Ombra mai fu

August 11, 2020

It was not far off a hundred old-style degrees yesterday, and not a breath of wind. How did our ancestors in the 18th century, periwigged or corseted, survive the summer? Handel left some clues in two of his operas, in two of his most successful and memorable arias. Ombra mai fu, his ‘largo’ in Serse, of 1738, is King Xerxes’ love song to a plane tree and its ‘soave’ shade, ‘Where’er you walk’ (Semele, 1743) is Jupiter’s promise to his mistress, Semele (the mother of Baccus) that her life with him will be a (shady) paradise; ‘Cool gales shall fan the shade’. Our garden is permanently shady, but you need a breeze as well; close and airless shade is no pleasure.

For months already this summer I have been crossing to (even planning my walks for) the shady side of London streets: east in the morning, west in the afternoon, or the south side of east-west streets. Avoid north-south streets around noon.

Am I unusual in shunning the sun? I shudder when I see photos of crowds fully exposed on shadeless beaches. Summer sun without a shady refuge is my idea of hell. I suspect that plants feel the same. Why do they flower in sunshine, and vegetate in shade? Shade gives them the opportunity to grow, to breathe freely, open their stomata and pump carbon dioxide, using the carbon to multiply their cells and expand. Sun, I imagine, constrains them, makes then hoard their juices, induces the sense of mortality and the urge to reproduce; hence make flowers, mate and fruit.

This is no way to think of a plant, I’m often told. They don’t have feelings, sensations or urges; let alone a concept of the future and the need to provide for future generations. I’m not so sure. They can’t book holidays in a climate that suits them better. Nor, while this poxy virus is among us, can we.

Social distancing

July 29, 2020

I came across a sentence the other day in a pre-Victorian memoir that made me wonder who exactly did all the work in the huge gardens of the day. Brownism, of course, greatly reduced the detailed gardening of parterres and topiary. Sheep did a lot of mowing. We have seen photos of garden teams fifty-strong, the men all wearing hats, waistcoats and watchchains, the boys caps (the weeder women not even in shot). But here is Prince Puckler-Muskau, in a house-party at Lord Darnley’s Cobham Hall in July 1828.

‘Today I diligently helped clear a few new vistas through the brush, to which everyone lent a hand.’ This is something Jane Austen left out: the gentlemen in their shirt sleeves, the ladies in… what, I wonder? Pinafores? And where did the sons of toil fit in? Did they set to, competing to impress with their brawny bending, or watch from the wings, concealing their giggles, or pitch the branches on a bonfire? Did the cider-flagon go round the party, ending with a shanty and a jig, or did they practise social distancing?

The voice of an old friend

July 28, 2020

I am looking for a recipe in Elizabeth David and reading her old magazine articles, the voice of an old friend, when I stumble on one of her descriptions of an August holiday. ‘I have a nostalgie de la pluie’, she writes. North Cornwall and its leafy lanes dripping, dripping, to walk in a dressing gown and gumboots through squelching grass to the stream to fetch water for our breakfast coffee…’ She suffers August rain in the west coast of Scotland, ‘drumming on the corrugated iron roof’ and on Tory Island, ‘on what the Irish describe as a nice soft day, the Scots as a bit mixed, and I as a hurricane…’ Next came ‘sodden Surrey woods’ – at least a change from a Celtic soaking.

I have a nostalgie de la pluie, too, and seek assurance in the statistics that say August is indeed one of our wettest months. Walking on grass worn, grey and brown, patchy and without a fresh leaf, ankle-twisting, I wonder how many wet days it needs to bring life back. In the uncut meadow the grass was sere but soft, brushing your knees, dotted with purple knapweed and yellow rattle. The stream was clogged with dead leaves, the earth cracking. Roll on August; wet my face and hands.

We didn’t have to wait for the calendar. We went to the seaside, and the children sailed to Cornwall. Down it came, the wind rose, they found a sheltered anchorage and I opened the French windows and listened, and watched, and saw leaves shining, and tipping their little brimfuls onto the leaf below till the branch shook.

What weight does rain add to a big oak with half a million leaves? A branch reaching forty feet horizontally from the trunk must have to support several hundredweight of water. Why doesn’t it split from the trunk? An ingenious American woodsman spent his life carving up trees to find the answer. The growth rings of the trunk and a branch springing from it alternate and overlap, splicing the two together in union almost impossible to break.

In a day or two the tawny hide of Kensington Gardens will be overlaid with tender green. Already oaks have shot out pinkish and buff Lammas shoots, their instant reaction to a deep drink in mid-Summer. My own Lammas shoots, meanwhile, spur me to celebrate this liberating moment.

A woodland creature

July 14, 2020

Could you mistake this for ponticum?

When it started to rain last week, a good month into a drought that had begun to hurt, it felt like autumn. By mid-summer’s day (according to one calendar) or the first day of summer (according to another) we’d already had more than a year’s average summer weather. Twenty lunches in the garden in succession breaks all records.

With the afternoon sun just perceptibly lower in the sky, the rainclouds and the cool damp air it felt like a different season or another place. Wales, for example. In the four months we have been stuck at home I have dreamed about our woods and the walks I know by heart after 25 years, not alas of residence, but of passionate engagement. Next month we will be able to go back to see hundreds of new trees planted and a new bridge, contrived out of old telegraph poles, spanning our little river. The great stone that it replaces was on its way to Hampshire when the virus struck.

The Snowdonia National Park (we are in it) has a project to get rid of the Rhododendron ponticum that springs up everywhere in the woods, smothering young trees and creating ideal conditions for the Phytophthora that is killing our larches. They undertook to poison all the ponticum. To my fury I have just heard that they have also poisoned the most prized plant on the property. I planted R. augustinii for its blue flowers, to match the bluebells in May, 25 years ago. Augustinii doesn’t look remotely like ponticum. It is a delicate, transparent plant with leaves a fraction of the size and entirely matt, with no shine. The plant was in a prominent place by a waterfall where a simpleton could see it was a deliberate feature. I was beginning to compare it with the beauty by the river at Bodnant. It is now a stump stained
blue with glyphosate. 25 years is not something you can refund.

As soon as we’re in the woods, though, under the beeches with the river rattling by and a whiff of woodsmoke from the chimney of our old stone building, cares will evaporate. I am at heart a woodland creature.

General Situation

June 11, 2020

We used to look at weather forecasts as vague indications of what to expect. If there was a great black low over Ireland rain might happen: with wind in the northeast it might not. The General Situation map with isobars was probably the best guide, though it didn’t help much in a Test Match.

Now the app Dark Sky knows where you are and will tell you ‘Rain starting in 3 minutes, ending 17 minutes later.’ You can set your stopwatch, sit at the window and say it’s rubbish: it was six minutes and 15 minutes. But it was your weather, the rattling on your leaves. What’s more the app asks you what you’re seeing and then builds it into its forecast for wherever your cloud is heading next.

Precision like this makes it feel even worse when the rain you are longing for doesn’t happen. Today its confident forecast was for ‘light rain all day.’ ‘Light’ has meant ‘just perceptible’. A change from all day hot sunshine, certainly. But it will take a lot more to put any green into the tawny hide of Kensington Gardens.

I shouldn’t be surprised. In 1979 I wrote in my Principles of Gardening “It never rains when you want, but it rains in the end.” Pretty resigned for a novice gardener who had only been at it for eight years, but at least it showed my grasp of the law of averages.

Scolyte, a name to dread

June 5, 2020

Just the edge of it

A friend who knows me well once said “You really are arboreally insatiable.” He was right. I can’t see a space without thinking what tree would suit it, or a tree without thinking of a site for it. Over the past sixty-something years I have planted or caused to be planted thousands of trees in dozens of places, and tried to keep track of their progress. Start early, is my advice. I started at nineteen, so I have fifty foot oaks to my credit. They’re no better of course than anyone else’s, but the mental zoom from sapling to fifty-footer is exhilarating.

But when things go wrong it can be devastating. I’ve just heard from the friend in France who bought our property in the Centre fifteen years ago. With encouragement (not to mention grants) from the French government we planted something like seventy acres with oak and pine, Scots, Corsican and Maritime. The friend rang to tell me that over fifteen acres of Scots pine are dead. In France they are not ‘Scots’, they are pins sylvestres, wild pines, and indeed they are native everywhere in Europe from Russia to Spain.

Our old place has some steep slopes. One just behind the farmhouse scared me every time I took the tractor out to mow it. I should have left it to sheep, but I wanted to tame the broom and gorse. My old Massey Ferguson was what I called the sports model: no cab, not even a roll bar. Several times, turning on the scary slope, I almost baled out. Its soil was appalling, just shallow grit over granite.

Eventually we planted it with pins sylvestres. They far exceeded my expectations; twenty years later they had made a dense wood of straight trees. Then Mark phoned me. They are all dead, first dried by drought and heat, then mined and killed by a bark beetle I had never heard of, called in French Scolyte. The beetle takes advantage of the desiccated tree and in one season it is dead. I googled scolyte, to learn far worse news: tens of thousands of hectares in the Vosges mountains, the Moselle and the Meuse have been devastated, their spruce and pine ‘scolyté’. Their dry timber has little value; the forests must be felled and replanted, as many were after the First World War. Perhaps they should be planted with species from the Midi, accustomed to hot dry summers. Perhaps we should all be thinking along these lines.

The urge to know

May 21, 2020

Confession: I’ve never been a fan of most modern poetry, Ogden Nash apart. TS Eliot? I reckon he made it up as he went along. “Peach’ rhymes with ‘beach’; couldn’t we all do that? Now and then, though, I meet a poet with no great pretentions who says something directly and neatly and memorably; something Alexander Pope would approve. (Pope wrote ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so well exprest’).

Six or seven years ago I wrote about Jay Appleton, the geographer and landscape philosopher who coined the idea of Prospect and Refuge. To recap, he said certain views are inherently pleasurable because they answer to basic instincts. They give us notice of approaching threats (and opportunities) and at the same time give us the sense of being protected from behind. The view of a valley from a cave-mouth, for example. Or indeed a Palladian temple.

Appleton’s verse was published in 2009 in a little book called A Love Affair with Landscape, published by the Wildhern Press. Wordsworth he is not, but this is something for a gardener:

Deflected Vista

The thing I like about an avenue
Is how it takes possession of the eye,
Steers it directly where it’s going to –
That faraway, magnetic patch of sky.
But if that vistal corridor is bent,
Thus cutting short the visibility,
It doesn’t seem to put us off the scent;
It merely feeds our curiosity.
We humans daily struggle to survive.
By instinct we are programmed to explore;
It’s part of how we keep ourselves alive.
That is what curiosity is for!
Deflected vistas therefore serve to show
How overwhelming is the urge to know.

Expense no object

May 12, 2020

The sums spent on gardening by the royal family, or in other words the taxpayer, over the past four centuries would make you gasp and rub your eyes. The later Stuarts and early Hanoverians had no qualms whatever about laying out billions on their gardens. An Economic History of English Gardens, a fascinating recent book by Roderick Floud, spells out exactly how many billions of reckless spending it took to give us the great gardens we so enjoy today, from the Royal Parks to such aristocratic extravagances as Blenheim and Stowe. Capability Brown was by no means a one-man band: his account books (in the Lindley Library) show the scale of his enterprise, and he was one among many.

This all seemed particularly relevant at a time when our whole nursery industry was put on pause. Awkwardly, plants can’t be told to stop growing (except, that is, in fridges waiting for Chelsea). Billions were at risk. Closing nurseries, along with locking churches, was one of the government’s least well-advised anti-Covid moves. Surely praying is as private an activity as you can imagine.

Half the country’s gardeners, on the other hand, will scarcely have noticed; the half that lives in its green bubble where no one thinks of actually spending money to buy a plant. Vegetable seeds, maybe. But plants? They osmose their way from garden to garden as little swaps, or little presents, in a quiet interchange between neighbours and friends. Far from the world of from-scratch designer layouts and planting by numbers, in the deep-rooted culture of proper gardeners every plant has its own family tree.

This one came from Charlie across the road; this turned up at the village fete. This one started as a thumbnail cutting on holiday in Devon. This was grown from a seed found in a pocket after a National Trust outing. The garden is as much a collection of memories as it is of plants. ‘Cottage’ garden is the rather condescending label of this category, where plants grow as individuals for their own sakes rather than brush-strokes in a painting. The label, then, logically applies to the garden of a botanical magpie on any scale. It may spread to hundreds of acres and have a coherent plan, proportions, perspectives and all the grown-up attributes, but it is still a cottage garden at heart.

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