Labour pains

August 3, 2010
A picture of a pen and some writing

I've been writing some books

As I hinted before, my summer has been dominated by writing books, two of which came along at once, and neither of which could be turned down. It is a long time since I wrote Gardening in your Nightie after all, so it is time I did something new.

One book is relatively low key affair – a compilation of stuff from my weekly Thorny Problems Saturday Telegraph page.  More than nine years worth of utterings and mutterings has been sifted through (which gave me total brain-ache) and some of the ‘best’  and most generally helpful bits sorted into a month-by-month, blow-by-blow problem-busting bedside book. Names of Telegraph readers have been changed, but their problems are all there.

It is early days yet, but I am hopful that it will be well received by, amongst others, all those who have loyally stuck with me and Thorny Problems all this time and who have, in effect, provided the essential material for the book.

The second is, in its own way, an equally Big Beast.  Grow your own Flowers, for the RHS, is a sequel to Carol Klein’s Grow your own Veg (which of course was the book of the successful BBC television series, and was therefore an Extra Big Beast, in terms of sales). We hope the book will be a attractive, no-nonsense and user-friendly introduction (with as little jargon as possible) into the pleasures and pitfalls of creating a glorious garden full of flowers.

Writing this book has had a surprising affect on my garden, however, since I have been obliged – nay, almost forced – to do (for once) all the important jobs I have been writing about. So I have been Chelsea chopping, mulching, deadheading, slug-protecting and generally fiddling around as never before – every time, in fact, that I break out  from behind my desk, overcome by cabin-fever and writer’s block.  As a result my flower borders, at the beginning of this parched August, actally look more colourful and glorious than they have ever done before.

Having written most of the main text of Grow your own Flowers, I only relatively recently felt able to write it’s introduction (fellow writers will understand the great significance of this, I am sure).  The relief of being able to see at last where the book was going and for whom it was intended was, I presume, a bit like turning the foetus around and realising you were going to avoid a breach birth (or worse).   However, the labour is still on-going.  Slogging through all the plant descriptions that constitute quite a large section of the book, I frequently feel like screaming for an epidural.

Where this analogy came from goodness only knows (presumably the non-stop writing is making me light-headed).  All that sort of thing happened to me in the dim and distant past and is thankfully only hazily remembered.  But to carry it forward a step further… despite all the anxiety and pain of pregnancy and childbirth, my son turned out to be a bit of  gem (Sorry Henry).  So fingers crossed.

All booked up…

July 4, 2010

Amalee Issa has given me a dig in the ribs today.  Not a word, not a single word, have I written here in six months – or is it more? –  she says.

I have an excuse:  I am in the thick of it with not just one, but two books.  So instead of writing anything pithy – since I haven’t really got time –  I will just add a couple more pictures of my garden.  Sorry.

My garden 1

New path through the border from one end… (click to enlarge)

The new stepping-stone path (replacing a swathe of hard-pressed lawn between a border and a central bed) has worked out even better than I hoped.

…and the other end (click to enlarge)

It has made it possible to walk, effectively,  right through the middle of a border that now feels realy chunky  – with thyme, camomile and other tiddlers creeping happily between the stones.  Loadsaflowers at really close quarters. Lovely.

Richard Zatloukal

January 7, 2010

One of my oldest and very best friends Richard Zatloukal has died in Thailand (where he has lived for years) – too early, of course, at the age of 67.

This always amiable, chain-smoking, hyperactive eccentric had extraordinary intellectual curiosity, was a brilliant wordsmith, a talented painter and had one of the best brains I have ever encountered.  In the dim and distant past he was a London barrister, but his interests were legion and he was an authority on, amongst other things, Japanese netsuke, beetles, poultry and – yes, you have guessed – herbaceous perennials, about which he was passionate.  His amazing book – about which Beth Chatto was most complimentary and found useful – can be accessed via  http://zats-perennials and is a good read, erudite and rich with  Zat-ish observations.  Do have a look and post a comment here, if you will.

Zat was truly a one-off (he would have hated the cliche and taken me to task for using it).  All those of us who knew and appreciated him – his close family in France, in Thailand and in England and his ex-wives of whom he was very fond –  will miss him terribly.

Too soggy to blog

November 27, 2009

I have been exceedingly lax about keeping this going – partly overwork, partly the fact that, when not mopping up INDOORS after downpours (oh yes, drips just missing bowls and buckets everywhere), I have been gripped by a creative urge and have been digging up part of my lawn in order to augment/amend the border plantings.

There are ‘before’pictures here, of course, and my neighbour Cate helpfullystaggered around between VAT returns (she is an accountant) to take some muddy ‘during’ pictures but – guess what – has not had time to download them from her camera and send them to me.  But she will eventually.  And then I will explain what I have been doing and why.  I only hope the eventual ‘after’ pictures next summer will prove what I fervently hope – that it was worth the considerable effort.

The One Show – Bristol – Buddleja

October 20, 2009
Butterflies love Buddlejas

Butterflies love Buddlejas

The BBC’s One Show is my televisual guilty secret.

Apart from the fact that it coincides with my finishing things I absolutely have to do each day, indoors and out, I like the cheerful content and the chemistry between the presenters. And sometimes they have really interesting features.

Tonight’s programme visited Bristol (of which I am proud to be a citizen, originally) with Mike Dilger talking about plants that had perhaps been introduced from around the world via the docks during their heyday in the 19th centry.  He highlighted Buddleia, or –  to be more au courant with my spelling – Buddleja, and most importantly B. Dividii.

Even when I was very small and walking to school each day in Clifton in the 1950’s, I was very acutely aware of this plant.  It poked out from every crevice in the eerie  relics of down-at-the-heel houses on the steep cliffs that bordered the cities heavily bombed docks (an area now largely embellished by the presence of the fabulously restored S.S. Great Britain, and some fairly chi-chi housing and attendant wine bars, of course).  Then I called it ‘bombed-site-weed’.  But the scent of the lax, unkempt bushes and the proliferation of butterflies clearly made an impression.

In my little garden there is scarcely space for any of Buddleja dividii’s close realtions, the most lovely silvery-leafed Buddleja ‘Lochinch’, more compact and delicate Buddleja ‘Nano Blue’, nor the spring-flowering. fluid-outlined, tree-like Buddleja alternnifolia.

More’s the pity. All of them are lovely, tolerant, easy-to-grow and rewarding plants.

And their honey-scent is truly gorgeous.

Garden ponds, children – and Charles Darwin

September 30, 2009
In praise of ponds

In praise of ponds

This evening I went to see Creation – a film about Charles Darwin.

The film was absorbing  – somewhat over-emotional, perhaps – focusing heavily on the double trauma Darwin suffered as a result of his scientific convictions and the death of his daughter – and the rift they caused between him and his intensely religious wife. But it also reminded me (if this doesn’t sound too grand) of my own slightly unusual and privileged upbringing.

My parents were both agnostic academics – one a botanist, the other principally a zoologist.  I grew up – without really noticing it – in a scientifically charged background – no stone went unturned, no question un-answered, no fact un-checked or undiscussed.  In retrospect, time was spent directly or indirectly studying and observing every living thing around us.

It wasn’t regarded as even remotely odd that my older brother kept big hairy spiders in large sweet jars next to his bed and caught flies with which to feed them, or that he ‘boiled’ small dead mammals in order to then reconstruct and study their skeletons (he went on, incidentally, to become a Professor of Oral Physiology).

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Autumn blues and nice smells

September 21, 2009


The best thing about blogging – as opposed to writing for a weekly newspaper deadline – is that you can simply opt not to for a while.

OK, so the graph that tells you how many people read your stuff  (the checking of which can become a bit of an obsession if you let it) gets dishearteningly un-peak-y –  and no doubt some of your readers give up on you –  but unless I feel inspired by something, preferably something horticultural, I don’t – can’t – won’t – prattle on.  And that’s that.

‘Inspired’ may not be the word for exactly why I’m writing this, but there are some lovely things about which to rejoice as the sun gets lower, the mornings brisker and birch leaves start littering the lawn.

In otherwise slowly sagging borders I love my clear blue Aster frikartii, the gangly spires of a slightly mauver-than-blue Aconitum, the  potted indoor Plumbago that goes outside and wafts about in an urn in the summer.

There are other things in containers, too: although the huge tender Agapanthus (variety unknown, probably ‘africanus‘) is past its best, its seed heads remain  dramatic while the equally vast annual orange Tithonia next to it keeps zinging on and on, as does a Mimulus aurantiacus in a battered old galvanized bucket.

Even just looking out of my office window I get an eyeful:  dangly strings of little ripening tomatoes, the Med-blue of Ceratostigma willmottianum and a perfect clump of yolk-yellow, black-eyed daisies – Rudbeckia fulgida, while through the French doors  just feet from my desk, the combination of the stripy Miscanthus ‘Cosmopolitan’ (just starting to flower) and a vivid red Persicaria amplexicaulis lording it over the fat, lazy goldfish in the nearby pond never fails to lift the spirits.

The huge agapanthus at its best in August...

The huge agapanthus at its best in August...

And there are gorgeous smelly things out there  too – particularly on a windless evening. And so, a propos of nothing, my list of plants for the best late summer pongs goes like this:

  • Cestrum parqui (now a massive shrub – pruned annually like a Buddleia davidii with little lime-y flowers in abundance that alas only smell after dark).
  • Nicotianas: ‘Fragrant Cloud’ and suaveolens (both grown from seed from (Thompson and Morgan) seed.  The young plants of the latter were almost disastrously beloved by slugs – they only just made it through- but smell divine)
  • Acidanthera murielae (a scented, white, refined gladiolus, best grown under glass crammed shoulder to shoulder in pots, brought outside in late summer to stand somewhere strategic – and treated as an annual, I regret to say).
  • Elaeagnus ebbingei (Yes I know, this is sometimes classed as a ‘winter-flowering’ shrub.  But around here in Sussex it is starting to flower its socks off already and the air is full of lily-of-the-valley scent.  I used to grow this  shrub en masse as a hedge to hide a (consequently) ‘fragrant’ tennis court.  Ah, those were the days…. a tennis court?  You could almost fit this whole garden into one of those…)

Over and out.

From Hampton Court to Parham House

July 9, 2009
Hydrangea 'Annabelle'

Hydrangea 'Annabelle'

Well, I have done my time at Hampton Court Flower Show and got the tired feet and muddy shoes to prove it.

As usual I enjoyed it a lot, apart from that horrid washing line with saggy underwear planted up with bedding plants.  What on earth….?  And the ‘six wives of Henry VIII’  gardens were a bit beyond me, too.

But overall, I enjoyed generally wafting around – taking the opportunity to chat to a lot of old friends in the trade.

Was there a ‘buzz plant’ of the show?  There usually is.  One that certainly caught my eye was a pink and white stripey phlox (‘Peppermint Twist’ I think), even though pink is really not my thing.   And I have been pacing around my garden again today wondering if I could offer a good home to a delicate stemmed, gloriously refined white Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ that was looking stunning everywhere at the show.

I do it every year… and every year decide, sadly, that I can’t.

Thanks to all the smiley people who came to the Telegraph Gardening Theatre, asked questions, and particularly to those who came up afterwards and said kind things about my weekly Telegraph column.  Actually I got a lot of friendly vibes all day.  It never ceases to amaze me how many people recognize me on such occasions and come up and say hello. It is really gratifying.

Next stop, Parham House Garden Weekend.  On Saturday (11th July) I shall be doing an informal Q and A session with the RHS’s Jim ‘Britain in Bloom’  Buttress.  (Parham House is at Storrington, near Pulborough,  West Sussex, RH20 4HS – 01903 742 021 – ).

More smiley people, please?

Image courtesy of BBC

Garden ponds/hot weather – a slightly more sensible post than the last one…

July 5, 2009
My pond

My pond

My pond – directly in my line of view as I write – is lovely at this time of year, but the hot weather and lack of rain have caused the water level to drop by a couple of inches at least.  Topping up garden ponds with tap water encourages the growth of algae, so I hesitate to do it.

I have rigged up a simple system for my pond that helps.  It depends on having a water  butt that is a sensible hose-distance from the pond and that the hose can preferably be permanently left in situ – buried or at least hidden.

I simply changed the tap on my water butt to a (rather annoyingly slow flowing) one that takes a standard hose attachment, cut off a length of hose and buried it with the free end hanging over the edge of the pond hidden by foliage and the other end coming out of the ground close to the water butt.

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The Performing Seal speaks (or writes)

July 2, 2009
Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace

Being basically a very un-bloggy person – am I the only performing seal that has to be reminded to perform (by my son Henry who blogs for Cancer Research UK )? – I (no, he) feel(s) I should in turn remind readers that I shall be ‘performing’ in the Telegraph Gardening Theatre at Hampton Court Flower Show on Wednesday 8 July  anwering ‘Thorny Problems’ style questions with Val Bourne and a big cheese from the RHS.

Empty seats and blank stares I do not relish.

On another matter entirely:  My ‘new’ garden has moved on.  I have taken a few more (shoddy) pictures and added them to my Flickr page.   Aren’t these warm days when you spill out into your garden in you PJs at 6 in the morning just wonderful?

Everyone should grow ‘Fairy Wings’ poppies – fresh and fluttery each day, they lift the spirits to great heights.  Everyone should also grow Nepeta govaniana and Campanula lactiflora together, absolutely intertwangled and completely over the top.

Everyone should just stop bloody worrying and get out into their gardens.