A Song of Sulfosulfuron

Before I became a gardener I lived in a world where the plants seemed ever in bloom. They rolled into my consciousness only while in flower, materializing from the fuzz of green and fading back when the petals dropped.

Now, after a few years in the business, I often take more joy in a plant’s growth than I do in its blossoming. This must be common in gardeners; it is partially due to the pleasure of anticipation – those weeks between the first bulbs breaking and the realization that the tulips are blind – where one can imagine that this year the garden will be perfect. But it is also because plants all grow in uniquely fascinating ways.

Rhubarb has my favorite growth-habit, It prolapses up red and obscene in a way that signals Good Times Ahead better than any olive branch on any ark. This year I’ve also enjoyed watching duckweed on one of our ponds. The tiny Lemna minuta reproduces almost cytokineticly, like microbes on a petri-dish, and in July it only needed a hot weekend to cover the pool entirely. Another highlight has been seeing a team of swearing scaffolders fight summer long to save their erection from being swallowed by wisteria. The plant is one hundred years old and when cut back created a florid vegetable Hydra.

Scaffolders and Wisteria - Chiswick House 2013

Scaffolders and Wisteria – Chiswick House 2013

This, however, is not a blog about growth. For over the last few weeks I have added another gospel to my bible of garden appreciation: I have become a connoisseur of death. Two weeks ago I sprayed a deep bed of weeds with a lethal mixture of glysophate and sulfosulfuron, and since have been fascinated by the varied ways in which different species die.

The oxalis was the first to go.  Its tiny leaves disintegrated, leaving a star-burst of un-garnished petioles. Sow thistle was next; it sagged around its upright hollow stem, the leaves drooping to form a washed-out skirt. Gallant Soldier (Galinsoga parviflora) turned black and mushy in patches, like a supermarket salad too long in the bag. Most interesting was the chickweed, so dull in life, but from which the colour faded day-on-day until it was almost transparent – after  a week and a rain shower I could look down from above and clearly see droplets of water hanging from the underside of the leaves. Finally the niccotiana succumbed; its giant green leaves prostrate on the ground, the exact colour and texture of a spent latex glove.

Since perpetrating this herbicidal massacre (apologies to the organic – had we the time and labour…) I have been in the thrall of Plant Death. At Chiswick House we currently seem to be losing a lot of aucuba, which is galling for two reasons: firstly because aucuba’s cardinal and single virtue has always lain in not dying, and secondly because when it does die it looks so ugly. The long serrated leaves sag, crumple and turn matt black, the whole thing looks like a giant sea urchin hung with old banana skins. In contrast the leaves of Viburnam tinus, another reliable evergreen, turns a lovely warm rufous red when it unexpectedly expires – something to consider when planning your next shrubbery.

Dead Viburnam - rufous red

Dead Viburnam – rufous red

My second favourite dead evergreen is ceanothus, and after a few of cold winters there are a lot of these about. The corpse retains its form, with stem, leaves and spent blooms intact, but it turns pitch black – like Wile E Coyote after an explosion. My number-one-favourite dead evergreen is the ubiquitous Deceased Miniature Conifer in a Window Box. Visually it is nothing special, a dry brown cone, but it contains an entire narrative arc. A spring morning, a sense of optimism, the desire to beautify and better ones surroundings with a brand new bag of compost. But then neglect sets in – summer is hot and watering a chore, the plant suffers. By autumn even disposing of the body is too much gardening.

Before I became a gardener I lived in a world where plants seemed ever in bloom; now I worship at the altar of death. Horticulture courses are currently enrolling at Capel Manor College.


Adventures in Silviculture

Once, in a life before horticulture, I spent twelve months selling second hand books from a market stall in Bristol. Eight hours a day, six days a week of sitting on a chair drinking tea and reading. It was blissful and I’d recommend it to any young person thinking of taking a gap-year.

Having so much time to read is liberating; most of us have so few hours spare for literature that we are terrified of wasting them on an imperfect book. We feel we must either read something improving, a proper book, Flaubert in French say, or one that is a guaranteed match to our tastes, the “I only read books about sexy vampires” syndrome. But when reading is all you do, you are free to waste days on books that turn out to be crap. I would read; chick lit and sci-fi, collections of feminist poetry, pamphlets about erotic female wrestlers, I would read the classics and I would read books asking “was Hitler a Satanist?”, but most importantly for the first time ever I read gardening books.

The Author, reading erotic tales of strong thighed wrestlers

Erotic tales of strong thighed wrestlers

Unfortunately now that I’m in the business of knowing stuff about plants I can’t shake my market stall ways. When shopping for gardening books I still buy third-hand volumes, not glossy new high-production hardbacks, even if it means my books are completely taxonomically redundant. I’m stuck in a world where gardening books cost £2.50 not £25.00. Last week however, things changed, I was given a £50 book token, and so finally paid a guilt free visit to the horticulture section of London’s largest bookshop.

Like a drunk in a curry house I was paralysed by choice. I browsed for hours, sweating and sipping pints of Cobra. Who knew there were so many experts on back-yard chicken-farming? Who knew how common a trope the title The *Adjective* Gardener has become. It’s out of control! Waterstones will supply you with pages by; The Thrifty Gardener, The Curious Gardener, The Inquisitive Gardener, The Adventurous Gardener, The Virgin Gardener, The Weekend Gardener, The Bad-Tempered Gardener, The Common Sense Gardener, The Meditative Gardener, The Resilient Gardener, The Conscientious Gardener, The Informed Gardener, The Decadent Gardener and The Quotable Gardener.

The Adventurous Gardener

The Adventurous Gardener

In the end I bought Tall Trees & Small Woods: How to Grow and Tend Them by Dr William Mutch which is proving a solid introduction to practical forestry. It is full of dignified pen and ink drawings of un-glamorous things like vertical notch planting, befitting of an author who was the first president of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. I particularly admired Dr Mutch’s restraint in not titling his book The Coppicing Gardener.

The knowledge and assurance displayed within, as well as the subject matter reminded me of one of my horticultural heroes; Richard St. Barbe Baker, Late Assistant Conservator of Forests in Kenya Colony and the Southern Provinces of Nigeria, and author of the magisterial autobiography I Planted Trees. I found Baker’s book in a second hand bookstall in Camden Lock and have been enchanted by him since.

At the age of 16 Baker left the family home in Hampshire and travelled to Canada, claiming that his great-uncle had once killed a bear with just a shovel and that he fancied doing the same. After three years living as a frontiers man he decided he’d get an education and enrolled on the forestry course at Cambridge. Unfortunately the Great War broke out while he studied, and Richard was duty bound to enlist. His account of the First World War is crisp and to the point, displaying a characteristic reticence to boast of glory or to seek sympathy. At one point in I Planted Trees he writes “I went through all the spring shows of 1915, but this is not the place to talk of them”. Lucky for us! Leaving the gassing of Ypres and the horror of the Western Front out of his autobiography means more space to muse on the practical management of Kenyan pencil wood forests.

Richard St. Barbe Baker

Richard St. Barbe Baker

But it is not just pencil wood that will delight the silvicuturalist reader: the bamboo cloud forests of the Aberdare Range make an appearance, as do the mangrove swamps of Italian Somaliland, the ancient forest of East Germany and the eucalyptus groves of Southern California. The author is touchingly obsessed with woods. In I Planted Trees a dinner with Mussolini warrants a single sentence, chatting to Roosevelt gets two, almost dying of lockjaw contracted from a Mikingili thorn takes five sentences to describe, while near losing a leg in Ceylon takes a barely a page (delirious and unable to speak he writes a note to the doctor: “I am a forester; I need both legs” pointedly drawing a double line under “both”) encountering the Natural Regeneration of Woodland theory of Karl Gayer has its own dedicated chapter.

Though Baker died in 1982, the organization he set up, The Men of the Trees lives on as The International Tree foundation and has now been responsible for planting tens of millions of trees internationally (or 26 trillion if you believe Wikipedia). He may well have been responsible for planting the very tree that made the paper that was scribbled on by all those Bad Tempered, Virgin, and Adventurous Gardeners, and for that I hope they will join me in raising a toast “to Richard St. Barbe Baker – He planted trees.”


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.



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.



The Imperative of the Mundane

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.

More enlightenment from 2012 to follow shortly.

Extroverts and Aucubas

Extroverts and Aucubas


The Unbearable Leafness of Being

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.

Wanton Autumn


Her Brother’s Keeper

As the memory of this summer’s sporting carnival fades into a pleasant haze of taut thighs and cobblestone abs, it is very important to ignore the BBC and to remind yourself that the world has not fundamentally changed. That despite the heroics of our strapping Olympians there is still a place out there for the undersized and the flabby. That the genetic lottery does not bless everyone with the musculature of Hercules and the inquisitiveness of a coal-face, and that we can’t all have a career in throwing stuff. In some realms the diminutive, the fleshy, the slow of metabolism and short of stature are still lauded, and indeed, lusted after.  So console yourselves my lardy, low-legged readers – if you were a male moorhen you’d definitely be getting laid.

I have been watching moorhens a lot this year. Once-upon-a-time I worked in an office and would waste days in gazing out of the window, fantasising about working outside. Now I work outside there ain’t no windows, so I gaze at moorhens instead (Kids – try not to confuse being lazy with being in the wrong career). Anyway, moorhens lead an Amazonian existence; the usual sexual politics of the avarian world are backwards; hefty females fight for cowering males, the dominant hen winning the right to any partner she fancies. Often she will plump for the smallest and least-well built mate around. It makes sense; she will do most of the foraging and he will do the incubating – muscle is a calorie hungry commodity and fuelling it prevents that lovely soft insulating fat from being deposited. Why waste all those raw eggs feeding a Usain Bolt when what’s needed is a hot water bottle with testicles?

(This method of sexual selection may well develop in our own species. When men are no longer required to push over trees and women become the major bread winners girls will boast about their new man as one would the fuel efficiency of a car “oh e’s awfully cheap to run, I get an whole month out of one omelette.”)

After the fighting comes a very short bit of sex and a long period of nest building. I missed the sex this year, but was around to see the happy couple spend a languid fortnight stripping every leaf from our recently planted stand of Iris pseudacorus. After incorporating just four leaves into their twiggy platform, the rest hurtfully discarded, a clutch of eggs appeared. There followed an anxious three-week wait, my nights beset by fears of sterility and swimming foxes, before I finally got to see the six little new born chicks eaten by magpies. Such is nature.

But as any athlete will tell you, practice make perfect. Couldn’t hurl your pointed stick far enough? Just spend the next four years chucking stuff about and try again. Couldn’t raise any of your half-dozen offspring in the past two-days? Have another batch and try again. These birds are nothing if not quixotic; come magpies, come herons, come foxes and cats, come pike, mink, otters and rats, my  moorhens shall succour you all.

The pair under my supervision are now onto their third brood of the year. Just one of batch 2.0 escaped the myriad predators and reached young adulthood, but this lone survivor affords me a view of ornithology’s most beautiful sight – moorhen sibling care. I’m currently witnessing a bird that I’ve watched and worried about since she was a defenceless black dot of fluff start instinctively taking on responsibility for protecting and feeding her younger brothers and sisters. Despite juvenile moorhens being exceptionally ugly birds, all oversize feet and mud-brown plumage, and despite the young bird misguidedly feeding the baby chicks almost exclusively on small white pieces of gravel, it is a deeply moving sight.

When winter eventually rolls into Highgate the young birds will develop the characteristic black foliage and red bills of  the adult moorhen, and will leave the nest, the parents and our garden, and I’ll have nothing to gaze at anymore. Maybe I’ll even get round finishing that lawn I came out here to edge back in April. Speaking of which – sorry about the lack of horticulture this post; until next time just plant everything in moist but well drained soil. Full sun.

The Moorhen of Venice


Great Gardeners of History #5 – Sargon of Akkad

Apparently people have been disrespecting horticulture.

I can’t get overly excited about David Cameron’s now infamous litter-picking snub, mainly because as a professional gardener much of my work actually is picking up litter. The RHS on the other hand are exited, they’ve even held a conference – specifically a ‘Horticulture: a career to be proud of conference’. The aim being to re-educate our parliamentary betters, and to instigate policies that will appeal to 18-year-olds – 70% of whom currently think that gardening is not a career to be proud of .

(Again, I have no problem with seven-tenths of 18-year-olds not being proud of gardening. None of them would be proud of a career as Office Manager either. The whole joy being 18 is the unrealistic aspirations )

But I do know a little something about youth culture; I was in the Hackney Riots of 2011 (Tesco’s had its door kicked in and we had to get a takeaway for supper),  I also know a little something about horticulture, I even hold certificates. And I know that the way to reconcile the two is not by holding a teenage road-show emphasising  the diverse job opportunities offered by medlar micro-propagation and tomato grafting . People will discover the weird directions careers in horticulture take once they enter the industry, what we need is someone to help them over the threshold. A gardening ambassador, a horticultural pied-piper so magnetically violent and powerful that the impressionable young cannot fail to idolise him.

We need Sargon

Sargon, the mighty king, king of Agade, am I.
MY mother was a changeling, my father I knew not.
The brother(s) of my father loved the hills.
My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates.
My changeling mother conceived me, in secret she bore me.
She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed
My lid.
She cast me into the river which rose not (over) me,
The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the
drawer of water.
Akki, the drawer of water lifted me out as he dipped his
Akki, the drawer of water, [took me] as his son
(and) reared me.
Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener,
While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me (her) love,
And for four and [ fifty ] years I exercised kingship,
The black-headed [people] I ruled, I gov[erned];
Mighty [moun]tains with chip-axes of bronze I con-
The upper ranges I scaled,
The lower ranges I [trav]ersed,
The sea [lan]ds three times I circled.
Dilmun my [hand] cap[tured],
[To] the great Der I [went up], I [. . . ],
[ . . . ] I altered and [. . .].
Whatever king may come up after me,
[. . .]
Let him r[ule, let him govern] the black-headed

The above boast was found on a fragment of ancient Sumerian tablet, and amounts to a partial biography of the world most successful gardener, the all-conquering Mesopotamian warlord Sargon of Akkad. Born in 2300BC Sargon’s achievements dwarf those  of Brown, Jekyll, Oudolf and Titchmarsh combined.  He founded the great garden city of Babylon, he manoeuvred his armies to subjugate the Hittites, the Urukians and the peoples of Elam, and they rewarded him with fragrant trees of olive, fig, pistachio and pear. Plus he invented megalomania and expansion by conquest. Increasingly these days, lost in monotonous litter-picking,  I find my mind slipping back to ancient Akkad where I am a foot-soldier in Sargon’s horde, impaling crisp-packets like so many Urukian villagers.

However, outside of a few day-dream believers, the idea of the Gardener as all Conquering Demi-God seems to have been lost. It used to crop up in dynastic myths fairly regularly; the Byzantine chronicler Agathias wrote in his Histories:  “the line of Semiramis stopped with Beleous. For a certain fellow named Beletaras, in fact, in charge of the kings orchards and gardens reaped for himself a surprising harvest – The throne.” While An Assyrian chronicle records that king Irra-Imitti crowns as his successor Bel-ibni the gardener. Even Cyrus the Great may have started life as a gardener – Nicolaus of Damascus writes of his early career: “by and by a young lad by the name of Cyrus… comes up to a royal attendant who was in charge of beautifying the royal estate… Cyrus gives himself and he beautified the royal estate and was solicitous about his task”

Cyrus the Gardener

I know that we do actually have a keen gardener as heir apparent, and for some that might make him the obvious choice for the next Gardener King. But Cyrus had crushed the Lydian Empire by the time he was thirty, Charles is 63 and I doubt he even crushes snails – he’s really not going to appeal to a generation raised on video games and internet pornography.

Now I’ve been offering free guidance to the horticultural world on this blog for years now, long enough to realise that no-one ever takes any notice of my advice. So I’m not going to end with a list of practical steps for hooking adolescents on Mesopotamian warlords and their associated hobbies. I’m not, for example,  going to endorse a gore-soaked Sargon of Akkad computer game, or even a leaked Sargon sex-tape. I’m just going to suggest that maybe all of us in the gardening world alter the way we talk about our subject a little bit. If all the bloggers, authors, broadcasters and enthusiasts focused a tiny bit less on sustainability and wildlife gardening, and a tiny bit more on the subjugation of nature to man’s will and the opportunities for conquering the known world, we might find a few more teenagers listing horticulture as a career to be proud of.

Sargon of Akkad


Of Dendral Bondage

As a child of the 1980’s I am saddled with a deep and culturally engendered fear that one day my discarded beer packaging will trap a little baby duck. So strong is this phobia that even now, knowing that the rings have been made from a rapidly photo-degrading plastic for over 20 years, and that they cause little harm to wildlife, I still reflexively snip each and every loop before I throw them in the lake.

You see along with most members of my species I have a very soft spot for ducklings.  In the 1950’s the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz wrote a paper that I think explains why.  Piece and Parcel in Animal and Human Societies suggested that we have an evolutionarily inbred ‘innate realising mechanism’ that deploys affection and tenderness towards animals that display features of human juvenility. Creatures triggering the ‘nurture response’ have ‘a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, and clumsy movements’. Or  in other words, are ducklings. To us the idea of a tiny doomed bird, snared in a Heineken holder and cheeping pathetically into the dusk, is subconsciously analogous to the idea of leaving our baby up a hill to be eaten by wolves.

If there is any living thing least resembling the elastic and chubby cheeked human child it is a 40ft Atlas Cedar. So last week when I came home from work and informed my girlfriend that I had saved a mature Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’ that had become entangled in plastic waste I was not surprised to receive considerably less cooing than if I told her I had saved a duckling. Even though I had to climb a ladder.

Last week’s strangulator was a length of black Polypropylene netting, the sort allotment holders use to keep pigeons out of fruit cages. It had twisted itself into a rope and had spent the last few years gradually pressing deeper into a slowly expanding bough, like cherished 34” jeans into an aging security guard. In horticultural language the branch had been girdled. (Those fortunate enough to have seen a man or woman clad only in a girdle will know how apt this terminology is; the wood on either side of the garrotte bulged as adipose tissue on the ribs.) Eventually the bark would have swallowed the tie, or the phylum tissue would have died and starved the tree of carbohydrates.

When I freed this tree from its unnatural bondage I was careful not to tear the net from the wood as resulting wound could have left the tree open to infection, and might even have ring barked it: meaning I’d never be reborn as a Dryad.  I only cut off the loose and indenting plastic, leaving submerged bits  as a foul smelling present for some future wood burning stove. The limb once freed was shaped like an hour glass and surprisingly attractive.

I find the weird extraterrestrial growths and carbuncles caused by damage to trees strangely beautiful, and to me their slow consumption of foreign invasive bodies is compelling beyond measure. There is a famous tree in America that has supposedly swallowed a bicycle, the handlebars come out of one side and the back tire the other, and few everyday sights please me more than benches, railings and fences being gradually ingested by trees.

I rejoice in the un-babyish nature of trees and their way of looking nothing like ducklings. Through them I can appreciate the beauty of deforming, crippling bondage – and it’s good to have a wide range of interests.

The Author Reborn as a Dryad

Ring-barking Author Reborn as a Bike in a Tree


A Post About Hedges

You will have to believe that this is a post born of experience as the Non-Disclosure Agreement I signed back in November forbids from publishing any evidence.  Without this legally binding agreement I might well have ended up sharing stories and details of my employers garden hedges on some obscure gardening blog where any impressionable internet weirdo could have copied them.  A derivative hedge?  I’d rather die.   

So humour me, internet wierdos, with a little intellectual exercise – see if you can read this piece as written not by me, but by a hypothetical gardener, a construct who exists nowhere but in this post and who spent all last week planting hedges.

 While I was planting these hypothetical hedges in North London, some miles to the South on a bank of the Thames, herds of high-vis horticultural navvies were assembling  the annual Gardening Godhead at Chelsea.  Last year I was one of those navvies, assigned to lug about Grevillea and heave Callistemon  for some cork-hatted Aussie blokes.  On the first day I broke three vital hand-bones cycling home and so spent two weeks sitting on a bucket snipping blades of grass into more exaggerated grass shapes – it’s why they won gold.

I left Chelsea 2011 shell-shocked: was this circus of contrivance really “the highlight of the gardening calendar”?  Polystyrene walls faced with York stone?  Spray painting the trees to cover their scars… surely not?  My sympathies swung towards those dissenters who annually complain that “it’s just not proper horticulture” and that “anything so instant has nothing to with gardening”.

I’m sure the RHS will be relieved to hear that that I’ve changed my mind again.  Last week’s hedging operation served as a personal and complete vindication of The Chelsea Flower Show. As I stood there in the garden, watching off road fork-lifts deposit yews taller than my head into a pre-dug trench, while internally debating how minutely kinked they should be to make the vibes  more ‘ancient boundary’ and less ‘green garage wall’, I realised that Chelsea is entirely about gardening.  Just not gardening for poor people.

Happy though I am to rediscover a meaning in Chelsea, I remain both in heart and in wallet a poor person and I know that not everyone can summon a team of JCB drivers and a specialist Italian nursery every time they fancy a hedge.  So here follows a hedging tip that is the antithesis of the instant and artificial bankers boundary.  This is an extract from Thomas Hill’s The Gardeners Labyrinth published in 1577, which Hill acknowledges lifting from Democritus’ On Farming written some 2432 years ago:

The most commendable inclosure for every garden plot is a quick-set hedge… Gather in a due season of the yeare, the seeds found in the red berries of the biggest and highest Briers [wild roses] then throw ripe seeds of the white Thorne, and to these both the ripe Berries of the Goose-Berry and Barberry trees…. mix and steepe for a time in [a] binding meale of Tares until the thickness of honey. The same mixture lay into old and untwisted ship ropes… in such order that the seeds bestowed or couched within the soft hairs of them of them may be protected from the cold unto the beginning of the spring. Digge in handsome manner, two small furrows into which lay your ropes with seeds, covering them workmanly with light earth. Water by sprinkling.

The seed soaked rope trope has not been entirely lost to horticulture; a few months ago I used coir rolls impregnated with Carex and other marginals to edge a pond (as ever, all details purely hypothetical).  But there are other potential applications.  I don’t know how Nigel Dunnet, Sarah Price and the rest of that meadow lot find it, but I think it’s almost impossible to spell colourful obscenities by scattering wild flower seed.  The letters come out all squiffy and haphazard and you end up with a garden full of BUOKs and COMTs.  Using rope coated in pictorial meadow mix would render wild flower curses and swears legible and might go some way towards tempting young people away from violent computer games and into the rewarding arms of horticulture.

Apologies if you are not satisfied with the amount you have learnt about hedges from this post.  All complaints to be addressed in perfect floral calligraphy.  I have Google earth.