January 3, 2007
LOOKING BACK OVER
30-SOMETHING YEARS OF
writing this diary it seems almost the only constant is surprise at the extraordinary weather. Weather is a gardener’s daily preoccupation. It seems the natural way to start Trad off in his new billet at Gardens Illustrated. An appreciation, at least, of a supremely gilded autumn after a long spell when nature seemed in a trance; nothing budged for weeks on end. We may have only had short days to see the fiery climax of the year, but did you ever see hedgerows so incandescent? When it came, three weeks late by my calendar, there were not enough words for the yellow, red, orange, scarlet, gold, lemon, tawny, cream, parchment, vermilion, mustard, honey, crimson, canary, rust, ginger, apricot, flame, carrot, copper, claret and burgundy…
It is not the easiest for gardening, our part of England. Certainly not for the glamour-gardening of the past century that involves exotic trees and thickets of rhododendrons. Essex is too dry. It is open and unwooded, far too much of it, and flat enough for the lack of trees to be important. If the soil were lighter the lack of rain would seriously limit what you can grow, but our clay and gravel mixture holds moisture reasonably well. Our local prophet is Beth Chatto, and her gospel, mulch. Sunshine is our asset and fruit-growing a long established trade. Tiptree and Elsenham jams are made here. There were never many great gardens in Essex, or for that matter great houses; Audley End is our grandest. Ellen Willmott with her 100 gardeners at Warley was an exception, but Samuel Curtis, founder of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, had one of the first collections of Australian plants here, the Rev Joseph Pemberton bred his hybrid musks, and we won’t let you forget that Humphry Repton lived at Romford. The RHS, though had the courage to accept the most unpromising site at Hyde Hall for its eastern Wisley. If you can make a model garden on that dry hilltop, where our famous east winds have full play, anything is possible.