Raking leaves

November 10, 2019

not bad for a sycamore Not bad for a sycamore

What are the words for these rejects, these fragments of plant-flesh, designed, precision-cut, palmate or pinnate, extruded into air by a mysterious subterranean pump? Sun coloured them, rain polished them, wind rattled them, time tired them.

Some let go, some hung till frost forced abscission. Was that hard, breaking the cord of life to float some seconds
free, the ground coming up, choosing to land on the hedge, in the currant bush, tangled in ivy or safe on the path?

I scratch you out with my rake, wherever you land, admire your yolk-yellow, your dappled apple in a glance and drag you into my soggy pile.

Bubbly in the Garden of England

November 6, 2019

Hush Heath Manor; a Kentish wine chateau

Did you ever expect to see the neat green corrugation of vineyards tilting down the South Downs? The North ones? Or in the Chilterns or along the South Coast? Last week, in their yellow autumn suits, they looked quite at home, even beautiful in their leafy English context.

I was in Kent, visiting three wine estates already making wonderful wines. Wonder is the relevant word: ten years ago I was still a sceptic. The best, and most, of what they make is sparkling. At last Champagne really has a run for its money. No other region anywhere has been able to challenge it as England now does.

How has this suddenly happened? Climate change has a lot to do with it. The average temperature of the South of England has climbed one and a half degrees in a generation. Ripening grapes outdoors here used to be a chancy business; now, in a reasonable summer, it is a given.

Just as important is the adoption, by most English wine-growers, of what you might call ‘serious’ grape varieties. In the experimental years of the ‘70s and 80s it was thought prudent to plant crosses bred in Germany specifically for early ripening. Their wines, unfortunately, were unconvincing. It was the analogy of Champagne that made all the difference.

Two hundred miles away over the Channel they make the world’s best bubbly on the same chalk formation as our Downs. Their grapes are often on the margin of ripeness – and high in acid. But it’s their acidity that makes them so drinkable in their sparkling form. Once that penny dropped, and English farmers had the confidence to plant Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, and their flavours emerged in the wine they produced, the word spread. (Pinot Meunier, incidentally, has a synonym; Wrotham Pinot. And Wrotham is in Kent.) The Champagne method is not cheap; it needed investment in plant, training, and time – at least a year more than still wine to be ready to drink, and preferably very much longer.

But now there is nothing left to prove. Even famous Champagne houses are convinced. Tattinger and Pommery have already bought and planted land in England. The next question is where will our best terroir turn out to be – there is no English substitute for their quintessentially French word. And the apparent answers are full of surprises. There are good English sparkling wines from Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, Cornwall, Oxfordshire, Bucks, Essex…. and not all of them, by any means, are grown on our Champagne-like chalk. Some of our best examples are grown on greensand, often on unpromising-looking clay, or on flinty ground where you wouldn’t want to garden. Wine-growing, in fact, is gardening on an industrial scale.

Which is why a vineyard is beautiful.

More than natural grace

November 5, 2019

Just home from a week in New York, at its October best. My lodging is as near Central Park as you can get, and I spent all my spare hours walking in this extraordinary playground landscape. Thirty years ago it was a crime-ridden wasteland. To walk there after dark (or even before) was not advised. Then in 1980 mayor Ed Koch initiated The Park Conservatory and put Betsy Barlow Rogers in charge as its first administrator.

I first met Betsy in the late 1960s at a radio station when we were both promoting our respective first books. Hers was on The Wetlands of New York; mine was on wine. Last week we had lunch on a golden autumn afternoon at The Boathouse overlooking one of the lakes and recalled how the park, covering 843 acres, was created in the heart of Manhattan, pretty much with shovel and barrow. Frederick Law Olmsted and the English architect Calvert Vaux, its creators, were inspired by the new park at Birkenhead on Merseyside, designed by Joseph Paxton, one of the first to be created to be open for the public to enjoy.

Birkenhead was finished in 1847. Olmsted arrived in Liverpool in 1850. He wrote ‘I cannot undertake to describe the effect of so much taste and skill as has evidently been employed. I will only tell you, that we passed by winding paths, over acres and acres, with a constantly varying surface, where on all sides were growing every variety of shrubs and flowers, with more than natural grace, all set in borders of greenest, closest turf, and all kept with exemplary neatness! In democratic America there is nothing to be thought of as comparable to this people’s garden.’

Olmsted’s Manhattan site was more problematic; marshy, among huge up-rearing grey rocks, partly built over in the voracious development of the city, almost desolate of vegetation. His vision was a pleasure ground on an unprecedented scale, shaded with the glorious variety of America’s trees, embracing the pastoral (the sheep meadow), the romantic (a castle overlooking a lake), the monumental, the frivolous, the untamed, the useful, the whimsical….. every genre and mood of gardening. Among the early visitors was the essayist Oliver Wendel Holmes, who wrote: “The Central Park is an expanse of wild country well crumpled so as to form ridges which will give views, and hollows that will hold water. The hips and elbows and other bones of nature stick out here and there in the shape of rocks which give character to the scenery, and an unchangeable, unpurchasable look to a landscape that without them would have been in danger of being fattened by art and money out of all its native features. The roads were fine, the sheets of water beautiful, the bridges handsome, the swans elegant in their deportment, the grass green and as short as a fast horse’s winter coat….”

It was a stupendous task to construct and is even more of a challenge to maintain. So its current state, a bustling resort where every visitor feels at home, safe, stimulated, active, absorbed, pop-eyed with discoveries, is an extraordinary achievement – for which Betsy deserves much of the credit.

In the Night Garden

October 29, 2019

Deep down perhaps I’m a Teletubby. Certainly at this time of year, when the Day Garden is reduced to a few hours, the sun so low as to be confusing and teatime a fireside feast. I tend to draw the curtains and curl up with a book.

There is an alternative, though. A relatively small amount of well-aimed electricity can give you garden pictures quite different from daytime. In our tiny London garden our predecessors had had the idea, and done a good job. There is a valid garden picture day and night. Invite Maud 24/7. (Her tryst at the gate, remember, was a daybreak date; ‘the black bat night’ had flown.)

In our little patch four spotlights, high up on each of the side walls, unequally spaced, can be swivelled to point downwards or sideways. They light the steps (essential), a table, and whatever plants are eye-catching when picked out against blackness. Certain ferns, for example, a generously yellow-splotched ivy, a camellia (mainly for the shine of its leaves), the bleached flower-heads of a hydrangea, the trunk of our over-sized sycamore, a vase or a balustrade. And, of course, the greenhouse, which becomes a Crystal Palace on a black night. There is the gleam of paving in the rain, and very occasionally the magic of snow. Just outside the French windows on the covered verandah the lemon tree can be spotlit. It is always doing something; often in winter flowers and fruit intriguingly at the same time. The surroundings become invisible, cast into mysterious blackness.

Goodnight, Macca Pacca. Good night, Iggle Piggle. You go to sleep; I’ll watch the night garden.

The T word

October 13, 2019

Minds of their own?

Somehow hydrangeas always pop up in Trad at this time of year. It’s partly their duration; what flower is so much in evidence for so many weeks? Even spent and faded flowers keep their shape and remain a presence in the garden. But it’s also the conundrum of their colours. It’s all very well saying they will be blue in acid soil, pink in alkaline. You can control this, they say, with aluminium salts. Oh, yeah?

They have minds of their own. Our Welsh resort has ancient clumps that have settled down over the years to a marvellous medley of colours, by autumn principally maroon and dusky purple, but with individual flowers still at extremes of the blue/pink spectrum. And this is rain-soaked acid soil. So is the soil the answer? If it were grapes and wine we were talking about, we’d be discussing terroir.

The British shy away from this essentially French concept; both the word, which has no precise English translation, and the idea that certain soils in certain situations can affect the qualities of the fruit they produce. There’s a suspicion that terroir is just muck and magic with a French accent, designed to prove that only La Belle France has the conditions for great wines.

If soil can affect the colour of flowers, though, can it not affect the flavour of fruit? Plant a vine of, say, Chardonnay, on chalk or on slate and you will get two quite different wines. Plant it on the Jurassic limestone of Chablis, a pale, quite heavy, soil visibly made up of minuscule ancient seashells and you will get wine of a recognizable flavour that no other vineyard has ever, as far as I know, achieved.

Scientists have been keen to show that vine roots have no way of abstracting minerals directly from the soil they encounter. The only demonstrable difference between soils, as they affect the plant, comes from their permeability; how fast they drain, which in turn affects their temperature. Warmer soils equal riper grapes. If claret from St Estèphe has more acidity and ‘structure’ (or less perfume) than claret from Margaux it’s because St Estèphe is lower down the Gironde estuary; the river has deposited more stones in Margaux and carried more silt down to St Estèphe. Silt equals clay, equals slower drainage, equals cooler soil. How simplistic that is. How does it account for Château Calon-Ségur and Château Cos d’ Estournel consistently tasting different?

It’s not that simple. If there were an analogy between vines and hydrangeas our wines could all end up somewhere between maroon and purple.

Taking the long view

October 5, 2019

The long front view at Saling Hall

We’ve just been doing a spot of picture hanging. Rehanging, rather, to welcome a new painting. In the bedrooms, up the stairs. And suddenly I am seeing them afresh, the way we did six years ago when we moved here. Inertia saps the senses. Pass something several times a day and it ceases to register.

Gardens of course are not pictures; they are processes. The seasons take care of that – and so do the times of day. I have always tried to imprint something permanently satisfying on our main views: structure and proportion in harmony that always looks right summer and winter (and morning and evening.) The main plan is always to concentrate on the longest view available – right to the
boundary and preferably beyond. Our Saling Hall garden was long enough (though relatively narrow) to allow a 150-yard view in the front over the duck pond and along a poplar alley. More park, I admit, than garden. Toward the far end I put a Chilstone Pope’s Urn. Alexander Pope wrote the wittiest couplets in the language. He also commissioned William Kent to design the most perfect urn, with spiral grooves that give something lively to its surface in all lights.

Behind the house, where we planted a sort of landscape arboretum with watery distractions, the central, longest view was even longer, nearly 200 yards to the inevitable eye-catcher, a Haddonstone temple, which we dedicated to Bacchus. The pediment bears two gambolling carp and an inscription that perplexes everyone. Can you figure out “Innumerae Veniunt Artes“?

Now, with a garden a mere 55 feet long, the principles are the same: a central view to the boundary. Not quite central, in this case, because the greenhouse takes up half the width. Trees (or now shrubs) pace out the distance, one third of them evergreens. Their differences of height colour, density and bulk are the sub-plots that keep it interesting. At the same time, with the seasons and the times of day shadows keep shifting and emphasis changing. All this is the framework for a changing scene of leaves and flowers. Movable pots are the sideshows to attract attention to different corners. Two changes of level with stone steps certainly help; the far end is six feet higher, which somehow flatters the modest length of the garden. But the principle is the same, town or country: keep the centre open.


September 19, 2019

Every gardener has a Dread List: frost, honey fungus, ground elder, blackspot, now box caterpillar…… Mine, for most of my gardening life, has been drought.

Drought is slow torture. I suffered it for forty years in Essex. The clouds passed over, full of promise, again and again, and always seemed to drop their payload two and a half miles north, on Great Bardfield. Was it the valley there, and the little River Pant, that made them relent? (I’m not sure mind you, that in Bardfield they weren’t feeling the same about Great Saling. ‘Them up the road; they always gets it’.)

My second gardening life, London apart, is in the New Forest. Who knew that the Isle of Wight casts a rain-shadow? So it appears. A promising Front heads up the Channel, grey clouds across the horizon. Then it veers off, or divides, and Ventnor on the south coast gets the shower, while across the Solent the grass goes on parching and the trees flagging. This year is a prime example; a dry spring, a heatwave in April, warmth in May, some rain in June, no rain at Wimbledon, then another heatwave. August had just enough rain to be irritating, not to soak in and do any good.

I’ve always had a three-year rule for new trees and shrubs: total tlc, can or hose, for two years. But no proper growth in year three and I’m ready to give up. I don’t of course. I just fret. At least when it all gets too much I can go to Wales and watch the forest trees. Up there in the Rhinogs a young oak can sometimes manage a yard a year.

De mortuis…

September 11, 2019

Winner of the Concours d'elegance: Castanea sativa

With alarms about ash disease, oak die back, phytophthora, and now problems with planes, it seems I have dying trees on the brain. So two visits I have just made may have been grimly apposite, but were nonetheless inspiring. How long can a dead tree stand as a feature in the landscape? Conservationists urge us not to cut them down, or at least to leave them on the ground as bug hotels. C. Brown was apparently in favour of leaving a few in his parks, and even of erecting (transplanting?) them. Most dead trees, of course, fall apart quite quickly; the elm cadavers of the 1970s were mere branchless rotting trunks ten years later. So what do we make of the oaks and (particularly) sweet chestnuts that decline to disintegrate and stand as skeletons for decades after the last leaf has gone?

There is a field near Englefield in Berkshire, and another near Forthampton in Glos, where dozens of huge tree-skeletons stand like an orchard of monuments, their trunks monstrous with carbuncles, often hollow, rising barkless as bones to a full head of branches, and not only the main branches, but sometimes quite a spread of principle twigs. Sweet chestnuts seem particularly prone to hanging on intact, even more than oaks. It must be that the lignin they produce is more dense and durable. My camera is assembling a beauty competition for ghost trees.

Hugh’s Gardening Books

Sitting in the Shade

This is the third anthology of Trad’s Diary, cherry-picking the past ten years. The previous two covered the years 1975…

Hugh’s Wine Books

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

I wrote my first Pocket Wine Book in 1977, was quite surprised to be asked to revise it in 1978,…

Friends of Trad

John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary