Wednesday, 26 November 2008



It's not often that someone else's Powerpoint Presentation leaves me feeling rather misty-eyed. But when Cleve West came up and said  "that got me almost sort of choked up," I had to agree with him, because I felt exactly the same. Dan Pearson was the person wielding the remote of the World's Most Annoying Piece of Presentation Software, and by the end of the talk on Wednesday evening, I think Pearson would have convinced most gardeners present to join a cult based on his worship. He could have taken the cheques there and then.

Dan Pearson is not the most well-known gardener in the country, which I think is down to his reluctance to put himself about on TV more than anything else. He is certainly the most accomplished of garden writers, managing to span the globe in his Observer column from Kennington to Hokkaido. But his real skill is in shaping the landscape, and he gave listeners at the VISTA meeting in the revamped Garden Museum, Lambeth, a whistle-stop tour of his career that made me feel in the presence of awe-inspiringly intelligent, artistic thought.

He began with Home Farm, a project that helped to make his name, where he worked to link the ornamental parts of the garden out into the surrounding landscape. Soft wafty planting of gauzy umbellifers framed exquisite views of the English countryside. (There are photos of all Pearson's major projects on his website.) But it was the next project, Gardeners Cottage, that really hooked me in. There, two adjacent walled gardens have been remade by Pearson and his studio, one full of flowers, scents, sensuality and a million bees; the other has been left almost empty, apart from beautiful shaven shapes in the long grass and a curiously beautiful hollow designed for lying to watch the stars. 

It was the final images he showed us, though, which most wowed me. In Hokkaido, Japan, Pearson was commissioned to work on a Millennium Forest - so named because it is intended to demonstrate the possibility of thinking about a landscape in terms of the timespan of a thousand years. Here, Pearson carved out landforms that mirror the perfect austere beauty of the northern Japanese landscape, and removed acres of invasive Sasa bamboo to plant 35,000 herbaceous plants in an extraordinary randomly-generated pattern. 

"The key," he emphasises, over and over during the course of the evening, "is the staff who will look after the project long-term. It's absolutely vital that you understand who's going to look after it, before you even begin thinking about planning it." And he is clearly in some ways an intensely pragmatic designer; what client couldn't fail to be charmed by a man who says "I'm always trying to move outside my own comfort zone without risking too much of the client's money."

Despite this furiously practical side, Pearson comes across as a man who is still utterly motivated by the dreaminess of gardens. "What I am wanting to create," he says, impassioned, "is a feeling. So that you are seduced by the space you are in. Gardens are place you go into to be in another world, and finding ways to unlock people's imaginations, that's very important. It might just require a really beautiful tree, with really  beautiful space underneath. Because everyone has a memory, somewhere in their childhood, of somewhere they used to go to be alone, to take a friend, somewhere to hide away. Often just a simple thing will do it. In fact sometimes I think the simpler the better."

After his amazing talk, we sat down at long tables to eat roast beef and marvel over what we'd just heard and seen. My mind was full of thoughts. I don't know how such a mild-mannered and modest speaker manages to author such imaginative landscapes; and I don't know how such a great garden designer is lucky enough to also be such a great writer on the subject. But it turned out that down my end of the table there was just one Pearson secret everyone wanted to be let into: How did he get rid of all that Sasa?

For those like me who cannot get enough of Dan Pearson, he is guest editor of Gardens Illustrated in January.

Monday, 10 November 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Place your bets on the English summer now


Pretty appropriately for two of the rainiest weeks I can remember (in a fairly rainy year), tickets for next year's RHS Flower shows just went on sale. Chelsea was actually pretty good weather-wise this year, but in my mind Hampton Court 2008 will forever intertwine fond images of the Porsche garden demonstrating its superior run-off and Richard Reynolds's Guerilla effort with memories of the Independent's Cleve West looking a bit like a drowned rat. (A nice drowned rat! A nice one!)

I don't know what it is about flower shows that seem to suck the bad weather from out of the skies and onto our heads, but there certainly is a statistically significant correlation. People planning weddings for next summer should just avoid RHS flower show dates and they'd practically be guaranteed sunshine. 

However there are those of us who will go out to Chelsea in our waders if necessary, brightly protesting "just a spot of rain!" even when it's leaking through the top of the marquee and flooding the delphinium display. For these hardy souls, you could hardly pick a better Christmas present than flower show tickets ordered, done and dusted right now. I know a lot of people swear by the most expensive tickets, allowing you access at 8am, but actually I think in 2009 I might be plumping for an evening visit, when most people have gone home. It also allows you to experience increasing calm during your two and a half hour slot as more and more visitors leave. Most important of all, it's the cheapest ticket available: check out last year's pricing for a rough idea of what's on the cards; this year the least expensive option is £13.50 on Wednesday evening, for which you'd need an RHS membership number to book. 

Then you can spend the thirty-five pounds you've saved (each! Simply by not arriving at 8am!) on a slap-up dinner. Or, a posh new umbrella.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: What insane roots

Witches_hair_asparagus_rootBy Emma Townshend

I am currently making my first asparagus beds; maybe that's what everybody does when they start pushing forty. However in my case it is considerably less elegant Monty Don and quite a lot more Tom and Barbara Good. I have managed to come home covered in mud from head to foot quite a few times lately.

My allotment is on the one bit of really clay soil in the area, indicating there used to be a stream running down the middle of it, and I'm having to carry bags and bags of sand down to lighten the soil up a bit as well as the usual manure and other organic soil conditioners. 

However it was only when I came to get the roots out the plastic bag they arrived in (a record one HOUR after they arrived in the post! Pat me on the back!) that I realised how funny-looking they are. You have to spread them out until they look like either a weird slightly octopus, or some sort of witchy hair. And they feel really fleshy and alive too, springing back to where they want to be, rather than where you want to plant them, with an apparent will of their own. Eurgh. 

Anyway the witchy hair is now almost all put to bed, hopefully never to be seen again except in the form of nice green fronds next summer. It's not even the scariest looking plant I've seen this week; check out Botany Photo of the Day's Dracula simia. He's the count who loves to count. 

Still, at least I haven't got a problem with over-flying real witches.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: I should Coco


Visitors to the Palm House at Kew often stop to marvel at the seed of a Coco de Mer. The so-called "Seychelles Nut" has the doublefold honour firstly of producing the biggest seeds in the world, weighing in at a sturdy 17 kilos, but also looking remarkably like a curvy lady's bum.

However today's news revealed they now have a further claim to fame, playing a crucial but slightly unexpected role  in a current significant case concerning British tax law. Millionaire businessman Robert Gaines-Cooper is claiming that since the seventies he's actually been resident in the Seychelles, despite the fact that his wife, son and vintage car collection all reside in homely Oxfordshire.

The bit of the case that made me sit up, though, is where Gaines-Cooper claims that it's his coco-de-mer plantation that really proves he is committed to the Seychelles. "there would have been no point in his planting a notoriously slow-growing coco-de-mer tree at Plantation Bois Noir in the 1970s if he had intended to move on", say his lawyers, according to today's Times.

I love the idea that planting slow-growing trees proves that's where you "really" live. And that British tax law is so complicated that you have to prove where it is that your heart is, to find out where your home is.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: All across the Cosmos

By Emma Townshend

Now that autumn is officially here I think it might be time to resurrect "Plant of the Week". Over the summer months there's so much in bloom to choose from that you don't really need a Plant of the Week, but lately I've found that familiar feeling of gratitude has been returning, whenever I see something looking particularly dandy amongst the piles of fading foliage.

This week I've especially noticed Cosmos doing its girly Barbie pink thing in the bursts of autumnal sunshine. Cosmos is a half-hardy annual, so it needs to be grown from scratch every year. You can't even think about planting it out until frost is a thing of the past, so it's a start off-on-a-windowsill job, and it'll be gone the first night the temperature dips below freezing.

Despite all this tenderness, though, it's still looking gaudy and delightful in gardens at present. Varieties that people I know approve: Sarah Raven's Dazzler, and T&M's verging on the Ku Klux "Purity". But actually most mere mortals buy it in £2.99 trays from Homebase as far as I can make out, with roughly similar results. 

There was talk (a few years ago now though mind) about Cosmos being unreliable : my anecdotal wandering around Ealing evidence says otherwise. But there are two important things to know: shorter plants flower more quickly (so try dwarf varieties); and also that you can strike cuttings and overwinter them if you've got a greenhouse. It's a girl's world you know.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Honey, I Gave the Garden a Fungus

By Emma Townshend

Dsc00368Whilst other bloggers seem to have been having wonderful mycological adventures, I am stuck with rubbish news. I showed this phone picture of my front garden's latest arrivals to British fungi expert Patrick Harding at the weekend over a drink. His diagnosis? "Looks like honey fungus."

Patrick is the author of several notable books on the subject, including a new one called "Mushroom Miscellany" which compiles lots of wonderful fungal folklore - full of wonderful old stories, amazing facts and beautiful photographs too. (And it's less than £10 on Amazon! Come on!) So even though Patrick only saw a little phone picture, I didn't spend too much time doubting his expert opinion.

Luckily I spent the next day going round Kew Gardens in the presence of many horticultural luminaries including Ursula Buchan. Over lunch I quizzed a few people about what to do. The consensus was that I should dig up the fruiting bodies first, and dispose of them without letting the spores spread if possible,then dig out the liquorice-like rhizomorphs that let the plant spread underground. And then, depending on who you talk to, dose with Armillotox (though don't tell anyone you heard that from me).

This afternoon, however, I happened to have Matthew Wilson on the phone, so I asked him what the implications of that heavy chemical dose might be? His problem with the idea: "I just am not really sure that it will do anything. It's like a stronger version of Jeyes Fluid." What I ought to be doing, according to the prince of organic darkness, is just making sure that all the plants nearby are kept as healthy as possible. Honey fungus is everywhere, but it's only stressed plants that will succumb. (This was also what Tony Kirkham was saying when we were at Kew: he has trees there which have had honey fungus for 30 or 40 years, but which are still alive because they are properly looked after.)

Anyway, perhaps I can relax a bit, as long as I get on with the organic bit where I dig the fungus out and dispose of it. Especially given that most of my front garden is planted with Hebes, which apparently don't succumb easily to honey fungus. Just to Chris Beardshaw.

P.S. For those interested in knowing more about the old mushrooms, but who want to go down to the woods with an expert, Patrick runs a range of courses all over Britain during the autumn. He's just finished working out his schedule for 2009, so drop him an email at patrickharding AT hotmail DOT co DOT uk for more details.

Monday, 13 October 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Where's Carol Klein?

420x190_carol_vegBy Emma Townshend

It's not often I take the possibly risky step of criticising a piece that's appeared in our own paper, but I was bemused to find whist checking out the "Green List", a list of Britain's 100 top environmentalists that appeared in yesterday's paper, that only three horticultural greens made the grade.

Gardeners ought to be all over the list, though. For a start, we all know the stuff about growing your own and how it can help to reduce carbon emissions associated with food transport. Eating more home-grown veg also means that we're doing as the UN told us recently, moving over from a more animal-based diet to a more-vegetable laden one. Not only that: in the last twelve months fruit and veg sales have rocketed as the great British public experienced a kind of epiphany, falling in love with everything to do with grow bags, allotments and pinching out.

You wouldn't know this looking at the list though. Okay, in the top ten you'll find Monty Don, coming in at a not-to-be-sniffed-at number 4. But although Monty is about to take over the helm of the Soil Association, I would have said that he is the kind of gardener who cultivates, hmmm, how shall I put it, strong feelings either way. And whilst watching him digging his potatoes is lovely Friday night viewing, I don't think he has been particularly successful in convincing people to switch over to growing their own. In fact I can think of several people I think have been much more important: If I was in charge, Carol Klein would have been top of the list for her inspirational series Grow Your Own, as would Joe Swift whose allotment antics on Gardeners' World have, ahem, made people think even they could manage to grow something.

Further down the list we've got Tim Smit, at number 56. I concede that the Eden Project is a wonderful thing which owes its very existence to Smit's (actually slightly scary) energy, but again if you're looking for the person who's made the most difference to garden-based conservation I reckon the name on the list should be Tony Kirkham from Kew, presenter of The Trees that Made Britain. This programme has been a hymn to native species and their interest and importance: while hothouse gardening is great for schools to learn about the wider world, preserving our own natural heritage goes undervalued and Kirkham has gone a long way towards addressing that. 

Finally at number 67 there's Guy Barter, a face some will know from RHS presentations on climate change. However, if I was going to pick an RHS figure who epitomised that organisation's serious approach to the subject it would have to be Matthew Wilson, author of New Gardening: How to Garden in a Changing Climate. Guy Barter is a nice enough chap but Matthew Wilson is the Mr Darcy of Climate Change, sexing carbon neutrality up to a remarkable extent. There's just no competition. 

Out of all of these omissions it's Carol and Joe's that offends me the most, though. Monty Don is an easy choice and yet his kingdom of corduroy puts loads of people off growing their own, imagining that they would need to sashay about all day long in leather jerkins to achieve anything in a veg bed. We need gardeners like Joe and Carol on TV to make viewers feel it's possible to have a go. They've been criticised for the gentle pop music soundtrack and the incompetent rotovating, but the truth is they make you feel it's something you yourself could attempt. Watching in awe is one thing, but achieves nothing. Watching with a smile on your face is what's required to get you out there the next day, having a go of your own.