Renewal at Kew

January 14, 2019

Kew: reordering the Order Beds

Pink has taken over in the garden. They’ve all come out a once: Daphne odora, Prunus ‘Autumnalis’ (second go round), Camellia ‘Top Hat’ with the near-perfect colour match of the perpetual Parson’s Pink China growing through it, a bizarre double hellebore and our neighbour’s enormous Viburnum x bodnantense. Only the Sarcococca declines to blush, and at ground level the ravishing wide-open flowers of Iris unguicularis , a shade of warm violet that has no peer in any season.

Why the unison? Pink seems to come before yellow in the chromatic calendar. Soon the yellows will be unavoidable. Already there is winter jasmine (not in this garden) and forsythia (over the wall). ‘February Gold’ is almost upon us; the yellow tide is coming in. A single primrose leads the way. One reliable marker of the season is Hardenbergia violacea, which my invaluable index tells me I last recorded on February 6, 2013. In another season you might overlook its tiny bright purple racemes of pea flowers, but in early February, in the shelter of the cold greenhouse it brings a little message from Australia I am happy to read.

I always thought it sounds a bit preachy to say you prefer natural species to the catwalk versions that are often all one finds in nurseries – certainly in garden centres. But then you see, in all its purity and innocence, a parent of an all-too-familiar nursery favourite. The little alpine house at Kew is my favourite excursion at this time of year. I missed my special pin-up today: there was no Scilla maderensis, the exquisite over-sized squill. Squill, they tell me, has been used as a tonic for fluttering hearts; perhaps it was a visitor to Kew who discovered its properties. The plant that moved me this time was a cyclamen of heart-stopping purity and grace. The label was hidden s so I couldn’t see which Mediterranean country it comes from, put it makes the florists’ ‘Persicum’ look like what a Victorian would call a fallen woman.

Kew has been in a state of radical renewal now for several years. Last year alone we were treated to the restored Temperate House and the pagoda in its party dress again. The year before it was the Hive and the Great Borders. Now the Order Beds are under radical revision; they earth is bare, the pergola bereft of its roses. The Director, Richard Deverell, was a  force for positive change at the BBC, especially in being inclusive to children. The same spirit seems to be energising Kew. And I am happy to see that the revised walled garden will be given the name of the proactive chairman, Marcus Agius.

Repton and the prince

December 14, 2018

Repton has always been the landscaper for me. He seems more human (and of course marginally more modern) than Brown. For one thing he writes clearly and eloquently about his aims and methods. I often find myself quoting the sound sense of his ‘Observations’. For another he seems to have a gardener’s weakness for the beauty of flowers and the pleasure of wandering among different plants.

All this comes across in the brilliant little exhibition at The Garden Museum that commemorates 200 years since he died. And then yesterday I came across a description of what sounds very like one of his gardens in the letters of Prince Puckler-Muskau. The prince has just spent a long hot day at Ascot. He rides off with an army friend to visit a fashionable lady who lives at Windsor. They arrive at her house, with no one there:

‘It was like the enchanted dwelling of a fairy. If only you could have seen it! The house stood on a hill, half hidden beneath magnificent old trees. Its various projections, dating from different eras, were concealed by shrubs here and there, so there was no possibility of getting an impression of the whole. A gallery-like rose arbour bursting with hundreds of flowers led directly to the entrance hall, and passing through a few other rooms and then a corridor, we arrived in the dining room, where the table had already been handsomely laid. But there was still no one to be seen.

From here the gardens extended before us, a true paradise, brilliantly illuminated by the evening sun. Verandas of varying shapes and sizes ran along the whole length of the house; some jutted forward, some retreated, and all were covered with different blossoming vines. These served as a border for the colourful flower garden that extended all across the hillside. A meadowy valley, deep and narrow, adjoined this, and behind the terrain rose again to a higher crest, its slopes appointed with ancient beeches. To the left, at the valley’s end, the view was closed by water, and in the distance, over the tops of the trees, we could see the Round Tower of Windsor Castle, with its colossal royal flag rising into the blue sky.’

If you haven’t met Prince Puckler, his letters to his wife in Germany are the most vivid and entertaining account of fashionable England in the 1820s. They were published (a very fat book) by Dumbarton Oaks in 2016 under the rather odd title of Letters of a Dead Man. He was determined to transform his inheritance of a mansion and its large park in Germany into an English landscape garden. The question was how to find the money. His wife agreed to an amicable divorce if he could find a rich English bride. The letters are his account of his (finally fruitless) search,  while he explores England from palace to pub, enjoying every minute.

Grandpa’s Shed

November 30, 2018

Our first move when we arrived in this London house with its little London garden was to build a greenhouse. It’s only tiny: about nine foot square (and we didn’t build it; Alitex did). It takes up a quarter of the west side of the garden, leaning on the wall, flanked by the centre path. I knew it would be useful, but I had no idea how much pleasure it would give me, especially in winter. It makes some sort of garden business, however pootling, possible – and indeed both a necessity and a pleasure – every day.

I keep it full of green. The pelargoniums have virtually stopped flowering, and following the classic instructions I should be cutting them back and taking cuttings for next year. I’ve taken some cuttings, but have kept the handsome little bushes intact to enjoy their leaves, crowded together with cyclamen (whose seedlings invade their pots, and any available medium), early bulbs, an iris or two, the still-towering Brillantaisia (which has only just lost its last salvia-style flowers), fuchsias (quiescent but elegant) and the nimble Hardenbergia, swarming up into the roof ready to flower in February.

More pots, to fill the floor, will be coming in shortly, or whenever winter shows any sign of arriving. Fuchsia boliviana is the tallest, a good six feet: then Tulbaghia, Clivia and anything else I take pity on. My daily routine is examining all the leaves and stems for any sign of a bug or fungus and feeling the pots to judge whether to add a drop of water. Half an hour well spent – or on dozy days even an hour.


November 27, 2018

Since I first went to Japan, in the autumn of 1976, there has been a part of my brain (on the right, I imagine) that manages to keep a sort of focus I learned on that visit. I went when I was writing my most ambitious book, The Principles of Gardening. The uber-pretentious title was not my idea, but it made me reflect: English gardening ideas are virtually unchallenged in this country, and admired round the world, but do they constitute ‘principles’? I had already taken Arab, French, Dutch and Italian traditions into account (however summarily); what was missing was the Japanese (and indeed Chinese) view.

My right brain swims into action now and then when I am thinking about, or looking at, a garden, and reminds me that there is another vision; an alternative, more precise concept of gardening, with poetry at its heart and craftsmanship as its medium. It came into focus this morning when I was cleaning my shears – the single-handed kind used for trimming topiary. They come from the Dorset-based importer Niwaki, the word for garden trees, i.e. sculpted trees as opposed to natural ones. The French élague their trees remorselessly in something of the same spirit but without the artistry.

Jake Hobson, founder of Niwaki and probably England’s number one niwakist, has a simple message: KEEP THEM CLEAN. It’s the tools he’s talking about, not the trees. So I sit here, with wire-wool and 3 in 1 oil (Jake says camellia oil) scrubbing blades I have allowed to get disgracefully dirty. What reminded me to do it was an extraordinary exhibition at Japan House, a new showroom/shop near Kensington High Street Station, which is worth visiting at any time. In an exhibition of all sorts of tools downstairs they have a whole wall of scores of hoes forged by blacksmiths all over Japan, no two alike, designed or evolved for different local soils and crops. Can you imagine such a thing in this country, where there is only one design of spade? I can think of no better example of craftsmanship, practicality and precision.

Crumpet time

November 13, 2018

The last leaf on the walnut and the first crumpet by the fire. Butter, enough to reach the depths, and Marmite or honey: both (on separate crumpets). We can’t stop autumn, so let’s celebrate it – which would be easier without the racket of the infernal leaf-blowers. Could they be banned on public nuisance grounds, or taxed out of existence? Dream on… Anything that can be mechanized eventually will be – and then handed over to a robot.

Meanwhile, raking the leaves this afternoon, shaking them out of shrubs, off the climbers, into piles on the path, I mused on whether I prefer them wet or dry. It rained this morning so I had no choice, but wet leaves do have advantages. They stay put, for a start – and they are silent. The only sound (blowers next door apart) is the scratching of the rake.

Their disadvantage: they’re heavy, and having no compost heap I have to bag them and lug the heavy bags through the house. I dream of the kind of leafmould bins we had in the country…..

Indoors, bookshelves beckon. Gardening books are perennial: they don’t have to be topical: next year they’ll just be agreeably familiar. Some, indeed, I reread in a continuous rolling process. Christopher Lloyd’s Well-tempered Garden just goes round and round, and I can be lost for an evening in Peter Beales’ Roses. The revolving year, of course, is the bane of magazine editors. Repetition is inevitable; originality rare (and risky). In what other field are century-old texts still valid? Anomalies just add to their interest.

The last yellow leaves of the ‘autumn’ cherry fell today; how thrilled I was to see its slim branches spangled all over with little flowerbuds.

Sum and Substance

November 6, 2018

The robins are loving the little red berries on the cotoneaster that zigzags up the wall just outside the kitchen. So are the blackbirds. They don’t seem to feel any rivalry, though I’m reading an enchanting biography of the robin that makes no bones about what a fighter he can be – principally it seems with other robins. I wondered why neither robin nor blackbird seems interested in the other red berries in the garden, on Nandina domestica. We have two plants, one bright red, the other an odd pink/brown, apparently a  hybrid with the rare yellow-fruited one.

Why do birds shun them? They contain cyanide. Too many can kill them. In the States Nandina is classified as an invasive nuisance.

If we have a plant of the moment here (and nerines and Iris unguicularis are doing an unconventional duet) it is our prize hosta, the statuesque Sum and Substance. Its leaves, handsomely ribbed and crinkled, are pale green, nearly circular, and easily 18 inches long, mounding up to form a dome. If you manage to keep them slug-free in the spring (it has gradually filled an 18 inch pot, with a top-dressing of gravel, over several years) its jumble of flawless leaves collects admiring looks by mid-summer.

Flipping the flap

October 26, 2018

A Welsh October

Wales in October is an annual fixture for us. The week before the clocks change, while teatime is still daylight. In the cloudless skies we’ve been having, you could say an excess of light; the west becomes an unfocussed dazzle. But what glory when gold touches the hills, the trees, and in the river the patient anchored boats.

And what a privilege it is not only to walk in this landscape, but to have a hand in shaping it. A forester is almost alone in being able to make the boldest and most immediately obvious alterations – not always to universal applause. A clearfell on a hill is as radical a change as flipping the flap or ‘slide’, as Repton called them, in one of his Redbooks. But of course irreversible. If people approve of (most of ) what we do in Wales it is because we are felling the dark masses of Sitka spruce and replanting with more sympathetic species – or in most cases mixtures of species.


The immediate aftermath of a clearfell is inevitably a mess: logs and stumps lying higgledy-piggledy among piles of brown brash. We usually plant new trees within a year, straight into the mess. For two or three years they are scarcely visible, as the mess subsides and turns grey.  Then your eye picks up the lines of green and recognises oak, larch, spruce  or pine or beech or Douglas fir, softened by a haze of self-planting birch. Within five years the hill is green again.

Our concern now is about larch. Phytophthora ramorum has already cost us a considerable plantation. Now we hear of a new disease, being referred to as ‘Red Tongue’, that can kill larch from the roots up (the phytophthora starts at the top). Larch, after oak and beech, are our favourite trees, holding their feathery heads, now brilliant yellow, high aloft on pencil-straight trunks and showering everything below with weightless golden needles. They are also some of the most fecund trees; their pale seedlings come up everywhere, little lights in dark corners. Anything that wiped them out would be a tragedy.

For the moment we are concentrating on the streams that chatter or slide, and occasionally rush, down their little courses to gather in the Afon Dwynant in the valley, and gurgle on through the trees, eventually to the estuary. We are clearing a path along its whole length, as close to the water as possible, sometimes bridging it, sometimes diverting round a mossy sheep pen or a veteran tree. The music of the water is a cocoon around you as you walk, shutting out the world as the stream dances and glitters at your feet.

Recovery mode

October 19, 2018

Home from an excursion to Prague and Dresden, two great cities in recovery mode; the first from communism, the second from communism and bombing. Two cornucopias of architecture, art and a sense of history impossible to ignore. Both in dazzling sunlight onto autumn colours. The two-hour train journey between the two follows the adolescent river Elbe between cliffs and forests; a marvellous ride.

Prague has a serious case of the tourist problem. Its main attractions, the castle and the statue-lined Charles bridge and the Old Town Square are so thronged that walking that progress is difficult, and contemplation impossible. I remember our first visit, in January 1990, immediately after its ‘velvet revolution’, when Wenceslaus Square was lined with candles and there was so little to eat that restaurants took turns to open. Then the streets were so silent that you could hear the music from several churches together.

The city is bustling now, facades repainted and businesses thriving. But how many tourists is too many? London, I learn, gets 20 million foreign tourists a year these days. Prague, last year, had 10 million, in a city one fifth the size of of London. And Cambridge, small provincial town that it is, had over seven, two million more than five years ago. Cambridge and Prague have something else in common; they are pinpointed by the Chinese. Prague now has direct flights from Peking. Result: hordes (it’s the only word) of Chinese tourists either following flags or looking lost – and in both cases using selfie sticks beside ‘iconic’ buildings.

Cambridge is a peculiar case; a Chinese poet’s shrine. What is to be done, though, here or in any other unfortunate place targeted by travel agents?   The routine answer to problems of surplus demand is taxation.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


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

Hugh’s Wine Books

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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The International Dendrology Society (IDS)