A batty ballot

August 22, 2017

We don’t expect to spend much time on the broad sandy beaches of Snowdonia in August. Nor did we. But days of solid rain had done magic for the streams that chatter and gurgle through our woods. There are springs where I’ve never seen them before; the expensively-surfaced tracks are water-courses, their stones washed loose, and some of our stream-side paths have become stream-beds. But the new roof on our old mine building (we’ve upgraded its name from ‘the hovel’ to ‘Myrtle Mansions’) keeps us dry, and its new skylight lets in daylight we never had before.

There is a whole complex of ruined mine buildings where our goldmine used to be – or rather would have been if they had ever found gold. This was in the 1840’s and 50’s when gold fever seems to have broken out round the world: California, Australia, Canada, Colorado, New Zealand, and even Wales. (South Africa and the Klondike came later, in the 1880s). For a short while the Mawdach Estuary was a baby Ballarat.

Our mine includes the remains of the grinding shed, where the power to grind the ore was provided by a 30 foot overshot waterwheel, a couple of other buildings now reduced to their grey stone gables, and what we take to be the canteen and the manager’s office. The canteen has a huge hearth and the manager’s office a little one to keep his back warm as he watches his workers (some of them seven years old) through a panoramic (by Welsh standards) window.

But the best part is the mine itself, a horizontal ‘drive’ hacked and blasted a hundred yards into the hillside – at which point they realised that copper was the best they were going to get. The mouth of the mine is our grotto, a jagged hole in the hill, dark grey stone adorned with ferns, with a slow brown stream flowing out into the woods.

When we bought the property I was worried that someone might be tempted to explore, wander in and fall in the darkness, so I installed a gate of vertical iron bars. Years later I had a letter from the Welsh Bat Authority in Cardiff, telling me a colony of bats hibernated in the dripping blackness. Was I aware, it asked, that lesser horseshoe bats prefer horizontal bars? I still wonder who asked them.

Kew’s queues

August 15, 2017

To Kew to see the new Broad Walk Borders, all 640 yards of them, in their midsummer glory. Eighteen months after their inauguration they are splendidly established, and on a sunny weekend thronged with admirers. There was a long queue at the Victoria Gate waiting to get in, but then there is more than ever to see and do.

The balancing act between botanical garden and public attraction is not easy, but Kew is managing it well. There are a few visitors who complain that the museum building facing the Palm House over the pond is now a restaurant, but I’m sure there are more who are pleased to have a grown-up restaurant as an alternative to the predictable cafes.

The Broad Walk Borders are a wonderful tour de force, interspersing the cream of modern cultivars of the best herbaceous plants with things you won’t see outside Kew’s collections. I spent the best part of an hour admiring each side and its ingenious themes of plant families and reproductive systems. To solve the near-impossible puzzle of labelling in herbaceous borders there are plant keys at intervals, stylised coloured diagrams of each section that make it easy to identify the bold blocks and sweeps of different colours, sizes and habits.

Meanwhile the Temperate House is beginning to emerge from the covers that have hidden its years of restoration as possibly the greatest plant palace on earth. Next summer we shall see its full glory, too.

Buxus not so sempervirens

August 8, 2017

It was the shock of my gardening life. A phone call from my sister, just back from a week away. ‘Come and see my box.’ The caterpillar had come, and in a mere week had destroyed the entire framework of her garden. Her box hedges are bare, brown, leafless. The only colour is hundreds of green caterpillars crawling and munching and leaving their tiny brown droppings.

Not since Dutch Elm disease killed all our elms in the 1970’s have we seen such devastation of such an essential and universal plant.

My sister lives in a terrace house near Ravenscourt Park. Her garden, leading out from her kitchen, is the centre of her life. Her tomatoes, figs and grapes and apples could supply the family. But the structure of the garden, the chunky parallel hedges culminating in balls of box, is dead, an eyesore to be cleared away – no mean task. And then what?

The RHS website recommends Bugclear as a spray to kill the caterpillars: I’ve used it and it has no effect. Local advice here is that pyrethrum can be effective. You can buy it (until it runs out) under the brand name Py. It is too late, here, for pheromone traps, but I’m following up a new biological insecticide called Topbuxus XenTari that apparently poisons the caterpillars as they feed.

As replacements, substitutes for the box, there are plenty of ideas being mooted. Ilex crenata, teucrium, euonymus all field candidates. Even (and why not for a chunky hedge?) yew.  For my sister’s garden (and mine, when the dread moment comes) I’m contemplating myrtle. I’m not sure how it will react to a strict clipping regime; will it sprout new leaves as willingly as box? And where do I look for dozens of tiny myrtles? But myrtle, like box, has an aura, an ancient garden history, a presence that the other stand-ins can’t claim.

Champ de Bataille

August 5, 2017

The first question you ask (or rather, I ask) when I see a place called Battlefield  is ‘What battle?’. It’s in Normandy, near Rouen, so my first guess is something in the Hundred Years War; a Crécy or an Agincourt. Not so, I discover. It was an inter-Viking affair, before Normandy became Normandy. Eric Longsword v Robert the Dane. A momentous scrap, surely, for the site to be remembered 1200 years later. Longsword won.

What is momentous today is the château on the site, and certainly its gardens. You thought (or I did) that Versailles, Vaux le Vicomte and that sort of horticultural bling was over centuries ago. Not here: we’re in kilometres of 8-metre hedge and hectares of gravel territory. This is a new garden (no; parc is the word). It stretches regally away from the immense facade of the chateau. (You could parade a regiment in its cour d’honneur, and I heard 10,000 horses mentioned as its 17th century complement.) But there was scarcely a trace left of the original when work started on this.

Question two (after the battlefield one ) is who on earth can – or wants – to do a Sun King today? The answer is Jacques Garcia, the decorator-extraordinaire of Paris and its gratin today. The château’s apartments are as sumptuous as they must have been in 1660. His orchid-house, fern-house, and another vast glass salle simply for New Zealand tree ferns are on a national-botanic scale. Allée follows allée, and parterre follows parterre, enlivened with pools and pagodas, sphinxes of clipped yew, a Roman amphitheatre, vineyards, pergolas of heroic size, flower gardens and pavilions. The Indian one faces a hundred-yard canal punctuated by fountains, palms, daturas and flaring torches. They lead to monumental waterworks: fountains and cascades and scores of gilded spouting frogs – and finally to a massive canal that stretches far into the distance. In true classical style every part has symbolic meaning; the gods of Olympus are in charge – under the baton, that is, of Garcia and his gardener, Patrick Pottier. A million cubic metres of earth are a mere wheelbarrow to this Le Nôtre of our time.

I said last month that Boughton House was grand – and so it is. I will have to find another word for the French way of doing it. Grandiose, perhaps?

Honorary blues

July 28, 2017

Solanum laciniatum has reached twelve feet.

It was 1971 when I decided that agapanthus were worth the risk. Could we grow such midsummer beauty, elegance, and above all blueness, in Essex? The word at the time was that Headbourne Hybrids was the only reliably hardy strain. I chose a stretch of bed with no shade, laced the soil with gravel and protected the plants from wet for the first winter with slates perched on bricks. It worked. They were still flowering when we left Saling Hall 40 years later. But now, of course, we are confidently planting lots of better ones. I seem to leave Chelsea every year with a bigger, bluer, stronger variety, many of them evergreen.  Last year’s, from Hoyland Nurseries’ stand, was ‘Queen Mum’, white flowers blue at the base of the petals.  A bit bizarre for a border but grand in a pot. There are no more worries about tenderness – certainly in London.

This the bluest moment of the year for us, if you admit all the purples and lavenders as honorary blues – which allows the geranium of the century, Roxanne, sprawling through half the border, into the picture. Also the pretty, airy Isotoma ‘Blue Star’ in a pot. Crowning them all at present is another plant only recently admitted as reasonably hardy, a solanum we see in the south of France. Solanum laciniatum, Australia’s Kangaroo Apple. It grows on the shady east-facing wall behind the greenhouse door, and in three years has reached over 12 feet, green densely starred with light blue/purple from spring to autumn. The yellow Clematis orientalis is reaching up into its heart.

My only worry is that some of the flowers of the solanum fall into the fish-tank below. The goldfish don’t eat them (two are ‘comets’, Halley and Haley, as in Hale-Bopp. Which is which we’ll never know.) Being potato-related could they poison the water? No sign of it so far.

With Bren and vasculum

July 25, 2017

“You’ll just have to press ‘Go’, they said. ‘He’ll do the rest’. Interviewing a broadcaster as eloquent as Roy Lancaster could be a challenge. How do I press ‘Stop’? I interviewed Roy on the Mound at Boughton House (a uniquely visible spot for an interview) about his latest book, My Life with Plants. The title I would have given it is The Education of a Plantsman, in reference to Russell Page’s masterpiece, The Education of a Gardener. In a sense it’s a plantsman’s equivalent.

I read it (or most of it) at one long sitting. Roy recounts in his unmistakable voice, and in a degree of detail that once or twice reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s total recall of events 40 years ago, how his schoolboy passion for ornithology was converted one day to botany (or at least plant-spotting) by seeing something strange growing in a potato field. His schoolmaster didn’t recognize it, nor did the Bolton Museum curator, nor the Botany Department at Manchester University.

It was sent on to the Natural History Museum, where it was declared a Mexican species of tobacco plant by no means routine in Britain. Young Roy got a letter from London. ‘Dear Mr Lancaster….’ Roy had found his calling.

From the Bolton Parks Department he was decanted into the Malayan Jungle to do his National Service. The picture of a young man with Bren gun and vasculum studying natural history while confronting the commies sums up the quintessential Lancaster.

Perhaps the most fruitful part of his career was his years at Hillier’s Nursery in the 1970s, as amanuensis to Sir Harold Hillier, and its fruit: the almost incredible Hillier’s Manual, detailing some 7000 woody plants, readably, learnedly, and all too temptingly. In those days you could actually buy the great majority from Hilliers. It was an opportunity some gardeners leapt at. Arboreta were born (including mine at Saling Hall). Then commercial reality broke in; happily in 1977 Hillier’s Arboretum was accepted by the Hampshire County Council as a charitable trust and thrives to this day. Roy’s story goes on with travels to (and books about) China, to Japan, the Americas..….collecting (and converting the plant-blind). Television followed; Roy and Sue made a garden…… It is a lovely story, and a faithful portrait of a lovely man.

Turning sand into soil

July 20, 2017

Looking inland from the sea-dunes, pines of the lette before the forest. Curry plant in the foreground

We have just been three days by the sea where the pine forest of the Landes meets the Atlantic on a beach a hundred miles long, dazzling sunshine slowly giving way to a misty sea fret and the relief of a faint breeze.

The Landes, or rather their forest, is a feat of man versus the environment. One million hectares of shifting sand and swampy waste were tamed during the 19th century. It was a desert known only to the shepherds who crossed it on stilts. The first experiment in stabilizing the sands were made in the 18th century, planting marram grass along the shore. Even now when you walk where nothing grows the fine white sand shifts and squeaks under your feet.

But the grass fixed the sand enough to plant pines, the local pin maritime, Pinus pinaster, a rugged two-needled tree with copious resin (collecting it for turpentine became the local industry). In due course they were followed by holm– and cork-oak, by arbutus, phillyrea, sea buckthorn, gorse and broom, willows and of course brambles. All contributed to the sterile dunes in stability and fertility. Their humus turned sand to soil.

Some of the dunes along the coast are still shifting, and so steep that you slide one pace backward for each two that you climb. There is an unexpected smell of curry in the air; curry plant is one of the pioneer sand-fixers. Then comes ‘la lette’, a shallow valley protected from the sea wind where pines, gorse, brambles and willows have a firmer hold. Then the forest, low at first, grows taller as you go inland and humus accumulates. The regular array of pines lets in enough light for what becomes quite a lush understorey. In places the arbutus, shining bright green, is the dominant plant, above acres of ferns.

It is hard to believe that only ten years ago, in 2007, 320,000 of the one million hectares were devastated in a gale. It was a regional catastrophe. There was no means or manpower to tackle the chaos of fallen and broken trees. The price of timber fell with them. We expected to see devastation still – and there are places where land has been newly cleared and cultivated; the sand has become soil enough to raise crops. But the vast expanse of forest, one the greatest feats anywhere of land reclaimed, still stretches to each horizon.

Plants and the man

July 16, 2017

If anyone deserves the title of the plantsman’s plantsman it is Maurice Foster. We visited him at White House Farm in the green depths of Kent last month, after an interval of ten years. He hasn’t changed: still the rather impish, beaming figure with an unparalleled flow of botanical fact and anecdote to keep you happy all day. Maurice can recall every moment in the finding, naming, provenance and propagation of every plant in his collection of – I can’t remember how many thousands of taxa. His passion goes far beyond trees; he will be as eloquent on a rose, a grass or a lichen – well, maybe not quite as eloquent on a lichen..
The garden of White House Farm encompasses some four acres, a stretch of woodland a further three, and the arboretum beyond it seven. On Monday mornings, Maurice told us, two helpers get a briefing for the week; the heavy work to be done. The rest he does himself; a dizzying prospect as you look around you.

In ten years the arboretum has grown from a field of sticks to a leafy heaven of prodigious variety. Certain recurring genera amount to comprehensive collections; hornbeams in a variety no one would have thought possible; tilia, quercus, magnolia the same, berberis and philadelphus…. But a list of genera can sound like a dull plantation, and this is a magic wood of surprises and questions – to which Maurice has the answers.

Ten years is nothing in the life of a garden, or a gardener. At Saling Hall I was still planting more trees after forty years – closer and closer together. When I started I put them far too far apart, before I discovered that the thing trees (not perhaps all trees) like best is each other’s company. Every perambulation raised the question of priorities: does the beauty of that tree take precedence over the rarity of its neighbour? One or the other has to go. There were occasional duels, but I tended to let the happier tree win. The context, though, was different. I was trying to paint a landscape; in a landscape it is the spaces, more than the details, that count.

In the end an arboretum is a wood of different trees. In a good arboretum they are congruous; themes emerge, comparisons are close enough to be useful. White House Farm has all the beauties of a wood, but one where your eyes are constantly drawn to details of design you never expected to see.

Hugh’s Gardening Books

Trees

Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

Hugh’s Wine Books

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

I wrote my first Pocket Wine Book in 1977, was quite surprised to be asked to revise it in 1978,…

Flower of the Week

Rosa ‘Chapeau de Napoléon’

Friends of Trad

John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary