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.