In the stillness

April 17, 2020

A semi-finalist

We can her the church clock ringing three streets away. The wren in the walnut is deafening – and a poor performer, it seems to me: the same shout again and again. These are the sounds of locked-down London, where normally the rush of cars is endless, punctuated by motorbikes, sirens and drills. There are no planes overhead. We hear conversations in the street outside. The world we know has stopped, and we have time to think – and look.

I have never followed spring before as a full-time observer. Other years we catch sight of a magnolia or camellia, admire it for a moment, perhaps try to name it, and move on. There’s no moving now; our plants are our companions, up close and personal. Spring is happening too fast. I often say that; there are too many climactic moments packed in a few distracted weeks. But we’re not distracted now, except by the virus; we have all the time in the world to watch and enjoy nature’s renewal.

The leafing of the trees is the greatest change, from the early greening of willows (weeping willows earliest of all; dry-grass-green while everything else is still dormant) to the long-drawn-out colouring of the planes, their high traceries suspended for two weeks or so in a sort of pale olive mist. The limes are slow, first hanging out limp-wristed baby leaves that soon unfurl in brilliant varnish-shiny green. Oaks are individuals; one will be in full leaf long before its neighbour. Horse chestnuts’ shiny buds split quickly to release limp rags. Elms fool you into thinking they’re in leaf when the green is just their new fruit.

We watch two tall cherry trees in the street from our bedroom window, geans (a name no one seems to use for our native cherry) with double flowers that cover their lanky pliant branches with snow. One came out just before three days of hot sun; in that short spell its flowers were fried brown. The other tree timed it perfectly and is still alpine-white. It Peak Wistaria too, and Kensington has aspiring champions in every street, from one that spans seven houses to others bonsaied up to the roof.

Every year I try to remember the names of the different Japanese cherries, a dozen within a five-minute walk. Shiro-this and Shiro-that, serrula and serrulata, Beni-this and -that soon become a blur of ravishing petals, white shading to pink and pink to white. The focus moves on to crab apples and handsome old pear trees, while on the ground the blue of scillas and grape hyacinths gives way to bluebells and soon the pale campanula poscharskyana, the London weed, and I can’t take my eyes of the falling spry of double white roses where Mad Alf throws herself out of our oversize sycamore. All in uncanny silence. I can’t say I look forward to the returning roar.

Spring watch

April 3, 2020

Signs of hope: even an old elm in the street is springing into lffe

They’ve laid off the gardeners in Holland Park. It seems a bit of an overreaction to the new virus that is making everyone so nervous. Gardening is surely an activity that (with due regard for ‘social distancing’) offers very little chance of cross-infection. A team doing the bedding may all be squatting or kneeling within touching distance of each other, but the cleaning, tidying and controlling jobs of the spring are on the whole individual. Are we going to let lawns grow because it’s too dangerous to get out the mower?

Foresters, I’m happy to say, seem to be made of sterner stuff. They are out on the hills with sacks of saplings and the sharp spade they use, with one hand, to cut a notch in the soil, lower in a tiny tree, then stamp the notch shut with their boot. A practised planter can plant at least 500 trees a day, or more if the ground is clear of rocks and brash.

The park is still open for walking, with the exception of the Kyoto Japanese Garden. It would be hard to keep two metres from anyone on its narrow stone paths. This is the moment when its maples are at their most poignantly beautiful, intricate in detail, dramatic in posture, so brilliantly and intensely green they could be fountains of chlorophyll. As the magnolias drop their petals and the camellias fade, the sequence of cherry blossom reaches its climax. There are white breakers of spirea, green daggers of iris and flashes of orange and black from the carp circling in the pond. There is no one to see them, or to listen to the cascade that tumbles on in solitude as though it were really a mountain stream.

I have inspected every street tree and every front garden on my walks and tried to name every plant. Most are the show-plants of spring the local nurseries sell. Now and then I see something I can’t place. In Lexham Gardens there is an exceptional broom, maybe fifteen feet high, that answers no official description but Cytisus scoparius, the “Scotch’ broom. It is not only taller than any I’ve seen but also lusher in its green and super-abundant in its flowers. Discoveries like this keep me looking.


March 26, 2020

No relevance, but this is a yew in St Nicholas churchyard at Brockenhurst Park (see Belgravia, Sundays on ITV).

There is no excuse for a weed in the path or a leaf out of place any more. These four walls are our confine. Happily they include our two little gardens, front and back. Even more happily spring is giving them a new aspect every day. We have never peered at each bud with such rapt attention, or gloated so much at the opening of each flower.

Three times today I have been out to check on Clematis ‘Avalanche’ (a de luxe edition of C . cirrhosa? No parentage revealed). Last night I thought I saw a minute extension at its tip, where it is just reaching the trellis. This morning I was not so sure. But yes, there is action: the bud is opening. What’s more, the C. alpina that has spent the winter looking like raffia, so sere and thin that no sap could possibly rise in it, has suddenly sent out a shoot, green from brown, no thicker than a thread.

In front of the house, meanwhile, Magnolia x soulangeana is dropping its fleshy petals on the paving, one side white, the other bright purple. For some reason they remind me of a Tudor courtier’s slashed doublet. And no, I’m not reading Hilary Mantel. I’ve realised we have too much red facing the street. The camellia hedge dividing us from our neighbour (planted long before our time) is really Grenadier. So is our window box, and a trough of cyclamen. We must be more careful.

I’m rereading some of the gardening books that got me started in the 1970s. I used to think then that Graham Stewart Thomas was cutting-edge stuff. (His scholarship still is, but it doesn’t read so well today). We were still reading Vita Sackville West. Brigadier Lucas Philips was issuing appropriately military gardening instructions. Christopher Lloyd was the tearaway. Beth Chatto was the calming, naturalistic, influence. Mrs Desmond Underwood seemed to have a monopoly of silver plants. How remote it all seems from today’s brown flowers and beige grasses.

Perhaps the biggest change is the choice of plants in nurseries. In those days you were offered (if you were lucky) the species and perhaps a couple of favoured cultivars. Today in many cases (see ‘Avalanche’ above) the busy breeder has effectively produced a new plant whose origin in nature scarcely matters. Information is limited to a plastic ticket in Dutch and two other languages. (‘It needs moist well-drained soil in sun or semi-shade. Soak rootball before planting’). The trouble is, I’m curious.

Virtual Japan

March 22, 2020

Marks out of ten?

We’ve had to scrap a long-planned visit to Japan to follow the spring, from the small southernmost islands (one Is Yakushima, home of the little felty-leaved rhododendron) north via Kyushu to Honshu across the Inland Sea, ending in Kobe. We were to take one of the little ships of the Noble Caledonia fleet, and were all ready to leave, when news of the new virus came from Wuhan, and gradually the Far East began to shut down.

We were to have started in Taiwan, which soon followed China in closing its doors. The voyage was then adjusted, to start in Okinawa in the southern islands, and visit South Korea. When South Korea shut down, the problem became the laws of cabotage. No ship foreign to a country can trade between two of its ports without calling in another country. So where was the nearest abroad? Russia. Instead of blossom-viewing we would have to spend four days steaming to Vladivostok and back over a thousand miles on the North Pacific, in March. I’m afraid we cried off – and within ten days the voyage was cancelled altogether.

Our consolation has been England’s most glorious spring. It has been hard to keep away from Kew; the magnolias are as fine as I’ve ever seen them. If only I’d planted M. kobus thirty years ago… We’ve seen the last of them, though, for this year; even the Royal Botanic Garden has been closed. In compensation for Japan’s no-show I have been testing myself on the cherry trees around us and realise how rusty I’ve become on their names. Once upon. Time I could tell a Jo-nioi from a Taki-nioi or a Shirotae from a Shirofugen at a glance. Now, shame-faced, I often have to resort to Picture This, an App that recognizes whatever plant you point your camera at – though Japanese names are not its strongest point.

It’s tempting to have a beauty contest and give marks out of ten. Far better, though, just to marvel at their wonderfully lovely variations on a theme.

Hard crafts

March 3, 2020

Pootling around on the internet the other evening, looking for information about splitting logs, I stumbled on a surprising source: a series of films (some new, some very old) made in different parts of France on their country crafts. Log-splitting is there all right; the ancient art of the merrandier, the forester who renders a solid oak log into perfect slabs for conversion into, for example, barrel staves. Coopers are there, too: the ancestral barrel-makers who fashion a whole barrel from scratch by hand. Their tools alone are a study in practical evolution: planes, chisels, draw-knives, drills, clamps, mallets and the massive beetle so brilliantly called a ‘persuader’.

A barrel, when you think of it, is hardly an obvious container. Who thought of flexing planks and constraining them with hoops to keep them tight together and watertight? The Romans didn’t. They used heavy two-handled clay amphoras for anything you could pour, from wine to corn. It was the Gauls who invented the barrel: weight is no problem when you can roll it.

There are films on thatching, tiling, charcoal-burning, puddling clay and carving sabots (usually from logs of alder). There is the forgotten drama of using rivers for transporting timber, when labourers worked all day up to their thighs in their threadbare trousers, in ordinary shoes (and some with waistcoats and watch-chains) in the water, fishing logs out, stacking them, lashing them into rafts and braving rapids on them.

It is the direct physicality of all these crafts that makes them so familiar, yet so alarmingly remote from modern life. Limbs were limbs; strength was strength: you lifted, you pulled, you carried, you shoved. A pulley or a lever was the only mechanical advantage or way of increasing the force you could apply with your muscles. Your hands were your basic tools, vulnerable as they are. There are no gloves in these films; I flinch as I watch a blade coming down repeatedly within an inch of bare fingers. But that is how we got to where we are.

New wine in old bottles

February 29, 2020

Down-time; the garden in winter

It’s not always easy to say when a plant has had its chips. We’ve all learned to lift and divide border stuff now and then, but when is the now? Your proper professional will have a routine and keep a diary. Besotted amateurs (I’m making a confession) will merely observe and enjoy – even the onset of senility. It gives a border an established look.

When to ditch a shrub can be a much harder question. ‘The slower it grows the longer it lasts’ is a fair rule of thumb: a broom or a mallow that gallops away is soon a diminishing asset; a well-managed rose can go on practically for ever. The real question is not how long it will live but how long will it remain an ornament?

The question came up because one of the terraces in our daughter’s garden on the Riviera clearly begs to be refreshed. There are shrubs with more wood than leaf and flower. An old plumbago has become a thicket, cistus stands stodgy and flowerless, hydrangeas are gracelessly stumpy or leggy, my favourite Solanum laciniatum waves thin flowering shoots above amputated limbs. Only perowskia flourishes in straggly masses of lavender blue.

Is the answer piecemeal chopping, and planting in the gaps? The mixture of old plants and new is rarely a good one. Encouraging the ground-covering herbaceous plants, in this case mainly agapanthus and ‘Society garlic’, as they used to call Tulbaghia violacea, keeps the borders looking filled, but the proportions of height and lower mass soon get out of kilter. You see the bones; it all looks senile. Much better to pull it all out and start again. Then the real foundations of the garden become apparent; in this case olive trees, stone walls blanketed with trailing rosemary, the shining green lemon trees, the pergola with its grapevines and the sentinel cypresses state their simple case. Do we need more furnishing?

Da capo

February 20, 2020

It happens every time I start on a job that needs only moderate concentration. Today it’s tidying a trellis above the wall, pruning a Clematis viticella right back, disentangling last year’s sprawling growth, finding, pruning and tying the rose (Bantry Bay) in the middle of it and tying in the Viburnum x burkwoodii that shares the wall. What happens? I find words and music recycling on a loop in my brain. Often from Hymns Ancient and Modern. Today ‘Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom…’ round and round and round. It’s often Bach (usually the B Minor Mass) or something of Stanford’s.

It can be words without music. King Lear, for some reason, keeps popping up – but then I do keep quoting the bit where Goneril (or is it Regan?) asks him why he needs twenty-five, or twelve, or five, or even one knight to serve him, when her whole household is at his disposal. His response is ‘Oh reason not the need’, with heavy emphasis on the last word. And mine when my wife questions me buying a new…… almost anything. I don’t need a new trowel, but I saw a jolly nice one in Rassell’s over the road.

The da capo in my head is apparently called an earworm, and can be so persistent, says Google, that it rivals tinnitus as a problem. To me (touch wood) it’s more of a pleasant distraction. To turn it off I just got out the ladder and tackled the high bits. That called my brain away to more serious business.

Megalith in the mud

February 16, 2020

Three tons of granite heading south

I have an urge, is it childish, or is it ancestral, to stand long stones on end. It’s certainly not original. In fact stones-on-end are about the only evidence we have of neolithic tastes. The more trouble it took, apparently, the better. Look at Stonehenge.

We moved a handsome stone from Wales down to our garden in Essex, and reluctantly left it there when we moved to London. We had fixed it too firmly. Now we are in the process of moving a larger one (the first was 11 feet long; this is 15) to dignify ‘our’ garden in the New Forest. Last week we reclaimed it from deep in the woods, where for years it has been serving as a bridge over the fast-flowing Afon Dwynant.

I’m afraid the collateral damage will take a year to two to mend. Our future menhir was spanning a gulf over a torrent , hemmed in by tall firs. How do you grab a hold of a heavy object at right angles to where you are? The answer is a huge tractor equipped with a ‘bucket.’ The tractor itself is 10 feet wide, and weighs, with its articulated arm, 17 tons. To say it leaves traces is an understatement. We had to debranch or totally demolish a score of Sitka spruce to give it passage – not a process for delicate feelings. The sheer noisy brutality of it grinding and crashing through the forest would melt a snowflake at half a mile. I admit I revelled in it, as a hundred horsepower and ingenious hydraulics achieved what would have taken workers with only rollers and levers half a year. The only way to get it to the road half a mile away was to drag it sliding through the (abundant) mud on the end of a chain (having snapped three stout straps). Now it’s loaded on a trailer for the journey south.

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