Walled in

February 13, 2017

Another cold day in the New Forest, supervising planting in our daughter and son-in-law’s new garden. It was a familiar spot long before they bought the house: the late Peter Chappell’s wonderful Spinners Nursery of woodland plants was right next door, and round the corner the village school that was started by William Gilpin, Vicar of Boldre and apostle of the Picturesque.

It is a total contrast to our old Essex garden. This is essentially old oak woodland on a slope down to the little Lymington River. The soil is mildly acid; the default plant in the whole district is the rhododendron. The house looks down on a broad meadow and a population of roe deer, a joy to watch but a menace to a gardener. They browse without discrimination. Lists of plants deer don’t eat are chimerical.

Our answer is walls. We have cut back into the slope by the house to build a walled garden on two levels, following the slope and facing south and west. The upper level has borders and a long central pool; the lower is a lawn for games. The two are divided by a pleached row of hornbeams above a stone wall, and the main terrace along the south wall of the house is defined by brick pillars supporting oak beams to make a two-dimensional pergola.

I’ve been looking for mop-head trees to form a group at the far end from the house; ideally that miniature sport of the field maple, Acer campestre Nanum. Grafted at just the right height, I found it perfect for the village hall at Great Saling, but sadly I can only find it grafted at two metres, which is too high for the scale of the garden. Its small leaves and guaranteed autumn yellow would make it ideal. What else might do the job? Such evergreens as Quercus ilex or bay would be too emphatic and formal; my ideal is trim but green-leafy, bright in spring, soft in summer and glowing in autumn. On the shorter trunk that we need (1.75 m is ideal) the choice is limited. Planting the mop-head robinia is asking for sucker problems; once they start they never go away. Liquidambar and parrotia, to my surprise, can both be bought top-grafted; I fear their leaves are too big, though. But there is a dwarf pin oak, Quercus phellos ‘Green Dwarf’, that seems to answer. We shall see – and meanwhile wire the walls for the roses. It’s still a building site now, but hornbeam, yews and box are in and spring is getting close.

Oil, not water

February 7, 2017

Cader Idris in the distance

Back from Snowdonia after our customary mid-winter visit. By the beginning of February there were already tiny signs of spring in swelling buds, hazel catkins, a few snowdrops. There was snow dusting the hills over 600 feet; on one west-facing grassy bank the first wild Welsh daffodil had opened. In The Winter’s Tale Perdita says ‘Daffodils, that come before the swallow dares and take The winds of March with beauty’. This is February; more evidence of climate change?

A sunny day in winter here is disconcertingly beautiful. The hills have a far richer palate of colours even than their spring swatch of pale-to-dark greens or their yellow-to-khaki-to-ginger autumn coat. Winter colours come in fine brushstrokes and filigree detail. Oaks, trunk to twig, shine light grey in the sun, ashes silvery white, sometimes orange, birch twigs smoky purple; you can pick out their populations across a valley, distinct from the red of Japanese larch among the grey-blue of Sitka spruce. Hemlock and Douglas fir are coachwork green, the rocks among them various greys dotted with white quartz or stained yellow with lichen. Bracken smears thehills with brown. Gorse, even now, pricks bright yellow stitches, and a stream flashes silver. There is nothing watercolour about this painting: it has the full tone of oils.

Brutal dinge

February 5, 2017

Concrete has never had any appeal for me – and I could express it more strongly than that. It has noble and necessary uses: Norman Foster’s astonishing Millau viaduct, for example, curving on its slender pillars a thousand feet above the Tarn. But in its brutalist heyday in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s the cult of concrete usurped the place of brick and stone. I can’t wait to see some of its worst outrages demolished.

The Household Cavalry barracks in Knightsbridge is one of my pet hates: horses in a tower, indeed. The old barracks was a dashing brick range festooned with trophies and helmets, with a stone ball on each buttress. I bought one from the demolition people for the garden at Saling Hall, but I can’t forgive the dingy grey intrusion on the views in Hyde Park. You could argue that the Hilton Hotel is worse – or at least taller, but the barracks is ours, built with our money, which makes it a self-inflicted wound. The Knightsbridge side is appalling, too; an immense length of grubby grey wall.

This is concrete’s shame; its grubby grey, inevitable as rain-streaks and made far worse by rough-shuttering. Architects would probably say (indeed, have said) that it demonstrates their honesty to show the grain of the timber they use. All it does is to collect even more dirt. The National Theatre on the South Bank is a dreadful example – in this case, of the grain of Douglas fir). Its architect, Sir Denys Lasdun, said ‘there is something aphrodisiacal about the smell of wet concrete’. The Economist’s architectural correspondent described it as ‘an aircraft carrier in collision with a Norman keep’. It’s fine at night, when all you see are the lighted windows. By day it is the epitome of dinge.

Concrete in gardens, once it spreads from the paving up the walls, or into a brutalist pergola, brings drabness into what should be light, elegant and gay. Of course there are exceptions. Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s house astride the river at Bull Run, Pennsylvania, balances concrete slabs on a composition like a mobile, airy and graceful. Its concrete, though, is smooth, clean and not remotely brutal. Even so, Wright once said he would prefer it covered in gold leaf.

Concrete is fundamentally a cheat. You can pour it into any shape (as Zahar Hadid does in the absurb white wave of a café, like something from Moby Dick, in Hyde Park). It never shows you how the building works, where the weight falls, or how the structure supports itself. Timber, bricks and stone do that; concrete is carving in blancmange.

Galanthing about

January 29, 2017

No self-respecting garden scribbler passes up the snowdrop moment, if only to show solidarity with colleagues, and especially when the Chelsea Physic Garden has just opened its annual Snowdrop Days (from January 28 to February 3).

It’s tricky to get the date right. Last year they were tricked by the weather, postponed it and were caught out when it suddenly warmed up. This year a week of frost kept the flowers back; I fear the shy little plants may not have sold very well. But the Snowdrop Theatre was a good as ever: each plant discreetly lit from above in a wooden frame. See on the right.

An icy cave

January 27, 2017

(Visitors should note it can also be gloomy and damp. The grotto is open at weekends only; see the Painshill website, but there is a whole day's worth of interest in the landscape).

Back to Painshill, to see the grotto I had only glimpsed from the outside in November (see my entry of the 30th). Glum grey days have been alternating with brilliant icy ones recently; happily I chose one of the best (or perhaps it’s just Surrey: it was glorious when I went in November, too). This time I was conducted by Janie Locke, who since the beginning of the restoration project in 1981 has been its presiding genius. It was the local council, Elmbridge, that took the very unusual initiative of buying the 150-odd acres of the neglected property, piecemeal from various owners. It was their young recruit Janie Burford (now Locke), with a newly-formed Painshill Park Trust, who instilled the necessary enthusiasm and confidence into the locals, recruited the volunteers, surveyed the site and its trees, kick-started the archaeology, went out to find funds and designed and directed the project over 22 years.

It turned out to be the perfect day to explore a grotto. At this time of year, the low sun can make driving a car almost impossible (west in the morning, east in the afternoon is a sound rule, but the sun in my wing-mirror blinded me the other day). It is a revealing time to make observations in any garden; brilliant light at these low angles is what you get late on summer evenings (but then the sun sets much further north).

The grotto lies on an island in the lake, heavily hinted at by outcrops and an arch of the weathered oolitic limestone of its construction, a strange holey stone. You cross on a white wooden bridge that hints of Chinese lattice-work (but was in fact designed by Palladio). A sunken entrance leads into a gloomy passage lit by openings onto the lake, its atmosphere stony and cold. But a golden light lay ahead. The main chamber was flooded with sunlight reflected from the water through jagged apertures. At its low angle, shining on a thin skim of ice, it bounced into a ceiling dropping with great glittering stalactites. Dozens of these craggy cones of different sizes, and the rocky walls around are covered with slivers of felspar, calcite and quartz crystals, reflecting minerals that flash back the sun. It is hard to imagine such a gilded, glittering cave. What creatures should inhabit it, I wondered. Ariel-like spirits, perhaps, with gossamer wings.

Through the gloom

January 23, 2017

It feels like some sort of pivot, or landmark, in the slow process of winter – and no, it’s not a snowdrop. Not even the precocious giant Galanthus elwesii is up and doing here. But I looked through the pale pink blossom on my favourite tree this morning and saw the first blooms on the camellia that matches it almost exactly, the veteran ‘Top Hat’ that we inherited with the garden. At the distance they are both pink as powder-puffs.

Between, just coming into flower, is a flowering currant that demands maximum patience and tolerance, the funny little Ribes laurifolium. Its greeny-white racemes are just emerging among its leathery evergreen leaves. The trouble is it squats. I’ve had it in a generous pot for years, but nothing persuades it to get off its haunches.

Prune it to an upwards-facing bud and a downwards one will take over. It could easily hide among the hellebores – their leaves and general deportment match it well.

What is the most positive green in the garden in this grey damp? Of all things, a fern. Ferns and formality don’t seem to go together, but another inheritance, with the camellia, was the unusual arrangement of a fern at each corner of our biggest bed, which is square, central and significant. The four stand like guards around a catafalque, bursts of fresh green, their fronds knee-high. Their new growth in spring is pale copper, a colour that complements the green, lingers all summer, and sets off the bulbs and pulmonarias, hostas and geraniums and salvias that follow.

There are a dozen different ferns in pots on the deeply shady pavement outside the kitchen window. The prizes go to this coppery one, Dryopteris erythrosora, the little maidenhead , and the royal fern slowly building up its eventual majesty in the biggest pot we have.

The power of words

January 8, 2017

Suspended animation at Kew this morning

How limited, stilted and inhibited our gardening vocabulary is compared with, say, the jargon of the art world.

I look in vain in our literature for the sort of punchy phrases I noted on the walls of the Royal Academy during its Abstract Expressionism show. I have never read of a garden, for example, ‘dense with corpuscular motifs’, or ‘by turns visceral and cosmic’. Would I recognize them, I wonder, if I met them among the hedges and lawns?

I did find some expressions, though, I would love to attach to a garden. A ‘spiritualized space’ sounds more at home in a garden than on a canvas, and I challenge – who? Arabella Lennox-Boyd or Tom Stewart-Smith? to plant me a ‘lush but fragile impasto’.

Perhaps the real difference is that art critics have to maintain an illusion of more significance than meets the eye. Language can easily become a veil concealing a void of meaning. Gardening is realism made physical, permanent and in full view, with no room for commentary or excuses. Once it could use references unmissable by people who had been to the right school, or done the Grand Tour, to express political or religious messages – to those who knew the code. Sadly, we have thrown away the code book; what would, say, a Brexit garden or a Momentum garden look like? Not free of weeds, the latter. I fear the furthest the current idiom will get you is a genuflection to a Dutch gardener who paints in grasses.

Plant of the Year

January 3, 2017

Phantom phlowers

Trad used to do a Plant of the Month, when we had a big garden and many choices. This the first time I’ve done a Plant of the Year – but really it’s a Plant of Many Years; ten at least.

I love orchids for living in slow motion. Writing about a genus so closely and intensely studied is like treading on egg-shells, but this cymbidium (I believe its name is, or was when I bought it, Rum Jungle) has lived in the same modest plastic pot all this time. You couldn’t get a toothpick in among its curling roots. It lives on water and neglect., most of the year in a shady spot behind the greenhouse, where I top up its saucer when I remember, sometimes with a drop of Growmore in the can. (Could I be drummed out of the RHS for offering such unscientific advice?)

I brought it into the greenhouse in October and into the warmth of the house, by a north-facing window, in late November and gave it a little orchid feed. The flowers have been erupting for four weeks now – and of course stay pristine for weeks. Each flower of this rather ghost-like cultivar has a double red line faintly picked out on its lower lip, presumably to guide insects straight to the action.

My sister sees rescuing near-death orchids as a sacred calling and would scoop a tiny pot with a shrivelled phalaenopsis off a skip in the street for intensive care in her kitchen. Actually there is nothing very intensive about it; only patience and a strict regime. No food, almost no water, domestic temperature and refusal to give up. The joy when a tentative bud appears repays months of nurture.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


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’

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John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary