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.


All lit up

November 2, 2007

‘Has that always been there?’ asked a quite regular visitor the other day. It self-evidently had, being a shrub of some 20 summers’ growth. I saw exactly what she meant, though. The sun was holding it in an evening halo against a shaded background. It was suddenly the focal point.

Light is always the most important
influence, in planting a garden as in
looking at it. You don’t know when the

clouds will part, shooting a ray of light to earth. You do know where the sun will be in the heavens, and can plan accordingly. It’s not just a question of the plant’s preferring sun or shade, but of you preferring a plant well-lit, and which window you will looking out of when it is.

Our bathroom window faces southeast. When I opened the curtain this morning the vine leaves that assault it at this time of year were like art deco glass, a Lalique lampshade sparkling green, amber and gold. At tea time they merely block the view of the trees beyond bathed in afternoon sun.

Back-lighting is one of the strongest effects a gardener has at his disposal. Name me a plant that doesn’t look its best outlined against streaming sunlight. We were at Beth Chatto’s the other day, marvelling at her dry garden (and her wet one too). The grasses (again; it’s that time of year) were golden filigree: no jeweller could deck his window like this. But not all the beauties were deliberate. A glimpse of water through willow and bamboo was aethereally beautiful in a way not even Beth could have planned. What she had orchestrated to perfection, though, was the self-lighting touches where pale colours seem spot-lit in pre-ordained gloom. White Japanese anemones in her oak wood, for example. But lit from any angle there is no end to the beauty and usefulness of this paragon plant.


November 1, 2007

I have a wine-loving friend who can
prove that there is a correlation between
the number of runs scored in first-class
cricket and the quality of that year’s
claret. The more runs the better. Firm
batsmen’s wickets mean ripe grapes.

This year will test his rule. The figures are not quite in yet, but an Indian summer can save a vintage when it is too late to score runs. August may have been awful, but while the garden basked in September sun the grapes were making up for lost time. Now there’s a correlation: a wet
summer and a fine September mean
bowlers’ wickets, the garden at its best
and a juicy vintage in the Médoc.

Gardens Illustrated October 2007

October 4, 2007

A RIDDLE. If it takes duckweed 30 days to cover a pond, how much of it is covered on day 29? Half, I was told: it
doubles overnight. I don’t quite believe that, but it is a prodigious grower: one week scattered green spots; the next a lawn on your water. I used to think it pernicious and attacked it with herbicides. Now I consider blanket weed far worse, and try to love the world’s smallest plants as they proliferate.

The arguments against them are obvious.
They hide the surface, abolish reflections,
darken the depths and cling to anything
that touches them. The arguments in
favour? They feed on nutrients in the water that cause other problems. Removing them is a way of cleaning the whole pond. On a small one it is not such a bad job, skimming off the mass of tiny leaves. You wait for a windy day to push them to one side of the pond, then drag them to the edge with an improvised broom, or fish them out with a paddle-shaped net. Each leaf is a plant trailing a tiny white root. They reproduce by
growing little buds that split off and grow on.

Once you focus on the tiny things you can even find beauty in them. Skimming them you encounter a world of bugs, beetles, tiny snails and tadpoles. You can polish your water surface clean and
gleaming, or tolerate a few green rafts. When your weeding is finished, everything is pruned, the car washed, potting shed tidied, and you’ve swept behind the dustbins, amuse yourself by watching them grow.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

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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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