Friday, June 29, 2012

The green stuff (and my new Bosch mower)

Esther, who is one of my favouritest bloggers, has just written a post about lawns. What is a lawn, she asks? How does it differ from a playing field or a tennis court?
Very good question, and it's a very thought-provoking post. I started to write a comment, and then thought that I might turn it into a post myself.
The subject of lawns is a fraught one. First, there are the environmental considerations - it seems mad to insist that people have lawns in dry regions, for example.

Conversely, if you have a very shady garden, you may find it difficult to sustain a healthy green sward because grass needs a certain amount of nice, warm sunshine in order to grow.
My grass gets a fair amount of sun, and it's pretty trouble-free - the two patches you can see in the picture above are where I left a couple of pots of eucomis for, erm, rather longer than I meant.
I don't bother to water, or weed and feed it (although I take out broad-leaved weeds such as dandelions and plantains by hand). I'm always chopping bits off it to make new planting areas. I have thought of getting rid of it altogether, but I like the sight of birds hopping about on it looking for worms.
I commented on Esther's blog that lawns are for doing nothing in particular. They are a restful space for the mind and the eye - you can feel both extending their length of focus as you gaze out across the grass. There has to be a contrast, however: acres of mown grass, or the sort of grass verges that you get in housing estates, aren't interesting at all because there's no focal point.
In my garden, I like the way the two-dimensionality of the lawn provides a contrast with the jungly plants. And I love the feel of it underfoot, that cool, refreshing dampness.
So far, so green. But I have a confession to make: I LOVE mowing. I don't know why - maybe I was a man in another life. I love it even more now that I have a brand-new lawnmower.
It's the first new lawnmower I've ever had, strangely enough. I've always inherited old ones from friends or family. So forgive me for getting a little overexcited about it.

It's a Bosch Rotak 37 LI Ergoflex, and it is truly wonderful. It wasn't free (though I did get a show discount, because I bought it at Chelsea), so this is an impartial, unsolicited review. The LI bit means that it is cordless, and the Ergoflex bit means that it is designed to be used by left-handed or right-handed people with equal ease. The figure 37 refers to the cutting width - there is good range of sizes.
The handles are designed a bit like one of those folding baby buggies, which makes it much easier to manoeuvre. And there are four power buttons, so you can hold the power on with whichever hand is easier. (Interestingly, I've found that's my left hand, because I use the right to steer.)
Compared with the old-fashioned straight bar arrangement, with the power on the right, it's much less strain on the back and the arms. For anyone with problems such as RSI, or back trouble, it is a joy to use.

The mower is powered by a 36V Lithium-Ion battery, which is housed on the front of the mower. It charges in only 90 minutes and the Lithium-Ion technology means that it doesn't lose its charge. Nor does it do it any harm to leave the battery on the charger, but I've found I can replace the battery, leave the mower in the shed for a week, and it still worked perfectly well.

The cutting height is adjusted with the red handle on the right-hand side. It moves all the wheels at once, so you don't have to faff about changing each one individually, or doing the front and the back. The handle folds down - you just undo the orange clips at each side - and there's a handy grab handle just above the battery which makes it easy to pick the whole thing up and sling it in the shed. It weighs 14kg, which is 28lbs in old money.

I dithered a lot about whether to get a cordless model. It's more expensive than the conventional electric mower, and initially I couldn't see the point of spending all that money just to get out of winding and unwinding the flex. We have a circuit breaker on the garden sockets, so safety wasn't so much of a concern.
However, I found it was really easy to decapitate plants, or pull over pots, with my old mower, and I was constantly performing a kind of rodeo show, trying to flip or loop the flex out of the way. So I'm very grateful to my friends Dominic and Stuart for persuading me that a cordless would be a good buy.
If you're thinking of buying a mower - or any gardening equipment - shows are a good place to look. It's a great opportunity to see the whole range, and have someone who knows the product really well explain it to you. (I got teased by my friend Pattie because the chap who was showing me how the mower worked, Bosch regional brand manager Joao Barufi, was incredibly good-looking.)
There's usually a show discount of some kind, which makes the prices more competitive. I couldn't find my model any cheaper on the internet - and my mower was delivered two days later free of charge.
I'm sure that lovely Esther did not intend for me to go off into a lawnmower review when she started writing about lawns. Sorry, Esther!

Hairy Potter and the chamber of secrets: Luigi's garden blog

 There's something about this big empty terracotta pot that absolutely fascinates Luigi. Haven't a clue what it is, but he can spend ages walking round the rim, having a good look inside. He has occasionally got right inside it - and seems able to jump out again without any difficulty. He reminds me of one of those old brandy glass ornaments you used to get in the Seventies, with the cat climbing up the side.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

I "canna" make up my mind

Yesterday, Saturday, I had a long-standing arrangement to visit Keith Hayward at Hart Canna Farm in Surrey. In theory, I buy all my cannas from Keith, because his stock is virus-free. In practice, I am like Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot and keep falling for rather unsuitable characters in garden centres that turn out to have canna virus. As Monroe's character, Sugar Kane, would say: "See what I mean? Not very bright."
I always mean to have a canna "purge" but when the darned things start growing, I start feeling sorry for them and can't bear to chuck them out. However, this is going to be the year when my garden goes canna virus-free.
I love cannas. Just look at that foliage above - you don't even need flowers. And yet there ARE flowers - big, showy orange ones that look like flamenco dancers. The one above is 'Durban' (or 'Phasion', or 'Tropicanna'  - the experts tend to think they're really all the same variety). Below is 'Pretoria' (aka 'Bengal Tiger' - some cannas have more aliases than a bigamous con artist).

Don't like orange? Don't like flamboyant foliage? Here's 'Lolita', a gorgeous lipstick pink with yellow edging.

The species canna below is C. patens. It has beautiful, delicate flowers, and the seedheads are more attractive as well. I like species cannas, but I don't have room to have lots of them, so I need a something that gives me a bit more bang for my buck.

I think this is 'Eric', as Keith's assistant Annie calls him. His proper name is C. 'Eric Neubert'.
Annie and Keith gave me a guided tour of the nursery and showed me the different varieties. They also gave me a short tutorial in how to recognise canna virus - although as Keith pointed out, this is easier on some varieties than on others. On 'Pretoria', for example, it is well nigh impossible to spot virus.

Oooh, a whole polytunnel full of cannas. Heaven! Especially on an overcast June day with a sharp wind blowing. It was lovely and warm in there.

I had decided that, in the Year of the Canna Purge, I was going to stop having orange cannas and have cream ones instead. I had this idea in my head that my garden was going to look classy rather than, erm, orange. This was one of the varieties (above) that I had decided to buy: 'Ambassadour'. There was just one snag: the foliage. Both the cream varieties I was considering (the other one was 'Creamy') have plain green foliage, which is faintly glaucous. I've spent years growing 'Durban' and 'Pretoria' and I'm used to canna foliage being an attraction in itself.

In the end, I decided to go for 'Wyoming', which has, erm, orange flowers and bronze foliage. It's more subtle than 'Durban' but still a knockout plant. And I also got a couple of C. musifolias, which very rarely flower, but produce the most spectacular leaves with an edging of bronze.
As the name suggests, they grow almost as big as banana plants. Like bananas, the canna family belongs to the Zingiberales order, and also like bananas, they are fairly low maintenance.They don't need staking or pruning or any fiddling about. They need a bit of protection in winter, but I've known them survive in the garden despite snow and frost. What they really hate is to get cold and wet - and stay cold and wet. Then you find the roots start to rot. 
To avoid this, I grow mine in big plastic pots, with a bit of copper tape round the pot to deter slugs. It is then easy to cut down the cannas after the first frost and put them somewhere dry - a garage, or a shed, or a cellar - to overwinter.
You don't need light - it doesn't have to be a greenhouse. And it doesn't have to be warm. You just want to keep them fairly dry until they start to sprout again the following spring. If you have a fairly solid garden table, shove them under there.

These are 'Queen Charlotte' (or 'Konigin Charlotte'). And below is 'Panache', which I defy anyone to dislike. It has the delicacy of the species flowers, but the presence of the big varieties. I'd spent ages telling Annie that I didn't like pink - and then fell in love with this one. Sadly, they didn't have any stock ready for sale. Next year...

Friday, June 22, 2012

At the Chelsea Physic Garden with a lady from Louisiana

I've always loved the Chelsea Physic Garden, which is often described as one of London's garden oases. It's a four-acre garden, just along the road from the Royal Hospital, where the Chelsea Flower Show is held, and a short walk from the bustle of the King's Road.
It's often hired as a venue for parties, so I've spent many evenings there, sipping a glass of white wine at a book launch or some such. And I've been to the plant fairs. But I haven't "taken the tour", as it were.
Anyway, all that changed on Tuesday when I met up with the delightful Jean McWeeney, formerley of Austin, Texas and now living in Ruston, Louisiana. I knew Jean was coming to London and we'd hoped to get together, so I thought the Physic Garden, with its highly recommended cafe and its central location, would be perfect for an afternoon out.
The Physic Garden was founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries. As one of the big London Guilds, their Livery Hall was at Blackfriars, in the City of London, so they needed somewhere where they had space to grow plants for their apprentices to study and learn to identify. The Chelsea site, subsequently bought by Sir Hans Sloane in 1712 and rented to the Society, was perfect.

This is one of the ponds - not just any old pond, but a Grade II* listed pond. When we build a pond, we go to the DIY store or the garden centre to buy hard landscaping materials. When the Physic Garden built this pond, they used the basaltic lava - see the black rocks? - which formed the ballast in the ship that took Sir Joseph Banks on a voyage to Iceland in 1772. And the bits of carved stone (see below) that look like architectural salvage? They're from the Tower of London. Naturally.

The garden was originally divided into four parts, and until recently this was still pretty much the case. One quarter was devoted to medicine, one to the "order beds", arranged by families of plants, one to the great plant hunters and their discoveries, and one rather scruffy bit - it might have been shade plants. It's recently been revamped though, by head gardener Nick Bailey, and it works really well, not only from an aesthetic point of view but also as a way of displaying plants. It still looks like a garden, rather than a classroom.

The garden faces south, and this, combined with the protection afforded by the surrounding buildings, creates a warm microclimate. Our excellent guide, Anne, told us that the Chelsea Physic Garden can be up to 7C warmer than the surrounding streets - and London itself is not exactly a frost spot.

This means that otherwise tender plants, such as the iochroma, above, or the towering echium, below, can flourish.

What looks like a flowering tree is actually an enormous rose. It's the Himalayan musk rose, Rosa brunonii, growing over a Catalpa bignonioides, or Indian bean tree.

Here's a superb yew - you don't often see yew trees like these days. Hedges, or topiary, are much more fashionable. According to Anne, our guide, the English cut down so many yews to make longbows during the Middle Ages that we were in danger of running out of yew trees altogether. 

Anne was a wonderful guide, informative and entertaining. Veratrum viride, she told us, was used by some Native American tribes to elect a new leader. All the candidates would eat a leaf, and the last one to vomit was made chief. They ought to adopt it for the US elections. It would be much cheaper than months of campaigning - and far more entertaining!

This is the Madagascan periwinkle, or Catharanthus roseus, which is used in the treatment of leukaemia and lymphoma. It contains alkaloids in its sap - interestingly, one of the side effects of treatment is hair loss.

The gates of the Chelsea Physic Garden carry the arms of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries - it shows Apollo, the Greek god of healing, killing the serpent Python, which represents disease. These gates, which open onto the Chelsea Embankment, are not used by the public. They are only used on two occasions, said Anne - when a member of the royal family comes to visit, and when the manure is delivered. Hopefully, not on the same day.
The river access would have made this garden even more convenient when it was first developed, as plants, seeds, supplies and so on could be transported by water, which at that time was safer and quicker than travelling by road.

These school children were having a great time pond dipping at the Robert Fortune tank pond, named after the Scottish botanist who helped to develop Assam as a major tea planting region.

This is one of the new areas of the garden, and this bit contains Useful Plants. Anything that is used to make paper, or rope, or dye, or fabric - you can find it here.

All the work on the new areas was done in-house. I like the way they've picked up the theme of the Order Beds, with the rectangular planting areas - it gives a sense of unity. The terraced beds at the end contain plants that used for perfume, such as carnation. The retaining wall on the lowest bed acts as a bench, so you can sit in the sun and savour the nice smells.

And here's Jean, the lady from Louisiana. We had such a wonderful afternoon. It is a real treat for me to spend an afternoon looking at a garden, in the pleasant company of another gardener, followed by a glass of wine and some good food. Thank you, Jean!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The 'So I hadn't intended to buy anything at the Crocus sale' story

I hadn't intended to buy much at the Crocus sale - I really hadn't. I said so to my neighbour Ruth as we got out of the car. She just gave me The Look.
The first plants we saw were those that had been grown to decorate the Royal boats in the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant.

Ha! I thought. I am immune to roses and lavender, and no, I do not want a complete knot garden - despite the fact that it had been on a Royal barge.  (It was marked POA - price on application. If you have to apply to find out the price, you can't afford it. The sort of people who can afford it just say, rather grandly: "I'll take it!" and don't worry about how much it costs.)
It's not that I don't like roses and lavender, but they don't fit into my garden, which is a relief. It saves me hours of dithering over rose catalogues. The roses for the royal event were 'Munstead Wood' and 'Darcy Bussell', which were tempting enough, but on the other side of the enclosure were the roses grown by Peter Beales for Arne Maynard's Laurent-Perrier garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. These were Rosa 'Comte de Chambord', a lovely old rose that repeat-flowers (it's the parent of David Austin's 'Gertrude Jekyll'.
Incidentally, Peter Beales are holding their own open day on 23/24 June. It's their annual Rose Festival, held at their gardens in Attleborough, Norfolk, and it sounds like a great day out for rose-lovers.
Every time Crocus have an open day, friends email or Tweet to say that they're going. I never manage to bump into anyone I know, but on this occasion, I did encounter Zoe, which was lovely.
The layout at Crocus is quite straightforward, but they do give you a map to help you find things. Some of the plants are in polytunnels, and some are out in the open, such as this sea of salvias, below.

 There is always a huge selection of peonies at this time of the year (below) and roses. However, although it's a good idea to take a list of what you want (because in theory it will prevent you succumbing to impulse buys), you can't guarantee that the specific variety you want will be available. But that's the fun of a Crocus open day - it's a sort of horticultural lucky dip.

Some of the plants are either roped off or in a closed area (above) and this is usually because they are being grown on, or they are for a particular client. Of course, it's always the plants you can't buy that are the ones you decide you absolutely must have.
Some people ignore the red and white tape and just take the plants anyway, but I think this is bad manners. And there is so much else to choose from, in any case.

When you arrive at the nursery, you're given a strip of stickers with a number on them, and you simply put a sticker on the plant you want and leave it in full view of the guys going round with the trailers. They pick up the plants, take them back to the sales area and put them in a crate with the corresponding number. When you get back to the sales area, you simply look for the crate with your number.
If you think you're going to buy a lot - and especially if you're buying groups of perennials -  it's worth asking for two sets of stickers.

Then you find a trolley (which may involve a little walk around the car parks...), load up your plants and pay for them. Credit cards are accepted, and in my experience the total always seems to be less than you thought it was going to be.
So what did I buy? There's an old joke on the Scottish side of my family, where an Aberdonian visits London for the first time. On his return home, a friend asks him how his visit went. "Och," says the Aberdonian, in tones of great outrage, "I hadna been in London mair than twa minutes and bang went sixpence!"
Well, I hadn't been in Crocus for more than two minutes when I found myself buying an azalea and three banana plants. I followed this up with some dahlias ('David Howard') and a couple of ferns: Blechnum spicant. The azalea was Rhododendron 'Daviesii', which is just the most gorgeous thing - creamy white, with a wonderful fragrance. I'd bought one at the previous Crocus open day, so I just had to have another one.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant: Epilogue

I know, I know - more boats. I'll have to change the name of this blog to Victoria's Boatyard.
However, it seems to me that the coverage of the river pageant - particularly by the BBC - didn't really do justice to the event. From what I can see, or hear from friends, it was as if they'd decided it was going to be a boring procession of boats and they needed to spice this up, for those of a limited attention span, with footage of spurious stunts by random celebrities.
I'm not a particularly boat-y person, but I found the boats - especially the Historic Ships - fascinating. So I thought I'd do a final post, and try to give you some idea of why I think the BBC missed an opportunity.
I took these pictures on Monday, when I went back to West India Dock to see my mum on her boat. It was a great opportunity to wander round and have a closer look at some of the vessels and hear their stories.

Here's the Jolly Brit, one of six open launches used on the Royal Yacht Britannia. It was used as a jolly boat (the boat that takes people from ship to shore) for the Royal family’s trip ashore for picnics or walks while cruising round the Highlands and Islands. I don't know if anyone knows for sure why they are called jolly boats - one suggestion is that it comes from the old Dutch word jolle, meaning a small boat.

The Walton on the Naze lifeboat, said to be the world’s oldest surviving motor lifeboat. Stationed at Walton on the Naze, on the north coast of Essex, she was launched 126 times and saved 27 lives between 1900-1928. Sold out of service in 1928, she served variously as a harbour launch at Maldon, as a fireboat on the Thames during the Second World War, and finally became a houseboat. In 1998, she was bought and restored.

This is a 1960s power boat, lovingly restored both inside and out. I have to confess, I can't remember which one this is. I think it might be Broad Ambition, which is drop-dead gorgeous and looks like the sort of thing James Bond might have owned.

The Gainsborough Trader, one of the Dunkirk Little Ships. She was built in 1931, and after the Dunkirk evacuations, she was used as a lighter, the name given to a flat-bottom barge that unloads or loads cargo, until 1986. She's now privately owned.

The St George has had a longer working life than the Queen. Built in 1935, she was used as a Poole Harbour trip boat until 1939, when she was taken over by the Admiralty during the Second World War. After the war, she was re-named St George and moved to the Thames, where she ran river trips from Tower Bridge until the late 1960s. She was then used for public fishing trips in the lower Thames Estuary until she was bought by the current owner in 1977 and converted to a pleasure boat.

Janthea, another heroine of Dunkirk (see her plaque below). A motor yacht, she was built in 1938 and cost £1,885.15 shillings. Her original owner named her Reda, but he never had a chance to sail in her. In 1940, she was used in the evacuation of Dunkirk, and then served as an auxiliary patrol vessel during the war. Her name was changed to Columbine, and she served with the Harwich Patrol until June 1947. She was renamed Janthea in 1952, and her current owners have looked after her since 1984.

Sundowner has an extraordinary history. She was built in 1912 by the Admiralty, who sold her in the 1920s. In 1930 she was converted into a private motor yacht by her new owner, Commander Charles Herbert Lightoller - the senior surviving officer of the Titanic. It was Lightoller's wife Sylvia who named her Sundowner - an Australian term for wanderer.
During the 1930s, she was used for family trips both at home and abroad, even covering the 3,000 miles of a Baltic cruise without any mechanical difficulties. In 1939, as war threatened, Lightoller was asked by the Admiralty to conduct a secret survey of the German coast. He agreed and for two weeks, with his wife Sylvia acting as cover, he took Sundowner on a reconnaissance mission.
A year later, on 1 June 1940, with his son Roger and an 18-year-old sea-scout called Gerald Ashcroft, Lightoller - now aged 66 - set out from Ramsgate to assist in the evacuation of Dunkirk.
On the way they encountered the motor cruiser Westerley on fire. Having picked up her two crew and three naval ratings on board, they carried on towards the Dunkirk beaches where the British troops were stranded on the beach under enemy bombardment. They managed to pack 130 people on board (including the Westerley's and their own crew). Boots and equipment were thrown overboard to make room, and Sundowner headed back to Ramsgate where she arrived 12 hours after departing that morning.

Here's MTB 102 (above and below), a torpedo boat that served during the Second World War. Completed in 1937, she was stationed in the English Channel from 1939 to 1940, and during Operation Dynamo - the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 - she crossed the Channel eight times. She's what you might call a small boat with a big kick - with a top speed of 48 knots, she was fast and agile. She also served as the flagship for Admiral Sir Frederick Wake-Walker when his ship was disabled during Operation Dynamo - thus making her the smallest flagship ever (68ft) in the Royal Navy. In 1944 she carried Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower to review the fleet for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy.

One of the RAF rescue boats taking part in the pageant, this is 441, built in 1941. She still carries shell and machine gun holes in her transom (one of the beams that runs across the boat at the stern). Below is HSL 102, built in 1936. These motor launches were used by the RAF to rescue airmen who had ditched in the sea. They operated from around the coast of Britain and saved more than 13,000 lives during the war.

This boat doesn't have a distinguished war record, but according to her crew, she has the best-maintained engine in the dock! She's the Wheldale, restored and owned by Yorkshire Waterways museum. She was originally a tug, used to pull what were called Tom Puddings (interlocking barges) full of coal from the Yorkshire coal mines - a bit like a steam locomotive pulling trucks. She'll be moored at West India Dock for the rest of the week, until the weather improves for the trip back up the North Sea coast.

The Pelican of London, a tall ship used for training and sailing holidays (adults as well as children, if you're interested). In the picture below you can see her figurehead, a pelican with a little red fish hanging from its beak

This is Tenacious, another training ship, mooring at West India Dock. There is something about these tall ships that is magical - everyone on the dock stopped to gaze at her.

The tall ships are so glamorous, and the historic ships have such wonderful stories to tell, that they completely outshine the humble narrowboats, quaint and colourful though they might be. But the narrowboats have a part to play in our history too. For decades, they conveyed goods up and down the country via the network of canals. They were homes as well as hauliers, hence the painted decoration.
And 30 years ago, when London's canal network was falling into disrepair thanks to lack of use and lack of investment, the St Pancras Cruising Club made a point of navigating the waterways, running campaign rallies to draw attention to this underused inner-city resource.
If you're jogging or cycling, or just walking the dog anywhere on a canal path from Hackney to Hillingdon, spare a thought for the people who gave up their time to prevent these waterways - havens for wildlife as well as walkers - becoming little more than glorified rubbish dumps.