Avant garden

September 16, 2008

I hope gardeners understand the message in the formaldehyde. Art has moved on; it is time for gardening to follow.

Not that the market for millionaire kitsch is new. Asprey’s has been in the animals-and-diamonds business for years. The significant shift is to the other side of Bond Street. What sold at Asprey’s now sells at Sotheby’s, with lengthier and more portentous titles.

I am making a start at keeping my garden relevant. The gnome floating face downwards in the pond in his little gold trousers brings to mind Damien Hirst’s favourite quote: ‘We’re here for a good time, not a long time’.

Paint job

September 12, 2008

There is no prescribed interval for repainting a conservatory. I have a weakness for paintwork with the patina of time, with streaks of green, rubbed edges, peeling a little. It reminds me of Mariana in the moated grange:

‘With blackest moss the flowerpots

Were thickly crusted, one and all:

The rusted nails fell from the knots

That held the pear to the gable-wall.’

Would there be a Garden History Society if I were the only one to harbour such thoughts?

But the conservatory. It is 28 years old and has had, so far as I remember, three fresh coats of white paint in that time. It was high time for another, and not only paint, but a total refreshment, glass and all. Eventually moss and general detritus builds up uncleanably where the panes overlap; putty falls out and glazing bars rot, blinds disintegrate …. Time for a total overhaul. It’s happening as I write.

The result will be an improvement on the original. We are lucky enough to have a builder in the village who loves old buildings.

Steve (his name is Stephen Gooch) visited the ‘lost’ garden of Heligan on his holiday and brought back a video of its restoration. It was the greenhouses he was interested in: the roof panes are cut with a curved lower edge to create a fish scale effect. The glaziers were filmed cutting them freehand on site: it looked easy. Why didn’t we do the same?

We did, and discovered the practical advantage of the fish scale design. Raindrops flow to the centre of each pane and form a stream down the middle. Formerly, the water crept to the edge and ran down the rafters. Moss accumulated at the bottom of each rafter, damp stayed there and eventually they began to rot. Old practices that look merely cosmetic (cornice moulding is another example) nearly always have their origin in practical experience.


The blinds need replacing too. They are expensive and take a bit of managing, but blinds outside the glass are twice as effective as blinds inside. Once the sunshine penetrates the glass it heats the air inside: only exterior blinds prevent this happening. Cedar lath blinds are best and longest-lived. Happily the firm that made our first set (they last about 10 years) are still in business: Tidmarsh & Co of Harlow http://www.tidmarsh.co.uk/ import western red cedar, alias Thuja plicata, as logs from British Columbia, saw the laths and join them together with copper links. They are hung from and rolled up to a bar just below the opening lights. The dividend is the gentle stripes of light on a sunny day.

The watershed

September 3, 2008

Cyclamen in August feel premature to me; an unwelcome hint that summer is coming to an end. Their miniature brilliance suddenly appearing in the dustiest parts of the garden is always a surprise. It was a disappointing high summer – not high at all, in fact. But not well-watered either, here: an inch and a half of rain was all August brought us, while the rest of the country sploshed about disconsolate. It was not cold, but warmth is not much use without radiation, and you scarcely ever felt the direct rays of the sun.

The spiders celebrated September 1st with a cobweb festival, spangled with what seemed a double dose of dew. Seldom is there such an unmistakable gear shift; I swear leaves have tilted differently, reflect light differently, their chloroplyll less vibrant as their energy ebbs back into their organs of survival. Fruit takes primacy: suddenly spindle dangles fruit I hadn’t noticed, rowans are orchard trees, climbing roses fertile as vines and vines heavy with harvest.

There will be backward glances: days when the grass is warm underfoot and the shadows strong. But when michaelmas daisies break cover, chrysanthemums push up their buds, sedums show tips of colour and tall salvias sway above box hedges we are far past the watershed. They’ll be telling us soon how many shopping days to Christmas.

In memoriam

September 3, 2008

It turned from disappointing, not up to last year’s feisty form, to piquey, to desperate, to dead. What ailed the apple of my eye, the Cornus ‘Gloria Birkett’ I watched with such pleasure flowering late in spring last year and turning colour, glowing with red fruit, last autumn? I bought it from Peter Chappell at Spinners in the New Forest, the nursery where every good woodland plant seems perfectly at home. It was named after one of my favourite gardeners, alas gone, whose Sussex garden was a perpetual inspiration. If there was one plant I doted on, went out specially to see, and expected great things from it was this.

When it looked sick in July, leaves turning brown and newest shoots failing, I fed and watered it. Then I watered it massively, leaving the hose on it for 10 minutes. To no avail. There is no way, though, of knowing what’s going on underground until postmortem time. I dug it up, to find it withered in utter dust, all my water disappeared. Its hole, and its paltry root ball, were filled with the unmistakable dry brown roots of a conifer. Every scrap of goodness I had given it had been battened on by an incense cedar fifteen feet away.

I often wonder how roots share out, as they usually seem to, the goodness of the ground among themselves. You grow perennials, roses and annuals in borders (the roses don’t particularly appreciate it). You certainly grow trees and shrubs and lower things hugger-mugger in woodland. Beside this great incense cedar there is a hedge, a cherry tree, hellebores and sarcocca and a crab growing fruitfully. Bulbs proliferate. The cedar (more properly Libocedar) sends its brilliant green pillar up 30 feet or so; a sight I have treasured since I sponge-bagged it home from an Oregon forest 35 years ago. Not knowing where its roots were, I must have planted poor Gloria just in their feeding fringes, where they could profit by every rich dish I fed her, and all her water.

Tree health bulletin

August 27, 2008

How bad is this horse chestnut problem? Everyone wants to know. They are looking grim all over the south of England, at least; the leaves on their lower branches, and sometimes higher, motheaten and brown. They are worse this year than last. And some trees are dying of a distressing plague that makes their trunks bleed sap.

They are show trees, horse chestnuts, prominent in parks, solo performers in essential avenues. Paris depends on them, perhaps, more than London does, but from Hyde Park to the village smithy they are crucial to our landscape. And they are in danger.
It is not one disease that is threatening them – unlike the elms that 30 years ago were destroyed by a fungus carried by a parasite (and are still dying from it). The fatal chestnut disease is a canker. But the disfigurement you see everywhere is not connected. A little leaf-miner moth (or rather its larvae) is the culprit – first seen in this country in Wimbledon in 2002, and since moving on at about 40 miles a year. It feeds on the lower branches, eating the leaves from the inside, starting in late spring and moving higher up the tree – or on to another. It rarely reaches the top of a tall tree (so far) before leaf-fall. Then it winters on the ground until next spring. The only practicable measure you can take is to burn, bury or compost the leaves to prevent the critter (Cameraria is its name) from re-offending next spring.

Aesthetic disaster though it is, the leaf-miner will not kill (or even substantially weaken) a tree. Hopefully biological control measures will soon be available (says the Forestry Commission).

The canker is more serious, and more mysterious. Many tree species have cankers and many agents are at work. The chestnut one apparently started with a Phytophthora (related to the scary Sudden Oak Death) but is now blamed principally on something called Pseudomonas syringae var. aesculi. It causes weeping lesions in the bark, which become dangerous if they girdle the trunk – or indeed a major branch. Once girdled it dries out and is liable to break. Big specimens often survive, only partially girdled, and form strong scars. Small trees are more apt to die.

No doubt it is serious threat, with nearly half a million horse chestnuts in the country, but neither of these problems should be used as an excuse for felling trees. We have already seen it happen in this village: a farmer sees an unhappy-looking tree, unilaterally declares it dangerous and cuts it down. But then he’d like to do that to all his trees.


August 15, 2008

I visited an old friend in Burgundy: Pierre Poupon, a winegrower and writer who has captured the soul of this ancient and complex part of France in a score of books over the course of fifty years. At 90 he moved from his house in the Meursault vineyards to a flat in the suburbs of Beaune. When he went he wrote the following litany to the plants he was leaving behind in his old garden.

Let us always remember

The thujas with their fine scented leaves

The bushy red-leaved prunus

The syringa covered in white stars

The Japanese quince with blood red flowers

The mauve lilac above the gate

The forsythia, first to flower in the spring

The cherry tree grown huge, majestic, prodigious

The prunus that flowers early and gives us red plums

The three birches with pale trunks and dancing leaves

The cherry with sour fruit so good in pies

The rather scruffy apple tree with a worm in each fruit

The upright hornbeam straight as a cypress

The purple beech turned green by early frost

The cherry starved by the roots of the beech

The tender almond with its immaculate flowers

The old lime tree, our neighbour, that loses its leaves at the end of summer

Remember all these gifts that we pass on to others

They are the ill-assorted collection you will find round any ordinary French house, adding up to a nondescript garden. It is a moving litany, none the less. He knows them, he loves them for all their faults, and he misses them.

France très profonde

August 4, 2008

Utter originality, you would think, is a tall order in the world of gardening. Influences are all around us: we copy, we refine borrowed ideas – everything comes round again.

Not so at Orsan. The Prieuré de Notre Dame pretends to be in the monastic style of six centuries ago. It certainly evokes in shapes and symbols a strict and devotional mood. No priory or abbey, though, ever had a garden like it. It came from the imaginations and the drawing board of two Parisian architects to transform a tranquil valley in the almost abandoned centre of France – and to lodge in my mind as a piece of perfection to emulate and aspire to.

The architects, Patrice Taravella and Sonia Lesot, found and bought the one-time priory in the same year, 1991, as we found our French property, 30 miles away. It was an off-shoot of the great Benedictine Abbey of Fontevraud by the Loire to the north. Its setting would have suited the Cistercians: buried deep in wild country, among woods and stream, like Tintern or Citeaux or Rievaux.

There was no church left, and certainly no garden: just a three-sided court of dignified stone buildings open to a shallow pastoral valley, a stream and high woods. The architects’ minds, though, immediately parcelled it into a grid of strict formality. ‘Every designer’, says our friend Tara, ‘must start with un trame’ – a word that means a weaver’s pattern, suggests underlying order, and in this case is a set of squares imposed on the country like monastic discipline on unformed novices.

We have almost forgotten what pleasure lies in discipline, regularity and repetition. It is so far from the fashions of our times. What we forget,

perhaps, is that a pattern preordained, predictable and precisely applied feels

like a straitjacket only until it is accepted. Once it seems normal it has the opposite effect: it solves all problems and leaves the imagination free to wander. The hedge-walled cloisters of Orsan can become a gardener’s spiritual home.

Symbolism is important, too. You enter through a garden of simples: healing herbs in beds like a pharmacist’s stockroom. Windows in high hornbeam hedges reveal an inner courtyard where only beans and wheat grow, in strict-ruled rows; then another where the one crop is grapes, from vines trained on chestnut trellis copied from a Book of Hours. The Hornbeam walks dividing and linking the spaces are cut with rigid precision, then ornamented with roses, also precisely trained in elaborate figures. No shoot but is tied in, often to a chestnut trellis that soars up above a hedge or describes some whimsical figure to break the pattern. Whimsy plays the role here that it does in illuminated manuscripts: the gardening monk is allowed his little jokes. One is a potager that turns out to be a maze, another a wicker orchard chair far too big to sit in.

At the crossing point in the centre of these green enclosures stands the fountain. Not a glittering display of the beauty of water, though; just a sober pedestal with four pipes dribbling barely enough to wet the stone. The subliminal message is that water is precious, scarce and to be carefully conserved.

We stayed at Orsan, in the modern hotel Tara has installed (and where he is chef for his own produce) in the priory buildings. Walking at night and waking in these decorous surroundings is a kind of cure. There could scarcely be a garden so different from my pragmatic and unruly domain. Yet coming home I felt revitalised by its real, intense, marshalled and directed forces.

Gardens Illustrated

August 3, 2008

the story goes, flower at the same time and then promptly die. You may have been a witness. It certainly happened here, 15 years ago, when our three clumps of the common Fargesia nitida blossomed. Tiny as each flower is, they transform the plant, dying it smoky purple and freighting each culm with tiny
dangling wheat-like seeds that arc it almost to the ground. Within six months all three were dead, and gardeners far and near reported the same – with feeling: digging out the remains of clumps five feet across was no joke. Mysteriously, replacements were available. I should of course have asked the nursery how and whence, since
obviously not all fargesias had perished. For reproductive purposes the flowering seems a great waste of effort: the millions of seeds we must have had produced only one seedling, which to this day is
barely waist-high. My replacement plants, mean while, have flourished, grown, and to my horror, this spring flowered again. 15 years is surely far 
too short a lifetime for a bamboo.

This time, though, I cut out the flowering shoots just as they reached the low-bowing stage and gave the depleted clumps a feast of food and water. That was in April. To my delight the few
remaining shoots have put out new leaves: recovery seems possible. And just in case, I have planted a clump of the near-related (and perhaps even more beautiful) Fargesia murielae.

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