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November 2015

The fruits of the autumn hedgerow

Black bryony, Tamus communis, in a Northamptonshire hedgerow. Image © GardenPhotos.comI’ve been trying to get out for a good walk every day - weather permitting - since I’ve been here in Britain and since a few chilly nights brought the last of the fall foliage to the ground the hedgerows are revealed as dripping with fruits.

Two plants stand out, their vivid red fruits shining brightly in the low late autumn sun.

There are two unrelated forms of bryony and the one with the crowded clusters of scarlet fruits now at their peak in the British hedgerow is known, perversely, as Black Bryony, Tamus communis (left, click to enlarge). Closely related to the yams of the tropics, this is a vigorous twining plant, snaking its way through woody hedge plants. As well as its scarlet berries it has fat tuberous roots, deeply ribbed triangular leaves, small green and white flowers – with male and female plants on different plants… And every part of the plant is poisonous.

It’s sometimes used as poultice to treat internal injuries but, frankly, it’s best just to admire it from a distance. Gardeners around the world can order Black Bryony seeds from Plant World Seeds.

The other plant that stands out is the dog rose, Rosa canina (below, click to enlarge), a much more substantial, even imposing, feature of the hedgerow with clusters of red hips which are a little less shiny than the black bryony berries so that they gleam in the sun but look more dull in the shade.

Mind you… I say dog rose, Rosa canina… But these hedgerow roses come in a confusing number of micro species, about thirty very similar but slightly different species some of which have five or even six times as many pairs of chromosomes as usual. They also have a slightly quirky form of reproduction known as permanent odd polyploidy – but you and I can both be delighted that I’m not going to try and explain it.

But what I can do is remind you that rose hips can contain as much fifty (yes, FIFTY) times as much Vitamin C as oranges! So those hedgerow rose hips can bring you a genuine health benefit. There’s more about Vitamin C in the hedgerows in a post from September last year. Gardeners around the world can also order seeds of Rosa canina from Plant World Seeds.

The final fruity feature of the Northamptonshire hedgerows along which I’ve been walking these last few days has been the sloes, Prunus spinosa. These are like small plums in both their appearance and their botanical connections – but not in taste. “Tart” is hardly the word but sloes make a fantastic flavored gin, as I discussed here back in 2007.

One other thing I’ve noticed these last few days is that the birds haven't got stuck in to all these fruits yet. But this looks like an exceptionally good year for hips and berries and other fruits, all of which will help so many birds, and small mammals, through the winter ahead – however tough it turns out to be.

Dog rose, Rosa canina, in a Northamptonshire hedgerow. Image ©GardenPhotos.com


Funny gardening books

RevoltingGardenCowering in bed under the influence of the Great British Headcold, a little light reading was required. I looked shivveringly at the bookshelves and my eyes fell on a little cluster of “comic” gardening titles. I grabbed them and staggered back to bed.

The undoubted star of these four titles was the most recent, The Revolting Garden by Rose Blight. Rose Blight is the 1970s pseudonym used by none other than Germaine Greer for a series in Private Eye, the pioneering British satirical magazine. This little book is a collection of her columns. Here’s a taste of her style, she’s discussing the garden built in London to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1976.

“The ghosts of deluded planting schemes of love-lies-bleeding, mignonette and snow-on-the-mountain gibber and grin hideously over turbulent brick paths. This arid expanse is made to seem as vast and uncrossable as the Gobi by absurdly out-of-scale architectural embellishments, a dwarfish obelisk (erected no doubt to the memory of the plants whose cadavers lean against the winds of January), and knee-high balustrades. Diagonally opposite the mini obelisk, a very tall (and ergo very costly), hopelessly miserable cypress strains against its guy-ropes, doubtless trying with all its might not to root in such an ill-omened spot… It is too much to hope that the Duke of Gloucester who opened the garden… will have the goodness to come and close it again.”

No one writes about gardens like that any more, I’m sorry to say.

Going back to 1936, we come to Garden Rubbish by W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, trying to cash in on their very funny bestseller 1066 And All That. Trying in vain, unfortunately. Here’s a few of their thoughts on garden pests.

"i.    Onion-fly. A species of Fly which, being devoid of original ideas, attacks Onions. Withhold the Onion and the Fly dies. No need to be cruel: don’t keep letting the fly see the onion. Take it right away and hide it.
ii.    The Woolly Aphis. Send it to the Laundry. When it comes back send it to the wash again. After two or three goes it will shrink so tight on to itself that it will suffocate.
iii.    Wire-worm. Easily distinguishable by its long slender yellowish body. Easily caught by burying slices of turnip (ground bait) secured on a skewer.
iv.    Weevils. Ignore them - remember the old warning “Hear no weevil, see no weevil, speak no weevil” and cut them dead.””

Ungardeners1944 brings us Flower Gardening for Ungardeners by Ethelind Fearon (author, also, of Cakes for Occasions). I know she sounds like an anagram, but in fact she was H. G. Wells’s gardener. To be honest, the best part of this book is the cover by Alex Jardine. I think the book's intended to be “light” rather than comic and it begins like this.

“What is an ungardener anyway?

“Obviously one who instinctively dodges gardening. He, or more likely she, is averse from any sort of toil, moil or soil and intends, by reason of tough resistance and imperviousness to hints, bribes or threats, to remain so.

“Occasionally this happy situation, this care-free attitude, is upset by the acquisition of a piece of land which for very shame, you must tend - some dump left in hideous disarray by the builder when you move into a new house, or a despondent jungle of non-productive and funeral conifers knee-high in nettles if it’s an old one. However, in either case I can tell you how to make it bloom like mad while you remain almost totally inactive and acquire never a callus, except those on your shoulder blades, from lounging too low, too long, in a deck chair.”

Finally, from 1944, Tubers and Taradiddle (or The Gardener’s Entertainment) a year in the garden of Donald Cowie who's described in the blurb as “already known to the discriminating as a satirist to be taken seriously, he has a considerable reputation among writers of the younger school.” Here's a sample.

“FEBRUARY 12
“Already I feel approaching summer in the air, and cannot understand why people say it’s still too early to plant most vegetables. So I put in spring onions today, between broad bean rows. Packet said: “make a drill”. Not sure what that meant, I asked Carstairs (the neighbour), who informed me: “Well, you know, a kind of ditch you make, or a hole, not too deep, you know, but then you don’t want it too shallow.” I tried to follow neighbourly instructions, but making ditch was heavy work, as I came eventually to a bed of yellow clay, far below sub-soil….

“Onion seeds, ridiculously small and liable to run through hands, I inserted carefully, one by one, in bottom of ditch then shovelled clay back. Job took five hours….

“Waiting till frosts are finished, indeed! Why, we might not have another frost this year…

“FEBRUARY 20
“For the last eight days - nothing but snow, snow, snow.”

So they were the books I chose to enliven my sickbed.

Do you know? I’m feeling better. Not sure if the humour of these four little books cheered me up or the lack of it forced me out of bed to do something else and get away from them. The Rose Blight book I definitely recommend and of the others Tubers and Taradiddle is the pick – except for the stylish jacket of Flower Gardening for Ungardeners.

Any other suggestions for funny gardening books - from any era - that really are funny? Apart from Christopher Lloyd, of course.


Our movie hits the streets (and screens)

LiesIToldMyLittleSister-DVD-CoverBFF-2DLies I Told My Little Sister, the feature film written by my wife judywhite and nephew Jonathan Weisbrod, has recently been released in the USA. Hooray!! It stars Lucy Walters, currently making waves in the hit TV drama series Power, and rocker turned actress Ellen Foley, Meat Loaf’s duet partner from the Bat Out of Hell album. It also features US soap star Alicia Minshew of All My Children and Donovan Patton of the pioneering children’s US TV series Blues Clues. Oh, and me…! Not starring, exactly, but still…

Telling the story of a globe trotting photographer and the little sister she used to persecute with outrageous lies, as the whole family adjusts to the death of the oldest third sister they all head off on a family vacation – packing, as it says on the DVD cover, all the childhood baggage.

The resulting fun, fury and frustration, fuelled by vodka and love, makes a tender and warm-hearted movie revealing the elastic boundaries, and the unbreakable connections, of family love. Shot on Cape Cod, in New Jersey and at The Phoenix Store just a few miles from our front door in Pennsylvania, the film won awards at more than twenty festivals across the country last year with all the main players and the film itself being nominated or winning awards.

Horticulture? Well, apart from some lovely blue hydrangeas… not much. Although your humble blogger has a small part playing Ellen Foley’s love interest – and who could ask for more in their first movie part?!

This is a really enjoyable drama/comedy about a family full of engaging characters and how they react to their past and to the death of the oldest sister. It’s funny as well as poignant. The director and crew are almost all recent graduates of New York University film school as they embark on their careers after making some award-winning short films while at college.

It was fascinating to participate, even in a small way, and I came away full of admiration for the craft of acting; seeing these fine actors at work made me realize how good they are.

You can watch the trailer below, or watch the first two minutes of the movie here (just click the tab).

Chosen by Geena Davis as a special selection for Walmart, Lies I Told My Little Sister is available for streaming now at Walmart, amazon, iTunes, VUDU, Google Play and other services. DVDs are available in about 3000 Walmart stores. Negotiations continue about a European release.

Go on... Give it a try… I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

 Next time, back to plants...