Friday, 5 February 2016

A Problem of Packaging

What I have learned today is that budget archive boxes are a false economy. Any saving is squandered on parcel tape to wrap the miserable container to the point where it resembles the misshapen prey of a filing-obsessed spider.

The full box bulged and warped as I wrestled. It repeatedly burst open at the top and disgorged slithering contents. It mocked me with torn handles and strained joints (those of the box rather than my own). I fought back, suppressing an uprising of RHS Chelsea catalogues, a stampede of assorted articles and the subtle exit of  book reviews, all destined to be consigned to the cupboard.

And it dawned on me that this is not a problem I have had before. Filing is not exactly second nature, but I have never before had to quell an actual mutiny of both packaging and subject matter.

But then, as the back catalogue becomes more extensive, more bulky and weighty then surely it must become more potent too. Libraries are powerful places. History, knowledge, the fact and folly of human invention and imagination set out in rows and stacked high into the rafters. Whispering and pulsing on the edge of perception, these massed words, and the books and articles that contain them, are lit and curated. The keepers of knowledge and opinion remain ever vigilant. Yet still they are able to catapult us into the past, the future or into other worlds. They have the ability to bring to us our deepest fears, to offer hope and salvation and to play upon our proclivities, sensibilities and weaknesses - as well as building greatness.
Something nasty in the woodshed? ...So what is under the stairs?

But how much more raw and fearsome must be a collection that is hidden in darkness. An untidy citadel of jumbled thoughts and ideas. Unwatched. Crammed together. Fact and opinion in a hybrid swarm of publication and publicity. Ideas compressed to neutron-star density. Swallowing light and distorting time. The shades of fashions past and techniques eternal, translucent in the pages; the energy of stories well-told, accumulating.

It is no wonder then that the boxes bulge and groan.  Perhaps as the archive becomes more powerful then so should the container that holds it. The Luggage* in the Terry Pratchett books might do it. Perhaps, rather than cheap boxes bound with gaffa tape, it is time for oak chests bound with iron.
(Although this would only exacerbate the issue of weight. The boxes are already almost too much to lift, so unless the archive can exist partially in another dimension, with contemporary mass reduced accordingly, I’m going to need a fork-lift truck. Or an orangutan.)

'The Orchard Odyssey' - my new book is out on 22nd Sept 2016
But the problem is not going away. I’m filing and archiving after a weekend spent lecturing and giving garden tours at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. The snowdrop buzz intensifies. And the snowdrop buzz will be joined in the autumn by my new book, The Orchard Odyssey, published by Green Books. Articles are in the pipeline. Ideas spring forth.

Only last week, there was a sense of hiatus; January looking forwards and backwards, as it will. Snowdrops not yet upon us, tree fruit passed. But both also impending.

So soon have things moved on. The cycle continues.

Shoots of Galanthus nivalis (Sandersii Group)
Clearing the decks is the order of the day. So whatever 2016 throws at one, at least it is possible to walk across the floor. Or bound across it, as the case may be, the squash-court of life permitting the ricochet of another idea. And it seems to me that a large box, independently mobile on lots of little legs, attitude problem optional, might be just the thing to carry my notes and an emergency sandwich (cheese and cucumber).** 

And, should I vanish entirely, perhaps someone could check the dimension occupied by the archive, that is ostensibly in the cupboard under the stairs. 
A new dawn

* Given the orchard fixation, the fact that it is made of sapient pear wood is particularly appropriate

**That it is also always full of neatly pressed underwear, smelling slightly of lavender, appeals. Note to self: if this element spontaneously generates, maybe feed it an annotated lingerie catalogue or two....^

^ Picky? Moi? 

Saturday, 28 February 2015

On The Road

Galanthus 'Fly Fishing' at Bellefield House.
My latest snowdrop crush.

Back in the dim and distant mists of time, when dinosaurs roamed the land and pterodactyls were frequent bird table visitors, I spent an enjoyable few years managing rock bands.

There were headline gigs, support gigs. Mainstream venues and pubs. In some places the PA was state of the art, in others you thanked your stars for the decent size amp in the back of the van. Some nights the crowd was ecstatic. Others, the bar man, his dog and a couple of regulars would sit there, nodding and comparing the band to musicians that had died before the lead singer was born. Occasionally people listened to the first thirty seconds, got bored and went off to get drunk and find someone to sleep with. So it goes.

I have just finished a modestly epic tour of the land, promoting The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops. And, as I pull myself vertical, brush off the debris and straighten out again, there are some clear parallels.

The ambition of course is always to dive onto the stage to screaming applause, deliver a blisteringly tight set then disappear into the night and let security sort out the aftermath. (On which note, next time I want a tour bus).

What passes for a tour bus in these parts
The reality is that one crowd’s true messiah and speaker of truth is another’s momentarily diverting oddity. That you turn up, pray that the audio visual works, that the cake is good and that some people turn up. Pretty much in that order.

With normal social conventions turned on (in gardening, not as much in popular music) you are also vulnerable to whoever walks through the door. Part of the excitement is that you never know who you might meet. Part of the fear is that you never know who you might meet.

Despite large explanatory posters, bookers will have you delivering punk to an audience used to chamber music, or indie tunes to a thrash metal crowd. That awkward moment in the Blues Brothers where, after a hail of beer bottles, they start playing ‘Stand by Your Man’ rather than ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ (or whatever bluesy thing it was). That.*

But gardeners are nice people. Enthusiastic. Keen. Not generally prone to throwing missiles.
Avant-garde snowdrop display at the Chelsea Physic Garden
(What will we do there? We'll get hiiiigh...)

At the Chelsea Physic Garden I barely got in the door when I was descended upon by a well-bred lady clutching a bunch of snowdrops and an Avon Bulbs catalogue. Awaiting my appearance to re-identify last year’s purchases. (Ok good. ‘Magnet’ and ‘S Arnott’. Easy. That one? No idea. Oh that was the one picked from a relative’s new garden. Yes, it is different. No, no idea.)

And you have to love the audience at the National Botanic Garden of Wales who braved horizontal sleet and a wind-chill factor of about -4C, for an hour of wandering the grounds, cheerfully discussing planting combinations.

I raise my hat to the stylish dame at the Cottage Garden Society day who had each fingernail painted with a different, botanically accurate, snowdrop variety. The lovely fellow in Ireland who gave me Galanthus ‘Hill Poë’, the subject of my first snowdrop crush, deserves a longer visit.
Demonstrating snowdrops to a crowd oblivious of cold
(c) Michelle Chapman

With time, things get increasingly rock and roll. You get in the car. Again. Get out again. Set up your stuff. Stride onto stage and shout ‘, where are we now?’ Get bossed around by old ladies in the audience. Talk to the local media. Compared to virtually everything else live^, give me Radio any day.**

There are times, too, that are just destined for the autobiography. When the lights go down and you are there at the front and, as you start to deliver your guitar solo, you realise that that Jimi Hendrix and Brian May have wandered in from the bar to see what all the fuss is about. And then your strings break, one after the other.^^

That is rock and roll, man. Just the way it is.***

Galanthus ‘Hill Poë’ - thanks to the nice chap at Altamont

So. Many thanks to all those who came to see me, I hope I managed to say something interesting in all the mayhem.

The tour is done. I have come down. I am slightly wiser. But not so wise that I won’t do it again. I have learned that front-man charisma is easier to pull off if you have a band behind you. And roadies. And, ideally, groupies bearing strong drink and ice-cream. That things don’t always go as planned, which is why it is called busking it. And like so much in life, it is all better with the lights on.

And now I’m heading back into the metaphorical studio to sort out the tricky second album. It is going to rock.
The folly at Bellefield House, Ireland

*Adds repurposed police car to wish list

^That I have tried, so far. Not tried live telly. Bring it on

**No, Tony Blackburn, snowdrops are not all the same. Wanna make something of it?

^^ Trust me, the metaphor works

*** If you want me I’ll be hanging out with the ghosts of Keith Moon and Freddy Mercury in the back of the van. I invited Steve Marriott but he is on a spectral moped half way to Brighton.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Dear Galanthophil....

A letter to my snowdrop-loving friends, after E. A. Bowles;

My Dear Galanthophil*,

I am writing to you in some excitement: my book, The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops is finally released in the UK.

By now you may even have a copy, in which case I hope you are enjoying it. There are, as you know, different sorts of books on Galanthus: The terribly serious academic ones, the terribly gorgeous arty ones, and mine. So what’s it all about? Well may you ask.
Cover image is G. nivalis 'Blonde Inge'

As a lover of snowdrops since childhood, I was thrilled to be approached by Timber Press to contribute to their new Plant Lover’s Guides series. But this is a plant we all know so well; what could be new and different, what could I do that was reasonably comprehensive but also engaging and fun? My first point of reference was the idea of ‘love’.

People love for many reasons. The object may be beautiful or it may bestow hope and strength. There may be happy associations with times past or times present. There may be the lust of ownership and desire of acquisition or it may simply be an interest in a subject of endless diversity. I have a hunch that in different people snowdrops encapsulate all of these, so I set out to find every nugget of snowdroppy interest and joy I could get my hands on.

Actually, that bit was pretty easy; the literature and contemporary Galanthus landscape is littered with cool chaps who romped up mountains for species and sat in sheds hybridising in search of the perfect bloom. There are lots of interesting stories attached to specific cultivars too, while considering how they can be used in the garden was another marvellous rabbit hole to dive down. While meeting the specialists and writing about them is one of the enduring pleasures of my day job.

To be honest my friend, I am amazed that I am not still lost in some snowdrop wonderland.

Welford Park, Berkshire. A snowdrop wonderland
The whole exercise was a truly enjoyable opportunity to write and research in depth. I learned a lot. While it is not an exhaustive catalogue of all the snowdrops in the cultivated world it does pick off some good ones. But then it is not intended to be exhaustive. More, it is a merry romp through delightful forms and those flowers that are distinctive and rewarding to grow. The aim was to inspire and engage, not to challenge. It is an exercise in pleasure rather than precision. Consider it, my dear Galanthophil, a gateway drug. A starting point. A lavishly illustrated slippery slope.

So what delighted me most? I think the voyage of discovery appealed. The chance to become a snowdropista. My restlessness likes an evolving landscape and a little bit of debate.

I admit a little conflict, I could have been more precise and academic but that would have made it a less easy read. That is the thing about writing; a good part of the skill is knowing what to leave out. Knowing where the exquisite final detail actually detracts from the performance and the pace. Spotting the differences in energy that are required in creating a live theatre performance as opposed to establishing a reference library.

Emerging snowdrop shoots
I will give you an example. On page 178 I propose an experiment to test whether snowdrop shoots produce heat to melt snow or whether it is the thermal effect of the dark tips absorbing the sun’s heat. As a control I suggested repeating the experiment in the dark. Ever since, the scientist in me has been losing sleep. What if the activity of photosynthesis and respiration also has a thermal effect? That might skew the results. So one should probably repeat the experiment and control with both live and dead snowdrops**..... What was that? Oh yes. The sound of the door closing as those who are more interested in conservation, folklore or garden design*** lose interest and wander off.

You see, Dear Galanthophil (and I trust that you do not object to the epithet. On historic and botanical grounds, if it is good enough for E A Bowles, it is good enough for me) it is easy to get distracted and let the ideas and research run away with one, but that does not a better book necessarily make.

So there we have it. I hope that when you finally receive your copy of The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops that you enjoy it and that it brings you pleasure. I look forward to your thoughts.

I trust this letter finds you well and that our paths will cross again soon.

With kindest regards,


Notes for the interested

*The term Galanthophile arose from a letter from horticultural legend Edward Augustus Bowles to a friend, whom he addressed as ‘Dear Galanthophil’

**I rang the RHS and Kew to check out the veracity of this belief but the responses were inconclusive. To be truly rigorous one could take the experiment a whole lot further, but I would not want to bore you.^

***There is a whole lot of this stuff too, and tips on growing snowdrops, and diseases, and medical uses...I squidged in a lot of things, all told.

^..... although I may engage myself with further experimentation one of these days, just out of interest.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Scissors Paper Stone

My local municipal flowerbed, back when it used to be fun.
I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about municipal planting and garden design in public spaces. It is an opportunity to bring style, excitement or just a bit of beauty to the masses; and one that is usually left to languish in unkempt evergreen scrub.

This is somewhere that a little planning and creativity could reap dividends, but the norm is either uninspired, high maintenance and wasteful, or both.

Just up the road from me is a long curved flowerbed in a small public garden adjacent to a roundabout. It used to be fun, it really did. When I first met it, someone had put in some thought and the late summer display looked so good in a soft morning mist that I went home and came back with a camera.
This is the same flower bed as below, five years earlier.

It wasn’t a challenging or intellectual display, the plants are all quite ordinary but it had a cheerful flair and pizzazz. And then they dug the whole lot up a fortnight later to put in spring bulbs.*

Since then I have observed that that an astonishing amount of money seems to be spent on rather nasty selections of annual bedding. I take emphatic issue with the traditional handful-of-jelly tots-chucked-onto-a-blanket school of urban planting. Sure, young plants will expand to fill gaps but pansies with 18 inch spacings will never impressive groundcover make.  

In the case of this particular patch, it has also boasted some of the nastiest pastel colour schemes imaginable. The palette looks like it has been lifted from The Catalogue of Stylish Underwear for the Older Woman**, circa 1988.

See what I mean? 
Skinny, pastel planting. Must try harder.

In its favour: the cherry trees are nice. Which is the germ of a solution. A backbone of thoughtful permanent planting that can be topped up with transient colour, annuals or bulbs. ‘But perennials and shrubs are expensive’ I hear you sob. Well, yes, but you don’t have to change them so often. Consider it in the same light as buying good pair of shoes and polishing them every now and again as compared  to buying three or four pairs of shoes that last a few months then disintegrate. Unless you are talking this-season’s cheap and transient fashion item (which we are not), it is not worth it. In the long run it will save money and effort.

This planting scheme is about three months old
But the key word here is ‘thoughtful’. This recent permanent border in front of a new building looks like the pots were unloaded from the truck and planted where they landed. You can see what they are trying to do - create a sequence of flowering and foliage interest with a decent evergreen backbone, but the layout is properly pants.***

It is a bit like playing scissors-paper-stone with plants. Phormiums are sandwiched between bamboo and mahonia, underplanted with bergenias. Pittosporum is wedged up against Photinia ‘Red Robin’ and spirea; underplanted with geraniums. Then there are some sizeable patches of bare earth - but not between the plants that are going to get really big.

This is a fight waiting to happen. An actual turf war.

Photinia trumps Pittosporum and probably spirea; they will all likely outcompete the bergenias (yes, I know they are tolerant, but the soil here gets dry). Mahonia will rapidly encroach on the phormiums and anyway the shapes are a bit odd together. The Pittosporum is already vanishing under the phormium which are doing rather well given they have only been there for six months. But in many ways it is academic since, in a space that size, bamboo in that quantity will sort out the lot given a few years. ****

Again, in its favour, the trees are nice. And I have hope for the geraniums. They are survivors.
A slightly strange selection of plants

So what do we learn from all this?

Well, firstly that when schemes are planted up there is tragically little thought given to the ultimate size of the plants and their relative size compared to one another. This is pretty much garden design 101. Horticulturists and designers, come back, all is forgiven.

Secondly, that various varieties of prunus and maple are rolled out to save dire planting choices on an alarmingly regular basis. There are, totally, like, other trees out there, people.
But what is rather sad is that, as a result, people get sniffy about shrubs that are solid and decent but badly planted and badly cared for. “Dreadfully municipal”, “Dear me no, the garden will look like a roundabout!” huffs middle England. But it is not the fault of the species in question. Those that are condemned to this pitiful existence. Abandoned to long-term neglect or a tragically short life, drably combined, or spread too thinly to shine.

All in all, it gives good plants a bad name.

Pretty. Like a furry caterpillar.

*I benefitted from half a dozen large Verbenas though, so not all bad.

**I made this up, obviously. And I’m being *really* moderate in my disapprobation.

***In contrast I offer you the verge of the A406 near Bounds Green. Ordinary, low maintenance evergreen things like Lonicera nitida and Ceanothus are planted in a geometric pattern. It has been there for at least 15 years to my certain knowledge and could now badly use some TLC but its longevity and impact are undeniable.

****As far as I know there are no spring bulbs in all this. But the killer combination of daffodils and bamboo is rare for a reason.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Great Snowdrop Experiment*

It may or may not be common knowledge that I have a book out this year. It is on snowdrops**, for which I have a lifelong love and appreciation. This is clearly not the same thing as having a humungeous collection of rarities. If you want such a thing, go and talk to my friend Joe Sharman. Where that is concerned, he's the boy.   
As it happens, I have, numerically, lots of snowdrops - they are parked in a corner and there are more each year. They are mostly variations of common nivalis, including a few that I have selected ‘to watch’ but they are not what you would call posh. The fancy snowdrop collection is increasing cheerfully and enthusiastically but, until recently, has been kept intentionally fairly modest and realistically more hardy than fancy, depending on how high your standards are ***.

Anyway, while writing, two things came up time and again – firstly that one should always buy snowdrops from a reputable source so you know what they are and that they are healthy, and secondly that species Galanthus elwesii is a wildly variable creature. I also discovered that snowdrops are the most widely collected bulb in the world (collection limited to G. elwesii and G. woronowii for conservation reasons) and that identification of the bulbs that are sold, whether wild collected or grown for the purpose, is frankly pretty shaky.
One of my snowdrops. G nivalis.

And what do I do when the received wisdom is not to do something? Well, go and do it, obviously.

Now I hasten to add, this is not about getting hold of lots of snowdrops quickly and cheaply.  This is science****. The questions I posed were:

1.      When they say that G. elwesii is variable, how variable do they mean? Like, when you buy some, what do you get?
2.       If identification is shaky, then you may frequently not get what you are supposed to be getting. How often does this happen and what does show up?
3.       If you buy snowdrop bulbs, rather than plant in the green, do they actually grow?

So. I went and bought some packets of snowdrop bulbs*****. One was a ‘collector’s snowdrop’ purporting to be G. ikariae from a well known garden centre. I then went to a high street source****** (the sort I’ve roundly slated for selling rubbish plants in blogs passim) and bought a packet of G. elwesii, returning three weeks later to buy another. I planted some in pots, some in the ground and labelled them all well.
Some of the flowers arrive before others

So what happened?

This is where is got interesting.

  • Firstly, all the bulbs came up.
  • The “ikariae” came up as something that did not look quite right – wrong green markings on inner segments, wrong shaped leaves. Probably a gracilis. Which means that I have put it in the wrong place.
  • The first batch of “elwesii” came up looking pretty elwesii-ish (with the odd exception that I will be keeping an eye on) and highly variable both in flowering time and the shape and colour of the green inner markings.
  • The second batch of “elwesii” came up as something completely different. Wide, curved, grass-green leaves so far (no flowers yet) and looking a bit like Galanthus woronowii or possibly G ikariae (in which case it is in the wrong place again). Or even, as E. A. Bowles would say, a scilla. When and if  I get a flower I'll let you know. [Update, 11 March 2014: No flowers at all on these bulbs, which means that not only were they not what they said they were, they were also too small to flower. And the people who market this stuff are very naughty.]

This one does not look like...
This one.
Which in turn is different to....

In conclusion
  • Well done to those chaps who are doing their best to ensure that the bulbs are treated well enough to actually grow.
  • The specialist bulbs sold in garden centres may well not be what it says on the tin. And said garden centres should know better.
  • Species Galanthus elwesii really is a lot of fun.
  • Mystery plant
  • The cheap species bulbs sold on the high street are also highly likely to be mislabelled. (My results indicate >50% of the time, but the sample size is too small for this to be even vaguely reliable.) In the case of the shop where I bought the “G. elwesii”, G. woronowii was not even an option.

  • If you do go to a non-specialist retailer and buy a packet of bulbs you can get some exciting results, even if it was not what you were aiming for.
  • If you want to be quite sure of what you are getting, go to a reputable bulb supplier or small specialist. (Yes, I know, I’m getting a sense of déjà vu as well...).
  • And finally, snowdrops are really quite as cool and addictive as one could ever hope and anticipate. I’m doomed.
This one.

Yup, and the markings are different here too. Variable, see.

*well, not so great really. Quite modest in fact and the sample size was a bit small, but I liked the title.

** my apologies to the galanthophobes, but when you are a freelance writer and the phone rings and a voice goes ‘Hello. You like snowdrops, would you like to write a book on them?’ the obvious answer is ‘Hell, yes! When would you like it?’

***Why? Because I have I large and expensive collection of small relatives and asking perpetrators of mayhem to take care of plants on the scale of ‘don’t pull branches off that apple tree’ is comprehensible. But armed with spades and diggers and asking them to avoid a large and expensive collection of small bulbs that are invisible for most of the year, and expecting them to comply and/or avoid accident, is just fantasy. Live with it.

****Got a degree in Biology, innit. You can take the girl out of the science lab, but you can’t take the science lab out of the girl.

*****making sure the bulbs were plump, firm and otherwise not manky.

******Like I said. It is science, not utopia.

Monday, 2 December 2013

A Travelogue: Disco Lightning and Other Stories

This is a not-necessarily-linear tale of a road-trip in France; there is the odd toll gate on the way. Quite a lot of ‘80s music and fast cornering. Tomatoes. Wildlife. To be honest, it is fairly abstract. You can leave if you like. 

The Beginning, Folkestone, later than anticipated, July
“It’s not the Nürburgring* you know!”  the man said, sternly.
Hurtled to a halt. Sheepish, muttered apologies....late...made check-in by clear 30 seconds....embarrassed cough...continued towards customs.


Disco Lightning – Paris and South, 2-5am, July

Surprisingly, underneath the most romantic city in the world is a labyrinth of dark underpasses, packed with fast moving traffic. Diverted off the motorway, I stuck to the tail of the crazed lorry driver in front. Screeching round corners, heading south. My great uncle’s theory was that if you get lost driving in London you should follow a taxi. Same difference in Paris (more or less), except that I was also following signs to Orly airport.

The 2am mid-summer sky had blackened and flashes of lightning punctuated the cityscape in a pleasingly cinematographic fashion, and intensified for 100km south until the downpour arrived. The autoroute turned into a river and the lightning became a continuous flickering illumination. The effect of driving through a very wet ‘80s disco, was enhanced by Wham! The Final** on the stereo.

Strange things happen when playing with itunes late at night after a few pre-holiday drinks. But there is more to this than purely atrocious taste in music.*** My early teen years were punctuated by trips to the Isle of Man where we and our cousins were turfed out of bed in London at silly o’clock, slung into the back of a campervan and driven to Liverpool. The soundtrack to this was in the hands of a younger relative who was massively into Wham! and our grandmother who favoured Abba, and The Beatles (other than that blasphemous John Lennon and his Imagine song****). I recollect some Chas and Dave as well, but it may have been delirium.
So. Not atrocious taste in music, just the lasting effect of atavistic dawn road trips. Honest. That, and having already used up any lively surplus of rock, metal, ska and more up to date pop. There was some sort of fight between Lady Gaga and The Scissor Sisters at one point. It was 4am by this point. Anything could happen.

Some notes on Natural History, France, Saturday
  • The French for bat is chauve-souris. (Discovered this last year. When I also told a friend’s daughter who was starting to learn German that bat poo is Fledermaus Scheiβe. Well, I was amused). Lots of ‘em about, anyhow.
  • The French for moth is Papillion du nuit. The debate on day-flying hummingbird hawk moths and cinnabar moths did not reach a satisfactory conclusion.
  • “Je regrette, nous sommes complet” said the garcon. “How can they be full when they have lots of seats and everything?” Asked my son as we went for icecream instead. Now that is what I call a formative cultural experience.

The Dordogne and Tomatoes, France, Saturday

The Dordogne is lovely. Just lovely.  All nut orchards and pretty villages, bread and cherries. They are thoroughly kinky about topiary in this region. Even the retail parks have crisp, crenellated hedging. Very exciting.

Also exciting are tomatoes: tasty, brilliant and they double as goldfish in a bag.

It was here that the cafetière met with an accident. Have you ever tried to buy a ‘French press coffee maker’ in France? Don’t bother, they don’t have them – or at least not in normal places like shops. Pour faire du camping, one must acquire a filter-thing and extemporise.

 Lascaux II, Sunday
When I was about nine, I had a book called Mammoths, Mastodons and Man. In fact I still have it.  I read it until it practically fell to bits. It spoke, amongst other things, of cave paintings in the Dordogne and I also had another book on how the study of palaeontology developed and key discoveries were made.

In 1940, a group of boys in France came across the most fabulous cave paintings in the world, while looking for a lost dog near the village of Montignac. I have wanted to visit the site ever since. But before I was born the caves were closed; with visitors had arrived algae, fungi and carbon dioxide which had affected the art and it looked like it would be damaged irreparably.
The slightly bonkers, but very effective solution was to build an exact replica of the cave, every curve and contour reproduced to within millimetres, and to recreate the original paintings using the same materials as the original Palaeolithic artists.

I am cynical of this sort of stuff, and dislike the Disneyfication of heritage enormously, but actually Lascaux II works. You can see it, experience it, comprehend how the artists used the contours of the rock to inform the shape of the animals they were painting. You are actually underground; the air is damp and cold. Ambition more or less achieved.

Further Notes on Natural History, Perpignan, three days later
  • The very south of France where it joins Spain is, relatively speaking outside my comfort zone. Unlike England, things are like, totally dry. Many plants have reduced or leathery leaves to limit water loss so it is a bit like pitching up in a Biology demonstration. And rather than strolling around contentedly scoffing plants, snails congregate like clusters of calcareous flowers on the twigs in the super-littoral zone, aestivating to retain water in the baking heat. It is a different world.
  • Turns out les garçons do not like it much when a lady driving a heavily laden seven-seater with roofbox and a GB number plate overtakes them. But this is not confined to France.
  • Swallowtail butterflies are too lovely to be real.

The Loire Valley, five days after that...

Visiting the Chaumont-sur-Loire garden festival was the fulfilment of another long-held ambition. I liked it so much I wrote it up for The Telegraph. I will probably go back. 


The Millau Viaduct

This is a viaduct that is so epic that if you type 'massive viaduct' into google it is the first thing that comes up. The A75 through central France is not the fastest motorway in the history of the universe but it is one of the most interesting. You drive up and up and up, eventually going through a mountain, then with no warning the ground just vanishes and you are suspended on a miracle of engineering shouting 'Wow! look at that! No, not you, you are driving. But wow!". If you ever get the chance, go.

This is some of what happened. There may be more but I doubt it.



* For those more into gardening than motor racing, the Nürburgring is a circuit in Germany.

** The Wham! Rap: “Wham! Bam! I am! A Man! Job or no jo-ob you can’t tell me that I’m no-ot. Do? You? Enjoy what you do? If not. Then stop. Don’t stay there and rot./Dancing shoes and pretty girls, boys in leather kiss girls in pearls.” He’s gay – who knew?

***I have broad musical tastes. Only some of it is atrocious.

****There is only so long that one can try and explain.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Retail Therapy

This is Dorney Court Kitchen Garden in Berkshire: a design-led independent nursery with equally good plants and cake

There is a bunch of new kids in town. Pretenders to the horticultural sales throne lining up for a slice of the plant-purchase pie; supermarkets and high street retailers are jostling into the base of a pyramid of gardening expertise which is topped by artisan nurseries and with garden centres, DIY sheds and their ilk piled up variously beneath.

So how are they doing? Donning a large hat and fake moustache dark glasses, I embarked on a little espionage.  First stop was a new budget supermarket that has opened in town I have been told great things about their simple, desirable range of stock nothing too complex...‘flying off the shelves’ was the message I got. I tend to champion specialists and the little guys, but I was open minded.

Until I got there. Exhibit A was a Dutch trolley of wilted petunias. The box cones at about a tenner...were just a bit too sad looking. Twine, wire and chemicals were well priced but the roses and fruit were desperate. A tragedy of etiolated shoots and withered foliage. Then I was tempted: Malus sargentii ‘Red Sentinel’ for £4.99. But it was illustrated with a picture of M. ‘John Downey’ and, given the time of year really should have been showing a little more life. No.

Warming to my mission, I proceeded up the high street to another budget retailer of (the sort of place, where you can buy everything from taps to cushions to dog food). In my capacity as regional horticultural busybody, have told them about their plants before, so the potatoes sprouting out of the packet were no real surprise. Unsubtly checking the cardboard tubes of perennials and fruit, one hit the floor. A nice assistant came to help pick it up. “Thank you” I said “By the way, I think you should know that most of your plants are dead”; “No, no they are not” he assured me “they are supposed to be like that. We don’t water them because they are...” “Dead” I finished for him. Not dormant. Really not. The olive was a withered stick, the cranberry was just a circle of miserable mould in the compost. Even the raspberries were dead and it is hard to kill those even if you want to.

 His expression combined ‘nonplussed and disbelieving’ perfectly as he thanked me for the feedback. I doubt the shelf will be cleared.*

My final stop was at the other end of town, both socially and geographically.** Here, the plants were looking much better. They were outside for a start and although the range was pretty limited, they had at least been watered.*** But the price for a similar (healthier) box cone was getting on for 2.5 times the budget supermarket competition, on a par with the average garden centre, which perhaps better reflects true costs - or maybe approach to profit, who knows.

Which brings me to my conclusion: £1.79 for a large tray of small plants or a fiver for a tree is a bargain, but It Is Only A Good Deal If They Are Alive.

I took this picture at Edulis Nursery in Berkshire which has fascinating edible plants and plentiful expertise.
And now, if you will forgive me, I am going to have a rant.

What concerns me is that the people who are buying these high street convenience plants are unlikely to be the experts, they are not likely to be the people who can coax a shrivelled specimen back from the brink. And let’s face it, after last year who wants to be bringing plants back from the brink? For my own part I want absolutely everything I plant this year to thrive, grow vast and lush, untroubled by slugs and laden with glorious fruit and flowers. As an experienced gardener I know that is ambitious at the best of times, but I can’t quite be doing with Lazarus plants right now.

Tempted by fashion for grow your own, a desire for a lovely garden or faux-bargainous-ness people will buy this stuff. They may not realise the plant is dead, particularly if they are assured to the contrary by ill-informed shop staff. It is an exercise in disappointment and de-motivation. The retailer risks turning off a sector of the gardening public who may believe that the fault is theirs, may never know that Saint Titchmarsh himself could never have made that particular stick burst into life. It is another small tragedy of crushed hope when gardening should be the very opposite. Nobody gains.

Like food and fashion, the buyer does not get a decent, wholesome or healthy product if prices are held artificially low and staff not even minimally skilled. Like food, you get a better plant if you buy it at a decent price from the person who grew it and can tell you how to care for it/cook it – or at least someone who met him once. To quote Captain Vimes’**** boots theory, if you spend good money on a decent pair of boots it will last you ten years. If you spend half as much on your boots you will need to replace them every year or so and end up spending much more. Captain Vimes would have had a few things to say about the false economy of spending money on boots that were not fit to wear.

I will hold my hands up, I have rescued (alive) plants from inexpert retail hands before, but until they sort it out I vow to harden my heart*****. I may, in passing, pick up some inanimate object such as twine or organic plant food on the high street, but in the same way as life is too short to drink bad wine, eat bad chocolate or wear wellies with holes in, life is too short to buy doomed plants. Fact.


*I went back ten days later. The plants were all still there.

**The first time I turned up at 9.30am it was shut though. Not yet up to speed with gardening o’clock.

***And to be fair, given the scale of their celebrity hook-up, woe betide them if they muck it up.

****Thank you Terry Pratchett

***** I’m sticking with traditional nurseries, garden centres and the mail order suppliers. If you tell them that a bulb, plant or tuber is dead on arrival they will pop another in the post rather than tell you that it is supposed to be soft and slightly fluffy at this time of year.