Easter trance

April 23, 2019

The scene of the crime

London (or at any rate Kensington) was in a trance over Easter. It was summer weather, London was radiant, but everyone had gone away. The streets were quiet, and in the enclosure formed by the terraces around us, nobody had a party: no music, conversation or barbecue smoke. I spent the afternoon writing a list of all the plants in the garden: 120, plus pots in the greenhouse. Then in the evening, after supper outside (this is still April) I sat with all the lights out, gazing at something I have scarcely ever seen in London: the stars. Nothing stirred: no wind, no birds, no sound of even distant traffic. Surely with such a clear sky, and an almost full moon there’ll be a frost? Warm air was pouring up from Africa; we were in an atmospheric duvet.

I had switched off the rather spasmodic pump that trickles into our tiny fish tank. For two weeks now I’ve been worried about our two Comets and a tiddler. The water has needed changing and the tank emptying of a winter’s worth of detritus. Only one of the fish has been coming up to feed, and that with little appetite. Over the weekend we found out why: he (she) is alone. What could have taken the others? It could only be a heron.

How a high-flying heron could spot the glinting surface of our tiny tank, only five feet by one and a half, I can’t imagine. Not only is it shaded by the wall beside the greenhouse, but the tall branches of the big potato bush hang over it. From the sky, I supposed, there would be nothing to see. There was a heron standing in the greenhouse ridge, I remember, three or four years ago. He flapped off over the garden wall when I showed up. So herons not only sail past, they come down to investigate. In most gardens they are as likely to find a frog as a fish.  How can we baffle them? I’d hate a net over the water; maybe just a cunningly placed wire?For all the serenity this little space encloses, nature is still red in beak and claw.


April 18, 2019

The orchard at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

From the day he walked into a brasserie in Besancon to be a washer-up to his seriously senior status today Raymond Blanc has exuded a special sort of focussed enthusiasm. It has made his Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, near Oxford, one of the best restaurants (and most expensive hotels) in the country. It has made him the most convincing television chef, and it powers his no-holds barred gardening. He employs twelve gardeners at Le Manoir, not because of the size of his gardens, but their intensity. In April the sight of perhaps half an acre of perfect tilth scored in immaculate straight rows (this is his veg plot) is pretty striking. Its produce, via the kitchen, is irresistible. But most impressive of all is the orchard, where more than 800 varieties of both British and French apples and pears are arranged in perfectly-pruned files round a central circle. The famous Potager du Roi at Versailles, it seems, had 400 varieties.

Blanc works in collaboration with the celebrated Delbard nursery at Malicorne, near Montlucon in the Allier, the very centre of France. Henri Delbard is famous for rose-breeding, too, having created a series of flowers matching, more or less, the palettes of Impressionist painters. His collection of historic varieties of fruit is a national reference, trained, cordoned and espaliered in wonderful ways, double and quadruple candelabras among them.

The art of pruning and ‘training’ trees is a French speciality, obsession indeed, which can have pretty ugly results. The British way, of letting a tree grow to its natural shape and size, is not at all the thing. “Elagueurs” with their saws and axes even scale tall hedge trees between fields; though here the purpose is harvesting fodder for cattle. (Cattle love elm leaves in particular). In French orchards – and here at the Manoir – pruning becomes an art of almost Japanese intensity. Apples and pears are given the same precision treatment as vines; each bud to be retained carefully chosen, the rest removed. How many pairs of secateurs does it take, I wondered, to reduce nearly a thousand fruit trees to perfect parade order?

Not only is Raymond growing them, he is testing them in the kitchen, compiling notes on the best method of preparation for each variety; whether it is best poached, roasted, steamed, baked or pureed. How many cooks?

A border too far

April 12, 2019

The Dutch Garden at Holland Houise

When you know a public park as well as your own garden it can be difficult to keep quiet about the way it’s run. Holland Park is our backyard. You couldn’t ask for more variety in a mere 50 acres. Besides the remains of Holland House, firebombed in the war and now used as the setting for Holland Park Opera, there is a generous playing field and tennis courts, a wild woodland (popular with foxes) covering a third of the area, a formal Dutch Garden, well-known for its tulips, a historic camellia walk, peacocks, iris beds, a maple-and-hellebore walk, two playgrounds and an ecology centre, an orangery, a café, a restaurant , and London’s best Japanese garden. The idea has always been to keep as much as possible of the country house garden it was in Lord Holland’s and Lord Ilchester’s times. On the whole it is a credit to the Kensington and Chelsea parks Department and the park’s Friends.  You’re waiting for a ‘but’; here it comes.

The remains of Holland House are dreadfully neglected. The East wing, the only wing still standing and now used as a hostel, has crumbling stonework and woodwork that has not been repainted in 15 years; a shameful sight. Last year the house was promoted, if that’s the word, to the register of Historic Buildings at Risk.

Its south terrace, recently elaborately repaved, fronts the park on an eight-foot wall with gate piers attributed to Inigo Jones. At its foot, until now, innocuous grass and a couple of benches. But now the grass has been done away with and in its place is a sort of mixed border a hundred yards long, mixed enough to contain alliums and bay trees; the bare earth, one would think, a maintenance nightmare to the small, keen but stretched team of gardeners. There is no sign of a rational plan. The bay and holly trees will in due course hide the house from the park and vice versa. But oddest of all, the border is surrounded by a four-foot post and wire-mesh fence. True there are lots of dogs running around; is this the reason? The result is hideous, the absurdity laughable, but the waste of resources is simply a scandal.

Personal Geographies

April 7, 2019

Chelsea Physic Garden 1, 2016, ©Eileen Hogan

How often do you see an artist’s work that so draws you in that you begin to see – or try to see – in their way? Eileen Hogan’s paintings do this for me. I first met them when in 2016 she was ‘artist-in-nonresidence ‘ at the Garden Museum and her personal vision filled the walls. Her paintings, large or small, are done in combinations of paints and wax that allow her effects of ghostlike fading and focussing. She appears to divine and absorb an atmosphere or a mood before she homes in on the particularities, then paints the details – some details – with pin-sharp precision. Isn’t that the way your mind works: changing focus as objects, or ideas or associations swim to the surface off your consciousness. Or indeed unconsciousness?

Hogan’s work is often in twilight, or mist, or under a sheen of rain or cloak of snow. Then something comes into focus – perhaps something physically quite inconsequential. The chalk lines marking out a football pitch on scrubby grey grass, a snatch of lettering, a walking figure seen from behind. She seems to like parallel lines, whether sunshine through a slatted blind or the Order Beds in the Physic Garden, where a sprinkler makes a small explosion of white shards of water against the green. She likes empty chairs and their shadows scattered in a café when everyone has left. Absence, in fact, is a sort of presence in her work. In a few paintings the degree of detail almost amounts to hyper-realism; others remain impressions.

All this is in a remarkable new book, published by the Yale Center for British Art. It chronicles, in her words and several others’, her creative life as painter, calligrapher, printer and publisher – and almost as an afterthought reveals her as a masterly portrait-painter. Her portrait of the Duchess of Cornwall, for one, is so sensitive it seems almost an intrusion to look at it.

In her essay she explains her methods of sketching, note-taking and repeated looking; obsessive observation. This is figurative painting involving not just the eyes but the whole intellect, memory and emotions. Could abstract painting ever capture your vision like this?

Fence and gun

April 3, 2019

Is there anything rabbits won’t eat? I asked a local Mr McGregor the other day in our New Forest garden. “Well” he said, “There’s the roller…..”  Lettuces may be first on bunnies’ menus, but they show little sign of much discrimination. The deer come to their aid of course, when there is something interesting out of their reach. The roe deer take care of the higher stuff while the muntjac are usually available for the mid-level.

There is a particular bed near the front door I would like to take off the menu, but so far no luck. My first idea was to fence it off, as it were, with a low yew hedge. Isn’t yew poisonous? Not to our customers. The little plants were immediately gnawed down to their stalks, and further into the bed, the rugosa roses (pretty thorny, I’d thought) were thoroughly investigated, if not destroyed. Plants with aromatic leaves, or hairy ones, folklore says, are a turn-off. We tried sage (quickly scoffed), lavender (nibbled to bits) and rosemary (ditto). Daffodils, say the books, are pretty unpalatable. Fair enough, but that only takes care of March. Bluebells are not usually destroyed; but neither are they in the garden; they belong in the wood. The list of less delicious plants goes on, but a garden composed of them would look pretty odd: daffs, daphnes, buddlejas, bay, nerines, kniphofias, rhubarb….  Tulips are caviar. Roses, rhodies, camellias, hollies… the essential woodland garden plants are all popular menu items. We’ll go on experimenting, but at the moment fence and gun seem to be the only realistic solution.


March 25, 2019

Readers will judge whether Trad has joined the so-called ‘woke’. I can just about picture a ‘woke’ gardener. A ‘woke’ garden? Full of xerophytes, I suppose, certainly no lawn, clumps of nettles…. I have no argument with it; what riles me is that in waking we have been robbed of some irreplaceable words. ‘Gay’ and ‘queer’ have left holes in the language, and ‘ecstasy’ is threatened by an amphetamine.


While we still have it, let me deploy ecstasy where it really belongs, to describe our – certainly my – feelings in the garden in spring. Many poets, perhaps most, have had a go, at least in passing (although autumn may have had more verse-inches). My favourite words on spring come from Gerard Manley Hopkins, who became a Jesuit, quit and invented a new form of verse he called ‘sprung rhythm’ that in some ways reminds me of the Metaphysical poets, Donne and co.  Here he is, alarmed, demanding

‘What is all this juice and all this joy?

A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning

In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,

Before it cloud,

It is his urgency that pulls me. Urgency and ‘juice’ – the essence of shoots springing from the ground, from old wood, to ripen in due course, but in the urgent moment green and vulnerable and demanding to be loved.


Reticent? Moi?

March 12, 2019

STOP PRESS. Spring can't wait.

 Few will have noticed, and none I hope been concerned by, a certain reticence from Trad over the past few weeks.

He (I slip back easily into the third person I used for Trad’s first decade, forty years ago) has been submerged in the creation of the eighth edition of The World Atlas of Wine. Once every six years, for the past 48 years, this work has been growing and growing to keep pace with a world of wine we once thought was mature, but now realise was still in short pants. Now it is in full adolescence, unruly, if not ungainly not exactly gainly. In the 1970s we took serious account of California and Australia, in the ‘80s of Washington, Oregon and New Zealand, in the ‘90s of Chile, the ‘00s of South Africa and Argentina, the ‘10s of Eastern Europe, with Hungary to the fore – and now it’s China. China, huge in gardening, once thought a minnow in wine, is suddenly one of the world’s biggest consumers – and producers. After four editions I had a brainwave: I recruited the most able wine critic of the coming generation, Jancis Robinson, to help me. Four editions later it is much more her book than mine, and needs constant revision more urgently than ever.

So what does wine have to do with gardening, apart from a glass after a day with the hoe? Both have been my preoccupation, and delight, over the forty five years since I wrote a book on trees (having, as I then thought, shot my bolt on wine) and became embroiled with the R.H.S. and gardening. Trad was born in 1975. Besides, they have much in common. They are both sensual pleasures with a strong tincture of the intellectual. They call for understanding, reward curiosity, and satisfy several senses. They demand a working memory. They repay acute observation. They can bring moments of intense pleasure.

A certain sensibility, it seems to me, applies to both. You look at a flower with focussed vision, to delight in its texture, its structure, the originality of its form, its colours, and perhaps its scent. The glass of wine in my hand brings on the same close attention, to its colour, its denser or more delicate substance, its scent as it develops in my glass and its flavours, simpler or more complex, as they develop in my mouth, ending abruptly or dying gradually away to leave me savouring some elusive sweetness.

Plants and wine both bring on the human urge to name and classify. We find pleasure hardly justified on any grounds of utility in dividing and subdividing and naming categories of both. Do we need three thousand varieties of rose? Do we need to name and classify and attribute different and precise qualities to each of the little fields of vines in Burgundy? Six hundred are named, ranked and priced separately. They are not natural species, like birds, or butterflies. They are not the same sort of deliberate creations as, for example, postage stamps. They are collaborations of man and nature to an essentially aesthetic end. They engage the senses and the intellect together. They also call for patience – in growing, nurturing, and waiting (sometimes for years) for maturity.

Trees are the plants that engage me most: such wines as claret, that can age for as long as a man (if not perhaps a tree) are capable of giving me moments of almost unworldly pleasure. Finding words for the pleasures they give is the challenge I most enjoy.





February 18, 2019

They can outshine the snowdrops – literally, since their pale lilac petals shimmer in the sun. They are sundials, though: no sun, they are mum. Crocus tommasinianus – let’s call them Tommies – are taking over, popping up everywhere, spreading like ….. wildflowers. Even at Kew.

We have a regular date at Kew in mid-February. We head straight in from the Victoria Gate towards where the magnolias are pale bare skeletons, where an immense mauve carpet under the trees shines like a lilac (or is lavender?) sea. I have photos of it going back for years.

Now it seems the gardeners have realized what a draw it is: it is replicated here and there round the gardens – but it clearly needs no help. Seedlings are scattered far and wide, dotting the shrub beds, the great brown circles of mulch under the trees, in the rockery and even the walled garden where the order beds keep rigid discipline. The little devils giggle at botanical austerity. Are they the only officially classified weed with an Award of Garden Merit?

Kew was packed at the weekend. Half an hour before opening time the queue stretched a hundred yards down Richmond Road. The big attraction was the Colombian Carnival. The northern tip of South America is apparently the most densely biodiverse country on earth, with both Pacific and Atlantic coasts, rising in the Andes to 5000 metres. The carnival was all about its richly various indigenous orchids, displayed with extraordinary artistry in the Princess of Wales Conservatory, to the sound of drummers and the scents of some pretty biodiverse food.

What would Joseph Hooker have said, I asked myself. Hallelujah, I hope – to both the Tommies and the drums.



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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The Story of Wine – From Noah to Now

A completely new edition published by the Academie du Vin Library: When first published in 1989 The Story of Wine won every…

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