Walking in the Shade

July 22, 2021

A week of temperatures over 80 old-fashioned degrees. It’s tempting to stay at home and read. Sun never reaches the terrace by the kitchen door; I hose down the ferns in their pots and sit back in the transat. Do you know the expression? One of those chaises longues on the decks of transatlantique liners (French, First Class).

When I do sally out I plan my course to avoid walking in the sun. There is a sort of science to it, and certainly ground rules. Be back home by eleven, and ten if possible. Avoid streets running north/south for two hours either side of noon, and east/west streets as the sun begins to settle in the west, often its most burning time.

Trees can be your best ally, but don’t rely on them. There will be gaps, and little trees like flowering cherries are not ideal. Planes, limes or horse chestnuts are best. Tall buildings close to the street give the most certain shade (but very tall ones can cause gusty winds). Houses with front gardens stand too far back to be much help, unless their gardens have rather tall trees.

When you turn a corner sum up which side of the new street offers more shade, even if it’s not on your direct route – and be prepared to cross the road as often as necessary to avoid unshaded stretches of pavement.

Key to the whole thing is registering where the sun is in the sky, and where it’s going. (To the right, if you haven’t noticed). Plan your route to have it on your back, rather than in your eyes, as much as possible; too bad if your destination is in the west, or in the early morning, the east.

Looking up

July 18, 2021

Where do plants find the extra reserves to react to rain with such glee? And where do they store them? Within hours of a downpour that flooded the streets (and sub-basements across the road that suddenly seemed not such a good idea) there were foot-long extensions on trees. Lammas, the ancient ‘Loaf Mass’ is traditionally the first of August, but Lammas shoots can happen after any good late-summer shower.

They are most obvious on oak, being pale green, or often red. I have not been so aware of them on elms, but was happy to see extensions of a foot or more on the pioneering file of disease-resistant Lutèce elms in front of Kensington Palace – trees that admittedly get preferential treatment from the Royal Park staff, with Kew-style circles of mulch.

I know I’m notorious for looking up when most gardeners look down. It earned me my name of Treedescant. I can’t help wondering, all the same, about so many people’s indifference to trees. People who will coo over the details of a flower ignore the giant vegetable offering them shade. The explanation can be simple: it’s not mine; I didn’t plant it, it’s not my business. It’s true that large numbers of gardeners have room to plant one tree, or none at all. Surely that makes the free gift of every tree in the street, the park, the square all the more precious.

You can collect trees without owning them. It’s been a hobby of mine for decades. After a while you identify and register the vast majority almost subconsciously. I still focus on an oak, say, if it surprises me in some way: size, different-shaped leaves, unhealthy dieback in the crown. And any tree that doesn’t fit a recognisable category demands a second look, even a detour, to find out what it is.

By happy chance our street is a mini-arboretum. I’ve never discovered which enthusiast chose to plant twenty different things instead of the customary avenue of one species. Right to left are: the common street pear, ‘Chanticleer’, two tall double white native cherries, a Caucasian maple, the Japanese Prunus sargentii, Amelanchier ‘Ballerina’, a fastigiate hornbeam (way past its prime), a London plane… and so on for three blocks of intriguing variety. Each contributes something, season by season. How many of the street’s gardeners even know their names? (I haven’t asked).

Down and dirty

July 6, 2021

Am I the only gardener who suffers from the Clean Shirt Syndrome? I go out to the greenhouse in the morning, spot a plant that could do with a bigger pot, spot a suitable empty one (unwashed) and think “I have a few minutes; I’ll do it now”. There’s the bag of compost, I can find some crocks; I tap the plant out to inspect its root and the rootball falls to pieces in my hands. I thought it would be a quick finger-tip job. I’m still holding it as if it could bite; it’s my clean shirt, on this morning. I can’t roll up the sleeves with compost on my hands. I’m stuck; half-committed.

Gardening only works if you get down and dirty, hands in the soil. Every plant knows when you’re in earnest. It can feel your fingers loving it as you lower it into its bed and press the soil round it, gently but firmly, like a blanket round it’s neck before kissing it goodnight. Planting is the great moment of commitment in gardening. You’ve sown the seed or taken the cutting. You’ve done the nurturing, made the decisions. Now you give it its place for life….. from now it’s all hope and expectation. Water is all you can offer it.

Your shirt is still clean? The plant will notice.

Met office

June 20, 2021

I came back to our Hampshire plantation after that mean May wind to find a sorry sight. The gale came at the precise moment when many leaves were in their most vulnerable infancy: just emerging, as tender as nurslings. The wind blew for three days, not far above freezing, and blow-torched the unlucky plants on the point of flushing. The blasts were precise, focussed, rushing up the hill, leaving trees at a lower level merely battered, but searing the growth a few feet higher. One American pin oak, Quercus palustris, was left in full leaf for its bottom ten feet, the upper fifteen feet blasted bare. Of a pair of English oaks flanking the drive by the house one was stripped of two thirds of its young leaves, the other unscathed.

You looked for explanations: what had sheltered one while the other suffered? The corner of a wall, a few pines? The blast was evidently deflected by random insubstantial obstacles, was stronger (or colder) in the middle of the slope than higher or lower, but above all damaged growth that was uncallused and unprepared. As with so many aspects of growth an outcome depends on precise timing. Two related plants may be days apart in leafing, but it can be enough.

The sequel is happier: deluges of rain in June have produced volumes of new growth, long shoots and big leaves. I was talking to a wine-growing friend in California the other day. The mood in the Napa Valley is despairing as they start in their third successive summer of unrelenting drought. Our wine-growers don’t like rainclouds, but would they prefer the opposite?

My Morris souvenir

June 18, 2021

The garden the painter Cedric Morris made at Benton End in Suffolk was far from being the NGS ideal. ‘Something of interest all year round’ was not his goal. Irises were his passion. His paintings of them (and other flowers too) are explosive celebrations of his love of colour. Among his gardening disciples was Beth Chatto, who propagated several of his favourites. Another friend was Elizabeth David, who took us to meet Cedric and his partner, Lett Haines, one day in the 1970s.

It was a cold day in winter (I remember a savoury brown stew and ample red wine). In the walled garden there was little to see. In the middle stood a lonely shrub that was evidently suckering about with abandon. I asked. ‘Shepherdia argentea’, he said. ‘Won’t you have a piece?’ So that’s my Morris souvenir, now the centrepiece of the tiny seaside garden we care for on the Solent. Its ambitions are not limited to the ten-foot square brick-walled bed in the centre. It puts up wayward shoots anywhere, rising to five feet or so, covered in curving oval silver-coated leaves two inches long, around a much-branched central shoot – trunk is too strong a word. There are six or seven distinct suckers already the same height, filling the bed, above the box and rosemary, campanulas, geums, geraniums, cistus and mint making a seaside tangle. As I write two wrens have chosen it as their momentary perch.

It doesn’t stop, there, though. It has found chinks in the paving round the bed and would eventually make a silvery thicket of the whole garden. Anyone with a sand-dune to fix would welcome it. I have only once seen it flower; little yellow flowers like an eleagnus that are followed, but not here, by the red berries that give it its native American name of Buffalo berry. It needs a mate to fruit. I’m not surprised you rarely see it offered in nurseries; what gardener wants an aggressive suckerer? So the sucker when Morris gave me the piece fifty years ago was me. I have offered it to the Garden Museum for their Cedric Morris celebrations, but now they have Benton End itself, thanks to a most munificent patron, they will inherit plenty.

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, clambering 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.

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