Gardens Illustrated May 2007

May 2, 2007

HOME FROM THREE WEEKS IN New Zealand, glowing and confused. glowing from the pin-sharp sunlight that turns every landscape into a cinematic panorama, confused by the kaleidoscope of plants, native and (mainly) non-native, that makes Kiwi gardens some of the richest anywhere. I was wary of ‘Kiwi’ when I went. Was it a loaded workd like ‘Pom’? Far from it, I found: it is a proud label for everything New Zealand.

‘Bush’ is the other term that commands respect. It means the native flora, where it still covers the land, whether as high forest or low scrub or an exotic coastal tangle of palms and flax (the Phormiumof our gardens) in total control of dunes and cliffs mile upon mile. You can’t keep out of the constant discussion about native and non-native nature. Predatory mammals introduced from abroad play havoc in a land that had none of its own. Our problem with grey squirrels is nothing compared with the damage done by rats, mice, stoats, deer, rabbits and especially Australian possums to a fauna that includes birds that can’t fly.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation is an impressive organization. Its combat troops fight for its native animals and plants. Its communications arm provides, among much else, interpretative trails through bush of every kind. Five miles into a walk in rain forest you can still come across labelled trees. Getting your mind round the towering podocarps, the immense cypresses, cousins many times removed of the ones we know, the six species of southern beech, the prolific ferns soaring into trees and wonders such as tree fuschias and the bizarre lancewood is not easy. Nor is it helped by the mix of Maori and Latin that confronts you. Hebes and olearias and pittosporums are the genera that feel at first most like familiar ground – until the ground gets boggy with unfamiliar species and strange behaviour.

Bush tends, admittedly, to be brown – or rather a mixture of greens and tans and greys that fall somewhere short of conventional garden ‘colour’. Perhaps the pollinators of the antipodes are colour blind. You can make a comforting, well-furnished garden with Kiwi plants alone, but scarcely a cheerful one. ‘Our’ garden plants, on the other hand, do spectacularly well in the brilliant light and ample rainfall. The national arboretum, Eastwoodhill near Gisborne on the North Island, grows trees from round the world at alarming speed and

the roses of Christchurch, on the sheltered east coat of South Island, are enough to give you a complex.

The shift back from late summer in the southern hemisphere to early spring in this one is brutal. I confess it took me a couple of days to see the point of my own garden again. Perhaps the most important factor is transparency. There is a good deal of everygreenery here; more than in most gardens. Plenty of walls and hedges too. But how sketchy and unclothed – unpainted might be a better image – an English garden looks as colour starts to erupt in March. the severity of winter in Britain is at least simple. Coming home it all seemed too complicated. Colour is in spots rather than blocks; shape in lines rather than masses. I know – it is my garden – where the volumes are meant to be and where the voids, but it is my mind, not my eyes, telling me.

By the third day, jetlag receding, I was happy: things had clicked into place. Instead of random detail I was seeing my own intentions. Had I learned anything by going away? To make things simpler and more obvious, perhaps. How else are other people to know what you are trying to say?

Non-slip, non-stick

May 1, 2007

Hoggin is one of those lovely old words the dictionary can’t quite handle. (‘Same as hogging’ is its unhelpful definition.) what it means to a gardener is a relatively cheap, handsome, low-maintenance and long-lasting path material: self-binding gravel, sand and clay. You put it down wet, about two inches deep, and compact it with a heavy roller. that’s it. It tends to be a rather lurid orange for a year or so, but it makes a firm, non-slip, non-stick surface you can forget for years.

We are just re-hogginin’ the paths in the walled garden at Saling for the first time in at least 20 years. Latterly it’s true that weeds were getting a grip and plants advancing from the border alongside. I have rescued a hundred seedlings of Sisyrinchium striatum, the grey iris-leaved pioneer with pale yellow daisy flowers and yellow berries, one of the most useful of all plants for inhospitable soil. Old hoggin makes a good seedbed for lady’s mantle, too.

We have to scrape off the top inch or so of the old surface before we lay the new, and wait for mild weather (if we ever get any other kind). Once it’s done, all I’ll have to worry about is where the name comes from. Essex, I wouldn’t wonder.

Gardens Illustrated April 2007

April 3, 2007

I DON’T WANT TO SPOIL THE SPRING FOR YOU, and it may be your idea of the jolliest colour scheme on earth, but when the pinks (and mauves and magentas) of spring appear among the predominant early yellows, the grinding of my teeth can frighten the horses.

I know. Nothing can be done. the creator put the forsythia and flowering currant on the same planet (though not on the same continent) and his other creation, man, planted them together. Daffodils and honesty are pretty powerful, and yellow daffs with Prunus “Kanzan’ even more so. Swearing is the polite word for what these colours do to one another. They flash before my mind’s eye as I write: bergenias and daffodils, daffs and purple heathers … daffs have such a long season that swearing is hard to avoid. And then come the Kurume azaleas. What can we avoid, though, is some of the hardest shades of yellow, and some of the more lurid manifestations of magenta. And planting them side by side.

If there is a ground rule of colour it is not to cross the meridian of the colour wheel that runs from green to red. You’re safe on the arc between blue and yellow, where they make various shades of green. The tricky bit is the quadrant opposite, where they shade from purple to orange.

I admit a colour-coordinated spring garden sounds more than precious. Spring, after all, is spring. But you can avoid, ban, veto, dig up and burn the plants whose only tone of voice is a shriek.

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.

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