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

Adventures in Silviculture

Adventures in Silviculture

Once, in a life before horticulture, I spent twelve months selling second hand books from a market stall in Bristol. Eight hours a day, six days a week of sitting on a chair drinking tea and reading. It was blissful and I’d recommend it to any young person thinking of taking a gap-year.

Having so much time to read is liberating; most of us have so few hours spare for literature that we are terrified of wasting them on an imperfect book. We feel we must either read something improving, a proper book, Flaubert in French say, or one that is a guaranteed match to our tastes, the “I only read books about sexy vampires” syndrome. But when reading is all you do, you are free to waste days on books that turn out to be crap. I would read; chick lit and sci-fi, collections of feminist poetry, pamphlets about erotic female wrestlers, I would read the classics and I would read books asking “was Hitler a Satanist?”, but most importantly for the first time ever I read gardening books.

The Author, reading erotic tales of strong thighed wrestlers
Erotic tales of strong thighed wrestlers

Unfortunately now that I’m in the business of knowing stuff about plants I can’t shake my market stall ways. When shopping for gardening books I still buy third-hand volumes, not glossy new high-production hardbacks, even if it means my books are completely taxonomically redundant. I’m stuck in a world where gardening books cost £2.50 not £25.00. Last week however, things changed, I was given a £50 book token, and so finally paid a guilt free visit to the horticulture section of London’s largest bookshop.

Like a drunk in a curry house I was paralysed by choice. I browsed for hours, sweating and sipping pints of Cobra. Who knew there were so many experts on back-yard chicken-farming? Who knew how common a trope the title The *Adjective* Gardener has become. It’s out of control! Waterstones will supply you with pages by; The Thrifty Gardener, The Curious Gardener, The Inquisitive Gardener, The Adventurous Gardener, The Virgin Gardener, The Weekend Gardener, The Bad-Tempered Gardener, The Common Sense Gardener, The Meditative Gardener, The Resilient Gardener, The Conscientious Gardener, The Informed Gardener, The Decadent Gardener and The Quotable Gardener.

The Adventurous Gardener
The Adventurous Gardener

In the end I bought Tall Trees & Small Woods: How to Grow and Tend Them by Dr William Mutch which is proving a solid introduction to practical forestry. It is full of dignified pen and ink drawings of un-glamorous things like vertical notch planting, befitting of an author who was the first president of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. I particularly admired Dr Mutch’s restraint in not titling his book The Coppicing Gardener.

The knowledge and assurance displayed within, as well as the subject matter reminded me of one of my horticultural heroes; Richard St. Barbe Baker, Late Assistant Conservator of Forests in Kenya Colony and the Southern Provinces of Nigeria, and author of the magisterial autobiography I Planted Trees. I found Baker’s book in a second hand bookstall in Camden Lock and have been enchanted by him since.

At the age of 16 Baker left the family home in Hampshire and travelled to Canada, claiming that his great-uncle had once killed a bear with just a shovel and that he fancied doing the same. After three years living as a frontiers man he decided he’d get an education and enrolled on the forestry course at Cambridge. Unfortunately the Great War broke out while he studied, and Richard was duty bound to enlist. His account of the First World War is crisp and to the point, displaying a characteristic reticence to boast of glory or to seek sympathy. At one point in I Planted Trees he writes “I went through all the spring shows of 1915, but this is not the place to talk of them”. Lucky for us! Leaving the gassing of Ypres and the horror of the Western Front out of his autobiography means more space to muse on the practical management of Kenyan pencil wood forests.

Richard St. Barbe Baker
Richard St. Barbe Baker

But it is not just pencil wood that will delight the silvicuturalist reader: the bamboo cloud forests of the Aberdare Range make an appearance, as do the mangrove swamps of Italian Somaliland, the ancient forest of East Germany and the eucalyptus groves of Southern California. The author is touchingly obsessed with woods. In I Planted Trees a dinner with Mussolini warrants a single sentence, chatting to Roosevelt gets two, almost dying of lockjaw contracted from a Mikingili thorn takes five sentences to describe, while near losing a leg in Ceylon takes a barely a page (delirious and unable to speak he writes a note to the doctor: “I am a forester; I need both legs” pointedly drawing a double line under “both”) encountering the Natural Regeneration of Woodland theory of Karl Gayer has its own dedicated chapter.

Though Baker died in 1982, the organization he set up, The Men of the Trees lives on as The International Tree foundation and has now been responsible for planting tens of millions of trees internationally (or 26 trillion if you believe Wikipedia). He may well have been responsible for planting the very tree that made the paper that was scribbled on by all those Bad Tempered, Virgin, and Adventurous Gardeners, and for that I hope they will join me in raising a toast “to Richard St. Barbe Baker – He planted trees.”

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
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-
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

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

Great Gardeners of History/Chelsea #4

Let us away from Chelsea, that foul and feckless temple to Mammon, away from esurient financiers and hoggish merchants, away from all corporate Champagne and amalgamated sponsorship. This week join me in simpler times; come and meet the next great gardener of history – founder of the first botanical garden, creator of the herbaria and the finest plant collector since Theophrastus. Let’s lose ourselves in his scholarly Eden, marvel at his Jerusalem artichokes and gasp as he conjures sunflowers before our under-stimulated European eyes. Let’s stick fingers in our ears and for these moments ignore the shadow of his patron, deep-pocketed and long-knifed Cosimo I die Medici – we know there’s no place for bankers in gardening.

In 1543 Luca Ghini created the world first botanical garden at the University of Pisa. After the Middle-Ages’ one and half millennia of horticultural stagnation, he removed plants from the pages of the illuminated manuscript and placed them where they belonged and have remained ever since, in the ground. Natural intellect, flair and Medici money combined to leave us a legacy that we all enjoy today.

Luca Ghini

Before Ghini started his garden, horticulture was in a sorry state. The ancient Greeks and Romans had undertaken intensive studies of their native flora, and recorded their findings in magnificent books, such as Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica. These pagan savants gifted their learning and illustrations to their Christian progeny, who spent 1500 years slavishly copying copies of copies (more to curtail monastic masturbation that for a love of learning) until all diagrams resembled either blobs with leaves or leaves with blobs.

Cosimo I dei Medici

But a good Renaissance will do wonders for a peoples’ self confidence, and by the 16th century, Western Europe, having already challenged the ancients in sculpture, music and architecture, finally got around to the greatest art – gardening. Ghini was our standard bearer. Such was his confidence that shortly after founding the garden he wrote to a correspondent:

of horminum I have two species, cultivated and wild. I am sending you both plants dried and glued to cardboard. It does not matter that Dioscorides mentions only one because in many other cases he does not mention all the species that could be described. I think my dear sir, that you yourself have observed many more Tithymala, ranunculi, polygonata, and so on, than are enumerated by Dioscorides. In my own garden I have three species of hastula regia besides the one described by Dioscorides.

It does not matter what Dioscorides thought! Shocking yet brilliant – stuff Copernicus and his bloody sun – this is the real scientific revelation of the 1540’s. Ghini quickly gathered a circle of apprentices, wowed by his empirical approach and his insistence that plants should be viewed in their natural state. Soon these new creations, “botanical gardens”, spread to Pisa, Florence, Padua and Venice, and from there to the rest of the world.  Wikipedia tells me there are nearly 2000 registered today.

In the1540’s extravagant mercantile wealth and gardening came together to create something of self evident benefit to horticulture and to mankind. Without botanical gardens hundreds of thousands of people’s appreciation of the natural world, and even of life itself, would be hugely diminished – naysayers may scoff, but I’m sure in 500 years time they will say the same thing about pink flying gardens.

Pink flying garden

Drunken Gardeners of History

Man, in his 6million year history has only really produced four great inventions – art, God, fermentation and the gardening blog.  Three to help us forget the universe’s lonely enormity, one to teach us cheap, fun ideas for small plots and to bang on about carrots.

My series Great Gardeners Of History has already fondled the divine and caressed the Muses, and I’m buggered if I’m writing The Great Carrots Of History, so today, ladies and gentlemen – Drunk Gardeners Of History.

Disclaimer. This post differs from the rest of the series in that it does not focus on one individual, but gathers a broad handful of the factual and the fictional. It also forms part of a wider campaign to get gardeners reclassified as ‘Land Sailors’. More information here.   

First some facts. I have created a scientific process for measuring how strong an association particular jobs have with drink. Using a web based pub review site ( I have entered various professions, and measured how many pubs they lend their name to. Gardeners birth a staggering 59 boozers (and this is by no means an exhaustive database). In contrast Bricklayers only have 46 pubs named in their honour and shepherds a puritan 44. And sailors? Sailors only have 43.

Can this be true? Are gardeners really 37% more drunk than the Jolly Jack Tars, famous the world over for their riotous drinking and enthusiastic brawling? Well not necessarily, critics might point out that sailors have a well known song referencing their drunkenness, and that it has an infinite number of verses. They would no doubt say that gardeners have no song at all about their inebriation, thus proving that Sailors are the greater wastrels. To those critics I say Ah! Signore. We have Mozart on our side. (Please watch the first 2 mins of this clip from The Marriage of Figaro for evidence( Feel free to watch the whole clip if you like it))

 As Mozart and Da Ponte knew well, drunken horticulturalists are just as dangerous and compelling as mutinous rum swilling pirate crews, and as fitting a subject for art and literature. Ernest Hemmingway began one of the stories in his first published work:  ‘On the four lire Peduzzi had earned by spading the hotel garden he got quite drunk’. He published this 27 years before The Old Man and The Sea, proving beyond all possible argument that half-cut gardeners held more sway over the imagination of young Ernest than the wide and open ocean. The  grandfather of all drunkards was Dionysus, also the Greek god of agriculture, though his wild and naked bacchanal seems to have been unfairly appropriated by the sailors (the greatest density of prostitutes over recorded was aboard a ship moored in Portsmouth Harbour) leaving the gardener with more of a solitary slumping stupor. Finally Noah planted and tended vineyards just so that he could get sloshed and expose himself, and he turned out to be a great sailor.

The Garden King

Art, myth, song, and archive all play from the same sheet, witness this extract from an employment contract between George Washington and a gardener named  Philip Bater…

 Articles of Agreement made this twelveth day of April Anno Domini one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven, by and between George Washington Esqr. of the Parish of Truro, in the County of Fairfax, State of Virginia, on the one part, and Philip Bater, Gardner,… [who] hereafter, mentioned, doth promise and agree to serve the sd. George Washington, for the term of one year, as a Gardner, and that he will, during said time, conduct himself soberly,… and that he will not, at any time, suffer himself to be disguised with liquor, except on the times hereafter mentioned.

George Washington doth agree to allow him (the sd. Philip)… four Dollars at Christmas, with which he may be drunk 4 days and 4 nights; two Dollars at Easter to effect the same purpose; two Dollars also at Whitsontide, to be drunk two days; also A Dram in the morning, and a drink of Grog at Dinner or at Noon.

So there you have it Gardeners have grog rations and licensed drunkenness, they are the saliors of the land, and they should be treated as such. That is why I hereby promise that when, one day in the distant future, I am in charge of large public garden, my staff shall be given a tot of rum to start the day and flogged brutally if they shirk on the weeding.

Dead Mans Chest

To Kill A Hundred Lovers

This month I visited Stourhead, and it sent me off on grottoes. In a country whose default climate is one of damp frigidity, building a deliberately damp and frigid area just in case it turns nice seems wantonly pointless. We get four weekends of sun a year; I’m sure not even the famously perverted aristocracy want to spend them all underground (an exchange between Dr Johnson and a proud Lincolnshire heiress sums it up nicely. ‘Would it not be a pretty cool habitation in summer, Dr Johnson?’ ‘Yes Madam I think it would – for a toad’).      

Stourhead in the sun, to the grotto everyone!

But I’m a garden blogger, pointlessness naturally appeals to me. I admire the ludicrous nature of the English grotto, they serve no thermo-regulatory purpose, they’re unsuitable for both dinner and drinks parties, and they add far less value to a house than a well kept border (one for the prospective clients here – best borders in London mate). They were built so that land owners could show off, frolic with poetic echoes of the pagan past, and continue the admirably romantic work of ‘making Homer speak good English’. And as a useless display of heretical frivolity, I have always been very fond of them.        

But over the weekend I made a worrying discovery. Browsing a reprint of The Spectator’s early years (second hand book shops FTW!) I came across an exchange of letters from Autumn 1714 that hints that the grotto may have had an altogether more utilitarian purpose. Rather than being serene white elephants , they may have been a bizarrely over the top attempt to stop women trying to write poetry –  an ever present threat in Early Georgian England.      

Garden history may never be the same again! To get to the bottom of this potentially game changing revelation let’s take a trip to October 13th, 1714, Spectator 606, and an exasperated Great Aunt ….         


I have under my direction a pair of nieces who so often run gadding abroad that I do not know where to have them…. they go to bed as tired with doing nothing as I am after quilting a whole under petticoat…. I have plied my needle these fifty years, and by my good will would never have it out of my hand…. It grieves my heart to see a couple of proud idle flirts sipping their tea, for a whole afternoon, in a room hung with the industry of their great grandmother.     

A fairly unremarkable letter, as all Great Aunts regard their nieces and nephews as idle flirts – it’s the first law of Wodehouse, and what follows is a typical Spectator response….      

 What a delightful entertainment it must be to the fair sex, to spend their hours in imitating fruits and flowers, and transplanting all the beauties of nature into their own dress… This is, methinks,  the most proper way wherein a lady can show a fine genius; and I cannot forbear wishing that several writers of that sex had chosen to apply themselves to tapestry rather than rhyme… It [also] takes them off from scandal, the usual accompaniment of tea-tables…. while they are forming their birds and beasts, their neighbours will be allowed to be the fathers of their own children; and Whig and Tory will be but seldom mentioned when the great dispute is, whether blue or red is the proper colour.’            

So there we go. I must say it’s a secure man who is prepared to use knitting as a defence against cuckoldry, and in all fairness Red versus Blue is nowadays a far more relevant political debate than Whig vs Tory. However, I can see how the response could be viewed as more than a trifle misogynistic. Luckily there was one reader that did not tow the weaving line. A anonymous ‘Cleora’ writes:      

No. 609 Wednesday, October 20th, 1714      


‘The virgins of great Britain are very much obliged to you for putting them upon such tedious drudgeries in needle-work…. I would have you know, that I hope to kill a hundred lovers before the best housewife in England can stitch out a battle. ‘      


      Must women either silently knit their lives away, or run around slaughtering boyfriends and composing dodgy verse? The next correspondent thinks he has found a middle ground –  grottoes!!        

No. 632 Monday, December 13, 1714. A man known as A. H. writes         


I entirely agree with you… However tapestry may not be suitable for certain ladies of a rather more poetic nature who cannot so readily quit their pen and ink as you imagine.  Pray allow them, at least now and then, to indulge themselves in other amusements of fancy when they are tired of stooping to their tapestry. There is a very particular kind of work, which of late several ladies of our kingdom are very fond of, which seems well adapted to a poetical genius, it is the making of grottoes…. I know a lady who has a very beautiful  one composed by herself; nor is there one shell in it not stuck on by her own hands… Here I send you a poem to the fair architect which I would not offer to herself until I knew whether this method of a lady’s passing her time were approved of by the British spectator.’         

I will copy some of this poem at the end of the post, so readers can judge whether A.H. himself should have stuck to playing with shells.         

It seems that women’s role in the building of grottoes has been ignored by garden historians, women do not feature in the text books for this period at all. The spectator was an opinion-former  that was read by up to a tenth of London’s population. The grotto for a brief while may have been a fashionable part of many households.  It is also interesting that in this context the building of grottoes was regarded as morally fortifying, this links what appears to be the most decedent of classical structures with the later shift in morality and architecture that spawned the gothic revival. There’s a Phd in there for anyone who wants it.         

Obviously the moral and conclusion of this post is that poetic talent is a non gender specific attribute. Play them away A.H       


‘’A grotto, so complete, with such design,       


What hands, Calypso, could have formed but thine?       


Each chequered pebble, and each shining shell,       


So well proportioned and disposed so well,       


The enthusiastic muse believes it true,       


Thinks the spot is sacred, and its genius you,”

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…. 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



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

A fruit By No Other Name

It’s finally time to talk about my new favourite old Elizabethan delicacy, Mespilus germanica . A fruit that’s only palatable when rotten, known to many as the medlar – known to me as the Open Arse.

Cynics might suggest that this entire post is just an excuse to snigger about bums, well, so what? I have literary precedent!  My mentor and muse, the great William Shakespeare, was also compelled to write by the humorous fruit –  over to you Mercutio:

Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
O, Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse, thou a pop’rin pear!

Oh that she were an Open Arse! Shakespeare fans will of course instantly recall that Mercutio speaks about unseen and uncelebrated proto-Juliet: Rosaline. The laddish Merc-o wishes Rosaline were a medlar, a fruit that is rotten before its ripe.  Medlars can only be enjoyed when they are slightly physically decomposed, just as women can only be enjoyed when they are slightly morally decomposed.

Medlar, stage left, pursued by a leaf.

Now it might be slightly tenuous to suggest that the medlar is critical in understanding Romeo and Juliet. The play would hobble along if it was taken out and replaced with the apple, banana, tomato, or another word more palatable to modern mouths. The medlar stanza was never much quoted anyway, it ain’t no ‘rose by any other name’, the play would function just as well, and be slightly shorter, if we cut it out all together . But that won’t happen. Because then you have an abridged version , and no-one likes an abridged version. Abridged versions are for children and cretins and Hollywood.

So why then do we have an abridged national cuisine? I consider myself a child of the hedgerows, I’ve eaten my share of wild garlic soup and measured my life in nettle tea, but I have never eaten a medlar. I’ve never had the opportunity to eat a medlar. I did not even know what a medlar was until I read about Shakespeare’s open arses (this post was going to be about roses, I’ve been pruning them for the last few weeks and I was reading R&J to find the name of the rose quote). This is a fruit that apparently is the perfect partner to cheese and wine, that was rich in symbolism and comically anatomical in appearance, and I have never had the opportunity to even try one.

Where did this fruit get lost? How have we mislaid something so evocative, symbolic and tasty?  This is not a situation where we can blame Tesco for coming in and making us all eat from the Universal Vat of Own Brand Beans. At some point there has been a breakdown in communication between the ages. One of you ancestral generations  forgot to tell your offspring about the medlar tree, and now we are all suffering for it. Having never tasted it I think I’m safe in saying that losing the taste of the medlar is just as tragic as losing the complete works of William Shakespeare. 

I know that out there somewhere there must a last remaining enclave of medlar enthusiasts . A lost tribe who have never tried a kiwi fruit and who keep the memory and taste of the open arse alive. This post is an appeal to you. I would desperately love to try some well bletted medlars. Pass on this post to anyone who’s holding, or anyone you think might be holding some medlars. I’ll meet you on Putney Bridge, 15:00, April  1st,  I’ll bring the cheese, you bring the rotten fruit.

Mr William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

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.