When the leaves come falling down

I have discovered a new passion.

Blackpitts, the garden we made at our previous house, was very special but what it lacked was trees. The place was surrounded by woods full of whopping great ash trees but within the garden there were no big trees. I planted some very lovely Malus transitoria (a wide spreading crab apple with miniature fruit about the size of a shirt button – rubbish if you were looking for something from which to make jam) a few years ago but they are just minnows.

While we wait for our next house to grind its way through the cogs and rollers required by solicitors, planners and builders we are ensconced in a slightly damp cottage with a garden the size of a postage stamp. Admittedly a large commemorative postage stamp rather than a space saving definitive stamp but still small. A lawn, a narrow bed and a bit of gravel with some pots – not really what we have been used to for the last twenty odd years. But, in an effort to keep myself aired and amused I have, as stated above found a new amusement. Something that was never afforded to me in our previous garden- I have been raking up leaves.

There is, next door to the cottage, a pair of striking horse chestnut trees each of which carries, as a rough estimate, eleventy zillion leaves. I have decided that my mission will be to rake up all of them. This task began yesterday when I spent a blissful (and creative) couple of hours raking. To be completely accurate it was mostly a matter of raking up conkers (see last week’s blog) as most of the leaves are hanging in there, awaiting their moment but I made a very satisfactory snake of debris and carted it off to begin the journey towards decomposition.

Those of you who have mature trees in your garden will sneer at my maidenly enthusiasm for what is undoubtedly as Sisyphean task. “Just you wait” you cry with the experience of years “until the frost comes and there are not just a few barrow loads of leaves but truckloads. Just you wait until the wind gusts and you have to rake the same leaf pile seven times. Just you wait until the leaves are cold and wet. Just you wait until your back is sore from repetitive raking. Just you wait…”
“Yeah, yeah…” I reply as, quite frankly, I am bored of your continuous whinging so have stopped listening.

I know that leaf raking is tedious. I know that it is a thankless task but to a man without a garden it is at least something.

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Conked out

The conker is nature’s blowhard. It is all mouth and no trousers.

Look at them with their carapaces as sturdy as armadillos and nuts as glossy as the toe caps of the most fastidious of Regimental Sargeant Majors. They promise so much but deliver nothing really which is of much benefit to the gardener. They cannot be eaten and squirrels have a disconcerting habit of carrying them off to the far corners of the garden where they rapidly sprout and become a nuisance.

Their main benefit is recreational but, in my constant search for the silver lining in all things, I have discovered that they do provide a snapshot of many of the emotions of life. Let me give you a short list, there may be others….

Anticipation and excitement: opening the case of a conker is a great pleasure. The skill is in rocking the spiky casing with your foot just enough to free the conker but without crushing or damaging the contents in any way. That is the excitement (I know, I know – I really should get out more if that is the most exciting thing likely to happen to me today) and the anticipation is in not knowing whether the conker will be large or small, single or one of the doubles with a slightly flattened side.

Nostalgia and regret for things past: conkers used to be so important: the children used to spend happy hours collecting them and putting them in buckets. Nowadays, sadly, they are merely an inconvenience.

Mortality and the fading of youth: a conker, when first released from the spiny shell is so deeply polished and shiny but, very soon, the lustre fades and it settles into a dull and unpolished middle age before being overcome by mould and softening into compost.

Courage and fortitude: it is sometimes difficult to keep your nerve when having a conker fight. To stand perfectly still dangling your precious champion while some other child takes careful aim. Sometimes they miss and crack you hard on the wrist bone. The only game that I can remember that is similar is that one where you have to move your hand before your opponent raps you on the knuckles. That hurts – I can remember even though it must be over forty years since I last played. The fortitude comes when your conker lies shattered upon the ground and you have to hold your head high as you walk away.

Modesty and generosity: see above but instead of defeat you have successfully obliterated your opponents conker. His (or her) hopes and dreams lie shattered on the gravel. You must not crow about your victory and you must be magnanimous to the loser.

You see? Life in, rather appropriately, a nutshell.

(the picture above, by the way, was taken by my friend Tony The Haddock.)

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Poke in the eye

There are people out there who do not like Kniphofias.

Odd, I know, but I suppose that there’s nowt so queer as folk as they say in the North. Personally I think that there is something extraordinarily joyful in their orangeness, especially the late flowering varieties – like this one which is K.rooperi. I wandered into one of my gardens today and there were pinpoints of orange glowing in different corners of the garden. Perfect on a slightly overcast autumnal day as the rest of the garden gently subsides into hibernation. Not only that but there are Kniphofias that flower for more or less every month of the season and many that remain evergreen and interesting all year.

Three cheers for the red hot poker I say.

I think the reason why there is antipathy is fourfold: firstly because they fall into the plant snobbery trap as the earlier flowering varieties used to be fearfully popular in seaside front gardens. This makes them popular and therefore common.

Secondly because they are very orange and many people cannot cope with orange in their gardens. This is an opportunity missed as there should always be room for a bit of brashness amongst even the most tastefully pastelled of borders. Everybody has a relative or friend that is a bit of an embarrassment because of their tendency to drink too much/fart at inappropriate moments/goose the bride’s mother or commit some similar faux-pas. We still forgive them and part of us envies their sheer vulgarity. For the orange phobics among you may I suggest the greener varieties like K.Percy’s Pride or K. ice Queen. If you are feeling brave but are not quite ready for the full blown satsuma/Hare Krishna/Dutch football team experience then I strongly recommend K. Tawny King which flowers in about July and whose colour is best described as laundered tangerine.

Thirdly, because they can be very messy diers – especially K.caulescens. The problem is that the flowers fade slowly from the bottom upwards which is not a good way to go and means that there are scraggy stems hanging around for much longer than is truly decent. The leaves can get a bit long and scrappy as well, especially during the winter, the best thing is to pull off the leaves that offend you – don’t cut them or you end up with a worse mess.

Fourthly, because the common name Red Hot Poker reminds the squeamish of the death of Edward II in 1327 while imprisoned in Berkeley Castle. Or at least the version of Edward’s death made popular by Christopher Marlowe. He was an extremely bad king and was almost certainly murdered but probably not in that particular way. If you feel this way then I suggest you use a different common name – how about Torch Lily?

They are South African plants named after Dr Johan Hieronymus Kniphof who was a distinguished German botanist and no friend to the dyslexic.

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Off the fence

This  is a relatively pretty picture.

It was taken in Cornwall last week – just by Kynance Cove – and shows late summer heathland. Bit of sedgey grass, some heather (in both pink and white) and a smattering of yolk coloured gorse flowers. The area is kept up by the National Trust and is partly maintained by some rather handsome cattle who roam around keeping the grass short.

However, it is not the flowers which concern us today – nor the fact that we had a very lovely holiday with lots of sunshine and just the right quantity of clotted cream but thank you for asking – but the fence. I know that sounds very dull, but bear with me as that fence has quite a history.

For the first thousand years of our civilisation if you wanted to keep cattle (or sheep, horses, goats or dromedaries for that matter) in one place you either had to employ some young lad to keep an eye on them – an often inadequate option as young lads tended to be easily distracted or devoured by wolves – or you had to make some sort of barrier. The options were wooden fences (difficult if you had no trees), stone walls (time consuming) or hedges (which took years to grow and become dense enough to keep a large inquisitive beast in check). Then in 1867 a chap called Lucien Smith of Kent, Ohio was issued a patent for barbed wire.

A flurry of other patents followed and in 1873 an historic meeting took place between the ‘big four’ in barbed wire-   Joseph Glidden, Jacob Haish, Charles Francis Washburn, and Isaac L. Ellwood. Between them they hashed out a way of making the best barbed wire – in case you ever find yourself kicking around Dekalb, Illinois with a morning to spare there is a museum dedicated to the subject.

The purpose of all this industry was, of course, to partition the prairie and prevent steers from wandering off and ending up on other people’s ranches. You have all seen The High Chaparral and you know what chaos can result in steers running loose.

However, things soon moved in a more sinister direction and governments realised that barbed wire was a jolly useful weapon. It could quickly be arranged into impenetrable barriers in order to defend fortifications and slow down armies. The first time it was used in anger was the Spanish -American war of 1898 but it came into widespread use during the First World War where it indirectly contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. From harmless fencing option to weapon of mass destruction in under fifty years.

So you see, even the dullest looking things can (occasionally) be almost interesting enough to blog about.

Be careful what you invent.

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Feeling sluggish

In any survey of garden pests, this is always numero uno.

The slug: this is a particularly fine and handsome specimen as he is about five inches long and looks most unappealing. An interesting question is whether a slug would be less un- attractive if it was not quite as slimy.

If it was, for example, furry with big goo-goo eyes then would we be as likely to shower it with pellets or flip it, with an elegant turn of the wrist of which any left handed spinner would be proud, into our neighbour’s shrubbery? Would we then treat it with great affection and make cutesey-pootsie Aaaaah noises whenever we saw a slug?

I can think of a hundred anthropomorphised bunnies but very few cuddly slugs. Actually I can only really think of Brian the snail in the Magic Roundabout and he was not even a slug but a snail which is a much more sympathetic creature anyway.

So, in an attempt to redress the balance as (like the BBC), we here at Crocus aim for an unbiased coverage of such things here are some nice things about slugs.*

They breathe through a pneumostome which is a hole in their sides – easily visible on the handsome chap pictured.

They have four feelers – the top two can see (sort of) and the lower two can smell.

Slugs have a tendency to apophallate which is really quite unsavoury. The penis of one slug corkscrews into another and, after the,ahem, act that penis is then chewed off in an act of post-coital tristesse by the impregnated mate. The slug is unbothered by this as it is hermaphroditic and just lives the rest of its life as a female.

Slugs produce two sorts of mucus – one thick and sticky and the other thin and watery.

Slugs are very useful as they clear up a lot of rotting and dead material which would otherwise litter up the place.

Slugs are preyed upon by pretty much everybody from hedgehogs and toads to lizards, birds and even the brown trout. Life is tough for a slug.

Okay. None of those facts were very nice. I could find no mention of slugs doing sponsored bike rides in aid of sick children or having much in the way of sporting prowess. They have few religious convictions, little conversation, cannot dance and, apart from a useful role as a garbage disposal unit, they are difficult to champion.

Oh well, at least there are lots of them so the few that I gleefully chop in half with a spade will be rapidly replaced.



* some of them may not be nice but at the very least, interesting. If you like that sort of thing.


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Hip hip heuchera

The Heuchera is the Coldplay of the garden.

Some people absolutely love all of them: every time a new variety is born then they shake and salivate until they get their hands on the new plant.Oothers like to stick to the older varieties – like the good old standard deep purply red Heuchera Palace Purple and are left unmoved by more recent material. (They are the equivalent of people who loved Parachutes and still listen to Yellow with a wistful expression as a reminder of first love. Or something)

The final group of people think that they are all unspeakable and are indescribably irritated by their annoying colours and tendency to be devoured by vine weevils (this last point may be where my little Coldplay analogy falls apart but nobody really knows why Gwyneth uncoupled herself so weevils could possibly be involved).

I have, in the past, been very rude about Heucheras and, I must admit, that I still find it difficult to be too complimentary (even though I am, naturally, completely smitten by Vicky from Plantagogo the six times Gold Medal winning Heuchera Nursery). It is difficult to quantify exactly what my problem might be and I fear it might just be a general and slightly unhinged prejudice. Many of them are charming although it must be also be acknowledged that, yes, some of them are the colour of dog vomit on a seedy high street and others are that shade of green only seen in the very cheapest lime flavoured ice pops.

Mea culpa: I feel the same about unnecessarily variegated shrubs, overbred annuals, miniature conifers and gimmicky vegetables.

I suppose it is the way the world works: we like some things. We don’t like others. We change our minds and things we dislike morph into things we like. The human condition is complicated and tricky.

Especially in regard to Heucheras.

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Tick Tock

What do Michael Jackson and the good citizens of Edinburgh have in common?

It would be disingenuous to suggest that they both have the same twinkliness of toe or way with chimpanzees so instead I will put you out of your misery. They both have floral clocks.

Michael Jackson’s was at Neverland, his California ranch, where it jostled for space amongst the petting zoo, roller coaster, pirate ship and narrow gauge railway. The Edinburgh version is in West Princes Street Gardens and has a much more distinguished history as the site of the first floral clock. The whole thing was the idea of John McHattie of Edinburgh Parks and the clockmaker James Ritchie.

I like to think of them sitting somewhere comfortable over a bottle of single malt.

“Hrmphh..?” enquired McHattie

“Och” replied Ritchie (for, in my imagination, they were both stereotypically taciturn Scots)

And from such brainstorming was born the floral clock. The first one was planted up in the spring of 1903 using the same sort of carpet bedding plants that are used today. For example the many different varieties of Alternanthera (a very short and compact plant that comes in all sorts of convenient colours) or various Sedums, Saginas and Sempervivums.

The mechanism was made of parts salvaged from a demolished church and was housed in the plinth of a nearby statue of the Scottish portrait painter, Allan Ramsay. Initially it only had an hour hand but the technology expanded to include a minute hand and eventually a cuckoo which popped out on the hour.

I am not sure what popped out of Michael Jackson’s clock but, whatever it was, I bet it was not greeted with the same innocent joyfulness as the first cuckoo of Princes Street gardens.


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Simply de vine

I have been rather struck with the idea of having a vineyard.

To rewind a little, I have just returned from a few days loafing around Bordeaux. This is a place, as many of you will know, where every spare square yard has a vine. There are vines at the airport, on roundabouts and in people’s back gardens. To say nothing of the countless acres of fields given over to rows and rows of vines.

The purpose of all this viticulture is, of course, the production of wine. Every other house seems to be a rather grandly castellated chateau surrounded by enviably gorgeous barns all made from a deliciously pale stone. It is, presumably this stone that contributes to the uniqueness of the terroir* and the fruitiness of its product.

However, my hankerings for a vineyard is nothing to do with the product – I do not drink – but the order. The sight of lines of perfectly homogenous vines snaking over hill and dale into the distance has awoken the stickler within me.

The vines are all neatly staked with chestnut stakes and tied to well strung wires. They are then all pruned neatly and identically with strips of grass between the rows – in some places I noticed that the grass only existed in alternate rows which is, I believe, to do with water runoff and conservation. There is not a flyaway strand in the whole region.

It is a very lovely sight. There are grapes too but mostly they dangle like udders from the base of the vines.

Not quite as neat as the foliage but I can learn to cope.


* Get me with my wine words. The terroir is, for those of you who are less oenophiliacally** aware than I, of course the soil.

** I very much doubt that this word actually exists.

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Chill cabinet

I am not sure how much I like chillies.

I fear that that might be a slightly iconoclastic thing to say and will paint me forever as a right wuss in the eyes of all you manly folk out there but I feel that we should be scorchingly honest in all our bloggings. I don’t mind a little bit of zip to my food but I have no wish or desire to end any dinner as a sweating lump with a throbbing tongue and bright red cheeks.

I cannot see the fun in chomping on a Dorset Naga or a Scotch Bonnet although I am well aware that many people enjoy nothing better than filming themselves having their taste buds cauterised and displaying the whimpering, blubbering results on YouTube. The evidence is here, and here.

The only time I have done such a thing was in South America when I was about eighteen. We decided that the ingestion of raw chilli was an excellent way to avoid the outbreaks of gyppy tummy with which we were frequently struck ( I will refrain from giving you further detail as small minority of my  readership may be of a delicate and refined constitution). Therefore, before every meal, we would chop a chilli into small sections and swallow them like aspirins. I do not know whether they were effective: the, um, incidents continued but, perhaps, their frequency was reduced.

However, I do like the look of them. They are like Christmas decorations crossed with the jauntier varieties of buoy. Little tiny flowers and then rapidly developing fruit in reds, oranges, yellows and, in the picture above, a sort of polished blueberry sorbet. This is Filius Blue and is available from the Duke of Devonish vegetables, Mark Diacono of Otter Farm. They are really very hot at this stage of their lives but, as they mature they turn red and all their youthful poke and zip tends to fade.

I know how they feel.

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Little Red Courgette

There are various standard scenarios that you will find cropping up again and again in horror films.

One is that bit when the heroine (or at the very least her prettier, more expendable friend), on hearing a suspicious noise goes back into the shack/basement/forest/cave/whatever instead of doing what most people would do which is run like hell in a different direction.

Another is when the stranded couple whose car has broken down get into the car of a passing motorist even though he has a live chicken in the back seat and is wearing dungarees.

Or when they walk into a bar and all the patrons fall silent and stare. You then realise that they all have the same look of lascivious glee that a starving man reserves for a chunky chip.

But the scenario that is particularly relevant to this blog is the one where things are not what they seem to be at first sight. The grey haired doddery old lady is quite capable of kebabing you with her knitting needles, the wide eyed child with ribbon tied bunches is the spawn of the devil or the innocent kitty kit-kat is likely to rip out your arteries.

Courgettes are like that.

You pick them one day at just the right size – which is, I believe,  the size of an index finger provided that the hand in question is wearing a padded cricket batting glove at the time – eschewing the remainder as too small. They will make the pot next time around but, for the moment, they can be left to enjoy their youth undisturbed.

Except that in the couple of days between finishing one ratatouille and embarking on the next ( this is, of course, before the idea of another bloody courgette has completely palled) they have transformed themselves from perky little virgins into hugely muscled marrows which sneer at you when you approach them. *

Nowadays we are all more alert gastronomically and we seek the youngest, tenderest specimens of everything. With courgettes, however,you always need to be constantly on your guard.
And never follow a glowing light into a darkened basement without backup.



* The marrow is a vegetable from the sixties when we ate them stuffed with mince: size was a good thing although taste was seldom taken into account. They were all watery and spongy.

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