Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Time to jazz things up a bit. Maybe.

A while ago, Nell-Jean at Secrets of a Seed Scatterer wrote a very good post (she always writes very good posts) about why she liked people's blogs. I found it very inspiring. "Hmm," I thought, "I must take a good objective look at my blog, and see if I can make it more user-friendly."
That was in, ahem, October. I'm now just about to do a few tweaks and I'd be grateful for any suggestions. I'm not going to do a radical redesign, as I quite like the general look. But what do you like/dislike about the layout? Is there anything you'd like me to make clearer?
Do you find the blog roll (the list of blogs I like) useful? I was thinking of ditching it, as I never seem to keep it up to date. Some people have moved their blogs, while other people don't post regularly. Would a straightforward list of blogs I find interesting be better?
I like VP's idea of having a list of bloggers she's met and a list of people she'd like to meet. And I like Esther's technique of clicking on a picture to get more information about something. I think I might snitch those.
I'm not planning to change the comment system. I like being able to moderate comments - not because I think someone might post something unpleasant or obscene (they never have), but because it makes me read your comments carefully and take note of what you say. And the word verification (WV) doesn't seem to be too intrusive on the Blogger system.
I'm not sure what brought on this sudden desire for change. It's a bit early in the year for spring-cleaning. But I've just had the piano tuner here and I find listening to all those octave repetitions and the detangling of all those jangly notes quite therapeutic. Johnny, the tuner, always ends with a flourish of jazz or blues. (Every piano tuner I've ever met seems to be able to play brilliant jazz piano.) Maybe it's inspired me to jazz things up a bit too.

Monday, January 25, 2010

I am going to the Malvern Spring Show

I am going to the Malvern Spring Show. If I keep saying it, it might actually happen.
I say it every year, but I've never made it. This year I am DETERMINED.
What is so great about the Malvern Spring Show, you may ask. (What IS the Malvern Spring Show, I can hear some of you muttering.) Well, it's a strange irony that most big British flower shows are held in towns. This one is held in the countryside, in the shadow of the Malvern Hills, which inspired the composer Edward Elgar, who lived and taught music in Malvern itself.
It's timed just right - early May - to be a real celebration of spring, with lots of nurseries selling irresistible flowers.
This year it celebrates its 25th anniversary, but that's not what makes it an extra-special year for me. No, this year, patientgardener and VP are organising a Spring Fling at Malvern and I want to be there to take part in this blogging extravaganza.
Unfortunately, since I work on a national newspaper, I shall be slightly hampered by the fact that the general election will probably be held on 6 May, which is also the opening day of the show. Given a choice, I'd much prefer to go on the first day, but my chances of getting either polling day or the day after off are zero to zilch. So I'm planning to go on the Saturday, to stay for a meal afterwards and, I hope, stay overnight in some wonderful B&B.
If you want to meet up with us, the details are here. Repeat after me, I'm going to the Malvern Spring Show, I'm going to the Malvern Spring Show...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Montezuma pine

A lady called Julia, who gardens on the Isle of Wight, asked me the other day about the tree on the left-hand side of the picture at the top of my blog. I started to reply to her, and then thought it might be better to do a post, as the reply was getting longer and longer. People often ask me about this tree, so bear with me if you've heard it all before.
It's called the Montezuma pine, or Pinus montezumae, and as you'd guess from the name, it comes from Mexico.
It's also known as the Shih Tsu tree, because the tufts of needles look like the head of a shih-tsu dog, but Julia described them as looking like cheerleaders' pompoms, which I think is a very good description.
Like many pines, it's very drought-tolerant, and likes sun. It's not commonly available in the UK - it's best to contact Architectural Plants (branches in Chichester and Horsham) if you want to buy one. It is an absolutely beautiful tree, and I love it, but there are some drawbacks.
First, it grows very fast, into a very big tree. The one in the picture was about three feet high when I moved in in 2003 - it's now at least 15ft tall. It grows at a rate of about half a yard a year. I think the ultimate height is something like 90ft. I also have one in a pot, which restricts the growth. It's doing fine (it's the very big grey pot in the picture), but don't tell Architectural Plants - they will disapprove...
I prune mine regularly (mainly taking out the leaders), but it still makes a lot of growth in a year. The new growth can be a bit lanky, too, so I don't feel too guilty about the bonsai treatment - it has made the tree bush out more.
It's not common to prune pines in the UK, so I contacted Architectural Plants and they put me in touch with Jake Hobson. Jake, who trained as a sculptor, has worked in Japan, so he came over and showed me how to cut it back. Once I'd seen him do it, I was much more confident about doing it myself.
Second, the beautiful needles, which are so distinctive and so tactile, can be a bit of a nuisance as they drop all year round. There's a point every year - in late spring, just before it starts to grow in earnest again - when the tree has a huge moult and handfuls of needles come away. If you have squirrels scampering up and down, this exacerbates the problem. I used to have a lot of mint growing underneath, which has now vanished - I think it objects to having pine needles all over it.
So what are the advantages? Well, it's a great tree to hang bird feeders on! And it's beautiful - especially in spring and summer when the needles are a bright, fresh green. Apart from the growth issue, it is trouble-free. And it's always nice to have something unusual in the garden, something that's a talking point.
Indeed, this brings me to another issue - that of inheriting plants from previous owners. I don't think I would ever have dreamed of planting this tree myself, no matter how much I admired it. I wouldn't have had the courage to put one in a pot - and I certainly wouldn't have had the courage to put one in the ground, once I had realised what the ultimate height would be. I would have gone into Sensible Gardener mode and walked on by. However, now that I have them, I couldn't imagine the garden without them.
So many times I've taken over a garden to find something in it I really didn't want. Pampas grass (aargh) in my first London garden; loads of sprawly forsythia in three former gardens (I now HATE forsythia), sycamore or ash seedlings that have been left neglected and now, at 50ft, require permission from the council to prune because they are protected.
No, I think I could have done a lot worse than two Montezumas. What have you inherited in your garden - and do you love it or hate it?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

New shoots, new thoughts

Every now and again, in a British winter, a day dawns mild, bright and benevolent. It lures you outside with promises of spring and new growth. You sniff the air, and almost believe it.
Today was a day like that.
For the first time in what seems like months I've been in the garden. (Hey, for the first time in weeks, I've been outside voluntarily!) It's good to have these respites. It's a chance to refill the bird feeders without getting soaked to the skin, a chance to rip out pelargoniums that have turned to mush, and cut back the phormium leaves that collapsed under the weight of snow.
The garden may momentarily look spring-like but everything is absolutely soaking - so saturated that it's amazing the plants don't float away. Even the pots of sempervivums, with their free-draining compost that is half grit, yield a flow of icy water if you tip them up.
You tell yourself that you're not going to fall for the con, that there will be more snow, more ice, more frost before we're through. But then, as you idly pull away a bit of snow-slushed foliage here or a tangle of stark brown stems there, you find real signs of spring.

Daffodil shoots are poking their green noses up through the soil as if to say: "Whassup?". The new, bright green leaves of Aquilegia 'Purple Emperor' look fragile and frivolous, like the swimwear displays that are coming into the stores.

It reminds me that I haven't got any snowdrops. In previous gardens, I'd always been more successful planting them in the green - ie, right now - so I ought to hunt some down. Two bedraggled polyanthus look as if they would like some company, so that goes on the shopping list too.
Then your thoughts turn to more ambitious projects. How about some low wooden benches for the firepit area to replace those plastic ones from Ikea? How about a new shed! What about cutting the lawn into intersecting circles?!
Calm down, you tell yourself. It will be raining again tomorrow. But hold that thought...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Yuk, more snow

Goodness, I hate snow. Especially when I have to go to work. And especially when the trains don't work. And most especially when I am supposed to have a day off and I am enjoying watching the snowflakes flutter down outside - and I get a call saying please can I go to work instead.
This is usually because colleagues can't get in, or have burst pipes or other horrendous snow-related problems. And yes, it happened today.
The only time I like snow is when I don't have to go out in it. And even then I start fretting about not getting any exercise and putting on weight.
I'm sorry, I shall make a huge effort to stop grumbling. (Either that, or change the name of this blog to Victoria's Commute.)
So here's a picture of a snow-laden garden for you to enjoy. And as a reward for putting up with the moaning, here's a little story to show that Londoners can usually see the funny side, even in the snow. If they really try...

I was on my way to work yesterday via Victoria station. As I walked across the concourse towards the Underground, I noticed, in the middle of all the people rushing to and fro, a large husky dog.
I think it was a husky. It had those pale eyes huskies have, but it was quite a big dog and looked a bit like a beige wolf. It was curled up on the floor, with its nose on its tail and it didn't appear to be with anyone, but I assumed its owner was grabbing a snack from one of the coffee shops.
As I walked past it, a group of workmen approached in the opposite direction and also noticed the dog. "Oi, Tel," one shouted across to his mate, "didja bring the husky team in with you today?"
His friend glanced at the dog. "Nah, mate," he said, without missing a beat. "That's not mine. That's the Gatwick Express."

I don't know what made these footprints in the snow. But I don't think it was a husky.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Farewell, John Cushnie

Sad news today that John Cushnie, the garden writer and BBC Gardeners' Question Time panellist for 15 years, has died of a heart attack. Garden pundits - in common with anyone who is in the public eye for any time at all - can become irritating the more one is exposed to their funny little ways. But Cushnie could always make me laugh - even when I felt he was being at his most outrageous. He'll be much missed.