A Country Life: The trials and tribulations of an English country garden

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The Independent Online

We have, in our conservatory, a jasmine given to us as a house-warming present by our good friends Dominic and Linda.

We have, in our conservatory, a jasmine given to us as a house-warming present by our good friends Dominic and Linda. They also gave us a magnolia tree, which, as regular readers will recall, ended up at the heart of a mystery. For months I devotedly nurtured it - watered it, fed it, discussed Coronation Street storylines with it, and generally treated it like a member of the family. In return, it thrived.

Then, one day about a year ago, I got home from a trip abroad, and having embraced the wife, the children and the dog - I hope in that order - strode over to say hello to the magnolia. But it wasn't there. And not only was it not there, there was no sign that it ever had been there. I felt like the character in the Edgar Allen Poe story, who cannot find any traces of her former life. I wondered whether Jane might be trying to get me to doubt my sanity, so that I would be carted off to the asylum and she could marry the milkman. But she was as mystified as I was. Obviously, the thing had been pinched. By whom, we never discovered.

Anyway, all that is by way of an introduction to the jasmine. The jasmine, having flowered beautifully last year, is not well. It has black spots on the leaves, and white mildew on its wood. My father-in-law Bob, who has forgotten more about gardening than I will ever know, seems to think that it has the plant equivalent of bubonic plague, that it should be dug up forthwith and buried deep in the ground by men wearing protective clothing. Otherwise, he says, the spores will spread.

But I have not followed this advice. Losing one of Dom and Linda's house-warming presents was unfortunate, but losing two would look to them like carelessness. Instead, I am determined to make the jasmine better, and to this end went recently to Gardeners' Question Time at Pudleston village hall, presented by the BBC Hereford and Worcester team of Mike George and Reg Mole. I took a sample of the jasmine. Reg's verdict, pace Bob, was that we have suffered a nasty invasion of scale insects, which can be treated with bug spray.

Reg Mole was born to be a gardening expert on the radio. For a start, he has just the right name. Reg is perfect, and so is Mole. Moreover, if he will forgive me for saying so, he has more of a radio than a television countenance. And his habit of waving his arms around, in the manner of the late Magnus Pyke, might get distracting on the telly. But most importantly, he has the expertise. He told us that his family has been involved in horticulture since 1740. "That's 20 to six," interjected Mike George, who rather fancies himself as Morecambe to Reg's Wise.

The session in Pudleston was not recorded, which was perhaps as well, since Reg got a trifle carried away with that expertise of his. Fragile saplings have grown into mighty oaks in the time it took him to recommend to my friend Louise various ways of dealing with the moss on her lawn. He also has that habit, common among professional gardeners, of saying things in English and then again in Latin. I sometimes think this is more to demonstrate their profound knowledge than to help the listener. "Up an east-facing wall I recommend growing the striped Balkan rose, limpus pimpus. Or try the Paraguayan honey-scented wallflower, nincum pupus."

But I mustn't be too catty. Reg was extremely engaging, and dispensed some excellent advice. We had been asked in advance to think of amusing questions, so when I brought up the subject of my blighted jasmine, I said that my father-in-law thought it should be destroyed under controlled conditions some distance offshore. That raised a titter among the audience, but not as big a laugh as when I presented Reg with the cutting and he said, "This is not a jasmine, it's a camellia."

Driving range

We have been meaning for ages to go for dinner at Ford Abbey, a former monastery just across the fields from our house, now a complex of hugely upmarket self-catering lodges, with a posh restaurant open to the public.

We finally went the other evening, as guests of our generous friends, the Antons. As yet there is no menu at Ford Abbey; everyone eats the same three courses. I'm not usually a fan of that arrangement. Part of the fun of eating out, for me, is the decision-making process and the exquisite pleasure of observing that your meal looks nicer than your companion's. But at least it means that everything should be spot-on, and at Ford Abbey it was. The food was terrific, the ambience charming.

Even more impressive, though, was that the general manager, Kenny, overheard me debating whether or not to have a second glass of wine, on the basis that I was driving. "I'd be very happy to drive you all home, sir," he said, and he did. My hangover and I walked back to collect the car the following morning, happy that Kenny's highly tuned sense of good service had not backfired, as it did once when he worked at the Castle House Hotel in Hereford, and similarly offered to drive some people home so they could enjoy a drink, only to find that home was Birmingham.

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