Backyard Imagination

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Your garden is a place where you can express your inner artist, even if you don’t recognise the business end of a paintbrush. Nothing is wrong, within certain limitations; tasteless perhaps. Should you esteem concrete casts of favourite body parts and you can find a willing model, then go for it. In this instance, I would recommend a dense evergreen hedge to accord with the height of your neighbour’s top-most window. I’m still hoping that you can find room to shoehorn in a few shrubs, perhaps a small patch put aside for hardy perennials.
Inula hookeri (yellow oxeye)
Inula hookeri (yellow oxeye)

Visit other people’s gardens for inspiration and if you see an idea that you like then nick it wholesale, or add your own twist. I fell for a hot box on a television program about Kew. Theirs was made from woven hazel withes cut from trees coppiced on their vast estate. Lacking such amenities, I made mine from two rectangular lattices, cut in half and nailed together at the corners to form a square. I filled the box with weeds and soft prunings, then topped it off with rotted compost. I planted the sides with Nasturtiums and the top with courgettes. It looks unusual and attractive and we have to eat a lot of zucchini. If I don’t pay attention, I end up having to research recipes for marrows. I loved the notion of wall training a redcurrant and having a suitable space on the back of the conservatory, read up on how to do it. I wired the wall, tied in the bamboo supports and purchased a sturdy plant. The rest, as they say, is history.
Alliums, Hemerocallis, Heuchera & Digitalis
Alliums, Hemerocallis, Heuchera & Digitalis

The design for the arches, uprights and fence for the raspberries came from the originals here when we bought the house. Previously made of wood and crumbling from rot, we couldn’t think of a better arrangement than to reproduce the elegant pattern in galvanised steel, with uprights of tanalised timber, which should last a while. I’ve seen troughs full of Sempervivums (houseleek) made from old china sinks and tin baths, given stern drainage. Architectural salvage yards are a happy hunting ground for containers and may stir you to new schemes. I enjoyed an old fashioned mangle used as a frame for sweet peas, which looked fetching and at home in a shabby chic plan. Overall themes work well in a small garden; I aim for a burgundy and lime green colour palette but I can’t be without white, red, yellow… you get my point.
The red bed
The red bed

Cast a casual eye over the plots along your road. This will show you what will grow in your area but beware of hardcore cases who shovel homemade compost on their soil. Some of these will have a contract with stables nearby, for as much horse poop as they can handle. The added richness enables the proud owners to gather delicate examples requiring especially nutritious conditions but you can tell, should the wind shift in your direction. If you see a plant that blows your skirt up, then ask. Few gardeners will take the huff if you stop and admire their efforts, dropping in a request for the name of a particular specimen. Should the sun shine off a larger than life reproduction of their naked torso, maybe better to keep walking.

Chopping Things To Bits

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When I was a child, I could push any morsel of old stick into a grubby tray full of mud and it would form roots in moments. Now that I’m grown and know better, I provide my darlings with clean compost and pristine pots. They sit in the mini greenhouse exuding sulk, petulance and strop until one stem is left standing. I find that I have to take many cuttings, just to ensure a couple of success stories.
Lilium (Asiatic lily) “Lollypop”
Lilium (Asiatic lily) “Lollypop”

It’s time to molest Osteospermums (Cape daisy) and tender Pelargoniums with a pair of sharp scissors. In either case, choose strong shoots without flower buds. If none presents itself, snip off the blossom, which would exhaust the cutting before it can make roots. The trip from the plant to the potting bench should be a short one. This is not the time to discover that your minute container of rooting hormone powder is underneath heavy granite statuary, boxes of lawn treatment and bales of compost. Maybe it’s just me, then. I’ve tidied the shed and now I can’t find anything smaller than a shovel. Get your kit together, including cutting compost. This is low in nutrients and of a sandy, well drained composition, which will help to slow rot in your trembling specimen of hope.
Thalictrum aquilegifolium (meadow rue) “Alba”
Thalictrum aquilegifolium (meadow rue) “Alba”

Snip 2 inch (5 cm) tip cuttings of Osteospermums, just below a leaf node. Remove most of the leaves, leaving a top knot with which it must survive for the next month. Dip the end in water, then rooting powder if you manage to locate it. Wetting it helps the near mythical chemical to stick, while you fanny around trying to find a dibber. Make a hole at the side of the pot and drop in your victim. Don’t wedge the soil in tightly but gently firm it in position. I place three per pot, since that’s my lucky number; optimists go for up to six. Swath the tray or pot with a polythene bag or cover, which must not touch the foliage. Open the shelter occasionally, to release moisture, stir the air and to check on progress. Remove anything that festers. Keep the cuttings well watered but not soggy and they should take in three to four weeks. Reduce irrigation when temperatures drop. Label it at the start, since after nine months of gestation and frost free over wintering, you are going to want to know the baby’s name. Ambivalence will be embarrassing.
Osteospermum (Cape daisy) “Violet Ice” - last year's cutting
Osteospermum (Cape daisy) “Violet Ice” – last year’s cutting

The technique for Pelargoniums is the same but different. Take longer tip cuttings at 4 inches (10 cm) again, below a pair of leaves. Strip it mostly naked and place it without rooting powder. Water well to start with, then only irrigate when the soil is dry. Restrain your generous instincts, or decay will ensue. Pot on your plants when new leaves start to grow. If the shreds of green form a puddle in the pot and a smell of cabbages hangs about, you should chalk that up to experience and start again, with clean pots and fresh cuttings. I’ve learned more from my failures than ever I did from outrageous triumph. Keep going and you will have a fabulous display of your favourite summer sparklers at a fraction of the usual cost. Unless you have to buy a lot of rooting powder.

One Time Only

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I started preparing the lemons for steeping for the cordial while I got last week’s blog ready for publishing. My computer crashed between entering the text and taking the photographs; drive D I hate you. Attila attacked the recalcitrant tech while I persevered with squeezing the living daylights out of twenty four blameless yellow fruits. It’s a good job that all of that hand weeding and secateur work had given me a strangler’s grip. My irritation at the perfidious box of silicon chips enabled me to crush my ingredients without mercy. The house was sticky all over from my gummy paw prints larded with vast quantities of sugar but smelled delightfully of citrus.
Vegetable patch facing north
Vegetable patch facing north

I used to curate the National Collection of ground elder. After years of warfare I had nothing but a sprinkling of leaves, which always sprang up overnight after a prolonged thrashing session. For the open day we had worked like maniacs to present the place fairly, as the plot of a plant addict who rooted out the most intrusive wildings but left a few, rather than risk injury. I had been ashamed of a tray full of Dierama pulcherrimum (angel’s fishing rod) seedlings, grown from harvestings from the strapping specimen in the front border. Hastily I pricked them out into 264 individual cells and while doing so, thought that plant sales could be a good money spinner for worthy causes yet to come. It was much too early to mention that to my nearest and dearest. After a day of gardengardengarden, my husband’s expression was beginning to get hysterical.
Hot box - Courgettes, Nasturtiums & Cardoons
Hot box – Courgettes, Nasturtiums & Cardoons

Prattling about plants and reciting Latin names seemed to please our visitors, who wandered about in orderly crowds and supped their iced drinks, bathed in glorious golden sunshine. In the conservatory, We had barricaded the stairs leading to the raised stage, since there was no banister or rail to protect the unwary from the drop. I didn’t want to find a victim’s feet sticking out of the fountain, having fallen head first from above. I had filled the reservoir and left it tinkling for the day. Any longer than that in the heat and the water would turn to the colour and consistency of pea soup. I wedged open both doors to provide a through route, to prevent an eddy of people around the Calla lilies. Spouse had arranged a recording of native birdsong on his MP3 player, which twittered discretely amongst the Brugmansias (angel’s trumpet). Several who could reach gave the Acacia dealbata (mimosa) a shoogle, mistaking it for Mimosa pudica (sensitive plant), which folds up if given a quick feel. Upturned faces all appeared to be charmed. Quite a few expressed lust and envy.
Acnistus australis (blue angel's trumpet)
Acnistus australis (blue angel’s trumpet)

We didn’t sell all of the cordial, so I put the concentrate through the ice cream machine to make sorbet. Perhaps this would be a good idea for summer opening in the future. Don’t think that way. The whole family mucked in with gate admission and kitchen duties. I rewarded them with a takeaway Chinese dinner and as much beer as they could drink. It seemed unfair to pounce when their resistance was low due to exhaustion and alcohol, so I shall wait until they are tipsy at Xmas. We made £270 for charity. It was fun. Can we do it again?

Ready For Ignition

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We’re counting down to our open day for the NGS. I have a to-do list which gets longer as I cross off two items and add six more that I’ve just thought of. Lawns are mowed and edged, paths have been swept and the bird bath has been scrubbed. I’ve addressed the most egregious weeds; the hanks of goose grass draped over the Pieris at the back and the nettle behind the chair that someone’s bound to sit on. The Euphorbia mellifera (honey spurge) was engagingly huge but towered over the Hemerocallis (day lily), cutting down the light essential for show stopping flowers. Attila helped me to prune the tyrannical shrub which like all of its kin, exudes thick white sap that irritates unprotected skin. I kept my spouse itch free but the branches of our victim are striped with gore like a casualty in a Tarantino movie.
Down the garden path
Down the garden path

The front looks reasonable, apart from the Echium pininana (giant viper’s bugloss) which is living up to its name in a monstrous spire of blue blossom. It came as a seedling from a consummate gardener, who has them drifting through his plot in meaningful groves. My single specimen is now twelve feet (4 m.) high and frantic with bees. There’s been a few waggle dances done over that one, I can tell you. I’m trying not to get anxious about a few older matrons who will be able to spot a tuft of grass in a border, or a leaf of ground elder at a hundred paces. Their eyeballs are going to be whizzing in this place. I hid in the vegetable patch and dealt with dandelions, while Attila wielded his preferred equipment and attacked the frou-frou pink cherry tree, which has died suddenly without warning or explanation. I ignored the crump of falling timber and refrained from offering advice or instructions, which isn’t like me. He carried out his mission without damaging anything, including himself. He’s a fine co-pilot.
In the conservatory
In the conservatory

I’ve hurled myself amongst the Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’ (golden hop), which was making a bid for world domination. I freed the other residents of the yellow and white bed at considerable personal cost; the stems of the vine are toothed, to assist with the monster’s remorseless upward progress. I looked like I came off worst in a tussle with a brace of tigers. The stinging nettles caught me a lash across the chops during their eviction, so I have a ferocious Quasimodo squint.
Lilium “Rhialto” & Papaver (poppy) seed heads
Lilium “Rhialto” & Papaver (poppy) seed heads

I’m opening with Jasmine, who is blonde and beautiful, has an immaculate estate across town and is offering cream teas, Prosecco and preserves for sale. I wouldn’t be surprised if her husband juggles tomatoes whilst riding a unicycle. I’ve pointed my partner at the washing line for a trapeze act but fear that he would be as comfortable as a goldfish asked to perform a tango on roller skates. At my house, visitors will get home made cordial and like it. I have yet to buy lemons, sugar and ice. The gates will be flung wide tomorrow morning. Wish me luck.

Banzai Bonsai

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First I bought one of those books, you know, where an expert tells you how to do it. I purchased all of the kit; the hideously costly china trays and the expensive soft wire for shaping branches. I tried his every suggestion. I sowed seeds in an empty half an orange, as he advised; the fruit skin rotted, taking everything else with it. I got my nascent bonsai going in a pot. I took them out and root pruned, shaped as if they were growing out of a hemispherical citrus. I removed a few leaves, to reduce the strain on the plant. They pegged it immediately, fell off the twig, so to speak.
Small scale forest
Small scale forest

I decided to come at the problem from the other end. I started cultivating Acers (maple) in large containers. This was the only way that I could give them the moisture that they required, since specimens plonked in my sandy soil give up the ghost, no matter how much compost is tucked under their chins. My courtyard is sheltered from the wind on three sides, thus eliminating another cause of scorched foliage. The burgeoning forest faces easterly, so such burning sunshine as we see doesn’t reach namby pamby leaves. We’re good to go.
Cuphea hyssopifolia (false heather)
Cuphea hyssopifolia (false heather)

Bonsai were inspired by diminutive trees shaped by nature and subsisting in a teaspoon of soil on a gusty mountainside. I was on the lookout for samples when I passed some majestic horse chestnuts, complete with small boys grubbing for conkers beneath. It was a simple matter to intimidate them into allowing me to fill my pockets with nuts. Twirling my spade like a ninja did the trick. The chainsaw would have been overkill and I wasn’t going to see the results if given a long sentence in Holloway. Strewn onto seed trays, the kernels sprouted with ease. I grew them on and cherished three in small, elegant containers. After ten years of loving care I cut them in half without mercy, thus forcing them to spread. Sorbus (rowan, mountain ash) put in an appearance amongst the alpines, from next door’s incontinent specimen. These were retrieved and potted up into cramped cribs, where they flourished in miniature. Cuphea hyssopifolia (Serissa, false heather) is a tiny tender shrub which makes a wonderful instant bonsai, utterly out of keeping with the aesthetic behind the art but pretty.
Aesculus hippocastanum (horse chestnut)
Aesculus hippocastanum (horse chestnut)

Acer pseudoplatanus (sycamore) spread themselves profusely. Tiny plants are sprinkled free around the feet of their parent, so you can experiment with single specimens, groups or root over rock style, without paying for it in anything other than guilt at murdering the poor sods. I saw some shooting beside the cemetery gate and knowing that these would prove a problem for large patrons if allowed to grow, I sent Attila to hoick them out. The only difficulty now that he has a mission, is stopping him from bringing them home. Pine cones are a good source of material. Leave them in a quiet, sunny place to open; the seeds are winged and will float away if left in a site of heavy human traffic. Sown in a tray of soil covered with vermiculite and you will have another string to your bow. Birches are springing up in borders where they are not wanted. Such appealing, miniscule leaves make perfect bonsai, so I’ve crammed them into inadequate quarters and chopped their tops off. I hauled the remaining uppermost branch upright and wired it in place as the leader, exactly as the specialist instructed. I used the copper wire which has been gathering dust on a shelf for twenty years. I call that a result.

Busman’s Holiday

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Did you think that I would be toasting myself on a sunny beach? No, I’ve seen enough sand with my poor dusty soil and salt water is a real deterrent for greenly growing things. Perhaps a vacation spent scaling lofty mounts and dusty knolls. I regard physical exercise as a waste of my resources, unless digging a new flower bed, sinking a pristine pool or siting some exotic and previously unknown specimen is the end result of all that toil. For my birthday, the family have clubbed together and bought me a break at one of the best gardens in the country. They are all staying here as well which is brave. They must be well aware that I’m going to spend the duration nattering about plants.
Bodnant Gardens - Pond, sky & mountains
Pond, sky & mountains

Bodnant is owned by the National Trust and comprises some eighty acres of loveliness ranging from sculpted lawns and decorous beds, to meadow walks and hill climbs. I didn’t see all of it by any stretch of the imagination but I gave it my best shot. The Magnolias and Laburnum arch were over but the Cornus kousas dazzled from their corners and the Eucryphias were ablaze with bees. The rose collection was opulent, arranged with old fashioned charm and the perfume which filled the air was too gorgeous to be entirely legal. The long borders of hardy perennials had me dribbling with lust and full of urgent plans full of possibilities. At every turn, there were little gems tucked beneath the skirts of hefty, more imposing examples. Not an inch of soil was wasted and although I could name many unusual varieties whether my comrades wanted or not, there were others which I had never seen before, not even in a picture. The ponds were a mixture of relaxed and formal, all perfectly planned, the most stunning reflecting the endless sky and having vistas across the Conwy river, to the blue Snowden range and Carneddau mountains beyond. When we reached the view outwards from the terrace in front of the house, I found myself speechless.
Bodnant Gardens - Waterfall & rill
Waterfall & rill

The Welsh countryside is underlain with slate and flint, meaning that the copious rain stays mostly where it’s put. The hills and valleys are bosomy with bouffant trees and the hedgerows are studded with closely knit wild flowers, misty with spires of foxgloves. The landscape is artfully plastered with sheep, cows and birds, most of whom made it their business to lurk beneath my window, urging me to get out of bed earlier than I had intended.
Bodnant Gardens - The long border
The long border

This is hilly country; after a couple of decades of living amid low lying terrain, I realise that it is the changes in elevation that I miss, more than anything. The restaurants are of wonderful quality and bearing in mind that this was an eating holiday as well as a horticultural experience, we gave great attention to delicious menus written in two languages. The fitter members of the party insisted on walking through the deepening twilight to our cottage. Basil drove me up the steep road towards a comfortable armchair with more than his customary care. As he said, he had to keep an eye out for Attila, Cineraria and Leo, who were pudding impaired.

Beating About The Bush

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I’ve been knocking my balls into shape. After an hour of perspiring in the sunshine with sharp shears, I’m worried that one hangs low. I’ve walked around glaring at them from every angle; they look better from the front, despite spending last year with their bare asses to the light. What do you think? The box plants were part of a hedge demolished at the behest of the owner. I planted five of them in the biggest pots I could find and have spent a considerable time trimming, feeding, watering and top dressing. After many seasons and despite all of this care, some have grown perfectly spherical, green and healthy whilst others are triangular and spreedy. After my assault, they are at least approximately the same size and shape.
Eryngium x zabelii “Big Blue” (sea holly)
Eryngium x zabelii “Big Blue” (sea holly)

Lonicera nitida ‘Baggesen’s Gold’ (woody honeysuckle) was a perfect teardrop, pruned with loving care, glowing against a backdrop of dark, sinister Hedera. When my husband took against the ivy and ripped it off the wall, he removed much of the support upon which the topiary depended. Reader, he shagged it completely. My pathetic efforts at tying it in, snipping and titivating have got me nowhere. I took my courage in my hands and asked Attila the Gardener to install a stake alongside the trunk, so that it could be trussed up properly. I had in mind a slender post, subtle and unobtrusive. The reality is a chunk of two by two inch timber, bedded into the soil with an iron bracket. The house will fall down before that gives up the ghost.
At the pond side
At the pond side

I don’t like Viburnums. The sweetly scented spring bloomers don’t like my sand and the huge, butch shrub types are not very exciting and smell of dog’s pee. They are all targets for any number of insects which specialise not just in destruction but leaving behind evidence of their incontinent dining habits.
Cotinus coggygria (smoke bush) & Rhododendron yakushimanum
Cotinus coggygria (smoke bush) & Rhododendron yakushimanum

I make an exception in my antipathy for Viburnum opulus ‘Sterile’ (snowball tree, guelder rose), which provides a show stopping bush full of white pom poms in May. After flowering, it whispers a siren song of invitation to viburnum beetle and black fly. I can’t hear my son’s stereo over the noise of their whoopee making and the bugs have turned spouse’s newly painted wall into a blackened, dingy cemetery of wan hope. I handed my man the heavy loppers and gave him a brief tutorial on restorative pruning. I told him which stems to take out at ground level with the saw. “Are you sure?” I showed him which branches to reduce by a third. “Do you really want to cut off that much?” When I queried his timidity in the light of past scorched earth, he confessed that his previous forays with pointed equipment left him with nightmares and cold sweats. After he had finished the job I had to go over it again, chopping off a little more. I feel like a proper Tatar; it’s liberating, give it a go.

Potted History

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I’m not going to the mat for Nemesias. They are pretty little things; my life would be a desolate, echoing empty place without them, if you’ll forgive the hyperbole but if they have a perfume it is usually elusive and detection risks inhalation of bees going about their lawful business. To provide for the missing or dangerous dimension I use scented leaved Pelargoniums, having garnered a collection of P. tomentosum (peppermint), “Attar Of Roses” (Turkish delight) and an un-named apple fragranced variety. I take cuttings every year, as well as nursing the parent plants through the vagaries of an English winter. Although propagation is relatively easy, I find every year that passes increases my chances of success. Another decade and I’ll be pressing plants into your hands, whether you want them or not. Recently Botanical Barbara presented me with a sturdy P. tomentosum “Chocolate Peppermint”, which has a similar fresh aroma and a striking leafy blotch. I’ve been lusting after it for a very long time and would have considered a number of immoral, possibly illegal pursuits to get one, so my gratis gift takes pride of place on a sunny windowsill.
Paeonia lactiflora “Bowl of Beauty” (Japanese peony)
Paeonia lactiflora “Bowl of Beauty” (Japanese peony)

Osteospermum “Violet Ice” was a handsome and eye-catching part of last year’s show, a discreet tinge of lilac froth to leaven the swath of well dressed white. I managed to strike some but they are strange, bent looking specimens, best relegated to the side of a mixed container full of other annuals, where they may straighten up and fly right, or be subsumed by Petunias. This year’s crop from my local nursery includes O. “Voltage White” which looks daisyish enough during the day, then closes in twilight to reveal the back of petals of a glowing, fascinating shade of delicious, delicate yellow. If I have to bust my buns in the effort and end up sleeping with them on my bedside table, I’m going to keep some of these going for the future. Clearly, I need more practice.
This year's annuals
This year’s annuals

The Auriculas have been demoted to a verdant sideshow around Grandma’s antique oval trough. They gave me a wonderful display of lustrous spring colour, strange green blooms and flowers dusted with floury white farina. I’ve rewarded good behaviour with a sprinkling of fish, blood and bone fertiliser. Until autumn they will spend their vacation soaking up the sun, with weekly watering to keep them plump. Much like my honoured ancestor, they are little trouble as long as they are irrigated correctly. I’ll re-pot next spring, to encourage them in their efforts.
Zantedeschia aethiopica (arum lily) & bee
Zantedeschia aethiopica (arum lily) & bee

In the vegetable plot, Cineraria germinated every pip in her packet of courgettes. She’s planning to supply the zucchini needs of the whole of her city and has kindly donated some seedlings for my hot box. I’ve planted them in a heaping helping of well rotted compost, where I hope that they will simmer in the rising heat of decomposing weeds beneath. My daughter has also provided some patty pan squash, which I should have been expecting but wasn’t. I’m alarmed at the size of the damned things and the speed with which the stems are growing. I fear that I shall have to take up some more lawn in order to accommodate them and can only hope that the internet has a few recipes and my freezer is big enough to hold them. If there is no blog next week, you’ll know that I can no longer get in my own door.

Each To Their Own

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I needed to know if these Nemesias were better than those on sale at the other nursery, fifteen miles in the opposite direction. Attila was bored with constant mental comparisons which were really outside his area of expertise. I’ve dragged him around the locality, looking for tender annuals for containers and hanging baskets. I know that one vendor will have perfect Petunias and another will offer faultless Osteospermums. The success of my summer courtyard display hinges upon making crucial decisions now but after several days of shopping, my spouse’s patience was at a dangerously low ebb.
Net's rose, possibly “Bleu Magenta”
Net’s rose, possibly “Bleu Magenta”

The lawn was a different matter. He found the scarifier at the back of the shed and applied it with a will, so that what was lushly green with clover is now balding badly. I used a water-in weed ‘n’ feed and did that job myself to avoid recriminations, should something precious be killed while the dandelions thrive. I donned a ski headband whilst carrying out the operation. That’s a deeply unflattering garment; I caught sight of myself in a mirror and realised that I looked like a startled angora hamster caught in a wind tunnel. He sprinkled lawn green and grass seed, having read and ignored the instructions. The hose was dragged to the front, connected to a curly extension. Attila cleared off on some arcane masculine pursuit, leaving me with directions to shift the sprinkler on a strict half hour schedule. The strange plastic spiral was designed to catch on the brick edging during the move, giving me a cold shower every twenty seconds. I managed to follow his commands whilst involuntarily entering the wet t-shirt competition and the saintly grip on my temper contest.
Allium schubertii (ornamental onion)
Allium schubertii (ornamental onion)

This is the moment when the garden has done the spring thing. Everything seems to be holding a quivering breath, drawing its skirts about for summer. Decisions have to be made regarding the leaves of daffodils and tulips, which are flopping about the borders like actresses in a melodrama. Are they dead enough to remove yet, or could they slurp up another week’s sunshine, to big up next year’s blooms? The hardy perennials are making their bid for the space. Thugs like Phlomis russeliana (Turkish sage) and Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae (Mrs. Robb’s bonnet) require harsh discipline to keep them in some order. I am a tough tyrant and tear out the unruly with no mercy. My partner is a softy, who would leave more wambly specimens to be subsumed by the brutes.
Front garden annuals
Front garden annuals

Nematodes have been applied for biological control, where the slugs are carving impertinent paths through that which is most prized. The good critters are active in the soil where snails don’t congregate, so the latter are left largely untouched. I have dosed the Auriculas with vine weevil drench; the sudden loss of perk to their leaves indicates the presence of the fat, greasy white grubs which do all the damage. I use systemic Provado, a horrible yellow opaque liquid that reminds me of Granny’s indigestion cure which had the same viscous quality, but pink. The blue tits are nesting in the trees and under next door’s roof. The season is responding to the sunshine with the twitter of the birds, the tootle of an ice cream van and the gentle, heartfelt groan of the unaccustomed gardener.

A Passion For Prickles

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If I collected old bicycle frames, 1950’s corsets and empty crisp packets, everybody would be worried and asking each other “What shall we do about Mother?” Documentaries would visit the chaos briefly and my obsession would be the subject of scorn. As it is, my fixation is for curating botanical specimens and spectators compliment me on my single mindedness of purpose. My family buy me rare examples and still wonder what to do with me. Wherever possible, I lure my kin into my mania. So it was that Cineraria and Angelica went with us to the North West Cactus Mart in Manchester, having given their sports fiend partners the slip. Basil said that wandering around in concentric circles looking at plants was the worst possible pursuit that he could think of, then settled down to watch the Formula One car racing. Attila received a straight line trip from the woman in the satnav. For once he had no complaints, apart from her insistence on taking us through every red traffic light in three counties, because we were running late for the start.
Frithia pulchra (baby toes)
Frithia pulchra (baby toes)

Daughter Cindy has developed a taste for pert, bulbous, round ones. Angie celebrates all different shapes and wants as much texture and variety as she can cram into her bijou sun trap. Spouse admires succulents and I’m looking for something utterly unlike anything I already have. I promised my husband that I probably wouldn’t spend any money and he was right to look sceptical. We arrived amongst a seraglio of cactus flesh; endless tables of perfect, plump examples of plants all buffed to flawlessness by proud vendors. Sellers were knowledgeable and enthusiastic, keen to share hints and tips for cultivation. Old hands like us carried trays in which to accumulate our prizes, since clasping balls of spikes to your chest is a game that quickly loses its charm.
Rebutia heliosa on a graft
Rebutia heliosa, on a graft

The four of us scattered to follow individual fascinations, crossing paths to swap notes on particularly excellent stands and rewards gained there. I bought Attila a Crassula “Carolita”, vastly fetching but small enough for him not to notice in the wealth on offer and amid the scrum of customers. He acquired a Mammillaria spinosissima for me, which was positively hazy behind a cloud of spines and we exchanged gifts with arms entwined, like honeymooners sipping champagne but with much more care.
The cactus collection
The collection

On the way back home without time constraints, the lights were all green but our boxed director of maps knew nothing of a new road and two recent roundabouts. We were all talking about where we had been and what we had found, so took three wrong turns. We didn’t really care. Anyone who says that they don’t like cacti, I’m prepared to push earthworms in their ear until they change their mind.