Peak Magnolia

March 30, 2021

It’s Peak Magnolia in Kensington. The heats are over; we’re in the finals now: every street in these leafy parts is fielding a tree or two. The finals end just as the wisteria heats are getting going. And meanwhile the cherries are scattering their confetti on pavements and cars.

Magnolia x soulangiana is the people’s choice, and I’ve just stumbled on the fact that the year 2020 was its 200th birthday. In 1820 people were just getting excited about two recent imports from the Far East: Magnolia denudata (because its white flowers appear on naked branches) came from China, and Magnolia liliiflora from Japan. ‘Liliiflora’ is a bit fanciful; magnolia flowers are more like tulips.

It was a retired Napoleonic officer who thought of crossing them to produce a hybrid. Etienne Sanlange-Bodin had a role in the Empress Josephine’s garden at Malmaison before he retired to a village not far from Fontainebleau to start a nursery. The hybrid was a triumph, combining the white of M. denudata with the purple of M.liliiflora in all sorts of interesting ways and adding the vigour that often comes with hybrids.

There must be twenty variants in cultivation today, from the customary pinky purple one you see everywhere, with its fleshy cups of flowers, to a pure white (‘Brozonii’ is a beauty) through pale blushes with various darker veins or stripes to dark purple and even nearly red.

The magnolia collection at Kew is at its peak just now, too. It started a good month ago with the tall M.campbelli, the pride of Cornish gardens so often nipped in its prime by untimely frost. Fifty feet of bright pink against a blue sky draws the crowds. Kew’s own cultivar, M. Kewensis, is a big stout tree by magnolia standards, but my own favourite is a stately white M. kobus labelled ‘Borealis’ – though I’m not sure why. ‘Borealis’ means northern. For some reason icy white appeals to me more than lingerie colours.

Hourglass of spring

March 23, 2021

The weeping willow is my favourite hourglass of spring. Bulbs are brighter, cherries more cheerful, but the quiet colour change, from the buff yellow of the winter curtains of a willow to a faint tinge of green as little catkins emerge with the first pale leaves, is something that grabs me in March every year. I go to see the willows that surge up from below the bridge over the Serpentine. You can lean over the parapet and touch their branches. There is energy and repose in the long curves of the branches and the green torrent of subsidiary shoots.

I used to be brutal in pruning one I planted beside the wellhead in the courtyard at Saling Hall. It spread in twenty years or so to fill half the yard with its tresses. One of our granddaughter’s favourite (perhaps only) memories of Grandpa’s old house was of standing on the wellhead, grasping a strand of willow and launching off to swing out and back through the greenery.

Whether it’s true or not, I love the legend of the arrival of this uniquely elegant tree in England. The tree is originally Chinese, but a connection in Turkey sent a parcel of figs to Alexander Pope at his villa in Twickenham. Pope’s gardening instinct made him look with interest at the yellow withies tying the bundle. It was easy to see that they were willow, so the poet put some cuttings in water. When they rooted he had the first weeping willow in the country.

The soft willow dome and the strict vertical of the Lombardy poplar, today the yin and yang of our landscape trees, appeared here in the same generation in the mid 1700s: the willow at Twickenham, the poplar in Essex, at St Osyth’s Priory near Maldon. How that period of discovery changed our landscape. Have any exotic imports contributed so much to scenes that now seem quintessentially English?

In any language

March 10, 2021

I’ve been an avid reader, I confess, of the new anthology of my (Trad’s) own words to be published as Sitting in the Shade on April Fool’s Day. I happened to open it at the entry for our daughter Lucy’s Wedding in May 2010, which I wrote in a state of high excitement – and largely in Latin. It was an early summer day when the garden was almost over-performing. I had to list all the flowers, and immediately found myself knee-deep in Latin names. It makes for a page so peppered with italics (the correct procedure for botanical Latin) that I was going to leave it out, thinking it would put bookshop browsers off buying. ‘No’, said my sagacious editor, ‘keep it in; it’s a lovely wedding celebration’.

A Te Deum it isn’t, but how to adequately express the identities of a score of flowers without saying their names? And insofar as they even have English names a list of spurge, baby’s breath, ladies’ mantle, larkspur and geraniums hardly conjures up the variety and brilliance of the garden that day.

The sun was so hot we had to find shade under the apple trees that were just spreading their leaves, filtering the sunlight on the tables, the ice-buckets and glasses in the manner of a Renoir or a Seurat. Then a wind got up and the tent where we were having lunch half-collapsed. In any language, Dies laetificans.

Raring to go

March 3, 2021

This time last year the world was holding its breath. The streets were empty. The skies were silent. In lockdown the only metre on stage was nature, and nature is never more active than in Spring. There was little to do by watch the slow motion metamorphosis of a pinhead to a suggestion of a bud to a pregnant envelope, to its slow spliting to give a glimpse of colour, then unfurl or crack open, and petals to fill out like butterflies’ wings. I took my magnifying glass into the garden every morning, feeling like David Attenborough. Conditions were perfect for contemplation detached from time.

This time round the world outside is like a bud, peeping open to allow tantalizing glimpse of what’s to come, but nipped, as it were, by unnatural rules that tell it to go no further until authorized. The strain is showing. Sunny afternoons in the park don’t look very locked-down, and are all these cars joining the M4 on essential journeys?

There is a point of no return with opening buds. The petals they sheltered can be blasted, but the urge that opens them is irreversible.

“Were we the Earl of Grosvenor”

February 22, 2021

John Claudius Loudon, our greatest horticultural journalist, didn’t mince his words. He made a visit to Cheshire (this was in 1831) to see the earl’s new palace of Eaton Hall, and approved of the house. “It is the only palace we have ever seen where every part of the finishing and furniture are equally excellent. With great splendour, there is great chasteness of colouring….” “Having said this’, he goes on, “we have said all that we can say in favour of Eaton Hall…. the situation forbids all hope of any natural beauty…. a totally wrong character has been attempted in laying out the pleasure grounds,….. tiresome in its sameness, and without a single object that can raise ideas of either grandeur or beauty.” He then goes on to give his ideas (they sound more like instructions) to remedy things.

Then he goes on north to Lowther Castle in Cumbria, recently rebuilt for the Earl of Lonsdale, where “a great error, in my opinion, is that … the house faces the wrong way….., is too low. “There is a small flower garden, in a hollow, shaded by high trees, where fine flowers. can never grow, and a very bad kitchen garden, a mile or more from the house.” Lowther Castle, he graciously concedes “may still be made of something of” …. and then lets the earl have the benefit of his instructions..

William Robinson, the next great panjandrum of garden writing, can also fall short on courtesy. “Osborne” (Queen Victoria’s pride and joy) “is perhaps one of the saddest and ugliest examples in England….” Robinson, of course, was famously rude about formal gardening of almost any kind, and has been said to have invented woodland gardening. But, compared to these self-confident Victorians, we no longer have any garden critics at all. Would Monty Don ever say a garden was ugly? Would Alan Titchmarsh? The modern style of describing a garden is milk and water compared with these combative commentators. It must all be positive, not even constructive in suggesting things that could be done better. And, Trad has to admit he tends to look on the bright side, too.

World tour, no cost

February 3, 2021

It is an exercise, or pastime, or distraction for this sort of afternoon: dismal and damp, grey in the garden except where three or four flowers look like rubbish blown in by the penetrating wind. There is only one cloud, a blanket form horizon to horizon. Is it moving, or just prone, spread-eagled over us without the energy to move?

But I’ve escaped, vertically, right through it, to look down on the drifting wavelets of its dazzling white upper side, under the cerulean empyrean (nul points for choice of words).

My exercise, or pastime or (most importantly) distraction is a visit to the gardens stored in my mind. To bring them into focus I start with the red, white and blue bedding in front of Buckingham Palace. Looking closer, it’s not white but horticultural silver, a sort of sunlit grey. It doesn’t take long to take it in, so down the stone steps to the end of the lake, where water cascades out of a hole in the wall, under the road; where does that come from? Is it one of London’s lost and buried rivers, or an unheard pump? Follow a skittering coot from the bank, out between the willows, towards the distant Xanadu of Whitehall’s domes and towers.

I’ve leapt now, in one splash, to where the Pin Mill is reflected pin-sharp in the rectangle of pool at Bodnant, then down a steep slope dense with rhododendrons to the rippling water of the Hiraethlyn as it winds through tranquil lawns under spires and towers of trees.

Which garden is in your mind’s eye in this world tour without expense? I just saw the gardeners hosing down the thick trunks of the Judas trees in the Retiro Gardens, the bright pink flowers absurd on the sparkling black bark. I just sat on the tatami, encompassed by the rattle and gurgle of rain in the copper pipes while the rocks shone, the azaleas and maples cringed under the downpour and the bamboo bowed.

Is the silver serpentine rill still running in its pale stone gulley down to the circle of pool in the woods, and on, down, round bends into invisibility? Is anyone admiring the cold stone nymphs or remembering the names of national heroes? Are the green blades of the bulbs shining among the rocks at Wisley, or the catkins shaking out their yellow dust? And at Ninfa, I see the fat trout in the racing green streamers of weed in the gin-clear river and the roses lolling from the ruined chancel-arch.

I see my own old garden, the trees I planted, the little cascade, the mossy old apple trees and the flint church tower. And with a little more imagination (the future is harder to imagine than the past) the long Welsh stone we will set up as a sundial in the New Forest. Gardens live in the mind, and there is a switch to turn them on.

Down time at Kew

January 27, 2021

I wonder if there is a scientist at Kew doing a buggy count. Buggies, their well-wrapped passengers and their propellants, usually in gossiping pairs, sheepskin coats, long hair and boots, formed little traffic jams on the sunny Friday we were there. The citizens of Kew and Brentwood have found the perfect place to take their socially-distanced exercise.

There is not a lot of botany to distract them. Kew is immaculately cultivated these days, despite pandemic precautions. Nowhere do you see such consistently generous mulching circles round trees. To find fresh flowers in January you must head for the Davis Alpine House (sadly to find it shut). Late January is the time I go every year to see the ultimate squill, Scilla maderensis, in the glory of its deep red bulb and lavender flowers. And of course cyclamen.

There are still leaves on many of the extraordinary variety of oaks, many buds and some catkins in evidence. The buggy traffic was particularly thick in the pinetum, the greenest and most sheltering part of the garden. The depths of the towering Redwood Grove is a popular spot and the bushy cephalotaxus make good hiding places. One pine above all stands out, the Chinese Pinus bungeana, the so-called Lacebark pine, its trunk a tall silver exclamation mark among all the green.

The camellias are starting their long season, but why do I find it hard to get excited about them?. A wonderful white one with flowers like poached eggs is the brightest spot in the still gloomy Rhododendron Dell (the one rhodie in flower is a dismal muddy pink). There are Camellias whose flowers come straight off the drawing board of the creator’s top designer of roses, yet where roses seduce with softness and scent, camellias are aloof, cold and ungiving, shinily armoured against affection. Not a flower you would put in your bosom.

A juggle of experts

January 17, 2021

Country Life is a magazine like no other. It comes out every week, beautifully printed, with a truly catholic range of contents that supposedly interest upper-class country dwellers. It would take a page to list the richly varied contents of the copy I have in front of me. They range from cars to pugs to moonlight, the restoration of a London mansion to the fate of a Victorian cavalryman, from the art market to artichokes. Its contributors always seem well-qualified, most write well and a number are leading authorities in their fields. Having edited a magazine that tried to do the same sort of thing, but in the context of fashion, I know that juggling so many experts is a tough job. And Queen was only a fortnightly – and eventually monthly.

Country Life earns its primary living as the estate agents’ window; indeed the first pages of each issue have been described as ‘property porn’ with some reason. Choosing or gloating over houses is a harmless pastime. I habitually look at their gardens, or what I can see of them, and often, I confess, wonder how the owners of such desirable houses can have so little idea of what to do with their surroundings.

The number of fine houses with rooms in keeping that merit articles of their own these days always surprises me. Many years ago, in the 1960s, I set out to write a book on English manor houses, a category below stately homes that seemed neglected. I worked with a photographer, John Hedgecoe, whom I admired for his startlingly romantic pictures. ‘How did you manage to catch the mist on the moat like that?’ I once asked him. “A smoke bomb’ was his answer.

I never wrote the book. For one reason, it was pointed out to me that it would be a handy burglars’ guide. For another, when I was invited into many of the houses their interiors were an anticlimax. Their seemed to be a beige three-piece suite in every lovely room, oak-panelled or plastered by a fine Italian hand. Such houses still exist, as do dreary or ugly or inappropriate gardens. But my impression is that furnishing has come on faster than landscaping.

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