Life on Rozanne

September 19, 2011 § 25 Comments

One of the best hardy geraniums is ‘Rozanne’. It has large purple flowers that bloom from early summer until autumn. In a good year, it performs for six months. It is a tremendous sprawler, and isn’t recommended for small gardens. Even though we don’t really have the room, we grow it in several of our borders. We control its conquistadorial tendencies by hacking chunks off the clumps — which is really a form of extreme dead-heading. It looks frightened for a few days, and then it quickly pulls itself together and produces a fresh flush of flowers.

Geranium 'Rozanne'

For years, ‘Rozanne’ was confused with the very similar ‘Jolly Bee’, and only gardeners-in-the-know professed to be able to tell the difference. One was more sprawly than the other. Or maybe not. [Warning: unless you have a burning desire to watch a nomenclatural tangle being unravelled, you might want to skip the next paragraph. But, do click on all the photos in this post: they’re quite interesting. I’ve a novel surprise for you at the end, as well.]

Both are hybrids of G. wallichianum ‘Buxton’s Variety’, with G. himalayense providing the other parent for the first, and G. shikokianum var. yoshiianum for the second. And both are patented plant varieties, which means that they have brought in wads of revenue for the patent holders — Blooms of Bressingham and Dutch breeder Marco Van Noort, respectively. However, in 2010, a court ruled that they were too similar to be distinguishable, and that ‘Jolly Bee’ should cease to exist as a separate variety — bad news for Van Noort, who would no longer receive plant breeder’s royalties. To confuse matters further — and such are the convolutions of plant nomenclature — the original name of ‘Rozanne’ is ‘Gerwat’ (the first appellation under which it was registered) although it is known as Rozanne® in the trade.

The thing that is rarely written about ‘Rozanne’ though (or ‘Jolly Bee’, for that matter), is that it is a complete hit with invertebrates. Honeybees, bumblebees, flies, hoverflies, ants and other small creatures flock to it, to drink its nectar and to pluck the bits of pollen that are tucked into its stamens.

Marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) collecting pollen

The marmalade fly (above) is one of the few hoverflies that actually eats pollen. Before ingesting the grains, it crushes them between its front legs (I nearly said “paws”, as I have a huge affection for this particular species and find it easy to get a little woolly about it).

‘Rozanne’ is sterile, that is, it produces no seed. This characteristic allows it to bloom for a very long period. Normally, a plant’s biological clock tells it to stop flowering when it has made enough seed to perpetuate itself, but a sterile plant has no “stop” for the blooming mechanism. It flowers until colder weather and lower light levels say it’s time — finally — to quit. So, the gooey amber pollen grains that you see stuck to the furry stigma below have fallen on barren ground, as it were.

Pollen grains on 'Rozanne'

I’ve noticed more insect varieties on ‘Rozanne’ than I have on any other plant in my garden. Here is a pretty common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum):

Common carder bumblebee

In my patch (and in many other Irish gardens) it is the most frequent bumblebee visitor. One of its identifying features is its furry, ginger-coloured waistcoat. In sunny weather, the hairs can become bleached, turning it into a blonde bumbo. If you look closely while it is feeding, you’ll see that it has quite a long tongue. It is one of only two bee species that feeds on our native foxglove. The other is the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum), which has the longest tongue of any bee in the UK and Ireland: 1.5 to 2 centimetres when at full stretch. It often leaves it extended when it is flying between foxglove blooms, as below:

Bombus hortorum sticks her tongue out at a foxglove

But back to ‘Rozanne’. It is also, as I mentioned earlier, very popular with flies. I’ve seen loads of different species visiting. I’m not sure of this one’s name (if there are any dipterists reading this, please do help), but it didn’t mind standing quietly and having its picture taken:

Fly sunbathing on Geranium 'Rozanne'

Let’s take a closer look at that:

What is THAT?

Yes, the fly is blowing a bubble. Slowly, slowly out and slowly, slowly in. I’m not sure why it does this, but I have read that it may aid food digestion. In any case, it was so focussed on bubble-blowing that it stayed perfectly still while it was having its portrait taken. Isn’t it lovely?

Coming up Cabbages: a few words on Cordylines

February 11, 2011 § 22 Comments

Ireland is often a green and misty land (although less greener than usual during this cold winter). And one of the things that surprises visitors is the sight of “palm trees” incongruously raising their mop tops through the Celticky fog. They decorate our towns and suburbs, they are blasted by the salt air on our seafronts, and they are often seen in pairs guarding the entrances to farmhouses. But, they are not palm trees at all: they are the New Zealand native, Cordyline australis. They enjoy the common name of “cabbage tree”, supposedly because settlers in New Zealand found the young leaves to be a tolerable substitute for cabbage.

Cordylines flanking the door of Corke Lodge in Co Wicklow

Cordylines are much loathed. Partly it is because of the occasional and near-indestructible leaves that the trees shed (dried, they make great kindling) and partly — I think — it is because they have both lowbrow and suburban associations. It’s not unusual to see them sprouting out of a jolly carpet of summer bedding. In other words, in the eyes of a certain kind of refined gardener, the cabbage tree is a shining example of bad taste.

One of the first things that cordyline-haters do upon inheriting one in a garden, is to hack it down to the ground. The trees are unfazed by such insults, and regenerate eagerly, popping out several stems in the place of the previous single one. Good for them. This winter and the last, though, have not been kind to cordylines, and the inland parts of this country are littered with their still-standing, but mummified, corpses. I fear they may not rise again to annoy the better classes of gardeners.

Cordyline in the garden at Kylemore Abbey, Connemara

Where I live, however, all these misunderstood New Zealanders are in the pink of health. Our barometer has not dipped lower than minus 5 degrees Centigrade (23 F), whereas elsewhere in Ireland, the temperature was ten or more degrees colder. In our mild climate, the cordyline blooms every year. The angular panicles are crammed with creamy flowers, which open in late spring, and go on for weeks. The scent — strongest in the evening — is powerful and lily-like. For me it is one of the exhilarating fragrances of early summer. Bees would seem to agree. They love the flowers, and work them all day. And in the autumn and early winter the thousands of ivory-coloured berries, which are full of fats, help to keep birds alive. My neighbours’ tree across the road is a busy re-fuelling point for blackbirds, thrushes, starlings, blackcaps and wood pigeons.

Snowy cordylines across the road

If you don’t like cordylines, or if they don’t do well in your colder area, then — as we say here in a very self-righteous voice — I’m sorry for you. And you’re not likely to be interested in knowing that they belong to the same family as asparagus, Asparagaceae, a clan that also includes lily-of-the-valley and hosta.

Was Doffed, now Donned again

December 9, 2010 § 11 Comments

Today, I am going to hop across the Irish Sea to Britain, where a surprise announcement sent the TV-watching gardening community into a state of high agitation. Monty Don is to return to BBC 2 television’s Gardeners’ World show next spring. He replaces Toby Buckland, who had replaced him in 2008, after the older presenter suffered a minor stroke. Some viewers are delighted at Monty’s reinstatement to the programme, whereas others are less happy. In another backward-looking move, Rachel de Thame will be rejoining, and Alys Fowler will be leaving.

The excellent Arabella Sock’s take on the news is here [turn up the volume for the full effect]:

By the way, Miss Sock’s agreeably insane blog, The Sea of Immeasurable Gravy is here.

If you’re not a gardener in Ireland or Britain, none of this will be of any concern to you (and — equally — if you are, it may not be either). I don’t watch a lot of gardening television these days, so it won’t make or break my Friday evenings.

So why am I writing this? Well, because it gives me an opportunity to wheel out an interview — a cover story — that I did for the Irish Times with Monty Don in 2003. It was during his first season on his previous stint on the show. I liked the article that I wrote, but after publication it disappeared forever, as the magazine section of the Irish Times was not archived on the internet at that time. So, I thought I might revive it here. Why not? If Monty can come back to haunt us years later, then why not my much-slaved-over interview?

The day of that interview was scorchingly hot. I had flown from Dublin to Birmingham and then made my way to the Don family house, at Ivington, a small hamlet surrounded by flat farmland, a few miles outside Leominster. What seemed like a heroic journey to the normally stay-at-home me, with all its important train-bus-plane-and-taxi connections, was made all the more epic by the heat. It was so warm that I asked the taxi driver to stop for ice-creams before we reached the finish line at the Don home. When I finally arrived, I was suffused with a burned-out euphoria, as if I had completed a marathon. Now read on:

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *


The door to the very old timber-framed house in Herefordshire is wide open and welcoming. It’s a good start to my interview with Britain’s chief man of the soil, Monty Don. I send a questing “Hello?” along the flagged passage. A figure appears in the hall, engagingly casual in torn shorts and tee shirt: “You’re half an hour early”.

Well, maybe not such a great start after all. I feel a little put out, as I have been travelling since the crack of dawn and have arrived just two (well-judged) minutes after the hour appointed by his publisher. But professionalism reasserts itself and I pack away my feelings.

And, a while later — after telling him that I didn’t really like his fourth last book — I feel just grand. But it’s his latest book, The Complete Gardener (which I do like), that brings me here. And I want to see his garden, and I’m hoping to hear about his first season as the main presenter of BBC television’s Gardeners’ World — and anything else I can winkle out of him in two short hours. Because Monty is pressed for time. It’s the last hectic two days before his holidays, and he has already written an article that morning, and must write a script for an hour-long television programme when I leave (“you can stay as long as you like” he offers, “as long as you’re gone by 4.30”).

His time off will be spent at home: “I’m not going anywhere. I’m just going to garden.” Monty doesn’t like leaving home for holidays: “I went to France for 3 days a few weeks ago. And two years ago I went to Turkey, which was horrible.” In fact, he doesn’t like leaving home at all: “I was filming up in Manchester a week or two back, and they couldn’t understand why I insisted on going home every night. It was simply to check the greenhouses. So I got home at half past nine at night, and checked everything and watered, and then at five in the morning did it again.”

It’s more than the greenhouses, though. Monty Don’s life is regulated, given meaning and made real by the rhythms and rigours of gardening. “I’m not interested abstractedly in plants. I mean I am, but only up to a point. I’m interested in places, and home, and it’s completely egocentric and self-centred and selfish and introverted. Everything I write about, or talk about on television is either personal, or based on personal experience. I do not garden for the nation, I garden for me.”

And while the occasional slot on Gardeners’ World comes from Monty’s garden, the two acre plot has a strong air of privacy, and contains no concessions to the medium of television — unlike the garden of the previous frontman, Alan Titchmarsh, where projects were continually developed for the programme. (In the current era, the series has a tenure on a place in Warwickshire, known by the fictitious name of “Berryfields”.)

Monty’s Herefordshire garden has been created solely to fulfil his and — just as importantly — his wife Sarah’s visions and needs. Her input is “fifty per cent, although obviously not physically. But I wouldn’t dream of doing anything in this garden without talking about it with her, and nor would she.”

Ten years ago, when the Dons first made their mark on this land, it was a shaggy field, filled with looping, snagging brambles  and builders’ flotsam and jetsam. Now “it is starting to get a permanent structure. It is starting to look as I imagined it would.”

Its development is chronicled in The Complete Gardener, which starts out with a compelling treatise on being organic. Organic gardening, as those who practice it soon discover, is not just doing without chemicals, it is making your place and taking your turn in the greater scheme of things. It is guiding a garden to be in tune with the soil, location, weather, and with the rhythm of the seasons. Of course, there are strategies to improve your lot (and Monty tells most of them), but you can never forget that nature is calling the shots.

The practicalities and aesthetics of planning and making the structural parts of the garden are dealt with in the book, but always with reference to Monty’s own patch (no pergolas or ponds here). Favourite fruits, vegetables, ornamental plants and herbs are also covered. It is an entirely personal primer, but informative and thought-provoking.

After meeting the garden in the book, as it were, I am curious to see the real thing. It is an intensively cultivated area, and a monument to hard and sustained work. A pair of gardeners (a retired judge and his wife) come a couple of days a week, but Monty and Sarah work in it every available hour.  “I try not to pay people to do what I like doing” — such as planting and pruning, and trimming the topiary (16 yew cones, and 64 box balls).

Plants grow at a prodigious rate — owing in part to good husbandry, but also to the rich clay loam: “think soil on steroids”. It’s a gift when it comes to the hedges (nearly four metres’ growth in 8 years), and the two prolific vegetable gardens of 24 and 8 beds each, but it’s a mixed blessing for herbaceous plants. “Sometimes you don’t want all that leafy growth. We have to hack things back constantly.”

The garden is arranged in many, orderly compartments, divided by hedge-walled corridors of grass and paving. Although the growth within the angular spaces is luxuriant and — in some cases — fecundly overblown, the atmosphere is one of controlled restraint and cloistered seclusion. The tall Tudor house, monastic in its beautiful, rough simplicity, adds to the ambiance of a place of retreat. I feel as if I have penetrated a religious enclosure: even the dogs have taken a vow of silence — or perhaps they’re just too hot to talk to me.

And Monty is curiously removed, like a monk disturbed on his way to evensong, his daily rhythmic rituals interrupted. I follow him awkwardly around the garden, my notebook of unasked questions burning in my hand.

Buried away at the end of my list, but uppermost in my mind, is that I must ask him about the depression that he is widely known to suffer from. It seems an intrusion to pry, but later when I ask will he talk about it, he takes it graciously: “I’m fine about it. It is not a taboo subject. To me having depression is like having eczema or measles.”

And although he is fed up talking about it — “Nothing is so boring as one’s own depression. It has no glamour, no saving grace whatsoever” — he realises that by doing so he may help other sufferers. “There are lots and lots of people out there who get encouragement if someone who is holding their life together — more or less — says, ‘well, actually I too have to cope with this thing’.”

His depression is triggered by falling light levels: “I could set a clock by it. It’s almost on June the 25th. I think that the body senses that the light is going. It’s this sense of profound loss.” His worst periods are for a few weeks after the summer equinox, and again, in varying degrees, from late autumn until February. “Physically I start to fall apart. Mentally I’m either completely fragile or in pieces. And useless, useless. You are a third alive.”

Cognitive therapy and Prozac helped him cope in the past, but now he uses only lightboxes. Wisely, he never took to the drink, “I had hepatitis when I was 14, and my liver is fucked.” In his darkest moments, “I can’t garden, I can hardly write”. Yet he forces himself to grind out his weekly column for the Observer. “I’m highly disciplined, if I didn’t do it, I’d be in trouble.”

And Monty knows about trouble. He lost both home and livelihood when a jewellery business he ran with Sarah went bust in the early nineties. “Ten years ago, I was on the dole for a year and had no work. I will never, never forget that.”

Now he is grateful for whatever work comes his way. And this year that has included the top job in the gardening media in these islands. Gardeners’ World, now in its 36th year, is watched by around 3 million, and Monty’s appointment as its main man puts him firmly in the position of being the peoples’ Head Gardener.

With his introverted personality, and slightly aloof and soldierly demeanour on television, he is a complete change from the perky everybody’s-best-friend Alan Titchmarsh. But his devotion to the process and craft of gardening, his honesty and high principles (not to mention his strong-bodied good looks), make him an interesting and brave choice. The programme, — which pre-Monty had regressed into a laddish, bantering party-in-the-garden — may be coming out of its thirty-something crisis.

“I would like Gardeners’ World to be grown up — you can be funny and serious together, but you don’t have to be facile,” says Monty. And although television is full of compromises, he strives to adhere to certain standards. “I will never endorse anything I haven’t used, or don’t like. I will never promote any non-organic gardening in any way, shape or form, and I’ll never say or do anything that I don’t believe in.”

And garden makeovers, although “fantastically entertaining television, are bad gardening. I’ve done them. I can’t be too sanctimonious as I’ve taken my shilling. But I didn’t feel good about doing them, because I was doing things that I would never, never have done in a garden.”

Makeovers have also led to the development of a television vernacular, says Monty, using out-of-context devices such as decking and paint. “Decking is really easy to do on television: you can do it any weather, you don’t have to dig anything and you can put it on top of things. It’s the same with paint, but it’s really hard to use so that it looks great in November on a grey day. Yet on television, especially if you heat it up with a bit of light, it looks great. It looks great for ten, fifteen minutes. That’s all it has to look good for.”

Such transformations “foster this belief of gardening as magic, not something that you have to have patience for, not something that grows. I would much rather see gardens that are slow. The drama’s there anyway, the drama is stupendous. Anyone who gardens knows that.”

Britain’s Head Gardener never even filled out an application for the post: “I never applied for a television job in my life. It would be disingenuous to say I won’t mind when it goes, because no-one appears on television unless they want to, but it’s not everything in my life.”

Far more important is his writing, although “I never wanted to write about gardening. I see myself as a writer who happens to write about gardening. I’ve written lots of other things, but they have never had any success. It just so happens that people want to publish what I write about gardening. When I was 23 that would have depressed me hugely, by 33 I was glad to take the money for anything, and by 43 I just thought, well this is the way it is. As I near 53, I think, well, you play the cards that you are dealt, and that is just the way it is. There’s time to do other things.”

And because Monty Don’s time is precious and rigorously ordered, I leave shortly afterwards — at 4.32 p.m. — carefully closing the gate behind me.


November 30, 2010 § 6 Comments

This year, at about four in the morning on November 27th, winter arrived with about as much drama as you can imagine. We had sudden head-cracking thunder and lightning, followed by mung-bean-sized pellets of compacted snow that hurtled down the chimney, pinged off the grate and rolled onto the bedroom floor.

The pellets, I’ve learned recently, are called “graupel”, and they occur when supercooled droplets of water condense on a snowflake. The idea of anything condensing on a snowflake seems odd, but there you have it, that’s graupel for you.

Melting graupel, nestling in Agave

In the morning, the garden was covered in an inch of snow — both the conventional variety, and our new acquaintance, graupel. The next night we had two more inches of white stuff. It has been bone-chillingly cold for days, and there is no sign of the conditions out there changing back to the comparatively balmy maritime weather that we normally experience in this clement corner of Ireland.

Still, although I’m colder than I’ve been in months, I’m very pleased to have learned a new word, and to have had a chance to take some snowy pictures.

Phlomis russeliana: pretty, meringue-topped skeletons

Snap du Jour

Rare migrants brave the Irish snow

Other People’s Gardens

September 27, 2010 § 6 Comments

In my last (and first) post here, I mentioned that I gardened, not for other people, but for myself and the various creatures that live outside the front and back doors. In just a few hundred words I managed to sound holier-than-thou in a lonesome communing-with-nature way, while also giving the impression that I am dismissive of those who garden for other people. What a great start to a blog.

The truth is that I am constantly and hugely grateful to gardeners who welcome other people onto their plots. They are benign and brave souls. It takes courage to open your garden to scrutiny — and to the inevitable criticism that pours merrily out of visitors’ mouths. Or is that just Irish visitors? Are garden visitors in other countries less bent on picking holes, and more interested in immersing themselves in the experience, and in trying to understand what the gardener is doing? (Having said that, there are a few owners who open their properties with the sole intention of securing tax relief, which is a little mean-spirited. But more on that another time.)

In the main, people who open their gardens are generous humans, giving freely of information, and often of plants or cuttings. Some of my favourite plants were gifts from other gardeners, or were purchases at their sales tables. These are often varieties that are not seen at garden centres, because they might be difficult to transport, or tricky to propagate on a commercial scale, or they may be ugly ducklings while in the pot (turning into beauteous swans only when they get into the ground). Or — best of all — they might be strains that are local to that particular garden or locale, carrying a unique and historic set of genes in their green fabric.

The Bay Garden, Camolin, Co Wexford: a lovely place to visit

For me, life would be flat without other people’s gardens. They are a place to meet other gardeners, to talk about plants and growing, to unwind, to be amazed, and to learn something new. I’m perennially curious, as are most gardeners. You can ask ten gardeners how they propagate penstemons, or whether they put dandelion roots in their compost, and you’ll get ten, opinionated answers. I find this exhilarating — which probably seems a bit sad to non-gardeners.

Ornamental potager at Ballymaloe Cookery School

At the end of August I visited Ballymaloe Cookery School gardens in east Cork, and Tanguy de Toulgoët’s Dunmore Country School garden in Durrow, Co Laois on the same day. Both gardens are doing the same thing: growing good food, using organic systems. But the methods are quite different. At Ballymaloe, for instance, seedlings are started in modules, under artificial lights; and in Tanguy’s Laois garden, seeds are germinated in seed beds in the polytunnel. At Ballymaloe there is an acre of greenhouses (lucky them!), and in Laois, an acre is the size of the entire garden. The greatest difference I noticed, however, was the climate. The two places are only 130km (80 miles) apart as the crow flies, yet it was like stepping from early autumn in Ballymaloe to mid-summer in Durrow. The first has a coastal temperate climate, whereas the second is much more continental.

Good things to eat in Tanguy de Toulgoët's garden

Our small island of Ireland has hundreds of gardens that are open to the public — where an overwhelming amount of growing goes on. When I’m not being lonely and mawkish in my own garden, I’m usually snooping around someone else’s.


The garden photographer's job demands a certain amount of versatility

You should have been here last week

August 25, 2010 § 14 Comments

“You should have been here last week.”

If you’re a gardener, you’ve said this a hundred times to visitors, even though — after the twentieth time — you know how clichéed and ridiculous it sounds. When you’ve been saying it for a few years, you’ve got to the point where you’ve tried it out in so many modes, from self-deprecatory to funny-voice, that you’re right back to being sincere again. Because, really, the garden is always better in retrospect, or in the future.

Or rather, it is when you find yourself looking at it through other people’s eyes. All the holes in the planting, the weeds and the other horrors rise up and spoil the view. But the gratifying thing — in my patch, anyway — is that when the visitors leave, the garden settles down again and stops being inadequate. When there’s no-one around to judge, when it’s just me and the garden, I’m content. And I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are gardeners who garden so that other people can see their efforts, and there are those who don’t. I’m one of the latter: one of those who like their space best when there is no-one else in it. For us, tending a plot of ground is a solitary pastime.

Except that it is not. We are never alone in a garden. There are birds and bees, and sometimes butterflies, and other interesting things such as worms and woodlice. For me, these creatures are as important as the plants that grow here. I try to garden as much for them as I do to make a pretty picture or a productive patch for myself. The longer I garden, the more I feel that the space outside my door doesn’t really belong to me, but to the gazillion other beings that inhabit it. I know that I’m the one in charge, but if the garden were the territory of only me and the other people who live in this house, it would be a pretty dull place. If there were no opportunistic robin following me around, or no surprise frogs in the long grass, or no fat worms pulling the mulch underground, I wouldn’t have half as good a time out here.

It’s not that I don’t like visitors: I do, but they sometimes make me feel a little on edge and over-protective of my garden. And I start babbling the “you should have been here last week” excuse. But, to tell the truth, I’m quite glad that they weren’t.


He-She lives here too (they’re hermaphrodites, you know)

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