Friday, 10 December 2010

Sparkling Snowdrops, Batman!

I was talking to my botanical uncle about snowdrops the other day, in the context of bigging up our welsh garden. Turns out that my paternal grandmother put in all sorts of exciting things but he reckons that quite a lot have faded away – and anything that has any susceptibility to slugs just gets munched and won’t bulk up.

Anyway, we have a niceish spread of Galanthus nivalis ,and some others which I have been told are probably G. elwesii (they have bigger, greyer leaves, apparently) although my uncle suggested they could just be from a different population of G nivalis, snowdrops being a heterogeneous bunch. I will go and have a closer look in the spring, but the flowering times are certainly different. I would like to get some interesting ones, but at the same time it would be a bit daft to splash out on slug food. We shall see.

I had quite a party week last week, with the annual Garden Media Guild Awards in London. It has been blogged to death, so I will sum it up as glittering cast of celebrities and the gardening somebodies, lots of deserving people honoured for their work and a nice lunch followed by a slightly riotous time in the pub.

I had a good time sitting next to Christine Walkden and Chris Baines (we chatted about music promotion and folk rock) and I was shortlisted for both the Environmental Award for a piece called Tomorrow Never Dies about the Millennium Seed Bank in Amateur Gardening and the Plants and Well Being award for a piece on the gardening charity Thrive, published in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Life. I like a glamorous ‘do’ and my ambition to go as a ‘Beguiling Horticulturalist’ (see ‘Adventures in Floristry’) went pretty well – well, people were very nice about my dress, which was, if I say so myself modestly awesome. (James A-S says I win the 'most sparkly' award hands down, but to be fair I did suggest it as a category).

The previous weekend my partner and I were invited to a party entitled ‘A Day at the Races and a Night as a Rock Star’ by our most excellent neighbours. Chris went as Axl Rose which was jolly effective. I like a man in eyeliner. I went as my own bad rock self – which turned out to be controversial. A matter of semantics, hanging on how you interpret ‘come as a rock star’, and they decided that I fell somewhere on a line between Lily Allen and Bjork. Hmmm. Apparently it was an outfit that Noel Fielding would also have gone for. (‘I DIDN’T say you looked like Noel Fielding, darling!...’). Trilby, goth T-shirt, velvet jacket with integral feather boa, boots...maybe not too far off, in truth. (If anyone wants me to hang around on Never Mind the Buzzcocks and take the mickey out of Jedward, you know where I am).

A jolly evening spent in the company of Slash, Ozzy, Marilyn (Monroe, not Manson), ZZ Top, Janis Joplin and half of Kiss. We followed a decent rendition of ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ from the boys, with ‘Cover of the Rolling Stone’ by Dr Hook which seemed to be fitting and culminated spectacularly with a kid doing a power slide that took out the speakers.

So Beguiling Horticulturist, perhaps. Rock Horticulturist? Quite convincing, actually. Not the same thing as a Rock Gardener though. No.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Adventures in Floristry

Ingredients for a bouquet
Back in the summer I went on a floristry course to Green and Gorgeous in Oxfordshire. Historically, I have not been at all keen on formal floristry. It seemed rigid and stuffy, coming up with arrangements that had names like ‘Orchid and Sphagnum on a Tortured Twig’. But at G&G they laid my demons to rest with an intensive day learning how to make fashionable naturalistic bouquets.

Since then I have had little need to use these dark arts, but as the autumn colours intensified the floristry bug intensified too. Venturing out with the secateurs I acquired Pyracantha berries, bronze and gold forsythia leaves, soft grey goldenrod seedheads (cunningly stabilised with a blast of extreme-hold hairspray to stop the seeds dropping off), and some Sedum flowers. I bought some Physalis and cellophane from Lulu Flowers round the corner – where they also gave me a quick refresher in wrapping them for travel.

So, with much garden wire and raffia, I assembled my hand-tied bouquet, with the sedums as a collar and a few off-white asters to naturalise it. Nicely wrapped and finished with some green and bronze ribbons, it is not too shabby, methinks.

One of my issues with flower arrangements is that I find them difficult to photograph well - but for your delectation here are some before and after shots anyway.

A floral - or leafy and seedy - extravaganza
On the ‘to do’ list is to find something nice to wear for the forthcoming Garden Media Guild Awards – the industry Oscars is the claim. Anyway, posh frock required. Something flattering and decorously foxy, preferably. I was looking into Steam Punk as a rather cool genre – the idea is to mix Victoriana liberally into what one wears. Plenty of vintage and Jack the Ripper boots – with the top hat and monocle option for boys.

While looking down the back of the internet I came across this site selling Steam Punk clothes, with entire back-stories for their outfits. One can be ‘Tara Foster, Treasure Seeker’, ‘Percival Westbury, Egyptologist’ and, my personal favourite, ‘Narcissa Von Trapp, Beguiling Horticulturalist’ (sic). Now that is a job description to aspire to, ‘Quite lovely to look at, and loquacious on the topic of plant life’, apparently (and a dab hand with poisons too). When I grow up I, too, wish to be a Beguiling Horticulturist.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

A Series of Doors

The Woodshed, still not as accessible as it might be!
 Actually managed to do a spot of gardening yesterday – it has suffered because of a major veg-planting extravaganza in Wales in aid of my forthcoming series in Kitchen Garden magazine. Starts in January. Look out for it. (And my adventure at the National Gardening Show in the December issue of Period Homes and Interiors). Anyway, I cut back a few perennials to stop them strangling some other stuff, liberated the door of the woodshed from encroaching evergreens (so at least we can tell if there is something nasty in it, if we want to*), and started to lay waste to some really cheeky brambles. All very therapeutic.

The picture above is of the woodshed after I had done most of the cutting back. I fear my work is not yet done.

When I was about six I had a protracted argument with my Grandmother about favourite colours. I liked red and black. She said that she liked brown best. I said that black was sharp and striking and clean and that brown was a boring, squishy, non-colour, devoid of attitude. She said black was nasty and harsh and that brown was wonderful and warm and soft. We never did agree on it.

When I re-designed and planted her front garden some 30 years later, I found myself in garden centres thinking of this and actively picking plants that were not to my taste as I knew she would like them. I prefer Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’ or ‘Silver Lode’ on slightly less gothic days. She liked H. ‘Creme Brulee’ and ‘Georgia Peach’. She liked variegated plants. Frequently wishy-washy and underfed-looking to my mind – but I bought them anyway. She hated daffodils because they get knocked down at the sides of roads. I told her she was getting some for her own good and put Tete-a-Tete at the front of the border, supporting the tall ones in mixed planting at the back. We agreed Hamamelis was a good idea and I indulged her in Choisia ‘Sundance’.

The following year, when I was about seven, she took offence to my singing Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ which was in the charts at the time. She was firmly of the opinion that we did need an education, and, indeed, not needing no education was terrible grammar. No amount of discussion of the broader context of the song would sway her; it was a Bad Thing.

She was extraordinarily decisive in such matters. John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was the most appalling blasphemy. Yet ABBA was marvellous regardless of voulez-vous-ing and gimme-gimme-ing of men after midnight. She quite liked Wham! And Chas and Dave.

By and large we got on well. We both liked gardening, clothes and concentric rings of almonds on Dundee cakes. I did stuff, she lived vicariously, happy that stuff was being done.

As of the other day, she is not here anymore, either to indulge or to bicker with. If one, like Janus, looks both forward and backward in time there is a great sense of a door closing on the past. The first-hand memories and experiences of growing up in the 1920s and '30s are one generation less accessible. Recent history is suddenly a lot less recent.

Listening to: Nickelback ‘How You Remind Me’. Coincidentally.

Would Grandma have liked it? Not impossibly. Derivative Canadian Rock I hear you say (or possibly in the interests of accuracy (see blogs passim) contemporary rock with a hefty dash of post-grunge). Whatever.

Are we having fun yet?

*Like in Cold Comfort Farm. Naturally.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Red Planting and Political Blues

Verbena bonariensis and Cornus alba sibirica, with sedum in the background

I have been taking a good look at my front garden, which, despite needing a bit of a tidy is coming on nicely. It is north facing on very sandy soil so not the easiest spot, and its autumn-to-winter look is basically red and green. The leaves have come off the Cornus sibirica leaving red stems, there are big heads of sedum flowers, a few dark red snapdragons left, Parthenocissus henryana climbing the wall (although the Hydrangea petiolaris seems to have died on me) and lots of lovely ornamental fruit on the little Malus sargentii. The green bit is provided by Choisia ternata, bamboo, a small rosemary, a Sarcococca and a few other odds and sods that flower at other times of the year.

Malus sargentii and sedum, neatly colour coordinated
with my neighbours' car and front door

Trouble is, I think I am being too subtle. There are a few mauve highlights from the sage which is romping away (told you it was well drained) and Verbena bonariensis, which I thought would lift it and they do look quite nice as a contrasting colour. But when I returned from the garden centre today with a couple of red cyclamen, it seemed de trop. I have put in some pink, autumn flowering saffron crocuses although they are not quite up yet, and I am wondering about experimenting with cerise and white cyclamen instead of red. The colour scheme is so very controlled it can probably take it. I might buy a box tomorrow and see. They can always go elsewhere if it looks dreadful.

Meanwhile, I was at the DIY shed yesterday, buying compost, and I was struck by the plethora of faded and weathering garden ornaments. Pale gnomes, rusty flowers, dubious twisty things with glass nuggets, ceramic smiley sheep, that sort of thing. Most disturbing were the cherubs. Cast in low-grade concrete with lots of added coir, the cement was weathering away to leave a kind of green fur. Under-wing hair is not a good look on a cherub.

On the work front I am exploring. Coming soon to a print medium near you. Just just found my feature on my nascent apple juice empire in The Guardian. And I have just come off the breakfast show on BBC Radio Berkshire where I was talking to the lovely Nikki Whiteman. Tell you what, if you want to sound awake at 7.30am, listen to punk while driving. Green Day did the job this morning, which is a good link to the next bit (King For A Day. If you've got to ask, probably best not to know).
I am vexed with the coalition government. The latest estimate to put my kids through decent universities is what is known in the business as 'Titchmarsh Money'. So watch out Titchmarsh, I am after your job. This is not just ambition, it is Marks and Spencer’s ambition.

I mentioned this to my brother and he explained his theory that the Conservatives were probably back for a while. He reckons that one should not underestimate the British fetish for being told that they are very naughty voters and being spanked with austerity measures. Yikes.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Queen and the Worlds Biggest Caterpillar

Today, we are mostly hitting our head against horticulture. Hmmm. We are not the Queen.

Today, I am hitting my head against horticulture. What to plant in the veg patch to make it gloriously productive and wonderful through winter. And if I plant it, will it survive anyway? The potatoes have gone and an early frost nipped the corn. I have stopped picking the beans and hopefully the last ones will fatten up to produce some very superior kidney beans, for very superior bean salad.

Then what? I think that various oriental things such as mizuna and mustards might be the thing, and spinach sounds promising, but it is all terribly experimental. I am going to put in some exciting garlic varieties and I have scored some rather jolly looking flower sprouts from Suttons. Like mini pink and green cabbages, I hope they taste as good as they look.

I also have a big box of bulbs from De Jager, which is extraordinarily exciting. De Jager does big bulbs as standard and in the spirit of getting what you pay for, bigger really is better. (As I discovered with some chunky Acidanthera that I got from Avon Bulbs last spring. My track record with summer bulbs is dismal but these ones worked and hope springs anew). I really, really want to get planting but it will have to wait until the weekend when I will vanish in a flurry of fritillaries, a nest of narcissi, of paperwhites? [enough! Ed]

Anyway, it is going to be good.

The picture above is a particularly awesome caterpillar that Isabella and I found on Sunday. It was vast and hairy and handsome and everything I admire in caterpillars. According to the internet it is a Fox Moth but if anyone knows different then do say so.

Listening to: Well, the soundtrack in my head is Oasis’s ‘The Importance of Being Idle’ which is an improvement on much of their recent work and a lesson for us all. In real life, the last thing I heard which I liked was ‘Big Red Combine Harvester’ at my offspring’s harvest festival, which we sang with enthusiasm all the way to school.

And there was some dire, miserablist wailing from my daughter’s stereo earlier, with some fellow claiming he needed ‘love CPR’ which must go down as one of the most rubbish lines in history. Trouble with some bands is they think such claims will make them sound sensitive and interesting (don’t start me on Scouting for Girls). Which they may, if you are pre-teen or take medical dramas seriously. Not me on both counts.

I think such chaps should wake up, smell the substance abuse and start smashing guitars. If your Rolls Royce is not in the swimming pool you are not doing it properly. So there.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Vast Veg and Sweet, Sweet Music.

I visited the National Gardening Show last Friday. I had not been there before and my diet so far has been rich RHS fare such as Chelsea so I did slightly wonder what I was going to. It was fun though – lots of obscenely vast and occasionally visceral-looking vegetables, stonking dahlias, some good nurseries and generally all the fun of the country show. I also came across a plant new to me called “Good King Henry” twice on the same day. When that happens you just have to try it.

At risk of being a plant bore, I drove back up the A303 spotting apple trees in full fruit in the hedgerows. I quite like the A303, mostly because it goes past Stonehenge and you can also play ‘spot the long-barrow’, but this time I was trying to remember the tune to that late-90’s song by Kula Shaker which goes on about driving down the A303. I read in Smash Hits or something at the time that it was all about running away to Glastonbury, man. Two thoughts; 1) Did they not realise that running away to Glastonbury has kind of been done to death? 2) This probably dates me horribly.

But to continue the appley theme, I have not provided much in the way of sensible gardening advice lately so here you go: Pick apples and pears when they come away with half a twist when cupped in the hand. Pears will finish ripening off the tree, which means that you have a fighting chance of getting to them before the birds do. Store perfect fruit (but early apples don’t keep awfully well), checking regularly. Turn damaged ones into jam or chutney. More of that anon. And put fruit affected by brown rot into the bin, rather than the compost to try and contain some of the spores. Am I alone in finding this picture curiously appealing?
Apple with Brown Rot

With the start of a new term I am back to my old habits. I am not a reformed character; I like my coffee strong and often. My epitaph will read ‘100% Columbian please’ and we are not referencing Fun Lovin’ Criminals albums here. Another worrying observation while buying school uniform: apparently I am the size (well, height) of the average 21st Century 13 year old, should one be planning an ill-conceived ACDC revival party or something.

In print: in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Life, I can be seen enthusing about the new rose garden at the Savill Garden and I seem to have written a hefty portion of Period House this month too, which is jolly. Oh, and last weekend I could be heard discussing chutney and plum pruning with Debbie McGee on BBC Radio Berkshire. Now that’s magic.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Satchkin Patchkin

Devonshire Quarrenden
I spent most of yesterday up a tree. But there is method in my madness – I was picking the first apples of the season. We picked the Discovery a week or so ago to finish ripening off the tree as they were being so badly attacked by birds and squirrels, other than that we have big green Reverend W Wilks and the early eater Devonshire Quarrenden.

The problem with early apples is that they don’t store all that well – the Quarrenden is a beautiful, deep red creature, all tart and juicy, but within about a week the flesh starts to become speckled with brown. And Rev Wilks is so soft that you can bruise it with your fingers as you pick it.

So we picked carefully, sent some of the lovely fruit to the Royal Oak Inn, the shop and a B&B. Apple crumble is back on the menu and we have sent a whole bunch of fruit for juice. And for my next trick I will make some chutney.

I rather like apple picking. It reminds me of the story book Satchkin Patchkin by Helen Morgan, Ilustrated by Shirley Hughes. The eponymous little green magic man, dressed in apple leaves, helps the old lady thwart her cold-hearted landlord by making apple and blackberry pies and building a micro-business to pay her rent (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would be proud), so she in the end can re-thatch her tip-tilted roof, buy a donkey, and generally feed herself and not get evicted. The end of each chapter goes “My name is Satchkin Patchkin and I live, like a leaf, in the apple tree”. And when the lady is secure and autumn comes, he drifts like a leaf from the apple tree and so the story ends. Recommended.

Back in Berkshire, I am still puzzled about the cooking apple tree in my garden. It looks and tastes like Bramley’s Seedling, but the fruit appears to be ripening and dropping a good six weeks too early. According to Dr Hessayon’s fruit book it should ripen in mid Oct, which it currently is not. Maybe it is just keen.

In print at the moment: Amateur Gardening, Cover date 21st Aug writing about my visit to the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place, Sussex, and The English Garden, Sept Issue, on the gloriously colourful garden at Baggage Chute in Berks.

Listening to: Skunk Anansie

Geeky observation: I noticed that in ‘The History of Everything’ by Barenaked Ladies there is the lyric ‘The autotrophs began to drool..’. Autotrophs make their own food from light, water and the odd simple chemical. They is plants, innit. No salivery glands=no drooling. I then discovered, via a quick web-search, that I am not the only pedant on the planet...

Monday, 12 July 2010

Hampton Court Show - but is it art?

Well, it is that time of year again and as I am far too busy to think of anything interesting or funny to blog about, here, for your delectation, is Hampton Court Show 2010 in shapes, colours and textures.
Enjoy x

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Bags of lavender

Sometimes, when you least expect it, the garden starts giving you presents. You spend ages fretting over it, feeding it, topping it up with plants. Stuff dies (there is a spot where I want a small tree and so far it has eaten a Hamamelis and a Magnolia, it is the most expensive corner of the garden so far!), the whole thing takes the mickey.

But then the cuttings take better than you ever dreamed they might; plants survive and propagating themselves at will and all sorts of pretties turn up.

Finally shamed into weeding my front garden (north facing, extremely dry, shallow, sandy soil) I was picking out dandelions and rogue goldenrod, I suddenly realised that the lavender had seeded itself into the ridiculously dry and trampled strip by the car. I had no idea lavender did that sort of thing. It is a pink one and while I’m not over excited by the colour the scent is lovely. I think it is 'Miss Katherine', a refugee from a show.

I took softwood cuttings in spring from several other lavenders - excitingly most of these have survived as have the semi-hardwood cuttings I took really-too-late-but-I’ll-try-it.

Weeding is nice because things just appear. Miraculously the tulips seem to have outcompeted the dandelions, Then the verbena bonarienses survived, the Alchemilla is thriving and it is full of little frogs. Sometimes you just don’t need princes.

The picture is of my new mixed border. The rose is ‘Harlow Carr’ the sweet peas are ‘Fragrant Skies’ and the Philadelphus is 'Belle Etoile, it looks and smells lovely.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Great Hairy Weeds

Well, Chelsea has come and gone. Thought it was rather nice, actually in a green-and-white fashion. I liked the show garden by Roger Platts, and the little Rhubarb Crumble and Custard Garden. Congratulations to Thrive for their well-deserved gold medal – and thanks for the smart green tea towel that came in the press pack.

Slebs spotted include Bill Bailey, Bernard Cribbins (who I always confuse with Bilbo Baggins as he read The Hobbit on Jackanory when I was little) and that Anita off Birds of a Feather who is always there. A bit short of rock stars for my personal taste, but Ringo just tends to tear around being rude to people so maybe it is no great loss. Although I was rather pleased to meet Brian May a couple of years ago.

Gardens. Celebrities. Schmoozing. Chelsea in a nutshell.

This is the time of year when it is all about multi-tasking. Weeding is something that has to be kept on top of, or civilisation as we know it crumbles. This is best done on the phone to ones mother or mother in law, I find. Two useful things at once. Sadly the phone reception only reaches half way down the garden...

Need to do a little something about the hot border. The perennials are filling out nicely, but it is more purple than hot. A scarlet geranium is making a brave stand and Geum ‘Mrs Bradshaw’ is coming out – but it looks vile next to an egregious allium (no idea what it is doing there, must have come in the same pack as some of the tulips). I will move it somewhere where it can be decorative and pretty, as indeed it is next to all the blue alkanet – which I swear I will chop back until I discover it is full of at least five varieties of happy bumblebee fossicking around, dusted in pollen and looking like all their Christmases have come at once.

Alkanet may not to be to everyone’s taste, indeed, it is rampant and hairy (even if you like that sort of thing) but following a letter about a school trip I feel inclined to encourage native species:

“The visit will be led by nature specialists at the centre and the children will be looking for and identifying common plants (weeds!) natural to the area...”.

I am slightly outraged on behalf of British flora in all its manifestations. Weeds indeed. Or, worse, ‘weeds!’. Ah, the bright derision of the school system.

I would like to be listening to music but I am too busy. However I have been invited to a party where I have been promised a bluegrass band and some latter day psychedelic rock. Promises to be interesting.

In print this month (June) in Kitchen Garden Magazine writing about scarecrows and in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Life.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Slug Food, Chelsea and Underage Drinking

A week ago I bit the bullet and planted some sweet peas to go up the trellis of my new border. I bought some and then T&M and the Beth Chatto Garden gave me a packet each, so in a free-spirited frame of mind I planted the lot.

Now, where I grew up there are slugs the size of baby crocodiles so I am generally a bit jumpy about planting out slug food. This does not, however, appear to be the main problem. The main problem appears to be that my border is neatly situated in the middle of an extended game of volleyball between my children and the kids next door.

For normal domestic goddess behaviour on my part a bit of warning of such antics is required. Didn’t get it. Rocketed out of the kitchen door shrieking “For the love of CHRIST! What are you doing to my PLANTS!!” Pause. Deep breath. Very calm. “It looks like a lovely game darling. Now, could you please be a little bit careful and not squash this, and this, and this...”. Resilient things, plants.

On page 7ish of the Garden Media Guild newsletter there is a picture of Joe Swift, Cleve West and James Alexander Sinclair doing their Three Men Went to Mow thing. A trio of fine fellows engaged in jolly japes. And a picture crying out for a caption competition, methinks (something political, like off Have I Got News For You, maybe).

On the subject of mowing, or not, the picture is of dandelions and if you have lots they make quite a nice wine – if you like that sort of thing and you are about 12. When we made it I was about 15 and being clearly more sophisticated than my sibs I preferred the damson version. Still an alcoholic syrup, but one with a bit more body to it.

All eyes on Chelsea Flower Show. Will it or won’t it? Flower, that is. My money is that every show-related greenhouse in the land has its heating turned up nice and high and all will be fine!

Friday, 30 April 2010

Proceeding At Speed In All Directions

This week has been outstandingly busy. Went to the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place on Friday, which was deeply satisfying for my inner geek. Monday I went to Cliveden – Italianate balustrades with an unusual snail residing in them, vast parterre, great big house, originally built for somebody’s mistress, apparently. Must have been quite some chick. And some tulips.

Last night went to interview a very nice lady for a garden feature that will be in The English Garden in the Autumn. Really great garden and fantastic eye for colour. Scheduled for September, so look out for it.

Coming up, I am doing a gardening event for children at Waterstones, based on the RHS Garden Explorers Handbook. This promises to be mayhem of the highest order – but in a good way, with mural painting, making insects out of sticks, writing garden poetry and many a good thing. There is also a seed giveaway (thank you T&M) and the chance to win a family ticket to Hampton Court Flower Show (thank you RHS!).

And rather excitingly, I am starting a new blog for Kitchen Garden magazine. It will shortly be up on their website and thoroughly linked in all directions, so tune in for vegetable musings.

What really sets me alight at this time of year is tulips. One of my earliest memories is of looking into a big, red tulip at about nose-height and being fascinated by the incredible depth of colour and the intense suedy blackness of the stamens.

Looking out of my kitchen window is a bit of a tulip-fest right now. There are the great big early white ones, the flaming orangey ones that were here before I moved in, a couple of happy patches of dainty yellow Tulipa turkestanica just going over, and several others. My particular favourite is, however, a glorious combination I dreamed up last year. There is a fantastic tulip (I will try and dig the name out, bear with me) that starts off with deep red-purple buds with a bloom like hot coals. As the buds open they get lighter and brighter, becoming lava-coloured with petal margins of coruscating, flaming gold. I planted them with rich, dark, ‘Queen of Night’ to anchor them and provide visual bass notes and, with a random forget-me-not accent, it is lovely.

NB Interestingly, the ‘Queen of Night’ came up a little later last year, so the effect was not so pronounced, but this time round it works a treat.

The soil here is light and free draining and tulips seem to like it – at least, according to my botanical uncle, more than they like the heavy clay we have in Wales. The only disappointment so far has been the fairy-pink ‘Angelique’ which is beautiful but has only managed to produce one and a half flowers this year. Clearly too girly to live.

Developing a slightly worrying appreciation of Lady Gaga, I think it is the way she snarls at the press. Down, girl.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

A Chelsea Complex and a Young Pretender

The new Mediterranean border is coming on nicely. The trellis is up and painted in my favourite shade of aqua and the neighbours approve – although I did have a heart-in-mouth moment when, having thoughtfully painted both sides I realised that it is quite a full-on colour and they might not like it.

I am now planting up and trying to resist the ‘I want it all and I want it now’ urge (something I am rather prone to at the best of times), which is common to anyone who has ever built a show garden and then has to garden like other ordinary human beings with a timescale of years and a shoestring budget. Simple maths. If you have things that will be 4ft across, plant them 4ft apart because they can be expected to grow 2ft in each direction. Even if they are only 6inches across now. Yes it looks tiny and dotty at first, but if you pack everything in so it looks wonderful you will have a fight on your hands in about a fortnight. This, people, is what annual bedding is for. That is what I keep telling myself, anyway.

Unaccountably, my other half seems suddenly resolved to have some sort of hard landscaping-off with Joe Swift. There we are on Friday night, cheerfully pre-empting the advice on Gardeners World, as we do (the long evenings just fly by), and the boy Swift is making a pond with a pond-liner he has just fortuitously ‘found’. (We believe you Joe, millions wouldn’t). Anyway, he breaks out his spirit level and some sage advice on keeping the thing straight, when I hear a hiss from beside me on the sofa “If he gets out a bag of ready-mix cement I’ll kill him”. Heavens. Saturday dawns, and the spousal element is busy constructing a very tidy strawberry bed from off-cuts of timber, to the merry refrain “Joe Swift, you’re out of a job; Joe Swift, you’re out of a job...”.

I don’t know why the sudden sense of competition. Joe seems an amiable sort of chap. He bought me a drink a couple of GMG Awards ago; he is President of the NGS; he enjoys the puckish witticisms of James Alexander Sinclair with good grace and amusement. Not sure my partner threatening to drop him in a water feature with ready-mix boots on is socially advisable. But were the spouse to follow through (with the construction competition, not the mob-style sticky end), he might well prove rather good at televisual spirit level wrangling. Time, as they say, will tell.

Caught my son giving the sedums a premature Chelsea chop while singing ‘I Gotta Feeling’ by the Black Eyed Peas.

Found myself on the school run looking like I had come off worst in a shootout at a porridge factory. Not far from the truth, as it happens. The glamour is endless.

I am, as always, hugely excited by my heated propagator. You put in seeds, turn it on and two days later, voila! Seedlings. Magic. See picture above, which I particularly like as the sun is shining through the leaf and you can see the veins.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Chasing Spring

As spring continues to unfurl, the garden reveals what is hot, what is not and what is just plain dead. Echinacea ‘Fatal Attraction’ seems to have pulled through (woohoo!) and is pushing up little scarlet sprouts while the Zantedescia has not (boo!) and nor has the Weigela (meh). Interestingly, there seem to be shoots on a lilac branch that I cut last spring and turned into part of a wigwam for a clematis. At about eight feet tall it is the biggest cutting I have ever seen – that is not a willow, obviously – and if it survives the summer I will have to find it a new home, somehow.

Just got back from a few days in Wales and some more full-on gardening. Everything in Berkshire is running 2-3 weeks behind where it was last year, but west Wales is at least 2 weeks further back even than that. The new veg patch is coming on nicely, though, and it is absolute bliss to be able to sow entire packs of new seed rather than feel honour-bound to use up the scrappy packs left over from small sowings in previous years. It is quite disproportionately exciting. Also discovered that nothing brings joy to my mother’s heart like a row of climbing beans, so beans there will be...soon. The picture above is celandines last spring - it does not look like that at the moment though.

Received a couple of Artichokes from Robinson’s seeds (aka The Mammoth Onion) this morning. Pretty impressed: healthy, robust, hardened off and in remarkably good nick; and nicely wrapped too which made it even more like getting a present than usual. Some of the best plants I have had by mail order.

The car was covered in volcanic ash this afternoon. Interesting reminder of a small and interconnected world. Man.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Nascent Botanical Anarchy

Everything is happening at once in the garden. The daffodils and tulips are trying to come out at the same time. The rhubarb is muscling its way out of the ground and the newly cut back Cornus is sprouting little green flames from each red stem.

I have been planting David Austin roses, in my nascent ‘pink, blue and silver, slightly Mediterranean-style border’ as it is snappily known. It was my birthday this weekend so an uncontrolled, but terribly satisfying, garden centre bender was in order. Trophies included a clematis, Magnolia ‘Leonard Messel’ and some rain daisies to go with the existing lavender and Lychnis coronaria – just as soon as I have finished digging out the evil goldenrod. A few suitable grasses and a spot of Verbena bonariensis and the job should be a good ‘un.

We have also been getting a move on with planting veg seeds. Last year the dwarf bean 'Purple Teepee' (T&M) did terribly well, so we will sow some of those again – even though the freezer is still full of them. A visit to Waltham Place last year opened my eyes to the possibilities of no-dig systems and the wonders of groundcover for suppressing weeds as well as mixing up the veg plot, so I am going to experiment a bit this year. To find out more about this exciting and unruly biodynamic garden check out my article in Amateur Gardening, 10th April issue.

And on the subject of eye-openers, I met my first Magnolia campbellii yesterday at Kingston Bagpuize. A full-size tree with huge cerise flowers against a brilliant blue sky, it is just the most amazingly exotic creature. Picture above.

I was sad to hear of the untimely death of garden writer Elspeth Thompson last week. She has been a key part of the scenery for all of the time I have worked in the gardening industry; gently entertaining and enlightening all who paused to read. It is a sad day for gardening – we seem to have lost too many of our own of late. It is, however, an even greater tragedy for the family she leaves behind and my thoughts are with Mary and Frank.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Allow me Lord, to Rock Out…


Music advisory: This post is going to be more about gigs than gardening, so those of a sensitive disposition or seeking horticultural antics and tips on seed sowing please check back in a few days.

Those who have been paying attention, will know that of late I have been organising rock concerts rather than gardening. Live music is a very good thing. And even parents want to go dancing sometimes. Or all the time, in some cases. So I am happy to report that the pioneering family-friendly gig at Ace Space in Newbury last night was a glorious success and complete sell-out.

So thank you to the fantastic bands – Big Hand, The Screenbeats and Brendan Driscoll who stepped in at the last minute with a nicely thought-out blues set. Thanks to everyone who bought tickets (and sorry if you couldn’t get one!). To all the kids (and grownups) playing air guitar (and air trumpet) and power sliding across the dancefloor – good work! Hooray for those people who danced their socks off and Phil from Big Hand who led a ska-conga with his trumpet and carefully explained that Nick Griffin is ‘not a very nice man’ for the benefit of the pre-teens in the intro to their song supporting Love Music Hate Racism. Thanks to Newbury Weekly News for the pre-publicity and a thank you to everyone who had the energy, imagination, generosity and bravery to make it a success – Alex, Adam, Julia, Mel,  Jason on sound, Rick from Sticks and Strings, the folk who ran the bar…you know who you all are.
To those who rocked, we salute you. **

Back, briefly, to gardening. I was telling a new acquaintance about what I do the other day. “Your garden must be lovely!” she sighed, as people do. And then think you are being modest when you disabuse them. Thing is, many people who work in gardening do not have immaculate and enviable gardens. Sure, we know what we should be doing and when; and we spend our days immersed in the fine points of design and botanical beauty, but during peak gardening season we are far more likely to be tearing around the countryside looking at other peoples superior plots than tending our own.

With a few notable exceptions, a horticultural journalist’s garden contains an eclectic selection of prized plants, horticultural experiments, refugees from shows and jobs to do. Botanical dreams and ambitions still to realise and projects yet to complete. It is in equal parts a source of pleasure and of frustration, with the bonus that it can very occasionally be tax deductible (properly apportioned, naturally). But it is home.

For a selection of entirely enviable gardens, check out my garden roundup in the April issue of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Life.

The picture above is a Forsythia at Kingston Bagpuize.

Listening to: My new Big Hand CD, clearly. It is called How About It? (for anyone who missed the reference last time!)

*with apologies to the Red Hot Chili Peppers
** with apologies to ACDC

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Pop and Perennials

While it is still regularly below freezing, the perennials are poking their first leaves above ground. It has been pretty grim out there but every time I poke my own nose outside some new plant is optimistically back on the scene.

There are finally tête à tête daffodils, the tulip foliage is looking sturdy and there are shoots on the tree paeony, Geranium phaeum and phlox. I have a shocking track record for growing poppies, although I love them, so I am happy to report that it is looking good on that front too.

The sunshine-yellow Helenium (whose name escapes me) is basically slug bait and takes half a season to get more than 2” high, despite sharp grit and copper barriers, although it is doing its best. Curiously Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ does not get nearly so chomped. Echinacea ‘Fatal Attraction’ was an impulse purchase Hampton Court Show last year and I am waiting with bated breath to see if it has made it through the winter. Bet it hasn’t…

Perennials need regular dividing, best done before they get growing. Mine are not big enough yet but I have some moving - or culling - to do as last year was a bad year for buying the right plant. Or possibly the correctly labelled plant.

For the hot border, I bought the Shiraz-juicy Potentilla ‘Monarch’s Velvet’, which turned out to be a ‘Melton Fire’. And although I know that the big DIY sheds can be a bit dodgy when it comes to plants, in a moment of weakness their dormant perennials look sooo cheap. But Monarda ‘Cambridge Scarlet’ turned out to be a violent magenta creature (see above), not scarlet at all and not good next to orange and red. So it needs a new home. (Not, you understand, that I have a corner of my garden devoted to tasteless purple flowers and other sub-standard flora, but I am very bad at ditching plants. It may yet, (possibly), have some hidden merit, and given its provenance it is a miracle it survived in the first place!).

Visiting one of my favourite garden centres in North London, I bought a Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’ which is supposed to be soft-pink and fragrant, to scramble up a hibiscus and make it a bit more interesting when it is not flowering itself. I don’t know what I have actually got but it is a rather dull, greyish colour. I entirely forgive it as just five fantastically perfumed blooms scented the whole garden, but its eventual height remains to be seen.

On an entirely less attractive note, I have just seen an advert for something called the ‘Barbie potty training pups playset’ which has the cheery jingle “What’s it going to be/ Puppy poo or puppy wee?” It appears that one waggles a plastic animal that then micturates etc on a mat, to be cleaned up by infants. Oh. My. Dear. Lord. That is repulsive. I am going to lock myself away somewhere genteel and fragrant, (Kew, maybe), until the world has come to its senses.

On the music front while not currently listening to anything myself, my daughter just got Now That’s What I Call 00s for her birthday so I expect to be imminently immersed in decade of pop.

Also looking forward to seeing Big Hand, supported by The Screenbeats. Cool. How about it?

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Of Orchids and Art

Have just been alerted to the rather lovely sounding RHS Orchid Show on 20-21st March. A selection of the 22,500 species available will be on display alongside the RHS's biggest ever botanical art show.

In 1897 the RHS commissioned Nellie Roberts to paint a portrait of every award-winning orchid (her Brassocattleya is above), a tradition that has continued up to the present day with current artist, Deborah Lambkin. Usually tucked up in the Lindley Library, it should be an interesting look at the evolution of orchids in art since the Victorian era. (And at just a tenner the preview evening is a cheap mother’s day present!).

Botanical art is an interesting one, some love it, others hate it. For me it is either awe-inspiring or slightly pointless, depending how good it is. When I worked in publisher sales shortly after graduating, some buyers were rather nervous of buying prints by American botanical artist Georgia O’Keeffe. “Rather biological” they explained, embarrassedly; “A bit graphic”. Botanical pornography, to you and me.

In some ways, that is the point, although in other ways not. A flower is a reproductive body so it is bound to be just a tad biological and, coincidentally, ‘orchis’ is the Greek word for testicle – in the case of the plant, referring to the shape of the tubers of a specific genus of the orchid family. You probably knew this already. But plants and people is different. While we lack roots and petals, plants lack, well, human attributes - although they can be jolly good insect mimics. So although O'Keeffe could be said to have milked it, these concerns are largely in the fevered imaginations of art buyers from the midlands.

In his Herbal, Culpepper had this to say about orchids:
"The roots are to be used with discretion... They are hot and moist in operation, under the dominance of Venus, and provoke lust exceedingly which the dried and withered roots do restrain". (with thanks to the North of England Orchid Soc website) Quite. Restraint. That is what we need.

Anyway, botanical art. I found Georgia O’Keeffe quite intriguing - a different way of looking at plants - and my interest was reawakened by meeting the inspiring Gwladys Tonge last year, (pictured left with her lovely fern paintings). The Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew is worth visiting too. Botanical artists exhibit the sort of attention to detail that it is impossible for we mere mortals to wot of. Painting with a magnifying glass to capture each leaf hair and fern sorus to perfection, creating abstracts of reality. When it is good it is very, very good (and when it is bad it is horrid?). I think we can expect the very good from the Orchid Show, though.

Gwladys opens her small but plant-tastic garden for the NGS – go if you can. On the subject of which, congratulations to my friend Heather Skinner, Berkshire County Organiser who has just been made an NGS Trustee. She is a fine lady and they are lucky to have her!

Not listening to anything at the moment. Too busy writing.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Chocolate Apples and Floating Pumpkins*

It is officially Spring. Jackdaws were collecting nesting material this morning; the sun is shining, the birds are singing and the snowdrops and crocuses are finally out in force.

Buds are swelling on the climbers and on the apple tree – which means one thing: I am rapidly losing ground on the pruning. Apple pruning should be done while the tree is dormant in winter – but not when everything is frozen solid – and has proved something of a headache the last few years. When we moved here, the two apple trees had been clipped into a dense, snaggly lollypop shape and then neglected to grow long antlers. (Above is a picture of the tree in my garden in Jan 07, it looks better than that now!)

I have spent several winters on a mammoth thinning and rationalisation exercise, but while it is possible to use secateurs and even a pruning saw with a baby under one arm, long handled loppers? Forget it.

So the unidentified Malus (probably Bramley and Blenheim Orange) keep getting away, but continue to crop heavily, which means that the long, unsupported branches bend painfully double with the weight. Climbing trees with one hand to thin immature fruit is quite tricky too. One day soon I shall mount a ninja-style attack, creeping up on them and whipping them into shape in the blink of an eye…(with a range of well known ninja pruning tools).

It is coming up to the annual chocolate-fest that is mother’s day. Don’t get me wrong, I am very keen on chocolate (preferably Hotel Chocolat, Green and Blacks (cherry), champagne truffles or Bendicks chocolate mints, if anyone is interested), but actually RHS membership seems like a pretty good idea as a pressie for mum. It is not fattening, does no harm to the liver and, unlike a bunch of flowers, it lasts all year. A good choice for thinking offspring.

Just read in Metro that Medwyn Williams is going to create a boat out of a giant pumpkin in aid of Help for Heroes. If true, I wish the redoubtable Mr Williams the very best of luck, but can’t help noting the variable success of other unorthodox craft. The Jumblies, for example, went to sea in a sieve (they did, their heads are green and their hands are blue and they went to sea in a sieve). And the Three Wise Men of Gotham, went to sea in a bowl. (If the bowl had been stronger my story would have been longer). Medwyn bach, you have been warned.

Went shopping yesterday. It appears to be 1985 again. I didn’t like it the first time round and I don’t like it now.

Listening to: Rock and Roll Suicide – David Bowie

*apologies for the missing comma in the title but it is better that way.

Monday, 1 March 2010

All Sorts of Compelling Mayhem

While making the tea the other night I idly wondered how much green potato you would have to eat to get solanine poisoning. Potatoes are in the nightshade family (look at the flowers – similar to tomato flowers, above) and I am sure I once read that if they were introduced now they would not be approved as a food plant.

According to a swift web-trawl, the answer is, apparently, not all that much. Solanine develops due to the action of light on potatoes but the green colour that the potato skin becomes is down to chlorophyll rather than the toxic glycoalkaloid. So although the two things are related, the green-ness is no absolute indicator of how much solanine is present. Solanine is part of the plant’s defence against pests and apparently commercial varieties are screened to minimise human consumption. And since the lethal dose is around 5mg for each kg body weight, green potatoes are best avoided as the alternatives can include diarrhoea, vomiting, dizziness, hallucinations, paralysis, fever, jaundice and hypothermia. Nice.

The builders doing the loft conversion have discovered what I do for a living (ie what I am paid for rather than random digressions on plant toxins) and are now spending their time coming up with gardening questions to test my knowledge.

Questions include divining the advice given by the man walking past their paved drive*, identifying the plant on a tattoo**, a debate on keeping cats out of the garden*** and whether or not I know Charlie Dimmock****.

But they certainly move quickly and thanks to a new dormer window, the back of my house now looks like Nogbad’s castle (Nogbad the Bad is the wicked uncle of Noggin the Nog, and friend of crows). It is really very exciting. Practically like having turrets. I like a nice turret.

I am also excited because I have organised a gig for pop-ska band Big Hand. According to Music News, they are ‘One of the best live acts in the UK’. According to the press release (written by me) they are “a bit like watching the Chili Peppers have a fight with Madness with Simon and Garfunkle throwing cream buns and Chuck Berry giggling with a bottle in a corner. A gloriously compelling mayhem”.
This is going to be good…!

* sprinkle with salt to get rid of weeds
** a lily
*** they advise orange peel
**** I have met her in passing

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Last Ditch Planting and Family Affairs

My mother always laughs at me about gardening on the draining board. And it is true, I do. But what the uninitiated do not appreciate is that sometimes things need planting, as in, right now. And sometimes it is too cold, dark or busy to do it any other way.

So far Broad Bean Aquadulce Claudia has been enrobed in a confit of compost in my kitchen (you see what I mean. This is an autumn sowing variety that really should have been in by January, but better late than never and they will probably be ok…). Sweet pea ‘Heirloom Bicolour Mixed’ has gone in too. I have some more sweet peas to do later – and some ordinary peas and mangetout as soon as I get a chance (the picture is of an ordinary pea). The old variety ‘Carouby de Maussane’ is good and I’ll grow ‘Purple Podded’ if I can find some. I also want to try my hand at growing grasses; they look good in swathes but this is expensive to achieve with garden centre plants.

Teasing aside, my mother is a fine and deserving lady and as offspring go, I am pretty slack when it comes to remembering Mother’s Day. However I have just discovered that the RHS is running Mother’s Day events and teas and lunches too. A romp round Wisley or Harlow Carr as a precursor to cake sounds good to me and although it has been chilly so far, the daffodils are getting a stern talking to so it should all be looking pretty good by March 14th.

Unrelated to plants but still on the family theme, my li’l brother has just been described as a 'highlight' in Time Out for his Sonic Sideshow cabaret performance at Volupté, alongside Tom Baker. Good work.

In the wake of my new-found galanthophilia, I was pleased to get a snowdrop Galanthus elwesii ‘Cedric’s Prolific’ from the Beth Chatto Garden a week or so ago. (I have always wanted to visit this iconic garden and it is their 50th Anniversary this year so I should probably make a trip over to Essex). With John Grimshaw’s damning words about planting in the green still ringing in my ears I swiftly gave it a choice, moist spot under a flowering currant. Still looking good…

Not really listening to anything notable today but a friend looked at the Beth Chatto press pack earlier and wondered vaguely why that large bird from The Gossip has a garden named after her. You can’t help some people.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Crimes Against Plants

I have decided to start a register of crimes against plants, as mostly perpetrated by municipal planters but it seems no plant is safe.
First up: Rubus cockburnianus. In summer this blackberry relative is not really all that, but in winter it comes into its own. Powdery, mauve-white stems arch delicately and thornily across the border, a striking contrast to other seasonal gems such as Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ and early spring bulbs. Yes, it is a bit of a thug; and yes, the colour is best on young stems so it needs hard pruning, but I would suggest that it is generally better to do this in early-mid spring. Not to cut it back to six inches high well before Christmas, people. That is when you are supposed to be looking at it.

It has been a busy few weeks. Went to the launch of the National Gardens Scheme’s illustrious Yellow Book – a directory of gardens open for charity. And mighty fine they are too. The picture above is Tithe Barn, Berkshire. Watched with mild awe as they gave some stonking big cheques to good causes.

This was chased up by the Garden Press Event at the RHS Halls which had lots of new stands and products – I am looking forward to trying the soil conditioner from Carbon Gold, was excited (in a rather girly fashion) by the Laura Ashley gardening collection and can’t stop smiling when I see my new backdoor shoes. They have grass on. Cool.

Also did some slightly inconsequential gardening, mostly planting roses, and finally got around to applying for my press ticket to Chelsea Flower Show. (Time was that my Glastonbury ticket was awaited with such anticipation…).

In print this month: In the March issue of Period House writing about Englefield House which has 400 year old garden and is home of Richard Benyon MP. Also in the Feb issue of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Life, discussing Waterperry Gardens.

Listening to Pop Party 6. Would prefer not to be. Not my choice.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Save Our Gardens

Settle down vine weevil, aphids go to sleep; one of the most pernicious and vexatious gardening pests to stalk the land is the garden grabber and I am not sure that there is yet a decent solution. Pellets, or something.

Round the corner from me is an attractive and imposing Victorian house, one of the nicest in the neighbourhood with a large, landmark garden containing a protected yew tree.

A few months ago, it went on the market and there was a genteel scramble as virtually every family in the neighbourhood with more than two children made an offer, keen to realise a dream. It went to sealed bids. It went to a developer at an inflated price. It then went back on the market only, this time, with less than half of the original garden and some rather ugly plans were submitted.

The other part of the was bulldozed, plants, garage and summerhouse all flattened. The neighbours are pretty unimpressed. Objections are rife. This is an area with narrow roads and limited parking. We need pleasant gardens and green space, not more houses, cars and congestion. To object click here before 10th Feb.

Saw a band in Bristol last weekend. Bristol is a good city, it radiates a casual kind of cool and is an ideal place in which to misspend ones youth. The music had a rootsy sort of feel, the kind of thing that Bristol excels at, segueing cheerfully from originals to covers. Bit like spending an evening up close with a Skins soundtrack.

It got light at seven this morning. Hallelujah.

I don't have a suitable picture to illustrate garden grabbing or moral outrage, so here is a sunflower instead.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Feeling Protective

I am nervous. Our loft conversion starts today and there will imminently be a whole bunch of dynamic chaps jumping all over my front garden.

When we first got here it was almost entirely paved and inelegantly adorned with a dead fir tree and two nasty Lonicera nitida. I promptly withdrew their planning consent, although one of the loniceras enjoyed a brief reprieve while I tried to clip it into the shape of an ogres head.

Since then, I have added a Malus sargentii ‘Red Sentinel’, Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Choisya ternata, a Sarcococca (as recommended to me by the late John Cushnie, as it happens), Lonicera fragrantissima and a black bamboo – the general idea being that things that are not evergreen are red, scented, or at least interesting in winter. There are also lots of Narcissus ‘Jetfire’ which are just risking poking their noses out of the ground (just in time to get stomped by a hobnail boot, I shouldn’t wonder) and lavender and purple sage bordering the path. And I only get away with these in a north-facing position because the drainage is really good. There is a lot of growing and filling out still to do, but I do hope nothing gets too squished in the next few weeks.

There have only been two front garden disasters so far – a thyme which turned out to be growing exactly where people step out of the car and a Rose ‘Queen Elizabeth’. It was sent to me in order to photograph planting bare-root roses, but it turned out to be uninterestingly scented and a colour scheme-busting toilet-roll pink. I think I shall hide it in my mum’s garden.

The skip has arrived too (following a call which revealed that they had the wrong house number and were trying to plonk it on top of a bungalow). This is all very exciting – I have never had a skip before and the possibilities for ditching all sorts of grievous junk are endless.

Just opened up Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Life to find quite a nice picture of me brandishing my Column of the Year runner up certificate with Valerie McBride-Munro, outgoing chair of the Garden Media Guild. It is reproduced above for your delectation. Ta-daaa!

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Petrified Pastry and Breeding Rock Opera

I love the Alps in winter. The Christmas card scenery is glorious (and the fact that, physically, skiing can take you from zero to hero in a week flat appeals as well). But despite floral spring joys to come, a metre of snow renders the place pretty sterile so it was a pleasure to drive back down into valleys clad in an opalescent mist, trees fresh with dusted ice and bearing dense clumps of mistletoe. And fascinating geology, strata of rock like puff pastry all folded and twisted, mistreated and left to petrify.

According to Terry Pratchett, any CD left in the car for long enough will eventually metamorphose into a Best of Queen compilation. While this was not strictly the case, as we approached northern France, after about 1300 miles, there was a definite rock anthem theme developing. In fact I think we have a small breeding population. Perhaps if we add Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, or similar, we might get an F1 generation that is rock opera without any need for Andrew Lloyd-Webber…

Returned to a cold-darkened garden. The leaves on the pyracantha and ivy are a dull black-green and there is not a berry left. The birds have raked through the borders and grass searching for food. I have no doubt the plants will bounce back, though, and the cold will hinder any overwintering pests not already eaten.

In the Feb 2010 issue of the Garden Design Journal, I write about award-winning blacksmith Melissa Cole, based near Hungerford. Her work is surprising, ethereal and funky - well worth a look.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Winter Garden

It snowed again yesterday. For a while, white clumps hung in the trees like frosted magnolias, but it is now starting to melt. Some real winter flowers like Lonicera fragrantissima are a bit scorched and the Zantedeschia aetheopica has gone all mushy (this never happened in London!) although I expect it will all bounce back. Maybe this year I will actually get around to digging the pond and bog garden I have been planning. The Zantedeschia is in a big pot but it might be more resilient in the ground.

It is pretty easy to make a garden look exciting in spring, but January is a different issue altogether. There are some performers though, I need to get a Hamamelis mollis and Daphne bholua (see picture) smells lovely, but it is also poisonous so I might wait until the children are past the chewing things stage. Or see if there is space in the front garden.

A couple of jackdaws have been lurking around on the roof, looking suspiciously down the chimneys. The chimneysweep tells me that they nest about 12 feet down the flu, which implies an intriguing vertical takeoff mechanism to get out again. But I would prefer it if they just went away.

Listening to: Paolo Nutini, quite liking the bluesy thing. Have also discovered a new, and almost total, aversion to Abba. I blame Mamma Mia.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Experimental Vine Pruning

There are plusses to this winter wonderland. The branches of the apple tree are outlined in snow, reaching and twisting like a black and white scribble against the soft grey sky. There are half a dozen goldfinches scrambling around the remains of the lemon balm looking for the little black seeds and the blackbirds are fighting over a bumper crop of pyracantha berries and what remains of the crab apples.

It all looks pretty, but I am a bit worried about the birds going hungry (According to the RSPB, a robin needs to consume half its own weight in food each day in weather like this), I keep feeding them and putting out water, but it keeps getting covered in snow. Better hope the Gulf Stream keeps doing its thing.

Last week I was in Wales checking out a garden that looks like it might fall to my care. There is lots of stuff there but most urgent was the pruning of some grapevines. I have never owned a grapevine before so it was all a bit of a learning process but my uncle handed me his felco secatures and a printout of the RHS info on training grapes and pointed me at the polytunnel. Tough as old boots (apparently). Just take the shoots back to one or two strong buds in early winter and come back when it has started growing, so they say. We shall see. Looks ok so far...

I didn't get much of a run-up to the task but grape pruning is not one of those jobs you can leave until late winter or spring as by then the vines may bleed alarmingly from the cuts. When things start growing again I will select some good strong shoots and, while I am there, smarten it up by rubbing off all the snaggy dead bits, which should be obvious by then.

Just when I thought it was all done, I discovered a young vine hidden at the back of the polytunnel behind a dense stand of fruited raspberries. Vines in their first few years need more training than when they are older. Home for tea and printouts...

By the way, have you noticed that in the recent cereal advert where Mr Kellogg creates cornflakes in his kitchen, the stuff growing outside the window is corn, as in, like, wheat? As any fule kno, cornflakes are made from maize.

The picture is Malus sargentii 'Red Sentinal'.

Listening to: Best of the Eagles (yee-hah!)

On The Snowdrop Trail

When it comes to plants I wear my heart on my sleeve. If I look at something in depth and it fires my interest I want it. Or them. All of them, probably. That one and that one and that one. This can be impractical – Walnut trees, for example. Ancient yew trees. Potatoes. Fortunately, my current passion is for snowdrops.

Having recently visited a number of snowdrop gardens including Welford Park, Kingston Bagpuize and the national collection at Colesbourne Park I am now thoroughly converted. Details of my pilgrimage can be found in the Jan 2nd 2010 issue of Amateur Gardening magazine, but it turns out that snowdrops are more than short, white and quite pretty when there is not much else to look at. They are not keen on deep shade (oh!), they have a vast natural variation (really?) and, as I was emphatically told by Colesbourne’s snowdrop supremo John Grimshaw, the planting-in-the-green thing is a myth. Move ‘em in summer, apparently.
It goes against everything I have ever been told, but the man knows his stuff and has a big shiny book to prove it. Which I also want.

The picture is of me and John Grimshaw checking out the exciting autumn flowering snowdrop Galanthus reginae-olgae.

And the 2009 award for most robust salad leaf? It has to go to wild rocket. I grew some a few years ago, since when it has gently self-seeded itself into pots and between paving, minding its own business and being generally useful. But on Christmas Eve dinner looked done for (due to a failure to construe ‘…and salad’ from the instruction ‘fruit and veg’ on the Christmas supermarket shopping list). But under a couple of inches of snow, the rocket was still going strong. Some of the older leaves were cold and translucent but new shoots yielded several handfuls of tasty leaves and the great salad disaster of December 09 was gloriously averted.

Just been handed a chilli-flavoured chocolate penguin. Really quite surprising…

Listening to: Maroon 5