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