Monthly Archives: June 2013

What have the Romans ever done for gardeners?

Keeping busy, and enjoying the sunshine: though, as I write, the sky has turned a very unappealing slate grey.

Last weekend my 8yo son’s school project on the Romans took us to Fishbourne Roman Palace near Chichester, the first time I had visited. I was amazed to learn that this celebrated archaeological site was only discovered in 1960 – and that large parts of it have been covered by housing. Indeed, the approach to the Palace runs incongruously through a very ordinary housing estate. Nevertheless, what is visible is fascinating and very impressive indeed. The collection of mosaics in the North Wing is stunning. It is haunting to think of generations of Sussex farmers ploughing the site, turning up – as they must have done, some mosaics bear the damage of ploughshares – squares of coloured tile, but never guessing what was beneath their feet. Had they been found earlier, a greater extent of the Palace would have been explored no doubt. On the other hand, the best mosaics might have been removed to the British Museum or the Ashmolean, or into private hands, and their interpretation by 18th or 19th century antiquarians would not have yielded the information given up by a late 20th century dig. Had they been found earlier still, I imagine the mosaics might have been broken up completely, and the tesserae used to decorate local buildings or even Chichester Cathedral.

Which reminds me to note the sad passing of Professor Mick Aston, late of Time Team, who died this week. He was only 66 – which means that when Time Team began he was only in his forties: and yet he always seemed to have the look of an eccentric, kindly and aged academic – all wild white hair and stripy pullovers. A bit like the Professor in the Rupert stories…

One unexpected highlight of the trip to Fishbourne was the garden, planted with Roman plants in a quite small but formal and ‘authentic’ way, based on archaeological evidence from the site, and classical sources such as Pliny.

Roman gardens at Fishbourne Roman Palace

The box-lined central courtyard, and a lone Cypress tree

There is even a gardener’s shed, with a commentary from the gardener himself, grumbling about the weather (inevitably) and the shortcomings of Chichester’s climateas opposed to the growing conditions of his native Italy. Acanthus, fruit trees, vines, box hedges are all known to have been grown by the Romans here, along with classic mediterranean herbs such as oregano, thyme and rosemary. Interestingly, Ground Elder, that most famous Roman horticultural import, was noticeably by its absence.

I came away wondering whether I could create a similar ‘Roman garden’ on my allotment – poor soil and exposure to baking sunshine (sometimes!) would certainly suit many of the herbs. I have done monastic and Elizabethan gardens before – though not at the allotment -so this would probably be fun.

Summer in my own garden – Verbascum ‘Clementine’, poppies, ox-eye daisies, Scabious, Tansy, and bronze fennel 


Mid June

I have just come indoors from the garden – actually the greenhouse – where I have been potting up, among other things, Chilli ‘Vampire’, Primula ‘Giant Yellow Cowslip’, Digitalis, (late) Sweet Peas ‘Winston’ and Lamb’s Lettuce. I was wearing two sweaters. It is now raining steadily. It is the 16th  of June.

But to other things. Firstly, thanks to those who commented positively on my previous blog – much appreciated, Secondly, I should correct something I said in that post. Reading it again, I gave the impression that I didn’t enjoy designing planting schemes – I love designing planting schemes. I don’t regard myself as a designer, and I certainly have no yen to get involved with ‘hard’ landscaping (designing or doing), but creating combinations of plants to suit people’s existing gardens is one of my great pleasures. I am grateful to those clients who ask me to do this for them, and the pleasure of  seeing such plans come together over the course of a season or two is wonderful. As my own garden is more or less ‘finished’ (insofar as gardens ever are, can or want to be) to ‘borrow’ other people’s gardens is a precious privilege: that I get paid to do it, and am given a budget to trawl through catalogues and nurseries to find the right plants, is ‘pure gravy’ as Raymond Carver would have it.

Three separate clients have recently offered me thanks (thanks!) on seeing how plants put in over the past year have come together in a spring/early summer display. Perhaps planting like this is akin to time travel, we gardeners must be able to see the future, and trust in our vision, even if the future is unpredictable?

I am thoroughly enjoying Monty Don’s The Prickotty Bush, which I had not read before. It was due for a reprint, as I mentioned here previously, but in the end I tracked a copy down in Indiana. Rejected by the Thorold Public Library in Ontario, where it had sat unread since May 2001, the book had made its way south across the border and thence onto Amazon. Anyway, Ontario’s loss is my gain. Reading it alongside The Road to Le Tholonet, with its memoirs of time in France, is like piecing together the fragments of an autobiography – full of gaps, elisions, repetitions, but fascinating: more like real life than the conventional literary form. The story of how, madly it seems, Monty Don created a garden at a house – The Hanburies – he knew he would need to sell as his finances imploded around him, even planting trees which would not mature for decades, is compelling, moving and honest. 

Much the same was true of my recent visit to Salisbury Playhouse, where I had the good fortune to hear Dan Pearson talking about his work. Dan’s talk was part of the wonderful Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival (as we must now call it – sponsorship being what it is, a necessity for cultural activity in our benighted age – Salisbury Arts Festival as it will always actually be). He spoke mainly about the exhibition of his work now on at The Garden Museum – referring right back to his earliest (and idyllic) memories of gardening as a child, as well as to his current projects in Russia and Japan. 

Incidentally, if the lady whose pen I borrowed for Dan to sign some of my books, and who left before I could return it to her, is reading this – thanks and sorry. In my defence, it was only a plastic biro, not some expensive Mont Blanc number. And thanks to Dan too for signing.

I made a visit to RHS Wisley a couple of weeks ago, in the company of a gaggle of gardeners who’d shared my time at Sparsholt College. What a lovely and interesting bunch of people, all doing different things – some still studying and training, some professional gardeners, some skilful amateurs – all bound together by a love of plants and gardens. The only drawback was that the conversations were so interesting, I didn’t feel I’d really done justice to the gardens – so a return visit must not wait too long.

Finally, for now, amid all the gloom about bee populations, my garden is full of them, even in this chilly and damp early summer. We have a colony of Tree Bees (Bombus hypnorum) in of our nestboxes (the one meant for, and well-used by, Great Tits), and there are other bumble bees all over the place: far fewer honey bees, though. Tree Bees first crossed the English Channel about 10 years ago, and were first recorded very near here on the Hampshire/Wiltshire borders. Unlike so many ‘invaders’ they seem, thus far, to have no detrimental impact on native species. Quite large, boldly coloured in orange, black and white stripes, and keen on the same nest sites as birds like tits – hence their penchant for nestboxes – they have added a certain frisson to visits to my workshed: as when I slam the (stiff) door this shakes their adopted home, and sends a cloud of guards into the air outside the box. So far I have been stung only once…

The bee in flight (top left) was the blighter who stung me, seconds after this photograph was taken.

Still raining…