Thursday, 27 November 2008


Haws - the fruit of Crataegus monogyna - 
a life-saver for birds, particularly migrant winter thrushes.

To all of you across the pond - a belated HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

My son arrived at our house yesterday in a towering rage, wheeling a bicycle with two flat tyres. One of the local farmers, it seems, was using a flail machine to cut his roadside hedges and as anyone - apart from my son - knows, whichever way a hawthorn twig lies, there will always be a spike pointing upwards. 

It would be unreasonable to resent the farmer for hedge cutting - a necessary chore to keep the growth dense, to size and stock-proof.  But does it have to be with those hideous and dangerous flail slashers?  And does it have to be now, when hedgerows are larders for wildlife?  

A juvenile blackbird enjoys ripening Amelanchier fruits in our garden.

Good farmers are careful and timely, overhauling their hedges and ditches with minimal damage. They avoid trimming in autumn, when wild fruits and seeds are so vital for sustaining birds, mammals and invertebrates; then, when they do cut, they manage the task with minimal intrusion.  But there are one or two bone-headed cretins who haven't a clue about conservation and worse, a few callous bastards who don't give a damn about wildlife, beauty or bicycle tyres. 

These idiots seem happy to smash and mangle verge-side shelter belts, injure hedgerow trees and, of course, wreck the hedges themselves.  One in my previous village would wait until the wild blackberries were ripe and luscious, and would then get out his vicious, dangerous, hideous flail slasher and bugger everything up, not only for those wanting blackberry and apple crumble for Sunday lunch, but also wrecking things for late butterflies, arriving migrant fieldfares and redwings, resident thrushes, wrens, tits (whoops, pardon missis, no double entendre intended)  voles and field mice - not to mention bees, hover flies and other invertebrates.

Since farmers receive more than £2billion in subsidies, allegedly for stewardship of the land, perhaps there should be more careful policing of just how that dosh gets spent.  Farmers who turn out to be crap at such essential husbandry should be trained, perhaps, or at the very least, educated.  One wonders, though, how much of that £2billion goes towards the next BMW, rather than on building up skylark numbers, making life easier for barn owls or encouraging verge-side cowslips.  

But enough ranting!  Stop it!  Stop it!!  Stoppit!!!

The bountiful summer of 2006, when berries of wild privet hung like  grapes.

No, what I really wanted to say was that the autumn berries seem to be holding out remarkably well this year.  We have cotoneasters still in full fig, lots of hollies burgeoning for the coming festivities, viburnums, hips, haws and so on.  Lots of colour, lots of joy!

I wondered how such bounty had come about, when spring was so vile and the past summer so wet.  In previous bad years, I seem to remember that yields were poorer but perhaps, since this is the second wet summer in a row, all the excessive growth of 2007 has resulted in more fruit. Plants have a remarkable ability to adjust their behaviour to prevailing conditions - even though they'd be pretty crap at scratching an itch! 

Purging buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, food plant of the 
brimstone butterfly, but also provider of food for autumn birds.

I was trawling through my picture library and discovered a batch of images shot on 21st November 2006, in a nature reserve on Thurlby Fen.  The summer had been an exceptionally warm and dry and the most familiar, showy fruits covered the scrubby vegetation in staggering profusion –  blackberries, rose hips, hawthorns, honeysuckle and startling scarlet bryony berries.  But there was also a rich band of tenors and basses, supporting these jazzy trebles. Cloudy grey dewberries – or were they dewy grey cloudberries? – dotted the knee-high undergrowth near the hedge bottoms and on the normally nondescript wild privets and purging buckthorns, black, gleaming berries hung like ripening grapes.  

The birds were treated to a sumptuous banquet, that winter, and I returned to the reserve dozens of times, feeling sure that such abundance would attract our handsomest winter migrant birds – the waxwings. But did I see one?  Did I heck!

As a PS - I don't know what pushed me into ranting about farmers at the top of this post.  I was inspired, indirectly, to write about the berries by this world famous  AWARD WINNING JOURNALIST designer and hatstand .  He usually ends his posts with a note on what he is listening to and what he was doing this time last year - hence my trawl of piccies from the past.

I listening, by the way, to our central heating boiler which is sounding distinctly odd.  Brewing up, I suspect, for its usual Yuletide malfunction.

Friday, 21 November 2008


Well, that's got the Garden Media Guild awards lunch out of the way.  What a bun fight!  It can't be healthy to have so many competitors crammed into one large room but everyone seemed to be in jolly form and it was lovely to see so many old faces - some even older than mine! 

Deepest gratitude to my gracious hosts, Garden World Images who tolerated me at their table. Thank you, thank you! 

The venue, the Royal Lancaster, was pretty much yer  bog standard big London hotel banquet room, but it distinguishes itself by having quite the ugliest crystal chandeliers ever devised.  These are buried in deep, rectangular, upside-down pits and are squat, non-sparkly and unbelievably heavy-looking - a perfect example of opulence overruling taste.  

The food was a tad chef-tastic but despite that, not bad.  For starters, the thing resembling a miniature Egyptian fez turned out to be tomato cheesecake, mounted on a mashed up McVitie's digestive biscuit garnished with asparagine slivvers.   I wondered whether the labour cost of splitting the hundreds of asparagus spears longitudinally cancelled the savings made on having to buy less of the stuff in the first place.  (Have you noticed how, within minutes of eating asparagus, your wee smells different?  It's the result of a sort of metabolic short cut. Miraculous, innit?  But as ever, I digress!)    Guinea fowl followed and then another mini-fez, identical in texture to the first, but a paler hue and blander flavour,  this time served with a small, moist, slightly glistening thing which the menu said was poached pear. 

The showmanship bit was handled deftly and wittily by the charming Andy McIndoe and the sound and visuals were good.  I suspect they used the superb Macintosh software known as Keynote, rather than the infinitely more clunky and user-hostile PowerPoint.  And the howler at the conclusion, when Michael Warren's portrait came on screen before he was named as recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, did not spoil things at all.  It was good to see his picture while his credentials were recited, and deeply satisfying to see such a deserving winner. Big congrats, Michael! 

The rest of the awards themselves held few surprises and a lot of very, very,  familiar names cropped up in the shortlists.  But two winners were such a thrill to see that I decided then and there, that my next blog post would fete them!

First, Newspaper of the Year.  This was not a big budget, high flying National Daily - though two were in the shortlist. No, it was the previously make-d0-and-mend, now shiny sparkly and revitalised GARDEN NEWS.   And no prize could be more richly deserved!  Times had been tough, for this horticulturally superb weekly.  The paper suffered a prolonged period of uncertainty, pinched budgets, minimal publicity and downright lack of support from its previous owners, EMAP, but now, with new proprietors, seems to be flourishing. Long may it continue, and to Editor Neil Pope, Gardening Editor Clare Foggett and all the team, huge, huge, heartfelt congratulations.  (And thank you, thank you for renewing my contract!)

I've left my other top, top fave award until last:  Jacques - Le Chapeau - A-S.  received a surprise award for top blog.  This is the man who inspired me to leap into the blogosphere with my own lame, faltering offerings.  He had nagged me to visit his blog for ages, but I never did - idle bastard that I am.  But one day, when Googling for something completely different, I stumbled on the Blackpitts blog and wasted the next hour or so, immersed in J A-S's outrageously funny, wicked, wonderful prose and longed to see more of his enchanting images.  Witty, wise, wicked - no wonder I was caught and held fluttering like Pieris brassicae in a cobweb.  So, James, if I had a hat as big as yours, I'd lift it high in your honour!  As it is, I have to be content to tug what old age, male pattern baldness and my barber have left me to serve as a forelock.

Blogger extraordinary - up a gum tree, as usual.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008


There's a deliciously bizarre exhibish of Chrysanthemums, just now, in the ritzy glasshouse at the RHS Garden, Wisley. 
Exploding fireworks - Japanese Chrysanthemums at Wisley

I went there last week to photograph the collection of Plectranthus - which is utterly fascinating - but the surprise show that utterly bowled me over was a staggeringly colourful display of potted chrysanthemums.  

Let's not call these big, jolly flowers 'naff' or 'crass' or 'garish' or 'loud' or 'jazzy.'  Tawdry, they most definitely aren't, but I could still see one or two of the more genteel class of Home Counties ladies wot lunch wincing a bit at the strength of the colours and shuddering with carefully suppressed disdain at the size, my dear, the sheer vulgar size of some of the blooms. To me, though, it was the perfect antidote to a dull November day - big flowers, bright colour, startling combinations.

The centrepiece, and by far the most interesting bit of the display, is taken up by what I assumed to be a group of classic Japanese varieties.  But was there a label anywhere?  No! Was there any interpretation?  No!  Did we know what the hell we were looking at? Well, I didn't. Indeed, some of the blooms were so bizarre and distinctive that I wondered whether they were chrysanthemums at all.  Some looked like elegantly shredded coconut; others like drowning spiders.  The ones which impressed me most were singles with huge, floppy ray florets which sagged and curled under their own weight.  I tried curator  Jim Gardiner's blog for more info, when I got home but his picture captions are strikingly uninformative!  I'm on the case, though, and will find out more when time permits.

I believe this variety is called 'Kokorozukasi' which might mean 'Sincerity'
- but I honestly don't know.  Pretty, though, isn't it?

I tried Googling, when I got home, and discovered that Japanese for 'chrysanthemum' is 'kiku.' Rather an easier word than our own, and less ambiguous than the American 'Mum.'  (I was given a plant, once, called a 'cushion Mum' but when I sat on it, it got squashed. I wonder if there's one called a Hockey Mum?)  China and Japan were both developing this genus long before its introduction into Europe, so it's hardly surprising that they've followed different lines.

British breeders of all plants tend to work very hard to make their varieties as ugly and unnatural as possible. The same cannot be said for the Japanese.  They certainly have their Frankensteins - there's very little natural about what I saw at Wisley - but they develop their cultivars in a completely different way.  The long, elegant petals of some - so frail that they need special supports, fixed just beneath the blooms - I thought were beautiful.  As they mature, the ray florets curl, like fur on a poodle.  Compared with the British chrysanthemums - solid, clumping, mops on sticks - their flowers spoke a language, commanded respect and awe.  They are clearly part of an ancient and revered lineage.

Adjacent to the big display, there's a trial going on, of late flowering chrysanthemum varieties which is well worth walking through and gives excellent ideas for what to grow at home - and what not to grow!  So if you're within a mile or two of the M25, in the next couple of weeks, get yourself over to Wisley.  It's a whisker south of the A3/M25 junction

Part of the chrysanthemum display in the Glasshouse at Wisley

The Plectranthus collection I mentioned is pretty amazing, too, but more of that anon. 

Monday, 10 November 2008


Raindrops on Chrysanthemum 'Innocence'

No sun, no moon, no joy, no deal!  Black skies, rain, rain, rain, gales, gloom, dark afternoons, dead plants, claggy ground, clammy dead leaves everywhere - and  it's all absolutely m-a-a-a-h-velous!   This wonderful time of decay, death and despair, made all the more poignant, this year by economic doom and dead bees. Ooooh, the 'carrion comfort!'  Delectable!  For anyone who likes Wagner, Ibsen and the poems of Wilfred Owen, November is the month.  So chuck your optimism into the foot locker, don a sack cloth, find Strauss's Four Last Songs on your iPod and contemplate death.  And a happy Liebestod to all!

Eerie light and a sudden stillness, after violent rain, tempted me to pull on the wellies and go into the garden a little while ago.  The brightly lit raindrops were a joy to behold, particularly where they caught the colours of the petals on which they hung.  The dahlias may be history but late chrysanthemums are still showing jolly colours, despite the earlier frosts.  Korean kinds do best for me and I particularly love the plummy pink button blooms of 'Mei-Kyo,' as well as all of its colour sports.  The single-flowered, spray types are top whack border plants, too, lasting well in the wet and shrugging off the frosts.   I was given the variety 'Innocence' after delivering a lecture at Reading, a couple of years ago, having been told that it was rescued from the brink by the NCCPG.    Whatever its history, I love it for the pearly pink, greenish-yellow centred daisy blossoms.

Lots of buds on the witch hazels, too, but not a bloom yet, whereas the scorpion vetch or crown vetch or punchily named Coronilla valentina ssp. glauca var. citrina (picture above) has come gloriously into flower.  The fragrance is complicated, just on the cusp between sweet and sickly, but the flower colour, against the glaucous foliage is sublime.  And now that flowering is properly under way, it will be in good colour until next August at the earliest.

Back to the NCCPG.  What a lot it has achieved, since its early days back in the 1970s!  But what a long way further it must go, now that technology has presented us with so many more opportunities for improved plant conservation.  'Eh?'  'Do what?' I hear you cry.    Well its obvious, innit?  The internet, an obsessive nature, computaphilia and extreme nerdiness  are the most vital keys to success in conserving all those plant varieties which nobody wants to grow anymore, but which we'd all be sad to see disappear.

There are gazillions of us planty folk out here,  who are vaguely computer literate, and who could all contribute to conservation, simply by keeping in touch and reporting on which threatened plants we've managed to kill, and which - despite our inept husbandry - are doing OK.  We need a central body, like the NCCPG - but with a much, much more open mind to new possibilities - to start allowing us amateurs to build up a whacking great database.

That way, we'd, we'd all be collection holders; that way, it would be easy to pinpoint exactly how every known cultivar is doing.  Those unfortunate varieties which are run down to the last few recorded locations - probably through every fault of their own, largely because they are likely to horrible or disease-ridden plants - would become candidates for Special Rescue Schemes, where volunteers would agree to allow them in their gardens, to propagate them and to find other volunteers willing to take on the progeny.  

Mind you, I can imagine some of the ugly ducklings which no on would want!  The rose 'Masquerade'  - who could possibly love flowers that look like blood and custard.  Rose 'Tequila Sunrise?'  - even worse - like a broken egg containing a  half-developed chick embryo. Snapdragons mutated so that the flowers won't snap - what's the point of those?  The border phlox 'Norah Leigh' which looks as though someone has been sick over it - that would have to go, along with any plant which has the variety name 'Harlequin.' 

But conservation is not about likes and dislikes.  It has to be holistic, and a modern, techno-based initiative would be an excellent way to take things forward.  The plant world deserves it, particularly as new introductions come so thick and fast, nowadays, only to last a season or two before being abandoned for more novelties.  So let's get on with it.

Finally, BIG thanks to those who commented on DEFRA.  The bee petition at  has been signed and details forwarded to as many of my friends as possible - well, to both of them!  If you haven't yet signed it, and you like honey - get online at once!  What?  Oh, of course you're already on line. 
Sorry, and bye bye!


Wednesday, 5 November 2008


Fishing quotas have not endeared DEFRA to British fishermen.  (Words on the van, photographed on the Norfolk Coast, read:  'DEFRA SUCK's but they ain't FISHERMAN'S FRIENDS.  (Non Brits might want to know that 'Fisherman's Friends' are a brand of cough candy.  This has nothing to do with physical expressions of affection.)

First, hurrah for Obamaramarama, my out and out hero and glam noo leader (elect) of the free world! Huzzah and Gadzooks for a great geezer.  A happy piece of news to wake up to today.

But apart from that, I'm fuming!  I was guest at a lovely dinner at the Tower of London, on Monday night dining among glittering uniforms and highly distinguished bods, but after this posting, I will probably end up going back the The Tower, this time being dragged in backwards, through the Traitor's Gate.  

Now then.  Pay attention while I rant, please.  

A piece of news yesterday, coupled with more recent tales of woe among beekeepers (sorry, its the bloody bees again) had me leaping out of bed at 5.45 am and committing acts of extreme violence against the curtains, the tea kettle and anything else I could knock about or rip up.  

Rage is an ugly thing, but not half as ugly as the hideously bloated government ministry that calls itself DEFRA.  If ever there was a dog's breakfast of a department, DEFRA is it.  Those on the other side of the puddle, in the newly Blessed and Sunlit Upland of  Obamadom, may wish to know that the acronym stands for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

This Orwellesque megaministry is responsible for pretty much anything that happens outdoors or at sea.  It was a brainchild of the 1997 Blair government, the result of cobbling together most of the ministries that New Labour didn't give much of a damn about:  agriculture, fisheries, the environment, English Nature - -  you know -  the sort of un-hip, non Brit-pop muddy things that didn't float the spin doctors' boats at all.  It progressed quite quickly, from dog's breakfast to pavement pizza and by now has pretty well pissed off all farmers, fisherman, naturalists, environmentalists and a lot more folk besides.

One of DEFRA's most outstanding achievements was to be so late in making subsidy payments to farmers - more than a year overdue - that the EC imposed a massive fine.  We tax payers foot the bill for that, of course, as well as funding the subsidies for the aforementioned sons of the soil.  DEFRA also closed down a number of key research stations including one near here, where crucial research work was being carried out on the effects of climate change on our flora and fauna.

But DEFRA's latest offering takes the biscuit - literally, if you're a dog.  They've produced a document telling us pet owners how to look after our animals.  This government department is telling us  - IS TELLING US!!! - that we've got to watch for signs of stress when introducing cats to dogs.  And that we should provide separate loo facilities for each individual cat in our household.  Also, we've got to provide suitable toys and entertainment for our cats.  WHAT DID IT COST TAX PAYERS TO PRODUCE THIS TWADDLE?

I acknowledge that animal welfare is important, and that some pet owners need guidance.  But we have charities like the RSPCA who do superb work in that area and the amount of information on pet care, in all medias, is vast. 

Meanwhile, this morning on BBC Radio 4's Farming Today I heard that British Bee Keepers would be demonstrating in London because British honey supplies have been so diminished that national stocks will run out by Christmas.  Our entire bee industry wants £8 million to be set aside for research into Varroa, Colony Collapse Disorder and other problems.  

But DEFRA says that, 'in these difficult economic times,' it can't afford to provide that sum even though the industry is in crisis.  Eight measly million!  That's barely even a couple of Banker's salaries!  

We may not produce vast quantities of honey, in Britain, but it is still an important part of our agriculture.  Our honeys are distinctive in flavour, cost little to produce and enrich the choice of quality foods at the top end of the market.  They always sell at a substantial premium, so one assumes they must be extremely popular.

It's so sad to learn that the ministry which wants to spend money telling us stuff like this:  

'You should ensure that your cat has enough mental stimulation from you and from its environment to avoid boredom and frustration . . . It is your responsibility to provide opportunities for your cat to satisfy all of its behavioural needs, such as play and companionship. ..'   
                            is not interested, at the same time,  in helping out a small but precious sector of our food production industry, not to mention, the most important of all plant pollinators, the poor, dying bees!   HARRRUMMMPHHHH!!!!

Ooooh some people do go on!  Sorry!  Sorry!!  Flowers and pretties next time, I promise!

Sunday, 2 November 2008


                                  Medwyn Williams' whopping veggies.

After struggling with a half dismembered whitebeam tree all weekend, it's a joy to come into the warmth and dryness of my study, and to visit the Blogosphere again.  Not unnaturally, after so much hard gardening, one's thoughts turn to food.

A propos of which, Robinsons vegetable seed catalogue arrived yesterday.  I love it, not because it has a wider range of vegetable seeds than anyone else, but because the firm has so much history.  

This is a family business,  founded by William Robinson in 1860.  Not the Gravetye Manor Robinson who wrote The English Garden - nasty piece of work he was, by the  way, but as ever, I digress.  I ramble.  Stop it! Get to the point!!  Robinsons is still relatively small, still run by the family and still brings life, zest and interest to the RHS flower shows.  They specialise in big things, so for size queens - among vegetable gardeners - they are a must!  Giant cabbages and monster Kelsae onions are their stock in trade.  But Robinsons sell lots of other great stuff too. I bought Tromboncini type climbing courgettes - not big, but wonderful for flavour and growing very long (and coming in a variety of very rude shapes) They graced my nasty, cheap-looking metal obelisk, last summer and made it look quite nice.  

Robinsons offer lots of intersting chilli peppers, too, and their tomato range looks mouthwateringly good.  They are at

There are far too few vegetable exhibits at the big RHS shows.  The most spectacular showman, veg-wise, is Medwyn Williams. His parsnips are longer, and onions more curvaceous and his tomatoes more glistening and glorious than anyone elses.  I've just been editing pictures we shot at Hampton Court  - yes, I'm that far behind with the work! - and was amazed to recall that Medwyn's carrots can even get erections.

Medwyn's upright carrots.