Peace in the Val d’Orcia

September 18, 2018

Villa La Foce: Anglo-Italian

London was worryingly as warm as Tuscany when we got home from staying with friends in the most perfect summer-cool garden near Montalcino. Their house, vineyards on one side, olives on another and an oak wood on a third, is blessed with a gushing, crystalline, never-failing spring. I have always dreamed – really dreamed – of living where water springs from the ground. Here it flows down little stone channels into glinting basins, chuckling as it goes, then takes another run and spouts in crystal arcs into basins big enough to plunge and wallow in. It’s cold of course, but under a Tuscan sun the ultimate luxury.

 

It is not easy to keep your bearings on the endlessly winding roads of Tuscany. All the ancient settlements are perched on hilltops reached by a series of hairpin bends.  The campanile or farm or orderly olive grove you take as a landmark gyrates around you as you follow the road in countless twists, in and out of the shade of oak or pines, then dazzling sunlight. The wide Val d’ Orcia comes as welcome relief, a definitive break, a broad pause in the confusion with the signature profile of Monte Amiata blocking the way to the south.

Villa La Foce is perhaps the nearest Tuscany comes to a stately home, at least in its setting, a near-English garden poised like a balcony looking south across the valley with the summit of Monte Amiata in its cross-hairs. It is famous as the home of the Origo family, where the author Iris Origo lived through the Second World war and wrote War in the Val d’OrciaTheMerchant of Pratois her unique account of a Tuscan merchant’s life in the 14thcentury when she found his correspondence in the 1950s.

The Origos employed Cecil Pinsent as their architect, as Bernard Berenson had at Villa I Tatti, so they can hardly have been looking for a totally Tuscan result. To blend the orderly intimacy of English tradition with the wild breadth of the Tuscan landscape, where distances are measured in purple ranges of receding hills, is a challenge – which he overcame with the almost inevitable staircases, alleys of cypresses, staircases and hedges. In steep hillside gardens, which almost all Italian gardens are, changes of level are the key decisions.  Slopes are usually a mistake: you need to cut and construct terraces. Then you can contrast and balance intimacy and wide skies, detail and bravura. French windows (is there anything more Engish?) on to rosebeds, cloistered plots, vine pergolas, lemon pots, fuchsias and hydrangeas……. The ingredients may be universal, but the scale and sentiment are something an Italian would not conceive. And the upkeep, the planting and the tidiness: utterly English.

La Rentrée

September 4, 2018

It’s La Rentrée (taken so seriously in France that on August 31st there’s gridlock on every Autoroute) that snaps the garden back into focus. In our case rentrée from a week in Provence at its most perfect: cool in the morning, hot in the afternoonand warm at dinner-time. No need for shawls on the terrace. I expected the countryside to be as brown as the England we saw from the plane, but most of it looked relatively fresh. The plane trees (to me one of the great sights and principal glories of Provence) were in full green leaf; very few crackling brown cast-offs on the ground. Where they have water at their roots they can grow into ivory monsters, spilling obesely over kerbs, walls, rocks. Closely set in avenues they can soar cathedral-high, pale pillars to a pale green roof. They are the glory of (for instance) the Cours Mirabeau, the Champs Elysée of Aix. Some insane official has replaced a few of them with red-leafed maples. The guillotine is too good for him.

Gardening has to be simple near the Mediterranean. You can add such routine exotics as mimosa, palm-trees, oleander of course, but the basic ingredients scarcely need the gardener’s help. Pines, planes, cypresses, holm oaks, olives, an azure sky and pale stone are a full palate. The true pine of Provence is Pinus halepensis, the Aleppo pine, thought why we don’t call it the Provence pine I don’t know. By nature it is tall and slender, and even at the end of summer a pure, piercing, almost apple-peel green.

The house where we stayed once had an elaborate garden, on a pine-covered hill overlooking the city of Aix. Now most of it has filled up with the native laurustinus, which luxuriates in the woodland shade. The only level part is trim and flowery round a formal canal that doubles as a swimming pool, flowing continually over a weir into a lower basin, and lined, perhaps uniquely among swimming pools, with a low box hedge. A pool for grownups.

A week away sharpens your focus when you get home. There is far more to enjoy that I expected; new flushes of roses, invigorated Clematis orientalis, yellow among the purple of the now-towering Solanum rantonettii*. Phlox White Admiral with a new lease of life, agapanthus fully out, more geraniums, but above all the incomparable (however common) Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’. Jobert was a nurseryman at Verdun in the 1850s. Was Honorine his wife? For such a simple white flower, a nine-petal daisy, it has extraordinary presence and grace – and persistence. In Provence as in London.

*Now, I’m afraid, to be called Lycianthes. Not as sad as Sophora being renamed Styphnolobium. Oh, the taxonomists’ tin ear.

A pool for grownups

A macrogarden

September 1, 2018

...and there are distant views

I have sometimes got funny looks from committed gardeners when I mention forestry. the word no doubt summons up for them a picture of hills black with spiky spruce.

It is thirty years now since I first planted what was destined to become woodland (the respectable, even cuddly word, if forest is too aggressive). That first essay was on fields of dreadful, shallow, acid soil roamed by feral sheep in the centre of France. The French government, or its Office National des Forêts, was incredibly efficient and generous with advice (and grants – though why a country which is already more than ten per cent oak woods should want to pay for more I never understood).

For the past 25 years our planting (and of course felling) has been in the wildly beautiful Snowdonia National Park. It has a different purpose from gardening, of course, with economics at its heart. I know I am unusual as a forester in putting landscape above profit in my priorities, but by no means unique. The two, in any case, can be perfectly compatible – so long, that is, as you have a taste for the beauty of conifers.

This Welsh landscape was dedicated to sheep, criss-crossed with monumental stone walls, dotted with little stone farms, barns and pens. Along streams and wherever there was deeper soil grew thrusting ash and old bent oaks. Everywhere else it was heather and bilberry – or rushes. And far too much bracken.

In the 1960’s the Forestry Commission, and an industrial Pension Fund, invaded with conifers: larch and pine in drier places, here and there western hemlock, and almost everywhere Sitka spruce. They planted regardless, up hill and down even where there were already groves of oaks or ashes – the idea being that the quick growing conifers (they can easily manage a metre a year) would simply grow through and shade out the broadleaves. In some cases we arrived just in time, almost forty years later, with many of the conifers mature, in sawmill terms, and ripe for felling. Above the battlefield of a clearfelled site rose disfigured, spindly oaks gulping for light and air. When we released them some broke or blew down; many others burst into rugged towers of leaves.

There were planted plots of oak and beech, too, at forty years old just forming proper little woods. These and the veteran trees became our guide and the sketch for our future landscape. Down came the dark masses of spruce, twenty acres or more at a time, revealing the streams, walls and tracks that shaped the landscape, and providing the income to put it back together again as distinctive and Welsh.

This is where a gardener’s eye comes in. There are places where deliberate simplicity sets up a strong line or mass; where in a garden you would plant a hedge or an avenue. There are tracks and paths that lead the eye into the distance or into a concealing bend. There are effective and appropriate places for water; ‘flood the hollows’, as Repton prescribed. There are prompts for open space – for instance to reveal a rock or a dramatic change of level. On the hills there are streams to reveal for the sparkle of their water through peat or over rock. There are boring bits where the best solution is to grow something productive; in the garden. veg, in the forest Sitka spruce. You can contrast the dark bulk of conifers with the open arcades of broadleaves shorn of their lower branches. Eventually the necessary thinning of larches, when they are forty feet high, produces one of the loveliest effects in the forest: their soaring straight trunks carrying graceful light canopies above what can be a fascinating understorey of seedlings and shrubby plants. Old stone walls are all the sculpture and statuary you need.

We have just named one corner of the woods Hemlock Hollow, where five huge hemlocks spared from a general felling tower over a little valley and a chaotic rushing stream. Hemlocks have the most beautiful foliage of all the conifers; ranks of tiny needles of a unique clear green, almost bottle green, with their tops always a slender shoot inclining in a graceful bow. Sturdy young oaks and slender beeches shade the ground beneath them. I couldn’t call it ‘gardenesque’; it’s too simple and elemental – but it gives a gardener garden-like pleasure on a quite different scale.

Land and sea

August 10, 2018

I suppose if there is an opposite to gardening, or rather an occupation as different as it could be, it is sailing. What the two have in common, though, is of course their dependence on the weather. Both take their cue from it; absolutely depend on it for their functions. To gardeners and sailors weather is existential. Having just been blown about the Solent, on glorious days of blue skies perfect for admiring roses, I’ll admit to being torn between the two. If sailing wins this time it is its added spice of excitement, the commotion of competition, the regatta rush of crowding boats in touching distance  rounding buoys in churning water, setting a new course, the pull of the spinnaker and the rushing foam astern. Cowes Week brings together 800 boats, from dinghies to towering yachts and catamarans that slide along like skaters. Thousands of sailors speaking their strange language. It is an alternative civilisation.This August the garden, in contrast, is immobile. Cocooned in trees the air barely stirs.  The burning sun makes shadows too dark to penetrate. Streams have dried to an inaudible trickle. The suspense is palpable: when will it rain?

It is the time of hydrangeas; those dowdy pink knobs that clash happily with orange montbretias in dusty front gardens by the sea, and deep in the woodland the majestic domes, purple or sky-sapphire, nestling in deep-green leaves. Their name suggests water, although it seems Linnaeus was just fooling about with the Greek for a water jar they supposedly resemble. They certainly appreciate moisture in the soil. More important is its acidity – and much less easy to adjust than textbooks suggest. I have taken cuttings of  a truly sky blue one and grown them in compost identical to the parent, only to achieve a washed-out mauve.  You see H. Annabel everywhere these days; such an eruption of foamy white that without support it collapses in a heap. Now I’ve taken to planting the rather more realistic H. paniculata: no Fra Angelico colours, but eventually something approaching a small tree. In fact the arborescent version on a one metre trunk makes one of the great summer eye-catchers.

Not Pepys

July 30, 2018

It’s funny how few saucy stories I ever hear about gardening, gardeners or gardens. Alan Hollingurst made a brave exception at the Garden Museum Literary Festival at Boughton House last year, going far beyond Come Into the Garden Maud – though that was his riff. A friend said (about this diary) ‘You’re not exactly Pepys, are you? Do you never get up to no good?’  Pepys is outrageous and archaic at the same time. The formula works. In modern words it might just seem smutty. I’ll keep my clean-living image and forget about my circulation figures.

Although this sub-tropical weather does fill the night air with suggestion. The honeysuckle is a devil at double-entendre, the trickle of the fountain is a tickle in the mind, and the scent of roses conjures up kiosks in the gardens awaiting the righteous with their seventy virgins. Balmy evenings à deux have the same dénouement as evenings by the fireside, but balmy evenings alone in the shadows have less predictable outcomes: journeys in imagination, regrets, urges, in random sequence under the noon and stars. Not really stuff for the diary.

Heatwave

July 10, 2018

I looked at the greenhouse thermometer in trepidation last night. The day had reached 32 degrees; surely the greenhouse would have been hotter still. Miraculously it showed only 28 degrees – only five more than the one in the ‘cellar’. The garden’s habitual shade, plus a canny adjustment of vents and blinds, has kept the plants inside from cooking. Sadly the space under the front doorsteps where the wine lives has no such options.

The plants would be outside if we had space – but then they would be less air-conditioned. Despite two daily doses of ten minutes dribbling, in the open garden the sheer heat has produced odd signs of stress. Splendid trusses of roses, instead of fading in the usual way, have dried into pot pourri on the branch. Hydrangeas are fine, though, agapanthus that suffered in the winter are looking much better; at the moment the unexpected star is phlox. P. ‘White Admiral’ is sending its warm spicy breath all over the garden.

It is a different matter in Hampshire, where the trees we planted last winter are in trouble. In the winter of 2017 our autumn plantings suffered from a serious spring drought. Winter 2018 was splendidly rainy, but now there has been no rain to speak of since early April, and young roots are dying. Worse, the little springs feeding the water garden have dried up. The fine days are here alright, but where are the thunderstorms? An enormous zone of high pressure fills the whole of the north Atlantic from the Carolinas to Norway. Now we hear of a tropical storm off the Carolinas. Could it become a hurricane? And have the energy to cross the Atlantic? I fear it will look at the great splodge of high pressure and dump in the Caribbean.

I have spent weeks of my life standing with a hose, or carrying cans, to save the lives of infant trees. For several summers in the Auvergne I was the one moving figure in a parched landscape, the Englishman in the midday sun when even the mad dogs headed for the shade. My rule is to water if necessary for three seasons before giving up. There are hundreds of young(ish) trees in Kent, Hampshire and France that justify my policy. But this year I should be out with my watering can in Wales, too. The hottest spot in Britain the other day was Porthmadoc. In Wales we take rain for granted, but this year thousands of tiny trees need TLC.

Ombra mai fu

July 3, 2018

Handel’s haunting ode to a tree and its shade is this week’s theme. Here in London we are blessed with trees some might think excessive, in the front garden and the back, and are rejoicing in their shade. A great lanky cherry tree in the street and a magnolia soulangeana pushing out shoots of over a metre shade the south of the house, while our sycamore, the size of a Hyde Park plane, and our neighbour’s walnut, limes and apple overshadow the north. I have never appreciated them so much as in the past ten days – and by all accounts the next ten days as well.

We’ve all remarked on what a year it is for roses; the best I remember. But all plants like heat, it seems, given well-grounded roots. The front garden magnolia has not only grown prodigiously; it is in flower again at the beginning of July. Geraniums, campanulas and phlox are flowering fit to bust, Clematis viticella and Hydrangea seemanii are  excelling themselves; every plant in the garden has got the idea. I noticed six weeks ago that the Indian horse chestnuts along Kensington Road were stiff with their white candles, then in June that every lime tree was gilded all over with flowers, and the scent in the park is enough to make you hold your nose. Especially the regrettable smell of the sweet chestnuts.

Thank goodness the nights have been relatively cool so far. By opening front and back windows we achieve a through draught, which by three in the morning means we even need a blanket. The full moon has been flooding the balcony and the room with spectral light, and lighting the street so I can see the sleeping houses opposite through the trees, rustling gently in the breeze. It is the only movement, and for most of the time the only sound.  Three months ago the balcony was white with snow.

Patrice Fustier

June 24, 2018

The gardening world, particularly in France and Britain, had a moment of profound sadness when it learnt of the death this month of Patrice Fustier, the founder, with his wife Hélène, of the Journées des Plantes de Courson.  Courson is the chateau, in its bosky park just south west of Paris, where in the 1980s they started a modest fair for gardeners that can truly be said to have re-established gardening as an art in the eyes of France. There had been a long period when few things were less fashionable to the Parisian monde.  A scattering of chatelains cared about their gardens. They were, it seemed, ones with wider interests than most and connections in Britain or the Low Countries. To risk a wild generalisation, to the rest the most important part of the garden was the potager – and very right, too, I hear you say.

The Fustiers changed all that. Suddenly, it seemed within a couple of years, they were drawing fashionable crowds. They invited France’s then-few specialist plant nurseries to set up stands and British experts to give talks. Roy Lancaster was one of the first and most regular. Suddenly green wellies and Land Rovers became chic. France was conquered, or reconquered, by the goddess Flora, or perhaps Saint Dorothy and Saint Fiacre, gardening’s two patron saints. The message spread that orderly allées and well-raked gravel were not enough – nor even productive rows of artichokes and beans. Unusual plants began to take the place of rose bushes and geraniums. Garden guides listed notable places to visit. What had been a peculiarly British culture, epitomised by the National Gardens Scheme, crossed the Channel.

Patrice was a man of enormous charm, kindness and resolution. He overcame the terrible results of a serious accident in his relative youth to achieve a magnificently ambitious goal. Three years ago the Fustiers masterminded the transfer of the Journées des Plantes from the relatively limited arena of Courson to the majestic surroundings of Chantilly, where they are now installed each May and October, France’s equivalent of Chelsea but with a touch of the amateur that seems almost more English. Patrice deserves a lasting memorial. He certainly has one in the Journées des Plantes.

Hugh’s Gardening Books

Trees

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,…

Flower of the Week

Rosa ‘Chapeau de Napoléon’

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The International Dendrology Society (IDS)