Child’s Play

April 4, 2018

The perfect skidpan

Children see gardens differently. How differently you only appreciate when you watch them at it: their alternative interpretations can be amusing – could actually be inspirational – or can be just plain annoying. It’s the go-karts that get to me.

Our careful creation in the New Forest, 20 acres of it, has infinite play potential, from swimming and toy boats in the pond to tree-climbing, stream-damming and just plain mud pies. Small children stay closer at hand, of course, and wreak havoc in the herb garden by the kitchen door. At five or six they find steps amusing: how many can you jump at one go? At seven they (and their friends) are keen on leaping streams, and anything containing water. A flight of garden stairs branching to enclose a water tank and splashing spout is good for a running leap onto the path below, sending the gravel flying onto the lawn. It wasn’t a good idea to plant primulas on the brink of a pond just at the take-off point to jump to the little island, either. Building a dam in the carefully-adjusted overflow from a pond comes naturally (irresistibly, in fact). Then the flooded margin makes a good splashing ground with excellent mud pie potential.

The deer have seen to it long ago that lots of our trees are multi-stemmed and prime for climbing. It’s only natural to kick footballs at flowerbeds and try to hit the bedroom windows with them. The logpile is a builder’s yard with intriguing construction possibilities, including, of course, ladders. And the circle in the gravel drive is the perfect go-kart skidpan. In the decibel stakes a go-kart comes just below a leaf-blower, but it’s a close thing.

Did someone suggest planting beans? The magic of germination comes a poor second behind stream-damming in child-appeal.

Snow in champagne

March 20, 2018

The snow settled on the camellias, flakes perching on petals, too cold to melt. It blew in misty clouds among the tall magnolias, their petals, happily, still furled in swelling buds. It gusted and spiralled and stooped in twirling white petticoats into the valley hiding the sea. I have a new measure of cold: when the snowflakes landing in your champagne pause before they melt.

The champagne was to toast a Williams family quartet of auspicious dates. Julian is 90, Charles is 60, John is 30 and Isla Rose has just been born. Roy Lancaster cut the tape to open a two-acre plot of new planting on the steep bank just above Caerhays Castle, commanding a grand view down to the sea. It foamed, brown and white, on the rocks sheltering an inlet perfect, I thought unworthily, for a spot of smuggling.

It is just as well the big Asiatic magnolias that are Cornwall’s pride are a good two weeks late this year. A few precocious flowers had already been frosted. A spell of cold like this, the wind chill taking it down to -8’, would have finished the great display. Camellias, though, seem to just shine all the brighter – and the supply and variety of them around here is overwhelming.

The Woodland Garden at Antony, near Plymouth, shelters the National Collection of Camellia japonica in a steep-sided valley, its little stream clattering down to the River Lynher and Plymouth Sound. Big oaks and beeches form the roof; the ceiling is painted with Magnolia campbellii and its kin, and the gleaming dark green of camellia leaves forms the background for all the girly colours, and the ruffled whites and deep bloody reds of the tribe.

Antony is far more than a great plant collection. Humfry Repton instructed the succession of glimpses of seawater framed by the trees. There is the oddity of an 18th century stone bathhouse supplied by opening sea sluices. There are formal yew walks, the biggest black walnut I have seen and what is surely England’s finest cork oak, seventy feet high and spreading far wider than that. The Antony mansion, grey, cool and precise, a statement of the Age of Reason, now belongs to the National Trust but is still home to the Carew Poles.

Snow curtained off the views of Plymouth across the water and lodged on every branch. The views from the train home, the combes of Devon and the levels of Somerset, white under gently settled snow; fields and fences, roofs and trees, were Breughel revised by S.R. Badmin.

A dream

March 10, 2018

A few of the pre-Victoriam camellias at Chiswick House

Here’s my fantasy. A hackney cab picks up a nurseryman from his Brompton Road nursery. They call at a house in Park Lane to collect an important customer who is a fanatical collector of new plants from China. Together they rattle on, down to the Strand to take a wherry to the new docks at Blackwall, just opened in 1806 for the biggest merchant ships of all, the 1000-ton East Indiamen. The Cumberland, Captain Euen Campbell, has been signalled from Gravesend, where she had stopped to lighten her cargo. Her huge four-deck bulk is being handled through the dock gates into the Import Dock. Our plantsmen go aboard to collect their prize from the captain’s hands; two new camellias never seen before in Britain.

Some of the camellias flowering in the Conservatory at Chiswick House this month are the plants brought over in the Company’s ships. Looking at the towering bush of Rubra Plena, one of the first to arrive, you can see what the excitement was about: a shiny-leaved evergreen bearing countless double bright red flowers. Moreover camellias are marvellously genetically unstable. You never knew what their seed might produce in the way of colours. You could pay £5000 for a plant with brightly blotchy red and white flowers; its offspring could be indifferent pink. The plant named as Variegata produced a seedling that is now called Alba Simplex – the name describes it perfectly. Not variegated at all.

The Duke of Devonshire finished his beautiful 300 foot long conservatory in the 1820s, a few years after my fantasy starts. Some of the camellias flowering in it today are originals; have seen the Southern Ocean. Most are their offspring, or at least descendants. Some have names referring to their importers, or the captains or the ships that carried them, like the ancient madeiras, another precious cargo, still to be seen in Savannah, Georgia. Others lost their identity along the way. Some now have trunks six feet round.

Fifteen years ago they were on their last legs. The conservatory was falling to bits; they were starving and infested with scale. Then the Camellia Society rode to the rescue. Today they are worth travelling to see. Are they the only camellias with this kind of pedigree? This month the Camellia Society is coming to Holland Park to see the dozen veteran plants along the wall of the Victorian orangery. It would be good to know their history, too.

Curtains for olives?

March 2, 2018

This will be the test of what we smug Londoners call ‘hardy’. I was young (and hardier myself) when I last saw streets and gardens full of snow like this, or felt this sort of cold.

Luckily the snow had already started to lie before the temperature dropped to minus 5; there will be an element of insulation for what’s in the ground. Our fears are for what is exposed, and specially for our fruitful Meyer’s lemon tree; now 30 years in its pot, having spent the past five deprived of any sun on our north-facing veranda (but carrying a promising crop of juvenile lemons).

We shall see how this, an oleander and a four-foot rosebud pelargonium stand up to it. We have wrapped the lemon up these past two nights in a shroud of fleece – which won’t of course, improve the temperature; it will simply moderate the wind-chill.

There’s nothing I can do to protect our precious blue Potato Bush, Solanum rantonettii, waving its many stems high above the wall and the greenhouse. All its leaves have gone now, some into the goldfish tank (where I hope they won’t prove solanaceously toxic). My other worry is for Iochroma (or Acnistus) australe, come to think if it another potatoid plant. There is a well-established bush in the Chelsea Physic Garden that flowers all summer, but down by the Thames these things are famously favoured. There was a big olive tree there long before they became common decorations. What, I wonder, will happen to all the dinky olives in pots on doorsteps? Our iochroma has been many years in a 10 inch pot, trained as a little standard, lovely when hung with its long blue bells. Frozen roots are not a good idea.

In due course we shall see the butcher’s bill. This looks like a costly winter for gardeners, and possibly a prosperous spring for the nurseries.



Sweet and singular

February 23, 2018

Edgeworthia chrysantha and Daphne bohlua

There are winter scents that can stop you in your tracks. Sarcococca is perhaps the most frequent these days; it seems to have matriculated from confidential to common in the past few years. Mahonia japonica has its sweet lily of the valley smell; daphnes are indispensable, viburnums almost universal. Winter honeysuckle becomes effusive indoors. Which insects deserve this outlay of perfume I’m not sure; the garden is certainly not buzzing with them. I would add Edgeworthia to this pantheon. It should, in the time-honoured phrase, be planted more often.

I have one particular plant in mind; one that shares a narrow north-facing London front garden with a champion Daphne bohlua. The edgeworthia measures nine feet across and six or seven high, a nest of twenty pliable, rather bare stems, yellowish in colour, each terminated by a white and bright yellow knob, covered  all over with silky white hairs, containing fifty or so little tubular flowers. Scents are notoriously hard to describe; this is sweet and singular, with a hint of lilac, and in combination with the daphne, crosses the roadway to arrest you.

Edgeworthia chrysantha is the one you will see most (but not very) often. There is a bright orange scarlet (presumably Welsh) form called Red Dragon, but I found that hard to grow. Who was Edgeworth? An Anglo-Irish adventurer who ended up as a police chief in British India, He found his plant (and many others) in the Himalayan foothills. He sounds an unusual policeman, corresponding with Darwin and Hooker and the Linnean Society. His sister Maria, meanwhile, (there were 24 Edgeworth children in all), wrote novels about Irish life (Castle Rackrent among them) that rivalled Jane Austen’s.

Thai night

February 16, 2018

A simple vase

Orchids, especially the white Phalaenopsis that supermarkets sell for next to nothing, have become such a decorator’s cliché that no one cares whether they are real or fake. I admit we have one against a mirror beside the bath that I hardly notice. Once a year or so I give the whole thing a bath; it comes out one shade whiter. Oddly enough, when I do focus on it I think it’s extremely elegant.

But this is Orchid time at Kew. Every year in February the Princess of Wales Conservatory becomes an exotic jewel-house. The Director of the gardens hosts an evening party for gardening’s Great and Good (and Trad sneaks in). You turn out into a cold and rainy night, walk the lighted path from Kew Green to the conservatory, and find yourself in (this year) a Tribute to Thailand.

There are apparently 1,100 species of orchid native to what was once called Siam. Kew didn’t say how many of them were on display; I suspect not a vast range; artistry, rather than botany, is the main point – in floral arches, tall pillars woven with cascading blooms, classic vases, a model royal palace in a moat, a flower boat, a golden gong and a wonderfully evocative rice paddy where miniature orchids among the rice plants presumably represented weeds, and a stuffed water buffalo stood looking patient but puzzled, with a basket of orchids on his back.

Kew, the director told us, has a very busy year ahead. The opening of the Temperate House after its costly 4-year restoration is the great event in May. It is an awesome sight already as its wraps gradually come off.

Next comes the pagoda, its scores of golden dragons, unseen since the 18th century, back in place the summer and the staircase opened to the top. Can you see Windsor Castle from up there? Later comes a new children’s garden near the Brentford Gate. And of course the Great Borders, in their third season, will vaut le voyage.


February 10, 2018

My forest walks – walks anywhere in fact – are always overlaid with visions of what could, or might, replace, and in my opinion improve, what I see around me. I expect Lancelot Brown felt just the same.  In town I imagine scruffy jumbles of nondescript buildings replaced with well-proportioned terraces or gleaming towers. From the train I envisage rivers and woods and rolling pastures full of calm cattle. From our favourite bench in deepest France, with a huge view of undulating bocage, I used to imagine a snow-capped mountain range on the horizon.

There is a little valley in our Welsh woods where two lively streams converge. Two more little streams glide down through culverts to make a meeting of four waters. All this hydro-activity was hidden under dark smothering spruces until a gale last summer felled a great tangle of trunks and branches, and toppled two in a line of tall Western hemlocks. The hemlock is not a tree foresters respect or sawmills want to buy, but in my view the most handsome of the potentially giant conifers we have from West Coast America.

Clearing up the resulting chaos revealed the potential beauty of this corner of the forest. The main stream comes crashing out of dense woodland higher on the hill and springs from a gap in a mossy old sheep-wall into the new clearing, to bounce and splash down the black rocks, below five majestic grass-green hemlocks aligned like a guard of honour. Fifty yards on it dives under the track to emerge again furiously into a much wider arena where we have felled an acre of dark conifers. The three other streams meet it here, converging to form acute angles of rushing water in the mossy forest floor.

At the moment it is a picture of stumps and snags and the debris of logging. In my mind’s eye it is something else: a mossy, ferny hollow under the beeches I will plant this year, where bluebells will rejoice in spring and in summer we will picnic in their dappled shade.

Don’t delay

February 6, 2018

The first week of February is the time to catch two of the loveliest sights of winter in the Alpine House at Kew. The Chilean Blue Crocus, Techophillea cyanocrocus, is not a crocus (it has its own genus), and struggles to survive in the Andes at about the 1000 metre mark, on dry sheltered slopes. It is not easy in cultivation, but amply justifies a visit to Kew. The first pale pool of Tommie crocuses is opening under the trees at the same time.

Even lovelier, to my eye, and certainly rarer, is the Madeiran Squill, Scilla maderensis. Its red-purple bulb, sitting half out of the compost in a substantial pot, produces a tossing swirl of lush green leaves, crowned with several spikes of amethyst-blue flowers in an open bottle-brush formation that holds and freezes the light. It is the brilliant opening of the new floral year.

Worth travelling to see

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

John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary