Monday, July 27, 2009

Muttering in the shrubbery with Rob

Today I went to visit Rob, who writes a gardening blog called Mutterings in the Shrubbery. Rob lives quite near me - about 15 minutes drive from my house - in the neighbouring borough of Merton. I'd been looking forward to seeing his garden for ages.
It was horrible weather this morning. It started off cold and damp, and had progressed to that sort of steady rain that soaks you right through by the time I got round to Rob's. I knew, from reading his blog, that he was a fan of exotic plants, and I'd seen pictures of his garden, but even so I was unprepared for how fascinating it would be.
Poor Rob: I had an anorak with a hood, but he didn't even have a coat on. However, he patiently guided me round, plant by plant, telling me how he grew this from seed and that from a cutting and even, in one case, brought a tiny plant home from Australia in a poster tube.
His garden has a similar aspect to mine - west-facing - but gets much more light. On the cooler, north-facing side there are more tree ferns than you can shake a stick at (not just dicksonia, but cyathea as well), schefflera, loads of palms, nandina, and heuchera. On the other hotter side, there are succulents - agaves, echeverias, aloes, as well as a tree festooned with air plants (tillandsias), which are stapled to the trunk or even just hanging in a basket.
So many things caught my eye - the albizias (a green one AND a purple one), the colocasia, the tree fern trunks used as edging (no, really; apparently a shipment was accidentally sprayed with something and Rob got the trunks for nothing). Not to mention the Yucca rostrata (I hope that's right, Rob) and the Tetrapanax rex, and the pond, and the wonderful curly-leaved echeveria in the picture below. Apparently, it came from a nursery near to one I go in deepest suburban south London. Guess where I'm going tomorrow!
I've seen whole garden centres with less of interest in them than one square metre of Rob's garden. Even better, after our tour, there was a cream tea, with scones, clotted cream and jam. I can't think of a better way to spend a morning, even if it was bucketing down. Finally, to send me on my way, I was given a heuchera with dark foliage and astonishingly long sprays of creamy white flowers. Thank you so much, Rob - I hope you managed to dry off eventually.

Tillandsias growing happily in a hanging basket. Rob's promised me one when he comes round to see my garden.

The wonderful curly-leaved echeveria. I won't even dare guess the variety. 'Blue Curls'? 'Mauna Loa'? Who cares, it's lovely.

Rob's colocasia, which has huge marbled leaves and a distinctive dark Y-shaped blotch. Below, a group consisting of schefflera (right), tree fern (left) and purple acer. Was it just the rain getting to me or do they look like a collection of umbrellas?

Above, the tree fern trunks that Rob uses as edging for the borders. They also act as hosts for moss and seedlings, such as this fern and even an acacia. Below, just look at the colours of that carnation.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lights, camera, wasp action

A few weeks ago, I noticed that the cordyline beside the pond was dying. This was a bit worrying. Cordylines are as tough as old boots in London, and it had pulled through the winter all right. OK, it was in a really sunny spot, but they're amazingly drought-tolerant too. And it was planted in the ground, for heaven's sake. Hmmm.
Just before I went on holiday, I wandered over to look at the herb patch, which is in the same bit of the garden. I was trying to summon up the energy to pot up all the various bits and pieces I'd bought, ahem, some time ago and which were destined to transform the area into a thing of beauty. I noticed there were a lot of wasps around. Hmmm.
So many wasps, in fact, that one could hardly fail to draw the conclusion there was a nest somewhere. But where? I gazed around - nothing on the fence, nothing on the pond, nothing on the cordyline (which is the size of a small tree). Wait, there was a wasp crawling into a hole in the ground. But surely wasps don't nest in the ground? Hmmm. Or rather, buzzzz.
If there was a wasps' nest underneath the cordyline, that could explain why it wasn't very happy. I poked about with a garden cane and was rewarded by a Spitfire squadron of wasps zooming out of the hole.
Drat, drat and double drat, as Dick Dastardly used to say in the Wacky Races. I now had two problems: one, I had to get rid of the cordyline in time for the garden opening. Two, I had to get rid of the wasps for the same reason.
Normally, my approach to bugs is live and let live (and spray lots of Deet on myself), but I thought that if a visitor got stung, I would feel awful. (So would they, probably.) And I didn't fancy dealing with the cordyline until I'd dealt with the wasps.
I phoned a local pest control firm, and yesterday there was a knock at the door. "Hello," I said, "are you the wasp man?" "Er, no," he said, "I'm with a film crew. We're filming a documentary for the BBC about pest control and I wondered if you'd mind if we came in and filmed you having your wasps' nest dealt with."
Mind? I was thrilled. Forget Britain's Got Talent - Britain's Got Pests sounded fascinating.
First I had to shut the door again so I could be filmed opening the door to the wasp man, Ricky. I then had to explain to him where the wasps' nest was, and why I felt a bit guilty, for environmental reasons, about getting rid of them, but was also worried about health and safety. They loved that, so I had to be filmed saying it all over again.
Ricky explained that he wouldn't use pesticides or chemicals; he would just dig up the nest, and get rid of the queen. This would destroy the wasps' social structure and they wouldn't be able to function any more. Unlike bees, wasps won't follow the queen to another home.
Ricky then had to tell me this all over again, so that I could be filmed nodding in a semi-intelligent manner.
We went out into the garden so I could be filmed showing him the wasps' nest. Ricky had been a bit sceptical on the phone when I told him the nest was in the ground. I suspect he thought I didn't know the difference between a wasp and a bumblebee, which does nest in the ground. However, he agreed that this definitely was a wasps' nest, it was definitely in the ground and it was almost definitely the cause of my cordyline's demise.
Ricky and I then got into a long and fascinating conversation about how grass carp might solve my blanketweed problem, and the antics of the local foxes, so had to stop and film the wasp bit again.
I then lent Ricky my spade, went indoors, closed all the doors and windows and watched. Both Ricky and the cameraman were wearing protective suits, but I've never known a wasps' nest be eliminated without someone getting stung.
Sure enough, about five minutes later, Ricky was doing a kind of Michael Jackson routine across the garden. He was so tall, the suit didn't reach the end of his legs, and a wasp had crawled up his trouser leg and stung him.
Ricky and the cameraman came inside and he explained how he'd destroyed the nest. I asked him whether there was any chance the wasps would rebuild it (no) and how big it had been (medium size: ie about 50 wasps). We then filmed this conversation again, while I did my nodding bit.
We then discussed how the wasps had come to nest in the ground. Ricky told me that the nest was against the roots of the cordyline. The area there is very dry, and it was highly likely that in all my faffing around while creating the pond, and the herb pot area, that a small air pocket had formed which the wasps had decided would make the perfect home. (Naturally, we repeated the conversation for the benefit of the cameraman.)
Anyway, the series starts this Thursday, on BBC1 at 8.3opm. It's called The Rat Pack*, based on the fact that in London there are more rats than people, and it will star a Jack Russell called Charlie. Whether my section will ever make it on the screen in a subsequent episode is anyone's guess. But at least I've got rid of the wasps. And the cordyline.

*When I set the machine to record the series, I found it listed as Rat Catchers on BTVision. Ricky and his colleagues are at

Friday, July 17, 2009

How to annoy your kids on holiday

Forgive the travelogue, but I'm just back from Majorca, where I spent a week boring the swimming shorts off my teenage kids by oohing and aahing at various flowers and plants. We were staying at a wonderful place called the Hotel Bon Sol. We'd been there before when the kids were small, so it was a huge relief to find that it was just the same - in fact in some ways even better (especially the food).
I guess when you're on holiday with small children, you're so busy worrying about whether they'll hit their head on a rock or fall out of a high chair that you don't have time to notice what's around you. So I'd never really appreciated until this trip quite how beautiful Majorca is. We weren't even in the most gorgeous bit. (That's usually reckoned to be the north-west, around Valldemossa and Deia.) The Bon Sol is halfway between Palma and the resort of Magaluf, which has the reputation of being a sun, sea and sex destination for the worst type of British tourist and is probably responsible for putting many people off visiting this lovely Spanish island altogether.

The views from our rooms. The secret of the Bon Sol's charm is that once inside, it seems as if you are in another world. Below our balcony was a fairly busy street with buses and taxis going past. But all we ever noticed was the chirping of the sparrows in the trees outside

The Bon Sol, however, is about as far as you can get from a stereotypical Spanish skyscraper hotel full of beer-soaked Brits. It's a rambling place, more like a medieval castle or an old manor house, with suits of armour and paintings and antiques at every turn. It's built to look like a Moorish tower on the side of a cliff above the Bay of Palma, with terraced gardens full of palms and bougainvillea. On the way down the terraces there are three pools, and at the very bottom a tiny sandy beach.
Tucked away in various odd corners are a crazy golf course, where the biggest hazard was being stabbed by Phoenix canariensis, a volleyball court, a tennis court, table tennis and a spa. The best bit, for us, was the stone passage that leads from the lift to the bottom garden level (What do you mean, take the stairs? We're talking ten floors here!). Coming into this passage from the heat of the midday sun (average daily temperature 34C or 93F) was bliss - my kids nicknamed it the Corridor of Coolness.

The sub-tropical gardens around the main pool area. Plants here include Phoenix canariensis, Ficus elastica, bananas, cordylines, soaring stone pines (Pinus pinea) and fabulous washingtonias like these below.

Holiday conversations went something like this:

On the crazy golf course
Me: "Ooh, look at those cannas..."
Kids: "Mum, it's your shot."
Me: " And look at the size of the leaves on that rubber plant [Ficus elastica]. Look, it's growing all the way up that wall."
Kids: "Mu-um!"
Me: "That's a beautiful washingtonia ..."
Kids: "MUM!!!!"

Above, morning glory twines itself around plumbago. Below, peach-coloured hibiscus

On the way to the pool
Me: "Wow, I love hibiscus ..."
Kids: "Mum, warn us when you're going to stop dead like that."
Me: "Those peachy ones with the maroon insides are just so gorgeous ..."
Kids: "Mu-um!"
Me: "And that combination of the morning glory with the plumbago is so pretty..."
Kids: "MUM!!!!"

The view from the terrace of the Bon Sol bar over the Bay of Palma. Below, the vibrant combination of purple bougainvillea with brilliant orange lantana

On the bar terrace
Me: "Ooh, just look at that bougainvillea ..."
Kids: "Mum, here's the waiter."
Me: "Purple bougainvillea with orange lantana is really striking ..."
Kids: "Mu-um!"
Me: "... although I love the fuchsia pink one too, especially against white walls and a blue sky..."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Doing the hokey-cokey at Hampton Court

The Sadolin Nature to Nurture Garden, designed by Philippa Pearson. I thought this cottage-garden planting was superb

It was preview day at the Hampton Court Flower Show today, which was the signal for the heatwave to evaporate and the stormclouds to gather over the Thames. While this adjustment was taking place, it was alternately rainy and sunny, so those of us who had been prudent enough to take coats found ourselves doing a kind of hokey-cokey. You put your raincoat on, you take your raincoat off, you put your raincoat on and you shake off all the drops. Etcetera.
I don't know whether it was my imagination but there seemed to be less on show and fewer people around. However, the essence of Hampton Court - that wonderful mix of interesting plants, cutting-edge gardens and endless shopping opportunities - remained undiminished. And while I didn't bump into that many people I knew, I enjoyed the sight of lots of primary school children walking two by two and taking part in activities that ranged from gardening to creating Tudor scarecrows.
Hampton Court is a big showground and sprawls across 33 acres. There's plenty of room to spread out, but it also takes its toll on your feet. I find it quite easy to spend four hours there and yet come away feeling I might have missed a bit.
Oh, and please don't be jealous because I was there on press day. Once the exhibitors have finished setting up, they all disappear, so there's no one to buy anything from. This was particularly frustrating on the Cheshire-based heuchera nursery Plantagogo stand, where I would have bought dozens of plants had there been anyone to give the money to. Perhaps it's just as well there wasn't...
Anyway, here are the things that caught my eye, in no particular order.

Heuchera 'Southern Comfort' on the Plantagogo stand. Look at the dark heuchera on the left, which has normal-sized foliage, to get some idea of how humungous those leaves are. They looked as if they had been sprayed gold.

While we're still in the floral marquee, here's a beautiful exhibit from Waterside Nursery, from Sharnford, Leicestershire, who are showing at Hampton Court for the first time this year. I hope they do well - it is so lovely to see a water garden in the marquees.

This head reminded me irresistibly of Frances at Fairegarden ...

... and these disas reminded me of Diana, at Elephants Eye, who has promised to write a post about these South African natives.

Here's Toby Buckland, presenter of Gardeners' World, giving a very elegant little speech to launch the Plant Heritage marquee. Such a shame it was interrupted in the middle by a loud public-address announcement concerning recycled cardboard.

The Plant Heritage (formerly NCCPG) marquee is always full of fascinating objects. If you really want to know about a plant, this is a great place to head - the exhibits from the national collections will offer you information based on lifetimes of experience. Above is the dahlia exhibit by Winchester Growers, who are based in Cornwall. That huge thing in the middle is Dahlia imperialis, the Tree Dahlia, which can grow to 20 or 30 ft in the wild.

The agapanthus exhibit by national collection holder Steven Hickman focused on how these plants, and their related species, like to grow when left to their own devices. The tulbaghia in the foreground has fallen sideways, as it might in its natural habitat, and you're able to compare it with one that has grown in a pot, and had lots of attention lavished upon it. Beside it, to the left, an agapanthus has been split to show the huge rhizome, demonstrating how these plants really do not mind being congested in a pot as they naturally grow close together in limited space.

OK, let's take a quick look at the conceptual gardens. This is called 'It's Hard To See', designed by Rebecca Butterworth, Victoria Pustygina and Ludovica Ginanneschi. Apparently, it represents 'the beauty and benefit of inner-growth and self-reflection in contrast to the artificial values of consumerorientated society'. I thought it was great - it's easy to walk past it, until your eye is suddenly caught by the subterranean planting.

This is Monstrosa, by Fernando Gonzalez, of Metagardens. I think he's fantastic - I loved his Pulsations garden last year, though I know he'll be accused of having too much plastic and not enough plants.

The Quilted Velvet Garden by Tony Smith. I haven't been a huge fan in the past - it's not that I hate conceptual gardens, it's just that his designs don't do a lot for me on any level, whether aesthetic, emotional or horticultural. But I did rather warm to this one, perhaps because it's more organic and less formal than his usual style. The palisade-type structures are of green oak, while what looks like bedding is actually oak seedlings, interspersed with purple heather. The logs give a kind of contradictory sense of movement and permanence, which I thought was rather clever. Though it was difficult not to snigger when you remember that this is sponsored by a brand of lavatory paper.

These are some of the entries in the Tudor Scarecrow competition, which were extremely well, erm, executed. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the coronation of Henry VIII and since Hampton Court was one of his favourite places, the flower show was awash with Tudor references. There was even a man dressed up as Henry VIII wandering round the show accompanied by his six wives. Of course, this is completely historically inaccurate because Henry was not a polygamist but a serial monogamist (perhaps that should be serial-killer monogamist) but what the hell.

And finally, as the newscasters say, here's a silly picture of a very silly exhibit, entitled the Hanging Bra-skets. I seem to remember Martyn Cox harrumphing about this when the RHS appealed for donations of old underwear to create it. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'underwear as outerwear'. I'm dying to know what Martyn thought of it. Will there be a storm in a D cup?