‘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…
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.
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.
An exciting start to the morning; Atlas the Titan, that famous bearer of celestial spheres, has a namesake in our garden who can’t hold up cold water, half an hour’s snow and our Cedris atlantica sheds limbs like Coyolxauhqui. Today they mostly fell on the folly – a homage to the Pantheon in fiberglass and concrete. Seeing opportunity in tragedy I drew an amusing comparison between our dented temple and the Third Punic War, severed Algerian Limbs, Roman Hubris ect, sadly none of my workmates seemed to hear.
After the break I retreated to an abandoned squash court to pot up dahlias and mentally rework my Punic quip. I’d just realised that the security guards, who might like to hear the joke, would probably need tipping off about the common North African origins of the Atlas Cedar and the ancient Carthaginians, when I plunged my hand into a crate of ‘Twyning’s After Eight’ and disturbed a nest of mice. We had dusted the tubers so each little mouse had a faint viridian tinge, a tiny nimbus of powdered sulphur that made them look like they were genetically engineered in that 1997 experiment. Luckily these GMfree mice were unharmed, just immune to Storage Rot.
Lunch over, quip undelivered, I visited a garden centre with one of my colleagues. We spent a happy half hour commenting on the high prices in an ostentatiously incredulous tone – “forty quid! For a tiny Sarcococa!” – While feeling smug about our wholesale discounts with specialist trade nurseries. We then realised that non-professional gardeners can afford to shop in garden centres precisely because they are not professional gardeners (Take a look at hortweek’s job page someday, “£16,000 must have 5 years’ experience and a recognised horticultural qualification”! It’s an outrage – write to your MP) so we bought a packet of plant labels and decided to train as yuppies.
Returning to work I drove the pick-up-truck across the snow-covered car park in a series of hypocycloid curves, creating an evocative vintage Spirograph pattern, had another cup of tea and went home.
Thus the horticulture was over for February 12, 2013. That day is done and we cannot go back – here’s to the 13th.
My greatest horticultural regret of 2012 was that I spent far too much time gardening, nearly thirteen thousand minutes all told, and so never got round to reading Fifty Shades of Grey.
Regret yes, but resent? No, because somewhere over the course of those 2160 gardening hours, many of which spent in a wet ditch, I learned something. Something no kinky billionaire could ever beat into me – I learned that if you plant Pachysandra in waterlogged soil it goes yellow. Happy New Year everyone!
Not enough? O.K, well since we’re already sharing deeply personal moments of epiphany on the internet we might as well continue. So here, dear reader is the first of my horticultural insights of the year just gone; I shall expect yours in the comments.
I learned…. The Imperative of the Mundane
This year I realised that building a good garden is a lot like hosting a successful party – after laying on nutrients it’s all about filling the place up. It can be tempting to just invite fun-loving, loud-mouth extroverts. Don’t. The few that do show up will clash horribly in the otherwise empty space, and no good party should end with its three sole guests fist-fighting in the utility room.
Instead what’s needed is a hefty contingent of nice, slightly dull but awfully reliable friends, among who carefully selected bon viveurs can flitter about looking good. Remember, success is all judged on Facebook these days, that filthy anecdote your old mate from uni just told won’t show up in a photo, but fifteen nice smiley girls from the office will.
And so for people as it is for plants. Cram em in, fill every corner! Let the bright and the beautiful do their thing in-front of an ever-dependable green backdrop. Make this the year of the boring space-filling screening plants, the Aucuba, the Fatsia and the cherry laurel. A garden of chest-thumping Nerines is worthless if they are trying to show-off to a manky chain-link fence and a glimpse of the bypass.
Just as those who consume large quantities of waxed Californian pornography often grow to be revolted by pubic hair, so those who dwell mainly in sky-scraping penthouses often fear the natural world. It’s only to be expected; for them plants only exist crisp and viridian in window boxes and vases, so to see the woods in Autumn is traumatic. Bits of the plants keep going brown and falling off, they’re like squalid vegetable lepers; it’s disgusting, repulsive, probably dangerous, certainly unhygienic, and “oh darling look there’s another leaf! call for the gardener!!”
They don’t realise that the gardener is a complex instrument and that to produce the sweetest music he must be finely tuned – body and mind working in perfect conjunction like a samurai. Recently I have become discordant, the folia-phobic super-rich have had me guarding them from leaves for up to eight hours a day, and my mind has ruptured – I have developed a leaf fetish.
Not fetish for leaf-sweeping, which will always be about a billion shades of tedious. (Once, God knows why, I was a panellist for a seminar on ‘volunteer management in the garden’. I said goodhearted volunteers should be forced to do boring repetitive tasks for months on end just because paid staff can’t be arsed. I mentioned leaf sweeping and a vastly more experienced panellist rejoined: “actually Ben, if you teach someone to sweep leaves properly, they will be grateful and happy to work at it for long periods.” Nonsense then and nonsense now. Be aware readers, a well known garden in the South of England is lobotomising its volunteers). No, my fetish is for the fallen.
Previously my interest in Autumn colour had been conventionally arboreal; I liked ‘em red and hanging off a tree. But now I have been conditioned to see a fallen leaf not as a pragmatic reaction to diminishing light levels, but as mother nature’s “up-yours” to the international oligarchy and I seem to find delight in everywhere they pile.
You see, leaves once fallen cede so much to the garden, they dislocate familiar vistas, they give movement to the static, they crunch most pleasantly underfoot, they hide all the mistakes and casualties of summer, and they bind a garden to the calendar as evocatively and as essentially as deep snow or golden daffodils. Our latitude has blessed us with four seasons and our gardens must be allowed to express them all. If Autumn is ever to compete with coquettish spring She must not just wear Her coat of many colours, but throw it to the floor and romp wantonly on it.
My favourite wanton days are the very windy and the very still. When I leave my work in a gale and walk over Hampstead Heath to the station the leaves whip headwards like sniper rounds, blinding the joggers of Parliament Hill and burying their dogs under orange drifts. A nice bit of apocalyptic chaos to go with a paper cup of tea. While on the crisp calm days leaves fall straight from the boughs and lie in an exact circle under the branches, every tree mirroring itself perfectly on the grass. A field of sugar maples and prunus reflecting on the heath trumps any effect you could ever create with bloody cornus and lake-water.
In the distant future I hope to have gardeners of my own, and I know that come Autumn they will never be made to sweep up all day. Instead they can clean sparkplugs, plant bulbs and look forward to December when leaves are boring and I make them pick up every single one.
‘LAY DOWN ALL HOPE, YOU THAT GO IN BY ME’ is surely one of the most hysterically hyperbolic pieces of graffiti in the mythical world. Dante passed the Gates of Hell and came out fine, I’m sure the writing’s just there to stop journalists and family historians pissing about with the dead. I’m sure because I spent last Tuesday between the hours of 8am and 5pm in Hell – and now I’m sitting here typing this and drinking a cup of tea.
As a neurotically unrepentant sinner, I’ve spent many constructive hours pinpointing the exact spot in Dante’s vision of Hell where my eternal punishment is destined to take place. It’s actually not as simple a hobby as some might think. It seems that in Fourteenth Century Milan everyone had their sin and stuck to it; you decided ‘I’m a flatterer!’ and you bloody well knuckled down to flattering – it was a sin for life. In this age of universal health care, where bankers become plumbers and plumbers become simoniacs we all want to have our cake and eat it (Hoarders and Spendthrifts both). I know people who are capable of being gluttonous, wrathful, schismatic and lustful all in the time it takes them to eat breakfast.
I’d sort of decided that as a garden blogger whose own garden currently resembles the City of Dis itself, I’d belong in the Eighth Circle, Bowge vi, where the hypocrites trudge in gilded cloaks of lead. However whichever force orders my life experiences (God knows it aint me) decided that I should test drive the far less glamorous Third Circle – where the gluttonous wallow.
Yes, last Tuesday it rained all day. I spent the day engrossed in two tasks, switching from one to the other as each became intolerable. The first was rescuing a monstrous, unloved and mismanaged compost heap, thus I know how it is to garden while ‘huge hailstones, sleet and snow, and turbid drench/ of water sluice down through the darkened air,/ and the soaked earth gives of a putrid stench.’ My second sisyphean challenge was bramble clearance, so now I know exactly what gardeners do when raked by Cerberus’ talons: ‘They howl in the rain like hounds; they try to shield/ One flank with the other; with many a twist and squirm, the impious wretches writhe in the filthy field’. I have to say I am genuinely stunned at how accurately Dante describes a day in my gardening life 700 years before it happened. Spooky.
This miserable experience soaked my spirit so thoroughly it made me question for the first time Why I Garden. Certainly not for the money, there are easier ways to earn a far bigger crust than by gardening. What’s that I hear? Did someone say ‘Oh, but it must be lovely having a job where you’re outside all day’… I can bet if I was a professional beggar no-one would say that. Philosophically it can be argued that gardening is good for the soul, in fact Voltaire suggested that small time garden maintenance was the way to spend a perfect life (take that careers advisors!) as it keeps the individual ‘free of three great evils: boredom, vice and necessity’ hence the eponymous Candide’s eventual epiphany ‘we must tend to our garden’. Well it seems apparent that Voltaire never spent his days raking leaves so as to afford a trip to the pub. Ecologically, gardening is regarded as good, but I occasionally use pesticides and herbicides, and I’m sure the gardens I use them in would have a greater biodiversity if they were left completely fallow. So, why indeed?
And now it’s Monday night, almost a exactly a week since my hellish Tuesday, and the rain has started again. Heavy, persistent, thuggish sounding rain. I could give up, I could stay in bed tomorrow – maybe I could apply for a job in a nice warm bakery, I could make hot-crossed-buns all day, and go home smelling of cinnamon, not half decomposed vegetable matter. But I won’t (*Stirring music*) I shall not be beaten,I shall rise, strong of hand and firm of calf, I’ll stride to the window, throw it open, I’ll never be a baker! Never! And I’ll scream into the rain ‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens, brown paper packages, tied up with strings These are a few of my favourite things.’
You see, in the words of the great Julie Andrews: ‘whenever I’m feeling unhappy, I just try to think of nice things’. And there are certain things that make this job the best in the world. So to finish this post let us have a riot of glorious and flagrantly plagiarised (I don’t own a camera) pictures of flowers that have been cheering me up in the last few weeks.
Aquilegia formosa, this is self seeded all through a little plant filled garden I weed on Saturday mornings. picture stolen from www.portlandnursery.com
It seems the horticultural world has reached a consensus. A definitive accord has been thrashed out in the national potting shed (/internet) the proclamation – ‘gardening is good!’. Here hear, I too have seen the light! Gardening civilises the soul and steadies the mind. Studies have repeatedly shown its positive impact on vulnerable people’s mental wellbeing, on community cohesion and on public politeness.
So, how to capitalise on this perfect plantae panacea? The BBC runs Dig In, a vegetable forum designed to help horticultural virgins – good if you like free seeds and high taxes. Garden Organic has just launched the One Pot Pledge, which aims to get 30,000 of the horticulturally uninitiated growing pesticide free basil – good if you like pesto and slugs. Various community schemes, such as Project Dirt, aim to facilitate fields of fecund flora in places as farfetched as Camberwell and Croydon – good if you like beards and your neighbours. But really? License Fee Payers? Pesto Makers? Hippies? Boris Johnson?!? These people don’t need to be whipped into gardening, they probably all have four allotments already. No, As any hardworking mother will tell you, the group of people would most benefit from a little fresh air are the teenage boys.
Teenage boys are prone to mental health problems, antisocial behaviour, reclusiveness and couch-potato-ism. I can’t back this up at all, but I’m also pretty certain they are the demographic with the lowest occurrence of gardening per thousand people, probably about 0.005. They are the clump of people who most need to get growing, and they are the group I shall be aiming to help with my 2010 summer campaign, Get Boys Grafting, launched with little fanfare today on this website.
So how to get the sebaceous darlings gardening? How to get them out of their bedrooms? Not easy. As we all know teenage boys have two universal interests, computer games and internet pornography. Both are inherently bedroom based and garden incompatible.
Weaning them from pornography is just too cruel, and probably contravenes their human rights, so I don’t suggest we try that. However developers have tried to ease the transition from the digital world to the dig-it-all world in the past, by combining Massively Multi Player Online Gaming (MMPOGing) and gardening. GardenParty is one such attempt.
Now it’s been nearly half a decade since I was a teenage boy, but I’m certain that even in those innocent times I would not have been exited by the prospect of playing an online game of paper-scissors-stone with my gardening chums. This is not the right message to sent to juvenile delinquents about what us soil lovers get up to. What’s more it is indicative of the mistake made by the majority of the garden media in everything they have ever produced. It’s all home-knitted cardigans and Blue Peter dogs. Teenagers don’t like knitwear and faithful companions; they like lightning, dragons and death skulls. We need to make our image more like this.
Teenage boys need to know that gardening is essentially just about fighting. Not about fighting orks, or trolls, or griffins, or even sexy dark elves, but about fighting bindweed and slugs and hungry pigeons. This style of rebranding has been used effectively by the national parks; by disguising their nature walks as LARP quests (Live Action Role Play quests) they have tentatively began to encourage the pale and internet shrivelled tolkienites into the great outdoors. And as the picture below shows, it seems to be working.
The World Of Warcraft is attractive to the average boy for two reasons, firstly you get to crush and destroy things with exiting and faintly ridiculous weapons, and secondly no one cares if you’re morbidly obese or have a face resembling a congealing lava flow. Gardening already has these facets. Yesterday I spent the morning squashing entire civilisations of black fly between my finger and thumb, the afternoon hacking down threats with my long handled hoe, and I struggle to think of a group that places less importance on personal appearance than the gardeners (thank goodness).
So as the first step in my new campaign to give gardening the kick-ass makeover it deserves I have written to Felco, suggesting they change the design of their secateurs so they look less like this:
And more like this:
Wilkinson’s Sword to tell them their hoes should look less like this:
And more like this:
And Gardener’s World to suggest their presenters look less like this.
And more like this:
Once these small changes have been implemented I‘m sure we will see a huge rise in the number of teenage boys taking up gardening and the world will be a far better place.
I shall be at Chelsea Flower Show this Tuesday where I will be delivering free one-to-one lectures on this fascinating subject. I may even make a pamphlet.
One day I hope to make a horticultural living, it’s a seedy ambition I’ll admit. I once thought that love, music, and gardening were above an hourly price, and that to confess a desire to do them for cash would be like admitting ‘one day I hope to make a living from my favourite daughter’. How could I sully something so beautiful and pure just to put bread in my mouth and beer in my belly? Well I’m thirsty and hungry and I don’t care anymore. I’ve sold my soul to the Great Green God and the high priests of BTECH and I want my earthly rewards.
So I’ve started thinking about my career, and as part of my investigations into Making a Fortune and Getting Away With It I have come across a curious breed of people, the Pro-gardener. Pro-gardeners are tough hard-hitting male workers who don’t do gardens – they do jobs. If every statement you hear starts with: ‘I didn’t get where I am today by….’, you can bet you have strayed into conversation with a pro-gardener. ‘I didn’t get where I am today by walking around with my shoe laces untied’ ‘I didn’t get where I am today by wasting time eating vegetables’ ‘I didn’t get where I am today by twatting about on the internet’. Well Mr Alan Garden Sugar neither did I, they’re just things I like to do on the journey.
Pro-gardeners have a universal collective delusion that they are not horticultural workers, but mercenary bionic soldiers from the future. They swap notes and stories on X-K-8000 loppers and Slash-Master 3000 lawn mowers. They talk about kill ratios, conquests and terraforming alien ecosystems with massive muscle bound JCB diggers. The pro-gardener is an unfathomable and scary beast, and the main weapon in their arsenal is that some of them actually make money (almost unknown in the horticultural sector), but listen closely I have discovered a chink in their steel toe-capped armour! Their one natural enemy, a group whose mere mention will drive them to beetroot-faced strops and howls of snotty nosed derision. The jobbing gardener.
The jobbing gardener and the pro-gardener are locked in eternal combat, both service the same area and both are self-employed. The pro has the kit, the jobber has the price, the pro has a sign written van (something like ‘Ace 1 Gardens 4U – Be The Best’), the jobber has a bicycle and a rucksack full of jam sandwiches. But it is not competition that stokes the pro-gardeners antipathy – it is shame. The jobber reminds the pro of the horrible secret lurking behind their apparent success. The secret that its not very hard to mow a lawn, anyone can do it, all you have to do is walk in straight line.
Being of Orwellian mind I naturally sympathise with the jobber. These are the plongeurs of the gardening world. Downtrodden toilers who refuse to dignify humiliating labour by ascending the slippery golden ladder of success. To expand, to invest, to take out insurance and buy a decent pair of shears, all these things would be to admit defeat to the world and its salary driven norms. It is for the jobber that the Jolly Gardeners pubs of England are named, hard working men with no ambition beyond finishing a hot days toil and having a frothy pint of ale, and certainly no mind to go home and draw up a marketing plan. However being a hip young urbanite I have all manner of successful friends to keep up with, all sorts of expensive vices to indulge and a heavy London rent to pay – things that all whisper to me of a fleet of shiny silver BensGarden 4U vans, packed with well oiled Extermatron 900 strimmers and micro chipped smart trousers; after all I won’t get where I’m going by sitting in the sunshine drinking tea.
So here I teeter, like a young Anakin Skywalker battling with my conscience and the temptations of the Dark Side. A solution must found and something must be done. I invite reader contributions into how to strike gold in the world of horticulture without turning into a tosspot. Any winning answers will be entitled to either a 10% share of my future profits or a flagon of foaming ale (which at the moment look like being roughly equivalent in value).
The young don’t like gardening, and I’m not surprised when information leaked from the Internet informs me that privet is now considered the world’s 11th most deadly plant. This ludicrous terror scare gives yet more ammunition to cool trendsetters who argue that the plant kingdom is the wimp’s kingdom, and that gardeners are the wimpy bodyguards of the wimp’s kingdom. I’m quite happy living in a nice safe world – like most readers here I’d usually take a cup of tea over a syringe full of heroin, and a stroll in the park over a bit of base jumping, but I’m an aberration against the world of cool, and I’m afraid as someone who reads gardening blogs, you are too. Safe is out, ludicrous risk is where it’s at in 2010. In order to get the young to like gardening we need to sex it up, we need to show off the dangerous side of the green-fingered way of life: we need to make it cool.
But how does one go about convincing the over stimulated and prematurely cynical youth of today that gardening is actually a radical life-affirming image-defining statement? (Cool people don’t have hobbies, they have statements) One way to do it would be to focus on the plants, however I’ve been looking out of my window at the worlds 11th most deadly plant for half an hour now, and it hasn’t done anything edgy at all. Plants can be dangerous of course; in the village I grew up in there is an old man whose brain has been parasitically infiltrated by a colony of Dahlias, all he can think and talk about is Dahlias. No doubt those flowers will eventually kill him, and it is a tragic tale, but it is not one that suits a heavy rock backing track and fast cut camera switches to good-looking guys with spiky hair, so we can’t use it as a cool converter.
If the plants are out then that just leaves the people. It is up to us, the gardening faithful, to show the world what gardeners are really like. Paul Debois recently published 43 Gardeners’ Hands, a moving collection of photographs of gardeners hands that examined what it meant to be a gardener in the pre-cool days, all nurture and earthliness and the value of hard work. I suggest the follow up be 43 Gardeners’ Scars where well known gardeners show of their most X-treme disfigurements and tell a little back-story something like ‘This is my black big toenail. Me and a bunch of mates had been gardening for like, 48 hours without stopping or sleeping or eating, it was getting pretty wild and I dropped a paving stone on my foot’. Then all we need to do is make a video of all the most beautiful and nubile in the gardening world cavorting around the allotment, pushing each other in the pond and pruning in their underpants because they don’t give a fig about you or your values, sell it to a mobile phone company to use as their new zeitgeisty advert and gardening is cool. Sorted.
Please get in touch with me if you have any interesting gardening scars or you would like to cavort naked around an allotment with me.