Galanthing about

January 29, 2017

No self-respecting garden scribbler passes up the snowdrop moment, if only to show solidarity with colleagues, and especially when the Chelsea Physic Garden has just opened its annual Snowdrop Days (from January 28 to February 3).

It’s tricky to get the date right. Last year they were tricked by the weather, postponed it and were caught out when it suddenly warmed up. This year a week of frost kept the flowers back; I fear the shy little plants may not have sold very well. But the Snowdrop Theatre was a good as ever: each plant discreetly lit from above in a wooden frame. See on the right.

An icy cave

January 27, 2017

(Visitors should note it can also be gloomy and damp. The grotto is open at weekends only; see the Painshill website, but there is a whole day's worth of interest in the landscape).

Back to Painshill, to see the grotto I had only glimpsed from the outside in November (see my entry of the 30th). Glum grey days have been alternating with brilliant icy ones recently; happily I chose one of the best (or perhaps it’s just Surrey: it was glorious when I went in November, too). This time I was conducted by Janie Locke, who since the beginning of the restoration project in 1981 has been its presiding genius. It was the local council, Elmbridge, that took the very unusual initiative of buying the 150-odd acres of the neglected property, piecemeal from various owners. It was their young recruit Janie Burford (now Locke), with a newly-formed Painshill Park Trust, who instilled the necessary enthusiasm and confidence into the locals, recruited the volunteers, surveyed the site and its trees, kick-started the archaeology, went out to find funds and designed and directed the project over 22 years.

It turned out to be the perfect day to explore a grotto. At this time of year, the low sun can make driving a car almost impossible (west in the morning, east in the afternoon is a sound rule, but the sun in my wing-mirror blinded me the other day). It is a revealing time to make observations in any garden; brilliant light at these low angles is what you get late on summer evenings (but then the sun sets much further north).

The grotto lies on an island in the lake, heavily hinted at by outcrops and an arch of the weathered oolitic limestone of its construction, a strange holey stone. You cross on a white wooden bridge that hints of Chinese lattice-work (but was in fact designed by Palladio). A sunken entrance leads into a gloomy passage lit by openings onto the lake, its atmosphere stony and cold. But a golden light lay ahead. The main chamber was flooded with sunlight reflected from the water through jagged apertures. At its low angle, shining on a thin skim of ice, it bounced into a ceiling dropping with great glittering stalactites. Dozens of these craggy cones of different sizes, and the rocky walls around are covered with slivers of felspar, calcite and quartz crystals, reflecting minerals that flash back the sun. It is hard to imagine such a gilded, glittering cave. What creatures should inhabit it, I wondered. Ariel-like spirits, perhaps, with gossamer wings.

Through the gloom

January 23, 2017

It feels like some sort of pivot, or landmark, in the slow process of winter – and no, it’s not a snowdrop. Not even the precocious giant Galanthus elwesii is up and doing here. But I looked through the pale pink blossom on my favourite tree this morning and saw the first blooms on the camellia that matches it almost exactly, the veteran ‘Top Hat’ that we inherited with the garden. At the distance they are both pink as powder-puffs.

Between, just coming into flower, is a flowering currant that demands maximum patience and tolerance, the funny little Ribes laurifolium. Its greeny-white racemes are just emerging among its leathery evergreen leaves. The trouble is it squats. I’ve had it in a generous pot for years, but nothing persuades it to get off its haunches.

Prune it to an upwards-facing bud and a downwards one will take over. It could easily hide among the hellebores – their leaves and general deportment match it well.

What is the most positive green in the garden in this grey damp? Of all things, a fern. Ferns and formality don’t seem to go together, but another inheritance, with the camellia, was the unusual arrangement of a fern at each corner of our biggest bed, which is square, central and significant. The four stand like guards around a catafalque, bursts of fresh green, their fronds knee-high. Their new growth in spring is pale copper, a colour that complements the green, lingers all summer, and sets off the bulbs and pulmonarias, hostas and geraniums and salvias that follow.

There are a dozen different ferns in pots on the deeply shady pavement outside the kitchen window. The prizes go to this coppery one, Dryopteris erythrosora, the little maidenhead , and the royal fern slowly building up its eventual majesty in the biggest pot we have.

The power of words

January 8, 2017

Suspended animation at Kew this morning

How limited, stilted and inhibited our gardening vocabulary is compared with, say, the jargon of the art world.

I look in vain in our literature for the sort of punchy phrases I noted on the walls of the Royal Academy during its Abstract Expressionism show. I have never read of a garden, for example, ‘dense with corpuscular motifs’, or ‘by turns visceral and cosmic’. Would I recognize them, I wonder, if I met them among the hedges and lawns?

I did find some expressions, though, I would love to attach to a garden. A ‘spiritualized space’ sounds more at home in a garden than on a canvas, and I challenge – who? Arabella Lennox-Boyd or Tom Stewart-Smith? to plant me a ‘lush but fragile impasto’.

Perhaps the real difference is that art critics have to maintain an illusion of more significance than meets the eye. Language can easily become a veil concealing a void of meaning. Gardening is realism made physical, permanent and in full view, with no room for commentary or excuses. Once it could use references unmissable by people who had been to the right school, or done the Grand Tour, to express political or religious messages – to those who knew the code. Sadly, we have thrown away the code book; what would, say, a Brexit garden or a Momentum garden look like? Not free of weeds, the latter. I fear the furthest the current idiom will get you is a genuflection to a Dutch gardener who paints in grasses.

Plant of the Year

January 3, 2017

Phantom phlowers

Trad used to do a Plant of the Month, when we had a big garden and many choices. This the first time I’ve done a Plant of the Year – but really it’s a Plant of Many Years; ten at least.

I love orchids for living in slow motion. Writing about a genus so closely and intensely studied is like treading on egg-shells, but this cymbidium (I believe its name is, or was when I bought it, Rum Jungle) has lived in the same modest plastic pot all this time. You couldn’t get a toothpick in among its curling roots. It lives on water and neglect., most of the year in a shady spot behind the greenhouse, where I top up its saucer when I remember, sometimes with a drop of Growmore in the can. (Could I be drummed out of the RHS for offering such unscientific advice?)

I brought it into the greenhouse in October and into the warmth of the house, by a north-facing window, in late November and gave it a little orchid feed. The flowers have been erupting for four weeks now – and of course stay pristine for weeks. Each flower of this rather ghost-like cultivar has a double red line faintly picked out on its lower lip, presumably to guide insects straight to the action.

My sister sees rescuing near-death orchids as a sacred calling and would scoop a tiny pot with a shrivelled phalaenopsis off a skip in the street for intensive care in her kitchen. Actually there is nothing very intensive about it; only patience and a strict regime. No food, almost no water, domestic temperature and refusal to give up. The joy when a tentative bud appears repays months of nurture.

By design

December 23, 2016

Chiswick House gardens are haunted at Christmas

The Design Museum, Sir Terence Conran’s baby, has just moved from beside Tower Bridge to our part of town – and we’re delighted. It was quite an operation to rebuild the old Commonwealth Institute for its new purpose. Its eccentric pointy roof (a hyberbolic parabola like Maid Marian’s hat) was the problem; the whole massive weight had to be jacked up and supported on Acrow props while they built new walls below. The result justifies the effort. The huge space inside encompasses a memorable pale-panelled atrium up to the roof, galleries, a museum, offices, a club room and (Conran being Conran) a first-class restaurant.

The word ‘design’ asks as many questions as it answers. In one sense everything we see and touch is designed, in the sense that its maker had an object in view and planned how to achieve it. In practice it is usually applied to what we often call Industrial Design, and the first objects you see are such iconic modern objects as telephones, jeans, bikes, the London Underground logo, a plastic bucket and the inevitable Coca Cola bottle. There is a fascinating exhibition called Designers, Makers, Users, there are recent prize-winning designs…. a whole day’s worth of interest. It all inculcates a sense of visual awareness; you start looking at shadows, textures, proportions, juxtapositions… and enjoying vision more as a result. Is ‘mindfulness’ the same idea?

Does garden design come into it? I hope it will. It is a very different discipline. The surroundings of the Commonwealth Institute were designed by Dame Sylvia Crowe, the doyenne of landscapers at the time. She was employed by the Forestry Commission in the period when they were blanketing uplands with dark rectangles of firs – which of course she did her best to ameliorate. I’m afraid she got the blame for much of what she was trying to avoid. When did a gardener, landscaper or nurseryman last get a knight- or dame-hood? Sir Harold Hillier, perhaps, fifty-odd years ago? They must be some of her trees still round the new museum; perhaps a Crowe retrospective would make a good exhibition. I remember her gratefully: in the 1970s she helped me to put my ideas together for my pretentiously-named book The Principles of Gardening.

Short dark days

December 16, 2016

Grasses in December sun in the glasshouse borders at Wisley

Its darkness, not lack of interest, that keeps me out of the garden in December. There is plenty to enjoy when you can see it. So how much precious garden space is it worth, I was asking myself, devoting to plants “of winter interest”. If that means their one virtue is winter-flowering, with eleven nondescript months, probably not much. Besides, the roster of all-rounders is pretty limited: you can enjoy Mahonia ‘Charity’ and Viburnum x bodnantense in everyone else’s garden. Camellias, too – at least in this neighbourhood. Not everyone, I know, relishes delayed gratification, but my most absorbed moments just now are spent looking for future promise. It’s the swelling bud that hypnotizes me, more than the picturesque wreckage of last year’s growth.

Having said that, I have just paid a visit to a garden where the ebb and flow of the seasons is on unselfconscious display. Waltham Place near Maidenhead has been an Oppenheim family home for almost a century, but also functions as a laboratory and school for ideas of sustainability and biodynamics that are rarely played out for all to see. The Head of Education told me it is also used as therapy for people suffering from dementia, with encouraging results.

A morning of drizzle and mist dramatized its qualities. Winter here is a much of a celebration as spring – or if that is over-egging it, as much of a statement. It is a picture of plants in their plenitude – and past it. Tall grasses, sere and pale, play a large part in December (as they do at Wisley). The bright squirrel brown of beech hedges seems to give off heat, and the red stems of Siberian dogwood to blaze in the mist. Everywhere there was something that called me over for a closer look; many seedlings, of course, with their green look of promise, even if their fate is to be weeded out later.

Following the phases of the moon is routine here. I was shown two mature hedges of Lonicera nitida, one solid, chunky and full of leaf, the other half-bare, with dying branches and naked twigs. Both, I was told, were trimmed in autumn; the first at the proper phase of the moon for pruning, when the sap is in the roots, the second at the wrong moment, with the sap risen. Was the gardener reprimanded? I am an agnostic in such matters, but I shall look up nervously when I next get out my shears.

Meaty stuff

December 7, 2016

I’ve been receiving each issue of The Plantsman, then The New Plantsman, now The Plantsman again, for 38 years. I wish I’d been able to keep them; they encompass a vast amount of good information. Especially recently, it seems to me. This month’s issue is full of news as well as the usual meaty plant-related articles. Not all the news is good: there is a serious new plague of Fuchsia gall mite in the south of England, the dreaded Rhododendron superponticum has now invaded 100,000 hectares of this island, and the little Asian hornet, which attacks bee hives, has arrived (in Gloucestershire).

The main articles are on growing proteas, on the importance of gardening in cities, on hunting ferns in the Pacific northwest, on propagating cyclamen by stem cuttings, on Dahlia species in Mexico that few of us have ever seen, on Acer griseum in the wild (and the best specimens in gardens). All are well-written and well-illustrated. The sort of thing, I thought wistfully, that long ago made The Garden so valuable, but is seemingly deemed too highbrow for modern members.

One article made me particularly wistful: Brent Elliot’s account of the late Valerie Finnis and her husband Sir David Scott. We were lucky enough to know them in the 1970s and 80’s, staying occasional weekends at the Dower House at Boughton in Northants where they gardened together. I learned more from them about gardening and the love of plants than from anyone I have met. Valerie was a photographer, too, and in a class of her own. Her square Rolleiflex pictures, often portraits or still-lifes, were somehow infused with her sympathetic curiosity

Sir David was the model of a ‘parfit gentil knight’. In his middle 90’s he retained his curiosity, his wonderful gentle manners, and his memory. He would pick up on a conversation started weeks before. He spent many of his last winter evenings reading the letters his parents wrote to each other daily in the 1880’s, each still in its envelope with its penny stamp.

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,…

Flower of the Week

Rosa ‘Chapeau de Napoléon’

Friends of Trad

John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary