All lit up

November 2, 2007

‘Has that always been there?’ asked a quite regular visitor the other day. It self-evidently had, being a shrub of some 20 summers’ growth. I saw exactly what she meant, though. The sun was holding it in an evening halo against a shaded background. It was suddenly the focal point.

Light is always the most important
influence, in planting a garden as in
looking at it. You don’t know when the

clouds will part, shooting a ray of light to earth. You do know where the sun will be in the heavens, and can plan accordingly. It’s not just a question of the plant’s preferring sun or shade, but of you preferring a plant well-lit, and which window you will looking out of when it is.

Our bathroom window faces southeast. When I opened the curtain this morning the vine leaves that assault it at this time of year were like art deco glass, a Lalique lampshade sparkling green, amber and gold. At tea time they merely block the view of the trees beyond bathed in afternoon sun.

Back-lighting is one of the strongest effects a gardener has at his disposal. Name me a plant that doesn’t look its best outlined against streaming sunlight. We were at Beth Chatto’s the other day, marvelling at her dry garden (and her wet one too). The grasses (again; it’s that time of year) were golden filigree: no jeweller could deck his window like this. But not all the beauties were deliberate. A glimpse of water through willow and bamboo was aethereally beautiful in a way not even Beth could have planned. What she had orchestrated to perfection, though, was the self-lighting touches where pale colours seem spot-lit in pre-ordained gloom. White Japanese anemones in her oak wood, for example. But lit from any angle there is no end to the beauty and usefulness of this paragon plant.

Owzat

November 1, 2007

I have a wine-loving friend who can
prove that there is a correlation between
the number of runs scored in first-class
cricket and the quality of that year’s
claret. The more runs the better. Firm
batsmen’s wickets mean ripe grapes.

This year will test his rule. The figures are not quite in yet, but an Indian summer can save a vintage when it is too late to score runs. August may have been awful, but while the garden basked in September sun the grapes were making up for lost time. Now there’s a correlation: a wet
summer and a fine September mean
bowlers’ wickets, the garden at its best
and a juicy vintage in the Médoc.

Gardens Illustrated October 2007

October 4, 2007

A RIDDLE. If it takes duckweed 30 days to cover a pond, how much of it is covered on day 29? Half, I was told: it
doubles overnight. I don’t quite believe that, but it is a prodigious grower: one week scattered green spots; the next a lawn on your water. I used to think it pernicious and attacked it with herbicides. Now I consider blanket weed far worse, and try to love the world’s smallest plants as they proliferate.

The arguments against them are obvious.
They hide the surface, abolish reflections,
darken the depths and cling to anything
that touches them. The arguments in
favour? They feed on nutrients in the water that cause other problems. Removing them is a way of cleaning the whole pond. On a small one it is not such a bad job, skimming off the mass of tiny leaves. You wait for a windy day to push them to one side of the pond, then drag them to the edge with an improvised broom, or fish them out with a paddle-shaped net. Each leaf is a plant trailing a tiny white root. They reproduce by
growing little buds that split off and grow on.

Once you focus on the tiny things you can even find beauty in them. Skimming them you encounter a world of bugs, beetles, tiny snails and tadpoles. You can polish your water surface clean and
gleaming, or tolerate a few green rafts. When your weeding is finished, everything is pruned, the car washed, potting shed tidied, and you’ve swept behind the dustbins, amuse yourself by watching them grow.

Try this at home

October 2, 2007

The road home from North Wales leads us through Welshpool, and often to the hanging gardens of Powys Castle, plunging terraces where the National Trust gardens in its grand manner to wonderful effect.

The other side of Welshpool, and unknown to us until recently, lies The Dingle, almost equally steep but markedly different in concept. The Joseph family started the nursery in the 1960s: the precipitous garden is where Barbara Joseph set out their wares. If the
emblem of Powys Castle is the baroque lead statues on the top terrace, The Dingle’s emblem is the washing-line across the upper lawn. This is domestic gardening you can do at home. I am certain the richness of planting packed around the steep paths has inspired thousands.

The theme on the high south-facing bank is permanent ground cover in high colour and maximum variety. Without level

terraces cultivation is tricky: most of the
plants here will fend for themselves. It is a style of gardening I associate with the southwest, in which evergreens and grasses play a large part, and the evergreens (hebes are important) are often clipped, sometimes draped with clematis.
A colour theme set up by, say, a red
rose is followed by plants of the same
colour in a tight group, then red leaves
followed by grey or gold. It is the way
many of us instinctively garden, applied
with consistent conviction to a whole hillside, and at the bottom to a broad pond. Maples and hydrangeas, dogwoods and bamboos spread over the facing slope: an arboretum on a domestic scale. Whatever the opposite of the grand
manner may be, The Dingle does it. Gardening could hardly be less threatening and more fun.

Ghastly good taste

October 1, 2007

I’m not guilty of planning it this way, but ghastly good taste has broken out again in our borders this summer. Could I really have chosen such Mabel Lucy Atwell colours? It must be my inner little girl outing herself: there is nothing to disturb a dormouse in their almost inaudible harmonies. Goodness, I like it, though.

It is all pink, white and blue. The pinks are pale phlox, Japanese anemones, roses ‘Felicia’ and ‘Comte de Chambord’. Only slightly more assertive are Penstemon ‘Garnet’ and Salvia involucrata ‘Bethellii’. The blues run from Agapanthus and Salvia patens (its sapphire almost the only sharp note in the border) to somnolent blue rue, the azure
pinpricks of Salvia uliginosa and the purple exclamation marks of
Thalictrum dipterocarpum and Verbena bonariensis.

As for the whites, Phlox paniculata ‘White Admiral’ is in stratocumulus
mode after all the rain,‘Iceberg’ roses are glacial, cleomes are threatening arachnids and cosmos becoming shrubs. There is
shape and variety: tall spires of cool Veronicastrum and plump creamy ones of Kniphofia ‘Little Maid’, a low tangle of Aster divaricatus – white daisies on black stems. Later, fire will break out with sedums and crocosmias, chrysanthemums and turning leaves. Just now it reminds me of Katherine Hepburn’s acting, which
scanned, they said, the whole gamut of emotions from A to B. For the moment I’m extremely happy with A.

Gardens Illustrated September 2007

September 3, 2007

IT HAS BEEN LIKE GARDENING in another country these last two months. We had a typical year’s total rainfall by mid July. The garden is not complaining; on the contrary, new plants have established themselves in record time and old ones put on at least two years-worth
of growth. I have trouble finding where some of our paths have gone.

Oaks put on what are known as lammas shoots every tear, conspicuously reddish in many cases. Lammas means ‘Loaf mass’, the harvest festival once held on 1 August. Without waiting for August,
though, almost every plant has new shoots without precedent, the most intriguing being a Canadian red maple,Acer rubrum, which would much prefer an acid soil, apparently in flower, with long shoots starting chlorotically pale, then tipped with red leaves like red hot pokers against the sky.

Pity the poor city gardener, who has to cut off most of this lushness and bag it through the house to an authorised tip.

Them there hills

September 2, 2007

We tell our friends it is not really a garden at all, because when they find out that we tend a plot around a defunct goldmine in Snowdonia they all say ‘How can you possibly garden in two places at once?’ It’s better than counting sheep is my response.

It is only a sketch of a garden, in any case – but to me all the better for it. It lies by a stream in the middle of a wood, deep among thriving oak, ash and birch, with a distant view of that most noble of
rather short mountains, Cader Idris. Wales had its gold rush at much the same time as California and Australia, in the middle of the 19th century. The Cae Gwian mine was floated on the London Stock Exchange. Shafts were dug, railways installed and a crushing-mill

built, powered by a towering water wheel. All they fetched out in the end was copper, but the grey stone buildings stood – and 150 years later motivated our

garden, round the stream that runs from the mine-mouth, our deep dark grotto.

The old mine office, gabled but roofless, is the sheep-proof part for precious plants. The rest is defined only with low stone walls. One roofless shed is home to a hydrangea that fills it to overflowing

with deep bluey purple blooms. A

gunnera guards the path up to the grotto. Embothriums stand round it like flaming brands. Strawberry trees stand at the corners. There is a graceful myrtle gleaned as a seedling from a Scottish forest, a maiten from Patagonia, and ferns ranging from the Royal, one day I hope in these conditions the size of a small tractor, to the e xquisite little thing with two inch fronds that grows between the dark grey stones. In such acid soil with 70 inches of rain a year things become possible that in Essex are out of the question.

Blithe Spirit

September 2, 2007

I lean on clematis in summer like a drunk on the bottle. They seem to be doing half the work of keeping a sparkle in the
surging masses of green, a handful that time has shown keep producing wonderful colour week after week. Of all the midsummer ones C. ‘Perle d’Azur’ is queen, climbing, spreading, drooping and generally distributing its pale violet-blue flowers, individuals that tilt this way and that, catching different lights. It wanders up my favourite climbing rose, the buff/
white/pink R. ‘Alister Stella Gray’ and dances over my favourite white/ pink/red hydrangea, H. serrata‘Grayswood’.

At the same time Clematis x durandiitakes care of the deep blue end of the spectrum – with less elegance but equal generosity. C. x durandii has no means of climbing, but we have made it brushwood wigwams in beds where perennials crowd around. Alstromeria ligtu is the perfect pink to set one off. Buff plumes of Macleaya cordata and
blue spikes of delphiniums jostle round another.

The only clematis in the garden when we arrived was C. ‘Alba Luxurians’. The second name is apt, the first less so: flowers can be white or green, and are usually harlequins of the two. It belongs to the later-flowering and smaller- flowered category that go under the general heading viticella. I scarcely mind which of this featherweight tribe I grow:
their casual little flowers pour off the vine from June to September. C. ‘Kermesina’
is like velvet wine, ‘Minuet’ a merry muddle of purple and white, ‘Polish Spirit’ close to C. x durandii,
‘Madame Julia Correvon’ more red wine, but with narrow petals widely spaced. All these grow here with blithe good humour.

Hugh’s Gardening Books

Trees

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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The International Dendrology Society (IDS)