Prometheus Pyrphoros

Late December and Mother Nature sprawls unconscious, magnificently exhausted by her nine-month orgy of blossom and bloom. Many gardeners use this time of respite as a period of reflection, a time to review the successes and failures of the previous year and to plan for the next. These ‘gardeners’ think that because not much is growing, and because they’ve worked so very hard all year long, that somehow they are entitled to sneak inside, to sip full-fat milk and flip through seed catalogues. This is not so. When you sell your soul to the garden you reap the rewards in balmy summer, and in the frigid winter, you pay. To be a real gardener requires at least a show of year-round faith, even in February.

But how to reconcile the need for sacrifice with mans desire not to get depressed and really cold? Impossible? No! As the botanical Prometheus I here defy the gods of horticulture and bring you the secret to enjoyable winter gardening. No longer will you spend the months of penance defrosting borders with a hairdryer. No longer will your hands freeze to your gloves and your gloves freeze to your wheelbarrow and your carpet get ruined. No longer will each day end with a tearful promise never to garden again. I bring you fire. A bonfire.

Ben of Ben's Garden

A bonfire is to midwinter as a picnic is to midsummer; it is a spontaneous outpouring of lust life and lemonade. Like picnics, bonfires should not be overly planned they should just happen.  Bonfires clear gardens without requiring any conscious effort, who doesn’t remember running around their parents’ garden joyously pulling up sticks and benches and watering cans to throw into the fire. Light a bonfire in your garden and before you know it every scrap of rubbish will have been burned, it’s just such good fun to burn things.

As well as providing some valuable outside hours for the winter gardener, bonfires provide social relief for the usually solitary horticulturalist. My friends rarely seem enthusiastic when I call them to say ‘hey I’m about to mow the lawn. Do you fancy coming along?’ and those that do turn up to watch only do so out of a sense of obligation.  But if I telephone with the promise of fire an exited turnout is almost guaranteed. Bonfires also give off a lovely woody smoky aroma that clings to spectators and means that you can smoke cigarettes without my girlfriend finding out.   

So this winter don’t give up on gardening, just light a bonfire, open a bottle of red wine and try to convince yourself its hard work.


Here’s a fine day — let us kill something

And so on to the Victorians, high-minded and heavily moustachioed exporters of British culture par excellence, and more specifically onto The Victorian Gardening Childhood, one that I missed by only century. Thank God.

I have long believed that the dominance of the British Empire was a not a consequence of industrialisation, navel supremacy or even Allan Quartermain, but was a direct result of the horticultural education of the Victorian young. Children of the nineteenth century were started on their botanical studies early, and their education was a disciplined and rigorous one. Jane Loudon’s The Young Gardeners’ Yearbook published in 1855 is typical in its advise that the principle tool in the young gardeners arsenal should be the budding knife, that beds should be carefully measured out by the child using pegs and string, and that fanciful shapes should be avoided as they hinder planting in straight lines. She informs the lucky recipient of her austere almanac that propagation from bud  is not a technique to be undertaken sloppily, and that the summer months will require strenuous labour on behalf of the child to obtain a neat and therefore perfect garden. With a childhood so overbearingly dull and structured as this it’s no wonder that adult Victorians desired nothing more than to join the army and gad about the world conquering and subjugating and picking up venereal diseases. It’s what I’d have done.

A Jane Loudon Illustration

So it has been refreshing to find a Victorian garden writer who shares the same views I do, the great Samuel Reynolds Hole, Dean of Rochester. This is a man who understands that when a schoolboy wakes up on a balmy summers dawn, he does not gleefully rush down to weed his geometrically correct spinach plantation, but in the words of Charles Lamb, he exclaims: ‘Here’s a fine day — let us kill something’. Children have short attention spans, they had short attention spans before playstations were invented, and they will have short attention spans when all the playstations are recycled and Britain is turned into one giant eco-friendly non carbon emitting bean farm (throwing beans, stealing beans and finding amusingly phallic beans will then become the new childhood plague to worry over-concerned adults who long for the simple halcyon days of their own childhood, where they spent happy days surfing the internet and never threw a bean from year to year – just you watch). Children can’t be forced to garden; they must come to it of their own volition, as an adult and through a series of lifestyle revelations (read disillusionments).

The great Dean knew this well, author of the seminal A Book About Roses, he writes of his own childhood attitude to gardening that:

I recall a period when, in the enthusiastic language of youth, all the recreations which I liked were “ripping” and all those which I disliked were “rot.” The man who ventured to admire such ordinary rubbish as scenery, sunsets, and flowers, was denounced as a “duffer,” and his conversation was “bosh.”

This Dean truly speaks the language of youth!

Reynolds Hole also understands that not everyone will appreciate a garden in the same way writing:

I asked a schoolboy, in the sweet summertide, “what he thought a garden was for?” And he said, Strawberries. His younger sister suggested Croquet and the elder Garden-parties. The brother from Oxford made a prompt declaration in favour of Lawn Tennis and Cigarettes.

Any scorn is reserved for adults who purported to be visiting his garden and then spent their time admiring such things as brickwork, or gossiping about subjects non-floral. One particularly hurtful example is recorded in his book, while  eavesdropping on the conversation between two visitors to his garden,

I heard a lady speaking to her companion of “the most perfect gem she had everseen,” and when, supposing that reference was made to some exquisite novelty in plants, I inquired the name and habitation, I was informed that the subject under discussion was “Isabel’s new baby !” “Ladies,” I remarked, with a courteous but scathing satire, “I have been a baby myself, and am now a proprietor, but I am constrained to inform you that this is a private, and not a nursery, garden.”

I recommend anyone who has an hour spare track down a copy of Our Gardens and bathe in the knowledge of The Dean of Rochester. Some of his ideas on the history of British gardening are questionable (I doubt it was the Romans who first introduced vegetables to the natives of these Isles and weaned them off a diet of acorns) but if his account of the pleasures of returning to tend to your garden after a hard days work was leaked to The City I’m sure we would see almost immediate bankruptcy in all but a few of the capitals bars, nightclubs and brothels. So go, read and when you raise your offspring let them grow as children and not as gardeners, if they are destined to bear the trowel, they will find their own way there.

The Iceni Rebellion - fuelled by acorns?
The Iceni Rebellion - Fuelled by acorns.

Great Gardeners of History #1

The Early Middle Ages are widely reviled in gardening circles (I have found out at great cost). Spiteful criticism by rent-a-gob garden polemicists of the 1300’s has lead to an ill-thought-out, but almost universally swallowed consensus, that this was a period barren of any insightful design, lazy in hard landscaping, and slapdash in its planting. Curmudgeonly critic Petrarch sums up the establishments entrenched ideology best when he says:

Each famous author gardener of antiquity whom I recover places a new offence and another cause of dishonour to the charge of earlier generations, who, not satisfied with their own disgraceful barrenness, permitted the fruit of other minds, and the writings gardens that their ancestors had produced by toil and application, to perish through insufferable neglect. Although they had nothing of their own to hand down to those who were to come after, they robbed posterity of its ancestral heritage.

Not so Mr P, not so. Today I am strapping on my revisionist armour and sallying forth to pull the Dark Ages and their accompanying ancestral heritage out of the compost bin. So without further ado I bring you the stinking, naked and well rotted, St Fiacre, Patron Saint of Gardeners.

Well Rotted - St Fiacre

That’s right the patron saint of gardeners is not Percy Thrower. It is an Irish monk born circa 595A.D. The Hibernian Monks are most famous for protecting Christianity and western learning from the rampaging barbarian tribes that toured Europe after the fall of Rome, and for drunkenness. They are less famous for their protection of tasteful gardening from the thuggish pagans (who liked playing football and having barbecues in their gardens). St Fiacre was one of those roguish Irish charmers, endowed with the wealth of the worlds gardening knowledge. Like any moderately talented Irishman Fiacre realised that the Emerald Isle is far to small to effectively propagate ambition. Unlike the modern day Irishman he did not flee to London, Sydney or New York, but went to France, to an area of woodland near the Nore River. Here he built a simple cell to live in, and started to do some serious gardening: he grew herbs, he grew vegetables, he grew fruit and he grew magic ivy, he also grew marrows to gigantic sizes and made them into chutney to serve in his hospice. As a kitchen gardener he was superb, as a show gardener he was better than average (bronze medal standard), but it was for his garden clearance ability that he was sainted, told by the local bishop he could have all the land he could clear in a day he simply walked around with his crosier uprooting trees and thundering through brambles like a huge great tonsured flail mower. Here is gardener of huge talent ambition and diversity willing to travel the world in the services of gardens, insufferable neglect this is not.

The monastic strain

‘So what!’ I hear you cry ‘One swallow does not make a summer’ ‘I’ve studied for RHS level 2, I know my syllabus, Dark Age gardens are “squat, bulbous, boggy, choleretic, and aesthetically bankrupt”. Boggy they may be, but it is from this unappealing bog that today’s garden movement springs. Lovers of antiquity such as Petrarch can delight in gardens, but they will never be a part of a garden in the way that St Fiacre was. For the gardeners of antiquity, their high medieval followers and their renaissance offspring to be in a garden is great – to be a gardener is to be uncultured poor and servile. It is with the separate historical strand of monasticism that we see the garden interacted with and the physical connection celebrated in a way that anyone with an allotment will recognise.

So all you small holders, allotmenteers and grow-your-owners, the next time a stranger at a dinner party tries to spend an entire evening talking to you about Gardens The Dark Ages, please to not guffaw derisively in their face, for I am talking about your forefathers.


London’s Blighted Heart

I have deep and fond feelings towards Fulham Palace. My girlfriend and I once accidentally topped-off a lazy Tameside by crashing one of their art parties We spent a few fine hours wandering around late medieval galleries, sipping chilled white and chatting aesthetics. Blissful and almost unbeatable, but me and you reader, we both know that there is one thing that can top free wine and good conversation – a well maintained botanic garden, so I expected my visit to the palace grounds last week to strengthen my bond with the Ol’ Bishops’ Pad.

Fulham Palace’s website ( promised “a relaxing café-bar within a graceful drawing room which overlooks the extensive botanic gardens”. This is a slightly misleading statement and I’m going to suggest that palace amends its copy to read ‘Fulham Palace boasts a relaxing café-bar within a graceful drawing room which overlooks the outside’

Extensive botanical gardens
Extensive botanical gardens

O.K its not Kew But what kind of man goes to his nearest Bishop’s garden for the lawn borders? A fool! Visitors of inquisitive mind will naturally be drawn to the more expressive areas of His Grace’s gardens, areas that demonstrate the torment of balancing  secular governance with spiritual shepherding and summer holidaying, in short, to the 18th century walled kitchen garden. Here lies the soul of the garden, and I’m afraid that this garden has bared its soul to sin.


The Knot garden comprises of a series of low box hedges enclosing all the herbs a show-home of the 1760’s could desire. The sign at the entrance promised Feverfew, Sage, Hyssop and Tansy, Ladslove, Lemonbalm Sorrel and Pansy. What it delivered was Rosemary, a monster Golden bay and an even more outsized Green bay. The traditional Box hedge was dead in parts and generally under light attack from blight (a playful nod to modern Anglicanism?) and all was surrounded by a fantastically gnarled wisteria hedge.

The whole thing was sad, beautiful and wild, it reminded me of the Chernobyl 20 years on pictures – man’s endeavour swallowed by indeterminate nature. In a way it was also more educational than Kew would have been. It is as important for a gardener as it is for a clergyman to know what will happen to his flock if he ceases to tend to them, which will thrive unheeded and uncared for, and which will fade to extinction without the pastoral caress. Rosemary murders Tansy

Wisteria sinensis
A knotty problem

So who is responsible for the knot-gardens? Fulham palace is owned by the Church, but (and this might be the first time anyone has ever put these words on the internet) the Church is not to blame. The building and grounds are now jointly leased to Fulham palace Trust and the council, and the council seem quite proud of their groundsmanship (see picture below).

“Services rated amongst the best in the U.K”? But tell me, what is of higher service to a community than a well-stocked botanic garden? (O.K fine… hospitals, litter, transport, lots of things – but a garden is still nice!) “H&F parks amongst best in the U.K.” Yes, H&F is bordered by Kensington and Chelsea and Richmond, so this one they can keep. But council tax down 3%! Four years in a row!!! With gaping holes in the council’s botanical garden infrastructure, and an almost non-existent medieval gardens portfolio, H&F council have been cutting taxes! For almost half a decade! Are they mad?

However all is knot lost. The Heritage Lottery Fund have just awarded a grand for the renovation and restoration of the gardens, and an industry insider tells me that there are some pretty serious meeting taking place as I type between councilmen, trustees, venerable garden designers and local residents. It seems that I’m not going to have to run for bishop of London again after all because Sola gratia! the gardens survive.

Now lets all moniter the progress and meet back here in five years time for a follow up review.