Fellow gardeners

May 13, 2008

The R.H.S. is evolving at a dizzying rate these days. It has to, of course, to keep up with a world that spins faster every year. I sometimes wonder, though, if in its headlong expansion it risks losing sight of the quiet pleasures that attract so many gardeners. Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, reacted to the arrival of the first Golden Arches in Rome, with a boom worthy of his friend Pavarotti. ‘Food,’ he thundered, ‘should be slow’ – and pronounced it ZLOOOOOW. Gardening, too. Slow means tranquil, private, considered, personal, uncompetitive, contemplative…….. all the unfashionable adjectives you can think of. Show gardens are one thing; showing off is what they do. Private gardens exist to nourish the soul of an individual.

Does the R.H.S. recognize that among its members there are many (how many?) whose love of plants and nurturing them is a lifelong affair, going far beyond fashion? Its earlier members (earlier than the 1980s) used to be called Fellows, until that came to seem an inflated appellation for every recruit.

Wouldn’t it be an apt recognition, though, for those who remain loyal to the Society for, let’s say, 20 years? Seniority, you may say, proves nothing. Some of us will be ignorant and idle however long we live. Perhaps Fellowship should be earned in some more demanding way. It will always be a very long way from the Victoria Medal of Honour, which is held by only 63 outstandingly distinguished gardeners at any one time. There is such a thing as Honorary Fellowship, awarded to a select few. It seems a pity, though, for the concept of Fellowship of what remains, at least in part, a learned Society should go by default.

Paradise Island

April 16, 2008

If spring has been uncertain here, it has been the same all over Europe, the moods of April testing gardeners’ nerves and creating memorable effects of sun and rain in the same picture.

Are you ever reluctant to test the reality of a cherished dream? That must be the reason we had left the Italian Lakes for so long unvisited. So long, in fact, that my mental pictures of them were mainly in black and white: memories of parents’ photographs of their honeymoons. Could such an innocent dreamland still exist?

It depends when you go. The Lakes are on Milan’s doorstep. In summer the coaches, I’m told, are bumper to bumper and the cafes round the boat-landings no fun at all. In early April, with trees just starting to green and little squalls corrugating the water, visitors are as tentative as flower buds. It is the magnolia moment and the camellia climax, and yet (at least on weekdays) a good proportion of them are born to blush unseen.

We went with a party from the International Dendrology Society. Dendrologists walk with heads high, eyes on the treetops. Some even carry tapes to measure any specially girthy specimen. Parts of the Lakes have the sort of rainfall combined with summer warmth that makes trees luxuriate. The biggest tree of all, though, and one of Europe’s most famous, had had a terrible accident. The Kashmir cypress on Isola Madre in Lake Maggiore was brought down by a freak tornado in 2006. It was worth the journey to see the efforts being made to save the life of this marvellous creature. Winching its 70 tons from prone to upright was only the beginning. Step two was to cut off most of its glorious blue tresses while feeding its roots with the rarest delicacies. It towers again over the palace of the Borromeo family on the summit of their garden-island, surrounded by white peacocks – and so many other remarkable plants that a dendrologist is left reeling.

The two islands transformed by the Princes Borromeo into gardens are a mere brisk boat-row apart. Isola Madre is the plantsman’s island; Isola Bella the famous architectural fantasy of a galleon riding the waters, a garden of amazing ingenuity, fantasy, craftsmanship and

panache. Strict formality was the original plan, as the head gardener, Gianfranco Giustina, explained. The extravaganza of its terraces and statues, fountains and cascades was to be coloured by bedding and punctuated by pots but .unobscured by climbers and trees. Vain hope. More romantic ideas prevailed in the 19th century. Little trees grew lofty, wisteria mounted the terraces and the cult of rhododendron brought towers of scarlet blooms. The massive Borromeo palazzo still forms the prow, and the poop is still a soaring theatre of baroque statuary; in between and all around horticulture holds sway.

Wisteria is a principal motif of the lakes and their gardens. Pruning it is an art Italians well understand. No pillar or plinth or lintel is too modest to be given its climber; the wisteria, though, with its potential to become forest-sized, is precisely pruned to fit its billet. Years of pruning give it astonishing character; with arabesques of branches under severe control, plump buds releasing curtains of scented purple. Thickets of camellias, parades (even pergolas) of lemons and forests of magnolias in voluptuous flower make such a feast of petals that your eyes turn almost with relief to the level waters of the lake.

A nasty swipe

April 14, 2008

What message (to use an ugly political term) does it send to our young people to brutalize hedges the way farmers and local authorities do? Uttlesford District Council is reputed to have one of the most privileged living environments in the country. The Dunmow bypass today is like a horrible wound; its trees (they were never a hedge) smashed, splintered and torn, jagged white wood wrist-thick mangled by the tractor, minced branches in tangled heaps. The beauty of spring, the sacredness of nature totally trashed – to save ratepayers’ money, as I’m sure the council would say.

Among the ‘services’ the council provides (with a profligacy that suggests spending other people’s money gives it no pain) could it consider training young people with nothing special to do to use a saw and a billhook? Working with nature is learning to love her. The brutalized roadsides seem to express nothing but hate.

At the Cape

March 26, 2008

You plan a winter holiday these days and find when you come home that you’ve missed a good chunk of spring. I’m not sure who is more confused; the plants or me. Back from two weeks in South Africa I find Magnolia sprengeri with one flower out, the big pink cup looking very sorry for itself, and rather absurd in incipient snow, while all its other flower buds had followed standing orders and waited. Anyone organized enough to have a timed detonation of colour must be cursing. I’m not at all keen on daffodils muscling in on the cold pallor of snowdrops. The white calm before anything so hectic as yellow appears is a precious moment. Not this year: and wasn’t that a bluebell I saw opening a tentative eyelid?

Down on the Cape there were days when the temperature was not so different from home. It’s been a wet summer, and a 30 knot easterly brought no cheer. It was the first time I had investigated the bizarre flora caught between mountains and sea known as the fynbos (and pronounced, near enough, ‘fainboss’). Its mixture of proteas, ericas and restios (various kinds of reeds, tall and short, green and brown) flourishes on thin sand and rock, Here and there I recognized a geranium, a heather or a buddleja salvifolia. There are arborescent and everlasting-flowered asters to confuse you, looking rather like people wandering up a hill with flowers in their hair. The nature reserve at Hermanus was an accessible place for a bit of botanizing, with good paths, useful labels and a charming garden of fynbos plants before you set off up the hills and into a ferny gully of assegai trees. A large part of the reserve had recently been burnt – but that’s the system. The fire restarts the cycle, clears the ground for seedlings and for alarming bright pink eruptions of amaryllis and nerines.

Inland, in the beautiful wine country of Stellenbosch and Franschoek, the hills are covered with what looks a similar

mixture of plants – although the species change, I was assured, almost by the yard. In one spot on the Simonsberg a fire five years ago had cleared the ground (including a vineyard) and set in motion a wonderful glinting grove of silver trees, Leucadendron argenteum. I’m not sure how rare they are: we didn’t see any others outside Kirstenbosch, the botanical garden on Table Mountain. Certainly the proprietor was proud of them. Nothing in the plant world is more exquisitely silver-silky. Convolvulus cneorum gives you the idea, but these grow upright to make handsome spiky trees.

This was at Rustenberg, a name well-known for wine, for Jersey cows and for being one of the loveliest and most fertile of Cape farms. My last visit there was 25 years ago, but I vividly remembered the English garden, the work of Peter and Pamela Barlow in the 1950s. It has gone full circle, from the formality of an almost Edwardian design, brick-walled and -stepped around a handsome white Cape Dutch manor house, through flowering profusion, English style, to an almost jungle phase, ready to be cut and cleared and started again by the next generation. Not the oaks, of course; at 60 years old magnificently shading the lawns. The surprise to me was how very English a garden can look here on the latitude of North Africa. (Africa is balanced across the Equator: the Cape and Tangier are both close to the 35th parallel). Given the water all our plants seem to grow here with vim and flower with abandon. The difference is the light: our pastel colours almost disappear by day, to emerge at dusk. The current Barlows, Simon and Rozanne, have created a new garden next door before starting on the old one at Rustenberg. Judging by the new creation the next cycle in the old garden will be as deeply romantic as the last.


March 2, 2008

I often reflect what it would have been like to live at the beginning of history, when experience, information, the past itself was in short supply. I’m sure it didn’t feel like that, and that Adam and Eve considered yesterday’s breakfast as a precedent, if not a landmark. Sometimes it feels as though we do the opposite: we live almost at the end, with overwhelming quantities of history around us. Is there more behind than in front? No one knows.

I think this sitting at my computer, having just Googled the name of a plant too new in cultivation to be in a reference book, and found reports on its performance from nine different locations; indeed a lively exchange about its value and needs between plantsmen in four different parts of France. It all makes such well-used formulae as ‘sun or part shade in a well-drained, moisture-retentive acid to neutral soil’ sound very much like history. On the internet you can not only learn from current experience; you can participate. Nobody will appreciate it much if all you can add is ‘Mine died’, but there is room in cyberspace for everyone’s contribution.

The temptation is to indulge idle curiosity and lose the thread of your enquiry. Why ‘cyber’?, was my next thought. ‘Cybermen’ come into being in the 1960s with Doctor Who, but cybernetics is apparently earlier, in the 1940s; cyber as a prefix coming from the Greek for a helmsman, kubernetes. ‘Government’ has the same root.

It’s so easy. Don’t trust Wikipedia, people say. Not, perhaps, on matters of opinion or personal detail. For etymology you’re on pretty safe ground. And a cyber gardener can generally judge whether he’s seeing a nursery trying to sell him a plant or another gardener sharing his delight or frustration.

What is not so easy is tearing yourself away. Which is more important, looking up your plants or going out to watch them grow?


Bamboo swan song?

February 16, 2008

“All bamboos of one species, 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, meanwhile, 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.”

That was what I wrote in my diary last July. Things continued to look hopeful until late autumn. Then the new shoots made flower buds, a crop of purple seed appeared, and the stooping culms took on a hangdog look, slowly turning sere.  So it was just a swansong, the regrowth that gave us hope. Now it seems there’s no avoiding the big dig to remove the roots. The proper attitude, of course, is to see it as a planting opportunity.  But supposing what we want there is bamboo…..

Frights of spring

February 10, 2008

Couldn’t the daffodils contain themselves until the snowdrops have had their go? Not this year. The ghostly calm of white in the woods is shattered by trumpet-blasts of yellow.  I thought someone had dropped a Kodak box, so out of place was the first daff to open . I picked the head off and hid it. Snowdrops must have the brown and grey of February to themselves.  Small chance when hawthorn is already in leaf, bluebells are rich green, even forming buds, and you can see a hint of colour through the furry bud-scales of magnolia.

I imagine there are gardeners up and down the country making lists of premature flowers. With so many anomalies, where do your start? From where I’m sitting,at the kitchen table, with the fat pink buds of Staphylea holocarpa ‘Rosea’ visibly swelling under the workshop gable.  Frost at the end of April is its usual problem.

Surely nothing now can restore it to its routine; the question is how damaging will it be, to the whole plant as well as its flowers, if proper cold weather sets in this month or next and interrupts this frantic activity? These buds look as though they are almost in labour: how long can delivery be postponed?

It is absurd, isn’t it, to let anxiety cloud skies that are serene from the moment the mists clear to dazzling pink and orange dusk?

The somewhat hairy cherry

January 20, 2008

Floods, thank God, at least of the rising sort, are not going to engulf us on a gravelly flat in Essex . We all say it would be nice to have a bit of good crisp weather, even to see a frozen pond, even to get the skates out for the first time in years. Half-thrilled, half-uneasy (even, illogically with a pang of guilt) we are enjoying an absurdly early spring. January 18th saw the warmest January night (at 13 degrees) ever recorded in England . Birds are not necessarily good meteorologists, but their singing this morning sent a thrill through me like the first smell of growing grass. The sense that we have got through the darkest part is a powerful pleasure, and how can you not revel in plumped up primroses?

If I were limited to a single small tree in this climate my choice, I’ve decided, would be the ‘autumn-flowering’ cherry, Prunus subhirtella autumnalis. Its November flowering, a scatter of pink or white confetti among its slender branches, is hardly a spectacle. Nor does it bravely outface ice and snow. It is an opportunistic flower, a chancer that will flower whenever the weather smiles.

In London , where the temperature rarely dips to freezing these days, it can dress itself time and again in its pale frilly flowers all winter long. Other cherries lugubriously block the view all summer with their heavy leaves. Little subhirtella (it means ‘somewhat hairy’, a sad indication of a botanist’s poetry-free soul) has tiny leaves that cast hardly any shade and turn pleasantly yellow and orange in autumn.

I’m not sure whether I prefer the pink or the white-flowering version. Having the luxury of space I grow both, several of them, scattered through the garden wherever I have stopped on a winter’s day and seen a dark background that needed cheering up. Even now I can round a corner and be surprised by a starburst (O.K., sub-starburst) of pink or white against gloomy green or grey.

In France, when we lived in the Auvergne, we grew a scaled-up version of what seems to be the same tree, a little more vigorous, with slightly larger and it seemed to me more numerous flowers. I found it in a nursery that had lost its name. The only name I have found that seems to apply is Prunus subhirtella ‘Fukubana’. I must find it and plant it here in England to be sure.

Little subhirtella seems to be a long-lived tree by Japanese cherry standards. The real painted Geishas of the race, in my experience, grow and flower furiously at first but burn out disappointingly young. ‘Tai Haku’, the so-called Great White Cherry, lasted only ten years here and none of the wide-spreading ‘Shirofugen’, with their billows of double pink flowers, has survived longer than forty years from planting. Out latest loss is a great favourite, ‘Jo-nioi’ a tall vase-shaped white-flowering tree with single flowers that have the best scent of any I know. Last May people were reading its label and writing down its name.

This spring it will have a score of flowers and leaves and die.

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