Pruning is cruel
16 November 2014
I might have designed our little garden to be as big a contrast as possible with our neighbours'. I see them both from my study window on the top floor: ours is all paving, steps and geometry: next door, beyond a wall smothered with roses (never pruned, they sway six feet above it), with climbing hydrangeas, ivy and jasmine (J. polyanthum, already in flower in this mad weather).
Our neighbours seem to take the view that pruning is cruelty: long-matured shrubs of all kinds lean out from the walls to fill the long narrow space. Viburnum bodnantense is now keeping the jasmine company, pink with pink. What is slightly surreal is the immaculate
5th November 2014
The gardens at Portmeirion don't usually get as much attention as the whole fantastic (a proper use of the wood) 'village'. Christopher Hussey described the spirit of the place in Country Life as ‘ebullience, gaiety and joyous freakishness'. Its creator, Clough Williams-Ellis, who died in 1978 aged 95, carried his boyhood dream to its successful conclusion, seeing it solidly established as a resort like no other; a baroque pastel sketch of a village on the Italian Riviera, a mock Portofino with powerful Welsh characteristics on one of the loveliest and most sheltered spots on the coast. His guest-list in the ‘30s included most of the A-list of the day, from Bertrand Russell and G.B.Shaw to the inevitable Edward and Wallis.
We went last weekend and found the garden that encompasses the whole village in fine fettle. The whole estate has been gardened, off and on, for perhaps a hundred years, perhaps more. The typical Welsh coast woodlands, largely of oak, are full of the tender species only the west coast can grow, the legacy of a rhododendron fanatic called George Caton Haigh who inherited what is now the extremely comfortable hotel in the 1890s.
Sir Clough claimed or admitted that even he got lost in these exotic woods, that stretch out among granite crags and outcrops along the coast, their endless serpentine paths often blocked by massive plants. There are rhododendrons forty feet high, many of them ultra-rare: the maddeni varieties among them.
In and around the village, though, the gardens are more kempt than I have seen them for years. October is filled with hydrangeas, of course, in long tumbling hedges down the roads and along the seashore. Standard H. paniculatas are grandly formal in the central square among roses still in flower. Elsewhere the gardeners take full advantage of steep beds and crannies among the towering black rocks. Everywhere beds and rocky slopes show signs of interesting new planting, and the mulching is prodigious.
In extra time
4th November 2014
There was a head-spinning moment last night (still balmy in November) when I opened the French windows from my tiny library to the verandah. I was caught between the sultry smell of lilies and the sharp scent of lemon-blossom. They mingled in the doorway, a whole Arabian Nights of exotic perfume, forcing fantasies into my brain. What, by the way, are the über-lilies that Waitrose sells these days? They last two weeks in water, twice as long as usual, and open their pale pink cartwheels of flowers six inches wide.
But the whole season has been surreal. Shirt-sleeves on a November night: what do plants make of it? My camera is full of anomalies: yellow bearded irises go rather well with the startling violet berries of a Callicarpa; not a combination you'd see in a flower show, I suspect. The only thing to do in the garden, while watching the slow-motion decay of salvias and verbenas, geraniums and anemones, is raking leaves. With no frosty nights, and very little wind, they are hanging on, crisp and brown, on our tall sycamore. When one breaks loose it falls importantly, self-consciously it seems, choosing a spot to catch in a branch or hit the paving with a smack.
November seems a long time to wait for a ripe tomato, but in the half-light of our greenhouse they have only just reached their proper sweetness. Gardener’s Delight is the only one I shall give room to next year. Pelargoniums stopped flowering a month ago: Salvia van Houttei is now the bright attraction, reaching long lax scarlet-tipped branches into the roof.
31 October 2014
It has been the longest growing season in living memory. My diary records a 'spring walk' on January 25th, and practically no overcoat weather since. The gardening press is full of advice about wrapping tender plants for the winter, even pruning clematis, when everything is still in full cry. What advice should it give for balmy days in November?
Fergus Garnett in The Garden enumerates the tulips that, he says, live to flower another year. Tulip blight apart, I have found that many do, if not with the vigour of their first go round. My favourite ‘White Triumphator’ has played its part as a ghostly fringe for maybe ten years, thinning a bit but still striking. It was more challenged by
Sudden larch death
30 October 2014
It's a letter I had dreaded coming: a statutory Plant Health Notice: our larches have caught Phytophthora ramorum and have to come down.
Larches are a major element in our Snowdonian woods, and after the oaks and beeches our favourite trees. Many acres were planted fifty years ago and are, in theory, ready for felling. Larches, though, if they are thinned to a wide spacing, so that their graceful high branches form only a thin canopy, grow on with quiet deliberation for a century, making more and more of their marvellous durable timber. With spruce there is a quite brief window where their trunks are the size the sawmill needs. Leave them longer and the butt gets middle-age spread; a huge log is too big for the mill and goes to waste.
Much of the larch was interplanted with beech from the start. Others I underplanted with Douglas fir as we thinned them over the years. But larches are also some of the most fertile trees; their seedlings are everywhere; pretty pale children of the forest. And we have continued to plant larch, mostly in a mixture with spruce and fir, often with pine and oak, over twenty years.
Pelargoniums - you have a rival
22 October 2014
Sundevilla? - what's that? It was the bedding plant of choice all over South West France this summer, in tubs and beds, pots and planters, in sun or shade - everywhere. It's not surprisng; this variety/cross/I'm not sure what of Mandevilla is a glorious sight; a bright shining scarlet, profuse and irresistibly cheerful. Where it's listed it is sometimes described as Mandevilla 'Sundeville Red', sometimes as a Dipladenia. Being of that bloodline it makes a good tight clump in year one, then in year two puts out its climbing shoots. If you don't want a climber you take cuttings and start again.
I gather there may be a Sundaville Hotel in Miami Beach. Sun..de.. Ville…. who knows? Whatever the story, we may be getting sick of it in a year or two.
My name is Sundevilla
Settling back in
17th October 2014
Home to London after almost three weeks in France with very little change in the weather. A wet and stormy August had most wine-growers worried; then September restored their spirits with thirty days of sunshine. Bordeaux had most of its Merlot picked by the time October's rain arrived; the later-ripening Cabernets were more touch and go. But after a disastrous harvest in 2013 the omens are pretty good. Perhaps, as one grower said with a smile, it will be the sort of vintage the English like.
Little change in the garden at home. The roses are all but over; R. mutabilis and Alister Stella Grey are the last, but pretty half-hearted; they have all lacked light and heat. The brightest thing in the garden is the almost embarrassingly prolific white Solanum laxum (or jasminoides). Common it may be, but its clusters of little five-petalled flowers have a way of reflecting the light that makes them the last sparkle in a darkling garden. Nerines have the same sort of crystalline reflective surface. The potato vine, to give it its sadly banal name, is one of those plants you must ponder before planting. It leaps in chaotic profusion up or along anything it can reach. In one year here it is almost thirty feet long; a day's work to prune back, if anything else on the trellis is to get a look in next year.
One lovely surprise: a monster cyclamen tuber I bought at Rassell's Nursery over a year ago has sprung into life. The great brown lump just fits into an eight-inch pan with half an inch to spare. Last autumn nothing happened. Had I planted it upside down? Left to its silent devices in a corner, rained on in due season, it has just sprouted a dozen perky flowers. I can't wait for its crinkly canopy of leaves.
Holland Park, up the road, is in that quiet period of transition from early to full-on autumn. The pampas grass has a strange silvery significance beside a cherry with its leaves in the droop position turning pale orange. Mahonia x ‘Charity’ sticks up its opening yellow racemes with startling rigidity. The water in the Japanese pond has gone vodka-clear; the carp in their hellfire colours have become dramatic players in the peaceful scene.
Silvery significance; hellfire colours; a stroll in Holland Park
No longer a joke
8th October 2014
Fifteen or 20 years ago I offered readers a prize for the funniest roundabout in France - or rather a photo of it. I had lots of entries. It was the time when the rondpoint was a fairly new way of dealing with a crossroads, and local authorities seized on it as a means of self-expression or advertising. Most involved gardening of some kind, some in a flower-show sort of spirit, some so garish that no lights could compete, some ambitiously advertising local industry - a vineyard or a jet fighter - and many intentionally or unintentionally very funny.
Now it's gone beyond a joke. The old pleasures of motoring in France are threatened by such aggressive road-building that you can
26 September 2014
I must have been dozing to have missed my own fortieth birthday - or rather Trad's. It happened in June: forty years since the first number of the Journal of the RHS reborn as The Garden.
I was in charge of the mag then, and looking for an editorial leader column. I decided to write it myself, but quasi-anonymously. I used the nom de plume of Tradescant because it seemed to be a name uniquely associated with gardening, without any current claimants. Icouldn't find a soul answering to it in England or anywhere else.
Pause before fall
23 September 2014
An overnight storm had left the grass cool and green underfoot, but the heat of the low sun was oppressive. I followed the shadows of the trees until I got to the Round Pond; in the open, skirting the pond, the double glare of sky and reflection was dazzling, my face burning. Autumn has only begun in the horse chestnuts; the rest of Kensington and its gardens are still enjoying summer.
There is anticipation in our little garden now, but not much action. A second or third crop of roses is half-hearted, however welcome. The Central and South American salvias should be striking up now with their paintbox colours; I fear they miss the sunshine under our walls and trees. S. uliginosa is too tall and floppy; much as I love its tiny Cambridge-blue flowers, they hardly justify such a leggy plant. S. vitifolia, from Mexico, looks fine with its pale furry-soft leaves; its branching flowerspikes are just giving glimpses of its sapphire blue. And as for our tomatoes, whatever the temperature in its greenhouse, they need more sunlight. They are still only reluctantly beginning to ripen. With Gardener's Delight doing best. I shan't bother with the yellow varieties again; they turn soft before (if ever) turning sweet. In fact the real bonus is the smell of the beautiful leaves, now scrambling high into the roof.
Curiosity is a curse in a gardener. You can never be tidy if you are curious. I always want to know what will happen next. Will a faded flower set seed? Can I grow the seed? How tall will this climber grow? What is that seedling in the paving? (I'll have to leave it till I see its flowers). If your whole garden is a mass of mini-experiments it will never merit a photograph.
Successes and failures? At the end of a long summer there must be conclusions to be drawn. Tomatoes and salvias apart, almost everything could do with more light, too. Hydrangeas have done well, geraniums, phlox, Japanese anemones, campanulas, Thalictrum delavayii, the inevitable Verbena bonariensis all earn their keep.
The best performer, though, by far, is the redoubtable Fuchsia bohiviana. We brought it as a standard in a mere 8-inch pot from Saling Hall. It has grown to four times the size, added four feet to its span and recently three feet to its height, flowering vividly with its scarlet tassels of narrow bells all summer. Its fruit ripens, too, red berries turning black and (tolerably) edible. It propagates easily by either seed or cuttings. I shall have to chop off whole branches to squeeze it into the greenhouse for the winter - although I wonder if a plant this lusty wouldn't survive if I just stuck it under the verandah.
17th September 2014
A new garden diversion: spotting a muster of mega-yachts in the harbour below; the bay of Beaulieu-sur-Mer. They must be assembling for the Monaco boat show next week: Madame Gu, a bright blue boat, sharp-pointed like a dart 325 feet long, RM Elegant, the very opposite of her name, Luna (377 feet, built for Roman Abramovitch), more like a huge tug whose massive aft deck apparently conceals a submarine, and the 155 feet Blush (does the owner?)
They lend a new meaning to the word "eye-catcher" as they glide into the bay and deploy their little navies of tenders and water-toys. Meanwhile the tiny flotilla of children's instruction dinghies is a bright flight of butterflies by the pink villa on Cap Ferrat still known as David Niven's.
I have written before about our son-in-law's Riviera garden. It has grown faster than I believed possible when I oversaw its design only six years ago. The vines forming a tunnel on the top terrace are heavy with grapes. The cypresses diligently clipped by Lucien and Pascale, the devoted part-time gardeners, are perfect green rockets, the orange and lemon trees thick with fruit, the cascading rosemary totally covering the stone walls, the oak-leaved hydrangeas sturdy bushes eight feet high and the agapanthus that fills the box-edged beds as thick as weeds standing upright in a stream. A persimmon tree we moved five times has its first tight globes of fruit. The climbing roses cover the pergola round the pool, and the palest blue Salvia uliginosa mixed with perovskia and deep pink Japanese anemones stands higher than my head. Iceberg (there is no better rose for a hot climate) has flowered and been cut back four times this year.
That's Cap Ferrat across the bay
The Royal Seal
2nd September 2014
Horticulturists are now on a par with accountants and surveyors, loss-adjusters and legal executives. It seems an odd ambition for a gardener, but the Institute of Horticulture received its Royal Charter yesterday in the wonderfully apt setting of Hatfield House.
John Tradescant must have known the Marble Hall where his employer’s successor, the Marchioness of Salisbury, unveiled the charter with its red Royal Seal. His own successors, the country's senior gardeners, packed the hall in their scores. Then they went out to see one of England's grandest and loveliest gardens in its late-summer glory.
I have known Hatfield well since the sixth Marquis and marchioness started a garden festival there in the 1980s. Things were deliciously informal in those days. The atmosphere was village fête with a bigger marquee. At the first festival, Lady Salisbury invited some friends to judge the exhibits, innocently unaware that the well-established RHS rules apply wherever gardeners compete.
I was among the amateur judges who spent hours over the vases and vegetables, dithering between golds for this and commendations for that. Our announcement of the winners, though, was met with a baffled silence. A delegation came to tell us that we'd got it all wrong. You don't judge horticultural shows by personal preferences, by taste or by any yardstick except the rulebook. The agonizing was unnecessary: winners can be measured. And I have never been asked to judge anything since. No charter for me, I fear.
How the garden glowed yesterday, though, in the near-autumnal light. I have seen the topiary in the East Garden, the vast elaborate parterre below the terrace of the house, grow from new plants in the '80s to solid maturity. Each of the eight big central beds is divided in four by a heraldic-looking star of yew, and the central alley leads between towering yew cylinders. There is room in the beds for tall roses, for huge tree peonies just taking on autumn colours, and for every late-season flower in the medley of warm colours that grows more meddled as autumn draws on. Here, I thought, is the quintessential English country house garden in all its nostalgic splendour, only 20 minutes from King's Cross.
28 August 2014
I'll spare you all the noisy and dusty details, but our next-door neighbours' house is being demolished, or most of it. Its Victorian elegance (if that's not too strong word for the plasterwork and joinery of the 1840s), is going on the skip, to be replaced by the stark spaces of today's fashion. Only the front and side walls are staying - and while they've got the roof off, why not dig a basement as well?
Noise and dust we can live with; worse is the worry that we'll all fall into the hole, or if not actually fall, see scary cracks in our wall. Just over the road another end-of- terrace house like our neighbours' moved enough to split its neighbour down the middle. Admittedly they had dug a two-storey basement to fit in a 14-metre swimming pool. (Will the whole house smell of chlorine?)
21 August 2014
Is there a National Collection of blue flowers? There should be. It's hardly a taxonomic distinction, but I can think of few plant characteristics that spring out at one as much as true blueness.
Just now it's agapanthus. We bought a dozen bulbs at Chelsea last year for our new garden from a Yorkshire grower, half of them blue, half white. The blue have been flowering for six weeks now and are
Was Rousham rowdy?
14 August 2014
Of all England's great historic gardens Rousham is the one that affects me most. It was my inspiration in creating the garden at Saling Hall - more subconsciously than in any sense of imitation. I vainly hoped to recreate the seemingly casual interaction of grove and glade and stonework, of light and shade and glints of water, that apparently appealed to Georgian country families.
We were at Rousham again the other day. Its unique virtue as a garden to visit is to be open without ceremony every day. "Bring good shoes and a picnic", say the Cottrell-Dormers, "and it's yours for the day." Gleaming white argosies of cloud were sailing in a sapphire sky, the sunshine just edged by a cool summer breeze. Rousham House is inscrutable, plain and prim; indifferent, it seems, to its star-struck visitors. Nor is the garden visible as you circumnavigate the building and set off across the unornamented bowling green to the first startling, even shocking, eye-catcher; a lion mauling a horse. Is this a warning that you are about to see nature untamed? If so, it is a false alarm.
When a garden is yours for the day you amble round it in your own fashion, not systematically but darting here and nipping there to inspect a statue or a plant or to see what happens round a corner. This was not the designer's intention. He had a clear plan for your visit; the order and timing of each revelation of a new prospect.
I wish we knew more about Kent's time at Rousham. It was Charles Bridgeman who contrived the broad layout of an Elysian garden on the steep slope 100 feet high and a mile long, leading down to the winding river Cherwell, in a process that may have lasted for fifteen years or so. When the late owner's brother inherited he employed the über-fashionable William Kent to enlarge and embellish the house and to give the garden his magic touch. Did Kent plant the massed trees that now cast so much of it into deep shade? There are yews as tall and straight as any in England that surely must have been planted 300 years ago. Many of the oaks, beeches and limes, and a cedar of Lebanon by the Temple of Echo, look like the original planting, too.
Today the architectural set-pieces that overlook the river are in distinct glades separated and dominated by high trees, underplanted with evergreens, linked by the famous serpentine rill. I am certainly not alone in finding it a haunting, even spiritual, place where melancholy meets the ghost of glamour. Sitting in the Temple of Echo, the meadow sloping down to the Cherwell dappled with beech tree shade (concave slopes were much admired) the silence is pregnant. Three centuries ago it would have echoed to shouts and shots and hunting horns, dogs barking, the splashing of fountains and the giggling of girls. The English gentry didn’t (and still don’t) do solemn. The Praeneste, the seven arched cloister that looks over the river, has benches in Kent’s most elegant style for 28 well-dressed, and no doubt gossiping, guests.
Phoenix at Crug Farm
8 August 2014
Tea on the lawn on a baking day with the hospitable Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones of Crug Farm plans, the foreground a field of cows, the background the Llanberis Pass deep into Snowdonia. Every visit to Crug Farm is a revelation of plants I've never seen before. Sometimes I can spot the genus, very rarely the species: Sue and Bleddyn still don't have names for half the plants they grow: just accession numbers. And the numbers grow lustily each time they do a trawl in South East Asia or Central America, two of their main collecting grounds.
They list over 60 trips on their website, starting in 1992. They collect friends, too: that day a Belgium nurseryman and his wife, every day a plantsman from near or far agog to see what new things they are offering in their little sales yard, or growing in their propagating tunnels, or displaying in their romantically intricate little gardens between the house and the old farm buildings.
Last year they saw an accidental fire as a chance to add yet another garden. An old cow barn went up in flames; leaving its walls and the remains of its roof as a sheltering spot for yet more new plants whose hardiness needs testing. It is a completely eclectic mix, from maples to lilies - all with a new twist - via fifty things I've never heard of. Scheffleras seem to be a Crug signature plant (they list 31 in their astonishing catalogue). Their elegant almost palm-like clumps and fingered leaves caught my eye several times, some with discreet yellow flowers, some with black berries. But it is absurd to pick on any plant, or even genus, in this garden of wonders. We left feeling as though the Creator had had another go with a new designer.
A sense of Plas
31st July 2014
I don't suppose the name Plas yn Rhiw comes up very often at meetings of the National Trust Gardens Committee. If there was a period when a sense of horticultural correctness pervaded the Trust's gardens, you wouldn't know it here, around this remote little manor house on the Llyn Peninsula, stuck out in the Irish Sea. A sense of place certainly: it would be bizarre not to plant the sort of half-hardy things the benign sea air allows. Of fashion, inevitably: bright gardeners are always alert to new plants coming through the system. But, most agreeably, a sense of freedom to be as relaxed as befits minor provincial gentry happily hidden from the world.
The "Plas", a word which in Welsh seems to cover anything from a mansion to a very minor manor, was restored by three spinster sisters from Nottingham in the 1940's, encouraged by their friend Clough Williams Ellis of Portmeirion. Everything from the books in the bookshelves to the box-hedged enclosures of the garden bursting with exotic shrubs breathes an austere gentility in speaking contrast to tremendous views of sea and mountains.
The mansion "Plas" of these parts is Plas Newydd, the huge house of the Marquesses of Anglesey on the Menai Strait, in the front row of the stalls for the rock and cloud performances of Mount Snowdon. The National Trust plays this with a light hand, too: it is part family house, part museum (with Rex Whistler's most famous mural as its USP). One formal terrace, the Royal Box as it were, is intensely floral: blue white and grey in the view that includes the mountains, hellfire red looking the other way.
Trees grow magnificently in its sheltered seaside policies. There is a macrocarpa avenue where these usually scruffy windbreak trees grow as straight grey pillars 80 feet high. Hydrangeas are a way of life in these parts; you pass walls of them hundreds of yards long on the way to the arboretum, with elephantine beeches supervising a jungle of visitors from down under: eucalyptus and every kind of southern beech.
Airy mountain, rushy glen
26 July 2014
Forestry is inherently an untidy business. Each summer we come to North Wales to enjoy our woods, the mountains round and sea below, and each year another patch is a (temporary) eyesore. This year is a bad one: the February gales made a shambles of half a hillside, and fishing the trees out from the mess transferred a good deal of it onto the forest track. Ditches had to be scoured, surfaces scraped and loads of new stone spread and rolled in. Luckily we have a good roadstone quarry in the heart of the forest, but I have to admit there is a certain rawness about parts of the place just now.
It is easy to escape them. The bosom of the broadleaves is where I go, where a stream tumbles down white among the black rocks. There is a line of Milton's that rings in my head here: 'bosom'd high in tufted trees'. The distinct tufts of well-spaced oaks and beeches, ashes, some sycamores and innumerable birches pattern the hillside opposite like a gallery of portraits, now glowing gold in the evening sun. I have been surprised to learn how often a wood of originally close-planted trees needs thinning to make strong (as opposed to spindly) trunks: perhaps once every fifteen years. I wonder where Milton's trees were.
Ashes are a worry: Chalara may well be on the way to kill or cripple them. But I never planted many; there are plenty of seedlings, and oak and beech are our favourites. The far bigger worry is the new threat to the larch from the dreaded Phytophthora ramorum that arrived in Wales from the southwest and seems to be heading north. Almost a quarter of our trees are larch, most of them planted in the 1960s and now close to full height. For ten years we have been thinning them; they need maximum light to form strong heads on their elegant bare stems, standing thirty feet or so apart. The forestry plan is to underplant them with beech or Douglas fir (or both), so when they are felled at full size the ground is already well treed. There is a good deal of volunteer oak and birch too. We hate the idea of losing the pale larch-green in spring and warm gold in autumn, born high above the hillsides on graceful poles.
It is strange to remember that larches only came to this country in the 1600s from the Alps. John Evelyn in his Sylva tells how his gardener threw out his first batch of seedlings in the first winter, thinking their loss of needles meant they had died. He goes on to rave about the quality of larch timber, as good as oak for shipbuilding, able to be sliced so thin that you could use it in place of glass in a window and light would shine through.
Better in the shade
10 July 2014
There have been just enough hot sunny days to remind me how much I prefer the shade to sitting, or walking, or doing almost anything in the sun. Shade, that is, with sun round the edges; pools of shade, as under trees, for example. Perhaps I am like a camera film that renders the shady foreground well enough., but can't handle the light beyond. The image burns out.
The garden is close to monochrome at present, or rather we have so many flowers in the hard-to-name purpley-bluey-lavender-violet range that it looks as though I've done it on purpose. They take their cue, it seems, from The Geranium of the Millenium - for surely Rozanne has earned that title. You see her everywhere, as you did Verbena bonariensis a year or two ago - and still do in this garden. Come to that their colours are both in the same part of the spectrum.
So are the little viola that spent the winter in a pot indoors and gamely flowers on in her summer quarters, Campanula persicifolia, a catananche I've taken up with, Tulbaghia violacea, which I'm told is rather charmingly known as Society Garlic, and the best of all summer clematis, Perle d'Azur. The newer and smaller Prince Charles is a relatively feeble version of the same colour.
I can't be held responsible for the roses that flourish high above the wall on our neighbour's side. They make sure no colour scheme of ours will survive. But do I mind? No, I'm not a schemer at heart, and their Wars of the Roses red and white is a splendid statement. Then on our side there's Iceberg, Gloire de Dijon, Alister Stella Gray - all our old favourites - and Bantry Bay (perhaps a mistake; pink looks like a compromise).
What astonishes me is how much water everything wants. Above all, of course, the pots. When we go to Wales for two weeks I shall rely entirely on a newly-acquired Aqua-Pod dripper system. The landlord of the corner pub nourishes a lurid display with it. But then he doesn't take a fortnight off in Wales.
4 July 2014
To Kew yesterday for a linden-bath. That was the sensation as I walked in through the Victoria Gate. Straight ahead stands a big common lime, taller than a church and as wide as two, covered with its pale drooping flowers - and pumping out essence of mid-summer.
Turn left past the little temple and a huge weeping silver lime, Tilia petiolaris, is spreading its skirts in front of you, embalming the air. Then they come thick and fast, one species after another, a whole wood of limes, from a squatly spreading small-leaved one, Tilia cordata, like a green and yellow cushion, to soaring T. petiolaris, surely some of Kew's tallest trees. It is a curious fact about this splendid species (or is it a cultivar?) that it habitually divides into two, or often three, major trunks about twenty feet from the ground. They grow vertically with mighty vigour to make a majestic tower, their leaf-stalks (the petioles of petiolaris) twisting to show the silver-white undersides of the leaves. At this moment its cascading flowers are just opening and beginning to shower down their scent. More limes stand ready for their later flowering, with the fringe-leafed T. henryana from China coming last.
I headed towards the river from this honey-scented zone, skirting the sickly smell of the sweet chestnuts, to visit the Mediterranean area with its perfectly authentic-looking olive grove in a patch of rock-strewn garrigue and the cork oak forest next to it. A huge cork oak lies prone amid citrus and seedling pines next to a signboard exerting us to protect this threatened habitat. Threatened, among other things, by the spread of screw-capped wine bottles and consequent decline in demand for corks.
I'm not sure about this. The demand for wine-corks has grown exponentially in the past thirty or forty years, since wine became the popular drink it is today. In the past a relatively small proportion was given the dignity of a cork and capsule. Cork had many other uses, from buoyancy aids to insulation to high heels, but any increase in oak-acreage due to wine must be pretty recent. It's not screw caps we should blame, but substitutes for its other uses. Let's have more cork-tiled floors - and thank goodness we're seeing the decline of the corkscrew..
Tilia petiolaris, the weeping silver lime, in flower at Kew
…. can fall be far behind?
1 July 2014
Christopher Bailes, the about-to-retire curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, reckons his plants are between four to six weeks ahead of schedule this summer. Who knows how much of the advance is due to the mild spring after a mild wet winter, and how much to the famously privileged site, surrounded by buildings on the banks of the Thames? The garden has, after all, England's biggest and oldest olive tree, a serious cork oak and scores of plants considered tender everywhere else.
Hoheria sexstylosa grows here to substantial tree size, palm trees include Jubaea and Washingtonia, the proper working tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, has become a shrub, now in full pink flower. There is a fruiting grapefruit tree and an avocado…no, this is no ordinary London garden. Yet walking there through Chelsea I realise what a hothouse London in general has become. The plant of the moment, to the point of monotony, is Trachelospermum jasminoides , scrambling up walls, dangling from trees, often in its variegated form, a pale presence in expensive front gardens it seems almost everywhere.
No wonder. It is decorative, vigorous and now apparently reliably hardy. It casts a sweet but not obvious jasminoid smell about it. It only needs a little help from a trellis to reach ten feet or more. The cream-variegated form is less vigorous and maybe less hardy, but given a bit of care can be smart as paint.
What else do we know from its family, the Apocynaceae? Periwinkle is perhaps best-known. Also mandevilla and nerium, the common oleander. A trachelospermum in periwinkle blue (or in oleander pink) would be popular.
A pretty screen
30th June 2014
An easy trio that works beautifully in London, scrambling along a fence, hiding the neighbours and giving us all pretty colours over the summer. Clematis ‘Perle d’Azur’, Solanum jasminoides ‘Alba’ and Eccremocarpus scaber ‘Tresco Gold’.
The solanum is a big commitment; a powerful plant that wanders everywhere. The clematis is no wimp, either, but flowers as reliably as any of it kind. The eccremocarpus is on a smaller scale, flimsy-looking but well able to keep up for a year or two. Then some hard pruning is needed.
Whether the last is truly ‘Tresco Gold’ I’m not sure; I grew it from seed from an old plant in another garden.
25 June 2014
Gardening has its heydays, and this is one of them. Do you remember how pessimistic we were about it in the 1970s? Perhaps not, but Trad was there, editorialising in The Garden about the lack of gardeners and the money to pay them, and the desperate need to conserve what little was left of our gardening heritage. Worried groups were forming to protect gardens and plants (the NCCPG was Graham Thomas's idea), and to rekindle the very notion of garden history. 1978 was when we published the first Conservation Issue of the RHS Journal. How much has changed.
These were my thoughts in two gardens I visited recently, thanks to the Garden Museum and its super-charged director, Christopher Woodward. The first is a mere ten years old, and still a bit of a secret, but already gives Dorset a rival to anything in the country-house tradition, So timeless are its enclosures, its alleys and its 17th century style Wilderness that I half expected to meet Sir Francis Bacon stooping to sniff the roses. The Flowery Mead is the hardest idiom to perfect. To achieve it in perfection you must master meadows and marry them to the world of roses and peonies. You must starve the grass and bring in a banquet of wildflowers…. It was reassuring to know that there was a human agency in all this; someone drove a lorry with half the haycrop of Great Dixter to Dorset and spread it in the incipient mead.
13th June 2014
Sir Roy Strong entertained the Hay Festival with an account (characteristically dramatised) of how radically he has remade his Hereford garden, The Laskett, since his wife and gardening partner, Julia Trevelyan Oman, died in 2003. Their original plantings of the 1970s succeeded splendidly in creating a formal garden in a hurry. It celebrated their joint achievements and affections with disarming enthusiasm in a series of theatrical set pieces. The Strongs planted with gusto, not quite at the nine-inch spacing of my friend Dottie Ratcliff, but looking for dramatic effects - which they achieved in record time. This was before the full menace of the now-notorious Leyland cypress was well known.
11 June 2014
I suppose the best thing to do with my greenhouse in summer would be to empty it and close it down. The only plants that would benefit from it now are the tomatoes; everything else would be just as happy outdoors until autumn. I'm far from convinced that the irrigated plunge bed I've continued is up to its job while I'm away - which of course I shouldn't be. It depends on a leaky pipe buried in sand on a very thin layer of drainage: a delicate balance that certainly couldn't handle a heat wave through glass - even with the shading at its maximum.
Jewels of spring
6 June 2014
Why is there no one in the Alps in June? It's the time when the cattle make their lumbering way up to the high pastures, their heavy bells clanking. The snow is lying in disjointed drifts where the sun is slow to touch it. Everywhere else is a tapestry of the most jewel-like of flowers, embroidering the lush new verdure of the middle slopes or piercing the brown grass above the tree line, where mats of rhododendron and juniper are stirring in their winter sleep.
First come tiny ivory crocuses and the fretted furry leaves of the pulsatillas, Anemone sulfurea, soon followed by its wide, candid, creamy flowers. Gentians are already flowering: the deep violet trumpets of G. clusii and the brilliant sapphire stars of G. verna. There are violets with big flat faces, a little pink thlaspi in the middle of a stream, small purple orchids, soldanellas with pale violet fringes, lavender-coloured centaurea, primulas very like cowslips, shiny yellow globes of trollius, starry arabis, harebells, pale thrift, miniature alchemillas, many spurges and the rich blue heads of a rampion, Phytheuma orbiculare, which I took for a very special clover in the long grass - and which I now learn is an emblem of Sussex.
All these on a single ramble in the Val d'Anniviers in search of what is said to he the most splendid old larch in the Alps. Alpines are not my natural territory. I expect all my plant names have been superseded long ago; my authority is Correvon's beautiful Alpine Flora of 1911 and its art deco botanical paintings by Philippe Robert.
We found the larches, cohabiting with equally tall and craggy Arolla pines, perhaps twelve feet round and sixty or seventy high, punished by blizzards but waking fresh in the chilly sunshine. The tender first larch leaves springing from old fissured brown wood are as touching and inspirational as the most exquisite of the emerging flowers.
Not a soul about, apart from some mountain bikers on terrifying trails. The hotels are nearly all shut; the skiing is over, the summer holidays still to come. Yet in the weeks between the flowers appearing and the cows eating them (or have the cows the perspecuity to steer around their favourites to leave them to seed?) the sun is bright, the air still cool enough for long walks, the Alps are at their best.
23 May 2014
"A younger look" we were promised in the show gardens at Chelsea this year. How we would recognise it I'm not sure. The look that struck me was a distinct taste for (indeed a heavy dependence on) the lightweight charmers of spring. Perhaps less (though not much less) use of white foxgloves, but complete abandonment, in some cases, to such wildlings as sweet rocket, buttercups, ferns, campion, alchemilla mollis, vetch, verbascums, various feathery umbelliferae. and almost universally Iris sibirica. The flowers were lightweight, but the supporting trees, it seemed to me, heavier and more numerous than ever. There was no questioning the charm of such stylized meadows, but where have the mainstream garden plants, the long-term stalwarts of the border, bred over centuries to be unlike wildlings as possible, disappeared to?
The answer in some cases is the marquee, where the specialists display their thoroughbreds. It was worth braving the throng for Hillier's stand alone. Never was the Monument more monumental than in this bravura performance of tall trees, exceptional shrubs and witty variations on a dozen different colour schemes; Hillier's 69th Gold Medal in a row. Trad's own coveted Annual Medal ended up, after much debate, with Rickard's bosky display of ferns, from trees down to microscopic beauties. The idea dawned, then and there, of turning the always-shady end of our garden into a fernery.
Perhaps not for display of plants, but certainly for its imagination and conceptual unity, Trad rated Alan Titchmarch's Britain in Bloom garden as high as any. He managed to encapsulate, on a cramped triangle of a site, the British landscape from the highlands to the Scilly Isles (or was it Yorkshire to the Isle of Wight, Alan's own trajectory?) A brook tinkling over a mossy stone wall flowed almost believably down to the sea, a beach and beach hut and the plants of summer sunshine. A tour de force.
And equally memorable, but moving too, was No Man's Land, a First World War memorial in plants, designed by Charlotte Rowe for ABF, The Soldiers Charity. The descriptive booklet, with flower paintings by Irene Laschi, deserved a medal for the best piece of print offered to visitors - possibly ever.
In the rain
13 May 2014
Just home from our first visit to the Welsh woods since the near-hurricane on Valentine's Day. The funny thing is that trees never fall in predictable ways. There seems no reason in the mess of often criss-crossed trunks. I like the French forester's term for it, 'chablis' - perhaps because it makes me think of a cool beaded glass of something on the green side of gold.
You'd expect most of the damage to be on the windward edge. Often it is scooped out of the middle of a plantation. Worse than the loss of trees is the muddy chaos where the harvesting machines have to shuffle to and fro bringing the timber out to the roads where lorries from the mills collect it (in 25 ton loads, not greatly appreciated by motorists on the narrow winding roads.) Happily there is a demand for the massive spruce logs,16 feet long. House-building must be picking up.
It rained all the weekend. But whoever said there is no such thing as bad weather; only the wrong clothes, had a point. Slipperiness is the main problem: you feel constantly in danger of falling over. Also rain on your camera lens - because curiously. I have an urge to take photos in the low light. Colours are saturated and the lack of shadows gives a different value to what you see.
Best of all were our blue rhododendrons, hovering over the bluebells under the pale green of beech and larch in fresh leaf. In the rain their purply blue took on a savage intensity, while in the distance they were insubstantial wraiths.
It was a poor weekend for the National Gardens Scheme. We were almost the only visitors in a garden in Dolgellau that deserves crowds. Craig y Finnon is the garden of a fine Victorian house restored by its plantsman owners, Jon and Shàn Leas. There is exquisite precision in their gardening, whether formal in box hedges or spreading among massive rocks where azaleas and alpines cohabit under splendid old trees with moss and ferns. Royal ferns sow themselves in the rocks and send up shoots like bishops' crosiers. The black slate drive was filled with pink flowers falling with the rain from arching rhododendrons. It was a moving visit, seeming to encapsulate a century and a half of skill and devotion to the perfect plants for a dramatic site.
7th May 2014
The existence of Hillier's nurseries has always been a given in my gardening life. Of course I realised, when I began to collect trees in the early 1970s, that we were incredibly lucky to have a single source for almost any tree or shrub we had heard of. And what's more a reliable one, whose plants actually corresponded to their labels. At one time I was ordering and receiving thirty or forty at a time, sometimes with apologetic little notes saying I might have to wait a year or two. They were so healthy, in the main, that one didn't stop to think of the miracle of logistics involved, getting them together from several separate Hampshire fields. A story went that one customer telegramed 'Plants arrived safely. Presume roots follow' - but that must have been some other nursery.
Now I am thrilled to find that the Hillier history has just been published. Discussions about a possible writer had been going on for several years. In the event they have found the ideal person - in the bosom of the family. Jean Hillier is Sir Harold's daughter-in-law, married to his younger son Robert. She has produced as attractive a family company history as I have ever seen, gleaned from archives going back beyond the date of founding, 1864, and packed with family lore, records of rare plants, ingenious propagators, the constant hunt for more nursery land and above all the extraordinary personality of the third Hillier inheritor, Harold, surely the greatest and most driven plantsman of the 20th century.
Town and Country
29 April 2014
I didn't know, when we left our garden after 40 years in March last year, how much or how little I would miss it. Now I do, to my surprise: very little. I am far busier than I expected in our new little patch. What I didn't expect, though, is quite how much pleasure I would get from other people's. Perhaps ambitious gardeners (or those with big gardens) get too self-centred. Perhaps not only ambitious ones. I fear I used to tick off plants or other features in other people's gardens if I either had them already or wished I did. No more.
I am avid for the front gardens I pass, nosey about back gardens and besotted with the two gardens I visit most often: Holland Park and Exbury.
Holland Park is easy: barely ten minutes walk up the road. "Park" barely does justice to an estate in the heart of London that includes formal gardens on the grand scale, one of England's biggest and best Japanese gardens, a fine camellia collection, an arboretum with woodland walks, a summer opera house, a sports field for football and cricket and tennis, an outdoor gym, an ecology centre, and a substantial wild area, now full of bluebells, where trees can fall and be left to rot (and no doubt foxes multiply).
Holland Park's tulips (40,000 were planted for this season) are rightly famous. Their colours gradually evolve from March to May, starting pale and pretty and intensifying to the gayest Joseph's coat you can imagine. Every day sees a subtle shift in the palette.
As it does at Exbury, but on a scale no one can take in without repeated visits. This is now the third and fourth generation of the de Rothschild family to nurture their 200 acres on the Beaulieu River, where it flows into the Solent. In their maturity they are, I’m afraid, awesome. Every walk is a discovery and leaves my head full of questions. How I wish I knew rhododendrons better – but camellias, too, and magnolias, and all the exotic wonders the Rothschilds have collected.
My trick is to consult the website the day before I go. John Anderson, the head gardener, posts the plants not to be missed on his Noticeboard. Hardly a substitute for knowledge, I know – but a real help in acquiring some.
Land and sea
18 April 2014
The drone of a lawnmower blends withe the burbling of a diesel on the harbour. The smell of mown grass mingles with the marine smell of mud and seaweed .I have temporary charge of a different kind of garden; a walled yard only fifty yards from the sea, where frost is unlikely but the wind is a constant presence. The walls give it more shelter than its neighbours, but the air is rarely as still as it is today. Indeed the pines and macrocarpas and holm oaks planted to shelter the seaside houses are in a sorry state: last winter's gales burnt them a depressing brown. Some of the macrocarpas should be put out of their misery.
Most of the garden is paved, with slight changes of level giving raised beds. The planting is mostly low-growing, and today, with
14 April 2014
I shall bungle the quote, I know, but Sir Kenneth Clark once wrote that there were two things all humanity is keen on. One is love; the other is a good view. He could easily have expanded his list, with pizza, a soft pillow, a crafty goal, a foot-tapping beat; but only love and a view made the cut. He was saying there is something pretty Pavlovian about views.
I agree. On family car journeys we used to laugh as the children chorused 'Look at that view' every time we came to the top of a hill. Little Kitty would have none of it and hid her eyes.
These are panoramas; views commanding broad sweeps of lower ground; Kent from the top of Wrotham hill for example, or The Isle of Dogs from Greenwich Observatory (the view K. Clark used as the coda to his Civilization; he was distressed by the first towers of Canary Wharf.) View-classification is clear on this point;
11 April 2014
When I recently listed some of the old country houses that still dot the course of the Thames to the west of London I forgot Fulham Palace. Locals know it well, down on the riverside by Putney Bridge and a good place to watch the start of the Boat Race. Garden historians are aware of it as the seat of the 17th century Bishop of London, Henry Compton, who steered his missionary priests in the New World towards unknown plants and introduced them into cultivation in his palace garden. All British colonies were under the spiritual oversight of the bishop; he benignly extended it to the vegetable world, too, with such memorable results as the first magnolia to be grown here, M. virginiana, the black walnut and Robinia pseudoacacia.
The manor of Fulham has an ecclesiastical history going back at least 1,300 years. I remember my mother talking about the palace and the then bishop, Winnington Ingram, without enthusiasm. Her parents used to take her as a child from Hampstead where they lived to tea with the bishop. The stuffy swaying carriage smelling of leather (grandpa still kept horses) had a predictable result. The bishop's influence in Hampstead is still visible in the names of Winnington Road, Ingram Avenue, and indeed Bishop's Avenue.
Sadly the grandeur of a palace and its gardens was too much for the shrinking Church of England. In 1973 the last bishop left and the estate was allowed to slip into decline. Thirty years of dithering seem to have followed: hence the obscurity. But now a renaissance is under way. The Fulham Palace Trust has secured the essential lottery grant and the plan is beginning to form. The palace is open to the public, and delightfully welcoming. At present there is a little exhibition about its history, and particularly that of its garden (the immediate spur for my visit).
It is not very clear what if any of the gardens survives from Bishop Compton's time: sadly none of his original trees. Most of it is clearly 18th or19th century, including the garden walls and the splendid row of planes along the river walk. (It is hard to believe they were only planted in 1895: they are some of London sturdiest. They would support - and indeed deserve - some splendid tree-houses. A competition?) The moat (apparently England's longest, once enclosing 36 acres) and the early Tudor garden gateway are the oldest things to be seen.
There is an excellent tearoom in the old drawing room, with French windows onto the lawn, and the walled garden is in active restoration with a fine knot, a restored vinery and - in a competitive field - one of London's finest wisterias. Promising beds of vegetables manned by volunteers indicate a bright future, too.
9 April 2014
To the Butchers' Hall in Smithfield for the Spring Court lunch of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners. (The gardeners, it seems, have never had a hall of their own - nor even, disappointingly, a garden).
Not all of the medieval livery companies, though, have stayed close to their origins. The Almoners, Broderers, Cordwainers, Fanmakers, Furriers, Tallow Chandlers….. some sounding almost impossibly removed from modern life, have each found a related or equivalent and usually charitable role (coach makers, for example, in aerospace). The gardeners have had no need: they still do what it says on the tin.
At this crowded and celebratory lunch (with, I'm happy to say, lovely flowers and excellent veg) their Royal Master, the Earl of Wessex - royal masters of livery companies are far from common - presented awards to two most worthy married couples. Jody and Clare Scheckter, (he is better known in Formula One racing) for their
7 April 2014
I think I've written before about our friend Dottie Ratcliff, whose practice in her serial tiny gardens is to leave nine inches between plants. Some of her fruit trees admittedly look a bit pinched, but they still bear good crops. The total effect is (shall we say?) bountiful.
I am modifying her plan. Nine inches is a bit tight for most shrubs, even in this little garden. On the other hand 4 1/2 inches seems about right for smaller herbaceous things. I've just put Iris sibirica 'Flight of Butterflies' nine inches from Verbena bonariensis with Geranium 'Rozanne' in between. When you see it in plan (as you do when you're looking down on the bed you are planting) it looks much too crowded. But it’s the elevation rather than the plan that matters: the airspace the plants fill, rather than the space in the ground.
24 March 2014
Whether last night's frost, the first of the spring, did for the magnolias at Kew I don't yet know, but I'm glad I went to see them last week. A sense of urgency, the feeling that the sunnier the weather, the greater the danger that the flowers will be clobbered, is what makes them so poignant. To expose so much bare flesh so early in the year is provocative.
The trees around are still wintry bare, buds swelling perhaps, or catkins, or showing a few tentative little leaves. Magnolias get their kit off. The star of the show last week was Magnolia kobus var. borealis, as its label describes it. If the label department were to keep up with shifting taxonomic opinion on every plant it could be a costly business. The status of kobus as a species, the legitimacy of the name (one botanist pointed out that the Japanese name is Kobushi), its relationship with M. stellata, M. salicifolia and M. x loebneri have all been disputed - and not always in the friendly spirit you would hope it would inspire.
Nor is it clear, at least to me, how the form labelled var. borealis fits in - except in being big and incredibly beautiful. Does it come from further north, as 'borealis' implies? There will be someone at Kew who knows. There might even be someone who remembers planting it and waiting, maybe twenty years, for it to flower.
I only hope the flowers weren't fried by the frost last night.
17 March 2014
I should have been ready for planting time, with all my plans laid and drawn up, plants ordered and a serene sense of purpose reigning in the garden. Then suddenly it's here, a good month early, everything springing into growth, Rassells nursery over the road a jewel box of newly-arrived temptations. Plans? I'm borrowing their barrow to ferry over far more plants than I can reasonably fit in.
I've strained my back crouching in our restricted spaces, shoe-horning campanulas among anemones among veronicastrums among geraniums. Verbenas, too. Oh, and of course white foxgloves. I pounce on what looks like a clear space only to remember that's where a hosta lies buried. Magnolia petals rain down on me as I dig (in this temperature the flowers won't last long).
'til May is out
March 6 2014
This won't be news, because we're all experiencing it - in England, that is - but a diary is for putting things on record, and a record is surely what this is. The Magnolia soulangeana over the front door was shedding its bud scales and turning purple in the last week of February. Last year I noted its date: April 14. Six weeks is a quite a leap.
Japanese maples (some of them) are opening their leaves, our precious cercidiphyllum is turning its special shade of russet-going-green, and Jasminum polyanthum, which usually waits until February in the conservatory, is flowering in the open air. There are anomalies wherever we look; most of them welcome. The fear of frost is acute, but all the more reason to enjoy this absurdly precocious spring.
The hawthorn is supposedly the harbinger of clout-casting in May. I have planted two, in tubs flanking the door from my top floor study to its tiny roof garden to shade it from the summer evening sun. They have been harbinging away like billy-o for two weeks now. Did I plant the Glastonbury thorn (C. monogyna 'Praecox') by mistake?
Last month I illustrated a double pale pink camellia that flowered here just before Christmas, and asked for its name. A faithful Japanese correspondent has obliged. It is apparently 'High Hat' (who gives them these banal names?), a sport of what the Japanese consider the greatest camellia of them all: Daikagura, known to have been bred before 1789. The name means the sort of dance ritual performed in spring in remotest Japan to ward off evil spirits. My pen-friend even sent me a video-clip of country-folk capering in dragon kit.
"High Hat' (it has the virtue, among others, of dropping its flowers promptly when they’re over) in turn begat 'Conrad Hilton'. As my friend says, from 600-year-old folklore to hotel magnate via two flowers. Japan. meanwhile, has been shivering in the opposite to our weather. Poor Yamanashi, the prefecture with the vineyards near Tokyo, recently caught 114 centimetres, or 3' 9", of snow in one night. Another record.
Magnolia soulangeana, Cercidiphyllum japonicum 'Pendulum' behind.
27 February 2014
The Riviera experiments with succulents; Morocco glories in them. In Marrakech, 1000 miles further south, the world of cacti and agaves, euphorbias and all the swollen desert-dwellers is a playground for gardeners’ wildest imaginings. It seems they like fat living after all, these prickly things that look so ferocious on the edge of survival in wind-blown wastes. In the gardens of French couturiers and Italian tycoons a cactus can be voluptuous and its spines fashion statements.
The Jardin Majorelle in the heart of Marrakech was the work of the painter Jacques Majorelle more than 70 years ago. Its survival, and its present state as an attraction drawing 700,000 visitors a year, is due to the late Yves St Laurent. Nurture at this level of precision is something I associate with Japan rather than Africa. The very soil, its immaculate beige grains carved into ridges, into perfectly-smooth terraces and gentle basins for irrigation, is a work of art. From it arise the sturdy pillars or the graceful curving stems of palms, and in their delicate tracery of shade shapes of succulents so strange that they might have been invented in Disney’s studios. Smooth blue leaves, waxy, warty, wrinkled, knobby, fasciated, absurd contorted shapes, or rosettes so regular and refined they seem still to be on a designer’s drawing board. Planes of water like glass or gently stirring. A tinkling jet here in the sun, there a generous gush in the dark of a bamboo grove. And brilliant colours that need the brilliant sun to make them bearable: orange and searing ultramarine, lemon yellow and deep Moroccan red.
The International Dendrology Society has the entrée to some very private gardens. We visited half a dozen, including the sumptuous villa of Yves St Laurent's partner Pierre Bergé. This was a super–privileged tour of a world that pushes the possibilities of plants as far as skill and artistry and money extend. What is even more striking about Marrakech, though, is the size and splendour of the public gardens being created along boulevards and in parks around the edges of the cramped and bustling town. There seems to be hardly a road that is not an incipient avenue of palms. King Mohamed loves gardens, too.
La Mortola update
26 February 2014
One person says La Mortola is on the way up; the next visitor says it’s worse than ever. It’s been like this since the 1980s, when a posse of busy-bodies, largely from the RHS, (I was one, but the one that counted was the much- admired Director of Wisley, Chris Brickell) took action. The staff at this famous garden, the creation of the same Hanbury family that gave the RHS the land for Wisley, had gone on strike. The Hanburys had sold the property to the Italian state, little thinking what a mess Italian bureaucracy can make. What had been one of the world’s best sub-tropical gardens, a superb botanical collection on the borders of Italy and France, at the very point where the Alps collapse into the sea, so steep and sea-surrounded that frost never comes, was a weedy chaos, under soaring palms and cypresses and far rarer trees.
On my first visit the striking gardeners were camping in a cave-mouth near the monumental entrance. Negotiations followed, with British botanists setting new standards for organisation and maintenance: eventually the University of Genoa took responsibility. The question is, how are they doing?
The princess and the milkmaid
17 February 2014
Just home from the afternoon at Kew, to see the beautifully staged orchid show. Where do they hide these magical creatures the rest of the time? Marshalling such feats of cultivation to dramatize their story is a brilliant idea: crowd-pulling, absorbing….. a triumph. Even without the orchids, though, it would have been with the journey to see the seas of humble crocuses jostling in the wind.
The little 'Tommy', Crocus tommasimianus, beats the snowdrop in charm, simplicity - and in coming first. This year, in fact, even before the snowdrops have woven their carpet. I'm not sure how, or even why, its varieties (Whitewell Purple, Barr's Purple…) are distinguished. Infinite nuances of colour are the attraction of the crowd.
10 February 2014
The more you divide up a space the bigger it becomes. Scientific or not, I call it the Law of Immediate Surroundings. Your sense of space depends on what you can see; the only reason why tiny bedsits are habitable is that your vision accepts any limits you impose on it, and the rest of your senses, however reluctantly, follow.
I muse on this whenever I go down an arterial road lined with tiny houses cowering (if they are lucky) behind fences or hedges. At a pinch, I think, I could be content to make one of those cramped front rooms my space - because I could block off the outside world. My immediate surroundings are all I see. I could be snug.
The Royal Academy has just given a clutch of architects license to fool around with the space in its lofty galleries in an exhibition called Sensing Spaces. It's not hard, with false walls and ceilings, mazes and mirrors, to produce confusion and disorientation - and the pleasant sensation of discovering 'places' that are illusory. Or are they?
9 February 2014
Squelching around Holland Park, as I do most afternoons, there is no mistaking the fact that spring has its foot in the door. Daffodils are opening their buds. The kerria in the Japanese garden is out; borage adds blue to the muddy tangle in a ditch. Porcelain-white Chaenomeles 'Nivalis' has been in flower for three weeks and what I took to be snowdrops in a lawn turned out as I got nearer to be daisies.
There has not, to my knowledge, been a single frost in London yet this winter. That 'yet' is important. The floods that are tormenting so much of the country amount to little more than puddles here, but I can't remember any year when cold weather hasn't arrived soon or later. I fear it may come in March, and remember with a shiver the weeks of East winds that last year made our departure from Saling Hall feel like a retreat from Moscow.
Are we getting a false impression of London life? I went out and picked a ripe lemon on the verandah last night from a tree happily flowering away in the rain. (Odd that rain doesn't seem to inhibit the self-pollination of its endless flowers). The hawthorn on the roof outside my study is opening its buds three months ahead of schedule. The streets of Kensington are gay with camellias. I write this down so that I will believe it happened when things return to normal.
It's first flower opened in December. Can anyone name this camellia?
3 February 2014
I can't say I'm a connoisseur of garden centres; their combination of hoes and postcards, lasagne and water features, barbecues and whatever is in flower today may be a commercial necessity, but it somehow scrubs the part of any mind where plants and plans can usefully combine. I find myself filling the boot with things I've never wanted at ten percent off.
We made a detour, though, on our way home from Dolgellau, to visit Ashwood Nursery, near Stourbridge in a part of the country I don't know at all. I had chanced on their website and been seduced by their choice of hellebores, daphnes, auriculas, hepaticas…the sort of things a gardener thinks of in winter. Especially a gardener with a tiny north-facing garden and a new greenhouse.
We were not disappointed. There was none of the usual corporate formula. It was clear straight away that this a nursery in the true sense of the word. Yes, the entrance/exit hall was full of china figurines (but even Kew trades in knick-knacks these days). Once past it, though, and the queue for the savoury-smelling café, the winter garden scene was perfect: intimate, enticing, jolly, with good plants and original ideas wherever you looked. The need for a gnome-land was handled with great applomb: you are greeted by a meadow of little model sheep. Then paths wind off through beds that look long-established and promising for all seasons, with enough January colour to spur you on; leading to glass houses on flower-show form, with the possibilities of the month excellently displayed and clearly explained.
28 January 2014
Iris reticulata flowers two weeks after I. danfordiae - given identical conditions in the greenhouse. It has quite a different character though: a lady in party finery compared with a cheerful country girl. In the house her scent is quite different, too: more elusive, less nocturnal, delicate and piercing like a violet's.
I. reticulata has passed though many hands, with many selections; this is apparently 'Pixie'.
27 January 2014
It has rained every day so far this year in North Wales - a state of affairs more unusual than you might think. The waterfalls are in splendid spate; just now we saw a group of daredevils canoeing down a fearsome sheer drop, free-falling through the spray. Our little river is in that sinister mood when it runs swift and silent, no ripples breaking its swirling surface. And the ground is saturated. I made the mistake of stepping off a hard track to skirt a fallen tree and went in to the top of one welly. Luckily not over the top, or I would have had to abandon it and limp back barefoot, the light quickly fading, half a mile downhill to the car - not a prospect to relish.
Worse, I was effectively lost. We have just clear-felled the spruce and larch on a wide stretch of hillside, and with the trees has gone all my sense of place. I was negotiating what had been a favourite bit of track, where tall trunks framed the first silver glimpses of the sea. Ferns were thick along the path, giving way to deep green moss and gleaming threads of water under the dark rows of trees. The track turned left here by a flat grey rock to skirt the steepest slope. There was no rock, and no track; just stumps and ruts and snaggy branches higgledy- piggledy everywhere. Getting back down in the dusk was tricky.
Share of light
21 January 2014
There's a limit to what the council will let you do to your trees in a leafy borough like this one. It has absolute power over the woody leafage. Not the power to plant a tree in your garden, of course, but the power to stop you disposing of it as you see fit. I am stuck, then, with a disproportionate amount of sycamore. I have reservations? A lack of proper respect? My problem: I bought the tree with the house.
In this privileged area, though, even the tree surgeons are a cut above the norms. I googled "Tree surgeons, Kensington" and stopped at the second name. Not a name to forget easily: Fergus Kinmonth - and one I recognised as a member of the International Dendrology Society and a visitor to our Essex garden. How many dendrologists climb trees with chainsaws? Probably not enough.
13 January 2014
Woke in the night with the scent of a pot of Iris danfordiae filling the bedroom. I have never grown this tiny turk before and was unprepared for its perfume. What insects are such flowers of the winter trying to attract? There are not many, and their scents, it seems to me, have something in common: a trace of honey and a musky facet which can become a little too strong at close quarters. Winter Heliotrope and Viburnum Bodnantense are both better at a little distance. There are wines that do this to me; Muller Thurgau, for instance.
When flowers use their energy to broadcast scent at night can it be moths they are after? Certainly they look eager for visitors; the little yellow irises stand bolt upright like nestlings with their beaks stretched open, beseeching food.
Engagement of another kind
10th January 2014
What is a dilettante? Someone to be admired, scorned or pitied? Would you admit to, or maybe claim, the title?
We had a lively debate about it the other night, one friend taking the fashionable view that it means uncommitted, non-serious, even amateur (and is therefore to be condemned). My view is pretty much the opposite: that it infers commitment of another sort, passionate interest rather than professional duty.
It depends on the context, of course: in medical matters we hope for certainty and rely on the apparatus of peer-reviewing. An amateur surgeon would not find many customers. In a different field, (planning matters concerning historic buildings are on my mind at present) the common sense and taste that an experienced dilettante can bring can be far more valuable than the callow judgements of a professional planner.
It is not uncommon for the long-brewed plans of an owner and his architect, arrived at after years of study of a site, its surroundings, its history and natural conditions, to be rejected – or certainly (almost inevitably) modified - by an individual who has no background knowledge of the matter. "I would prefer the door to be here", or the window to be a casement, or a wall to be lower or higher, is a common, and completely outrageous, statement.
When winter comes
29 December 2013
To Exbury the morning after the pre-Christmas storm. Remarkably little damage: almost none to the high oaks that provide the principle cover - or any of the deciduous trees. Cedars with their heavy rigid branches and Scots pines with their sinuous ones are always the main casualties. But below them, washed and polished by the rain, the rhododendrons and camellias and all the other evergreens gleamed in the sun with a thrilling look of promise.
It must surely be an illusion that immediately after the shortest day plants take on an attitude, or at least an appearance, of expectation and hope. I know primroses do: their leaves prick up with just one extra minute of daylight. The buds of rhododendrons seem especially alert this morning. Excited and exciting, in fact.
It is sad to contrast this thriving Rothschild garden with the family's former estate in the western suburbs of London at Gunnersbury. Once Gunnersbury was almost as big and almost as horticulturally exceptional as Exbury is today. Its place in history reflected the
St Lucy's Day
22 December 2013
There were reputedly nine hours of daylight today, the shortest day of the year. It didn't feel like it. We opened the curtains on a pale-looking night lit by streetlamps and closed them again a good hour before tea. I was out, or at my desk, for the admittedly bright and breezy middle of the day; not, in other words, able or in the frame of mind to contemplate the garden. I did spend a happy half-hour absorbed in the greenhouse, swept leaves and tied up a climbing rose. The thrill of the day was finding a remarkably precocious camellia, just one pale pink, complex and rose-like flower, on the old bush we inherited with the garden. A sasanqua, I wondered, flowering before Christmas? No, I think, just an impatient japonica - rewarded for its haste by pride of place on the kitchen table.
But I love contemplating; spending quiet quarter-hours with only my eyes engaged. Last thing at night (especially after good wine) I can gaze into the fire for an hour on end - even at the repetitive flames of
Oh, to be in Honshu...
16th December 2013
Thinking about the rocks in Japanese gardens led me into a reverie about autumn in Japan; a wave of homesickness for the cool damp and bright light of short days among the orderly fantasies of Kyoto or Nara. At just this moment a faithful correspondent wrote to paint a picture of a garden I have never seen, to remind me, she said, of Saling Hall.
In that marvellous gardening climate autumn runs late. Early December and the picture is still full of bright colour, 'with Sasanquas bursting in bloom wherever one goes, autumnal cherry blossoms, the red fruit of Ilex rotunda, Ilex serrata and of course Nandina domestica, Idesia polycarpa high above and Sarcandra glabra and Ardisia crenata below, pinkish Euonymus sieboldianus, even purple beads of Callicarpa japonica, bright Kaki fruit, and besides the maples there are the reds of Enkianthus perulatus, Rhus sylvestris and golden Ginkgos, masses of freeform mums delightful around potagers, probably planted to have ample flowers for the family altar at this time of year. There is also the lovely fragrance of Osmanthus heterophyllus'.
Of course it is not our climate. Kyoto lies on about the latitude of Tangier. On the other hand the Asian landmass to the north ensures colder winters than anything in Africa. There is often snow, and sometimes frost, from January to early March. Average humidity is as high (and rainfall over the year about the same) as in North Wales, with June the wettest month and December to February driest.
The summer heat would not suit me, but for most of the year it would be a wonderful place to garden. The problem, as anyone who has been to Kyoto will tell you, is the crowds. It is nigh impossible to see any of the famous gardens without a crowd - often a uniformed school crocodile - blocking the iconic views. My friend's pictures show empty gardens, either through cunning timing or because their subjects, north of Kyoto in Shiga prefecture round Lake Biwa, have not yet been added to the tourist circuit.
8th December 2013
It is typical of our national taste in gardening that a rockery is a place to grow plants we categorise as suitable and appropriate - rather than a place to admire rocks. Rock-worship is something bizarre and eccentric indulged in by the Chinese (craggy rocks, usually on end) and the Japanese (smooth rocks, often lying down), while we pursue our obsession with flowers and leaves.
Tell English gardeners that a warlord of a thousand years ago took the garden rocks of his defeated rival as trophies, transporting them to his own garden miles away, and they will roll their eyes. "And pine trees" you add, and faint comprehension dawns. Trees are plants. Excessive, perhaps, and impractical, but moving plants, even as booty, is something we understand. When we incorporate stone in our gardens, and not as a support for "alpine" plants, we cut and dress it into architectural forms.
We do recognise menhirs. A fine standing stone has a place in our culture. One of the finest (I claim, with no modesty at all) is the rock I carried from North Wales to our old garden at Saling Hall. In its height (nearly 9 feet), its texture (grey granite patterned with lichens that vary from light green to dull orange with the seasons), the frozen flow of its formation and the cragginess of its top, like a distant summit, it draws visitors like a splendid sculpture - and stays indelibly in my mind.
These lapidary reflections were brought on by a new issue of SiteLines dedicated to stones. SiteLines is the (suitably landscape format) magazine of the Institute for Landscape Studies, a brainchild of Betsy Barlow Rogers, the remarkable New Yorker responsible for the renaissance of Central Park.
No city is stonier than New York - which is why it grows skyscrapers with minimum fuss. The defining features of Central Park are the grey rock outcrops and glacial boulders revealed (not without effort and expense) by removing thousands of tons of soil and glacial alluvium to show Manhattan's bones. Olmsted's "lithic mood" coincided with his discovery of Yosemite and the dramatic geology of the Sierras. My own lithic mood is longstanding, currently latent, but stirred by the thoughts in this most original magazine. (www.foundationforlandscapestudies.org)
Glass: a dilemma
30 November 2013
Our little greenhouse looks very romantic this morning, half-covered in big yellow walnut leaves. I'll go and dig it out in a minute.
It's been in place for three weeks now and I still keep going outside (or at least looking out of the window) to admire it. Nothing could look more at home in this Victorian garden of a Victorian house than this prim, spiky little construction, pale grey, with its finials and spiny ridge. I managed to preserve the old box hedge round the bed it occupies, so it looks totally bedded in. The main axial garden path passes it, then climbs five steps to a half-concealed terrace. At a glance you might think another whole garden lies just beyond it….
Alitex have done a good job. It's only when you open the door that you realise it is aluminium, not timber, but it still feels solid, and the door shuts with a good deep thunk. Benches take up the path side and the end, leaving the grey brick wall free for, at present, standard purple-flowered solanum rantonnei and fuchsia boliviana in pots.
The end bench will be partly occupied by a potting "shoe" (I didn't know they were called that) when I can find or make one the right size.
The benches are covered (or rather filled) with Hydroleca: little balls of heat-expanded clay. In the past I have used sand, but the makers claim magical properties for this product. It will apparently store and release moisture precisely as needed, is lightweight and hygienic …. . the balls are rather big, though, for some of my tiny pots, at present mainly of bulbs, so they topple over. I'll get used to it. The long side wall opens as one light operated by a splendidly retro lever. The top light opposite opens automatically at a given temperature. Under the end bench is a reservoir, filled from the gutters, with a hand pump: I'm not sure how to prevent the water from going stagnant and smelling, but I'm sure there's a product for this, too.
At this time of year the merest spot of colour shines like a light. There is a red light shining at me now; Salvia van Houttei; only one. A moral tussle: do I go over the road to Rassells Nursery and fill my benches with ready-made colour? Just now it would be cyclamen (pretty shrill colours), primulas (ditto) or pansies. Or do I treasure the little I have - until the bulbs come out?
Plus ça change
27 November 2013
There is endless sustenance and comfort to be found in old gardening magazines. Sustenance, because the ideas and answers flow seamlessly down the generations. Comfort, for the same reason. My resource on a gloomy November afternoon for many years has been The Gardeners' Magazine, conducted from1826 to 1848 by the apparently unwearyingly J. C. Loudon in the intervals in writing his majestic encyclopedias.
I picked up the volume for 1838 this afternoon. 175 years ago gardeners' concerns were very similar to ours, but their candour and freedom of expression very different. In the September issue is an illustrated (with engravings) article on the Duke of Bedford's garden, just up the road from here on Camden Hill. One year into Queen Victoria’s reign it is already the epitome of Victoriana: a restless mass of geometrical planting in the brightest colours, intensely gardenesque (to use Loudon's coinage) except for an orchard of fifty trees on the south slope. Every plant is enumerated in the engravings and its name and colour listed. It is in every sense a dazzling list.
In November, though, comes the critique, something no modern magazine would ever publish. Poor duke, and poor Mr Craie, his gardener. Mr Glendinning of Bicton, having avowed that his "few observations are by means intended to detract from the praise that is so justly his due" lambasts both the design and the cultivation. "The shrub with the spherical lumpy head’ he writes, ‘.. appears like an enormous hedgehog’ The beds are too close together, the paths are wrongly designed, and he "strongly objects" to placing pots with plants in them on walls. He "cannot see what business they have there".
All lit up
26th November 2013
To Kew to se what autumn fruit and colour has been spared by two weeks of cold and windy weather. Grey is the colour of the season - indoors as well as out, it seems. We see it in furnishings, in fashionable décor (Nina Campbell's new book Interiors is full of grey, and so is our son's new house.) Is grey the new cream?
And yesterday it was the theme in Kew Gardens, remaining leaves now only scattered patches of warmth. But what warmth! How is it that the yellows ands reds of autumn generate their own wattage? It feels (perhaps it is) lighter under a yellow sweet chestnut or an orange beech than under the open sky.. These were the trees providing the warmest patches; most of the maples were bare. I had to cross a lawn near the Palm House to identify a small tree that formed a neat tower of deep scarlet: Malus trilobata from the Eastern Med. One to note.
But the gardens were full of activity - and electricity. They were preparing for the Christmas illuminated trail, a mile of paths lit with every modern lighting trick; the first time Kew has opened at night in winter. (The show runs on certain days between November 28 and January 4; see the website). I remember when Westonbirt first did the same thing; it was an inspiring sight; trees make ideal subjects for theatrical lighting.
And hortiphones,,too: strange His Master's Voice-style speakers scattered around ready to perform: music? Commentary? Mysterious vegetable sounds? I can't wait.
20th November 2013
Home from a wintry dash to Krakow and Beaune, two of Europe's best-preserved ancient towns. Beaune still has its girdle of walls; at Krakow they pulled them down and replaced them with a green belt charmingly called the Planty (can it really mean just that?), now a circular park of mature oaks and limes and planes. Every town should have one.
Home to find the new greenhouse ready for commissioning. Gulp. The plants that go in here depend entirely on me for their survival. The bench is a blank sheet, a bare wall, a challenge. Happily the last panes of glass have gone in just as the temperature falls to zero; the first inhabitants are genuine refugees; a cymbidium, some favourite pelargoniums from Saling Hall, some salvias still in bloom.
11th November 2013
How carelessly, casually, unthinkingly did I once chuck armfuls, wheelbarrow loads, whole branches on the bonfire. How slowly, thoughtfully, with what infinite pains did I spend this afternoon dissecting, dividing, dismembering my prunings with my secateurs to cram them into the council's black plastic bags.
It is the difference between the country garden and the urban one. There are no big gestures in a garden shorter than a cricket pitch and no wider than a front parlour. Nor in a garden whose only outlet is the exiguous all-purpose corridor between the back stairs and the front door.
There are compensations, though. Town gardening, I've decided, is like putting on reading glasses. The foreground is enlarged, the distance blurred. But the object of your attention appears in such clarity of detail that it can occupy your mind like a whole landscape. Is this what William Blake meant when he saw 'a world in a grain of sand'?
6th November 2013
I can think of a dozen reasons for visiting New York in October - the best month in this continent of extreme weather - but the one that comes uppermost in my mind is the Conservatory Garden in Central Park
I know I bang on about Central Park, probably once a year, but then it has qualities none of our London parks (I love them too) can match. Seemingly endless paths (trails sounds more American) among huge grey rocks like monster whales and enormous trees, across savannah, skirting lakes and ponds, leading to cafes, kiosks, the boathouse restaurant, the zoo, the auditorium…. and several gardens. The Conservatory Garden, the most accomplished, the most formal and the most complete in itself, is way up around 105th Street, almost in Harlem.
Its centre is an 'Italian' design - though it would be hard to find avenues of crab apples around a simple level lawn in Italy. The ‘English' third is the most intimate, cloistered among yew hedges, sheltering a bronze of Mary and Dickon of The Secret Garden, reflected in a little waterlily pond.
The 'French' garden is the October event: an overwhelming display of Korean chrysanthemums, a bank fifteen feet wide right round a rectangular piazza, enclosing the city’s jolliest fountain; three mischievous and nubile young ladies dancing round the water.
The chrysanths were a gift to the city in 1947 as a war memorial. The donor was Mary Lasker from Chicago, a huge benefactor of medical research. They were originally grown from seed, a strain developed by the Park for decades, selecting a wonderful palette of brilliant colours, orange and violet, yellow and white, red and brown. Other gardens show them oriental-style, extravagantly coiffed into pompoms and cascades. Here they are grown as they would grow in some dream meadow, a random medley, not pinched and primped but tilting this way and that, jostling, playing like the dancers round the fountain.
In a green shade
23 October 2013
The sun is low enough in the sky this afternoon to rub in just how little light our new garden will get in winter. There will be improvements: the overhead shade of the huge sycamore and big walnut is going to be massively reduced. But this is looking forward several seasons. Half the garden will see no direct sunlight all winter.
I am turning over various possibilities in my mind. Portugal laurel, ivy, aucubas and some snazzy box topiary were our predecessors' solutions. But I crave a smooth restful green patch; the equivalent of a lawn, which would never thrive here. Is a moss lawn a practical possibility, I wonder? I dream of the green tranquillity of the moss gardens of Japan. But does it need the warm wet climate of Kyoto?
I like flowers
21st October 2013
Now that the squirrels have almost finished chewing the walnuts on our neighbour's tree and dropping the remains on our garden they are starting on our pots of bulbs. I have been planting pots in anticipation of the greenhouse we are excitedly expecting in a week or two, using what is left of our collection of wonky old handmade ones. (I scan old garden sheds, greenhouses and shops selling bric a brac wherever I go, hoping to find these increasingly rare veterans).
Narcissus seem to be the squirrels' first choice, with Iris reticulata also popular and snowdrops an acceptable snack. Do tulip bulbs have less scent, or is it because I plant them deeper that they have (so far) been relatively unscathed?
The Royal Parks
6 October 2013
The Royal Parks are so important to life in London, indeed to the whole identity of the city, that I feel ashamed I knew so little about them; how big they are, how many, and how they are run. Linda Lennon, the Chief Executive responsible for them, came to the AGM of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association the other day (I am the current president) to enlighten us. Let me pass on some of what we learned.
The total area of the parks is 5, 000 acres, of which Richmond Park represents a half and Bushy Park another 1,100 acres. There are eight in all, and seven other non-royal green spaces (Brompton Cemetery is one) run in conjunction with them. They claim 40 million visitors a year - surely a huge under-estimate (though are you a visitor if you simply walk through on the way to your bus?)
They estimate there are 135, 000 trees, of 250 species. Again, how do they count them, and how big to they have to be to qualify? The parks encompass 15 miles of river and contain 280 statues. Regent's Park and Primrose Hill taken together are the biggest in central London, covering 395 acres (of which 100 are dedicated to sports). Hyde Park covers 350 acres and Kensington Gardens 242 - so taken together they far outweigh the Regent's Park area. St James's Park covers 93 acres - but this includes the Mall and Horse Guards Parade. The Green Park, the most perfect and consistent in character (but this is only my opinion) is a mere 53 acres.
All of them together cost £32 million a year to maintain, of which the government pays £18 million - and going down. They employ (a mere) 110 staff, and gave up having their own propagation and production departments in the early '90s, to the delight of the Dutch nursery business. It is hardly surprising that pop concerts and other crowd-pullers are put on more and more often. Linda told us that this year's noise-reduction at a big bash produced an unexpected result: complaints from people living nearby who had invited their friends for the evening that they couldn't hear the music properly any more.
2nd October 2013
The deer are nibbling the grass just outside the window as I write. Two does and a faun that can't be more than a few days old. Four more, with one buck, are showing their white backsides as they graze the meadow a hundred yards off. They don't know it, but they've just won an argument. The broad meadow below the house, 18 acres dipping down to the Lymington River, will be theirs. Their private park. My foolish idea of a landscaped arboretum goes in the bin.
Young trees and deer don't mix. I learned the lesson the hard way in France years ago, when my landscaping ambitions were foiled again and again by game of various kinds.
Out of fashion
16 September 2013
We visit the agreeable old village of Cotignac most years at the end of summer. It lies among the steep pine-covered hills of the Var in the region justifiably known as La Provence Verte. The green is a blend of light and dark; the pure pale green of the Aleppo pine the dominant shade (what tragic thoughts the name of this lovely tree bring to mind today). The dark notes are mainly oaks of half a dozen species, with here and there the exclamation marks of slender cypresses.
Last year I was delighted to discover, the day before departing, an exhibition of the photographs of a colleague of long ago when my career was in fashion magazines. Frank Horvat was an international star at the time when David Bailey and Brian Duffy and their East End friends were making Twiggy and that girlish group famous. Frank took sexier fashion photos than any of them. He remained detached, though, a little aloof, and never became the same sort of “sleb”.
Three quarters of a span
6 September 2013
Autumn never announced its arrival more clearly than by today's damp chill after two days of almost unprecedented late summer sun. We have had our little garden sprinklers on every night for weeks; without them I'm sure there would have been no growth in the garden at all. The climbers thick on the walls (and the roses thrusting six feet above them) suck all the water from the ground. I don't grudge it, but I must replace it.
Meanwhile preparations are afoot for our new greenhouse. They
3 September 2013
It's forty years now that I have known the Banks family's garden on the Welsh border - almost a quarter of the garden's long life. Four generations of Bankses have been passionate plantsmen and distinguished dendrologists. William Harland B, who bought Hergest Croft in 1912, was inspired by William Robinson and an eager customer of Veitch's Exeter Nursery when EH Wilson was among those scouring China on their behalf. Many of his introductions thrive here still.
Just how and why the 40 inches of rain, neutral loamy soil and the altitude of 700-odd feet allow or provoke the mighty growth that gives Hergest Croft so many champion or near-champion trees is unclear. I am inclined to give as much of the credit to their proprietors. The biggest plants tend to belong, naturally enough, to those who planted them first.
I was at school with Lawrence, the third Banks to own the garden,
22 August 2013
However much I look forward to a visit to our Welsh woods I am still amazed by the way they lift my spirits. What can I compare it to? A moment in music when you can’t contain your urge to sing. Finding a fresh breeze on the beam that fills your sails and starts the water running noisily past. A first sip of champagne, indeed.
Entering the woods, feeling the powerful presence of the trees, breathing their unameable smell, tracing in the seeming chaos of leaves the unalterable patterns of each tree’s growth, the cool of their shade, the brilliance of their green, I am lifted onto another level of living and forget everything else. I become a forest creature.
Each time I visit a plot we have planted in the past fifteen years or so I am shocked by the extent of new growth. We were here in June, when new shoots were just sketches of the picture to come. Three months later two dimensions have become three, every tree has added maybe five per cent to its height, but ten per cent to its volume. The same space is even more overflowing with life.
11 August 2013
There are colours in fading hydrangeas that give me a little shock of pleasure every summer. The showiest of late summer flowers clearly have pigment problems; acid soil sends them one way, limey soil in the opposite direction. But all their pigmentation seems unstable. They can start out white and turn pink, or pink and go red, or blue and turn mauve or purple, And as they fade, in many cases, their pigment can disappear altogether, leaving a pale parchmenty ghost.
The pigments involved are the usual suspects: anthocyanins of various hues. The hydrangea's chromatic weakness - which I rather see as a strength - is that its sepals (petals to me, but Trad is a stickler for scientific accuracy) only have pigment in one layer of cells. When they fade, that's it. But what images their washed colours evoke. The paint on beach huts untouched for years in all weathers, tiny babies' wrappings, dowagers' shawls…..
How utterly different from their contemporaries the salvias. Salvias do primary colours. Is there anything redder than S elegans or splendens, or bluer than S. patens? There is a good buttery yellow in S. madrensis, and lots of subtle shading in between. S. leucantha encroaches on hydrangea territory, and S turkestanica is pretty ambivalent. As the hydrangeas fade the central American salvias get in to their stride. The one I wait most eagerly to see is van Houttei, part dusky scarlet, part maroon - and in flower for months on end.
How to choose your house
2 August 2013
It was the nursery that clinched it. We were house-hunting in London in March, in the dreary grey weeks when the East wind blew unrelenting day after day. One house had ticked the boxes, only to be taken off the market; others were laughably unsuitable in various ways. One icy day we visited a house in a street we didn't know at all, to be welcomed into warm, well-lit, totally comfortable surroundings, decorated (said my wife) rather like an old-fashioned luxury hotel. Yes, I said, we could live here without even talking to a builder - though a chat with a decorator would be good. 'It's not really us' said Judy.
Next day she went back on her own to case the unfamiliar neighbourhood. Yes, there were cafes, cleaners, a Waitrose, delis -
A pergola at King's
29 July 2013
This is the rose pergola we are putting up in the Fellows Garden of King's College, Cambridge in memory of my father, Guy, who went up to to King's as an undergraduate one hundred years ago, survived four years at the Front, and returned in 1919 to finish his law degree.
In the autumn we will be planting the roses. If you have good experiences of varieties for pergolas, (the soil is light, the climate dry) do please share them.
28 July 2013
We're just back from a seaside holiday, this year perfectly timed for two weeks of perfect summer, when simmering in London is not the connoisseur's choice.
The temperature on the Solent, with a steady westerly breeze over Christchurch Bay, was five Celsius degrees lower than on the commons of the New Forest five miles inland. I am discovering the pleasures of a seaside garden - not, I'm glad to say, one totally exposed to wind and spray on a beach, but walled and sheltered by the little house, with the sea over the saltmarshes at high tide only sixty yards away. The air is heady with the scents of seaweed and saltgrass and tidal mud, and luminous with ocean light.
There is such a rewarding template for seaside gardening that there seems no point in being original. What's wrong with hydrangeas and montbretia, and fuchsias and thrift? But drought can be a serious worry; the soil is basically sand and gravel and shingle and rain often seems to skip the beach to fall inland.
Sun v. Shade
11 July 2013
The question becomes acute in summer: which would you rather have, a sunny garden or a shady one?
The majority view is understandably for sun. "South-facing garden" is a selling point. In town gardens you may have no choice. Our house is on the north side of an east-west street, the right house but the wrong garden? We had our doubts, but not any more - at least in summer, when it matters most. The summer sun starts the day peering over the eastern wall and finishes it beaming over the western one. The garden side of the house stays cool and the garden gets plenty of light. We are also blessed to have a tall tree in our neighbour's garden to the west. We have dappled light on a sunny day in the centre of the garden.
Unfortunately the tree is a walnut, a beautiful dome of leaves on a smart grey trunk, but a hailstorm of green nuts in early summer and a constant rain of half-chewed half-ripe ones when the squirrels move in (they're never far away).
A Friend, a Book and a Garden...
3 July 2013
….. that was the title Tom Stuart-Smith gave to a Literary Festival organised by The Garden Museum in the Stuart-Smith's garden last weekend.
The timing was propitious: only the second weekend this year when a festival in a garden had no need for umbrellas. Saturday was warm and partly sunny, Sunday was a proper summer day. We needed the shade of the tent for the lectures that were the centrepiece; a tent you discovered within beech hedges in the heart of a garden as lovely, and in as beautifully-timed perfection, as I could imagine. So beautifully-timed, in fact, that groups of flowers that had been in promisingly imminent bud on the first day showed their colours to the sun on the second.
The garden crests a modest ridge in a corner of Hertfordshire miraculously preserved from new towns and motorways, sheltering among its high hedges, then suddenly bursting out into a long view
25 June 2013
The raw figures are not encouraging. We have swapped our country garden for a city one which is precisely one five-hundred-and-thirty-sixth of the size. Twelve acres exchanged for just under one thousand square feet. It means a totally different relationship with your plants, a new regime, which could (strangely) become hectically intense, a change down into a very low gear indeed, needing frantic pedalling.
My night thoughts at Saling Hall wandered round the acres enjoying, or dissatisfied with, trees or groups of trees, concerned with blanket weed in a pond or when to cut some long grass. Spring (specially this year) unfolded week by week over a good three months. You could go off for a week without missing anything vital.
Here, in contrast, I will start awake at midnight with a brain wave: the shoot heading up the wall could be tied in a foot to the left; I could remove a couple of leaves to make room for that flower; the pot of lavender would get more sun on a higher step. It's a hectic little microcosm, held artificially in some sort of equilibrium by constant
Rothschilds in the woods
20 June 2013
After St Paul's, Exbury the next weekend came as a complete contrast: a garden that shows off its astonishing collection of plants like a museum.
The Rothschild style (Exbury was largely the creation of Lionel de Rothschild in the 1920's) is full-on; what J C London would have called "gardenesque". If nature never made sylvan glades with smooth straight hedges, still less did it fill woods to the brim with a kaleidoscope of flowers of different species and varieties in the full spectrum of colours.
Both gardens, Exbury and St Paul's, gain their dignity from their high vaults of towering trees - above all oaks - that moderate light and
Stowe in a wood
10 June 2013
To St Paul's Walden Bury on one of the rare fine evenings of June to wander round one of England's most romantic gardens at that moment when the very air seems charged with chlorophyll. It must have been on such an evening that Marvell wrote 'a green thought in a green shade'. The oaks and ashes are joyfully green against an azure sky. Every plant is in improbable perfection; towering forest trees, magnolias in the infant innocence of pale flowers, rhododendron of every hue, billowing white clouds of Siberian malus, ivory flowered dogwoods and wild service trees the size of oaks.
But this is a woodland garden disciplined by calm grass rides, arrow-straight, turning your steps towards a statue, a pavilion, a grassy theatre overlooking a simple fountain. At one moment lilies distract you, at another the perfume of azaleas: all the spring garden pleasures are there, all the more intense for the calming effect of geometry and proportion, measured out in straight beech hedges.
Behind it all are two indefatigable treasure-hunters, Sir Simon and Lady Caroline Bowes Lyon. Laid out this evening on the billiard table in the house were a hundred fascinating photographs they had taken in the previous weeks in Bhutan, many of rhododendrons planted or to be planted in Hertfordshire. Such enterprise, such order, and such an evening are really the summit of gardening.
11 June 2013
You see the plant you've been looking for growing lustily in a big pot in a nursery sales bed. You pay the 5-litre premium, you take it home, dig the hole, add the fertilizer, knock the plant out of the pot - and a meagre little root comes out in a cascade of fresh compost.
It happened to me again yesterday. The guilty nursery was Wisley. There should be a decent delay after repotting for plants to fill their pots again before they are offered for sale.
2 June 2013
Each year we try to time a visit to our Welsh woods to see the bluebells in their glory – hopefully in concert with the blue rhododendron augustinii we have infiltrated among the beeches. Last weekend was almost the bluebell climax; they still had a little way to go. The rhododendrons, on the other hand, seem to be better at time-keeping: they were perhaps a week past their peak. We call them blue, but the colour of French lavender is a closer match.
The Snowdonia spring, our neighbours tell us, is three weeks late, or (seeing it in a positive light) three weeks longer than usual this year. It is the most beautiful ever : the sky is azure, the opening leaves of oak and beech olive, russet and that most tender green, scarcely shade the woodland floor where bluebells in millions and clumps of primroses compete with the fresh fronds of ferns. In damper shade the little white stars of wood sorrel are like timid wood anemones. Locals say there is a relationship between wood sorrel and copper - which rings a bell at Cae Gwian: a projected gold mine here in the 1840s (we still use the old grey stone building) turned out to hold nothing but copper after all. What flowers would gold has favoured?
The next valley to ours, running north-south down to the estuary of the Afon Mawdach, has been bought by the Woodland Trust. Its name is Cwm Mynach, the valley of the monks (of the Cistercian Cymer Abbey at Dolgellau).Its secluded meadows, hemmed in almost completely by steep hills and dominated by the cliffs of Diffwys, a 2000-footer, must have been some of the loveliest in Wales before the foresters arrived. The Woodland Trust is dedicated to restoring the ancient oak woodland now brutally invaded by conifers. They planted spruce, larch, douglas fir and the hideous (and useless) lodgepole pine under the oaks with the object of shading them to death. Often they succeeded, but veteran oaks still persist, and in the remaining open meadows show how magnificent such sessile oaks can be.
We started the rescue and restoration of our own oakwoods at Cae Gwian nearly 20 years ago now. It’s a long job, but hugely rewarding.
22 May 2013
I was nervous about going back to Saling Hall. Our successor there is a man of action, and I knew he would waste no time before tackling his new project. But what I saw when I went back last week astonished me – and made me realise how long I had let things drift.
Judy and I had often talked about felling the long file of Lombardy poplars that flanked the front of the house, memorable trees (they were planted in the 1930s) that contained the front courtyard, separating it visually from the churchyard next door.
Last week they had gone. A loader was shifting their immense logs onto a pile bigger than a bus. The sense of light and air around the pink brick façade of the house was extraordinary. The rather gloomy presence of the towering trees was replaced by the broad green dome of a wild service tree I planted in the churchyard in 1973, looking in
It did well in the heats
3 May 2013
To Strawberry Hill to see the progress of the restoration of Horace Walpole's riverside summer house. Is any house more famous and so little known? The reverend fathers who took care of it for so long loved it dearly and defended it well, but they had no money to restore its glories. Now some inspired fund-raising, boosted by a handsome Heritage grant, has set the wheels in motion. The results, sticking as faithfully as possible to Walpole's plans, tell us almost as much about him as reading his irresistible letters.
Riverside, alas, the garden is no more, although the river has not gone away. The 200 yards between Walpole's raised terrace walk and the Thames have inevitably been filled with houses. Of the 40-odd acres of garden and park, originally in open countryside, some four remain. We know enough about Walpole's planting to reproduce much of it: young lime trees in serried rows already begin to form the
30 April 2013
There are cars circulating in London at the moment scattering petals as they go from the accumulation on their roofs. The odds are they come from Kensington. The Royal Borough is blossom-crazy, with sometimes spectacular, sometimes frankly garish results. I hadn't realised, I confess, before it became my borough, what an arboretum of street trees it contains, or what a show they make in April and May.
The theme tree in our street is our native double white cherry, Prunus Avium 'Plena'. It was one of our favourite trees at Saling, a sumptuous white cloud in April and as prettily motley as cherries get in autumn. There must be forty in the street here, ranging from craggy old veterans to novices only planted last year. The disadvantage of cherries in pavements is the way their roots emerge from the ground as writhing monsters - as gardeners know only too well.
Whizz.. it's gone
21 April 2013
Recorded history divides naturally into eras that can be defined by how the recording happened. For millennia memory was alone. Memory was made redundant (or at least optional) by writing, later supplemented by illustration. Illustration became cheaper and more available with engraving.
Then, barely two hundred years ago, came photography. We have seen the participants in, for example, the Crimean War just as they saw each other. By the end of the 19th century came the movie; we are fully acquainted with the (rather jerky) movements of our forebears. Then speed becomes the essence of communication: in increasingly rapid succession we have the Telex and its relatives, then move on to the fax machine.
16 April 2013
Our new house is entirely surrounded by trees. We haven't seen it in summer yet, but as spring arrives I am starting to realise that the delicate curtains of twigs and branches have only one meaning: leaves will blot out any sight of the London around us.
It certainly wasn't my intention, tree-crazy as I am. Most trees are best seen at a little distance, not in your face. Our front yard is completely filled and canopied over by a pink Magnolia soulangeana, just now in full flower and, between you and me, really rather flashy. The neighbour's is
9 April 2013
To Tuscany, and my brother’s garden in the hills above Argentario, in the hope of a preview of spring. By April the legendary lilac-scented nirvana should be up and running Not this year – or not yet. The trees are bare, the furrows full of rain, and the wind is cold. There are touches of brilliant green on the elm and field maple but the oaks are not even fattening their buds. I hoped for irises; not yet.
Only the hedgerows and ditches are coming alive with wood anemones in dense clusters or desultory sprinkles, mainly white, then suddenly predominantly blue. The occasional one is even pink: a Guardian reader? Cyclamen are putting their heads up to look tentatively around. Here and there sudden dark blue dot marks a grape hyacinth breaking cover.
In the garden rosemary blue is the one celebratory colour at this time of year. You could take it for ceanothus in the distance, in tone and
The cupboard bare
27 March 2013
Rowlandson would have drawn a Garden Society meeting with relish: the crowded dinner with members showing and talking about their favourite plants, the jumble of flowers and cut branches, of magnolia and rhododendron, iris and dogwood, the sheaves of leaves, the unheard-of species collected on hair-raising chinese journeys, vases being knocked over in the crush, grey-haired members heckling the speaker and his plants…
Last night's meeting (the 2, 563rd) was extraordinary - not for its noise level but for the bareness of the table at the end of the room where the exhibits wait their turn.. Normally late March brings a rich bounty, but this year the cornucopia had run dry; twenty specimens instead of a hundred. For once, gardeners from all over the country were in the same boat: weeks late, buds unopened or flowers frosted.
Two members from Exbury had brought weather-proof rhododendrons: R. lutescens, pale yellow with red young leaves, and R. 'Nimrod', just the pink, I thought, of a young lady emerging from icy water.
19 March 2013
This little walnut pedestal desk between the windows has felt the scratching of something like five hundred episodes of Trad and at least a dozen books. This is its last Trad; not mine, I hasten to say. The last furniture leaves the house tomorrow, either for the sale room, our children's houses or (what seems an exiguous amount) our new lodgings in London. A new desk is ready.
In these last few weeks at Saling the weather has conspired to minimize any pains of parting. There has scarcely been an hour when a walk round the garden has not involved boots and scarves, and usually an umbrella too.
It is primroses that prove the heroes of a recalcitrant winter. Since the first pricked up their green ears in late December they have slowly
6 March 2013
I am disappointed by my own emotions, or rather lack of them, as we prepare to move house. With two weeks to go before we leave Saling, after 42 years, I should surely be feeling waves of reluctance and nostalgia. I should be walking round the garden saying goodbye to my trees before tearing myself tearfully away.
We are too busy, though, for this kind of sentiment. Too busy sorting papers, choosing books, filleting files, filling boxes, filling skips, making calculations about furniture and pictures - will they fit into our new seriously smaller house? And the weather, with the exception of one perfect sunny day, has been cold and sullen. There are ragged brown leaves and the pale skeletons of old cow parsley caught in the bushes and blowing among the snowdrops. There is
the east winds of March bringing dust to the fields they bring another downpour. None of the farmers' fields in sight have been drilled at all, or even harrowed, and some not ploughed.
1 March 2013
By the first of March I expect (and impatiently demand) signs of spring to be lightening up the garden. There are precious few this year. Cold wet ground and a steady east wind week after week have delayed even snowdrops (they are not quite fully open even now). Little Tommie crocuses are weeks behind schedule. Two bold open-faced flowers, in fact, put them to shame: primroses and hellebores have pressed on regardless. Cornus mas is our other undaunted plant; the big bush by the front drive has been getting yellower and yellower since January.
Among the precocious cherries, Prunus autumnalis made a good January show before snow and ice clobbered it. It will
be back in
21 February 2013
Back from a weekend in La Petite Afrique, the sheltered nook between Beaulieu sur Mer (as opposed to Beaulieu sur Rivière in Hampshire) and its awesome limestone cliffs, where ice never happens - and where over the last ten years I have had the happiness of designing my daughter's garden.
Suddenly last week it dawned on me that the first phase is over. The plan is realised. Now we must just watch the seasons paint it in their different colours, certainly make adjustments to the planting, but above all control and guide the surging growth that happens when water, heat and light are all abundant. A development that in England will keep you watching and waiting for five years happens here in one. Between our previous visit, last September, and this, young olive trees have put on nearly two feet of new growth.
The latest, and perhaps final, groundwork operation was planting the tiny symbolic vineyard, a mere nine vines to be trellised in three rows on the little terrace in front of the temple. The temple shelters the (notional) spring at the top of the garden, that then appears as a series of water spouts on three successively lower terraces.
We have kept the planting to a simple 'Mediterranean' palette, not necessarily native, but long established and conventional. Agapanthus that would still be settling in at home have entirely populated their beds. Echiums are stout purposeful rosettes, their flower-spikes ready to go. Hydrangea quercifolia loves the heat and has made great solid bushes in two years.
15 February 2013
I've given up even trying to make a list of plants I simply must take to our new garden. Too many painful decisions, for a start - but also the feeling that it's wrong to hang on. Do I really want to walk round one garden remembering another? If I have discovered that a plant is good, grows well for me, fills a useful role and provides moments of real excitement as it shoots, or buds, or flowers, or when the leaves turn, or even as a winter tuft of hope, I'd like to take it, or a cutting or a wodge in a pot. But not at any price. Nurseries are full of unexplored opportunities.
6 February 2013
Only six weeks to go before we move house. There's a lot of memories and emotion tied up in a garden of more than forty years. I planted most of the now-mature trees; our children grew up here and our grandchildren (three of them at least), will have it registered in their early memories. But no violins, I insist. The trees will grow on, and our successor has already shared some excellent ideas with us. We can only feel positive, and look forward to our next billet.
There is a contrast. From 12 acres to something like 1000 square feet is down-sizing (or 'free-upping' ) as one friend called it. We are moving to a Victorian house in Kensington with a garden that (for the moment at least) stresses the paving element, so competition for space is intense.
1 February 2013
How I'd like to be able to claim descent from Jon Johnston. He was a Scottish religious refugeee, born in Poland, who became one of the great natural philosophers of his day - a day in which scholarship was a pan-European affair.
He was born of Calvinist parents, when Shakespeare was writing his tragedies. He went to school in Poland (where he learned Polish, German, Greek, Latin and Hebrew) and university in Scotland. At St Andrews, in 1623, he studied philosophy, theology and Hebrew, then went back to Poland to teach, before setting off again to Germany, England and the Netherlands to study the closely related subjects of botany and medicine.
When he went back to Poland he became a royal tutor, taking three of his students with him on another tour, this time to Denmark, Norway, England, France, Italy and back to Leyden in the Netherlands, where his treatise on fevers earned him the title of doctor of medicine. His next journey was to Cambridge and Oxford, then Flanders and Brabant, then Paris, Montpellier and Lyons, then Bologne and Padua.
At the age of 33 he had already visited most of the great universities of Europe. I try to imagine him lugging all his books onto lumbering coaches for another week on the road. He had made his reputation, though. Heidelberg, Leipzig and Leyden all invited him to head their medical faculties. He refused and settled in Sladwicka in the south of Poland, where he spent the rest of his life writing a series of encyclopedias, all in Latin.
I have one of them here, his Dendrographiae sive Historiae Naturalis de Arboribus et Fruticibus, published by a famous publisher and engraver, Mathias Mesian, at Frankfurt in 1662.
By strange chance that was the very year that John Evelyn read his Silva, the first English treatise on trees, to the Royal Society in London - the first scientific paper in the Society's history. Modern tree literature starts here, with two quite different books (Johnson's a catalogue in Latin, Evelyn's a series of essays in English) initiating the study of dendrology at the same time.
Gertrude Jekyll on her rock garden
30 January 2013
" Nothing is a better lesson in the knowledge of plants than to sit down in front of them, and handle them and look them over just as carefully as possible; and in no way can such study be more pleasantly or conveniently carried on than by taking a light seat to the rock-wall and giving plenty of time to each kind of little plant, examining it closely and
27 January 2013
What is the difference between an artist and an illustrator? There must be one, because practitioners classify themselves in one category or the other. Of course there are artists who couldn't illustrate (a book, let's say) to save their lives, and illustrators whose work will never be called art. But in the middle ground there seem to me to be fine artists who are classified as 'mere' illustrators, suggesting that their calling is in some way inferior. So what is the difference, and which artist (or illustrator) am I thinking of?
I love the work of Stanley ('S.R.') Badmin. He portrayed the English countryside in the 1930s, '40s and '50s with a precision and sympathy that made him, in the best sense, popular. In the days of their enlightenment Shell commissioned him to illustrate their marvellous county guides. Many of us learned to see the country through his eyes: particularly the trees. Has anyone understood
I prefer the radio
17 January 2013
Who was right: the person who said 'one picture is worth a thousand words' or the one who said 'I prefer the radio: the pictures are better'?
I like books with lots of words in them: page after page of grey matter. Books like the radio rather than the telly. Picture books (I'm thinking of garden picture books) only half-occupy my mind. I am asked to admire one perfect garden scene after another; the captions are rarely enough even to bring me into real contact with the scene, let alone profound or exploratory. Of course there are
14 January 2013
There is no light meter more sensitive than a leaf. Barely two weeks since the shortest day, a mere twelve minutes between sunrise and sunset, and there are plants sitting up in their sleeping bags rubbing their eyes. Primroses always seem most alert; their leaves spring to attention as soon as any warmth confirms the change of season. And today, after a frosty night, the air has balm in it and the primroses are opening flowers.
Even if there is proper winter in the forecast a new year with moderate temperatures gives us a head start. Once the aconites have surfaced, the primroses started, the hellebores
9 January 2013
Dear Doctor, I have a chronic case of lemna minor in my water garden and wonder if you have a remedy for me. It completely covers the surface of one of the two 12-foot square ponds; the other, under the constant splash of a fountain, is also affected, but less seriously. Why it has infected us now I don't know. In forty years it has made occasional appearances and I have netted it off, but this time the problem is serious: it has spread through the clumps of Iris kaempferi that occupy three of the corners.
Sweetgum, slow fuse
2 January 2013
The garden could hardly be more monochrome this afternoon if it were a black and white photograph. When the sun sets there will probably be a gleam on the horizon, but now, from the grey fish in the grey water to the black tracery of trees there is a cold consistency of tone. I can enjoy it as one does an engraving.
Until I turn round and see the only warm colours, almost shocking in their contrast, and their isolation. One is the line of
Four legs good
29 December 2012
How good it is to have animals back on the land around us. It seems decades since we had their company; the last sheep disappeared with the foot and mouth calamity of 2001. Since then only the birds have broken the silence of the fields.
Suddenly last summer we heard the beefy bellowing of cattle from across the valley. I had wondered why expensive-looking fencing was going up round fields that had been monotonously arable for twenty or thirty years. A substantial herd has now transformed the landscape on the other side of the stream I follow on my daily walk. Now I realize how much I’ve been missing four-legged country company.
It evens out
28 December 2012
I’m a great believer in averages. Choose the right slice of time and they always justify themselves. Nevertheless our weather records for 2012 surprise me. The national news tells us that it may have been England’s wettest year ever, but here in our corner of Essex it hasn’t broken records. At about 700 millimetres of rain, or 27.5 inches, it is certainly on the high side. We’ve had more, though. However puddly the ground
20 December 2012
'When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight,' said Dr Johnson, 'it concentrates his mind wonderfully.' We have longer than a fortnight, and the issue is not hanging. It is moving house. But it is wonderful how it concentrates our minds.
We have lived at Saling Hall for 42 years. The house and garden have that familiarity which is easy to identify, or perhaps confuse, with love. You notice the slightest change in the loved one's features or demeanour and find, or try to find, an explanation. The return of honey fungus or a blocked drainpipe is easy to diagnose. But the whole person, the whole place, remains mysterious. Its dimensions are easy, its spirit is elusive. You cannot stand outside yourself.
10 December 2012
Remember when we got our first Camcorders? It was in the late '80s or early '90s. It was thrilling to be able to film our surroundings so easily without fussing about camera settings. The way the new device adjusted to light conditions was uncanny: you could almost film a rabbit going down its hole.
The results have been standing, all but forgotten, on a bookshelf here for 20 years or so, hard to look at without resurrecting ancient technology. So have our video tapes in different formats, in many cases our only real record of what was happening in the garden at the time.
So we have had them converted to CDs (by a firm called Snappy Snaps) so that we can look at them on the television set or a computer. Even perhaps edit them - if I knew how.
As ye sow
5 December 2012
When we went back, in a fit of nostalgia, to our old farmhouse in the Bourbonnais last summer we were delighted to find it in better order than ever, the garden spruce and the house brimming with the family who bought it from us eight years ago. They gave us lunch at a long table in the shade of the plane trees we planted 20 years ago, a pleasure I didn't think we'd ever have.
'Is my (very) old Land Rover still going', I asked, 'may I take it for a spin?' I wanted to do my old circuit of my plantations and ponds, to see if my new tracks and the alleys I made though the woods were still navigable. 'If we can come too' said our friends.
They were more than navigable, in fact in much better shape than when we left. As I drove they asked me about every twist and turn; why these trees here and those there (they are mainly oak and pine); how I discovered this spring or made that pond - and why that one had collapsed into a muddy puddle.
But best of all were the questions from the 18 year old daughter. She wanted to know the names of the trees and where they came from. She wants, she says, to be a landscape designer, wants to study in England - and tells me my work is her inspiration. Imagine what that does for the morale.
Time of Plenty
28 November 2012
When it gets dark at tea-time I look around my bookshelves in a different mood. It isn't the latest book I want to read, but one that carries me along on the broad tide of thought that spans generations; indeed centuries.
Gardeners have always had the same preoccupations, and similar questions in mind. Their priorities change, and so does their rate of progress in answering questions. 170 years ago progress was in overdrive, as I learn on consulting one of my favourite winter evening resources: The Gardeners Magazine.
John Claudius Loudon conducted this magazine, the first of its kind, from 1826 until he died of editorial exhaustion in 1845. In 1842 Queen Victoria had been on the throne for five years. It was a time of exhilarating progress in many spheres. Reading Loudon's review of the year 1842 is positively exciting. The German chemist von Liebig had just discovered the value of nitrogen to plants and revised the whole science of manure. 'The higher the animal the better its manure' was one of his sayings,
14 November 2012
It was when the Creator was making all His ingenious arrangements for His new earth that His eye fell on something that one of His beautiful mammals had dropped on the ground. 'That doesn't look very nice,' He said to Himself. 'Couldn’t I do something clever with that?'
Only the day before He had solved one problem that was worrying Him. The earth, or parts of it, looked rather monotonous month after month, all leafy, but a bit samey.
After the ash
12 November 2012
A future without ashes? More or less devastating depending on where you are. When the elms went in Essex (and the memory is still raw) the young oaks and ashes in our copses and hedges were our hope for the future; the silver bat willows the quick answer, providing the missing dimension of height to the denuded fields - at least where there was a stream.
Forty years later the transformation is complete. Ashes and oaks provide the framework to views in all directions. Happily in the country round us oaks are in a majority of at least 2:1 and I know of few places in East Anglia with anything like a monoculture of ash.
Our own best ashes, in fact, are in North Wales. They line the rushing streams where they cut deep into the hills, growing among boulders and ferns. Curiously, in the high humidity of sheltered valleys and often daily rain their smooth trunks become bright
2 November 2012
I’ve seen enough hayfields. At this time of year there is hay in every garden, hay wherever you look, hay on my mind. What is all this about grass as a show plant for borders, for beds, for front gardens and back, parks, squares and courtyards? Grass has its qualities, I agree. It soothes, it nods and sways in the wind, it looks great with the sun behind it (but what doesn’t?)
Home now and then
29 October 2012
Home from California to a near-drowning garden. There have been no cold nights to start leaves turning, and no sunshine to cook the colours. Red is simply not present in the palette, except in that guaranteed pillarbox, Acer p. 'Osakazuki' , and even he is reluctant. There is yellow here and there but little brilliance. And many trees have simply shed their leaves - certainly not for lack of water.
We had invited neighbours over on Saturday, even enticed them with a glass of wine, to see what is usually a pretty calorific display. On Friday, with more rain and a north wind forecast, I emailed them again, saying don't bother, but we'll try again in two weeks. By that time at least the Japanese maples en masse should have caught fire. But I gather from Tony Kirkham at Kew that their trees are baffled by this autumn, too. I should have learned that the best results arrive at the last moment.
24 October 2012
I have watched Molly Chappellet's garden evolve and mature over many years. The elements that make it one of the most beautiful and memorable I know haven't changed. The view to the northwest, over the plunging vineyards, over the waters of Lake Hennessy far below to distant Mount St Helens, the huge volcanic boulders like fossilized wild beasts stalking the landscape, the huge dark domes of many-centuries-old oaks, these are the anchoring elements.
The dynamic ones are the light (when the sun sets behind the vines in October there is gold-dust on everything) and Molly's planting. No one can tell where the garden begins, and it really doesn't end: it spreads out as a vision that encompasses everything from the eaves of the old timber ranch-house to the purple ridges of the hills. Lavender, euphorbias, irises or eight-foot artichokes meander off downhill to meet the regiment of vines. The vines advance among the oaks, the rocks among the cherries, the roses among the lemon trees - and the paths and platforms for walking or sitting are smoothly raked caviar, or so it seems. The grey granular surface is the grape-pips of vintage after vintage. They pile the purple pomace from the press and wait for the skins to disappear.
The boulders are unique, it seems, to Pritchard Hill. A wine-grower has a choice: either plant his vineyard in the spaces between these massive chunks of stone strewn over the hills or dig them up and move them - a task of unknown size when
A watery grave
22 October 2012
Was it tempting providence to tell, as I did in March, the story of Diogenes, my 35-year-old goldfish? The sad news greeted
19 October 2012
The new tenant in the old home farm here, facing across the duckpond, soon came to our front door. 'You have an awful lot of carp in that pond', he said, 'would you like me to fish for good ones for you to put in your other pond?' He didn't know there are five other ponds, but now, a few weeks later, they all have grey submarines cruising, dreaming, occasionally scooting about; a lovely way of wasting time as we walk around the garden.
He rightly suggested only moving big fish - too big, we hope, for the heron who is on constant patrol. He sits on the improbably
A glimpse of Paris
16 October 2012
There is nothing in England like La Maison Rustique. Sadly, there isn't in France, either, since last summer. The unique bookshop/publisher of the rue Jacob in St Germain des Prés, memorable for its dark green façade, has gone out of business. The owners mysteriously turned down a good offer from a highly suitable buyer. The green doors familiar to every literate French gardener for 180-odd years have shut.
It started with an almanack called Le Bon Jardinier, published in 1755, the year after Philip Miller of the Chelsea Physick Garden published his Gardeners Dictionary. Both became the standard works in their respective countries for a century or more. In Paris the publisher of Le Bon Jardinier, under the name La Maison Rustique, went on to publish book after book of practical knowledge for country people. On everything from forestry to veterinary
Those pests again
8 October 2012
The squirrels are going to be in trouble this winter; there are practically no nutty fruits. No acorns, no beech mast, very few conkers - nothing for them to put in their larders. They are eating, rather than burying, the few nuts they can find, and living meanwhile
Up in the woods
1 October 2012
We've been thinning conifers these last few weeks in the woods near Barmouth (where the first National Trust property overlooks the Irish Sea). Thinning seems to be the new forestry fashion; the alternative to the drastic clear-felling that leaves such ugly scars.
We are choosing and cutting down the biggest trees in a spruce plantation nearly fifty years old, craggy monsters 80 feet high and 10 feet round - bigger in fact than the sawmill really wants. They produce logs 12 or 16 feet long which will be sawn up for joist and rafters. The rest of the trees will grow on for a few more years; in this plan the light filtering in through the gaps in the canopy will allow the mass of fallen seed on the mossy floor to germinate. When we fell the next round of biggest trees ('Target Dimension Felling' is the technical term in vogue) there will already be a young population to carry on. The eventual aim is a quasi-natural wood with trees of all ages - and no more ugly clear-felling. The practical
difficulties are immense, though: every
Home and dry
19 September 2012
Home from the South of France to a familiar scene that still came as a shock: an East Anglian drought. We have been so spoilt by soft weather this summer, the garden resplendently green, that browning grass and crisp fallen leaves blowing into corners bring me sharply back to reality.
And yet there has only been a short dry spell while we were away; a few days in the 70s and a blustery wind. I thought the almost constant rain would have made the soil drought-proof for months. But no; one spit down it is crumbly and dry. I suppose the formidable toplive-hamper on every plant has its immediate consequences below ground, too.
13 September 2012
It is hard not to worship the vast pale-trunked planes that form an airy canopy over where I am sitting, on the broad terrace of a chateau in La Provence Verte. They soar up from the croquet lawn twenty feet below, their creamy boles pollarded long ago to divide into five or six great creamy curving limbs, time-stopped fountains of suspended leaves.
A curving double staircase, enclosing a cool splashing water-tank, leads down to the lawn. Olive and fig trees screen the vineyards on two sides; on the third the morning light is coloured brilliant apple green by a steep hillside of Aleppo pines.
Stone parapets, box hedges, a few vases of geraniums; those are all the ingredients of a perfect vision of Provence. Or at least of La Provence Verte.
What gives this high part of the Var its verdant name? Rolling hills for miles around are clad almost exclusively in the lightest, palest members of the pine tribe. The undergrowth is varied with juniper and prickly little oaks, wild olives and arbutus, rosemary and lavender and spurge. From where I sit I can make out the limestone cliff at the start of one of many limestone gorges - the Vallon Sourn, to give this long craggy cleft in the forest its gloomy name.
Or am I imagining the mood? I always hear the Caribbean 'morne' as 'mourn', when all it means is 'hill'. 'Sourn' may just mean 'deceptive', as the dictionary says. But the sounds of words can colour our feelings, and the shadow of something dire just outside this green heaven seasons its pleasures.
The Shamrock Collection
3 September 2012
It's tempting to infer from their name that they love water - and indeed they do (although 'hydrangea' means 'water jar' and refers to their cup-shaped fruit). They have certainly loved this summer's rain and been more bounteous in flower than ever, in my experience, before.
For total immersion in hydrangeas there is nowhere on earth like the curiously-named Shamrock Collection, the French National collection created by Robert and Corinne Mallet at Varengeville, just west of Dieppe. The Mallet family is famous for another garden in Varengeville, Le Bois des Moutiers, plunging towards the sea from one of Edwin Lutyens' most inspired country houses. Hydrangeas play their part here, under giant cedars around fern-fringed pools, alongside rhododendrons and flowering dogwoods, maples and oaks.
But across the village, in the Shamrock garden, they reign supreme. Why Shamrock? Because its creators made three trips to Ireland in the1990s, collecting old hydrangea varieties that might have been lost on the continent. Illogical as it sounds, the Irish symbol stuck to their hydrangea collection.
There is a pleasing unity about this genus, varied as it is. Unity of form; the starburst, whether into a simple mop or somethingmuch more elaborate; and colour - anywhere white through pink of all shades to not-quite red and all shades of purple. But nothing on the orange side of the spectrum.
31 August 2012
I'm tired of being lectured by every gardening magazine and newspaper article about 'bio-diversity'. Most of what they say is frankly patronizing tosh. 'Don't forget to leave some stinging nettles for the butterflies' indeed. I'm afraid it's just not my T-shirt. Mine says: 'Save our planet: it's the only one with chocolate'. Any sense of proportion (let alone humour) has disappeared from the wildlife obsessives who try to scare us into planting 'natives' in our gardens.
Is it partly the guilt complex of the urban / suburban gardener who spends twenty times as much on decking and 'water features' than on anything that grows and needs looking after?
Garden on a plate
24 August 2012
No one puts his garden on a plate with the style of Patrice Taravella. His garden is the Prieuré de Notre Dame d'Orsan Prieuré d'Orsan, already a destination for gardeners travelling in the centre of France. It is hard to believe that this fantasy monastic estate, its perfectly gardened crops, its vineyard, orchards and oak-fringed meadows are barely 20 years old. Its ultra-chic eight-room hotel is part of the attraction. There are not many places as nice as this to stay in the profondeur of the Cher.
But Tara's food (he cooks it himself) must be some of the most original and beautiful in France. The potager and verger supply the ingredients. He combines them as his genius suggests. If Michelin's inspectors have the wit to understand it he will get a star, or even two - but I'm not holding my breath.
The dish in my photograph is typical of his hors d'oeuvre, 'starters' as we call them these days. Simply poached (but still firm) vegetables, beguilingly displayed and full of
17 August 2012
We have just moved a dozen mirror carp from the spacious duck pond, which I'm told has far too many, to the much smaller pond with Japanese pretensions, a little rock cascade and a stone lantern, where we can see and enjoy them much better. It has been fascinating watching them deploy in their new quarters. I don't suppose they enjoyed being caught and released. How does a carp convey chagrin? At first they didn't seem to recognize the bread I offered them as an apology. Perhaps they are short-sighted?
Then one of the big ones, perhaps 18 inches long, took a sniff, opened his ugly white lips, gave a noisy slurp and swallowed it. Others paid no attention. The four smallest fish were most timid, staying almost motionless on the
10 August 2012
Coming home after two weeks away is your best chance at seeing the place with fresh eyes.
Green grass in August was not such a shock because we're seeing it everywhere; what I had not factored in was the deep shade in normally well-lit spots, produced by two seasons worth of growth in one. Thank heavens we don't have to bag up our trimmings and take them to tips as Londoners do: the sound of secateurs (even saws) is echoing round the garden all day and the bonfire heaps demand a match every morning. And we can't keep up with the veg.
The feather garden
8 August 2012
Everyone else seems to have been there. Already, at a dozen years old, it has had its own exhibition at the Garden Museum. The Jardin Plume, just east of Rouen, was our first stop in a week of inhaling French gardens.
The critics are right: the Feather Garden is a breakaway. A flat field and the remains of an orchard calls on the uncompromising French tradition of open-sky formality (think of Vaux le Vicomte) and brings it right into the eco-present of undulating grasses.
Convention seems irrelevant here. You enter through a mere gap in a hedge in a field - into a modest nursery. You pay your modest fee and find yourself guided by immaculate (but undulating) box hedges into a jungle where the flowers and grasses meet above your head. You are eyeball to corolla with familiar and unfamiliar flowers; here a pennisetum, there a verbena or thalictrum or even a hydrangea. Grass cut paths set the structure, then narrow hard paths induce you into a world of creatures green in tooth and claw, where touches of colour (flowers often tiny in relation to their supporting plants) merge into a pointilliste picture. Those dabs of red are a six-foot sanguisorba, the purple rockets a veronicastrum taller than any you have seen and the soft mauve splashes a soaring phlox.
Perhaps it was the summer of endless rain that had made perennials abnormally tall. But that is only the prologue; there are many chapters to come.
The main body of the garden is a series of plots of tall grasses (here and there a clump of meadow flowers) separated by smooth mown paths. They stretch away with only a few apple trees to offer your eye a stopping place. At Vaux le Vicomte, I remember (the scale is different, but the concept similar), the immense floor is not compromised by trees of any sort. Here your eye is offered a focus and a resting place by a square mirror of water, unplanted and unadorned, in the foreground. Around the broad parterre stretching to the horizon are the classical enclosures; potager, flower garden, cloister garden, all reinterpreted for a post-impressionist consciousness.
Nor is everything as graminaceous as the name implies. The cloister garden is entirely grassy: just huge miscanthus clumps forming a swaying hedge around another square mirror pool. But the Summer and Autumn gardens are more or less formal adjuncts to the farmhouse where straight box hedges enclose flower beds in an almost traditional way - until you look in detail at the choice of flowers and the way they are grown.
The potager is the most traditional, in combining vegetables, fruit and flowers in a way we never seem to master in this country. Some of the colour-play here is subtly contrived: different phloxes, for example, with pink clematis and the contrasting cool lemon of Oenothera odorata. Other passages are just plain jolly polychrome.
It didn't dawn on me until we had been wandering in delight for an hour that we were being seduced by the most fundamental game in gardening, from classical times to our own. It is the interplay of the precise and the nebulous, the architectural line and the wandering spray, the box hedge and the flowering grasses, that defines the art.
20 July 2012
To Norfolk to see the walled garden at Houghton, having heard many excited reports. We were not misled: it is one of the most original and stimulating creations of recent times, a complete reinterpretation of a classic model, to be compared with the Alnwick extravaganza. It feels far more personal though, intimate and thoughtful. You pass from compartment to compartment in a state of heightened awareness rather than wide-eyed awe.
The Marquis of Cholmondeley has dedicated his creation to his grandmother, Sybil (née Sassoon), who reigned at Houghton for half a century. Many years ago we had the good fortune to be shown around the palace (the only word that fits it) by her. She apparently enjoyed giving tourists her personal tour.
Indeed we had the same experience at Hardwick Hall, where the formidable dowager Duchess of Devonshire lay in wait for tourists and gave them unforgettable moments of living history. When she was a girl, she told us, she watched the housemaids taking down the tapestries and carrying them to the ponds in the park to tread them. Now, she said, they have to go the V & A for cleaning: absurd.
But Houghton. There must be twenty rooms in the walled garden, and no repetition except in the immense parallel herbaceous borders of the central alley, a bravura performance, edged with catmint from end to distant end, from vineries to a Bannerman fantasy: a log temple, its pediment a forest of antlers.
The Bannermans also designed the sunken fountain in the centre of the complex,immensely pretty, pink and white rose garden. You sit within a circling flint wall engulfed in the sound of water, an interpretation of the classic grotto in the open air, among roses.Six foot high lilies lean out at you from box-edged squares. Huge paeonies do the same. The herb garden, the vegetable garden, the orchard, the croquet lawn (notice: you are welcome to play) are all included in the pattern, and the playing and punning with plants is inexhaustible. The Waterflame is already famous, but you still blink to see a fountain with flames on top. Nor is the walled garden, of course, all there is to see. The deer park seems to follow a model of its own, somewhere between a park and a forest, with grand trees at a fraction of the usual spacing. I was reminded of Uccello's haunting hunt in the Ashmolean.
I don't know whether there is a historic rivalry between Houghton and Holkham, but I wouldn't be surprised. Are the Cokes of Holkham tuning up for competition? Their vast walled garden is showing signs of vigorous renewal, too.
A light touch
12 July 2012
'You garden with a light touch' said a knowing visitor the other day - appreciatively, I hope. Could she have been referring to the complementary campanulas, the aleatory alliums, the volunteer violas and random ranunculus that meet your eye wherever you turn? 'You leave things in; so much nicer than taking them out.'
I do take them out. I've been barrowing opium poppies to the compost for weeks now. The idea is to let them show a first flower or two, decide whether it is a good colour or not, is fully frilly or otherwise
desirable, and pull up the ones that have no
4 July 2012
My son in law brilliantly described an old house we rented in Wales as representing a hundred years of botching. An archaeologist might have loved the rich evidence of ages past: former décor in curling wallpaper and peeling paint, superseded plumbing, no longer functioning window catches, proof that every room had been converted (but not quite) from some former use.
I am an ace botcher myself. My family calls in a professional if anything needs doing beyond changing a light-bulb. They can manage that. A garden, unless I'm kidding myself, is more forgiving. How do you recognize botching unless you know what was really intended?
I don't mean gates tied up with baler twine or roses on old bedsteads. That was the scene
27 June 2012
Don't you sometimes speculate about the women whose names adorn some of the most voluptuous roses of the summer? They are nearly all French. I wish we had their portraits. Did Madame Grégoire Staechelin blush (or droop) like her namesake rose? Was Monsieur Staechelin the bristly buttoned-up individual his name seems to suggest?
Can you form a mental picture of Madame Lauriol de Barny? A plump and pleasing, rather artless young woman, I rather fancy, apt to put her foot in it. Madeleine Selzer (marital status unknown) was self-evidently a fizzer. La Séduisante (name unknown) needed careful handling. And what does Madame Isaac Pereire conjure up for you? I see a severe and stately lady in black holding
I am a tripod
15 June 2012
I may well lose more readers through my enthusiasm for weeding, annually expressed, than by being boring, repetitive, out of touch, living in the past and my many other weaknesses. I can't help it. Weeding for me is the epitome of gardening; the time when every move is decisive and, to use that corny phrase, you can see where you've been. Planting is the other supreme gardening pleasure; the satisfaction of settling roots in soil always gives me a glow. But planting is the work of moments, while weeding is a long drawn out pleasure, always (at least in this garden) available.
Why do I love it? Because it calls for total concentration. As I stoop or grovel in the border (or anywhere else where muddle is taking over) my eyes must be fully focussed. What appears at first an agreeable jumble of green shapes becomes progressively clearer as I start to edit it. There are in-your-face weeds: a dock or a nettle makes no attempt to hide. There are insidious weeds that blend
The London forest
6 June 2012
The camera zoomed in from an improbable height above the royal Bentley purring back from St Paul’s. On the way it encountered the branches of a plane tree and saw right through them, through sadly deleted leaves and sagging shoots, in a way you never can through the canopy of a healthy tree. London’s planes are sick, some of them very sick, and the prospect of their decline is too dreadful to contemplate.
Is it a new disease, as some suggest, or the occasional weakness that strikes them under peculiar circumstances ? Does it relate to a hot dry early spring followed by a long cold and wet April and most of May – and June? I used to worry about an alley of London planes I planted in central France; in some years, particularly in wet springs, their new shoots died back as we see them doing in London now, but 20 years on they are robust young trees.
Bigger / better
1 June 2012
I remember my moment of disillusion. It was in Berkeley Square. An enormous shiny car came round the corner of Bruton Street pretending to be a Rolls Royce, but instead of the familiar silver Parthenon and its floating goddess its radiator was like the front of an American truck: a bloated travesty of a classic design.
The whole vehicle was gross; engineering grace had given way to gigantism. (I heard to my delight that the makers had to reduce the length of the thing for Hong Kong to avoid it being classed as a lorry).
The same feeling of revulsion hit me again in my favourite London space, the Green Park, the other day when the wraps started to come off the new memorial to Bomber Command. It looks as though someone was using someone else's credit card in the
28 May 2012
This is the time of year when they have to send out a search party for me as the light fades and it's time to decant the claret.
It's the time of overload anyway, when too much is happening at once. What is a coherent reaction when nineteen plants are calling out to be admired and ground elder is flowering lustily in their midst? This year there is confusion to add to surfeit. Why is
21 May 2012
To Bowood on a rainy day to visit the Rhododendron Walks, open for the first time this year. It is almost incredible that England still has such wonders under wraps, but the Lansdownes have kept this separate part of the gardens, miles across the estate from their celebrated Capability Brown lake and spectacular water gardens, as a private enclave around the Robert Adam family mausoleum.
Why miles away? Like many rhododendron collections it relies on greensand, ridges of which crop up on high ground, principally in Kent and Sussex but also in a line between Poole harbour and the Wash. At St Clere in Kent, for example, the Pinetum perches remotely and incongruously on top of the North Downs; beech hangers below, conifers and rhododendrons on top.
At Bowood the woodland garden is sheltered and framed by oaks, and some of the most venerable beeches I have ever seen, on a series of steep spring fed slopes that offer everything rhododendrons could need: shelter, moisture and air-drainage.
Some of the first collections from the Himalayas were planted here in the days of Sir Joseph Hooker, by the great great grandfather of the present marquess. Subsequent Lansdownes have added to what is now a woodland garden of extraordinary beauty, while the present marquess, the eighth, is a full-time hands-on gardener. I am no rhododendron expert, and easily impressed by a bush thirty feet high covered in huge pale pink flowers giving off sweet scents. When I am told that it is one of the earliest hardy hybrids with Himalayan blood, and that its name is lost in time, I can only nod in assent. It is clear why such creations became the show-flowers of the great, raised and selected with as much care as their race-horses.
Satiety would soon be reached, though, if they were too densely planted. It is the beauty of Bowood that there is space and variety, that glades and rides, pools of bluebells and grass open to the sky make it a magic wood rather than a rhododendron forest, There is the delicacy of white dogwoods, the brilliance of Pieris, one the size of a cottage, and above all, here and
there among the rich green and the pale glades, floating over the bluebells, the sumptuous near blues and purples of Rhododendron augustinii.
If I were to have one rhododendron it would be this native of Sichuan, the nearest flowers to blue produced by its tribe. In fact it is the only species I have planted in our North Welsh woods. (R. ponticum needs no planting). Ten years or so ago I planted a dozen plants around a waterfall and along a stream under beech and larch. Accidents happen in a forest; sheep the most frequent. Eight of my augustiniis survive, now ten feet high, their feet in bluebells. Why didn't I plant fifty?
The rain at Bowood, at least in retrospect, was like the creative touch of a great director. The shine and drip (it didn't pour), the grey light and the cool soft air completed the magic and made the exotic (even the ultra-exotic) seem believable.
16 May 2012
Plain simple degrees, and lots of them, are what the garden needs this miserable May. Fahrenheit or Celsius; it won't mind.
The plants are in as much of a muddle as I am, not so much early or late as all over the place and not going anywhere. Oak has never been so far before ash, but magnolias are just sitting, their flowers half open, some petals frosted, others effectively drowned. And my favourite winter-flowering cherry has caught that nasty fungus and lost all its leaves.
Back to previous Trad's Diaries
lawn growing in this deep shade; a green carpet immaculately hoovered every week. From above, the result is utterly charming; a sort of country-rectory effect in 1,000 square feet. It makes our structured space, cramming in my greenhouse, wall beds, box hedges, a dozen big pots and three changes of level, look like a lot of effort. Which of course it is, and what we want.
I wrote last week about, among other things, the koi carp in Holland Park. My faithful Japanese correspondent loves giving me little supplementary briefings (and I love getting them). She says all 'brocaded' koi, the exquisitely coloured ones, are descended from a mutant common carp in the mountain village of Yamakoshi in Niigata prefecture. Carp was their source of protein in snowbound winters. Here by the Sea of Japan the average annual snowfall is 100 inches. Niigata, on the north coast of Honshu, grows more rice and brews more sake than any other of Japan's 47 prefectures. It drinks more, too.
The staff gave Sir Clough this creature for his 90th birthday
Lilies by Waitrose
bluebells in a mixed planting around the lovely golden Acer shirasawanum, dwindling by degrees as the bluebells thickened. But it was still flowering five years after planting. Perhaps lily-flowered tulips are good repeaters: Fergus praises the slim orange 'Ballerina'; yellow 'West Point' has also gone on here for years and years. And the pale pink (with yellow inside) stoloniferous Tulipa saxatilis that my college dean, John Raven, collected in Crete forty years ago, comes up every April in a gradually-widening patch. His daughter Sarah must have caught the bug from her father.
The problem Fergus doesn't mention is that bulbs in borders end up speared on your fork. He advises replenishing scatters or clumps with fresh bulbs; but how do you find the present incumbents? I remember that the 'China Pink' is among the euphorbias that make one of spring's freshest exclamations. Then each exploratory prod with the fork provokes a squeal from another skewered tulip. 'Tis a puzzlement.
All of this is under threat. The plant health order says the diseased trees must be destroyed. Their needles are carrying Phytophthora spores. They carry on the wind or in drops of water; they remain on the ground after the lovely golden leaf-fall; the source of infection must go.
Our first question: which trees? They were spotted from a forestry helicopter, looking sick, then confirmed as infected by a pathologist on the ground. He didn't mark them, though, so we can't do the logical thing: fell their neighbours within a generous radius. The order says the whole forest compartment must go. That's almost 25 acres: as though the trees know which compartment they are in. Indeed if the helicopter had taken a different route it might be another parcel.
They can either be felled or poisoned with chemicals. Either is allowed. Logic tells me that felling them and carrying them out of the woods almost guarantees spreading the disease, whereas using herbicides and leaving their carcasses standing at least attempts to contain the spores - even if it costs the (already reduced) value of the timber. Felling all the larches would also damage their neighbours, beech or Douglas and all the beautiful mixed population grown up over the years. As for eliminating the several successive generations of young larch: it would mean a scorched-earth operation.
The authorities don't know what to do either. Last weekend we spent in the woods, watching the fleeting sunshine light one patch of golden needles, then another, across the hillsides.
only approach most towns along miles of by-passes, through thickets of road-signs, along narrow lanes of tarmac between overbearing kerbs and bollards, over speed-humps steep enough to shake your head off. 'Toutes Directions' is the unhelpful universal signpost. If you can find 'Centre Ville' in the forest of instructions it leads you into a maze from which you despair of escaping. If you ever come across the historic market place its buildings are obliterated by more bossy signs and chaotically parked cars. There is no escape.
Worst of all, smaller and smaller towns are boosting their self-importance by aping big ones, installing rondpoints and hiding their 'Ville Fleurie **' boards with signs to their 'Zones d'Activités' (while activité ebbs from their ancient hearts). Hamlets aspiring to be villages are joining the game. My current prize-winner is a one-horse village in the Médoc we now call Arcins-Les-Quatre-Ralentisseurs. There is one speed-hump to greet you at each end of the short street and two outside the tiny mairie. You laugh so that you may not cry.
I'm still at it. It grew into a habit I was (and am) loathe to shake off. There is an odd comfort in slipping into a persona which is oneself, but not quite. I put on Trad's old tweed jacket, cuffs fraying and elbows patched, and record his current thoughts or preoccupations. Often they coincide with my own.
For many years we worked together in an ambitious garden of twelve country acres. We have gardened together in France, in Hampshire and Wales, and now have a thousand square feet of Kensington as our headquarters. We have the constant stimulus of visiting gardens and nurseries, of conversations and the library; there is never a lack of matter for gossip and reflection. Will Trad make it to fifty? Will he make it to forty one? We shall see.
The best performer: Fuchsia boliviana
The secret is water. The micro climate here below the cliffs known as la Petite Afrique is absurdly benign. Warmth, sunshine and daily irrigation by driplines produces almost magical growth - as boar and badgers are well aware. Fencing them out is a challenge. Did Adam and Eve have this problem in their garden? We are not told. Is there a serpent? Only the crabgrass, the only grass that will grow here. Its snaking white shoots creep evilly into beds, through the stones of walls, anywhere they can reach. Now, if we could exorcise them…
Where Tradescant snipped and dug: the East Garden at Hatfield House
All this is, of course, ‘permitted development’. The government's Party Wall Act doesn't take account of the flimsiness of 19th century spec building. Builders use the cheapest materials they can get away with. Our previous London house, in Islington, was dated to October or November 1838; the evidence being that Baltic deal was used for the internal walls, then plastered over. Apparently there was a glut of deal in London docks that autumn.
If it weren't for the walnut tree that shades our back garden there might be a basement under the next door garden as well. The law, though, is more protective of trees than of neighbours' sensibilities. Wisteria is not a tree, says the law, so the massive one on the back wall – about to be demolished – has already gone on the skip. Developers have some mad ideas. Having rebuilt a house opposite (my goodness, what a Media Room they built) they hired a crane to lift five 25-foot cypresses over the roof into the back garden. Unfortunately the crane hit three parked cars, and they forgot to water the cypresses. Another crane, maybe, to lift the brown carcasses out again? And what will the Council say about removing big trees?
still going strong, the white not at all, though their leaves are fine. The textbooks all agree that agapanthus need sun - though it seems they flower for longer without it. Most of ours are in our sunniest bed (still half-shaded), but those in almost total shade, three bulbs in a 12-inch pot, generously watered, are flowering best of all. Perhaps next year they'll be all leaves and I'll discover they did need sun after all.
Anemones, scillas, crocuses, campanulas, rosemary, geraniums, lithodora, ceanothus, nigella, clematis and hydrangeas have all given us blues of sorts. Recent sorties to Kew have added more salvias, morning glory and a passion flower too tender, I fear, for London to my list. But the really arresting blue of, for example, Salvia patens, is the gardener's equivalent of the lapis lazuli renaissance painters reserved for the Virgin's robe. It has long been my holy grail.
We have a detailed description in a letter from the head gardener of 1760, John Clary, when Kent's planting was still young. Melancholy was evidently far from the owner's mind. Today water dribbles in mossy grottoes where Clary tells us it was flung in fountains forty feet high. The 18th century believed in bling. The woods were underplanted not with plain laurel but with every flowering shrub. Colour was introduced everywhere, and sparkling water splashed around.
Our habit of seeing the past in the sobriety of mossy patina makes it hard to take in the real meaning of the designs we so admire. The Parthenon was brightly painted, full of noise and incense; bare sun-bleached marble is a protestant taste the ancients would not have shared. Perhaps it is my own melancholy that I attribute to a landscape adrift in time.
A rowdy at Rousham
Something we noticed everywhere this year: hydrangeas are ignoring all the colour conventions. The same plant has flowers from imperial purple to Cambridge blue. Is it the warm spring, the sunny summer, or just perversity?
Plas yn Rhiw
We visited the biggest larch in the Alps, in the Val d'Anniviers, this spring, a branchy, craggy monster supposedly born in about 1600. Some of Britain's original trees still grow at Dunkeld, where they were planted 300 years ago by the Duke of Atholl. I can't bear to think that we could lose all these lovely trees..
The view from the woods, south to Cader Idris, Wales's Table Mountain
Rozanne is happy anywhere
The second modern Eden was at Petworth House, where Caroline Egremont has reimagined the appropriately vast walled gardens of one of England's palaces. It was the setting for the museum's second Garden Literary Festival. The first, at Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith's garden near St Alban's last year, was blessed with perfect June days - and so was the second. The pretty little marquees were called on only for shade from the sun of the longest day.
When you enter a garden through an orchard of apple trees smothered in roses that give them a second flowering, to follow long alleys of roses blending with clematis, to discover a dozen garden rooms of extraordinary variety, the ‘70s might never have happened. Gardeners have all the skills again. Everything seems possible. You marvel that anyone's sense of scale and colour and texture can keep you keyed up, breathless for more. I'm afraid you can even start to take for granted the craftsmanship that realizes such ambitious plans. It all seems to be a dream. And the deer are gathering for the sunset over the lake. And 200 years ago Turner was here, painting this precise scene…. Yes, you can be carried away.
The talk that inspired me most, among a dozen teasing out the tangled themes of gardening and writers, and painters and their gardens, was Tom Stuart-Smith's revelations of how a great designer plans his work. The interaction of place and personality (clients can be indecisive - or cussed), finding a graphic link between them that anchors the site, the values of contrast, concentration, contradiction. counterpoint, complexity, concealment… all sound very abstract. In this mesmerizing half-hour they seemed the necessary keys of creation. Gardening has brought out genius again, as it did when Kent and Brown and Repton were driving ideas.
We were faced with some of the same dilemmas at Saling Hall (where I remember Roy saying, as we sat under an apple tree after supper, one evening in 1972, 'You know, Hugh, I think you're on to something with this gardening lark'). But wewere far less bold. It was a predecessor's cypresses (Lawson in those days, before Leylands) that we cut down. We never got round to many necessary radical revisions of our own planting plans - even when in one case they manifestly failed. The alley of Irish Junipers that at one point was our pride and joy died bit by bit of phytophthora. It's subtle colour and texture was simply irreplaceable, so the walled garden lost its spine. Our policy on the rest was make do and mend, knowing that nature would take its toll unpredictably, and reacting ad hoc when a tree blew down or honey fungus claimed another victim. Visitors' eyes were, I'm sure, less forgiving than our own.
What gardener does have a Plan B - Roy Strong apart?
My main concern is my not-quite-rooted cuttings (and indeed my rooted ones). They'll go in the shade outside (there's lots of that) with a sprinkler once a day - like the rest of the garden. It still comes as a shock how much irrigation a London garden needs. We have at least twenty little rotating plastic sprinklers branched off a pipe around the walls. Each one covers a radius of two to three feet. It is near the walls, of course, that most water is needed, where the roots of the many and various climbers are concentrated. When we're away for more than a day or two all the pots have to be clustered together with their own sprinkler (some with saucers; some without). You can tell I'm not convinced it's all going to work. There will be casualities.
Plants could be almost as demanding as pets if you let them. Freedom and gardening are not natural partners.
Gentiana verna at 2,000 metres. Blue is the hardest colour to reproduce, but this is not far off the truth.
A brochure worth a medal
Rhododendron augustinii at Cae Gwian, planted 15 years ago. The dim light is part of the point. So is sunlight.
I was starting work on my first tree book in 1972, luckily for me at the very moment when Hillier's Manual appeared. Is there a gardener who hasn't handled this astonishing production? Does any other craft or trade have a catalogue/bible like this? It is effectively Harold Hillier's life's work between covers, put there, largely, by an extraordinary young man, Roy Lancaster. My original dog-eared copy, bought the year we moved into Saling Hall, sits where it always has, within reach of my desk - now with its current, more grown-up successor smartly bound by its side.
Jean Hillier weaves many of the threads of a century and a half of garden history into a story that kept me engrossed over a whole weekend. The climax, in one sense, comes when Harold's dream of a complete arboretum open to the public comes true. In 1977 Hampshire County Council, after some persuasion, accepts the ownership, and the responsibility. It is a time I remember vividly: negotiations were iffy. I had the idea (this is not in the book) of introducing another great Hampshireman, John Arlott, into the discussion. Arlott was of course the voice of cricket, with a vast audience for his Hampshire bur. He was also mad about wine, a keen collector and the wine correspondent of The Guardian. He lived at Alresford. I asked him over lunch one day if he was keen on trees. 'Love 'em ' he said. A few weeks later we went to lunch together to Jermyns. He and Harold found they had more in common than you might think. I don't know what John said to whom at the county council, but it can have done no harm.
Holland Park (on a dull day)
masses of aubrieta, pink and pale mauve, with iberis and a clump of lithospermum (lithodora if you prefer) starting its sharp sapphire stars, with forget me nots and a tiny pale pink geranium, it is almost convincing as a natural seaside happening. In a wall corner a choisya is entirely covered with its white flowers. Bluebells and borage have invaded a taller side border yet to flower. I have trained the long shoots of a rose, Madame Alfred Carrière, along the whole length of one side. A little wooden pergola will be nearly crushed by the end of summer under campsis, clematis, honeysuckle and a pink everlasting pea.
Last summer, with a meddlesome itch to add what the trade calls 'accents', I added a few plants of Verbena bonariensis and the silveriest of elaeagnus, a little multi-stemmed tree from Cedric Morris's Suffolk garden. I remember how his walled garden had few vertical features. Irises of course - and this one little tree. Benton End was a much-travelled garden: Morris was always giving his plants away. His legacy lives on in glory at Beth Chatto's. And much more modestly down here on the Solent.
the narrow focussed view, along, for instance, an avenue or a forest ride, is a vista. They both, it seems, give pretty universal pleasure - except to Kitty. But why?
I stumbled on an exhibition just now at The Royal Geographical Society which makes it all clear. Image, Instinct and Imagination: Landscape as Sign Language is the work of the nonagenarian geographer Jay Appleton and the photographer Simon Warner. They propound the theory of Prospect-Refuge, a system of thinking Appleton first proposed in his book The Experience of Landscape - and has since expanded in poems that are a cross between Hillaire Belloc and Milton's Allegro.
A Prospect is a primitive need; to survey the surroundings to look for threats and opportunities. A Refuge is its counterpoint; a place to hide or shelter from dangers or bad weather. Our pleasure in landscapes can be traced back to these two instincts or urges - to which Appleton adds Hazards: water and fire, for example, from which we recoil.
The exhibition analyses a series of striking landscape photographs, explaining their appeal on an instinctive level - which transposes, with no wrench at all, to our appreciation of gardens. Now I understand why I have dreams of looking down from a wooded height onto a coastal scene - a bay stretching away in the sunlight. Branches frame the view. When I found myself in that precise situation, looking out over Cardigan Bay from the woods we now own above Caer Deon, out came my cheque book. Can there be no stronger proof that Appleton hits the nail on the head
Wisteria, knot, vinery and Tudor gate at Fulham Palace
organic farming on an industrial scale at Laverstoke in Hampshire, and Patrice and Hélène Fustier, the owners of the Château de Courson and its twice-yearly Journées des Plantes.
Courson is celebrating its 34th year. It started, I well remember, as a gardeners' gathering on a domestic scale in the park of their 17th century château, 25 miles south of Paris down the autoroute that leads to Órléans. Simple stands went up on the grass, village fête style. Nurseries crowded pots of plants on the cobbles in the stable yard, many of them plants no one knew were available in France. In one corner of the stables a dealer displayed priceless old botany books in their rich leather bindings. Roy Lancaster was a guest to judge a competition.
It all seemed like a spontaneous celebration of the gardening passion we all thought France had lost. And since that time, sure enough, the green wellies and Range Rovers that became routine at Courson have carried the message all over the Hexagon (as France calls its mainland mass). In the '80s the British were smug enough to think gardening ended at the Channel. The explosion of interest and skill that is so evident since must be credited, to a high degree, to the Fustiers, to Courson - and indeed its friendly neighbour the Château de St Jean de Beauregard, which now puts on a glorious harvest festival of a show each autumn.
Chelsea has a challenger in May, and both the October Shows far oushine the RHS's dwindling autumn effort.
By interspersing your high-rise plants with lower ones you will see their profiles from top to bottom. Some, it is true, have little elegance near the ground, but irises, for example, and Japanese anemones, and the lanky V. bonariensis, and the trim-figured Campanula persicifolia, and foxgloves, and thalictrums and aquilegias and …and…. are at their best seen rising from other plants that creep or loll. Certainly the greedier roots will win, but plenty of food and water will keep them all happy for a season or two.
There is also the problem of shade, as one plant shades another - which is more acute in a garden like ours which is already deprived of light. I seek reassurance in the comfortable figure of Margery Fish, whose Gardening in the Shade is still beside my bed. The shade she talks about is largely from trees, of course, rather than London terraces and walls. (We have both varieties). Her plant lists, though, are up-lifting. Besides such obvious candidates as hellebores and pulmonarias she invites us to grow aquilegias, heucherellas, tellima grandiflora, practically any campanula, thalictrums, most geraniums, Japanese anemones, viola cornuta, daylilies, peonies, aconites, monardas, lobelias and phlox, which she says is 'really happier in shade'. For grey leaves artemisias, she says, do well. Phlomis samia is well-known as a shade plant…. and on it goes. Her list, as you see, seems to include most perennials. The word to look for in her eloquent writing is 'light'. Mrs Fish scatters it around to qualify 'shade' to a degree that might make a more timid soul than me nervous.
Notwithstanding, I shall try as many as I can fit in - and, of course, report on progress.
It's the usual question: what shrub will grow in a droughty two-foot space at the foot of a sizable sycamore, tolerate its sooty drip, perfume the spring, flower in summer and flare up in autumn? I know the answer; accepting it is another matter, though.
What is surprising as I plant is how few roots I find. Surely the roses, hydrangeas, ivies, pileostegias, clematis, cotoneaster and the rest of the dense hamper on the walls forage far and wide for moisture. Often, within feet of a substantial climber, I find quite open and available soil. I quietly hope all the roots are next door.
The other day I was pleasantly surprised. The garden covers 18 hectares. You can’t expect perfection. But the most exceptional parts, collections of succulents and cycads in particular, are well weeded, cultivated and surprisingly well labeled. The whole garden looks in good health – even the lower reaches towards the sea where the citrus orchard is crisscrossed with pergolas. There are areas of long grass and weeds, but no dereliction.
There was one black moment, though: the discovery of a new (to me) and horrific predator on the box plants. It is a moth (Cydalima perspectalis) and its yellow, black-spotted caterpillar which gobbles box leaves and shoots until the plant is bare. “Piralide” is its vernacular name. It arrived in Europe three or four years ago, in Italy last year, and has (as you have guessed) no authorized treatment. One French gardener I know has gone on a spraying course to be ready for action, but the red flag is hoisted. What will it make of our island's weather, and miles and miles of box hedges, I wonder.
Are the individuals different, and does it matter, when the tops and bottoms of their petals, darker and lighter, mauve and silver, are rippling semaphores across the grass?
Even better, though, is their performance as pampered prima donnas indoors, in warmth and light, where they grow to double height and spread-eagle their petals to flout their sex. I grow them in old clay thumb-pots and put them in the centre of the dinner table among the candles. They tilt and topple, gaping wide, purple, mauve and white with stamens golden in the candlelight. They last three days like this, but for this time they outshine (forgive me, orchids) any other midwinter flower.
Only recently I was writing ('Displaced', January 27) about what constitutes a place; the Academy show elaborates on the question.What about gardens, though? Isn't this exactly what gardens are for? I would like to arrange a show that does something similar in garden terms, experimenting with opening views and blocking them off, introducing masses (as summer growth does as trees come into leaf, and tall perennials fill a border) and withdrawing them again. It would be fun to ape the process by inflating and deflating balloon models - at full scale, of course. Inflate a yew hedge to divide a space and see the effect, then try one with a completely different texture - the shine of camellias or laurel or the intricacy of bamboo. Or a brick wall.
I would try out pergolas and trellises, eye-catching statues, gazebos, benches and fountains (tricky, perhaps, with balloons). I would see what difference colour makes - with lights perhaps - turning, say, a white garden into a yellow or red one. How would we record the effect of each change on your mood, your engagement and curiosity? There will be a way, I'm sure, short of wiring up each visitor's brain.
Indeed the whole thing could probably be done with designers' software. But no, I want the full Academy experience - not forgetting garden scents and bursts of birdsong.
No corporation, I thought, would have such taste or such high standards. Sadly we were there two weeks too early for the owner's winter open garden day, but the photographs showed us what we were missing: a full-on demonstration of the possible, more personal and less stereotyped than any our public institutions give us. We shall be going back.
Forestry is a messy business; for long years calm, verdant, woken only by the flitting of birds; then suddenly the Somme. The place you knew and loved has ceased to exist. At least I am responsible, or at least obediently following the cycle of planting and harvesting. Foresters are to blame for the biggest changes anyone can perpetrate on the landscape, eliminating beautiful familiar places at a stroke.
So what is a "place"? How is it different from a map reference? A place has intelligence; it depends on understanding - of its purpose, its history, of the forces that flow through it. A landscape or garden designer’s job, or one of them, is to show you where to cast your eyes, and where to put your feet. There are forces at play in a design: sight-lines and pathways and the interplay between them. They are different in different seasons; winter transparency and summer solidity; the sun lower or higher in the sky; pale shadows and black obliterating ones. Colours, of course, and textures, eye-catchers and passages of restful green or grey.
All these contribute to a sense of place. They give you confidence, explain, perhaps subconsciously, where you are and why, what the gardener wants you to observe and enjoy, where you should go next to be excited or to be soothed into a reverie.
A resourceful gardener controls your mood; invites you to share his own, then changes it. It is the reason for the overwhelming success of garden rooms, of Hidcote and Sissinghurst and their many imitators. Great gardeners do it by suggestion, by modulating scale and colour, enclosing you or letting your eyes roam free, splashing water about or letting it reflect the sky: there are a thousand ways.
The forest will grow again – but it will be a different place.
Fergus came round and we talked about the two trees that last summer kept the sun from touching our garden, the sycamore and the neighbour's walnut. I know they get more than their share of publicity in this diary. But then they take more than their share of a diarist's light.
Tooth-sucking from both of us. "They'll let you take off the same as last time", said Fergus. "That's just the tips," said I. "Precisely. This is a conservation area." "So what is it they're conserving?" "People don't like it when the greenery they see from their windows is removed."
I'm not keen, either, I admit. But here we have the politician's dilemma. "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change" is not a message that public servants want to hear. So no radical tree surgery; just a snip here and there while the problem grows. Fergus and his team came and snipped - very handsomely and tidily, I must say. Not a twig is left: just a massive black tree-skeleton in the sky, ready to do the same again, plus a little bit - to need painful surgery again in a year or two.
Outrageous because this individual's opinion automatically acquires the authority of law. I don't recommend questioning the qualifications, the judgement or even the bona fides of a planning officer. Seduction is more likely to produce the required result.
So yes, I am happy to call myself a dilettante - a word that means simply one who delights. A set of young aristocrats who made the Grand Tour in the mid 18th century (and were probably all at Eton together) met as a club under the name of the Dilettantes. Their inaugural meeting was painted by one of their members, Sir Joshua Reynolds. There are clubs and groups with similar leanings today, but who claims the delightful name?
And there’s another calling that has lost its meaning nowadays: that of the flâneur. A flâneur is one who strolls without intent – except to observe the world. Cornelia Otis Skinner, the author Our Hearts were Young and Gay, defined a flâneur as a ‘deliberately aimless pedestrian, without obligations or sense of urgency, who being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time, which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet..’ The critic Charles Sainte Beuve called flânerie ‘the very opposite of doing nothing” ; Baudelaire called him ‘the botanist of the sidewalk’.
Need flânerie be limited to sidewalks, though – let alone to the French? How else to describe what I do in someone else’s garden?
Rothschild fortune: Disraeli was an habitué; it is where Britain bought the Suez Canal. It is still in existence, but the only reminder is the anonymous green backdrop to a row of post-modern office blocks along the Great West Road flyover where it crosses the NorthCircular Road. Gunnersbury was one of the group of great houses that graced the approach to London from the west, or down the Thames: Chiswick, Kew, Syon, Osterley, Marble Hill, Strawberry Hill, Ham and further upstream Hampton Court.
The creator of Exbury, Lionel de Rothschild, was brought up at Gunnersbury, but when his father Leopold died his mother sold the estate to the local councils of Acton and Ealing (at a fraction of its potential value) to remain as pleasure grounds in perpetuity.
Sadly the ratepayers have seen it more as a burden than an asset. Some said that the other historic parks were plenty; no need for another. The grounds at Gunnersbury are merely maintained, the houses (there are two) in disrepair, the remaining great trees rotting and tottering. Today it has more archaeological than horticultural allure.
But there is hope. The two boroughs (now Ealing and Hounslow) have a plan for restoration and future use of the house (now a modest museum) and the grounds, are consulting the public and have appealed for Lottery grants of £17 million. It will be too late, alas, for the garden to recover its old importance. But I shall go in the spring to see the buds begin to swell.
our faux-coal gas fire. In our country garden it was a family joke how father dawdled away the dusk until on a dark night he had to grope his way indoors.
The garden is a different place at night, and with nights as long as they are in mid-winter it is a place to explore. There are certainly lights to be seen: the yellow rectangles of neighbours' windows, the bright pricking of a plane (or is it a satellite?), the moon intermittent through gauzy clouds, the reflection of a street light off a wall, the red light on the tip of a towering crane three streets away in Holland Park. They make a picture of sorts, eye-catchers in the black landscape of bare branches and gables against the sky, the backdrop to the dark foreground of plants and structures I know so well but can't see.
I switch on the garden lights and the deliberate theatricality comes as a shock. We inherited the lights, too, from our American predecessors in the house. They shine downwards from higher or lower on the walls, a dozen of them, throwing little pools of light, some of them half-obscured by evergreens, on the paths and steps. I have moved one to spotlight the monumental (or so it appears at night) trunk of our centenarian sycamore. They could be better planned, be changed to LED, and no doubt in expert hands make the garden look almost glamorous. But I think I'd rather have something more mysterious to contemplate.
In the same spirit of candour the conductor reviews front gardens, or "street gardens" as he calls them. He strolls through Brighton commenting on the residents’ efforts. No. 15 Marlborough Place gets the thumbs up for "no more than two square yards" containing "dark and light-flowered nasturtiums, convolvulus major and mignonettes”. Nos. 16 and 17 York Place seem to win his gold medal for their "very select planting" in which Lobelia gracilis, Anagallis coccinea grandiflora and verbenas "make a conspicuous appearance". "The pyramids of heartseases were remarkably fine". Loudon even tasted one gardener's potatoes and thoroughly approved of their “flavour and mealiness ". If a front garden was not up to scratch Loudon was not unkind; he moved on, but a ducal garden was apparently fair game. Today? The rule seems to be De hortuis nil nisi bonum.
Mr Craie, that same duke's gardener, had some ingenious tricks. Does this one make sense? To preserve a tender rose bush, in this case R. Lamarque, he budded a hardy rose near the tips of its branches. The yellow Lamarque survived the dreadful winter of 1837/38 thanks to R. Brennus, a crimson rose, being budded on the year before. "Brennus flowered first, luxuriantly, and was followed by Lamarque, which also flowered well, though the latter, in all cases where the shoots were not budded, was killed back by the frost. It thus appears that the vigorous growth of the scion had thrown the Lamarque stock into a state of vigorous growth at a time when the Lamarque would otherwise have been quite dormant. " Does this make sense? Was it hardier because it was in growth? Does anyone do this today? I plunge back into my dusty old leather volume eager for more horticultural history.
The lemon pot is too heavy for me to move from the verandah; shall I be able to keep it snug enough tucked up in fleece, with a glass roof but no walls? Not I fear if this winter is like the last.
But a score of pots of bulbs - also refugees, this time from the squirrels that have already been munching - gives the bench a look of purpose and hope. Snowdrops are poking up; I shall see them this winter in a completely different focus from the white rugs of the countryside. Iris reticulata is stirring. Worryingly a cyclamen the size of a Chelsea bun is not.
Today's job was reducing a climbing hydrangea that was blocking the eastern light from the new verandah, the library and the kitchen. They are powerful climbers, equipped for tall trees and long branches, their brown wood stout and flexible, their foliage dense and their flower heads many, copious and intricate. Structurally they are composed of multiple right angles or near right angles, each ready to snag a plastic film. The only way to fill a bag with them is to chop them into little bits. By the end of three bags I know their anatomy intimately. Hydrangea petiolaris is more than a mere acquaintance now.
I look round the garden, the falling leaves, the growing climbers, the old growth to be cleared away - not to mention the tree to be pollarded - and see a future of black plastic bags stretching away to the distance like crows on a telephone wire.
These days I’m told they are grown from cuttings and planted out from 2,000 pots in late May. Not that they are tender, even in New York winters, but they replace the spring bedding of 20,000 tulips. They draw New Yorkers like a baseball game. I’d love to see a really full-throttle Mum Show in England.
Look up 'moss lawn' on the internet and every reference is about getting rid of moss as a nuisance. The only pro-moss site I can find is Gardens Inspired, from somewhere unspecified in the (I suspect southern ) States. Debra Anchors gives recipes for planting a moss lawn: literally recipes; they involve scraps of moss collected from nearby put in a blender with either yoghurt or beer, then sprayed on to bare ground and watered until it goes green. I love the idea. Worth an experiment, surely? I've heard it said, too, that regular spraying with Round-up can encourage it .
Alternatively, if I do nothing, our current modest crop of mind-your-own-business, the pretty little Helxine (or Soleirolia) soleirolii, will pretty soon do the business for us. Its tiny bright green leaves are the terrestrial equivalent of duckweed. They say it is almost equally pernicious, delicious though it looks in the interstices of old greenhouses.
The brick base of the greenhouse is all ready, a (very) minor masterpiece in reclaimed London stock bricks in their characteristic medley of gentle colours: yellow, pink and grey. It is already hard to distinguish from the surrounding garden walls. The bricklayer who built it is from Croatia; a gentle smiling man with not much English. When I told him how I intended to fill it with flowers he said "I like this job. I like flowers very much. At home I have flowers everywhere; in the hall, in the kitchen, on the walls. People say I am like woman'.
Where is this, and what is it called?
Red deer are more formidable than roe deer, and boar worse than either to a tree- planter and dabbler in streams and ponds. At Saling Hall we had a few visitors, and far worse, muntjac, but managed to handle them on our 12 acres. Here in the New Forest there seems no point. Indeed the deer are the point - originally of the whole forest.
And would a meadow dotted with new trees, however interesting or rare or fiery in autumn, really be more beautiful than a little green park with deer and the few scattered old oaks we have here? Certainly not so appropriate. We (that is our daughter's family) have a splendid piece of old oak woodland above the meadow. Gentle thinning of the big trees (and clearing of ponticum) will give us forest fringes to adorn with a few new trees I will have to choose with maximum deliberation and protect with scrupulous care. And I shall have much more time to enjoy the wild life.
A few years later he made his dissident views plain by publishing a beautiful, even moving, book of portraits of trees. His trees, or most of them, stood alone in fields, on bare plains or mountainsides, sometimes distorted by the prevailing wind, usually just a clear statement of their heredity, their race, fully developed and ready to be admired.
This year I tracked Frank down to his cottage high in the hills above Cotignac, at the very end of a winding dirt road on the lip of a frightening ravine. The stone building, in its clearing among ancient olives, commands an immense view: nothing but forest in rippling ridges, 180 degrees wide and perhaps forty miles deep, to the irregular blue line of the Massif des Maures that overlooks the sea between Toulon and St Tropez.
In his eighties Frank has discovered the internet and realised that it offers his life’s work the chance of a revival. His work could never readily be classified. He puts it, in a book to be published next month, in fifteen categories or 'keys', but none of them truly categorical in anything but pictorial terms. Google his name to see his pictures.
I found the meeting, the rediscovery of an old friend and his survey of his own achievement a moving and thought-provoking experience. He has written his observations of the world in light (the literal meaning of photography) over a span of some seventy years. He has ranged from salons to slums, recorded chaos and captured calm. No philosophy emerges from his pictures; he is as free from judgement as Candide, and as free of conclusions – unless you call Candide’s last word a conclusion: “Il faut cultiver son jardin”.
started in May when we cleared the biggest bed in the garden (be under no delusion; it's tiny), digging out, skimming that bilious yellow-leaved spirea, a red-leaved maple, a clapped-out pittosporum and a tall hibiscus. The hibiscus is doing well on intensive care in another spot. A neighbour accepted the maple; the rest went on a skip. We had to remove 80 bags of soil (through the house, of course) to lower the ground level for the future greenhouse. The plot has been filled with potatoes, runner beans, courgettes and salads for the summer. Now comes the prospect of building the base for the house, due to arrive in November.
It is a little gem of an aluminium greenhouse from Alitex; three-quarters of a span, the third quarter resting on the western garden wall. With its finials and its little spiky ridge it will look (we hope) as Victorian as if it came with the house, but need minimum upkeep. There are quite a few plants in pots waiting impatiently for its arrival before winter sets in.
and sat at the feet of his father Dick - a wonderful benign authority. It is easy to see why plants should want to reward such dedicated and expert overseers. Lawrence was Treasurer of the RHS for many years and his wife Elizabeth its first woman (and first horticulturally professional) President until earlier this year.
Today the garden and its adjacent Park Wood are best known for their National Collections of maples and birches. It is easy to be distracted, though, by the awesome firs and pines, oaks, limes and walnuts, ashes, larches, cedars and far rarer things that tower in the arboretum and shade the sheep in the park-like farmland around.
Elizabeth Banks Associates is one of the foremost landscape practices in the country. Is it despite or because of this that there is no sniff of modern or fashionable design to be seen? The Hergest garden remains largely as it was conceived a century ago, its structural elements disguised, of course, by the growth of what were once almost incidental trees and shrubs. Now they spread their branches over path and terrace and hedge. How many gardens, though, keep the deliberate unadorned geometry of orchard and vegetables, soft fruit and perennial borders, greenhouses, rose garden and tennis court, almost in the manner of a farm, where function needs no justification?
How calming it is; how unaffected and truthful.
Do you detect a partiality here? Can you tell that I find Hergest Croft one of the holy places of horticulture? I don't deny it.
A forest without paths is like a room without doors. Opening tracks and keeping them open is a forester’s first concern. Brambles, bracken, gorse and birch saplings block your way it seems almost overnight. One of the great joys is carving a clearing to let yourself in. It’s wonderful what a neighbour’s big tractor will do.
And an excursion from this demi-paradise? To a true fantasty just up the road, the ‘Italian’ seaside village of Portmeirion, a celtic Portofino with an impish sense of humour. Clough Williams-Ellis turned his romantic imaginings into reality here in this heavenly setting in the fifty years betwee the 1920s and ‘70s. Walt Disney must be mad with envy. Around his crazily eclectic all-sorts of campaniles and Cornish cottages, memories of Portugal and Wales and heaven knows where, C W-E planted every plant that loves mild seaside air, a whole wood full of wonders, and hydrangeas in thousands.
I come home to our workaday woods with my head full of plans that will come to nothing. Of a little New Zealand or a Sintra, a Santa Barbara indeed of exotic shrubs and flowers. Sheer folly. Nothing could be lovelier than the forest around me.
and just across the main road, only 100 yards from the front door of the house under discussion, a flower shop occupying the ground floor of a rambling old house. Inside, the scent of flowers was intoxicating. It was instant spring - and led, through the back door, into an Aladdin's garden, wintry though it was, of potted plants, potted trees, potted shrubs…an entire nursery. Narrow paths under tall planes lead the length of a film-set Georgian square - all nursery. She had found Rassell's. We bought the house.
Rassell's nursery, in Earls Court Road, goes back to the days when the road was a country lane leading to Holland House through Lord Kensington's farmland. His lordship, apparently, started to lease his fields to developers to pay his gambling debts (this was the early 19th century). His old lodge house on Earls' Court Lane he leased to a nurseryman, and in 1870 Henry Rassell from Sussex came on the scene. In 1897 he acquired the freehold of Pembroke Square (everyone else had to make do with a lease), opened his florist's shop, and started the business which is still there. I pop in for something almost every day - if only for the sight and smell of hundreds of happy plants.
When we arrived I had the deep joy of watering a parched garden. I turned the rusty tap on the water butt and heard the jangling of stored life and energy that had only been breeding mosquitos as it filled my can. As I watered I was cutting down the top hamper of everything that had flowered and withered. Water and fertilizer would bring a second flowering - of some things. Or at least a fresh covering of leaves.
The garden is about 40 feet square, two-thirds paved, more dedicated to sunbathing and guzzling seafood than to horticulture. It has a campsis-choked pergola but otherwise no shade; apart from one raised bed the planting has almost all been low-growing. The house wall supports a climbing hydrangea; there are capabilities here.
At first I thought of a tree, maybe a pine, in the central brick-edged bed. Then I remembered a plant I was given by Cedric Morris in Suffolk many years ago; almost the only woody plant, as I remember, in his great open iris beds, a shrub growing perhaps seven feet high with a propensity to sucker - could this be why he gave it away so freely? It is Elaeagnus commutata or silverberry, a North American native used for its nitrogen-fixing abilities in dreadful soil.
In the narrow garden facing the sea, between house and road, I have planted agapanthus and Hydrangea quercifolia - a favourite in my daughter's Riviera garden where it grows huge, flowers wonderfully and colours like a furnace in autumn. I don't expect such a performance in Hampshire. It drank the water from the butt like a desert traveller, though.
As to plants in the shade, our predecessors took the view that box was the only thing. We are trying everything my favourite advisor, dear old Brigadier Lucas Phillips, advises. His Modern Flower Garden is never far from the top of my book heap despite being 45 years old.
The hydrangeas are just coming on, the blue ones from Saling that I christened Len Ratcliff after our benefactor have pride of place.: four big pots around the central (to use a grand term) piazza where we sit. The Brig says all campanulas tolerate shade. My favourite C. persicifolia certainly does. The pelargoniums in pots need promoting to the sunniest part at the far end. The roses on the walls (I don't know all their names yet, but I know I don't like Fragrant Cloud) are doing fine - high up above the wall. The scarlet Fuchsia boliviana, a standard in a pot, has been brilliant. Runner beans have been a disaster; being late I bought plants and failed to read the word dwarf (in dwarf type) on the label. So my poles are bare, with a few ludicrous plants at the bottom. What, I ask, is the point of a dwarf runner bean when the whole point is their climbing?
We're experimenting with agapanthus. The plants we ordered at Chelsea have just arrived, with one flower bud each, seriously pot-bound. They've gone into deep gravel and old manure watered every night until they get going. Not everything is perfect. We don't like a couple of the established roses (Fragrant Cloud is one); but how do you change them? Could one cut them down and bud onto the base? A Fuchsia magellanica has some lurgy that eats away its lower leaves, turning them brown - so presumably not a slug. There are lots of snails, but also the friendliest blackbirds and robin. Yes, on balance the shady life is a sweet one.
over fields and woods. There are few gardens these days where perennials hold sway: here not in conventional borders but in great plats thirty feet or so across and deep. Their early summer costume is predominantly cream and white and a dozen shades of purply blue; in one room shading into pale pink, in another into stronger yellows - but in gentle transitions that only dawn on you as you rest your eyes on the whole panorama.
The Festival unfolded in the same seamless way, moving from the fundamentals of garden philosophy to depths of practical experience, represented by Piet Oudolf, the blunt authoritative Dutch designer who has made the whole world plant grasses. (No grasses could be more beautiful, though, than the rippling filigree of the meadows round the garden we were in).
Christopher Woodward, the museum's hyper-energized director, pursued the vision of Arcadia with Adam Nicholson - himself a practitioner of moving prose. Sue Stuart-Smith spoke with extraordinary insight on the therapeutic properties of gardening, Hugh Cavendish talked about Holker, his Cumbrian estate, Sarah Raven about Vita Sackville-West. Anna Pavord talked to John Sales, Penelope Hobhouse to Tom Stuart-Smith…. the cast was exceptional and there wasn't time to hear them all.
There was music, there were oysters, when night fell the colours of the garden deepened and glowed and a slow river of pale smoke rose vertically from the barbecue fire. It was an ambitious event that succeeded to perfection. How lucky we were to be there. The museum that does this deserves massive support.
adjustments and daily doling out of water, dowsing one plant and letting another go thirsty to toughen it up.
I know the green fly (there are currently three) by name and take a magnifying glass to a spot of mildew. If anything gets out of hand, in other words, I have only myself to blame.
What does our little domain contain? We are still finding out. It has three levels, descending to the kitchen and the shady little patio outside it. The levels are important - and intriguing; the far quarter of the garden (the part that gets most sun) is raised up five steps, fenced off by a stone balustrade, in some ways looking like the poop deck of (shall we say) a frigate. It stands several feet higher than the surrounding gardens beyond its grey-brick walls. How this happened it's hard to say, except that it was a long time ago; our massive sycamore grows at this level, and you can't alter the ground level round a tree.
In any case the poop gives a good view back towards the back of the house, which in turn has a ground-floor balcony, so at each end there is a comprehensive view, as from a hill into a valley. (See, my delusions have started already). A relatively broad path leads up the centre, edged with box. Its stone matches the grey London brick of the walls. It widens in the centre to make room for a table, pots, a Mr Spit face splashing into a tiny basin. Whenever it was built (I suppose in the 1970s) it was done well, with good materials. The walls are trellised to nine feet or so and carry a green load of ivy, climbing hydrangeas, roses, honeysuckle and jasmine. It is a well-furnished box, into which I plan to pack all sorts of joys. We have ordered the greenhouse. There won't be room to even tickle a cat.
temperature in their shade. St Paul's is decorated with Augustan restraint; the confident simplicity of the Georgian age. Exbury revels in the excitable showmanship of the Victorians. In fact the Rothschild style, indoors or out. You see it at Waddesdon Manor in the rich recipe of Gainsboroughs and Versailles furniture and the extravagant full-dress bedding of the parterres. In the New Forest it takes the form of a dazzling display of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and every flowering plant and tree that can be fitted in 220 acres of immaculate woodland - along with the smartest of miniature steam railways.
Perhaps its high point, for this romantic gardener, is where after a sustained passage of ravishing camellias the flower power moderates, the trees thin out, and glimpses of sparkling water allow you to see white sails gliding by. You are, after all, on the Beaulieu River, the Solent is round the corner, and there is that faint smell of salt in the air.
.....a green shade at St Paul's
Some veterans persist
perfect harmony with the grey flint and gothic windows of the church. It was our predecessor, Lady Carlyle, who wanted to hide the churchyard from the bedroom window (so we were told). Her poplars had gradually become the main feature – and to see them gone gave me a gush of relief, delight…. feelings I could have experienced years ago if I had been more resolute.
'The axe is my pencil’ said Humfry Repton. Knowing when to fell trees is as vital as knowing which ones to plant.
Not only the poplars are gone. Boring Lawson cypresses I should have condemned twenty years ago (but didn’t, on the pretext that there were shelter from the cold east wind) are there no more. Old pollard bat willows have gone from the moat (I’m not so convinced about these); a dozen old friends – or at least acquaintances – are piles of firewood. There is less muddle, and less mystery too. Over the years our gardens create their own untouchable auras. Nostalgia feeds on inertia and vice versa. Seeing radical change, and knowing it was necessary, is exciting, surprisingly emotional but hugely positive.
8 and 20 May 2013
Of all plants perhaps the wisteria looks most obviously pregnant before it bursts its buds. Just now the competition is fierce among the countless wisterias of Kensington. There are veterans bending railings and wrenching down-pipes, infants reaching wildly for their first grip, and dozens of perfectly-pruned, proudly, displayed specimens adorning the fronts of terrace houses. Teamwork has done wonders. Just round the corner three householders evidently work on their marvellous plant together. Its gnarled spurs, now starting to dribble their purple down the masonr, cover sixty or seventy feet of façade.
What about a wisteria championship? Who would like to organise local and regional heats, with points for size, coverage, tidiness, colour, and above all number of tassels? Just a London one, perhaps, to start with. I can see The Evening Standard under its feisty Russian proprietor making a go of it.
Size is not everything. The world's biggest is apparently in California and covers an acre of ground. In the forests around Kyoto I have seen the tree canopy across a valley mauve with wisteria here, mauve with paulownia there. No, this is not that sort of contest; more a concours d'elegance. The time to start is now and the place, judging by what I can see from the café on the corner, London W8.
patte d'oie whose alleys lead to his favourite bay window. One oak survives from Walpole's time on the terrace walk. More trees serve to screen the college buildings that could easily be uncomfortably close neighbours.
He achieved a truly wonderful deep brilliant guardsman red with a wall-covering of silk mixed with the wool of a particular Cumbrian breed of sheep. The wool is so springy that even in a weave there are no reflecting surfaces. The scarlet in unremitting purity has no highlights to help your eye to focus. Your gaze buries itself in pure colour.
All this red is set off by intricate gilding: a throne-room could hardly be more dazzling - and there are more intimate rooms where gilding traces a sort of Medieval allegro above your head.
There is not yet much furniture, nor very many books in Walpole's famous library. The greatest want, though, I felt, as we explored, was the voice of the man himself. Perhaps an actor with a suitably camp voice could pronounce Walpole's commentary as he opened each door to reveal his latest jeu d'esprit.
"Gloomth" was famously one of the effects Walpole aimed to create. He loved to pass from gloomth to brilliance. Where you do, from the grey Gothic corridors to the long gallery upstairs, you blink - just as he intended.
I wrote a while ago about the ludicrous planting of the Avenue de Champagne, that noble address in Epernay, as an arboretum. When local authorities hire enthusiasts, people who love trees too much, I fear this is the result.
When I first saw the bare weeping tree in our neighbour's garden I took it for another cherry. Now it is in leaf I am thrilled to see it is the exceedingly beautiful and rather rare weeping Katsura, Cercidiphyllum japonicum "Pendulum" - so pendulous, indeed, that its branches would reach the ground without judicious pruning. Passers-by walk under a beautiful green parasol over the pavement. Its little heart-shaped leaves are now a brilliant tender green. In autumn it will turn everything from cream to scarlet - and the street will have that warm sweet elusive scent of strawberry jam.
There are some almost-avenues in neighbouring streets, with the trees correctly uniform on both sides. Ours, though, is a bit of a muddle. There are two old planes, a couple of limes, two hornbeams, a scattering of the default street tree today, Pyrus "Chanticleer", and (horror) what looks very like the dreadful Prunus "Amanogawa", that pink scarecrow from Japan.
If I/we thought the fax was a lasting record of our communications we were wrong. I I have just been sorting and filing my correspondence of 50-odd years. I had to be drastic. I read or skimmed everything I had filed over the half-century, bent on keeping 20% at most. When I came to the fax years, though, there were no decisions to take: the pages were faded to blankness; nothing was left.
So many of us had abandoned pen and paper already when the email arrived. With it the succeeding eras of communication reached a precipice. Most of what passes between us now whizzes off into the ether.... What is it? Where is it? Is there any permanent record at all, anywhere, of the thoughts and messages that link most of us today?
similarly full of a weeping Japanese cherry. In the street outside stands one of a row of extremely vigorous native cherries (an odd choice, surely, for a street tree). The houses opposite will disappear for seven or eight months of the year.
At the back one neighbour to our 18-foot-wide garden has a flourishing walnut, the other a tall bay tree, and we boast a magnificent specimen of that bane of London gardeners, a sycamore, reputedly a hundred years old and definitely a fixture. Its wonderfully scaly trunk is six or seven feet round and the branches, not improved in elegance by constant lopping, blot out the next houses and what's left of the sky.
So it's gardening in the shade. Margery Fish, here I come.
volume, with some bushes, particularly the common trailing kind, almost matching the periwinkle creeping under it. Others are merely the colour of the sky where you can just see a patch of blue dimly through the low cloud.
I have sometimes picked all the blue flowers in sight and laid them out in line to reconcile them with the accepted terms. It never really works. The borage is just opening, startlingly bright blue, but which? The Italian for blue, of course, is ‘azzurro’. What is azure in English? The sky? Not this one.
There is a sprinkling of Honesty, a dowdy magenta, and a deadnettle with long bright white flower-tubes. Overall, though, it is the white of laurustinus that shows up in gardens and nearby where it overspills into the countryside. Its sheer mass is important – but I think of its dreary green and catty smell in summer and feel less exhilarated.
We are perched high here, at 1700 feet. Forty minutes’ drive away, at Porto Santo Stefano, the lilac is in full swing and the buds of the Judas trees are opening. Pink? Purple? - or the colour Goethe christened magenta? He called it the eighth colour, between violet and red, linking the two ends of the rainbow.
Two members had been delighted to find Corylopsis pauciflora in flower and boasted of its (tiny) flowers. Lord Lansdowne showed the glorious Pieris formosa 'Lansdowne Cascade', more incipient than really cascading, Rupert Eley of The Place for Plants the hen's-teeth rhizomatous Ypsilandra thibetica, with mops of tiny pale flowers (smelling strongly of almonds) drooping over its narrow-leaved rosettes.
Maurice Mason had brought up from Kent the first flowers of the stunning Sorbus megalocarpa, almost like yellow chrysanthemums among the red young leaves. Roy Lancaster, with a nice sense of theatre, brought his battered black vasculum, the tin box with a shoulder strap that botanists used before the invention of the plastic bag - and Roy, of course, still uses for his tramps round China.
spread their clumps, bulked up, opened a few flowers regardless of what sort of day it is. On the corner of the moat they have formed a pale pool under the low branches of a wild myrobalan plum, whose little white stars in a vase in the hall look almost shockingly Japanese.
Hellebores are not easily discouraged; rather the boot is on the other foot - I'm discouraged from going out to consult their bashful down-turned flowers. Daphne bholua keeps going in good heart, but the fact that I am still talking about it on the eve of the equinox proves how stuck we are.
Even that most unfailing and beautiful harbinger, the weeping willow, has yet to show its peeping pale green leaves. We have forced a reluctant white Ribes to open its flowers in the house. Spiraea thunbergii is brightening with tiny points of green; look carefully at the Japanese maples and you can see their pairs of tiny buds are swelling hints of energy to come.
But frost visits every night and fog every morning. No balm tempts us out even at midday. There seem mercifully few reasons to dally.
The water table is at ground level, or frequently higher. The walled garden is almost the only place where you walk on land rather than slopping through surface water. The duckpond is brimming fuller than at any time in 42 years and the ledge or towpath that marks high water in the moat has been submerged for weeks. Instead of
scum on the ponds where the carp are comatose. A few tits peck at a greaseball; agitated moorhen scoot about; the cat prowls furtively ……… spring is on hold.
I expect I'm in the denial stage, with grieving yet to come. But grieving would be foolish, and unnecessary. Our successors have been visiting the garden almost every day since we agreed the sale. What I see as the slightly tired result of plans made 30 or 40 years ago they see as a great opportunity. And they are right. Nobody told me when I planned and planted that a garden really only lasts in glory (if it ever achieves it) for a generation or so. At 25 it begins to look tired; at 30 it needs serious replanting, and at 40 it is time to be radical.
Besides we have work to do where we are going - to a typical London garden 18 feet by 55, plus a little paved front yard, where every square inch, every bulb, will count. Weary London soil will need refreshing, old bushes will need to be dug out, smothering ivy cut off walls. And I plan a tiny greenhouse.
A new project is better than an old one; that's the way I see it.
action soon. Prunus 'Kursar', on the other hand, a 30 foot tree, is perhaps a week from its shocking pink climax. The conservatory is hardly wide awake, either. The Hardenbergia is over and jasmine is yet to start, just swelling its long pink buds. Meyer's lemon is ready, if not fully operational. The chief excitement is the early Riviera rose, La Follette, with its roseate shoots a foot long and, I just spied yesterday, half a dozen long pointed flower buds.
Meanwhile our successor's surveyor has been patiently working through the garden for the past shivery week, leaving little yellow flags and splashes of blue paint to mark his progress. I asked him to give me a scientifically accurate reading of the height of our record-breaking (I presume) climbing rose, Wickwar, up its Christmas tree. 18 metres, he tells me, or a few inches under 60 feet. But then its shoots are waving from the top of the tree with no higher support. Next summer, when the tree's leader grows again, it will be a full 60 feet. I'd love to know if someone has a taller rose of any variety.
La Petite Afrique
At this season the tangerines, lemons and grapefruit are the main attraction, the lamps of their fruit shining above the just-opening purple irises. Rosemary tumbling down the walls is dotted with brilliant blue. Pale yellow oxalis with big soft flowers on long stalks is smothering the stone walls, while far below the sapphire sea is wrinkled by the cold east wind and Cap d'Ail, round the headland cliff, is vague through a low sea mist.
Thinking about moving, though, has made me remember quite humble commonplace things I rely on and would miss. I was thinking about my favourite campanula, the peach-leaved C. persicifolia: what an easy loyal friend it is, self-seeding generously and then, unlike plants that go to ground, hide for the winter and only remind you they're there in spring, outfacing the frosts with a neat evergreen rosette of leaves from which, suddenly and vigorously, its summer spire shoots up. Then what wild-flower beauty it achieves with its clear porcelain bells, either white or a pale bluebell blue. Just imagining it, on a dire February day, gives me goose-pimples of anticipation.
There are flowers I forget between seasons. The snowflake is one; you may think it just a snowdrop with pretensions, but when it rises among and above them (as it does by the logshed path) with its leaves not grey-blue but bright summer green, not bashful like the snowdrops but almost brazenly open for business, it feels more like a visiting stranger than the streamside native it is.
I started mentally listing the plants we absolutely must take with us at Christmas. Mid-winter is a good time to start, with so (relatively) little showing above ground. I must try self-discipline: the mid-winter roster alone would fill the whole space, but a white hellebore with inner crimson splashes (H. orientalis guttatus) I've been growing from seed has a place. So does Sarcococca hookeriana var. hookeriana - though there's scarcely room for its name. There's no room for dogwoods, however vivid their winter bark. A white camellia sasanqua in a tub - maybe. Iris stylosa from under the wall here. Pots of crocus tommasinianus and the everyday snowdrops ……. But where are all the pots going to live?
What's clear is that we must build a conservatory - and find room for a greenhouse, however tiny, to back it up. The first priority for glass is our Meyer's lemon. It has taken nearly twenty years to grow it to six feet in its little lemon-decorated pot, and I have few more precious possessions. Just now the flower-buds are opening and a hint of the coming sweetness is in the air. The other current conservatory star is the Hardenbergia whose light purple panicles droop from roof level. That's a pot that will have to come too.
Why, I wonder, did great minds suddenly converge like this? The science has progressed, through generations of dendrographers adding layer upon layer of experience and knowledge. It has become rather a different business now, with DNA analysis to correct its errors.
But still there is a sense in which I can claim descent from J.J. We both love looking at and listing trees.
asking oneself, and it, why this and why that. Especially if the first glance shows two tufts, one with a better appearance than the other; not to stir from the place until one has found out why and how it is done, and all about it. Of course a friend who has already gone through it all can help on the lesson more quickly, but I doubt whether it is not best to do it all for oneself."
Take a really good look. Has the case ever been more clearly put?
and recorded the tracery of winter trees, or placed them in context, with such skill?
Does this make him a great artist? The orthodoxy of today insists that an artist should trouble us, excite our consciousness about something beyond mere appreciation of the physical world, or at least make us aware of that old standby the human condition. Art, as now defined, must induce strong reactions. Any reaction will do, including disgust. Nor does the medium matter: light bulbs are fine; so are turds. Motive, in other words, outweighs competency - by such a margin that mere skill with materials is counted against the protagonist.
There must, therefore, be a new category for people who represent what they observe with skill, care, even inspiration - but don't have pretensions to deeper, or less coherent, meaning. Disturbing their viewers is not their intention. Perhaps illustrators is the term for them. And for great 'illustrators', whose work is beyond mere competence, who are excited or inspired to dare to go further and find or create new convergences of ideas? We used to say 'artists'.
Does this cover it? Illustration stops at a safe point, within our expectations and comprehension. Art finds another dimension expressible only in the meeting of the medium and the subject. When S.R. Badmin drew a tree he gave his pencil his understanding of growth. What David Hockney does is not categorically different.
exceptions, when the author has thought through the whole process, using words and pictures together to communicate and explain, but they are rare. What do we call books that are too good for the coffee-table?
I have just put down one of them: Hugh Cavendish's A Time to
Plant, about the redesign of the über-Victorian garden at Holker Hall in Cumbria. The Cavendishes (Grania is a wonderful photographer) have been working on the design and planting for nearly forty years. Perhaps my sympathy with them relates to the fact that forty-odd years is the time we have spent gardening at Saling.The book is simply the logical outcome: time to explain and invite your reaction. A serious and successful match of words and pictures. Should I see it as a challenge?
pushed up their flower-stalks and the snowdrops their spearheads they won't go back. Catkins are lengthening all around - most specacularly on Garrya elliptica and the proud pyramid of the Turkish hazel, where the first are already nine inches long.
We were given a new version of Daphne bholua when we went with the I.D.S. to Lake Maggiore three years ago; a form simply labelled 'd'Aman' (which is where it comes from). Planted from its tiny pot in the shelter of the big walnut tree on the kitchen lawn it has already reached seven feet, with short branches held close to its trunk - an arborescent look that promises heaven knows what eventual height. It started to flower with the first hellebores. They say you must be gentle with daphnes, and not cut them too enthusiastically. Otherwise we would have a big vase of its ravishing pink flowers in a bower of its shiny green leaves perfuming the house.
How am I to clean it out? I could try blasting the clumps with a pressure hose - but thatwould send the tiny plants flying everywhere. I could dig the irises out of the water and try to clean them elsewhere before putting them back. No chemical treatment for duckweed, of course, is available or legal for mere gardeners. And why wouldn't the pest come straight back next year? I've noticed, by the way, that ducks rarely touch the stuff. Nor do moorhens - of which we have an oversupply. Grass carp, I'm told, devour it along with everything else.
An apparent lawn is no substitute for the gleam of water. And I love my floppy irises, some purple, some white, sometimes flowering right up to the first frost. Can you help me, please?
red-stemmed willows, shockheads of dull orange in this light, an ember glow rather than a flame. And here, just by the temple, a liquidambar with an extraordinarily slow fuse. In autumn it was merely less green; a sulky colour hard to name. Now, still in full leaf, it is the full motley, from orange-scarlet to the brilliant black-maroon you see on certain spindles. Its name is Palo Alto, so California is its home, (and there they call it a sweetgum - why don't we?)
Why it waits so long, and needs a week of frosts and four weeks of rain (and endures the shortest days) to arrive at its moment of glory I can't imagine. It could hardly be more arresting under a California sun than it is in our sombre January landscape.
We tend to commune down at their watering place, by the stump of a huge old silver willow. I had wondered why the farmer had suddenly summoned the energy to cut it down. Constable wouldn’t have approved; the beasts in its shade would have made just the sort of vignette he loved to draw. Perhaps the roots threatened to block the land-drains feeding the drinking-hole. We meet there and stare at each other in the afternoon for half an hour at a time. They're eating mangel wurzels now - and a great deal of mud, too, it seems, as they muzzle round looking for bits of root.
The voices of cows sometimes remind me of trucks and sometimes of trains; American trains in particular. Then the other day it dawned on me what they are actually imitating. A neighbour started up a chainsaw. Minutes later one cow took up the chorus ; then another. Close to, their efforts seem absurd ; a pointless waste of effort. But heard from half a mile away in the garden they speak of centuries of rural continuity, the ancestral cud of England. Then I love them.
now, and however dismal the daily downpour, it is merely making up for the months at the beginning of the year when it should have rained but didn’t. There was hardly a drop in January, February or March.
Weather forecasting is easy. We were discussing the subject in October. ‘I can guarantee’, I said to my wife, ‘that we’ll have a soaking in November and December. It’s got to keep up with the average by the end of the year’.
I suspect there’s a hole in my logic, but who can deny that normality keeps elbowing its way back in ?
So we are to move. Before Easter when the garden will be full of buds. Our first instinct is to list the plants and objects we simply must keep hold of by taking them with us. There's a game for the long dark evenings ahead. Our second is to speculate about the garden: what will happen to it? How soon will our vision be overlaid with novelty, with neglect (unlikely in this case, I’m happy to say) or just by changing priorities?
We are incredibly lucky: our successors here are already friends, who know the house and asked if they might buy it. Our luck is even more incredible because this is the second time the same friendly arrangement has happened. When we sold our farm in the Bourbonnais eight years ago it was to the godson of a friend. Somehow continuity seems priceless. It was, of course, the rule in the centuries before estate agents existed. We may have no influence on what our successors do, but it is reassuring to think in terms of a baton being handed on.
How much better this garden looked 20 years ago. It was in its heyday then, 20 years after planting. Our original intentions were clear, unblurred by failures and over-exuberant successes. Compromise, I'm afraid, leaves indelible traces, and compromise dogs us as we settle into middle age.
But our most exciting rediscoveries are the films I made of our new property in France, lingering lovingly on every detail of abandoned farm buildings, manure heaps, overgrown ponds and rows of hideous telegraph poles. I was so absorbed, it seems, that I forgot to provide any commentary: the pans and zooms are all performed in solemn silence, broken only by the cuckoo and the nightingale and the tinkling of streams - the perfect soundtrack.
The films record, spasmodically, nearly ten years of development. I even found my tongue along the way, and started to reveal, in a stuttering sotto voce, what plans I was hatching for ponds being dug and streams redirected, copses planted and alleys aligned. I could not have been given a more exciting present than my own past, my projects unfurling, succeeding or failing. Where is that old Camcorder? I must get it out and dust it off. No, I forget: almost any camera can film things today.
Charlotte's eye view of America in France
This week she emailed me some photos of the little valley where I planted American trees that colour cheerfully in autumn. There was deeper soil and more moisture there (in an area of generally gritty, unhelpful ground). I planted sugar and red maples, pin oak, scarlet oak and willow oak, some larches, Cryptomeria japonica, bushy vine maples and spindle. The fireworks are only just starting, but they are already converting one bright French girl into a future paysagiste. I am a lucky man.
with the conclusion that 'night soil' was thus the best manure of all - as the Chinese well knew. Liebig propagated the idea that roots need oxygen, too. He advocated mulching to keep them near the surface, and using a mixture of unsifted rough turfy soil and stones in pots to increase drainage. Plants that needed protection under glass became hardier this way, he found.
Joseph Paxton had just built his Chatsworth glasshouse with bigger panes of cheaper glass than those used before - starting a craze for greenhouses. 'Strained wire' was coming into use for fences that were 'inconspicuous and cheap.' The 'increased taste for the pine and fir tribe' was bringing conifers into gardens. Ferns and ferneries were coming into fashion. Loudon had advocated, with remarkable success, the proper drainage and weather-proofing of workmen's cottages. The queen did her first ceremonial tree-planting (at Taymouth Castle), signalling a new tree-consciousness. Loudon persuaded the authorities to label the trees in Kensington Gardens and St James's Park; a momentous move for, among others, the nursery industry. And Chevreul's new colour wheel was circulating among gardeners, revolutionizing their colour schemes for flower-beds.
The Gardeners Magazine was an extraordinary community effort. Loudon persuaded and provoked gardeners world-wide (there are notes from India, America and Australia) to communicate their experiences in a way that every good editor should, but very few have. How he would have loved the Internet.
Then a new word had popped into His mind, as words do. 'Deciduous,' He pronounced it. 'I'll make half these plants deciduous. Then all these leaves can turn jolly colours and drop off, and we can have a lovely fresh start in spring.' It meant, of course, a bare patch in between while the new lot of leaves and flowers were getting ready. Mightn't people feel a bit depressed, with cold weather, not much light and everything bare?
This was when He noticed the mammal's contribution. 'There's a challenge,' He said. 'Let's see if I can turn that into something to cheer everybody up.' So He made it sprout lots of whimsical little pink flowers and painted its leaves with pretty silvery lines. And ever since, when deciduous plants go bare, the cyclamen puts on its show and everybody smiles.
orange, flecked here and there with green moss. I have never seen so bright a colour elsewhere; could it be a local phenomenon?
Meanwhile their seedlings come up like cress all around. Why do British nurseries import trees like this wholesale from the Low Countries? I put the question to a chairman of the Horticultural Trades Association at a Chelsea lunch a few years ago. 'Because we're inefficient', he said, 'and the Dutch government somehow subsidizes their nursery trade'. If this were true it would raise a lot of questions - about the workings of the Common Market, for example.
And what to plant in the place of ash? There is not a wide choice of natives that could take its place. In most soils the field maple (though never so big) would do well. Alder is fine in damp spots, especially in winter when it is festooned with catkin and fruit. But disease threatens our alders, too.
First choice should be the small-leaved lime, Tilia cordata, a too-rare native that fits perfectly into our lowland landscape, can grow to a fine height and can live for centuries. The scent of its flowers in late June is intoxicating. The place not to plant it is in car parks; it can drop honeydew. Seedlings are rare - which is presumably why it is not better distributed.
Perhaps our nurseries should start propagating it now before the Dutch get the idea.
What’s wrong with it is that it's in fashion. No self-aware garden can be without it. Every designer is using it. Every nursery has pots of it. And I think we can do better.
Grass is not like topiary – the other ‘in’ subject. Topiary never went out of fashion, but that doesn’t mean it can’t come back in. Grass (unless it’s properly mown) looks ephemeral, indecisive, blurs the edges, just looks too darned easy. It’s a cop-out. Choose among colours, shapes, heights, textures, time of year for flowering and fruiting, matching or contrasting. Adorn your garden with nature’s most elaborate and beautiful genitalia. Pick flowers.
So, dry indoors, we have been editing old transparencies, going back to our arrival at Saling in 1971. Even one of the big red removal van at the front door. The elms soared above everything then - but only for the first five years. The thought of an ash disease makes me shudder: where the elms died it was the ashes and oaks that gave us hope and slowly supplied the missing vertical element in our landscape. We thanked heavens for the speed and grace of the silvery cricket bat willow. We still do.
Looking at ancient transparencies makes me realize how easily we accepted some terrible photographs. Most of the illustrations in The Garden in the1970s, when I was in charge of the magazine, look dire today. I used to consider a transparency with a clear image, adequately lit, a success. The ones I am chucking out revive lots of sweet memories, but only just. Most are plain gloomy.
I thought in the 1970s, and I think now, that we underuse the admirable Norway maple in this country. If we are looking for a full-size, quite fast growing tree to back up our modest native choice (and we are), the Norway maple is an excellent candidate. It is not so tough and wind-resistant as its cousin the sycamore Not a candidate for the seaside. But it is infinitely more attractive, with its yellow flowers in spring and its reliable yellow autumn colour. Indeed it is one of the brightest things in the garden today.
The Witness Oak
the digging begins. One mammoth in the centre of the vineyard amphitheatre below the house weighs 70 tons. It provoked Molly to make another garden around it and some of its fellows: just a shawl of native shrubs, half a dozen Lombardy poplars and a caviar floor.
On this visit, though, the garden had another dimension. The biggest of all the spreading oaks, perhaps 100 feet across its ground-scraping branches, began to sing. Molly's musician friends had composed its hymn to being, a mysterious flow of flute and strings that came from the heights and the heart of the tree: the prelude, leaves; the presto, storm; the adagio, roots; the intermezzo, life and the finale, air. (Should I mention, or not, the fact that the flautist had climbed to the furthest branches to rig speakers?)
You could call this, if you like, Extreme Gardening. But that sounds like something extravagantly imposed. There are a score of great gardens in the Napa and Sonoma valleys, and Molly Chappellet has had a hand in many of them. But there is no trade-mark touch, no heavy hint that a great landscaper has been involved. Her influence seems more like a spiritual one.
me when I came home yesterday from a fortnight abroad. Aileen found him one morning floating where he had swum for so long, alone. I mourn him.
fragile-looking top branches of birch trees, hour after hour. His body-weight must be tiny in relation to his height and wing-span - and leg-length. Our aim is the keep it that way by denying him any fishy feasts.
We all discovered in this village years ago that little ornamental fish in shallow ponds are an invitation the heron makes no attempt to resist. What precisely is the ratio of fish body-weight to water-depth to frustrate him we are starting to find out. A sharply shelving pond-edge is a start: no shallows to paddle in. The smaller fish we moved were snapped up; not yet the ones over a foot long.
Carp, of course, keep their water muddy by stirring up (indeed apparently eating) the bottom. Is it true, though, that the oily/milky cloud that floats on the surface when the heron flies off is a secretion from around his knees intended to attract the fish?
medicine, horsemanship to wine-making, to the pruning of orchards and the keeping of bees, La Maison Rustique was the source of reliable information. They gradually built up a picture of a timeless model estate, a château, or more likely a modest gentilhommière, with its ordered allées, its stables and beehives, cellars and hen-runs, and the book-filled salons of its philosophical master and mistress. How sad to break such a splendid tradition.
Last summer we were bowled over by a series of striking, original, beautifully-ordered gardens in the French countryside. There is another side to French gardening, though, which has to be faced. Last week I went to the hugely popular Park Monceau, in the 8th Paris arrondissement not far from the Gare St Lazare, the Normandy station. There are fine trees there, and one or two handsome monuments. But someone here clearly thinks that public gardens are for entertainment or education, or preferably both at once. The lawns are constantly interrupted by patches of outrageous planting intended (so their relentless descriptive notices say) to represent Aztec design or Maori tattoos. Little clumps of something agricultural pop up everywhere. The sense of repose, of nature going about its natural business, of succour from the city streets proper to a city park is at the bottom of the agenda, if it is on it at all.
mainly (at least in this garden) on apples, which are also in short supply.
I'm not sure whether it was the constant rain or the occasional frost that put paid to this spring's flowering of fruit-bearing trees. What worries me is that the squirrels will need something else hard to gnaw, because their teeth are constantly growing, and apples won't wear them down. I have a nasty feeling that the something will be the bark of our trees.
time you go back in to cut more trees you damage smaller ones and cut up the fragile ground.
In another part of the forest we are trying to restore old broad-leaved woodlands that the Forestry Commission, with its famous sensitivity to the environment, under-planted with all sorts of conifers. Western hemlock, however stately (and the prettiest green) does an oak wood no good at all. The outcry at the government's proposal to privatize Forestry Commission land took no note of the fact that Britain's best forests, and most enlightened forestry, is largely private. The proceedings of the Royal Forestry Society lag behind the best that France and Germany have to teach us, but certainly not behind anything the Commission is up to.
So our old oaks, beech, holly and birch are a sad sight while we cut and haul out the conifers that have been throttling them. Some will collapse, exposed too late and too radically to light and air. So we are underplanting new oaks among them. Birch, holly and the rest need no planting; we'll soon be trying to control them. Forestry is not as slow-motion as most people think. Oaks need patience, though.
Home to the garden just starting to look autumnal. Lots of roses, not much fruit, and the first trees turning. Koelreutarias going orange, and Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium' a medley of orange and cherry and scarlet, are in the lead.
It's a showy season, though, with far more roses than September usually brings making a completely different colour harmony from the early summer one. Now they have japanese anemones, michaelmas daisies, sedums and salvias for company. The mid-summer lop has brought us little second flowering on delphiniums and the rest.
Of the roses the hybrid musks (Essex bred, many of them) give as good a display as any, and of them Autumn Delight takes the prize, with longer and showier shoots than in summer. Its cream-to-milk flowers show up beautifully against dark leaves and thornless plum-dark stems.
Inspecting the progress of tree-climbing roses I see that Paul's Himalayan Musk, in its fourth year in a scruffy Chinese pine, has put on 15 foot shoots from the base, and its previous year's shoots are colonizing a California live oak. I love vigorous plants, but they have their consequences: viz the embarrassing size of the bonfire pile.
The chateau des Aspras
The best year ever?
They can be hefty plants with thrusting plumes, like the paniculatas, or as delicate as Japanese dolls, with intricate frilly details. There are matt petals and petals that seem to sparkle; big glossy leaves and tiny serrated ones. Yet somehow they all clearly say hydrangea.
The Mallets planned their five acres of woodland to give them partial shade but avoid competing with their roots by the ingenious resource of planting paulownias. Paulownias root deep and have big leaves. They also flower in spring. They planted buddleias, too, but the show is all hydrangea: in July and August a sight to wonder at.
Native nature is far from benign. Grey squirrels are totally destructive, with no redeeming virtues. Moorhens are aggressive predators: we no longer have ducklings, and rarely ducks. Herons prey on our fish. Badgers dig us up and seem to have eaten all our hedgehogs. Muntjac, admittedly not native, browse everything up to two feet or so; above that it's roe deer, and above four feet probably red. Pigeons not only eat the crops; they peck the canopies out of trees. Moles destroy the lawns; foxes the hens. Less activity from all these pretty creatures would be welcome - and yet the mantra (in many cases supported by law) is to cheer them on.
Gardening is not a natural activity. It is an effort to take control of nature for a specific aesthetic or economic purpose. To garden well we must learn nature's laws - and then discriminate against the ones that frustrate our purpose. Gardening organizations and publications that put 'bio-diversity' first are losing sight of what gardening means.
their flavours. A long black carrot supports the cast of (from left to right) red pepper, asparagus, aubergine, squash, turnip, carrot, fennel, asparagus, squash, red pepper, asparagus, a parmesan wafer, onion, asparagus. Those are fennel flowers, with olive oil and saffron.
After this came a veal chop with a gratin dauphinois, then soft goat's cheese with herbs, then fruit (peach, apricot, plum, pineapple, orange) fried in butter. You drink fresh Loire wines, and feel at one with deepest France.
bottom of the slightly shallower end. A senior flotilla decided on a station under a bushy willow (Salix rosmarinifolia) that shades the deeper part. Sometimes they move to investigate a hosta fortunei whose broad leaves overhang the water, or go and have a sniff at the splashes under the cascade.
Their relationships keep me guessing. They can crowd together, swimming at cross purposes, sometimes bumping but seemingly ignoring one another. They can commune, two or three at a time, evidently in conversation. When one or two of the seniors enter the nursery end the littl'uns form up and play follow-my-leader for a while.
Considering they were kidnapped at random in a pond with a community of hundreds it is unlikely they have an established hierarchy: that is something they are probably working on as I write. There is some sort of organization down there in the murky water. Wouldn't I love to understand it?
The change of gear from mid to late summer was late in coming this year. The scent of phlox and buddleja, a honeyed spicey note, is the annual clue. Japanese anemones have spread inexorably. The white ones outside my study window are taller than I have ever seen them, reaching the transom of the leaded casements, a foot above my head, and casting an odd white gloom over my desk. Their whorls of vine-leaves are a foot apart, leaving room for a view down the park through their thin green stems. This morning there is mist over the duckpond, hiding the scarlet crocosmias that form a blazing rim to the brown water.
Hydrangeas, normally reticent in our climate, have loved the rain. Along the shady north wall of the woodshed H. 'Grayswood' started white but is already showing smudges of its unique individual red. On the similar wall of the tea house H. 'Lanarth White' is bulking up after years of hesitation. The tiny centres of its flowers, blue in more propitious hydrangea soils, are pale pink here.
The Jardin Plume: interplay of the precise and the nebulous
Waterflame at Houghton Hall
I'm intrigued by the fact that parts of our coastline can become cults - at least for a while. Not only the coast, of course: we hear plenty about the Cotswolds, and two hundred years ago it was the Lake District everyone talked about. In the 1930s Frinton was the height of chic. Then it was St Ives, and now the north coast of Norfolk is having its turn. Burnham Market has been called Chelsea sur Mer - despite the fact that none of the many Burnhams, nor their neighbours, are actually on the sea. The sea has retreated, leaving long flats of saltmarsh, sand and seabirds, ideal for walking off lunches of Cromer crab and admiring the hundreds of windmills that have suddenly populated the shallows.
Norfolk, however, is naturally rich. Fertile fields are its dowry. Why else would two of England's most magnificent houses crop up in such unexceptional landscape? Houghton and Holkham are not only the best examples of 18th century showmanship, they are both still very much in business. Their huge estates (and that of Sandringham next door) give coherence to endless acres of well-farmed land and well-dressed forest. Neither, on the other hand, was distinguished for its gardens - until recently.
special quality, in the hope of improving the stock. After years of doing this I admit we aren't getting very far, but I enjoy the process.
The thing to remember is what comes out easily, like the poppies, and what leaves roots in the ground. You can enjoy an allium, even into its seed head phase, and still get rid of it. Not so an invasive campanula. And violas are the devil to do away with.
But most of the pulling up at the moment is what I think of as busy lizzies of various kinds. I'm not clear about all their identities; only their vigour and the distance they can chuck their seeds. You merely look at the watery yellow-flowered kind, only a few days old, and it looses off a petulant scatter of seeds. It's lucky I enjoy weeding so much.
here forty years ago. The style may well be having a renaissance in certain gardening magazines. Old bikes, jam jars, that kind of thing. No, with me it is largely a matter of tools.
Some mornings or evenings I march into the tool shed full of resolution, sure that I know just what I'll need. Fork, spade, saw and shears, trowel and twine go in the barrow. I reach the scene of operations and set to when I meet a plant that needs a stake. No stake. Do I retrace my steps? I look around for anything that will serve. I even tie one plant to another, resolving that I'll be back with a stake very soon.
Most mornings and evenings I saunter out with nothing but my secateurs in their leather holster. They are black steel, forged in Japan, with no fancy business of pretty handles: the gardener's six-shooter. I don't find many jobs they won't do - more or less - from light weeding to banging in nails. They are a precision instrument with a fine edge fit for bonsai, but with a wristy twist they will lop a one-inch branch.
The garden is full of evidence that I’ve surged through, half-doing a hundred jobs. The mercy is that no one but I will know, and I'll have forgotten.
her luscious magenta cabbage of a rose at waist level to avoid suffocation in its dangerously sweet perfume.
The ladies parade before us, all décolleté and bustle, with no shortage of artful ribbons. Are some lovesick? Is Madame Bovary an unchristened rose? 'When first open on a cool clear day', says Graham Stuart Thomas, 'Madame Pierre Oger is of a soft warm creamy flesh'. The Nymphe émue even lets us see her blushing thigh.
We know that Caroline Testout was a couturier from Grenoble, and that Madame Sancy de Parabère was a general's daughter and lady in waiting to the Empress Eugenie, who would not have been amused by her bothy moniker of 'Saucy de Paramour'. Nor, I fancy, would Madame Alfred Carrière, patroness of the loveliest of pale blushing climbers, have answered happily to 'Mad Alf', the name I heard a gardener give her.
In this rosiest of seasons, in the first warm days after unending rain, the fleshy fragrant presence of these women is inescapable. Climbing Lady Hillingdon is pressing her soft orange globes against my bedroom window. Surely this can’t be, as Robin Lane Fox tells us, the Lady Hillingdon who closed her eyes and thought of England.
with the background: violas and little balsams that can lurk while they multiply. And there are wily, snaky weeds that infiltrate under disguise.
Just now it was bryony in a mahonia that had reached the top without my noticing. Always and everywhere it is goose grass, spreading out from a root no bigger than fuse-wire to launch its sticky tentacles into whatever it encounters. It took me five minutes of patient groping, using its rough texture on my fingers as a guide, to disentangle one plant of it from a patch of Geranium.
I have learnt a few tricks, leaning over the herbage, breathing in its evocative variety of smells. The first is always to use a fork - not always to prong with, but more importantly to lean and balance on. It’s the rule of 'one hand for the ship': right hand on the handle for balance, left hand for reaching down and out. You can reach improbably far into a border if you are a tripod.
There are plants that never seem to need weeding, but they are rare. I rarely find weeds in established clumps of hemerocallis, and the big leaves of Phlomis russelliana are exceptionally effective at covering the ground. Some geraniums are hard for casual weeds to penetrate, but nothing, of course, smothers bindweed. Nor I fear is there any pleasure in it. In fact, I exclude bindweed, couch grass and ground elder from my enthusiasm. So perhaps I am not so different from other gardeners after all.
Central London has been verging on a monoculture of planes since its elms died nearly forty years ago. We forget how important they were. Many of the finest trees in Hyde Park, for instance, were field elms, with their crowning fans of branches, their flaring skirts and their pale gold leaves almost to the end of the year. London has few oaks and not nearly enough limes. The resilience of the plane, it resistance to pollution as well as its majestically graceful canopy and its huge reptilian trunk, have given it the status of the London tree.
The local authorities have been imaginative in the past few years with their street trees. We see rowans and alders, ginkgos here and there, many hawthorns in the parks, and so many Chanticleer pears that we have to hope they are resilient too.
But the mainstay of our parks and squares is the London plane. Since the 18th century it has defined the landscape of the West End, historically and practically. It is strange that a sterile hybrid should become the climax tree of the London forest – and should certainly be worrying us now. We desperately need to find a treatment to keep them going.
Haddonstone catalogue: a hundred yards or so of pseudo-classical columns supporting a useless architrave. In the centre will be a bronze group of the heroes it celebrates. Apart from the question of waiting 60 years to mark a tragic victory over a country now an ally, why do we need the exceptional emphasis of this giant colonnade?
The western gateway to London, Hyde Park Corner (Apsley House was once known as no. 1, London) has become a showroom for ever-bigger memorials. Where once a single statue represented a hero and sufficed for a regiment, we now seem to need a quarter of an acre of masonry. The New Zealand memorial just across the road has sixteen black exclamation marks where one would have been eloquent and dignified. The Commonwealth Memorial Gate awkwardly straddles Constitution Hill with undistinguished masonry, like a pedestrian crossing with an inflated ego. Anywhere in Monument Alley, which now encompasses Park Lane as well, seems fair game for this new branch of the building trade.
You can cite the Albert Memorial, of course, as pretty extravagant. But where are we heading, with the idea that bigger is better? Think of the Mini, and shudder.
the banksian rose in full flower at the end of May instead of April? Has Magnolia soulangeana finished flowering or not? And why not? Camassias overtook bluebells, weigelas overtook azaleas, ashes are still bare and hawthorns are still opening an unprecedented froth all through the hedges.
This is when I realize how over-full the garden is, how tall the trees are and how jam-packed. An arboretum has become a forest while my back was turned - except that it wasn't: I've been staring at it in ecstatic indecision spring after spring, thinking how lucky I am.
Bluebells at Bowood
By early April we had had a mere 140 millimetres of rain in the year. Since then we have had 160. If it was the wettest April it is the coldest May. The only plants that keep on growing in this low temperature are weeds and grass; the mower sinks in to the boggy ground and any step on the border to reach the weeds leaves a foot-shaped puddle.
And yet. When I splashed out this morning in my winter coat to see what could be done I walked into a wall of what to me is the Chelsea smell: azaleas in all their boudoir sweetness. The pale faces of Azalea mollis, soft yellow in the grey light, were gently chiding me: look at us, you grumpy old fool.