July 23, 2008

Illustrating this column, and feeding the insatiable Flower of the Week and Tree of the Month pages, gives my camera an unaccustomed amount of exercise. It is also reminding me that the only thing you can photograph is light. Perhaps it is too obvious to mention, but I find it more than useful; I find it essential in deciding whether a shot is worth the exposure.

These summer days, under a sky of sailing clouds in brilliant blue, you can choose the sunlit moment or the cloudy one. One gives bright highlights and deep shadows, the other a more sober picture, not necessarily truer but easier to read for information: to see the precise shape of a plant and its parts. Which is more informative about a garden? There is no categorical answer. In a sunlit photograph the lighting and shadow certainly distort the volumes and voids. They can convey, on the other hand, the sort of vitality that makes you want to visit.

Looking through such a collection of near ideal photographs as, for example, Andrew Lawson’s in The English Garden (2007, with Ursula Buchan) I find that more appear to have been taken on overcast days than under direct sunshine. The appearance is probably deceptive: filters can modify over-dramatic contrasts as well as correcting colours. Nothing, on the other hand, can penetrate the blackness of  shadows created by strong direct light. The goal is lighting as even as possible without dulling the brilliance of colour and detail that brings a picture to life. Light from behind a plant often shows its character best of all.

Trees are my biggest problem. It is almost impossible to show the whole of a big tree without including far more sky than helps the picture. The light of the sky kills the detail outlined against it. A storm sky can offer the perfect solution: a tree sunlit against dark clouds is inevitably beautiful.

The other answer, of course, is to be a painter. The Edwardian gardens immortalized by such watercolourists as George Elgood and Margaret Waterfield never existed in such perfection. A painter can illuminate, edit, distort, correct and embellish as no camera can – not even a digital one.

Better in pots?

July 16, 2008

Did you know that gardening journalists get together in secret session to elect the plants we are going to grow? Nor did I, until I was invited to a Bulb of the Year lunch organized by the International Flower Bulb Centre. I’ll give you three guesses where the IFBC lives. Clue: a flat little country across the North Sea. The twelve writers, or someone representing them, each nominated a spring- and a summer-flowering bulb and recited its merits. Cross examination followed. Why, Anna Pavord, do you put forward Ornithogalum ‘Nutans’? Rob Cassy of The Times advocated Triteleia ixioides ‘Starlight’. Both have modest wildflower charm, the polar opposite of Tulipa ‘Black Hero’, for example, championed by Kathryn Bradley Hole of Country Life.

I was not surprised to see the blue Camassia esculenta on the list: it seems to have found its own way into fashionable plantings already. I was surprised by how many of the most formal tulips, essentially cutting flowers, I would have thought, were put forward (as well as the lovely white selection of the species Tulipa clusiana called ‘Lady Jane’). I certainly couldn’t choose between two nerines, the white N. undulata chosen by Anna

Pavord or Stephanie Donaldson’s choice of the more common sugar-pink N. bowdenii. I thought the former for a pot, the latter for a border. But schizostylis, the truly flashy Gloriosa ‘Rothschildiana’, a strange dowdy red Calla lily, two dahlias, an eremurus, a gladiolus, galtonia and two eucomis all got an airing.

It was good to see relatively obscure bulbs battling it out with some obvious choices. The panel were given three formal criteria: Appearance, Versatility and Ease of Growing. I can hardly think of a bulb less versatile than a flaming parrot tulip, one with less striking appearance than Ornithogalum ‘nutans’, or many less easy to grow than Gloriosa ‘Rothschildiana’. The purpose of the conference, though, was simply to focus readers’ attention on bulbs at the time the catalogues come out. I tried to think of parallels with the other business I know: wine. The big difference is that bulbs don’t have vintages. Hence this scheme for an annual renewal of interest.

Quick, quick, grow

July 7, 2008

Yesterday we were praying for rain. Three weeks of dry, if not hot, weather had stopped the garden growing. In frustration we resorted to the only effective rain-dance: inviting friends to lunch in the garden. That worked, with unusual precision; a squall at one o’clock. It only measured 2.5 millimetres, a tenth of an inch, in the rain-gauge, but by tea time the new growth was measurable on almost every plant.

How do plants produce new shoots instantaneously? It is most remarkable, I always think, on oak trees. Pale, usually reddish or pinkish, ‘lammas’-shoots break out all over the dark green crown. I measured one three hours after yesterday’s shower; eight inches of pale shoot with 15 new leaves had appeared from nowhere – or rather from inside a tiny bud at the end of a twig. Was it already formed, packed in there in micro-miniature? How do cells spring into instant action, forming all the diversity of twig, leaf-stalk, leaf, and indeed new buds containing all these things again, within minutes of water being available. What principle, and what urge, starts, plans and determines growth?

I can only imagine that roots in the ground when soil moisture is in short supply are like runners on the starting-block, primed to sprint. Rain dampens the surface, even as little as a few millimetres, and the signal goes out: get growing. The pent up sucking-power of billions of tiny root hairs, all intertwined in the soil, hoovers up the molecules of water, they shoot at incredible speed up the cambium corridor of every plant and cells start their programmed growth. How do they know how much to grow, or how many molecules their allowance will be? They are miraculously able to seize the opportunity, start and stop again as supplies are turned on and off. I went slowly round the garden last evening, smelling the dampness and the growth, finding evidence of movement in almost every plant I looked at.

Pines are an example of a plant that has no active buds until next spring, and no way of making adventitious ones – which is why rain doesn’t make them grow, and when you cut one down it can’t recover: a felled pine is a dead pine. Not a yew, though, or almost any other plant. The yew hedges are covered in spots of pale new growth. The border flowers are surging; the roses and every other shrub breaking out in tender growth. But strangest and most wonderful of all is that only rain can make this happen. You can water your plants as much as you like; they still only react like this to a shower.

So lots of garden parties.

Fowl play

July 4, 2008

Visitors ignored the roses the other day, spurned the delphiniums, bypassed the hollyhocks and looked straight through the astroemerias. All they were interested in was the mother partridge parading her brood of fifteen chicks. Her nest was hidden just beside the greenhouse, filled with fifteen eggs perfectly broken in half, all at the same moment, it seems.

Somehow or other she manages to gather all fifteen under her body and wings for a nap, choosing an open spot with a clear field of view: the middle of the lawn or the potato patch. Why, though, do mother fowl take their chicks on route marches? The partridge is not as bad as a mallard who covers hundreds of yards in a day. No sooner is her family bobbing on one pond but she marshalls them all up and leads them the length of the garden to another, nippers falling by the way like grenadiers retreating from Moscow.

Now the partridge family has disappeared, though we can hear cheeping from deep in the Mahonia nervosa. I expect they’ll reappear tomorrow miles away – but not, I fear, anything like fifteen of them.

Of crags and roses

June 23, 2008

Work in progress

The scary part of any design project is when it starts to take concrete (or timber, or stone, or metal) form. In the mind’s eye it is fluid, on paper easily modified, but when the plans are drawn up and work begins on the ground it is a brave designer who has no last minute doubts.

I have been planning a garden for three years now in one of Europe’s most spectacular locations, high above the Mediterranean, on terraces between immense craggy cliffs and the sea. Cap Ferrat and the waters of Beaulieu Bay lie below, and above a steep wild hillside where old grey olive trees and deep green Aleppo pines lead the eye up to ochre limestone crags. The terraces still bear survivors of the old culture of olives and vines and lemons. It is a long garden, the narrow top terrace 125 metres, rising in three long steps to the monumental olive tree that brings it to its mysterious shady close. From under its branches, looking back along the terraces, the eye embraces the whole panorama of cliffs, garden and sea, where Cap d’Ail is a long finger on the horizon.

This spring the garden took its definitive shape. The centre part of the top terrace is a tunnel of vines trained on a simple arched metal pergola. From the house, two terraces below, it appears as a cloister of shady voids and green columns backed by a high stone wall. At its lower end the cloister leads to a boule court shaded by ancient olive and bay trees. Going  the other way it opens to a simple formal space where a central box-edged path leads between orange and lemon trees, filtering the view of the sea, and a broad bed of Hydrangea quercifolia and agapanthus. Agapanthus is the default summer flower here – at least in the early stages, before we are tempted to diversify. I hope we manage to keep all the planting simple. The pergola

continues as a single row of metal arches, rose and vine covered, concealing and revealing the great open view directly down to the bay and across to Cap Ferrat.

At each break of level, three times where the long terrace climbs across the mountain slope, a plain iron pipe splashes water into a concrete reservoir, a repeated thread of water that leads the eye and ear upwards. Rough tufa catches the splash, absorbs it and provides a home for moss and ferns. Beside each tank stone stairs, with a barrow-ramp up the middle, lead up to the next level. At the bottom, two terraces down, the water reappears as the source for a grey-blue swimming pool, pergola’d off from the house with climbing roses and a bed already brimming with blue and purple, Salvia uliginosa, Verbena bonariensis, and white Japanese anemones.

The doubts? Can we maintain the sense of ancient agriculture, of working terraces and reservoirs, while embowering them in flowers? Can we do anything but trivialize what is already an epic panorama by horticulturizing it?

Sharp focus

June 10, 2008

caption goes here

A week away in early June and you come back to a different garden. It was wet while we were gone, and warm enough for plants to make their main thrust of growth, to bulk up and cover ground. Last night, just home, I walked round in a daze of excitement, surprise, shock and, I confess, dither. So much needs enjoying, so much needs doing. Instinctive priorities are new plants, just planted. Have they survived my disloyal absence?

A fresh eye for your own garden is never easy to achieve. Homecoming gives you your best chance. Has the fatsia grown too bulky (yes), or the hedge too tall? Does the Robinia ‘Frisia’ shout too loud beside the purple cotinus? This is the moment to decide. But how do you prevent yourself from stopping to pull up an egregious weed…. Then another and another? Contemplation and quiet consideration go by the board once you start stooping – which is why they are fragile commodities around here.

My friends groan when I tell them I love weeding. After propagating, though, it accounts for my happiest gardening hours, most absorbed and closest to my plants. There is gross weeding, when I straighten up all sweaty with armfuls of goose grass and nettles and dock, and fine weeding which scarcely fills a trug but leaves a bed looking like a jewel box.

Both make me focus and concentrate. Weeds rampaging intertwined disguise themselves as their betters. Tiny seed leaves, mere hints of a plant, challenge me to identify them. And decide whether they are going to add to or subtract from the picture in question.

Herb Robert its everywhere at the moment. Who can possibly dislike this lusty little geranium, so agile in

scrambling? It fragile pink stems, forking and forking again, its leaves, dividing and subdividing into more andmore palmate parts, its tiny pink flowers and its odd smoky smell have a potent charm, whether procumbent, when it is a great improvement on bare soil, or clambering up on the shoulders of a stronger plant. Its giant exotic cousin, Geranium maderense, almost identical in construction and behaviour, is after all a showpiece we have been proud to welcome to our ever-warmer gardens.

Tom Stuart-Smith, speaking about his triumphant Chelsea garden last month, said how important it was to finish planting several days ahead of the show, so that plants could settle down and adopt their natural positions – a thought that hadn’t occurred to me before. Of course flowers and leaves turn to take best advantage of the light, maneuvering in relation to one another like people in a crowd. It is easy to see where something has been added, or if you are weeding, subtracted. Even easier to see where the gardener’s boot has been. It is one of the joys of this time of year that beds brim with leaves in pristine condition and perfect alignment, flowers stalks getting ready to go, as blithe and beamish as schoolchildren.

Intricacy can’t be taken in quickly; a fact that Tom S-S’s garden eloquently expressed. There were brilliantly decisive touches: a single white peony, for example, against one of his grey rectangles of perfectly polished water. But between there were passages of soft planting to slow down the eye. It is a fact of garden making that big and simple is quick and easy – not necessarily satisfying for longer and quieter contemplation. The natural embroidery of many kinds of leaves rewards focussed concentration – especially, for that matter, when some of them are weeds.

Augustine blues

May 18, 2008

We were in Snowdonia for the spring: all six days of it. We went in what felt like the end of winter; branches all but bare, fat flower buds on the ashes but not the oaks (last year it was the other way round). We came home in early summer; the biggest difference of all being the beeches, which had managed to unfurl, shake out and spread at least their first four leaves per twig. They were still in that state of infinite tenderness when the shoot is a slender, silky green-grey extension weighed down by almost transparent wisps of leaves, but the sky was full of them, green in the majority over blue as you looked up. Bluebells, open only on sheltered primrose banks before, were jostling in deep violet crowds. Birches and larches were a haze of bright yellow apple green.

I admit I felt cheated. I need leisure to revel in spring. A long day at the office and I would have missed the best part of it. Happily I was in the woods, trying vainly to capture the metamorphosis on my camera. I lay under a rhododendron under a beech, knowing that the picture could fail dismally to convey the filtering light, the pale purple, paler green and intense sky blue woven in restless shades, knowing that the only way really to see is to put away your camera, stop even thinking, and live in your eyeballs.

The rhododendron is R. augustinii, the nearest (admittedly not very near) to blue. Among the shades of violet and lilac, in dappled sun and shade, they can seem as blue as bluebells. When we acquired our wood, 13 years ago, I planted a dozen R. augustinii along streams and by little waterfalls. I pretty much left them to take their chance. A wood is not a garden; the dustpan and brush have no place in forestry. Despite neglect nine of the twelve have flourished. Last autumn I cleared the invading birch, gorse, bracken and brambles around them. This spring their slender framework and little flowers, as elaborate as orchids, graced the shifting light under beeches and larches like puffs of smoke. I shall plant more. To plant anything else would be gardening.

Of course we went to Bodnant. I had never been there at the cusp of the rhododendron season before, and was ébloui (there are English words, I know, but don’t you love the French?) by the colours, the scale, the mastery of this extraordinary garden cum forest. It made me concentrate on the question of colour. It goes wrong when a bright or strong colour is isolated. A single red flower among pinks is effectively a weed. Red and white are the colours to be most careful with: they need careful grouping with plenty of green. One path in the upper garden is dedicated entirely to red rhodos, with truly regal effect. Down the cascade by the old mill, on the other hand, red fights pink and white, not so much a patchwork as an outbreak of measles.

Even blue, soft as it is, is best played alone.

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.

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