Saturday, March 28, 2009

What I would import from America (given limitless resources and no pesky customs regulations)

I am a huge lover of America and things American. Regular readers may have guessed this, but I'm happy to come right out and admit it. Some of my happiest memories are of travelling through the States with my husband, whether we were staying in a watchman's house in the wildness of Tennessee's Overhill district, or watching the dusk fall over Delaware as the Amtrak wailed into the night on its way to Atlanta.
It used to be my ambition to visit every single American state, but so far I've only managed about 15. I've been through a few more on the train from New York to Atlanta, but that doesn't really count, and realistically I think that time is against me. After all, if you go somewhere like Texas, you can spend three weeks there (as I did) and still only see a fraction of what's on offer.
So I think the only answer is to try to bring a bit of America over here. What would I choose? Here's my list.

A pick-up truck
One of my best memories is of bouncing across a ranch in Arizona - I can't remember the name of it - to see some Native American pictograms. I turned to look at my kids' faces, and they were just one huge beam from ear to ear as we lurched along. Best of all, the lady who owned the ranch told us she'd been driving that way the previous day and a 6ft prairie snake had reared up out of the grass in front of her. The kids were thrilled. Me, I hate snakes. I'll have the pick-up truck but no snakes, please. Not even a harmless prairie snake.

A steel stock tank, or cattle trough
Every American garden blogger, it seems, has one of these. I want one, dadgummit! I've searched and searched on the internet but I don't think they're available in the UK. They are so cool. They look terrific planted up and they make great ponds.

Humming birds (plus feeder, of course)
Here in the UK, we have lovely garden birds, and I enjoy watching the squirrels trying to find ways to beat the baffles and steal their food. But I do hanker for a humming bird or two, and a feeder filled with coloured sugar water for them to feast on as they flutter and whirr in my backyard. (Is sugar water really what they eat? Doesn't it rot their teeth? Do they have teeth?)

A meadow full of bluebonnets
Pam at Digging posted a picture of bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) growing in her garden the other day. (Come to think of it, Pam has a stock tank or two...) She said that because of the drought, there weren't nearly so many bluebonnets growing wild this year around Austin. That's so sad. I can remember driving through the Hill Country and coming over the brow of a hill and seeing what I thought was a lake in the distance. As we got closer, I saw it was a field of bluebonnets, growing so thickly that it looked a piece of sky had fallen down on the ground. I brought back some seeds, but they didn't take.

A porch with a swing
You can buy porch swings here in the UK, and hang them on a frame, but if you don't have the traditional clapboard house complete with wide verandah, it just isn't the same. I'll need one of these in order to look out over my field of bluebonnets. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Group (with apologies to Mary McCarthy)

A few weeks ago - months probably - I wrote that I'd been invited to join a local gardening group. Last week, I finally managed to make it to a meeting. I have to admit this was partly because it was held next door, at my neighbour Ruth's house, and she would have thought me too pathetic for words if I hadn't managed to stagger the ten steps it took to get there.
Ruth has a gorgeous garden which in springtime is full of blossom, so it was great to wander round as the sun set, glass of wine in hand, and admire her camellias. And it was just as much a thrill to meet people who until that moment had just been names on an email.
The aim of the evening was to have a plant and seed swap, which worked very well, although I think if the Metropolitan Police had happened to burst into the house at any point, they might well have misinterpreted the activities. All sorts of intriguing substances were produced in rather dodgy-looking small plastic bags and pharmaceutical bottles.
Seeds on offer included Borlotti beanx, climbing french beans, radishes, chillis, and lettuce. Then there was a white nigella, Lathyrus vernus rosea (a sort of shrubby pea with pink flowers), muscari (a light blue and a dark blue variety), and purple morning glory (used by the Aztecs - though not by us, HM Constabulary might like to note - as a hallucinogenic). Plants included nerines, hostas, Libertia grandiflora, a very strongly scented mint and Lychnis coronaria.
As my contribution to the group, I volunteered to set up a blog, which would serve as a kind of diary cum database throughout the year. You can read it here.
By the way, talking of Mary McCarthy, has anyone read The Group? When I was a teenager, it was one of the must-reads along with The Women's Room by Marilyn French (shows you what sort of vintage I am, doesn't it?) I lost my copy ages ago, but I see it's virtually impossible to buy now, unless you want to pay £20 for a secondhand paperback.
The picture at the top is of Narcissus 'Geranium' growing in a pot in my garden. It's a tazetta type (multi-headed) with the typically strong smell and 100 per cent reliable. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

The vanishing cuckoo

If you have a spare moment today - or even if you don't have a spare moment - make sure you read this. It's a terrifying yet lyrical article by my colleague Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor of The Independent, who has a new book out on 2 April charting the astonishing decline of England's songbirds.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Loveliest of trees

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

A E Housman 1859-1936

Yes, yes, I know, everyone knows this poem. It's the poetic equivalent of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, or Handel's Water Music - it's so well-known, it's almost become a cliche. But you have to be very strong-minded indeed not to find the words stealing into your brain at this time of year.
Housman, of course, meant the wild cherry, Prunus avium, which he saw growing along the hedgerows and woodland edges in his beloved Shropshire, not the ornamental cherries you find in suburbia. However, we metropolitan types don't have much opportunity to wander the byways of rural England, more's the pity, so we have to take our pleasures where we can.
The picture above shows the big cherry tree at the end of my garden. It's Prunus cerasifera 'Pissardii', or purple-leaved plum, which lots of people loathe. I rather like it. In any case, we never call it a purple-leaved plum, or cherry plum. When an Iranian friend came to visit for the first time, she exclaimed: "Oh, you have an Iranian cherry tree!" It's been known in our household as the "Iranian cherry" ever since. It sounds so much more exotic.
However, my friend was absolutely right. Prunus cerasifera is native to Asia Minor, and Monsieur Pissard, who gave his name to my tree, worked as a gardener to the Shah of Iran. He brought it back to his native France sometime around 1880. By the time my house was built in the 1930s - just around the time when Housman died - ornamental cherries had become very fashionable, and my "Iranian cherry" would have been a must-have. It's probably one of the oldest trees in the neighbourhood.
Trying to predict when it will come into flower is almost impossible. Some years it flowers in February, others as late as April. This year, it's in full flower right now, so I hope that augurs well for the summer.
It's funny how much it changes the look of the garden. Instead of a big dark, brooding presence at the end, there's a massy of frilly, frivolous blossom. And instead of big jungly leaves everywhere, suddenly there are lots of little flowers.

A view of the whole garden. See how the cherry tree at the end practically disappears?

There are other things apart from cherries blooming in the garden too, like these Bergenia 'Bressingham White'

Above and below, Prunus incisa 'Kojo-no-mai' finally coming into flower. In front of them is a white variety of Anemone coronaria that I found in my local garden centre and brought home to cheer myself up. Coincidentally, these can be found in the Middle East too - particularly in Israel.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pond hell

Don't get me wrong, I love my pond. I love watching the fish, I love seeing frogs and dragonflies and other wildlife, and when the first waterlily flowers each year, it's very exciting. However, I absolutely hate my pond when things go wrong. It always, always, always involves fiddling about in absolutely freezing cold water, and messing about with trip switches (at the other end of the house, naturally), and trying to unscrew things that don't want to be unscrewed. It makes me wish I'd trained as a plumber and electrician instead of spending years studying Palestrina counterpoint and Bach fugues.
It irritates me that something so "natural" seems to require such a lot of intervention. Even the grandest ponds (as I noted with glee in the Sissinghurst documentary last week) can have problems with blanketweed, while a small pond like mine (8ft x 4ft) also needs a UV filter to keep it clear of algae, which means you also need a pump.
The UV works by encouraging the algae to flocculate, which basically means to clump together, so the "floc" sinks into the biological filter. This is basically a foam layer, beneath which is a tank full of plastic rings. I'm not quite sure how that bit works. Perhaps it tells the algae to floc off.
Then there's the heron deterrent, which in my case is Netfloat, a set of interlocking plastic circles. Someone once told me that a raised pond like mine wouldn't be attacked by herons because they like to wade into water, and require a long landing path. This is rubbish. I've seen a heron descend vertically onto the edge of my pond, like a Harrier jump jet coming into land on a cruising battleship. 
But I digress. The current problem seems to involve both the UV filter and the pump. I suspect the bulb has gone on the UV filter, and the pump has finally been strangled by the blanketweed.
Because my UV filter has a biological filter as well, the whole thing is the size of a car battery, possibly a bit larger. It is carefully hidden from view beneath a fig tree and a cordyline. You can't see it at all, which is great - until you want to change the bulb.
At this point you have to bend double under the branches of the fig tree, and unscrew the entire top, which remains attached to the hose that leads to the pump AND the power cable. Then you have to change the bulb without a, breaking a fig tree branch, b, pulling a muscle in your back and c, saying any rude words. (OK, I'll let you off "c". I always say lots of rude words.)
Luckily, I now see that you can now get a UV filter system with the bulb housed in a separate compartment on top. And there's even a new Oase combined UV filter/pump that doesn't have to be hidden under a fig tree, but can go in the pond. Hallelujah! Perhaps a woman with a small pond and a bad back joined the design team. I think I may treat myself. I think I deserve it.


Thursday, March 5, 2009

Prunus incisa 'Kojo-no-Mai'

Once upon a time, PlantMadNige (aka gardening writer Nigel Colborn) wrote a piece for one of the UK gardening magazines about a dear little shrub called Prunus incisa 'Kojo-no-Mai'. Prunus incisa is better known as the Fuji cherry, and 'Kojo-no-Mai' is a small cultivar that grows to a maximum of about eight feet (2 metres), although I have never seen one that big. I think the name means 'Butterfly Dance', but do correct me if that's wrong.
I can't remember when the article appeared, but it must have been at least eight or nine years ago, because I was still living in my last house at the time. I immediately rushed out and bought one, seduced by his description of a lovely little thing with early pinky-white flowers and enchanting ziggy-zaggy stems. The stems are often defined in nursery catalogues as twisted or contorted, but ziggy-zaggy is a much more accurate description.
Mine is in a pot, and has been ever since I bought it. I loved it so much I now have another one, also in a pot. I've bought them for my mother and my sister and I nearly bought yet another for myself when I saw standard-ised versions at RHS Wisley the other day. Luckily, common sense (and the price: £35) deterred me.
They do well in pots and they look good too - like a large bonsai. I usually top mine up with manure or plant food each spring. They're not unattractive plants when the flowers are gone but they're not particularly showy either and because they're quite compact and slow-growing, they can look a bit lost unless they're in a rock garden or a Japanese-style garden. They make me think of a small girl singing a solo in the school show, who then stands demurely with eyes downcast and hands folded while the rest of her classmates perform.
Putting them in a pot means you can move them into a prominent position when they're flowering and return them to a non-prominent position when the flowers are over, which is usually at least six weeks later. They usually start flowering around the second week of March, no matter what sort of winter it has been. Mine are just about on schedule. I'll post a picture when they bloom, but I thought you might to like to admire their 'bone structure'.
One thing puzzles me, though. My plants look identical, yet one has noticeably pinker flowers than the other. Any ideas, Mr Colborn?

Bother the BBC!

What is it that makes people want to tinker with something that works perfectly well? Surely in this economic climate it can't be a question of too much money, or spare time?
I wondered this the other day when I opened up the BBC Weather website to find that it had been redesigned. Instead of giving me an instant snapshot of what the next five days were going to bring (tailored to my London postcode), it gave me an instant snapshot of what the weather was going to be during the night (I'd logged on at 7.30pm, wanting to know what the next day's weather was going to be like.)
To see the next four days, I had to scroll down, which meant that the page had to rebuild, which took about five minutes. To get a local forecast (as opposed to a national one), I had to choose between London Bridge, or one of the London airports. As anyone who has been to London by plane knows, none of these are remotely near London, apart from London City Airport which is 10 miles from where I live. 
I must apologise to non-UK readers for being so parochial (not to mention grumpy). But there's a universal issue here. Hasn't anyone at the BBC ever heard the phrase "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"?
If anyone wants to join my puny protest against corporate idiocy, I've set up a Facebook group here

Monday, March 2, 2009


Has anyone been watching the Sissinghurst series on BBC 4? It follows Adam Nicolson (Vita Sackville-West's grandson) and his wife Sarah Raven as they attempt to make their mark on this iconic garden. I caught up with it last night, and I thought it was fascinating.
I'd expected (I'm not quite sure why) to be on the side of the National Trust staff, who were having their ideas questioned by the incomers. The Nicolsons gave the property to the National Trust decades ago, but members of the family are allowed to live there in perpetuity and Adam and Sarah moved back in 2004. Because they are family, they have strong views about how the place should be run, but in no real power to do anything about it.
In the end, I found myself feeling quite sympathetic towards the Nicolson faction. For a start, Adam Nicolson looks so like his grandmother. He and his memories of life at Sissinghurst are a real link to the past, and the idea that he finds himself feeling rather unwelcome there seems a bit odd. It's as if everything Vita touched (books, desk, bedroom etc) are treasured, polished, hallowed relics - apart from her grandson.
When Sarah Raven is not writing books, or appearing on television, she runs gardening and cookery courses at her former home, Perch Hill, so it's not surprising that one of the changes she wants to make at Sissinghurst is to the catering.
I'm with her all the way. The last time I went to Sissinghurst, I was very disappointed by the restaurant. There was something a bit soulless about it (our canteen has more ambience) and the food wasn't terribly inspiring either. I'd been hoping for a nice bowl of hot soup and some crusty bread, but nothing like that seemed to be available that day. (Maybe they'd run out.) The choice seemed to be either meat and two veg, or cake.
I don't know about you, but I don't want to eat a huge three-course meal when I go to see a garden. If you've got a two-hour drive ahead of you in order to get home, the last thing you want is to feel full and sleepy. On the other hand, neither do I want an icy sandwich straight from the chiller cabinet. 
There must be a middle way (goat's cheese salad! Welsh rarebit! Spinach soup!). But they don't seem to have found it at Sissinghurst yet. Go, Sarah!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Spring is not quite sprung (but the grass is certainly riz)

There have been times this year when I thought I'd never go out in the garden again. Indeed, after slicing off a bit of finger last week, I thought I'd never dare go in the garden again. These feelings don't last long, though. It takes very little to inspire new enthusiasm.
Indeed, strangely enough, it was while I was sitting in A&E (that's ER, American readers) the other morning, waiting to have a new dressing put on my finger, that I saw Toby Buckland, the presenter of Gardener's World, on breakfast TV, urging us all to get out and do some work on our plots this weekend.
How could we tidy up our gardens and get our sad-looking lawns and borders back in shape, he was asked by the (well-manicured) lady presenter. Get the mower out, he said. It makes a huge difference, and there's nothing better for grass than cutting it.
I'll say this for Toby Buckland, he's so fresh-faced and enthusiastic, he made me feel better immediately. So yesterday I duly got out the mower, ignoring the jibes of my unsympathetic children ("Do you want us to count all your fingers and toes when you've finished, Mum? Just to make sure you haven't left any lying around?").
I mowed the lawn. And cut back the phormiums a bit more, and tidied up the dead foliage on the perennials (the crocosmia, sedum, hardy geraniums and even agapanthus were already showing new growth). And I trimmed the odd bit of lawn edge (one of my favourite jobs) and had a thoroughly nice time.
The biggest thrill of all was seeing a pair of collared doves. I've never seen one in London before, so to see one and then two was amazing! They didn't stay long enough for me to get the camera, but I hope they'll be back. There seemed to be some sort of courting ritual going on, but I didn't inquire too closely. It would have been rude.
Because my garden isn't a traditional English plot, it takes quite a while to wake up in spring. It looks reasonably neat and presentable, and spring-type things (such as daffodils and so on) happen, but it's a bit like a teenager. While everyone else's garden is (metaphorically) up and busy by 9am, my garden is still languishing in bed until 2pm.
I'm never quite sure whether this is a good thing or not. The upside of this is that I too can (metaphorically) lounge in bed in early spring, while everyone else is spilling over with crocuses and winter aconites and primroses and frantic activity. The downside is that there's nothing much floriferous going on until summer. And there's always a rather horrible period when I wonder whether my cannas are ever going to get going.
If you're interested in exotics and sub-tropical plants, you may like to take a look at Will Giles's new blog, which details life in his extraordinary garden in Norwich. He has six cats, too...
Gardeners' World starts again on Friday 13 March.