February 2, 2022

I was talking with a robin sitting and singing on the rose above the wall (‘defending territory’, say the textbooks). ‘What are you going to do next?’ I asked him, before wondering if the idea of a plan had any meaning for him.

There was the cotoneaster beside me, and the daphne, the clematis and the rose. The pale buds of the white-flowering currant are just starting to swell. Every plant, every being is getting on with being; its next move, its development and its destiny, already ordained in its DNA. It is not wanting, or planning; it’s just living.

Accidents of all sorts will influence and determine its fate, but the blueprint is set in its cells. I still find it impossible to envision how the nucleus of every cell that make up the entirety of every living thing, from an ant’s toenails to a giant sequoia, has its destiny. Being alive is following this plan, of growth, of reaction and adaption to light (its strength and its sources), to moisture and nutrients, to stress of whatever kind. Every cell divides, and every separate divided cell carries the same instructions, is relevant to its role: to be a petal or to be skin or bone. The cell that grew to be part of a strand of wool on a sheep’s back is now living on, or rather existing on, with its life force cut off, as a thread in a sweater or a blanket. It will disintegrate with age, or wear out, or perhaps be destroyed by fire, but while it lives it follows its original plan.
The robin came down to earth just beside me.

In the jungle

January 19, 2022

In a recent Green Planet film David Attenborough strolls nonchalantly through a Costa Rica jungle, before introducing its constituents and inhabitants. The sequence instantly reminded me of an extraordinary evocation of a Malayan jungle by Isabella Bird in her 1870 book The Golden Chersonese and the way Thither. Miss Bird was a peerless (also fearless) explorer and vivid narrator. Her books on Malaya (the ‘Chersonese’) – which includes the first days of Hong Kong – on primitive Japan, on Hawaii, on the eastern U.S.A and Canada, on the Wild West (A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains) on Persia, Kurdistan and Tibet are among the finest travelogues ever written. Her voice is confidential but her observation universal. She travels with me in my Kindle everywhere. Tune in and you will thank me for the introduction.

“Do not think of a jungle as I used to think of it, as an entanglement or thicket of profuse and matted scrub, for it is in these regions at least a noble forest of majestic trees, many of them supported at their roots by buttresses, behind which thirty men could find shelter. On many of the top branches of these, other trees have taken root from seeds deposited by birds and have attained considerable size; and all send down, as it appears, extraordinary cylindrical strands from two to six inches in diameter, and often one hundred and fifty feet in length, smooth and straight until they root themselves, looking like the guys of a mast. Under these giants stand the lesser trees grouped in glorious confusion, – coca, sago, areca, and gomuti palms, nipah and nibong palms, tree ferns fifteen and twenty feet high, the bread-fruit, the ebony, the damar, the india rubber, the gutta-percha, the cajeput, the banyan, the upas, the bombax or cotton tree, and hosts of others, many of which bear brilliant flowers.”

Miss Bird threads through this wilderness by night in a dug-out canoe, deafened by the racket, the shrieks, roars and crashes of the inhabitants, then lodges alone in a bungalow infested by snakes and surrounded by tigers, guarded by a policeman with a bayonet. If only the BBC film crew had been there.

New Year tingle

January 6, 2022

Kew on New Year’s Day has become something of a routine in this family – and judging by the queue at the gate, others too, though how much botany the occupants of the baby buggies take in is hard to surmise. The alpine house is always our first stop, to see tiny flowers of Fabergé quality that you will only see or hear of in such a collection. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy claims the Creator puts his best designers onto designing the Norwegian fiords. I’m inclined to think their job was alpine plants.

Various obstacles prevented our usual perambulation: the funfair side of Kew is at its maximum in mid-winter. Paths are roped off; massive electrical installations and lighting rigs compete with its habitual botanical serenity. There were new smart little green and white trains shuttling about, and a demonstration of impressive fountain power was underway. The most unmoved part of the gardens, the most static through all the seasons, are the piney hillocks that represent the Mediterranean flora. Nothing stirs in this evergreen environment; the floor is soft with pine needles; citrus and rosemary, furrowed cork oaks, arbutus and broom maintain a trance-like inertia. This is not where I want to live. How dull, I always think, to be deprived of our seasons and their constant drama.

Very little is in flower in the first week of the year. Cyclamen give the eye a little jolt here and there, and on the rock bank Galanthus elwesii, the first and biggest snowdrop, wears a self-satisfied air. Camellias have tentatively begun their nearly six-month stint. The witch hazels were gathering a crowd; their low mounds of yellow and orange visible far off through the leafless trees. ‘Freesia’ says one visitor with her nose to the little spidery flowers. ‘More like boiled tripe’ says another. ‘Nothing like the oil we put on bruises’ was a third opinion.

By the time we left, though, I found myself tingling with excitement, with the anticipation created by a million buds full of promise. I went home feeling almost like a bud myself, preparing to burst and reveal the complexity of beauty quietly forming, cell by cell, in its predestined design. This one will unfurl as a leaf; this one contains a tiny embryo flower, intricately packed for the surge of spring to swell it open. The paltry potential of my garden, perhaps a hundred plants preparing their performance, is nothing compared with the infinite variety at Kew, yet my mental tour of what’s in store has me tingling all over again.

La France profonde

November 25, 2021

Much may be made of a derelict farmyard

We left our farm in the Bourbonnais, the centre of France, sixteen years ago, having sold it to a Anglo-French couple who have since become good friends. Which means they keep us up to date with local news, and sometimes send us photos. We haven’t been back to visit for three years, so the latest batch have come as a wonderful surprise. Autumn colour was one theme in our planting – though the main thrust was more oak woods (with generous grants from the French government). The Auvergnat flora (we were on the fringe of the Auvergne) had little to offer in autumn. You might be lucky with a spindle going red, or a field maple a cheerful yellow, but bocage, the landscape of field and hedge and copse familiar in Normandy, is generally sombre. No fireworks.

So here and there on the farm where the mean gritty soil held enough clay or humus to retain a little moisture, I seized the chance to plant trees I couldn’t grow in England. American trees, in the main, that need acid soil and hope for hot summers and cold winters. The first candidates were the sugar and red maples that give the blaze to New England in the fall. Maples and oaks came first, with some larch (seldom seen in the Bourbonnais) and a few cryptomerias for evergreen contrast.

Twenty-five years later the scheme is working – indeed some of the trees need thinning. There is one little valley on the farm where five tracks meet at what I called the cricket ground; a calm flat green space where a dozen chaps in white flannels would look perfectly in place. Five substantial sugar maples are blazing there as I write. It is a shrine to something unstated (Botany? Diversity? America?). Elsewhere among the copses, the hedges, the sudden ridges and unreliable seasonal streams and ponds you come across a swamp cypress, a tulip tree, a Japanese maple or a scatter of yellow azaleas in their red autumn rig, all remnants of my absurd over-reaching, trying to garden the whole landscape.

It was the deer that put paid to it. They are almost as much of a problem in France as in parts of England, where the population is quite out of control. French law limited us to a cull of one or two a year (by kind permission of the préfet of the département). Their species, age and sex were specified, with a nasty amende if you thought a girl was a boy, or mistook senescence for puberty, or just shot too soon. Even the wild boar that laid waste to anything you prized, had a hunting season – and woe betide you confusing the calendar.

The most remarkable of the trees I planted in the 1990s is an Italian cypress by the front door, planted within a metre of the house, hence in a spot without moisture. It has grown in this time to 60 feet or even more, over twice the height of the house, retaining a perfect rocket shape as though it has been clipped. You can see it in the photo. An adder lives under the doorstep; could this be its secret? At least the deer stay away.

It’s high time, I reckon, that McDonald’s offered Bambiburgers. We eat too much beef; we have too many deer. QED.

What shall we call it?

November 21, 2021

It’s turning out to be a yellow autumn – and a slow motion one. I wandered about in Kensington Gardens for an hour yesterday and photographed a dozen different trees in almost uniform yellow. No wind to speak of for three weeks has let them simmer slowly. An American pin oak was a mottled dark red but the unanimity of the rest was compelling: from Norway maples (bright and fine) to horse chestnuts (dingy, but definitely yellow). The lime trees in formal lines, with half their leaves on the ground, made delicate patterns of greeny-yellow like Tiffany glass. Oaks, as always, are undecided: green, brown and yellow leaves in a quiet motley. Most planes are dull brown; a few properly yellow. The only true bullion is the occasional ginkgo.

There is a new stream in the gardens, a tentative trickle that is gradually growing to become a new tributary to the Long Water, the upper half of the Serpentine. It starts a little north of Queen Caroline’s temple, The odd tripartite shelter, under three domes – certainly not a temple – built by William Kent when Kensington Gardens were the pleasure grounds of the palace. At first all you see is a just a deep puddle in the grass. Watch the puddle, though, and you can see movement: the water is moving: a spring. It organises itself in a few yards to form a tiny stream, gaining volume, width and speed and reflecting more of the sky until it is an unmistakable rivulet. It will soon need a name.

The time for change

November 16, 2021

As the November darkness closes in I look out at the little garden, now defined by its wall lights and the lights in the greenhouse, as my little compartment in life. Everything in it has emotion attached – not dramatic, operatic emotion, but the affection that comes with familiarity. And also involvement. Everything in it has been thought about, has had my attention and care, from the pots to the tendrils finding their way up the trellis, the plants in the wrong place, or struggling, to the roses out of control above the fence. Each has been mentally processed to the point of decision – in the roses’ case, to let them rip. So I am aware, and in a sense attached.

The dogwood outside the window, with its white-variegated leaves now turned parchment white, the autumn cherry, now bright yellow as its tiny flower-buds begin to open, the dark bulk of a sarcococca and the last blue flowers of a sprawling geranium are a picture I have painted, in brushstrokes separated sometimes by years. Now I can’t imagine changing it, or swapping plants in their places, any more than I would redistribute the features of my children.

I am an unregenerate conservative. I love what’s there, or rather here, and the longer it has been here the more I love it. The changes of the seasons bring joy, but part of me is like the notoriously conservative Duke of Cambridge, who said ‘There is a time for everything, and the time for change is when you can no longer help it.” Now, where can I plant this new clematis?

Fanny Wilkinson

November 13, 2021

Where Fanny first gardened

The blue plaque department of English Heritage could be confused. It has two applications to deal with for the same person: Fanny Wilkinson. One is for a house in Bloomsbury, the other for Middlethorpe Hall at York. Few people today know who Fanny was, but her story is worth telling, even repeating. She was the first professional landscape gardener of her sex.

Middlethorpe is where she learnt to garden; her father’s very handsome Yorkshire house, which is now a hotel owned by and run for the benefit of the National Trust, along with two others of equal beauty: Hartwell House near Aylesbury and Bodysgallen at Llandudno. The garden at Middlethorpe is still exceptional, intimate, productive and beautifully kept. Middlethorpe is also remembered as the one-time home of the prototype feminist, the diarist who introduced vaccination for smallpox, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

Fanny’s London address in Shaftesbury Avenue is gardenless, but her plaque celebrates her employment to design and make no less than 75 public gardens in London, principally in areas that sadly needed the blessing of greenery. Her principal employer was the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, founded in 1882 by Lord Brabazon (later Lord Meath) in the general movement to improve the lives of the poor whose patron saint, or one of them, was Octavia Hill. The National Trust was another of Hill’s pioneering projects.

Fanny Wilkinson was no paper designer. She did more than the office work, surveying sites, persuading sponsors, finding materials, employing contractors and spending days on site supervising navvies as well as gardeners, a conspicuous role for a young woman in those days.

Many of her creations still exist. Myatt’s Fields in Camberwell is one of the biggest, at 14 acres. Vauxhall Gardens is another. Many were in the East End, and many former burial grounds. Economy and easy maintenance were priorities, so paths were often asphalt, and Fanny must have planted hundreds of plane trees. It was only thirty years or so since the revolutionary Birkenhead Park was designed by Joseph Paxton (and inspired Olmsted in making Central Park, New York). Who could be more deserving of a plaque – or two – than a woman who motivated and created so many urban oases?

Kew celebrates Japan

October 8, 2021

à la japonaise

A bright sunny day yesterday brought out the crowds at Kew. The cafes always seem to be the main attraction; the grand central borders drew a desultory crowd, but you are never jostled in the arboretum, the rock garden, or in the newly-ordered plant family beds. On each visit I struggle to get my head round its gloss on DNA, with limited success. Admittedly, until leaves start to turn, it is a quiet gardening moment. Drifts of cyclamen are the brightest spots, and the yellow of rudbeckia and mauve of asters dominate the main borders.

The Temperate House was celebrating Japan, with a jolly installation of paper and streamers, high in its domes, with haikus and bonsai and massed white, yellow and red chrysanthemums that represent sunrise, though rather modestly by Japanese standards. The Japanese celebrate the imperial flower with extravagance of artifice that has no equivalent in the West.

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