Always look a gift horse…

The web of worldly deception does not leave our gardens untouched.

One would assume that everything in the garden is all light and lovely and full of the joys of spring. All around us buds are breaking, sprouts are sprouting, the little birdies are tweeting and the lower mammals are shagging their little hearts out.

However, there is a dark side. In fact there are a number of less salubrious areas in our gardens into which many people choose not to venture. They are like wandering through Disneyland and coming across a seedy bar full of drunken matelots, slim boys with vapid eyes and women with overpowdered cleavages.

Let me talk about one such den of iniquity: weeds that pretend to be something else. Bindweed that dresses as Morning Glory, Hairy Bittercress that pretends to be all cute and delicate while plotting to take over the world and, in particular, the Horsetail. Equisetum is one of those weeds which, on first meeting, you think is rather attractive in a slightly unusual way. Ribbed stems covered in fine hairs pushing their way through the ground . Rather like Serge Gainsbourg.

“Gosh” you say “that looks like a handsome plant, I quite fancy some of that.”
This would be a mistake. In this, as in so many things in life, you should not be taken in by first appearances. Small dogs are often the most vicious. That dapper young man in the old school tie could be a ruthless con artist after your pension and that sultry young lady with precipitous breasts and a very small dress may not only want you for your body.

Equisetum is a serious weed which, in one guise or another, exists on every continent except Antarctica. It’s ancestors were hanging around the Paleozoic forests a hundred million years ago and you don’t survive that long without being canny. Their roots start many feet below the surface so you have no hope of digging it out without a very large excavator. It spreads by producing spores (like a fern or a mushroom) which it pings out from a rather unsavoury looking proboscis.

So, no matter how pretty: no matter how desirable: no matter how coquettishly it may look at you and no matter how finely turned its ankle you must resist at all costs.

Unless of course,  you like it very rough indeed.

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Rhodo Love.. *

I feel that I may be on the edge of a horticultural precipice.

I may be about to embark upon a love affair with Rhododendrons. For most of my life I have thought “Euggghhhh” when confronted by a rhodo. I am not absolutely certain why this should be apart from the fact that I was at school in Berkshire from the ages of eight to thirteen and the place was scattered with rhododendrons. Mind you, I was not noticeably traumatised by this experience: we used to pick the flowers and suck out the nectar and make racetracks for oak apples among the roots. In fact that all sounds a bit idyllic and Famous Fiveish so it cannot have been that unless it was in my very deep subconscious.

I remember seeing rhododendrons the colour of smeared lipstick or cheap underwear in garden centres or at the Chelsea Flower Show when I first started gardening but there is no reason why I should take that personally.

Maybe it is the fact that I have never lived in an area with soil acidic enough to support them and I am reacting out of envy or pettiness. Perhaps it is their size: there is something slightly off- putting about a flower larger than a human head. I don’t know: there seems to be no logic at all in this reaction and now I think I am about to fall in love.

It is something to do with Scotland, I think. I had a brief dalliance with species rhododendrons about ten years ago when I was working on the Isle of Bute. I was introduced to varieties that had huge leaves dusted with cinnamon coloured indumentum and dappled bark. I was tempted but resisted. A couple of years later I was caught in a rainstorm in a garden near Edinburgh. I ran to shelter inside a cave formed by a venerable old specimen and was captivated by the sight of a carpet of fallen petals. See for yourselves.

Now it is Scotland again: this time the isle of Colonsay (about which I have written here before) where there is an entire valley filled with Rhododendron sinogrande. I wandered in there on a sunny evening this week and was bowled over. Glossy dangling leaves and perfect flowers each with a splotch the colour of bramble jelly.

I think I am going to enjoy the dark side.


* Drivin’all night, my hands wet on the wheel
There’s a voice in my head, that drives my heel
It’s my baby callin’, says, “I need you here”
And it’s half past four, and I’m shifting gear

When she’s lonely and the longing gets too much
She sends a cable comin’ in from above
Don’t need no phone at all
We’ve got a thing that’s called radar love
We’ve got a wave in the air, radar love

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Holy Moley

I realise that this may possibly upset the sensitive but, here at Crocus, we are unafraid to grapple with the more delicate subjects. We do not shy from controversy or the tossing and turning of moral catnapping.

The picture above is the latest haul from my esteemed chum , the Molecatcher. Some may assert that every living thing has a right to roam through our gardens, others may feel that their garden is their unassailable stronghold and no creature may pass without express permission of the freeholder. Most of us, as in many things, are shamelessly ambivalent.
I am choosing, at this moment, to remain on the sidelines as we have had but one mole in our garden which fortunately left after I gave it a stern telling off, other people are not so fortunate and have lost plants (moles burrow underneath them and they are left with roots dangling in mid air) and had their lawns ruined. So what? You may say, it is not worth killing a mole. The garden will mend itself.

Others will get agitated and declare all out thermonuclear war on all small mammals using an arsenal of traps, gas bombs, shotguns and poisons. Not terribly pleasant when you think about it – the best option is my chum the molecatcher who is swift and efficient: it is surprisingly difficult to catch a mole.

I once made a croquet lawn for a cabinet minister who, contrary to his fire breathing public persona, was determined to have his croquet without the destruction on any moles. As a result we bought a lot of sonic mole repellers which were designed to corral any moles into a nearby field. These things were long tubes that sent out high frequency sounds which apparently drove moles crazy. Like playing a loop of Muskrat Love by the Captain and Tenille to a train full of commuters. No moles were harmed in this exercise which is more than can be said for the croquet lawn which was as pitted as the surface of the moon. It did not really matter as it counted as a ‘home team advantage”

At this time of year moles are thinking about sex. Their sap is rising and they are burrowing around madly in the hope of bumping into a suitable mate. They are not very sociable animals, in fact they are downright grumpy so there is no prolonged courtship. No chocolates and flowers thing. No soupy text messages nor cute teddy bears with “I wuv oo” embroidered into their comfortingly plump tummies. There is a snatched moment in a darkened tunnel and they are on their way: about as romantic as a wet underpass.

Moles live almost exclusively on earthworms. The form is that the earthworm, pootling along minding its own business suddenly finds itself dangling in mid air half in and half out if a mole tunnel. The mole who, while blind, has a very good sense of smell realises this very quickly, beetles up the tunnel and whop, end of worm. A mole’s saliva paralyses the worm so it can be stored, still alive and fresh, for later consumption. Before eating the mole squeezes all the partially digested soil from the worm which makes for a much improved flavour.

Other mole facts:

Mole pelts are very soft but you need an awful lot of them to make anything very practical. For a comforting thong, however, you only need a couple. Four iic you want a bikini.

I remember with great fondness Morocco Mole who wore a fez and was Secret Squirrel’s sidekick.

William of Orange died after his horse stumbled over a molehill and thereafter Jacobites would raise a glass to “the little gentleman in black velvet”.

Moles are edible but, unsurprisingly given the axiom “you are what you eat”, taste disgusting.

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A bramble ramble

The bramble is a remarkable fellow.

It is one of those plants whose tenacity one must admire even if one does not actually welcome the things into the garden.

The first thing to settle is what to call them: some say blackberry, some bramble. I prefer bramble because I was told, when small and easily influenced, that only English people called them blackberries. At the time I was going through my Scottish Nationalist phase so latched on to any difference I could find. English people did not have salt on their porridge, in Scotland woodlice are called Slaters. Scots never kill spiders (because of Robert the Bruce, I believe).  I also latched onto some other good Scots words mostly learned from the comic pages of the Sunday Post*. For example galoot (as in clumsy oaf) Jings (as an exclamation), Help ma boab (ditto), Greeting (crying) and But an Ben (a small cottage).

Probably it is a bramble while immature and then develops in the autumn into a blackberry.

That is, however, rather beside the point as the remarkableness of the bramble is not in its name but its habits. We all know that in the summer it has a rather charming, though simple flower, followed by very delicious berries. There is very little that can beat an apple and blackberry crumble – ideally with very good vanilla ice cream. For the purpose of this little dissertation (you will be relieved to hear that there is a point) I wish to concentrate on the thorns.

The unwary and uninformed among will assume that the reason that brambles have thorns is purely out of spite. They enjoy laddering tights, snagging jackets and spearing the balls of your thumbs as a deliberate act of defiance against the overbearing predominance of man. I hate to disabuse a conspiracy theorists but the thorns are really a set of grappling hooks.

They use their thorns to hoist themselves over fences, hedges and neighbouring shrubs in their urge to take over the known world like a horde of bloodthirsty pirates scrambling their way up the sides of an enemy ship at the dead of night. The bramble, like many successful plants, has more than one way to reproduce itself. Not only do blackberries contain lots of seeds – which are happily disseminated by feeding birds – but everytime the snaking tendril touches the ground on its constant progress through the countryside, it sprouts roots and another plant is born.

We, the human race, must also bear some responsibility for this: remember that barbed wire was not invented until 1867  (by Lucien.B.Smith of Kent, Ohio)and timber was expensive so what better way to make a good stock proof fence than to selectively breed the thorniest brambles and let nature do the work?

As I said at the beginning: a remarkable fellow the bramble. If not very photogenic.

* It was a two page insert featuring Oor Wullie on one page and The Broons on the other. I still have annuals for both in my downstairs lavatory. Oddly they were presents from my parents when I was way beyond the age of majority: they were almost ritual Christmas presents along with packets of Dolly Mixtures.

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Are you sitting comfortably….?

This is a story with a happy ending.

Once upon a time a well known and (mostly) respectable garden designer, one Andy Sturgeon, was asked to do a garden at Chelsea Flower Show. All the usual things happened: drawings drawn, applications applied, sponsors sponsored, contractors contracted etc etc.

Messengers were then despatched to all corners of the world in the search for interesting and exciting plants and, after a certain amount of stress and kerfuffle, it all came together in London SW3 in time for a triumphant week when the garden was covered with media, camera crews and gasping admirers more numerous than ants upon a honeycomb. It won a Gold medal and Best in Show.

Then, before you know it, the week was over and large men with lorries and diggers dismembered the garden and dispatched its constituent parts to new homes and (in the case of some of the hard landscaping) a happy future recycled as something else: a motorway foundation or an iPod, perhaps.

Sadly, there were two big trees that had no particular place to go (if I might borrow the words of the great Chuck Berry). They were massive scots pines and they were adopted by the good people at Crocus and stashed away in their nursery where, though cared for and regularly watered, they were not really loved. Not in the way they had been when they were youngsters stretching in the mediterranean sun (or basking in the egalitarian glow of a Netherlands nursery or vigilant and attentive in a Teutonic paradise*). They were basically hanging around the bus-shelter of life waiting for something interesting to happen to them.

Chelsea Flower Show leftovers fall into two camps: they are either sweet, desirable and portable (like pomeranians but less yappy) or big muscular specimens that require machinery and manpower in order to shift them around (like very uncooperative and slightly clumsy anacondas). The first lot tend to get snapped up by people looking for both a bargain and bit of reflected glamour: these two trees were definitely in the latter category: beautiful, but beefy.

Step forward another gardener – me. (If you wish, I have no problem with your casting me in a sort of gallant knight/handsome Prince/strong deliverer type from this point in the story) I was looking for a couple a vast trees to obscure an unwanted view and stumbled across these two chaps: perfect.

Moving them was not a straightforward job as the rootballs are about 2.5m across and each tree weighs about five tonnes. Fortunately this particular gallant knight/etc has the services of clever people to call upon in his bid to rescue these two stranded pines. Articulated trucks were summonsed (one per tree), cranes and diggers were conjured up and lots of people rallied round.

Within two days they were both moved, shifted, lifted and planted thanks to Crocus and the excellent people at Nicholsons Nurseries.

So now they are happily ensconced in Oxfordshire where they will hopefully spend the rest of their lives blocking off the view from the village into my client’s bedroom.

Bit tough on the village voyeur but hopefully he won’t hold that (or anything sticky) against me.



* I am not absolutely certain where they led their lives before appearing at Chelsea but it is likely to be one of the three.

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On a tree by a river a little tom-tit, Sang “Willow, titwillow, titwillow!”

Do you know the bit at the beginning of Four Weddings and a Funeral when Hugh Grant and Charlotte Coleman (who I am sure I met once but don’t know where or when) are late for a wedding?

I am loath to quote it here because there is a faint chance that this blog might attract a sensitive and family audience (I doubt it, but one must be careful) and the scene in question involves at least eleven uses of a well known (except amongst the sensitive and family audience previously mentioned) four letter word.

In one case with the suffix -etty.

I feel quite like that right now. I have been drifting along quite happily while the rains fell and the trees were buffeted and jostled by gale force winds. “Plenty of time” I have said to myself on numerous occasions as I reached for another biscuit and an extra cardigan.

Then, suddenly, “Wham” the blasted spring arrives at the weekend. Unexpected and unannounced. Without a by-your-leave we are all suddenly wandering around in shirtsleeves and dusting off the Factor 20. Plants are visibly growing, the lawn needs cutting, the birds are flirting, the willows (as you can see in the picture) are pussying and the leaves are limbering up within their carapaces*.

However, there is a problem with all this. A big problerm.

I am not ready for spring. I have innumerable plant lists to organise, things to order, drawings to draw, people to call, things to write, lists to tick and loads of other things all of which need to be done before the spring arrives. I rather want it to go away for a bit if you don’t mind.

I am trying very hard not to panic: it is not, after all, as if I have never been in this position before.

When I was about eleven I was in a play called “1066 And All That” by W.C.Sellar and R.J.Yeatman (this was written in 1930 in the days when people had initials instead of Christian names). I played the part of King Canute who was informed by his oleaginous and obsequious courtiers, that he (owing to a misunderstanding of the Rule Britannia) was entitled to sit on the sea without getting wet.

Sadly he was misinformed and his attempts at turning back the waves were as effective as my railing against the onrushing spring.

Anyway, I suppose the spring also brings  good things: all that poor Canute got was wet socks.


* Do leaves have carapaces?

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Never helleboring..

It is that Hellebore moment: as can be evidenced by this bowl of floating hellebore flowers on my mother-in-law’s kitchen table.

The Helleborus hybridus (or orientalis) is a very skittish kind of a plant.

There used to be an expression among the debutantes of the 1950′s* – “He is not safe in taxis” they would whisper to each other in the powder rooms of the great West End Hotels. This meant that such and such a deb’s delight**, while doubtless debonair and charming in company was all wandering hands and inappropriate fumbling when in the confined privacy of a taxicab.

The Hellebore is definitely not safe in taxis. It is extraordinarily indiscriminating with its cross pollination with the result that where there is one hellebore there are likely to be many more: and none of them will ever be completely identical to its parent. The only way to ensure genetic purity is to ignore the seed and only go with cuttings or division.

However, if you ignore their shambolic morals there is a lot about the hellebore that should be admired. Gasp at the spotting on the inside of the petals – like an advanced level Rorsach test. Swoon over the pertness of their sepals and marvel at the richness of their colours.

While we are on the subject of debutantes and hellebores, Melampus of Pylos used hellebore to save the daughters of the king of Argos from a madness that caused them to run naked through the city crying and screaming. In exchange for this act of public service (you cannot have naked princesses running around the suburbs: it upsets commerce and scares the livestock) he demanded two thirds of the kingdom. As well as being a seer and a striker of hard bargains, Melampus was also capable of talking to animals: like a toga clad version of Rex Harrison in Doctor Doolittle.


* A debutante, for those readers unfamiliar with the term, is a young lady being launched into society. In the good old days this happened when the landed gentry sent their daughters to London in order to attend various dances and dinners. The purpose of this was for them to find a suitable husband.

How do I know about the goings on if high society? I was, for a short time a gossip columnist whose job was to go to Debutante parties and transmit little bits of information and gentle scuttlebut. This was not, I hasten to add, in the 1950s. The Debutante still existed in the late 1970s although they were not so set on husband hunting and were keener on temporary cavorting. Which, from my point of view, was a very good thing.

** A Deb’s delight is an eligible bloke.

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Emotions of the Rose

Consider this a test.
Have a good look at the picture  - which is, incidentally Rosa The Prince.

What does the sight of a rose flowering in the depths of winter mean to you?

(a) A Hope for the future.
A symbol that no matter how long and hard the journey through winter may be there is always a light glowing at the end of the tunnel and the good times will return.
As I look upon it I hear melodious choruses of angelic voices singing spiritually uplifting marching songs and it makes me think of the bit in The Railway Children where Jenny Agutter runs along the platform shouting “Daddy, my Daddy!”.
Or, if your mind works that way, the bit a little later in her career where she takes all her kit off in the Australian outback.

(b) It is all rather depressing.
This is a miserable reminder of faded glory. It reminds me of a coiffed Duchess sitting bedraggled and quite pissed on a grimy pavement while a number 73 bus drives past drenching her with splash back from a muddy puddle.
Or that bit in Trading Places where Dan Ackroyd tries to hide a side of smoked salmon underneath his false Santa beard.

(c) I grow that rose.

If you answered (a) then you are in possession of an admirable though slightly unnerving optimism which may, or may not, have been brought about by ingestion of hallucinogenics.

If you prefer (b) then you are probably a miserable git whose soul lacks a certain lyricism and  would remain unaffected by the saucer eyes of an abandoned puppy and unmoved by an approaching waiter bearing a tray of puddings.

If (c) then you are a gardener.

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The inconspicuous parrot.

There are some flowers that are brazen and sassy: that strut and flounce and wiggle their pretty tushes at anybody who passes.

There are others which are wholesome and clean living. They have freckles and gingham shirts and wear their hair in bunches. They are always polite and are the first to offer to do the washing up.

Another group are the flowers that are coy and slightly embarrassed. They lack confidence and worry about the size of their noses or the wobbliness of the bits that wobble. They are the shrinking violets.

It is a member of this final group with which we are concerned today, Ladies and Gentlemen. At the top of the page is the flower of Parrotia persica which coyly emerges from a jet black velvet bud in February. You can easily miss the flowers – my mother-in-law has had one for ages and I only just started noticing the flowers a few years ago. I now make a pilgrimage especially to see them.

At this time of year it is a light amongst the gloom. Most trees are without leaves and there is only so much satisfaction that you can get from a tracery of damp twigs. About now I start dreaming of a bit of colour and, lo and behold, up steps the Parrotia to perform. The common name is Persian Ironwood and, unsurprisingly with that name, it is native to Northern Iran: in particular the Alborz Mountains.  This is not a range of mountains with which I am that familiar – they border the Caspian Sea and join Azerbaijan and Armenia at one end to Turkmenistan and Afghanistan * in t’other.

Wherever they may be they can do no wrong in my book if their slopes are dotted with Persicas. Even without the flowers -which are a gorgeous red and look like a cross between a sea anemone and the tassels on the dressing gown cord of a particularly rakish card shark  - this tree is no slouch.

Who could resist the delightful slightly curled leaves ? – especially when, come the autumn, they transform into a extraordinarily flagrant conflagration of red and orange. It reaches an eventual height of about nine metres after fifteen years so perhaps not a tree to choose if you are in much of a hurry.

So three cheers for the shrinking violets for sometimes a light burns brighter for being hidden under a bushel. **


* In an effort to stave off the onrush of old age and general forgetfulness we have embarked on a mission to learn the capital cities of every country in the world. This is a task that is unlikely to be completed before the blur of dotage settles upon us. So far we have mastered the capitals of all the countries ending in -stan. Turkmenistan’s capital is Ashgabat. The mnemonic is that it is a bit like Take That.

** Apologies for blatant mixing of metaphors.

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Mark Diacono, in da house….

My apologies to the more sensitive of my readers but I have allowed an alien presence to temporarily occupy this blog. For one week only. In the words of  John Greenleaf Whittaker please “forgive his foolish ways…”

I have donned a hat and (as much as I am able), I am sitting cross-legged, looking winsomely to my right with a random broom handle off by my left shoulder.

Alas; I still look like a coarse Devonshire bumpkin rather than the linen shirted toff to the right of these words. Therefore, I shall come clean: I am standing in for James Alexander-Sinclair, on account of this blog being required to meet EU regulations regarding inclusivity. It is far too posh. A week’s intervention from me should tide it over until 2019.

You may have noticed, it’s been raining. It has been this way since bonfire night. While mainstream news has been dominated by the flooding of the Somerset Levels and mad waves along the coast, the big talk in the gardening world has been the delay caused to the planting of my new raspberry patch.  However, in the (probably misplaced) belief that it will one day stop, I have reserved myself rather too many Autumn Bliss, Polka and Allgold (aka Fallgold). All are autumn fruiting.

If asked, I always suggest autumn fruiting varieties. I find them tastier for the extra sun and looking after them is (like me) endearingly simple. Summer fruiting varieties fruit on last year’s canes – i.e. canes grow one year, fruit the next – so you cut down only the canes that have fruited, tying the rest to a supporting wire.

It’s a palaver I can do without, and there are so many strawberries to be picked in heart of summer when they’d fruit. With autumn fruiting cultivars, canes fruit in year one, so you strim the lot to the ground each winter and new canes emerge each year. Fruit maintenance for idlers. And autumn fruiters can give you raspberries anytime from late July through October.

With this in mind, let me remind you of the three rules of strimmer use:

1 – always wear safety goggles, even if strimming only for a moment

2 – always take the fuel canister with you: you will run out with only 0.5m2 left to strim

3 – never strim so enthusiastically that you end up breathing through your mouth – this, I discovered, will happen at precisely the same time that you strim an unsuspecting frog or slug.

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