Monday, 31 March 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: The Garden Snooper


So much to choose from in the papers at the weekend. In pathetic and plagiaristic tribute to the Indyblogs' Gutter Sniper, here's my round-up of the weekend's best gardening news:

- How to depress yourself in one easy step: Martha Stewart’s immaculate kitchen garden.
- The Heritage Lottery Fund finally sorts out money for Great Dixter.

- Polish plants are taking over Britain (a story surprisingly not reported by the Daily Mail).

- Pampas grass is back.

- English horticulturists confirm their reputation for innovation with underground grow chambers.

- How to get an allotment in Hong Kong.

- Your sister can actually annoy you into growing blueberries.

- James Alexander-Sinclair thinks flowering currant smells of cat pee.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Blackthorn Winter


I have finally found out what's been causing all the bad weather! In Beth Chatto's Garden Notebook she explains that "we rarely escape shrivelling cold weather when the blackthorn is in flower". This phenomenon actually has a name, the "Blackthorn Winter".

If you went anywhere near the countryside over Easter you'll have seen both vicious hail, and blackthorn in full bloom, which does tend to confirm Chatto's folk wisdom.

Though just to confuse us city types, the flowers are actually a creamy white: it's called blackthorn because in the autumn it produces rich black sloes. And if your interest is at all piqued by sloes, check out the site devoted to them - which provides the excellent tip to look for the blossom now to remember where the bushes are come sloe-picking time - the site goes under the unforgettable title of Sloebiz.

(Picture from by Kokai)

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Tardy Plant of the Week


Oh look, I'm sorry, I forgot to post my Easter bloom! My only excuse is that Easter was so early this year, the little Pasque flower hadn't even quite got around to opening up. 

I prefer it in bud, though, because of its lovely feathery foliage, and the fur on the buds which look rather appropriately like little baby rabbits. And in the centre of this photo, there's a flower on the brink of opening, a tiny glimpse of the vivid purple and yellow to come (you can click on it to see it bigger).

This particular plant is labelled Pulsatilla rubra on the rock garden at Kew.
(That area is starting to look really nice after massive reconstruction taking many months, and at the moment lots of species tulips are just beginning to come out - it's well worth a spring visit.)

But five minutes of internet research suggests that most botanists would label rubra as a variety of vulgaris, though there remains a bit of disagreement about whether rubra was bred by human hand, or that of a greater creator.

A Nice Green Leaf: Little Baby... Hummingbirds?


If you haven't already heard of Ketzel Levine, it's not that surprising. Somehow in the world of celebrity gardening her talents have got hidden away on NPR, the American not-for-profit radio station which is somewhat surprisingly kept afloat these days on a wodge of cash donated by Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonalds founder Ray.

Ketzel writes and broadcasts wonderfully about plants, especially really big trees which seem to be something of an obsession of hers. Here is a great radio programme she made about Charles Kellogg, an early Redwoods campaigner who lived in America's first mobile home - a hollowed-out tree. And at the moment her blog features pictures of the birds currently nesting in her garden. Not, as in my case, blue tits, but the cutest looking baby hummingbirds.

Besides the baby birds my favourite bit of her site is her archive of Plant Profiles, which offer some really great, funny, informed garden writing that ranks up there with the classics. 

Really bad gardeners, however, may prefer the useful and apparently inexhaustible section devoted to that perennial subject, "Why Did My Plant Die?"

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: (Spider) Plant of the Week


I'm sitting here writing this while listening to Gurrelieder on Radio 3, Arnold Schoenberg's great turn of the century mash-up, the death rattle of Romantic music. It's probably not at all the right setting for talking about the great Seventies icon that is the spider plant: a bit of soft lounge music, or maybe the soundtrack to The Big Lebowski, would be more appropriate. 

Spider plants continue to be great, though, even if Margo Leadbetter's all-in-one kaftan trouser suit is now sadly a thing of the past. 

For one thing, they look fantastic. I took this photo in Chelsea last Friday, and I love the way their stripey leaves look so smart against the Sloane Square brickwork. Also, they're really easy to grow, taking very little care, water or food and still generally managing to muddle through.

They're good for you, too - one of the best plants for cleaning the air around us, leading one US city to start the Portland Spider Plant Outreach Campaign. What you have to do is take baby plants, root them in compost, and then pass them on to neighbouring offices and workplaces. 

But finally, at this tatty old time of year their beautiful sharp blade-like leaves and coyly dangling baby plants do add that touch of Seventies macrame wife-swapping exoticism...

Monday, 17 March 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Sowing By the Light of the Moon


New growth seems to be in the air and everyone's gearing up for sowing their spring seeds. The problem for gardeners, as everybody acknowledges, is that you want to get started, but you also know that there could be bad weather around the corner. And this morning, weather websites and redtop newspapers alike have been confirming that we are in for a cold, cold Easter. 

Easter is as early as it could be this year, as I finally found out how they calculate it from Charles Dowding's organic website.

Charles Dowding also points out that lunar movements are such that - if you believe in the power of the moon - Wednesday the 19th this week is a particularly propitious moment for sowing your vegetable seeds.
Consult a lunar calendar if you don't believe me! 

So in light of the bad weather, consider holding back on starting off the outdoor peas and beans. But tomatoes and chillis can get going on a windowsill with all the lunar forces to wish them on their way.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Can you ever grow too many daffodils?


Walking up to Angel tube In London's Islington the other day I had to stop and get my camera out. If you regularly use the 153 bus you may already have spotted this fantastic display on a flat roof top above a shop (it's on the left-hand side as you head northwards up St John Street). It's just so totally cheerful. I love it when I spot someone who's got a good garden thing going on, and then... I just have to go back and see what it looks like in summer.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Flight of the Killer Ladybirds


Two enormous ladybirds have just crawled out of the vent on my newly-installed timber double glazing. As the windows were made in Poland, this does give me cause for concern, as I do not particularly think the said ladybirds look especially local. (And this is how all those stories about killer wasps start, isn't it, with the "recently arrived" parcel from wherever it is?)

The internet is great, of course, but by the time I'd run downstairs and googled "ladybird identification" the two interlopers had disappeared, hopefully back into the vent. 

However, I am aware of the presence in the UK of the Harlequin ladybird, said to be a terrible miscreant which munches up our native ladybirds. But trying to tell the difference between Harlequin and our locals sounds easier in theory than it is in practice. According to the ladybird id guide which I downloaded, the Harlequin can dramatically vary in appearance. A bit like Satan. 

Harlequins even come in a pattern called "negative", adding to my sense of their ability to marshall the dark forces of evil. There's a little film about it on the Natural History Museum's website. In fact, Ladybird identification is complex enough to warrant a special British
Entomological Society course on the subject, in April. The only good thing about this is that if I
actually master recognising the little tike, I will have considerably improved my general beetle knowledge.

And if you live in anywhere other than the South-East of England and you find what you think is one of these ladybirds, do report it. Cambridge ladybird experts are waiting to hear from you so that they can monitor the spread.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: A Nice Green Flower


Here's my plant of the week: the gorgeous Gladiolus viridiflorus. It's ridiculously pretty, and looks like it was designed to go with the interior design scheme of a smart new London hotel.

However it is the real deal. A subtle flower, pale, with a darkish bruise-coloured stain criss-crossed with pale green lines. Originally from South Africa where it grows on Cape sandstones, I saw it flowering in the sparkly new Alitex-sponsored Alpine house at Wisley where the Alpine House growers have done themselvesDsc_1114jpeg proud already this spring. As recorded by their blog which is astonishing for the fact that they have recorded a completely different set of plants to the ones I saw over exactly the same period.

Another instant love thing for me were the Muscari - grape hyacinths, but not as we normally know them. These exquisite plants combine the dark plum and fresh grape green of real vines. Muscari muscarimi: yum yum yum.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Monkey du Jour


First the phrase I love to hear: it's not too late to win free stuff. Garden Monkey is offering a delicious-smelling gardening book for the best answer to his question (a brand new book, of course it'll smell nice): "Who do you think would make the ideal Gardeners' Question Time chairman in place of Peter Gibbs?"

Garden Monkey, in case you were wondering, is the Belle du Jour of horticulture, an anonymous and cheeky blogger everyone this side of Wisley would love to unmask.

I'm sticking to my Hong Kong Phooey theory that it's the utterly
gentle and kind-hearted Dan Pearson finally letting out a bit of his
evil dark side, but I admit that's a minority view. But get over there
now and stick down your best effort to get yourself in with a chance of
winning. And then you can enjoy the naughtiest gardening blog in town.

Though don't get too excited. It's a gardening blog, after all. It probably isn't going to get made into a series with Billie Piper.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: The Germination Game


It's just that moment in the year when I begin thinking about sowing seeds. Sorting through some old (70s) copies of Country Life at the weekend, I read a 1976 article by Christopher Lloyd, describing all the pleasures of watching things germinate "with science-fiction speed".

Then today I found this lovely poem by Robert Frost, which sums it up completely. (Though possibly rather rudely. Or am I imagining it?

Putting in the Seed

by Robert Frost

You come to fetch me from my work to-night
When supper's on the table, and we'll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea);
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a Springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.