Episode 1: Introductions, withered chestnuts and the Professional Gardeners Guild

The first ever episode of The Garden Log podcast. Featuring the buttery tones of early autumn and the buttery tones of Ben Dark.

The greenhouse at dawn


Will dish-washing machines kill the British garden?

Sometimes I leave a garden and go inside.

Then I find a window and look out.

‘Look at that!’ I say. ‘I was just out there!’

‘How funny to see it now, all flat behind the glass. Moments ago I could stomp about and peer under shrubs and cut things and stand on my head. Now its frozen like a picture. How odd. How very beautiful.’

The best houses have these garden-pictures in most rooms. Sensible home-owners have their finest garden picture behind the kitchen sink.

Behind the kitchen sink, where one stands, once, or twice, or three times a day wondering what’s congealing in the plughole and whether it’s time to buy a new scouring pad. This is the vantage point most taken and it is where the most exquisite herbaceous art should find its home.

My kitchen-sink-garden-picture changes every day. Imagine an artist driven insane by his own genius. Now imagine he stumbled on the secret of living paint in a blood-magic orgy. That’s what he used for my picture.

Some of the pigments love each other dearly – they want to grow into each other. Deranged with desire, these pigments. Nothing but smothering and suffocation can come of ardour so arduous. Day after day, mug after spoon, I watch the paints trying to mix and I wonder if it’s time to buy a new scouring pad.

Which leads to the one question the horticultural establishment is ignoring – will dish-washing machines kill the British garden?

Anyhow. It was a busy week for me in three dimensional gardens.

On Monday I staged an intervention. Over the weekend the gardens had a pre-autumnal leaf party so I marched about blowing and striping things back to late-summer sobriety. The Borage was still flowering.

On Tuesday it was my birthday so I skulked about until it was time for cake.

On Wednesday I dabbled in the world of stone and cement. Also the world of middle distance haulage.

On Thursday I created a plug plant pic’n’mix in an effort to force randomness on an orchard.

And on Friday I chopped back some Phormium tenax and thought about what I had done. All in all, it was a good week.

I realise that over the recent half-decade I haven’t given this blog the love it deserves – my apologies – but now I’m back and trying out the above format. A sort of rambling round-up of my week in gardening with pictures. More to follow next episode…


The Subterranean Chestnut Worm

A patch of yellow pavement brought me to a halt. It was unmistakably pollen.

It takes some horticultural detective to spot grains of pollen on the dirty streets of Bogotá – helps that I keep a magnifying glass between my teeth and crawl everywhere.

Also helpful that it was a very large patch of pollen. Longer than a biro, and far wider (though considerably flatter.)



It was like finding lion scat in one’s hiking boot – the big-game-hunter in me awoke, I would find the flower responsible!

I looked up. Beyond the razor wire and before the clouds was an umbrella of Yarumo leaves.


Between the razor wire and the clouds

Unfortunately, the blossom which deposited the pollen was gone – no doubt squirrelled away by one of the garden bloggers who plague these streets. I would have to move further afield. Fortunately, I know the location of every Yarumo within half a mile of my apartment, one of my favourite games being to lead acquaintances past the massive things and casually enquire ‘do you know what family these trees are from?’

I crossed the Avenida Séptima and, fortified by petrol fumes, reached another Yarumo. This one a relatively small specimen, but still too big for a biro, so I placed a lamppost next to it for scale.


Lamppost for scale

I sniffed around the wall and buried myself in the ivy but found no evidence of sexual reproduction. It was time to move on.

The next Yarumo was too young to be thinking about flowers and fruit, but its shortness did allow me to get a picture of an emerging leaf. To me it looks like some vast subterranean worm has risen up to swallow a horse chestnut tree, though you may prefer other similes.


Subterranean worm swallows horse chestnut

Darting up to the Séptima and back down again I came to the specimen for which I had highest hopes. This tree likes to dangle the leaves it no longer requires from nearby power lines.


Old leaves

And what leaves they are. Here I use my shoe for scale.


Shoe for scale

And mighty leaves from mighty trees fall. Note how it dominates the pencil pine I placed beside it for scale.



The picture below is actually of the fruit and seeds of the Yarumo, and not of maggots eating a dead squid, as I had initially thought. Sufferers of trypophobia might want to look away, it’s pretty disgusting. Hundreds of thousands of seeds are here waiting to be disbursed by anything with a strong enough stomach.



The Yarumo is either male or female, and the presence of decaying fruit told me that there would be no pollen bearing flowers around here, this was a lady. I bit down hard on the stem of my magnifying glass and crawled off towards Parque el Virrey – playground of professional dog walkers and topless muscle men.

Here I at last found my flower – dead in a pool of its own pollen.


Dead in a pool of pollen

I fear that this is not one for the pressed flower collection, it would be like crushing a raw steak between the pages of Dear Diary. However, that is the beauty of being primarily wind pollinated. One does not have to worry about being attractive. Perhaps when test tubes and foetus banks have liberated human kind from the tyranny of sexual selection we too will be free to turn unhealthy shades of brown and exude strange yellow substances.

If anyone is still suffering from the fruit here is a colourful wall I spotted while crawling home.


Colour wall

In case you were wondering, Yarumo is part of the nettle family. Thanks for reading!


John of the Mountains

John Muir and the East Coast Botanist. Take it away, John.




Of Love and Other Dried Plants

In the east of Colombia my blood has turned the mosquitoes red.

They hang from the underside of leaves like fat, proboscidean rubies on a green necklace. Tiny mosquito mid-guts synthesising tiny proteolytic enzymes, hydrolyzing proteins into amino acids and delicious vitellogenin. They’re digesting, making yolk from my lipids, turning my corpuscles into eggs.

I’m writing this post from Bogota – home of the altitude headache – but down there, where its 38 degrees and sticky, the first of their offspring have already been born, a writhing, aquatic brood that was once entirely me. The ethics of the outdoors suggests we leave no trace, pass over the land like a shadow, but I’m sweaty, English and O+, the tastiest flavour, in these past three years I must have been responsible for a hundred million mosquito births.

If we use peak-itching (just past) as a prenatal calendar then we should expect a major hatching in Guainía somewhere towards the end of next week. There, my insectoid reconfigurations will split their pupas in leaf cups, flooded boats and damp tree groins. It’s possible that some might emerge from the phytotelma of the Guacamaya superba – a thought as satisfying as a good scratch. My cephalothoratic babies could even now be flopping about in the self-made pond of the Flor de Inirida, one of Colombia’s most interesting plants.

A phytotelma is a waterbody held by a terrestrial plant. Pitcher plants use them for flesh melting, bromiliands for hydration. In the Guacamaya withered leaves cling to the stem and form a tank, their residual wax acting as a pond liner. Despite living in one of the world’s wetter places, and being fully submerged for months at a time, they use these for water storage. The Orinoco Savannah meets the Amazonian Rainforest above a band of white sand that forms Club Tropicana beaches on the region’s rivers and sucks moisture like a drain.

But, believe it or not, phytotelmata are not the reason we came to Inirida. We came for the hills. The Cerros de Mavicure, three monolithic lumps of rock that rise from the jungle like wheals on a tropical Englishman. Katherine and I spotted these igneous protrusions stealing the show at the end of el Abrazo de la Serpiente, and immediately planned a trip to see them. (If hills don’t turn you on The Embrace of the Serpent is still worth a watch. It has monomaniacal explorers and natives just brimming with psychedelic wisdom.)

We flew to Puerto Inirida. A town whose one road leads nowhere and whose municipal sculptures are all abstract, green-stemmed starbursts. One of the boatmen lounging on Don Raphael’s floating dock agreed to take us 50 kilometres upriver, providing he could find some petrol.

Mosquito-bitten garden blogger enters Don Rafael's floating dock

Mosquito-bitten garden blogger enters Don Rafael’s floating dock

The Inirida was wide and still, playing hard at being a lake. Crookbacked dolphins snorted between clumps of water hyacinth and in the shadow of the Cerros we found a woman butchering a turtle with a large machete. Lucas, our pilot, had better ways to spend an afternoon than walking uphill. He begged a bowl of the forthcoming turtle soup and left us in the hands of two silent and stern indigenous boys.

Los Cerros

Los Cerros

Soon to be soup

Soon to be soup

White sand river beach

White sand river beach

But this blog is about gardening, you say, not sightseeing. Where are the plants? One mention of water hyacinths two paragraphs ago and even that without a binomial. You might as well be reading the travel supplement! I agree. So let’s get back to Guacamaya superba. Those sculptures I mentioned earlier, the starbursts, they all turned out to be renderings of the Flor de Inirida and its characteristic inflorescence.

This spikey mace of crimson bracts was literally emblematic. Every local agency and departmental organisation used it in their logos. Unfortunately, I only found out the significance of the flower as we returned to town with the sun falling at equatorial speed. Lucas was no longer any use, he was a man of the river, built for Yamaha outboard motors and Don Raphael’s Formica chairs, we needed to go inland. Eventually we found Camillo who had a van and was willing to drive us the whole length of Inirida’s sole road – 10 kilometres.

The light was failing, we entered la hora de las picadoras, the hour of the bites, when winged things come out to feast. The road ended in a small indigenous community built around a river as clear and red as blackcurrant tea. We hurried on foot through rough fields of yucca brava (Manihot esculenta), deadly if ingested untreated but the only crop bull-headed enough to grow in the sand.

Like blackcurrant tea

Like blackcurrant tea

Camillo assured us he knew where the Flor de Inirida grew, but as we emerged from the cassava leaves onto Orinoco Savannah, with the next house three days’ distant in Venezuela, he admitted that he was wearing someone else’s glasses, his having fallen in a river, and that he might need some help. Even with a borrowed prescription it was hard to miss our plant. A clump of leaves like a large terrestrial bromeliad and a flowering spike as if alliums were designed by Nintendo.

This was the everlasting flower. Bright in death. In dried bouquets the red is said to keep for decades after plucking. Like Sierva Maria in Gabriel Garcia Marques’ Of Love and Other Demons, found within the crypt with her auburn hair a funeral shawl – it’s the colour that just won’t quit. Traditional flower arrangement has its own everlasters; eryngiums and echinops, limonium and teasel, but the Flor de Inirida’s desiccated fireworks stand up to the best of them, and what town ever built monuments to the teasel?

So Guacamaya superba has been ticked off and my time in Colombia is nearly over. Katherine and I are to return to London next spring where I will give up the arduous life of a diplomatic spouse and return to professional gardening. Before I leave there a few more plant pilgrimages to make, so watch this space. And please remember, as you sit down with your families this holiday, that thousands of miles from you, in a town with one road where the Amazon meets the Orinoco, my miracle mosquito babies are hatching.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all of you!

El Flor de Inirida

La Flor de Inirida


The Bogotá Bicycle Club

Every week I run a Google News search for “Gardener + Arrested”.  An unwritten journalistic law states that if a horticulturalist makes the news his profession must form part of the headline, e.g.; “Gardener Arrested in Midnight Raid” or “Pervert Gardener was Parkland Flasher”. Thus, with a simple two word search, I can check which of my former colleagues are currently working their way through the criminal justice system.

A pleasant upshot of this obsessive hobby is the exposure it brings to local police bulletins. Yesterday I read the crime reports from the San Jose Mercury for Thursday August the 7th and found:

“Terrace Drive, 7:22 a.m. Thursday, a female who found something brought it into the police station to find out what it was.”

“Trousdale Drive, 5:39 p.m. Thursday, a resident received a note from a neighbour containing threats directed at her gardener.”

“1525 Balboa Ave., 6:59 p.m. Thursday, a male got into an argument with a person whose dog urinated on his bike helmet.”

The threats towards a gardener, the bike helmet and the suburban nature of this report remind me of a novel I read years ago. The protagonist was a jobbing gardener who cycled around North London having run-ins with a threatening landscaping crew and getting into comic scrapes. It stuck with me because at the time of reading I myself was a jobbing gardener who cycled around South London, though I never really had any comic scrapes, I did dig up a liquefied dog in a plastic crate once, which you can make into good joke:

“My dogs sealed in an airtight box!”

“But then how does he smell?”


You can read all about my adventures as a bicycle gardener here. Having a documented history as a bicycle gardener I was interested to note that the vast majority of private gardening here in Bogota is carried out by bicycle gardeners. The traditional set up is something like this:

Bicycle Gardener

Bicycle Gardener

Note the strimmer strapped along the crossbar and the can of petrol on the back-pannier: this is no casual pot-fiddler. More impressive still are the mobile viveros selling pseudo-bonsai from a tricycle trailer as seen below:



I’ve decided not to join the ranks of the cycling horticulturalists out here, don’t want any “Gardener Squashed by Massive Lorry” headlines in the Bogota post.


Gran Colombia

I think I’ve been in Colombia for six months, though it’s impossible to be sure. I know I left London as the first daffodils were blooming at Chiswick House, but here on the equator we’re cut off from the vegetable calendar and Bogotá in July looks like Bogotá in December. I lose track of the months. I know one can track time’s passing using houseplants (three weeks for a new leaf on the young monstera deliciosa, seven for a new frond on the birds-nest fern) but New Leaf Day doesn’t feel the same as First Snowdrop Day does in the UK.

Colombia - no snowdrops

Colombia – no snowdrops

Before we moved here I knew one of the hardest things would be living without the underlying dramatics of seasonal change, but I also worried I’d miss familiar plants; old enemies and friends that I’d developed strong connections to over the years. Luckily, if somewhat bizarrely, my new barrio is planted almost entirely with standard-Mediterranean-issue Acanthus mollis – which rather softens the shock of the new. My theory is that in this conservative zona of Bogotá, where residents still attach an unfortunate importance to coming from European stock, people plant acanthus, the emblem of the Old World and icon of Rome’s Corinthian columns, as a coded way of saying “Europeans live here” – like that myth about swingers and pampas grass.

Statement of origin or not I’m happy to see the plant, we have a past. It was one of the 20 plants on my first nomenclature tests at horticultural college. I revised it with my girlfriend, repeating the syllables A-CAN-THUS over and over when they were just noises unattached to any image of leaf or flower. Before that, while it was still nameless greenery and I was studying medieval history at university, acanthus formed the ornate background to some of my favourite illustrated manuscripts, and later, working at the Garden Museum, Acanthus mollis was the first plant I propagated on any great scale, taking dozens of fat root cuttings from a sun-starved specimen that I found dying under an arbutus.

Illustrated Book of Hours with acanthus

Illustrated Book of Hours with acanthus


And as the weirdness of an entirely new floral palate is soothed by the presence of one familiar plant, so the thirst for seasonal change is quenched by movement. Here in Colombia you can drive for two hours and experience three separate seasons. An hour and twenty minutes from my apartment is the high alpine paramo with fog, frailejones and cold climate orchids; two hours in the other direction is scrubby hot country; over the hills and across the plains is the Amazon rainforest; to the north the Caribbean and the east the Pacific. The way I have spent my gardening life until now – waiting for buds to burst in the spring or the first tree to redden in the autumn – has been replaced by vegetation spotting, driving from cloud forests to tropical jungle trying to pinpoint exactly where the understory changes from myrtles to aroids.

Colombia has one of the highest rates of biodiversity in the world, and its highest rate of endemism – over 10% of its 130,000 plant species are found in this country alone. It has more orchids than anywhere in the world, is second only to Malaysia in palm species, has the tallest monocot species in the world – and shed-loads of acanthus. You’re reading this blog, so I guess you like plants. You should come and visit, I’ll be here for another 47 Monstera deliciosa leaves, approximately.

The Author with world's tallest monocots Ceroxylon quindiuense

The Author with the world’s tallest monocots Ceroxylon quindiuense


Days of Rage

This January Britain’s Gardens are bright with fury, our usually dull winter beds blazing with burst blood vessels and blue language, wisteria-pruning substituted for days of rage and wall-punching. My knuckles are weeping. You see, a water lily has been stolen from Kew Gardens.

The Daily Mail is characteristically in the vanguard of outrage, and asks: “As priceless lily is stolen from the botanical gardens, will thieves target your prize plants?” before helpfully informing its terrified readership that “Police officers in Scotland have expressed alarm at ‘work parties’ of illegal immigrants being used to steal sphagnum moss…, primroses and snowdrops” “with the proceeds being used to fund other criminal activity”. Now, I’m not a racialist, but illegal immigrants stealing our beautiful British tropical water lilies? Its modern man’s final slide into moral incontinence, innit?

Well, no actually. People have always stolen plants – because plants are lovely and people are not. I’d like to reassure any Daily Mail readers who might be looking at this blog that life is not actually getting worse – you’re just getting older and scared of change. So cheer up! Here are some comforting horticultural thefts from the good old days, when foreigners had manners and British snowdrops were the envy of the world.

In the autumn of 1849 a visitor to Dublin’s Glasnevin Gardens, made off with a large quantity of vegetables stuffed into his “unmentionables” and a melon under his top hat. For years the spectre of this audacious crime haunted the trustees of Glasnevin, and they used it to argue against working class admission for over a decade, presumably until they noticed that the post-famine proletariat seldom wore top hats. (Now, think about it, do Illegal immigrants wear top hats?)

An Audacious Felon

A Felon

Anyway, as hungry Irishmen wandered around with bulging trousers, across the channel the British were stealing the flora of six continents. The most famous Victorian botanical thief was Robert Fortune, a master of disguise who lifted great quantities Camellia sinensis from Sung-Low province while dressed as a Chinaman, establishing the Darjeeling tea plantations that still power this blog. His colleague Sir Clements Markham stole Peruvian saplings of the Caravaya tree, essential for the production of quinine, despite being explicitly warned that if he so much as touched a seedling “the people would seize him and cut off his feet”. (So you see, stealing plants is a great British tradition, joining in shows a willingness to integrate.)

Perhaps Kew could learn from the experience of Sir Clements and invest in some signs for the Prince of Wales Conservatory “Plantlifters will be dismembered”. Or they could spend the money on some decent antitheft devices like these from a patent application of 1936.

Patented anti-theft device.

Patented anti-theft device.

I actually find the idea of flowers chained to the ground rather artistic. Kew could use them to make one of their heavy-handed points about habitat loss. Of course water lilies are more vulnerable to theft than flowers or trees, because no-one has patented an underwater plant-chain, which is why they have electric eels in the amazon.

Anyway, digging in F. W. Christianson’s 1897 glossary of Micronesian imitative sounds – Notes from the Caroline Islands I found a reference to one Cherri-Chou-Lang. a minor deity who stole the Kava plant from the Feast of the Gods and brought it to Island of Ponope. Students of intoxication will know Kava to be a mild sedative, recently proved to be slightly more effective than placebos in relieving social anxiety. Its sale in the UK has been banned by the food standards agency since 2003.

Is this the link between plant theft and criminal activity that the Daily Mail alludes to? If so then its readers need not fear, there are barely any Micronesian immigrants to the UK, and those that are here won’t be imitating Cherri-Chou-Lang because they all got converted by 20th century missionaries. Now, like honest Anglican middle-Englanders, they believe that weed, cocaine, opium and tobacco were created by the Christian God.

I hope that’s put everyone’s mind at ease. Yes the theft of the water lily was a bad thing, but not a new thing, and we can rest assured that the perpetrator probably has very wet pockets. Once he has been caught we can cut off his feet, but until then let’s all get back to pruning wisteria.

Water Lilies

Water Lilies


Breaking the Mould

At university I lived with a man who had three-quarters learnt how to wash clothes. He could load a machine, choose a detergent, select a cycle (the hard bit) and press the go button, but never remembered to go back and collect his laundry. It would sit damp in one of the communal machines until he ran out of socks, sometimes over a fortnight later.

He was the loveliest chap, but his clothes were ever-speckled with black mould, a purely cosmetic condition which some people seemed to find off-putting. I’ve thought of him often over the last few days, because unfortunately I now have my own unsightly cosmetic condition that looks a lot like his.

I have sooty mould.

My particular sooty mould is on the glass house camellias (for those of you unfamiliar with the Chiswick House Camellias you can read about them here http://www.chgt.org.uk/?PageID=211) which is a disaster because in six weeks we have our annual Camellia Festival, and the public will demand dark green, glossy leaves – leaves by L’Oreal – not matt-black, mould-mottled, undergraduate-T-shirt-style leaves.

Unblemished Camellia Japonica

Unblemished Camellia Japonica

Luckily sooty mould is a surface condition that does not harm really harm the plant. It’s the visual manifestation of Ascomycete fungi feeding on the honeydew excreted by our Chiswick House Aphids. Usually it’s a summer problem and is washed off by the rain. But we have no rain in the glass house, and we can’t blast the mould away without knocking off the heavily pregnant buds. So we are washing the leaves, by hand, each and every one.

I don’t really mind this slow methodical work. It bonds me to the past horticulturalists of Chiswick House. I’m only the latest in a line of gardeners stretching back centuries to have stood in this conservatory and day dreamed from a stepladder. It gives me the opportunity to think about long forgotten university friends and about their washing, it’s an exercise in the voguish art of mindfulness, and should be sold as therapy to burnt-out bankers. It also gives me the opportunity to put headphones in and practice my Spanish.

This linguistic skiving is actually very important, because next month I’m handing over my stepladder and leaving Chiswick House for Colombia. My highflying diplomatic girlfriend is taking up a post at the British Embassy in Bogota and I’ll be based out there for the next three or four years. I plan to post a round-up of my time in UK horticulture before I leave, but more importantly I intend to carry on working with plants in whatever capacity I can, so if any of my international readership hears rumours of things growing Down South – send me a tip off.

Until then it’s back to those Camellias…


The Author in Search of New Plants

The Author in Search of New Plants


10 gardening books

When a TV production company invites you in to chat about becoming a sexy celebrity gardener, the first thing they ask is “so, what’s your thing?” I told them my thing was gardening, and they never called me back. Turns out that they had been looking for someone who had a more marketable gimmick; they wanted The Breakdancing Gardener, or The Surrealist Gardener. So my program “The Gardening Gardener” never got made.

A similar thing happened with this blog. A friend who works in publishing sent it to her friend in gardening books. The first I heard was when the publishers emailed to say that although they loved the blog and the writing, they couldn’t see what my point was, and it’s hard for them to sell a pointless book (I paraphrase).

They are, of course, completely right. So with that in mind and an eye to publication I’m submitting a list of 10 potential gardening books with very clear points, books that in television parlance “have a thing”.

1. Learn to Garden The Aztec Way
Learn when to sow and harvest using the natural rhythms of the tonalpohualli calendar and blood divination.

2. Grow Yourself Thin!
Plant a new skinnier you today with these amazing fat busting plants. Learn to grow Erythroxylums and Nicotianas and much much more.

3. Crystal Palaces
Fiction. The secret history of the passionate yet forbidden romance between the enigmatic yet tender 6th Duke of Devonshire and his mercurial yet earthy head gardener Joseph Paxton – erotic yet taxonomically correct.

4. The Great British Rot Off
A wry look at Islington’s competitive composting scene.

5. Gone with the Wind
Anemophily and Allergic rhinitis – a history.

6. The Wardian Case
Fiction. When a famous plant hunter is found dead in a sealed glass box renowned Victorian scientist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward must use all his gardening nouce to solve the case.

7. Mummy, why is that tree dead?
A guide to gardening with children

8. Mealy-bugs and Mojitos
Fiction. Plant scientist Poppy Greenway is having the time of her life in London’s gardens and bars when her world is shaken by an outbreak of waxy aphids and the arrival of brooding pest control technician Daniel de Oscuro.

9. Orchid Hunting in Iceland
An insider’s guide to high-street plants.

10. Pound Pounds Ponds
The poet-critic Ezra Pound’s best writing on garden ponds. “No man understands a deep pond until he has seen and lived at least part of its contents.”

I’m sure I could have any of these written in time for the Mothers Day market – so if you feel like publishing do get in touch.