Sunday, February 27, 2011

Garden words: The February review

It's a brave man who sets out to write a book about weeds. It's about the most unpromising topic you can think of in gardening, short of, maybe, digging techniques, or the finer points of a bowling-green lawn (though I'm revealing my none-too-well-hidden prejudices here).

But Richard Mabey attacks his subject with gusto, and the result is - amazing though it might seem - a fascinating book.

He mentions a quote from the 19th century poet John Clare several times, in the frontispiece as well as within the text, and with good reason: it perfectly captures the spirit of the book. I think it's worth reproducing in full:

"I markd the varied colors in flat spreading fields chekerd with closes of different tinted grain like colors in a map the copper tinted colors of clover in blossom... the sunny glare of the yellow charlock and the sunset imitation of the scarlet head aches with the blue corn bottles crowding their splendid colors in large sheets over the lands and 'troubling the cornfields' with destroying beauty."

It's that inherent paradox in the nature of weeds - their 'destroying beauty' - which Mabey investigates so entertainingly. He challenges so many of our long-held beliefs: the definition of a weed, for example, so often 'a plant in the wrong place'. Mabey argues that for 'place' we should read 'territory': a weed is a weed not because of any natural traits, but because we made it so.

We define as 'weeds' plants which are inconvenient to us, ignoring their part in the wider scheme of things. They slip into the corners we ourselves create for them, by farming, or making gardens, or knocking down buildings and leaving it all to rot.

And worse; we make weeds by moving plants quite literally into the wrong place. The Romans brought ground elder for salad leaves, and the Victorians introduced giant hogweed into gardens (it was described in the Gardener's Magazine of 1836 as a 'magnificent umbelliferous plant': the author goes on enthusiastically to say he has given friends plenty of seed to scatter while on holidays in the north of England, Ireland and Norway). Who knows what weedy horrors lie in wait from all those imported plants we're currently planting in our gardens (it's only a matter of time before people realise bamboos are just Japanese knotweed in drag).

The book is stuffed to bursting with wonderful, unforgettable stories. I never knew that soldiers in the trenches in World War I made little gardens with weeds pulled from the battered fields around them: tiny pockets of normality in a world gone mad. In the Second World War, rosebay willowherb sprang up in thickets in central London as the streets were split apart by bombs and the hidden earth exposed; as Mabey comments, 'how thinly the veneer of civilisation lay over the wilderness'. Victorian naturalist Edward Salisbury raised 300 plants of over 20 different weed species from seed found in his trouser turn-ups; and in 1916 a garden was created in New York's Central Park (it still exists) in which all the plants mentioned in Shakespeare's works are grown - including hemlock and nettles.

And the language. Ah.... the language. It sparkles and crackles from every page: he talks of 'vegetable guerrillas', a 'ragged Arcadia', 'rage against the dying of the weeds', 'the whole plant has the jizz of a street hooligan' (this last of bristly ox-tongue, Picris echioides). It's such a pleasure to read the writing of someone who takes such delight in language and is so utterly passionate about what he's saying.

I have just one tiny criticism: the weeds are referred to by their common names throughout, and until you realise (in my case more than halfway through) that there's a glossary with the Latin names in the back, you're often mystified as to which particular weed he's on about. Even when you do know about the glossary, it's a pain to keep flicking backwards and forwards. I expect he was just revelling in the poetry of common names: but I did long for some Latin to cut through the confusion.

But I feel mean and carping just writing that. Go and find this book: sit down on a rainy evening by the fire and devour it from cover to cover. You'll come away with the way you view our least favourite plants subtly shifted: and with a richer view of the natural world.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Seduced by snowdrops

Too late: their spell has worked. I may not be a full-fledged galanthophile yet, but I have definitely stepped over the edge of the slippery slope. This one is G. 'John Gray'

I can't help it. I have tried to resist: but I am being bewitched by little white flowers.

I think it's something to do with the fact that I've never been able to grow snowdrops before: in the dry acid sand of my previous Surrey garden they just turned up their toes and died.

But in my current damp, shady, chalky garden they're coming up all over the place, and I really had never realised how utterly captivating they are. They may be tiny: you may have to get down on your hands and knees and do complicated things with the petals before you can see inside (you end up blowing air at them and all sorts) but ah: they are so charming.

G. 'Warham': it's the leaves that make this particular variety so special (and a good thing too: the flowers don't turn up for a while)

It wasn't helped this year by a visit I made to a snowdrop-lover's garden for work in late January (which is where all the photos in this post were taken, explaining why only the very earliest are in flower yet).

It was early in the year, on a rather uninviting and cloudy day; many of the 34 different varieties were still well underground. But I hadn't realised, before I went there, that snowdrops did flower at different times of the year; in fact you can pretty much have a snowdrop somewhere in the garden from about October till March.

You have to look closely (of course): but see those little yellow-tinted humps? G. 'Sandersii': possibly the snowdrop I covet most of all

On the differences between the varieties: well I can see the point of doubles versus singles, and I also was very taken by the yellow ones (they're that particular shade of buttery yellow that just looks delicious). But like Victoria, mostly to me a snowdrop is a snowdrop is a snowdrop.

G. gracilis, with smaller, strappy, glaucous leaves, rather like a grass with attitude before the flowers emerge

I can also just about see the attraction of some of the rarer 'novelty' snowdrops like G. elwesii 'Grumpy', whose markings make it look as if it's got a face on it, though not £60 worth of attraction - the going rate for a 'Grumpy' bulb these days. And I don't think I shall ever feel that £357 on a single bulb of G. plicatus 'E.A. Bowles' was money well spent.

G. elwesii: in flower in late January

However: the idea of having snowdrops of a host of different leaf colours, widths and sizes followed by flowers fat, slim, green- or yellow-tipped, over several months at the bleakest time of the year: now that I can understand.

G. 'Barbara's Double': you'll have to take my word for it, but this is a good choice for a late-ish double flower that's not too fat and ungainly

I came away from my visit to Dr Lloyd's garden with a shopping list, of varieties which were coming out then (late January) and which would be out over the next month or so. They are, in order (more or less) of appearance:

Galanthus 'John Gray': reliable, vigorous and emerging when few others were: and the flowers are large to the point of being top-heavy

G. 'Dionysus'

G. 'Dionysus': another double: and a rather finer one than the overstuffed-cushion of many double snowdrop flowers. These have fewer inner petals and a more elegant flower shape all round.

G. 'Ophelia': one of the best doubles, richly-coloured green splashes and huge heads: this was emerging on my visit, no doubt open by early February

G. 'Atkinsii'

G. 'Atkinsii': Another larger-flowered snowdrop: highly thought-of for its vigorous habit and its long, elegant petals

G. nivalis 'Sandersii': oh I fell in love with this one. Butter-yellow ovaries, for want of a more romantic name, are such a surprise and delight emerging from the ground in January: for this snowdrop I would get down on my knees every morning.

G. nivalis 'Scharlockii': a later variety, probably early to mid February: this one has green tips to the outer petals too and is a slender, elegant flower

G. 'Warham': Slightly later than most, but you forgive it everything for its foliage: I never realised snowdrops had such varying foliage. This one is broad, a glaucous silvery grey with a pale silver stripe. Fabulous from January even though the flowers don't turn up for a month after.

G. 'Straffan': another vigorous one, emerging early to mid February so one of the later varieties

And just as a postscript, the varieties I rejected:

G. reginae-olgae: this flowers in autumn. I'm sorry but there is something in me that rebels viscerally against a snowdrop in autumn. I could not bear to have it in my garden: it would offend my very soul.

G. ikariae latifolius: purely and simply on the recommendation (or anti-recommendation?) of Dr. Lloyd, who has been pulling out the stuff for years as it's vigorous to the point of being invasive. I've got enough weeds: don't need any more.

And a post-postscript: any mis-identifications of photos in this article are purely the result of my somewhat hit-and-miss hearing while scuttling around behind Dr Lloyd on a chilly day in Exeter, and no reflection on her own expertise.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

February flowers

It's a bit chilly and rather damp, but the garden is slowly, imperceptibly, filling up with flowers again.

The bulbs are getting my gardening fingers itching: clump after clump of snowdrops has appeared in the long grass and I didn't even realise they were there. They've hung on in the face of decades of neglect (I'm told by my neighbours it's over 20 years since a gardener lived here): and though I'm also told they aren't nearly as plentiful as they once were, I'm planning to do something about that. I have visions of sheets of snowdrops underplanted with aconites and cyclamen dancing in my head...

But for now I'm just enjoying what I have. It's even better in the greenhouse, where the overwintering geraniums are putting on a fabulous show and cheering me up no end (do they ever rest, do you think?) and even my little scented-leaf pretties are shyly unfurling a few petals.

So, in the wind and the rain, I've been out today taking a few photos for Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The strength of plants

Cutting back my hedge (still haven't finished) I discovered one of the hazel trees had eaten a rock.

It was so firmly wedged I couldn't shift it, even when I whacked it hard with a hammer, my standard fall-back position when all things more ladylike have been tried.

I've seen trees eat other trees, barbed wire, bits of string and rubber tree ties (that was a crabapple in my terrace garden last week) - but never a rock before.

Aren't plants amazing?

Friday, February 04, 2011

So, what's new?

Off to the big smoke yesterday for the first major garden press event of the year, The Garden Press Event 2011. It's a chance to waft around the rather grand Horticultural Halls in Westminster meeting friends (including at least three bloggers - honorary mentions go to Nigel, VP and Kevin) and cadging more glasses of fizzy cocktails than are strictly allowed from the nice people at Hillier's, who were celebrating the 21st anniversary of their Gardening Club (yes, I'm a member; no, I can't do that horticultural crossword either). And you also get a sneak peek at what's new in the gardening world this year.

There were dozens of exhibitors showing off their latest ideas: plus a few, like Hatfield House, who just wanted to build on the huge success they've been having following their honourable mention on Alan Titchmarsh's recent series.

So I thought just for a change, I'd let the day job intervene for a bit: here, with apologies for my lousy photos, are the ones which caught my eye.

Metal bell cloches: Crocus
Ah... I want. I really, really want. Crocus are branching out (if you'll excuse the pun) into making their own garden products now: and they're applying their usual sure touch and good taste to all those things you use to protect crops, hold things up and generally primp your plants with.

Normally they look dead ugly but not these: actually I fell in love with these Victorian-style cloches at first sight. You can just see them in that glossy gardening magazine photo, can't you? I'd probably better mention that I do work for them a bit, and they're really lovely people. Really, really lovely people. Super, actually. No - really....

Fire pits, Fire Pits UK
Forget the barbecue: soooo 2010. Or not, if you work at the Met Office. This year it's all about fire pits.

I once went to a party at a South African friend's house (in Surrey) in January. When he mentioned it was a braai - Afrikaans barbecue - I laughed like a drain. I assumed it must be one of the many eccentricities to which our South African friends are prone due to a terminal state of disbelief about the state of British weather, and we'd end up eating inside like normal people.

But no: he had a fire pit. We basked in the warmth of this wonderful invention into the wee small hours, while behind us the garden turned white with frost.

These ones were particularly wonderful; hand-made, big, beautiful. Roast your chilly English backsides and dream of the Cape.

Inflatable greenhouse, Harrods Horticultural
This was just hilarious. I couldn't help thinking it was a seriously good idea: if you're the type who uses a greenhouse to raise your seeds in but then runs out of room in the garden when you go to plant them out, this is perfect: just take it down and stash it under the potting shed bench.

But how long, I ask, could you resist the overwhelming temptation to fill it with large multicoloured plastic balls and jump in?

Garden on a Roll
This got my prize for wackiest idea of the day. I mean, what do you make of a garden that arrives drawn on a bit of paper you attach to the ground?

I really didn't know quite what to think at first, until I realised I was absolutely not its target audience. They state openly that this is for 'those with no gardening or plant knowledge, and no desire or time for gardening'.

It's gardening by numbers: you ring them up, say 'I've got this three-metre border in my garden', and they send you a big box of plants with a large sheet of paper, marked out with exactly where your plants should be planted. You spread the paper on the ground, plant the plants where you're told to plant them, water it all in and cover with a mulch: hey-presto, instant garden.

Of course I don't like it: it takes all the romance, creativity and love out of gardening. But - remember - this is for people who do not understand that there is romance, creativity or indeed love involved in gardening; so what you're really doing is sneaking it all in through the back door, packaged as an off-the-shelf solution to the weedy mess in the back garden.

And however you do it, at the end of the day you've still improved an outdoor space, spread a little plant-driven happiness and - who knows - converted someone who would otherwise remain unenlightened. When you look at it like that, it's not such a bad thing.

Easiwall System, Treebox
I never realised so many different kinds of vertical planting systems existed in the world.

Nearly every exhibitor seemed to have one. There were bags and boxes, plastic gizmos with pockets and metal sheets with holes in them. Growing up is catching on: but I am more than a little sceptical about the cheap(er) systems you can buy for home gardening.

If you don't have automatic watering systems, the pockets are often so small you wonder how you can keep them moist enough for the plants to be happy: after all, they're a quarter the size of hanging baskets and we all know how much of a faff they are.

And if you do have automatic watering systems, the top plants drain all the water out within an hour and the bottom plants are flooded. Besides, they look so ugly: the plastic or metal pockets always show through and I've never seen one yet which didn't have big gaps showing between the plants. Not very wall-like, really, unless you're into green plastic.

But: while I retain my scepticism, this system looked as good as any. It's like one of those bookshelves you get in libraries with the leaflets in: a series of long shelves angled outwards (in fact, linked troughs) hooks on to the wall and holds the plants. You've still got the watering problem: but at least the roots can spread out sideways and you might - just - have a chance of your plants knitting together and forming something that resembled a wall.

I'll stop there before I go on and on: though I haven't mentioned Vitax's handy little gizmos which fit on your water bottle in summer to trap wasps, or the new blue verbascum from Thompson & Morgan, or the Mr Digwell range of veg seeds just brought out by Kings which have a detachable recipe on the back (why hasn't anyone thought of this before?). But no doubt the bits I've missed out will crop up elsewhere: look out for them coming soon in a gardening magazine near you.
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