May 28, 2019

An uninvited arch

It was no part of our garden plan to have a pink rose arch across the middle, springing from the wall and resting on the greenhouse. It is a bonus of this über-flowery season, primed I’m pretty sure by the warmth of last summer. The hybrid teas from next door (our neighbours have a rooted objection to pruning anything, ever), having over-topped the ten-foot trellis by another seven or eight feet, are so weighed down by their flowers that they flop right across us. There are two: a sumptuous scarlet and a sunset pink one with blooms like cabbages, each weighing I suppose a quarter of a pound – and if it ever rained, very much more….

They have gatecrashed a party that already had a lot of colour. The pink of Bantry Bay definitely disagrees with our new cabbage friend – and also with Parson’s Pink China, which I have carefully planted so it is hard to see both at once. Iceberg, Alister Stella Gray and Mme. A. Carrière are neutral enough, but the ructions start with the purple of the potato bush (now a tree, and now no longer a solanum) Lycianthes rantonnetia and the yellow Clematis orientalis I slyly slipped in for a cunning contrast. Quarter-pound pink cabbages dismiss any such airy notions. What is airy, though, is the ultra-lightweight Chilean climber Eccremocarpus scaber. Its little creamy flowers peep out at the top of all this blue and yellow on the most delicate, flimsiest under-pinnngs.

What a sourpuss I would be, though, to censor this riotous behaviour.


Tea and botany

May 14, 2019

Last year we went to Cornwall to see magnolias and saw nothing through the driving snow. (Camellias at eye level, snow on their flowers, looked wonderful). This year the view was perfect, the magnolias magnificent, and the garden at Tregothnan glorious: from the house over the grandly austere parterre into the combe that zigzags down to the River Fal, with a ship moored exactly where you might build an eye-catcher.

It is an understatement to say that Tregothnan is spacious. The walks and glades among huge trees, magnolias and rhododendrons of course, but all the things you go to Cornwall to admire, stretch down valleys and over plateaux, follow streams and sneak into woods, it seems without limit. Then there is the startling sight of a hillside trim as a vineyard with long lines of shining green; Camellia sinenis, producing Tregothnan tea, the only tea, as far as I know, grown commercially in England. The Boscawen family, with Viscount Falmouth at its head, has been at Tregothnan for 700 years, and is still having new ideas.

I went down to ransack the archives of the Garden Society, the dining club formed one hundred years ago by such horticultural legends as Gerald Loder, Reginald Cory, Frederick Stern and Lionel de Rothschild to meet after RHS Show Days and discuss their new plants. Show Days at Vincent Square are alas almost extinct, and new plants much rarer than in the days of the great plant explorers. Today they would be accused of cultural appropriation or worse. The urge of gardeners to talk about their favourite plants is not so easily suppressed. The Garden Society dines on.

Old timers

May 9, 2019

The party photographed by Frances Elliott


Back from a gathering of R.H.S old-timers at Hergest Croft on the Welsh border (literally; it runs through Park Wood, the principal glory of the estate). The owner, Lawrence Banks, fourth in a dynasty of tree-collectors, was Treasurer of the R.H.S, his wife Elizabeth the first woman (and professional landscape gardener), President. Where else could we meet to celebrate the 90th birthday of the Society’s veteran Editor, Elspeth Napier? Elspeth was editor of the journal when it underwent its transformation into The Garden. Trad’s Diary was born under her editorship (and could probably benefit from it today).



Christopher Brickell, long time Director of Wisley, and Brent Elliot, the even longer time Society’s librarian, were there, with Caroline Boisset, Elspeth’s assistant editor, and Martin and Alison Rix – names which all mean a lot to committed members and gardeners. ‘We are the old RHS’, said Lawrence. In our day the Society still felt almost intimate, like a gathering of old friends, amateurs in the best sense, of people who have mastered their subject out of sheer love for it. A society hundreds of thousands strong needs systems that change its aura. ‘Professional’ and ‘amateur’ have both changed in their connotations.

Park Wood, where we wandered in the afternoon, is the place where I first learned that trees were an important part of my life, and decided to learn about them by writing a book (the fastest way, as any journalist knows, to learn a subject). It was Lawrence’s father, Richard Banks, who inspired me, climbing round high thickets of rare rhododendrons to show me a maple, a birch or a silver fir of intoxicating beauty. When in the 1970s the RHS staged a Conifer Conference there was a prize for the biggest collection of different cones. Dick Banks came second, just pipped to the post by the Queen, or rather the Crown Estate. But Dick had climbed every tree himself.

Plant collectors who know the Himalayas (alas, I am not one) have called Park Wood, in its steep-sided valley, noisy with its stream under a high vault of oak and larch, the nearest thing in Britain to Nepal. I would say heaven.

Easter trance

April 23, 2019

The scene of the crime

London (or at any rate Kensington) was in a trance over Easter. It was summer weather, London was radiant, but everyone had gone away. The streets were quiet, and in the enclosure formed by the terraces around us, nobody had a party: no music, conversation or barbecue smoke. I spent the afternoon writing a list of all the plants in the garden: 120, plus pots in the greenhouse. Then in the evening, after supper outside (this is still April) I sat with all the lights out, gazing at something I have scarcely ever seen in London: the stars. Nothing stirred: no wind, no birds, no sound of even distant traffic. Surely with such a clear sky, and an almost full moon there’ll be a frost? Warm air was pouring up from Africa; we were in an atmospheric duvet.

I had switched off the rather spasmodic pump that trickles into our tiny fish tank. For two weeks now I’ve been worried about our two Comets and a tiddler. The water has needed changing and the tank emptying of a winter’s worth of detritus. Only one of the fish has been coming up to feed, and that with little appetite. Over the weekend we found out why: he (she) is alone. What could have taken the others? It could only be a heron.

How a high-flying heron could spot the glinting surface of our tiny tank, only five feet by one and a half, I can’t imagine. Not only is it shaded by the wall beside the greenhouse, but the tall branches of the big potato bush hang over it. From the sky, I supposed, there would be nothing to see. There was a heron standing in the greenhouse ridge, I remember, three or four years ago. He flapped off over the garden wall when I showed up. So herons not only sail past, they come down to investigate. In most gardens they are as likely to find a frog as a fish.  How can we baffle them? I’d hate a net over the water; maybe just a cunningly placed wire?For all the serenity this little space encloses, nature is still red in beak and claw.


April 18, 2019

The orchard at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

From the day he walked into a brasserie in Besancon to be a washer-up to his seriously senior status today Raymond Blanc has exuded a special sort of focussed enthusiasm. It has made his Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, near Oxford, one of the best restaurants (and most expensive hotels) in the country. It has made him the most convincing television chef, and it powers his no-holds barred gardening. He employs twelve gardeners at Le Manoir, not because of the size of his gardens, but their intensity. In April the sight of perhaps half an acre of perfect tilth scored in immaculate straight rows (this is his veg plot) is pretty striking. Its produce, via the kitchen, is irresistible. But most impressive of all is the orchard, where more than 800 varieties of both British and French apples and pears are arranged in perfectly-pruned files round a central circle. The famous Potager du Roi at Versailles, it seems, had 400 varieties.

Blanc works in collaboration with the celebrated Delbard nursery at Malicorne, near Montlucon in the Allier, the very centre of France. Henri Delbard is famous for rose-breeding, too, having created a series of flowers matching, more or less, the palettes of Impressionist painters. His collection of historic varieties of fruit is a national reference, trained, cordoned and espaliered in wonderful ways, double and quadruple candelabras among them.

The art of pruning and ‘training’ trees is a French speciality, obsession indeed, which can have pretty ugly results. The British way, of letting a tree grow to its natural shape and size, is not at all the thing. “Elagueurs” with their saws and axes even scale tall hedge trees between fields; though here the purpose is harvesting fodder for cattle. (Cattle love elm leaves in particular). In French orchards – and here at the Manoir – pruning becomes an art of almost Japanese intensity. Apples and pears are given the same precision treatment as vines; each bud to be retained carefully chosen, the rest removed. How many pairs of secateurs does it take, I wondered, to reduce nearly a thousand fruit trees to perfect parade order?

Not only is Raymond growing them, he is testing them in the kitchen, compiling notes on the best method of preparation for each variety; whether it is best poached, roasted, steamed, baked or pureed. How many cooks?

A border too far

April 12, 2019

The Dutch Garden at Holland Houise

When you know a public park as well as your own garden it can be difficult to keep quiet about the way it’s run. Holland Park is our backyard. You couldn’t ask for more variety in a mere 50 acres. Besides the remains of Holland House, firebombed in the war and now used as the setting for Holland Park Opera, there is a generous playing field and tennis courts, a wild woodland (popular with foxes) covering a third of the area, a formal Dutch Garden, well-known for its tulips, a historic camellia walk, peacocks, iris beds, a maple-and-hellebore walk, two playgrounds and an ecology centre, an orangery, a café, a restaurant , and London’s best Japanese garden. The idea has always been to keep as much as possible of the country house garden it was in Lord Holland’s and Lord Ilchester’s times. On the whole it is a credit to the Kensington and Chelsea parks Department and the park’s Friends.  You’re waiting for a ‘but’; here it comes.

The remains of Holland House are dreadfully neglected. The East wing, the only wing still standing and now used as a hostel, has crumbling stonework and woodwork that has not been repainted in 15 years; a shameful sight. Last year the house was promoted, if that’s the word, to the register of Historic Buildings at Risk.

Its south terrace, recently elaborately repaved, fronts the park on an eight-foot wall with gate piers attributed to Inigo Jones. At its foot, until now, innocuous grass and a couple of benches. But now the grass has been done away with and in its place is a sort of mixed border a hundred yards long, mixed enough to contain alliums and bay trees; the bare earth, one would think, a maintenance nightmare to the small, keen but stretched team of gardeners. There is no sign of a rational plan. The bay and holly trees will in due course hide the house from the park and vice versa. But oddest of all, the border is surrounded by a four-foot post and wire-mesh fence. True there are lots of dogs running around; is this the reason? The result is hideous, the absurdity laughable, but the waste of resources is simply a scandal.

Personal Geographies

April 7, 2019

Chelsea Physic Garden 1, 2016, ©Eileen Hogan

How often do you see an artist’s work that so draws you in that you begin to see – or try to see – in their way? Eileen Hogan’s paintings do this for me. I first met them when in 2016 she was ‘artist-in-nonresidence ‘ at the Garden Museum and her personal vision filled the walls. Her paintings, large or small, are done in combinations of paints and wax that allow her effects of ghostlike fading and focussing. She appears to divine and absorb an atmosphere or a mood before she homes in on the particularities, then paints the details – some details – with pin-sharp precision. Isn’t that the way your mind works: changing focus as objects, or ideas or associations swim to the surface off your consciousness. Or indeed unconsciousness?

Hogan’s work is often in twilight, or mist, or under a sheen of rain or cloak of snow. Then something comes into focus – perhaps something physically quite inconsequential. The chalk lines marking out a football pitch on scrubby grey grass, a snatch of lettering, a walking figure seen from behind. She seems to like parallel lines, whether sunshine through a slatted blind or the Order Beds in the Physic Garden, where a sprinkler makes a small explosion of white shards of water against the green. She likes empty chairs and their shadows scattered in a café when everyone has left. Absence, in fact, is a sort of presence in her work. In a few paintings the degree of detail almost amounts to hyper-realism; others remain impressions.

All this is in a remarkable new book, published by the Yale Center for British Art. It chronicles, in her words and several others’, her creative life as painter, calligrapher, printer and publisher – and almost as an afterthought reveals her as a masterly portrait-painter. Her portrait of the Duchess of Cornwall, for one, is so sensitive it seems almost an intrusion to look at it.

In her essay she explains her methods of sketching, note-taking and repeated looking; obsessive observation. This is figurative painting involving not just the eyes but the whole intellect, memory and emotions. Could abstract painting ever capture your vision like this?

Fence and gun

April 3, 2019

Is there anything rabbits won’t eat? I asked a local Mr McGregor the other day in our New Forest garden. “Well” he said, “There’s the roller…..”  Lettuces may be first on bunnies’ menus, but they show little sign of much discrimination. The deer come to their aid of course, when there is something interesting out of their reach. The roe deer take care of the higher stuff while the muntjac are usually available for the mid-level.

There is a particular bed near the front door I would like to take off the menu, but so far no luck. My first idea was to fence it off, as it were, with a low yew hedge. Isn’t yew poisonous? Not to our customers. The little plants were immediately gnawed down to their stalks, and further into the bed, the rugosa roses (pretty thorny, I’d thought) were thoroughly investigated, if not destroyed. Plants with aromatic leaves, or hairy ones, folklore says, are a turn-off. We tried sage (quickly scoffed), lavender (nibbled to bits) and rosemary (ditto). Daffodils, say the books, are pretty unpalatable. Fair enough, but that only takes care of March. Bluebells are not usually destroyed; but neither are they in the garden; they belong in the wood. The list of less delicious plants goes on, but a garden composed of them would look pretty odd: daffs, daphnes, buddlejas, bay, nerines, kniphofias, rhubarb….  Tulips are caviar. Roses, rhodies, camellias, hollies… the essential woodland garden plants are all popular menu items. We’ll go on experimenting, but at the moment fence and gun seem to be the only realistic solution.

Hugh’s Gardening Books

Sitting in the Shade

This is the third anthology of Trad’s Diary, cherry-picking the past ten years. The previous two covered the years 1975…

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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