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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Blue,blue, electric blue…

Defying nature is generally considered to be a bad idea.

King Canute* is a case in point as are those people who stand to close to large trees during thunderstorms. Or have plastic surgery in order to reduce the wobbliness of their dewlaps and end up with skin the texture of an overboiled frankfurter.

However, many gardeners regularly defy nature by ignoring the sound advice given on the label or in the RHS Encyclopaedia of Plants and planting stuff where they think it will survive. The worst example of which I am guilty is doggedly and determinedly planting Meconopsis in Limey soil. I was convinced (driven by the optimism and careless confidence of youth) that the rules were not for me and that what I really needed was a drift of pale blue poppies marching away down the border as far a s the eye could see.

“Best in acid soil” trumpeted the label. “Native to the Himalayas” stated the books. “Pish and tush” said I as I wandered off into the limestone mists of the Cotswolds bearing trowel and plants. I do not blame my younger self one jot as the Meconopsis is thing of extraordinary delicate beauty and everybody who sees one will be instantly smitten. They are, however very fussy and do not take kindly to people messing with their growing conditions.

That said, it was an excellent lesson in life because, in the words of the Rolling Stones – You can’t always get what you want……(although it must be said that, if you try sometimes, you get what you need).


* when I was about ten I played the part of King Canute in version of 1066 and all that. It was a part that offered limited scope for the thespian but did involve my having a bucket of water poured over my head which was an excitement at that age. My next dramatic role was as Alice in Wonderland – with wig and cute blue frock.

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Sunrise on Glasgow

07:30 – I don’t know about you but in my opinion the correct place for a chap to be at 5:00am on a November Tuesday is cozily ensconced in a warm bed. Not searching around for a pair of socks in the pitch darkness before jumping in the car and driving through roadworks and rain to Birmingham airport.

But life sometimes throws adventures in one’s path and one would be foolish not to go along and see what happens. Hence all that rushing and the reason why I am writing this on a very noisy propellor driven aeroplane (for the benefit of any aeroplane enthusiasts out there, it says on safety card that it is a Q400 Dash8) bound for Glasgow. I am going there to visit the spinal unit at Glasgow Southern General Hospital because that is where the second Horatio’s garden will be made.

Horatio Chapple was seventeen when he was tragically killed by a polar bear while on a school expedition. His ambition was to study medicine and he spent some of his school holidays volunteering at the Salisbury spinal centre. His patient research there established how much a garden would benefit the patients – many of them destined to spend a long time in the unit. His parents, David and Olivia, have carried that idea on and the first Horatio’s Garden was designed for Salisbury by Cleve West. The idea now is to roll them out through other spinal units across the country.

So, next stop- Glasgow.

16:45 – It has been eight hours since my last breathy bulletin. I am now back in the juddery Q400 Dash 8 having had a very lovely day. Sorry, did I say lovely? I meant, intense and hard working.

I met up with Olivia and another of the trustees, Vicky Holton, and together we rumbled off to the hospital. The chosen site for the garden is the courtyard shown above: it is, umm, what’s the word? Unprepossessing. Cleve West got a car park in Salisbury in which to make the first Horatio’s garden and he did okay (for a beginner) so I am bubbling with the possibilities and am not sparing a thought for the fact that is is currently a rather dingy grey yard within spitting distance of a very, very loud dual carriageway and some of the less salubrious parts of Govan.

Actually I am extremely excited about this project. Almost all of the hundreds of gardens I have worked in over the past thirty years have been private gardens owned by delightful people. I have done very few public projects especially ones which will make such a difference to people’s lives.

Flying back I thought how close any of us are to this sort of tragedy. Today, we could be skipping merrily along whistling a happy tune and then, suddenly, tomorrow life has changed for ever. It is that quick and that uncertain. Imagine that you had to spend a year lying in a bed staring at the pimpled polystyrene tiles on the ward ceiling. Around you are other people in much the same position, all if you there because of a sudden and unexpected twist of fate. There is no privacy beyond a set of flimsy curtains, the recovery is hard, there are no magic wands, the food is pretty dire, the world shrinks to four walls and a string of minor indignities.

A tree, a flower or glimpse of the sky will become something pretty special and that is what we will try to deliver.

A moment of relief.

If you want more details or would like to help then look here.

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Gone crabbin’

I have to say that I do like a nice crab.

That is a statement which could be interpreted in a number of different ways. I could be extolling the delights of eating crab – which I would happily do as a decent crab sandwich with a squeeze of lemon is a lovesome thing.
I could be celebrating the fact that, at my age, I can exercise the privilege of general grumpiness.
I could just be very fond of walking sideways in a sort of shimmy.
Perhaps I am a rower – a slightly perverse rower if I was fond of crabs but it takes all sorts. Or I could possibly get some degenerate pleasure from the itchiness.

All these are possible but sadly the mundane truth, as I am sure you had gathered, is that I like crab apple trees at this time of year. The one pictured above is Malus Red Sentinel and those little apples should hang on in there until about christmas.  The crab apple is small sour thing, not a patch on any of its larger relations: even its name (probably a variant of ‘scrab’ meaning scratching or scraping) is not very glamorous however, as a tree, it is good news. Firstly because the blossom is all pink and sugary in springtime. Secondly, it makes a handsome summery tree beneath which you can happily sit/sprawl or snog. Thirdly there are varieties for every situation ranging from very fastigiate varieties (upright to you and me) to those of a more spreading habit.

Apart from the previously mentioned Red Sentinel the other crabs of which you should take notice are:

Malus sylvestris – the native crab. Interestingly you seldom see a group: they are often found as singles in woods with no others anywhere to be seen.

Malus Evereste – orangey crabs. Bit of autumn colour. About 7m high.

Malus Golden Hornet – there was (is) a pleached circle of this variety in the kitchen garden at Highgrove, the Prince of Wales’s slightly cluttered garden. Good tree loads of yellow apples.

Malus tschonoskii – the first tree I ever planted (in a half barrel in my first garden – a concrete yard in Shepherd’s Bush) . It is very upright, the name is pleasingly complicated and it has good autumn colour. I always imagined that it was named after a Cossack cavalry major who died fighting Napoleon during the Battle of Borodino. Instead it takes its name from a rather dour Japanese botanist called Sugawa Tschonoski. Pity.

I am sure the cooks and scavengers amongst you can find some sort of jelly or coulis into which you can tip crab apples but they are never going to make your mouth water.

Unless you are a blackbird in which case you will be quite happy. Or a badger.

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I guess Redbud is just a..piece in a jigsaw puzzle (i)

I am still raking leaves.

I know that the last two blogs that I have posted here also involved me raking but, as I explained, I do not have much else to do. I did, however, have a rather charming moment today.

There I was raking away at the increasingly crusty horse chestnut leaves while simultaneously (who said that chaps cannot multi-task) toying with the idea of setting them on fire just to amuse myself and listening to the podcast of the News Quiz (ii). I had collected a decent pile when a puff of wind deposited a single Cercis leaf in the middle of the heap. There was not, I promise you, any artifice or cajoling – the picture above is of the moment.

The Cercis condenses (or Redbud) is one of two that were planted for the precise purpose of providing autumn colour, there are flowers but very few of them: they turn up in early summer and hang around for a short while being pink. For the rest of the year the leaves are charming enough but in a green and unobtrusive sort of way – they will never set the world on fire and are, I believe, the foliage equivalent of the Rich Tea biscuit (iii). Unless, of course, you get Cercis canadensis Forest Pansy in which case they have deep purply leaves instead which are more like a dark chocolate Hobnob.

But, cometh the autumn, cometh the leaf (apologies to St John and many others)….. deep crimsons, a slash of russet, a sort of dusty ballroom pink, a bit of raspberry, some burned butter and a shaving of crystallised ginger.

Well worth the wait.

I promise that next week I will think of something else to talk about apart from raking stuff.

(i) With apologies to Citizen Kane

(ii) I am terribly love with Sandy Toksvig. I fear that I am neither alone nor in with any sort of a chance.

(iii) The Rich Tea, in case you did not know, has been consistently voted the dullest biscuit in history by an international jury of experts. The Blue Riband also scored highly with the extra problem of dishonesty: promising much and delivering little. That is probably enough about biscuits although, if you want to find the best Biscuit based blog ever, then go here and have a ferret about. Sadly it ran out of steam a few years ago but the quality of drivel is exceptional.

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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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