Monday, December 12, 2011

The making of a modern Christmas flower

Do you love or hate poinsettias? I’m in the latter camp, I have to confess. When it comes to Christmas, I prefer white to red – paperwhite narcissi, or hyacinths, or amaryllis, not lurid red horrors that sit glaring at you from the dining room table. And as for the salmon ones…
No, as far as I am concerned, there is nothing pulchritudinous about Euphorbia pulcherrima, even if its botanical name does mean “most beautiful of the euphorbias”. The only time I have ever warmed to the sight of a poinsettia was in Madeira, where you can see occasionally see them growing au naturel – huge, leggy shrubs six feet or more high, like supermodels wearing bright-red lipstick.
How was it, I wondered, that this architectural, rather rock’n’roll plant became transformed into a squat red blob, sulking its way through the height of our northern winter and featuring on a thousand Christmas cards?
The man we must blame is Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and physician, who brought back the first poinsettia to the United States from Mexico, where he had been the equivalent of the first US ambassador.
Poinsett came from a wealthy Southern family, and travelled extensively in Europe, and especially Russia – where Tsar Alexander I tried to recruit him for the Russian civil service. He was elected to Congress in 1820 and was appointed first American Minister to Mexico (the precursor of ambassador) in 1825. On a visit to southern Mexico, he came across a flower known as the "Flor de Noche Buena" (Christmas Eve flower) and sent some cuttings back to his home in South Carolina.
Poinsettia had been associated in Mexico with the feast of Christmas since the 16th century, thanks to the legend of a poor Mexican girl/boy/family (depending on the version), who had no money to buy flowers to lay before the manger of the baby Jesus in the parish church on Christmas Eve.
There are several variations on the story, but the basic theme is that she/he/they decided to gather weeds from the roadside, thinking that at least this could provide a comfortable bed for the Saviour. As the stems were arranged around the figure of the baby, the weeds turned to brilliant red star-shaped flowers, symbolising the star of Bethlehem and the death of Christ.
Poinsett fell foul of the Mexican authorities, thanks to what they considered to be an uncontrollable and impertinent urge on his part to meddle in their business, and he took his leave of the country on 3 January 1830.
Although he gave his name to the plant, poinsettias are particularly associated in America with the Paul Ecke Ranch, based at Encinitas, California, the world’s largest and most successful poinsettia breeder. The Eckes began cultivating poinsettias in the 1900s, but the family business made a breakthrough in the 1960s, when Paul Ecke Jnr used cutting-edge technology –ie television – to bring his plants to a wider audience.
By grafting two varieties, the Eckes had turned the leggy wild poinsettia into the more compact plant we know today. However, Paul Jnr was determined to go further, and make poinsettias an obligatory part of the American Christmas experience.
He appeared on The Tonight Show and the Bob Hope Christmas Specials to promote his plants and ensure they were part of the sets. This piece of modern marketing paid off: poinsettias today are as much a part of the holiday season as evergreens and carols.

I’ve never been able to keep a poinsettia alive, so is this because I am an incompetent when it comes to looking after houseplants, or do they feel the hate vibes and keel over in response?
Leigh Hunt, principal horticultural advisor for the Royal Horticultural Society, was surprisingly sympathetic when I put this to him. “It’s a very common phenomenon – you get your poinsettia, it looks OK, you put it on the dining table on Christmas Eve and by Boxing Day it only has one bract left.
“Poinsettias need a minimum temperature of 13-15C. In most modern homes, that’s not going to be a huge problem in winter – so it’s probable that the plant has been shocked before it arrives in your house.
“If you’d bought the plant direct from the nursery where it had been grown in the right conditions, it would probably be all right. But what’s more likely is that it has been loaded on to Dutch trolleys and left standing outside the florist or in the garden centre in the cold. If it has been shocked before you get it, then trying to keep it looking good is going to be an uphill struggle.”
As a member of the Euphorbia family, poinsettia is related to some of the toughest, most adaptable plants on the planet. “Euphorbia is a highly successful and diverse group,” says Leigh, “and has adapted to all sorts of conditions. At one end of the scale there are euphorbias that look like cacti, while at the other are the cultivars that can be found in UK gardens, such as Euphorbia characias subsp wulfenii, with bright green leaves in spring.”
What look like big red flowers are actually bracts – modified leaves – while the flowers themselves are quite insignificant. Bracts, says Leigh Hunt, provide an economical way of advertising nectar over a long period of time. Red is often an indication that a plant is pollinated by birds, and because birds don’t have a strong sense of smell, these plants – including poinsettia – are usually odourless.
If you want to grow poinsettia, says Leigh, there are a few basics to remember.
Choose a position that gives good light, but not too much direct sun.

Choose a room that is consistently warm, and in which the temperature does not drop below 13C. A hall or a porch, where the temperature drops at night, may not be suitable.
Keep the plant moist, but not soggy. The thumb test is always the best – push your thumb into the surface of the soil, and if it feels dry, water.
Some poinsettia fans keep their Christmas plants going from year to year, cutting them back hard in April, and repotting them. They can grow to be quite sizeable plants, but the key thing, says Leigh, is to keep them out of artificial light as much as possible in autumn, so that they follow the natural pattern of shorter winter days. Otherwise, any new bracts will revert to plain green.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

An admirer of abelia

There are many plants that boast many good points, yet somehow fail to make my heart beat faster. Abelia x grandiflora is one of these. It has glossy leaves that have shades of red and copper, it's semi-evergreen, it flowers for ages - from summer until late autumn - and while it makes a fairly big shrub, it doesn't make you feel as though it's trying to crowd you out of the garden. It's fluffy rather than forceful.
For me, however, it falls into the category of supporting act. While it may have fragrance, and look quite pretty, there's nothing really distinctive about it that would justify pulling it out of the corps de ballet, as it were, and raising it to the rank of ballerina.
A very quick flick through the multiplying piles of gardening books on my shelves (do they breed, do you think?) found only a couple of mentions. Stephen Lacey, in his very readable book Real Gardening, calls it "a stalwart background shrub of the season" (he's talking about autumn).
So I was astonished, when wandering round the Penelope Hobhouse garden at Wisley, to find that this despised Cinderella was the flamboyant beauty that had caught my eye as it frothed around a stone bench at the far end.

Of course, you need a large garden to give it this sort of treatment. But what an imaginative piece of planting. And what a sensible choice, given the long flowering period, the fragrance and the fact that you need to be up close to appreciate the pretty little trumpet flowers. Most people would go for roses, or something formal and evergreen, such as yew or perhaps choisya.

How nice to have one's prejudices turned upside down. And how wonderful to see this shrub flowering away in early December.

This is how the rest of the Hobhouse garden looked this week. As you can see, there's still lots of interest, even at this time of the year - thanks to the very mild autumn we've had in the south-east of the UK. I love the view of the mock Tudor brick chimneys in the distance. They give a rather cosy, domestic scale to the garden - although they actually belong to the laboratory building where the RHS plant pathology team are based.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Winter wonderland at Wisley

I haven't been feeling very well for the past few days, so this morning - my day 0ff - I decided that I needed a, some fresh air; b, to get away from everyone and c, to think about something other than work and what to buy at the supermarket.
So I switched off my phone, jumped in the car, and went to Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Society's garden in Surrey, which is about 25 minutes drive away.
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Wisley. I love Wisley, but I hate having to share it with hordes of people. Unreasonable and intolerant, I know, but there you go. Today, it was busy. Very busy. There was a craft fair taking place this weekend, the existence of which had slipped my mind until I arrived in the overflowing car park. Dang!, I thought. (Except I didn't spell it that way.)
Anyway, my mission was to photograph the Tom Stuart-Smith borders around the Bicentenary Glasshouse, so I stomped off in search of autumnal vistas and other visual delights.

Wisley looks good at any time of year, but in autumn it can look spectacular. I'd never noticed before that from this angle, the fountain in the Long Pond echoes the shape of the tree in the distance. (Swamp cypress, perhaps?)

The cornus still have their leaves on, but you can see the bright stems underneath, which heightens the effect. This one is called 'Midwinter Fire' - and you can guess why.

The low light of winter makes rich colours, such as these pyracantha and holly berries, really glow. That's one of the great benefits of living this far north - the light is constantly changing, from season to season, from day to day, hour to hour. These colours might look garish in late spring or midsummer, but at this time of year, they are rich and jewel-like.

But even cool colours, such as the blue-green of these euphorbia, can light up the border, especially if placed next to spectacular autumn foliage, or this Yucca filamentosa 'Garland's Gold', with its intensely rich yellow variegation.

Anyway, to the Glasshouse borders. I'm fascinated by these. It's not often that we get the chance to see such a large area of planting take shape, from bare earth just four years ago, and this is a huge site - two hectares (or nearly five acres, in old money). The borders begin at the entrance to the Glasshouse, and sweep round to the western side, where there are two areas of prairie planting, designed by Professor James Hitchmough of Sheffield University.
At this time of year, the two blend seamlessly together, thanks to the extensive use of grasses and prairie-type perennials such as helenium, veronicastrum and echinacea in the Stuart-Smith borders.

Phlomis russeliana is another favourite, its seedheads popping up like exclamation marks above the misty hummocks of grass.

To me, this is clever, clever planting. Choosing plants that keep the structure of the borders going right into winter takes real skill. I just could not get tired of looking at it.
They look wonderful in summer of course - but late autumn allows you to see how the hummocks and humps of grasses - whether they are low-growing festuca or statuesque miscanthus - echo the billowing shapes of the trees and the landscape beyond.
The occasional explosion of orange beech leaves from the intermittent hedging around the lake picks up the vibrant foliage of a distant tree flaunting its autumn colours.

I tend, from time to time, to suffer from the delusion that I am the next Garden Photographer of the Year. Goodness knows why, because I only have a point-and-shoot, I have absolutely no idea what ISO stands for and the nearest I have come to photographic greatness is standing next to Derek St Romaine at the Chelsea Flower Show.
I love the process of going out and taking pictures of gardens, however, so I was really looking forward to my stint at Wisley today. I was down there last week, with my mother, when the Glasshouse borders were glittering and shimmering in the sunshine. Naturally, I'd forgotten my camera, so I'd vowed to go back as soon as I had a minute.
The weather, and my camera, had other ideas. I kept hoping the sun would break through, but it sulked behind a cloud for most of the morning. Whenever it looked like it might make an appearance, the dodgy battery in my camera would give up, at which point the air around me turned blue, and the sky remained resolutely grey.
Three times, I gave up and walked back round the gardens to the cafe in search of a cup of tea.
Three times the sun came out again just as I reached the cafe, at which point I scampered back to the Glasshouse borders (about half a mile away). Each time the sun disappeared by the time I got back there.
Eventually, the mummies with pushchairs - of which there are many at Wisley - were beginning to give me funny looks and tell their offspring to "hold onto the pram, darling". I think it was all the swearing.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Enough with the cute cat pictures!

Only kidding! Would I seriously ever say that? I couldn't resist posting these.

This is what you might call a Basket Case Study. It proves the immutable feline law that a cat in the vicinity of a box or basket will feel an irresistible urge to jump inside. Even if there is already another cat in it.

"The Paw you will always have with you." With apologies for misquoting the Gospel of St Matthew.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Designing with plants

Arranging plants in a garden is a bit like any creative endeavour. When you get it right, it looks effortless - but trying to get it right is a very different matter. I wrote a piece for The Independent Magazine this weekend, about this very problem and if you want to read it, here's the link.
I was interviewing two garden designers, Jill Anderson and Pamela Johnson, about their new book, called Planting Design Essentials.
As I say in the piece, many aspects of planting design deserve a whole book to themselves - colour, texture, finding the right plant for the right place and so on. But this is a good book to have at your elbow if you're planning a piece of planting, if only to make you more disciplined in your approach, and to help you think through the process in a simple, logical way.
Measuring the space, for example, before you go to the nursery or garden centre, will ensure that you come home with the right number of plants. If you find yourself succumbing to an impulse buy, as we all do, the book advises you to ask yourself some very tough questions about whether you have the right situation for this particular plant.
I've known Pamela Johnson for several years, and she is a valued member of my local gardening group - generous with her advice, and very good at making canapes! If you want to see what her own garden is like, go here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

For Craig

In memory of my darling husband, Craig Orr, who died three years ago today.

Perhaps if Death is kind, and there can be returning,
We will come back to earth some fragrant night,
And take these lanes to find the sea, and bending
Breathe the same honeysuckle, low and white.

We will come down at night to these resounding beaches
And the long gentle thunder of the sea,
Here for a single hour in the wide starlight
We shall be happy, for the dead are free

Sara Teasdale (1884-1933)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Killer cat!

Since I lost my lovely Pushkin, other neighbourhood cats have decided to encroach upon our garden. Our two Abyssinians, Mario and Luigi, don't go out in the garden yet - I want to make sure that they are 100 per cent certain to come when they're called before they do. (They're pretty good, so it won't be long.)
But in the meantime, the other cats are making themselves at home - and wreaking havoc. Hardly a day goes past when I don't find a pile of feathers on the lawn.
I've always fed the birds in my garden, all year round. When Pushkin was alive, he would catch the occasional fledgling, but not in huge numbers, so it didn't deter me. As far as I could see, the benefits of feeding outweighed the risk of the occasional death.
When I heard people blame cats for the decline in garden birds, I'd think they were exaggerating (or anti-cat).
The RSPB says that cats are thought to catch around 55 million birds per year, but they add there is no evidence to show that predation by cats is having any effect on bird populations UK-wide.
However, the amount of damage these invading cats do is really frightening. One is a big fat tabby, the other a portly black and white cat. There's an occasional ginger chap, too. You wouldn't think they were capable of walking five yards, let alone catching anything.
Has anyone got any bright ideas as to what I can do about this? Apart from protecting the bird life, I'd like to deter these cats from coming into the garden anyway - I don't want my boys to have to fight for a space on the lawn once they start to go outside.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day: November 2011

There was an appeal to gardeners the other day from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who wanted people to stop ripping out, or cutting back, ivy. Ivy flowers at this time of year, providing a much-needed source of food for late-flying insects and birds.
There are gardeners who see ivy as a sort of pernicious weed, to eradicated wherever possible in case it pulls down the house or the fence, or kills a tree. I rather like it, particularly the cultivars with golden variegation, but there are other plants that provide nectar and pollen at this time of year.
Fatsia japonica, which, like ivy, is a plant many people despise, is also in full flower right now, and in my garden, this autumn has been a spectacular season for it. The flowerheads are huge, fluffy flamboyant affairs, which are great for flower arrangements (they look even better while they're in bud).
I always think fatsia looks better from above, when the shapes of the leaves are easier to see, so it's a great plant for a dry, shady basement area, or a lower level of the garden.

It's odd that the plants which provide solutions to common gardening problems, such as dry shade and late summer colour, are often the plants at which people tend to turn up their noses.
Personally, I find fatsia, and its cousin, Fatshedera lizei - a cross between fatsia and English ivy, Hedera helix - invaluable background plants, so it's nice to see them enjoying their moment in the sun.
You can use fatshedera instead of ivy as a climber, if you want something a little less invasive. It has large showy leaves and the same fluffy flowerheads, but it doesn't have aerial roots that cement themselves to a wall or fence. The branches, with their clusters of glossy leaves, can become quite heavy and snap, so it needs to be tied to a trellis or support.
Fatsia, of course, is completely self-supporting - this one in my garden, below, is approaching the size of a small tree. Planted in the ground, they will tolerate pruning, shade and drought. You can grow them in containers (and mine has a habit of self-seeding into any pots nearby) but this hugely reduces their ability to survive quite tough conditions.

Another plant that provides late autumn flowers and fragrance in my garden is the loquat, or Eriobotrya japonica, which is a favourite with late-flying butterflies such as Red Admirals. It's hardy throughout most of the UK, and the flowers have a lovely almond fragrance, like marzipan. It prefers a sheltered spot, and full sun. In a mild winter, it may even produce fruit, but these probably won't ripen and you'll end up with something that tastes like a sour apricot.
Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by the lovely Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Head over there to see what's blooming in Carol's Indiana garden, and to check out GBBD posts from around the world.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Miaow is for Monteverdi

My daughter's close harmony group came round to rehearse today - they are performing at a Christmas Fair at the Battersea Arts Centre tomorrow, and they have a residential choral workshop next weekend. This is them rehearsing Monteverdi's Beatus Vir, written circa 1630.

They were missing a couple of singers, so Luigi decided he would sit in for one of the altos ...

Here he is again. As you can see, he doesn't even need the music...

You can just see Mario get in on the act, on Luigi's left. He's singing second soprano.
How come they can sing so high? Well, they have just been neutered.
Joking apart, at the time that Monteverdi was composing, it was very common to see castrati singing both in operas and in sacred choral music. But I don't think Signor M. had cats in mind when he came to write his masterpieces, somehow.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sweet peas and apple crumble

A completely irrelevant picture of my garden, taken on 17 October, when we could still pretend it was summer

I was invited to a lovely luncheon party today, hosted by Lady Hamilton of Dalzell, vice-president of the conservation charity Plant Heritage, at her home in Surrey.
The journey took me out of London via the A217, a road romantically known as the Sutton bypass. It's not my favourite road, since it is punctuated at regular intervals by speed cameras, traffic lights, and people who want to make inconvenient right turns, but don't always signal this intention until the very last minute.
Today, however, with the last of the autumn leaves clinging to the trees, and a low mist veiling the North Downs, it seemed positively idyllic.
The guests were a mixture of journalists and Plant Heritage people, including three National Plant Collection holders. These were Chris Lane (hamamelis, and also wisteria), Roger Parsons (lathyrus, ie sweet peas) and Michael McIllmurray (orchids). Sadly, I didn't get a chance to talk to Dr McIllmurray, but it was fascinating listening to Roger and Chris.
Chris was sitting next to me at lunch, and he was so bombarded with questions that he could hardly eat his boeuf bourguignon (served with potatoes dauphinois and carrots, and followed by apple crumble and cream. Now that's what I call a November lunch.)
National Plant Collection holders, as you might expect, are men and women with a mission. Chris Lane told us how, when he decided to specialise in witch hazels at his home in Kent, he only had an empty field and the traditional wisdom is that they prefer woodland conditions. Undeterred, he went ahead - and found that his hamamelis seemed to bloom even more prolifically in an open situation.
His nursery is wholesale only, although he does hold open days and you can find details here. Only got room for one witch hazel? Chris recommends Hamamelis x intermedia 'Pallida', which has large yellow flowers, a wonderful scent and yellow autumn leaf colour too.
Roger Parsons has worked as a gardener all his life, but it was only when he took early retirement that he was able to concentrate on his passion, sweet peas. His favourite is 'Albutt Blue', a Semi-Grandiflora variety that is white with a blue picotee edge and a wonderful scent.
Roger, like many gardeners, uses well-rotted horse manure as a fertiliser, but unlike many gardeners, his manure comes from his own horses. His wife is a keen horsewoman and she has introduced Roger - who doesn't ride - to miniature horses. They have their first mare in foal, and the new baby should be trotting around in time for the nursery open days in June.
Details of these will be posted on Roger's website. I'll be there. Wild - or indeed miniature - horses couldn't keep me away.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

With a little help from my (blogging) friends

As part of the autumn tidy-up, I decided to revamp the pots outside the back doors. We have two sets of glass sliding doors, and in the middle, against the wall, I've always had some sort of large specimen plant. Currently - and satisfactorily - it is a Trachycarpus wagnerianus, which throws nice sharp shadows against the wall when the sun hits it.

It was in a huge galvanised steel container, which was supposed to look modern and chic. While it was busy looking modern and chic, it slowly rusted to pieces and I had to replace it. I decided to get a glazed pot, which in my experience survive frost and wet far better.
I've also edited down the number of pots in this grouping, which I think looks far smarter, especially in winter when flowering container plants (such as daffodils or irises or tulips) tend to look more upright and formal than summer versions such as pelargoniums or Lotus berthelotii, which scramble everywhere.
But what really made me look closely at rearranging this grouping was patientgardener's comment on this blog a while ago that the heights of the pots needed to be more varied.
This is how it looked in summer (below). As you can see, there are more pots, many at the same sort of height, so the effect is one of sprawling chaos.

Not that I have anything against sprawling chaos, mind - but what I was trying to achieve was the effect of the pots outside Great Dixter (below). Revisiting this photograph, I realised that while I'd achieved the effect of lots of pots (not exactly a brain-teaser), what I'd failed to achieve was the graduated height of the display. Much more tricky.
If you ever get the chance to hear Fergus Garrett, the head gardener at Great Dixter, give a lecture (and do go, if you can - he's a terrific speaker) you will be told that achieving this change of levels is one of the most crucial elements of a good design.

The point of all this is that sometimes we need an objective eye assessing what we do, or someone to bounce ideas off, or simply someone with whom to commiserate when things go pear-shaped in the garden. For me, blogging provides this in a way that family (not that interested), or friends (too polite to criticise), or books (informative, but not exactly responsive!) do not.
Many of the people whose blogs I read are professional gardeners and/or designers. Some are talented and passionate amateurs. Some have grandchildren; some have young families; some are retirees; many work full-time. But what they all share is a huge appetite for information, and an enthusiasm for their subject.
The result is access to something that is like a cross between a database and a 24-hour Q&A session. How on earth did we ever garden before the internet, I wonder?
According to the Garden Media Guild, who hold their annual awards ceremony on 30 November, there were eight candidates for the blog of the year award in 2008. This year there are 31.
Not everyone sees the proliferation of these cyber-communicators as a good thing, however. Many - not all - professional gardening writers object to being judged alongside "amateur" writers. They complain that bloggers undercut their rates, and pinch their space, on the basis that publishers, with an eye to their budgets, will persuade bloggers to write for nothing - or very little - thus depriving the professionals of their livelihood.
I used to have some sympathy for this view - writing is a perilous enough occupation, financially speaking, without having to compete with contributors for whom the kudos is more important than the cash.
On the whole, though, I'm becoming increasingly impatient with it. Most "professional" garden writers - ie, those who make their living at it - have no formal writing or journalism qualifications. As someone who has done the National Council for the Training of Journalists certificate, a two-year formal newspaper apprenticeship in the provinces, plus 30 years up the sharp end in Fleet Street, I fail to see quite how they come to be so snobbish about their journalistic abilities.
This is not to say they can't write - many write beautifully, of course. But so do lots of bloggers. And sure, they may have horticultural qualifications - but then, so do lots of bloggers.
The sharing of information - whether it's advice from a fellow blogger about how to overwinter my dahlias, or an account of a visit to a famous garden - can only be of benefit to everyone. When it comes to activities such as gardening, an increase in knowledge usually leads to an increase in enthusiasm - and that means more hits for the bloggers and more book sales for the established writers.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The virtues of autumn

I've just been reading Veg Plotting's post about her GMT tidy-up. The clocks go back in the UK tonight, from British Summer Time (BST) to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and VP says she uses this as a moment to remind herself to do an autumn clear-up and square everything away for winter. I think it's a really good idea.
I was pottering about in the garden today too, impelled not so much by the time change as the fact that for once - for the first time for weeks - I didn't have to do anything tedious like go to the tip, or tidy out the garage, or stack books.
There's something very calming about autumn chores. Sunshine is a bonus, rather than an expectation, and the earlier dusk drives you indoors for a cup of tea before you get over-exhausted. It doesn't matter if you accidentally stand on something or chop something back by mistake, because unless you're very unlucky, it's about to go over anyway.
And autumn chores are cheaper! In spring, there seem to be endless temptations to splurge - buying new plants and new pots to replace those damaged by frost; buying new plants and pots because, ahm, I can't resist them and so on.
Tidying, on the other hand, doesn't cost anything, and there isn't the same sense of urgency as there is in spring, when everything is growing at 100 miles an hour. I felt very virtuous as I swept leaves, cut back dying annuals and subsiding perennials, and put unused pots away in the garage for winter.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Golden October

It seemed odd, when I got up early this morning and found the car registering a temperature of 7C (44F), to look back and think that only three weeks ago, we were basking in 28C (82F) sunshine.
It seemed even odder to find that, by the time I'd done all the chores and finally got out into the garden, it was 16C (61F) and I had to dispense with my padded down jacket.
We're due for another seasonal see-saw over the next few days, with London predicted to hit 20C (68F) tomorrow, before the weather turns colder and wetter by the end of the week. If I had one of those weather houses with a little man and woman, I bet they'd be whizzing round in circles by now.
Still, I shouldn't really complain because it's perfect weather at the moment for doing a bit of tidying up in the garden. My resolution this year is to chuck out all the summer bedding in the front garden and replant the containers for the winter, adding some bulbs for a spring display.
I make this resolution every year, but invariably end up pulling out the frozen, mushy wreckage of pelargoniums in early March in order to replace them with ready-grown daffodils because a, I couldn't bring myself to throw out the pelargoniums earlier and b, never got round to planting the bulbs.
However, this year is different. I have already cleared out the containers in the front garden and replanted with skimmia and spotted laurel, underplanted with 'Thalia' narcissi.
I have even bought pumpkins, and a 'Happy Halloween' banner for the front porch, plus some rather chic spiders with pink and orange glitter on them to decorate the trellis. Goodness, I'm organised!
The back garden has been left to its own devices while all this is going on. I usually clear out those containers once we've had the first frost, at which point I cut down the cannas and put them in the garage for the winter.
I've been out to fill up the bird feeders and mow the grass at regular intervals, however, so I've noticed that the eucalyptus which was pruned at the beginning of September (on the right of the picture) is showing signs of growth.
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to take a picture of this, because the branches are higher than me and trying to photograph them results in silhouetting them against the sky. I must get up on a stepladder, though, because it's been a fascinating, rather teenagerish process.
Normally, the eucalyptus has very smooth, creamy bark, particularly at this time of the year when it has shed its old top layer. But where the tree has been pruned, I've noticed what look like tiny pustules appearing along the branch. New shoots!
As the weeks progressed, these pustules have got bigger until now they are on the point of sprouting. It's very exciting - and rather nerve-racking, given the see-sawing temperatures.
I'm going to keep my fingers crossed.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Home makeover: final episode

So where was I? Oh yes, I was about to have the study redecorated. Well, today I can report that for the first time in three weeks, I can sit down at my own computer, at my own desk, on my own chair. Oh, the luxury!
I find that any sort of home makeover project is a bit like childbirth. You embark on it with great excitement and enthusiasm, only to discover that most of the process is quite tedious and involves a variety of problems, false alarms and delays. When it's finished, however, you're thrilled with the results - and after about a year, you've forgotten all the discomfort and inconvenience and you're thinking about the next one.
While the study was being redecorated, I also went through a Fridge Trauma. I won't bore you with it: I started writing down the saga and nearly sent myself to sleep. So I'll just say that my fridge was out of action for four weeks. It's OK now (more or less) but I never imagined that being without a fridge could prove so stressful.
While all this was going on, of course, the garden was rather neglected. We've been having a spell of very good weather here in the UK, which is lovely but also a bit worrying. We need rain at this time of year if plants like camellias are going to give a good display in the spring, because late summer and autumn is when they are forming their buds.

Love the autumn colour of this sumach, which was a passalong from my friends Peter and Delphine. The coleus beside it is Trusty Rusty.

Seeing the decorators at work inspired me to paint the bird table. In the end, I went for a safe, boring cream, but I think it looks good. I also painted some trellis to go across the front of the house, but that's another post. I did so much painting, in fact, that my daughter remarked drily that she was surprised that the cats were still their original colour.
Talking of the cats, here they are.

As you can see, they get on quite well. Luigi, on the left, is the criminal mastermind, and Mario is his willing accomplice. They are very good at stealing food and I have had to buy a pedal bin instead of a touch-top bin, as Luigi worked out that if you jumped on the bin, and then onto the work surface, it opened. Mario could then jump into the bin and retrieve whatever took his fancy. They are thieves and scoundrels - but very cute and cuddly.

One of the great pleasures of autumn is the low light, which illuminates foliage like a spotlight. The alocasia on the left is A. portadora.

There's a lesson here for anyone who wants to grow dahlias (centre) in close proximity to yuccas (bottom left). Don't. You won't be able to get in to deadhead the dahlias without donning a suit of armour.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The one-minute review solution

I'm in the process of packing up my study. (Oh dear, just typing those very words makes me want to go and lie down.) I'm having the room redecorated because it has got to the point where the wallpaper is beginning to come away from the ceiling. Wallpaper? Ceiling? Shows how long it is since it has been decorated properly.
The kids and I use the study as a second living room, and we spend quite a lot of time in there, so it seems silly not to have it looking nice. I also want to de-office it, so all the metal bins and desk accessories and so on are going out and instead I'm going to have rattan baskets and warm textures and colours.
It's the only room in the house that's never been professionally decorated, mainly because it is full of books and my computer. The thought of being without those (oh, dear, I think I want to go and lie down again) has always put me off clearing it out. But the moment has now come. Or rather, the decorators will come, on Monday morning.
I feel a bit guilty about this, because no sooner did I start packing the books up than I realised there were several that I had been meaning to write about. So if you'll forgive me, I'm going to do a very quick, one-minute review of each.

I don't know any gardener who hasn't got a bit of dry shade somewhere in their plot. It's one of the most common, and one of the trickiest, problems to solve. As Graham says in the piece that he wrote for The Independent Magazine, "it's the patch of dark and dusty soil that reminds you perhaps you're not quite as good a gardener as you'd like to be."
Graham is editor-in-chief of the Royal Horticultural Society's Encyclopedia of Perennials, and an RHS judge, so he knows his stuff. But the book is written in a very easy and relaxed style - much like Graham himself, in fact!
The result is a how-to manual, that fills you with have-a-go inspiration. Graham offers various solutions for dealing with drought and lack of light and of course offers planting suggestions. too. This isn't just a list - there is a page for each plant, each lavishly illustrated with photographs by Graham and his wife, Judy White.

Like the next book, this one has, in my opinion, a slightly misleading title. It's a beautiful book, with gorgeous colour photographs, by one of Britain's leading experts on grasses. However, the emphasis is very much on the grasses themselves, and not so much on designing.
Neil Lucas, for whom I have huge admiration, might find that a rather nit-picking criticism, because there are lots of planting suggestions. There's a section on grasses for shade, for example, and one on year-round interest.
It would have been nice, however, to have a couple of sample border plans or container recipes that people could try out in their own gardens, especially if they were new to growing grasses.
Having said all that, this is a must for anyone who wants to plant any grasses anywhere. Published in January, it is already well on the way to becoming one of those classics that you find on every serious gardener's bookshelf - and deservedly so.

3. Designing with Conifers by Richard L Bitner
This book is by an American author and is really aimed at an American audience, but conifers are so unfashionable here in the UK, it is difficult to find a book that takes them seriously. I love them, for their variety, their year-round interest and their texture, so I was anxious to get my hands on this volume, which - like the previous two books - is published by Timber Press.
The author studied horticulture at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, which I visited some years ago. But while there are photographs of very grand conifers in very grand gardens, like Longwood, there are also examples of suburban gardens and even containers.
There are no planting plans, as such, but there is a case study garden -Cassandra and Bryan Barrett's amazing conifer garden in Eugene, Oregon - showing how the various layers of planting work with each other in terms of height and shape. One of my favourite chapters was on Railway Gardens, showing how dwarf conifers in particular can be used to great effect in creating miniature landscapes for model railways. I suspect Mr Bitner has a bit of a weakness for such things!

4. Armitage's Garden Perennials by Allan M Armitage
Another North American book, also by Timber Press. When it arrived in the post, I stuck it on a shelf, thinking: "Guide to perennials, yeah, yeah" and left it there for a few days.
I eventually opened it to look up the section on sedums, and was completely charmed by this opening sentence. "I love the sedums for their amazing diversity of foliage, flower and plant habit, but there are so darn many of them, it is impossible to grow or know them all."
This is a guide to perennials with attitude. Here in the UK, we tend to take our gardening books rather seriously - a colleague was genuinely shocked when Graham Rice, writing for The Independent, described himself has having "grown a huge number of plants while searching for those to include in his book (see above) and killed many of them in the process". So it's very refreshing to hear Allan Armitage say, on the subject of achillea: "Yarrow is used for making beer ... Having tasted some of the concoctions of my beer-making friends, no ingredient in homebrew surprises me!" Or, recommending Rudbeckia 'Henry Eilers': "Find it, buy it. Full sun."

I should declare an interest here. I know Cleve, and I'm a great fan - not only of his garden designs, but also of his writing. In 2002, when I was editor of The Independent Magazine, I hired him to write our Urban Gardener column, which ran for five years. He often wrote about his allotment during that time, but even so, I was intrigued by the idea of a book. Would it be a "year in the life of my allotment" tome, or a "how to grow your own" manual? In fact, it is as close as you can get to wandering around the allotment with Cleve himself, one minute talking about wildlife, the next talking about his fellow allotmenteers, interspersed with lots of sensible observations. "If you are new to gardening," he warns the novice veg grower, "the best way to injure yourself and dampen your enthusiasm is to go at it hammer and tongs from day one ... Little and often is best." It's a fascinating glimpse of allotment life - but it's also a fascinating insight into Cleve himself. Perhaps the final word should go to my mum, who to my knowledge has never ever read a gardening book. She picked up my copy of Our Plot, flicked through it and said: "This looks really interesting."

Gotta go pack up those books now.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The garden bird rant

A great tit on the feeder outside my study window

The concept of a garden as an "outdoor living space" has a lot to answer for. At the weekend, I was talking to someone who complained that all the birds seemed to have abandoned their garden.
The garden used to be full of birds, they said, but now - despite putting out bird feeders and suet balls and so on - there was not so much as a chirp. Did I think this was the result of global warming, or some sort of bird epidemic?
Further enquiry elicited the information that they had lived in their garden flat for about 18 months. The first year had been spent doing up the flat and it was only this summer that they got around to tidying up the garden.
Yup, you've guessed it. They have ripped out all the "messy" ivy and removed all the overgrown shrubs. Their garden is now an "outdoor living space", complete with painted fence, paving, and a few plants in containers.
Colleagues or friends of friends tell me stories like this quite often. One couple I know cut down the conifers in front of their house because they thought it would give them more light. (The conifers weren't Leylandii, and they weren't that close to the house.) Then they wondered why the "cute little birds" (a colony of goldcrests) had disappeared.
Because you've cut down the trees, I said. But we've put out a bird feeder, they said, and we've got an apple tree in a pot...
The stories are always the same, and the question is always the same. "Is the disappearance of the birds due to climate change?"
I always want to answer (but of course am far too polite to do so): "No, it's the result of Stupid Human Syndrome!"
The irony is that the same people will probably get quite exercised about the disappearance of the rainforests or the pollution engendered by the attempts of countries like China and India to make a decent living for themselves. They just can't make the connection between habitat loss and their own backyards.
This is depressing, because it seems as if I have read thousands of articles about how our gardens provide a vital refuge for songbirds. The RHS and the RSPB do a fantastic job in trying to educate the public about gardening for wildlife.
The trouble is, most of the time they are preaching to the converted. What we need is a really hard-hitting campaign that has a far greater popular impact. If only Pixar would make a film about a group of garden birds coping with a shrinking habitat (Bird Story) or Disney would come up with a plot involving birds in an alien environment (BIRD-E).
In the meantime, I shall go on patiently telling people that birds like cover, and that it doesn't matter how attractive your garden furniture is, or how much your paving cost, they won't come down to a feeder if there is not a single shrub or tree in the vicinity.

Friday, September 16, 2011

GBBD: September 2011

Phew, only a day late! I don't know where the time goes. I thought September was going to be a relaxing month, but for some weird reason it isn't - and I can't work out why. Or at least, I haven't had time to sit down and work out why!
Anyway, here's the garden. Cannas are in full swing, nasturtiums are still going strong and there are a few other bits and pieces too.

Canna 'Striata' (or 'Pretoria'). These are from Crocus and they are magnificent specimens.

I think this variety of nasturtium is 'Tip Top Apricot'. It's fractionally too peachy for here (I carefully haven't photographed it with the dahlias it clashes with), so I'm making a mental note to grow something more vibrant next year, such as 'Ladybird'.

The campsis, which is still going. Not sure of the cultivar - I think it's grandiflora.

This dear little clematis was a present from my colleague Charlotte, to whom I donated an Ikea sofa that was surplus to requirements. Her mother, who came round to help shift the sofa (who needs men, anyway?) is a keen gardener, which is lucky for me, because she went to Wisley and picked out this Raymond Evison variety, which is called 'Peppermint'. It looks fantastic with this carex, so I think that's where it might have a permanent home.

This is Crocosmia 'Columbus' which has been going for weeks now. The sedum is only just starting to flower, but this is a relatively shady spot.
The next few weeks are going to be hectic, as I have the decorators coming in to do my study, so I may not have much of a chance to sit at my computer. I'm hoping they'll be finished by October GBBD!
Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day is hosted by the utterly delightful Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Why not go over there and see what everyone is up to?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Major (tree) surgery

The tree surgeons came today to prune my eucalyptus. I don't have the usual E. gunnii, which you see looming over many London gardens, but Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp debeuzevillei, or snow gum.
This is a very pretty eucalyptus and much more suitable for an urban garden as it doesn't grow quite as big (40ft as opposed to 80ft). The bark starts to peel around this time of year (August-September) revealing beautiful cream branches.
As its common name implies, it is one of the hardiest eucalypts, but its Latin name is completely misleading. Pauciflora means, literally, poor-flowering, but in reality, the tree is covered in white fluffy flowers in late spring.
Mine has been stooled (ie coppiced when young), so it is multi-stemmed. This has two benefits - it grows more slowly and it produces an attractive framework. So, if it's so wonderful, why am I having it pruned?
Well, the garden that backs on to my fence behind the eucalyptus used to have a lot of trees along the boundary, which meant that my eucalyptus started to grow forward, across my garden, in order to get its share of light.

A year or so ago, the next-door neighbours cut down all their trees in order to build a huge shed across the bottom of their garden, which meant that my eucalyptus now has permanent access to light from the south. My tree surgeon, Edward Payne, suggested pollarding, or cutting it right back, so that the new growth would go up rather than across.
I trust Ed, but even so, I was a bit nervous about this, so I asked plant-hunter Tom Hart-Dyke, who holds the national collection of eucalyptus at his World Garden at Lullingstone Castle in Kent what he thought. I sent him the pictures above and he agreed wholeheartedly that this was the way to go, so I got Ed to book his guys in.

The newly shorn tree always looks a bit bereft, but you can see that the basic framework of the tree is still there, and still looks quite attractive.

I've still got branches I can hang my bird feeders on. And Ed's guys are so good - they're fast, they tidy up really well, but best of all, they seem to really care what the tree looks like! And they didn't have an easy job on a morning like this one, which was wet and windy.

Because of the huge fatsia growing alongside it, the eucalyptus doesn't look as naked as it might. Now all it has to do is put on some new growth. Watch this space!