Best of Show

May 26, 2017

Trad's choice: wide

“Best of Show’ is always a well-debated subject, and Trad’s annual Chelsea award, over several decades, has not always coincided with the official verdict. This year my friend James Basson, who scored so highly last year with his delicate evocation of Provence, was given the gong for his Maltese quarry. It was a memorable image, dominated by its ziggurat or cenotaph, but how it qualified to be called a garden I’m not sure. The plants were chosen with absolute botanical rigour, but I fear most of them were what friends call BIO (for Botanical Interest Only). Perhaps the spec for entries doesn’t mention ‘garden’, though heaven knows it’s a broad category. Sadly there was less competition than usual this year: the RHS had to fill the empty spaces in the Main Avenue (and frequently elsewhere, even in the Great Pavilion) with champagne bars.)

Trad’s Best of Show was tucked away among the ‘Artisans’, by the woodland picnic area in Ranelagh gardens. I’m afraid most visitors will have missed it. A pity; it was a piece of Japanese artistry worth going a long way to see, and almost never seen outside Japan. The designer, Kazuyuki Ishihara, has won gold here before, but this year’s tiny jewel was exceptional, in concept, in truthfulness, in precision and in expressing such a love for its materials that I found it moving. Even the back of his stand was exquisitely gardened.

The other moving moment of the day was Michael Heseltine’s speech at the President’s lunch. He started ominously by telling us there were no jokes coming, then in ten absorbing minutes told us why gardening matters and what we should do about it. In a sense we have heard it all before. Give a schoolchild a bean and they will never forget seeing its first leaves pop up. The moral effect of engaging with the natural world.

‘Gardens’, he said, ‘in whichever form, are expressions of ourselves. They are statements of pride and responsibility. They are definable spaces often requiring easily acquired skills. They provide talking points for communication with neighbours. They impose a year round discipline. They provide a therapeutic escape from daily pressures.’

Lord Heseltine has worked hard and persistently on the revival of communities gone to the dogs. He has huge experience in the hard slog of restoring hope and pride, work that is long on boring admin, tricky politics and often slow returns. He is totally convincing on the need for life-changing inspiration, hard to conjure, patchy in its results, but vital in ‘helping people feel a sense of purpose, an interest in what their life holds. There are no simple answers to complex questions, but gardening can play a part. Derelict land is all too present. Provide them with the tools to plant it. If they plant it they may feel a pride in what they did. They may wish to defend it, even extend it. The work requires little skill but it offers ladders.’

His sentiments and a piece of loving artistry made me leave the showground with a sense of fulfilment – and a sense of purpose.

Trad's choice: detail

River chuckling by

May 18, 2017

Should I have got my camera out before the rain?

The garden has just been soaked, almost drowned, for the first time in many weeks. I was out before breakfast emptying saucers and discouraging snails. Relief was written on every flower’s face.

The picture last week when we arrived in Wales was very different: the hills were an unaccustomed shade of khaki, the silver streams switched off. The next day we were at Bodnant when the heavens finally opened. Somehow the scene changed from beautiful to magical in the rain. We had not been there for four years (all wrong, since our woods are only 50 miles away). How could we have stayed away from Britain’s/Europe’s/the world’s greatest gardening treat?

The National Trust has been shrewd enough to make Michael McLaren, son of the third Lord Aberconway, for many years President of the RHS, Director of the garden. How he keeps all 80 acres, so densely and intricately planted that it feels like 200, in his memory I can’t imagine – though he has, of course, known it all his life. It was a privilege to be shown round by someone who can tell you the past, present and probable future of every corner.

Large parts of Bodnant are seriously steep. I have never really fathomed how the area of a steep slope is measured: is it the surface as seen from the sky or from a point at right angles to the slope? As contour lines crowd together on a map I suppose it must be the latter. It makes a difference when you are planting – or indeed weeding. In any case it’s a big 80 acres.

Furthermore the area of tended garden, accessible, nurtured and with all its plants labelled, is rapidly increasing. The hillside opposite the house, across the little river Hieraethlyn, had seemed a garden too far for many years. Now it is very much part of the tour, with generations-old specimens on show again and lavish planting between.

The famous laburnum tunnel is apparently the feature than attracts most visitors. Its long yellow curve was just beginning to light up. What I had almost forgotten, though, was how grandly the wide terraces descend westwards from the house, embracing more and more of the sublime landscape, claiming and pulling in the Carneddy mountains across the Conwy valley as part of a stately, unbelievably ambitious plan.

There is a phase of momentous tranquillity when you reach the vast canal terrace with the prim and pretty grey-and-white Pin Mill to the left, almost too pretty and party-dressed for such an elemental prospect. Then you are precipitated among soaring trees and dazzling flowers deep into the quiet dell, to hear the river chuckling by and follow it for a good half mile, in awe of forest giants and enraptured by the glow of flowers.

aka Viper’s Bugloss

May 6, 2017

The plant of the moment at Tresco, if I had to choose one, was the echium from Madeira, Echium candicans. When it was accompanied by the monster geranium from Madeira (G. maderense is happily naturalized on the islands) the sight was one of the most splendid in gardening.

I believe I’ve hinted, over the years, at my faiblesse for anything blue. Unconsciously I seek out blue flowers in gardens. In nurseries I head straight for the blue plants. It is a minority colour; there are ten pink/mauve/reds and maybe twenty yellows to each blue – and true blue, in the range you might call French, butcher’s or sailor’s, is rare. Ceanothus gives us some pretty punchy deep blues; hydrangeas tend to wobble between blue and pink. Borage is a clear lightish blue…. but its subtropical cousin, Echium candicans, is the real deal.

The Scillies are mild enough to make a shrub of it. It would struggle in most places on the mainland. Its cousin E.pininana can get close, as an almost ridiculous spire, for a year or two, though often wandering from blue towards red. Its other equally lofty cousin, E.wildpretii from Tenerife, lets the side down by being red, thus of scarcely more interest to my blue-besotted eyes than a red delphinium.

On a visit to Cambridge the other day, though, I had a 60 volt shock. One of England’s most photographed walls is suddenly under siege from with echiums. The splendid sandstone flank of Clare College, the left hand part of that view of King’s College that symbolizes King’s, Cambridge, and sometimes even England on calendars, is a frenzy of flowering spires.

The enterprising head horticulturist at King’s College, Stephen Coghill, spotted a perfect south-facing site for his seedlings of E. wildpretii and E. pininana, the soil essentially gritty hoggin, and seized the chance. Almost incredibly, 18 months later, the seedlings, planted out in April last year, tower over seven feet high. Maybe one day E candicans?

Fancy dress ball

May 1, 2017

Tresco: shadows in a corner

An ambition achieved: for years I have wanted to visit the legendary island of Tresco, to see its garden of all the things we can’t quite grow anywhere else in Britain. Somehow the journey to the Scilly Isles always felt like an insuperable obstacle. Resolve arrived this spring. The ‘transfer’, as a travel agent would call it, was an entertainment in its own right: 7. 06 at Paddington, 9.45 at Exeter St David’s: an hour to visit the startingly beautiful cathedral (which by itself made the whole journey worthwhile), 11.45 take off from Exeter Airport in a Skybus Twin Otter, 12.20 land at St Mary’s and 1.15 catch a launch to Bryher.

Bryher is the nearest of the Scillies to America, England’s westernmost habitable point, a tiny island just west of Tresco. At night its rocky reefs and peaty downs are swept every half-minute by the beam from the lighthouse on Bishop Rock, the starting line for liners challenging for the Blue Riband of the Atlantic. Bryher also boasts the Hell Bay Hotel; extreme comfort roguishly named after a sailor’s death-trap, a reef-rimmed lee shore notorious for shipwrecks.

The islands were serene, the sea a glassy azure, the air cool and the sun bright when we took the five-minute boat ride to Tresco’s tiny village. No sign of the famous garden except, peeping over a low hill, tell-tale tattered tops of tall windbreak trees. Only long-serving Monterey cypresses have that ragged silhouette. Twenty minutes walk brought us to the garden gate – and another world.

We were in the horticultural equivalent of a fancy dress ball. The climate is sub-tropically benign, insulated by the Gulf Stream. It can very occasionally break down, as it did in 1987, when frost and snow destroyed all the tender plants, and in January 1990, when a hurricane felled most of the 130-year-old shelterbelt and almost all the biggest trees. The epic story of recovery from these disasters is told by the head gardener, Mike Nelhams, in Tresco Abbey Garden, a Personal and Pictorial History. I don’t often give ISBN numbers, but it’s worth it for this eye-opener: 978 185022 200 2.

I found myself floundering with many of the genera, let alone the species, of the plants in his lists. Aeonium with its varnished maroon leaves, Banksia, Beschorneria leaning lasciviously, Bomarea, Carpobrotus, Coleonema, Doryanthes, Dryandra, Fascicularia, Furcraea, Kunzia…. The impact of so many strangers at once is overwhelming. It was almost a relief, after an hour or two of wandering through such a brilliant palette, to emerge to the quiet beauty of gorse and campion and bluebells and wild garlic lining the island’s narrow lanes.

Tresco Abbey Garden, we learned, was begun in 1834 by Augustus Smith from Hertfordshire, the heir to a fortune, who leased the island from the Duchy of Cornwall and became Lord Proprietor – as his great great grandson Robert Dorrien-Smith still is today.

When the Smith family arrived they found the remains of a Benedictine abbey in the most sheltered spot on the island and built their house beside it. It remains a sequestered place, shaded by New Zealand tree ferns, while the dazzling profusion of the Mediterranean, South Africa, Australia, Mexico and Chile spreads up the hillside above in a pattern of paths and steps and pools reminiscent, in places, of its Riviera contemporary, the Hanbury Garden at La Mortola.

The Dorrien-Smith family have persevered for nearly 200 years, living on the island they rule, loyal to a marvel of horticulture which is entirely their invention, and still bursting with innovation, new ornaments and new plants.


On guard

April 27, 2017

The depredations of the boxtree caterpillar, Cydalima perspectalis, have reached such a pitch in Kensington that Rassells Nursery has stopped sellling box plants for hedges. Instead they are offering a miniature holly, Ilex cornuta ‘Luxus Globe’,

Its leaves are smaller and darker than box. Its paler new growth at this time of year is quite pretty, but no one can pretend it will ever be a substitute for the mainstay of garden design for, literally, thousands of years. The Romans relied on it. Pliny the Younger cut it into extravagant figures at his villa by the sea. Populations of box trees are often evidence that Romans colonized a district. Where we lived in the Auvergne the outlines of a Roman town were still just visible, but the valley below was thick with ancient box trees. You didn’t find them anywhere else near there.

We all know its qualities as the trim and malleable friend of gardeners in the European tradition. Not everyone likes the evocative small of a box parterre on a dewy morning in summer, but the thought of a unique tradition chewed to oblivion to feed a nondescript little moth is hard to stomach.

We are defending our little hedges with whatever treatments are allowed. The caterpillars last year arrived in August ; in this strange spring they became obvious in chewed leaves and tiny webs in late March. The tiny caterpillars are hard to find but munch alarmingly fast. Even with daily inspection some survive – and turning your back to go away for a week is seriously ill-advised.

Ash trees, even elms, can be replaced with other trees, however we may miss their familiar silhouettes. Box, alas, has no real substitute. At Wisley there is a bed planted with possible replacements, trmmed as low hedges ; none, I fear, really cuts the mustard. Perhaps the best is Teucrium x lucidrys, or by its medieval-sounding name of hedge germander. The Prince of Wales evidently thinks so ; he has replaced box with it at Highgrove. Its chief drawback is its spikes of pink flowers, but I’m told hard trimming avoids them. Meanwhile, pray for a predator keen on cydalimas.

A tearing hurry

April 18, 2017

The gaudy gorse only stops at the Solent saltmarshes

A diarist must beware of mentioning the weather too often. It was admittedly half the point of Gilbert White’s diaries, and there are times and places where it simply grabs the limelight. I was probably pretty boring about the drought in Essex (and most parts) in 1976. Watching the sky became an obsession, and dragging hoses my principal exercise. The aftermath called for comment, too. The deluge killed plants that had survived the drought. Venerable beeches that had managed to make deeper roots to find moisture (their customary ones are near the surface) drowned when the floods came in October.

There was no ignoring the great gale of October 1987, either. But what about this spring? For the second year running winter has failed to show up. The first quarter of the year has been consistently mild. Phenologists (those whose bread and butter is recording dates of budding, leafing and flowering) say that one degree centigrade above average means one week earlier leafing. It sounds too tidy, but the average means one week earlier leafing. It sounds too tidy, but the Kensington wisterias are saying three degrees – or at least are in full bloom three weeks earlier than last year (which was early, too). The result has been what amounts to a summer Easter (Easter being late this year).

The resulting coincidences of flowering are alternatively a) charming b) bizarre c) disturbing or d) the writing on the wall. No scientific evidence is needed to know that, for example, London now has a pavement-café life that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Wine-growing in the south of England is no longer an optimistic eccentricity. It is making good money. Nor is it only England; growers in Champagne are nervous about losing the racy acidity in their grapes that gives champagne its edge in every sense.

Meanwhile Beaulieu Common in the New Forest is an extraordinary sight. The gorse has gone mad, painting the whole landscape a brlliant searing yellow. It is all in flower at once (and the smell, of vanilla and coconut and honey, is intoxicating). The vast gorse mounds where cattle and ponies shelter their hind-quarters in winter storms, turning their heads to the wind, are ramparts of a Buddhist colour. I fancy artists call gamboge, relieved here and there with the while of blackthorn. Whatever happened to the traditional blackthorn winter?

Cabinet of Curiosities

April 13, 2017

A morning at the Garden Museum with its ebullient director Christopher Woodward. He has much to ebull about. The redevelopment that has kept the museum closed for 18 months is nearly finished. On May 9th Friends will see the result and be amazed. It has been transformed, inside and out.

The main body of the museum is the nave of the gothic St Mary’s, Lambeth, but now it has an ingenious mezzanine with room for collections of garden gear; tools and paraphernalia in wonderful variety, including many of the sort of charming horticultural paintings you know must exist but would rarely be able to find. I intend to spend happy hours enjoying them.

The floor of the nave is a generous space for gatherings and lectures. The restaurant that was one of its most popular features, with home-made food that always manages to seem relevant, now has an airy space of its own in the new building that forms a cloister, surrounding the inner garden of 17th century plants designed by Dan Pearson, and its two famous tombs, of John Tradescant and Admiral Byng.

I was amazed by how many rooms and activities have found space in the new development. They include a substantial classroom for students and school-children, a studio, a teaching kitchen, and the Tile Wall which is already shaping up as a memorable feature. One of Christopher’s many snappy fund-raising ideas was to invite gardeners to adopt a ceramic tile made from their favourite garden photograph. 200-odd photos could keep you browsing for a long while. Another of his enterprises was to borrow back from the Ashmolean Museum some of the objects from John Tradescant’s collection that originally formed its core – and to swim from Oxford to London to raise the necessary money. They have their own gallery.

All this, and a surprisingly big outer garden, designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole and maintained by volunteers, seems to have expanded the whole enterprise by a factor of three or four. London’s museums have a serious new recruit.

Christopher’s blog on the museum’s website is well worth reading.

Plants behaving oddly

April 5, 2017

Blatant but not blowsy: Magnolia 'Star Wars', Kew, 31 March

Has this been the best year ever for Kew’s magnolias? It doesn’t really matter; last Friday they were sublime, under an azure sky with the proper proportion of fluffy white clouds, and an improper one of big shiny aeroplanes. The air was balmy, the breeze just enough to dislodge a petal here and there to brush past you on its way to lie at your feet. You must hold one to your cheek; there is nothing softer or cooler.

In the woodland garden the breeze jostled the white erythroniums from Oregon. Some pointilliste had filled a meadow with purple and white fritillaries. In the alpine house Tulipa sosnowskyi from the Caucasus was in orange and yellow flame. By the lecture rooms the huge bones of Eucalyptus dalrympleana shone white in the sun. Congested green flowers burst out of maples, embryo catkins from wingnuts, and tiny green points of leaf everywhere. All too soon? When times are out of joint like this is it is difficult not to feel a little surge of panic. Is this thrilling performance the swan song?

But then Kew induces the sense of a Grand Order of Being. Every plant is listed and assigned a place. At Kew God proposes, man disposes.

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 International Dendrology Society (IDS)