Crumpet time

November 13, 2018

The last leaf on the walnut and the first crumpet by the fire. Butter, enough to reach the depths, and Marmite or honey: both (on separate crumpets). We can’t stop autumn, so let’s celebrate it – which would be easier without the racket of the infernal leaf-blowers. Could they be banned on public nuisance grounds, or taxed out of existence? Dream on… Anything that can be mechanized eventually will be – and then handed over to a robot.

Meanwhile, raking the leaves this afternoon, shaking them out of shrubs, off the climbers, into piles on the path, I mused on whether I prefer them wet or dry. It rained this morning so I had no choice, but wet leaves do have advantages. They stay put, for a start – and they are silent. The only sound (blowers next door apart) is the scratching of the rake.

Their disadvantage: they’re heavy, and having no compost heap I have to bag them and lug the heavy bags through the house. I dream of the kind of leafmould bins we had in the country…..

Indoors, bookshelves beckon. Gardening books are perennial: they don’t have to be topical: next year they’ll just be agreeably familiar. Some, indeed, I reread in a continuous rolling process. Christopher Lloyd’s Well-tempered Garden just goes round and round, and I can be lost for an evening in Peter Beales’ Roses. The revolving year, of course, is the bane of magazine editors. Repetition is inevitable; originality rare (and risky). In what other field are century-old texts still valid? Anomalies just add to their interest.

The last yellow leaves of the ‘autumn’ cherry fell today; how thrilled I was to see its slim branches spangled all over with little flowerbuds.

Sum and Substance

November 6, 2018

The robins are loving the little red berries on the cotoneaster that zigzags up the wall just outside the kitchen. So are the blackbirds. They don’t seem to feel any rivalry, though I’m reading an enchanting biography of the robin that makes no bones about what a fighter he can be – principally it seems with other robins. I wondered why neither robin nor blackbird seems interested in the other red berries in the garden, on Nandina domestica. We have two plants, one bright red, the other an odd pink/brown, apparently a  hybrid with the rare yellow-fruited one.

Why do birds shun them? They contain cyanide. Too many can kill them. In the States Nandina is classified as an invasive nuisance.

If we have a plant of the moment here (and nerines and Iris unguicularis are doing an unconventional duet) it is our prize hosta, the statuesque Sum and Substance. Its leaves, handsomely ribbed and crinkled, are pale green, nearly circular, and easily 18 inches long, mounding up to form a dome. If you manage to keep them slug-free in the spring (it has gradually filled an 18 inch pot, with a top-dressing of gravel, over several years) its jumble of flawless leaves collects admiring looks by mid-summer.

Flipping the flap

October 26, 2018

A Welsh October

Wales in October is an annual fixture for us. The week before the clocks change, while teatime is still daylight. In the cloudless skies we’ve been having, you could say an excess of light; the west becomes an unfocussed dazzle. But what glory when gold touches the hills, the trees, and in the river the patient anchored boats.

And what a privilege it is not only to walk in this landscape, but to have a hand in shaping it. A forester is almost alone in being able to make the boldest and most immediately obvious alterations – not always to universal applause. A clearfell on a hill is as radical a change as flipping the flap or ‘slide’, as Repton called them, in one of his Redbooks. But of course irreversible. If people approve of (most of ) what we do in Wales it is because we are felling the dark masses of Sitka spruce and replanting with more sympathetic species – or in most cases mixtures of species.


The immediate aftermath of a clearfell is inevitably a mess: logs and stumps lying higgledy-piggledy among piles of brown brash. We usually plant new trees within a year, straight into the mess. For two or three years they are scarcely visible, as the mess subsides and turns grey.  Then your eye picks up the lines of green and recognises oak, larch, spruce  or pine or beech or Douglas fir, softened by a haze of self-planting birch. Within five years the hill is green again.

Our concern now is about larch. Phytophthora ramorum has already cost us a considerable plantation. Now we hear of a new disease, being referred to as ‘Red Tongue’, that can kill larch from the roots up (the phytophthora starts at the top). Larch, after oak and beech, are our favourite trees, holding their feathery heads, now brilliant yellow, high aloft on pencil-straight trunks and showering everything below with weightless golden needles. They are also some of the most fecund trees; their pale seedlings come up everywhere, little lights in dark corners. Anything that wiped them out would be a tragedy.

For the moment we are concentrating on the streams that chatter or slide, and occasionally rush, down their little courses to gather in the Afon Dwynant in the valley, and gurgle on through the trees, eventually to the estuary. We are clearing a path along its whole length, as close to the water as possible, sometimes bridging it, sometimes diverting round a mossy sheep pen or a veteran tree. The music of the water is a cocoon around you as you walk, shutting out the world as the stream dances and glitters at your feet.

Recovery mode

October 19, 2018

Home from an excursion to Prague and Dresden, two great cities in recovery mode; the first from communism, the second from communism and bombing. Two cornucopias of architecture, art and a sense of history impossible to ignore. Both in dazzling sunlight onto autumn colours. The two-hour train journey between the two follows the adolescent river Elbe between cliffs and forests; a marvellous ride.

Prague has a serious case of the tourist problem. Its main attractions, the castle and the statue-lined Charles bridge and the Old Town Square are so thronged that walking that progress is difficult, and contemplation impossible. I remember our first visit, in January 1990, immediately after its ‘velvet revolution’, when Wenceslaus Square was lined with candles and there was so little to eat that restaurants took turns to open. Then the streets were so silent that you could hear the music from several churches together.

The city is bustling now, facades repainted and businesses thriving. But how many tourists is too many? London, I learn, gets 20 million foreign tourists a year these days. Prague, last year, had 10 million, in a city one fifth the size of of London. And Cambridge, small provincial town that it is, had over seven, two million more than five years ago. Cambridge and Prague have something else in common; they are pinpointed by the Chinese. Prague now has direct flights from Peking. Result: hordes (it’s the only word) of Chinese tourists either following flags or looking lost – and in both cases using selfie sticks beside ‘iconic’ buildings.

Cambridge is a peculiar case; a Chinese poet’s shrine. What is to be done, though, here or in any other unfortunate place targeted by travel agents?   The routine answer to problems of surplus demand is taxation.

His lordship’s grapes

October 9, 2018

It’s a sign of advancing years, I know, when you start to research your family history. In my family there’s a surprising amount to go on: assorted letters and papers covering, in all, four hundred years. It’s not that any of us were grand or landed; there has clearly been an itch to record passed down from, on my mother’s side, farmers in Saxony who were anxious to be considered ‘respectable’, which seems to have meant owning something, and on my father’s side someone described as ‘a gardener’ – which has naturally intrigued me.

The gardener lived near Waterford. That much we knew. There was also a family legend attached that he had extremely smart connections involving the Marchioness of Waterford. My sister has the itch, too, and did something about it. She took the miniature portrait we have of a soldier in a red coat, the subject of the legend, to Curraghmore, the palatial seat of the marquesses of Waterford, now as then, met his land agent, told the story, and was rewarded with a copy of A Common Country, An Englishman’s Ramble through Connaught and Munster during the summer of 1833, by William Bilton.

Bilton was one of those inquisitive travellers who noted everything and spoke to everyone. One of his visits was to the country round Waterford, where he introduced himself at Curraghmore and was taken round the

demesne , of ‘nearly five thousand Irish acres’ by ‘the very intelligent gardener, Mr Johnson’ – at which my sister naturally pricked up her ears. This is what Bilton has to say about Mr Johnson:

‘I have nowhere seen a garden conducted on so liberal a scale. The hothouses are filled with all the choicest varieties of grapes, and there are large and numerous succession houses for pines. Of out-door fruit I was shown a very complete collection of apples, both of the many excellent kinds peculiar to Ireland and of those lately obtained by the Horticultural Society, &c. Among the flowers, I noticed above two hundred specimens of the best and rarest sorts of dahlias, each of them displaying a profusion of prize-flowers. There seems no limit, in point of expense, to this department; and the whole management is left in the uncontrolled hands of Mr. Johnson, who generally has about fifty men and women employed in the gardens and adjoining pleasure-grounds, besides a score of carpenters and glaziers, all equally under his orders. I wonder what his Lordship’s grapes cost him per pound!’

Almost the Irish Paxton, in fact. He was Owen Johnson, and my great great great great grandfather. So that’s where Trad’s love of gardening comes from.

Hatches, Matches and Dispatches

October 2, 2018

I’m not a particularly adventurous gardener, as you may have observed. We simply don’t have room for many experiments. The roster of plants in this garden changes little from year to year, and I have certainly talked about our favourites often enough. So if there is any news,  it is new introductions. Or rather Hatches, Matches and Dispatches.

So many neighbours’ box hedges have been dispatched, having been gnawed into skeletons by the box caterpillar, that box protection (by mothtraps and insecticide) is a boringly constant theme. I don’t think anything else has croaked, though several things that should be lightening the shade with flowers quietly demonstrate that, like the sundial, “Sine Sole Sileo” – “Without Sun I am Dumb.’

You might not think Rozanne, the deservedly ubiquitous violet-purple geranium, could easily be muted. She normally sprawls with abandon, insinuating her cheerful flowers everywhere. Not under the sycamore, its shade enhanced by roses and fuchsias and a lusty camellia. Poor Rozanne struggles underneath. The fuchsia, the albino form of F.magellanica, never fails to sprinkle the gloom with its delicate little bells, the playground, surely, if we have one, of flower fairies. The Garden Museum exhibition of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies had us all entranced, from grandfather down to a four-year-old boy more given to fire-engines than flowers.

Matches. One colour-match that proves again that 2+2 can = 5 is the blue potato bush, (sadly now no longer a Solanum but renamed Lycianthes rantonettii) as a climbing frame for the yellow Clematis orientalis. The purple potato flowers have yellow centres; the harmony is complete.

Hatches are new arrivals. More geraniums to decorate Grandpa’s (Alitex) Shed; dark red Lord Bute, incendiary Rimfire and our favourite, Aldwyck, whose shade of red I can’t describe, They came as plugs – and within a month have flower-buds. A fastigiate form of the holly being touted as a box-substitute, Ilex crenata; not very impressive. A yellow-berried (at last) variety of Nandina domestica – ‘at last’ because I collected the seed in the botanic garden at Kobe twenty years ago. And of course bulbs.

Peace in the Val d’Orcia

September 18, 2018

Villa La Foce: Anglo-Italian

London was worryingly as warm as Tuscany when we got home from staying with friends in the most perfect summer-cool garden near Montalcino. Their house, vineyards on one side, olives on another and an oak wood on a third, is blessed with a gushing, crystalline, never-failing spring. I have always dreamed – really dreamed – of living where water springs from the ground. Here it flows down little stone channels into glinting basins, chuckling as it goes, then takes another run and spouts in crystal arcs into basins big enough to plunge and wallow in. It’s cold of course, but under a Tuscan sun the ultimate luxury.


It is not easy to keep your bearings on the endlessly winding roads of Tuscany. All the ancient settlements are perched on hilltops reached by a series of hairpin bends.  The campanile or farm or orderly olive grove you take as a landmark gyrates around you as you follow the road in countless twists, in and out of the shade of oak or pines, then dazzling sunlight. The wide Val d’ Orcia comes as welcome relief, a definitive break, a broad pause in the confusion with the signature profile of Monte Amiata blocking the way to the south.

Villa La Foce is perhaps the nearest Tuscany comes to a stately home, at least in its setting, a near-English garden poised like a balcony looking south across the valley with the summit of Monte Amiata in its cross-hairs. It is famous as the home of the Origo family, where the author Iris Origo lived through the Second World war and wrote War in the Val d’OrciaTheMerchant of Pratois her unique account of a Tuscan merchant’s life in the 14thcentury when she found his correspondence in the 1950s.

The Origos employed Cecil Pinsent as their architect, as Bernard Berenson had at Villa I Tatti, so they can hardly have been looking for a totally Tuscan result. To blend the orderly intimacy of English tradition with the wild breadth of the Tuscan landscape, where distances are measured in purple ranges of receding hills, is a challenge – which he overcame with the almost inevitable staircases, alleys of cypresses, staircases and hedges. In steep hillside gardens, which almost all Italian gardens are, changes of level are the key decisions.  Slopes are usually a mistake: you need to cut and construct terraces. Then you can contrast and balance intimacy and wide skies, detail and bravura. French windows (is there anything more Engish?) on to rosebeds, cloistered plots, vine pergolas, lemon pots, fuchsias and hydrangeas……. The ingredients may be universal, but the scale and sentiment are something an Italian would not conceive. And the upkeep, the planting and the tidiness: utterly English.

La Rentrée

September 4, 2018

It’s La Rentrée (taken so seriously in France that on August 31st there’s gridlock on every Autoroute) that snaps the garden back into focus. In our case rentrée from a week in Provence at its most perfect: cool in the morning, hot in the afternoonand warm at dinner-time. No need for shawls on the terrace. I expected the countryside to be as brown as the England we saw from the plane, but most of it looked relatively fresh. The plane trees (to me one of the great sights and principal glories of Provence) were in full green leaf; very few crackling brown cast-offs on the ground. Where they have water at their roots they can grow into ivory monsters, spilling obesely over kerbs, walls, rocks. Closely set in avenues they can soar cathedral-high, pale pillars to a pale green roof. They are the glory of (for instance) the Cours Mirabeau, the Champs Elysée of Aix. Some insane official has replaced a few of them with red-leafed maples. The guillotine is too good for him.

Gardening has to be simple near the Mediterranean. You can add such routine exotics as mimosa, palm-trees, oleander of course, but the basic ingredients scarcely need the gardener’s help. Pines, planes, cypresses, holm oaks, olives, an azure sky and pale stone are a full palate. The true pine of Provence is Pinus halepensis, the Aleppo pine, thought why we don’t call it the Provence pine I don’t know. By nature it is tall and slender, and even at the end of summer a pure, piercing, almost apple-peel green.

The house where we stayed once had an elaborate garden, on a pine-covered hill overlooking the city of Aix. Now most of it has filled up with the native laurustinus, which luxuriates in the woodland shade. The only level part is trim and flowery round a formal canal that doubles as a swimming pool, flowing continually over a weir into a lower basin, and lined, perhaps uniquely among swimming pools, with a low box hedge. A pool for grownups.

A week away sharpens your focus when you get home. There is far more to enjoy that I expected; new flushes of roses, invigorated Clematis orientalis, yellow among the purple of the now-towering Solanum rantonettii*. Phlox White Admiral with a new lease of life, agapanthus fully out, more geraniums, but above all the incomparable (however common) Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’. Jobert was a nurseryman at Verdun in the 1850s. Was Honorine his wife? For such a simple white flower, a nine-petal daisy, it has extraordinary presence and grace – and persistence. In Provence as in London.

*Now, I’m afraid, to be called Lycianthes. Not as sad as Sophora being renamed Styphnolobium. Oh, the taxonomists’ tin ear.

A pool for grownups

Hugh’s Gardening Books


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

Hugh’s Wine Books

World Atlas of Wine 8th edition

I started work on The World Atlas of Wine almost 50 years ago, in 1970. After four editions, at six-year…

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