Head for heights

January 24, 2023

Its biennial tree-pruning time. It’s not the tree that’s biennial, but the massive operation of cutting it down to size. The sycamore at the end of the back garden was a wartime baby. Its girth of 80 inches means it was a sapling in the 1940s, a typical weed sycamore on, I guess, a compost or rubbish heap. There is an unsolved puzzle about our sixty-foot garden: The far twelve feet are four feet higher than the rest, paved, balustraded and reached by four stone steps. They are four feet higher than the surrounding gardens beyond the walls too.

How, and why? The sycamore is on the higher level. Did its seed germinate on a rubbish heap (not unlikely, during the war)? But does it seem probable that someone would pave and balustrade a rubbish heap? Were they simply respecting the roots of a young tree? Many London gardens end with a buried air-raid shelter; there is not one here. For whatever reason our garden is on three levels, the kitchen on the lowest, with the greenhouse on the middle one. It certainly gives it character.

The sycamore, however, is an expensive feature; at more than a thousand pounds every other year you could say a luxury, and one we can’t avoid. Today’s entertainment (and summer shade) is our reward: two athletes up in the canopy, cutting and dropping every whiskery shoot, and two helpers on the ground gathering them and carrying them through the house. There is no side entrance so they come through the narrow hallway, stripped of everything we can move.


January 14, 2023

When it gets dark at teatime and I need a mac even to reach the greenhouse, I have an unfailing source of garden interest. It may be nearly two hundred years old, but The Gardeners Magazine chatters away about just the things we discuss, over the fence or in the pub; the whys and wherefores of plants and soils and weather.

I just opened the 1842 volume to see what was on the agenda at the end of that year. The answer is chemistry. Great minds were pondering the importance of basic elements in the soil and the atmosphere on the growth of plants. It was all pragmatic stuff – what a Californian actress would no doubt call ‘lived experience.’ Why did plants in pots sulk in sifted soil but perk up if you added stones or grit or turf? Ditto with the effects of mulching plants in the ground. ‘The Conductor’ (who of course was the encyclopedist John Claudius Loudon) managed to have correspondents all over Europe, and even as far away as Australia. And correspondence in those days meant quill pen and inkwell. It was in 1841 that Rowland Hill introduced the penny post, the one price universal stamp that got everyone – or at least far more people – writing. Loudon reflects on the likely effect of this simple system on gardening. Suddenly sending seeds to friends became cheap and easy. Plants can travel from Cornwall to Scotland for a penny.

The 1840s were indeed a time of great changes. But what decade doesn’t see itself in retrospect as a turning point of some kind? Loudon mentions Sir Humphrey Davy, who had recently discovered oxygen, and the French chemist Chaptal as the master-chemists of the previous age. Now it was Liebig’s turn. Liebig’s great discovery was that the carbon which forms the structure of plants comes simply from the C02 in the atmosphere, not from any ground-based source. Justus von Liebig also not only discovered or invented fertilizer, but beef extract, how to preserve (ie corned) beef and even how to manufacture mirrors. You could call him Germany’s Pasteur.

Loosening ties

January 12, 2023

The tulips on the kitchen table are called ‘Texas Flame’, magnificent yellow and red flowers, flaring their pointed petals as they gradually slacken their stance. When they were bolt upright they were almost stately, but their gradual relaxation is a joy to behold, until they droop, their stems becoming concave as they strive to keep their heads up and their petals start to fall. I managed to discover their name, but know hardly any of the succession of equally beautiful tulips that bring joy to the house all winter long. I read that there are 8,000 varieties. The flower barrow at the top of the road always has three or four, but I scarcely mind what colour they are; the succession on the kitchen table is a continuous pleasure.

We have an even greater treat, though, in the greenhouse and almost ready for its entry. Each year I plant a wide and rather deep pan with as many ‘tommy’ crocuses as I can fit in. They are just showing their first colour as I write. In the kitchen they will extend and expand and luxuriate until there is scarcely room on the table for our wine glasses. Eventually they loll drunkenly (is it the fumes?), spilling over their bowl in extravagant curving gestures. The pictures on the packet show bulbs in their party suits, ties straightened. They are different characters when the party really gets going.

A spot of triage

January 7, 2023

Someone asked Christopher Lloyd, the gruff guru of Great Dixter, when was the best time for some garden operation. ‘When you have the time’, he answered, brusque as ever.There’s lots of time now, with the world seemingly asleep. So what shall I go out and do?

In a garden prone to serious cold it might not be a good idea to start snipping, or even to tidy up too much. The hydrangeas are provoking me; their green buds prominent and prime, you would think, for a spot of triage. As I see it, you can decide whether you want big flowers or lots of smaller ones, leaving a longer shoot for lots or cutting right back for few and big. Indecisive as ever, I do a bit of both.

Gossip (which to my mind always holds an element of malice, or at least scandal) is not Trad’s scene. But it can be fun to see surprising connections – especially about public figures. Such as our new queen. Being a gardener with a taste for wine I enjoy the fact that her grandfather, Morton Shand, wrote an excellent book about wine, and her first husband was the grandson of the author of classic gardening books, E.A. Bowles, who is remembered for such plants as Bowles’ Mauve wallflower, a crocus, a snowdrop, a phlomis, a golden grass and a periwinkle. More plants, in fact, than any other amateur I can think of. His garden, Myddelton House at Enfield in the Lee Valley, has been almost miraculously preserved. Will the Palace, I wonder, reflect these two most civilized preoccupations?

……. and an overlooked November post

January 7, 2023

The naked fleshy flowers for the magnolia have their fur jackets on, grey against the orange streetlights. The radio says minus six or so tonight. The greenhouse is shut down for the first time in nine months. The big fuchsia from Bolivia should have been shoehorned into the greenhouse last week; all this year’s three feet of green growth will have to come off.

It hasn’t rained since the walnut and sycamore that keep us in shade all summer dropped their leaves; they sift around on the dry paving. I’ve stuffed most of them into the Council’s blue bags; the rest are deep on the beds, slowly settling around stems of roses and the ever-taller Fuchsia magellanica from the lower reaches of the Andes, still carrying some little flowers. I’ll be bringing Fuchsia boliviana in from the cold; in fact I should have done it already, but it’s so long since we had serious frost that I’ve lost any sense of danger. There is no problem in moving this little tree; it has been in the same pot for nine years now, a heavy ornate Tuscan one it needs to balance its heavy head of annually lopped branches. For years they reliably carried their long scarlet tube-flowers all summer. Last summer it failed to flower: too long in the same pot? I shall top-dress it with manure in the spring. Meanwhile it just fits on the wall side of the green house where a potted plumbago has spent the summer.

The greenhouse benches are packed with pelargoniums. Its lucky I’m a leaf man, as their flowers have been scant this year. All the space between them is now taken up with little pots of bulbs, irises and crocuses – though I’m never sure if they’d be better left outside for a good soaking and chilling. Gardening is one long experiment: some are in, some out. The most exciting leaves on the benches are the shiny, nay gleaming, straps of Veltheimia capensis. They have hosta quality, in that to me the flowers, in their pink spikes, are of secondary interest. No other plant has such immaculate coachwork presence; you feel the chauffeur is lurking with his duster.

Frisky doormat

November 26, 2022

Exciting is scarcely a word you would apply to a Nandina. Nor is ‘glamorous’. ‘Worthy’ is perhaps the word for them. Their moment comes late in the year with a possible crop of scarlet, or on one variety yellow, berries. They are more respected in the Far East, where they are even called Heavenly Bamboo (though they are not remotely bamboos; rather a relation of berberis, which seems almost as unlikely). In Japan they have symbolic value, as the equivalent of Welcome doormats. In Japan there seems to be one on every doorstep.

Mine, though, is different. It does excite me. In fact it is positively sporting. I grew it from seed I collected in the botanic garden at Kobe, the port city near Osaka. It lives in a pot (by the front door, of course) and has led a blameless life for years. This year it got frisky. It has put up an extra vigorous shoot, which has turned a bright plummy red, with a lovely bloom on its leaves and handsome purply stem. This is not its autumn colour, strangely enough, which tends more to green: there is a greening tendency now in some of its leaves. I’d love to propagate it, but I’m nervous about chopping off this precious shoot.

Elsewhere, I’m putting little bulbs in tiny pots to put on the table in the New Year. I remember the dining table at Château Mouton-Rothschild, where Baron Philippe de Rothschild used to decorate his table at dinner with irises; just one Iris reticulata or danfordiae in a tiny terracotta flowerpot by each place. He was a perfectionist, not only in his sumptuous claret and his unique museum of objects relating to wine, but even with his front drive. It was deeply covered in white pebbles. You couldn’t help leaving footprints in them when you arrived for dinner. When you left they had all been raked away. They do that in the most prosperous Japanese temples – less the dinner, of course. Not so often in France.

Measuring the wind

November 14, 2022

It blew on the Solent for three days and nights, Force Seven on the Beaufort Scale: “Near Gale. Sea heaps up, waves 13-19 feet, white foam streaks off breakers. Whole trees moving, resistance felt walking against wind”, with patches of Force Eight: “Gale. 18-25 ft waves, edges of crests begin to break into spindrift, foam blown in streaks. Twigs breaking off trees, generally impedes progress, and even Force Nine,” waves 23-32 feet, sea begins to roll, dense streaks of spray may reduce visibility. Slight structural damage occurs, slates blow off roof.”

Where do you stand to measure the height of waves? I’m not sure whom the Beaufort Scale, with its graphic images of what happens when the wind gets up, is for. For mariners, worrying about their gardens back home, or landlubbers, fearful their seafarers may never return? The next step up is Ten: “Storm. Seldom experienced on land. Trees broken or uprooted. Considerable structural damage”. Last week the “trees broken or uprooted” part certainly happened.

Where it happens, I’ve almost always found, is where a tree, for one reason or another, is weakened. A graft is often a weak point, particularly a graft at ground level where the leverage of the swaying trunk is at its maximum. Here a decent-sized ‘cockleshell’ beech, the one with round and scalloped leaves, snapped at ground level. Where a branch tears off you will usually find a weak point, often caused by rot.

When the wind died the floor was covered with twigs, some leafy, mostly just dry. A Monterey pine was uprooted – or more accurately, its windward roots severed. The ground there was undrained; roots had simply not pushed out in the wet soil. The fork of a substantial oak split open, otherwise branches light enough to carry littered the ground.

Foresters talk about a ‘wind-firm edge’. It is asking for trouble to fell part of a plantation and give the wind access to trees that have been sheltered by others all their lives. There are lone trees at the seaside pushed to crazy angles by the prevailing wind but firm as a rock. They have had, you might say, plenty of exercise.

Birds have their different reactions to a gale. Little ones hunker down in a hedge. Flocks of commuting geese heading west, twenty or thirty in a formation, were at full throttle and double flap to make headway, yelping encouragement to each other. It seemed to be crows who enjoyed it most. A dozen of them were jumping high into the wind from the shelter of a copse, soaring, skidding and sliding like kids in a playground.

Green Provence

October 18, 2022

La Provence Verte is well-named. The rocky regions round Aix, the Montagne St Victoire and Les Baux are more populous and have inspired more painters with their ochre tones, but up in the higher parts of the Var a certain shade of green is universal: the colour of the Aleppo pine. Its forests are a monoculture over range after range of hills. They reach down to the Cote d’Azur and up towards the Alps, a rug of a pale green the colour of a Bramley apple, slender trees whose thin needles let the light filter through, reaching up on pale trunks the colour of aluminium. Dotted among them around habitations or cultivation come the dark verticals of cypresses, often so slim and so trim you would swear they were clipped. The two make one of the happiest, most apt, two-tree combinations I can imagine.

We are just home from a week with friends at a modest chateau deep in these hills, perhaps more strictly a maison de maître or a gentilhommière than a chateau; no pediments or battlements, a tall plain house of the 19th century, yellow with grey shutters, standing as it were on a podium in a grove of planes that must have been planted when the house was built. They reach as high as the roof, despite having been pollarded as youngsters to produce three or four soaring trunks. Their bark has peeled into a jigsaw of bone-yellow and grey and green, shading the gravel ready raked for a game of boules.

This limestone country is slashed by dramatic gorges. The little river Argens, which many days later will glide slowly into the sea at Fréjus, has cut a winding trench a hundred feet deep that goes by the mournful name of Le Vallon Sourn. Where the valley widens out and it reaches the light you are met by the different green of vineyards and the grey of olives.

A village here is a narrowing of the road into a gorge of tall narrow houses of that quiet ochre colour that dramatizes the blue and red of awnings over the hard chairs of the cafes. A tractor will fill the whole width of the street. You will smell its diesel and hear its trundling roar till the quiet floods back. On a still day of sunlight and dark shadows time dawdles here. And we follow the example of time.

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