Plague and trade

April 2, 2007

The two greatest threats to our native woods and their flora are deer and the nursery trade. So says Oliver Rackham in his new book Woodlands, published by Collins last year in the New Naturalist series and a surprisingly bracing read. We have never had so many deer in this country, he says, and there is little hope of controlling their spread. Even if we all chose venison instead of beef, it is too dangerous to shoot them in the suburbs where they lurk. Unless we deer-fence our woods, their seedlings, coppice stools, wild flowers and before long their whole structure will be destroyed. And fenced out of woods, of course, the deer will make straight for our gardens.

The nursery trade? It is the pattern of modern commerce we should be worried about. Mass production is the order of the day, wherever it is quickest and cheapest. British nurseries have almost given up propogating their own material, let alone local strains of anything. It matters less, certainly, that your azaleas come from Belgium than that oaks are grown from whatever acorns are most plentiful. It may be 50 years before we discover that Italian oaks are useless in Britain, by which time nothing can be done.

The most immediate threat, however, is the fungus Phytopthera. Rackham asked a Dublin conference whether Ireland had not seen enough of it to last 1,000 years. In the 19th century it caused the potato famine and depopulated the country. ‘That’s tricky,’ came the official answer. ‘If we exclude foreign plants we’ll be done for restraint of trade.’ In other words fingers crossed. In the dispute between plague and trade which side are you on?

Hint from a maple

April 1, 2007

I wonder if you have the same fetish as I do about Japanese maples. Towards the end of winter I find myself drawn into their twiggy interiors to rid them of the wood they seem anxious to shed. As many as a quarter of their slender fishbone twiglets have died, and by March stand out white among the darker living ones. You onlyhave to press them to hear a little snap. Best to gather them up and burn them, because dead maple wood attracts one of the more sinister fungi: coral spot. Once its tiny pink pustules appear, usually on the snag of a torn or broken branch, there is not very much you can do to save the branch, or even the tree.

This habit of shading out their own older shoots is what gives mature maples their graceful floating look. As their branches extend all their fresh growth and all their leaves are bunched near the tips. A Japanese gardener prunes to exaggerate this effect, taking out the weaker branches until only four or five remain, to pose like outspread wings in a tableau. He does the same with pines, to imitate the effects of age and exposure on a rocky shore. It is one thing, though, to take a hint from a maple and another to impose on a pine. I can’t see this particular form of topiary, seductive as it is in Japan, ever sweeping the home counties.

Gardens Illustrated March 2007

March 3, 2007

YESTERDAY IT BLEW HARDER than it has since 1990 – judging, at least, by the toll it took. It is the proprietors of avenues I feel for when it roars this loud. No one but I will notice, when we’ve cleared up the mess, what trees are missing from my seemingly random planting, but a gap in an avenue is like a missing tooth.

What a mess there is, all the same. Seven trees down – never the ones that looked particularly fragile or exposed. Our tallest tree, a Canadian poplar (Populus x canadensis) 33m high, landed largely in our neighbour Ken’s garden and partly on the road. Miraculously there was no one around and only one pine was crushed. Long suffering Ken says he won’t miss it. The ones I shall miss most are a big bird cherry (Prunus padus) by the church gate and another poplar, a shapely and fragrant black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) I planted as a cutting 30 years ago, which is leaning dangerously with its roots above ground. One of the bluest of Scots pines, Hillier’s Pinus sylvestris ‘Argentea’, simply snapped (and not even at the graft) in a sustained gust that gave no relief for a full five minutes.

The bird cherry tore its roots out, revealing that honey fungus had been rotting them. There was no sign of it inthe healthy crown. Other trees split at high forks, points of weakness I had not even noticed before. Most trees were simply cleaned of their dead twigs, a litter-storm that covers lawns, shrubs and beds. It would have been worse – as it was in 1987 – if deciduous trees had been in leaf; sails impossible to reef. We have a chipper roaring away spreading minced tree as a deep mulch in all directions. Soon only I will see the gaps and, of course, set about filling them. A tree down is a planting opportunity. The catalogues are open at my side.

Action stations

March 2, 2007

But suddenly there’s a panic on. This is not a winter garden we’re clearing of debris: it’s a spring one. The temperature has hardly dipped below the 6 degrees centigrade that roots need to keep growing. Plants that need winter dormancy are not going to like it. The crunch of bulbs underfoot is sickening: daffodils and bluebells are 10cm above

the ground. Aconites and early crocuses are flowering and lawns and box hedges are bright green with growth: if things go on like this we will have to do three months’ work in one to be ready for spring. they won’t, of course, We could have snow next week, and the probablility of another four months of frosts is not a happy thought.

There are compensations: spring pleasures already, promising shoots all around, wafts of scent from honeysuckles and mahonias, brilliant low-angled sunlight on a green garden. I won’t call this early crop of weeds a bonus, but nor will we have the problem, when we get on the borders, of wondering precisely where we planted the tulips.

The memory gene

March 1, 2007

I’d never thought of a garden simply in terms of the number of different plants it can hold, but if you are a plant addict with a frustratingly small garden it makes sense. Logically, I suppose, they should all be tiny alpines. The true cottage gardener, though, thinks differently. Each plant must have a reason to be there. Being pretty or good to eat is important, but more important still is sentiment: who gave you the seed or where you took the cutting.

It is not only cottage gardens that have this dimension, of course. I dare say Louis XIV had flashbacks (guilty ones, I hope) of the gardens at Vaux le Vicomte he had plundered for Versailles. In botanical gardens it was all down on the dog-eared accessions cards in the old box files before they were transferred on to the computer. It isn’t the same: no more traces of compost or clipped-on postcards of the Ychang gorge. The memories, though, the history and the accumulated know-how are part of the gene-bank of every garden as much as the genes of the plants themselves. You can say of any place that its reality is as much in perception as in bricks and mortar. But of gardens this is doubly true: they only exist to be perceived.

A garden of any size, in fact, is as rich as the mind of its creator. Someone who is always curious, always acquisitive, will have a garden of many layers of meaning; something that a designer, however fashionable, can never offer.

Gardens Illustrated February 2007

February 3, 2007

WHEN I FIRST SAW LA MORTOLA in 1979 the gardeners were on strike. Sit-in, rather: they were picnicking round the mouth of the cave where they keep their tools, just below the entrance gates. If St Peter kept any gates on earth it should be these. Through them you see a paradise of plants descending, by a thousand steps and a score of terraces, to a sapphire sweep of sea.

The gardeners’ grouse was not about pay, but neglect. The Hanbury Botanic Gardens, to give them their full name, were a magnificent legacy from their English creators to the Italian state. Anyone who knows how Italy works can imagine what happened next. Things, I am happy to say, are going smoothly now, I always wonder, though, as I pay my annual visit, what the state of play will be.

La Mortola lies on the frontier between Italy and France, a short walk from Menton/Mentone, at the point where the Alps make their final glissade into the Mediterranean.The spot was chosen by Sir Thomas Hanbury in the 1840s for a private botanic garden on a heroic scale in a place where frost is almost unknown. His family kept it and elaborated it for a century, until the Second World War.

What do you find there in midwinter? Not, I admit, a lot of flowers. It is the season of evergreens – but in heady variety. On the day I was there a gale was whipping the sea into white horses, but the garden was strangely still. A sweet smell of growth, of oils and resins, filled the air. It is spiky plants at the top of the garden: palms, yuccas, aloes and agaves in their rigid finery. Lower come the proteas with their deep green whorls.Then an orchard of citrus trees glowing with orange and lemon lamps, then a forest of eucaplyptus and a grove of acacia, in flower by now, I expect.


February 2, 2007

New gardening picture books are all very well, and all very glamourous, but they don’t absorb the mind. At least this is what I find, snug under my lamp in front of the fire. Turning the pages of delectable borders and enviable vistas is fine – but don’t you become listless? I scribble notes: ‘Vinca to cover stump’ or ‘Valerian for dry wall’, but I lose the thread of the text among the pictures and get angry with captions that say ‘Previous two pages…’

Old books are another matter; books from the days when colour was a luxury and black and white had a different way of telling a story. There is a quality in old-fashioned thought that shames our facile age, too. I have just been reading EA Bowles’ My Garden in Spring, the thoughts of a passionate Edwardian plantsman. It is his curiosity that brings him alive today. He took nothing for granted. Perhaps you know someone – perhaps you are someone – who discovers how plants work by cutting them open to look. Bowles on  Iris unguicularis (winter you might think, rather than spring) is awe-inspiring. He is on intimate terms with half a dozen cultivars, harvests them in sheaves for his study every week for months, and explains just how they work (and why they used to be called I. stylosa: his razor blade reveals that the plant has a style extending the whole length of the stem).

Other old writers have other qualities. Gertrude Jekyll conveys precision with poetry. Lucas Phillips is a blunt military man who keeps his flowerbeds in order, Michael Howarth Booth a nurseryman who could sell a shrub with the best. William Robinson went in for open, angry criticism of a sort that would never by published today. Christopher Lloyd came closest. And then there is the gentle sage Graham Stuart Thomas. I will never tire of him.

Snug under glass

February 1, 2007

Our conservatory is no hothouse; we only keep the frost out. But such a relatively warm autumn, with endless sunny days, kept it on the boil week after week until a score of things were flowering at once. We rarely get a chance like this to play with colours in winter. One group of pots worked specially well: the golden yellow flower of Allamanda cathartica, like a big jasmine without the scent, the lemon yellow spike of Salvia madrensis and the cool lime-yellow bells of Correa backhouseana. The pinky red C. pulchella is a Christmas cliché; its cousin a much cooler plant in every sense. A tall Camellia, the early-flowering C. sasanqua ‘Narumigata’, with white lowers 10cm wide, framed the picture. Scent is not normally a feature of camellias. But sniffing ‘Narumigata’ makes me think it’s just as well.

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The Story of Wine – From Noah to Now

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