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.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines

March 29, 2017

Fleshing out the bones

Another weekend in the New Forest, inching forward with the design of the new garden. We are building an ample stone-flagged terrace outside the kitchen-conservatory, facing pretty much due south. March days with clear skies have given us a chance to road-test it in perfect conditions, so the first question is, when summer comes and heaven shines in earnest, what do we do for shade?

We have outlined the terrace with brick pillars at the corners, supporting an oak beam that frames the view down the walled garden and will carry swags of climbing roses. Roses, though, are scarcely shade-trees. It can be a windy spot, too, on a hill facing southwest and only three miles from the sea, so parasols have limitations; could end up fields away in fact.

Our new scheme is more nautical; to step a ship’s mast in the centre of the terrace and rig it to the house, the garden wall and the brick pillars to carry an assortment of sails. I first met this idea in a restaurant overlooking the port of Sète on the Mediterranean. The white triangles of jibs (and I suppose staysails) caught the eye invitingly from the quayside below. Rigged precisely to intercept the rays of the sun crossing the sky, they kept at least some of its heat and dazzle off the restaurant. Could we make it work at this slightly higher latitude? It will take a lot of seamanship, but I love the idea of unfurling a jib for lunch and another for tea.

I see the walled garden as a stage set, with the terrace as the stalls, the pergola the proscenium arch, and the wings as, on the left, the perspective of a long border, and on the right a pleached hornbeam hedge half-hiding a lower level of garden, and beyond it the wide valley view. The lower garden is the sports section: ‘short’ tennis and croquet, the upper part the leisure department – apart, that is, from the gardener’s point of view.

Water flows laterally across the garden from the upper wall on the left, reappears as low fountains in a central rectangular basin, and makes a third appearance splashing into another tank at the lower level. You’ll hardly think you’re in the Shalimar Bagh, I’m afraid, but this is Hampshire..

Sociable climbers

March 22, 2017

How you cover the walls is absolutely key to a little hemmed-in garden like this one. Intense competition, for root-run as well as for light, is taken for granted; the question is how many place-earning climbers can you persuade up the walls and trellis. The total length of our walls is 2 x 55 + 17 = 127 feet. (The house end is all paved; so no soil to plant. We collect ferns in pots in the permanent shade). I count 21 climbers, or wall plants, so far, that’s six feet per plant, which sounds pretty generous, but they have no inhibitions about invading each other’s space.

One side is entirely dominated by ivy. There’s nothing I can do about it except cut off its shoots. I don’t even know where its trunks are. It shares almost half the west-facing wall and the trellis, to a height of 10 feet, with a climbing hydrangea, whose bright green shoots are just waking up against the dusty green of the ivy.

Two roses and two clematis share this space; the clematis doing better than the roses. C. alba luxurians in particular is never short of energy, and sends its exiguous shoots way up in the ivy to splatter it with its green and white flowers all summer.

I always think of clematis as high-risk, though. Last year two started lustily before they collapsed; a highly-prized C montana ‘Wilsonii’ and a C. tangutica I intended to fill a yellow-and-green Canariensis ivy with inappropriate blossom. The evergreen Clematis armandii, which I planted on the west-side trellis to obscure activities next door, grew strongly from April to June, then stopped, then started again in late September in time for its new growth to be blasted by an early frost. What signal of temperature or day-length can have pressed “Go’ as summer was winding down? This year it shows no sign of growing on from the height it achieved last year: it has started again from almost the bottom.

All this makes me apprehensive when I give a viticella the statutory February chop down to two feet.. Those thin paper-covered stems show no hint anywhere of incipient buds. Then suddenly a fat red shoot appears from under the paper covering and away it goes..

Of all our climbers the most fragile-looking is Eccremocarpus scaber (or ‘Chilean Glory Flower’, though I’ve never heard anyone call it that – and glory is slightly hyperbolic for flowers barely an inch long). A tiny wisp of a seedling (they are evergreen) sat under the wall in deep dank shade all winter, in a slug safari park, and put out its tendrils no thicker than a daddy-longlegs’s legs when it felt the first breath of spring warmth. I was lucky enough to inherit the yellow-flowered version; in fact it’s the colour of clotted cream. It will scramble up the bare trunk of a Viburnum x burkwoodii trained against the wall. It will flower all summer and scatter fertile seedlings; there’s one just coming up in a camellia pot right now.

In memoriam

March 20, 2017

My thoughts keep turning, as each excitement of spring bursts on us, cherries chasing magnolias, the grass a blue haze of speedwell, to a dear friend who had just made the garden of his dreams when he died, unexpectedly and unnecessarily, last October.

He inspired me to be a gardener. He was the first friend I had who used Latin names for plants -which I originally thought was an affectation, until I too started repeating those mellifluous syllables Alchemilla mollis in my head and the whole absurd complexity of gardening germinated in my brain.

He loved planning gardens for friends; usually ambitious plans calling for builders. His own gardens were ambitious, too – certainly in the range of plants he grew and the awkward spaces he managed to grow them in. Finally in retirement he bought a house in Somerset and spent a year absorbed in building a formal raised pond for his fish, with a series of radiating arches and raised beds, in which he crammed all his favourite plants. Just now they are identifying themselves, their buds opening and shoots lengthening, beginning to claim the spaces he gave them. More raised beds are all ready, damp brown well-manured earth, ready for him to sow his vegetables and plant his fruit. I grieve for him and the beauty he will never see.

1,000 miles south

March 15, 2017

Still scarcely spring; the Alcazar gardens in Seville

Home from a week in Andalusia and the Algarve, luckily in a warm spell after a cold winter – there, not here. It was 29C in Seville and the plane trees were straining to leaf out. Orange trees are, of course, the Seville speciality, lining the streets and squares; at this time of year you have to pick your way among the windfalls. Soon the air will be tangily sweet with the white blossom among the sumptuous green leaves.

In the Algarve, the windswept meadows around Cape St Vincent, the bottom left hand corner of Europe, are painted yellow, sharp invigorating yellow, by the rampant Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-caprae. How this South African native wood sorrel encircled the globe (or at least its temperate middle) is a cautionary tale. I remember admiring its shamrocky leaves and picking a vase full of its long-stalked elegant flowers years ago on the Côte d’Azur, wondering what exotic jewel it was. Then I remembered sieving out the tiny bulbils that its pink cousin flung around in our kitchen garden. It has Dead or Alive posters up now from the Mediterranean to California.

We were in the brief season when grass covers the hills; greener, tenderer-looking grass than any northern lawn, every blade distinct on the tawny ground. On the downland towards the Spanish border, the wandering river Guadiana and the dams that cluster round in sudden little valleys, dots of brilliant white mean the cistus is coming into flower, its new shoots gleaming bright sticky green and each wide white petal stamped with a maroon blotch. Slim graceful asphodel grows head-high among the cistus; ‘French’ lavender is already bright purple and succulent tufts mean tulips are on their way, their colours still unrevealed.

A thousand miles south of London spring seems scarcely more advanced, but then there no one plants precocious ornamentals. The excitement is concentrated in the vegetable plots; a patch of succulent spinach is worth more than a camellia.

Lake or pond?

February 28, 2017

Current residents of the Round Pond

Is our New Forest water (see my last entry) a pond or a lake? A reader has put me straight. It’s not just a question of size. A lake has a water surface big enough to allow a swan to take off. It’s an elegant solution, he suggests, bcause it involves the surroundings as well as the water. Quite a big pond in the middle of a wood would still be a pond; remove the trees and it would attract swans and become a lake. So it’s up to swans to decide.

The swan measure rates the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens a lake (they love it) – but can a lake have a hard bottom and masonry margins? And things are different again in America. On Golden Pond was a movie about a lake, and Menemsha Pond, where I remember dropping anchor once in the fog between ghostly buoys, each with its cormorant, is an arm of the sea.. But then Martha’s Vineyard is not a vineyard,

Seen from above

February 24, 2017

The lake fills up

It never occurred to me before that designing a garden in plan (ie from a bird’s perspective) is quite different from designing it in elevation (ie from eye height). I’ve always considered the view from the likeliest vantage point (the kitchen window comes high on the list) and added to or subtracted from what I see from there.

Things are different in the New Forest garden that fills my thoughts at present. The main view is from the windows and veranda facing west, overlooking a wide meadow of 15 acres or so, with ‘over’ as the operative word. The land drops steeply, down a series of curving banks, to the level perhaps fifty feet below. You take it all in in one side-to-side scan, without interruption, dead ground or mass of vegetation blocking the view. Positioning trees from up here is like placing pieces on a draughts board. The challenge is imagining the resulting elevations, in scale, proposition, texture and colour. How will each tree we plant fit into the picture at ground level?

Our big feature is a new lake (or pond; semantic discussion here) carved like a two-acre kidney over to the right. Beyond it stands one solo and splendid spreading oak. The boundaries of the meadow are decent routine trees, oak and ash and holly, with fleeting glimpses of the Lymington River winding out of reach beyond. So the first job was to make the best river-glimpse, of a white painted footbridge, into a focal point, by cutting branches to clear the view. The next is to plant some vertical accents to frame it and vary the uniform hedge-like boundary.

In the far left hand corner we have put a small block of utilitarian poplars, Populus robusta, the kind they grow (or grew) for matchsticks. Their rigid pattern arrests your eye; a click of focus against a monotone background. On the far right, where an old Dutch barn is the only distraction, we have planted the most obvious of screens, a file of Lombardy poplars. The poplars will grow a yard a year: what would we do without them?

It’s a big canvas. I’m not straining for subtlety; the seasons’ colours will bring plenty of nuance. Water means willows; the most beautiful are weeping. Two here, four there…. the groundwork is going in, and we haven’t got beyond the Salicacae.

A better name

February 18, 2017

The weed with an AGM

Crocuses are so sudden. There have only been three days of open weather, wide light skies with clouds you can count, a breeze without an edge, and they come out of hiding. The weather, of course, is a February Feint. Next week, the blizzard. But it’s a little trailer for spring just when you’re starting to need it.

Crocuses are like snowdrops, interesting as individuals but sensational as whole armies. I wouldn’t say that about roses. It’s worth going a long way to see a woodful of snowdrops, and most certainly worth going to Kew to see the little tommies. Crocus tommasinianus is not (I imagine) a connoisseur’s plant, but the impact of a tennis-court’s-worth, its mauve suffused with a silvery sheen in the sun, is unique. Do they glow at night? Propagating them is not a problem; they may be the only weed with an AGM.

Their name is scarcely in their favour, but call them Crocus de Tommasi and they sound much better. The suggestion comes from a charming website I stumbled across, as one does, looking for more than the dull physiological details. The stories collected by besotted amateurs make far better reading. This website is called In Paghat’s Garden and comes from Puget Sound in the state of Washington. Sadly internet entries are rarely dated (surely something its masters could fix) so this may not be hot news.

Paghat tells me that tommasinianus is derived from the botanist Muzio de Tommasi. In the first half of the 19th century he explored Carinthia, Friuli and Dalmatia, in the southern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with, among others, George Bentham (of Bentham and Hooker), and also found time to be Mayor of Trieste. I love to be told that Germans call it the ‘elphin crocus’, and I shan’t struggle with tommasinianus again.

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