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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If you walk out of my front door and carry on in a straight line you go up some stone steps, across a quite skanky concrete road, up another step and into the open barn that serves as garage, bin store, pot depository, bird roost and general junkery.

Perhaps not a terribly inspiring journey but one that is at least short and direct. However, at this time of year it is transformed into something magical. This is because the whole garage is suffused with the scent from the Philadelphus Belle Etoile that I sensibly planted a while ago. Maybe suffuse is too gentle a word- you are actually slapped around the sinuses by a wave of scent.It does not flower for very long (about three weeks) but, my goodness it is a powerful three weeks. The scent is a little bit fruity and bit winey but at the same time sweet and seductive: like sniffing the back of Aphrodite’s knees.

I have always loved Philadelphus: the first one I met was in the garden of a little house in which we lived in Camberwell around 1987. It was P. Virginal which is about the biggest and thuggiest member of the family. It can get to about 4m high and has lots of flowers. They lack the little splotch of cherry jam flavoured colour at the base of each flower but we can forgive them that small digression.

Other varieties that I know and love are P. Silver Showers which is very small so excellent in a pot or at the front of a border. Also P. Manteau d’Hermine which has double flowers.

Not all are good – there is one called P. coronarius Aureus. Somebody once thought they were fearfully clever and made a yellow leaved version of the common P. coronarius. It is very nasty mostly because the yellow detracts from the purity of the white flowers and also because, unsurprisingly, the foliage is easily burned in hot sun.

But the very best one was a Mexican variety called P. madrensis. I was given it by the Garden Museum as a thank you for running an auction. The flowers were tiny but packed as much punch as a billiard ball in a sock. I had one in my pocket for a couple of days and even when reduced to a bedraggled scrap of petal it still had scent. A sensational plant: sadly I was going away so could not take it with me so it was probably filched by a member of the board of trustees and is now adorning somebody’s garden.

I hope they are enjoying it.

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Big guns

Nobody who possesses even the littlest sense of adventure can resist a really big plant.

It brings out the intrepid explorer in all of us: the idea of hacking our way through impenetrable jungle wielding a sharp machete, a jaunty neckerchief loosely knotted around the neck and a devil-may-care attitude to biting animals and all manner of tropical diseases.

I have been to the jungle. It was many years ago and I travelled along the Bolivian tributaries of the Amazon for about four days. We were on a very slow boat and slept upon a huge pile of sacks each one containing a lot of bottled beer. It was rather a soothing journey – we ate grilled Piranha (which tastes absolutely disgusting and is a bit short on flesh and big on bone: rather like eating a flyweight boxer) and plantain for breakfast and watched the jungle glide past. The beer stock diminished and we smoked a lot of very nasty cigarettes (there was a brand called Derby* which was probably made from old dust and horsehair). We did get off the boat occasionally but could not get far as the vegetation was far too dense.

Obviously our machetes were too blunt.

My point in dragging this up so many years after the event is to mostly talk about Gunnera. I met this first when I was a child and was captivated by the idea that you could hide underneath the leaves of a plant – like an elf or a camouflaged soldier. All other plants that I had met up to that point were a bit dull. Either you ate them or grown-ups fiddled around with them. Trees were different, they could be climbed, but most other plants were not worth the bother.

Gunnera is exciting still if you have room for it by a pond or somewhere damp. It is disappointingly uncomfortable to hide under, however, as the leaves are studded with spikes very similar to those bits of pavement adapted to stop people sleeping too close to buildings. I have never slept on a pavement although I have passed a couple of nights on a park bench near the Savoy. But that is another story. The flower is quite strange looking consisting of a series of things that look like vitamin capsules: green ends with orange beady things. An odd plant but fun to have around and not at all suitable for smaller gardens.

Other big leaved plants include Cardoons, Inula magnifica, Rhubarb, Colocasias and Castor oil plants. And many others.


* The South Americans quite like a British name. There was a brand of shirt available in markets called “Eton Aristocrat”.

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Russian around..

When it comes to botanical Latin it sometimes helps to have a mnemonic .

I love that word. It has such a silly spelling. I don’t believe that any other language but English would  decide that that sort of alphabetical juxtapositioning was a good idea. I also love it because I am a sucker for Animal from the Muppets and the Mnamana song is one of my Desert  Island Definites. The pink cows are pretty hot too.

Anyway, that is not really the point. I wanted to skitter on briefly about this plant: Eleagnus angustifolia Quicksilver, aka the Russian Olive.

There are other Eleagnus but they are mostly a bit lumpy and evergreen. This one is silvery and rather elegant in comparison but there is one overwhelming reason why you should plant this shrub and that is the scent. You see those unassuming browny yellow flowers? some of you will remember a ice lolly from the Seventies called a Lord Toffingham. It was banana flavoured with a toffee centre and was the same colour as these flowers. Those of you with a less charitable mien would be reminded of an unfortunate stain.

They may be slightly timorous flowers but there are lots of them each pumping out much more than its ration in scent. It is one of those plants that can chuck a whiff clear across a decent sized garden. It is flowery (but not cloying), citrusy (but not tart) and seductive (but not slutty).

Like inhaling the slipstream of a butterfly.

It has good leaves too: a sort of dusty silver. It grows very fast indeed to about 4m x 4m so excellent for barriers and big hedges. Works very well in coastal gardens and on rubbish soil. However, beware of the straight E.angustifolia as it has spiny branches and suckers around with the joyful lack of responsibility that is usually only found in the more dissolute sorts of bunny rabbit.

The mnemonic I use for Eleagnus is Auntie Agnes.

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Scramblin’ man..

“ What a very pretty climber that is “ remarked the innocent “look at its elegant heart shaped leaves, as glossy as if the fairies had just finished buffing them up with Mr Sheen. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have it in our garden?”

“Huh” said the cynic in reply “ Do you know nothing? That is the noxious, invasive and clinging bindweed. You would be very, very foolish to let that in your garden.”

Interestingly both Innocent and Cynic are wrong.

And they are also right.

Innocent is right to say that it is a very pretty climber and Cynic is right to say that it is a noxious weed. Innocent is wrong to wish it as a garden feature and Cynic is wrong to say that it is bindweed.

It is, as I am sure you have all already realised, Bryony. There are two sorts , white bryony (Bryonia dioica) and black bryony (Tamus communis). It would be nice to think that weeds follow the same rules as witches and the white Bryony manifested itself as a force for good but that would be silly.

Both are equally evil. It is like a nightmare version of Sleeping Beauty where even the cute fairies have hearts as pure as swamp water.

They are beefier that bindweed with stems that can be thicker than a felt tip marker: a heftiness which can weigh down and snap smaller shrubs and herbaceous plants.

White bryony  is a member of the cucumber family while Black bryony is a yam. I very much doubt that such well respected and established vegetables are willing to acknowledge their dissolute and ill mannered cousins.

Both plants are climbers that can grow 3m or more in a season, to distinguish between the two, white bryony has five-lobed leaves, larger flowers and tendrils, whereas black bryony has heart-shaped leaves, tiny flowers and no tendrils (see above).

Both plants grow from a tuber which can grow to a prodigious size – some weigh several kilo grammes – however, being a cunning plant without honour it tends to grow in tucked away places (under hedges is a favourite) where it is difficult to get at the source of the problem.

Like a fat ogre cackling in a cave.

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Mumbling along..

Many years ago, when we first started making a garden here and I was inexperienced with ways of the countryside, I fell in love with cow parsley.

Who can blame me? it is seductive and alluring. It is waspish in figure and bosomy of flower. It sways and shimmers in the sunshine. It reminds me of cattle ambling through meadows, laughing girls on bicycles, the first choc ice (or Magnum for those too young to remember the clumsy pleasures of eating a choc ice) and the warbling of birds. To me it has always meant the beginning of summer and it always flowers during the Chelsea Flower Show which is where I am at the moment. To be more accurate I am lying on my bed in the hotel with my trousers off and the gentle breeze playing across my tired feet.

But that may be slightly more information than you need.

Anyway the point is that having seen it frolicking around in the wild I rather wanted it to grow around my house. I have a tree belt that runs alongside the drive so I started there simply by picking some when it had flowered and chucking the seed around.

I only did it once but now, fifteen odd years later, it has spread all the way down and sparkles in the early sunshine. I will strim it later in the summer and that will be the only necessary maintenance.

However, and this follows on from last week’s blog about wild garlic, in the wrong place it can be a right pain in the proverbial. I had an idea that it might be fun to have it in the garden as well as in the wilds. This was a grave error of judgement as I am still weeding the little blighters.

Never try this at home.

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Garlic tales

Wild garlic, couldn’t drag me away.

Which is what the Rolling Stones might have sung had they been having a bit of an off day or if they were more obsessed with woodland flora than they were about hell raising.
I was at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival last week which was a glorious triumph (in spite of the tent rattling wind and the fact that I lost my voice which is more than slightly inconvenient if one’s reason for being there is to talk).

We allowed cooks in for the first time to share the theatre with Gardeners which was jolly. They were generally well behaved and quite house trained. There was a lot of talk about wild garlic as , along with the asparagus for which the region is well known, it was in season and there was a lot of whizzing and blitzing going on as handfuls of the stuff were turned into pesto.

It is a very handsome plant with little white flowers, elegant stems and these wide flat onion scented leaves. A wood carpeted with the stuff us a glorious sight but, and here is the rub, it is only beautiful out there in the wild yonder: you sure as hell don’t want it in your garden as, as soon as it jumps the garden fence it becomes a pretty rampant weed.
The photograph above shows wild garlic tottering down a slope towards a set of rather fine steps at Borde Hill Garden in Sussex. They are battling against the invasion by mulching and covering the ground in landscape fabric.

Some foraging is best done further away from home.

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Slow lovin’

Today I took the slow train.

There are a number of mildly confusing options when taking a train to London from Milton Keynes. Don’t worry, I am not about to blossom into one of those very dull middle aged men who think that a detailed resume of their journey (including clever short cuts and anecdotes about how appallingly other people drive) is the dinner party equivalent of a nail biter.

You can go by Virgin train in which case you sit in a rocket shaped train which zooms into London in just over half an hour. You stop nowhere and see nothing and, if you are me, emerge feeling very slightly nauseous. Alternatively you can take the London Midland version that will stop a few times and has less comfortable seats.

Or, and this is what I chose on this occasion, you can take the slow train that takes an hour and shuffles through stations that, in spite of their proximity to London, seem rather quaint and rural. Berkhamstead, for example, has a ruined castle. Tring has a lovely name (although, as with so many of these little stations, it has been defaced by the imposition of a sort of multi storey car park made of Meccano to accommodate the commuters). Even Watford Junction is quite charming. Quite.

There are also grazing cattle, skipping lambs, rolling pastures, green and leafy embankments, blossoming hedges and all those other things that you never see when on the fast train. I know that I am a major offender and am always doing something screen related rather than staring out of the window (these blogs do not write themselves you know and somebody has to keep an eye on Twitter) but it is nice sometimes not to rush: to switch off and watch the countryside languidly pass.

No wonder people wire poems about train journeys: this is John Betjeman

Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium – rural Middlesex again.

Well cut Windsmoor flapping lightly,
Jacqmar scarf of mauve and green
Hiding hair which, Friday nightly,
Delicately drowns in Drene;
Fair Elaine the bobby-soxer,
Fresh-complexioned with Innoxa,
Gains the garden – father’s hobby -
Hangs her Windsmoor in the lobby,
Settles down to sandwich supper and the television screen.

Gentle Brent, I used to know you
Wandering Wembley-wards at will,
Now what change your waters show you
In the meadowlands you fill!
Recollect the elm-trees misty
And the footpaths climbing twisty
Under cedar-shaded palings,
Low laburnum-leaned-on railings
Out of Northolt on and upward to the heights of Harrow hill.

Parish of enormous hayfields
Perivale stood all alone,
And from Greenford scent of mayfields
Most enticingly was blown
Over market gardens tidy,
Taverns for the bona fide,
Cockney singers, cockney shooters,
Murray Poshes, Lupin Pooters,
Long in Kensal Green and Highgate silent under soot and stone.

The photograph is irrelevant but pretty.



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