Shingled out for special treatment. Part One

I have spent the last couple of days loafing around the south coast and have decided to use this little mini break to write not one but two blogs for you good people. So this is part one – I promise that it will not all be about “Things I did on my holidays” but will have some slight garden reference if you stick with me….

Sunday was lunch in Hastings – a complete Curate’s egg of a town where parts of it are horrible and parts completely charming – which was jolly although the fish to batter ratio was skewed which is always a bit off putting. We then walked the beach looking at interesting bits of dead fish. This was followed by a night in Rye – very picturesque as anybody who has read/watched Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson will know – in a fine hotel called The George.

The next day, after a very handsome breakfast, we wandered off to look at  Camber Sands. Camber has an enormous sky hovering over a muddy grey sea and vast beach. It is, I suspect, best visited in January while the Bavarian Barbecue joint, the trampoline stall, the Pontins bookmaker and the slot machine arcade is closed for the winter.

Eventually we arrived at the vast openness of Dungeness and that is really the point of this little diptych of blogs as it is known for three things. The enormous nuclear power station, the vast expanses of desolate shingle beach and the garden which Derek Jarman made at Prospect  Cottage. Let us start with the last point as that forms the basis of blog one….

Derek Jarman, as I am sure you know, was a film director (Jubilee, Caravaggio, Sebastian, a raft of music videos etc), artist, set designer and gardener. He moved to a small timber shack on the beach at Dungeness in the late 1980s and lived there until he died in 1994. While there he created a garden from washed up salvage – lumps of driftwood, old ropes, chains, fishing detritus etc – arranged into monoliths and circles. He then planted it with indigenous plants which could cope with the serious winds and complete lack of anything resembling soil. There was a film made about it in 1990 and a very fine book with photographs by Howard Sooley.

A grey day in January is possibly not the best time to see a garden but you take your chances when you can. It is quite extraordinary in a very bleak way. If it was anywhere else it would not really work but here it fits perfectly into its surroundings. The gorse seems to flow from the shingle and it must be very beautiful in the summer. The place is obviously empty and there are no paths and no boundaries and one is not sure whether we should be looking or whether it is okay to wander through the garden. We are very English and tiptoe round the edge.

Bits of the structure are not in the best of health – some of the sleeper walls have tumbled and the windows of the shack need sorting out but there is a definite magic about the place. Alys Fowler wrote a nice piece about weeding the garden in the Guardian, here.

You should go if you get the chance.

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Embracing the void

January is, and should be, a bit empty. Apart from a bustling of snowdrops and aconites across border, grass and woodland.

I think it is a mistake to rush panicking to the garden centre when confronted with a bit of bare soil. It is a little like the Victorians (allegedly) making covers for piano legs in case the more hot-blooded young men in the congregation had their desires  heightened by the sight of a smoothly turned mahogany spindle. Phwoooarrr…!

Gardens, like life, cannot be full throttle, all bells and whistles all the time. Otherwise we (and they) would very soon become exhausted husks. We do not want James Dean gardens which peak early and never quite manage to cope with the adulation instead we want Keith Richards gardens – ones that have been going at it hammer and tongs for an almost unfeasibly long time.

To manage that there has to be a bit of down time – with or without rehab. I quite look forward to the depths of winter as there is no urgency to our gardening. We do not have to deal with things RIGHT NOW or else that weed will invade/that plant will fall over/we will not have a second flush of flower etc etc. All those frantic summertime emergencies.

It is good to just appreciate the anticipation of cold brown soil. It is actually quite exciting in its own, slightly downbeat, way for beneath the surface roots are stretching, bulbs are fattening and shoots are strapping on their armour before forcing themselves skywards. Not that you can see that, you just have to take my word for it on this occasion.

If you rush out and buy evergreens to compensate for this slight lull you will regret it: evergreens are, by their very nature, a little monotonous and they also take up a fair bit of space.  It is better to trade a bit of emptiness to keep more garden free for the summer.


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Here comes a chopper…

At our previous house we had two enormous fireplaces which we hardly ever used – largely because the chimneys were not that efficient and a most of heat disappeared off in order to warm any passing birds or loitering squirrels. They were quite like camp fires in that you got a hot face and a cold spine.

Their secondary flaw was that, if the wind was in the wrong direction, the house quickly filled with smoke and we had to do a lot of rushing around flinging open windows and standing on chairs flapping wildly at the smoke alarms with tea trays. Quite soon the idea of lighting the fires lost its charm and we turned up the heating.

However, I do quite enjoy splitting logs.

It is that age old combination of hitting things with a dangerous weapon that appeals to the savage warrior within us all. No longer are we required to rush around the countryside biffing enemies with clubs or gralloching mammoths with sharp bits of flint so log chopping provides a welcome release. It is a good way of letting off steam and pent up aggression and with the added benefit of a pile of fuel at the end of the process. It also provides one with an excuse to dress like Grizzly Adams and sing manly songs about log rolling.

The more ordered part of my personality quite likes stacking logs. A wall of well tessellated firewood is a lovely thing – although it throws up different problems in that it then becomes far too beautiful to burn and you have to scrabble around finding unstacked and inferior logs to actually feed the fire. The next problem is that keeping the fire going without the advantage of a few acres of well managed woodland is difficult for most of us and we have to buy the stuff in from somewhere. A friend of mine who sells logs imports them by the juggernaut load from Romania as that is simpler and cheaper than buying them here.

Then, if you want to take it a bit further then there is a hierarchy of firewood as the best are ash, hawthorn, beech, oak and maple. Steer clear of laburnum, pine, alder and willow.

All very complicated if you want it to be although I don’t think anybody is denying the fact that the comfort of a flickering fire on a cold evening is worth a fair bit of trouble.

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Mussin’ up my white tie…

Happy New Year

I had every intention of writing this week about the many and varied ways that I had worked myself back to peak fitness* using the power of horticulture. I was going to dig my mother-in-law’s vegetable garden, clear tangled beds and go over to my new garden and dig walling stone out of the borders. I even toyed with the idea of climbing a tree.

Alas, all those good intentions have, like the wrappers of a million Christmas chocolates, fallen by the wayside as I have spent the last few days lying in bed feeling tragically sorry for myself. No soil has been turned nor mulch barrowed. No shrubs have been tidied nor trees felled.

Instead I have lain in bed exuding germs and watching films:  I have amused myself not with horticulture but with The Dirty Dozen, The Spikes Gang, Kelly’s Heroes, The Karate Kid and, just to alleviate this onrush of testosteroney violence, That’s Entertainment (volumes 1 and 2). When I was a teenager I really wanted to be Fred Astaire – what am I saying? I still want to be Fred Astaire.  I tried to teach myself tap dancing from a book with limited success although I can do a quick shimmy if asked nicely.

It is odd how, no matter how old one gets, some things are always comforting: it is the same, I find, with gardening. Certain tasks bring with them a soothing familiarity.

For some people that is sowing seeds or pricking out, for others raking leaves or mowing grass. For me it is pruning roses and, in particular, tieing them in properly. Give me some decent wires (with straining bolts), proper tarred string, sharp secateurs and a gripping audiobook and I am yours for the day.

Well, maybe not today but I should be perky enough by Friday.

* In my case”peak fitness” nowadays is much less Everest than a gently rolling hillock.

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Do the hippy shake with all of your might…

Hip is one of those pleasantly multi faceted words.

Child bearing hips.

Hip action (if I might borrow the terminology of the great Len Goodman off of Strictly).

A Hip report – an acronym for Home Information Pack.

Swivel hips – a description often ascribed to me while dancing reels (perhaps).

The hip of a roof.

Hippies in general.


Hipster – those people with large whiskers and proper braces on their trousers.

Hipshot – that way of standing with one hip higher than the other. Usually while trying to give the impression of laid back coolness and insouciance.

Joined at the hip – I once had a book (that, I fear, I may have filched) about Chang and Eng Bunker who were the first famous Siamese Twins. Initially they were exhibited as a curiosity and then settled on a farm in North Carolina where they married a pair of sisters and produced twenty-one children between them.

Hippy, hippy shake – a single by the Swinging Blue Jeans. Also covered by the Beatles.

Hippocrates – nothing at all to do with hips except in a medically ethical way.

And of course, rose hips: these particular beauties (pictured above) are from an unidentified rose upon which we stumbled while doing that It-is-Christmas-so-we-must-take-some-sort-of -exercise-before-we-eat-our-own-body weight-in-meat-and-mincemeat-yes-even-you-I-know-you-are-quite-happy-under-that-duvet-watching-Kung-Fu-panda-but-you-have -seen-it-937 times-and-you-are-24-for-goodness-sake.

Rose hips come in many sizes and range from clementine orange (qv), through raspberry red to bruised purple. They add a bit of zing to the winter but usually at the expense of a long flowering time in the summer – you win some, you lose some. This is because most of the long flowering roses are sterile and do not produce seed (which is, essentially, what a hip contains) as that would use up a whole lot of flower power.

If you decide to go down the hippy trail then Rosa moyesii, Rosa laevigata, Rosa rugosa and the good old bog standard Rosa canina (or Dog Rose) will not let you down.


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Decking halls and harking heralds.

Christmas decorations are a great social divider.

Some people loathe the brashness of it all and satisfy themselves with the odd sprig of holly, a decorous (rather than decorated) tree and some tastefully arranged cards.

Others go completely crazy with fake snow, an army of flashing Santas, musical reindeer, rotating Frankincense and, probably, animatronic Baby Jesuses. The tree lights are multi coloured and programmed so that they light up in time to Shakin’ Stevens or Mud. In general the latter lot seem to have more fun and more arguments while the former are more sober and more likely to watch the Queen’s speech.

We had a light up Father Christmas at one time that I had found at Covent Garden market – it was very popular with the children up to the moment when it exploded due to a bit of dubious wiring. There was a lot of fizzing, a couple of bangs and all the lights tripped.
Apart from that small moment of exuberance, Christmas decorations have remained rather staid throughout my life. My parents used to put strings around the place upon which cards hang like washing, my father was keen on efficiency and liked Christmas dinner to be eaten and cleared away in double quick time – no lingering or dawdling. At school we spent hours making paper chains with strips of gummed paper. The simple version were just chains or. if you were feeling a bit more avant garde you could make concertinas by folding them over each other – difficult to describe but you probably know what I mean. Somehow these never travelled very well and, by the time they arrived home, they were slightly squashed and crumpled. Anything that was not firmly glued would end up at the bottom of my bag and any glitter would be sparkling in my football socks for weeks to come.

The concept of the wreath has rather passed me by and my front door has remained forever breathless. It is very a la mode nowadays to make wreaths – look at Dawn Isaac wreathing away like a good ‘un here and here. Stand still for more than ten minutes and she will nail a wreath to your head.

This year we are living in a small rented cottage with all the familiar trappings of Christmas in storage  so we are making do with a borrowed artificial tree with filched decorations. It is a limbo Christmas (as in betwixt and between, not as in dancing).
Fun but not quite the same.

I hope yours is marvellous and I will see you on the other side.

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Boxing clever

The world would look very different without box.

Obviously I mean the plant not the container. If we were without boxes (cardboard, wooden or metal) then we would be in serious trouble with loose matches, washing powder, chocolates, teabags and the newly deceased rattling around the place uncontained by any sort of box. We would also be very limited in that we would be left with just the envelope outside of which to think.*

No: as you are fully aware, I am talking about Buxus (both suffruticosa and sempervirens: the former being the short one used as a border edge) and its place in our gardens. Without box the formal garden would be  up the creek (as we are discovering now that box blight has taken many miles of formal hedging and all the alternatives are a bit, well, rubbish). For topiary we would be limited to yew which is fine but lacks that fresh lettucey colour in its new leaves. Our woodlands would be short of winter evergreen and the Christmas wreath industry would have no alternative to holly.

Box came here with the Romans (another one of the things the Romans did for us along with aqueducts, roads, central heating, larks tongues, Kennedy’s primer, Cotta, tagliatelle and the bunga-bunga party) who used it in much the same way as we do, for hedging and topiary – the Latin for landscape gardener is a Toparius.

It is a particularly useful plant as not only can it be clipped into submission but can also be grown as a shaggier shrub or even a relatively substantial tree. The wood is just the thing you need if you want to make a musical instrument or a chess piece. However, as it is one of the few woods which is denser than water, it is probably a bad idea to use a box tree for a dug out canoe.

In conclusion, it is a pretty invaluable shrub whose only disadvantages are its susceptibility to box blight (B.suffruticosa should be avoided) and the unfortunate fact that the leaves do smell of cat pee.


*That is a rather convoluted, though strangely elegant, sentence. It harps back to school when it was drummed into me that you should never end a sentence with a preposition. That was a situation up with which they would not put.

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Leaf it out…

So that’s it, I suppose.

I reckon than now the last leaves have fallen from the Liquidambar then it is winter. This may not be completely correct according to the various solstices and equinoxes (equinoxi?) but hang correctness it works for me.

It is obvious why leaves fall, because they are tired and have served their purpose over the summer. Last spring’s leaves are no longer fashionable and need to be packed up and sent off to the charity shop (aka the leaf pile/compost heap). However, I wish to tackle a more fundamental question – this blog is, as regular readers will already have noticed, a hotspot for the serious and important issues confronting gardeners – which is why trees have leaves at all.

You would think that, given the simple fact that all plants exist for one purpose which is to reproduce themselves, leaves were a bit superfluous. They do not flower and nor do they attract pollinating insects. They do not produce fruit and, to the outside observer serve no other purpose than wave prettily in the wind before changing colour and falling.

Part of me, the very shallow part that quite like reading Grazia, wishes that life could be that simple. However, the other part of me (the part with the D in Biology ‘O’Level ) knows that nature is a complex entity where nothing is ever left without a useful purpose. Even teenagers and Louis Walsh.

In essence leaves are a sort of cross between a solar panel, a sponge, an umbrella, an oilskin coat, an environmental Hoover, a Turkish bath, an aqualung and a Mars Bar.
They capture energy from the sun and turn it into sugars .
Miniature pores on leaves (called stomata) breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen.
The leaves also form part of the vascular system which helps pump water around the tree.
They cool down the tree by transpiring excess water through the leaves.
They act as a barrier to stop wind from drying out the tree.
They shelter their tree from the worst heat of the sun.
And they provide food and shelter for all manner of creatures great and small.

As well as waving around in the breeze and looking engaging.

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Feet of clay

I realise that the above picture is very probably the most boring picture ever posted on this or any other blog.

It is, as you have doubtless already worked out, a small pile of mud however, it is much more than that. As you can easily see from the slight smearing in the foreground, this is good Northamptonshire clay.

Many people complain that they have a clay soil in their gardens as it is heavy and difficult to work. It stays very wet in winter and dries into something resembling  fissured  concrete in the summer. This is indeed true but it is also very nutritious and, provided that they are cosseted when young, most plants will be exceedingly happy long in clay. In my previous, and much missed, garden we had dreadful clay without much in the way of topsoil but we mulched every year and this, combined with the industry of many worms, served to soften the soil enough to make it workable and productive.

However, in this case, the presence of clay is a triumph of geology and is exactly what I was was looking for as it will make an excellent, hard wearing and long lasting pond without the need for expensive butyl rubber liners and long concrete block walls.

This is the plan: I have some very lovely clients who are building a house in a field. Also in that field are two drainage ditches that run fast and well during the winter but are dry and arid in the summer. The plan is to widen those ditches to make two glorious lakes that will perfectly fill the little valley and allow a delightful view from the house with the glowing sunset flickering across the water.

The clay will provide a watertight lining. Historically, if you were making a pond you would dig a hole and then let your oxen and geese wander around in there to ‘puddle’ the clay. This is the process of squishing it down so that there is no air and no crevices into which the water can run. As I find myself embarrassingly short of both geese and oxen at this moment (I know, but it is close to Christmas and the oxen are all booked up for lowing around mangers and the geese have, er,  other duties to fulfil ) we will instead use a large bulldozer. This machine will trundle back and forth, back and forth many times until we have a  good solid watertight lake into which the water will then be allowed to flow.
I have to say that I absolutely love this sort of thing – even though I am seldom allowed to drive the bulldozer and have to content myself with waving my arms about and inspecting holes in the ground.

“Hmmm…” I will say while sagely nodding

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Singing Armadillidiidae-day

This is a cheese log.

Or possibly a chucky pig, gramersow, roly-poly, grandad or butchy boy. Although it is most probably  a slater seeing that it was photographed in Scotland. Whatever name you choose to use it is undoubtedly a wood louse.

There are, and this came as a bit of a surprise to me, five thousand different species of wood louse which seems rather a lot although there are a mere forty five in Britain. I have always been rather fond of a woodlouse so much so that, as a grubby schoolboy, I kept one in a matchbox. This was probably a lot less fun for the woodlouse as it was for me because being constantly loosed and then corralled again must have been  very bad for his stress levels.

Interesting things about woodlice (not a phrase I thought I would ever write)…

They are crustaceans so are cousins of prawns- you can see the similarities although I somehow doubt that the addition of a handful of woodlice to a glass of pink sauce and some chopped lettuce would not make a 1970s classic.

Those who know these things say that woodlice taste of “strong urine” (see above). I worry about people who can tell the difference between the taste of strong and weak urine.

The woodlouse has fourteen segments and live for about two years. Assuming nothing eats them or treads on them.

The woodlouse moults in two stages. Back half first and then, a few days later, the front. This means than all woodlice have a sartorially embarrassing  period where they are running around with trousers that do not match their tops.

They breathe through lungs situated in their hind legs.

The female woodlouse carries her fertilised eggs around in a pouch. They hatch after a few days but then take a while to develop into independent creatures.

The woodlouse is one of those garden creatures that get a very bad press – people are constantly trying to kill them as they get blamed for all sorts of misdemeanours of which they are usually not guilty. Most of the time they do a very good job of clearing up dead stuff and feasting on decaying vegetation.

Occasionally they can snack on emerging seedlings but if you spent your life eating old wood you too would fancy the occasional change.

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