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.