Urban Jungle

November 18, 2009

I hadn’t been to Hong Kong for quite a while. There are plenty of shiny new buildings to marvel at, far too many shiny shopping malls, and the harbour gets narrower and narrower as they reclaim more land for building. (I always wonder where the ‘re’ comes in. ‘Claim’ is more like it. Or just ‘grab’. Soon the splendid old Star Ferries will be redundant; you’ll be able to jump to Kowloon).

What I hadn’t expected, and was thrilled to see, was the amount of gardening that is being incorporated in the midst of all this expansion. The Botanic Garden is well established, planted on the site of the old Victoria barracks and dotted with the dignified mansions of military top brass, one now the tea-ware museum, another the city’s wedding office, usually decorated with young brides and their attendants in candyfloss finery.

A really busy Botanic Garden, with appreciative crowds going about their business, taking photos and even reading tree-labels, is an energizing sight. There is a handsome waterfall into a rocky lake (the waterlilies are labelled, too); by the lake reclines a fat stone frog, legs akimbo, the very spirit of Chinese hedonism.

Fun with plants doesn’t end with the Botanic Garden, though. You can wander on through groves of trees and follow winding paths through beds of ferns, brushing your knees beside a rushing rocky stream – this at the foot of I.M. Pei’s gleaming Bank of China. Indeed the view inland, up towards the Peak from these many-storied glass palaces, could convince you that the forest was advancing on the city.

Most of Hong Kong Island is more or less wild country. If the city itself is like a shinier and more modern Monaco, the east, west and south coasts are a sub tropical Côte d’Azur; cliffs, capes and bays like deep green fretwork around the busy sea.

Future Pleasures

October 29, 2009

The Essex Bush

I wonder how many great gardens of the future are taking shape, unknown to most of us, in this age of plantsmanship and planting. More, I suspect, than at any time for a hundred years, the era of the Himalayan-inspired woodland gardens of the early 20th century that I call, collectively, Rhodoland.

Woodland ones are, of course, the slowest. The full achievement of some of today’s gardeners won’t be known until after their time. I have been visiting the most notable of those nearby since its inception some ten years ago and the sense of ambition gradually being fulfilled is thrilling. Few people know it yet, but Marks Hall, near Coggeshall in north Essex, already has an aura. Its splendid three-walled garden (the fourth side being a lake) is excitingly planned and cunningly planted; ready for photographers, indeed. But another hundred acres or more are only just emerging as a landscape with a unique sense of place.

It is an arboretum in a wood, in glades and rides surrounded by mature oak, pine and chestnut. But an arboretum of communities: not one Himalayan birch or dogwood or liquidambar or Koelreuteria but scores of them, the same species repeated again and again, merging with others at the edges of the group to give the impression of a natural population.

The most memorable section, at least for the moment, is ‘Gondwanaland’, where plants from the southern hemisphere, sundered by continental drift over millions of years, are reunited. Scores ofEucalyptus, but not a collection, just E. dalrympleana and E. debeuzevillei, cluster their pale trunks amongst New Zealand grasses against a dark wood of Andean nothofagus. If you want to see not a specimen but a wood of the Wollemi pine, the new celebrity survival from desert Australia, there are 60 or 70 here, dotted like forest seedlings. The colours and shapes, the smells and sounds, already make this the Essex bush, a garden like no other with, I’m sure, a famous future.

The heron’s secret

October 26, 2009

Do herons just stand patiently in the shallows in the hope that a fish will come within range? The odds, you would think, would be on them going hungry. No, Andrew Lawson told me, as we stood scanning a pond for the fry I told him were there. Herons, he had heard, attract fish with a substance secreted in their long thin legs. I can find no reference to this, but being on balance pro-fish and anti-heron, I would be fascinated to find out more.

On Growth and Form

October 23, 2009

Nature, said Galileo, cannot grow a tree or construct an animal beyond a certain size, while retaining the proportions and employing the materials which suffice in the case of a smaller stucture. The thing will fall to pieces of its own weight…….. become clumsy, monstrous and inefficient, unless we change its relative proportions, or else find new materials….

No, I wasn’t reading Galileo in the original, I’m afraid. I was reading him in D’Arcy Thompson’s great book On Growth and Form. D’Arcy Thompson? He was a giant Scotsman. physically and intellectually, a classicist, mathematician and Professor of Biology at Dundee University for no less than 64 years. On Growth and Form was described by Sir Peter Medawar as ‘beyond comparison the finest work of literature in all the annals of science..in..English’. I read it when I was writing my tree book 35 years ago. Now, preparing a new edition, I am reading it again.

Thompson’s originality was to consider evolution in terms of physics and mathematics. Why do things take the shapes they do, and grow to their proper sizes? What is a proper size? Trees and their growth apart, we seem convinced that growth is esssential to the success of any organism. Why does a business have to grow? To stay ahead of competitors, to profit by economies of scale, to fulfil Mr Micawber’s definition of happiness… or just because we equate growth with success?

Reading Thompson, strangely enough, made me think about the RHS. It started life as a learned Society, kept going in more or less the same spirit for ovr 150 years, then in the past decade or so put on a furious spurt of growth. It is the demotic spirit of the age. Perhaps it is essential for survival. Perhaps it will, in Galileo’s words, succeed by changing its relative proportions or finding new materials.

Identity Crisis

October 19, 2009

I concur, of course, with those who hold it is dangerous and immoral to muddy the pure waters of taxonomy. To give, for example, an unauthorized name, for whatever reason, to any plant that has a good (or at least a valid) name already. Synonymy, with names that are merely hort adding to the complication of those that are bot, gives the compilers of The Plantfinder half their problems. Ignorance is the only possible plea.

And yet…. Frail gardeners sometimes know only one thing for certain about a plant – who gave it to them. Its genus, probably. Its species, perhaps. Its variety or cultivar name, more foggy. I’ll confess. I grow a hydrangea that I have never matched with an official name. It is a ravishing tender blue pale blue with no electricity in it and fades into shades of lavender and grey and green. I am probably put off the scent by our soil conditions; my interest, frankly, is simply in keeping it as it was when I was given it, by a dear friend and veteran (among many things) gardener, now 90, called Leonard Ratcliff.

Guess what I call it. It’s unauthorized, immoral and the rest, but in this garden Leonard Ratcliff is its name, and who knows it if may be passed on with no more official label.

I have a proposal to make the situation plain. Heaven knows there is enough in the rules already about capital letters and inverted commas. But I add another rule. I am using the > and < symbols before and after it. It is both more than and less than the name I know it by. If I call it Hydrangea >Leonard Ratcliff< that should be reasonably clear.

Honey fungus

October 5, 2009

After the study day at Kew in the spring I was full of resolve to give my trees a thorough Kew-style mulch of woodchips. Spring-time surgery had given me substantial piles here and there in the garden. It was a shock, then, to discover, when I started to move one, that it was solid – literally stuck together – with the bootlaces of honey fungus.

Wisley soon confirmed that this is indeed Armillaria – A. gallica rather than the cruelest species, A. mellea – but definitely not something you want to spread round as mulch. ‘Compost it to 50° C’, they said. I’m afraid the bonfire is where it will go. But be warned: woodchips may not be as innocent as they seem.

In dew time

September 30, 2009

I’m always baffled by dew and its effect on plants. It comes, of course, on clear and relatively cold nights, recently almost every night – which is odd because, though the sky has been a sea of stars, the temperature has not dropped as you would expect.

There is nothing mysterious about the process: the ground surface radiates its stored heat into the atmosphere, making it colder than the moisture-laden air, which condenses in drops – especially on grass. The quantities are not large, the equivalent of perhaps half a millimetre of rain at most. In drought conditions, though, when plants are under serious stress, it makes a difference.

The difference appears greatest where sunshine doesn’t evaporate it next day. There are patches of shade in this garden now where the grass has started to grow quite strongly, lush and damp all day. Paradoxically these are places that remain covered from the clear sky at night, where the dew falls must be less. Evaporation therefore seems more important in the equation than precipitation.

On the North Kent Downs where I was brought up dewponds were common. They consisted of shallow hollows perhaps 20 feet across and four or five deep, lined with flints, handsomely built and apparently ancient. They seemed to hold more fallen leaves than water. Apparently they were lined first with clay, then with a thick layer of straw, then with chalk, crushed fine and rolled to a smooth surface, before the flints were applied to protect it. The principle was to insulate the pond from the ground beneath and its radiation of heat; to make it a cool dish to attract condensation on clear nights. But a shower of rain, I’m sure, was even more welcome.

Fire alarm

September 26, 2009

‘When they’ve finished the duckpond, can they have the moat?’ said the voice on the telephone at midnight. I recognized the voice: a neighbouring farmer’s. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ (the standard Essex formula for breaking news) ‘the coachhouse is on fire.’ The coachhouse is 400 yards away at the other end of the village. By this time I had opened a curtain to look towards the duckpond. It was invisible for flashing blue lights. We pulled on clothes and dashed out. There were three fire engines drawn up by the water, their engines throbbing, and a tangle of fat hoses leading out of the gates and down the street. The sky at the far end was brilliant orange and full of sparks.

When we reached the coach house the roof had fallen in and waves of pale flame were attacking the gables. Five more fire engines were throwing water at it. A man on a tall ladder held the hose from the village mains supply, issuing an ineffectual dribble. The duckpond was providing full jets from the other hoses.

An hour later the flames were under control and we went back to see fish floundering, as we expected, on the bottom of an empty pond. The level was down perhaps two feet, but there was a little way to go. The moat, happily, had not been needed at all.

Why am I recalling this now? (It happened in April). Because now, after a dry summer, the duckpond is lower than we have seen it in 40 years. You can walk to the island. When you empty a long-standing reservoir (and this has been here for centuries) can you be sure it will ever fill up 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,…

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