Death and rebirth

June 3, 2021

Acrooss the Afon Mawdach to Cader Idris

Perhaps nine months doesn’t sound long in the life of a forest (that is the period between our last visit in August last year and our reunion last week). But through autumn and winter and a glorious spring there has been time for change, and a prodigious amount of growth, now reaching its climax. Luckily for us the lateness of spring gave us the perfect, greenest and most fragrant homecoming. The springtime woods have a score of sweet smells, some as potent as cut and growing grass, some quiet background scents you scarcely pick up until you identify them. Hawthorn and cow parsley are stridently sweet, bluebells and the tender leaves of larches form a quieter background harmony.

There are a few fallen trees, as always in a forest, and part of an ancient wall of huge stones has crumbled, undermined by an ash tree that is now dying. Once you focus on it, ash disease is everywhere, visible in bare twigs or skeletons of a whole tree canopy. Nothing can be done. The forester’s policy is to fell trees that could do damage in collapsing, as most of them eventually will; otherwise to leave them and let the growth of other trees take the light they no longer occupy. Birch and rowan, willow and hazel are always ready to cover the ground. Oaks we already cherish; seedlings of forest trees, spruce and larch, beech and hemlock and pine are clamouring to take over. It has been a wet spring until the past week and new growth is a glorious jumble of all the shades of green.

I related last year how one idiot forester, sent out to kill the notorious Rhododendron ponticum, managed instead to cut and poison our treasured blue rhododendron, R augustinii, the most distinctive plant in the forest. I went out to where it grew, clambouring up through bracken and brambles, expecting to find nothing but the blue stain of glyphosate. To my joy I found, scattered around the dead stump, a dozen tiny plants with their little shiny leaves, springing where mere twigs had landed on wet ground and layered themselves. I planted the replacement plant I had brought ten yards away in propitious brown earth.

Peak Wisteria

May 11, 2021

This must have needed a long ladder

It’s too soon to say whether Peak Wisteria 2021 will rival or even surpass the rainbow season of 2020. The longest array of tassels (in Gordon Place, off Holland Street, W8) embraces twenty houses. The tallest organised plant (perfectly trimmed, bousai-style) is in Canning Place, off Gloucester Road. But these are only the champios on my daily walks. Perhaps others pass even more dripping clouds of carnation-scented purple. Carnations and..…? Cloves, perhaps. Like all great perfumes it’s impossible to pin down. On the corner of Pembroke Square the smell switches suddenly from wisteria to Viburnum carlesii, sweeter, also tinted with cloves. Don’t let a face-mask get in the way.

Green behind the ears

April 29, 2021

It’s a funny feeling coming back to a book you wrote forty years ago. ‘How on earth did I know that?’ is my main reaction. In this case the book is The Principles of Gardening. I remember thinking that my publisher’s choice of title (portentous, impersonal) and worse still of the cover image (a scarlet poppy on a black background) would kill it stone dead. It survived. Some of the reviews – thank you, Penelope Hobhouse – were blush-making. But what still amazes me is how I amassed and compressed about four books worth of information, as a novice gardener in the inevitable hurry. (Is green behind the ears akin to green-fingered?)

The present drought – or let’s call it lack of proper spring rain – caused me to look up what I had to say about rain and the garden. In a chapter called The Soil as a Reservoir I included diagrams of the behaviour of moisture in the soil, and how long it took for rainfall to evaporate from different sorts of soil. In sandy soils one inch of rain will reach down 14 inches and be gone by evaporation and transpiration in five days. In loamy soil the same inch takes ten days to dry out to the same depth. But 14 inches of clay soil take seventeen days to dry out. Or so I said in 1979 – but don’t ask me to prove it now.

In other brief chapters I treated weather fronts and cloud patterns, air movement, wind and frosts in the same sort of factual, dispassionate way, thinking that background knowledge of the elements would be as helpful to a gardener as plant families as pruning routines. I suppose such things would be classed under geography at school, but I don’t remember being taught any of them. So where did I beg, borrow or steal all the detailed information?

Tom Lehrer knew. ‘Plagiarize, plagiarize; let no one else’s work evade your eyes … but remember always to call it research.’ Books feed off other books; that’s how knowledge advances. I know I’m responsible for whole new fields of writing about wine. My World Atlas of Wine, fifty years old this year, offered other writers resources of geography and to a degree geology and climate that would have taken them months to find independently. That was also my aim in writing The Principles of Gardening eight years later – to advance general knowledge of a subject so the following generation didn’t have to reach so far back to find useful information.

All books date. There were things I thought were essential (or ‘Principles’) that have turned out to have been mere fashions. Who talks about peat gardens today, or who plants the heathers and dwarf conifers that were all the rage in the ‘70s? There is one theme that won’t go away, though: ‘labour-saving’. Is gardening labour? I thought we did it for fun.

Folie de la pierre

April 19, 2021

Carmontelle

Do you ever wonder how seriously the Georgian creators of monumental gardens took all their temples to the gods, their statues and sacred groves? They had all grown up with the classics at school, may have gone on Grand Tours to Rome and come home with dreams of Arcadia, or at least the Campagna. But what are gardens for in real life? To entertain your friends, show off and have fun. Imagine the conversations – ‘I bet that cost you a bob or two’. Perhaps a Latin tag, and then ‘I rather fancy her; reminds me of ….’

Why such profane thoughts? I’m reading the prospectus for one of the most famous French 18th century gardens, written by its designer, a military engineer and man-about-the-salons who called himself Carmontelle. In the 1770s he was commissioned by the royal duc de Chartres, the king’s nephew, to design and build a park or pleasure ground for him at Monceau, just northwest of the centre of Paris. Carmontelle was a wit; irony was his trade mark. It is easy to think he was pulling energetically at his patron’s leg;. he stuffed it so full of follies.. His brochure takes it all very seriously, discussing the key viewpoints to survey a bizarre, to modern eyes rather ridiculous, assortment of pavilions and sham ruins, bridges, columns, temples, cascades, water- and wind-mills, Turkish tents, an Isle of Sheep, a wood full of tombs, arcades, an Italian vineyard and a Naumachia, or theatre for mock sea-battles, all scattered around artificial lakes and streams, over an area of flat land with no natural elevations, no prospect beyond this crazy Disneyland. The present Parc Monceau is just a surviving fragment. Twenty luxurious engravings with solemn captions were sold to be framed (hence the brochure). But if you read Carmontelle’s Introduction he rather gives the game away.

‘What do we actually do in the countryside?’ he asks. ‘We make it our business to please the ladies….but it is difficult to persuade them to go for a walk, and it is always late when they go out, then, deprived of bright light…..features lose much of their charm… and dampness, as well as persecution by insects, brings the walkers back….but what does it matter? – we talked, we laughed, we were gay’.. Hence, perhaps, the shortness of the walks at Monceau, and the number of ‘features’.

The temptation to overdo it is familiar to most gardeners, and a big budget only makes it worse. When some plutocrat started building and didn’t know when to stop the French speak of ‘la folie de la pierre’. Carmontelle was having a lot of fun.. Did the duke never say ‘Hold on a minute. Another ruin?’ You can overdo it with plants, of course, too. Nurserymen would have a lean time without enthusiasts who must try everything. Curiosity is a great gift to possess, but matched with a fortune (still more with indecision) it can rapidly lead to absurdity. Nor is building follies a thing of the past. I’ve been there myself, in the days when yards of reclaimed building materials were quite common.. But that’s another story.

The first English translation of Garden at Monceau was published recently by The Foundation for Landscape Studies in New York.

Ask Euclid

April 2, 2021

The Woolton oak

‘I’ve bought a tree, with a house thrown in’ was Charles Brown’s announcement when he bought Woolton House – and indeed the oak makes a bigger first impression. It stands on the lawn, almost a caricature of The Mighty Oak, in silhouette a perfect dome, in close-up and craggy grey tower spreading into a vast green cloud. It must have been planted, perhaps five centuries ago, on a mound of earth thrown up for the purpose – and so was another oak, only slightly less huge, a hundred yards away. Why, no one can say, but the planters knew what they were doing; in a region of rich soil with grand trees everywhere, the Woolton oak seems like a deliberate monument.

The Browns were Hong Kong pioneers, buying a house on the Peak in the days when Hong Kong meant textiles rather than international banks. Charles was an architect, Rosamond Brown a painter of spacious landscapes. What they have created together in Hampshire is one of England’s most original gardens.

The oaks came first, but there were the relics of a pukka Edwardian garden: spreading lawns, sheltering walls, greenhouses, orchards, space for leaf mould and compost on the grand scale. The rose garden surrounds a great square stone reservoir of a pool, sunk below stone balustrades of the kind favoured in the 1900s. The Browns consulted one of France’s top designers, the late Pascal Cribier. Together they have produced a positive playground of original ideas that is somehow coherent, one enclosure leading to the next in the approved manner of garden rooms, but each room a painting so powerful it comes as a shock.

After the rose garden comes the potager, a huge space that may well be trapezoidal – you’d have to ask Euclid – painted in the manner of Mondrian, with blocks of colour separated by straight lines. Mondrian used the primary colours, which nature doesn’t. Vegetables, though, have a pretty pungent palette, from beet red to leek blue and marigold yellow. Cribier’s cunning is in the repetition of tramlines, parallel lines in mediums so different that it only dawns on you slowly why it all feels coherent. The choice of plants and their colours is Rosamond’s, with her two gardeners, Ian and Yvonne. They don’t do timid. One walled enclosure is red; red trellis posts, red brick floor, red roses – all under ropes of green vines. Another is tramlines of cacti in paving; another, tramlines of scarlet geums in a perfectly level lawn. The rose garden round the pool has no inhibitions of any kind; Bengal Crimson roses dip down into the water, agapanthus and verbascums swamp the paths and steps, an anaconda of a wisteria is busy destroying the stone balustrades. Hostas and daylilies are the sober elements in a maelstrom of colour surging round the roses. Nearer the house, though, on a higher level, the palette is limited to yellow and the black grass, ophiopogon, and the only pleached ginkgos, I wager, in Hampshire.

It’s strong stuff, intoxicating for a conventional gardener like me, lying like a rug from the East in a green setting of parkland and meadow, great oaks and preoccupied sheep. Go when it’s open for the National Gardens Scheme; you and your garden could have a change of mind.

Peak Magnolia

March 30, 2021

It’s Peak Magnolia in Kensington. The heats are over; we’re in the finals now: every street in these leafy parts is fielding a tree or two. The finals end just as the wisteria heats are getting going. And meanwhile the cherries are scattering their confetti on pavements and cars.

Magnolia x soulangiana is the people’s choice, and I’ve just stumbled on the fact that the year 2020 was its 200th birthday. In 1820 people were just getting excited about two recent imports from the Far East: Magnolia denudata (because its white flowers appear on naked branches) came from China, and Magnolia liliiflora from Japan. ‘Liliiflora’ is a bit fanciful; magnolia flowers are more like tulips.

It was a retired Napoleonic officer who thought of crossing them to produce a hybrid. Etienne Sanlange-Bodin had a role in the Empress Josephine’s garden at Malmaison before he retired to a village not far from Fontainebleau to start a nursery. The hybrid was a triumph, combining the white of M. denudata with the purple of M.liliiflora in all sorts of interesting ways and adding the vigour that often comes with hybrids.

There must be twenty variants in cultivation today, from the customary pinky purple one you see everywhere, with its fleshy cups of flowers, to a pure white (‘Brozonii’ is a beauty) through pale blushes with various darker veins or stripes to dark purple and even nearly red.

The magnolia collection at Kew is at its peak just now, too. It started a good month ago with the tall M.campbelli, the pride of Cornish gardens so often nipped in its prime by untimely frost. Fifty feet of bright pink against a blue sky draws the crowds. Kew’s own cultivar, M. Kewensis, is a big stout tree by magnolia standards, but my own favourite is a stately white M. kobus labelled ‘Borealis’ – though I’m not sure why. ‘Borealis’ means northern. For some reason icy white appeals to me more than lingerie colours.

Hourglass of spring

March 23, 2021

The weeping willow is my favourite hourglass of spring. Bulbs are brighter, cherries more cheerful, but the quiet colour change, from the buff yellow of the winter curtains of a willow to a faint tinge of green as little catkins emerge with the first pale leaves, is something that grabs me in March every year. I go to see the willows that surge up from below the bridge over the Serpentine. You can lean over the parapet and touch their branches. There is energy and repose in the long curves of the branches and the green torrent of subsidiary shoots.

I used to be brutal in pruning one I planted beside the wellhead in the courtyard at Saling Hall. It spread in twenty years or so to fill half the yard with its tresses. One of our granddaughter’s favourite (perhaps only) memories of Grandpa’s old house was of standing on the wellhead, grasping a strand of willow and launching off to swing out and back through the greenery.

Whether it’s true or not, I love the legend of the arrival of this uniquely elegant tree in England. The tree is originally Chinese, but a connection in Turkey sent a parcel of figs to Alexander Pope at his villa in Twickenham. Pope’s gardening instinct made him look with interest at the yellow withies tying the bundle. It was easy to see that they were willow, so the poet put some cuttings in water. When they rooted he had the first weeping willow in the country.

The soft willow dome and the strict vertical of the Lombardy poplar, today the yin and yang of our landscape trees, appeared here in the same generation in the mid 1700s: the willow at Twickenham, the poplar in Essex, at St Osyth’s Priory near Maldon. How that period of discovery changed our landscape. Have any exotic imports contributed so much to scenes that now seem quintessentially English?

In any language

March 10, 2021

I’ve been an avid reader, I confess, of the new anthology of my (Trad’s) own words to be published as Sitting in the Shade on April Fool’s Day. I happened to open it at the entry for our daughter Lucy’s Wedding in May 2010, which I wrote in a state of high excitement – and largely in Latin. It was an early summer day when the garden was almost over-performing. I had to list all the flowers, and immediately found myself knee-deep in Latin names. It makes for a page so peppered with italics (the correct procedure for botanical Latin) that I was going to leave it out, thinking it would put bookshop browsers off buying. ‘No’, said my sagacious editor, ‘keep it in; it’s a lovely wedding celebration’.

A Te Deum it isn’t, but how to adequately express the identities of a score of flowers without saying their names? And insofar as they even have English names a list of spurge, baby’s breath, ladies’ mantle, larkspur and geraniums hardly conjures up the variety and brilliance of the garden that day.

The sun was so hot we had to find shade under the apple trees that were just spreading their leaves, filtering the sunlight on the tables, the ice-buckets and glasses in the manner of a Renoir or a Seurat. Then a wind got up and the tent where we were having lunch half-collapsed. In any language, Dies laetificans.

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