World without conkers

March 1, 2010

There is very little we can do about the two problems that beset our horse chestnuts, leaf miner, and possibly fatal canker, except insure against a future without them. It is by no means inevitable, but we should be prepared.

What to plant to succeed them depends, of course, on what part they are playing. An avenue presents the worst dilemma. There is scarcely ever space to plant another avenue for succession outside the root-zone and the shade of the incumbent

Fell alternative trees and replant in the gaps? It is hard to take such a radical long-term view, but it is probably the best answer. And replant with what? Limes are the safe choice.

To replace a screen of chestnuts, which is what I need to do (they are the only big trees between the house and the village street) I am planting beech under and around the chestnuts. Beech grows quite quickly when its young and demands less light than other candidates. By planting the trees small and quite thickly I hope they will be forming an almost hedge-like screen (though not cut as a hedge) by the time the horse chestnuts succumb – if they do. Then I shall be able to choose the best beeches – some may well be damaged by falling timber – and train them up as worthy successors.

Sketched from life

February 24, 2010

It was a regular customer who suggested I should change my nom de terre to Treedescant. You’re always writing about them, she said.

Touché. But it’s largely a winter habit. At this time of year they are the only thing in the garden to look at – and this is the time when you really can see them; they’re not all covered with leaves. It is the intricacy of their frameworks that I love to see, and the intimacy of their just-swelling buds. The comparison with people, with and without clothes, did occur to me – but you never know where these things will lead.

Certainly there’s nothing outside the window so well worth study as the Siberian crab that rises like a wind-blown fountain a hundred yards down the drive. Its jet black silhouette perfectly expresses its experiences over 60 years or so; the constant shove of the west wind inclining it to the east, the perennial effort to find more light for its leaves ……

An artist who could draw such a telling design would be rightly celebrated. Every tree out there is a drawing of an autobiography, expressed in a different medium and a different style. Call me Treedescant if you like.

Pulling through

February 13, 2010

There will be plenty of time for post mortems after the winter has done its worst. Previous cold winters have taught us not to be hasty: miraculous resurrections are not unknown. What I am seeing now, though, is the survival (albeit in a battered state) of plants that the books say should be dead.

I only planted my old aspidistra outside as a joke; a sort of mock hosta to frighten visitors. Confirmed house-plant it may be, but it is very much alive under (and over) its blanket of mulch. Unmulched, left where it seeded itself, Geranium palmatum, both adult with its huge leaves and baby seedling, look perfectly happy. A seedling of Euphorbia mellifera is only a little brown at the edges. In fact I see hardly any obvious mortality so far. I am worried about my fish, though: what do last year’s little fry do under the ice: suspend animation?

Painting with Plants

February 1, 2010

I envy analytical gardeners; those who can (or instinctively do) say “A bold upright there and there, a clump to balance them there, something big and jagged like a yucca over in the corner and a screen of something filmy up here near the terrace”.

You have to be a professional, I’m afraid, with a deadline facing you. Decisions must be made. Experience has told you that there is no uniquely right answer to any garden-planning question. So off you go: if you choose good plants and have a clear idea about colour there will never be a Chilcott Enquiry into how you reached your decision.

An amateur like me needs help, not just in coming to a decision (it’s probably too late for that) but in seeing the building blocks for what they are. Why am I verbalizing this? Because an old friend has come up with a formula that (maybe) fills my need.

Linden Hawthorne and I used to play at bookends with The Garden magazine. I was the first editorial page, Lin was the last. We didn’t exactly consult – we sort of responded to each other’s columns.

Lin is a professional, directing operations on the ever-developing grounds of the Storey estate in North Yorkshire. Have you noticed how properly-trained gardeners do things in an organized way that easily-distracted dilettantes can never manage? Her column done (at about the same time as mine came to an end) Lin turned to serious writing – and here you have it, in her book titled Gardening with Shape, Line and Texture. (She wanted to call it Painting with Plants.)

After laying down some fairly alarming first principles (alarming to me because they involve maths) she categorizes the world of (mainly herbaceous) plants by their garden stature, their overall shape and feel. This provides the structure for a list of what we use as ingredients, in the voice of a long-practised chef. There are many ways a gardening writer can string his or her (don’t you hate ‘their’?) experience into narrative. Lin’s list works because she recounts, quite crisply, how she uses each plant and how it behaves in real life.

So I have all the tools at my disposal. Next excuse?

Splitting hairs

January 25, 2010

Nigel Colborn makes a powerful case in The Garden this month: that there is too much random plant-breeding going on and too many new cultivars are being sold. The gardening world has become a jungle of fancy flowers with fancy names and no one can keep track.
The standard response of course is that no one is obliged to buy or plant them, and that the laws of natural selection will ensure the survival of the prettiest, or the most pest-proof. The multiplication gives innocent pleasure to anoraks of different stripes. Where would galanthophiles be in the snowdrops-and-marmalade season without tiny green blotches to discuss?

Anything that sharpens observation, you could argue, has a merit. It has a de-merit, though, too. It baffles and confuses those who just want a straightforward answer, and the means to create a simple, strong and memorable garden effect.

Snowdrops aren’t the only thing; nor is horticulture alone in hair-splitting. Wine-lovers are prone to debating the merits of different patches of ground, different farmers on the same patch, the smell of oak from different forests, and whether a Belgian bottling doesn’t capture more of the essence than the domaine’s own efforts. A wine-lover, though, is not painting a picture or laying out ground. He/she is just reporting the messages from his/her taste-buds and olfactory nerves.

Is hair-splitting bad news for gardening? One answer is that it is not gardening at all.

Friend or foe

January 22, 2010

Is moss friend or foe? I’m never sure whether to apologize for my apple trees or admit my pride in them. At the end of a wet winter their branches are thickly coated on their upper sides with an emerald-green fabric like baize crossed with velvet. It is thicker on the trees on the shadier side of the garden, and thickest, covering much of the trunk too, on the tree in the south west corner that gets the most shade from the house and the churchyard wall.

Our trees have been pruned for many years, perhaps always, into open goblet, or even parasol, shapes to let light into their canopies, cutting off the year’s new growth but leaving fists of old wood on snaking stems; hardly a classical method but wonderfully energizing to flowers and fruit. The combination of gnarled and writhing grey wood and the emerald moss gives me enormous pleasure. Visitors gasp and get their cameras out. Serious fruit growers give me recipes for moss removal. Should I be worried?

It was in Japan that I first appreciated moss as a plant that could transform a garden. Saiho-Ji, the monastic moss garden, is only the most notable of many where the moss on rocks, paths, on the banks of streams and the trunks of trees, feels like a spell cast by an old green witch. In winter it is almost lurid green, in summer shades of green and brown, but the muting, softening effect is permanent. There are no sharp edges: no ultimate focus except the textures, the (rather rare) shock of pure clean petals, and the contrasting polish of water.

In this garden moss has crept up on me. It must be cumulative in the whole garden, endemic (and increasing) in the lawns, overwhelming on the abandoned tennis court, and presumably finding its perfect perch on the apples.

Under glass

January 9, 2010

The garden has been hidden under snow and the ground frozen for a week now. The conservatory is the only place to see plants (and to how realise how much it means to see leaves and flowers). The days have been reasonably sunny but the nights regularly down to 27’ Fahrenheit or so. We rely on two little electric fan heaters to keep the frost out – with a Calor gas stove for emergencies. At breakfast time we are down to 40’; on one morning 36’, yet a surprisingly long list of plants are in flower – some only residually, but some making steady headway.

Pelargoniums are still providing most of the colour; ivy-leaved, pink, white and red, ‘Apple Blossom’ now seven feet

The garden has been hidden under snow and the ground frozen for a week now. The conservatory is the only place to see plants (and to how realise how much it means to see leaves and flowers). The days have been reasonably sunny but the nights regularly down to 27’ Fahrenheit or so. We rely on two little electric fan heaters to keep the frost out – with a Calor gas stove for emergencies. At breakfast time we are down to 40’; on one morning 36’, yet a surprisingly long list of plants are in flower – some only residually, but some making steady headway.

Pelargoniums are still providing most of the colour; ivy-leaved, pink, white and red, ‘Apple Blossom’ now seven feet

Private Princedom

January 8, 2010

Snowed up, the sun painting sharp blue shadows on a ground of silvergilt between my window and the churchyard wall. It is too cold to enjoy being outdoors. Time to look through a drawer of old papers about the house and garden accumulated over nearly forty years. One is an inscription I never got round to putting in the garden temple (I couldn’t decide between a floor slab and a frieze).

Every man’s proper Mansion House and Home, being the Theatre of his Hospitality, the Seat of Self Fruition, the Comfortablest Part of his own Life, the Noblest of his Son’s Inheritance, a kind of Private Princedom, nay, to the Possessor thereof, an Epitomy of the whole World, may well deserve, by these Attributes, to be Decently and Delightfully Adorned.

This is Sir Henry Wotton, in 1624, introducing his Elements of Architecture in the manner of Bacon. He does not speak directly of gardening, but his lapidary language spoke strongly to me when I was younger. Does it sound absurd today? No more, I suppose, than the whole idea of a garden temple.

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Trees

Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

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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,…

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