The place of piety

August 17, 2019

Is it the garden you respect, or the gardener? The question hardly arises in the other arts. The painter leaves a unique image, the composer a score. The performer of course interprets it, but the score is at least a clear instruction.

There is no score for a garden or a gardener. When a garden changes hands, its creator moves or dies, what the new owner inherits is basically a plot of land – cluttered, to be sure, with plants, paths, every sort of feature, and a maze of ideas. The successsor may think, or assume, that its creator was happy with the result. They may, for example, feel obliged to retain some feature the original gardener regretted, but never got round to changing. Could that cypress really have been planted there deliberately, when it throws the whole view out of balance? And that protruding bit of bed everyone has to walk round? Wasn’t it rather peculiar to plant pink roses with pink rhododendrons?

It is very easy, and often tempting, to build on the mistakes of our predecessors. Which raises the question: is there a place for piety in gardening at all, or should we always return to basics, analyse the site, survey the surroundings, assess the value of anything predominant, be it a tree or a pergola, and start from there?

The National Trust has to answer this question all the time. Where do you draw the line between garden and museum? How many history lessons do we need about Brown’s obsession with water and grass? The answer often lies with the house, if there is one. No one will argue with the classic picture: pillared façade, sweep of sheep-shorn grass, clutch of cedars, framing woods, water at the bottom of the slope. If a Victorian enthusiast knocked down the house and built a fantasy of turrets and pinnacles, what then? Gothic buildings need gothic surroundings: fir trees, gloomy shrubberies, exotic follies in keeping. The third viscount, let’s say, had a thing about animals: their likenesses crop up in various materials all over the place. Must they stay, all the monkeys and crocodiles? On a smaller scale, you inherit a rockery full of alpine rarities. Do you have moral obligations? Horticultural ones? Which values should we inherit from the previous generation? Judging by the social media conventions of today, none. I stand with Roger Scruton: we have everything to learn from where our forebears have been, if only so as not to copy their mistakes. If we recognise them.

The importance of cake

August 9, 2019

The Yellow Book, the NGS, the National Gardens Scheme (it is known by all these names), has clocked up 35 years working with Macmillan nurses, and has given the charity in all over 17 million pounds. There was a quiet celebration the other day at the Garden Museum in Lambeth on an afternoon that could have been called ‘too fine’, at 35 degrees in the shade. In keeping with its charitable status the rations were modest: water, tea, cake. Cake, indeed, seems to be a sub-plot of the organisation. New publicity material reads ‘Garden Open! Great Cake!’

It won’t say whether aspirant openers, having been checked for weeds or just-too-scruffiness, have to pass a bakery exam, but on the days when we opened Saling Hall for the Scheme providing enough cakes was always part of the challenge. Our Yellow Book collection went back to the time of our predecessor, Lady Isabel Carlisle. 1962 was the first of a run of 60 years.

Last year alone the gardens raised something like five million pounds for the nurses, to build new hospital wings, a new hospice, and help pay for thousands of nursing homes. Cake deserves at least an MBE for its contribution.


August 4, 2019

When we started The Garden for the R.H.S in 1975 I hoped we could keep track of notable gardens and gardeners wherever they were. My model was The Gardener’s Magazine that JC Loudon and his wife Jane (less often mentioned) kept going for nearly thirty years. Those were the days of epic correspondence, when the Duke of Wellington as Prime Minister wrote dozens of letters every day, each one considered, polite and stylish. What pygmies we are with our emails and texts.

The Loudons had correspondents in most European countries, in America and as far away as Australia. Just asking friends to keep in touch with news items got me nowhere; I should have known that only journalists recognize news as apt for publication when it comes their way. All the more credit, then, to Richard and Gillian Mawrey, who try in a modest way to do a Loudon with their Historic Gardens Review ( twice a year, with garden news from round the world. The July 2019 issue covers topics in Athens, Zagreb, London, Madrid, Normandy, Croatia, Korea, the Italian Lakes, 18th century France, park budgets in Britain, apples in California, the legacy of John Ruskin, the Boboli Gardens, Amsterdam, Bulgaria, Yorkshire, Brandenburg, Australia and Brussels. Even the Loudons would have been impressed, most of all by the Mawreys’ news columns, labelled ‘Optimist’ and ‘Pessimist’, reporting efforts at conservation against odds.

At the same time I received an impressive new book from that should cheer everyone who despairs at the slash and burn tactics of so many developers. The incomparable Marcus Binney has written accounts of successful conversions of difficult historic buildings to modern uses. If St Pancras station is the most obvious example (who would have given the massive pile in all its Victorian elaboration any prospects?) there are a score of other vast institutions, the pride of their communities a century ago, despaired of since, that have found new uses. It has taken perseverance, persuasion, dogged determination and some extraordinary leaps of imagination to turn some near-impossible corners. But the buildings Binney describes stand, alive and occupied again. Gardens should in theory be relatively simple to save.

Queues at Kew

July 30, 2019

A visit to Kew used to be a quiet affair, even contemplative. There was time for a word with the gatekeeper, who said he’d heard the camassias were looking good down in the oak collection by the river. Off to the left the camellias were getting on with their business; there were a few visitors, but nowhere anything like a crowd or a queue.

Yesterday, a Monday, the queue at the turnstiles reached far outside the gates, the shop, the little train, were packed, and everywhere you went there were couples, families, rugs and picnics; Kew has come alive. The main attraction, undoubtedly, is the new features – above all the Children’s Garden near Kew Palace. An area of several acres has been screened off with new hedges, but no one can doubt what goes on inside. The excited voices carry round the gardens. There is already a booking system for 75-minute slots, and a queue at the entrance. Next time I must take a grandchild with me to see all the ingenious dodges aimed at showing children that plants are fun.

Dale Chihuly’s glowing glass sculptures first appeared at Kew six or seven years ago their reception was rapturous. He is back with even more ambitious towers and chandeliers and plant-like creations scattered through the gardens and conservatories. Last month we watched some of them being built, a process involving scaffolding and a team of a dozen, unpacking the huge glass tubes and spikes and spirals, and fitting them with laborious care into their slots; hundreds of pieces in shining fruit-gum colours. They are particularly effective, in my view, in the Temperate House, where they mingle with the exotic plants in a glorious jungle, peering from undergrowth or floating on the ponds, plant-like enough to make you wonder. Four months ago, when it reopened in spring, the Temperate House looked rather bare. Today in places it already feels almost overgrown.

There is the restored pagoda, of course, with its Disney dragons, and there is the refreshed Pavilion Restaurant nearby. Most rewarding of all, for anyone botanically bent, is the new Agius Garden replacing the old Order Beds. It makes a start at explaining how DNA and other dark arts are making a macedoine of plant family relationships, to the confusion of the old Linnaean guard.

Call me a cottage gardener

July 23, 2019

Friends are too kind to say anything, but I do sometimes sense a touch of disappointment when they look in my greenhouse, ‘Grandpa’s Shed’. My pelargoniums, they hint, should be blazing away in unison – or discord, rather: Voodoo and Rocky Mountain Orange can hardly be said to harmonize. Instead I have a forest of green leaves, some lovely smells, but only a scattering of flowers.

I love flowers – but as individuals. I can focus much better on plants and their flowers as individuals or as small groups than on a brilliant mass. And for that matter it’s not only in the greenhouse: leaf-greens are the theme of this whole garden, with the plants that are celebrating their flowering season standing out as eye-catchers. Now it’s Clematis viticella, unruly outbursts of purple, white and crimson scrambling up whatever plant they meet. A few plants have been planned to harmonise or contrast with their neighbours; some (the neighbour’s roses, for example) are unplanned intrusions, others – like the wisteria and magnolia now taking a curtain call – are nice surprises. Call me a cottage gardener. Massed colours in formal herbaceous borders usually leave me underwhelmed. I admire their technical skills, but do they celebrate the beauty of flowers or is it just the excitement of the colour spectrum? The prairie look so successfully promoted by Piet Oudolf, where mauve and brown daisies form islands in the waving grasses, leaves me longing for green – but most of all for structure, roses, hedges, arches, and all the unfashionable apparatus of yesterday’s gardens.

Rus in urbe

July 11, 2019

Was ever a little terrace house as sylvan as ours? In front a magnolia, a myrtle, the 40 foot double-flowered white cherry in the street and an exceptional rarity, our neighbour’s weeping Cercidiphyllum, alias Japan’s Katsura. The katsura was already my favourite tree: to find one cascading its exquisite light green leaves outside our windows is outrageous good fortune, and when in autumn it turns a motley red, yellow and crimson and smells like strawberry jam I have to pinch myself. Not even Kew has a weeping one this size; people on the pavement stoop to walk under its great umbrella of green and seem to love it.

At the back we look at our own park-size sycamore, a dark tower far higher than the house, our neighbour’s walnut, rapidly catching the sycamore in height and exceeding it in the extent of its shadow. Beyond the walnut is a golden catalpa, an apple tree and a row of limes. Beyond the sycamore a house-high bay tree, beyond that an acacia….. in sum, nothing but leaves.

London provides a sound-track, of course: builders, sirens, helicopters, but in summer the houses around are hidden; we might be in the country. The Meyer lemon on the veranda is in full flower (and also fruit, the wonder of the citrus family). There is no more piercing, nose-grabbing scent; it drowns all others. The tinkle of water in the basin below joins the scent to seal the garden off from the world.

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.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

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,…

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