Raring to go

March 3, 2021

This time last year the world was holding its breath. The streets were empty. The skies were silent. In lockdown the only metre on stage was nature, and nature is never more active than in Spring. There was little to do by watch the slow motion metamorphosis of a pinhead to a suggestion of a bud to a pregnant envelope, to its slow spliting to give a glimpse of colour, then unfurl or crack open, and petals to fill out like butterflies’ wings. I took my magnifying glass into the garden every morning, feeling like David Attenborough. Conditions were perfect for contemplation detached from time.

This time round the world outside is like a bud, peeping open to allow tantalizing glimpse of what’s to come, but nipped, as it were, by unnatural rules that tell it to go no further until authorized. The strain is showing. Sunny afternoons in the park don’t look very locked-down, and are all these cars joining the M4 on essential journeys?

There is a point of no return with opening buds. The petals they sheltered can be blasted, but the urge that opens them is irreversible.

“Were we the Earl of Grosvenor”

February 22, 2021

John Claudius Loudon, our greatest horticultural journalist, didn’t mince his words. He made a visit to Cheshire (this was in 1831) to see the earl’s new palace of Eaton Hall, and approved of the house. “It is the only palace we have ever seen where every part of the finishing and furniture are equally excellent. With great splendour, there is great chasteness of colouring….” “Having said this’, he goes on, “we have said all that we can say in favour of Eaton Hall…. the situation forbids all hope of any natural beauty…. a totally wrong character has been attempted in laying out the pleasure grounds,….. tiresome in its sameness, and without a single object that can raise ideas of either grandeur or beauty.” He then goes on to give his ideas (they sound more like instructions) to remedy things.

Then he goes on north to Lowther Castle in Cumbria, recently rebuilt for the Earl of Lonsdale, where “a great error, in my opinion, is that … the house faces the wrong way….., is too low. “There is a small flower garden, in a hollow, shaded by high trees, where fine flowers. can never grow, and a very bad kitchen garden, a mile or more from the house.” Lowther Castle, he graciously concedes “may still be made of something of” …. and then lets the earl have the benefit of his instructions..

William Robinson, the next great panjandrum of garden writing, can also fall short on courtesy. “Osborne” (Queen Victoria’s pride and joy) “is perhaps one of the saddest and ugliest examples in England….” Robinson, of course, was famously rude about formal gardening of almost any kind, and has been said to have invented woodland gardening. But, compared to these self-confident Victorians, we no longer have any garden critics at all. Would Monty Don ever say a garden was ugly? Would Alan Titchmarsh? The modern style of describing a garden is milk and water compared with these combative commentators. It must all be positive, not even constructive in suggesting things that could be done better. And, Trad has to admit he tends to look on the bright side, too.

World tour, no cost

February 3, 2021

It is an exercise, or pastime, or distraction for this sort of afternoon: dismal and damp, grey in the garden except where three or four flowers look like rubbish blown in by the penetrating wind. There is only one cloud, a blanket form horizon to horizon. Is it moving, or just prone, spread-eagled over us without the energy to move?

But I’ve escaped, vertically, right through it, to look down on the drifting wavelets of its dazzling white upper side, under the cerulean empyrean (nul points for choice of words).

My exercise, or pastime or (most importantly) distraction is a visit to the gardens stored in my mind. To bring them into focus I start with the red, white and blue bedding in front of Buckingham Palace. Looking closer, it’s not white but horticultural silver, a sort of sunlit grey. It doesn’t take long to take it in, so down the stone steps to the end of the lake, where water cascades out of a hole in the wall, under the road; where does that come from? Is it one of London’s lost and buried rivers, or an unheard pump? Follow a skittering coot from the bank, out between the willows, towards the distant Xanadu of Whitehall’s domes and towers.

I’ve leapt now, in one splash, to where the Pin Mill is reflected pin-sharp in the rectangle of pool at Bodnant, then down a steep slope dense with rhododendrons to the rippling water of the Hiraethlyn as it winds through tranquil lawns under spires and towers of trees.

Which garden is in your mind’s eye in this world tour without expense? I just saw the gardeners hosing down the thick trunks of the Judas trees in the Retiro Gardens, the bright pink flowers absurd on the sparkling black bark. I just sat on the tatami, encompassed by the rattle and gurgle of rain in the copper pipes while the rocks shone, the azaleas and maples cringed under the downpour and the bamboo bowed.

Is the silver serpentine rill still running in its pale stone gulley down to the circle of pool in the woods, and on, down, round bends into invisibility? Is anyone admiring the cold stone nymphs or remembering the names of national heroes? Are the green blades of the bulbs shining among the rocks at Wisley, or the catkins shaking out their yellow dust? And at Ninfa, I see the fat trout in the racing green streamers of weed in the gin-clear river and the roses lolling from the ruined chancel-arch.

I see my own old garden, the trees I planted, the little cascade, the mossy old apple trees and the flint church tower. And with a little more imagination (the future is harder to imagine than the past) the long Welsh stone we will set up as a sundial in the New Forest. Gardens live in the mind, and there is a switch to turn them on.

Down time at Kew

January 27, 2021

I wonder if there is a scientist at Kew doing a buggy count. Buggies, their well-wrapped passengers and their propellants, usually in gossiping pairs, sheepskin coats, long hair and boots, formed little traffic jams on the sunny Friday we were there. The citizens of Kew and Brentwood have found the perfect place to take their socially-distanced exercise.

There is not a lot of botany to distract them. Kew is immaculately cultivated these days, despite pandemic precautions. Nowhere do you see such consistently generous mulching circles round trees. To find fresh flowers in January you must head for the Davis Alpine House (sadly to find it shut). Late January is the time I go every year to see the ultimate squill, Scilla maderensis, in the glory of its deep red bulb and lavender flowers. And of course cyclamen.

There are still leaves on many of the extraordinary variety of oaks, many buds and some catkins in evidence. The buggy traffic was particularly thick in the pinetum, the greenest and most sheltering part of the garden. The depths of the towering Redwood Grove is a popular spot and the bushy cephalotaxus make good hiding places. One pine above all stands out, the Chinese Pinus bungeana, the so-called Lacebark pine, its trunk a tall silver exclamation mark among all the green.

The camellias are starting their long season, but why do I find it hard to get excited about them?. A wonderful white one with flowers like poached eggs is the brightest spot in the still gloomy Rhododendron Dell (the one rhodie in flower is a dismal muddy pink). There are Camellias whose flowers come straight off the drawing board of the creator’s top designer of roses, yet where roses seduce with softness and scent, camellias are aloof, cold and ungiving, shinily armoured against affection. Not a flower you would put in your bosom.

A juggle of experts

January 17, 2021

Country Life is a magazine like no other. It comes out every week, beautifully printed, with a truly catholic range of contents that supposedly interest upper-class country dwellers. It would take a page to list the richly varied contents of the copy I have in front of me. They range from cars to pugs to moonlight, the restoration of a London mansion to the fate of a Victorian cavalryman, from the art market to artichokes. Its contributors always seem well-qualified, most write well and a number are leading authorities in their fields. Having edited a magazine that tried to do the same sort of thing, but in the context of fashion, I know that juggling so many experts is a tough job. And Queen was only a fortnightly – and eventually monthly.

Country Life earns its primary living as the estate agents’ window; indeed the first pages of each issue have been described as ‘property porn’ with some reason. Choosing or gloating over houses is a harmless pastime. I habitually look at their gardens, or what I can see of them, and often, I confess, wonder how the owners of such desirable houses can have so little idea of what to do with their surroundings.

The number of fine houses with rooms in keeping that merit articles of their own these days always surprises me. Many years ago, in the 1960s, I set out to write a book on English manor houses, a category below stately homes that seemed neglected. I worked with a photographer, John Hedgecoe, whom I admired for his startlingly romantic pictures. ‘How did you manage to catch the mist on the moat like that?’ I once asked him. “A smoke bomb’ was his answer.

I never wrote the book. For one reason, it was pointed out to me that it would be a handy burglars’ guide. For another, when I was invited into many of the houses their interiors were an anticlimax. Their seemed to be a beige three-piece suite in every lovely room, oak-panelled or plastered by a fine Italian hand. Such houses still exist, as do dreary or ugly or inappropriate gardens. But my impression is that furnishing has come on faster than landscaping.

Infra dig

January 4, 2021

The Saling Hall cedar on the move

I came across an old photograph, taken in 1987 in November mist, of moving what is now the substantial cedar of Lebanon at Saling Hall. I had been rather sniffy about moving big trees. Buying trees ready-grown, I sniffily thought, was was almost as infra dig as buying your own furniture. I know noblemen used to shift the trees around their park with massive contraptions involving teams of horses. There was a famous transfer of trees in the 1760s from the Duke of Argyll’s collection at Whitton in Hounslow to Kew, then under development by the Earl of Bute. (It’s funny how many Scotsmen are involved in these matters).

Our cedar came from Easton Neston, courtesy of Lord Hesketh. The mover, no horses required, was Chris Newman, who operated the first Tree Spade in the country, an ingenious sort of mighty scoop to lift a big rootball and shunt it to a new home. Today his business is called Civic Trees. In exchange for the cedar he took a good twenty foot walnut to plant in Henry Moore’s garden at Much Hadham.

For our incipient arboretum at Saling I almost always looked for ‘maidens’, young trees with all their branches from the base up, as opposed to standards or half-standards that had had their branches cut off. My hunch was that they would quickly establish and in a few years overtake bigger specimens. They almost always did, so long as I followed my own 3-year rule. 3 years, that is, of unrelenting TLC, of which watering was by far the most important part.

In those days there was virtually no need to go further than one nursey to find almost any tree or shrub you had ever seen or read about. The Hillier family had ‘previous’, as they say, but Harold Hillier was an obsessive. By happy chance Hilliers Manual of Trees and Shrubs was published in the same year as my World Atlas of Wine, 1971, and in the same year we moved to a house with space to plant. When I bought my first Manual I had little notion of what a unique and precious document it is. It was the work of Harold (since Sir Harold) Hillier and his assistant Roy Lancaster. Not only did it list and describe what seemed to be the entire repertory of trees that anyone could plant in Britain. It actually offered them for sale. Yes, you could order the complete Quercetum or Sorbetum or Cupressetum (if there is such a word). It would be delivered to your door, and bingo, you would be a celebrated Collector. Not instantly, mind you. The trees were not all lined up in pots at Romsey waiting for takers. Sometimes you had to wait for the propagator. And there is the apocalyptic story of the customer who telegrammed H.H. ‘Trees arrived. Presume roots follow.’

He was unlucky. Most of the scores of trees I eventually ordered turned up in due course, roots intact, were planted, and, after their three years, thrived. Most of them, I am happy to say, still do. And this is really the point of this story: the happy ending. We were the curators of the growing collection for forty years. Now, eight years after leaving, I am in regular contact with the new owner, who sends me bulletins, photos confirming identities and answers my questions about progress. In all there are something like a thousand woody plants on the list. How lucky am I still to be enjoying what I planted fifty years ago?

Groundhog

January 1, 2021

I have to eke out the few jobs there are to do in this little garden at this time of year. Plant one plant, pot on one pot, prune one bush. Because each time I go out and feel the clammy air and a spot of rain on my pate I tingle with the pleasure of being among plants – and I don’t want to squander tingles.

So today it was cutting the leaves off a soon-to flower hellebore, tying in the daphne odora that is leaning forward and blocking the view, washing a pot and saucer for a plant I’ll be bringing indoors tomorrow. Tomorrow I shall pick some remaining dead leaves out of the border, clean some grubby clay saucers and discourage the ivy shoots springing from high on the wall. Fiddly stuff, I admit, but hands-on, out in the cold, and in direct contact with nature.

Covid confinement has enforced routine to a degree I have not encountered since ….., school, I suppose. True, when I’ve been in the throes of writing a book all lesser things are pushed aside and life can settle into just sitting to scribble. The present daily routine, though, is not focussed like this, nor does it bring a sense of progress towards a goal.

It’s not quite groundhog day but the same little movements have a way of becoming mechanical, from reaching out of bed for my specs and my ipad to read The Times, to shaving (left cheek, then right, then chin, upper lip…) to breakfast (yoghurt, blueberries, granola, put teabag in cup, take pills with orange juice, finally, lick the marmalade spoon.) Then out to the greenhouse, check the rain gauge, read the overnight temperatures, pick off fading flowers and droopy leaves, fill the watering can from the cistern, feel the compost in the pots, open the greenhouse light one notch….. A wilting shoot can give me something to worry about, and a new flower bud is an event.

Charles I the Digger King

December 9, 2020

Swallows on a wire

I wasn’t at all sure where to find Bushy Park. We went there when I was small; I just remember enormous chestnut trees! And why ‘Bushy’? Was that what it looked like? Then the other day we set out for Hampton Court and I discovered that it comes to the same thing. It is the northern park of Hampton Court, separated by an imaginary line across its unpromising flat terrain.

Christopher Wren, whose house overlooks it, perhaps thought the same. To him wide spaces suggested avenues. Did he plant the horse chestnuts? They were only quite recently introduced here from Greece. They make a magnificent northern approach to the palace, interrupted by the famous Diana Fountain (no, not that Diana), which Wren must have seen being installed there in 1713. It stands at the crossing of the chestnut avenue with the even more ambitious lime avenue, a mile long and maybe a hundred yards wide, with a triple row of trees each side.

The real interest of Bushy for gardeners, though, is in the ‘Plantations’ in the middle of the park. Every garden is a plantation of sorts, I suppose, but here and in Richmond Park it signifies a fenced area where the (newly planted) oaks are protected from the deer. The Waterhouse Plantation is blessed with a wandering stream that, I was surprised to learn, was dug by Charles I – with, one imagines a little help from brawny subjects. The Longford River, as it is called, was I imagine just to improve the plumbing at Hampton Court, an aqueduct from the river Colne twelve miles to the north.

Whoever diverted it into its present lively rivulets and shining pools created an ideal setting for a woodland garden. The usual suspects are all here; the weeping willow, the rhodies, camellias, dogwoods. swamp cypresses lining the stream with hundreds of their bizarre ‘knees’. The last autumn brightness was provided by ginkgos like showers of gold coins. What was truly bizarre, though, was the sight of picnickers sitting on fallen trees at two-metre intervals like swallows on a wire.

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