Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A thousand small deaths in Brighton...

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That is a picture of my frogspawn - it doesn't look good to me. For weeks I have been watching and waiting for the little black balls in their surrounding jelly to start to transform, wiggle and break out, hoping the delay was due to the weather and a reluctance to leave their surrounding spheres for the harsh reality of pondlife.  I think I need to face the fact that they have all died.

We were absurdly pleased and flattered that the frog had chosen to use our little pondlet as a birthing pool.  Over the years there has been a decline in the frog numbers visiting our small urban garden. When we first moved here there were loads leaping about the lawn at night, even coming into the kitchen. When we replaced the old fridge we found three decayed frog bodies under it where they had probably hoped to hide from marauding cats.  I did wonder if perhaps frogs didn't have reverse gear and having squeezed under it couldn't back out.  One of our builders found a fossilized frog in our chimney which he took home for his son to add to his macabre collection of small dead bodies.

We had a frog living in a gro-bag by the back door which would pop its head out and shout at us in disgust when we watered the bag.  When the cats sat on the patio gazing out into the garden the frog would sit on the gro-bag behind them gazing at their backs.  Luka was a great 'frogger' holding them gently in his mouth he would bring them back from neighbouring gardens to play with in his own. I lost count of the number of frogs I rescued from him, some more than once.

The pondlet is designed as a 3ft diameter 18 inch deep sunken tub with bricks overhanging the top to create a mini-well.  When we found three frogs in it swimming around in ever decreasing exhausted circles we realised they needed an escape route.  My original idea for the pondlet was to just have the water create a mirror surface so from my upstairs study I could watch the movement of scudding clouds reflected in it. Breaking the surface water with large stones to provide an amphibian exit wasn't quite my design plan but needs must and by now there were newts in the little pool too.


All too often after a hard winter the spring clean of the pondlet has produced at least one decaying frog body so it was with great excitement this March that we found not just a live frog in there but loads and loads of frog spawn.  Our plans to clean the pond pre-hosepipe ban were put on hold and I have been out daily to check on the progress of this new nearly-life.  Unfortunately Hebe has been checking on it too, sat patiently by the pond like a trout tickler, ready to flip out a surfacing frog with her paw.  She watches the frog whilst I watch her, both of us ready to pounce..  I had still to come up with a plan as to how we might defend any emerging froglets from her feline vigilance.  The Bedsock suggested that it would be better to take the spawn to a country pond - but I didn't want to part with it. Now, whilst the frog may have survived the threat of cat torment the spawn appears to be dead. The little black dots have turned white and there is no sign of the squiggling life I had been waiting so eagerly for.

If anyone has ideas on why this might have happened do tell me.  The water was the same as had overwintered except for a top-up from the water butt.  There was early warmth in March and then this cold snap but other than that I can't understand why these small deaths should have occurred.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Is Anne Wareham gardening's Samantha Brick....

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No.. no.. no...! you silly people! I didn't mean she permanently has strange men sending champagne to her table, eyeing her up in the street and paying for her taxis whilst her husband dresses in camo gear and goes round shooting at the furiously jealous wives of all male associates!  I meant did she write this article on NGS Gardens' in the Spectator in order to ensure an explosion of publicity which would set her up for a lifetime of appearances on 'Celebrities Gardening in the Jungle' and 'The Only Way is Veddw'? There can be no other reason.

Anne and I are doomed to be forever opposed at each end of the spectrum,  I like to squeeze as much enjoyment as possible out of any given situation whereas Anne seems intent on sucking the life out of it or worrying at it like a terrier with a bone! Where Anne sees a negative I see a positive as our views on NGS gardens might illustrate. 

As the first comment on Anne's piece from KenH seems to sum up eloquently what most will be thinking, I'm not going to write a rebuttal of her article but rather a brief note on why I enjoy visiting NGS Gardens.

Anne says the NGS was started "as a scheme to let everyone, even the hoi polloi, into posh gardens for a donation to charity".  Now, it seems, it lets posh people into the hoi polloi's gardens and is all the better for it.  There is little more interesting than seeing what can be done with a garden that is likely to be far more attainable than the immaculate designer conceptions of the rich and landed. Little more satisfying than mentally tweaking the NGS garden to how YOU might have designed it.
Little more gratifying than the garden being just a bit rubbish so you can feel so much better about the garden you have been mentally dissing for so long - your own. 

I have seen an NGS garden that was an explosion of pink begonias - so beautifully cared for and displayed that you could wish that you didn't find it so horrendous!  A garden that was so dull and badly maintained that if it hadn't of been for the lemon drizzle cake we would have thought we were at the wrong place. A friend's NGS garden that bought three-dimensional life to the photos I had been envying on their blog for some time - and the reality proved I was right to envy. Gardens of great interest, intelligence and imagination created on tiny budget in  small spaces each NGS garden stamped with the owner's personality and offering a little insight into their gardening psyche and lives. And unlike most of the posh, landscaped, gardens you can chat with the owner on an equal footing and take a little of their gardening wisdom home with you too.

Of course, some of the NGS gardens are pretty posh and perfect with a shed load of money thrown at them but they aren't open to the public at all times. The scheme gives you chance to snoop around gardens you wouldn't normally get access too - and its all for charity too.

There is one point on which I have to totally concur with Anne "No garden visitor will be confronted by anything demanding, except the range of cakes".  Such a truth!!! At some gardens I have been confronted with an array of cakes to rival Betty's Tea Rooms - and that is going some!

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PS.  Keep your eyes out for a new NGS Gardens app coming soon.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Death of a Messageboard

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My garden in the early days after my re-design

This week I read the sad, although unsurprising, news that the BBC Gardening Messageboards were finally to close down.  I have rarely contributed over the last few years - they weren't the vibrant, fun place they used to be and in any case I had moved on to other virtual circles - but the Garden Clinic was still busy answering queries with more informative, easy to digest answers than any garden magazine, the Grow Your Own board quietly getting on with it whilst sharing posters' fruit and veg secrets and a group of virtual friends chatting happily about something and nothing in the Potting Shed thread. The Gardening on TV board was something of a wilderness but what can you expect with such a paucity of programmes to comment on?

Fifteen years ago I was diagnosed with ME, the culmination of years of stress over various things too tedious to recall and perhaps I had actually had it since childhood, the bouts of unexplained viruses and ill health gradually leading to a final and horrendous collapse. No longer could I canoe down gorges in the South of France, mountain walk in Wales, surf down waterfalls in the French Alps, abseil in the Lake District for my 40th birthday celebration.   I had always been  fireworky - burning brightly, sparkling, then fading quickly, my mental and physical energy spent - and now I was totally and completely burned out.  I don't often revisit the early years of ME - I remember the places we went and things we did but mentally photoshop out the wheelchair and the frustrations of .. well I could spend hours listing the frustrations - just everything really.  I DO remember that in spite of all that we had some great times and some of our best holidays because you learn that you can do so little that you MUST get the most fun out of everything you do and train yourself never to think of what you can't do only to treasure what you can.

But whilst we fought for some good times there was much bad.  In common with many who suffer long term illnesses most of our friends disappeared even before I got chance to bore them with the details. In any case I found it too tiring to sustain friendships with those few who occasionally called round. What little family we had vaguely offered help but showed no real understanding, my father unforgiveably telling my brother that "I think she makes a lot of her food intolerances" and Oldmasock, as usual, refusing to take on board anything that might upset her own equilibrium. It was me and the Bedsock against the world.  Sometimes when the Bedsock was working abroad I could go for weeks without speaking to anyone or, if I had the energy to go to Sainsbury's, replying at far too much length to the checkout woman's disinterested question "How are you today?"  I began to feel that I was nobody, nothing, no present, no future, only a past.  And even this was taken away from me by one of my rare visitors, a friend from old times to whom I said "I sometimes find it difficult to believe I was ever attractive, witty, fun...." to which he replied "Don't flatter yourself, dear".  His response, of course, was the kind of thing you expect on twitter now where so often the ruder the jibe, the deeper the affection for you. But at that time it just destroyed what I had believed of my past and there was nothing left.  I lay in a heap of miserable, empty, nothingness.  I no longer existed.  I had died but there had been no funeral send off and I wasn't even allowed the luxury of grieving.

You're wondering what the heck all this tale of doom and gloom has to do with the BBC Messageboards?  Well obviously you can't keep a good Sock down and this is how Rhoda Dendron rose from the ashes of the funeral there never was...

One of my biggest achievements in 'ME the early years' was to redesign my garden.  I made cardboard models and thought up planting schemes and then languished in a garden chair, occasionally cracking the whip, whilst the Bedsock did the work.  It was pretty frustrating not to be getting down, dirty and digging myself but hey ho - you can't have everything.  And I did end up with a garden I felt very proud of.  Sadly there was no-one to share this triumph over adversity with! Oldma and Pa Sock visited and were impressed but out of the two very-nearly-ex-friends who came round one merely grunted and the other said "Well as long as YOU like it!" which I think was probably the most mealy-mouthed response of all time and in her position I would have lied and said how marvellous it all was!

I needed somewhere to share my gardening achievements with like-minded people and found my way to the BBC Gardening Message Board.  This was early in 2005 an older style board and in the days  before face book had taken off or twitter had been heard of.  My first foray into messageboard land - I actually felt quite scared. A lot of people on there already seemed to know each other and be chatting amongst themselves.  One thing I grew to like about the BBC Message Boards is that although it can sometimes be difficult to join in a board that already has an established 'culture' there is none of this "Welcome the Newbie" "tell us all about yourself" pressure that you get from some of the smaller interest group boards.  You can just slide in at the back and join in when you feel like it.  I gave myself the name Rhoda Dendron and went unnoticed for quite a long while before drawing attention to myself with some funny comment about Monty Don cleaning the greenhouse windows at the beginning of GW.  It made some people laugh and I was IN.

Over the next few years the Gardening boards became a major part of my life. The boards changed to a new style and my circle of friends widened, many of them from background, countries, and gardening conditions very different to mine. Anneliese in Belgium, Fat Rascal up her mountain in France (who I stayed with last year), TorontoTrini - a lovely Trinidadian man gardening in Toronto,  Lottie, Princess Anabana, Captain Cabbage, all closer to home. Virtual friendship was fun and I could dip in and out of it when I liked or had the energy - I could be anyone I wanted and not confined by the limitations my fatigue or health dictated.  I no longer felt a useless burden and embarrassment with nothing to give - I could offer my wit, my little bit of gardening wisdom and my interest in other people's lives.  I loved the virtual company of others and the great feedback and interest I at last got on my garden.  I started to feel real again but I was no longer my old self, I was Rhoda!

I felt a great affinity with one particular poster I had never met, after she had said that in her youth they used to sit in the pub banging tea trays on their heads to the tune of Raw Hide! I knew she was my kind of woman and I was right as years and a name change later she is still my dear friend Lazy Trollop!

In those days people were much more wary about making virtual friends a reality but we braved our first meet-up at Wakehurst Place - a success! [Although I did notice that Lazy Trollop phoned a coded message to her daughter just after we met to confirm that I was apparently fairly normal and probably not an axe murderer.] As my garden grew so my confidence with people started to grow back too and my health improved enough to venture out into the unknown.  A few days away at the RHS Tatton Show with Obelixx, a mad ex-pat living in Belgium who frightened me to death speeding down the motorway during the flash floods that hit most of the Midlands that night.  We met up with Dame Wombat an Australian living in Manchester and also chatted to Trillium (Sue Beesley) at her winning show garden.  Others had turned up from the Gardening boards just to say hello.

Matthew Wilson didn't realise what he had let himself in for with motley crew of BBC messageboarders!

A visit to RHS Harlow Carr where the divine Matthew Wilson was Curator and had, in a fit of generous madness, posted on the BBC Gardening boards inviting to guide a group of us around the gardens.  Brighton to Harlow Carr? not far enough to stop me from going - ME be blowed!

Rhoda (2nd left) and messageboard friends at Harlow Carr

But as board friendships formed so did different groups with different agendas. Not everyone was happy with the set-up and every now and then a group would break off to form their own boards where they had control over their own culture without being forced to conform to the rules of the Beeb.  I never wanted to join these - they brought their own hierarchy, rules, regulations, and sometimes pettiness. Boards with hordes of performing avatars and 'smileys' gurning and waving at you out of everyone's messages.  I was always keen to keep the main thrust of the Gardening Boards to be about gardening not a mass of chat threads about posters aches and pains, offspring, or desultory meanderings with no real content which some of these offshoot boards seemed to encourage.

Whilst the Garden Clinic and Allotment Board were seriously helpful places and the Gardening on TV board never for the faint-hearted, the Garden Design Board on the Beeb was a playground for us. Although there were rules, they could be bent or circumvented particularly if those hosting the board were inclined to turn a blind eye.  They had been turning a blind eye to one very long thread which was personal chat and not always about gardening, open to anyone but no doubt dominated by myself and group of friends. There were also occasional hilarious threads which were pure fantasy theatre such as one surreal evening where ex-board members had taken offence about something said on the Beeb board and had posted on their new message board threatening to come over to the Beeb and sort us out that evening.  A group of us amassed on a thread along with assorted, pets, garden tools and the Donkeys of Mass Destruction, ready to repel borders! Sadly, it was a no show on the invaders part but I spent the whole evening laughing over the ridiculousness of it.

An early celebration of CB on the BeebBoards

There was the ridiculous 'Chris Beardshaw Killed my Hebe' thread which started with my tongue in cheek comment, going off at some wonderful tangents, but always returning to the fact that he did indeed kill my hebe (I now even have a cat called Hebe named after the incident). The  fabulous Chris Beardshaw Fanclub which I started for two very lovely ladies who were genuinely his No. One fans, going to all of his talks and generally swooning over him. We once spent a virtual day out taking a bus tour to Chris Beardshaw's house which had just come on the market, viewing each room on the Estate Agents blurb about his home.  The only restriction on enjoyment was a lack of imagination! There were threads of poster's garden photos, gardens visited, even help threads on how to get the best photos of your garden.  When I started to learn how to use photoshop it was a natural place to post my creative pictures. It was a vibrant, funny, sometimes silly sometimes educational, often supportive place to be.

Then started the inevitable spite and spats. The usual accusations of "cliques" by those unable or unwilling to join in.  Whilst we had been 'getting away' with the one long off-topic thread new posters wanted to run their own off-topic threads they could grandstand from. Every thread started up would be turned from gardening to pointless chat. In trying to defend the position that we had established and maintain the balance of chat and gardening we were accused of being prefects and worse.  The new (to us) phenomenon of socks (users created by an existing board member to cause mischief) and trolls started up. One woman who had taken a particular dislike to me started posting as a man in order to have a go.  The 'socks' were usually pretty easy to spot but often vindictive and spiteful losers - the kind of people you would never associate with in real life.  Another person got her drunken husband to come on the board and have a go at me in a particularly vicious and unprovoked attack.  The board was filling up with garrulous grandstanders, bellicose bores, manipulators, misogynists and Daily Mail reading miseries all with the agenda that if they couldn't have the fun we were having they would spoil it for everyone.  And they did.

Fed up with the in-fighting and bad board behaviour the hosts/moderators finally turned up like the cavalry - too late to stop the slaughter - and closed down all the fun and personal threads.  I could no longer post my photographs which left me feeling quite devastated as I loved using Photoshop but there was now no outlet for my creations.  The new host regime was harsh and unhelpful - treating the posters like the enemy which perhaps they were.  Many posters left to form yet another new board but it wasn't one I could stomach, I have a deep dislike for the Proboards set up and this was one was more badly designed than most.  There was nothing left for me on the Beeb boards and in a fit of misery and depression I killed Rhoda off.

Three days after I had hammered the final nail into Rhoda's coffin I realise that something wondrous was happening! The wood suddenly self-combusted and burned brightly for some hours in astonishing rainbow colours..and then out of the ashes rose a grey figure finely clothed in 100% cashmere and wearing an exceptionally chic hattiewat!

Since then the Gardening boards have carried on with other groups of friends forming who I hope will withstand the closure and continue their friendship in another virtual place.  Although it has never been as good as it was when my 'clique' ruled, I still by habit look in each day and I remember it fondly as having helped me a long way along the road to health and happiness. I still have many of the friends I found on those boards, some I have met and some who will probably always remain virtual but who I have now been in correspondence with for over five years.

As the boards are about to be closed people have been bumping up some of the old threads from years ago that were not just fun but are now an archive of our everyday lives, loves, births, deaths, and of course gardens, over a long period of time. It's the final end of that era.  I cry when I read them... I am crying now.

Thank you BBC - it was good whilst it lasted.

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One of my favourite threads illustrating the best of the gentle mental meanderings of gardening friends was this one Heucheras - the Good the Bad and the Ugly

Monday, 9 April 2012

What Toby did Next....

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Powderham Castle

Somehow,  the fun has gone out of Friday nights where even the sight of the  Lord of Cord's bad trousers are failing to ignite a creative spark in the Sock's consciousness.  "Bring back Toby Buckland and the bad banter" I hear you cry... but just as we were enjoying Toby and his creative cucumbering he vanished from our screens denying us the pleasure of his trowel tossing talents.

So where is he now?  The Sock  sent out her investigative team over the Easter weekend to get the lowdown on Toby's new plant centre at Powderham Castle near Exeter.   Toby's real dream was not to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in the fickle world of TV but to run a nursery. It would be difficult to find a more lovely setting for this enterprise than Powderham Castle and its environs. Toby set up a nursery in the walled garden here with online sales in 2011.  More recently he has opened a Plant Centre on the Powderham Estate housed between the buildings of the Country Store and restaurant.  We didn't visit the castle itself this time and I was unclear as to whether you could visit the walled nursery.

The Socks parked at the Store and wandered down through the fields to have a picnic lunch whilst bird-watching on the River Exe.  There is a lovely round walk we did years ago from Powderham, following around the Castle deer park and then along the banks of the River Exe to Exminster stopping for a well earned beer at the Turf Inn where the Exeter Canal meets the river.  Today our walk is shorter but we see an osprey in the distance from his look-out on a dead oak tree, shelducks and oystercatchers patrolling the muddy shoreline and more sadly a seagull covered in oil that we can't rescue and which will surely die as it can no longer fly.  I think of the seagull I threatened with a nasty end that morning on discovering it had dumped all over my car, splattered like a tin of white paint with lumps in it  - but I wouldn't have wished this bird's death on anything.


The view is glorious and even the trains tracking the coastline and speeding past within feet of us provide an interest.

We wander back to the plant centre - like Chris Beardshaw it is small but perfectly formed.  There is not a huge selection of plants but what there is all looks vibrantly healthy and helpfully divided into sections like scented or good for bees and butterflies.  If I hadn't already got an angelica the sheer unfurling glossyness of this beauty would have more than tempted me!


I was pleased (though unsurprised) to note that unlike my local garden centre which now appears to be entirely free of peat free products, Toby has some interesting and unusual peat free products for sale -


this one made me laugh!


It was also good to note that many of the plants are grown on site at the Powderham Castle nursery.



The only criticism I could make of the set-up is that in the interestingly tiled women's toilets they have those stupid and annoying bogroll dispensers that when you pull the paper down tears off just one piece and then the tissue roll end disappears up inside the dispenser. I just hate it when that happens! After some time struggling with my hand up the dispenser to try and pull the tissue end back down - the whole casing fell off the wall! I jammed it back on as best as possible but it wasn't looking good.  Sorry about that!

Whatever disappointment Toby might have suffered from the passing of the poison chalice of Gardener's World back to His Organic Jerkin must have been swept away by achieving his nursery dream in this idyllic setting.