What do the following have in common: Real Gardens, Charlie's Garden Army, Better Gardens, Gardener's World, Home Front in the Garden, Garden's Galore, The Beechgrove Garden? According to British TV, gardening has replaced cookery as the new national pastime. Where cooks once fried their little hearts out and extolled the virtues of cracked pepper and sea salt, now gardeners take an almost pornographic delight in the best way to rid their gardens of vine weevil; the difference between mulch and manure; the pros and cons of slug pellets versus nematodes.
This invasion doesn't stop at television. Squeezed in between dozens of horticultural magazines, a new girl has appeared on the block. Unobtrusive, available only through the internet or by mail order, bloom is to gardening magazines what haute couture is to prêt à porter. Forget Alan Titchmarsh prodding you to prune your prize fuchsias, or Charlie Dimmock wittering on about water features, bloom is way beyond that. Coming from completely left-of-field, the magazine revels in a bizarre mish-mash of architecture, fashion, and literature; in fact, everything to do with plants, except what you'd expect.
Take, for example, an article entitled 'Waxing Spring', in which daffodils (from their roots to their flowers) are dipped in hot wax then left to dry. Gradually, the flowers mature and the wax splits, permitting us 'to visually calculate the intense energy released in the spring'. Consider the passion flower. Photographed to look like something from the Marquis de Sade's memoirs, the tendrils lovingly bind the hands of a fresh-faced young girl while the text explains that its ten petals refer to the ten loyal apostles.
Issue two of bloom was given over to the Arts and Crafts movement. One article describes how vegetables, roots, and mushrooms are inspiring potters to create new and irregular shapes; another urges seed companies to rethink their product, and produce more inventive, inspiring packaging; while a third illustrates the macabre and Gothic splendour of the 'devil's flower' (Tacca chantrieri). Also known as 'cat's whiskers' or the 'bat flower', here it has been photographed to look like the plant equivalent of Naomi Campbell; its staggering beauty and vampiric undertones hit you smack in the face.
In fact, all the photographs in bloom are stunning; nothing precious is allowed to spoil the look. Spreads can be five or six pages long - think Vogue or Wallpaper rather than Woman's Weekly. Some of the pictures resemble Dutch still-life paintings - ranunculus, skimmia, and Iris atropurpurea soak the pages in a mix of Persian purples and tarantula blacks - while others display only the bloomiest flowers. Dahlias dance with Junya Watanabe's fabulous dresses, pictures of human hair drip with honey. There are lush, Rousseau-like ferns, visceral tulips, fleshy grevillea, and sudsy carnations. The Brothers Grimm spring to mind, alongside Angela Carter, and smatterings of Baudelaire, Borges, and Ballard.
Indeed, phrases from Virginia Woolf and the Bible weave in and out of issue two, and these quotes add more fully to the 'plantiness' of the plants. More than that, they throw a surreal veil over everything: bloom asks you to imagine a nursery rhyme written in hellebores, to picture yourself on a couch that feels like a pink succulent. The magazine allows you to view plants not simply as objects to be stuffed in a vase or crammed in a window box, but also as mysterious, magical life-forms, complete in themselves.
Even the mistakes - the text bristles with typos, and in one or two places words which don't actually exist sprout up like weeds - add to the opulent effect, aided by the articles' titles: 'My Mysterious Garden', 'Auto Corsages', 'Blooms in Space', and, my particular favourite, 'A Bouquet of Soups'. The latter extols the virtue of flower gastronomy, and offers Alice Caron Lambert's excellent recipes for cream of broccoli with sprigs of mimosa and chrysanthemum soup with flowery croutons. Lambert has also recorded 87 different flavours of rose (including pepper, amber, and honey) as well as insisting that certain dried flower powders (lavender, mallow, or heather) can enhance the flavour of salt. Issue four ends with three photographs of petals woven to resemble the richest of textiles. Definitely made-to-measure, a frou-frou picture entitled Coco depicts 'a town suit in hand-knitted mauve Liatris spicata trimmed with a frill of Grevillea.' Or how about Pierrot - 'a winter evening costume of exquisite white pompom Echinops ritro, placed graphically on a lush front panel of deep red amaranthus'?
In Britain, a new project called Eden has just begun. Promising to be the mother of all gardens, where 'space age technology meets the lost world', it's situated in Cornwall and due to open to the public in Spring 2001. Built within a 50 metre deep crater the length and breadth of 35 football pitches, Eden boasts two gigantic geodesic conservatories - the largest in the world - and is being sculpted to make 'a living theatre' of plants. Botanically driven, conceptual in nature, and with a hybrid philosophy in which art meets science and words cross-pollinate with form and colour to produce the most witchy green dream, bloom compliments Eden down to its roots. You can almost feel the suck of the earth, hear the crack of seed pods and the rush of juices between each glossy page.
At £36 bloom is not cheap. You won't learn anything about plant rot, penstemons or the ubiquitous greenfly. Nor are there any 'how to...' sections or 'step-by-step' guides on the best way to add height to your borders or deck out your patio with pots of petunias, but as a source of pure inspiration, be you a gardener, potter or poet - take my advice - consign Charlie Dimmock to a dungeon, chuck Gardeners' Weekly on the compost heap and dance round your garden with bloom.