Meet Laurisilva

January 27, 2009

‘A fearsome maze of eerie crags’ is how one guidebook describes La Gomera. That phrase alone would have tempted me.

I keep hearing different accounts of the Canary Islands: their heaving airports, their lava landscapes, the smell of Ambre Solaire on black sand beaches …… Nobody had said that Spain’s highest mountain (admittedly no Mont Blanc) is on Tenerife, and only one friend, years ago, that La Gomera, 20 miles across the water, manages to include a rain forest in its astonishingly varied flora.

The mid-Atlantic tropics, when I thought about it, should have pretty special conditions. Trade Winds refreshing sun-baked soil – fertile, too, with ancient lava – it’s a promising recipe. For someone who avoids hot climates the idea of a misty mountain refuge from the coast was pretty attractive too. Breakfast in the garden, botanizing in the clouds (or, if no clouds, with distant views to other islands and the snow-capped Mount Teide), tea by the swimming pool and a late Spanish dinner sounded perfect. It was.

La Gomera has the islands’ biggest remaining area of the peculiar indigenous forest known as laurisilva: 10,000 jungly acres. To call it a rain forest is not quite accurate; strictly speaking it is cloud forest, meaning that the trees collect the moisture from the overladen air; the perpetual drip from their mossy branches, rather than conventional precipitation, doubles the measurable ‘rainfall’.

‘Laurel’, Laurus azorica, closely related to bay, is the main theme, supported by half a dozen superficially similar evergreens (the most recognizable being Viburnum rigidum) and the very different tree heather, Erica arborea. In certain exposures at a certain altitude in the hills you are in heather as dense as on a grouse moor – the difference being that it is 30 feet high. One should be there in March to smell it flowering.

Not much of the original forest, growing 60 or 70 feet high, is left: a few stands in precipitous north-facing gullies carpeted with moss or ferns, moss hanging in tresses from the trees. Among the ferns is the far-spreading Woodwardia radicans I remember from the oriel table in the hall at Great Dixter, where Lloyd once kept a specimen three yards across. Absurdly, high in these hills, and on slopes requiring, you would think, the farmers to abseil, smartly built stone walls support narrow terraces now abandoned, showing only traces of corn or overgrown vines. The bananas and tomatoes at lower levels still thrive, but the former athlete-farmers of the mountain now work in the hotels, or in Venezuela.

Ornamental gardening, of course, is a novelty on such an indigent (until recently) island. The style seems to have been set by an artist sometimes called the Picasso of the Canaries, Cesar Manrique. He created a spectacular mirador commanding a deep fertile valley, a terraced trench 2000 feet deep with the Atlantic at its foot, bristling with the Canaries native palm tree, singly or in groves, and stratified with green terraces like vegetative sedimentation.

The mirador grows from the cliffs. Its gardens merge imperceptibly with the mountain plants. Are these aloes, agaves, cistuses, euphorbias, echiums wildlings or horticulture? Bougainvillea gives the game way, but only when savage spikiness forms discernible patterns do you detect design.

We stayed in the parador at San Sebastian, the island capital (and launch-pad for Columbus: the courtyard of the Tourist Office contains the well where he drew the water to baptize America). Spain’s state hotels (or some of them) brilliantly project an image of long-settled aristocracy. You are a guest in a solid, slightly faded, country mansion – in this case with Manrique-inspired gardens rich with endemic plants, shaded by palms and the luxuriant deep green canopy of a pale-trunked ficus. Paths wind and steps climb between curving beds mulched with grey, rusty and pink volcanic gravel, setting off the strong domes and spikes of desert plants. I have not been an enthusiast for palm trees in the past, but Phoenix canariensis is a magnificent tree to have outside your bedroom window.

Not upon oath

January 5, 2009

We have seen ‘gay’ appropriated. And ‘wicked’ and ‘cool’. It is all too easy to claim a word for a purpose, a cause or an occasion and to colour it, for the rest of us, and for good, with an association that puts its original meaning out of reach.

Sound-bites do the same with phrases. No one can link the words ‘wind’ and ‘change’ without Harold Macmillan’s drooping eyelids appearing momentarily in the corner of the frame. Of course there are coinages that enrich the language. Churchill gave us the Iron Curtain and Nelson ‘England expects’. But quotations need the protection of silent inverted commas, or they risk becoming clichés so embedded in the language that they no longer fulfil their function.

Freshness and toughness are two qualities essential in a memorable phrase. They are the spirit of the haiku; a verse form that must strike, surprise, resonate but remain faintly ambivalent and mysterious. They tend to feel fragile in translation. One of the master Basho’s most quoted is

‘old pond

a frog jumps in

the sound of water’.

I believe the sound of the Japanese (and perhaps the look of the characters) expresses more froggy thoughts than any English version. ‘Old pond ……’ nonetheless could make a pleasantly whimsical inscription beside the water in a garden.

Why all this? Ever since I started gardening here I have been tempted to caption, as it were, certain parts of the place with lapidary inscriptions. I love the look of letters carved in stone, and I want to share certain thoughts with visitors. We have a grove of young oaks I have deliberately pruned in the manner of a French forest: branchless boles to 30 feet or so supporting the leafy canopy. I tell every visitor that to me it represents and recalls the Fôret de Tronçais, the vast horn-echoing domain that produces France’s finest timber. Beside our Tronçais glade stands a splendid branchy veteran in the English style: a lion among gazelles.

Could I transmit these associations in a few words on stone? Could I or should I add a reflection on the reflection in the moat? There are gardens that lead parallel lives: a leafy one and a lapidary one. Stowe, for example, or Rousham, with their ‘worthies’. Little Sparta is a garden of stone-cut knotty thoughts that needs only their moorland setting to free your mind to follow them. ‘Language’, said its creator, Ian Hamilton Finlay, ‘ambushes the visitor’. Unexpected language, monumentally inscribed, does more: it kidnaps his thoughts, contradicts his natural impulses and leaves him disquieted.

There are those who hold that modern gardens should do precisely this, disquiet, to have any claim to be considered art. They define art as a challenge. Its job is to remind us of the (miserable) ‘human condition’. The aggressive wit you feel in Little Sparta is thus its claim to be a work of art.

I could inscribe, at the entrance to my oak glade, ‘Forty cords of firewood’ or ‘Fifty thousand kilojoules (and rising)’. I could deconstruct the sum of nature and horticulture around us, or thread it with musical references or puff it up with poetry.

I won’t, though. Words are too potent, captured and cut, for the ambivalence of growth and light. Once we thought (or Keats did) Beauty is Truth. Even that, though, is too blunt a thought.

2008 – no weather to speak of

January 2, 2009

I didn’t recognize the awful wet summer everyone was complaining about last year, and there is certainly little sign of it in the daily record I have been keeping (for the past 37 years, I realize, counting the weather-stained volumes on the shelf). But then Essex is notoriously dry, with the corollary that we don’t do badly for sunshine. In fact we live halfway between England’s two best-known addresses for jam, Tiptree and Elsenham (the latter, alas, no more), so there is a long record of good fruit-growing weather.

Last August was certainly drizzly, with a trace of rain on two days and measurable rain on 13. Only ten days gave us any sunshine, while the highest temperature was a meagre 74° Fahrenheit (and the lowest 50°). July was a much better month, with nine days in the high 70°s F, sunshine on 16 days and measurable rain on ten. Still admittedly a disappointing summer, but certainly not a washout.

January was very mild, with no temperature below freezing, and what was billed as ‘the warmest January night ever’, or some such, on the 19th, when the thermometer did not go below 54° F. There was 66 mm of rain, but in February only 15 mm (it was still mild), made up for by a constantly showery March with 85 mm. The only cold snap, with a snow shower, was over Easter on the 22/23rd.

April was mild and very dry again, with only 44 mm, half of which fell on the 29/30th, no temperature below freezing, and most days in the 50°s and 60°s F. May was warm, with seven days in the 70°s (and over two inches of rain around the Bank Holiday on the 25th). June was not too bad, with only 23 mm of rain spread over seven separate showery days, but a distinct sunshine deficit: only ten days when it was worth mentioning in the book, and only four days when the temperature rose above 70° F.

Such was the summer: like the winter and spring, tepid. September changed nothing: no day over 68° F, showers in the first ten days, some brighter weather at the end. October started dry, never warmed up and ended with eight damp days, followed in November by two weeks with some rain every day.

Others apparently enjoyed splendid autumn colours; ours were as unremarkable as the summer. There are always interesting tints, and a reliable show from amelanchiers early and oaks late. But maples merely fizzled. December was mild again, and dry, with less than an inch. The annual rainfall total was 605 mm or 24.5 inches – about two inches above the average.


December 18, 2008

I feel more justified in being a gardening wimp, and having spent most of the past three weeks indoors, coughing, since the Health Secretary announced on the Today programme this morning that we’ve just had the coldest weather for 30 years.

Where does the government get its statistics? It hasn’t been pleasant, and I’m easily persuaded that the weather of recent Decembers has been deviant, but a few mornings of frost is scarcely a new Ice Age. Nothing in the garden has been damaged; not even the aspidistra that was too big for its pot and I divided to make a rather handsome clump on the way to the woodshed.

It has been the perfect stimulus to do some reading, though. Comfort-reading, to me, is usually something with no modern relevance. A hundred years since publication is generally a safe distance. Yet with gardening books little shocks of recognition are unavoidable.

The Gardener’s Magazine of the 1820s and ’30s is one of my favourite wallows. It was ‘conducted’ by the frighteningly productive J.C. Loudon, author of the Encyclopaedias of Gardening and of Agriculture, of the Arboretum et Fructicetum Britannicum (my abridged edition contains 1162 pages), of the Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture and Furniture, of the Horticulturist, the Amateur Gardener’s Calendar, and more besides.

The ambition of The Gardener’s Magazine was one that many editors have expressed, myself included. When he launched it in 1826, Loudon invited ‘practical gardeners to come forward and support a work calculated for their own honor (sic) and advantage. Let them not make excuses as to not being accustomed to write, want of style, etc, but fix on a subject and begin at once, and write straight on to the end, regardless of anything but the correctness of their statements. This done once or twice a good style will come of itself.’

The results were astonishing. They filled nineteen annual volumes with observations from all over the world. ‘Notices’ poured in from all over Britain and abroad. And not just from France and Germany, but from Russia, North and South America and even the infant New South Wales. Loudon’s correspondent in Sydney on November 15, 1827, admitted that ‘there was little prospect of agriculture ever being much attended to here’. ‘If we could get good gardeners’, he went on, ‘I think horticulture would even flourish with us, but all your good gardeners are so honest that none of them are transported…… Strawberries thrive remarkably well, and we generally have two crops: the first in October, the second about Christmas.’ I fear he would find the same lack of criminality among gardeners today. However does Australia manage?

It was the era when science was in its infancy but information was in limitless demand. We are wrong if we think the internet has started a completely new traffic in practical communication. Some of Loudon’s ‘notices’ are effectively pre-Victorian blogs.

This, for example, of 170 years ago: ‘Sir, Your correspondent on the subject of British wines (Vol II p.485) is most tormentingly tantalising. He raises our hopes, by stating he has had nearly twenty years’ experience, and that his family are now drinking wines twelve years old;…… and, finally, leaves us in the lurch, not giving us the least information how to make wine. My experience is very limited; but like him, I have studied Mr M’Culloch; and, as he very justly observes, have obtained from that gentleman’s book the only rational ideas I have been able to collect. I find the best wine I can make is from immature grapes; in that state they ferment rapidly, and communicate no bad taste. Indeed, the wine, if made with good lump sugar, is nearly tasteless; but flavour can be communicated to suit various tastes. I have racked some on the lees of fine claret, and others on the lees of Madeira, adding some bitter almond or peach kernels.’

‘The most successful British wine, but, at the same time, the most extravagant, is the imitation of brisk champagne; its extreme briskness, indeed sometimes breaks the bottle. I cannot yet succeed in giving this the true taste; but I am disposed to believe it may be done, by putting into the cask some few young cones of the spruce fir. These are extremely aromatic, and at the same time, have a little taste of turpentine, which, I think, I can detect, in a small degree, in true champagne.’

Complete the story if you will.

Stable states

December 3, 2008

The old jingle about November is right. The month may come in with a late burst of autumn glory, but by the time it goes the garden has reached its low point of the year. The few flickers of promise (yes, we have a few snowdrops, a lonely iris and some wayward violets) don’t make any kind of picture. By Christmas there will be all sorts of fun, from hellebores and mahonias to honeysuckles and daphnes (and primroses, I’m certain).

Poking around with my most sensitive appreciators at full stretch, feeling rather like a snail with its eyes on stalks, I am thrown back on the interest of ivy leaves and the glitter of holly. Every year we read garden writers doing their winter-interest pieces. By February it’s galanthomania. Bark: yes it can be all sorts of colours and look pretty in the sun. Am I sounding jaded? I’m not. I’m trying to see beyond the horticlichés to what sorts of particular pleasure a static, muddy, winter-bound garden can give.

I started in the doldrums of the garden; the places (we all have them) that we rarely see and never think about; between the shed and the neighbour, as it were. The most you’d usually do there is pick up plastic litter. Funnily enough these may well be our best bits of wildness, undisturbed, settled into a steady state where the ivy climbs and the snowberry encroaches, but gradually, and the ferns under the fence plump up unnoticed year by year. Do they make a picture? They do to their little inhabitants and just might to a fringe photographer (grainy, black and white, very

handheld and understating something that escapes me). To my critical mind, no: the frame is as good as blank. I do say, though, that only a slight adjustment, anything overtly calculated, could fill it and focus it. To multiply the ferns, for example. At least ten per cent of the garden, and ideally more like twenty, should be in this sort of stable state.

A generation ago Graham Stuart Thomas did his best to make labour-saving acceptable (it was already fashionable) in his book Plants for Groundcover. Today its swathes of periwinkle or pachysandra look dated and bland.

We have a few places here that look after themselves all year and don’t repel me. A partial list includes the space behind the cottage, for example, where broad-leaved Pseudosasa and a splendid Irish ivy, gleaned from beside Rosemary Verey’s little garden temple, have come to a sort of super-power truce. Unable to advance on the ground the ivy has taken to the trees – but that’s my fault. Otherwise an eye-catching stable state.

The backs of wall borders where ivy-leaved toadflax holds sway in summer and only a few hart’s tongue ferns and gladdons in winter. Gladdons, or gladwyns if you prefer, or Iris foetidissima if you must talk Latin, are one of the easiest and most prolific of ground-holders here. I don’t say you should leave them entirely alone: just visit them in winter to enjoy their cornucopias of bright orange berries, pick them and broadcast them around. I take a fork to the odd bramble; otherwise they are happy in dry unproductive shade.

A twenty-foot band all round our perimeter where all I ever do is tidy the native yew, holly, thorn (black and white), spindle and field maple, ash, oak, Norway maple (not native but self-sown) and ivy, bugle and escapees (periwinkle prominent) that have claimed the ground.

The thicket where in an inspired moment I planted beech, box and a few yews and have done nothing ever since but mulch with leaves raked from all around. The rustling and scurrying here are the loudest and busiest in the garden, and the winter colours of green and fiery brown some of the best.


November 18, 2008

It’s worth taking a good long look, now that the leaves have fallen, at the bare outlines of the garden their absence reveals. The opportunity for a fresh look doesn’t last long: the scene will soon be too familiar to take in as a fresh sensation. Familiarity is always a gardener’s problem; any chance to break the spell and see what a stranger would see is worth taking. There are always surprises, I find, always anomalies and frequently eyesores.

The evergreens, for example, are bigger than when you last saw them clearly, in full profile. I am amazed at how a fir has spired up above one skyline since last year to become the winter eye-catcher. Laurels are invading a vista I expected to see clear; a holly clearly dominates a group where it was balanced in autumn by deciduous domes; a live oak, twice as big, it seems, as it was last winter, hogs the scene completely on a bank dedicated in theory to a group of pines.

The garden macrocosm has changed: I need a ladder to recuperate a glimpse of church tower that focussed one view I enjoy. But so has the microcosm; I hadn’t noticed how periwinkle has been smothering a bed until a veil of leaves fell, revealing the spread of the dark stain on the ground.

Nobody talks about Sarcococca in summer. Just to say that tells you why: what a name (it is Greek for ‘fleshy berry’). Christmas box sounds friendlier, and gives a good idea of a plant you only see in long-established gardens, or the gardens of serious grown-ups. It is also a plant you didn’t notice until autumn, when its polished leaves strike you as particularly well-designed; miniature Porsche bodies, almost. A happy clump gives satisfaction out of proportion to its size, and sweet scent on damp or frosty air.

Over the years we have collected the set, as it were: from the snail-slow S. humilis to the perky slender-leaved S. hookeriana var. digyna and one that Roy Lancaster strongly recommends: S. ruscifolia ‘Dragon Gate’. It’s no good drumming your fingers for them to reveal their qualities. Their miniature charms and positively stately pace are their counter-intuitive attractions.

Unlike history, the garden slows down progressively, from the frantic presto of spring to the andante of autumn and the larghissimo of winter. Then, of course, da capo.

A motley lot

October 31, 2008

Acer palmatum Seiryu: flaming filigree

Mild, dry, still weather meant a slow start to autumn. You learned which plants are in a hurry to shed their leaves and which need time, or a sharp jolt of frost, to make the cut-off. It is the function of a chemical, abscissic acid, to prepare the junction of leaf and twig for the moment of rupture, when all the nutritional value the leaf can give the tree (or shrub; applies only to woody plants) has been absorbed.

I see that Kew has been having a splendid autumn. Tony Kirkham wrote in The Times about it. Ours, I would say, has suffered from lack of organization. Instead of our grove of Norway maples all turning yellow together we have a motley of yellow and green, and bare twigs where the leaves fell prematurely.

Even Acer cappadocicum, the Caucasian maple, year after year a sure thing for a butter mountain of colour, went threadbare before turning. Amelanchiers, in contrast, always early to turn red but usually very brief in colour, turned a moderate orange and stayed that way for three weeks.

I wonder why Japanese maples leave their colouring so late. I used to go to Japan regularly in mid-November and find them at their dazzling peak. Here there is still more scarlet, and crimson, and orange and sheer burning flame to come. The scarlet of Acer Palmatum Osakazuki, the best in most years, is developing but subdued, and Seiryu, whose filigree flames are incomparable, is still like embers waiting for the bellows. Our Parrotias, meanwhile have earned their place as my Tree of the Month

Why do they call them the Low Countries?

October 15, 2008

I’m not sure how much more grass I can take. I was as interested as anyone when it (or rather they) first featured in fashionable borders. I think it was in Munich, perhaps 20 years ago, I first noticed that street-planting had gone tasteful, with pale grasses, white flowers (and not many of those) and variegated foliage. The Englischer Garten looked anything but English with its waving prairie beds, as tousled as their predecessors had been primped. I couldn’t see it catching on at home, but it was well worth the detour.

By the time Piet Oudolf was doing the two enormous Glasshouse beds at Wisley, I suppose we all realized that times had changed. Ecological awareness obliged us to pretend out habitat was the prairies. Wind-rippled mounds of stiff perennials and soft grasses were becoming routine, and late summer, when all this came together, the peak of the season.

Piet Oudolf’s school of all-season sensitivity, with plant skeletons rimed by frost as important as flowers, is Holland’s principal contribution. He has applied it to places as different as a Yorkshire walled garden (Scampston Hall) and Battery Park in Lower Manhattan – always with a half-horticulture effect, as though gardeners were only helping nature along.

At the same time (though with an earlier start-date) Jacques Wirtz and his two sons, from the other Low Country, have made ingenious hedges and quiet planting their trademarks. The two-volume album of photographs they published in 2003, with text by Patrick Taylor, is hypnotic: off-centre formality in misty air is a memorable, and eventually depressing, formula.

They have crept into our consciousness, these blurred borders and abstract hedges. To a degree they have chased out the intricacy, the intimacy and the sexual chemistry of flowers. Christopher Lloyd threw out his roses for a different reason. I hope neither tendency finally prevails.

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