Faites simple

September 22, 2009

What is the absolute minimum that can constitute a totally satisfying garden? I found an answer last week in that paradisiacal part of France they call La Provence Verte, a region of pines and vines at an altitude that gives cold nights summer-long, very different from the sun-baked grey-brown garrigues of the country round.

We were staying with friends in one of those tall, almost urban-looking chateaux of the early nineteenth century, classical, well-proportioned, unornamented and a touch severe. The walls are a pale ochre, the shutters blue-grey. The garden is on two levels; that of the house and, linked to it by two stone staircases curving symmetrically round an oval bassin, a lower terrace, a simple lawn. Both terraces are surrounded by stone balustrades.

The upper terrace, the space in front of the house, is a plain unbroken expanse of that almost dust-fine gravel we don’t seem to know in England – but then we don’t play boules. It is shaded by four towering plane trees and one lime. The lawn below has four more planes, contemporary, I dare say, with the house.

The only flowers are red geraniums in tall oil jars in a row across the façade. Does the gravel sound anticlimactic? It is serene. Gardening consists of keeping it clean, dragging a sort of harrow consisting of chains over it, to efface the marks made by the boule-players. The play of light and shade do the rest.

Is it thirst?

September 18, 2009

Moaning about drought doesn’t get you anywhere, especially among friends who have just spent two weeks on Mull without a single dry hour. With 360 millimetres in the pot, moreover, we have had a fair proportion of our expected 500 mm annual allowance. So why are my arms so long from carrying cans, and why are my recent plantations so desperate for a drink?

Most of the rain fell, it is true, last winter and in July. The longest sequence of rainless days was in June and August, when the other side of the island was being soaked, but never more than 12 days or so without some dampening shower. The truth is that watering individual plants is never a substitute for

a good hou of rain. Even putting the rainmaker on is a pis aller. I suppose the reason is that competition among the congregation of roots that fills the soil. It is easy to think of plants that you can pull up with a neat tuft – but they are the minority.

Most plants insinuate their roots into as much ground as they can, whether others are occupying it or not. My can of water is the invitation to beat up the poor new boy in the class.

Is this the reason my salvias have been so slow to perform – the ones I scrounged in Scotland last summer? We paid a call to Powys Castle last weekend to see Wales’s great window-box at its most floriferous. Powys is famous for overflowing pots and vases of tender things in daring combinations, and by September all its hanging terraces, stacked below the red stone castle, bubble and froth with exotica. I drooled over it all – but especially over the salvias, in varieties I had never dreamed of, pouring down, rearing up, infiltrating their neighbours with their predictable but still somehow surprising pouty flowers in every colour from scarlet to searing blue to black and

What did I do wrong? By the time mine are flowering in earnest the frost will be getting them – or even, fingers crossed, serious rain.

Happy Chance

September 4, 2009

It is tempting to take credit for the happy accidents of gardening, to pretend that you planned a chromatic chord due solely to the almighty or (as is happening just now) the look of airy intricacy in borders buffeted by the wind.

It takes a lot to reconcile me to wind in the garden. Out in the fields I love to watch the straining grass-heads and the tossing trees. A line of Browning’s came to me just now as I climbed from the sheltered streamside out on to what passes in Essex for downland: ‘an everlasting wash of air’. Browning was in the Roman campagna where the grasses and rushes wave mile after level mile.

The border looks airy partly because I have taken the shears to tired plants with more resolution than usual, hoping for a second coming of delphiniums, thalictrums, campanulas, geraniums, valerian, even phlox. September flowers, as a result, are clear of clutter. My favourite of the moment is a clump of Francoa ’Bridal Wreath’, its white wands of flowers rising from its solid saxifrage basal clumps. Last winter nearly put paid to it; it struggled in spring, and as a result is late enough in flower to mingle with the lovely bright blue Salvia ‘Guanajato’ that is just getting into its stride. Is my Francoa sonchifolia, the default species in Graham Thomas? I think not: the flowers are pure white with none of the red spots G.S.T. mentions. Almost certainly F. ramosa.

Margaret Waterfield (am I her last fan?) in her book Flower Grouping in English, Scotch & Irish Gardens (no publisher would call a book that today) painted a group of F. ramosa with Dierama (then Sparaxis) pulcherrinia, an image that haunts me with its beauty, but I have never achieved. She says, surprisingly, that the Francoa is hardier than the Sparaxis. Watercolours like hers (the book was published in 1907, by J.M. Dent) are an almost-forgotten treasure, conveying airy intricacy, or any other happy effect, more precisely and evocatively than photography has ever done.

Fred Whitsey

August 26, 2009

I was sad to read the obituary in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday for Fred Whitsey, the paper’s gardening correspondent for 45 years, who died at the age of 90.

It brought back memories of when the R.H.S. had a Publications Committee and Fred and I were both members. Those were the days before the Society went professional, as it were. Decisions were taken by committees of members, which meant in general committed amateurs, and their implementation left to the Society’s employees. We had, for example, issue-by-issue post mortems on The Garden (which was still described as The Society’s Journal). In fact the Society was just that, rather than describing itself as Britain’s leading Gardening Charity.

Fred Whitsey and I were, I suppose, the only two professional writers (he a newspaper journalist, I more of a magazine man) on the committee. We were also the awkward squad, although in my memory we were usually querying different things. Fred was a winning mixture of smile and resolve, courteous, patient and fundamentally unbudgeable. I remember (they are hard to imagine today) the discussions about advertising in the Journal: how much to allow on what subjects. I argued (goodness, I was the pushy liberal) that non-horticultural ads could do no harm. The majority seemed to think that a bank, a car maker or a jeweller would corrupt members’ morals, however much we could have spent the money on photography and writers. Fred was firm on what was relevant, tested and authoritative in pure horticulture – though if this makes him sound strait-laced and humourless it gives quite the wrong impression.

As the obituary says, no professional colleagues ever seem to have seen his own garden in Surrey. I wish I had, because a visit with him would have been an education. The departure of people like him underlines the change of the R.H.S. from a learned Society to a members’ organization almost analogous to the A.A. It is a parable of our times.

Stirrings at the deep end

August 21, 2009

Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June.
Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)
occupy hours of my garden time. Rupert Brooke was good on fish. He must have spent his Grantchester days day-dreaming by the river.
‘In a cool curving world he lies
And ripples with dark ecstacies …..’

We moved two well-grown mirror carp from the duckpond to the much smaller and shallower Red Sea a couple of years ago, hoping that they might be of complementary genders. One hot day last week I was reading in the hammock strung between two birches by the water when I heard a different kind of splash and turned to see what looked like a whirlpool, made up of a hundred tiny carp chasing each other’s tails. I imagine they must just have hatched and were learning to swim in tight formation. No fussing from mama, though – and which of the two sleek fish calmly cruising at the far end of the pool is mama, anyway?

What happens next will be attrition, I fear. Will it be death from the skies when the heron spots them? The Red Sea would be crowded with as many as half a dozen full-grown carp. And will the resident rudd have their fins put out of joint?

A new leaf

August 18, 2009

Regular readers will have seen my rather shell-shocked reports of two burglaries that have left the garden bereft of some of its principal non-plant ornaments. The second and more serious raid was three weeks ago now, on the very night I went down with flu, but I’m still obsessing, above all about my folly in leaving an ideal barrow where thieves could use it. (They stole it too). Take my advice: lock up your barrows. Everything has a bright side, though, and the absence of long-familiar objects frees up some fossilized notions. I loved the armillary sphere on the front lawn of the house because it was as transparent as it was emphatic. It didn’t block the view; it seemed to focus it. Certainly without it the prospect looks rather inspid. So what shall we put in its place?

I have always loved Pope’s urn, the design done by William Kent for the poet’s Twickenham garden. It is essentially an egg with spiral fluting, two notional handles and an elegant lid. Urns certainly have funerary connotations (the word comes from the Latin urere, to burn) but Kent’s version seems more celebratory than gloomy.

We already have one in place (the thieves stole this in March, too, but we have replaced it; they’ll need a bulldozer to budge it this time). It is on the central axis of the house, beyond the duck pond, 150 yards away at the end of the park, pale against dark holm oaks. We have just decided to install another where the armillary sphere stood, close up under the windows, a strong presence in the front yard, leading the eye to its brother urn in the distance.

The central focus in the walled garden, the stolen Flora’s place, still yearns for her. The brick-paved path now runs uninterrupted from the conservatory door to the kitchen garden, under the iron pergola that was Flora’s canopy. All the perspectives are subtly altered. We have tried a ghost-like wire-work vase there, but it needs a person of a certain size, and in motion, as Flora was, to catch your eye. Or perhaps it just needs me to concentrate on the flowers and forget such showy sentiment.

Identity Parade

August 17, 2009

To Wisley for a day’s immersion in limes, trees as easy to spot as they are hard to tell apart. I don’t usually delve this deep in botany, but when the R.H.S. Woody Plant Committee convenes a Study Day you are guaranteed the best and most experienced minds in the business: a taxonomic Test match.

In a barn-like building lined with specimens giving off the sweetest smells we spent the morning studying stellate hairs. There are 20+ species of Tilia in the world (the final count is pending; we shall be kept in suspense until the imminent publication of his Tilia monograph by Professor Donald Piggott, the gnomic leader of our discussion). Most of them come from Asia; where one species ends and another begins, either geographically or taxonomically, seems to remain pretty moot and is mainly determined by the hairs, if any, stellate or otherwise, on the underside of the leaves.

We have three native Tilia species in Britain (again, subject to the usual caveats), the small-leaved, the big-leaved and the common or hybrid limes. You know the common lime by its propensity to sprout from the base or anywhere up the trunk. We forgive it its messiness for its eventual monumental shape and size. Where exactly the dividing line between its two parents lies is less clear. It is some comfort to know that the herbalist Gerard’s Tilia was actually an elm, and that even the great Linnaeus’s type plant for Tilia was the hybrid T. x europaea….

My particular interest is in their offspring. In the past five years one or other of the three has been regenerating in the garden here. The trouble is that the saplings seem to correspond with none of them. They have larger leaves than T. cordata and hairier leaves than T. platyphyllos. On the other hand their young wood is purplish, not green like T. europaea. It’s back to the hairs and the magnifying glass, I’m afraid. But shall I grow them and cherish them? Of course, whatever they are.

Harvest time

August 14, 2009

The end of summer has many hints and indications, but yesterday two of them stood out like signal flags. First was the cyclamen, in a dozen different places but unanimous about the date to start flowering. Second was the underfoot crunch of crab apples as we played croquet. Should there be a John Downie rule? Probably not: it’s the same hazard for everybody. Clearing them off the grass is not an option; the tree rains its red and yellow fruit for weeks on end, too small to rake up. The proper procedure is probably rather like the olive crop, involving sheets, shaking and beating the branches, with a fragrant cauldron of jelly at the end. But now there is harvest everywhere: plums and gages still, apples starting, raspberries and tomatoes, wine berries that have seeded in half a dozen places, blackberries in the hedge (it’s a good year already) and huge puffballs attracting your eye like wind blown plastic bags.

It’s a strange creature, the puffball; a mushroom apparently crossed with a cheese. We started on a 4 lb monster at breakfast yesterday, frying thin slices in the pan after the bacon until they were golden brown and slightly crisp. The flavour is mild mushroom and the texture when you cut and slice just like a huge curd cheese. I made the mistake though of leaving this beautiful white football in the sun all afternoon. By evening there was a ripely cheesy smell, the cut surface was turning yellow, and to jettison it was the only course.

Better I believe to pick them at croquet ball size and keep them in the larder while you intrigue your friends with their mysterious savour. Some people cook them with oil and garlic. I have tried them raw but found them rather dull and pappy.

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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John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary