Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Soap Opera for Gardeners

Dig, Plant and Bitch - the Soap Opera for Gardeners
    Meet Petunia Martin, creator of Avalon Gardens and her neighbours Archibald and Rose Watkins-Smythe up at the historic garden of Mere Castle. Meet their respective gardeners: Bonzo the ex-heavy metal roadie and born-again Johnny Dalton, a local nurseryman or two and a cast of other colourful characters such as the village herbal healer Catkin Moonspirit and imperious garden school guru Marguerite O’Halloran.
    A story of gardening rivalry, a comedy of manners on the age-old theme of old money versus new money, and a source of horticultural information, Dig, Plant and Bitch is a soap opera style story which will unfold through a series of episodes available on Amazon for Kindle, iPad and smartphone reading. It will be funny, planty and sometimes a little naughty.  

“This is brilliant...I couldn’t put it down” Juliet Roberts, Editor - Gardens Illustrated
You can start reading now...

    “Do you realise that when you give someone a bunch of flowers, you are giving them a bunch of sex-organs” bellowed Wayne Martin after James Treasby as he stepped outside with Wayne’s wife Petunia. “Ignore him” said Petunia, “he always makes that joke to everyone who comes round to see the garden, even the old ladies.” “I can see the garden isn’t quite his thing” replied James. “That’s right” explained Petunia, “although he’s very proud of what I’ve done, and as we get nearer to opening it properly, I mean for ourselves, not just for charity, he’s getting kind of interested.” “Ah” said James, “he sees the business potential.” “Absolutely’ replied Petunia as she stopped, to breathe in chill autumn air - it felt like the first cold day of that year’s season of decline and mellow fruitfulness.

    Petunia had taken a few steps out of the house, towards the top of a gentle slope, where she could look down over the garden she had begun to create ten years ago. She had known next to nothing about gardening when she and Wayne arrived here, both taking a distinctly early retirement. Now, here at the place they had called Avalon Gardens, there were sweeping rivers of grass, broad borders of perennials, and young trees just about big enough to give a first hint of their future prime. Everything looked established enough so that those who knew as little about gardening as Petunia did when she came, would turn to her and say “what, only ten years, it looks like its always been here.” That always gave her a warm glow of satifaction.

    James stood, somewhat nervously, a few steps away from her.  He generally carried about him an air of brusque and superior confidence, but he found it difficult to keep it up when he went on a ‘by appointment’ garden visit like this. Owners of large gardens, usually people of wealth, social status, or success, rather intimidated him. Especially, when like today, he had not actually made the first move. It had been Petunia who had rung him, catching him unawares and feeling tired at the end of a long day at his nursery business, Treasby’s Plants of Distinction. “Petunia Martin” the voice had announced at the other end of the line, “you know me, I’ve bought plants off you, quite a few times”, she had waited long enough for James to grunt some sort of assent and recognition, “you know I’m making a garden, quite a big garden, I’d like you to see it, you haven’t seen it, have you?” James admitted he had not, and felt immediately embarrassed, as he knew that his failure to visit one of his best customers who he knew to be quite ambitious in her garden making, was almost a failure of etiquette, to say nothing of failing to take full advantage of what might be a good business opportunity. “I, I, I’d love to see it” he stammered, “really would.” “Oh gooood” replied the rather squeaky voice at the other end of the line, “oh goodie”, and dropping to an almost seductive huskiness, “and I want to ask your advice about things.” A time was agreed and Petunia had rang off, leaving James clutching his cordless receiver in a cold sweaty grip. He wondered what sort of advice she might want. After all, she was a regular at Marguerite O’Halloran’s garden school ‘Ranunculus’, where the redoubtable Mrs. O. supplied the local gardening ladies with all the advice they could possibly want, whether this advice was requested or not.

Read on ......
UK readers can get it here

North American readers here

Friday, March 23, 2012

A jaunt to Guernsey

  A whistlestop trip to Guernsey to do an RHS regional lecture for Floral Guernsey. The island once had a thriving horticultural industry (cut flowers, tomatoes, veg) but now rather sadly reduced although the Raymond Evison Clematis empire is the bright spot. Lots of derelict glasshouses (reminded me of post-communist Bulgaria in the 1990s). Otherwise thriving. A very mild climate so enormous camellias everywhere and lots of exotica. Giant echiums have clearly naturalised. A lot of good gardening going on, but no 'great gardens' - this is not Cornwall, but fantastic scope for interesting planting on a small scale. I went to one private garden which I  loved, Jane and David Russell's Mille Fleurs. They live at the top of a slope with a borrowed landscape of woodland and a resevoir.

It felt very tropical, not in an overt self-conscious way, but in lots of little touches like having a Clematis armandii growing into a tree, which could have been a hoya in a tree in southern India.

    Shady, woodland, a lot of it, with a ground flora of primroses and lots of interesting self-seeding - all very un-English, even palm Trachycarpus fortunei self-seeding. A tree fern draped with epiphytic ferns (they arrived with it form Aus) - again, I felt i could have been in India.

   The lovely Luma apiculata thrives and self-sows too. If humans suddenly disappeared from here, the island would rapidly cover in exotic woodland I am sure - like Tresco in that way.

Loved this treatment of the patch you don't want to mow or to have grass around a tree.
And with minimal frost (if lots of wind) you can grow giant aeoniums on the dustbin box, and hardly ever need water them. Some Narcissus 'Hawera' in here too.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dialectic of the polyanthus

So much of human life is a forwards and backwards process. Hemlines famously go up and down. Politicians react against policy A by adopting its opposite, position B, the next lot then compromise on position C, and so on. The German philosopher Georg  Hegel called this the 'dialectic' arguing that this is how the human spirit drives history forward. Karl Marx adopted it as the driving force of history, but in a materialist, as opposed to spiritual way. (That's enough philosophy for today - Ed.)

I am glad to see that the humble polyanthus obeys the dialectic. Indeed it illustrates it perfectly.

I've always loathed the lurid colours of the little pot plants that every filling station in the land seems to sell, never mind the garden centres. Jo always sneakily buys some. Every year I am sure the flowers get bigger - to the extent that I wonder when the physiological limit of flower size will be reached. For years now the colours are not only bright but very flat. This year however, they are getting a wee bit more subtle - see picture above.
 In the past, lovers of cottage garden plants grew named polyanthus varieties, but they have to be propagated from division and many are slow to bulk up and over several centuries of cultivation, most have been lost. I remember when i first came across Carol Klein (she of UK garden TV fame) it was as someone who grew old double polyanthus. Then along came microprop and they were everywhere, but now they seemed to have disappeared again.

What is interesting now is that the big breeders are producing seed strain for mass production in the 'older' colours and so much more subtle. An example above - which is just a big-flowered primrose really (more yellow than in the pic).

This is the old variety 'Garryade Guinevere' (not sure of spelling) which has clearly been genetically souped up for seed production and sold as 'Woodland Walk'. I must say i really like them, the dark leaves and flower colours of the old variety, but probably more vigorous.

The reaction against bold brassy polyanthus (thinking of Hegelian dialectic now) often involved growing the Barnhaven strains, bred on Vancouver Island in the 1950s, and now grown by a British couple in Brittany. I've grown them for years as they were so much nicer than the mass-produced ones, and some of the colours and combinations have incredible depth, One strain they did was a sort of denim look with a stripey look. Now it appears as if one of the big commercial breeders has got hold of it and enlarged the flowers to produce varieties like this above.
And of course the ultimate example is of the gold-laced polys, which have now been mass-produced too, for several years, when once they were really special - the only way you could get them was growing your own from Barnhaven seed. In Victorian times, these were the most widely grown of all flowers, there were thousands of named varieties, all now lost, but still represented in the wide range of flower colours.

So, the to and fro of fashion in commercial production of polyanthus illustrates well this basic see-sawing in human affairs.

Finally, if you are a glutton for intellectual punishment, you can read up on Hegel here. If you have ever had to struggle with academic German, or its equivalents as produced by east Europeans during the communist era, you have Hegel to thank.

Check out the world's first gardening soap opera - Dig, Plant, Bitch.