Tomato time

September 6, 2022

Can there be a gene linked to tomatoes? A human gene, that is. What else can explain the passion that runs through my family, from my father (who ate a mixture of scrambled eggs and tomatoes for breakfast every day) to me, always scouting for the sweetest and ripest, and my elder sister, who spends the summer cosseting her tomato garden – and, of course, makes papa’s dish every day? Gill, now ninety, has French doors from her kitchen, facing southwest, almost inaccessible through the gridlock of pots now toppling with their scarlet crop.

In the supermarkets it was a long struggle to find tomatoes worth the name. Trad mounted a campaign, maybe thirty years ago, complaining that the universal shiny red globes of nothing they then offered were a travesty of the noble fruit. Others must have agreed. Correspondence with press departments at Sainsburys and Tesco gradually saw a glimmer of interest. It must have been three or four years later a message came from a press officer, announcing that for the first time in history tomatoes had sold more than bananas – to the bafflement of the Board. Looking at the Trad index (you can look up any topic in it online (www.tradsdiary.com), I see I wrote about it in 2014 and 2011.

You must go to Italy, southern Italy, though, if you want to taste tomato in excelsis. Naples knows. Provence has good ones, and even the Isle of Wight is trying hard and doing well – in the proper season. September is the moment. There are many versions of the perfect tomato salad. Mine is made with beefsteak tomatoes, with slices two or three inches across, a few very thin slices of the mildest and sweetest white onions, a big pinch of salt and a great slosh of olive oil. Basil is a good substitute for the onion (which we rarely find sweet enough in England). No vinegar. Nothing more.

Roses don’t melt

September 1, 2022

It came as a surprise, I remember, when the finest bushes of Iceberg I ever saw were in one of the warmest gardens. It was at Loggerheads, the hospitable home of one of Australia’s greatest wine men in the Hunter Valley. Len and Trish Evans were a redoubtable couple, ‘always at loggerheads’, as Len put it. Their house was largely built of reclaimed materials; not from everyday houses but churches, railway stations, and anywhere where the materials and the details were larger than life. Each lavatory was a throne.

The Hunter Valley is way north of Sydney, with an almost subtropical climate tempered by abundant cloud. It is also a coal-mining region. The view from the Evans garden on its hilltop took in the green geometry of vineyards, the glitter of lakes and the scattered gum trees of the bush that, oddly, cast practically no shade, because their leaves hang vertically. Kangaroos, big and small, bounce about among the trees. A rose garden could hardly look more exotic.

It is not only Iceberg that has enjoyed this halcyon summer. Our shady little garden borrows roses from the neighbours, flowering in the sun far above their supporting walls in colours that add a gypsy counterpoint to our more conservative palette. There is pink and yellow, another shade of pink and one which is outright guardsman scarlet. Among them twines the unstoppable jasmine whose scent permeates everywhere.

The scent of the moment to me, though, is the late-summer smell of phlox. Phlox ‘White Admiral’ is a lynchpin in any border that I plant. I can’t pass it without stooping and asking myself again, what does this mild spiciness remind me of?

Undercliff

August 25, 2022

Harold (later Sir Harold) Hillier was a god-like figure in my gardening youth. By happy chance 1971 was the year he brought out the most complete catalogue of trees and shrubs for sale ever (I imagine) produced. It was also the year I wrote my ambitious International Book of Trees. Hillier’s Manual was my bible; I could not have attempted my book without it. II have my original copy (now bound in leather) beside me, with double ticks beside the plants I ordered for my growing collection and a single tick for ones I recognised and would eventually write about. I scribbled notes as I went. The Manual was, I now know, largely the work of Hillier’s young assistant, Roy Lancaster.

I remember Hillier at the time talking about Ventnor and the benign climate of the south coast of the Isle of Wight. He was sending, he said, a lot of his marginally hardy species for planting on the seaside undercliff, where frosts are relatively rare. It has taken me fifty years to get round to it, but we have just visited what is now the considerable botanic garden that now thrives around them.

There is none of the formal apparatus of a conventional botanic garden here; no order beds, in fact little botanical order. The thirty-odd acres are informally divided, mostly by geography: Australia at one end, Japan at the other. Within their zones plants are allowed, or encouraged, to let rip. It creates moments of hallucination: under the gum trees, your feet scuffing the noisy leaf litter, you are in Australia. Then Australia’s fierce botany gives way to banks of hydrangeas, before you are ducking the heavy fronds of scores of Kiwi tree ferns concealing a deep gully. Further on, splendid specimen trees, Hillier’s legacy, perhaps, surround an open lawn which was actually green in parts – thanks to their shade and seaside moisture. Further on again the spires of echiums form tall palisades, before a vine tunnel through an olive grove. Perhaps ecology is more apt than botany for such an album of plants and their habitats. To me it was a magical journey.

Lawrence Banks

July 8, 2022

My oldest schoolfriend, Lawrence Banks, died in June. His funeral took place in the village church at Kington in Herefordshire, on the Welsh border; a packed church and more attending online as befits a man of strong character and wide influence. He was a major figure in gardening circles, as much for his extraordinary ability as a plantsman as for leadership of many horticultural bodies, among them as treasurer of the RHS for many years.

Memories merge when we remember our friends. Was the rather chaotic and inky schoolboy the same as the senior City banker and intellectual powerhouse of international bodies and charities? We proved it when we were together and quoted the same words from the schoolmasters we shared. Two masters at Rugby licked us into being competent writers; I’ll name them: Jim Willans and Tim Tosswill. We went to different universities but met up again in the context of gardening. I would go to stay at the Banks family’s estate, Hergest Croft, where I remember his father, Dick, inheritor of England’s finest private arboretum, as a tall, benign presence who won a schoolboy’s admiration. Times spent with him among his trees made a deep mark on me, and inspired me to start looking at and writing about trees. It was an honour I still treasure to pay a tribute at his funeral in the church where we just remembered his son.

The Bankses, father and son, and grandfathers before them, were passionate and practical plantsmen. Dirty fingernails run in the family. Edward, who inherits the collection, shares the unusual family trait. There are now some 5,000 species and varieties of trees and shrubs at Hergest Croft, many of them the biggest of their kind in the country – and they are widely propagated and generously shared.

We had to follow Lawrence’s funeral online, sadly. I was not surprised by the choices of my own favourite aria. Ombra mai fu, from Handel’s Serse, or the lesson read by his widow Elizabeth, who was the first woman and first landscape architect to be president of the RHS. Ecclesiastes 3 contains the words ‘A time to plant and a time to pluck up’. The service ended with the supreme hymn, Now thank we all our God.

Trad wrote about Hergest Croft on October 18, 2010, September 3, 2013 and May 9, 2019,
all available to read online at tradsdiary.com

France profonde

June 29, 2022

Back, after a three year gap, to our old place in the heart (perhaps depths is a better word) of France. It is thirty years since we bought the almost-derelict farm with its 190 acres and splendid old barn, and fifteen years since we sold it to the Anglo-French couple who are now family friends. In a rare moment of sound judgement we had, with the help of the Office National des Forêts, made a statutory management plan for the whole property, which our successors have painstakingly followed. To see one’s plans coming to fruition is one of life’s great and rare pleasures. The plantations of oak are just as I hoped: a generation of trees now four metres high, lusty, deep green and well able to take care of themselves.

Our pine plantations (Corsican and what we call Scots and the French pins sylvestres – or wild pines) have been more affected by the endemic drought on miserable soil. Some have died; others are shabby and thin. Old woodland that we thinned to encourage the more valuable trees seems to have changed remarkably little. It is almost always oak that does best, gradually outgrowing the hornbeam, the wild cherry and the wild service trees (Sorbus torminalis) that keep them company. Here and there in the woods we found rather pathetic traces of our over-ambitious landscaping: a lonely azalea or Japanese maple by the remains of a little pond, long since rewilded by deer, boar or escapee cattle.

The most spectacular and satisfying developments are round the farmhouse and barn, utterly bare and un-treed when we arrived. Willows, cypresses, horse chestnuts, planes and tulip trees look thoroughly at home; the cypresses in perfect pencil shape now twenty metres high, a tulip tree pushing its succulent greenery into the apertures on the barn. The box parterre we improvised in the awkward space of the old farmyard wears the air of long establishment, hydrangeas flourish in stone troughs and roses have grown too tall and bosomy for their spaces on the walls.

In Arcadia ego

June 29, 2022

What a wonderful life Lancelot Brown must have had, travelling all over England to assess the Capabilities of one privileged stretch of the countryside after another. It wasn’t comfortable. Humphry Repton later wrote about his own constant carriage journeys; the awful roads, the difficulty of reading, let alone writing, on the road. The spilt ink, the crumpled plans. But when his host led him on horseback to the view from where he was planning his new house: the exhilaration, the prospect of woods and fields, the streaming western light, the marshy ground where he would dig a lake …….

He had researched his host’s fortune and found it adequate. A commission for a temple was likely, too, although Chambers had already been employed to build the house. His contractors were ready with men and wheelbarrows, scores of them, to start reshaping the land. Did he ever pause, though, look at the senior oaks and the massed beeches, the pools of bluebells and the waving grasses, and say to himself England is already Arcadia; I can make this valley more impressive, but I can’t make anything more beautiful. Now, in June, with fleecy clouds shifting the shadows, or in October when beeches turn russet and the oaks here yellow, there a motley green, no scheme of mine can improve on England.

Rose recital

June 26, 2022

On the way to the abbey

Is it a record year for roses? It certainly seemed that way on our drive through northern France last month. One of our stops was at Fontevraud, the Benedictine abbey where our King Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (and their son Richard Coeur de Lion) are buried. Fontevraud lies just south of the Loire near Chinon, and is still one of the biggest religious precincts in Europe; 36 acres within the walls. You arrive at the main gates along a straight street, lined with cottages, every one of which was hidden by its climbing roses. Reciting the names – of the ones we knew – made the walk through their sweet aura into a poetry recital. From then, on roses, climbing or sprawling or standing to attention, were the theme of our journey. At the Cotswold-perfect village of Apremont on the river Allier they festoon every house. At our old farmhouse, the great grey-leaved single white rose from La Mortola, that famous Mediterranean garden, is overwhelming the ancient barn and Ghislaine de Féligonde is smothering the little farmhouse.

At home it’s the same story. ‘Mad Alf’ cascades from the sycamore. Iceberg climbs one wall, Bantry Bay another, and our neighbours’ red and white roses soar high above our mutual wall, far out of reach. The patient little ‘monthly’ rose (never out of flower, even in winter, at least in folklore) modestly proffers its handful of blooms. There is nothing modest about the rampant Alister Stella Gray and his crop of custard-coloured flowers. I’m almost sorry the hydrangeas start up at the same time, in a competition they’ll never win. But there is still clematis to look forward to, agapanthus are in bud, our potato tree, Solanum laciniatum from Tasmania, scatters its purple flowers on the greenhouse roof and the giant scarlet fuchsia from Brazil is making up its mind whether to flower this year or not.

Bowled over

June 16, 2022

True, Rhodoland (in my mind a portmanteau term for rhododendrons, azaleas and all the spring things we associate with them, and the gardens they grow in) has never really admitted me as a member. I’ve never had the soil or the climate (you could say the terroir) they need to flourish. But last month at Exbury I got the full eyeful. I’ve known Exbury Garden for years, and loved it, but last month was the jackpot. You wander, bedazzled, down corridors of colour, Bond Streets of jewels, your nose embalmed with sweetness, green-locked from the real world.

You pass a pond swirling with carp in orange and gold. You’ve caught a distant glimpse of white yachts on a magic river, when the curtains draw back and you are in The Bowl, a sequestered little valley brimming with azaleas. Not just azaleas in all their shades of pink and purple and many interpretations of red, but a supporting cast of lacy maples and quietly assertive dogwoods, framed under a wide window of sky by the powerful presence of oaks.

This is gardening’s Sistine chapel. Along with the white garden at Sissinghurst it stands apart, the apotheosis of its race, the parson’s nose of horticulture.

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