Thursday, November 26, 2009

Rays of sunshine

Feast your eyes on these. Don't they just make you feel warm to the tips of your toes?

They're the marigolds left over from a summer of tomato-growing in my greenhouse. I confess, contrary to anything they tell you to do in the textbooks, I didn't bother pulling up my tomatoes at the end of the season and just left them in the greenhouse to wait until I got around to clearing them up. In the meantime, the marigolds have taken over, growing tall and lusty and generally flourishing until they're filling the whole space with glowing, warm orange and amber.

The funny thing is, I haven't done a thing to help them out. I haven't watered them, fed them, dead-headed them or in any way paid them any attention since about August. And they love it: they're flowering their little hearts out. What's more, they're ridiculously healthy - not a hint of mildew, just big, hefty, happy plants.

Next year I shall try to remember just how drought-tolerant marigolds are. And that sometimes, leaving things well alone is much the best way to garden.

Monday, November 23, 2009


There's one thing they don't tell you about gardening before you start: you only find out once you're well and truly hooked and it's too late. It can be, and almost always is, excruciatingly painful.

Most of the time it's true that we all spend our time wafting about in floaty Laura Ashley dresses and floppy hats (except, in public at least, if we happen to be male gardeners) with trugs overflowing with floral bouquets on our arms exclaiming over plant combinations and quoting poetry at each other.

But it is also undeniably true that I'm almost always bleeding, bruised or aching - sometimes all three - from some gardening-related wound or other.

At the moment it's a blister. And not just any blister: a huge gobstopper of a blister, right slap bang in the middle of my left palm.

Now for any normal person, this would be an odd place to have a blister. On the curve of your thumb, maybe, if you'd been, say, rowing or painting a ceiling; or if you were a particularly keen letter-writer you might develop a carbuncle on your top middle finger joint just where the pen rests. But in the middle of your palm?

Seasoned gardeners will know all about this pecularly November-related affliction, and will probably sympathise. I've been planting tulip bulbs. Hundreds of them (well, 350, to be exact, which isn't a lot by some people's standards but is quite enough by mine). And that spot where the end of the trowel rests as you gouge a 4" hole in the earth over and over again is, you guessed it, right in the middle of your palm.

I've been planting my tulips in bursts so when the central-palm blister got just too painful I decided to transfer over to my hand-held bulb planter, not usually my favoured option as I find it a bit heavy-duty for my purposes, but at least its sturdy wooden handle would lie across the 20p-sized wound on my palm in, I hoped, a soothingly non-abrasive way.

I didn't reckon on the action the sides of the bulb planter would have on each side of my hand where I twisted it into the ground. I now have two more blisters to match: one on the outside of my palm, just where your clenched fist would rest on the table; and the other just on that fleshy bit between thumb and forefinger.

I have to return to my bulb-planting tomorrow for one last push: I'm seriously considering attaching a spike to my foot. But then I'll end up with blisters on the soles of my feet, too.

I won't mention the rose thorns semi-permanently embedded in my fingers (I've lost some of them - where do they go, do you think?) or the barbed-wire lacerations which stripe my arms from January to March and again from about July until September (pruning season). I've even found berberis thorns sticking out of my head. And that's not even counting the sundry rashes, broken nails, skinned knuckles, stone-bruised knees, groaning backs or aching shoulders I've sustained in the course of pursuing the gentle art of growing things.

Actually, I find whenever I get together with other gardeners we almost always end up comparing wounds at some point with a sort of childish fascination. I had a great time earlier this year when I was sporting a livid gash about 6" long on my upper arm. It elicited horrified admiration from all around, who assumed I'd slashed myself with a chainsaw or other viciously sharp pruning implement and only just avoided severing my entire arm.

Unfortunately for my gardening cred, it was actually an oven burn, sustained while reaching across a scalding hot baking tray to get something from the cupboard. But don't tell anyone. It makes a great scar.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Friday photo

Magnolia x soulangeana seed pod

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Boom, boom, boom.....!

I'm pathetically amused by groan-inducing horticultural puns, so for those of you who aren't grafted at the ear to Radio 4 like I am and missed it, I faithfully repeat here an uncharacteristically garden-related line from the preamble for I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue last night, broadcast from Southwark, south London. For full effect, imagine it delivered in the laconic tones of Jack Dee.

"Another attraction near here is the Museum of Garden History, in Lambeth Palace Road. During a recent revamp, there was a heated dispute over whether to include modern garden features. The head designer became angry with the garden manager, tempers flared and he decked him."

Yeah, I know, it's not the best, and we'll overlook the extraordinary number of things they got wrong in one short joke (including the name of the museum) but hell, gardening humour has now arrived in the mainstream. And besides, I was just giggling at the idea of the urbane, charming and utterly sophisticated Christopher Woodward (director of said Museum and responsible for its reincarnation as the beating heart of the gardening community) getting cross enough to have a heated dispute with anyone.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Seeds! Seeds! Seeds!

Ooooooh! The RHS's seed list for 2010 has been published!

One of the many great things about being an RHS member is that every year you get to choose 20 packets of seed collected from RHS gardens for the princely sum of 60p each. And they're mostly quite unusual, so you get to pack your garden with some choice lovelies for next to nothing.

There are annuals and biennials on the list - including things like sweetpeas, though not your average Spencer hybrids - but I use it mostly as a chance to indulge my irrational desire to raise perennials and shrubs from seed. This takes ages, isn't always successful (actually, isn't very often successful), and you generally end up with, say, 30 pokeweeds of which you need maybe two or three at absolute most. But oh, it is such fun.

You can give away the ones you don't want (sometimes - there's a limited market for pokeweeds, I find), and besides, if you want to fill a patch of garden with a swathe of something, you need lots of plants. Swathes come expensive in the garden centre: a measly three hardy geraniums will set you back around 15 quid if you're lucky, but for my 60p paid a year or so ago for a packet of RHS seeds I now have 9 Geranium pyrenaicum 'Bill Wallis' which have been flowering their pretty little socks off in a satisfying swathe at the front of my border all summer, and will do for years to come. And I gave another 10 or so away to friends. Yes, I had to wait a while: but isn't that curious mixture of delicious anticipation and near-heroic patience a lot of what real gardening is all about?

So, though many of these won't make it through under my occasionally erratic care, and some will drive me crazy with their capriciousness over, let's see, whether or not to germinate, here's the list of plants common and not-so-common which I have a chance of looking forward to in the coming years:

Camassia leitchlinii
Galtonia candicans
Musa velutina
Aconitum napellus
Euphorbia x pasteurii
Geranium gracile
Gillenia trifoliata
Heuchera micrantha
Inula helenium
Kitaibela vitifolia
Penstemon smallii
Phormium cookianum subsp. hookeri
Sanguisorba minor
Tricyrtis pilosa
Alchemilla fissa
Coronilla valentina subsp glauca
Daphne mezereum f. alba
Pawlonia tomentosa

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A tale of gardening failure

My poor apple trees.

I was raking up the leaves they've so generously been scattering all over my chicken run, and to relieve the monotony (and the ache in my shoulders) decided to have a closer look at them - something I don't do nearly often enough.

I found them etched with a sorry tale of years of callous neglect from their excuse for a gardener. I'm afraid that since they are in the chicken run, they're something of an afterthought at the end of the garden and I don't pay them anything like as much attention as I should: the constant and tender cares of better orchard-owners than I are sadly lacking here, and though they try to soldier on as best they can, they're clearly showing signs of strain.

It doesn't help that the person who planted them - not me, I hasten to add - put them far too close together: I have four standard apple trees, two Bramleys, two Cox's, about 10ft apart in a square. That's about half the room they should have, so they're at a disadvantage before you even factor in the slacker gardener who's supposed to be looking after them.

Here, like a doom-laden encyclopaedia entry of afflictions for apple trees, is what I discovered:

1. Woolly aphid

Like cotton wool balls sticking to the bark. There are little critters under there, sucking away joyously at the sap of my apple tree. I've seen this covering an entire tree in someone else's garden, so it can get to epidemic proportions: luckily I've only got the odd fluffball or two.

Treatment: I'll be getting out the hose with the spray set to 'jet' this spring: you just zap the suckers away and keep doing it till they're gone. Very satisfying.

2. Brown rot

Actually I did know I had this problem - I just haven't done anything about it. The apples go disgustingly brown and pustulent while still on the tree, and then - key to identification, this - they stay there, mummified. If you leave them, they'll infect healthy apples next year.

Treatment: do the exact opposite of me and pick them off as soon as you see them. Get rid of them in the bin, or burn them: don't put them on the compost heap.

3. Squirrel damage

This suspiciously regular area of bark damage is characteristic of a visit from one of those furry-tailed rats we're all supposed to find so sweet. As you can see, it's eaten away the bark right around the branch, cutting off the water and food and killing the branch. Still think they're cute?

Treatment: Letting rip with air rifles is, for some inexplicable reason, frowned upon in our semi-suburban street. The dog is, uncharacteristically, some help here: though the main purpose of wildlife in his opinion is to provide him with merry chasing opportunities, he does share our opinion of squirrels and they're the one and only thing on which he occasionally sates his inner wolf. However, he's also a bit thick so they outwit him all too easily and laugh their squirrelly laugh at him from on high. I think this is one bit of damage I'm just going to have to put up with.

4. Canker?

I really hope I'm wrong here, but it's not looking good. Apologies for the lousy picture, but I was in a state of shock when I was taking it.

Canker is the one thing apple growers fear to see. Sunken patches of bark like this, where the branch above the patch has died back (as was the case here) is a sign of a fungal disease that can kill the entire tree if you let it spread.

Now, before panic sets in, I'm not entirely sure this is canker. It's a bit long and thin - cankers on apple trees tend to be rounder, like the horrific picture on the RHS advisory service page on the subject (now there's a sight to strike fear into an apple tree's heart). On the other hand, there's no denying that there has been considerable die-back above the area.

Treatment: I can feel an extensive programme of winter pruning coming on. The organic way of dealing with canker is simply to cut it out: and if this is canker, it's very much at the early stages, with only small branches affected and nothing on the trunks or major branches - so I've still got a chance to get rid of it if I act now. I'll be cutting back at least a foot or so behind the canker into healthy wood, and again - I'll be burning the wood, not leaving it lying around to re-infect healthy areas. And even if it isn't canker, I'll have given my languishing apple trees the first TLC they've had in oooh..... this many years.

And then I shall assuage my guilt by pampering them in an over-compensating sort of way all year. Before lapsing next winter some time into my usual state of distracted forgetfulness, of course.

I think I shall go and become an accountant now. Goodbye.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Getting militant

Now, I'm generally quite a quiet person. I keep my head down, I work hard, I have fun with my kids, and though those who know me well are all too aware I have some caustically strong opinions, I generally keep them to myself: I learned the hard way, back in my far-away youth, that if you go around shooting your mouth off, you generally end up putting your foot in it - and that instantly renders you everyone's least favourite person.

But when it's on your doorstep, and when it's affecting your quality of life, your neighbours' quality of life and potentially, the future of your children, sometimes you just have to speak out.

So in nearly-middle-age I've re-discovered the student within and taken up my place on the barricades. I know I'm a little late joining the party, but I've finally signed up to the Air Plot campaign being run by Greenpeace against the proposed third runway at Heathrow.

So, apparently I now own a bit of a field next door to Heathrow Airport. I'm hoping it might be the bit next door to Alys Fowler's allotment, so I can pop along and pick a cabbage or two from time to time.

What with Monty Don lending his support and the backing of one or two of us gardening bloggers I'm tempted to start shouting slogans. How about "Gardeners of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our planes!"

Ah.... Karl would be proud....

Friday, November 06, 2009

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Torquay's mystery plant

I mentioned in my last post that not many of the plants in the Palm House at Torre Abbey in Torquay had labels. Of course the one I fell in love with was one of those without identification.

Trouble is, I want it. I really want it.

Any ideas?

It was the sight of those exquisite flowers which first caught my attention. I've never seen flowers weeping before.

Now those of you with a delicate disposition had better look away, as I'm about to show you quite the most eye-popping and frankly embarrassing seed capsules I've ever seen.

In case you wanted a closer gawp at those...

You can look again now. Here's a more calming photo of the leaves.

It was about 5ft high or so, and multi-stemmed - a sort of loose clump, I suppose. I am deeply smitten, so if anyone out there knows what it is and can introduce me, I will be eternally grateful.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Torquay treasures


That's Fawlty Towers, kiss-me-quick hats, blokes with knotted handkerchiefs on their heads and deckchairs, right?


It's the proud home of quite the best municipal planting I've ever seen. VP - you should get down there and take some pics for that OOTS strand of yours asap.

We've just come back from a little break there: I won't bore you too much with what we got up to, though we did find a hotel John Cleese would have been proud of to stay in.

Instead I shall just introduce you to the Palm House at Torre Abbey. The head gardener - employed, take note, by the Torbay Council's Parks Department - is career changer Ali Marshall, who used to be something in business administration but for the last year (only a year?!) has taken the helm at Torre Abbey. And my goodness, is she an inspired plantswoman.

It's a small garden, but there's a lot packed in. A dahlia border so densely-planted I mistook it for a rose garden from a distance; a cactus house with three-foot-across hummocks; palms a go-go and a bank of cannas. There was even a recently-planted Agatha Christie garden which owed a great deal to the Poison Garden at Alnwick but with a sleuthing twist.

But it was the recently-restored (as is everything at Torre Abbey, thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, gawd bless 'em) 1960s Palm House which stole the show for me. There weren't many labels so I gave up trying to identify everything in the end and just marvelled.

You wouldn't believe it's a public garden run by the Parks Department, would you? Talk about showing everyone else how it's done...
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