Friday, July 25, 2014

The box of delights

For the past few weeks, bulb catalogues have been landing on the doormat. Thoughts of next spring piling up, whilst we endure a sticky heatwave. I flick through the catalogues and my palms get itchy as I mentally heap variety upon variety of tulip, daffodil and crocus into a big box to be sent to me.
But wait.
Slow down.
I’d like to take five minutes to remind myself of muttered truths last year as I opened the box of delights. Or, to be more truthful, boxes of delights.
Firstly, a small reminder that I’ve tried to grow the gorgeous, flouncing tulip ‘Rococo’ three times now. I want it. It’s red and green and yellow and reminds me of something precious in my childhood which I can’t quite remember, but whose colours swirled in my mind. I so want to grow it. Yet it spurns me, sending up feeble, twisted leaves that wither and die before a bud can open. before my memory can be nudged towards recognising the precious thing it so reminds me of.
Secondly, just stick to a simple colour scheme. My plans of different colour schemes in different pots in different parts of the garden failed this year. I had images of ‘Cairo’, ‘Bruine Wimpel’ and ‘Abu Hassan’ making sophisticated statements on the patio. ‘Angelique’ and ‘Spring Green’ were to mix with ‘Groenland’ to give a pretty pink welcome by the front door. But a toddler keen to ‘help’ ensured that pinks mixed with bronzes to achieve… Well, I’m not entirely sure exactly what it did achieve. So, this year, just a range of colours that all blend easily, so that even my enthusiastic helper can cultivate a charismatic, coordinated container.
IMG_5569 One final stern word to myself. Make your order – fling virtual bulbs with wild abandon into the electronic shopping basket. Then stop. Take a cyber pen, and cross out not one quarter, not one half, but three quarters of the order. You’ll still have plenty, but instead of being boxes of regret and despair as you wonder how you’ll ever shoe-horn all those expensive bulbs  into an over-full garden, you’ll be able to enjoy uncovering the jewels within your small, but joyous, box of delights.tulip
Nah, you’re right – it’ll never work…

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Of Rhubarb and Roses – a very late review

Of Rhubarb and Roses’ – The Telegraph Book of the Garden


Portraying a history of garden fashions through the years, edited by Tim Richardson.

This book came out an absolute age ago now, and I can only apologise for the delay in this review, but perhaps I’ll start a second rush at the bookstalls…

I was going to describe this book as a social history, but then checked myself – this is the Telegraph, after all. The working class get an occasional mention, such as when one old gent was acquitted of bodily harm after a shooting at an allotment. No, if you want to get an idea of what the working classes gardens were/are like, I suggest you read ‘The gardens of the British Working Class’ by Margaret Willes.

No, the Telegraph gardening column is frequently not for those without half an acre or more. Even the first article suggests that a first time buyer will have a garden large enough to accommodate beds for flowers and veg, room for a greenhouse, as well as a reasonable-sized lawn. Our first house did have a garden, within which you could, just about, swing a cat but only a reasonably tolerant one who didn’t mind a few blows around the head as he got struck by the fence panels on each gyration. I was particularly amused by Bunny Guinness’ 2002 article on accommodating children in a garden. I consider that we’re lucky enough to have room for a small willow wigwam as a den. Bunny suggests a range of activities and areas to keep children amused – a 14’ sunken trampoline, paddling ponds (plural, note), and a woodland play area which includes zip wires and hammocks. Oh, and two brief sentences about smaller gardens.

The topic of orchards comes around regularly – long time columnist Fred Whitsey returns repeatedly to the orchard he’s planning in his mind. In 1973, he was talking about medlars, quinces and mulberries. Mark Diacono brings up mulberries again, in 2011. Nothing new under the sun… Joy Larkom introduces us to oriental vegetables and cut-and-come-again salad in 1988, for this to be repeated ad nauseum by others. A lot of the articles on gardening are the standard stuff – there’s only so many ways to talk about pruning, digging and so on.

The range of writers over the years is a delight. Denis Wood and Fred Whitsey lasted quite some time. The earliest contribution included in the compilation appears to be from HH Thomas in 1938, talking about window-boxes – I love the reference to Funkias  - the former (and much more fun) name of Hostas. An article by Bill Deedes reminded me that he had been a politician, and taught me that he was quite handy with a scythe. Many writers have their own theme running through each contribution included in the book – Noel Kingsbury and the development of the new perennial movement, Dan Pearson and native planting, and Roy Strong and his habit of mentioning Highgrove and Prince Charles.  Actually, that is a bit harsh – to my surprise, he only mentions them once, and I really enjoyed his article on embroidery and its relationship to parterres and knot gardens. The obligatory Christopher Lloyd appears only once, I believe. It was interesting to read in one of Kingsbury’s articles that Germany is busy making new public parks that are maintained by the local council. We, on the other hand, close parks, cut down on maintenance and expect volunteers to do the jobs of the experienced park gardeners. What does Roy Lancaster think of that, I wonder? We don’t know, but we are told about his beginnings in an article by Fionnuala McHugh in 1991.

Women writers gradually encroached into the male-dominated environment. Vita Sackville-West made early appearances in the 1960s, and Constance Spry (florist) in 1954. More recently, women contributors have flourished, with regulars such as Sarah Raven (talking about cutting flowers – who’d have thought? And her with a seed shop…), and Beth Chatto, who discusses the importance of getting the plants right for the place. Germaine Greer’s writing was a delight, including her contemplation on snails. The Letters section included a series of correspondence to the RHS in 1967, after a comment by Lord Aberconwy (at the time president of the RHS) about the lack of women on the RHS council being “this little storm in ladies’ teacups”. The first woman was elected to the council in 1968 – Frances Perry.

As well as lords, there is the odd smattering of Dukes particularly in relation to grape exhibiting. In 1993 and again in 2010, articles report on the rivalry between the Dukes of Devonshire and Marlborough and their Muscat grapes. With a good 10 months hard work described by Sarah Raven to get grapes worthy of exhibiting, it’s rather disappointing that the dukes get all the accolades at the shows, and not their hard-working and skilled gardeners. It’s nice to see that the untitled Ms Walshaw beat the dukes on occasion.

Some of the most interesting articles to me are those either interviewing or giving a history of gardeners and designers. Elspeth Thompson writes of  an interview with Rosemary Verey in 1995. Verey describes herself  as a talented amateur. A talented amateur with sufficient money and impeccable connections, it has to be said – the second mention of Prince Charles in the book. I enjoyed Verey imagining she had a “small” garden. Her small garden would still be big enough to have parterres, as well as a separate vegetable plot. Talking of impeccable connections,   the obituary of Peter Coats, “social bachelor”, was a delight- educated at Eton, weekending with aristocracy, and a prolific name-dropper. Possibly my favourite article in the book was Maureen Cleave’s 1994 interview with Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe. I’d heard of Jellicoe, vaguely, and it was fascinating to read of his work as a landscape architect. Here was a man who outlived his 50 year plans that he had worked out for the sites he had designed. I was also delighted to discover that the original guerrilla gardener, Ellen Willmott, was also a shoplifter (allegedly) saved from prosecution by the intervention of the Queen.

Of course, there are articles on gardening and on plants, but many of these don’t stay in the mind so clearly – the cyclical nature of gardening means that we’ve probably read similar before. Growing asparagus pops up almost as frequently as the spears themselves do. Composting is a perennial favourite topic. Perhaps predictably, the use of chemical control of pests and diseases gradually ebbs as the years pass. The popularity of specific plants waxes and wanes. The rise of the new perennial movement is charted. And the bad-tempered gardener, Anne Wareham, carves a niche for herself as a sort of ‘anti-gardener’. I’d imagine that some of her articles make some Telegraph readers get cheerily grumpy about her views. Finally, Arabella Sock may be pleased and amused to hear that Brian Harvey had an article published, on meeting the needs of cats in the garden. Sadly, not *that* Brian Harvey, as the article was published in 1976, probably before the young man had been born, never mind run over his own head with his car or been mooted as the next presenter of Gardeners’ World.

This book was a delight to read, despite some authors occasionally causing my teeth to clench with their assumptions on the reader’s garden size and disposable income. Still, this is the Telegraph. Perhaps it’s a consequence of having a toddler, but the short articles made the book an easy and enjoyable read, and some of the nuggets within have made me want to seek out more. What more could you ask for from an anthology?

Note: I was kindly given this book to review by the publisher. This has not affected my views, which are entirely my own.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Wordless Wednesday


Monday, June 23, 2014

Childhood regression

I did go to the garden centre with the plan of getting some choice, tasteful alpines for the slate containers in the front garden.

That was the plan.

Somewhere along the way, this got overtaken by the desire for some kitsch 1970s planting. The multi-coloured Alyssum sort of infiltrated the shopping basket, along with some Nemesia. The shocking pink carnation is a survivor from a previous planting, so I must have form for '70s throwbacks.

Still, it'll go rather nicely with the candytuft I've sprinkled around out there. All I need now are a straw donkey, a pineapple ice-cube holder, some cheese and pineapple, and a nice bit of Demis Roussos on the record player.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Solstice songs go silent

Summer Solstice. Midsummer. The longest day.*

Many people feel a twinge (or more) of sadness on this day, as the year turns and we start to head towards shorter days, and slide inevitably towards winter.

 I have mixed feelings. My birthday is the longest day, so it's always something to look forward to. Also, the slowly shortening days do not concern me too much - after all, the evenings are still to get warmer, and there's time enough to sit out in the garden and admire the evening sun through the Stipa. Shorter days but even into September an evening of gardening, or reading a book outside, is possible. And the primarily pagan celebrations at this time of year make the heart pound with excitement - dragons, drums and green men may not necessarily be accurate, but they make a stirring spectacle.

For me, the sadness of this day is signified by the gradual disappearance of the song of the blackbird. A few weeks ago people stopped complaining about the dawn chorus waking them up, but blackbirds sang quietly on. Around now, I notice that their melodies are starting to thin out. Soon, without me realising, I will have heard the last blackbird song of the year. And that is what makes me sad.

And then, one quiet morning in February, I'll hear a sound that makes my heart race a little bit, and makes the day seem just a little bit better. The first blackbird song of the year. If long, dark nights have to come before, then it is worth the melancholy, to hear that first melody.


*Yes, pedants, I know that these may well fall on different days, but I'm talking about feelings, not facts.

Photos from 2014 Chester Midsummer Watch Parade - well worth a look if you're near Chester at Midsummer.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A belated Show of Hands

VP over at Veg Plotting organised an online event for the Chelsea Fringe, called 'Show of Hands'. You can see the final contributions here. Due to a combination of forgetfulness, never having a camera at the right time, and then finally, prolonged problems with our broadband, I missed the chance to contribute.

Nevertheless, I thought I'd post our contribution here.

We have been digging for buried treasure, but not doubloons, gems or bullion.


There aren't many things more exciting than unearthing potatoes.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Feelers out, what’s about?

Firstly, if you despise people who allow their toddlers to watch TV, please stop reading now.IMG_2774

So, that might leave one or two of you. If you have a toddler, or have idly flicked through the channels and come across CBeebies recently, you cannot possibly have failed to have seen a trailer for something called Minibeast Adventure with Jess. It’s a programme for children about wildlife. But, instead of featuring lions, tigers, elephants and bears, it contains animals that your child actually can meet on a face-to-face basis in their own environment, whether that environment is rolling acres, or a small back yard; and as such, I love it. Jess is a zoologist, is very enthusiastic, and her love and knowledge of the seemingly inconsequential creatures we choose to ignore/avoid/scream about/squash is evident. Anyone who can encourage a small child to get excited about a centipede is alright by me.

IMG_3275 

Now, I’ve always encouraged Thomas to peek at the little creatures who live in his surroundings, and I’m lucky that with a background in zoology I’ve probably got a reasonable knowledge of the critters that lurk in our garden. He loves me to pick up pots in the garden so he can peer at the beetles, woodlice, millipedes, worms, slugs and snails beneath. But I haven’t always been that keen to get to know some of them too personally. However, there’s nothing more encouraging to get you up close and personal to a (admittedly only medium-sized) house spider than the knowledge that if you show fear in front of your toddler, one of two things could happen, or possibly both:

- said toddler decides that minibeasts such as spiders are scary, horrible, and not worth sharing the world with, or…

- deciding that, as he gets older, it would be great fun to chase mummy around with a gargantuan house spider scrabbling in his hands.

I  know which one is worse, and surprisingly, it’s not the thought of a hairy spider being thrown at me. A child without a love and understanding of the small creatures around him won’t make a connection to the environment and its precarious web of life.IMAG0420

It’s easy to care about a panda (though I have my reservations about them, but that’s another topic). It’s not so easy to love a slug. A few holes in a Hosta are nowadays acceptable sacrifices in order to see a child enthralled by animals he can encounter in his own domain. If this programme has encouraged a few more parents to get on their knees and wonder at a woodlouse with their child, then Jess, I salute you.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Flowery Friday


Saturday, January 11, 2014

I don't think I could every truly trust...

...someone who doesn't feel a little bit of childlike wonder when they see a rainbow.