To start on a pessimistic note , death and decay everywhere in the November garden as plants die back or are cut down by the frost but it is the natural cycle of things in nature but it does leave gaps in the borders and a lot of cutting back to take the untidy look away and certainly every garden needs a rest… and good news the new season’s growth is only two months away !
Gunnera would be my favourite architectural plant and it makes a huge statement in the garden but it needs space and water and when I say water I mean that it needs water close by but gunnera will not thrive if it’s roots are in water logged or permanently wet soil. A lot of people don’t like gunnera and find it’s sheer size intimidating and while it will eventually grow to perhaps ten feet high in the right site ,it has two major disadvantages in that it dies back messily and leaves a massive hole in your planting scheme for the winter .
I cut the gunnera leaves down completely in early November before the first frosts and then I fold the leaves in on themselves to form a nice box over the crowns and this serves two purposes in that it looks good ( well a bit better than the heap of blackened leaves !) and it protects the crown of the plant until next season in April .
I love when the first new shoots of gunnera peep through the blackened leaves in late March and it is for me the first real signs of spring and the new season .
When I first started gardening in 1976 my bible was Christopher Llyod’s book The Well Tempered Garden and so it remains to this day along with Robin Lane – Fox’s book Better Gardening which came out in 1986 … two oldies I know but neither has been surpassed to this day by the TV gardening brigade who bring out a book a year in time for the Xmas market and which are forgotten by Easter .
Robin Lane Fox described Mahonia as an all rounder first introduced to the UK in the late 18th century from the Far East when it cost 21 guineas a plant , a years wages at that time for two working men .
Mahonia is a quiet favourite of mine , not a shouty front of border shrub nor would it feature in the top ten of shrubs for the garden but it is a sly charmer that does best in a shady spot in woodland conditions where it adds great structure and leaf all year round and when it blooms from late October on it lights up the area .
I follow the same rule with pots that I have for summer or all year round planting which is a strong central evergreen plant and then pack the remaining surface area with hardy annuals . Generally I have a few pots where I plant for winter colour and these are the pots I reserve for hostas which I cut down in late October and basically whatever winter plants are available in Clonmel Garden Centre such as violas are what I use and although primroses in flower are available from November I don’t use them until January / February when the wild ones are coming through and these are much more natural in their light yellow colours as I don’t like the commercially bred varieties which are in unnatural garish colours .
I also rely on alchemis mollis as a pot filler as they retain their leaves in a tight rosette of green throughout the winter and I love the way they retain the water droplets on their leaves which look great in the odd rays of sunshine we get . Another plant I rely on for all year colour and structure in our pots is the white or silver carex , a great grower unfazed by anything the winter can throw at it , I have no time for fussy or tender plants in pots as there is too much molly coddling involved to keep them alive during frost .
Erigeron with the common name of flea bane is one of my all year round go to plants in gravel but it is also a good plant in a pot and while it’s main season in spring and summer it will flower throughout the year in sheltered areas while lamium commonly known as dead nettle is also good but look out for the less well known lamium in garden centres , the variety Chablis , which I find is not invasive , it can die back into the ground in harsh areas but if you plant lamium chablis in a sheltered spot not only will it survive but it’s variegation will show up better . Lamium Chablis comes into the garden centres in early May and sells out fast and that’s it for the rest of the year so grab it when you see it but you will need to be quick to be in the queue behind me !!
Occasionally a pot arrives in the garden that is so big it is such an impact statement in itself that it is better left empty and until this month I had only one such pot but this has now been joined by a fabulous pot that we both fell in love with at Clonmel Garden Centre earlier this month . I am still trialling it in various areas close to the house to see where it is best viewed from both within and outside the house and where it will have it’s forever home .
The last deciduous tree to lose it’s leaves which will continue into early December is the Liquidamber, a great tree for every garden . Allan Titmarch whose writings I don’t generally like ( too much ass kissing of the then Prince Charles and his garden at Highgrove ) choose it a few weeks ago as his favourite all round tree . An unsung garden hero is the Liquidamber and it just quietly goes about it’s business and delivers every year and is also a great looker without it’s leaves as the bark is knarly and interesting , I cut off all branches at ground level up to four feet all the better to show off the winter bark .
October weather was a monsoon in Ireland and November was not much better with biblical style rain every day for three weeks solid and in the Lower Garden there was five inches of rain backed up on the paths so that in places it was hard to decide where the path was and where the stream was and if the climate was warmer I could now grow rice in that area like in Vietnam !
I grew up in the 1960’s with Vietnam part of the sound track of my teenage years from the outbreak of the Vietnam War in 1964 and it is only in the last twenty years that the country has opened up for tourism . Until now I had never travelled there nor indeed felt the need to but all this changed in early November when we spent almost three weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia , a fabulous trip where we travelled south from Hanoi to Saigon and the Mekong Delta visiting and staying also in Halong Bay , Hoi An and the Imperial City of Hue along the South China Sea .
Until now India was considered our trip of a lifetime and while it was marvellous there were elements of India that were a bit intimidating such as the in your face multiplicity of Hindu deities and temples , the overwhelming numbers of people in every public place , the predatory attitude of large groups of men towards any female and above all the sheer jaw dropping level of poverty among the poorer people who often lived on the side of the street … none of that is evident in Vietnam or Cambodia and while the people are definitely poor I feel as Buddhist countries there is a huge difference in attitude and outlook and they have a friendliness that is very welcoming …we loved it unashamedly .
Hanoi in the north to my surprise I liked better than Saigon as with it’s narrow streets it is more intimate whereas Saigon designed by the French has huge Champs Elysee style boulevards … getting across the street on foot in Hanoi through the horde of scooters none of whom regard any zebra crossings as mandatory is bad enough and you should try getting across the boulevard size streets in Saigon almost 150 metres wide … there is a trick to getting through the scooters without being knocked down but you have to adopt a zen like approach where you stroll across , important not to rush or dash across, and let the scooters swarm around you like water… takes confidence though but by the end we had mastered it !
The scooter is the vehicle of choice in Vietnam and they are such tiny people that it was nothing to see an entire family of four and in one case five including a baby sitting on one and the scooter is routinely used for transporting everything from sacks of cement to live animals and bales of clothing piled up high behind the driver .
Some take a nap on a scooter !
As the Vietnamese appear tiny to us we westerners must look huge to them as one day I was buying some T shirts in a market , the iconic one with Good Morning Vietnam written across the front , the lady trying to convince me that it would fit assured me without a hint of irony , quite serious she was , the witch … “ it is hippo size it will fit you ” !
Vietnamese food is rightly famous and it is everywhere on the streets , along the side of the road where the cook sets up her woks and burners and cooks with ingredients that were picked that morning with wall to wall noodles and pork seems to be the meat most used . It is impossible to have a bad meal in Vietnam as unlike other destinations this is not laid on for the tourists , this is for themselves and they sit out at meal times and throughout the day on these tiny plastic chairs and tables or as Anthony Bourdain says in his TV programme on street food in South East Asia “ Got the small plastic table .. check … got the small plastic chairs … check .. got the scooters .. check … welcome to Hanoi !
The Vietnamese are all into their own food and I didn’t see a McDonalds or Burger King in either Hanoi or Saigon , I am sure they exist but down some side street and not in your face like in most cities world wide which is a tribute in itself to the lure of their own street food which is also served fast but cooked on the go on a wok and not some indeterminate meat pattie cooked and deep frozen probably in Minnesota .
My favourite food is a sandwich so naturally I felt right at home with the Vietnamese sandwich , their famous Ba Minh which is a combination of the french influence of a toasted baquette but one which is lighter and made with rice flour to be crispier then layered with pate , pork strips , shrimps , coriander and whatever pickled vegetables you like … delicious !
Anthony Bourdain, the writer and chef , claimed on his famous Vietnamese food segment that you got the BEST Ba Mhin sandwich in a small Vietnamese town , Hoi An , in a restaurant called Banh Mi Phuong and by luck we find ourselves in Hoi An outside the very same ! Apparently they are so jealous of their now world famous Ba Mihn recipe that they only employ family members in the restaurant which is round the clock busy … without doubt my BEST SANDWICH EVER !!
I leave the last word on the sandwich to the late great Anthony who described the famous Ba Minh as “a symphony in a sandwich ” .
Poor Vietnam got hammered by the US with the carpet bombing and Agent Orange being sprayed indiscriminately on millions of acres of trees and it really was an unjust war , all in the Cold War cause of stemming the flow of communism . In reality the Vietnam War was a war for independence , the unification of a country which after a hundred years struggle against the French should have been an unstoppable force but such is the hypocrisy of the West that the UN under US pressure was prevailed upon to divide Vietnam into North and South in 1954 .
For all their suffering at the hands of both France and the US the people of Vietnam are remarkably forgiving and an article about Vietnam in the UK Daily Telegraph last week stated “ the Vietnamese don’t want to be weighed down by history , they are optimistic they want to look to the future not the past ” … we could learn from that attitude here , one hundred years ago our Irish Civil War started in December 1922 , lasted eight months and we are still reliving it .
A friend of mine from Clonmel High School days , Joe Toner , a US citizen , was a medic in the US Army and died in a military plane crash in Da Nang in 1967 so as we landed in Da Nang Joe was in my thoughts as he had been a few years ago in June 2010 when Catherine Ryan , another school friend of Joe’s , contacted me out of the blue after 40 years to send our own little personal tribute to Joe , a small flower arrangement , floating down the Suir in Clonmel where we all three had often walked . RIP Joe and sadly RIP Catherine , who passed away just three weeks later .
We travelled all the way down Vietnam from Halong Bay in the North to the Mekong Delta in the south , visited silk worm farms , completed cookery programmes on a farm surrounded by paddy fields , visited pearl farms , got up close and personal with water buffalos in the South China Sea and pythons in the Mekong Delta , fulfilled a personal ambition to crawl along one of the Vietcong tunnels of Cu Chi and got to see the iconic temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia .
I remember the first time in 1975 just as the war ended the US Army revealed details of the secret war that the Vietcong had waged as they had built an elaborate system of tunnels underground near Saigon and where an entire army could hide safe from bombing and army patrols . This huge underground system even housed hospitals , canteens , administration offices and sleeping quarters right under the feet of the US Army and from where the Vietcong could pop up and ambush patrols and then vanish just as quick .
These tunnels were constructed with traps , hidden sharp stakes in pits that an intruder who didn’t know the way could fall into along with nests of snakes … it would take a tough man to go down these tunnels and bring the fight to the enemy but the US recruited a special unit of small sized men who actually went down after the Vietcong and they called themselves tunnel rats … brave men .
The tourist nowadays can go down some of these tunnels to experience what these soldiers from both sides endured and even though I was older than the permitted age the guide let me down at my own risk … I was too tall to walk upright and too stiff to wriggle along on my haunches for such a length so I crawled along a section about forty metres long , thirty feet down in a tunnel a metre high and in total darkness , hoping I was going in the right direction . I took of course a wrong turn , couldn’t turn around and then a few metres further along I heard a voice shouting from an above ground opening over here … great relief when I saw daylight again !
Water buffallos on the South China sea near Da Nang
Probably the prettiest village in Vietnam … Hoi An
Cookery lessons in Hoi An
I get up close and personal with a python in the Mekong Delta
You or at least I go to Vietnam for the history , the unique landscape but you go back for the people who are just wonderful .
I must confess that although interested in history and antiquity I have never had a feel for the Kymer civilisation of Angkor Wat … still haven’t … which in a way was a blessing as I walked through the ruins of Angkor Wat as it allowed me to just enjoy the beautiful stone work and the awesome carved wall panels and not get bogged down in detail of which king built which as I would have in Greece or Egypt .
The views at sunrise and sunset at Angkor Wat are a tik tok favourite and a must see if in South East Asia and on our last day I made it up before closing time to the top of the main temple , about 30 metres of almost perpendicular stone steps … and down again … dangerous dangerous but it felt great afterwards .
A 3.30 am start to be at Angkor Wat for sunrise at 5 am …. worth it !
I asked an Indian , a Hindu , who was visiting with his Mother and who had just also made it back down the steps and who was equally slumped on a bench heart in the mouth recovering like me why it was designed and built to be so difficult and he said “ in our tradition and belief the tower at the top is the home of the gods and represents heaven and it IS difficult to reach heaven ” … his Mother who was about 80 said that she had wanted to climb to the top but that her son would only allow her to climb the first four steps and I said there was no need for to risk life and limb as she was his mother and that all mothers in my view were guaranteed heaven anyway … she smiled and said tell that to him …loudly !
In a restaurant in Hue I saw this water lily growing in an ornamental pot and idea I had seen a few years ago in Dan Pearson’s book on creating a garden at his London house and where he had used an old copper jam making container placing it on an outside patio … the idea had been kicking around in my own mind to replicate and definitely will do it next year when I get the perfect container .
Post script on Cameras
I carried as always my heavy Nikon camera plus lenses throughout the trip but this time I also took a lot of photos with my new Samsung smart phone , both for convenience and the sheer quality of the end results . I have written a few years ago about my first steps into IPhone type cameras and my first cheapo Samsung which turned out photos as if taken through the end of a plastic milk bottle …and despite my kids urging me to come out of the stone age and buy a decent IPhone I upgraded my cheapo Samsung earlier this year to the next generation cheapo and cheerful Samsung and the advance in technology has been amazing in the past three years and my new new bottom of the range model takes excellent photos .
Not as good or near as good of course as the top of the range IPhone 13 that Snezana got earlier this year … Snezana knows nothing about F stops , shutter speeds and is not interested in knowing anything about all the other gobbledygook that photo nerds like me love BUT she has a good eye for a scene and has captured some great images throughout our Vietnam and Cambodia trip and I have used many of her photos throughout this trip .
I still won’t be leaving my Nikons behind as I love all the possibilities that the larger SLR type cameras give me and for me the photo doesen’t end when I have clicked the camera release and in fact for me the real enjoyment of photography starts then as I play around later on my desk top with camera angles , lighting and cropping … something still not possible to any great degree with I Phone technology but has to be said more and more of my everyday photos are taken on my cheapo Samsung .
I also love the democracy of the IPhone as it has opened photography to millions of people who otherwise would never have taken a photo and now with one click they get a usable photo every time no matter how lousy the light or conditions are , the built in camera computes it all in a nano second and bingo David Bailey quality photos every time … and no thinking or up your own ass attitude and it has to be said … snobbishness … you used to get from nerdish photographers like moi … vive la democracy .
Christmas is still a few weeks away but I take this opportunity to wish you all a Happy and peaceful Christmas but spare a thought for the poor people of Ukraine who are looking at a bleak miserably cold and not very peaceful Christmas courtesy of Mr. Putin .