Too much of a good thing

May 6, 2020

Jasminum smotherens

It used to signal the beginning of the end of winter. The conservatory was filled with its heavy scent. The little jasmine we treated as an indoor plant, J polyanthum, began to open its pinky purple buds in late February. As the white flowers opened the scent expanded until it flooded the room, a thrilling sign of things to come.

If there is a single proof of climate change here it is this frail creature becoming a rampant menace. This May morning I couldn’t escape the smell, lying heavy on the air, drowning out the morning freshness, the sweetness of roses and the different sweetness of wallflowers. Last year it put out ten foot shoots through the tapestry of ivy and hydrangeas, bursting out on top of the trellis in an eruption of purple and white and the scent I’m beginning to call a pong.

But then in London nothing seems tender any more. There was only one day below zero all winter – if you could call it that. Nothing flinched. I kept the fuchsia tree we’re rather proud of in the greenhouse until late April, fearing a late frost, but it might as well have stayed out all winter. Already it has little red flower buds dangling among the leaves. As for our veteran Meyer lemon on the veranda, we are thinning its thick crop of incipient fruit.

Out of scale

May 1, 2020

More at home in a park

I think I’ve worked out why this little London garden has a tree in it as tall as the garden is long. It lends a certain gravitas to a modest patch to boast a tree the size of a Hyde Park plane, even if a sycamore is a rather lower form of life. But it was here when we bought the house and we would certainly not be allowed to cut it down. Indeed it’s an annual struggle getting the council’s permission to prune it. Each year we ask RBKC – as we call our local authority – for permission to climb the tree and remove most of the last season’s growth. If we didn’t it would reach out over five or six gardens by now. We then have to cut it into small enough pieces to carry through the house.

Why not, we ask RBKC, an ongoing licence, since the same problem arises every year? But no, Proper Procedures etc….. which this year took so long that it was too late, the tree was in full leaf and we shall have to wait a year in its shade.

At least I’ve discovered its probable story. It’s a war baby. We just measured its girth at breast height: 7” 3’. Following the rule of thumb that most trees put on an inch of girth a year, that makes it 87 years old. Oddly, its ground level is four feet higher than the rest of our garden, and the neighbours’. Its end of the garden has now been paved, with steps up to it. I suspect it was a weed seedling on a compost heap, ignored during the war and now formally incorporated, and an object of rather wry pride.

Covidia nonsensia

April 23, 2020

It’s not considered prudent or polite, it may even be treasonous, to question the government’s priorities during the Covid lock-down. But what on earth do they think they’re doing shutting down plant nurseries, and at the height of the planting season, when they’re bursting with stock that must either be planted out soon or condemned to rot? I’m peering through the fence at our local nursery, Rassell’s, at a feast of plants at their peak of beauty. The owner Richard Hood (who is watering everything, every evening) tells me he understands that if he sold fruit we could go in to buy it. Not a pansy, though.

What’s the difference between a nursery and a supermarket? You can do social distancing as well in one as the other. What’s more nurseries are outdoors, and locked-down gardeners are longing to be up and doing. Are they confusing plant nurseries with garden centres that sell more burgers and barbecue kits than living plants? By all means shut the hardware departments, but isn’t it essential to nurture living things?

There is a well-publicised consensus at present that nature is good for you; gardening is good for the nerves, not to mention the soul. We haven’t heard much from Number 10 about souls. I am longing to sit in our parish church, sixteen feet away from the next person if necessary, if only to absorb its atmosphere of holiness. Archbishop Welby should understand that, even if Whitehall is oblivious.

Share of sweetness

April 21, 2020

Until the last few years tulips had never really grabbed me. I seem to have rather discounted the shiny flowers in brilliant colours that come and go so spectacularly after the daffodils have made their golden statement. I think the reason is the way they are sold. They are almost always pictured nursery-perfect, as sleek and immaculate goblets just starting to open. Scarcely more than gravid buds, in fact. Dutch nurseries show kilometres of eye-wearying colour. Would you cross the sea just to see a square mile of scarlet? Nor me.

Tulips had their moment in history in 1637, in Charles I’s reign, when immoderate enthusiasm and speculation in ‘broken’ colours caused the first great financial crash, eighty years before our equally dotty South Sea Bubble. It was when tulips and Holland were so much in the news that one of my favourite poets, Andrew Marvell, wrote about a little girl ‘in a Prospect of Flowers’.

Meantime while every verdant thing
Itself does at thy beauty charm
Reform the errors of the spring.
Make that the tulips may have share
Of sweetness, seeing they are fair
And roses of their thorns disarm
But most, procure
That violets may a longer age endure.

‘The errors of the spring’; he sounds like a gardener. ‘Give the tulips some scent ‘, is what he is saying. I always think the same about the camellias; I want to get closer to these lovely nests of petals, to commune with them. I put my nose to them; no response. Today there is at least one scented tulip – and one of the very best: Ballerina, slim, tall, warm orange and smelling of freesias, wallflowers…roses….. I can’t pin it down. But back to their usual image; too prim and buttoned up. Tulips become loveliest when they blow, in post-coital repose, their petals widespread, dishevelled, their stems in wanton curves, scented or not.

In the stillness

April 17, 2020

A semi-finalist

We can her the church clock ringing three streets away. The wren in the walnut is deafening – and a poor performer, it seems to me: the same shout again and again. These are the sounds of locked-down London, where normally the rush of cars is endless, punctuated by motorbikes, sirens and drills. There are no planes overhead. We hear conversations in the street outside. The world we know has stopped, and we have time to think – and look.

I have never followed spring before as a full-time observer. Other years we catch sight of a magnolia or camellia, admire it for a moment, perhaps try to name it, and move on. There’s no moving now; our plants are our companions, up close and personal. Spring is happening too fast. I often say that; there are too many climactic moments packed in a few distracted weeks. But we’re not distracted now, except by the virus; we have all the time in the world to watch and enjoy nature’s renewal.

The leafing of the trees is the greatest change, from the early greening of willows (weeping willows earliest of all; dry-grass-green while everything else is still dormant) to the long-drawn-out colouring of the planes, their high traceries suspended for two weeks or so in a sort of pale olive mist. The limes are slow, first hanging out limp-wristed baby leaves that soon unfurl in brilliant varnish-shiny green. Oaks are individuals; one will be in full leaf long before its neighbour. Horse chestnuts’ shiny buds split quickly to release limp rags. Elms fool you into thinking they’re in leaf when the green is just their new fruit.

We watch two tall cherry trees in the street from our bedroom window, geans (a name no one seems to use for our native cherry) with double flowers that cover their lanky pliant branches with snow. One came out just before three days of hot sun; in that short spell its flowers were fried brown. The other tree timed it perfectly and is still alpine-white. It Peak Wistaria too, and Kensington has aspiring champions in every street, from one that spans seven houses to others bonsaied up to the roof.

Every year I try to remember the names of the different Japanese cherries, a dozen within a five-minute walk. Shiro-this and Shiro-that, serrula and serrulata, Beni-this and -that soon become a blur of ravishing petals, white shading to pink and pink to white. The focus moves on to crab apples and handsome old pear trees, while on the ground the blue of scillas and grape hyacinths gives way to bluebells and soon the pale campanula poscharskyana, the London weed, and I can’t take my eyes of the falling spry of double white roses where Mad Alf throws herself out of our oversize sycamore. All in uncanny silence. I can’t say I look forward to the returning roar.

Spring watch

April 3, 2020

Signs of hope: even an old elm in the street is springing into lffe

They’ve laid off the gardeners in Holland Park. It seems a bit of an overreaction to the new virus that is making everyone so nervous. Gardening is surely an activity that (with due regard for ‘social distancing’) offers very little chance of cross-infection. A team doing the bedding may all be squatting or kneeling within touching distance of each other, but the cleaning, tidying and controlling jobs of the spring are on the whole individual. Are we going to let lawns grow because it’s too dangerous to get out the mower?

Foresters, I’m happy to say, seem to be made of sterner stuff. They are out on the hills with sacks of saplings and the sharp spade they use, with one hand, to cut a notch in the soil, lower in a tiny tree, then stamp the notch shut with their boot. A practised planter can plant at least 500 trees a day, or more if the ground is clear of rocks and brash.

The park is still open for walking, with the exception of the Kyoto Japanese Garden. It would be hard to keep two metres from anyone on its narrow stone paths. This is the moment when its maples are at their most poignantly beautiful, intricate in detail, dramatic in posture, so brilliantly and intensely green they could be fountains of chlorophyll. As the magnolias drop their petals and the camellias fade, the sequence of cherry blossom reaches its climax. There are white breakers of spirea, green daggers of iris and flashes of orange and black from the carp circling in the pond. There is no one to see them, or to listen to the cascade that tumbles on in solitude as though it were really a mountain stream.

I have inspected every street tree and every front garden on my walks and tried to name every plant. Most are the show-plants of spring the local nurseries sell. Now and then I see something I can’t place. In Lexham Gardens there is an exceptional broom, maybe fifteen feet high, that answers no official description but Cytisus scoparius, the “Scotch’ broom. It is not only taller than any I’ve seen but also lusher in its green and super-abundant in its flowers. Discoveries like this keep me looking.


March 26, 2020

No relevance, but this is a yew in St Nicholas churchyard at Brockenhurst Park (see Belgravia, Sundays on ITV).

There is no excuse for a weed in the path or a leaf out of place any more. These four walls are our confine. Happily they include our two little gardens, front and back. Even more happily spring is giving them a new aspect every day. We have never peered at each bud with such rapt attention, or gloated so much at the opening of each flower.

Three times today I have been out to check on Clematis ‘Avalanche’ (a de luxe edition of C . cirrhosa? No parentage revealed). Last night I thought I saw a minute extension at its tip, where it is just reaching the trellis. This morning I was not so sure. But yes, there is action: the bud is opening. What’s more, the C. alpina that has spent the winter looking like raffia, so sere and thin that no sap could possibly rise in it, has suddenly sent out a shoot, green from brown, no thicker than a thread.

In front of the house, meanwhile, Magnolia x soulangeana is dropping its fleshy petals on the paving, one side white, the other bright purple. For some reason they remind me of a Tudor courtier’s slashed doublet. And no, I’m not reading Hilary Mantel. I’ve realised we have too much red facing the street. The camellia hedge dividing us from our neighbour (planted long before our time) is really Grenadier. So is our window box, and a trough of cyclamen. We must be more careful.

I’m rereading some of the gardening books that got me started in the 1970s. I used to think then that Graham Stewart Thomas was cutting-edge stuff. (His scholarship still is, but it doesn’t read so well today). We were still reading Vita Sackville West. Brigadier Lucas Philips was issuing appropriately military gardening instructions. Christopher Lloyd was the tearaway. Beth Chatto was the calming, naturalistic, influence. Mrs Desmond Underwood seemed to have a monopoly of silver plants. How remote it all seems from today’s brown flowers and beige grasses.

Perhaps the biggest change is the choice of plants in nurseries. In those days you were offered (if you were lucky) the species and perhaps a couple of favoured cultivars. Today in many cases (see ‘Avalanche’ above) the busy breeder has effectively produced a new plant whose origin in nature scarcely matters. Information is limited to a plastic ticket in Dutch and two other languages. (‘It needs moist well-drained soil in sun or semi-shade. Soak rootball before planting’). The trouble is, I’m curious.

Virtual Japan

March 22, 2020

Marks out of ten?

We’ve had to scrap a long-planned visit to Japan to follow the spring, from the small southernmost islands (one Is Yakushima, home of the little felty-leaved rhododendron) north via Kyushu to Honshu across the Inland Sea, ending in Kobe. We were to take one of the little ships of the Noble Caledonia fleet, and were all ready to leave, when news of the new virus came from Wuhan, and gradually the Far East began to shut down.

We were to have started in Taiwan, which soon followed China in closing its doors. The voyage was then adjusted, to start in Okinawa in the southern islands, and visit South Korea. When South Korea shut down, the problem became the laws of cabotage. No ship foreign to a country can trade between two of its ports without calling in another country. So where was the nearest abroad? Russia. Instead of blossom-viewing we would have to spend four days steaming to Vladivostok and back over a thousand miles on the North Pacific, in March. I’m afraid we cried off – and within ten days the voyage was cancelled altogether.

Our consolation has been England’s most glorious spring. It has been hard to keep away from Kew; the magnolias are as fine as I’ve ever seen them. If only I’d planted M. kobus thirty years ago… We’ve seen the last of them, though, for this year; even the Royal Botanic Garden has been closed. In compensation for Japan’s no-show I have been testing myself on the cherry trees around us and realise how rusty I’ve become on their names. Once upon. Time I could tell a Jo-nioi from a Taki-nioi or a Shirotae from a Shirofugen at a glance. Now, shame-faced, I often have to resort to Picture This, an App that recognizes whatever plant you point your camera at – though Japanese names are not its strongest point.

It’s tempting to have a beauty contest and give marks out of ten. Far better, though, just to marvel at their wonderfully lovely variations on a theme.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

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Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

I wrote my first Pocket Wine Book in 1977, was quite surprised to be asked to revise it in 1978,…

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