June 4, 2018
Trad’s Diary has been a regular fixture for many gardeners since June 1975, forty three years ago, when the first issue of The Garden appeared. It was, and is, written by Hugh Johnson, who as Editorial Director had created the new magazine out of the old Journal of the Horticultural Society. Today’s readers would hardly recognize the modest mag of the ’70s.
Trad borrows his name from John Tradescant, gardener to Lord Cecil at Hatfield House and to King James I, one of the first men to introduce plants from foreign countries to his garden. His family name, having become extinct, seemed a fitting label for a column of garden jottings. It was also adopted in 1977 by the new Trust for the Garden Museum at St Mary’s, Lambeth, across the Thames from Westminster, where John Tradescant (the accent is on the second syllable) lived and is buried. Today the museum is in full and exciting expansion mode. I urge you to visit its website, visit it personally, and support it as much as you can.
Trad’s diary appeared in The Garden from 1975-2006, in Gardens Illustrated in 2007, and in 2008 took to the ether with new material irregularly, but often. The text is published regularly in the quarterly Hortus magazine, starting with the summer issue of 2008.
In August 2017 Trad came to terms with the blog age: a refreshed format with a spot of advertising (but only for Johnson books) and the facility for looking back over Trad’s posts since his last anthology, Hugh Johnson in The Garden, in 2009. Scroll back, if you have time to waste, over hundreds of earlier entries. Better, use the Search button to look up things that might interest you. This index facility is priceless to the diarist; now he can see how often he repeats himself. Thanks to Simon Appleby and Bookswarm for making this happen.
Rhodies (it takes chutzpah to call them that) were never my thing until some acid soil came my way. I’m afraid we’re all more interested in things we can join in ourselves. I gave myself an intensive course in them when I was writing The Principles of Gardening, even devising a family tree that probably provoked giggles in Rhodoland. But that was 40 years ago. I said then that the past hundred years (i.e. the 1870s-1970s) might well be called The Erica Dynasty; the family had imposed two whole new fashions of gardening, the heather garden and the woodland garden, that were still going strong when I wrote.
They haven’t died. Heathers may not have the hold they had (nor the ‘dwarf ‘ conifers that were usually married to them). Woodlands on sandy soil are still being adorned with luscious flowers, but the vogue is no longer dominant. If the Chelsea Flower Show is an indicator, the genus rhododendron has been relegated. I wrote then that “they have imperious manners. They are not good mixers. They grow and look best in the company of their own kind.” With something like 800 species that should not be a problem – except to a gardener trying to keep track of them, and above all of their hybridization.
My rather pedagogic, let’s-start-from-basics approach of the 1970s still holds good, but when you are in the thick of it, with a mixture of botanical names and nursery cultivars whizzing about, made no easier by the botanists’ concepts of ‘series’ and ‘grex’, it is tempting to point to a juicy pink flower and say ‘that’ll do’. You’ll be missing a lot, though: the scary adventures of Robert Fortune, the gritty thoroughness of E.H.Wilson, the patient ingenuity of such breeders as Waterer, Aberconway and de Rothschild in combining characters deemed garden-worthy. Finally bringing branches of improbable sumptuousness to battle for gongs in Vincent Square.
I have been pretty much at the ‘that’ll do’ stage; given our daughter’s suggestively acidic corner of the New Forest to adorn. We have inherited some shiny green mounds of sawn-off rhodies all suspected of being the dreaded ‘ponticum’ – or even the positively fearsome ‘super-ponticum.’ The dread comes from our Welsh forest, (or anyone’s forest anywhere), where R. ponticum is indeed a pest, seeding and thriving at an embarrassing rate where the aim is clean, airy, unencumbered trees. Ponticum rapidly produces the dark airless conditions where Phytophthora flourishes. Having lost a whole larch plantation to it, anything phytophthera-friendly is taboo. The government is obliged to give foresters grants to poison the pest.
These few Hampshire acres, though, are different. The perceived threat here is bambi, not rhodies. In abstract terms, the space under our tall oaks needs volumes to shape and enclose its voids. You can see the deer from one end to the other. My job is to furnish it – with evergreen leaves, and sumptuous flowers.
‘Three fine days and a thunderstorm’. I always wonder why this famous definition of an English summer is attributed to King George II, with the specific date of 1730 attached. He became King of England (as well as Duke of Brunswick) in 1727. Both 1730 and 1731 were famously hot summers; they apparently held the record for summer heat until 2006 (July 2006 was the warmest month in Britain since records began) – and then August was one of the cloudiest and wettest. Are we on to something here? Is this what happened in 1730? Maybe the new king was commenting on the actual weather in a very English way – even if there were far more than three fine days. More to the point, though, is why does this happen (as it just has this week)?
Here is a meteorological answer: a heat wave warms the sea. A warmer sea evaporates faster. The wetter atmosphere generates areas of low pressure. Moist air rises, cools, and dumps as rain. Are three hot days enough? They certainly seemed to be this week – and who would argue with the king?
The corollary to fewer exhibitors at Chelsea is a little more space to breathe, at least in the Pavilion, if not round the show gardens: fewer means more necks craned round each.
A review of Trad’s annual Best Garden Award over many years betrays his partiality for the traditional, the nostalgic….. and specially for fake landscapes; reproductions of far-away or long-ago places. You will, probably rightly, never get the ultimate medal for chunk of seaside or farmland transplanted to Chelsea; modernity is deemed more relevant. How many gardeners actually prefer concrete to rock, or steel to wood, is an unanswered question. This one is still moved by a beautifully-made dry stone wall or stream among wild-flowers, the sort of thing that Mark Gregory created so convincingly this year for Welcome to Yorkshire. But perhaps this is too easy (however expensive) to imagine and bring off.
Chris Beardshaw’s garden for the N.S.P.C.C was wonderfully immersive, calm and even mysterious, glimpsed through the five peeling grey trunks of a magnificent River birch, Betula nigra, that travelled, he said, from north Germany, 8 tons of it, swaddled and cradled so that not a leaf was bruised. I see (next day) that it was voted the best by the (other) judges.
Several gardens showed off what seems to be an advance in tree-moving technology. On the Monument Stand in the Pavilion Tom Stewart-Smith and Crocus (who seem to have their green thumbprints on half the show) have whisked up a lime tree as tall as the monument itself. They must soon reach the limit to the size of tree you can take by road.
You get a long side view of the first site on the Main Avenue, the one that greets you as you arrive. It begs for architecture, and seems to work well with airy evocations of arid sun-baked places. Sarah Price designed such a scene for the main sponsor of the Show, M&G Investments, using stark adobe walls and bright patches of drought-resisting plants with admirable restraint. It was no surprise to see the Crocus signature here, too.
Trad has never given a gong to the best nursery stand showing its plants in the Pavilion. There is too much variety, and too much expertise on show to single one out. Besides, it is a matter of taste. Peter Beale’s Roses always draw one across the tent, but so do Raymond Emison’s clematis, Blom’s tulips, Kelway’s peonies, Norfield’s maples, Bowden’s ferns (tree ferns seem to be in fashion this year), Lockyer’s auriculas, and the unfamiliar exotic introductions of the Wynn-Joneses of Crug Farm Plants.
And am I deceived in thinking the proportion of plants (and gardens) to infinitely-assorted hardware goes down gradually year by year?
Three years ago, in May 2015, I wrote an entry about staying in a Welsh country house hotel. We’re here again, and everything I wrote is still true. I don’t know any other garden where the tastes and sentiments of a hundred years ago are so perfectly preserved. Benign neglect has done its work. Clearly there were once many more incidents, of structure and planting. Traces of abandoned stone paths wind up the steep slopes under the huge beeches and oaks. Where once there must have been beds of massed azaleas and camellias only the sturdiest have survived, to reach impressive size. Some specimens of Rhododendron arboreum are now forty-foot towers of deep green and bright red. Sheltering under one of them is a pure white camellia, intricately double, now twenty feet across, covered in perfect buttonholes, and across the granite path, plush with moss, the yellow Azalea mollis, and another, a peachy version, have opened up into graceful dancers in the dappled shade.
The phantom of an avenue leads straight on from the sunk parterre, rising with the hill from a meadow of bluebells, scattered with old orchard trees and on one side beehives. A wavering stone wall, deep brown and moss-green, divides it from the forest. Above the house the rectangle of what was once the tennis court is now bluebell-spangled, with silver birches in place of netting. A cuckoo speaks above the background burble of streams; the hill is full of them, converging in black rocky channels on a long pond where gunneras are just expanding elephant leaves.
There is a secular logic about this garden. It meanders with the contours of a mountain, trying tentatively to impose formal shapes on random slopes. Dark granite balustrades outline what was once formal. A rectangular lawn points away from the house at what seems an awkward angle until you look beyond; it is aimed squarely at the dome of Diffwys, purple or snow-covered, second highest mountain in these parts only to Cader Idris.
Time has engineered perfect integration here, of nature on the grand scale and the gardener’s puny interventions. The result is tranquillity.
I should have paid more attention when people told me about gardens in Northern Ireland. Three days there with the I.D.S was a revelation. The dendrologists of this world are a coterie of warm-hearted enthusiasts, principally focussed on trees, but distracted in a flash by any beautiful or intriguing plant, forest or garden. Heads down, in other words, as often as up or sideways – and always chattering. A friendlier network you couldn’t meet, or one better-informed about gardens and gardeners to visit.
So three days to see the dendrological gardens around Belfast, or more strictly round Strangford Lough, the almost landlocked arm of the sea just north of the city. The best known by far is Mount Stewart, the largely Edwardian playground of the intensely socialite and political Londonderrys. Edith, the marchioness, was famous for her sense of humour, which she embodied in comical statues of animals peopling the walled garden. Perhaps she had in mind the Italian Gardens like Bomarzo adorned with monsters and ogres. Italy had the advantage of artists as designers and skilled stonemasons to cut the figures. Crude caricatures cast in cement long after the laughter has died aren’t quite so persuasive.
It was trees we came to see, though, and the woodlands of Mount Stewart were alone worth the journey. It was high rhodo time, and my ignorance of their provenance and parentage was shameful. Himalayan trees brandishing hundreds of huge flowers: arboreum? sinogrande? macabeanum? Better to stay mum and wonder. It’s probably a hybrid in any case. Neil Porteous, in charge of the gardens for the National Trust, knows it all, and far more than he had time to tell us.
The Gulf Stream obligingly curls round the north coast of Ireland, through the North Channel, where only 13 miles separates it from the Mull of Kintyre, to rush in and out of Strangford Lough with every tide. As a result the shores of the Lough rarely freeze; the whole shallow basin maintains an equable, damp growth-provoking climate all year round. Castlewellan is a name most gardeners know – if only as a yellow variety of the infamous Leyland cypress. The Annesley family started an arboretum here in the 1840s and time has given it a stature it is hard to beat, with champion specimens by the dozen, many them conifers; not all of them beautiful.
We visited Seaforde, where the Forde family have lived for 400 years, in the past century creating a bewilderingly huge and beautiful woodland garden – and now a papillion pavilion, if that’s the word, of tropical butterflies.. Wandering in such museums of forest beauty is hypnotic – and of course deceiving. Nowhere in nature is there anything like the variety, of form and colour, texture and intermingled growth. What you see in a great woodland garden in spring is an invention of the 19thcentury, embellished in the 20th, and perhaps at its very peak in the 21st.
Not that it always takes a century to achieve. Paddy and Julie Mackie started their collection on the completely bare Mahee Island (they had gone there as ornithologists) in the 1960s, and it is already richly mature. Their daughter Tracy Hamilton conducted our visit. The picture above of her walled garden at Ringdufferin sums up the contrast between the windswept shores of the lough and the sanctuary behind garden walls.
Just when we gardeners are cajoling our friends (who are doing likewise) to come and admire our magnolias/camellias/tulips/wisteria the weather turns round to bite us. Is this a rehearsal for the Bank Holiday? Then what was that heatwave at the beginning of May?
Plants can’t exactly back-pedal when their spring hopes are dashed. Some can put the brakes on, but once the bracts are off, the petals are on their own. Even the blackthorn has mistimed its winter, the high point of its not very exciting year. It flowered in a warm spell; I wonder how many sloes there’ll be this autumn.
My excitement just now is watching and measuring the progress of a newly-planted clematis. C. armandi is remarkably deliberate and predictable. It sends up a leading shoot with two opposite arms at the base, each ending in three leaves curved inward like grappling hooks. When one (or both) finds anything fixed to cling to, one or two of the tender young leaves try to encircle it. When it senses a firm hold the leading shoot has the confidence to extend. If both arms find a purchase they remind me of an athlete hoisting himself on parallel bars; up goes the leader at double speed, to repeat the process. Anything that damages it at this stage seems to discourage the whole shoot, and possibly give a boost to another. The whole thing is a vivid demonstration of hormones in action. Like spring itself.
In the old days, with scant regard for the rules, we just called it ‘Japonica’. Scarcely a garden was without this obliging little bush that bursts into bright colours at tulip time. Like forsythia, it is easy to overlook or dismiss as a cliché, yet about the time of the blackthorn winter (a fortnight later, like everything else, this year), long before the azaleas, or its cousins the roses open their flowers, and even on dank north walls, Japonica is up and doing.
Chaenomeles is not hard to say, but more important is to remember which variety you have, or would like to have. My clear favourite is the pure white “Nivalis”, which also seems, round here, to be the earliest in flower; even this year, in London gardens, performing in late March. There is something touching about its simple five virginal petals spreading wide so soon.
The showiest, and I suspect the most popular, are C. Knap Hill Scarlet and Crimson and Gold, both as full-on as tulips in confronting the grey of the end of winter. We inherited the only one I would have chosen not to plant, a rather washed-out tangerine flower which I think is called Cameo. Pastel orange just doesn’t go with anything else in the garden – unless perhaps I were to add Ballerina tulips.
Instead I’m trying to offer it some complementary blue. I’m watching a young Clematis alpina inching up into its branches; hoping that will justify its out-of-context orange. Come to think of it, why not Ballerina next year? And for that matter blue Scilla sibirica? Better to make a real point of something than to wish it weren’t there.