Breaking the Mould

At university I lived with a man who had three-quarters learnt how to wash clothes. He could load a machine, choose a detergent, select a cycle (the hard bit) and press the go button, but never remembered to go back and collect his laundry. It would sit damp in one of the communal machines until he ran out of socks, sometimes over a fortnight later.

He was the loveliest chap, but his clothes were ever-speckled with black mould, a purely cosmetic condition which some people seemed to find off-putting. I’ve thought of him often over the last few days, because unfortunately I now have my own unsightly cosmetic condition that looks a lot like his.

I have sooty mould.

My particular sooty mould is on the glass house camellias (for those of you unfamiliar with the Chiswick House Camellias you can read about them here which is a disaster because in six weeks we have our annual Camellia Festival, and the public will demand dark green, glossy leaves – leaves by L’Oreal – not matt-black, mould-mottled, undergraduate-T-shirt-style leaves.

Unblemished Camellia Japonica
Unblemished Camellia Japonica

Luckily sooty mould is a surface condition that does not harm really harm the plant. It’s the visual manifestation of Ascomycete fungi feeding on the honeydew excreted by our Chiswick House Aphids. Usually it’s a summer problem and is washed off by the rain. But we have no rain in the glass house, and we can’t blast the mould away without knocking off the heavily pregnant buds. So we are washing the leaves, by hand, each and every one.

I don’t really mind this slow methodical work. It bonds me to the past horticulturalists of Chiswick House. I’m only the latest in a line of gardeners stretching back centuries to have stood in this conservatory and day dreamed from a stepladder. It gives me the opportunity to think about long forgotten university friends and about their washing, it’s an exercise in the voguish art of mindfulness, and should be sold as therapy to burnt-out bankers. It also gives me the opportunity to put headphones in and practice my Spanish.

This linguistic skiving is actually very important, because next month I’m handing over my stepladder and leaving Chiswick House for Colombia. My highflying diplomatic girlfriend is taking up a post at the British Embassy in Bogota and I’ll be based out there for the next three or four years. I plan to post a round-up of my time in UK horticulture before I leave, but more importantly I intend to carry on working with plants in whatever capacity I can, so if any of my international readership hears rumours of things growing Down South – send me a tip off.

Until then it’s back to those Camellias…


The Author in Search of New Plants
The Author in Search of New Plants

In Search of Lost Camellias

The peony flowered camellias are opening in our North London garden, and as always they have set me on edge. One becomes emotionally entangled with certain plants, odd species that over the years come to carry strange sentimental heft. Each gardener will have their own unique gremlins, and these camellias are mine. The Daphnes and Witchhazel are also flowering, but these plants, though superior in many ways, never seem to punch me in the psychic gut the way the first overblown camellia buds of spring do.

Being intellectually tied to hybrid camellias for all eternity is a burden to me, because I can’t stand the bloody things. The flowers are far too big and after the sombre refinement of winter they crash like sunlight on hung-over eyes.  Give me snowdrops, give me viburnum – just ease me gently into spring. They also rot in the bud and brown so quickly that before they fully open they resemble a corsage of six-week old salad.

But there are plenty of overbred plants I’m on not keen on; why then the camellia connection? I think it’s all to do with the corpus amygdaloideum, that little pear-drop sized piece of temporal lobe that processes memory and emotional reactions. To put it in Wikipedia speak: “sensory stimuli (read glimpses of camellia) reach the basolateral complexes of the amygdalae, particularly the lateral nuclei, where they form associations with memories of the stimuli.” So when I see this plant I am synapticly hijacked, routed unthinkingly to a group of memories which manifest themselves as the punch in the psychic gut, the sentimental heft.

corpus amygdaloideum
corpus amygdaloideum

So what are these semi-repressed camellia flashbacks that bestride my every spring? Well….

There was a large hybrid camellia in the garden of the house I grew up in. It was hollow in the way that most large shrubs are (leaves on the outside, branches on the inside and all that), but being the only mature shrub in a garden filled with single stemmed trees and mono-dimensional herbaceous material, it seemed the platonic ideal of a den – a properly interactive bit of garden you could get inside. Which is what we did: it became the base of the Dark siblings.

Each year it would flower heavily – no doubt a stress reaction to all the small children arsing about in its innards – and we would collect the many petals of the huge double pink flowers to make potions. One summer we decided to make perfume and so we filled a tub with the petals, mashed them up with a stick and left to mature into eau de wonderful.

After a while it became obvious that even our mother, who always happily endured badly whittled sticks and painted rocks as birthday presents, would never so much as pretend to wear the foul gunk we had created, and so the perfume became a poison.

We added whatever we could from wherever we found it; wasp killer from inside the shed, a dead pigeon from on top of the shed, petrol, grass clipping and lots of wee. The mix was stirred and topped up all summer before we decided to tip it down the drive. The gunk was of the first order of foulness, a stench that will live forever in my nostrils. Who’d have thought that camellia blossom, rotting flesh and urine could smell so bad?

My second camellia memory is from the first garden I ever got paid to work in. My primary task one frigid February morning was to clear up the fallen blooms of a towering peony-flowered camellia that had been hit by sudden frost and persistent rain. I had not brought any gloves with me, and was too green and timid to ask the homeowner for some. I can still feel the sensation of plunging my bare fingers into that brown freezing mess of decaying petals.

Given my growing negative links with the hybrid camellia, one would think that I would choose to stay away from them.  Instead, in an inspired piece of self-sabotage, I chose to bond myself with them forever. When I decided to become a professional jobbing gardener I designed some flyers. They were fine things with a facsimile of a Dürer woodcut, some copy about being a student of the horticultural arts, a photo of me looking charming and non-threatening and another picture: a picture of a hybrid camellia.

The Flyer
The Flyer

I had panicked: I needed a picture of a plant to remind potential clients what gardeners do and had run into the garden and snapped the first one I found. I got 5000 flyers printed. 5000 times I saw that camellia disappear into letterboxes and 5000 times I worried that the occupant would never phone me, that I had made the wrong choice and that I never should have given up my job. 5000 individual moments of horrible self-doubt all auto-associated with that one blancmange pink camellia flower.

So if while we walk in the winter garden you hear me quietly cursing, do not me think me mad.  It’s just those flowers over there – they’re in my brain talking to me of cold slime, rejection and rotting pigeon.

Gosh, well if you read all of that you deserve a reward – here’s a song about falling in love with a cactus.


The Unbearable Leafness of Being

Just as those who consume large quantities of waxed Californian pornography often grow to be revolted by pubic hair, so those who dwell mainly in sky-scraping penthouses often fear the natural world. It’s only to be expected; for them plants only exist crisp and viridian in window boxes and vases, so to see the woods in Autumn is traumatic. Bits of the plants keep going brown and falling off, they’re like squalid vegetable lepers; it’s disgusting, repulsive, probably dangerous, certainly unhygienic, and “oh darling look there’s another leaf! call for the gardener!!”

They don’t realise that the gardener is a complex instrument and that to produce the sweetest music  he must be finely tuned – body and mind working in perfect conjunction like a samurai. Recently I have become discordant, the folia-phobic super-rich have had me guarding them from leaves for up to eight hours a day, and my mind has ruptured – I have developed a leaf fetish.

Not fetish for leaf-sweeping, which will always be about a billion shades of tedious. (Once, God knows why, I was a panellist for a seminar on ‘volunteer management in the garden’. I said goodhearted volunteers should be forced to do boring repetitive tasks for months on end just because paid staff can’t be arsed. I mentioned leaf sweeping and a vastly more experienced panellist rejoined: “actually Ben, if you teach someone to sweep leaves properly, they will be grateful and happy to work at it for long periods.”  Nonsense then and nonsense now. Be aware readers, a well known garden in the South of England is lobotomising its volunteers). No, my fetish is for the fallen.

Previously my interest in Autumn colour had been conventionally arboreal; I liked ‘em red and hanging off a tree. But now I have been conditioned to see a fallen leaf not as a pragmatic reaction to diminishing light levels, but as mother nature’s “up-yours” to the international oligarchy and I seem to find delight in everywhere they pile.

You see, leaves once fallen cede so much to the garden, they dislocate familiar vistas, they give movement to the static, they crunch most pleasantly underfoot, they hide all the mistakes and casualties of summer, and they bind a garden to the calendar as evocatively and as essentially as deep snow or golden daffodils. Our latitude has blessed us with four seasons and our gardens must be allowed to express them all. If Autumn is ever to compete with coquettish spring She must not just wear Her coat of many colours, but throw it to the floor and romp wantonly on it.

My favourite wanton days are the very windy and the very still. When I leave my work in a gale and walk over Hampstead Heath to the station the leaves whip headwards like sniper rounds, blinding the joggers of Parliament Hill and burying their dogs under orange drifts. A nice bit of apocalyptic chaos to go with a paper cup of tea. While on the crisp calm days leaves fall straight from the boughs and lie in an exact circle under the branches, every tree mirroring itself perfectly on the grass. A field of sugar maples and prunus reflecting on the heath trumps any effect you could ever create with bloody cornus and lake-water.

In the distant future I hope to have gardeners of my own, and I know that come Autumn they will never be made to sweep up all day. Instead they can clean sparkplugs, plant bulbs and look forward to December when leaves are boring and I make them pick up every single one.

Wanton Autumn

Scenes Gardeners From a Gardeners Life

Easter weekend has past, and as tradition dictates, I have suffered my first horticultural injury of the year. I will now not stop bleeding until December the 16th , when I like to throw a pissy fit and go inside for three months. This season’s opening wound was particularly impressive-  I (nearly) broke my nose with a spade.

Like so many of the ills that affect man, the root of my injury lies in the sin of vanity. I allowed myself to live through others eyes, and as is fitting, was (nearly) disfigured for the privilege. You see, I have had a spade ever since I became a gardener, it is one of the building blocks of the gardening profession. Some might say that without the spade gardeners would simply be the planets hairdressers, and that it is the spade that makes us the planets brain surgeons. My spade was made of two parts, one was made of shiny metal, such as you might see on the back of a spoon, the other was made of black plastic, like the bumper of a cheap car. Crucially these two bits were joined together, it is this that gave the spade its excellent qualities.  These two parts are still joined together, the spade has lost none of its spadeness, it’s still the same spade that used to dig up a car tyre last week, it’s still the same spade that I slightly melted while having a bonfire last autumn, and it’s still the same spade I can see leaning against the wall as I type. So why then did I choose to buy a new spade? Vanity! Horrible venal vanity.

Ben's Garden Pond

I decided my spade looked cheap. I said to myself ‘Ben you’re a professional gardener’ I said ‘you are the planets brain surgeon and you deserve recognition as such’ I said ‘your spade looks cheap! its holding you back! You need a new spade!’. So I bought a new spade. Like my last spade, and I’m sure like many of your spades at home, this spade was made of two parts – again giving it excellent qualities. Once more, one was metal, the other though, was ash. Good solid expensive rural looking ash, it reminded of the longbow, or that famous spade that Little john used to knock Robin Hood into the river, most importantly it reminded me of money and success. This is the spade that David Beckham probably uses.

Solid Spadework

So when I somehow got the blade of my new spade tangled between my legs while moving in a shuffling crouch down my hallway (don’t ask), it was not cheap, light, bumper friendly plastic that struck the side of my nose – it was solid ash striking with the force of Merry Old England.  

Let this tale be a lesson to all you vain self loving gardeners. Repent and be forgiven. Buy floral patterned designer hand trowels from the V&A and be smashed to a thousand pieces by the forces of the cosmos.  As for me, In the words of Sir Anthony Bartleby: I am hurt, but I am not slain; I’ll lay me down and bleed a while, And then I’ll rise and fight again.


As an amusing aside that completely defeats the point of the above post I’d like to tell you about an incident today that made me vainly glad of my new ash spade. This afternoon I arrived at a clients house where I’m trying to create a woodland garden. Parked in the driveway was a huge hulking great van/truck belonging to a local gardening services company. Two tree surgeons had been doing some felling in the garden, and were packing away thousands of pounds worth of sthill motorised gardening gadgets. They had earrings, ropes, chainsaws, tattoos, muscles, leaf blowers, stubble and wood chippers. I don’t even have a van. I have a purple girls bicycle that I cycle around southwest London and a travellers rucksack – from the top of which all manner of tools poke. I also have a little blue cycle helmet that makes me look like a cheerful Japanese anime mushroom. Were it not for the top of my ash spade bobbing about behind my helmet I fear that to them I would have looked a complete amateur.

Gardening to Paradise

A discerning member of my New York readership has sent me a roundabout request for more poetry (so moved was he by my version of daffodil’s that he has asked me to be best man at his yet to be announced, scheduled, planned or proposed wedding*).

Unfortunately my creative pores have ceased to weep, so we shall have to make do with a little bit of William Blake writing on his garden (or at least I think he was writing about his garden, what else could provoke such emotion in a grown man?).

When I first married you, I gave you all my whole soul,

Thought that you would love my loves & joy in my delights,

Seeking for pleasures in my pleasures O Daughter of Babylon,

Then thou wast lovely, mild and gentle, now there art terrible,

In jealousy & unlovely in my sight, because thou hast cruelly,

Cut off my loves in fury till I have no love left for thee,

William Blake, Milton

Now here Oor Wullie touches on an area that is sadly neglected in modern garden writing, the fact that mother nature is viscous mean and capricious in the extreme. She teases us with glimpses of gorgeous wildflower meadows, tropical waterfalls cascading with ferns, parakeets and monkeys, and then gives us this.

Thou wast lovely, mild & gentle

(Yes, it’s my garden. No giggling. I only moved to this house a month ago and I still have a long way to go in my campaign to build a garden Arcadia. I also rent and am exceptionally impoverished, being riddled with expensive addictions and all, so I’m trying to restore this fallen Eden on a budget of about £13. More on my garden in later posts.)

It must be recognised that a love of gardening is an extremely heavy cross to bear. Blake was clearly a man gardening in dry shade and heavy clay. He felt like me the pain each year as circumstances (slugs, ill timed holidays, house parties (I believe I read some where that the Blake’s threw a bangin’ house party)) contrived to destroy his most precious progeny. Gardens have sentience, and each an individual nature, like humans some are bright, cheerful, accommodating, and helpful. Others are little buggers.

However I believe the key to gardening in an environment that hates you lies in another piece of Blake’s writing; “He who binds himself to joy doth the winged life destroy, but he who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity’s sunrise.” Remember that all life in your garden is fleeting, do not build your existence solely around your (admittedly magnificent) herbaceous borders, one day they too will leave you and your garden will be as barren as mine. However I took my pleasure in that sole annenomie that meekly showed her head through the cracks in my patio, I let her wither and I moved on, I had a Barbeque. That my dears is how my poor gardening and rubbish soil has lead me to write this from a paradise of eternal sunrise.

*To all interested parties, I make an amazing best man and come replete with a comprehensive catalogue of amusing anecdotes, horticultural and otherwise. For bookings please contact me via the replies screen.

William Blake - Gardening in poor soil