Wednesday 21 April 2010

Alas, poor Mabel

Morello Cherry blossom Blossom on the morello cherry. Dreaming of cherry pie… Look, lots of these pictures are random ones taken in my garden today, to give you something pretty to look at while I bash on about Gardening: My Thoughts. Your visit is very important to me and so on…

On our way back from the country a few weeks ago, Lady de B  and I took a detour to the most magical nursery, Wootten’s, in Halesworth, Suffolk.

It was a drippy, grey and misty sort of afternoon so we retreated to the glasshouse and a feast of pelargoniums of every imaginable type. Our senses, dulled by too little sleep and too much chablis, awakened. We trawled the aisles, sniffing foliage, holding little black pots up to the light to admire the delicate leaves.

I was drawn to the sherbet-y, dainty Queen of the Lemons, not just for its hangover-banishing aroma, but for the description on its label.

PELARGONIUM Queen of the Lemons

Scented leaf. Mauve flowers April – Oct. Sage green rounded leaf with delicious sweet lemon scent. Much more refined than the rather coarse Mabel Grey
.Queen of the Lemons The Queen herself.

Poor Mabel! What had she done? Made the mistake of wearing diamonds in daytime? Displayed an extensive collection of fish knives? Asked to use the toilet?

But I brought home my Queen, and a few courtiers, feeling rather smug at my refinement by association.

Euphorbia Cheering euphorbia

When I first started gardening a dozen or so years ago, I had no idea that this most gentle of activities was as riven with snobbery, beset by fashion, as everything else. I was just relieved if I got through a season without slaughtering the Innocence (that’s Collinsia verna to you).

I was a newlywed. I had a few pots on a Marylebone roof terrace and big dreams. I wandered innocently into the garden centre, picked up some packets of seeds that looked pretty and hoped for the best. I made all of the beginner’s mistakes. I planted too quickly and too thickly, a little bit of that here, a little bit of this there, with little regard for what sort of conditions each plant needed.

But gardening quickly became an obsession. I amassed books by the stout-of-shoe and stout-of-heart. Margery Fish, Rosemary Verey, Penelope Hobhouse, Beth Chatto - the glorious sorority soon crowded my bedside table. I knew my addiction was serious when most of the books I read became text-heavy and picture-lite. At one point, poor Séan considered suing the late Christopher Lloyd for alienation of affection as his Well-tempered Garden was never out of my hands.

Cheery tree The ornamental cherry, one of the few things in the garden when we bought the house.

James Grieve

Bramley Blossom on the James Grieve & Bramley Apples.

Walthamstow Wonder My Walthamstow Wonder is sprouting,
delighted that I haven’t killed it yet.

In winter, there were catalogues to study. Not just any old seed catalogues either, but specialist pamphlets, most with no vulgar pictures to distract. These are top-shelf material for gardeners, the things that put ‘cult’ into horticulture. Any plant described as ‘rare’ or ‘seldom offered’ is our hard core. The idiosyncratic descriptions warm the chill of winter: ‘Mrs Fish acquired her plant during rationing in exchange for a quarter of tea’ (Glebe Cottage’s description of the Polemonium ‘Lambrook Mauve’); or ‘the whip-like tips of small brown arum flowers look like the rounded backsides of mice’ (Beth Chatto on Arisarum proboscideum).

I joined the Royal Horticultural Society and attended their shows in Vincent Square. They really are marvellously comforting, like a big church fête in one of the better parts of Gloucestershire. They’re crammed with thoroughly decent people in sensible clothes which run the full colour spectrum, from oatmeal through khaki to nut brown.

Euphorbia martini Euphorbia martinii, with Geum Mrs Bradshaw in the background. Very unrefined clashing, but there you are.

I soon realised how naïve I’d been in my smash and grab raid of garish seed packets. Flowers are the obsession of the amateur. Those gaudy geraniums (which I now knew to call pelargoniums), non-stop busy lizzies and flowing petunias were the horticultural equivalent of top-to-toe acrylic. Foliage was where it was at: hostas, ferns, euphorbias were the thing. Colour was tricky. Gentle, blending colours with perhaps the odd well-thought-out surprise acquired from Great Dixter were just about allowed.

I met people who played it so safe they drained all of the magentas, mauves, golds, oranges and reds from their gardens to the point where they contained hardly any colour at all, “except, of course, green, which really is the most complex and thrilling colour of all,” they claimed.

Shriek pink bergenia Shriek pink bergenia

These gardenistas visited Vita Sackville West’s White Garden at Sissinghurst as though it were Lourdes, designed to cure them of any longing they may have had for gaudy, waxy begonias or shriek pink rhododendrons. In Vita, they found their high priestess.

As if to underline her peerless good taste, Sackville West’s husband, Harold Nicholson, once said of her, “Vita only likes flowers which are brown and difficult to grow.” Which brings us to difficulty of cultivation, demonstrated never more strongly than with roses.

For decades, able and dedicated people have sweated to bring us roses which are disease resistant, flower continuously and behave sensibly. These blooms can have names like Radox Bouquet, Sexy Rexy, Disco Dancer, Pretty Polly or Rhapsody in Blue. Are we grateful? We are not. In our quest for chic, we want roses that were bred before 1900 and are magnets for mildew, aphids and black spot. Ideally, they will have names beginning ‘Gloire de…’, ‘Comtesse de…’ ‘Souvenir de…’ and many of them will flower once, for about ten minutes, so long as it isn’t raining too hard, and probably when we’re on holiday.

True style, in gardening as in everything else, is elusive - a shifting, spectral thing. As soon as you feel like you have a handle on what’s cool, all the big kids have moved on. So there you are, stuck with the knot garden, prairie border and bed of exclusively black plants, looking like Daniella Westbrook in top-to-toe Burberry.

Rhubarb My rhubarb is in rude health.

Stawberry flower The last few days’ sunshine has delighted the strawberries.

Even the vegetable patch has not escaped the style mavens’ attention. Of course, you could have a few scrubby rows of leeks, or you could have a potager overflowing with fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers. And it’s very important to grow the most exquisite varieties, selected after hours studying Sarah Raven’s Cutting Garden catalogue as if it’s the kabbalah. Obviously, you won’t miss out Bright Lights chard with its orange, yellow and scarlet stems. And your salads will glitter with dainty Heartsease violas, Indian Prince marigold petals and mahogany nasturtiums. No iceberg lettuce for you, but choicest mizuna, pain de sucre and merveille de quatre saisons. Say it softly, it’s almost like praying.

But despite all of this, gardens are freedom. They are the buffer zone between us and crazy. In a world full of ‘instant’, gardening forces us to be patient and rewards us with a glimpse paradise. You may never own an Old Master, but you could cram some tulip bulbs into an old terracotta pot. Within a few months, you will have display to rival any Vermeer. And really, who cares whether it’s in this year’s colour or not?

Scabious This scabious began flowering in February,
as soon as the snow melted.

Not a Ballerina! This is supposed to be Ballerina. The perils of buying your tulip bulbs from open bins in Columbia Road market. I think naughty gardening sprites go around mixing them all up so, a few months later, surprise!  Any idea what it is?


  1. What a treat of a post! Each flower so beautiful! I love the white blossom most though!

  2. I love random garden ruminations. The cheering euphorbia Made My Day. Thanks for this!

  3. I enjoyed your ruminations very much.
    I too have been subject to the vagaries of Columbia Road, but what a delight it is, &,
    I suspect forest gardening is the current 'in' thing, but there again I may be horribly wrong as I do what I want on the whole.

  4. Gets my vote for blogpost of the year so far....and you know what a grump I am. Brilliant.

  5. Genius post.... although I now realise I am either an utter snob or Daniella Westbrook which is mildly depressing.

  6. What a great post, it sums up my journey in gardening completely. I did laugh at your description of the people at the RHS shows - very true!!

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Sorry, slight problem with reading glasses on previous deleted post.

    I loved the phrase 'stout-of-shoe and stout-of-heart' which perfectly describes both my mother and grandmother in their respective gardens - just don't tell them I said that. I have to admit to being lured into the style trap and as a result have a large area of soil that is labelled 'merveille de quatre saisons' but which is resolutely unyielding of anything resembling a lettuce in any season.

  9. I love this post.
    I've come to the conclusion that it's better to wear clothes which flatter me than to look stupid while making a 15 year old envious. And that my garden only needs to please my family, not a TV trend.
    My garden tolerates a lot of experiments and fits of enthusiasm from me, but ultimately always puts its foot down. I have conceded that I can't fight nature, but this lovely post reminds me that I shouldn't fight my own nature either!

  10. I agree with Mark. Best yet.
    You are a marvel.

  11. What a delight to go out for a couple of hours and come back to all of your wonderful messages.
    Joy - The cherry blossom is just perfection. All this and fruit too.
    Darby - That acid green is as bracing as an icy vodka and tonic at the end of a long, hard day. Love it.
    MsB - I love the 'you never know what you're gonna get' Forrest Gumpness of Columbia Rd. Mercifully, I'm not a slave to fashion as a forest garden might be tricky to fit into my 22x55ft patch of London.
    MarkD - Aw, you. And you're about the least grumpy person I know. But I promise not to tell anyone.
    Thanks Lucy, I loved writing it.
    Dawn - You're too kind. And, yes, we waver on the DW-Total Snob scale every day.
    Patientgardener - I just love an RHS show. Like live SocAnth 101 of the English gardening tribe, and you can buy stuff.
    Alex - Promise not to grass you up to mother and grandmother. Am loving your blog by the way.
    Joanne - Thanks so much, and I adore your conclusion about not fighting your own nature.
    Mum - Well, you 'grew' me. So well done and thanks.

    Love, Dxx

  12. Lovely piece. Lovely pics. Did Sean take them and are they from your garden? xxxMrs D.

  13. Halllooo darling Joanie. Yes, S took them and yes, in our garden yesterday. We long to see you, you little Irish faerie. Dx

  14. I love this post, delightful, thoughtful and funny - all of the best characteristics available! Plus lovely pictures.

    Looking forward to getting to know your blog much better now that I have found you on Twitter.

  15. No garden here in the city this year, but when I had one I was always breaking the rules. A couple of my neighbors found this quite disturbing. I found it entertaining. Such pretty blooms in your garden, especially your apple blossoms.

  16. Best yet indeed, darling, your mum is right as rain! And, proving to me everything I've said about you is true (that you're a freakin' genius writer who ought to have her head examined if she thinks otherwise). Which should prove it to you.

    Now, you'll have to dither about if this will fit into your MAIN book or whether you must start another one.
    Stout of heart AND shoe,
    Karen Marline

  17. As lovely as ever....Thanks so much for checking in. I'm hoping to come back by the end of June. Looks like all is well with you!

  18. Sarah - Thank you so much for visiting and for your lovely comments. I am grateful to MarkD for MAKING me Twitter, even though I dragged feet a bit.
    Denise - It's very important, in gardening and in life, to break some rules, is it not? Besides, what else would the neighbours have to talk about? It's a public service really.
    Darling K - You're hilarious. You've never even been in the same room as a stout shoe.

  19. Catherine - I'm so pleased you're planning your 'come back'. I've missed your posts. All's well, if a bit frantic, but I've decided if you accept that as a near-permanent state it's not nearly so bothersome. Sending you all good wishes, Dx

  20. We should all go've just written the best gardening post I've ever read....thank you - utter joy... x

  21. Oh Laetitia, ony go home if you promise to take a spade, some seeds and a watering can with you and then write about your adventures afterwards. Your comment has made my day, so kind coming from one whose gardening blog is HEAVEN. DX

  22. What a fabulous post thank you ! I think it is fair to say I am at the novice stage - however we do manage to eat a bit of our harvest - last year's tomatoes were superb ! This year we have rhubarb, strawberries and courgettes on the go. You're right it is addictive - I just ordered some new tomato plants online and want the NOW !! Lovely photos too. xx

  23. D: How did you know? Wait a tick, how about those funny Dutch shoes I wore for trick or treat? Or the Doc Marten's my daughter wore in protest for her prom (or was that a trick to lure the rare, crested grunge boy of her dreams?) At any rate, these days, I'm walking the boards in decidedly NON-stout shoes. So, encore, you're right!
    Karen of Size 12 Narrow Peds

  24. Belgravia Wife - Thanks so much for visiting my blog. This very weekend I planted out courgettes, peas, broad beans and tomatoes, stopping to admire my two clumps of rhubarb which look like they're going to make many a pie this summer. I hope you'll be writing about your tomatoes on your blog - we can compare notes.
    Karen - Shoes worn for trick-or-treat-or-protest purposes do not count. You cannot trip the light fantastic in clodhoppers as you well know.

  25. These are the prettiest Spring pictures! I can't help you id the Ballerina imposter though, I'm afraid...

  26. Beautifully written and, oh, so true. 'Gardens are the buffers between us and crazy' The Sarah Raven catalogue as kabbalah. The Bright Lights Chard (not that I actually eat it of course – no one does, do they?) The William Lobb rose that flowers for 10 seconds. Guilty as charged.

    Alex M

    ps does this mean prairie-style planting is officially over? I hadn't even got round to planting my border yet

  27. Great to read a garden post by someone who doesn't take themselves too seriously

  28. Alex - Thanks so much, Loving my garden at the moment.
    Alex M - So pleased you enjoyed it. Our chard exchange made me smile a lot. I am going to make up some recipes just for you as soon as I get my hands on some. I think Prairie is definitely over, unless you're talking Little House On The, and that NEVER dates. Must garden in Laura Ingalls smock and bonnet at all times. Very good at keeping sun and dirt off and, as an added bonus, the neighbours love it.
    Jane - Must never take one's self too seriously. It's exhausting if nothing else.

  29. Oh how I have giggled at this post - I love it. Can you tell me where the toilet is please?

  30. Gorgeous pictures, though nothing can distract from your glorious life-affirming writing D. I was enthralled and I know nothing about gardening. Nothing.

    Nice sr ref btw, Biscuit will be delighted x

  31. Hi again - I have to say the image of you in yurt clutching a Birkin is as enchanting as your photos ! The tomatoes look very bountiful so far - although it's early days. On the rather miraculous front I noticed this morning - a strawberry ! I'm going to photograph it as soon as it turns red and photogenic.

    I don't know if you go in for these things, a lovely blogger recently nominated me for an award- as past of the acceptance protocol I am to nominate 7 other blogs I am enjoying - I am delighted to nominate you ! Award etc chez moi, entirely optional xx

  32. Kath - There you are. So pleased I made you smile. Email me - I have a book for you!
    Salty - Bless you darling. Nice to get a SR ref in there, eh?
    Belgravia Wife - How lovely! Thank you so much, I'm touched. I have some green little strawbs too, battling it out against the chill. Do you think they'll ever turn red? we need some sunshine. Now.


  33. What a great post! Terribly funny and brilliantly written.

    Just catching up on some blog reading.....

    Garden Snobbery is something I always strive against! I tend to refer to it as Sunday Magazine Gardening, usually for people with too much money who can afford to waste it buying stuff that any self-respecting gardener would make out of junk! I buy only when I have to and instead try to save seed, swap it, make cuttings. I am definitely not a purist though, and quite enjoy a Mystery Plant or a Mystery Bulb!

  34. Hello Scarlett, How lovely to see your message. I love your philosophy, and your description of 'Sunday Magazine Gardening'. Hope all's well with you dear. Dx


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