Archive for December, 2010

a tale of two gardens…

Hello and welcome back from the Christmas festivities. I hope you had a wonderful family time and remembered to put the cranberry jelly on the table! The internet has allowed gardeners from all over the world to share their own chosen way of growing a garden. This story is dedicated to such diversity.

In our village we have the tale of two brick cottages that stand joined together down Water Lane.

The front garden of the left-hand side cottage is devoted to dahlias of every colour possible, laid out in a precise schematic fashion.

The front garden to the right-hand cottage is a delightful tumble-down chaos, seemingly bereft of even the slightest touch of design or order.

But who owns the cottages?

The dahlia garden belongs to Jerry who was the front-man for the ‘Cosmic Carrots’, a little-known rock-band that hung around the edge of the music scene in San Francisco for a while. Their one claim to fame was an invitation to play at Woodstock but their van broke down halfway up the highway.

Sadly their fortunes went the way of their head-gasket and after two more years of gigs in rundown joints the band broke up. Jerry, still trying to hold together a mescaline-fragmented mind, headed back to his native Dorset and bought the brick cottage. His doctor recommended dahlias. He has spent the last forty years cultivating his garden, rediscovering planet earth and straight lines in general.

The over-blown blooms of his dahlias are supported by a system of poles and twine, each one with its own unique label. Every weed is fastidiously removed and down the middle runs a narrow strip of manicured lawn as smooth as any billiard table.

Jerry married a librarian called Priscilla who spends her spare-time cataloguing the dahlias and preparing the labels. The soothing sounds of Mozart lilts gently down their pristine path.

The other cottage belongs to Geoffrey who was employed since leaving school as an accountant by a City firm. One day he was commuting to work and found himself gazing out of the carriage window at the passing scenery that had become sadly far too familiar over the years.

When the train stopped at Woking the young passenger sitting opposite got up to leave and without a word handed Geoffrey a tatty paper-back as he left. The book was entitled ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac. Geoffrey began to read the book and by the time the train pulled into Waterloo he was a changed man. One month later, with a resolute look on his face, he had left his employment, bought a camper van and said goodbye to his doting and worried mother.

Geoffrey headed up the M1 in search of adventure with the sound of Charlie Parker grooving in the background. In Sheffield he picked up a hitchhiker, a topless dancer named Jackie. By the time they reached Edinburgh they had fallen in love and they were married in Gretna Green the following day.

They spent the next ten years living in a tipi in Wales exploring the intricacies of inner astronomy with the help of magic mushrooms. They then bought the brick cottage in our village. Jackie became a consummate jam-maker whilst Geoffrey wrote several well-respected tomes on inter-galactic visitations.

The story is told that Geoffrey bought the whole of a Women’s Institute table-top display of cottage garden plants, lock, stock and barrel. He took them into his front garden, threw them up in the air, and where they fell is where they were planted. His colour combinations have been said to rival Great Dixter for their brazen adventurousness.

Jerry and Geoffrey meet over the fence from time to time to discuss gardening and have become the best of friends despite being poles apart. As Grumpy George once said: ‘it takes all sorts to make a round world’. And it does indeed!

Dear readers, whatever style of garden you have, may it bud and flourish and give you and your neighbours great delight in the coming months. Happy New Year everybody!!!


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Charlie and Bones have the responsibility of harvesting the holy and mistletoe that grows on the estate for the decoration of the big hall. Over coffee they tell of winters when holly with berries and mistletoe were hard to find and the price for each soared, making them valuable commodities. Poachers would arrive, hoping to cash in on the harvest and had to be turned away with the threat of violence.

Fortunately the holly berries are abundant this year. Cook Jenny however, has banned the use of mistletoe in the kitchen to avoid the embarrasment of the two young domestics being pursued by the amorous attentions of Charlie and Bones. ‘They’ll be none of that around here’ she declares and so that’s that.

The Duchess has set the ‘decorating of the big hall’ into motion and garlands, step-ladders and tinsel are soon flying around all over the place. The Duke has wisely retreated to the library until the coast is clear.

The final touch is to place a willow wreath on the front door. This wreath is made every year by a fellow from the village with gypsy origins. I’m sorting out some of the clay pots and he comes over to see me. He wears a woolly hat slung low over his eyes and sports a bushy moustache. He never says much but just stands there watching. Whenever I look up he nods his head and gives a toothy grin. When I look up next he is gone. I once asked Charlie and Bones about him but they are rather cagey and won’t answer but for whatever reason, the wreath has to be made by him. It always has been and it always will.

The next day the house is in pandemonium. Cook Jenny is bustling around ordering who knows who to do who knows what. Charlie and Bones have been conscipted into bringing barrows of logs for the fire in the hall.

I find myself sitting alone in the potting shed enjoying a cup of tea and a mince pie; a robin comes and keeps me company, scoffing up the crumbs of mince pie that I throw him. Eventually I put a crumb on the toe of my boot. He eyes the delicacy, twists his head at a rakish angle, hops nearer, pauses, and then takes the crumb, retreating immediately.

Then I’m crossing the lawn and the window of the kitchen is thrown open and Charlie hollers out for me to come on in. Charlie and Bones and the two domestics have stopped work and are sitting around the table drinking a tipple of sherry and tucking in to a pile of freshly baked sausage-rolls. It’s warm and cosy in here and we take the time to toast each other a merry Christmas.

The door opens and the Duke comes in with a srand of tinsel caught in his hair. He thrusts a bottle of St Emilion into my arms and an envelope of bank notes and mutters something embarrassingly about his gratitude for all my hard work in the garden. The Duchess is standing behind him, smiling with a benign serenity and she reaches out to hand me a greetings card. Christmas has come after all.

The next day my wife and I catch the train to Gatwick, wait for seven hours and are lucky to catch the flight to Bordeaux. We are spending the festivities with her parents in Arcachon on the south-west coast of France.

And so that just leaves me to wish all my readers, old and new, a very merry Christmas from the Duke and Duchess, Charlie and Bones, Cook Jenny, young Thomas, Grumpy George and lastly, and certainly the least, me! Be good!

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Glastonbury is a wonderfully strange old place. Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea arrived here with twelve disciples. Standing on Wearyall Hill, he struck his staff into the ground and it took root and grew the branch and blossom of a hawthorn tree. Cuttings have been grafted through the ages to perpetuate its life. A handful of descendant thorn trees grow in the town.

One such thorn tree grows in the grounds of St Johns church. Traditionally on December the 8th a sprig is cut by the oldest pupil of the nearby school and sent to the Queen to decorate her Christmas dining-room table.

The tree itself is a variation of the common hawthorn and comes from the middle-east. The posh name is crataegus monogyma ‘biflora’ or ‘praecox’. It is unusual in that it flowers twice during the year, at Easter and at Christmas.

Many have tried without success to grow it from seed or cuttings but only cuttings grafted onto common hawthorn stock seems to work. Curiously, it seems that if the grafted tree is taken away from Glastonbury it quickly reverts back to its original root-stock.

Some fifty years ago another descendant of the original tree was planted on the original site of Wearyall Hill and became popular with pilgrims to this area who would leave tokens of worship attached to the tree.

However, residents of Glastonbury were horrified to find the tree reduced to a stump with its branches cut off and left discarded on the ground. Who could have done such a thing? Was this just an act of wanton vandalism? What on earth was going through his or her mind whilst the green branches were sawn down?

This is not the first time that a Holy Thorn tree growing on this site has been vandalised. During the English Civil War the tree growing then was cut down by Puritan soldiers. The tree was saved by locals taking root cuttings and propagating the tree later.

Wearyall Hill belongs to Edward Jones who was arrested recently in connection with the collapse of Crown Currency Exchange leaving 80,000 creditors owed £16 million. One thought is that the tree was vandalised as an act of vengeance.

Some have placed the blame on the Illuminati or the Bilderburg group whilst others believe it to be the work of good-old-fashioned flying saucers from outer space.

Katharine Gorbing, the curator of the town abbey said that: ‘the vandals have struck at the heart of Christianity’.

Meanwhile, local residents have dressed the wounds of the tree with pine resin and beeswax and wrapped the tree with cloth to protect from the frost.

Thorn trees are remarkably resilient and tough and this act of vandalism may serve as a form of pollarding which actually extends the life of the tree.

One hopes that the tree will sprout back to life next year. The Christian faith is a rugged old religion. And hope springs eternal!

for a beautiful youtube on the thorn tree click here….enjoy the starlings…

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Hello and welcome. My garden journal is published on Friday or Saturday and you can read my latest post by scrolling down. The Wednesday Hotchpotch – sorry for being late this week, my mum has been unwell  – is an eclectic blend of articles about the southwest of England, features of artists and artisans, experiments in frugal living, random photographs and anything else that catches my eye. I hope you enjoy it!

For those looking for a late Christmas present I can recommend ‘Wise Words and Country Ways for Gardeners’ by Ruth Binney. This hard-back edition is a potting-shed full of gardening wisdom and observations written in a delightful style. The cover and presentation gives the whole book a lovely nostalgic feel.

Admittedly there is nothing much new here for the experienced gardener but for the novice and the keen-to-learn there is much to be gained from dibbing into this book from time to time. Such down-to-earth advice such as ‘stop picking asparagus on the longest day of the year’ and ‘to keep hydrangeas pink, sprinkle the soil with lime’, are to be gleaned from this collection.

Ruth has been gathering old sayings and traditional advice for the past fifty years. She now gardens with her husband in Dorset. I have just bought my copy from Amazon for £5.87 postage paid and I am very pleased with it. I believe she has also written a book on weather lore. I will have to save up my pennies!

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At coffee-time we meet up around the oak table in the kitchen. The subject of conversation leads to badgers and the news that the government is considering a controlled culling of these controversial animals.

Badgers have always dwelt in these parts and their ancient paths meander throughout the village. Most folk hardly notice these shy and nocturnal creatures until they dig up the lawn or play havoc with the allotment. For the most part they are lazy creatures of habit and keep to their paths unless these are disturbed by the building of house extensions and the suchlike.

There is a sett on the estate dug into the bank of a field under some hazel trees which always gets the dogs excited when they go past. They enter the main garden by clambering clumsily over a low pig fence and you can see clearly where the grass has been parted. They then proceed to do their latrine business, always in the same place, and you can tell in the autumn by all the berry seeds in their mess that they have been gorging on fallen fruit. They then make their way down the gravel path and onto the rest of the village and retrace their steps later in the night.

Sometimes they are tempted to enter the garden. The leatherjacket grub in the lawn rises to the surface in the autumn to emerge as the cranesbill or daddy-long-legs. Badgers love these tasty grubs and rip the lawn with their powerful paws leaving divots of turf behind. Often the leatherjackets will be found around the leaf periphery of a tree where the rain drip has made the soil moister. Then the badgers will leave a circle of divots all around the tree in their search for these grubs. They are tempted too by the vegetable garden and like nothing better than to pull a carrot or two or perhaps play hide-and-seek amongst the sweet-corn.

Badgers have been known to wreak havoc in gardens if they choose too. I have seen lawns devastated till they look like lunar landscapes and allotments ruined by rampaging badgers. For the most part though they are no more than the accepted price of living in the countryside and anyways a couple of strands of electric fencing are enough to keep them on the straight and narrow down the gravel path.

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badger divots in early spring this year..

There is a sinister side to this story though. Many badgers are infected with tuberculosis and this dreadful disease afflicts many of the dairy herds in this area. Many a farmer has put his whole life into breeding a herd of cattle only to be told by the veterinary surgeons they have tested positive. These cattle are then dispatched to the abattoir and a movement restriction imposed on the rest of the herd. The heartbreak, frustration and financial difficulties are unbearable.

Cook Jenny is firmly against the proposed culling. She considers badgers to be adorable creatures that do no harm really. Like many others she fears that culling has not worked in the past and that it just causes badgers to flee to other parts taking the disease with them making matters worse. She feels that the increased inoculation of badgers is the answer. She also believes that intensive farming methods have made dairy herds more susceptible to this disease. Cook Jenny is clearly passionate and sincere about this matter.

Charlie and Bones keep quiet and the conversation is dropped and we wisely talk about something else but their eyes betray a hardness of the heart.

Charlie and Bones are both true countrymen. They were born and bred in these parts and their fathers worked the land and knew the terrible hardships this brings. Charlie’s father still lives in the village and he comes to the pub from time to time and tells tales to those who will listen of the days when men worked long and hard for little pay and when poaching was still a noble art.

Like most country controversies I sit on the fence and can appreciate both sides of the argument. I scoff another cake and a sip of coffee and head out into the cold again.

for further info check out: www.badger.org.uk  www.defra.gov.uk   www.stopthecull.info   www.fwi.co.uk  www.rspca.org.uk   www.countrylife.co.uk  and www.bbccountryfilemagazine.com

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ornamental grasses…


stipa tenuissima_edited-1There came a time when Piet Oudolf and others swept the horticultural world with their designs of bold drifts of ornamental grasses and perennials. A fashion was born. Whole gardens were ripped up to make way for swirling prairies.

Not everyone was happy though. Alan Titchmarsh wrote an article in the December issue of Gardeners’ World berating the boredom of ‘perpetual autumn’. Alan has never been one to mince his words. He described the prairie gardens ‘complete with an authentic wizened old cowboy riding through on his mangy palomino’.

I cannot help but sympathise with Alan’s point of view. He rants eloquently. Ornamental grasses form an important part of the traditional English garden design, whatever that is, but should they be allowed to dominate?

I am quite content to be caught in a Jekylesque time-warp down here in sunny old Dorset. Give me a border with a backbone of shrubs and a river of perennials and I am a happy man. Yet ornamental grasses have always grown admirably alongside more traditional plantings.

A sumptuous honeysuckle draped over an arch looks superb with three calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ standing either side guarding her purity. A stipa tenuissima in a round clay pot is the epitome of elegant simplicity. The stipa arundinacea or pheasant’s grass that billows its sparkly panicles in the dry shade of the espaliered apple tree is invaluable.

I have neither room for a prairie nor a herd of migrating bison in my back-garden. But grasses will always be much appreciated guests wherever they come from.

I will give the last word to Neil Lucas who has specialised in ornamental grasses for a good few years now. He was heard to comment that thank goodness the fashion for ornamental grasses has passed and that now we can go back to using them in our designs with taste. And that is a word of wisdom if ever there was one.



Neil Lucas runs Knoll Gardens that specialises in ornamental grasses found on www.knollgardens.co.uk

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brutal survival…

A steely blast of bitter cold has swept over the land. Folk walk their dogs with shoulders hunched and faces screwed up. All sense of fashion is dispensed with and bobble hats and gloves are the de rigueur of the day. At work I am wearing so many layers of clothes that I would bounce back up again if I ever fell over. The wind tears mercilessly at exposed skin and I am smothered in skin and lip protection.

Heavy snow has affected the north and east of the country and the weathermen speak ambiguously of the chances of snow coming here. On Thursday morning, one peep out of the window is enough to confirm that a good three inches of pristine snow has fallen in the night.


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The village school has been closed for the day. Just behind the school is a small hill where brothers and sisters throw snowballs at each other and bicker at whose turn it is to hurtle down the hill on the sledge.

Cook Jenny takes pity on those working outside and we are invited indoors for coffee. The warmth of the aga makes our frozen cheeks all rosy. We have the first mince-pies of the season and we talk of television singing contests, holly berries and preparations for the coming festivities.

Bones met Grumpy George down the pub last night. Since forecasting this ice-age he has worn such a smug look on his face. Even his long-suffering wife is finding him unbearable.


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The question is often asked of what we get up to when the weather gets like this. In days gone by the gardeners would have stone walls to repair and the hedges to lay. But these days we have fewer stone walls and the hedging has always been done by a chap in the village.

Charlie and Bones have the machinery to fix and their workshop is a blaze of lights and sounds with Lady Gaga singing at her loudest to the backdrop of a cacophony of clattering spanners.

Much of my winter work is taken up by pruning the fruit trees and coppicing the hazel but not in these freezing temperatures, and besides, I try to keep these jobs for the first two months of the year when the work really dies down.

The path from the kitchen to the bird tables and to the stables is kept clear of snow and gritted. The cars and vans are kept behind the stables and everyone including the postman uses the back entrance to the estate. The front drive must look a pretty picture from the upper windows of the house with its unspoilt virgin snow.

The primary job of the day is to knock the snow off the hedges and small trees lest the weight of the snow causes damage. The green-house roof is cleared as well. Then I devote my day to clearing up the potting shed which always gets so untidy no matter how disciplined I try to be. I afford myself the ecological luxury of a small bonfire at the back and stand around it warming my hands from time to time. The Duke and Duchess are in residence but they turn a blind eye when the weather gets like this and never come down to see what we are up to. They know that we all work hard when the weather allows and they are happy to let us be.

I’m glad to get home in the evening. My daughter phones from up north and tells us of our grand-daughters and how they are loving the snow up there. We spend some time making ginger marmalade and brandy truffles for presents for the family. It seems that Christmas is just around the corner but we have three weeks to go. The weather forecasts are at ten but I am already in bed and snoring and ‘what will come will come’ as they say in these parts.

The snow is truly beautiful but the wildlife must use all their wits to get by. The innocence of summer has passed. The lullaby of the song-bird has been quietened. The strict blue cold has straitened the countryside. This is brutal survival.


snow tree

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