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.

Gardens Illustrated January 2007

January 3, 2007



writing this diary it seems almost the only constant is surprise at the extraordinary weather. Weather is a gardener’s daily preoccupation. It seems the natural way to start Trad off in his new billet at Gardens Illustrated. An appreciation, at least, of a supremely gilded autumn after a long spell when nature seemed in a trance; nothing budged for weeks on end. We may have only had short days to see the fiery climax of the year, but did you ever see hedgerows so incandescent? When it came, three weeks late by my calendar, there were not enough words for the yellow, red, orange, scarlet, gold, lemon, tawny, cream, parchment, vermilion, mustard, honey, crimson, canary, rust, ginger, apricot, flame, carrot, copper, claret and burgundy…

It is not the easiest for gardening, our part of England. Certainly not for the glamour-gardening of the past century that involves exotic trees and thickets of rhododendrons. Essex is too dry. It is open and unwooded, far too much of it, and flat enough for the lack of trees to be important. If the soil were lighter the lack of rain would seriously limit what you can grow, but our clay and gravel mixture holds moisture reasonably well. Our local prophet is Beth Chatto, and her gospel, mulch. Sunshine is our asset and fruit-growing a long established trade. Tiptree and Elsenham jams are made here. There were never many great gardens in Essex, or for that matter great houses; Audley End is our grandest. Ellen Willmott with her 100 gardeners at Warley was an exception, but Samuel Curtis, founder of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, had one of the first collections of Australian plants here, the Rev Joseph Pemberton bred his hybrid musks, and we won’t let you forget that Humphry Repton lived at Romford. The RHS, though had the courage to accept the most unpromising site at Hyde Hall for its eastern Wisley. If you can make a model garden on that dry hilltop, where our famous east winds have full play, anything is possible.

Acceptability Brown

January 2, 2007

How would Capability Brown have got on with English Heritage, I wonder. Or with Planning Guidelines or Building Regs. He would have had a fit, and we would be looking at a different landscape. No greensward sweeping down to winding water; no hanging clumps of oak or beech. Overgrown topiary would  be  towering  everywhere, and avenues fanning out all over the country. Still, the weeding industry would provide thousands of jobs….

How did we let ourselves be dictated to like this? It is one thing to acknowledge a public interest in what we do with our houses and gardens, but quite another to accept dictatorship by bureaucrat. We all have our stories. Mine is how we invited all the relevant planners for coffee and a tour of the house. In its 500 years everyone has had a go, adding wings or subtracting them, building new staircases and corridors and chimneys. The listed buildings officer dropped himself in it. “What I love about these old houses,” he said, “is that each generation leaves its mark. “Funny you say that. this,” said I, producing plans, “is the conservatory we are going to add.”

Don’t try to chop a tree down without a permit, though. Not even a self-sown sycamore. Not even an elder. Plant whatever you like; no one questions the innocent little tree you bring home in a pot. Just remember when it reaches 50 feet high to ask permission to cut it down.

Fashion extra

January 1, 2007

Will Salvia uliginosa be the next Verbena bonariensis? I hope so. V.b. is the lanky but resolutely upright plant with purple tiny  flowers that has filled fashionable gardens in the past three or four years. Seedlings take until late summer to flower, but gardeners, even gardeners with thousands of visitors and doubtless strict planting plans, can’t resist letting it spread. Wisley, the Savill Garden, the rose garden at Mottisfont – it’s everywhere.

And this salvia? Another lanky self–sower, with an even later season but with flowers of a unique sky blue. They are tiny too, in litle panicles at the end of many branches, but wave high above the border, here among pink Japanese anemones, white cosmos, pale  pink roses (and of course V.b.), in just the sort of nursery colour combination that made Christopher Lloyd so indignant.

Uliginosa means from boggy ground. Compared with some heat-seeking salvias, may be, but droughty summers here have only encouraged it. It comes up everywhere, especially in the brick path. Just like Veebee, but brighter, later, prettier and so far more special.

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…

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Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

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