Saturday, January 24, 2009

Photo opportunities

"Actually, I'm not all that interested in the subject of photography. Once the picture is in the box, I'm not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren't cooks." 
Henri Cartier-Bresson

It's been a tiring week. First there was the excitement of Mr Obama's inauguration. Then there was the loss of my camera. I realise that losing my camera has little impact on world peace or the global economy, but to me it was a big deal. Goodness knows what happened to it. A squirrel broke into the house and ate it, most likely.
I'd always promised myself that when my camera broke, or was lost, or stopped working, I would buy myself a digital SLR and a tripod so I could take 'proper' pictures. Needless to say, I chickened out of that, thanks to a complete inability to read manuals or cope with bits of camera kit.
My friend Graham Rice recommended what sounded like an excellent book about photographing plants on his blog, the Transatlantic Plantsman just before Christmas. If you're interested, it's called Macro Photography For Gardeners and Nature Lovers, by Alan Detrick, and it's available both in the States and in the UK. I came across a copy in the Wisley bookshop, and it did indeed look fascinating. Trouble is, I couldn't understand a word.
So I bought a pocket-sized point-and-shoot, a Nikon Coolpix, which, the nice John Lewis salesman assured me, was absolutely foolproof. It had an anti-camera-shake device, he said, and face detection. I said I didn't want face detection, I wanted flower detection. Well, he said, with 5 x optical zoom and 10 megapixels, I should be able to take pictures of flowers without them looking like fuzzy white blobs, or indeed, tiny fuzzy white blobs. As for operating it, piece of cake. Just plug it into the computer, and that would be that.
What a load of absolute tosh! When I unwrapped it, I found two rather fearsome-looking cables, not one but TWO cds, the usual guff about guarantees and no lithium battery. No, wait: what is that taped to the underside of the packaging where no one would spot it in a million years? Could it be ... yes, it is a lithium battery.
There was a dinky little charger for the lithium battery, so I attached it to the power cable and prepared to charge the battery. The power cable wouldn't stay put. I tried again. It fell out again. Eventually I managed to wedge it into place with a copy of  Tennyson's Poetical Works.
Finally, I attempted to plug in the cable that connects the camera to the computer. It wouldn't go in! Nooooooooooo! That does it, I thought, I'm taking this back to the shop. Hang on, maybe that was the wrong end? I tried it the other way round, and it seemed to fit. Oh, the relief!
After two days, I am still on page one of the manual. I'm going to go and lie down now. 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The newspaper that paid Christopher Lloyd not to write anything

The Garden Monkey posted an item yesterday about the Guardian's gardening blog which is recycling old articles from the archive, such as columns written by Vita Sackville West for The Observer, and some written by Christopher Lloyd, who wrote for the Guardian for 17 years until his death in 2006.
This reminded me that prior to writing for the Guardian, Christopher Lloyd was also a contributor to the Observer. Or rather, he wasn't...
In 1988, I joined the Observer (one of the more serious British Sunday newspapers, American readers) as deputy editor of the colour supplement. It had been going through a bit of a strange era with lots of changes of editors and contributors and so on. As deputy, my job was to look after things like budgets and production.
We had a whizzkid deputy managing director at the time who was very keen on saving money, and was always nagging me to make economies (sack a few journalists, that sort of thing).
One day he came to me with a list of contributors who, he said, were paid each month but never seemed to contribute. I was able to tell him that all but one were the real names of people who compiled crosswords and bridge columns and puzzles etc under pseudonyms. The only one I could not account for was a C Lloyd.
I cudgelled my brains for a couple of days and then dimly remembered that Christopher Lloyd had written for the Observer at one point. Good grief, could it possibly be him?
I asked the sub-editors and they said, yes, Christopher Lloyd did indeed write a column until it was chucked out by Dennis Hackett (a former editor of Nova magazine and Today newspaper). This had been about a year previously.
I rang Christopher Lloyd and put it to him (as they say in court) that he was on the Observer's pay roll. Yes, indeed, he said.
But you never write anything, I said.
No, he said.
But we pay you, I said.
If you're stupid enough to pay me for not writing anything, he said, I'm certainly not going to make a fuss about it.
Would you like to write for us, I said. Since we are paying you.
I'd be delighted, he said.
And so the Christopher Lloyd column was reinstated in the Observer. For about five minutes. I was incredibly excited about it, but no one else seemed to share my enthusiasm. About a year later, he went to the Guardian. Who can blame him? We had one of the best gardening writers in history and no one gave a toss.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Would you like some salt on your dandelion?

Tell me I'm not going mad. I ventured onto the RHS My Garden website the other day and couldn't resist having a look at the forum, where there was a post about whether it was all right to use pistachio nutshells in compost, or as drainage in patio pots, or whether they should be rinsed first to get rid of the salt.
I'm always a bit wary of forums. They always seem to be dominated by groups of regulars, and this can make newcomers feel as if they've stumbled into a private party. However, this was the RHS, I told myself, and so I felt confident that some sort of civilised discussion would ensue. And it did.
I said I was a bit cautious about using anything salty in the garden as I occasionally use salt as a weedkiller. (Because I don't use weedkiller. If you see what I mean.) It's particularly good for getting rid of dandelions, and weeds growing in difficult places, such as in gravel or in between paving. It's good for killing slugs and snails as well, but they die a rather agonising, Quatermass-style death.
This prompted a very interesting discussion about the use of salt when growing beetroot and other vegetables - and a couple of rather sceptical responses to my statement that salt was an efficacious killer of dandelions.
I've have often used salt to kill dandelions and it works very well. I use a moistened cotton bud, and wet the salt too, so that it's easy to pick up a little lump of it and deposit it right in the middle of the dandelion.
In the back garden, I hand-weed my lawn, which is fairly tedious unless it's a lovely day (then it's still fairly tedious but at least your fingers don't get cold). But in the front garden, I have gravel, over the remains of crazy paving, enlivened by a few manholes, and trying to hoick a dandelion out of that lot can be quite a task. My trusty cotton bud makes short work of it.
However, when someone seems sceptical about something you've said, it does make you wonder whether you're really right. Does anyone else use salt as a weedkiller?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The tablescape

I once read an interview with a very grand British interior designer, in which she mentioned how keen she was on tablescapes. In interior design terms, apparently, this usually involves a side (ie unnecessary) table, which is then decorated with unnecessary and very expensive things.
These might be objets of one sort or another, such as an oversized string of jade beads, or a marquetry box, supplemented perhaps with some family photographs in silver frames. The table itself is dressed with at least two cloths, an overcloth and an undercloth, in very expensive fabrics, and often trimmed with tassels or fringes.
The overall effect is very English-country-house style, and it's rather nice, especially if you have an English-country-house staff to dust it all for you.
Personally, I think life is too short to do lots of dusting, but I loved the idea of a tablescape. My idea of a tablescape, however, involves plants rather than objets and the table itself is not draped in designer damask, but came flatpacked from Ikea and has a very practical glass top. 
At the moment, the tablescape includes a purple phalaenopsis orchid, a red hippeastrum, some Paperwhite narcissi, some white hyacinths and a Ludisia discolor, also known as a Black Jewel Orchid. To be honest, I wouldn't normally have such brightly coloured plants, as I have a bit of a thing about white flowers (especially in the middle of winter for some reason). But most of them are presents, and so apart from being colourful, they also make me smile every time I look at them.
The Paperwhite narcissi were a Christmas present from my niece and nephew, Roisin and Dougie. When I unwrapped them on Christmas Day, the bulbs had already sprouted in the packaging, and were bent double. I planted them up anyway and forgot about them for a week, by which time they'd grown about a foot and were soldier-straight. My husband bought the ludisia for me ages ago and the purple orchid is a present from some friends of his, who knew his favourite colour was purple.

The red hippeastrum was a Christmas present from my friend Sarah, who sings in the choir with me. Apparently the name hippeastrum means Knight's Star, after the pointy club thing carried on a chain by medieval knights when they jousted. Personally, I think they look like Sarah and I, with our mouths wide open as we sing ...

... and the white hyacinths were a present to myself. I saw them reduced by 50% in Marks and Spencer and couldn't resist. If you go over to Veg Plotting, there is a very amusing post about the easy-peasy way to grow hyacinths. I don't think it comes much easier than just buying the bloody things.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Projects? Moi?

One of the things I love about gardening blogs is reading people's plans for the future. For a start, it's a great opportunity to stick one's nose into other people's business, rather than getting on with one's own affairs. Even better, you can make grandiose suggestions, in a manner that suggests (erroneously) that you know what you're talking about, without ever having to worry that you will be called upon to put these plans into effect.
There are lots of these projects to look at. Personally,  I've been enthralled by how Patientgardener is going to cope with her sloping plot. I've envied VP's plans for asparagus and vertical gardening. I've pondered Racquel's problematic front garden bed and driveway.
So do I have any projects of my own? Nope. The cold is slowly taking its toll and I really don't want to think about what is happening outside. I feel as if I'm huddled in a bunker, with my fingers in my ears, waiting for the all-clear to sound.
I do go out in the garden, of course, to put out bird food, but I avert my eyes from the Hyperborean havoc. I'm planning to emerge properly some time in May, at which point I will hopefully feel the sun on my neck and be able to cope philosophically with the fall-out from weeks of frost. Will I still have any bananas? Will I ever dare grow Ensete ventricosum 'Maurellii' again? Will the smallest tree fern pull through? And what about my lovely chlorophytum? And my cannas? I'll let you know, but I don't think it will be any time soon.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Hoops of spring

It was a lovely day yesterday, sunny and very frosty. Just the sort of weather for a morning's ramble round the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Wisley, in Surrey. I got there fairly early so the garden was still quite quiet. It was incredibly cold. Even with gloves on, my hands were freezing and I had to walk so fast to keep warm, it was very difficult to take anything in. As for taking pictures, I was shivering so much I was worried I might drop the camera.
I was on the lookout for early snowdrops in the woodland garden, but nothing seemed to be foolhardy enough to show itself, apart from a few tentative shoots. I thought about going into the new glasshouse, which looked wonderful rising above a frosted landscape, but thought that was a bit wimpish.
So I headed instead for the alpine houses above the rock garden, where what the RHS calls 'little treasures' are on display all year round.
There's something about alpines that I find totally irresistible. Even if you don't have a rock garden or the odd pot or trough with its cargo of tiny phlox or primulas, you can't deny that they are charming, like little girls in gingham frocks. The RHS displays them well, with contrasting colours and foliage arranged to great effect and the pots plunged into sand up to the rim.
I was amused to see the resident cat, a tabby named Sunny, being chastised by one of the staff. Apparently, Sunny (who wears a plant label with his name on: we weren't formally introduced or anything) regards the sand as his or her personal lavatory. The member of staff bustled off to find something with which to clean up, while Sunny, totally unmoved by her diatribe, nibbled on a few leaves in a rather meditative way.
At this time of year the stars of the show are the hoop-petticoat daffodils, such as Narcissus cantabricus (above left) or N. bulbocodium. Anne Scott-James, one of my favourite gardening writers, is a great fan, and suggests growing them in a circle beneath an apple or plum tree, which sounds delightful. However, I've never tried growing them, because I think they suit a gentler, more rustic environment than my jungle.
So it is a huge treat to see them in the alpine house at Wisley, where one can admire them at close quarters. They're only about 3 to 5 inches high - dear little things, which look just like upturned versions of the calico petticoats Victorian ladies used to wear over their crinolines.
I think from now on they will be the first messengers of spring as far as I'm concerned. You can keep your snowdrops. Besides, it's a great deal warmer in the alpine house.