Wednesday, 29 April 2015

April is Cherry

It is getting warm enough to walk in the evenings now; warm enough to decide, of an evening, that you'll take the scenic route to pick up the milk. So out I go, past the privet (sprigging up for the year and due its first trim) gardens gussied up with pansies and gerbera fresh from the garden centre, then across the road to my first cherry. April is cherry, wildly waving its great curds and clumps of blossom, pink and white against the bright blue sky. Above the cherry and smart modern maples, their new leaves flushed red with spring toxins, the old school municipal trees are unfolding their leaves, bright green flags which appear with astonishing speed; lime, plane and poplar back for another year.

The wild places along the culvert are showing  hawthorn blossom now, while fat ducks dibble in the drains. The ivy is studded with tiny new leaves, bright as jade against last year's growth. A scatter of birds are feeding on the ground around the fresh budburst of the new native hedge planted across the playing field; jackdaws, crows, magpies, woodpigeon - a collared dove. In the hedges, chirps and flutters in the fresh green leaves, and the first clouds of midges trying to get their business done before the return of the bats, the swallows, the martins and the swifts.

A sudden blast of butterscotch and cream scent indicates another Cherry - Cherry Laurel has flowered wildly this year and is smothered in racemes of tiny white flowers, fast going brown, looming over the the beech hedges which are finally pushing off their old brown leaves with the bright green darts of this year's growth. Fresh beech leaves, soft and bright as silk, quickly follow, in greens and coppers. Sly twitches of clematis, alpine and montana, sneak over fences to play in the parks, while Spanish Bluebells, Lily-of-the-valley and Violets creep out under the hedges. Primrose, Cowslip and Snakeshead Fritillary sneak in to add a wild touch in the border (or vice versa, as native planting is popular and many garden plants have gone feral). And everywhere the dandelions, suns on the soil, exploding into happy life in the April sun.

Out in the park, the front garden Magnolias and Forsythias and Quinces are starting to fade. But as their petals drop, new colour springs up beneath; Muscari and Iris and my favourite flower, Tulips, plastic bright and in poppy colours, right now at their blazing best. The best tulip planters add new shapes and colours, year on year, until their tulip beds are like fashion week in the garden, a crazy crowd of overdressed partygoers nodding wildly in the spring breeze. Tulips are a matter of preference. One house has an even scatter of classic red and yellows, another has a scatter of exotic parrots in gothish shades, another has a single, perfect tulip planted prominently near the door. It won't be the last. My favourite house has narrow beds so densely planted the tulips hold each other up - the fruit of many year's work, layering bulbs into the rick dark soil.

Back at home, milk secured, my own tulips are waiting for me along with this year's new arrivals (a crazy petunia, a fancy Primula, and the usual run of couldn't-resist-them violas. The water lilies are sending up leaves, and the first shoots are coming from the vine. Spring has stopped coming. It is here.

Friday, 24 April 2015

in the garden, at twilight

It's finally light enough to go out into the garden when I get back from work. So when Tim says, "let's go out and look at tulips" we can, though there is still a bit of peering through the gloom:

The tulips are in full force at the moment, with the earliest ones moving into exotic decay, and the latest just beginning to colour up, the end of spring colliding with the beginning of summer.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

other people's gardens: the green roof bike shed

I've actually seen a few of these around town - there's one at the bottom of Iffley Road that's very House Leek focussed - but I caught this one in the very pink of perfection, freshly planted and looking like it skipped straight out of Pinterest and into reality.

I suspect this household of harbouring many fine craft projects. The plant choice impresses, too; Erigeron happily self-seeds along the sandbagged sides of the Thames, and that green fluffy stuff needs but a fragment and a crack to survive. Veronica is tough as old boots, and will trail fluffy masses of blue flowers down over those little pink bikes, and Arabis should be in its element.

The Auricula is a bit bold, but sometimes you need to take a punt on something beautiful, and the most surprising plants can decide they're fine in the strangest places.

Long may it thrive.

Friday, 17 April 2015

what to do in your garden in April

I've been reading through the various April gardening newsletters reflecting on those things I shall never do. Unwins think I should be planting cucumbers, for example. Somehow I just can't get up the enthusiasm. Pinching out sweet peas. I understand the concept, and yet can never bring myself to pinch out tips, ever. It just seems brutal. Perfect your lawn? My lawn (all 1.4sq m of it) has an important secondary job as the place where two tom cats swap messages, so I have long since given up on perfection. The Raven thinks I should be harvesting wild garlic and ordering my pot collections (don't get excited - she just means sets of plants carefully selected to make a proper wow factor planted container like the ones you see in public gardens, if your container is large enough (it won't be) and if you can provide it with good enough care (you can't)). Gardener's World thinks I should be choosing the right lawnmower (I think the Tescos value shears will run for another year),  and putting collars on my brassicas while trying in my young delphinium growth, suggesting a better world, where the lawns are broad and endless and the slug but a distant memory.

In my small, dark garden, April somehow manages to be dry and wet, cold and baking, pestilent and short of pollinators, all at once. The lovely weather for gardening, similarly, seems prone to evaporating the moment something good comes onto the radio.

Still, the jobs must be done. So, my top six tasks for April:
  1. Dust off the deck-chairs - if you don't have any deck chairs, check your local supermarket. They were briefly in vogue two years ago which means everyone is shifting their backstock this year. If, like me, your deck chair has been in a shed with open access to cats, sniff before you sit! The cloth may need a quick spin in the washing machine.
  2. Plant Tiger Lillies - proceed to your local Poundshop, Wilkinsons, or anywhere else that has a unit of cheap import bulbs and look for Tigridia. Plant them in random pots, so you can guarantee a few colossal surprises this summer:
  3. Mend (or give up on) storm damage - that plant you were hoping would spring back into life? Give up and cut it to the ground. Nobody wants to be looking at dead things in April (you can kid yourself that might stimulate new growth) (it won't). Wires, fences, damaged greenhouses and cracked branches - mend them now, while trampling new seedlings. More will grow.
  4. Try not to kill all your tomatoes - they need to go out into the greenhouse, because it's too dark in the bathroom really. But the greenhouse plummets to near zero at night. Don't go crazy moving stuff around all the time (yes, that will save them, but it will also make you neurotic - leave it to those who can afford undergardeners) be philosophical and plant enough to accommodate losses.
  5. Check the colour balance of your tulips - the first of them should be up, so it's time to check you have enough screaming bright tulips in all the right places in the garden (or delicate pastels, if you like that kind of thing). Next year, when the catalogues come round with tempting pictures of sprawling petals, you'll know what you're missing and what you don't have yet.
  6. First outside cocktail of the year - and not one you have in spite of the weather, but because of it. Sip it while trying to identify all the birdsong you can hear out back. Listen out for Blackcaps, they should be back this month.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

in praise of London Plane Trees

Our poor old doddering London Plane Trees are gone from outside the office. I shall miss them, the thrashing bare twigs in April storms, the first green leaves, the pigeon clatter, and squirrel that ran along, branch to branch, tree to tree.

Daily they bathed in the fumes from the buses stopped beneath them, buckling the pavements in movements slow and inexorable (while bus wheels snapped them like crackers as they encroached, inevitably on the kerbs of our ox-cart streets).

They stopped the sun in summer, let in the light in winter. Occasionally a plastic bag, caught in their branches, would wave uncertainly through our third floor window like a distant cousin. In autumn, the leaves would fall in great yellow gouts and drift into heaps knee deep where the wind curled round the buildings, spun, and dropped them. Their fruit hung like baubles on the branches, black against the white winter sky. 

Nothing much eats a Plane tree. They have no stories, no legends; no gods live in their branches. They belong to the age of gardeners, town planners, of the rational provision of shade and screening. To an age of grace and reason. Placed for the convenience of humans, not wildlife. Chosen for their elegance and durability, and because nothing much else will stand a daily particulate bath and still shade a four-storey building.

The trees were old. They must have survived our offices being built, the shopping centre being built, the constant resurfacing of the road as our clay-sand sunk and sunk under the constant press of heavy duty tyres. How old, I don't know. Were they planted in the 30s, when rational estates swept out over Oxford to provide moral housing for the the deserving workers? Or in the 20s, avenues planted to shelter the homes for heroes? Or earlier than that? A plane tree can grow to be two hundred years old.

I don't think the trees outside the office were as old as that. 

One by one these big old trees have been going. One fell, crushing a car and a much-loved person. One briefly had a Green Party MP chained to it, and a coronet of semi-professional tree fairies squatting its lower branches. A dozen or so were spiked and marked with a graffitied capital S, in imitation of anti-logging campaigns. Those trees are all gone now, with all the graffiti drawn on them over the years, with all the metal stuck in them over the years, and all the people who briefly, passionately cared for them over the years.

Looking down, from my office window, I can see a patch of dark brown in the heartwood of the tree; a mark like the shadow of a sideways hand. Rot in the heartwood. That tree, that one there, was going anyway.

But still I'm sad to see them go. There won't be leaves outside our third floor windows again. Not in my lifetime.

Friday, 10 April 2015

gardens in cracks and gardens behind walls

Spring, and seedlings are pushing up from every crack and crevice. Those seedlings are probably Plane Trees, from the row of mature trees by the office which I sincerely hope are not about to be cut down (random bits keep on being lopped off, and one has gone, altogether). Doomed to die in a drain.

There are glorious gardens all over the centre of Oxford, of course. That picture on the right shows one of the newest, a fabulous stepped bank of modernist terraces with exuberant, architectural planting. Presumably. I'm extrapolating from the architect's drawings that were on the barriers back when it was my favourite building site, with elegant dancing cranes and a host of iron strengthening rods thrusting out of the ground, each one topped with a yellow safety cap, bright as a daffodil. Then this teal facade sprung up and the doors were firmly veiled, first in billowing plastic, then in temporary steel gates and finally in opaque wooden slats and anti-climb spikes.

The garden I assume exists might never have been built; might have been left as grass or turned to bike parking (it is student halls, of course); might have lost all its new planting in the cold spring and dry summer. The only thing you can see of it is this blank blue face; and the slightly dangerous looking glass skybridge round the corner.

There are many gardens locked away behind fences, walls, railings and gates in Oxford. I'm used to slipping my camera between the bars, or skulking round the gardens on open days or in the intervals in talks and plays. This is somehow worse; they're just rooms in there, and this is just security. But somehow this has left not even a crack by which you might see the hanging gardens within, and no ghost of a reason why you could (or would) ever step inside.

Friday, 3 April 2015

so, what does a plant know?

There are a group of genes plants needs to tell light from dark. Crucial to them; but also useful to us. We have them too, taking care of our own light responses. The book (Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows) opens on this. A hint of inner mechanisms not so dissimilar to our own, but driven by different needs, and without organising intelligence. The title, deliberately provocative, is quickly discarded. The book is not about what a plant knows, because knowing is a frill, an irrelevance. What matters to a plant is stimuli and response, and for this is must have senses.

So, the subject is sensory input and information exchange in plants, and how these influence plant behaviour. There is also, in the careful explanations of laboratory experimentations, hints of tricks and hacks that might work on my own backgarden plants, as well as a suggestion of things plants might prefer you to avoid. Irritating stimulus. Depressing input. Off switches.


Plants use a light receptor called phytochrome to see light, using a sensor in the growing tip. Blue light is used for phototropism, as we know from everyone's favourite primary school biology experiment. Red light is used to set the day length, with a little blast of dusk (infra-red) being used to start the clock, and sunrise (visible red) stopping it. Useful for the plant to know what season it is and for humans seeking to control when a plant flowers. But that's just the simple story; plants have eleven photoreceptors to our five, all keeping the plant in enough (but not too much) light to feed, breed and thrive. So, in addition to facts like plants get jet-lag, and green-algae have a simple eye, I extracted the useful information that night-lights for plants don't have to be overclocked electricity-guzzling grow-lights. Even something small can have a big effect.

I've also found myself saying, here you are, tasty photons! to my plants as I switch on the fairy lights. That's probably not going to have any effect, though.


Existing evidence suggests strongly that plants don't hear, unless the vibrations are big enough to trigger a physical reaction, as in buzz pollination. So any talking to your plants is for your benefit, not theirs; and they'd much rather you kept your hands to themselves, too.


There's a superstar plant called Arabidopsis thalania that's a favourite in the labs. If you touch this plant just a few times a day it will grow slower, squatter and flower later, and if you always touch the same leaf, that leaf with wither and die. Just from being touched a few times a day. If leaves are torn or damaged, chemical and electrical signals (meaning even if a leaf is isolated by a dead stretch of stem, the rest of the plant can still react) prime the rest of the plant that the environment is risky. Touch-me-not indeed. Given how much time we spend chopping, cutting, pinching, pruning and tying, this is both a hard and an easy lesson. Don't fuss your plants; don't cut or even touch anything you don't need to; take it easy. And if you do have to get choppy, expect sulks from neighbouring plants too, because their sense of smell is as good as their sense of touch.


Plants intake air through their stomata, including a bouquet of volatiles produced by themselves and other plants. A few of the famous ones (ethylene, salicylate) are well known. The former is what makes bananas ripen other fruit, and is widely used in the fruit industry. The latter, along with its less well-known cousin methyl jasmonate, is used by plants to warn other parts of itself (and other nearby plants) of damage from disease (methyl salicylate) or pests (methyl jasmonate). I'm pretty sure I went off-book at this point to get a clearer idea of how the pheromonal signalling works and investigate practical garden applications, enough to answer the three obvious questions.
  1. About a metre.
  2. You tearing a leaf will trigger the same responses as pest damage.
  3. Usually a combination of increased leaf toxicity and nectar production to pull in carnivorous insects, but may vary species to species.
Which brings me back to pinching tomato plants, and the thought that it may be useful against loopers. But now we're heading weirdwards. Because plants, like us, have a sixth sense.


That's the sense of where you are, by the way. What's up, what's down. Am I upside down? We do this with otoliths in our ears, tiny stones that sink through fluid under gravity. Plants have statoliths in their roots, which do the same.  Impressive, but unhelpful; I'm not going to be able to alter gravity in my garden, even with the help of a very experienced cat.

More interesting is circumnutation, a regular circular pattern that the growth of plants follows, creating the "thrashing" motion so familiar to us from stop-motion plant films:

Wilhem Pfeffer - Plant Movement by kinetoscope

Thanks to experiments on the International Space Station we now know that circumnutation is intrinsic in plants, but exaggerated by gravity. So leave your seedlings enough space to describe their happy circles. Bear in mind that different plants needs different amounts of space. Sunflowers and beans (which I struggle with every year) need a lot.

Plantmind, plantmotivation, plantmemory

The book ends with a wander through curious incidents of plant memory - delayed responses, signal collection, chattering calcium channels. Morphogenic mysteries, and the useful work of Lysenko (vernalisation). The steady growth from Lamarkism to epigenetics. Vegetal consciousness, such as it is (procedural and non-episodic).

I think of soil and water before I think of light and space, perhaps equating them with food and drink. Critical for me, but just nice extras for the plant. I need to think more about what they want, what they remember, what they think about where they are.

It's a short read, but there are footnotes, links and hints a-plenty to start a fruitful search. Very fruitful! My seeds are germinating better this year, with a little help from my battery powered dinosaur fairy lights.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

dreams of hard concrete softened by trailing pansies

I remembered it was April Fool's day halfway through the afternoon with a slight stab of wistful mournfulness. I was reading what looked like an ordinary marketing email from Thompson and Morgan, thought ace! and clicked through to post it to something (Tumblr probably, as what followed was an protracted interface with Tumblr's terrifying April Fools project) and realised, with a sort of inevitable sadness, that the picture was faked, the project impossibly ambitious, implausibly fabulous and probably structurally undesirable and that it was, of course (grits teeth) April Fool's Day.

Alas for my dreams of hard concrete softened by trailing pansies, of motorway bridges strung with Bacopa and Aubretia, of Erigon nodding from the walls of the underpass, of drunken bees heavy with pollen and diesel particulates buzzing in the verges around the concrete pillars of overpasses wreathed in Hydrangea Petiolaris, Passiflora and irrepressible streamers of Clematis Montana, dripping with flowers.

Not this year. Maybe the next.