The sun has gone, to bed and so must I….

The National Gardens Scheme launched its Yellow Book last week at a star studded beano in the Festival Hall.

For the last few years I have attended (partly, but not exclusively, because they have good canapés and excellent cake) and had a very jolly time. This year, however, I had to go and see a client about a lake which was still fun but also much more profitable.

The form is that the president – my excellent friend Joe Swift – stands up and chunters on a bit then George Plumptre thanks people. All very civilised but beneath the surface of all this civility lurks a powerful thing. The National Gardens Scheme raised over £2.6million last year through the simple expedient of opening gardens to the public and flogging them plants and slices of cake. It is a pretty simple model which gives great pleasure to everybody – the garden owners get to show off their work, the visitors get to have a good nose around gathering inspiration (and calories) and some charities get a pretty hefty injection of funds.

What a marvellous thing: in celebration of this the aforementioned president, Cleve west and I have made a silly film to promote the endeavour.

I also have other, less happy, news: this is the last blog that I will write for the good people at Crocus. It is number 210 so the end of a fairly substantial run which I have thoroughly enjoyed. Thank you to you, the readership, for indulging my whims and irrelevant rambles off into territories only very tenuously connected to gardens.

However, life changes (thank goodness) and we move ever onwards. The era of the blog is fading, I fear, as attention is diverted to other things. I have been blogging in various places for about ten years and there are now far too many blogs (many of them hogwash) and it is impossible to keep up: there are not enough hours in the day. Maybe the way forward is, ironically, to write a book of blogs as I think that printed books will probably last longer than anything. Especially if we have some sort of world cataclysm and there is no more electricity in which case all those clever things we do online will be as useful as a barrel of pocket fluff.

We are now in the age of video so I shall return to the Crocus website in glorious (and slightly scary) technicolour banging on about something or other. I thought that, as I am just about to embark on a new garden, it might be interesting to document the various processes, shenanigans, triumphs and mistakes. I will also keep my other blog rolling on my newly polished and shiny website, you can find it here.

Until then…. So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu
Adieu, adieu, to yieu and yieu and yieu

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Le double-u

The art of training fruit trees is not new. Some bright spark many centuries ago hit upon the idea that you could get more fruit at a more accessible level if you did a bit of judicious pruning.

The art of pruning is basically manipulating the urges and desires of a plant for our own ends and fortunately most trees are a bit dimmer than most people so this tends to work well. Nature, however, is much more persistent than people so will always win in the end. I  am talking about this because I have just spent a few days in Paris and, in the short intervals between meals, we did a lot of wandering around. One of our wanders took us to the rather charming gardens of the Hotel de Coulanges in the Marais. As I am sure you are aware Hotels are not necessarily hotels in Paris (this is another example, if more examples were needed, of the generally endearing contrariness of the French). The origin of the word in this context is as a rather grand townhouse, detached from its neighbours and built around a garden. There is an English equivalent which is the word inn: before there were public inns and jovial innkeepers a gentleman’s residence in town was known as an inn. Perhaps, when it comes to contrariness in language, we are on the same level with our Gallic chums. The point is, however, that these little glimpses of secret courtyards and grand parterres that you get while wandering round Paris make the whole experience even more interesting.

Sorry, I am being distracted by Anglo-French indiosyncracies when I should be concentrating on the pruning of fruit. In particular the double U cordons that had recently been planted in the gardens of said Hotel Coulanges. This particular shape of tree is, I have always considered, one of the more advanced forms. It is elegant and efficient.

Which is a state to which we should all aspire.

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Poly put the kettle on…

This is the flower bed just outside the entrance to South Mimms service station just off the M25.

It is not a known place of horticultural pilgrimage which is not too surprising given the evidence – although there is a research paper out there that proves that the hedges around the car parks provide an enviable habitat for brown rats.

I took the photograph so that I could counter on a bit about Polyanthus. They are about the longest flowering plant available and go on for ages with a particular spurt in the early spring. They are descended from our native primrose but aesthetically it has come a long way. Gone is the pale buttery innocence of the woodland margins and instead the flowers have become bigger and brasher. It is as if you went to sleep with Doris Day and woke up with Gene Simmons from KISS.

They  have been around for a while – they were the most popular ornamental plant through the 19th Century – but keep getting more and more outrageous. They are the epitome of “a bit of colour” and cheer up gardens, streets and window boxes all over this land. They are pretty simple to look after and, although usually used as disposable bedding, they will keep going for years. Divide congested clumps in about October.

Among other faintly interesting Polyanthus facts – there was a corvette in the Second World War called HMS Polyanthus which served as a convoy escort in the Atlantic. It was sunk in 1943 by a U-Boat. The one surviving member of the crew was picked up by another ship bt was drowned a few days later when that ship too was also sunk. Pretty hard cheese I would say.

A quick tip, If you are going to plant polyanthus then I suggest that you plant them a bit closer together than those illustrated.


* Oddly I have also discovered another horticultural connection to South Mimms. It is built of the site of a nursery/garden centre called Bignell and Cutbush. Cutbush’s nurseries exhibited topiary at the very first Chelsea Flower Show in 1913. His catchphrase was Cutbush’s Cut Bushes.
The site was also near a notorious transport cafe called the Beacon which was the go to place in that part of Middlesex if you were after knock-off goods and cheap prostitutes.

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Dropping in

I have a new garden. This is a picture of some old bloke digging in it and waving his nettles around.

Regular readers of this blog will know that last august we sold our garden (and house) of twenty five years and have been hanging around a small damp cottage ever since while a new house was made ready for us, some details are here. This involved buying one and now it is full of (very charming) builders who have removed almost all the existing walls and added new ones. All very exciting.

However, a very significant thing happened yesterday. We went over there and actually planted something. The sum total of my gardening up to that point was to run riot with a chainsaw cutting down elders and making a badass bonfire of all the combustible rubbish I found lying around.* The whole place has been about destruction for the past two months so it was nice to put something back.

We planted snowdrops. They were closely related to the hundreds that we planted in our previous garden. My parents-in-law have an old walled garden backing onto a wood: over many, many generations consecutive gardeners have thrown rubbish over the wall onto a big pile. This practice stopped about 45 years ago when the woods were sold off and since then it has become home to a load of rabbits who frolic happily and occasionally dig up old clay pipes and empty fish paste jars. It is also home to a forest of snowdrops which must, one day, have been chucked over the wall. The rabbits ignore them and they have spread like an avalanche down the slope.

We dug up some clumps and replanted them in the new garden – it is one of the simplest bits of gardening you can do and now is the time to do it. It was a very lovely moment and one which I will probably remember every year when I see them flower until my mind and memory finally fail.

I made a film about this process last year which, even though I say it myself, was quite good.

You can see it here.



*including a black fibre-optic Christmas tree that had got mixed up with everything and which burned with such black smoked intensity that it looked as if I had set fire to a small oil rig.


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Plant hunting in the 19th century was not an easy occupation.

We know that because the discovery of some of our most popular plants is often linked to tales of derring do, disasters, daring and the occasional death. David Douglas fell into a bull pit in Hawaii, William Lobb caught syphilis in South America, William Forrest was pursued by murderous Tibetan Lamas and Joseph Hooker (who had extraordinary eyebrows) was imprisoned by the Dewan of Sikkim.

The trouble did not end there as it must also have been quite hard back here at home. Let me give you a for instance: a frigate docks at, say, Portsmouth and a packing case is offloaded and sent on to the head gardener at Such and such Manor. It is the latest collection of specimens collected by the plant hunters that have been commissioned by his employer, Lord Doodly-Doo. Inside this packing case is a collection of seeds, roots, cuttings and lord knows what else: some of the seeds will probably be mouldy, there may be interesting insects with stingy bits. William Lobb lost a whole shipment to ant damage and some other poor chap lost a years work when it fell out of his canoe.

The gardener’s immediate task is to grow the things.

The problem  is that, unlike today when we can just check the RHS website to find out exactly what sort of conditions they like, the gardener in question would not have been absolutely sure how to do this efficiently. Do you freeze the seed first? How deep should it be? If it came from a sunny hillside in Yunnan then how much dreary English weather can we get away with? How wet is wet? How accurate are these notes? Should we put it in a greenhouse? Will it survive outside?

Must have been a constant problem as, if somebody has bothered to tramp all over the temperate valleys and freezing hills of China searching  for plants, then you don’t want to be slapdash and just bung it in whichever border might have a gap.

I mention this because many of you will be emerging from horticultural hibernation and thinking about seeds and spring and suchlike. We have it so easy…..

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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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