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…

edit

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.

20131008-220352.jpg

The Day Digested

Tuesday the twelth of February 2013

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.

Coyolxauhqui
Coyolxauhqui

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.

Green Mice from 1997
Green Mice from 1997

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.

Punic War
Punic War

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.

 

Summer in the City

All proper tribes have a battle cry. My favourite belongs to the fearsome thirteenth century Almogàvers: ‘Desperta Ferro!’ (awake iron!) It’s best bellowed at at dawn while sparking sword from stone, but I’ve taken to yelling it whenever I pick up a spade.  Garden designers have their own distinctive whoop; ‘Rhythm, Unity, Movement!’.  It’s a pretty vacuous battle cry, better suited to a choreographer than a horticultural professional, but it seems to work for them.

This is because most garden designers were indoctrinated to The Principles Of Garden Design while in training. The Principles Of Garden Design is an aesthetic theory that breaks horticultural design into three essential and easily digested dogmas; a beautiful garden must have Balance (or order, proportion etc) Unity (harmony, oneness) and Movement (flow, rhythm, transition). Of course it’s all platitudinous rot and spread-too-broad nonsense, but that doesn’t stop it being influential.

I was thinking about the principles, particularly movement, as I cycled through the city last week.  After a month of rain the temperature had risen sharply and the air felt like broth. Away from ventilating tracheal roads, urban pockets lay torpid; parks, alley-ways, back gardens and playgrounds felt thick and still, stupefied under a haze.  Nowhere does lethargic like London in late July.

The omphalic centre of this inaction was the Regents Canal, its Victorian prime – horses, ice-barges and gunpowder tugs – long forgotten. The locks were closed and the water motionless. I watched three Canada geese, too idle for their ancestral life of migration, circle in a small opening in the duckweed. Eventually one ploughed out and the others followed in his slip stream. All along the banks the canal boats sat motionless.

You shouldn’t be able to get much more movement in a garden than in one built on the top of a boat. Don’t like your ‘borrowed landscape’? Cast off! Pitch up somewhere with a better view. Shaded by a protected tree? I’ll take my flowerbeds elsewhere. Yet in the fever of that afternoon I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more motionless set of gardens.

Most of the roofs supported vest-wearing tattooed river dwellers, crashed-out in the heat. They like to pose as vagabond adventurers, not tied down to neighbours, corner shops and residents association meetings. But I cycle down the Regents canal six times a week and their boats never ever move. I have seen lock-gates open just once. Barges with names like Geronimo (another famous war cry) hint of a life of wandering excitement and conceal the truth: the owners are just as tethered as the rest of us – we live in flats, they live in tiny floating bungalows.

They do like to garden though. Every boat has a roof filled with pansies, violas and tomatoes. The plants are naff, small and mismatched; they wilt and they don’t flutter, perfect for bungalows. There’s no rhythm and no sense of transition, but they work because they’re jolly.

The evening wore on, the temperature stayed high, I stopped cycling and opened a beer. Sitting on an overgrown bank, surrounded by mallow and hedge mustard while watching a low sun turn the duckweed golden I wondered: what’s so essential about movement?

Duckweed