Who’s afraid of giant hogweed?

Giant hogweed is a troublesome and expansive species. But it is not, as the tabloids inevitably describe it every summer, ‘Britain’s most dangerous plant’. Many garden favourites – yew, laburnum, castor-oil plant (the source of ricin), for example – can actually kill you. The answer to living with these difficult but beautiful organisms isn’t knee-jerk eradication, but learning what they are and how they live… and then keeping a respectful distance.  Back in the early 1970s, meandering round the wastelands near Heathrow, I came across a giant hogweed wrapped round with ‘Keep Out’ tape. I wasn’t sure if it was a genuine security warning, or a jokey art installation. This

How common is your garden?

As spring (finally) arrives, it’s time to turn our attention back to what’s outside the back door. Helpfully, garden designer Isabel Bannerman (Highgrove, Houghton Hall, Arundel Castle) has written a memoir, Husbandry, in which she declares there is no such thing as ‘U and non-U’ in gardening. She then undermines her argument by immediately setting out her shibboleths: variegated leaves, curvy paths, statues, fountains, tidiness. Anything, in effect, that is ‘suburban’ (bedding plants) or reminiscent of municipal planting schemes (ibid. those big, blowsy King Alfred daffodils you’ll see blaring from roundabouts at this time of year).  Naturally, as a keen gardener, I rolled my eyes, then dashed outside to check I’d

Fortifying snapshot of the gardener’s year: Saatchi Gallery’s RHS Botanical Art show reviewed

Elizabeth Blackadder, who died last month at the age of 89, was probably the most distinctive botanical artist of our time. Her paintings of lilies and irises, of cats poking their heads imperiously between poppies and freesias, are more alive than any such chocolate-box description could convey. The first woman to be elected to both the Royal and the Royal Scottish academies, Blackadder showed that botanical painting did not need to be twee and parochial. It could be as vibrant and interesting as narrative. The 15 artists and 19 photographers participating in this year’s Royal Horticultural Society exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery follow in Blackadder’s tradition. The Saatchi may not

In defence of Kew Gardens’ ‘woke’ signs

Forget statues: the latest victims of the colonialism culture war are racist plants. Ah yes, those menacing snowdrops with their overly white petals and dangerous daffodils. As Mr Steerpike reports, Kew Gardens has entered the fray with a promise to ‘decolonise’ its collections. Presumably the next step is for its sister site in Sussex to be renamed Wokehurst Place. The Royal Botanic Gardens’ director Richard Deverell has said that ‘We’re looking at our collections and how we bring new narratives’; while his organisation’s recently-published ‘manifesto for change’ promises that by 2030, ‘we will move quickly to ‘de-colonise’ our collections, re-examining them to acknowledge and address any exploitative or racist legacies, and

Kew Gardens asks: are plants problematic?

Statues toppled, buildings renamed — last summer’s BLM inspired iconoclasm changed the face of streets and landmarks across Britain. Surely though this reckoning with the past was merely restricted to the physical manifestation of our shameful past? Apparently not, according to the director of Kew Gardens. In an interview with the Evening Standard, Richard Deverell has today spoken of his concerns about the history of the plants based in the Royal Botanic Gardens in south west London.  The world heritage site plans to ‘completely change’ the display information on plants such as sugar cane to reflect their links to empire and slavery. Deverell, whose institute is currently trying to plug a £15 million Covid-related black

The art of street furniture

It was possible to stand in the middle of the road during the lockdown without being run over. In Willow Place, near Victoria Station, I crouched over a narrow grating of stout grey iron, and caught a glimpse of light reflected from moving water deep below, as though at the bottom of a well. This was the River Tyburn, on its way from Hampstead via Buckingham Palace to the Thames. During the endlessly sunny lockdown days, I wandered the streets near my office in Victoria. The bright unpeopled silence (like a landscape by de Chirico) brought to my attention details unnoticed before. With all the galleries closed, this was street

The best podcasts for all your corona-gardening needs

The American diet was probably at its healthiest in the second world war. Fearing interruption to supply chains, Washington launched a national Victory Gardening programme within a fortnight of Pearl Harbor, and saw two thirds of the population heed the cry to fill their backyards, rooftops and window boxes with veg. The scheme was so successful that, by 1943, home-gardeners were producing 43 per cent of all fresh food consumed. ‘Dig for Victory’, the latest episode of Gastropod, a superbly researched food and science podcast, opens with the co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley rustling bags of manure as they attempt to plant tomatoes, peppers and ‘urbs’ in a tiny