Sudden Death

September 1, 2007

Those prone to nervous anxiety should stay away from the July issue of the Quarterly Journal of Forestry. It describes a new disease affecting gardens in Cornwall. What is known in America as Sudden Oak Death has been flagged as a threat here for the past five years. The new find is another strain of Phytophthora all too well adapted to
destroying Cornwall’s precious trees and shrubs.

Phytophthora kernoviae takes its name from Kernow, the old name for Cornwall. It loves Cornwall’s jungle conditions where big-leaved rhododendrons and magnolias thrive, spreading through mist and water-drops where breezes rarely stir. Eighty Cornish gardens have so far been infected, among them Trengwainton, where the National Trust has set up a monitoring station. Phytophthora there has already claimed magnolias, acacia, jasmines, rhododendrons and kalmias. In
other gardens camellias, viburnums and drimys have caught it. Worse, there are cases of beech (but not oak) being affected. Given the right conditions Phytophthora of two strains – kernoviae and the original Sudden Oak Death strain, ramorum – seem able to kill almost anything.

The conditions are specific, and rhododendrons are important hosts. R. ponticum, that ineradicable weed (however pretty its flowers) of broadleaved woodlands, harbours Phytophthora and passes it on. The precautions to take are to reduce the damp shade element, clearing undergrowth to let light and air in, to get rid of weak old wood and promote strong growth. Bleeding bark cankers are the
principal symptoms. None of it makes pretty reading.

With this year’s weather I had just been relishing the almost Cornish feel (at least for an Essex garden) of our establishing
woodland, the damp mulch and the dense foliage. For how much longer, I wonder.

Gardens Illustrated July 2007

July 3, 2007

‘TIME’, SAID SOME PHILOSOPHICAL WAG,‘is nature’s way of stopping everything from happening at once.’ Until this spring, that
was, when something went wrong with the mechanism. A month of near-summer weather, and not a drop of rain in six weeks, had this garden (and certainly this gardener) seriously disoriented. Tulips and roses together upset my sense of propriety, not to mention colour. Fauve is the word for the cerise of Rosa ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’, the red of a tulip called ‘Bastogne’ and the bright amber-brown of my favourite wallflower.“Go back in and wait your turn,” I said to the rose. But no.

After six weeks the rain came reluctantly, unable to cure the chapped and ravined clay. Rabbits could still get their paws trapped in the cracks. At one point you felt horses had better watch where they
put their hooves. Don’t think I’m complaining. Blossom has never been more bountiful, nor early May a more sensuous moment. When hawthorn fills the hedges round magnolias in voluptuous bloom all is well. I have been going out daily at dusk to marvel at the Staphylea colchica I grew from one of the seeds in a purloined ‘bladder’ years
ago. Bladdernut is the purportedly common name of this estimable bush, now 15 feet high and weighed down with intricate bunches of white flowers. Poppable green bladders follow. Dusk is its moment (it is for all white flowers) because then, I have discovered, it transmits to the maximum its creamy gardenia smell. I didn’t know anything else could do gardenia.

The colour theme now is searing spurge green. Did I intend euphorbias to take over? You might think so: a chlorophyll surge has that effect. Brightest of all

spurges is Euphorbia palustris – which

also offers orange leaves in autumn. Box hedges join in as they put on new

Staphylea colchica’s gardenia-like growth, and I seem to have let the

brilliant green Alexanders (Smyrnium
perfoliatum) get out of hand again. Two years ago 300 volunteers were needed to scour Kew of this menace to the luebells. Perhaps we should put it back on the menu, as it was before we had celery.

Chalk and Trees

July 2, 2007

Gardeners faced with unremitting chalk take heart from the famous chalkpit garden at Highdown, near Worthing, birthplace of an excellent white magnolia, and another near Ipswich, Lime Kiln, where a former secretary of the Royal Academy, Humphrey Brook, grew roses that only he knew, to sizes that only he dared. Pruning was not in his
vocabulary; nor mulching nor manure – or so goes the legend.

I was reminded of his garden and its ferocious cascades of rosy growth the other day when we visited his neighbours the Blakenhams, at Cottage Farm almost next door. Lord Blakenham’s father, as treasurer of the RHS, engaged me to conduct (as they used to say) the society’s journal in the 1970s. The woodland garden I saw then has developed prodigiously in the intervening years. Tall specimens of Magnolia campbellii are unexpected on the east coast, and presumed not possible where chalk is in evidence.

Just how much difference a layer of topsoil makes is demonstrated at Cottage Farm by a most ingenious feature. Suddenly, surrounded by every flowering tree, by thickets of bamboo and the lush undergrowth of a classic woodland garden, a grassy path spirals into a shallow pit, leading to a strange white eye in the earth, like a pool of milk. The solid
chalk bedrock is staring up at you, laid startlingly bare.

Rhizome Alert

July 1, 2007

Showers on thirsty soil have their immediate result in opportunistic weeds. A hoe is all you need to see them off. The first penetrating rain of May, though, showed me how insufficient our efforts had been in tackling the real problems. Two spits and a bit we dug down, and
pored over every crumb of soil for signs of roots. But nothing will eradicate two plants I introduced in good faith and innocently allowed to make themselves at home.

The worst is Acanthus, specifically A. spinosus, whose leaves Athenian sculptors so admired.‘Rhizomatous, suitable for a spacious border’ said the dictionary, perhaps meaning the parched tribal areas squatted by al-Qaeda. It roots are deep enough to laugh off Acropolitan droughts, but any shred of the brittle white rhizomes is a snake in the grass, a spy in the cab – what is the metaphor I am looking for to suggest a lurking threat able to upset your universe?

I used Roundup as well. I stopped short of six inches of concrete, knowing that sculptural shoots would eventually force
their way through. More in faith than hope I planted heavyweight, soil-smothering favourites in the deep-dug soil. The rain came and with it those dark, crinkly, infinitely sinister green shoots.

The other one? Lysimachia clethroides, the Chinese loosestrife, pretty in its tidy pinky-green leaves and curling heads of pure-white flowers.‘Not so invasive as L. punctata’ say the books. Not so invasive
as Acanthus, I’ll grant you.

Gardens Illustrated June 2007

June 3, 2007

THE CURTAIN WENT UP WITH the carpenters still banging away on stage and the actors learning their lines. I had scarcely ordered the plants I need, let alone planted them, when spring went into overdrive. Plants I was planning to move and clumps to divide suddenly looked inviolable, on the point of flowering. Besides, the soil was rapidly drying out: a peck of dust in March was a bushel in April. With no rain in prospect it was time to go visiting; to cast off self-reproach and see the spring displayed by gardeners who really know how.

The Savill Gardens at Windsor with their splendid new visitor centre are drawing crowds these days. The soaring oak-roofed building is the best piece of modern garden architecture we have.
But even better in April, to my mind, and much less visited, are the Valley Gardens, a mile to the south on the ridge of the Great Park that overlooks Virginia Water. If ever there was an idealised landscape, a forest of exotic flowers, it is this. Sir Eric Savill and his successors have groomed 200 acres of ancient hunting forest, carved vistas, nurtured rarities, planted amphitheatres and wound paths until a wander in these woods in spring is pure intoxication. When
magnolias melt in petals on azaleas it goes to my head. A sailor with a perfect beam wind might feel like this, or the audience of a sublime aria. Life doesn’t get any better.

You could call it the abstract painting of gardening, this entirely English style. There are no functional parts, no symbolism, no representation, no eye-catchers; just the landscape itself, coloured with flowers. Sometimes at the end of a plunging wisteria -ride you see silver water. Immense oaks and beeches support the sky. Reality is suspended in horticultural heaven.

French garden nirvana is as different as could be: nature not idealised but domesticated. It would be the perfect moment, I thought, to compare what London and Paris do best. For years my favourite French April garden has been La Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne: the prettiest possible potager all primped up for spring. The heart of it is a walk under arches of wisteria; each arch a different species or cultivar. “Macrobotrys” dangles pale tassels a yard long: sinensis sweet smelling purple

ones. There is pink and white, and a graceful form nearer to grey. All are pruned tight for maximum performance.

But the gardener is drunk on bulbs. They even scale the walls of his bothy and sit in pots on the roof. Tulips are marshalled like dancers at a ball, swirling among pansies and wallflowers, disciplined by low box hedges and little skirts of pear trees in flower at knee height. A positive embankment of sand and manure announces asparagus: the first tips, no knobs, of grey and cream are poking through. Later there will be grand displays; the immaculate rose garden and the border where michaelmas daisies stretch for a hundred yards. For now the union of function and frivolity is
quintessential Paris, and pluperfect spring.

Wonders of the deep

June 2, 2007

A major submarine event here: our carp have pupped. Possibly ages ago; the water in the moat is too murky to follow events closely. We don’t know which of the three senior koi are the parents: Orlando (the Marmalade Carp), Aeroflot or the Pink Pig. They have been dawdling around together for decades without apparently getting frisky. I suspect Orlando because the new arrival is orange – almost goldfish-red, indeed. We have had big goldfish in the past, until the heron speared them, but carp are longer, sleeker, and eventually as round as torpedoes. I’m sure we’ll find out the young one’s name soon.

Winner on points

June 1, 2007

I’m fickle enough to have a Plant of the Day, let alone Week or Month. But sometimes there is a plant of the season; not necessarily a big impact flower, just something that goes on appealing, and keeps getting talked about, for week after week.

This spring it has been Ribes speciosum, the Californian fuchsia gooseberry – an unlikely link, you may say, but one blessed by botany: R. fuchsioides was its former name. It has been growing slowly at Saling for many years; long enough to cover a ten-foot wall with a dozen

prickly stems, layers of deep glossy little green leaves on red stalks and for three months from March to May its bizarre rich scarlet flowers, an inch long with protruding stamens for all the world like fuchsias. This year it also protected the

only wisteria buds the chaffinches missed.

Gardens Illustrated May 2007

May 2, 2007

HOME FROM THREE WEEKS IN New Zealand, glowing and confused. glowing from the pin-sharp sunlight that turns every landscape into a cinematic panorama, confused by the kaleidoscope of plants, native and (mainly) non-native, that makes Kiwi gardens some of the richest anywhere. I was wary of ‘Kiwi’ when I went. Was it a loaded workd like ‘Pom’? Far from it, I found: it is a proud label for everything New Zealand.

‘Bush’ is the other term that commands respect. It means the native flora, where it still covers the land, whether as high forest or low scrub or an exotic coastal tangle of palms and flax (the Phormiumof our gardens) in total control of dunes and cliffs mile upon mile. You can’t keep out of the constant discussion about native and non-native nature. Predatory mammals introduced from abroad play havoc in a land that had none of its own. Our problem with grey squirrels is nothing compared with the damage done by rats, mice, stoats, deer, rabbits and especially Australian possums to a fauna that includes birds that can’t fly.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation is an impressive organization. Its combat troops fight for its native animals and plants. Its communications arm provides, among much else, interpretative trails through bush of every kind. Five miles into a walk in rain forest you can still come across labelled trees. Getting your mind round the towering podocarps, the immense cypresses, cousins many times removed of the ones we know, the six species of southern beech, the prolific ferns soaring into trees and wonders such as tree fuschias and the bizarre lancewood is not easy. Nor is it helped by the mix of Maori and Latin that confronts you. Hebes and olearias and pittosporums are the genera that feel at first most like familiar ground – until the ground gets boggy with unfamiliar species and strange behaviour.

Bush tends, admittedly, to be brown – or rather a mixture of greens and tans and greys that fall somewhere short of conventional garden ‘colour’. Perhaps the pollinators of the antipodes are colour blind. You can make a comforting, well-furnished garden with Kiwi plants alone, but scarcely a cheerful one. ‘Our’ garden plants, on the other hand, do spectacularly well in the brilliant light and ample rainfall. The national arboretum, Eastwoodhill near Gisborne on the North Island, grows trees from round the world at alarming speed and

the roses of Christchurch, on the sheltered east coat of South Island, are enough to give you a complex.

The shift back from late summer in the southern hemisphere to early spring in this one is brutal. I confess it took me a couple of days to see the point of my own garden again. Perhaps the most important factor is transparency. There is a good deal of everygreenery here; more than in most gardens. Plenty of walls and hedges too. But how sketchy and unclothed – unpainted might be a better image – an English garden looks as colour starts to erupt in March. the severity of winter in Britain is at least simple. Coming home it all seemed too complicated. Colour is in spots rather than blocks; shape in lines rather than masses. I know – it is my garden – where the volumes are meant to be and where the voids, but it is my mind, not my eyes, telling me.

By the third day, jetlag receding, I was happy: things had clicked into place. Instead of random detail I was seeing my own intentions. Had I learned anything by going away? To make things simpler and more obvious, perhaps. How else are other people to know what you are trying to say?

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