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.

The subtropical north

September 29, 2008

Just home from a weekend in Wigtownshire. That’s the first time I’ve ever written that, and I feel the word wet should come into it somewhere. But no, Stranraer was sunny, and so was Ayrshire when we visited Culzean en route from Prestwick.

Culzean produced the first surprise: its name. How come I had never heard of the prime treasure of the National Trust for Scotland? Because you pronounce it Cullane. Imagine Powys Castle perched on a cliff top facing, across an untroubled sea, the Isle of Arran and the Gibraltar-like shape of Ailsa Craig, Robert Adam rooms and a close-to-subtropical garden. The subtropical theme only intensified as we drove south, eventually, to Logan, in the final south-western spear of Scotland, where the Edinburgh Botanics have their most exotic outpost, 300 miles north of the Scilly Isles (but you’d never notice).

So it was a weekend of envious awe, mighty specimens of our conservatory treasures thriving among plants I didn’t recognize at all. Every 20 years or so, they told us, it really freezes and they lose precious plants, but frosts strike the Canary Islands occasionally without depleting their flora.

An extremely exotic garden is like a museum; you marvel and learn but it is hard to engage. The garden that captured my heart was a great domaine in just that state of marginal decay that induces romantic sympathy. Castle Kennedy occupies a ridge between two lochs near Stranraer with an unexpected Hanoverian signature: massive earthworks carved and scythed smooth in clearings in the woods reputed by legend to represent the battle plans of Marlborough’s war. Apparently the second earl of Stair found his regiment unemployed in barracks and turned them out for a bit of digging.

That earl’s castle is now a ruin, but remains the centre of gardens with long rides of hydrangeas and camellias, rhododendrons and Japanese maples under avenues of oak and (in one case) giant monkey-puzzles. Its centre is a walled garden, isolated (as Scots walled gardens usually are) from any habitation, and all the more dreamlike for standing alone in the midst of woods.

In late summer all its tender colours were on display; flowers from South Africa and South America, tall watsonias and luxuriant fuchsias, salvias with small flowers in primary colours, dahlias and kniphofias, a giant euphorbia fifteen feet across, roses in their softer second flowering ……. but the harmony matters more than the botany. Davina, the dowager countess (still of Stair) patrols these borders with a painter’s eye. They glow with the light of horticultural passion. It is a garden I shall recall many times – and imitate so far as I can.


September 23, 2008

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For years the only secateurs I have used have been a Japanese pair given to me by a friend in California. They are plain grey steel, unadorned but like Japanese knives perfectly balanced and frighteningly sharp. Clipping them, in their holster, onto my belt is as instinctive as putting on boots.

You couldn’t, as far as I know, get them in this country until recently, but this summer in Dorset I came across Jake Hobson, who has made himself our domestic expert on Japanese gardening techniques and now imports the proper tools. I illustrate two of them here, my old secateurs and a life-changing pair of shears, bought from Jake and already well-used. Short sharp shears are exactly what you need for cutting back perennials or any softish growth, much faster, cleaner, more accurate and less dangerous to the fingers than secateurs.

Another Hobson introduction to this country is the Japanese tripod ladder; the kind they use for the intricate bonsai-like topiary of (principally) pine trees. Being a tripod it is untippable and wonderfully manoeuvrable into any corner – outdoors or in.

Jake worked in Japanese gardens and nurseries to learn the craft and write the clearest book I have read on the pruning of trees to produce idealized models, mannerism made marvellous as only the Japanese can. Idealized trees are known as Niwaki, the title of his book.

Niwaki by Jake Hobson was published by Timber Press in 2007 at $34.95 or £25.00.

Avant garden

September 16, 2008

I hope gardeners understand the message in the formaldehyde. Art has moved on; it is time for gardening to follow.

Not that the market for millionaire kitsch is new. Asprey’s has been in the animals-and-diamonds business for years. The significant shift is to the other side of Bond Street. What sold at Asprey’s now sells at Sotheby’s, with lengthier and more portentous titles.

I am making a start at keeping my garden relevant. The gnome floating face downwards in the pond in his little gold trousers brings to mind Damien Hirst’s favourite quote: ‘We’re here for a good time, not a long time’.

Paint job

September 12, 2008

There is no prescribed interval for repainting a conservatory. I have a weakness for paintwork with the patina of time, with streaks of green, rubbed edges, peeling a little. It reminds me of Mariana in the moated grange:

‘With blackest moss the flowerpots

Were thickly crusted, one and all:

The rusted nails fell from the knots

That held the pear to the gable-wall.’

Would there be a Garden History Society if I were the only one to harbour such thoughts?

But the conservatory. It is 28 years old and has had, so far as I remember, three fresh coats of white paint in that time. It was high time for another, and not only paint, but a total refreshment, glass and all. Eventually moss and general detritus builds up uncleanably where the panes overlap; putty falls out and glazing bars rot, blinds disintegrate …. Time for a total overhaul. It’s happening as I write.

The result will be an improvement on the original. We are lucky enough to have a builder in the village who loves old buildings.

Steve (his name is Stephen Gooch) visited the ‘lost’ garden of Heligan on his holiday and brought back a video of its restoration. It was the greenhouses he was interested in: the roof panes are cut with a curved lower edge to create a fish scale effect. The glaziers were filmed cutting them freehand on site: it looked easy. Why didn’t we do the same?

We did, and discovered the practical advantage of the fish scale design. Raindrops flow to the centre of each pane and form a stream down the middle. Formerly, the water crept to the edge and ran down the rafters. Moss accumulated at the bottom of each rafter, damp stayed there and eventually they began to rot. Old practices that look merely cosmetic (cornice moulding is another example) nearly always have their origin in practical experience.


The blinds need replacing too. They are expensive and take a bit of managing, but blinds outside the glass are twice as effective as blinds inside. Once the sunshine penetrates the glass it heats the air inside: only exterior blinds prevent this happening. Cedar lath blinds are best and longest-lived. Happily the firm that made our first set (they last about 10 years) are still in business: Tidmarsh & Co of Harlow import western red cedar, alias Thuja plicata, as logs from British Columbia, saw the laths and join them together with copper links. They are hung from and rolled up to a bar just below the opening lights. The dividend is the gentle stripes of light on a sunny day.

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