In Search of Lost Camellias

The peony flowered camellias are opening in our North London garden, and as always they have set me on edge. One becomes emotionally entangled with certain plants, odd species that over the years come to carry strange sentimental heft. Each gardener will have their own unique gremlins, and these camellias are mine. The Daphnes and Witchhazel are also flowering, but these plants, though superior in many ways, never seem to punch me in the psychic gut the way the first overblown camellia buds of spring do.

Being intellectually tied to hybrid camellias for all eternity is a burden to me, because I can’t stand the bloody things. The flowers are far too big and after the sombre refinement of winter they crash like sunlight on hung-over eyes.  Give me snowdrops, give me viburnum – just ease me gently into spring. They also rot in the bud and brown so quickly that before they fully open they resemble a corsage of six-week old salad.

But there are plenty of overbred plants I’m on not keen on; why then the camellia connection? I think it’s all to do with the corpus amygdaloideum, that little pear-drop sized piece of temporal lobe that processes memory and emotional reactions. To put it in Wikipedia speak: “sensory stimuli (read glimpses of camellia) reach the basolateral complexes of the amygdalae, particularly the lateral nuclei, where they form associations with memories of the stimuli.” So when I see this plant I am synapticly hijacked, routed unthinkingly to a group of memories which manifest themselves as the punch in the psychic gut, the sentimental heft.

corpus amygdaloideum

corpus amygdaloideum

So what are these semi-repressed camellia flashbacks that bestride my every spring? Well….

There was a large hybrid camellia in the garden of the house I grew up in. It was hollow in the way that most large shrubs are (leaves on the outside, branches on the inside and all that), but being the only mature shrub in a garden filled with single stemmed trees and mono-dimensional herbaceous material, it seemed the platonic ideal of a den – a properly interactive bit of garden you could get inside. Which is what we did: it became the base of the Dark siblings.

Each year it would flower heavily – no doubt a stress reaction to all the small children arsing about in its innards – and we would collect the many petals of the huge double pink flowers to make potions. One summer we decided to make perfume and so we filled a tub with the petals, mashed them up with a stick and left to mature into eau de wonderful.

After a while it became obvious that even our mother, who always happily endured badly whittled sticks and painted rocks as birthday presents, would never so much as pretend to wear the foul gunk we had created, and so the perfume became a poison.

We added whatever we could from wherever we found it; wasp killer from inside the shed, a dead pigeon from on top of the shed, petrol, grass clipping and lots of wee. The mix was stirred and topped up all summer before we decided to tip it down the drive. The gunk was of the first order of foulness, a stench that will live forever in my nostrils. Who’d have thought that camellia blossom, rotting flesh and urine could smell so bad?

My second camellia memory is from the first garden I ever got paid to work in. My primary task one frigid February morning was to clear up the fallen blooms of a towering peony-flowered camellia that had been hit by sudden frost and persistent rain. I had not brought any gloves with me, and was too green and timid to ask the homeowner for some. I can still feel the sensation of plunging my bare fingers into that brown freezing mess of decaying petals.

Given my growing negative links with the hybrid camellia, one would think that I would choose to stay away from them.  Instead, in an inspired piece of self-sabotage, I chose to bond myself with them forever. When I decided to become a professional jobbing gardener I designed some flyers. They were fine things with a facsimile of a Dürer woodcut, some copy about being a student of the horticultural arts, a photo of me looking charming and non-threatening and another picture: a picture of a hybrid camellia.

The Flyer

The Flyer

I had panicked: I needed a picture of a plant to remind potential clients what gardeners do and had run into the garden and snapped the first one I found. I got 5000 flyers printed. 5000 times I saw that camellia disappear into letterboxes and 5000 times I worried that the occupant would never phone me, that I had made the wrong choice and that I never should have given up my job. 5000 individual moments of horrible self-doubt all auto-associated with that one blancmange pink camellia flower.

So if while we walk in the winter garden you hear me quietly cursing, do not me think me mad.  It’s just those flowers over there – they’re in my brain talking to me of cold slime, rejection and rotting pigeon.

Gosh, well if you read all of that you deserve a reward – here’s a song about falling in love with a cactus.



Saving Gardens from Art

The internet harbours staggeringly wide range of crusaders, desperados, and Broad-Band Supermen. Mix them up with some perverts, narcissists, stalkers and fantasists and you have the plankton of the great online Sea, even giant websites like Facebook and Ben’s Garden are built on the energy flowing from these tiny insignificant digital archetypes. Of the various Online Justice Leagues striving to rebuild the world as a better place the one currently hanging out Thinking Gardens is to me the most interesting.

Readers of the online UK garden media will be aware of their essential argument. That some gardens are serious artistic pieces and deserve critical recognition as such. The garden as art is a rare beast, but it exists, and at Thinking Gardens they argue that art-gardens need all the trappings of established art – including a new critical language and crucially a press willing to critically review gardens without having to resort to ‘and they sell lovely teas on Thursday afternoon’-isms.

A noble aim, keep fighting the good fight comrades! However, I take a functionalist view of art. If an object exists to be appreciated aesthetically, then it can be called art. My favorite mug shows a lovely picture of a Yorkshire terrier sitting on a tartan rug. I’m not really certain if I can call it art or not. My attitude towards the mug at any one time defines whether or not it is art. If, as I sometimes do, I place it on my piano and invite guests round to discuss what the mug is trying to say, its art. Shit art, but art. If I happen to be drinking tea from it – it’s a mug.

Thinking mugs

All that is needed to turn something into an art form is a group of people willing to engage with it from an artistic angle. If you have a set willing to aesthetically digest the subject, to discuss, dissect and squabble about it, you can call it art. Since beauty can no longer be regarded as an artistic criterion (nice one Picasso) interaction is all we have left. Gardens, mugs, urinals and soup cans; they’re all floating in the same leaky post-modern boat.

The problem though, with turning an object into art, is that you then can’t drink tea from it. For the critically artistic garden observer all the wonderful utilitarian things that people use a garden for are trashed. Playing Frisbee, stolen kisses, eating picnics, smelling flowers and (perish the thought) gardening, not part of the creative vision so out they go . Most people do not visit a garden, be it theirs, their friends or a publicly opened garden, to engage with it as a work of art. They go for a nice day out. Historic gardens are appreciated not for the inherent statements they make, but for the insight they give into the period of their construction, and for their staggering scale. There is an aesthetic element to the engagement, but it is the same X-factor that people are looking for when they visit a stately home. The building is appreciated aesthetically and architecturally but it is not a work of art. It is a magnificent building designed for a purpose, for people to live in, just as the magnificent garden was designed for the Georgian equivalent of Frisbee – strolling.

Legitimate Art

I am happy that gardens can be appreciated as art, but there is no need to evangelise  the garden media. Niche subjects enjoy niche circulation. People buying twee mail order mugs from the back pages of The Mail on Sunday Magazine don’t want to know about its profound but often overlooked narrative statement on the Battle of Boscome, they want to know it has a nice picture and holds hot fluid. People who read the mainstream gardening press want to know which gardens have nice flowers on bank holiday weekends and whether they sell cream teas. Cultural agendas cannot be forced on the unwilling, let the happy majority enjoy tips on frost resistant fuchsias and interviews with the television gardeners. Ignorance is bliss and most readers enjoy their blissful garden visits as they are. Gardens can be art but I’m afraid that the darker recesses of the internet will remain the proper place for their discussion as such.


Here’s a fine day — let us kill something

And so on to the Victorians, high-minded and heavily moustachioed exporters of British culture par excellence, and more specifically onto The Victorian Gardening Childhood, one that I missed by only century. Thank God.

I have long believed that the dominance of the British Empire was a not a consequence of industrialisation, navel supremacy or even Allan Quartermain, but was a direct result of the horticultural education of the Victorian young. Children of the nineteenth century were started on their botanical studies early, and their education was a disciplined and rigorous one. Jane Loudon’s The Young Gardeners’ Yearbook published in 1855 is typical in its advise that the principle tool in the young gardeners arsenal should be the budding knife, that beds should be carefully measured out by the child using pegs and string, and that fanciful shapes should be avoided as they hinder planting in straight lines. She informs the lucky recipient of her austere almanac that propagation from bud  is not a technique to be undertaken sloppily, and that the summer months will require strenuous labour on behalf of the child to obtain a neat and therefore perfect garden. With a childhood so overbearingly dull and structured as this it’s no wonder that adult Victorians desired nothing more than to join the army and gad about the world conquering and subjugating and picking up venereal diseases. It’s what I’d have done.

A Jane Loudon Illustration

So it has been refreshing to find a Victorian garden writer who shares the same views I do, the great Samuel Reynolds Hole, Dean of Rochester. This is a man who understands that when a schoolboy wakes up on a balmy summers dawn, he does not gleefully rush down to weed his geometrically correct spinach plantation, but in the words of Charles Lamb, he exclaims: ‘Here’s a fine day — let us kill something’. Children have short attention spans, they had short attention spans before playstations were invented, and they will have short attention spans when all the playstations are recycled and Britain is turned into one giant eco-friendly non carbon emitting bean farm (throwing beans, stealing beans and finding amusingly phallic beans will then become the new childhood plague to worry over-concerned adults who long for the simple halcyon days of their own childhood, where they spent happy days surfing the internet and never threw a bean from year to year – just you watch). Children can’t be forced to garden; they must come to it of their own volition, as an adult and through a series of lifestyle revelations (read disillusionments).

The great Dean knew this well, author of the seminal A Book About Roses, he writes of his own childhood attitude to gardening that:

I recall a period when, in the enthusiastic language of youth, all the recreations which I liked were “ripping” and all those which I disliked were “rot.” The man who ventured to admire such ordinary rubbish as scenery, sunsets, and flowers, was denounced as a “duffer,” and his conversation was “bosh.”

This Dean truly speaks the language of youth!

Reynolds Hole also understands that not everyone will appreciate a garden in the same way writing:

I asked a schoolboy, in the sweet summertide, “what he thought a garden was for?” And he said, Strawberries. His younger sister suggested Croquet and the elder Garden-parties. The brother from Oxford made a prompt declaration in favour of Lawn Tennis and Cigarettes.

Any scorn is reserved for adults who purported to be visiting his garden and then spent their time admiring such things as brickwork, or gossiping about subjects non-floral. One particularly hurtful example is recorded in his book, while  eavesdropping on the conversation between two visitors to his garden,

I heard a lady speaking to her companion of “the most perfect gem she had everseen,” and when, supposing that reference was made to some exquisite novelty in plants, I inquired the name and habitation, I was informed that the subject under discussion was “Isabel’s new baby !” “Ladies,” I remarked, with a courteous but scathing satire, “I have been a baby myself, and am now a proprietor, but I am constrained to inform you that this is a private, and not a nursery, garden.”

I recommend anyone who has an hour spare track down a copy of Our Gardens and bathe in the knowledge of The Dean of Rochester. Some of his ideas on the history of British gardening are questionable (I doubt it was the Romans who first introduced vegetables to the natives of these Isles and weaned them off a diet of acorns) but if his account of the pleasures of returning to tend to your garden after a hard days work was leaked to The City I’m sure we would see almost immediate bankruptcy in all but a few of the capitals bars, nightclubs and brothels. So go, read and when you raise your offspring let them grow as children and not as gardeners, if they are destined to bear the trowel, they will find their own way there.

The Iceni Rebellion - fuelled by acorns?

The Iceni Rebellion - Fuelled by acorns.


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.


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, 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.