Saturday, February 21, 2009

It was such a lovely day, I decided to go out into the garden and cut off a bit of my finger

Gorgeous weather in London today. Blue sky, warm sunshine, girls walking down the King's Road in short-sleeved T-shirts, that sort of thing. Just the sort of day to get out into the garden and start tidying up before spring really starts to get under way.
One of the jobs I had to do was to cut back my phormiums. The snow had flattened them, leaving many of the leaves bent, so they were flopping about all over the place. The biggest one is about eight or nine feet high, so that's a lot of flopping. Once the stems are bent, they'll never straighten up again, so the best plan seemed to be to cut them off.
I find the best way to do this is to hold the leaf taut and cut through it with a sharp pair of secateurs as low down as you can, so you don't leave lots of stumps that will poke you in the eye the next time you come to do the same chore. I use Felco No 7 secateurs (the ones with the rolling handle) and I always have them well-sharpened.
So there I was, happily chopping away, and taking out last year's miscanthus stems while I was at it, when I sliced off part of the little finger on my left hand. What was supposed to be a lovely afternoon in the garden turned into two hours in the local accident and emergency unit, thanks to my neighbours, who rushed me down there in their car.
What have I learned from this experience, which was totally my own fault? Well, I had a gastroscopy yesterday (nothing to worry about, just a double-check that everything was as it should be) which required being sedated. The hospital warned me not to drive, or operate machinery, or even cook, from which I should have deduced that using a pair of secateurs might be hazardous. If you are ever unfortunate enough to have a medical procedure which requires sedation, do not do anything for the following 24 hours apart from lie on a couch and have someone bring you grapes and cups of tea.
I've also learned that wearing gloves when you garden (which I rarely do unless I'm cutting back something prickly or it's very cold) might be a good idea sometimes. I would imagine that cutting a bit off your gloves is much less upsetting than cutting a bit off your finger.
So how is the disabled digit? Well, I turned down the offer of plastic surgery. (It involved cutting a bit off another part of my hand, which didn't seem to me to be what you might call a win, win situation.) I think it's stopped bleeding. And I can still type, as you can see. But I feel rather battered and bruised mentally and physically - not to mention incredibly stupid.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The sort of lecture I like

Isn't it great when you come across someone who can really make a subject come alive for you, or has the knack of making things seem instantly comprehensible? The sort of person who makes you think: "Oh yes, I SEE!"
My mother, who began her long career in education as an art teacher, has that ability, and so does my friend Linda, another history of art graduate. Going round a gallery with them is like having your own walking, talking guide. (Not surprisingly, Linda is a volunteer guide - at the Tate.)
We can probably all remember teachers who were able to breathe life into their subjects and infuse us with an enthusiasm that lasted for the rest of our lives. My English teacher, Mrs Cunningham, was like that, and many of the teachers at my children's school seem to be the same.
It's not a talent I've inherited from my mother. I find it impossible to explain things to people in a simple, concise way. However, I'm delighted to tell you that Newshoot at Ethereal Monads is very good at it, and has just posted the first of her Chippenham Lectures, named after the home town of VP. It's on the principles of garden design and if her first offering is anything to go by, it is going to be a fantastic series.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Free tickets to the Chelsea Flower Show!

I was talking to the Royal Horticultural Society press office yesterday about tickets for the Chelsea Flower Show. Rules for allotting press passes are being tightened up and I wanted to make sure that my colleagues and I would get the passes we needed.
The discussion turned to the subject of people trying to get free tickets to the show, and I happened to mention that I would be volunteering for the Plant Heritage (formerly the NCCPG) cloakroom on the Saturday, as it was a, good fun, b, a good way to support a very worthwhile charity, and c, a great way to see the show yet another time (especially on the last day, when the plants are sold off and you can pick up a few bargains ...)
The nice lady in the press office told me the RHS is looking for volunteers too. They need people to man (person?) information points, sell guides to the show and even help out in the press office.
The great bonus is that very often you have to be on site before the show opens, so you'll be able to wander round without having to fight your way through crowds of people. It's a fantastic opportunity to see the show from backstage, as it were, and you'll never look at Chelsea quite the same way again.
It's not just Chelsea, but Hampton Court too, I think, and that goes for Plant Heritage, who have already sent round an email asking for volunteers to staff their marquee at Hampton Court. If you want to volunteer for the RHS, contact Elysa Rule in membership on 020 7821 3120 or
The picture above is of Cleve West's garden for Bupa last year, which won a gold medal.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A tale of two town mice

Goodness, I'm such a townie. I never really quite realised before. I went to Cornwall last week, to Falmouth to be exact. I was accompanying my son, who wanted to attend the open day at University College Falmouth, where he thought he might like to study fine art.
Gorgeous Cornwall, with its fabulous countryside and glorious seascapes; full of artistic communities, wonderful light and good seafood too. Where could be better to spend three years of student life?
It's a long way to Cornwall from London. Five to six hours on the train, give or take a missed connection at Truro and frozen points at Newton Abbot. Still, we felt a thrill of excitement as the Penzance express nosed its way through the snowy countryside like an excitable dog let off the lead to pursue beguiling scents. And even when we missed the Falmouth train (the express was running 10 minutes late) and had to wait for an hour on a freezing cold station, the glow of anticipation was only dimmed a little.
It dimmed a little more when we arrived at Falmouth Town station ("alight here for Woodland Campus") and found that there were no minicabs, no map that we could see, and certainly no people. (There are no station staff on this branch line, merely a notice that exhorts you to ring the national rail inquiry number if you have any queries.) And it was further dimmed when we finally arrived at our B&B after walking the entire length of the town to find that we should have alighted at Penmere station instead. (Penmere does not have a notice that says "alight here for Woodlane Campus". But it should.)
It's difficult to say what put me off Falmouth. It could have been the non-stop traffic. If you're going to spend five to six hours on a train getting away from London, it would be nice not to be mown down at the end of it by speeding Cornishmen and women. In London, motorists actually slow down sometimes so you can risk death by crossing the road. In Falmouth, the accepted practice seems to be to speed up, or honk your horn very loudly. (They hoot at each other too, not just Londoners.)
Apart from that, everyone was very friendly, especially the two ladies in the tourist information office, who were practically my best friends by the time I left. They seemed to be the only source of rail timetables, bus timetables, maps of the town and general information. If you ever visit Falmouth, do make them your first stop.
My son went off to his welcome session and fine art seminar and I wandered around the campus where there is a rather nice sub-tropical garden, with yuccas and cordylines and bamboo. It's called the Fox Rosehill garden and it was lovely, as you can see from the pictures.

It wasn't until I was on the train home that I worked out what was missing. At Reading (half an hour from London) a family got on. The father was English and the mother was Spanish and I listened to her talking to her children with affectionate relief.
I think I'd felt nostalgic for the sheer polyglot international-ness of London. For the fact that you can walk down the street and hear Italian, Russian, Arabic, Gujerati, Spanish, Polish - half a dozen languages within a square mile. For the smell of French, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Lebanese or Moroccan food wafting from restaurants around you.
When we arrived at Paddington, we found the Circle Line was out of commission for the weekend (as was part of the Northern Line, the Jubilee Line and the District Line). It turned the last part of our journey into something resembling one of those corporate bonding/problem-solving exercises. But it failed completely to dim my joy at returning home.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Snow, Day II: Anyone for ice cream?

It's very easy, when you're trying not to skid into a neighbour's car, or sitting in a mile-long traffic jam, to lose your sense of humour about snow. That sense of childlike wonder is slowly replaced by growing frustration and bad temper. So this morning, I decided to go into the garden and try to find something that would make me smile.
I'd been looking at other UK blogs yesterday to see their snow pictures, and Easygardener at Greenforks had a lovely set, which included one showing her birdfeeders wearing little snowy hats.
My birdfeeders didn't look as if they had hats on, but these candleholders looked a bit like ice cream cones, I thought. They were given to me by a friend, Janet, and they look lovely with or without candles. When they fill with rainwater, smaller birds like blue tits drink from them, so I tend to leave them up all year round.

The bird table also looked a bit like an ice cream cone. When I was a child, there only seemed to be one sort of ice cream - Wall's ice cream. It used to come in square blocks, in special square cornets, and this picture reminded me of them. It was absolutely disgusting ice cream, I seem to recall: it put me off vanilla for life.

The suet treat feeder looked a bit like another sort of commercial ice cream, a Cornetto. I don't like Cornettos much either. Neither do the birds: they wouldn't go near it until I knocked the snow off.

And if you were feeling particularly greedy, there was a humungous ice cream shape on top of one of the terracotta urns. This looks like my favourite sort of ice cream: traditional Italian. Perhaps even coconut sorbet, which is my daughter's favourite.

Monday, February 2, 2009

February brings the snow (no, wait, that's not right...)

It usually takes only a dusting of snow to bring London to a halt, so four inches overnight has paralysed the city. My children and I watched the snow fall last night and only marvelled at how pretty it was. This is the worst snow for six years, and the worst winter for a long time in London, so it's rather sweet to see what a novelty it is for two otherwise fairly blasé urban teenagers. There's more snow to come this afternoon and tonight.
There are no buses running at all in London today. Gatwick is open but there is no Gatwick Express train service into London. London City Airport, in Docklands, is shut. Two of Heathrow's runways are shut. Most important of all (says my daughter), most of the schools are shut, including hers. 
So here is the scene at Victoria's Backyard at 7.45am this morning. I had to cheat and shake the snow off the bamboo because it bends over and blocks the view completely. Bamboo seems to shrug off extremes of weather, but the snow weighs it right down. Last year, I gave the golden bamboo at the front an enthusiastic whack with a broom handle and two huge canes immediately broke in half. A gentle shake (if you can reach) is much more effective, and the canes spring up like a security guard roused from an illicit nap.

I was looking forward to photographing the garden in the snow (with my new camera!) but there seems to be so much snow, it has blurred all the outlines completely. I love the "cushions" on the steamer chairs though (see top picture) and the thick white tablecloth (above). I've tried to throw some birdfood out but it has already disappeared into the whiteness. I'll try to take some more pictures later, before I attempt the journey to work and before the next blizzard sweeps in from northern Russia.

My daughter is talking about taking the sledge out to Wandsworth Common, which is a couple of streets away. In an idea world, however, I would be watching the snow from indoors. It's a bit like being inside a giant snowdome.