Down at the bottom of the garden: visitors inside a garden shed on show at the 2014 Chelsea Flower Show. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn: gardening porn vs reality and the pampas grass swingers’ code

Given we had bought the house from friends, I consigned the pampas “fact” to a small compartment at the back of my mind…

Anything we indulge ourselves in has the word “porn” attached to it nowadays. Salivating over online details of dream houses is property porn; films that wallow in economic misery are dismissed as poverty porn. Condé Nast Traveller magazine is holiday porn. So I suppose when I watch Gardeners’ World I’m enjoying a bit of gardening porn. Like other types of porn it involves an element of fantasy and make-believe, which can be both pleasurable and frustrating for viewers, as we turn from the herb parterres and the ornamental meadows on screen to survey the actual garden we have (if any).

Most of us don’t get the chance to garden like Monty. We have little suburban patches out the back: a rectangular lawn surrounded by narrow flower beds and an orange creosoted fence, where most of the gardening we do is mowing the grass and applying wood preservative. Or perhaps a “roof terrace”, which is just the flat roof of the bathroom below, lovingly reimagined as a tiny deck, where in a fit of enthusiasm over the Easter bank holiday weekend we filled pots with herbs and petunias, a heritage tomato plant and some organic basil, then watered for three weeks before abandoning to the elements when the weather turned.

Or we have a town garden, a tiny green oasis shaded by the towering houses on all sides, where the stone path coated in a layer of slimy green is a slippery death trap to anyone venturing out the back door.

These are the gardens we actually have, and there’s joy in making the best of them, hanging out nuts for the birds, planting lavender for the bees, coaxing some tiny little thing to grow, breeding lilacs out of the dead land.

I moved house three years ago, downsizing in the process, which was fine on the house front, but a bit heartbreaking in terms of the garden. I’d had a vegetable plot and a greenhouse and had become properly obsessed, writing a gardening column for a while called To the Greenhouse. Much harder than selling the old house, our home for ten years where the three kids did much of their growing up, was selling the greenhouse. The buyers looked at it with bewildered dismay. They were not gardeners and had no idea what to do with it. In my mind, I pictured broken windowpanes, weeds poking through the gravel, rust gradually eating into the frame, and finally the whole thing being razed to the ground. This has in fact happened. My greenhouse is now dead.

I spent the first year at the new house watching the garden through slightly narrowed eyes, judging its every change and turn, awarding marks out of ten, deciding what to keep and what to lose. The first casualty was the pampas grass. I hate the stuff and there were two large ones in the front garden, so they got the chop. A couple of weeks later the Daily Mail ran an article informing us that two pampas grass in the front garden was the secret sign that swingers lived here.

Given that we had bought the house from friends, I consigned this “fact” to a small compartment at the back of my mind, where it sits and looks at me while I ignore it, LALALALA I can’t hear you.

I’ve tried growing vegetables here, but without great success. A few lettuces in a perfect spot were fine till early summer, when the sycamore tree leaning over from next door dripped sticky goo on to them, a kind of unwanted and unappetising salad dressing. I did potatoes in bags – lovely early Charlottes, and the king of all potatoes, Golden Wonder, triumphant as any potato must be when it has a brand of crisps named after it.

But as time has gone by I’ve accepted the limitations and stopped trying to make this space something it isn’t. I’ve made my peace with my patch, and realised that I couldn’t be without gardening, wherever I lived. There’s a kind of blind optimism to it that I love. If I plant this here it will grow. The sun’s bound to shine. I’m sure those beans will germinate.

Every year experience gets in the way. Slugs eat the lettuces. Drought stunts the roses. The beans went in too early after all. But nothing stops us and we’re reborn every spring as gardening innocents, full of promise, sowing our seeds, undeterred.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.