Queues at Kew

July 30, 2019

A visit to Kew used to be a quiet affair, even contemplative. There was time for a word with the gatekeeper, who said he’d heard the camassias were looking good down in the oak collection by the river. Off to the left the camellias were getting on with their business; there were a few visitors, but nowhere anything like a crowd or a queue.

Yesterday, a Monday, the queue at the turnstiles reached far outside the gates, the shop, the little train, were packed, and everywhere you went there were couples, families, rugs and picnics; Kew has come alive. The main attraction, undoubtedly, is the new features – above all the Children’s Garden near Kew Palace. An area of several acres has been screened off with new hedges, but no one can doubt what goes on inside. The excited voices carry round the gardens. There is already a booking system for 75-minute slots, and a queue at the entrance. Next time I must take a grandchild with me to see all the ingenious dodges aimed at showing children that plants are fun.

Dale Chihuly’s glowing glass sculptures first appeared at Kew six or seven years ago their reception was rapturous. He is back with even more ambitious towers and chandeliers and plant-like creations scattered through the gardens and conservatories. Last month we watched some of them being built, a process involving scaffolding and a team of a dozen, unpacking the huge glass tubes and spikes and spirals, and fitting them with laborious care into their slots; hundreds of pieces in shining fruit-gum colours. They are particularly effective, in my view, in the Temperate House, where they mingle with the exotic plants in a glorious jungle, peering from undergrowth or floating on the ponds, plant-like enough to make you wonder. Four months ago, when it reopened in spring, the Temperate House looked rather bare. Today in places it already feels almost overgrown.

There is the restored pagoda, of course, with its Disney dragons, and there is the refreshed Pavilion Restaurant nearby. Most rewarding of all, for anyone botanically bent, is the new Agius Garden replacing the old Order Beds. It makes a start at explaining how DNA and other dark arts are making a macedoine of plant family relationships, to the confusion of the old Linnaean guard.

Call me a cottage gardener

July 23, 2019

Friends are too kind to say anything, but I do sometimes sense a touch of disappointment when they look in my greenhouse, ‘Grandpa’s Shed’. My pelargoniums, they hint, should be blazing away in unison – or discord, rather: Voodoo and Rocky Mountain Orange can hardly be said to harmonize. Instead I have a forest of green leaves, some lovely smells, but only a scattering of flowers.

I love flowers – but as individuals. I can focus much better on plants and their flowers as individuals or as small groups than on a brilliant mass. And for that matter it’s not only in the greenhouse: leaf-greens are the theme of this whole garden, with the plants that are celebrating their flowering season standing out as eye-catchers. Now it’s Clematis viticella, unruly outbursts of purple, white and crimson scrambling up whatever plant they meet. A few plants have been planned to harmonise or contrast with their neighbours; some (the neighbour’s roses, for example) are unplanned intrusions, others – like the wisteria and magnolia now taking a curtain call – are nice surprises. Call me a cottage gardener. Massed colours in formal herbaceous borders usually leave me underwhelmed. I admire their technical skills, but do they celebrate the beauty of flowers or is it just the excitement of the colour spectrum? The prairie look so successfully promoted by Piet Oudolf, where mauve and brown daisies form islands in the waving grasses, leaves me longing for green – but most of all for structure, roses, hedges, arches, and all the unfashionable apparatus of yesterday’s gardens.

Rus in urbe

July 11, 2019

Was ever a little terrace house as sylvan as ours? In front a magnolia, a myrtle, the 40 foot double-flowered white cherry in the street and an exceptional rarity, our neighbour’s weeping Cercidiphyllum, alias Japan’s Katsura. The katsura was already my favourite tree: to find one cascading its exquisite light green leaves outside our windows is outrageous good fortune, and when in autumn it turns a motley red, yellow and crimson and smells like strawberry jam I have to pinch myself. Not even Kew has a weeping one this size; people on the pavement stoop to walk under its great umbrella of green and seem to love it.

At the back we look at our own park-size sycamore, a dark tower far higher than the house, our neighbour’s walnut, rapidly catching the sycamore in height and exceeding it in the extent of its shadow. Beyond the walnut is a golden catalpa, an apple tree and a row of limes. Beyond the sycamore a house-high bay tree, beyond that an acacia….. in sum, nothing but leaves.

London provides a sound-track, of course: builders, sirens, helicopters, but in summer the houses around are hidden; we might be in the country. The Meyer lemon on the veranda is in full flower (and also fruit, the wonder of the citrus family). There is no more piercing, nose-grabbing scent; it drowns all others. The tinkle of water in the basin below joins the scent to seal the garden off from the world.

Too witty to be grand

June 25, 2019

Portmeirion and its stage-set Italy doesn’t appeal to everyone. Dramatic as it is, a poster for the Italian Riviera ingeniously incorporated into the coastline of North Wales, its artificiality, even perhaps its sense of humour, leave some visitors unenthused. I love it. I wish more gardeners played these sort of tricks. What purport to be the civic buildings of a little Italian city are nothing of the sort, but transplanted facades, columns artfully disposed, pastel-painted cottages that are neither Italian nor Welsh but house happy holiday-makers. The boat at the jetty is concrete. But what an elegant joke it all is.

A few miles inland is Clough Williams-Ellis’s real garden, around his serious tall stone house. Plas Brondanw has the poetry that Portmeirion somehow lacks, but it is still too witty to be grand. It incorporates the meadows, the spreading ashes and oaks and sheep, the gentle green boscage of a rainy province, in a series of decorative spaces, paced with cypresses and statues and yew hedges and coloured here and there with borders in quiet harmonies.

The garden is essentially a long terrace across a sharp slope pointing to its eye-catcher, a rocky peak not far off with the symmetry of Mount Fuji. Wrought iron gates in sky blue and yellow (the colours adopted by the Rothschilds, and Roy Strong) introduce a sort of casual formality. Little compartments with ponds and busts on columns and pleached trees take time to explore.

Clough clearly had the builders’ itch – and plenty of stone, dark grey and brown, ready to hand. A sloping avenue leads uphill from the
garden to arrive at a platform above a vertiginous sheer cascade. The path leads on through another high wrought iron gate, under a romantically weeping beech, to climb steeply through massive beeches and oaks towards the peeping tip of a castle tower. And when you get there a species of picnic castle it is; a three-storey tower whose battlements reveal the distant range of Eryri, culminating in Mount Snowdon.

Mr. Milestone would have loved it. He is the landscapist in Headlong Hall, Thomas Love Peacock’s fantasy Welsh country house party, who spouted the theories of Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight on The Picturesque. Was Clough inspired by them or was he simply having fun? In any case at Brondanw he achieved the ultimate, the capital P.

Sketch into painting

June 23, 2019

The barn and the box parterre we planted twenty years ago

Back from a fortnight in France: Brittany Ferries to Bilbao, then a circuitous drive north via Bordeaux, the Centre and the Loire, back home to a London garden transformed by the rain. However assiduously you water your plants it’s only drenching rain that brings such surges of growth. I thought the garden was pretty full before, of shoots and sheaves and swags of burgeoning green. We came home to the steps nearly blocked, the path jungled over. All morning I was chopping away.

The high point of our trip was going back to the garden and the woods on the edge of the Forêt de Troncais, in the centre of France, that we left fifteen years ago – happily in the most sympathetic and energetic hands we could have hoped for. Our successors have become family friends. The continental climate of the Centre can produce growth we never see in England, despite its mean acid soil and stingy rainfall. Things that were merely sketched (parterre, arboretum, woodland rides) are fully painted pictures. Can a gardener have any deeper pleasure than revisiting his work years later to find it continuing as he planned? Even completed (except that gardens never are).

Above all, of course, it’s the trees, twice or three times the size they were when we left in 2004. American scarlet, pin and willow oaks, sugar and red maples and the tupelo, Nyssa sylvatica, exotics we planted to blaze up as they never quite do here, are almost full-grown, sumptuous volumes of leaves. A tulip tree is invading the barn with long low branches and Italian cypresses have grown almost comically tall. Our survivor elm (always a puzzle; its companions get the disease) has become a landmark from across the valley. And the broad rides we made to define and connect the different plantations are grazed by horses that we imagined but never acquired.

Peak ponticum

June 4, 2019

Few species have been as demonized as Rhododendron ponticum. Among foresters it is a hissing and a byword; among conservations not much better. The charge sheet: it self-sows with prodigious energy and success in typical forest land, which is often acid and rained-on. The seedlings then grow with villainous vigour and smother other seedlings and saplings. They create a damp shade, which is no bad thing in many woods, until it falls under a new suspicion: of harbouring and encouraging Phytophthera ramorum, or P. kernowiae, pathogens responsible for the death of among other things, larches…

For years there were grants available for the thanklessly repetitive tasks of spraying, or better injecting it with herbicide. The grants systems change but the problem remains. Foresters still shudder at the sight of mauve blooms in the woods in May, however pretty they may be. Tourists crowd buses to visit the hotspots. There is no denying the spectacle of hillsides aglow with it. Nothing shows up the shades of purple more vividly than the old slate-mines of North Wales, where whole mountainsides are slate-black and ponticum purple.


I am schizophrenic about it. Last week in Snowdonia no one could deny its beauty. It can form phalanxes of flowers by the roadside or peep from high among forest trees where flowers are the last thing you expect to see. Its shades of purple, or mauve, sometimes intense, sometimes much paler, are always a startling contrast with woodland green. Yet the sight of it among our trees, often flowering (as weeds often do) when a mere stripling, two or three years old, makes me shudder. There is no alternative to costly destruction.

One botanist has been convinced by its supernatural vigour to declare it a new species, and baptised it R. x superponticum. Other authorities say that’s rubbish. Although it may possibly have swapped a few genes with other species, such are the American R. catawbiense, it remains true to the R. ponticum standard – or rather one of them: the strictly pontic one is from northern Turkey, the other (oddly enough) from Portugal. They are apparently not physically different enough to be two species, but the one that spreads is consistently the Iberian strain. So ‘super’ is fair enough for its performance but doesn’t make it a distinct species.

Plantae Tradensis

June 3, 2019

In April I rashly mentioned counting up to 120 difference plants in this little garden. I might have expected the question; what are they? Here is a list, E and OE,  as no one seems to say any more.

April 20, 2019

 Plants in the back garden, upper level


Rose Madame Alfred Carrière

Camellia ‘Top Hat’

Fuchsia magellanica ‘Alba’

Euphorbia wulfenii

Helleborus corsicus

Iris unguicularis

Hedera helix (ivy) + variegata

Trachelospermum jasminoides


Rosa glauca

Clematis Perle d’Azur

Cissus striata

Agapanthus  Hybrid

Solanum jasminoides album

Camellia jap. Alba Simplex

Sedum spectabile

Iris foetidissima

Periwinkle (Vinca minor variegata)


Erigeron karvinskianus

Geranium ‘Rozanne’

Acnistus (syn. Iochroma) australis (pot)

Rose Phyllis Bide

Rose Iceberg

Hydrangea (white)

Rosa mutabilis

Fuchsia Thalia (pot)

Acar palmatum Shishigashira (pot)

Nandina domestica (pot)

Pelargonium ‘Coral Sunset’ (pot)

Iris from La Papaline (pot)

Tulbaghia violacea (2 Pots)


On steps

Myrtus luma variegata (pot)


Back garden main level

Rose ‘Parsons Pink China’

Laurus nobilis (bay)

Clematis Prince Charles

Trachelospermum  jasminoides Variegata


Ribes ‘White icicle’

Hydrangea petiolaris

Hydrangea seemanii

Astilbe (white)

Clematis ‘Polish Spirit’

Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’


Vibumum tinus variegata

Nerine bowdeni

Astor divaricatus

Hydrangea ‘Len Ratcliff’

Agapanthus ‘Queen Mum’

Clematis ‘Alba luxurians’

Clematis alpina (blue)

Rose ‘Gloire de Dijon’

Chaenomeles (apricot)



The neighbour’s unidentified Hybrid tea roses on & above wall!

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’

Yellow-variegated ivy

Campanula persicifolia

Viola labradorica


Main level (main bed)

Cornus alternifolia variegata (pot)

Enonymus fortunei variegata (on wall)

Jacob’s ladder (variegated)

Daphne Bholua (J. Postill)

Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Alba’

Dryopteris erythrosora (x 3)

Pulmonarias (-)

Geranium Rozanne

Sarcocca confusa

Cornus sibirica albovariegata

Prunus autumnalis

Scilla peruviana

Sedum (London Pride)

Erica (white heather)

Iris sibirica ‘Papillon’

Lily (?)

Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’

Narcissus ‘Thalia’

Clematis ?


Lower level

Hydrangea petiolaris

Clematis montana ‘Grandiflora’

10 ferns in pots: Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) etc


On verandah

Meyer lemon (pot)

Calamondin orange (pot)

Oleander, pink (pot)

Pelargonium ‘Apple Blossom”

Clivia miniata


Main level, greenhouse side

Trachelospermum jasminoides variegatum

Campanula p? (London weed)

Lycianthes (Solanum) rantonnettii

Clematis orientalis

Eccremocarpus scaber (cream flowers)

Yellow-variegated ivy (Hedera canariensis?)

Viburnum x burkwoodii

Rose ‘Bantry Bay’

Standard box x 3

Hosta sieboldii (pot)

Phlox ‘White Admiral’

Rose ‘Iceberg’

Clematis viticella ‘Kermesina’

Hedera helix (mini-white-variegated)

Cotoneaster horizontalis

Clematis x ‘Avalanche’

Of rocks and weed

May 29, 2019

More news from Japan. I happened to mention that I love oysters, the smaller and sweeter the better, and best of all the curiously-named Kumamoto. Curious because these days they come, I understand, from Puget Sound.

Where, then, is Kumamoto? It is a prefecture in the Kyushu archipelago in south-west Japan, important as the prime source of the Nori seaweed essential for making sushi. We had been discussing rocks, and how the Japanese choose them for their gardens. We have granite outcrops in the Welsh woods that split to make splendid ten-foot splinters. There is one deeply embedded (and much regretted) still in our former Essex garden. Wales, said my penfriend, has connections, and not only rocky ones, with Japan.

Laver is not quite as essential to the Welsh diet as Nori is to the Japanese, but it is the same plant. Its unpredictable life-cycle had baffled botanists in both countries until Dr. Kathleen Drew-Baker, at Bangor University, discovered that at its ‘seed’ stage, as a single-celled alga, it relies on vacant seashells as shelter. In the 1950s Japan was suffering a critical shortage of nori; here was the solution. And to this day the people of Uto, a town in Kumamoto, celebrate an annual ‘Drew Day’ around a monument to the Welsh doctor on the shore.

And à propos of rocks and the acknowledged twentieth century master of the Japanese garden, Mirei Shigimori. His parents were admirers of French painters of the Barbizon School – in particular, Millet. Hence their son’s name. Another of their children was named Bairon after the author of Childe Harold.

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