Magnolian families

The magnolia is one of our most popular garden shrubs.  Magnolia stellata is visible in front gardens across the country – I planted one for my mother a few years ago – and the pink tinged goblet flowers of Magnolia soulangeana are one of the sure fire signs of approaching summer.

However, nobody can really say reliably when they will flower as it depends so much on the weather. I remember one particular Magnolia which was on the school run when my children were small. One day it was covered in flowers backlit by a clear and sparkling blue sky, the next day all those proud petals had turned to brown mush because of a sharp late frost. Life, and particularly nature, can be so unreliable.

And cruel.

This year the RHS – in collaboration with the Great Gardens of Cornwall – is have the magnolian (not sure if that is a real word but I like its style) equivalent of the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch. What they are asking is for people to note when Magnolia campbellii opens so that they can have an idea of flowering times all across the country – citizen science at work.

This particular Magnolia is a prince with flowers as big as small sombreros (about 30cm across) with languid petals and a pink as chirpy as a baby’s earlobe.

So, if you have (or know the location of) a M.campbellii then click here and fill in the very simple form. If you are in parts of Cornwall you may already be too late.

If you are in Sussex then go frequently to Borde Hill Gardens for some seriously good magnolias, there will be at least one flowering until the summer.


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Kicking against the pricks

I don’t know much about cacti.

Although, like a large percentage of people, the first plant I owned was a cactus. I cannot remember where it came from but it sat, happily gathering dust, on my bedroom windowsill and became cover for toy soldiers or a lookout post for some animal shaped pencil erasers for which there was a craze at one point in my childhood. The second plant I owned was a Venus fly trap which died from being force fed a gargantuan bluebottle.

The cactus eventually shrivelled and died through benign neglect. They are remarkably undemanding but do require protection from frost and occasional watering. Even though I know nothing I do like a large cactus as they are pleasantly dangerous and architectural: like the lovechild of a hedgehog and Norman Foster. My friend Nigel Colborn calls the big round ones, Mother-in-law’s pouffes: which has to be pretty politically incorrect on many grounds – he also calls Salvia turkestanica “Housemaid’s armpit” because of the peculiar smell.

Almost every cactus can only be found growing in the Americas (except for Rhipsalis baccifera which appears in Africa, apparently brought over by migrating birds . They must have been either very speedy birds or very constipated) where they are used for building, as living fences, as a source of psychotropic drugs and for feeding livestock.

Presumably after the spines have been removed.

Basically most cacti are spiny things that hang around windowsills and greenhouses but they can surprise you by producing some rather intoxicating flowers if given the right conditions. They also produce edible fruit –  notably the prickly pear made famous by Baloo in the Jungle Book*. If you want to see the cactus at its very best then Craig House Cacti have won a skipful of Gold Medals and will flog you a mean mammilaria.

I made a film about cacti at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2010 – my hat looks very new.


* Now when you pick a pawpaw
Or a prickly pear
And you prick a raw paw
Next time beware
Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw
When you pick a pear
Try to use the claw
But you don’t need to use the claw
When you pick a pear of the big pawpaw

The bare necessities of life will come to you
They’ll come to you!

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All at ‘c’

Many years ago a friend and I spent about six months wandering around South America. We were very naive, just out of school and had very little money (I ran up an unauthorised overdraft in the days leading up to our departure by cashing as many fifty pound cheques as I could – my father was singularly unamused).

We saw some fascinating things, rode in some spectacularly dangerous trucks, met some exceptionally dubious characters (some of whom robbed us, others punched us and a few wanted to sleep with us**) and ate unfamiliar food. This included the feet of poultry, guinea pigs and Yuca which brings us, via a very cumbersome parabola, to the point of this blog as I have just seen a bed full of rather handsome Yuccas in a small park just off Exmouth Market (Clerkenwell).

This connection is slightly disingenuous: the more awake among my readership will have noticed the fact that the Yuccas in Clerkenwell are spelt with an extra ‘c’. They are two different plants with different purposes.

The South American single ‘c’d yuca is actually called Manihot esculenta and is also known as cassava from which comes tapioca (much despised by generations of schoolchildren). As I recall cooked yuca root is not the most exciting taste sensation  in the world – it tastes like a cross between an undercooked potato and some loft insulation- but it is a vitally important staple food in parts of the world (third only to rice and maize). It also makes excellent animal feed, laundry starch, biofuel, bread and a traditional (though mostly ineffective) cure for prostate cancer. Oh, and it contains cyanide which can be a bit troublesome if it is not prepared properly.

The other Yucca (with two ‘c’s) is not as useful. They are good for lighting fires and one variety (Y.eleata) was used to shampoo the luxuriant locks of Native Americans but the only things that eat them are some of the tougher caterpillars However, they are good to add a bit of exotica to gardens – Y.filamentosa has spectacular flower spikes and there are others, like the ones in the picture, which have an elegant variegation.

So. Remember if stuck on a desert island and you are granted one wish by a passing djinn then one ‘c’ is much more useful on every level than two ‘c’s.
**To an eighteen year old there are few things more terrifying than large woman who looked older than our mothers entreating us to go jiggy-jiggy with her because she “jiggy-jiggy muy bien”. Neither of us hung around long enough to find out whether this was just an empty boast or based on satisfied customer reviews.

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Shingling free: Part Two.

Shingle, or gravel if you prefer, is really important.

It is not just a rather inconvenient and uncomfortable alternative to sand on beaches – where it can never be comfortable to lie on for, no matter how thick your towel, there will always be a princess and the pea moment when the pebble will press to hard against your rib cage.

However, it is extraordinary useful stuff in our gardens- in paths, in gravel gardens, as mulch, for wide crunching drives, for drainage, to cover up a multitude of sins, as a burglar alarm, for alpines, to give bulk to concrete and for many other reasons. It is cheap and comes in a variety of sizes, shapes and colours.

I have two particular gravel based stories which I would like to share with you – I also realise that that statement makes me sound like a frightful bore and had I said that to you while sitting next to you at dinner you would immediately start drinking more heavily.

However, bear with me for a bit…. I remember getting some very tiny gravel from the River Tweed to fill the gaps between hedges in a knot garden. The individual stones were like polished beads in soft jelly bean shades of pink and green which changed colour when wet to something darker and more sub: one of my all time favourite gravels – the more I write this blog the sadder I sound).

The second gravel story happened many years ago. I had a client in South London (a large lady with small underwear : don’t ask) who wanted some hefty shingle to deter cats from scrabbling around as cats do. It was not that easy to find such things so I used my initiative. One crisp wintery day Land Rover, dog, some plastic sacks and I drove to Brighton, found a beach and started filling bags with pebbles. Today this would be rightly seen as environmental vandalism but then it was, at worst, petty larceny. Nobody stopped me, nobody objected although I was rather taken aback by the appearance of a naked man (bar a pair of sturdy brown walking shoes) who gave me an impish look as he passed.

In the end the dog had a lovely afternoon, I was well exercised and the client was happy.

And presumably the naked man was pleased to be noticed.

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Shingled out for special treatment. Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You should go if you get the chance.

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Embracing the void

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Here comes a chopper…

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

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

However, I do quite enjoy splitting logs.

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

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

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

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

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Mussin’ up my white tie…

Happy New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Do the hippy shake with all of your might…

Hip is one of those pleasantly multi faceted words.

Child bearing hips.

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

A Hip report – an acronym for Home Information Pack.

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

The hip of a roof.

Hippies in general.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Decking halls and harking heralds.

Christmas decorations are a great social divider.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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