Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy new year!

I feel it's going to be a good one. Love and hugs to you all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cat logic

"I can't think why humans want to go out in the cold and take photographs," said Pushkin. "It's much nicer here by the fire.
"The trick is to get within whisker-singeing distance of the flames. As for all that white brrrr-stuff outside, I have no intention of dipping so much as a paw into it."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

I almost forgot...

... to say that I had a post up at Encounters With Remarkable Biscuits, James Alexander-Sinclair's eclectic blog based loosely around the subject of round crumbly things (and no, you don't need to enable cookies in order to have a browse).
My feeble excuse is that I have a terrible cold and have been busy at work. I'm so late in telling you about it, indeed, that my post has now been superseded by VP's recipe for Chocolate Spice Cookies. Much more interesting, if you ask me.
While we're on the subject of updates, a couple of my favourite bloggers have had revamps recently.
Rob, who is practically a neighbour of mine here in south-west London, has redesigned his blog, Mutterings in the Shrubbery and Jodi has spruced up her blog, Bloomingwriter, in time for Christmas.
Jodi is not a neighbour of mine, unfortunately, since she is based in Nova Scotia. But I bet at this time of the year she wishes she was based in south-west London...
Jodi has been writing her blog for four years and was wondering whether to keep going or not. However, she has heeded the heartrending pleas from around the world and decided that she will stay with us for a bit longer. Hurray!
It's difficult to know, when you write a blog, who is paying attention. Most of us have a group of ... well, I think of them as friends, who comment regularly. And some people, but not me, track their blog stats and find out what is bringing the traffic and out. I don't because I don't know how, and I've decided I can live without knowing.
Unlike Esther, who I think has turned commenting into an art form, I am not the world's best commenter. I often write a lengthy comment, only for it not to appear, because I haven't done something vital like the word verification. (Strangely enough, this often seems to occur late at night.)
Sometimes I don't have time to comment. Sometimes - quite often, really - I can't think of anything intelligent to say.
It doesn't mean I haven't enjoyed the post, but the blogger is not to know that. So to prevent Jodi and other talented people like her feeling unloved and unappreciated in future, I am going to make much more of an effort to comment, even if it is just to say: "Great post!"

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Eeek, it's December

Esther has shut down for the festive season. Arabella is doing the most wonderful Advent calendar. VP is busy looking for another Messiah to sing. Helen and Karen have been testing trees and lights. So where are you up to with your Christmas preparations? Let me rephrase that: what have you failed to do so far?

I have not:
Sent cards
Put up the tree
Checked out the Christmas tree lights
Swept the front step (as you can see from the picture below) and put down a fresh mat, which I like to do at Christmas time. Indeed, Christmas and New Year is usually a time of great upheaval and reorganisation in our household. I suppose it's because I have to clear away all the normal clutter in order to display the Christmas clutter. In the course of this, one discovers cobwebby corners and grubby paintwork, which one wishes one had time to clean, but which one usually disguises with strategically positioned furniture.

On the other hand, I have:
Ordered the turkey
Received my first Christmas card, from a friend in Australia
Booked tickets for my daughter's carol concert (but haven't received them, since daughter, who has the attention span of a gnat, is in charge of bringing them home)
Bought the new mat, ready to put down when I get round to sweeping the step (which I am planning to have retiled in the spring)
Made a wreath for the porch
Er, that's it.

Don't be too impressed by the wreath - I cheated. I bought the components at New Covent Garden flower market at dawn last Saturday. I wanted a really big wreath because I always put mine on the bare bit of wall by the door instead of on the door itself, and a small wreath looks a bit forlorn there.
I knew the only place I would get a base big enough (without paying huge amounts of money for it) would be the flower market, and sure enough, they didn't let me down. The actual base is 20 inches, and when you include the foliage it measures about a yard from top to bottom.
I have a lot of variegated or yellow-leaved plants in the front garden, so I also bought some variegated holly to pick up those colours. It seemed like a good idea at the time, because I imagined I would wear gloves, but of course, if you're doing something fiddly, you keep taking your gloves off. My fingers now resemble a pincushion.
The flower market also sells every single thing you can think of to decorate wreaths. Cinnamon sticks, dried orange slices, fresh miniature apples in green, red or yellow (how do they do that?) bows, ribbons, you name it. I decided I wanted something yellow, and was very taken with the mini apples. However, this is the first time I have ever attempted a wreath (even in a cheating sort of way) so I wasn't very sure how I was going to wire them on.
In the end, I saw some fake lemons, which came complete with a long wire on the end. Perfect! They must have been made especially for a wreath cheater.
Like me, you probably have your own family Christmas traditions. Some of ours are rather eccentric - we like to watch the Morecambe and Wise sketch in which they make breakfast to the music of The Stripper. And we like to watch Some Like It Hot. The reasons for this are lost in the mists of time.
I think I will add wreath-cheating to my list of Christmas traditions, however. There was something very nice about wandering around the flower market and smelling that wonderful Christmas-tree smell, then loading the car with greenery as the sun came up.
There are things we squabble over too. The children like to put the tree up the minute December strikes, while I prefer to put it up a bit later. If I had my way, it would go up on Christmas Eve, because I like the idea of Advent being a quiet time of waiting and anticipation. Usually we compromise (in other words, I crack under pressure) around the first weekend of December, but this year we've managed to get to the 8th without the tree going up. I'm hoping to get as far as next weekend.

The Unswept Step. Actually, it doesn't look too bad here, given that I hate it anyway. It's tiled with old-fashioned terracotta quarry tiles, which would be OK, if some idiot hadn't decided to paint them terracotta colour at some point, and the paint has never quite completely come off. They never look really clean, and they don't seem to respond to being polished.
So I'm going to replace them in the spring, when the weather warms up a bit, with black and white quarries. I can't wait.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Garden Media Guild Awards

To the City of London* earlier today for the Garden Media Guild Awards lunch. It was held at The Brewery which, I was relieved to find, is so prestigious that the minicab company not only knew where it was but were impressed that I was going there.
I always find these awards bashes a bit daunting. You never seem to see anyone you know until the event is nearly over. At that point, you see 15 of your closest friends, but don't have time to chat because you've got to rush off. So having armed myself with a glass of fizzy wine, I was delighted to see Cleve West and greeted him in much the same way that a traveller stranded in the Sahara will greet a glass of water.
However, as I stood sipping my fizz, whom should I see over Cleve's shoulder but VP. Yay! She had been nominated for an award - in the Blog of the Year category, needless to say.
We all went into lunch, which was surprisingly good, with pumpkin soup, beef and Stilton suet pudding, and warm chocolate and fig melt with pear water ice. I could feel myself putting on a stone. I was on the National Gardens Scheme table, sitting between their chief executive, Julia Grant, and the gardening journalist and author George Plumptre, who is also an NGS trustee.
The awards ceremony itself was fairly brisk, which was good, as it was accompanied by deafening music that made a punning reference to the recipient. For example, the chairman of the GMG, Valerie McBride-Munro was greeted with a blast of Amy Winehouse's Valerie. Wesley Kerr, who won the award for National Radio Gardening Broadcast of the Year with his documentary War of the Roses, was accompanied onto the stage by the strains of Elvis Costello's It's Been a Good Year for the Roses.
These were fairly easy to work out, but the choice of a David Essex song for an award to Radio Essex gardening presenter Ken Crowther was a bit more convoluted, as was the selection of Hi Ho Silver Lining for the new chairman of the GMG, author and garden designer Geoff Whiten. Was it something to do with the name Geoff (Jeff Beck, geddit?) or was it an allusion to the colour of his hair? I'm still trying to work that one out.
As the lunch ended, I saw lots of people I knew - Pattie Barron, James Alexander-Sinclair, Matthew Wilson, Emma Townshend, Martyn Cox - but I suddenly felt really tired and decided that instead of going on to the post-awards party, I might make my way home. I bumped into VP, who had to get home to Chippenham and we decided to kill time in the local Starbucks before she went for her train, and amuse ourselves by discussing to whom WE would have given the awards.
James had won the Blog award, but had been kind enough to mention VP in his acceptance speech, which, we agreed, was lovely of him.
Carol Warters of Garden News won the News Story of the Year award for a feature entitled Grow Plea to World Leaders. I'm sure it was a really good piece, but I think my choice would have been Matthew Appleby's story on how the credit crunch affected the Chelsea Flower Show this year. All the serious papers followed this story up (including the Independent) and none of them credited or quoted Mr Appleby (including the Independent).
Personally, my choice for Gardening Column of the Year would have been Martyn Cox. And VP wanted to know why Nigel Colborn wasn't nominated for his blog, Silvertreedaze? We'll keep our secateurs crossed for you for next year, chaps.
Oops, nearly forgot. Here is a totally irrelevant picture of Pushkin for VP, who was asking after him.

*For the benefit of non-UK readers, the City of London is a specific part of London - indeed, the original city, or historic core, of London. Also known as the Square Mile, it dates back centuries. Nowadays, "the City" also means the financial district. You might hear someone say: "He/she is thinking of going into the City", meaning they are thinking of taking up a career in banking or sharedealing.

Er, where was I?

It's been a bit of a busy time in our household over the past couple of weeks. My daughter has been doing scholarship exams, work has been frantic, the bathroom is STILL being fitted - and it's almost Christmas, in the sense that it's time to order turkeys, make cakes, dig out and dust off decorations, and rearrange the living room to accommodate the tree.
Having the builders in is a bit like having toddlers in the house. It's that sense of trying to adhere to a routine which can be scuppered at any time by unpredictable behaviour.
My builders are very, very nice, but they are quite demanding in the way that small children are. You have to come and admire what they're doing at regular intervals and make encouraging noises; there are the unscheduled trips to plumbers' merchants to pick up this and that; and regular supplies of hot drinks to organise. The minute you leave for work is always the moment they choose to have a long conversation with you about "rad valves" or "boxing in".
Meanwhile, the weather has been appalling. November is now officially the wettest in Britain since records began, and it was windy with it. Any attempt to get outside involves a quick scamper round the garden to rake up leaves before the next deluge or gale dumps another ton of them on the lawn.
I find that I need to be IN the garden to connect with it properly. It's all very well staring out of the window and trying to plan what I'll do next, but I only really get inspired when I'm wandering round with a mug of tea, inspecting this and tweaking that. The mug of tea usually ends up stone cold and full of flies while I fiddle around with bamboo canes and pots in an effort to visualise a new idea or bit of planting. You can tell I never trained as a garden designer.
So in the absence of gardening, I'm delighted to be going to the Garden Media Guild awards lunch today, where at least I will see gardening people. I'll tell you all about it when I get back/recover from the hangover.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

For Craig

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever
Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee
Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee

Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest
Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest
Thine be ilka joy and treasure
Peace, enjoyment, love and pleasure
Robert Burns

In memory of my husband, Craig Orr, 4 September 1937-19 November 2008

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The god of manure-spreading

At the risk of sounding like Michael Caine, did you know that the Romans had a god of manure? No, neither did I. What sensible people those Romans were. Before they started invading everybody else, they were an agrarian society and all their gods and goddesses were involved in some sort of agricultural activity. The god of manure-spreading was Sterculius, sometimes known as Sterquilinus or even Stercutius.
I discovered this by flicking through a Christmas books guide that came with one of the newspapers. One of the books featured was Philip Matyszak's Classical Compendium, billed as "a collections of incidents, wisecracks and curious facts from the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Whether it's wry observations by Socrates or information on the god of manure-spreading, this is the book for you".
It certainly sounds the book for me. How could I resist "information on the god of manure-spreading"?
Sterculius was one of a panoply of gods and goddesses, led by Saturn, originally a fertility god and the Roman god of agriculture. Others included Pomona, goddess of fruit trees, gardens and orchards; Flora, the goddess of flowers and springtime; and Sarritor, the Roman god of weeding and hoeing. (His name is commemorated today in the Canadian company Sarritor, who produce herbicides.) Jupiter had a crucial role as the god of weather, which is why he has a thunderbolt.
The name Conditor, that of the minor god who oversaw the storage of crops, now usually signifies Creator, as in the Advent hymn Conditor alme siderum. Its original meaning was someone who builds, by laying one thing on top of another. Think of apples stacked for winter, or a hayloft.
Mars, now better known as the god of war, was originally the god of fields and boundaries and a protector of farmers. As the Romans moved away from being an agricultural society towards the status of a world power, they decided the Greek gods and goddesses were posher than theirs, so they simply imported them wholesale. Where they had an equivalent, they substituted their own name - such as Jupiter for Zeus, or Minerva for Athene, or Mars for Ares.
Before any of you classical scholars out there complain, I'm aware that I'm simplifying all this in a major way. But I find it fascinating - and it's amusing to speculate on which particular deities the Romans would come up with if they were alive today. Would there be a god of allotments, for example? Or a goddess of organic husbandry? Or perhaps an immortal guardian of sheds?

Sunday, November 15, 2009


It was a lovely, mild afternoon so I went for a walk on Wandsworth Common today. To get to the common, you go down the street at the end of our road, turn right and then down a footpath that leads along the back of the very grand Victorian mansions that back on to the common itself.
These are imposing red-brick properties, costing millions, and bristling with turrets and twiddly bits. It's more or less impossible to walk past a row of prime London real-estate without seeing some sort of "improvement" going on, even during the credit crunch, so I wasn't too surprised when I saw the back gate to one of these houses was open, and a couple of men were laying a new lawn in the large garden.
I'd nearly walked past when, having given it a moment's thought, it struck me that it was an odd time of year to lay turf. I looked again and noticed that there were some offcuts of turf lying by the back gate. I took a third look and realised that the "turf" had what looked like a rubber backing.
Maybe they were laying a bit of fake turf in a very shady area, I thought. Maybe they were constructing a place to hide the rubbish bins and were using fake turf to disguise it. I carried on with my walk.
On the way back, I noticed the men were laying paving slabs as stepping stones through the lawn. I could see one of them mark out the area where a slab was going. Then he took a sharp knife and cut out a neat rectangle, throwing it on the discarded offcuts of artificial grass.
"I'm sorry to bother you," I said, "but are you laying fake turf?" He looked at me as if I was mad. "Yes," he said. "Over the whole garden?" I queried. "Yes, of course," he said, rolling his eyes at his mate, who shrugged in a kind of "there's always one" sort of way.
What happens when it rains? Is the rubber backing permeable? And how do you sweep up leaves? (With a blower, I'll bet.) Or do you have artificial trees as well? And doesn't it come as a huge disappointment to blackbirds and robins? And what happens if anyone drops a cigarette on it? Does anyone else think I'm mad to think this is a bonkers idea?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

You got to have friends...

This isn't a post about gardening, I'm afraid. Stick with me, though, because although it's not about ferns or foxgloves or fuchsias or freesias, it's about friendship. And that's just as valuable as gardening advice.
Last night, Friday night, I went on a girls' night out with my NCT group. Yes, the National Childbirth Trust, the UK charity who organise ante-natal classes, post-natal support, and anything, basically, that helps make parenting a better experience.
And yes, that means we first met 20 years ago, when we all had large bumps. Mine turned out to be my son. Now those bumps are at university and in the meantime, we have seen each other through all the traumas life can throw at you (and then some).
We try to meet at least every six months or so, usually at Cafe Rouge in Clapham. There are seven of us - me, Penny, Frances, Dorothy, Liz, Deborah and Sue. (Sue's moved out of town, though, so we don't see her so often.)
I was at work yesterday, and arranged to meet Penny at Clapham Junction to share a cab to the restaurant. I don't often go out, mainly because of the hours I work, so I was really looking forward to an evening with old friends.
As we climbed into the taxi, out of the howling wind and pouring rain, after journeys that had revealed to us both the full horror of public transport in London on a stormy Friday night, I said to Penny: "I need a glass of water, a glass of wine and a steak." We got to the restaurant, I managed to get halfway through a glass of water and my phone went. It was my 15-year-old daughter, who had been mugged on her way home from a school music competition.
My daughter was, understandably, hysterical, so Frances gave me a lift home immediately. She asked if I wanted to meet for coffee next day, but I didn't think I'd feel up to going out so she said she'd drop round.
I found my daughter huddled under her duvet, crying bitterly. She felt she had played very badly in the school competition, and had made a mistake at the end of the piece, so instead of waiting to hear the results at the end, had fled.
She was supposed to phone her father (my ex) for a lift, but decided to walk home instead. On the way, a guy had stopped her and demanded her phone and iPod. The school gives the kids strict instructions to hand over items like this without arguing, so my daughter did so. She wasn't hurt, but was terribly shocked.
Her father and I told her that losing the phone and the iPod didn't matter at all as long as she was all right. And if she'd played badly in the music competition, it didn't matter either. Penny, who has a wicked sense of humour, texted me to see if I was all right. "Steak really good," her text said, which made me laugh for the first time since I'd got home.
The last thing I did before we all went to bed was to email my daughter's music teachers to explain what had happened.
The next morning, at about 11.30am, there was a ring at the door. It was Frances, with Penny and Deborah, bearing a huge box of croissants and Danish pastries. A few minutes later, Dorothy arrived. She didn't have any steak, but a home-made cheesecake still warm from the oven. I made some coffee and we sat down and recreated our evening out as a leisurely brunch. It was lovely.
Twenty years ago, our conversations centred around buggies and stretchmarks and gas and air versus pethidine. We still talk about the kids, but today the conversation ranged from student loans (non-appearance of), medication (we compete to see how many prescriptions we each have for our various ailments), and art exhibitions we'd seen or were about to see (Ed Ruscha and the photography exhibition at the British Library) to the drinking habits of students at Bristol University (I won't go into details).
Liz had joked the previous evening that we'd all still be meeting up when we were on Zimmer frames and I suggested that perhaps we should all try to get into the same residential home.
I was only semi-joking - I don't know what I'd do without them.
Oh yes, first thing this morning, my daughter's music teacher emailed me back. Apparently there had been a bit of puzzlement when the results were announced and my daughter had failed to come forward.
She had won the competition and was the school's Musician of the Year.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Peace, perfect ... KA-BOOM!!!

It was the kind of autumn day you dream about here in London today. Crisp, cold air; blue, blue sky; copper-coloured leaves crunching underfoot. Just the sort of day you want if you need to get out in the garden to do a bit of tidying up.
For me, the day began rather musically, with a rehearsal of the St John Passion by J S Bach. My daughter's school is performing it in the spring so the parents' section of the choir met this morning to get our heads (or should that be voices?) around it for the first time. Fabulous.
After that, it was a quick whizz to the King's Road to do some shopping, then home to the garden, which seemed incredibly peaceful after choir practice and the bustling Saturday crowds.
Now that the clocks have gone back, what used to be an afternoon in the garden is really only a couple of hours. But I made the most of it, fishing dead leaves out of the ponds, and sweeping up the droppings from the ash tree in next door's garden.
I'm not a huge fan of ash trees. Like all unwelcome guests, they seem incapable of taking a hint, sprouting seedlings that resist your attempts to unroot them with a tenacity that would be admirable if it wasn't so annoying.
In Norse legend, the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, was an ash tree, and in northern Europe ash is considered to be a charm against evil. In my garden, however, I would quite like a charm against ash trees. Ash leaves remain on the stem, so they get tangled up in everything, and getting rid of them feels more like combing the garden rather than sweeping it.
But even sweeping ash leaves was a pleasant task today, as dusk fell and the flowers of the fatsia glowed in the last rays of sun. You could have heard a pin - or even an ash leaf - drop.

Just as I was standing back to admire my newly-tidy plot, the first one came. KA-BOOM!!!
*@$+%*&@*! (I said). Bonfire Night. Time to go inside and put in the ear-plugs.
When I was little, Guy Fawkes Night, 5 November, consisted of a few rockets and sparklers and perhaps a Catherine wheel or two. You had your fireworks and bonfire ON 5 November, or the nearest Saturday thereto.
These days, Guy Fawkes celebrations start somewhere back in October and extend until nearly Christmas. The ordnance involved is astonishing, consisting mainly of bomb-like projectiles with the ability to shake a whole street. Another favourite is a kind of whining, whistling thing. The end result is the same, though: KA-BOOM!!!!!!
The public displays are fantastic, with lots of exploding stars and sometimes fairgrounds alongside to pull in the crowds. But the private parties seem to be limited to the KA-BOOM!!! variety.
There's only one thing to do when the Normandy landings are being reenacted outside. Go inside and watch a war film. So I'm going to settle down and watch Ice Cold in Alex, which, unbelievably, I've never seen, and which came free with the Daily Telegraph this morning. What a lovely day it's been.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The return of Mr T?

So, have you heard the rumours about Alan Titchmarsh returning to Gardeners' World? According to the Daily Mail, he is to make a triumphant comeback following endless complaints about the current format for the show.
However, according to Matthew Appleby at Horticulture Week, it's not true. Mr T is indeed talking to the BBC about gardening projects, but will NOT be coming back to GW.
Personally, I am inclined to trust the incisive Mr Appleby's information rather than the Daily Snail, but whatever the truth is, one thing is for sure. The BBC will be guaranteed to take the opinions of viewers into account when they make any changes to the format. (Only joking!)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A spooky story for Halloween

Halloween is quite a big deal where we live in London. It's not as popular a festival as it is in the States, but lots of people have parties, and decorate their houses, and go trick or treating - more and more each year, in fact.
There are some grouchy people who see this as evidence of the Americanisation of British culture, but personally I love the idea of making days special and having fun. What's not to like?
This year we thought we'd get into the ghostly spirit of things and put out pumpkins on the porch and some fairy lights. We also invested in lots of treats for the kids who live locally, and a special pumpkin shaped bag to put them in. (I am such a pushover...)
My family all claim to have had supernatural experiences, but I never have - which is just as well, because I would, like, totally freak (as my daughter would say). The idea absolutely terrifies me. The closest I ever came to a spectral encounter was in my last house, a few years ago ...
It was a nice house, terraced, red-brick, and built in around 1919 (I reckon). Most of the original features were missing when we moved in, so we proceeded to install things like a traditional stained glass door, proper wooden French windows, and a fireplace in the living room.
Shortly after we embarked on this restoration project, our nanny Elaine bumped into a lady in the street and they got chatting. The lady had lived in our street long ago, and was visiting friends in the neighbourhood. She told Elaine that during the Blitz, there had been a direct hit on our house. The house itself had been rebuilt from the ground up (which explained the lack of original features). But tragically, two people had been killed while sheltering in the cellar.
As you can imagine, I really, really wanted to know this. Cellars in old houses are fairly spooky places, reminding one forcibly of Edgar Allan Poe stories. Our cellar was no exception - and even worse, the door at the top of the stairs to the cellar, which was in the hallway, had a habit of creaking open unexpectedly.
This was because there had been a special chute at the front of the house, under the front step, where the coalman delivered the coal. If the wind was in the right direction, the draught from this would blow the door open. Knowing this didn't really make it any less spooky.
My husband had an old flat iron, which I think had been his grandmother's, so we decided to use that as a doorstop. I didn't say anything to my husband, but I liked the idea that iron was an old charm against sorcery, witchcraft and any other supernatural activity.
Despite the flat iron doorstop, however, the door was often found to be ajar. We used to keep things like the vacuum cleaner and so on in the cellar, so it was perfectly possible that someone hadn't closed the door properly after getting out the ironing board or some such. But it was strange ...
One night, the kids had gone to bed and I was on my own downstairs. I settled down to watch television, and went to shut the living room door. I could see the cellar door was ajar - again - so I propped the flat iron firmly against it.
To my horror, the door immediately began to push against the flat iron of its own accord. Very gently, a fraction of an inch at a time. I was rooted to the spot with fright. The door kept opening, agonisingly slowly, until at last, when it was a couple of inches ajar ... a furry paw came round the door.
It was the cat. Apparently, she could climb into the cellar through the coal hole, but not out again, so she would push against the door instead.
Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nerines and narcissi

A Vagabond Song

Bliss Carman 1861-1929

There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood -

Touch of manner, hint of mood;

And my heart is like a rhyme,

With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.

The scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry

Of bugles going by.

And my lonely spirit thrills

To see the frosty asters like a smoke upon the hills.

There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir;

We must rise and follow her,

When from every hill of flame

She calls and calls each vagabond by name.

I love this poem. I came across it in an anthology of American poetry in a bookshop in Vermont (can't remember exactly where, but it may have been Middlebury, VT). Maybe it's because my birthday is in October, but it seems to sum up everything I feel about autumn.
This has been a strange autumn in the UK. It's still very mild here in London - it's now been officially termed an Indian summer. So although there are loads of berries on the trees, and pretty good autumn colour, I'm wandering round in short-sleeved T-shirts and wondering if I'll ever get the chance to wear my cut-price cashmere cardigan.
One plant that always strikes me as a strangely out of place at this time of year - although this is its flowering season - is Nerine bowdenii (above). I've grown them for the first time after being given some plants by a member of my gardening group.
They look not only impossibly glamorous with their girlie-pink flowers, but also quite un-autumnal. They're supposed to be quite tender, but I know of one front garden near me where they come up reliably year after year. I know they like to bask in a sunny spot, especially if it is backed by a wall, but mine seem to have thrived on neglect. I potted them up when I was given them, and haven't done anything to them since, apart from shove them under a phormium. In fact, I had two lots, but gave some to Rob, so it will be interesting to hear how his have done.
The nerines are not the only thing in bloom in the garden at the moment. The tetrapanax flowers at this time of the year, producing a strange spray like blobby antlers.

The miscanthus flowers make the best of the low autumn light, while the barred foliage looks sun-dappled whether it rains or shines.

I have also been converted to Geranium 'Rozanne'. I wasn't a huge fan when I first had it - the leaves seemed a bit coarse and the flowers didn't really do much for me. I was thinking of ripping it out, but I reckon it's earned its place this year, flowering non-stop and undeterred by the ash leaves falling all over it. It really seems to like being chopped back - which I have done every time it started to look a bit scruffy. I'm impressed.

So, it's nearly November and I'm still wearing summer T-shirts and enjoying my flowers. To cap it all, I bought my first narcissi today; a bunch of paperwhites with an incredible perfume. Perhaps this is what they mean by a garden for all seasons.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Lights, camera, action

I'm supposed to be on holiday this week, the builders are installing a new bathroom, my daughter's off school and everything in the garden is lovely.
Sort of. I'm actually spending most of this week helping a friend with a magazine project, the builders are not so much installing a new bathroom as deconstructing the old one and every time I get my head around cooking a meal, one or other of my teenage children announces they're going out. When? Right now, mum.
So my vision of pottering around, cup of tea in hand, while I plan the next horticultural project has somewhat evaporated. Not only that, but the bathroom project has hit a few snags. I was hoping we could tile over the existing tiles, but now the old sanitaryware has been removed, I've discovered that the existing tiles were glued to the previous tiles. ALL the tiles have got to come off, which will not only delay things, but also increase the cost.
Thanks to new stringent rules on electrics in bathrooms, I also have to have new lighting installed. As the ceiling looks a bit dodgy, the builder is recommending putting in a false ceiling. It makes a lot of sense, but it's yet more expense.
Still, the good news is that I've discovered what was causing the massive damp patch on the kitchen wall below (crack in the shower tiles), and why water poured through the kitchen ceiling every time someone had a bath (leaking overflow). This, just in case you wondered, is why I'm having the bathroom redone. Plus the loo leaked. And the radiator didn't work. Apart from that, it was just fine.
Anyway, I finally got out into the garden this evening, just as dusk was falling. I love that time of the day. The garden looked so magical, I forgot to feel guilty about having garden lighting. It's not exactly environmentally friendly, but at least it's not on all the time.
Trying to photograph the garden in evening light and at dawn is a challenge with a digital point-and-shoot. One day, when I've finished paying for the bathroom (which will be in 20 years' time, at this rate) I shall invest in a digital SLR and go on a photography course at West Dean.
We inherited the lighting system with the house, but it didn't work very well. So we got a firm who specialise in garden lighting to come in and fix it. They made some excellent suggestions, such as having uplighters in the lawn rather than spotlight spikes in the borders. These highlight the architectural plants, such as the big phormiums and cordylines.
Last week, they came round to extend the system, so that I had two more sockets in the garden. Instead of running the pond pump cables all the way round the garden to the old socket, the pumps now have their own dedicated socket. And I can use them to plug in the mower without hacking my way through the undergrowth. That reminds me, I must mow the lawn.

Friday, October 23, 2009

OK, here's a question for you...

Does anyone actually buy any of that gifty stuff they sell in garden centres? I'm interested to know, because so many gardeners of my acquaintance complain about the piles of tat that impede their way to the plants.
I have to admit I've often succumbed to the odd thing or two - mini lanterns for example, in which to hang a twinkling tea light from a tree, or perhaps some hand cream or hand scrub. I might even have bought a citronella candle to keep bugs at bay.
But I have never bought a china figurine, or jewellery, or a fluffy toy, or a photograph frame. Indeed, being confronted with piles of this sort of stuff tends to put me off the store - it gives me the impression, however unjust, that they're not really serious about selling plants.
Yet the big garden centres say this stuff is very popular with customers and plays a vital role in their profit margins.
What do you think?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Marrakech: a day in the mountains

Monday was our last day in Morocco and it dawned wet and chilly. This was just as well otherwise it would have been much more difficult to tear ourselves away from what had been the sun-soaked pool terrace at Tigmi.
We'd booked a tour to the Ourika valley, where the Ourika river carves its way between ever-higher mountains. They culminate in Jebel Toubkal (Mount Toubkal), the highest peak in the Atlas mountains - indeed, in North Africa.
As we drove south up into the foothills, into the Toubkal National Park, the dun-coloured, sparse fields became greener and lusher. Eventually, the towns and villages gave way to a kind of strip of settlements alongside the river, connected to the main road by the most rickety footbridges I have ever seen in my life, slung about 10 feet above the water. The locals stride across them without a care, of course, but there was no way I was crossing one. I was delighted and relieved when our taxi driver recommended a cafe on our side of the water.

We passed at one point through a Berber market, a crush of donkeys, cars, trucks, people, mopeds and bicycles. We were amused by the "car parks", where donkeys were tethered while their owner shopped or got on with business. Donkeys are a favourite mode of transport, possibly because they never seem to complain when they are completely overloaded ...

In some areas of Morocco you have to be a bit careful about taking pictures - especially of women, but sometimes even of men. Our driver told us it would be all right to take photographs in the market, but the two little girls below look a bit uncertain. I wanted to explain to them that I was actually trying to photograph the enormous wicker bee skeps behind them and they were accidentally in the shot.

When you walk around Marrakech you see lots of teenage girls dressed in western clothes, riding mopeds, chatting on their cellphones, enjoying a night out. It's easy to forget that for women in rural Morocco, life is very different. According to our driver, arranged marriages are the norm and the women spend very little time outside the home. They are dependent on their husbands not only for food and shelter but also for family news.
Here is a Berber home, shown for the benefit of tourists, but fairly typical. There is running water in the kitchen, provided by a mountain stream which has been diverted via a series of culverts to not only serve the household but also run the mill.

Here is the family silver - literally. It's not used every day, of course, but kept polished and brought out on special occasions, such as weddings or festivals.

And here's the vegetable patch. There are no flowers in the garden, only fruit trees, and behind the vegetables (tomatoes, courgettes and squashes) there is a patch of maize.

Some more Berber "allotments". The mountains are so steep that any pasture or cultivation tends to be done down by the river, or, where possible, in terraces. If you look at the picture below, it's easy to assume that the buildings in the foreground are a village. In fact the "real" village is up on the mountain, towards the top left of the picture. (There's a close-up version of it below.)
High on the mountainside it is both easy to defend and safe from floods and landslides. However, to save the hassle of going up and down the mountain every time you want something, the stables, grain stores and other agricultural buildings are at river level.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The magic of marvellous Marrakech

I've been away for the past few days, in Morocco, staying just outside Marrakech in the most wonderful hotel called Tigmi. I'm supposed to be writing a travel piece about the trip for The Independent, but I'm starting to wonder what I'll say. It's difficult to sound original when everyone I know seems to have been to Marrakech already.
Not only that, but I am the biggest sucker in the world when it comes to haggling. I only need to take one look at the hurt expression on the vendor's face as he explains about his starving children and aged parents, and I pay up without another quibble.
How do I avoid the usual clichés? How did I manage to come back with a carpet, when I am a veteran of North African carpet shops and have always sworn I would never succumb? How did I manage to spend so much money? I can only ascribe it to a kind of magical charm that this city exerts over all who visit.
OK, so the clichés. Driving south from Marrakech to the small village of Tagadert, you leave the new developments of hotels and golf courses behind and head into countryside that looks as if it hasn't changed since Biblical times. There are shepherds abiding in the fields and in the distance a figure on a donkey makes its way across the hillside.

The taxi lurches down a road that is so unmade the cast of an entire nativity play could fall into one of the potholes and never be seen again. Can there possibly be a hotel at the end of it or will we find a building site full of rubble and scaffolding? No, here is Tigmi, offering a cool green welcome after the dusty journey from the airport.

Marrakech itself doesn't disappoint. It's like a film set for one of those Agatha Christie movies with an A-list cast. October is a terrific time to visit as the weather is hot but bearable and the kaleidoscope of colour - the red of the city walls, the carpets in the souk, the endless rows of babouches (slippers), scarves, bags and pottery shimmer beneath a blue sky like a cinematographer's dream.

It's a city of flowers too - the first thing that hits you (after the warm sunshine) is the smell of roses as you enter the airport. Roses, which are planted along many of the roadsides, seem to flower all year round in Marrakech, apparently disease-free. There are other plants too - palms, bananas, bougainvillea, and succulents such as cacti and aloes that bask in the dry heat.
The main square, the Djemaa el-Fna, is famous for its snake charmers and musicians, who provide a non-stop cabaret from early evening onwards amid a smoky melee of stalls selling mint tea, soup and barbecue. Here's a huckster trying to persuade two tourists to be photographed with his monkey. Don't you just love the monkey's expression?

Needless to say, my mother and I found ourselves drawn to the plant stalls, below, but didn't find any bargains. Prices in Morocco seems to be pretty similar to the UK. The tall bougainvilleas on this stall were 250 Moroccan dirhams, about £20.

The most famous of the city's gardens is the Jardin Majorelle, built in the 1920s and subsequently bought by Yves Saint Laurent. It features the bright blue - Majorelle blue - that everyone associates with Morocco. Did we visit? No, we didn't. Time was short and I'd heard reports of huge coach parties and slight disappointment. Instead we visited the gardens of La Mamounia hotel, taking advantage of the Open Sesame effect a journalist's pass bestows.
La Mamounia is the smartest hotel in Marrakech. Newly reopened after a three-year refit, it has a strict dress code and while it doesn't actually discourage casual visitors from stopping for lunch or a drink, it doesn't actively encourage them either. The security guards with walkie-talkies at the gates see to that, while once you reach the entrance, what seem like eight (but is probably 12) footmen dressed in white Moroccan dress leap to open the doors into the imposing foyer.
La Mamounia's main claim to fame is that it was one of Churchill's favourite places to stay. It is the most sensational place - as if Death on the Nile had been produced by Gianni Versace - but away from the leopard print and leather-padded cocktail bars and plush restaurants, the gardens offer a green respite from wall-to-wall sophistication, with allées leading between trees and lawns, and pavilions dotted around.

I think it's these sort of contrasts that make Marrakech so vibrant. One minute you're haggling in the souk over a scarf, the next you can be in the tranquil gardens of a palace.
Ah yes, the souk. We cheated and had a guide, courtesy of Best of Morocco who were hosting my visit. Most Moroccans, and especially the ones who are selling you things, speak a bit of English and they all speak French (and Arabic, of course). Language isn't a problem - it's the hassle of fending off over-eager salesmen. The minute you show an interest in anything, they want to sell you two, "for very good price". The idea of window-shopping is a completely alien concept.
Allegedly, the guides take you to their friends' stalls where one presumes they get a commission, but since we wanted to buy stuff anyway (I even had a long shopping list), this was fine by us. And it's certainly true that we wouldn't have had the energy to get round the whole souk if we hadn't been with Ahmed. Cruising along in his wake was so much easier than fighting our way through by ourselves.
Souks are traditionally split up into sections; one for leather, one for silver, one for carpets and so on. The carpets are made in the villages, but walking round the souk, you can see tanners at work and watch the metal-workers beat out their brass patterns with a kind of atonal syncopation.

Here's a traditional medicine shop, with its animal and snake skins hanging up outside. Goodness only knows what they use them for.

Mint tea, traditionally served by the carpet sellers as they unroll rug after gorgeous rug in front of you. Each one is different, and the Berber techniques that you see in Morocco involve knotting, weaving and embroidery, or sometimes even a mixture of all three.
I've sat through a few of these mint tea routines in Tunisia, where the colours and designs are much more traditional and I've always found them a bit headache-inducing. In Marrakech, we were shown a wonderful selection of both traditional and contemporary designs, in the most gorgeous colours.
The shop here is the Artisanat du Sud, owned by Hossni Ait Rammania (half-hidden by the carpet) and his brother Khalid. I'd never be able to find it again - I'd have to get hold of Ahmed. As the salesmen hold up the rug, you either say: "Nakh-am [yes]" or "Laa [no]". It was very difficult to say laa.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The weather gods' revenge

I might have known that the weather gods would read my blog. No sooner had I burbled on about the lovely weather we were having, when the temperature dropped. I think it was my punishment for describing September as Indian summer when, as Lia Leendertz so rightly pointed out, it isn't really an Indian summer until October.
We still haven't had much rain though, apart from a downpour yesterday evening. There's nothing worse than grey, cold weather, is there? Cold and sunny is lovely, and so is hot and sunny. I don't even mind the wet - at least the garden is getting a soaking. But watering when it's grey, cold and windy is a truly miserable, shivery affair.
So I thought I'd cheer myself up by posting this picture of the garden this autumn and comparing it with 2007, which is when the picture at the top of my blog was taken. All in all, I think things are looking better.
I used to think my diseased cannas looked all right. They grew, they flowered: what more do you want? But having replaced them with new plants, I can see that the new foliage is far superior to the virus-ridden leaves I had before. I'm sure even the orange of the flowers is more intense.
Gary commented the other day that he wanted to give cannas a go next year. I'd say go for it, Gary. Make sure you buy really good plants in the first place (don't buy anything that seems to have brown streaks or damage on the leaves). You can grow them from rhizomes, of course, but it will take longer for them to bulk up. I have mine in pots because it's easier to move them into a dry place in winter (such as the shed or a garage). Cut them down to soil level (a bread knife is good) after the first frosts and bring them out again once the weather warms up a bit in late spring.
The hardy geraniums in front of the canna (and the pot of variegated pelargonium) don't look as bushy, but that's deliberate. It's a blue variety (not sure which, as it was a pass-along plant) that flowers only once, in late spring, and I've been surreptitiously ripping chunks out, ready to replace it with a variety that will flower all summer long. I did think of G. 'Blue Sunrise', which I love, but I don't think it's quite sunny enough there, so I might try something else.
This photograph was taken later in the year than the one at the top of my blog, so the crocosmia (the orange patch between the two cannas) have long since disappeared. And can you see how the little fluffy euphorbia has wriggled along the border from one side of the box ball to the other? It hasn't really moved, of course, just died down in one place and seeded itself in another. It's Euphorbia cyparissias 'Orange Man', which I love for its texture, and it self-seeds all over the place.
Other prolific self-seeders in the garden include Erigeron karvinskianus, the Mexican daisy; Libertia grandiflora (the spiky strappy thing next to the box); all the euphorbias, especially E. mellifera which seems to have a determination to reproduce itself that is nothing short of Biblical, and nasturtiums.
This year, a whole bunch of nasturtiums decided to self-seed under the fig tree, which comes into leaf relatively late. Imagine their horror when it finally unfolded its long green leathery fingers. You could almost hear them asking who switched the lights out. Better luck next year, chaps!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Blotanical UK Blog 2009: a very big thank you

I'd like to say thank you to everyone who voted for me in the 2009 Blotanical awards. Simply to be shortlisted for UK Blog was quite a thrill - to be voted best blog is just unbelievable.
I didn't realise I'd won until I started getting messages from blogging friends congratulating me. Even when I saw the official announcement, I could scarcely believe it. I couldn't even sit down to write this yesterday evening; I was too busy wandering around in a daze.
Being part of Blotanical has helped me through some really tough times. I wish my husband, Craig, could have been here to see me win this award. He always encouraged me in whatever I did and he would have been thrilled. So I'd like to dedicate it to him - and to all the husbands, wives, partners and families who patiently put up with us obsessing about our gardens all day (and then coming inside and writing about them all evening!).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Happy new autumn!

Maybe it's because my birthday is in the autumn, or perhaps it's just that school and college begin at the end of summer, but I always feel that this is really the start of a new year.
We've had bit of an Indian summer here in the south-east, which has seemed like a glorious new year's eve party - the sort of party where you look at your watch at some point and are amazed to discover it's 2.40am. Can it really be nearly October? Can it really be that late? It seems as if the garden has only just got going.
I love this time of year. The garden opening has come and gone, and there's nothing to do (weather permitting) except sit back and enjoy things. There's nothing to plant (too dry). There's nothing to mow (ditto). All that's required is a bit of gentle deadheading until the first frosts and gales of winter arrive and I have to wrap, and chop, and sweep.
It's such a luxury to have nothing much to do in the garden. It's amazing how much more keen one is to be out there when all you have to do is wander round and have the chance to really look at things.

My cannas are finally in full bloom. Like supermodels arriving two hours late for a photoshoot, they should really have been on show in time for the garden opening. But just like supermodels, they are so beautiful, I forgive them their lack of punctuality and stand back in admiration instead.

Foliage colour takes on a new depth in September sunshine. This is Pelargonium 'Occold Shield', which has bright yellow-green foliage blotched with bronze, and orangey-red flowers. To be honest, I'd be quite happy just with the leaves.

I wasn't very keen on Geranium 'Rozanne' the first year I grew it. I couldn't really see what all the fuss was about. This year, however, 'Rozanne' has really earned her keep, flowering from early summer and still going strong.

Here's the loquat, Eriobotrya japonica. What's so spectacular about this? The fragrance, which I have no way of replicating here, unfortunately. You'll just have to imagine a garden filled with the scent of frangipani.

This is Sedum spectabile 'Indian Chief'. To be honest, it's a bit pinker than I was expecting. It was described as a 'fiery red, ageing to rust and copper'. I knew it was too good to be true.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Oh. My. Goodness. Thank you, Blotanical!

To my utter and complete amazement, I have been shortlisted by Blotanical for the Best UK Blog. I'm - well, I'm thrilled. I've got stiff competition from The Galloping Gardener, An Artist's Garden, Blogging from Blackpitts and Veg Plotting and I can tell you, I'm hard-put to choose which one of those I'm going to vote for. One difficulty is that I think of them all as old friends - indeed, I've met VP and James, and Karen at Artist's Garden was one of the people who inspired me to keep going with my own blog.
If you've never heard of Blotanical, let me explain. It's a kind of society of blogs from all over the world, organised by Stuart Robinson of Gardening Tips'n'Ideas. Stuart is based in Busselton, Western Australia, and if anyone deserves an award or a medal or a knighthood, it is he. There are now more than 1,000 blogs listed, but you don't have to have a blog in order to join. If you're a keen gardener, but don't fancy the idea of writing about it, you can sign up to become a member, which means you can comment and message and have access to this rich resource.
Society is a good word for Blotanical because it is like a global extended family of friends and neighbours. You can find out what it is like to garden in completely different climates, from the deserts of Arizona and Nevada to the monsoon belt of Asia, and from the frozen north of Canada and Scandinavia to the upside down seasons (or so they seem to us in the northern hemisphere anyway) of South Africa and Australasia.
You can have a conversation about grasses with a friend in Tennessee or join in the Diwali celebrations with a thousand marigolds in Mumbai. It's a fantastic source of advice, support, friendship and, very often, hoots of laughter.
I really value the virtual friends I've made. Many of them have been shortlisted in the finals too, so if you're a Blotanical member, go and check out the nominations NOW. You can vote here.