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.


February 15, 2017

The first sniff of spring in the air today; aconites opening, snowdrops unsheathing, tree buds showing signs of life. There is a growth scent in the air, despite the frost, that makes my spirits surge. It also makes me think how deep my hibernation has been these last two months, and how timely. The dormancy of the garden has given me a respite from the temptation of outdoors, time to sit and concentrate on the book I’m writing.

Or rather rewriting. I first wrote it half my lifetime ago, in 1973. How I had the nerve I don’t know. I was mocked in Private Eye. ‘Johnson admits that until he had signed the contract he had never seen a tree.’ Miraculously, readers don’t seem to have twigged that I was only one step ahead of them, if that, in my studies. What they could tell was that I was loving it. Not half as much, though, as I am loving revisiting my old state of innocent ignorance to bring myself up to date.

The solid elements I can add now are, first, experience. In 1973 I had planted a mere handful of trees and never cut one down. 37 years later I have planted thousands, some of them successfully, others no doubt ill-advisedly, and cut down almost as many. In other words I have turned forester as well as gardener. Decades of collecting, observing, calculating and just adoring trees have given me a lot, probably too much, to say.

Second new element: refreshed expertise from John Grimshaw, whose New Trees, introductions, that is, since 1970, was published by Kew last year. John is, unexpectedly for a tree expert and enthusiast, resident galanthologist at Colesbourne, the Gloucestershire estate of the Elwes family. Henry John Elwes was the (Edwardian) co-author, with Augustine Henry, of the monumental Trees of Great Britain & Ireland. There is a pleasing symmetry here.

I can handle the temptation while the ground stays hard and until we see touches of leaf. The counter-pull of books piled round me, the red fire and the cold hypnotic screen are holding their own for the moment. I must press on before my resolve thaws, too.

Walled in

February 13, 2017

Another cold day in the New Forest, supervising planting in our daughter and son-in-law’s new garden. It was a familiar spot long before they bought the house: the late Peter Chappell’s wonderful Spinners Nursery of woodland plants was right next door, and round the corner the village school that was started by William Gilpin, Vicar of Boldre and apostle of the Picturesque.

It is a total contrast to our old Essex garden. This is essentially old oak woodland on a slope down to the little Lymington River. The soil is mildly acid; the default plant in the whole district is the rhododendron. The house looks down on a broad meadow and a population of roe deer, a joy to watch but a menace to a gardener. They browse without discrimination. Lists of plants deer don’t eat are chimerical.

Our answer is walls. We have cut back into the slope by the house to build a walled garden on two levels, following the slope and facing south and west. The upper level has borders and a long central pool; the lower is a lawn for games. The two are divided by a pleached row of hornbeams above a stone wall, and the main terrace along the south wall of the house is defined by brick pillars supporting oak beams to make a two-dimensional pergola.

I’ve been looking for mop-head trees to form a group at the far end from the house; ideally that miniature sport of the field maple, Acer campestre Nanum. Grafted at just the right height, I found it perfect for the village hall at Great Saling, but sadly I can only find it grafted at two metres, which is too high for the scale of the garden. Its small leaves and guaranteed autumn yellow would make it ideal. What else might do the job? Such evergreens as Quercus ilex or bay would be too emphatic and formal; my ideal is trim but green-leafy, bright in spring, soft in summer and glowing in autumn. On the shorter trunk that we need (1.75 m is ideal) the choice is limited. Planting the mop-head robinia is asking for sucker problems; once they start they never go away. Liquidambar and parrotia, to my surprise, can both be bought top-grafted; I fear their leaves are too big, though. But there is a dwarf pin oak, Quercus phellos ‘Green Dwarf’, that seems to answer. We shall see – and meanwhile wire the walls for the roses. It’s still a building site now, but hornbeam, yews and box are in and spring is getting close.

Oil, not water

February 7, 2017

Cader Idris in the distance

Back from Snowdonia after our customary mid-winter visit. By the beginning of February there were already tiny signs of spring in swelling buds, hazel catkins, a few snowdrops. There was snow dusting the hills over 600 feet; on one west-facing grassy bank the first wild Welsh daffodil had opened. In The Winter’s Tale Perdita says ‘Daffodils, that come before the swallow dares and take The winds of March with beauty’. This is February; more evidence of climate change?

A sunny day in winter here is disconcertingly beautiful. The hills have a far richer palate of colours even than their spring swatch of pale-to-dark greens or their yellow-to-khaki-to-ginger autumn coat. Winter colours come in fine brushstrokes and filigree detail. Oaks, trunk to twig, shine light grey in the sun, ashes silvery white, sometimes orange, birch twigs smoky purple; you can pick out their populations across a valley, distinct from the red of Japanese larch among the grey-blue of Sitka spruce. Hemlock and Douglas fir are coachwork green, the rocks among them various greys dotted with white quartz or stained yellow with lichen. Bracken smears thehills with brown. Gorse, even now, pricks bright yellow stitches, and a stream flashes silver. There is nothing watercolour about this painting: it has the full tone of oils.

Brutal dinge

February 5, 2017

Concrete has never had any appeal for me – and I could express it more strongly than that. It has noble and necessary uses: Norman Foster’s astonishing Millau viaduct, for example, curving on its slender pillars a thousand feet above the Tarn. But in its brutalist heyday in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s the cult of concrete usurped the place of brick and stone. I can’t wait to see some of its worst outrages demolished.

The Household Cavalry barracks in Knightsbridge is one of my pet hates: horses in a tower, indeed. The old barracks was a dashing brick range festooned with trophies and helmets, with a stone ball on each buttress. I bought one from the demolition people for the garden at Saling Hall, but I can’t forgive the dingy grey intrusion on the views in Hyde Park. You could argue that the Hilton Hotel is worse – or at least taller, but the barracks is ours, built with our money, which makes it a self-inflicted wound. The Knightsbridge side is appalling, too; an immense length of grubby grey wall.

This is concrete’s shame; its grubby grey, inevitable as rain-streaks and made far worse by rough-shuttering. Architects would probably say (indeed, have said) that it demonstrates their honesty to show the grain of the timber they use. All it does is to collect even more dirt. The National Theatre on the South Bank is a dreadful example – in this case, of the grain of Douglas fir). Its architect, Sir Denys Lasdun, said ‘there is something aphrodisiacal about the smell of wet concrete’. The Economist’s architectural correspondent described it as ‘an aircraft carrier in collision with a Norman keep’. It’s fine at night, when all you see are the lighted windows. By day it is the epitome of dinge.

Concrete in gardens, once it spreads from the paving up the walls, or into a brutalist pergola, brings drabness into what should be light, elegant and gay. Of course there are exceptions. Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s house astride the river at Bull Run, Pennsylvania, balances concrete slabs on a composition like a mobile, airy and graceful. Its concrete, though, is smooth, clean and not remotely brutal. Even so, Wright once said he would prefer it covered in gold leaf.

Concrete is fundamentally a cheat. You can pour it into any shape (as Zahar Hadid does in the absurb white wave of a café, like something from Moby Dick, in Hyde Park). It never shows you how the building works, where the weight falls, or how the structure supports itself. Timber, bricks and stone do that; concrete is carving in blancmange.

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’

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