In Praise of Folly

Contrary to the popular opinion, mans greatest asset is not his ruthless ambition, nor his dexterity, nor even (dare I say it?) the ability to garden. No, mans greatest wealth lies in his capacity for happiness. There is no commodity that spreads so widely or so quickly as happiness, or that brings so much good with it. As my old friend Robert Louis Stevenson often remarks ‘A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than a five pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of goodwill; and their entrance into the room is although another candle had been lighted.’ Quite so Robert. Who cares how talented you are? How many millions of pounds you pocketed last month? How magnificent your beard is, and how well you wear it? If you spend your life radiating misery you are of far less value to mankind than the common or garden grinning dolt.

Happiness spreads

Now I realise that shouting ‘come on be happy!!’ into the electronic void is not the answer to the world’s problems. People need to be made happy, and people are made happy by different things. From a vigorous and empirical period of self-study I have discovered these different things are follies! Lots of different types of folly! Can there be any greater joy than in planning a Greco-Roman Temple to go next to the tool shed? Or sneaking a 100ft pagoda-cum-vulture-house past the planning officers? Could there be any better or happier way to spend your retirement and all your savings than on a three-quarter-size replica of a ruined medieval castle for your front garden? I genuinely think not.

I plead with anyone who is reading this and feeling slightly miserable, unloved or pointless to start planning a folly. You will be doing yourself a huge favour, but more importantly you will be doing me a favour by making the world a slightly more cheerful place.

A folly in the ruined vein

But where to start? Hard landscaping is something that has come to the fore in garden design recently, sleek materials and stylish surfaces abound, take a look round Chelsea Flower Show and you will see that there are a lot of talented people taking great care over shiny finishes, but these features are just the fodder of the hard landscaping world, they are its lawns. It is important to have a nice lawn, a bad lawn can even ruin your garden, but no ones going to come round just to look at your lawn, no one is going to sit for hours writing poetry about your lawn, no celebrities are going to name their children after different varieties of your lawn, we’re in it for the flowers!! It is the flowers that bring us happiness, and the folly is the flower of the hard landscaping world. It has no purpose but beauty, there is no vulgar practicality about the structure to sully it with worldly concerns, it is a monument to the imagination alone. Don’t look to the gardens shows for inspiration on what folly to use and what to build it with; instead look at your own secret and probably quite embarrassing perversions.

Similarly when planning your garden folly make sure you do not simply run out and buy an off the peg folly, that will not make you happy, that is not even a folly, its a stone Wendy House. Your folly must be yours and yours alone. It must be a testament to your own quixotic obsessions. Like Man United? Then build a replica of Old Trafford. Like Spinal Tap? Then build Stonehenge. This must be something that you can spend decades pottering about in, modifying and muttering about, to the eternal despair of your family. Your models in this endeavour should be Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim from Laurence Stearn’s Tristram Shandy who spend their dotage happily building replicas of great European fortresses of the 1680’s on a bowling green behind their cottage.

I myself do not even have a corporeal folly; I have nowhere to put it. But have a mental folly (several mental follies) and it is in these that I delight. Join me as I wander around with an idiotic beam, my head lost in the forests of Renaissance Germany and I can guarantee the world will soon be a slightly better place.

The world delights in a well constructed folly

 

Nelson’s Stump(ery)

Nelson with stump

Last week I headed out under leaden London skies to see Nelson share his square with some other dead heroes, as Angela Palmer brought her mobile lumberyard ‘Ghost Trees’ to the capital. This fantastic instillation aims to highlight the issue of deforestation by emphasising the void between the stumps and crowns of legally logged rainforest giants. A wonderful piece of public art conducted in the name of a pressing cause, for more information visit http://www.angelaspalmer.com.

The National Gallery with stump

To make a change though, I’m going to skirt all horrendous global crimes committed in the name of hardwood and focus this post on the upside of deforestation. There is quite obviously a surplus of trees stumps around the equator. They no longer have anything sitting on top of them and they are, to state the obvious, dead wood. If they had any use we wouldn’t see them being offloaded on to the artistic community. I propose that as a nation we make use of Angela’s fantastic contacts and create an area of public greenery to rival the Royal Parks. The last time I phoned up Westminster council and proposed turning Trafalgar Square in to traditional Victorian stumpery they treated me with derision. But now the avenues have been opened to us, Ms Palmer has done all the legwork in securing transport and insurance links, finding loggers and crane operators, and all we need to do is start-stockpiling ferns.

Trafalgar Square is approximately 100,000m2, so obviously I’m not going to be able to build the stumpery all by my self. To that end I will now give a brief lesson on stumpery construction, so that anyone who wants to come and help will be able to join in seamlessly.

To build a stumpery all one needs are stumps, ferns and yoghurt. Chuck the stumps in willy-nilly and accessorise to taste (I like romantic visions of the medieval, so will be building a hermits grotto in mine, but you can go sleekly modern with black marble monoliths or classical with lots of naked men). The ground does not need to be particularly well prepared as generally the woodland plants grown in stumperies like a fairly poor soil, manure will be too rich, but digging in well rotted leaf mould into compacted or stagnant earth (such as that of Trafalgar Square) could be helpful.

The next step is to add your ferns. If you want to be truly authentic in making a late Victorian stumperery you will have to spend at least six-months becoming increasingly obsessed to the point of monomania with all things fern. Once you have driven all possible friends and lovers away with your obsessive frond fancying, have replaced your television with a fern growth chamber and spent at least a month clambering around Cumbria with a trowel, you will have enough specimens to start planting. Others can visit a specialist fern nursery such as Long Acre Plants or Fernatix. Plant your collection into all available shady nooks and crannies.

A Victorian growth chamber

Finally, coat with yoghurt to encourage mosses and lichen, and sit back to see your previously shaded and neglected patch of garden (/tourist attration) transform into a tumbledown woodland wonderland.

 

The Beast from the Sea

Last Friday I had the good fortune to attend a small talk from one of those horticultural titans who make up the RHS trials committee. For those of you who don’t know, the RHS or (Royal Horticultural Society) regularly hold trials in their Wisley coliseum in which they pit various plants against the ecological gods and mother nature herself. The blood soaked winners of each trial should be as good as sainted, for they are given the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM).

RHS plant trial

However it seems that something is rotten in the state of Woking, for during the course of the very interesting and informative slide show it came out that this is not so! The AGM does not have the cultural currency it deserves. The world does not know the AGM and the world is poorer for it. So, I have a proposal….

As we know Gardener’s world is currently in crises, no one knows if they are sexing-up, or if they are dumbing-down, if Titchmarsh is returning or if expenses have been fabricated. Even I don’t know what’s going on and I regard myself as one of the keenest cultural commentators commenting daily. So I propose a rethink! A new format!! An extravaganza!!! The greatest show the world has ever seen!!!! Gardeners World meets the X-factor, live from Wisley, in…. the AGM-factor!!! ITV and Channel 5 will be crushed beneath our heels as this reality TV come gardening behemoth strides across the prime time schedule. Simon Cowell and Toby Buckland will be smashed up and hybridised, and Simon x bucklandea shall rise from the ocean. Seven trumpets will blow and seven seals shall break and Britain will lose a billion man-hours to azalea related gossip.

Simon x bucklandea

This format will also help with the RHS’s other perennial problem, their ageing subscription base. With 24-hour web-cam footage broadcast from the buddleia beds being watched day and night by millions of teenagers across the globe, corporeal visits to Wisley Garden (or AGM factor live, as it shall be renamed) will explode. Tickets will change hands for thousands of pounds on ebay. Nursery owners will no longer have long and hard, but ultimately rewarding careers dedicated to their particular floral loves, but will develop one successful cultivar then die aged 29 of a cocaine induced heart attack . Gardening will never be the same again! Vive la Revolution!!

Does anyone have any contacts in the media, or know how to write a pitch?

 

My family and Other Shrubs

A heated pub discussion yesterday has moved me into to areas psychoanalytic, specifically the current (/century old) vogue for blaming your myriad personality defects, faults and disorders on your parents. Now I don’t want to take sides either for or against the lazy, self-deluding, determinism loving, cop-outs who take refuge in this argument (hubris courtesy of my father, thanks dad!).  But I have noticed in my travels through the Great World of Garden Blogging that a lot of people passionate about gardening list childhood days helping out in their mother’s/father’s/grandparents’ gardens as when they ‘caught the bug’. Are the gardens of our childhood something that we seek to recreate, to escape, or are they entirely irrelevant?

test2

Lazy copout?

Without further ado, an investigation into parental influences on gardening preferences using Ben of Bengarden as a case study.

My mother and fathers attitude to gardening could not be more different. My mother is a very keen and knowledgeable gardener, adept at making the most of her small plot by balancing colour, texture and form. My father has a large garden dedicated to growing competition standard brambles (and nettles, and a rhododendron). If anywhere in the recesses of my super-ego lurks platonic ideal of ‘garden’ it probably lies somewhere between the two. A foliage filled thicket of fragrant flowers, with patches of debauched wilderness  giving off faint hints of ruined Aztec temples and pagan grottoes. Could this be a legacy of my formative years? Or have I just described the quintessential English garden; cottage style garden planting with a nod towards the romantic style?

ideal

Platonic ideals

Inconclusive. On to plant fetishes and phobias.

My mother and I both generally dislike variegated plants (particularly garish Euonymus sp. and the dreaded Aucuba japonica) however we both dislike looking at vomit, and would not consider that an inherited trait. We also like flowering climbers, autumn colour and ferns, but then who doesn’t? My father and I have never really discussed plants, but we do share a passion for carving tree stumps into anatomically correct phallic totems, this however has no place in a psychoanalytic discussion (Sigmund who?). I sincerely believe that all the plants I love I have stumbled upon and grown affectionate towards of my own free will.

Is there anybody out there who can help me in my investigations? Are you turning into your mother? Has your life as a gardener been one protracted period of teenage rebellion? Do you feel the pulsating of a great ancestral earth spirit in everything you do?  Let me know.

 

Gardening to Paradise

A discerning member of my New York readership has sent me a roundabout request for more poetry (so moved was he by my version of daffodil’s that he has asked me to be best man at his yet to be announced, scheduled, planned or proposed wedding*).

Unfortunately my creative pores have ceased to weep, so we shall have to make do with a little bit of William Blake writing on his garden (or at least I think he was writing about his garden, what else could provoke such emotion in a grown man?).

When I first married you, I gave you all my whole soul,

Thought that you would love my loves & joy in my delights,

Seeking for pleasures in my pleasures O Daughter of Babylon,

Then thou wast lovely, mild and gentle, now there art terrible,

In jealousy & unlovely in my sight, because thou hast cruelly,

Cut off my loves in fury till I have no love left for thee,

William Blake, Milton

Now here Oor Wullie touches on an area that is sadly neglected in modern garden writing, the fact that mother nature is viscous mean and capricious in the extreme. She teases us with glimpses of gorgeous wildflower meadows, tropical waterfalls cascading with ferns, parakeets and monkeys, and then gives us this.

SDC10313

Thou wast lovely, mild & gentle

(Yes, it’s my garden. No giggling. I only moved to this house a month ago and I still have a long way to go in my campaign to build a garden Arcadia. I also rent and am exceptionally impoverished, being riddled with expensive addictions and all, so I’m trying to restore this fallen Eden on a budget of about £13. More on my garden in later posts.)

It must be recognised that a love of gardening is an extremely heavy cross to bear. Blake was clearly a man gardening in dry shade and heavy clay. He felt like me the pain each year as circumstances (slugs, ill timed holidays, house parties (I believe I read some where that the Blake’s threw a bangin’ house party)) contrived to destroy his most precious progeny. Gardens have sentience, and each an individual nature, like humans some are bright, cheerful, accommodating, and helpful. Others are little buggers.

However I believe the key to gardening in an environment that hates you lies in another piece of Blake’s writing; “He who binds himself to joy doth the winged life destroy, but he who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity’s sunrise.” Remember that all life in your garden is fleeting, do not build your existence solely around your (admittedly magnificent) herbaceous borders, one day they too will leave you and your garden will be as barren as mine. However I took my pleasure in that sole annenomie that meekly showed her head through the cracks in my patio, I let her wither and I moved on, I had a Barbeque. That my dears is how my poor gardening and rubbish soil has lead me to write this from a paradise of eternal sunrise.

*To all interested parties, I make an amazing best man and come replete with a comprehensive catalogue of amusing anecdotes, horticultural and otherwise. For bookings please contact me via the replies screen.

blake

William Blake - Gardening in poor soil

 

And do Gardeners Dream of Electric Sheep? (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love GM.)

Following yesterday’s revelation that the space garden is now within touching distance I thought it appropriate that today’s post be an investigation into the gardens of the future.

Now a lot of people (particularly in the gardening blogosphere) envisage the garden of the future as a completely organic and carbon neutral wonderland, where small allergy-free children can gaily frolic with Arcadian nymphs (and all shall have prizes). An admirable sentiment, and deserving of applause. However has anyone stopped to ask the children what they want? I have, and they want space monsters. So with out further ado I give the garden of the future.

Firstly, my garden will be based around a solar-powered-rainwater-collecting-mega-supertree. Like the ones designed here for a new community garden in Singapore.

supertrees

City living

The super tree will dominate the skyline of Putney, proudly rising above the municipal housing and local churches, neighbours will complain and dynasties will fall, but it’s solar power generating so I will have the backing of the right thinking majority. At the top of my 20 story mega-tree (or monstrosotree) will be that Putney staple, the outdoor dining set. However this will be a living dining set, genetically modified to fit 8 of my closest friends, some wine and a loaf of foccacia, while still producing leaves and oxygen, never again will I have to climb over the neighbours fence to find an attractive centre piece for my table! I will email the scientists and get them to engineer me leaves with fantastic autumn colour, all year round. Visit http://www.plantware.org/about.htm to find more about space age living furniture.

Toilet1

GM for the smallest room

These innovations are set to change our cities and gardens forever. Do not think of them as evil but learn to love and embrace them, yes Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster were scary at first, but now see the joy they bring to millions every Halloween. The world is in a mess and climate change is undeniable, but that does not mean that we as gardeners have to revert to Luddite fantasies of small holdings and vegetable patches. Gardens have always been a canvas for romantics and dreamers to live out their fantasies. My fantasy unfolds 100ft above the southwest London on a biotable, who here will stand between a man and his dreams?

 

Is There Gardening on Mars?

I know that everyone reading this will have had a childhood dream; some of you may even have shared mine, to be a Space Gardener! So you will all know the pain of realising that you will never, ever, ever, accomplish the one thing that could have made your life worthwhile. I finally acknowledged that I would never be a 0G horticulturalist at the age of 18 on the first day of my degree (BA, History). Some sort of internal spark fizzled out in me that day and I though it would never return. Well… its back!!!

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8334688.stm

O.K its not really being a space gardener but it is as close as I think we (/I) can hope to get. A satellite to tell you whether you plants need watering, certainly beats going outside and checking. I can guarantee that the interminable debate over chemical pesticides VS organic controls will be halted forever when we can simply blast aphids with laser beams from space. Their aint no halting science.

 

Garden Style

As a Garden Blogger I’m naturally on close terms with a lot of the UK’s top models and celebs, and these enchanting butterflies are always saying to me; ‘Ben, I’d love to spend more time in my garden, and god knows I need to, but I don’t know what to wear.’

Oh you pretty things, fear no more, here is the definitive guide on what to wear and what not wear in your garden.

rod mel

Melida, the flower that burned too bright

Firstly, don’t dress to bright! Melinda Messenger is constantly whinging on to me that her fantastic Frank Lloyd-Wright inspired prairie garden is not given the attention it deserves. Well no wonder Melinda! No one can bloody see it, tone down the colours, tone down the smile and your garden will shine.

rod2

Impractical

Now this young model has got the idea, simple clothing in simple colours, I often wear something very similar myself when I’m mowing the lawn, however I’m experienced enough to have more than one outfit for the garden, if you’re a model buying your first gardening outfit do not make it this one! Think about when you have to prune the Pyracantha

If your planting roses don’t stand in the hole when the press come round, you’ll look like a wally.

rod garden

Rod - stood in a hole?

Finally, think about a moustache. These guys have the right idea, simple colours, just the right amount of flesh on display, and all stood on level ground, but its the moustaches that really make them gardeners.

rod3

Chelsea first XI

 

The Tree Ogham

As a Garden Blogger, people often ask me, ‘Ben, how do I make a Sacred Ogham Stick?’ normally I laugh if off, tell them that they’ve got Garden Bloggers and Semi Mythical Dark Age Celtic Druids mixed up again. But as it’s raining and I can’t do anything to the leaf mould, I think a brief diversion into the woollier side of garden theory may be in order.

According to its devotees the Tree Ogham was a Celtic alphabet, with each letter symbolised by a specific tree. The alphabet is made up of 20 trees from birch (representing re-birth, new journeys and change) to yew (representing death, the never ending cycle and access to the spiritual realms). The Tree Ogham not only represents a means of communication between members of Celtic tribes – but is also a means of communicating with trees themselves, allowing the devotee to form a spiritual link with the tree, this is done using an Ogham Stick. I shall now tell you how to make an Ogham Stick.

hawthorn1

Hawthorn, embodyment of love, the heart and cleansing

  • ‘Make each stick as you make contact with each tree. If you find a recently cut branch that you can cut you stick from, that is good, but do not use old wood that is lying around under the tree. It is important that the stick has the vibrational essence of the tree contained within it, and so it is better to ask the tree for a stick. Truly listen to the trees response. If you feel a strong sense of no, you won’t be able to cut, but be patient, you might be led to where there is recently cut wood, or try another tree on another day.’
  • ‘Remember always to thank the tree and to treat the tree with love and respect. This attitude has a clear positive effect on both the trees and ourselves and helps to build a bond of friendship.’
  • ‘With the secatuers, cut a straight piece of wood about 1cm in diameter and 8-10cms long… leave it outside for a week or two to dry out. Then shape it, carve it, sand it, whatever you decide to do, the Ogham symbol [for the tree that it came from] may be carved on inked or painted’
elder

Elder, transformation and regeneration, 'the wisdom of an elder'

There you go, you have now made an Ogham stick and you are ready to begin communicating with the trees. Just hold the stick and do what comes naturally. Enjoy.

All information and quotes come from Glennie Kindred’s The Tree Ogham (ISBN 0-9532227-2-1). Believe in Oghams or not, it is a book well worth having purely for the wonderful author-drawn illustrations.

Next time I design a garden the trees themselves are going to have just as much input into where they are positioned as the client, (especially the very sexy hawthorn tree).

As a final point, a comparison between Glennie and Addison’s (see below) views on deforestation, how times change. Try to guess whose is who’s, a free daffodil bulb to the first correct answer.

  1. ‘Their [the trees] supreme gift, the air we breathe, needs the greatest recognition of all. We have come a long way from the Celtic tribal understanding that everything is interconnected, and all of life is in a delicate balance. The earth is sick, the air is bad, the water is polluted, the trees are dying, and yet the industrial and chemical madness runs barely checked.’
  2. The increase in forest trees does by no means bear a proportion to the destruction of them, insomuch that in a few ages the nation may be at a loss to supply itself with timber sufficient for the fleets of England.