Wildfire

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.

 

Mellow

October 23, 2017

Each time I go to Osterley I am moved by the miracle of a real country house and its estate still existing in London. The District Line station is yards from the Lodge gates – Past there you are in the English landscape of before the war, unchanged: great oaks, and grazing cattle. You pass the farmhouse, and its stall of vegetables that have never seen a plastic bag, apples, cabbages and carrots, leeks and parsnips and eggs glowing with authencity. You cross the long winding lake that always makes me think the Child family had regrets they didn’t have the Thames in their park like their neighbours at Sion. You pass cedars that have no rival in London, and there is the house, by Robert Adam out of the stately Elizabethan model.

Andy Eddy, the head gardener, lets himself go in the walled gardens. The kitchen garden is a little model of tradition brought up to date; next door beds of bravura summer planting are resplendent in disarray. Round the little Adam summerhouse a pattern of wriggly island beds are as close to Gardenesque as to Adamesque; but both were of the age when each flower was planted free-standing to be admired on its own as a specimen, like a butterfly pinned to a board, rather than part of a pattern.

Chacun

October 16, 2017

 Many many generations in a score of different countries and cultures have shared a taste for a house by the sea. Especially the Med.  And the ideal must always have been similar.

Alma Tadema’s lush paintings of ancient Rome (at Leighton House for another two weeks) provided all the research Metro Goldwyn Mayer needed for Ben Hur or Cecil B de Mille for Cleopatra. Having seen his lithe young ladies in tunics leaning on white marble balconies above a turquoise sea it is not easy to picture the ancient Roman world in any other way. The ancient Greeks at the seaside are not so clear in my mind. Their salads may tasted different – minus the tomatoes – but the fish and the wine and the fun and games would be familiar.

The place to get some idea of a rich Greek’s summer holidays is Beaulieu sur Mer. The Villa Kerylos is a reconstruction of a luxurious villa built in about 200bc on Delos, the Aegean island sacred to Apollo. It sits on rocks at sea level, supported on an open arcade, surrounding an open atrium, cooled by the wash of sea air as waves break almost into the basement. At least that was the idea until the municipality decided to close the arcade with glass panels – so no more air conditioning.

The austerely elegant furniture was copied from the evidence of vase paintings and the Naples museum, the décor fashionably pharaonic. Its high ceilings and spare decoration seem to evoke the Greece of the ancients, whether accurately or not who is to say? I doubt whether the small garden of native plants represents anything ancient – but who knows?

It was built in the first years of the 20th century for an archaeologist, Theodore Reinach, who left it to the Institut de France. His wife Fanny was a cousin of Maurice Ephrussi, who married a Rothschild and built (as his riposte, perhaps) what is now the rival attraction of this part of the coast, the Villa Ephrussi, on the slopes of Cap Ferrat above.

The comparison is engrossing. The Greek villa evokes bare limbs, a certain frugality and healthy living, however distant that may be from Attic reality. The Rothschild palace, sugar pink and full of ormolu and bibelots, summons up long skirts and S-shaped corsets, vast tea tables and vast hats. The Ephrussi Gardens wander along the crest of the Cape and omit few idioms: formal (with musical fountains), woodland, Japanese, rose, succulent and archaeological (full of antique fragments). It looks down on Beaulieu Bay one way, Villefranche Bay the other. I will happily eat ices there all afternoon, but there’s no doubt, on this showing, who really loved the seaside.

 

Tally Ho

October 10, 2017

The R.H.S. has somehow got it into its head that our gardens should be ‘havens for wildlife’. When I saw a fox hopping from the street over the wall into someone’s garden last night I wondered if this is what they mean. I’m not desperate to welcome urban foxes into my garden, and I can’t picture any gardeners who would. The word vermin seems to have been bunny-hugged out of the language.

89.4 percent of England, and 93 percent of Britain, is rural (or at least not urban). In Wales the figure is 96 per cent, and in Scotland, of course, almost everything. The idea that large wild creatures be allowed, let alone encouraged to scavenge in our crowded towns is absurd. We will never get rid of grey squirrels, whatever the evidence against them. It is not easy to see how we will get rid of urban foxes either.

 

A critical eye

October 4, 2017

I wonder how many people with modest amounts of land (even farmers) have been stirred in the past by seeing what great landowners were doing, saw whole villages moved, or read about Repton’s Red Books, and started to look at their places in a different way.

Who first thought that land was worth looking at, apart from calculating crops and estimating values? The poet William Shenstone is often cited as a pioneer. He went to Oxford, inherited a farm called The Leasowes in the West Midlands, and bankrupted himself in treating it as a big garden. He died in 1769. William Gilpin from Boldre in the New Forest coined the expression ‘picturesque’, but there must have been quite a few minor gentry who looked out of their study windows with a fresh and critical eye.

It might have just been planting a tree or cutting one down. It might have started with taking a new route for the daily tour of the farm. Something triggers a more critical eye, or one with a different agenda. Why not explore that copse? I didn’t notice before that I can see the Downs, or the church steeple, from the gate into the upper field. Soon the farmer is calculating that by coppicing the hazel below his path he can catch a glimpse of the distant hills. I know because it has happened to me.

We walked around Wyken Hall Farm in Suffolk the other day with Sir Kenneth Carlisle, whose family have owned it for three generations. (He was born at Bodnant, which may have given him a head-start in judging landscapes.)

Wyken is a Tudor farmhouse that has grown this way and that over the centuries; a wing here, a wing there. Sir K. and Carla, his American wife, who entertains Country Life readers with her astute and witty column, are active gardeners. They have organized the space around the whimsical footprint of the house with simple, authoritative green-hedged arrangements, a sort of flowery stockade around the dwelling. Then paths lead out; to a rose garden, to a parterre, to an orchard; then a vegetable garden. Beyond are sheep meadows (with llamas for vertical emphasis) then hedges of a less formal cut, then the arable fields, woods and copses of a Suffolk farm.  Each door and window has a considered view; a garden leading out to a prospect.

Walking the fields with the owner it becomes a narrative. What was a ten-acre cornfield is now a wildflower meadow surrounding a lake, serving as a reservoir (this is the driest part of England). The scattered clumps of trees are a dendrologist’s collections of oaks and hornbeams. The path doubles back through hazel coppice and an ash plantation (with the depredations of Chalara all too evident) to the top of the Wyken vineyard, with distant views down a valley. You pass a barn for tractors, ploughs, harrows; the impressive implements of a modern farm, and return through an orchard to precise horticulture; box enclosures and a fountain.

If this seems logical today; to apply aesthetic ideas to your surroundings, it apparently didn’t before the 18th century.  Nor does it today, alas, on the evidence of a drive through most parts of the country, or almost any town.

Wyken Hall garden is open to visitors on weekdays between March and October. So is the vineyard. Better still, its excellent wines can be bought at the Leaping Hare Cafe, one of Suffolk’s best restaurants, and its too-tempting shop, near the house.

 

 

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