More than natural grace

November 5, 2019

Just home from a week in New York, at its October best. My lodging is as near Central Park as you can get, and I spent all my spare hours walking in this extraordinary playground landscape. Thirty years ago it was a crime-ridden wasteland. To walk there after dark (or even before) was not advised. Then in 1980 mayor Ed Koch initiated The Park Conservatory and put Betsy Barlow Rogers in charge as its first administrator.

I first met Betsy in the late 1960s at a radio station when we were both promoting our respective first books. Hers was on The Wetlands of New York; mine was on wine. Last week we had lunch on a golden autumn afternoon at The Boathouse overlooking one of the lakes and recalled how the park, covering 843 acres, was created in the heart of Manhattan, pretty much with shovel and barrow. Frederick Law Olmsted and the English architect Calvert Vaux, its creators, were inspired by the new park at Birkenhead on Merseyside, designed by Joseph Paxton, one of the first to be created to be open for the public to enjoy.

Birkenhead was finished in 1847. Olmsted arrived in Liverpool in 1850. He wrote ‘I cannot undertake to describe the effect of so much taste and skill as has evidently been employed. I will only tell you, that we passed by winding paths, over acres and acres, with a constantly varying surface, where on all sides were growing every variety of shrubs and flowers, with more than natural grace, all set in borders of greenest, closest turf, and all kept with exemplary neatness! In democratic America there is nothing to be thought of as comparable to this people’s garden.’

Olmsted’s Manhattan site was more problematic; marshy, among huge up-rearing grey rocks, partly built over in the voracious development of the city, almost desolate of vegetation. His vision was a pleasure ground on an unprecedented scale, shaded with the glorious variety of America’s trees, embracing the pastoral (the sheep meadow), the romantic (a castle overlooking a lake), the monumental, the frivolous, the untamed, the useful, the whimsical….. every genre and mood of gardening. Among the early visitors was the essayist Oliver Wendel Holmes, who wrote: “The Central Park is an expanse of wild country well crumpled so as to form ridges which will give views, and hollows that will hold water. The hips and elbows and other bones of nature stick out here and there in the shape of rocks which give character to the scenery, and an unchangeable, unpurchasable look to a landscape that without them would have been in danger of being fattened by art and money out of all its native features. The roads were fine, the sheets of water beautiful, the bridges handsome, the swans elegant in their deportment, the grass green and as short as a fast horse’s winter coat….”

It was a stupendous task to construct and is even more of a challenge to maintain. So its current state, a bustling resort where every visitor feels at home, safe, stimulated, active, absorbed, pop-eyed with discoveries, is an extraordinary achievement – for which Betsy deserves much of the credit.

In the Night Garden

October 29, 2019

Deep down perhaps I’m a Teletubby. Certainly at this time of year, when the Day Garden is reduced to a few hours, the sun so low as to be confusing and teatime a fireside feast. I tend to draw the curtains and curl up with a book.

There is an alternative, though. A relatively small amount of well-aimed electricity can give you garden pictures quite different from daytime. In our tiny London garden our predecessors had had the idea, and done a good job. There is a valid garden picture day and night. Invite Maud 24/7. (Her tryst at the gate, remember, was a daybreak date; ‘the black bat night’ had flown.)

In our little patch four spotlights, high up on each of the side walls, unequally spaced, can be swivelled to point downwards or sideways. They light the steps (essential), a table, and whatever plants are eye-catching when picked out against blackness. Certain ferns, for example, a generously yellow-splotched ivy, a camellia (mainly for the shine of its leaves), the bleached flower-heads of a hydrangea, the trunk of our over-sized sycamore, a vase or a balustrade. And, of course, the greenhouse, which becomes a Crystal Palace on a black night. There is the gleam of paving in the rain, and very occasionally the magic of snow. Just outside the French windows on the covered verandah the lemon tree can be spotlit. It is always doing something; often in winter flowers and fruit intriguingly at the same time. The surroundings become invisible, cast into mysterious blackness.

Goodnight, Macca Pacca. Good night, Iggle Piggle. You go to sleep; I’ll watch the night garden.

The T word

October 13, 2019

Minds of their own?

Somehow hydrangeas always pop up in Trad at this time of year. It’s partly their duration; what flower is so much in evidence for so many weeks? Even spent and faded flowers keep their shape and remain a presence in the garden. But it’s also the conundrum of their colours. It’s all very well saying they will be blue in acid soil, pink in alkaline. You can control this, they say, with aluminium salts. Oh, yeah?

They have minds of their own. Our Welsh resort has ancient clumps that have settled down over the years to a marvellous medley of colours, by autumn principally maroon and dusky purple, but with individual flowers still at extremes of the blue/pink spectrum. And this is rain-soaked acid soil. So is the soil the answer? If it were grapes and wine we were talking about, we’d be discussing terroir.

The British shy away from this essentially French concept; both the word, which has no precise English translation, and the idea that certain soils in certain situations can affect the qualities of the fruit they produce. There’s a suspicion that terroir is just muck and magic with a French accent, designed to prove that only La Belle France has the conditions for great wines.

If soil can affect the colour of flowers, though, can it not affect the flavour of fruit? Plant a vine of, say, Chardonnay, on chalk or on slate and you will get two quite different wines. Plant it on the Jurassic limestone of Chablis, a pale, quite heavy, soil visibly made up of minuscule ancient seashells and you will get wine of a recognizable flavour that no other vineyard has ever, as far as I know, achieved.

Scientists have been keen to show that vine roots have no way of abstracting minerals directly from the soil they encounter. The only demonstrable difference between soils, as they affect the plant, comes from their permeability; how fast they drain, which in turn affects their temperature. Warmer soils equal riper grapes. If claret from St Estèphe has more acidity and ‘structure’ (or less perfume) than claret from Margaux it’s because St Estèphe is lower down the Gironde estuary; the river has deposited more stones in Margaux and carried more silt down to St Estèphe. Silt equals clay, equals slower drainage, equals cooler soil. How simplistic that is. How does it account for Château Calon-Ségur and Château Cos d’ Estournel consistently tasting different?

It’s not that simple. If there were an analogy between vines and hydrangeas our wines could all end up somewhere between maroon and purple.

Taking the long view

October 5, 2019

The long front view at Saling Hall

We’ve just been doing a spot of picture hanging. Rehanging, rather, to welcome a new painting. In the bedrooms, up the stairs. And suddenly I am seeing them afresh, the way we did six years ago when we moved here. Inertia saps the senses. Pass something several times a day and it ceases to register.

Gardens of course are not pictures; they are processes. The seasons take care of that – and so do the times of day. I have always tried to imprint something permanently satisfying on our main views: structure and proportion in harmony that always looks right summer and winter (and morning and evening.) The main plan is always to concentrate on the longest view available – right to the
boundary and preferably beyond. Our Saling Hall garden was long enough (though relatively narrow) to allow a 150-yard view in the front over the duck pond and along a poplar alley. More park, I admit, than garden. Toward the far end I put a Chilstone Pope’s Urn. Alexander Pope wrote the wittiest couplets in the language. He also commissioned William Kent to design the most perfect urn, with spiral grooves that give something lively to its surface in all lights.

Behind the house, where we planted a sort of landscape arboretum with watery distractions, the central, longest view was even longer, nearly 200 yards to the inevitable eye-catcher, a Haddonstone temple, which we dedicated to Bacchus. The pediment bears two gambolling carp and an inscription that perplexes everyone. Can you figure out “Innumerae Veniunt Artes“?

Now, with a garden a mere 55 feet long, the principles are the same: a central view to the boundary. Not quite central, in this case, because the greenhouse takes up half the width. Trees (or now shrubs) pace out the distance, one third of them evergreens. Their differences of height colour, density and bulk are the sub-plots that keep it interesting. At the same time, with the seasons and the times of day shadows keep shifting and emphasis changing. All this is the framework for a changing scene of leaves and flowers. Movable pots are the sideshows to attract attention to different corners. Two changes of level with stone steps certainly help; the far end is six feet higher, which somehow flatters the modest length of the garden. But the principle is the same, town or country: keep the centre open.


September 19, 2019

Every gardener has a Dread List: frost, honey fungus, ground elder, blackspot, now box caterpillar…… Mine, for most of my gardening life, has been drought.

Drought is slow torture. I suffered it for forty years in Essex. The clouds passed over, full of promise, again and again, and always seemed to drop their payload two and a half miles north, on Great Bardfield. Was it the valley there, and the little River Pant, that made them relent? (I’m not sure mind you, that in Bardfield they weren’t feeling the same about Great Saling. ‘Them up the road; they always gets it’.)

My second gardening life, London apart, is in the New Forest. Who knew that the Isle of Wight casts a rain-shadow? So it appears. A promising Front heads up the Channel, grey clouds across the horizon. Then it veers off, or divides, and Ventnor on the south coast gets the shower, while across the Solent the grass goes on parching and the trees flagging. This year is a prime example; a dry spring, a heatwave in April, warmth in May, some rain in June, no rain at Wimbledon, then another heatwave. August had just enough rain to be irritating, not to soak in and do any good.

I’ve always had a three-year rule for new trees and shrubs: total tlc, can or hose, for two years. But no proper growth in year three and I’m ready to give up. I don’t of course. I just fret. At least when it all gets too much I can go to Wales and watch the forest trees. Up there in the Rhinogs a young oak can sometimes manage a yard a year.

De mortuis…

September 11, 2019

Winner of the Concours d'elegance: Castanea sativa

With alarms about ash disease, oak die back, phytophthora, and now problems with planes, it seems I have dying trees on the brain. So two visits I have just made may have been grimly apposite, but were nonetheless inspiring. How long can a dead tree stand as a feature in the landscape? Conservationists urge us not to cut them down, or at least to leave them on the ground as bug hotels. C. Brown was apparently in favour of leaving a few in his parks, and even of erecting (transplanting?) them. Most dead trees, of course, fall apart quite quickly; the elm cadavers of the 1970s were mere branchless rotting trunks ten years later. So what do we make of the oaks and (particularly) sweet chestnuts that decline to disintegrate and stand as skeletons for decades after the last leaf has gone?

There is a field near Englefield in Berkshire, and another near Forthampton in Glos, where dozens of huge tree-skeletons stand like an orchard of monuments, their trunks monstrous with carbuncles, often hollow, rising barkless as bones to a full head of branches, and not only the main branches, but sometimes quite a spread of principle twigs. Sweet chestnuts seem particularly prone to hanging on intact, even more than oaks. It must be that the lignin they produce is more dense and durable. My camera is assembling a beauty competition for ghost trees.

Temps Perdu

September 4, 2019

I hadn’t been back to Selsey for thirty, perhaps forty years. The first garden I remember was my father’s there, just after World War II. It had all the classical requirements of a garden: unity, ecological integrity, proportion, and fitness for purpose. My father made it on half an acre right by the sea, using a single species: brambles.

Our house (its name was Twin Fires. Why?) was on the very tip of Selsey Bill, the promontory into the Channel where rumour had it that Hitler intended to set foot. Certainly, in 1940, preparations were made to receive him: vast concrete blocks and thickets of barbed wire.

The brambles were not intended for that purpose, but when we were allowed to go back in 1946 the brambles had invaded, my father was busy in London, labour was scarce, fuel unobtainable and the great prickly maze with its luscious fruit seemed as good an idea as any. Pa mowed paths through it in the pattern of the streets around his office: Queen Victoria Street, Watling Street, Bread Street and Bow Lane. They had name-plates, and we children loved racing through them. Then we moved house to Kent, and Twin Fires became a memory.

When I went back last month I didn’t recognize it. Selsey Bill is now largely covered with expensive-looking houses. One notable Arts and Crafts house, The Bill House, designed in 1907 by Hugh Baillie Scott, is now a nursing home. I walked along the pebble beach, where I once earned 2/6 for learning to swim, looking inland, trying to picture the exact shape of a remembered gable. And there it was, clustered round with new ones, still looking down its half-acre out to sea. They were selling crab sandwiches on the beach. I ate one in a deep reverie.

Memories drifted back. Would I be able to find the farmhouse my father painted, an oil that still hangs by my bed? Was it at Sidlesham, on Pagham Harbour (where a sixteenth century map tells us, ‘a barque of forty tonnes may flote’. Not any more.) The grove of elms in the painting would have died in the 1970s. I searched in vain. I tried all the roads in what I learned, for the first time, is called the Manhood Peninsula. A little chapel stands where Saint Wilfred, the first bishop of Selsey, reputedly landed to preach to the South Saxons. I remembered being told as a small boy that Selsey Cathedral was still out there somewhere, under the waves.

My madeleine moment, though, was when I went on to Itchenor to look for an uncle and aunt’s house. We used to sail with him in Chichester Harbour; more potent memories. The house has gone, but the lane beside it still leads to the cottage where my first girlfriend lived. I was about ten when I stole out on summer nights to hold her hand. As I passed the cottage door I was suddenly overcome by a positive blast of memory. There beside the door was a wizened old honeysuckle in flower, the very one that still defines a tender moment seventy years later.

Next day I went up to the Downs by Goodwood, to see Kingley Vale and its famous forest of yew. The vale is a long chalky combe rising to a vista over Chichester harbour to the Isle of Wight. Six burial mounds, perhaps of kings, command the view. The west side of the valley is entirely covered by a dense unbroken yew wood, perhaps a hundred acres of perpetual, almost impenetrable, gloom. If we let them, and leave them alone, I thought, places find their own identity, whether it’s a forest of yews, a patch of brambles or a honeysuckle.

Plane concern

September 1, 2019

Parson's Green, where the new blue pipes are

The Conservation Foundation organized a seminar in July at County Hall by the Thames on the status of London’s plane trees. When you consider how vital they are to the capital, how they frame our most precious views and shade our streets and parks, it is high time to take them seriously. Imagine London – or any great city – without them. Difficult. And too painful to bear.

There is a nasty disease going round here in our parks that can condemn a plane tree, with no cure. Massaria appears as a black lesion on the upper side of major branches, and can make them fall off without warning. A number of the biggest planes in Hyde Park have been felled recently on this account. A different disease, Ceratocystis platani, has been hollowing out and killing planes in the South of France, among them the monumental trees that line the 150 miles of the Canal du Midi, 42,000 of them. The disease was apparently introduced in the First World War from ammunition boxes made of American plane. Without their shade and their green reflections the great waterway is being reduced to a bare ditch. The avenues and market squares of Provence will lose their shade, and all their charm.

Perhaps more worrying to London, and hardly yet noticed, is the apparent effect on London’s planes of the on-going replacement of the capital’s old system of waterpipes and sewers. The trees’ main source of water and nutrients, a delegate at the conference revealed, is leakage from water pipes. I have just been looking at the two sides of Parson’s Green in Fulham. On the east side the planes are in full leaf. On the west the road was dug up this year and the pipes replaced with impermeable blue plastic. The trees are already standing bare in circles of their brown leaves. It could just be damage to the roots from excavation. Let’s hope so.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


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