it was still nouvelle and exciting.  A film with a strong story element, following the tribulations of a boy whose parents dislike him.

This day next week, I'll be at a concert performance of Wagner's Parsifal, in Birmingham.  Can't wait.  The tunes are so catchy, the story so amazingly fast-moving and the leading lady such a peach!  (Not) Do you think Wagnerians are closet masochists?  Now, where's that self-operated bastinado?

And I think that's more than enough for you to cope with.

Thursday 8 March 2012


And the top of the world to you and yours!  Saint Pat's is past and spring is almost here.  Calloo callay!!

Now, then. . .where were we?  Oh yes!  
Why do plant breeders try so hard to turn natural beauty into abomination?  

 Primula vulgaris – a naturally occurring, pale form of our wild primrose, but not truly albino.  It seeds true and, though an aberration, is cherished in my micro-woodland garden.  (Click on pix for bigger view)

I have great respect for plant breeders – one or two of them are even good friends – and what they have achieved, over the last couple of centuries is, mighty impressive. We have a staggering excess of garden plant varieties. Too many?  Well, if 90% of all rose and hosta cultivars were eradicated tomorrow, there'd still be a gross surplus of both. But the surfeit of varieties results from competition coupled with a long breeding history. And anyway, it's better, don't you think, to have too many to choose from, rather than too few?

So, breeders have given – sorry, sold – us a huge and valuable legacy of superb garden plants. Frequently, a garden cultivar is more beautiful, more dependable, less variable and better behaved than its wild forebear. We have breeders to thank for that.

But breeders have also perpetrated genetic atrocities: petunias which look like black holes, in clammy sub-fusc foliage; evergreens such as Photinia davidiana 'Palette' whose young leaves resemble haemorrhagic vomit; or antirrhinums whose child-delighting, dragon-snapping flowers have been morphed into gaping, malformed foxgloves.

And primroses.
I believe these to be some of our loveliest wild spring flowers and although I collect interesting forms, there is nothing so beautiful as the original. In Britain, they are pale yellow; travel east and south, in Europe and western Asia, and lilac or pink forms are more frequent.

Perhaps that's why the name 'prima rosa' - first rose - was coined, presumably by the Romans. Whatever the origin, it is the earliness of this plant that helps with its charm, not to mention the pristine quality of the petals, subtle fragrance and the way the blooms sit so beautifully among the rugose foliage.

And then, at the February RHS Show, I was reminded of the abominations wished upon us by plant breeders.  Like the next picture. . .

BUMROSES.  I cannot bring myself to call these things 'primroses.'  There is nothing to commend them.  They are barely hardy, the flowers are grossly outsized, the colours of the pollen guides don't harmonise with the main petal colours, the growth is coarse, the flowers are badly presented and they die badly.  These are market stall horrors, unsuitable for gardens and unpleasant anywhere.

They seem to have gone as far as they can, with ugly paintbox colours, so now breeders appear to be taking a darker path. Polyanthus have turned up with flowers resembling dirty denim jeans. Theres a brutally ugly green-flowered thing called Primula 'Francesca' which, like Dante's Francesca da Rimini, should be blown away to hell in a whirlwind of souls.

And there are now mud coloured objects like the one below. (I couldn't be arsed to note down its varietal name.)

A dirty blue bumrose. If an admiral in full dress uniform had fallen overboard, drowned, and was then fished out of the sea three months later, his uniform would have looked more attractive than this plant.

At that same show, I was wryly amused by a trade stand, set up by a firm called Implementations, offering a range of expensive-looking tools which appeared to be made of copper. I learn that these are actually bronze and Implementations' website lists selling points as follows:

They're rust-free, hard wearing, soil doesn't stick to them.
Much like stainless steel, then – but here's their clincher: copper is known to deter slugs and snails.

That's true. Snails which crawl onto copper are said to be disturbed by an electrochemical reaction between the metal and their mucus.

So if you happen to discover that snails and slugs are eating your tool blades, switch immediately to copper. But remember, that scrap thieves are especially interested in copper and might nick your posh bronze fork and trowel set before you've had time to try it out. And it's a safe bet that the metal thieves will move significantly faster than the molluscs. 

Suitable for that bijou gardenette in Kensington - bronze tools, marketed by Implementations.

I'm not listening to anything.  
On a mad impulse, I decided to subscribe to Apple's iTunes Match and am in the middle of uploading my entire music library onto iCloud. It has taken about 48 hours of constant computer running, to upload nearly 8,000 'songs.'  Only 660 to go!

This day in 1986, 
when we ran a small nursery, I potted up 65 successfully rooted cuttings of Daphne blagayana, prepared our garden for opening and berated my then 12 year-old son for breaking a rake which, my diary wails, 'I've had for years and years!'  What was I, an octogenarian?  Can't remember the rake at all but can vaguely recall the son. (Only joking,)

This week's film was 
We Need to Talk About Kevin, about a nasty kid who does nasty things. It was compelling stuff, but when I viewed the interview extras, on the DVD, I realised that I had entirely the wrong take on the whole thing.

My interpretation was that the kid, if not born nasty, was pretty much a sociopath in the making, possibly because of the sterile lifestyle of wealthy western (must be careful not to say American) society, or maybe because some folk are simply born nasty.

But according to the star – the incomparable Tilda Swinton – and according to what I could hear, of director Lynne Ramsay's almost incoherent babble, Kevin was the way he was because of a bad mother who didn't bond with her baby.  I have to say, too, that the father is an absolute prat of the first order and the locals show up in pretty poor light, too.

I was so disturbed by my hopeless misinterpretation that I determined to break my current rule ( to avoid literature written post mid-Seventies, because most of it is so crappy) and have just started to read Lionel Shriver's original novel.  So far nothing to report, but I can see why she won the Orange.

'That's it from me,' as the weatherman used to say, 'bye bye for now!'