10 gardening books

When a TV production company invites you in to chat about becoming a sexy celebrity gardener, the first thing they ask is “so, what’s your thing?” I told them my thing was gardening, and they never called me back. Turns out that they had been looking for someone who had a more marketable gimmick; they wanted The Breakdancing Gardener, or The Surrealist Gardener. So my program “The Gardening Gardener” never got made.

A similar thing happened with this blog. A friend who works in publishing sent it to her friend in gardening books. The first I heard was when the publishers emailed to say that although they loved the blog and the writing, they couldn’t see what my point was, and it’s hard for them to sell a pointless book (I paraphrase).

They are, of course, completely right. So with that in mind and an eye to publication I’m submitting a list of 10 potential gardening books with very clear points, books that in television parlance “have a thing”.

1. Learn to Garden The Aztec Way
Learn when to sow and harvest using the natural rhythms of the tonalpohualli calendar and blood divination.

2. Grow Yourself Thin!
Plant a new skinnier you today with these amazing fat busting plants. Learn to grow Erythroxylums and Nicotianas and much much more.

3. Crystal Palaces
Fiction. The secret history of the passionate yet forbidden romance between the enigmatic yet tender 6th Duke of Devonshire and his mercurial yet earthy head gardener Joseph Paxton – erotic yet taxonomically correct.

4. The Great British Rot Off
A wry look at Islington’s competitive composting scene.

5. Gone with the Wind
Anemophily and Allergic rhinitis – a history.

6. The Wardian Case
Fiction. When a famous plant hunter is found dead in a sealed glass box renowned Victorian scientist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward must use all his gardening nouce to solve the case.

7. Mummy, why is that tree dead?
A guide to gardening with children

8. Mealy-bugs and Mojitos
Fiction. Plant scientist Poppy Greenway is having the time of her life in London’s gardens and bars when her world is shaken by an outbreak of waxy aphids and the arrival of brooding pest control technician Daniel de Oscuro.

9. Orchid Hunting in Iceland
An insider’s guide to high-street plants.

10. Pound Pounds Ponds
The poet-critic Ezra Pound’s best writing on garden ponds. “No man understands a deep pond until he has seen and lived at least part of its contents.”

I’m sure I could have any of these written in time for the Mothers Day market – so if you feel like publishing do get in touch.



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


‘LAY DOWN ALL HOPE, YOU THAT GO IN BY ME’ is surely one of the most hysterically hyperbolic pieces of graffiti in the mythical world. Dante passed the Gates of Hell and came out fine, I’m sure the writing’s just there to stop journalists and family historians pissing about with the dead. I’m sure because I spent last Tuesday between the hours of 8am and 5pm in Hell – and now I’m sitting here typing this and drinking a cup of tea.

As a neurotically unrepentant sinner, I’ve spent many constructive hours pinpointing the exact spot in Dante’s vision of Hell where my eternal punishment is destined to take place. It’s actually not as simple a hobby as some might think. It seems that in Fourteenth Century Milan everyone had their sin and stuck to it; you decided ‘I’m a flatterer!’ and you bloody well knuckled down to flattering – it was a sin for life. In this age of universal health care, where bankers become plumbers and plumbers become simoniacs we all want to have our cake and eat it (Hoarders and Spendthrifts both). I know people who are capable of being gluttonous, wrathful, schismatic and lustful all in the time it takes them to eat breakfast.

I’d sort of decided that as a garden blogger whose own garden currently resembles the City of Dis itself, I’d belong in the Eighth Circle, Bowge vi, where the hypocrites trudge in gilded cloaks of lead. However whichever force orders my life experiences (God knows it aint me) decided that I should test drive the far less glamorous Third Circle – where the gluttonous wallow.

Yes, last Tuesday it rained all day. I spent the day engrossed in two tasks, switching from one to the other as each became intolerable. The first was rescuing a monstrous, unloved and mismanaged compost heap, thus I know how it is to garden while  ‘huge hailstones, sleet and snow, and turbid drench/ of water sluice down through the darkened air,/ and the soaked earth gives of a putrid stench.’ My second sisyphean challenge was bramble clearance, so now I know exactly what gardeners do when raked by Cerberus’ talons: ‘They howl in the rain like hounds; they try to shield/ One flank with the other; with many a twist and squirm, the impious wretches writhe in the filthy field’. I have to say I am genuinely stunned at how accurately Dante describes a day in my gardening life 700 years before it happened. Spooky.

Typical Gardening

This miserable experience soaked my spirit so thoroughly it made me question for the first time Why I Garden. Certainly not for the money, there are easier ways to earn a far bigger crust than by gardening. What’s that I hear? Did someone say ‘Oh, but it must be lovely having a job where you’re outside all day’… I can bet if I was a professional beggar no-one would say that. Philosophically it can be argued that gardening is good for the soul, in fact Voltaire suggested that small time garden maintenance was the way to spend a perfect life (take that careers advisors!) as it keeps the individual ‘free of three great evils: boredom, vice and necessity’ hence the eponymous Candide’s eventual epiphany ‘we must tend to our garden’. Well it seems apparent that Voltaire never spent his days raking leaves so as to afford a trip to the pub. Ecologically, gardening is regarded as good, but I occasionally use pesticides and herbicides, and I’m sure the gardens I use them in would have a greater biodiversity if they were left completely fallow. So, why indeed?

And now it’s Monday night, almost a exactly a week since my hellish Tuesday, and the rain has started again. Heavy, persistent, thuggish sounding rain. I could give up, I could stay in bed tomorrow – maybe I could apply for a job in a nice warm bakery, I could make hot-crossed-buns all day, and go home smelling of cinnamon, not half decomposed vegetable matter. But I won’t (*Stirring music*) I shall not be beaten, I shall rise, strong of hand and firm of calf, I’ll stride to the window, throw it open, I’ll never be a baker! Never! And I’ll scream into the rain ‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens, brown paper packages, tied up with strings These are a few of my favourite things.’

You see, in the words of the great Julie Andrews: ‘whenever I’m feeling unhappy, I just try to think of nice things’. And there are certain things that make this job the best in the world. So to finish this post let us have a riot of glorious and flagrantly plagiarised (I don’t own a camera) pictures of flowers that have been cheering me up in the last few weeks.

Aquilegia formosa

Aquilegia formosa, this is self seeded all through a little plant filled garden I weed on Saturday mornings. picture stolen from www.portlandnursery.com

Hello Kitty

Dicentra spectabilis stolen from http://www.thelensflare.com/large/bleeding-heart-plant_56791.jpg Growing in the same garden. I often take this flower to show non-gardening friends that the natural world has been making hello kitty style fluff for far longer than the Japanese.


Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’ .Wisteria for the rave generation. Now sadly faded in the gardens of Putney. Picture stolen from www.gardenerstips.co.uk


Azaleas flowering down the road from me in the Isabella plantation of Richmond Park. Picture stolen from http://www.talksongardens.co.uk

So there we go, I bitched and moaned the whole way through the post, but seeing a few flowers and the end sends everyone away happy and makes it all seem worthwhile. Bring on the rain and hellfire.

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…. there.is.actually.no.gardening 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

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

Mail order plants

Britain is in the postmans death-grip, the royal mail is on strike! business has ground to a halt and lives shall surely be lost. I personally am waiting for a bag of Narcissus ‘Golden Harvest’ ordered weeks ago. No doubt they are busily sprouting in some dark and humid sorting office, warmed by the slow composting of 100,000 bills and birthday cards. To amuse myself while I sit motionless in the hallway, I have started writing poetry. I call this Poem daffodils.


I pondered lonely but out loud

Why through my door came only bills,

When I had ordered, I avowed

A sack, of sodding daffodils;

Now screw the lake, and blow the trees,
I want my trumpet flowers please.*

If anyone high up in whatever union the postmen are in is reading this, could you please get your mates to go back to work. If I don’t receive my bulbs by the end of the week I shall lead all the worlds garden bloggers in counter strike, and no one will ever know how to make leaf mould or what garden tasks need doing in November!

*With fondest apologies W. Wordsworth.