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10:06am Wednesday 1st May 2013
T his spring has been a cool affair and I have needed distractions. One of the best has been a new book, The Gardens of Marrakesh by Angelica Gray, published by Frances Lincoln (see below). Gardens in this dusty city, where the sun always seem to shine, provide escape from the heat and bustle. In the old city, or Medina, every riad has a private courtyard with tiled fountains and shady trees and only the heart of the garden is exposed to searing heat. In the modern city there are stylish gardens often inspired by the French who made a great impact on the city. The chic Majorelle Garden, once owned by Yves Saint Laurent, is a place of pilgrimage with its palms, cacti and blue and yellow paintwork. It should be on everybody’s wish-list. However when I was in Marrakesh I preferred the pleasure gardens on the outskirts of the city, with their huge pools of flat water piped in from the snow-capped Atlas Mountains which seemed tantalisingly close. There city dwellers of every age picnicked under the trees, or danced and sang often in the cool of the evening. Of these The Agdal (pictured by me and the first garden to be featured in Angela Gray’s book) was the most uplifting. You strolled out of the city along dusty lanes as straight as any Roman road, past the Royal Palace before reaching cool greenery and fresh water alive with jumping fish. The day I went there was a national holiday and a troupe of Berber drummers and dancers held a big crowd. You could here the thump echoing all round the ground, like a vivacious heartbeat. The Agdal and its prettier sister garden the Menara, are still owned by the King and free to all. City dwellers trundle up on scooters to eat their lunch, or walk with purpose. These two ancient gardens were founded by Sultan Abd el Moumen circa 1156/ 1157 who had recently captured the city. At 900 years of age they have a run-down charm which suits the relaxed air of a pleasure garden. A cool pavilion provides stunning vistas of the city and its mountainous setting. Angela Gray tells us that in order to demonstrate his power and secure a good water supply and food he planted up 500 hectares with fruit and perfumed flowers. It’s hard to describe the effervescent effect of this huge oasis unless you experience the arid city of Marrakesh day in day out. The earth walls and fortifications, although practical, add structure and the chequerboard arrangement of irrigated plots include oranges, lemons, walnuts, pomegranates, figs and olives. Fragrant myrtle, honeysuckle and jasmine clothe the trellises. The Agdal was rightly listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1985.
12:00am Thursday 25th April 2013
10:41am Wednesday 24th April 2013
The snake’s head fritillary bears a sinister name for a bloom that is arguably Britain’s most beautiful wildflower. At first glance, the fritillary appears impossibly glamorous — amassed in purple ranks bowing delicately in the breeze. The flower brings a sense of lurid exoticism to the normally sedate meadows of rural England. A closer look at that coyly bowed flowerhead, perched atop a sinuous, snakey stem, reveals an exquisite patchwork of maroon and lilac chequers — this is a plant seemingly more at home clinging to the side of a moss-laden teak in a tropical rainforest.
3:51pm Wednesday 10th April 2013
Over a bleak Easter, too cold to garden, I listened to Radio 4’s In Pursuit of Spring presented by naturalist Matthew Oates. It followed Edward Thomas, poet and naturalist, on his Easter journey by bicycle from Clapham in South London to the Quantocks in Somerset exactly one hundred years ago. As Thomas travelled westwards to Somerset he left the bustle of a cold, wintry London and was greeted by a spring-like tranquil Somerset. Crossing Salisbury Plain, in indifferent weather, he heard larks, chiffchaffs and thrushes galore. He recorded his journey in his spiritual book, In Pursuit of Spring. A centenary edition is now available. Thomas, who was to die on the Western Front in 1917 aged 39 years, deplored the traffic, although I believe he only encountered three dust-producing cars on his entire journey. Needless to say he didn’t like them at all. His poetic observations about the natural world are second to none and he could see a decline even then. What would he make of it now? Listening to Matthew Oates’ three-part programme brought spring a little nearer, but it exploded a couple of days later when I visited an Alpine Garden Society show. The benches groaned with primulas, saxifragas, crocus, cyclamen and small bulbs all grown in pristine pots under glass. Alpines, which are seen as old-fashioned by many gardeners now, deserve a wider audience because they can defy a cold spring if grown under glass. Seeing immaculate (and easily grown crocuses) looking so lovely made me wish I had potted up a few in autumn to make up for the weather-beaten display in my own bulb lawn. Oh for a crystal ball!
3:44pm Wednesday 3rd April 2013
3:40pm Wednesday 3rd April 2013
On grey, damp, wintry days the little wildlife that’s around in the woods keeps a low profile. But the scuffle and thump of a muntjac deer breaking cover, head down, trotting like a dog into the nearest undergrowth, or a family of roe deer standing silently watching me, can lift the spirits like nothing else.
12:00am Thursday 28th March 2013
A few years ago RHS Wisley held a trial of hardy annuals and you could hear the buzz of the bees long before you got to the plants. Hoverflies, flies and wasps were also plundering the flowers for nectar and pollen, ignoring the other plots close by. It was quite a sight and it can easily be recreated in your own garden with the aid of a few packets of seeds. Once you’ve bought those it’s possible to save your own seeds from year to year. Most are so bountiful you’ll be able to share some with your friends.
1:05pm Wednesday 6th March 2013
Cutting sweet peas for the house is one of my favourite things and they are easy to grow, even for children. This year Mr Fothergill’s has chosen 2013 as the Year of the Sweet Pea. It will be holding a special competition at Capel Manor College, Enfield, on Saturday, July 6, one for ordinary gardeners and the other for children. Entrants can either turn up at the college on the morning with 10 mixed blooms, or post eight mixed blooms to arrive at the college by Friday, July 5. Mr Fothergill’s suggests using a two-litre plastic soft drinks bottle as a container if posting and there are instructions on their website (www.mr-fothergills.co.uk).
3:10pm Wednesday 27th February 2013
As many of you may know I live with a botanist, who regularly drags me out to see some rare specimen of the British flora or other. I have at various times been completely underwhelmed by the Cotswold Pennycress (Thlaspi perfoliatum) and the Tunbridge Filmy Fern (Hymenophyllum tunbrigense). They may be really rare and endangered (almost under lock and key) but they don’t exactly make an impact on the eye if you’re a gardener. The truth is Britain does not have spectacular or wide-ranging flora: it contains only 2,000 or so species, about 8,000 fewer than Europe. Our paucity is due to regularly occurring periods of species-reducing glaciation that effectively kill almost everything. It seems unfair our country, whose climate allows us to grow so much, provides us with so little of our own of true garden value. Even plants once thought native, like the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) have now been proved to be introduced about two thousand years ago. This may help explain why Britain and Ireland have produced so many famous plant-hunters and herbarium collectors who’ve traipsed through America, Europe, South Africa and Asia. Some areas, such as South Africa’s Cape, are very rich in flora and I would hate to imagine my garden without a crocosmia, agapanthus or kniphofias, three of the my favorite genera from The Cape. The richest country of all is China, boasting 3,1000 species. Sichuan, in the south-west of China, is extremely blessed and the name is short for four circuits of rivers and gorges. These steep gorges are home to peonies, rhododendrons, buddleja and magnolias to name but a few. Many of these were introduced into Britain by Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson in the early years of the 20th century. However Wilson was able to locate many of these because Augustine Henry (1857–1930), an Irish-born customs officer working in central and western China, had described them and logged their positions. Henry’s official brief was to collect information about medicinal plants, but he was interested in flora full stop and collected 158,000 specimens for Kew. He was encouraged by Joseph Hooker (1817–1911) who was compiling a new flora of China. I will probably never get the opportunity to trek through those tree-lined gorges myself, although I long to see them before they are destroyed by man. Luckily I will be able to experience them vicariously at the Exeter Hall, in Kidlington, just outside Oxford on March 13 when Seamus O’Brien, curator of Kilmacurragh Arboretum, Co. Wicklow will talk — for the princely sum of £3. O'Brien travelled in Augustine Henry’s footsteps and wrote a superb book In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry, published in 2011 by Garden Art Press (£40). O’Brien’s first trip to Hubei in 2002 had a special poignancy. A new dam was about to flood one of the gorges, so he did some last-minute collecting for the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Glasnevin in Dublin and Kilmacurragh. Four weeks later the water had started to cover the lower slopes, obliterating the lower lying flora. It seems plant hunting can be just as important now as it was in Henry’s day.
2:08pm Wednesday 20th February 2013
Whenever spring seems a little slow buying a bunch or two of daffodils will make it seem that bit closer. Many of these bunches are grown in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly where temperatures are much warmer due to the Gulf Stream. On Tresco they can raise some varieties for early December picking and they use polythene sheeting to either advance or retard the flowers, cleverly applying it at different times of the year. In the Tamar Valley in Cornwall, once the main growing area, the blooms are roughly a month later. Lincolnshire raises daffodils under glass and in the fields, mostly later again. However, in my own garden I am lucky to get a daffodil before mid-March, although the buds will be lying just under the ground from Christmas onwards waiting for warmth. Narcissus varieties are mostly bred by amateur hobbyists for the show bench. They are subdivided into 13 divisions for judging purposes, varying from the conventional bold trumpets to the swept-back cyclamineus types. The stems tend to be long and the large blooms are usually eye-catching affairs capable of scoring lots of points. Many of these showy varieties do not make great garden plants: they are easily toppled by windy weather and rain when grown outdoors. As a result most gardeners prefer the smaller-flowered miniature varieties which are up to a foot in height. These can withstand rough weather and their scale matches small spring-flowering bulbs such as scilla and muscari. Some of our most famous miniatures occurred by accident when one cut-flower grower began to experiment and hybridise the standard varieties with small, early Spanish species. His name was Alec Gray and his initial aim was to produce earlier varieties for the vase because these made the most money. However, his seedlings proved to be short varieties which were no good for cutting. It didn’t matter because Gray began to adore his miniatures far more than his taller cutflower varieties. In 1956 he launched what has become the world’s best-seller, the twin-headed yellow ‘Tête à Tête’, having bred it in 1949.
2:05pm Wednesday 20th February 2013
Cats and dogs are being accused of contributing to a devastating wildlife decline. Recent research from America, revealing that cats kill up to 3.7 billion birds and 20 billion mammals each year, has raised questions about the impact of the UK’s nine million cats on our wildlife.
3:55pm Wednesday 13th February 2013
I t’s Valentine’s Day and spring is upon us, or almost! My chickens have perked up; their combs have turned a vivid red and Cocky the Cockerel is busy chasing his four concubines round the coop. They keep retreating to the apex of the chicken house, much to his chagrin. Eggs are back on the menu again and, when I used to have a garden pond, frog spawn would always appear close to the date, as if by magic. Red is the colour assigned to lovers on this auspicious day. It’s also an important colour in the garden: it seems to put the entire spectrum into clear context.
3:45pm Wednesday 30th January 2013
As I write there isn’t much gardening going on at Spring Cottage. The white stuff has taken over and this lot is the sticky ‘bring-the-fruit-cage-roof-down’ variety, whereas last week we had the fine form which you couldn’t even make a snowball with. And, believe me, I tried. I’m contenting myself with watching the birds instead because we — that’s the royal ‘we’ — put out fat balls, black sunflower seeds and peanuts on three stations giving us a view from each window.
3:43pm Wednesday 30th January 2013
2:40pm Friday 18th January 2013
11:18am Thursday 17th January 2013
The national papers would have us believe that the entire nation is thoroughly depressed, overdrawn at the bank and in need of a detox in January. Well, all I can say is poppycock! We gardeners are not depressed. We stand at the beginning of a new gardening year full of promise, following what was a gardening disaster in 2012. Anticipation and enthusiasm bubble up in my soul and, speaking to fellow gardeners in the last few days, it seems they feel the same as I do. I have already spent three whole days in my garden in the last week and I am ebullient because the sleeping beauty is already waking up. Everyone should aim to have a garden that starts early in the year and then carries on until late. One of the best ways to do this is to visit a good nursery or a good garden centre every month and acquire some plants on every visit. This should ensure a ready supply of interesting plants throughout the year. This month there will already be potfuls of bulbs and these will include crocus, narcissi, small iris, scillas, muscari and snowdrops. These could be put into a winter container or, if the ground isn’t frozen, they can be carefully planted in the border.
4:12pm Wednesday 9th January 2013
It was suggested in last month’s RHS magazine The Garden that gardeners should abandon growing potatoes following the disastrous weather of 2012. Please don’t. Potatoes are one of the most accommodating vegetables, even for beginners, and I have been growing my entire crop successfully for decades. Admittedly last year, and I can’t tell you how pleasing it is to relegate this soggy non-event to history, I failed. However one bad year among three or four decades isn’t bad going.
9:39am Tuesday 8th January 2013
10:28am Thursday 20th December 2012
These days we tend to think of botanical art as merely pretty paintings. However before the age of the camera, this was the only way to record seed, flower, leaf and root. This work, often funded by the very wealthy, was often completed on long expeditions so the artist needed a robust constitution, as well as an eye for fine detail. A new book called The Golden Age of Botanical Art (published jointly by Kew and Andre Deutsch, £25) gives a fascinating insight into the process. Eighteen chapters follow the historical rise of the illustrator from the age of the ancient herbals to present day, visiting country after country on the way. Written by Martyn Rix, botanist and editor of Curtis’ Botanical Magazine, it’s full of fascinating detail. But if you didn’t read a word of this book, it would still be enjoyable due to the lavish illustrations. Victoria amazonica, the waterlily first persuaded into flower by Joseph Paxton (1803-1865 ), the head gardener at Chatsworth, spans a double page for instance. It’s just one of many jaw-dropping illustrations that make you drool.
10:26am Thursday 20th December 2012
WHO killed cock robin? Well the answer is quite possibly cock robin for this rather confiding bird so well known for keeping us close company when we are busy in the garden is a somewhat pugnacious little character and very territorial. A fight between trespassing rivals will sometimes result in the death of one of them, but the main cause of loss of life is the daily grind of searching and finding sufficient food particularly during the winter months when coupled with the wet and cold many succumb to difficult weather conditions. Cats also kill many robins, as well as other garden bird species. The robin can occasionally be heard singing at night, especially if street lighting is close by, and is sometimes a cause of mistaken identity often by people wrongly assuming that the nightingale is the only night time singer.