The Subterranean Chestnut Worm

A patch of yellow pavement brought me to a halt. I froze. It was unmistakably pollen.

What luck! It takes some horticultural detective to spot grains of pollen on the dirty streets of Bogotá – helps that I keep a magnifying glass between my teeth and crawl everywhere.

Also helpful that it was a very large patch of pollen. Longer than a biro, and far wider (though considerably flatter.)


It was like finding lion scat in one’s hiking boot – the big-game-hunter in me awoke, I would find the flower responsible!

I looked up. Beyond the razor wire and before the clouds was an umbrella of Yarumo leaves.

Between the razor wire and the clouds

Unfortunately, the blossom which deposited the pollen was gone – no doubt squirrelled away by one of the garden bloggers who plague these streets. I would have to move further afield. Fortunately, I know the location of every Yarumo within half a mile of my apartment, one of my favourite games being to lead acquaintances past the massive things and casually enquire ‘do you know what family these trees are from?’

I crossed the Avenida Séptima and, fortified by petrol fumes, reached another Yarumo. This one a relatively small specimen, but still too big for a biro, so I placed a lamppost next to it for scale.

Lamppost for scale

I sniffed around the wall and buried myself in the ivy but found no evidence of sexual reproduction. It was time to move on.

The next Yarumo was too young to be thinking about flowers and fruit, but its shortness did allow me to get a picture of an emerging leaf. To me it looks like some vast subterranean worm has risen up to swallow a horse chestnut tree, though you may prefer other similes.

Subterranean worm swallows horse chestnut

Darting up to the Séptima and back down again I came to the specimen for which I had highest hopes. This tree likes to dangle the leaves it no longer requires from nearby power lines.

Old leaves

And what leaves they are. Here I use my shoe for scale.

Shoe for scale

And mighty leaves from mighty trees fall. Note how it dominates the pencil pine I placed beside it for scale.


The picture below is actually of the fruit and seeds of the Yarumo, and not of maggots eating a dead squid, as I had initially thought. Sufferers of trypophobia might want to look away, it’s pretty disgusting. Hundreds of thousands of seeds are here waiting to be disbursed by anything with a strong enough stomach.


The Yarumo is either male or female, and the presence of decaying fruit told me that there would be no pollen bearing flowers around here, this was a lady. I bit down hard on the stem of my magnifying glass and crawled off towards Parque el Virrey – playground of professional dog walkers and topless muscle men.

Here I at last found my flower – dead in a pool of its own pollen.

Dead in a pool of pollen

I fear that this is not one for the pressed flower collection, it would be like crushing a raw steak between the pages of Dear Diary. However, that is the beauty of being primarily wind pollinated. One does not have to worry about being attractive. Perhaps when test tubes and foetus banks have liberated human kind from the tyranny of sexual selection we too will be free to turn unhealthy shades of brown and exude strange yellow substances.

If anyone is still suffering from the fruit here is a colourful wall I spotted while crawling home.

Colour wall

In case you were wondering, Yarumo is part of the nettle family. Thanks for reading!


Of Love and Other Dried Plants

In the east of Colombia my blood has turned the mosquitoes red.

They hang from the underside of leaves like fat, proboscidean rubies on a green necklace. Tiny mosquito mid-guts synthesising tiny proteolytic enzymes, hydrolyzing proteins into amino acids and delicious vitellogenin. They’re digesting, making yolk from my lipids, turning my corpuscles into eggs.

I’m writing this post from Bogota – home of the altitude headache – but down there, where its 38 degrees and sticky, the first of their offspring have already been born, a writhing, aquatic brood that was once entirely me. The ethics of the outdoors suggests we leave no trace, pass over the land like a shadow, but I’m sweaty, English and O+, the tastiest flavour, in these past three years I must have been responsible for a hundred million mosquito births.

If we use peak-itching (just past) as a prenatal calendar then we should expect a major hatching in Guainía somewhere towards the end of next week. There, my insectoid reconfigurations will split their pupas in leaf cups, flooded boats and damp tree groins. It’s possible that some might emerge from the phytotelma of the Guacamaya superba – a thought as satisfying as a good scratch. My cephalothoratic babies could even now be flopping about in the self-made pond of the Flor de Inirida, one of Colombia’s most interesting plants.

A phytotelma is a waterbody held by a terrestrial plant. Pitcher plants use them for flesh melting, bromiliands for hydration. In the Guacamaya withered leaves cling to the stem and form a tank, their residual wax acting as a pond liner. Despite living in one of the world’s wetter places, and being fully submerged for months at a time, they use these for water storage. The Orinoco Savannah meets the Amazonian Rainforest above a band of white sand that forms Club Tropicana beaches on the region’s rivers and sucks moisture like a drain.

But, believe it or not, phytotelmata are not the reason we came to Inirida. We came for the hills. The Cerros de Mavicure, three monolithic lumps of rock that rise from the jungle like wheals on a tropical Englishman. Katherine and I spotted these igneous protrusions stealing the show at the end of el Abrazo de la Serpiente, and immediately planned a trip to see them. (If hills don’t turn you on The Embrace of the Serpent is still worth a watch. It has monomaniacal explorers and natives just brimming with psychedelic wisdom.)

We flew to Puerto Inirida. A town whose one road leads nowhere and whose municipal sculptures are all abstract, green-stemmed starbursts. One of the boatmen lounging on Don Raphael’s floating dock agreed to take us 50 kilometres upriver, providing he could find some petrol.

Mosquito-bitten garden blogger enters Don Rafael's floating dock
Mosquito-bitten garden blogger enters Don Rafael’s floating dock

The Inirida was wide and still, playing hard at being a lake. Crookbacked dolphins snorted between clumps of water hyacinth and in the shadow of the Cerros we found a woman butchering a turtle with a large machete. Lucas, our pilot, had better ways to spend an afternoon than walking uphill. He begged a bowl of the forthcoming turtle soup and left us in the hands of two silent and stern indigenous boys.

Los Cerros
Los Cerros
Soon to be soup
Soon to be soup
White sand river beach
White sand river beach

But this blog is about gardening, you say, not sightseeing. Where are the plants? One mention of water hyacinths two paragraphs ago and even that without a binomial. You might as well be reading the travel supplement! I agree. So let’s get back to Guacamaya superba. Those sculptures I mentioned earlier, the starbursts, they all turned out to be renderings of the Flor de Inirida and its characteristic inflorescence.

This spikey mace of crimson bracts was literally emblematic. Every local agency and departmental organisation used it in their logos. Unfortunately, I only found out the significance of the flower as we returned to town with the sun falling at equatorial speed. Lucas was no longer any use, he was a man of the river, built for Yamaha outboard motors and Don Raphael’s Formica chairs, we needed to go inland. Eventually we found Camillo who had a van and was willing to drive us the whole length of Inirida’s sole road – 10 kilometres.

The light was failing, we entered la hora de las picadoras, the hour of the bites, when winged things come out to feast. The road ended in a small indigenous community built around a river as clear and red as blackcurrant tea. We hurried on foot through rough fields of yucca brava (Manihot esculenta), deadly if ingested untreated but the only crop bull-headed enough to grow in the sand.

Like blackcurrant tea
Like blackcurrant tea

Camillo assured us he knew where the Flor de Inirida grew, but as we emerged from the cassava leaves onto Orinoco Savannah, with the next house three days’ distant in Venezuela, he admitted that he was wearing someone else’s glasses, his having fallen in a river, and that he might need some help. Even with a borrowed prescription it was hard to miss our plant. A clump of leaves like a large terrestrial bromeliad and a flowering spike as if alliums were designed by Nintendo.

This was the everlasting flower. Bright in death. In dried bouquets the red is said to keep for decades after plucking. Like Sierva Maria in Gabriel Garcia Marques’ Of Love and Other Demons, found within the crypt with her auburn hair a funeral shawl – it’s the colour that just won’t quit. Traditional flower arrangement has its own everlasters; eryngiums and echinops, limonium and teasel, but the Flor de Inirida’s desiccated fireworks stand up to the best of them, and what town ever built monuments to the teasel?

So Guacamaya superba has been ticked off and my time in Colombia is nearly over. Katherine and I are to return to London next spring where I will give up the arduous life of a diplomatic spouse and return to professional gardening. Before I leave there a few more plant pilgrimages to make, so watch this space. And please remember, as you sit down with your families this holiday, that thousands of miles from you, in a town with one road where the Amazon meets the Orinoco, my miracle mosquito babies are hatching.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all of you!

El Flor de Inirida
La Flor de Inirida

The Bogotá Bicycle Club

Every week I run a Google News search for “Gardener + Arrested”.  An unwritten journalistic law states that if a horticulturalist makes the news his profession must form part of the headline, e.g.; “Gardener Arrested in Midnight Raid” or “Pervert Gardener was Parkland Flasher”. Thus, with a simple two word search, I can check which of my former colleagues are currently working their way through the criminal justice system.

A pleasant upshot of this obsessive hobby is the exposure it brings to local police bulletins. Yesterday I read the crime reports from the San Jose Mercury for Thursday August the 7th and found:

“Terrace Drive, 7:22 a.m. Thursday, a female who found something brought it into the police station to find out what it was.”

“Trousdale Drive, 5:39 p.m. Thursday, a resident received a note from a neighbour containing threats directed at her gardener.”

“1525 Balboa Ave., 6:59 p.m. Thursday, a male got into an argument with a person whose dog urinated on his bike helmet.”

The threats towards a gardener, the bike helmet and the suburban nature of this report remind me of a novel I read years ago. The protagonist was a jobbing gardener who cycled around North London having run-ins with a threatening landscaping crew and getting into comic scrapes. It stuck with me because at the time of reading I myself was a jobbing gardener who cycled around South London, though I never really had any comic scrapes, I did dig up a liquefied dog in a plastic crate once, which you can make into good joke:

“My dogs sealed in an airtight box!”

“But then how does he smell?”


You can read all about my adventures as a bicycle gardener here. Having a documented history as a bicycle gardener I was interested to note that the vast majority of private gardening here in Bogota is carried out by bicycle gardeners. The traditional set up is something like this:

Bicycle Gardener
Bicycle Gardener

Note the strimmer strapped along the crossbar and the can of petrol on the back-pannier: this is no casual pot-fiddler. More impressive still are the mobile viveros selling pseudo-bonsai from a tricycle trailer as seen below:


I’ve decided not to join the ranks of the cycling horticulturalists out here, don’t want any “Gardener Squashed by Massive Lorry” headlines in the Bogota post.

Gran Colombia

Gran Colombia

I think I’ve been in Colombia for six months, though it’s impossible to be sure. I know I left London as the first daffodils were blooming at Chiswick House, but here on the equator we’re cut off from the vegetable calendar and Bogotá in July looks like Bogotá in December. I lose track of the months. I know one can track time’s passing using houseplants (three weeks for a new leaf on the young monstera deliciosa, seven for a new frond on the birds-nest fern) but New Leaf Day doesn’t feel the same as First Snowdrop Day does in the UK.

Colombia - no snowdrops
Colombia – no snowdrops

Before we moved here I knew one of the hardest things would be living without the underlying dramatics of seasonal change, but I also worried I’d miss familiar plants; old enemies and friends that I’d developed strong connections to over the years. Luckily, if somewhat bizarrely, my new barrio is planted almost entirely with standard-Mediterranean-issue Acanthus mollis – which rather softens the shock of the new. My theory is that in this conservative zona of Bogotá, where residents still attach an unfortunate importance to coming from European stock, people plant acanthus, the emblem of the Old World and icon of Rome’s Corinthian columns, as a coded way of saying “Europeans live here” – like that myth about swingers and pampas grass.

Statement of origin or not I’m happy to see the plant, we have a past. It was one of the 20 plants on my first nomenclature tests at horticultural college. I revised it with my girlfriend, repeating the syllables A-CAN-THUS over and over when they were just noises unattached to any image of leaf or flower. Before that, while it was still nameless greenery and I was studying medieval history at university, acanthus formed the ornate background to some of my favourite illustrated manuscripts, and later, working at the Garden Museum, Acanthus mollis was the first plant I propagated on any great scale, taking dozens of fat root cuttings from a sun-starved specimen that I found dying under an arbutus.

Illustrated Book of Hours with acanthus
Illustrated Book of Hours with acanthus


And as the weirdness of an entirely new floral palate is soothed by the presence of one familiar plant, so the thirst for seasonal change is quenched by movement. Here in Colombia you can drive for two hours and experience three separate seasons. An hour and twenty minutes from my apartment is the high alpine paramo with fog, frailejones and cold climate orchids; two hours in the other direction is scrubby hot country; over the hills and across the plains is the Amazon rainforest; to the north the Caribbean and the east the Pacific. The way I have spent my gardening life until now – waiting for buds to burst in the spring or the first tree to redden in the autumn – has been replaced by vegetation spotting, driving from cloud forests to tropical jungle trying to pinpoint exactly where the understory changes from myrtles to aroids.

Colombia has one of the highest rates of biodiversity in the world, and its highest rate of endemism – over 10% of its 130,000 plant species are found in this country alone. It has more orchids than anywhere in the world, is second only to Malaysia in palm species, has the tallest monocot species in the world – and shed-loads of acanthus. You’re reading this blog, so I guess you like plants. You should come and visit, I’ll be here for another 47 Monstera deliciosa leaves, approximately.

The Author with world's tallest monocots Ceroxylon quindiuense
The Author with the world’s tallest monocots Ceroxylon quindiuense

A Song of Sulfosulfuron

Before I became a gardener I lived in a world where the plants seemed ever in bloom. They rolled into my consciousness only while in flower, materializing from the fuzz of green and fading back when the petals dropped.

Now, after a few years in the business, I often take more joy in a plant’s growth than I do in its blossoming. This must be common in gardeners; it is partially due to the pleasure of anticipation – those weeks between the first bulbs breaking and the realization that the tulips are blind – where one can imagine that this year the garden will be perfect. But it is also because plants all grow in uniquely fascinating ways.

Rhubarb has my favorite growth-habit, It prolapses up red and obscene in a way that signals Good Times Ahead better than any olive branch on any ark. This year I’ve also enjoyed watching duckweed on one of our ponds. The tiny Lemna minuta reproduces almost cytokineticly, like microbes on a petri-dish, and in July it only needed a hot weekend to cover the pool entirely. Another highlight has been seeing a team of swearing scaffolders fight summer long to save their erection from being swallowed by wisteria. The plant is one hundred years old and when cut back created a florid vegetable Hydra.

Scaffolders and Wisteria - Chiswick House 2013
Scaffolders and Wisteria – Chiswick House 2013

This, however, is not a blog about growth. For over the last few weeks I have added another gospel to my bible of garden appreciation: I have become a connoisseur of death. Two weeks ago I sprayed a deep bed of weeds with a lethal mixture of glysophate and sulfosulfuron, and since have been fascinated by the varied ways in which different species die.

The oxalis was the first to go.  Its tiny leaves disintegrated, leaving a star-burst of un-garnished petioles. Sow thistle was next; it sagged around its upright hollow stem, the leaves drooping to form a washed-out skirt. Gallant Soldier (Galinsoga parviflora) turned black and mushy in patches, like a supermarket salad too long in the bag. Most interesting was the chickweed, so dull in life, but from which the colour faded day-on-day until it was almost transparent – after  a week and a rain shower I could look down from above and clearly see droplets of water hanging from the underside of the leaves. Finally the niccotiana succumbed; its giant green leaves prostrate on the ground, the exact colour and texture of a spent latex glove.

Since perpetrating this herbicidal massacre (apologies to the organic – had we the time and labour…) I have been in the thrall of Plant Death. At Chiswick House we currently seem to be losing a lot of aucuba, which is galling for two reasons: firstly because aucuba’s cardinal and single virtue has always lain in not dying, and secondly because when it does die it looks so ugly. The long serrated leaves sag, crumple and turn matt black, the whole thing looks like a giant sea urchin hung with old banana skins. In contrast the leaves of Viburnam tinus, another reliable evergreen, turns a lovely warm rufous red when it unexpectedly expires – something to consider when planning your next shrubbery.

Dead Viburnam - rufous red
Dead Viburnam – rufous red

My second favourite dead evergreen is ceanothus, and after a few of cold winters there are a lot of these about. The corpse retains its form, with stem, leaves and spent blooms intact, but it turns pitch black – like Wile E Coyote after an explosion. My number-one-favourite dead evergreen is the ubiquitous Deceased Miniature Conifer in a Window Box. Visually it is nothing special, a dry brown cone, but it contains an entire narrative arc. A spring morning, a sense of optimism, the desire to beautify and better ones surroundings with a brand new bag of compost. But then neglect sets in – summer is hot and watering a chore, the plant suffers. By autumn even disposing of the body is too much gardening.

Before I became a gardener I lived in a world where plants seemed ever in bloom; now I worship at the altar of death. Horticulture courses are currently enrolling at Capel Manor College.

Of Dendral Bondage

As a child of the 1980’s I am saddled with a deep and culturally engendered fear that one day my discarded beer packaging will trap a little baby duck. So strong is this phobia that even now, knowing that the rings have been made from a rapidly photo-degrading plastic for over 20 years, and that they cause little harm to wildlife, I still reflexively snip each and every loop before I throw them in the lake.

You see along with most members of my species I have a very soft spot for ducklings.  In the 1950’s the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz wrote a paper that I think explains why.  Piece and Parcel in Animal and Human Societies suggested that we have an evolutionarily inbred ‘innate realising mechanism’ that deploys affection and tenderness towards animals that display features of human juvenility. Creatures triggering the ‘nurture response’ have ‘a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, and clumsy movements’. Or  in other words, are ducklings. To us the idea of a tiny doomed bird, snared in a Heineken holder and cheeping pathetically into the dusk, is subconsciously analogous to the idea of leaving our baby up a hill to be eaten by wolves.

If there is any living thing least resembling the elastic and chubby cheeked human child it is a 40ft Atlas Cedar. So last week when I came home from work and informed my girlfriend that I had saved a mature Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’ that had become entangled in plastic waste I was not surprised to receive considerably less cooing than if I told her I had saved a duckling. Even though I had to climb a ladder.

Last week’s strangulator was a length of black Polypropylene netting, the sort allotment holders use to keep pigeons out of fruit cages. It had twisted itself into a rope and had spent the last few years gradually pressing deeper into a slowly expanding bough, like cherished 34” jeans into an aging security guard. In horticultural language the branch had been girdled. (Those fortunate enough to have seen a man or woman clad only in a girdle will know how apt this terminology is; the wood on either side of the garrotte bulged as adipose tissue on the ribs.) Eventually the bark would have swallowed the tie, or the phylum tissue would have died and starved the tree of carbohydrates.

When I freed this tree from its unnatural bondage I was careful not to tear the net from the wood as resulting wound could have left the tree open to infection, and might even have ring barked it: meaning I’d never be reborn as a Dryad.  I only cut off the loose and indenting plastic, leaving submerged bits  as a foul smelling present for some future wood burning stove. The limb once freed was shaped like an hour glass and surprisingly attractive.

I find the weird extraterrestrial growths and carbuncles caused by damage to trees strangely beautiful, and to me their slow consumption of foreign invasive bodies is compelling beyond measure. There is a famous tree in America that has supposedly swallowed a bicycle, the handlebars come out of one side and the back tire the other, and few everyday sights please me more than benches, railings and fences being gradually ingested by trees.

I rejoice in the un-babyish nature of trees and their way of looking nothing like ducklings. Through them I can appreciate the beauty of deforming, crippling bondage – and it’s good to have a wide range of interests.

The Author Reborn as a Dryad
Ring-barking Author Reborn as a Bike in a Tree

A Post About Hedges

You will have to believe that this is a post born of experience as the Non-Disclosure Agreement I signed back in November forbids from publishing any evidence.  Without this legally binding agreement I might well have ended up sharing stories and details of my employers garden hedges on some obscure gardening blog where any impressionable internet weirdo could have copied them.  A derivative hedge?  I’d rather die.   

So humour me, internet wierdos, with a little intellectual exercise – see if you can read this piece as written not by me, but by a hypothetical gardener, a construct who exists nowhere but in this post and who spent all last week planting hedges.

 While I was planting these hypothetical hedges in North London, some miles to the South on a bank of the Thames, herds of high-vis horticultural navvies were assembling  the annual Gardening Godhead at Chelsea.  Last year I was one of those navvies, assigned to lug about Grevillea and heave Callistemon  for some cork-hatted Aussie blokes.  On the first day I broke three vital hand-bones cycling home and so spent two weeks sitting on a bucket snipping blades of grass into more exaggerated grass shapes – it’s why they won gold.

I left Chelsea 2011 shell-shocked: was this circus of contrivance really “the highlight of the gardening calendar”?  Polystyrene walls faced with York stone?  Spray painting the trees to cover their scars… surely not?  My sympathies swung towards those dissenters who annually complain that “it’s just not proper horticulture” and that “anything so instant has nothing to with gardening”.

I’m sure the RHS will be relieved to hear that that I’ve changed my mind again.  Last week’s hedging operation served as a personal and complete vindication of The Chelsea Flower Show. As I stood there in the garden, watching off road fork-lifts deposit yews taller than my head into a pre-dug trench, while internally debating how minutely kinked they should be to make the vibes  more ‘ancient boundary’ and less ‘green garage wall’, I realised that Chelsea is entirely about gardening.  Just not gardening for poor people.

Happy though I am to rediscover a meaning in Chelsea, I remain both in heart and in wallet a poor person and I know that not everyone can summon a team of JCB drivers and a specialist Italian nursery every time they fancy a hedge.  So here follows a hedging tip that is the antithesis of the instant and artificial bankers boundary.  This is an extract from Thomas Hill’s The Gardeners Labyrinth published in 1577, which Hill acknowledges lifting from Democritus’ On Farming written some 2432 years ago:

The most commendable inclosure for every garden plot is a quick-set hedge… Gather in a due season of the yeare, the seeds found in the red berries of the biggest and highest Briers [wild roses] then throw ripe seeds of the white Thorne, and to these both the ripe Berries of the Goose-Berry and Barberry trees…. mix and steepe for a time in [a] binding meale of Tares until the thickness of honey. The same mixture lay into old and untwisted ship ropes… in such order that the seeds bestowed or couched within the soft hairs of them of them may be protected from the cold unto the beginning of the spring. Digge in handsome manner, two small furrows into which lay your ropes with seeds, covering them workmanly with light earth. Water by sprinkling.

The seed soaked rope trope has not been entirely lost to horticulture; a few months ago I used coir rolls impregnated with Carex and other marginals to edge a pond (as ever, all details purely hypothetical).  But there are other potential applications.  I don’t know how Nigel Dunnet, Sarah Price and the rest of that meadow lot find it, but I think it’s almost impossible to spell colourful obscenities by scattering wild flower seed.  The letters come out all squiffy and haphazard and you end up with a garden full of BUOKs and COMTs.  Using rope coated in pictorial meadow mix would render wild flower curses and swears legible and might go some way towards tempting young people away from violent computer games and into the rewarding arms of horticulture.

Apologies if you are not satisfied with the amount you have learnt about hedges from this post.  All complaints to be addressed in perfect floral calligraphy.  I have Google earth.     


Mendacity most Foul

So spring is here

‘When blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring,
Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing:
    Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!’

And I find myself fatter and more jocund this morning than on any March 1st of recent history, for I have found the Secret of Winter Gardening.

In previous years I followed the advice on winter gardening that squats unchanging on the RHS website:

1)    Clean Pots

2)    Read seed catalogues

3)    Feed the birds

But always found that even in this most improvident of cities people are unwilling to spend £15 per hour on sparrow feeding, and no matter how many times I showed clients the RHS webpage I was always dismissed by mid December.

So I’m going to write the post that I wish had existed when I first started out and give the reader a sure-fire method for surviving winter as a maintenance gardener.

RHS aside, there are two traditional schools of thought on the matter. The first I like to call stockpiling and is advocated by well-equipped men on landscaping forums. The idea is to spend nine months putting aside jobs that can be done numb-fingered in the gelid depths of winter. The stockpilers  point out that fencing repairs, resurfacing paths, and odd bits of painting and decorating can all be done when the sap is down, thus providing the gardener with a year round revenue stream. They are right, but if you follow their advice you will have to spend the winter repairing fences and painting ceilings. Unacceptable.

The second school, the hibernators, advise putting aside money throughout the year to cover a possible period of winter dormancy. This approach tends to be championed by parents, accountants and grown-up friends. Using this method essentially boils down to saying ‘yes dear friend, I would love to join you at the beer garden, for truly this hazy summer evening was gifted to us for conversation and carousal, but alas I must save money for January’s baked potatoes’. Dismiss this approach.

 No I have discovered a third way of survival, perfect for the profligate and the feckless, truly way of the dissolute – become a sham frozen-out gardener.

Henry Mayhew in his magisterial survey of the Victorian proletariat London Labour and the London Poor was my inspiration. He identified certain subspecies of professional beggars known as Unemployed Agriculturalists and Sham Frozen Out Gardeners who:

 … are seen during a frost in gangs of from six to twenty.  Two gangs generally “work” together, that is, while one gang begs at one end of the street, a second gang begs at the other.  Their mode of procedure, their “programme”, is very simple.  Upon the spades which they are carrying, is chalked “frozen-out!” or “starving!”  They enhance the effect of this slum or fakement by shouting out sturdily: “Frozen out!”  “We are all frozen-out!

The gardeners differ from the agriculturalists, or “navvies”, in their costume.  They affect aprons and old straw hats, their manner is less demonstrative, and their tone is less rusty, and unmelodious.  The “navvies” roar; the gardeners squeak.  The navvies’ petition is made loud and lustily, as by men used to work in clay and rock; the gardeners’ voice is meek and mild, as of a gentle nature trained to tend on fruit and flowers.  The young, bulky, sinewy beggar plays the navvy; the shrivelled, gravelly, elderly cadger performs the gardener.

Frozen out Gardeners


Nowadays spades are hard to chalk, being made of stainless steel, but do not lose heart, a beggar can still let people know they are pretending to be a gardener by tying vegetables to a stick and parading them up and down the street while looking as pathetic as possible (Garden designers take note: this is still a far more effective way of advertising than twitter).

Playing the destitute horticulturalist in return for cash has proved a highly effective way of keeping my rent paid and my belly full this winter. Thanks mum! But in business you have to grow to survive, so this autumn I shall be holding open auditions for shrivelled, gravelly, elderly cadgers – I have a few confirmed readers of this blog in mind who would be just perfect.

(P.S I do actually have a full time job and have paid my rent all by myself this winter)

(P.P.S Mum if your reading this, I’m so cold and hungry…)    

We're Frozen Out!



Here’s an amusing fact – one of the 20 qualifying members of the All-Party Parliamentary Gardening and Horticulture Group is the indomitable and aptly named Baroness Gardner of Parkes… and they said politics and humorous gardening blogs were incompatible.  Anyway, more on matters horticultural-political later, first, a little back story…

A few weeks ago I was sitting in an East End conference centre with about 45 estate agents. We had all been summoned by a large and well respected firm of Japanese knotweed eradicators. As we sipped our free coffee and waited for the seminar to start, a palpable tension saturated both the air and the conversation:

“Have you ever seen a knotweed?” asked one agent.

“No,” said another, “but one of my business partners had a knotweed. He’s not been the same since.”

Nerves in the room did not ease when the organizers of the conference strode in, holding a clear plastic bag at arm’s length, that contained a sealed box itself completely wrapped in yellow hazard tape. Once placed securely on the table the box was opened and the jittery estate agents were allowed to line up and fondle a piece of old knotweed stem; provided they donned latex gloves of course.

Believe it or not, this is not the most blatant piece of knotweed scaremongering I have ever experienced. Once upon a time while wandering aimlessly in a summer garden I spotted a copse that teemed with men in full white chemical suits. Turns out t’was not radio-active waste within, but knotweed. As I sidled up one of the contractors screamed that I should not get any closer:

“You’ll spread the spores!”

Being a horticulture student at the time, and equipped with knowledge botanic, I ventured to point out that knotweed was an angiosperm and thus seed producing, and that it didn’t really matter anyway as all British knotweed is sterile. Naturally I was told to sling it.

So back to my by now hysterical estate agents. The talk we were submitted to was split into three parts. The first was a vaguely scientific description of knotweed; comes from Mars, drinks blood, humanity powerless but for one brave extermination firm – that sort of thing. This was followed by a breakdown of the company’s political efforts to save us all: lobbying Defra, schmoozing Baroness Gardener’s parliamentary pals, taking MP’s to the Chelsea Flower Show and hosting lunches.

The end result is that Japanese knotweed is and ever shall remain a ‘controlled waste’ under the Environmental Protection Act (Duty of Care) Regulations. Meaning that it or any soil that it comes into contact with can only be disposedf offsite in a licensed landfill hole, one which probably only accepts deliveries from big eighteen-wheeler lorries.

The third part of our talk was a selection of horror photos showing the awesome power of Fallopia japonica;  here we saw knotweed lifting floorboards in suburban houses, knotweed destroying tower-blocks, knotweed besieging medieval citadels and knotweed bringing down Berlin Walls.

The spiel ended with, “needless to say this dossier is on the desk of every CEO of every money lending bank in the land, and a copy is with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors” [dramatic pause]  “so if you have even a rumour of knotweed on your property you can kiss goodbye to ever selling another house.  And by the way don’t forget it’s illegal to do anything about it yourself.  Consultations start from £5000.”

As I left the conference, shaky looking estate agents were queuing up to tell our hosts that they had seen something green, that they think it’s knotweed, and could someone come and have a look?

So remember gardeners, whatever size your business, it’s never too early to start deploying heavy-handed scare tactics and cultivating  political favor. I’m off to tell the Daily Mail that scruffy gardens cause cancer, then I’ll ask my local MP fancies going to the cinema.    

Japanese Knotweed