how green was my begonia

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Baudelaire is dead. Baudelaire, my pot-plant. I lent a copy of the works of the Bohemian French bard to a friend; it took her two years to read, and when, after much pestering, the battered paperback reappeared, it was accompanied by this bashful plant. Two leaves on a tendril, it sat on top of the television, where the radiation must have stimulated it; it put on vigorous, almost satanic growth. He was, I think, some kind of begonia, and he looked wonderful when the sun slanted over his glossy, translucent leaves, all colours of green from mint to khaki with touches of copper, and silvered with down as faint as a supermodel's moustache. The flowers were pink, delicate, veined like little ears, fringed with a hot yellow ring of stamens. He was slim at the ankle, swelled out to prodigious girth and tapered upwards to finish with a rakish diadem of blossoms. I'm going to miss Baudelaire.

How did he die? He got too lush and hectic for his own good, put out his grabby clingers and got tangled in the Venetian blind. One morning as I let the sunlight in, Baudelaire made a wild jump to oblivion and lay, his stalk snapped and all his leaves scattered like pennies. Baudelaire was borne away and sadly interred in the bin. In his pot was a sappy stalk with two tiny leaves attached. Could Baudelaire grow again? It was not to be. Were the leaves overwhelmed by the complex root system? Were the roots starved by the pathetic, limp leaves? Whatever, Baudelaire was no more.

On Baudelaire and his preternatural, vampiric growth my reputation for green fingers rested. The problem is lack of sun in the flat: the geranium is leggy, the kitchen bay has turned brown and only two chilli plants survived over last winter. I'm particularly fond of the chilli plants. They were grown from a packet of seeds: seven seeds for pounds 3.50, but every one germinated. Constantly moving seven light-craving chilli plants around was like wheeling war veterans into the sun. They have elegant, diamond- shaped leaves, white flowers which smelled of cucumber and hot red chillis the size of fingernails. I gave three away; of the four retained there are two left, and it's hard to believe they are the same age: one looks like a lolly stick, the other is a nodding veteran.

I didn't know how flowers became nubbly little chillis at first, until some botanist told me about pollination. Now whenever I see another starburst of white blossoms (they flourish and fade within a couple of days) I take out a paintbrush and thrust it into the flowers' private parts. This always seems faintly rude, just a few steps away from, say, manipulating turkeys for their semen. One night I was busy at my prodding and stroking when B came in and said sharply: "It's night-time! Leave the poor little buggers alone!"

All this is a sad substitute for a garden of my own, but in the meantime at least I can molest my houseplants and obsessively watch gardening programmes. There are few things more relaxing of an evening than settling down on the sofa with a stiff drink to watch Geoff Hamilton dig a trench or transplant a tree. Grunt ... groan ... go for it, Geoff ... you can do it ... sip, sip. The only fact I have ever retained from watching these programmes is that hostas get eaten by slugs, but such is the cosy chattiness of Geoff and Alan Titchmarsh and Gay Search, that I find myself nodding and murmuring in agreement, a fellow expert.

The best presenter has to be Bob Flowerdew, a jovial Tolkeinian type who specialises in organic gardening. How delightful on a summer evening to sit out with Bob on a heap of old car tyres, admiring his rows of canes surmounted with inverted Fairy Liquid bottles, marvelling at the black plastic which keeps the ground weed-free, surveying his novel horticultural uses for bubble wrap, pop bottles, broken crockery and ladies' tights. We would sip Bob's own organic cider, strained through his socks, and I would use his delightful long blond plait as a whisk to keep away the hovering wasps, because the balance of nature must be observed, and as Bob rightly says, wasps are "really cool".

There are few mental exercises more delightful than the creation of imaginary gardens. A formal garden with symbolic mazes and topiary figures? Perhaps a cottage garden (but so difficult to keep its structure during the winter), or a Japanese garden with rocks and water and bird-scarers. My ideal remains Dr Sun-Yat-Sen's classical Chinese garden in Vancouver, a poetic distillation of Chinese philosophy and landscape, with carefully placed buildings, pools, volcanic rock twisted into wild shapes reminiscent of animals and fish, and best of all, perched atop an artificial mound, a tiny "moon- viewing pavilion".

The most green-fingered person I ever met had been doing a bit too much moon-viewing. He lived in a greenhouse, and every night I was supposed to take him a plate of dinner. It was as hot as a furnace in there; lush green growths coiled out of pots and old kettles and jars on every surface, and the man would talk manically and out of the corner of my eye I'd see him polishing things which looked suspiciously like knives. "Don't worry, he's harmless," people would say. "He never leaves that greenhouse," someone told me, then, with a nudge, "not even to go to the loo." There are some lengths even Bob Flowerdew wouldn't go for the sake of luscious pot-plants, and I hope that's one of them.