An Open Letter to Santa


Dear Santa,

You may think I’m getting a bit old for this malarkey, but in my head I am still in my teens so I hope you’ll forgive me for writing this letter. It’s been a while, so I hope life is good and that you’ve had a restful summer. Like you, I am horribly busy at this time of year so I thought I’d get in early and give the elves plenty of time to track down everything on my wish list. If you do happen to be in a certain department store over the next few weeks I hope you like what I’ve done with the seasonal fayre – you’ve been a big inspiration yet again. Despite the popularity of Click & Collect I think you’re job’s pretty safe, that is unless you’re privatised. Fortunately you move rather faster than Royal Mail and even Amazon can’t catch you. Thank goodness for those turbo-charged reindeer, they deserve a medal.

Paper House Letter to Santa Charity Cards

I have tried to be good through 2014, but admit I have fallen some way short of perfect. I have not, hand on heart, pilfered cuttings or seeds from anyone’s garden and have carefully nurtured any plants I’ve been gifted. Some of them even have names. My eyes are still bigger than my stomach when it come to nurseries, and so plants are one thing I really don’t need this year, or any other year for that matter. I fed the birds until they made such a mess of the terrace that I had to stop. In return we’ve been rewarded with a burgeoning population of collared doves and sparrows. I have been easy on the insecticide but a little gung-ho with the slug pellets. What can I say? I am sure if you have a garden you will understand. On occasion I have been a bit grumpy, overtired and not as kind as I could have been, but promise to make up for it next year.

Daphne and Dudley, ring-necked doves

At this point in my life I want for very little. (You will have guessed by now how far from teenage I really am.) Consequently my list is full of luxuries I would never buy for myself, but would genuinely cherish. First of all tools – anything made by Sneeboer would be much appreciated, but I am flush for Felco secateurs right now, thanks all the same. One can never have enough trowels, especially when Him Indoors treats them like plant markers and leaves them dotted around outside in all weathers.

Sneeboer Tools

I would love a flashy camera, as I am under the delusion that better equipment will mean I take better pictures. I should really take a photography course instead, but just don’t have the time. I’m a Canon man, just in case you were wondering. Might I ask that a memory card is included, as I have a habit of leaving them plugged into the side of my laptop?

Canon 5D Mark 3

A greenhouse is top of my list. I am sure everyone’s fed up with me banging on about it, but having had one at the age of 14 I feel I have taken a backward step at the point when those numbers have been reversed in order. That first greenhouse, a temple of propagation, was metal-framed and covered with polythene. I’d want this one to last, so would prefer teak or cedar if you can run to it. On second thoughts, put this request on hold for a year or two when hopefully we’ll have moved somewhere with more space. I guarantee I will have sorted out my grumpiness by then.

Hartley Botanic Victorian classic glasshouses1

I hope you don’t feel I am being greedy, but I am known for being a man with expensive tastes. One must maintain standards at all times, although I have been known to let things slip on Boxing Day. Those photographs are safely out of harm’s way lest my impeccable reputation be tarnished.

Do please let me know if you have any special requests for Christmas Eve. Him Indoors is a dab hand with shortcrust, mincemeat and icing sugar, and I like to keep a very comprehensive drinks cabinet. We had eleven different gins at the last count, which even concerns me slightly. We don’t have a chimney, but will leave the back door on the latch. I hope you like what we’ve done with the garden since you dropped by last year – it’s been long overdue – although alas no carrots for Rudolph to munch whilst he’s waiting (we don’t allow bare hooves indoors).

Wishing you all the very best for the festive season

The Frustrated Gardener.

P.S. Him Indoors would like a new garden bench, but we can’t agree on one we like or where to put it. I usually get my own way, but as I’ll never get time to sit on it I’ll let him explain what he’d like.

Alex at Mottisfont, May 2013


It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Bents garden centre Christmas display 2014

In my world it’s Christmas every day, but there comes a point, around now, when the rest of the nation starts to wake up to the imminent arrival of the festive season. I was lucky enough to spend the whole day on Friday touring the best garden centres in the North West, looking at what they buy and how they display it for their customers. It was quite an eye-opener, especially for someone more accustomed to London department stores. The likes of Newbank, Bents and Barton Grange take Christmas very seriously indeed, giving over huge amounts of space to this lucrative but short-lived commercial opportunity. And it works, their carparks and restaurants are jam-packed from the start of November, attracting coach parties from far and wide, customers clamouring to see their extravagant displays.

Welcome to the jungle - Christmas turns tropical at Bents

Welcome to the jungle – Christmas turns tropical at Bents

Autumn bedding done with, real plants play second fiddle to artificial trees, sparkly trims and dazzling lights. Anyone who knows the area well will be familiar with Bents, a huge set-up in Glazebury, Cheshire. It’s a family business with a lovely story behind it. In the 1930s Alfred and Margaret Bent started to cultivate roses in their front garden and it wasn’t long before their garden became the talk of Glazebury. After WWII Alfred was advised by his doctor to take an outside job, so he bought 16 acres and began growing on a larger scale. From those modest beginnings has grown a significant business which has made a name for itself when it comes to Christmas. Despite the disruption of a new, and not entirely attractive extension, the darkened interior has been transformed into a winter wonderland, displaying no less than 15 decoration themes. Pictured above is Botanique Jardin, replete with prowling panthers and pround peacocks. Display trees, which could only be described as exuberant, were decorated with great professionalism by a lady called Angela. She can come and shape my spruce, primp my pine and fiddle with my fir any time! However Bents is all a little over-the-top for my personal taste.

Outside in the ‘Open Skies’ glasshouse I greatly admired the colour-themed displays of plants selected for winter interest and was sorely tempted to buy.

Rudolph's nose has competition in the form of skimmias and pyracanthas

Rudolph’s red nose has competition in the form of skimmias and pyracanthas

On the outskirts of Bury, Newbank Garden Centre was more my cup of tea. The complex of old farm buildings and modern greenhouses has a lovely atmosphere and a slightly more restrained aesthetic. This is another family business (and how much better for it) where attention to detail, sharp pricing and customer service still counts for a great deal. Shoppers are treated to some very accomplished displays, which gave me lots of ideas for my own home this Christmas. My favourite themes were the pared-back green and natural collection….

The tasteful displays at Newbank Garden Centre were more my cup of tea

The tasteful displays at Newbank Garden Centre were more my bag

…. and homely ‘Claret and Candlelight’. All those rich colours made me feel instantly festive – a look that would never date.

A rich, cosy look for a country cottage or Victorian villa

‘Claret and Candlelight’, a rich, cosy look for a country cottage or Victorian villa

At the other end of the spectrum, Urban New Year was a range composed of natural wood, zinc, denim-blue and copper decorations – achingly cool and sophisticated. I loved it. Outside, Newbank have a great selection of larger trees and topiary as well as a Christmas grotto, opening later this month. 

I came away wondering why garden centres in the south can’t hold a candle to their northern cousins. Perhaps their relative proximity to London means that customers seek their inspiration in department stores such as Liberty, Fortnum and Mason and Harrods rather than local retailers but, surely, there must be an opportunity for quality garden centres to do more. I’d love to hear where you shop for your Christmas decs and whether I’m missing something right on my doorstep. Meanwhile, I’ll definitely be heading up north again for my seasonal inspiration next year.

Bents Garden Centre, Warrington Road, Glazebury, Cheshire, WA3 5NT. Phone: 01942 266300

Newbank Garden Centre, Bury Road, Radcliffe, M26 2WW. Phone: 0161 724 5050. (Also in Dobcross, Halifax and Royton)


Large, statement letters are everywhere this Christmas

Large, lit, statement letters are everywhere this Christmas

Flower Therapy

Rose, Saltford, September 2014

Tonight I am greatly in need of a happy pill. The best I can muster from the depths of the medicine cabinet is a dusty asprin and some anti-acid tablets, so as an alternative I am resorting to the best therapy of all, looking at flowers. Even as a toddler I contented myself for hours looking at brightly-coloured seed catalogues and this primitive remedy still works wonders for me to this day.

Helleborus x hybridus 'Bosvigo Doubles' (Strawberry Parfait) gives me strength

Just looking at Helleborus x hybridus ‘Bosvigo Doubles’ (Strawberry Parfait) lifts my spirits

Wine glass in hand (a nicely chilled Viognier being the second best therapy I know of) I am thumbing through the spring editions of the Chiltern Seeds and Seeds of Distinction catalogues, lapping up the silky deliciousness of their varnished pages. How far these publications have come in recent years: no longer the garish tack-fests that one still receives from Messrs Parker, but filled with carefully colour-coordinated images that wouldn’t look out of place on the walls of a gallery. Look at this mouthwatering shot of Centaurea americana ‘Aloha Blanca’ and tell me you are not sorely tempted.

chiltern seeds

A sneeky preview of what’s to come from Chiltern Seeds

After bulbs and fancy shirts, seeds are probably my greatest vice. That’s the rock-and-roll life I lead. Fuelled by wine and bankrolled by my credit card I am known to be pretty dangerous, hence tonight, at my most vulnerable, I am keeping both hands occupied by typing this post. But I will succumb before spring to those luscious little postage stamps of colour that are viagra for my soul. Tequila, it makes some people happy, but for me I need nothing more than good old-fashioned flowers.

Lupins in the Great Pavilion, Chelsea 2014

Gaudy? Yes, but lupins are guaranteed to lift my mood from sombre to sunny

Going Potty

Pots of bulbs, The Watch House, November 2014

October and November are second only to May and June in terms of the amount there is to do in our garden. All four months are key for preparation and planting. In the spring it’s all about tender perennials, flashy annuals and plump dahlia tubers, but in autumn the focus is on those dry, paper-coated time bombs we call bulbs. They arrive as crisp and tanned as David Dickinson in September, giving few clues as to the incredible flower power packed inside. I’ve been secreting them lovingly in containers since then, revelling in the prospect of bold new varieties and startling colour combinations. Every clement moment during my weekends is spent emptying and cleaning terracotta pots, mixing compost and getting those bulbs snuggly beneath a protective blanket of grit and loam. I always overbuy horribly (my eyes are bigger than my garden….and my wallet for that matter), so the task can sometimes feel repetitive and unrelenting. However, I know that in spring I will be richly rewarded.

Tulip Bulbs, October 2013

Tulip bulbs, given a light dusting of yellow sulphur to protect from mould

Narcissi, irises and crocuses, which like to get their roots established early, take priority in September, with tulips perfectly happy planted well into November once the weather gets colder. Prepared narcissi, such as N. ‘Paperwhite Ziva’, N. ‘Cragford’ and N. ‘Avalanche’ are saved until last, otherwise they’re in bloom too soon before Christmas. In storage moisture is bulbs’ greatest enemy, so I keep them waiting in a cool, dry place and check regularly for signs of bluish mould or unhealthy mottling. I avoid leaving them stacked in plastic bags or packed in transit boxes where they might sweat. If found, a dusting of sulphur puts a stop to any minor outbreaks of rot. The best prevention is to get them in the ground or into pots quickly. Even if the task does drive me potty, I know I’ll be glad I persevered in five months’ time.

Iris reticulata 'George'

Iris reticulata ‘George’ is great packed into smaller pots

On The Bridge


You may recall that a year ago I wrote about The Garden Bridge, a proposed crossing on the Thames in London. With planning permission due to be granted by Lambeth Council on Monday, this visionary idea, which will see a garden sit astride Britain’s greatest waterway, is set to become reality.

The new bridge, which will be for pedestrians only, has not come this far without controversy. Detractors have suggested that another crossing in this location is unnecessary and see no sense in preventing the passage of cycles. Others point to the cost, which has risen to £175M, and to the loss of mature trees at either end of the span. Temple Underground station, one of the quieter on the network, will need to be closed for 6 months during construction, no doubt causing inconvenience to thousands of commuters.

Ironically, none of these considerations would have been permitted to get in the way had this been yet another ugly ‘iconic’ building in the city. We all know the reason for these monoliths – capitalism – and that’s fine, London was built by it, but people who only understand this economic system naturally struggle with the concept of something that exists just because it might make somewhere a better place to be. If the moat of red poppies surrounding The Tower of London has taught us anything it’s that bold, beautiful gestures are popular with the people. How much less impactful and thought provoking would this installation have been on a smaller scale? I argue that London needs ambitious and, yes, slightly unnecessary projects like The Garden Bridge to stay at the top of its game. To a degree, where the crossing is sited is neither here nor there (this didn’t get in the way of the Emirates Air Line cable car that stretches between the Royal Docks and the Greenwich Peninsula) – it’s about the experience.


Not least down to Joanna Lumley’s persuasively dulcet tones, The Garden Bridge has this weekend made it to the brink of realisation. If the outstanding £85M can be raised swiftly, construction could begin as early as December 2015, with a completion date of 2018. Unlike so many significant London projects of recent times the Garden Bridge will be elegant, environmentally enhacing, British designed and fully accessible to the public 18 hours a day. How many skyscrapers in the city can boast more than one of those qualities? I say ‘Hurrah!’ to Joanna Lumley (rapidly becoming something of a national treasure) and to Thomas Heatherwick, Arup and Dan Pearson for championing such a brave, vibrant and gratuitously quixotic idea.


Trengwainton Gardens, Cornwall

Unlike the garden around it, Trengwainton House, 'modernised' in 1898, can hardly be described as a masterpiece

From a very early age my parents took me and my sister to visit gardens. I like to think the reason was to cultivate our interest in flowers and plants, but as one follower of this blog commented recently (with reference to another Cornish garden, Trebah), it was probably to keep us both from wreaking havoc elsewhere. The upshot of all this outdoor activity, which worked for me either way you choose to look at it, is that I have enjoyed a lifelong relationship with a handful of gardens, mainly in Cornwall. Return visits to these precious spots are imbued with a completely different sense of understanding and recognition. Without thinking I can spot where trees have grown or been felled, where standards have fallen or new opportunities opened up. It’s like seeing an old friend who has moved abroad and returns home once in a blue moon, except I am the one doing all the travelling.

Flowers of my youth: we were never without helichrysums when I was growing up

We were never without helichrysums (Xerochrysum bracteatum) when I was growing up.

Trengwainton in West Cornwall is one such garden. Like an old friend it rarely changes except perhaps for the horticultural equivalent of a new hairdo. Since those earliest visits the carpark has grown (as, sadly, have all National Trust carparks), smart visitor facilities have been built and the productive side of the walled gardens has been reinvigorated. Apart from that, change has been organic, the 90 year old gardens progressing gently towards the centenary of their creation by one Lt-Col. E.H.W. Bolitho.

On retiring from the army Colonel Bolitho became High Sheriff of Cornwall and was later knighted. His horticultural masterstroke was to recognise that his head gardener, a Mr Creek, had a gift for propagation. He was given carte blanche to develop his talents at Trengwainton. Other great Cornish gardens, including those at Caerhays Castle, supported the creation Col. Bolitho’s pleasure grounds, offering seasoned advice and gifts of plants collected around the globe.

Unlike the garden around it, Trengwainton House, 'modernised' in 1898, can hardly be described as a masterpiece

Unlike the garden around it, Trengwainton House can hardly be described as a masterpiece

In 1926 Col. Bolitho joined a triumvirate of investors, including Lawrence Johnston of Hidcote and George Johnstone of Trewithen, to back Kingdon Ward’s 1927-8 planting hunting expedition to North East Assam and Upper Burma. Rhododendron seeds found on that trip gave rise to the garden’s enviable collection. Mr Creek’s expertise, combined with the mild Cornish weather, meant that several species flowered for the first time in the British Isles at Trengwainton. From then on there was a great flurry of development, including the creation of a stream garden, planting of further shelter belts and extension of the walled gardens to create space in which the Colonel could cosset his most tender plants. To this day Trengwainton remains the only UK mainland garden with conditions warm enough to cultivate many sub tropical plants, making it very special indeed.

In very few places in the UK could you expect to find Fascicularia bicolor, a Chilean bromeliad, growing in the boughs of a magnolia

Fascicularia bicolor, a Chilean bromeliad, growing in the boughs of a magnolia

The flowers of Fasicularia bicolor are even more fascinating close-up

The flowers are even more fascinating close-up

Although the gardens had welcomed the public since 1931, they did not pass to the current owners, The National Trust, until 1961. Thanks to West Cornwall’s relative remoteness and the large scale of the gardens, commercialization remains relatively low-key. On a quiet day the winding paths can be enjoyed very much as Colonel Bolitho would once have appreciated them. Surely he would be overjoyed to see the towering scale of his tree ferns (Dicksonia antartica), which now stand 4m high with trunks the size of Grecian columns.

Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana is unusual in that it's hardy in most UK gardens

Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana is unusual in that it’s hardy in most UK gardens

My favourite part of the garden is the series of walled gardens, which were constructed before Colonel Bolitho’s tenure, in the 1820s, to the floor plan of Noah’s Ark. It’s in these cossetted confines that may of Trengwainton’s tenderest treasures flourish, including a fine collection of fuchsias from around the globe and Chilean rarity Jovellana violacea. For the keen plantsperson this series of enclosed ‘rooms’ with their balmy microclimate is heaven on earth – I could spend hours wandering from one to another with notebook and camera in hand. Some of the plots have enormous magnolias planted at their centre, sending their low, sweeping branches out to fill every corner.

The gardener's cottage, Trengwainton, Cornwall, September 2014

A mix of exotics, cottage garden plants and vegetables surround the gardener’s cottage

Each subdivision of the walled garden features steeply sloping, west-facing beds. These were designed to catch the rays of the sun and bring forward crops of fruit and vegetables, which might already be among the first in the country ready for picking.

Trengwainton's west-facing raised beds are a unique feature of the walled gardens

Trengwainton’s west-facing raised beds are a unique feature of the walled gardens

Modern-day Trengwainton enjoys the additional adornment of scarecrows in the guise of famous historical characters …..

A scarecrow, impersonating Florence Nightingale, keeps watch over the cavolo nero

A scarecrow, impersonating Florence Nightingale, keeps watch over the chard with Einstein in the background!

….. and at the time of our visit in late September a magnificent harvest of pumpkins and squashes was laid out on a bed of straw, allowing the fruits’ skins to toughen up before storing, eating or carving into Jack-o’-lanterns.

Like an old friend I have a feeling Trengwainton and I will be reunited again very soon, although I am quite certain of which of us is going to age better!

A sea of freshly harvested  pumpkins greeted us on a September visit

A sea of freshly harvested pumpkins greeted us on a recent visit

Trengwainton’s balmy environs are worth a visit at any time of year, although winter opening dates are restricted. Check on the National Trust website for further details.


Daily Flower Candy: Rhus typhina

Rhus typhina, staghorn sumac, Minster, Nov 2014

The list of plants I’d like to grow if I had space is endless and trees would make up many of that number. I am increasingly anxious to get on and start planting so that I might one day see them in maturity, but suspect I may already be a little late to achieve such a lofty ambition.

A tree which offers quick rewards for impatient gardeners is Rhus typhina, the stag’s horn sumach. It’s actually half way between a large shrub and a tree, often wider than it is high. Stag’s horn sumach is prone to suckering, which on the upside means it can be grown very beautifully as a multi-stemmed tree, but on the downside makes it a complete nuisance in the wrong place. However for picturesque effect, blazing autumn colour and a touch of the  exotic Rhus typhina is very hard to beat. Despite its North American origins it has a wonderfully oriental aesthetic and is easy to imagine pushing its way up between the boulders and waterfalls of a traditional Chinese brush painting.

A variety with finely divided leaves, R. typhina ‘Dissecta’ AGM makes an equally lovely plant with a more feathery outline. Both trees are at their most ravishing in autumn when their umbrella-shaped canopies turn every shade of orange, red and purple before falling. Dark red, densely flocked flower spikes (looking rather like Devils’ horns) remain through winter, giving Rhus typhina one of its other common names, velvet sumach.

Planted now Rhus typhina will have a chance to settle in before winter arrives, so go on, what are you waiting for?

On the turn. The leaves of  Rhus typhina need full sun to achieve their  most dazzling colours

On the turn. The leaves of Rhus typhina need full sun to achieve their most dazzling colours

A Ghost Story

A sea of freshly harvested  pumpkins greeted us on a September visit

Here in Kent it does not feel very much like Halloween. Up the road in Gravesend the warmest ever October 31st was recorded this afternoon, when the mercury peaked at 23.5 degrees centigrade. In our Broadstairs garden it was a shade cooler, but t-shirt and shorts weather nevertheless. A splendid day for gardening, only not quite long enough. Gardening days never are.

As the shadows fell across the terrace I descended the narrow steps to our basement undercroft to stow my tools. It’s dark, damp and musty down there, the odd wisp of tree root protruding through the vaulted ceiling and spider’s webs criss-crossing the entrance. The spiders are enormous this year, their bodies fat and their webs strong and expansive. A warm night should lure plenty of tasty treats into their sticky gossamer traps.

I am never 100% certain how stable the undercrofts’ brick arches are, but they have made it to nearly 200 years old so are considerably more resilient than they look. I keep meaning to tidy up the melange of compost sacks, canes and pots that have accumulated, only there always seems to be a more attractive task to do. Even though daylight is only a few steps away, I often wonder what it would be like to be a miner, stuck underground in dark, dirty confinement for hours on end. My mother’s family all hail from a village called St Agnes in Cornwall which was at the very centre of the Cornish mining industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Hers was a farming family, but doubtless there were miners among them too. Tonight, on All Hallows’ Eve, I am reminded of the well-known story of Dorcas, a female ghost that has troubled St Agnes’ miners and villagers for centuries.

This is how the story is told by Maurice Bizley in his 1955 book about St Agnes called ‘Friendly Retreat':

“One mine, at least, in the St Agnes district is said to be haunted. Polbreen is situated at the foot of St Agnes Beacon, near the village, and in a nearby cottage once lived a woman called Dorcas. One night the poor creature lost her reason and threw herself down a deep shaft of the mine. Although her broken body was recovered and removed for burial, her spirit still remained in the mine, where it took a malicious delight in tormenting the industrious miner, calling him by name and alluring him from his work. Although no one is credited with having seen the ghost of Dorcas, her voice has caused much trouble and, indeed, more than one miner is reputed to have had his clothes torn from his back by the spirit. On one occasion, Dorcas saved the life of a miner by calling his name so persistently that he left his ‘end’ to find out who was calling him. Immediately he had moved the roof of the level fell on the spot where he had been working. The lucky miner ever afterwards declared that he had been saved by Dorcas. Although the spirit has not been heard for many years, even today there are those who have ‘felt her presence’ when near the mine.”

My Great Aunt Edith lived in a bungalow in Polbreen Lane, very close to the abandoned mine (so much so that part of the drive once subsided into a disused shaft, a common occurrence in the village), but I don’t recall her mentioning the neighbourhood ghost. Perhaps she has finally found her peace.

Happy Halloween everyone!

Pumpkins and Squashes, Trengwainton Gardens, Cornwall, September 2014


Coming Home

Gingko biloba, Archway, London, October 2014

There’s nothing like a long spell away from home to remind you of what you take for granted …. and sometimes what you might do differently with your life. I have missed a good strong cup of tea (a cliche, but so true), the cramped comfort of our little country, clean air (even London air is better than anything you can breath in China), freedom of information (the BBC is off-air whilst the protests in Hong Kong continue) and most of all rain. I have not felt a drop of the wet stuff in three weeks: Autumn in Northern China is clear and dry compared to England and consequently everything there looks dry, faded and wan. Not so in London where I’ve returned to a reassuringly damp, grey, soggy day. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Fiery colours as sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) begins to turn

Wonderful contrasts as sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) begins to turn

I have missed most of October, but happily not the brilliant colours of autumn. Wanting to feel the cool rain on my face I ventured out this afternoon, passing a row of four sweet gums (Liquidambar styraciflua) at the bottom of Highgate Hill. Two trees must be fifteen years old and two about ten years younger, but each one is coloured completely differently, varying between green-edged-magenta and deepest burgundy. Sweet gum has to be one of my favourite trees, and as soon as I get a garden big enough I’ll be planting a forest of them.

Sweet gums are a match for maples and acers when it comes to intense colour

Sweet gums are a match for maples and acers when it comes to range and intensity of colour

A young gingko (Gingko biloba) teetered on the edge of autumn, its fan-shaped leaves poised to turn clear, butter-yellow any day now. This is a common tree in Chinese cities and it would be good to see it planted more often in London. Gingko has a lovely, upright crown in youth which is ideal for street planting.

Gingko biloba is considered tolerant of both drought and pollution, the makings of a great urban tree

Gingko biloba is considered tolerant of both drought and pollution; the makings of a great urban tree

And it’s not all over yet for the flowers, with precious little roses and more exotic passion flowers (Passiflora caerulaea) preparing for their swan song. The mild weather has sustained them, and may well continue to do so for a little while yet.

It's not over yet for these miniature floribunda roses

There will be more to come from this miniature floribunda rose

Is there any tropical flower quite as alluring as the passion flower?

Is there any tropical flower quite as alluring as the passion flower?

And what might I do differently? Well, I have long been resolved to find more ways to explore my passion for plants, photography and writing and have a few more ideas how I might do that as time goes on. A book perhaps, a photography course and certainly further development of this blog, which has offered me such a great outlet for the last two and a half years. Watch this space……

The pavements on Highgate Hill are piled high with the leaves of Platanus × hispanica, the London plane

The pavements of Highgate Hill are piled high with the leaves of Platanus × hispanica, the London plane

The Topiary Thieves

Loropetalum chinense, Ningbo, October 2014

My regular trips to China offer few opportunities to observe nature up close. By and large I’m confined to big, ugly cities few people in the UK have heard of, but today I am in Hangzhou which must be one of the greenest and smartest cities around. On my last visit I wrote about the city flower Guìhuā (桂花) (Osmanthus fragrans) which perfumes the streets with its unmistakable, spicy fragrance. You know you’re in Hangzhou when the Guìhuā is flowering.

En route to Hangzhou from Ningbo we visited a small factory in a rural area. The farmland around was studded with peach and cherry trees, rice paddies and poly tunnels planted with strawberries. Each tiny rice field was golden yellow, spangled with amber grains waiting to be harvested. Here and there small patches of pak choi glistened in the warm, hazy sunshine.

From the first floor window of the typically austere factory I spied a small field of cloud-pruned trees, which the factory manager explained to me were owned by a farmer living in a remote spot in the mountains. He brings his trees here to a more accessible place so that designers can come and select them for local landscaping projects. The finest can fetch up to 10,000RMB (about £1000) and are nearly 70 years old. Their value makes them a magnet for thieves, who recently made off with three precious specimens, so they are now kept out of harm’s way, behind locked gates.

My bird’s eye view offered little detail, but two very old trees in front of the factory carried small, burgundy leaves which would soon be followed by fluffy magenta flowers. Further research has revealed the shrub’s identity as Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum commonly known as Chinese fringe flower and related to witch hazel. As a simple bush it is commonly used in landscaping in this part of China, but seemingly only on the middle of busy roads where would-be thieves would have to risk life and limb to get at them!