Friday, 30 May 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: It's a Mollusc's, Mollusc's, Mollusc's World


At Wisley yesterday I got into one of those conversations with garden-loving strangers where I end up grateful for the community of ordinary gardening knowledge. There is nothing like a slug-battling tip from some real gardeners to make you go home determined to try harder. 

They were delphinium fanatics who'd brought their granddaughter to Wisley for half-term: she was taking notes in a Royal Botanic Gardens Kew notebook, suggesting that Granny and Grandpa normally get their own way about the destination of grandparently treats.

We had a long conversation whilst soaking up the heat in the sweltering trial fields (see picture, right) about how best to keep the slugs off. Slugs are an enormous threat to delphiniums, so this couple had tried everything.


Yet at Wisley the RHS team don't lift a finger to combat slugs. They don't have to: the field situation means there's no slug or snail population, according to the gardener we talked to. But domestic gardeners face entirely different problems, and big slug massives out raving till dawn are a depressingly common reality. 

"Best of all," my new friend said, "get out there on a wet evening and collect them by hand, then kill them by whatever means you prefer. But he," she gestured to her sun-tanned husband, sitting on a bench, "swears by copper tape, too. You tape it around the top of a pot, and it really does stop them. If your plants are in the soil, you can cut the bottom off a pot, run tape round it, and then use it as a protective ring too." 

I've been meaning to try copper tape for a long time, but I finally got round to buying some in the Wisley shop and wrapping all my most vulnerable pots in it - leaving most of the backdoor area at my house looking a little bit like it was Christmas. Hopefully, the tape will do as it promises on the packet, and eventually acquire a bluey-green patina.

Dsc_1645jpegI will report in future on whether the tape saves my summering amaryllis from further predation, and gets my brugmansia to flowering trumpet size.

In the meantime, I'm putting my faith in these guys, who I found in the dampest corner of my garden recently and who I think are probably eating many of the baby slugs this year. It may be a mollusc's world, but it wouldn't be nothing without a frog or a toad.

Monday, 26 May 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Sweet William, Martha, Nigella and Sarah


Down the allotment at half seven this morning I suddenly realised that my first bunch of home-grown flowers was ready for the picking. Not my first bunch this year - my first bunch ever. I feel peacefully happy walking away clutching my handful of stems. Sweet Williams are one of my favourite flowers for their patchwork of pinks and rubies, and have one of those perfumes that sums up early summer.

I don't think Sarah Raven should get worried that I'm after her job quite yet, but I feel just as self-satisfied as when I made my very first cake out of Nigella. Raven and Lawson have a lot to answer for in the Martha Stewart-isation of a whole generation of women like me who were brought up to think we should aim at the very least to be Chair of BP. Now, our fiercest ambition is focused on the idea of having our own cutting gardens.

I don't think this shift is a bad thing, though. It doesn't mean that we're aiming lower - just at different things. (It's even been alleged that Stewart, Lawson and Raven make us feel unbearable levels of social pressure to have a perfect home, make a perfect meringue and grow perfect peonies. In the face of all that, quite a few women might opt for running BP as the easier option.)

Surely none of these domestic goddesses imagines she is putting pressure on others: Nigella is all about making it possible for everybody to bake; Sarah Raven wants everybody to grow flowers at home, to have the pleasure of walking outside and choosing what colours and shapes to bring into the house.

But if you find Raven too much - and some do - try one of my favourite domestic over-achievers: Linda Beutler, who wrote Garden to Vase, about growing and using your own cut flowers. I have to warn you, she has a fairly Hawaiian sense of how to make a flower arrangement. But the book is stuffed with information from someone with years of experience, and is detailed and full of tips. 

In particular, Linda Beutler's practical advice for cutting flowers is great:

  • Cutting flower stems with a diagonal cut, to increase surface area for absorbing water, is "the single most important factor in flower longevity."

  • Cut flower stems with secateurs, not scissors, for a better, cleaner cut.

  • Revitalise tulips and roses by recutting the ends and lying them horizontally immersed in a warm bath.

  • Keep flowers longer by adding a quarter teaspoon of bleach to the water to kill germs (must admit, haven't actually tried that one yet).

However I feel ready to graduate to School of Raven. I just ordered The Cutting Garden on Amazon: wish me luck.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Come on you Blues. Er, and Reds


For the next 12 hours, if you hear the term "Chelsea" it is probably going to refer to the football team rather than the flower show. In honour of all the potentially hilarious conversational muddles that could ensue today, I bring you my own floral tribute to the Champions League Final.

Camassia "Orion", pictured above, is one of the best bulbs I've ever seen. Take the Camassia - which is already a great, great plant - with its azure starbursts that provide such subtle structure in a floppy spring flower bed. Now make it the zingiest, most electric blue, with a
touch of yellow that reminds me very slightly of Chelsea football strip. Yay! You've done the whole world a favour!

I spotted it on a gorgeous stand in the Marquee: happily, Pete Free
pointed out to me last night that the display in question was actually
a National Collection, as otherwise I'd have been looking fruitlessly
for the nursery name for hours. The collection holder had arranged the
Camassias against wheaten-white grasses to stunning effect.

You can find "Orion" for sale in a few places: Aulden Farm do it, as does Marina Christopher of Phoenix Plants, everybody's secret favourite plant-person. Beeches also do it at £3.50 a bulb, but their mail order (like many other small nurseries, I note) is now closed till autumn.

In slightly less authentic Chelsea colours, but nevertheless a mouth-watering purpley-blue, here is Clematis "Natascha", from Sheila Chapman's sweetly gothic display (yes, you can be sweet and gothic: think of Northanger Abbey).

But watch it: there are two Natashas, each with a different spelling
- this is the one with a 'c' in it, who comes at a reasonable £10 from

Sheila is one of those nursery people who quietly lurks ready to
give the information you need - how can you not love someone who
describes her specialist plants thus: "Clematis have huge appetites,
being in the Billy Bunter class."

Finally, can I offer anything toDsc_1494jpeg
those ill-tempered people (my friend Tim, my cousin Layla) who will by now be shouting at me "what about the Reds?" (Well, would be shouting at me, if they weren't in Moscow.)

Check it out! Gloriosa superba, sometimes called G. rothschildiana.
Imagine Paul Scholes with a bit of that draped over him, eh? This photo
is from the National Association of Flower Arrangers stand, which was -
let's just say, pretty unbelievable.

Beeches also does this one, as do Burncoose, Wisley, and Jacques Amand. And Tim and Layla can content themselves with that absolute lucky charm jewel of a Latin name...

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Going for Green

Dsc_1527jpeg_2A single colour was all over the place at this year's Chelsea: for once, it was easy being green. The RHS has made concerted efforts to ensure that the flower show is more sustainable, though how well they've achieved that remains to be seen. But the big thing was the number of designers turning to green for its calm, collecting influence - even in flowers.

The horsetail Equisetum hyemale, (pictured here) is a plant I've admired before, but suddenly felt myself coveting for its strong, dramatic structure and punctuating brown markings. Horsetails are takeover merchants, even in the drier soils they'd prefer to avoid, so maybe this is one for a patio pot, providing green impact on the large scale. This is from Knoll Gardens stand: one plant is £7.

Dsc_1474jpeg_2Another green favourite for me is Fritillaria persica "Ivory Bells". When this was first introduced a few years ago it was mega-expensive due to intense demand amongst the tasteful, but nurseries have been working away so that we can all grow it. Each bulb is still a fairly exclusive-sounding £8.75 from Avon Bulbs: I would add that in my experience, Avon's bulbs are in top condition and flower much better than those of some other establishments.

Dsc_1429jpegAs far as brand-new introductions went, this green and burgundy-tinged lily from HW Hyde really drew me, especially after I learned that it was a hybrid between L.nepalense and L.orientale, which have never successfully been crossed before. The nepalense parent gives the striking colouring, whilst the orientale contributes a striking height. The plant is called Kushi Maya and should eventually be available from H W Hyde, though I couldn't find it on their website, it's that new!

Dsc_1480jpegMy last contribution is my favourite - because you could never get me on the subject of green flowers without me having to add in a euphorbia. E. wallichii, Wallich's Spurge, was used by Tom Stuart-Smith in his Laurent-Perrier Garden, despite Don Witton's comments that it is "quite rare in cultivation and a challenge to grow". And if Don says that, I'm taking him seriously.

However, Stuart-Smith's planting plan has influenced Crocus, his plant suppliers, and they have got their propagators working double-time anticipating post-Chelsea demand. So if you fancy having a go at this gorgeous little euphorbia, get on their website now: one plant is £5.95.

A Nice Green Leaf: And the Judges' Verdict is... What About Those SIDEBURNS?


There was only one topic of conversation on horticultural lips when I got back home last night, let me tell you. I was dying to see how Chelsea 2008 had gone down with friends viewing it from the comfort of the sofa, as  gardens can often look so different on TV - leading to totally different verdicts on the crucial "Best in Show".

But there didn't seem to be one obvious garden that everyone had loved. Hmmm. They weren't sure. It was almost as if something had been distracting them. Finally I realised what the real issue of the day was: summed up in an excited text from my friend Amanda - "WHAT ABOUT ALAN TITCHMARSH'S SIDEBURNS?"

Now I hadn't really looked at La Titchmarsh all that closely yesterday, but I went back to the photos I took, and my god! Forget Tom Stuart-Smith's green garden - what about Titchmarsh's sidies? The style statement! What kind of look is he going for, do you think? Little razored flicks of hair that are more Eddie Cochrane than Geoff Hamilton - possibly resulting in a new genre of "rockabilly gardening". The whole image verges on something heavily influenced by the Southern Death Cult. Just keep that SDC webpage secret from him, please, before he gets any more ideas.

Monday, 19 May 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Chelsea Confidential

Dsc_1404_2This was Chelsea Flower Show at 7am this morning: no crowds, no noise, and no celebrities. Several sniffer dogs, yes, who took a surprising interest in the resin mushrooms being sold at one of the stalls. But as yet, no actual mayhem.

Dsc_1413_2It almost seemed as if this year, Chelsea might have changed its tune. With Tom Stuart Smith's green garden, and Arabella Lennox-Boyd's minimalist water piece, there was much to suggest a different mood. Especially in the calm of the morning, with Crocus employees fishing leaves from the surface of the pool.

Dsc_1516Dsc_1418_2 There is a brief moment at that early hour where you feel like you are still behind the scenes: nursery ladies are still stuffing newspaper into their displays to hold things steady before adding a final layer of moss; and one French iris grower had individual blooms, brought from Normandy last night, all still wrapped in yesterday's French newspaper.

Dsc_1598_2Dsc_1584However by midday (left) Diarmuid Gavin and Terence Conran were quaffing champagne, smoking huge cigars and just generally getting things back to how they should be.

Then (right) I spotted AT doing his utterly professional bit, along with Llewellyn-Bowen, Melinda Messenger and Damon Hill. And Alys Fowler, who looks amazingly glamorous in real life, like an 80s Brat Pack chick.

Dsc_1601_3Dsc_1602_2 Whilst they were enjoying the sunshine, I snuck a look inside one of the famous "Chelsea Sheds" (left), the backstage areas for all the amazing show gardens. Indicatively, despite the fact that it is the "messy backstage", it is tidier than any real shed of my acquaintance.
Finally, I checked out what my man Joe was up to. There he is, amongst some kind of softy grass planting, ahhh.
However, that is not my favourite picture of the day.

Dsc_1603_2This is.

PS Can I just add, I have a ton of gorgeous pictures of the flowers which I will post later. But I had to do this first: for all the Diarmuid fans.

Friday, 16 May 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Space solutions for small gardens, just steal someone else's


Like anyone who enjoys shopping for plants, it wasn't long before my garden got full. Not full as in "the plants all had enough space, but I sensibly decided to call a halt". No, more like, "my garden is stuffed to the rim, causing the poor plants desperately to try Prison Break-style escape in all directions".

One plant I grow from seed, Echium pinniana, has tried harder than most. It is in full flower two doors down at my neighbour Cheryl's house, with a flower spike that reaches to the first floor windows.

Originally from the Canary Isles, this Echium requires tons of winter cossetting. Or so I always thought.

Cheryl has done absolutely nothing to get it through the snow, wind and frost, except some occasional moaning and threats to uproot it. My contribution has been to keep on insisting it'll look great when summer comes and begging her to leave it be.

It is growing in a thick layer of gravel which she put on to discourage weeds (ha ha), so perhaps that's the perfect growing medium for this island dweller. I couldn't possibly comment on how the seeds came to be in her gravel rather than in my garden (ahem).

Mystery of its seeding aside, the bees and ladybirds are all loving this multistorey marvel of vivid blue; and I'm celebrating one more step in my gradual horticultural takeover of the entire neighbourhood.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Normal service will resume shortly


This time of year it's common to find fellow gardeners distracted, unable to answer simple questions and failing to perform tasks you've asked them to do four times already. The simple explanation of the mystery is that it's the busiest moment of the calendar, that time of year when you look out the front window to find the seedlings you planted have doubled in size, apparently overnight.

But it's also flower show time, and the blogs are one way to gauge gardeners' growing excitement about Chelsea in particular.

If you care about gardening it can be hard to justify swanning off to London in the middle of the growing season, so I think one reason for Chelsea's eternal popularity is that it provides a cast-iron excuse for a bit of bunking off.

The number of friends who complain about their sore feet afterwards also suggests to me that it is what gardeners consider to be a sufficient excuse for a bit of day-time dressing-up - an activity not usually all that customary in horticultural households, as a brief glimpse of Gardeners' World most weeks will demonstrate.

Anyway, on behalf of all the gardeners, I'd just like to offer many apologies, we'll be back to business on Monday the 26th at 9am sharp.

(Image: Rosa Wisley, to be launched Chelsea 2008 by David Austin)

A Nice Green Leaf: Titchmarsh Warming Report


I found myself in turmoil and confusion on the tube yesterday as, for once, I read an article by Alan Titchmarsh and agreed with every word. For reference, it's Gardeners' World magazine, June edition, p. 186. You can't read GW online, but the general drift is him wondering how to get his wisteria to flower.

I have had my moments of moaning about Alan T, but when he talks about actual gardening he's so gently informative that it's difficult to remember he's also annoying. And his palpable and modest desire to have a nice wisteria up the front of the house so matches my own ambitions that now I'm finding it impossible to keep hating him.

My particular favourite line is this one: "I can get most of the long shoots off in summer by leaning out of bedroom windows". I'm afraid I'm completely charmed by this picture of Alan gamely dashing upstairs with his secateurs to dangle out the first-floor, pruning. (Although he should consider that if it's dangerous to run with scissors...).

And he writes about exactly the same sense of triumph on seeing the buds as I was gargling on about at the start of April - he's just much less smug.

On balance I probably still won't be running up to get his autograph at Chelsea, but while he continues to battle the idea of climate change, I am sensing a bit of Titchmarsh Warming going on in this particular glacial region.

(Sorry about the deeply unsmiling image: I think I was worrying the camera was about to slide off the car I was using as a tripod)

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Euphorbia School


On May Day morning I headed to Oxford as mists were still rising off meadows on a pilgrimage - but not to watch dopey teenagers jumping off Magdalene Bridge in honour of the May (or should that be "in honour of going to the pub at eight thirty in the morning"?).

My pilgrimage was to see Timothy Walker, Curator of Oxford's Botanic Garden, doing a day-long study of his pet genus, the Euphorbias.

Someone had described Walker to me as an "unmissable Euphorbia showman" and they were in no way exaggerating. He talked from 9.30 until 4.30 with about half an hour's break, and was absolutely rivetting the entire time. (He's the jolly-looking one with glasses in
the photo, wearing a blue fleece.)

I'm not saying it was for everyone: science dominated, and we spent a lot of time learning about the botany of Euphorbias and learning how they fit into the new Angiosperm Phylogeny,
as flowering plants get reclassified according to their DNA
fingerprinting, rather than their appearance. For me this was
fascinating stuff. (I will understand though, if you beg to differ.)


But it was also great to be able to step out into the gardens, where Euphorbias are a mainstay of almost all the planting. Here, for exampleDsc_1253jpeg (left) are tulips underplanted with E. myrsinites, which makes a spikey grey and green texture that sets off the pink flowers beautifully. And on the right you have E.griffithii giving a great contrast to the frondy grasses, both in colour and in shape.

Walker recommends griffithii for damp soil planting as it does so well next to their pond. A man who can explain botany and give gardening hints, to me is a jewel worth more than rubies.

I also discovered at least four species I'd love to grow that I'd never seen before: E.cornigera is one, 


pictured left, an elegant pretty red-stemmed plant with those creamy-white leaf veins that look so stylish.

And below right is a Euphorbia so new that it hasn't even been classified yet; all the Euphorbiaphiles fellDsc_1273jpeg instantly in love with it, billing and cooing, but the label says merely, and tantalisingly, "Euphorbia sp."

I would highly recommend the courses at Oxford Botanic Garden, which run throughout the year, ranging in subject from very science-y botany to practical gardening and vegetable growing.

Even if you don't find the idea of Euphorbia School tempting, the garden is delicious and well worth a visit, catching a quiet moment amongst its sandstone walls, immaculately-kept glasshouses and riverside setting. And it only costs £3!