Days of Rage

This January Britain’s Gardens are bright with fury, our usually dull winter beds blazing with burst blood vessels and blue language, wisteria-pruning substituted for days of rage and wall-punching. My knuckles are weeping. You see, a water lily has been stolen from Kew Gardens.

The Daily Mail is characteristically in the vanguard of outrage, and asks: “As priceless lily is stolen from the botanical gardens, will thieves target your prize plants?” before helpfully informing its terrified readership that “Police officers in Scotland have expressed alarm at ‘work parties’ of illegal immigrants being used to steal sphagnum moss…, primroses and snowdrops” “with the proceeds being used to fund other criminal activity”. Now, I’m not a racialist, but illegal immigrants stealing our beautiful British tropical water lilies? Its modern man’s final slide into moral incontinence, innit?

Well, no actually. People have always stolen plants – because plants are lovely and people are not. I’d like to reassure any Daily Mail readers who might be looking at this blog that life is not actually getting worse – you’re just getting older and scared of change. So cheer up! Here are some comforting horticultural thefts from the good old days, when foreigners had manners and British snowdrops were the envy of the world.

In the autumn of 1849 a visitor to Dublin’s Glasnevin Gardens, made off with a large quantity of vegetables stuffed into his “unmentionables” and a melon under his top hat. For years the spectre of this audacious crime haunted the trustees of Glasnevin, and they used it to argue against working class admission for over a decade, presumably until they noticed that the post-famine proletariat seldom wore top hats. (Now, think about it, do Illegal immigrants wear top hats?)

An Audacious Felon
A Felon

Anyway, as hungry Irishmen wandered around with bulging trousers, across the channel the British were stealing the flora of six continents. The most famous Victorian botanical thief was Robert Fortune, a master of disguise who lifted great quantities Camellia sinensis from Sung-Low province while dressed as a Chinaman, establishing the Darjeeling tea plantations that still power this blog. His colleague Sir Clements Markham stole Peruvian saplings of the Caravaya tree, essential for the production of quinine, despite being explicitly warned that if he so much as touched a seedling “the people would seize him and cut off his feet”. (So you see, stealing plants is a great British tradition, joining in shows a willingness to integrate.)

Perhaps Kew could learn from the experience of Sir Clements and invest in some signs for the Prince of Wales Conservatory “Plantlifters will be dismembered”. Or they could spend the money on some decent antitheft devices like these from a patent application of 1936.

Patented anti-theft device.
Patented anti-theft device.

I actually find the idea of flowers chained to the ground rather artistic. Kew could use them to make one of their heavy-handed points about habitat loss. Of course water lilies are more vulnerable to theft than flowers or trees, because no-one has patented an underwater plant-chain, which is why they have electric eels in the amazon.

Anyway, digging in F. W. Christianson’s 1897 glossary of Micronesian imitative sounds – Notes from the Caroline Islands I found a reference to one Cherri-Chou-Lang. a minor deity who stole the Kava plant from the Feast of the Gods and brought it to Island of Ponope. Students of intoxication will know Kava to be a mild sedative, recently proved to be slightly more effective than placebos in relieving social anxiety. Its sale in the UK has been banned by the food standards agency since 2003.

Is this the link between plant theft and criminal activity that the Daily Mail alludes to? If so then its readers need not fear, there are barely any Micronesian immigrants to the UK, and those that are here won’t be imitating Cherri-Chou-Lang because they all got converted by 20th century missionaries. Now, like honest Anglican middle-Englanders, they believe that weed, cocaine, opium and tobacco were created by the Christian God.

I hope that’s put everyone’s mind at ease. Yes the theft of the water lily was a bad thing, but not a new thing, and we can rest assured that the perpetrator probably has very wet pockets. Once he has been caught we can cut off his feet, but until then let’s all get back to pruning wisteria.

Water Lilies
Water Lilies

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
e[w]er.
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-
quered,
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
[peo]ple;

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

Dear Channels One, Two, Three, Four and Five

This week I’ve been thinking unusually hard, and I’ve come to a rather controversial conclusion…

…gardening television, its not actually that bad! Yes it’s pretty dire and boring – but so is most television. No, I’ve worked out that the real problem with horticultural T.V is not it’s content, but its paucity. If we had ten times more bad gardening programs on our televisions I’m sure that we could all find something crap that still  perversely appealed to us, like with cookery shows, and even if we didn’t find anything exactly to our taste we would have all watched a different program on Friday night, so would be spared Saturday’s collective critical dismemberment of Gardeners World/Love Your Garden.

That’s why I’m dedicating this blog post to the five major television channels. I have developed concepts (copyright Ben Dark 2011) for five new television programs that I think will appeal to a wide audience. You guys can work out who gets what, but I’d like to see them in production by the autumn. Hopefully next spring you’ll have got them on the air and I can avoid another summer of listening to under stimulated gardeners moaning about Don and Titchmarsh being no Geoff Hamiltons.

1) Plant Perspectives

A gardening program filmed and narrated each week entirely from the perspective of one plant in our Midlands garden. Each week a different flower gives its unique take on the gardening season, from seed packet to compost heap!

 2) Paradise Found

 A fly-on-the-wall series following the trials and tribulations of one upper class eccentric as he replants his garden to form a living and unabridged version of Milton’s classic blank verse poem Paradise Lost.  Do you like some narrative in your gardens? Are you desperate for gardening to be seen as highbrow art? Then rejoice as Anthony Gormanshall creates The Tartarus of Begonias!     

3) Garden Wars!

A game show in which two middle aged gardeners compete horticulturally  over the garden fence; the first driven to sell up loses! Expect rows, deliberately offensive bedding, malicious Tree Preservation Orders, ‘accidental’ herbicide drift, sun blocking, husband swapping and malicious gossip at the post office!  

4) What Went Wrong?

A group of all star garden pundits provide post season analysis on the nations gardens and interview gardeners as they head back to their huts. ‘At the end of the day it was a year of two halfs Alan, and we might not have created many opportunities for flowers, but at the end of the day we avoided overfeeding the lawn.’

5) Gardeners Question Time

Real gardeners answer questions from their irate clients. This week: ‘Am I paying you to sit in your van and smoke rollies?’, ‘Didn’t we agree you’d be here three hours ago?’ and ‘Why have you pulled up all my fox gloves?’  

I hope this helps guys. Let me know how you get on!

Anthony Gormanshall - a planting plan

LAY DOWN ALL HOPE, YOU THAT GO IN BY ME

‘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.

Typical Gardening

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

Aquilegia formosa, this is self seeded all through a little plant filled garden I weed on Saturday mornings. picture stolen from www.portlandnursery.com

Hello Kitty

Dicentra spectabilis stolen from http://www.thelensflare.com/large/bleeding-heart-plant_56791.jpg Growing in the same garden. I often take this flower to show non-gardening friends that the natural world has been making hello kitty style fluff for far longer than the Japanese.

Laburnum

Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’ .Wisteria for the rave generation. Now sadly faded in the gardens of Putney. Picture stolen from www.gardenerstips.co.uk

Azalea

Azaleas flowering down the road from me in the Isabella plantation of Richmond Park. Picture stolen from www.talksongardens.co.uk

So there we go, I bitched and moaned the whole way through the post, but seeing a few flowers and the end sends everyone away happy and makes it all seem worthwhile. Bring on the rain and hellfire.

Teenage Kicks

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.

Boris, Basil. Basil, Boris

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.

GardenParty - a game of skill

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.

World or Warcraft - a game of skill

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.

LARP, outdoor computer gaming

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:

Felco

And more like this:

Felco

Wilkinson’s Sword to tell them their hoes should look less like this:

Hoe

And more like this:

Hoe

And Gardener’s World to suggest their presenters look less like this.

Presenter mark one

And more like this:

Presenter mark two

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.

Treachery Made a Monkey out of Me

Treasonous murmurs ripple on Ben’s Garden’s ethereal eardrums. Traitors and yellowish turncoats have been snivelling. They’ve been snivelling that…. there.is.actually.no.gardening in this gardening blog. Philistines! You most un-refined of un-refined crudity! I was building up to it! Have you never heard of foreplay? I was literally just getting to the earthy, dirty-fingered, horticultural tips posts, I was ready to type, and now you’ve put me off. Now I’m afraid we are going to have to start all over again. So…. here is a list of my top ten Darwins of all time.

1)      Erasmus Darwin – See revisionist mini essay and poem below for justification. You see? Do you see what happens when you question a gardening blogs authorial direction? I was going to tell you how to make a hanging basket from a catering sized oil can, now you’ve got a Darwin list, an essay AND a poem.

2)      The Lesser Charles Darwin – This forgotten Darwin died at twenty – but had already written a prize winning thesis on the difference between mucus and pus. Amazing.

3)      Charles Robert Darwin – For The Origin of Species, and for his overwhelming dedication to earthworms, molluscs and beagles.

Darwin #3
Darwin #3

4)      The Darwin Initiative – DEFRA’s aid program for countries rich in biodiversity and poor in financial resources. Providing conservation experts and funding since 1992.

5)      John and Anne Darwin – Canoe scuttling ne’r do wells

6)       1991 Darwin – An asteroid

7)      Darwin of the X-men –  An interracial comic book hero with almost unlimited evolutionary powers. Now, I think that this should mean the ability to procreate at incredible speeds with all things animal and vegetable, which would have made for the one of the best comic strips ever written. Marvel do not understand evolution and so gave him the power to instantly adapt his body to changing situations. For this reason he lies lower in the list than middle aged fraudsters.

Darwin #7

8)      DARwIn –  A 48 cm high robot built for the 2007 robot world cup. Capable of ‘getting up off the floor unassisted, walking around without falling, and kicking balls’ which makes him far more impressive than….

9)      Darwen – a small flood prone town in Lancashire that can’t spell. And…

10)    Darwin’s Deli – A sandwich delivery company based in London, specialising in running out of soup.

So what has Erasmus, the famous Charlie’s Grandfather, done to secure his position at the top of the charts? Well, he wrote The Botanic Garden a majestic scientific treatise comprising of The Economy of Vegetation and The Loves of the Plants. The second of these books  is essentially an outline of the Linnaean system of taxonomic classification and  plant sexing – written in heroic couplets!

I’m pretty certain that many of the problems under browns Brown’s Broken Britain could be blamed on the reluctance of modern day botanists to publish their poetry. But times they are a changing! Parliaments are hung, minority governments majorly disrupt governance and Clegg the Kingmaker frolics behind the throne ,the world is on its head and it’s time the scientists took back the spoken word.

Erasmus claimed his vision was to ‘enlist imagination under the banner of science’.  This is now our shared vision, yours mine and the whole nation’s, and so, with fire burning in my heart and in my head I have embarked upon what I hope will be my great life work – heroically coupletizing  a 1982 version of the classic Readers Digest: The gardening year.

So without as much as any further ado, I give you my first two stanza’s, entitled Introduction I and Introduction II

 

(ahem)

Gardening Year: A Plan for all Seasons

Salvation at last from climate’s treasons

Help for pee-green lawns, all skinhead shawn

And your herbaceous borders, as yet unborn

So no more planting shrubs upside down

(small wonder they looked that horrid brown)

Blow horticulture reprehensible

The Digest’s here, and it is sensible

 

So come abide by us, your annual guide

Lap up diagrams we’ve slipped inside

Each one is usefully annotated

Fact is, words alone are too complicated

We even have some monthly charts

To let you know when all the growing starts

In short, for tips on plants and rain and fog

Please buy this book, don’t read Ben’s blog

Thank you, look forward to my next instalment – March

Darwin #1

I Didn’t Get Where I am Today by Sitting Around Reading Ben’s Garden Blog

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.

High priests of BTECH deciding this years syllabus.

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.

Ace 1 Gardens 4U

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).