Friday, 24 June 2011


What ho, my hearties!   Happy solstice!

Well, of course, the more literary among you will instantly notice not only the origin of the post title, but also that it is an outrageous misquote.

A golden eSovereign to whoever spots the dilibrut misteak and can put the right quote in.

Poppies: by no means suppliers of dull opiate to the brains - mine provide a warm, cuddly sense of joy tinged with sadness that they're so ephemeral.  And you can't do much better than that.


The Longest Day has passed and is past.

Each night falls a little earlier as we decline into the silly season.  Won't be long, now, until pheasant shooting begins and the hedgerow blackberries are plumptious and tempting.

Some pundit or other from the Woodland Trust has made a sweeping statement about blackberries being more than a month early this year because of the drought, and predict a small crop.  They claim that over 10 years, the average date for blackberries ripening is the first week in August. In what country, I wonder, were they compiling their records?

Papaver apulum - deep red with white haloes on the black central spots.

Where I live, the first blackberries are seldom ready before the end of August and the season doesn't get going until early September.  As for the crop being small, I wonder how they can predict with such confidence.  There is a massive set of buds, on our hedgerows - I went out today, to check - and given decent rainfall over the next few weeks, the crop round here, where drought has been severe, could be pretty good.

I get the impression that brambles are deep rooted and have access to water a long way down, especially on Lincolnshire's richer, moisture retentive soils.

Papaver rhoeas - a typical form from the Cedric Morris strain.

I also note that a crop of GM Wheat is to be sown in a field trial.  This variety will be modified with genes from a mint species which causes the wheat to exude an aphid warning pheromone to repel the pests.

Using such a GM crop would thereby remove the need for chemical pesticides.  Is that an organic move, then?  Discuss!

This particular wheat also contains genetic material from animals, so it will be interesting to watch how the public react to that notion.  You can hear the information on BBC Radio 4's Farming Today, here.  And you're most welcome to start a debate here, on the comments section.  

Black stamens disqualify this form from being a 'Shirley Poppy.'

Persons unknown - but bitterly resented -  have sprayed or flailed every nettle in the village and its surroundings.  If anyone in the 'Tidytidytidy Brigade' dare mention to me that there seem to be fewer small toroiseshell and peacock butteflies about these days, I'll hit 'em.  Meanwhile, the year's first Meadow Browns and Ringlets have hatched, in my mini-meadow.  Huzzah!

A true 'Shirley Poppy' with yellow stamens, as developed by the Rev. Wilkes of Shirley, Surrey in the 1880s

This year's swifts have also hatched, fledged and flown from our house eaves.  The garden is full of shattered snail shells, thanks to some highly successful broods of song thrushes.  And now, the three pairs of swallows that have nested in our outbuildings are sitting so tight that I'm sure there are more happy events on the way.  What a heavenly season this is!  Blessed June!

A white picotee form of Papaver rhoeas.

The main purpose of this ramble, though, was to share some of my poppies with you.  I don't know quite why, but they're so exquisitely beautiful, to me, that I can never pass one by without pausing to gaze.

They have so much that caresses the aesthetic sense.  The pleated petals, as they open; the flashes of colour – whether on field verges or in fancy borders; the bizarre pepperpot fruit capsules with their ribbed caps; the black stamens and sombre marks of death at some of their centres - all are totally delightful and absorbing.  

But words don't really do them justice and even the best pictures give no more than a hint or a memory of their true delights.  And my poor pictures, all shot early in the morning of 17th June,  are even less adequate at portraying the true delight of poppiness.

Papaver somniferum - more likely to get dull opiates from this one!

This one is wearing a sepal like a cap - daft thing!

Something disturbingly phallic about the way opium poppy buds dangle. Not sure I like them.

That's enough poppies! [ed]

I'm listening to Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin with the magnificent Thomas Allen in the title role.

This day in 2006  The PG and I discovered, with our noses, genuine sweetbriar Rosa rubiginosa, growing on a fenside lane near here.  The foliage is richly scented with apple.

This week's film was The Italian Job which I enjoyed more than I expected.  It has worn well, since 1967, but is flawed by some self-indulgent irrelevencies:  Benny Hill's obsession with fat bottoms brought nothing to the story and those three Minis begin to be rather boring, driving to completely pointless places in Turin.  Noel Coward was priceless, but my dear, the over-acting! What a perfect luvvie he must have been.

Good bye,  and may you spend the rest of the month in perfect poppiness!

Friday, 17 June 2011


NORFOLK, ah, lovely, bootiful Norfolk!  Where even the glacial east wind is bone lazy, blowing straight through you because it can't be bothered to go round.  We had nearly four days there this week, and adored every moment.

Grassland at the NNR Reserve at Cley Marshes.  All rough grassland should look like this!

This place is birding heaven, naturalist's heaven, boatman's or yachtsman's heaven and, perhaps above all, a wildflower lover's heaven.

Noel Coward rudely said, in Private Lives, that Norfolk was very flat.  It isn't.  It's no flatter than Essex, or Warwickshire, and if you've tried scrambling up and down the precipitous bumps of the terminal moraine just above Sheringham, you'll find it as steep as parts of the Lake District.

The PG and I enjoyed walking among bee orchids, marsh orchids, common spotted orchids, adders tongue ferns, horned poppies, vipers bugloss and scadillions of big, red, full-blown poppies.

 We dined on freshly caught crab, Norfolk ham, superb cheeses from Mrs Temple's Walsingham creamery, fresh raspberries, bright but disappointingly flavoured local-grown strawberries. (I might have known they'd be 'El-bloody-santa' - the nastiest variety every foisted on the world.)

We watched godwits - both bar-tailed and black-tailed - spoonbills, redshanks, spotted redshanks (black in their summer plumage) sanderlings, dunlin, glimpsed bearded reedlings and sat, slack jawed in concentration, watching hundreds of little terns fishing for sand eels in the North Sea, and flying home to their colony to feed their young.

A black-headed gull, resplendent in breeding plumage, watches us eat our beach picnic.

We went slumming from our home-base of Wells-next-the-Sea, to fish and chippy Sheringham, to gaze at people gazing at the sea, and we lunched at the top of the aforementioned moraine, while sea breezes kept our drinks at fridge temperatures.

The People!
What can I say about folk who call boots boats and boats boots?  Rum?  Pecooliar?  Maybe, but it's lovely - though increasingly rare to hear a genuine Norfolk accent.  Proper Norfokkers speak in a lilting voice with poetic cadences. The 'raised inflection interrogative' was here long before teenagers picked it up from watching Neighbours and is much more musical because it drops on the last syllable.  Try saying 'Dew yew want an ice cream.'   Now say it again, but with 'ice' half an octave higher.

As for the dialect - that seems almost to have disappeared.  I haven't, for many years, heard anyone talk of 'trickolating' (mending) or 'pingling' meaning to mess about with food, rather than to eati it.  Snails, in my childhood were 'dodmans' or 'oddmedods' and ladybirds were 'bushy barneybees.'  You didn't bump your head, but a low beam could cause you to 'thack your skull.'

We also called on another 'bor meaning 'neighbour' and greeted folk, not with 'wotcher,' but literally with words that sounded like 'What cheer!'

I feel able to be frank - well, let's face it, rude - about Norfolk for three reasons.

Firstly, I spent a goodly chunk of my childhood there.  We lived, in the 50s, in a decrepit old rectory with neither electricity nor mains water, and later, in a house conveniently next door to the village pub, this time with power but still no mains water.  My father installed an electric pump, so our supply could be sucked up from a well.  But just outside the pub, there was a hand-cranked, village pump which cottagers without their own wells were obliged to use.  Bathing, for some, was not so much weekly as annually, usually on the day before the Royal Norfolk Show. (Only joking!)

Secondly, with forebears just over the border into Lincolnshire, I feel almost native, so being rude is sort of self-mocking, if you see what I mean.

Einstein dined here - not!  The spelling errors and misplaced apostrophes suggest that 'Ronaldo' can't possibly be foreign but was probably Norfolk born, bred and schooled.

And finally, though most of the natives are utterly delightful, Norfolk folk can, at times, refine rudeness into a highly developed art.

Take a local hostelry the PG and I dined at on a previous visit - The Crown, at Wells-next-the-Sea.  Everything about the meal was good - excellent sea food, efficient service and pleasant enough surroundings.

But the ale was not in perfect condition and by its taste, either the pub's pipes was not quite as they should be, or, it was on the turn.  Stale ale - though perfectly drinkable - develops a cardboard back-taste and the hoppiness swings from pleasantly bitter to unpleasantly rank.

When we paid our tab, and, since the receptionist asked if everything was all right, I mentioned the beer. She was clearly offended and informed me, brusquely, that they knew beer, that did I realise it was Real Ale, that it was tasted every day and was never served unless it was in perfect condition?

'Sorry to disagree,' I replied, 'And I do appreciate that Woodforde's Wherry is not half so good as it used to be, but yours tasted as though it was on the turn.'

'It's fine,' she snapped, 'our beer is excellent.'  So we left with a flea in our ear.

Sad really, because we'd like to have gone back to the Crown one day.  But somehow, I don't think we will.

Hells bells - that's more then enough moaning.  Stop it Colborn, at once!!!  Self-satisfied prat!

Speaking of horny - ahem, ahem! How about these. . .

Yellow horned poppy, Glaucium flavum on the shingle beaches at Cley.  Wonderful curved, horny pods and blue-green, glaucous, pubescent foliage.

The texture and colour of the foliage is wonderful in contrast with hard pebbles.

Some people - especially PRs and the tourist trade - call my favourite  part of North Norfolk 'Poppyland.' The name was coined by Victorian critic Clement Scott who shacked up with a miller's daughter at Overstrand, just down-coast from Cromer.  Wild field poppies thrive in the sandy, flinty soils, not only on the coast, but all over the county. Every decent farm gateway, every road bank, many of the field margins and lots of front gardens are joyously picked out with big red blobs of poppies.

Because of the opiate connections, poppies are associated with sleep. Norfolk people believe smelling them causes headaches but to me, these are ebulliant, wide-awake plants, full of brash cheefulness.  They come just after gentle pink dog roses, in the procession of landmark summer wildflowers.  Lovely! Lovely!

 It's more fun watching people watching the sea than watching the sea.

Next week - I think you deserve a pictorial tribute to poppies, especially if you've just read all this rambling nonsense!

I'm listening to Beethoven's Piano Sonata No 16 in G.

This week's film was Ordet, (Danish) Dreyer's exploration of religious fundamentalism, Lutheranism, faith and reason in a small agricultural community in the 1920s. The concluding events defy logic and reason but not faith - if you have it.

This day in 2006 it was sweltering hot and I wandered knee deep in drifts of Dactylorrhiza fuchsii or common spotted orchids, at Thurlby Fen Slipe, a local nature reserve in sunny Lincolnshire - another county which is a lot less flat than people think.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011


Good morrow to you! And a happy June and all that.  We're open to the public on Saturday and Sunday and the garden has never looked weedier.  

And yet, and yet . . . I'm growing accustomed to the weedy, shaggy status quo.  And accustomed to the puzzled faces, looking over our front gate at the ridiculous stand of chicory - now more than 2 metres high - which is masking the narrow border behind.  The seeds germinated there and I didn't have the heart to remove the plants so our drive is soon to be lined in a haze of blue flowers.  Unplanned, unwelcome by the PG who thinks they look horrible, and misunderstood by garden visitors whose puzzled expressions fill me with swirling mix of pride and shame.

A male  Common Blue Polyomatus icarus turned up in my meadow this week.  If you supply the right habitat, the wildlife will come to it, I've been told. Here's living proof.

But the big triumph, and one which again, I suspect most of our visitors won't understand, is the mini-meadow.  You can see the edge of it in my previous blog post.  I've been working on it now for nearly 7 years and in all that time, its development has been leisurely.  Introducing meadow flora was difficult at first, because the grass was so lush on the rich soil, but yellow rattle, Rhinanthes, has reduced the vigour of the grasses - too much in some places - and by raking off each September, I've managed to lower the nutritional plane.  We now have more wildflower species, though ox eye daisy predominates, and last summer a spotted orchid turned up.  Lovely!  But we need a lot more diversity.

Now, the big excitement last year was the arrival of common blues in early summer.  And the bigger excitement was that they bred and produced another hatch late last year when we counted several females and enough males to establish further growth.

The underside of the Common Blue - easy to distinguish from a more common garden species, the Holly Blue whose underwings are pale blue with smaller dark markings.  You can see one here.

My big anxiety was yet to come, though.  Unlike agricultural land, the meadow is not only limited in size but is set in a relatively formal, managed garden.  At some stage I have to cut the 'hay' and remove it, after allowing all seed heads to mature and shed.

The problem is that this species over-winters as a (tiny) caterpillar.  When the weather grows cold, the larvae drop down into the lower vegetation where they stay in hibernation until spring.

My worry was whether raking off all the dead grasses and then, of necessity, mowing repeatedly with rotary machine until the sward is short enough to go through winter and then show off  primroses, aconites and other winter tinies, would destroy the caterpillars.  And worse, whether the final fine mower which sucks, would hoover up the caterpillars along with the remains of the severed grass.

But the latest sighting shows that all was well.  The butterfly colony has survived and everyone is happy.  All I need, now, is more birds foot trefoil.  At present, these butterflies are breeding on white clover, but that is not first choice for them as food plant.

Marbled White Melanargia galathea a species of limestone and chalk regions but would it come this far from Rutland where there are colonies on the limestone brash?  I shot this one in France btw.

So what's next?  I want to establish sheep sorrel next, to encourage small copper butterflies.  There are some in the area and we've had them in the garden.  It would be great if they bred.  Our other butterfly residents, ie, breeding in my garden include Speckled Wood, Orange Tip, Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Large Skipper, Gatekeeper and bloody cabbage whites - both small and large.  Visitors include Comma, Red Admiral, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Brimstone.

Plants of especial interest include this white form of Bastard Balm, Melittis melissophyllum lovely in shade, irresistible to bumble bees and not especially easy to establish.  It grows close to the American Epipactis gigantea a striking helleborine with pelals in brown and tan. Possibly a pic soon when it's in flower.

I'm listening to  The second Sri Lanka Test limping towards a draw, England having failed to whack up enough runs to be able to declare with a biggish lead before lunch.

This day in 2006  I watched Springwatch - with Bill Oddie and the nearly new Kate Humble, who I described as 'young and bouncy.'

This week's film was Le Père des mes Enfants (The Father of My Children) Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve. The story is based on a parallel event in real life.  The protagonist, at first, is the 'Father' in the title but by the second half of the film, the narrative has shifted and all member of the family become protagonists, from time to time, in their on right.

I thought the idea was pretty good, but the structure and development seemed slipshod and the shooting restless.  By the last 30 minutes, there were rambling threads and plotlets which seemed to be going nowhere.  More work on the screenplay would have turned a modestly OK work of art into an outstanding one.

The problem with so many potentially great French films is that the culture still seems to be polluted by the awful era of Nouvelle Vague.  If gushing cineastes could see New Wave cinema for what it really is - pretentious crap - there might be fewer traces of it around today.  Hands up all those who think Nouvelle Vague cinema was great!  And if you can say why it is, perhaps you'd be able to tell me what the hell Last Year in Marienbad was all about because I'm damned if I know.

Next Week. . . . The idiot economists who think they can price the countryside.   Anyone or any panel of experts who think that pollinating insects, including bees, are only worth £380 million, have to be disastrously misinformed.  Cereals are wind pollinated. OK.  But almost everything else depends on natural pollination by agents other than man.  Go figure.
I haven't seen the White Paper on the value of our ecosystems, yet, but whoever has devised it clearly wants to know the price of everything but understands the value of nothing. 

But for now . . . .Good bye!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011


What bliss to wake on Sunday and see leaden skies.  By 11am, light rain was falling and continued gently until early evening.  Not a vast amount of water, but enough to revitalise, to freshen, to lay the dust and make us all feel better. And now it's deliciously warm and Junesque outside.

I even went out to photograph the mini-meadow in Sunday's rain and this is what it looked like.

Ox eye daises Leucanthemum vulgare dominating the sward of our minimeadow.  Knapweeds, field scabious and meadow cranesbill should follow but I fear that the spotted orchid, Dactylorrhiza fuchsii may have failed in the dry.  (CLICK ON PICS TO MAKE BIGGER.)

PEATIE-TWEETIE   - Sorry  this is a bit long.
I got myself into a slightly intense exchange of tweets about peat and peat-based composts the other day. As usual with such discussions, I suspect that I was the villain and decided to scarper before it got nasty. It's not easy even for normal people to have a serious exchange when limited to 140 characters but with me, it's next to impossible.

When I was informed that if I couldn't propagate without peat I had no right to call myself a gardener, I thought it time to quit.

And as an excuse to duck the issue – in a disgracefully cowardly way – I promised to blog on the subject soon. So here is my contribution to the much exercised, frequently misinformed, often emotive and invariably intense peat debate.

First a few admissions:

1. Behind my garden fence I have several bales of Irish Moss Peat. They've been there for some years. Just thought you should know.

2. When I moved into my current garden, 7 and a half years ago, I dug a sizeable hole and back-filled it with Irish Moss Peat.  I wanted a small, moist zone where I could grow calcifuges.

3. I use some peat free growing medium and some peat-based.  I always prefer peat-based material because it is better in every respect.  But I use peat-free where I feel I can, to reduce my over-all peat consumption - which, currently, is minimal.

4. I will continue to use peat - though sparingly and carefully -  for as long as I can and I'm afraid I'm not ashamed of doing so.  In fact I'm more ashamed of driving down to my relatives in Kent, instead of going by train, than I am of using peat as a growing medium.

5. I would NEVER use peat as a soil improver (2 above was a one-off event and the peat is still exactly where I left it, in the hole.)

So there.  You probably hate me already but I wanted to make things plain.

Why do I continue to use peat?
Probably for the same reason that I drive a car, eat meat, burn oil and fail to grow all my own food: because it's difficult to find convenient alternatives.  And because I know that with modest consumption, all gardeners could continue to use peat without causing extensive environmental damage, and without excessive carbon emissions.

I could survive, just, without doing anything unsustainable.  But in real life, as long as I watch tv,  enjoy lamb stew, go to a restaurant, buy grapes at Morrisons, take a hot bath or dine with friends, I'm leaving a footprint which, to an extent, is unsustainable - if you'll pardon the horribly mixed metaphors.

We all do things that are not helping to stem global warming.  And we condone them, often by passive complicity, but we condone them just the same - often because we prefer not to face life without such things.  We perhaps shouldn't.  But we do.

And as a passionate and active supporter of wildlife conservation, I can assure you that if peat extraction could not take place without threatening important habitats, not only would I never use it, but I'd also be campaigning for a blanket ban.  If peat from non-sensitive habitats is used, and used sparingly, biodiversity need not be harmed.

Peat is wonderful stuff for growers.
It is unique in its ability to absorb, hold and slowly release water.  Without peat, the great revolution from open ground nurseries to modern garden centres may not have happened.

Growing media, right back to the first John Innes formulae, contained peat because they provided that unique habitat for the roots of plants kept and grown unnaturally, in containers.

When commercial horticulture changed, to feed the voracious demand for containerised stock, demand for peat grew massively.  Extraction, as a result, was increased to the extent that local, ie, Mainland UK deposits began to be depleted.  Worse, valuable raised bog habitats were destroyed, many of them before conservation bodies recognised the destruction.  It is a tragedy, that so much was lost before blanket extraction was stopped.

Any extraction of peat, today, needs to be strictly policed and sensitive natural habitats need to be protected.

But peat is widely abundant.  Many peat-rich areas are neither under threat, nor important as wildlife habitats.  In general, they are species-poor and extraction, under strict control, need not cause such extensive damage.

Furthermore, in countries such as the Republic of Ireland, where peat is burnt in power stations, the surface material, previously marketed as high grade horticultural peat, has no other use.  It is therefore wasted -  a bye-product of great value to gardeners.

So, although I appreciate that peat use in horticulture contributes to carbon emissions - though not nearly so much as we're led to believe by the anti-peat lobby;  and although there is strong political pressure not to use the stuff, I remain an unrepentant, though sparing peat user.  And I'll continue to be one until either convinced otherwise, or until the law prevents me from acquiring what amounts to a valuable bye product.

Two final points:
1. In rescue work, botanic gardens and other institutions are conserving species threatened with extinction in the wild, or which are already extinct.  Some of these plants could not be grown without peat.  Carnivorous plants are examples, but there are others.  It is essential, therefore, that if the government finally stamps out use of peat, those institutions receive the necessary dispensation, so that they can continue their vital work.

2. When you buy compost look at the bag. Many are labelled: 'With added John Innes.'  That is a meaningless expression. Does it refer to John Innes knowhow? To the institute itself, based in Norwich, or that the compost contains John Innes compost within the mix - a compost in a compost.  Which ever way you look at it, it's disingenuous because J.I. composts contain 30% Sphagnum Moss Peat.

My lovely Rosa 'Madame Gregoire Staechelin' got blown out of her birch tree during last week's gale.  I need a ladder and a compliant PG to manoeuvre it back and fix it with wire that won't cut into the tree or the rose.

I'm listening to  - or anticipating the angry comments about to come from the anti peat lobby.

This day in 2010 I arrived, with the PG, in Singapore to help with community gardening projects.  My passport was stolen a few days later, in Melaka, Malaysia.  Singapore stuff here

This week's film was  a TV production of Voyage Around My Father, with Laurence Olivier, Jane Asher and Alan Bates and made during the 70s.  It's a fine piece, and interesting to compare with the recent West End stage production which starred David Jacobi.  Mortimer was a good writer of fast, witty dialogue but he also had an unerring gift for making a bully look vulnerable and, eventually, even appealing.  I think it was one of Olivier's finer TV roles.

A new acquisition from Coton Manor - the fabulously coloured Rosa 'Mrs Oakley Fisher.'  She's plonked in among deep purples and looks a proper madam!

Thanks, if you've read this far!  A more jolly post next week, let's hope.