Sunday, October 4, 2015


I wonder what it is about sunflowers that makes them so endearing to all ages? Kids just love to grow them, adults love the challenge of the tallest and artists love to paint them. Botanically it is Helianthus annuus that is commonly grown. Despite being a stickler for botanical Latin, I really can't bring myself to call these wonderful flowers anything but sunflower! They originate from North America.

The most famous painting of sunflowers is probably that of Vincent Van Gogh. Some years ago the British Bedding Plant Association wanted a summer promotion and so planted a rendering of this in bedding plants on a vast scale. It was the size of several football pitches and contained thousands of plants (see second picture).

The painting

The giant flower bed

I have painted sunflowers several times and with mixed success but they are fun to paint. These are in the order I painted them. I think Van Gogh painted sunflowers in probably fourteen different variations, so I've got a few more to practice on!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Grow your own margarita

What a thought - an amazing tree that produced  beautifully chilled margaritas! A product of my vivid imagination.  But that delightful fruity cocktail comes from a variety of plants that all grow in hot climates like Palm Springs.  Here in the desert we grow many species of Agave and of course tequila is produced from Agave tequilana, a native of Mexico. Apparently the spirit is distilled from the sugary heart of the plant in its twelfth year - a vintage before its even distilled! The other major spirit in a margarita is of course triple sec, an orange flovoured liquer made from the dried peel of both bitter and sweet oranges and 'yes' the Californian climate is great for oranges. Finally of course the perfect classic margarita will contain lime juice and a slice of lime. You guessed it we can grow limes here too! So grow your own margarita - there's a challenge!

As usual I have more to say! Over recent weeks we have spent many lovely evenings in our Palm Springs yard. Summer here is of course HOT, with temperatures soaring above the 100s on a daily basis.  Using the yard is confined to early morning breakfast  and then late evening before bed, when it cools a little but not much! What could be better than a chilled margarita to finish the day. And Philip has become a skilled mixologist!

Now why suddenly the yard at night you may ask, rather than an air-conditioned lounge? Well - earlier in the summer I bought a set of solar powered garden lights, much to Philip's skepticism. 'They won't work!' But they proved to be quite powerful, the charge lasting the whole evening and half the night. Philip so liked these (instant conversion) that he went out and bought another set and eventually two more. Now whilst this is hardly a son et lumiere or a Disney light show, it does give us great pleasure, allowing us to enjoy the yard in the relative cool of the evening! Pour another margarita - cheers!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Brooklyn Botanics

Whilst in New York recently, I made a visit to Brooklyn Botanic Garden, one of two good botanic gardens in the city of New York. A short trip on the subway and I arrived at one of the most derelict and disgusting subway stations ever, only enlivened by the seedling Davidia in the unused line one side of the plaform - what a weed!  Actually being generous, I have to say someone had enlivened the exterior of the station with a great mural.

I crossed the road and entered the garden through a new entrance. Two people behind the ticket desk and a security guard six feet further in to check the tickets - must be expecting a huge crowd of unruly visitors,  I thought. And this was a new secondary entrance, not the main one. And so I explored the garden and what a mixed experience it was, distinctly disappointing from my last visit. On the positive side, there was development. A new Discovery Garden - very obviously targeted at children - OK good idea but of limited interest to me. There was also a huge area being fenced off for a new water conservation garden, obviously due for construction. Good forward thinking!

But the rest of the garden looked tired, neglected and generally run-down. This was early August and yet the garden looked autumnal. Flowers had faded, weeds were evident everywhere and there were very few gardeners on duty. Such a pity to spend so much on development that the routine maintenance of the garden declines. 

Palm House - empty - used for events only

A typical border in the rose garden

A garden feature?
Anyway - a few pics of things that caught my eye, in particular a good exotic border which in fact was a monocot demonstration.

After a brief visit I started to make my way out planning to stop at the new restroom by the new entrance - you guessed - it was closed, so I had to walk back to the center of the garden for the nearest facility! Maybe next time I'll visit the New York Botanic Garden.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Will Giles - exoticist extraordinaire

Fortunately I have never had to post an obituary on this blog until now. Many gardeners will know, Will Giles sadly died on 2 September 2015, having battled with cancer for two years.  I have known Will for about 20 years, visited his garden on many occasions and enjoyed his hospitality, quirky humor and impressive knowledge of plants. When I first knew Will he was running a botanical illustration business and his exotic garden was a hobby. As the digital age took over, botanical illustrations were less popular and Will's garden developed, becoming in many ways his business as well as his passion. Sadly I did not get to visit Will or his garden this summer.

Coffee in the polytunnel with Will - last time we met.

Walking round Will's garden in the summer was like a whirlwind world tour in a couple of hours with plants from all round the globe, growing successfully in the middle of Norwich city center.  Huge banana trees punctuated the skyline with rustling bamboos, whilst Spanish moss and epiphytic  bromelliads hung from old apple trees. Colorful cannas jostled with agapanthus, heleniums, persicaria and brilliant gerbera. And everywhere amazing foliage; Ricinus, colcasia, coleus, tree ferns, grasses and houseplants such as monstera. If it was big, bold and exotic, Will would grow it!

Will was also a great architect and builder adding many whimsical structures to his garden. His tiny rustic summerhouse was originally in the neighbouring garden and due for demolition but Will reprieved it and with the help of several local heavy guys moved it into his garden. Although I was invited, I never actually slept in his tree house, although I admired this amazing structure, nestled amongst the branches of an old oak tree with amazing views over the Norwich rooftops.  Then his grotto and cascade, starting at a round pool at the top of his garden, water falls over a mossy wall of old flints into a basin at the bottom, two storeys below. 

My own favorite was the Italianate loggia set amongst his Mediterranean garden, built at the top of the hillside behind his house.This garden full of spikies and cacti deserves a special mention. Trying to grow arid plants in the wet and cool British climate is a huge challenge but one that Will met with his usual enthusiasm. Even when the tough winter of 2011 killed many specimens, he wasn't daunted but replanted with a newer, tougher range.

Will was also an artist. Throughout the garden, there are small pieces of artwork, sculptures or just quirky items, like the headless and armless statue of a lady,  tucked in a niche. And of course arranging plants in beautiful combinations is an art itself.

I have no idea what will happen to this beautiful and iconic garden. Already it has closed. Such a garden relies on a heavy input of labour and a huge investment, maintaining exotic plants, coaxing them through the winter and replanting many each season. I doubt there is anyone who would have the time, energy, knowledge and cash to continue with this. If this garden disappears, it will be a loss but the even greater loss must be Will Giles, a great gardener and good friend.