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.

A year’s discoveries

December 1, 2007

It is rather fun (and a good memory-jogger) to make Christmas lists of the discoveries of the past year: people met, music heard, pubs with good beer – and crucially of course, for gardeners, plants encountered for the first time. Then to make a pick of favourites.

My list starts with a mini Euphorbiagiven us by Annie Turner, a neighbour, last April. It has been in flower ever since – but not at all the flower you might picture. E. ‘Diamond Frost’ has tiny white bracts (where most euphorbias have green to yellow ones). the plant positively sparkles, minicking, if anything, a Gypsophila. Last year I believe it was the darling of American nurseries, a bedding or conservatory plant unlike any other. There is little commercial interest, though, in something that roots as easily as spider plant.

Perennial disccovery of the year is Thalictrum ‘Elin’. It was standing proud in July, a pale purple haze way above head height in a border at Gresgarth Hall, Arabella Lennox-Boyd’s garden near Lancaster. A plant that sustains itself in mid-air seems miraculous. Thalictrums were already my passion. I have rarely been wetter than that day, but it was impossible to stop exploring a garden with such riches.

Tree discovery of the year is harder, but I give it to a little maple with the odd name of Acer palmatum ‘Shishio Improved’. It was a beacon across Savill Garden in May, its spring leaves a unique scarlet. What was this autumnal colour doing among the magnolias? Better still, it repeats the show in November.

Nursery of theyear is easy. On a dusty August day Spinners, at Boldre in the New Forest, was heady with woodland flowers. Towering euphorbias dropped their white petals on a mauve, pink and purple tapestry of hydrangeas and Japanese anemones. In broad sunlit beds yellow clematis clambered among the yellow fruit of Viburnum opulus ‘Xanthocarpum’ and scarlet lobelias mingled with scarlet Schizostylis. It was here I discovered my shrub of the year, a revelation of beauty I had never expected. Peter Chappell of Spinners is inevitably one of the first nurserymen to offer a variegated  Eucryphia.E.x nymansensis ‘Nymans Silver’ is a sport discovered recently at Nymans Garden in Sussex. Its serrated oval leaves are outlined in creamy white. Even four-foot high plants were full of wide, white, innocent, many-stamened flowers.

The preposterous idea of gardening a whole Norfolk broad makes my garden discovery a simple choice. Who could imagine primulas, gunneras and skunk cabbage by the acre, along miles of paths under ancient oaks? Lord Fairhaven is the answer, in the 1950s. His gardens are near South Walsham.

As for my new year resolution…

Gardens Illustrated December 2007

December 1, 2007

I have always wanted to play the mirror-trick somewhere in my garden. It is something I associate with town gardens; well-used, a mirror can startlingly expand a tiny space. My son tucked a mirror in a picture frame on a wall behind the serpentine stems of a climbing hydrangea, doubling and drawing attention to their hairy snaking on a background, confusingly, of sky. what can reflection bring to bigger spaces? For one thing, it can bring light.

Here at Saling Hall we are making a new vista that calls for an eye-catcher at each end. One end has a spy-hole in a wall opening on to a pond with a tall jet of water. The other has nothing except a wall of dusty ivy perpetually in shade.

I fetched down from the attic and hung it in the ivy at the end of the axis, facing the spy-hole. It instantly drew attention to the symmetry of the arrangement – but too brightly; and it is hard to walk by without seeing yourself reflected. It provided the answer, though: what I need is not brilliance, but a mere suggestion of light. A window in fact; or rather a dummy window stuck to the wall with glass that reflects light but no clear image. It will suggest that the woodshed wall is somthing more interesting and motivate wanderers to try my new path. Now what shall I plant along it to reward them?

Gardens Illustrated November 2007

November 3, 2007

Where do you stand on grasses? I mean the ones you don’t stand on, the pale fans and waving feathers of the border. If they were a political party they might not yet be forming a government, but they would be shaping up for a coalition. My vote was undecided for a long time, but I’m

beginning to be swayed.

It started at Wisley, where the old grass collection, on the way to the restaurant, always seemed out of place. It was grass for grass’ sake, a pattern sheet of height and textures and colour-ways. Then came Piet Oudolf’s vast new borders overlooking the new glasshouse. Grasses are the vital element in his bravura herbaceous palette. All the earth and fire colours of summer into autumn are there in broad brush-strokes and knife-smears.

Fauve master does wildflower meadow.

What happens when the two revolutionary parties of our gardening

age converge?

The Wirtz family in Belgium, renowned for their sculptural approach to evergreens, have been leading the hedge party for decades, infiltrating our

consciousness until hedges and gardens

are almost as synonymous as garden

and topiary were to the ancients. Mark my words, the hedge and grass garden

is almost upon us.

There is a feint in that direction just down

the road here in Essex, at Marks Hall, in the splendid walled garden attached to the very considerable arboretum. Brita von Schoenaich, the designer, has used grasses as formally as anyone can in a pattern of hedges and deliberate rounded

shapes to create an entirely novel effect. It certainly gets my vote.


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,…

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The International Dendrology Society (IDS)