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!).