Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bargain babies

One of the many chores I've been meaning to do for ages is to pot up my Chlorophytum plantlets. While on cloakroom duty for the NCCPG at the Chelsea Flower Show this year, I sneaked out during the great plant sell-off and bumped into some bloke who was dismantling a tropical plant display. Chlorophytum had been used as an edging around the display and he was selling them off at four for £1 (then worth $2. Oh, happy days). Although my heart didn't exactly beat faster at the sight of them, it was an offer I couldn't refuse.
I shoved them into some containers in the garden, and left them to it. As you probably know, when you leave many Chlorophytum to their own devices, the first thing they do is to produce plantlets. They are viviparous, like certain sorts of reptiles, in that they produce active offspring, rather than a seed or an egg. Isn't viviparous a wonderful word? It sounds ever so slightly sinister.
In a rare moment of prudent horticultural housewifery, I gathered up the plantlets in late summer and carefully chucked them into a glass tank vase (the only thing I had to hand) where they have lurked ever since. They're on a fairly sunny window sill and they get topped up regularly with (hard) tap water to a depth of about half an inch. Amazingly, they have thrived.

The plantlets in their glass tank. When I first detached them four, erm, months ago, the biggest one was only about two inches high

Even more amazingly, the ones in the garden are also thriving, despite night temperatures of around -2C (28F) in London. They are still producing plantlets, too.
My Chlorophytum are not the common spider plant, C. comosum 'Variegatum' but a darker, greener version, with more organised fine white stripes. I think they are C. bichetii but if any experts out there know better, please say. Apparently, they are hardy down to -6.6C (20F) and so is their spidery cousin. Who knew? If I hadn't got them so cheap at Chelsea, I would never have dared leave them to take their chance in what has so far been quite a cold winter by London standards.
Strangely enough, I hate spider plants indoors (as does the Garden Monkey, according to this post), though I can see why they are very popular. They are virtually unkillable. However, C bichetii make brilliant outdoor container plants. They always look fresh and green, even on the sultriest summer day, or the murkiest December afternoon. They make a lovely neat frill along a path, or in a window box. Just one on its own in a small terracotta pot looks good, and of course, the dangly plantlet bits make them ideal for hanging baskets.
The most fascinating thing I discovered about Chlorophytum while researching this post however, is that there is an aphrodisiac species. It's called Chlorophytum borivilianum and it comes from north-western India, where it is traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine. It's better known by the name Safed Musli.
It's only the roots of this particular species that are said to contain the aphrodisiac properties, however. So there's no point munching down your spider plants.

Above, a single C. bichetii in a terracotta pot. The surrounding plants are, clockwise from left, Echeveria glauca, Chamaerops humilis, Fascicularia (might be pitcairnifolia) and Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'. This is quite a sheltered bit of the garden, very close to the house and facing south.

Below, two C. bichetii in windowboxes, either side of a cordyline and another echeveria. These pictures were taken yesterday, when the temperature was 2C (36F)

A closer view of the righthand windowbox. The babies (top righthand corner) look as if they're trying to make a break for freedom by scrambling up the fence. The tumbling mass of greenery is Erigeron karvinskianus, or Mexican daisy, one of my favourite plants of all time. Behind that is some jasmine

Sunday, December 28, 2008

You say you want a resolution, well, you know...

I never make New Year resolutions. For me New Year is a time for clearing things away, not cluttering up my brain with vows and intentions, particularly when I know I'll never stick to them. Spring is the logical time for resolutions, because you can put them instantly into effect.
I gave up smoking in the springtime (five years ago, if you must know). One unseasonably warm evening in April 2004, I wondered to myself why I was sitting in my garden enjoying the balmy air -  and simultaneously polluting it with my cigarette smoke. I haven't smoked since. Now, if that had been January 2004, I wouldn't have been sitting in my garden, and I might still be smoking now.
Most of my bad habits are at their worst in spring. Impatience. Carelessness - especially failing to take account of other people's feelings (or even just to take account of other people). Arrogance - thinking I know best about everything.
These bad habits manifest themselves most obviously in the garden. The number of times I haven't dug quite a big enough hole for a plant, simply because I hit a piece of old paving or some other obstacle and couldn't be bothered to dig the whole thing out. Sometimes I've forgotten to add organic matter, and carried on planting without it because I couldn't be bothered to scramble my way out of the border again to fetch it.
I often forget all about my children for hours while I stand and work out a new bit of planting. (OK, they're probably on the phone or out with their friends, but even so...) Even worse - from their point of view - I might drag them to visit a garden I want to see. And I insist on growing all sorts of unsuitable things in unsuitable places, despite the learned advice of nurserypeople and other experts.
I never get around to doing any of the things that I really should do, that don't cost anything apart from effort, such as potting up seedlings, or taking cuttings. 
So this spring, I'm going to try to become a real gardener. I'm going to do things properly. I'm going to think carefully about what I'm going to plant, and prepare accordingly. I'm going to plant things within six weeks of acquiring them, instead of leaving them to moulder in a corner for months on end. I'm going to grow things from seed, instead of telling myself that I don't have room. I'm going to try to nurture things, rather than boss them about. (And that goes for my kids, too.)
Good grief, I'm glad it's only December 29. It's going to take me three months to gear myself up for all this.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas

I haven't had time to take any photographs. My Hippeastrum 'Emerald' (the one I bought at the RHS Christmas show) has come and gone without being recorded for posterity. The garden is full of birds squabbling over the feeders, and I'm trying to cook a Christmas Eve supper consisting of vegetarian nut loaf with a parsley, sage and thyme stuffing layer, and roast chicken, without getting the potatoes in the chicken fat, or mixing up the gravies.
However, I couldn't run the risk of going through Christmas without sending out a message of thanks to all those of you who've supported me through bad times, laughed at my awful jokes, and generally been absolutely wonderful cyber-friends since I started this blog in May.
Happy Christmas, everyone. And may 2009, despite all the gloomy prognostications, be for all of you a fabulous year.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The naming of names: the search for order in the world of Blotanical

Anna Pavord is one of the nicest people in the whole world, so I'm sure she won't mind me paraphrasing the title of her fascinating book for what, I'm sorry to say, is a bit of a rant.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I belong to a kind of super-cyber-allotment of bloggers called Blotanical, which is run by an Australian chap called Stuart. Stuart is a genius. He has single-handedly set up this amazing organisation (it now includes more than 1,000 blogs worldwide), and deals with all the problems and glitches and bugs and whinges that it generates on a day-to-day basis without fee or fuss.
The trouble with successful organisations is that they get bigger and more cumbersome, which means administrative changes are needed to ensure that they continue to function smoothly. The trouble with geniuses is that sometimes they fail to realise that some of us are bears of very little brain and have great difficulty adjusting to these changes. (Some of us - and I'm speaking personally here - are bears of absolutely no brain at all, especially when it comes to computers.)
Blotanical has just been through one of these periodic changes, which has meant that we have all had to resubmit our usernames. They have to be longer than three letters and a maximum of 16. In my case, I was lucky: my name has eight letters in it and no one else had nabbed it.
But my friend  Zoë, who writes one of the best blogs I know, and who ranks 29th on the Blotanical list of favourite blogs, has had to change her name. So has VP (No 24), another wonderful blogger. Her online Open Garden was not only a fantastically creative idea, but has also raised more than £1,000 for the charity WaterAid.
As I said, Stuart is a genius, so he'll probably come up with some clever solution. Either that, or after a lot of grumbling, we'll all get used to the new regime. But I think there's a lesson here. People don't like change, and in an uncertain world, they like it even less. So I'm sure Stuart will forgive me if I give voice to a small howl of protest. AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRGGGH!!!!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Frost and sunshine

We never really think of winter as a time when colours alter. The blazing tints of autumn or the new green leaves of spring: these are the dramatic scene changes that are celebrated and eagerly anticipated. Yet winter can take you by surprise. Its tints are subtle, and have more to do with light and weather conditions than physical changes in plants, so perhaps that's why gardeners can sometimes overlook them.
I took this picture of my garden this morning, from the attic bedroom, and I was fascinated by how the frost on the cordylines, the phormium and the loquat on the right of the garden had turned their leaves to a lovely blue-grey, matching the silvery eucalyptus on the left-hand side. Appropriately for a frosty morning, this eucalyptus is a Jounama snow gum, or E. debeuzevillei. Like all eucalyptus its bark peels and drops, but with E. debeuzevillei  lovely creamy-white mottled trunks are left behind (mine is multi-stemmed).
In the foreground, the sunshine has caught the top of the pine, below left, and the bamboo on the right, turning the needles and leaves to a fresh, spring-like yellow-green. This soft citrussy colour goes beautifully with the blue-grey and is a world away from the garden's normal livery of jungle green. All you can see of the normal colour is the bamboo and holboellia that clothes the fence at the rear of the garden.
By the time I'd finished taking the photograph, my cat Pushkin was miaowing for his breakfast and the first line of his namesake's famous poem, Winter Morning (Зимнее утро) came into my head. Pushkin's work is notoriously difficult to translate into English, but the first line of this poem is pretty straightforward. "Frost and sunshine, day of wonder" (Мороз и солнце; день чудесный!)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


When something cataclysmic happens in your life, it seems to absorb everything. I thought long and hard about whether to write about this, but in the end it just seemed really strange, and wrong, not to say anything at all.
My husband Craig died last week. He was the love of my life. He was the sort of person everyone loved, in fact: charming, kind, patient, generous, sociable. He had a kind of glamour about him, thanks in part to the fact that he was tall and handsome, but also because he never seemed to take life too seriously. He approached life with a smile, and he approached death with huge bravery.
Craig and I had many friends, dozens of whom have written to say how much they will miss him. Affection and respect for a wonderful man is the theme that runs through these letters, as well as tributes to a newspaperman who, during his long career in cut-throat Fleet Street, managed always to retain a sense of decency and kindness towards his colleagues.
Ironically, we never saw as much of these friends as we could have done. We were always promising each other that we'd socialise more, but the truth was that we were perfectly content with each other's company. Our idea of heaven was to be together.
Craig had non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was first diagnosed with it last year, and after a course of chemotherapy, was told that he was in complete remission. This year, it came back with even more force. It affected his bone marrow and chemotherapy - at least at a level that he could tolerate - proved ineffective.
I miss Craig so much that I can hardly bear to think about it. Instead, I try to look back at our time together - so many memories of the happiest years of my life.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Blooming November

The onset of winter is so often seen as the death of the year, a rather depressing time when we withdraw to a more interior life and peruse seed catalogues in front of the fire, or feel guilty about unplanted bulbs. Some of the plants in my garden, however, actually come into flower about now, which I always find cheering and intriguing. It's a comforting reminder that life goes on, even in the darkest times.

Flower clusters on x Fatshedera lizei (Fat-headed Lizzie). This one is 'Aurea Maculata' and it's a really lovely plant: tough, untemperamental and looks especially good on a north-facing fence like this, because it always appears to have sunlight on it. The clematis is Clematis armandii 'Little White Charm'. It's supposed to be less vigorous than the normal armandii. Hmm.

A Fatsia japonica in full bloom. This one is in a pot, but that hasn't stopped it flowering. Since I took this picture, it has become an even more spectacular froth of white, but I haven't had time to take a new photograph.

Flower buds on the loquat (Eriobotrya japonica). It's a bit late into flower this year, probably because we've had a cool summer. Normally by the beginning of November, it's in full swing, providing food for the last of the butterflies. The flowers aren't very spectacular but once they come out they scent the whole garden with a frangipani fragrance

Flower buds on Tetrapanax papyrifera. As you can see, the inflorescence is very similar to those on the fatsia and fatshedera, which isn't surprising considering that tetrapanax was once classified as a form of fatsia. Apparently, the flower spikes can get up to a metre long, but I haven't managed to find any pictures of tetrapanax in flower on the internet, so I've no idea if this is true. It was quite difficult to take this picture as I wasn't really tall enough to get level with the flowers, so had to stand on tiptoe with the camera above my head.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Little women

I'll say one more thing about the American election and then I'll shut up. (Maybe.)
Something that really makes me laugh is the way the wives stand behind the candidate, nodding and smiling. (Cindy McCain seems particularly prone to this, but I don't want to seem partisan. I'm sure Michelle Obama does it too, and every other candidate's spouse, for that matter.)
How many wives and partners do you know who stand behind their husbands nodding and smiling whenever they say something? (Outside of Afghanistan, I mean.)
In my experience - and I'm speaking personally here - they're usually shaking their heads, and butting in before Hubs is two seconds into a story, saying something like: "No, no, no, it wasn't like that at all. It was Dave who was wearing the leopardskin thong, not Pete, and Amanda had the Polaroid camera." (You can see I've been reading Kiss My Aster one too many times.)
Or the interjection might be along these lines: "No, it was Tuesday we bought the new washing machine, not Wednesday. Don't you remember, because that was the day your mum had to take her cat to the vet and a freak lightning bolt destroyed No 22."
As for smiling, the "little woman" is usually rolling her eyes in exasperation.
Come to think of it, how many wives do you know who merely stand behind their husbands? Without shoving them out of the way to get a better view?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The American dream

This has been a busy week, so apologies to all of you who took the time to comment on my last two posts and failed to get anything in the way of a response from me. (Don't think I'm not appreciative: one of the very best things about being part of Blotanical is the intelligent feedback you get from other bloggers). My husband Craig managed to escape from hospital for a week and I've been at work as well, so I haven't had much spare time.
Craig goes back to hospital on Monday for his next blast of chemo, so he'll probably be in for at least another week. I'll be busy visiting him, and going to work. Not much change there then, except for the fact that work will be even more manic than usual because of the American elections.
We get very excited about any elections at The Independent. Polls in Zambia and Israel currently have our attention as well, but we get particularly excited about American ones. (During British general elections, of course, we go way beyond excitement into full-blown obsession.) And of all the US elections I can remember, this has been the most exciting.
Here we have a young black man, who stands for new beginnings, facing an old white man whose selling point seems to be experience and a steady hand. Change versus the status quo. That's what most elections boil down to in the end, when you think about it, but along the way, there have been some exceptionally entertaining moments, thanks to Barack Obama's epic battle with Hillary Clinton, and then the controversy over John McCain's choice of VP.
I'll be staying up to watch the coverage on Tuesday night and working flat out the rest of the time. Does any of this have anything to do with gardening? Yes, it's going to be another week when I won't get my bulbs in. Or spike the lawn. Or get the turf dressing on. Oh, well...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Frozen bananas

We were set to have the first cold snap of winter in London this week, with temperatures going down to -2C (28F) overnight. That may not seem much if you live in Nebraska or Norway, but for London in October, that's quite cold.
Anyway, just as I was cursing the weather for catching me (and my bananas) out, the Met Office seems to have revised its forecast and while it's still going to be pretty chilly, I don't think we're going to have any big overnight freezes after all, thank goodness. Not this week, anyway.
In previous years, I've used "banana houses" to protect my Musa basjoo, or hardy bananas. These were made of 2" x 2" timber, about 15" square, and about 6ft high. (My husband did the tricky bit - like making them.) I cut the bananas down to about six feet (you chop all the leaves off, then saw the stem to the height you want it, using either a pruning saw or, in my case, a bread knife). I then wrap them up in yards of horticultural fleece, put the frame round them and staple split bamboo screening roll to the frames, to make them look more attractive. The fleece does a good job on its own, but it doesn't look very nice: in fact, it looks rather weird and ghostly on a winter evening, and not in a good way.
At the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Wisley, they use straw, stacked incredibly neatly within chicken-wire frames, and topped off with pretty little minarets and domes made of polythene. The idea is to keep bananas frost-free but to let the plant breathe (so it's not really a good idea to use bubblewrap), and to provide some sort of "lid" to stop rain going down inside the plant and freezing, hence the polythene minarets.
I'd ideally like to use straw because it looks so much more attractive, but finding enough straw to do the job in the centre of London is a bit of a problem. I'd probably need a couple of bales. I'd really love to know how to make the polythene minarets too. If anyone from RHS Wisley reads this and fancies giving a masterclass, please do get in touch.
However, having gone to all the trouble of making frames and so on, I felt a bit silly this spring when, after yet another mild winter, I had to unwrap the bananas in early March because they were putting on so much growth. A couple of London gardening friends who also grow sub-tropical plants told me they never bothered to protect their bananas. So long as they were in the ground, they said, they seemed to survive quite well. So this year I decided to dispense with the frames, and the fleece, and just leave the Musas to get on with it.
It's easy to become blase about tender plants in London. There's almost an element of machismo about it: good grief, you say to people, I never protect my pelargoniums/cannas/hardy ginger/oleander/echeveria/tree ferns, or put them under cover. Besides, I don't have room for a greenhouse, and I don't have a conservatory and a surprising number of things will brush through the odd frosty night.
This rather swaggering, show-offy approach evaporates pretty quickly at the first sign of a real, sustained hard frost, however, and one can be found scurrying around the nearest garden centre buying up bubblewrap and fleece.
I suspect we're about to have the coldest winter for years. I suspect I'm about to have a real, sustained, hard panic.

Dicksonia antarctica during a rare frost last winter. Ironically, though this looks dramatic, it didn't even go brown. It's quite a big one (the fronds are about 6ft long), and it's been in the ground about five years

Monday, October 20, 2008

Tosh on television

Browsing through Nigel Colborn's wonderful blog, Silvertreedaze, the other day, I found a post where he said he was a bit allergic to gardening programmes and, having watched a recent episode of Gardeners' World, he was left with the impression "that the programme makers at the BBC must think their audience is composed of people with a mental age of three, the I/Q of a courgette and Attention Deficit Disorder to boot".
This is such a good point. I've often wondered about this too. People who watch gardening programmes tend to be older, and, I would bet, reasonably well-educated. Even if they're not older, they're certainly interested in expanding their knowledge of the botanical and natural world and, probably, the world in general. In my view, this makes them potentially an extremely intelligent audience.
So why treat us as if we're stupid? Is it because the programme makers themselves are thick, and incapable of coming up with any decent ideas? If that's the case, I'd like to make some suggestions. These are the gardening programmes I would like to see on television:

The Plant Hunters
This could be a great series of wonderful adventure stories, combined with stunning locations, about the men who brought back so many of the plants we all grow today. The stories of people like Reginald Farrer and David Douglas could be intertwined with information on the plants they found, and the sort of habitats they explored, so we'd all know how to grow the plants properly. (Viewers might be advised to grab a box of Kleenex first though.) Roy Lancaster would be the obvious choice to present it, but he'd probably be deemed too old (ie, over 12).

The new plant hunters
The people who are doing exactly the same job, but in today's world.

Grumpy old gardeners
Like most people over 40, I get absolutely sick of the cult of youth. I want to hear people like me having a heated discussion about the things I'm interested in: organic/green gardening; instant impact; the British native plant debate; whether gardening programmes have dumbed down; are men better at gardening than women; are lawns ungreen. There's six programmes for a start. I think the participants should be female too: I'd suggest (mischievously) Helen Yemm, Anne Wareham, Janet Street-Porter (who is a keen gardener); Germaine Greer (ditto) for starters. Anyone who has strong opinions and doesn't give a stuff about offending people, especially the RHS. If the BBC doesn't think this would be photogenic enough for mainstream terrestrial TV, why not put it on the radio?

Plant profiles
Geoffrey Smith did a wonderful series about 20 years ago where each programme dealt with a different flower (rose, tulip, primrose etc). He looked at the history, mythology and symbolism behind the flower, as well as how to grow it. It was fascinating, and not exactly expensive programme-making. Why doesn't someone do it again?

Climate change gardening
This could look at how gardening trends have been and will be influenced by the changing climate, not only in terms of one's own backyard but also by factors such as the rising cost of energy and the impact horticulture makes on the environment. At the very least, it could be a Gardener's World one-hour special. No, on second thoughts, not a one-hour special. Do it properly!

Anything on trees, although the BBC, strangely, seems to be able to make quite good programmes about trees. Perhaps that's because trees come under the heading of science, nature and environment, rather than leisure, so they escape that terrible tendency to turn the programme into 'entertainment'. And the Meetings with Remarkable Trees series was based on a book, so they didn't have to think it up themselves (though they did a good job). Sadly, I missed The Trees That Made Britain series, and was annoyed to see that it's unavailable on the BBC's much trumpeted iPlayer and it's not available on DVD. Was it any good?

Right, that's enough ranting from me. What would other people like to see?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ashes to ... ashes?

Has anyone had problems with ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior) this year? I know in the States, it is very common for ash trees to suffer from anthracnose, and there is a real threat from Emerald Ash Borer, but I can't find much on ash problems here in the UK.
There is a huge ash tree in a neighbouring garden growing right up against my fence, so quite a lot of its leaves fall in my garden. I've noticed this year that the leaves have fallen all summer long. Initially I put this down to it being quite a horrible summer, with lots of heavy rain and wind that could have ripped bits off it. However, I'm now beginning to wonder if this is the result of anthracnose.
The trouble with ash leaves is that the whole frond, as it were, drops rather than individual leaves, so it's easy for them to get hooked up on plants and in ponds. You have to go round with a rake and tease the stems out of things such as ferns and ponds, unlike normal leaves, which eventually just percolate down to the ground.
Normally, I collect the leaves in my garden and turn them into leafmould, or leave them to rot where they are, if they are in particularly inaccessible places. However, if the tree is infected with anthracnose, I suppose I shall have to collect up all the leaves and destroy them (ie take them to the tip) instead of composting them. (We're discouraged from having bonfires here in London, unfortunately, because of smoke nuisance to neighbours.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

The last rays of sunshine

This is how it goes. You decide to take advantage of the gorgeous October sunshine and photograph the garden. You go to the secret shelf where you keep the camera, but it is gone. Then you remember that you reluctantly allowed someone to borrow it to take pictures for an art project on the strict understanding that they give it back immediately. Astonishingly, they have not remembered to return it.
You finally locate the camera beneath a pile of homework, unwashed sports kit and various other bits of rubbish that eddy around your daughter's bedroom like the flotsam in a fishing port. (When I was young, I imagined myself living somewhere that was a cross between Little House in the Big Woods and Little Grey Rabbit when I grew up, with fresh gingham curtains at the windows and a bowl of cowslips on the table. My daughter's bedroom is more like Little Grey T-shirts on the Bedroom Floor).
Triumphantly, you take the camera into the garden. You put it down, because you've noticed that something needs fixing or deadheading or tying in. You fix, or deadhead, or tie in. You then can't remember where you left the camera.
Half an hour later, you locate the camera (and the secateurs you left outside two days ago). You switch it on, and receive the abrupt message: "Battery depleted". You go to the battery charger and find, astonishingly, that there are no batteries in it. You sigh heavily, and put the depleted batteries from the camera in the charger.
Several hours later, you remember to return to the charger, put the batteries in the camera and go outside. It is now dusk. Tomorrow you will begin the process all over again.
This is what I eventually managed to photograph:

Acer leaves changing colour. This is Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’. It has been known to go bright red in autumn, although in dry years, it sheds its leaves before it has had time to change colour. This year it's decided to go for a kind of two-tone effect.

A friendly robin. It looks a bit like one of those fake ones, that get slightly knock-kneed from having their wire legs wrapped round a branch of the Christmas tree. But it is real, I promise

Cannas, still looking good from a foliage point of view, though the flowers are flagging a bit as it gets colder. I grow all my cannas in pots, and feed them like mad. Use anything you like - a generous forkful of manure as a top dressing in late spring, when the soil warms up, a handful of Growmore, seaweed extract, all of the above: whatever. Just keep feeding them

Virginia creeper growing down over a variegated Fatshedera lizei. Virginia creeper can be a pain but it's difficult not to forgive it all its bad habits at this time of year. You feel you could almost warm your hands at it

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

More Cat Nutter stuff

This post is for Benjamin at The Deep Middle, who challenged me to write a poem about cats that attack their owners. His wife, he says, has a cat who scratches her all the time. When I read his comment, the old song, You Always Hurt The One You Love, popped into my mind and, annoyingly, refused to leave. (I've always loathed that song, it's such a dirge.)
I used to have a cat called Perdita who would lie in wait on the stairs for unwary victims, then attack their ankles. Perdita was a tiny, bony kitten with a ratlike tail when we first got her, but she grew into a huge fluffy tabby and the tail developed into an enormous banner of a thing. She looked a bit like a cross between a squirrel and a Maine coon. My daughter, who was quite small at the time, was terrified of her.
Benjamin posts the most wonderful poetry on his blog, which made the task of coming up with a piece of creative writing even more intimidating. To be fair, he did release me from any poetic obligation, but I feel a challenge is a challenge. So here's the poem. It's dedicated to all those (and there are many) whose cats reward their affection with actual bodily harm.

You always hurt the one you love
(With apologies to Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher)

You always hurt the one you love
Claws out! She’s stroking me, aim for her wrist
The one you shouldn't hurt at all
She thinks it’s a cry for attention
You always take the sweetest rose
But really it's a form of revenge
And crush it till the petals fall
Scratch and bite! That’ll teach her
You always break the kindest heart
To take a kitten whose only thought is survival
With a hasty word you can't recall
And burden it with all this affection
So if I broke your heart last night
Because some cats can’t handle love
It's because I love you most of all
A bit like humans, really

Sunday, October 12, 2008

LAPCPADPOUB Day: The ballad of Pushkin's ear

This post was inspired by Happy Mouffetard (or Mouffe as I see she is sometimes now calling herself, which is a jolly good idea, quite frankly, because Happy Mouffetard is a bit of a mouthful - or should that be a handful? - to type out, and Mouffe is a lovely, soft, squishy sort of name).
Where was I? Oh yes; anyway, Happy Mouffetard, or Mouffe, had the fabulous idea of hosting a bloggers' day entitled Let's All Post Cat Photos And Dire Poetry On Our Blogs Day, or LAPCPADPOUB Day for short (not that it is very short, but never mind). That day is today, 12 October.
The true genius of this scheme is that you can make of it what you will. If one is a hater of Cat Nutters (as James Alexander-Sinclair vows and declares he is not), one can simply pull the duvet over one's head and ignore the whole thing. If one is an admirer of Kewt Kitties (as JA-S puts it so sweetly), one can jump right in and wallow in 24 hours of feline felicity. And if one is a bit embarrassed about expressing one's affection for one's cat, and utterly incapable of writing decent poetry, one can simply pretend that the whole thing is an ironic wheeze designed to amuse the garden blogging community (and in particular HM and VP).
I have to confess, I would have fallen into this last category if it were not for the fact that my cat, Pushkin, managed to shred part of his ear during an altercation with some unknown creature this week. The injury required a trip to the vet and left me feeling rather disenchanted with the joy of pets. I attribute this to the lingering aroma of cat urine in my car. So here's a picture of the little toerag, and a rather grumpy poem which I hope makes up in embittered sincerity for whatever it lacks in artistic merit. As you can see, the ear looks a lot better already.

The ballad of Pushkin’s ear
Respectfully dedicated to JA-S in the hope that it might prove suitably stomach-turning

Pus oozes from a wound, and there's a stink.
The cat is rather listless, and I think
Something’s wrong here.
There’s been a fight, and my cat’s come off worst.
As usual, it’s my son who spots it first,
A septic ear.
I call the vet and grab the hated basket
Line it with paper, an insulated casket
in which to pee
The cat yowls all the way along the street
Passers-by turn round to hear him bleat
Eyes accuse me.
A large injection, then a larger bill,
Instructions, and an even larger pill
To give each day
Pills must be crushed and hidden in the food
So cat won’t spurn the the stuff that does him good
And rot away.
We journey home: the basket’s soaked with wee
Why do these things keep happening to me?
(Good question, that.)
Once through the door, Push takes his pee-stained self
And jumps up on a nice clean kitchen shelf
That bloody cat

Saturday, October 11, 2008

An audience with Stephanie Cole

Some of you may recognise the visitor I had today. It's the actress Stephanie Cole who's staying with my next-door neighbour Ruth while she's appearing as Maud in Born in the Gardens, by Peter Nichols, at the Rose Theatre in Kingston. (It's had good reviews, so everyone's hoping it will transfer into the West End.)
Stephanie is a loyal Independent reader (hurray!) so she'd read about the garden in my column and asked if she could come and take a look at the real thing. Wow! I told Ruth I'd consider it an honour.
I first saw Stephanie in the BBC drama series Tenko, about a group of women interned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp after the fall of Singapore, so I thought she'd feel quite at home in my garden. Unfortunately (or perhaps that should be fortunately), there are no Japanese guards, or Bert Kwouk jumping out of the bushes to bark orders, but it has a certain sort of tropical atmosphere.
Stephanie herself, however, is quite unlike the grumpy Dr Beatrice Mason character she played in Tenko. She's quite unlike most of the parts I've seen her play, in fact. She's charming and funny and the sort of person who just seems very interested in everything. Upon hearing that my daughter played alto sax (among other things), she said she'd always wanted to play alto sax, inspired by Johnny Hodges, who used to play with Duke Ellington. She was a great friend of my late and much missed colleague Miles Kington, and she told me he had also helped inspire a love of jazz. In fact, she's doing an evening of readings at the Bath Festival on Wednesday 22 October from How Shall I Tell The Dog?, the very funny book he wrote about the cancer that finally killed him in January this year.
I've always admired Stephanie as an actress, not least because she seems to handle serious parts and comedy roles - such as Diana in the wonderfully anarchic Waiting for God - with equal ease. There's something very real about her performances.
Anyway, she admired my bananas and tree ferns and told me about her garden in Somerset, and Ruth and I bewailed the existence of blanketweed in our ponds, and we had a very nice time. I told her Craig was very disappointed he couldn't be there (he's still in hospital), and she said that if the show transferred, we should come and see it and go out with her for dinner afterwards and pretend we were all very grand. What a lovely idea.

Stephanie (right) and Ruth in the garden. The great thing about taking pictures of actresses is that they know how to strike a natural-looking pose

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Isn't it a lovely day?

It's a wonderfully sunny autumn day here in London, crisp and clean, with the outlines of bronzing leaves sharp against a blue sky. It's days like this that make you count your blessings. Let me see, what are they?
1. My husband's feeling a bit better today. (Who knows how he'll feel tomorrow, so let's savour this moment.)
2. My son made me laugh this morning. I usually go for a walk or a jog first thing, so sometimes I walk with him to the station, where he gets the train to art college. You could see his breath in the cold morning air, so he was pretending to smoke a cigarette, like he used to do when he was little. (He doesn't smoke, I hasten to add, none of us do.)
3. The kids and I went out for a great family meal last night with my mother, my twin sister and her husband and daughter and my brother (it was my brother's birthday). All my family have their birthdays in October, as do three of my stepchildren, so it's an expensive month. But a fun one.
4. A group of women have decided to set up a Wandsworth Gardening Society and they've invited me to join. It's always been a fantasy of mine that one day I will move to the country (a large village, or a small town, perhaps) and finally have free evenings, so I can join the horticultural society and perhaps the local choir. At the moment, my working hours keep me in the office until 9pm. But perhaps I could manage to join a gardening society now, if I booked the day off in advance?
5. Parents' choir starts next month. My daughter's school puts on two big choral performances each year and parents are invited to join in. There are no auditions, but there are never that many of us: perhaps 20 or so regulars. We have our rehearsals on Saturday mornings, so unlike most choirs, which rehearse on weekday evenings, I can actually go. We're doing the Bach B Minor Mass in February, followed by the Fauré Requiem in May.
6. I've decided that I'm going to stop worrying about the future and get on with life. Why spend all my life waiting until the conditions are right? It's not the first time I've vowed this, but I find I need to dig myself in the ribs with a sharp elbow and remind myself every once in a while.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

It's difficult to talk right now

If you've read the early posts on my blog, you'll know that my husband Craig was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL) last November. After a three-month course of chemotherapy and some rather scary ups and downs, he was told he was clear of cancerous activity.
Unfortunately, high grade NHL is notorious for relapsing, and a couple of days ago, it was confirmed that the lymphoma had returned. I'm sure I don't need to emphasise what a harsh blow this has been for Craig. He was only just beginning to feel he'd recovered from the effects of the chemo - chronic exhaustion, physical weakness, loss of taste, loss of hair. (The weakness, or numbness, was especially noticeable in his hands: he'd celebrated being able to use a pair of scissors again only a couple of weeks ago.) Now he faces having to go through that all over again.
I find it difficult to talk about Craig's illness, especially to those who are close to us. It's not that I want to pretend it's not happening, but I also want life to go on as normal, as far as possible. One thing cancer teaches you is that life can change, in all kinds of ways, in the blink of an eye. You have to seize the good moments and savour them. Cancer is often described as a rollercoaster and although that sounds like a cliche, it's true. There are points at which you trundle along a bit of level track, but you never know when the rollercoaster will turn a corner and start hurtling down into a bad moment.
On the other hand, I find it difficult to think of anything else. It's hard to have a conversation about ordinary things - even to leave comments on people's blogs, which normally I love to do - because your mind is still trying to make sense of this enormous issue. Anything else seems a bit frivolous. It's a bit like when someone engages you in conversation in the playground just as your child is about to do something potentially dangerous.
However, I did talk to Philip, because we had been having an email conversation about San Francisco. Craig and I had been planning to visit SF next year, and Philip had been sending me wonderful suggestions as to where we might stay. I didn't want him to think I was being rude or unenthusiastic, so I explained that, all of a sudden, we weren't able to plan anything.
I found it surprisingly easy to talk to someone I'd never met, perhaps because I didn't have to talk, I could write. He said in his reply: "Please unburden to me anytime. That is what Blotanical friends halfway across the world are for! It does help."
So, Blotanical friends, I'm now unburdening to you all. Please forgive me if I've seemed uninterested recently in your wonderful posts and pictures, or failed to appear suitably appreciative. I absolutely love reading your blogs and I'm sure they'll continue to be a source of enjoyment and a welcome distraction for us both as we take our rollercoaster ride through the next few months.

Friday, September 26, 2008

So, why do we garden? Part 2

In the recent series broadcast by C5 entitled I Own Britain's Best Home and Garden, Anne Wareham, one of the judges, remarked that people often described their garden as a retreat. "Wouldn't it be more fun," she murmured mischievously, "if it was an attack?" I wouldn't say my garden was an attack, but it is a kind of riposte.
I wonder how many of our gardens, like so much else in our lives, are affected by our early years? Not just planting seeds with Grandad, or playing in the back garden, but all our other childhood experiences as well? When I wrote a post a few days ago about how our memories affect us as gardeners (or even turn us into gardeners), VP said something in a comment that I thought was fascinating. She said: "I haven't a clue where my gardening bug came from - it just re-emphasises the feeling I've had since a child that I'm a changeling."
I'm dying to find out what she means by that, because I used to think the same when I was a child. Well, not that I was a changeling exactly: I thought that I was adopted. My twin sister looks dramatically different from me, and my brother, three years younger, looks very much like her. It wasn't until my younger sister came along that I realised someone else in the family looked like a bit like I did. Today, of course, I can see a family resemblance between me and my parents. A physical resemblance, that is: in terms of personality, we're quite different.
I grew up in a rather bohemian household. My father's jazz band often rehearsed at home and I have a vivid memory of coming home from school with my twin sister on our fifth birthday, and the band playing a Dixieland version of Happy Birthday To You. (I burst into tears, I'm not quite sure why. Embarrassment, I think.)
Another early memory is of our chimney catching fire one night. It was always catching fire, because no one ever seemed to arrange for it to be swept. I remember hanging out of the window of the nursery watching the firemen rush about outside the house and caught sight of a figure in a duffel coat carrying a trombone. It was my father, coming home from a gig. He took one look at the unfolding drama (flames! frantic activity! flashing blue lights!), turned around and went away again. When I tell people this story now, they're shocked but I thought it was very funny.
My mother was and still is an indefatigable party person. She once invited the entire cast of Black Nativity, the Gospel nativity show that had come to London after its triumphant debut on Broadway, back to the house. She'd been to see the show several times and taken lots of jazz musician friends, and she had become quite friendly with the cast. They'd told her how much they missed real Southern food and she suggested they come round to our place and cook up a storm.
For what seemed like a week, but was probably only a day, the house seemed full of women singing and laughing and cooking ladies' fingers (okra) and cornbread and other soul food delights. I'd never seen okra before, and I still measure cornbread by that freshly baked version.
In the meantime, the musical director, Professor Alex Bradford, sat down at the piano with us kids and amused us with fabulous Gospel renditions of nursery favourites such as Baa Baa Black Sheep. Members of the choir would wander in and join in. For years, I wanted to be either a Gospel pianist or sing in a Gospel choir. (Secretly, I still do.)
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I longed for normality. Like Saffy, the daughter in the comedy series Absolutely Fabulous, I yearned for the sort of life that followed a predictable pattern, where people did "normal" things like cut the grass every Sunday afternoon. Unlike Saffy, I didn't resent the fact that my mother worked or had a whirlwind lifestyle - I regarded her as one of the most glamorous people I knew - but you could never tell whether she was going to be at home or tearing around London on her Lambretta.
We never seemed to have a conventional car. At one stage, we had a secondhand ambulance, which admittedly came in very useful for camping holidays, but wasn't what you'd call an average family runabout. We never had any money, so our huge, shambolic Victorian house was always full of lodgers who ranged from charming to mad as a box of frogs. Add six or seven lodgers to four children, and as you can imagine, we spent a lot of time making beds.
Looking back, I think my childhood was quite exciting and that I was an ungrateful little minx for wanting something different. But I also now recognise that this rather unpredictable lifestyle, which ended with my parents' divorce, left me not with a desire to be "normal" so much as an urge to impose order on chaos.
I think that's why I enjoy the humdrum garden chores so much: mowing the lawn, tying stems to canes, sweeping up leaves, deadheading things. They don't involve a lot of stress or intellectual debate, but you notice a very satisfying difference when they're done. It's certainly why I'm a sucker for reality shows such as House Doctor or Ground Force: anything, indeed, in which someone comes in and takes charge and sorts everything out.
I realise this makes me sound like an unbearable control freak or neatnik. OK, it's true. I admit to being a control freak, and my colleagues would certainly say I'm a neatnik (mine is the only desk where you can see the original surface), but I'm not obsessed with neatness to the point that I regard gardening as an alfresco form of housework. I just like to know that there's a plan or, perhaps more importantly, some kind of logic underpinning the project. I like rhythm - plants or shapes repeated again and again - and structure, and some thought given to shape.
If everything is ultra-neat - or if everything is running wild - you lose any sense of drama, in my opinion. You need a bit of both to make things exciting. I think there is something wonderful about the contrast between neatly clipped lawn edges, or box hedges, and riotous borders that spill voluptuously over their boundaries.
I think that's why gravel gardens can work well: the gravel acts as a kind of recurring theme, or bass line, while billowing plants make solo appearances along the way. Foliage plants, especially tall ones such as phormiums or exclamation-mark cypresses, might act as punctuation, so that instead of taking in the garden in one sentence, as it were, you are made to focus on the individual words.
Fabulous gardens are a bit like the best parties, when you come to think about it. All the plants are dressed in their finest, determined to have a good time. Some of the guests are in gorgeous frocks, others in the horticultural equivalent of Little Black Dresses, or suits. There should be at least one person who's funny or outrageous, and someone who knows all the gossip.
When you go to a party, however wild or informal it may appear, someone has usually thought to organise music and drinks and food, even if it's only a couple of sticks of French bread, a slab of Brie and some red plonk from the supermarket. You're not aware of the organisation, though, you're just intent on enjoying yourself. That's my kind of garden. Perhaps deep inside the neatnik there's a bohemian party animal struggling to get down and boogie.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sleep(er)ing beauties

I'm probably going to use railway sleepers to build my pergola. They're big and very heavy, but I just love the proportions. I've got quite a few in my garden already. We used them to build the pond (which was formerly a raised bed for vegetables) and I've also used them to edge borders.
I've used the recycled ones, which are a bit controversial as they're full of preservative and leak tar. This doesn't seem to affect the plants, but you're not supposed to use them in areas where children might clamber over them (in a play area, for example) as the preservatives are said to be carcinogenic. As a pergola, I reckon they'll be OK (unless someone decides to come along and hug them).
You can buy new sleepers which are completely safe, but they're very different: plain and square and much lighter in colour. This can look really, really good, especially in a geometric, contemporary garden design, but because I've already got old ones, I worry that the new ones might look a bit out of place.
I'll probably order mine from, who are based near Nottingham, but will deliver nationwide (there are full details and examples on the website). They charge something like £60 to make a delivery to London, which is fair enough given how heavy the things are. You just have to be absolutely sure about your order: it's not as if they can just nip back and get another one...
There are three great things about First, they have a huge selection of sleepers, in a range of woods from Dutch oak to African azobe, with clear details on sizing and pricing.
Second, in my experience, they are incredibly friendly and helpful. The site itself is full of useful information but if you email them with a query, they get back to you very quickly.
Best of all, however, they have the most astonishing selection of photographs sent in by customers. There are literally hundreds: I counted 74 entries in the Raised Beds section alone. Then there are sections on water features, decking and patios, steps, retaining walls and even furniture. Do check out the furniture - you'll be amazed.
Even if you don't want to buy railway sleepers, it's fun having a look at all the projects, especially if you're looking for inspiration. You just have to remember to allow at least an hour while you flick through ...

Monday, September 15, 2008

GBBD: Pretty as, erm, a picture

For a while now, I've been trying to remember what it is that cannas remind me of. The extraordinary colours, the frilled, extravagant petals, the sheer scale of the plants all seem to belong to another, more exotic age. At first, I thought they reminded me of the floating skirts worn by the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham and her company (right). But this morning, as I was photographing my cannas, it suddenly struck me that it was a more well-known image that was hovering on the fringes of my visual memory. It was Flaming June (above left) by Frederic Leighton, painted in 1895, the year before he died, and currently on show at Tate Britain. The name Flaming June always makes me want to laugh. It's not the name of the girl in the picture; the idea is that the nymph or whatever she is has seized the opportunity to escape the heat of the noonday sun and have a little snooze. These days, "Flaming June!" is the sort of thing you expect to hear people say in deeply ironic tones when the month of June has been a complete wash-out. Perhaps Lord Leighton should have called it Blooming September.
To find out more about Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, and to see a list of posts, visit Carol at May Dreams Gardens

Canna 'Pretoria' in the garden this morning against a background of bamboo

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Operation Stonehenge

This hasn't really been a summer, but it has been the last summer of the trampoline. I can't quite believe I actually wrote that sentence, because every time I envisage getting rid of the trampoline, I feel a little worm of guilt twist inside me. I know the children will complain. "Mu-u-um," they will whine. "It's OUR trampoline. We play on it. This garden's got too many plants anyway..."
None of these statements is true. It is not their trampoline, we inherited it from the previous owners of the house. They do not play on it (at 14 and 18, they're getting a bit old for it anyway). And the garden, in my view, does not have nearly enough plants. So I am trying not to listen to these pleading voices, but instead making plans for what will go there instead.
I have in mind a kind of chunky pergola. I want it to be chunky partly because I already have lots of railway sleepers in the garden and anything too spindly will look a bit twee. I also want to be able to hang a hammock from it, as a kind of compensation for the trampoline, and the moment I put up a hammock there will be four teenagers in it before you can say "maximum weight restriction".
The tall planting that currently screens the trampoline will be replaced by something lower, probably a mixture of ferns, libertia, hardy geraniums and things that do well in fairly dry shade. The pergola will be like a table without a top, with a support at each corner, braced by horizontal beams. Inside, there will be an area big enough to house a lounger or a small table and chairs, with an entrance to one side through the planting, like a kind of keyhole garden. (I'm indebted to Karen at An Artist's Garden for this last bit of inspiration.)
I mentioned the plan to a couple of people I thought might be able to build it for me, but was greeted with scorn. "Why do you want the supports so big?" said one, after I'd carefully explained why. "It'll look like bloomin' Stonehenge," said the other. 
Emmat has managed to find me a henge builder, however. He is called Joe Stubley and he came yesterday to size up Operation Stonehenge. To my great relief, he did not purse his lips. Neither was there a sharp intake of breath or a shake of the head, in classic British workman style. Instead, he said he thought it sounded like an interesting project and he'd be delighted to give it a go. What a lovely chap. I'll let you know how he gets on.

My children plus two friends on the trampoline. The lady in green is our nanny, Lainie, who looked after us all for 12 years and despite that, still drops by to say hello. Lainie is An Angel.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A garden portrait

I thought I'd share this illustration with those of you who can't or don't get The Independent. It's by Emma Brownjohn, who illustrates my column, City Life, which appears on Wednesdays in the Property section. I've never met Emma, but we communicate electronically and I sometimes send her photographs of things I'm writing about, so that she has a visual reference.
This is her interpretation of my garden open day. That's me in the foreground, in a flowery dress and white trousers. Emma has managed to make me look tall and slim, with sleek hair that never frizzes. This takes true artistry, I can assure you.
I feel very privileged to have her work accompanying my column as she always seems to take such enormous pains to interpret whatever I'm wittering on about.
Emma graduated from Camberwell College of Art in London in 1992 and her work includes paintings and murals as well as illustrations. You can find out more about her and see some of her work here.
She's also currently having an exhibition entitled Following Rivers. at the Ingo Fincke gallery, 24 Battersea Rise, London SW11 (, from 10.30am to 5.30pm until 17 September, and she'll be at the Brighton Art Fair from Friday 19 September to Sunday 21 September.

Autumn: plus ça change...

The garden doesn't know that it's autumn. The cannas are in full bloom, still dreaming of a long, hot summer, brandishing their spears of orange flowers like a tropical army until they're ambushed in the night by an early frost. Only the wormcasts on the lawn give any indication that the season has changed, because the weather is still the same as it has been all summer: wet, mild, grey.
The long-range forecast offers little respite. As far as I can see, it's going to rain until December. I long for a bright blue sky, for a morning that sparkles with wintry anticipation, a day that makes you sniff the air as your nose tingles with the scent of woodsmoke and bonfires. It's not going to happen any time soon.
Things do change, though. At times like this, when the weather patterns seem out of kilter or just downright depressing, you find yourself making comparisons. What was it like this time last year? How has the garden altered? Did this do better last year? Did that flower earlier? So I thought it would be fun to post some pictures and see.

The photograph above is the same one as the one at the top of this blog, taken last August, 2007. I'm sure the crocosmia lasted longer last year. This year they seemed to come and go in a blink-and-you'll-miss them flurry of colour. You can't see a single one in the picture below, which was taken this morning. And last year's red 'Empress of India' nasturtiums made a much more flamboyant show than this year's yellow 'Banana Split'. (I had a bit of a yellow moment this summer.) Was that because of the variety? Or because of the weather? No prizes for guessing which one I'll grow next year.

This is a much more dramatic change, because there are five years between the picture above, taken today, and the picture below, taken in the autumn of 2003, the year we moved in. We thought the phormium was big then, but it's even bigger now. And everything looks fluffier somehow. Fluffy is good.

Here's another contrast. The picture above was taken today. The picture below was taken in 2003. Note the absence of sunshine in today's picture. Not to mention the absence of cushions. Just behind these chairs is a tangle of jasmine and Campsis radicans. The campsis is like one of those very cautious motorists who takes 10 minutes to get into first gear when the traffic lights change. By the time it's worked out that it's actually summer, it's usually late September, so we get a brief flourish of gorgeous red-orange flowers before it shivers back into hibernation. This year, we won't get anything because it just hasn't been sunny or hot enough, but it's managed to grow all over everything around it nonetheless. It shows you how little I've been able to sit in the garden this year, because normally it would have been right under my eye, and under control.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

So, why do we garden?

When Anna Pavord came to interview me about my garden (you can read her piece here), she asked me what it was I got out of gardening. Clever Anna. It seems such a simple thing to ask, yet I found it a surprisingly difficult question to answer coherently. I'm still trying to unravel all the reasons, and motives, and needs, that going outside and fiddling about with a few plants involves.
I love the idea of sharing the garden, of course. Chris4trees left a very nice comment on the previous post about the jolly atmosphere at our Open Garden day, and I said in my reply that I liked opening the garden because I enjoyed seeing people having a good time, stuffing themselves with cake and chatting about plants and gardens, both mine and theirs.
Most of the time, however, there is no one in my garden apart from me, and I love the feeling of solitude and peace just as much, along with the smell of damp earth, and mown grass, and sun-warmed lavender and box. Where does all this come from?
Memory one. When I was little, we lived in deeply unfashionable Croydon, which at that time was shaking off its sleepy, suburban past and constructing a new image of glass and concrete. As hemlines soared in the Sixties, the skyscrapers rocketed up in Croydon, with the old Edwardian and Victorian houses giving way to office blocks and employment bureaus.
Our old house is still there, but the houses up the road were compulsorily purchased by the local council to make way for new law courts. At one point, as is the nature of these things, they stood empty, the lovingly tended gardens with their rockeries and hybrid teas left to go wild. You could get into these gardens from a footpath that led along the railway line and to me they seemed a magical world, carpeted with snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) and aubrieta, and buzzing with bees.
Despite being so close to the centre of Croydon, we also had access to parks and open spaces. There was a park at the top of our road, and a footpath led from that park to Lloyds Park, where there were bluebell woods. Another favourite was Coombe Wood, also a public park, with fabulous gardens.
Memory two. My mother used to teach at Worth, a Benedictine boarding school in the Sussex countryside. Each year, when I was small, we used to go to what must have been speech day, or prize day or something. Worth is a monastery, a stone-built mullion-windowed place that looks out over rolling fields and woods. I remember the smell of the immaculate lawns, the huge cedars that overhung them, and the marquees with what seemed like endless plates of cream cakes.
Memory three. We moved to Scotland when I was still quite small and by the time I moved back to London I was in my twenties. My mother had bought a flat near Camden Lock, just down the road from the Camden Garden Centre, which at that time was run with great enthusiasm and flair by Adam Caplin. We spent a lot of time - and money - in the Camden Garden Centre, which became one of my favourite places.
Not only was it a fantastic garden centre, it was a great place for celeb-spotting. (Camden is achingly right-on: our next-door neighbour was the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard.) One of my favourite memories is discussing bearded irises with Denholm Elliott (Trading Places, Indiana Jones, A Room with a View etc, etc etc).
I'd always loved gardens but this was my first introduction to the idea of making a garden myself. There's a pattern emerging here. First, I suppose I associate gardens, particularly those that are fairly secluded, with being happy and at peace.
Second, I love the idea of gardens that are a little wild around the edges, and stuffed full of plants. Bare earth makes me feel a bit nervous.
Third, as someone who has spent all their working life in newspaper offices, coping with deadlines, late changes of mind and stories breaking at the last minute, I love the idea of being part of something that has its own timetable, an agenda that refuses steadfastly to take into account the wishes of man or woman.
Finally, I find I have an increasing need to be outside, breathing fresh air, looking at trees and grass instead of concrete and glass. Perhaps this is the result of being office-bound, or city-bound: I don't know. That's enough introspection for one day.

Friday, September 5, 2008

FYI: the National Gardens Scheme

I'm sure lots of you out there know all about the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) and their Yellow Book. However, I'm always surprised by how many people don't know about the scheme, or if they know about it, they're a bit confused as to what it is for. Some people think the money goes to the gardener or owner. Others think it is about promoting good gardening, like the Royal Horticultural Society.
Since raising money for the NGS is the whole point of opening my garden, I thought I'd post a reminder of what it's all about. Those of you who already know, look away now and I apologise for boring you.
The National Gardens Scheme was set up in 1927 to raise money for the Queen's Nursing Institute, which provided pensions for district nurses. Until that time, if you wanted to visit a garden such as Sissinghurst or Hidcote, you really had to be a friend of the owner (in other words, somebody rich or aristocratic).
Individuals - including Vita Sackville-West - were asked to open their private gardens to the public for"a shilling a head". In the first year 609 opened and raised over £8,000. The scheme was a fantastic success, partly because for the first time, members of the public could see behind the high walls and yew hedges of some of the most spectacular gardens in the UK.
Some of those gardens, many now owned by the National Trust, still open for the NGS each year (although the entry fee is now a little bit more expensive). Today the NGS raises around £2 million a year and benefits a range of charities, but with a general emphasis on cancer care (MacMillan Cancer Relief, Marie Curie Cancer Care, and Help The Hospices are three NGS beneficiaries).
Over the years, small gardens have joined the big showstoppers, so that the public can see a very wide range of designs and ideas; from a tiny garden inspired by Pompeii and ancient Rome in Bristol, to the superb topiary at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. All these gardens are listed in the annual directory, known as the Yellow Book, which costs £7.99 and is published each year in early spring.
This year, the NGS introduced a new Friends scheme, so even if you don't open your garden, you can still feel part of the fund-raising effort. The website (see link above) gives full details.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Big Day: we open the garden

The day did not begin well. On Saturday, we'd basked in a very pleasant 28C (82F) as we made the last, leisurely tweaks to the garden (hiding the rubbish bins in the garage, moving the barbecue and the hose out of the way etc). On Sunday, the day upon which our horticultural attention had been fixed for months - the day we were opening for the National Gardens Scheme; The Big Day - we awoke to a rainforest effect: a kind of steamy haze hanging over London. From deep in the mist came rumbles of thunder.
The rain began as we had breakfast and continued for a couple of hours, leaving the bamboos bent over the terrace, ready to drip all over our visitors. You don't know how much rain bamboo can hold until you accidentally brush against it: it's like having a cold shower. All thoughts of a last tidy-up disappeared, and as a final irritation, a squirrel swinging wildly on one of the bird feeders managed to tip seed all over the terrace.
It was a struggle not to be pessimistic about the weather, and whether it would put people off, but we carried on regardless, icing cakes, and setting out chairs and tables. I'd had a surprise bouquet from Jane, a card from Zoe, and an email from Garden Monkey, all wishing me good luck, so that cheered me up.
The first visitors arrived at 1.45pm. We weren't due to open until 2pm, but we were so glad to see them, we welcomed them with open arms (and dripping bamboo). Visitors are all very different. Some ask lots of questions, others like to go round on their own. Some are jolly, some intensely serious. A couple of early visitors yesterday looked at me with deep suspicion when I introduced myself, so I left them to it. As the day wore on, I found, people became more and more chatty, so that when friends arrived, I hardly had a minute to talk to them and felt very rude.
Last year, I'd forgotten to provide a list of plants, and spent the whole afternoon repeating myself like a broken record as I told people the same information over and over again. This year, I wrote a guide, protected by plastic folders, so people could carry it around the garden with them. Still got lots of questions, though, but that was fine. Many people were fascinated by the heron deterrent, Netfloat, and whether it worked or not (it does). I'd read somewhere, when I built my pond, that herons need a long landing strip, as it were, and that they liked to wade into water, so a raised bed would deter them. It's not true. I've seen a heron descend on the seating area around my pond like a Harrier jump jet coming into land on an aircraft carrier.
The bananas also received a lot of attention as did the Arundo donax, the phormiums and the Montezuma pine. Anna Pavord, in her piece in Saturday's Independent Magazine, said our Phormium tenax was the biggest one she'd ever seen. It's so big people are never very sure whether it really is a phormium.
Some visitors come from miles away and others come from neighbouring streets. It's always lovely to meet people who live locally, not least because you can exchange information about garden conditions, and allotments, and local gossip. Yet others, like Paola, who's from Brazil but now lives in London, I met because she stopped to photograph the bamboo outside the house one day.
During the months of preparation, you tend to forget what fun the opening actually is. It's a bit like a huge party, but instead of having to make small talk to strangers, you have the luxury of being able to spend an afternoon chatting to fellow enthusiasts about gardening - and raise money for charity at the same time. By the time we closed at 6pm, we'd had 120 visitors and raised a total of around £400.
I'd like to say a big thank-you to my husband Craig, who sat in solitary state in the front garden all afternoon selling tickets, to my daughter Nevada, who with her best friends Eliza and Jake served the tea and home-made cakes, to my colleague, Independent on Sunday gardening writer Emma Townshend, who also contributed the most delicious cakes, to Cleve West, who supplied nearly all the pictures below (because for obvious reasons I didn't have time to take any myself), to my stepdaughter Holly, who brought loads of friends along, and to all our friends who supported us not only yesterday but through all the moments of angst over the past months.

The Netfloat heron deterrent on display in the pond. It consists of plastic rings that link together (you can also cut the centres out to make room for plants if you need to). As the name suggests, it simply floats on the surface of the water, so it's easy to remove if you need to take it out to do some pond maintenance

Even if you don't have time to talk to them, it's lovely when friends turn up to support you. From left, Christine, William, Emma T, Matthew and Jane

The big phormium to the left of the picture is the one that impressed Anna Pavord, but these visitors seem to be in search of other interesting things...

A view of visitors in the garden from the table area. The empty feeder in the foreground is the one the swinging squirrel managed to empty all over the ground

The vast leaves of Musa basjoo, the hardy banana

Arundo donax, or giant reed, in the foreground with, beside it, the spiky leaves of a cordyline.

The cakes, a vital part of any garden visit, I think. Craig's homemade tablet is on the table on the left: it proved extremely popular

That's me on the right, in the flowery dress. Emma took this picture and very kindly hid most of me behind a visitor. My concession to the weather was not blow-drying my hair, so I look like the Witch of Endor crossed with a Cath Kidston catalogue. By the way, that's not blue sky in the background, but black cloud