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.

No reprieve

May 18, 2009

It has taken me many years of patiently peeling ivy from my trees to discover the best way to do it. The obvious way, prising part of the woody stem from the bark and pulling, only results in broken ivy and the chore of chipping off the fragments.

The technique: detach just enough of the ivy to get your hand round it (or for young stems your fingers) and pull it upwards, (or downwards), parallel to the tree. The little pads it uses to cling with can resist an outward pull, but not a pull in the direction they are growing, or have grown.

Spring, while they are growing, is the time to do it. Let no one persuade you ivy is good for trees, or looks anything but slovenly on them.

Tree L.C.

April 9, 2009

A hands-on day at Kew, with members of the International Dendrology Society, to learn from the curator of the country’s most important tree collection. You might think that growing trees was a skill long since done and dusted. Not on Tony Kirkham’s watch. From the pot to the hole, the compost to the mulch, the label to the stake, the guard to the watering regime, the planting to the pruning, every practice is reviewed and questioned. The result: many happy young trees, and a day of engrossing interest.

Micorrhyza come high on Tony’s agenda. He adds them, in the form of a product called Transplant 1-Step, to every planting hole. He even waters them on to the roots of established trees that need encouragement. His thinking is that intimate and instant contact between roots and soil is paramount, and micorrhyza ensure that contact. He favours square planting pits, scarcely deeper than the root balls they are to accommodate but four times as wide. Round holes, he believes, only encourage roots to circle. Does a root know it has hit a straight wall rather than a curved one? Apparently it does. And Kirkham doesn’t add organic matter; just backfills with the mineral soil. But then Kew is on sand. He doesn’t add fertilizer when he plants a tree, either. It kills micorrhyza. Bone meal perhaps in the second year, scattered on the surface. By then, he reckons, the roots will have filled the pit and be foraging in the surrounding undug ground.

There was much more, from ‘Airpots’ (and planting out as young as possible) to a system for decompacting the soil under mature trees by forcing in compressed air. (Again, I felt that what works in Kew’s sand would get stuck in Essex clay.) The entire root area is then treated with glyphosate to kill the grass and mulched with wood chippings, preferably of the same species of tree.

To answer the problem of watering young trees he showed us a new American device I shall certainly look for. It is simply a bag with a leaky bottom that holds 20 gallons of water. You fasten it round the trunk and it leaks very slowly where the water does most good. It is called a Tree-gator, but never mind.

Alliummm

April 7, 2009

The chives are up, and my spirits with them. Grass, I know, is just as handsome, and almost every plant at this moment more interesting, but chives represent a tasty turning-point: fresh herbs for fresh spring food. Scattering the fine cuttings on a salad, or on the yellow of eggs, gives me quite disproportionate pleasure.

To the French they constitute, with parsley, tarragon and chervil, ‘fines herbes’: an omelette made more vivid, green specks among the marbled yellow and brown. Chives alone make Sauce à la ciboulette, a delicate dressing for fish or a salad, whether in the richer form of a speckled mayonnaise or a pale and pourable cream. One of the chef’s star turns at the Garrick Club is a little smoked haddock soufflé: you dent the crisp brown crust with your spoon and pour in the cool white and green sauce, mingling fish and salt and smoke and hot and cold and the hint of onion.

Spain has a hairier-chested equivalent to the delicate French omelette: Huevos con ajos is scrambled eggs green-striped with fresh garlic shoots. These are dishes that spell spring, to follow with fresh spears of broccoli, and very soon asparagus. Here, I’m afraid, I take issue with the Spanish. They not only blanch the beautiful green shoots into gross white digits; they seem to think that canning them is a necessary step on the way to the table.

Purple path

April 4, 2009

Snowdrops, of course. They signal the start of everything, in their chilly way. The warm feelings of spring, though, start with the first crocuses, which, in this garden, are C. tommasinianus.

A lugubrious friend told us, many years ago, that they were a pernicious weed. I saw them carpeting an orchard with their piercing purple and saw, absurdly, danger. The summer ground cover in this orchard was ground elder, so perhaps it was just the association of ideas. I didn’t take them seriously, in fact, until I saw a mighty river of them at Benington Lordship, a picture I can summon up in an instant: a great path of purples, darker and paler and intricately flecked with orange and gold.

I resolved to copy it, and four years ago planted 2000 in a band twelve feet wide along one side of the front drive. Now I’m reaping my reward.

Crocuses make you long for the sun to come out. They will stand patiently for days like little rockets on pale stems waiting for the clouds to pass. The moment the grass glows with sunlight their petals tremble, part and spread, eager for the bees. In no time, from nowhere, a working party arrives and forages every flower. The show is over then; the flowers are spent, sheaves of leaves take their place, not to be mowed (I have made this mistake) until they become invisible in the springtime grass. Next year you will have double the concentration, the beginnings of a proper rug, and cheeky adventurers for many yards around.

Catching the sunny day is of course the problem part. It will be your day in London, or taking the car for its service. It never occurred to me until last winter to plant a big shallow bowl of them and bring them into the kitchen when their pale points appear. Trustingly they took the (halogen) ceiling lights for sunshine, grew and opened, then shut again, repeating their performance, the kitchen being bee-free, over the space of two weeks. A second wave of smaller flowers followed the first so that we had an enchanted forest to admire at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The garden crop, meanwhile, only a few days later than those indoors, were suddenly and brutally depleted. One morning I saw that almost all the paler ones, more silvery lilac than purple, had been mown down. Or, on closer inspection, cropped off. Rabbits only nibble; this was grazing on a bigger scale. Muntjac were the felons.

Days later the Radio 4 Food programme considered the problem of the deer population; the highest, apparently since the last Ice Age. ‘Are they safe to eat?’ asked someone – of the food our forebears (or the fortunate ones) ate for centuries before they had cattle. No one, to my frustration, mentioned muntjac, or how their meat is sweetest of any deer.

Is there anything, short of warfare, that we can do to protect our crocuses? I am trying a new product called Grazers, a systemic spray that, once the plant has taken it up, reputedly gives it qualities that deer, rabbits, and even pigeons find repulsive. Do systemics work on bulbs? Is there time in their short growing season? I shall report my findings.

Rockery

March 25, 2009

Menton, Grasse, Cap Ferrat……. plenty of places along the Côte d’Azur are famous as horticultural destinations. You don’t hear much about the gardens of Monte Carlo, though. Or about Monte Carlo, these days, at all. The romantic destination of gangsters and grannies seems to have lost its identity in the more business-like Monaco.

Tiny as it is, squeezed between cliffs and the Mediterranean, the principality seems too thickly planted with tower blocks to offer gardeners a chance. It is, on the other hand, one of the richest towns on earth, prinked up and garnished with flowers in all seasons, its streets swept day and night, its trees pruned with extreme daring (‘élagage acrobatique’ boasts one firm of arborists); no trouble too much; no shortage of labour. And its climate, sun-baked and sheltered from all but east winds, with spring in early March, positively provokes planting. Such full-dress public outbreaks as the gardens of Casino Square push gardenesque style to the limit, with the emphasis on palm trees.

There are two gardens, though, that are worth the detour and speak in garden languages about as distinct as they can be. The Jardin Exotique, clinging to the cliff tops as you come into town from Nice, is the prickliest display of xerophytes this side of Arizona, and in balmy, tranquil, seductive and oriental contrast, the other end of town on the way to Menton, is the Jardin Japonais.

The idea of cultivating cactus, and everything else rebarbative, on ledges and in niches in vertical bare rock, came to the same scientific prince as the oceanographic museum which is Monaco’s pride. His local gardener contrived a network of paths, steps and terraces that scale several hundred feet of rock fantastically eroded by the wind. Where the rock was missing, or not fantastic enough, he made artificial outcrops and overhangs.

For barriers and handrails to the knee-trembling paths he used concrete loggery. (I search in vain for a name for the faux-branch- and-twig-in-cement idiom). A more arid, exposed and uncomfortable site it is hard to imagine. And yet it is beautiful. It is wrapped, draped and studded with formidable plants in the peak of health; vegetable dinosaurs, scaly, armour-plated and above all prickly. They shoot, slither, squirm and threaten, light up with orange daisies or scarlet truncheons or suddenly rocket up twenty foot white plumes. It is brutalist botany; the principles of plant life spelt out in angry uncompromising terms. You couldn’t fail to be fascinated.

The Japanese Garden is more recent; part of the décor of a pampered and profitable beachfront, secluded behind tile-topped walls, demure, formal, teetering on the edge of tweeness and yet so disciplined, so precisely mannered that you surrender.

It is big enough to live its own life, even under tower blocks, and even beside the sea.

The day I first saw it the sea was furious. The Levante was tormenting it, whipping white horses out of sunlit sapphire rollers, flashing as they charged, bursting in silver explosions on the breakwaters and rocks. All right: that was an aberration. Water means tranquillity in the Kyoto code. To watch the racing waves, though, beyond the protecting wall and between the sculpted pines, only intensified the sense of courtly privilege, where brilliant carp navigate tiny stone islands and raked gravel represents an ocean. Camellias are absurdly luscious; maples fine-filigreed as lace.

Both these gardens, it occurred to me, however different in purpose and intention, are essays in stone. Rocks, the feelings they evoke and the conditions they impose, are at the heart of them both.

Casualty List

February 18, 2009

We can expect a spate of obituaries and post mortems in the months to come. How many rash acacias and imprudent olives will have let their proprietors down in the snow and ice? The final toll will not emerge until summer; plants that look like Monty Python’s parrot can have a chance of battling back.

The damage here has been, as far as I can yet see, simply physical – and fairly brutal. Snow can reveal all too clearly which trees come from regions with regular snowfalls and are equipped to survive it. One that doesn’t is the Monterey pine from California, Pinus radiata . Its branches are enormously heavy in any case. Add a hundredweight of snow and they are too apt to snap or tear away. They were the only pines to suffer at Saling.

Weight of snow, especially if it freezes or before you can reach it to knock it off, (and especially in the windless conditions we had this month) bends and crushes any evergreen. Our worst casualty to this force of nature is a big Phillyrea latifolia, one of my favourite trees of medium stature, much like its relation the olive in its pattern of growth but with dark lustrous green leaves. Freezing snow in its broad crown tore down a quarter of its branches. It will recover.

Our most serious casualty waited until the snow had melted before it happened. The cedar of Lebanon I planted in 1980, already a twenty foot tree, to replace our elms in screening the houses nearby, has become a key plant in the garden, slowly coming to dominate the front of the house.

Last week, after a night of heavy rain, I found a big branch from near the top lying on the ground. Looking up I could see that it had left a nasty tear on the main trunk. Sure enough, two nights later in more rain, but still hardly any wind, the top fifteen feet of the tree broke at the tear and fell, crushing a young tulip tree nearby. Cedars of Lebanon are famous for their flat tops. Now I’ve seen precisely how it happens, without violence. A design fault, you might call it.

Spring, glimpsed

February 11, 2009

There was a day, just before the snow, when I distinctly smelt that most spine-tingling smell of all, the smell of growth. It must provoke a hormone rush, endorphines or some chemical that sends well-being shooting through your system. There is no describing the essence of earth and plants in action. Does it emanate from some particular plants? Or from the soil? Is it a combination of many traces of scent? I know my reaction is like a gear change to lower revs, and a change of spectacles at the same time. I focus on different things.

At the snowdrop moment the ground come up to meet you anyway. Suddenly you are concentrating on plants three inches high whose flowers bashfully look the other way. I go down on my haunches (creak) and use my fingers to rake dead leaves aside, my forefinger and thumb to pull pine needles out of the pale clump, all my attention fixed on the microcosm at my feet.

Two days later there was no microcosm to be seen. The brilliant generalization of snow had obliterated detail. It held its perfection for 24 hours, reducing the garden to lumps and hollows, turning the apple trees to crystal chandeliers, then started to dissolve and pockmark, smudge and spoil. There is no pleasure in old snow, in shovelled piles that refuse to melt. In three days I was resenting it hiding the green and brown world where growth was carrying on unseen.

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