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.


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.

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

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,…

Friends of Trad

John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary