Long term view

July 20, 2009

The giant woodpecker I heard in the trees at the end of the garden turned out to be a BT engineer up a ladder making adjustments to a telegraph pole. It was planted, he told me, in 1945, and still good, apparently, for another ten years or so. He explained how to read the labels that tell you the pole’s age and height, a skill I immediately put into practice on every neighbouring pole. My best find: the one that carries my calls over the moat from the house to the road – dated 1934 (and 26 feet high). It doesn’t say whether it’s pine or Douglas fir.

I hurried back to ask my woodpecker friend if 75 years is an unusual lifespan. ‘Pretty good’, he said. ‘We’ll have to change it soon, but it’s still safe.’ ‘What about the new ones?’ was my next question. ‘Hopeless.’ he said. ‘They don’t season them or pickle them properly any more. They used to age them for two years, then pickle them in creosote. Now they’re just fresh trees given a pressure treatment with wood preserver. I have far more trouble with the new ones.’

I wasn’t surprised. Telegraph poles are not the only timber that comes green, unseasoned, not properly treated and ready to rot. We’ve had to replace a gate post after three years. Does no one believe in the future any more?

Honey Fungus

July 15, 2009

The least welcome sound to any gardener? Four syllables: honey fungus. I suspected it the moment I saw the rose that accompanied my working life for 20 years, three feet from my desk, winking its harlequin flowers at me all summer through the window, sicken and, within ten days, die.

It was the so-called climbing form of Rosa mutabilis, the slender Chinese rose that changes colour from orange in bud to deep crimson-pink as the simple wide-open flower, once pollinated, fades and falls. I planted it in the wall-corner to the left of my window, knowing that its slender structure of smooth purple stems would not get out of hand and that its flowers would entertain me for much of the year. I liked its story, too, as Graham Stuart Thomas tells it. It was given by Prince Borromeo, the fortunate gardener of those two romantic islands in Lake Maggiore, Isola Bella and Isola Madre, to Henri Correvon, the Swiss botanist whose Flore Alpine excited me in youth like no other flower book. When you see this plate, one of his friend Philippe Robert’s illustrations, you will see that it lies at the heart of what we call Art Deco. Robert did not paint Rosa mutabilis, alas.

My plant on the wall grew to nine feet, hardly qualifying it as a climber, but beautifully framing the window, invaded from the other side by grape-vines.
The rose is dead and the vines are sick. Wisley confirmed that the root I sent to the pathologist was killed by Armillarea mellea – though its black bark, peeling off to show a layer of white mycelium, was scarcely open to other diagnoses. I remembered then that the Japanese anemones in the bed under the windows had once grown so tall that I peered out through their white flowers and vine-like leaves; then next year had barely reached the sill. That was nearly 20 years ago. Had the malignant fungus been lurking along the base of the wall all this time?

The document that the R.H.S. sends out to victims is full of data but little encouragement. The black bootlaces of honey fungus can travel a metre a year, they say, and reach as far as 30 metres. I look despairingly round at the plants within a 30-metre radius. They include magnolias (susceptible), a cedar (highly susceptible), a number of roses, a quince, a crabapple …….. Do I see wilting shoots, or just imagine them?

‘There is no treatment available’ goes the usual rubric – with a subtext, I always feel, of ‘to mere gardeners like you’. Bray’s Emulsion, the old panacea, has been condemned as unsafe (or at least, by E.C. standards, untested). How many gardeners has it killed or disabled? I think we should know. You can still get creosote, a rough and ready version, but woe betide you if the police sniff it around your plants.

Meanwhile the ancient grape vine on the gable is dying, and the next one along the front of the house is looking poorly. Does some witch-doctor know a spell?

St James’s Park

July 13, 2009

St James’s Park must be on the short list of Britain’s most beautiful landscape gardens. The views in both directions from the bridge over the lake outdo anything that even Blenheim, Stowe or Stourhead have to offer. Buckingham Palace is no beauty, but its bulk framed in willows and nudged by a metasequoia closes one memorable view, while the wildly romantic domes and pinnacles of Whitehall to the east evoke an imperial mirage. Oddly enough the arc of the London Eye behind only adds to the effect: a window from the world of ducks and willows onto an exotic empire.

The park of course has magnificent trees, principally London planes, presumably planted in the last phase of its development in the 1820s when John Nash was in charge, not only of building the palace and the even more palatial Carlton House Terrace, but of the gardens they overlook. Over the past 10 years or so they have been restored (with the advice of the Garden History Society) to a version of their original planting. It comes as a surprise, and a reminder of how (not to beat about the bush) primitive gardening ideas were in those days, and how far we have come in the introduction, choice, breeding and disposition of (particularly) shrubs and perennials. One can too easily overlook all the hard work put in by nurserymen, landscapers and critics that have given modern gardening its unprecedented polish. Infinitely more is known today, infinitely more cultivars are available today, design ideas today take for granted a body of sophisticated taste and knowledge that far outstrips all the experience of the old school. Whether we do it justice is another matter.

The garden planting in St James’s Park, faithful to the taste of the 1820s, is frankly a mess by today’s standards. It consists largely of curvaceous island beds low on the slopes from the Mall down to the lake, in which perennials are mingled with what feels like naive enthusiasm among shrubs that mostly have one season (if that) of beauty.

The ‘one of this, one of that’ school of planting dates back much further than Nash’s time; in 18th century flowerbeds the plants, as varied as possible, were apparently kept well part, with an effect we would find woefully spotty. ‘Apparently’ because this is how they appear on plans, and where is there a realistic painting of an 18th century border? In St James’s Park they are allowed to fill out and cover the ground in the modern manner; what is missing is modern colour discipline – and of course the best new plants.

It is a praiseworthy idea, to show us the park that Nash designed rather than a modern version. But a park is not a museum; it is a pity to confuse the two.

Lucy’s wedding

June 24, 2009

Another wedding in the family to garden for with happy anticipation. This time a September one. There should be no shortage of flowers in late September; it is winding down time, when we accept the tousled look of plants that have finished growing and are bent on child-bearing. What could be more appropriate?

The church at Saling is a hundred yards from the house, through a gothic door in the garden wall. The walled garden will be brimming with pink japanese anemones, pale purple michaelmas daisies and white cosmos, Cambridge blue bog sage (a good earthy name for the graceful Salvia uliginosa) and the equally graceful purple Verbena bonariensis. The roses will be in their second flush; pink Felicia, white Iceberg and pale flesh-coloured Autumn Delight, which at the moment needs support for its abundance.

Red penstemons and deep pink sedums, brown chrysanthemums, the turning leaves of vines and Euphorbia palustris, and the broad dome of the Koelreuteria above the churchyard gate door will be the warm notes. All this will be enriched with salvias, the autumn gardener’s standby. Bright pink S. bethellii will be chest-high by then, and I am anticipating wonderful blues and reds from the cuttings I took at Lochinch last autumn. S. madrensis, tall and yellow, partners tall blue michaelmas daisies, S. calcaliifolia is bright blue and S. ‘Guanajuato’ a shrill rich blue that calls across the garden. Clematis will enamel shrubs on the walls that have done flowering. Hydrangeas will be mellowing to indeterminate colours – and the apple trees will be full of fruit.

A reception in the concentration of flowers in the walled garden is Wedding Plan B. Plan A, for a day with no risk of rain, is to walk down to the Temple of Pisces and party round the Red Sea in the middle of the arboretum. There are no flowers here in autumn, just the mellow colours of late-summer trees, secluded in a glade that shuts out the world of roads and fields. Lucy once played Titania. I think she sees her bridegroom as Oberon.

Hanging the hammock

June 15, 2009

‘Betula’ Schilling would not be amused. He has given me a dressing down in the past when I have admitted to peeling birches.

The man who taught us an important part of what we know about this delectable genus, hunting them up into the Himalayas to determine how much or little, and how consistently, their variety of coloured bark and shape of leaf change with geography, feels strongly that each layer of the papery skin is vital to the tree. Only the tree should decide when to slough it off. Meanwhile it should hang in peeling shreds and blow in the wind like a scarecrow’s jacket.

On the other hand, to the older gardener who haunts the West End less than he did, peeling birches makes a satisfying form of strip tease. Off comes the dingy outer layer, mossy and stained, volunteering itself with snags and loose ends, appealing to be peeled; yielding, though, only in modest ribbons, that sometimes girdle the tree but more often stop coyly just as it gets exciting.

Guiltily, aware of Tony Schilling’s disapproval, I look for another snag, a lifted corner of bark to take hold of. Peeling away it reveals the laundered

shirt, immaculate and creamy, smooth and slightly waxy to the touch. Under the shirt, glimpsed only where it tears, is the tree’s bare skin, flesh-coloured,not ready yet to be bared to the light. Tempting, though.

Yesterday we ceremonially hung the hammock; the symbolic act that declares the summer open. (When we will have time to use it is an unanswered question.)

Last year we slung it between two larches near the summerhouse and the water garden. This year we went further afield, to the little promontory into the pond we call the Red Sea (a long story, that) where four white-trunked Betula ‘Jermyns’ are reflected in the water. Watching the two companionable carp in their calm cruising is my favourite pursuit. Now the hammock hangs between two of the birches, with a third within a short arm-stretch to push off for a gentle swing – or to find a loose end of bark to peel.

Passing Go

June 7, 2009

We had a wedding in the garden on May 31st 2003, a day that turned out to be the hottest on record for May in the South East. Kitty, the bride, glowed in the sunshine, and so did all her friends. Her garden-obsessed father was probably the only one looking round in vain for flowers, let alone roses. Not even the precursors, the yellow Cambridge rose or the Maigold on the south wall were out.

Last Sunday was May 31st, and the puzzle was finding a rose that was not in full bloom, or even going over. The borders were brimming. Campanulas, the first daylilies, to my surprise anchusas from last year, startlingly blue, oriental poppies, geraniums, aruncus, valerian, catmint, pinks, speedwell, deutzia and indigofera, tradescantia, alliums, iris sibirica, philadelphus and honeysuckle, phlomis and penstemons were all flowering or beginning to flower. And as for the roses, the trusses on generous Floribundas (are you still allowed to call them that?), were stooping to the ground.

Felicia, Iceberg, Cornelia, Buff Beauty, Danae and Autumn Delight all need heavy-duty support. Comte de Chambord and Jacqueline Dupré, Chapeau de Napoléon and William Lobb have sprawled into thalictrums and goat’s beard and a forest of macleaya. A week of warm weather has brought us from a promising spring to high summer without passing Go.

What conditions conspired to give us this feast? Mainly, I think, the steadily rising temperatures and timely rain since February, when we had our only, and brief, cold spell. In January the thermometer went down to 21° Fahrenheit, in February (on the 10th) to 29° F, but the last time it fell below 40° F was at the end of March. In April it reached 65° and the range in May was from 40° to 70°.

There was plenty of rain. I’ll do it in millimetres (the more accurate measure, just as Dr Fahrenheit’s scale is for temperature). There was 60 mm in January, another 60 in February, 40 in March, 20 in April and 30 in May. At the beginning of June, in fact, we had had half our annual average: not an exceptional score, but judging by the results exactly the right amount. No one can say what combination of temperatures and moisture makes the winning formula; this one worked, though. I’m inclined to believe the secret is lack of extremes – just as it is the secret of our British climate. Yet many flowers are conceived, as it were, by conditions in the previous year. Did generous summer rain help?

Calm down

June 1, 2009

I was on the point of adding, as an afterthought to my piece the other day about my brother’s Italian garden, a eulogy on valerian, when a friend in California sent me a photograph I simply have to let you see. Here it is: Molly Chappellet’s garden on Sage Canyon Road at St. Helena in the Napa Valley. Nothing but valerian, with one of California’s best Cabernet vineyards below and beyond.

‘Valerian’ is Centranthus ruber, a woody-based perennial found all round the Mediterranean with flowers that can be brick red, white, pink or purplish; each plant is different and seed seems to come true. I’m not sure why it has such powerful associations with summer and stony places; perhaps because it can become so rampant. Its great moment is late spring. The other day I was admiring the stone wall along the road at Iford Manor near Bradford-on-Avon, where it almost hides the stones with warm soft colour.

My brother grows it with panache, but the prize has to go to Molly Chappellet’s valerian field. Turn the other way in her inspiring garden and you will see half an acre of Salvia turkestanica.

‘Valerian’ (from Latin valere) refers to its use as a medicinal herb, sovereign, apparently, in cases of nervous hysteria. Or perhaps it was just the soothing sight of it.

The People’s Choice

May 27, 2009

Most conversations about Chelsea, after the Show, start with ‘Which garden did you like best?’ This year there seemed to be more consensus than usual. The judges’ difficult task was made easier by fewer and generally less ambitious gardens. The winner, Ulf Nordfjell’s Daily Telegraph garden (it seems to be The Telegraph’s year, one way and another) was uncontentious, pleasing, relaxing and idiomatically modern without startling colours or textures. I don’t want a black metal cube for a garden house (it reminded me of House & Garden in the ‘60s) but how can I take exception to those who do?

‘Light’, said Nordfjell, ‘is the most important thing’. At the light end of his garden he used greys, white, some blue and a little purple, with blocks of pale stone on which shadows could play (when the sun came out). In the centre, where light sparkled on moving water, the principal colour was green. At the shady end he used clipped hornbeam, graceful Cornus kousa and Rosa mutabilis, the only pink or red note.

Voting for the People’s Choice, as distinct from the judges’, preferred Robert Myers’s curvaceous abstract plot for Cancer Research, which seemed to me rather underplanted; so much white stone was on display that you needed sunglasses. Among the small gardens the Plasticine Paradise was the unsurprising winner. Did you know they made it in such powerful colours these days?

My concern, this year and every year, didn’t apply to the plasticine entry. It is the judging of gardens frozen at a moment (and an entirely artificial moment) in time. They don’t have plants that have just gone over, and nobody asks what you are expected to enjoy after the current display. You can’t, I know, expect judges to give points for things (plants yet to flower, for example) they can’t see. But gardening is as much about the passage of time as music is about measuring and dividing it. Gardening is essentially a process with no fixed conclusion. Not even the cycle of the seasons brings you back to precisely where you were before: substance, girth, patina change; light and shade reveal and conceal different facets; the gardener accepts many things that are beyond his control – loves them indeed, for adding effects beyond the reach of his imagination.

So what is your criterion for judging such disparate and ever-changing creations? The only answer I can give is the mood they evoke.

It seemed to me there was more sculpture in the show than ever – certainly if you include metalwork of divers kinds and sometimes doubtful purpose. I’m delighted that so many purses apparently stretch so far; a far cry from the traditional gardener’s resource of scrounging cuttings. A sculpture is a sure way of fixing a mood. Whether it is one you want to wake up to every morning, spring, summer and winter, calls for careful thought.

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