Rhizome Alert

July 1, 2007

Showers on thirsty soil have their immediate result in opportunistic weeds. A hoe is all you need to see them off. The first penetrating rain of May, though, showed me how insufficient our efforts had been in tackling the real problems. Two spits and a bit we dug down, and
pored over every crumb of soil for signs of roots. But nothing will eradicate two plants I introduced in good faith and innocently allowed to make themselves at home.

The worst is Acanthus, specifically A. spinosus, whose leaves Athenian sculptors so admired.‘Rhizomatous, suitable for a spacious border’ said the dictionary, perhaps meaning the parched tribal areas squatted by al-Qaeda. It roots are deep enough to laugh off Acropolitan droughts, but any shred of the brittle white rhizomes is a snake in the grass, a spy in the cab – what is the metaphor I am looking for to suggest a lurking threat able to upset your universe?

I used Roundup as well. I stopped short of six inches of concrete, knowing that sculptural shoots would eventually force
their way through. More in faith than hope I planted heavyweight, soil-smothering favourites in the deep-dug soil. The rain came and with it those dark, crinkly, infinitely sinister green shoots.

The other one? Lysimachia clethroides, the Chinese loosestrife, pretty in its tidy pinky-green leaves and curling heads of pure-white flowers.‘Not so invasive as L. punctata’ say the books. Not so invasive
as Acanthus, I’ll grant you.

Gardens Illustrated June 2007

June 3, 2007

THE CURTAIN WENT UP WITH the carpenters still banging away on stage and the actors learning their lines. I had scarcely ordered the plants I need, let alone planted them, when spring went into overdrive. Plants I was planning to move and clumps to divide suddenly looked inviolable, on the point of flowering. Besides, the soil was rapidly drying out: a peck of dust in March was a bushel in April. With no rain in prospect it was time to go visiting; to cast off self-reproach and see the spring displayed by gardeners who really know how.

The Savill Gardens at Windsor with their splendid new visitor centre are drawing crowds these days. The soaring oak-roofed building is the best piece of modern garden architecture we have.
But even better in April, to my mind, and much less visited, are the Valley Gardens, a mile to the south on the ridge of the Great Park that overlooks Virginia Water. If ever there was an idealised landscape, a forest of exotic flowers, it is this. Sir Eric Savill and his successors have groomed 200 acres of ancient hunting forest, carved vistas, nurtured rarities, planted amphitheatres and wound paths until a wander in these woods in spring is pure intoxication. When
magnolias melt in petals on azaleas it goes to my head. A sailor with a perfect beam wind might feel like this, or the audience of a sublime aria. Life doesn’t get any better.

You could call it the abstract painting of gardening, this entirely English style. There are no functional parts, no symbolism, no representation, no eye-catchers; just the landscape itself, coloured with flowers. Sometimes at the end of a plunging wisteria -ride you see silver water. Immense oaks and beeches support the sky. Reality is suspended in horticultural heaven.

French garden nirvana is as different as could be: nature not idealised but domesticated. It would be the perfect moment, I thought, to compare what London and Paris do best. For years my favourite French April garden has been La Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne: the prettiest possible potager all primped up for spring. The heart of it is a walk under arches of wisteria; each arch a different species or cultivar. “Macrobotrys” dangles pale tassels a yard long: sinensis sweet smelling purple

ones. There is pink and white, and a graceful form nearer to grey. All are pruned tight for maximum performance.

But the gardener is drunk on bulbs. They even scale the walls of his bothy and sit in pots on the roof. Tulips are marshalled like dancers at a ball, swirling among pansies and wallflowers, disciplined by low box hedges and little skirts of pear trees in flower at knee height. A positive embankment of sand and manure announces asparagus: the first tips, no knobs, of grey and cream are poking through. Later there will be grand displays; the immaculate rose garden and the border where michaelmas daisies stretch for a hundred yards. For now the union of function and frivolity is
quintessential Paris, and pluperfect spring.

Wonders of the deep

June 2, 2007

A major submarine event here: our carp have pupped. Possibly ages ago; the water in the moat is too murky to follow events closely. We don’t know which of the three senior koi are the parents: Orlando (the Marmalade Carp), Aeroflot or the Pink Pig. They have been dawdling around together for decades without apparently getting frisky. I suspect Orlando because the new arrival is orange – almost goldfish-red, indeed. We have had big goldfish in the past, until the heron speared them, but carp are longer, sleeker, and eventually as round as torpedoes. I’m sure we’ll find out the young one’s name soon.

Winner on points

June 1, 2007

I’m fickle enough to have a Plant of the Day, let alone Week or Month. But sometimes there is a plant of the season; not necessarily a big impact flower, just something that goes on appealing, and keeps getting talked about, for week after week.

This spring it has been Ribes speciosum, the Californian fuchsia gooseberry – an unlikely link, you may say, but one blessed by botany: R. fuchsioides was its former name. It has been growing slowly at Saling for many years; long enough to cover a ten-foot wall with a dozen

prickly stems, layers of deep glossy little green leaves on red stalks and for three months from March to May its bizarre rich scarlet flowers, an inch long with protruding stamens for all the world like fuchsias. This year it also protected the

only wisteria buds the chaffinches missed.

Gardens Illustrated May 2007

May 2, 2007

HOME FROM THREE WEEKS IN New Zealand, glowing and confused. glowing from the pin-sharp sunlight that turns every landscape into a cinematic panorama, confused by the kaleidoscope of plants, native and (mainly) non-native, that makes Kiwi gardens some of the richest anywhere. I was wary of ‘Kiwi’ when I went. Was it a loaded workd like ‘Pom’? Far from it, I found: it is a proud label for everything New Zealand.

‘Bush’ is the other term that commands respect. It means the native flora, where it still covers the land, whether as high forest or low scrub or an exotic coastal tangle of palms and flax (the Phormiumof our gardens) in total control of dunes and cliffs mile upon mile. You can’t keep out of the constant discussion about native and non-native nature. Predatory mammals introduced from abroad play havoc in a land that had none of its own. Our problem with grey squirrels is nothing compared with the damage done by rats, mice, stoats, deer, rabbits and especially Australian possums to a fauna that includes birds that can’t fly.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation is an impressive organization. Its combat troops fight for its native animals and plants. Its communications arm provides, among much else, interpretative trails through bush of every kind. Five miles into a walk in rain forest you can still come across labelled trees. Getting your mind round the towering podocarps, the immense cypresses, cousins many times removed of the ones we know, the six species of southern beech, the prolific ferns soaring into trees and wonders such as tree fuschias and the bizarre lancewood is not easy. Nor is it helped by the mix of Maori and Latin that confronts you. Hebes and olearias and pittosporums are the genera that feel at first most like familiar ground – until the ground gets boggy with unfamiliar species and strange behaviour.

Bush tends, admittedly, to be brown – or rather a mixture of greens and tans and greys that fall somewhere short of conventional garden ‘colour’. Perhaps the pollinators of the antipodes are colour blind. You can make a comforting, well-furnished garden with Kiwi plants alone, but scarcely a cheerful one. ‘Our’ garden plants, on the other hand, do spectacularly well in the brilliant light and ample rainfall. The national arboretum, Eastwoodhill near Gisborne on the North Island, grows trees from round the world at alarming speed and

the roses of Christchurch, on the sheltered east coat of South Island, are enough to give you a complex.

The shift back from late summer in the southern hemisphere to early spring in this one is brutal. I confess it took me a couple of days to see the point of my own garden again. Perhaps the most important factor is transparency. There is a good deal of everygreenery here; more than in most gardens. Plenty of walls and hedges too. But how sketchy and unclothed – unpainted might be a better image – an English garden looks as colour starts to erupt in March. the severity of winter in Britain is at least simple. Coming home it all seemed too complicated. Colour is in spots rather than blocks; shape in lines rather than masses. I know – it is my garden – where the volumes are meant to be and where the voids, but it is my mind, not my eyes, telling me.

By the third day, jetlag receding, I was happy: things had clicked into place. Instead of random detail I was seeing my own intentions. Had I learned anything by going away? To make things simpler and more obvious, perhaps. How else are other people to know what you are trying to say?

Non-slip, non-stick

May 1, 2007

Hoggin is one of those lovely old words the dictionary can’t quite handle. (‘Same as hogging’ is its unhelpful definition.) what it means to a gardener is a relatively cheap, handsome, low-maintenance and long-lasting path material: self-binding gravel, sand and clay. You put it down wet, about two inches deep, and compact it with a heavy roller. that’s it. It tends to be a rather lurid orange for a year or so, but it makes a firm, non-slip, non-stick surface you can forget for years.

We are just re-hogginin’ the paths in the walled garden at Saling for the first time in at least 20 years. Latterly it’s true that weeds were getting a grip and plants advancing from the border alongside. I have rescued a hundred seedlings of Sisyrinchium striatum, the grey iris-leaved pioneer with pale yellow daisy flowers and yellow berries, one of the most useful of all plants for inhospitable soil. Old hoggin makes a good seedbed for lady’s mantle, too.

We have to scrape off the top inch or so of the old surface before we lay the new, and wait for mild weather (if we ever get any other kind). Once it’s done, all I’ll have to worry about is where the name comes from. Essex, I wouldn’t wonder.

Gardens Illustrated April 2007

April 3, 2007

I DON’T WANT TO SPOIL THE SPRING FOR YOU, and it may be your idea of the jolliest colour scheme on earth, but when the pinks (and mauves and magentas) of spring appear among the predominant early yellows, the grinding of my teeth can frighten the horses.

I know. Nothing can be done. the creator put the forsythia and flowering currant on the same planet (though not on the same continent) and his other creation, man, planted them together. Daffodils and honesty are pretty powerful, and yellow daffs with Prunus “Kanzan’ even more so. Swearing is the polite word for what these colours do to one another. They flash before my mind’s eye as I write: bergenias and daffodils, daffs and purple heathers … daffs have such a long season that swearing is hard to avoid. And then come the Kurume azaleas. What can we avoid, though, is some of the hardest shades of yellow, and some of the more lurid manifestations of magenta. And planting them side by side.

If there is a ground rule of colour it is not to cross the meridian of the colour wheel that runs from green to red. You’re safe on the arc between blue and yellow, where they make various shades of green. The tricky bit is the quadrant opposite, where they shade from purple to orange.

I admit a colour-coordinated spring garden sounds more than precious. Spring, after all, is spring. But you can avoid, ban, veto, dig up and burn the plants whose only tone of voice is a shriek.

Plague and trade

April 2, 2007

The two greatest threats to our native woods and their flora are deer and the nursery trade. So says Oliver Rackham in his new book Woodlands, published by Collins last year in the New Naturalist series and a surprisingly bracing read. We have never had so many deer in this country, he says, and there is little hope of controlling their spread. Even if we all chose venison instead of beef, it is too dangerous to shoot them in the suburbs where they lurk. Unless we deer-fence our woods, their seedlings, coppice stools, wild flowers and before long their whole structure will be destroyed. And fenced out of woods, of course, the deer will make straight for our gardens.

The nursery trade? It is the pattern of modern commerce we should be worried about. Mass production is the order of the day, wherever it is quickest and cheapest. British nurseries have almost given up propogating their own material, let alone local strains of anything. It matters less, certainly, that your azaleas come from Belgium than that oaks are grown from whatever acorns are most plentiful. It may be 50 years before we discover that Italian oaks are useless in Britain, by which time nothing can be done.

The most immediate threat, however, is the fungus Phytopthera. Rackham asked a Dublin conference whether Ireland had not seen enough of it to last 1,000 years. In the 19th century it caused the potato famine and depopulated the country. ‘That’s tricky,’ came the official answer. ‘If we exclude foreign plants we’ll be done for restraint of trade.’ In other words fingers crossed. In the dispute between plague and trade which side are you on?

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