27 April 2017
The depredations of the boxtree caterpillar, Cydalima perspectalis, have reached such a pitch in Kensington that Rassells Nursery has stopped sellling box plants for hedges. Instead they are offering a miniature holly, Ilex cornuta ‘Luxus Globe’,
Its leaves are smaller and darker than box. Its paler new growth at this time of year is quite pretty, but no one can pretend it will ever be a substitute for the mainstay of garden design for, literally, thousands of years. The Romans relied on it. Pliny the Younger cut it into extravagant figures at his villa by the sea. Populations of box trees are often evidence that Romans colonized a district. Where we lived in the Auvergne the outlines of a Roman town were still just visible, but the valley below was thick with ancient box trees, not present elsewhere in the area.
A tearing hurry
18 April 2017
A diarist must beware of mentioning the weather too often. It was admittedly half the point of Gilbert White's diaries, and there are times and places where it simply grabs the limelight. I was probably pretty boring about the drought in Essex (and most parts) in 1976. Watching the sky became an obsession, and dragging hoses my principal exercise. The aftermath called for comment, too. The deluge killed plants that had survived the drought. Venerable beeches that had managed to make deeper roots to find moisture (their customary ones are near the surface) drowned when the floods came in October.
There was no ignoring the great gale of October 1987, either. But what about this spring? For the second year running winter has failed to show up. The first quarter of the year has been consistently mild. Phenologists (those whose bread and butter is recording dates of budding, leafing and flowering) say that one degree centigrade above average means one week earlier leafing. It sounds too tidy, but the average means one week earlier leafing. It sounds too tidy, but the Kensington wisterias are saying three degrees - or at least are in full bloom three weeks earlier than last year (which was early, too). The result has been what amounts to a summer Easter (Easter being late this year).
The resulting coincidences of flowering are alternatively a) charming b) bizarre c) disturbing or d) the writing on the wall. No scientific evidence is needed to know that, for example, London now has a pavement-café life that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Wine-growing in the south of England is no longer an optimistic eccentricity. It is making good money. Nor is it only England; growers in Champagne are nervous about losing the racy acidity in their grapes that gives champagne its edge in every sense.
Meanwhile Beaulieu Common in the New Forest is an extraordinary sight. The gorse has gone mad, painting the whole landscape a brlliant searing yellow. It is all in flower at once (and the smell, of vanilla and coconut and honey, is intoxicating). The vast gorse mounds where cattle and ponies shelter their hind-quarters in winter storms, turning their heads to the wind, are ramparts of a Buddhist colour. I fancy artists call gumboge, relieved here and there with the while of blackthorn. Whatever happened to the traditional blackthorn winter?
Cabinet of Curiosities
13 April 2017
A morning at the Garden Museum with its ebullient director Christopher Woodward. He has much to ebull about. The redevelopment that has kept the museum closed for 18 months is nearly finished. On May 9th Friends will see the result and be amazed. It has been transformed, inside and out.
The main body of the museum is the nave of the gothic St Mary's, Lambeth, but now it has an ingenious mezzanine with room for collections of garden gear; tools and paraphernalia in wonderful variety, including many of the sort of charming horticultural paintings you know must exist but would rarely be able to find. I intend to spend happy hours enjoying them.
The floor of the nave is a generous space for gatherings and lectures. The restaurant that was one of its most popular features, with home-made food that always manages to seem relevant, now has an airy space of its own in the new building that forms a cloister,
Plants behaving oddly
5 April 2017
Has this been the best year ever for Kew's magnolias? It doesn't really matter; last Friday they were sublime, under an azure sky with the proper proportion of fluffy white clouds, and an improper one of big shiny aeroplanes. The air was balmy, the breeze just enough to dislodge a petal here and there to brush past you on its way to lie at your feet. You must hold one to your cheek; there is nothing softer or cooler.
In the woodland garden the breeze jostled the white erythroniums from Oregon. Some pointilliste had filled a meadow with purple and white fritillaries. In the alpine house Tulipa sosnowskyi from the Caucasus was in orange and yellow flame. By the lecture rooms the huge bones of Eucalyptus dalrympleana shone white in the sun. Congested green flowers burst out of maples, embryo catkins from wingnuts, and tiny green points of leaf everywhere. All too soon? When times are out of joint like this is it is difficult not to feel a little surge of panic. Is this thrilling performance the swan song?
But then Kew induces the sense of a Grand Order of Being. Every plant is listed and assigned a place. At Kew God proposes, man disposes.
Blatant but not blowsy: Magnolia 'Star Wars', Kew, 31 March
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines
29 March 2017
Another weekend in the New Forest, inching forward with the design of the new garden. We are building an ample stone-flagged terrace outside the kitchen-conservatory, facing pretty much due south. March days with clear skies have given us a chance to road-test it in perfect conditions, so the first question is, when summer comes and heaven shines in earnest, what do we do for shade?
We have outlined the terrace with brick pillars at the corners, supporting an oak beam that frames the view down the walled garden and will carry swags of climbing roses. Roses, though, are scarcely shade-trees. It can be a windy spot, too, on a hill facing southwest and only three miles from the sea, so parasols have limitations; could end up fields away in fact.
Our new scheme is more nautical; to step a ship’s mast in the centre of the terrace and rig it to the house, the garden wall and the brick pillars to carry an assortment of sails. I first met this idea in a restaurant overlooking the port of Sète on the Mediterranean. The white triangles of jibs (and I suppose staysails) caught the eye invitingly from the quayside below. Rigged precisely to intercept the rays of the sun crossing the sky, they kept at least some of its heat and dazzle off the restaurant. Could we make it work at this slightly higher latitude? It will take a lot of seamanship, but I love the idea of unfurling a jib for lunch and another for tea.
I see the walled garden as a stage set, with the terrace as the stalls, the pergola the proscenium arch, and the wings as, on the left, the perspective of a long border, and on the right a pleached hornbeam hedge half-hiding a lower level of garden, and beyond it the wide valley view. The lower garden is the sports section: 'short' tennis and croquet, the upper part the leisure department - apart, that is, from the gardener's point of view.
Water flows laterally across the garden from the upper wall on the left, reappears as low fountains in a central rectangular basin, and makes a third appearance splashing into another tank at the lower level. You'll hardly think you're in the Shalimar Bagh, I’m afraid, but this is Hampshire..
22 March 2017
How you cover the walls is absolutely key to a little hemmed-in garden like this one. Intense competition, for root-run as well as for light, is taken for granted; the question is how many place-earning climbers can you persuade up the walls and trellis. The total length of our walls is 2 x 55 + 17 = 127 feet. (The house end is all paved; so no soil to plant. We collect ferns in pots in the permanent shade). I count 21 climbers, or wall plants, so far, that's six feet per plant, which sounds pretty generous, but they have no inhibitions about invading each other's space.
One side is entirely dominated by ivy. There's nothing I can do about it except cut off its shoots. I don't even know where its trunks are. It shares almost half the west-facing wall and the trellis, to a height of 10 feet, with a climbing hydrangea, whose bright green shoots are just waking up against the dusty green of the ivy.
Two roses and two clematis share this space; the clematis doing better than the roses. C. alba luxurians in particular is never short of energy, and sends its exiguous shoots way up in the ivy to splatter it with its green and white flowers all summer.
20 March 2017
My thoughts keep turning, as each excitement of spring bursts on us, cherries chasing magnolias, the grass a blue haze of speedwell, to a dear friend who had just made the garden of his dreams when he died, unexpectedly and unnecessarily, last October.
He inspired me to be a gardener. He was the first friend I had who used Latin names for plants -which I originally thought was an affectation, until I too started repeating those mellifluous syllables Alchemilla mollis in my head and the whole absurd complexity of gardening germinated in my brain.
He loved planning gardens for friends; usually ambitious plans calling for builders. His own gardens were ambitious, too - certainly in the range of plants he grew and the awkward spaces he managed to grow them in. Finally in retirement he bought a house in Somerset and spent a year absorbed in building a formal raised pond for his fish, with a series of radiating arches and raised beds, in which he crammed all his favourite plants. Just now they are identifying themselves, their buds opening and shoots lengthening, beginning to claim the spaces he gave them. More raised beds are all ready, damp brown well-manured earth, ready for him to sow his vegetables and plant his fruit. I grieve for him and the beauty he will never see.
1,000 miles south
15 March 2017
Home from a week in Andalusia and the Algarve, luckily in a warm spell after a cold winter - there, not here. It was 29C in Seville and the plane trees were straining to leaf out. Orange trees are, of course, the Seville speciality, lining the streets and squares; at this time of year you have to pick your way among the windfalls. Soon the air will be tangily sweet with the white blossom among the sumptuous green leaves.
In the Algarve, the windswept meadows around Cape St Vincent, the bottom left hand corner of Europe, are painted yellow, sharp invigorating yellow, by the rampant Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-caprae. How this South African native wood sorrel encircled the globe (or at least its temperate middle) is a cautionary tale. I remember admiring its shamrocky leaves and picking a vase full of its long-stalked elegant flowers years ago on the Côte d'Azur, wondering what exotic jewel it was. Then I remembered sieving out the tiny bulbils that its pink cousin flung around in our kitchen garden. It has Dead or Alive posters up now from the Mediterranean to California.
We were in the brief season when grass covers the hills; greener, tenderer-looking grass than any northern lawn, every blade distinct on the tawny ground. On the downland towards the Spanish border, the wandering river Guadiana and the dams that cluster round in sudden little valleys, dots of brilliant white mean the cistus is coming into flower, its new shoots gleaming bright sticky green and each wide white petal stamped with a maroon blotch. Slim graceful asphodel grows head-high among the cistus; 'French' lavender is already bright purple and succulent tufts mean tulips are on their way, their colours still unrevealed.
A thousand miles south of London spring seems scarcely more advanced, but then there no one plants precocious ornamentals. The excitement is concentrated in the vegetable plots; a patch of succulent spinach is worth more than a camellia.
Still scarcely spring; the Alcazar gardens in Seville
Lake or pond?
28 February 2017
Is our New Forest water (see my last entry) a pond or a lake? A reader has put me straight. It's not just a question of size. A lake has a water surface big enough to allow a swan to take off. It’s an elegant solution, he suggests, bcause it involves the surroundings as well as the water. Quite a big pond in the middle of a wood would still be a pond; remove the trees and it would attract swans and become a lake. So it's up to swans to decide.
The swan measure rates the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens a lake (they love it) – but can a lake have a hard bottom and masonry margins? And things are different again in America. On Golden Pond was a movie about a lake, and Menemsha Pond, where I remember dropping anchor once in the fog between ghostly buoys, each with its cormorant, is an arm of the sea.. But then Martha’s Vineyard is not a vineyard,
They've made up their minds
Seen from above
24 February 2017
It never occurred to me before that designing a garden in plan (ie from a bird's perspective) is quite different from designing it in elevation (ie from eye height). I've always considered the view from the likeliest vantage point (the kitchen window comes high on the list) and added to or subtracted from what I see from there.
Things are different in the New Forest garden that fills my thoughts at present. The main view is from the windows and veranda facing west, overlooking a wide meadow of 15 acres or so, with 'over' as the operative word. The land drops steeply, down a series of curving banks, to the level perhaps fifty feet below. You take it all in in one side-to-side scan, without interruption, dead ground or mass of vegetation blocking the view. Positioning trees from up here is like placing pieces on a draughts board. The challenge is imagining the resulting elevations, in scale, proposition, texture and colour. How will each tree we plant fit into the picture at ground level?
Our big feature is a new lake (or pond; semantic discussion here) carved like a two-acre kidney over to the right. Beyond it stands one solo and splendid spreading oak. The boundaries of the meadow are decent routine trees, oak and ash and holly, with fleeting glimpses of the Lymington River winding out of reach beyond. So the first job was to make the best river-glimpse, of a white painted footbridge, into a focal point, by cutting branches to clear the view. The next is to plant some vertical accents to frame it and vary the uniform hedge-like boundary.
In the far left hand corner we have put a small block of utilitarian poplars, Populus robusta, the kind they grow (or grew) for matchsticks. Their rigid pattern arrests your eye; a click of focus against a monotone background. On the far right, where an old Dutch barn is the only distraction, we have planted the most obvious of screens, a file of Lombardy poplars. The poplars will grow a yard a year: what would we do without them?
It's a big canvas. I'm not straining for subtlety; the seasons’ colours will bring plenty of nuance. Water means willows; the most beautiful are weeping. Two here, four there…. the groundwork is going in, and we haven't got beyond the Salicacae.
A better name
18 February 2017
Crocuses are so sudden. There have only been three days of open weather, wide light skies with clouds you can count, a breeze without an edge, and they come out of hiding. The weather, of course, is a February Feint. Next week, the blizzard. But it's a little trailer for spring just when you're starting to need it.
Crocuses are like snowdrops, interesting as individuals but sensational as whole armies. I wouldn't say that about roses. It's worth going a long way to see a woodful of snowdrops, and most certainly worth going to Kew to see the little tommies. Crocus tommasinianus is not (I imagine) a connoisseur's plant, but the impact of a tennis-court's-worth, its mauve suffused with a silvery sheen in the sun, is unique. Do they glow at night? Propagating them is not a problem; they may be the only weed with an AGM.
Their name is scarcely in their favour, but call them Crocus de Tommasi and they sound much better. The suggestion comes from a charming website I stumbled across, as one does, looking for more than the dull physiological details. The stories collected by besotted amateurs make far better reading. This website is called In Paghat's Garden and comes from Puget Sound in the state of Washington. Sadly internet entries are rarely dated (surely something its masters could fix) so this may not be hot news.
Paghat tells me that tommasinianus is derived from the botanist Muzio de Tommasi. In the first half of the 19th century he explored Carinthia, Friuli and Dalmatia, in the southern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with, among others, George Bentham (of Bentham and Hooker), and also found time to be Mayor of Trieste. I love to be told that Germans call it the 'elphin crocus', and I shan't struggle with tommasinianus again.
The weed with an AGM
13 February 2017
Another cold day in the New Forest, supervising planting in our daughter and son-in-law's new garden. It was a familiar spot long before they bought the house: the late Peter Chappell's wonderful Spinners Nursery of woodland plants was right next door, and round the corner the village school that was started by William Gilpin, Vicar of Boldre and apostle of the Picturesque.
It is a total contrast to our old Essex garden. This is essentially old oak woodland on a slope down to the little Lymington River. The soil is mildly acid; the default plant in the whole district is the rhododendron. The house looks down on a broad meadow and a population of roe deer, a joy to watch but a menace to a gardener. They browse without discrimination. Lists of plants deer don't eat are chimerical.
Our answer is walls. We have cut back into the slope by the house to build a walled garden on two levels, following the slope and facing
Oil, not water
7 February 2017
Back from Snowdonia after our customary mid-winter visit. By the beginning of February there were already tiny signs of spring in swelling buds, hazel catkins, a few snowdrops. There was snow dusting the hills over 600 feet; on one west-facing grassy bank the first wild Welsh daffodil had opened. In The Winter's Tale Perdita says 'Daffodils, that come before the swallow dares and take The winds of March with beauty'. This is February; more evidence of climate change?
A sunny day in winter here is disconcertingly beautiful. The hills have a far richer palate of colours even than their spring swatch of pale-to-dark greens or their yellow-to-khaki-to-ginger autumn coat. Winter colours come in fine brushstrokes and filigree detail. Oaks, trunk to twig, shine light grey in the sun, ashes silvery white, sometimes orange, birch twigs smoky purple; you can pick out their populations across a valley, distinct from the red of Japanese larch among the grey-blue of Sitka spruce. Hemlock and Douglas fir are coachwork green, the rocks among them various greys dotted with white quartz or stained yellow with lichen. Bracken smears thehills with brown. Gorse, even now, pricks bright yellow stitches, and a stream flashes silver. There is nothing watercolour about this painting: it has the full tone of oils.
5 February 2017
Concrete has never had any appeal for me - and I could express it more strongly than that. It has noble and necessary uses: Norman Foster's astonishing Millau viaduct, for example, curving on its slender pillars a thousand feet above the Tarn. But in its brutalist heyday in Britain in the 1960s and '70s the cult of concrete usurped the place of brick and stone. I can't wait to see some of its worst outrages demolished.
The Household Cavalry barracks in Knightsbridge is one of my pet hates: horses in a tower, indeed. The old barracks was a dashing brick range festooned with trophies and helmets, with a stone ball on each buttress. I bought one from the demolition people for the garden at Saling Hall, but I can't forgive the dingy grey intrusion on the views in Hyde Park. You could argue that the Hilton Hotel is worse - or at least taller, but the barracks is ours, built with our money, which makes it a self-inflicted wound. The Knightsbridge side is appalling, too; an immense length of grubby grey wall.
29 January 2017
No self-respecting garden scribbler passes up the snowdrop moment, if only to show solidarity with colleagues, and especially when the Chelsea Physic Garden has just opened its annual Snowdrop Days (from January 28 to February 3).
It's tricky to get the date right. Last year they were tricked by the weather, postponed it and were caught out when it suddenly warmed up. This year a week of frost kept the flowers back; I fear the shy little plants may not have sold very well. But the Snowdrop Theatre was a good as ever: each plant discreetly lit from above in a wooden frame. See on the right.
An icy cave
27 January 2017
Back to Painshill, to see the grotto I had only glimpsed from the outside in November (see my entry of the 30th). Glum grey days have been alternating with brilliant icy ones recently; happily I chose one of the best (or perhaps it's just Surrey: it was glorious when I went in November, too). This time I was conducted by Janie Locke, who since the beginning of the restoration project in 1981 has been its presiding genius. It was the local council, Elmbridge, that took the very unusual initiative of buying the 150-odd acres of the neglected property, piecemeal from various owners. It was their young recruit Janie Burford (now Locke), with a newly-formed Painshill Park Trust, who instilled the necessary enthusiasm and confidence into the locals, recruited the volunteers, surveyed the site and its trees, kick-started the archaeology, went out to find funds and designed and directed the project over 22 years.
It turned out to be the perfect day to explore a grotto. At this time of year, the low sun can make driving a car almost impossible (west in the morning, east in the afternoon is a sound rule, but the sun in my wing-mirror blinded me the other day). It is a revealing time to make observations in any garden; brilliant light at these low angles is what you get late on summer evenings (but then the sun sets much further north).
The grotto lies on an island in the lake, heavily hinted at by outcrops and an arch of the weathered oolitic limestone of its construction, a strange holey stone. You cross on a white wooden bridge that hints of Chinese lattice-work (but was in fact designed by Palladio). A sunken entrance leads into a gloomy passage lit by openings onto the lake, its atmosphere stony and cold. But a golden light lay ahead. The main chamber was flooded with sunlight reflected from the water through jagged apertures. At its low angle, shining on a thin skim of ice, it bounced into a ceiling dropping with great glittering stalactites. Dozens of these craggy cones of different sizes, and the rocky walls around are covered with slivers of felspar, calcite and quartz crystals, reflecting minerals that flash back the sun. It is hard to imagine such a gilded, glittering cave. What creatures should inhabit it, I wondered. Ariel-like spirits, perhaps, with gossamer wings.
Through the gloom
23 January 2017
It feels like some sort of pivot, or landmark, in the slow process of winter - and no, it's not a snowdrop. Not even the precocious giant Galanthus elwesii is up and doing here. But I looked through the pale pink blossom on my favourite tree this morning and saw the first blooms on the camellia that matches it almost exactly, the veteran 'Top Hat' that we inherited with the garden. At the distance they are both pink as powder-puffs.
Between, just coming into flower, is a flowering currant that demands maximum patience and tolerance, the funny little Ribes laurifolium. Its greeny-white racemes are just emerging among its leathery evergreen leaves. The trouble is it squats. I've had it in a generous pot for years, but nothing persuades it to get off its haunches.
The power of words
8 January 2017
How limited, stilted and inhibited our gardening vocabulary is compared with, say, the jargon of the art world.
I look in vain in our literature for the sort of punchy phrases I noted on the walls of the Royal Academy during its Abstract Expressionism show. I have never read of a garden, for example, 'dense with corpuscular motifs', or 'by turns visceral and cosmic'. Would I recognize them, I wonder, if I met them among the hedges and lawns?
I did find some expressions, though, I would love to attach to a garden. A 'spiritualized space' sounds more at home in a garden than on a canvas, and I challenge - who? Arabella Lennox-Boyd or Tom Stewart-Smith? to plant me a 'lush but fragile impasto'.
Perhaps the real difference is that art critics have to maintain an illusion of more significance than meets the eye. Language can easily become a veil concealing a void of meaning. Gardening is realism made physical, permanent and in full view, with no room for commentary or excuses. Once it could use references unmissable by people who had been to the right school, or done the Grand Tour, to express political or religious messages - to those who knew the code. Sadly, we have thrown away the code book; what would, say, a Brexit garden or a Momentum garden look like? Not free of weeds, the latter. I fear the furthest the current idiom will get you is a genuflection to a Dutch gardener who paints in grasses.
Plant of the Year
3 January 2017
Trad used to do a Plant of the Month, when we had a big garden and many choices. This the first time I've done a Plant of the Year - but really it’s a Plant of Many Years; ten at least.
I love orchids for living in slow motion. Writing about a genus so closely and intensely studied is like treading on egg-shells, but this cymbidium (I believe its name is, or was when I bought it, Rum Jungle) has lived in the same modest plastic pot all this time. You couldn't get a toothpick in among its curling roots. It lives on water and neglect., most of the year in a shady spot behind the greenhouse, where I top up its saucer when I remember, sometimes with a drop of Growmore in the can. (Could I be drummed out of the RHS for offering such unscientific advice?)
I brought it into the greenhouse in October and into the warmth of the house, by a north-facing window, in late November and gave it a little orchid feed. The flowers have been erupting for four weeks now - and of course stay pristine for weeks. Each flower of this rather ghost-like cultivar has a double red line faintly picked out on its lower lip, presumably to guide insects straight to the action.
My sister sees rescuing near-death orchids as a sacred calling and would scoop a tiny pot with a shrivelled phalaenopsis off a skip in the street for intensive care in her kitchen. Actually there is nothing very intensive about it; only patience and a strict regime. No food, almost no water, domestic temperature and refusal to give up. The joy when a tentative bud appears repays months of nurture.
23 December 2016
The Design Museum, Sir Terence Conran's baby, has just moved from beside Tower Bridge to our part of town - and we're delighted. It was quite an operation to rebuild the old Commonwealth Institute for its new purpose. Its eccentric pointy roof (a hyberbolic parabola like Maid Marian's hat) was the problem; the whole massive weight had to be jacked up and supported on Acrow props while they built new walls below. The result justifies the effort. The huge space inside encompasses a memorable pale-panelled atrium up to the roof, galleries, a museum, offices, a club room and (Conran being Conran) a first-class restaurant.
The word 'design' asks as many questions as it answers. In one sense everything we see and touch is designed, in the sense that its maker had an object in view and planned how to achieve it. In practice it is usually applied to what we often call Industrial Design, and the first objects you see are such iconic modern objects as telephones, jeans, bikes, the London Underground logo, a plastic bucket and the inevitable Coca Cola bottle. There is a fascinating exhibition called Designers, Makers, Users, there are recent prize-winning designs…. a whole day's worth of interest. It all inculcates a sense of visual awareness; you start looking at shadows, textures, proportions, juxtapositions… and enjoying vision more as a result. Is 'mindfulness' the same idea?
Does garden design come into it? I hope it will. It is a very different discipline. The surroundings of the Commonwealth Institute were designed by Dame Sylvia Crowe, the doyenne of landscapers at the time. She was employed by the Forestry Commission in the period when they were blanketing uplands with dark rectangles of firs - which of course she did her best to ameliorate. I'm afraid she got the blame for much of what she was trying to avoid. When did a gardener, landscaper or nurseryman last get a knight- or dame-hood? Sir Harold Hillier, perhaps, fifty-odd years ago? They must be some of her trees still round the new museum; perhaps a Crowe retrospective would make a good exhibition. I remember her gratefully: in the 1970s she helped me to put my ideas together for my pretentiously-named book The Principles of Gardening.
Short dark days
16 December 2016
Its darkness, not lack of interest, that keeps me out of the garden in December. There is plenty to enjoy when you can see it. So how much precious garden space is it worth, I was asking myself, devoting to plants "of winter interest". If that means their one virtue is winter-flowering, with eleven nondescript months, probably not much. Besides, the roster of all-rounders is pretty limited: you can enjoy Mahonia 'Charity' and Viburnum x bodnantense in everyone else's garden. Camellias, too - at least in this neighbourhood. Not everyone, I know, relishes delayed gratification, but my most absorbed moments just now are spent looking for future promise. It’s the swelling bud that hypnotizes me, more than the picturesque wreckage of last year's growth.
Having said that, I have just paid a visit to a garden where the ebb and flow of the seasons is on unselfconscious display. Waltham Place near Maidenhead has been an Oppenheim family home for almost a century, but also functions as a laboratory and school for ideas of sustainability and biodynamics that are rarely played out for all to see. The Head of Education told me it is also used as therapy for people suffering from dementia, with encouraging results.
A morning of drizzle and mist dramatized its qualities. Winter here is a much of a celebration as spring - or if that is over-egging it, as much of a statement. It is a picture of plants in their plenitude – and past it. Tall grasses, sere and pale, play a large part in December (as they do at Wisley). The bright squirrel brown of beech hedges seems to give off heat, and the red stems of Siberian dogwood to blaze in the mist. Everywhere there was something that called me over for a closer look; many seedlings, of course, with their green look of promise, even if their fate is to be weeded out later.
Following the phases of the moon is routine here. I was shown two mature hedges of Lonicera nitida, one solid, chunky and full of leaf, the other half-bare, with dying branches and naked twigs. Both, I was told, were trimmed in autumn; the first at the proper phase of the moon for pruning, when the sap is in the roots, the second at the wrong moment, with the sap risen. Was the gardener reprimanded? I am an agnostic in such matters, but I shall look up nervously when I next get out my shears.
7 December 2016
I've been receiving each issue of The Plantsman, then The New Plantsman, now The Plantsman again, for 38 years. I wish I'd been able to keep them; they encompass a vast amount of good information. Especially recently, it seems to me. This month's issue is full of news as well as the usual meaty plant-related articles. Not all the news is good: there is a serious new plague of Fuchsia gall mite in the south of England, the dreaded Rhododendron superponticum has now invaded 100,000 hectares of this island, and the little Asian hornet, which attacks bee hives, has arrived (in Gloucestershire).
The main articles are on growing proteas, on the importance of gardening in cities, on hunting ferns in the Pacific northwest, on propagating cyclamen by stem cuttings, on Dahlia species in Mexico that few of us have ever seen, on Acer griseum in the wild (and the
Dream come true
30 November 2016
If the Hon. Charles Hamilton was rewarded for his eminent taste with a sojourn in heaven, yesterday he and I were looking at the same scene. Painshill, his Surrey Elysium, was looking more perfect than he can ever have imagined it; trees grown taller in more variety, lawns smooth-shaven, follies secure in gleaming perfection and only his Temple of Bacchus still a building (or rather rebuilding) site. The brilliant low sunlight flooded each monument; Gothic eminence, craggy grotto, five-arch bridge, Chinese bridge, mausoleum, Turkish tent and the naked Sabine struggling in the bronze arms of her naked Roman captor.
It glittered on the lake in crystal reflections, picking out every detail of proud swans and gilded autumn trees. It lit the black platforms of the tallest Lebanon cedar in Britain and the bare vines of his vineyard tipped towards the water like Johannisberg towards the Rhine. When Hamilton last saw it, 250 years ago, the trees were young, the buildings they now shade and embower self-consciously new. Now he must swell with pride, and search anxiously for each new American plant, shipped with such care from Mr Bartram in Philadelphia, to see how it is acclimatising 3,000 miles from home.
His ingenious waterwheel, pumping water to the lake from the river Mole below, slowly turns like the hands of a clock marking the years, drops from its mossy paddles glinting in the sun. A team of gardeners rakes oak leaves into russet piles. Time is on holiday here - which is its habit in heaven.
25 November 2016
I've never really believed Marie Antoinette said 'Let them eat cake' or even "What's wrong with croissants?' I prefer the story where she looks out of her window with a cry of delight and sends for the gardener who had the pretty idea of scattering yellow leaves on the lawn. That was on the day the staff at Versailles had downed tools.
The last leaves are hanging in the sycamore as I write. Three weeks have seen countless thousands fall. We have filled ten bin bags for the council to take away. It's no way to run a sustainable garden, I know, but where do I make a compost heap in this tiny space, how much use is sycamore compost, and where would I use it?
Everyone agrees that the south has seen a glorious autumn, a slow glow in calm weather for weeks on end. We haven't seen frost or strong wind; few trees have excelled as brilliant individuals; instead they have all concurred in gradual transformation through fading green and yellows to a uniform dull gold. One of the most sustained performers, in buttery yellow, has been the humble field maple. Liquidambars, the usual motley stars, have gone quietly; Pyrus 'Chanticleer', the pavement pear, is the exception round here, turning brilliant pale orange with touches of red. The magnolia in our front garden, with huge leaves, A4-sized ovals some of them, provoked by a spring haircut, is the last to shed. The plain swept surfaces, when all the leaves are gone, have their own appeal - though Marie Antoinette might not agree.
Kensington's biggest field maple, by the Serpentine
17 November 2016
They tease me by calling it 'Grandpa's Shed', but I can take it. The fact is I love it. I go into my little greenhouse in my little garden and feel liberated. I have a different relationship with the plants in pots, sharing this little roof. They are my dependents; they need me every day. They look up with doggy expressions. And I give their loyalty back.
For one thing plants on a bench are at the ideal level to touch and inspect. A fatigued flower or a less than sprightly leaf is obvious - and your fingers can take care of the problem straight away. You must, of course, conjecture about the roots; glass pots would be revealing; I wonder if anyone uses them - keeping them in some sort of sleeve, of course. They wouldn't like light.
Croeso y Cymru
7 November 2016
I was surprised (and perhaps a little alarmed) that they'd noticed, when The Lonely Planet Guide chose North Wales as number four in a list of the world's top ten regions to visit in 2017 - the only one in Britain, which is of course absurd.
Until then I had supposed I was alone in finding that our mountainous area ticks all the boxes. A large chunk of it is the Snowdonia National Park, stretching from Conway on the north coast to Aberdovey seventy miles to the south, and twenty or thirty miles inland. I'm sure what the Lonely Planet people like is the hiking and biking , the rock-climbing and the vast beaches, although they do describe it as 'a haunt of in-the-know foodies' - which will surprise most people. Incidentally, they're quite right.
I can't deny that our own little corner, our woods, suspended above the estuary of the River Mawdach, is beautiful. Over the too-silted-up estuary rises the granite wall of Cader Idris; to the left the peaks around the Dinas pass, to the right the sea, Cardigan Bay and from the top, on a very clear day, the Wicklow Hills. Behind lie the Rhinogs, not specially high but dauntingly wild; miles of bog and rocks with no tracks except the Old Harlech Road, scarcely visible on the ground but marked by an 18th century milestone: XI miles.
Our woods have won two gold medals at the Royal Welsh Show, in 2005 and 2016, perhaps for careful forestry, but as much, I suspect, for the pleasure they give the judges. They could hardly be more varied, in trees or topography: rushing streams , little lakes, remnants of old oak woodland in the valley bottoms, lots of beech, some red oak and higher up larch, Douglas fir, and of course the spiky Sitka spruce that will produce timber even on bogs and rocks. Everywhere birch , rowan and the pale green larch seedlings. Gorse, too, of course. I forgive it its barbs when I breathe the honey scent of its flowers. From each of our high points, views to make you catch your breath.
I don’t know how the Lonely Planet found out about it, though.
Neverland and after
3 November 2016
In their time Haseley Court and Folly Farm have both been among England's most influential gardens. I visited them both in June with the patrons of The Garden Museum. One is a classic of the Edwardian years of Lutyens and Jekyll, the other a masterpiece fifty years younger. But 'in their time', it struck me, gives quite the wrong impression. Their time is now.
Folly Farm in Berkshire has been restored with great pains and immense scholarship, seemingly regardless of cost, by Jonathon and Jennifer Oppenheimer. The house is famous in itself as one of Lutyens's typical excursions into the Neverland territory he shared with JM Barrie and Randolph Caldecott. I have always loved Lutyens, and believe the secret of his juggling with ideas as modern as his contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright and as old as English vernacular materials is really his sense of humour.
He loved catslide roofs, fantastic chimney stacks, huge oriel windows and little dormers in improbable places - almost as though he were illustrating a book for children. In the garden his trademark - or one of them - is ingenious changes of level involving curving, sometimes almost circular steps, beautifully made of mixtures of brickwork and carved stone.
Folly Farm has all these things, originally planted by Gertrude Jekyll, no doubt in her intricate palette of colours. Now Dan Pearson has had a go - and the result is, to my mind, a marvellous match for Lutyens's whimsical grandeur; decisive, original and harmonious. Small ideas or fiddly colour arrangements would be wrong. Colour schemes are brave enough to embrace massive spaces, and often the plants themselves are supersize, too.
Haseley Court in Warwickshire belongs to a later era, the lean years after World War II. Nancy Lancaster, who made the garden, was the American socialite decorator who gave grand houses permission to be shabby and shabby ones permission to strike grand attitudes.
Her ideas live on, at one end in the Mayfair showrooms of her firm, Colefax & Fowler, still the headquarters of chintz de luxe, at the other in such establishment as the Hotels du Vin, where gaps in the floorboards are justified by expensive soap in the bathroom. Shabby chic signalled aristo confdence; easier to do indoors, you'd think, than out. Somehow just not weeding doesn't cut it.
The Big Apple
18 October 2016
October is the month to visit New York. The sun is bright; the air is clear and relatively cool – though this year I was too early for the firing-up of fall. September was abnormally warm and dry, like ours. Then some rain; the general picture was still all green.
My favourite room in New York looks down from the 19th floor onto Central Park. The lake glints just below, embosomed in trees. The towers of Manhattan stretch out beyond. The bookcases filling the walls contain a glorious library of books on the history of gardening and landscape. This is the office of Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the person who revived the Park from its nadir in the 1970s. Now she is President of the Institute for Landscape Studies.This is where she edits Sitelines, its magazine.
We first met when I was touring radio studios to promote my wine atlas and she was on a parallel course, discussing her first book: The Forests and Wetlands of New York. It was as though she was the first person to notice that all the concrete lies in a spectacular landscape of woods and cliffs, marshes and islands. Look out of the window as your plane lands at JFK. Below you lies Jamaica Bay, a vast wildlife refuge that competes with Essex for its wandering
1 October 2016
The tussle over The Garden Bridge continues. Those who first mooted it seem to be otherwise engaged. Those who authorized it are probably consulting their lawyers. Meanwhile a growing body of opinion is questioning how an actress, an admirer and a designer got so far in wishing such a crazy scheme on our capital.
I don't need to tell gardeners how the middle of a major river, exposed to the four winds, is a poor choice of a site to nurture plants., or whether trees can be expected to succeed there. People will have
29 September 2016
It’s the cyclamen, first of all, that convince me in it's not all over. When everything is winding down they are popping up, in places you never saw them before or have forgotten about them. Suddenly there's a spatter of white, or of pink, that bears no relation to what grows around it. There's one in the barren soil under a box hedge, another in a damp corner full of ivy. They are individualists, solo or in congregations; they hold their heads at cheeky angles and their leaves (I speak of C. hederifolium) are painted haphazard. One I have in a clay pan came from Rassell's Nursery, across Earl's Court Road, a tuber the size of a Chelsea bun that showed no sign of life for a year, then started signalling energetically from behind the compost sacks under the greenhouse bench.
Perhaps the best colony I know is in the rarely-mown park of Château Langoa-Barton in the Médoc. It gradually paints the long dewy grass pink just when the sweet scent of fermentation starts to fill the air from the cuvier next door.
We are mourning a sudden and puzzling loss just now. One of our favourite plants at Saling Hall was the pale-purple flowering Abutilon vitifolium 'Veronica Tennant', an almost instant little tree, growing five feet in a year to 15 feet or so, with grey-felted vine- or maple-leaves and wide-open papery flowers like the most innocent of hollyhocks. True, it's a short-lived plant, perhaps six or seven years, but in our narrow garden our plan was to grow it against a wall to help screen us from next door. I reasoned I could prune off any forward-facing growth and encourage the sideways branches to form a screen.
V.T. took some finding, and when she arrived, via Rassells, they warned me not to water it. Not even once. I argued that I had seen its parents growing in a Chilean rain forest; odd, I thought, for a plant with such fragile flowers. 'Not a drop', said Richard Hood. She,V.T. that is, started slowly in the dry ground below the wall, then after six weeks shot up in rude health to way above my head. Success, I thought, until one morning she was suddenly, obviously. dead. Had I broken the no-water rule? A couple of showers had, but also I fear a cavalier hand with the hose. This was no flood; the soil around seemed quite dry. But Richard was right. I can’t find a specific warning in my reference books, except in Michael Howarth-Booth's still useful Effective Flowering Shrubs of 1970. He calls A. vitifolium 'a miff'. What miffs it is evidently water.
19 September 2016
Are we making the most of what water we have in our gardens? Here is Celia Fiennes, a gentlewoman garden touring in the 1680's, describing Wilton House.
‘…the river runns through the garden that easeily conveys by pipes water to all parts. (A) grottoe at the end of the garden.... its garnished with many fine figures of the Goddesss, and about 2 yards off the door is severall pipes in a line that with a sluce spoutts water up to wett the Strangers; in the middle roome is a round table, a large pipe in the midst, on which they put a crown or gun or a branch, and so it spouts the water through the carvings and poynts all round the roome at the Artists pleasure to wet the company; there are figures at each corner of the roome that can weep water on the beholders, and by a straight pipe on the table they force up the water into the hollow carving of the roof like a crown or coronet to appearance, but is hollow within to retaine the water forced into ti in great quantetyes, that disperses in the hollow cavity over the roome and descends in a shower of raine all about the roome; on each side is two little roomes which by the turning their wires the water runnes in the rockes you see and hear it, and also it is so contrived in one room that it makes the melody of Nightingerlls and all sorts of birds which engaged the curiosity of the Strangers to go in to see, but at the entrance off each room, is a line of pipes that appear not till by a sluce moved it washes the spectators, designed for diversion.’
Have we lost our sense of humour?
Vaut le voyage
14 September 2016
To Kew to see how the Broad Walk borders - all 2000 feet of them - are coming on towards the end of their first season. Wonderfully is the short answer. It wasn't the ideal day to go; promenaders were very few; it was 91 old-fashioned degrees in the shade - of which, of course, there was precious little. A parasol-seller would have done good business.
The borders do have a relatively shady end, the one nearest the Palm House and the Victoria Gate. Big trees provide a reason to plant less light-loving plants, from ferns and hellebores and epimediums to lilies and (the stars of the season in so many places) Japanese anemones. The beds are based on eight huge circles, each dedicated to a theme, usually a plant family. In each circle a yew pyramid forms a focal point - and points you to a clever illustrated key to the planting. Grasses are used (but not overused) here and there throughout; the bright gold tassels of Miscanthus nepalensis were one of the highlights.
The Orangery end is as sunny as can be; penstemons and crocosmias were firing it up, while the bed dedicated to the daisy family, the Compositae, was a banquet of heleniums, asters, rudbeckias, heliopsis, helianthemum and all things that have sun in their name. Along the whole thousand foot length colours have been mixed masterfully in long satisfying sweeps. It is plantsmanly, it is painterly; in short it is a triumph
Border incident: Miscanthus nepalensis with you-know-who
11 September 2016
Discuss: Lower your aspirations and achieve a higher success rate. Its logical; baying for the moon has never had a success rate at all. Content is most easily found by starting with low expectations. It's a good excuse not to frequent three-star restaurants.
I am, I admit, that kind of gardener. Or at least part of me is. I can't quite bring myself to admire groundsel (except for its example as a profligate survivor) and I don’t weed random seedlings until I’m sure of what they are or might be, I can accept half-hearted flowering in a plant I am fond of. delay dead-heading and leave fading plants standing in the hope of some aesthetic justification for their remains. You won’t find me dropping everything to go and tidy up; you will, on the other hand, find me loitering with secateur s when there’s a deadline at my desk.
Perhaps this is the moment to say that I am pleased (or not
London and the Med
30 August 2016
We (the collective we) go south in summer for sun because we can't be sure of it in England. It's a taste our grandfathers would have found puzzling. They went south, if they could afford it, in winter and spring. There was and is lots to do at home in summer, and frankly not a lot in the overheated summers of Provence or the Côte d' Azur beside splashing about in the tepid sea.
I am on the gorgeous Blue Coast now. It's too hot to be outside, except in the pool. Air-conditioning is as disagreeable here as anywhere else. Shade and a breeze is the sum of my desires. And eye-soothing green is not to be found. It hasn't rained, I'm told, for three months. The grapes hanging on the pergola are shrivelled but not ripe or sweet.
Admittedly the Iceberg roses are splendid, but there is little else in the garden to admire. I've often puzzled about the iciest roses lapping up the hottest weather. The rather lanky solanum bush (S laciniatum, I'm pretty sure) with purple flowers the size of your thumbnail is worth seeing - but so it is in London; a cutting from this very plant. Indeed my plant palette seems to have got a bit bogged down with duplicates in Beaulieu sur Mer and London W8. Japanese anemones, and the Tulbaghia in front of me now, little umbels of pale pink flowers on long stalks over a chive-like clump of leaves, waving at horizon level over the blue of the bay, Pale Perowskia is not happy in our London shade, and here the hydrangeas were over weeks ago.
What are we left with? Lavender, lemons, apples, persimmons (not in London). No bougainvillea in London, either; luckily I don't much care for it. Plumbago, though, I would certainly try if I had a sunny south wall. There are one or two salvias that come close to its pale sky blue, but nothing on its scale.
Too quiet by far
20 August 2016
The lawyers' gardens of the Inner Temple usually keep a low profile. According to Shakespeare the Wars of the Roses started there in 1455. The RHS held flower shows here in Edwardian days, then a reprise nine years ago. Otherwise they remain a spacious and serene place by the Thames where lawyers go to (I imagine) cogitate, discuss their briefs or have a picnic under the exceptionally tall planes. Until Bazalgette built the Embankment, the Temple Gardens, like the Chelsea Physick Garden , went down to the tide. There must have been lots more gardens along the banks of Westminster and the Strand that originally stretched down to the water, too.
I happened to be walking by the other day, through the Inns of Court, past my father's old chambers in Kings Bench Walk, when I saw that the garden gate was open. It usually is, I gather, from 12.30 to 3.00. What's more the head gardener , Andrea Brunsdorfer, was just inside, examining here great herbaceous borders with a critical eye. They are masterful; bold, jolly and original. Original? Who else plants little pines in the front row, then prunes them low to display their tufts among the flowers? The beautiful soft green and blue Pinus parviflora is a more inspiring plant to have at your feet than catmint. But all her choices keep up a chromatic and textural eyeful.
How wonderful, I thought, that London still has places like this (though not many) at its heart. Then I remembered the threat of the 'garden' bridge, and its promoters saying the Embankment was rather quiet in this stretch and could do with some tourist activity. I pictured the scene on Westminster Bridge, which you can hardly negotiate for the crowds taking selfies in front of Big Ben. Someone wants to visit this bedlam on the Temple?
There may if course be lawyers who would like a short cut to the National Theatre. I suspect they are outnumbered by those who value the historic tranquillity of their college. I have yet to meet a gardener (though Dan Pearson must be one) who likes the idea, or believes that a good garden can be maintained, in perpetuity, in the most exposed conditions you could devise. You would think the intellect and the influence of a thousand lawyers would be up to quashing the whim of a smiley actress. Why, I wonder, don't they?
King's Bench Walk has some of London's finest planes
13 August 2016
Two 'pencil' cypresses of my acquaintance have just died, quite suddenly - and they were both strapping young trees; the bigger one a good 20 feet high. One was my sister's, a 10-footer, rather shaded by a magnolia but looking fine in the spring. She reports 'caterpillars'; I see no sign of damage. The other, three gardens away, has the equivalent of the Plague's black boils, the fatal mark of a brown stain spreading up one side. It looks exactly like the phytophthera that carried off our Irish juniper alley, all forty of them, one by one, at Saling Hall.
Naturally I gave my own small cypress (another 10-footer) a close going-over. There were brown needles here and there, and a lot of the small inner branches were dry, but there is no sign of pest or disease, While I was up the ladder I snipped out all the brown material. A lot of brown needles (not an accurate description, but leaves is hardly the right word either) were snagged in the branch
Selfies of a sort
5 August 2016
It's the sound of God washing his world. Gently rinsing it, rather, with a night of unemphatic rain. I am out on the verandah at midnight, mingling the scents of orange blossom and Pauillac, my bedtime glass. The rain is a cocoon, soothing away all other sounds. Time to reflect on a month away on visits to gardens, houses, churches and the seaside. A dry month, at times too hot; hence the luxury of this healing rain.
My iphone has become my chief remembrancer; shameful to admit, but the snaps in its camera are my garden notebook; more than that; almost my diary. What's more it knows where and when I took them.
It tells me that in the past month I've been to the Loire, Burgundy, Arbois in the Jura, Champagne, Kew, Suffolk, Exbury, Dorset and Stourhead.. The photographs recall people, plants, places…but in that fatally selective way that (if you're not careful) screens out more complete memory. It's an obvious trap. We laugh at Orientals and their selfies in front of iconic views: endless smiles; how many memories?
There are, of course, occasions when photography becomes the main object. Then I will circle round an object, or investigate a garden or a building, for hours in the hope of a telling angle and the right light. The camera fills up (only it never seems to) with alternative shots that are impossible to edit properly on its tiny screen, and are usually disappointing downloaded at home. Choosing the best shots of a sustained session takes longer than the shoot itself.
My favourites from July? A wonderful waterfall we found near Arbois on the river Planches, where a cascade crashes out of a forest to form a staircase of pools and line them with marble-like tufa. An octogenarian topiarist in Burgundy carving yew piéces montées in blazing sunshine, a cave of ancient wine bottles belonging to an avant-garde sculptor at Jasnières on the Loir. Then our old garden and woods in the Auvergne, a German military cemetery in Normandy with a thousand mophead maples in parade order in the rain, a girl in a restaurant in the Jura, the magnificently austere cathedral of Laon in Champagne, isolated on its hilltop, and back in England, sailing down the Beaulieu River past Exbury gardens, Christchurch Priory and Sherborne Abbey for glorious medieval vaults, Stourhead for its lake and its magnificent tulip trees. You can travel a long way and see no finer sight than Stourhead.
Top: the Cascade des Planches, and below it Stourhead
Kew, and blue
23 July 2016
To Kew to see how the mammoth new herbaceous borders are coming on. When they were inaugurated in April, after a year or so of preparation, they still looked enigmatic.. Three months has been enough to turn promise into spectacular performance: surely one of the horticultural wonders of the world. The two borders together total over 2,000 feet of planting; I heard someone mention 30,000 plants. The scale of the project and its ambition, to make an immense tapestry of interwoven plants, of well-considered colours, without hesitation, deviation or repetition, is almost Victorian. Follow the planting schemes carefully and you can see how conditions change with the influence of the other plants around. At the Palm House end there are big trees closing in; the choice of plants tends towards the woodland. It will be fascinating to see how the components knit together and form new patterns of colour. What a job taking care of it will be for some lucky gardeners.
The sight of the Broad Walk disappearing into the distance, thronged with families and lined on both sides with splendid planting, makes me think of the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace and the confident achievements of Victoria and Albert. For sideshow there is The Hive, the new pavilion promoting the work of bees in fertilizing (among other things) 80% 0f our food plants. The Hive is a rather beautiful structure formed of aluminium struts, suggesting the complexity of a beehive - and buzzing and throbbing with the amplified sounds of the bees in Kew's actual beehive nearby.
In the first really warm days of summer, after more than generous rainfall, Kew was looking wonderful. It is Lime Time (Tilia Time to botanists) when the air is sweetly dense with scent from millions of flowers decking some of the biggest trees.
It's pretty good in the garden at home, too - all 900 square feet of it. The warmth has brought plants into full flower that have been looking tentative, in some cases for weeks. It has pressed the release button on reluctant roses. Salvias and agapanthus are loving it. I am always on the lookout for blue flowers. I home in on them in every garden I visit and in every nursery. There is a (short) book to be written about their allure - and relative rarity. Salvias and agapanthus provide some of the best. Each summer I keep my fingers crossed for Salvia patens to reemerge, and this year I was delighted to see S. vitifolia (big furry vine-shaped leaves and caerulean flowers) had survived the wet winter. We came back from France with a new agapanthus acquaintance: the positively sapphire Northern Star which a friend had planted in big pots, repeated forty times around the terrace of their 18th century hunting lodge, each, with the sun behind it, a gleaming gem. We modern gardeners don't know how spoilt we are; our ancestors had nothing like this.
16 July 2016
Can there be a greater satisfaction in gardening - or in life itself, for that matter - than seeing your careful plans coming to fruition? It is ten years since we sold our place in La France Profonde. Veteran readers of Trad may remember my probably obsessive accounts of tree-planting, building and garden-making in the wide open spaces of the Bourbonnais, the northernmost part of the Auvergne. Bocage (as in Normandy) is the term for the repetition of field and copse and wood and hedgerow that makes such soothing and satisfying prospects.
The vast green rug of the Forêt de Troncais, 25,000 acres of tall oaks, the best destined for wine barrels, dominates the region. Our little farm lies in its pastoral fringes. Charolais cattle, bulky and pale, are the main signs of life around the red-roofed farms.
Our successors have kept everything going as we planned it - even our ancient Land Rover. We bumped around the familiar tracks, looking up at trees I remember as little saplings. Pines we planted in 1994 have had their first thinning and now look like grown-up forest. Oaks that seemed so reluctant to grow at first (and needed expensive protection from the deer) are now an impenetrable green wall, house-high. Better still our successors keep the network of rides open and mown for their horses; perspectives that were lines on the ground are now gloriously three-dimensional; the shape we gave the landscape in our imaginations is a reality of masses and spaces, shapes and textures, with a logic that reveals itself as you move.
In the only spot where the gritty acid soil is deep enough, with enough moisture, I planted half an acre of American oaks and maples to fire up in autumn. Sugar maple and swamp, scarlet and willow oak are trees I could only dream about at home. Here in acid soil and a continental climate (it was 35' C when we were there) they far outgrow the native species.
Warm enough yet?
2 July 2016
I wish I had kept count of the number of plants that were considered exotic, or treated as tender, when I started gardening, and are now seen as mainstream. I remember, for example, planting my first agapanthus. It must have been about 1972. I waited until June, dug a hole in the sunniest and driest spot, buried crocs and gravel, and tenderly tucked them in. "Headbourne Hybrids" were supposedly the only strain with a good chance. In October I covered them with slates on bricks to keep off the winter rains. They are still flowering, as far as I know, forty five years later.
Is it acclimatisation, breeding, know-how or climate change? Possibly all these things. London, of course has been practically sub-tropical for years now. Remember how we once marvelled at the old olive tree in the Chelsea Physic garden? Now blue and white agapanthus (‘Blue Storm’and ‘White Storm’) line a wall in this Kensington garden, shaded for most of the day, and flower well, if not lavishly. The trick, I find, is to be generous with water and a high-potash feed in spring and summer. Our best plant is ‘Northern Star’; tight-filling the same large pot for five years; it has six tall stems on the point of flowering. I keep its saucer half-full all the time. This year's new treat is a variety called "Queen Mum" I bought from Hoyland Nurseries from Yorkshire at the Chelsea Flower Show. The flowers on long stems are white, but each petal starts off blue; more of a specimen for a pot, I think, than a border.
Trachelospermum jasminoides (‘Star Jasmine’) was thought doubtfully hardy until quite recently. Now smart London is full of it, and last year we discovered Jasminum polyanthum, which doesn't seem even to have an English name yet, has moved convincingly outdoors. Fuchsias in the open no longer surprise us. London-centric I may be, but how many things have you found can dispense with customary winter protection?
27 June 2016
Would you like a grotto? Do you warm to the idea of a cool shell-lined cave, water dripping from stalactites, mysterious reflections in a dark pool? They're back in fashion. I went to what must be the most beautiful grotto of modern times at the Ballymaloe Cooking School near Cork, a crustacean mosaic, a pristine masterpiece of a summerhouse (no water, admittedly) that perfectly expressed the spirit of what? Grotteity? Grottiness?
Last year's winner of the PJ Redouté Prize for the best garden book* in French is a tombstone of a volume on grottoes, illustrating a score of magnificent creations, some glistening bright, some spooky, all cool retreats from the sunlit world. It classifies them as, for example, Primordial, Diluvian, Labyrinthine, Sacred, Tellurique, Profane, Underworldly - and the Introductory chapter is called Ouvrir L'Ombre - opening the shade.
As it happens, we have a grotto of our own, deep in the Welsh woods; a rocky tunnel a hundred yards long that set out to be a goldmine but drew a blank. Its mouth, protected by an iron gate, is a gloomy hole overhung by ferns and issuing a dark and gleaming stream. Penetrate the depths (take a torch) and you are in a world of black, dripping rock, with here and there a little cascade to cool your collar.
The grotto spirit, though, can be expressed in less ambitious ways. I have been looking round this tiny garden for a corner to transform into an alcove plastered with shells, with perhaps a pretty dribble into a basin. For now we just have a tank with a Mr Spit like a Green Man and four goldfish; two tiddlers and two gorgeous 'comets' with wide waving tails called Halley and Haley (Bopp).
*The book is 'L'Imaginaire des Grottes dans les Jardins Européens' by Herve Brunon and Monique Mosser. Oh yes; moss. Another essential.
15 June 2016
A busy evening after an Ascot downpour (the Queen Anne Cup, I believe: I stayed at home) emptying brimming saucers and relocating snails. Where do they live, waiting for Ascot week? There were fifteen in one corner enjoying the shelter of the agapanthus. Total score for the evening: twenty seven. And why do they climb? I've found senior snails climbing down from ten feet or so on a wall. Do they want a better view?
The slugs have meanwhile climbed a newly-planted Clematis wilsonii (a treasure from Hergest Croft) and munched its top shoots before disappearing - presumably to destroy the little Eccremocarpus scaber I planted to keep it company. How this unobtrusive climber came to be called 'Glory Flower' I can't imagine. Its little red and yellow bells on the flimsiest rigging deserve 'charming', but certainly don't compare with Morning Glory. The strain I have (or had) has modest pale creamy-yellow flowers, all the more welcome for unexpected cameo appearances among more socially confident blooms.
A Curious Ark
13 June 2016
It was hard hat night last week at the Garden Museum. Hard hats with flowers, of course, Ascot-style. It was an evening for supporters of this ambitious conversion – the medieval church of St Mary’s, Lambeth, to museum and school of garden history, art, design and botany (a word described by the director as unfashionable. Really?) to see how the building work is coming on.
The museum and all its works are centred on the fact that John Tradescant the elder lived and died at Lambeth, that this was his parish church, and that just nearby he initiated England's first museum. His term was his Ark, his Cabinet of Curiosities. Curiosity was on a roll in the first Queen Elizabeth's reign. There was the New World to explore, better ships and seaways. … and since the Reformation relief from the sense that the church had the answer to everything. Almost anything was a Curiosity, from a monarch's cradle to a dragon’s scale. London was agog; there were queues to see the Ark. Tradescant’s son John kept up the collection and in due course disposed of the contents to the acquisitive Elias Ashmole, whose name is still familiar from the Ashmolean Museum. When the new museum opens Oxford will lend back to Lambeth exhibits that were first seen by Tradescant fans 400 years ago.
New buildings are going up around the ancient churchyard to house the teaching room, kitchen (a vital and much-appreciated asset) and the archives. Britain's first archive of garden design and designers, their plans, photographs and memories, is taking shape here around its oldest gardening treasures. Work on the Chancel also revealed a big brick vault containing the lead coffins of four 16th Century archbishops who of course lived next door, as Justin Welby does. Sadly (as it seems to me) a high brick wall separates St Mary's and its churchyard from the palace and its nine acres of gardens.
It is all being done with £3.7 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and a similar sum from donations. To round the whole thing off a few more are needed. Urgently, of course.
7 June 2016
Who was Isabella Bird? Her name kept cropping up when I asked a Japanese friend questions about history; it seemed that Mrs B was a prime authority. Then I learned. She was a Victorian traveller - and what a traveller. She went, alone, to the limits of the visitable world - and beyond, particularly in Japan.
This was in 1878, when the country had only been open to foreigners for 25 years, and was very far from being modernised. In the north, which she explored with patient thoroughness, there were essentially no roads. She searched for rideable horses (even the best were broken-down nags) and hacked with her native manservant/interpreter from village to village, recording every detail. Lodgings were local inns, devoid of any privacy or comfort. She was mobbed as the first foreigner (let alone foreign woman) ever sighted. Fleas and mosquitoes were everywhere. Often there was only beans and rice, sometimes an egg, to eat. Tracks were often streambeds - it rained incessantly - and she was constantly coming off her stumbling mount. But her prose never falters, and at times becomes poetry. She spends a week examining the great Shogun shrines at Nikko, detailing every carving in its overwhelming decoration. She identifies plants with a keen botanical eye, she describes the Shinto rites: a whole expedition could not have done more.
When she reaches the land of the ‘Hairy’ Ainos, the indigenous tribe conquered by the Japanese, she shows total fascination with the 'savages', as she calls them. She finds them physically far more attractive than the 'puny' Japanese, and I suspect falls half in love with a young warrior. She spends weeks recording their language, moving from coast to mountains, to compare dialects. And it is clear they fall for her.
27 May 2016
Whether the world of horticulture is holding its breath or not, Trad deliberates long and hard about his Annual Chelsea Award. Here is his rather breathless report. Last year was easy: Dan Pearson ran away with it for his inspired extract from the gardens at Chatsworth. This year? None of the Show Gardens really stood out. (It was disappointing to see the old Rock Garden Bank largely given over to mere commerce.)
It was the Big Top that held the real treasures – the usual suspects all on top form - with the display of hepaticas from Ashwood Nurseries rightly awarded the top gong. (My sole pot of them has never flowered at all.) - Outside it was a tussle between Cleve West's Exmoor Garden on the corner site of the title sponsor M&G and Andy Sturgeon's more portentous geological garden for the Daily Telegraph. Cleve West's was more sympathetic and believable. Both (and many others) seemed to spend so much space - and presumably money - on stonework that the plants risked becoming mere infill. There were lovely quiet wildling colours in many of them, rather than displays of high horticulture.
A potential challenger for the Trad Award was the Winton Beauty of Mathematics garden, precise, beautifully engineered but a tad too highbrow for this simple brain. My second favourite last year was the Occitane Garden by James Basson. This year was a bit of a repeat, but was so much a corner of Provence (admittedly one with a lavender field) that 'garden' was stretching the definition too far. It was beautiful. It represented the dusty backwoods of everyone's favourite part of France with exceptional accuracy. But horticulture had been left behind.
25 May 2016
Back from a week in Ireland. 'The magnolias are over' everyone said. Ah, but the rhododendrons are in full cry, every leaf is fresh in the sun, and two of the most audacious gardens I have ever met were gleaming in the sunshine between the showers. Nor were the magnolias over; not by any means.
Mount Congreve is a legend - in the sense that few people used to see it. I tried to visit in the days of its creator, Ambrose Congreve, and failed. He had reached 104 before he died, still gardening, in spirit at least, in 2011. For the moment, his 80 acres of intelligent, intricate and supremely picturesque planting lives on. For how long is a delicate matter, between his trustees and the Irish Government. For the moment, what the garden needs, and richly deserves, is more visitors.
Ambrose Congreve was apparently inspired by Lionel de Rothschild at Exbury to create a woodland garden for the vast variety of rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias. Exbury Gardens are spread over two hundred acres, gently sloping to the Beaulieu River. Mount Congreve has a mere eighty, tumbling down (almost diving off a cliff at one point) to one of Ireland's biggest rivers, the broad, reed-fringed Suir. a few miles above Waterford.
We are used to magnolias as single specimens, sometimes groups, but rarely a forest. The Congreve way was different. He planted hundreds of seedlings of one particular M campbellii that now form a wood of pale-barked trunks perhaps 60 feet high. His style was decisive: a wall of pieris, a long ramp of one Japanese maple, another wall of an orange azalea, facing one of purple. All the colours are calculated: this is picture-making with plants on a heroic scale, and with breath-catching results. A gardener told me how Ambrose, as he called him (though possibly not to his face), rode his horse round the garden every morning, often before breakfast, then re-emerged in mid-morning, fork in hand, and worked with his gardeners all day. He was, I am told, weatherproof. No bothy for him in a shower; he gardened on.
Thomas Pakenham comes from the same hardy race, with as little restraint in planting. Meetings with Remarkable Trees was the first display of his splendid – indeed unique - tree portraits, twenty years ago. In his company, it must be said, every tree becomes remarkable, intrinsically, scientifically, whimsically, pathologically, and as a source of human stories.
Four hours of walk and talk only skimmed his collection, scattered through parkland, woods and gardens. Tullynally is a great grey Regency Gothic battleship of a house surrounded by beeches and oaks of the biggest size. Among them, then on and out into the countryside, the new collections go, many of them from Pakenham-collected seeds from China or the Himalayas. Reaching eighty seems only to have invigorated him. Half a mile from the house, magnolias form a glade, then camellias, dogwoods, tiny rhododendrons just planted out… without guards. Have rabbits gone the way of snakes in Ireland?
We only scratched the surface of both these great gardens – then went on to Ballymaloe, near Cork, for the utter indulgence of a 'Litfest' around the famous cooking school – and gardens. They hadn’t told me about the gardens.
16 May 2016
Why is red such a tricky colour in the garden? Use it accidentally (out of a mixed seed packet perhaps) and you throw a random emphasis onto the spot where it lands. It grabs the attention. It is intended to. Red is the colour of danger, of domination - and of painted lips. Use it deliberately and you can dictate where people look, influence their whole reaction to the picture you are painting.
The huntsman's red coat is one of the oldest tricks in landscape painting. Turner famously infuriated Constable by painting a red buoy in the foreground of his sea painting to upstage his rival's elaborate and highly-contrived Opening of London Bridge hanging next to it. What's more, he did it as an after-thought, on varnishing day, as an act of provocation. That's the power of red.
Why does red do this to your eye? Chromatically speaking, it is so close to green that, dogs tell me, they can't tell the difference. And yet it appears to us as green's diametrical opposite. It lies at one end (the longest-wave end) of the spectrum we can see, with the quiet violet at the other end. Are 'quiet' and 'noisy' valid descriptions of colours?
In a garden, red indicates your policy, if not your philosophy. Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter changed tack completely when he abolished a rose garden with its colours in gentle harmony and brought in cannas and dahlias and everything strident. It amounted to a career move; out of middle-aged respectability and convention and on to the cutting edge.
Myself, I'm leery of it. I've never painted a door red - almost alwaysclean but bashful colour we call 'chateau grey'. Light has a lot to do with it: hard Mediterranean light takes strong colour in its stride; bougainvillea is an example. Plant it in our island's softer light and it looks like an accident in a paint factory. On the other hand, one can't have too much of that scarlet pelargonium Roi des Balcons in the window-boxes of the Black Forest or the Tyrol.
9 May 2016
The garden of Eden, being we suppose somewhere in the Middle East (Noah, after all, grounded on Mount Ararat) and with a sub-tropical climate (the apple being, let's say, an orange), made a big thing of water. My imaginary Eden certainly does. No doubt the Creator opened the heavens whenever the gardener thought a nice shower would bring on the beans or the aubergines, but I see the water supply being organised into pools and conduits, with here and there a bubbling spring or a sparkling cascade. The dappled shade is provided by fruit trees, the best authorities say palms, and an arboretum of perpetually-flowering trees of convenient stature.
What's more, I've been there. Last week, in fact. It is in Sicily. We went with an IDS tour to see the rarest trees of the island, and were guided to this paradise between Siracuse and Catania, where the fertile land sloping directly to the Ionian sea has been tragically trashed by heavy industry; the land of the Cyclops is now an oil refinery. But a little inland and a little uphill, with the cone of Mount Etna on the northern horizon, the orange groves that give us blood oranges still spread for miles. Among them lies my Eden, San Giuliano, its guardian angel Rachel Lamb, trained at the Cambridge Botanics and now director of this heavenly place.
The symbolism of the garden is clear - at least to me. The gates open on to a nightmare of ferocious spiny succulents, a cactus confrontation to deter the doubtful. Then comes reassurance; a calm passage of trees in lawns. Then the gate to the gabinetto, the garden of sensual delight, where plots of every desirable plant, for scent, for use, for colour or consumption, are interspersed and nourished by a grid of brightly running rills. At the entrance water gushes in an arc from heaven (or at least an elevated spout), overflowing a big stone basin to feed radiating streams. The streams, some of them tiny, shining ribbons three inches wide, rush or glide like veins and arteries among the lush-growing plants. From time to time a shower of volcanic dust descends to fertilize the soil.
Intimacy is the essence of a gabinetto (the word can mean cupboard, closet, loo, laboratory; almost anywhere private and privileged). This is a series of small rooms within an orchard on the edge of an orange grove. A high stone lookout seat gives you the long Etna view; look the other way and the orchard envelops you. There are little clearings for vegetables and herbs, here a garden of salvias, there an alley of pink grapefruit trees festooned with roses, a snatch of English lawn or a brimming stone watertank. Shade and soothing sound shut out the harsh Mediterranean world. It is easy to understand how Adam forgot that one of the trees was forbidden.
4 May 2016
A week of warm weather followed by two of cold has given us the bonus of putting spring on hold. Two weeks of warm would have seen all these flowers (or many of them) fade. As it is, they are still prime. Our richly cherried street - largely the marvellous Prunus avium plena - is wreathed in white. At morning curtain-call, or rather-draw, they almost invade the bedroom - they are tall trees - with the their snowy tentacles .
This is cherry zenith. The early ones still have traces of flower, there are still a few to perform (the bird cherry for one), but this is the moment the Japanese garden in Holland Park - and I hope those elsewhere - flies its brilliant carp streamers. Technicolour representations of carp, that is, made like windsocks to dance in the wind. (The pond is teeming with fat koi in rainbow colours too.) With the garden already brimming with bright colour; not just cherries but early azaleas, the new leaves of maples, irises, the first dogwoods (and the not very Japanese bluebells), the carp are gloriously over-the-top - a great whoopee.
A warm spell now would put a stop to it. But this year the jubilee rolls on. We may be impatient to see the spring; a fast-forward button is what most people want at the end of winter (or right through winter). If buttons are on offer, though, give me a slow-motion one.
A splash of colour in the Japanese Garden, Holland Park, London
Parlement of Fowles
29 April 2016
Sadly for me, I am a mediocre bird-watcher. I'm not particularly short-sighted; perhaps I lack the power of concentration and the patience to keep looking, to spot movement and focus on it. And then the memory to recall the different liveries of birds and their distinctive songs. Besides I'm getting deaf. When I wear my hearing aid (not all day, every day) I am amazed at the racket around me. A tiny wren shouting can be almost alarming, breaking in on silence.
Perhaps these are the reasons why I love a little book called Deep Country. The author, Neil Ansell, spent five whole years living alone in a farm cottage, isolated far from roads, in the mountains of Wales. Once a week he walked to a shop to buy tea and sugar; the rest of the time he had only the creatures of the country for company. In fact he became one of them. They got used to him: he could watch them without worrying them. Sometimes they seemed to be communicating with him. Certainly he learned so much about the habits and rituals and social life of birds, in particular, that I was
25 April 2016
Hergest Croft must be the only garden I have known virtually all my garden-conscious life. Originally it was a Rugby School connection: the Banks family (all Rugbeians) have been gardening here on the Welsh border for five generations; we have been friends with three. The gene for botany (or horticultural botany, which is not quite the same thing) is so powerful chez Banks that each generation has enlarged, focussed and documented what is one of the best collections, of woody plants especially, on this island. The rarest plants grow among the biggest, and many of the trees are both.
Herefordshire lies on our route to North Wales. Hergest Croft is bang on the border in the little town of Kington. I know my way round the garden now, across the lawn where a dozen magnolias compete with a vast view, through a belt of huge beeches to the domestic garden, or so I think of it, a sort of walled garden without walls. Long borders of (just now) spring flowers, brilliant with tulips, lead on to beds busy with produce, to greenhouses and fruit trees, all workmanlike and all the more effective because effect is not the aim.
In fact that is the secret of the whole garden, as you walk on across an orchard to the ornamental garden around the family's former, deeply last-decade-of-Victorian, red-tiled house. If there was a plan to the garden, besides enjoying the views, the old trees in the surrounding parkland, the croquet lawn and tennis court, conservatory and rockery, and the company you can still feel lingering in long frocks and blazers, any formal plan has long gone in the indulgence of a passion for plants.
Magnolias and camellias may be most prominent just now (the Bankses, by the way, grow trees, magnolias in particular, from seed in the congenial spirit of enquiry that leads to many happy results). But your eyes swivel from carpets of long-established narcissi, still betraying eyes adept at blending colours, to a rare Lindera sketching spring in a burst of pale yellow, to the biggest Cercidiphyllum in Britain filling the sky with tiny purplish leaves beside the British champion red fir towering up 150 feet. Hergest Croft is at once spectacular and comfortable, a botanical garden in content, and Eden in spirit.
A Banks seedling, as yet unnamed, a cross between Magnolia sargentiana robusta and M. campbellii
18 April 2016
I wouldn’t have thought there was room, but our predecessors in this house were clearly as eager as we are to make the most of what space there is. One dodge I would not have thought of was to plant a substantial shrub right against a wall and train it up a trellis as an honorary climber. As a result we have a two-dimensional Viburnum x burkwoodii, a plant I loved at Saling Hall, where an old specimen was ten feet tall and at least as wide.
It is a very presentable evergreen, at least in London, with dark glossy leaves ridged the way viburnums are. In April it becomes a carnation tree; covered with globes of flowers soaking the garden in something so like the carnation scent that anyone would be fooled. If you sniff closer you may detect the faintest hint of elder (they are distantly related), just as a keen nose with enough practice might detect Müller-Thurgau in a wine labelled Riesling.
It has been tied to the trellis progressively for so long that it almost seems to have picked up the idea, and doesn’t in the least mind a summer clematis as a passenger. I stand on a ladder to tie in the high shoots, shortening them a bit if necessary. Inevitably most of the flowers are nearer the top where the sun sometimes shines.
In the front garden they (I assume it was the same owners) planted what is now a tall hedge of a camellia so marvellous that its flowers attract people across the street. I don’t know its name, but it is perfectly regular with slightly pointed petals like the class of dahlias known as ‘decorative’, and guardsman red. Somehow they don’t look quite right emerging from a hedge: the green/red contrast is too spot-on. But I hope our successors in due course will be as appreciative of some of our planting as we are of our predecessors’.
Viburnum x burkwoodii
Starting The Plantsman
11 April 2016
I was pleased to see, in the current number of The Plantsman, that they have put the index of all the numbers since the beginning online. The first was in 1979, so that's 144 issues; a big fat index, full of good stuff.
The magazine has had a bumpy ride since its modest beginnings. It was dreamt up in the Council Chamber of the RHS, after meetings of the long-defunct Publications Committee. This was four years after the old RHS Journal morphed into The Garden. Membership of the Society was expanding briskly. The old Journal used to have a serious regard for botany, even printing original descriptions of new plants with the learned bits in Latin. That wouldn't do for the new-look magazine; its mission bringing gardening to the people. Where to put the botany?
I think it was after a meeting in 1978, when we had just dedicated a whole issue to the shiny new topic of Conservation, that David McClintock, one of our learned members, suggested that a new magazine, in addition to The Garden, would appeal to the higher-browed element of the fellows (as we all then were).
There were other eminent botanist-gardeners there, the celebrated Prof Willie Stearn among them. Several nodded. I felt an editorial urge. David and I put our heads together. I think he suggested the title of The Plantsman; the perfect word for someone we struggled to define: a gardener who found fascination in the origin, the science, the morphology of plants as well as their use and beauty.
Unfortunately the RHS, or rather its President, the formidable Lord Aberconway, was not interested. A risky proposition, he or they thought - rightly, as it turned out.
9 April 2016
'Surely there can't be any space in here' I think as I stand with my trowel and a plant pot, intent on infiltrating yet another favourite into one of our diminutive beds.
I have a mental root map of the garden. A few are all too obvious; the sycamore's, for example - and it's no good trying to plant the clematis there, where the trellis needs help to hide the goings-on next door. The Viburnum x burkwoodii has had the wall to itself for twenty years and has its roots akimbo; thick forearms right on the surface. No room to plant a pot, so perhaps I'll try a climber from seed. Eccremocarpus scaber would help, with its plentiful leaves and little red (or, if I can find the seed, yellow) flowers.
In another spot where you'd think the rose, the chaenomeles and the hydrangea, never mind the sarcococca and the hellebores and ferns next to them have completely filled the soil with roots, my trowel meets hardly any resistance. How come the residents haven't taken up all the parking space? (They certainly have on the road outside).
So the new columbines (white), brunnera (blue), trollius ('alabaster') and rose (Iceberg) I brought home from Rassells' over the road are safely installed. It suddenly dawned on me as I cleaned my tools that I was wearing rubber gloves to plant them. I've never done that before. Am I growing lily-fingered in my old age?
The Katsura next door. The morning view of a neighbour's Cercidiphyllum japonicum Pendulum
1 April 2016
The beginning of April, when the soil is starting to warm up, is the best time for tree-planting. Or planting almost anything in the south of England.
Kensington Gardens is a forest of stakes at the moment as the scores of new lime trees are joined by sweet chestnuts (one of the species most used in the original 18th Century planting) and now - Eureka moment - by elms. Yesterday they planted a row of six splendid specimens, a good 25 feet high, to make a most welcome tall screen between Kensington Palace and the ungainly grey bulk of the Royal Garden Hotel. The mulberry alley already there was always an odd choice to make a screen.
Is this the moment when elms start their comeback to a London that said goodbye to them nearly 40 years ago? The interval has been busy with the search for a variety immune to Dutch Elm Disease. Many of the breeding experiments have involved Ulmus parvifolia, the little Siberian elm, or other Asian species. The Dutch claimed success some years ago with a hybrid called Clone 812 or 'Nanguen'. After ten years under observation in Paris, in the Bois de Vincennes, it was eventually adopted by the city and renamed 'Lutèce' - the French version of Lutetia, the city's Latin name. If it proves its worth in London, we should call is 'the Paris elm' in recognition.
But what a dismal thought that we may be going through a similar exercise in a few years’ time with ashes. A combination of the Chalara fungus we have heard so much about and the Emerald Ash Borer (not so celebrated yet) threatens to finish off our ash trees, just as DED did our elms. So far, outbreaks in this country have been mainly in the East. My fingers are crossed in the hope that the very different conditions of North Wales may not suit either the fungus or the beetle. We have an uncountable number of ashes in the woods - many of them beside streams, where their bark in the damp shade is a beautiful pale orange.
Their principal use with us, I'm afraid, is for firewood. No other wood burns so readily or so steadily; you can light a fire with green ash twigs. ‘Ash wet or ash dry', as the poem goes, 'a king may warm his slippers by'
Remember the elm ?
24 March 2016
It's taken me a long time (all my life in fact) to pin down a trait that steers my way of looking at my surroundings - gardens, views, streets, above all buildings. My eyes fly to the oldest. In a park it is the oldest and grandest trees, avenues, fountains, gazebos – the evidence of past intentions. I am a prisoner of history (as indeed we all are) and my sentence demands that I look for its traces wherever I go.
It is most demanding in London, as the City dons and sheds its never-resting coats of scaffolding. The crane count in the past few years must be the highest it has ever been. It's true that every great city throughout most of its history has been a building site; it's only later generations that see the finished (for the time being) scheme. The Roman forum was never a pristine panorama of pillars and pediments; there was always scaffolding in the picture as another
18 March 2016
It comes as a shock to see a cosseted house-plant making a nuisance of itself, rampaging away, smothering other plants, and generally calling for a dose of weed-killer. The sweet little winter-flowering jasmine, J polyanthum, wears an air of nursery innocence with its Mabel Lucy Attwell little girl complexion. No one would suspect what a thug it can become - until they see how it has behaved over the past winter in a London garden.
It has mounted and straddled our neighbour's wall, climbed the unpruned roses waving five feet above it, smothered the ivy and
29 February 2016
I'm writing this in the Getty Museum. Spring is taking about three days here on the coast of Southern California. I prefer our three month version, but it's certainly exciting to sit under what's known here as a sycamore and watch its pale velvet leaves expand before your eyes. With a tinge of regret, oddly enough: the silvery bark of the bare tree is so beautiful against the blue sky. I never saw a tree/building combination as effective as this: the sycamores, pruned back to truncheons at the end of each branch, against the white stone of these utterly modern but strangely classical buildings. I'm told that the credit for much of this; the uniformly white stone buildings and the almost obsessive number of trees, goes to the then head of Disney, the late Frank Wells.
We are staying nearby at Malibu in a garden he started 25 years ago on what was steep scrubland a mile from the Pacific. It gives me new respect for resolve, dollars - and cranes. On my previous visit, 25 years ago, I had misgivings about the 15 foot redwoods arriving with 4 foot rootballs to be planted at the improbably close spacing of a coastal redwood forest. In places, the trunks almost touched. It worked. And now they shelter an eye-opening collection of native and exotic plants, a cascade tumbling 200 feet to a lake, a creek that runs after storms, a horse ranch with Arabians, donkeys, Shetland ponies, goats, funny fluffy hens and flower and vegetable gardens, somehow disposed to feel organic parts of this manmade landscape.
The king of the native trees around Los Angeles is always the 'sycamore', one of the parents (with the Chennar tree of the Middle East) of the 'London' plane. They are paler than our planes, and apt to spread so wide in old age that they rest their white-barked elbows on the ground. The tree collection here runs from cherries and oranges and almonds to the giraffe of the palms, the immensely spindly and elegant Washingtonia. Camellias, magnolias, azaleas, roses, maples… name a desirable tree or shrub from Scotland to the Mediterranean or Hawaii and you'll probably find it. Bauhinia purpurea or 'Orchid Tree', with flowers like an azalea (OK then, orchids), jacaranda, South African erithryna or 'Coral Tree' (not much Latin is used around here), covered in scarlet berries. Schinus molle, the drooping feathery Pepper Tree, is a beauty we could perhaps risk trying in the very south of England some day soon.
The desert blooms
Too Good to be True
25 February 2016
Do you have a pale-flowered orchid hovering nearby, in your bathroom, in your office, in the lobby? If it needs occasional watering, it's a plant. If it doesn't, it's a pseudo-plant. You can also tell the difference by touching it.
The story of phalaenopsis, and its metamorphosis from rarity to banality, was told me in a California greenhouse where rows of identical plants stretched to the horizon in colour batches from white to fire-alarm magenta, green, cream, ginger…. anything but blue. There were monsters and miniatures, dressed by the right so that their identically-curved stems formed tunnels along the benches. At one end a team of Mexicans were potting up hundreds more. They were needed for a party in Beverley Hills.
The secret is, of course, micropropagation of stem cells of hybrids with lots of ploids. (My attention wandered during this part of the tour.) There are dozens of species, from the Himalayas to Australia; between them, it seems, almost anything is possible, and since the 1980s orchid nurseries have been on a roll. But so have whatever you call the nurseries that do fake flowers: the distinction is becoming blurred.
The purist in me sees the multiplication of varieties, and the endless novelties with their twee names, as a sort of betrayal. This is not what gardening is about. I would rather struggle to cultivate a creation of nature in all its simplicity than choose between the latest colour-ways of something man-made. Am I just being po-faced? Or has it nothing to do with gardening?
'Phals' off to Beverley Hills
23 February 2016
Days are warm and nights cold in February in the Napa valley. Wine-growers prefer cold, fearing budbreak too early and tender new shoots in the frosts of March and April. Hence the surprising sight of vineyards unpruned, still with their tangled tophamper, when much of Europe gets started with the new year.
After four years of drought the valley is celebrating a week of heavy rain. Brilliant green grass is a rare sight here; all summer the fields are buff or brown, but now the hills are emerald under the ghost-grey oaks festooned with Spanish moss. The vineyard cover-crop of mustard is celebratory yellow, the almond trees in every yard pale pink (two colours to keep apart if you can). Explosions of mimosa are over; magnolias are well away, and in the hillside grass blue borage, the first orange poppies, blue lupins and the tiny magenta Dodecatheons or shooting stars, primulaceous plants with swept-back petals rather like cyclamen.
But my favourites are the buckeyes, Aesculus californica. They form the lower layer of the forest, under oak, redwood and fir, with the gleaming madrones, the western version of our strawberry trees. Buckeyes break into leaf before almost any tree, salad-green in the bare undergrowth. Cold doesn't seem to bother them. In early summer their long candles are as elaborately detailed as orchids. By late summer their leaves yellow and fall, leaving their grey tracery, wider than high, dripping with shining teardrop-shaped conkers.
For several years I collected them on Napa hillsides at vintage time and took them home. I planted them but they never germinated. Then one year I scooped some up on the way to the airport. They were in pots the same day and came up as eagerly as horse chestnuts. In fifteen years we were on the third generation.
15 February 2016
It's something you don't normally see in a city park, certainly not a Royal one. The grass is left uncut and the trees allowed to seed at random. Oak and sweet chestnuts and hawthorns come up haphazard in the brown grass. It's a long way from the total control which seems to be the norm in public spaces.
Kensington Gardens, though, is run on unusual lines. The gardens were designed for the Royal family in the first decades of the 18th century, and there seems no good reason to change them now.
I like to picture the Kensington of the early 1700s, a country village with two great houses, Holland House and the rapidly growing Kensington Palace. Gardening was its main industry: the Brompton Park Nursery, roughly where the Albert Hall stands, was the country's biggest by far (at one time it grew 10 million plants on 50 acres). One of its original founders, George London, recruited Henry Wise as his partner; together they planned and supplied the new gardens at Hampton Court, Blenheim, Castle Howard, Longleat, Chatsworth, Burghley - and Kensington Palace. William and Mary had brought in the Dutch style you still see in the sunk garden at Kensington. Everyone wanted to go Dutch. Wagon after wagon laden with trees and plants splashed along Kensington Road bound for country estates.
In due course Wise was appointed Royal gardener and drew up the scheme for Kensington Gardens in the then prevailing Franco-Dutch style (a bit of Het Loo; a bit of Versailles), with avenues radiating from the palace, or rather from the Round Pond he designed as the centre of a patte d'oie. The areas between the avenues were designated as 'quarters', some planted as 'bosquets' or shady groves, some as embroidered parterres, some as 'wilderness' with winding paths among shrubs and trees, some left as pasture. Altogether, they cover 275 acres. Hyde Park to the east covers 350 acres.
On the eastern boundary of Kensington Gardens you can still see two of the three 'bastions', looking like gun emplacements, that faced London, whether in serious or symbolic challenge I’m not sure. The succession from Henry Wise to Charles Bridgeman to William Kent, all of them involved in the gardens, is not very clear. Bridgeman (another gardener’s son) joined the Brompton Park Nursery, was promoted to Royal gardener jointly with Wise, and gets credit for the lake we call the Serpentine, made by damming the river Westbourne. Bridgeman was on the way to the unbuttoned style of Capability Brown, but he still surrounded his ‘quarters’ with hedges.
5 February 2016
It was the smell that gave me a shock. I took a shortcut through Ravenscourt Park, rounded a corner, and was hit by a midsummer blast of mown grass - the sweetest of all garden smells. The early daffodils lined the path, magnolias were opening their buds, a big mimosa had almost finished flowering, crocuses dotted the lawn and the cherry decorating the path with its fallen petals was not Prunus autumnalis. We have to reclassify Jasminum polyanthum now from pot plant to exceedingly vigorous climber.
This must be the strangest winter London has ever seen. March may blast it all away, of course, but I am more worried about the spring. There won't be one if it's all happened already.
27 January 2016
It's the moment that makes a good photo - far more than the aperture. Does anyone say that Capa's shot of a Spanish soldier dying needs more focal depth, or the lovers kissing on a Paris street could do with more light?
Which suggests that our camera-phones, or phone-cameras, have a better chance of taking good photos than more sophisticated kit, proper cameras that need adjustment. Their margin of error is astonishing: if you know even the rudiments of photography, you have the ideal weapon to hand.
And what does the perfect moment consist of? A soldier just cut down, a moment of passion in the street are messages about death and love; nothing could be more elemental. In both these famous photos there are no distractions, no other people, no fussy backdrops, chance has isolated the protagonists and made them sculptural.
A plant, a garden or a landscape can seem elemental, too: but what makes it so? Of course the light. A shaft or beam picking out an object, whether from the front, the side or from behind, is the most obvious way of making a point - a picture with, as it were, its caption built in. Conversely, a bright general light with only one object caught unlit could make a different point. Shooting into the source of light, contre jour, can be the best way of characterising certain plants: pale flowers, for example, with their petals glowing, their veins minutely delineated. The sun setting behind flowering grasses….
The artist with his brushes has always had the advantage over the photographer. He doesn't have to wait for the light to strike. He can store moments in his memory to reproduce, work on, elaborate and combine at leisure. Did Monet grab his palette and rush out into the garden when the sun broke through? Maybe. He was an artist-showman (dare I mention Damian Hirst?) building up a body of garden impressions to create a market primed for his output. Wouldn't he have loved an iPhone?
The show at the Royal Academy now (I believe there are a dozen Monets) is called Painting the Garden. Is there any room for quieter, smaller, but just as loving garden paintings by British artists? Or even for David Hockney's all-encompassing woodlands - surely the modern equivalent of Giverny?
Cold at last
20 January 2016
To the Chelsea Physic Garden for their annual snowdrop show. I'm afraid they have been blind-sided by the weather: it has been so mild that they had moved the date forward by two weeks, only for the long-awaited cold to descend just before the new opening date. So no carpets of 10, 000 snowdrops, just the earliest species and a lot of promising little spears. The best part was the sales tent, where a room was ingeniously separated and blacked out for a little theatre of the best varieties lit by ultra-violet light: a pretty conceit.
I was happy to find an old friend for sale, too: Hardenbergia violacea, a little Australian climber that produces its racemes of purple flowers at snowdrop time, and for weeks before and after. It was a principal mid-winter decoration in our old conservatory. I shall have to be quite severe with it in our tiny greenhouse, but it might as well have the roof-space now filled with Jasminum polyanthum, which can't even keep up with the one flowering fit to bust above the wall outside. I wonder why. Perhaps because it feels undernourished in its 12-inch pot.
The outstanding plant in the C.P.G. yesterday was Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill' in the border by the fern house, a shrub now twelve feet wide and nine high. There is no need to walk over: the scent reaches across the lawn. Is there any plant of recent introduction to beat it? (And who, by the way, is or was Jacqueline?) The Rosa odorata, near the Tangerine Dream café, was even more fully in flower than last year, covered with a hundred little light-crimson butterfly-like blooms and their fragile fresh leaves, pale green flushed red, as though it was May. I still prefer the old name R. spontanea ‘Bengal Crimson’, but I hardly dare say so.
Bengal Crimson - in January?
15 January 2016
I don't deny I miss the space we used to have in the country - both in the garden and the house. A desk takes up the same space wherever you are; it's the books that are the problem.
At Saling Hall we had shelves for an ever-expanding collection, and the part that expanded furthest was the glossy picture books. We covered the period when they morphed from text printed on paper more like card (and often tinted buff) alternating with 16-page colour sections printed on shiny paper stiff with clay. Thames & Hudson seemed to lead in this field. There was a snag: if you kept your books closed and tight together in the huge bookshelves they needed, in a typically cold damp room, it wasn't long before the clay on the colour pages stuck them together. Instead of a book you had a brick.
11 January 2016
Years ago Trad used to do periodical weather reports - partly because no one else seemed to; they just grumbled. In Essex in the 1970s I spotted a warming trend. In the '80s it was the coming Ice Age everyone was talking about. I kept painstaking records of rainfall and temperature in a book in the greenhouse for 41 years without learning very much, let alone being able to plot a pattern.
Rainfall at its meanest was something like 16 inches, in the whole of 1976; I think one year we were blessed with 40. Our coldest winter was 1982/3. A lot of favourite plants were killed; I have fondest memories of an Abelia triflora 12 feet high, graceful as a fountain, its pink flowers divinely perfumed in June
We were lemmings
4 January 2016
Is Petersham Nurseries the origin of the shabby-chic trend of the turn of this century? Did the Hotels du Vin get there first with their ostentatiously non-matching furniture, wonky tables, odd spoons and gappy floorboards? It is a brilliant way of finding value in what most of us would call old tat. With 'brown furniture' (yes, your family's Chippendale) now a drug on the market you can apparently add value by bashing it up a bit. That in any case is the Petersham look. Add a reassuringly confident price and your bent garden chair is worth more than a new one.
It was the café, then the restaurant, that first brought us, in eager crowds, to the dramatically inaccessible spot between Richmond Park and the Thames. The old greenhouse that shelters the restaurant was symbolically apt for the style of food that Skye Gingell developed there. (Her present billet, in the grandeur of Somerset House, is a little different.) The charm of the nursery (food apart) lies in its tempting array of plants and the knocked-about objects on sale among them.
Perhaps there is a social message hidden in the fact that the entrance, off the road that snakes among gems of Georgian architecture from Richmond to Ham, is only signposted for those leaving Richmond. Coming from Ham it only announces the parish church. If you meet, as you often do, a car wanting to leave, you must back out into the main road to make room. There is no guarantee, moreover, that you will find anywhere to park along the narrow rutted lane. And on a Bank Holiday, not a chance.
We were lemmings. We drove out to Richmond Park to join the queues of cars looking for somewhere to park. Eventually, with a great deal of backing and manoeuvring, waiting for another family to pack up its buggies and leave, we found a space and set off among the children and dogs for the Isabella Plantation - a romantic, slightly mysterious name for a woodland garden isolated in the broad landscape of scattered trees and grazing deer. The Times that morning had a splendid front page photo of two stags locking antlers in this very park. We neither saw nor heard any rutting, though the red deer were very much in evidence.
There is, apparently, no Isabella in the story. I pictured a wimpled Tudor princess: in reality Isabel, they say, is an old name for the sandy fawn colour of the soil. The planted areas of the park are called Plantations. It's as romantic as that.
The garden, however, is in fine fettle. There is an air of Exbury about its wandering paths and streams, among massed rhododendrons and camellias under sheltering trees. A good deal has been thinned or cleared recently and there is plenty of new planting - all admirably labelled. And all this only seven miles from London. Perhaps next time, soon, in early spring, I shall walk.
Why the hush?
30 December 2015
To Kew on pretty much the shortest day, but in warm sunshine and, mysteriously, most unaccustomed hush. Was Heathrow having a day off? Such planes as I saw were half a mile over to the west, beyond Syon Park, and almost out of hearing. On normal days you can stand on tiptoe and touch their undercarriages.
I was expecting - I suppose all visitors were - some dramatic manifestation of the absurdly warm autumn, now winter, weather. Would there be early daffodils, crocuses, camellias? Surprisingly, no. My perambulation usually follows the same circuit: turn right inside the Victoria Gate, inspect the parade-ground-precise bedding round the Palm House, then through the woodland garden (hellebores galore; little else in play) into the monumental rockery - the rocks looking their best, of course, but virtually only Galanthus atkinsii to show for snowdrops, and a clump of Anemone hortensis looking rather self-conscious. It's extraordinary how at this time of year the eye hones in on anything with red in its pigmentation. Pink catches it, or purple, but yellow and white just don't have the signal strength.
It's the little Davies alpine house, the one with a hump back, that holds mid-winter performers, and even here nothing seems premature. The stars are paper-white narcissi, cyclamen, one or two irises, Primula verticillata from the Near East, and the tiny Lithodora zahnii from Greece, its pale blue flowers hopping with bees. No sign of the dazzling blue Chilean cyanocrocus yet, but my favourite Scilla madeirensis is almost over - at last a sign of the times?
The grass collection is predictably alert, in its shades of buff, but heading for Kew Palace and the river, all seems normally mid-wintery. Perhaps the alder-catkins are longer than normal; hornbeam buds look riskily green, but when I come to the Rhododendron Walk there is little sign of action. I expect camellias to be up and doing: very few (and here in Kensington, Camellia Central, it's the same). Two rhododendrons uphold the honour of their race: R. pulcherrimum and R. 'Rosa Mundi', their pink/white and plain pink flowers in good supply. They prove the point that red pigment has a disproportionate pull on the eye in a picture of green, brown and grey. One can only speculate on why their 'Caucasian' (i.e. Anatolian) blood makes them so hasty.
Witch hazels, of course, in the garden by the little temple that surveys the huge restoration project of the Temperate House, are in full flower. I’ve wondered for years what their smell reminds me of. At last I have it: cooking tripe. They catch your eye at a distance as a pale yellow cloud. Otherwise the main eye-catchers are the decorations in the winter funfair that pulls the children (hopefully future botanists) into Kew.
Hitting a Cultural Buffer
21 December 2015
Hermione Quihampton is not the name of a fantasy duchess trailing fags-ends and empties as she devastates the garden. La Q is the former wife of a Anglo-French farmer who became very much part of our life at our old house on the fringes of the Auvergne. Picture her tall enough to be called stately, immensely red-haired, loquacious, brusque and funny, upholding the English way of Open Gardens at her billet in very profonde France. Not every French village has a 'Best Garden Seen From the Road' competition. I suspect Hermione is behind it; at any rate she is up there among the laureates.
She initially took over from the often absentee gardener (me) at our old place, planting the parterre with every blue flower she could find, the taller the better. By autumn, the box hedges were submerged in a
Spruce or Fir?
16 December 2015
The tennis court in the square is covered with Christmas trees, some with nylon jackets, ready to deliver, others being appraised for height and spread, colour and smell. Rassell's, our favourite nursery, just across Earl's Court Road, owns Pembroke Square and its tennis court and turns it into a Christmas tree bazaar each year. In this shirtsleeves winter, it's a busy spot.
When was it that Santa took a closer look at the forest and realised he could improve on the standard Christmas tree? Until a few years ago, your British Christmas tree was the Norway spruce, Picea abies - presumably because the British forest was full of them, and the even commoner alternative, the Sitka spruce, Picea sitchensis, is so drawing-room-unfriendly, with needles that would penetrate a tank.
We were choosing our tree yesterday and were spoilt for choice, with Douglas fir, Noble fir, Scots pine or Nordmann fir on offer. Abies nordmanniana, or Nordmann fir, wins - although I gather American connoisseurs will pay a premium for Abies fraseri. The poor Norway spruce lost out after a century of service because its needles fall off, as we all know, once the Christmas hearth has got going. Indeed, loosely-attached needles are a problem with almost all spruces. Fir trees are apparently better made.
There are other considerations, though: we all want a slender spire, but some are more densely branched, more or less droopy, softer, shinier or more fragrant. My choice for smell would be Douglas fir, but it looks a tad too relaxed. Pines, with their spaced-out bundles of needles, simply look wrong hung with shiny balls and candles and little angels. Noble fir, Abies nobilis, a noble tree indeed in a forest, is very stiff and blue and tends to have long bare shoots between the whorls of branches. So Nordmanniana, sleek and dark shiny green, with short, soft needles all round each shoot, if not amazingly scented, is the one coming home.
Pembroke Square W8
Never Go Back
14 December 2015
'Never Go Back' was the title of the last poem of one of my heroes, the late Felix Dennis. Not his best poem (the tree ones are best) but good advice. 'Never go back to the bridges you've burned.'
I broke that rule when I went back last week to Saling Hall, our home for 42 years. No one has lived in it since we left; the new owner plans to turn it into a hotel, but nothing has happened. Our former gardener, Aileen, keeps an eye on the house from her cottage in the old stables.
But the garden is another matter. The old pink brick garden walls, dated 1698 and Grade Two listed, have been rebuilt in new bricks (so much for the lichens and toadflax and my laboriously planted wallflowers). There are two splendid new greenhouses. And half the trees in the arboretum have been removed (there were once nearly 1,000 species and varieties of woody plants), and most of the shrubs.
The arboretum was a composition of paths and glades, trees and shrubs, masses and voids with, people said, many moods and secrets. No more. The screens that shielded it from the surrounding roads have gone. Trees I brought from far-off places have gone (though some nursery-grown specimens have been planted). The general look is strong on tidiness.
Could I have clapped a Tree Preservation Order on it all? It never dawned on me that anyone would want to destroy it. And anyway it's none of my business any more. Felix was right.
Once upon a time
A Gardener's Eye
9 December 2015
It can be a curse, having a gardener's eye. It means a critical view of almost anywhere plants grow. Appreciative, too, of course - but sadly that happens less often. A practised gardener's glance takes in every weed, every sickly plant, colour crime and misplaced tree. It makes no concessions to wayward taste. At best a too-loud scheme could be labelled in a forgiving way as 'ironic'. A too-quiet one? The kindly explanation is ignorance; the poor things don't know what possibilities they've missed.
We gardeners pounce on every moat, and are blithely unaware of our own beams. We have different levels of tolerance, of course. 'Er indoors cannot abide a weed. It can block her entire view - until she spots another'. I go the other way, muttering 'A sweet disorder in the dress…'.
A gardener can never be bored - at least not in daylight. The top of a bus provides endless fodder for critical analysis, from park-maintenance to street furniture (surely legitimate; we are experts on outdoor spaces) and above all front gardens - though side-streets, admittedly, offer richer variety than bus routes.
'Critical' is the key word. The one scenario that could lead to boredom is the improbable one of perfection. How frustrating it would be to contemplate a perfect garden. It is the feeling I get when I look at those 17th century prints of great estates, their endless alleys and waterworks impeccably aligned, one half precisely echoing the other in witless symmetry. Happily we know that a close up view would show us gappy hedges, wobbly edges and bedding past its best. We should have our satisfaction.
I only remember one garden where criticism could find no chink in a seamless performance. It was at Castelgandolfo, the papal summer residence in the Alban Hills. The clipped cypresses were finished with nail scissors and I counted, I swear it, nine gardeners sweeping a path with brooms. In unison.
One could always, I suppose, question the economics…
30 November 2015
Only a couple of hundred leaves still up there, shaking in the wind as they contemplate the long drop onto the hard paving.
After six weeks of raking them up it will be a relief to see the plain stone surface again. The plain uncluttered ground, whether it is paved or lawn, or indeed water, is the first and most important element in a garden picture, the one that gives your feet, or just your eyes, permission and motive to get out and survey the scene. Painters have always known it; it is the Impressionist cliché, the street or track, or footpath or stream, in the centre of the canvas to give perspective to the rest.
Raking up the leaves has been a daily chore while they lay thick on the ground, as essential as wiping a misty windscreen, and no more interesting. Now that they lie scattered, as distinct individuals, it brings back what, to me, in this miniature domain, is the essential pleasure of gardening: precise interventions to correct what's wrong.
Envy me if you like. I don't have to find time and resolve, and the petrol can, to go out and unclutter my foreground with the mower.
24 November 2015
I've scarcely looked up from a sumptuous new book since I came across it in the library. I stood turning the pages for half an hour before I realised I needed a chair, I was so gripped. Its name is A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800; its author Mark Laird, Senior Lecturer in the history of landscape architecture at Harvard and consultant on such historical reconstructions as the gardens at Strawberry Hill, Painshill, and Hestercombe.
At first I wasn't sure what the title meant. Natural History obviously includes the study of plants, including their environment in gardens. A wider view takes in the gardens' animal inhabitants, too, and the conditions in which they live. So the subject widens out to embrace flora and fauna, gardens, gardeners, their households and families, the philosophies and politics, fashions and crazes that sway them. Take shooting, for example; the master of the house wants low cover for partridges, trees for higher birds. Shooting flying birds came in with lighter flintlock guns in the 18th century; landscape designers
18 November 2015
We amateurs are not obliged to keep our gardens looking spruce and jolly in the winter. Some of us cut down our borders for tidiness' sake, some hang on to withered plants and rhapsodise about seedheads and hoar frost, some think bare soil has a beauty of its own. Public gardeners don't have those options; beds in parks need a winter suit as much as a summer one.
I admit I have seldom thought about the pressure on a public gardener to come up with new schemes to entertain his regular visitors winter after winter - nor the technical know-how required. From seed catalogue to bedding-out and from bedding-out to digging up and chucking out is a whole year's programme.
11 November 2015
The Royal Borough of Kensington owns and opens to visitors a terrace house in mint late-Victorian condition - a house related to the Messel family who created the garden at Nymans.
They inherited it from the principal cartoonist of Punch in his day, Edward Linley Sambourne, who succeeded Tenniel as the satirical draughtsman the whole country laughed at every week. The house was his studio, his family home and his pride and joy. He never stopped decorating and furnishing it, in a style so opposed to current ideas that it is now quite difficult to comprehend.
For a start, they seemed indifferent to light. They lived (this is the forty years or so up to the First World War) in perpetual gloom - the gloom of dark papered walls, of ceilings decorated in much the same way, of dark hangings and dark, sometimes jappaned black, furniture. No white paint: green and maroon were favourite colours. To make sure no full daylight got in, the windows were filled with stained or painted glass. Two of the main rooms had glass terrariums projecting out from the window-sills and the landing window was blocked by a water feature; a tank filled with shells and goldfish and a little fountain. Every wall is covered with framed pictures, frame to frame - most of them prints – hard to see even in a bright light, let alone the gas jets that originally lit the house.
Every surface, and lots of little tables augmented the desks and cupboards, mantelpieces, chests of drawers, the grand piano, davenports, canterburys and meubles whose names are lost in time, was an opportunity for an objet - or several. The floors were patterned linoleum or oriental rugs, the chimney-pieces stacked with shelves for more objets. And bear in mind they wore big clothes: crinolines, mantels, frock-coats - and hats. And the family shared the house, the standard London pattern of rooms off a single narrow staircase, with several servants. And every room had a coal fire to be kept stoked by the tweeny who carried the coal scuttles.
It is a fascinating place. Surprisingly there is no garden: just a yard, before the mews where the groom kept Mr Sambourne's horse. In the afternoons he would hack out to Richmond or Hampstead for exercise. His studio, for most of his life, was just a bay window he added to the back of the house - and glazed with painted glass. On a bright day it probably sparkled, but in foggy London for six months of the year it must have gone from crepuscular to stygian.
Short back and sides
6 November 2015
There hasn't been a cold night yet to press the leaf-release-button. It must be just the short grey days: something is dislodging them - or are they simply falling from fatigue? I stand in the still air of the garden watching them drift nonchalantly down, lodging momentarily on twigs not their own, resting on a shoot from the hedge, then sifting silently into the piles on the floor. The trees in the park are having a gala autumn, in slow motion, as there has been no frost. Ours sadly are a sycamore and a walnut - so no fireworks.
We need the trees bare before we can start on their biannual short back and sides. At least half the canopy of the 40 foot sycamore has
Rus in Hounslow
4 November 2015
Here am I, a Londoner born and bred, a resident for half my life, a committed gardener who fancies he knows something about architecture, a life member of the National Trust - and I had never been to Osterley Park until last Sunday. I had supposed it was just a sad remnant of a great house stranded near Heathrow and bisected by the M4. We arrived to find pure England, left-behind England, unsullied parkland with magnificent trees round a house on a near-ducal scale. Yes, the motorway rules out rural silence, but if you can stomach the aircraft at Kew or Syon they are no worse here.
Osterley is a friendly park open to the neighbours (and there are plenty) all year round. It is a farm with a herd of cows grazing meadows apparently never ploughed, and a real farm shop selling its own produce. And it has a garden becoming a fascinating recreation of 18th century taste. In the borough of Hounslow, twenty minutes from Kensington.
We arrived through an autumn mist that veiled the surroundings. As we walked up the drive, skirting a lake noisy with water birds, the sun pierced the mist, low in the afternoon sky, to outline half a dozen serious cedars of Lebanon, trees that must be contemporary with the massive red-brick house. It was a memorable moment of discovery.
The National Trust can do things so well. You could believe the owners were still in charge - though they left at the end of the Second World War. The 350 acres they gave the Trust is more than the extent of Kew Gardens; enough to feel like real countryside. The Tudor stable block is where you feed and buy your souvenirs, happily free of advertising and bossy notices. The house (with much of its Adam interior intact) shelters you on wet days, and the garden has the unmistakable sense of renewal by imaginative hands. There is a plantsman and a researcher at work here.
You can see it in the ordering of the flower-beds, awkward perhaps to our post-Jekyll eyes, but precisely what Georgian gardeners appreciated; each plant a solo performance. It is clear from the labelling of the beds. The American garden reflects the excitement of newly imported exotics from the American colonies. The walled kitchen garden is a cheerfully productive playground for vegetables and flowers and fruit jumbled together. New tree-planting round the park is original and unexpected - clearly a plantsman's work. And the mile-long promenade round the great meadow and into the woods must be wonderful in spring with its meadow flowers and bluebells.
The head gardener is Andy Eddy, originally trained at Kew, then at Sissinghurst, and now with a ducal domain of a garden where he can play duke - and duchess. I shall soon be back.
2 November 2015
They came in a goody bag from the RHS at Chelsea in May: five modest corms smaller than walnuts with a name that was new to me: Acidanthera murielae. Late flowering, the packet said. I planted them in a shady bed (there is no choice here) and pretty much forgot about them. In August important-looking irisy leaves popped up. And grew and grew to three feet or so. By mid-September strange flower buds emerged, six or seven to a graceful swan-necked stem, and by the end of the month, six-petalled white stars were opening wide, purple-centred, with a spreading lily-like scent.
Is anything more exciting than meeting a completely strange plant like this: planting it and waiting for a new wonder to appear? The reference books link it to Gladiolus. I can see no resemblance. Acidantheras come, I gather, from Ethiopia, were grown in pots by the Victorians, who called them Abyssinian lilies. They are now firmly in my repertoire.
Out of focus, I'm afraid, but my only shot
What is a garden for?
22 October 2015
And when you've finished your garden, what then? We tend to dodge this question, saying that a garden is never finished; is a process rather than a place…. there's always something to do. True if you are a collector, a plantsman, a naturalist or just a passionate observer. Most gardeners, I suppose, start with some sort of plan, or concept, or start to adapt whatever garden they buy or inherit to their idea of what is beautiful or useful. They go on fiddling. It never quite fits their notion, or their notion changes over time. They see
Journées des Plantes
19 October 2015
To Chantilly, just northeast of Paris, for the first autumn edition of the Journées des Plantes de Courson. The Château de Courson, southwest of Paris, was the birthplace, 30 years ago, of France's answer to the Chelsea Flower Show, the key event in the country's gardening year. Its begetters are a brilliantly creative couple. Patrice and Hélène Fustier, who conceived it as a day for keen gardeners to meet to discuss and exchange plants. In those days, gardening was very much a minority interest in France, with of course fashionably anglophile overtones. I remember, at the Coursons of the '80s, the startling sight of Range Rovers and green wellies - rare sights around Paris in those days.
The Fustiers invited British judges for competitions (Roy Lancaster has starred at every one.) Specialist nurseries (then rare birds in France) joined in with enthusiasm. Soon the stable yard overflowed into the park and plants of all kinds congregated like party guests among the old oaks; there should have been a Renoir or a Matisse to paint the scene.
This year the Journées des Plantes had a spectacular upgrade. The Château de Chantilly is properly described as 'princier' - princely - rising in faux-Renaissance grandeur among vast lawns and immense moats beside the Newmarket of France, the country's greatest racecourse and most grandiose stables. The château is also France's second greatest museum of masterpieces, after the Louvre, thanks to the collectios of the Duc d'Aumale, son of the last king of France.
Chantilly has conference hotels, restaurants and above all the space that Courson could not provide. And the translation, all seem to agree, is a triumph. Patrice and Hélène Fustier continue to preside, with the help of Prince Amyn Aga Khan, and the setting, under and among a grove of ancient oaks and beeches, beside the enormous moat, makes a wonderful frame for the plants.
Sadly the weather last week did not cooperate. A cold spell that saw snow in Belgium and Germany reached an icy finger towards Paris. On the first day it was 7°C and drizzling. Yet somehow the dim misty light made the warm colours of autumn fruit and foliage glow with inner fire.
16 October 2015
Relaxed. It's the one thing that everyone wants to, and thinks they should, be; a zero-sum positive: your face, your clothes, your body-language, your vocabulary, your house, garden and writing-style must be, or aim to be, or appear to be, relaxed.
Every magazine and paper says so, and reports admiringly on anyone who carries it off. Why is it the thing to be? Is it because modern life leaves so little time and space for relaxation?
'Relaxed' seems to have the field to itself. What is an admirable, acceptable, fashionable, alternative? No one is admired for being tense, or formal, or uptight. Correct? It sounds as though you're trying too hard. Of clothes, 'chic' perhaps gets away from it, with 'shabby' as a possible qualifier.
7 October 2015
What would I do with them if I took a tenth of the photographs that have tempted me in this last week of five-star weather? I haven't wasted it indoors. I managed a visit to Exbury on a day as clear as a jewel, the air still and just that crisp side of balmy that makes you (or rather me) feel one glass of champagne to the good. Exbury is always known as a spring garden; the glory of its azaleas and rhododendrons seems to eclipse its other aspects.
Now, with autumn ready to pounce and fires kindling in the maples and liquidambars the occasional rhododendron eccentrically in flower is rather like a black tie at a lunch party. But the harlequin hydrangeas, the pale plumes of the grasses, the colchicums and nerines lead you from glade to glade, and you have time for the infinite variety of the trees; an arboretum framed in monumental oaks.
The New Forest is a gallery of pictures in any season. Glimpses through the trees on the Brockenhurst train make me long to record them. I realised, though, as we raced through Hampshire, the pleasures of the passing landscape, prospects composing and recomposing, crops and copses, swelling downs or dark mantles of woods racing by, are far less visible than they used to be. Railway companies used to clear the saplings from beside the tracks: now long curtains of dull sycamores screen off the scenery.
I spent the weekend of the Garden Literary Festival, the third organised by The Garden Museum, at Hatfield House, the great garden, in the classical sense, that I know and love best. The sky was that ineffable blue; a faint breeze just made the reflection of the great pink house in the lake more liquid, the ancient trees in the Wilderness seemed more massive than ever and the fountains sparkled and crashed in the grand box parterre below the South front.
The delegates at the Festival moved from lecture to lecture, from Banqueting House to Marble Hall, strolling at leisure through parterres on a princely scale like the figures in Repton's Red Books, almost dwarfed by their surroundings.
The North front has a new adornment: one of Angela Conner's dramatic water sculptures (and I should guess her biggest yet). It rises maybe twenty feet in the centre of a circular lawn like two great curving, gleaming horns, splashing water slides that would tempt any toddler, framing a golden globe. Of course I photographed it.
Top: A hydrangea at Exbury (I wish I knew its name)
Righ: The new Angela Conner sculpture at Hatfield House
A glorious botch
30 September 2015
I wonder how many gardeners think about the style of their gardens. There are certainly a few historical restorations or reproductions or pastiches, but don't most of us do what pleases us with our patch, without trying to put it in a stylistic box? If we employ a designer we say (or sometimes fail to say) that it's in his or her style - rather than, say, the style of Jekyll, or Oudolf, or Gardenesque, or even Italian.
I am reading 'Gardens in the Modern Landscape' by Christopher Tunnard, an architect and landscape designer of the 1930s and '40s who created a certain stir with his opinions and his designs for such modernist architects as Serge Chermayeff. He and his contemporaries were unlucky in that their attempt at revolution coincided with the Second World War. There was little business for them. They influenced the look of the Festival of Britain in 1952, but even that officially-sanctioned style found few takers.
23 September 2015
HoraceWalpole (I'm reading his letters on my Kindle: endless gossipy fun and backstairs history) said he loved gloom. Or rather the contrast between gloom and brilliance. He decorated his villa at Strawberry Hill accordingly. The entrance hall and stairs are gloomy grey (in the height of today's fashion), leading up to the excessive bling of his Gallery lined with scarlet cloth and vaulted and decorated with white and gold.
Walpole might have loved the gallerias on the road down to Tuscany; blinding sunlight alternating with inspissated gloom. (A splendid word, no? Sam Johnson used it, and Milton in Paradise Lost, where I always thought it meant occasionally relieved with glimmers of light. But no: it means 'thickening').
He, Walpole that is, would presumably have loved the past few weeks. The garden has scarcely dried out; then comes a day of clear
15 September 2015
La rentrée is the French term for it: the back to school end of summer when French roads are jammed with cars leaving the beaches and mountains. There is no notion of dawdling, of spinning out the last few days, even if only to avoid the nose-to-tail roads. The sense of a sudden descent from holiday nirvana to dull routine, with a year to wait before the next escape, is deep in the French psyche. And funnily enough the last Saturday in August often sees the weather change in sympathy.
Suddenly you are aware that the sun is too low in the sky. Driving west at teatime is irksome. The dark closes in before you are ready for it. Suddenly the cry goes up 'J'ai froid, chéri. Mon châle'. And leaves detach themselves one by one from the plane trees and rattle to the ground.
This year the grape harvest is early, healthy and plentiful, a smiling vintage promising lots of good ripe wine from coast to coast. Winter was mild, spring early, the summer hot and dry with enough rain in August to swell the berries. Picking grapes is always hard work, but there has been a party atmosphere in the upmarket vineyards where they still pick by hand; in the rest the towering yellow picking machines have been roaring all day long.
We are in La Provence Verte, the Provence north of the A8, of high ridges and deep limestone clefts where vines occupy enclaves of flat land hemmed in by forest. The dominant tree, and the one that gives the woods their startling greenness even at the end of a hot summer, is the Aleppo pine, its name taken from the now-tragic Syrian city (although it is a native all round the western Mediterranean). Drought doesn't bother this surprisingly delicate-looking tree with long slender needles, two to a bunch, of something between apple and lime green. They are graceful and soft to the touch and form an airy canopy on trunks that are often sinuous. Round habitations they are joined by the dark verticals of cypress and a few evergreen oaks.
Pinus halepensis dominates the scratchy scrub
11 September 2015
The more I go back to our woods in Wales, the more I regret the need for conifers. Above all for Sitka spruce. Nothing creates useful strong timber so fast: joists, rafters, floor boards… Nothing else will make sour boggy land productive. And yet its black, prickly presence (don't try to touch a shoot - even a young one) makes our forests grim, forbidding places. Back in the 1960s the Forestry Commission actually tried to kill off our lovely mature oak woodland by underplanting the oak with spruce. As they grew (sometimes as much as five feet a year), they starved the oaks of light. Their lower branches died. Their tops sometimes survived, struggling upwards among the dark spears of the Sitka.
But the native flora below, the oxalis, mosses and ferns, wild raspberry, bilberry, feathery grasses, sometimes bluebells, that signify ancient oak woodland was gradually eliminated, replaced by a brown needle carpet with the occasional fern.
Green alert progress report
5 September 2015
It''s three weeks now since we spotted the box caterpillar (or rather its trail of destruction) in the garden, We've sprayed the affected bushes three times - and the funny thing is we haven't yet seen either a caterpillar, a larva or a moth. Their traces are here all right; threadbare patches in the box with telltale tiny webs. The worst is the lower half of a pyramid which is heavily shaded in a wall corner. Could its position have something to do with it?
All the rage
25 August 2015
Things are not looking too good in the garden just now. There's a scaffolding tower blocking the outside staircase down from the ground floor, five feet of our Victorian garden wall has been demolished, the trellis with our laboriously trained trachelospermum has been removed and everything is covered in a thick layer of dust, The noise of drilling and hammering starts at eight and goes on till six; the noise of pumping water up from the basement depths goes on all night.
The roses and agapanthus, the geraniums and anemones, the fuchsias and salvias, the lemons and oleander, the clematis and solanum, the kirengeshoma, the thalictrums and my pretty ferns are all pretty in vain. Nobody's looking. We don't even open the door - except to dash to the shrouded greenhouse in hope of a ripe tomato (I picked my first Gardener's Delight yesterday).
What's it all about? This is London life in the wake of the Party Wall Act 1996. It's your property; you can do what you like on it and the neighbours can just grin and bear it.
24 August 2015
Thalictrum delavayii is my plant of the summer. I planted it last year at the top of the steps leading up from the kitchen door; so far there is only one main shoot, now nearly seven feet high, like an impossibly delicate tree with lilac leaves, each leaf a flower like a tiny nodding clematis. The cloud of flowers is at eye level as I reach the top step, and from the kitchen window it is as important as the trees beyond, a lilac filter for the view of the rest of the garden.
'delavayi' betrays its origin, the mountains of south west China, where Father Jean-Marie Delavay went to convert the heathen and became one of the most industrious plant collectors, with 1500 new species in his bag. 'Meadow rue' is the English name for the family; the finely divided leaves, in this case palely glaucous and scarcely significant in the picture, explain the name. The monster hybrd 'Elin' proves that bigger is not necessarily better, and the double one, 'Hewitt's Double', that two is not necessarily a higher value than one. Of all the perennials I grow in our perpetual shade this is the most striking and rewarding.
Thalictrum delavayii at Saling Hall
16 August 2015
I reported from the Hanbury Garden at La Mortola in February last year that I had seen a nasty new threat to box plants. Little did I think that only a year later it would have arrived - right here, in our garden and our neighbours'.
It's called Cydalima perspectalis. In Italy they call it Piralide del Bosso. So far it's only Box Caterpillar here. The caterpillars are green, yellow and black, up to 4 cm long, and the moth brown and white. But it’s the larvae, from yellow eggs laid on the underside of
Pilgrimage to the Lancasters
15 August 2015
It was déjà vu all over again when I turned into Roy and Sue's drive in Chandler's Ford, in a leafy suburb just south of Winchester. I've seen so many pictures and heard so many stories. What feels familiar, though, on looking closer turns out to be almost subversively alternative. You know the genus but you never saw this species before. It happens again and again.
Roy is genial, passionate (we all know that from television) and loquacious. ‘Isn’t that a ….?’ you start. ‘Yes, I collected it with (half a dozen well-known collectors may feature here; very often Mikinori Ogisu, his Japanese chum) on Emei-shan’. (I’ve learnt that China’s holy mountains are honorically labelled 'Shan'. Mount Fuji, come to that, is called Fuji-san; are they related? Gongga-shan, alias Minya Konka, seems to be Roy’s favourite peak.) ‘….It was growing with Abies delavayii, and a daphne, and a lily I’d never seen before, before breakfast one day outsde a village in Sichuan. I'm not mad on rice at breakfast. We’d just seen an extaordinary mahonia with coppery leaves….…’ Perhaps I parody, but Roy’s reminiscences are worth as long as you’ve got.
His selective eye has been focused on woody plants (and not only woody ones) since he worked at Hillier’s Nurseries nearly fifty years ago, I could never have written my own tree book without Hillier’s Manual – and didn’t even realise at the time that this astonishing compilation was newly hatched, the work of Sir Harold Hillier and Roy together. But I owe him for far more than mere knowledge.
He has a thing about mahonias – and things, for that matter, about a hundred other genera as well. I came away from his garden with ‘Roy’s Choice’, a selection of the cross made in the Savill Gardens in John Bond’s days between two Lancaster collections, M. gracillipes and M. confusa. The first has dangling flowers with red sepals and hard, armoured, almost scary leaves, the second an altogether softer look, far more and narrower leaflets and more conventional flowers. The 2013 Chelsea Plant of the Year, Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ seems to be a variant of a subspecies.
10 August 2015
I should know the Cotswolds better. My two lifelong favourite gardens, Rousham and Hidcote, are there, or at least en route. But I am always confused by the tourist-board names. This on the Wold, That on the Water, One on the Hill and Another in the Marsh. High-hedged lanes wander dementedly between clusters of cottages, all buff stone, many thatched, all painted in Farrow & Ball colours. One gets lost.
This excursion started at our favourite pub, the King's Head at Bledington, with few clear objects, turning aside when a church tower, an intriguing signpost or a Garden Open sign hove into view. Sezincote and its Indian gardens were shut, as we learnt at the gate, but at Bourton the Hill we found Bourton House garden open. I had
25 July 2015
I have never actually washed my garden before. It's the ground you usually water, not the leaves. But the builders next door send over such a dust-storm that after weeks without rain every plant was grey with grime. I'm sure it was stopping them growing; flowers were fewer and fewer - and sadly dingy.
22 July 2015
The visitors book proves it: I was last here fifty years ago – and nothing has changed. The broad white verandah still looks out over orange trees to the steep terraces of vines going down to the river. The house, verandahed all round, sleeps like a planter’s bungalow on any tropical station, lawns shaded by thick trees (in this case limes), screens closed against mosquitoes, the rooms complete capsules of times long past. Deep beige armchairs, faded prints, dusty books, the polished dining table, have not changed since the 1960s. Probably not since the 1920s, when the Gilbey family bought the estate, 150 acres of vines and the stone barns where Croft’s port has been trodden time out of mind.
The upper reaches of the Douro, a hundred miles from the sea through range after range of steep hills, are dry, hot and fertile. When we arrived the other day there had been four days over 40º, the conditions that make great vintage port. It’s a long time since we slept as past generations have, bare under a sheet hoping for a draught from windows open on both sides of the house, resenting the mosquito screens blocking the free passage of air. The thermometer drops to 30º at dawn: I get up to open all the doors to let the cool air in, and doze off just as the sun shoots its first shrivelling rays into the house.
The early morning is when the vines can get to work, photosynthesize and swell their grapes. In this exceptional summer veraison , when the grapes turn colour from green to red, is already under way. By mid-morning, vines that stood trim and gleaming have started to droop; their stomata closed; evaporation exceeds the power of their roots to find water in the parched soil. They look hangdog until evening, metabolizing nothing, losing time in the journey to ripeness. Fig trees show signs of the same stress, their big leaves limp. Olives, on the other hand, with their small grey leaves, seem immune to the heat. The agapanthus are unbothered, too, baking under the dry stone walls. And orange trees gleam on regardless.
I’m afraid I react like the vines, with the advantage that I can hide in the shade and dip my feet in the fountain. Our hosts’ labrador, on the other hand, has found a niche in a flower bed and lies between hydrangeas and agapanthus with a lime in his mouth for refreshment.
Something in the soil
13 July 2015
It's a problem photographing a tree like this one. But then there aren't many. The trick is to ask a patient friend to stand by it and walk away until you can fit the whole tree in your lens. Communicate by shouting.
This oak is in a garden near Newbury in Berkshire. No one can see it without asking questions. How old is it? How wide? How high? But above all how? There are taller oaks, and girthier ones, but are there any so complete in their domes, with branches stretching so far in an uninterrupted circle?
Part of the answer may lie in the way it was evidently planted, it must be four or five hundred years ago, on a mound of earth. The sapling was planted on the summit of a mound some five feet high and perhaps thirty feet round. Why? The soil below is heavy clay; perhaps the gardener thought it would get away better on a hill of something easier for its roots to penetrate. There is another magnificent tree three hundred yards away on a similar mound. Yet curiously the woods around are full of strikingly tall straight oaks, big beeches, soaring Scots pines and lime trees of immense size. So why the mounds?
The rest of the garden, I should say, is in keeping. Many plants seem larger than life, and it is quite a collection, centred on a water garden round a large stone-edged water tank, ingeniously fed from a smaller and slightly higher tank in its centre so the water is always gently moving. The owner, Rosamund Brown, is a painter of memorable abstract landscapes; her sense of colour makes the planting sing - a tune that changes abruptly when you pass the door to the kitchen garden into a Mondrian world of primary colours and daring contrasts. Another smaller enclosure is planted entirely with cactus and sedums; the ultimate low-maintenance plants, but a startling display, and I guess a unique one in a garden.
To coin a fraise
9 July 2015
While I've been mugging up on fruit history I've come across a curious strawberry fact. Our big juicy ones superseded the little European native wood (French fraises des bois) or alpine strawberries (some debate here: are they the same or different?) when the American Fragaria virginiana met and married the Chilean F. chiloensis, introduced (the curious fact) by a chap called Frézier (fraisier: geddit?) – or in Scots, come to that, Fraser. Our strawberry's botanical name is F.x ananassa, ananas being French for pineapple. One of our best and tastiest varieties is 'Cambridge Late Pine'.
7 July 2015
Louis XVIII is a monarch you don’t hear much about, France’s last and perhaps fattest. He lived for a while at Hartwell House, was too overweight to walk, and had a predegustator who doubled as librarian of his 11,000 books. This chap's job was, among other things, to pass fruit as acceptable for his majesty.
My authority, Edward Bunyard (d. 1939, pomologist and epicure) relates how everything stopped when Christophe, the gardener, knocked at the library door with a new variety of peach. Petit-Radel, the predegustator, waited while Christophe, with his ivory knife, cut the fruit in four. The first quarter he judged for its juice; the second for its flesh, the third for its aroma and the last for its harmony.
Bunyard, in his Anatomy of Dessert, came down in favour of the nectarine over the peach, on grounds of both its flavour and its smooth skin, though with some reservations about texture: less buttery, more fibrous than the peach. He cites fourteen varieties, and twenty of peaches (La Quintinie, Louis XIV's gardener at Versailles, listed thirty-three). Since then breeders have selected and bred scores more. Rivers of Sawbridgeworth, for example, offered a whole aviary of peaches with bird-names: Kestrel, Goshawk, Sea Eagle, Peregrine… Apples and pears have been bred in hundreds. Where are they all?
30 June 2015
A warm weekend's visit to the battlefields of the Ypres salient, one hundred years to the day after my father was wounded there by a round from a German Maxim machine-gun. He carried the bullet in his wallet for the rest of his life in an envelope marked "German bullet that wounded G.F.J. in June 1915 at Ypres, taken out at Guy's Hospital by Sir W. Arbuthnot Lane"
He was secretly rather proud that he was operated on by this famous surgeon (the model, it was said, for Sir Cutler Walpole in the Doctor's Dilemma), incredibly soon after being wounded. Trains were shuttling the wounded from the front to Calais and London. 'I woke up', he wrote to his mother, 'in a London Hospital'. He was lucky. But six months later he was back with his battery (he was in the artillery) in the same spot.
The cemeteries tell the story of some of the worst battles. The bodies were buried near where they died, at the beginning of the war in nearby churchyards, soon in plots appropriated as cemeteries. One of the biggest, with 12,000 graves, is beside the principal 'dressing station' by the railway.
The cemeteries are gardened by The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, to a standard the Royal Parks would be proud of. There are many miles of straight edges and immaculate hedges with white headstones in parade order. Some have pavilions or cloisters whose walls carry the endless lists of the dead, listed by regiment. Tens of thousands are anonymous, but those that were identified carry the name, rank and regiment of the soldier, and most of them his age, very often between 19 and 25. In June scarlet roses and bright purple lavender form our tricolour with the white Hopton Wood stone that was generally used. Their trees form an arboretum, interestingly chosen and perfectly kept. There is much to learn in these battlefields - even about gardening.
Ancient and Modern
24th June 2015
My brother-in-law, Simon Relph, has made a beautiful and ingenious little garden behind the 14th century farmhouse by the famous tithe barn at Bradford on Avon. Its glowing stone gable peeps through the walnut tree at the end. Simon has contrived lawn, pond, terrace and a rich choice of plants and left himself room for an immaculate vegetable garden, framed last weekend by roses at their peak. "Rambling Rector" spreads its froth of flowers for fifteen yards along the old stone wall.
But they're moving house. A lucky successor will inherit five years' work. We were taken to see his next intended project, a modern house with three times the garden space - and I confess to a twinge of envy. If he can encapsulate so much in the confines of the old farmhouse yard what fun he'll have with this almost-virgin territory.
We discussed the trees. They are the first and most crucial decision in any new garden. How do you weigh the fact of an established but dull tree against the chance of choosing something better? Of course you plan for both. A few are so revolting that the chop can't come soon enough. A worn-out Prunus amanogawa (the pink cherry that apes a Lombardy poplar) is instant firewood. A droopy old Lawson cypress might be spared (but mainly on the grounds that it isn't a Leyland). A dingy purple plum gets its quietus (not to mention that most villainous of shrubs, the yellow-leaved choisia). What to do with a misshapen neglected ash? A clever surgeon could improve it. But there's a centenarian beech to one side and a thriving walnut in the middle. And space for fruit trees, magnolias, dogwoods,…
My instinct (not that it's my garden) is to consider the light and shade first. Decide where you'll want lunch on a hot sunny day. Make your shady spots as appealing as you can. White furniture under a handsome tree draws people's feet like a magnet.
Next comes the division of space; the apportioning of rooms. Will it be explicit, as in clipped hedges, as implied by the massing of plants? Or, of course, both? I can’t wait to see it take shape.
17 June 2015
Here's a simple rule for creating a memorable garden: choose a south-sloping hill with a gushing spring at the top. Then tease the water down, across, fast and slow: play with it; let it lie in pools and splash down steps, shallow steps and steep ones, singing different tunes.
This is the formula at Shute House in Dorset, refined to concert-pitch by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe over many years for Ann and Michael Tree. It put me in mind of Ninfa, that supremely hydraulic garden south of Rome, where a crystal river races through the ruins of a medieval city. Shute is the English Pastoral version, smaller, quieter, shady rather than sun-baked, but equally haunted by Naiads, the nymphs of springs and streams and pools.
Did I hear that Romans discovered the spring at Shute Hill? If they were ever here they could hardly have missed it, and knowing their taste for water they would surely have made the most of it. It rises, these days, in a circular pond perhaps twenty feet across, half-lost (and half-found) in thick curtains of laurel and rhododendrons.
So much water wells up from the crystal depths that it leaps down the overflow to ripple the surfaces of a pièce d'eau perhaps a hundred yards long, a dog-leg shape so designed as to seem two different ponds. One is sinuous, a little Stourhead banked with lawns and rhododendrons and navigated by black swans, the other a calm canal contained in high beech hedges, leading to a deft sketch of a Roman theatre.
The divided waters continue on their separate ways. From Stourhead they tumble into another informal pond and continue as a shady stream crisscrossed with meandering woodland paths. From the canal they emerge under tight control in a garden of stepped terraces, splashing and gurgling between parterres full of every plant that loves moisture and warmth.
That game over another begins: a racing runnel down a grassy glade; leaping with such brio into three hexagonal ponds that the pressure feeds little fountains to ruffle their mirrors. Each leap is a little organ of pipes tuned in a different key; the air is full of watery notes, from murmur to tinkle, through bubble and splash.
That long-disused word 'felicities' needs reviving to describe the various incidents en route. There are arches leading to more enclosures, more parterres of bold planting, little bridges and towering trees. The classical stone house lies to one side, its terrace surveying a long view to distant downs and the next destination of the playful water: more ponds in the fields to reflect a cloud-banked sky.
You have been warned
11 June 2015
To Kew on a perfect June day for a serious all-day session on, of all things, tree safety. The IDS organised the seminar with Tony Kirkham, the head of the arboretum, as a consequence of his horrific week in court last year when a branch fell off a cedar and killed a girl.
Accidents and Acts of God are old-fashioned concepts with little, if any, place in current law; the blame culture has to pin every misadventure on a cause, and the cause on an individual. The Royal Botanical Gardens owned the tree (a cedar of Lebanon); Tony Kirkham is responsible for all the 14,000 trees in the collection. If a tree is unsafe (the presumption if it sheds a branch) it should have been made safe. Under Health & Safety laws Tony might have had to go to jail.
His audience yesterday were people who either own or manage trees in arboreta or parks all over the country. I think they were shocked, all of them, at the risks they are running in letting anyone near their trees. Their duty of care extends to every tree and every branch, and the only way to satisfy a court is to show that you have inspected the tree in question, satisfied yourself that it is not about to break up, and kept records of your inspection. It is only the fact that Kew does have a long-term, fairly elaborate and fully documented inspection regime that saved Tony from clink.
True the family of the unfortunate girl were on the attack, hired a QC and an expert (who turned out to be not extremely so in court). We were full of questions. Does the duty to inspect apply to trees in ordinary gardens? (Yes). Does it apply to trees in woodlands or
9 June 2015
Another six-day excursion, this time to the Gers, Armagnac country north-west of Toulouse. Four days with afternoon temperatures of 35c or 95F produced miraculous changes in the richly farmed landscape. Seedling crops appeared in immaculate emerald rows from the bare earth. Crops that were in that embryo stage one day shot to bushy bulk three days later. Grasses started to flower, tinting the fields, and the patchwork of the woods in half a dozen greens moved perceptibly towards the sombre uniformity of summer.
It is a landscape where each prominent hill has its bastide, ranging from a single tower to a small hill-town, ringed with woods. From its walls you look down into bowls of fertility. Wheat, sunflowers, corn, potatoes, tobacco, rape and even peanuts fill the valley slopes with varied colours. From our hosts' house delicious glimpses between copses of oak or elm or pale walls of ancient stone change with the circling sun or the unpredictable moon. Their soundtrack changes, too: from the clamour of swallows to the hoot of hoopoes to the mesmeric solos of a nightingale.
Meanwhile in London a couple of warm days had brought the garden, when we got home, into its first phase of summer colour; quiet in our shady beds, campanulas and white foxgloves and the new tawny fronds of ferns, cheerful on the walls with pale clematis, roses Bantry Bay, Gloire de Dijon, Iceberg, Phyllis Bide and Alister Stella Gray, and raucous above, where our neighbours' roses, unrestrained, wave fat blooms in red, white and pink above the foam of climbing hydrangeas.
A spring visit
28 May 2015
A weekend in Hungary to see the Tokaji vineyards in their spring finery: hillside after hillside covered in files of the singular pale green of young vine-shoots. The shoots are three feet long, up to the top wire of the trellises, their flowerbuds visible, utterly vulnerable to a frost - unlikely in late May but still conceivable. And a horrible black hail-cloud sailed by this afternoon.
The village gardens and the forests on the hilltops are at their best: forests in their primitive state, a mixture of every imaginable species, unplanted, unthinned, seemingly impenetrable until you come to a stream winding down a shady valley, gardens brimming with pale flowers; irises and peonies the favourites. Roadsides are full of wild roses, pink campion, purple sage and blue vetch.
The forests have a problem, though: the invasion of robinia (or as we tend to call it) acacia. At our old home in the centre of France, in the Foret de Trançais, where the oak is supremely "prestigieux", robinia crops up everywhere except deep in shady woods - and sometimes has a go even there. Every roadside is lined with it, suckering and seeding prodigiously. Its thorny progeny are good at self-defence. In May and June its masses of white blossom are popular with passers-by. Then its dreary little leaves dominate the rich mixture of textures and hues of the native trees.
How did it spread so far and so successfully? Presumably France had its equivalent to William Cobbett, who so enthused about the peerless value of this new import from America - named, by the way, after Jean Robin, director of the Paris Jardin des Plantes. Its timber makes the best fence- or vine-stakes, splitting easily and impervious to rot. There is even a fashion for using it for barrels, too, especially for sweet white wines. So farmers must have planted it, little thinking that soon it would be such a formidable weed.
What is odd in Hungary is that whole stretches if it have pink flowers: like tall lilac from a distance, and interspersed with the white of elder trees indisputably pretty. I consulted Bean online (so can you. Google 'Bean’s Trees and Shrubs' to get to the IDS website, where the whole of ‘Bean' is available for consultation, free). Is there such a thing as a robinia species with pink flowers? No, is the answer. There is a nursery variety, R. x ambigua (a good name) decaisneana, produced in France nearly two hundred years ago. But how could this become a widespread wildling in Eastern Europe? I must do more digging.
22 May 2015
A happy chance took us to the Flower Show on the first fine day of the week, Thursday, when Chelsea was looking at it's sunny and cool, sparkling, rain-washed best. I feel a heavy responsibility as I ponder the annual Trad Award. (The rules are simple: it's the garden I like best). This year, for once, I fully agreed with the RHS judges: the Chatsworth/Laurent Perrier/Dan Pearson garden was not just the best in the show, but the best ever in my Chelsea experience.
The feat of carrying a large chunk of Paxton's over-the-top rockery down from Derbyshire was pretty awesome. We explored the real thing for the first time last summer; even by Victorian standards of ambition the perching and piling of such monstrous boulders on a steep hillside seems, shall we say, a trifle exhibitionist. Nor is the result, I fear, an aesthetic triumph. Far more satisfying and exciting are the natural rocky outcrops at Wakehurst Place.
Dan Pearson's genius is to extract a subsection, as it were, to install it at Chelsea, and to present it as an exotic meadow garden of wild and not-so-wild flowers. We were told that Crocus, the contractors (who surely deserve their own gold medal) planted the seed mixture on mats which were then cut and fitted into their precisely planned places in the scheme, among the rocks, around the gently-flowering little stream, between the trees and lapping down to the tight-packed crowd of admirers.
Even the dead leaves scattered in the grass came from Chatsworth; romantic realism can hardly go further. The grass, besprinkled like a medieval tapestry with flowers, was thicker here, thinner there, scuffed by feet along a winding path, the gritty soil loose here, compacted there and constantly changing in a floral concerto, ranging from buttercups to peonies, hostas and ferns to eremurus, campion to wild strawberries, primulas, sweet rocket, day lilies, euphorbias, rare irises, geraniums, rodgerias….shaded here and there by field maples, azaleas that looked benignly neglected, enkianthus, a laburnum just showing yellow buds, a huge clipped box bush and a great fat willow pollard impossible to imagine packed up and on the road, A list of plants does nothing to express their happy intermingling. An example: a single Welsh poppy acting the weed, 'a plant in the wrong place' among pink primulas, just skews the scheme into complete conviction: this could surely never have been on a drawing board.
A bridge too far
20 May 2015
I admit I had never noticed the church opposite Waterloo Station before - nor its garden. St John the Evangelist is, appropriately enough, one of the four ‘Waterloo’ churches built with a million pound grant from parliament after the battle we are celebrating in June. It apparently looked out of date in the 1820s when Gothic was the new approved ecclesiastical style; people thought its splendid Grecian portico, however dignified, was old hat.
Its generous burial ground is now a model urban public garden, admirably planted, well maintained and with lots of green space for games and picnics. The very opposite, in fact, to the proposed Garden Bridge which was the reason for my visit. I was asked to speak at a public meeting against the project from the gardener’s point of view. The church was packed with objectors, invited by the newly-coined TCOS (or Thames Central Open Spaces). Most of the objections centred on the cost of building and running this odd
Shouts for attention
18 May 2015
Perhaps I shouldn't have fed the brutes. May always catches me out. For weeks we enjoy the slow unfurling of spring; then suddenly, one day in May when we've made other plans, every plant in the garden shouts for attention. Its flower-buds start to open or its shoots zoom out and block your path. Or shoots that looked full of promise suddenly flop.
If there's never enough time to keep up with what's happening, let alone drink in the beauty of it all, the pressure of planting and pruning and staking and generally maintaining order keeps me outside until I need a torch to see what I'm doing. Then I have the drink I sorely need and forget what it was.
6 May 2015
Cows in the distance keep the bass line going; sheep are the counter-tenors; a trickle from a stone lion's mouth is a flute obligato and a hooting owl makes random entrances. I am sitting in an Edwardian garden, defined by stone balustrades, on a Welsh hillside. A huge horse chestnut is lit by the moon and its hundred thousand candles. A white-flowered cherry poses stiff and symmetrical against a gothic frieze of firs. I walk back to the house and its aura of woodsmoke, to be stopped by a scent of honey that completely takes over. From what flowers? There is a pale shape just beyond the balustrade: Pittosporum tenuifolium. I had no idea its tiny black-purple flowers could fill the night like honeysuckle.
2 May 2015
Most gardeners, I suspect, worry about weather, tenderness, colours, slugs, aphids, how quickly and how big things will grow…. in their own order of priorities. My concern is just how many plants I can fit in to my diminutive patch. And I mean different plants.
This is no way to garden. It's bound to be a dog's breakfast. 'Cottage' is the politest thing you can say about a random muddle of favourites. 'Short at the front, tall at the back' hardy applies when the front and back are three feet apart. The one factor I do discriminate about is colour. White is good (it shows up in the shade). Blue is better. And yellow, at the right moment and beside the right blue, can be just the thing. Colour hits your eye in a different dimension from size or
A dream redreamed
25 April 2015
Why have I neglected Gravetye Manor for so long? We used to be regular visitors to William Robinson's old garden, enjoying its renaissance as a hotel with an owner, Peter Herbert, who very much got the point and restored the essentials of the garden round the splendid Elizabethan house. His thirty-odd year reign there settled Gravetye as the base of choice for exploring the most densely-gardened corner of England, with a dozen notable gardens within easy reach. And his care for the table was equally rewarding.
A new owner with deep pockets, Jeremy Hosking, has since given the hotel and the garden another uplift; renaissance is the word being used again. Five years ago he tempted Tom Coward from Great Dixter, where he was working with Fergus Garrett, to take over and complete the restoration . What would Wiliam Robinson have done with modern plant s and methods (if with rather less than his army of gardeners)? Wandering in this extraordinary place one can glean some idea.
This is a heady spring to visit any garden in the south of England. Nothing has interrupted the budding and blossoming since the new
year. Each morning at home we draw the curtains to see long branches of blossom on the double white cherry in the street, our pink magnolia in the front garden, and the sumptuous sight of our neighbour's weeping cercidiphyllum, a cascade of circular leaves of fresh lawn-grass green hiding the street. I laze in bed for five minutes counting the planes pass through the blossom as they line up for Heathrow.Gravetye in mid-April was inebriating. In the parterre west of the house the sharp sunlight focussed each flower and lit the tulips like gemstones, a cacophony of laughing colours . The peculiarity of Gravetye is that the whole garden seems to face south. It lies, drinking in the sun, above a wildflower meadow sloping south-west down to a lake. Always on the lookout for plants flourishing in shade I drew a blank.
The Robinson style is all about detail; plants ingeniously mixed to harmonize, flowers chosen to complement one another and give the impression that The Creator had had a particularly good day, unaided by man. They didn't use the term plantsmanship in those days, but this (rather than collecting rarities) is the true meaning of the word.
The magnum opus of the moment is bringing the walled kitchen garden back to life and productivity. It lies up the hill a hundred yards from the rest on the edge of the forest of 1,000 acres that Robinson planted or assembled. Perhaps there are other circular ones;
A view from the East
16th April 2015
My occasional correspondent in Japan can react with charming enthusiasm to things I write. She frequently provides me with facts I would never find without her. She also, quite unwittingly, gives me the feeling that we in the west are all novices at the game. The Japanese have been enlightened, demanding, hugely ambitious and intensely focused gardeners for twice or three times as long as we Europeans. They were developing techniques and collecting and breeding plants and refining their taste, while we still thought a Hortus Conclusus was a pretty nifty bit of avant-garde thinking.
Take the flowering cherry. We date our appreciation of these springtime wonders back just over a century. They even have the reputation here (with some justification) of being short-lived; just instant décor.
The whole deal is different in Japan. The population puts on its Sunday suit to greet them, picnics on the grass (lots of sake) and gives them National Monument status. My pen-friend sent me this postcard of a weeping cherry that Engelbert Kaempfer might have seen on his visit to Odawara in 1691.
This was in reaction to my story about the Californian James Light, his glasshouse and his orchards where Silicon Valley now stands. Her great grandfather had a plum orchard on the very spot. Japanese gardeners are still relatively common in California today. He installed his family on San Francisco Bay early in the last century. He had to retreat back to his family in Japan in the 1930s when Wall Street crashed. Then came the war and he never returned.
A green light
13 April 2015
I was quite keen on the mossy look at first. In a largely paved garden a hint of green on and between the paving stones softened their harshness. It seemed to show that nature was accepting the intrusion. Someone, it seemed, had slipped a green filter over my specs. I rather liked the effect.
But then the green started spreading. It tinted the floor, the brick walls, the base of the greenhouse, and in due course the teak table and chairs. Seeds germinated between the slabs. I like violas and hellebores and foxgloves and campanulas - especially C. persicifolia - but I don't want to tread on them. Without a modicum of spit and polish a town garden can start to look scruffy. So we accepted the offer of a clean-up with a high pressure hose. The green sluiced away was replaced with shades of 'natural'. Now we hope the scrubbed-clean look won't last too long.
What did I think of artificial grass, someone asked me the other evening - tentatively, almost shamefacedly, I sensed - as though suggesting something indecent, or expecting a put-down. Why on earth not? A little patch of lawn in London is usually a sad thing. A mower is clumsy in a small space. And as soon as the football comes out you have a patch of mud.
We are almost wholly paved, so it doesn't arise, but our daughter over in Fulham is investigating a carpet lawn for her children to roll around on. The website she sent me to comes up with a surprising range; the poshest called Mayfair (New for 2015!), then presumably in descending order of poshness, Kensington, Chelsea Super Soft, Wentworth, Holland Park, Belgravia and Knightsbridge. The 'turf' is laid on a porous 'shockpad' to make it springy underfoot. All you do, apparently, is brush it now and then. Should we, come to think of it, start thinking green in a more positive sense?
10 April 2015
Would you hurry to buy a book from the East Bay Municipal Utilities District? That’s what I thought. I don’t know about EBMUD’s other publications, but their Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates is the best on this timely topic I’ve yet seen. It weighs about 4 lbs, but its design, organization, illustrations, photography, printing and above all its style of writing are as clear, useful and attractive as they could be. The author/editor is Nora Harlow, the excellent phtographer Saxon Holt.
Its subject is the San Francisco Bay area. Obviously many of the plants it lists would be tender in most of Britain. But its principles and the imaginative solutions it describes could be applied anywhere. People with Mediterranean gardens should grab a copy. Definitely my book of the year so far.
9 April 2015
We have been planning and nurturing our son-in-law’s and daughter’s garden by the sea (the Mediterranean one) for ten years now. The dream is now a fact, but I still have to pinch myself to believe that we conjured into being these terraces, this tunnel of vines, these whispering cascades, the pool, the olives and cypresses and curtains of green and blue rosemary covering the stone walls, this bounty of lemons, the irises, the agapanthus, the jasmine whose clustered flower-buds are clots of Imperial purple peeped through with white, its scent hanging heavy all around.
Above all, though (and not conjured by us) the view to Cap Ferrat across the bay hundreds of feet below. I get up in the night to gaze at it under the moon.
Just along the coast at Menton is the garden that Lawrence Johnston, the creator of Hidcote, was planting at the same time in the 1920s and ‘30s. He gave Hidcote to the National Trust in 1948 and moved here, continuing to embellish his Menton hillside almost up to his death in 1958. Last year in April I found a sad notice at the gate, 'Fermé a` cause des intempéries', the French word for the weather the BBC calls 'atrocious'. Big trees, some of them extremely rare, were brought down in the gales. But gales are sometimes blessings in disguise: no one feels authorized to thin out historic overplanting when the specimens are important originals. A decision made by fate can be a relief, and certainly this year the garden is in better shape, with more space and light in some overcrowded parts.
Like Hidcote, Le Serre de la Madone was made from scratch on farmland - in this case up a steep valley at right angles to the coast, not for the sea view. The two gardens seem to have little in common. La Madone is essentially a series of twenty hillside terraces, some quite narrow paths, linked by wide-spaced flights of steps and hairpin bends at each end. There are plateaux at the top and near the bottom for pools, conservatories and a little box-edged formality, but the essence is the south-west-facing slope as a sheltered home for Johnston's exotic finds, planted in what now seems a random medley with the native flora. Half the flowers you will recognize from English gardens; Hidcote for example. Half leave you (or rather me) struggling to pronounce their multi-syllabic labels, or to trace the origin of sweet exotic scents. On the lower terraces I stopped and pondered a marvelous perfume until I realized that little cream and yellow freesias had naturalized on a whole bank among irises and acanthus, and teucrium and rosemary.
I tried to imagine Johnston and his famous little pack of dogs wandering on the hill to decide where some rarity collected in China or South or East Africa was to go. I'm sure he had the pot in one hand and his spade in the other. As a bachelor with twenty three servants he didn’t lack help, yet he is remembered as an ascetic and even a loner. He can have had little idea of how big some of his trees were to grow. Hidcote is considered, calm; a masterpiece in entrances and enclosures, masses and voids, that set the garden room fashion many of us still follow. La Madone is more a gallery of
24 March 2014
Home from a preview of spring in California: hillsides blue with lupins, orange with poppies - and, unusually, green with grass. They won't be green for long. The west coast is three years into drought. Almost no rain so far this year, and precious little in the snow pack in the mountains. Spring is too early, too warm - and wonderful. Magnolias are going over already, but against the rich green of redwoods the dogwoods are lighting up, daily more dashing and elegant in their balletic poses, branch-tips up.
California has been my second spiritual home since I was a mere seventeen. I came in a gap year, and twice I have been within a toucher of moving in, dazzled by the brilliance of light, the fecundity of nature, the sense of space and freedom. But each time I felt the pull of Europe. I realise the privilege of living so close to France, Italy, Germany…the world's most sophisticated capitals, the sources of our vast and complex culture. It would feel like living at the far end of a long corridor; much too long. I go crazy with delight in a redwood forest with a whale-watching beach at the foot of the hill. I love the quirky beauty of San Francisco, the windy Bay, the flying fog, the pastiche Victorian architecture…and the stories. But then it's time to come home.
Molly Chappellet (I have written about her many times) is my great gardening pal. Her husband Donn started the first estate winery of California's new age in 1969, on a dramatically beautiful hillside above the Napa Valley, looking down over Lake Hennessy and onwards to Mount St Helena. The winery building, in a copse of oaks, is a rust brown three-sided pyramid (there must be a term for the shape), and still the best modern building in the wine country. Molly has gardened the boulder-strewn hill for forty years with a unique eye for the near and the far. Detailed planting underfoot, as it were, leads on, through many-ton volcanic boulders she moves, it seems, lie croquet balls, to the vast landscape below and beyond. She has the help of oak trees ninety feet across and the hypnotic inevitability of vine-rows sweeping round the slopes.
This year Molly took us to Quarryhills in the next valley over towards the ocean, the equally viticultural Sonoma. Bill Mc Namara, who is in charge, travels to China and other wild points east regularly, or at least frequently, with Charlie Howick, creator of the extraordinary arboretum of wild-collected species on the North Sea coast at Howick. Their haul is prodigious: Quarryhills is its Californian counterpart: 25 acres of trees and shrubs whose precise genes are new to America – and certainly to me. They cover a steep dry hillside of winding paths and arresting vistas. Most are natives of much damper places. By irrigating them Bill controls their growth and avoids promiscuous miscenegation.
The profit from pianos
21 March 2015
James Lick never saw his conservatory. He ordered it at the age of seventy five; when he died, aged eighty, it was still packed in crates, waiting for a site in what is now called Silicon Valley, at the southern end of San Francisco Bay.
Lick was a Gold Rush millionaire - not from digging gold, but from building pianos and investing his profits in land. He learnt his carpentry from his father in Pennsylvania, took his piano business to Argentina, then Chile, then Peru, then Mexico, and in 1848 finally arrived in San Francisco (carrying 600 lbs of chocolate) on the very eve of the Gold Rush. Chocolate sold well, pianos were called for, and Lick's land went up in value. He built houses in San Francisco, planted orchards in San Jose, bought ranches in Los Angeles and the Sierras and owned the biggest flour mill west of the Mississippi, and soon the grandest hotel in San Francisco.
He built the biggest refracting telescope of its time for the new University of California - and commissioned the conservatory that now stands in Golden Gate Park, a masterpiece of carpentry in redwood inspired by the Palm House at Kew.
Golden Gate Park stretches from the heart of the city westwards to the ocean on what was originally sand dunes. Its inspiration was New York's Central Park, with winding drives among 1,000 acres of woodland and meadows. Belts of Monterey cypress and pine protect it from the wind with remarkable success. At its heart is the Botanical Garden, initiated by the inevitable Scotsman, John McLaren from the Edinburgh Botanics. Planting grasses to stabilize the sand, he said, reminded him of the Firth of Forth.
Lick's conservatory found a home in the park. The crates were auctioned, bought by the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford and given to the city. If only Lick could see it now, a gleaming white presence, arrestingly elegant, filled with flourishing plants. High-altitude orchids are its principal collection: 700 species out of 1,000 known, displayed among palms, tropical crop plants, aquatics and carnivorous nasties around gleaming ponds under the glistening white roof. There is a lightness of touch here, a vegetative cheerfulness which is perfectly apt for the most beautiful city in America.
Shrubs in shade
3 March 2015
I was talking last month about shrubs for shady places. There are some families the Creator evidently worked on with gardeners specifically in mind. The dogwoods were one; Eden must have been full of them. Lighting up shady places and the downtime of the gardening year (not that one pictures Eden having much downtime) is their great family gift. Winter gardens rely on them as much as on hellebores and heathers.
The most glamorous dogwood in fact takes things a bit too far - at least for any garden of mine. The Catwalk Tree would be a good name for C. controversa variegata: if it could speak it would say ' Ta dah'! Where do you put such an eye-catcher: a creamy wedding cake that says 'Clear the room for my pirouette' and needs at least twenty feet square to perform in? The one I planted at Saling Hall, after years of hesitation, was kept in bounds by the muntjac, rather to my relief. They chewed off its extremities until I had to give quietus to the poor bedraggled thing.
Far more elegant and better mannered is its cousin, C. alternifolia argentea. It is a smaller plant, and less deliberate in its branching
The smile that melted a mayor
28 February 2015
Can you think of a sillier place for a garden than the middle of the Thames? Well, yes; perhaps the middle of the Channel. And that's only horticultural speaking. Airports, Boris, by all means, but if you have a yen for putting things in mid-Thames, why on earth a garden? What need or question does this project answer - except the murmured 'Will you?' of a famous actress?
The Garden Bridge project could not have been proposed by a gardener. A long narrow strip of garden perpetually exposed to all the winds, with a limited depth of soil, and the need for constant irrigation, has little prospect of happy plants. Of tall and flourishing trees, I suggest, none.
Being planned as a popular spectacle the planting would have to be colourful - which inevitably means exotic. The computer-made prospectus shows something not unlike the Chelsea Flower Show crossed with a right of way: which wouldn't work at Chelsea. But is it a right of way? Apparently not - which puts its status as a useful bridge in doubt.
18th February 2015
I was going to try not to mention it, but the goings-on next door are hard to ignore - and getting harder. At the moment the drilling about three feet from my head threatens to upset my syntax. And no one can fail to notice the scaffolding to the top of our neighbour's house and high above it, clad in white sheeting with the words London Basement repeated six times; one for each deck. 'Is this the highest you've ever dug?' someone asked.
Basements of course, are all the rage. A pocket calculator will tell you that with property at £x per square foot and the cost of digging and building at half x or less, the opportunity of adding a thousand square feet or so is worth considering. And there is no legal obligation to consider the neighbours. Decent people do, of course, but the law says the ground under your house is yours; by all means become a mole. A recent regulation says that, in this borough at least, you can only dig under half your garden (it used to be 85%). But a
12 February 2015
It can get pretty tense when there's a slot to plant in a tiny garden like this - or rather, when some bolshy radical, impatient for change, says there is. There's immediately a lobby in defence of the plant to be, as it were, supplanted. "It looks fine, I like it where it is". There are, though, no grounds for an appeal to variety: it’s a box bush. One of quite a number.
"I'll put it in a good big pot". (There are quite a number of these, too). "Don't you think we need a bit of action there; a plant that performs - even flowers?" "Well, I like the green; it's soothing".
The real problem is that there's no obvious candidate - or at least one that isn't a thumping cliché around here. Does it matter that everyone else grows it? After all, the park is full of planes, and Tuscany of cypresses.
I see a cliché as a wasted opportunity. The pleasure of our little space is close-up observation of something that isn't going on all around us. So unusual, even rare, is good. And something that will thrive in rooty competition in almost constant shade.
8 February 2015
Perhaps not everyone knows that the grand iron gates in Piccadilly are the entrance not only to the Royal Academy (Sir J Reynolds in bronze, brush poised, makes this pretty clear) but also to the botanists' Valhalla, the Linnean Society. Valhalla seems appropriate for an institution with a Swedish patron saint.
I was there this week for meetings of the International Dendrology Society in the august Council chamber. On the walls and the staircase hang portraits of every canonized botanist, The Old Lions and many plant collectors, from Linnaeus on - with a particularly colourful one of the late Professor Willy Stearn cheering up the Council chamber. From the windows on one side you look down on the Royal Academy, from the other you survey Whitehall down to Westminster Abbey. It could go to to a mere gardener's head.
The IDS holds its annual Winter Lecture here. This year it was Tony Kirkham's turn. His subject: 250 years of Kew Gardens and
2 February 2015
To the Chelsea Physic Garden on the first of its two Snowdrop Weekends. Nippy at 4’C with a north wind. A marvellous coup de théatre on the way in: snowdrops as mobiles hanging from trees in little balls of moss; snowdrops as a rug round the cold feet of Sir John Soane in marble, and snowdrops in drifts along a newly-created path winding through the trees down by the Embankment.
The CPG keeps getting better - and even apparently bigger, as more little gardens and gardens-within-gardens and different horticultural incidents enliven its space. It's hard to believe that so much can happen within its four acres, including a considerable arboretum of seriously senior trees. Somehow there always seems to be another unexplored or undeveloped patch to be transformed.
Nothing could be more inspirational for an urban gardener - or any gardener with very limited space. Here is the evidence that you can pack it all in, divide your space again and again, shift the focus from one style or environment to another.
Rockery, economic plantery, perfumery, pond, bog garden, woodland garden, order beds, fernery, Antipodean collection… they merge or contrast (more of the former in winter; the latter in summer) to make a magical garden walk, absorbing hours - even on a nippy January afternoon, when galanthophiles have their moment of glory.
I love snowdrops - but that doesn't make me a galanthophile. On the long table in the sales tent (same temperature as the garden, minus the wind-chill) patient volunteers with frozen feet were guiding us through the differences between the precious named cultivars. Most people ask about the big ones, largely selections of Galanthus elwesii with taller or shorter flower stalks, bluer or greener or broader leaves, and heaven-knows-what variations of exquisite detail in their flowers - at £25 a plant. I'm afraid I asked the obvious question: what about the undifferentiated species? 'Yes, we had quite a few, but a French woman took the lot this morning'. They have their heads screwed on, the French.
For all the winter chill, the most eye-catching plant in the garden was, of all things, a rose; a handsome mound, seven feet high and wide, of fresh green with reddish emerging shoots and tender leaves. It carried forty or fifty pale scarlet flowers looking none (or only slightly) the worse for the frost. Rosa mutabilis? I wondered. Then I thought of ours, hunkered down and almost bare. Surely a relation? ‘Rosa odorata’, said a cold-footed volunteer. ‘We used to say Rosa chinensis Bengal Crimson, but we’re not allowed to any more.’
20 January 2015
It's what I do on dark January afternoons; retreat a century and half to the world of frock-coats and crinolines, the world of JC Loudon, John Lindley, Joseph Paxton and William Jackson Hooker, the years when gardening was just finding its scientific feet.
My time-machine is The Gardener's Magazine. I am deep in the issues of 175 years ago. John Lindley, secretary of the Horticultural Society, has just published his Theory of Horticulture, described by its reviewer as 'as useful and indispensable to the gardener as the compass is to the mariner'. Lindley began by explaining in plain terms how plants work, in 'a short guide to the horticultural application of vegetable physiology'. Such a thing, it seems, did not exist; gardening was learnt only by tradition and experience. "If I had met with such a book as this twenty years ago I would not have so many grey hairs in my head now".
Paxton had just built the Great Stove at Chatsworth, the prototype for the Crystal Palace. Loudon enthuses about what the new Penny Post
9 January 2015
How much more room for progress is there in photographing gardens? Books like The English Country House Garden, out at Christmas, by George Plumptre with photographs by Marcus Harpur, seem to have perfected the dream scenario of consummate skill and taste in design and execution - first in gardening, then in photography. They create a never-never land of perfect flowers, perfect viewpoints on perfect designs in perfect weather. Rough winds come nowhere near.
Harpur is the inheritor of a strong tradition, son of Jerry Harpur, whose books encompass for more than the usual round of English gardens. He may have been the first to show us great gardens from all over the world. I once bumped into him in a lakeside garden high in the Andes.
His unglamorous roots were in Essex, following in turn in the steps of Harry Smith, whose garden picture library was the first resource of magazine editors in the 1960s and '70s. In due course the archive was taken over by Anthony Huxley and Dick Robinson, the photographer who gave his own garden at Hyde Hall to the RHS.
30 December 2014
I was surprised by my own excitement in the garden this morning. I've discovered over the years that it isn't only plants that notice the days being a couple of minutes longer. It stirs human blood, too. Especially on a day of brilliant blue sky.
But the excitement came from a sudden rush of memory of all the things I've planted in the last year and shall enjoy in the coming one. Bulbs, of course, but mostly plants that have just ticked over as they are taking root and will really make their entrance in the months to come.
The previous year's planting (our first) was quick to make a difference. My screening trellis on the end wall is a tangle of solanum, clematis, rose, jasmine and eccremocarpus. There is a big spring job waiting for me here, mostly in taming the marvellous white solanum. I have even warned people myself that this plant is a colonizer. 18 months in the ground here, in an almost undiggable corner under the sycamore, has given it a wingspan of something like 30 feet in our garden and our neighbour's. Just now I noticed that a
23 December 2014
The last of the fallen leaves have gone in the bin. I spent this morning cutting down, raking and brushing up, tying in, shifting pots into winter quarters and generally battening down for winter. By lunchtime I could hardly recognise the place: plain surfaces where clutter had been accumulating all autumn.
Who said 'A plain place near the eye gives it a kind of liberty it loves?' Repton, I was going to say - only this time it was the less-quoted William Shenstone. In any case it's true: the foreground of a view, or the part of the garden you first step into, should be open, tidy, free from obstructions.
But what does 'should' mean? Says Shenstone? Are there really any
Look up a tree
18 December 2014
Bean went live yesterday. Or to put it more precisely the online version of Bean's Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles became available on your computer. Botanists, and especially dendrologists, have been saying simply 'Bean' for precisely 100 years; since William Jackson Bean (was he 'Bill' to his friends?) brought out his book with its eight-word title.
As Head of the Arboretum at Kew (and hence Tony Kirkham's predecessor) he was well placed to list and describe his subjects, in a judicious blend of botany and sylvicultural experience. By the 1970s his work was in its 8th edition, expanded from two volumes to five as new trees were discovered or invented, botanists wrangled, cultural knowledge piled up and noteworthy specimens multiplied. It became clear that in the digital age no one was going to revise such an encyclopaedia in the time-honoured way involving mountains of paper in correspondence and proofs. If the work was to survive and be revisable it must be online.
My Christmas stocking
12 December 2014
I have some generous readers. Just how generous I discovered a few years ago when I said that if anyone wanted to give me a Christmas present I would like a donation towards saving the gardens at Crarae. The National Trust for Scotland promptly received, among many others, an anonymous gift of well over £100,000. The target of £1,5 million was reached well before the April deadline.
For Christmas this year I'd like a donation to The Garden Museum.
11 December 2014
They have just finished putting their overcoats on the trees in the Kyoto Garden. No tree in London ever needed to be dressed up for protection in winter, but in Japan it's part of gardening ritual. Symbolically marking the seasons, picnicking under cherry blossom and marvelling at autumn maples, is something the Japanese do at table too. The ultimate Kaiseki banquet, a succession of tiny exquisite dishes, paints a picture of the garden and farm and seashore in each season in choreographed ingredients - served, traditionally, by girls in kimonos shuffling on their knees.
The tree-coats are made of barley-straw gathered into little skirts and jackets round trunks and lower branches, They complement the bamboo props and struts that provide - or pretend to provide - support to outstretched limbs.
2 December 2014
I love just looking, eyes engaged, mind coasting. With a glass of wine, of course.
I never expected, when we moved from the country, to spend the same amount of time late at night sitting in tranquillity gazing into the garden. My chair is in a mere alcove compared with its country place, the garden not a cricket pitch long, but the sense of the day wound down is not so different. There is a bit more traffic to be heard and the sky is lit by electricity rather than stars, but my eyes find a parallel satisfaction in their urban surroundings - particularly, I now realise, in winter. Light and shade are less important; everything is dimly lit. But trees are distinctly gesticulating creatures, not just solid looming masses. Silhouettes and their details all have equal status. I can read plants and buildings better, undistracted by light.
I've always enjoyed the paintings of Keith Vaughan at the Royal Academy; a model sitting, usually bare, in the cool north light of his
Kew, the palace
26 November 2014
Kew Gardens was only lightly populated early one morning last summer when I set off on a habitual circuit: turn right after the Victoria Gate, past the Palm House, through the rock garden, then left to follow the perimeter path to the rhododendron dell and on through the oak collection. The route takes you past the front of Kew Palace (a big name, I always think, for a fairly modest brick house, painted a powerful red, with rather awkward Dutch gables. A 'palace' only in being a former royal residence).
That morning there were two young women in long skirts and straw hats standing by the front door. 'Won't you walk in, sir?' said one of them, to my surprise. I turned. Their clothes were a little more than quaint - but their welcome was warm. Walk in I did, to find the house newly decorated and furnished to evoke its most royal era, when it was home to King George III, Queen Charlotte and their fifteen children. The poor king, though, was in seclusion, suffering from porphyria. His physicians had forbidden him his knife and fork, fearing violence. It was an unhappy household.
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
5 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
4 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.
…. 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
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 Messian, 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 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.
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
We all know its qualities as the trim and malleable friend of gardeners in the European tradition. Not everyone likes the evocative small of a box parterre on a dewy morning in summer, but the thought of a unique tradition chewed to oblivion to feed a nondescript little moth is hard to stomach. We are defending our little hedges with whatever treatments are allowed. The caterpillars last year arrived in August; in this strange spring it became obvious in chewed leaves and tiny webs in late March. The tiny caterpillars are hard to find but munch alarmingly fast. Even with daily inspection some survive – and turning your back to go away for a week is seriously ill-advised.
Ash trees, even elms, can be replaced with other trees, however we may miss their familiar silhouettes. Box, alas, has no real substitute. At Wisley there is a bed planted with possible replacements, trmmed as low hedges; none, I fear, really cuts the mustard. Perhaps the best is Teucrium x lucidrys, or known by its medieval-sounding name of hedge germander. The Prince of Wales evidently thinks so; he has replaced box with it at Highgrove. Its chief drawback is its spikes of pink flowers, but I’m told hard trimming avoids them. Meanwhile, pray for a predator keen on cydalimas.
The gaudy gorse only stops at the Solent saltmarshes
surrounding the inner garden of 17th century plants designed by Dan Pearson, and its two famous tombs, of John Tradescant and Admiral Byng.
I was amazed by how many rooms and activities have found space in the new development. They include a substantial classroom for students and school-children, a studio, a teaching kitchen, and the Tile Wall which is already shaping up as a memorable feature. One of Christopher's many snappy fund-raising ideas was to invite gardeners to adopt a ceramic tile made from their favourite garden photograph. 200-odd photos could keep you browsing for a long while. Another of his enterprises was to borrow back from the Ashmolean Museum some of the objects from John Tradescant's collection that originally formed its core - and to swim from Oxford to London to raise the necessary money. They have their own gallery.
All this, and a surprisingly big outer garden, designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole and maintained by volunteers, seems to have expanded the whole enterprise by a factor of three or four. London's museums have a serious new recruit.
Christopher's blog on the museum's website is well worth reading. www.gardenmuseum.org.uk/
Fleshing out the bones
I always think of clematis as high-risk, though. Last year two started lustily before they collapsed; a highly-prized C montana 'Wilsonii' and a C. tangutica I intended to fill a yellow-and-green Canariensis ivy with inappropriate blossom. The evergreen Clematis armandii, which I planted on the west-side trellis to obscure activities next door, grew strongly from April to June, then stopped, then started again in late September in time for its new growth to be blasted by an early frost. What signal of temperature or day-length can have pressed "Go' as summer was winding down? This year it shows no sign of growing on from the height it achieved last year: it has started again from almost the bottom.
All this makes me apprehensive when I give a viticella the statutory February chop down to two feet.. Those thin paper-covered stems show no hint anywhere of incipient buds. Then suddenly a fat red shoot appears from under the paper covering and away it goes..
Of all our climbers the most fragile-looking is Eccremocarpus scaber (or 'Chilean Glory Flower', though I've never heard anyone call it that - and glory is slightly hyperbolic for flowers barely an inch long). A tiny wisp of a seedling (they are evergreen) sat under the wall in deep dank shade all winter, in a slug safari park, and put out its tendrils no thicker than a daddy-longlegs's legs when it felt the first breath of spring warmth. I was lucky enough to inherit the yellow-flowered version; in fact it's the colour of clotted cream. It will scramble up the bare trunk of a Viburnum x burkwoodii trained against the wall. It will flower all summer and scatter fertile seedlings; there's one just coming up in a camellia pot right now.
The lake fills up
south and west. The upper level has borders and a long central pool; the lower is a lawn for games. The two are divided by a pleached row of hornbeams above a stone wall, and the main terrace along the south wall of the house is defined by brick pillars supporting oak beams to make a two-dimensional pergola.
I've been looking for mop-head trees to form a group at the far end from the house; ideally that miniature sport of the field maple, Acer campestre Nanum. Grafted at just the right height, I found it perfect for the village hall at Great Saling, but sadly I can only find it grafted at two metres, which is too high for the scale of the garden. Its small leaves and guaranteed autumn yellow would make it ideal. What else might do the job? Such evergreens as Quercus ilex or bay would be too emphatic and formal; my ideal is trim but green-leafy, bright in spring, soft in summer and glowing in autumn. On the shorter trunk that we need (1.75 m is ideal) the choice is limited. Planting the mop-head robinia is asking for sucker problems; once they start they never go away. Liquidambar and parrotia, to my surprise, can both be bought top-grafted; I fear their leaves are too big, though. But there is a dwarf pin oak, Quercus phellos 'Green Dwarf', that seems to answer. We shall see - and meanwhile wire the walls for the roses. It's still a building site now, but hornbeam, yews and box are in and spring is getting close.
Cader Idris in the distance
This is concrete's shame; its grubby grey, inevitable as rain-streaks and made far worse by rough-shuttering. Architects would probably say (indeed, have said) that it demonstrates their honesty to show the grain of the timber they use. All it does is to collect even more dirt. The National Theatre on the South Bank is a dreadful example - in this case, of the grain of Douglas fir). Its architect, Sir Denys Lasdun, said 'there is something aphrodisiacal about the smell of wet concrete'. The Economist's architectural correspondent described it as 'an aircraft carrier in collision with a Norman keep'. It's fine at night, when all you see are the lighted windows. By day it is the epitome of dinge.
Concrete in gardens, once it spreads from the paving up the walls, or into a brutalist pergola, brings drabness into what should be light, elegant and gay. Of course there are exceptions. Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's house astride the river at Bull Run, Pennsylvania, balances concrete slabs on a composition like a mobile, airy and graceful. Its concrete, though, is smooth, clean and not remotely brutal. Even so, Wright once said he would prefer it covered in gold leaf.
Concrete is fundamentally a cheat. You can pour it into any shape (as Zahar Hadid does in the absurb white wave of a café, like something from Moby Dick, in Hyde Park). It never shows you how the building works, where the weight falls, or how the structure supports itself. Timber, bricks and stone do that; concrete is carving in blancmange.
(Visitors should note it can also be gloomy and damp. The grotto is open at weekends only; see the Painshill website, but there is a whole day's worth of interest in the landscape).
Prune it to an upwards-facing bud and a downwards one will take over. It could easily hide among the hellebores - their leaves and general deportment match it well.
What is the most positive green in the garden in this grey damp? Of all things, a fern. Ferns and formality don't seem to go together, but another inheritance, with the camellia, was the unusual arrangement of a fern at each corner of our biggest bed, which is square, central and significant. The four stand like guards around a catafalque, bursts of fresh green, their fronds knee-high. Their new growth in spring is pale copper, a colour that complements the green, lingers all summer, and sets off the bulbs and pulmonarias, hostas and geraniums and salvias that follow.
There are a dozen different ferns in pots on the deeply shady pavement outside the kitchen window. The prizes go to this coppery one, Dryopteris erythrosora, the little maidenhead , and the royal fern slowly building up its eventual majesty in the biggest pot we have.
Suspended animation at Kew this morning
Chiswick House gardens are haunted at Christmas
Grasses in December sun in the glasshouse borders at Wisley
best specimens in gardens). All are well-written and well-illustrated. The sort of thing, I thought wistfully, that long ago made The Garden so valuable, but is seemingly deemed too highbrow for modern members.
One article made me particularly wistful: Brent Elliot's account of the late Valerie Finnis and her husband Sir David Scott. We were lucky enough to know them in the 1970s and 80's, staying occasional weekends at the Dower House at Boughton in Northants where they gardened together. I learned more from them about gardening and the love of plants than from anyone I have met. Valerie was a photographer, too, and in a class of her own. Her square Rolleiflex pictures, often portraits or still-lifes, were somehow infused with her sympathetic curiosity
Sir David was the model of a 'parfit gentil knight'. In his middle 90's he retained his curiosity, his wonderful gentle manners, and his memory. He would pick up on a conversation started weeks before. He spent many of his last winter evenings reading the letters his parents wrote to each other daily in the 1880's, each still in its envelope with its penny stamp.
Painshill: the prospect from the Turkish Tent
We've just moved the plants I've been nurturing for the house in the hope that they'll do their stuff at Christmas. Our favourite cream-flowered cymbidium has had its summer in the shade and recently six weeks in my shed. Now it's the centrepiece of our little library table, among piles of books, and the excitement is spotting the flower-spikes as they start to emerge; six so far.
The Veltheimia has served for twelve Christmases now, still in its original glazed pot. Its gloriously glossy and wavy deep-green leaves are an ornament as soon as they appear in September. At the moment it sits under the glass roof of our north-facing verandah, its flower spikes of pale pink bells forming, keeping company with a Sasanqua camellia called 'Paradise Pearl' full of promising pink and white buds. Perhaps sasanquas are not quite as showy as most camellias, with smaller, less glossy leaves a little like a phillyrea, but they start flowering in autumn.
Meanwhile in my shed a seven foot standard Fuchsia boliviana that lives outside in summer, dangling scarlet bells, shelters for the winter among various pots I pity, and the Ozzie Hardenbergia violacea clambers up into the roof, preparing (I hope) to turn purple in February.
And the food's not bad either
A good starting point
Haseley Court became a beacon of good taste not because it was neglected, but because the Lancaster eye used powerful signals of ancestral glories and gardened gaily around them with no apparent inhibitions.
Ancient topiary was a good starting point. Nothing says long tradition like a whole chess set of crisply cut yews. Visiting Haseley with her successors, Desmond and Fiona Heywood, I realised how deep the Lancaster style has sunk into our psyche (or certainly mine). From the walled garden, brimful of what seems random planting around old apple trees, colours from Matisse, to the long canal with green banks under willows, I recognised my own efforts at Saling Hall - or rather what inspired them.
Folly Farm and Haseley Court represent two different approaches, attitudes, indeed cultures. Both have fed into the garden norms and expectations of today - and in turn been refreshed by them.
muddy shoreline, home to (they say) 300 species of birds, not to mention horseshoe crabs, terrapin and mosquitos. In the distance are the Manhattan skyscrapers, beyond and around them the Hudson and the East River and Long Island Sound, Staten Island, the cliffs of the Palisades…. a dramatic natural context that city people easily forget.
Central Park is there to remind them. Forty years ago it was neglected, overgrown, filthy and dangerous. Then Betsy was appointed Administrator, the first in the role. She instilled order, found volunteers to clear up, plant up – and give money. She inaugurated the Central Park Conservancy, recruiting the great and good to support the park. Not long ago one Maecenas signed a cheque for a hundred thousand dollars.
So the park is looking good, perhaps as good as it ever looked since Mr Omsted and Mr Vaux set it all in motion in the 1850s. We walked over from Central Park West to the Boathouse on the tree-fringed lake, through the Rambles, a supremely romantic piece of woodland landscaping where paths, some paved, some natural, wind up and down among what seem to be wild woods, though suspiciously floriferous with flourishing native flowers. It was Michaelmas daisy time; their delicate pale flowers scattered under the trees in pools of light. Great whaleback rocks are a leitmotif of Central Park; indeed the dark grey schist, its surface often polished by schoolboys’ trousers, is the necessary bedrock of all Manhattan’s towers.
A gondola from Venice glided by on the lake; under the spreading, just yellowing, elms of the Mall a piper played by the monument to Sir Walter Scott; a faint whiff from the veldt wafts over from the zoo, fountains play among banks of chrysanthemums. It will soon be time for the sweetgums, the maples and the oaks to catch fire. Much as I love Kensington Gardens, there is nowhere on earth like Central Park.
made up their own minds about whether one of London's grandest views, the great grey tideway with St Paul's as its crown, would benefit from a window-box in the centre ground. Others will recognize the description of the designer, Thomas Heatherwick, as 'the Isambard Kingdom Brunel of Toytown'. Certainly passengers on his number 9 bus will have rued the day he was allowed to design it. And this is not even to examine where the money to pay for the bridge is to come from, or who will pay for its maintenance ad infinitum.
London does need more bridges, both upstream and down. The same mayor thought a cable car would do the trick. The need for a gimmick described as a garden bridge remains to be proved.
Not London, surely? Battersea Park is going in for retro-gardening in memory of the Festival of Britain.
I'm not sure Russell Page would want his name on this:
displeased) to be harvesting my total crop of eight tomatoes. Tiny ones at that (but red). They have endured a small pot, intermittent watering, a life lived in 80% shade, and an attack of whitefly. So I shall enjoy them as a minor triumph.
The process of gardening is more important than the result - until, that is, you open for the National Gardens Scheme. Who was it who said ‘to travel hopefully is better than to arrive’? A bonus point for the first to put up their hand. I had to look it up too: it sounds rather ‘Confucius he say’, so I was surprised to see that it is one of my favourite authors, Robert Louis Stevenson. As a youngman he wrote sententious essays, collected together as Virginibus Puerisque. That’s where you’ll find it.
Is it, though? Better than to arrive, I mean. What is a gardening arrival? The moment when the shutter clicks and you have something for your album? The moment you pour yourself a drink and sink into a chair? What will you be thinking about as you take a sip? Whether you can get away without mowing before the weekend.
Even Japanese Zen gardens haven’t arrived. Daily raking is existential for them. The Grand Condé’s chef Vatel killed himself because the fish was late. Gardeners take heart; there is no gardening equivalent.
Tulbaghia violacea, Cap Ferrat, and a chance of rain
forks and clinging to the trunk. Thoroughly snipped and brushed down the tree looks a trifle sparse, but I shall be able to spot any sign of trouble straight away. Whether there is anything I can do about it is another matter.
It's not so easy with box hedges - or any box, come to that. We and all our neighbours are on high alert for the boxtree caterpillar which eats the leaves and can denude a bush in a few days. He is tiny, with a dark green and yellow body and a black head; the yellow part is what to look out for; he is a demon at concealment. We were only away for a week last August when he attacked; already he had spun tiny webs al over the hedge and eaten the leaves inside. Now it's a daily inspection, with Pyrethrum (sold as Py) at the ready.
You hear of gardeners panicked by the mere threat, and rooting out their hedges (as Roy Strong did at The Laskett at the onset of box blight). It would be tempting if there were a box substitute; in reality the Ilex crenata, the little berberis and hebe that nurseries propose, let alone the santolina or lavender I see suggested, can only remind us of the timelessness of box. A box wipe-out would be an international catastrophe. I think of great formal parterres and shudder. But we can dwell too much on threats. If every stag-headed oak is a premonition and we start at a dead branch in an ash the risk is that we stop enjoying all the glorious growth around us. Be watchful; be forearmed.
Agapanthus 'Northern Star' . More purple than blue in this photo, but a glorious colour.
And the parterre we squeezed in an awkward sloping trapezoid space between house and barn has acquired authority; you can't imagine the enclosure filled in any other way than with its beds of box, its walls of hornbeam, troughs of hydrangeas and a froth of blue and white flowers. Only the vineyard has gone, to make a paddock. They were right: the wine was never going to be great.
All summer long
Shellwork at Ballymaloe
I tend to think Chilean plants should be rainproof, but E. scaber likes it dry. So does the marvellous Abutilon vitifolium (American name: Flowering Maple!). Its tissue-weight petals, rather on the hollyhock model, in either lavender or pure white, look as though a shower would destroy them, yet I have seen them in rain forest growing with luxuriant Eucryphia and Weinmannia as dense as redwoods.
A wet Ascot makes a good growing season. Just-planted specimens can grow on without check; established ones, even big trees whose hydrology you would think had settled into a pattern a century ago, can react with a surge of lusty shoots the very next day. You think a tree or shrub (or indeed a perennial) has done its spring thing. Then another downpour and away it goes again, the new wood barely able to support the new new wood.
You can see the effect of rain on growth rates, but what about temperature? It has gone down to below 10 degrees C, 'growing temperature', several nights recently - and not got much above all day. Clearly the average temperature is enough to keep things going, but I'm sure when there were two days of sunshine I saw them put on a spurt. I'd love to understand the sensitive mechanism that tells cells what to do.
There’ll be a lot of hacking back to do to keep the paths open this summer.
Tom Stewart Smith models a hard hat
This Edinburgh housewife (her married name was Bishop) was not often at home. Her accounts were written on letters to her sister (there were 44 from Japan, thousands of words in each). How she handled pens, ink and paper on horseback through floods is a wonder in itself. But Japan was just one trip. She explored the USA, by steamboat to Cincinnati and St Louis, then the Great Lakes to Canada. She reports on each emerging city in detail, recounts appalling voyages on the stormy lakes and the paddle-steamer passage down the St Lawrence, shooting rapids where one in eight ships came to grief.
Where else did she go? To Malaya, China, Korea, Persia, Tibet and Australia - each one a volume. Since I found Mrs Bishop on my Kindle, she takes every bus ride with me. TfL has competition.
Mrs Bird, dressed for Manchuria, courtesy of Wikipedia
A terrible photo of Ashwood Nurseries' Hepeticas
A shower at Mount Congreve
Evening at Ballymaloe
What catches the eye? Crocosmias at Bourton House, Gloucestershire
In my timid garden, on a ground of as much green as I can manage on walls of yellow-grey London brick, white is a pretty daring colour. Cream to blue, and pink so long as it's pale, are as emphatic as my delicate sensibilities can entertain. Sometimes I remind myself of Lizzy Bennett's father, who said something like 'A small pullet's egg, lightly boiled, is not unwholesome'. Rather daring, though.
One is out of bounds
astonished on almost every page. Their patterns of flight, their modes of congregation, their return (or even the next generation's return) to the same spot every spring - or sometimes to a different spot, and their apparent reasons for moving house. Which birds take fright at which other birds, how they signal alarm, warnings - keep off my patch - or of course the desire to date.
Here is a snatch of his vivid, limpid writing (here, about ravens), 'The male would come sailing in across the valley, calling repeatedly. He was so big that his arrival seemed to make the hillside shrink around him. He would settle in a tree and the sitting female would fly up to him. And then he would sing to her, a gentle trilling song you would never expect from a member of the crow family, and they would touch beaks tenderly. After that they would launch themselves from the trees and circle together, each flipping over in turn, their calls ringing out across the valley. The pair raised their five young successfully that year. Once they were on the wing, they spread themselves over the hillside trees, calling for food, but soon they began to follow their parents everywhere in a long line, a crocodile in the sky… trying to copy their every move, discovering their domain'.
He enjoys the company of the mammals too: the foxes and badgers, rabbits and pine martens and squirrels, and sheep. But it is what Chaucer called the Parlement of Fowles that draws me in, to a discourse constantly going on around us, from which I am normally excluded.
And then the winding road by St Harmon and Llanidloes and Staylittle, up over high sheep walks and finally over the Mawddwy pass to Cader Idris, the rocky spine of the mountain like a colossal reptile under a brilliant sun. When we reach our woods, the streams are running quietly. Primroses and anemones and violets are fresh under the impossible-to-name green of the larches' first leaves. Bluebells only hint they are coming with specks of violet blue in their rich green carpet. There is a summer's work in the forest to plan.
We went ahead. David was a prominent authority on both heathers and bamboos, which anyone will tell you are among the trickiest areas of taxonomy. His scholarship, his generosity and his garden in Kent were famous. With David's and the Society's contacts it was not too hard to draw in relevant and authoritative articles from the approved specialists in each field, and on each genus. Elspeth Napier, editor of The Garden, took on the task of editing it in what was, I suppose, her spare time. Before long, Caroline Boisset, who now edits the International Dendrology Society Yearbook, came to her aid.
I found a rash publisher (my own, James Mitchell) to produce it, and by sheer good fortune a four-year sponsor who made it viable, a winery-owner, racing driver and owner of an Oklahoma nursery called Greenleaf. His name was Gil Nickel; his winery Far Niente.
In the first number, I attempted a definition of a plantsman. If eminently educated people (women especially) used to be called 'bluestockings', I reasoned that we were out to find greenstockings. Plantsmen and women know who they are. Sadly they are not very numerous, but they communicate, and their capacious brains need nourishment.
There was nothing glamorous about the new publication; in fact it resembled the old RHS Journal in its plain cover. There was one coloured plate; a botanical frontispiece. We published a series of monographs on genera of interest to gardeners, with Arundinaria, I remember, appropriately to David's bamboo passion, as the first. At one point we approached Kew about a merger or marriage with Curtis's Botanical Magazine; in hindsight a bit of cheek, I suppose. But it seemed The RBG and the RHS were never destined to link arms.
The Plantsman kept going for 15 years until the RHS changed its mind and formally adopted it. For some reason they restyled it The New Plantsman; its title from 1994 to 2002. I wasn't privy to the politics, but in 2002 it became The Plantsman again, with Chris Grey-Wilson as editor and colour pictures on every page. Since 2005 Mike Grant has been editor. In 2006 it was named Garden Magazine of theYear.
I can't take credit for the any of the success of recent years. My part was played when I looked Lord Aberconway in the eye and said 'Dash it, we'll go it alone', thirty seven years ago.
The Paris elms by Kensington Palace are a symbol of hope. They may never achieve the majesty of the old high-waisted, full-skirted Field elms they replace - though they have Field elms, Wych elms, and a Himalayan elm in their ancestry - but they will turn rich yellow in autumn, and hopefully, like the old elms, keep that colour till Christmas.
temple or monument went up or had a face-lift. Athens the same; Paris (imagine the mess when Haussmann was bulldozing his boulevardes) and now London. Exhibitionist towers are the mark of our times and we have lost control of where they go or how tacky they look. And a new threat goes beyond tacky: the threat of a ‘garden’ bridge to block London’s most majestic view, the Thames between Westminster and the City. Who in his right mind would try to grow plants on the most exposed possible site?
So I wander the town with my eyes skinned for relics of its past; easy to find in the quiet residential areas of terraces and squares, harder and harder in commercial streets where old buildings, if they have survived thus far, have their ground floors hacked out to make shops and their facades hidden by the banal fascias proclaiming Boots or Tesco.
The Victorian pub on the corner, the calmly handsome Georgian house-front hiding a solicitor's office, the pompous Edwardian stone front of the old Town Hall (now a dance hall), a quirky bit of timbered building or even a war memorial, are precious clues about the past. These are the things that give you a sense of place. And they make me sad that all this history happened and I was not there to see it.
launched shoots long enough to reach the ground and root on our side. A seedling has appeared on the other side of our garden too. The smell is divine, but the threat is manifest.Flowering began in December and is just past its climax. Admittedly there have only been a few nights of frost, but the idea that this is a tender hothouse thing has become absurd.
On our recent visit to California we saw it seeding prolifically, smothering rose bushes and climbing trees; the prettiest picture, but rather alarming. We read plenty of scary things about climate change, but a jasmine attack is something new.
You need shelter from the sea winds here. That was part of the original purpose of the coast redwoods - and their western face can get singed brown by the salt. The steep hillside they shelter reminds me a little of La Mortola on the Riviera; paths that wind gently down in hairpin bends, bringing you close to all the planting. Everywhere you hear the cadence of the cascade and look round to catch a silvery glimpse.
The vegetable gardening is not humdrum either. The sandy soil is built up into beds here and there, formal and straight or in successive curves, in sun or shade, to grow every vegetable I could think of - except asparagus. Too specialized, says Tom, the head gardener. They grow it better on a farm along the coast.
The farmhouse is 'Tuscan', and startlingly realistic, with rooftiles shipped from Tuscany, an olive grove below and lemon terraces above. It could be Siena rather than Hollywood on the other side of the hills. But they have frosts in Tuscany. Here the Pacific is an air-conditioner, sending fog inland when it gets too hot. Or so they tell me.
There is one tree here I would love to plant at home; the luscious pale green and very faintly blushing Cinnamomum camphora that spreads its long branches over many Japanese shrines. It catches your eye in any group of trees, looking edibly tender - which in England, sadly, it is.
Buckeye comes indoors, chez Molly Chappellet
Bridgeman’s drawing of the gardens in 1733 shows the 'quarters' as distinct entities. Those nearer the palace, round the Round Pond ('The Bason’) were all wiggly paths through shrubberies. North of the Palace (where the Duke of Cambridge now lands his helicopter) there were classic geometrical parterres. To the south, very much the lawns with the tree-alleys you see today. Further east, the main avenues have scarcely changed - except in the species of trees.There were open fields: the Horse Quarter, Colt Quarter, Rye Grass Quarter and Temple Quarter. Between the Round Pond and Kensington Road was the Old Pond Quarter where there was another pond (and there is now a spring).
This is the plan that is being maintained today as faithfully as possible – including the long grass and seedlings. Avenues are the trickiest part. Tree-managers are constantly faced with decisions about whether to replace old trees that fall or die or become unsafe. Should they use the same species (usually yes) or admit that a gradual change-over would be better in the long run? The Broad Walk, for example, was given an inner line of Norway maples (the outer is lime) fifty years ago. People love their early flowers and yellow autumn colour. But the squirrels love their bark and destroy the upper trunk. Squirrel control? Tell that to the tourists.
The maples will, in due course, be replaced - probably with sessile oaks. Originally lime and oak, elm and sweet chestnut were the principal trees. The planes and sadly ailing horse chestnuts are mainly Victorian planting - and thank heaven for the planes; since the elms died (there was more elm in Hyde Park) planes are by far the grandest trees. The grandest are in the main north-south avenue, with the Statue of Physical Energy at its centre, known as the Lancaster Gate Walk. There is an amusing anomaly here. When the Albert Memorial was built, in 1870, it obviously called for an avenue, but the existing one was out of alignment with it. The answer was to 'splice' on two new lines of trees to link with the existing ones: hence two converging avenues (and a magnificent cluster of planes) at the Memorial end. No one talks of replacing these trees: if they look tired the gardeners give them a boost, aerate their roots and spread mulch in a wide circle round their trunks.
Limes are now coming to the fore as the dominant species – at least in numbers. Last year, 50-odd new limes were planted; very noticeably in 'The Great Bow' round the Round Pond. They are very noticeable on Bridgeman's plan, too. Plus ça change.
Current residents of the Round Pond
Anticipation is so important. Excitement as each bud opens and flowers gradually make their appearance. But what if you are looking forward to a concert and you keep hearing the soloists, with no warning, loosing off in the street, under your window, out of context? In the end, there is no concert; they have all sung their hearts out and have nothing left to give. That's what I fear. Last year Bonfire Night dragged on for weeks as people let off their fireworks whenever they felt like it. I don't want to see spring dissipated, limping along week after week.
Every gardener will have his own tale of cock-eyed timing. Roger Taylor of Taylor's Bulbs tells me that his Lincolnshire daffs started flowering in sync with Cornwall's - spoiling both their markets. There is hawthorn in leaf in roadside hedgerows. And my own: Pelargonium x ardens, the fiery-red one that sprawls over its neighbours in late summer, has shot straight up three feet like a tree sapling and is flowering in the apex of the greenhouse roof.
Quieter, just as loving: Melbourne Hall by George Elgood 1892
Look at the quality of colour we accepted in those days. It was muddy, frequently blurred when the four-colour process didn't quite click, and none of the colours was true. Still, we thought it better than black and white. There is a quantum leap between 1970s printing and the standard we expect today.
A relentless succession of glossy garden books has never ceased to appear, and I seemed to acquire most of them. And they grew (and still grow) heavier every year. It wasn't until we moved house and I tried to sell them that I discovered they have no value - at least as "pre-loved" goods. No dealer even wanted to carry them out of the house. It was a pity; they contained wonderful images and many memories. Here in London they are simply un-houseable. Thank goodness, then, for the Internet: it isn't exactly a substitute for shiny pages, but it can handle memories and, more than that, satisfy all sorts of curiosity.
Like an idiot (and lots of other gardeners) I took this as a sort of divine command, or at least a pretty strong hint, not to try growing them again - and so missed their company unnecessarily for the next 30 years. You find out that a plant is tender when it dies; meanwhile you should enjoy it. It may be a gardener's pleasure, but it is certainly not a duty, to keep everything alive year after year.
Then we came to London, and now take for granted that cafes have tables on the pavement all year round and most pub drinking is outdoors - things unheard of a generation ago. So yes, it's got much warmer. Is it global? Is it our fault? Is there anything we can do about it? However sketchy the evidence, vox pop says yes. What would it have said if the predictions of the '80s had looked likely to come true?
Erica lusitanica; midwinter in the Isabella Plantation
A letter in The Times lists what is in flower in Cornwall: the whole garden, it appears. In London the picture is quite different: confusion reigns. Jasminum polyanthum is flowering high on our east wall but not in the greenhouse, where its buds are not even showing their preliminary purple. Our Camellia ‘Top Hat’, often in flower by Christmas, has only opened two of its pink blooms. In Kensington Gardens I haven't yet seen a narcissus in flower; just the mechanical patterns of municipal polyanthus and a peep of Iris here and there.
Smells of tripe
breaking surf of toppling herbs. She baked cakes, made hedgerow jam and, bit by bit, took over vineyard duties from our less-motivated vigneron. The grapes glowed, their leaves perked up and signs of mildew faded when she bore down on them. A year later she had read the wine-making books and started edging me out of the cellar. I think she loved the saccharometer, the tall glass jar with its bobbing float; the fermenting froth was pretty exciting too - and the wine not bad at all.
Her Open Garden attracts the idle and curious, of course, as they do everywhere. In France, though, the second element, the charitable contribution, is sometimes less well received. Hermione tells me of a group of seven who pitched up full of horticultural anticipation, and then read the sign about the children's charity. 'I think they hit the cultural buffer,' she said when they turned back to their car.
A papal cypress
I can spend unurgent hours planning to install a new plant or move an old one, deciding between, for example, this clematis and that for a niche that suddenly seems to need one. Spring? Summer? Late Summer? C. Montana? (too big); Perle d'Azur? (first choice, but already on another wall); a later viticella? (I fondly remember a sprawling Alba luxurians at Saling Hall).
Happily, that niche only has an inadequate little cissus in it; it won't be solid with competing roots. To put a new one on the opposite wall won't be so easy. A long-established Viburnum x burkwoodii is the main occupant of this stretch, and a valuable one too for its early carnation-smelling flowers and the lustrous healthy-looking evergreenery I tie in to the trellis to screen the neighbours. Planting among woody roots is risky, but a Daphne odora Aureomarginata has got away splendidly beside the viburnum and a rose 'Bantry Bay', after a struggle, has fair-sized shoots. I'm determined to install an Abutilon vitifolium close by, too. They are speedy little trees, capable of a yard a year, so we should see a quick result.
That leaves the rose, still to be chosen, near where I know a Cotoneaster horizontalis must do most of its feeding. I shall use my sharp steel spade (a present from Felix Dennis, when we planted his millionth tree together) and be lavish with manure.
Meanwhile daily operations resume, picking fallen leaves out of beds, cutting down spent geraniums, deciding whether to leave a foxglove seedling - am I certain its white? - snipping ivy from around the wall-lights, shifting pots of box, wall flowers, ferns and tulips around their too-small stage.
had to take this into account. And of course and above all the weather (which for London gardens included filthy air); the 17th century ended with winters that repeatedly froze the Thames. The Italian cypress gave way to the newly-discovered Irish yew.
John Evelyn in the 17th century and Gilbert White in the 18th were natural historians who epitomize the genre. Women play a far greater part than most accounts allow. Some are as prominent as the Queen or as talented as Mary Delany or the German Maria Sybilla Merian, others like the duchesses of Portland and Beaufort were insatiable collectors and botanists, amateur scientists making important contributions to botany. Ducal grandeur must have been overwhelming. Her Grace of Beaufort gardened 15 acres in Chelsea (where Beaufort Street is now) and at Badminton counted sixty avenues .
Mark Laird follows his characters in microscopic detail,and sets them firmly in the life of their times. Who were their friends? What nurserymen did they patronise and befriend? When and how did they travel? The book is richly and beautifully illustrated with botanical paintings and drawings, portraits and topographical engravings - a gallery of references so generously captioned that you can flit back and forth across the subject cross-pollinating ideas. You may be sitting at this for a long time.
Our local Holland Park is good at this. I've just watched the crew bringing thousands of tulip bulbs and planting thousands of primulas to overwinter in precisely dressed array. Much the same locals come to enjoy the benches under the sunny walls of the old formal garden of Holland House every day. They will be critical.
The Royal Parks have been on top form this year with summer bedding: St James's Park in particular was boldly exotic – I’ll admit I don’t even know the names of half the plants given an outing from the greenhouse. Now they’ll be busy with their trowels dressing the beds for the winter. We may think of this kind of gardening as dated; a Victorian survival. But let's salute the ingenuity and industry involved and enjoy its high-flavoured results.
The Nymans connection is via the Messels. Sambourne’s daughter married Leonard Messel, the creator of Nymans garden; their daughter Anne married David Armstrong-Jones (and secondly the Earl of Rosse). Her son Anthony married Princess Margaret. Their son David took his great grandfather's name as his courtesy title until he becomes Earl of Snowdon.
Trad doesn't usually do this Tatler stuff. But living in a house on the same model as the Sambournes, and discovering it only four streets away, I couldn't resist conjuring up a vision of home life a hundred years ago. At least they had Nymans and its gardens to escape to.
My camera couldn't cope with the low light so I borrowed this photo of the drawing room, courtesy of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and the Sambourne family
to come off to keep it within reasonable bounds for us and our neighbours. I secretly hope a big west wind will attack it soon so at least some of the leaves land in our neighbours' gardens. We've already filled half a dozen bin bags.The branches, when we cut them, will make a pile the size of a small car - all of which we have to ferry through a house to get to the street. To have no side passage and no back gate is a serious disadvantage - but typical of huggermugger Victorian development. I hate to think what it was like when there was a dunny in the back yard.
This year with luck we can use our neighbour's house for the portage to the road; it will still be a building site as it has been for over a year. Only another twelve months to go, they assure us.
This is by far the biggest cedar I know in London
something that inspires them or piques their interest, on television, in a magazine or at a flower show. They see a 'gap' and make the mistake of filling it: does it call for an urn, or a shrub with strident variegation? In the process, they lose track of their original concept, realise that football takes precedence over potatoes, or netball over roses. They eventually grow stiff with age, give up digging and read up on alpines.
The answer to the question 'what is your garden for?' eventually emerges. It is to fill part of your life not covered by work, or satisfied by news - or even by your family. Does it have a spiritual dimension? Poetic or artistic might be a fitter word. What it does do is make you pay attention to the routines of nature - which is surely an excellent purpose in itself.
Most of the exhibitors are sheltered by ancestral trees; some shivered by the château
The sub-text of 'relaxed' is that you're in charge - if only of yourself. You have mastered the situation. You know the rules well enough to ignore them. Rules? Sports have them, but does the rest of life? There are laws and being relaxed about them can get you three points on your licence. But for most of us, white wine before red is as far as etiquette goes. Cheese before pud? We should be relaxed about that; though oddly it is one thing that gets serious society, dining-out society, uptight.
All this is prelude to a gardening question. What is the admiring epithet to use about a gardener whose garden is, shall we say, relaxed? Perhaps in his day 'Capability' Brown was considered relaxed. Surely doing away with straight lines, 'jumping the fence' and so forth, was relaxing. 'Damn braces, bless relaxes", wrote William Blake. Did he never edge his lawns?
You can see shades of it in Battersea Park, where the Festival gardens are being restored. You can even detect it in some of Russell Page's designs. Its fundamental rigidity, though, its over-strict self-discipline, is foreign to our native gardening instincts. We are eclectic. If there is a plant we fancy, we find a place for it. We put a table and chairs where we want our drinks, and hang the designer.Tunnard's book follows the history of English gardening since the Landscape Movement of the 18th Century, and doesn't like most of it. He picks on Joseph Addison for a start. Addison wrote "gardens are works of art, therefore they rise in value according to the degree of their resemblance to nature". That was certainly the way painting or sculpture was judged in those days - or in fact until Picasso put two fingers up to nature. It is worth reading Tunnard on the resulting confusion, leading to the Victorians and 'their glorious, gaudy botch'.
2016 is apparently 'the year of Capability Brown'. We are all to celebrate 'the creation of the English landscape as we know it'. Landscape, perhaps; garden, no.
blue sky. The paving has remained fashionably dark grey and the plants green, their leaves luxuriating and their flowers not bothering to open. There have been a few indifferent to the weather. Clematis viticella is cheerfully red at the top of the wall, white phlox at the bottom, a hairy zonal pelargonium I don't like but which still flowers in deep pink anyway. Surprisingly Salvia patens soldiers on, its intense blue extremely effective in the shade. Anemone 'Honorine Jobert' is struggling, agapanthus is slow but steady, Solanum jasminoides album outrageous. Luckily our neighbours seem to accept its invasion.
A lovely surprise: Acidanthera (five bulbs in a goody bag from the RHS at Chelsea) has opened eight spectacular white and purple and sweet-smelling stars high among its gladiolus leaves. And wonder of wonders; Meyer's Lemon, now 30 years in its pot, on the north-facing verandah where no direct sunlight has reached it in three years, has ripened a dozen perfect lemons and is starting to flower again.
Perhaps less surprising, but worth recording: in the shady greenhouse Gardeners Delight, the sweetest of all tomatoes, is delivering a fair crop of its little scarlet fruit.
I'm never sure whether the ground flora is properly called garrigue or maquis; I think it depends on whether the soil is acid or alkaline. This is limestone, and relatively fertile to judge by the thickness of the scrub, the height of some of the trees and the number of seedlings. Where it thins out and bare patches appear I'm told we can put it down to allelopathy (related, perhaps, to allergy); the effect plants can have of inhibiting their rivals for space or nutrients through their roots, their volatile components (there are plenty here, with resinous leaves in hot sun) or by what happens when their leaves decompose on the ground. I'd heard of juglone, the unfriendly substance produced by black walnuts; and eucalyptus often seems to poison the soil around, but didn't know the same was true of so many components of maquis (or garrigue). The effect, in any case, is the scratchy scattering of scented plants that includes the prickly little kermes oak, juniper, cistus, mastic (aka lentiscus), thyme, lavender and masses of rosemary.
We have been able to salvage several remnants of the old woodland by felling and removing the conifers, but they are a pitiable sight. We plant new broadleaves, oak and beech, among the scrawny old trees, hoping our piety will be rewarded. Conifers are so fertile, though, that their self-sown offspring outgrow our new plantations - and weeding them out is a painful process. Larches I don't mind (and in fact I love the pale, fragile-looking saplings; being deciduous they are less of a challenge to broadleaves). Sitka, Douglas fir, the useless lodgepole pine, the handsome but economically hopeless western hemlock and the worse-than-useless Lawson cypress are just pests.
The other perennial pest is bracken. It seems much more invasive since foot and mouth disease drastically reduced the number of livestock on the land. It covers stretches of hill that were grass with heather and bilberries with its dull blanket. It has always been a problem here in Snowdonia. Farmers' letters and diaries of two hundred years ago complain of the August drudgery of cutting and gathering it - at least it made good bedding - under the hot sun. They didn't know as they breathed its dust and spores that they are carcinogenic. The one herbicide that kills it is difficult to obtain and difficult to apply. And yet the hills are beautiful. I climb them to look out into the wind and the clouds towards Ireland and feel grateful to be alive.
Meanwhile news comes in from friend after friend in London; serious infestations. The moth must be a fast flyer - it seems to land everywhere. I continue to spray - specially inside the plants. I wear rubber gloves and tease the branches apart to spray the inner branches. Encouragingly there seem to be quite a lot of new leaves sprouting nearer the trunk. If the pest has taken a break for the winter I'd love to know where it's hiding.
STOP PRESS A gardener in Provence has been fighting the caterpillar with pheromone moth traps (yellow, sticky) and regular speaying
To do them justice the twenty Bulgarian workmen who assemble every morning at seven in our neighbour's garden are a cheerful crowd and seem to work as fast and as tidily as they can. What they would do without a pretty big garden as their assembly point, canteen and depot I can't imagine; there certainly isn't room in the street.But the rage for basements is out of control. In the next street one terrace house is in a basement sandwich with hoardings up on both sides and lorries queuing to cart off their neighbours' rubble. The Council? They are hamstrung, they say, by the Party Wall Act. They can't disallow 'development' - or even police it. Not enough enforcement staff…. there are plenty of excuses.
We've visited a couple of basement developments. One consisted of eight featureless rooms, all painted this season's grey, dubbed 'Media Room', 'Gym', 'Office', 'Bedroom', 'Wet Room', 'Meditation Area'. Upstairs was a perfectly nice Victorian house - until they took our all the cornices, mouldings and everything that gave it character - and of course painted it all grey. Gardening? The developers opposite used a crane to heave four mature Italian cypresses right over the house to plant then in the diminutive back garden. They died, unwatered, within six weeks. And what happens underground in a power cut?
It's all justified, it seems, by the price of any space in London. Add 1,000 square feet, even underground, and you'll be in pocket for more than twice what it costs. Your neighbours can lump it; that's what the Act says.
the leaf, that do most of the damage. They protect themselves with something like a fine miniature spider's web while they're at it. They eat whole box leaves or leave the skeleton; in any case defoliating the plant and ruining its appearance for - how long? In some cases there are signs of new leaves growing out, but one must presume that the damage is debilitating and could end in dead box.
At first it's not easy to spot. There are often little brown patches after trimming a hedge. But look closely: the little webs are not hard to see. It spreads quickly; there's no time to waste when you see it. Look at the RHS website; it's not particularly encouraging.
There's just room for a little lawn
I would never dare plant things as close together as Roy does. He packs a whole botanical garden into a typical suburban one. It looks busy, of course, but still in the way Loudon called 'gardenesque'. One trick is persuading shrubs to climb the house walls, encouraging them with supports, then clothing them with a climber or two - underplanted with two or three other rareties. The monster honeysuckle, Lonicera hildebrandiana, has shot up and needs hacking back from a bedroom window.
missed its election as HHS/Christies Garden of the Year in 2007 and was caught unawares by its quality, its mastery of palettes and idioms, from some of the coolest to quite the hottest borders I have seen, from severity in topiary to a box parterre like a nest of serpents, from placid pastoral to hothouse exotic. Does a bird of such bright plumage in the calm of the Cotswolds conform to the rule that gardens should reflect and interpret their surroundings?
Another chance encounter was Minster Lovell. The name on the signpost was somehow familiar, but at first the sign seemed a wrong steer; the lane led only to an isolated church - if a fine one. Behind the church, though, was a revelation: the pale ruined towers of a medieval mansion on the green riverbank of the Windrush. How rare it is to find an important monument these days uncluttered by signs and gift-shops, not a teapot in sight. This is the mansion the Coke family left behind to establish themselves in Norfolk at Holkham. It is not a violated abbey, just a great house left without a roof. Why?
English Heritage deserves a prize for its sign, a brief history of the house with Opening Times: "Any Reasonable Time". Nowadays such a non-prescriptive notice is a rare sight.
So I got out the hose and sprayed the whole place; drenched it all over - an hour's work the other night. How effective my artificial rain was I shall never know; it's been stair-rodding down all day.
Later: how does steady rain have a totally different effect from watering? You can fill pots to the brim regularly, but the day after a downpour they look quite different, more buoyant, ready to perform. Is it the atmosphere, the pressure, the humidity?
Quercus exceptional, a Berkshire native
Broad York-stone paths link the elements: formal to woodland to glasshouses and pools. And it is as though the fertile earth below resents their weight. Self-sewn volunteers push up between the slabs and are carefully edited, so that here verbascums, there agapanthus or daisies or campanulas embroider the grey stone.
Note to supermarkets: please label our strawberries (and indeed all our fruit) with the name of the variety as well as where it's grown. And don't harvest strawberries by cutting off their stalks and leaving just the green ring of bracts. You need the stalk to pull out the central plug when you put the strawberry, crunchy with sugar, in your mouth.
Who said, incidentally, 'the raspberry is the thinking man's strawberry'? Discuss.
The RHS has given an AGM to a mere five (the nectarines are 'Lord Napier' and 'Early Rivers', the peaches 'Duke of York', 'Peregrine' and 'Rochester'). Look for the name of the variety in a supermarket: the country of origin is usually all we're told. The truth is we don't have librarians who predegust or gardeners knocking at their doors. The supermarket buyer predegusts, or certainly should, but is more concerned with price and shelf-life. If a pear needs an alarm clock to announce its fifteen minutes of perfection you won't find it at Waitrose.
What you do find these days is flat peaches - a happy sport of the ancient fruit that suits both shops and customer (and even waiters: they don't roll off the plate). Flat peaches grow on the branch face to face, like headphones - another of Chinese nature's endless repertory of brainwaves. Their flesh is as sweet and juicy as any peach (so juicy there is apparently one variety you can drink with a straw; Louis XVIII would be in raptures). They pack perfectly, tighter than round fruit, to please the carrier. There is even, so I read, a nectarine or fuzz-free kind, though not yet at Waitrose in Kensington. Its name is Mésembrine. My father used to call peach-fuzz 'goobra feathers'. He wasn't in favour: definitely a nectarine man. What advance can we hope for next, since we're doing so well?
The hardest peach to find in a shop is the pêche des vignes, the profusely juicy red-fleshed kind that ripens as late as the grapes in the vineyards where you usually find it planted. It gives the vigneron, they say, an early warning of mildew in the air. You need a bath after eating them, but if by some miracle a flat and fuzz-free sport appeared I'd certainly have a word with Waitrose.
The Piet Oudolf garden at Bruton belongs firmly in the present, Oudolf was given a sloping field beside the new Hauser & Wirth art gallery (whose restaurant, a sort of tidied-up Petersham Nurseries in Skye Gingell’s day, vaut le détour). Oudolf, as everyone knows, plants abstracts with sinuous blocks of "prairie" plants. There are no impediments to your eyes wandering over a vast field - nor any plan, it seems to me, in the paths wandering round the beds. You can romanticize about the sense of space, the breadth of the sky, the movement of the wind in the (many) grasses. The two garden essentials of shelter and seclusion are totally absent. Do they (as I half suspect) represent, to a right-on modern world, infected with socialism, the privileges of privacy - or indeed the privacy of privilege?
forests? (Yes). What about the notorious and mysterious phenomenon of 'Summer Branch Drop', when a major branch parts company with its tree without warning, for no perceptible cause? For some (or no) reason this happens most often in June, July or August. There is even a superstition that the time to stay away from trees is on July 22 and 23. Tree professionals prefer to let S.B.D stand for Sudden, rather than Summer, Branch Drop - not having a clue how it relates to a particular season.
We spent the afternoon on a practical tree-inspection tour of the arboretum, following Kew's three-stage system: first walk (or even drive) by at 3 mph with your eyes skinned, looking for broken or split branches, splits in trunks, signs of weeping or surface fungi. This you should do as often as possible, within reason. The second stage is to come back and examine what you spotted. Carry a mallet to tap the trunk for hollow resonance and an iron rod to prod the base for soft wood. Take action as needed: cut unsafe branches straight away.
Stage three is for when you can't tell, or decide, because the problem is hidden inside. This is when the expensive toys come out: an electronic device called a Picus Sonic Tomograph that reads the speed of sound-waves through the trunk to build up a picture of the interior. You hit a nail at intervals round the tree; the sound travels fast through sound wood, slowly through rotten wood and not at all through hollow cavities. The rule of thumb is that if one-third of the trunk is solid the tree can stand. Less than that means the chop.
Of course other factors come into it. A hazard (the possibility of something going wrong) is not the same as a risk (the chances of it doing damage). There is obviously more risk where more people congregate, by a path or a road, then in the middle of a wood. Your action can be proportional to the risk, so when a grand old specimen by a path begins to look a bit wonky Tony Kirkham's first step is to move the path. More people walk on short grass than long, so he lets the grass grow or creates a wide circle of mulch around the trunk (which is also, of course, good for the tree). There is obviously a degree of proportionality in the precautions you must take - but the fact remains, the buck stops with you.
And you must contemplate the possibility of extreme bad luck: the Kew cedar branch not only brought down two others, but a huge chunk of wood bounced. The poor girl was six metres outside the radius of the tree.
It was a landmark case. Not long afterwards the National Trust was able to use the same defence of regular inspection and records. But it sent a shudder through the gathering. We all went home to brush up our logbooks.
Meanwhile in the country at large field after field, scattered among vineyard plots, are strange orchards of elder trees on short trunks, explosions of creamy-white blossom, in long straight rows. When you see a crop repeated country-wide at random the reason is usually a government subsidy. But what can Hungary do with so many elderberries?
Ambiguous robinia in Tokaj
One other garden challenged for the Trad Award: the complete contrast of James Basson’s Occitane garden representing the scents of Provence, a little olive grove in a dell, watered by a shining runnel made of rough tufa blocks and splashing into two tufa tanks. In one corner stood a lavoir; a simple shed, also of grey tufa unadorned, playing the cool and shady part a grotto would play in a grander garden. It was a happy idea to dig the whole area to a lower level so the crowds peered down into it.
James Basson (we have worked together in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, on my son in law's garden) knows when to stop. There is bare earth here, ready for more planting; you sense the humble gardener is just taking a break round the corner. There is enough decoration and detail in a scattering of flowers and the intricate shadows of the olive trees on a little table and chairs. Pastis would probably be the drink in such a tranquil unpretentious corner of Provence.
A chunk of Chatsworth
hybrid, and whether 'public' money should be spent on it. The cycling lobby is furious that you can’t bike over it; the disabled that it won't (or rather wouldn’t) be wheelchair-friendly, and everybody that it would effectively be another commercial space for holding events, closable at will, and not a proper public bridge at all.
I made the point that it is a crazy place to put a garden. Artist's mock-ups show it as a sort of park with full-sized trees. What tree would grow properly in what is essentially a long thin planter exposed to every wind that blows? The essence of a garden is shelter, seclusion, and space to linger. The plans show the bridge would have none of these. At busy times it could be like the Chelsea Flower Show; necks craning to see any plants at all.
But the greatest objection of all, overriding all other considerations, is the casual way that Boris, his friend Joanna and their star designer, Thos Heatherwick, would override the history that has created London's greatest spectacle; the grey tideway of the Thames hurrying, dawdling, rising and falling between its gritty beaches, its monumental banks and its serious, grownup bridges. They would stick their folly in the finest view of all with, as The Times wrote, 'all the elegance of a Saudi prince's gilded loo' - and just as much relevance.
There is a judicial review of Boris's unorthodox procedures scheduled for June. Money is needed to pay for it. Please visit the TCOS website and make a contribution.
So, today, I have planted six things, fed all the pots, taken cuttings of salvias and fuchsias and pelargoniums, fed the agapanthus, restrained the solanum, shown roses and clematis which way to go, clipped box hedges, spread manure, given the vine weevil something nasty, and changed my mind ten times.
I'm not, I fear, the most realistic gardener. I plant things that I know will grow too big (that solanum, for one). I dream that miserably unsuitable and sickly plants will recover, that dust is fertile and shade sunny, and that, as Christopher Lloyd once crushingly said, all my geese are swans. And it hasn't taught me a thing.
At the same time I'm timid. I imagine new schemes but don't do anything about them. I stick to plants I know; a better variety is out there, I expect, but I love the original. 'New' is my least favourite word: the catalogue goes straight in the bin. I'm upset by change for change's sake. When they altered 'them' (that trespass against us) to 'those' I wrote to the archbishop.
We stay in this wonderful survivor of a garden each time we come to Wales to walk in our woods. In early May, with luck, we watch our blue rhododendrons and the little Welsh bluebells in bloom together under the grass-green canopy of beech and larch. Welsh bluebells, at least in Snowdonia, are tiny, and almost royal blue. Rhododendron augustinii ranges from blue-grey to purple, a small-leaved open plant which is inherently graceful - and with royal blue and grass-green, when the clouds part, a sight I happily cross the country to see.
And the garden? It belongs to a comfortable country house hotel with kind hosts, friendly staff, delicious food, and wine at modest prices. Only its name causes stress: Penmaenuchaf Hall.
texture. Just now some Viola labradorica (not really blue, I know) is flowering in crevices where the seed has lodged. It is right beside a primrose. That little duo is a jewel.They come and go, these little treats. Persistence is not their strength (though primroses go on and on). But so do I come and go; what matters is that I notice them again and again, and each time get a thrill. Is this 'mindfulness'? It’s a quite different pleasure, and attitude, from the repeated leisurely - and of course critical - survey of carefully planned borders.
The ceanothus is in flower, and so are the pale yellow wallflowers I cut back last year. A pulmonaria is almost gentian blue. And the amazing tulip Ballerina is flaming orange, with just enough yellow at the tips of its pointed petals to count. It stands two foot six high (I've just measured it), its flowers held vertical on the end of its long swooping stems. Why amazing? Because unique among tulips - as far as I know - it has a scent, somewhere between freesias and apricots. Andrew Marvell wrote 'Make that the tulip may have share of sweetness, Seeing she is fair'. God (or a Dutchman) listened
Over Robinson's wall
I don't know. Many certainly have curving walls to the north to trap the heat. But this is like an elaborate enamel brooch, the centre striped with different vegetables and the circumference ringed with soft fruit and wall-trained trees,
Tom Coward has written in Country Life about the logistics of gardener and chef working in tandem. Whether it always goes perfectly to plan or not, it is part of the romantic horticultural dream that Gravetye represents.
curiosities, long left to their own devices, now being carefully restored and replenished by an evidently inspired new and local gardener-botanist, Claude Antoniazzi.
It is still early in the season. Ceanothus and the spires of echiums are blue, a wide slope by the villa is a sea of orange-red chasmanthe from South Africa, spidery little flowers on iris underpinnings, but not much is yet in flower, and a great deal not yet in leaf. Spring on the Riviera is no match for a northern spring, the breaking of an iron grip, the restoration of green to a bare landscape. It is another phase in a cycle of benevolence, now gently under way.
The picture that has changed most, perhaps, is in town on the market stalls, now piled high with every plant that's good to eat. Beautiful little yellow potatoes, mounds of dewy spinach, tomatoes from miniature to deep-grooved monsters, bunches of little turnips, white tinged purple, onions of all sizes, red and white, beans like green matchsticks, cucumbers and courgettes, carrots scrubbed and gleaming, white garlic and chicory and mushrooms, beetroots in leafy bunches, six kinds of lettuce, mesclun, rocket, herbs, artichokes, aubergines and avocados, asparagus from the Durance just up the road. Everything proudly labeled 'France'. No kale. France rightly eschews curly Scottish cabbage as cattle fodder.
A surprise at the entrance: huge plants of Rosa chinensis Spontanea, pink, white and red; the same rose we saw flowering in the Chelsea Physick Garden in February, going by the name of R odorata. The Chinese name might be more reliable….
The Conservatory of Flowers
pattern. The tier-potential is there but you have to tease it out, year after year, with your secateurs. The leaves are smaller, on red stalks, mottled with white instead of cream and charmingly twisted. Given the space it can hold the stage, but it doesn't bawl for attention. Cornus mas, our Cornelian cherry, and its Japanese equivalent, C. officinalis, are discreetly charming, too, claiming the limelight only for their precocious yellow flowers and autumn leaves. The star of this division is 'Elegantissima', the white-variegated version of C. mas. It's slow: it took fifteen years to become considerable at Saling Hall, admittedly in deep shade, but then its October show of brilliant red fruit among the delicate pale leaves was worth the wait.
I came to the 'flowering' dogwoods rather late in life, wrongly believing they only really worked in America. It was the Chinese dogwood, C. kousa chinensis, that opened my eyes; a pair of small trees flanking a woodland path at Saling. Neighbours came round in early June to discuss the relative merits of the one with its creamy sepals opened flat and the one where they stood up to attention. Their leaves turned different colours in autumn too, yet as far as I know they were both K.c.c. Many dogwoods, American ones especially, outgun them in size and colour of flowers. Those of Cornus 30-8 'Venus', a cross between C. kousa and C. nuttallii from California, are startling enough to shatter the peace of any woodland glade.
For our London garden, though, there is no playing with such grandiose ideas. The all-purpose Cormus we have here is the modest no-flowers-to- speak-of C. sibirica 'Elegantissima'. In winter its stems glow a warm red in the light of a lamp I focus on it. In summer its white variegation is perfect in a sunless corner. There are brighter-coloured stems: 'Midwinter fire' is an eye-catcher, and I've always liked the yellow 'Flaviramea'. But the leaves are the clincher. In a tight dark corner a true dual-purpose plant like this beats all the aristos of the family.
What is its purpose? To add to the tourist attractions that make, for example, Bridge Street at Parliament Square a squalid jam of people and pushchairs and cameras. Picture the steps up to the Garden Bridge lined with hotdog and postcard stands. Picture the squads of Chinese tourists we must apparently encourage if London is to prosper. And shudder.
The bridge is proposed to join the Temple to the South Bank. The Temple is the only serene space on the embankment (ironically the site of the RHS Great Spring Show before the First World War). The South Bank is already a tourist circus. In a successful city, presumably, serene spaces are just unmarketed opportunities.
What is worst, though, is the impact of the bridge on London's greatest view, the one Wordsworth celebrated: the great grey tideway itself. Nothing is more elemental and nothing more urban than the Thames passing between its embankments and foreshores and under the monumental bridges between Westminster and Tower Bridge, and the ceaseless water traffic using it. To interrupt it with a line of greenery would be like putting window boxes on St Paul's.
Meanwhile the budget of Kew Gardens has been cut so deep that fifty botanists have been ‘let go’. If there are millions to spend on gardening the actress and the mayor must not be allowed to waste it.
hole is a hole, and the diggers and the concrete mixers, the big white box on the pavement, the lorries, the noise and the dirt are a fact of life. So is the looming risk of cracks in the party wall or worse. What happens if power cuts become endemic is an unasked question. A corner candle shop? Our neighbours, though, have an immediate problem. Removing the plaster from their flank wall (it's the last house in the terrace) revealed serious cracks. The whole wall, says the Council, must be demolished; effectively only a massive Virginia creeper is holding it together. That means the roof has to go - and the back wall, it seems, too. Its lusty wisteria, checked in its climbing only by the height of the chimneys, has already had the chop. We will be living next to a void, with only the stuccoed façade as a neighbour.
The scaffolding is just as imposing from the garden. You don't see it from our windows, but looking back from the greenhouse end I try to persuade myself that in a moment of whimsy I commissioned a pagoda. Meanwhile the neighbours’ garden is like an unnaturally house-proud mining camp. On fine days the miners sit around, speaking a language not distant, to my ears, from Russian, outside their gemütlich little dacha. Why should they care that under their feet, under the flooring they installed, a terrible menace is advancing across the garden towards ours?
How do you extricate phyllostachys from the roots of a mature walnut? We may become experts when the miners move on.
I'm thinking shrubby; something that will earn its space, with its back to the west-facing, plant-covered wall, with a jumble of herbaceous stuff in front. The neighbour's walnut takes most of the afternoon sun. I look in the shrubs-for-shade lists. Of course most of them are evergreen. And no thank you, I don't want Forsythia: or anything early - or anything yellow. In this garden roses belong on the walls (and indeed way above them). London is not rhodoland - though it is the epicentre of camellias. I have mulled over Japanese maples, but their spread would preclude planting close to them (and we have a beauty, a Saling seedling) in a pot. Viburnum? The best is V. burkwoodii, which we already have trained up a wall. Bodnantense? Our neighbours have a huge one (which we love). V. tinus stinks. V. opulus "Compactum" is possible: not thrilling, but pretty in autumn with turning leaves and shiny berries.
Callicarpa bodinieri is a possibility. Would it flower and produce its alarmingly- coloured berries in the shade? One to put on the short list. Would a deutzia perform? How about Dichroa febrifuga, a dark-blue-flowered hydrangeish thing we saw in New Zealand? It would be lovely to have, but it comes (if you can find it) with scary health warnngs. Holodiscus discolor: there's an idea. Something that ornaments Douglas fir forests on Puget Sound doesn't sound very urban, and certainly doesn't have conventional petalled flowers. But its tall arching stems and its little oaky leaves (one of its past names was quercifolia) would look graceful, and its long buff tassel flowers, like a spirea, are exceptionally elegant, turn brown and ornament the winter too. To be considered. Cornus: now there's a family….
To be resumed.
gardeners, from Princess Augusta and poor Fred, Prince of Wales, down the long avenue of celebrated names: Bute, Banks. Hookers sr and jr, Thistleton-Dyer (Tony's favourite, though a martinet. He wore a dashing uniform), Dallimore, WJ Bean….and Kirkham. Tony has been capo of the arboretum since 2002, totally immersed and most eloquent about his charges.The progress of Kew from a minor royal garden with a mere 5 acres of arboretum to its 300 acre splendour today makes a good story - especially since half a dozen of the original trees planted in the 1760s are still there, feted as 'the Old Lions' and propped and botoxed-up as necessary.
The most wonky, now lying on its side, is the original Pagoda Tree, recently relabelled Styphnolobium japonicum, though Sophora japonica to you and me. What an indignity, handing it a 5-syllable genus at its time of life. What tin ears botanists sometimes have - or in this case the Viennese publication that got in first with a name in 1830. Surely the label should at least acknowledge the name it bore for most of its existence here. There could be an acronym, FKA (formerly known as) or even TYAM (to you and me). The other Old Lions, considerably less mangy than the first, are the oriental plane, the original ginkgo, the huge Zelkova from the Caucasus and the Robinia or False Acacia, named for Jean Robin, director of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris (who presumably got in first).
Princess Augusta might be nonplussed to find some of her old trees growing where they do. Shifting them around has long been a practice at Kew. When the Duke of Argyll, another acquisitive dendrologist, died, his nephew Lord Bute took a gigantic horse-drawn wagon and helped himself (or rather Kew) to the best trees on Argyll's Richmond estate - including the robinia.
would contribute to gardening, making the distribution of seeds and cuttings possible as it had never been before. The nobility, and even commonplace millionaires, were investing in more and more ambitious gardens, nurserymen were flourishing and plant hunters ranging further than ever. And yet, in January 1840, the government announced it was closing down the royal gardens at Kew. All the plants were offered to the Horticultural Society - at a price. The Society declined; they were offered gratis to anyone who would take them away. And the greenhouses were to be demolished.
Strange, I think, that Paxton's boss, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, with his house at Chiswick, just between Kew and the Horticultural Society's Chiswick garden, didn't put two and two together. The job of saving Kew was achieved largely by John Lindley and his friends, lobbying the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. His friend William Jackson Hooker became the first director of the new establishment.
I close my magazine and pick up the newspaper. What do I read? Kew's budget has been cut again. The world's most important botanical garden is to be cut down to size. They have already laid off fifty scientists. They may have to be closed to the public out of season. And London is to have a new public garden - on a windswept bridge, of all places, crossing the Thames from the Temple to the South Bank. At a cost of £175 million. Putting two and two together still seems to be too difficult.
Hyde Hall was a horse whose mouth needed careful scrutiny. The Robinsons’ garden was a triumph of hope over experience, an isolated hillock in the driest part of England, windswept, with no proper access, its views featureless except for pylons. It is unrecognisable today, after decades of RHS investment, but it was a bold move to take a stake in a part of England as unlike leafy Surrey as could be. Essex was not without its garden history: Ellen Wilmott of Warley Place, Beth Chatto at Elmstead Market, Audley End, the Gibberd Garden, Rivers nursery, Pemberton’s roses…. and dreams – the role of photography.
Where does garden photography go next? Technical perfection is in the bag. We would laugh, today, at the grimy images of only thirty years ago. Beyond the purely descriptive, perhaps? The Garden Museum is putting on a show of pictures by Rachel Warne called Faded Glory. proving the visual strength of neglected or abandoned gardens. (My favourite of all the photographs in my own book, The Principles of Gardening, was the opening page; Kenneth Scowen's shot of an abandoned Edwardian Garden fountain in winter, overgrown (but just to the right degree) with long grass and thistles and old man's beard.)
But the museum director, Christopher Woodward, has form when it comes to ruins. His own book, In Ruins (Chatto 2001), is a masterly evocation of what they say to us. Far more, perhaps, than straight edges and weedless borders. ‘When we contemplate ruins’, says Woodward, ‘we contemplate our own future’
stray tentacle is still flowering (it's freezing hard) in a potted standard of another solanaceous thing, Ipomea (or Acnistus) australe. Few shrubs have the honour of a pot here, but the blue bells of Ipomea have seduced me. (There is a shrub 12 feet across in the Chelsea Physick Garden).
The plants that haven't yet really performed are a couple of climbing roses and the viticella clematises I look to to colour our trellises late in summer. It always seems a pity to do as the books say and chop them down just as they get a good purchase among the other climbers. One of the clematis (the potentially sumptuous C alba luxurians) and two roses have everything to prove. I discovered them totally suppressed, in a sort of coma, overwhelmed with ivy and hydrangeas.
One rose, fed and watered for a year now, still hasn't flowered (though its reddish leaves look familiar). Of course the longer it takes the keener I am to know what it is and decide which way to point my thumb. Another one only took a few months to declare itself - and Iceberg can never be unwelcome.
There is anticipation all around: small brainwaves that haven't yet crested. I planted a Daily Telegraph collection of three pulmonarias; they should be quick to show their colours (white and blue). Last year's discovery, Salvia vitifolia, is snug under a compost duvet (for as long as I can keep the local cats away). A fox visits our unguarded front garden. If one scrambles over the trellis into the back one I shall not be happy. Nor can I understand why we tolerate these disgusting animals in cities at all.
I hung silver balls in our big front magnolia for Christmas. I see no reason to take them down before the velvet buds open and surround them with purple petals.
first principles of garden design - or for that matter any design - that determine its success or failure from the start?
I suspect most people would put tidiness high on the list. Or 'order', to give it a more lofty name. Palpable regularity is, after all, the basis of the French, Italian, Dutch…. anything but English (or oriental) garden design. Order for its own sake, though, can be less than satisfying: trite, even. Your mind (or mine, at least) looks for something more: an agenda. The easiest gardens to design are those with a clear function in mind. An orchard, a potager, an arboretum or a herb garden…anything with a recognisable label gives the design a starting point, a raison d'être beyond the mere decorating of space.
And here, in a little London yard? Perhaps I'm lucky not to have too much space to decorate. I might define this as an outdoor room for growing plants. Whatever I call it, it certainly looks better when it's tidy.
The original publisher was John Murray (whose other authors included Austen, Byron, Conan Doyle, Charles Darwin and Sir Walter Scott). Sadly the Murray family sold the firm (still at its original home, 50 Albemarle Street) to Hodder Headline, which is now a subsidiary of Hachette - though still run by its founder, Tim Hely-Hutchinson). Tim H-H is also my publisher. I asked him if he saw any prospect of reviving Bean, and got the answer I expected.
Would he then, I asked, consider giving the rights to The International Dendrology Society (the I.D.S.) as a charitable body which could and would put the work online pro bono publico, and hopefully in due course keep it revised and up to date.
The answer was yes. Two years of concentrated work later the result is on your desk. I'm not going to roll the credits here, but two of the stars are John Grimshaw (whose guiding hand is visible in the lack of blunders in my own Trees) and Bill Hemsley, whose ingenious digits enable me to revise my Pocket Wine Book every year with no paper at all. Trees, by the way, to give it a shameless plug, is reprinted and back in the shops for Christmas. Please don't compare it with Bean.
It is on the last lap of fund-raising for its essential and exciting development plan, which will establish Britain's first garden design and manuscript archive at Lambeth, where my namesake Tradescant started England's first museum, his 'cabinet of curiosities' - which in due course became the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
On the initiative of the director, Christopher Woodward, the Ashmolean is lending a chunk of the original Trad collection back to Lambeth. Christopher gamely did a sponsored swim from Oxford to London (eight punishing days in the Thames) to raise funds for it. The appeal is getting a matching Lottery Grant of £3.5 million, but £170,000 more has to be found by January. Please send my present to The Garden Museum.
What are practical measures in Japan, where heavy snow is normal, becomes pure affectation in this country. Yet how charming ritual can be. What can our country offer in this way? Stripes on the lawn?
I walk round the Kyoto Garden almost every day when I'm in London, loving its utter detachment from the world around. No wonder it is popular; I try to go early or late in the day, yet have never had it entirely to myself. At weekends there are sometimes queues to cross the stone bridge by the cascade; Kensington's generous quota of exotic languages seems particularly well represented. But people-pressure is not unknown in Japan; a file of school children in uniform, following a flag, usually blocks every iconic garden view.
Indeed rumour has it that there are plans to double the size of ‘our’ garden to accommodate its fans. What frustrates the designer, I'm told (he visits every year or so from Japan) is not being able to grow proper moss in London. The stuff that turns my stonework green in winter doesn't count. He's even considering settling for Soleirolia soleirolii, or Mind-your-own-business, as a substitute.
studio with its calculated clutter, big windows and the predictable patina of Victorian London outside. The early Victorian years remembered a Georgian rhythm of wall and window, a nice proportion of dark glass and white glazing bars. This is what I see, with the pale gable of my greenhouse (alias 'grandpa's shed') outlined against the dark walls.
I was thinking of painting a Red Cross on the greenhouse door, but its role is really not so much A&E as R&R. Plants come in for respite and intimate attentions. As winter comes on I'm tempted to mitigate the falling temperature to keep the green in their cheeks: a false move; they must suffer the seasons too. Forty old-fashioned degrees (what's that in Celsius? About 5'?) keeps the frost out. It also keeps the fan going and the air circulating. 'Buoyant' is the term I love.
I kept a tomato vine until the other day for the smell of its leaves. Now Fuchsia boliviana takes up almost all the wall space, with a few scarlet flowers up in the roof. Salvia x van houttei, cyclamen and an indefatigable primula are the other bright spots while we wait for bulbs and a veteran cymbidium we should have pensioned off when we moved house.
Light has returned, though, in the house as it has been restored. The palace is celebrating the king's recovery. The royal knife and fork are back on the table and the original kitchen, marvellously surviving in its original state in the next building, is preparing his favourite dinner: partridge with celery in a cream sauce.
It is a brilliant restoration, master-minded, I understand, by Dr. Lucy Worsley, the TV history presenter who is now curator of the five Historic Royal Palaces. The Queen has lent back to Kew the furniture that was there in Queen Charlotte's day; the decorations, carpets and curtains are exactly reproduced. The royal silver teapot is beside her chair. The cramped conditions of a big family in a small house are very evident: two unmarried princesses had attic bedrooms like maids. And ghostly voices recall moments in the house's history; very poignantly the Prince of Wales comforting his mother, dying in her bedroom.
It is a giant step beyond Son et Lumière, this intimate evocation of history. It adds a quite unexpected dimension to a visit to Kew. Perhaps one day we shall be able to follow the great directors, William Aiton and the Hookers, directing the planting of their trees.
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
Tilia petiolaris, the weeping silver lime, in flower at Kew
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.
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.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 wonderfully 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.
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.