Saturday, 31 January 2015

january is sarcococca

January brings the snow; the rain; the wind; and bright days which feel like someone decorated the first breath of spring with the ice needles of winter. As an all-season pedestrian, I've walked through all this and more so far this year; frosty mornings where the river steams mist lit gold by the low sun; dismal afternoons where grey rain seeps steadily up your trousers and the wind plays parachute with your umbrella. Throughout all this I've been seeking out the signs of spring, to record (as I do whenever I remember) on nature's calendar, citizen science's record of the changing seasons. Elder bud-burst; 2nd January, in that sheltered bit by the river. Hazel flowering, 17th January on the hedge I planted at Janet's this time last year (it's doing well!). Snowdrop, 24th January, in my own back garden, but not where I remember planting snowdrops. They've wandered, as some flowers do.

On my wanders, on the bright crisp days with dazzling low sun, the overwhelming smell is of the soft brown mulch of deciduous leaves rotting, under hedges, in gutters, the smell of the richness of soil being made; damp earth; worms.

Colours this time of year occupy the same rich yet muted palette; brown of soil, grey of sky. The green that there is has a lot of grey mixed in, a lot of dun. The beauty is in the sere remnants of last year's flowers, interrupted by the occasional explosion of Mahonia.

Dear Mahonia, yellow flames in the winter, chasing the cool white light of modern streetlamps upwards. I love its unruly hugeness, its unapologetic spikiness. It's summer in winter; but far more surprising is the sudden explosions of scent that grab your nose as you walk by an unremarkable evergreen bush just hit by the morning sun. Sweet box, Christmas box, Winter Box - Sarcococca is having its moment.

January is Sarcococca, cutting sweetly through the smells of winter rot and leaves and mud, tempting out hibernating bees and beetles for a taste of summer in winter's depths. It will fade, as the first bright spring beauties start to seize our attention, but it owns the short days of January, sweetness in the chill.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

in the car-park, the garden

The Westgate Multistorey Carpark is coming down. Of course, it is long past its heyday. In its prime, back when I first came to Oxford, there was a Travelator and a bronzed mirrorglass Octagonal Control Tower jutting out over the feeder road like an exotic fungus. Access was via skybridge, or you could take the low road, straight through the garden:

The garden is a shadow of its former self, too. The trees have disappeared, done in by a freeze or a drought (we've had plenty) and the bright municipal planting has given way to indestructible shade tolerant shrublets choked with invasive weeds. Inbetween the cobblestones, the all-engulfing moss has mussed the ripple patterns, and ripped out cobbles have been patched with scant regard for concealing the damage. And then there's that horrible, faux-victorian signpost reminding us that this is touristtown.

But there is still that sense of wonder, chancing on it as you exit the carpark, or spotting it through a forest of cars, or as today, through the eerie emptiess of a closed car-park. There's a glimpse of Utopian enthusiasm, a park for the people with the car as a glorious beast to be feted and marvellously stabled, like an emperor's fancy steed. All faded now, of course, and running to ruin, rot in the concrete and cracks in the cobbles and soon it will be replaced by this century's dreams. Cars will be hidden under slantishly angular classy glassy avenues lined with trees. The trees will return.

Along with the annoying parking bays that were always a bit too small, and the staircases that were always wet and often inhabited, and the top level that was, well, a bit of a problem, the secret garden in the car park will go, broken cobbles, weeds and all. That tiny stony garden hidden behind the weird brick skirts of the Westgate will be gone forever, and will seem as implausible as the octagonal control tower, or that we ever had a travelator.

But the Westgate Carpark was never a building to stand in the way of progress. In a pretty, fancy town, it was defiantly slabbish, shouting noisily about a future free of spires, dreaming or otherwise. To be crushed under the next grand development? It's how it would have wanted to go.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Secret bench secret no longer

The secret bench on the tow-path has been uncovered! It still looks like it could do with some work!

Forestry went along the path in the first weeks of the year, giving all the undergrowth a hard cut. Nests and hideyholes have gone, along with a remarkable amount of garbage (the larger pieces were left in can-you-believe-someone-left-this-in-a-bush heaps for collection). I'm sad for the nests, and the path will be less sheltered, but there's an open brightness about the path now that is appealing.

Also, Forestry got the "University of Trees" sash off the ash tree:

It was a charming idea (quite a few trees were labelled this way one year as an art project) but those trees without owners to pop up and dispose of the sashes discreetly before winter ended up with a problem  - this tree had its sash for several years and look at the damage to the tree bark. That's nearly rotted round, and if it had, the tree would have been executed by its own eminence.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

other people's gardens: the weed boxes at the burlesque club

Vacillating between two locations, Oxford's strip/burlesque/lap-dancing club (what it is called depends very much on who is talking) is locked in long-term disputes with all kinds of people from what I've seen in the papers. Certainly their neighbours at location #1, who are a rather nice church. Down here, at location #2, their neighbours are a car park and an MOT centre, which you would think would produce fewer complaints, but it's also a very visible location, on one of the main routes through town, and very close to two of the main teen destinations in town, the ice rink and a big sixth form college. The club itself used to a be a sticky-floored rock/trance/dance/rave/metal club* with a popular gay night. I have fond memories of the mock-rock walls and the notorious toilets. But (as befits its underground nature) it was never, ever the most salubrious venue.

Possibly in an attempt to boost salubricity, possibly to give the clientele something to duck behind, the new owners have decorated the all-over black and bully lettering with wall boxes and planting. The middle of winter is not the best time to judge a windowbox, admittedly, but I think the initial enthusiasm probably faded quite fast.  Those Box Balls up top (ho ho ho) are browning but not dead yet. The herby balls (I didn't sniff them to check what they were) have taken unevenly, and the rest has gone to trailing sere grass, with the occasional bedding survivor showing a pale face (a twitch of lobelia here, a straggle of Bacopa there) and pallid, sickly-looking dandelions thrusting out through every crack and corner.


It's a bit of a shame, as these are good-looking boxes; deep, spacious, big enough for small shrubs or a decent height of annuals, and in a bit of a bleak, tarmac-and-concrete area where the passers-by would like a little colour and the bees would appreciate a stop-and-feed. I am not at all sure about the sombre, subtle box and herbs look, though, even if it was fresh and maintained. On a tailors, or a nice restaurant, it would look tidy, but here it has a tweedy, creepy, raincoaty feel, like someone insisting on their respectability with glassy-eyed determination. Especially now it has faded and overgrown.

No, flowers are what are called for her. The bigger and blousier, the better. Neon-bright cyclamen at this time of year, with a trail of golden ivy to soften the sharp edges and some dark, shiny glossy foilage (bay perhaps) instead of all those slightly glaucous herb balls. For that side box nail in a trellis and put some Jasmine or Clematis in, so people really have something to duck behind. And that one at the top there? You can keep the box if you want, but topiary is way better than balls. Something curvy, perhaps, like a penguin.

*Not all at once. Those are the nights I can remember. I seem to have forgotten one. Happy Hardcore? Reggae? Not Indie. They never had an indie night. ETA I have been informed that classic Oxford Indie night Panic spent some of its many years there, so I apologise unreservedly to the Lodge's Indie heritage.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

January flowers

 It started snowing today. Rubbish snow, frankly. A little shower that melted the overnight dusting and rapidly gave way to blue skies and warm, springish breezes. My garden is taking little notice of winter, although the Chrysanthemum (below, centre)  is not being kept outside. It's in my cool but fully sheltered shed, a perspex roof allowing enough light in to keep it contented. That Chrysanthemum! It was supposed to be yellow (I bought it as a tiny rooted cutting in a plastic tube from a grower at Hampton Court) but it came up white, with a flush of palest green that faded over time to the rose blush you see here. I've never seen anything quite like it, but the plant seems solid enough! Hopefully I'll be able to keep it through a few years (barring any surprise -10 winters, which is what did in my last round of Chrysanthemums).

I got a bit snap-happy over the Winter Clematis, as it's new this year. It's doing well; and that's the Christmas tulips, en route to the compost. Time to leave Christmas and look on to spring! That Scabious is there already, it says. Bonkers plant.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

the fairy light propagator experiment

The first breath of spring is in the air outside. Or maybe it's the last breath of mild autumn. Either way, I must mistrust it. The days are too short and the nights too cold; it is only crazy spring and will likely be flattened by a February cold snap (probably just as the Passion Vine has decided to go for it).

Inside, I have more control over my environment, and can provide a little warm soils for the things that like to get started early:

propagator filling

My January newsletters have suggested all manor of things, but I have started with: Marigold, Lobelia, Cosmos, Foxglove, Krim Tomato, Aji Limon Pepper, Hungarian Hot Wax, and Mystery Pepper (from an unlabelled seed envelope). I have a LOT of pepper seeds this year.

propagator on

My seedlings, especially the early ones, suffered seriously from lack of light last year. The verandah is fully enclosed, very sheltered and North North West facing. It has a neon tube light, but I can't leave that on when I'm out or asleep, and the light is... I don't know. Better than a regular domestic overhead but far from tasty for a plant I think. But for Christmas my little sister gave me these lovely battery-powered dinosaur fairy lights and the moment I saw that intense, clean cool bright white light, I thought - mmm! If I was a plant, that would look like dinner. So they're under the fairy lights now and there has definitely been an effect, though it's uneven. Both Cosmos and Marigold sprouted in a shocking 24 hours. The rest are still under, though it's only been four days. The light is weak, of course. But safe, and that's important too.

pots started

I also had a pile of lemon seeds from a very fecund organic lemon I had over Christmas. So they're in the pots too. There's about four seeds in every pot (it was a VERY fecund lemon) so hopefully something will sprout.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Christmas Swag

Here's the garden swag from Christmas (minus the Burgon and Ball widger. which is already too muddy to come back inside).  The pickling cucumber seed is not something I asked for (I don't think) but looks like it'll be something I'm doing next year! Patty pans are always welcome. They have the sweetest flavour (probably because I always crack and harvest them when they're the size of a sand dollar). Hungarian Hot Waxes are easy to grow and ever so pretty. Those are the ones I'll be giving away to everyone this year I expect! And there are those bright orange aubergines I was lusting after earlier this year. Very excited to see if they can be persuaded to do anything!

Of the books, Wicked Plants is a rather sweet to-do list of all the monstrous plants in the world, something I have been slightly fascinated by ever since I read about the Japanese suicide garden in You Only Live Twice. Of course, in real life I moderate the toxicity of my garden for the sake of kittens and visiting children; this belongs in the same fantasy zone as The Decadent Gardener, which is similarly full of ideas best left in fiction.

What a Plant Knows is here for practical reasons. I have an internal warm space where I can get plants started - my verandah - except that it is north-facing, and so dark and dull in there that everything etiolates and languishes. This books promises to tell me exactly how plants "see" - which I am hoping will tell me how to fool plants into growing without having to splash out on one of those dodgy e-bay grow-light kits, thereby lengthening my season to accommodate warm climate long season plants like peppers and aubergines.

The necklace is only a necklace. But oh, so pretty!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Winterlight at Waddsdon Manor

Field of moons Hazy lights Narnia dimensional accident
Geodesic Bottle Dome Floating seedheads field and the full moon
fairy mistletoe Moving morse Neon clothespegs

I thought I'd missed it, but Bruce Munro's Winterlight (shiny contemporary lights at very fancy stately home Waddesdon Manor) was running till the weekend after New Year's. Above, you can see a mass of attack moons created by projectors in a field of silage bales: formal gardens filled with massed fibre optic flowers, tipped with bobbles like the stoma of alien mosses: lamppost caught in a dimensional accident: best bottle greenhouse ever: giant floating alien seedpods: the garden with the full moon: fairy-light mistletoe (not art, just decoration): morse code river: cockatoo-chattering neon clothespegs. You can read the sleeve notes here (and see what Bruce did last Christmas).  I must return in daylight sometime.

Wrapped Statue Rose canopy
leavesWrapped Tree Fern

The gardens seemed... intriguing.

Friday, 2 January 2015

The secret bench

I first spotted the buried bench (below, top left - you have to look) one day on the tow path early this year, before the leaves had come out on the Dogwood. No idea why this bench has been singled out for neglect, but the bushes around it are particularly fast-growing. Perhaps one summer they just grew a bit hard. Now there's a bench lost in a bush and I keep on thinking it would only take an hour with the loppers, I could set it free...

the buried bench More benches
reclaimed banch Elizabeth's bench

Benches are an important part of any Utopian landscape; they're demanded above on the London Ideas Wall at the Richard Rogers retrospective that was at the Royal Academy last year, my second favourite bit of the show (first was the build-your-own-lego-architectural-masterpiece). Lots of people had great ideas for what London really needed most of all. Greening of the city and city in the green featured a lot; we like our creature comforts, but all the more so when nature's taken back what the city has put there and softened it with a cushion of moss, an antimacassar of leaves.

Part of what is going on with town planning at the moment is planning for an older population, and the pattern of that is better lighting, smoother paths, fewer steps... and more benches. Time to properly push that nasty trend of the last two decades of the twentieth century whereby the outside world got progressively spikier, fenced off, metalled, studded and shrunken, and inhospitality was the byword for public space, into full reverse. Never mind the alcoholics.