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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This little piggy…

If the world was a perfect place then a number of things would be changed.

Obviously there would be world peace, universal love, an end to poverty, appropriate weather for everybody, adequate housing and correct ratio of red to green fruit pastilles in every tube.* There would be a blanket ban on vests worn in plain sight and the use of desiccated coconut. All the obvious things.

However, when the committee in charge of this perfect world got down to detail I would like to put in a plea for pigs. Every garden should be large enough to accommodate at least one pig. This is mostly because it is, in my experience, impossible to be unhappy when in the company of a pig.

They have had a very bad press because they are seen to be messy (undoubtedly true) and smelly (which is absolute nonsense – as I hope those of you who have got close enough to put your nose against the warm neck of a pig will attest). The Bible – and most of the other world religions – does not help much to lift their PR profile, qv Leviticus (Chapter 11,vs7), the Gadarene Swine etc.

Aside from this they are the most charming companions, we had two Berkshires at one time who would come for walks around the fields with us and the dogs. They did require the incentive of a bucket of apples to stop them wandering off sometimes but that is forgivable. They (the pigs) were called Daffodil and Daisy: eventually they fulfilled their destiny and ended up in the freezer.

If you have space, have a pig. You will however need strong fences and not be too concerned when they turn the place into a complete mud bath. Scratch them lots and whenever you feel a bit down then snuggle up with them in a stall full of clean straw.

For a full appreciation of the meditative and health giving aspects of pig keeping you need look no further than the Blandings stories of P.G.Wodehouse. If you have never read any then you have no time to lose – your life to date has been little short of pointless.

* This is also relevant when discussing the distribution of orange to toffee Revels in a packet.

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Weeds and doomed love

As I whizz through the countryside on my way to Devon (sadly for work rather than for a holiday on the beach) the flower that most catches my eye through the train windows are the great stands of quivering Epilobium. Gloriously pink spires of flower lining the railway embankments from Oxford to Paignton.

Many years ago, when I first became a gardener I was so taken by this plant flowering on a hillside in Scotland that I pootled out with spade and plastic pot and dug some up. I lovingly potted some up, watered them and brought them back to the house where I was staying. My then girlfriend’s father (who was not at all keen on the idea of me cosying up to his daughter) was dismissive and I was suitably embarrassed. The relationship crumbled soon after: horticulture and broken hearts. A theme best summed up in the great Benny Hill song “In my Garden of Love” – about which I have written before but I cannot remember when.

For this is willowherb, one of those plants that are fine for railways, field edges and wastelands but really not something that you would every want to invite into the more refined environment of your garden. It is a voracious, though seductively elegant, creature that will quickly colonise your patch by seeding itself with happy abandon as well as by sending out long running roots. This plant is a survivor.

However, if the allure proves too strong for you and resistance is futile then there are a couple of less troublesome variations. Firstly, there is a white version called Epilobium angustifolium Alba which is lovely but needs to be planted amongst other plants as it has very scruffy ankles.

Secondly, and my absolute favourite, is Epilobium Stahl Rose which has a delicious pale pink flower with a cross of clarety maroon bisecting each flower. It then carries that colour through into its seed pods which eventually split open to reveal clouds of seeds as fluffy as a burst goose down duvet.

Do not, however, plant it too close to the open kitchen door for the wind will then blow those same downy seeds all over the place and they will cause slight annoyance to your nearest and dearest.

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Hole in one

It is, possibly, one of the laws of physics that you cannot have mass without void – although I am a person whose academic grasp on most of the scientific tenets is flimsy at best if based purely on examination results. Although I did once do a spectacular experiment with magnets  which was put on public exhibition at parents day. I cannot remember the exact details.

The point I am faintly getting at is the void thing: in particular the existence and importance of holes in our lives. Black holes, 4000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire (or ‘Lancasheer’ if you a Liverpudlian), the 19th hole,Hole in the Sky (Black Sabbath), wormholes, mouse holes, Hole in my Shoe (Traffic), There’s a hole in my bucket (dear Lisa, dear Lisa), fire in the hole, Wookey hole, hole in the ozone layer, watering hole, rabbit hole, Harry Hole etc etc. I will not go on as there comes a point when there will no longer be a hole as I will have filled it with drivel.

This garden is currently full of holes (although that phrase, if you go back to physics, makes little sense. How can a mass, the garden, be full of voids, the holes?) because on saturday afternoon we had a very serious hailstorm.

Ice chips the size of pea shingle battered us for a good half hour and, as a result, any plants with a large leaf have been shot full of ragged holes and some very grand standard marguerites that I bought from the excellent people at Crocus were pummelled into broken stalks.

Neither of these things are a good thing as the leaves will not recover until next spring and the marguerites are unlikely to flower again this season. I am quite pleased that I have never been tempted to grow competition quality hostas otherwise I would have found myself alternating between tears and running around with an umbrella. The picture is of my poor Rodgersia.

To make it worse the hail was disgustingly dirty – each hailstone encased a flake of soot (or some other sort of atmospheric pollutant) which was left when the ice melted. I have no idea where it came from – London probably. Or France –  if in doubt blame the French, it has served us well for hundreds of years so no point in stopping now.

So we are left with bruised plants and gritty filth everywhere. Especially as I forgot to close the windows. Weather, eh? what a swine.



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A patch of grass and a cup of tea

In a month’s time this will be my garden. A small patch of grass, a hedge, a couple of narrow borders, an oil tank and a little patch of gravel upon which we will squeeze our table and various chairs.

It is, of course, only a temporary arrangement but it does not leave much scope for gardening. I can cut the grass, look at the hedge and pull out any weeds that catch my eye. This should take me all of 45 minutes a week which is considerably less than I am used to doing.

It is going to be very weird.

We are moving out of this house and garden in less than a month – the stirring details are here if you are interested. Perhaps I should take up a useful hobby which will make a change. For much of my adult life people have asked me what I do when I am not gardening. To which the answer is – I garden.

I realise that this makes be a little one dimensional and I do do other things like watch Game of Thrones, play occasional games of tennis, go to the cinema, eat buns, play Scrabble, read books, lose at cards and sleep but I also realise than in most people’s eyes this does not really count.

The reality is that most of my waking hours are happily spent designing gardens, supervising the construction of gardens, gardening, talking about gardens, writing about gardens, ordering stuff for gardens, Tweeting about gardens, gossiping about other Gardeners, finding out about gardens, visiting gardens, reading about gardens, answering questions about gardens or having meetings about gardens. This is my life. At other times I may be found staring out of the window at my garden or sleeping.

Now as a new era looms perhaps, as seems to be popular amongst the middle aged, I should take up the Triathlon. Or Cordon Bleu cookery. Or macrame. Or coin collecting. Or rambling. Or crack smoking. Or wearing ladies underpinnings. Or train spotting. Or archaeology. Or maybe I should be a waitress in a cocktail bar.

I could probably go on but as it is unlikely that I will do any of these things it is probably a waste of your time.

In the end I will probably amuse myself by interfering in my mother-in-law’s garden.

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Pachys romana..

Pachysandra has long been considered the Steve Davis of garden design.

Good at what it does but really, really boring. The truth of the matter is that, like Steve Davis, this judgement is a little unfair as, when you get to know them they are actually funny, clever and with hidden depths. They are both more sensitive than you might imagine and easily hurt by such snap judgements.

Pachysandra puts on a brave face but behind those glossy evergreen leaves it weeps. “If you prick me, do I not bleed?” As Shylock says in the Merchant of Venice. This might be going a little too far as obviously it does not bleed but the point is that this is actually a great garden plant.

The problem is one of perception, as it is with so many plants, because you don’t come across it much outside bits of public planting: the example above was photographed just outside the Crowne Plaza hotel by the NEC in Birmingham. Not a place that is often visited by Gardeners eager for elucidation and delight. The poor little thing has become something specified by landscape architects to fill the void between shrub and soil. This is mostly because it is very “low maintenance”.

It is like the Ronseal advertisement. It is designed to cover the ground and that is what it does – exactly what it says on the tin. But it does do it extremely well and with more panache than it is given credit for: it is not an easy job and I can only think of ivy or vinca that do it as well. The disadvantage of both of them is that they tend to go a bit crazy and not know where to stop. Pachysandra is much more obliging.

One of the more interesting things is that the name comes from the Greek – ‘pachys’ meaning thick and ‘andros’ meaning man. So basically it is called thick bloke plant. Joe Swift used it in his Gold Medal winning garden at Chelsea in 2011.

There has to be a gag in there somewhere..

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When I was a child my grandparents had a house in Scotland where we used to go in the summer for a couple of weeks.

There were hills, bouncy heather, burns for damming and lots of space. Three things in particular I remember: firstly, my grandfather used to feed the birds from his hand every afternoon (he had a little tin containing bits of cheese and peanuts in his waistcoat pocket). Secondly the boiler was down a long dark, dusty corridor in the basement (at least it felt long) and had to be stoked every evening. The journey to the boiler involved my grandfather and I singing  ”Yes we have no bananas, we have no bananas today” very loudly.

Thirdly (and more relevant to the essence behind this blog) there was a big fruit cage in which there were the usual suspects. I remember one particular incident when the farmer’s son and I were yelled at by my grandmother for sitting in there stuffing ourselves with everything within reach. At that age ripeness was not as important as the actual act of foraging.

Oddly all this stuff bubbled to the surface this morning while we were picking gooseberries. The gooseberry is an excellent plant producing, as it does, tart and plump fruit that are very difficult to find in most supermarkets. The fact that the fruit is somewhat testicular in both shape and bristliness is neither here nor there.

The problem with the gooseberry is that it is darned difficult to pick as every branch is covered in sharp spines so it is quite like sticking your hand into a nest of barbed wire. However, when the trouble is taken and the pain endured it is well worth while – especially in this house where they are transformed into little almondy cakes.

There is a special gooseberry show at Egton Bridge in Yorkshire. Competitive Gooseberry growing was very popular amongst the factories and industrial areas and this show is now over two hundred years old. Chaps compete to produce the heaviest gooseberry: the world record currently stands at 35 drams (62g) for a berry grown by Brian Nellist in 2009.

Gooseberries are pretty resistant to any diseases, are too prickly for rodents although they can be completely defoliated by a rather unattractive thing called the Gooseberry sawfly which comes in three different guises: the common, the small and the pale spotted. The fruit remain untouched – although the leaves are toast and the crop may well be reduced the following season. A bit like the Polygonatum sawfly about which I made this little film.

They have nothing at all to do with geese.

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