December 24, 2017

Two weeks ago the tennis court across the road was piled high with Christmas trees: nine hundred of them, firs, pines, spruces, a beauty parade as shoppers stood them up, measured them, appraised their symmetry and worked out how they would fit between the sofa and the television. Then they were pushed through something like a hospital scanner that encased them in netting. The big topic on the court was how soon the needles would fall off and how it relates to the setting of your central heating.

We took an alternative course. Our tree goes in the front window. Once it’s there you can’t pull the curtains, but half the object is to look cheerful to passers-by. This time we promoted the little orange tree that lives on the veranda at the back of the house with its cousin, the Meyer’s lemon, to the front of house role. We supplemented its few tiny Calamondin oranges, dressed it with winking white stars and draped the window with more silvery lights. In all modesty I think it’s the prettiest tree in the street.

But the wreaths. Every front door is bedecked. We could have a competition for the biggest, the greenest, the most original, the glitteriest, the most expensive…. The florists at Rassells Nursery opposite have been bending twigs and wiring in flowers and birds, balls and trinkets since November. The process started, they tell me, in summer when they make the wire frames and cover them with moss, to stand outside and await their big moment. There are hyacinths, primulas, narcissi and of course poinsettias filling the nursery with bright colour, but the hero of the mid-winter hour is the cyclamen, in every cyclamineous colour. The extremely-variegated ones are my favourites: white-bordered leaves of beguiling shapes and very white flowers: a tiny snowstorm in a pot.




Holy Moly

December 13, 2017

I spotted my first snowdrops in Kensington Gardens the other morning, near the Italian Garden. Then I retreated from the sleet, lit the fire and started googling. If there are better ways to forget the gathering gloom at three o’clock I’ve forgotten them.

My first question to the omniscient sage was when were Kensington Gardens, planted and laid out as the gardens and park of a royal palace, first opened to the public – and the answer: gradually, during the time of the Georges, but only to people who were ‘respectably dressed.’ When Victoria, born in the palace, became Queen in 1837, she moved to Buckingham Palace and Kensington Gardens soon became a popular promenade.

But googling Kensington Gardens then brought me to a poem, and a poet, I had never heard of. Thomas Tickell was, I learnt, a friend of the local essayist Joseph Addison (who founded The Spectator and  gave his name to Kensington’s Addison Road).

Those were the days of the heroic couplets that sound so rumpty-tum today. You can get away with quoting a line or two of Pope, and maybe Dryden, but the long rhyming columns that amused Georgian gentlefolk no longer cut it these days. One of Tickeill’s longest efforts (500 lines of it) is called Kensington Garden. The plot needn’t detain you: we’re in the realm of fairies. Prince Albion is in love with Kenna, the mythical princess of Kensington. He is mortally wounded. She looks for a plant to cure him, and comes up with a snowdrop.

Or is it? It looks like one, but perhaps it’s the mythical moly. There were once as many mythical plants as animals. Unicorn, Griffon, mandrake and moly were all good enough for the pre-scientific world. Phylidda Spore, the headmistress of Hogwarts, gives more details in her 1000 Magical Herbs and Fungi. Moly is described as having a black stem, white flowers – and the power to counteract enchantments. It was also hard, or impossible, to pull out of the ground. There is a species with its name today: the little yellow Allium moly. Tennyson’s lotus eaters, Ulysses’ crew, drowsed away their time ‘prop’t on beds of amaranth and moly.’ Amaranth is Love-lies-bleeding. Perhaps Kenna would have done better with that.

To be fair to Tickell, I should give you a verse from his more popular Colin and Lucy;

”By a false heart and broken vows/In early youth, I die./Am I to blame, because his bride/Is thrice as rich as I?

Thank you, Google.


Point of contact

December 2, 2017

I’ve written thousands of picture captions in my time for various books and magazines. They are the writer’s, or editor’s, first point of contact with the reader. Whose eyes don’t flick first to an illustration, then to the little explanation contained in the caption, before committing to read the bulk of the text? The sort of illustrated books I’ve written are constructed round this formula. Punchy captions packed with a surprising amount of information are best. ‘Three facts a line’ is my motto. And yet I’ve seen captions as clueless as ‘A church in France’.

Garden picture books can make lovely browsing, but captions determine the way we look at the photos. They can just tell you that the plant in the foreground is Persicaria ‘Firedance’, the rose ‘Maigold’ or the hills in the background the Brecon Beacons, – or they can interpret the scene for you. Culturally (it’s acid soil with high rainfall), historically (the terrace was built in 1900; the name of a designer), pictorially (the yew on the left balances the pergola on the right), ecologically, chromatically (colour contrast or harmony), hortatory (it’s time to get mulching) or even gnomically – in the spirit of Little Sparta. How would you caption the photo above? Is it about foxgloves, or complementary colours? Or maybe deutzias, or backlighting, or the shelter of a wall?

Whatever captions say, they direct your attention to this aspect or that. They prevent the garden from speaking for itself. I have often been tempted to label some garden incident, or corner, or vista with some form of notice, written on paper or carved in stone. If you have tried to create a mood, uplifting or contemplative, there is a temptation to say so. Avoid it: if you need to you have failed.

Plant labels, of course, have a different purpose. Making them permanent, legible and discreet is an art in itself.


Cave canes

November 30, 2017

For years I used to take my afternoon breather along a little Essex valley among the bat willows, to cross a plank bridge and stop respectfully under a grand tower of an oak. Bluebells crowded under it in spring, and sometimes I watched fox cubs jumping in and out of their holes.

Now it’s Kensington Gardens, the Round Pond, the fountains in the Italian Gardens (also their tea house) and all the trees in between. The entertainment is the dozens of dogs and their followers. I constantly find myself stopping with a broad smile on my face as an unlikely-looking hipster hauls along a tiny shi-zou that has its eye on a hound five times its size, or a pair of Hungarian Vizslas, bunched muscles sheathed in shining bronze, sprint back and forth around their little high-heeled owner. There is no proportionate link between owner and dog: not in size; not in temperament (though that’s harder to judge). Small dogs have more energy – or is it just that their little legs have to move much faster? Tall dogs that lope languidly along can explode into lightning acceleration. Every owner these days carries a sling (if that’s the word) for chucking a ball; off goes the dog like a rocket to fetch it; persuading their dog to drop it is still beyond them.

Is there a majority dog? Small and fluffy outnumbers tall and athletic – but then most of them live in flats. It’s the congregations plodding along with professional walkers, ten leads in hand, that fill me with wonder. I suspect those chocolate drops are sometimes doped.





November 24, 2017

Santa Rosa, Sonoma on November 10. Photo by Red Johnson

Back from a week in California, staying in one of America’s most beautiful gardens. Two weeks before the skyline around had been lurid with flames and the air tainted with smoke. In several towns everyone was evacuated. The Napa Valley, the Sonoma Valley and the surrounding hills were threatened by the worst forest fires in memory.

Molly Chappellet’s garden on Pritchard Hill is so integrated with the landscape of forest and vineyard that the three elements flow together – and her house so much part of the garden, so shrouded in plants and overhung by trees, that fire is a hazard no one ignores. But a fire like this month’s, driven by such a gale, has never been seen.

It broke out in the night, on October 8th, in so many different places that the local fire brigades didn’t know where to start. 10 days later fire-fighters from all over the West, even volunteers from Australia, were involved. Eventually it consumed almost a quarter of a million acres. It threw flaming embers so far and wide that the countryside is full of random blackened scars. In some it was a mere grassfire that left tall trees singed but unburnt; in others tree tops torched each other for mile upon mile.

California’s summers (and torrid summers all over the States) make the shade of trees indispensable: they are integrated into every farm, village, housing estate and city centre. We drove to Napa over the hills from Sacramento to the east, and to our consternation began to see cinders ten miles from the valley and its vines. The blackened patches were often spaced hundreds of yards apart. The wind had been so strong that sparks, or embers, flew that far, landing on tinder-dry grass. Spring rain had raised unusually tall grass; summer had baked it golden.

Coming down with the Napa Valley from Atlas Peak we saw the scale of the disaster. Miles of mountain forest were in ashes, the buildings scattered among the trees either unaffected or completely destroyed. So hot were the fires that all that was left was a chimney, a charred washing machine and often a burned-out car. Melted engine blocks were pale puddles on the road. Anyone without a car was at the mercy of the flames – yet miraculously only 42 people died, while nearly 9,000 buildings burned.

In Napa City, and Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, the sights were apocalyptic: whole neighbourhoods incinerated; just cinders under a clear blue sky.

In this valley of vineyards the fires were largely frustrated. They leapt among the trees but paused at the edge of the vines. Green vines are not dry enough to burst into flames. There was scorching at the edges, and the smoke will have tainted the ten per cent of the crop still unpicked. The vineyards in the main were effective firebreaks, but all the rest of the country is forest: oaks, red woods, pines, buckeyes, madrone and mesquite. Fire is part of its life-cycle.The forest has burned periodically throughout history. It’s the houses in it that are the problem.

Bonfire night

November 5, 2017

Little brush-strokes of yellow, green-yellow and orange hang from bare branches over the gleaming pavement. Windows palely-lit, street lamps warmer, headlights reflected in puddles, the handsome bulk of the pub, all windows blazing.
You only deduce shapes in this pontilliste night-scene. And only two are palpable: the full moon, brilliant among the black dominoes of chimneys, and a file of stuccoed porticos, dressed by the right in precise perspective. Random bangs and fiery glimpses in the sky emphasise the solid stillness of the street. This is London. And I am a Londoner. It moves me.


Be afraid

November 2, 2017

To a meeting at the House of Lords (The River Room; glorious views) to launch Action Oak Initiative. All the senior tree people were there, from the heads of the Forestry Commission, Woodland Trust and Woodland Heritage to Tony Kirkham from Kew and Nicola Spence, the Chief Plant Health Officer at DEFRA. All are worried about the manifest increase of health problems in oaks, from the gradual dieback that gives us ‘stag-headed’ trees to acute oak decline, when weeping lesions in the bark lead to rapid death. One way or other our native oaks are in poor shape. Taken with the disease hitting our ashes (the commonest of all our trees) the outlook is alarming.

Much was made of the status of the oak as our national tree, the symbol of everything robust and enduring about Britain. You could almost hear Land of Hope and Glory in the background. There was a tour afterwards to see the roof of Westminster Hall, built of Hampshire oaks 700 years ago. Then there is HMS Victory. What could be more symbolic of England?

I felt constrained to point out that we are not the only country with oaks. France has far more (and grows them far better). German forestry is in advance of ours in many ways. Far from being a British problem, oak decline (and for that matter all plant diseases) are international. The first essential is to pool our knowledge and research with plant scientists everywhere.


Worth waiting for

October 26, 2017

The salvia wall at Kew in October

For a moment I thought it was a kingfisher. Then, as I looked up from my breakfast, I saw that the streak of piercing blue was the incredibly dilatory Salvia vitifolia opening its flowers, not exactly kingfisher colour, but sharing that startling brilliance, along with gentians, the windows at Chartres, one or two delphiniums perhaps, but little else.

Breakfast turned surreal when I saw, just beyond the salvias, of all things, a heron, right beside the diminutive tank that holds Halley and Haley, our two Comets. The heron hopped onto a table for a better look, then up to the greenhouse roof. I must have made a noise as I scrambled for my camera because he then shrugged his wings and hopped off over the garden wall. What incredible eyesight herons must have to catch the reflection on a tiny patch of water as they cruise by. Have they fished out the Round Pond and the Serpentine? I’ve put bamboos over the Comets in their tank, just in case.

But salvias. How long they can wait before flowering. At Kew this week the Great Borders have gone quiet, with Anemone japonica and Aster ‘Mönch’ performing almost alone among the bleached grasses. The star turn of the season is the long south wall above the Rock Garden, perhaps a hundred yards long and ten feet high, almost hidden in a tidal wave of salvias. Purple and pink and dusky red are dominant; labels are hard to find in the profusion of admittedly not very interesting foliage.

I recognize the now almost ubiquitous S. guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’, waving its terminal blobs of flowers even higher than the wall, S.involucrata halfway up, lingerie pink, S.leucantha purple and grey, S. patens the secret searing blue and S.canaliculata a miniature of the same. Long thin scarlet spikes of what I suppose is S. coccinea (but these have rusty indumentum-backed leaves and stems), are the most eye-catching, but the whole generous jumble, in the low afternoon sun, is a spectacle worth waiting for.


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,…

Flower of the Week

Rosa ‘Chapeau de Napoléon’

Friends of Trad

The Garden Museum