Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Happy new autumn!

Maybe it's because my birthday is in the autumn, or perhaps it's just that school and college begin at the end of summer, but I always feel that this is really the start of a new year.
We've had bit of an Indian summer here in the south-east, which has seemed like a glorious new year's eve party - the sort of party where you look at your watch at some point and are amazed to discover it's 2.40am. Can it really be nearly October? Can it really be that late? It seems as if the garden has only just got going.
I love this time of year. The garden opening has come and gone, and there's nothing to do (weather permitting) except sit back and enjoy things. There's nothing to plant (too dry). There's nothing to mow (ditto). All that's required is a bit of gentle deadheading until the first frosts and gales of winter arrive and I have to wrap, and chop, and sweep.
It's such a luxury to have nothing much to do in the garden. It's amazing how much more keen one is to be out there when all you have to do is wander round and have the chance to really look at things.

My cannas are finally in full bloom. Like supermodels arriving two hours late for a photoshoot, they should really have been on show in time for the garden opening. But just like supermodels, they are so beautiful, I forgive them their lack of punctuality and stand back in admiration instead.

Foliage colour takes on a new depth in September sunshine. This is Pelargonium 'Occold Shield', which has bright yellow-green foliage blotched with bronze, and orangey-red flowers. To be honest, I'd be quite happy just with the leaves.

I wasn't very keen on Geranium 'Rozanne' the first year I grew it. I couldn't really see what all the fuss was about. This year, however, 'Rozanne' has really earned her keep, flowering from early summer and still going strong.

Here's the loquat, Eriobotrya japonica. What's so spectacular about this? The fragrance, which I have no way of replicating here, unfortunately. You'll just have to imagine a garden filled with the scent of frangipani.

This is Sedum spectabile 'Indian Chief'. To be honest, it's a bit pinker than I was expecting. It was described as a 'fiery red, ageing to rust and copper'. I knew it was too good to be true.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Oh. My. Goodness. Thank you, Blotanical!

To my utter and complete amazement, I have been shortlisted by Blotanical for the Best UK Blog. I'm - well, I'm thrilled. I've got stiff competition from The Galloping Gardener, An Artist's Garden, Blogging from Blackpitts and Veg Plotting and I can tell you, I'm hard-put to choose which one of those I'm going to vote for. One difficulty is that I think of them all as old friends - indeed, I've met VP and James, and Karen at Artist's Garden was one of the people who inspired me to keep going with my own blog.
If you've never heard of Blotanical, let me explain. It's a kind of society of blogs from all over the world, organised by Stuart Robinson of Gardening Tips'n'Ideas. Stuart is based in Busselton, Western Australia, and if anyone deserves an award or a medal or a knighthood, it is he. There are now more than 1,000 blogs listed, but you don't have to have a blog in order to join. If you're a keen gardener, but don't fancy the idea of writing about it, you can sign up to become a member, which means you can comment and message and have access to this rich resource.
Society is a good word for Blotanical because it is like a global extended family of friends and neighbours. You can find out what it is like to garden in completely different climates, from the deserts of Arizona and Nevada to the monsoon belt of Asia, and from the frozen north of Canada and Scandinavia to the upside down seasons (or so they seem to us in the northern hemisphere anyway) of South Africa and Australasia.
You can have a conversation about grasses with a friend in Tennessee or join in the Diwali celebrations with a thousand marigolds in Mumbai. It's a fantastic source of advice, support, friendship and, very often, hoots of laughter.
I really value the virtual friends I've made. Many of them have been shortlisted in the finals too, so if you're a Blotanical member, go and check out the nominations NOW. You can vote here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

We are family

It was my day off on Tuesday, and I spent it with my mother, my sister, my two cousins and my aunt. This was very jolly, of course, but there was a serious purpose behind our reunion. We were going to plant flowers on my grandmother's grave.
My grandmother died 20 years ago, but her grave has been a bit of an issue. She is buried in a family plot, which had been bought by her parents and left to her. Unfortunately, she did not leave it to my mother or uncle in her will, so technically it still belonged to her.
My mother only discovered this when she wanted to add an inscription for my uncle. He died in 1993, but my aunt (his widow) now felt the time was right to scatter some of his ashes on the grave. However, the cemetery officials told the stonemason they were authorised only to deal with the owner, which made life a bit difficult.
Not all churchyards and cemeteries are the same. In some cemeteries, you "rent" a space for a limited time. My sister told me that friends of hers had decorated a relative's grave in a local churchyard, only to be told that it contravened the terms of the "lease" and they had to change it.
In the case of my grandmother's grave, there are no restrictions at all as regards decoration, plantings or anything else. However, the plot is now full, and the only interments that can be made from now on are ashes. There is plenty of space for inscriptions, though, and I know my mother would like her ashes to be buried there when the time comes.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, my mother now has a certificate to say that she is the owner of the plot, the inscriptions are now in place, the marble has been cleaned and some lovely new crumbly topsoil installed. So after a delicious lunch of my sister's homemade (homegrown) courgette soup and a glass or two of pink Prosecco, we set off, trowels in hand.
My aunt had brought some cyclamen in varying shades of pink, and my mother had brought a spreading juniper. We all agreed my grandmother would have loved the cyclamen (she had a bit of a thing for cyclamen-pink lipstick) and that the juniper was just the right shade of air-force blue. (My uncle used to be in the RAF.)

My aunt scattering some of my uncle's ashes. I think the rest will probably go in the woods where they used to walk.

The finishing touch was a bagful of muscari bulbs in white and blue, which my aunt has asked me to augment in early spring with some English primroses.
As we worked away, the sun came out and it ended up being a lovely afternoon. I think both my aunt and my mother were worried that each might find the occasion a bit overwhelming but in fact, I think they both enjoyed it. It was poignant, of course, but in a good way.
As for us daughters, we loved seeing each other again. I don't see nearly enough of my cousins and even though the occasion was quite a solemn one, we still managed the odd fit of giggles as if we were all six years old once more.
I think the moral of this story is that it is worth thinking about all these things in advance, and perhaps setting out in detail what you want to happen. It may seem a morbid idea, but it can save a lot of heartache and hassle later on. And I also think that, rather than something that should never be mentioned, it can be quite comforting for people to talk it over and know what's going to happen, and where they are going to go. I know that's the case with my mother.

The finished result. My cousin took this picture...

... so I took this one so she could be in the group

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Never mind Leslie Caron, where's Anna Pavord?

To Woodstock in Oxfordshire today, or more specifically to Blenheim Palace, where the Woodstock Literary Festival, sponsored by The Independent, was being held. I'd got tickets to hear Anna Pavord and Ursula Buchan, two of my favourite gardening writers (indeed, two of my favourite gardening people) talking about their new books and anything else they thought might be of interest.
Anna, as you may know, has just published a book called Bulb and Ursula's latest book, a collection of her gardening columns entitled Back to the Garden, is published this week. So there was plenty to talk about.
I was going with my friend Penny, who lives in Oxford, and we decided to get to Blenheim fairly early, have a cup of tea and wander round the gardens. This turned out to be an excellent plan: it was a lovely day, and Blenheim fairly sparkled in the warm September sunshine.
It's funny how often September is a really nice month in the UK. In fact, we've had so little rain in the south that lots of gardeners are beginning to complain about having to water all the time.
The palace was built to celebrate a famous victory over the French by John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, in 1704. Apparently, the first Duchess wanted a cosier, less grand residence, and I have to say I sympathise. Blenheim bristles with martial grandeur and, beautiful as it is, it seems more like a parade ground than a home. It's also the birthplace of Winston Churchill, who was the grandson of the 7th Duke.
During the last 200 years, successive Dukes have added to John Churchill's flamboyant palace. The 4th Duke commissioned Capability Brown to design the parkland, but there are also formal gardens and fountains galore, as you can see in the picture below.

A view of the lake. This was originally a small river, over which Vanbrugh, the architect responsible for Blenheim, built the most enormous bridge. Vanbrugh felt that his patron deserved nothing less, but his critics poked fun, saying that it was completely out of scale with the marshy trickle that ran beneath it. When Capability Brown landscaped the parkland, he built a dam which transformed the river into a lake, flooding the lower part of the bridge and reducing it in scale. It was the sort of thing they did all the time in the 18th century. River in the wrong place? No problem, your Grace, we'll just re-route it. Village in the way? No problem, your Grace, we'll just knock it down and relocate it.

The view of the lake from the terrace. You can see why Blenheim is often described as the epitome of an English landscape.

Here is the Orangery, where the literary festival was taking place. This looks out onto yet more formal gardens. I was so busy admiring them, I was quite taken aback when my colleague John Walsh walked into the room accompanied by a small dark-haired lady who was greeted with rapturous applause. Was this the woman who was going to chair the discussion, perhaps?
No. John, beaming proudly from ear to ear, got to his feet and introduced ... the film star Leslie Caron, who was going to be interviewed in front of the audience about her new autobiography, called Thank Heaven.
"S***," I hissed to Penny, "we're in the wrong room!" and got up and belted out of the door, followed by a bemused Penny. Outside, a smiling gentleman asked us "if there was a problem, ladies?" "Yes," I said, "we're supposed to be listening to Anna Pavord and Ursula Buchan."
"Ah," he said, "you want the Marlborough Room. It's just on your left. But at least you got to have a glimpse of Leslie Caron!"
"B***** Leslie Caron," I said (rather rudely, it must be admitted) "we want to hear Anna and Ursula."
We scampered into the next room and there beneath a humungous portrait of the First Duke, were Anna and Ursula, talking to a rapt audience. Anna told us about her trips to Kazakhstan to see species tulips growing in the wild, and the story of how the plant hunter Ernest Wilson brought back Lilium regale, now a staple in traditional English gardens.
Travelling in Szechuan, he came over a mountain to see a valley filled with these beautiful flowers. (Can you imagine? A whole valley filled with lilies!) Sadly, on his way back up the mountain he fell and broke his leg, and though his porters tied him onto a stretcher and he eventually made it to a doctor, the leg didn't set properly and he always walked with what he called his "lily limp".
Ursula reflected on whether, at a time where we can grow virtually anything we want, thanks to the services of the internet, we lived in a kind of golden age of gardening. She thought not: more a silver age. Yes, there was huge interest in gardening, and a cornucopia of plant varieties to choose from. But gardens are getting smaller, and the pressure on housing is such that many properties now come without gardens at all.
There was a Q&A session too: I grabbed the opportunity to ask Anna if there were any bulbs other than daffodils that squirrels didn't like. Sadly, the answer was no. Anna explained that daffodils contain a substance designed to put animals off eating them, but other bulbs had no such protection. (Deer don't like daffodils either, apparently.)
It was a fascinating discussion. As Penny put it, it was the sort of chat you imagine the Gardeners' Question Time presenters have before the programme begins: just two people who really know their stuff having a really interesting conversation.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


I've now been tagged by Rothschild Orchid AND Elephant's Eye, so I really ought to get on with this. You probably know the rules by now: I have to buy seven people a bottle of vintage champagne and then they have to choose seven people to take on a balloon trip. Only joking!
To participate, you need to:
Link back to the person who tagged you
Reveal seven things about yourself
Choose seven other blogs and post a link to them
Tell each of your choices they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog
Inform the tagger when your post is up
So here are my seven things. Personally, I think you'd find Rothschild Orchid and Elephant's Eye's blogs much more entertaining, but here goes.
1 My father is a jazz musician. He still plays, even though he's over 80. He's the sort of musician who can play any instrument, but he's best-known as a trumpeter and trombonist. Lately he's taken to playing cornet. He says he likes the cornet because it's light enough to hold in one hand, which leaves the other free to hold a glass of red wine. He once played the Cavern in Liverpool with Bobby Mickleburgh's band and noticed that a group who called themselves The Beatles were the interval act. He didn't stick around to hear what they were like, though, as he was in too much of a hurry to get to the pub for a break. Here he is in action. No glass of red wine is actually visible, but I bet it's there somewhere.

2 I once met Princess Diana. She came into the Evening Standard offices, where I worked at the time, to say hello to her "neighbours" (the Standard offices are on Kensington High Street, very close to Kensington Palace). She was on good terms with the then editor, now Sir Max Hastings. She was even more gorgeous in real life than she was in photographs, and every bit as charming as her public image. We discussed our mutual crush on Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. A few months later she was dead.
3 I'm not agile enough to play sports well and my hand-eye coordination is rubbish. But I like watching cricket, or even just listening to the Test Match Special commentary on the radio. I couldn't explain the game to anyone to save my life, but there's something about it I find utterly beguiling.
4 It is a truth universally acknowledged that I can never quote accurately from memory even the best-known works of literature. (I remember the gist of it, but not the exact words.) I can never remember the words of songs either.
5 I can't count. I've just written out the numbers for the answers to this meme and put down "5" twice. This is absolutely typical of me. I said to someone the other day that I was the sort of person who adds eight and seven and gets 15. I was quite astonished when they said that was the right answer. How I ever passed O level arithmetic is a mystery.
6 Most of my family claim to have had a supernatural experience. I never have, unless it was passing O level arithmetic.
7 I knew Gordon Brown at university. There's nothing so worrying as finding that the people you knew as a student are now running the country.
OK, that's it. I've decided on a new twist to the "choose seven other people" bit. Knowing my luck, if I forward a meme on to someone, they'll reply that they've already done it. So this time, I'm going to ask seven people to volunteer for it. Let me know if you want to take up the challenge.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Wisley Flower Show, part 2

Enough of the moaning about the traffic (see previous post), what was the Wisley Flower Show like? Well, in true Victoria's Backyard tradition, I forgot to take my camera, but I can tell you it was a huge improvement on the old Wisley show, which used to be held in the last week of August.
The old show was held in a traditional canvas marquee, but for the new show, the Royal Horticultural Society had given each exhibitor their own little white stand, like a pavilion from a medieval jousting tournament. These were strung out along the path that leads from the restaurant, through the area planted with grasses and along to the new glasshouse.
Most had a little display area set well to the front of the stand, so there was plenty of room to walk round and look at the plants. Instead of shuffling round a marquee, you could amble along, alternately admiring the displays and being inspired by the Wisley planting. Luckily, it was a lovely day with warm sunshine and a gentle breeze.
Lots of Chelsea exhibitors were there, including Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants, Pennard Plants and Highdown nursery. One of the best displays was from Plantagogo, the heuchera specialists based in Cheshire, who had a selection of brightly coloured heucheras laid out beneath a jewel-like spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade') and a Cornus kousa chinensis, with its raspberry-like fruits.
I hadn't intended to buy anything. The wonderful thing about this time of year, for me, is that the garden opening is over, there's nothing much urgent that I need to do, but the garden still looks quite good. It's a time to relax and just enjoy it.
Of course, this resolution lasted about a nanosecond - indeed, until I spotted a Heuchera 'Southern Comfort' which I'd lusted after ever since seeing one at the Hampton Court show. And I also bought a little polyresin lizard, who is already sunning himself on the edge of my pond. The heuchera was £6 and the lizard cost £5. Entry to the show was free to RHS members, so all in all, I returned home reasonably unscathed in the wallet department.
I said at the beginning of this post that I wouldn't moan any more about the traffic. But I'm still musing about the RHS's apparent determination to turn Wisley into a theme-park style attraction. I know I've always been a bit of an old fogey about this: it seems to me that in the rush to attract more and more visitors, the RHS has forgotten that its members see its show gardens as places of inspiration and research, rather than somewhere to meet for a coffee and let the kids run wild.
On the other hand, would the Wisley show have attracted so many good nurseries if it wasn't expected to attract huge crowds?
The RHS is a charity, so I realise it has to move with the times and take every opportunity to make money. However, I was quite surprised to read in the Daily Telegraph this morning that membership has dropped over the past couple of years. Is this a case of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs? Or are huge visitor numbers the way forward? Read the article here and see what you think.

My little lizard, from The Garden Shop, who are based in the Columbia Road flower market in East London.

Above and below, Heuchera 'Southern Comfort' looking a bit bedraggled after spending the day in a carrier bag. Isn't it spectacular? The picture above gives you some idea of the size of the leaves.

Friday, September 11, 2009

So, six hours later, there we were at the Wisley Flower Show

To the Wisley Flower Show today, with my friend Janet. Wisley is about half an hour from my house by car, and Janet lives even closer, in the Surrey village of Claygate. So I'd arranged to drive as far as her house and she would drive us both to the flower show.
All went swimmingly as we drove down the A3 until we hit the M25 interchange, when we noticed a massive queue of traffic. This is not unusual. No one ever gets stopped for speeding on the M25 (the London orbital motorway), because the vehicles, as far as I can make out, are permanently stationary. Hardly a day goes by when there is not some sort of incident involving 10-mile tailbacks, so we didn't worry too much ... until we continued along the A3 and noticed that the traffic jam was continuing with us. In fact, it continued all the way to the Wisley junction, and up the other side of the A3 past the gardens themselves.
Janet and I pulled into a rest area and consulted the map. We worked out that if we took the next exit and drove cross-country to Woking, we could head up to West Byfleet and get into Wisley from the other side of the motorway. All we had to do was to navigate our way through half of Surrey. As for the traffic jam, we could only assume that there had been some terrible accident somewhere.
The plan worked well, and the only hitch was a narrow bridge across a canal lock as we made our way to Wisley village. There was the usual standoff while some idiot in a 4x4 tried to persuade the queue of 20 cars behind us to reverse so he could go past, instead of him reversing and letting 20 cars go past. Ah, the joys of motoring in the Surrey countryside.
We finally approached Wisley only to find ourselves directed into a car park I had never seen before. To say it was the overflow of the overflow of the overflow of the overflow car park was an understatement. It finally dawned on Janet and me that the huge traffic jam we had seen on the A3 was actually composed of cars queuing to go to the Wisley Flower Show.
They used to say that gardening was the new rock and roll. I can confirm that gardening is now the new 25-mile tailback. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or not.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A case of mistaken canna identity

I lost some of my cannas in the Narnia-like everlasting winter of 2008/2009. Like most other London gardeners with sub-tropical plants, I'd got a bit blasé about wrapping them up, and keeping them dry and all that sort of thing. (Not any more, I hasten to add.) It didn't seem to be the cold so much as a combination of cold and damp that killed them, as those that were in the sunniest spots survived.
So when spring finally arrived, I was keen to replace them. Many of the specimens I saw on sale in garden centres looked tatty and virus-ridden, so I was thrilled when I came across some really healthy-looking young plants at Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Society's garden and plant centre in Surrey.
They were labelled "Canna indica" but I was fairly confident that I knew what they were. One was Canna 'Phaison', or 'Tropicana' or 'Durban', which - as far as I know - is the same plant. It's a variegated sport of 'Wyoming' with orange flowers and flamboyant burgundy, red and green striped leaves. The other appeared to be Canna striata, or 'Bengal Tiger' or 'Pretoria', which has flamboyant green and yellow stripey leaves. (In my view, if you're going to have cannas, you might as well have the in-your-face kind.)
I got them home, potted them up and waited for the 'Pretoria', the green and yellow striped one to shoot up to its normal majestic height of over six feet. I waited and waited. Then, just before the garden opening last Sunday, it finally produced a flower. It was bright yellow, and rather attractive, with reddish buds that made a nice contrast with the yellow. But it was not more than four feet high.
As far as I can tell from surfing on the internet, it is Canna 'Trinacria Variegata', which is also known as 'Bangkok', 'Christ's Light', 'King of Siam', 'Minerva', 'Nirvana' and ... oh, I can't be bothered to type out the whole list.
There are two really irritating things about cannas. One, as you can see, is that they all seem to have at least three or four aliases, depending on what country you find them in. The other is, despite this multiple personality disorder, the growers insist on labelling them merely as "Canna indica". Even if you have some clue as to what you're looking for, you can easily be caught out.
I don't mind the different names, as at least that is identification. But the idea that you might want to buy a plant without knowing its eventual height, its colour and its habit seems to me most bizarre. After all, you don't go into a home furnishings shop and say you want a cushion, any size, any colour, any fabric. So why do growers think we might be less discriminating about what we put in our gardens?
By the way, if you're wondering about the other cannas I bought, they haven't flowered yet, though the foliage looks spectacular. And I have two more yet to flower with dark maroon leaves. What colour will they be, I wonder?

The replacement canna, which I think is C. 'Trinacria Variegata'. It's a perfectly lovely plant, but because it's not as tall as 'Pretoria', it has failed to mask the fence behind it. Never mind, there is a Trachylospermum jasminoides (Confederate jasmine) growing on that fence and hopefully by next year, it will have covered it. Next year, everything will be perfect...

The spectacular orange flowers of C. 'Pretoria', aka known as ... oh, never mind. Below, the plant in its full glory. Now I can compare the leaves, I can see that the foliage is quite, quite different from the replacement. Oh yes ...

This is the border where the yellow-flowered cannas are. In a bid to distract visitors from the lack of interest going on at the back, I decided at the last minute to put in some Oriental lilies at the front. I planted them next to the yuccas (Y. gloriosa 'Variegata') as I thought this might prevent them from being eaten by squirrels. To my delight, this worked: squirrels seem to dislike being stabbed in the rear by a yucca as much as I do.
However, the yuccas haven't managed to frighten away the lily beetles, as I found one the other day. I think I may have to settle for growing lilies as annuals. They're not that expensive, but it just seems such a waste. I hate lily beetles. Almost as much as I hate people who don't label cannas.