I have just come back from Dublin. It was a lightning visit – leave on Friday morning, do a talk in the evening, fly back on Saturday.

Bish, bosh nicker, nosh. So quick was it that I have no photographs of the trip so will have to pepper this blog with stuff that is irrelevant – but hopefully pretty.

Anything involving travel these days seldom goes completely smoothly. Rabbie Burns sums it all up quite nicely in the bit he wrote about mice and men ganging all agley. And that was well before budget air travel was even a glimmer in the eye of Freddie Laker.

I am here to give a talk at the Carlow Garden Festival: an annual jamboree that is always jolly- I have been once before and always enjoy talking in Ireland. On this occasion I am doing a Design Off with Adam Frost. This is not yet an Olympic sport but the just of it is as follows: he shows off a garden, I show off a garden, the audience votes and there is massive adulation for the winner and universal excoriation for the loser.

Colonnade Garden – not in Ireland.

You know the sort of thing… on this occasion as the Irish are not only sweet but diplomatic it is a draw.

We are driven back to Dublin and dropped at an hotel that has the charm of a lay-by on the A34 – albeit one with beige curtains. I leave early in the rain – this in itself is a novelty as we have not had rain at home for weeks * and take the airport shuttle.

Dublin airport is pretty chaotic with far too many people, long queues and piles of baggage. That said everyone is charming in that Irish way – very different from security people in Birmingham who are generally pretty irrascible.I am starving so breakfast on stuff that would not earn more than a raised eyebrow from even the most undiscerning of Michelin inspectors.

Green Rise

I arrive at the gate on time and eager but sadly the neither aeroplane or the crew share my keenness. Eventually an aeroplane is found. We get on one of those annoying buses.
We are not allowed off the bus as the plane is uninhabited and we need a pilot.
The crew arrive but one of them is then injured by a suitcase and has to retire hurt. The exact nature of the valise wound is not clear.
We wait an hour for a new crew member.
All so tedious that I revert to my advanced comfort position which involves watching Thunderbolt and Lightfoot again. **
We fly, we land and eventually I get home again.

I am listening to Hurtin’ (On the bottle) by Margo Price. The photograph is of the hotel carpet.

*for those reading this in the future it is late July and we have just had our first experience of 40 degree heat. It has not been universally welcomed.

** 1974. Michael Cimino. There is a scene featuring Jeff Bridges laying turf that was the reason that Cleve West took up landscaping as a career.

At Heathrow Terminal Five the entire Vienna Boys’ Choir is crammed onto an escalator. They all wear sailor suits and talk loudly and excitedly in German. I went to see them perform twice when I too was an angelic choirboy. I think they were pretty impressive but,to be honest, the interval ice cream was more exciting to the eleven year old me.

I am one of these: contrary to appearances, however, butter would be in serious trouble if it touched my mouth.

I think this might be a miniseries of blogs if I am to stand the faintest chance of holding your attention so here we go…

Day 1: I am going to America to give talks. First stop is Newark New Jersey and an Uber into Manhattan. I have only been to New York a couple of times and in both occasions managed to get lost which is, a pretty impressive feat in a city laid out on a simple grid. I like a map, it makes me feel comfortable and I enjoy finding out where I am. This is sometimes annoying for my nearest and dearest who instinctively knows exactly where she is and where she is going so gets mildly irritated by my stopping to fumble with unfolding maps every so often.

Have realised my first schoolboy error- I did not bring a waterproof and it is pissing down. This is not a good start. My cab driver,however, brings a little sunshine by talking with enthusiasm about cricket (with particular attention to Ben Stokes) all the way into Manhattan.

Day 2: I get up early, because that is the way the jet lag tumbles, and walk around the neighbourhood.New York is as I remember it, bustling, lots of construction work and a bit worn out and shabby. I find an orange sourdough doughnut and my life is temporarily complete.

Somewhere on the Delaware River

I get myself to Penn Station by subway, this is not completely straightforward but I am here on time for the train. Wilmington (where I get off the train) is not a nice place – it is like something from the Wire with boarded up houses and people up to no good yet within 20 minutes we are drifting through wide streets with large houses. This is DuPont (as in gunpowder, nylon, Teflon and loads of other chemicals) country and not short of a spare quid. I am going to the marvellous Longwood Gardens where I am chatting with the horticultural staff and then wandering around the garden causing trouble. My ever smiling escort and official photographer is Matthew Ross who is energetic and generally a delight.

It is very windy but an interesting garden – most famously there is a phalanx of dancing fountains that have recently been restored (for 90 million dollars).

Longwood Gardens
Huge waterlilies

These perform three times a day and once after dark – sadly we could not hang around for the light show as my presence was required at Swarthmore College.

Swarthmore College and the Scott Arboretum

This is also a pretty swanky joint with some fab trees (it is the home to the 90 year old Scott Arboretum) and a whole grass amphitheatre and is where I will be required to strut my stuff at the 35th Perennial Plant Conference tomorrow and nothing here is left to chance. We must all be on parade for technical run throughs and sound checks.

Day 3: Conference day: I am here (along with some pretty sensational other speakers) to address 630 eager plant enthusiasts who flock to the carvernous performing arts centre where our pictures are projected 20 feet high on the back wall. It is fascinating – Jacqueline van de Kloet talking bulbs and things Netherlandish, Irvin Etienne telling stories about the botanic garden in Indianapolis (although he is also well known for his collection of rabbits and chickens of which there was no sign; an opportunity missed as everybody loves a fluffy bottomed bantam.

Perennial Plant People

Next up was Midori Shantani giving only her second presentation in English explaining the extraordinary Tokachi Forest (the Milennium Forest) in Hokkaido. This was wonderful with amazing photographs and very Japanese in its detail and meticulousness – they even melt the snow so they can work in early spring by scattering charcoal dust on the surface to absorb more of the sun’s heat. So clever.

Amphitheatre at Swarthmore

I get the after lunch snoozy slot but endeavour to move fast enough and make sufficient noise to keep the punters awake. Following me are Lee Buttala Who talks thoughtfully about seeds (and beagles) and finally the gloriously named Panyoti Keliadis who runs the Denver Botanic Garden and shows us mouthwatering plants few of which will ever grow in our grey country.

From there we are whisked off to a drinks thing where people say nice things and from there to dinner at the hotel. American food is good but a little odd as they seem to have difficulty knowing where to stop Banana, Caramel and choc chip bread and butter pudding for example.i think the heart of it is a desire to make savoury things sweeter. Syrupy bacon, caramelised walnuts etc

Day 4: Early start back at Longwood for a quick whizz round the 86 acre meadow via ponds, treehouses and vegetable gardens before meeting up with a group of delightful students. I talked a lot, they listened politely before we trotted off to look at four remarkably good show gardens that they have designed and built.


Quick lunch and then back into a classroom for four hours of teaching culminating in our inconoclastically trashing and redesigning the Longwood rose and topiary gardens – which is something that needs doing.
Sadly I did not have time to see everything – it is an amazing place with lots of things going on.

I reckon that is probably enough for one sitting: there is more that I will sort out when I am supposed to be doing something more sensible. The other picture is massive Ikebana and a vast chrysanthemum in the conservatory at Longwood.

I am going on an adventure.

Day One:
I am currently in the back of a cab where the driver has decided that I want to chat – he is sadly mistaken as I would rather sleep. This week I have spent over 15 hours in taxis, for various reasons which will probably become clear within the next twelve months and I have developed a routine of friendly silence dotted with small snoozes. And podcast listening. Suffice to say that I am now a black belt in taxi travel.

The taxi deposits me at Terminal 2 at Heathrow where I am to catch an aeroplane to Beijing. I am flying China Air which is a new experience- there seems to be lots of legroom but a seat lacking a bit in bottom supporting upholstery. An extra security announcement apart from the usual guff about life jackets and emergency exits is from the security officer who tells us in no uncertain terms that “Interfering with the safe and efficient running of the cabin could result in criminal punishment- the security officer and the crew will perform their duties conscientiously”.

I have three hours to kill at Beijing airport- the smog is so thick I can see nothing from the windows except the gloom of distant hangers. I drink coffee and watch the world go past. A lot of people are wearing masks that cover nose and mouth which seems a little overboard when inside the terminal. There is a boy whose face is almost completely obscured who is being followed around by a lot of young women with cameras. He is either extremely famous or they have mistaken him for Monty Don.

I am going to Chengdu which is the capital city of Sichuan province. A largish city by Chinese standards with an urban population of about 11million. The aeroplane is leaping around like a excitable mouflon and I am finding it hard not to think of the possibility of plummeting earthwards. As you can see, I survive and arrive at Chengdu airport to be met with a wall of 37 degree heat that is like standing in a Sauna while wearing a morning coat and a cashmere muffler. I am whisked off along immaculate roads which are still swept by hand; there is a woman wandering along the side of the road, inches away from a stream of enormous trucks, with a broom made from grass and a dustpan on a stick.

We go the hotel where I shower and then to the venue where I will be doing my thing for six days – there are large posters of some my gardens and a divinely air conditioned studio. It is organised by a ompany called Sikastone who are all charming and efficient. From there we go and look at some model gardens and then to dinner – of which more later.
I flop into bed – long day, thank the lord for melatonin.

Day Two:

We are going to a market. This is Chengdu’s equivalent of Covent Garden
market: many plants and assorted traders. There are halls full of containers, accessories and all the stuff you would expect but with the enlivening addition of a lot of koi , terrapins, crabs and at least one pissed off squirrel.

There is a good range of plants and stuff and we roam about looking at things while being photographed by the marketing people. We then eat lunch and go off on a jaunt. Chengdu is on the edge of the mountains and, in those mountains live pandas. As we all know these animals are impossibly cute looking but absolutely dreadful at sustained reproduction. The females are only receptive for a very short time and the males, apparently, have inappropriately short penises. An invitation to a swinging party at the panda pad might result in disappointment. However, this city houses the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding where you can fill your boots with panda based smoochiness. Our one mistake was to visit in the afternoon as the pandas, having spent the morning cavorting, conversing and possibly minuetting have now lunched handsomely on the finest bamboo shoots and are all asleep- with one exception.

They are still gorgeous and cute ranging from small bundles who were only born last month to lumbering stud males that lie like endangered rugs on the floor of their pens. I reckon we saw about twenty five of them which is probably the most you will ever see anywhere.


My students Are generally delightful although they are unembarrassed about using their mobiles during talks.* The Chinese are wedded to their phones more than anybody else – everywhere people are head down and scrolling. I thought I was bad but I have never considered doing it while riding a motorcycle in traffic.

Environmental note – the Chinese currently have no idea/interest in the perils of single use plastic. Even plates in restaurants are wrapped in plastic, clingfilm abounds and plastic bags are everywhere. It is all very well for us to get all smug about Bags for Life and banning plastic straws but until we get the x million Chinese on side we are pissing in the ocean – if that is not too inappropriate a metaphor. That is not to say we should give up our modest efforts but we should not kid ourselves into thinking that everybody is hanging onto David Attenborough’s very word. There is very large mountain of micro beads to climb.

First day seemed to go fine – I talked a great deal. Having a translator is good and bad. Good because it means that they (in this case the delightful Laura) talk for half the time so, in theory, it is less work. Bad because the talk becomes slightly staccato and constantly interrupted so one never gets the chance to riff freely.

Second day I had designated as a studio day where they all drew gardens and then I critiqued them politely ensuring (I hope) that nobody lost face and everyone felt loved and encouraged.

Day Five (or four, quite frankly I have rather lost track)
We are going shopping- each student is to design and plant a container and , when divided into teams, a quadrant of a small gardener. I have suggested a choice of different styles and it is now up to them.
In the morning I talk about various gardens followed by
We pile onto a bus and return to the market.

It is gleeful chaos. The students charge off, get separated, come together (Because they are summoned by the extraordinary power of WeChat), get lost, buy a load of plants and finally return to the bus. Everyone seems to have had fun, the nurseries had a bit of a bonus afternoon and the only damage was to me when I got whacked on the leg by a falling window box. We load up the plants: this statement makes the process sound considerably easier than it actually was. Three wheeled trucks keep appearing laden with yet more grasses (the naturalistic style seems to be popular amongst the up and coming Chinese garden designers) that are squeezed into three trucks and the boot of a large bus. We make our way back to the studio as it begins to rain.

I am grabbed by a stall holder who is eager to both sell me roses and talk English he goes about both tasks with gusto and at volume. He shows me an okay rise bred by his father and tells me how much he loves Zmr Bean and Michael Jackson. I feel that this is the wrong moment to talk about the latter’s many failings as he may not be aware and who am I to shatter illusions?

Day Sixish
It is raining quite hard and my students are supposed to be planting containers (two groups) or their gardens (other two groups) but I cannot send them out in the rain- although they would probably have been fine with that such is their stoicism. So I deliver a slightly impromptu hour and half on the history and inner workings of the Chelsea Flower Show. By the time I do that the rain has eased and off they go.

Lunch is followed by more garden supervision until I realise that the container lot are going to finish well before the garden lot. I need to deliver another talk so put together an hour on colour in about eight minutes. I get away with it but it sounded a bit off. Nobody noticed except me.

By five o’clock two gardens have been planted and the teams are in high spirits. We go to dinner with the chap who owns the studio building and much of the land around. He is the only person I have met so far who is older than I am. He used to be an artillery colonel for 24 years having been brought up during the cultural revolution when there were no universities not school exams do all he did was draw. Having becomequite good he joined the army and because of this skill got involved in drawing propaganda posters and the like. Because of this his term was relatively cushy in comparison to his contemporaries and he progressed from army to government. He left in 1992 with some land upon which he started building apartments and studios for artists and is now doing very nicely thank you having invested in modern Chinese art and property.
We eat frogs.

Uber, or at least the Chinese company that bought Uber China, sends a driver on an electric scooter. This is folded up and popped in the boot, the driver covers the driving seat with his own seat cover, hops in and off we go. All this because my friends have been drinking (not much) and I sure as hell am not going to even think about driving anytime Soon in this city.

Day Zero
Here we go again. The other two groups start building their gardens while more containers are put together. In the afternoon we judge gardens, there is much jollity and a graduation ceremony which involves me expressing my gratitude and congratulating everyone on their diligence and enthusiasm. It has been a very interesting and entertaining week. I enjoyed the students, I enjoyed the teaching and I enjoyed Chengdu very much.
I also ate a lot of odd things- so many that I think it is worth a blog of it’s own otherwise this post will try the patience of even the most diligent of reader- if there are any left out there.

After the graduation we tootle off for dinner with the whole organising team (those who have not already legged it back to Beijing). There are many sad faced fish swimming around glass tanks awaiting the inevitable. I am quite pooped and was expecting that we would rumble off for early bed before going to the airport in the morning: I was wrong. We wander up the road for a Chinese massage. Three of us are in one room where we change into pyjamas and are attended by three very jolly women. Our feet are plunged into warm water and then the ladies lay in with a will. My head is pressed and squeezed, my legs punched and pummelled, my feet are rubbed – I have very sensitive feet so this is an extremely painful fifteen minutes, I endure this in a very stoic way by use of steady breaths and thinking of England. It jolly well won’t do to let Johnny Foreigner see us cry: came within a whisker of letting the side down. I think it was doing me good.
After that we all lay there while the therapists assembled various tools including a feather, a little bulb that puffed air, a headtorch,a tuning fork, some long tweezers and a selection of probes. They then proceeded to clean our ears: a novel experience.

Day Eleventy four:

To the airport in the rain. There is a motorcycle with umbrella attached to the handlebars weaving in and out of thundering lorries and swishy new cars. On the hard shoulder a man in a coolie hat and sweeps his section of the road by hand. China old and new: it is a amazing country with marvellous people: it is also far removed from a western style democracy which, looking at the mess Britain is in because of democracy may not be an entirely bad thing. At the moment it is a toss up whether I would rather have Boris Johnson or a serious man in a grey suit looking after my interests.

I am listening to silence as I am sitting in Glasgow Airport waiting for an absent aeroplane. It is four hours late. Thanks Flybe.

  • WeChat is the Chinese equivalent of Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp and a bank all rolled into one. They communicate, watch videos, post stuff and, most interestingly, pay for everything via WeChat. Every shop, street stall, cafe or car park has a QR code. Even a bloke wandering through the streets hawking a bike load of peaches eschews cash in favour of a QR code. You scan it with your phone and the bill is paid. No messing around.
    It is amazing and works without problem- the advantage is that there is no competition, none of the other social networks are allowed here. Except that there are always ways to get round this small inconvenience…

August is always a slightly flat month.

Most gardens are having a breather, people tend to swan off on holidays in exotic places where they dabble their toes in the ocean and drink things whose alcohol content is cunning disguised in a purée of papaya (I am looking at you Ann- Marie Powell). I tend to stay at home  especially this year when this place is still a work in progress.

I have, however, decided that I am in danger of becoming slightly stale and as a result have decided that I need to go and visit some gardens. It is important to see stuff, otherwise there is the possibility of being so inverted in one’s view that you find yourself repeating the same combinations and making the same gardens. And that would be fearfully dull.

So, yesterday I tootled off to the Oxford Botanic Gardens where I was lucky enough to get a bit of a guided tour. It was my first visit – which just goes to show what a rubbish garden visitor I am – even though I have been to Oxford countless times in the last forty years. The first time was to visit a friend who lived in a bedsit on the high street (I think he was retaking an A level) where we used to boil eggs in the electric kettle – the secret is to suspend them above the element in a handkerchief: a trick I have never forgotten- but never used.


Anyway, let us return to the point. The Oxford Botanic Gardens has been there since the seventeenth century (i) and is basically a learning garden. There are family beds where the plants are all laid out according to botanical leanings. I am not sure whether this is the place for a lecture in basic botany ( nor am I sure that I am the person best qualified to deliver such a lecture bearing in mind that I got an E in ‘O’ level biology) but plants are classified by kingdom, phylum,class, series, family, genus & species. You have the internet, look it up… There are other beds that edge towards the physic garden where the plants are laid out according to the diseases they are used to treat – oncology, haematology etc etc. All this is all very well but there is no indication anywhere of this – I only know because I have seen such things before and I was told by the director.

This is an interesting point – none of us really want to have our garden visiting interrupted by ginormous signs and interpretation boards but in some cases a bit of guidance would be helpful. Otherwise there is a danger that people wander past and think that such and such a bed is really just a badly planted, mismatched border rather than an aid to scholarship. I think the problem is that the intellectual heft of all concerned is such that they naturally assume that everybody is as clever as they are and of course they will understand: in reality most of the paying visitors are after a nice walk, some flowers and somewhere to eat their sandwiches.

That may all sound a bit tart but it is not intended to be – the plants are healthy and to the point, the beds are crisply edged with good quality steel and the surrounding walls and architecture is, of course, amazing. Sometimes gardens and parks in cities are intended to be a refuge from the surrounding buildings – not so here where the glimpses of towers and spires are an important part of the garden. Mind you, Oxford is not Hull.(ii)


Further on is a fine vegetable garden – whose produce is taken to the homeless shelter – a good stacked herbaceous border and some slightly tired glasshouses containing some really good plants. I liked the wet house in particular with its crowd of Amazon lilies, papyrus and other things that I did not recognise but were satisfyingly damp and steamy. The cactus greenhouse, however, was a bit shabby. I think the plan is to replace all of them soon but before that can happen then some serious funds must be raised. Oxford, like every garden/museum/monument/church/public institution is short of cash for things that are not considered, by some, essential.


At this time of year, however, the main event are the Merton borders which are fizzing with prairie goodness. Echinacea, Solidagos, Eryngiums, Grasses, Silphiums (iii) and the rest. It is the work of the good Prof, James Hitchmough. He has done some amazing work in many places – most notably in the Olympic park in East London – his work is always spectacular and looks much easier than it actually is- to establish such a thing from seed involves a lot of sterilisation, weeding, sand beds, jute nets and small bags of very expensive seed. The question is that for a proportion of the year this sort of planting looks, if I may be frank, a bit shit. The dilemma is whether you water down the joyful spectacularness of the summer months in order to give the visitors something to look at in the off months. One problem I have always had with gardens is the urge to have ‘year round interest’ which invariably means giving over some of your precious space to hefty evergreens which look unutterably dreary during the summer months.


This style of gardening tends to have a different problem – amazing in summer but a bit rubbish in winter and spring. I know that there will be seedbeds to shimmer in the frost (I have written lots of pieces like that) but have you ever counted the number of days when the frost is sufficiently dry and cold to enable said shimmering? Last winter there were none and most years there are maybe three or four. Unless of course you live somewhere properly cold. I also understand that it needs to be a bit barren in early spring in order to make maintenance simpler – they run over the borders with a blowtorch to burn off pesky weeds. The other problem is that if you introduce trees or shrubs then you get higher shade and the mixtures have to be tweaked which may interfere with the geographical purity of the scheme.

Tricky: but finding an answer will be interesting.

So (iv), in summary a very interesting and exciting garden to visit, you should all go if you get the chance. The parking is non-existent but the gardens are only short hop from everywhere. Reminder to self – get out more. Also try to pick a less grey day – borders like this need blue skies. Website here.

I am listening to Pick up the Tempo by Waylon Jennings.

(i) Oddly there is a yew there which bears a sign saying it was planted in, I think, 1645 which makes it three hundred and something years old. I was very struck by how slim it was for its age. I rather expected it to be at least thickening around the midriff as it sloped into middle age. Not at all, it remained slim and toned.

(ii) you see, unlike other blogs, if you come here you get deeply insightful geographically based philosophy.

(iii) which the spellcheck on my iPad reads as ‘dolphins’. Not the same thing at all.

(iv) I know. I also was told that was bad form to start a sentence with “So”. Tough. My sentence, my choice.