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 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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
If I/we thought the fax was a lasting record of our communications we were wrong. I I have just been sorting
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Thinking about moving, though, has made me remember quite humble commonplace
6 February 2013
Only six weeks to go before we move house. There's a lot of memories and emotion tied up in a garden of more than forty years. I planted most of the now-mature trees; our children grew up here and our grandchildren (three of them at least), will have it registered in their early memories. But no violins, I insist. The trees will grow on, and our successor has already shared some excellent ideas with us. We can only feel positive, and look forward to our next billet.
There is a contrast. From 12 acres to something like 1000 square feet is down-sizing (or 'free-upping' ) as one friend called it. We are moving to a Victorian house in Kensington with a garden that (for the moment at least) stresses the paving element, so competition for space is intense.
1 February 2013
How I'd like to be able to claim descent from Jon Johnston. He was a Scottish religious refugeee, born in Poland, who became one of the great natural philosophers of his day - a day in which scholarship was a pan-European affair.
He was born of Calvinist parents, when Shakespeare was writing his tragedies. He went to school in Poland (where he learned Polish, German, Greek, Latin and Hebrew) and university in Scotland. At St Andrews, in 1623, he studied philosophy, theology and Hebrew, then went back to Poland to teach, before setting off again to Germany, England and the Netherlands to study the closely related subjects of botany and medicine.
When he went back to Poland he became a royal tutor, taking three of his students with him on another tour, this time to Denmark, Norway, England, France, Italy and back to Leyden in the Netherlands, where his treatise on fevers earned him the title of doctor of medicine. His next journey was to Cambridge and Oxford, then Flanders and Brabant, then Paris, Montpellier and Lyons, then Bologne and Padua.
At the age of 33 he had already visited most of the great universities of Europe. I try to imagine him lugging all his books onto lumbering coaches for another week on the road. He had made his reputation, though. Heidelberg, Leipzig and Leyden all invited him to head their medical faculties. He refused and settled in Sladwicka in the south of Poland, where he spent the rest of his life writing a series of encyclopedias, all in Latin.
I have one of them here, his Dendrographiae sive Historiae Naturalis de Arboribus et Fruticibus, published by a famous publisher and engraver, Mathias Mesian, at Frankfurt in 1662.
By strange chance that was the very year that John Evelyn read his Silva, the first English
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
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
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,
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.
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
A light touch
12 July 2012
'You garden with a light touch' said a knowing visitor the other day - appreciatively, I hope. Could she have been referring to the complementary campanulas, the aleatory alliums, the volunteer violas and random ranunculus that meet your eye wherever you turn? 'You leave things in; so much nicer than taking them out.'
I do take them out. I've been barrowing opium poppies to the compost for weeks now. The idea is to let them show a first flower or two, decide whether it is a good colour or not, is fully frilly or otherwise
desirable, and pull up the ones that have no
4 July 2012
My son in law brilliantly described an old house we rented in Wales as representing a hundred years of botching. An archaeologist might have loved the rich evidence of ages past: former décor in curling wallpaper and peeling paint, superseded plumbing, no longer functioning window catches, proof that every room had been converted (but not quite) from some former use.
I am an ace botcher myself. My family calls in a professional if anything needs doing beyond changing a light-bulb. They can manage that. A garden, unless I'm kidding myself, is more forgiving. How do you recognize botching unless you know what was really intended?
I don't mean gates tied up with baler twine or roses on old bedsteads. That was the scene
27 June 2012
Don't you sometimes speculate about the women whose names adorn some of the most voluptuous roses of the summer? They are nearly all French. I wish we had their portraits. Did Madame Grégoire Staechelin blush (or droop) like her namesake rose? Was Monsieur Staechelin the bristly buttoned-up individual his name seems to suggest?
Can you form a mental picture of Madame Lauriol de Barny? A plump and pleasing, rather artless young woman, I rather fancy, apt to put her foot in it. Madeleine Selzer (marital status unknown) was self-evidently a fizzer. La Séduisante (name unknown) needed careful handling. And what does Madame Isaac Pereire conjure up for you? I see a severe and stately lady in black holding
I am a tripod
15 June 2012
I may well lose more readers through my enthusiasm for weeding, annually expressed, than by being boring, repetitive, out of touch, living in the past and my many other weaknesses. I can't help it. Weeding for me is the epitome of gardening; the time when every move is decisive and, to use that corny phrase, you can see where you've been. Planting is the other supreme gardening pleasure; the satisfaction of settling roots in soil always gives me a glow. But planting is the work of moments, while weeding is a long drawn out pleasure, always (at least in this garden) available.
Why do I love it? Because it calls for total concentration. As I stoop or grovel in the border (or anywhere else where muddle is taking over) my eyes must be fully focussed. What appears at first an agreeable jumble of green shapes becomes progressively clearer as I start to edit it. There are in-your-face weeds: a dock or a nettle makes no attempt to hide. There are insidious weeds that blend
The London forest
6 June 2012
The camera zoomed in from an improbable height above the royal Bentley purring back from St Paul’s. On the way it encountered the branches of a plane tree and saw right through them, through sadly deleted leaves and sagging shoots, in a way you never can through the canopy of a healthy tree. London’s planes are sick, some of them very sick, and the prospect of their decline is too dreadful to contemplate.
Is it a new disease, as some suggest, or the occasional weakness that strikes them under peculiar circumstances ? Does it relate to a hot dry early spring followed by a long cold and wet April and most of May – and June? I used to worry about an alley of London planes I planted in central France; in some years, particularly in wet springs, their new shoots died back as we see them doing in London now, but 20 years on they are robust young trees.
Bigger / better
1 June 2012
I remember my moment of disillusion. It was in Berkeley Square. An enormous shiny car came round the corner of Bruton Street pretending to be a Rolls Royce, but instead of the familiar silver Parthenon and its floating goddess its radiator was like the front of an American truck: a bloated travesty of a classic design.
The whole vehicle was gross; engineering grace had given way to gigantism. (I heard to my delight that the makers had to reduce the length of the thing for Hong Kong to avoid it being classed as a lorry).
The same feeling of revulsion hit me again in my favourite London space, the Green Park, the other day when the wraps started to come off the new memorial to Bomber Command. It looks as though someone was using someone else's credit card in the
28 May 2012
This is the time of year when they have to send out a search party for me as the light fades and it's time to decant the claret.
It's the time of overload anyway, when too much is happening at once. What is a coherent reaction when nineteen plants are calling out to be admired and ground elder is flowering lustily in their midst? This year there is confusion to add to surfeit. Why is
21 May 2012
To Bowood on a rainy day to visit the Rhododendron Walks, open for the first time this year. It is almost incredible that England still has such wonders under wraps, but the Lansdownes have kept this separate part of the gardens, miles across the estate from their celebrated Capability Brown lake and spectacular water gardens, as a private enclave around the Robert Adam family mausoleum.
Why miles away? Like many rhododendron collections it relies on greensand, ridges of which crop up on high ground, principally in Kent and Sussex but also in a line between Poole harbour and the Wash. At St Clere in Kent, for example, the Pinetum perches remotely and incongruously on top of the North Downs; beech hangers below, conifers and rhododendrons on top.
At Bowood the woodland garden is sheltered and framed by oaks, and some of the most venerable beeches I have ever seen, on a series of steep spring fed slopes that offer everything rhododendrons could need: shelter, moisture and air-drainage.
Some of the first collections from the Himalayas were planted here in the days of Sir Joseph Hooker, by the great great grandfather of the present marquess. Subsequent Lansdownes have added to what is now a woodland garden of extraordinary beauty, while the present marquess, the eighth, is a full-time hands-on gardener. I am no rhododendron expert, and easily impressed by a bush thirty feet high covered in huge pale pink flowers giving off sweet scents. When I am told that it is one of the earliest hardy hybrids with Himalayan blood, and that its name is lost in time, I can only nod in assent. It is clear why such creations became the show-flowers of the great, raised and selected with as much care as their race-horses.
Satiety would soon be reached, though, if they were too densely planted. It is the beauty of Bowood that there is space and variety, that glades and rides, pools of bluebells and grass open to the sky make it a magic wood rather than a rhododendron forest, There is the delicacy of white dogwoods, the brilliance of Pieris, one the size of a cottage, and above all, here and
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
before snow and ice clobbered it. It will be back in 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
designer, wants to study in England - and tells me my work is her inspiration. Imagine what that does for the morale.
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
'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 best year ever?
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. 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
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.
Waterflame at Houghton Hall
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.
I'm intrigued by the fact that parts of our coastline can become cults - at least for a while. Not only the coast, of course: we hear plenty about the Cotswolds, and two hundred years ago it was the Lake District everyone talked about. In the 1930s Frinton was the height of chic. Then it was St Ives, and now the north coast of Norfolk is having its turn. Burnham Market has been called Chelsea sur Mer - despite the fact that none of the many Burnhams, nor their neighbours, are actually on the sea. The sea has retreated, leaving long flats of saltmarsh, sand and seabirds, ideal for walking off lunches of Cromer crab and admiring the hundreds of windmills that have suddenly populated the shallows.
Norfolk, however, is naturally rich. Fertile fields are its dowry. Why else would two of England's most magnificent houses crop up in such unexceptional landscape? Houghton and Holkham are not only the best examples of 18th century showmanship, they are both still very much in business. Their huge estates (and that of Sandringham next door) give coherence to endless acres of well-farmed land and well-dressed forest. Neither, on the other hand, was distinguished for its gardens - until recently.
special quality, in the hope of improving the stock. After years of doing this I admit we aren't getting very far, but I enjoy the process.
The thing to remember is what comes out easily, like the poppies, and what leaves roots in the ground. You can enjoy an allium, even into its seed head phase, and still get rid of it. Not so an invasive campanula. And violas are the devil to do away with.
But most of the pulling up at the moment is what I think of as busy lizzies of various kinds. I'm not clear about all their identities; only their vigour and the distance they can chuck their seeds. You merely look at the watery yellow-flowered kind, only a few days old, and it looses off a petulant scatter of seeds. It's lucky I enjoy weeding so much.
here forty years ago. The style may well be having a renaissance in certain gardening magazines. Old bikes, jam jars, that kind of thing. No, with me it is largely a matter of tools.
Some mornings or evenings I march into the tool shed full of resolution, sure that I know just what I'll need. Fork, spade, saw and shears, trowel and twine go in the barrow. I reach the scene of operations and set to when I meet a plant that needs a stake. No stake. Do I retrace my steps? I look around for anything that will serve. I even tie one plant to another, resolving that I'll be back with a stake very soon.
Most mornings and evenings I saunter out with nothing but my secateurs in their leather holster. They are black steel, forged in Japan, with no fancy business of pretty handles: the gardener's six-shooter. I don't find many jobs they won't do - more or less - from light weeding to banging in nails. They are a precision instrument with a fine edge fit for bonsai, but with a wristy twist they will lop a one-inch branch.
The garden is full of evidence that I’ve surged through, half-doing a hundred jobs. The mercy is that no one but I will know, and I'll have forgotten.
her luscious magenta cabbage of a rose at waist level to avoid suffocation in its dangerously sweet perfume.
The ladies parade before us, all décolleté and bustle, with no shortage of artful ribbons. Are some lovesick? Is Madame Bovary an unchristened rose? 'When first open on a cool clear day', says Graham Stuart Thomas, 'Madame Pierre Oger is of a soft warm creamy flesh'. The Nymphe émue even lets us see her blushing thigh.
We know that Caroline Testout was a couturier from Grenoble, and that Madame Sancy de Parabère was a general's daughter and lady in waiting to the Empress Eugenie, who would not have been amused by her bothy moniker of 'Saucy de Paramour'. Nor, I fancy, would Madame Alfred Carrière, patroness of the loveliest of pale blushing climbers, have answered happily to 'Mad Alf', the name I heard a gardener give her.
In this rosiest of seasons, in the first warm days after unending rain, the fleshy fragrant presence of these women is inescapable. Climbing Lady Hillingdon is pressing her soft orange globes against my bedroom window. Surely this can’t be, as Robin Lane Fox tells us, the Lady Hillingdon who closed her eyes and thought of England.
with the background: violas and little balsams that can lurk while they multiply. And there are wily, snaky weeds that infiltrate under disguise.
Just now it was bryony in a mahonia that had reached the top without my noticing. Always and everywhere it is goose grass, spreading out from a root no bigger than fuse-wire to launch its sticky tentacles into whatever it encounters. It took me five minutes of patient groping, using its rough texture on my fingers as a guide, to disentangle one plant of it from a patch of Geranium.
I have learnt a few tricks, leaning over the herbage, breathing in its evocative variety of smells. The first is always to use a fork - not always to prong with, but more importantly to lean and balance on. It’s the rule of 'one hand for the ship': right hand on the handle for balance, left hand for reaching down and out. You can reach improbably far into a border if you are a tripod.
There are plants that never seem to need weeding, but they are rare. I rarely find weeds in established clumps of hemerocallis, and the big leaves of Phlomis russelliana are exceptionally effective at covering the ground. Some geraniums are hard for casual weeds to penetrate, but nothing, of course, smothers bindweed. Nor I fear is there any pleasure in it. In fact, I exclude bindweed, couch grass and ground elder from my enthusiasm. So perhaps I am not so different from other gardeners after all.
Central London has been verging on a monoculture of planes since its elms died nearly forty years ago. We forget how important they were. Many of the finest trees in Hyde Park, for instance, were field elms, with their crowning fans of branches, their flaring skirts and their pale gold leaves almost to the end of the year. London has few oaks and not nearly enough limes. The resilience of the plane, it resistance to pollution as well as its majestically graceful canopy and its huge reptilian trunk, have given it the status of the London tree.
The local authorities have been imaginative in the past few years with their street trees. We see rowans and alders, ginkgos here and there, many hawthorns in the parks, and so many Chanticleer pears that we have to hope they are resilient too.
But the mainstay of our parks and squares is the London plane. Since the 18th century it has defined the landscape of the West End, historically and practically. It is strange that a sterile hybrid should become the climax tree of the London forest – and should certainly be worrying us now. We desperately need to find a treatment to keep them going.
Haddonstone catalogue: a hundred yards or so of pseudo-classical columns supporting a useless architrave. In the centre will be a bronze group of the heroes it celebrates. Apart from the question of waiting 60 years to mark a tragic victory over a country now an ally, why do we need the exceptional emphasis of this giant colonnade?
The western gateway to London, Hyde Park Corner (Apsley House was once known as no. 1, London) has become a showroom for ever-bigger memorials. Where once a single statue represented a hero and sufficed for a regiment, we now seem to need a quarter of an acre of masonry. The New Zealand memorial just across the road has sixteen black exclamation marks where one would have been eloquent and dignified. The Commonwealth Memorial Gate awkwardly straddles Constitution Hill with undistinguished masonry, like a pedestrian crossing with an inflated ego. Anywhere in Monument Alley, which now encompasses Park Lane as well, seems fair game for this new branch of the building trade.
You can cite the Albert Memorial, of course, as pretty extravagant. But where are we heading, with the idea that bigger is better? Think of the Mini, and shudder.
the banksian rose in full flower at the end of May instead of April? Has Magnolia soulangeana finished flowering or not? And why not? Camassias overtook bluebells, weigelas overtook azaleas, ashes are still bare and hawthorns are still opening an unprecedented froth all through the hedges.
This is when I realize how over-full the garden is, how tall the trees are and how jam-packed. An arboretum has become a forest while my back was turned - except that it wasn't: I've been staring at it in ecstatic indecision spring after spring, thinking how lucky I am.
Bluebells at Bowood
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.
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.