The Leaf of the Acanthus

I have always been interested in gardening and memory. An important part of which are the associations and emotional memories that individual varieties of plants provoke within different people.

To that end I was very struck by a comment made by a friend of mine whilst standing in her garden where Acanthus Mollis had self-seeded all over the back; casting its floppy, mildewey leaves in saggy whorls.

After complaining about the invasive nature of the plant she finished off with an abrupt afterthought: “And  I don’t like it anyway.” She said this with such feeling that I had to ask her why:

As a Palestinian she had lived in Beirut during the civil war when the city centre had been smashed to pieces – literally levelled. Eventually, in fact, surprisingly quickly, plant-life exploded out of the rubble and predominant amongst them all was the distinctive leaf of the Acanthus. From the safe distance that exists between now and those events one can easily sentimentalise and mythologise the verdant new growth springing from former mayhem but for my friend the very form and habit of the plant provoked very immediate memories of unhappiness.

This, it seems to me, may perhaps be a special quality that plants have – an ability to provoke a very particular sensual memory, sharp and vivid, in human beings.

For me the Acanthus will for ever be associated with a fairly eccentric dentist from Stoke Newington who devoted his late retirement to madly impossible restoration projects of old medieval towers in the Burgundy in between major bouts of invasive heart-surgery. In return for some work that I had done in his garden he proudly presented me with some of the plant that, he assured me, he had looted from the site of the ancient forum in Rome. To this day it nestles, sheltered and happy, just by the Parkland walk in Stroud Green.

To the ancients the leaf of the Acanthus was associated with wisdom to the extent its outline can be frequently found as a motif in classical architecture.

Plants grow – wisdom can also spring from the horrors of fratricide and civil war

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Biodiversity in the garden

Take a look at what he’s doing – Matthew worked with me in the late nineties and has developed this site

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Managing Wisteria

Not a plant that you see too many of at Chelsea.
I’m writing this because I was facebooked by an ex-colleague of mine from Her Majesty’s infantry who wanted to know how and when to prune. This is what I said:

In maintenace terms it is sometimes said that a once-over in August with fine tuning in February is enough. However I think that it is a plant whose energies can be easily focussed through a pruning regime founded in attention to detail.

Does the plant now occupy the wall, trellis, pergola, front of the house allotted to it? In other words you are not encouraging it to get bigger, climb higher. If so then its about creating flowering spurs; there will probably be ‘whips’ of growth coming off it at various places and I like to keep these nipped back with a strict pruning regime all through the year.

To that end you should divide up the whips into those with the cluster of buds close together at the base of the new growth and those that really have whipped away with buds stretched further apart – unless you are seeking to cover new ground you should take out all of the latter at the base, where the new growth begins. The other new growth should then be nipped back leaving only the cluster of buds (3 to 5) at the base of the new growth.

Another important element in the management of the plant is to avoid what I call ‘spagetti wisteria’: Too many ‘laterals’ if you like and general undisciplined growth – good, stocky stems (and not too many) are going to generate far more flowering spurs

Thereafter a monthly patrol of the plant in order bend it to your will should suffice. Threatening it, striking it with tools, ‘shocking’ it in general have also been known to bring out the floriferous in it. If the plant is close to death ‘Rescue Remedy’ is known to have worked (no, really). Wisteria is a fibrous, sinuous wood so make sure you have sharp tools. Or you can invite me round for a gin and tonic and I’ll do it.

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Box Blight

Has been rampant this Spring – I’ve found it everywhere from Holborn to the Wirral.

As far as I can ascertain it was the dry Spring what did it.

the drought seems to have had unexpected side effects.

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Green Walls

I have been following the technological and planting advances in the Green Roof industry for a year or two, covering it for BBC London last year when the World Congress took place here in London. Whilst it is clear that green roofs have enormous institutional and political support, (not least because the parasite industries in the City of London don’t want their basement conference halls flooded out) there is still widespread scepticism within the industry as to the efficacy of green walls. Including my own anecdotal experience.There were a couple of green walls tried by Islington and a private Landlord down the Caledonian Road – they neither of them worked – and those that do work consume water in an insustainable way for the long term.

At Chelsea the B & Q garden, (that won gold) had its very own version:B&Q claim 6 litres a day

I taxed them on the water consumption but they remained confident in how it worked – using drought-tolerant herbs such as Oregano. On the ‘up costs’, (expense), of installation they were more coy.

The Monaco Garden had the sort of green wall that irritates – pretty, but unlikely to endure much beyond the allotted 5 days of Chelsea:

I was in discussion yesterday with a representative of a German, (needless to say), engineering firm, ‘Optigreen’, they’ve got a web cam on a green wall if you want to log on and watch it – they reckon they’ve got it cracked.


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Reflections on Chelsea

Upon reflection I feel more well disposed towards Diarmud’s thingy.

If him and his mates are basically just taking the piss and sticking a two-fingered big crane up at this very British ‘wankathon’, then it would, grudgingly, get my vote. Though the costs to the Irish public purse may seem inappropriate at this time it could almost be justified on the grounds that this loud declaration of Ireland’s continuing mischievous and delightful industry is good for morale back home.


THE SKYSHADES GARDEN designed by Marney Hall

Perfect, except that the desire lines were wrong:



Sensational grasses ranging from cute through to strong via graceful and sensual.

If all the information in their catalogue is reproduced on-line then they’re the ones for all those landscape architecture students out there:

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The Gardens at Chelsea

I waver between the surface simulacra of these gardens which is dazzling, desirable and of an aesthetic quality that invites the suspension of disbelief and the muting of critical faculties and the opposite extreme which is the position of the grunt retail gardener from the metropolitan area that sees the means of production only too clearly and the attendant elisions of commerce

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